This weekend has no doubt been an incredible adventure, and it honestly feels like I’ve been out of Madrid for much more than five days! I suppose it all began on Wednesday with the train ride to Algeciras on the southern coast of Spain. We ended up taking the regular-speed train, which took about six hours, but our group basically had the whole car to ourselves, so it was pretty fun. We arrived around 9 pm more than ready for a good meal. As we walked through the streets to our hostel though, we were surprised to see that everything seemed to be closed. Furthermore, the whole city hardly even felt like Spain; many signs were written in Arabic and the vibe of it was just very different. We found our hostel, which turned out to be pretty nice (each room even had its own shower!), then set off in different directions looking for something to eat. I was walking with two other students, and it was probably the first time since I’ve been here that I felt uncomfortable. Though we tried to walk to the most well-lit area, the majority of the streets were dark, the only pedestrians were men, and we seemed to be drawing quite a bit of attention. We thankfully came across two other students from our group and decided to band together. We went to the first open restaurant we found and got a table on the patio. There were men sporadically seated at other tables nearby, and they for real seemed to all be silently staring at us. The waiter soon came over to inform us that at the moment they were only serving a couple of items, so we decided to go to a different restaurant next door. The waiter there seemed much friendlier, and the only other party seated nearby jovially carried on their own conversation without paying the slightest attention to us. The waiter spoke Spanish, but there were a lot of Arabic words on the menu, so we kind of just picked something without knowing exactly what to expect. We were all more than pleasantly surprised with our food though because the seasoning was much more exquisite than one would usually find in Madrid; it kind of reminded me of Indian food. After a very satisfying meal we found our way back to the hostel without incident and retired soon after. I made sure to take a thorough shower and try to sleep as well as I could because I had no idea what to expect for the next couple of days.
We woke up before dawn, then all walked together to the shore where we were split into two groups of 15 and assigned a guide; ours was named Mark, a man in his mid 40’s or so who had recently finished serving in the Peace Corps for about two years. He was pretty quirky, but very knowledgeable about Morocco. We eventually boarded some buses, then rode for about an hour to the port in Tarifa where we caught a ferry. We were on the Mediterranean for about an hour, during which time Mark gave us some food and general information about the Morocco. Some of the things I read were quite interesting. For instance, I learned that it is pretty taboo to speak out against the king, and certain topics, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should generally not be mentioned; the booklet said that most media sources were regulated and that even some of the more liberal newspapers steer clear of insulting the royal family. Mark eventually collected our passports and customs forms so we would be cleared to enter the country when we docked; I can now officially say that within the last three months I have crossed international boards by air, land, and sea 🙂 The ride was pretty rough, but nobody got really sick so that was good.
We finally arrived in Tangier, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually not that hot; it was probably around 78 or so. We walk around the city and Mark shared some interesting facts with us along the way. Though I had been surprised by the government regulation I’d read about on the boat, Morocco is quite progressive compared to other Islamic countries in the Middle East. For this reason, it’s really common for people from Hollywood to shoot movies there when they are trying to depict one of those countries; for instance, it is easy to portray Afghanistan in the southern part of Morocco. He told us that works like Gladiator, Game and Thrones, and the Sex and the City movie where they supposedly go to Saudi Arabia had been filmed there instead. He explained that the government was pretty relaxed with those types of things as long as they didn’t disrespect the people or royal family of Morocco, whereas other countries would need to first thoroughly examine the script.
We then walked to a market. There were standard fruit and vegetable displays, as well as some booths that sold common household items, and it all reminded me of the markets in Central America. When we got to the meat section, however, things were a little different. That’s not to say that other markets didn’t have raw meats on display, but this place was on a whole other level! There were of course whole chickens hanging everywhere, but there were also some pretty massive cow parts as well. We passed one stand that literally had an entire cow skull (with meat) just sitting there. Our pace definitely quickened as we walked through this part, but when we reached the end it just opened up into this huge fish market. Now, again, I don’t really like seafood, so maybe if you do it wouldn’t seem that bad, but it was this huge warehouse looking room stuffed to the gills with every type of fish you could imagine; the smell was less than appetizing. We walked through pretty quickly, and when we stepped outside, there was a man unloading a truck, and, after seeing our fascination, he proceeded to hold up a whole eel for people to take pictures of.
