Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas – Week 4 – Casablanca to Accra

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

GNG with FatiShow and Reda

Videoconference at the American Embassy in Rabat

Videoconference between U.S. and Moroccan Youth

Ramadan "Breakfast" (Moroccan food rocks!)

Reflections of GNG Videoconferences in Rabat and Casablanca

“Therefore search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.”
- Albert Schweitzer


I have an addendum to add to my last blog post. My father, Gil, was kind enough to send me a photo of my great-grandfather, Jesus Muro (above), which shows our indigenous, Mexican roots. I love this photo. Thanks, Dad! Now, onto the next country - Morocco (I am surely going to have Semester at Sea (SAS) withdrawal after all is said and done – I got “bitten” very badly by the SAS bug):

Bonjour, Salaama and Hello!

It’s amazing that most Moroccans can navigate their way through three very different languages. Most Americans are proud if they can butcher a second language in foreign countries. Case in point: I studied French for a year when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal (circa when the earth was cooling), and somehow I could get by. I certainly provided amusement for Moroccans when I tried to recall said French language instruction.

I could write pages about this amazing visit to Morocco (it was a proverbial feast for the mind, body and soul), and I find that my blog posts get longer with each layer of experiences during this sea adventure. I know this blog is a bit self serving, but I will try my best to talk about my work more than my feelings and reactions to it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate myself from my work at GNG, though, because I am so passionate about what this little NGO that could tries to do. I was supposed to learn this skill of being a reflexive researcher in graduate school, but I obviously I have a long way to go.

Before I begin reflecting about GNG’s work with Moroccan youth (it was our first time to broadcast from this country), I am beginning to realize that there are a shipload of cultural misconceptions that run rampant amongst the faculty, staff and students, the majority of whom are North American. For example, I was eating breakfast the day we arrived at the Casablanca port. A family was sitting at the next table, and a mother was describing to her young boys about what to expect in Morocco. She told them that everyone would want to steal their things, so they should hold on tight to their backpacks and not smile or talk to Moroccans. Then she went on to say that Moroccan men treat their women very badly, that husbands do not let their wives leave the house, work, or go to university, etc. The real clincher was when she told her boys that she is very grateful that they live in the U.S., because if they were in Morocco, her husband (their Dad, who was at the table) would not let her do anything. I was starting to fume, but was not sure how to handle the situation (they were having a private family conversation, and it would appear as if I was eavesdropping, which I was). I am definitely going to talk to the mother at some point, to find out how the trip went for them. I definitely would have said something if I was actually dining with them.

Another cultural faux pas that I noticed was the ubiquitous use of the “F” word amongst the SAS students and some staff. It has become a part of American vernacular that I don’t even think students realize that they are using it for every part of speech – this f’in food (adjective); I’m f’ed (verb), etc. According to our Moroccan friends, the “F” word is much more vile when translated into Arabic, and is never used in public. It’s probably just as bad in English, but many of us have become so de-sensitized to the use of it. Anyway, I was in the souk (market) with some SAS students, and one of them was using the “F” word all over the place, as some passerby’s walked past with stunned looks on their faces. Not sure how to tackle this one.

GNG’s first stop in Morocco was the city of Rabat, the government capital. Moroccans compare Rabat to Washington, DC, and Casablanca to New York City. Rabat feels like a small city with wide, palm tree laced streets, but it is smaller than Casablanca and a lot more laid back. GNG was very well taken care of by a local NGO called MEARN (Moroccan Educational Resource Network). They set up everything for us with the American Embassy, who had a videoconferencing unit. We broadcast our first videoconference in Morocco at the American Embassy on Friday, September 11th. We all observed a moment of silence at 8:46am (U.S.), and it was surreal to be in a U.S. embassy at the time. Since a few of the youth spoke about the Casablanca bombings on May 16th, 2003, it provided a unique circumstance for U.S. and Moroccan students to discuss terrorism, etc. The U.S. and Moroccan students kept remarking that they were really young when September 11th happened, so they felt a bit removed from it all. However, Moroccan students do worry about another terrorist attack happening in their country.

