After 10 very long days of traveling, I’m back in Rabat to celebrate my one-month anniversary on this program. To be honest, this one week felt as long as the first three weeks in Rabat, and I think I learned as much about myself and about this country (and the USA) through traveling.
First lesson: when you gotta do what you gotta do, you’ve really just gotta do it
To start, it took me about half a day of traveling to get pretty darn sick. So sick that I was irrationally telling my adviser that I could not possibly get back on the bus, even though we were in the middle of nowhere, at a side-of-the-road stop where there were monkeys eating from people’s hands. Looking back, of course I couldn’t have just stayed there. Those monkeys aren’t exactly doctors. So I had to pull myself together, let my friends take care of me, and get back on the bus. And, though I thought at times that I wouldn’t, I got through it. A doctor was called to our hotel, a friend of mine offered her few years of French to help translate my examination, I got a shot and four medications, and I got better.
Second lesson: always check your watch–but sometimes it’s best to just leave that behind.
On the second day, we traveled to the Sahara and rode about on some camels. It was hands down one of those mind-blowing experiences, during which we all kept looking down at this strange, loping animal beneath us and the mounds of endless sand and simply finding our surroundings unbelievable.
The following morning, however, was a miscommunication about times. Long story short, 20 20-year-old American students wandered off into the Sahara at 4 in the morning to watch the sunrise because we did not realize there was a time difference between the Sahara and Rabat. Right. Potentially a disastrous situation? Yes. But was it an amazing experience, with yoga on a dune and a beautiful, peaceful experience? Also yes. We just had to sit in the dark for about an hour and a half, and listen to the call to prayer in the desert, and watch everything slowly lighten around us. As “punishment” we all had to sing a song to each other on the bus the next day–a thought that would have left me full of dread prior to this trip. But I hoisted myself up to the front of that bus, got everyone going on a little bit of “Here Comes the Sun” (get it?) and happily joined in on the rest of the sing-alongs. Together, these two experiences left me shocked by my ability to head out into something that is way outside of my comfort zone. To be honest, I think the singing was still way scarier than the Sahara at night.
Third lesson: learn to understand and verbalize your thoughts, to respect others, and to trust your gut.
Following the Sahara, we traveled to Marrakech. Not quite a peaceful experience. As a center of tourism in Rabat, Marrakech saw us no longer as students or visitors, but rather as money. The main square, Djemaa al-Fna, with the famous snake charmers and musicians was a complete trap–tourists would get pulled into the circle, forced to dance or hold a snake, and then get charged for it. My friends and I had a scare when we thought we were being scammed by a man leading us through the medina. He had told us that the gardens and palaces were closed because of the king’s visit, but that he would show us a small market that was more traditional. But our spidey-senses started tingling when we realized he had stopped our friends on the street first, that he refused to let us take his picture, and that he told us not to speak to the locals. All red flags. So then we had to figure it out. Follow our instincts and miss out on something great? Or stick it out and risk our safety?
In the end, we followed him down main roads, memorized our way out of the windy streets, and backed out when some of our group members became incredibly uncomfortable. We had to talk it out, articulate our concerns, and weigh our choices. It was an emotional exercise, and that left most of us drained and a little frightened, but I think we learned far more from trying to describe what we were feeling (and just feeling those feelings in the first place) than we would ever have learned from any gardens, no matter how beautiful.
Lesson Four: when everyone else is going home, linger a little longer.
Finally, over the weekend, we traveled to Essaoira, a smaller city on the coast. We ended up staying there for the weekend after most of our program left. Because this post is getting hefty, I’ll be swift here. Here and in Marrakech, what we learned was to use our Arabic. To say what few Darija words we know in response to the shop keepers’ questions in French or English, and to appreciate the sudden smile we would receive in return. To juggle the attempts to make friends with Moroccans with their expectations of American women’s behavior, based on MTV and soap operas. To find a clean hotel for $6 a night and a tiny restaurant that would offer us live, local music. To fully, fully enjoy ourselves on our own.
In short, lesson five: whatever you do studying abroad, commit to it