The Journey, the Arrival, the Chaos...
30.05.2007 - 03.06.2007 28 °C
Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to sit down and type until yesterday evening. As a result, some parts of this brief summary of my past few days are a bit hazy, but I've done my best to relate it here:
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
The day for me began not terribly early: 8 AM. I woke up at my grandmother’s house, which is around 100 miles from Washington, my first stop of many on my way to Morocco. The day began simply enough, as my father and I went for a short walk in order to work my leg muscles. In hindsight, this was a very wise move, as my opportunities to walk around later were somewhat inhibited. After having breakfast (sausage, the last time I’ll be having that for a while) and saying goodbye to my mother and grandmother, I got on the road to DC with my father. The first part of the drive was straightforward enough: we finally hit a wall of traffic on Interstate 66 driving into the capital, around Warrenton. Fortunately, we had just exited the interstate to get a drink (Vanilla Coke is back, and the Vanilla Coke Zero is the finest drink known to man), so we went along the parallel roadways going into Manassas. We got to the airport around 1 PM, almost two and a half hours before my scheduled flight, a Delta commuter jet to JFK in New York. While checking in, I was offered an opportunity: there was one seat left on a plane scheduled to leave around 2:30. Not wanting to sit around the airport for any longer than I had to, I gladly accepted. The flight was efficient and uneventful; it took around 47 minutes to get on the ground in New York.
That’s when the fun started. You see, I have had to make a connecting flight only twice in my life, one of which was an international flight. In both cases, the airports I went to (Cincinnati and Atlanta) had connecting terminals, so once you had entered airport security at the first airport, you did not have to repeat the process once you arrived at another airport. However, JFK is a different kettle of fish. When I was looking for my flight (Royal Air Maroc, more about them later), I was told that I had to leave the terminal, which was itself not a big deal. The problem was that I also had to check in at the Royal Air Maroc (hereafter abbreviated to RAM) desk in order to receive my boarding pass. The first hurdle came with trying to find their desk. JFK’s directory listed the RAM desk is area D. The only problem with that was, well, it wasn’t there. I looked everywhere, and then I resorted to asking a person at the Turkish Airlines desk (who was in area D) where RAM was. The response – area A – answered one question, but soon other problems developed. I first entered the ticket desk line (there was also a Delta person there, as this was a codeshare flight), and they told me that I had everything needed for the flight, and they directed me to the check-in line. Cue problem number two: not only did I not have a boarding pass, but I was not even in RAM’s system. Needless to say, this is a significant problem. I was directed back to the ticket desk, where they told me about an interesting problem: Delta’s e-ticketing system (from where we had the tickets) had been having some issues with the RAM computers. Fortunately, these problems were quickly resolved, and it’s not like I had to be on the plane in a hurry, since the flight’s departure was not scheduled for another four hours. Back through line I went, with replacement check-in tickets in tow, and I finally got a boarding pass (this took around an hour/90 minutes).
The terminal did indeed have issues. Perhaps the biggest problem – besides the fact that the food court was actually behind the security checkpoint, so once you entered the terminal, there was no chance for food – was the fact that I had not found any people who were a part of the VMI group. So I sat and read, while some time passed. And passed. And finally slowed. Suddenly, I saw one of the W&L students walking around, at which point I met the folks in the group, so we all began chatting before the flight. As H-hour got closer, I made all my last phone calls to my parents, sister, and girlfriend, after which the plane (at long last) began boarding.
Because I had had done transatlantic travel previously, I knew that an aisle seat was absolutely necessary for any sort of comfort. Unfortunately, my bungled check-in meant that I had lost my reserved seat and instead got – yep! You guessed it! – a middle seat. So I first try to sit beside another VMI person. But that seat was soon claimed by the person whose seat it was. As a result, I got to take my original seat, beside a young woman about my age in a headscarf and robe. We began talking some small talk, and she spoke English with an American accent. Her father, though, asked a favor of me: to switch seats. His seat was on the aisle two rows ahead. As it was the best case for all involved, I quickly agreed. The other two seats in my row were held by two Americans named Jack and Allen. They were going to have a fourteen-hour layover in Casablanca (our destination) before flying to Niamey, the capital of Niger, where they would be teaching English. Allen was born at Fort Bragg, so we three quickly struck up a conversation.
