Home (Collage)

A blue-grey house perched on the hill, filled with the trinkets that make up a life.  Bed, table, kitchen, family, dog, couch.  An attic full of memories and seasonal decorations brought out every year to adorn the gutters, eves, porch, and windows.  covering the door with signs, changing the meaning and colors of Welcome.  But underneath lies the house, blue-grey, perched on the hill, as solid as ever.  Waiting for you to come home.

Pine needles spring beneath my feet, making the ground feel soft and my stride effortless as I walk under the tall pines.  Birds sing soft melodies and the air is fresh from recent rain.  The open air is cool under a blue sky as a soft breeze kisses my cheek, welcoming me back to where I belong.

Home is the warm smile on your mother’s face when you surprise her on her birthday.  The solid feel of her arms around you as she pulls you close, long blonde hair wafting hints of coconut oil into your face.  The comfort of being held, squeezed within an inch of your life by those you love.

Hard asphalt, baked black in the sun and glistening with the residue of oil left from the thousands of cars that have been there before you.  Chain-link fences and gates with guards that bar entry to anyone but you – for this is your domain.  You know all the shortcuts, the secret exits and entrances.  The escape routes leading you to and from home.

Indescribable acknowledgement.  Proof that you know it’s there.  A feeling bone-deep yet airy with acceptance.  There’s nothing left to prove, no effort needs to be made.  It doesn’t matter what you see when you look out the window because right now, in this moment, here, you are home.

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Bird Rock

Written 1 February 2013Bird Rock

The waves lap gently against the rocks, whispering secrets beyond my grasp. The pelicans perch proudly on Bird Rock as the sun sinks slowly behind a cloud on the horizon, scattering sunlight across the still-blue sky into rays of yellow above and hints of burnt gold beneath the purpling clouds.

The smaller birds grow restless as the day drifts closer to its end, smattering over the last scraps of food in the rocks and flying low over the water to head for a place to roost.

The ebbing tide soothes my own restlessness as the salty air fills my lungs. I still haven’t made a decision but the swirling clouds that fan from the day’s descending sun, swirling around like question marks in the pool of my mind, remind me that life is always uncertain.

I’m nearing the end of this day, of this chapter in my life. But the ocean will always be there, waves lapping soothingly or crashing vehemently over the rocks depending on the tide. And as the sun sinks hidden below a cloud, my future remains shrouded in mystery, with just a few golden glimmers of possibility shining through.

I may not know what the future holds but I do know that tomorrow the sun will shine, the waves will continue, and the world will greet another day.

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All Good Things…

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.

My last days are full of small tasks, meeting with friends for what could be the last time, last-minute shopping in the medina searching for relatives’ gifts and souvenirs, soaking in the smells of meshwi grilled meats and diesel exhaust on the dusty walk from one side of the city to the other. The sounds of the informal local language are by turns shouted and murmured as stall-holders hawk their wares at bartering patrons, consonants pushed together, gurgling around me from all sides in snippets of understanding and as-yet-unknown syllables until I am immersed in a world at once familiar and only half-understood.

I don’t quite belong but I have made a place for myself in this carnival of characters. The scarf vendor down the first alley will accept my trades in place of currency. The jewelrist knows the school I’m studying at and is sure to teach me a new word or two each time I speak with him. At one shop I have a reputation for “bartering like a Berber woman”, but they always invite me for tea when I pass by. The woman across the narrow alleyway always asks after my family and I tell her her scarves are the prettiest in the whole medina.

Even people I haven’t met yet know who I must be as soon as I open my mouth. There is only one small group of Americans studying at the university here, and no common tourist knows the local language. I am known and I am welcomed. Whatever hassle I may receive on the street for being female, it is that open heart that continually redeems Morocco in my eyes. People’s ability to make you feel like an honored guest in a strange land has undoubtedly won many a haggler profit from tourists, but by digging beneath the surface and making an effort at understanding, it has gained me more than a few friends.

The time has come, however, to move on. My year is up, and while I haven’t learned all that I had hoped (I’m still not fluent in Arabic or French or Darija) I did learn just how important personal relationships can be and what a difference even a small gesture can make.

After one last hot yet mintily refreshing cup of sweet Moroccan “atay” at a local café with friends, I head back to the apartment I share with my host family to gather the last of my things and find a way to zip up my overstuffed suitcases. The house is empty, quiet. The cool, tiled floors keep this place insulated from the cacophony of activity in the streets below but I enter this sanctuary with slight trepidation, too worked up over the day’s schedule to fully relax. I keep the last parting gifts I have for the family to myself, hoping I’ll get the chance to give them in person. They haven’t made it home yet and my bus is leaving earlier than I had hoped. My host sister had stayed behind but I don’t see her anywhere either.

