Only about six weeks after I returned from Morocco, here is my post about it!
One of the many reasons that IES is so great is that they organize a lot of trips for us, such as a five day trip to Morocco. Partly because of my horrible sense of geography and partly because Africa, I never realized how close southern Spain is to Morocco. We got from Granada to Tarifa, very very south of Europe, in about four hours. We probably could’ve gotten there faster, but Spaniards are big fans of leisurely rest stops. From there it was only about a 40 minute boat ride to AFRICA! What really amazed me was how close Africa looked as we were driving there. I was a bit slow to realize that the mountains I was looking out the window at were across the ocean in Morocco. They looked like they were on the other side of a small lagoon.
Once we got settled in Tanger, we hung out and got tea with some Moroccan students who spoke scarily good English. Side note: I didn’t know this before, but in Morocco people learn Arabic first, then French at a young age, and the most choose to learn English or Spanish as a third language. There is a big divide between the public and private schools, so those who go to private schools get a much better education and speak more languages more fluently, and the students we talked to went to private school for at least part of their education. Still, I was impressed during the entire trip at how many languages everyone spoke. It definitely made me feel insufficient with my English and developing Spanish. It also turns out that Moroccans like their tea extremely sweet. The Moroccan student we were with used up all of the sugar in the part of the cafe we were in and asked the waiter for more.
Over the next five days I experienced a culture unlike anything I had ever seen. Before leaving, our program director told us that the United States and Spain may seem very different, but after visiting Morocco we would see how similar they really are. He was completely right. In Spain, if I keep my mouth shut, I can blend in at least some of the time. I know some of my mannerisms still scream “American,” but there’s nothing drastically different about the way I look, act, or dress from Spaniards. Plus, even though my accent still needs work, I know enough Spanish to get by in most situations. In Morocco, there was no chance of fitting in. We traveled around in a big group, and it was obvious that we were westerners. It was also hard to mask our surprise at some of the things we saw, such as the huge, outdoor markets, some of which were displaying wide varieties of whole, dead animals. One group saw a cow being slaughtered on the side of the road during a bus ride, which you don’t see too much in the US.
For two nights in Rabat we broke up into groups of three to stay with host families for two nights. Olivia, Cecile, and I ended up in a huge house with a host sister who knew some English. When we first entered the house, we thought that she was showing us a lobby to a building. Everything was covered with tile, and there were benches with pillows along most of the walls. The bedrooms and bathrooms (luckily one bathroom contained a western toilet) had doors that closed, but otherwise everything was very open and super gorgeous. We felt like we had entered a magical palace instead of a Moroccan home. On our first night, our host sister took us on a walk around Rabat to show us the city. Parts of it were pretty developed and looked like it had some European influence, while other parts were people selling stuff on top of blankets on the street. It was awesome and overwhelming. Before going to our homestays, we had been warned that people in our host families may not want to have their pictures taken, so we were a bit surprised when our host sister started telling us to “take a photo!” of everything. She pointed to buildings we should photograph and we got pictures with her and with each other. Cecile has at least a couple pictures of us looking startled and confused, not realizing that another picture was being taken. We also couldn’t figure out how many people were living in the house, and who all of them were. We knew that our host sister had a lot of family who lived there, and also friends who stopped by a lot. Whenever we were home people would wave to us and tell us to sit down and eat. Some of them we talked to, or tried to talk to, for a bit. One dinner we talked to a man from Niger who was living in Morocco for a month to learn Arabic. One lunch, we sat with a sweet boy who we were pretty sure was our host sister’s brother but didn’t know any English or Spanish. To make conversation we pointed at the different foods on the table and asked how to say them in Arabic and French. One morning an adorable girl walked by our room and seemed absolutely delighted to see us. She kissed us on both cheeks and talked to us excitedly in Arabic until she realized we had no idea what she was saying. We managed to find out her name, that was ten years old, and a couple of other things, but our host sister wasn’t around and we didn’t really have a way of communicating well. Our host sister’s friend knew some English, and he told us he was a DJ in a club before listing off his favorite American artists, mostly from the 90’s. In the words of Shaggy, he told us he was a “bombastic, fantastic lover.” Before we left, our host siblings told us that their house is our house now, and that we can stay with them if we ever return to Rabat. I really hope that I do.
Though all of the trip was amazing, I think that my favorite parts were talking to the Moroccan students, going to the hamman, or public baths, and having lunch in a rural village. We talked to some students in a big group with all of us on our first day, but on our third day we split up into smaller groups with a Moroccan student for each group. The girl Olivia, Cecile, and I ended up with was very friendly and smart, and spoke beautiful English. She was studying English literature at a nearby university. Her best friend was also one of the students with us, and they talked about all of their secret boyfriends. Dating in Morocco is different than dating in the United States and Spain. Technically, they’re not really supposed to do it, but most of the students we talked to had boyfriends or girlfriends kept on the down-low. Our program gave us money to treat ourselves and the students to juice, so we all went to this gorgeous café and sat outside amongst tropical plants, living it up. After juice, we walked around, seeing a park people went to with their sweethearts and some more markets, talking about differences between Morocco and Spain and the United States. We found out that it’s hard to travel out of Morocco if you don’t have a lot of money, and even the very educated students we talked to had never left the country. The student we talked to wanted to go to California for graduate school, but wasn’t sure if she would be able to because it’s expensive. It made me feel lucky to be American, since I’ve been able to travel to so many different places without much difficulty.
