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Living in Chefchaouen, Morocco

I stepped aboard my flight from Barcelona to Tangier, caught sight of the seats patterned in shades of red, blue, and yellow, and heard loud the radio playing music in a language I had never herd before. The novelty of my situation, of beginning a journey forward into the unexpected, and the floating disbelief that this in fact was my reality,  hit me forcefully and pushed aside any residues of my past conventional life. I immediately burst out laughing.

“Where on earth am I going?”

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Everything felt so surreal. It was hard for me to piece a picture of how I had gotten myself to this particular point – flying alone to Africa, where, at the airport I was to look for a taxi driver named Mohammed who would be holding a sign with my name on it. I was to get in his car and he would drive me the three hours to the hostel where I was to start volunteering. When and how had all of this happened?

The old and ancient houses and riads
The old and ancient houses and riads

So here I was in Morocco – definitely not in Europe anymore. After landing and going through customs I found Mohammed in the lobby, with the name ‘Marie’  scribbled on a thin sheet of white paper. We made our way outside and into the next phase of my journey. I was nervous, excited, and still in utter disbelief. Mohammed didn’t speak a word of english but a young Chaouenese staff member, Monsif, was there to help as well. Together we speed along the highway that seemed to have no rules or limits, and I began to take in what was around me. I started to feel the thrill and satisfaction of creating my own adventure.

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I spent six weeks just beneath the Riff mountains in the small medina of Chefchaouen. The houses were like coloured fossils of their past inhabitants – Jewish settlers who believed that if they painted their houses blue, the colour of the sky, it would bring them closer to the heavens and to God. To the Muslims, this history is lost or trivial, and instead their reminder of God rings out and through the air five times a day from the mosque – The Adhan, or The Call to Prayer. 

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Living and working at a local hostel gave me more than the casual touristic experience. I was lucky to meet and interact with many locals who all had a characteristic mountain charm. Of course some saw us tourists with glazed eyes and treated every encounter with the hope of a transaction, but many were humble and I saw only happiness and pride – they lived  life having exactly what they needed. The locals with heart did not have much but what they did have, they were proud of, and would share in entirely.

A local artist who looks himself a part of the beauty of his surroundings
A local artist who looks himself a part of the beauty of his surroundings

I sat around the dinner table with Mohammed and his entire family and shared one of the best meals of my life. I was brought for lunch to the table of a simple painter from the hostel and ate alongside of his wife and daughter. I shared fresh figs and spring water with village people from the mountains who lived in small huts buried outside of the medina. And I learned to make hash with a group of young boys living in the middle of acres of tall green. What I found was that in each of these places I was treated with respect and honour that was more than just customary or because it was expected. I was treated this way because the people I shared time with were proud and happy – happiness to them was found in simplicity.

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Life in the medina was different than any life I had ever known, and in every way possible…

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The children here speak more languages than me and you will ever learn – picking up phrases from the passing tourists. It seems there are more cats than people and you can hear them crying from the rooftops on the houses of the medina. In the night you can see stars shimmering in all of their glory and glowing after the pink and orange sky pulls away and over the valley and falls behind the mountains. The call to prayer echoes and bounces of the mountains and tells you that God is here, big, and brings truth and reason.

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My experience of Morocco was unique and beautiful. The people held secrets, the sky was endless, and the untouched nature was of unparalleled beauty. What was most prevalent in this country was the value placed on culture and tradition. Never had I been to a country where the people followed rules passed on and down through thousands of years. The customs of the people were unhidden and were showcased in their dialogue and style of dress. Not all of the customs and practices I believed in, in fact most I thought to be out of date, but what I did see was a tradition that was authentic, alive, and respected. Arriving here felt like I was suddenly experiencing what it meant to travel to foreign lands.

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Besides all of the beauty and authentic traditions alive in Morocco, life here is hard for the people it holds. Here I began to learn what it means to be fortunate, what it means to travel freely, and of the opportunities of holding a certain passport. Some people have to work hard for everything, and while I have never had a life of privilege, nor has anything ever been given to me, I have always had endless possibilities for my life because of my reigning institutions.

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For Moroccans, being Moroccan might mean that you may never be granted a visa to leave your country, that you may never receive proper healthcare, that rules may never be passed in your favour, and that situation may prevail instead of desire and choice – not everyone in the world feels the freedom flag flying high. If we want to compare the fortune of those in the east to the lives of those in the west, first of all can we? And what can we say about happiness? Can we say that one has more?

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I met people in Chaouen who had never left the hills of the slopping mountains and were completely satisfied and fulfilled by their lives.. So can we judge happiness at all?

If the world was condensed into your own backyard, how would you stretch to survive? And would you ….

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I met people in Chaouen who had never left the hills of the slopping mountains and were completely satisfied with their lives.. Can we judge happiness at all?

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