Saturday, September 27, 2008

The night that was

To preface this entry, I must begin with the fact that I have a strong belief in God. To some, this may be referred to as Allah, energy, or random occurrence, but in any case, there is some sort of force that drives the universe, all of its inhabitants, as well as their actions…

As I sat tonight drifting between conversations, listening, thinking, and feeling, I thought of what existence means to me. This is not a something foreign to my life, nor is it new, but with each passing moment, new thoughts come and go, just as the days which carry them like chariots to their destinations. I thought about right and wrong; is it relative, or are there things that are inherently good, balanced by those which are inevitably bad. As I roved between conversations, hearing one’s thoughts about existence, specifically where it comes from, I questioned myself and my stance, not only on a higher being, but on how I approach the thoughts of others. I consider myself a very open person, specifically to beliefs and ideas, and I think those who know me can attest, but the core of all this thought is the fact I am still only human, and will always have biases and agendas. As my body graces my temporary bed, and my ears fill with the sound of a ticking clock and jangling keys, I press my mind hard to fill a blank page with thoughts that only moments ago where so clear. I try and recount the revelations of the night, knowing full well this feat is impossible. What was felt tonight was the collective action of individuals connected in a moment, and though it is my interpretation, recreation is unattainable. A glimpse of enlightment is all I can offer.

The night that was

I came to Morocco in hopes of finding answers, and what I realized is this was the first mistake. It’s not our human duty to ask how, but to ask what. What is the purpose of existence? What caused this? What am I supposed to do with life, during the blink of an eye I’m on this earth? For one to find answers, they need to have questions, and at my stage in life, this is my longing. So to rephrase, I came to Morocco searching for something. My experiences abroad before have been quite different. The summer before the last, I spent my days with one other American, surrounded by Ugandans, engulfed in their culture, doing the best my body was capable of doing to shed my American skin, and experience life through their eyes. Since the start of this semester, I’ve felt like I’ve been living an American life in Rabat, more so then the feeling of being immersed in the culture. I spend my days at school surrounded by mostly Americans. I eat dinner with my host family, and sit silently when the language barrier bars me from the conversation, and I use the Internet to stay connected to home life. This has been the basis of my discomfort, but all was dissolved today in a solution of discovery.

We sat at our own table, united by our birthplace, in the heart of a café booming with Moroccans. We made eye contact, order drinks in Morocco’s native tongue, and even sparked basic conversation, but tonight these occurrences resonated with me. I have Moroccan friends, whom I talk with on a daily basis, but I am still American, and this fact will never change. But to me, this isn’t a bad thing. Shoes will never fit two people the same way, so all we can do is try and empathize with and understand one another. I’ll always be an American, whether I’m abroad or not, but that does not have to taint my experience. So with this new thought in mind, I was ready to live the life in which I’ve been bestowed.

Though I did not change seats through out the night, the final shuffle of others left a familiar face next to me. Before tonight, I had yet to discover what lies behind her brown eyes. She is typically shy, and very sweet, but her lack of assertion in an overanxious group, has left much to the imagination. I asked her about her home life, where her family lives, and in her case, where they came from. I heard an eye-opening story, and as she continued to speak, our conversation was buried under the forceful words of an argument in close proximity. We laughed about our classmates’ stubbornness, and unknowingly arrived at this evening’s conversational turning point. Since the other argument was about God, she asked me my belief on existence and creation. I told her I believed full well there is God, and that this God, as long as I’m right with my emotions, will give me insight and direction into my life’s path. She replied with the fact she’s agnostic for the most part, but had never felt she could grasp the feeling that most believers cannot convey in words alone. She is a science major in college, and a person who relies on equations to come to specific conclusions in life. I told her this is where I believed the problem lies. What makes the existence of God very hard to grasp is his omnipotence. For a rational thinker, trying to explain an answer, which is not a single solution that can be drawn through a constant equation, is a difficult battle. For an imperfect being, trying to explain perfection is like trying to fit a circle into a square, the outcome will never be what you hoped for. To her, It was as if this humble comment had been a flag of surrender. Our shields were lowered, and our armor was discarded. We were now ready to have a conversation.

His existence led us to the next chapter, one which was concerned with heaven and hell. I told her I believe in the afterlife concept, but that I didn’t believe good people, in their earthly skin, who did not accept God, would spend eternity in Damnation. God is merciful, and I believe that once all is said and done, a person will have a chance to see their existence, with all the good, bad, wrong, and right turns, in the presence of a maker, and if at this point they still denounce him, then damnation would be their fate. But then again, what do I know? She seemed in intrigued, but said that this was one of the hardest concepts of religion for her, because she believed that life right now was all we are given. She said we can choose to do good, or bad, but at the end of the day, it was our choice, and we as people are defined by our actions. Her final words rang, and I sat dumbstruck, watching the smoke billowing from ashtrays littered around the café. The staggering conversations of our peers tried to impede our boarder, but the moment we created could not be stopped. It had become a wave during high tide, pushing its way to the shore, regardless of what lay in its path. My mind processed what she said, and I asked her if she believed her life had a specific person, and where did she derive her values and morals. Her reply was bare, and was backed by a source that has long since been neglected, her heart. She said that she wasn’t for sure if there was a specific purpose, but before she died, she wanted to know and understand the outside force that her physics classes were so reliant on. Morals where brought by the same force, as well as values, but she didn’t believe anything that didn’t feel right in her heart. When my reply was called, I told her that I believe each person has a purpose beyond themselves, regardless of their belief in its creator, and it was their choice to find it. For myself, my purpose is still hidden, but I know that part of it is to be a positive attribute to the community which I’m in. If my actions are hindering those around me, and my words hurting instead of helping, then in that moment, I’m not following my purpose. I told her of my religious upbringing, and how for years I was blinded by the morals the church dubbed as truth, but now I knew this was wrong. My morals come from the same source as hers, the heart. If something feels wrong, then it isn’t something I should partake in. If I’m hurting another with my actions, or if I feel my conscious scream, I need to reconsidered what I have put on my table. Morals should not be defined by another, they should be defined by your heart, but to be able to do this, one must connect with something many chose to ignore.

