Sunday, September 30, 2012

Study Abroad: Part [Intro]

“To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”
-Edith Wharton

So, in reviewing my blog, I realized that I committed a mistake, not the usual spelling faux pas, but rather, a horrible social mistake.  I never bothered to introduce Rabat.  I don't refer to the Rabat, Morocco that Andrew Zimmern never visited, or just to the government center of a country that is supporting the USA against the anti-USA protests.  I want to introduce my Rabat, the city and medina that I've spent my last few weeks enjoying.

I live with a home stay family, made up of a very determined Mama Fatima, and her daughter, Fatima Zahira.  Fatima Zahira consistently will vanish, heading to the clinic where she works, while studying to be a nurse.  Additionally, a host cousin, Rashida, stays with us when Fatima Zahira is not around.  Rashida is a masters student, currently focused on her exams.  Most masters students have been busy trying to score high on the exams, which basically guarantee the top highest scores a government job.

The corner of my street...

The apartment is cozy, but more than enough.  Two rooms, with a kitchen, and a bathroom (which has a Western toilet! A first-world-problem that you are probably going to run into is whether or not you have a Western toilet or a Turkish toilet.  Trust me, there's a whole new set of etiquette when dealing with a Turkish toilet).  Not a lot of space, but it's perfect.  Moroccans also have a tendency to build a room so that it is shaped more like a rectangle.  The rectangular shape means that you can shove sofas against the cold tiles, creating some of the best sofa beds I've had the pleasure of sleeping on.

The neighborhood is made up of other family members and those who have lived in the medina for most of their life.  In fact, there's quite a game between me and another student in my program: we keep trying to figure out how our host families are related!  It's just one of those things that study abroad kids might do... I'm not sure why we just don't ask, but it is what it is.

The medina is beautiful, yet completely frustrating.  The streets wind and twist, ending and beginning with no rhyme or reason.  There are places with the street name written on a plaque, or corners that are white-washed bare.  Doors are different, yet similar enough that I've had to double-check myself.  Should you feel compelled to ask for a map, here's a small fact: the last map ATTEMPTED was over nine years ago.  In fact, here's the GoogleMap image of the medina.

And that huge blank, under the "Rabat Medina" label is where I live.

 Additionally, Rabat has a slight problem with trash.  It's not nearly as bad as Casablanca, where trash overflows on the street every single day, but it's still very bad.  There are few garbage bins in public, and those that do exist are usually already-overflowing dumpsters.  Due to all the trashbags on the corners, there's also an explosion of stray cats. And I do mean an explosion. In fact, there are a few cats that continuously meow. Right outside my window.  At 3am.  But still, the rest of the cats are quite cute.

The cats are pretty lazy, but with all that trash, who needs to chase rats?

There's a beach right near me, about a five or ten minute walk, depending on my mood.  It's beautiful to visit, even if the sand is filled with trash and broken glass.  There are times when the high tide means that waves come rushing up the pier, and I inevitably end up drenched in saltwater.  Still, it's so much fun to sit on the rocks and think.

 I'm taking classes at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning (or the CCCL).  The building is beautiful: it used to be a home for a family (I think it was a VERY large EXTENDED family), but was reorganized into classrooms.

The outside of our center...

...And looking down from the second floor. 

My schedule usually starts with Beginning Arabic at 8:30am, going for two hours.  At 10:45am, I usually have some sort of class dealing with journalism, be it a summary of what has happened previously, a discussion about our independent projects, or something similar.  Lunch is at 12:15pm.  Around 1:00pm, we tend to have a class on ethics, or research methods. Frequently, at 2:00pm, we have a speaker, who comes in to discuss relevant issues about Morocco with us.  We've had a rapper (Soultana), the AP Bureau Chief (Paul Schemm), and others.  Each discussion has resulted in more and more questions, usually about the state of Morocco and the difference between public and private spheres (those personal, economic, etcetera). Our day usually ends between 4:00pm to 5:00pm.