Therefore, the majority of the virtual dialogue was spent on getting to know each other. Students discussed their own cultures, as well as issues of globalization via emigration and immigration. More importantly, Moroccans view themselves as moderate Muslims who only want peace (salaam). They also feel a special affinity with the U.S. I learned that U.S. – Moroccan relations go way back. In fact, Morocco was one of the first countries to view the U.S. as an independent nation. It is also interesting to point out that Moroccans are very proud of their country and their king, Mohammed VI (who they see is more of a reformist), and don’t really see themselves as African. Instead, they referred to Africans as Sub Saharan, and they just refer to themselves as Moroccan. I guess it’s the same for U.S. citizens – I certainly don’t say that I am North American, nor would a Canadian, unless I was explaining the geography of North America. Furthermore, since Moroccan students are currently observing Ramadan and are fasting, GNG tried to keep a symbolic fast, since we did not want to eat in front of everyone. It was a bit of a challenge in the heat, but I believe that you can acclimate to just about anything if you do it long enough (maybe I’ll get used to seasickness after all). If you would like to watch one of the videoconferences, please click here:

Speaking of eating!! Moroccan food is so tasty, but very rich. One of the great Moroccan youth, Rabha, took us to a local restaurant at 6:45pm for “breakfast” – literary breaking the fast. It was so delicious. There is a ritual during Ramadan where everyone breaks their fast with a date in their right hand and a kiss up to Allah. Then everyone eats a hardboiled egg with salt and cumin and various types of local breads and cookies with a chickpea and pasta soup. One of my favorite breads is dilwe. It’s a bit like a fluffy chapatti or paratha. We saw them being made in the local market called a souk. We also drank the most amazing Moroccan mint tea. I am still craving it. Rabha roomed with me for an evening, and she proceeded to have “dinner” at 11pm, and then another light meal at 4am – just before the Call to Prayer. Since fasting is part of the Baha’i religion, I could relate to Rahba’s experience on a very personal level. However, Baha’is eat before sunrise and after sundown. Speaking of Rabha, she worked with GNG as a local youth news correspondent, and helped to interview some immigrants from Nigeria who are trying to make their way into Europe. One of the foci of this Currents program is to trace the path of immigration from most of the ports of call, with local youth acting as roving reporters.

The second night we were in Rabat, a wonderful Moroccan family invited us over to their home for another breakfast. We were so touched by the kind invitation. When we arrived at their apartment, all of the women were cooking up a storm. I asked to help, but they shooed me away. The meal was similar to the one we shared the night before, except that there were more sweets and breads. I was in gastronomic nirvana, eating my way into oblivion, when a Moroccan gentleman turned to me and said that I was surely on my way to becoming fat (as I was stuffing a cinnamon, almond cookie in my mouth). I know he meant it in jest, but after nearly fasting all day, I was ravenous. And, anyone who knows me knows that I have a major sweet tooth, just like my father’s. The table was filled with so many honey-dripped sweets. I get giddy just thinking about the Moroccan food. Moderation in all things, though!

What can one say about Casablanca? I definitely had a romantic view of it from watching the old classic with Bogart. Casablanca has a different vibe than Rabat – much larger and more cosmopolitan. We passed KFC and McDonald’s as well. Not sure that means anything, but we did not see these bits of Americana in Rabat. Since it was Ramadan, people were out very late, even children. We also saw a plethora of cafes, which made me think of Paris. I guess that’s what happens after 50 years of French influence. The Moroccan pastries are delish – there I go again, talking about food! It’s good we left Morocco when we did, or my waistline would have had the last laugh. GNG also found its way into a local “Shisha” (fruit tobacco smoked through a pipe) bar, and enjoyed hanging out with local Moroccan youth. It was nice to see some large groups of both men and women. The tobacco almost smelled like licorice (anise) and left a wonderful odor on my clothes after we left.

