Globetrotting

If—for some unfathomable reason—this blog is of particular interest to you, you may have noticed that I didn’t post last week. Rest assured that I’m still alive and writing, and I’ll do my best to relay a whole two weeks of my life in this one, brief post.

I’ll start with my jaunt to Chefchaouen, the blue city. A better writer would go into passionate detail about how picturesque, how quaint, or how remarkable this city is, but the inside of my head isn’t a pithy place, so I’ll get straight to the point: It really is blue, but not inordinately so. Imagine that some giant, clumsy toddler knocked a bunch of blue and white building-blocks down a mountain, and these all sort of stayed clustered at the bottom. Now imagine that these blocks are actually houses. That’s how I see Chefchaouen. It’s a actually a gorgeous city, but it’s also overwhelmed by a horde of tourists. My friends and I spent a weekend ambling around the city by night, in order to avoid the searing heat of day (and also because I am nocturnal). It was a pretty low-key excursion, unlike the one I’ve recently returned from.


This last weekend we went to Merzouga, a city about 500 miles south of Tangier, near the Algerian border. Tangier is genuinely beautiful, but it has strong European vibes. Tangier feels Moroccan, French, and Spanish all at once, which can be overwhelming at times. Moroccan culture is incredibly multifaceted in its own right, so I was glad to leave Tangier, where I feel like I have to crack through some sort of veneer to figure out what it is to be Moroccan. So I was excited to drive south, but I was not excited to travel by bus with 30+ other people. It was not an ideal situation, but I digress.

It was a rihla (a journey) of highs and lows. First, the highs: We stopped in Volubilis, or in Arabic, Walili, the ruins of a city that was established by the indigenous Amazigh people in the 3rd century BCE, and was later ruled by the Romans. A lot of the Roman architecture is still intact, and it’s definitely worth visiting if you ever find yourself nearby; it’s about an hour from the major city of Meknes, which is worth seeing as well.

But the best part of this trip was the camels. Merzouga is near a sea of sand dunes (for the geographically-disinclined, a lot of Morocco is part of the Sahara desert), so the program arranged for us to ride into the desert and sleep in a “traditional” camp. I’ve actually been to Merzouga before and done this exact thing, and the fact is that we camp fairly close to the city, and the whole thing is a tourist trap, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that camels are some of the most incredible creatures in existence. They’ve perfectly evolved to live in the hellacious terrain better known as the desert, and they’re adorable. I was jazzed about the camels.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now some lows: On the way to Merzouga, we stopped in a patch of forest known for its “wild” monkeys. You’re able to buy peanuts and bananas to feed them, and the whole set-up gives me uncomfies for a number of reasons. On one hand, I feel uncomfortable interacting with wild animals in that way, making them so trusting of humans and exploiting them for money. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s my place to come into another country and say “Hey, I know you depend on these monkeys for your livelihood, but my morals say don’t do that.” Not because I think my viewpoint becomes invalid when I try to express it in a country that’s not my own, but what right do I have to offer this criticism to strangers without offering viable alternatives, especially when they don’t have the same opportunities as me?

I also felt uncomfortable visiting the monkeys/participating in the camel rides to the sand dunes, because both activities are centered around a very artificial idea about wildlife and culture in Morocco, anyway. I know programs that send students abroad often include activities like these, which sacrifice authenticity for entertainment, which leads to a lot of conflicting feelings for me. In the end, even if I’m having fun,  I don’t think that I have a more genuine understanding of Morocco after this trip, and I worry that I’m going to find myself framing my view of the country from a stereotypical perspective.

However, I had one experience in these last few weeks that’s really stuck with me. A Moroccan friend mentioned that in all her 20 years, she had been to three cities in Morocco, and she had not visited another country before. Then she asked me how many cities I had visited. In my whole life, 20 years, how many cities have I been to? The truth is, I don’t know. Even as a kid, I visited different cities in Colorado, and several nearby states. My family never really had “vacations,” but even visiting Denver for the weekend was a big deal to me. In high school, I started traveling even farther across the country, and in the last 3 years alone, I have visited Asia, Europe, and Africa. For the longest time, I thought of myself as just some girl from Pueblo. Occasionally, especially when I’m talking to other Northwestern students who seem to travel everywhere all the time, I still feel like just some Pueblo girl. And yet, I’ve always been able to say that I’ve seen more than three cities. Even though the world seems so vast, and there are surely sights I can’t even fathom seeing, I’ve actually had quite a few adventures of my own. All at once, it’s a humbling thought, but still pretty impressive for this Pueblo girl.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Salam Alaikum!

