Monthly Archives: May 2012

Andalusian Adventure–Closing Cycles and Moving Forward

Though leaving Morocco was difficult, I was looking forward to seeing some of my old friends again.  I flew from Casablanca (CMN) to Malaga, Spain (AGP) to catch a bus to Granada to visit my roommate from UCSD.

Granada is one of my favorite cities in Spain and it’s well-known mix of Moorish and European cultures made it the perfect place to ease my way from life in Morocco back into the Western World.  The fact that my orientation for Morocco had occurred in the same city, just nine months before, emphasized the fact that my time abroad had come full circle.  I was back where I had started on this grand adventure, but my perspective was completely different.


I now knew so much more about both the Spanish and Islamic cultures that had fused into this beautiful city that I could pick out more of the details and actually see that history reflected in the buildings and people around me.  Having already visited all the touristy parts of town, I worried less about seeing the sights and focused more on enjoying my time, soaking up the atmosphere, and giving myself time to relax and process my experiences a little bit before moving on to the next grand adventure.  I only had a couple of days to spend in Granada before I had to meet another friend in Germany, but I made the most of it.

My roommate Judy met me at the bus station and, after stopping by her place for a quick shower, rest, and dumping of the ridiculous monstrosity of my suitcase, we headed out for some Tapas.

After living so long in Morocco, where the streets are almost deserted by ten o’clock and alcohol is technically illegal, it was a little weird to see so many people out and about, visiting and drinking, going from one tapas bar to another, but the freedom of being out at night in such a relaxed, friendly atmosphere was refreshing and we easily slipped into the crowd at one of Judy’s favorite places and began sampling the tasty snacks Granada is so famous for [In Granada, every drink you buy comes with a free tapa].

After going to a few different places for Tapas, we met some of Judy’s friends and went out dancing.  I hadn’t slept much in the days leading up to my departure from Morocco, the last night of which was spent swatting mosquitos and trying to catch some Z’s on the airport floor in Casablanca, so by the time we left the club around 5:30am (which is decent but still relatively early by Spanish standards), I was more than ready to crash and slept gloriously soundly until 2:30 the next afternoon.

The following days were spent at a more relaxed pace.  My friend and I wandered aimlessly through the town, she showed me some of her favorite places to eat, to run, to view the Alhambra.  We traded stories, hardly believing it had been almost a whole year since we saw each other last.


On Monday, Judy had class and an internship she had to go to, so I had a few hours to wander on my own.  I headed back up to one of my favorite neighborhoods, the Albaizin, or Arab Quarter.  Within a few minutes of entering the winding streets that set this quarter apart from the rest of the city, I was surrounded by shops that would blend perfectly into any Moroccan medina and could hear Darija spoken around every corner.  I could once again hold a conversation and barter for my purchases in Darija, the language that had surrounded me and become part of “home” for the past nine months.  It was a glorious relief to know that I hadn’t left all of Morocco behind, but it was also sad to know this would probably be the last time I could converse with people in Darija for a long time to come.

I traded some of my left-over Dirhams for some gifts and Euros in change from my newfound friends, and continued up the street.  Everyone was amazed that I spoke Arabic, especially Darija and I was thrilled at the opportunity to practice.  I made another Moroccan friend who spoke FosHa (Modern Standard Arabic) and he showed me around more of the city.  We spoke mostly FosHa, using occasional Spanish for clarification, and he was amazed that I had only studied Arabic for one year.  [Truth be told it was a little bit more than that, as I started learning the alphabet in January and it was now the following May, but it was close enough.]  His incredulousness at my apparent language acquiring skills was a bit hard to shake off, but it did make me realize just how much I had learned.   Usually I spend so much time frustrated by my lack of knowledge and the gaps in my understanding that I forget to appreciate just how much I do know.

