Chefchaouen-City of Blue-Morocco

Erica will be studying abroad at Alcala de Heneres, Spain for the next 4 months.

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Experiencing Real Culture Shock

Dani Langevin grew up Summit County, Colorado. Currently she is a junior at Colorado State University. Now it’s time for her to embark on my study abroad adventure with Semester at Sea for a four month journey around the world.

[Originally posted on November 13, 2013. To see more from Dani, check out her blog directly here.]

What a life changing experience! There was a whole new world at my fingertips, one I had not expected. All of the freedoms that I had ever known were taken away from me. I no longer had all of the freedoms that I do in America.

As soon as I stepped foot off the ship I had a different feeling and could sense that we were definitely in Africa. The streets were dirty with rubble everywhere. Stray cats and dogs run rampant through the alleys. Homeless people are begging on every corner. Being in Casablanca was a sad reality. Another one of my first observations were the gender inequalities. I felt as if the women in Morocco were incredibly suppressed. I understand that their culture is very different, which I respect, but on the other hand I find it hard to believe that they chose to live that way. Did I feel uncomfortable wearing clothes that were different than theirs? Yes. Did I adjust what I wore to fit in more? Of course.

The first day was by far the most uncomfortable day of my life thus far. People followed us. People yelled at us. People tried to take advantage of us as Americans. And most of all – people stared. One of our goals for the day was to see the Hassan II Mosque. I had no expectations for it, but was completely in awe once I had sized up the enormity of it. It is the 7th largest mosque and has THE largest minaret in the world. I look like an ant in a picture with it. Now trying to go inside turned into quite the adventure and is what I mean when I say we were yelled at. We first tried to follow some other people into an entrance and were yelled at in Arabic, so we backed away. Then someone pointed us towards another entrance which we were also yelled at for trying to enter (come to find out this was the men’s washroom). Then we tried to go in another entrance and finally encountered an English-speaking Moroccan who told us that visiting hours had been temporarily suspended for Adhan (call to prayer). Once we were able to go inside the mosque it was surreal. It is just one giant room with very high vaulted ceilings and rugs to pray on. To add on to the point I made earlier about the suppression of women, the women have to prayer in a closed off balcony of the mosque as to not distract the men while they are praying.

Another memorable experience of this day was a conversation I had with a Moroccan man at the medina (similar to a flea market, but much larger and secluded). I had looked around the corner into a little restaurant, although it wasn’t much of a restaurant, to see what they were selling and a man immediately invited me (and the two guys I was with) in. We were hesitant at first, but decided to see what they wanted and I’m glad we did. I talked to this man the entire time we ate our meal. What we ate was called crepes, but it was more like a thick, flavorless pancake with cheese on it. The Moroccan mint tea is to die for and the crepes weren’t all that bad either. But the point of this is the conversation with this man. The first thing he said to me when I sat down was – “here in Morocco we are not racist.” That’s an interesting way to start a conversation. We continued to talk about his country and he told us so many things to do/see/try while we were there. This just goes to show that you have to put a little trust in people because most people really do have good intentions.

I spent the rest of my trip on a camel trek through the Merzouga Desert. What I thought was going to be a nice drive to the desert turned out to be rather long. And what I mean by rather long is 12 hours. We (10 girls and our driver, Ebraheim) basically got to see the entire country by van on our way to the desert. As miserable as the drive was, the night in the desert was so worth it!

We met up with our “camel drivers” before Ebraheim left us to them for the night. Ebraheim was also the name of our camel driver. He’s from a Burbur nomad family, but left his family to work as a camel trek guide. As the van drove away I got my first glimpse of a camel – and I was going to ride it! I wish I could explain to you how nervous I was to even get close to it. I guess it’s kind of like the first time you ride a horse, except for the fact that it’s an “exotic” animal that most Americans have never seen.

Getting on the camel was thrilling! The way they stand up is like nothing I had ever experienced. You have to be very ready for a lot of forward and backward jolting as they stand up on their knobby-kneed legs. We walked about halfway into the desert before stopping to watch the sunset. Desert sunsets totally trump mountain and beach sunsets! The colors were incredible! After the sunset we rode our camels through dusk until we found the Burbur nomad camp that had been set up for us for the night. That night was dreamlike! Ebraheim and another guide cooked us a traditional Moroccan dinner of bread, soup, a tajine of veggies/chicken, fruit, and of course Moroccan mint tea (aka Moroccan rum). We danced the night away to their drumming. The stars in the middle of the desert are brighter than any other stars I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of shooting stars I had seen. Unreal. That night we had very rustic sleeping arrangements. We slept on the blankets that had been on our camels backs in these little tents at the nomad camp. In the morning we woke up bright-and-early for breakfast and a desert sunrise. Jimi Hendrix (my camel) so graciously took me back out of the desert to where our van driver was waiting for us. The whole experience was amazing! I’m not sure I would ride a camel again (it’s very uncomfortable), but it’s a bucket list item. Check. The dancing and night sky in the Burbur village will be a night to remember.

