Burning up in Marrakech

I’ve become pretty accustomed to some hot temperatures these last few weeks here in Ifrane but I don’t think anything could have quite prepared me for the 115 degree that assaulted me in Marrakech last weekend. The moment we realized that the air conditioning wasn’t actually going to work in our van during an 8 hour bus ride, I knew some torrential sweating was in store.

Marrakech feels like a mirage within a desert. After driving for hours on 2 lane roads with more than a few stops for tea, occasional site seeing and even some errant donkey crossings, Marrakech came alive in front of us full of New York style traffic, Western shopping malls and of course, McDonalds. I was completely unprepared for this clash of West meets East especially after having seen much of Morocco that is still very much a third world country. 

Our first stop was our hotel, which blissfully had a pool that we quickly dunked our feet into to cool our body temps down. (It’s possible I sweated out by body weight during our bus ride). A few of us decided to take a walk around our neighborhood before dinner just to get an idea of the area. We walked through some beautiful gardens and started to do some price comparing, noticing that prices are much higher in Marrakech then in other Moroccan cities. 

Saturday morning started with a tour of a resevoir whose use I don’t really remember but I’m hoping it’s not how the city gets their water because it certainly didn’t seem like a lot of water! We then made our way to the famous Koutoubia mosque where it became clear that Marrakech is a tourist city. I think I saw more American and Western tourists over this past weekend then I have seen in the past two months during all my travels in Europe and Morocco. Pretty amazing! The guide said that in the coming week as Ramadan begins the mosque will be filled with worshippers, some even spilling out into the courtyard surrounding the main building. 

Our guide led us into the back parts of the suuk, taking us to one of the oldest Madrassa’s in all of Morocco. The beautiful mosaic that can be found everywhere in Morocco has yet to disappoint me. 

Our next stop brought us to a traditional pharmacist who tried to sell us everything from dried gingko (the natural viagra!) to agram oil and goats milk lotion. I walked away with my fair share of spices and tea that are sure to stink up my suitcase on the way back home but I can’t wait to start cooking with them!

Now the suuk in Marrakech is seriously like nothing else. It’s HUGE!!! I’ve been to my fair share of outdoors markets and similar suuk style shopping plazas but this was by far the biggest one I have ever been in. It was no surprise then that we quickly lost our guide who was taking us back to the bus and we spent the next 25 minutes trying to find our way out of the maze of shops and back alleys.

The suuk is centered around the famed Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square that is home to entertainers, orange juice sellers, dancing monkeys, snake charmers, etc… Our first experience with Jemaa el-Fnaa happened relatively early in the day when it’s still fairly quite and unpopulated. The atmosphere changes completely by night fall, when hundreds of food vendors come out offering meats straight off the grill and mounds of couscous and escargot. There are so many people that it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Henna artists and artisans try to hawk their wears to every passing tourists and I was persuaded into getting a tattoo from a very mean women who almost made me pay double what I asked for!

Unfortunately for us, it was back onto the hot and steamy bus early Sunday morning. While the weekend was short, it was packed full of many things. I definitely want to go back to Marrakech soon!

The Women of Tarmalit

All of a sudden the weeks seem to be flying by so fast! It’s already the end of the school week here as we are off to Marrakech tomorrow and then there are only 2 weeks left. As ambivalent as I was about coming to Morocco in the first place, it has really started to grow on me. I don’t think I will ever be able to handle this constant dry heat, but I’ve been making a lot of really great friends, enjoying my classes for the most part and have been able to explore parts of Morocco that I don’t think the average tourist gets to see.

A few days ago, an announcement went out that a trip to the small village of Tarmalit was being planned. Since I’m always up for an adventure, I signed right up, having no real idea where we were going or what we would be doing there.

Now to say Tarmalit is a village is a little bit of an overstatement. Only 10 minutes away from our fancy American-style school stands a collective of small huts and shacks put together with found pieces of wood and scrap sheets of plastic. At first glance, I didn’t think we would end up seeing anything of consequence, but after getting out of the van and heading back behind the huts we were met by the most beautiful display of handmade carpets and bags. 

The women of Tarmalit create these items in an effort to make money to send their children to school. With the help of some students at Al Akhawayn, the women are able to add tags to their items, telling their stories and the students also help to bring a few tourists to the area. It’s clear that the women get very few shoppers as they were eager to barter down any of the prices we saw in order to get us to walk away with the most amount of goods. I couldn’t resist given how cute the bags were and knowing that they had been handmade only a few yards away from where I stood. 

We were invited into one of the huts to see how the women make the carpets. Even with only one loom they are able to keep up a pretty steady production. There were a plethora of tiny children running between us. One little boy was intrigued by my camera and kept on posing for me. I even taught him how to take a few photos himself! We were served traditional tea and malawi in a neighboring hut before saying our goodbyes and heading back to school.  

It was an incredibly humbling experience to visit Tarmalit. I sometimes forget that outside my little bubble of Al Ahkawayn that I am still in Morocco which still had many third world aspects in it. These women have tried as hard as they can to connect with the outside world in order to sell their goods and provide for their families. I was impressed by their ethic and how much they care for their young children. It reminded me once again that I do really want a job someday that would allow me to help empower women like this to create not only a better life for their children but for themselves as well.

To the Blue City: Chefchaouen

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to venture up north to the blue city of Chefchaouen with some friends. Given that I myself had absolutely no idea where we were going, I thought a little map might be useful. Where I am in Ifrane is A and where we went is B!

Now according to google maps, this trip should in reality take about 3 and half to 4 hours. What I have come to learn quite quickly here in Morocco is that time is a relative term. You say the bus leaves at 1 when in all likelihood it won’t leave until at least 2 if not later. A trip that should take 4 hours really is going to take 5 or 6 when you factor in all the tea breaks and driving skills of the driver. That being said, it was still a fun ride up, albeit a little bit hot and perhaps just a few minutes too long. 

