Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Crocodiles

Today I was feeling especially nostalgic and read through my blog and decided that it doesn't have to stop just because I'm back in Seattle! Reading back over my blog brings back memories and I feel like I am reliving that moment in my life again, so why not tell more stories? I will start with one of my fondest memories in Bolivia.
Cocodrilo (Crocodile)

Our boat
I should start by saying why I was in Bolivia. The summer before my junior year of high school, I was interested in doing a short-term foreign exchange (which I did to Holland the next summer). I got in touch with the local Rotary Club, and by the time I got off the phone, I had agreed to host a long-term foreign exchange student from Bolivia. Oscar lived with my family for four months and we were instantly best friends. The summer before my freshman year of high school, I went to Bolivia to live with his family for a few months and we traveled around Bolivia and Peru and spent time getting to know his family and friends in La Paz. We went on a few trips and had endless adventures. One of my favorite trips was our trip to Rurrenabaque, where we took a three day tour through the pampas. Our group consisted of Oscar and me, two middle-aged women from France and five college boys from Chile. Needless to say, we had an amazing time and here is where my story starts:

Fishing for Piranhas
Swimming in the river
Our main mode of transportation throughout the trip was basically a motorized canoe. We rode through the murky river and saw tons of turtles, capybaras, monkeys, birds, and crocodiles. To the boys' delight, we even went on anaconda hunts! The river was filled with piranhas and crocodiles and none of us dared to stick even a finger in the dark water. On the third day, we took the boat to a place where the river widened and to our surprise, pink dolphins started swimming around the boat. Before this, I had no idea that dolphins could even be pink, so you can imagine my surprise! Our guide told us that when the dolphins swam down the river, the crocodiles and piranhas were scared away. So what did we do? We jumped out of the boat into the murky crocodile/piranha/dolphin infested water and laughed and screamed in delight. The river was actually pretty shallow- about four feet deep and much to my utter terror, I could see the crocodiles waiting at the river's edge, but I felt safe while the dolphins were swimming around us. We shimmied back into the boat and road back to camp where we boasted to the other group how we had swam with the crocodiles.
Se llama Pedro el cocodrilo :)

That experience really defines my traveling experience in Bolivia. I took a lot of risks and never held back and in the end, I had an amazing time. I trusted what our guide told us about the dolphins and I became friends with the Chilenos who are all great guys. Whenever I tell people that I swam with crocodiles, they look at me like I'm crazy and say that I'm lying. When I'm traveling, that's what I aim for- stories so amazing that people won't even believe me.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Final Journey

Well it’s been about a month since I’ve left Fes and it’s been a whirlwind of a time! I will attempt to write about many of my experiences and emotions leaving Morocco and traveling through Portugal and Spain. Saying goodbye to my host family was pretty hard for me. They had been so kind and considerate to me and I had become good friends with my host brother. After promising them I would return, I began my journey.
My plane landed in Porto, Portugal a little after midnight and I realized that I only had the address of the hostel where I was going to stay. So I ended up taking a cab and had a half Spanish, half Portuguese conversation with the cab driver! I was so exhausted when I got to Porto that I didn’t see much of the city except for the mall where I bought some new Europe-appropriate clothes. I had forgotten what it was like to travel by myself and completely enjoyed my new freedom.
Monument in Lisbon
            My experience in Lisbon was AMAZING. Lisbon is a gorgeous city and definitely a contender for my favorite city. I decided to stay in one of the top-rated hostels in the world and it was a great decision! The hostel was located on the main street of the city and I met tons of people right away. I went on pub crawls, ate tapas, and heard the famous fado singers. I became friends with some people from France and most of them spoke English more or less. They cooked a big meal and we had a great time walking around the city and going out at night. Something you all should know about Europe is that if you go out, you must commit to being out the ENTIRE night. Starting in Lisbon and lasting throughout my entire trip, I don’t think I went to bed before 4 am and if I had gone to a club, I wouldn’t get home until 6 or 7 in the morning. And then I would wake up at 8 or 9 to start my day! Needless to say, I drank a LOT of coffee and slept on trains, planes, and whenever I could! I only spent 7 days in Portugal, but what I did see I loved. I know I will be returning very soon because Portugal captured my heart!
            My flight out of Portugal landed in Valencia on 6 pm on a Sunday night. I had my huge hiking backpack, my smaller school backpack, and my smaller purse. I got out of the airport and realized I had no idea where I was going. I checked my wallet to find that I had no cash so I went to an ATM only to find out my debit card had stopped working. I remembered the name of the street that my hostel was on so I tried finding a map. I was able to locate the street and figured that it would take me about an hour to walk to the hostel. With no other options left, I started walking along the deserted streets. With the 30 kilos that I was carrying on my back, the 95 degree weather, and the fact that I had gotten around 5 hours of sleep total in the last week, I found a bench and just started crying. I was a pathetic mess and I just didn’t care what people thought of me. I sat there until I felt like I had enough strength to find my hostel and after a while I came across a few police officers who pointed me in the right direction. I found the hostel, crashed, and left early the next morning for Barcelona.
Gaudi House
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Gorgeous streets of Barcelona
            Lucky for me, I found another amazing hostel. About 5 minutes after arriving, I was invited to eat dinner with a group of people from the hostel. They were from Australia, Canada, France, Switzerland, and a ton of other cool countries. That night we all went out and I met up with Colby and her friend Victoria at one of the bars! I was SO happy to see them! I love traveling by myself and doing whatever I want, but it’s so nice to have a friend tearing up the town alongside you. We also met up with our friend Francisco who had also studied with us in Fes and we all had a great time until we all split up and Francisco and I got lost. We spent a little bit of time trying to find the club they were going to, but then we gave up, bought a bottle of wine, and wandered around the streets of Barcelona. The next few days I met a ton of people and went to the beach, went to many more bars and walked around Barcelona many, many times. I love walking. When I travel, I don’t necessarily care about seeing every single famous building. I like walking around the smaller streets, talking with people, and sitting at cafes and watching people walk by. Of course I saw the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi houses, and Las Ramblas, but nothing can compare with sharing a jar of sangria with a Spaniard you just met and talking about differences in languages, opinions, and cultures.
Festival near Lleida
            When I started planning my trip, I knew I wanted to visit a small town in Spain. I signed up for Couch Surfing, and found a family that wanted to host me in their small town of Lleida. The father picked me up at the bus station and they cooked me a great dinner right away and we had a great conversation switching from Spanish, to Catalan, to English. They had great perspectives since they had traveled so much before and gave me a map and pointed out places for me to visit the next day. The city was so cute and the people were very friendly. I walked up to the castle overlooking the city and went down to the river with a girl I had also met through Couch Surfing. She had two dogs and we hung out by the river for a while and then went to a bar her friend owned. It was great hanging out with someone closer to my age who didn’t speak English but I felt like I got a real, unbiased view of life in the Spanish countryside. That night I met back up with Montse and Albert (my hosts) and they took me to an incredible festival in a town close by. The festival consisted of people holding sparklers and fireworks in very narrow streets. This would NEVER happen in the United States and I completely enjoyed myself! It was really scary being close to all the fire and sure enough, I have burns on my feet and holes burnt in my shirt, but it was totally worth it!! I am so glad I went to a small town and I really hope I will be able to spend more time here in the future.
My birthday in Madrid
Me and Birgit!
            I arrived in Madrid on my birthday and met up with Colby, Victoria, and my friend Birgit (my host sister from Holland). We had a dinner of paella and sangria and then hit the clubs! The night was so much fun with all four of us and it was a great way to celebrate my birthday! Colby and Victoria had a flight the next day, so it was just Birgit and me in Madrid for the next few days. We walked around the city, took a nap in the Parque del Retiro, toured the Palacio Real, and tried navigating through the streets filled with the kids from World Youth Day. We went to an Irish pub to watch the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona futbol game and had such a fun time! We met some people while we were on a pub crawl and I was able to go to a Salsa club where I twirled and danced around the dance floor all night. By the time Birgit left and I only had a half day left, I was exhausted and aching all over my body. But I didn’t let that stop me from going out for dinner with a guy I had met from Cameroon. If I ever have an opportunity to meet someone from a place like Cameroon, I will drop everything and listen to them. He was really interesting and by the time we got back, my flight was in a few hours so I packed up and began my journey to the US.
            The first few days I slept. I slept, and slept, and slept and then slept some more. I hung out with some friends, spent a lot of time with my family, and showed my brother’s host brother from Austria around Seattle. It’s been about two weeks since I got back and the boredom is just starting to hit me. I got so used to always having something fun and interesting to do and now that I am at home, everything just sucks. Don’t get me wrong- I love being with my family and hanging out with my friends, but I also love exploring ruins in Morocco or walking around a palace in Spain. I’m pretty sure the only cure for my boredom is to start planning my next adventure (junior year studying in Colombia??)!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Thanks Morocco!

