1 year in Morocco

Location: Meknes, Morocco (for the last time)
Status: excited to be leaving

Happy Sputnik Day! 50 years since the first artificial satellite!


Well, I've been in Morocco for a year, so I guess it would be a good time to write my impressions of living here. To any of my Moroccan students or former co-workers who may be reading this, I apologize in advance if anything I say offends. This is just how I've felt during my time here.

The quick and dirty

The good: the students, the people I worked with, the food, the wine (especially Domaine de Sahari), the low cost of living, having a good apartment for couchsurfers, the friendliness.

The bad: the garbage, the way people drive, how run down everything is, the lack of caring, the noise, the thoughtlessness, the scouts, guides, and beggars, the way people don't pay attention to anything around them, the dirty air, the way it seems like everyone is trying to scam you, the separation of men and women, the lack of integrity.

The Tolstoy

I've been looking through my journal recently, trying to get an overall idea of how life has been in Morocco. It's funny. I was really optimistic when I was on the ferry from Séte to Tanger last October. I remained as optimistic as I could when I arrived in Tanger, even when I saw how run down it the city seemed. I tried to continue to remain optimistic as I saw the mountains of garbage strewn along the railway, hoping that is was an exception rather than the rule. I arrived in Meknes, and I had to jump right in with work with no help or guidance from the Director of the ALC at that time. I was in a large apartment that, for the better part of a month, was furnished only with a cushion from a Moroccan couch that I borrowed from one of the other American teachers at the school. I had to try and save up money and buy things bit by bit as I went. Of course, that proved difficult when someone stole 6000 dirhams from my apartment (there is little doubt about who did it; karma will get him in the end, I'm sure).

Obviously, I had a rather negative first impression of this country, and it has only become more negative since.

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate everything about Morocco or all things Moroccan. There are good number of things I actually like about this country and living here. I just don't fit well in this culture. My wavelength is different. I can't get into the rhythm of things.

I'm probably about to say a lot about Morocco that some will disagree with or may find offensive. Just remember, it's not Morocco, it's me. I don't fit, so I had a more negative time than positive time. There are some good things, and I'll hopefully point them out, but I'm afraid that this will be a bit of a rant. On the extreme positive side, I'd rather have been living in Morocco for the past year than in the United States. It certainly was an interesting experience.

It's really difficult to point out just what drove me so crazy while living here, because it is not any one big thing. It is a bunch of little things that recur day after day and build up into a mountain of annoyance. On this note, I can say that Morocco is a very nice, interesting place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here. I've often summed it up to couchsurfers like this:

Morocco is a very friendly country with very little sense, integrity, or courtesy.

There is a lot of friendliness here, and it isn't (usually) the mock friendliness of someone with ulterior motives. People are very open and welcoming, sometimes too much so. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers will greet each other with handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheeks, and a flurry of Labess? Bikher. Al-hamdu-lillah! I want to hammer this point home, because I think it is important to realize that there isn't any malice behind the things that drive me crazy. They are just the way of life here. Like I said, Morocco is not a bad country, it just isn't the right place for me.

So, Morocco is very friendly. However, those other things are often lacking and these lacks often manifest themselves in many ways. Take the way people drive, for instance. Now, I am SURE there are countries where people drive worse, but Morocco is the worst to date for me. Drivers just don't care. They are in the giant steel death-machine, so you had better get the hell out of their way, because they aren't slowing down. Crossing the street is like playing Frogger in real life. There is just no sense to how people drive. The lines painted on the road seem to be suggestions, traffic signs are to be ignored, and traffic lights are only to be obeyed if there is a police officer around. Turn signals, if they are used at all, are often turned on about half-way through the turn, or often indicate the opposite of what the driver intends. Obviously, I haven't been cycling here. I don't want to die just yet, and certainly not at the hands of a Moroccan driver. Here's a good example of an annoying lack of sense. This happened often enough to be considered regular: The way to the nearest supermarket is on a two-lane one-way street. There are no cars coming, so you decide to cross the street. About halfway across, a car turns on to the street and accelerates towards you. Common sense would dictate for the driver to drive in the empty lane behind you and pass you safely. However, more often than not, the drivers here will try to drive through the ever-decreasing gap between you and the opposite side of the road. This causes you to either retreat or make a mad dash for safety.

Cars will often pull out into traffic without looking, counting on someone to honk of there is a problem. People will change lanes (lanes?...hah! they just drive wherever the hell they want to in the road) randomly, again counting on someone to honk if there is a problem. People often drive the wrong way on one-way roads, park on the sidewalk, turn or stop without warning. All of this makes a simple task like crossing the street a bit stressful. Of course, somehow Moroccan pedestrians manage just fine. They will often just walk out into the street without looking and somehow manage to cross safely. It's magic. It boggles my mind.

Little things, little things. I know that by themselves my problems with Morocco seem like nothing. However, just like a drip of water every hour on a rock will eventually erode it, all of these things every day eventually eroded my sanity a bit.

