Some of you might know that when I was deciding where to study abroad, it came down to choosing between Toledo and Istanbul.  I am very happy that I chose Toledo, but I am also glad that I got the chance to go to Istanbul for the last week before I came home with my friend Rachel, who had been studying in India and China for the semester.  However, her program ended a week after mine, so I decided to go back to Oxford to visit my friends there.  While I was there, we took an overnight trip to London.  We started at night:

Buckingham Palace.

Westminster Abbey.

Big Ben!

The moon over Parliament and the Thames.

The London Eye.

Trying to get to Hogwarts…

The next day, we got to into Westminster Abbey.  Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take any pictures.  I knew that there were tons of important people buried there, but I didn’t realize just how many tombs there are.  You’re literally tripping over them.  We saw the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, most of the Henrys and  Edwards, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Purcell, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  We also visited the British Museum and saw the Rosetta Stone:

After staying a few more days in Oxford, I jetted off to Istanbul to meet Rachel.  I have to be honest and say that even though I almost studied there and did as much research about it as I could, I had no idea what to expect and was a little nervous.  Rachel and I spent the night Ataturk airport catching up and planning things out, and then we took the tram to our hostel in the old part of the city, Sultanhamet.  We immediately went to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, which were right across the street from each other and not even a five minute walk from the hostel.  The Blue Mosque, officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque after the sultan who built it from 1609-1616, is fully functional.  It’s “blue” because of the blue tiles on the ceilings, which were made in modern-day Iznik, which used to be Nicaea, home of the Nicene Creed.  The sultan was so excited about this project that sometimes he would work alongside the laborers.  At the time it was the only mosque outside of Mecca that had six minarets.  One story says that the sultan left Istanbul and told his architect he wanted a minaret capped with gold (altın) and the architect thought he asked for six of them (altı).  Basically, a silly 90’s-sitcom-style mix-up created the grandeur that is the Blue Mosque. Anyway, this was a huge point of contention for a while, because it looked like the sultan was trying to overshadow the Grand Mosque in Mecca, so he paid for a seventh minaret for the Grand Mosque.  Enough talk, here are some pictures:

(The other minarets are off to the side.)

The courtyard and the Ablutions Fountain.

Pretty Turkish carpet!

And it was awesome at night.

I loved the Blue Mosque.  It was probably my favorite thing in Istanbul.  Next, we walked across the street the the Hagia Sofia.  It was originally a Byzantine church built by Emperor Justinian, and then when the Ottoman Turks conquered, it became a mosque.  Today it’s a museum, and therefore had a rather steep fee to get in.  But it is stunning.

They also had these beautiful works of calligraphy.  I’m not even totally sure what they’re called, but they were beautiful.

Zoom in

The other main site that we saw was called Topkapı Palace.  According to my Top 10 Istanbul book, it’s the #1 thing to see, but I had never heard of it.  It was a very cool place.  It was built by Sultan Mehmet II from 1459-1465 and was the palace of the sultans until 1856.

Imperial Gate.

Gate of Salutations. According to my guidebook, this is where “visitors were greeted, and high officials who had upset the sultan were arrested and strangled.” Luckily, Rachel and I fell under the category of “visitor,” so everything was fine.

There was a beautiful courtyard at the entrance, right in front of the harem area.  It was extra money to get in, but worth it.  It was room after room of the quarters of the sultans and their families, the slaves, and the concubines.  My guidebook made a special point to say that “concubine” in this case doesn’t have exactly the same connotations that the romantic visitors from Europe gave it.  The harem was actually more like a boarding school, and life for the concubines was usually pretty dull, even though the sultan did have “privileges” if he chose to exercise them.

Is this a warning or directions?

Barracks of the Black Eunuchs. At any given time, 200 eunuchs from Sudan and Ethiopia lived in the harem.

Outside of the harem, we got to walk around some of the park area, where we had beautiful views of the Bosphorus.

And we saw some of the tiny mosques on the palace grounds.

There were two more main areas of the palace.  The first was the relic room, which holds some of Islam’s holiest relics, including part of Mohammad’s beard, one of his teeth, two of his swords, and a cloak that he gave to a poet as a present.  Also included was the staff of Moses with which he parted the Red Sea and struck the rock to get water.  Rachel and I were both surprised that this place was not more publicized at the entrance.  It was just a little asterisk in my guidebook, but it seemed pretty important to me.

The second area was the Treasure Room.  More specifically, it was four rooms with all sorts of treasure.

AND I GOT TO HOLD IT. Just kidding, this is from the internet.

We also visited the Basilica Cistern, an underground cistern established by Justinian. Originally it was an underground basilica, but then it became a cistern in the 6th century.  And it still has water in it.  My first thought upon seeing it was, “It would be really cool to have a prom here.”

