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“Squat Into Comfort” by Dan Fitzgerald

When I was a little kid I went camping with some friends for a few nights. I remembered vividly how my body was covered in mosquito bites, dirt, and having to use nature as my bathroom. You could say that nature and I don’t exactly get along. For those of you who know me or are getting to know me, my personality and demeanor don’t exactly scream “Bear Grills” or “rough-and-tough.” I am content with my Starbucks white chocolate mocha in the morning, going to an art museum, and going to a friend’s apartment to watch Netflix. Yet, something changed in my urban-socialite life this past week. I went to Zaouia Ahansel.

During a tenuous four-hour drive with everyone from my Amideast program through the winding, rocky roads of Morocco, I saw nothing but rocks, mountains, and herds of goats for miles-upon-miles in all directions. Just as I was about to assume that village couldn’t possibly exist out in this barren land, I saw it. Hidden in the deep Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco lied dozens of brown, rectangular houses on slanted slopes adjacent to a clear blue mountain stream, turning the valley a vibrant green. This Amazigh village of 500 people gave me the challenge of my life.

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“Mountain Magic” by Sofia Deak

By far the most incredible excursion I have made in my time in Morocco has been our group trip to Zaouiat Ahansal, a mountain village located in the Middle Atlas Mountain Range approximately eight hours by bus from Rabat. To reach the village, our bus struggled along a windy and steep mountain road that afforded the most incredible views of the valleys, crags, and wildlife in the rural mountain countryside. I was excited to see the village; I had never been to such a remote place before and I was curious about what it might be like.

What met us all in Zaouiat Ahansal was not exactly what I was expecting, but still I was blown away by what I experienced there. First, to set the scene: The village is located in a valley between two mountain peaks, and natural spring water flows through the valley from a source high up among the snowy summit. Sand colored homes crop up along the base of the mountain, with four castle-like structures that house the four holy families of the village. Donkeys, sheep, and goats slowly head back and forth to pasture or carrying the fruits of a hard day of labor back home. Dust sometimes rises up around you; the villagers are praying for some much needed rain. Every single person you pass in the street, from the tiny schoolgirls smaller than their backpacks to the wizened old gentleman guiding his donkey, stops to say hello. They shake your hand, and then touch their hand to their heart— saying you are in my heart, you are dear to me. This place, obviously, is nothing short of enchanting.

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But Zaouiat is more than just a pretty picture. While we were there, we stayed in the home of the village’s Sheikh, who is a descendant of the village’s founder, an Islamic Saint from the 12th century. It was here in the Sheikh’s house that I felt as though I glimpsed the spirit of this little village. It was in the home of the most powerful man in the region that a beautiful, innocent, and seemingly unassuming friendship came to define what this place was all about.

A quick side note: The entire population of the village is Amazigh, or Berber . . . except for an American family who founded a local organization called the Atlas Cultural Foundation. The founder, her husband and their eight year old daughter have lived in the village for years, focusing on architectural preservation and recently expanding to include educational supplements and better public health projects. The organization’s founder is a fascinating, incredible woman; all of the AMIDEAST students picked her brain the entire duration of the trip trying to soak up some of her wisdom.

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“Fun in the Sun” by Dan Fitzgerald

Studying abroad is a lot like going into a new relationship. You start out in that honeymoon phase where everything is new and adventurous, you are excited by every little thing, and you can’t possibly imagine what life was like before it. But then that honeymoon phase ends and you realize that the world is still spinning and suddenly things aren’t as interesting anymore. You finally realize your significant other has little quirks that annoy you and the spark that once arose in you by every little thing is going out. Typically, in a relationship one of two things could happen: you either break it off as there is nothing left to inspire you, or you find that raw spark in all the little things that truly makes you happy. If you haven’t caught on already, I’m talking about my relationship with Morocco.

I am more than half way done with my semester abroad in Morocco and I am certainly out of the honeymoon phase. I soon realized that outside of studying for class, eating, and sleeping, I have a lot of free time on my hand. I don’t know about you, but free time is my worst enemy, as I become bored and restless very easily. Most people abroad, especially those in Europe, would solve this by traveling more, but even extensive travel was starting to wear me down (as well as wear my bank account down). So where do I go when I need to cure my angst? The beach.