After hanging out with the students for the afternoon, we regrouped and headed over to the public baths. From the people we talked to, it seems like it’s pretty average for Moroccans to go to the baths about once a week. I hadn’t showered in a couple of days, and was really looking forward to getting clean. There were three rooms, one cooler, one more temperate, and one hot. We got buckets that we could fill with hot and cold water, a glove to scrub ourselves, and some brown, liquid soap meant to exfoliate our skin. Before the hammam, we heard that when Americans go their skin comes off in white rolls that the locals call “spaghetti.” I was both disgusted and intrigued by this information. At first I thought I wasn’t scrubbing myself right, because I wasn’t getting any off, but it turned out I just had to be more patient. I got spaghetti. After not showering for a while, it felt really good to shampoo my hair, and when a Moroccan girl we went with poured warm water over my head it felt like he best thing ever. After the baths I felt very clean and fresh, not to mention closer with my group. We then got henna tattoos on our hands and forearms, which our group leader said would last longer because we had a new layer of skin after scrubbing off our spaghetti at the baths.
The next day we left Rabat and drove to a rural village to have lunch. The area we went to doesn’t get much tourism, and we stuck out even more than we did before. The people who welcomed us into their home for a meal were probably the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. A Moroccan named Simo came to translate for us so we could have a discussion with them. Over a lunch of fantastic vegetables and cous cous, the best food we had on that trip, we could ask the Moroccans whatever we wanted about their lives. Simo told us that we could ask anything, and that if he thought it would offend them he would phrase it in a way so that it wouldn’t. A woman who lived next door was there and very talkative. Simo told us that she said she was so happy to be there with us, and that she wished that she knew English so that she could talk to us better. She thought that we were smart, educated, and kind, and told us half-jokingly that she had children she could marry us to. It was very sweet and also heart wrenching to hear them talk about their lives. The village only has elementary school for the children, which is only twice a week at most, if the teachers show up. After graduating, the kids with enough resources can leave to continue to get educated elsewhere, or work on the farm with their families. The neighbor told us that all of her children are studying in the city, and while she misses them she wants them to get educated and live better lives, since farm life is hard. We asked all of the people there if they would like to go back to school if they could, and they said that they would love to. When we asked about their family lives, the neighbor said that she felt lucky with her husband, since he didn’t abuse her, was kind to her, and gave her the freedom to travel as she pleased and visit her family. The difference between what consists of a good in that village and in the United States was particularly striking and really made me think. Also, how happy they were with whatever they had, and how generous they were, welcoming us into our homes and feeding us, telling us to come back, talking to us so much. One Moroccan described them perfectly, saying, “They have almost nothing, but they’ll give you whatever they have.”
It was particularly strong in the village, but everywhere we went in Morocco people we very warm and welcoming to us. It was strange being in a part of the world (besides America) where people liked Americans so much. At first I thought they were messing with us, but it turns out that a lot of Moroccans really like Americans and American culture. I had no idea before, but it turns out that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as a country, and they are very proud of that. Also, American music is played everywhere. I am still not used to going to countries where the average person doesn’t even speak English and hear popular American music playing in every store we go into. It was particularly surreal in Morocco, going to this completely unfamiliar country but still hearing the same music that I hear at home. Also, I know I keep repeating this, but I have never met such generous people. On our walk in Rabat with our host sister, we ran into our host sister’s former teacher. Within five minutes of talking to him, he had invited us, completely sincerely, to his house for dinner and to go to the beach with him and his family the next day. I have never met people like that before, and I don’t know if I ever will again.
On a less deep note, the food was awesome in Morocco! We ate lots of stews with chicken and vegetables, and most of the time everyone ate out of the same big pot. And with their hands! We had bread with every meal, and what you’re supposed to do is take a little bit of bread and use it to pick up food. Some people had trouble and used a fork, but I’m already constantly fighting the urge to eat with my hands, so for me it was an easy transition. After the cous cous at the rural village, my favorite meal of the trip was probably breakfast on the last day. We had a huge buffet with three different types of bread, different dipping sauces, pastries, fresh squeezed orange juice, and hot chocolate. Moroccans know what’s up.
So, in a nutshell, that’s my trip to Morocco. I hope someday I get the chance to go back.
View in Tanger on our second day.
Riding camels on the beach
Getting dressed up and serving tea with our host sister.
The guard doesn’t look impressed.
View from the rural village