Wednesday, September 10, 2014

“Life always begins with one step outside of your comfort zone.” ― Shannon L. Alder

This past weekend in Rabat was full of sunburns and laughter. I was able to get to know a great group of people and see more of Morocco.

At three o'clock on Friday eight of the exchange students met to take a taxi to Meknes to board the train to Rabat. The grand taxi ride was cramped and hot. Here, the "grand" taxis are sedan Mercedes, and somehow, they are expected to fit seven people total. Needless to say, the each group got pretty comfortable with each other for the hour long ride. We drove past vast expanses of sandy hills and fruit farms before reaching the crowded train station. For 65 dirhams, you could get a second class ticket, so we went with it. Little did we know, second class would be like a scene out of Slumdog Millionaire. We had to push our way onto the train as soon as the doors opened, and when we got onboard, there were no cabins open in our car, so we had split up and cross over makeshift bridges from one car to another to find seats. The cabins looked similar to the ones shown in Harry Potter. After getting situated, we all started to read our homework for the weekend. After about two hours, the four guys in the car with us three girls asked us if we wanted to be "Whatsapp friends", to which Kiki--the only person who knew more French than the simple "hello" and "how are you"--replied, "Americans don't make friends on trains". We arrived at the station soon after, and began our journey to the apartment we were renting. Traveling in large groups makes things very stressful when trying to find enough petit taxis. Each petit taxi holds three guests, so we had to get four cars, and since someone brought his surfboards, the taxi also had to accommodate the large piece of luggage. Fortunately, we were able to find taxis to take us to the apartment. Unfortunately, once they dropped us off, we realized we were lost. After enlisting the help of a couple shop owners, we were able to track down the number of the owners and find the place. For a while, I thought that we were not going to find our apartment and we would be homeless for the evening. Thank goodness that was not the case! The apartment was amazing, it was full of lavish Moroccan-themed decor, but also had a lot of Japanese artworks, which I thought was interesting. We were given tea and some pastries before heading to sleep. Thankfully, the apartment was large enough to accommodate the eleven people who ended up coming.

The next day, we were invited to go to the beach with the owners of the apartment. They had a daughter, who was 15, and two sons, ages 14 and 6. I was so happy to play with the six-year old at the beach so that brightened my day up as we all got into taxis. The beach was so cool. It was right near the Old Medina of Rabat, and was very clean. The surf shop where the 14-year old boy goes was able to store our bags in their office and invited us to jet ski and kayak with them. After playing in the sand, and swimming in the ocean, we found some cliffs and decided to cliff jump! It was crazy and I had pretty much two anxiety attacks before finally taking the plunge off the 30-foot cliff. Then, it was time to take the kayaks and jet skis out! That was so amazing, and the workers at the surf shop were so wonderful. We ran into a man snorkeling and trying to find octopi, and we ended up holding them! That was something I never thought I would do. After a while out in the ocean, we were starving and the family showed us the Old Medina and we got some lunch. Being a vegetarian can be difficult here, so I usually go for cheese pizza when traveling around. It's usually pretty good, and I do not have to be picky with my order.

After showering and putting lotion all over our ridiculous sunburns (even after putting on copious amounts of sunscreen at the beach), we got ready to go to dinner in the New Medina. We split up into groups of three for the taxis, and my group ended up getting dropped off at the wrong Dar Naji. After waiting for a while, we finally realized that we were in the wrong restaurant and tried to wave down a taxi. Finally we got to the right place. It is really important here to know basic French or Arabic. I am really trying to pick up the languages quickly! Dinner was delicious, and the atmosphere of the restaurant was great. We went to a bar afterwards and then played some card games in the apartment.

Sunday was the day of our departure. After a first class train ride home, the weekend came to a close. I am so thankful for getting to spend time with such great people this weekend and make memories that will last me forever!

Last week in class, a major theme was "Orientalism". I think it is important to say that Morocco is not some exotic and faraway place, full of veiled woman and controlling men. "Exotic" is just a mindset; it is vital to realize that aside from some cultural differences, people everywhere are not that different from yourself. Though I have been traveling with other exchange students, the people we have met in each city have been overwhelmingly nice and welcoming. Families here are usually close, and both the mothers and fathers are active participants in the child's upbringing. Women here have rights and freedom, and most men here are respectful. Being here is opening my eyes to the destructive stereotypes towards the Middle East stemming from colonialism from the West. If I strip off my "tourist goggles" and see Morocco for what it truly is, I am able to connect with the people and adapt to the lifestyle here. Judging other cultures by your own perpetuates stereotypes and if I did that, I would never be able to feel comfortable anywhere but in the house I grew up in.
This is the view from the street near our apartment! It was gorgeous to see every morning.

