Bonjour tout le monde! I’m writing from my cozy little apartment in Meknès, Morocco where I live with my Oomi (mama), father, sister Meryeme, and brother Mohammad. I moved in here in early January after a few wild and crazy days trekking around Morocco with 35 other American students and our resident directors from ISA (International Studies Abroad).
I left home on Jan. 15 and spent some time at Saint Anselm before making my way to Casablanca via Boston, New York, and Madrid. Other than almost missing my flight to Madrid, the traveling went without a hitch. I flew to Casablanca with a rowdy bunch of Hasidic Jews who sang their way across the strait of Gibraltar and into Africa. The man next to me, who was also a Hasidic Jew, muttered something about the “summer camp” in the back of the airplane and then proceeded to smoke a cigarette… on the airplane. I was incredibly groggy at this point so don’t take my word for it. There’s a good chance I dreamed the whole thing up.
In Casablanca, I met up with my group and program directors and we moved into our hotel for orientation. We talked about gender roles, health and safety, haggling, and general tips for surviving in Morocco. The next morning we actually toured “Casa,” seeing the Place Mohamed V, Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur, the old medina, and the Hassan II Mosque. The Hassan II Mosque takes up a massive stretch of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and boasts the tallest minaret in all of North Africa. The prayer room alone can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. The 24th of January just happened to be the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, so nearly everything in the city was closed. Locals were out enjoying the sunshine, walking with family, and playing soccer on the beach.
For lunch we headed to the Mall of Morocco, which is hands down the most impressive mall I’ve ever been in. It boasts stores like Louis Vuitton, Coach, and Galeries Laffeyette alongside such attractions as an indoor theme park for kids, an aquarium, and an Imax theater. It was so interesting to observe the interplay of Eastern and Western cultures: burqa-clad women shopping in H&M, modest clothing options, etc. The mall even had an artificial souk, a traditional marketplace with winding alleys and stalls for vendors.
The next stop on our tour through Morocco was Marrakech, to the southwest of Casablanca. Marrakech is set at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and is more traditional and authentic than Casablanca. It’s bustling and noisy and the streets are jam packed with motorcycles, pedestrians, vendors, buses, cars, donkey, sheep, and camels (think Aladdin, but better). All the houses and buildings in Marrakech are built in a red clay that gives the city a majestic feel, especially early in the morning or at sunset when they catch and reflect the light. Morocco comprises part of the North African Maghreb. Maghreb is an Arabic word meaning “place of the sunset.” We stayed in an amazing hotel with elaborate Moorish architecture and a patio roof from which you could see the whole city while relaxing and drinking mint tea.
The main square in Marrakech is the Djemaa el Fna. It isn’t so much a square as it is a stage for entrepreneurs and those looking to make a few dirham (Moroccan currency; 8.4 dh = $1). Henna artists, snake charmers, magicians, storytellers, boxers, acrobats, and vendors all crowd into the square alongside tourists and regular Moroccans young and old. Just beyond the square is the souk, which is more a maze than a marketplace. The Marrakech souk is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. It’s a winding set of intertwining alleys densely packed with every single good and craft imaginable: leather, beads, lanterns, postcards, scarves, shoes, gloves, furniture, accessories, and just all sorts of bric-a-brac. Most of the stalls are simply ramshackle huts with high walls so you can still look up and see the sky. Haggling is the unofficial national sport in Morocco so each little stall has an eager merchant pestering you to come and look at their goods.
During a free afternoon in Marrakech my friend Erin and I got ourselves so lost in the souk. There is little to no way to actually navigate in the souk because narrow alleys lead to more winding narrow alleyways and anyone offering to show you the way out demands a fee and usually takes you in the wrong direction anyways. Most of the stalls sell similar items so there aren’t any landmarks to go by. At one point we thought we were walking in circles because we kept seeing the same life-size iron greyhound dog before we realized that more than one of the shopkeepers was selling identical copies of the same dog. Erin and I tumbled out of the souk after almost three hours and found a main road.
The next destination on our orientation took us into the Atlas Mountains to the Cascades d’Ouzoud, an amazing set of waterfalls. You could hike around the base and up the side of the falls to a town near the top. There was a little café with a patio view of the falls where I ate a Berber omelette, tagine with vegetables, Moroccan salad (raw tomatoes with onions and oil), olives, and tangerines. A dog we dubbed Ouzoud and some wild monkeys followed us around as we explored. We piled back onto the bus happy, sun burnt, and caked in the orange Ouzoud mud.
The last leg of the trip was spent bumping around on back roads in the mountains with our giant tour bus. I’m pretty sure in some places the bus was wider than the road. We drove through green, sweeping valleys where local shepherds just stared and stared at us as we passed. We had to stop a couple of times to shoo some sheep or goats off the road. My guidebook told me that this is one of the least populous places in Morocco, mostly inhabited by Berbers who have their own distinct language. Most of Morocco speaks French and Darija (the Moroccan dialect derived from classical Arabic).
We arrived at Meknès, the city I’m currently living in, on Sunday evening. Meryeme, my host sister, came to collect my roommate and I at the drop off point and we lugged our bags halfway across town to the fourth floor of a building that houses everything from a medical laboratory to a surgeon to a notary (zoning only exists in the United States). As much as I loved spelling my name with my butt and giggling over my hypnotized classmates with group A in the Dana Center Freshman year, this is one orientation I’ll never forget.