When I was in grade school and I’d come home and complain to my mom about a kid in my class (it was usually the same person), she’d always give me the same response: “Just another person you know you don’t want to be.” I hope she’s laughing that I’m mentioning this now, because I’ve always HATED it when she told me that. But along with a whole other host of things we all realize about our mothers, she was right. I’ve met more students with Semester at Sea that I do not want to be like than I have in all of my 21 years.
I’ve been internally debating for a few days now about how to write this county’s blog post. This just might be one of the longest blogs I’ve written yet, because unfortunately some of this isn’t going to be about Morocco itself. Before I go into my time in Morocco, I want to share a story that might explain my reason for writing about some of these experiences.
In Ireland, I had the incredibly unique opportunity to say thank you to a local farmer for letting me trudge up his land to see the coast by helping repair a stone wall (see Ireland post.) Because I was with a Semester at Sea program, I was in the company of other American college students also blessed with this opportunity. Throughout the couple hours I was helping build the wall, I was listening to hundreds of complaints from a particular group of girls who were assigned to a section near mine. They were annoyed they had to help, they didn’t sign up for this, there’s so many bugs I-can’t-even-deal-right-now, wasn’t last night’s bar so fun? It’s too hot outside, it smells here, look I just broke my $400 boots they like, totally owe me a new pair.
I did my best to ignore it and keep the euphoria of the moment intact, but listening to stuff like really makes it hard to enjoy an experience. Then I watched at the same girls start taking pictures of each other doing cute poses with the coast in the background to upload to Instagram with an inspiration quote they found on Pinterest, sixteen emoji’s, and six hundred likes and comments from people saying things like, “Stop Your Life Is TOO Perfect.”
To me, posting pictures like that is more than just a focus on the positive. It’s a misleading representation to make other people think your experience is greater than what it was. It really bothers me. After that day in Ireland, I made a mental resolve to always report an experience accurately, even if it’s not great.
There hasn’t honestly been anything major this semester so far that I’ve had many complaints about, other than the other students on Semester at Sea. I haven’t needed to exaggerate any experience to make it sound good when it wasn’t, because I’ve had an incredible time, and I hope that shows. But now I’m sitting here with the task of writing this Morocco blog, and my resolve to report accurately is being tested for the first time. But because I’m supposed to be learning on this trip, I’m going to tell a couple of stories throughout this post about the people I do not want to be and what they’ve taught me.
Morocco is a beautiful country that I highly recommend seeing someday. Even though it is in Africa, it had a Middle East feeling to it, or at least what I think I Middle East feel is like. The buildings, desert landscape, and clothing all reflected everything I’ve ever seen about the Middle East. So while I didn’t get to see a different culture in Africa, I am glad that I had this taster of this unique culture.
Backtracking to this summer really quickly. This June, as part of my preparations for this voyage, I spent hours looking through the field trips Semester at Sea offered in each country. I bought quite a few, and I now have slightly mixed feelings about it. True, all of the trips have been well planned and interesting and I’ve almost always been satisfied with the content. But it means I could be stuck for long periods of time with other SAS students that I don’t really care for. On the day trips, it doesn’t matter really at all. But on the four day trips, it does.
We got really familiar with this bus..
So this summer, while signing up for field programs, my friend from high school, Steph, had texted me and suggested I sign up for this camel trek in Morocco. I thought, riding camels in the Sahara? I’m in. I didn’t look into too much, which was my first mistake. If I had looked closer, I would have discovered that the trip visited a city that was on the other side of the country, crossing a mountain range. I also should have thought about the fact that it was a four day program. We were the first ones off the ship and the last ones to come back. That means I spent four solid days with the same group of people.
But I didn’t know. Nor did anyone else on the trip. In order to get to the Sahara desert from Casablanca, 90 SAS kids would spent a total of 28 hours on three crowded charter buses. And that wasn’t 28 hours of highway driving. That was about 12 hours of mountain driving. Hairpin turns at 60 miles an hour on roads so narrow we had to slam on the breaks and pull over every time we met a car. Then having to floor it so the bus had enough momentum to make it up the mountain. Then whipping around another corner. You couldn’t sleep either, because the stops and starts and turns were so violent that you were thrown around in your seat and you had to brace yourself. For 28 hours.