We sat in silence for a moment, catching the occasional eye as we stared at the room, submerged in cleansing thought, washing clean the inhibitions which prohibit such connection. She surfaced us by thanking me for my thoughts. We had been on the same level, and she was happy to hear another person, though with some what different beliefs, could share such a similar outlook on life. We continued to talk about the importance of knowledge, but only if it was backed by a warm feeling in you heart, reminding you it is something which should not be taken lightly. As our group began to pay our tab, and we left the café, our ambiance stayed locked to our sides, and the cool night air added a welcomed comfort. We began to talk about drugs, and their detrimental role in finding ones heart, and this lead to a conversation about high’s and low’s. Being able to reach this point tonight, we knew that what caused so much turmoil when trying to connect with the heart were the fatal flaws of doubt, self-conscious, and fear that are innate in humans. Though drugs and alcohol can temporarily silence these, what both of us had devoted much of recent times to, was finding this mental state in a natural way. I posed the idea of subjective highs and lows, whether the appeal of all natural existence was clear to us, because of a high we have reached naturally that others had never experienced. As if we had found the final clue that solved a mystery, she and I together, let loose the floodgate of what lies in our hearts.

Highs and lows seemed to be the key to us as people. When we feel that natural high, when self-doubt submits, when fear flees from the light, when every God-given talent in our bodies works to its fullest potential, nothing seems unattainable. But this could be countered when the low comes barreling through our thoughts like an avalanche, engulfing the strength, light, and guidance, leaving us stranded and alone, knee deep in the cold depths of misery. Lows were not what scared us though, it was the middle. Though centering oneself is important, the middle area is not the same. If highs are secluded white-sand beaches, and lows are like a blizzard, then the middle is like a desert, with no end at sight. When hitting that middle area, you see the world through apathetic eyes. You don’t feel happy or sad. You don’t feel anger. You don’t feel bliss. You don’t feel a thing. It’s like being a ghost, wandering the earth, questioning why you are still here when your body was banished so long ago. I had felt this a month ago after an incredible high on a bus to Cascade D’ Ozued, but I could never put it in to words like she had this evening. Though it would depend on what state our minds our in, the ability to recognize such states helps one peer into their own heart.

Speaking of relative experiences set ablaze an already burning flame that has been raging in me since February. This fire of relativity was sparked when I had the chance to hear a lecture from author Ishmael Beah. He is from Sierra Leon, and spent a vast majority of his youth as a child solider. This man has seen his family die, been forced into killing the innocent, completely desensitized, brought back to life, and still suffers from nightmares and insomnia as a result of his experience. As miraculous as this is alone, what sets him apart is his ability to understand relative emotion. Though through an objective lens, a very unfortunate select few could say they have experienced something to such a magnitude, but what Ishmael preached was the fact that no one should belittle another person’s suffering. He used the example of a person loosing their pet, and said if this person feels the worst pain possible, relative to them, resulting from the loss of a loved one, then why should his worst suffering as a child soldier be considered any worse then the person who lost their pet? Though Ishmael stands a mere five foot four inches, I remember looking at him, wondering how he could fit in the hall which held over two thousand people. This man’s soul, his prowess, his wisdom, and most of all, his heart, are large enough to fill a city. I told her, as we walked down the street towards our home stays, that my hope is to one-day amount to a small piece of what that man is. To have the ability to not underestimate what a person is feeling, as well as sacrifice my pride to truly empathize with another. I looked at her as my words came to a close, and I could see our moment had only grown with this segway.

With a look of query in her eye, she asked me if I would ever be able to sacrifice my family, friends, and loved ones if it was what God called for. If God wanted me to renounce all my possessions, leave my home, and move to the world’s end, would I be able to do it? I would love to say yes, and think that I was an island, but being stripped of all my pride, in my barest form, I told her the truth. My most prized possessions in life are my loved ones, and the thought of having them stricken from my life devastates me. I know how important soul searching is, and I think months at a time I could go with very little communication, but actually not having them be a part of my life is something I cannot fathom. She told me how one of her favorite books is “The Razor’s Edge,” and how this is the premise for the story. She felt the same as I did about her loved ones, but found herself in a similar situation on a relative scale. Her mother and uncle fled the east, against less the 50% odds, during the Vietnamese war, and it was this act of selflessness that brought her and her family to safety and prosperity. She had worked hard in school, since the point in which grades became lasting, in hopes to gain acceptance to a prestigious grad school, which would grant her a high paying job. With this, she could continue to aid her family, and guarantee the same life to her kids to which she had been shown. She had come to Morocco in search of an answer, already knowing her question, and as we walked past the vendors, smelling the aroma of foreign cuisine, she realized this was her razor’s edge. Her heart felt content, and spoke to her as if they were timeless friends, when she was working with youth and volunteering in orphanages. She is a person who loves to give and she felt that she was following the right path when she was donating her time, being a beckon of hope for those who have lost their way. Her family, unfortunately, did not see this as a prestigious career, leaving her with a life-altering dilemma. I thought for a second that the answer was simple, do what your heart says, but then realized how ridiculous that thought really was. She was torn between what she loved, and whom she loved, and it seemed certain that the fork in the road would lead her far away from one. At this point I was stumped, and although we reached many conclusions this evening, the means for this end were going to take her more then one heartfelt conversation to find. Maybe it was the last remaining minutes of that high, but this seemed to be a very acceptable answer for her. We embraced, and I thanked her for every thought she had that evening, and we went our separate ways, accompany two different groups, still arguing, but not hearing the words the others spoke.

One of my favorite lines in “The Alchemist,” talks about how a person whose finds days monotonous has blinded himself from the simple beauties in life. The most basic beauty of humanity is interaction, and tonight was a testament to that. We had been on this program for a month now, exchanged subtitles, but nothing more. If we would have moved seats, or kept the conversation superficial, we would have missed our chance at a moment of bliss. What was amazing was the fact these self-conclusions could not have been reached without the guidance and wisdom of one another. I would like to consider myself a decently intelligent person, and she obviously has much wisdom, but without each other’s insight, neither of us would have been able to take the spiritual step we did that evening. I think this is why human interaction is important. A lot can be learned from a sabatical, or a trip spent alone in the woods, but the aid of another, someone who is on a similar spiritual plan, will always triumph the insight of a person urning to be an island.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Preperation vs. Planning

Last summer, on a bus from Kampala, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya, I talked to an African man who told me the problem with Westerners was planning. He said that we spend too much time planning for life, instead of living it. He said that was the difference between us and African’s, that African’s prepare themselves for things, but they never try and plan what was going to happen. That summer I learned the truth in the man’s statement, as I watched my African friends go about their daily lives, facing and surpassing all obstacles, triumphs, and failures that came their way. From this experience, I learned the true importance of adaptation in daily life, and how the world will turn, regardless of what I have planned.

