I got back yesterday from my five-day trip to Morocco, and am so glad that I went! It changed my perspective on the Arab World, on Spain and on the United States. I'm going to tell it chronologically:
On Friday morning a group of about thirty of us took a bus to Gibraltar, the port city owned by Great Britain. We took a little tour of the city and the huge rock that towers over the ocean. There are apes running wild in Gibraltar (the only place in Europe), and you'll see some pictures of them if you look on my Picasa web album. The weather was very temperamental but but I was thrilled to be in an English-speaking place again (it had been a long time!). There were a lot of sailors. We spent the night in the adjacent city on the Spanish side of the border: Línea.
On Saturday we drove to Algeciras, met the guide for our 15-person group (Ben, from Connecticut), and rode the ferry over the Strait to Tangier. The first place we went was this open-air market full of meat. Lots of animal carcasses, fish, chickens (dead). Also olives, which contributed to the somewhat nauseating smell. I was a little freaked out. We ate couscous for lunch at a women's center called DARNA, which teaches women in bad circumstances the skills they need to make a living (computing skills, textile manufacturing, basic schooling). We talked to a few of the women who worked there. They were only in their twenties, and were very friendly. In the afternoon we got on the bus again and drove to Rabat, the capital.
On the way, we pulled over to the side of the road and got short camel-rides on the beach. It was fun, but silly. They smelled bad, but had pretty eyelashes and didn't try to spit on us. We stopped at a coastal city called Asilah, and were shown around by a friend of Ben's who skipped out of his job at a restaurant while his boss was at prayer. On the highway we passed by more than one serious accident, with fatalities. It was scary.
When we got to Rabat, we met our host families (three students to a family). The best English-speaker in our house was Jaula, and she was 21; she lives with her parents, her brother, her sister, and a New Mexican exchange student. This girl, Michelle, is one brave cookie. There are only four people in her program. The first night we had the most delicious meatballs in sauce. They were slightly spicy and they were in this big communal dish we ate from with bread in hand. Mmmm... The layout of the house was so different from apartments here or in the U.S.: the middle is a large square space with a railing that looks down into the courtyard of the family that lives downstairs. There are basically four rooms: parents' bedroom, guest room/prayer room, children's room, and living/dining room. The kitchen and bathroom are squeezed in the corners, and the other rooms are one to a side of the square. The walls in the guest room are lined with a continuous couch, where we made our beds. There is lots of pretty tile and elaborately embroidered cushions. We watched part of a video of a wedding that took place in that house, of a cousin to a British guy who converted to Islam in order to marry. There were lots of wedding dresses involved, and apparently the weddings go from about midnight to 8am.
On Sunday we had pancake-like things and buns with sesame for breakfast and went to a discussion with a professor of the university about Islam and perceptions between the West and Islamic worlds. I was bored almost to tears, I'm sad to say, because the entirety of the discussion consisted of Professor Zaki citing and justifying verses from the Qur'an. After that we went to these Roman ruins at a site called Chellah (see pictures). There is an old woman sitting by a pool there who sells hardboiled eggs to peel and thrown to the eels as a fertility ritual. No one in our group particularly wanted to get pregnant, so we didn't do that, but the ruins were pretty. On the way back to Rabat proper we stopped at the Mausoleum of King Mohammad V and Hasan II, which smelled unmistakably of kittens.
In the afternoon we went to the beach, where there was a conspicuous absence of women, and then met up with some Moroccan university students who showed us around the market and talked with us. I really enjoyed meeting the two Moroccan men who walked with Callie, Tanya and I: Yasid and Bashir. They are English literature majors and nice guys. There were some subtle sexist overtones, but in their context they were cool people. That evening my temporary room-mates (Tanya and Jess) and I went to the bath house, which was completely different from the supposedly Arab bath house in Granada. In this place there were just tons of topless women with buckets, scrubbing themselves with exfoliating mittens and pouring water on their heads. No pools involved. We had no idea what was going on, but some nice ladies sort of adopted us and showed us what to do while laughing at us.
On Monday morning we said goodbye to our host families and rode the little bus through the countryside and up into the Rif Mountains to visit this tiny village and be introduced to the agricultural side of Morocco. We ate lunch (couscous with vegetables again) in the house of a farming family (26-year-old husband, wife, and two young children). We brought an interpreter and talked about what their life is like and what impressions they have of the U.S. The most interesting thing about the life of the poor in Morocco to me is that, though they are very poor, everyone has a satellite dish. Everyone. They watch all sorts of things that make it over the Atlantic: TV movies that flopped in the U.S., Jackie Chan movies, and popular shows like Prison Break. We walked through the village and up the hill strewn with trash and were rewarded with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. The children were curious and cute, and as we were walking back to the bus this old woman started laughing hysterically at us.
We then made our way to Chefchaoen and dropped our stuff off in a really nice hostel and went shopping (people in Chefchaoen speak Spanish, for which I was absurdly grateful). The bottom section of all outside walls is painted blue, and it is the most charming city to walk through. It has definitely felt the effects of tourism, but not in too tragic a way. We had tea at a cafe and dinner at a restaurant. For dessert I had oranges with cinnamon. After dinner we had a closing discussion with our group and told jokes, and it felt really cohesive and comfortable. In the morning we walked up the hill above the city and got a great view of the valley as the sun was rising. We got on the bus soon after and drove straight through to Ceuta (Spanish city in Morocco), got on the ferry and drove back to Granada. On the ferry and on the boat I talked for a long time with the program director Javier (nicest guy in the world) about Morocco and about the Northwest (he used to live in Ellensburg), Leavenworth and Vancouver B.C. It made me miss the natural landscapes of my home, which I hope I will no longer take for granted.
If you managed to read that whole thing, congratulations. If not, it's cool. I'm not going to wax philosophical about my journey, but write me if you want to know more. It was an eye-opener.