          Today is my last day at ALIF and it has been an amazing ride! I have become friends with some truly incredible people. Whether it was having a Texas shoot-out in the middle of school or building a giant sand castle on the beach in Assilah, I have had so much fun. The thing about seeing the same few people for maybe 8 hours every day is that you come to either love or hate them and I have definitely come to love everyone here!

My roommate Colby has helped me endure the hardest parts and enjoy the fun parts. I have no idea what I would have done the first week if I hadn’t met her in the Madrid airport!!

A shout out also, to my host brother Driss who treated us like sisters from the first day. I really loved how he hung out with us and helped us whenever we needed it.

My class!
          Both of my teachers have also had a huge influence on me. Every time any of us had a problem, we would spend time in class talking about it and trying to find a solution. The last few days have been really hard for everyone because people are getting sick and our brains are starting to combust from all the Arabic we are inhaling. Our teachers were always completely understanding and willing to listen to our rants.
          Everyone is starting to speed up- both at school and in the city. I have my final exam in 8 hours and Ramadan starts on Monday. Everyone is trying to cram as much studying and fun into these few days before the Americans leave and the Moroccans begin Ramadan. I am lucky that I am staying in Fes until Tuesday because I will be able to experience two days of Ramadan with my host family. (In case you didn’t know, I’m going to be travelling around Portugal and Spain for a few weeks so my adventures are far from done!) I came to Morocco to learn Arabic and also to learn a new culture. Living in Fes has been difficult due to the heat, people, food, and culture. I can’t help but to compare the culture that I grew up in with the culture that I have come to know and usually it makes me more patriotic and thankful for the way I live. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back to Fes soon. Once I get to know a different way of life, I can’t stay away for very long.  I’m excited to get back to Seattle, though. I really miss my family, my friends, my dog, and the weather there!
          When I first started learning Spanish, someone told me that you understood the language when you could order tacos without stammering. After six weeks of Arabic, I am proud to say that I can order Marcouda off the streets of Fes without a single stammer. I have learned how to eat an entire meal without a fork and what to say to the men who call out to us on the street. I have come to appreciate clean, cold water and laugh when I make a blatant cultural mistake. I’m so excited for starting the next part of my adventure and then return home to my family. These past six weeks have been an incredible adventure and sometimes I am still in shock that I’m actually here. Thank you, Morocco, for making my time here so amazing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Violence is funny!

