The End of Days

I SLACKED OFF; I’M SORRY!

But the end of the program was really busy. And right after I came home I did some traveling to visit friends and then packed up all my stuff again and moved down to DC for an internship, so I haven’t had a lot of down time. Unfortunately that means that a lot of the exact details have sorta blended together, but don’t worry, I’ve still got some stuff for you.

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Side note: these are the “Bus Kids,” those of us that lived in the suburb and got to school everyday on the bus. I think I can proudly say that not one program-wide meeting went by without someone raising their hand and saying “Well this is more for the bus kids, but…”

Ummm first up was a Saturday day trip to Fez with my friend Zac. Fez is really close to Meknes, so we had been planning on going there on a weekend when we only wanted to be gone for a day. I will admit that we did go back and forth a little deciding if we wanted to go, but we finally decided yes and ended up traveling on the same train as some of the girls from our program. We had no idea what was really in the city, so we just decided to get in cabs and ask for the old city, planning to rendezvous in the city. Well that never happened and Zac and I ended up on our own with what seemed like miles of tight streets packed with shops, people, way too many donkeys, and one really low beam that I had to stop Zac from clocking himself on. Fez is famous for its tanneries, so that was what we hoped to stumble across, and lo and behold, within 45 minutes of wandering around the city we ran across a guy who offered to take us to the roof of his shop to see the tanning vats. It was a really cool view and he gave us a bit of a rundown on how they make the leather and the products, followed (of course) by a trip into the shop and some slightly pressured sales. I was planning on buying something anyways so it wasn’t too bad; I’m sure the prices were a little high but I prefer to think that I also paid for the experience of seeing where the products were made. We alo got slightly Shanghai’d into a perfume and spice shop, where we did steadfastly refuse to buy anything, much to the owner’s displeasure. The funniest thing about this experience is that they guy at the tannery told us we should go there, and then sent us with another guy, who literally RAN through the market and occasionally looked back to see that we were following. It got to the point where Zac looked at me and asked “Are we supposed to be going with him?” Then after we leave the perfume shop without buying, the guide asks for a tip, and the tannery guy shows up asking if we bought anything and why didn’t we? He also asked if we tipped the guide, so that was about when we decided to make our exit from the leather district and not look back.

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The vats where they cure and dye the leather, right in the heart of the city. The guy told us that they do different colors every day, so I think that other days ths area has a lot of red and yellow and such.

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Let’s just say that PETA wouldn’t be too happy here…

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Leather on leather on leather?

Not a lot else happened while we were in Fez, besides us finding a random restaurant that was open in the middle of the souq (still Ramadan). It was a pretty cool looking place, and although we realized that we didn’t have enough cash with us to pay for the meal, the hostess assured us that there was an atm nearby and we could deal with the money afterwards. Slightly nervously, we ate  and afterwards the waiter led us through the maze of streets to an atm and then back to the restaurant to pay, no muss, no fuss. After  little more walking we got fairly tired of the city and headed back to Meknes by trian, where we met a lovely young lady from Rabat who wanted to talk to us about studying Arabic; I think my partner in crime got a little shy…

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The restaurant that basically functioned as the Room of Requirement; it looks like it is build in an old Moroccan house.

Ramadan ended the next week (Finally!) which caused some craziness in our academic schedule because we didn’t know if our day off for the holiday was going to fall on Thursday or Friday. That’s what happens when you deal with a lunar calendar folks; can you imagine if Christmas came on either the 25th or 26th, and we didn’t know until the night before? We ended up getting Friday off and after some visiting with my family I spent my last weekend in Morocco braving the hordes of people who travel on the holiday to visit their families. I was on my way to Tangier again to visit a friend from McDaniel whose family owns a house in the city and had just arrived; traveling by first class train helped me avoid any kind of craziness. My friend was born in Morocco but moved to Belgium when he was 12 and came to study at McDaniel for a year, so he was completely at home in the city. We spent the weekend relaxing on the beach or in his apartment with his mother or out searching for bars that would serve us; even after Ramadan people are touchy about serving Belgian/Moroccan mixed people.

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McDaniel in Morocco!

It was a good relaxing weekend before I headed back to Meknes for my final exam Monday evening, packing, and impromptu American football and soccer game in the dusty streets of our neighborhood until 2 am.

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This photo series took place in the half hour before our final exam; you can tell we were done with studying.

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“Wait, now how does he get down?”

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“I’ll just pick him up!”

Also note the awesome decoration that was everywhere in the language center.

The final day in Morocco is kinda a blur; we hung around the house with the family until the bus came to get us at 3 pm to take us into the city for the last time. There were definitely some teary goodbyes, as well as a bunch of weird family photos that got taken. We then had some down time in the city until our final goodbye party, which included surprising our Resident Director with full bridal regalia and treatment, along with a fake marriage to one of the teachers. After the party ended we had time to kill until out 3 am departure to the Rabat airport; it turned slightly crazy as we all utilized the showers in the language center and then became crazy hyper over the prospect of leaving.

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Me, the roomie, and the host brothers…and the giant stuffed koala that we had for unknown reasons.

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This is our amazing Resident Director, Leanna, who got carried around on the bridal chair thing, and I think terrified for her life.

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Some of my last interactions with these people; I said that things got a little crazy right before we got on that bus.

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We were tired and the trip was just starting (Maybe also a little tipsy)

Fastforward about 24 hours to Washington DC, after layovers in Paris and Frankfurt, and I was back on US soil! Only without my suitcase, which had been misplaced somewhere in Paris, along with pretty much everyone in the entire program’s bags. Though initially concerned, I was assured that it would be returned to me and al hamdu lilah, I got it delivered to my door within 2 days. Successful trip!

Well people, I think that is all that I have for you. It was definitely a crazy journey; at times very stressful, but a great experience that I am very thankful for. I’m now moving on to the next part of my journey: an internship with the Project on Middle East Democracy in DC. They are a really cool organization and if you really want to keep reading stuff from me, or just stay updated on the situation in Egypt, you can subscribe to the Egypt Daily Update, which I will be in charge of producing once I am all trained up and such.

1000 thanks for reading!

Categories: Morocco | Leave a comment

Is 14 kilometers really that far to swim?

