The Sahara

Reading about the Sahara desert growing up, I always felt like there was a disconnect. It seemed unfathomable, that such a place could exist on Earth. I felt as though I were reading about Mars or some other far off place, perhaps it was all just a fairytale, certainly not fact. The desert just didn’t fit into my (limited) perception of the world.

I read about it in many of my books, enthralled with the details of this foreign landscape. However, it never made my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because it just seemed so unrealistic. New Zealand was a pipe dream; this was just flat out impossible.

That is until I found myself at age twenty, knee deep in a sand dune grinning at the sheer impracticality of the situation.

It was incredible.

I suppose, however, that I should start at the beginning. We left Rabat at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning and began our 12-hour trek to the desert, stopping off several times to take in the scenery.

I never really put a lot of thought into how the desert starts—I guess I just pictured a clean divide, a clear border in which the sand began and the green stopped. This would, like many of my preconceptions, prove false.

As we drove, the rolling countryside of green hills and fertile farmland slowly began to bleed into stretches of dirt and sand. Trees still dotted the landscape, but rather than grass, dirt sat at their roots. As we progressed, the trees became more and more scarce until they abruptly gave way to massive mountaintops.

The most notable feature of the desert, in my albeit brief experience, is its paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously flat and mountainous—large stretches of impossibly level earth give way to massive mountaintops that dominate the landscape for miles. The dunes also put a wrench in the flatness of the desert, with the flat earth leading up right to the edge of a massive expanse of sand stacked improbably high, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s astonishing.

The first thing about the desert that you notice, however, isn’t the landscape: it’s the heat. Now, I know that seems obvious, but the heat is different then anything I had experienced before. This was an all-encompassing heat, the kind that presses down on you, enveloping, suffocating. Even the shade seemed ill equipped to fend off the intensity of the African sun.

On Saturday morning, we kicked off our actual “desert experience” after a night of fun and games, by taking jeeps off-road to the edge of the dunes. I really enjoyed this, the hot air buffeting my face as we whipped through the dirt and rock.

When we reached the edge, a feeling of uneasiness crept down my spine—the silence of the desert is unnerving. It’s not the stuff of movies in which a buzzard squawks overhead and a tumbleweed is blown across the landscape. It is completely and utterly silent. There are no birds. No rustling leaves. No wind. Complete silence.

It’s not a peaceful silence, like the type on a mountaintop where the wind quietly shakes the trees. It’s an uncomfortable one, one you can’t escape. The kind that gives merit to the ever-popular idiom “deafening silence”.

Following the trip to the dunes, we drove to another town where we listened to traditional Gmaoua music, dancing and laughing in a partially underground dirt building to escape the sun. It was fun to laugh and dance and listen to the strumming of a gambri (a long stringed instrument) and the beat of the drums.

We had a break after that, in which we swam and enjoyed the hotel we arrived at earlier in the day. The heat reached a peak of 107, the pool offering the only escape from the sweltering sun. That is, until the storm kicked up.

It started with a slight rain, one that we laughed at and discussed the rarity of. Those droplets, however, turned into a downpour, but still we enjoyed the improbability of it. Then the sand came. Tiny grains bit into skin and blinded us, seemingly inescapable. We ran to take shelter, but still watched eagerly from our windows, enthralled and terrifies by this new phenomenon.

The thrill quickly wore off as the dust settled and the dunes remained blanketed in swirling grey chaos, delaying our plans for a sunset ride into the desert via camel. We waited for half an hour before finally getting the go ahead and beginning our trek out.

I had been looking forward to this moment since applying to this program back in November and I don’t think the grin that appeared on my face has ever been larger. The camel ride was fantastic and actually going out and into the dunes was just astonishing. The sheer vastness of the desert stole the air right from my lungs. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We climbed a large dune after about a 45-minute ride, leaving our camels at the base. The sand swallowed my legs as I raced up the side, pulling me down with each step. Again, the concept that such a large quantity of such small, insignificant particles could not only exist, but create such wonders was incomprehensible. Watching the sun slowly sink beneath these enormous structures seemed only to seal this idea.

