It's been a while since I've been regular on this blog. I anticipated on posting the week before we embarked on our Sahara trip, but we arrived back in Rabat just in time for "grind time," the final week of the NSLI-Y program. I took a two-hour final exam on the Arabic I learned while here, and I wrote a presentation, in Arabic, about the origins of the Happy Birthday song. But at this very moment, I'm sitting in my room for the final time. My green comforter, differently-shaped leaves printed all over it, is laying on the floor beside my yellow and magenta quilt, patterned similarly. I'm sitting only on my twin-sized bed, covered with a bright pink fitted sheet. No longer does my radiant purple Samsonite suitcase sit below the hand-crafted wooden desk that occupies much of my room. Rather, it's sitting in my roommate's room: packed to the brim with shirts, sweatshirts (that I really did not need in the beautiful, temperature Rabat climate), and a plethora of fragile pottery that better not break. I'm bound to pay extra for overweight luggage tomorrow, all because I decided to bring my alto saxophone to Morocco instead of a carry-on. But it hadn't hit me that I'm leaving Morocco until I packed my bag last night–until I packed away more than just my clothes and physical belongings, but a whole lifestyle built on hospitality, spontaneity, and unpunctuality. At this point in the program, there's no doubt I've embraced the city of Rabat, but accepting it in its entirety has been a struggle.

I came to Morocco expecting to conquer the country right off the bat. For months, I couldn't comprehend that I had gotten the opportunity to go to a North African country and learn Arabic for free. As a child who grew up with the IB (International Baccalaureate) program, the values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and risk-taking were instilled in me at a young age. Although I've been taught to listen to and befriend those who are far different than I, both outwardly and culturally, attempting to make sense of Morocco during my first few days in country was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Heck, in hindsight it makes more sense.

My entire life I've grown up in different variations of the same homogeneous suburbia. Not to say that I haven't loved growing up in a comfortable home with reliable A/C, hot water on demand, and supremely comfortable mattresses, but how could I expected my life of privilege and luxury to adequately prepare me for a life in the Rabat's old medina? Exploring my new neighborhood that first day in country, I remember feeling hyper-aware of all of my surroundings. In tourist-fashion, I clutched my bag on the left side of my body, close to my chest. During PDO, we sat through meeting after meeting about safety and security, so the last thing I wanted was to get pickpocketed. It seemed as if every single Moroccan was staring at me. I dreaded walking too far because I was afraid that I'd be catcalled. I was meek and afraid of dealing with the mere possibility of harassment. I was a baby bird leaving my new nest for the first time, and it was scary. After only thirty minutes of walking with my roommate, I was more than relieved to find the thick aqua rim that envelops my host family's hardy wooden door. I walked into the room I was once so unfamiliar with, cold tiles, embellished with the same star-esque design, covering the wall from the very bottom landing just five feet or so below the ceiling, and laid on the bed I'd sleep in for the next six weeks. I cried, wailing just softly enough so that my roommate and host family wouldn't come to check on me. At that time, I would have loved to say that the culture shock didn't quite hit me––that maybe I wouldn't even have to adapt to Morocco––but I would have been lying through my teeth. I really can't deny how immense the adjustment was for me.

Once I got through the first few days of the program, I began to become more comfortable. Still, I silently struggled to feel at home in Morocco, but I tried to get out and adventure more, immersing myself with different people and different sights. Spending time at the beaches of Bouznika allowed me to become closer with the kids on my program, which distracted me from the struggles of culture shock and adapting to Morocco. And going to Marrakesh the following week allowed me to feel like a true tourist during my summer vacation. The Jemaa El Finaa square immersed me in a night-market environment like I had seen in the countless youtube videos I watched prior to my trip. My NSLI-Y friends, friends back home, and traveling to different Moroccan cities together comprised my attempts at escapism in adjusting to Rabat, speaking in a language far different from English, and ultimately developing relationships with other people.

