“UCLA Fulbright GPA: First Look”
Today was the day. The Fulbright Group Program Abroad to Morocco became a reality. Fifteen of us—thirteen teachers and two administrator guides-- gathered at UCLA’s Guest House, said our goodbyes, and headed to LAX at ‘noonish’, eager to depart and perhaps a bit apprehensive about our journey. To complicate matters, our direct flight to Amsterdam (KLM/Northwest) was delayed an hour, and concern grew that we would miss our connecting flight on Royal Moroccan Air. I sat next to an African woman and her daughter, but didn’t say much to them. I tried to sleep with limited success; the cabin was cold and leg room was a rare commodity. When we landed in Amsterdam, we rushed through security with some VIP assistance, and barely made our connection.
We stayed at a nice hotel in Casablanca the first night. My roommate, Jelani, and I ventured out to the local watering hole: a seedy looking joint with a neon “Night Club” sign flashing overhead. A gentleman looked us over once or twice, then buzzed us in. We walked down the stairs to a mostly deserted scene. The lighting and décor reminded me of a bad Vietnam-era movie, and the only thing missing was the Elvis impersonator on stage. After two whiskeys, we called it a night.
The next day, we drove in a bus toward the town of Ifrane, a mountain resort town where Al-Akhawayn International University (AUI) is located. I sat in the front seat opposite Jen from San Diego, who surprised me with her knowledge of Kweli, Goodie Mob and such. Taking photos and video at every opportunity, we saw slums, speed traps, half-completed structures, modern buildings, shepherds herding sheep, and vast farms of onions, corn, olive groves, among other things. Almost every residence had a satellite dish on the roof, often multiple dishes. I suppose some things are universal.
As we approached Ifrane, we learned that it was an old French military outpost which turned into a ski resort town. Apparently, during their Moroccan occupation from 1912-1956, the French could not withstand the extreme heat of the low-lying cities and compensated by utilizing the mountain retreat (oh, did I say ‘French’ and (the national motto) ‘retreat’ in the same sentence? Sacré bleu!). Many of the buildings resembled Swiss chalets. Police and military personnel lined the immaculately clean streets. The King of Morocco, Hassan II, established this private university for the national elite as well as international students. Even West Point and other military institutions send their Arabic trainees in large numbers to this campus.
We met Wafah, an amiable graduate student, who assisted us with our transition to AIU. We took a bus into town and negotiated cell phones and plans for the group: 240 durhams or so, or $30. I am glad I left my iPhone at home. We attracted a lot of attention walking around and everyone wanted to go in different directions to shop and explore. We stayed together for the most part, although we got separated from Manny and Jen. A local artisan named Aziz invited David and the rest of us to visit his studio.
We navigated through a narrow maze of alleys and corridors until we made a left under a blue tapestry. Inside, many artifacts, antiques, weapons, cushions, and a large loom awaited us. His wife and another woman were there as well. They made us mint tea and showed off their wares. We went back to campus feeling (although not smelling) refreshed.