The night before our last videoconference from Casablanca, we met with a young, female, Moroccan Hip Hop artist named FatiShow, and her boyfriend Reda. She was featured in the documentary called “I Love Hip Hop in Morocco” ( She is a true trailblazer, since she was the first known female rapper in all of Morocco in 2005 at the age of 17. A few other girls have come onto the music scene since then, after being inspired by Fati. She is a very special person, and an old soul at 21. She is working on getting a record deal. Her dream is to perform with Carlos Santana at the World Music Awards one day – let’s hope she gets there! We heard her do some free styling rap in English, and she rocked! GNG hung out with her and Reda at a local café, and had more of that amazing mint tea. Afterwards, Jon and I invited them to go to Rick’s Café, a tourist hot spot modeled after the café in Casablanca. It was very nice inside, and we were happy to treat Fati and Reda to a soda, since they had never ventured inside. We ran into a number of SAS students who wanted to take a photo with Fati, since we all had watched the documentary on the ship.

GNG broadcast our second videoconference from the back of the ship, with Fati as the guest speaker. Some of the SAS students joined us as well. We opened the videoconference by focusing on a shot of the famous Hassan II mosque – the largest in Africa, and the third largest in the world. (I went to see it just before we set sail again, and it was a breathtaking sight near the water – 1,000s of Moroccans attend, especially during Ramadan.) Then, students from two different high schools in the U.S. (New Jersey and Virginia) asked Fati questions, and she followed suit by asking some of her own. She relayed to us that she really loved the experience. It would be so cool if we could hear her perform in the U.S. one day! There are actually some really good Moroccan Hip Hop artists that you should check out, including Fnaire and H-Kayne. I bought both of their cds, and am really enjoying the music. Some of it is Arabic/Hip Hop fusion. Fati and Reda are so kind. I casually mentioned to them both that I love the Police, and the next day, they brought me an original Police album! I was floored. Too bad I don’t have a record player, but I will cherish this gift.

The long and short of it is, I HEART MOROCCO! I can’t wait to return one day, but I should learn some more French (and learn to pace myself with the food). It would be great to study Arabic as well, even though Moroccans don’t speak classic Arabic; rather their dialect is Darija.

Now we are sailing around the western tip of Africa for a week until we reach Accra, Ghana. One highlight of this leg of the journey, though, is that I saw a group of dolphins swimming next to the ship! It made my day. GNG is so excited that some of the students and staff will be joining us on the ground at a local university in Accra where we will broadcast the videoconferences between Ghanaian and American youth. We are also going to broadcast live from the Cape Coast Slave Castle – the most egregious injustice of man against man.

President Obama’s words about his visit there really struck me:
"And I think, as Americans, and as African Americans, obviously there's a special sense that on the one hand this place [Cape Coast Slave Castle] was a place of profound sadness; on the other hand, it is here where the journey of much of the African American experience began. And symbolically, to be able to come back with my family, with Michelle and our children, and see the portal through which the Diaspora began, but also to be able to come back here in celebration with the people of Ghana of the extraordinary progress that we've made because of the courage of so many, black and white, to abolish slavery and ultimately win civil rights for all people, I think is a source of hope. It reminds us that as bad as history can be, it's also possible to overcome" (Time, 2009).

P.S: I am in the faculty/staff lounge during Happy Hour, and elevator music is playing – I really am on the Love Boat! Can’t wait to run into Vicky, the Cruise Director, for a game of shuffleboard off the Lido deck. Whatever floats your boat – no pun intended.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 3 - Cadiz to Casablanca

The Global Nomads - Kim, Joanna and Jonathan

Apes in Gibraltar

Me at the Rock of Gibraltar - Meeting of the Atlantic and
Mediterranean, Africa and Europe

Cadiz, the Coastal Town

Carmen, My Flamenco Teacher

Cadiz, Gibraltar and Sevilla – In Awe of Andalucia

“There is much time for study and for meditation at sea…A person capable of useful application may employ their time to as great advantage as on shore. The objects which excite attention are concentrated without the bounds of the vessel; the rest of mankind for the time seems to be inhabitants of another planet. The prosperity of the voyage consists in the paucity of incident, and the less there is to be told the more there is to be enjoyed. This life is not tedious to those who can make for themselves occupation. But its uncertainties, its perpetual changes, its anxieties, and its concentration of interest upon the fluctuations of wind and wave constitute its principal hardships." - John Quincy Adams

