Ahlan Wa Sahlan min Al-Magrib: Welcome to Morocco

by Danielle Boyd

I’m not really sure what I expected when I booked my trip to Morocco, but I can tell you what I didn’t expect. Lush farmland. Crystal water over white sand. Unbelievably friendly people. Being inspired to learn Arabic. I´d heard so much about how supposedly dangerous the country would be, but it wasn´t until I was immersed in this culture that I realized I´d jumped to conclusions that were completely wrong.

I´d left Spain on a Thursday with the hopes of avoiding the typical weekend traffic.  From Sevilla to M’Diq (in Tetuan, Morocco) takes a little over five hours with traffic and a slight delay at the border between Europe and Africa.

The first city I visited was Chefchaouen, also known as “The Blue Pearl”. All of the buildings, streets, and even walls are painted blue, making it one of the most unique views I´ve ever seen.  Chefchaouen (or simply Chaouen) is located in the Riff Mountains in the northern region of Morocco. Situated in the mountains, Chefchaouen’s markets offer a lot of handicrafts that aren’t available in other parts of Morocco, such as Casablanca and Marrakech. This is due to the proximity to the Berber people who live exclusively in these mountains. The city is most well known for wool garments and blankets along with goat cheese.

Morocco is a country where bargaining is a part of the culture, something that was definitely new to me!. While at a market, I decided to try my hand at it. I saw two striped scarves the same shade of blue as the city for 350 dirham, which is about 36 U.S. D. The man came over and we started negotiating. Eventually, I was able to wiggle the price down to 200 dirham, about twenty-one dollars. As I handed over the colorful paper money, the man placed the scarves in my hands and I couldn’t help but fill up with pride. This was my first time bargaining and I was pleased with how well I did.

What I enjoyed the most about bargaining was, having to think about the value of the product that we normally don’t do in America. At first, I felt bad knowing that I was putting a limit on someone´s income in a region where poverty is evident. But after a bit of thought, I realized that the prices were set higher with tourists in mind. Still, I felt like the process changed my view of shopping. Instead of thinking of price in terms of comparison, it was more of a calculating consideration. When I want a scarf at home I’ll try to remember the cheapest one I saw, accepting what the American economy tells me a scarf should cost. In Morocco on the other hand, I found myself assigning a value to the scarf completely independent of what the price was. What material is it? How much time and effort went into making it? How unique is the product? How good is the quality? I figured since I was buying two hand made products that I got to watch being made, $21 USD or 200 dirham was a pretty decent price. Bargaining is an experience I know I’ll never have in the United States and certainly one that I will not forget.

+

The second city I visited, Tangier, is one of the largest cities in Morocco. The city has a coastal vibe and city life feel to it at the same time. When I got to Tangier, the first thing I did was ride a camel on a beach where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean. It only cost about $3. After that we went into the center of the city and went to a fruit and vegetable market.

After just a day in Tangier, I circled back north to Tétouan. We went to a traditional market and restaurant. There were hundreds of people bargaining but it was mostly food and spices unlike the one in Tangier which had more jewelry and clothing. I bought a couple souvenirs and gifts, my favorite one being a shoulder bag made from camel hide from the only stand that sold something aside from food. The asking price was 270 dirham, but I got it for 70 since that was the last of my Moroccan currency.

After the market, we went to a traditional Moroccan pharmacy . The blue and gold mosiac tiles arranged into patterns reminded me I wasn´t in America or even Europe. The pharmacist began by talking about some of the products in Arabic and then apologizing by saying “lo siento… no hablo espanol…” (sorry, I don’t speak Spanish), but then switched to perfect English and French. Turns out he really did know Spanish to but wanted to see if we understood any Arabic. He was hilarious and had many super interesting things for a decent price. Most of what he was selling was cheap makeup.  I had a few dirham coins left, so I bought some lipstick for my mom. The cool thing about it is that it looked green, but when you put it on it was actually a pink color that blends according to the color of your skin.