          Americans view the Middle East as a place filled with violence. When I told people that I was going to Morocco, they would raise their eyebrows and tell me to be careful. Of course they had good intentions but I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. What I didn't expect was how Moroccans view violence on a daily basis.
          I am not writing this to make assumptions or accusations about the culture here because I do not understand it myself. But I do want to share a few of my experiences regarding violence. My host family thinks it is the funniest thing to threaten each other and even us with knives. Every time dinner is brought out, the mother will have the knife and thrust it towards us. She'll do this over and over until we laugh and let her know that it's funny when in reality I'm terrified that if I flinch I'll have a knife in my arm. One day when I came home for lunch the woman that cleans once a week was having lunch with the family. My host father would "playfully" hit her leg and await for the uproar of laughter that followed. I'm not sure why it was so funny because he did, actually, hit her really hard.
          Another instance when I found this humor uncomfortable was when I was in the Sahara. When the Berber guides brought Gabrielle and I to the top of the sand dune, one of them pretended to choke me. I was actually really scared because I realized how easy it was for a murder to take place up there and no one to notice. He of course let go right away and he and his friend just laughed at my reaction.
          This happens with strangers, too. I went into an art gallery to buy a painting I had seen and started talking with the artist. He was very nice and our combination of Arabic and French seemed to suffice. I chose the painting I wanted and he brought out a pipe to roll the paintings around. When he came out of his room, he had this horrific look on his face and he made a motion to smash my head in with the pipe. I gave him a wide-eyed look and then smiled at his "joke." He laughed and just shook his head at our lack of communication.
          I have yet to understand this kind of humor. These are just some of the experiences that stand out to me, not to mention the fascination with blood and gore that many of the younger boys have here. I am disgusted and terrified and also intrigued that a culture can have such a humorous view of violence. I completely realize that this occurs with people in the United States, too. But here is it much more prevalent and it seems that more people share this humor. I am still trying to work around this idea in my head because it was such an unexpected shock.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Hotel meal- not so typical
             One question that everyone seems to ask when I travel is how’s the food? I have a high tolerance for different foods- I have tried among other things fish eggs, guinea pig, cow tail, and even llama brain. So coming to Morocco, I wasn’t worried at all about the food. The first day I stayed in my first host family, the host mother served us small breaded fish. I assumed that since they were breaded that they were safe to eat and since I didn’t want to be rude, I just plopped it in my mouth. I soon found out that the entire spine and skull were still intact. This was the first of many strange foods that I would have to figure out how to eat.
            For the most part, Moroccans eat four meals. Breakfast consists of mint tea, coffee, cheese, jam, and lots and lots of bread. We’ve gotten lucky a few times to when our host mom will make us French toast sticks. The second meal is lunch which is served around 2 pm and usually we are served some sort of soup/ mashed up vegetable concoction along with lots and lots of bread. If we’re lucky we’ll get amazingly juicy honey dew melon or watermelon. Around 6 or 7 pm we’ll have another mini meal. One time we ate French fry sandwiches- no joke. Usually this will be bread and a tomato sauce type of food. Dinner is served any time between 9 and 12 and is pretty much the same as lunch.
Yesterday our host mother brought out a platter of roast beef covered in French fries. In Seattle, I hardly ever eat meat but in Morocco I have found it hard at times to avoid it. So usually I discreetly avoid the meat dishes which are somewhat rare here. When my host mother saw that I wasn’t eating the meat she started gossiping with her sister who was having lunch with us. Now, even if I don’t speak the language I can tell when people are talking about me by the tone of their voices. She kept offering me meat throughout the meal and I would refuse and keep reminding her that I was a vegetarian. This isn’t a concept that is well understood or accepted in Morocco and I understand that. I know that she doesn’t understand why I don’t eat meat so that is why I don’t make a big deal about it. For dinner that day she brought out small bowls of potato and a big bowl of meat. Just meat. I knew I would have to eat it and I was ok with that because I didn’t have a choice. The mother sat down and watched me eat the potatoes for a little bit and then got a big piece of meat on her fork and offered it to me. I refused at first but she kept pushing. I finally gave in and just ate the meat to make her happy and she started laughing and saying “Shwiya nabatia” which means “kind of vegetarian.” This made me furious because she made me eat the meat and then she made fun of me for not being a vegetarian. I knew that she wasn’t going to understand me being a vegetarian but I expected that she would respect my choice. I didn’t make a big deal about it, but I am definitely not going to nice about it anymore.
Paella in Assilah
With the meat out of the way, people here joke that the two main ingredients in everything are bread and sugar. And it is completely true. All the drinks are loaded with sugar and we eat TONS of bread. The fruit is ripe this time of year and you can find small pastries and desserts on carts in the medina. A very typical meal is called “tajine.” A tajine is the container that the food is cooked in, like a casserole dish and it can be vegetables or chicken or anything you want. Food is prepared and then cooked for many hours before it is ready and it is eaten with bread. When I say it’s eaten with bread I mean that there are no forks or utensils on the table and you have to use your hands. I know couscous is popular here, but I have not encountered much in the homestay but I have had some when some of us go out. Overall, the food here is good, but not my favorite. I am a big fan of Mexican and Thai food so this is a completely different concept and I am not used to so much bread. When I go home I’m not going to eat bread for months! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poor Man's Corner

          There’s a café a few blocks from the school that a few of the students have deemed “Poor Man’s Corner.” I am not sure of the actual name of the café- to be honest, I’ve never asked. It is a beautiful outdoor café made with concrete and cracked dirty tiles and situated next to a sketchy gas station. The workers at the gas station congregate at one of the tables and continually smoke cigarettes and scratch their grime-covered faces. The lentils are 6 Dirhams (about $.70) and you get free bread, water, and tea with your purchase. All the food here is delicious and comes in bowls with brown paper for napkins and the water comes in small gasoline jugs. The waiters know my friend and me and have become protective of us when men walk by and make comments. We love sitting there during our 4 hour lunch break and watching the Moroccans walk by and do double takes of us white girls sitting in the café surrounded by men. I love this café and have taken to coming here a few times a week because it is so cheap and I love sitting in the dirty chairs and eating the deliciously cheap food. هذا المغرب وأحبه

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sand, Surf, and Art in Assilah