Learning another language is a complicated business, one that takes effort and practice but above all, one that takes time and exposure.  Living for nine months in an Arabic-speaking country did wonders for my speaking and comprehension skills (not to mention reading and writing – those letters don’t look like little scribbles and dots to me anymore!) but it was a long road to get to where I am now.  I remember the frustrations of learning a new alphabet, feeling like I had been sent back to pre-school as I laboriously sounded out each word, reading about one sentence every five minutes.  When I first arrived in Morocco I thought talking to people was great as long as they stuck to “hello, how are you?” or talked only about school and the weather.  Past that, all I could do was smile apologetically at my lack of comprehension.  I still have to sound out words I don’t know, but my vocabulary is continuously growing and I am actually able to converse and communicate with people.  In all honesty, I don’t think I realized how much I was able to do so until this Moroccan I met in Granada pointed it out to me.  Because most Moroccans speak Darija, this was the first time in a long while that I spent a long period of time conversing in FosHa outside of an educational context; it was nice to realize just how far I had come.

I left my Moroccan friend to wander the rest of the city, taking pictures and searching out more of El Niño’s work.  “El Niño” is a famous artist, but not the traditional art-gallery type.  He specializes in street art, or graffiti, and Granada is decorated with various masterpieces done by him and many others.


I met my friend back at Plaza Nueva that evening and we went out for one last round of Tapas, visiting an entirely different part of the city once again.  My time in Granada had come to a close.  I left early the next morning, taking a taxi to the bus station to early enough to make it back to Malaga in time for my flight to Germany.  After some time to relax and reflect, it was time to move forward, on to the next adventure.

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The Call to End

5 AM.  The morning call to prayer rings out across the city.  From minaret to minaret, across the rooftops of Meknes, various muezzins take up the call, echoing and overlapping each other in haunting yet peaceful melodies that call the faithful to prayer, greeting the new day with Allah in mind.

Usually I am sound asleep when this particular call rings out but tonight I can’t sleep.   Hearing the morning call to prayer and feeling the peace it brings makes me glad I’m awake to hear it this time.  I don’t have many left.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Meknes, Morocco – the city that has been my home for the past eight months.   I’ve finished my final exams, have almost finished cramming everything that can possibly fit into my suitcase, and should by all means be resting so I can enjoy tomorrow to the fullest: visiting with my Moroccan friends, doing some last-minute shopping in the medina, getting my hands henna-ed, etc.  I want to soak up every bit of my last few hours in this wonderful city, with the people who have been so kind and generous as to open up their lives, homes, and hearts to me.

The problem is that tomorrow is the last full day.  My time here in Morocco is drawing to a close and I’m not entirely sure how to react to that.  While I’m excited for my upcoming trip to visit friends and travel in Europe, it’s hard to leave the beautiful country that has been my home for the whirlwind roller coaster ride of the past year.  There are so many people, customs, and things I will miss in Morocco but the truth of the matter is that I know I won’t be able to fully grasp the significance of any of these things until I am settled back in America.

My friend Katie wrote a very nice post about our upcoming departure in regards to our time spent here in Morocco.   Her experiences are not mine, but she does a good job of describing the joy to be found in living here, as well as just how much this place has become home to our group.  This was posted on the ISA Student Blog, as she is one of this year’s featured bloggers:


By Katie Gillespie

The first time I got a glimpse of the shores of Africa, I was in tears.

I assure you, though, that they were not happy tears. In fact, they were really, very, extremely distressed ones. As excited as I was to start my study abroad adventure, the previous 36 hours had featured the following: A flight cancellation due to snow, an emotional six hour layover in Frankfurt International, missing my loved ones already and the prospect of getting in a car with someone I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to for a long drive to Marrakech.

What was I thinking? I didn’t know Arabic. My attempt at using French in the airport had resulted in a disastrous call with a confused and angry representative from Royal Air Maroc. I was a 20-year-old homebody who’d never left the country, and now I was going to North Africa.

Seriously, what was I thinking?

The second time I got a glimpse of the shores of Africa, I was in tears.