October 20: Unfortunately, this is merely an excerpt of the reflection I began to write during one of my last days in Morocco, but I thought it would be important that I post it, even 2 months after Morocco.

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As many know, my language program is located in Rabat–––the capital of Morocco, the city of King Mohammed VI. And within Rabat, I attend a school where I learn Arabic each Monday-Friday from the morning to early afternoon. Luckily, the school provides plenty of extracurricular opportunities, from cultural-exchange events with Moroccan foster children to learning to cook authentic Moroccan dishes. However, when it comes to getting a full cultural experience in Morocco, you can’t just stay in Rabat. My school agrees; hence, we take weekend excursions to various Moroccan cities. Besides, Morocco is the California of Africa. From Bouznika’s caramel beaches to Chefchaouen’s indigo medina nestled in the mountains, the ever-changing terrain never gets old. Traveling in a bus with approximately 1½ feet of leg room does get old, but it’s merely the arduous shoveling in uncovering a chest of glistening treasures.

During our third weekend in Morocco, aka last weekend (July 6/7), we went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. Chances are one of these cities sounds familiar. Indeed, Casablanca was the classic 1942 American drama about an American expatriate, Rick Blaine, who owns a nightclub in the city of Casablanca, discovers his old love Ilsa is in town with her husband, Victor Laszlo. Moreover, Laszlo is an infamous rebel, and with Nazis on his tail, Ilsa figures Rick can help them get out of the country. Nonetheless, having been shot in Burbank, CA, the classic American film is only related to the city of Casablanca by namesake. On the other hand, Marrakesh is the hottest center for tourism in Morocco in that it is both the most visited city in the country and regularly reaches temperatures upwards of 90°F/40-50°C. But hey, I’m a Floridian, it’s just usual summer weather.

When I visited Casablanca, I wasn’t particularly excited. The sky was grey upon arriving to the city, and the areas we drove past looked somber and depressing given the weather. Nevertheless, I was absolutely blown away by the Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Africa with the world’s tallest minaret at 689ft. The mosque sits aside the Atlantic Ocean on a promontory, “God’s throne on water,” and can hold 25,000 prayers inside the mosque hall and 80,000 prayers on the mosque’s outside ground. Its beauty is indescribable. Every inch of the mosque is crafted as intricately as the next, with the most beautiful colors and designs, all derived from nature. It’s a must-go for every human. Pictures simply don’t do it justice.

Full of vibrancy from the beginning with its dusty terracotta-colored walls made of clay, Marrakesh was right up my alley. Jemaa al Finaa, Marrakesh’s notable marketplace, was the best American farmer’s market multiplied by fifty. Never was there a dull moment in the famous city square. But shopping in the souks of Jemaa al Finaa and the surrounding medina is an animal of its own. Moroccans are welcoming and full of hospitality, but they’re also always looking to make a quick dirham. It seems as if Moroccans who grow up in the souk are intrinsically gifted salespeople. Even in Rabat, the souk vendors are savants at surcharging foreign tourists, but in Marrakesh, all foreign tourists should know that there is an awfully high chance any deal presented is a complete rip-off. Still, I felt a calling to buy from Morocco’s tourist hub, and nothing held me back from doing just that.

But this past weekend has been my favorite thus far. I don’t know what I expected when I visited Tangier, but wow, what a stunning coastal city it was. As I looked into the deep cyan of the Strait of Gibraltar, I was mesmerized. An entirely different culture and language in Spain was only 20 miles–­–a ferry ride––away. The seamless integration of the walls of Roman Tingis into the rapidly developing Tangier also caught my eye. Although, the Caves of Hercules were my favorite spot, with a significance earlier than the birth of mankind spanning from Greek mythology to the British rock group Def Leppard, who played a concert in the cave (pretty cool if you ask me). Whether the port of a notable empire or the creative playground of eccentric artists and writers, I enjoyed adding my morning experience to Tangier’s extensive and diverse history.