Right now, I am staring out at the Rock of Gibraltar – we are berthed (docked in “Seaese”) while we re-fuel and set sail for Casablanca. I can also see the tip of Africa from my bedroom window. Amazing! This is the only place in the world – the Straits of Gibraltar - where you can see two continents and two bodies of water at the same time – Africa and Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

This is the note that we received from the Dean’s office in our interoffice e-mail today:

“We are currently berthed 0.7 nautical miles from Gibraltar, and expect rough seas off Morocco tonight. Please secure your belongings.”

Well, for those of you who know how I handle motion sickness, I am a little concerned. Batten down the hatches, we’re in for a rough ride tonight! Oh, well. It builds character to become accustomed to hardships (from wherever they come), to echo the words of my mother.

Spain evoked a panoply of emotions for me, especially with my Latina ancestry, which inevitably traces back to Spain. I really wanted to go visit the town of “Muros” in the North – one day. I must admit, I fell in love with this multi-cultural mix of Christian, Jewish and Moorish architecture, food, sights and sounds in Cadiz and Sevilla. Gibraltar is another story altogether – more on that in a moment. Everyone I met thought I was Spanish, and I am happy that I did pretty well getting around in Spanish, although my vocabulary is not what it once was when I lived in Costa Rica many years ago. I often wonder who the first Muros were in Andalucia, and why they headed to Mexico. Were they artisans? Adventurers? I also get a twinge of sadness, thinking about the part of me that has indigenous ancestry from Mexico, since Latinos are all truly “mestizos” (Spanish/Indigenous Mix). Were those ancient ancestors conquered? How? My great-grandmother was mostly Indian – Mayan, we think. My uncle Steve lived with her when he was young. I remember hearing that she was a very sweet woman who made a mean tortilla – just like my grandmother. Nothing like piping hot, fresh flour tortillas with a little butter and salt. Speaking of food, I ate well in Spain! Jamon serrano (cured ham) and cheese on fresh bread with olive oil – que rico (how yummy)! I also had fresh fish, and a local Cadiz specialty called tortillera de camarones (shrimp tortilla). It was tasty, but the little shrimps’ black eyes kept staring at me through the fried concoction.

The city of Cadiz is a delightful Southwestern, European coastal town with a rich history. The town planner also planned out Havana, Cuba, so the seawall is similar in both countries. Since we were unable to meet with Spanish high schools (due to the Spanish holiday period), we filmed one of our educational webmentaries about the beautiful Spanish folkloric dance called Flamenco. In fact, GNG filmed me taking my first dance lesson from a great teacher named Carmen. She taught me entirely in Spanish! Later that evening we saw the real thing with a local dance troupe at an old, 17th century theatre. The dancers were accompanied by a live singer and Flamenco guitarist. It was a pleasure for the senses. The male dancer practically brought me to tears with his intensity and passion for Flamenco.

The next stop in my Spanish travels was a day trip to Gibraltar. What can one say about this fascinating, unique place – not quite British, not quite Spanish – not quite sure what to make of it! The rock juts out of the ocean like a science fiction film with hoards of apes roaming freely (one almost made off with our tripod bag). Spain and the U.K. are still in talks about who should ultimately own this 3K stretch of land – the British first took hold of it in the 1700s. The 30,000 Gibraltarians (a mixture of British, Moroccan, Portuguese and Spanish) are very proud of their blended heritage and want the right to self-determination. I took the cable car to the top of the rock, and I stood there, staring out into the ocean for a while. The Straits of Gibraltar have seen countless souls wend their way between continents, in search of economic opportunities. I met one such young man in Cadiz, who was originally from Senegal. He told me that he was “trying to make his life” in broken Spanish.