It was the weekend of our big trip to Tangier and I was feeling ready for anything, unlike my roommate, who looked ready to die as we got ready to head to our first stop, Asilah, where I had spent the previous weekend. The trip was fairly uneventful all around and we only stayed in Asilah for a few hours, just long enough to see more of the cool wall murals and to sit on the beach for a little while.

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Coast!

The next stop on the trip was Tangier, where we spent two nights in a fancy hotel where I literally basked in the glory of a shower that had both a mounted showerhead and hot water, along with a weekend of freedom from being forced to eat, and occasionally woken up and then forced to eat… (It’s lately been a bit of a roller coaster of emotions regarding my host family.) Anyways, Tangier is a pretty cool city; it’s much more modern looking than some of the other places we have visited and there were a decent amount of things to see, including the only historic landmark of the United States outside of the US, a building that used to operate like a consulate and is now a museum. Side note that Moroccans are really proud of: Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of America from the British. After leaving the museum we broke into groups after an exasperating game of walking ten feet and being stopped, then told to walk again just to be stopped again, we finally got situated in groups and with the help of one of the teachers kicked the tour guide’s butt into gear to show us some of the other sites in the city, including a historic church and the tomb of Ibn Batouta, a famous explorer born in Tangier who is the focus of one of the chapters in our Arabic textbook and therefore kinda a big deal. We also stopped at a viewpoint where it was possible to see Spain in the distance across the Strait of Gibraltar; we returned to a café near that spot later that night where we sat on the roof and were able to see the lights of the nearby country. But before that we headed out in the afternoon to an area about 45 minutes down the coast to visit the site of an old fort and the real highlight of the trip: a beach with a view of the Iberian Peninsula, which I had some difficulty resisting attempting to swim to. We didn’t experience too much of the night life in Tangier, but we did find an amazing ice cream place that we visited both nights that we were in the city, which I am really missing in the Meknes heat.

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You guys, it’s Ibn Batouta!

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I can literally touch Spain; it can’t be that hard to swim there.

On Sunday we drove to the city of Chefchawon, which is nicknamed the Blue City, I think… At some point the people of the city decided that blue was the official color of the city, and so they painted everything blue, including the roads in some places. It’s a city built up along the mountain so there are plenty of great views, especially after we climbed up to the top of the wall that surrounded the city on the mountain. We also managed to get accosted by some guys trying to sell us hash and insisting that a 3km walk to their house wasn’t far at all, so that was pretty annoying. Regardless, the city was really cool and the trip overall was a great break from the breakneck pace that we have been doing and the crazy final work that awaits us in the next 2 weeks. I think we still have three chapters or so to go, plus a final presentation and paper, a final exam, and an Oral Proficiency Interview, all right up until the day we leave.

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I wasn’t kidding about the blue

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At the tippy top of the city

In other news, I went to the barbershop to get a shave today, which was especially interesting because not only did the barber not speak English, he actually didn’t speak at all because he was deaf… So we got to play charades to let him know that I wanted a shave, which he did quite well with a straight razor. It’s a little bit of a terrifying experience, but I do have to say that it is a really close shave.

Come on people, start the countdown, on Wednesday it will be exactly 2 weeks till my return!

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

I used to be able to pick one language and stick to it

Ok kids; Independent trip #2: Beach weekend in Asilah!

This place is a coastal city near Tangier, lesser known, but still home to plenty of European tourists, especially Spaniards, which was fun for me to get back to using some Spanish. Unfortunately most of the time when I tried to speak Spanish, it comes out in this bastardized stepchild of Spanish and Arabic, and then I just look silly… But that’s ok, we survived just fine, mostly due to the fact that most people in the town speak some mixture of Arabic, Moroccan, Spanish, and French.

After another (much less awkward) bath house experience as part of a program cultural activity, my group hopped on the train to Asilah, where we arrived at a train station that was unexpectedly kinda in the middle of nowhere and pretty much empty. After being offered a ride from a random guy with a big white van we happened upon some taxis that were able to take us to our hotel, which was much nicer than the one in Casa Blanca, and then we headed out into the beach town to explore. The first thing that we explored was a restaurant close to the beach, where we were able to get some French-style food, along with some more Moroccan wine. In this touristy city let’s just say that it was much more acceptable for us to have about 3 bottles of wine for the table. After dinner we headed out for a walk along the beach and the nearby area, including a small part of the old city with walls that overlooked the water.

The next day, after waking up and realizing that we had a nice ocean view from our room, we lounged at the hotel for a bit after enjoying the complimentary breakfast (which you don’t realize that you miss until you visit a city where all of the restaurants are closed during Ramadan). Some of the members of our group had heard about a really nice beach nearby called Paradise Beach, but it soon became apparent that this beach was a little tricky to get to. We realized that it was necessary to take a grand taxi to the beach, actually 2 because we were 9 in number, so we got to play the grand taxi game, which is always an adventure. In Morocco the big taxis hang out at stops in a big group, where there seems to be some kind of organizer in charge of where they go. So basically you walk up to this group of men and just say where you want to go. If you are lucky, they will know where and then start discussing things amongst themselves, I assume whose turn it is to drive. If they don’t know, they will still start discussing things amongst themselves, trying to figure out where it is we want to go. After that has been decided, you generally have to haggle over a price, which usually involves some yelling between the drivers and the boss guy; it seems like he agrees on a price without their input and then they have to deal with it, I’m not really sure what goes down. We found taxis that would take us to the beach and after some negotiating and walking away, then returning and asking more people until I am sure that the entire town knew where we were going, we finally settled upon a price for a taxi to drop us off at the beach and come back to pick us up and loaded up to head out. It quickly became apparent that it was a good thing we arranged for him to come back, because we soon turned off onto a dirt road that looked around some hills and semi-mountainside roads where we were driving with mountain on our left and a drop to the ocean on our right. After this trip we finally arrived at what literally looked like a secret beach nestled amongst some cliffs: along the mountain side of the beach there were a bunch of little restaurants with lounge chairs and umbrellas set up in front of them. The beach was pretty sparsely populated considering how crazy beautiful it was; I guess most people don’t feel like taking the taxi ride or maybe even the trip on a donkey cart (when a guy offered us that in the city I thought he was joking, but we passed like three of them with passengers on the way to the beach). There’s not a whole lot to say about the beach other than that the pictures probably don’t do it justice, but it was literally probably one of the nicest beaches that I have been to in my life: nice sand, clear water, big waves, and not a cloud in sight.