From the market we walked to a local women’s center called DARNA. This organization helps women build marketable skills, such as sewing, and gain a basic education. We toured some of the work and classrooms, then sat down for tea with some of the girls there. First of all, let me just take a second to comment on the Moroccan tea; its apparently green tea, and I don’t know what they do to it, but it’s very sweet and super delicious. I typically don’t even like my tea that sweet, but I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. Anyway, we sat down to chat with three young adults who had either finished college or where in the final stages. We discussed things like the education system in Morocco, which seems very complicated but apparently is directly modeled after the system in France. We also talked about dating and marriage. They told us that dating in Morocco is pretty typical and modern, and, while arranged marriages do happen, the bride and groom definitely have a say in whether or not they go through with it. The family structure in modern Morocco is also pretty similar to that of the Western world; people in cities usually have one or two children, and it recently passed that women could initiate the process of filing for a divorce. I don’t exactly remember how it ended up, but I think it was recently changed so that now the husband doesn’t have to approve the divorce for it to be official like he did in the past. Also, polygamy is not unheard of, particularly in the countryside, but it’s not all that common anymore. One topic that I found particularly interesting was their style of dress. Around the city we saw people, both men and women, which were wearing either traditional clothing or casual western-style apparel. Even the two young women who were talking to us were different; one wore the traditional head covering while the other did not. They explained that style of dress was one’s individual choice and had to do with how people interpreted the Koran, some thought it was more important while others did not. They added that, either way, people were not likely to be discriminated against or judged too harshly. One of the girls talked about how just because someone chose to dress traditionally did not necessarily mean they were devout practitioners of Islam, and alternatively, one could wear modern clothing and be just as pure. After tea we ate a delicious lunch of chicken tagine, which was served with some sort of sweetened fruit that no one could identify. We shared stereotypes about each others cultures, and it turns out that most young people in Morocco base their notion of US university culture on the American Pie movies.
When we finished lunch, we walked back to the bus and set out along the Atlantic coast to the city of Asilah. Most people fell asleep pretty quickly, and we were all surprised when, after about an hour or so, we woke up on the side of the road. We got off the bus and found ourselves on a beach where Mark announced we would be riding camels! They were pretty interesting I guess, as I’ve never really been in a close proximity to one. One of them kept making this deep growling noise that kind of freaked everybody out, but I think that might just be the sound they make. Getting up on them was probably the most interesting part; they basically lay on the ground so you can climb on the saddle, then they sort of go up in stages. It’s kind of hard to explain, but first they put their hind legs up, so you lurch forwards, then they bring their front legs up and repeat the process on both ends. I’m honestly surprised nobody fell off. I realize we were just casually strolling, but the ride was very calm and smooth, perhaps even more so than riding a horse. It was such a cool experience though, and I could definitely understand why that was a prime source of transportation back in the day. When everyone had gotten a turn riding, we got back on the bus and continued our journey.
We arrived in the old town of Asilah after about another hour, and spent some time wandering through the streets. They kind of reminded me of the typical European style city, but most walls were painted blue. If I understand correctly, blue was originally used to show that the area was inhabited by Jewish people back in the day. This city was pretty interesting, and much of the white space on the walls was available for local artist to do with as they pleased. The city had a pretty cool feel to it, but there were not many people out. We found our way to a lookout spot on the coast and took some time to soak in the splendor of the ocean. As we made our way out of the city, the sounds of the “call to prayer” emanated from the local mosque. We had also heard that twice over the course of our time at the women’s center, and I think it generally happens five times a day.
