24 March 2009

I want to be a polyglot

Palabra del dia: llustración --> enlightenment

First off, if this blog is a little scattered, it's because I have so many things swirling through my head from the last five days that I am having a hard time processing it. So hopefully it makes sense somehow.

I went to Morocco, Africa. We left in the morning on Thursday and got back yesterday (Monday) around 7:30pm. With the exception of when I went to the Everglades over a year ago, this trip was the most meaningful learning experience I have ever had. I don't even know where to start, but here it goes.

We left Granada around 10am on Thursday and headed for Gibralter, which is actually a UK colony in Spain. It was the strangest thing because we had to actually cross a border, show our passports, etc. Once we crossed the border everything was in English. It was like being in the UK (or at least how I would imagine it to be) except we were right next to Spain and also on the Mediterranean. The people there spoke English and Spanish, but mostly English. It was really strange to hear English all around me when I've been studying in Spain for the last two months. So what did we do there? Well, we loaded into two van/bus things and took off on a bus tour of Gibralter. Our tour guide was a little crazy. He liked to inform us over and over and over again that, in fact, Gibralter has been a colony since 1704 or something like that, longer than the United States has been in existence. Awesome, thanks for doggin on the US when you're amongst a group of United Statesians. Good thing he didn't get jumped (un chiste, hehe!). We went all around the city and up onto the Rock of Gibralter. We saw a really cool cave that reminded me of Fantastic Caverns in Springfield (yes!) and we saw monkeys. Yes, monkeys. This was a highlight of Gibralter. Later, after we came back from the tour, we decided to hike up the Rock of Gibralter. And it's quite a hike. Almost straight up at points, actually. Let's just say I got my workout for the week. But the view at the top was so worth it. Nothing can take my breath away like the outdoors and natural beauty. It was amazing.

After we explored the Rock on foot, we went back down into the city to find some dinner. We ate at this pub/restaurant called The Clipper, one which our director, Javier, has been to many times before. On the menu were things that I would find in the States, and it was really strange. I resisted the pull of the cheeseburger, though, and went with the quiche. Our waitress spoke English to us (duh) and had a British accent. And she called vegetables 'veg' as in "Mash with salad or veg?" (Kristen, I thought of you!). After dinner we were exhausted, so we went back to the hotel and slept.

Day two. We headed for Africa. Once we got through passport control and what not, we got to the ferry station. There we met our tour guide for the week, Ben, and proceeded to take the ferry across the Mediterranean from Algeciras, Spain to Tangier, Morocco. Side note on Ben, he is from Conneticut and has been living in Tangier for a few months. He studied in Granada when he was in college and since then has been obsessed with Spain/Morocco. He works for a company called Moroccan Exchange which takes groups of students (mostly college students) into Morocco and teaches them about the culture, language, and life of Morocco. He speaks Spanish and is slowly picking up Arabic and maybe a little bit of French too. Once we got to Tangier, Ben took us to a market that had tons of fresh food. Meat, vegetables (veg, haha!), fruits, and more olives than you could ever imagine. It wasn't the cleanest, but it was the start of our introduction to the Moroccan way of life. Ben navigated the market and bought us some yummy food (cause he takes eating seriously-- those are his own words). Then we headed for an organization called DARNA, an organization that helps women who don't have men to help them in their lives learn skills to survive on their own and what not. It was interesting to talk a little bit with some Moroccan students there. And then we had the most amazing kouskous I've ever eaten, followed with traditional Moroccan mint tea.

Fast forward to day three. Rabat, a main city in Morocco. The previous night we were introduced to our homestay families. A couple girls and I were put with Suad, a teacher who lives with her 2 or 3 nieces (she's not married). In the homestays, the first thing that struck me was the welcoming environment. Suad and her nieces gave us dos (or tres or cuatro) besos to welcome us and had the biggest smiles I think anyone could ever have. They fed us and showed us our beds so we could sleep.

We also got to ride camels on the beach. Kind of like riding a horse, but you have to hold on more when they get up. And it's higher up.