Although Morocco is on the same continent, few lessons I learned from my time in sub-Saharan Africa have been relevant here. Today was our first day of Islam and the Koran class, and though this is a topic I find very interesting, the possible enjoyment was nowhere to be found. Professor Zaki, the program director who I’ve already butted heads with, has appointed himself the teacher of this course, and although his intelligence is abundant, there seems to be a missed connection between his thoughts and their articulation. We spent a three hour course reading choicely worded, long winded, vague questions, whose soul purpose was to inform us that studying religion is not the same as studying other subjects. The study of religion is used to train a person how to think in a way that encompasses the mind and the heart. My favorite phrase was when a person’s intelligence was referred to as their “cognitive stock.” Zaki spent an entire lecture trying to explain to us how one should approach learning the Koran, without teaching us a single thing about it. His motive was the fact that there are certain aspects that make studying religion difficult, such as how times are different now then when the books were written, and problems, politics, science, ect., differ from each time period. Though this is true, what Zaki was trying to do was not map out how we would learn the Koran, but try and pre-create our interpretation of what we will eventually learn. This has been the theme for the entire program with CIEE. Instead of diving into this new culture, and experiencing it first hand, getting an impression, then debriefing, Zaki has tried to create pre-emptive judgments and interpretations before we (well those of us who didn’t travel before) have experienced anything. He is trying to plan a group reaction to situations that will be completely subjective to the person who experiences it. Preparation is so important when it comes to experiencing a new and different culture, but trying to plan out how you’ll react to something you’ve never experience before is absurd. It’s like trying to plan a reaction to a surprise which you have no knowledge of. Like I said before, Zaki is an intelligent man, and his ultimate goal of trying to teach a kid to think and analyze, instead of accept and store is my philosophy as well, but unless someone has already learned to attain information this way, his message is lost in his endless sea of million dollar words on PowerPoint slides. What the real take home message is, is that one cannot plan nor teach someone how to experience something. A knowledgeable person can offer advice and insight, but the interpretation, the reaction, and the lesson learned is all in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, September 15, 2008


This weekend we decided we needed an adventure, so Zach offered the idea of climbing the highest peak in North Africa, Mt. Toubkal. The peak is 4,167m tall, and its base is located in a town called Imlil, which is about an hour out of Marrakech. It seemed like a good idea, and with our new lovely schedule, we could catch the night train Thursday, and be at the base of the mountain before noon on Friday. We offered our trip itinerary to all the kids on the program, but come Thursday after class, Jesse and Helen where the only other takers. This was a perfect amount for a climbing excursion.

After asking around, we found out that the night train left from Rabat at 3 in the morning. We all thought this was a great way to start an adventure, so come three in the morning, the four of us met in the alley of the train station, waiting for it to open. A few minutes after three, the gates opened, and we pushed our way along with the others waiting for the ticket window and then the train. We rushed in hopes of snagging two compartments, only to find out that the train, for some horrible reason, did not have compartments, but individual seats, two on each side, facing another two. Besides Helen, who had been out all night with her host brother, we had all slept a few hours before coming here. With the help of exhaustion and an empty train, we found some semi-comfortable positions, and restlessly slept the four-hour ride to Marrakech.

Upon arrival, we set out to find a super market in Marrakech before catching a grand taxi to Imlil. This was an adventure in itself, and after our accidental tour of the nouvelle ville, thanks to the precise directions of local strangers, we found our way to the La belvie.
With a bag full of dates, bread, and jelly, we crossed the street to go barter with a few taxi drivers for a ride. In the high season, rides with four people should only cost 50-70 dirhman a person, so at the end of the season, we should be paying no more then 50. Apparently the driver didn’t have the same outlook as we did, and after finally giving us our price, he refused to talk to anyone for the duration of the drive. But he had an outlet for his anger, blindly passing on curves on a mountain rode…

We thankfully made it to the mountain in one piece, and immediately after hopping out of our taxi, we started our ascent. Our crew, besides Zach the mountain man, looked like the saddest bunch of misfits the mountain had ever seen. All three of us where wearing running shoes instead of hiking boots (mine purchased the night before in the medina at the knock off nike store) designer (or knock off designer) glasses, and whatever random fitness attire we decided to bring on the trip. Preparation was not the name of the game this weekend, but adaptation is a very important aspect of travel.

The hike started through the main town of Imlil, which consisted of two hotels, and random shops with ceramic animals and wool hoodies, that looked like they had been stolen from hippies in the 90’s, were the only goods. After passing the buildings, hikers get the first glimpse of the valley. Before starting on the mountain path, there is a stream that runs through apple orchards and green grass, and down through the town. It also follows the hiking path all the way up to its source beyond the refuge. The mountain itself is a mix of deep gray and brown, and hides the summit for a good majority of the hike.

Guides aren't really necessary for the trip, so we decided to hike on our own. I think guides normally designate pass, so our guide free trip came with a hellish pace. It can take anywhere from 3 1/2 to 6 hours to make it to the refugee, but with our pace, we could have probably made it in two. We followed the stream for a little over an hour until we reached the half way point, which consisted of a waterfall draining into a pool, as well as obnoxious sales men thinking its a good idea to sell large items to people who are walking up a hill. We stopped and ate lunch here, dipped our feet in the freezing pool, then started up again.

As we continued to hike, we passed several groups of people, the most outspoken of course were the Britts, who would loudly comment "there go the Americans." But Even at our pace, we were constantly being passed by Moroccans on mules, carrying supplies to the refugee. At anyone moment, you could also turn your head and see packs of wild and herded goats working their way up and down the mountain.

What was fun about the small group was the ability to chat with one another, and after a few hours of ice breaking questions, we dove into questions that would break the surface a bit. As we walked in the mountains, surrounded by the elements and the sound of moving water, we talked about all the things young people thrive on; love, lust, relationships, the future, parties, the opposite sex...the opposite sex...the opposite sex. Its amazing how fast you can really get to know a person after only a few hours.

