- Ways to Give
The 2010 Eleanor Venture Grant Recipient was Kristie Boman. Kristie teaches Social Studies at Altona Middle School. She traveled to Morocco in July
2010 to experience the mysteries of this colorful African country and get a first-hand look at Islamic culture.
The Education Foundation hosted an open house January 19, 2011 where Kristie shared with the public her exciting experiences in Morocco. Her presentation began at 5:30 p.m. in the Rattler’s Den at Altona Middle School, 4600 Clover Basin Drive in Longmont. Light refreshments were served.
I chose to visit Morocco this summer because I wanted to experience something completely different. I wanted to be a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a real outsider, a blonde American woman in a Muslim country. I studied language and customs for months in advance, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience I had. My trip would take me from the labyrinthine markets of Fes, to the dunes of the south near Merzouga, then through the frantic atmosphere of Marrakech, ending in the lovely peaceful town of Chefchaouen.
I landed in Casablanca and immediately felt consumed by the city. Casablanca is very large and sprawled out. Taxis and motorbikes whiz down the streets with a casual disregard for traffic signals. Pedestrians are simply moving targets, and extreme vigilance is required whether one is walking or driving. I visited the Hassan II Mosque, one of only a few mosques in the world that non-Muslims can enter. It is the second-largest religious building in the world, after the mosque in Mecca, and the prayer hall is large enough to accommodate 25,000 people. The intricately carved marble and wood surfaces were breath-taking.
A Trip into the Countryside
After a short stay in Casablanca I journeyed to El Borj, a rural village near the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. I went there to visit a charity school for Berber children. A safe connection in Casablanca told me to “just ask for Samira” (his cousin) upon arrival and I would have a place to stay. I traveled to El Borj in via grand taxi, sharing the vehicle with five other passengers and the driver. It was 115 degrees outside and I was jammed into a car full of strangers, with no one to talk to. This was not exactly the “different” I was hoping to experience, but this type of travel is very common in Morocco. After a few hours in the midday heat, the driver pulled over, took my suitcases out of the trunk and drove away, leaving me on a dusty road across from the one business in El Borg–a French restaurant. In clumsy French, I asked the restaurant owner for Samira. Someone trotted off down the road, returning with a young woman. Samira spoke only Tamazight, a Berber dialect, so it was a bit tricky explaining who I was and what I wanted, but a friend who soon arrived from a nearby town spoke some English and French and we were able to converse more comfortably.
Family is very important in Moroccan culture, and about eight or ten of us shared dinner at a late hour, around 11 pm. Traditionally, meals are eaten family style, with everyone seated on the floor, eating from one large dish. I was thankful to be presented with a spoon, as I could not quite master the technique of mashing couscous, chicken and potatoes into a ball with my hands.
The next day I visited the school. The children were absolutely darling, ranging from two to seven years old. They sang and made crafts with the supplies I brought. I had no one to translate for me, but the teachers knew in advance that I was coming and everyone seemed happy to have a visitor even though we couldn’t communicate. I got the feeling that the people of El Borj (as well as the other rural villages I visited) rarely had close contact with Western visitors, so it was a bit of a celebration to have a stranger visit the school.
I traveled back north to Fes the next day, where I stayed in a converted riad, a traditional residence organized around a courtyard. My stay there was one of the highlights of my trip. The young women who worked at the riad were very friendly and we had good times talking and sharing meals, as they kindly invited me to join them on several occasions. The evening receptionist explained to me that she was teaching one of the other women to read. I asked, “In French?” and she said, “No—in Arabic. She has never been to school.” Apparently this is not uncommon.
I hired a guide to show me the city and take me into the old medina (medieval part of town) to shop. Visiting the souks (shops) in the old medina is like being transported back in time. The leather tanning vats have been in use for hundreds of years. Potters create beautiful bowls and dishes on non-motorized kick-wheels. Young men break apart ceramic tiles with hammers and create ornate mosaic tables and fountains. Colorful rugs are either hand-knotted or woven on traditional wooden looms. They are ubiquitous and the meticulous craftsmanship makes them nearly impossible to resist. When I showed my cache of hand-crafted goods to my sixth grade students this fall, one student commented, “These people must be really smart. Look at what they can make with their hands. We have to use machines.”
Wanting to venture into more rural areas, I hired a driver who took me into the forested mountains near Ifrane, and then on to the Erg Chebbi Dunes near Merzouga in the east. My guide arranged for a trek into the desert with Abdul, a camel driver who did not speak English. With a death grip on the saddle and a sincere prayer to stay seated atop the eight-foot tall camel, I rode into the desert. The dunes became higher and uncomfortably steep. Now and then, Abdul would stop the camel and level the sand to keep me from pitching off the saddle. Every time I said, “Thank you,” Abdul responded, “Very much.” It was hard to keep from giggling, but I knew he was doing his best to make me comfortable. When we arrived at the oasis about two hours later, Abdul disappeared into a tent. I marveled at the dunes and played with the cats that lived near Abdul’s rustic tented compound until he came back out in an hour or so with a tajine, a traditional stew cooked in a uniquely-shaped clay vessel. I recognized the potatoes and carrots, but not the meat. A bit of pantomime revealed that it was camel, and all night long I wondered how—or if—one keeps a side of camel refrigerated in the desert.
