Posts Tagged With: study abroad

I Am in the World

I am six years old and the fairgrounds is my play structure.  The Spice Girls play on repeat as the crowds swarm through excitedly, going from stand to stand, ride to ride, exhibit to exhibit.  So much energy and life in this place!  So many adventures to be had!  I want to do my own exploring and get my parents’ permission to visit the gardens with my friends.  We race away through the crowd, taking a short ride on the tram just because we can.

The hours race by as we wander the fairgrounds.  I know my way around already but still feel like Indiana Jones or one of the Wild Thornberrys exploring new territory as my friends and I hop from one part of the fair to the next.

I return to my parents after dark, tired but fulfilled by the day of adventure.  I don’t understand why my mom calls me by my full name with a clenched jaw and that tone in her voice.  She pulls me behind the stand to yell, out of sight of the customers buying pink cotton candy and sweet red candied apples.  Their day is not crushed when the bewildered tears spring to my eyes.

I had wanted to stay for the fireworks, to finish the perfect day with sparks of light arcing across the sky with a bang, but now my chances don’t look so good.  I ask anyways, though it’s clear they want to send me home immediately.  My dad relents.  I can tell he feels bad for my mom yelling earlier but I take advantage of the chance to see the spectacle.  It would have been the perfect ending to the perfect day but I know the leash has been tightened.

To me this world is exciting and fun, but to my parents it’s a scary place, full of monsters that eat little girls like me.  I try to tell them that I’m alright, I can take care of myself.  But they don’t listen; they don’t believe a little girl.  Instead they teach her that the world is scary, that she can’t go off by herself.

That she can’t be free.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I am nineteen years old.  I tell my family I want to go to Morocco to study abroad.  I want to stay for a year.  It isn’t a question.  I am not asking for permission; I am letting them know that I have finally decided upon the location of my year abroad.

It is going to be a nation with connections to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  With cultural complexities I can’t wait to wrap my head around and mountains and deserts and ancient cities I can’t wait to explore.

It is also an Islamic country in North Africa in the year of the Arab Spring, but that’s beside the point.

My grandma tells me I cannot go, she won’t let me.  How could it possibly be safe for a young woman on her own?  Especially a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman from America?  Plus, the culture is so different, surely no one thinks to go there.  “Couldn’t you go to Spain or somewhere in Europe?” she asks me.

I nod along good-naturedly, “Actually my orientation will be in Spain, that’s where the program will start.  I’m thinking about going early to travel around on my own first though, since I haven’t been to Spain yet.”

I try not to laugh at the dismay in her eyes.  She’s genuinely worried for me but I know she can’t do anything to stop me.  My parents, thankfully by now, know better than to try.

They say nothing and sit back to see how it will play out.  I sit through the dinners and family gatherings, laughing and keeping the groan internal when my aunt implores that if there’s one phrase I need to learn before I go it’s “Don’t touch my clitoris!”

Months later, equipped with a fake wedding ring from my mom, antibiotics and anti-diarrheals from my doctor, and one large suitcase from my closet, I board the plane, flying into the unknown to finally greet the world on my own terms.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I am twenty-one years old.  The education that has been both my refuge and my prison has finally come to an end.  I am free to begin a new life.  The world is so full of possibility I don’t know where to start.

A phone call from a friend presents opportunity and I decide to see where life leads me.  I move to a new city in a new state with no job and no plan, just a car full of belongings and an open heart.

I’ve learned you don’t need set plans to move forward in life, as long as you’re always striving for improvement.  And it’s often the things that take us by surprise that prove most worthwhile.

The world is not a scary place.  The world is my home and I love exploring it.  I don’t know where i’m going but I’ll get there, someday.  Until then all I can do is enjoy the journey.

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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.

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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:

Insha’Allah

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.

Proposal

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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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.

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What’s in a Day?

Midterms, and Languages, and Ambassadors, oh my!

