Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Desert Desert

The above title may appear to be a mistake but it merely an excuse for a little Arabic lesson. Most people I know, including myself, call this geographic feature of Africa “The Sahara Desert.” However, the word Sahara, is simply a transliteration of the same word in Arabic and it literally means desert. So when people say “I went to the Sahara Desert” they are actually saying “I went to the Desert Desert.” Anyway, linguistics aside, I went to the Sahara last weekend.

It was about a 10 hour drive from Rabat to a town called Merzougha on the edge of the desert. The drive took us through snow, winding mountain roads, landscape similar to Arizona or New Mexico, and finally into sand dunes. We had the pleasure of staying at a super nice hotel on the edge of the desert in bungalow dwellings fully equipped with jet bathtubs and even an outdoor hot tub. The hotel had tennis courts, a pool, a jacuzzi, sauna, spa, massages, restaurant, saloon, and even a dance tent with a DJ. They also had 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, 4x4 jeeps and dune buggies available for offroading through the dunes of the Sahara. As much as I really wanted to hop on a dirt bike or hire a dune buggy for the afternoon, it happens to be against my programs safety policy. Regardless, we were taking camels out into the desert.

We all wrapped our heads and faces in scarves and donned our sunglasses as we headed to where our camels were waiting. I was towards the front of the group. As we approached the camels there was one in particular that was not happy. He was growling and yelling and wouldn’t stay still. In fact, 2 guys were trying to hold him down. Of course, one of them motioned to me and told me to get on the camel. I thought, this is crazy. As a approached this crazy camel he jumped up before I could get on. After much back and forth and yelling on the part of the camel he came back down and I prepared to mount. Literally as soon as my weight touched the saddle the camel jumped right up and kind of pranced around. The guys near me got him (and me) under control, tied us to the camel in front of us, and apologized to me saying “He’s a young camel.” Wonderful.

Throughout the rest of this 2 hour trip into the Sahara , at our campsite, and even the next morning, my camel was growling, yelling and just generally not happy. On top of all of that, camels are not very comfortable animals to ride, particularly for men, as they just sort of plod along. From just the 2 hours into the desert I had bruises on my behind. However, even with my camel issues, the Sahara was a grand adventure. We were literally surrounded by sand dunes. We watched the sun set as sand pelted us from the wind and eventually made it to our campsite just after night fall. We enjoyed a delicious uniquely Moroccan dish of minced meat with egg (Tajine) before embarking on one the most physically demanding endeavors of my life.

Our campsite backed up against what was known as the largest dune in Morocco. Every semester, students are challenged to climb to the top with Fouad, our Moroccan resident director. Last semester, 19 students started and 2 made it to the top. Amazingly, 9 of us started and all 9 of us made it to the top. Climbing a sand dune is one of the most physically tiring things I have ever done. And what’s worse is you feel like you aren’t going anywhere because the sand is constantly moving and swallowing your footsteps. Plus, it was nighttime and this was a steep dune. I was literally reduced to crawling on hands and knees to make it to the crest of the two sides of the dune which took quite awhile.

There were 3 of us that made it to the crest together: Fouad, a guy by the name of Greg, and myself. I thought it would be easier but I was horribly mistaken. We removed our sand-filled shoes at this point and since Fouad had done the climb before he lead the way “breaking the crest” towards the summit while Greg and I followed in his footsteps. The going was very difficult and treacherous as the sand would give way on either side of the crest and the wind and sand was whipping us around the whole time. After only 5 minutes or so Fouad was exhausted so we sat down to take a breather. After a short while, we got up and I took the lead breaking the crest up the dune. I lasted all of 5 minutes as well before I collapsed in exhaustion to take a break. Again, after a short while we got up and Greg took the lead breaking the crest. But, once again, after 5 about minutes we all collapsed in exhaustion. We continued on in this manner for at least a half an hour and it seemed like we were going nowhere. Plus, that tajine wasn’t feeling too great in our stomachs. But, at long last the crest began to flatten out and our goal was in sight.

After, well over an hour and a half of climbing we had reached the summit and immediately proceeded to collapse in exhaustion. The stars were absolutely gorgeous from the top. Once all 9 of us had battled through exhaustion, cramps, and even getting sick to make it to the top, we began our decent. This was very easy and even fun except for the fact that it was literally impossible to see where you were going. Up looked the same as down which looked the same as straight out and left or right. All was black. After making it down the dune we each climbed straight into our tents and went to sleep.

(The Dune we hiked in background: you can see only 1/2 from the bottom)

The next morning we got up to watch the beautiful moment when the sun rises over the Sahara and prepared to ride our camels out of the desert. Once out, we dismounted, rubbed our sore limbs, stuffed our faces with food, and prepared for the long trip home. All in all, it was a great adventure into the great Desert Desert.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I want to see mountains again, mountains!

So one of the optional excursions students here in Rabat could go on, involved visiting a Berber village and hiking in the mountains. I jumped on board right away. It takes about 3 hours by bus to really get into the mountains and yes, there is snow in Morocco. We toured several areas and overlooks in the Mountains themselves, known as the Middle-Atlas Mountains. At one stop, a place called Jbel Hebri, or Mt. Hebri, we had the chance to ride around on a horse, do some sledding, or climb the mountain (6348ft). You can guess what I chose. 1 hour later and on the brink of a heart attack I had made it to the top with a friend. While I will readily admit that I am by no means “in shape”, that was a hard climb. It was extremely steep and covered in snow which made it all the more difficult to climb. Once on the top, we realized that our bus was preparing to leave. We were faced with a dilemma: slowly walk down what took us 1 hour to climb, slide/roll down and be a wet mess for the rest of the day, or run down. We chose to run. Somehow, I managed to make it all the way down the mountain without falling. We had to zig-zag back in forth but we were cruising. Everyone at the bottom of the mountain got a good laugh out of the sight of 2 Americans prancing/running/stumbling down a mountain.