A short trip to Marrakesh was enough for me. I rented a car and negotiated traffic with my stomach in my throat. The driving in Marrakesh is the worst I have ever witnessed. I parked the car at a lot that was jam-packed with vehicles. The men watching the lot pushed the cars from one spot to another to extricate the blocked cars as the owners came to retrieve them. I walked to the square, which was crowded with thousands of people shopping and enjoying the dancing and singing. I did not get to see the snake charmers, but on the bright side, I wasn’t mugged either.
My adventure took me to Agadir and Essouira, two beautiful seaside towns. Essouira is very laid-back—refreshingly different from Marrakesh and Fez. This part of Morocco is known for ornate inlaid wood-work, and if you ask the right people you can visit a shop where the work is done. A kind shop-keeper taught me the art of negotiating prices in Morocco, literally suggesting what I should counter-offer to him. When I continued to bargain with him, he responded, “Well-done.” For the first time on my journey, I felt like a paid a fair price. Everything in Morocco is negotiated, and while it may feel like a bit of a game, shopkeepers expect buyers to participate. It was suggested that I tell people I was from Poland in order to get a better price. That evening was an eye-opening experience. The merchant invited my guide and me to come back for a drink later, and I was shocked when a bottle of vodka was presented. Liquor is not readily available outside large cities, and most Moroccans do not consume alcohol, at least not publicly. To be invited to share in this was an unorthodox welcome. Frankly, it was a nice surprise. I felt a bit honored.
It is traditional for Moroccans to invite strangers to share mint tea, whether you are in a shop or simply walking down the street. It is comforting to slow down and experience the hospitality of Moroccans, especially the Berber people, who will welcome you into their homes and serve you the finest feast of chicken with potatoes and other vegetables. There is no refusing the meal, and once you have settled back with a full stomach, you are met with protests of “Ish, ish!” or “Coul!” which means, “Eat!” And there is no such thing as “eat and run.” Moroccans love to socialize. I had tea in carpet shops, tea on a mountain footpath, and tea in the home of a woman who decorated my arms and legs with henna. We talked about everything from the weather to my family, the purpose of my trip to American culture, politics to the color of my skin. Sometimes there was no common language at all, and even then the “conversation” continued with gestures. It was like a
very long game of charades.
I finished my trip in Chefchaouen, alone. My last guide had gotten too personal and I needed to feel the independence of traveling alone, for better or for worse. It was better. In this mountain town, nearly every building is painted a soft shade of turquoise or cornflower blue, and the effect is very soothing. I don’t know why or how blue was agreed upon by all, and no one I asked had a reason other than, “It’s the color of Chefchaouen.” People were extremely friendly, and because I was alone I was able to mill about the town at my own pace. I spoke with shopkeepers for hours on end, confidently ordered local food, and negotiated my own prices. It was the best part of the trip. It was everything I hoped Morocco would be—welcoming, peaceful, and exotic.
My last night in Chefchaouen fell on the eve before the holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn to dusk. The night before, people were in high spirits. The town children formed a spontaneous parade, banging on boxes and plastic bottles as they marched through the streets. At about 3 a.m., and horn sounded “last call to eat” and everything fell silent. The next morning, as we drove out of town and towards the western part of the country, I noticed businesses were shuttered and the streets were empty. I asked the driver about it. He explained to me that the first day of Ramadan is the hardest, and many people stay home. Ramadan does not fall at the same time every year, and this year was particularly difficult, with temperatures in August soaring above 100 degrees every day. We drove to the airport in silence and I took in the scenery—rural people leading donkeys, roadside fruit stands unattended, the mountain landscape slipping into quiet countryside.
I was amazed at the beauty of the country. The dunes of the Sahara seem to go on forever, and at night the wind howls over the sand punctuating the isolation. High in the Middle Atlas Mountains, waterfalls cascade over lush green cliffs and monkeys frolic in the trees nearby. The mosaic floor designs at the Roman ruins at Volubilis remain colorful after nearly two thousand years. To stand in the midst of such ancient ruins so casually maintained without commercialism or fanfare is to be transported through time.
And indeed Morocco often feels like a land without time.
Transportation ranges from donkeys and carts to ramshackle taxis and overcrowded trains. Freshly slaughtered animals hang on display in the souks, and if you are not careful you’ll catch a glimpse of a chicken squawking its last squawk as you wander through the streets and alleys in search of a leather bag or a colorful woven rug.
I am thankful to have had such a unique experience. It is so very different to walk through a town in a foreign land and be invited in for tea, then invited to stay for dinner. I won’t forget rinsing grain with women in the mountains or watching a man spin thread with a bicycle wheel. It was an incredible challenge to be a stranger in a strange land, relying on the kindness of strangers in many situations. I won’t say I didn’t feel intimated, but I did feel reassured when a waiter in Chefchaouen said to me, “Do not worry in Chefchaouen–the people here will take care of you.” Such kindness renewed my faith in humanity. Everywhere you go, you meet people who are different, but if you take a moment to get to know them, you’ll be surprised at how much you have in common. Thank you to the Education Foundation for this remarkable opportunity.
Kristie Boman, Altona Middle School