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Marhaba ila al-Maghreb!

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Welcome to Morocco! Apologies for not updating in a while. It has been a hectic first couple of weeks! I will, however, be writing multiple posts about my time here thus far. So to start off, let’s begin with my arrival to Al Akhawayn University.

I left BWI airport on a Tuesday afternoon: I tearfully said goodbye to my parents before the security check-point. Even though I’ve done this numerous times, it never gets any easier. Interestingly, the TSA officer asked me if I was going home, oblivious to my red eyes and sniffles. I responded, no, that I was actually leaving home; I then accepted my passport and boarding pass and walked through security–all the while waving back at my parents who were waiting for me to be out of eyesight. After a few deep breaths and a final air-kiss, I set off to find my gate. Luckily it wasn’t too far away and it was already boarding. So I got in line and waited to get on the first plane that would take me to New York.

On the plane, I sat next to a girl who looked to be my age. We quickly got into a conversation about where we were going (she back to school in California), where we were from (both from Maryland), but interestingly enough, I don’t think we ever exchanged names. All I remember is that she was blonde, majoring in nutrition, and going to Italy over the summer (it would be her first time abroad). We talked and talked before the plane departed 15 minutes behind schedule, and half way through the two hour flight, the conversation tapered off and we both tried to sleep. It seemed that I instantaneously woke up to hear the captain saying, “Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing.” And before I knew it, we were on the ground at JFK International Airport. The blonde girl and I said our goodbyes and wished each other luck on a successful semester, and we departed ways as she set out to find food and I to find my gate.

I finally did find the gate on my boarding pass, but after about half an hour of waiting (read: unsuccessfully trying to put a screen protector on my iPad), I heard a girl answer a phone call and say that our gate had been changed. I looked up at the gate screen and, indeed, my gate had been moved all the way back to where I had arrived. So I packed up all my stuff to retrace my steps. As I was walking toward the correct gate, I stopped into a tech store and asked about screen protectors for the iPad. The store employees wouldn’t put on a cheap protector (for fear of messing it up and having bubbles), so I paid for a more expensive protector that was “bubble-free” and that they put on right then and there. In retrospect, it was well worth it. I continued on my quest to find the right gate number and finally found it with two hours to spare. Even with so much time left, there was a surprising number of people already waiting. It was difficult to find an empty spot for three people. I was waiting for two other girls, Angie and Rachael, who were on the same exchange program as me. We had been in contact all morning and I knew that Angie was coming straight from the city while Rachael was coming from the airport in Buffalo. Both of them called/texted me when they had trouble checking in (I had the same trouble myself–our tickets say that we are staying for four months, but you are only allowed to stay in Morocco for up to three months without a visa; this was resolved by showing the attendant the official letter from Al Akhawayn saying that they would help us apply for residency while we are here). Shortly after I sat down, I met Angie for the first time in-person and we sat for a bit, talking to each other. I ended up having to go use a charging station for my phone and go to the bathroom. By the time I came back, people were boarding the plane and it was almost Angie’s turn (she was in section 3, and I was in section 4). When my section finally got called, I went to stand in line–but where was Rachael? I tried calling her but there was no answer. Thankfully I saw her a few seconds later walking up to the line while talking on the phone. She told me all about how she had already had luggage and check-in problems, but she had finally made it (alhamdulilah). We were almost the last ones to board, and by the time we were about to enter the plane, the flight attendants were calling for passengers to check-in their carry-ons due to lack of overhead space. So Rachael and I checked-in our carry-ons, but I kept my backpack to put under the seat.

When I finally got to my window seat (the only place that I can ever fall asleep on a plane) in the very back, I let out a sigh of relief. I was on my way out of the US and into Morocco, via Spain. The American Airlines aircraft was extremely small: only two sides of three seats each with one aisle down the middle. I was used to international carriers having two aisles, with each side having two seats and the middle row having three. I had never been in such a cramped plane! My leg room was minimal and as I said before, there wasn’t enough room for carry-ons to be placed overhead. But no matter, the nice lady sitting next to me struck up a conversation on my exact thoughts: how small and cramped the plane was. She looked to be in her late sixties, and she was sitting next to a man about her age, who I initially took to be her husband. We got along quite well and quickly found out that we were both from western Maryland: she from Garrett county and I from Washington. Her and husband were both retired teachers who had taught in the public school system, and now they spent a lot of their time traveling the world and seeing lots of historical European cities. This was their first time to Madrid, and they were going with their neighbors (one of whom she was sitting beside). I asked her lots of questions about her travels and her son, who she was very proud of. It turns out that Budapest and Prague were her favorite cities and she told me of how she and her husband surprised their son at his graduation at the University of Hawaii–their flight was delayed and they got to the venue with only ten minutes to spare! It was only after a good hour after take-off that she introduced herself to me as Mary. It’s funny how traveling strips any necessity of introducing yourself to a travel companion. I wonder why. Is it that we feel it unnecessary to give our names to people who we will almost certainly never see again? Or is it that it is just easier to talk to people without having to force yourself to remember their name? Whatever the case, I kind of like it.