Our beach group
This weekend I was able to have a little change of pace. We packed up and headed to the coast! Our destination was the town of Assilah which is south of Tangier on the Atlantic Coast. We arrived, found our great hostel, and headed straight for the beach. The cheapest way to get to the best beach was by a cart pulled by a horse so we hopped on for the ride! We were having so much fun being obnoxious tourists and waving at all the cars and the locals just loved it. Everyone was honking and waving at us and seemed genuinely happy that we were about to have an amazing beach day. We pulled off the highway onto a bumpy dirt road for a while and then came to a cliff and saw the beach. It was an amazing sight with the huge ocean waves and the stunning rock formations and the bright umbrellas that dotted the beach. Our cart driver told us to find him on the beach when we were ready to leave and then we met up with a few friends that were already at the beach. We ran straight into the waves and swam around for a while before we were tired and just lay in the warm Moroccan sun.
            We kept seeing people covered in green mud walking around and were curious so we walked towards where the mud people were coming from and found a bunch of kids and adults alike climbing up a cliff that had muddy rocks. We joined in and covered our bodies with this green mud. We walked around feeling pretty badass while it dried and then rinsed it off in the ocean only to reveal baby-soft skin. There were really cool rock formations down the beach so we decided to go rock climbing and since none of us were wearing shoes and only our swim suits, a few of us got scratched up pretty badly but it was totally worth the view from the top. We explored a little more and found two guys to play Frisbee with and swam and ran around until it got dark and we figured it was our time to leave. The horse ride back was just as fun because we raced another horse cart and almost got hit several times by speeding cars.
            Once we were back in town we walked down to the promenade to find a good seafood restaurant. Since there are a ton of tourists from Spain in Assilah we wanted to find a good Spanish restaurant. We came across a really nice one and everyone either ordered Paella or octopus and we split a bottle of wine for the table. It was so nice to just hang out for the evening and the weather was wonderful. After dinner we made our way back to the hostel by way of the medina and hung out on the roof until we decided it was time to sleep.
            The next morning we checked out and then explored the medina. The medina in Assilah is really different than the one in Fes because it is much newer and more open. There is also an art festival that has been going on for many years so the city is filled with murals and art galleries. All the doors were painted bright colors and the crafts were so tempting to buy. I absolutely loved walking around the town and the view of the Atlantic from the tops of the walls was stunning. After we had exhausted the medina, we ate another seafood lunch and then made our way down the public beach. This beach was also really nice, but it is the place where all the locals go which means we were stared and called out to much more. After being harassed a little too much while we were swimming, we decided to build a sand castle. I know that this is a 5 year old thing to do, but we were totally in to it. We built a really big one with a lot of connecting tunnels and it was totally awesome. Some guys our age kicked a soccer ball our way and it destroyed part of the moat so one of the guys came over and helped us build it back up. We got a lot of stares of course, but we stopped caring and just wanted to have fun. We built until the waves finally came up and washed it away.
            When it was finally 5:30 pm we decided that we should rinse off and walk to the train station which was very close to the beach. We waited at the train station for a while and a train came up and stopped in front of us. A few of us thought it would be fun to put a Dirham coin on the track so when the train went by, it would flatten it out and make a memorable souvenir of Morocco. We do this all the time in the United States and thought that it was ok if it was our own Dirham. After we put two Dirhams on the track, the little boys of course wanted to take them. One of the boys ran to the track to try and grab one and my friend Michael went to try to stop him from crawling under the train. Another Moroccan boy went to pull the boy out and then before we knew it, about 20 Moroccan men had formed a mob around Michael and the boy and were screaming in French at Michael. These men were VERY angry and it made all of us watching extremely uncomfortable. At first, we thought it was because we tempted the boy. Then, we thought it was because we were wasting the Dirham. We figured it was this last one and got increasingly embarrassed as the Moroccan men yelled and screamed at us. At this point the entire train station was staring and we happened to be the only white people. One man shoved Michael and yelled something and all the Moroccans started clapping and cheering that they had “won.” Defeated and confused, we walked to the other side of the station and two men came up and calmly explained in French that the Dirham coin has the king’s face on it and by placing it on the track we disrespected the king and therefore all of Morocco. All of our jaws dropped and we were completely ashamed. I got teary-eyed at one point because I didn’t want them to think we were disrespecting them (if only I had my “na’am” shirt!!). There was nothing more we could do, so we just dropped our heads and faced the shame. I am very embarrassed that they misunderstood our intentions, but I know that we didn’t mean to do anything. I thought that I had a good grasp on the dos and don’ts of Moroccan culture, but that event made me realize that no matter how long I am here, I will never completely understand a culture that isn’t mine. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Moroccan Wedding