What is difficult about the hike to the refuge, is the fact it is hidden until you are about twenty minutes out. After about 2 and half hours of hiking, Helen began to feel the effects of altitude sickness. I think we all were feeling it a bit, but since she hadn't slept the night before, and restless train sleeping sufficient, I think the exhaustion intensified the effects for her. That morning we had been at sea level, and now we where just under 11,000 ft. According to lonely planet, and your local physician, this is a giant no no. But Helen, who was a DII soccer player, is very stubborn and tough. We slowed down a bit (but she didn't let us that much) and we fought our way to the refugee.

The concrete building, which matched the color of its surroundings, on the inside felt like a secluded, yet humble ski lodge, somewhere far of the beaten path. It was a sight for sore eyes, and although freezing, and lacking the burning wood fire of a ski lodge, it was a great place to be after a hike.

They greeted us with mint tea as we arrived, and we threw our bags in our shared dormitory. There were sixteen beds altogether, two bunk beds, with four touching mattresses on top, and four on bottom.

Helen, unfortunately, spent the rest of the afternoon battling the sickness, while the guys played cards and talked about life. Since we are currently in the Muslim holiday of Bramadan (bro Ramadan)...and at the top of a mountain in Morocco, our hope for beer and wings for dinner was in vain. Even the Moroccan equivalent, Cous cous and Hawaii soda, wasn't available tonight, so we had to settle for fanta and chicken tangines.

Since the refuge didn't like to use its power, lights where out at 8, and at 9 we went to bed. Sharing a bed with three other people isn't the best environment for sleeping, and after hearing the symphony of alarms from other groups ring from 1-5, we finally got out of bed to summit.

There is a distinct path to take to the summit, but we decided, in honor of Bramadan, to make our own path. We found ourself on all fours, climbing up boulders, and pushing our way through loose rock. We slipped and slid, and fought our way up the steepest incline, then took the already made path when the mountain flattened out a bit into a valley. From this point we could see the summit, and although it was still far, we could begin to map out our route to its graces. At this point the sun was out, but our half-assed gear was still not warm enough to be completely comfortable.

As we got closer to the summit, the terrain got gradually steeper, while the air became a little bit more thin, and the temperature fell just a bit more. What amazes me is how fast, when the elements are against you, the comfort of your own thoughts can turn from a treasured ally, to a sworn enemy. I was cold and exhausted, and my thoughts had betrayed me, but as we saw the summit, and crawled up the loose dirt on all fours, I put all my hope in the view from the top. This was a very good idea.

From the summit you could see for miles. There was little cloud cover, and the entire anti-atlas mountain range came in our view. There was a green valley at the bottom, and some how, less then a hundred feet under us, a stray heard of goat. We took pictures, laughed, ate snickers, and took in the amazing view, all the while trying to keep warm and gasp in the glory of climbing North Africa's highest peak.

After about an hour, we packed our bags and headed down. The descent was faster, and although it was down hill, it still was very frustrating with all the loose rock. To battle the traitors in our minds, we talked about a wide range of topics, from life and where it comes from, to pokemon. After about an hour and a half we made it to the refuge.

Helen was there waiting for us, looking a lot more colorful, and feeling a lot better. We talked about what our next step was, and decided that we would rather spend another night at the refuge, then go to Marrakech and battle the heat and street vendors. It was around noon when we got back, so we spent the day playing rummy on the patio, watching groups of hikers, goats, and mules make their way up.

After about three hours of rummy and omlete eating, someone brought up the idea of maybe hiking down and catching the last train home to Rabat. It seemed only fitting to put this choice up to Allah (or God, whichever name you choose) and used cards as a medium for him to speak. We made up a ridiculous game, with contradicting rules to decide what we would do, and after about twenty minutes, we got the order to stay the night. A few more hours of card playing led us to the cous cous dinner I had been waiting for, then to our now empty dorm room.

Though there were only four of us, and four completely open spaces to sleep, we all decided to sleep on one bunk and share the space. It does sound like a cute situation, but it was actually the result of fear after telling ghost stories before bed. Everyone told their real life stories, or stories of friends with ghosts, and to finish the night, I payed tribute to my Grandma by telling the "Mary I’m at the foot of your bed story." It didn’t scare my friends as much as it did Megan and I when we were little, but it still made me smile thinking about every time my Grandma spooked us before bed.

The next morning we packed our things and calculated how much our bill should be. We were told it was 30 dirham for each meal, 20 for tea and 80 per person for the room. The English speaking man who had told us the prices was asleep while we were getting ready to leave, so we grabbed another employee to ring us up. We spoke a little bit of French with him, but he knew we were Americans, so he decided to try and charge us double for each meal we ate, and 10 dirham extra for every time we ordered. This sparked an argument, which led to a stand off, which led to him storming in and out of the room, then finally locking the front door, as to try and lock us in the refuge. Zach made a joke and asked him if he was kidnapping us, while threatening to call our embassy, but this seemed to be lost in the heat of the moment with the worker. As we sat in a stare down, we saw our friend begin to wake up, but instead of hopping to his feet, he started to writhe in pain, moaning and rolling on the coach. He said it hurt right under his stomach, near his groin, and so our only thought was that it could be a kidney stone. Jesse had Advil with him, so we dished out enough for two days, and told him how to take them. The other employee, who had tried to cheat us, was watching the whole time, and after this spectacle, decided to give us the actual price for our stay, and let us leave the refuge (even though the back door was open the whole time.)

Because of the stand off, we were in a bit of a rush to catch the one o’clock train back to Rabat, so we hiked down as fast as possible and went straight to the taxi stop. We ended up hailing the only passive/timid taxi driver in Morocco, and instead of speeding through the mountains, we arrived in Marrakech about fifteen minutes after the train left. But like I said earlier, the key to traveling is adaptation, so to occupy ourselves, we paid 50 dirham to swim and shower at the hotel Ibis next to the train station.