This made me laugh. What it was pointing to was…

Two Medusa heads salvaged from Greek buildings. They were each about a meter tall. This one was on its side, the other was upside down, and no one is sure why.

One day, we went to on a Bosphorus cruise to see the Asia side of Istanbul.  It is mostly residential, but I wanted to be able to say that I set a foot in Asia, and Rachel wanted to go back.  The rides to and from were beautiful:

We went to the primary mosque on the Asia side, Şemsi Paşa.  It was very small, but very beautiful.  We couldn’t figure out how to get inside, so a friendly, grandfatherly Turkish man eagerly showed us around.  He didn’t speak any English but communicated with hand gestures what everything was and gave us a few books about Islam.  It was extremely nice of him, and I can see why he was so proud of the mosque.

I liked the rest of the Asia side too.  We walked along the major roads:

And we walked into Karacaahmet Cemetery, an enormous 700-year-old cemetery, the final resting place of over one million people.

We also ran into a military complex.  We got curious and walked too close and then got yelled at by men with machine guns.

And then we came upon Haydarpaşa Station, the most western train stop in Asia.  From there we caught a ferry back to the Europe side.

One day, we explored the two main bazaars, the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.  The Grand Bazaar is the one I’ve heard the most about and was most excited to go to.  However, it is actually pretty much a mall, minus the food court, and I’m told, a huge tourist ripoff.  We walked around for a couple hours, haggled on a couple things, and then we moved on.

We also saw the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, which is less well-known, but was exactly what I imagined the Grand Bazaar would have been.  Streets packed tight with stalls, spices and scarves and shoes and weird trinkets spread all over, and people haggling and yelling at each other.  I bought some dates which were delicious.  Turns out this is the only picture I took:

I want to add one more thing, an explanation of haggling.  It was drastically different from anything that I’ve experienced and frankly it was completely baffling.  I was told that you’re supposed to start at half of whatever the price is that’s suggested and go from there.  I did this with limited success.  Rachel, however, was an expert.  She knew how to get what price she wanted.  I guess a couple months in India will do that to you.  Anyway, haggling was so weird to me because it both divides people and brings them together at the same time.  For example, one night we were in a store, arguing with the owner about the price of a pair of shoes, and we were getting angry and frustrated with each other, telling him his shoes weren’t worth even half of what he wanted, and generally being really antagonistic to each other.  But through all of the irritability and opposition, our conversation was interspersed with stories about his past, his family, and what we were doing in Europe.  We ended up abruptly leaving the store because we couldn’t agree on a price.  The next day we saw the storekeeper in the street, and we felt totally comfortable talking to him and asking how his day was.  We were definitely angry and frustrated at the time, but it let us get to know someone better.

Also, a word on what it was like to be two foreign girls in Istanbul.  As I’ve said, we spend most of our time in the old part of the city, which seemed much more traditional than the rest of the city.  So it may be different even in a different area, but I’ll say it plainly: we were harassed, a lot.  Men approached us often to ask us out, just to talk, or, in a couple cases, to propose.  Walking down the street meant steeling ourselves to deal with them gracefully.  It rarely felt creepy; we usually just turned it into silly banter.  Rachel was very good at this too, and tells me that she dealt with it worse in India and China.  We were stared at constantly, and several times had our pictures taken. We saw very few women out, and I think I only ever spoke to one woman throughout our entire stay in Istanbul.  The more touristy streets looked like this:

And shop windows looked like this:

There are open-air cafes on every corner, competing for your attention.  The less busy areas were a strange mixture of opulence and poverty, sometimes with two buildings of each kind right next to each other.  In strange ways, Istanbul is changing rapidly, which manifests itself in weird ways and seeming contradictions.

I was the luckiest girl in the world on my birthday because we decided to take a trip to Ephesus, which is about a ten hour bus ride from Istanbul.  We took a tour, and the first stop was the House of Mary, the officially declared site of the Assumption of Mary, and a possible site of the writing of the Gospel of John.

The entire park was beautiful.  Mass was going on, and we dunked our faces in the spring.  And, fittingly, we saw the House of Mary on Mother’s Day.  Rachel and I were the only Catholics on the tour, so our tour guide checked with us first about how long we should stay, asking if 15 minutes was enough.  Rachel and I laughed and then realized he was serious.  Predictably enough, we held up the tour because we didn’t want to leave.

Next we went to the really famous part of Ephesus, the ruins of the Roman settlement.  At one point, Ephesus was the second largest city in the Roman Empire.  It was a huge trading port and also a center for the beginnings of Christianity.  Paul lived and preached there for a while.  A lot of riots and other clashes between Christians and city authorities and the three Councils of Ephesus occurred there as well.  The ruins of the Greek/Roman city have been put back together beautifully; however, since the excavations began so recently, only about 10% of the ruins have been unearthed so far.