I rounded out my time in Spain with a visit to the beautiful city of Seville (Sevilla). It is one of the oldest Western cities, dating back to over 2,500 years. Some friends from SAS gave me a free double-decker bus tour, so I really enjoyed hearing about the history of the city. It was a good break from the 107 degree heat. We passed by an art museum where Christopher Columbus stayed – it always makes me realize what a young country the U.S. is when I am traveling outside of North America.

Tomorrow we will arrive in Casablanca, and hit the ground running. We will travel to Rabat to coordinate our first videoconference at the American Embassy with Moroccan high school students and two U.S. high schools to discuss issues of cultural exchange and globalization. We will also be speaking with a young, female Moroccan Hip Hop artist named Fati Show on Monday. I have to go and prepare – and make certain that no items will fall in my room this evening – including myself!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas – Week 2 – En Route to Cadiz

Dinner with delightful Captain Jeremy and his wife Apple

Isn't the Atlantic Ocean amazing?

"Study Hall" - Ocean Style

View from a Port Hole

Faculty/Staff "Office" - Good Times.

Life on a Ship

“The Love Boat, soon we’ll be making another run…” Let’s see who remembers that theme song! I used to love watching this cheesy show from the 80’s, but I know I am really dating myself with the reference. My friend and colleague Joanna has never seen it (she is a child of the 90's), so I guess I am going solo on this one.

Ship culture is very interesting, to say the least. For example, let’s take the faculty/staff lounge, which is where I am blogging from at the moment. It used to be the ship’s nightclub, so it is pretty funny to see the SAS faculty and staff working diligently from barstools as they prepare for their classes. I keep expecting someone to get up and get jiggy with it to a tired rendition of “Celebrate Good Times.” I am sure that day will come. At any rate, you can’t beat the view of the Atlantic Ocean – the lounge looks right out onto the front of the ship, with the deep, blue sea surrounding us…

I’ve had an interesting week aboard the MV Explorer. Classes for the students began on a Sunday – ship time is all relative. Our intrepid GNG team of three has visited numerous classes to give presentations about our work in the ports of call. Some students have expressed interest in joining us in the field, which will be great. What do I mean by the “field?” I mean the videoconferences we will be broadcasting from various cities – SAS Ports of Call. For example, we will be traveling from Casablanca to Rabat to meet with Moroccan secondary school students at the American Embassy, thanks to our partner, iEARN Morocco. [Oh – just noticed that “Casablanca” is playing on the T.V. – I swear I did NOT plan this aside.] After that, we will be speaking with students in Accra and Cape Coast, Ghana. It will be quite profound to conduct a videoconference from the slave castles, especially since I am nearing the end of my sojourn across the Atlantic Ocean in another direction, and for very different reasons. On a personal note, I found out that there is a town called “Muros in the north of Spain – wish I had time to go and visit it.

Keeping active on the ship requires some creativity. Right now, in fact, I am watching one of the resident assistants “jog” around the small deck in front of the boat. It is only 100s of feet from side to side. I wonder how many times he has to run back and forth to reach a mile? The gym is packed all day and all night long, since 700 people have to share a handful of machines. However, I have managed to get there, but you won’t catch me on the treadmill – my balance is just not that great.

One highlight of my week at sea was having dinner with the delightful Captain Jeremy, his wife Apple, and some of the senior staff. I sat next to Anatoly, the MV Explorer’s Chief Engineer. He is from Odessa. I asked if he had ever seen the film the “Odessa Files” with John Voight. He looked at me oddly (he obviously had not seen it. I am surprised that no one had ever asked him that question before.). He was quite charming and interesting, though. I found out that the ship’s crew is from 27 different countries. The Captain is from the U.K. – he claims he’s the only one without an accent. The joke was funny the first time, but he has said it countless times now. However, he is the master of his domain, so I guess he can say whatever he well fancies.

Tonight I saw the full moon over the Ocean, and it gave me pause. This is the last night of the Atlantic crossing – incredible. Tomorrow we are off to explore Cadiz and make some educational videos for our YouTube channel. In fact, we have already posted a few, one of which is quite relevant for this blog post:

It will be great to step onto dry land manana! Buenas noches!