Unfortunately, the happy little world created in our row did not extend to the rows around us, as there were many, many small children and infants around us. So much crying! In any case, I had decided that my trip would not be ruined by the noise of either people or airplane engines, so I had brought my noise-cancelling headphones for the flight. Two problems developed, however: my MP3 Flash drive had quit functioning for reasons as yet unknown, and the in-flight music system had its own problems. When plugged in, my headphones received a nasty bit of static in the right ear. I naturally assumed that the problem was with my headphones, so I plugged into my neighbor’s system in order to check. That one had the other ear go out, even though I had the airplane adapter with me. Oh, well, the static was reduced if the proper amount of pressure was applied to the adapter, which was a bit tedious when you are also trying to sleep. The food was surprisingly good, as we had lasagna with salad and a chocolate cake with apricot filling. Also, drinks were a part of the meal (including options like wine or liquor), which I found out only after the flight! Finally, coffee and tea capped off the meal. The in-flight movie was planned to be The Pursuit of Happyness, but it was not shown since they did not have any headphones for the flight. An overnight kit was handed out, including a night mask and (oddly enough) socks, and I spent the rest of the flight trying to sleep. I failed in my task.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
After a light breakfast (a croissant, chocolate mini-muffin, yogurt, and coffee/tea), we were soon on the ground at Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca (Caza, for short). This was definitely not the land of Humphrey Bogart; it was sunny and in the 60s (Fahrenheit) with a strong sea breeze coming in from the Atlantic. We got on a bus and made our way to the terminal (the entire airport is under renovation, so the gates at the terminal are currently closed). Then we got to experience the universal joy of going through passport control. One of our W&L students, Jackie, walked up to the counter manned by Derek Jeter’s clone, and the response she got was reminiscent of the one Maleah received when we went to Italy! Our line was moving extremely slow, especially since these two African women (don’t know what country) were taking a lot of time to pass through our line. Finally, we got through the checkpoint and went to get our bags. I got mine without incident, which sent me over the moon. After passing through customs (i.e., showing an American passport), we entered the airport proper, where Dr. Taifi was standing and waiting for us. We then walked over to the ATM and/or exchanged money and waited for everyone to exit customs. Fortunately only one person had baggage missing, and that was quickly resolved.
Once we had all gotten outside, we finally got to the vans for our trek to Fes (a four-hour drive). The group split into two: the first van had primarily cadets, and the other was had the remaining cadets as well as the non-cadets. We first drove from Casablanca to the other side of Rabat along the A1 motorway. Everything was going well for us until right before Rabat, where our van was pulled over by the Security Police (the standard national police force) for speeding. We had seen some other vehicles, usually late-model luxury sedans, being pulled over along the route, where the smiling drivers handed over a “payment” to the smiling policemen, and we knew that this would most likely not be a problem. However, one of our students had just woken up, and she had picked her camera up from her lap just as the officers were walking over to the van.
This was the point where all hell broke loose. You see, the security forces in Morocco are extremely sensitive regarding any sort of photography of what is “important to national security interests;” in other words, any sort of filming of any government facility or officer is strictly forbidden. But the problem was that this student didn’t speak any Arabic (Moroccan Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic, which I will cover later) or French, and the officers did not speak any English or Spanish, which the student knew. Our driver then got out and started talking with the officers, as did Dr. Taifi. They demanded to see that the student wasn’t taking any photos, and despite showing them that there were no offensive pictures, they remained quite aggressive until she offered to erase the contents of her camera. Finally they stood down from their stance, allowing us to go. Then they realized why they had originally pulled us, and gave the driver a warning. We then drove off.
Getting on the A2 from Rabat to Fes, we quickly learned two important things about the highway system in Morocco. Firstly, outside of the A1, the highways, while in pretty good condition, are extremely bumpy. Additionally, all of the drivers in Morocco are extremely aggressive and, well, bad at driving. This lovely combination meant that the route was full of excitement. The short answer is that anyone who wants to drive in Morocco is either crazy, suicidal, or both. In between short bouts of sleep interrupted by those two factors, we finally made our way to Fes.