The four-hour train ride back was spent digging a little deeper with one another, as well as watching the scenery pass by. Even with the mornings delay and missing the first train, we still made it back to town only a few minutes late for Fitar (break-fast).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

where you go is where you are

As a result of the frustration, and voiced opinions, I think the program realized it was dropping the ball, and after much deliberation, we now don’t have class until one on Monday, and no class Friday. This is way way way more then we asked for, and I couldn’t be happier. But after just taking a test completely in Arabic after only have about 8 days of classes (most of which only about speaking not writing) I do believe we may be entitled to it. Either way, my future holds many wild adventures.
As for the title; though the announcement of our class schedule was quite amazing, the scales of life did balance themselves out for me today. I’m in Morocco, I’m experiencing life, I’m speaking three different languages (which is sweet!) but even though I’m here, I’m still a son, a brother, a friend, and a boyfriend. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the “experience” of traveling, and how they would hate to be tied down, or they don’t use email or phones when they are traveling, because it will take away from this so called experience. The phrase “where you go is where you are,” has been a real eye opener this trip, and I really think it distinguishes between those who are traveling and experiencing, and those who are running away. When I left home I was an overly emotional, self-intuitive, twenty-one year old kid. Now, though maybe a bit wiser, I’m still that same kid. When you leave a place, though hopefully you’ll inherit a less glazed pair of eyes, you are still the same person at the core. Your problems will follow you, along with your habits, ideas, and thoughts. What I’m getting at is the fact that, although one journeys to far off destinations to learn and experience, the over all experience should encompass life as a whole. I’m in a long distance relationship right now, and what my other half thought was that I didn’t want to talk much, because I wanted to experience, which unfortunately, led to a scale balancing argument this afternoon…but for me, that is the experience. Its living in this new culture and learning, but finding time to still be the person you are, for the people you care about back home, and finding out how these new ideas and thoughts will correspond with day to day life. How will the experience influence you with the ones you love? If I wanted to run away, and try to hide from my problems, or maybe take a sabbatical, then yes, the experience would be me, on my own, trying to figure myself out. No email. No phones. Just books, a pen, and a journal. But that’s not what this trip is about. To me, that’s running away. I’m a firm believer in soul searching, but when was the last time anyone truly had the world to themselves? Soul searching happens with other people as well. I like who I am and my life back home, and though I’m here, and experiencing, I think the full journey comes when you embrace all aspects of life. Why neglect what you have at home? The journey doesn’t begin when you arrive at the airport, and end when your ears ring with captains muffled voice saying your city’s name. The journey is what happens before the trip, during the planning, the participation, and the lessons, values, and thoughts manifesting themselves in your day to day life when you return. So how would taking time out of the day to catch up with the ones you love, and process thoughts really take away from the experience? In my mind, this luxury is a cherry on top.

Monday, September 8, 2008


This has been a pretty reoccurring theme since the start of the program. We have been in the dark in all aspects. We found out about host families the day we were told we were moving into the houses. We find out about meetings five minutes before they start, we are finding out our class schedules this Wednesday…when school actually starts Thursday. We have no say in what is happening, and we are spoken to like lost children. Our questions are answered with vague long-winded rants that go in circles, and I’ve learned more about the program from the CIEE website, than from those who are running it. We are also stuck in a small building, and we found out this week, to our dismay, that we are not going to be in classes at the regular university, but still stuck in the small temporary building, only taking classes with the kids on our program. Half of the problems coming are from trying to correspond our classes and what not with the main university, so it seems dumb that they would try and separate us from the school when its painstakingly obvious the fact that we came to Morocco that we probably don’t want to just study with other Americans, we want to be with Moroccans. They have dubbed us trail blazers, because this is the first year with the program, but I’m pretty tired of sporting this title at the expense of my education and experience.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this attitude, and whether its justified, or I’m just being an ugly American, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is relevant. My problem has nothing to do with the culture, it has to do with our program. I’m just upset with the inability for our program to deliver on promises, and it has become burdensome being so blind about something which I’ve paid to do. So yes, this frustration is justified, and I’m hoping it doesn’t continue as a theme throughout the education here in Morocco.
But luckily I’ve always been a firm believer in you create your on outlook, and as long as I can survive from 9-3 each day, life is great. I’m living with a host family, I spend each afternoon at the beach playing bocce ball or Frisbee, or even studying Arabic. At night, I have a massive Ramadan feast, and following, I go on walks through the city, taking in the atmosphere of Morocco. So maybe this is just life's way of balancing itself out. Though my day at school is relatively miserable, with barked orders, boiling classrooms, and edgy teachers who are fasting, it makes me so excited for 3 o’clock to role around, and city exploring, or beach dwelling to commence.

Saturday night: Right now we are still in the middle of the two week long intensive Arabic course before actual school begins, and since our school found it necessary to put a class in the morning on Saturday, Saturday evening was our only real weekend night. The girls on our program were no where to be found tonight, so the five guys went solo to walk around town.
Since its Ramadan, all the bars and nightclubs are closed until October (hence the upcoming weekend trip to spain!) so the happening places to go are cafes. The night started out pretty typical with guys talking about guy things. What did this guy think of that girl? Who is the cutest? Where did the parents go wrong with that one? All the typical conversations you could expect guys to have. I’ve been curious about one guy on the program, he’s a pretty staunch republican, foul mouthed, boarder line prejudice/racist, hard guy from Brooklyn. Seeing as this is his mantra, I’ve been really intrigued as to why, for one, he is in Morocco, two: why he is here for a year, and three: why he is studying Arabic? I took initiative tonight (much like I’ve had to do in classes to keep our teachers form just barking vocab at us for 5 hours a day) and asked him why Morocco. Like I thought, it was counter terrorism, but what was so interesting was hearing what events in his life has actually brought him to that point. He grew up in Brooklyn, he said his apartment has a view of ground zero, and before had a great view of the towers. His father had done service, he believes in American and its values, and his grandparents, who fled the Nazi’s, came to the US, lived the American dream, and made life much better for his family. He talked about his distaste for the war in Iraq, and how decent men are dead, and how noble war is gone. We no longer are fighting another Army, but we are fighting men disguised, using women and children as shields, and attacking us when our backs are turned. I definitely didn’t disagree with him in that view, which is interesting given our backgrounds and beliefs, but our difference wasn’t the result of these themes, it was the extent to which we believed in them, and how we thought we should act. Of course we all know that terrorism is real, and that there is a threat, but to him it is our countries greatest threat, and what we need to be doing is counter terrorism work, and to me, I just don’t see the same way. All five of us launched into a conversation (and I emphasized the word conversation) about current happenings in the world. We talked about terrorism, and how to stop it. When do we draw the line with where we put our funding, our troops, our talents. I threw in my two-cents about education and anti-poverty efforts being a huge weapon in the fight for terrorist organizations to be able to recruit. We talked about international aid, The US having to downsize life and subtitles if we ever wanted these problems to end, and to level the playing field. We talked about how simple drug trade on college campuses inevitably fuels crime on some level, and how even buying products whose crude materials come from other countries, also elongates the gap between everyone. We talked for hours, and though we didn’t come to any life-altering conclusions, I think this sort of dialogue and thought, is what will lead this next generation to massive positive change. We talked till around 11:30, then all laughed as we gathered our things to make it home by our host families curfews.
What I really liked about the conversation was the mutual respect of one another. We all gave and took a little bit, and acknowledge truth no matter whose side it came from. For me, the conversation really made me question what I want to do with life. For the last few years I’ve been tiptoeing with the idea of international work, but with the last few years I’ve also had my eyes opened by seeing both the positive and negative effects of international work. In our conversation, we talked about a girl on the program whose goal is to become a teacher, and work with impoverished kids who have been basically forgotten, and give them hope, and a chance at a brighter future. I guess what I’m getting at is where is help, talent, and passion most effective? Which level do these self-less workers need to be at? Is it more useful to be placed domestically, and work in one’s country, in hopes that their will work will inspire others, and lead to unification of nations later? Or should we focus on infra-structure and education abroad, in hopes to curb the problem of radical groups and poverty for this new generation, all the while creating positive sediment and bonds between the involved countries? I definitely don’t have the answer at this time, but my hope is that we do both, and one day both these paths will be able to meet in the middle.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thank god for fire fox! here are all the posts... in one day, hope you enjoy!

