Saturday, April 19, 2014

Birta, ISJ, and So Many Feels

Hello friends, I'm sorry that this update is so long overdue.

As you can imagine, so much has happened since I last made a post here. In fact, going back and looking at my old posts seems quite surreal, as Morocco is so different for me now. Since moving out of my host family's house, I've been having a completely different experience. It's not better or worse, just different, and I feel like I was another person writing those old posts.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I left off in my last post saying that I was getting ready to leave for my village stay, so I'll start there.

A long time ago, there once was an old woman who gave birth to seven children at once. Unfortunately, the babies were not in good health. All seven of them died soon after they were born. Their mother, overcome with grief, held seven burials, with each baby buried in a different place. This is how Sbaa Rouadi ("Seven Cemeteries") began.

I know it's not the happiest of myths, but hey, that's how it apparently got its name. Anyway, the Sbaa Rouadi commune (located in a rural area just outside of Fez) consists of seven villages. One of them is Birta, where my MOJ classmates and I stayed for a week way back in March (how time flies!).

So Birta is part of this commune--a commune is a territorial public with its own legal personality and financial autonomy. Basically, the residents of Birta rely on themselves to sustain their livelihood. Everything is shared among the village, and every person pitches in somehow. Pretty cool, right?

We were welcomed into this small village immediately. All of our host families put us to work in the fields, the kitchens, and the school center, and had us tending to animals. You can't get a more immersive experience than this!

(The center, by the way, is called the Association of Development and Solidarity, and was founded by 5 village women in 2008. The main founder, Sebah, had realized the lack of public spaces for women in this traditional village, and she wanted to create a comfortable place where women could develop their own self-sustaining practices and skills. Basically, she's a hero and a role model to women everywhere.)

My fellow classmate, Susan, and I spent the week living with an AMAZING host family. We had five sisters. Three of them--Faiza, Amina, and Sumia--are around our age, and then we had two adorable little sisters, 9-year-old Wiam and 5-year-old Zenib. Our father, Abderrahim (who we called Baba), is a sweet and soft-spoken man with a smile as big as his heart. Mama Khadija has a beautiful smile and a comforting sense of tranquility about her that made me happy just to be in her presence.

I can't even begin to describe how amazing this week was, and how much it changed my life. Although we could hardly communicate with each other through words, I felt immediately accepted as a member of the family. Whether it was playing jump-rope with Wiam and the village kids, herding sheep (which I actually became quite good at!), cooking in the kitchen or weeding out the fields, I felt as though my contribution mattered and more importantly, I felt loved. Both Amina and Mama Khadija cried the day we left, and Sumia walked us to the end of the road and gave us huge hugs before we met with our group. I so badly wanted to go back and visit them again during ISJ. Then again, there were a lot of things I wanted to do and thought I'd have the time for during ISJ...(we'll get to that in a moment.)

Wiam loves to sing and dance, and is overall a beautiful soul. 

I think we spoiled Zenib a bit--she constantly wanted to be carried everywhere, but I didn't mind. How could anyone resist that face?!

Amina and Susan in the back of our mule cart (the "car") on our way to the fields.

Baba has a great smile, but he was a bit shy here. One of our funniest moments was when I told him (in VERY broken Arabic) that the olive oil in Birta tastes much better than the stuff we have in the US, after he was noticing how much of it I ate. He thought it was hilarious and repeated the story to everyone else when they came to sit at the table, and we all had a good laugh. The next morning at breakfast, they gave me my own plate of olive oil!

Our family taught us a game that's sort of a harder (but more fun) version of tic-tac-toe. We stayed up late every night playing because we got completely addicted. Baba loved it whenever we won--definitely not a sore loser!

One of my favorite neighborhood kids, Simohammed. He followed us everywhere! Some of his favorite shenanigans involved jumping onto the back of our mule cart, tree-climbing, calling out to me in animal noises, and playing with my camera (thanks for all of the blurry photos of the ground, Simo...).

I met Houda on my first day in the village and instantly fell in love with that smiling face. I spent some time playing with her and taking pictures, but I didn't want to be out for too long on my first day with my host family so I left shortly after. A few days later I saw her on the playground and she came running straight toward me and gave me a big hug and kissed my face. She was attached to me for the rest of the day!