Once we finally arrived at the school (around 2 PM), we were greeted with a meal: couscous. I was finally able to get online (the school has wireless access), and there was indeed some semblance of home. We had a couple of meetings, and then we finally met our host families. I was paired with Zach, a cadet from VMI, and we are living with … in an area of the city bordering the Ville Nouvelle (the French-built part of the city) and the Medina (the old part of town). Our host father drives a “petit taxi,” which is a small red FIAT used for intra-city transport. They have four children: two daughters, (who is engaged) and , and two sons, and Hamza.
The mother and the older daughter both speak a little bit of English, but in communication we quickly encountered a problem. While Zach has taken one year of Arabic, he has taken Modern Standard or “Classical” Arabic; that is, Arabic taken directly from the Quran. The local dialect of Arabic, though, bears little resemblance to Classical Arabic. Zach’s other language is Spanish, so for the first day we were forced to communicate solely through my one year of high-school French, which I haven’t studied for over four years. In a move which would have made my high school teachers proud, I surprisingly remembered much of my French, and we were able to have some form of rudimentary communication.
Things quickly moved to what I think is the most important part of Moroccan culture: food. I seriously do not understand how so much food can be consumed! When we arrived at the apartment (around 7 PM), we had what we thought was dinner. It was quite filling: mint tea, olives, eggs, olive oil, cheese (La Vâche qui Rit, or The Laughing Cow back in the States), a sweet paste, and – of course – Moroccan bread. No meal in Morocco is complete without plenty of bread, it seems. By the end of this meal (which was full of our host imploring us Kul! or Mange!, or eat! in Arabic and French respectively), we were stuffed. I also had to get accustomed to one important difference: I had to become right-handed, since the style of eating mandates eating from common plates, and the left hand is considered taboo for religious and sanitary reasons. We chatted with our host and the family for a while, while the television played in the background.
The way that television works in Morocco is – if you don’t have a satellite dish (these are quite common) – that you have the TNT (French for Digital Terrestrial Television) system of state-run channels. There is Channel 1, 2M (a play on the French deuxième, or “second” channel), and a couple of others. The programming is bilingual, but it tends to focus on Arabic-language broadcasting. It alternates during the day, so oftentimes an Arabic show will be followed by a French show, and vice versa. There are a number of movies and American shows dubbed into French, as well as Arabic-language broadcasts from (primarily) Egypt. For example, our first night had a mixture of Arabic soap operas, news programs in both French and Arabic, The Shield, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Go figure.
In addition to watching television, our host mother helped me practice my French by showing me some photos. First, she showed us the photos of her older daughter at her engagement ceremony. Her fiancé doesn’t really look Moroccan; he is extremely fair-skinned, has blond hair, and has very blue eyes. In fact, I had to ask, since I was not sure. After that, we looked at some pictures of Mohammed VI, the king, and his family. Mohammed is extremely young, having acceded to the throne following Hassan II’s death in 1999. His wife, who looks quite European (red hair and extremely fair skin), is originally from Fes. The photos include pictures of their two children and the king’s siblings. Finally, we found out (Zach told me about this as well) that the royal family is currently in Fes for the “Global Sacred Music Festival,” an event which brings in a lot of international guests. This year the queen of Jordan is one of the guests of honor. Needless to say, this would explain why the entire city was draped in the red and green of the Moroccan flag.
Finally, around 11 PM, our host father returned home from work. We then sat down for dinner. Yes, dinner. Yes, at 11 PM. We had a tomato-based soup with noodles, carrots, and potatoes, with the ubiquitous bread and tea. Yes, tea at 11 PM. Zach and I quickly became stuffed once more (an aspect of social protocol in Morocco mandates that you eat as much as possible, as refusing food is considered a great affront to a host). Finally, around midnight, our first day in Morocco came to an end.
Friday, June 1, 2007
The day started around 7:10 AM, about 40 minutes later than I intended. There was no time for a shower, so I resorted to washing my face and putting on cologne (a wise item to pack, in retrospect). We had breakfast, which was toasted bread, margarine, cheese, tea, and coffee, and walked over to the area where our host father would pick us up, since the streets are too narrow for a car to go right up to the door. Our journey took 10 minutes (hooray for lax traffic laws!), although it was a hair-raising 10 minutes, especially as the taxi has no seatbelts. Getting to the school, Zach and I walk up to our first class, which is a crash course in Moroccan Arabic. The information is extremely helpful, especially since learning Arabic in Morocco is much more beneficial than knowing French. This is for several reasons, such as the fact that Arabic is universal in Morocco, while French is not universally understood. Additionally, speaking in Arabic is seen much more positively by Moroccans, especially when the person speaking looks like a European, due to the cultural and colonial implications of French. After a short break, I then went to my class for Modern Standard Arabic (hereafter referred to as MSA), where we began to learn the alphabet. Those two hours flew by as well, and we then got together for lunch, where the school again prepared couscous for us.