Another painfully long day of driving awaited us and 10 hours later we arrived in Fes. Sadly we got there too late to do anything, but a shower and a nice bed in a hostel was very welcome.

As for the first country of real adventure, I’d say it was a success.

Spending the Evening with a Moroccan Family

Jessica Zaksek is a senior Psychology student at Colorado State University. She is currently partaking in a Semester at Sea and will visit ports in various countries such as Russia, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Morocco and many more. Stay tuned to hear about all her adventures!

[Originally posted October 9, 2013]

I had the amazing opportunity to spend an evening with Muhrad’s family! It was the best field program I have participated in thus far. I really loved it because it gave me great insight into Moroccan culture and I got to observe and participate in a traditional meal. I was paired up with three other students and we were assigned to a family. Before we left, the coordinators made sure to give us a short lesson on etiquette and about what to expect so we wouldn’t be surprised. I couldn’t wait to get there, even though I was nervous. We did not have a guide or coordinator with us, so I was worried about what would or would not happen. In the end, everything went perfectly and I met some amazing people! I realized after this experience how much it means to make a connection with another person. Even when you have completely different ideas, you can still find common ground. It reminded me that no matter what flag flies behind us, we essentially have the same hopes, fears and dreams.

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When we got to the apartment building we were greeted by two of Muhrad’s friends that would be sharing the meal with us. They were both students and their names were Said and Mustapha. We walked up the stairs to the apartment where we got to meet Muhrad, his father and his two uncles. They were all really friendly. One of the greatest challenges of the night was the language barrier between us and Muhrad’s uncles and father. We weren’t able to communicate with them. I really wish I knew Arabic! Said, Mustapha and Muhrad all spoke different languages including French, Arabic, German, Spanish, and English! Our abilities paled in comparison. Casablanca is such a cultural hub, and it is advantageous to know multiple languages. It also made our night a little easier. We had so many questions for them and they also had many questions for us. We talked about a wide range of topics throughout the night. Said was a great rapper!! He would rap in French and then switch to English! It was cool. We made some great friends! Mustapha talked to us a lot about Moroccan culture, as did Muhrad. We talked about things like food, music, politics, marriage, religion, movies, and daily life. We also told them a lot about Semester at Sea. There was never a dull moment.

The conversation was fantastic and so was the food!! It was all fresh and delicious! Mustapha’s mother had prepared a giant bowl of couscous surrounded by steamed vegetables and chunks of beef. It had so many flavors and was one of the best couscous dishes I had! We each got our own spoons and shared from a communal bowl. I thought it was a really great experience. It allowed me to take a critical view of my own culture. I am so used to eating from an individual plate, even when a huge dish is served for our family. In Moroccan culture, sharing from a large bowl makes sense, and is a vessel for familial bonding.  I realized that Moroccan families are very close and there is a sense of collectivism rather than individualism. I now know how silly it is to have your own plate in a family setting. I realized how much of a germ-a-phobe I am! Experiencing this communal eating allowed me to see dining in a different way, and I appreciated the closeness created by it.

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After couscous, we enjoyed two platters of fresh fruit! They were piled high with bananas, red and green grapes, three colors of apples and pomegranates. Muhrad told us that all the produce was local and fresh and free from GMO’s and chemicals. The fruit looked normal in size compared to the United States counterparts. The fruit was delicious and you could taste the difference! Following the fruit was a really delicious soup made of beef, noodles, lentils and vegetables. It was so good I had two bowls of it! They served the soup with dates, which you could place in the soup if desired. Dates are an important part of the Moroccan diet. The soup had a lot of spices! I liked the cinnamon. It was a pleasant surprise! The final course consisted of Moroccan tea, olives and bread. When Muhrad poured the tea, he did so from a distance. Mustapha said that the sign of a high quality tea is foam and bubbles. Sure enough, the tea had small bubbles. It was delicious! Truly an amazing meal!