We got back to the bus and began our three hour journey to the city of Rabat where we would be staying with our host families. By that time we had realized that apparently only the very newly college educated people in Morocco speak English; everyone else speaks a Moroccan variation of Arabic, and the educated people also speak French. With that in mind, Mark gave us a very basic crash course in Arabic (though it turned out all we really needed to say was “thank you” and “I’m full”), and some other general tips. He told us that it was likely our homes would not have toilets, and would instead have a “Turkish toilet”. If, like me, you’d never seen one, it’s basically a hole in the ground that you pour water over to “flush”. I was less than excited for this variation, but I supposed anything was better than the Nicaraguan latrines. Another interesting thing we learned about Islam is that Allah often takes the form of a stranger or foreigner, so people will do everything in their power to accommodate such people. Mark assured us that we did need to continue eating after we were full because if we did, they would feed until we were sick, which happened to him when he first moved there. Also, it is apparently taboo to ever deny someone a drink of water if they ask.
By the time we arrived in Rabat it was after dark, and I still could not get over how well developed everything was! I seriously felt like I could have been driving in Florida or southern California. We unloaded into what seemed to be a random alley, but it opened up into a pretty cool part of the city. It was the traditional narrow alley style of roads, and we navigated them as a group until people were dropped off at their houses. I was fortunate enough to be able to room with my two good friends on the trip Helena and Daniela. The surprise I had experienced along the main road of the city paled in comparison to what I experienced inside of the home; it was actually pretty fancy. I think the décor made it seem more regal or something, but I felt like we could have been staying in part of a palace. It of course wasn’t that big, but it was extremely comfortable. The host lady, her name slips my mind, showed us to our room. Apparently bedrooms in Morocco are typically much different than what you would normally imagine; it’s more like parlor with couches along the walls, and that’s where they sleep. Anyway, it was a really cool room and it was super cozy. She soon brought us out some traditional dresses from her closet and let us try them on and take pictures with them! She didn’t speak any English or Spanish, but we were basically able to communicate with gestures. Daniela was able to offer a couple of words in French, so that helped a little. After the fashion show, she beckoned us to the table where we were served more tea, rolls of bread, these crepe sort of things, and this cake like thing that was kind of like sweat corn bread. We had cheese, honey, and jam to put on them and, I don’t know exactly what it was, but the cheese stuff with those crepe things were a revelation. We enjoyed this little meal around 8:30 or so, then the host mom next door, who spoke a little English, came to fetch us. My roommates and I debated on whether or not what we had eaten was dinner because I didn’t see how it couldn’t have been. Anyway, we set out with the other host mom and the three students staying with her to explore the city. We walked through the narrow streets which were bustling with different vendors, some selling food and others random products. We emerged into what I guess is the main part of the city, which was comparable to Florida. We kind of just walked up and down the main strip taking in all the lights and sounds. The people on the streets really just seemed sort of normal. Again, some were dressed traditionally and others were not, but they engaged in usual activities.
When we returned to our home, I had to admit defeat as the table was set with an elaborate meal. We ate large pieces of chicken on a bed of thin and very delicious pasta, along with more bread, fruit, and tea. Perhaps the best part of the night came when Helena excused herself to use the bathroom and soon after we heard the sweet sound of a toilet flushing! I suppose I had been anticipating staying in homes along the rural countryside, so as I helped myself to another mandarin and cup of tea, I could not have felt more content with the situation; we even had Wi-Fi! When we were nearly finished eating, her son came home. He seemed to be in his mid to late twenties, and spoke English fairly well. He had apparently graduated pretty recently and was now working at a bank. Turns out he was also a martial artist! We had a good time comparing different styles and what not, and we all talked about what we study in school. After a lengthy conversation, we retired to our room where our host mom had covered the couches in sheets and blankets. I don’t think I’d ever been more ready to sleep, and it didn’t take long at all.
