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Semester in North Africa – Morocco, Top to Bottom

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October 23, 2009 – Since I last wrote, I have come to discover that, although it may look quite diminutive on a map, Morocco is home to a remarkable variety of landscapes. I spent the first week or so of this month traveling around the country with fellow students and our wonderful program director. Despite having only a week to traverse much of the country, we managed to visit the bustling Marrakesh, spend a night with nomads in the Sahara, explore the mysterious medina of Fes, and immerse ourselves in the northern paradise that is the town of Chefchaouen. Exhilarating, calming, stunning, humbling, unforgettable – just looking back on the journey wills my feet to take me back, back to those places and those people. Alas, while my feet might fail me, my memories grant me the power to return.

Marrakesh

With its famed Djemaa el Fna square and its enormous souks, Marrakesh is an energetic city eager to immerse you in marvels that will leave you out of breath and a bit poorer. Snake charmers, henna artists, street performers, fresh orange juice stands, and colossal dried fruit stalls bring the massive square to life in the late afternoon and especially at night. Encircling much of the square, the colors and sounds of the souks draw you in and convince you that you need to try and bargain for one of everything! My friends and I have found that living and studying in Rabat has made us stingier than the average tourist – we bought very little from the storekeepers who had clearly pinned us as just another bunch of wealthy Americans. Oh, their faces when we explained in Arabic that we are from Rabat!

Rather than allowing ourselves to spend the afternoon navigating our way through the maddening market, we took taxis to the Majorelle Gardens, a beautiful botanical oasis owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent. With exotic plants, serene ponds, and beautiful shades of blue and yellow throughout, the garden offered us relaxation and showed us another side of Marrakesh. We also visited the Marrakesh museum and got our fill of history, culture, and Arabic placards! Not surprisingly, after a long day of traveling and exploring this vibrant staple of any Moroccan excursion, a few of us wound up sharing a glorious bottle of chilled white wine from a atop a terrace with a perfect view of the city.

Hillside view of Marrakesh. Wikimedia CommonsHillside view of Marrakesh. Wikimedia Commons

The Desert, Nomads and Camels

The next day saw our little group move further south towards the town of Zagora, one of the gateways to the Sahara. Clearly a town catering to those eager to venture into the dunes of the desert, Zagora gave us the opportunity to purchase those famous blue turbans of the nomads and prepare for our night in the desert. I could hardly sleep that night as I thought about the following day – there is something so mysterious and alluring about the desert. Endlessness, beauty, heat, solitude, meditation, uncertainty – I associate all this and more with the miles and miles of sand and sun.

With the arrival of dawn, we packed some necessities, picked up our guide, and moved closer to the desert. As the sand would’ve wreaked havoc on our trusty little van, we exchanged it for two safari jeeps equipped with two hilarious drivers. I have to be honest, it felt pretty cool to be traversing the desert in a fashion reminiscent of those seemingly adventurous explorers I’ve only seen at the cinema!

Our last stop before truly losing sight of civilization was for lunch at the house of a nomad. A man whose family has been caravanning across the Sahara for the past 400 years, this older nomad gave us a delicious meal and answered our many questions about making a life out of journeying through the sand year after year. His family provides an example of a common dynamic for many tribal groups who live in Morocco today. While some family members continue to caravan with their camels, others have gone to the bigger cities to study at university. There seems to be an impressive blending of modernity and tradition within many of these nomadic households – a freedom to take part in whichever lifestyle suits the individual. The older nomad was extremely generous with both his traditional mint tea and the information he gave us regarding relations between his tribe and the government, as well as what it’s like to spend week after week in the harsh conditions of the desert. I can only marvel at the endurance and ingenuity of such a man and his fellow nomads.

Bellies full and racked with anticipation, we finally drove into the dunes of the desert! Driving over sand is really entertaining – it’s like a mini rollercoaster ride! (I’m quite sure the driver was intent on making sure that this was the case.) As we came over a particularly steep dune, we caught sight of our camp and quite simply, glee overtook us all. I can’t articulate the feeling of setting my bag down on my bed, sitting beneath the sun surrounded by sand and thanking our new nomadic host with a giant smile for the tea and almonds.

Overwhelmed by questions of how my life could possibly have led me to such an instance, I could only comprehend the impressive weight of the decisions we make in treading one path over another. I chose to come to Morocco and study at the CCCL and it is this one decision that had situated me across the table from a beautiful, inspiring, and innovative human who I otherwise would not even know existed. I listened to this man who has unlocked so many of the desert’s secrets and I could only think, how many of us there are in this enormous world! Oh, it’s almost too much to try and conceive!

A shadow caravan in the Sahara. A shadow caravan in the Sahara.

As I’m sure you have surmised by now, we did indeed have the opportunity to enjoy a camel ride across the dunes. My camel was a tall, proud, beautiful (in the only way that camels can somehow appear beautiful) creature that seemed rather content to plod through the desert with me constantly exclaiming how surreal everything felt. I dread to think what she thought about my squeals as she stood up and sat down. It’s a bit terrifying when such a gangly, tall beast decides to sit down…front legs first, then back legs…and you’re holding on for dear life! After disembarking from our camels, we had to run to the top of a dune to catch the sun before it set on that epic day. Picture-taking and sliding down the sand, we made merry as our nomadic guides looked on, laughing at how easily we were thrown into fits of glee!