Amina (L) and Sumia received their certificates from the center the week we were there. They are both embroidery professionals and their work is incredible! 

From left: Myself, Faiza, Sumia, Susan, Mama Khadija and Wiam in front. This was after a long round of picture-taking...we gave up on trying to get Zenib to sit still!

Sumia was the one to pick us up on our first day and drop us off on our last day. My Birta village sisters are beautiful and incredible young women, and I will never forget them!

So that was Birta, although I could go on forever. Anyway, after we got back we had a few more weeks of school and living with our host families. We also had the Northern Excursion, which was just an overnight trip to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, pretty much only because we needed to get our passports stamped again so that they wouldn't expire for the rest of our time here. It was a great mini-vacation, and I was glad to be able to dip my toes in the Mediterranean--definitely the most beautiful water I've ever seen. Ceuta was gorgeous, and everyone is pretty mad at me for forgetting my camera on that trip, but it was pretty freeing to just take everything in without being bogged down. I guess that means y'all have to come with me next time! ;)

Shortly after that excursion, it was time to pack our bags and say goodbye to our host families. It was time for the final stretch: ISJ. It stands for Independent Study in Journalism, and it's what this whole semester has been leading up to and preparing us for. During ISJ period, we have 5 weeks to pursue a story of our choice, traveling anywhere our research leads. I'm working with my classmate and good friend Rachel on a story about illegitimate children. She's a photojournalist and I'm writing, and we've been spending the past few weeks going back and forth between Rabat and Casablanca gathering information from NGOs and trying to find a single mother with undocumented children who would be willing to speak with us and let us spend time with her and her kids to take photos. As it's a very taboo subject here, it's taken a lot to find women to open up, and we've run into countless roadblocks along the way. However, Rachel and I are very stubborn people, and although we've thought about giving up in search of another story, we found that we were far too committed to this already. Things began looking up a bit yesterday, so here's to hoping our instincts were right and our hard work doesn't go to waste!

Even though ISJ has been super frustrating, a incredibly heavy and emotional at times due to the content of our strory, it's been an amazing experience so far. Since we don't have school during ISJ, we're really living the life of freelance journalists. It's not a school assignment, it's the real world, and the potential this project has for publication is not only a stressor but a motivator as well.

I've also never felt more like an adult or more independent in my life. It's pretty cool that the first apartment I've ever rented is in Rabat. I'm living on my own (well, with roommates, but you know) in AFRICA. If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere! It's a little weird living outside of the medina, but it's nice to get to know a new area of Rabat (it's easy to forget how huge it is when you live in the medina, which really isn't that big). I also miss my host family, but since I'm still living in the same city (I'm not a Casablanca fan and it's easy enough to commute) I can still visit them when I'm free. I went home for lunch yesterday and they were so happy to see me--it was a wonderful reunion!

Of course there have been slip-ups, but I'm alive and well and learning every single day. I'm pretty proud of how far Rachel and I have gotten with our project, and that I've been able to handle budgeting my stipend and balancing work with fun (even though sometimes it feels like too much work--I just realized I've spent most of my Saturday in front of a computer...what are weekends?).

Sometimes I wonder where I'd be if I had chosen to go to South Africa or London, the other top options I was looking into for studying abroad. I can't really imagine it. In moments when I'm incredibly stressed out or wishing that I could just go to Spain (my program doesn't allow us to leave the country while we're in session) I often think of my friends who have a lot of time off and are able to travel and experience other places and I get a bit jealous. But then I think of the type of experience I'm getting here, and I realize I can't really compare. This is a journalism experience first, and a study abroad experience second. And I'm honestly so grateful for that. Even if I don't end up as a journalist one day, it's something I can check off my list of Cool Things I've Done (along with dance atop a camel in the middle of the Merzouga desert).

Yes, that actually was a thing that happened. Photo by Elise Campbell.