+

I learned a lot of interesting things about Morocco. The flag caught my attention. I asked a man in Chaouen while I was having lunch. He moved his chair moved the next table over to mine and began to explain its significance. If you´ve never seen the flag, it’s red with a green five-pointed star at the center. The red represents bravery and strength while the star represents the five-pillars of Islam. Ninety-eight percent of the country practices Sunni Islam, and unlike lot of other Arab countries, there isn’t conflict between religions. Although Islam is the most common, it is acceptable for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other religious groups to live and work together. After having heard so much about conflict between these religions in the past, especially in the middle east, I really appreciated Morocco´s ability to allow all of them to coexist. It´s so easy to forget how fortunate I am as an American and that not everyone has the freedom to live how they want.

Although it is a very agricultural country, it was pretty clear while we were there that resources aren’t as abundant as in America or even Europe. We had to buy bottled water since Moroccan water isn’t safe to drink and nearly every neighborhood we walked through had its share of street vendors, desperate to make even just a few dollars (or dirhams) so that they could provide their family with something.

On the way back to Tangier, two teenage boys jumped on the back of our bus thinking that it was going directly back to Europe. Going back through customs on our way out of Morocco took a while. One of the reasons it took so long was because they had to search our cargo space for children. It’s incredibly common for parents to put their kids there with the hopes that the children will make it to Europe and have a chance at a life in a wealthier country. It´s not uncommon to hear stories like this, but seeing it firsthand left me speechless.

 

Read an interview with Danielle here.

Advertisements

Interview with Danielle Boyd

Where did you go?
I spent a semester in Seville, Spain which in in the southern part of the country.

What made you choose this GO trip?
I really wanted to experience Spanish culture to the fullest. Studying in Seville allowed me to stay with a host family that didn’t speak a word of English along with experiencing some of the country’s biggest cultural events. Since I was there in the spring, I was able to experience Holy week and the April Fair which are both HUGE events in Spain, especially in Seville. People from all over the world flock to Seville for these events so being able to see how the city prepares for these events was amazing.

What is one of the most memorable things you did on your trip?
One of my favourite trips was when I went to the Swiss alps. Switzerland itself was amazing, but being surrounded by something as impressive as the alps made me realize just how immense the world is and what a small place I occupy. It was definitely one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had and one that’s impossible to put into words

Was it difficult adjusting to a different culture? Especially one where English isn’t the first language?
I think there’s always difficulties when adjusting to a new culture. I definitely missed my family and friends at first, but living in a foreign culture, especially one that doesn’t speak English, can really be an eye-opening experience. Once you get through the phase of missing home, it’s easy to notice things that are different and appreciate them. One really great thing about studying abroad is that it challenges you to see things as people from other parts of the world do.

Would you change anything about your trip?
One of the reasons I love traveling is that every trip takes on a life of its own. Although I enjoyed some parts of my time abroad more than others I wouldn’t change any of it. Even the negatives like having my credit card stolen helped me learn how to survive on my own which is something I’ll always carry with me. So no, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Would you go back to Morocco? Spain?
I loved being in both places. I definitely see myself going back to both one day, but for now I know I want to see other parts of the world. Traveling to Morocco made me realize that the world is never what you’d expect and it can take you places you’d never expect. I was nervous when I first traveled outside the US, but after coming back to he US I realized it was something I loved. My time in Europe inspired me to travel to southeast Asia this past winter which resulted in me getting my first full-time job in Taiwan.

What advice do you have for someone traveling abroad?
Don’t always do what feels comfortable. I think a lot of people travel to and study in places like London because there’s a certain level of familiarity. But the most rewarding experiences I’ve had abroad are from places that I never thought I’d travel to. Places like Morocco, Turkey, and Thailand where the cultures are drastically different were the places that I felt most impacted by. Don’t say no to a place just because there’s a language barrier or because it’s further away from the US.

The Hammam

by K.C. Schweizer

“A hammam is like a public bathhouse where Moroccans go at least once a week to cleanse themselves. It’s a social experience for many.” As our guide, María told us this the first time, all six girls looked at each other on the bus and made a face. There was no way were we going to bathe in front of each other. We had been travelling as a group with our university for three weeks already throughout Spain, but, there was no way we were about to get naked in front of each other.

“Are you guys going to the hammam?” Jordyn had asked later in the day as we were leaving a youth center.

“No,” Brittany said, “I have my period, I don’t feel comfortable going with it.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I wanna go either, I don’t feel good,” Ally said, an obvious cop out. Jordyn looked at me hopefully.