This is the goddess Nike. Apparently the guy who designed the Nike symbol was inspired by this statue. You can sorta see the swoosh…

On the left, the famous Library of Ephesus. We were told that the building on the right was a brothel, and that there used to be a tunnel connecting the two. Draw your own conclusions.

I forget which building this is, but apparently Paul’s preaching incited a riot here.

Amphitheater, which was enormous.

At the gift shops outside. Had to laugh at this.

All that is left of the Temple of Artemis, a wonder of the ancient world. A mob led by St. John Chrysostom destroyed it in 401.

Next, we visited somewhere that I didn’t expect.  Turkey is very famous for its carpet industry, and recently the government has given a lot of subsidies in order to keep the industry going.  We went to a foundation that employs women from semi-nomadic families to make carpets.  I guess they take tourists there so they can see the process, and then hope that maybe they’ll buy some.  They gave us a whole demonstration on how the carpets are made, and then showed us a whole array of carpets.

The silkworms’ cocoons being woven into silk thread.

This one was my favorite. I asked the price, and I guess it was so high that I blocked it out of my memory because I truly don’t remember what he said.

They offered us drinks while we were watching the carpet show, and insisted that we try lion’s milk, a very strong anise-based drink.  My first drink after turning 21!

He told us, “After one glass of this, all of these carpets will become flying carpets!” Rachel and I decided to split a glass.

I was really happy that I finally got to Istanbul, and I would definitely go back, maybe even for an extended stay. But I’m glad I didn’t spend a whole semester during my first time there; I think all of the difference would have gotten exhausting quickly.  It’s a beautiful place, with a vibrant, colorful culture and attitude, and the people are genuinely hospitable.

Right after Istanbul, I came home, and I’m very happy to be back.  I’m going to let this article do my summing up for me: http://www.salon.com/2000/03/18/why/.

Thanks for reading my blog!


Right now I am sitting, comfy and cozy on the family room couch in my house in good ole Wayne, PA.  Even though I’m home now, I feel for the sake of completeness that I should write about my the last few trips that I made after my program ended on April 28.  That morning at 6am I boarded a bus to Madrid with everyone on my program, and we dropped those who were going home off at their respective terminals at the airport.  This was quite sad, and I really miss everyone.

Anyway, that night I spent in Madrid with a friend, watching movies with Spanish subtitles (which I’ve found is an awesome way to keep the learning going).  The next morning, quite early, I boarded a plane to Barcelona to stay there for four days.  This was the first time that I was traveling and staying alone, so I was a little bit nervous.  But all went well.  As soon as I walked into my hostel, I ran into friends from my Morocco program who were staying there also.  It was a wonderful and extremely far-fetched coincidence, and it was great to see them again.

I have to start off describing Barcelona by saying that even though it is in Spain, it is not exactly a Spanish city.  It’s very cosmopolitan, artsy, and free-spirited.  It’s in the region of Catalonia, where the people primarily speak Catalan, so its culture is a bit different from the rest of Spain.  It has much more influence from the rest of Europe, specifically France.  Sometimes, I was not crazy about Spanish culture.  However, I loved Barcelona.  It was a thriving, vibrant city, but not suffocatingly busy.  The entire spirit of the city is very dramatic, artsy, and a little bit mysterious, but they seemed not to take themselves too seriously in a way that other Spanish cities did.  I stayed in the oldest part of the city, the Gothic Quarter, where some of the apartment buildings are as old as the Middle Ages.  I genuinely enjoyed walking around the city because the streets were so beautiful, with plants pouring out of windows, charming architecture, and colorful walls.

And people’s laundry drying everywhere.

And most of the doors look like this.

Even the main streets feel charming.

The most famous sight to see in Barcelona is  the Sagrada Familia, the enormous, modern church designed by Antoni Gaudí, which as of yet is still unfinished.  But I will get back to that.  What I did not realize is that Sagrada Familia is not the only work of his in Barcelona. He has an entire park dedicated to his work, as well as several other buildings throughout the city. Here is a sampling of my pictures from Park Güell.

I love these tiles. If you look at anything of his that’s ceramic in this park, it’s usually a bunch of tiny little chunks of tile.

View from the roof. There’s the Mediterranean!

And here are some of his buildings throughout the main area of Barcelona:

After seeing all of these things, I really couldn’t decide if I liked Gaudí’s work or not.  Sometimes it’s colorful and flowing and other times it’s jagged and rough and dirty looking.  I was ambivalent, and then I saw Sagrada Familia.

Those are grapes strung all around.

