First Days in My New World

September 16, 2013

in Africa, Fall 2013, Morocco, Sierra Buehlman Barbeau

I’m a week into my life in this new, surreal world.  I arrived a few days earlier than the other students, and arriving in Fez, Morocco by myself was probably the most catastrophic and rewarding day of my trip so far.  Remember how I said that the hotel had arranged a driver to come pick me up at the airport and guide me through the streets of Fez to the hotel? Remember how simple and perfect that sounded? My first day in Africa would be with a trustworthy hotel manager!  Once I managed to get myself to the Paris airport at 3 in the morning, find my terminal and gate, get through security, and make some Moroccan friends on the plane, I told myself not to worry and completely relaxed on the plane ride over Spain, the Mediterranean, and the most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen in my life.  I arrived at the airport with no worries and full of excitement . . . until I got to the pickup area.  There was nobody holding a board with my name on it.  There was nobody there to pick me up.

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I had talked in my second post about how emotional I can be when little things go wrong.  When I arrived in Switzerland, where 90% of the people at the airport spoke English,  and I had no idea where to go, I cried.  When I arrived in Morocco and my guide wasn’t there, I was able to stay calm.  I waited for a few minutes, and then I tried to buy a SIM card for my Swiss phone from the Moroccan working at the airport shop.  When he couldn’t make the card work in my phone, I found the pay phone and called the number that the hotel gave me.  Unfortunately, when I got ahold of the hotel manager, I couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t understand my French.  He ended up hanging up on me.  The ladies at the information desk didn’t speak English or French.  I couldn’t come up with the words I needed in Arabic.  I told myself that I didn’t have a choice: I couldn’t stay at the airport for the next 3 months.  I couldn’t even sleep there that night.  I went outside and got a cab.  To my delight and relief, I was able to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go using Fren-arabic-glish.  He called the hotel and the manager apologized and met me at the gate of the old city, and before noon that day, I was safe at the riad, drinking tea with a nice French couple and the hotel manager.  He brought us a plant and told us to smell it and asked us if we wanted it in out tea.  We said yes and the tea was amazing!  That day didn’t go smoothly at all, but I handled it smoothly.  After that day, I have a lot more confidence.  I know that I can arrive anywhere, in any city in the world, and find an acceptable place to sleep for the night.

That first night was the most amazing and most surreal night of my life.  The French couple was in town for a wedding, and since I was traveling alone, they invited me to have dinner with them.  The hotel manager showed us to a restaurant where his friend worked and the 7 of us sat on the rooftop, under the Moroccan stars, where I had my first authentic Moroccan meal.  There were four different bean salads that we ate with the most AMAZING bread in the world, and then vegetable couscous with a whole potato in it!  The pastries are the most amazing things about this place.  Many of them are nutty flavored, but they aren’t filled with peanut butter.  They literally crush the nuts themselves and add sugar and honey.  And just a heads-up to everyone at home: I got a Moroccan pastries cookbook!  And I can’t wait to try the recipes! So contact me in December if you want to try some of these heavenly desserts.  🙂

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From the roof of the restaurant, we got a view of the Medina (or the medieval city) of Fez like nobody can imagine.  There are white stone buildings for miles around, every home has a satellite dish or two, and you can see where some people have set up camp on their rooftops so they can spend an evening sleeping under the stars.  After the meal, the hotel manager took us on a night tour of the medina.  It was completely surreal to me.  It almost felt like I was on a movie set: like after this scene, somebody was going to yell, “CUT!” and all of the Moroccans sleeping on the street would get up and change back into their jeans and t-shirts, get in their fancy cars, and go back to their big, fancy homes in Hollywood.  I almost thought that the buildings were cardboard, placed there for the sake of filming the movie . . . but no.  This medina, these winding streets, this way of poverty was going to be my environment and my way of life for the next three months.  It was such a mind-blowing thought for the first night.  I was seeing poverty like I had never seen it before.  In Madison, you see the homeless people sleeping on State Street, and you feel bad for them because they don’t have enough money to sleep someplace safe and comfy for the night.  But that is a completely different kind of poor.  The way of life here is poor compared to America.  There was trash in the streets, but I thought to myself, there’s no truck here that comes to pick it up here every week.  People just throw their trash in the streets.  The cats pick through it for food, and the rest blows away or decays, or at least that’s what I guess.  What I’ve seen here in Morocco is almost indescribable.  I can describe the poverty and take pictures, but my pictures and my descriptions are no different from what Americans see on the television or read in books: the only way to know and understand this way of life is to live it.

