The beauty of Term in the Middle East is how absolutely calculated and exquisitely planned it is. Sure, traveling is always an adventure, and we have, as a group, run into our fair share of minor bumps in the past few months, but, as a whole, we’ve been inherently fortunate to have the excellent team at the St. Olaf International and Off-Campus Studies office plan out our logistics – where we’ll lay our heads at night, the professors we’ll be conversing with, our means of travel from place to place.
And yet I came on this program to also gain confidence in my own ability as a traveler to survive and thrive in cultures that are extremely different from anything I’d ever before encountered. Unlike a program, say, in Western Europe, I wanted an experience that would push my comfort levels and prove to me that I have the stamina to seek out and enjoy all of the fascinating different ways of life the world has to offer, despite barriers of language, race, gender or even temperature (this is not to belittle abroad programs in Western Europe, for I firmly believe that they too are extremely important for the advancement of education, but to simply get across that my reasons for choosing TIME were not solely academic but were also quite personal).
This confidence in my ability to travel in a foreign culture, among a foreign tongue, was tested this past weekend as I faced fall break, a weekend that, were I home, would probably have consisted of lounging on a couch in my basement watching black and white romantic dramas. But I wasn’t at home, I was in Morocco, a location that demanded a bit more adventure from the wayward traveler within me.
Our leaders, Mark and Meredith, ever the ones to impress upon us the importance of our own independence on this trip, made it adamantly clear that they were going to Barcelona for the long weekend and that we too should be seeking out opportunities on our own to get out and experience more to this region than just the old medieval quarter of Fez. TIME groups in the past had ventured to Spain or the mountains or the beach, or just stayed in Fez. We wanted to get out.
My aunt owns a cabin back home in Minnesota, and has had some success in renting it out on long summer weekends to people who simply want a change of pace. I immediately began looking at similar options in Morocco, finally stumbling upon the website homelidays.com where I spent hours browsing over houses big and small, expensive and cheap, in excellent and not-so-excellent locations. Five other girls, along with myself, eventually decided on a small but beautiful home in the small town of Oualidia, situated right on the Atlantic coast about two hours south of Casablanca. I emailed the owner, Nadia, immediately.
The trip was not without fault (most of them my own mistake…), but luck seemed to be on our side. Even though I had originally booked the house for the wrong weekend (guessing that fall break fell the weekend after it actually did), Nadia assured me at the last minute that the house was still available for the dates we wanted. We arrived at the train station to find out that the train we had expected to take to Casablanca from Fez actually left an hour before we had anticipated, but we had arrived extra early and managed to just catch it. When we got to Casablanca and had to rent a grand taxi to take us the two hours to Oualidia, we discovered that grand taxis are hardly grand, and we spent two hours crammed two in the front, four in the back of a regular-sized automobile (which resulted in a few stiff necks but many more laughs). We had difficulty finding groceries, and had to deal with the usual amount of smack talk from men on the street, but for the most part we found the town exceptionally beautiful – blue and white, with flowers and a fresh breeze that wafted up the cliffside from the crashing waves of the lagoon below.
Despite the setbacks, the house was lovely and we all felt an extreme sense of accomplishment for making it to the right destination and somehow finding the key and our house amidst the many similar buildings in the complex, all without speaking a lick of French or Arabic. Imagine: a large living room, spacious terrace, and a beautiful large balcony that looked out over the ocean where we would spend most nights drinking coveted wine (it’s hard to find any alcohol at all in Muslim countries, even for those of legal age), staring at the brightest stars and giggling about life. There were large spacious beds and warm fuzzy blankets, and a television with cable (even though most of the channels were in German – who knew?). The highlight of the house, however, was the kitchen, where we gathered together to cook pastas and foods from home, a far cry from the foreign (though also delicious) foods that had graced our homestay tables during the past two weeks.
The highlight – and the reason we chose this house in the first place – was its proximity to the ocean, and our expectations were far exceeded in terms of beauty and ambiance. Sunbathing on the sand at the lagoon that carved inward near our house, watching kayakers and small boats float along with tourists and locals. The water was cold but refreshing, and we wrote poems in our journals and read and worked on our Chaco tans. At sunset we’d venture farther out to the actual ocean edge and climb over the rocks and poke at the tide pools, and then scream as we we’re splashed by a watery skyscraper, baptized in liquid red, yellow and orange.
In retrospect, the weekend seems cinematic, unreal, like something one would read about in a promotional brochure. And yet, that’s what it was. Compared to the imposing, bullying character of Fez, Oualidia was soft, quiet and romantic. And simple. On our final day, while we once again dealt with the hassles of transportation – somehow we had ordered two taxis to drive us the two hours to the train station; cue loud, brash, unintelligible squabble – I realized that the real world still existed. Travel itself isn’t all sunsets and sand, there are cramped taxis and miscommunication galore, but the results are worth it. Even poor encounters lead to experience, a broadened knowledge of the world. I cannot wait to continue to explore.