School today was a pleasant surprise. Though I went to bed early, I was still exhausted from the weekends festivities (trust me, Moroccan’s know how to party, and their wedding hefla’s last all night long), and slept later than I intended, meaning I had to take a petite taxi to make it to school in time for my 8am class and the midterm that went along with it. I had a really nice taxi driver, who picked up some other nice people on the way, and (thanks to a great mix of FosHa and Darija) I was actually able to communicate and understand what was said in our conversations (Hooray for constantly trying to juggle 3 foreign languages!). I made it to class in time for some interesting discussions about djnun (aka. djinns) and what travel and experiencing “the Other” means for personal growth, change, and self-discovery. We had a midterm in the second half of class, which thankfully was a timed write on some of the literature we’ve read for the class (yes, in this class we actually read, discuss, and analyze Moroccan literature = win!).

Some of the books donated to Universite Moulay Ismail

My morning Moroccan History and Culture class was followed by Advanced Arabic Grammar, with a professor who never fails to keep class interesting, but what was really exciting about the day was what happened after lunch. Two of my friends from ISA and I went to get shawarma just off campus at a local place where we ran into some of our Moroccan friends. We then returned to campus together to listen to the American Ambassador to Morocco speak. He and his wife had come to the University to donate some books on American Studies (including titles by John Steinbeck, Malcolm Gladwell, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, and J.D. Salinger to name a few) and have some discussions with the Moroccan American Association for Communication and Cultural Cooperation (MAACCC) on campus. After the public speech and official donation of the books, Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and his wife Sylvia moved from the university’s auditorium to the administration building for an exclusive meeting with the members of MAACCC and the American students who decided to sit in on the meeting (and were allowed in by virtue of being American). After introducing ourselves, the Ambassador and his wife asked us all if there was any way they could improve their mission in Morocco. They were rather pressed for time but still made an effort to listen to students’ input and address concerns, leaving a few minutes for pictures and some short side conversations before they had to head back to Rabat (Morocco’s capital is about a three hour long drive away from Meknes).

The Americans

It was an interesting experience as an American student in the crowd of excited Moroccans. I hadn’t known the Ambassador would be there until I got to school that morning, though I do remember overhearing something about it last week. Vaguely. [At the time I thought it was part of another cultural event MAACCC is having later this week, but that’s another story.] That’s very much how things tend to go in Morocco, at least in my experience. Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to scheduling, so when I heard that the US Ambassador would be on campus in the afternoon, I quickly changed my plans so I could go. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him speak (and I’m always in support of sharing books!) but I didn’t really think about the possibility of meeting him personally. However, after the meeting, as all the excited Moroccan students crowded around them, asking for pictures, the Ambassador made a point to seek out the few American students who were hanging around to talk and get a picture with them. We were all just along for the ride, but he and his wife seemed like genuinely nice people who were happy to see some American faces in the crowd.

Overall, I was slightly surprised at how informal the whole affair was, but now that I think back on it, it makes sense. The more I learn of other languages, the more I realize how very informal the English language is, especially the American dialect. The use of English combined with Moroccan culture, which is so very hospitable and welcoming that American political distance seems rude and which allows people to interrupt speakers and turn any speech into a discussion, would naturally make for a somewhat informal experience by US political standards. The small size of the group also made both the speech and the meeting more intimate experiences. Plus, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s desire to listen to students’ input further encouraged an open dialogue and more personal interaction with them.

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

I found that their speech was entertaining. They made some interesting comments, (some of which are roughly quoted below), some of which I agreed with and some I found more questionable. They seemed like genuinely nice people with good senses of humor (I’m not entirely sure the entirety of their audience got all of their humor in this case, but I at least appreciated it). The one thing that bothered me was the issue of language. The entire event was conducted in English, for which I was grateful, since it’s still the only language I’m fluent in and events in English are somewhat hard to come by in Meknes, Morocco. Since the topic was American Studies and the friendship between Morocco and the US, the decision to use English was conducive to the purpose of the event as well. However, neither the Ambassador nor his wife spoke French or Arabic (let alone Darija). In sharp contrast to the Moroccan officials’ formal “Bismillah alRahman alRahim…” they made no attempt to use any words or phrases in any language other than English (except for an appropriated use of “par excellence” in part of the Ambassador’s speech, which doesn’t really count) in the whole 2.5-3 hours they were there. Not even a single “shokran” for all the “marhaban bikoum”s they received. Not all of the mostly-Moroccan audience had the English skills necessary to fully accommodate this, and some asked their questions in French, forcing the Dean of the university to make hasty translations as the Ambassador read his notes over his shoulder.