 

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I know what you are thinking. “Dan, that is so stereotypical. Of course, everyone loves the beach. This isn’t something unique to Morocco.” You’re right, but cool your jets, because the beach here in Rabat is much more than your average beach back in the States. I frequent the “Plages de Salé” so much that I will most likely go there today once I finish this blog post. It’s a large beach that lies next to the Oued Bou Regreg river and the Atlantic Ocean. The place is magical especially in the evening as the sun sets on the water and bathes the Rabat Kasbah in an orange glow. It’s also the perfect place to let loose with both my American friends and meet some new people, especially when it comes to volleyball.

One Friday in February, a bunch of AMIDEAST students and myself decided to meet at this beach after couscous lunch to play some soccer and volleyball on the beach. We all meet up, draw our volleyball court in the sand, and start the match. In all honesty, we all chose to play volleyball because we knew we would make fools of ourselves in front of Moroccans if we played soccer. But soon all the Moroccans playing soccer matches around us started watching us play volleyball and soon joined in a classic Morocco v. United States volleyball match. This match could have lasted until the sun set, but strangely enough a large cloud of fog blanketed the entire beach. That’s when we had to call the match a draw even though the Moroccans clearly beat us, but that will be our little secret.

 

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Besides the views and activities on this beach, my favorite things about Plages de Salé is that it is only place where I have found Moroccans outside of their comfort zones. I’m talking about real Moroccan couples enjoying time together, Moroccans playing with their dogs in the ocean, parents building sand castles with their children, the list could go on. What I have found is that Moroccans operate their lives very differently between the spheres of public and private, making it hard to see Moroccans as who they really are. But here on this beach, I see their vulnerability more than ever. I see them enjoying life.

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“You Had Me at Mountains” by Dan Fitzgerald

Have you ever been to a wave pool at a water park? It starts out like a normal pool where you stand comfortably with the water around you. But then a machine generates waves and they get bigger and bigger until the next thing you know a wave hit you and you’re under water. That’s what it felt like when culture shock took its effect on me this past week.

I was missing the little conveniences at home like access to a Chipotle and Target, a guarantee that if I walk into a bathroom there would be toilet paper, etc. I felt like I was missing so many important moments in my friends’ lives back home, and I was beginning to tire of bartering in almost every transaction I had in Rabat. My individualistic viewpoint of the world and comfort with convenience I was accustomed too in America was in conflict. I was not alone though in these feelings as my friends also felt stuck in a continuation of annoyance and conflict, and the fast pace stress of the city wasn’t helping. I knew I needed a cure and fast.

“Why don’t we go to Ouzoud?” my friend asked me. “It’s deep in the mountains far from the city and tourists.” I responded, “You had me at mountains.” I packed a backpack worth of clothes, some toiletries, a book, and some snacks for the journey ahead.

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Ouzoud is this small, rural town in central Morocco known for its cascading waterfalls, mountain hiking, and monkeys. The town itself was full of construction sites for new hotels and buildings when I arrived, but it was still secluded and calm with just locals. I must admit, I never really enjoyed or preferred nature or scenic beauty back in the United States just because I thought it was boring. I’m a fast-paced kind of guy that craves constant stimulation and activity, and I always wanted city life. But this time was different.

I stood on the edge of the cascading waterfalls, looking at the mist covered canyon below. The water flowing out from the streams was a soft red as the earth around Ouzoud was mostly clay, and the sunlight hitting the falling water created a brilliant rainbow across the canyon. Monkeys near the cliff climbed on my shoulders and played with my hair and I was happy to let it happen as my stress started to drift away. The world seemed to get bigger as I got smaller. Now here I am, writing this blog post on my iPhone as I sit on top of a rock mountain, watching the last glimpses of light from the setting sun hit the adjacent mountain sides.

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Before I came to Morocco, I was so obsessed with doing as much as possible and constantly over spreading myself as I always did back in the United States. I assumed that since the world moves fast, I too need to move just as fast. But since arriving in Morocco and visiting places like Ouzoud, I’ve realized that life will keep going on no matter how fast or slow you move. It’s okay to slow down sometimes and just enjoy the world around you.

