Archive for June, 2010


Britta: Week in Paris

June 30, 2010

The first week of the second program through the Learning Abroad Center ended with a trip to Paris. We caught the train early on Friday morning and after ditching our bags we headed out into the narrow, quaint streets.

Paris wasn’t all just sight seeing and taking in the romantic air of the beautiful city. We were there to visit the Musée de l’Immigration. It is a great museum, and after spending 3 hours there we still only saw a fraction.

We got lunch at a small cafe, where we met the nicest, best crêpe maker. We couldn’t just get a crêpe salé we caved and also got a sucré 🙂

We also visited the the Institut du Monde Arabe which is filled with beautiful artwork and the tiniest Korans in the world with amazing calligraphy.

On the last day I made sure to see the Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomph, Champs-Élysées, the Luxombourg gardens. It was a very quick, busy, exhausting weekend but very enjoyable !


Jim: Los Llanos excursion

June 29, 2010

Interesting weekend. We took a trip to los llanos. While in Venezuela, I’m living in Mérida—which is the capital of Mérida state (better site, but non-English)—in the Andes, so the altitude keeps the temperature bearable. Hot, but not unreasonably so. Los Llanos are a grassland area—sort of a cross between jungle & savannah, depending on where you are. The particular llanos we were in are in the state of Apure (another non-wiki but non-English option), South of the Andes & West of the Orinoco. To get there took a ten hour jeep ride. Once there, we got around largely by boats or on horses. This is about one mile closer to sea level, and it is the rainy season , so between the two, temperatures were quite a bit higher than they are in Mérida. Oh well, nobody melted, so it wasn’t too bad.

Since it is the rainy season, there is much less dry land than the dry season, in fact, much of what would have been dry was covered in up to 3 feet of water! Because of this, it can be more difficult to find many of the animals this time of the year, although that really did not seem to be too much of a problem. Living at the camp were a macaw and an anteater—besides quite a few more traditional pets & animals that would be more familiar at home. There were cebu & burros in many places, horses & pigs too, but again, they are a little more familiar. As far as wild animals (the interesting part?), we were not disappointed there at all. We saw several caiman (even caught one!), many capybara—and this surprised me a little. I thought that capybara were somewhat rare and elusive, but we saw them fairly often, even herds of them. I guess some people think they are very tasty, but most of the people we traveled with kind of thought the idea of eating a rodent was repulsive (I would have tried it…). We also caught an anaconda. The snake we caught was about 3.5 meters, so it was noticeably bigger than the garter snakes back home, at least most of them. While on the river, the trees were full of iguanas, really full of them. Some trees would have three or four of them. I don’t know why this surprised me, I just didn’t expect to see so many big lizards in the trees. Occasionally they seemed to fall out, but I guess they would jump. I don’t know why, apparently it would be time for a dip. We saw a few different kinds of turtles & a couple fresh water dolphins, although I never did manage to get a picture of the dolphins. We also fished for piranhas. They look an awful lot like sunfish—tasted like them, too.

As usual I’ll leave you with a nice PHOTO ALBUM.

I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting, but that’s enough for now. Feel free to comment or ask any questions.


Eric: Medina tour

June 28, 2010

We had a guided Medina tour on the first Saturday in Morocco after the program started. We walked down into the medina, first stopping by a communal bakery. Families living in the medina make their own bread, known as khobz, and then put the raw dough in plates with a piece of cloth for identification. The plates of dough are then sent to the bakery, where the master baker would put the dough into the wood-burning oven and take the khobz out when they are done. He also could remember which dough belongs to which family and put the khobz on the right plates. The bakery also sells other types of bread.

We were then taken into this very narrow alley, which was only one person wide, as opposed to regular medina roads where about three people can fit (or one person and a donkey). Considering the population of Fez, the streets of the medina are always crowded, and we had to stop several times so we could stay as a group. Every so often we had to flatten ourselves to the side of the streets so we didn’t get trampled by carts, donkeys, or tiny motorized carts.

On our way to the Medrasa, which could mean a school, or lodging place for students, we came across this little kid who apparently knew our guide. He first recited the first five lines of the Quran, proceeded to say goodbye in Darija, Modern Standard Arabic, English, French, and Dutch, and then sang “Twinkle twinkle little star.” It was pretty impressive for a child of his age. According to our guide, he is the best student at the school he goes to. The food market was also on the way. Like in Italy, there were people selling seafood, vegetables, fruits, meat, and more. The difference is that each vendor has his own cubicle, there are a lot of cats around the place, and markets are a lot cleaner in Italy. Taiwan’s market would probably stand in between Italy and Morocco in terms of cleanliness.