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Waves, sand, and mountains

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We arrived on a road along the side of the mountain to the right

After a few hours on the beach people started to get hungry. Actually it was mostly just one person; we were operating on what I like to call a Zac’s Stomach Schedule, and most of the group decided to go get some food while two of us stayed back to watch the stuff and relax. Fast forward about an hour and a half and someone comes back to tell us that they ordered a seafood platter but so far have seen no sign of the food and we should just pack up everything and join them, which we did quite happily, only to wait another 45 minutes or so before getting some watermelon slices and a promise that the food would be out soon. Probably the funniest part of this wait was when the waiter comes out and asks us “Kol shii imzian?” (Everything alright?) when we clearly had no food and nothing to comment on after 2 and a half hours of waiting. This isn’t meant to be complaining; it seems like combining Arab time and beach time makes for some seriously laid back service. But when that food did arrive, damn did they deliver. The waiter showed up with a huge plate of grilled fish of all different sizes, still completely intact, shrimp, octopus rings, and other goodies. We dove in and I was able to put my skills to use in deboning the fish, which is a skill that I have developed from the small fish that we are often served in my house. This meal was definitely worth the wait and we totally demolished all of the food, leaving only fish heads, spines, and tails in our wake.

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I assume that we had to wait so long because they needed to catch the fish.

We took one last dip in the ocean before our cabbie picked us up and we headed back to the hotel to shower and relax before a fairly uneventful evening of dinner and some exploring the old city.

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I think this picture is wonderfully awkward.

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Did I mention that there were camels just chilling on the beach?

I’ve only got one story out of that night; it was around 1:30 am and a group of four of us was finishing up looking at the stores and getting ready to head back to the hotel when a random guy started up a conversation with one of the guys in my group. I had been scammed one too many times in Egypt so I generally avoid things like this, so when the guy offered to take us to a local artist’s house I was fairly skeptical, but the other guy really wanted to go so we decided to cautiously see where he wanted to lead. We ended up getting a decent tour of the old city, much deeper than we had gone on our own, and we got to see the guy who runs around the city beating a drum at about 2 am during Ramadan to tell everyone to eat their last meal before fasting for the day. After we walked for much longer than the guy originally promised, we finally got back to the entrance to the old city, where exactly what I predicted happened: he expected money from each of us; this tactic of acting like you just want to show off your city and then demanding/ pleading for cash afterward is pretty standard and the reason I wanted to ignore the guy in the first place. (Insert “I told you so” here)  After some heated emotions from my companions and what could loosely be termed haggling we  left him with a little bit of money and went back to the hotel, rationalizing that we did get to see much more of the city than we expected to.

Sunday morning was time to head back to the Meknes and work on homework and the like; at least we are getting pretty good at negotiating the train and even the trip back from the station to the suburb, which is always somewhat of a struggle.

We’re officially past the halfway point now and are on the downhill of the program. But standing between me and a return is still a buttload of classes and studying, and maybe some time for fun in between. Stay tuned next week for reports of a trip to Tangier!

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

This post was supposed to be about Casablanca

But so many interesting things happened on Monday that the majority of the storytelling will probably be about that. But I gotta do this in chronological order, so the week first.

Ramadan started this week! This hasn’t actually involved a whole lot of change on my part, but there have been some adjustments made at school. First of all, we changed the clocks an hour for the month of Ramadan, so I got an extra hour of sleep on Monday, which is always a win. Second, we actually changed the hours of classes to 10-2, which gives me some extra time in the morning, also a win. Third, now pretty much every restaurant in Meknes is closed during the day, which makes getting lunch more difficult, not so much a win… All of the students who are not fasting have started packing lunches and my roommate and I are lucky enough to have a host mom who packs food for us from the previous night’s leftovers, in traditional Moroccan copious amounts. This means that I haven’t even had to break into the peanut butter and jelly supplies that I bought last weekend. The lower level of the school has been designated as the eating area, out of respect to the teachers who are fasting, so now we all gather in the little kitchen or classrooms down there to eat during breaks or after classes. After classes we now head back to the suburb at about 6:30 to be home in time for Iftar, when our host families break the fast with a big meal. The meal is pretty yummy and has become an all-family occasion as the entire family has come home for this holiday, meaning that we now have a 12 year old sister who usually is in another city studying, a 21 year old sister who is married and lives in Germany with her husband, a 25 year old brother who just finished cooking school, and the 28 year old brother who has been around the whole time and is in the army. It’s a full house and it is pretty fun coming home to a whole group of people who are excited to see you. Still, the semi-isolation of living in the suburb has been getting to a lot of us, especially now that we are heading to school later and returning to the neighborhood earlier, so when the bus driver offered to take us back to the city occasionally after the Iftar meal, several of u jumped on the opportunity on Thursday to see what was going on, and were extremely glad that we went. In the city, the custom is for everyone to go out during the night after breaking the fast, so all of the markets and stores are open and there are people everywhere, as well as entertainers and stuff in the main square. A group of us wandered through the market area, where most of the shops were just opening at 9:30, and then sat in a café for a while before heading back home at around 12, when the whole area was still poppin’. All of us were seriously elated at the freedom we had and the nice weather during the night, so I think that we will definitely be heading out into the city more often in the future. The downside to this experience was that my host family was still waiting for us to eat when we got back, and though I was tired, I didn’t really have a choice and ended up eating a heavy meal right before sleeping, which caused me to have what I think was the first heartburn of my life…

On Friday we had our first free weekend without any program trips, so a group of 7 other students and I traveled to Casablanca for the weekend. I have never actually seen the movie, but I got a slightly negative review of the city from a friend who visited there previously, and in all honesty, it didn’t do a whole lot to change my mind. Disclaimer: I had kinda a rough day today, you will see why later, so I’m being more negative than the usual “everything was really pretty and awesome”. I figure that you should see that side of the experience too. Anyways, we took the train to Casablanca, which was a pretty smooth trip, including a cool moment because we were on the train during the time to break the fast, so they handed out a few dates to everyone on the train and we all ate together. We got to Casa, got taxis to our hotel (and were wildly overcharged) and then found a restaurant where we got some more substantial food before wandering through the city and looking at the souqs, restaurants, and cafes. There were some eat places and we had fun getting lost and chilling in a café for a while before making our way back to the hotel at around 2 am, at which time there were still a decent amount of people on the streets. The next day the streets were as empty as they had been crowded before; that whole Ramadan thing is no joke, and after snacking lightly on granola bars and things we had bought the night before, we headed out in search of an art museum that one of the other students had researched before we came. This girl took charge of the trip and made hotel reservations and had maps and such; I was super impressed and more than happy to take a backseat on this trip. We got to the art museum, which I am just gonna say was kinda creepy and leave it at that.

