Letter Home from Morocco

A letter home from students on the IHP Climate Change Fall 2014 program:

Our group, the 22 of us studying Climate Change: Politics of Food, Water, and Energy this fall, arrived in Rabat at the beginning of October after a long day of travel. Immediately, we discovered the beautiful beach and maze-like medina streets of Rabat. We quickly learned that bread, called “khobz” in Darija (the Moroccan Arabic dialect), and sugar are the staples of our diet here. “Khobz” is served with every meal, which includes breakfast, lunch, a 5 or 6 pm snack, and a very late dinner around 9 or 10 pm. It is not only bread in the traditional sense, but also a utensil, used to pick up vegetables and meat from one’s ‘zone’ in tagines. Tagine is a ceramic dish used to serve traditional meals, and is always accompanied by mint tea. The mint tea is comprised of fresh mint, green tea, occasionally dried mint, and a lot of sugar – it’s delicious!

All of our homestays are located within the walls of the old medina. The old medina is found in each major Moroccan city, and is a network of alleys surrounded by an outer wall where, during the dynastic days, religious people (Muslims, Catholics, Jews, etc.) lived together in harmony. The medina of Rabat is one of the smaller medinas in Morocco, but this does not make it any easier to navigate! It took many of us over a week to learn the way through the labyrinth to our classroom, the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning. When we arrived on the first day, we were surprised to find three other SIT groups studying there. Coming from Vietnam, where we did not encounter other American students, this was an unexpected change in our learning environment. It’s great to hear their tips and stories about life in Morocco during our lunches provided by the Center. They have already been living with homestay families for over a month, so they provided valuable insight into the cultural dynamics and social norms we would soon encounter.

Our homestay families vary in size, but many of our families have young children. Most children learn English in school, so we can communicate with them, but the parents primarily speak Darija or French; this has allowed some of us to practice our French. Some of our homestays have Turkish toilets, which took some getting used to. Given the water scarcity in Morocco, most families want to conserve water and therefore limit the amount used for bathing. Daily showering is not common, as most families visit the hammam weekly. The hammams are public baths, separated by gender, where we use mesh gloves or loofahs to scrub and clean thoroughly for hours at a time; many Moroccans also see going to the hammam as a spiritual cleansing. Many of us have tried out the hammams for ourselves and have found it a really interesting (and exfoliating) experience.

Between class ending around 4 pm and dinner around 10 pm, we have had free time to explore Rabat. Many of us have enjoyed Frisbee and soccer at the beach, visiting the Chellah ruins, exploring the newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, exercising at the local gym, and drinking coffee at medina cafés. We also had a free weekend, where many of us planned an excursion to Chefchaouen, a predominantly blue city in the mountains, painted by Jewish refugees who saw blue as a symbol for the sky and heaven; we loved walking around to see the medina and hiking up to a mosque to watch the sunrise. We have also had the opportunity to travel throughout the country for various site visits from Casablanca to Fes and the Atlas Mountains.

In Casablanca, we visited the state-owned water and energy provider, ONEE, and learned about their renewable and fossil fuel energy projects around the country. We then spent a week based in Ben Smim, a village in the Atlas Mountains, that is the center of a water bottling conflict and a beautiful natural wonder, where we wake up surrounded by sheep, donkeys, and the crisp mountain air. Here, we visited a national forest where we learned about the negative impacts of tourism on the forest, which was an interesting contrast to our visit to the Tra Su forest in Vietnam, where ecotourism was seen as beneficial. We’ve also seen the first controlled landfill in the country and a hydropower dam outside of Fes, and a fish culture station in the mountains. Our experiences at these site visits have been enriched by comparing them with similar experiences in Vietnam; many of the same environmental issues exist, such as allocating natural resources for growing populations, planning sustainable development, and expanding energy production. Our country coordinator has been very helpful in making these connections academically, as well as helping us through our social and personal transitions from Vietnam to Morocco.

Upon arrival, we were given a day-long orientation focused on cultural differences that touched on issues of street harassment, the role of women, and changing gender dynamics within the country. Our predominantly female group has definitely encountered such harassment, but because we were given applicable tools and skills from the beginning, we have been able to cope with and adapt to this aspect of daily life here. We’ve also received a lot of support and assistance from our travelling fellow, as we strive to stay healthy given the very different diet, routine, and busy schedule. Our experiences and adjustments have taught us how to adapt to new environments and have introduced us to habits and tools we can use in our daily lives when we return home, such as taking shorter showers, doing less laundry, and channeling confidence when entering new situations.

We’ve loved our time here so far, and look forward to further exploring the country independently during our upcoming four-day fall break. Several of us have made plans to visit the Sahara Desert, Tangier, Marrakesh or Essouira. Then, off to Bolivia we go!

Here are some pictures and videos made by one of our classmates of our time in Morocco!

Video of Chefchaouen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlqrpXtoRXk&app=desktop

Video of Rabat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8Q6a_PrNV4&list=PLUOPQlIumxqCNy9lidMQTFZD7yjxd5Oik&index=6

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Tagines, accompanied by rice and salad, for lunch at the CCCL

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The beautiful Atlas Mountains, where we stayed for a week in Ben Smim village


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Overlooking Rabat


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Daily breakfast in Rabat with our host families


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Medina street of Rabat


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Our group upon arrival to Rabat, after 36 hours of travel!

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