I think the phrase every single person on the trip said was, “If I had known, I would not have done this.”
But we didn’t know until we were about 8 hours into the drive and wondering if we were there yet. We did stop for lunch and for a few bathroom breaks along the way. I’m not even going to go into how difficult it is to find a bathroom in Morocco, something that would’ve otherwise been survivable if we hadn’t been so sick from the drive. On a positive note, the meals were all great. We had the same thing for every single meal but it was still good.
Usually the meals started off with some homemade flat bread to dip in the salad, which was a combination of various fresh and steamed vegetables, spiced lentils, and hot sauces. The main course was always yellow saffron chicken on the bone cooked in special domed ceramic pans. And dessert was a bowl of fruit: seeded grapes, tart green apples, and orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon (I can’t eat an orange without cinnamon now, that combination was just so fantastic.) The whole meal was wrapped up with a little glass of fresh Moroccan mint tea. The tea surprised me more than anything else. I’m used to seeing hot tea served in either mugs or teacups, but here it was always in little clear glass cups that resembled shot glasses. Mint leaves are laid in the bottom of the glass and then the tea is poured over the leaves from a kettle lifted high above the glass to create a creamy foam.
So, aside from eating, the first day our only real point of interest we saw besides driving was a little argon oil co-op on the side of a mountain. They showed us how Argon Oil, also known as just Moroccan Oil, was made. I may or may not have spent all the dirhams I brought with me here. Oops.
Basically from what I was able to gather from the presentation, the oil is extracted from a nut. The nuts are each cracked individually with a stone, the shells are discarded, and the inner portion is thrown into a basket to be ground.
This was the grinder. It reminded me a lot of the mortar and pestles that are used to grind corn into tortillas. Except this one you just cranked the handle around and around until the paste started flowing out from underneath the rock and into another bowl. My Spanish teacher asked to try the grinder, turned it about three times and said there was no way she would be strong enough to do it for more than ten minutes.
From there, I think the oil is somehow separated from the paste and used to make both cooking oil and beauty products. The remaining paste is used to make soap. And all of these items were conveniently located right behind us.
It was some of my favorite shopping on the trip.
After that little 45 minute stop, we drove for another 5 or so hours until it was late enough to get dinner and stay at a hotel. So it wasn’t until that night that I had my first experience with some of the other students on the trip. (Side note, someone on Semester at Sea has coined the term “SASholes.” It’s a real thing. Another phrase I said repeatedly on this trip.)
Somehow while getting off the bus that night, my little group of friends (who I’ll talk about in a minute) ended up getting off the bus last. That meant that by the time we got into the restaurant, the only seats left were just here and there at different tables. That should’ve been no big deal. I end up at a round table with 8 guys and three other girls. My first thought was great, here’s a chance to met some people on this trip! But then they opened their mouths.
They were disgusting. I’m not going to repeat some of the topics that were openly discussed at the table, but there were more racial, sexual, and religious slurs that I have ever heard in a single conversation in my life. Because of the layout of the table, it wasn’t a conversation that I could easily block out, especially when they started making fun of the performers who had come out for our entertainment. The performers, mostly women, were dressed in traditional clothes, beating drums and chanting rhythmically. It would have been an incredibly moving experience if I hadn’t been simultaneously listening to the boys at the table mock the chanting in obnoxious sarcastic cat calls.