Moroccan hospitality was showcased through this event. It showed me a special side of Morocco and its culture. Muhrad’s family and friends were so kind and did everything they could to make sure that we were well fed and had a great experience. By the end of the meal, I was stuffed! My heart and my stomach were happy. I am so grateful to them for showing me something unique that could never be experienced in a tour group. Muhrad kept saying it was their pleasure to have us and that they were so happy to have us there. We all expressed how grateful we were and how much we enjoyed their company, as well as the food. They truly were great guys and we really related to them because they were around our age and were experiencing some of the same things we were. All I could think was, “Wow!” 

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After fasting at Ramadan in Morocco, I am truly living

Brooke Lake is an International and Arabic studies major at Colorado State University, USA. Brooke works as an editorial columnist for the Rocky Mountain Collegian. She studied abroad in Meknes, Morocco and currently studies abroad in Jordan.

[Originally posted September 5, 2013]

While studying abroad in Meknes, Morocco this past summer my favorite Arabic word came to be ‘iftar.’ I can remember whispering this word to myself over and over again while squished in the backseat of a taxi in the sweltering African heat between three oversized Moroccan women.

After the thirteenth hour of absolutely no food and water, after taking a three hour advanced Arabic exam, after walking home in the intense summer heat and after having an entire table ridden with delicious Moroccan food stare me down as I walked in my front door, I inhaled slowly and exhaled the word, iftar.

As days turned into weeks in Morocco the word took on a multitude of meanings for me. Iftar is the traditional meal which breaks the daily fast for those participating in Islam’s most holy month of Ramadan. I started to associate all things wonderful and life-giving with iftar. As a non-Muslim American living in an Islamic country for the first time during the month of Ramadan, my entire sense of comfort, will-power and understanding dissolved into a brand new empathy for a group of people I love deeply (Muslims). Even more, I experienced a revolutionary emotional, spiritual and physical transformation during my fast.

Ramadan, celebrated by approximately 2 billion Muslims worldwide, is a month-long fast dedicated to spiritual and physical purification in hopes that Allah will forgive all previous sins. From before the dawn breaks until the sun sets, those following the fast will abstain from not only food and water but also sex, gossip and ill behavior towards others.

You may wonder why a non-Muslim would willingly participate in Ramadan. I can best answer that with a story or two.

I went into my fast with an unknowing of what to expect. I had fasted before but never in a foreign country and culture, and never to this extent. I thought it would consist mostly of quiet meaningful reflection and meditation alone.

On the contrary, when I conjure up memories of Ramadan I hear my Moroccan “mother” screaming, “kooli” (Arabic for ‘you eat’) at me with a wink and the warmest of smiles as I sipped on homemade juice. I can see the faces of friends laughing together as we exchanged stories and jokes in three, sometimes four different languages. When I recall my first Ramadan, I feel my mouth succumb to the utter delectation that is harira, a famous Moroccan soup that takes about two hours to prepare, during iftar.

While Ramadan was similar to hiking a Colorado fourteener in a physically demanding aspect, it was just as spiritually and emotionally challenging, yet rewarding. Regardless of my spiritual beliefs or nationality, an iftar never passed where a Muslim-Moroccan family or friend did not welcome me into their home with astonishing hospitality. I was always given more than I could eat at iftar and even more love than I could comprehend from even people I had only just met.

It did not matter if I was eating on the floor of a poor Berber family’s home in the Atlas mountains, at a fancy table decorated with delicate china and elaborate foods in the city of Meknes, or cramped around a table bursting with someone from every generation in the family home of my Arabic professor in Tangier; every iftar was spent with people who encouraged me to call them uncle, grandmother, sister and father.

Ramadan was a blur of emotions, food, heat, Arabic and thankfulness for me. In a country where I could so easily be isolated because of language, religion, race, beliefs and culture I was adopted into so many families who never questioned my worth or validity at their sacred breaking-of-fast meal.

I believe one of my journal entries during the third week of Ramadan sums up my experience most comprehensively:

When your past sorrow and anxiety about the future dissolve into a peaceful acceptance of what was, what is and what is to come. When all fear evades your mind and abounding joy mixed with absolute gratitude becomes your daily song. Where language is a matter of the heart and not of the tongue, and all homes and hearts have only but open doors. Where delectation comes from kindness and not matters of wealth or filling your belly. This is truly living. Brothers and sisters, I am truly living.

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