We got up bright and early Friday morning and we were greeted with a breakfast consisting of our favorite foods from last night’s pre dinner meal. Once we’d eaten our fill, we navigated our way to the bus where we met with the rest of the group. From there we went to a sort of community school that was established in order to offer classes to people from the impoverished parts of the city. Speaking of which, we happened to pass a very large shanty town on our way, and it looked pretty similar to those in Central America I guess, but the government had actually built a wall in front of part of it so it can’t be seen from the road. I guess that’s one way to go about fixing the problem. We met with some young students from the school and discussed these types of issues. It turns out that it’s quite difficult to leave the shanties because in order to lease a legitimate residence you have to prove your past address or something like that. They also mentioned that some people actually prefer to stay there because they are not required to pay taxes, and the homes are extremely affordable. Obviously they also entail the risks associated with poor public hygiene, lack of clean water, and the electoral dangers that come with people haphazardly wiring their own homes. We talked a little bit about other economic problems in the country, which mostly included lack of jobs.
The conversation eventually moved to more social and religious topics. I really had no knowledge of Islam going into the experience, and I learned so much about it. First of all, I suppose I had no idea of the range of beliefs. On the one hand you have the Islamic countries in the Middle East which tend to me much more extreme in their beliefs. I mean obviously you have those few on the highest end of the scale, the couple of radical extremists that many people seem to equate to Islam in general, but besides that Middle Eastern countries tend to put much more importance in enforcing religious law. Those practices are the reasons why women are generally not allowed to drive, must always be covered, and homosexuals are actively hunted down, and sometimes publicly executed, by the government. Then there’s Morocco, which is apparently considered the sort of Las Vegas of the Islamic world. In Morocco, things like homosexuality, prostitution, and eating during Ramadan are technically considered illegal, but it is common knowledge that they occur. The students explained to us that people are generally even okay with these things as long as they remain private and out of the public eye. He noted that one’s friends and family will most likely be aware if someone is gay, but those types of activities are never spoken of and must only take place behind closed doors. If the unspoken rules are followed, there will generally be no issues. Things like a pride parade, however, would never be permitted. In fact, there was some footage of an underground same sex wedding that got posted to YouTube a couple of years ago, and the participants were promptly arrested to prove that point. Alternatively, when a transvestite was beaten by a group on the street, both parties were prosecuted as a means of discouraging vigilantism. They also said it’s kind of understood that people sometimes drink alcohol, or like I mentioned before, eat during Ramadan, but such things must only be done in the privacy of one’s own home. Authorities also turn a blind eye to prostitution, and it seems that men actually come from the Middle East to experience it for themselves, but if a brothel becomes too well known the police will come in and arrest everyone. The conversation returned to Ramadan and other religious practices, and they were pretty fascinating to hear. It basically seems like the range in which one practices the religion is very similar to that of Christianity. Like the Koran, there’s much variation in the interpretations of the bible, which leads to different denominations of the one religion, and within those subsects there is a range of devotion from fundamentalists to Chreasters. I mean I guess some Muslims chose to cover their heads just like some Christians chose not dance or gamble. Then one student mentioned that Morocco was actually pretty diverse, and he would go as far as to speculate that perhaps 3% of the country was not Muslim and were Jewish, Christian, or Atheist (though Mark later told us that on the national census it was more like 1%).
Another interesting part of the talk revolved around political issues. We briefly talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not extensively. I learned that one of the most controversial topics in the country is that of the Western Sahara. Apparently when France left the country and established political boarders, they failed to make the Sahara part of any country because they figured it was just a desolate waste land. Well, that decision has caused quite a bit of conflict between Morocco and surrounding countries, especially after they discovered oil there. The students were very open to discussing these issues with us, and they asked us a little bit about the US as well. Most of it had to do with how we usually pay for college and the lifestyle depicted in American Pie, but we also talked about the different political parties and beliefs within the country. We were of course served tea during the meeting, and once we had all finished we thanked them for their time and got back on the bus.