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I said creepy…

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Right?

Afterwards we started to feel the pressure of what I call accidental fasting, which is when you aren’t actually fasting on purpose but there is no food available so you don’t get to eat. We wandered through the city, where the weather was actually enjoyable thanks to sea breezes and a generally lower temperature and made it to the main sight I wanted to see: the Mosque of Hassan II, which is the largest in Africa, and located right on the Atlantic.

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We were able to walk up to the front doors and peek inside, but once again, not enter; for some reason I thought that we were allowed to here.

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The whole group of us in front of the mosque.

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Click on this for a big picture.

For those of you keeping score back home, in my travels I have now visited the largest church in the Middle East and the largest mosque in Africa. And then right after that, we went to the biggest mall in Africa, the Mall of Morocco, where we were able to eat without feeling guilty because there were a bunch of people using the food court, though in all honesty I think it was mostly children who were eating.

After the mall we found a nice sandy beach and sat until about sundown; by this point we all realized that because the sun wasn’t literally frying us alive like it does in Meknes, we had spent way more time in it than usual and were a little sunburnt. We took our slightly red selves to a French restaurant near the beach that was full of other foreigners because all the Moroccans were at home breaking fast and had some good seafood, as well as some Moroccan wine! I will admit, everyone was like, “Oh, I might try a little bit” and I was sitting there saying, “Bring me a half bottle.” What can I say, I appreciate my wine. We moseyed back to the hotel and dropped off pretty quickly thanks to the long day, and the next morning got up and tooled around a bit before getting on the train and heading back to Meknes.

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Sunset on the beach!

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We made a new friend that I promise I did not pet.

And that’s when the fun really started…

Saturday morning at least one other student and I noticed what seemed to be bug bites on our bodies after sleeping in the hotel; and by Sunday we were more and more sure that they were from bedbugs. Come Monday and there were some more bites and one of the girls had found an actual bedbug in her stuff, so the 5 of us that were infected went to the director to ask her what to do about it, initiating a whole chain of fun events. First was me sitting in class fairly pissed at life and all of the inconveniences that I was about to have to go through. After that we talked to her more and got the ball rolling on a solution. This took some initial explaining because it seems like most Moroccans don’t quite understand what bedbugs are; they think of them more like lice and don’t get that you have to like crazy clean all your clothing and stuff. Or they just assume that you have mosquito bites and they are nothing to worry about. We finally got everyone on board and they came up with a game plan: the woman in charge of the AALIM center called all our host families and explained to them that all of the clothing and sheets needed to be washed at a very high temperature to kill the bugs, then we moved on to treat the clothes we were currently wearing, as well as ourselves, by taking a trip to a public bath house.

This is probably the most hilarious/awkward thing that has happened to me thus far on the trip. We get to the bath house and they tell us that we are going to bathe and put our clothes in a bag to be cleaned, and that they bought us clothes to wear or the rest of the day. And that was how I ended up with my snazzy traditional Moroccan clothing:

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And then this happened with my host mom and roommate…

Luckily they bought us underwear as well or else I would have been wearing this big robe and nothing else; it also happens to have a slit in the side where the pocket would be, because people usually wear regular pants under them and need to access those pockets. One of the male directors made a big spectacle out of handing out the different pairs of underwear to the girls and it made all of us crack up laughing in the middle of the street, bedbugs and all. The other guy victim and I headed into the bath men’s area, accompanied by one of the male school employees, who though very helpful, did not quite give us the information we needed about the proper protocol. We start out in a locker room type place where in addition to the guy we were with, there are like 3 other dudes just chilling. We get told to take off our clothes and put them in plastic bags; after stripping down to our underwear we both pause and wait for some sign that we should keep them on or make this little show x rated. None came… After milling around and awkwardly shrugging at each other, we decide to stick with our underthings and enter into the actual bath house, where we are validated by the sight of several older men still wearing like speedo things, so we made the right decision. I am expecting to see a big pool or locker-room like showers, but instead we just see a room that has faucets all around it wall at about waist height and a bunch of little bench seat things. We get handed big plastic buckets and sit down in front of some of these faucets to fill them up, and then awkwardly splash water over ourselves from the bucket and shampoo and soap up as best as we can. I was kind hoping for a better clean than I get from the slightly limited shower that I get in my house, but unfortunately this wasn’t really the case. We notice that there is a guy whose job it seems to be to scrub down the patrons of the bath house, and realize that he is working his way down the line towards us, which we take as our cue that it is time to leave. Of course, in Morocco, it is never that easy to turn down service, so as we were leaving the guy calls out to us and tries to stop us from going because it is absolutely necessary that he lather us up. We tactfully say, “No thank you” and make a beeline for the door, where our escort meets us and asks if we got cleaned up and why we didn’t wait for the guy, to which we respond that we did just fine by ourselves. We get back to the locker room and change into our new clothes, which thankfully fit, though the other guy’s is slightly see through, which isn’t a great feature when you are only wearing boxer briefs… Apparently the girls were not lucky enough to escape the scrubbing and are slightly unhappy with both the awkwardness and the pain of getting sunburn scrubbed. But we did all look snazzy in our traditional clothing, which our relentless director made sure to photograph. I have to hand it to her and the other staff; they definitely dropped everything to help us out in this situation, and managed to make it pretty entertaining at the same time. I definitely will not be forgetting my trip to the Meknes bath house any time soon.