Jumping off the cliff! 

The beach was crowded, but so much fun.

Jet skiing! 
Exploring the rocks on the beach!

Monday, September 1, 2014

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

Today is my last day before the academic semester begins at AUI. After four long days of orientation, I have learned more about Moroccan culture, academic policies at the University, dos and don'ts in Morocco, and I signed my residency papers!

I have been in total observation mode since I arrived here, and I have been noticing some really interesting things. For the most part, Moroccan students are just like American students. The society here is not that different than in America, except for a few parts. First off, there is an interesting law in Morocco stating that if a woman consents to be alone in a room (or car, etc) with a man, then anything that happens afterwards, is done with consent... even if the woman says "no". I am very thankful for learning about this, because in America, it is completely different. At school, however, the President and faculty that are part of a program called the No Violence Alliance (NoVA), are able to take action against sexual assault and violence in regards to "Date Rape", even if legally, the offender cannot be prosecuted. Al Akhawayn University is extremely safe and I feel so comfortable here. Morocco as a whole is also safe, but knowing the customs and laws is vital to creating a safer environment for foreigners.

Another difference is the fact that Morocco is a Muslim country. Many women in Islam are becoming more progressive and choosing what they want to do, and what they don't want to do within their religion. My roommate, for example, chooses not to wear a hijab. She told me that even though Muslim women are usually identified by wearing a head covering, a lot of girls are choosing not to wear one. Wearing a hijab is much more than just covering one's head. Many conservative rules are applied to a woman once she chooses to wear one. As a teenager or college student, it is less appealing to wear one because strict rules regarding interaction with the opposite sex apply, and some activities that teens and students take part in, like partying, will no longer be allowed.

I really appreciate the time my roommate takes out of her day to pray. She is Muslim and prays five times a day. At night, when we are both settling in for the evening, she takes out her prayer rug and prays for about five minutes. During this time, I reflect on my own day, and I use this time to center myself as well. It is a great way to end a long day. Even if I am not part of her faith, I use the time of silence to reflect and think.

I am surprised when I see what clothes people are wearing here, particularly females. When I was packing, I made sure to bring long skirts, dresses, and pants, as well as long-sleeved shirts and cardigans to cover up. In towns, the style is much more conservative, but on campus the girls wear crop tops, short shorts, low cut shirts and tank tops, as well as tight and revealing clothing. I only brought one pair of shorts, but I wish I brought more because the campus culture is much more like Kent than I anticipated.

I am so happy to have been given the opportunity to study abroad. I have noticed that the other international students have very similar personalities, because it takes a certain kind of person to study abroad... and choose Morocco. I am meeting so many amazing Moroccans and international students from all over the globe.

This weekend, the plan is to go to Rabat and surf! My IPhone actually broke three days ago--which is terrible in regards to staying in contact with my family, but awesome because I don't have my phone 24/7--so I will be getting it fixed in Rabat and a bunch of students are making a trip out of it! I will be learning how to surf as well as navigating through a new city! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

I have now been in Morocco for two days and I am experiencing so many new and exciting things. I arrived to Ifrane with eight other American exchange students. We were the first to arrive on campus and we have travelled together since arriving. I could not see much of the campus because we arrived at two a.m., so when I woke up I was in awe of the gorgeous architecture and views around me. My dorm is huge and we get a bathroom in the room; which is something I am very excited about. In Morocco, the lights are always off in the hallways to conserve energy and to refrain from creating too much heat since there is no air conditioning in the dorms. When I first arrived, having the lights off in the hallways was scary and nerve-wracking, but I am really starting to appreciate the conservation technique as well as the cool halls.