The things that I love about this Rabat, apart from having fun with my fellow students, are so many: the fact that there's almost always sunshine, the little girl next door who is just full of sass, the cool breezes that whip through the winding medina streets.  I love the crazy little blue cabs that whip around corners, the rush of kids after school who are dead determined to buy candy from the corner store, the dizzying patterns of gorgeous slick tiled walls.

To be honest though, the thing that I love the most, has to be the genuinely kind people that I've met. Paul Bowles never said it better than when he said, "It was not the landscape I wanted to know, but the people."


Friday, September 28, 2012

Study Abroad: Part [Excursion]

So, I'm on the last day of a six day excursion with my study abroad group.  The highlights? So many. The disasters? Kinda worth it.

The first day was pretty calm.  We left Rabat at 8am.  That means, I rolled out of bed at 6am, waited 20 minutes for the water heater, and then took a "shower" (I filled up a bucket with warm-ish to hot water, and dumped it all over me).  It also means I was heavily fed by my homestay family: I was stuffed with dates (which seriously look and taste like pure sugar), coffee (half milk-half coffee, with two blocks of sugar), and sandwiches (egg sandwich, cheese sandwich, olive oil and butter sandwich).

 Upon reaching the Center, we (12 students, plus our amazing Program Assistant) loaded onto our bus.  Mind you, this is a decently sized bus: not a short-stop bus, but rather, a bus designed to hold about 15 to 20 people, plus a driver.  We also got a trailer hitch.

Our bus...

 Things get blurry from here: we stopped for lunch in Azrou (which is also Berber for rock of all things), saw Barbery Macaques (monkeys!), and went to a five star hotel in the middle of nowhere (or rather, the Midelt of nowhere, with Midelt being the name of the closest town... Get it?... Nevermind...).  And that was the first day.

This is Azrou.  This is also the namesake rock.  Go figure.

The monkeys... Pretty cool, eh?

Descending onto our hotel.

The second day was an issue.  I got sick.  As in, very sick.  The kind of sick where your bones ache, you creak, and a fever that just erupts will take you out.  I did, however, ride a camel.  Also, instead of camping out under the stars, we arrived in the Sahara while it rained, which only happens once or twice a year.  The cold weather + my fever = I got a room inside ---> Hot shower access for all.  Fairly good trade!

The third day, I was feeling slightly better, but not great.  I spent the majority of the bus ride passed out, and on medication.  The lunch was fairly interesting.  We stopped at Yasmina Restaurant in Tinghir, which is a VERY mountainous trek.  It was beautiful. For our big event of the day, we spent the night at an all girl's dormitory in Ourzzazate (or Ouarzazate, depending on the spelling).  The area is used for filming movies, like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and other fun movies.  The girls were all so interesting, and it definitely drove home a point: college is kinda the same no matter where you are. There's gossip, boys, boyfriends, crappy food/good food (depending on the day and place), and things you just can't stop doing.

This girl was very cute and running around Hotel Yasmina.

One of the oldest film studios in Ouarzazate, which has now been shut down.

A couple of the girls from the dormitory were nice enough to pose with us!

The next day, it was a bit of a dine and dash to hit up Marrakech.  We ended up at a nice hotel: Hotel Mont Gueliz.  We also got there in time for lunch and had the rest of the day to explore.   We chose to explore the square of Marrakech, and to also go to Jardin Marjorelle, which was the former home of Yves Saint-Laurent.

Jardin Marjorelle also holds his memorial... It's absolutely beautiful, and costs 50dh
(or a little over $5).

Each student was given a 50dh gift card to be used at Pizza Hut, McDonald's or a grocery store like Marjane (which is basically the Moroccan equivalent of WalMart).  Fun fact: the gift card was courtesy of Sodexo.  Marjane, interestingly, sells liquor, but you can only pay for it in certain lanes of the grocery store. 