Americans already have a reputation for not knowing any languages other than English and not bothering to learn the language of the country they travel to.  The fact that our Ambassador to another country wouldn’t bother to learn any of the official languages of said country, nor the language of the people there (what people actually speak on the street in Morocco is different from the “official” languages) is embarrassing. The fact that he has held this position for over three years now (since 2009) and still does not know the language (or any of the languages used) makes it even worse.

Other than my thoughts in regards to language, the afternoon was a positive experience overall. Everyone was very excited and energetic, happy to share their experiences. Sylvia even commented on the large amounts of positive energy emanating from everyone on campus. It was an interesting experience and made for a memorable afternoon. 


Here are some of the more interesting/memorable quotes from this afternoon: 

Samuel Kaplan: (Ambassador)

I would suggest that the most complicated word in the dictionary is friendship.

[Discussing 4th of July] “…we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, which of course gave Morocco the opportunity to be the first country to support our independence. Yes I know that!”

[Discussing Obama’s inauguration] “…then President Bush got on a helicopter and flew away, and that is something I’m really proud of.”

Through all the earthquakes, well, we don’t have that many earthquakes in America, but you know what I mean…”

Sylvia Kaplan: (Ambassador’s wife)

 “I was a trapped house-wife in the suburbs….not with this husband, in my training marriage.”

Ritalin would have really helped me.”

[After a last-minute interruption by someone plugging for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan] “You generally can’t have a discussion in Morocco without the topic of the Western Sahara coming up, so at least now we know we’re having a real Moroccan discussion.”

Categories: Morocco, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Meknes Cotton Candy Man

Meknes Cotton Candy Man

This is my new favorite cotton candy man (CCM) in the Meknes area.  Here’s why – the our conversation went a something like this:

Me: “May I take your picture?” (or some garble of darija/arabic/french/gesturing to that effect)
CCM: “la” (means no)
Me: (in Darija) “no? ok, no problem”
CCM: “oh you speak Arabic?”
Me: “shwiya” (a little)
CCM: “alright you can take a picture”

Oh the wonders of language =D

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Home Sweet Home Again

A warm hug, a friendly smile.  Familiar streets and well-trodden paths.   These are just a few of the things that mark a homecoming and my return to Meknes certainly fits the bill.

I was exhausted from traveling all over Spain, France, and Morocco with my parents for a month but the new group of students for this semester arrived the same day they left Marrakesh.  Wandering around Jemaa El Fna, buying candied nuts, dried apricots, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and hot brochettes with “free” mint tea from the square’s vendors occupied most of our evenings, and some hours of the afternoon as well.   We witnessed story-tellers, acrobats, monkeys, musicians, and snake-charmers, all vying for money from the crowd.

During the day, ISA arranged some tours for the group around the city.   We visited the Menara Gardens, wandered the Majorelle Gardens, went to the Saadian tombs, saw the Koutoubia, walked through the souk, and finally ended with the afternoon free to explore Jemaa El Fnaa and make our own way back to the Hotel Akabar.

The day was a whirlwind of new places, new faces, trying to remember everyone’s names, catching up with old friends, making new ones, and exploring more and more of the lively city of Marraksh.

We started the journey home the next morning, heading North East toward Meknes and stopping at the Ouzoud Cascades and Beni Mellal on the way.

