LIZA LEONARD- Tarifa at dusk was blue and chilly. The small port town in the province of Cadiz is the southern-most point in Continental Europe and looks out over the straight of Gibraltar. As we rumbled into the coastal town, there was already a feeling of otherworldliness. The painted-white houses, facing Morocco, the wind and the sunset, the blue rippling water spraying salt air, a sense of being somewhere very far away.
From Tarifa, we set out across the straight of Gibraltar, it was dark and cold and the one-hour journey felt almost mysterious. When we stepped off the ferry on the other side, we were in Africa. I had reached a new continent! Being in Africa, if only for a few short days, was magical in that it reminded me of the feeling of being an outsider. Throughout the past few months, I have lived my life in such a way as to conquer that feeling in Spain. I live with a host family, I speak the language to the best of my ability, I sign up for local extracurricular classes, I look like I know where I am going as I power-walk down the streets to get to class on time, sometimes, I even try to dress like the beautiful Spanish girls (that one rarely works).
In Morocco, on a continent I had never set foot on before, I was reminded how much I do not know. I was there as a tourist, looking in on a culture and a people that I am not familiar with. I was happy to be there to learn, and to enjoy the cities and sights as a tourist, but I could not have easily experienced a local version of Morocco. Just as it takes understanding and work to live as a local in Spain, it would take extensive learning about the language and society in Morocco to have been there without a tour bus. Regardless, I was blown away by each city we visited, by the beauty of the green landscapes and mountains in between, and of the evident differences in culture that lie only a ferry-ride away from familiar Spain.
The first thing I noticed upon reaching Morocco was the local dress. Many of the men were wearing snuggie-like long coats with pointed hoods. Most of the women had their hair covered. Unsurprisingly, I stood out with my pale, freckled skin and long hair. One surprise for me was the mountainous landscape in the north of Morocco. The bus rides to the different cities were one of the most positive parts of the trip because I got to see the terrain. The hills were dotted with houses, with laundry out to dry in the sun, and with multitudes of children chasing each other and playing soccer.
The cities Chefchaouen and Asilah were both stunning. Chefchaouen was a maze of woven-together white houses, painted blue at the base to allow for cooling in the hot summer months. Asihla had a similar color palette but it was located on the coast. Asilah had a sea wall with breaking blue waves and a shore dotted with rocks and sand.
There was definitely a focus on tourists spending money. In the sunshine of the day, all the shops were open and displaying beautiful Moroccan wares, inviting visitors to come in and buy souvenirs. There were hand made sandals and shoes, pottery, jewelry, rugs, tapestries, clothing, and more. The selection was beautiful and overwhelming. Part of me wanted to be there oblivious to the shopping opportunities, but another part of me recognized that many of the locals depended on tourists buying knick-knacks for their livelihood.
Almost all the vendors and locals I spoke to were very friendly. I was astonished by there positive, laid back attitude. Most of them were happy to have me into their shop to look around and did not pressure me to buy anything. Speaking Spanish helped. For most of the locals in this part of Morocco, after Arabic they speak French, then Spanish, then English. Spanish is a slightly more comfortable language for them to converse in than English. It was easy to discuss business transactions and casual conversations in Spanish, and I think most of them were happy to speak in Spanish rather than the English they use with most American visitors.
I had nowhere near enough time to explore Morocco but I am happy I had the chance to see a few beautiful cities, to see both the green landscape of the North and the coast, to speak with some locals, to eat the food, and to feel the ground of a new continent beneath my feet for just a few days. It was enough to remind myself that even though I now feel comfortable and local in Spain, that feeling is not something I should take for granted. Traveling to new places, with respect and an attitude of interest, is hard work. I need to remember that there are places in the world that will challenge me much more than the northern tip of Morocco, and I will have to be able to balance in the space between where I come from and how I can adapt to somewhere new.