The view from atop my trusty camel!The view from atop my trusty camel!

Back at the camp, a musical performance by a group of Amazigh men and women. Such fun! As I was recovering from a bit of stomach trouble, I wasn’t planning on gallivanting around the fire, but our nomadic host wasn’t having any of that! Before I knew what was happening, I was dancing around and clapping, following the beat of the drums and the voices of the performers. As a perfect end to the day, we followed the nomads to the top of a dune and spent a couple of hours watching the stars and chatting. Our host showed me how to bury my feet in the sand to keep them warm – an incredible sensation – it actually felt like my feet were wrapped up in an electric blanket.

Looking back, I think my favorite part of the desert was the silence. Once everyone turned in for the night and I was awake in my bed, I was struck by the lack of even the smallest sound. It’s a silence that comforts, that wraps you up and places you deep within the folds of an undisturbed slumber. Completely refreshing and something I could use a lot more of in my life at home.

The following morning brought a rejuvenating breakfast of eggs, bread, honey, tea, and orange juice. Of course, we also had to say goodbye to the desert and move on to our next stop. I was sad to say goodbye to the nomads and our home in the sand. Although short, I feel my stay in the desert will linger in my mind for years. I have found that the best experiences of the semester thus far have been fleeting in reality, yet remarkably permanent in this mind of mine.

The Ancient City of Fes

We turned away from the desert and moved in the direction of Fes. The drive between Zagora and Fes saw us go from the dry, desert landscape to the awe-inspiring peaks of the middle and High Atlas. How strange it is to go through such a variety of surroundings in a single day! As if the Atlas range wasn’t impressive enough, the intellectual center of Morocco that we discovered on the other side of the mountains was even more extraordinary.

Fes is a city that, without a guide, is extremely difficult to navigate. I should say that about the medina in particular. Much larger than the Rabat medina, the old city of Fes is home to tiny alleys that wind around each other and make it impossible to identify from whence you have come or in what direction you should go. Thankfully, we followed a man who knows the ins and outs of this ancient city like the back of his hand. He showed us the famous tanneries and the fabric shops, took us to the oldest Quaranic school in the country, and gave us the opportunity to observe daily life in the medina.

I found the tanneries and their unbelievably hard workers to be most impressive. All day, leather is produced through a process that sees the male workers spending hour after hour in vats of dye under the unrelenting sun. As the smell emitted by the whole process can be a bit difficult to handle, I was glad to have a sprig of mint to sniff! If you have the chance, I think you’d find researching the tanneries of Fes to be quite an enlightening and fascinating read.

The impressive tanneries of Fes.The impressive tanneries of Fes.

After a tour of the medina, our group was lucky enough to visit a women’s association in the city. Working with women who have been the victims of gender specific violence, this organization houses battered women and their children, and works to help them become self-sufficient. Through classes in baking, jewelry-making, and other activities, the center gives these eager women the chance to work and earn money for themselves and their children. While they have done so much, the association struggles due to a lack of funding. As it was quite clear that the volunteers are frustrated by how difficult operating on less than a sufficient budget has become, I came away racking my brain for ways in which such an association could raise funds. As with most initiatives relating to women and gender issues here, there is so much work to be done.

Heading Home

ChefchChefchchaouen

Our next overnight stop was in a northern town called Chefchaouen. Couched in the Rif Mountains and known for its blue and white-washed walls, the medina of Chefchaouen is perfect for a beautiful and relaxing stroll for weary travelers. We spent our time there visiting the Kasbah museum, eating a lot of couscous, and doing a fair amount of shopping. Our hotel provided much hilarity as its rooms had been decorated in the style of a room belonging to an 8 year old princess – they were PINK and had beds with canopies and elegant lace curtains. The boys in the group really enjoyed that night.

The final day of our trip saw us wind our way back from the mountains and towards our coastal home in Rabat. We spent the last ride in the van enjoying each other’s company and talking about how on earth Facebook would handle the massive amount of pictures we wanted to upload. I don’t know if I have done the trip justice with my descriptions, but hopefully you feel like you came along for a bit of the journey. If you ever have the chance, do embark on a trip across Morocco – I promise you will discover the places and people I have mentioned. You will have your own unique encounter with this wonderful, generous and incredibly diversified country. I wish I could’ve brought you all along with me, for it truly was a week of sights, sounds, and emotions I am eternally grateful for having experienced!

Editor’s note: A junior at Boston University, Katherine Lochery is spending her fall semester in Morocco, studying Arabic; Women, Islam, and Politics; and Post-Colonial Aesthetics and Politics. Born in Britain, raised in the U.S. and in possession of a passport that has seen more action than most anyone of any age, she is consumed with a desire to leave the world a better place than she found it. This is the third entry in her chronicle for Where2Now of her experiences during the course of her semester. Read Katherine’s other entries describibg her adventure. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.

Except for photo of Marrakesh, all photos by Katherine Lochery.

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