If you had told me a year ago that in the future I would ride a camel in Morocco, I wouldn’t have believed you. Last spring, when I saw that my AIFS program offers an optional trip to Morocco, I signed up in a heartbeat. If I am honest, the trip seemed like a mark on my bucket list until I got to Granada and began to learn about the history of southern Spain and the Arab influences.
My History of Spain professor made it clear when we were discussing Al-Andalus (the territories under Muslim rule from 700 A.D to 1492 A.D) that yes, Granada was the last part of the Iberian Peninsula to remain under Arab rule. But before that, Al-Andalus consisted of a vast majority of what today is Portugal and Spain. The fact that Spain is the closest European country to Africa is, and long has been, an important one in the formation of Spain and its history, policy and culture, especially in Andalucia. I became even more excited to visit Morocco. I was eager to see the similarities and differences between Morocco and my adopted home.
Friday morning, we boarded the bus at 7:45 am and drove to Tarifa, three hours southwest of Granada. When we got there, we boarded the ferry and crossed to Morocco in 45 seasick filled minutes. Over the next three days we visited Tangier, Tetouan, Chefchaouen and Asilah. Each city was different: Tangier, bustling; Tetouan, carpets and bazaars; Chefchaouen, the city of blue; Asilah, a seaside paradise. Although my time in Morocco was short, I really enjoyed experiencing some of its culture.
Part of studying abroad for me has been learning to eat new foods and I was not disappointed by Morocco. My absolute favorite thing I had to eat was at breakfast; it is called msemen and is thin, square shaped fried bread. In our hotel, a woman made them fresh each morning and we were able to eat them while they were still hot, with honey and goat cheese. I also loved the mint tea. Like the tea served in the tea houses in Granada in the Albacin, it was served with the leaves floating in the small plastic cup. Morocco mint tea is sweeter than any other type of mint tea I have had before and is quite refreshing after a large meal.
We also had couscous, which I was really excited to try. Since I don´t eat meat, mine was always vegetable, consisting normally of grilled carrots and cucumbers. The spices mixed with the grain and vegetables perfectly. The best part of eating at restaurants was the way the couscous was brought to you: in a tagine. A tagine is a clay bowl with a bottom and lid, often painted on the outside with bright colors, traditionally used to cook meals over coals.
Although we didn’t have the opportunity to talk with many Moroccans outside of shops and restaurants, one characteristic I noted that amazed me was their ability to speak different languages. Morocco has been occupied by numerous countries throughout its history and this is evident in the tongues of its people. Most people I met spoke at least three, if not more, languages. Our guide told us that most people in Morocco speak Arabic, English and either French or Spanish, if not both. People watching from the bus gave me the opportunity to see the varying types of dress. The women wore varying types of headscarves; many wore the hijab, which covers the head, while others wore the niqab, which leaves only the area around the eyes exposed. Men wore traditional clothing as well, which varied from the djellaba, which is a long, loose garment with sleeves, and the qob, which has a pointed hood. Many men wore balgha, which are leather slippers with no heals. Balgha come in all different colors and designs and seeing them all spread out in the store was always an incredible experience.
We drove through mountains and farm land, past black olive farms and by the Atlantic ocean. Morocco didn’t look like what I thought it would. For some reason, I expected it to be dry but the part of Morocco we were in was very green.
Our tour guide said they were hurting for rain so I can only imagine how green Morocco can be. The mountains reached high into the skies and rocks of all shapes and sizes were scattered across the fields. In the cities we visited, what struck me the most was how many Moroccan flags were flying.
In the bigger cities of Tangier and Tetouan, the buildings reminded me of those in Granada, reaching high and built in a similar style. In Chefchaouen, I was fascinated by the varying shades of blue painted all over the city. Literally whole streets and the walls surrounding them were painted blue.
Asilah was a maze inside of the walls of an old Portuguese fort. The walls of the buildings were painted with bright street art and the salty smell of the ocean hung in the air.
I am so grateful I was able to visit Morocco. I feel I understand Granada and southern Spain better now. Plus I got to ride a camel, so things can’t get much better than the weekend I had!