Me, Driss, and Colby
These women would yell to announce the arrival of a guest

          I was lucky enough to be invited to a Moroccan wedding by my host brother’s older cousin. Our host mom (goes by the name of Mama Maghrib) somehow got both Colby and me elaborate Kaftans to wear and after we dressed up, did our hair and makeup, and took pictures with all the boys, we were ready to go at 10. We walked to the venue which was still in the Medina and when we walked through the door, four women started yelling and chanting in unison to announce our arrival. All the heads turned to see who had arrived and we greeted a few strangers and then took our seats at a table with our host brother, Driss, and some of his extended family. Everyone was sitting and people watching. The women wore elaborate Kaftans and it was a competition of who could have the best, brightest dress. It reminded me a lot of a fashion show where the women would take turns walking around with no particular destination. Driss and his cousins had to help the groom’s party so Colby and I were left alone with a table full of older, non-English speaking women. We sat and looked at all the dresses and people for THREE HOURS before anything interesting took place.
          It was midnight at this point and all of a sudden the four women started yelling again and trumpets were playing and people were clapping. The bride was carried in the door on a platform decorated with jewels and ribbons and the groom was on the shoulders of one of his friends. Everyone clapped and cheered as the bride and groom smiled and waved down to the crowd. This event took about 30 minutes as they made their way to the front of the room and then were let down. They took their places on a large white sofa with lights and curtains adorning the wall. They posed for pictures as everyone watched and the music blared.
The first dress
          Dinner started around 1 am. The first part was the cart full of bread. Everyone received two rounds of bread (A round is maybe 12 inches in diameter!) and as much Coke and Fanta as we wanted. A large silver platter was then placed in the middle of the table and four full chickens were revealed inside. The second the plate cover was removed, everyone at the table lunged forward and started tearing the chicken apart with their hands. Colby and I, like we always seem to do, just shrugged and dug right in. I decided to be really flexible with being a vegetarian when I’m here so I didn’t have a problem eating the chicken. It was obvious that Colby and I were foreigners and didn’t know the customs so a woman sitting near us kept tearing off pieces of chicken and placing them in front of us so that we didn’t get the sleeves of our Kaftans dirty. After there were only bones left, the waiter took the platter away and brought back another large platter filled with roast beef. The same thing happened as with the chicken and by this point we were all stuffed with meat and bread and Coke. Hand towels were brought out and the waiters cleared all the glasses first, then the napkins, then the meat scraps, and then proceeded to lift the entire table over our heads. We could only assume it was time for the ceremony.
          We were very wrong. Another hour or so passed of sitting around and people watching before anything happened. The women started yelling and trumpets played and the bride and groom came in again and waved and smiled from their sofa seats for another long amount of time. At this point, two small children were lifted on a platform and carried around just like the bride and groom had. Everyone gave these children the same enthusiasm as they had given the bride and groom. At this point, some girls started dancing in the middle of the room and other people started joining. Colby and I decided to get up and dance as all the older women watched us. We were not sure how to dance because we did not want to stand out any more than we did and we didn’t want to look like total losers, either. We ended up just clapping and swaying to the music like everyone else and it was so much fun!
The second dress
          It was 4 am and Driss and his cousins were ready to go. They informed us that the party would last until 6 or 7 am, but it would be the same: sitting and people watching and dancing. We waited for the bride and groom to make their third appearance and outfit change of the night and stayed and clapped and cheered as they smiled and waved. We surrendered to our sleepiness and left the part in full swing. We got home around 4:30 am and went to bed, dreading class the next morning.

The third dress
          The wedding was so amazing to experience. It was so different than American weddings and it seemed to me more of a fashion show than a ceremony for the most part. Not once did I see any sort of ring or vow exchange or anything of that sort. Everyone was so enthusiastic and never tired. I was astounded at all the beautiful Kaftans that the women were wearing. I loved the food and people and clothes and culture of the wedding and feel so lucky that I was able to experience this!

Monday, July 11, 2011


          This weekend was intended for a relaxing break from school and the lack of night life in Fes. As it turned out, we realized that even bad experiences are important to have. On Friday night, 10 of us met at our friend's apartment and then made our way to the train station at 1 am to catch our 2:30 am train to Marrakech. (Here's a little background information- Moroccan women are ALWAYS in a rush. Everything is life or death and even if there is literally two inches of space, they will push through even if that means knocking you over in the process. There is no such thing as personal space and they are masters at making you feel extremely uncomfortable.) We slept on and off for the next 8 hours on the train until it arrived in Marrakech around 10:30 am. After eating a great breakfast, we headed off to find a grand taxi. In an earlier post, I described a ride in a grand taxi, so you can imagine what we were up against.
Cascades d'Ouzoud
Our Group
          We knew we were going to have to haggle with the taxi drivers to get the "real" price. After one driver offered a ridiculously high price and we refused, he told us that "we were rich Americans and should be paying him." After curtly telling him we were students and all paying for ourselves, he replied by saying "but your Daddies have a lot of money and you are all spoiled". We of course made it clear that we were disgusted and found another taxi driver that gave us a slightly lower price. The driving was so crazy that I got woozy and passed out for the two hour ride to the Cascades d'Ouzoud. 
Cliff Jumpers at the Cascades
          The Cascades were absolutely breathtaking. Our first glimpse was from the very top- literally a few yards from the actual waterfall and you could see the pools at the bottom and the boys cliff jumping. We hiked down to get a better view and 6 people in our group went to find a hotel (cement room) that passed the "no cockroach test". The Cascades is a place where Moroccans go with their families, so we were literally the only white people there. It was a great reminder that we were actually in Africa. We hung out on the muddy rocks and watched the cliff divers with jealousy. I would have dived off the cliffs, too, but it would have been extremely scandalous for a girl over the age of 3 to go swimming there. Since we arrived in the afternoon, we only had two hours until the 5 of us headed back to Marrakech on another nauseating taxi ride. 
          After arriving in Marrakech, our first priority was finding somewhere to sleep that night. We followed a road through the Medina that led to the big square and found an Equity Point hostel. We splurged for the hostel because it had clean sheets, a fan, and real toilets. It was heaven. We quickly went out again to the Djemma el Fna square that comes alive at night with snake charmers, story tellers, and delicious food. Although the food looked delicious and there were story tellers, the square was EXTREMELY touristy and we were continually harassed by the cart owners. 
Djemma el Fna
          One of the owners really wanted us to eat at his stand and we were not hungry and wanted to walk around. After refusing him several times, he followed us and yelled "you f***ing c*** Americans are such jackasses!". I was shocked. My experience in Fes has never even come close to this. The shop owners here are of course pushy, but they would NEVER cuss you out. One of the guys in our group, Michael, had to literally push the man away because he would not leave us alone. We walked in silence for a while because none of us could believe what happened. We are used to being harassed, but we were grounded by the fact that a Moroccan cussed us out for no apparent reason. We had to move on, though, and see the rest of the square while we had time. 
          There were groups of people gathered to watch 15 year old boys box, story tellers that we couldn't understand, and abusive monkey owners dragging their monkeys towards us. Not to mention the men that groped us every time we were in a crowd. After quickly deciding on a place to eat, getting ripped off by the cafe owner, and then leaving, we were harassed some more by more restaurant owners. We tried explaining that we had just eaten, but one owner yelled at us "you f***ing Americans are always in a rush." At this point we were disgusted in Marrakech and made one more stop at an orange juice stand. After choosing one, we drank our orange juice as the cart owner of the cart next to ours cussed us out because we didn't choose his stand. We returned to our hostel and had an amazing sleep. The next morning we left earlier than we planned and had an excruciatingly hot 8 hour train ride back to Fes.
The best part of the trip- train station!
          Although Marrakech was less than charming, we only saw part of it on a Saturday night. We looked like all the other tourists, and we were dead tired. If I had had more time to explore different parts of Marrakech, my opinion probably would have been different. But as it is, I am shocked and downright disgusted with the shop owners in Marrakech. I am thankful that I live in Fes and am able to get a more "normal" view of Morocco instead of the tourist-filled streets of Marrakech. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Culture is what remains when everything else is lost"