Fez is still the spiritual center of Morocco today, having one of the most important mosques in the Arab world—the Qaraouyine Mosque, currently the 4th largest in the world and the 2nd in Morocco, after Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca built recently. Themosque also is considered the oldest continuous operating university in the world, starting at 859 AD. Since it is a mosque, non-Muslim cannot enter. We did peek at the inside (see picture below) from one of its 14 gates (appropriate for the mosque’s size) in the medina. But the religious school (madrasa) is open for public to visit. We visited one that has ceased operation for the sole purpose of history and tourism (meaning they charge you at the door for a ticket).

The madrasa has really impressive exterior and interior. Walls are decorated with facades, curving of Arabic calligraphy, and different geometric shapes of different colors. The wood windows are also very well decorated. According to our guide, the madrasa did not just study religion, but also the sciences. For a student to be admitted to the religious school, he has to recite the entire book of Holy Quran (114 chapters of different lengths) by memory.

After the madrasa, we visited one of the city’s textile operations, which makes scarves, head scarves, bed sheets, and different fabrics that later could be made into other cloth items. We each had a head scarf wrapped around our heads in different styles. The people there (who obviously have done this before) told everyone to put our cameras on a bench (ready in the middle of the ground), and just started to snap group pictures. I got a black one, and apparently looked like some kind of terrorist/ninja when my face is covered according someone else in the tour.

The last place we visited was the tanneries—the leather making places, which are one of the most famous place in Fez, mentioned in almost every travel guide. Animal skins are first soaked in water mixed with lime for a few days, then moved to different vats to be dyed into different colors. The place didn’t smell very good because of the use of pigeon poop, which contains ammonia that helps soften the leather. Even though we were watching from a balcony above and had a sprig of mint in our hands, the smell just kept coming. It got pretty gross after standing there for a while.

At the end of the tour, the guide pretty much left us in the middle of the medina. Following the signs set up to help guide tourists, a group of successfully made it to Cafe Clock following the signs directing towards Bab Boujeloud. I actually remember the way home from there, maybe I have gotten used to Fez…?


Eric: Friday

June 27, 2010

Friday is a big deal in Morocco. It’s kind of the equivalent of Sunday in the US, when many stores are closed and people go to the mosque. A lot of men go to sit in café to have tea and watch TV for the rest of the day. I like Friday because it means the weekend is coming. Not that school really is something I dislike, but it’s nice to have breaks. Me and my roommate overslept today and woke up at 7:50 am. As we both have class at 8 am, we scrambled to go out to take a taxi to school. I was out waiting for my roommate, and our host-dad went out to get breakfast for us. I, having no way of telling him that we have class in a few minutes and won’t be eating breakfast (he could have understood me but still insisted that we eat breakfast), could only watch him go and return with bread. Feeling bad and trying not to hurt our host-family’s feeling, we grabbed the bread and ran to get in a taxi.

We had a free couscous lunch today, courtesy of ALIF, and it consisted of huge plates of couscous with vegetables and chicken piled on top and watermelon for desert afterwards. It’s kind of weird how many of us feel that everything tastes so good here and just keep on eating. I doubt that I will eat that much in the US when the same food is put in front of me (it’s possible though).

After class, a group of us went across the street to the café to watch the World Cup. I didn’t really pay that much attention as I was taking advantage of the free wireless Internet. We later went to a bar in the hotel I stayed in the first night to watch the match between Spain and Chile. Bars do exist in Morocco, you just need to know where to find them. And even though Morocco is a Muslim country, alcohol apparently isn’t banned, as the bar has a wine list, and everyone in the bar sitting at a table was having some type of alcohol as far as I could tell. Other than beer, most alcohols do cost more than what they cost in the US (from what other people were saying anyway. I had no idea).

We went home a little later than usual, and our host-family somehow ate dinner earlier than usual today. But our host-mom still made us something, which was really nice of her (well, she sat down to eat too, so it could just have been that she hadn’t eaten yet also). We went out after dinner again to our new favorite place in the medina—Café Clock, which has staff who speaks English, and serves really nice drinks for reasonable prices. Here’s a thing about Moroccan culture: if you are a boy, parents are a lot more relaxed about the time you have to be home. If you are out late, they usually just tell you to watch out for yourself. On the other hand, if you are a girl, parents are a lot more protective. Many girls on our program or studying at ALIF have curfews, and they usually have to be accompanied by someone if they are out after dark (a host-sister, roommate, etc.). Probably not for no reason. I would feel a little uncomfortable walking by myself at night, even though I probably won’t get the harassment that some girls experience.