I loved it. I sat in a chair for half an hour and just stared at the ceiling.  It’s baffling, it’s surprising, and a few times it’s even distressing, but it was beautiful and breathtaking too.  I’ve heard it called a reinterpretation of the Gothic style which is so present and ingrained in Barcelona.  Construction began in 1882, and it’s still not done.  Estimates place its completion around 2028.  Most of its towers aren’t complete yet.  A set of twelve small towers will represent  the apostles, four taller will be the evangelists, a taller one still will represent Mary, and the tallest Jesus.  It has three facades: the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory.  The ones pictured here are the Passion side.  There have been huge controversies at pretty much every stage; some thing the style is too revolutionary, some think the design after Gaudí’s death wasn’t in keeping with what he wanted, some think it will overtake the grandness of the traditional Gothic cathedral in Barcelona, and others are worried that the train line that runs underneath it will disrupt the church’s structural integrity.  Construction and upkeep has definitely been a battle, but from what I’ve seen, I think it’s been more than worth it.

There was a lot more to Barcelona, however, than just Gaudí.  I walked along La Rambla, a main road lined with shops and stands of all kinds.  This is pretty famous, but I thought it was actually a bit of a letdown.  There weren’t a lot of things I was interested in.  Or maybe it was just that I couldn’t afford any of the restaurants.  One of my favorite sections of town was the beach and the port nearby.  This was my first time seeing the Mediterranean too!

There were bands playing everywhere, and plenty of people happy to stop and listen for a while.

Another area I enjoyed a lot, and visited more than once, was the Arc de Triomf and the nearby park, Parc de la Ciutadella.  The Arc de Triomf itself is pretty amazing; it’s very Gothic, very dramatic. It has a lot of angels and bat-demons on it.

The park was beautiful, and full of people and street performers.

They really don’t take themselves seriously and I love it.

One final thing that I want to share: the beautiful mask shop.

Next stop on the post-semester journey: Oxford!

On our second to last weekend in our program, we took a day trip to Segovia, a small city about two hours north of Toledo.  It was actually remarkably like Toledo in all of its architecture and culture.  We didn’t get much background on this history, and we only spent about two hours there, but we got to see the beautiful castle where Ferdinand and Isabella spent a lot of time.  But it is a restoration because most of it burnt down.

Throne room.

There was a lot of Arabic influence too. You could have shown me this picture and I would have thought it was Morocco.

Really strange mural that was on the wall. I think the person who did it had some sort of political message…the focus is on the royalty, but the poor children on the side have no eyes.

I loved this room, it had little statues of all the kings!

My favorite part of the day, however, was seeing what Segovia is really famous for: the aqueducts.

Our tour guide was explaining to us that these were built by the Romans in the 1st-2nd centuries.  They didn’t use any sort of cement or adhesive; everything is held together with keystones.

Side story: the tour guide (a Spaniard) didn’t tell us at first how they’re all held together, and hinted that there is a state in the US with a certain nickname involving architecture.  I, being the only one from Pennsylvania, got both excited and homesick.  I was really surprised that a Spaniard knew that about PA.  It’s kind of an obscure fact.

I’m writing this post from Oxford, England.  My program has ended and I’m spending a couple weeks traveling before I come home.  My next post, which I hope will be ready soon, will be about the  first stop I made on my post-program tour, Barcelona!

Yesterday, I completed all of my exams for the semester.  (Which means I’m a senior now. What.)  For most of the semester, I’ve wanted to write a post about the festivals of Spain that I’ve learned about in my ethnology and folklore class.  If nothing else, I will carry one less with me forever: Spaniards are clearly insane.

Here’s a summary of some of these festivals.

San Fermines: This is the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona.  The festival starts off with them shooting off a rocket in the main square.  Then, there is a procession of the city council members from the government building to the cathedral, where Vespers is held.  But, the young people of the town stand in front and try to prevent them from going in.  Then, they take an image of San Fermin and parade it around the city in what is called the Parade of the Giants and Large Heads, where people put on costumes with very large heads.  That is all in day one.  In days two to eight, every morning at 8am is the running of the bulls, which only lasts about three minutes.  (About 200-300 people are injured every year.  Here’s why: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSHMbu6Ysjw.) After this, everyone eats a lot, they have bullfights, and then they do another procession of the Large Heads.  At night, they dance, drink, and eat.  On the last day, everyone gathers in the main plaza and sings “Pobre de Mi” to express their sadness that the festival is over until next year.

Jarramplas: This one is only a two-day festival in one small town in the region of Extremadura.  There are two protagonists to this festival, the Mayordomo and Jarramplas, who are played by two different people in the town every year.  Jarramplas represents a thief, and the Mayordomo is his protector.  The night before the festival, Jarramplas goes throughout the town and begs for money from the townspeople to give to the Mayordomo.  The next day, Jarramplas goes around town again, this time in a very shiny, colorful dress and mask with horns, and when people see him in the street, they throw turnips at him.  This signifies their rejection of evil and ability to defend their town.  At midnight, he transforms into a good man, takes off his mask, and goes to mass with his girlfriend/wife.  When he leaves mass, he puts the mask back on, and becomes evil again.  The next day, he is pummeled with more turnips, and then he and the Mayordomo take their clothes to the house of the Mayordomo for the celebration next year.

