Where Did We Come From and How Did We Get Here?

Siobhán O’Grady, a student at Dickinson College, studied in Rabat, Morocco for her Fall 2011 semester. In this post she relates a story about overcoming obstacles and discovering the meaning of studying abroad.

It started with just one monkey. He seemed friendly enough, and we trusted him when we followed him down the dirt roads of Azrou’s Mount Rachidia in Morocco’s mid-Atlas mountains. But then we realized he was not alone. We were walking through a colony of monkeys. Big monkeys. They stepped out slowly, but were soon surrounding us, becoming defensive of their territory. We were nine, and they were dozens. Five of our group got past the first pack of them, but the other four (myself included) turned and ran in the opposite direction.

Mother Monkey Glaring at Camera

“No but you didn’t see the way that big one was looking at us!” I explained through tears on the phone to my friend who was on the other side of the monkeys, just a few minutes walk down the road. “If you guys don’t get past them you’ll never see the panoramic view we’ve been looking for all morning,” he explained. It was at this point that I couldn’t help but laugh. I was lost in the mountains, in the heart of Morocco, with a pack of wild and vicious monkeys blocking my way to the view I had traveled five hours by train and grand-taxi to see. “What is my life?” I thought. After discussing it with my three friends who had come the same direction as me, we decided we just did not have the courage to venture back down the monkeys’ road. We took the road less traveled, without much hope we would find anything nearly as interesting as what we were sure our friends would find on the other side of the mountain. Angry and jealous of those five who were on their way to a comfortable picnic with a scenic view, we slowly trudged along the steep mountain road, unsure of what would lie ahead.

After fifteen minutes of walking, we stopped in awe as we realized we had accidentally stumbled upon an empty riverbed, with walls as high as we could see. It’s the dry season in Morocco right now, and the river was nearly all dried up, with only a few pools of dirty water left. We climbed through beds of rock and mud, higher and higher until we came to a large flat rock that seemed just the right place to take a break. Basking in the happiness that we had found something just as beautiful as the view we figured our friends had found, we rationed out what little food we had between the four of us and took a thirty-minute break staring out into the abyss of light brown stone. “WHAT IS THAT?” my friend shouted as she jumped up. Still on edge from our run-in with the monkeys, we all gathered up our things and started running across the giant rock without even knowing what was behind us.

Friends look out over riverbed

When we looked back we started to laugh. It was a huge herd of over one hundred sheep; eager to drink from the pools of water we had passed down below. My friend’s poor eyesight had scared us into thinking we were in danger once again. Intrigued by where their shepherd could live in these deserted mountains, we started to climb down the rock and toward the sheep. Soon the sheep were being shepherded up the steep mountainside. We watched in disbelief as their shepherd picked up a tiny lamb and carried it up the steep rock without holding onto anything to balance himself. We started to follow him, shouting greetings in Arabic as we struggled with the broken rock and loose dirt. Soon a few more shepherds arrived, and they yelled words of encouragement down to us as we unsteadily climbed on all fours. We reached the top, and found ourselves in a rocky pasture, where the sheep were peacefully grazing on small patches of grass. Looking down below we were shocked that we had succeeded in climbing up, and as we looked at the shepherd for words of congratulations, we realized he was entirely disinterested in us and what we were doing there.

Berber shepherd sits as sheep scale mountainside (Photo credit Brittany Dawson)

Rather than feeling annoyed by his disinterest, I felt excited by it. These mountains were his home; these sheep were his job. He didn’t need to know what we were doing, and we didn’t need to know where he lived. We were all just there, in the same mountains, doing what we were doing. After taking a few minutes to congratulate ourselves on our massive accomplishment, one of my friends suggested we try climbing higher, to find a view of the hundreds of other mountaintops in the area. We started to climb an even steeper hill than the first one, passing friendly sheep and mountain goats along the way. When we looked down from the top, it seemed we could see to the end of the world. The view was astonishing, neither words nor pictures could ever do it justice. Every step we took we could see another hundred miles.

When we finally came to the peak, we discovered a beautiful pasture up above, with another shepherd and his sheep wandering in the fields. This pasture was entirely grassy, and totally flat, which meant we had reached the very top of the mountain. In the distance we could see other hills and pastures that seemed to go on forever. We sat down in the field and soon the sheep and goats were surrounding us, unafraid and unaware of the differences between their shepherd and us, or between their home and ours.

Siobhan standing among the sheep (Photo credit Brittany Dawson)

Before coming to Morocco, I read a former AMIDEAST student’s blog, which discussed the way living in this country increased her Understanding (with a capital “U”) of humanity. This weekend, I accidentally climbed up a mountain as I ran away from savage monkeys. I greeted a Berber shepherd, sat in a field with his sheep, and looked out upon his mountains that seemed to stretch into eternity. He will probably never think of me again, but I can’t imagine I will ever forget him, his sheep, his home, or the randomness that led me to them to begin with. Despite this difference, between us there was an Understanding. Our world is a remarkable place, made up of beautiful oceans, mountains, lakes, and forests. Living in a city makes it easy to forget the beauty of the world we inhabit, and the simplicity in which some humans still live. That shepherd sits in the fields all day, with no book, no music, no Internet. He probably lives in a small stone house miles away from the pastures where we sat. He might venture into the closest city a few times a year, and it’s possible he will never understand the unnecessary complexity that exists where we come from back home. But we’re both human, and on that day, we both breathed in the cool mountain air, witnessed the beauty of a simple herd of sheep grazing in a pasture, and experienced the presence of each other, coming from two different worlds and somehow landing upon the same mountaintop in the middle of rural Morocco.

This is what being abroad is all about. It’s not always the biggest cities, the most detailed mosques, or the prettiest monuments that connect you to the country where you live. It’s the small moments, the accidental discoveries, and the private encounters that make you suddenly realize what your life has become, and that increase your Understanding of why you’re here at all. That day, our five friends who got past the monkeys didn’t find an impressive panoramic view. The four of us who were not brave enough to pass the scary monkeys ended up finding a part of Morocco inhabited only by Berber shepherds, who lead their lives based on ancient traditions, never needing much outside of their own community. Our day was exhausting and relaxing and perfect, and it was all an accident.

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