          I don't think I have mentioned this in my blog, but Colby and I decided to switch host families. We weren't getting anything out of our homestay, so we decided to find a new family. Our new family has two sons who are 16 and 20, but the 20 year old is studying in Agadir so the 16 year old, Driss, gets to play the role of the big brother. When we asked about his family, he said that he had one brother and then pointed to us and said that he had two sisters. Needless to say, Colby and I adore him. Driss's cousins spend the summers in Fes, so last night we left the house around 10 to go out to dinner. It was Colby, me, Driss, and his three cousins.
My roommate Colby and me
          We piled into the oldest one's car and found a pizza place. None of his cousins spoke English so we spoke a mixture of French and Arabic and English. I was really interested in how teenagers hang out here. There are obvious differences such as the separation of genders here, but the money factor plays a role, too. I soon found out that they really didn't do anything that much different from Americans. The oldest loved to drive and thought he was a racecar driver- not unusual for a 21 year old. They joked around, listened to rap, and acted just like any American teenage boy would act. We ended up spending the night at their uncle's apartment and after Colby fell asleep, I went up onto the roof with the guys to play cards and attempt to communicate with them. I have really missed just being with a group of people because here, especially being a girl, it is difficult to hang out in groups larger than a few people.
          I am happy to have seen how Driss and his cousins kick back because so many people have an Orientalist view of anything Middle Eastern and disregard the fact that teenagers will act like teenagers wherever they are. Even though language was a barrier to work around and we came from opposite sides of the world, we still understood each other crystal clear. There is a saying that goes "culture is what remains when everything else is lost" and I believe this to be completely true. Language, economics, and politics were foreign concepts to us that night and what remained was the fact that we were teenagers and liked to just hang out.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Trip to the Sahara

          This weekend turned out to be the most amazing weekend of my life. It was the Sahara Trip, which was organized by the school so about 30 students all went. We drove about 7 hours through the Moroccan country side which was amazing in itself. Our destination for the day was a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere. At this point in the program, everyone was hot, tired, and a little bit sick of their homestays. This hotel was absolutely amazing. It had two pools, a disco, and real showers. The food was amazing and we pretty much had the hotel to ourselves. After a night of drinking and swimming, we were able to sleep in and then the next morning we took off again for our second destination. We stopped at the Kasbah Tombocktu and swam while we waited for the sun to get lower in the sky. Around 6 pm, we started loading onto the camels. Please take into account that camels are not the most beautiful animals and they also make odd sounds. Once I put one leg up onto my camel, it immediately stood up, which caused me to lurch forward to the top of its back. Finally I was settled and I tried to ignore the camel behind me which was slobbering on my leg. Camels are extremely uncomfortable to ride and they are roped together in groups of 3-5 with a Berber man walking in front.
The Sahara is amazing. The red and yellow sand in huge dunes around you for as far as you can see. There are snake and scorpion tracks in the sand and when we stopped to watch the sunset, we climbed one of the dunes and took in the beauty around us.
          We reached the Berber Oasis shortly after sunset and were welcomed to rugs laid out on the sand with tents in a circle. The Berbers served us tea and a few of us climbed up the huge sand dune behind the camp in hopes of sand skiing. We ate dinner at ridiculously short tables and then listened to some of the Berbers drum and sing. Since we were in the middle of the desert, there were no lights except for the candles set up around the camp. This way, we could see thousands of stars. The entire Milky Way was visible and there was no moon, which made it especially dark. We started dancing to the Berber drums and I was extremely happy. After, a few of us sat down with some of the Berber guys and started to talk. I realized they all spoke Spanish so I was thrilled that I could communicate with them. I met Asou, who was 21 and lived in the larger town near the hotel. He has been leading camel treks for 10 years in the Sahara and knew about 5 languages just by listening to visitors in the desert.
          My friend Gabrielle and I made our way out to the “bathroom” and on our way back, we ran into Asou and another Berber guy. They explained that they were about to climb the dune behind us which was about 600 meters and made completely of sand. Gabrielle and I looked at each other, shrugged, and followed these guys up the side of the mountain. At this time, it was pitch dark, none of us were wearing shoes, and the dune was just about as steep as possible. Every step you took, you slid down another step. After about an hour or an hour and a half, we reached the top. The view was absolutely breathtaking. Since this was the tallest dune for miles and miles, you could see everything. To the North, there was a small town with lights. To the South, hundreds of meters below us, was the camp, which was impossible to see because it was very late at night and all the lights were out. To the East, you could see the black mountains that made the Algerian border and to the West, you could see the dunes going on and on for hundreds of miles.