Sorry that this is a super long post, but there is something kinda therapeutic about what was going on and it is a great way to avoid studying for the midterm that we have coming up this week. I think the only thing that I have as a conclusion is this: If you go to Casablanca, everything will be closed and you will be hungry and get bedbugs, which will lead to very strange, but memorable experiences. And maybe something about a plane?

Categories: Morocco | Leave a comment

Can we talk about how much I like camels?

Two weeks of class down, five to go. Things in class are settling down into a regular schedule and I’m getting more used to the routine here, so that’s all good. The currents coup events in Egypt have kept me pretty interested and I have tried to spend time watching the news here and discussing the political situation in Egypt with my host parents. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends in Egypt and how lucky I was to go during a brief period of stability; the Amideast summer students had to be evacuated after one of their interns was killed during a clash in Alexandria. I’m really hoping that this second round of revolutions will come up with a happy solution, but based on the number of Morsi supporters still taking to the streets, I don’t know how likely that will be.

This past Wednesday was the 4th of July, ad this was my first time celebrating the holiday outside the States, but I think I did pretty well by the founding fathers. A few of the students from my program, and a bunch of students from the other programs in the city did the most American thing that we could think of during the day: ate at McDonalds. To be fair there were also a whole bunch of Moroccans there as well that place is pretty much always packed. That night the AALIM center held a party for us where we spent the night dancing to a mix of Arabic and American music and socializing with the Flagship students that we have pretty much only seen in passing up to this point.

Work continued as usual after that until Friday, when it became necessary to prepare for our weekend trip: an excursion to the Sahara desert from a town called Merzouga. To stock up on some supplies, three other students and I decided to go to the closest grocery store, which required a taxi ride, which is always an interesting experience. There are two types of taxis in Meknes: grand taxis and petit taxis, the difference being, as you may have guessed, the size. Petit taxis hold three passengers, run on a meter, and will take you wherever you need to go, provided the driver feels like taking you. Grand taxis are big old clunkers that hold six passengers: four in the backseat and two in the front, plus the driver. These taxis are a little cheaper and run more like a bus, meaning that if there are only two people in the taxi it will stop to pick up more riders if they are going the same way, meaning that you may get crammed in the backseat with complete strangers in the 100+ degree heat. The four of us were able to find a grand taxi that was going where we needed to go, and squeezed in together (let it be noted that they are not all as small as me, which would have made the journey much more enjoyable). We got the grocery store, which operates the same exact way a store in the US does, and after buying extra water, granola bars, and something cold to drink at that moment (a cold drink has become somewhat of a commodity in my world as of late) we piled back into the back of another grand taxi, bags and all, to head back to the language center to do homework and wait for the bus to take us home to the suburb.

The next morning started early: 4:45 to eat and head to the bus stop which took us to meet the rest of the students and load onto a bigger bus that took us on the 9ish hour ride into the desert. Unlike the last trip we did, this bus had rockin’ air conditioning, so the ride itself was actually pretty pleasant. Driving through Morocco was very different than my experiences traveling through Egypt; you actually get to see more than sand and barrenness. Morocco has cool foresty areas, mountains, and then desert in the southern part of the country, so you get a whole variety. You also get to experience the terror of driving in a giant bus along narrow roads that are cut into the sides of a mountain with pretty much sheer drops 5 feet away from the edge of the pavement. There was a really cool part where we drove through part of the mountain that I guess had been blasted through to make a tunnel. After the long journey we finally ended up at Merzouga, where we rented three rooms: one for the guys and two for the girls, to change in and take a dip in the pool before we left all our extra stuff there and headed out for the desert portion of the trip, which meant we got to ride camels!

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We stopped the bus in this park area because we saw this monkey, and then like 50 people followed this monkey around to take pics of him.

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This is a nice panorama of the kind of mounts that we were driving through; not the desert that I expected. If you click on it you can get a bigger version.

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There was even an oasis!

Fun fact: camels are actually fairly uncomfortable; they are really wide, so you like strain your groin riding them, and they aren’t very soft, so if you have a bony ass like me, you bruise. But I still get excited every time I get to ride one, probably because it means that I am going someplace cool. I had previously been worried about cooking alive under the sun during the excursion but we didn’t end up leaving until about 7, so the sun was already on its way down and the temperature was pretty moderate, so we got to all look really cool in our new desert scarves without actually having to deal with the deadliness of the Sahara sun. We rode for about 45 minutes to a camp that probably could have been reached in about 15 if you didn’t take a winding path, but where is the fun in that? The camp was pretty much just a ring of tents at the base of a big sand dune, which we obviously set to climbing immediately, much to our bodies’ displeasure. The view of the desert was really awesome and we watched as the sun went down and all you could see was the light of the cities in the distance and a crazy amount of stars. The night was spent eating some traditional Moroccan food and listening to some musical entertainment, including a jam session from some of the students in our program who are studying ethnomusicology. I decided to crash around 12:30 and went to my tent and slept, not realizing that most of the other students had dragged their mattresses outside to sleep under the stars. Oops…

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Getting ready for desert scale wind and sun.

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The problem with riding camels is that you can’t actually get a picture of yourself that shows the camel, so I’m hoping that some other people in the group have some pics of me that properly show my awesome technique.

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Straight up adorbs

We got up early the next morning to climb the dune again and watch the sunrise; it’s so crazy to be able to look out at the desert and think about how there is literally nothing for miles and miles except for sand and hot. I actually forgot my camera for this part (oops again) but I stole these pictures from some people who did have theirs (and have better cameras as well). After we got out fill of the sun we hopped back on the camels again to head back to the hotel for breakfast and another brief pool break before getting back on the bus for what seemed like a never-ending, thanks to the numerous stops and different sites like mosques, traditional craftplaces, and music performances. Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate being exposed to all the culture, but when we left the hotel at 11 am and didn’t arrive back in Meknes until 11:30 pm, that’s kinda a long trip. I’m sure I will appreciate it in the future, but in the moment there was many a grumble going on in the CLS bus during the journey home. There was also some grumbling when I got to class today and the teacher informed us that he had sent us an email changing the homework assignment and said that we should make sure to check out email over the weekend, apparently not understanding that 1: we were in the desert (or on a bus) literally the entire weekend, and 2: 90% of us don’t have internet at our houses, so we only get emails when we get to school, a little too late for it to be any good. Not really a big deal, but slightly frustrating. The good part about the late return to Meknes was that classes on Monday were changed from 9 to 1 to 11 to 3, meaning we got to sleep in, plus we gained an extra hour from a time change during Ramadan. Let’s just say that I took full advantage of this extra sleep time, unlike my roommate who got up early to do homework and was like dying as we were heading to the bus to go to school.