“I don’t know guys,” I shrugged, “I think it would be kind of cool. It’s part of their culture, and a part of traveling is about trying new things. C’mon, when are we going to get the chance to do this again?” I knew if one of us said yes, maybe it would change everyone’s mind. More importantly, it had been three days since anyone had properly showered. The homes in Rabat, Morocco didn’t have the showers that we are privileged to in America. One group said that they had to bathe in a bucket and almost broke down in tears about how awful it was. The home I was living in had a faucet in the bathroom, next to the toilet that I washed my hair under after the second day. Our homestay sister never showed us where the real shower was. We didn’t know if they had one and we were too shy to ask since hygiene wasn’t as important to Moroccans as it was to us.

Our homestay sister, Fatima, told us one day at lunch that the hammam is a great experience for women, especially since many Moroccan women don’t get to leave the house often. It was a time and a place for women to get together and share the latest news and gossip or to relax. She said it was very nice and definitely something that we should do. We tried to tell her we weren’t sure how comfortable we were with being naked in front of each other. Fatima assured us it was no problem, we could wear a bathing suit, but not to worry because it was custom to be naked in the hammam and therefore not weird for others.

Ally, Chelsea, and I had only a few minutes after a group outing through the medina to run into our house and upstairs to get dressed before we had to run back downstairs to collect some buckets and towels. Once we had everything we needed we followed Fatima out the door and through the maze of a neighborhood we lived in and headed towards our meeting spot, the palm tree. Jordyn was the only other girl who was coming with us and we met up with her before we reached our meeting spot. She had the guide with her, a girl about eighteen, who showed us to the hammam and what to do when we were there.

It turned out the hammam we had passed every day on our way to the meeting point was the one that we were going to. We walked single file through the door and, our guide said something in Arabic to the woman at the counter, a greeting perhaps. She gave us each a scrub glove, shampoo and body wash. We followed our guide through another door that had a sign that hung above the door frame with the picture of a lady, like the ones you would find outside a restroom. This room was like a locker room, only there were no lockers. This was called the changing room. We went under a curtain that provided more privacy if the first door happened to be open and a lady walked by not dressed. The room was warm and the air was thick and steamy like a pool room. There were benches around the room and hooks to hang belongings on. We found a spot to put our stuff behind a half wall where we took off our shoes, reluctantly, not knowing what crawled on the floor and we took off our clothes, keeping our bathing suits on. I could see down the short hallway that lead to another room where there were a few other women. I could also see that there was another room on the other side of the first room I was looking into. There were two different rooms because one was a hot room and one was a cool room.

I saw a large woman walk by with nothing but something that vaguely resembled some kind of bathing suit bottom on her lower half, although it was hard to see because she was quite hefty. Her breasts hung large and sagged down to her waist, her sides engulfed her lower half. Embarrassed, I looked away and the three American girls grabbed their buckets and we followed our guide into the hot room.

Our guide instructed us to fill our buckets at the spigot, so we did as two Moroccan women stared at us while they sat on small step stools completely naked. Tourists don’t often visit public hammams, so we were quite a sight to see for them. We avoided eye contact and once the large buckets were filled we struggled to take them to a corner on the other side of the room where our guide was sitting. She was completely topless and sat cross-legged on the floor. I tucked my legs under me, afraid whatever bacteria that crawled over the floor would find their way not only to my bare feet, but to my butt as well. I wasn’t sure how clean this place was, but I guessed it was dirtier than pool locker rooms or saunas. We had two large buckets and everyone had their own smaller bucket for taking water and pouring it on ourselves. Our guide introduced us to henna. I had always thought that was strictly for henna tattoos, but you are able to use it as a body wash as well. I held the brown jelly in my hand and used my scrubbing glove to spread it over my arms, unsure of whether or not I liked the smell. It wasn’t fruity like most body washes I was used to, but rather more herbal and grassy.