Eric: Moroccan Etiquette

June 26, 2010

Living with a host family in Morocco means I meet a lot of people, including both relatives and friends of the family. Thus, greeting and proper etiquette are very important. For people who I meet for the first time, they generally give me a handshake (right hand only) and then place the hand on their hearts. They greet the family a little differently. In the in addition to the handshake, they also kiss each other on both cheeks. I did this first time yesterday, and it was a good thing I learned how to do it in Italy, otherwise it could have been very awkward. The trick is not actually to kiss, but rather make the sound when you place your cheek next to the other person’s. On the other hand, for the family members, the normal greeting would include a handshake and some form of verbal greeting, which I am still learning. My highlight of the day was that for the first time since I have been here, I managed to have a conversation with my host mother, in Arabic, which though only involved normal day greeting (“Hello, how are you. Good, fine”) and lasted like a minute but still a big step. Those Arabic lessons are definitely paying off.

We also had our on-site orientation yesterday. I did not know that Fez is a city with 1.5 million (possibly 2 million) inhabitants, which is a lot for a city that’s really not that big. I also learned many things about Moroccan culture, such as that the goal of a male–female relationships is usually marriage, and public displays of affection iare considered to be offensive and in poor taste. I can see how Westerners would offend the local people, with our emphasis placed on freedom of expression (of every kind apparently). Many people have the impression that women are not equal to men in a Muslim country. This is not so much in the case in Morocco, where law has been modified to give women rights men have. The king, Mohammed VI, has been reforming the country ever since he became king in 1999. After the orientation, people on the Minnesota program were invited to have lunch with the program coordinator here, which was quite delicious, but lasted all the way into the afternoon class. Lunch time really is between noon to 3 pm in Morocco, and is considered to be family time, which is quite similar to Italy.

After class today, me and my roommate went across the street to one of the cafes to watch the World Cup and saw the US beat Algeria. It’s quite an interesting experience, as most Moroccans root for Algeria (being the only team from the Arab world to compete). So whenever Algeria misses a shot, there were both cheers and groans in the cafe. It’s a good thing that we don’t have people super into football (as they call it in everywhere else outside of the US) with us and in the cafe, otherwise it could very well have turned ugly.


Jim: Saturday Walkabout

June 23, 2010

Last Saturday I took a walk up to the top end of town (long walk). I had been hearing for a couple weeks that there was an artisan fair on some road just a little way past the bullfight arena & was curious so decided to take a look. I did take the trolley the first third or so, but the line has not been completed yet. Very convenient that what is done is running though, & the price is great (free).

At first it might look like a much bigger difference in the standards of living from one part of town to another, but if you really think about it that may not be the case. You can see houses here that would probably fall somewhere into an upper-middle class range in Mn, and you can see houses that seem to be a bit below any standards of living in our area. However, I have not seen any homeless here at all. I’ve asked & have heard that there are some here, but very few compared to large cities in the States.

The markets are also very interesting. The actual art fair that I was heading toward was rained out shortly before I got there. A few vendors were still there, you can see some of them selling paintings or puppies (?!). Since coming here, I have  seen quite a few open fruit vendors, but the pics above were taken where an entire street was closed for several blocks for herb, vegetable & fruit stands. Smelled great!



Eric: First day of class

June 23, 2010

Today is the first day of class for the Arabic Language and Culture in Morocco program summer session II. Depending on the level of MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) or CMA (Colloquial Moroccan Arabic), different classes have different meeting times. As far as I could tell, there are only two kinds of schedules: have class between 8 to 10 am and 2 to 4 pm, or have class between 10 am to 12 pm and 4 to 6 pm. Good thing me and my roommate have the same schedule, even though we are in different levels.

We woke up early today to get to school so I could get my textbooks. ALIF wasn’t open yet, so we went a block away to a café for breakfast. I got a cheese sandwich (4 pieces of toast with cheese in between), orange juice (fresh-squeezed), and mint tea for 22 Dh (a little more than 2 USD). Definitely a good deal.

Despite the breakfast being so cheap, books however do cost approximately the same as in the US (possibly more). Probably because the textbooks I am using are published by Georgetown University and are the same ones that most English speakers use when learning Arabic. I got mine right at 8 am when the bell rang and ran up to third floor to join my classmates.