Program d’exchange, Rabat, broing out

I began to get a bit nervous as I walked to the hotel, but when I talked to the man at the counter, and he gave me my room key, I felt pretty good. I went up the stairs to my room to find my roommate for the hotel passed out on the bed. I tried to be quiet, but he quickly jumped awake, and we began chatting. His name is Yoseph (actually spelled with a J, but using this spelling for pronunciation), but he goes by Joe, and he is of Eritrean descent. I knew I would like Joe from the start, and both of us hung out, watching the news until our program’s seven o’clock meeting time.
First impressions are always rough, and as the jeg lagged kids struggled to remember names, we all packed in two large vans to eat, before heading to bed. The program is made up of 5 guys and 20 plus girls, and at dinner I sat at a table with Zach, and a few girls from all around the states. Dinner was nice, but to my dismay, the first decent restaurant I ate in, compared to the shacks and hole in the walls I’ve been dining at the past three weeks, actually gave me my first bout with “stomach problems.” It didn’t hit until right before bed, so the entire dinner and our late night walk where very enjoyable.
Thursday was the real start of the orientation, and we stayed in one big group in the hotel until Saturday when we moved in with our host families. Until now, I had been traveling alone, with no agenda, inconspicuously, only revealing I was American through speech. Now, all of Thursday, we walked in a group of nearly thirty, through crowded streets, being gawked at, as we did tours of banks and cell phone stores trying to get each kid ready for the program. It was really stressful for me, and though I tried to enjoy the company, the heat, mixed with the stares and asinine errands was a bit much. But after making it through the morning, Thursday ended up shaping into a pretty nice day, with a visit to the King’s palace, as well as the unfinished Mosque of Mohammed V and his mausoleum.
After a ten o clock dinner, and about 4 or 5 hours of sleep, CIEE planned Friday to be our first day with three-hour Moroccan Arabic courses, followed by a very long-winded, virtually worthless, culture course. The Arabic class was interesting, but having slept for a very short time, mixed with the heat of the classroom, it was very hard to stay attentive. We ate a nice lunch afterwards, and were told we had a 45-minute “discussion,” before we had free time at the hotel. The discussion ended up being a two-hour monologue given be the program’s director, where he asked questions about what we have seen since we have been in Morocco. Seeing as only two kids had seen anything outside the hotel and lunch, and that the culture we were supposed to be discussing was unfolding right outside our window, I felt pretty frustrated. Everyone was tired and hot, but before the end of the discussion, we were told to formulate questions, that we would not revisit after seeing some of Morocco. After this, Professor Zaki asked the class for honest feedback about the lecture and if it was worth the time. I raised my hand, and told him in all honesty, that if we had no intentions of revisiting the questions, and only two kids had seen anything outside of the school and the hotel, that we probably could have spent our time in another way. There was a silence, and a load of agreeing eyes shot towards mine. Professor Zaki thanked me for my honesty, and after a few more moments of silence, a brave soul took the responsibility of feeding his ego, and talking about how interesting the lecture was. Maybe it was the heat talking, but I felt that if he asked for honesty, that moment was a good time to be truthful.
That night we had a lovely dinner in a traditional Moroccan home, which consisted of an open-air courtyard living room, four or more floors, beautiful tiles lining the walls, and chandlers hanging from the second and third floor walk ways. The main floor is the only floor with a living room, and all the other floors are basically a square walkway the looks down on the first floor. Since it was Friday, which is a holy day in Islam, we ate cous cous. The dinner was long, with four courses, and tea and cookies for an aperitif. There was live music, and many guests where dispearsed through out the four tables of students. I was lucky enough to sit next to Michael, a man who worked for the US embassy, who gave me a lot of good incite into how to get a job with the foreign services, the job the duties, and positive Moroccan rappers. All together, the dinner more then made up for the arduous day, and that night I slept well, dreaming of meeting my host family.
When the day arrived, and I traveled to the Anncienne Medina to meet them, I wasn’t disappointed. I’m staying with a family of five, 2 daughters, one sun, on the first floor of a four floor traditional house. We have internet and two TV’s, a toilet (with no running water), and a shower. I feel like I really lucked out, and even though my French is pretty shotty, my family has been very nice.
Our place, and the medina, is a five-minute walk away from the beach, so I spent the weekend lounging, as well as buying a bike for the commute to school.
The fun has just begun in Rabat, and with talks of the upcoming trips, I can just hope to do them justice on this page. Sorry for the delay, but in the end, I think it will be worth it!

