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What Am I Doing?

I distinctly remember a time in my life where I never would have considered studying abroad, and it wasn’t that long ago.  Of course, at that point, I was still convinced I wanted to become a veterinarian, so going on a journey like this for school wasn’t on my radar.  I was so wrapped up in my own life with absolutely no concern for what happens outside of the United States. I didn’t care about anything else other than what I wanted and how I would achieve my goals at the time.  

I was on this path to becoming a vet up until my senior year of high school.  I had picked out a school with a great Pre-Veterinary Medicine program, declared my major, and even worked at a vet’s office.  My confidence in my ability to pursue this field was through the roof, and I was sure that’s what I wanted.  No going back.  That is, until I traveled abroad for the first time.  

I went with a small group to Thailand back in January 2016.  My initial trip abroad was on the complete opposite side of the world, a full 12-hour time difference.  The whole experience was amazing, and I couldn’t have picked a better place to go or better people to travel with myself.  I got home and felt renewed but uncertain of the future.  I knew becoming a veterinarian wasn’t my ultimate goal anymore, but I didn’t know what the new goal was.

For a senior in high school who had already picked a school, a major, and accepted scholarships, I was pretty lost.  In my mind, I thought I was supposed to have all of the answers, and everything should have fallen into place by now.  This begged the internal question: “Where do I go from here?” I finally did some research on my school’s website and started looking at new majors, because I knew Pre-Vet couldn’t stay.  I decided that a double major in International Studies and History would be best for me.  With this degree I could help other people and see this great world we live in, and that would ultimately make me the happiest.  

Statistics show that less than 3% of college students will choose to study abroad over the course of their academic career. Since I declared International Studies, I now have the opportunity to be one of the few that takes this step and ventures into the unknown.  Over these next few months, I’ll be out of the United States learning Arabic and experiencing life in another country.  Most of my time will be spent in Morocco, but towards the end of my trip, I’m going to Rome, Italy and Istanbul, Turkey.  I leave in early September and won’t be stateside again until the week before Christmas.

Sometimes I get questions asking why I want to do this, or what kinds of jobs I can get, or how I chose Arabic as the language I want to learn.  I still don’t know how to answer most of these. All I know to tell people is that the career possibilities are endless and I’m doing what makes me happy. I feel confident that studying abroad will not only teach me the language skills I need to be successful in my field, but will also give me a new perspective on life that I would never get otherwise.

Follow me here as I go on this journey that will undoubtedly change my life for the better. I will update this weekly with pictures and stories that represent what living abroad is really like.  However, my next post will probably two weeks from now since my first week is all traveling. Stay tuned!

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Eight Things I’ll Miss About Morocco

This semester has taught me a lot about life, other cultures, and how to learn a language.  As much as I’ve enjoyed it, I am still ready to be home and see my family.  There are a few things I am going to miss, though:

  1. Walking everywhere: Meknes is a walking city. I can count on one hand the number of times I had to take a taxi, and other than that I only rode the tour bus on our excursions. I’ll miss walking everywhere I go, and everything being so close to where I lived.
  2. The Dirham-to-Dollar ratio: One dollar is worth about 9.5 Dirhams, and that exchange rate has been fantastic.  I could go get lunch for the equivalence of $2 and be full for the rest of the day. The leather purse that I got (yes, real leather) was about $18.  It’s been nice for everything I needed to be inexpensive.  I’ll miss that, especially since I’m going to Europe.
  3. The food: Just a few of my favorite foods here were chocolate covered croissants, French tacos, and couscous.  I’m going to have to figure out how to make/buy these back in the states, because they’ve been amazing.
  4. Crossing the street: This may seem insignificant, but not having to use a crosswalk has been great.  In Morocco, you walk in front of the cars and they stop for you.  It has led to a few close calls, but in general I’ve liked the convenience of not waiting for the sign at the crosswalk to turn green.
  5. The call to prayer: Even though I am not a Muslim, I’ve still enjoyed hearing the call to prayer, and here’s why: it is evident that Islam means a lot to the people here and impacts every aspect of their lives. I’ve actually grown accustomed to hearing it, so much so that when I went to Spain and the UK, I was waiting to hear it at the certain times.
  6. Bargaining: In Morocco, if you don’t like the price for something, you can probably bargain for it.  The only places where this won’t work is businesses like grocery stores, clothing stores, etc.  I’ve loved working to get the price down on stuff in the medina.  If you play your cards right, you can get 1/3 of the price off.
  7. Cheap travel: The availability of cheap flights to Europe from Morocco is insane.  I paid around $130 for a round trip ticket to Spain, and I’m really going to miss being able to do that when I get back to the states.  America really needs a domestic budget airline.
  8. Being forced to practice Arabic: I had 9 hours of Arabic class per week, which meant that I was learning a lot and doing a lot of studying.  Back home, I’m afraid that I’m going to lose what I’ve learned, especially since I am starting French classes next semester. I hope that I can maintain my language skills so that I can continue learning Arabic in the future.