Man oh man were those cascades awesome!  They’re the tallest waterfalls in all of Morocco and they’re absolutely gorgeous.   Calling it a hike is kind of a stretch but we left the bus at the top of the hill and walked down to get a better view, visiting a few different lookouts, both facing and below the falls.  A couple of the guys decided they would be all macho and jump in.  It was pretty cold outside (we were in the mountains after all) and I’m sure the water wasn’t much warmer but it was entertaining.

There were also some monkeys there, which proved to be a problem when we sat down to eat.  Some came right up to us and snatched the khobz (bread) right off the table at Iman’s elbow.   There was a kid working there whose only job seemed to be to chase them away but he started working a lot harder after that.  After a great meal of tagine and tea, we headed back up to the bus and drove to Beni Mellal to spend the night.

We were scheduled to have an ISA program meeting shortly after our arrival, but the game between Morocco and Tunisia for the African Cup of Nations would be at the same time so they moved it to later that night (sometime after our giant 3-course meal).  Only in Morocco would important meetings be scheduled around futbol.  =)

We made it to Meknes by 2pm the next day and everyone was thrilled to unload their stuff off the bus and finally unpack.   I ran upstairs to my old apartment to grab the last of my stuff from the previous semester so I could move in with my new host family.  Somehow I found I had almost twice as much stuff as I came here with.  It certainly doesn’t bode well for moving back to the US at the end of the year – I already have too much and I still have four months to accumulate more.  I felt ridiculous hauling my plethora of luggage to my new family’s home, but was happy to meet them and move in to my new room.

I finished unpacking and came out of my room to find my host mom and her sister at the kitchen table making Tiramisu.  I asked if I could help and before I knew it, I was set to work measuring different flours and sugars, dolloping custard on top of cookies, and saran-wrapping finished mini Tiramisu cups.   In no time I felt right at home.

The following few days only increased this feeling.  I ran into old friends on the street, I took taxis on my own, visited people now living where I used to live, exchanged greetings with shopkeepers and doormen that recognized me, and I showed the new students around “my hometown”.   It hadn’t been that long since I was last in Meknes with my parents over winter break but the welcoming familiarity of this small city continually reinforces the feeling of homecoming.  Man, it’s good to be back!

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Casablanca and Rabat

Inside the Hassan II Mosque

Last weekend was our excursion to Casablanca and Rabat.  I didn’t really get much sleep but it was certainly a lot of fun.  I’ve definitely decided I do not like tours though.  We had a few tours this weekend, some walking, some on the bus, some that combined both.  I always find I enjoy places better when I’m allowed to explore them on my own.  I want to learn about them too, but some guides can ramble on forever.   But I digress, besides the tours it was a fun trip.   I enjoyed seeing the Hassan II mosque in Casa.  It’s HUGE and the architecture is gorgeous!  After exploring the inside of the mosque we hung out on the edge overlooking the ocean.  Some Moroccan boys then proceeded to convince some of the group to jump off the edge into the Atlantic.  It was pretty epic.  =D

Our one night in Casablanca was full of adventures.  Roaming the streets looking for somewhere to eat we stumbled upon a “Puerto Rican” pizza place/creperie.  It was definitely hole-in-the-wall and we had the place to ourselves (it was late afternoon after all), but I’m pretty sure it was the best pizza I’ve had in a long time.

We wandered our way back to the hotel after dinner, passing through the main plaza where we traumatized pigeons by the fountain earlier that afternoon.   The night was far younger than we expected when we got back so we hung out at the hotel for a while before we felt it was late enough to head out to some of the clubs we had heard of.   Taxis in Casa are expensive (at least by my Moroccan standards) so I only went to one club but it was a lot of fun.  It was called La Bodega and had a Spanish theme down to the drinks and music.   It was really interesting to see how behind-closed-doors it was though.  When I first walked in I was slightly confused because it didn’t look like what I was expected (not that I knew what I was expecting at the time).   The main floor was set up like a restaurant with a small stage for entertainment but downstairs was a full bar with crowds of people dancing to great Spanish music.  I felt like I was back in Costa Rica since it had a very similar feel to some of the clubs I went to there, and the music brought back memories as well.   After a while some of the group decided to take taxis to another club and I headed home to catch a few short hours of sleep before getting up early to go to Rabat the next morning.

