• Mikaela Boelkins

Cats, Couscous, and Culture Shock

It's been several days since I last wrote up an entry, and I'm bummed that I wasn't able to type up a post earlier in the week. The internet at my host family house is better than I expected, but not great for uploading pictures and videos. Hence, right now I am sitting in the resident's lounge at Qalam Wa Lawh, utilizing their internet to document my experiences and get them out of Morocco and into America and Australia, or whoever else may stumble across my website.

Although it is only my 5th day in Morocco, I have had an extreme variety of experiences. We arrived June 23rd in Casablanca at around 10am. Through staying connected to the NSLI-Y facebook, I fully expected we'd have a chance to sleep and recover after being up since the morning prior in New York. However, the NSLI-Yers had to stick it out and adapt immediately, as we met our host families the very first day.

My host family home is nothing like anything you'd ever see in suburban Florida. To get to the quaint house, nestled in the Medina of Rabat, you have to walk through a variety of alleyways complete with local hanoots that sell everything from herbs to unpasteurized milk drinks to freshly butchered chicken, souks that cater directly to Rabat tourists and anyone looking for a Moroccan gift, and many, many stray cats. As a matter of fact, cats are everywhere in the city of Rabat. Because it is costly to neuter/spay them, they, naturally, breed and produce kittens without prospective owners. Animal rescue shelters are greatly needed here in Morocco. So yes, the Medina isn't quite a utopia, but it's charming and mystical in its own unique way. It seems there's no limit to the number of twists and turns you'll cross.

The house itself is something you'd imagine Tinker Bell and Peter Pan would stumble upon. The entry way has a ceiling fit for a hobbit (anyone under 5'5"), but anyone over that should be wary of their head. Within that hallway lies a staircase that leads to my host family's primary residence, at least whilst my roommate and I live in the house. But upon exiting the initial hallway, the house becomes much more open and alive. The building is three stories tall and without a ceiling. The only air conditioning needed is the beautiful, temperate Rabat weather that freely breathes into the house. The sounds of the Medina can be heard frequently, such as the daring motorcyclists that zoom through the streets, amateur instrumentalists, and, most notably, the 5-times-a-day Islamic call to prayer that blasts from the megaphones of the surrounding minarets. Although, in theory, the color of the sky should dictate when my Moroccan family goes to bed, as there are few lights on the ground floor, they regularly stay up into the wee hours of the morning. And my host father always wakes up at 4:30am for the fajr (before sunrise) prayer. The ground floor that my roommate and I live on is dressed with plants of luscious leaves and paintings from the artists who sell their work in the local vicinity. The same floor also contains a petite kitchen with a lot of a love and a whole lot of msmen (flaky Moroccan flatbread–regular breakfast dish); Omi, the name my roommate and I call our Moroccan host mom, makes her magic in that room. Directly next to the kitchen is the dining table we eat at each morning and night, and following that is the sitting room. Each of the three couches in that area contain animal-skin blankets (colored green, purple, and orange, respectively). A glass table lies in the middle of the sofas for entertaining.

And of course, my room and my roommate's are on the perimeter of the living space. The doors aren't the "push and lock" sort of deal that I'm used to in the States. Instead, they're intricately-carved doors with unvarnished wood that each contain brass latches. These latches close the doors but don't lock them, if that makes sense. My room is significantly smaller than my roommate's (hers contains another bed not currently in use), but easier to self-manage and clean up––I'm good at making a mess. I have a lamp, a desk, a chandelier that might even be brighter than my ceiling light at home (that doesn't mean much), an electrical outlet, a hamper, a shelf for my clothes, and a bed. While the mattress on my bed is rather firm, I have no problem catching all the Zs I need after a long day.

Since meeting my host family for the first time, I've acquainted myself with the city of Rabat. I hear that unlike Marrakesh and Casablanca, the people here almost never try to rip you off. Besides, King Mohammed VI's palace is in the city, and little acting up should be done in the city of the king! Furthermore, Rabat is much more than just the traditional Medina. It's becoming increasingly more cosmopolitan. One of the streets in the borough of Agdal features a Starbucks, McDonalds, Adidas, and a Nike, among many other big-brand names. It sure makes for an interesting day spending time in Agdal, where my school Qalam Wa Lawh is located, and then heading back home to the Medina.

On this lovely Friday, we were served Morocco's national and most identifiable dish: couscous. In other words, small steamed balls of semolina. It's incredible, but super filling. I'm sure it's been a massive aid in getting young Moroccan children to eat their veggies, as the zucchini, pumpkin, carrots, and, the essential chickpeas, are definitely on par with the meat, whether it be chicken (what we had at the school), lamb, or something else. And yes, before the question is asked, I will be holding Moroccan cooking sessions at my house.

Traveling is fun, and it seems easy (as long as you don't have to pay), but it's important that I put one last thing into perspective: The only country I had ever traveled to besides the United States was Australia, and let me tell you, I was not prepared to step foot onto the African continent. Culture shock hit me like a ton of bricks. Upon arriving at my host family's house, I realized that I was very far from America. Arabic and French plague the local signs. Massive tawny-colored, castle-like structures wrap overhead the roads. Heck, I couldn't, and still can't, express myself the way in which I'd like to my host family. I want to develop a connection with them, but it seems that at this moment it can only be one of mutual respect and appreciation, for I cannot yet express the ins and outs of my day, the types of people I've met, and the things I want to do with my future. Speaking in Modern Standard Arabic is difficult, but speaking in Moroccan Darija is another level of difficult: it's one of the most unique combinations of cultures in the world, with Arab, French, Berber, and Spanish influence. There's running water, good food, and a comfortable place to lay, but really––everything's different. Being woken up by the Islamic Call to Prayer from multiple minarets blasting the same Quranic phrases, all sung in a very intriguing, collective dissonance is different. Watching Moroccan drivers honk the instant after the red light turns green is different. Although I strive to be as open-minded and flexible as possible, learning to become completely comfortable with these differences is difficult, but necessary.

Nonetheless, Morocco is a country full of wonders. There is so much exploring yet to be done just in the city of Rabat. This country confirms my faith in people each and every day. Despite my pitiful attempts in providing destination addresses to taxi drivers and in ordering a quick bite to eat at the restaurants, the Moroccan people are kind, hospitable, and genuine. Sure, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't homesick, but that doesn't mean this adventure isn't the best thing that's ever happened to me. I'm so grateful that Morocco has become my playground for the summer.

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