Cipotegato: More vigilante justice.  In Tarazona, one man is picked to make his way through the city to the main plaza, where thousands of people gather to throw tomatoes at him.  The legend behind this is that the mayor of Tarazona told a prisoner that he could have his freedom if he walked out of the city.  The prisoner, elated, left the jail and walked through the city plaza to the gate, and the entire city was there, and they all stoned him to death.  Honestly, if the Spaniards can make a party out of this, they can do it with anything.

Pinochada: There is a legend that centuries ago, the village of Vinuesa was attacked by invaders.  The women of the town stepped up to fight with pine branches and were able to keep the enemy from taking over the town.  Today, on the feast of the Assumption, the people of Vinuesa mark this event with a fiesta.  The day consists in veneration of la Virgen de los Pinos, singing, dancing, and, my favorite part–the women go around with pine branches and whack all of the men with them.  And the men have to say “gracias.”

Since this is Spain, every one of these celebrations involves a lot of dancing, singing, and alcohol.  Also in the Spanish tradition, these fiestas began with the feast of a saint, usually the patron of the town.  Now, though, the feasts have practically no religious significance.  I think I’ve written on this blog before that being in Spain is kind of strange for me, a Catholic from the US; most people here are Catholic in name, but the religion has become so ingrained in the life of the people here that the religious stuff just seems to have no significance beyond a cultural coincidence.   The way that these celebrations have developed is a good example of the attitude towards religion in general: from strictly religious feasts to a mixture of cultural folklore and religious to almost completely cultural.  It’s a good reminder that the development of religion is not outside of history, and what can be considered strictly “religious” can be intertwined with all sorts of random things, and sometimes for really strange reasons.

When we watched videos of the running of the bulls in class, it struck me how differently Spaniards and Americans think.  In the US, there is absolutely no way anything like a bull run or a turnip-pummeling could happen; there would be too many lawsuits, too much red tape, and a suffocating amount of regulations.  But, on the other hand, the ER wouldn’t be full of people who were trampled for taunting a thousand-pound bull, or the 15 people who have died in the bull runs since 1925.  Spaniards seem much more willing to get their hands dirty in the name of tradition or just having a good time, whereas Americans seem to prefer to regulate their fun.

I also wanted to mention one group of people in Spain called the pasiegos.  They live in one area of northern Spain, and their entire lifestyle is meant to support the needs of the cattle.  They have no electricity or running water because they move from cabin to cabin, usually every three weeks, so that the cattle have fresh grass to eat.  Every member of the family works from a very early age, from sunup to sundown, 365 days a year, and so the children only go to school for an hour here or there.  But after all of this work, they make some of the best cheese, butter, and desserts in the world, and because it’s so rare, it’s extremely expensive.  But, whenever they make money, they usually use it only to buy more cows, since they have little to no contact with or interest in the outside world.

The way these people live completely baffles me; I can’t imagine having a life so completely devoted to one task with pretty much no interest in any other way of living.  On the other hand, I think working hard to get so ridiculously good at something that your product is valued all over the world is pretty cool.  It’s a way of living and an attitude that I do not understand, but really enjoyed learning about.

After my weekend in Morocco, I went off to Munich.   I didn’t get a lot of pictures, but here’s what I have from a few visits around one of the royal avenues, the Ludwigstraße:

Siegestor, the German version of the Arc de Triomph. "Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, reminding of peace."

In front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. What's built into the ground here are pamphlets from the White Rose movement, a nonviolent student movement that called for resistance of the Nazi regime.

I'm not sure which church this is, but I thought the arches were really pretty.


St. Cajetan's Church, where we went to Easter mass.

During the day. The Feldherrenhalle is the building on the right which has statues of Bavarian military heroes.

The city center, Marienplatz.

White Easter!

Inside of St. Cajetan's Church.

Munich was beautiful, but a little too quiet for my taste.  Everyone obeys the law to the point where nobody even jaywalks, which is a weird thought to someone from Philly.  One thing I didn’t get pictures of that I absolutely loved was the English Gardens. It’s this beautiful, enormous park that has tons of walking paths and some really violent swans.  The city itself is an expensive place; at one point I paid 4 euro for a Coke (a little under $6).   Germany’s riding the euro crisis really well and keeping everyone else afloat, and so it’s one of the much more expensive places in Europe.  It had a totally different feel that way too.  Sometimes in Spain you can feel the tension in the air about money, but in Germany everyone seemed pretty relaxed and confident about it.

On my trip home, I had a stopover in Palma, Majorca, a destination for a lot of European travelers.  Since I had an 8 hour layover, I got to do a little of sightseeing there too.  In Majorca they speak Catalan, which is about two parts Spanish and one part French.