We took a short ride to see some Roman ruins. I’m still a bit confused as to why we went to Morocco to see artifacts of Rome, but it was interesting nonetheless. We had a good time walking the grounds and exploring what was left of the structures. There was this one pool thing that had eels in the alcoves of it. Legend has it that if a women throws a boiled egg into the pool and an eel comes out and eats it, she is fertile, though the significance of it being an egg did not occur to me until later. Anyway, there was a woman there selling them, and a few girls tried it. No eels came out and they were all, except for one, rather disappointed. We pondered the parameters of the myth though. After all, Helena pointed out that eels are more likely to come out after dark, so it’s possible that the eggs could have been eaten later and the participants would never know the difference. We left the ruins, some happier than others, and drove to the tomb of Muhammad…I believe the VI, who Mark kept saying was like the George Washington of Morocco. The tomb is located next to a mosque, and we quickly learned that in Islam, Friday is the holy day, so there was a constant stream people coming to pray. Also, from the speakers of the mosque we could hear three or four men singing the words of the Koran in unison. It was pretty cool to see, but it felt a little intrusive.
Afterwards, we returned to our host families for the traditional Friday meal of couscous. The girls from the house next door joined us, and we were served a huge tagine of chicken and beef on a bed of couscous and vegetables, then given fruit for dessert. We had a great time drinking tea and getting to know each other, and before we knew it, it was time to reunite with the group. Our next activity was to split into small groups and band together with a couple of Moroccan students from the local university. Five of us got paired with two girls, and we mostly walked around different parts of the city comparing and contrasting what our university cultures were like. We walked along a coast then made our way through a market. We ended up at a café where three young men joined our party. I’m not sure who they were, as the two girls didn’t know them either, but the more the merrier I guess. We talked about pop culture in terms of our favorite music and TV shows. They asked us if college really was like the American Pie movies and told us how things operate in their schools. It was awesome getting to know them because, once again, it just went to show that regardless of race, religion, or nationality, college students are basically the same wherever you go. We bade the students farewell, then the whole group went to one of the other host homes where we heard presentations from a student currently doing a Fulbright and volunteer from the Peace Corps (Mark). It was definitely interesting learning about some of the different options for living abroad.
After the meeting, it was time for our bath. We were introduced to our guide, a young Moroccan women that we think may have been the girl from the school earlier that day. We were all given a packet of soap and this glove scrubber thing that was supposed to be really good for exfoliating. The Haman wasn’t too far from our house, so we were there before we knew it. We entered into this large room that was sort of split in half; one side had a huge mirror and a counter where you could check your bags, and then there was area with some benches along the wall. We were herded into this area, and sort of stood around awkwardly waiting to see who would be the first to get undressed. Apparently the custom there is to wear underwear and nothing else. It was definitely a bit uncomfortable at first, but I have to say, after a while it was actually pretty liberating! We all gave our clothes to the lady behind the counter and in return she gave us each a large bucket. Our guide then led us into the bathing rooms. Basically there were three connected rooms that got progressively hotter. I don’t really have much experience with saunas, so I guess I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to that because I had to stick to the first room, which was also the least crowded. The other two were full of women sitting on the ground, or small stool/mat, and essentially taking bucket showers. Each room has a couple of spigots for you to fill your big bucket, then you use a smaller container to scoop water and dump in on yourself. Somehow, we misplaced the little scoop that our host mom had given us, so we were using one from a student in the other group. Soon they had to leave though, so she came in and asked for it back. Then, this random lady sitting nearby, who happened to see the whole thing, gave us her scoop to use! She even insisted we keep it until the three of us were completely finished. We couldn’t really communicate with her, but her act of generosity was extremely moving. Overall it was an interesting experience. Most students seemed to feel quite strongly about it; some loved it while others said it was literally the most uncomfortable experience of their lives. I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal either way, but it did feel amazing to be clean again!
