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Experiences Can No Longer Be Contained In Words…

22 Apr
As I write my second to last entry in my Moroccan epic, that bittersweet feeling that has permeated so many moments in this experience has begun to seep back into my mind. This will, effectively, be the last post I author while sitting in Morocco. (The last post of the experience will be written in NY, before I alter this blog to accommodate my escapades in France as well). I’ve found myself worried about the withdrawal of excitement that may strike me when I return to the States, and have already started to concoct ways in which to avoid it (Mt. Washington ski/hike, a few weekends in Boston, plus what will inevitably grow into yet another summer of too much traveling, yet again fighting to contain copious amounts of wanderlust).

The last few weeks, between Gnawa music, the eventual successful trip to Kenitra (thank god), hiking the second highest mountain in Africa, Jebel Toubkal, (prompting the desire to find my way to Kilimanjaro… someday), I have to say that I tried. Regardless of my continued travels, and attempts to see all of Morocco, I still can’t shake the feeling that someway, somehow, I fell short. I don’t see this as any deep failure on my part, the human mind has a funny way of either thinking it has too much time, or not enough. We all fall into the same pitfalls, wasting time on facebook, email, or even just sleeping, and before we know it the time is up.

I definitely squeezed as much as I could out of the weeks following spring break.

Weekend 1,

Physical and economic recovery from spring break, some work and a few low key evenings relaxing and planning the biggest weekend of the semester.

Weekend 2,

Al-hayt Al-usbooah Kabeeeeeer (the biiiiiiig weekend)

Ready?

Go.

Train leaves at 3am Saturday morning.

Arrive in Marrakesh at roughly 8am. After some confusion and a complete inability to procure a decent breakfast, we settle on some coffee and hit the grand taxi lot. After meeting a crazy San Fransisco native who lives as an ex-pat in Paris, six of people cram into a beat up Mercedes to make the 2 hour ride to Imlil, changing drivers randomly and without warning 20 minutes outside Marrakesh proper (This is Morocco, This is Morocco…).

Make it to Imlil alive and well, grab a quick omelet, haggle over a guide only to realize we can’t, and decide to take the budget tour. Get our crampons (a bed of large metal spikes you attach to a shoe to walk through snow and ice) and start the 5 hour hike to base camp. Our oxygen is slowly disappearing (Base camp is at 10,000 feet. Rabat? Sea Level.), we are getting more and more tired as the day wears on, and the exertion is not ending. But,

Oh. My. God. was it gorgeous. This place was true back country, the wilderness in all its rugged glory and an environment that takes your breath away (in more ways than one).

4 hours in and I’ve given up trying to talk to anyone. Pushing, thinking only about my surroundings and the bed waiting for me not far away. As we approach base camp, snow begins to dominate the landscape and we are engulfed by a a slowly darkening sky (sunset was 2 hours ago due to the sheer rock face rising up on either side of us).

5 hours after our departure, we arrived. Exhaustion now means something wholly different from what it used to. I was on the verge of nausea/body shutdown.

After 30 minutes of slow recuperation and replenishment, I was alive, but exhausted.

8pm bedtime,

Wake up at 4:30am. Let this go on the record as the ONLY time I will ever wake up at that and and feel well rested.

5:30am and we are suited up and ready to go. The sun had yet to make its way above the solid rock that rose on all sides of us, so we started the exhausting hike pre-dawn. After some struggles, we make our way up to the summit (in the process getting lapped by some crazy Spainards…).

Summit at 10:30am. Gorgeous. This is one of those things you have to do yourself, because no amount of pictures will ever allow you to bask in this the way you need to.

“Time to head back down…..wait, crampon is coming undone. Really, again? Whyyyyyyy won’t this thing stay on, and more importantly why is our guide 500 feet ahead of me helping the female of our group who clearly no longer needs help? Does he even know where we are in relation to him? Ahh screw it, I don’t need his help anyway, plus she could use another Berber husband. Forget the crampon, I’ve got one foot that still works. Damn, snow is slippery, boot skiing time, and……go.”

