Tay Sauer a dear friend of mine and is currently a junior studying film production at Bowling Green University. I am so excited that she was willing to share her study abroad experience on By Her, For Her!
This past January, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Morocco for three weeks over January term. I have wanted to study abroad since I was in high school and have spent the last 2 years saving up for my trip. I wanted to study abroad in a country I didn’t think I could navigate on my own and which was vastly different from the United States. I wanted my study abroad to challenge me and help me grow rather than it feel like a vacation. I learned so much because I visited this beautiful country, and I’m so glad I chose a “non-traditional” study abroad experience! Here are 10 things I learned while I was there:
Not every woman wears a hijab
I was honestly expecting almost every woman to be wearing a hijab. Morocco is a Muslim country, and I thought everyone had to follow certain rules, like wearing hijab and not eating pork. A common misconception of the Muslim faith is that the hijab is forced on women when in reality every woman makes the choice of whether or not she wants to partake in that particular tradition. Plus, just like the U.S., there is a variety of religious faiths practiced in Morocco so, only about half of the women I saw were actually wearing hijab.
Even though it’s a desert, it DOES get cold in the winter
I have never been so cold in my life than night time in Morocco [and I slept in a tent in 11 degree weather once!]. My roommate and I had two big, thick military blankets and we would pull them all the way up above our heads and tucked hand warmers into our socks to try to preserve any heat we could find. Most of the houses are hundreds of years old and built to withstand hot Moroccan summers, so the insides are always much cooler than the outside. As you can imagine, this isn’t so great when you visit in January; pack appropriately!
Even if you’re aware of Islamaphobia, you probably are more Islamaphobic than you think
Like I said, I had certain expectations about Morocco before I visited. I’d like to consider myself a culturally aware person who is aware of systemic racism. However, it wasn’t until I arrived in a foreign country and began experiencing the culture that I realized that, in the back of my head, I was kind of expecting something like the setting of “Aladdin.” Obviously, “Aladdin” is a really bad example to represent a Muslim country because of its own issues with Islamaphobia, but Morocco taught me that there’s a lot of racism toward Arab countries in American culture that is so deep-seated, we may not even realize it’s there. My biggest piece of advice is just to be respectful. If you aren’t Muslim, don’t try to enter a mosque [non-Muslims aren’t allowed in by law], don’t make a big deal out of hearing the call to prayer, don’t take pictures of people while they’re praying and obviously do NOT make any insensitive jokes. Keep in mind, a lot of Moroccans speak English and they can hear what you say [but honestly, you shouldn’t be making insensitive jokes even if the person can’t hear you]. People are happy to share their culture and religion with you, and I encourage you to take the opportunity to learn! Especially on couscous Friday [yum!].
There are literally no preservatives in anything, and it will change your life
All the food in Morocco comes from the souks [the marketplace], and it’s all grown on farms just outside the city. I had more couscous and tagine [kind of like stew] than I could count, and it was delicious. Even though I caught a cold on the plane on the way there, my body felt amazing by the end of it, and I definitely think it was because I was preservative-free for three weeks. When I came back, I converted to organic groceries only and it’s definitely been worth it!
Everything is really cheap, which makes it really easy to give back
The conversion rate for Moroccan currency is 10:1. This means that you can buy 2.5 pounds of oranges for 50 cents, or 5 dirhams. That’s a LOT of oranges. Two gallons of bottled water was $1.50, and a fancy three course meal was about $6. Souvenirs were super cheap, so I got one for all of my family members [hello 10 cent magnets!], but I also found the opportunity to give back to a lot of people less fortunate than myself. One of the most difficult things about my study abroad was visiting beautiful, tourist sights and then turning a corner and being confronted with extreme poverty. Many people will tell you not to give the people on the streets money or they may ask for more, but I encourage you to give whenever you have spare change. To you, it’s 50 cents. To them, it’s a whole meal.
You should go to a hammam
Another thing I learned about the U.S. is that it’s really weird that we shower every day. Most Moroccans have a shower and use it only a few times a week, but once a week families will go to a public bath called a hammam. It’s a steamy room with showers and carts that sell oils and soaps outside. There’s a men’s side and a women’s side because in order to enter the main bath, you have to be completely naked. To Americans, that’s really weird. But, as one of my classmates recounted, it was actually a sweet display of familial love. Everyone was enjoying the steamy water, a welcomed break from the cold winter wind. My 17-year-old host sister and her mom, who usually were going back and forth in a non-stop fight, were washing each other’s backs and braiding each other’s hair. If you’re not comfortable with nudity, there’s also tourist hammams where you can use a robe and swimsuit.
Fez is literally the best city
We visited a lot of cities while in Morocco, but most of our time was spent in Fez, a large city with about 1.5 million people, but it feels like a much smaller city. Everything is close by and nothing is more than a 10-minute walk. There’s also a lot less scamming here. In cities like Marrakech and Rabat, tourists might be charged $5 for taking photos and henna ladies grab your hands and charge you for designs you didn’t even ask for, but we found Fez to be much easier to navigate and less overwhelming than the bigger cities!
You will learn to appreciate the small things, like toilet paper!
Having toilet paper in public bathrooms, being able to drink tap water, using data or Wifi, central heat and being able to speak the primary language are all things that I missed while I was in Morocco. I caught a cold on the plane and needed cold medicine, but I couldn’t read the labels at the pharmacy! Luckily, we all helped each other as much as possible, sharing packs of tissues for toilet paper, hand sanitizer, dirhams to use the bathroom [you had to pay] and medicine [I gave everyone my cold. Oops.]
Expect the unexpected
Morocco is basically a series of connecting alleyways with doors. Some open into small apartments, some open into enormous courtyards of lavish houses. You never know until you open the door. When we went camping in the Sahara Desert, we were told to expect tentpole tents and campfire meals. What we found were heated pods with outlets [?!] and bathrooms with a lavish dinner and after-dinner concert. When we drove from the Sahara to Marrakech, we were told to expect an 8-hour drive. 14 hours later, we arrived at our hotel. There were a lot of surprises on this trip, but if you just rolled with the punches and tried to be as prepared as possible, the surprises were really fun! [Pro tip: if you visit the Sahara, turn off all the lights and look up. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life!]
Studying abroad in a “non-traditional” country is the best thing you can do
A lot of people study abroad in countries like England, Spain, France and Italy. While I’m sure all of these countries are amazing and I would love to visit someday, I’m glad I visited Morocco. Visiting a third-world, Muslim country taught me a lot about income inequality both at home and abroad, American Islamaphobia and how “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” or “weird.” To me, buying a live chicken from a market or being naked in a public bath is weird, but to Moroccans, it’s just everyday life. I’m sure there are loads of things Americans do that are weird to other countries, and I’m so glad I was able to experience another culture in this way and can’t wait to go abroad again!
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