Then they called the waiter over by saying, “Can we get some beers up in here?” The waiter did not speak much English and did not understand what they were saying. Finally they get the message across that they want beers. “How many?” asked the waiter. “Five.” “Okay, I bring five.” “No, no, five for EACH of us!” Then they clap each other on the back and laugh and laugh. The waiter looks confused but then leaves and brings back about 40 bottles of beer (the restaurant’s entire two month supply). By now, all the restaurant workers are staring. This entire time, myself and the other three girls haven’t said a word, we’re just sitting there in silent horror. One of the guys throws his phone at me and tells me to take a picture for them. I don’t think, I just say, “No.” They stop their laughing and stare at me. The guy repeats the question and I say “no” again. It’s awkward silence for several seconds. Then one says, “Ooo, look at her. She is disgusted man, you’ve made her mad! Better watch out!” Then the guy has another guy take the picture and they go back to opening their drinks and calling each other champs.
After about 10 minutes of this, the first plate comes out. It looked like a pastry filled with chicken and rice and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I was excited to try it. But the second the waiter lowers the plate, the guys help themselves. Not that it mattered at this point, but not one of them offered it to anyone else first. They’re attacking it like it’s a pizza in a frat house. One of the most obnoxious guys was using the knife to try and get some. Then he gives up, and shoves his hand in it and starts taking fistfuls of the stuff. They’re already getting drunk at this point and think he’s the coolest thing ever for doing that. The four girls at the table, Bree, Morgan, Nichole and I now refuse to eat it. They laugh.
I’m downright angry at this point. I realize I’m missing the entire performance, which has still been going on this whole time, but their disgusting conversation is so loud I can’t block it out. Occasionally a comment is dropped about me refusing to take that picture. My friend Bree is just as angry. The best thing that can be said for this dinner is sometime during it, Bree and I have become really good friends. Bree is a sweetheart from Canada, where apparently the mentality that you need to be drunk all of the time doesn’t exist as prominently in college students as it does in the States. She told me later that the people like these boys on the ship (Because there’s many more that act like this) have been a bigger cultural shock to her than anything she’s seen in all eleven countries we’ve been to so far. I feel nothing but shame that that’s American’s are presenting themselves to her, then I realize that’s how they’ve been representing the United States in every country. No wonder we have a terrible stereotype.
Finally that horrible meal is done. We go to our hotel and I’m looking forward to having some quiet time and sleep. Unfortunately for me, our hotel room is infested with ants. I’m talking thousands of them. We grab our bags and head to the manager’s desk to ask for a new room. He doesn’t seem to take us very seriously until a couple of guys come up with the same problem. Then he’s all “Oh, of course I’ll get you a new room!” The new room still wasn’t the cleanest, but no bugs that we could see. We were some of the lucky ones too, when we got back to the ship a few days later there were several hostels reported in Marrakech that had bedbugs and the people who stayed in them had to turn in all their stuff to be frozen or fumigated.
The next day we drive and drive and drive from early morning to late afternoon making only one pit stop and one break for lunch before we finally get to the desert for the main attraction, the Sahara Desert camel trek. I had been a little worried about what to wear because I thought it would be super hot, being in the desert and all, but it was around 5 PM at this point and the temperature was completely comfortable. Once I get all dressed up in my turban (I now know how to tie a rockin’ turban) I get in a group with friends and select the friendliest camel I can find of the bunch. I name my camel Fran.
That’s a pretty sweet turban though…
Fran was pretty relaxed, no spitting or biting. The process of getting on a camel is more difficult that I had anticipated. The camels somehow fold their legs underneath themselves and sit on the ground for you. Your job is to scramble up the blanketed saddle with bicycle handlebars without disturbing the camel too much. Then they straighten their back legs first and you have to hang on tight to keep from being thrown over it’s head. They they straighten their front legs and you have to cling to it again to keep from sliding off the back. Bonus points to whoever can do it without crying out.
I can’t think of a better way to view the Sahara than from the back of a camel. Our camels were strung together in groups and once you get going, you can have your hands free to take picture of the surrounding sand dunes, which were gorgeous. Maybe it was because we were on the outskirts of the desert, but there was a lot more vegetation in the desert than I thought there would be. Fran enjoyed holding the entire line up to grab a snack.