I’m so thankful to have had this opportunity, no matter how frustrating or difficult it was at times. If you are thinking about studying abroad, definitely go for it! It’s the most worthwhile experience I’ve ever had, and I learned so much that the classroom couldn’t.

In other news, if you’re reading this any time before December 16, I am running around Europe! I’m completing my study abroad experience with a solo trip to the Netherlands and Italy.

Thank you all so much for keeping up with me and my adventures over the past few months!

 

Until next time,

Megan

A Weekend in Merzouga – Camels and More!

Hands down, the best excursion the ISA team brought us on was to Merzouga, a small desert village near the Algerian border.  They made last weekend a long weekend so we could leave on Friday and drive to the Sahara. We took the classic ISA tour bus, and alternated between sleeping and studying Arabic.  The trip took all day.  We left at 8am and didn’t get to the drop-off site for our camp until 7pm.  It was dark, and we made the 30 minute trek to camp using flashlights.

When we got to camp, we settled into our tents and had dinner.  The food is much different in Merzouga than it is in Meknes (and it’s much better, not about to lie).  Most meals were put in on the table on a huge plate, and everyone took what they wanted from there.  Even though it was still pretty early, it was already very cold outside.  Temperatures at night reached around 40 degrees, so the Amazigh guys running the camp started a big bonfire.  They demonstrated their drumming skills, and we played music and danced around the fire.  Somehow dancing turned into a fire jumping contest, and people took turns running and jumping over the fire (but not me because it was a horrible idea).

The next morning, we woke up to views that we could have never pictured.  Since we walked to camp in the dark, we couldn’t really see our surroundings, but with morning came sand dunes as far as the eye could see.  They gave us some time to run around and explore, even though no matter how far you went, it would still just be sand dunes.  That morning I also purchased a turban, which is important later in the story.

Our first activity of the day was riding in 4x4s.  Other than the driver, there were six of us with all of our belongings packed into the car.  They drove us further into the desert, and those of us that sat at the window ended up actually sitting in the window, halfway out of the car. There is a video somewhere of me sitting in the window, holding our speaker, yelling to the people in the next 4×4 over.

We made two stops along the way, first to a nomad tent, and then to hear some traditional music.  At the tent, which was in the middle of nowhere, even by desert standards, we had tea and crackers.  We stayed for a little while, and then got back in the car for more music, more window sitting, and more fun times.  After that, the 4x4s dropped us off at a riad where we took a break for a few minutes. After that, it was time for camels!

Since there were 38 students, there were several lines of four or five camels each, led by one person in the front that walked.  Each student got their own camel, and I ended up in the very first line.

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My new friend, Alexander Camel-ton

 

When you get on the camel, they are sitting down, and I had no idea how terrifying it would be when the camel stood up for the first time.  I ended up between six and seven feet off the ground.  Riding a camel is a bit like riding a horse, except you’re going up and down sand dunes.  I am not joking when I say that every single time we went down a hill I was scared I was going to fall off, backpack and all.  Everything worked out though, and I made friends with my camel, who I named Alexander Camel-ton.

Our destination on the camels was to a huge sand dune where we would watch the sunset.  They dropped us off and we climbed up the large sand mountain, just in time to see the sunset. After the sun went down, I tried sandboarding, and it actually went pretty well. I made it down the mountain without falling.