The large woman I had seen before walked into the room and came over to us. She was a hammam attendant. She and our guide exchanged some words in Arabic and our guide translated and asked if any of us would like to pay fifty dirham, about five U.S. dollars, to be scrubbed down by this woman. Ally was the first one to volunteer, but I don’t think she understood what it meant. I don’t think I fully knew what it meant. I was happy bathing myself in the hammam and experiencing the culture this way. Having a large topless stranger with sagging breasts scrub me down seemed a little too much for me. The woman took Ally over to the opposite corner from us and sat her down on a thin blue mat that was just barely longer than her torso, and had Ally take off her top. Not wanting to stare, I turned my back and struggled with shampooing myself and dumping water onto my head trying not to get soapy water in my eyes the way my mother used to do when I was a child. Only doing it myself wasn’t as enjoyable.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the woman had made Ally lay down and was leaning over her, scrubbing roughly, Ally’s body swayed back and forth as the woman scrubbed. Ally looked tense and I felt sorry for her. I don’t think she fully understood what was meant when the woman asked if she wanted to do it. When she was done the woman pointed to the floor and Ally’s legs at the dead skin. It was gross. Then the woman roughly dumped the bucket of water on Ally, washing away the dead skin. It seemed abrupt, but necessary. A chill ran down my spine as I thought about all the dead skin that was probably on this floor.

Chelsea was the next to be washed, then Jordyn and then myself. The biggest issue I had with the hammam was having someone scrub me down, but everyone else did it, and I went to the hammam in the first place to experience the culture so I figured I might as well. When was I going to do this again anyway? I said yes before I could change my mind.

The woman took me over and motioned for me to take off my bathing suit top, I was grateful my hair was long enough to cover my small white breasts. The woman took my exfoliating glove, even though I thought I already did a good job of doing it myself and she went to town, first on my arm, then my chest. She instructed me to lay down and moved my hair away from my body. I stiffened as this very large woman moved the glove across my chest. I don’t like being topless, much less in front of a woman I didn’t know, in a place I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Could she tell I was tense? I stared up at the ceiling waiting for it to be over. I sucked in my belly uncomfortably as she scrubbed over my breasts, afraid it would hurt and she would scrub them right off. She was gentle there, rougher at my collarbone. She lifted up my arm and scrubbed my underarm, I smiled and tried not to squirm. I was ticklish. I think I saw a hint of a smile across her stern face. Were Moroccan women ticklish too? Did they giggle when their under arms were scrubbed?

Then she leaned over me and scrubbed my left arm, her breast hanging inches away from my ribcage. I tensed again, I didn’t want it to touch me. Then she washed my legs, I stiffened when she grabbed my bottoms and pulled them a little out of the way. How far was she going to pull them? I didn’t want her scrubbing my crotch, that was a little too personal for me. She didn’t though and once I realized that I relaxed and she had moved down my thighs, over my knees and down to my shins and then my feet where my toes curled because I was ticklish there too.

She motioned for me to sit up and look at the dead skin down at my legs, the way she did with Ally and I was disgusted. The skin on my legs looked a lot like the skin I peel off my back after a bad sunburn. I flashed a surprised look at the woman, hoping she understood that I was not only disgusted by the dead skin, but impressed with her work.

Then she motioned for me to roll over and I did, the mat cool against my bare stomach. At least my breasts were covered now. The woman went to town on my back and I nearly fell asleep. She moved down my back and towards my butt, moving my bottoms slightly like she did before, then she did the backside of my legs and went down to my feet again, really scrubbing at the heels. My toes curled again. She dumped water over me, washing away the dead skin. Then she had me sit up and she moved my hair and scrubbed my neck, front and back. Suddenly sitting upright next to her, I felt like a small child being washed by its mother. She threw more water on me with the small bucket and to finish it off she took what water was left in the large bucket and dumped it over my head.

I threw my now re-soaked hair back over my head, since it fell in my face and said thank you, nodded and smiled. I don’t know if she understood the English phrase thank you, but I figured the smile and the nod was pretty universal. The other girls had disappeared, except for our guide, into the changing room to gather their belongings and dirham for the woman. I gathered my things from the bucket and dumped out the rest of the water. It was nearly seven; the hammam was closing, it was time to go. I fixed my hair to fall over my breasts as I walked out to meet the other girls in the changing room who were getting dressed.

“What’d you think?” Jordyn asked.

“It was actually really cool,” I said, satisfied that I had done it.