A week or two ago, I was walking through the medina with my host brother when we ran into a group of American students he had met earlier that month, because his cousins were hosting them. They were also SIT students, but they were in a program that had started them in Vietnam and brought them to several other countries before ending somewhere in South America, I think Bolivia. They only had a few weeks in Morocco, and they were really excited to meet me and hear some of my stories. They said that even though they were glad they got to see so many different places, they were pretty sad that they didn't get to "know" any one place in particular very well. My conversation with them once more made me grateful, and I realized I definitely chose the right program for me. Thinking back over these past few months, I can't even imagine going somewhere and not getting to know my host family (families, after Birta!) the way that I did, or not having the time to befriend the locals. From the people I hang out with on a regular basis who consider me one of their best friends to the man at my favorite snack shop in the medina who gets excited for me whenever I use a new word in Arabic, I feel that I've made deep connections here. I've found a second home in Morocco and I couldn't be any happier.

Which means I've also gotten very attached to this place and these people, and I'm dreading the day I have to leave them. Today while Rachel and I were furiously typing emails and trying to figure out our next steps, I was complaining about the stress (forgive me, I hadn't had any coffee yet). She simply looked at me and said, "we're going to miss this in three weeks." I felt like something hit me then. What am I going to do when I have to say goodbye?

The only thing I can do for now is enjoy the time I have left. I've made some amazing memories and I have three more weeks to make as many more of them as possible. And, hopefully ("inshallah," as we say here), it's not really goodbye, but more of a 'til next time kind of thing.

I'm off to go binge on snacks from my favorite non-medina snack man and make a game plan for tomorrow's journalism shenanigans. Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. To my family--Christos Vos Kres! As much as I love the food here, you can bet I'll be missing the paska and the nutbread tomorrow.

Shine on,


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Excursion #1

Sorry to keep you all waiting on this one--I know I talked up the excursion so much that I left you quivering in anticipation (...right? no?).

It's incredibly difficult to sum up this one week in a single post, just as it's becoming increasingly frustrating to try to explain the entire experience I'm having here to people who aren't with me (is it strange that the one thing I'm worried about going home is that I'm going to have to talk about it?).

Anyway, I don't have the time to write you a novel and you don't have the time to read one, so just know that this excursion was by far the craziest week of my life. It's absolutely surreal to leave a rainy, chilly city one day and be in the middle of a green forest the next--and then to drive through snow-capped mountains, only to end up in the desert a day later. It was equally exhausting and rejuvenating, as inspiring as it was defeating at times. I think every single person on the trip experienced every human emotion at some point, and due to our limited time in each city, we went from long rides to immediately get off the bus and see as much as you can. Which inevitably wares you out. Even still, I had the best time and I'm so grateful to have seen more of Morocco.

Our first stop was Fez. Here's the whole MOJ crew in front of the royal palace.

The walled-in area is the medina, the oldest part of the city. Fez's medina is massive--and I thought Rabat's was complicated!

The narrowest streets in Morocco can be found in the Fez medina.

The famous age-old tanneries where leather is dyed.

The madrasa (Islamic school) in Fez with incredible ancient architecture.

Our guide informed us that the niche in the wall is very important, as it indicates the direction of Mecca so that students knew where to turn for prayer.

We visited a weaver--the fabrics and colors were gorgeous!

We stopped in the cedar forest on our way to Azrou. It reminded me of Vermont a little!

Our land rovers raced on the way to our destination in the Merzouga Desert.


I named mine "Habibati" (the female form of "my darling/my love" in Arabic. I think it was a she...)

PS I bought this awesome coat from a guy named Youssef before I left Rabat. I told him I was going to the desert and he was glad I was buying one since it gets so cold at night. He told me to bring back pictures so I did and now we're good friends!

We took turns rolling down the dunes...looks like Badrdine didn't want to get back up!

Our campsite in Merzouga

The Todgha gorge outside of Tinghir. It was GORGE-ous!

Of course, the food was awesome too. This is one of many forms of chicken tagine.

The Glaoui Kasbah in Ouerzazate

While traveling through the Atlas Mountains we often had to stop for herds of goats!

The Majorelle gardens in Marrakech

The largest palace in Marrakech

We stopped at a women's co-op that produces argan oil and other argan products. It is SUCH hard work!