I pile my luggage by the entryway, watching the clock anxiously and listening for the sound of a key at the door. But the lock never turns. I can’t wait much longer so I pile my presents on the dining room table, arranging them carefully with a note of heartfelt thanks.

These people opened their home to me and welcomed me into their family. I lived with them for months. How do I ever express the value and appreciation I have for that experience? How do I convey the depth of my gratitude with a note in a language I’m not fully versed in? How do I say goodbye without actually being able to say goodbye?

I do my best, then sling my pack over my shoulder, dragging my suitcase behind me and turn for one last look before I shut the door. No longer home, I know this place has had an impact I probably won’t be able to fully understand or appreciate until I am long gone, once again immersed in my life in the States. Whatever eventually comes of my time here, though, I know I am eternally grateful for the experience.

With the help of some friends, I haul my bags down the street to where the bus awaits and the crowd of teary-eyed classmates and exchange students continually grows. The goodbyes are bittersweet, but somehow we all manage to board the bus headed for what is to me an almost forgotten home. As we drive off into the setting sun of a Moroccan spring, I am compelled to say the final goodbye to this part of my life, and pull out my phone to call my host family.

The call doesn’t go through.

I try again.

The number doesn’t work.

Suddenly I am overcome by loss, the end of this time in my life feels abrupt, cut short even though I knew it was coming. There is no closure; no final words, no ritual to fall back on no matter how contrived. I am simply gone – cut out of Morocco like a scab picked clean. I am cast adrift – for Morocco has been cut out of me too, or rather I have been cut out of me. The part of me that was Moroccan, that fit here, lived here, ran into people on the street here, shopped for vegetables at the Sunday Souk, asked for hot sauce on street food, traded scarves with friends and vendors, and drank mint tea every day – that part of me no longer has a home. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the people that gave it one in the first place.

I blindly turn away from my useless phone, not knowing what to do as my eyes overflow with too many memories, too many regrets, and too much uncertainty. My friends are standing in the aisle telling jokes. I hear the group’s laughter and see their smiles but can’t comprehend what’s been said for the ache in my heart. I don’t make eye contact but as I dazedly turn away, David comes over to sit beside me. One of the few other students who stayed in Morocco for an entire year, David and I had become good friends over our extended stay abroad. He sits quietly at my side and puts his head on my shoulder, his wordless support and clear understanding more than I could ask for and exactly what I need.

The evening call to prayer goes out while we’re on the road, sounding mournful and haunting against the setting sun. Entranced by the sound, my sad heart sends an upswell of gratitude to whatever powers may be for the people that are now a part of my life, whether past, present, or future.

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Culture Crossing

It’s amazing the little things you take for granted culturally.   The way you just know how things work in your home culture.  And I do mean home culture, not home country – that’s an important distinction.   There are many different cultures in America and showing this country, or at least the beautiful state of California, to some of my Moroccan friends has helped me to once again see it through new eyes.

The city of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area are totally different from my family’s home up in the Sierra Foothills.  When we first arrived in my rural hometown, our Moroccan guests greeted the area with surprise and some trepidation.  They couldn’t believe my mom would live here alone during the week while my dad works in The City.   The deer in the bushes could have been any sort of monstrous creature until we pointed out otherwise.  And I couldn’t possibly have friends or neighbors here because, where could they possibly be?

This is my backyard – clearly no place for neighbors.

Having lived most of my life in the mountains, I found most of their reactions slightly amusing but made sure to reassure them that, yes, it is perfectly safe, the bears will not eat you, and people really do live here.  They soon came to enjoy what was certainly a new experience for them, and we all learned more about different American and Moroccan cultures.

Then it came time to get ready for bed.

In the weeks leading up to their arrival, I had grown more excited every day, working both at my job and helping my mom prepare the house and plan an itinerary for our guests.  Making the beds up for them, I decided that when they arrived I would sleep outside on the deck.  Though I’ve always loved sleeping outside, it had been a long time since I had been able to do so.  Doubting that I’d have time to go camping this summer, I wanted to jump at whatever chance I could get.

When Zakaryae, my Arabic professor, heard that I would sleep outside alone, he was incredulous.  He would never let his daughter do that, especially alone, and certainly not with all the lights off.

My reassurance that I’ve grown up sleeping outside occasionally during the summer — whether on the trampoline with my (surrogate) siblings from a very young age, or camping with friends or family,  or just for the fun of it — was enough to make his 14-year-old daughter, Marwa, willing to try it.  Zakaryae wasn’t too thrilled about that at first, but sure enough, the next night Marwa slept outside along with me and another friend of mine.  Her bravery and willingness to try new things just emphasized for me the importance and impact that going abroad can have at any age.  The entire exchange was a new experience for everyone involved.  It would never occur to me to be worried about sleeping outside in my own backyard, just as it would never occur to any of my Moroccan friends that it would be safe, let alone enjoyable, to do so.  But no matter how big or small the issue, a little understanding can go a long way towards understanding others’, as well as your own culture.