I proceeded to make my way down the last quarter of the mountain on  some skiing skill, a whole lot of slipping, and a whole ton of luck. It was at this point that I determined that my Berber guide was no longer going to keep me any safer than I was going to be alone, so needless to say I stopped listening to him. (But, in retrospect, I would much rather have this story than have had his help…..foolish pride sort of a thing).

After a 4 hour hike back to Imlil, tea and a 2 hour taxi, we arrive in Marrakesh, with the Toubkal Gauntlet clock running at roughly 42 hours.

After a good warm meal, we hit the night train to Rabat.

Sleep?

Not if you don’t have a seat. What was to follow would rank among the most surreal 4 hours of my life. After 30 min stoop sit in the diner car, a booth in the car opens up.

Run.

Seat.

Safe.

I put my head down after shaking off some creepy army guy, wrap my personal belongings tight, and pass out.

1 hour passes.

Awake again.

Creepy army guy is trying to force some strange child’s head into his lap….no….the table? This is too much, back to sleep.

1 hour later… army guy gone, new guy next to me. Good, he speaks Fus’ha and French. We’re in Casa, and that seat bench is open? Great.

Restaurant bed, One more hour. Back in Rabat. Perfect. Sleeeeeeeeeep. (Followed by the most painfully sore 2 days of my life).

Weekend 3? Sick due most likely to the last weekend. Weekend 4? Work and relaxation in Rabat, and a good reminder of why I’m going to miss this place.

Now for a A Tribe Called Quest song, a deep breath, a pensive pose and… scene. Time to try and muse these last 3 and a half months into one thought flow… (and avoid the finals workload a little while longer).

PART II

I came here off of a sigh and a half-hearted acceptance. Oh… Morocco, yeah sure… *mumble* It’s not Niger…

I left behind my ease, my comfort, my stability. I gave up something I had spent the past year and a half building in Boston. I was really finally truly happy in that place, but, I also couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I had to shake so many times before. Comfort was never really the top priority. I left behind a place I was finally happy with when I left Saratoga. I did it again when I left Geneseo, and I did it a third time when I left Boston, and they still to this moment those decisions rank among the most intelligent things I’ve ever done. I now have 4 homes, so many friends, so many experiences and so many memories.

A couch is comfortable. You sink down into it, and never want to leave. You get your friends, your geographical comfort, and you don’t ever want to leave it. I don’t know, maybe something is wrong with me, but I cannot see the time in my future when I’m ever going to be able to fully accept that. I won’t lie, I’ve lost a lot from my wanderlust and movement: money, connections, security, and dare I say, even a tear or two along the way, but at no point in this entire experience have I ever felt that I made a mistake. I look at my future, and more of the same lies in my path. Fullbright? Peace Corps? Am I ever going to spend more than 28 months in any one place? Not likely. I’m not saying that what I set out for myself is something everybody should do, but I think that my underlying motivation runs through everyone:

Never, ever, for the love of god let your mind get the better of you.

Yeah, that was vague, but what I’m trying to say is, people, myself included, tend to get so set in our ways that we lose sight of the truly important things. We stay in the same place for nothing more than fear of moving. We date the same person for a year for shear fear of change. We spend our lives eating the same thing for fear of tasting something bad, and we trod in the same footsteps as everyone else for fear that walking off that path may lead to an injury.


I have, without posting my entire life story on the Internet, been victim to all of the above at some point before, and let me say this : New places are exciting, change is inevitable (and is often a good thing), new things taste damn good, and in my opinion, that less beaten path is 10x times more beautiful.

I write all this to preface my thoughts on Morocco for two reasons. One, I want to explain why I feel the way I do about Morocco in more abstract terms to outline the concrete, and two, maybe, just maybe someone will stumble across this and be inspired to do something daring, something new, and understand the point I’m trying to ramble to death.