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Sunrise from the dunes.

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This one is actually mine, taken as we rode the camels back to the hotel.

That’s right, I said it, Ramadan is upon us here in Meknes. As a country that is like 99.5% Muslim, the holy month is kinda a big deal here, and fasting during the day is definitely the norm. Not only do people not eat or drink, but most restaurant and food stores are completely closed all day, making it kinda difficult for foreigners like me who aren’t fasting to procure victuals. Ramadan officially starts Wednesday, so most of the students have been stocking up on granola bars and other things to help pass the time when we won’t be able to run down to the corner shop and buy something, but I personally have no idea what this next month is going to be like and how it is going to affect me; I’m both anxious about and looking forward to finding out.

I think that’s all I’ve got for now; ma salama ya shebab!

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

It Kinda Looks a Little Like New Zealand…

Ok kids, one week of class down, only 6 to go. This whole accelerated program thing is kinda crazy; we’ve already moved through about 2 chapters in the textbook. It’s a good pace with a lot of homework every night, but I definitely feel like I am improving. Still, I was definitely ready for a break this weekend and was actually able to get a good chunk of homework done on Friday night so I was mostly done and free for the weekend.

Friday afternoon we had a visit to the tomb of Moulay Ismail, who, according to a quick Wikipedia search, was known for being extremely bloodthirsty… Well he has a nice tomb, so let’s just focus on that. Outside the tomb was a lavishly decorated room where we relaxed from walking around in the heat. Because the actual place where the king and his family are entombed is technically a mosque, the majority of us students were not allowed to go beyond a certain point, but we got a view from a distance of the tomb.

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After checking out this view, most of us spent time relaxing in the antechamber, where there was some awesome and intricate decoration and a cool little fountain.

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On Saturday we had a program trip to the Roman ruins of Volubulis, about an hour away from the city of Meknes. I really didn’t know what the area was going to be like; I’ve been tricked before by places like the Petrified Forest, but this was a really cool experience. The foundations and floors of a bunch of the houses are still standing, along with some columns, pieces of the main road, and two big gates. We had a great tour guide who spoke Modern Standard Arabic so we were able to get a decent amount of information about the site. I was definitely feeling the Moroccan heat; I wasn’t kidding when I said on Facebook that I have only seen like 3 clouds my entire time here.

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The remains of the main gate to the city.

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A bunch of the floors from the houses are still remaining; the mosaics are really interesting and beautiful.

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Let it be known that I am making an effort to ask people to take pictures of me so that I don’t only have pictures of landscapes.

After the ruins we headed to a small city called Moulay Idriss; the city was really too small for the group of 35 Americans that went swarming through its streets. There wasn’t a lot going on there, but the whole city is located on a hill (think Rohan in LoTR) so we had an awesome view of the surrounding area and the city below when we climbed up to the top of the peak.

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The large building in the center is the Mosque of Moulay Idriss; again, we weren’t able to enter to see what the inside looks like. Even though that’s a bit of a bummer as a tourist, I can definitely why Moroccans don’t want their places of worship to become complete tourist destinations.

After leaving the city we headed back to Meknes; I fell asleep on the drive but woke up feeling like I was in an oven because apparently the bus was having an AC problem, I don’t know. What I do know is that when we finally got to Meknes it was cooler outside than on the bus. Most of the students headed to the AALIM center to do homework or home to relax, but I took advantage of my brief freedom from homework to do one of my favorite things when I am traveling: wander. The old city of Meknes is a great place to just stroll around; there’s plenty of shops and things to see everywhere, and it is walled in, so there are pretty good landmarks to find your way back to where you started. I literally despise walking through areas like this with a group of people, so I was glad to have the chance to go off on my own and see the market areas and such. You attract so much less attention if you walk alone and act like you know where you are going, ALWAYS STAYING IN WELL LIT AREAS WHERE THERE ARE PLENTY OF NON THREATENING PEOPLE. I ended up heading from the center towards the famous Bab Monsour, then in a big loop through the market areas of the city back to Bab Monsour, where I decided to go to one of the small restaurants and treat myself to some delicious strawberry juice and a sandwich. The waiter assumed that I was French and I didn’t bother to correct him, so I got to go through the whole meal trying to piece together what he was saying. The only real difficulty came when he told me the price of the meal and I had to ask him to do it in Arabic, which led to finally confessing that I was American.

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My view during the meal; after the sun goes down this area is full of people selling things, snake charmers, and various other entertainment. After heading back to the center to meet up with some other students, we walked back to this same area (I don’t think I took the same path twice back and forth to Bab Monsour) and managed to find a city bus that would take us out to the suburb where we live. It was a great day that also exhausted me; I ended up having to call it quits and go to bed at like 11:00, which surprised my host parents because it was before our usual 11:30 dinner.

Sunday was a day of relaxing, and after sleeping in for a while my host family had a few other families over for the weekly couscous lunch, after which some of the older host brothers decided that they wanted to go swimming and they took us in search of a pool. We ended up checking out 3 different ones: one that was closing too soon, one that was really cheap but completely packed, and we finally settled at a hotel pool, which was slightly pricier than the others, but totally worth it when we got in. There was an actual lawn and a nice calm setting where we could relax and actually cool down for probably the first time in our visit to Morocco. I think we all agreed that it was well worth the money and plan to visit there again sometime.

One last cultural note: I’m starting to realize that it is physically impossible to out-manner a Moroccan host. If you are a guest (which we obviously are) there is pretty much no way that you are going to get a Moroccan to take the last seat on a bus while you stand, or have the last bit of any food. I have completely given up on trying and just give in when they tell me to do something and now get a kick out of watching the struggles that occur between the people in my program who will literally try for what seems like 5 minutes to give away decline a seat, only to finally relent and just sit down.