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A few days later, the rest of the group arrived and we were sent home with our host families.  I ended up with a family of four: a mother, a father, a 14-year-old daughter, and a 10-year-old son.  The first night was stressful and nerve-wracking:  I arrived and there were many people in the house and they were all cleaning, of all things.  I sat in the living room with my siblings and a little cousin who couldn’t tell me how old she is and watched an Arabic TV show for little kids.  I sat and wondered when dinner was for about four hours, and then finally the little girl, the dad and I sat down and had bread and “cheese.”  But not just any cheese!  Laughing cow cheese wedges.  It’s better than no cheese, I guess. At midnight or later, I don’t remember, I got to go to bed.  The children were still running around the house and the mom and aunt were still cleaning.  I went to bed a little stressed and confused, wondering when Moroccans sleep!

Since then, things have been going very well with my host family.  I love them.  This is an amazing experience, and I am excited to become more involved in their lives.  I’m learning a lot about Moroccan way of life, and the first thing that I learned is that what is pretty in America isn’t beautiful in Morocco.  On my second or third night, my host father told me: “American beautiful isn’t Moroccan beautiful.  We are going to make you Moroccan beautiful.  Now Kul!!!”   And what he meant by that is that I’m too skinny and I need to eat (Kul!) more.  That is the biggest challenge of being here: The family is constantly pressuring me to eat.  I’ll stop eating for a moment to let my stomach settle, and my little brother will say “Kul!” and try and give me whatever he was in the middle of eating.  I’m learning the ways to survive without gaining a million pounds, though:  I’ve learned to eat very slowly and not ever run out of food in front of me (we don’t use plates) and to nibble.  I drink my tea slowly so they won’t tell me to eat.  Also, what was my biggest fear about coming here has actually been my best defense:  I’m a vegetarian!  So really, all I have been eating has been fruit and vegetables at home and omelets at school.  Even though I’m eating A LOT of food, it’s mostly fruits and veggies if I can get away with nibbling on my bread.  On top of that, it’s a mile and a half to walk to school, and going back and forth twice a day brings me to six miles of walking a day, assuming my classmates will still be up for walking and exercise as the semester continues.  Also, me and some other girls found a 1/8th mile track and soccer field and the membership is 20 dirhams, or a little over 2 dollars, for the whole year.  We went jogging and got stared at by the men playing soccer, but I am so grateful that we’ve found a place to exercise for real.

My host sister and I speak French and standard Arabic together, and I try to integrate the few Darija (or Moroccan Arabic) words that I’ve learned in my survival class.  La bas! Britte al-ma! How are you? I need water! My brother helped me study my Darija the other day.  I feel like he thinks it’s his role to look after me, which is the cutest thing in the world considering I’m 20 and he’s 10.  But I guess I’m just experiencing the different gender roles here in Morocco.  It really is his role to look after the women of the house, I guess.

The last thing I want to talk about is my trip to Volubilis, a well-preserved Roman city about an hour away from Fez.  This had to be one of the most inspiring and beautiful places of my trip: even better than the Chateau in Monteux or the Atlantic shore. We took a van up to the top of the small Atlas Mountains and found the city.  It was like something out of my imagination.  There were columns and walls still standing from when they were built, mosaics on ground from where their homes had been that depicted different Roman stories.  Everything was white, and when I stood on top of the half-destroyed walls, I could see miles and miles of dry, Moroccan valley and distant mountains.  I was on top of Africa!!!! If I had been alone and not on a guided tour, I could have sat and written for hours.  I can hardly use words to describe the beauty and peacefulness of Volubilis, but since I must give my readers and idea of how beautiful it was . . . it is my new meditation place.  You know, when you meditate, you’re supposed to imagine the most peaceful and beautiful place in the world? Well this is my new peaceful place.

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I’m excited for the coming weeks in Morocco: tomorrow I start my classes in Darija, so hopefully communicating with my family will become easier.  I’m starting to adapt to daily life.  If any of my readers ever visit the medina of Fez, they will understand my little, personal accomplishment of the week: I can find my way through the winding, unmarked streets of the medina and get myself out of the maze every morning, and back home in the evenings.  I can find my way home!! I’m so happy to be able to call this wonderful place home.  I’m so happy to be able to call Morocco and Africa HOME!!!

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