As I learned, Arabic is a language with a set number of alphabets, each of which is associated with a particular sound. So like English or any Western language really, you can pronounce a word by just looking at it, even though you have no idea what it means. It’s really different from Chinese, which uses characters that don’t really associate with their sounds, but you might be able to guess the meaning of the character based on what it looks like. For the first period, we learned the first 4 alphabets out of the 28, which are called alif, baa, taa, thaa. I tried typing those in Arabic, but as you read Arabic from right to left, typing them in a left to right written document creates problem. Our teacher speaks English and is really funny with his over-emphasized pronunciations and different facial expressions.

Two hours flew past, and I used wireless Internet in the ALIF garden before meeting up with my roommate to go out for lunch. It turned out that the Wi-Fi in my host-family somehow just stopped working, so now ALIF is my only access to free Internet. We had lunch at the other café that’s one block from ALIF (there are only two), at which I ordered a maghretta pizza, and ended up getting what I think is a seafood pizza, as there were pieces of fish (I thought it tasted like tuna) on the thin crust with olive, cheese, tomato sauce, and probably a lot of other things that I just didn’t know were there. It was the first time I had fish on a pizza, and it didn’t taste bad.

The afternoon period involved some hardcore Arabic pronunciation instruction. We learned so many different sounds, some of which do not exist in English (such as kh, which involves making a sound really deep in the throat, kind of like before spitting), and tried to pronounce some many different words that we had no idea the meaning of. It was pretty satisfying to see progress immediately though. Our teacher in this period speaks perfect Arabic (both MSA and CMA), French, and English (flawless without much of an accent), and also has a really expressive face (probably a requirement when they recruit language teachers I guess). I think I will be able to learn a lot in the 6 weeks.


Jim: Host family appreciation night

June 22, 2010

Tuesday June 8th (I think – no longer sure of the day or date) was appreciation night. This was when students prepared meals at VENUSA for their host families as a way of saying thanks. There was a very good turn out, dishes were pot-luck style, although there wasn’t a lot of organization regarding who brought what. I think there were about 25 pasta salads, 20 deserts, & maybe ½ a dozen potato salads. All very good, at least those I tried were good, just a little funny. I can’t say I did much to sway the variety. I wanted to bring something that was easy to prepare—our kitchen is very basic, a couple frying pans, a can opener & a few spoons (no mixing bowls)—so nothing requiring baking or any sauces was an option. It also had to be something that would not spill, splash or burn on the trolley on the way to school. The trollies are normally very, very crowded, with room to stand only and carrying a bulky item would almost certainly end up dumped at some point. Finally, it had to be something that would not go bad after sitting out all day without being refrigerated (food poisoning can be such a drag). Remaining options? People chow. I know, most people call it puppy chow now, but the first time I ever had it was in a boy’s home in the late 80’s. It was people chow then, a play on words with puppy chow (the dog food). Sometime during the mid-90’s people started calling it puppy-chow, I’m probably just being stubborn, but I’m sticking with the name people chow & do not have any inclination at all to start eating dog food, so there it is.

The markets here are a little different than markets in the states. This is a very simple recipe with only four ingredients, but not quite so available here. On a recommendation, I had brought peanut butter along to Venezuela, so that was not a problem. Rice chex, or something vaguely similar did not seem like it would be too difficult to find. Wrong on that one, corn flakes were as close as I could get (yeah, I know). Semi-sweet chocolate chips? No, not here. I went with some dark chocolate bars intended for making hot cocoa. I added a little sugar & some dry milk once melted, it came out really close.

Even after all the weird accomodations that had to be made, it was pretty popular—there was none leftover at all. Fun night, but I don’t know what I’m going to make for session B—I’m almost out of peanut butter.



Eric: Hammam (Moroccan public bath)

June 21, 2010

I never thought showering would be the thing I most look forward to before I come to Morocco. Today I asked my roommate to ask my host family if we can go to a hammam (Moroccan public bath), and they said they would take us there later in the day. It turns out that the family actually do shower in the small bathroom, and my theory on how they do that is they sit on the floor and use a small bucket to catch water from the near-ground-level tap and wash with it. My host-brother did tell us that Moroccans shower about twice a week, which really isn’t that bad if they shower really thoroughly (exactly the case when you go to a hammam). Since water isn’t the most available resource, twice sounds about right.