By the end of this week I will already be a quarter of the way through this program; time sure flies when you are constantly speaking Arabic!

Categories: Morocco | 1 Comment

I Will Speak Only in Arabic or Moroccan Until the End of the Program…

In case you were wondering, I am safely in Morocco.

I’ve only been here like three days, but a lot has happened, so Imma try to cover it all in some way or another.

We had a typical super long travel daygetting to Morocco: an eight hour flight in which I watched three movies and 4 episodes of Parks and Rec in a row without sleeping, then a layover in the super confusing Paris airport, a slightly delayed plane, a two and a half our flight to Rabat, an hour long wait at that airport because some people’s bags never made it out of DC (thankfully mine did), then a two and a half hour bus ride to Meknes. By the end of it all we were approaching 24 hours of travel and I had abut 2 hours of sleep under my belt. Once we arrived in Meknes we were whisked straight to the school, where we met our host families and were taken home. My family consists of my host mom, Attica, and her husband and 28 year old son, both of whom are only around a few days a week because they work in different cities. I have a roommate in the program, so the two of us are playing fun charade games together trying to figure out what is going on sometimes. Why is this necessary when I have studied Arabic for three years and lived in Egypt previously. Stay tuned in the Darija section of today’s tour… Anyways I live in what is essentially a suburb of the city, about 20 minutes away from the school by bus. There are 7 other host families in the same neighborhood, so they were nice enough to chip in together for a bus that takes all of the CLS students to and from school. This is really convenient, though a little limiting because I can’t just walk out into the city the way that I was able to in Cairo. Anyways, we got to this house at about 5 o’clock on Wednesday and rather than just immediately pass out, we ended up staying up until around 11 talking with our host brother and mother and getting a crash course in Moroccan Arabic. This included some late night tea and popcorn at a point when I was ready to drop. Living with a host family has really proven the warnings that Arab families love to feed their guests; I have been eating a solid 4 meals a day since I got here, leaving each one feeling like I am ready to burst after being told multiple times to keep eating. If I can’t gain weight here, than it is literally impossible. Slightly out of chronological order, today a few of the families in my neighborhood got together to have a Friday lunch, where we all sat around and ate couscous Moroccan style.

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It is worth noting that that plate is about 2 feet in diameter and it is eaten straight out of the group dish by all of the people sitting around the table. After this particular meal two huge trays of sliced watermelon were brought out, followed by delicious Arabic tea and popcorn. So yeah, the food is great, and there is a lot of it.

The day after we got to Meknes we trooped into school at 9 am to take our Arabic placement exams, which seemed pretty daunting to us all, but didn’t end up being too horrible. Taking an exam without having to worry about a grade is actually fairly painless. I ended up getting placed in the highest level for class today, and let me tell you, I got my ass kicked quite a bit in class today. This will definitely be a very challenging academic experience and I have a lot of work to do to keep up with some of the really talented people in my program. After the placement exam we took a small tour around the city, which is beautiful, and then had to settle in for one last final orientation seminar. Instead of talking about that, here are some cool pictures from the city and from the longer tour that we took later.

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This is a view of what is sorta the center of the new city, which was built after the French came in and decided that they wanted a more European style neighborhood. It’s not exactly Cairo, and that is what I really like about it; you can still see the sky and trees and enjoy the weather without listening to constant honking.

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This is Bab Mansour, one of the biggest tourist sites in Meknes. The old city is surrounded by a wall and this is the biggest door through that wall, awesomely decorated and nowadays it actually has a little art gallery in the interior because the wall is so thick.

After the tour we went to the headquarters of AALIM, the program that is in charge of our education and had a group dinner immediately prior to making a language pledge that states that we will only speak Arabic and/or Darija during the course of the program. This obviously limits the things we are able to discuss, both among ourselves and with the various English-speaking people throughout the city. It’s kinda intimidating. And what, you say, is the difference between Darija and Arabic? A whole hell of a lot, let me tell you. Darija is the name for the language spoken in Morocco, and it is a whole mix of Arabic, French, and a little Spanish. So there’s all kinds of new words for words that I already know in Arabic, and the conjugations right now seem really crazy to me, like nigh-unpronounceable. They have also added some new letters to the Arabic alphabet to allow for the French sound in the language. The majority of people here only speak Darija, and maybe French, so it can be rough going for someone like me who knows neither of these languages. I had really hoped that I could get by with my Egyptian, but no go with that either. O well, it will really force me to pick up the language, and the extra classes that I am getting from my host family should really come in handy. My host mom told me that she wants us to be the best of the group in the neighborhood at Darija, so I’ve got someone in the ring with me.

Classes start for real next week, and we will also be meeting our language partners, who are students our age who will be acting as yet another source of language practices. I have a feeling that it’s gonna be a little rough going for a bit, but on the whole I am still super excited for the upcoming two months and will have more for you soon!

Categories: Morocco | 1 Comment

Soaking Up the Last Bits of America

SO in case you didn’t read in the assorted Westminster newspapers, I was lucky enough to be upgraded from alternate to finalist in the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program, which earns me an all expenses paid trip to an intensive Arabic language institute  in Meknes, Morocco. Apparently like 500 people are selected from about 5000 applicants, so I’m pretty excited and honored to have this opportunity.

I found out that I had received the scholarship in the first week of May, so the time since has been a rush of filling out forms and preparing to spend another stint in Africa. This culminated this weekend in getting dropped off at a hotel in DC for a 2 day orientation and meeting all of the other participants from all over the country. Everyone is feeling approximately the same burning nerves as we try to figure out what is in store for us, but we do know some things:

-We will be in class 20 hours a week; 16 studying modern standard Arabic and 4 studying Darija, the Moroccan dialect. Darija is a mix of Arabic, French, and the Berber language, so it is an entirely different beast from the other dialects that I have been studying. We are supposed to be covering about a years worth of material in the 8 weeks that we are abroad.

-I will be staying in a homestay with another CLS student, so we will get the full immersion experience with a family that probably doesn’t speak any English. I think that our family consists of just a husband and wife, so I guess we can be some replacement children.

-We have to sign a language pledge upon arrival to Morocco, so hopefully this experience will be a much more intense one than my time in Egypt. We will be paired with language partners who will be helping us to make the most of our time in country and help us study.