          It was the most incredible experience being able to stand on the very tip of this dune, by ourselves and get caught up in the Sahara wind watching hundreds of shooting stars. We spent the entire night up there, walking on the ridges of the dunes and learning words in the Berber language. At 4:20am, the mosque in the town to the North announced the call to prayer. This consisted of a flashing light from the mosque and the call which you could faintly here through the wind. Around 4:30 am, the guys had to head down the mountain to start getting the camels ready because the sun was about to rise. We sat up there as
other students from our camp slowly made their way up to where we were sitting. They were amazed and jealous that we had spent the night up here and watching the sunrise was incredible sitting there with all of our friends. After the sun rose, we quickly jumped and slid down the mountain so that we could get back before the heat set in. I was so tired on the camel ride back that I actually fell asleep at one point, which I thought was impossible. We arrived at the hotel, showered and ate, and then started the long drive back to Fes. As I am writing this, I am sore everywhere, dehydrated, and exhausted but I am extremely lucky to have had this experience and I will never experience my night on the top of the dune for as long as I live. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Political "Parades" in Fez

       This weekend seemed extremely long. On Saturday, we went on a tour of the Medina where we saw many places including the tannery, which I will write about in a later post. Then on Sunday we went to Volubilis, which is a site where there are well-preserved Roman ruins. After this, we bused to Moulay Idriss, which is a picturesque Moroccan town on a hill. The view was spectacular, but the heat was getting to everyone (It was over 110 Fahrenheit) and we just trudged through the town. We had an amazing lunch and then headed to Meknes which is a smaller city than Fez, and has a ton of gorgeous architecture. There were a few old mosques that we were able to go in to get a taste of what mosques look like inside. The art is incredible. There are geometric patterns and carved plaster covering every inch of space. It is so beautiful! I was amazed at the architecture. Fez, and many other cities in the area are called "invisible cities" because you cannot see the beauty from the outside. All the riads in the medina have high stone walls that are very plain on the outside. But once you go inside, the houses are filled with mosaics, carvings, fountains, and plants. We were all exhausted and fell asleep on the bus on our way back to Fez. 

          Everyone awoke when the bus jolted to a stop because of a political..... parade. This "parade" was to rally support for voting yes in an upcoming referendum on July 1st. This referendum would limit the power of the King. Although this "parade" was in support of limiting power, they made it clear that they loved their king. They all had pictures that they would kiss and wave in the air. All the little boys saw that we had cameras and waved to us, wanting us to take pictures of them. They were fascinated that Americans were at this "parade" and we got many stares. Amazingly, this was one of the only times I have felt completely safe here. 

          Many people were wearing shirts that said "naam" which means yes in Arabic. We really wanted some so we went up to a group of guys and asked where we could buy one. They immediately took their own shirts off their backs and gave them to us. Of course, this was followed by marriage proposals, but we didn't care- we got shirts! We proudly wore them around and EVERYONE wanted to take pictures with us. Nicely dressed middle-aged men and older women in hijabs would pose with us as their friends took pictures with their cameras. 

           Everyone at the "parade" was very happy and even happier that Americans were there. People asked where we were from and when we would say America, they would break out in cheers. Moroccan flags and pictures of the king were thrust into our hands and at one point, an older woman grabbed my hand and brought me into the street to march with them. We happily clapped and marched as everyone cheered us on. 
          At one point, we came across the French Embassy who had their own sign and were marching complete with a camera crew. We took pictures from the side and they saw us and started posing and talking to us. We told them we were Americans and they were beaming and shaking our hands. They gave us business cards and we realized they thought we were journalists. 
          This was an event that some students were told to stay away from. When we first got off the bus, we were not sure what to do. We were planning on taking a few pictures and then leaving. Then we realized that it wasn't violent or dangerous whatsoever, so we stayed and supported the Moroccans. People would see us and yell out "Welcome to Fez!" and give us huge smiles and thumbs up. The atmosphere at the "parade" was one filled with hope and love for their country. So many people came up to us and kissed the picture of King Mohammad so we knew their stance. I have fallen in love with the people of Morocco. The compassion and welcoming that we have received has been an incredible experience. I am lucky to be studying here and even luckier to be able to support these amazing people. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Have I mentioned we live under a plastic roof?

     Today is the fourth day of class here and it is going amazingly well. There are six people in my class and we have two teachers. At 10am we have a two hour block with Mustafah, and at 4pm we have another two hour block with Achmed. After only a few days, we can already read and write Arabic. It's amazing how fast this is moving! In between the classes, a lot of people stay at ALIF or at cafes nearby to do homework or just chill. I love this time because I have internet and I can meet a ton of people from around the world who also have the desire to learn Arabic. There are about 200 students taking classes here, which is a record high. The building is a converted villa which is basically a really nice older home. Although many people imagine Morocco as an exotic destination where I will be sitting in a garden eating figs all day, it is unfortunately not. I am NOT on a vacation as many people imagine that I am. I go to class for four hours and do homework for about the same amount of time. When classes are done, I go home to a large greenhouse because the roof is made of plastic and does not let air in or out. 
     Before I came to Morocco I was worried about the dress and culture. I believed I even wrote a post about it below. People had warned me not to bring clothes that showed below my elbow, my collar bone, or my legs. I was also told that I would want to wear a scarf as to not attract attention to myself. Although some women are very conservative here, I have found the vast majority to wear short sleeves and jeans. About half of the women don't even wear headscarves. People at ALIF even wear tank tops and knee-length skirts. Younger Moroccan women are very Westernized and find ways to show skin without getting in trouble with their conservative mothers. I have been wearing loose fitting pants and shirts, but men still stare and make comments. I believe people warned me about the dress because they were concerned about me sticking out or offending someone, but I am going to stick out no matter what I wear. I found this true when I had taken an hour walk home in the mid-afternoon heat and was super red in the face and my clothes were just hanging on me and a man still told me I looked like the Spice Girls. I wasn't sure whether I should punch him or thank him.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Our lovely amazing fan

