Where to start? Probably with an explanation of why there was no post yesterday. We drove from Rabat to Ifrane, a resort town in the mid-Atlas mountains built by the French for their summer homes. It's surreal here - it looks like we're in Switzerland. The streets are wide, clean, and there are sidewalks everywhere. Al-Ahkwayan University, leader Aomar's alma mater, is this beautiful, spread out campus with manicured lawns, terra cotta tiles, and gorgeous Moroccan tilework everywhere. We sat in on an architectural history class given by an American professor to American college students here for a summer program, and learned so much about French architectural influence during the colonial period. Also, here's a bit of trivia - did you know that the movie Casablanca was supposed to be called Algiers? The Pentagon informed Hollywood of its plans to land in Morocco (Operation Torch), and they changed the plot and title to reflect the military plan . . . and the rest is history. Would Bogie have sounded as suave asking Ilsa why she had returned to Algiers?
It was young Omar from Michigan's 24th birthday (our leader has the same name) so after figuring out how to wish him well in Arabic -- eid milad said -- maybe?? (I find that if I don't write it down at the time or use it every day, it's quickly forgotten!) and also discovering that it was our driver Azzadine's birthday, the evening revolved around celebration. As we're in a college town, and a more liberal one at that, bars and nightclubs seem commonplace. Let's just say that our big group of Americans walking into a night club attracts attention, especially since it was an underground, hole in the wall college techno joint called - and I'm not even making this up - The Library Club!! It felt good to dance the night away, since exercise has been limited, as we seem to go from meal to lecture to driving to meal to lecture. I didn't expect to even be able to consume alcohol in this predominantly Muslim country (until I read in the guidebook about the vineyards created by the French- which we drove through yesterday - but just as in every other religion, there are conservatives and moderates, and what some "devout" people do doesn't always mean it's the way of everyone else. I bet we can all think of our local examples.
Today was packed, with two history lectures in the morning - I'm learning more about the Saharan problem than I ever knew I didn't know. Ever wondered why there's a grey (literally) area on world maps, just south of Morocco? Google "Western Sahara" or "Saharawi" to find out more - it's much too complicated for this little blog. Lunch was by far the first highlight of the day, as it was couscous Friday!!! It turns out that this elaborate dish is usually only made on Fridays, so that's now going to be our standard meal at the end of the week. We pulled into a gas station and went into a big back room with couches and cushions and low, round tables, where big platters of couscous, chicken, and lamb were placed in front of us and we learned how to eat it in traditional Moroccan style- with our hands! You scoop up some veggies, a little meat, a lot of couscous and sort of make a ball with it, then plop it in your mouth. Talk about a delicious mess! The day only got better when we then went to see monkeys in the mountains and got some great pictures of them eating from people's hands, and unfortunately, also picking through the myriad of wrappers left behind by tourists. Ever seen a monkey eat Fritos? I have. I'll try to post some monkey pics tomorrow. We then continued our drive through various mountain villages and farming areas - the kinds of places where the donkey is the beast of burden and also the prized mode of transport. I just can't wait until we're in the south where we can get out and meet villagers and have our homestay. We're off to a new city tomorrow -- Errichea (sp), then we'll spend Sunday camping in the desert, followed by a sunrise camel ride. That's right . . . I'm spending the 4th of July camping in the Sahara!