Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving in Morocco

Before coming to Morocco, I envisioned that Thanksgiving without my natural family would be quite lonely. Thanks to my wonderful host family and friends, Thanksgiving 2013 was anything but that. The festivities began last Sunday with a presentation in the ACCESS classes at AMIDEAST. ACCESS is a really amazing program that provides English lessons to students who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford them. Along with two other YES Abroad students, I taught a class on the history of Thanksgiving. We were able to go further into the story behind this holiday and wrapped up the lesson with apple pie.

We looked awesome in our Turkey hand hats. 

Apple Pie Morocco Edition 

On Wednesday, we shared our Thanksgiving traditions once again, though this time, with a much younger audience: the beginner's English classes at AMIDEAST. Chaos reigned as we helped the students to make their own turkey hats. I made the mistake of teaching them how to gobble, and they then proceeded to chase each other around the classroom, gobbling all the way, for the rest of the time. Here's a video of a few of our students: click here! 

The next day was Thursday: actual Thanksgiving. School was a bit torturous, but in the afternoon, after presenting at the meeting of a university English club, we (the other YES Abroad students and I) rushed to Thanksgiving dinner at the American club.

Waiting for the tram to take us to our turkey dinner! 

 The meal tasted like home, even if it wasn't all that much like my meal would have been like. That night, I got to skype my natural family and talk to my best friend on the phone. I thought that hearing their voices would make me homesick, but instead I felt comforted by their familiar chatter. Before I went to bed, I went to read the news and saw an article of U.S. soldiers having their Thanksgiving meal while on tour. I am grateful that the distance separating my family is both temporary and by choice, and that even though we are on different sides of the world, we are healthy and safe. 

I'm also grateful for this picture of  my dear friends holding my picture! 

Black Friday was actually just Cous Cous Friday and instead of shopping for clothes I went to Carrefour and gathered ingredients for the Thanksgiving meal I made today for my host family. I now have major respect for anyone who cooked their family's Thanksgiving meal, it was somewhat of a stressful experience. But I'm proud of the dishes I made--chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and almond rocas. After my host family clarified that cranberry sauce is not, in fact, made with wine, they dug right in and especially loved the stuffing. 

All in all, I will remember this wonderful, atypical Thanksgiving for a long time. I am grateful to all my friends, Moroccan and American who wished me 'Happy Thanksgiving.' I have so much to be thankful for and can't possibly list it all here, but please know that I am so grateful to everyone who has been a part of my story and who has helped me along the way. Bisous du Maroc :) 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Trams and Taxis: Finding My Way in Rabat

"If only I lived in a city!" I used to think longingly, staring out the window of my mom's mini van as we drove from school to work to various other arrangements. My short but frequent visits to Chicago and other cities gave me a taste of the perks of city life--and the accessibility and range of options for getting from point A to B appealed to me greatly. Thanks to YES Abroad and a great amount of luck, I ended up here in Rabat, 4,000 miles away from my mom's mini van (though I do miss it!) and in the center of a city with a population of over one million. I've managed to make my way around the city via tram, taxi, train, bus and my own two feet. Though my adventures with transportation have not been without late arrivals and confusing moments, I've come to know (and mainly appreciate) the options available to find my way. They include:

Tram: I used to take the tram every day to school. I'd like to think that I've perfected the art of tram life, but my late arrivals at school would suggest otherwise. I've learned to always keep a spare ticket in my wallet, so I can simply run onto the tram if it's pulling up at the station. In the mornings, everyone is smashed together, counting the number of stops until they can breathe again. There's a mutual understanding that comes from being crushed into random strangers at early morning hours! The tram is clean, cheap, and predictable, and for this reason it's my favorite form of transportation.

Taxi: There are two types of taxis--grand and petit
  • Grand taxi: I've only ridden in a grand taxi a few times, because they wait for five people to come before leaving. They are useful for going to destinations a little farther away--such as Sale, the city across the river from Rabat, but can be expensive. 

  • Petit taxi: I use petit taxis very frequently. These smaller taxis can be hailed by holding one's arm at a ninety degree angle from the body. Because they can hold up to three people, the driver will stop along the way and pick up or drop off other passengers. There's a meter in the front that keeps track of the price, and the minimum fare is 6 dirhams (about 75 cents). In Rabat, petit taxis are blue, but each city has a specific color of petit taxi. In Agadir, they are orange, in Fez they are red, and so on. For the first time last week, I was able to give a taxi driver directions to my destination! Taxis are the quickest way to move about the city, but also one of the most expensive. 

Train: I've actually only been on the train once. During our first week in Rabat, we did a scavenger hunt around the city which included riding back to Amideast on the tram. In our frenzied state of mind, my partner and I ended up getting on the train instead. We quickly realized it and got off at the train station in Agdal, though I did enjoy my five minute ride. I don't know if I'll be riding the train again this year.

Bus: While bus fare doesn't cost more than 50 cents, the bus gives meaning to the saying "time is money." The bus stops aren't entirely fixed and thus a healthy sense of patience is required both when waiting for the bus and when riding it. Because it's a bit unpredictable, the bus isn't my favorite form of transportation, but it's always an adventure and thus far, I've made it to all my destinations (eventually). 

Two feet: I've started walking to school, now that it's light outside in the morning. There are plenty of other people on the street and sometimes I'll meet up with one of my friends along the way. It's a little bit of exercise built into every day, which I definitely need here! 