There may have been some McDonald's french fries involved as well...
The night was spent with a bottle of wine, brie, fig jam, bread and such in our room.  Then, we went out to a club.  Word of advice: if you want to go out at night, as a woman, please go with a guy.  We went to a music club that was very upscale, so we didn't get harassed inside.  On our way over there, we were escorted by hotel security (snazzy, right?), so it was fine getting there.  The complex was called Montecristo, the live music bar was named Sinatra, and there was an open-air hookah lounge with DJ by the name of Aoli.  Side note: mostly prostitutes, and foreign men, visit bars, which was an interesting experience for us.

Today was a more chill day.  We arrived in Essaouira around lunch, after stopping by an argan oil collective called Cooperative Marjana.  We ate lunch at Chez Sam, which is where Jimi Hendrix apparently stopped by at.  There was a pick up game of soccer of the beach which got brutal, and there was napping all around.  For dinner, we went to the Hotel des Iles, where Orson Welles stayed at. 

Tomorrow morning, at 8am, I say farewell to this fun week, and return to Rabat.  I say farewell to the boys "rolling up" in a horse-drawn carriage, I say farewell to beaches and people that I've met.  I say farewell to singing "Whistle" on a bus, learning to dance to "Waka Waka" with prostitutes, and laughing at myself. 

"We do not remember days, we remember moments."
- Cesare Pavare

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 6

The cliche of "A picture's worth a thousand words" has never felt so true for me.  Here in Morocco, I constantly take pictures left and right, and begin to comprehend a place to which I have never given consideration.  When we travel, we aim to see the differences between cultures, but grow to love the similarities.  I'm going on a week-long excursion to the south of Morocco on Sunday, so I thought that I'd do a visual of the images that have struck me so far.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 5

Food is such a vital part to our life.  Without it, we might be able to survive five days.  With it, we can thrive.  The biggest part of food is our enjoyment of it.  Smells and tastes combine to give you a feeling that is incroyable.  The memories that are stirred up from a single bite are endless: a humid summer and cooling down with watermelon, a spicy taco from Oxacala and the creamy taste of horchata, the sweet-and-cold of bubble tea with sticky tapioca.

In Morocco, food also serves as a vital link that ties the family together.  When there are five or more children in a family, the reunions tend to become complicated.  However, come Friday or Saturday, it seems that everyone is determined to come together for couscous.

 Two people were invited to go to couscous at a friend's place in Sale last week, and I tagged along.  First off, couscous is a given.  Every one will have couscous, whether it's homemade or restaurant-bought.  Second off, Sale and Rabat may be twin cities, but that does not mean that traveling to and fro is easy, especially if directions are the bane of your existence. 

When we entered, let's just say it was a beautiful and lavish home by any standard.  An apartment that size in China, without furnishings, could set you back $17,000.  Please, just let that sink in. 

Amine's uncle, a club manager named Momo, is the sort of guy you get beers with.  He also just happens to speak Russian and have a Russian girlfriend.  Amine's mother was in the military.  She has the sword to prove it.  His little brother is just starting university and likes to sleep...

Couscous was a full out affair: meat, pumpkin, legumes all lavishly prepared.  Through in fresh, cold buttermilk to drink, peaches for dessert, and it's a delicious meal.  Add tea made of azir (a local herb), chocolate biscuits, fresh roasted almonds, and green tart grapes, and it becomes a meal reminiscent of Thanksgiving. 

Amine's mom thoroughly spoiled us.  She also prepared argan oil, a Moroccan sort-of staple that has skyrocketed in price, ahmohse (a blend of argan oil, almonds and honey), olives and fresh olive oil. 

Between mangling French, learning derija, and just stuffing our faces, we laughed.  Food is a great common denominator, especially when you have interesting people to share it with.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 4

September 11.  It's a date that was infamous in 1792 when the Hope Diamond was stolen, in 1961 when the World Wildlife Foundation was created, in 1997 when NASA's Mars Global Surveyor landed.  For many people in the United States of America, September 11, 2001 is infamous.  People remember the most shocking accounts: the image of "The Falling Man," the conspiracy theories of why the buildings crumbled so quickly, the telephone calls from people on UA Flight 93.

