In January, I visited Morocco with my grandmother. It was the first time I'd ever visited a country and seen how most people really live there: I met with Moroccans in the town and in the desert — real nomads who spoke no English and relied on our translator to communicate. I was worried about offending someone by leaving my hair free and wearing a t-shirt, but everyone was very polite and didn't seem to mind.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Early in our trip, we ate dinner with a Moroccan family in Fes — the husband was a farmer whose livelihood depended on olives. Did you know that the color of an olive depends on when it was harvested, and that harvesting darker purple olives one year means that the tree will produce fewer olives the next year? It turns out that there's way more to farming than I'd ever thought possible. We also looked through our hosts' wedding album with them. Their wedding lasted all throughout the night, and the lucky bride wore seven different dresses, all made by her mother. My mom would have a fit if I asked her to make me seven wedding dresses!
We had lunch with an Imam who spoke to us and explained the principles of Islam. I'll admit that I was a little prejudiced before the trip when it came to Islam, but it turns out that it's really just a compassionate and logical religion based on peace. It's just unfortunate that some people have twisted it for their own ambitions – same as with any other religion. He explained to me that it was okay if I didn't wear a headscarf in his home, because he believed that I was free to make my own choices.
We stayed in the Sahara for a few days, hours from any towns or cities. Our drivers had to find the campsite by its GPS coordinates – there were no roads or addresses. In fact, the few inns we did pass had their coordinates painted on the wall. We stayed in tents, and our toilet was just a hole in the ground. We visited a Bedouin widow who showed us how she carded camel wool and made her tent out of the wool. She refused to speak to our male translator, so we had to use body language to communicate. She also refused to let us take her picture – many of the older Moroccans have the same attitude. It had never occurred to me that someone would think being photographed was disrespectful.
I formed a relationship with one of the natives who traveled with us as an assistant. His name was Nor, and when I asked how good his English was, he said, “I am twenty-one.” Well, that answered that question! We ended up going on a date – he showed me around his hometown of Marrakech on his motorbike. Our conversation was limited, but I learned a lot – especially about learning to communicate through language barriers.
The trip was really eye-opening for a small-town American girl. I never could have imagined that other people's lives were so different from my own. Mostly, though, I'm glad I went because it forced me to challenge my own assumptions about the Arabic culture (found in the cities – the desert is populated by Bedouins) and Islam. In fact, I loved it so much that I will be taking courses Middle Eastern Studies and learn Arabic in college. Having a native tour guide who spoke English, French, Arabic, plus a Bedouin dialect made it really worth it, because we understood so much more.
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