When we finished with the baths, we returned to our homes for yet another delicious meal. We shared the meal with the host group next door again, this time eating at their house. Afterwards, some of the lady’s friends and family came over and before we knew it, there was basically a full blown party. The women were drumming and singing, and the whole mood was quite jovial. One of the ladies started giving Henna tattoos, so I got one just because everyone else was, but it was cool. We eventually returned home and went to bed with our only regret being that we had to leave so early the next morning.
It was kind of sad getting on the bus, partially because it was before dawn, but mostly because I knew I would really miss our temporary home in Rabat. There was some debate over what we were doing in the afternoon. The itinerary said a hike in the mountains and a visit to a rural home, but the extent of the hike was unclear. After a couple of hours on the bus, we realized what Mark had meant. So we really were just going to visit a family, but it turned out that walking to their home from the bus was quite a feat. Seriously, the terrain was rocky and steep and it seemed to take us forever to get there. The thing is that we were basically just walking through this village, which means that the people living there have to endure that jaunt every single day! We finally arrived at the house of a young women and her mother, where we would eat lunch and share a discussion. Mark warned us ahead of time that the setting was quite different, so we should focus on more micro stuff and steer clear of controversial political issues. They told us about traditional wedding ceremonies and shared some of their experiences. They explained that the closest school was about a 30 minute walk along the main road (if you didn’t break your neck climbing the mountain first). Overall it was just really cool to get off the beaten path and interact with some locals who held a different perspective of life.
Afterwards, we had to hike back up the mountain to the bus. As everyone climbed aboard huffing and puffing, Mark handed out Dramamine to those prone to motion sickness because apparently the drive was going to be quite rough. I didn’t really think it was so bad though, and soon enough we had arrived at our final destination of Chefchaouen. This city is colloquially referred to as the “blue city”, which again may a more not have indicated a historically Jewish population. It was also quite similar to some of the other older cities in Spain and Italy. We made our way to our hostel, then were set free to do as we pleased for about three hours. The city was extremely touristy, so everyone mostly used the time to shop for souvenirs. More people here spoke Spanish, and it wasn’t entirely uncommon for them to speak English. It was pretty and all, but it all just seemed so marketed towards tourists. Also, the young men there were kind of rude. They would not leave us alone and kept trying to engage us conversation or would catcall as we walked by. I mean that stuff happens in Spain too, but they were ruthless. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we felt threatened or harassed or anything, it just got old very quickly. We met for dinner in the central square and shared one last savory meal. By the time we finished eating we were all struggling to keep our eyes open, but everyone seemed to be very content and satisfied with the trip as a whole.
We retired to our hostel and got a pretty good night’s sleep. Turns out we got pretty lucky because a girl from the other group said she killed two cockroaches in their hostel. We had to get up ridiculously early, but as usual we were still running behind schedule, so it was a pretty stressful morning. We did things a little differently on the way back; we took the bus to the city of Ceuta, which is technically Spanish, so we actually crossed the international boarder while still in Africa. I’m not sure what happened, but we had to stand there for what seemed like forever, then when they finally started to let us through, several people got questioned pretty extensively. By then we were really running behind, so we split into small groups to take taxis the port. From there we caught the ferry back to Spain. As we prepared to board, we bade farewell to Mark and promised to keep in touch. The ferry ride was even rougher this time, but a lot people ended up sleeping anyway. We eventually made it back to that town in Spain, and in the afternoon we got back on the train to Madrid.
Overall it was an incredible experience, and I’m so glad I did it. I really was not sure what to expect going in, but it well exceeded anything I had in mind. It’s kind of weird now to be walking around campus and randomly see someone from the trip. On the first day, I was talking to this one girl about how nice it felt to take a shower once I got back, and out of nowhere this other girl from the trip came up and eagerly joined in our revelry. I always said the best way to bond with someone is to travel with them to a developing country, but I would now add that taking a public bath with someone creates a much more unique bond. Anyway, everyone seems to be almost caught back up on school work and settling back into life in Madrid. It felt good to be back, but I’m so looking forward to the next trip!