I haven’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works since high school, but a quote from him couldn’t be more fitting. “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them?” For me, these mountains and waves and skies of Morocco signify that time may pass and things may come and go, but the world will still stay relatively the same as long as you accept it that way.

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“Morocco’s Blue Pearl” by Sofia Deak

A few hours into a jostling bus ride through the Rif mountains in the north of the country, our destination came into view: Chefchaouen, the “blue pearl” of Morocco. I had seen some photos of the city before I came to Morocco, but they did not prepare me for the truly breathtaking beauty that my friends and I encountered on our arrival. The entire city is painted white and varying shades of blue, and thanks to our visit being during the off-season for tourists, we were able to fully enjoy and experience the quiet, simple life that is lived there.

As we wandered through the streets, marveling at the painted doors and glimpses of the surrounding mountains, a man approached us, asking us to take a photo of his shop down a side street. My friends and I hesitated — we had been warned about pushy vendors in Moroccan cities that attract many foreign tourists. A quick look toward his shop, however, quickly changed our minds; this was something worth seeing. Outside hung lanterns and screens of every color, woven from silk or wool, and decoratentry-2-photo-1-deaked with equally colorful tassels. The shop was aptly named “A Colorful Life,” and stepping inside was mesmerizing. Every inch of the small room, including the ceiling and floor, was draped with vivid carpets. Along the entire back wall, towers of neatly folded rugs and blankets reached toward the ceiling, and another wall was filled with shelves of herbs, silver teapots, and elaborately decorated clay pots, all framed by more carpets.

The shopkeeper, who introduced himself to us as Ibrahim, brought us tea and seated us on poufs in the little room, saying there are not many visitors around this time of year. He was impressed by our Arabic (or pretended to be!) but he is fluent in English, French, and Spanish along with Arabic, and began talking to us in our own language, as his English was much better than our Arabic. My friends and I were actually interested in buying rugs in Chefchaouen, because the location of the city in the mountains means that wool is a local commodity and rug-making is a big business in the region.

Sipping on hot mint tea, we admired the rugs Ibrahim unrolled for us, passing them around and using them as blankets. While I knew that part of this whole production was meant to encourage us to make a purchase, I was still thoroughly enjoying myself. Ibrahim proved to be quite funny, and had us all laughing as he described the different herbs he had in his shop and telling us about his family. My roommate Nazish found a rug she liked, and decided to practice her bartering skills with Ibrahim, which we learned this week in our Darija classes.

“Name your price!” Ibrahim beams. It is clear he is energized by these exchanges.

“I will give you 300 dirhams,” Nazish replied ($30 USD).

Ibrahim scoffed, pretending to be offended. “But this is such high quality! It is worth at least 450 dirhams!”
I nudged Nazish and told her to raise her price a bit, but she stood firm, saying “All I can give you is 300 dirhams.”

Ibrahim stood still for a second before reaching out his hand for a handshake. Grinning, he rolled up the rug and handed it over to Nazish, giving us all free herbs (I took a bag of lavender; my friends all took various types of tea) to take home with us. He insisted I take a photo of him with my roommate, since we “brought him good luck” as his first customers of the day.

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As we all shook hands with Ibrahim and promised to join his family for couscous next time we were in Chefchaouen, we left his shop smiling. It had me thinking about how different shopping is in Morocco— it is more social and more personal, and certainly more fun! My friends and I don’t know if Nazish overpaid for the rug or not, but either way, we all agreed that the experience itself was priceless.

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“Oh-Hana Means Family” by Daniel Fitzgerald

The meaning of family is one of the hardest words to define in the English language. To one person “family” might mean blood relatives, and to another it may mean wherever one lives.  As a kid, I always watched the classic Disney movie Lilo and Stich, the one about an alien creature named Stich that was designed to be evil but ends up becoming good and becomes the glue to Lilo’s broken family after her parents’ deaths. There is a memorable line from this movie that I keep thinking about here in Morocco and it’s “Oh-hana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind.” It has been a few weeks since I arrived in Morocco and I have found my Oh-hana.

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On a late Wednesday morning, myself and the other students were excited and anxious as we gathered into an AMIDEAST room to meet our new host families. Where do they live? Do they have any kids? I hope the mom is a good cook. And the most important question: will they like me?