That’s not necessarily saying that it was easy-going. Bear in mind that a sandstorm had just ripped through the desert, leaving the wind with quite a bit of gusto and what felt a bit like spite as it continued its attempts to topple me from the dune. Sand was everywhere, it coated my eyebrows, my eyelashes—every inch of my body had a firm layer overtop of it.

Still, the experience was phenomenal and two days later I’m still struggling to believe that it actually happened. The aforementioned grin still creeps onto my face as I think of how it felt to stand on top of that dune, and I think it just might stay that way for a while.

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Fes, Meknes, and Volubilis

It’s no secret that I love taking photos. During most of my free time I can be found with a camera slung around my neck—whether I’m exploring a city, traipsing through my backyard, or taking photos of my beloved Australian Shepard Scamp, my camera is ever present. For each photo I take, however, there are at least 7 more I wish I could have. Opportunity is a large part of what makes a great photo great. While I’m all for making your own, there’s only so much wiggle room you can get in a crowded medina or a pushy market, etc. etc.

Patience became the virtue of the weekend as we headed out on our first in-country trip of our program. Our itinerary included stopping in Meknes and Fes, two imperial cities as well as exploring the Roman ruins of Volubilis. It was an awesome trip, but it was exhausting—we were constantly on the move, packing in as much as possible in 3 days, not that I’m complaining. The lulls in our time generally came in the form of waiting on others in shops or delays in traffic while we travelled between cities.

I think much of my patience was used, however, behind the viewfinder of my camera. Fes is a much more touristy city than Rabat or even Meknes, and Volubilis was crawling with people from all over the world. Naturally, I had no desire to capture these people in my photos, so I had to pause, hold my camera steady and wait for the gap that would come between groups of people.

I’d pause in the ruins and anxiously wait for the last person to disappear behind a pillar, or to be hidden within the shadows, absorbed by the landscape. It was tedious and somewhat frustrating, but in the end I wound up getting better shots then what I would have had I just snapped and moved on. I applied this philosophy within the medina as well, waiting to catch a shopkeeper unaware (that sounds much more nefarious than it is, I just really wanted some nice photos), snagging a carefully composed picture rather than a blurry mess, which many of my earlier snaps had resulted in.

Moving on from my musings, the trip was phenomenal. Fes was every bit as beautiful as promised. Prior to leaving, everyone we talked to said it was gorgeous and they were right. Huge gates with hand-carved and carefully painted embellishments could be found at each wall of the city, towering over the scores of people and busy traffic lanes. The markets were much more organized than the medina back in Rabat, with stalls toting out polished, carefully written signs advertising their wares and wood latticework covering the alleyways from the scorching sun. The alleys were much more intricate and tightly compacted than those we had seen previously, I made sure to keep the guide in sight at all times for fear of losing my place. Later, half the group returned to the hotel and the other half stayed to continue exploring the Sooqs (markets). The weaving of the alleys and stalls seemed to have no rhyme or reason and it was fun to just get lost within the walls of the medina, swallowed up by the flurry of activity.

Alas, Fes is tucked between the Atlas Mountains, and the constant climbing downhill and then back uphill was murder on my legs, which have yet to adjust to the heavy workload I’ve imposed upon them in recent weeks. By the time we hailed a taxi, we were dead on our feet, ready to keel over and nap beneath the African sun.

During our guided tour, the coolest aspects were definitely the tannery, the Argon oil shop or the shop where they wove and embroidered scarves, blankets, and other fabrics. In the tannery, the largest in Morocco, we watched the dying of the hides as well as got the opportunity to purchase finished products. Upon entering, we were handed sprigs of mint to hold to our noses—the hides are bleached in pigeon excrement, sold to the tannery by locals for 20 dirhams a kilo on Saturdays— the smell is less than pleasant.

The Argon oil shop was interesting if only for the fact that we got to see how the oil is made, observing how the nuts are taken from the tree, peeled, and crushed to reveal the seeds which hold the oil. We were informed that the slivers of the nut were edible, so naturally I tried some. Edible as used in this situation is a very subjective term. Apparently they are actually eaten, just generally crushed and mixed with milk and sugar—the ones we ate were not. At first, it tasted basically like an almond. Then the bitterness hits you. I nearly choked on the bitter, oily taste that sat in the back of my throat for more than half an hour. I will not be trying the Argan seed again.

