So far, this has been a semester of firsts: my first time leaving the US, riding a camel, learning Arabic, eating couscous… the list goes on. And today, as I lay collapsed on my bed, muscles aching, and trying to muster the remaining energy in my body in order to type these very words, I can formally add – you guessed it – hiking, surfing, and salsa to my ever-growing list of new experiences.
Let me preface this with a confession: I am not what they call “athletic”. The only possible indication of an active lifestyle among my belongings are a tattered pair of sweatpants with the words “UM Soccer” printed on one side (a memento of the one grueling season in the ninth grade that taught me to hate team sports). Nor am I particularly graceful–I have become so well-acquainted with the art of falling that I’ve lost track of the scars on my knees. I am simply not the type of girl who would samba with a diplomat, climb a mountain, and attempt to ride a wave in the same week; yet here we are.
I spent the weekend with a group of friends in Chefchaouen, a tiny city nestled in the northern mountains of Morocco. Without a doubt, Chefchaouen is the most beautiful and enjoyable city I’ve ever visited. There’s something to be said for color therapy here; one of Morocco’s renowned ‘blue cities’, Chefchaouen’s walls and buildings are painted in various shades of blue. Coincidentally the medina, usually a hub of commotion and chaos, is uncharacteristically calm, while local residents generally exude a laid back, positive demeanor. If a Chefchaouenite were in dire pain, she would mosey all the way to the emergency room and stop for pastries along the way.
We decided to hike to the Spanish Mosque in the morning, about a half an hour’s climb through prickly pear, cactus plants, and the odd herd of goats out to graze. Built by the Spanish and now fallen into disuse, the mosque sits atop a hill and overlooks the entire city. It is a popular spot for locals, tourists, and livestock alike to sit back, have a picnic, and enjoy the spectacular view.
As soon as I returned to Rabat, I squeezed into a wet suit and jogged to the beach for my second surf lesson. My friend, her two host sisters and I recently decided to learn how to surf. Due to the language barrier, our lessons are conducted in a melange of French, Moroccan Arabic, broken English, and much gesticulation. Awkward and a little nervous, we began by lying on our bellies in the sand and pretending to paddle as if we were in the water while onlookers openly gaped and occasionally hooted (women are rarely seen swimming, let alone surfing in Morocco). Our second lesson moved quite faster; we practiced balancing on our board once on the sand, and before I could process it all I found myself gliding along a massive wave, trying my hardest to stand up before tumbling off my board. After two hours of this unintentional diving practice, we crept back to the surf cafe to split a pot of hot tea and watch the sunset, exhausted but perfectly content.
I’m not going to lie–living in Morocco is hard, almost as hard as climbing a mountain or crashing head-first into the ocean twenty times in one day. Virtually everything about this country is so different from the world I’d grown so accustomed to, and the ceaseless culture shock can get tiring and at times, a bit discouraging. I often wonder what could have possessed me to study abroad in Morocco, where I would face discrimination and hardship as a woman, as a Korean, as a foreigner–you name it.
At the end of the day, despite all the challenges, homesickness, food poisoning, and muscle aches, I am thankful for every moment that I am here in Morocco. Every day presents a struggle, but this has only allowed me to grow more than I ever would have if I had stayed within my comfort zone. I’m looking forward to the adventures the rest of this semester has in store. Next up, free salsa classes in the U.S. Embassy–well, cur non?