That’s when my roommate Conner and I’s names were called out to meet our new host mom. She was wearing a long cloak and a patterned head scarf as she introduced herself as Hajja with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. She simply said a “Bonjour” and “Salaam” to the both of us and told us that our new home was only a ten-minute walk from AMIDEAST. I don’t know if you have ever experienced a moment when you are so nervous you forget how to talk, but I was. It seemed like it would be a silent walk to the house when suddenly we encountered a lot of traffic with cars honking incessantly. Hajja said something to us in Arabic and noticed that we didn’t understand what she was saying. Instead of giving up like I certainly would, she turned to both of us again and said with a smile “beep, beep.”

It clicked for us almost immediately. She was talking about the car horns and traffic. All our faces were beaming with joy from this shared understanding and knew that maybe our communication would work after all. Let me tell you blog reader that a determined attitude and great charades skills are one of the most important lessons I learned from my Hajj and Hajja thus far.

One night, my roommate Connor and I were practicing Darija phrases to use in a café in our dining area and we honestly didn’t sound that great. Instead of just practicing the words with us for pure memorization, Hajj and Hajja acted out a café scenario with us in our dining area and made some tea, coffee, and sugar cookies for the scene. I will admit, there was a lot of saying words over and over until we said them right (try saying half and half coffee in Darija and you will understand our struggle). However, that entire night was full of laughing at our mistakes, improving our Darija, and drinking some of the best mint tea.

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Connor, Hajj, and Hajja practicing Darija

No matter how many guide books I read about Moroccan culture and how to interact with other Moroccans daily, the best way to learn about Morocco is in the home with those who truly care about you.

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“The Unexpected Cats of Rabat” by Daniel Fitzgerald

For many people, a single day can change their entire lives. This can either be getting married, going off to college, having their first child, you name it. I knew that studying abroad in Morocco would be an exciting, new experience. However I never realized how much it would impact me in a single day.

I’m not going to lie, I expected the typical transition into my education abroad program that all my other friends were experiencing on their programs in Europe. Taking the classic photos of grand cathedrals and clock towers, going to the bars or clubs with friends they already knew from school, and speaking English with the locals around them. So many study abroad programs advertised in the United States hype up this feeling of easy transition into the culture, and that you will feel right at home in your new country. Boy, was I thankfully wrong.

I flew into Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport on a late Saturday night and immediately was shocked by the cultural adjustment of just going through immigration. It was almost like a free-for-all for whoever could get to the front of the line first. “Is this your first time visiting Morocco?” the security agent asked me. “Yes,” I responded in a jet-lagged voice. “You’re in for an adventure.” Everything I saw during my taxi ride from Casablanca to Rabat far exceeded any expectations I had for my entire semester. I saw children playing soccer in the streets off the highway exit, donkey carts strolling along BMWs, and not to mention the driving of all the cars which seemed to view road laws as a “light suggestion.”

 

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Picture of the Atlantic Ocean

 

For my first official day, I expected to be lectured on policies, class assignments, and all the other typical subjects of a study abroad program. Again, my expectation did not match reality thankfully. Our program planned a four-hour van-and-walking tour of the most famous sites of Rabat, from the famous Medina to the Mausoleum of Hassan II. Have you ever seen 50 cats in the span of two hours? Because I can say I have. I have seen more cats here, in fact, than I have seen in my entire life. Little did I know that I would already meet some of my greatest friends on the program through our shared love of cats.

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The king Cat in the Chellah

I honestly never could have imagined some of things I would see in Morocco in my entire life. Shall I count off the list:

  1. The tomb of the king that survived Moroccan colonization and independence
  2. A movie shooting in the Medina of Rabat
  3. The pouring of 7 glasses of tea that I thought could only be done in the hot chocolate scene in the movie Polar Express

The list could go on and on. But the biggest expectation that was far surpassed within the first day was making deep connections with those around me in Morocco. I thought these kinds of connections take months to create and foster, but what I found out is that you only need to be open and accepting to new situations and everything will fall in place. Isn’t that a funny lesson for study abroad? Just be prepared for everything to come.

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