Archive for September, 2010

OH MY GOODNESS! Matt Damon was here! This is hallowed ground…

September 28th, 2010

My weekend excursion to Tangier was my first “independent” trip since I’ve been to Morocco.  By “Independent” I mean that it wasn’t sponsored by IES Abroad (my study abroad program), and not that I went by myself, because basically everyone else from IES decided to visit Tangier as well.  So on Friday after our morning Arabic class at 8am, nine of us left the center for the Rabat-Ville train station to board a 10:47 train that would take us to Tangier within four hours.  In Morocco it is so worth it to spring for a first class ticket because the seats are bigger, you have more leg room, and the cars are less crowded.  My first class ticket to Tangier cost 145 dh (dirham).  I think it was the first “Première Classe” ticket I’ve ever bought for anything ever in my entire life, and it cost less that $20.   That being said, my hotel room for two nights cost 300 dh, which is less that $40.  Now, the exchange rate wasn’t the reason I decided to come to Morocco for my semester abroad, but I like being significantly richer than I would be in the United States or Europe.  That being said, it’s still way too easy to spend way too much money in Morocco, especially when you get to the Medina because all the little shops are just calling to you, so you go and look around, and then the shop keeper insists that you buy something, and you haggle a bit and finally reach a price you are both happy with, and you walk away with a new souvenir.  Then you do the same thing at the next shop.  You can see the vicious downward spiral you can get yourself into if you’re not careful.  Additionally, if you’re not sure you want to buy it, don’t ask for the price, because then the shop keeper thinks you want to buy it, and he or she will be offended if you walk out after they give you their highest possible price.

Okay, I digress…what can I say about Tangier?  Well, it’s a lot like San Francisco.  It’s very sunny, there are beautiful beaches, and tons of steep hills.  For every hill you walk down you must walk up two (at least that’s what it feels like, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating much).  I also gathered from the Lonely Planet guidebooks that several members of my group brought with them, that Tangier used to host many gay bars, but now I understand that those hangouts have all moved to Marrakesh.  Like everywhere else in Morocco there is no shortage of cafes and restaurants, but unlike Fez and Rabat, nightclubs and discotheques are clearly visible and openly advertised.  My cab driver told me that Tangier has over 50 night clubs!

Okay, I promise there’s more to Tangier than hills and bars.  Did you know that the very first United States Embassy is located in Tangier?  Well, it is.  It is called the Tangier American Legation and is the only “historical landmark of the United States abroad” according to the plaque on the wall of the legation.  It isn’t a functioning embassy anymore, but it has been made into a very nice museum.  There’s a letter written by Georges Washington to the King of Morocco, and another letter from the American Ambassador back to the US state department asking them what he should do because the Moroccan government keeps trying to give him two lions as gifts.  No joke.  It was probably one of the funniest letters I’ve ever read.  The man was clearly at his wit’s end.  He couldn’t really refuse to accept the gifts, but what is he supposed to do with a pair of lions??  I think the plan was to eventually sell the lions to a zoo back in the United States.

What else what else?? OH YEAH!  So basically the random weekend we picked to go to Tangier turned out to be a most fortuitous coincidence because it just so happened that the TanJazz Jazz Festival was going last weekend as well.  That means….oh yes….free outdoor concerts.  So that was just something really exciting and cool that just happened to be going on while we were in the city.  I was really happy to discover that these concerts were really excellent.  The concert we went to had a huge turnout, Moroccans from all walks of life seemed to have shown up in this park and were enjoying the music.

OH!  Another cool thing I did last weekend was eat at Cafe Paris.  I’m not saying that actually eating there was particularly amazing.  It has decent coffee and croissants, nothing special.  It was the location itself.  In the third installment of Jason Bourne films, Matt Damon goes to Morocco, and those scenes were filmed in Tangier, and at Cafe Paris in Tangier.  I was walking on the same sidewalk that Matt Damon walked on!  Hahaha, my little sister would be so excited, she loves those movies 🙂

Additionally, in Tangier you can stand on the beach and look out across the water and see Spain.  It doesn’t always feel like I’m this close to Europe when I’m in Morocco sometimes, but looking out across to Spain made me realize how far away Morocco really is from the heart of the Middle East and Arab world.  Tangier especially is probably the most “European” city I’ve been to in Morocco.  Part of this is the significant increase in the number of actual tourists I saw in Tangier.  Most of these tourists are fresh off the boat from Spain, and consequently Moroccan business owners are much more likely to speak Spanish than French.  That was difficult for me because my Arabic isn’t very good yet, and my Spanish is worse.  I got through the weekend though, and even made some impressive gift purchases using a French/Arabic hybrid language.

