After so much uncertainty and anticipation — I am in Morocco. This semester, I will be studying in Al Akhawayn University, AUI, a school tucked away in the Middle Atlas Mountains of North Africa.
My journey began on January 14th at 5 a.m. in Miami, Florida. After 4 or 5 hours of sleep (I am a habitual late packer) I was both nervous and excited for what laid ahead. My mom came to check on me to make sure I was awake and kindly made me two sandwiches: one for breakfast and one for lunch for when I landed in New York. Without delay, we drove 40 minutes to Fort Lauderdale to catch my 8 a.m. flight to JFK Airport. I embarked on the plane and slept from take-off to landing.
(Travel tip: Whenever you are traveling to or from Miami, fly from Fort Lauderdale Airport. Not only are prices a lot cheaper, but the airport is usually on time, and if you are from South Florida, you know that is a blessing).
I had a 7 hour layover at JFK so I reread ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite books that coincidentally takes place in Tangier, Morocco. While I waited for the Moroccan booth to open, 104 Peace Corps volunteers showed up and were all in the same flight as me to Casablanca!
And so, our plane took off at 6 p.m.– a 7 hour flight across 5 time zones and one Atlantic ocean. As faith would have it, the two people sitting next to me were also headed to AUI. Thomas, a graduate student was returning for his second semester and Sasha was doing her first study abroad semester.
When we arrived at Casablanca at around 6 a.m. (1 a.m. Eastern Time) Sasha and I decided to stick together since we both had the same flight to Fes at 10:35 p.m. later that night. We bought a train ticket for 40 dirhams (around $5) to get closer to the center of Casablanca which conveniently departed from within the airport. We planned on booking a hotel for the afternoon so that we could do some quick sight-seeing before heading back to the airport.
Most people here speak Moroccan Darija, which is a combination of Arabic and French with some words in Berber, Spanish and English. Surprisingly I managed to communicate with our taxi driver– he spoke French and I spoke Spanish but I added ‘eh’ at the end of every word to make it sound a little more French.
Once at the hotel, we had a complementary breakfast of bread, yogurt, and my first delicious encounter with a staple of Moroccan cuisine — Moroccan Mint tea. Up until this point, I can’t say I had experienced culture shock, but as Sasha and I waited for the elevator to head back to our room, I had my first experience of culture shock. Culture shock in the sense that my core, the foundation that I felt was stable enough to endure anything, was literally shaken and crumbled underneath my weight.
A dark, ghastly figured appeared from the corner of my eyes as she walked down the stairs behind her husband. She was completely covered in black cloth– not a square inch of skin exposed. I thought I was prepared– the streets, the crowd, the traffic, was nothing unlike what you would find in any major city in a developing country. But nothing in my life could have prepared me for that moment: the first time I saw a woman in a burqa. It was right then and there that it finally hit me — I am in Morocco.
We went back to our room with a newly discovered perspective and took a quick nap before going out to see the city. We grabbed lunch at a local café and headed to the Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and the 7th largest in the world.
We toured around the mosque, took our touristy pictures and head back to the hotel before sunset to make our way back to the airport for our final flight to Fes, the Spiritual Capital of Morocco.
Back at the Casablanca Airport, we met with three other students that were also studying abroad at AUI: Paloma, Toz, and Ayla. With our newly formed crew, all five of us embarked on a 40 minute flight to Fes. Once at Fes, we were greeted by two student ambassadors from AUI — Ijlal and Sofia, two incredibly friendly Moroccan girls that would soon enough become two of my best friends here. However, the journey wasn’t over, not yet. We still had an hour car ride to get to Ifrane. We had to wait for the AUI van to pick up a sixth exchange student that had decided to take the train from Fes to Ifrane. After some fact checking, Ijlal realized that we were waiting for me! We all laughed it off and the van eventually came to pick us up.
As we arrived, the gates of AUI opened in front of us — around 1 a.m. GMT at this point — and I had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead. I looked out the window, a full moon illuminating the road, the stars, brighter than I ever seen them before, and I thought to myself: this is only the beginning.