Our last stop was Essaouira. We ended up staying an extra day because nobody wanted to leave this beautiful city (known as a favorite spot of Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix and various other celebrities).

If any of you have been following me on Facebook you'll know that I've been documenting the cats I run into!

My friend Ahmed taught me about Tuareg culture. If I ever return to Essaouira I'll have to visit him!

The square before the medina in Essaouira

So that's a glimpse of my first excursion. I could go into a lot more detail but I'm already half an hour past closing time at school. The crazy thing is that Excursion #2 is already coming up--we leave on Sunday for our rural village stay. When we get back it's only one more week of classes, then Excursion 3, then (gasp!) ISJ time. NOT READY.

But I will be...more on that soon!

Laila saida,


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gal-entine's Day at the Hammam

Yes, Valentine's Day is a thing in Morocco. As a newly pieced together group that has already professed love for each other, we figured there's only one way to celebrate V-Day in Morocco: MOJ style, specifically the girls (sorry dudes). What better way to get out with the girls than go to the hammam, AM I RIGHT?!

(PS--a hammam is a public bath.)

I'm going to admit it, I was super nervous. I made sure my friends would meet me out in front of the hammam so that I didn't have to go in alone, and before we went in I was a little freaked out. There I was, walking down the street with a towel and a bucket, thinking everyone walking past me knows what I'm going to do. It's not a big deal for people here, but since cleaning yourself is such a private thing in America, I felt awkward and way too public about it.

However, once I got inside and got past the initial stage fright, I realized that it was very relaxing. I thought I'd be more...intimidated?...being surrounded by a bunch of half naked women, and feel way too vulnerable. But everyone keeps to themselves or to their own group, so it's not awkward at all. And it makes sense...if you go with a group, you have someone to scrub your back for you!

So there's a small fee to get into the hammam, and then you go inside and undress. Then you enter another room where the actual bath is, but it's divided into three parts. You hang your towel in the first room, and the last room on the end (which you actually start in) is like a sauna. Very hot! The middle room is where most people stay longest and do their washing, and there are a bunch of faucets lined along the wall where you can fill your bucket. You bring a special type of soap that's either henna or argan based, and a scrubber glove that's just the right amount of rough to get the dead skin off (gross, I know, but you wouldn't believe the amount that comes off of you). I came out of the hammam glowing!

So, that's it, Friday is hammam day with my gals. Do something that makes you feel uncomfortable at first. You never know if you'll like something until you try.

(In case you were wondering, my friends and I feel much closer now.)

Just a quick note--I am traveling this week. Yay, excursion #1! I will be going to Fes, Marrakech, south toward the desert where I'll be riding a camel (!), and Essauoria, with some stops in between. We will be gone for a week. I'm bringing my laptop for when we're in hotels, but I don't know if I'll have time to blog. I'll certainly update when I get back though!



Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Doha Makes Couscous

On Friday we got out of language class early for cooking class! It was pretty fun, because we learned how to make couscous but the entire cooking class was in Arabic. I picked up some new vocabulary while learning to make a Moroccan delicacy!

Fridays are for couscous--every week, we get out of school early so that we can enjoy lunch with our families. The most popular type is "7-vegetable couscous" which is what most of our families make for us. For this lesson though, Doha, our homestay coordinator, made a sweet-and-salty version with caramelized onions and golden raisins (YUM!).

(By the way, yes I did make couscous at school, eat it, and then go home and eat more couscous. You can never eat enough here.)

Couscous here is not like in the States, where you can open a box and spend five minutes boiling it and bam, couscous. It's steamed here, and takes at least an hour to cook. It's a meal that takes a lot of time, so families eat it on Fridays when everyone is home due to it being a holy day.

Doha informed us that her mother is much better at making couscous, but we enjoyed it nonetheless!
My classmates smelling the spices.
The mixture had onions, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and tons of other delicious flavors!

Hungry? I don't blame you. It was ladeed--delicious!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"In this house, everyone is family."

Salaamu Alaikoum!

Wa alaikoum salaam!