Blue walls in Rabat

Rabat surprised me by its cleanliness.  The city had a really nice vibe, along with a temperate climate and a refreshing ocean breeze.  Our tour was long but we saw some interesting places.  I especially liked the blue-washed walls, supposedly made so to keep mosquitoes away.  After the tour we had some free time to eat and wander the city.   I explored the souk and watched my friends barter, having spent far more money in Casablanca than I had anticipated.  I always enjoy wandering and exploring though and when it came time to meet the rest of the group, Gabriel and I were the last on the bus.  Thank goodness for Moroccan time.

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Intercultural Forum Website

As some of you may know, ISA began hosting an annual intercultural forum a few years ago, collaborating with students and officials from various countries.   This year, the forum is moving to Sevilla, Spain in the hopes of making it even more accessible to the international community.   Members of our group are already working hard on their projects and presentations for the event which will take place in November, during fall break.   Before the forum can take place, however, we need input from people around the world about some of the issues we plan to discuss.  One group of ISA students has put together a website for just this purpose and we would all greatly appreciate your contributions.   Please answer the questions on the website: http://culturaldiversity-globalization.weebly.com/index.html  The overarching topic of the forum is intercultural dialogue in media and social networking society and ISA’s focus is on cultural diversity within globalization.   We’d love to recieve input from everyone so please, check out the website, share it with your friends and family, and help us make this intercultural forum truly great.

Categories: Morocco, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Intro to Meknes

How fast the time has flown and yet it seems as if we’ve been in Morocco far longer than just two weeks.   Spain was fantastic.  Between wandering the city of Granada, getting to know the people in the program, and going between bars and clubs for tapas and dancing until the early morning, I was rather exhausted by the end of the excursion.  It was definitely worth it though, the Alhambra was beautiful, the people fun-loving, and the overall experience was great. After several days with the group in Granada we left for Tangier, via ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar.

The busy port city was our first real exposure to Morocco and I should probably say more about it but in all honesty the food was what left the biggest impression on me.  For lunch our first day, a group of about six of us went to a restaurant recommended by Daniel, our resident director.  Though we were followed and accosted by a faux guide, my first real Moroccan lamb tajine was worth far more to my tastebuds than a few dirhams and a little bit of hustling.

The next morning we got a tour of some as the city, as well as some free time to explore before hopping on the bus to Meknes.  Everyone was excited to fully unpack and move in to what would be our home for the next several months.   After a five hour bus ride, we finally reached Meknes around sunset.

We made it to Meknes!

First impressions of our apartment were amazing.  They are huge and have anything one could possibly need, from a fully-stocked kitchen to school supplies, medicine, and notes of advice left from past ISA students.  The tile floors will probably freeze our toes off in winter but for now they offer blessed relief from the heat.

Thursday (8 Sept 2011) was our first full day in Meknes.  We all got our first tour of the university, which is especially cool because it’s in a fort.  Then, after a ceremony in which the professors welcomed us with speeches, Moroccan sweets, and mint tea, we took the language placement exams.   I ended up placing into Beginning Arabic II, right were I should be according to the number of chapters I completed at UCSD before I left.  However, this meant that I would not have Arabic classes at all until halfway through the semester.   You can guess how excited I was about that.

Sure enough, I lasted one day of classes without Arabic before starting to audit the Intermediate Arabic class.  Knowing I was in a class that should by all rights be above my head, I was surprised when the professor complemented me on my Arabic and insisted I should be enrolled in the Intermediate level.   There are whole tenses the rest of the class knows that I haven’t seen before, but I am learning so much.  The class is demanding and I need to study a lot more than I ever have before, but it is an excellent challenge and I feel like I have already learned as much in two weeks as I did in two quarters back home.  It’s hard, it’s crazy, it’s slightly insane, but I love it.

University Moulay Ismail

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