I love trains. Actually, I’m obsessed with trains. As a kid, I always played with and watched Thomas the Tank Engine, I read piles of books about different kinds of trains, and when I was three years old I dressed as a train for Halloween. It’s one of the earliest forms of industrialized transportation dating back to the early 19th century, and even now I can still feel a certain magic about riding in one. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a nerd for trains. Putting my obsession aside, you would love trains too if you rode one in Moroccan. Many tourists typically don’t use the train system in Morocco and instead use planes, but I am about to tell you a train is the best “off the beaten path” experience.
My goal since I arrived in Morocco has been to meet with real Moroccans and experience Morocco alongside them. Tourists can easily afford to ride première classe in a train, but not many locals ride in that compartment. If I wanted to truly live like a Moroccan and talk to locals, I had to go where the locals would be. Let me tell you, deuxième classe is where the fun is. The best way to describe deuxième classe is like a game of tetras, where you see how many passengers and baggage can fit into a train car since trains are always over-booked and seats are a on first come, first serve basis. Not convinced yet to brave this journey? You will be after I tell you about my trip from Marrakesh to Rabat.
It was a windy afternoon at le Gare de Marrakesh when my friends and I were literally running to catch our train back to Rabat as it is just departing. The train is a rustic style from its design in the 1920s-1930s with vibrant tan and orange patterns along its side. We were the last ones on the train that was clearly overbooked and we knew that we would never get a seat. Carrying our bags in the hot and crowded spaces, we walk through the first car with no luck finding seats. Second car, still no seats. By the fourth car, I gave up. I put my bags down at the end of the car by the train doors and sat on the floor. Best decision I’ve made in Morocco.
A Moroccan man sitting across from me propped the door with his foot while the train was moving and this gust of fresh wind hit my face. “C’est d’accord si la porte est ouverte?” he asks (“Is it okay if the door is open”). I responded with a cheerful yes as I watched the country pass before my very eyes. I saw patches of cactuses and the steep Atlas Mountains, roaming goat and sheep herders who waved to me, children playing soccer on dirt fields, secluded mosque towers in the middle of expansive fields of crops. I sat by this open door with the wind blowing on my face and the smell of the Moroccan man’s cigarette on me.
Soon other passengers joined us as they too realized there were no more seats on this train. For the rest of the train ride I talked to an elderly couple from Casablanca about their life in Morocco and how excited they were that “a foreigner wanted to learn Darija”, and I played peak-a-boo with a small Moroccan girl from Mohammedia who shared her cookies with me. After a weekend in Marrakesh filled with tourists and classic tourist sites like the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, it was amazing to see and learn so much about Morocco just on this train. If you want adventure and to truly see Morocco, take the Marrakesh Express.
This entry features a submission by former AMIDEAST Education Abroad student, Everest Robinson. Everest participated in the AMIDEAST Morocco Regional Studies in French program during the Fall 2015 term. From Macalester College in Minnesota, Everest is a student of Psychology and Religious Studies. We hope you enjoy his reflection on his experience in Morocco!
It’s very hard to sum up four months of my life in Morocco, to extract a single lesson or even a single story. There are so many stories so many ways that my life has been altered by Morocco.
The place I would start with to describe my time in Morocco is not a location or an experience, but the people, for people always make a place. The people of Morocco have taught me so much. As a tourist, I sometimes found myself in situations where it would’ve been very easy to take advantage of me. However, this rarely happened. By and large, Moroccan people were not only helpful but they went above and beyond just extending courtesy and aid; they treated me as a family member and showed genuine interest and investment in my well-being. In a similar vein, I noticed community solidarity every day whether it was four people jumping at the chance to help a mother get her stroller on the bus or a stranger watching someone’s kids as the parents went into a shop. I will never forget this community solidarity which has become a part of my identity, and I will never forget that many times I was vulnerable in an unfamiliar place where if not for the assistance of strangers I could’ve encountered trouble.