“Oh my God I know! That was amazing!” Ally echoed. She found the large woman and gave her her dirham. Once we toweled off and put on our dry underwear we followed our guide back to the house. She knew Fatima and knew exactly where we lived, which was good because we had no idea how to get back to the house and had no way of contacting anyone in the house to come and pick us up. It turned out our guide and Fatima were very good friends.

The night was cool and although we wore flip-flops on the dirt streets where chickens and cats frolicked during the day, I’m sure rats by night, I felt like we glowed. I could not get over how clean I felt. After three days of not properly showering, I finally felt like I took my first shower in a month. I had never felt so clean before. We raved about it on our way back to our home, our guide talking to us about how great and common the hammam was for women and men to go to. She said she likes to go once a week or maybe twice a month, that it’s a nice time and a relaxing time. This did not mean that she only bathed at these times, she had a shower at her home too, but the hammam is a cultural tradition.

When we got home we were offered dessert and we talked more about the hammam with Fatima. The house was quiet because everyone was napping. It was customary to take a nap after the breaking of the fast dinner and before dessert. We politely said no thank you for dessert and went to our room and went to bed. We had a long day ahead of us again tomorrow. We couldn’t wait to get on the bus and tell everybody about the hammam and what they all missed.

In Her Hand

by Larell Scardelli

 

9 miles from Tarifa, Spain to the coast of Morocco, North Africa.

9, the number of my apartment building back home in Granada, Spain.

The coast looked similar to that morning at Buckaneer Backpackers in South Africa when we ate breakfast on the deck (the meal that gave us food poisoning when we landed in Cape Town). How it was foggy with its peaches and blues. Opaque but full. I knew I would miss those big pastel colors, but I never knew if I would see them again. A friend? We could be that close. Africa again. With a smile.

I type out this note now with a decorated hand, sometimes getting distracted by the dots and swirls our Moroccan host mom’s friend so easily drew. Henna from a woman whose genuine hobby it was. Who Fatima, our silly host mother, calls on when someone is getting married or just for fun, like this.

“From her head,” I asked Fatima’s daughter the only one who spoke English in the house. “I want her to design whatever she is thinking.” She smiled and casually translated this to Arabic. Deep into my skin sits the reddish brown of this woman’s imagination, sits the image of Fatima insisting that we don’t have to pay even when we pleaded with her, and her giggle as she slid a sock over our hands to keep the black root intact as we slept.

Fatima: religiously known as the daughter of the profit Muhammad. Her hand meaning protection in Muslim culture, sitting on almost every door. My host mother, named after her.

This little 5’2″ Muslim woman that I’d never met in person. . Her missing side tooth. The way she moved around kind of childlike  from one foot to the next. The size of her fingers. The fact that she spoke little to no English, yet I still understood everything that she said, even more than my host mom back in Spain. She thought I was silly, because I was able to make mistakes– asked if I could try to pour the tea from high above the glass like she did. Later learning that this made bubbles on the top of tea, and in the Sahara Dessert this protects the sweet liquid from sand storms, a tradition that I would later think to use in my life back home. I spilled a little and laughed and so did she. From her tummy and her cheeks.

Maybe it was the culture, too, that made me feel like myself. Being able to drop food on the table or my lap and not feeling sloppy or unmannered. Picking up vegetables with my fingers, opting not to use the spoon that was offered to me, something they only use when they host Americans and sometimes when eating couscous. I think I felt like I was in my own home. Like I was sitting on my own couch eating with my parents “family style,” as we call it. Casual, like here have this, or can I have some of that? Making a little bit of a mess but knowing that we would easily clean it up after. Not feeling like I was doing anything wrong. Having that sense of relaxation on her silk turquoise couch, enough to put my feet up and rest my head when watching Egyptian movies. Her family popping in and out off the street with ease, ringing the door bell 5, 6, 7 times to joke. How close could this culture be to the one I was raised with? Muslim to American. Rabat, Morocco to Bridgewater, New Jersey. Is it just a mind set? Not having a strict line to stay in? My mother always making me feel comfortable with everything from money to questions, as did Fatima in only two days? Protection of the heart and of the head while being someplace I had never imagined for myself. Host mom is too shallow of a word.