Shukransgiving & Sahara Nights

Morgan McCullough
Global & International Studies / Spanish Major, Arabic Minor
Non-WMU Program: IES Rabat, Morocco

Morgan McCullough
Saharan sunset

“Why do you take the covers off?” my host mom’s friend asked, giggling. I was hunched over a pile of potatoes and scraping at the skin with a dull knife. My roommate and I were making mashed potatoes for the whole school for our very own rendition of Thanksgiving, or our newly-coined Shukransgiving. We had to use several different pots to get the potatoes to boil and a spatula to mash the potatoes. To say our host family was confused is an understatement.

After about 5 hours, we proudly hauled our giant pot of potatoes over to the center. There was soft Christmas music playing in the background. Students were merrily making green beans in the kitchen and carefully placing pumpkin and apple pies at the end of the table. We were trying to explain to the Moroccans that they should eat the savory food first so we could all eat the desert together at the end. One of the administrators even brought an actual turkey with fancy pieces of fruit or something sticking out at odd angles.

It was mad chaos as we all dove in for the comforting flavors that we had been craving for days. There was no formal carving of the turkey, but we had salads, vegetables, sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and zucchini bread, and more. The Moroccan language partners were impressed by our strange American food and the professors also seemed amused, perhaps just by the pure happiness we felt in the presence of an apple pie.

Morgan McCullough

We had all written down on a piece of paper what we were thankful for and put it in a bowl. We passed around the bowl after eating and each person read someone else’s. Sweet words in Arabic and English were flying around and we all felt like a big family. We then ended the celebration by singing songs and dancing.

The medina was surprisingly quiet and peaceful to walk through that night. There were a couple moments when I missed my own family’s thanksgiving, but I know that when I’m home I’ll miss it here. Thanksgiving is really about a time to be together, and it felt like we were celebrating all of the experiences that have turned 25 strangers into companions.

After Shukransgiving, we had a day full of classes and then it was time to pack for our last class trip. It felt like it had been ages since we bundled into a hot and creaky bus together. Maybe that’s how we got so close so fast, because of the loud bus rides where you can’t help but jump into conversations or all sing together. I think that in other study abroad locations it is easier to leave the group and have more independent experiences, but here in Morocco we almost always need to have walking buddies and communication even with just a taxi driver is a true group effort.

Morgan McCullough
Door to the Sahara

It was 6:50am when we set out for the 12 hour trip to the Sahara. The sun had just barely turned the sky pink in preparation for its journey to the middle of the sky. All of the students in the program slid into the bus as we always do for class excursions. There was an eerily melancholy feeling this time because we all were hyperaware of the dwindling time left in Morocco and the fact that this would be the last time we pack into a bus together.

After a restless journey torn between trying to sleep and chatting, we checked into a beautiful and isolated resort for just the night. There was a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi and a glorious buffet with little Moroccan cuisine and it felt like a small trip to paradise. In the morning, we piled into several jeeps to continue pushing forward into the Sahara.

Morgan McCullough
Traditional Amazigh music and dancing

The man driving my jeep grew up in a town right on the edge of the desert and spoke perfect Spanish just from listening to tourists. He explained the history of the great desert in just a few sentences. We waved excitedly at the other jeeps. The big trip we had all been anticipating together for months was finally just within grasp. We were then welcomed into Amazigh-dominated land with drums and metal instruments. We looked around in awe at the sand-covered towns of the desert people.

From far away, the little towns looked completely empty and abandoned but up close you could see colorful laundry swaying in the wind on the balconies and kids kicking soccer balls and motorcycles zooming through dusty streets. Just as quickly as we arrived, we were soon whisked away again to the next hotel. The temperature had dramatically lowered but our skin warmed in the sun. Camel rides would be at sunset, but we could hardly wait and plunged into the sand dunes as soon as we had dropped off our bags in our rooms. Although the hotel was right on the edge of the dunes, we still hiked quite a bit until we could hardly see any evidence of civilization. Miles and miles of the softest orange sand and pristine blue skies lay ahead of us.

Morgan McCullough

Just before sunset, we arbitrarily dumped the sand out of shoes and our professors helped us adorn ourselves with colorful scarves. We were assigned to camels and a local guide led us back into the vastness. On our way, the sky began to turn marvelous shades of pinks and violets and we rushed to climb to the highest possible dune, leaving our camels to rest in the shade. I felt like I had stepped into a photo-shopped desktop background.

When the sun finally dipped below the soft hills, the cold set into our bones. After a quick dinner we built a bonfire outside and all 24 of us dragged chairs through the sand. One of the students brought his guitar and sang a song with a line about each of us. The Milky Way was perfectly visible among millions of bright stars. We stayed outside until the fire cackled into an ember and we started giggling nervously about hyenas and snakes lurking in the darkness. I think after all, everyone can say that this was our favorite moment in the desert.

A late night turned into an early morning. I pulled myself out of bed and stuffed my frozen feet into my sandy boots and hiked the highest sand dune for the third time just barely in time to see the sun rise. We had no words for our last few moments in this amazing wonder of the world, and then all too soon we were back on a bus and plunging towards final papers and impending goodbyes.

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