This is my final week in Rabat and I’ve been rather remiss in keeping you all updated on my travels and travails! In this case however I have a good excuse: my twenty one page final Independent Study Project was completed on time and defended successfully! As of 11:00 am my time, I am official over with my Spring academic semester in Rabat and now I have the rest of this week to enjoy the city and play the tourist. Of course, I haven’t just been cooped up in a house reading, analyzing and writing for the past four weeks! I’ve also been travelling around Morocco to see more of the country. Every weekend I went to a different city.
First stop: Fez or Fes as the locals trans-literate it! One of the most confusing parts of Arabic script is that there is no direct equivalency between the Roman alphabet we use and the twenty eight letters and fourteen extra alphabetical symbols of Arabic! I was lucky enough to find an affordable hostel right in the center of the medina and like any tourist destination, there were signs everywhere pointing to the most popular destinations. My hostel was about five minutes from Bab Rcif, the most central medina gate and thirty minutes from Bab Boujloud, the oldest medina gate. And to get from one to the other I would through twisting narrow streets lined with hanoots and crowded with people both local and foreign. There were no bicycles, no cars, no motorcycles. Heavy deliveries were made by donkeys and mules. There was a constant buzz and hum of activity.
As one of the only people at the hostel who spoke a language other than English, I became quite popular for the two days I was there! I also finally figured out how to bargain which was vastly beneficial! A couple people who didn’t want to pay for the organized walking tours from the hostel explored with me and when we went to the souks I gave them all a show of hard core bargaining! I managed to argue down the price of a camel wool djilaba for one of the boys by half and got half of the remaining presents for my family.
Despite having a very nice two days in a medina marked as a UNESCO world heritage site, i was a bit overwhelmed just by the sheer volume of humanity there. Everything was so built up that from a distance you might see the tall tower of a mosque but as soon as you got within a mile it vanished and more likely than not you would pass right by without recognizing it. The sky was a dream that you thought might exist. Maybe that is why Fez is also known as the artistic capital of Morocco? Under the French government Fez was the capital of Morocco but even though it may no longer be the political center of the country, it is the cultural center. I made a point during my stay to take a art and culture tour where we were told about historical sites in the city and shown amazingly beautiful homes where carpets and jewelry of all types were sold.
The ancient medina of Meknes was very nearly the exact opposite of Fez. Where Fez was all narrow twisty streets that blocked out the sun, Meknes had straighter streets with fewer people and courtyards that were open to the sun. Instead of the new city being built right up to the walls, there was a vast green area. When I brought my lunch there, the sounds of the city faded away until the call to prayer was but a faint whisper on the wind. For the first time since the village stay in March, I couldn’t hear the incessant voices of people all around me, the blare of horns on a busy street, or the wail of sirens in the distance.
I also found a smaller courtyard in the new city right outside of the medina walls. This was a groomed garden with bushes and benches all around and horse drawn carriages. Across the courtyard was a wonderful little art gallery with handmade traditional clothing, carvings of wood small enough to fit into the palm of your hand or big enough to be the centerpiece of an entry way alongside hand carved furniture. There was also three-dimensional artwork such as paper-mache and metal/wood combinations meant to hang on the wall.
To emphasize the slower pace of Meknes, as I was leaving the art gallery and wandering through the courtyard, I saw two men playing cards. Both of the men were older and were sitting in the middle of the bushes on the grass. One looked like a business man wearing a suit jacket and slacks. The other was dressed more casually. Their shoes were off and a pizza box was their card table. I stood and watched for quite some time before they noticed me and when they did I asked if I could take their photo. They looked a little surprised but gave their permission and returned to their game.
GRAND CENTRAL STATION
Despite its reputation as a tourist destination, Marrakesh is my least favorite of all the cities I visited in Morocco. It seemed to me to be the most touristic, and the people were the most forward; especially the men. It is only in Marrakesh where when I stopped to ask for directions and told the person no, I don’t want you to lead me there, I was ignored and when I was ignored the guy summarily asked me to pay him. This is a risk for tourists in any city in Morocco.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, there were nice people in Marrakesh too. One shop keeper had just returned from time spent in Spain and was so delighted to practice his Spanish with me that he gave a a wonderful deal on some clothes to bring back to the U.S. Another also gave me recommendations on where to eat lunch and which historical sites were the best to see…. Along with his business card and an admonishment that if I ever came back to Marrakesh I should call him and his wife would make a wonderful tajine for me. It is by far the most modern Moroccan city I saw other than Tangier.
THE PORT CITY
My final destination in country was Tangier. Tangier was by far the most so-called European city I saw. Along the beaches were streets of dance clubs and bars and restaurants. This is also the only city that I had a friend coming with me! We learned that we made ideal shipping partners as the stores we were interested in were the same types of stores and we’re both the type to ask the opinion of the other person we’re with before buying anything. I wound up buying the final part of my grandma’s present from Morocco there when a shop keeper took a shine to me and showed me how to recognize quality and which brands were the best and then gave me a huge discount. We didn’t see many historical sites, but as a coastal city of international importance we thought that just experiencing the ambience was sufficient as we celebrated being able to use our Spanish. Buying groceries and cooking up a meal at the hostel was also a blast!
Next stop? Good ol’ US of A. Colorado here I come! I fly out on the 11th to arrive just in time for Mother’s day, closely followed by my 21st birthday, my older sister’s birthday, and my grandmother’s birthday. After nearly four months in Morocco, it will be a wild ride. Reconnecting with friends, picking up the strands left behind in the US, and figuring out my final year of college are all on my to-do list. My first time in Boston, since hearing about the Marathon Day bombing is happening just two weeks after I get home, to talk to my professors and the students I volunteer with. I wonder how it will feel to once again be surrounded by people I have known my entire life, speak the same language as I, and have similar cultural expectations. Most of all, I wonder how many, if any, of the friends I’ve made on this program will keep in touch. I know some of them are also heading back to Boston for college either this summer for summer courses or next fall for the first semester of their final year. However, others are headed straight to California to do the same on the opposite side of the country. We have all grown together this semester. We have laughed, cried, pulled our hair out by the roots from frustration over our ISPs (finished on time!), and most importantly matured. None of us are exactly like we were before we came here and that is a good thing. I have always been taught that to go through life unchanged means that you aren’t really living. I want to live.
I will post one more blog once I’m back in the states and just to keep you all waiting on tenterhooks, I’m promising to send along photos of all the presents I’ve mentioned in passing but haven’t identified throughout the semester! So long and talk to you soon!