The first day we arrived, the group I flew in with decided to wake up early and explore the town of Ifrane. We were told that at the Marche there would be shops where we can purchase toiletries, cell phones, and supplies. After walking to the town—which is only a mile from the University—we thought we arrived. After exchanging money and looking through some stores, we ate lunch at a busy restaurant. For an 8-inch pizza and a cappuccino, the total was only 55 MAD, which is only $6.51. I am thrilled about the cheap prices and the low cost of living here, getting a 1.5 L water bottle was only $0.75! We could not find any stores with supplies that we needed so we all walked back to campus to enjoy a late afternoon nap and some time to unpack. We all met for dinner that evening on campus and then were invited by three Moroccan students to go down to the actual Marche, and then to a bar near campus. The Marche was absolutely amazing. It reminded me at first of Chinatown in NYC, but as we walked deeper into the commune of shops and street venders, it realized that I have never been anywhere like it. One of our Moroccan friends, Kenza, took us to a shop to buy clothes hangers and cell phones, and then we were led to a little restaurant where we ate M’semn (I’m not sure how to spell that) and drank mint tea. M’semn is a bread that kind of tastes like a flakey roll that can be eaten plain, with cheese, or honey. We ate ours with honey and it was absolutely delicious. We then took a cab to the bar where we sat and talked to the Moroccans about their culture and life here. Apparently the cops in Ifrane have no control because the students at AUI come from rich and powerful fathers and the police are afraid that they will arrest someone who has connections and can get the police in trouble. We also learned that if someone gets arrested before 18 years of age, the parents or guardians pay the price of the child’s crime. After a couple hours, we walked back to the University and finally got to settle in for the night.

Today we met up to go to a famous tree called Cedre Gouro. We woke up and had some pastries for breakfast and then went outside the campus gates to wait for a taxi. We were waiting for a while before one drove past and we were able to arrange for more to come. Only three people are allowed to go in a taxi at one time, so we waited for two more to come after three people from our group went off in the first one. A nice couple that was leaving the University, offered to take three of us to the place where we would transfer taxis to get a bigger one. They were so nice and made sure that the taxi drivers were giving us a fair price and would take us to the tree. After about a fifteen-minute ride, we all arrived at the tree. Immediately after arriving, we were swarmed by men who wanted us to get on their horses to ride around on a trail. They ended up pulling one of the girls and forced her onto a horse, so we decided to go with it, and all got on a horse. We were led around a circular path for about one hour. I hated the way the animals were being treated, since they were not in good shape, nor were they being properly fed or hydrated, but I had to just sit on my horse and make the most of it. One girl’s horse actually fell during the ride, which was so scary and sad. We convinced the owners of the horses to let us off so we could look around and the animals could get a break. We saw a lot of monkeys, which was so cool, and we got to get really close to them. After exploring, we finished our ride and took the taxi home.

Orientation starts tomorrow and I am happy to learn more about the University and Morocco as well as meet new people. I am so thankful that I arrived with a great group, but I am also excited to get to know others.

Unfortunately, my adapter does not work for my computer, so I am borrowing a friend’s, so I have limited computer use until I find a three-pronged adapter for my Mac. Hopefully, I will find one soon!

The past two days have been full of adventures and activities. I am so excited to be here and am getting ready for classes to begin and looking forward to more adventures.
This is a water fountain in downtown Ifrane. 
Getting on the horse was easy, trying to find out where we were going was the hard part. My horse was decorated with Kent State colors too! 

We were all waiting for all eight of us to get in one place before heading off into the woods.

I saw a monkey attack a person right before this photo, so I definitely wanted to keep my distance.

This tree is the tallest, largest, and oldest in the region.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” – Danny Kaye

It is a couple days before I depart for Morocco where I will be studying abroad at Al Akhawayn University for four months and I cannot help but feel nervous. This will be the first time I am without family abroad, and the longest time I will be away from home. Although I am used to moving around and transferring schools, I have always had a constant variable: my family. I hope that when I study abroad, I will be able to create a new constant: myself. I have been told not to make homes out of people or places, and I hope that through self-growth and adventure, I will realize that I am home, and wherever I go, I do not need to worry.

Morocco is not a typical destination students’ choose to study abroad. I chose to apply to study there because I wanted to go to an Arab country, live in a country that does not have English has its official language, and to immerse myself in a unique culture and history.

I am excited to document and reflect on my experiences and adventures in Morocco through this blog. It is crazy to think that on Sunday I will be on my way to the “Kingdom of the West”.