Boot camp

I don’t know what studying abroad looks like to other kids, but I can’t remember a time where I’ve ever had a three-hour class, especially one that has an hour break followed by another two-hour class. Monday was our first full day of lessons, and between the nine o’clock start, and the verbal assault of Dearisha (Moroccan Arabic, sorry for the horrendous spelling) my day seemed a lot less like school, and a lot more like basic training. My professor’s name is Ben, and although he is nice, he speaks very fast, and believes that after hearing a word once, and not seeing it, we should have it completely memorized. I’ve always heard that college takes all the language you learn in one year of high school, and squeezes it into one semester, but on Ben’s plan, I should be toping Morocco’s bestseller’s list with a novel near thanksgiving.
The hour break was welcoming, and for 25Dhs, I got a cheeseburger with an egg on it, as well as fries and rice. Though it was delicious, class in a hot room, on a full stomach is not a good recipe for learning. The afternoon class was brutal, and as our new professor Norah expected us to read assignments in Arabic, I felt a little unprepared, along with the rest of the class. 4 o’ clock is a glorious hour here, and I think everyday at this time I’ll feel as if I just finished a triathlon.
What made school fun today was definitely the bike ride there. I live a few kilometers away from the school, and am currently the first student out here to buy a bike, so instead of sharing a cab, Zach and I decided we could both ride the burgundy behemoth to school. Though she is a looker, the twenty year old, rusted, not level bike is not fit for two people, and after a near death experience riding down a small hill in traffic, we decided to suck up our pride and call the program director, Media, to pick us up. But as I’ll quickly find out, the best way to be ready for school, as well as have some cheap fun, is to buy a bike in a city with no traffic laws, and ride to school.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on the beach playing paddleball and swimming. I’ve never lived near the cost, but I could really get used to running each morning on seaside cliffs, and taking a dip after school.

Ramadan started today, and I decided to participate, at least for one day. Right now its 6:17, and I actually don’t feel terrible, but I’m pretty sure I maybe learned about half a phrase in five hours of class today, so I don’t know if this habit will continue. We woke up a little before four this morning to eat breakfast that is supposed to last your stomach until 7:30 at night. To my dismay, it was all bread, and knowing how long carbs actually last, I figured today would be pretty awful. The routine is to wake up early, eat, fall back asleep, then wake up late for the day, take a long nap, binge eat from around 8 at night until midnight, wake up around four again, and do it all over.
Today in class my brain refused to function. I heard every phrase over and over, but I couldn’t retain a single word. Though I was there in body, my brain definitely was in another place, and after five hours of wasting my professors’ time, I figure that if I want to get anything out of this program, I should probably eat and sleep. Besides fasting, Muslims are not allowed to smoke, have contact with the opposite sex, or swim. I think I can do the fast, and since I don’t smoke and my girlfriend is half a world away, those two steps should be easy, but living by the beach for the first time in my life and not taking advantage of it seems like it’s a bit of a waste for me. So, if I’m gonna fail one, I might as well fail them all (or at least the two that pertain to me).
Ramadan was fun for a day, but I don’t think I have what it takes to be Muslim. I really do have a lot of respect for the religion, and especially for those Moroccans and Arabs who fast while continue to train for sport.