I grew up with all of this, with the Presidential Address in which G. W. Bush declared war on an idea, with the threat of retaliation from other countries, with the minute of silence every year.  This year, I'm spending September 11th in an Arabic country, in the capital city of Rabat.  And to be honest, I'm happy for this experience.

I've spent eleven years watching how people will suddenly come together for a moment of silence and rememberance.  This year, there was nothing.  Morocco was the first Arabic and Islamic country to denounce the attacks.  At the same time, the Arabic news was empty of video montage, radios did not have a moment of silence, and the front page of newspapers were without photographs.  The French news had a small memorial, even a video on Le Matin.

In class, we watched a film titled The Fixer, about an Afghani journalist who was taken hostage along with an Italian journalist, and was eventually murdered by the Taliban.  The contrast was huge: eleven years have passed, but at the same time, my news feed was filled with statuses and pictures about America, while no one seemed to recognize other people who had suffered as well.

To be honest, this post is simply a curious musing on a realization, that I am both physically, and mentally, removed from the United States.  The Atlantic Ocean has never seemed wider.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 3

I'm unusual, not simply because I live in the United States, or because I am a woman attending a college institution.  I am unusual, because I am Chinese and in Morocco.

Prior to arriving, I was worried.  I had been advised, warned, and generally frightened with anecdotes, that as a woman visiting an Arabic country, I would have to be careful about my safety.  I was warned that showing an inch of skin would be seen as an invitation to be harassed, that leaving my thick hair uncovered would draw attention.  I came to the conclusion that I would carry the words "Canadian-American" stamped across my forehead, a visible sign to anyone that I was not a local, and a sign that I was one of those "easy" girls.

I sat on a plane, next to a Caucasian girl, and an African-American guy.  I landed on the tarmac of Rabat-Sale.  I arrived in Morocco. While other people walked through customs, I was forced to wait, while the guards asked "Jackie Chan" repeatedly, and had my belongings checked.

From the first day, I drew looks, heard catcalls and was followed.  I could not understand why, until my program coordinator explained that there is an extreme fascination with the Asian culture.  Television broadcasts Hollywood films and videos, there are plenty of Caucasians in the medina (the vacationing French, an occasional German), but there is little interaction with Asians.

A friend mentioned, "Walking with you is another experience!"  And it's true.  Despite being with two All-American blonde and beautiful girls, I was, and am, repeatedly singled out.  Usually, it's benign: a guy saying that I'm beautiful and charming.  Once, it even resulted in a marriage proposal.

To be honest though, this outpouring of verbal taunts or admiration is highly cultural.  In Morocco, most couples will not interact: girls tend to stay with girls and guys with guys.  Additionally, there is still a highly traditional view that a woman's place is in the home (harkening back to kinder, kirchen, kurchen, or children, kitchen, church), while the man's world is everywhere else. As a result, when a woman enters the man's world, there is a cultural view that the woman is disrupting the man's order.

But before you freak out and start thinking that you need to mail me pepper spray, or send a stun gun by express, let me say something: the verbal never becomes physical.  In the United States, I am probably more likely to be in danger.  A man can just attack me after verbally harassing me, or even without that warning.  In Morocco, though, it's different.  If the man follows me, but I continue to ignore him, he'll stop.  He will NEVER cross that physical line.  And in the worst case scenario, I'll find an old woman, or a group of women, who will come together to scream Schouma at him (think of it as getting scolded by your grandmother, but far worse, since your honor is being called into question).

I won't say that getting harassed is fantastic, but there is something comforting about this.  I KNOW that a man CANNOT cross that physical line, and since the verbal wooing isn't crass, it isn't something that I take to heart.  It is, after all, cultural.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 2

Language is a vital part to our identity; in fact, language shapes identity.  Morocco's language comes in many forms: lilting call to prayer that spreads through the ocean air, halting French which falls from my lips, children screaming the local dialect (darija) through the streets.  Morocco is one of the few countries where English does not rank of exceptional importance.  The signs are written in traditional Arabic, Berber and French.