Riding a camel is pretty surreal, but I will say it gets a bit uncomfortable after about an hour. It’s nothing like riding a horse where you can steady yourself and keep from just bouncing in the seat. But thankfully, we only went about an hour and a half before arriving at our camp for the night. Here I found my first real example of the blatant sexism of the country. There were two groups of tents set up for us at the camp, one for guys and one for girls. Steph, Bree and I went to one of the girls tents and found three hard packed sand pallets on the ground. We just figured that’s how it was in the desert and didn’t think of it too much until we saw the tent our friends from Singapore, Wilson and Ivan, were staying in. The boys had two people to a tent, soft mattresses on real bed frames, running water, mirrors, colorful blankets, and a skylight to see the stars.
View of the camps from the dune
We ended up climbing a giant sand dune (I almost didn’t make it to the top it was so big) to watch the sunset and then ate dinner, which was the same meal we were given for all the other meals.
Steph, Bree, Wilson and Ivan on top of the dune that almost killed us.
After dinner, there was a counter the camp workers set up where they were selling wine, beer, and water. People went crazy. I waited in line to buy some water and by the time I had made it up to the counter there were plenty of water bottles left, but nothing else. It was dark at this point, and someone turned on their phone with music and pretty soon you had an American college party right there in the Sahara desert.
After a few minutes of witnessing this, myself and seven other people I left the camp because we couldn’t deal with all the drinking anymore. We found a quieter sand dune to sit on away from the main camp. I’m so grateful now for the friends I did make on this trip, because despite being stuck by some weird college frat party in the desert, we had a lot of fun chatting, exchanging riddles and ghost stories, playing games, and stargazing through the clouds.
Terrible quality, but it was night.
Something I had never realized before: the constellations must in different places depending on where you are in the world. I’m used to being able to spot the Big Dipper and the North Star at home, but here when I looked I found a whole new set of unfamiliar patterns. I supposed that was sort of a metaphor for this trip.
When we finally went to bed, we didn’t sleep much, partly because of the horrible mattresses and partly because SAS kids partied loudly well into the early hours. But I’m not even just annoyed.. I’m confused. You get one night in the Sahara Desert, but all you want to do is spend it like every other night in college? I am completely comfortable with social drinking and the occasional going out in the right setting. But I considered this to be extreme. I don’t understand it, I don’t know how to handle it. It’s like they don’t know what to do with themselves unless they are drunk. It’s such a limited way to live life.
Honestly, the attitudes of a large percentage of the people on this voyage have been my biggest disappointment this semester. I had some crazy expectation in my head this summer that the all the people on this trip would be worldly, and interested in learning and interacting with new cultures and so on. And I have met a few people like that. But the vast majority of people I’ve met are just like those kids, choosing to spend their one night in the Sahara Desert so drunk they can’t remember it, blatantly disrespecting the culture and the people around them.
I woke up at 6 AM the next morning sore, tired, and homesick. But sometime during that long night I resolved to focus on the eight people that I truly enjoyed on the trip rather than the 82 that I didn’t, and the decision was just about the only thing giving me energy. We find a group of camels again for the return visit and this time I pick a scrawny looking camel at the end of the row. I named this camel Lil’ Troublemaker, because when I was trying to scramble on, he stood up while I had one leg over him and I was knocked over. I’m sure it looked really funny actually. Lil’ Troublemaker was quite bony though and I was already sore from riding yesterday and from that sand mattress last night.
Once we got back to the bus we started the long, 16 hour drive back. I was dirty beyond belief, carsick, in pain from my back, and on a bus full of other smelly people who were going on and on about how fun last night was. When we stopped for lunch I didn’t eat, I just did some yoga in the corner with Bree to try and release some of the tension in my back. My mom would have known a way better stretch than sun salutations, but it was all I remembered how to do. (And it helped, so no regrets there.) I also got to lay in a pool side chair at the restaurant, which was incredibly comfortable after all those hours on a bus. It was hard to drag myself away from there.
