Missives from Morocco / Kelsey Ott
Arriving at the airport in Casablanca was mostly a blur. I was tired after the flight, and in an unfamiliar place. My first glimpse of Morocco was a few sandy-colored buildings outside the airport window, the color I had expected Morocco to be, even though only a small part of the country is desert.
I ended up standing here in this foreign place at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East after deciding to take a gap year following my high school graduation this past spring. I wanted a change of scenery and a break from rigorous classes to learn about life in another corner of the world. So, I deferred my college acceptance until next fall and signed on to a semester-long program in Morocco through Global Learning Across Borders to have a cultural immersion experience. I'll study Arabic, practice my high school French and study a topic of interest through an independent study project. The academic aspects of the program are complimented with visiting other towns, performing some community service and trekking through the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains.
Together with four other students and a group leader, I set out toward what would be my life for the next three months. It was hot, and carrying all my belongings on my back only made it worse, but I was ready to go. During the train ride from the airport into the city, I looked out the window. The landscape slowly changed from farmland to the shantytown -- where the urban poor live in run-down houses -- to the big modern buildings of Casablanca, the country's economic capital. I had hardly set foot on African soil, and yet I had already seen so much from afar.
We were spending only one night in Casablanca before heading out to Fes where we would be living the Moroccan life up close for one-and-a-half months, each of us staying with a host family. Casablanca isn't so different from many American cities -- a contemporary business district and streets that are poorer and dirtier. Its claim to fame, aside from the classic movie that bears its name, is its large port and fishing industry. I could smell the salty ocean breeze, and the fish I had for dinner was impossibly fresh.
Fes is a world apart from Casablanca. It's further inland and, as the cultural capital, it's much more traditional. The taxi from the train station took us to the entrance of the medina, the old walled section of the city, but from there we had to walk, as the streets are too narrow for anything bigger than a motorcycle or a donkey cart.
As soon as we stepped inside the medina walls, we were greeted with everything that represents the local culture. The first street we walked through had souvenirs -- mostly postcards and mementos of Morocco. A turn faced us with bakery carts selling freshly-baked bread along with toppings of chocolate, honey or jam. Next we hit the fruit stands as we walked between piles of locally grown apples, dates, plums and melons. In a contrast from the fresh, delicious fruit, the next smell that hit us came from the street that housed the meat market. Though a good sign that meat in Fes certainly isn't processed in a factory, it was an entirely new experience to see live chickens aside animal carcasses being hung out to dry, with butchers stripping them for meat. The skins went to the nearby tannery where we watched them be dyed for leather. A lot of the leather in the store was freshly made, and it smelled terrible -- like dead animals, diffused somewhat by the sprigs of Moroccan mint we got at the door -- but it was so cool to see how connected every step in the process is.
Throughout the next three months, the streets of the Fes medina will become comfortable to me, a place where I can embrace the local culture and adapt to a different way of life. I am still in awe of everything around me, the sights, smells and tastes of a land so different than the one I left behind at home, and am excited to discover all there is to learn in this vibrant place.