A few discussions with old friends, family, weathered colleagues, and new friends have got me to thinking a lot about this experience, and I hope that the cathartic release of these thoughts will give these 4 months a little justice:

I left everything to come to a place that I knew nothing about to learn a language I was half-heartedly interested in and do things that I thought could easily be a boring waste of 4 months. But, on the other hand, somewhere deep down I knew that this was my only shot at study abroad, and I had to either take a leap of faith, or forever spend my life just guessing at what could have been. I held tight, bit my tongue, and sat down to truly prayed for the first time in a long time, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake.

I got here and my honeymoon period lasted about two weeks. Everything was new and cool, but that ended, and the culture shock set in. I can’t speak these languages, I don’t know whats going on, I wasn’t ready for this, what am I doing here? I just want to go home……give me my old life back. I knew this was bound to happen, but I questioned everything, trying to cling to everything I left behind, praying, hoping, that I was still right.

I was.

I adapted, I began to get comfortable, bond with new people, and I began to really, truly fall in love with this place. The daily battles, the constant frustration was accompanied with the most acute feelings of accomplishment I have had in my entire life. My life was constantly changing, and constantly throwing me for a loop, but I was hitting back, and loving every minute of it. Every day a new challenge, and every day a new reason to shake my head,  look into the clouds/ceiling and think “yeah, this definitely isn’t the US.”

Other people I know here have complained, spent many a weekend bound to the house, wondering why they didn’t feel the same way the students in past semesters had felt. I knew why. For many of us, our heart had never been in this trip, in this place, and we spent more energy thinking about home than we did about trying to enjoy this for what it was and stop thinking about what it wasn’t.

I have a confession. I’m going to have to fight back the emotion when I leave this place like those before me. I put myself into this experience. I spent my time in the Sahara Desert, on the tops of the Rif and Atlas mountains, in the obnoxious city centers of Casablanca and Marrakesh, on the beach, in the medinas, in the souks. I spent my time navigating Rabat at two am, getting yelled at for violating house rules, having dumbed down discussions in Arabic and French. I ate unsanitary street food, stopped using utensils. I spent a week in Spain and Portugal by myself just because. I did what I could, I did what I wanted, and I dealt with the consequences of those actions as they came to me. I regret not a single decision. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every decision has lead me to where I sit right now, and dare I say am very happy with that place.

In my opinion, there are less bad experiences than there are bad mindsets. If my battles here have taught me anything, it’s that people will construct whatever they need to in their minds to keep things out, or let things in. Morocco was not what I wanted in my study abroad……but I made it what I wanted. In the end, it was the experience I wanted, and it was the experience I got. I will never forget, for the rest of my days, the places, the people, and the experiences that stole my heart, that made me think, and that made this semester the best of my entire college career. I give up Morocco, you win…….Ahebuka (I love you), happy?

Morocco may not speak the language you want to learn, may not be your top choice of location, but its environments, its people, its cities and its atmosphere will make you love the place, all you have to do is make sure you are ready for it.

Anyway, that’s my verdict on Morocco. You can agree or disagree with me, but I will forever be sticking with my verdict. Come into this country with an open mind, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

I will leave you with this advice: If you ever get the chance to experience something like this… do it. I could just be the best decision you ever make.


“Bi-saha” (this one gets lost in translation)

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Can you Squeeze the Diversity of Morocco into a Week? I Don’t Know, let’s Try!

3 Mar

The feeling course through my veins is one that could only be described as bittersweet. It’s the feeling of coming down, losing the happiness of an experience and sinking into the harsh realities of what is to follow, knowing that it’s going to be anything but easy. It’s a feeling that is all too familiar, and far too double-edged, because the happier you get, the further you can end up falling. The repercussions, however, are stories for another time, another audience, and another blog post. Instead, I want to recount the journey that brought me to this juncture in time.