     WE BOUGHT A FAN!!! This fan is amazing. It is square and has a timer that goes up to an hour, three speed settings, and TWO rotating things. It’s a God send and I’m sitting on the floor in front of it right now. I am not sure why they don’t have a fan, but they don’t seem to have a problem with it. Welcome to the good life! Zanib took us to her apartment which is really nice. There are three rooms where all the walls are lined with couches and we settled in the “coolest” room to see videos of Ayoub’s birth party. Zanib explained how she “took” her baby and her husband did not know. This confused Colby and I a lot. We first thought that she literally stole the baby and her husband thought that it was her own? Then she explained that her 18 year old friend had it out of wedlock and she adopted the baby. Her husband thought it was from an orphanage. Confusion crisis solved. We then looked at photos from her wedding where she wore at least 5 exquisite dresses including one traditional “Fes” dress that made her look like a purple Pharaoh. I started yawning and nodding off from my lack of coffee and she encouraged us to take a nap. We woke up an hour later and she really wanted us to play dress-up with her clothes, so what the heck, we did. It was fun trying on her dresses and wrapping ourselves in scarves. I felt a bit ridiculous, but she seemed to love the little white American girls wearing her clothes. We then met her husband and all of us went to a very nice and expensive hotel that overlooks the Medina for tea and coffee. We got there right after sunset and the Medina was amazing.
     The next day, Colby and I headed out to the markets near our house. I bought a shirt that is kind of ugly and then we looked at rugs for Colby. We somehow ended up in a Berber rug store that was eerily silent. The two men (CusCus and man with dreadlocks) laid out about 20 rugs for us to look at even though they knew we had no intention of buying. The rugs were gorgeous, but were too expensive for our budget. We made our way up to the top of the market and met Gawad who I bought a hamza and wallet from. He was so funny and had obviously watched too many American movies. He called us scallywags and Chevy Chasers and Charlie’s Angels and gave us “romantic prices.” He knew Ethan, the boy we met at the Fes airport and was extremely excited to meet us. After, we went to an open air market with many men. We knew it probably wasn’t the best idea, but it looked interesting. We walked quickly through but not without being called out to many times. One boy was persistent and said “Spice girls, spice girls, let me kiss your ass. Let me, let me.” Now, at first, we tried holding in smiles because he called us spice girls. But after following us for a long time and me telling him to fuck off in Spanish, we were pretty irked. The culture here is very respectful and Moroccan men would not say something like that to Moroccan women. So the fact that he felt it was appropriate to say that to obviously Western girls showed us the respect that they held for us. We walked quickly back to our safe haven and our lovely amazing fan.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I conquered my fear of the bathroom

            This morning (Friday) Colby and I went to ALIF to use the computers and then decided we wanted to go on a day trip to Ifrane, which is about 65 kilometers away from Fes. To get there, we needed to take a grand taxi from the CTM station. We walked to the Super Marché and asked three or four people how to get to the CTM station. We finally gave up and took a taxi. At the station, there are about twenty white Mercedes and twenty loud men to go with them. We told one of them that we wanted to go to Ifrane and he yelled it out to all the other drivers. We waited about half an hour for another four passengers to fill the five seat car: three in the front row and four in the back so nice and cozy in the steaming hot car. (Mom and Dad please disregard this next part). We took off in the highway as we twisted and turned at 100 mph and I swear we got some air after hitting a bump. Of course, seat belts are only cosmetic accessories in the cars and are not used and you’ll get a weird look if you reach for it.
            Once in Ifrane, we got off and started walking around. Right away we noticed the temperature which was cooler than Fes because it is much higher altitude. In the winter it snows, so all the houses are constructed differently than in Fes. It is pretty European and resembles the architecture of Switzerland. Colby and I walked around the town and bravely entered a café where we got looks as if we were aliens. We are aware that usually women do not go to the cafes, especially foreign women, but we were desperately in need of coffee and sat in a corner so the staring was minimal. After, we found a nice pond with lots of shade and we sat there for a while and then walked for a while longer and found a stream that we could wade in. The cold water was AMAZING. Walking back to the bus station, we got more stares from men, but they did not call out to us. Colby pointed out that not many Western women come to Ifrane, which is a small town and that the staring was most likely out of awe. That made me feel better for the moment. After another 100+ mph ride home, we staggered around the city until we found an internet café, gave up because the keyboards were French, and caught a taxi ride home. We were exhausted, badly sun burnt, and in desperate need of a shower. The last thing we wanted to do was face the bucket shower that we had seen the day before.
After cooling off and having a snack, I faced the shower. It is basically a bucket that you fill with (thankfully) hot water and then use a bowl to rinse yourself off. Keep in mind that the bathroom is a 6 by 6 foot cement square right off of the kitchen with a sketchy drain in the middle.  Although it sounds savage and awfully dirty, it worked like a charm. I was actually really surprised and that made my outlook on the next six weeks improve. After my shower, I sat down in the living/dining/family/everything room to read and talk with Fatimah and Mohammad (the mother and father). Until today, Mohammad has said about two words to us. All of a sudden, he seemed determined to teach us Arabic. I learned the word for delicious which is beneen (no clue how to spell it). This word proved useful to me because I used it to thank Fatimah for dinner (complete with a kiss of my fingers), the shower (they openly laughed at me for that one), and the roof which we realized is about 20 degrees cooler than the house. I also learned the word for sun and the names of about twenty spices that are growing on the roof. Mohammad decided to lecture me about food and Allah. Since he only speaks the Moroccan dialect, all I understood was that Allah is everywhere, especially in the food we eat. He also told me something about birds because I was sitting on the roof and apparently he wanted me to sit in a chair either because the birds cause your legs to be chopped off (he motioned this) or the ants are not good for your stomach. I’m not quite sure, but I’m just going to sit in the heart-shaped chair.
This morning I was set on finding a different host family because I had not slept well and was afraid of the bathroom. After conquering my fear of the bathroom, buying some Advil PM, and discovering the roof, I am a very happy girl. It is impossible to describe everything that I have seen and experienced, but I hope to tell you a little about my life in Fes. If you want to hear anything specific, such as the food, markets, or locals, let me know and I’ll definitely include it in a blog.