During my four months abroad in Alcala de Henares, Spain – a small province of Madrid – I tried to see as much as I could in hopes to expand my view of the world. As a student of Butler University, a small, private college in Indianapolis, IN, I quickly learned the importance of opening one’s eyes and accepting new things. Now was my time to test what I had learned and apply it to real life and make something of it. As a foreigner, I was like a kid again — soaking everything up like a sponge and wanting more and more of anything and everything I could get my hands on. I couldn’t get enough of this natural high.
One of my goals, while in studying Spain, was to travel every chance that I got. So, every weekend I did just that and traveled throughout Spain and other countries in Europe. Although I was marveled by the European world, one trip, in particular, sticks out in my mind till this day. This weekend trip was like none other and has left a lasting impression on the way I interact and communicate with others (This is not to say that my other experiences did not play a part in shaping my identity and my view of the world. Oh no, that is not the case at all. In fact, all my other travels and experiences in Europe had helped prepare me for this particular trip).
My friends and I had this great idea to travel to Fes, Morocco in Africa, because Spain is so close to this African country. We thought “Hey, when else are we going to travel to Africa? At least, we can say we did.” These six (6) friends of mine were three (3) Caucasian males and three (3) Caucasian females, plus me.
With that being said, we went into this trip believing us girls would have to wear clothes that covered most of our bodies, including long-sleeved and high-collared shirts, pants, closed shoes, and a head garment over our head. We anticipated that we girls should not speak, unless spoken to and to refrain from looking males in the eyes. Morocco is a Muslim country and most likely a male-dominated world, right?
Regardless of the situation, my girlfriends and I were up for the challenge. We wanted to experience something we had never experienced before. Sure, we stuck out in Spain as Americans, but at least many of them were Catholics like us. Plus, we could speak the Spanish language, too. But, Morocco?...Were we crazy? What were we getting ourselves into? At least this is what our parents, friends and peers were asking us. We were told it was unsafe, as they warned us about going into a country inhabited by Muslims. Our parents’ warning about visiting this Muslim world was just the beginning…
We knew no matter what the outcome, we would get an “experience” – good or bad.
I loved the fact of trying something others were too afraid to do. I was a dare devil and I had to go; I just had to.
We flew into Melilla, the Spanish territory in Africa, and arrived to our hotel, The Parador, which had an amazing view of the whole city – coastline, buildings, lush mountains and all! The warm temperatures and fresh air were calling us to the beach. We all slipped into our suits and began to set off for the sand by the seashore, until our elevator slowly, creaked it’s way down from the 3rd floor and went BOOM! – It dropped a few feet! You could feel the tension in the air as claustrophobia began to set in as all seven (7) of us had crammed into a four (4) person, 300kg maximum elevator. After, frantically, hitting the alarm button several times, the door opened to the 2nd floor. This could have been a bad sign of what could occur throughout the rest of our trip in Africa. Thankfully, no one was hurt, just a little shook up. And the elevator was fine, too.
By the seashore, we approached Spanish-Muslims and other tourists and asked how we could get to Fes, Morocco. We had already reserved a hotel for the next two evenings in Fes, but had not a clue on how to get to this city. The boys set off, asking anyone they encountered about getting to Fes. By the end of all of their conversations, they were more confused than ever. Some people said it was too dangerous, not possible, too expensive and too far away to get to Fes. Others said it was safe, very possible, fairly cheap and only five, or so, hours away.
The boys had given up. No two answers were the same, and it seemed we didn’t have a clear-cut answer about how to get to Fes, or if it were truly even possible. So, the boys found an internet-café with intentions to cancel the hotel reservations in Fes. Before they got to cancel the reservations, they stumbled upon information about getting to Fes from Nador, the African city nearest Melilla. The information was posted only a few months prior and had great news – it was safe, cheap and very possible to get to Fes!
Now, we were back to going to Fes. Well, at least, some of us were. Three (3) of our friends didn’t feel comfortable about heading into a city they had heard several warnings about. They decided to camp out in Melilla for the next few nights. However, the two (2) other males and one (1) female and I decided it was worth a try.
That night, we went into shops and converted our Euro into Dirham to make this trip possible. Nearly anyone would change over money.
The next morning, my girlfriend and I met the two males and found a taxi that would take us to the border of Nador. Once at the border, my friends and I slowly exited the vehicle and eyeballed each other with a slow sigh. There was no turning back at this point; we had made it this far. We took our passports and walked up the kiosk where a Spanish-Muslim stamped them and chuckled softly. This was probably an interesting sight for him — four Caucasians walking through the Spanish-Moroccan border from Melilla, Spain (in Africa) to Nador, Morocco.