This past week was our “excursion.” This word has been utilized in so many ways and has become so bland and mundane that it pales to even begin to describe the week-long gauntlet of this program. Our week began in Rabat, with a mis-set alarm, and me waking up 2 minutes before I needed to be at the center. After a hectic run around, and panicked last minute check over my luggage, it was off to the bus 10 minutes late, and making that awkward boarding of the bus that you make when everyone else has already staked out their spot, and you don’t really know what to do or where to sit… grade school all over again. After settling in and starting the journey, I had to say that my expectations of the impending journey were somewhat mixed. I had made a cross-country trip once before, and knew the pros and cons involved. It didn’t much help that the road to Marrakesh was the most boring of the entire trip.  Guess you could say that I just wasn’t expecting the sheer massive amount of sensory overload that waited for me mere hours away.

If the sensory overload of Morocco came rumbling through my mind like a tiger two months ago, then the sensory overload of Marrakesh hit me with the force of a freight train. Stress, that’s the only way to describe those first tense hours. It started with a frightening scene between a group of street kids, and continued through countless directional arguments. But, unlike the Kenitra fiasco, all worked out in the end. After a stressed but successful visit to a few historical sites, we made our way to the main square in Marrakesh, and I had another one of those moments that seems to fit the entire globe into the palm of your hand. It happened once to me while in the Netherlands, stumbling upon the 3 of the only 4 people I knew in the entire city of Amsterdam. This time, I happened upon the two fellow BU compatriots who split from us earlier in the day, at the exact same moment I lost the ones I had spent the day with up until that point. Then, I set out upon my journey to “take in the sounds of Marrakesh,” In the process seeing a snake charmer, being attacked by a monkey, almost losing my partner in the field exercise to a motorbike incident, and walking through areas of the medina that were far from “touristy.” The verdict was not positive for Marrakesh, but I felt that there was something from that negative assessment. Marrakesh was big, and rough. It was also rife with tourism, but I couldn’t help feel that underneath the veneer there was some truly remarkable experience to behold. Maybe it was in the constant dodging of harassment and endless drug offers, or even in overcoming the sheer mass of stress that descended upon me the second I set foot in the city… but one day I will find it. All this, and I only left Rabat 24 hours ago…

Ready? Gauntlet time. Leave Marrakesh at 8am, don’t reach Zagora until 6pm. Go! Long ride yes, but oh. my. god. I thought that I had been able to subsume that passionate desire to ski everything I saw, but the Middle Atlas range quickly proved to me that I was sorely mistaken. The mountains were reminiscent of Cottonwood Canyon Utah, and I quickly found myself wishing I could put off the desert for just one day to spend it in these mountains. I knew that wasn’t possible, so instead I turned up the Arcade Fire and put my head back and daydreamed the ride away. After a day of wishful thinking, we made our way to the “Northwestern Gate to the Sahara,” Zagora, and settled into our Kasbah styled hotel. Zagora was, in a word, amazing. “This is Africa, This is Africa” kept running through my head, and it finally felt like I had made it, this was where the last 4 years of my life came to fruition, I was truly “here,” and the swell of emotion that accompanied it made me feel like a giddy 5 year old all over again. After a walk around the city, and the purchase of the first 2 of my eventual 3 turbans, it began to sink in. Tomorrow, I sleep among the dunes of the Sahara.

