November 16, 2012

A day in the life of a tourist

As always, this week has been different from the last. With classes ended last week, we’ve been transitioning into our Independent Study Project time, which will last for the next three weeks. Our final week, December 8-15, will see us all back in Rabat to present our projects. Each person is allowed to choose their own topic–something generally related to Multiculturalism and Human Rights, our program seminar–and to travel where they want in the country to find interviews, research, etc. The end result is a 20-40 page paper on the subject, which we will present to our classmates and advisers.

I am hoping to start work on my ISP this Sunday, when I begin researching how the Christian minority in Morocco defines and practices their spirituality in relation to the majority Arab- or Amazigh-Muslim population. I won’t go into much more detail now, because I’m sure my following posts will be packed with my experiences researching and interviewing.

This week has also been different, because my parents arrived last Saturday! It has been an amazing week for a variety of reasons. Obviously, I missed them a ton and was thrilled to see them again (I hugged them both two times in a row right at the gate of the train station, and then proceeded to grin goofily at them and pat them on the shoulders for the next thirty minutes).

Lafayette student Madeline Gambino and her father sitting at a table for breakfast in Fez, Morocco

Me and Dad at breakfast in Fez

But having them here also gave me the opportunity to really notice what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed.

Mostly, because I was no longer hanging out with friends who either know more Arabic or are more outgoing, I spent the majority of the week being the person to get us around, talk to the taxi drivers, ask prices and directions, etc. It was tiring, given how intensely introverted I can be. But it was also nice to show my parents that I had in fact learned some Arabic (even if most of the useful stuff is in Moroccan Arabic), and indeed to show myself that. I think I can do a lot more in the language than I give myself credit for.

I was surprised, actually, by how normal it seemed to be walking around with them. I think I expected it to be a big clash between two familiars–my home in America and my new home here–but because I have traveled so much with my family, it almost seemed more normal to be walking down Mohammad V Ave with my parents than it had all semester with my friends. Of course, it’s very unusual that I am the one to be getting us around, but pretty cool too. As the youngest, I usually feel kind of like a tag-along.

But what was really great was our two-day trip to Fez. Though only a 2.5 hour train ride from Rabat, I hadn’t had the chance to visit the city yet, and I’d been dying to–its medina is supposed to be one of the most intense in the world.

A broad view of the Fez medina in Morocco

Fez medina

With something like 6,000 different streets (most of them with dead ends) and 120,000 residents, it was wild! Unlike the medina in Rabat, which is mostly laid out in a grid and so fairly easy to navigate, these tiny, tiny streets wind here and there and then disappear into 9th century alley ways hardly broader than my shoulders. My history nerd self was alive and well.

We’d lucked out and met a man who worked for the Moroccan tourism department on the train, and he called ahead to reserve a guide to meet us at the train station. Best decision we’ve made all trip. Without him, I’m fairly sure we would never have found our hotel (this gorgeous riad),

much less any of the sites we saw. And sites we saw–including the Karaouine University (the first, and started by a woman in 859), the famous metal-working square, a madersa-mosque, a Jewish cemetery, the tanneries, Maimonides’ house, etc. We also had the chance to go to a bunch of cooperatives of weaving, leather working, metal working, embroidery, and pottery, where we learned about the crafts and, of course, bought a ton of presents.

Two people kneel to view famous mosaics in Fez, Morocco

Famous mosaics of Fez

We trekked right through that medina, learning all sorts of things I hadn’t known before about Morocco (that no one is supposed to use a recording of the call to prayer in Morocco, that riads need to have gardens or else they are only dars, etc.) But mostly, because I’d never had a tour of Rabat either, I had the chance to do Morocco kind of like a tourist–with someone to explain, and protect, and show around. It was nice.┬áBut at the same time, it makes me appreciate how much I just throw myself into my program, because there was no other way to do it. I actually give everyone on my program a ton of credit for not only taking the risk of going outside Europe, but also for choosing a program that just sort of threw us in. I think we’ve all learned a lot about what we can do. That’s a pretty good way to feel.

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