Cascade D'Ozued

Eleven am comes a lot earlier when your going to bed at four, and as my alarm rang, I didn’t have the same skip in my step as usual. But today was the waterfall day, and my hopes where high.
The bus was prompt, and I barely made it on before its doors shut, and we were on our way. In an unconscious stupor last night, I laid on my iPod, and wasted the majority of the battery, so I didn’t know how long it would last during the ride. Even so, I put my headphones on and laid my head into the chair, and starred out the window at the scenery.
For me, there’s something truly majestic about bus rides in foreign countries. I watched the old stone buildings and small groups of people quickly appear and disappear, as brownish-red sand filled the horizon. I sat very humbled, thinking about my size relative to the untouched land that past by out the window. As more miles passed, and I continued to contemplate life, I had a crystallizing moment where all the pieces of the world seemed to be in place. Maybe it was the mix of the music playing while seeing the world pass by that brought it. I had to fight back tears in this moment when I began to think about the beauty of life, and how great it has been in the past few months.
My mind stayed in the moment for as long as possible, but as soon as it started to drift from the present, the moment was gone. The high began to fade, and while my mind balanced itself out, the euphoric thoughts weren’t as easy to grasp. But I knew that they existed, and that small glimpse was enough for me to strive for that happiness each day.
The bus stopped at a fork in the road with two signs. One said Ozued, and one said Azilal. I saw a few westerners hop off the bus, and I figured that this was my stop. I grabbed my luggage, and followed the group across the street to a stop. It turns out, two were from Italy and the one with the British accent was actually from Holland. His name was Dowa, and he was the true definition of bilingual. He was traveling alone, and had just met the Italians. The four of us, as well as three Moroccans, haggled with the taxi drivers for a ride to the waterfall. Altogether, we fit 9 people in the small sedan, and for seven dirhams apiece, made it to the waterfall.
We were dropped off at the mouth of the river, where we found the campground guide, who kindly showed us how to get to the falls. I followed the river blindly, not knowing what to expect all the way to the fall, until I stopped dead in my tracks. What I saw was amazing. The fall itself was about 90 feel tall, and dropped down two cliffs, before reaching a pool, which lead to a smaller river, with smaller cliffs and pools, that continued as far as the eyes could see. At the base of the waterfall was about a thousand vacationing Moroccans, swimming and jumping of cliffs, as loud and fast as all the Moroccans I’ve met. The valley was amazing, with lush greenery, complemented by sparse rocks, and brown sand. There where small primates running around, dubbed Ozued apes, as well as donkeys and stray cats. We followed the guide away from the edge of the cliff (after snapping a ton of pictures) and he led us down the mountain trail to the water where our campsite lay.
The place was called Camping Panard, and for 20 dirhams a night, one could stay on the covered terrace on a mattress. The group of us decided this was the best option, and found a few mattresses. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings. The place was a maze, with paths leading you in any direction, and pools and mini waterfalls for miles. At the bottom of the main fall was a massive pool totally packed with Moroccans, as well as huge makeshift boats for tours, restaurants and vendors. What I’ve always loved about waterfalls in Africa is the fact there are no rules, so as high as you can climb and as close as you can get to the waterfall is up to you. Dowa and I walked up the steps half the height of the waterfall, then climbed until it got a little to steep and slippery (though most people climbed till the could bath in the falling water). We talked about the usual things, until he began to explain some laws in the Nederland, which blew my mind. It was amazing to hear more about the laws then just the obvious fact of legal weed.
When the night fell, we ate in our campsite, and watched the staff play drums and smoke hash. Apparently this is the nightly ritual. Though the camp was quite dirty, especially the bathrooms, at night everything was candlelight, and gave it this pseudo-romantic sense. Even squatting to go number two in a hole seems more pleasant when a candle illuminates the bathroom. I followed the twinkling path, brushed my teeth, then took in the incredible night sky. The stars were in abundance and the night was clear, just like a winter night at the cabin.
All my friends left the following morning, so for the price of one old pair of nikes, I took a two hour-long hike to caves and good cliff jumping. My guide was my age, and considered himself Berber not Moroccan (which has an interesting historical background for those interested.) As we walked, he pointed out random sights, and across the river we saw a few monkeys running through the trees. After about an hour of hiking, we reached our destination, and even this far from all the camp sights, there was still one little old lady selling soda. To get to the caves we had to cross the river on a pretty rickety bridge. I wish I would have taken a picture, but basically it was to logs held together by some rope, with sand bags used as footholds. The caves engulfed the river, where the water dropped into a dark crevasse, and out the other side. We found one above the river, where no water ran through, but you had to scale a bit of a mountain to get in. It was pretty exciting, and after we took pictures, we ended up climbing to the top of the rock structure to return to the river. On top of the cave I took a few pictures. It was an incredible sight to see how far the valley stretched, and I thought about how this would be a very fun destination for a few days of hiking and backpacking. There were less people down this end, but even the pool under the cave was still pretty full and wild.
On the way back, I decided that swimming was worth the possibility of stomach problems the Chnucks warned me about, and I found a nice cliff to jump off of. It was about twenty-five feet high, and after checking the depth, I climbed to the top to meet the Moroccans sitting near its edge. They spoke French, and bragged about jumping off it, but this pride seemed to disappear as I looked at them from the water below, soaking and pumped up, asking when they were going to meet me in the water. All declined my offer, and looked a little surprised I jumped in without haste.
I retuned to camp with my guide, where I rested for awhile, then played soccer with a six-year-old resident. I figured we were at about the right skill level, so this would be fun. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming near the bottom of the falls, until night when I met a few Britts and French kids. We decided to go for a night swim as the sun was setting, near a cliff I had yet to jump off. It was a little over twenty feet I would say, but it had a prime runway for flips. This afternoon I was scared to flip off a ten or so foot cliff by myself, but immediately, with some male encouragement, I found the courage to flip of a cliff more then twice the size. Its funny how the male brain works.
I dine that evening with the French kids. There were four of them, Edmound, Nicole, Samuel, and Tiphanie. Edmound was the one I talked to the most, and he offered me a ride the next morning back to Marrakech in the car. I nearly turned the offer down because they were leaving at eight, but figured a free ride in a big Euro van at 8, seemed more appealing then a squished taxi for one hundred dirham at four. Nicole was quiet (and a guy for the record) and Samuel, even with the language barrier, proved to be the group sleaze. In only a few minutes, I found out that saying a little bit in English, referred to a small penis in French. I feel like that’s something our teachers should warn us about!
The van the next morning, was a typical, top heavy, white Euro van. Instead of having three rows of seats, it had the front seats, and then an emptied out back with only a love seat bungeed down so it didn’t fly out the open side door. We listened to French reggae on the way back, and for a four-hour drive, we switched places three times. When it was my turn in the back, I passed out, only to wake up to a few silly photos. When I sat in the back with Edmound, he explained how him and Tiphanie used to date, but broke up because he moved to college in a different city. Now her and Samuel are dating, Edmound’s best friend, and he is going to be gone for 10 months, and they are going to stay together. Edmound had a girlfriend, and talked about being faithful, but it was obvious in his eyes that he still cared for Tiphanie, and as I thought back on the awkward PDA moments between the couple, I almost cringed for Edmound’s sake. What crazy things love can do.
We arrived in Marrakech, and after a long lunch and market stroll, we all parted ways, but not before exchanging names to find one another on facebook. I spent the rest of the blistering hot day hiding out from the sun in my hostel speaking with a few guys from the UK. Its funny because even though I speak French at a six-year olds level, this conversation made me think I understood more of the conversations with Edmound then what was coming out of these guys mouths. Maybe it was the accent, or the weird word choice, but as the conversation went on, I became more of a spectator then a participant. There really is a huge difference between the English language, and the American Language.
Another night on a terrace, and another rude awakening by the sun.
After taking four buses, countless taxi’s, walking, and one massive Eurovan, I decided I would take the train to Rabat. My ticket was printed for five o’clock, but as I showed the guard the stub at 12:45, he seemed to be fine with letting me catching the 1 o’clock train. I sat in a compartment with one other man….at first. We both had our feet up and were speaking the little bit of French we both knew, when another person came in. My new friend’s feet hit the floor, but mine were still up…until another person walked in…then another. Before I knew it, there were four people on each bench, and the slightly air-conditioned, spacious, cool train car had turned into a stuffy, hot furnace.
The ride lasted for four hours, and to keep myself occupied I read, failed at napping, walked the aisles, and wrote. I spoke a little more French with some rando’s, but everyone else on the train seemed to be pretty entertained by their music…my ipod died a week ago.
As we began to approach Rabat, I remembered receiving an email from CIEE saying which train stop to get off at. There are two in Rabat, and one is next to the train station, and one is not. I asked my friend in the car, and he said Rabat-ville is where I want to go, so as we passed Rabat-Agdal, him, a nice stranger, and myself grabbed my three bags. The train stopped, and I talked to both, and we realized that we had got off at the wrong stop. My friend felt bad, and decided he would hop in the taxi with me, and as we pulled to my hotel, he quickly reached in his wallet, before I could in mine, and paid the driver. I tried to give him the money, but he wouldn’t let me, shook my hand, and went on his way.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

technical difficulties

So I have some lovely posts for you guys, but for some reason the simple copy/past feature isn't working on blogspot, so it will be here soon!

Rabat is lovely, i live about 5 minutes away from the beach, and everyday is spent between class, bocce on the beach, and hanging out with my host family. I could get used to this! So stay tuned it should be up soon!