The next day started off with my final turban purchase, and the commencement of the dialogues that would dominate the next few days. The shops who would give me an outrageous price, then tell me that they were giving me a “student price” only to have to tell them to go shove it before getting them to a price that was near where the actual cost would be. I also bought a Taureg cross, my first of two, since this one was to be “sacrificed” to the dunes of the Sahara. After watching the jewelry making process, we headed to have lunch with a nomad, “former” nomad, since he now lived a sedentary life. He was an interesting fellow, and the lentils were awesome. He had two wives, led his tribe and represented them for the government, after he had spent his life living amongst the dunes of the Sahara. It was hard to figure him out, but he was definitely a man who just exuded a sense of propriety and royalty, even as he sat in a hut that couldn’t even attempt to pass as “low income housing” in the US. After lunch, it was time to head for the Dunes. The ride through the dunes could only be described as “rough,” as we bounced around in the back of a legitimate land rover, being used for its legitimate purpose instead of overcompensating for some yuppie back in the states. After a fair amount of singing/shouting/getting thrown into one another and into the roof, we made it to camp, with plenty of time to run into the dunes and play in the sand. It’s funny, even at the age of 20, a group of people are still likely to jump around in the sand as if they were still in grade school if provided the chance. And why not? It was the most carefree I have felt in a long while, and you can’t really trade that for anything. After some romping in the dunes, it was time to ride the camels. I can’t say that it would ever become my preferred method of transport, but it was pretty damn cool. Camels have legs that fold about a thousand times, so getting up on one is somewhat akin to a roller coaster ride, only backwards. I must say that the night in the desert only built upon the epic nature of the day. It’s amazing how much can be done with so little. Mix sand with a bunch of college students, a group of Saharan Amiziri people, a few drums and a fire and all of a sudden you just finished the needs for an evening. I think this formula is a testament to how little we truly need to be happy, and how sometimes the best way to spend an evening is lying down on a sand dune (or a field if the dune is unavailable), and just staring at the stars. After a night in the Sahara, being woken up by camel sounds, we made our triumphant and somewhat sandy ride back out of the desert.

After the desert, we made our way to Risani to spend the night. We decided that swimming off the sandy haze that surrounded us would be a good idea, right? Wrong. Although we committed to a 5 min icy plunge into the salty pool of the hotel, it was far from enjoyable. But, far be it from me to pass up a challenge, so I made the plunge, and beat a hasty retreat with my fellow brave compatriots. Fes in the morning.

After an uneventful ride to Fes through Ifrane (Moroccan Switzerland. No Joke), I broke my communication fast and hit an internet café quickly. Our following day in Fes consisted of the basics, touring the medina, seeing people making everything I had been seeing in the souks (markets), and just reveling in the process of “how it’s made.” No epiphanies today, just a mental not that I need to return to Fes. One day was not enough.

After Fes, we made a stop in Volubilis. Nothing to terribly notable here. Beautiful Roman ruins in the Moroccan breadbasket, gorgeous. We got to see the most interesting group of Japanese tourists, which made my morning, but then it was onto our last stop (After lunch in the incredibly picturesque Moulay Idriss). Chefchaouen, here we come.

I can only describe Chefchaouen in two words. The first describes the clientele: Hippy. The second describes the feeling of this place: Cathartic. After an evening there, among the blue streets, drinking tea and talking, the hectic madness of the week past melted away. I was calm. That calm feeling continued, even though getting up at 6am to hike the mountains that Chefchaouen lay within. This hike was easily one of the highlights of a week of highlights. The steep terrain, the sense of accomplishment, the 2 Street Dogs who kept us company throughout our entire hike, and the scenery were indescribable. The entire hike took almost 6 hours of heavy footwork, and we didn’t reach the true summit, but reaching the ridge was amazing enough. That morning will forever etch a place in my memory among the ones I escape to when I need to smile, and I would rank this place right along with the Sahara as a must see. After a morning filled with physical exertion, I rested my way right back to Rabat, after a quick look into the olive oil making process.

In closing, I have to rank this past week among the all-time highlights of my travel experiences. The views, the experiences, the knowledge and the feelings were visceral, and it was a once in a lifetime week that I don’t think I will ever truly replicate again. I just hope Portugal and Spain are listening well… they have a damn hard act to follow.

Shuf!/Shufi! (Look!)

Casablanca, Real Madrid, Etc.

