By Ross Salese and James Caruso
As our “Cross the Atlantic” trip came to a stop in Morocco, students, faculty and lifelong learners flocked to the observation decks to catch the first glimpse of the new land. A scene of excitement and curiosity settled throughout the ship. The next four days would be spent in a place both mysterious and intriguing.
Semester at sea (SAS) is a floating campus where students, teachers and lifelong learners (older people) can interact and learn. The program is run through the University of Virginia and is designed to provide a unique educational way of seeing the world. Becoming a global citizen is the phrase used. However, for many it will be becoming the person you are supposed to be over the next 111 days, four months and 14 countries: a lifetime of exercises. For the 800 people aboard the MV Explorer, the coming months will be the most exciting, revealing and transformative days of our lives.
As part of the ship board curriculum, students must participate in two faculty-directed practicums pertaining to the classes they are taking. About 50 students and I visited the Hassan Mosque in Casablanca, the crown jewel of Morocco. Fourteen years of building and over $600 million went into this absolutely breathtaking house of worship. For much of the trip to the mosque, we passed rundown houses, deserted constructions project and shanty towns that stretched for blocks. The mosque stuck out from the landscape like a sore thumb, standing over 15 stories high with large and perfectly-kept surrounding buildings, filled in by lush gardens. The Atlantic Ocean backdrop added a touch of blue to the already picture-perfect mosque.
Women, to respect Islamic culture, had to keep their shoulders covered and everybody had to remove their shoes before entering. Once inside, the views were breathtaking. There was a collective gasp of awe, as people everywhere were gawking. The tall ceilings featured handcrafted and painted finishes in never-ending corridors. Custom-designed Italian marble arches connected to hand-carved wooden fixtures. Every detail was looked after. Each and every dollar put into the mosque amounted to a monument that the Moroccan people could be proud of. The mosque, beautiful and breathtaking, supported a bleak irony. Across the street 200 yards from the front door lay a square block of shacks. People could have used some of that money that their government used in making the mosque. A cab driver confessed, “I am very proud of the mosque, it is beautiful and it represents the Moroccan people well. But I dare to dream what that money could have done for this city and its people.”
Opinions are varied throughout Morocco about how money is spent. From Casablanca to Rabat, Morocco’s capital, to the bur bur villages in the Atlas Mountains, religion (Islam) is everyone’s No. 1 priority. No matter the city or town, no matter the living conditions, whether sandstone huts or luxury condo’s. Mosques are always the tallest, best-built and well-kept buildings around. It is a common belief that carries through an entire nation. In America, we’re not used to such a commitment to one religion. In the U.S., there is a virtual strip mall of churches and places of worship open to the public (one reason the U.S. is great). The Devotion to the Islamic traditions and norms is a common bond that Moroccans have and that makes the nation so great.
Morocco isn’t the most powerful nation in the world; it doesn’t have a massive army or a large global economy. What Morocco has is a will to work and work until ends meet. I witnessed this work ethic in the Medina market in Rabat.
After refueling, it was off to the capitol to catch a 2 p.m. train ride into Rabat. This was only about an hour and ten minutes away and showed up to be a whole different country, it seemed like. It was hip and up-to-date from its architecture, automobiles and style of dress. Fewer vendors made it enjoyable and seeing normal couples walking around hand-in-hand was nice and appreciated. Before I got too comfortable, it was time to get off the beaten path and head into the unknown, the huge backstreet markets. The alleys were endless and the sights were as well. There was anything and everything for sale and around you, from snakes, monkeys and a handful of animals, Americans would cringe at the thought of digesting. I heard my stomach grumble, so it was time to dig into another food that I wouldn’t typically munch on in the states. The meat was unknown and was being cooked by a vendor about a hundred feet away from a half-naked man relieving himself in the streets. A little unsanitary, but if there was a time to test the digestive system, it would be better to start early and often. The meal, we discovered, was succulent pigeon and cat meat grounded together. This was cooked thoroughly and then put into bread with olives, chopped onions and mysterious sauces and spices conveniently spread with the same knife that was used to open and prepare the meat. Lesson learned: there is always a better place to eat but this meal was surprisingly tasty.
After making our way out of the markets after a couple hours of exploring, my friend and I saw what we thought was a carnival and, with a little re-con, discovered that our hypothesis was correct and immediately noticed that the crowed was different there. Families were expressing emotions that I haven’t seen yet to one another. They were nailing each other in bumper cars and screaming on a mini screeching roller coaster. We got the chance to converse with two twenty-year-old students from Rabat and spent some time exchanging pastimes and talking about sports. It was difficult trying to explain to them what lacrosse was but it was excellent gaining perspective from students in similar age to Ross and I. It was getting late and it was time to head back west toward the train station and catch the last train out at 9 p.m. back to the port in Casablanca. We had to leave early the next day for a 5 a.m. pick up for a trip to the Sahara desert.
Ross, myself and 70 or so students in two passenger buses were off bright and early to what we all thought was only supposed to be a four-hour drive to our so-called ‘four-legged friends.’ I believed that was the description in the e-mail we all received from the “Trek Morocco” tour guides. Another long story short: a reckless twelve hours later and a stop for chicken tagine at a small restaurant in the Atlas Mountains and we made it. It wasn’t all smooth-sailing for all the members of the trip because the last town we were driving through was having a demonstration with hundreds of people and picket signs. Some girls were ready to call the American consulate but just in time we arrived and people got their cool back. Constellations seemed like they were an arm’s length away. Many people slept outside of the mini tent village that the men prepared for us. We woke up early for the sunrise and then hopped back on the uncomfortable camel humps and rode back to the buses. Riding the camels for a short amount of time explains a lot about why men are scared of women around here. You will understand that once you get on one of those things for more than five minutes, horses and saddles are the way to go.