So in conclusion, go to Tangier, it’s great.  I felt very comfortable as a western person walking around the city.  Of course I was cat called, but that happens everywhere in Morocco, but aside from that the city was great.  It was pretty easy to navigate, and the surroundings are wonderful.  You can also hear many different languages and expose yourself to many different cultures since so many tourists and expatriates come to Tangier.  It’s definitely a city that’s worth another visit.  Not this year probably, but in the not-so-distant future…insha’Allah.

Kids, Camels…and Thunderstorms?

September 20th, 2010

So, about my trip to the Sahara Desert….it was probably my most favorite experience in Morocco so far.  I really relish the time spent far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and student life for that matter.  It reminded me of my spring break trip to West Virginia: no cell phone service, no computer, just you, the people around you, great big mountains.  We left Rabat on Thursday and spent most of the day traveling to our destination.  We did make a quick stop outside of a small town called Azrou to feed some monkeys.  That’s right, I got to see some monkeys up close and personal.  They were so cute too!  After a full eleven hours of travel we stopped at a really amazing hotel to spend the night.  This place had absolutely everything, an indoor and an outdoor pool, sports fields, a spa, a bar, Berber music and dancing, hookah, and camels.  So, after an absolutely fabulous evening of good food, swimming, and dancing I could go back to my giant room for a good night’s sleep before our excursion into the desert the next day.

Before we actually got to the desert we some other appointments we had to make.  We went to the ruins of Sijilmassa, what used to be the largest city in Morocco, but now has been reduced to a few crumbling walls.  That was interesting, but then we also had to go visit a local NGO that provides an after school program and backpacks to children in rural villages.  When we got off the bus we were immediately mobbed by all the children in the village.  These children don’t get a lot of foreign visitors, and so they all swarmed around us, reaching out to kiss our hands and ask us our names.  I think this is what celebrities must feel like when they go out.  I was amazed by how much excitement our presence brought these kids, and I was so glad that they had this NGO who was providing them with school supplies and a better chance at an education.  The president of the NGO also fed us lunch at his home.  One thing I love about Morocco is that their sense of time is a lot more relaxed than it is in the United States.  Therefore, lunch lasted several hours, and included tea, a salad course, two meat courses, and a desert of fresh fruit.  Then it was time to head to the SAHARA DESERT!

One thing that really surprised me about the desert was that it looked basically just like what movies and pictures of the Sahara desert look like.  Basically there was nothing but red sand dunes, and tufts of desert grass as far as the eye could see.  I was amazed by how well our Berber guides could navigate.  I would have been lost five minutes into my journey because there’s really no landmarks anywhere.  We all rode in a camel caravan, complete with blue turbans to keep the sun off and sand out.  I also figured out why, in addition to protection from sandstorms, people in the desert cover their faces.  Camels smell.  Most of us were covering our faces to keep the stink out, because the desert was actually pretty calm.  It had rained earlier (yes, I’m serious) so the sand was pretty settled.

We spent the night in a Berber encampment in a small oasis.  The tents were very low to the ground and had about six sleeping mats in each one.  Our group shared our camp with a group of very friendly Dutch tourists.  We ate dinner (Berber food is really good) and danced to Berber music.  I even got to try to play some of the drums, but failed pretty miserably at it.  I found the guides really interesting to talk to.  Most of them told me they hadn’t been to school at all, and yet they all could speak (at least a little bit) multiple languages.  Ask any of them and they’ll say, “I speak Berber, Arabic, a little French, a little English, a little Spanish, a little Italian, some Japanese, and even a bit of German.”  They weren’t educated in the sense that they could engage in academic discussion about nationalist movements in colonial Africa, but they were definitely smart (I can’t speak eight languages, or navigate in the desert), and full of practical knowledge, which I think is just as important (if not more in the long run) as the amalgamation of knowledge one gains in college.  Additionally, I can also confirm for you that the desert gets really, really, really cold at night.  Definitely bring a blanket.

The next day we rode the camels back and left the desert for another hotel where we would spend the night before finishing up our last leg of the journey.  While in the hotel a most curious thing happened.  There was a massive thunderstorm.  Truth.  It was just surprising to me that the desert could experience such large rain storms.  We lost power in our hotel for several hours.  I was actually pretty psyched because I got to carry a candle around the halls like someone from the eighteenth century.  At the hotel we were again treated to a lovely performance of traditional Berber music and dancing and then basically everyone went to bed because they were absolutely exhausted.  Although I’ve been getting pretty close to eight hours of sleep a night, I don’t think that it has been enough, and the late dinners make my body think that it’s earlier than it really is.

