A Semester in Morocco
From January to May 2015, I lived in Rabat, Morocco's capital city, studying Arabic and journalism at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning.
I know by now that most things aren't going to work out the way I expect them to. But in case I forgot, this semester has been a reminder of that -- an excellent reminder of that, actually. Morocco has been a lesson in going with the flow.
Classes at the CCCL finished up entirely about two weeks ago. As the end approached, they became fewer and farther between. Arabic classes ended with our exam on St. Patrick's day and our last journalism-related lecture was little more than a goodbye before parting ways; several students in the program -- myself included -- are staying in Rabat for their independent study, but a few others are making their way down south or up north for their research. For the most part, the last week or so of classes was used to sort out our living arrangements for our last month in Morocco, finalize our story pitches and arrange our first few interviews for the independent study period.
Emma and Paris did most of the work for the apartment search, looking for a place within close proximity to the downtown area that would accommodate five students on a budget. The only place to respond to us was in Bouznika, a 30 minute drive from downtown Rabat, according to Google maps. That was our first mistake: relying on Google maps. The location wasn't ideal, but with only a few days left to figure out our living arrangements, all five of us crammed into a cab to see what the place looked like. Four of us shared the three seats in the back and Hayden sat up front. By the time 30 minutes in the car passed, we could see that we were nowhere near to where we should be. The cab driver, however, never let on that he had no idea where he was going. About 45 minutes into the drive, he pulled over to ask a pedestrian - the first of many he would ask- how to get to the Bouznika train station. There was hardly enough room in the backseat to breathe, but I remember suppressing laughter for a good portion of the trip - partly at the humor of the situation, partly as a way of relieving the stress. Part of me was ready to get out of the cab and hail down someone more familiar with the area, but looking out the window and seeing the cars drive by, I knew we didn't really have any other option but to stay in the car, hold our breath and hope for the best.
Just over an hour later, we pulled into the train station - a small, old building that paled in comparison to the size of the big city stations like Rabat and Casablanca. You had to look closely to even know that you were at a train station. The landlord said he'd send a car to pick us up. When the car didn't come, he said he'd send us "a rouge bicyclette." A rouge bicyclette. By this point in the journey, we all knew that this apartment wasn't going to work out. Too far away and too expensive to justify the distance. We took the train home to Rabat. To say tensions were high would be an understatement.
Long story short, we found a place just outside of the medina, right off of the tram. The original listing price was way outside of our budget, but the renter, Adil -- a goofy, energetic surfer, hockey player, American football player and all-around sports enthusiast -- was willing to negotiate with us. He took us to tea at his favorite place - a tiny, nameless cafe just inside the walls of the medina -- to talk about the price, and thinking that we had to put our bargaining skills to good use, we had a number in mind that we were willing to put on the table. To our surprise, the number he offered was less than the asking price we had in mind. Sold. The apartment isn't at all how I imagined it would be when all of this began. It's huge, for one thing, and it's in almost-new condition. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a narrow kitchen and a dining room table that sits between the two salons on either end of the apartment - one of which functions as my bedroom. There's a third bedroom upstairs and large terrace that over looks the street below it.
Up until dinner, our last day at the homestay was pretty much like any other. I was anxious for the independence of living on my own again - having my own schedule and time to myself, not feeling like someone's responsibility - but I also knew I'd miss the craziness of the place I called home for two months. To this day, I don't know if I can sufficiently describe what it was like to live in the home I was placed in. So much was always going on -- with the kids, the parents, the family business -- and there was no way for me to keep up with it all. They rented out rooms on the second floor of their house, so guests were always coming and going -- some for longer periods than others. On the occasions when the doorbell rang and I answered it, I was never be sure of how to greet the person behind the door - would it be a family member or someone I'd never met? We housed Tunisians, Moroccans, Spanish and French people, and probably a lot of others who I never interacted with.
The family had a small party planned for us after dinner; cake, cookies and tea were served. Fatiha, the young lady that lives upstairs, offered to do henna on Emma and I as a parting gift. I tried to decline, but she insisted. Chamae instantly became jealous when she saw Fatiha start with Emma, so in between Emma's henna and mine, Chamae had her turn. Issrae had the hardest time saying goodbye the following morning; she cried and hid in her parent's bedroom, refusing at first to come out and say goodbye. She did eventually open her arms for a goodbye hug, but I don't think she said more than two words that morning. She's only a year younger than Chamae, but she had a much harder time handling or coming to terms with our departure. Paris, who had become almost as much of a sister to these girls as I had, met the two of us and the family outside our door. After another long round of goodbyes, thank yous and I'll miss yous, we lugged our bags to Avenue Lallou, the street just outside the medina where we could catch a cab. Oussama was there to help, and when we couldn't find a cab to bring us to our apartment, we did what anyone else would have done in that situation. We arranged a deal with a man standing beside a pick up truck with an empty bed at the back. For 50 dirham ($5), he took us to our apartment on the other side of the medina. We loaded everything into the bed of the truck and three of us jumped in behind it -- Paris took the front seat.
But that's not where the day ended. When we reached the apartment, Adil met up with us. He was confused by all the luggage he saw on the ground between us, and we were confused as to why he was confused. He explained to us that the couple that rented the apartment that weekend would be there another night... so we couldn't move in. It was a mix up on his part and he apologized for the misunderstanding, immediately trying to figure out where we could stay for the night. In theory, we could have gone back to our homestays, but I think we all felt that our goodbyes that morning were more than enough for one weekend. He and the owner of the apartment, Youssine, helped us carry our luggage to the terrace of the apartment, where they said we could figure out where to go from there. We couldn't stay in the apartment, but "there's a solution to every problem," in the words of Adil. We settled on the plan to stay at someone's place in Sale, a neighborhood of Rabat with a pretty rough reputation. Against our better judgement - but mostly out of curiosity - we agreed that we could trust Youssine. He said he'd pick us up later that night and bring us to the apartment in Sale. We had a few hours to kill until then, so we filled them by cleaning out the room on the terrace. It was a mess -- old clothes were thrown alongside one of the walls, an old fouton was covered in old books and papers, and two mattresses were stacked - one on top of the other - in the middle of the room. In about two hours, we had the place cleaned, almost from top to bottom. By the time we finished with it, the room looked livable.
We ate dinner at a Syrian restaurant just down the street from us, and Youssine picked us up shortly after. Just before we arrived to the place in Sale, we discovered it was his aunt's home that we would be staying in. We'd come up with a whole list of possibilities -- a hostel, a friend's place, another empty apartment -- but none of them hit the mark. Her apartment was beautiful; the salon we walked into had pink and gold couches along the walls with a large round table placed in the middle of them. She made us tea and she and her 8-year-old daughter sat and talked with us for an hour or so before we all went to bed. A few months ago, I might have found this whole set up odd, but I've since come to the conclusion that it's hard to underestimate Moroccan hospitality. When Rita woke up that morning, she had no idea she'd have four 20 year-old girls sleeping on her couches that night, but she did and she treated us with the warmth of someone we'd known for a long time. She made us a big breakfast of eggs, bread and tea in the morning, and for the second time that weekend, we said goodbye to a family that opened their home to us. Youssine picked us up, and after a slight detour to the beach, we finally made it to the apartment. Safi - home, sweet home.