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Camaraderie and Homemade Pizza

One of the things I love most about travelling is the camaraderie between fellow human beings.  Travelers know that there is a fellowship between all people, that no one is ever truly very different from one another.  There is a basic level across all borders, languages, and cultures, that no matter where you are, people are people.

After my last visit to Granada, I flew to Germany to meet up with another friend.  Arriving in Frankfurt, I planned to take the train into the city to meet my friend at the hauptbahnhof.  New public transportation systems can be slightly tricky at first but I managed to figure out which ticket I needed and get on the train.  My blonde hair and blue eyes fit right in with the mostly German crowd and a group of Asian businessmen asked me if I spoke English and if I could help them with their tickets as well.  We ended up getting on the same car of the train later, only to be boarded by some transit system officials farther down the line who notified us that we were mistakenly in first class.  Thankfully they were very kind about the misunderstanding and since we wanted the next stop, they allowed us to stay until we arrived at our destination.

I disembarked, hauling my stuff to the station’s Starbucks where my friend Katerina and her friend Eva were waiting for me.   We hadn’t seen each other in almost a year but as soon as we saw each other, just like that, it was as if no time had passed at all.  We were on the other side of the world but we might as well have met for a study break on campus back in San Diego.   Another reaffirmation that friendship can be timeless.

Eva, Katerina, and I hauled my stuff back to Eva’s apartment in the city of Frankfurt itself.  We had some time to rest, eat snacks, and talk before we headed out to the grocery store to buy ingredients to make pizza with some of Eva’s and Katerina’s friends.  We all met up at Anja’s apartment: Germans, Austrians, Americans, everyone!  We worked together, making pizza and drinks for everyone, sharing stories, political and cultural insights, dreams, hopes, studies, and interests.  It was a night full of camaraderie, and we didn’t want to leave.  Some of these people had been friends of Katerina during her year of study in Lyon, France while others we had all just met.  In both cases, when it came time for Katerina and I to catch the night train to Berlin, we didn’t know if either of us would see any of these wonderful people ever again.

And therein lies both the beauty and the pain of travelling (and life, really): you have the ability to make great connections with people all over the world, but you never know when you’ll have to say goodbye or if you will ever see them again.  You can only enjoy the moment,  appreciate the people you are with, embrace whatever they can teach or share with you, and look forward to the next adventure, knowing you’re not alone.  Friends can be found in any corner of the world and you never know where you might run into one, new or old.

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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 katieversustheworld.wordpress.com.

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Free Verse Poem: Love in the Sand

Love in the sand, built up by caring hands.
Until the ocean washes it away
as the moon holds the tides
under her sway.

Ephemerality eternalized
only in the memory
of a moment’s touch.
The grit of sand under a fingernail,
a taste of salt clinging to your skin.

The sound of ocean waves
echoes in a shell held to your ear,
bringing the moment back
until you realize
it’s your own blood crashing,
pumping life into a memory
that no longer exists.

Is that all that’s left of us?

Has that ocean of time and distance
washed away
the love we built in the sand
all those years ago?

Waves crashing
until even the rocks give way.
Slowly fading
into the sands of time,
making a new bed
on the ocean floor.

Your lips move to answer
but I can no longer hear
over the sound of the waves
as I let the current take me
to where I belong
in the sand.

[Written 10 April 2012 on Banana Beach in Agadir/Aourir, Morocco and inspired by my friend’s drawings in the sand]

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The Wonders of Language

It’s amazing sometimes how much language can mean to people.  It’s something you don’t generally think of in everyday life, at least from my experience in America.  Other than some Anthropologists and Linguists gunning to protect endangered languages (learn more about it here), the most attention it gets in the States tends to be from people complaining about immigrants who don’t speak English.  Not exactly the most positive image of American culture, especially considering our own general lack of linguistic education (which I’m sure is a big contributing factor to such anti-foreign sentiment, but I digress).

In Morocco, language is important and everyone knows it.  People communicate not just with the words they speak, but also with the choice of which language they use.  Language choice can convey information about education, social class, upbringing, expectations (foreigners are often addressed in French), and cultural attitudes of the speaker.  The differences between French (the language of the colonizers and foreign elite), Darija (the everyday language of people on the street), and FosHa (the holy language of the Qoran and MENA’s lingua franca) are vast and carry very different connotations in their social use.   These connotations can greatly affect one’s perception of the speaker, leading to some interesting exchanges that can either help or hinder one’s cause.