Peace be upon you!

On this week’s episode of The Never-Ending Struggle (AKA my life), I’ll try to recall exactly what I’ve been up to since the last time I posted, but to be quite honest, my brain is pretty fried from all the language-learning. Also, for some inexplicable reason I like to work while listening to the  “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” soundtrack, so I’ve titled the post to reflect as much. This title also describes my life pretty well, so I’ll roll with it.

The Good:

For our cultural excursion last week we all went to the Kasbah Museum, which is a 600-year-old palace that currently houses artifacts from Tangier’s storied past. As far as museums go, it wasn’t half bad. The exhibits chronicle Tangier’s development from humble, prehistoric beginnings until early modern times. I was especially impressed by the Kasbah’s courtyard and garden, but I was utterly floored by the fact that the garden held not one, but TWO turtles. Furthermore, the garden at my school is home to YET ANOTHER TURTLE. Miracles are everywhere.

On another high note, I spent last weekend in the seaside town of Asilah which provided the respite from education that my mental-well being desperately required. Several other students and I rented out a traditional Moroccan riad, which is pretty much just a big house with a courtyard or garden in the center. Asilah is truly stunning, with massive, gorgeous murals painted throughout the old city. We happened to be in town while a major art festival was taking place, and even though I actually know nothing about art, it was cool to see the different exhibits.

We also had a wedding. That is, we acted out a traditional Moroccan wedding, using two students from our program as the bride and groom. I don’t care for weddings in general, but I think I would be down to go to a real Moroccan wedding. They seem very lively and there’s a lot of dancing, which is most definitely a plus.

Additionally, I’m very grateful for my host family. For the most part the only adults I’ve interacted with in the family have been women, which has been a unique experience for me because I wanted to learn more about women’s social roles in Morocco. For instance, one of my host sisters is single and works as graphic designer, but the other is married and raising three children and has a husband working overseas. My host mom is fairly religious and traditional, and she visits her mother and unmarried sister a lot. They all provide a more varied example of Moroccan women than I’ve witnessed before, which has been incredibly interesting for me. Plus, they’re really kind and hilarious, so I feel lucky to have them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Bad and The Ugly:

I learn a lot even when I’m not in class. For instance, I’m learning that Moroccan conceptions of beauty and “ideal” womanhood aren’t that different from the ones we have in America. Based on my observations, it seems quite clear that there’s a high demand for light skin and effortlessly-silken, wavy hair. I noticed this for the first time when I joined my host family for a trip to the salon before Eid al-Fitr. I spent nearly two hours watching as women with an assortment of hair textures willingly submitted their locks to the scorching breath of a hair dryer; all of them desiring the same gently-waved looked. On other occasions, a host sister marveled at pictures of me from when I used to wear my hair straight, and she struggled to understand why I don’t straighten it these days. (To be fair, if I can barely carry on a conversation about shopping in Moroccan Arabic, there’s no way I could have explained the politics of Black hair to her.) Another time, a relative of our host family expressed her fascination with my hair by actually clasping a handful of it. If this happened to me in America, I would have had some choice words for her, but in my Moroccan reality I coped by relying upon ample amounts internal screaming.

There’s also a very real preference for light skin here. Example: In Asilah, I happened upon a painting of a Moroccan public bath, or hammam. In a hammam you can pay a tiny, ancient woman who possesses the strength of a thousand body-builders, to scrub your skin until you are so clean that even a lifetime of sin has been washed away. This is only a slight exaggeration. I was initially intrigued by the canvas because I’ve been to a hammam, and I find them absurdly fascinating, but further inspection of the painting made me realize that all the dozens of bathing women were white, while a single, black-skinned woman had been painted dead-center in the painting, washing them. I realize this was in agreement with my own hammam experience, but it was somewhat shocking to see this juxtaposition depicted so clearly in a single painting. However, racial prejudice isn’t a strictly-Moroccan phenomenon, and life in America has prepared me for this very thing. So yes, I’ve glimpsed a facet of Moroccan culture that doesn’t sit right with me, but unfortunately it’s something I’m quite used to already.