-We have to take a placement exam, which everyone is currently stressing over. I’ve kinda come to trust where placement exams put you, so I’m not trying to cram before hand; the worst possibility would be being placed in a class way over your head.

-I’m doing decent at making some friends for this experience, so we will see how that goes…

After the long orientation process today, my and some of these new acquaintances decided to go a-walking around the city. This turned into a monument tour that included the White House, the Washington Monument, WWII Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the new MLK monument. I guess it works to stuff as much Americana in ourselves before we go to completely immerse ourselves in a new and exciting culture.

Be patient with me; I promise to have some fun pictures and stories up before too long!

Categories: Morocco | Leave a comment

When Will My Reflection Show Who I Am Inside?

HAHA I swear I’m not having an existential crisis, or even just a Mulan fantasy; this week is just called Reflection Week and this song was the first thing that came to mind. So Sunday through Tuesday we have had our Arabic final exams (3 for me) as well as meetings for reflections in our elective classes. I’m now on the other side of all the actual tests and think I came out pretty well; but they definitely were more challenging than the tests I have dealt with back home. Hanshoof insha allah…

So the reflection class for my Egyptology class was actually more of a field trip to go see how modern Egypt still uses Pharaonic styles and ideas in its architecture and art and so forth. We visited the newly remodeled train station and a tomb for a early 20th century nationalist, but my favorite stop was the American University of Cairo wall that borders the Mohamed Mahmud street, which leads from Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry. This wall is home to some of the most iconic graffiti from the revolution, including some professionally done works. I hadn’t had a chance to see these yet, but they are really cool.

To start with, this is the (in)famous Tahrir Square; center of the city and home to the majority of protests and gatherings. Nothing was really going on at this moment, besides maybe some people hanging around to support certain presidential (ex-) candidates. The kinda ugly pinkish building to the right is the Egyptian Museum, home to Tut’s treasures, the Narmer Palette, a bunch of mummies, and more artifacts than they know what to do with. The tall building to its left is the old headquarters of the National Democratic Party, also known as Mubarak’s party. It is actually more of a burned out shell these days; guess when that happened?

The face on the right is Mubarak; the left is the head of the military council, suggesting that they are basically two sides of the same coin. This is the main grievance that Egyptians hold with the progress of the revolution and hopefully it will all get sorted out in the coming election.

The pictures and names of the martyrs that were killed during the revolution. A little ways across the city there is a metro station that used to be called Mubarak station, but was renamed shohada, which means “the martyrs”. All of the signs on the trains and in the stations have the old name scratched out and the new one written beside it.

The soldier in this scares the crap out of me. You can also see the pictures that show that women participated in the revolution, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas; not quite submissive women in veils…

This is one of the main chants of the protestors. It basically means ” Down with the military government”

This is one of the examples of the ancient Egyptian motifs being modified; this shows the weighing of the heart scene, with Mubarak’s heart being way heavy because of his evil deeds. The blue woman is suckling her son, a common way of picturing the gods Isis and Horus, but it here refers to the Susanne Mubarak preparing her son Gamal to take the presidency after his father.

And here are the faces of Susanne and Hosni Mubarak as a two headed snake that stretches 50+ meters down this entire wall.

One more reflection class and a few more program activities, then I will be on a plane heading back to the US!

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

*Insert lyrics to Beyonce’s countdown song that I don’t know*

Today is the last Friday that I will be in Cairo.

However, I refuse to get all introspective yet; I’ll do that later.

Plus we are still doing fun activities, especially now that classes are over. To celebrate finishing my last (and actually only) paper this semester, I decided that it was time to bust out the sangria that I got in Spain and combine it with some fresh Cairo fruit.

Sometimes you need to just sit on the balcony and sip sangria as you look at the crazy city where you live.

To celebrate the end of classes we got to take a self named “party yacht” out on the Nile with some of our Egyptian friends fro pizza and ridiculous dancing. While much of this semester has been geared towards understanding different cultural norms and abiding by them, this day was a good chance to have some fun and maybe even show some of the Egyptians a little bit of how we have fun, chock-full of questionable American club music.

Let’s just say that we may have turned some heads as we passed some other boats. Unfortunately our plans to start a Nile piracy squad might have to be put on hold because we aren’t very good at sneaking up on other boats… Damn club music

This trip was a great way to have a last program hangout with some of our Egyptian friends, as well as meet some of the people that others in my program had gotten to know over the course of the semester.

On our cruise we happened to pass by the boat on which we took our first Nile cruise during orientation at the beginning of the semester; talk about things coming full circle. Oddly enough, I feel like I have been on more boats this semester than in like the past 5 years combined, and here I am in the middle of a country that is mostly desert. I guess it just goes to show you how important the Nile is to the people of Egypt.

For my last Friday here, we decided to go visit an area that we hadn’t yet seen: the Friday market. This is, as you may suspect, a kind of flea market that goes at full capacity on Friday mornings, and is really cool because you can get pretty much anything there, from a parakeet to a sink faucet. This market is mostly for Egyptians, unlike the touristy Khan al-Khalili, so the vendors aren’t nearly as aggressive about getting your attention and the prices are much better if you find something you like. It does get pretty crazy trying to work your way through streets crowded with stalls and cars and people carrying around armfuls of kittens, but it is definitely an experience I would recommend to a visitor, after they had initially gotten  adjusted to the crowds. We started off in the animal part of the market, so there were people everywhere carrying around cages of pigeons, ducks, or chickens, as well as turtles, bunnies, cats, fish, and other song birds. The funniest part was probably when we passed through what seemed to be the puppy corner, and there was a man standing holding a very out of place tiny kitten, which he held up like he could convince us to get it as an impulse buy.

As I count down this last week, I know that Egypt has managed to make it back into international news because of the current protests and clashes, so I feel compelled to mention that they are in a fairly distant part of the city and that I am obviously not heading over there to check them out. I am leaving just a few days before the first free election that Egypt had had in the entire history of the nation, all the way back to the pharaohs, and I am hoping that they go well and the results don’t plunge the country into Revolution pt 2 right after I head out, en-sha-allah.

Categories: Egypt Study Abroad | Leave a comment

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