So it’s been two weeks now that I’ve been back from my study abroad/service learning trip to Morocco. I went with a group of 15 University of Cincinnati students, and our faculty leader who quickly became our second mom. I didn’t know the majority of the people who went beforehand, but after spending 10 days and nights together, bonding with real human connection for the 23 hours a day we didn’t have wifi, teaching English to kids whose native tongue was Arabic, and experiencing a different culture together, I have an undeniable bond with each of them.
When you travel to an unfamiliar place, there are things that stand out and may seem strange from your usual day-to-day experiences. In my temporary, exciting new world, I was overstimulated with newness, and tried to keep track in the notes app of my phone everything I was experiencing. Here are the most memorable observations…
It’s the afternoon, and everyone’s knocked out. We were on a bus on our way to our hotel in Marrakech after landing in Casablanca. The bus stopped, and our faculty advisor, Dr. V, announced we were at a rest stop for anyone who needed to use the bathroom. I’d been holding it in for a while, so I was eager to rub the sleep out of my eyes and relieve myself. Dr. V told us to bring our toilet paper and hand sanitizer. My toilet paper was in my suitcase under the bus, but I did have one of those Kleenex packets in my purse. We walked into an enclosed space with marble from floor to ceiling. There were two stalls. Each stall looked sort of like a shower with a small hole in the ground, and two elevated stones to place your feet. There was also a small trash bin. We were all confused and kind of appalled at first when we realized we’d have to stand up, spread our legs, and squat– aiming to pee in that tiny hole. It was a very strange experience. I used my Kleenex to wipe, and placed it in the bin. I needed to pee so badly, so it felt good, and was oddly fun. But I think I prefer a toilet.
In Morocco, they don’t domesticate animals the way we do in America. Cats especially were EVERYWHERE. I don’t mind cats, but they littered the place. No matter where we went: restaurants, alleyways, schools, even the airport… they were lurking. It turned from “sorta-kinda-cute”, to “this-is-disgusting-and-making-me-uneasy” real quick.
Call to Prayer
On our first night in Morocco, I was awoken by a muffled, repetitive, humming sound. It was 5 something in the morning and the jet lag already made it really difficult to get to sleep. I thought it might be an alarm system to wake everyone up. It was so loud and over a speaker system. I prayed it would stop, but every time it grew quiet, it would just start back up again. We had to get up in 2 hours to start the day, and I needed to maximize those hours. The strange noise felt like it lasted an hour. When I asked the others about it the next day some said it woke them, others slept through it. We found out later it was the “call to prayer.” Since 99% of Morocco is Muslim, they pray 5x a day in correspondence with the rotation of the sun. When it’s time to pray, it’s announced on the loud speaker for everyone to hear. Thankfully it didn’t bother me after that first night.
This exact photo of the King was plastered everywhere we went. We saw it posted in schools, outside banks, in restaurants, etc. It was a constant reminder that he is watching. During one of our group conversations with the Moroccan university students, they shared that it’s illegal to say anything negatively about the King. You can not agree with his policies, but you will be found if you say something bad about him as a person. Compare that to here in America where people do not hold back at all about their feelings towards Trump. Something else I noticed is that out of the 4 schools we visited (2 different universities and 2 boarding schools), it was the younger high school students who had a lot of fervor and respect for the King. They sang their national anthem with pride and gusto. In contrast, a lot of the students our age were more liberal. They confessed they prefer our ideals like freedom of speech, and used facial expressions to show that they really weren’t into the whole Monarchy thing.
The photo above shows where we mostly stayed in Marrakech. It’s called the Jemaa el-Fnaa, which is a huge outdoor market place (Medina). Throughout the square there are booths set up, restaurants, and riads, or hotels tucked in the alleyways. Anywho, to get to our hotel we had to circumvent crowds of people. Many of them were trying to sell us stuff. Everyday when we got off the bus to return to our hotel after being out all day at excursions, there would be this same lady trying to sell us bracelets. Everyday we said no. We’d continue walking and someone else would try and convince us to buy watches. When we refused, they wouldn’t just go away, they would keep asking and follow us for a while. The worst of it was when little kids would come up to us. These kids are cute, and it’s not easy to say no, but we were told that’s what you do, and it got much easier to reject them as the days went on 😂. These kids were everywhere, and were probably sent by their parents to try and guilt trip the tourists into buying their tissue packets. I remember one night they went too far. A group of 5 swarmed a few of us as we were walking to a restaurant. They were not planning on giving up, and followed us for far too long, pulling on our clothes, touching our hands, even beckoning for a hug. We stayed strong. They quickly became a nuisance, and started to get more aggressive. One of them was holding an umbrella and “accidentally” bopped Dr. V in the eye with it. We’d had enough and had to raise our voices to shoo them away.