Their lack of ñ kinda bugs me.


I knew the Spanish housing market was tanking, but...

Turns out I had accidentally wandered into the contemporary art museum. Cool!

Cathedral on the left, and tons of palm trees and boats.

In one of my first posts on my blog, I wrote about a video we watched during orientation about an extra program we would be doing called Morocco Exchange. Initially I was not a fan; the video made it seem like the purpose of the trip was to see how much Morocco has developed and how much like the West it’s becoming.  The video, I am pleased to say, was quite misleading, and I had a great trip.

The day after the aforementioned general strike in Spain, I woke up in the wee hours to get to our flight to Tangier.  We were immediately greeted by our wonderful program leader, Jess, an artist from the UK who had been living in Morocco for a while.  The airport was very, very small.  It only had three gates and it was about the size of an average warehouse.  I wish I had gotten a picture of the runway we landed on; it was actually built out into the Atlantic so when I looked out the window of the plane as we landed, it looked like we were about to miss and land in the ocean.  What was really weird was that the Tangier airport is only 7 kilometers away from the coast of Spain.  Even on a foggy day you can still see Spain in the distance.  In my mind Spain and Morocco are very, very far apart, on separate continents, and have totally separate cultures.  Standing in Morocco and being able to see Spain closed that gap a little bit.

Anyway, Jess took us into the center of Tangier and on the way, she gave us the program guidebooks that had a lot of useful information about Moroccan customs, culture, and politics.  It also gave us a list of dos and don’ts.


  • Remove your shoes in a home, or in order to walk on any carpet.
  • Bring a gift when you dine at someone’s house.
  • Keep your voice low.
  • Ask for the restroom or trash can discreetly.
  • Show respect for elders.
  • Wear your shoes in the bathroom.
  • Shake everyone’s hand when you enter a room.
  • Walk behind someone when they are praying.
  • Offer to share you food with others (especially children).
  • Be quiet when people are praying.
  • Be modest – cover your shoulders and no plunging shirts.
  • Sit in the same sex designated area when asked.
  • Have a second cup of tea.
  • Try to six next to people of the same sex.


  • Touch someone from the opposite sex.
  • Use your left hand when eating or giving alms or gifts.
  • Use English swear words – Moroccans know these.
  • Wait for your turn in line. (There is no line.)
  • Wear shorts or tank tops (even around the house).
  • Bargain to a low price and then not buy the merchandise.
  • Display your wealth.
  • Speak negatively about Islam, the king of Morocco, or the Western Sahara.
  • Refuse someone water.
  • Dance in public.
  • Interrupt someone when they are praying.
  • Enter in mosques, religious monuments, or cemeteries.
  • Over compliment someone – they may think you are giving them the evil eye.

We initially took these very, very seriously, but we were promptly informed by the Moroccan students we met later that these are more of a set of guidelines and that some are taken much more seriously than others.   For example, it is definitely rude to wear shoes inside of a house, but girls and guys, especially younger ones, can hang out together and make physical contact, no problem.  Part of the craziness of the weekend was trying to figure out how to act in a given situation, knowing that these guidelines might work in some situations and be weird in others.

The first place we went in Tangier was a women’s center, where we were given a tour by two Moroccan students.  Basically, women who have no prospects for a traditional education or job go to the center where they’re trained to work, usually sewing, and then with that skill they stand a much better chance of getting a job in a factory.

They also have classes in English, French, classical Arabic, and math.  The center also runs a restaurant, where we ate lunch, and a little shop where they sell the things that the women make in their classes.  We also got a few good rooftop pictures of downtown Tangier:

They were calling prayer from that minaret.

After lunch, we got in the van and drove towards Rabat, where we would be staying for the rest of the weekend.  On the way, however, we had two stops.  The first:

Mind you, this was not any organized camel exhibition.  This was three guys and a few camels sitting on the beach, and we pulled our van off the highway and asked if we could ride them.

Pictured: Panic and 20 years of being afraid of horses.

Crossed that off the bucket list! After that stop on the trek to Rabat, we stopped in Asilah, a beautiful vacation town on the Atlantic coast.  The entire town is painted white:

So that they can have an festival every year where they invite artists to paint on the walls:

The town, as I said, is a vacation town, and it’s in such good shape because so many French and Spanish visitors kept fixing it up and maintaining the traditional Moroccan buildings.  In this way it’s benefited the city immensely, except for the fact that now, since it’s so traditionally “Moroccan”, the Moroccans don’t really consider it their city anymore.  It doesn’t look anything else like other Moroccan towns and many of the buildings aren’t owned by Moroccan citizens.  Either way, it’s beautiful:

From Asilah we drove straight to Rabat, where we met our host families and had dinner at their house.  I have to say that my homestay was my favorite part of my visit to Morocco.  There were four beautiful daughters and everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming.  The first night, we stayed up watching TV (some American shows with Arabic subtitles, some French, and some Moroccan Arabic), teaching each other words in the different languages we know, drinking tea, and dancing.