Overall, I found my experience abroad to be simultaneously challenging and illuminating. During my time abroad, I was forced to use muscles that I had rarely used before. I confronted myself just as much I confronted the socio-cultural obstacles. In general, I tend to be more of a follower/people-pleaser. I rarely drive the plans or the conversation within a social group. When I stay at someone’s house I try to be invisible and rarely express my needs. While I was abroad, I learned very quickly that they are times when it is necessary to advocate for yourself and be assertive. I could’ve let the semester move along with my various discomforts and had regrets at the end, but instead I learned to confront people with my desires and I even made a trip by myself to Chefchaouen when no one wanted to go the particular weekend I had available. There were so many experiences that became available with me at the small price of asserting myself. Because of this perspective-shift I was able to leave Morocco with zero regrets and with an increased ability to assert myself which is quite a useful skill to have in adulthood.
Another hugely important thing I take with me back to the states is an increased awareness of the global community. By going to Morocco I was exposed to viewpoints that simply aren’t available in the United States in my upper-class liberal arts bubble. I learned far more about Islam than I could’ve learned in any textbook or web search. Greater than the French I learned was the shockingly simple revelation that other people use all sorts of languages all around the world and that this language in turn influences their perceptions. Furthermore, many things cannot be translated into words. I learned a great deal about wealth disparity from living with a middle class Moroccan family and teaching English to refugees from many Sub-Saharan nations. Finally, I learned that there are so many different ways to live life on planet earth in community and that although I may be more comfortable living one way, that does not mean that the others are less correct on a universal level. After being abroad, I feel a greater connection to the global community.
I can’t put a price or any sort of measure on what my semester abroad has meant to me. It is invaluable. It is part of me. It has shaped me irreversibly. I strongly believe this opportunity should exist for every person on this wonderful planet, and I’m immensely grateful to have had this opportunity.
Kristin Licciardell’s time away from Rutgers University on the Morocco Area & Arabic Language Studies fall 2014 program was well documented through the lens of her camera. Here are her favorite moments from four months abroad.
Jumping off the Edge:
Taken along the river separating the city of Rabat from neighboring Sale, this location is a hot spot for locals and travellers alike. The river is lined with cafes, a small amusement park for children, and small boats that take people from one side to another. On a casual afternoon walk, I spotted a group of young boys jumping off the sidewalk edge. I tried to sneak a shot without them noticing, but they quickly recognized the foreigner with a camera and began doing stylish jumps and flips to show off. I have noticed that cliff jumping is a popular activity for young boys throughout many Moroccan beach towns. A Moroccan friend of mine in El Jadida (one of the best places to jump, because of the old Portuguese fort walls) pointed out to me that there are often separate levels of jumping— the higher the jumper, the higher the level. The older boys like to jump from the highest levels, while the younger boys jump off lower levels.
In our Summer 2014 Intensive Arabic Program, scholarship winner, Taylor Mosely, had an amazing experience. Taylor, a student from Vassar University, found that she not only improved her Arabic language skills significantly, but also learned a great deal about the region and Omani culture in general. She outlines the highlights of her experience on our program in her end of semester essay. All photo credit goes to Taylor Mosely.
Before I made my journey to Muscat, Oman in the summer of 2014, I sat down and contemplated the reasons why I wanted to study Arabic. I came to the conclusion that my home institution, Vassar College, has indeed opened my mind and given me the tools to constructively think about the society I live in. I believed, however, that there was so much more for me to learn that could not be taught on campus. I realized that as an International Studies major, it was imperative that I study abroad. I was highly interested in learning the Arabic language outside of the United States because it would expose me to a whole new world. I was also excited to get an intimate view of culture outside of my own. For me, the possibility of studying Arabic in a foreign country was energizing because I deeply wanted to become familiar with the Middle Eastern region on a personal level. All things considered, I thought that studying abroad would expand my personal horizons, strengthen my language skills and deepen my understanding of the Arab history and culture.
Keren Saidac, a student from the University of Wisconsin, studied with AMIDEAST/Jordan during the Summer of 2014. At the end of her program she took the time to reflect on her experiences through pictures.
The Little Things
Standing on top of the highest peak of Ajloun Castle provides one of the most unbelievable views of Jordan’s many wonders. Just taking a few moments to observe and absorb it is really something magical.