We ended class at noon, and we did not reconvene until 4 PM. The reason for this is partially cultural. In the Mediterranean tradition, Morocco has always had a long “lunch hour:” noon until 3 PM, to be precise. All stores, except for restaurants, close up, since people usually go home for lunch. In short, this means that very little gets done during the middle of the day, which is not the worst thing in the world, especially since it closes things during the hottest part of the day. I got online to check email and such, and then I sat down to work on some classwork and chatted with some other students until it was time for class. The afternoon class (also for MSA) went by just as fast as the morning’s, and by the end we were actually writing words in Arabic. A brief seminar on Moroccan customs and etiquette followed class, then Zach and I went back home. We encountered some difficulty getting back to the house, since the security forces had blocked off some roads leading to the music festival as well as a nearby hotel, where former French president Jacques Chirac and family are staying.
As with the previous evening, we had bread with “fixings” and tea as soon as we arrived. More importantly, we had a breakthrough regarding language. The previous night, Zach (through me) tried to explain that he spoke only MSA, while the family was speaking Moroccan Arabic. Fortunately, I was able to say the correct words in French, and our host mother understood. Even more fortunately, she, the older daughter, and the older son all speak MSA (which is known in Morocco as “global” or “classical” Arabic), so Zach was able to partake directly in discussion. Following a musical variety show (which had a Fesien singer who looked strangely like Henry Kissinger) and a bit of CSI: Miami, we had dinner, which was another large meal. Finally, we went to sleep around 1 AM, before which I began to read a book, Tor!, which is a history of German soccer written by Uli Hesse-Lichtenburger. I highly recommend it.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
I woke up around twenty minutes to noon, and I was finally able to take a shower for the first time since arriving in Morocco. This gives me an opportunity to talk about the bathroom facilities in the house. We have a “Turkish toilet,” or a squat toilet, which is a bit different but in some ways not as frightening as some regular “porcelain thrones.” The hole for the toilet also acts as the shower’s drain, and gravity forces the, well, waste downwards. After a long-awaited shower and an even longer-awaited shave, I was ready to face the world. Zach and I had breakfast, which was the same as the day before. Our host mother then took us out with her when she went shopping in the Medina.
The Medina was indeed what I expected: that is, unexpected. It is a tourist area, so many of the shops specialize in various tourist items, particularly pirated items (clothing especially). I now believe that you can judge a country’s development on its piracy; in that case, Morocco is certainly on the top of the list of developed countries. Other more authentic items were for sale as well. We stopped by a store in order to purchase some honey and butter, and the butter appeared to have been churned in the barrel from which it was collected. Another aspect of the Medina, in addition to its crowded nature, is its geography. The Medina is in a bowl, so to speak, with the Ville Nouvelle on the top parts of the bowl. The hills make for quite a bit of exercise. After we returned from the Medina, we prepared for lunch (what is with the meals here?).
Lunch was slightly different from the other meals, as it consisted of bread (surprise!), fried sardines, and a small salad of carrots, lettuce, olives, and potatoes. During the meal (as with all meals, Zach and I are practicing our Arabic and French respectively), the French Open was on television. After a dessert of a very tangy orange, the television was changed to Channel 1, where the Moroccan Under-21 national soccer team played against Botswana for an Olympic qualifier. Morocco won 1-0, but one interesting memory of the game was during halftime.
There was this one Coca-Cola commercial, which I had seen previously on YouTube. This ad, which had been from Argentina, shows various fans celebrating their team’s goal. For example, the butcher hugs the chicken, lumberjack and a tree, cactus and a balloon, and so on. One of the final scenes shows a couple in bed; the man jumps out celebrating, when another man in boxers jumps out of the closet. Both men look at each other, pause, and then hug. In the Moroccan version, there is no illicit lover; instead, a robber jumps out of the closet. Amazing what cultural differences do for you.