We grabbed our luggage and took the walk from one world into the other. Nothing seemed too different. Although the Muslims on the African side of the border were dressed in full garments and stared at this interesting sight of four Caucasians walking with a weird sense of confidence and coy at the same time, we were treated exactly the same as before. The Muslims watched us as we kept walking, not knowing where we would end up.
We approached a street corner and grabbed a taxi to a bus station that would lead us to Fes. While winding through the roads of Nador, the deeper were went into the city, the more things changed. There were small fires on the sides of the roads. The architecture of the buildings showed its age. We clearly did not fit in.
Finally, we made it to a station where taxis and buses lined the streets. We approached a bus driver and somewhere between broken Arabic and broken French we were able to negotiate a price to sit on a five (5) hour bus ride to Fes, Morocco.
We didn’t know a single Muslim on the bus, we didn’t speak Arabic and we didn’t know for sure if the bus would really end up in, or near, Fes, Morocco. We had entered the dusty bus with a cracked windshield at our own risk and so the adventure began.
From our understanding this bus would not make any stops and would go directly to Fes. Well, the final destination was Fes; but there were a lot of stops, a lot of sketchy stops. There were stops in some villages, at gas stops, for potty breaks, at a butcher shop and random security checks on the sides of narrow roads by armed civil guards. (Without going into too much detail, I’m pretty sure there was some drug trafficking going on in our bus; my girlfriend had witnessed a payoff to a cop who was going through some luggage underneath the bus.)
The “direct” five (5) hour bus ride turned into a seven (7) hour bus ride with pit stops along the way. We were all very vulnerable on the bus ride to Fes, but had put trust in the people we had encountered that we would make it to our destination, and we did.
Upon arrival to Fes, we had struck up a conversation with one of our Muslim neighbors on the bus. He had asked us to join he and his family for their supper in Miknes.
Another one of our bus buddies, a true Moroccan, helped my girlfriend and I retrieve our luggage at the Fes bus stop and escorted us to a taxi. While riding in the cab to our hotel in Fes, our cab driver tried stirring up a conversation with each of us in his broken English and even put in a cassette of “Phil Collins” and said “Big Welcome.”
Finally, we arrived to our hotel in Fes and discovered that the inside was decorated ever so intricately that I felt like royalty. The walls and floors were decked out in beautifully colored tile patterns. (You know, I’ve heard that the most beautiful things are those that are most symmetrical. Well, these tile patterns were as symmetrical as a circle and as colorful as a rainbow.) I was stunned at the hand-made beauty and studied the patterns. There was not a single flaw. Then it dawned on me that the perfectly handcrafted tile patterns were a reflection of their being. From my brief encounters with Muslims, I knew that they were sincere people that cared about their relationships. They would put just as much time, effort and care into their relationships as they would their work.
After putting down our luggage and getting settled in at the hotel, we asked the concierge were we could get some good hookah. The concierge walked us outside of the hotel and took us to a young, teenage boy who would guide us around, without any pay. Muhammad was his name. Muhammad took us to Berber Café Sahara where my friends ordered mint tea and hookah. While waiting on the orders, we became mesmerized by the rhythmic Arabic beats coming from a cassette player in the kitchen. The cook prepared the mint teas fresh and bounced up and down to the music and sang along. When the orders were finished, several young Muslim men brought the teas and hookah to our table and sat down with us. Again, we were greeted with “Big welcome, big welcome” all around. They were all happy people and had a great sense of humor. “You are clean people.” “Get high before you die.” “Use your own head, because you gotta live with yourself…and, sometimes you live with your girlfriend.” They had these little philosophies about life that just kept coming. They were a delight to be around and they really got me thinking. We knew we had made some friends that we would remember forever.
The next morning, we set out for a tour of the Medina – a market filled with 80,000 shops through the 9,400 streets. Everything was so close together and no cars were allowed. The only form of transportation that came through these narrow streets and alleys were the “garbage taxis” – donkeys strapped with filled trash bags twice as high as their height. We witnessed the tannery to see Moroccan leather dyed and made. We watched women weave head garments and carpets. Again, we were struck with the Moroccan sense of humor: “You have to pay by ‘Berber credit’ – half now, and the rest immediately.” Regardless where you go, everyone wants to give you “global price.” It’s no secret that Moroccans like to bargain; it’s just their way of life.