The next morning we woke up and drove to Rabat’s shantytown.

It is as bad as it looks.  Interesting tidbit: most of the shacks have satellite.  Since it’s a one-time cost to install, usually people in the shantytowns can afford it.  Running water, on the other hand, is not affordable because of the monthly bill. It’s a weird contrast.

After we drove through, we went to a center that provides classes at a very low cost to people in the shantytown.  The center was started a few years ago by a group of high school students.  It worked so well that the king donated the building (which was a very nice building) to the organization so that they could work on a larger scale.

Quick side note about the king: we were told that the list of Don’ts is right when it says not to speak badly of the king.  In Morocco it is illegal, and most Moroccans will not do it regardless of what they think.  Despite this, I did get the feeling that he’s pretty well-liked anyway.  He’s been passing reforms, and  is very generous in giving to the poor.  On top of this, apparently he goes out regularly without a bodyguard, sometimes hoping not to be recognized, just to observe normal life.  The students who were giving us the tour of the center told us that they had seen him out on the street the day before.

We also had a great conversation (and tea) with the students at the center about Moroccan culture, Islam, and relations with the West.  After that, we visited the ruins of a Roman market.  Built next to these was also a church and a mosque, both of which are now ruins as well.  The Moroccan government turned it into a garden.  What I liked is that you can actually go sit and hang out on the ruins.

Mosque amidst Roman ruins.

Roman shop stalls.

If you can make out all the little white dots in the trees, those are storks. Hundreds of them, nesting in the tallest trees.

A very old well that still works!

Inside of the church.

Inside the mosque.

After this, we went back and had lunch with our families, and then went on a tour of Rabat with some local students.

The beach!

City wall.

Downtown market.

The next thing we did I do not have any pictures for, because it was the hammam, or the public bathhouse.  It’s a very traditionally Moroccan thing, but unlike a lot of other “traditional” stuff, it’s something that is still very much part of an average Moroccan’s life; they go about once a week.

I had mixed feelings beforehand.  Bathing with a bunch of women you don’t know seemed pretty weird, but I was also very curious and wanted to give it a try.  And I am very glad I did.  When we got there, we met our guide, changed into our bathing suit bottoms, and went into the sauna.  And honestly, within the first 15 seconds it stopped being weird and started being enjoyable.  There were about 20 other women there; many of them were mothers who had brought their children.  The kids were the funniest part; they were completely sprawled out on the floor, eyes half closed, just enjoying getting scrubbed by their mothers.  It’s also kind of social event.  A lot of women are sitting around gossiping, women-at-the-hairdryers style.  I found out quickly that the hammam bathing process is kind of a team effort; people scrub you and you scrub other people, usually without any sort of asking.  The attendant came up to us and just kept dumping water on us to help us out.  At one point she started a water fight.  She was awesome.

Basically what you do is you bring a bucket with you to get water from the faucet and then just scrub yourself in the sauna-like room.   They give you this really cool vegetable oil soap (which just has the look and consistency of mud, so it’s a little offputting) and an abrasive mitt, you cover over yourself with the soap, and then you scrub.  It is extremely exfoliating and I have literally never felt that clean or relaxed before. Here’s a little more specific information about what a hammam is like if you’re interested: http://goafrica.about.com/od/morocco/a/hammam.htm.

After the hammam, we back to our host family’s house, where they had many surprises awaiting us.  The first was that we got to meet the entire extended family!  The second:

Trying not to get henna on the beautiful clothes. (Also, look how pretty the house is!!)

Host parents! Sorry, blurry!

With Imane!

We spent the rest of the night dancing, eating, and watching The Notebook with Arabic subtitles.  It was a fantastic night.

The next morning we visited the tomb of the current king’s father.  It’s built in the traditional style, right next to the ruins of a mosque from the 11th century that was never completed.

Unfinished mosque.

The mausoleum.

These guys were standing guard outside.

After the stop at the mausoleum, we drove to the mountainous region of Morocco to meet and have lunch with a family living in a very rural area of Morocco.  We brought the veggies, they had the bread, and we made a meal out of it.  On the way, we picked up a translator so that we could communicate with the family.  We enjoyed the food, and had a great time asking them about their daily lives, their religious beliefs, and their hopes for the future, and telling them about ours.

Photo credit: Drew.

Then, the family wanted to take us on a tour of their farm and the surrounding area.  The scenery was beautiful, and there were livestock just roaming about everywhere.

I love this one. It started pouring so we all stood under an overhang. Photo credit: Drew.

After a great visit, we got back in the van and drove north.

At a rest stop bathroom, we had a quick reminder that we were in Africa.

