13 June 2005

Ahlan Wasahlan.

I arrived last Saturday in Casablanca, and took a train to Fez. En route, I discovered how ridiculously friendly the Moroccan people are. Simply by looking confused and speaking broken Arabic, I found two men who told me which station to change at, carried my luggage, waited at the station and found me a Moroccan woman who lived in Fez and spoke some english to keep me company on the train. On the train, I sat in a car with Khawla, my new Moroccan friend, two new guys we met, and an older woman and her two daughters. Between my limited Arabic and their English, we managed to keep each other amused for the five hour duration. When we finally arrived in Fez, Khawla not only hailed me a taxi, but rode with me to my villa and paid the cab fare for me. I already love Morocco and especially Moroccan people- they never fail to amaze me with their generosity. Surprisingly, the people here are much more "westernized" than I ever expected. Many of the women wear western dress, including things that would be considered risque even in the states, and I've seen only a handful of fully veiled women. The culture is much more liberal than most of us ever expected- more European than Arab in many respects. In addition, thanks to the Spanish influence in Morocco, the concept of the siesta is alive and well here. It's hard to beat taking a two hour nap in the middle of the hottest part of the day!

Fez is a fascinating city, considered the intellectual capital of Morocco. French is actually spoken more widely than Arabic, but people switch effortlessly between the two languages, which makes understanding them quite a challenge. I'm living in the heart of the Ville Nouvelle, or the new city, just a fifteen minute walk from the massive medina (more on that later). There are hundreds of tiny cafes and patisseries in the Ville Nouvelle, and the French influence comes through in delicious breads and pastries. Mainly men eat at the cafes, so when a group of American girls walk in, we're quite a sight! We've learned to ignore the cat calls and just eat our pastries, although Matt received offers of several hundred camels for some of us!

I live in a villa across the street from the school where we take classes, and share a tiny basement room with Caroline. Although the basement was disappointing at first, since the building isn't air conditioned, the basement actually ends up being the best room- it's about 10 degrees cooler down here. Considering it reached 105 last week, it's a nice bonus! Part of the group lives up the road in a beautiful, enormous apartment since there wasn't enough room in the villa. Some other people are living in homestays around the city, and although they're getting a lot of language practice, some of them are living very different lifestyles. One of the poorest families has no running water, just a squat toilet in the living room, and the shower involves a bucket on the roof. The guy staying there has to go to the hammam (public Turkish bath) to take a real shower. I'm going to a hammam next week with Candace and Caroline to get the full experience- everyone who's gone so far says they've never felt cleaner in their lives!

And of course, my favorite part of travel- the food! Moroccan food is delicious, but the selection is pretty limited. My favorite so far has been couscous dajaaj/poulet- chicken with vegetables over couscous. Tajine is a vegetable stew with some sort of meat, usually lamb or chicken, served in big cone shaped dishes. Pastillas are rather interesting- traditionally, they're made with pigeon, but you can also find them with chicken. They're pastries filled with meat, scrambled eggs, almonds and some seasonings, with powdered sugar on the top. It sounds like an awkward combination, but it's surprisingly good. Moroccan bread (khobz) comes in round flat loaves, and thanks to the French, is fabulous! There are a few cats living around the villa and the school, and we've named them Tajine, Couscous, and Khobz, much to the consternation of the staff!

We've become attached to an Italian restaurant called La Traviata around the corner, which even delivers pizza! Matt and I discovered Cafe Mauritania, and we've been back four times with different people, so now the owner recognizes us and knows about our special requests, and immediately sets up tables for us whenever we walk in. Although it's great to feel so special at the restaurant, we're hoping to branch out and try some different places next week. Today, at lunch, a man kept walking by selling random things, including a loud squeaking bird puppet that he used to scare us repeatedly. Of course, no foreign country would be complete without a McDonald's, and we just happen to live down the block from Fez's. We broke down tonight and had dinner there- nothing special or Moroccan on the menu, just the basics. Portions are significantly smaller than back home, which made for a disappointing McFlurry! The McDonalds seems to be the popular hangout for Moroccans though- the building is enormous, and tonight we even saw a Moroccan Ronald McDonald singing and dancing on a stage outside the playplace. Of all the aspects of American culture we could have exported...

One of Fez's most famous features is its medina, which the guidebooks describe as a "labyrinth." The medina is essentially an enormous market, selling everything from food to clothes to leather to electronics. It has two streets, Kabir and Saghir (big and small), and an infinite number of smaller unnamed alleys. It starts on a hill, and just continues further and further down- which makes for a painful trip back up! From the moment we walked in, we were accosted by "faux guides," who offer to lead you through the medina for a price. We've been to the medina a few times in the past week, and still find ourselves lost every times.

Today Matt, his roommate, and I went into the medina for a few hours, and managed to wander all the way to the bottom, where we found a school with a picture of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on the wall. After trying in vain to find a taxi, we ended up walking back up to the top and out the way we came- a very long uphill hike! En route, we stumbled across the tanneries- Morocco is famous for leather, and Fez apparently makes the best of the best. In the tanneries, the hides are treated with a smelly mixture of materials and hung out to dry before being made into their final products. The process hasn't changed much in the last 700 years, and judging from the smell and appearance of the tanneries, they've been in the same location for just as long. Although the man who led us through told us the tour was free, when we tried to leave, the "gatekeeper" demanded money, so we gave him a few dirhams and left. Since we got to go up on the balconies and look at the entire process from a high vantage point, it was worth the 50 cents we ended up paying. The medina is definitely one of the most exciting places in the city- constantly full of people, donkeys and mules loaded with wares, and little children offering to show you one thing or another in exchange for a few dirham. It never gets old!

Saturday we took our first day trip out of the city- the majority of the group went to Meknes and the Roman ruins at Volubilous (Waliilii in Arabic), about an hour train ride from Fez. Our first class tickets cost just under 3 dollars- the dollar may be struggling in Europe, but it still goes quite far down here! The entire group ate at a kabob restaurant, then we split up into smaller groups to explore the city and the ruins. We decided to explore the Meknes medina first, and found a Moroccan man to lead us to the Imperial City and a mausoleum, only to find that it was closed for siesta.

We crammed all six of us into a "grand taxi" (read: old mercedes) by wedging against the door, then having the driver slam it shut to lock us in- it was cozy ride, but at least we're all that much closer now! Two of the girls in our group spoke excellent Arabic, and sat in the front with the driver and talked about how he planned to go to Europe to find a wife. They had a fabulous time, but unfortunately for the four of us crammed across the back seat, he drove at about 35 mph, and the trip took far longer than it should have. The ruins were beautiful- reminiscent of Pompeii with columns and arches and even a few mosaics still in excellent condition, considering their age. Since a rainstorm was approaching, the temperature even dropped enough to approach pleasant, and we could walk a few feet without breaking a sweat. We came back to Fez for the evening (again via our first class train) and fell asleep early since we missed siesta!

And of course, since this is a study abroad trip, I feel obliged to mention my classes. We meet four hours per day during the week, 8-10 and 2-4 (leaving us with a perfect window for a siesta!) with two different teachers, both of whom are fluent in english and very witty. Candace, Matt, and I were afraid we'd be behind in the class, since our teacher at Florida was pretty lax, but we're actually sitting quite well in the advanced section of Intermediate arabic. We already had a test on Friday- we'll see how that goes! We're practicing speaking as much as possible, but since most of the population speaks French, it's often a struggle to get a Moroccan to respond to us in Arabic. But all in all, it's a beautiful, friendly country. Next weekend we're going trekking in the Sahara, complete with camels, which should be an amazing trip.

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