Then we drove for a million more miles in the mountains. Thank god for Stephanie’s foresight to bring some motion sickness medicine and ibuprofen. I also made a promise to myself to never, ever live in the mountains where a drive like this is necessary every day.
This time we also stopped to see a few of these amazing Arabic palaces we kept passing.
We spent that night in Marrakech, which I recommend very highly if you ever want to travel to Morocco. This time we had an AMAZING hotel, with clean rooms and showers. I think that was the best shower I’ve ever taken. Holy clean. Do not underestimate how good it feels to be clean. My friends and I played heads up charades (my new favorite app) in the lobby where there was American outlets to charge our phones and enough wifi to post a couple of pictures. My poor phone and camera took a beating in the desert. I got some good pictures, but sand and electronics do not mix, even if you are trying to be super careful with them. Lesson learned. Even though I hadn’t done much that day but sit on a bus, I went to bed exhausted.
The last morning we were told to be on the bus by 830 so we could do some shopping before driving the last 5 hours to Casablanca (You knew we had been driving a long time when I was thinking 5 hours on a bus was no big deal.) This was a part of the trip I was really looking forward too, because I had heard many stories about how great Marrakech is and I was itching to try out some of my haggling skills I learned in Morocco Alley in Granada. So Steph, Bree, Wilson, Ivan, and myself, along with a handful of other people were sitting there on the bus by 830 like we were supposed to, ready to make the most of the time we got to shop.
But no one else showed up. Pretty soon it’s 8:45. Then 9:00. Then 9:15. People slowly coming in late because they were so hungover from the night before. Apparently there was some sort of night cub nearby that they had discovered and spent the night in. I’m getting more and more frustrated until I look up and it’s 9:30 and there’s still one person missing. It was the same kid who had sat at my table the first night and stuck his hands in the food. He finally comes stumbling out of the hotel, still black out drunk, covered in vomit, one shoe on, no bag and only holding some clothes. We waited an hour of our precious little time of actually getting to do stuff other than driving in Morocco for him. Half the people on the bus are very upset. But the other half starts applauding him when he walks on the bus. He’s called “hero” “buddy” and “rockstar.” People have to carry him to his seat he’s so drunk.
We leave to shop in Marrakech. Now we only get three hours to look around, but I quickly put aside my frustration and get wrapped up in the scene. Marrakech old market is overwhelming on every sensory level, but I loved it. You can easily get lost wandering through the maze of twisted alleys and stores, and each store you pass you hear the same comments over and over. “Lady, lady, come into my shop! I make you good price! You want leather? I have best. No, don’t listen to him, my shop better come look, come see!”
I crack up every time I hear that, because of course each shop is basically identical right down to the last dusty leather satchel and threadbare tapestry. No matter which crammed crevice they manage to coax you into, you’ll find strings of scuffed sandals hang from the ceilings, rows of carved onyx masks and heaps of faded, chipped pottery cluttering the corner of the shops. If you are very fortunate, or very unfortunate, you might pull back the racks of colored linens to find wire cages crowed with of beady-eyed lizards or jet black cobras coiled in perfect little tornados. Every now and then one of us will stop to negotiate a price for a little stone camel, or woven bracelet, all the while taking in the heavy mint scent of the tea they love so much here.
Photo credits to Wilson, who was the only one brave enough to pull out his camera here. I’ll upload the higher quality versions when I get home.
If you have an extreme sense of direction (Or if you’re with Ivan and Wilson), eventually you will find your way into the open plazas the shops pour into. Be very careful here though. This time the cobra’s aren’t in cages, they’re in the open being constantly provoked by the unrelenting wailing of the snake charmer’s wooden flutes. But if you watch the show for more than a few seconds, you’ll be expected to pay the man walking around the snake with an overturned hat. We made that mistake early on, and when I shot this picture I was asked for 200 dirham, the equivalent of $20.