The shop with the scarves and the blankets was one of my favorites. It was a calmer experience than we’re used to—no yelling or crowds of people. We got to see how the loom worked and the production of their different wares. I wound up buying two scarves because they looked so beautiful. I don’t even wear scarves, but I suppose I’m going to have to start. The shopkeeper also demonstrated for us how to wear the scarves on our heads, showcasing the different styles to keep the sand away for our desert trip next week.

Velubolis was just as incredible, just in a different way. To walk through the stone ruins and experience the ageless wonder of the 42-acre city was breathtaking. To be surrounded by so much history, to walk where the Romans walked, to see the area that was their South most border—it was an experience I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to top. It’s incredibly humbling to stand beneath structures that are so ancient I can hardly comprehend them with my twenty years on this Earth. Their massive size coupled with the history embedded into their foundations are awe-inspiring.

Like I said, patience is a big thing around this trip. The ability to wait is an underappreciated one. There were several times on the trip where things didn’t quite go according: we got held up behind a marathon when we drove to Velubolis; my outlet converter was broken in the hotel; several people got sick throughout and after the trip. Despite this, or perhaps because of these setbacks, depending on how you look at it, my weekend was amazing. I wouldn’t trade the experience I had for the world.

I will say, however, that when I returned to Rabat, I wanted nothing more than to just be horizontal and not move for 6-12 hours. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan and me, being me, gave into my restless nature and wound up at the beach. The crashing waves against the rocks combined with the stars and the subtle sounds of the music filtering in from the festival down the way created the perfect atmosphere to end a great weekend.

 

Lessons of the Garden

While sitting in the garden outside my school the other day, I noticed a butterfly sitting on one of the plants. I kicked myself mentally for forgetting my camera upstairs in the classroom, as we had just taken a brief tea break, but proceeded to get a closer look. It was then that I noticed the huge yellow wasp that sat only two leaves behind the butterfly.

I tell this story because as I continued to observe the butterfly, a gorgeous white and brown winged specimen, I thought it was rather fitting for my current experience. When I announced 8-months ago that I wanted to go to Morocco, my entire family about hit the roof. “It’s a third world country,” they’d say. They’d cite the gender inequality or the country’s struggling economy as reasons to stay home. The cultural and religious differences were highlighted each time I brought it up, the constant negativity bogging down my excited outlook.

The thing is, Morocco is a beautiful country. The people here are kind and helpful. The country thus far has been an amazing time, with each day offering a new promise of something entirely unprecedented in my short twenty years. That’s not to say, however, that it’s without it’s problems—catcalling on the street happens, several students in our program have gotten sick due to the different levels of food sanitation, etc. In the end though, the good outweighs the bad ten-fold.

For example, thieves are a reality here, especially in the crowded Medina where all of us are staying. My host mom has encouraged (and by that I mean chastised me if I didn’t) me to put my phone in my backpack and keep my pockets empty when walking to school. A girl in my class was walking yesterday and had her phone in her skirt and a man yanked it out and began walking away with it—a shopkeeper on the street, however, noticed and stopped him. Berating him and returning the phone to my classmate. This ugly side of the country exists, it’s present and demands attention, however the good is there and allows a level of protection and deserves recognition. The threat of the wasp shouldn’t take away from enjoying the butterfly.

I’ve been here for under a week but thus far it’s been incredibly fun as well as informative. We spend each day in class going over observations and questions, focusing on different aspects of the world we are just now getting to see. Then, during our free time, our group ventures out on our own to explore Rabat and see as much as possible. A month may sound like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not.

Thus far we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the medina, in which we live with our host families. It offers a plethora of sights and sounds, always awash with activity and excitement. The markets provide interesting wares including (but not limited to) fresh fruit, beautiful rugs, goat heads, pigs’ feet, and hand made paintings and vases. The alleyways that lead to our respective houses wind and twist in mind baffling ways, each turn seemingly making less sense than the last. Yesterday I wasn’t paying attention and took a turn out of instinct, leading myself back to the front door, the first evidence that I’m actually managing to learn my way around.