Following the game, I began to do some work (we weren’t assigned any homework for the weekend) by practicing my writing in Arabic. At that point, our host mother’s mother and sisters, who all live in Meknes, came to visit. I got to visit as well, while Zach worked on his (fairly lengthy) assignment. After working on my French (remember, I have had only one day’s worth of Arabic study) for a while, they soon left. We then watched an Egyptian movie (after the pre-dinner bread and tea meal), a comedy involving tons of slapstick, and finally the older brother took Zach and me out for a walk.
We walked around the Medina and parts of the Ville Nouvelle. The whole town was buzzing with life. In addition to the festival, there was a match on the television: Morocco’s national team against Zimbabwe in an African Cup qualifier. It was a good night, as “Les Lions d’Atlas” (The Atlas Lions, as the national team is called) won 2-0. We went for a nice walk, and Zach and I practiced our speech with the older brother. We talked about life as well as cultural differences between the United States and Morocco, and we dropped by to buy a six-pack of water on the way back to the house (six 1.5 liter bottles for 31.50 Dh, or 9 liters for a little under $4.00).
Upon our arrival, the match was ending, and Morocco had nearly scored a third goal. After it had ended, we sat down for dinner, which was something resembling a large potato pancake/omelet with pasta and – you guessed it – bread. It was interesting, as talk shifted to the fact that Zach and I had become family. As my parents and sister know, this inevitably meant that I was bound to make some sort of faux-pas. The first came as we watched NCIS, when I was curious about the nationality of the Israeli character. Apparently in the dubbed version of the show, she seems to be American. However, this was not a terrible comment, as Morocco has traditionally had a liberal view regarding Israel (a lot of Israelis are of Moroccan descent).
My second mistake, though, was not so minor. There was a news story about a boat accident near Laayoune, the largest city in the Western Sahara, a region administered by Morocco under disputed circumstances. In other words, some Sahawis want independence, while the Moroccan government sees the “Saharan provinces” as an indivisible part of Morocco. Put it this way: the equivalent of July 4th here, “The Green March,” commemorates the day when Hassan II led 350,000 Moroccan soldiers into the Sahara. This is a big deal. So when I heard the name of the city, I asked my hosts whether that was the capital of the Sahara. Big mistake. There is only one capital in Morocco, I was told. Realizing what I had said, I quickly took up a wise strategy: I played dumb. I said that I thought it was like in the US or Britain, where individual states or political subunits have their own capital. It turned out to be an extremely safe move. The mistake was understood, and we quickly moved on.
After a dessert of nuts (resembling sunflower seeds, pistachios, peanuts, and chickpeas) and tea, we quickly called it a night. The day ended with some more of Tor!, and lights were turned off around 1:30 AM.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Another late start today, as we didn’t get up until after noon. “SbaH l-khiir” (“good morning”) quickly turned to “msa l-khiir” (“good afternoon”), and we had another breakfast of similar variety. Having not learned our lesson from the previous day, we had another large lunch in the afternoon not too soon after breakfast: beef cooked in a delicious sauce, French fries (or are they “freedom fries?”), and a fruit salad of sorts with carrots, bananas, and fresh orange juice as the base. Wonderful indeed.
Since our work had been for the most part completed, I decided that I would spend the afternoon reading Tor! and starting up this journal. Unfortunately, Zach needed to use the computer in order to update a spreadsheet of Arabic vocabulary, something for which I was more than happy to allow computer use. So I read. Then we had some guests come over to the house: the older daughter’s fiancé and his mother and aunt. Zach and I stayed out of the way, doing our work in the bedroom (we still received desserts in the form of a banana cake with orange-banana glaze, a sort of banana-milk smoothie, and a small glass of “Kuukaa-Kuulaa,” the Arabic for Coke) until summoned to the pre-dinner meal. After the guests left, I decided to add some French to the Arabic chart, and then I finally got down to starting this journal. After writing for a few hours, we got to dinner. Rice pudding. Very good. Finally, after catching the tail end of War of the Worlds, we wrapped up and went to bed. Before falling asleep, I finished Tor! It was indeed a very good book.
Hopefully everyone else is having a relaxing summer in the world of air conditioning and English! I will try to update this as regularly as possible; hopefully the 12-3 hours in the afternoon will be
a time to do writing.