So in conclusion, everyone needs to visit the Sahara Desert.  It’s an absolutely amazing experience and I’m already thinking about when I can go back. 🙂

Salaamu alaykum! Welcome to Morocco!

September 15th, 2010

Okay guys, this pretty much the first time where I’ve had readily available, decent wifi service since I’ve arrived in Morocco almost two weeks ago.  Morocco is amazing, incredibly hot and humid, but amazing.  As I was looking back on my entire life I’ve realized that Morocco is the only place I’ve been where giant palm trees grow naturally.  In addition to having a completely different selection of trees, flowers, shrubs, and other vegetation, Morocco has an entirely different array of sounds, smells, tastes, you name it.  When I landed in Rabat I was surprised by how modern the city was, yet how traditional it seemed as well.  I saw both men and women wearing in jallabas, which are long robes with pointed hoods, and pointed leather shoes, and men and women wearing very western styles clothes.  I arrived during Ramadan, the holy month where Muslims fast during the daylight hours, so the streets were not as busy as I had expected.  I was very, very excited about experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim country.   I’ve fasted for Ramadan before in college, so I had some idea of what it felt like to abstain from eating and drinking for a whole day.  Not eating anything all day is actually a lot easier than it seems, but not drinking anything (even water), now that’s the challenging part, especially in Morocco where temperatures hovered around the high 80s and 90s.  After Moroccans break their fast in the evening the city exploded with activity that lasted until 2am or so.  It’s quite a different feeling to go from a quiet, low key day to an explosion of festivities that last the entire night.

My study abroad program has a 10 day orientation period in Fez, so the day after we all arrived in Rabat we drove to Fez to spend a week listening to lectures ranging from the linguistic situation in Morocco, to the Muduwana (a new family code which greatly increases women’s rights) which was passed only a few years ago.  We also spent our mornings taking intensive classes in colloquial Moroccan Arabic (darija).  Each Arabic speaking country has their own unique dialect of Arabic, so Moroccans traveling in Saudi Arabia or Iraq would probably not be able to understand the Saudis or Iraqis they meet on the street.  However, Modern Standard Arabic is the written form of the Arabic language, and is universal.  This means that educated Arabs all over the Arab world can communicate in Modern Standard and understand each other.

In Morocco, basically almost everyone speaks French, which was extremely lucky for me since I didn’t speak a word of Arabic when I arrived.  However, I learned from my experience living with a host family that although French is widely used, it still is better to learn Arabic.  My host mother in Fez spoke some French, but it was clear that she was much more comfortable communicating in Arabic, which was why my Darija lessons were so important and helpful.  In Morocco, it is very important to know how to greet people and ask about their health.  The second most important thing you should know is how to ask about their family.  Finally the third most important thing you should know is how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m full” because you might be invited to enjoy some absolutely delicious mint tea and cookies.  My host mothers (both in Fez and Rabat) always tell me to “Kool!” (eat!) so I’ve gotten quite good at saying “I’m full” in darija.  They will nod and say okay, but 10 minutes later they will put another plate of food in front of you and tell you to eat more.  This morning as I was leaving to go to school my host mother led me back to the breakfast table because I had not eaten enough, or so she thought.  Food is a very important part of Moroccan culture.  It is a time to socialize with friends and family and the more you eat, they happier they get because it shows you appreciate their hospitality.  Moroccan food is great, especially during Ramadan, so it’s not really that hard to eat a lot of food.

What else have I done since I’ve been here?  Quite a lot actually now that I think about it.  I’ve toured the medina in Fez (an absolute MUST if you’re ever in the country), went to the ceramics factory in Fez, seen the mausoleum in Rabat, and toured the Roman ruins at Volubilis (super duper cool).  Tomorrow actually, my study abroad group is leaving to go to the Sahara Desert for four days.  I’m really looking forward to this visit because I will get to ride a CAMEL for several hours into the desert!  Once we’re in the desert we will get to spend the night in a Berber tent, eat Berber food, and listen to Berber music.  The next day we’ll get to ride the camels back to and chill out at a really nice hotel for the rest of the day.

Wow, I haven’t written nearly as much as I thought I would.  I haven’t written in a while, so I feel like I should make it up to you by writing an extra long post when I get back from the desert trip.  I’ve also got an amazing amount of homework, and I’ve literally had only two days of real classes since we’ve only been back in Rabat since Sunday.  So I will transition from the blog writing to the walk home (approximately 30 minutes) to the Arabic learning and backpack packing.  I bit the adieu and look forward to recounting my four day visit to the desert in full detail! 🙂