The medina lets out into a marina where the river flows between Rabat and Sale. It’s a busy place with people milling down the edge of the river and boats ferrying passengers between the two cities. We stayed down there for a bit after class while we waited for another half of our group to meet back up with us. It was relaxing to watch the water and take in the people, sometimes it’s nice to just take a moment and sit while we’re here. Too often I think we get caught up in moving around and seeing all there is to see, but actually sitting and taking in the surroundings is a terribly underrated experience.

I could sit here and list all of the incredible things I’ve seen the last few days, but frankly I think it might bore those reading to bullet point down the list. Exploring the city has been fun though, and I will say that the juice here is incredible (and cheap). Thus far I’ve had an assortment of fruit called panache, lemon ginger, and avocado almond. All were awesome. Tomorrow we embark on our first in-country trip to Meknes, Fes, and the Roman ruins Velubilis. I’m excited to get underway and see what else this wonderful country has to offer.

Bringing it back to the point, the last few days have taught me that you shouldn’t allow fear to hold you back in your endeavors. If I had solely focused on the presence of the wasp, I wouldn’t have been able to observe the butterfly. That being said, if I had blundered around like an idiot and disregarded my surroundings, I definitely would have gotten stung. The balance isn’t necessarily a simple one, but it’s vital. I’ve cherished my time thus far and I am glad I chose Morocco to spend my time, however, I remain aware of the fact that I’m not in an environment I’m used to and there are new hazards to be wary of. Regardless, I still have over two weeks of excitement left, and I can’t wait.

 

A leap of faith

There’s a moment, when you’re on a plane, just before you take off, where the world seems to pause. It happens just as the wheels leave the tarmac, when you’re pressed against your seat, moving at an unfathomable speed and that pit forms in the bottom of your stomach. The plane leaps into the air and just for that moment it seems as though the world reconsiders itself—it reconsiders this massive object, with hundreds of souls aboard, its displacement in the universe and how to respond. The plane is suspended in the air, willing itself forward and praying that the air around it catches it and propels it toward its destination. That pause, it happens every time.

But just for a moment.

Sitting in the Frankfurt Airport, staring down an 8-hour layover, that moment of uncertainty in the air seemed more poignant than usual. This flight was hard on me I must confess, having a cold on an 8-hour flight is an experience I truly wish upon nobody. I exited the flight on another continent, unable to hear aside from an atrocious ringing in my ears and the growling of my stomach (the in-flight meal was a choice between chicken and pasta, God help me I couldn’t tell the difference).

Having been awake for more than 27 hours, I stretched out across a few seats in the terminal, a few rows away from my group, looped the straps of my bags into my arms, and fell asleep.

I awoke an hour later to a very lively Chinese couple laughing and taking a photo of me (I’m pretty sure I caught the phrase ‘American’ thrown around a few times).

Not exactly the glamorous start I was anticipating.

The thing about that moment on the plane, however, is that every time I’ve been aboard (knock on wood), that plane has caught itself and continued pushing forward. Even thought the odds seem insurmountable, a giant metal beast that has no business defying the laws of gravity taking to the air with ease, it happens.

So despite these low moments, where I do confess some malaise crept into my excited demeanor, I found a grin firmly affixed to my face as we were given a brief tour of the city this morning. A 5-hour jaunt in a hotel gave me some much needed and well-used rest time and so I set out with a much more positive outlook and a sprig in my step.

The city was beautiful, with paintings and carvings painstakingly done by hand shown on the most prominent of buildings. The weather was warm but not too hot, with a nice sea breeze kicking up from the coast. With blue skies and such beautiful sights, the place felt a bit like paradise.

Paradise, however, can be overwhelming and certainly the medina qualifies as that. People swarm in and out of makeshift stalls and the crowd is a constantly moving, thickly populated mess. Its easy to become carried away or cut off, which is intimidating.

With this though comes an air of excitement at the constant activity. Fortunately for my group, another trip consisting of 28 other Americans from all around the country have been here for the last semester, and one of them happens to share a residence with me and another girl in our group. Thus, I found myself on an unofficial tour of Rabat with tips and tricks to help us grow more accustomed. We met 5 other students who are studying with the same organization as us and we caught up with them after to grab juice at a local place.