All Aboard the Struggle Bus

Here’s some unsolicited advice: Don’t go abroad if you’re not willing to be uncomfortable. And when I say “go abroad,” I’m not talking about some bougie, vacation-y nonsense, I mean really engaging with and trying to understand the people and the culture in a country that’s not your own.

Granted, I exist in a constant state of distress, but living as a foreigner in any country makes discomfort all the more salient. In a program like CLS, where we live alongside native Moroccans, learn in a Moroccan school, and swear to use English only when necessary, moments of pure ease are fleeting and treasured. For me, the root of most discomfort here is the tenuous grasp on my own identity that has emerged during my time Tangier. In other words, I find it hard to be myself.

For instance, my adherence to the Arabic language pledge means I simply don’t possess the breadth of vocabulary that I have in English. There are certainly children (and maybe even some very clever pets) that possess a better knowledge of Arabic than I do, especially since my knowledge is mostly of the formal, written language. There have definitely been some taxi drivers and shopkeepers that think I’m a simpleton based on my pathetic attempts to communicate with them in Moroccan Arabic.

Living with my host family presents challenges as well. They’re truly wonderful people, but sometimes our mix of cultures and languages creates barriers I’m not able to overcome. Some of these are fairly simple, like when my host mom gave me traditional balgha shoes to wear. Of all the family members, I struggle to communicate with my host mom the most. When I realized the shoes were two sizes too small, I inexplicably chose to hobble around the apartment like a newborn giraffe in my tiny shoes. She so was happy to see me wear them that the struggle of communicating “Hey, these don’t actually work for my body” didn’t seem worth it.

Other issues are clearly rooted in who I am as a person, rather than cultural difference. My group trip to the beach town of Qsar Saghir exemplifies this fact. Qsar Saghir means “little palace,” and the town is home

to the remains of a 13th century citadel, which was really rad to explore. However, our trip also included a visit to the beach. This would have been a perfectly wonderful experience if I was the kind of person who wanted to go to a beach ever. Beaches tend to be composed of sand, water to swim in, and large crowds. In general, I have no interest in any of these things. But I made a genuine effort to enjoy the occasion, even though it wasn’t really on brand for me. I think a lot of traveling abroad is like this; the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality can help outweigh the fact that sometimes you have to do things you’re not terribly interested in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But some discomforts are genuinely grating, like when my Arabic professors asked me to describe the difference between women’s rights movements in the Arab world and America. In English, I know that several of my classmates and I could wax poetic about intersectional feminism, the diversity and history of women in the Arab world, etc., but we just don’t have the ability to communicate the same way in Arabic. The result of the activity was an oversimplified, problematic depiction of women in  both regions.  The inability to truly verbalize my most deeply-held beliefs/prove that I’m not a moron is unbelievably frustrating.

On the other hand, I’ve had moments where I’ve realized that my identity isn’t incompatible with life in Tangier. Before coming to CLS, the program provided me with advice on living in Morocco. One of the suggestions about minimizing cross-cultural conflict suggested avoiding the discussion of topics that might be perceived differently in Morocco than in America. Apparently, vegetarianism is one such controversial issue. I’ve been a vegetarian almost ten years now for moral reasons, but it was suggested that I tell Moroccans that health reasons prevented me from eating meat. Now, to say such a thing would be an outright lie, and my mama didn’t raise a liar. (Mostly because my mom sucks at lying, so she wouldn’t be able to teach me to do it, anyway.)  So when my host family questioned my eating habits, I told them the truth and waited for the bewilderment to follow. But it never came. They were polite and genuinely interested, even if they didn’t agree with me. We were different, but we could think critically about our differences and the reasoning behind them without attempting to decide whose views were right our wrong.

But I don’t want this post to make me sound like a total whiner, because the truth is I’m very lucky to even be on this trip, and my inconveniences are fairly minor and always temporary. And of course, there are times when I genuinely enjoy myself. Our 4th of July celebration was one such moment. I’m not really patriotic or into holidays, but I sure do love to dance. The second I saw a DJ come to our little school and start setting up ginormous speakers, it was like I was reborn. For few glorious hours I was myself, surrounded by my Moroccan and American friends, and all was right in the world.