Okay, I want to explain to you a little bit about our experience in the homestay. First, Suad didn't speak English. Most Moroccans speak Arabic as their first language and then French, and then few speak English. So Suad spoke Arabic to her family, and French to us (my friend Montana knows a little French, so she helped us communicate a little). That being said, there is a language barrier. It was weird not being able to talk to my "mom" straight up like I can talk to Maricarmen in Granada. However, I learned that spoken language doesn't always matter. The language that came through was the love, hospitality, and openness of their lives and homes to us. This was my first direct experience with the Moroccan people and started to open my eyes to this culture and people.

In Rabat, where we spent 2 full days, we got to talk with the director of the soon-to-be-open IES Rabat center, Muhammad. He told us a little bit about his ideas for the Rabat program and got our feedback about what we think he should add/change. Then we talked with a woman who is studying gender issues in Morocco/Africa. More on this later.

We saw the Mausoleum of Mohamed V (the current king's father who died about 10 years ago; the king's father and grandfather are both buried there). Then we met Moroccan students and got to hang out with them for about 3 hours. This was really interesting, and definitely something I wouldn't be able to do had I come on my own to Morocco. They all spoke English because they're studying it. I talked with Muhammad, a 26 year old sailer whose English is less than perfect. We talked about life and jobs and school and the marriage system in Morocco. He couldn't always understand me because of my American "accent" (I totally don't have an accent), but he could understand a British accent, because that's what he was accustomed to. So, what did I do? You guessed it, talked in a British accent to him. Yes, me, a Missourian, talked to my Moroccan friend in a British accent. Hey, whatever you have to do to communicate, right?!

Later we went to the hammam baths, traditional baths in Morocco. The women (and maybe men too, I'm not sure) go to the baths once a week or so. The baths are basically three rooms connected with a doorway opening. It's like a sauna it's so hot. You go in and lather yourself up with some sort of special soap. Then you get buckets full of piping hot water and wash yourself. Then you use an exfoliating glove and scrub all of the dead skin off your body. Then you pour more water on yourself. Then you wash your hair. And more water. And help your neighbor scrub her back. And more water. You get the point. We sat in there for about an hour. It was quite an interesting experience, and a good bonding experience for us girls of the group. Oh, one more thing. So the Moroccan women go to these baths once and week and then usually shower only 2 or so more times per week. Interesting concept, but I understand because showers and water and such aren't the same there as they are in the US or even Spain. After the baths we got henna tatoos and went to sleep.

Day four. We drove to the Rif Mountains and hung out with a family in a small village all day. This family lives off the land. They have a turkish toilet (basically a hole in the ground that you squat over; these are actually all over Morocco and more common than "western" toilets). They had little electicity. The oldest son (17 years old) had to walk an hour to school. He actually lives at school and only comes home on the weekends. They don't have a car. They do everything with donkeys. They entertain themselves by talking, doing daily chores, playing with a soccer ball, whatever they can find to do. Simplicity of life.

After, we drove to Chefchaouen and got settled into our hostal for the night. Later, after we left the village we went back into town and did some touristy shopping stuff. Then we had dinner and went to bed.

Day five. We got up early and walked to a high point in the town of Chefchaouen. This town is situated in the mountains, literally. There is a wall that goes around the city that was used to protect the city's inhabitants from invasions. It was beautiful.

So what did I learn from Morocco? Well, a lot. First, I learned about Islam and how people practice it in their lives. The whole country is run on Islam. It's what their government is governed by. The King is highly respected (people have pictures of him in their house) and follows the Koran in order to rule the people. I think, as a US citizen, we have a skewed picture of what the Islamic religion is all about. For me, what I've been fed to know is that Islam is a religion that is somewhat crazy and that the people who practice it hate the US. Being in Morocco broke down all of these stereotypes for me. The people in Morocco are Muslim. It is their way of life. They pray 5 times a day in the mosque. They follow the rules of their religion, almost to a T. They can't drink or smoke marajuana legally. The women are treated as less, though there are movements to get women a higher place in society, such as an act that was passed in 2003 stating that women now have the right to divorce their husbands. But as far as being terrorists or something like that, it's not true of the vast majority of Moroccans. They are actually a very loving population of people. Everywhere we went people noticed us. They talked to us in English. They were happy we were there. They stared at us. They smiled at us. They simply loved us. As for their religion, it is engrained into who they are. It's part of their identity. So here's what has been swirling in my head about all of this:

