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.
From Fez down to Merzouga, through the High Atlas Mountains and back to the coastal city of Essaouira, we had an exhausting week of bus rides, sight seeing, shopping and lectures, but the trip into the Sahara - although touristy in itself - offered a bit of a respite from all of that. Dance parties broke up long bus rides, with Badrdine at the front playing songs from his top 10 -- everything from Call Me Maybe to Hot in Here made the list. I'm fairly sure I'll never get the sound out of my head of Badrdine singing certain lyrics into the microphone, or stop wondering if he really knew exactly what he was singing to a bus full of 20-somethings. Was it a case of lost-in-translation, or was he fully embodying the role of embarrassing dad/crazy uncle? Either way, what's a road trip without some good, old fashioned sing-alongs? Even if it is to LMFAO's Sexy and I Know It ("Girl, look at that Badr, I work out").
The truth is, it was a memorable week, in which every city had something different to offer us or an experience for us to remember it by. In Fes, it was the medina's narrow alleyways – different from the medina we’d grown so accustomed to at “home” in Rabat; it was the tannery and the weaving place, the spice store where we all took a hit of an herb that temporarily shocked our senses; it was the beautiful architecture and artwork of the ancient medrasa, the world’s oldest university. In Azrou, it was the snow covered hills that reminded a few students of their home in Colorado. In Tinghir, it was the immense gorges and in Marrakech, it was the night Marguerite, Paris, Evan and I spent dancing for a crowd with the self-proclaimed "Moroccan Michael Jackson.” In Ouerzazate, it was meeting, dancing and singing at the top of my lungs with dozens of young women pursuing an education; it was introducing myself and the SIT journalism program in Arabic to a room full of strangers. In Essaouria, it was eating shrimp for the first time and playing soccer on the beach, where Badrdine’s “mean side” shone through and my competitive nature became all too apparent. In El-Jadida, it was the pizza I didn’t even know I’d been craving.
But the Sahara was a different kind of experience. We arrived to Rissani, a small desert town in eastern Morocco, for lunch at Panorama Restaurant. As has become the custom, we were first served a series of salads - cooked veggies and fresh ones - to dig into before the main course: khboz medfouna, or "buried bread," also known as Berber pizza. Beef, eggs, cheese, a variety of eggs and seasons were stuffed in between two slices of dough and cut into triangles that we ate like a slice of pizza. Despite such an odd assortment of ingredients, the pizza was delicious - enough so that I downed two large slices and would have happily eaten a third had there been enough. After a brief presentation from Hayden and Evin on camels, the desert and Gnawa music, we retreated back to the bus to get our overnight pack and anything we'd need for the night in the desert. It was hot, and as much as I wanted change out of my thin sweater and into a short sleeve, it was too early in the trip to risk getting a sunburn. In groups of four or five, we loaded ourselves into four land rovers that would bring us to our campsite in the small Saharan village of Merzouga. With music blasting, the vehicles picked up speed and zig-zagged along roads that didn't seem to exist, and for fear of hitting my head against the roof of the rover, I grabbed onto the back of the seat in front of me. I trusted the man behind the wheel, if only because I had no choice but to trust that he knew what he was doing. I could see from the rear-view mirror the smirk on his face as he looked out the window to see where the other drivers were at in relation to us. When one driver picked up speed, he did too. When he went around a dip in the ground, the other driver went through it. To my left, I saw Badrdine waving his scarf out of his front seat window, laughing and taunting us to do the same. For the Americans, it was a wild, roller-coaster of a ride through the dunes of the Sahara; for them, it was a game: who could get there first and have the most fun doing it.
After the initial welcome performance from these men, many of whom were brothers and childhood friends, we had a short period of time to settle into our tents and explore the neighboring auberge before regrouping for dinner. I put my stuff into my tent for the night and after checking out the auberge's pool, I wandered into the desert on my own. I walked just far enough so as to not lose sight of our camp, but to escape the noise from within it. I sat down in the sand and stared up at the night sky. I'd never seen so many stars at once before, nor had I ever felt so small - it was a feeling that paled in comparison to standing at the edge of the ocean. Those ten minutes were the first I'd really had to myself since this whole adventure began - from the homestay to classes, I've almost always been in the company of others. Out there in the desert, I recognized what an incredible experience I had signed up for. Going abroad - not just the adventure into the desert - was exactly the kind of change in pace that I needed.
Content in a way I haven't found the words to describe, I began the walk back, slowly approaching the sound of laughter emulating from the campsite. We ate dinner as a group - where there was a lot of "silly talk," as Badrdine calls it - and returned to the campsite for a full performance of Gnawa music. Badrdine, who'd grown up with the music in his home, joined in for a number of the performances, trying his best to keep with the pace of the men's choreography.
The night ended around the campfire once again, listening to music and trying to make some of our own with whatever we could find around us. We were joined by Hassan and another traveler, offered more mint tea, and talked with one another until it got to be past midnight.
I don't think I slept more than a few hours that night. It was cold and uncomfortable, but I was also wired from the night I'd just had. Six in the morning came faster than it ever has, and I anxiously got out of bed to end the night of tossing and turning. By 6:45, I saw the sun rise over the Algerian border. By 8 am, we were back in the land rovers, onto our next destination: Ouerzazate.
I know that our experience was an exceptionally touristy one - that was made pretty clear by the large sum of tourists that ate in the same dining room as us for dinner - but I choose to see it as more than that. It was the night in the desert I didn't even know I needed.