We arrived in Chefchaouen Friday evening and it is indeed a blue city. All the buildings are painted different shades of blues, lilacs and purples. It reminded me a lot of Santorini, which has a similar color pattern. After finding our hostel, the first order of business was food. I was super excited as I had yet to try any authentic Moroccan food!! I was not disappointed as I munched on a delicious chicken tagine along with some traditional mint tea. 

Saturday morning we made our was to Akchour, a small village that sits at the base of a beautiful ravine. Little did we know that what was supposed to be an easy hike would turn into an escapade over rocks, through the water and up a waterfall. I’m not complaining though because it was amazing! The water we waded through was crystal clear and so cold – the perfect relief from the heat of the sun. We made our way up to the top of the river to a natural bridge known as “Gods Bridge.” Since we were in the water so much, I ditched my shoes and did most of the hike barefoot. My feet were feeling pretty sore at the end!!

After Akchour, we continued further north to Oued Laou, which apparently is one of the most beautiful beaches in Morocco. If that is considered the most beautiful beach, there must be some pretty low standards here because it was awfully dirty. Even with the litter and many dead fish in the water, it was still fun to hang out in the water and lay on the beach for a few hours.

Back in Chefchaouen, we had dinner up on a terrace overlooking the city where I had the most delicious couscous in the world. I don’t even remember what was in it, but it was glorious! We headed into the shops of the old medina to do some last minute bargaining before they closed up for the night and I think it’s safe to say that my bags are going to be a lot heavier going home!

It was such a wonderful weekend and some of my friends who have been here a month said that it was one of the best trips they have been on so far!

July 4th in the Desert

Last night, we had a 4th of July cookout here at Al Ahkawayn. As I made my way over to the tennis courts where we were told to meet at 6 pm, my nose was greeted with the wonderful smell of coals burning on a grill. I was excited at the prospect of a good ol’ American style BBQ, but unfortunately, while the coals were certainly real, the food was not. Okay, it was real food of course, but not what you’d expect on 4th of July! On the grill they had some chicken kebabs, beef kebabs and some big black hunks of meat that looked rather suspicious. I was told that it was liver and having never seen grilled liver before and after having heard so many horror stories about the food here at school this past week, I decided to steer clear. 

Even without the usual hots dogs and hamburgers, we still had lots of watermelon to make up for it, a star spangled banner and some old fashioned (and new) American tunes to keep us going. Some people even started a session on the electric slide!

Moroccans are very proud of the fact that they were the first country to recognize the United States as a new nation when it was created all those many years ago. We were reminded of this fact several times throughout the day by the teachers. I was amazed to learn that this little African country would want to recognize the US so quickly. Apparently, the Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship is the longest unbroken treaty the United States has with any country. Who knew!!

While it was no New York and we had no fireworks, although some of us pondered starting a bonfire, it was a far cry from last year when I was too sick from chemotherapy to really do anything that monumental except decorate patriotic cupcakes!

Welcome to Morocco!

I know I know, I haven’t updated in ages. But hopefully you’ve been following my adventures on another blog that Charlotte and I updated during our recent whirlwind European adventure. Check it out hereThe harbor in Split, Croatia

Onwards to new things now!!!

After finishing out the semester in Paris, which included approximately three days of school and four days in New York, Charlotte and I jetted off to Budapest, which was the the launching pad of our six weeks of training, busing, and boating through Europe. After a fantastic and unforgetttable trip, you’ll find me now in Ifrane, Morocco, a small town nestled in the Atlas Mountains. What am I doing here you might ask? Well, I ask myself that same question, but I suppose the simplest answer is that I’m here for the month to study some Arabic.

I was feeling very reluctant to come at first. After spending 6 months abroad, I was really starting to get a little homesick. My little side trip to New York in May made me realize how much I missed New York, but I’m trying to suck it up and make the best of my time that I have here in Morocco.

I was picked up at the Fes airport on Friday and pretty much dropped into my room with little instruction except to be at class at 8 am on Monday. Since I came in the middle of the summer, most of the students who have been here since May had taken the weekend off to go to the beach. Had I known I didn’t need to be here until Sunday, I probably would have stayed a few more days in Paris, but alas, here I am! 

The university I am at, Al Ahkawayn University, is a Western style school where most of the classes are conducted in English and the campus has a very American style campus feel (although obviously not like NYU! I tried to describe the concept of NYU being in and of the city of the New York and I was faced with some very confused looks). Honestly, this is the closest thing to a campus I have ever really been on since I did college tours back in 2008. My roommate Sofia is from Meknes, about an hour from here, and is studying International Relations. There are about 600 regular summer school students here now and around 1800 who are here during the school year. I’m not quite sure how many people there are in my program, but I guess I’ll find out tomorrow morning!

After spending my first day holed up in my room, catching up a Mad Men and venturing to the gym for the first time in months, I went out into Ifrane today. I really can’t tell you that much about it because unless there is a whole part I missed, it’s quite a small town. It actually snows in this region during the winter, so many of the hotels cater to skiers and many of the houses have a chalet type feel to them. At first I felt like the only person dressed in shorts and t-shirt, but in the center of town there were definitely some tourists dressed in the same garb as me, making me feel not quite as self-conscious. So that’s about all there is to say so far of my two days here! I feel like I speak more French here than I did in France, which is quite comical. After going weeks on a travelers budget, it’s nice to have a dining hall fully stocked with everything to eat, especially salad! Hopefully I’ll have some good updates in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that I’ll find some good tagine or couscous somewhere. It’s Morocco, so it has to be somewhere, right?