We drove to Chefchaouen (yes, that’s four vowels in a row), a walled city a bit more east than the rest of the places we visited.  When the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, many of them settled in Chefchaouen and continued speaking Old Spanish.  When the Spaniards eventually got to Chefchaouen a few centuries later, they found that the people were still speaking the Spanish perfectly preserved from the time of their expulsion.  Today, they speak more or less modern Spanish, which made it leaps and bounds easier to communicate than in other areas of Morocco with the five or so words that I know in Moroccan Arabic.  Chefchaouen was beautiful too, almost too pretty to be real.

We got to do all of our Moroccan shopping in Chefchaouen.  Since both parties spoke Spanish, we were able to do some bargaining too, which was actually really enjoyable.  I got a leather purse with coins from different countries and eras on the front.  I would take a picture but I can’t find my camera at the moment.  After dinner and some hanging out, we went to bed at our hotel:

The next morning, we drove three hours from Chefchaouen back to the Tangier airport.  From there I got a plane to Munich, pictures of which I will post pretty soon (I hope, it’s finals week).

I have to be honest in saying that I had no idea what to expect when I went to Morocco.  My biggest expectation that was shattered quite rapidly was that Morocco is one gigantic desert.  As you can see from my pictures, that is not true.  (There is desert, but it’s only in one part of the country.)  I wasn’t sure how people would treat us as foreigners or, more specifically, as Americans.  We were shown nothing but hospitality, from our host family to people in the hammam to random people on the street.  But it wasn’t a suffocating type of attention that I’ve heard that foreigners can attract in other countries.  We got stares a few times, but when it came down to it we were treated with the utmost respect and in some cases, friendship and an eagerness to share and learn.

Thank you for making it to the end of this very long blog post!

In my last post I forgot to include a brief mention of the general labor strike that occurred in Spain on March 29.  Because the Spanish economy is tanking, the government is making strict budget cuts that will affect workers and their conditions.  The general strike was organized by the two major labor unions in protest of these cuts.  To give you an idea of how bad it is, unemployment is 24%, youth unemployment is almost 40%, and it’s expected to get worse.  I just found out that the British government has a plan ready to evacuate its students from Spain in case of a bank meltdown.

This happened right before our spring break, which meant that most of my friends were trying to travel that day.  However, public transportation was barely running, so getting from Toledo to Madrid was nearly impossible.  The lucky ones were able to get taxis.  I, however, was the actual lucky one, and didn’t have to travel the next day.  So I spent some of the day sitting in the main plaza and observing the protests.  My pictures didn’t turn out great; I was taking them from my pocket because one cop kept staring me down.

For more information, here’s a good video from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17551969.  It shows clashes between protesters and the police, which happened mostly in Madrid and Barcelona.  From what I saw, Toledo’s protests were pretty calm.  And here is an article about the final budget announcements: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17565813.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the general strike.  It certainly draws attention to workers’ issues, which in Spain are definitely in need of being re-examined.  According to the budget cuts announced on March 30, the salaries of public sector workers will be frozen and they will have to work longer hours at the same wage.  At the same time, I’m not sure a general strike is what Spain needs right now. The government doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. They’ve made such terrible budget decisions in the last two decades that they don’t seem to have anything else to do but to cut benefits; they simply can’t afford it.  There is also a lot of pressure from the EU to tighten things up, a fact which a lot of people haven’t acknowledged or evaluated.  But, at the same time, if wages get frozen and benefits are cut, how can people spend (not to mention function…)?

Work ethic is a strange thing in Spain.  Its most notable facet is the siesta, the three-hour break in the afternoon in which everything, and I mean everything (except McDonald’s) shuts down.  The work day is basically 9-2 and then 5-8.  On the one hand I think this is a great tradition; it lets workers go home and eat with their families, maybe take a quick nap, and then finish up the day refreshed.  But I think in the time of a recession, it’s just losing Spain money.  I’ve seen many tourists in Toledo completely baffled when they go to find lunch, or even just a café to sit in, and not one is open.  I think even if they just cut an hour off the siesta, the amount of money they’d recover from it would be worth it.

Also, when she was visiting, my mom noted that Spaniards have no idea how to sell a product.  She compared a lot of the tourists sites here to Disneyworld, where they know how to make use of a few handy tricks to get you to buy more stuff.  For example, the gift shops are always open an hour longer than the actual attraction.  Not so in Spain.  It’s just not the way Spaniards think.  They’d rather do their work and go home than stay open longer and try to find ways to get a little more money out of the tourists.  In a lot of ways, I think this non-obsession with making money is great. But, as Spain is in a recession, this attitude is not helping.

I’m genuinely concerned about Spain’s economic future.  The government, especially the prime minister, insist that these cuts will strengthen the economy and allow it to grow again, but there is a real risk that the cuts will just cause the country to spiral.  I’m hoping for the best.