I understand it's been forever since I updated you all--sorry! Between not having the best WiFi, dealing with a packed schedule, and trying to explore a new country, I haven't had much time to get my thoughts on paper (or screen). But I sure have had a lot of them! And it can be difficult communicating thoughts when you're surrounded by very limited amounts of English and massive amounts of languages you wish you knew (or thought you knew--Spanish!) but don't. So it's nice to have a blog for that.

Wow, where should I even begin?

First things first, you'll notice there's been a bit of a makeover. I figured, I'm not at SMC anymore so I should go for more of a Moroccan vibe. On our first day here, I was so inspired by something Badrdine said that I wrote it down: "The more confused you are, the more you understand's a mosaic; it's not a melting pot."

(Don't you just love Badrdine? So wise!)

That's where the new title came in. This is My Mosaic, a document of what Morocco is starting to mean to me. I'm also very confused (in a good way), so I think this works. The photo is looking down from the second floor of my school, the CCCL. It's a very old building and that mosaic on the floor is the original.

The last time I wrote on here I was about to meet my host family...I was so nervous. Terrified, even. But as soon as they called my name and my sister walked up to me and kissed my face, I knew I'd be okay. I'm glad Azizah was the one to pick me up, though it was a surprise because the info sheet I was given said I only had a mother and four brothers (wow). However, I quickly learned that Azizah is married to one of the brothers (who actually left for California the morning I moved in so we never met) and another one moved with his wife to Australia. That leaves two brothers, Abdelilah and Mostapha, who are the kindest/funniest/most caring people I've probably ever met. Abdelilah is also moving to California (emigration is actually a pretty big issue for Morocco) at the end of this week, so we're all excited for him but quite sad to see him leave.

My mama, Rahma, has been a joy for me since the second we met. I was sitting on the couch in my room (it's a living room type of area with my bedroom curtained off) when she came running through the doors with open arms smiling and saying "Lauren, Lauren!" She grabbed my face for a double-kiss and immediately began feeding me, and she hasn't stopped since. She's an incredible cook and it's hard to turn down food...not just because it's so delicious, but also because it's her mission to make me "fat," according to my brothers. (SIT warned us this would happen--when you finish your food, your family yells "kuli, kuli!" and motions for you to keep eating by pushing bread into your hands). We do not speak the same language, but I find it surprisingly easy to communicate with her through hand gestures. She speaks to me anyway, as if I know what she's saying, and I just smile and she pats my back and that's enough for the both of us. Actually, one of my favorite times of day is right before I leave for school in the morning when I join her for breakfast. We're the only two awake at that time, and I always walk into the kitchen area (which is also a living room/bedroom where my brothers sleep) to find her sitting on the couch waiting for me with bread, cheese, olive oil and a pot of hot coffee. She pats the seat next to her on the couch to motion for me to sit, and I've found that she likes to pour the coffee and make everything for me so I let her do it and say "shoukran" (thank you). We eat together in the quiet and then I say thank you again and get on my way to school.

(By the way, for those of you who know me, you'll be surprised to know that I actually LOVE the coffee here. My mama makes it well because it's mostly warm milk with a little bit of coffee and sugar--Moroccans love their sugar!)

I realized I made the description of the house sound small, so let me clarify: this house is HUGE. When you walk in there's an open square with no roof (a typical architectural style for houses in the medina) and then you can go inside to the rooms that branch off of it. My room is straight ahead, with Azizah's room behind it. The kitchen area is next to it, and the bathroom next to that, but they're not attached so you walk through the open square to get to them (at some point I'll get pictures up here). The bathroom has both a western and a Turkish toilet, but to shower I just use the faucet in the wall with a big bucket (the hammam is still very popular in Morocco, so I'm hoping to try it sometime). The kitchen/living room is a long room with a big couch going along the wall, long enough for two or three people to line up on it to sleep. This is very common in Moroccan homes, and even my bed is more of a small couch.

I haven't seen much of the rest of the house because the whole extended family lives here and each family has their own space. I wait until I'm invited inside, which usually happens with the kids (playtime is a universal language). I did go up to the roof with Mostapha the other day, and it's awesome up there. You can see pretty much the whole medina and I was able to pick out my school (it's the tallest building inside the medina). It's a great reading spot for warm days!