To go to a hammam, most likely you will have to be led by a local, since the place usually doesn’t have a sign, and you probably don’t know what to do in there. Two of my host brothers took us there at around 10 pm, and we had to wait outside because it was still girl’s hour. Bathing times for men and women are different and separated. By the time we went in, it was about 11 pm. While waiting, we had an interesting encounter. A man approached us and did the usual greeting and asked where we were from. Upon hearing the US, he started telling us (in English) that he used to live in Brooklyn and to get a massage there, it costs a lot. He said that he could get us a cheap massage in the hammam for about 100 Dh each for both my roommate and me. And he went on and on. After he was done and walked somewhere else, we asked our host brothers how much the massage really costs. Well, lesson learned: never agree to offers from people on the street without consulting the locals. It really only costs about 30 Dh to get a massage in the hammam.

First we paid an entrance fee (10 Dh I think), and then we took off our cloth except boxers. We put all our stuff in the lobby area where there were cabinets, and took soap and shampoo with us. We also took a few buckets provided with us, and went into the steaming room. My host brothers fetched us buckets of hot water (mixed with cold water to make it a little more bearable), and we sat there to sweat a little bit. Afterwards, the washing began. Just like showering, we put on soap and shampoo, and use a small plastic scoop to scoop water from the bucket to rinse. After repeating for about half an hour to an hour, we were done, fresh and clean. You know, showering only twice a week would most likely to be frowned upon and considered unsanitary in the US, but I can see how it’s totally okay and practical in Morocco. First of all, unless you do excessive amount of work everyday, you really aren’t that dirty after one day. Using large amount of water to shower then is just a waste. Also, going to a hammam requires time, as it’s not just a time for cleaning, but also for socializing and relaxing. I really couldn’t imagine anyone doing it every single day. And lastly, it costs money to use the hammam. 10 Dh is about 1 USD, which may not sound much to Americans, but it does add up if you go every single day.

After the shower, we went home, had dinner, and went to bed.


Eric: More exploring

June 20, 2010

Sometimes you  realize there are things that are the same no matter where you go. For examples: brothers always fight (if there are 4 of them, the frequency is even higher); mama’s cooking is always the best; mom’s lecture on not watching TV when eating or not playing so much video games sounds the same (no matter in what language). I also found it amusing that people here always assume I am from Japan at first—so many people said こんにちは (good afternoon in Japanese) to me, it’s getting old… I can’t really blame anybody. How can I expect anyone to tell the difference between Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese (these 4 groups are most likely to be mixed up) if they are not from East Asia? It’s like asking me to tell whether someone is German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian. I just can’t do that, and I am usually amazed to find someone that can.

Like a normal weekend, I slept in today, woke up, had breakfast, and continued to doing nothing. There really isn’t that much to do in the house except for watching TV (I have been watching the World Cup, and I don’t usually watch sports at all). I really don’t want to give my host-family the impression that I can’t live without Internet (even though they probably already figured this out), so I try to go online (that is, bring my computer to the living room) just three times a day (noon, afternoon, late night). I also finally managed to remember what some of the food is called. The flat bread we eat everyday for lunch and dinner is called khobz. They are broken into smaller pieces, and we break off even smaller pieces from it to scoop from the main dish in the center (which are cooked in a tajine).

In the afternoon we went out to walk in the medina and around the town again. The medina is full of narrow roads that follow no particular order in getting people to places. I think I wouldn’t be able to walk back home even with a map. Plus, there were distractions from every direction: people selling carpets, head scarves, shoes, and other goods.

After heading for god-knows-where for about an hour with my roommate following one of my host-brother’s direction, we got out of the medina and took a taxi to a slightly newer part of the city. There, we walked by the royal palace, which is still being used whenever the king, Mohammed VI, or the royal family comes to Fès. The royal palace is gigantic. Taking up 80 hectares of land, it stretches all the way from the old medina to the newer part of the town. Regular people are not allowed into the palace, and despite my travel guide saying no photography, we saw quite a few people taking pictures and we followed their examples (well, only the large door with one guard, who has a large gun, on the side. I didn’t dare take pictures of the side wall where there are more security guards and police, all with guns).

Walking on the 8-lane road in front of the palace gate, we reached Ville Nouvelle and stopped to get something to eat. Feeling more like drinking something, I ordered a banana juice, which was a glass of white liquid that tasted like banana-flavored milk. Not my favorite, but it wasn’t bad. We ended our exploration by taking a taxi home.

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