I refused to give him any money and slowly the five of us back away from the aggressive snake charmer. Then we turn around and find ourselves face to face with elderly women demanding we pick a henna pattern from the books they were throwing in our faces. None of us want henna yet, so we politely tell them no and start walking away. But then one of the women grabs Bree’s arm and begins scribbling henna in a black, blotching mess. Bree’s saying no over and over and is trying to yank her arm away but the woman has it so tightly she can’t break free. So Steph steps in a tries to break them up and a second woman grabs HER arms and starts drawing there too. A third one comes up to me and I lock my arms behind me and say, “NO!” all the while watching around us to make sure we aren’t being pick-pocketed. It takes them less than 30 seconds to complete the henna and they they demand 350 dirham each (about $80 total). We freak out and say no way, they attacked us and we didn’t ask for the henna in the first place! Then they start trying to dig in Bree’s pockets for the cash. I finally found a 200 dirham bill in my purse and throw it at them and we all take off running. That was one of the craziest things I’ve ever been a part of.
Bree’s henna. Almost two weeks later.
Later, I find a nice henna place where I get a super cool design for only 100 dirham. It got smudged before I took a good, picture though because it’s really hard to navigate out of that crowded market without letting your arm touch anything. And my left hand just really sucks at being a hand sometimes.
My name in Arabic. I asked three different people to confirm it was really my name. Success.
But even after all the craziness of the Marrakech market, it was easily my favorite part of the trip. And honestly it’s because that’s the only time I think I really got a taste of Morocco. Everything else I saw was through a bus window, and the only people I really got to interact with were the other SAS students on the trip. But I’m trying to make a positive out of my experience, and the best way I can think of it to talk about it now. While my time in Morocco wasn’t spent learning about the country and culture (a heartbreaking shame, I know), it was spent learning about what it means to be a traveller.
I believe that every person who chooses to visit another country and another culture accepts a certain set of responsibilities. When you set foot in a new and unfamiliar place, you have the responsibility to be aware of the cultural norms around you and to respect them. Ignorance is not acceptable as a world traveller when it come to this. Even if you are uncertain if there are any different cultural norms, it is your duty to tread lightly until you have a sense of what is right and wrong here. You are a stranger in somebody’s home, and you must conform to their rules, not expect them to tolerate yours.
Whether you’re traveling from Orange County to Detroit or from London to Cairo, you will find new people with ideas that will be different from your own. And it is your responsibility, as a traveller, to show respect to those new ideas. If you are in a conservative country where it is not the culture to drink excessively at dinner, then do not drink excessively at dinner. Not only is it exceedingly rude to the hosts, who probably believe you are drinking because you do not appreciate their meal, but it also dilutes the experience for others around you. I’m speaking directing to other SAS students when I say: You are on a once in a lifetime voyage that few others will ever experience. Don’t waste the opportunities handed to you.
Finally, you also have a responsibility to respect the fellow travelers around you. So many people on this trip seem to forget that we are all here for the same reasons. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been smacked with a “selfie stick” (A rod you can attach your phone to to get a better picture of yourself), interrupted while enjoying a beautiful sight by being asked to take a trophy picture of people, sat through a meal or on a train around people discussing an extremely insensitive conversation topic, or otherwise was embarrassed by the conduct of students representing not only Semester at Sea, but also the US.
Because if you don’t want to learn about the culture, something you can only do if you are respecting it, then why would you leave home at all? Everywhere you go should leave an impact on you, not the other way around. Tread lightly, gather memories and experiences, and leave places the way you found them.
And if you cannot handle this, if you only going to countries to live like you do at home, then you should just stay at home. Although if you truly cannot handle something as simple as respecting a way of life, then it might be time to reevaluate yourself.
I’m incredibly lucky to know the few people on this trip who I enjoy very much. A handful of people on Semester at Sea have been absolutely wonderful, and every day they remind me not to give up on everyone on the ship just yet. They have no idea what they mean to me, and as we just hit our halfway point on the voyage, I’m already dreading the day we have to say goodbye. Maybe someday we’ll return to Morocco again, and this time there will be no buses involved.