The juice was incredible and the company enjoyable, it’s nice to have some friendly (English-speaking) faces around. The language barrier is proving to be a challenge as the Moroccan dialect varies immensely from the Arabic I have spent the last two years learning. French and a combination of French and dialect seem to be the languages of choice and unfortunately for me I find myself lacking knowledge of either.

I’m confident it’s something that can be overcome, however, and I have been informed my Arabic skills are to be put to the test by an adviser at the center we study at. The challenges presented by this trip honestly just make me more excited. Communicating with my host family is the current objective, but thus far we’ve been able to get by. The food here is exquisite and the mint tea is everything that was promised. Tomorrow we start our first lesson and I can’t wait to actually learn some of the history of this incredible place. In the meantime, it’s about 9:30 p.m. here and I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to try some of that aforementioned food for dinnertime, as dinner is later here to accommodate evening prayer. If it’s anything like lunch, I’m in for a treat just as if the rest of this trip is anything like today, I’m incredibly fortunate. This leap of faith has proven true thus far and the world has un-paused for what I hope will be an awesome experience.

And we’re off… Again.

I grew up in a little white house with black shutters and a red door. Situated in the middle of the street, the most notable thing about said house, at least in my opinion, was the gangly oak tree that sat smack dab in the middle. The tree was young and tall, awkwardly tilting slightly to the left. As a child, the tree was my boundary, the line my mom drew in the sand. I constantly wanted to be outside and the rule was to never go past that oak tree.

I love testing boundaries, and that precedent was set when I was a child. I would sit level with that tree and poke my toes further and further forward into the grass. I would lay longwise and dig my feet into the soil around the tree, stretching myself as far as I could go—trying to see how far I could get while still technically staying within those limits.

I tell this story to show that I’ve always loved pushing things to the limit. Whether it be my personal boundaries, physical limitations, or my mother’s patience. Now, at twenty I’ll be testing all three as I sit at the Port of Columbus Airport preparing to depart on my month long journey through Morocco.

A year ago I had never really left the country, embarking on my first trip abroad to New Zealand. For those who followed this (now criminally neglected) blog, you know that it was the time of my life. I have the same expectations for this trip and hopefully they’re met to the same extent.

For those asking “why Morocco?” the answer is simple and at the same time not—at the surface, I’m an Arabic minor and can knock out a few requirements by doing this. More truthfully, the answer is slightly more complex. I have two years of my undergraduate degree left and quite frankly I don’t want to waste it. I am fortunate enough to go to a university with practically unlimited opportunities and to squander that would be more than wasteful, it’d be idiotic. Morocco isn’t a place that you can just hop on a plane and go gallivant through for a few days. I mean, you can, but you wouldn’t get very far. This experience is one that I wouldn’t have outside of the university and I want to take advantage of it.

In terms of the actual trip, this one is quite a bit different than the last go-round. I have a lot more in-country travel—heading to a multitude of cities while being based in Rabat, the capital city. We travel to other notable ones such as Casablanca (the movie geek in me is screaming ‘Play it again Sam, for old times’ sake’) and Chaouen—the blue city, where all the buildings are painted blue in Jewish tradition to remind them of God’s presence. I’ll stay with a homestay again, but this time with another Ohio State student travelling with us. I’m excited for this particular aspect as I think that getting to converse (maybe in Arabic, depending on how atrocious my accent is) with people from such a unique culture offers a really phenomenal opportunity. The most exciting part of the trip, in my opinion, comes toward the end, where we will take camels out into the dunes and camp in the Sahara desert.

I would type more, but I’m so excited I think my head might explode.

Morocco is known for their mint tea—allegedly the best in the world. Tea there is a tradition, a time to take and reflect on the day, enjoy one another’s company. The ceremony surrounding the national drink is a sacred one and each day we have it built into our schedule. I’m eager to partake in such a seemingly serene tradition, and for those that know me, it seems as though it will be right up my alley.

This trip will be much different than any experience I’ve had in my twenty years and I’m more than excited to finally head out—the anticipation really might kill me. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this blog updated. In the meantime, Cheers and مع السلامة.