3. WE MADE IT
It wasn’t until late Tuesday evening that we arrived in Ifrane, and the last portion of our journey has many hazy, dream-like qualities to it. Mostly, I remember being exhausted. And smelling bad.
The train station within the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport takes one to one of the main train stations of the actual city, Casa Voyager. From there, it took more than three hours to reach Fez. On that second train ride, I slept on and off in my compartment with three other Moroccans – a girl maybe slightly younger than me, a man around my age, and an older woman. No one really talked to each other. The girl listened to her music loud enough that I could confirm that it hadn’t been a waste of time to listen to Saad Lamjarred and other catchy Moroccan pop singers, because they are very much alive and thriving. The man wore his sunglasses for most of the ride and I had a hard time figuring out if he was staring at me or sleeping when his head tilted in my direction. The elderly lady was very prim and fashionable, with a black and white print shirt, black headscarf, and shiny metallic sunglasses.
I was slightly distressed when I learned that everyone in the compartment had their shoes off except for me, and I struggled for thirty minutes wondering if it would be appropriate for me to join in on the trend, or if I would seem like one of those “weird” foreigners who tried too hard to blend in. Even when there was another man walking up and down the aisle laughing loudly and carrying on with no one in particular while I was trying to sleep, I would wake up and just look at the older lady’s feet and be jealous. I slept for a good two hours on the train, as much as I had slept since I left the Arkansas airport, and it was a very calm ride.
After arriving at the Fez train station and reuniting with my travel group (we had been split up in different train compartments), the only thing we had to do was wait for five o’clock to roll around and for an AUI representative to blissfully shepherd us away to the school. At some point, Mika and I decided to go to the bathroom and she had the unfortunate experience of opening her stall to find a Turkish toilet staring her down. If you do not know what a Turkish toilet is, just imagine those infamous hole-in-the-ground contraptions that are just so dang cute to squat over. Mika jumped out of there and yelled about how she was too tired to go through that and how she would just wait a few more hours to use the bathroom.
I didn’t catch all that she said because I was too busy enjoying the sound of my Western toilet flushing. Luck of the draw, as it were.
The next thing I will tell you about is the actual arrival of the school representative. It was now past five o’clock and every person who walked into the train station, our group watched hopefully until they walked past us without blinking an eye. We had transitioned to sitting against the wall, counting ants that scurried by, and observing a small boy babysitting his toddler brother, who, like most Moroccan infants, randomly emitted birdlike screams every other minute. It was all very amusing and we giggled a lot and were stared at by many people. Finally, we decided to go ahead and move outside. Maybe that way we could see the person as they approached.
It was hot but we stood in the shade next to our luggage. We waited. We yawned. We sweated. And then I saw it – the flash of a green from a laminated ID hanging off a young man’s neck as he approached. Curly brown hair. Wearing a polo shirt. He seemed tired, but he was coming in our direction. I made eye contact and he smiled and I saw the card again as it whirled around: Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane.
We had made it. More or less.
I cannot quite describe the joy that I felt. It was a razor joy that pierced through my fatigue and my uncertainty and it is something that even now, I immediately remember every time I see this particular student ambassador whose name starts with H.
As it turns out, there had been a mix-up with the pick-up vehicles who was was driving where to pick up which batch of arriving students, and they had to find another driver, and since it took so long to do that, we would also have to stop by the Fez airport and pick up more international students. By the time our group even made it to the school, it was slightly past ten o’clock and I hadn’t really had time to eat all day. Thus takes us to my actual experiences of Ifrane and Al Akhawayn.
My nocturnal impressions of the campus were interesting. We arrived and walked around, and I felt as if I were in an upscale suburban neighborhood maybe in the US – a stylized gated community. All of the buildings are A-framed, straight out of a Switzerland holiday calendar. Of course, since it was nighttime, there were shadows everywhere, and maybe I was just very tired, but it was all so mysterious and serene. I was even slightly distracted by the sounds of crickets chirping, and it was very odd how I traveled so far and it almost seemed as if I was back home in the valley. At one point, an owl even swooped by.
Was I really in Morocco or on the African continent?
After we were taken to our dorms and allowed to clean up, we left to go into Ifrane and eat since it was so late and the cafeterias on campus were closed. We walked. Al Akhawayn is an enclosed campus and from the outer guard gates, it takes less than fifteen minutes to get into town by foot. I was very tired, but the walk itself was refreshing and allowed me to smooth out the kinks and wrinkles from travelling all day.
And just like the campus, Ifrane has a very European feel to it. (I’m not really sure if I can personally say that, as I have never been to Europe at all, and have no experience to compare Ifrane with. Even though Switzerland was here first, maybe Switzerland looks like Ifrane and not the other way around… Just kidding, of course.) It is beautiful. There are trees and well-maintained parks that are crowded with people – young men in packs, elderly couples, families – all socializing past ten in the evening! The very first park we arrived at had gym equipment. Instead of kids playing on a merry-go-round, there was an elderly lady working an elliptical. Apparently, there are parks out there, even in the US, that are like this. I had never seen them in my area, so every time I walk into town, I stare. At some point, I will take a few pictures of this place.
We ate dinner at a popular restaurant whose name means peace, and it was there that I had my first Moroccan meal – a chicken and lemon tajine. It was one of the best things I have ever tasted.
Dinner was an interesting affair in itself, because by the time we were even served food, everyone was half slumped over in their chairs with exhaustion. We were almost hysterical at some points, but over our late dinner, my group of twelve people or so bonded over the fact that we had made it to our destination. It seemed somewhat dreamy at the time, but we were in fact in Morocco, and everything leading up to dinner and everything that would occur in the following days and months would be worthwhile.
We are in Morocco.