But anyway, the kids! They're great. There's Azizah's daughter, Mellek (meaning "Angel"), who is about a year old. She's a very happy baby and she loves to walk, even though she's not awesome at it quite yet. There's Sivdeen, Bediaa's son, who I guess would be my cousin? He's an adorable little troublemaker who was very shy with me at first. He'd burst into a room yelling something, and when he'd realize I was there, he'd hide behind someone and timidly say "salaam" and then run away. However, it's a good thing I thought to bring toys, because I gave him a slinky and we've been buddies ever since. Sivdeen has (at least) two toddler-aged siblings whose names I can't remember, and there are at least three little girls around here somewhere too. Then there's Oussama, who is a 14-year-old English/Arabic speaking computer whiz and is just as awesome as I made him sound. He was with Azizah when she came to pick me up (he pulled my heavy suitcase all the way through the maze of the medina for me!), and he's been by my side ever since. Although he's technically a cousin (or...nephew?) he calls me sister and I call him brother. He is my resident Fus'ha (Arabic) tutor, and in exchange for his patience and linguistic expertise he gets to play around on my laptop when I'm done with my homework. It's a win-win for both of us.

I have so many great stories about my host family already. As soon as I got here, Azizah showed me my room and helped me get settled in. Then, she took me by the shoulders, looked directly into my eyes and said, "Lauren, everyone in this house is family. YOU are family." I am so grateful that this family was so quick to welcome me into their home and (quite literally) give me all they have to give. I feel like I don't deserve to be treated so lovingly without them even knowing me at first, but now I truly feel like they are my family, just like how I felt the same way about Saint Mike's after a few weeks.

On my first night in my new home, my brothers took me for a walk through the medina and the casbah (a beautiful ancient fortress right on the beach, about a minute's walk and one scary street-crossing away from the medina). In the casbah, they stopped so I could get a henna painted on my hand, and then they bought me cotton candy out near the beach. On the way back home we stopped for soup (I don't even know what it's called but you can find it everywhere and it has chickpeas in it and it's SO good) AND they bought sweets. Then I had to go home and eat dinner! I have to admit though, going for a walk with my brothers is one of my favorite things. We always end up having an adventure, whether it was the day we ventured in a tiny rowboat over to Sale or the time they were teaching me how to get to school from the house and they let me take the lead (I got lost, obviously...but I've got it now!).

Basically, I could not ask for a better family. I'm lucky, too--everyone in my group gets along with their families okay, but it seems only very few of us have formed great relationships while everyone else is more or less left alone.

OH! And my brothers even helped me with my first reporting assignment! I had to write a food story, so I decided to go talk to some food vendors in the medina and eventually chose to write about the snail soup guy. Abdelilah would not stop talking about how good the snails are one day, and it piqued my interest. I asked them to go with me so that they could translate during the interview, and they agreed. I bought us a round of snails, and I thought I would just try one, but the vendor wouldn't quite go for that (neither would my brothers). So, I ate a whole darn bowl of them. To tell you the truth, they weren't bad! I'm definitely glad I had the experience--and even more glad that I feel fine 24 hours later so they didn't make me sick (I was already sick this weekend--I knew it was going to happen, and I'm kind of happy to have gotten it over with sooner rather than later).

My brothers are so cool, they even helped some of my friends with their assignments too. One was having trouble even finding a vendor who would agree to an interview, but since Abdelilah and Mostapha know pretty much everyone (it seems), they got her a good last-minute chat with a fig/date seller.

I could go on forever about how great everyone is, but instead I'll leave you with some pictures of snails. Just think about me eating them. Mmm mmm. Hungry?

People just gather around the cart and the vendor puts a steaming bowl in front of you. You pick up a shell and pull the snail out with a toothpick, simultaneously separating it from the stomach contents. Not very took me a few tries and my bros had a good laugh! 

Snails are very good for you, full of protein and a popular winter snack in Morocco. You can also drink the broth, which is pumped with flavorful spices!