Is it really possible to say that, even though these people aren't "Christian", they are wrong? I have a hard time believing it. They have shown me more love in 5 days than some "Christians" do in a lifetime. They are devoted to their religion. Every part of their life is saturated by it, even down to the language which centers around giving God praise (example, lhumdullah means "thank God" and they say it when something good happens, aka, all the time). And I know it's real to them. My friend Stephanie was sick and had to go to the doctor in Morocco. When she got home, her host father, who doesn't speak English, came up to her, put his hand on her cheek and forehead, and started saying a prayer over her. When she explained this to me, it gave me chills. Here is this man who she just met, praying for her to get better. He doesn't know what religion she is. He doesn't know her. But he cares. And he knows his god can make her better. He has faith. If that's not real, I don't know what is. So how can I possibly say that another religion is wrong? Though they have different ideas and theologies, some of which I may not agree with, I think it's possible we all worship the same God. It's the human interpretation that comes in and stinks up everything in between.

Second, American privilage. I hear this all the time, but never understood what it meant until now. In America, if there is a person from another country that doesn't speak English, we expect them to learn. In Morocco, they expected to speak to us in English. Whoa. They respected us. They were intrigued by us. They wanted to know us. When we left the country yesterday, as we were walking across the border with all of the Moroccans that were trying to get into Spain (which is a hard thing to do, and a whole other issue in itself), they created a pathway for us to get by. Respect. There is a girl in the program who is Lebanonese. She couldn't come on the trip because she would have had to have gotten a visa to enter the country because she has a Lebanonese passport. As an American, we didn't have to jump these hoops. American privilage. I am so blessed to have been born in the US and have the opportunities that I have.

Third, I learned that I want to know more languages. French is one I heard a lot of, and I realized it's really close to Spanish. So, I'm planning on taking French my senior year of college. And I'd love to learn German too, and maybe Arabic someday. Hence the title of the blog, I want to be a polyglot. That's a person who speaks many languages.

That's what I learned, in a nutshell. If you want to know more in-depth about my learning, let me know, because it doesn't stop here. My biggest question is, with what I learned, what am I to do? How do I go on from here?

Now for the pictures. Not all I have, obviously, but some.

Rock of Gibralter with a mosque in front. Yes, I climbed that.

Monkey business.

Top of the Rock of Gibralter overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Lots of ships.

Olives, anyone?

"Sarah, smile!" This is my "I can't believe I'm on a camel in Morocco/I might pee my pants" look. Apparently I need to lay off the galletas con crema chocolate.

Mausoleum of Mohamed V.

Tombs of current King Mohamed's father and grandfather.

Guard inside the Mausoleum trying not to smile. I'm sure he has about 572.5 pictures taken of him per day.

Moroccan family love! Left to right: Sister of Suad, Kawtar (niece), Suad (my mom), me, Lauren, Montana, and Fatima.

Dance party on our incredibly small bus.

Overlooking the city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Beautiful city!

Our group for the 5 day trip. We used Turkish toilets, ate kouskous, danced with village people, went to the hammam baths, and bonded. I love these people!

And to top it all off, this was at the restaurant we stopped at on our way home. I couldn't resist taking a picture.

Sometimes the language barrier gets in the way. It's supposed to say "Please do not throw butts in the toilet" aka cigarette butts. Baha!!

Well, that's all I have for you. But it was an exceptionally long post. Soon I'll post my pictures from Valencia, but not now. :) Hasta luego!


  1. Sarah you are too precious! I read your blog everytime you put up a new one and I especially love this one! I loved hearing your thoughts and journey as you are traveling! I can't wait to catch up when you come home.
    Continue to think about your journey with the Islam faith, I learned alot about it last semester and would be interested to talk about it when you get home!
    I love you bunches!

  2. Beautiful insight. I am so excited for you. You are learning SO much. I love hearing your stories and seeing pictures. So happy you are there. I love you and miss you dear. Continue seeking.