Chefchaouen proved to be even more than just a blue Instagram aesthetic. Not only is it the most gorgeous town in all of Morocco (I’m pretty confident that it outweighs the competitors I haven’t yet been), covered in hundreds of variations of the color blue to ward off mosquitos, but it’s nestled rather high up in the mountains. As a teenage girl who lives in a very altitude-deprived state, I live for being at great elevations. Additionally, my NSLI-Y group stayed in a lovely, quaint hotel entitled Puerta Azul that had the cutest Chefchaouen-themed rooms and objectively the best service ever (especially during breakfast). To put it simply: it’s one of the many Moroccan cities that must be seen. Everything is innately artistic in the Blue City of Chefchaouen.

I enjoyed both of my weekend excursions, but I longed to get back to Rabat after our activities ceased. Strange that a city that was once so unfamiliar to me has become so much more routine and comfortable, even whilst living in the most hectic, culturally-different region of the city. Sunday marked the halfway point of my cultural, language-learning journey in Morocco. Quite frankly, it’s mind-boggling to think that my group and I have been in this gorgeous country for over three weeks. And on that note, there is something special about the friendships I have developed here in Morocco through NSLI-Y. It seems as if I have known these people for months, if not, years. They’re a group of very unique individuals who together share a fresh breath of ideas and perspectives. They’re amazing, and I’m so thankful that NSLI-Y has given me the experience of a lifetime. I will miss Rabat and my friends dearly, but luckily there’s still more time to develop friendships, explore the city, and venture beyond home base.

Thanks for staying with me on this journey.

*My WiFi in Morocco fails to live up to the lightning fast speeds back home, so I apologize that I have not been able to post any pictures. There will be a gallery very soon with the entire mass of pictures taken in Morocco, so please wait for me! I promise it will be awesome.

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It has been over a week since I last updated my blog, and boy, oh boy has a lot happened. But for today, I'm going to keep things brief.

Only days after bartering in the Old Medina for a wooden camel with my name written on it, courtesy of a lovely shopkeeper, I received another souvenir: A peeling, bright red sunburn centered around my shoulders with a radius expanding down to my upper back and chest. Applying sunscreen is one thing, but reapplying it is an entirely different matter, and it's important to be vigilant about that! However, our trip to Bouznika, a beach just some miles east of Casablanca, was one of the best experiences I've had yet in Morocco. The sand at Bouznika may not have been as white and pure as the sand on Siesta Key, but it was beautifully fine and perfectly caramel-colored. The sun shone down in the midst of 75 degree weather in a sky clear and vast, with seemingly infinite blue. Swimming in the salty Atlantic Ocean water was lovely, even despite the slightly chilly water, but the peak of that day was hosting a mini dance party on the beach. There was a stage set up toward the back of the beach with massive speakers blasting Arab and French pop songs, so we decided dancing and having a good time was the way to go. And you better believe that I don't take "shaking my groove thang" lightly, because I unleashed the full catalog of Boelkins dance moves on that beach. But the epitome of my time dancing was when around 8-10 Moroccan children joined us on that stage to dance with us. The cross-cultural exchange of dance proved to be one of the most interesting things I've ever seen. These kids had so much control over the way they vigorously shook their upper bodies; I mean, the rhythm of the music, American or Moroccan, was essentially trapped inside each of them.

Our NSLI-Y group visited a home for foster children today, and we had a yet another exchange of dances. My group introduced the Macarena (which the Moroccan kids just ate up) and they mutually taught us one of their dances. Although my knowledge of the Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija, is absolutely atrocious (multiple children asked me to repeat myself and I had to enunciate extra carefully), it was fascinating to partake in bridging the cultural gap through dance––that's right, U.S. State Department, doing my little part for people-to-people diplomacy.

To all those reading from back home or in other areas of the world, it's not necessary to learn a new language to participate in cultural exchange––just get out there, dance, and get a groove on.

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