I've realized that no matter where you live on the planet or how you get there, you spend most of your days going in the same circles--from school, to home, to whatever else occupies your time. My challenge in the past few weeks has been keeping up my enthusiasm for the experiences that have now become 'normal' to me. It's not to say that life in Morocco doesn't stretch my limits, but rather, these challenges are no longer a question mark but a daily reality. On any given day, the reality of life can be overwhelmingly beautiful or stressful and most days, it is a combination of both. During the stressful times, I've learned to remember that there is undoubtedly a wonderful moment ahead--whether that moment is a successful conversation in Darija or the silence on the sidewalks during Friday prayers. 

Until next time, nshoufk mn bad! (see you later!) 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Middle Atlas Adventures

Last Sunday, I left the Rabat area for the first time and set off to Fez and the Middle Atlas with the rest of my group and our wonderful leader Sarah. The city of Fez is home to the biggest medina in the world and we spent a day and a half exploring the city before winding our way through the mountains. We've all heard it said: photos are worth a thousand words. Here's some of my favorites from the trip:

The Royal Palace in Fez on the first day of our trip. 

Artisans gave the tile work on the Royal Palace to the former King to show their appreciation for his support of the arts.

The Mellah or Jewish Quarter of Fez. The balconies found there are one of the differences between the Mellah and the Medina. 

We had the opportunity to visit a synagogue turned museum, where we learned more about the Fezi Jew population. At its peak, 22,000 Jews lived in Fez, but now only about 150 remain. 

Overlooking the beautiful Medina of Fez. There are two sides--the Qaraweeyan and Andalucian. The first university in the world (founded by a woman!) is in Fez.  

One of the many shops in the Medina. We toured the Medina at night and returned the next day on our own. I loved seeing it at its most busy and quietest times. The multilingualism of the shopkeepers impressed me. Because Fez is a huge tourist destination, many of the shopkeepers spoke Darija, French, and English. 

One of the many doors or "baabs" that serve as entrances to the Medina.

Tanneries Chwarma! I visited the tanneries at their most active point--the morning--and bought a leather bag there. The tanneries have a distinct smell, as the leather workers soften the animal skin by soaking it in pigeon poop. 

The winding streets of Fez. Getting lost in the Medina is unavoidable and actually pretty fun! Currently, 150,000 people live within the walls of the Fez Medina. As I walked the streets, I pondered all the changes that the walls have seen since their creation in 789 A.D. It's fascinating to consider that people have tread the same paths for thousands of years and will continue to do so for thousands more.

Because there are no cars in the Medina, donkeys and motorcycles are used to transport goods through the narrow streets. The tall buildings cast shadows in the alley, which keeps the Medina cool in the hot summer months. As our guide said, "It is cool and dark. In the alley there isn't a divison of class."

Place de Seffarine is a square where copper workers shape metal into kitchenware, jewelry, and tools. Throughout the day, their hammers can be heard connecting with metal, creating what is known as the "song of Seffarine." 

I loved the shopping Fez and went a little bit crazy. One of my favorite purchases is lip redden-er from the henna souk inside the Medina. It's a small bowl covered in reddish paint and stays on for a very long time!

After spending a whirlwind day and half in Fez, we headed to the countryside. Our first destination: Moulay Yacoub, a small down nestled on a hillside and known primarily for its sulfur springs. Before bathing in the springs, we hiked to the top of the mountain opposite Moulay Yacoub.

Overlooking Moulay Yacoub. After two months in the bustling city, I welcomed the fresh air and quiet! From the top of the mountain, we could hear the men and women inside the hammam singing call and response. Going to Moulay Yacoub is somewhat of a pilgrimage, as the water is thought to cure skin diseases. 

The entire group post our Moulay Yacoub adventures! We had two options for bathing--private and public. In the private hammam, each person has their own bathtub in a single room for half an hour. I opted for the public hammam. Inside, I found a single chamber with a large pool of HOT sulfur water in the middle. Women crowded the room, all fighting to find their spot to bathe in the mineral rich water. Thanks to the assistance of some kind women, I found a spot on the side of the pool and participated in the rituals of scrubbing, combing, and jumping into the scalding water! 

After our visit to Moulay Yacoub, we continued to Azrou, a small town in the Atlas mountains. We had the fortune of visiting the weekly souk there as well! 

I really enjoyed Azrou. It kind of looked like how I imagine Germany! 

Blue Djellaba Club! Djellabas are traditionally worn by men and women in Morocco over other clothing. I'm in love with mine and can't wait to get another! 

Oddly, monkeys are native to the Cedar forests in the Middle Atlas! Our group had a great time looking for monkeys, chasing monkeys, and taking pictures with monkeys. Monkey see, monkey do. 

From Azrou, we moved onto visit two small villages--Ain Leiu and Oum Er-Rbia. This picture is the view from the restaurant where we ate tajine in Oum Er-Rbia. Oum Er-Rbia means "Mother Source" in Darija and is the source of a river which shares its name. 

We hiked to this beautiful waterfall in Oum Er-Rbia before heading back to Rabat!

I really enjoyed the chance to see more of Morocco. The more I learn of my host country, the more I realize how much more there is to understand. A few days ago, we were asked by a lecturer to sum up Morocco in one word. I chose the word "contrast." Morocco is a country where different ideologies and lifestyles interact, collide, and mix. As the two month mark of my exchange passes, I'm grateful for all that I have experienced and excited for the days ahead.