Celebrities for the Week
We were treated like we were celebrities because we were American. When we first landed in Morocco and had to go through customs one of the girls in our group got proposed to by the man checking her information!!! That’s when we knew we were in for an interesting ride. Walking throughout the Medina, we’d hear men shout things like “Hey, Nicki Minaj!” or “Rasta, Rasta”(because a few of us had dreads and braids). I think the best celebrity look-a-like was when someone was called Lady Gaga? In what world? That didn’t even make any sense. She looks the complete opposite of her. It seemed like they were just shouting any American pop culture references they’d heard about to show that they knew something about America. We also had strangers asking if they could take a photo with us. And then there were the guys from the University that we met throughout the trip and formed friendships with. There were 13 girls in our group, and by the end of our time in Morocco, 90% of us had a Moroccan bae. It became a running joke. Everytime we’d see someone paired up with a guy, conversing one-on-one with him we’d mutter things like, “I see ya girl” and “Get it girl, get it, get it girl.” It was hilarious.
Tree Climbing Coats
On our way to the beach in Essaouira the bus stopped so we could see these tree goats just chilling amongst the Argan fruit. We were all sleeping, and I feel like some woke up, got out of the bus, and probably thought it was a dream and turned back around. But this is real!!! They climbed up there themselves to eat the fruit which is also a valuable source of oil, and an important source of economy for the people of Morocco (it’s the only place Argan oil is naturally produced). The fruit, which is about 2–4 cm long, has a very hard nut surrounded by the fleshy part that the goats eat. Inside the nut contains one or two, small, oil-rich seeds. Once the goats digest it and excrete the seed, the nut is cracked open and the oil is used in salad dressings and cosmetics. If you look on the back of your shampoo bottle, you might just find it as an ingredient.
It became quickly apparent that strangers in Morocco are much nicer than strangers in America. People were constantly going out of their way to accommodate us. Exhibit A: Dr. V. got a call from the police and jumped to the conclusion that something was wrong, or we were in trouble. But they just wanted to check on us and make sure we were okay, asking if we needed anything. Unheard of in America. Exhibit B: In Casablanca all of us went out to eat at this restaurant, and upon leaving were looking for a place to exchange our money. The owner walked outside with us, pointed to where it was, gave us directions on how to get there, and even asked if he could drive us or walk us there. Unheard of in America. Exhibit C: On our second day in Morocco we visited a University called Cadi Ayad. We had a round table discussion with other students about everything from religion, to politics, culture to race, and we shared a meal together, toured their facilities, etc. Later that night they came to our hotel and showed us around the vicinity, giving us a walking tour. We then got dinner, came back to the hotel and played games all night. Throughout the rest of the trip at least one student showed up to accompany us on our excursions. When we went to ride the camels, took a carriage ride, visited the Atlas Mountains, etc. they were always ready to help us navigate, negotiate, and translate. Unheard of in America.
On our last day in Marrakech, we went to the Hammam. We split our large group of 16 into two groups, and I was in the second group to go. Dr. V had tried to explain to us before the trip that it was a bathhouse/spa type of thing. But I don’t think any of us were prepared for what was about to happen. We pay our 120 dirhams to get in (the equivalent of $12). When we got there the other group was just getting out. They were all naked. They giggled at our horrifying stares, and assured us it was sooo fun. So my group stripped down, put our things in a locker and preceded to the steam room. We waited in there for about 10 minutes with our special soap they provided, and our abrasive gloves we had to purchase beforehand. We all lathered, and joked that this was a whole new level of friendship. Then a couple of ladies who spoke in French and Arabic came in, grabbed my arm, lathered my chest and thighs some more and then splashed a bucket of water on me. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls stared, bracing themselves for their turn. I was then escorted to a room with tiled floors, sinks along the edge, other naked Moroccan women washing their hair and being rubbed down by the workers, etc.
There were tables lined up against the wall and I laid flat on my stomach, feeling like a blubbery whale because it was so dang slippery. The woman who rubbed me down was aggressive. I don’t think I had enough lather, so I felt like my skin was being exfoliated raw. I actually felt it tingling. Then I flipped over and she did the same thing to the front side. I paid extra for the massage. It was super quick, and unnecessary, but at least I can say I got the full experience. Also, the real icing on the cake was when our group walked out and saw our professor sitting in the locker room area waiting for us. So she saw all of us naked. It’s casual. I would do this again though, it was a unique experience.
My first time in Africa is one I will never forget. I am so glad I’ve accomplished my goal of studying abroad before I graduate. Stay tuned for more about Morocco in a future blog post.