After our adventure in the Medina, we had worked up an appetite. We ran into an elderly gentleman who offered to take us to his favorite restaurant in all of Fes. We thought there might be a catch, or thought he might be looking for some money. On our walk through the maze of alleyways he explained to us that it was Ramadan, the Muslim’s time for fasting. They do not eat during the day, just at night. He was hungry; but even more so, he was bored. We approached the restaurant “La Medina” and walked into a typical Moroccan restaurant that was decked out from floor to ceiling with Arabic inscriptions, tiled walls and draped ceilings. It was stunning. But, it was the food that was absolutely delectable. The combination of veggie appetizers, couscous and pastilla for the main dishes, followed by watery apples, pears and oranges left our tummies full and happy. The gentlemen who led us to the restaurant didn’t want to be tempted by the food, so he stayed in a side room where he laid on padded seating and fell asleep. When we were finished, he was quick to get up and walked us back to our hotel so that we would not get lost in the maze of streets. He was a good-hearted man and wouldn’t accept any payment.
Shortly after making it back to the hotel following our scrumptious dinner, we started our hunt for a cab driver that would take us back to Nador. We decided to stay away from the buses, because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get back. We found a willing man, who didn’t speak much English or Spanish, who agreed to take us to Nador for less than 20 Euro. The ride was peaceful, and without any stops – with the exception of stopping at a mosque for a few short minutes where the driver went inside to pray to “Allah.” We managed to make it back to Nador within four (4) hours and our gracious driver would not accept any additional money for his long trek back to Fes alone.
Again, we had to cross the border – this time, from Morocco to Melilla (the Spanish territory in Morocco). When we walked from one world into another, we quickly realized that Melilla’s city buses were closed for the evening. We weren’t sure how we would meet back up with our three (3) other friends who were waiting for us in the hotel, as it was quite a long walk. We didn’t see too many other options, so we started walking with our luggage following behind. We didn’t get too far from the border when a mini-van stopped in front of us and asked if we needed a ride. Without saying much, he could tell we could use a ride, so he hopped out of the front seat, unbuckled the empty child seat in the back and placed it in the trunk as he made room for all four (4) of us. We piled in and were off to the hotel. We had made it to our hotel and managed to catch our flight back to Spain the morning. We had survived Morocco. We had survived in a Muslim world.
We met a lot of interesting people along the way, who offered their hand and their help whenever needed. Somehow, we would stumble into the right people at the right time. Each person was nicer and more generous than the one before. Maybe we got lucky. Maybe, Muslims are just that nice.
So why do I tell you this long, drawn out story?
It was the immediate one-on-one interaction with Muslims in Fes that I realized we were misled in our thinking about the Muslim people. Was this false information about the Muslims and fear of them produced by our media?
Whatever the answer is, I found that the Muslims were the most hospitable people I had ever encountered. From the minute we arrived to Fes, we were treated with respect and were graciously invited to share super with strangers we had never met before. And, yes, I felt that their invitations were sincere.
I quickly learned that Muslims are a very community-based people. They put others first before themselves and are incredibly accepting of others, no matter what their ethnicity is. In America, I regret to say that this openness and sense of respect is not found, at least, not one hundred percent, as it should be.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed of how quick we Americans are to judge others without getting to truly know what lies deep down inside. What I learned from this trip is not to listen to those who don’t know; to those who haven’t experienced. My family and friends were the ones that may have been brainwashed by our media and feared what they were told to fear; yet, they had not experienced it for themselves. They truly did not have an opinion about these people or this country for themselves.
I took the initiative (and grew the balls) to find out for myself what this Muslim world was like. To be honest, I wish more people were like the Muslims. Based from my experience and my trip to Morocco, if more people were like the Muslims were would have a much friendlier, happier world.
The thing that gets me is that Americans are so quick to judge. We automatically assume that foreigners (especially of Muslim decent) are dangerous; we think that they hate Americans. Well, every Muslim I encountered on my very short, but very sweet trip was so genuine and they quickly welcomed my friends and I with open arms. They showed no signs of judging us and were excited to make new friends and leave a lasting impression.
If there is anything I took away from this trip, is that we have a lot to learn from these people. They are so happy with the little that they have and don’t measure their happiness or their success on the material items they have (or don’t have). They are simply happy for their everyday encounters with their friends and family and are eager to make new friends that will last a lifetime, no matter if they meet for only a moment. They make you feel as if you are at “home,” and they constantly repeat “Big Welcome!” and you know they mean it!
So, listen to me: I know, because I HAVE experienced. You’ll love Morocco and you’ll wish that you were Muslim, too!