The other big thing, which I have mentioned in previous posts, is how dirty the country is. There is garbage everywhere! People just throw it wherever they please, and then others come and dig through it, strewing it about everywhere. There are some clean places. Rabat was relatively clean, and Ifrane was nearly spotless. However, it is just about everywhere. This is one of the things that got right from the beginning, an annoyance that started to build up pretty much from the moment I got off the boat. I remember being on that first train from Tanger to Meknes noticing all of the garbage along the railway, and I remember hoping that it was the exception rather than the rule. I was wrong. People just don't care. I have seen people standing next to public garbage cans still throwing their litter on the ground. I cannot understand this. I've often asked my students about this when they ask me how I like Morocco, and the general consensus is that a.) there aren't enough places to throw the garbage, and b.) no one has ever told them that throwing garbage wherever you please is not a good thing. There are no campaigns against littering, and there is no public awareness about the problem. I don't think it's that people actually like living in a dirty place, but more that they just don't care or don't think it is their problem to fix.

I guess a lot of these things are cultural difference. If people are brought up one way, then it doesn't really occur to them to think about other ways of living. A big cultural difference is the difference in and separation of the sexes. Morocco is very much a "Man's Country", at least, out in public. Especially during the day time, most cafés are populated with only men, at least at the outside tables. It is a perpetual sausage party. You do see girls and women out and about, but you don't really see them hanging out, at least, not in Meknes. Now, I like women. I like seeing women. I like meeting women. I like talking to women. This is not really the place to do that. Also, being such a "Man's Country", I find myself feeling sorry for any female travelers, especially those traveling alone. I've hosted quite a few female couchsurfers, and most of them had stories about the crap they'd had to put up with from Moroccan men: cat-calls, being followed, inappropriate behavior, being made to feel uncomfortable, etc. It sucks that this is they way it is here. Ladies, if you are going to travel to Morocco, I highly recommend traveling with a guy. It will save you a lot of annoyance. Sad, but true.

Surprisingly, even though it is a very religious country, differences in religion were not really a big deal for me. I felt less uncomfortable being and atheist here than I ever did in the United States, probably because I didn't have to deal with so many people coming up and asking, "Have you found Jesus yet?" or getting in my face and damning me to hell for not believing. Here, the closest anyone has ever come to trying to convert me to Islam is to ask if I'd ever considered it. When I reply that I'm not interested, it is left at that, and we continue talking about other things. There were times in class (where it is not appropriate to discuss religion or lack thereof) when I had to dodge the question of whether or not I believe in god. I'm not uncomfortable about my lack of beliefs, but an English conversation class is not the place to discuss it. Any other impacts of the religion on my life were small. Sure, on some days everything is closed, it can be difficult to buy alcohol, and during Ramadan, it is impossible to eat out during the day. But none of these things were a big deal.

I mentioned before a lack of integrity. This isn't true for all things, but I do get a feeling that most people are only interested in getting the job done well enough and getting paid that actually doing a good job. A lot of things here seem really half-assed. A notable exception is the majority of the students at the American Language Center. They work their asses off, and I'm rather proud of the ones I taught. But, in general life, you see a lot of shoddy workmanship and half-assed rigging that only leads to problems down the line. Get the job done right and well the first time, and you don't have to worry about it any more.

Yikes, this is extremely negative, hasn't it. Like I said, it wasn't all bad, and most of these things were problems for me rather than problems for Morocco. Having such a negative initial impression probably didn't help much either.

So, was there anything good about living here?

Teaching here was a pure joy. The students here are awesome. They try very hard, they learn very quickly, and they are very engaging. Most of my best times in Morocco have been during class. I've had a lot of great students and I really hope they succeed in everything they set out to do. If any of you are reading this, keep in touch. I want to know how you are doing.

Moroccan wine is excellent. Being a Muslim country, you wouldn't expect alcohol to be a high point, and with beer that is true (with the exception of Casablanca Beer, which is pretty good). However, there is some good wine, especially around Meknes. The best, in my humble opinion, is Domaine de Sahari. It is cheaper than a lot of worse wines, and it is just excellent. I have no idea how many bottles I have consumed in the past year, but I am sure it is over 50.

Moroccan food is pretty good. Now, my favorite food in the world is Japanese. I love the attention to subtle flavors and the mixing of natural tastes. Moroccan food is good in almost the exact opposite way. There is very little subtlety in Moroccan cooking, but the spices they use are excellent.

The best times I have had in Morocco were when I was hosting CouchSurfers. I had a really big apartment with a lot of space and a nice view, and I had quite a few visitors pass through. It was a good excuse to go outside and show off the parts of Meknes that I really liked. I had nothing but wonderful guests and hopefully I'll continue to have wonderful hosts as my travels continue.

Yes, there are parts of Meknes that I do like. It isn't all dirty and full of annoyances. The Medina is often interesting, and one of my favorite parts of the Medina is on the north side, near Bab Tzimi. In the morning, it is a produce market. There is nothing touristy about it, just Moroccan people living their daily lives, and it was always interesting to see. Every step has a different smell, the sound of haggling is a cacophony, and it was just full of life. You could buy everything from all sorts of fruits and vegetables to live chickens that they will kill and pluck for you to fresh beef, sheep, and camel meat.

Ok...I'll have to continue this later. It's time to go. Next stop: Germany

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