Anyways, after a six-hour flight, complete with mediocre food and minimal sleep (although I did manage to get a bit of shut-eye!), we landed in Madrid International Airport early Wednesday morning. The three of us (Angie, Rachael, and I) set out to find a place to sit for the next few hours until our connecting flight, and we settled for a side booth of a small café. There, we talked for a good hour and a half before attempting to 1) exchange money and 2) use the computer lounge a few yards away. I unsuccessfully tried to find a charger for my little black Russian Samsung phone that I’ve had for the past few years for travel, but I was able to get on the computers for about half an hour (for the equivalent of $10!) to send emails to my family, update Facebook, and even post a blog update here! After we had all had our fill of technology for the time being, we went to go look for our gate. We sat down among many Spanish businessmen and Moroccan nationals and began talking more; or rather, Angie and Rachael started asking me a bunch of questions relating to Morocco and what to expect. I wracked my brain to remember small details that would help in adjusting to the lifestyle and culture of the maghreb, and before we knew it, our plane started to board.

We flew Iberia, and it was definitely more comfortable than American Airlines. The plane was a little more than half full, so there was an empty seat in between me and the other man sitting in my row. Everything was in Spanish, which I appreciated. The last time I flew to Morocco, I took Royal Air Maroc, and everything was in French or Arabic. This time, I could at least understand most of what they were saying. It was a short one hour ride (during which I slept!), and when we finally landed in Casablanca, my heart skipped a beat. I was back in my second favorite country (the first, of course, being Brasil)! I never would have dreamed that I would be back here so soon after the summer. I knew that I wanted to come back after my wonderful experience in June and July, but to be here in January was definitely unexpected. Regardless, I stepped off the plane with happiness.

But that happiness was very short-lived. After passing swiftly through customs, Angie, Rachael, and I went to the currency exchange, then to the baggage carousel to collect our luggage. I spotted my big blue bag right away; Angie got her largest suitcase, and Rachael also retrieved her first checked bag. However, after a few minutes of no new bags coming through, a baggage attendant told us that there were no other bags coming out of our flight. So, each one of us had lost a piece of luggage on the transfer from Madrid to Casa! I was furious! Never had I lost a bag on a flight, and to make matters worse, I should never have had to check in my carry-on! We waited in line to make a baggage claim, which took forever for the three of us. Thankfully, the employees spoke english well and were very nice about the whole thing. They even let us use their phone to call the University to ask what to do. After we all had our claims forms in hand, I went to go buy a cheap mobile phone and sim card with some minutes and tried calling the “emergency number” for AUI (a.k.a. the cell phone number of the representative at the Office of International Programs, Meryem). She instructed us to get on the train to Fez and that she would work to get our bags to Ifrane. Tired, exasperated, and generally in bad moods, we all boarded the first train from the airport to the heart of Casablanca. We bought snacks from the food cart: water and cheese sandwiches. It was actually the best food that I had eaten since the start of my journey!

At Casa Voyegeurs about 30 minutes later, we got off and waited to board the next train to Fez. Angie and I paid two station employees to carry our luggage to the right platform (up and down so many steps!), and we stood at the platform for a while. A train came up and people boarded, but it was on the wrong track and ours didn’t leave for another 45 minutes. Eventually, a nice man came by and asked us where we were going and instructed us to board that train. Indeed, that was the train to Fez: to think that we would have missed it had not that man come along! So we struggled to get our luggage onto the elevated train wagon and eventually hauled all of our baggage into a first-class compartment. There was no way that we would be able to put our suitcases in the overhead compartment, so we settled for all of it blocking our leg room. The compartments have six seats, two rows of three seats facing each other (think of the compartments of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies), so the three of us were able to spread out and fall asleep easily. It was after we had settled into our compartment that I was actually kind of thankful that I didn’t have my carry-on with me… it would have been extremely difficult to get that everywhere with my large suitcase as well!

I don’t know how long we slept, but the next thing I knew was that it was dark outside and there were two men entering our cabin who wanted to sit there. The other compartments must have been full, so we sleepily agreed to have them sit closest to the door. They struck up a conversation with us and, unsurprisingly, started flirting with us. We learned that they were finance students who lived in Meknes and worked in Khenifra. Their english was pretty good, so it was easy to communicate. Aside from the flirting, they were very nice and offered for us to visit them in the north, where they would be working next month (insert sarcastic laugh here). The best part of the conversation was when we were teaching each other phrases in our native languages: so they taught us some darija and we taught them some english slang (e.g. Rachael taught them what YOLO means).

After they got off at Meknes, another man, who had passed by us several times, came to sit in our cabin. He had darker skin and immediately started to talk to us in rapid-fire darija (Moroccan colloquial arabic). I barely caught anything of what he said, and he then figured out that we couldn’t speak to him in arabic or french. His english was much poorer than the other two men’s, and I took an intense disliking to him after he laughed when I said that I study philosophy in college (the topic of philosophy in Morocco is something that I shall write about later). When he learned that we were students at Al Akhawayn, he told us that his friend taught there and even called him up on his cell phone and gave it to me! I was extremely confused as to why anyone would do this, and awkwardly held a short conversation with the man on the phone. Apparently he teaches computer science here, so I will actually never meet him in person, thankfully. Anyways, the man helped us off the train when we got to Fez and promptly left us after we said that someone was already at the station waiting to pick us up.

It took another phone call to Meryem to tell her that we were in Fez and waiting to find the representative. She called the “student ambassador” and he eventually found us–we had walked right past him! After about ten minutes waiting in the train station café with some other students who had just arrived, we finally got into the AUI van and set off for the last hour of our trip. It was already around 9 or 10 at night, so it was dark and reminded me of my first trip from Fez to Ifrane in the school van at 1 AM.

It was a seemingly quick trip up to campus, and I was relieved to be dropped off in Building 38 again. After signing some papers and lugging my suitcase and backpack up three flights of stairs, I collapsed onto my bed and let out a long sigh. I had finally made it back to Al Akhawayn.

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