A few weeks ago, I took a ferry from Spain to Africa in forty five minutes. In the States, my family drives over ten hours to the beach in Florida. It's strange how traveling very short distances here can put you in an entirely new world and continent, where the language, religion, and culture is vastly different. De hecho, from Tangier, Morocco, you can see the coastline of Spain perfectly. I don't know exactly what I was expecting to find on my four day trip, but I imagined a lot of exotic animals and treks across the desert. While you would find that in Kenya, Morocco is an entirely different story. It lies on the western edge of Africa and has fought off conquerors and colonizers throughout its history to become an independent mix of European, African, Arabic influences. Our first walk through the streets revealed the deep ties of its people to Islam, strange chants out of a minaret called the men to prayer in the mosque, while women were covered with hijabs (headscarves.) We soon learned that women play a very subservient role in the culture, which made me a little uncomfortable, because I have grown up believing that gender doesn't define who you are, what you can wear or not wear, or what you can be. We were able to talk with local students over tea and pastries on our first day to see their viewpoints on their religion. One girl voluntarily wears a hijab, and the other one doesn't wear one at all, but both insisted its a personal choice. What struck me most about the students was how similar they seemed to us American teenagers. Yes, we practice different religions and live in different places, but we all struggle with trying to find meaning in our lives. We ask the same questions and face similar problems in our respective countries day to day. What I knew about Muslim countries before this trip, was limited to the horrors shown on television, sixty second news flashes that are meant to evoke fear. But what I found in Morocco were friendly, welcoming people who are eager to learn as much about my life as I am about theirs. I think that if I we all attempted to understand and accept the similarities between people around the world, instead of pointing out our differences, it would eliminate a lot of the ignorance that comes with fear of the unknown.
On a happier note, we were surprised with camel rides along the beach on our first day. We got up close and personal with the animals, petting them and taking selfies with them. It was truly a unique experience. Then, we drove to a little seaside town to have couscous and admire the amazing view of the Mediterranean. It was in that quaint village that we discovered a place on a wall where you take your picture and then upload it to Instagram with a particular hashtag. That way, all of the people around the world that have been in that spot are connected with a push of button. It's strange to see the way technology impacts and enhances our lives, even in the oldest of places. Speaking of which, for the majority of the time, I had no phone service or wifi. It was probably the longest time I had gone without Internet since I was twelve. Though technology is good for so many things, it was refreshing to look at the views without Tweeting or Facebooking or texting.
That night, we headed to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, where we met our host families and had dinner. Visitors are seen as gifts from God in Islamic tradition, so we were treated very well. The house I stayed in was very open, with curtains separating one room from another. The Moroccan household is a place of community and family. We were treated to large dinners with fruit, couscous, tea, pastries, and salad, while failing to communicate effectively with hand gestures. Mostly, I just smiled and everyone just smiled back. The thing I found particularly challenging was the shoe rule. If you walk on carpet, you take off your shoes. If you walk on tile, you put on your shoes. It proved to be a hassle to constantly switch between the two and found myself accidentally breaking the tradition often. There are modern conveniences in Morocco, like lights and running water, but its still a developing country. My particular family thankfully had a Western style toilet, while some others did not (think hole in the ground,) but our shower was a bucket of water and a loofah. After a day of exploring different sites in Rabat, we all had the opportunity to go to the public bath, called the Hammam. All the girls went to one of the many rooms of the bathhouse and filled buckets with warm water. We then washed and exfoliated our skin. Let's just say it was quite the memorable experience that made me very appreciative of my hot shower in Seville.
My favorite part of the experience was going to a village in the Rif Mountains to meet with a family. It was a long drive by bus, with a police check in between. We learned that in the future, the government will start following the Moroccan Exchange students around this part of the country, to keep tabs on us. I say that only to communicate that it was no touristy trip-- we were seeing the real Morocco. We arrived and hiked for twenty minutes up to the house, seeing some incredible views along the way. We really were able to interact with the family-- understand their daily lives, learn about their work, and what makes them happy. The father wanted all of his children to have an education, however far they had to walk to school or whatever sacrifices had to be made. It made me cringe to think about all the times I complained about homework or going to class. Education is a gift, a tool, that shouldn't ever be taken for granted. These people understand that, they really understand the things that are important in life in better ways than we do.
Only one person was allowed to take pictures of and with the family, and I was happy to be the one to get that opportunity. I spent a lot of time photographing the little children, who were fascinated by the images of themselves. These villagers don't have cameras, but my photos will be hand-delivered back to them so that they will have memories of the visit. I was glad to use technology for someone other than myself.
Our final stop was Chefchaouen, the blue city, where we spent time bartering in the markets, buying super cool pants, and getting authentic Henna tattoos. Our night was spent reflecting on our time in Africa and the ways in which the trip had impacted us. I remembered that the girl on the first day said that her truth may be different from my truth, but that doesn't make one better than the other. I left Morocco wanting to travel more, to see more of the world, and to stop judging. So far, so good.
P.S. Watch my video of the trip if you haven't: Moroccan Video
More updates soon,