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Orientation Vacation: the first days in Morocco

February 10, 2018

About a week and a half ago, I was sitting at the gate for my flight from Paris to Rabat. The closer we got to boarding time, the more American college students showed up, gravitating towards each other in mutual recognition. We made up a considerable portion of the members of our program, that group of us who were all on Air France Flight 1258 from Charles de Gaulle to Rabat-Salé.

It has only been about a week and a half since then, but it feels like ages ago.

After arriving in Rabat, we spent a couple of nights in a hotel, visiting the IES Abroad center during the day and attending some preliminary orientation sessions. Then, we loaded up into two little buses and headed over to the small city of Meknes for a nine-day orientation.

Our brief time in Meknes has already been loaded with too many unique and colorful experiences to name. Our daily class in Darija – the colloquial Moroccan dialect of Arabic – has provided us with the exciting though very limited ability to communicate, as well as the challenge of attempting to speak without using vowels half the time. For me, it’s been wonderful focusing on Arabic again. While my semester in France really solidified my French skills, I haven’t used Arabic much in the past six months. Darija is in some ways very different from the Modern Standard Arabic I’ve studied, but draws from it all the same. For example, many of the roots of words are the same, but they are modified and pronounced in different ways. This often includes the deletion of vowels, resulting in consonant clusters that sound unpronounceable to an English speaker’s ear. While the vocabulary varies as well, luckily for me there are a lot of French words thrown in. 

Except for class, I feel almost like I’m on vacation. Last weekend we took a trip to Fez, with a stop on the way to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. We toured the famous sites of Meknes, and have also had plenty of time to explore the city’s old medina, its shops, bakeries, and cafes. I took my first trip to the hammam, or public baths. At the beginning, it was a little weird at being mostly naked in front of a bunch of other mostly naked women, but I got used to it quickly. The warm water and body scrubs were so relaxing and cleansing that by the time we were dried and dressed we were excited about making this a weekly routine, as many Moroccans do.

The warmth of the hammam was also such an incredible relief because of how cold it is here. Daily highs have hovered around the low 50 degrees Fahrenheit range, with morning temperatures sometimes dipping near to freezing. With no heating in the houses, it feels colder inside sitting down than being outside moving around. I’m berating myself for reading so many warnings about how Morocco is cold in the winter and still getting tricked into the “it’s North Africa so it can’t be that cold” mindset. It has been so hard to get out from under the covers in the morning and change into chilly clothes from the freezing wardrobe that my roommate and I have taken to sleeping with our next day’s outfits in our beds so that they are warm when we get up.

Fortunately, we’re regularly warmed up by delicious Moroccan food. My host mom has cooked us several wonderfully hot soups, among many other Moroccan dishes, that she urges us to eat third helpings of. My favorite food so far though is melwi, a flaky, pancake-like bread that my host dad makes us every morning and that I want to eat for breakfast for the rest of my life.

Tomorrow we’ll be leaving Meknes to return to Rabat, and the main part of the semester will begin. It’s going to be sad to leave this city where I’m starting to feel comfortable and my host family here that I’ve enjoyed getting to know. Part of me wishes we were staying in Meknes for the whole semester, but I do now feel more prepared to transition to life in Rabat, and I am excited to start classes and discover Morocco’s capital.


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