I am informed by our program assistant that education is important, with children learning Moroccan Standard Arabic (also known as Fu'sa) in primary school, French in secondary school, and possibly English, should they pursue post-secondary education. Shopkeepers may speak five or six languages, even if they do not have an education past secondary third (the USA equivalent being eighth grade).

One interesting result of language: the barriers that arise.  My homestay family is exceptionally sweet.  However, Mama Fatima does not speak French.  She speaks a combination of Berber and Fu'sa.  My host sister and host cousin speak some French, but very little English.  I have only taken two classes in Darija and am nowhere near proficient enough.  Therefore, we all use our third language: French.

Despite my errors in grammar, and their problems with translation, we have learned how to communicate.  Pointing at something, along with pantomime, seems to be particularly effective.  Occasionally, saying Insh'allah (if God is willing), also helps convey earnestness.  Most importantly, a heartfelt smile and a carefree laugh are both things that allow you to continue despite any barriers.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Study Abroad: Part I

What is study abroad?  For most people, it is the chance to take an Euro-trip, to party and sleep, to escape their home country.  For me, it's the chance to further my education. Granted, having the chances to explore, live in a new culture, and possibly learn a new language did help.

I came to the decision to study abroad because of two main points: I had a scholarship, and I had planned my credit hours.  I could have graduated early, I could have never gone on a study abroad trip.  However, I have always wanted to travel.  So, I made a decision to study abroad.

For me, my trip is, and will remain, inherently different because I chose my location based on what programs focused on journalism studies.  For me, my trip is special because I get to practice journalism.  For me, my trip is my own, because I am committed to Morocco.

Morocco is a country of contrasts.  Stereotypes include Sex and the City 2, Aladdin, and Casablanca.  The majority of people are Muslim, with some Christians and few Jews.  The languages most commonly spoken are Arabic, French and Spanish.  While many might say that the lack of English is a sign of dislike for the Western world, I believe it is a sign of personal preference.  Arabic as a language has been stable and around longer than English. 

My trip began with a flight from home to Atlanta, then Paris, and finally Rabat, Morocco via Air France.  Due to a slight miscalculation in timing, I arrived a full day before the program began.  There was only a 5 hour time difference, though some students have experienced an eight-hour change.

My first impressions involved a blinding sunlight, a small tarmac, and a vastness that reminds me of Vinita, Oklahoma.  The airport is in Sale, the twin city of Rabat, so named because the two cities are less then 20 minutes away from each other.  Palm trees dot the streets, and sand fills the cracks of sidewalks.

I ended up checking into the hotel, with the extensive help of a program assistant, and another student who came with us.  Once I unlocked my door and hoisted both my suitcase and my two carry-ons into the room, I took a deep breath.  I pushed back the wooden shutters, and I saw this.

My world has changed, shifted, spun on its axis.  No matter what cliche I could use, I will simply say this: Morocco may be my biggest challenge yet.  And I haven't even had coffee.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hookah, Smoke, Lounge

The secret isn't in how you breathe in the smoke, it's in how you let it out. Too fast and you don't get that high. Too slow and you start to choke, forgetting the reason you started this. Your eyes water from the scents in the air, the tobacco that hangs heavy on your tongue, the liquid that soothes your throat even if it's just vapors of water in the air, the cologne and perfume of people trying to lose themselves in this lounge. Wreathes of smoke circle people, streams exhaled noisily by business men, wisps gently puffed out by classier broads and the hacking chuckles of boys and girls barely old enough to be here.

He isn't the kind of guy you want to talk to and she isn't the type of girl you buy a drink for. But right here, right now, they're all you get and just for tonight, they're giving you a chance to move on and play pretend. It doesn't matter if you'll forget it in the morning, as long as you can make it through the next six hours just fine. Breathe in and out slowly.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Student Joys

The Simplest Things that Bring a (College) Student Joy
(as told to me)
1. Free booze
2. Free food
3. A cutie looking at you
4. A cutie flirting with you
5. Getting asked for your number
6. Getting a number
7. Anything free
8. More sleep
9. A good grade
10. A good grade without actually putting forth any effort