19 Feb

It is almost incomprehensible that I have not written in almost three weeks for my blog. The time is passing in two speeds, the tiresome daily drawl that exists anywhere you put effort into your work, and that speed in which you look backwards and try to figure out how it went so quickly. It moves like the wind, slow on the surface, and like a bullet the further you rise up. Sometimes this needs to be taken into account, and you just have to find an hour to sit on a park bench and do absolutely nothing…

These past few weeks have flown by. The stress of Arabic and classes has normalized into the same grade worried stomach knotting experience that has typified my college career. The true stories now lie in the slowly developing comfort and the adventures that ensue of the aftermath of stupid statements like “Let’s go to Kenitra…No, I don’t know what we’re going to do when we get there…”

Last weekend was one that will forever etch a need for foresight into my memory. After a bar-filled evening of the most dingy, and literally fascinating experiences of my life, concluding with a McDonalds McArabiya and fries, I decided to convince a select few to hop a train to Kenitra, a beach town 40 minutes north of Rabat, with no plan, minimal information, and nothing more than a vague idea in my head. In hindsight, not a good idea, but it was one of those experiences that has grown better with time.

A learning experience.

We get to Kenitra, and after 10 minutes it becomes clear that this is not Rabat. The out of place feeling pervaded more deeply than ever, and for the first time ever I truly came to the terms with being an outsider. Harassment and an exhausting amount of walking, we beat a retreat to Rabat without finding a way to the beach (a 15 minute drive from the town itself). After returning, the feeling of defeat slowly faded, and an overwhelming desire to make another outing with a little more foresight came to the top. This weekend was that redemption.

After a work-filled weekend evening (they suck even more abroad), I beat a hasty retreat to bed, chuckling about the earlier events of the evening (I made my first purchase of significance, a soccer jersey. I bought Ronaldo’s Real Madrid Jersey, the best prossibly fake jersey I have ever seen, for roughly $12, placing myself in the Madrid Camp in a Barcelona Stronghold. After being told that it was 130 Dirham, I wanted to tell him 50, instead, saying 15 in Darija. After a serious amount of laughing, and some discussion, I got the jersey for 100, and my little brother told everyone in the entire house the story of me getting the jersey, laughing hysterically when he got to the part when I said “Hemztache” (15)), and got ready for my early morning departure for Casablanca. The trip, and ensuing madness was just more of the same third-world harassment that has become just another part of the day. We walked around, coming upon uninteresting spot after uninteresting spot. We eventually made our way to the Mosque of Grandeur, the Hassan II Mosque, a mosque ranking 3rd in the world in size. The grandeur of this place has been unrivaled by any building I can recollect, and none of the pictures I could take captured the mass of this place. After the mosque grandeur, I took in a warm sun-soaked day by the Ocean, basking in the fact that, yes, it was in fact the beginning of February. Upon our retreat to the Hostel, we ran into problems… hearing horror stories of passport theft, I left my passport at home thinking it was wise… ooops. I eventually found out that I needed my Moroccan entry number to sign into the hotel, the number stamped in my passport. Luckily I was one of three in this conundrum, so set out with an address given to us by the uptight and evil old man of the Hostel, and made our way to the central precinct of Casablanca. Upon arriving at a large granite and plaster building, we maneuvered our way through many Casablancan police officers to a decrepit interior of the precinct to a room literally lined, yes lined, with forms much like the one we needed to fill out for the hostel. Tourist Police are a big deal here… We managed through our speech fine thanks to French fluency on the part of my companions, and actually had a conversation with the police office worker filling out our numbers for us (I scraped through this process on a NY State ID…….needless to say it was a stressful evening). After a quick revel in what we had just accomplished, we beat a triumphant retreat to the Hostel and relaxed. What followed that was a night of Paella, sketchy weird bars, and more of the same Moroccan experience that I have grown to love. After a good night, we slept, and made a much more triumphant train ride home than we had taken back from Kenitra.

Casa Verdict: A city worth the visit and worth the experience, but nothing that would require another night in the city. I would give the city a visit without a doubt, but there is no need to linger in its atmosphere.

Comfort and a feeling of home set in upon my return to Rabat, and I finally felt like this place was becoming part of me, part of my life experience, and it felt good. Dare I say, Morocco feels a little like home now, another area to add to the list of comfort I have that I am determined to stretch across the globe. But… along with that has come a sense of boredom…something I am sure the desert will change for me on Monday.

Meshi Mushkil (Not a Problem)