That evening we arrived in the Berber village we were staying the night at. Berber people are not Arabs. They are an older, indigenous population living in the mountains and rural parts of Morocco. And this was definitely a village. 300 people living in fairly rudimentary huts and small buildings on the side of a mountain. In fact, this village was so out there and so Berber that a friend and I could not communicate what so ever with our host family. They didn’t understand formal Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, or Egyptian Arabic. It made me realize how much I actually rely on Arabic around the house with my host sister in Rabat. Our stay there became a massive game of charades. They did have a 8 year old daughter who knew some formal Arabic so she served as our translator for urgent matters. She was particularly interesting because she had never seen a white person and immediately took a liking to me. I tried to give her some gum and she was very confused about the idea of putting it in her mouth but not eating it. Of course, she ended up eating it.

On one of my evenings out in the mountains some of us traveled to one of the bigger towns to look for jalabas (the robes that Muslim men wear; they are very warm), eat some food, and get a shave. I’ve always wanted to get a straight blade razor shave so I thought why not get one in Morocco? The guy who gave me my shave was a friend of one of our resident directors and gave me a great price and a great shave! It was ten times better than any shave I’ve ever given myself!

Finally, on our last day in the mountains we went on an extensive hike. We spent 6 hours hiking and according to our resident director, Fouad, we went 40km, which is a lot. I think we went more like 15 miles. Regardless, it was pretty tough going since we were climbing up mountains essentially. We got some gorgeous views of the surrounding areas and ate lunch on a beautiful sheer cliff. As we worked our way around the mountains Fouad began making a loud kissing noise by essentially kissing his hand loudly. I asked him why he was doing this and he said that he was calling the monkeys. Funny, but I didn’t think much of it and we continued hiking. However, he continued making this noise intermittently for the next five minutes or so until he brought us to a complete stop and started looking around. I asked him what he was doing and he told me “Help me find the monkeys. We are supposed to meet them here.” I thought maybe he was misusing a word in English so I said, “Wait, what do you mean we are supposed to meet the monkeys here?” (side note: as I’m asking him these questions he is crawling around, looking under trees, and searching the branches, presumably for monkeys) He answers me saying, “Didn’t you hear me calling them a couple of minutes ago? I told them to meet us here.” Yea right, okay. You’re pretty funny. How on earth can we “meet” the monkeys at a specific spot? But wouldn’t you know it, he yells out to us and points off into the trees where we see none other than a group of monkeys making their way towards us! I turned to Fouad in utter disbelief and said “No way.” He laughed and promised to do it (talk with the monkeys) on our next hiking trip. It was completely ridiculous.

We spent some time taking pictures of the monkeys and feeding them food from our hands as they were extremely friendly even though we were in the middle of a mountain forest with no one else around. We hiked on a while longer until we arrived at what is known as “the oldest, biggest tree in Morocco.” It was very old and it was very big but it was also very dead. All and all though, it was a great hiking trip and a great cultural experience. I can’t wait to hike Mt. Toubkal, the largest mountain in North Africa (13671ft).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On Soccer

Apologies for the long delay between posts. The last several weeks have been very busy with trips and getting into a groove of everyday life.

So some of my classmates and I decided to attend a Moroccan soccer match between the main team from Rabat, FUS, and the main team from Casablanca, Raja. As we arrive at the stadium we see at least 20 kids (10-15yrs) jump the barrier at the entrance and storm the stadium. No big deal. We get in line, get our tickets, and make it through the gate with the help of a Moroccan police officer. We get to talking with the police officer and he does not appear pleased with the tickets we bought for ourselves; particularly after finding out we were American. He decides that he will take us to new seats. We pass through the players area to the main entrance where we are greeted by a doorman and a very nice lobby. Clearly, these are not the seats we paid for. The police decided it would be best to put us in the most expensive seats in the house, for safety purposes. We were about 5 feet from where the King would watch games if he were in attendance. The game wasn't particularly interesting though there was considerable tension among the fans. A flare was one of the more exciting moments.

However, things got interesting at the end of the game. We were able to leave the stadium just fine and kept asking police officers where we could get a taxi. They all pointed in the same vague direction. After some time of walking and waiting we were presented with an opportunity. A van, crammed full of Moroccans, pulled up and offered to take us to the taxis for 5 dirham. This sounded good to me. For the record though, the van was your stereotypical kidnap/bad guy van. A friend and I took them up on their offer and 10 minutes later we were at a main traffic circle with tons of taxis. Here's the problem though, several of our friends didn't feel comfortable with the van concept. They chose to wait for a taxi back near the stadium.

As my friend and I attempted to get a taxi to go pick them up, I get a phone call. Apparently, there are roving gangs of children armed with rocks attacking each other and anyone they find and they just so happen to be heading towards my friends near the stadium. My friend who came in the van and I immediately began to run back towards the stadium but we were stopped by police who had blocked the street and the sidewalk. Why? Because of these gangs of kids. As the police officer said, "There are groups of kids who don't know what's going on in their lives right now attacking people." We tried to explain to the police that our friends were down there and needed help. They laughed and told us that if we waited 20-30min our friends would certainly show up.

Anyway, to make a long story short. We attempted to get a taxi to go around the police blockade and rescue our friends but en route I received a call that Moroccan secret police had found our friends and were protecting them until transportation arrived. Essentially, they rode up on mopeds and started beating up children until a van arrived to take our friends to a taxi. We all made it safely home and learned to always travel in packs with sticks to fight off roving gangs of children.
The glass railing is the front edge of the King's box