This time, they weren’t just happy ones. They were tears of absolute delight. I was home, to my beautiful, beloved Morocco after ten days traveling around France by myself. My passport, the pages still stiff from being less than a year old, was peppered with stamps of countries I’d never imagined I’d see as a 20-year-old homebody who’d never left the country. That night, I’d be in Meknes, sleeping in my own bed, seeing the friends and the city I’ve fallen head over heels in love with.

Eiffel Tower

I mean, Paris is pretty incredible, I’m not gonna lie. But there’s no place like home.

Everything can change in three-and-a-half months. I often tell people if studying abroad has taught me anything, it’s that a patient eye and an open mind can find joy anywhere they go.

There’s joy to be found in a walk to school. There are always fruit stands to visit if you’re hungry and men with donkeys delivering more goods to them. There are men working at hotels to wave at who giggle when you say “As-Salam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you; the traditional greeting in the Arab world) to them. There are security guards at the front gate of the university trying to look intense, but if you catch them at the right time, you’ll see them tickling the kittens that live there.

There’s joy to be found in doing laundry on the roof. There are no dryers in Morocco. All clothes are hung up. Lines dot the walls of every apartment complex and from every rooftop, there are clothes fluttering in the wind. The air smells strongly of detergent, and if you go up at just the right time, you can watch the sun set and listen to the call to prayer, one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard and the thing I will miss most about day to day life in Morocco.

The view from my window is absolutely stunning at sundown. I’m going to miss it so much.

There’s joy in making friends with friends of the ISA directors. Absolutely nothing can beat a day spent on their sprawling farm, petting camels, hiking for what seems like miles and riding back to the house, not in a car, but clinging to the side of it and squealing in nervous excitement as they drive dangerously fast across the rugged earth. And naturally, because this is Morocco, there’s food and mint tea to be had back at the house. Of course, you’re always invited back to watch the Barcelona Football Club play and feast on marvelous dishes you’ll never see in the U.S. Couscous, anyone?

Farm in Morocco

I never thought I’d end up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Morocco, but it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made to go there.

There’s joy to be found in communication barriers, as exhausting as they can sometimes be. The brain power required to put my shwiya Arabia (little Arabic) to work is intense, but people are always helpful. People laugh and are eager to help when you throw out the few words you know. You’re guaranteed to make a friend and learn a few new words when you go out for dinner. You might even get a free bowl of fruit or see the cook scampering over to your table to put your purse on a chair, because it might get messy or make someone trip if it’s on the floor. At least, I think that’s what happened. Regardless of what was said, it’s always accompanied with smiles and giggles, the most universal form of communication.

There’s joy in watching your roommate fall in love with a Moroccan man, in meeting his friends and talking to them for hours on end over a cup of coffee, learning about the culture and gaining a better understanding of how important the simple things like love, life and family are. There’s joy in scheming with her, in figuring out how and when she’s going to return to Morocco. There’s joy in filming the moment he finally gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him.


This definitely happened, and I definitely cried a little bit. It’s so amazing to have witnessed this from the beginning. My roommate is in for an amazing life in Morocco.

There’s joy in plotting your own return to Morocco, during those long walks to school or those long train rides across the country. The itinerary grows every day with everything you see, until it seems that you’ll have to spend another three-and-a-half months in the country you love like you can never love anywhere else.

Sahara Desert

The Sahara. Words cannot even begin to describe this experience.

But, at the end of the day, the journey has to start, and end, with Meknes, the city you’re eager to return to after seeing the bustling, dirty streets of Casablanca; the snake-charmers and gnawa musicians of Marrakech; even the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Because after that much time in a city and the sheer number of friends you’ve made, there’s no way a city like this can’t be called home.

The last time I see the shores of Africa this year, I’ll be in tears—but I know I’ll be coming home someday soon, insha’Allah.

Happy travels.

Katie Gillespie
Meknes, Morocco
Spring 2012

You can follow Katie’s other adventures on her personal blog

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