Between my limited Darija, stumbling French, and halting FosHa, I am generally able to comunicate and make myself understood after having been here for about 7 months now.  I’ve found that the more Darija I use, the more surprised and happy people are.  They don’t expect foreigners to know the local dialect.  Even people from other Arab countries can’t understand much Darija, which is what makes FosHa so helpful.  Moroccans are often surprised when I speak FosHa too (as most European or Western tourists speak only French, English, and/or the language of their home country), but only the more educated, more religious, or those more enamored with Egyptian soap operas speak it themselves.   Whenever I speak Arabic (including FosHa, but especially when I try for some Darija), people instantly become more friendly, more open, and more excited to know me.  I’ve gained a lot more insight on Moroccan life and culture by trying to learn the language, and people repay my interest in small ways all the time.

I’ve already mentioned my encounter with the cotton candy man in Meknes, but that’s just one example.  Just this morning I went to buy water from a small shop near the train station (to avoid paying the more expensive price on the train) and greeted the man there with a short conversation in Darija.  He told me the price and then, after a few jokes testing my Arabic while I dug around in my wallet, refused to let me pay full price because he knew I was a student studying the language locally. I’ve only been to that shop once before (and not in a month or so)  but he remembered me and appreciated my efforts to learn about Morocco.  I know that long after the water is gone and the money forgotten, his smile will continue to warm my heart, serving as a reminder of the true value of cultural exchange and the ability of language (whether gestured, fluent, stumbling, or otherwise) to connect people all over the world.

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments


The ride to Chefchaouen was uneventful, if cramped. It took about two hours to get there and our mode of transportation was a Grand Taxi, hired just outside the DMZ of the Sebtan border. Grand Taxi’s are wonderful and relatively cheap. I use them on an almost-daily basis to get to and from school, paying only 3dhs (approximately ($0.40 USD) each way. Each one is a big old Mercedes that 6 passengers are crammed into: 4 in the backseat and 2 in the passenger seat. Moroccans don’t have much of a concept of personal space and a Grand Taxi ride is just one example of how you can get real close real fast with some interesting people.

For better or worse our group consisted of exactly six people – perfect for filling up a grand taxi and paying the cheapest price, but also meaning we’d be crammed in said taxi for two hours, hardly able to move. The ride wasn’t all that bad though, as there was plenty of new scenery to enjoy along the way. Chefchaouen sits in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco. If you’ve heard the term “reefer”, that’s where it comes from – Chefchaouen is arguably the cannabis capital of the world. My attraction to the place lies more in the gorgeous mountain scenery and the blue color it’s known for, as I noted in my previous experience there last semester, but all of these factors have helped the city earn a name for itself.

Our arrival in Chefchaouen was greeted by misty rain clouds .  I haven’t yet managed to visit the place when it’s sunny [and seeing as how I only have three weeks left here, I doubt I’ll have the chance this trip] but the imminent rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we wound our way through alleys and gardens to some of the boys’ favorite hostel from their last visit.

Our evening was spent eating multi-course meals in the medina, getting to know the other people in the hostel, and wandering through the maze of blue-painted walls at night.  We eventually stumbled across one shop, situated between a mosque and a big, ancient olive tree, with one of the friendliest, most insightful and entertaining shopkeepers ever.  His name was Rashid and our time with him was so memorable we returned back the next day.

There were so many interesting Rashid quotes, from attempts to sell things for “potatoes price”, to the more philosophical “life is onion”.  He had a gift for relating anything to food, even licking one of his leather bags to show it is  “like couscous” and true Moroccan leather.  It’s people like him that epitomize the generosity, friendliness, and up-selling savvy that permeates so much of Moroccan culture.  Several of the guys purchased goods from him and though neither Monica nor I bought anything, pleading lack of funds (my ATM card had been eaten by the machine the first night), he gifted us both with a cloth bag each.

We spent Sunday morning hiking an old Spanish monastery above the town.  It was a short hike, but the view from the top was spectacular and we got great views of the city on the way down as well.

The others took the bus back home to Meknes that afternoon but my ATM card was still stuck in an ATM downtown so I had to stay until the bank opened Monday morning to retrieve it.  My friend Ben stayed the extra day with me and we spent the afternoon further wandering the town and exploring the old fortress (aka. kasbah) within it.   The gardens were beautiful, even in the still drizzly weather, and the tower had been converted into a museum exhibit, offering great views of Chefchaouen’s rooftops on the way up.

Thankfully the next morning’s card retrieval went relatively seamlessly.  I spoke with a lady upstairs at the bank and she had a whole stack of ATM cards sitting on her desk that had been eaten by the machine.  Mine was near the top of the pile and with a simple display of ID and a signature, the card was mine again.  I decided to try a different ATM to get money for the ride back, and as soon as we had our stuff, we were off to the station to get tickets for the three-hour ride to Fes, where we caught the train home.  Things certainly hadn’t worked out exactly as planned for our weekend adventure, but the trip ended up being one of my favorites anyway.   That’s one thing I love about travel: even through all the uncertainty, at times even having no money or no place to sleep, you can still have fun and enjoy the experience.

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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