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The importance of a turban: to keep as much sand away from your face as possible

 

Pretty soon after that, we had to hike down the mountain and get back on the camels since they can’t see in the dark.  The guides explained that if it got too dark and they didn’t know where they were going, they might start to panic. We got back to camp for another night of singing and dancing around the campfire.

The next morning, we got up and left pretty early so we could make the journey home.  It was such a fun trip, but we were all exhausted from sleeping in tents.  At one point on the ride home, I looked back, and 90% of the bus was asleep.  Merzouga is a trip I will never forget, and I’m so thankful I had the experience of trekking through the desert and riding a camel.

Next week’s post will actually be my last!  It is finals week here in Meknes, so I am going to write out a post and put it on a timer to post sometime next week.  Stay tuned!

I Spent Four Days In London

I just got back from an amazing few days in London, and best of all, I got to spend them with my mom!  It was her first international trip, so it was so much fun to bring her around the city and experience everything with her.

My journey started when I flew into Stansted Airport from Morocco and spent the night at a local hotel. I got up the next morning to take the Stansted Express into Paddington Station, which was right near our hotel. IMG_5663  I wasn’t in any hurry since my mom’s flight didn’t get in for another few hours, but it still took about an hour and a half to get to the city center.  After I found my mom, we decided to walk around Hyde Park for a while since it was pretty close to where we were staying.  We found these huge swans, and my mom insisted I get a picture with them.  Mom was fairly jet lagged, so we went to bed pretty early.  When I say early, I mean 6:30pm.

The next day, we got up and knew exactly what we wanted to do.  Our first place on the list was St. Paul’s Cathedral, so we took the tube to the nearest stop. IMG_5420 It was beautiful, and we walked around in there for a while before deciding to catch the hop-on, hop-off bus.  Mom had bought the London Pass, which included a ton of attractions and an Oyster card for transportation.   We didn’t pay a single entry fee over the course of our entire trip, which ended up saving us a ton of money.  I’m not sure we took the best advantage of the hop-on, hop-off part of the bus, but it included headphones and gave us information about the places we passed.  It also drove us across the London Bridge, so it was definitely worth it.

We got off at the stop that allowed us to walk across the river and explore at our own place.  Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben were right across the bridge, and we decided to spend a bit of time there.

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Big Ben, under construction (the clock stopped dinging)

Next, we wanted to go to Buckingham Palace, but we struggled a bit to get there.  Instead of going directly there, we walked through a park and got hot tea.  We were hoping to see the change of the guards once we got there, but unfortunately we couldn’t find any kind of time table.  Mom and I took a few pictures and decided to head back towards Paddington.  We went to bed fairly early again, but not without a classic English meal of bangers and mash.

Our final full day in London was no less exciting than the day before.  We had a full day planned, and had no time to waste, especially since rain was in the forecast.

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“The Orbit”, as we referred to it

The first stop was Kensington Palace. The palace is the current home of William and Kate, but much of it is open to the public to the tour.  We walked around the gardens and the park outside on our way out, and caught the tube just as it started to rain.  The next stop was the ArcelorMittal Orbit (pronunciation unknown), where we went up in an elevator and saw a panoramic view of the city.  It was right outside of Olympic Park, so we walked around near the Aquatic center and the West Ham United Stadium.  Sadly, it was cold and rainy, so we went back to the tube station.  What we didn’t realize was that the station was connected to a giant mall, so we walked around indoors where it wasn’t cold or rainy.  I introduced my mom to the fashion statement commonly known as the beanie, and we were back on our way to continue exploring the city.

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London Bridge, lit up at night

We wanted to take advantage of the river cruise that came with our London Pass, so we took the tube to the dock.  It was starting to get dark, and we cruised down the River Thames as the city lit up for the night. After we had been on the boat for about an hour, we had started planning out our next stop for when the boat docked.  The plan was to go to M&M’s World at the next stop.  We both thought this would be the stop before the London Bridge, but the boat never stopped there, so we go to cruise under the bridge at night.  SURPRISE.IMG_5586

After the boat docked for real, we went to M&M’s World, where I got an entire cup filled with chocolate. It was amazing.

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More M&M’s than one person should have

I guess my mom and I were on a chocolate hunt because we decided to eat dinner at a place that had Nutella Belgian waffles and chocolate gelato.  After our dinner of champions of M&M’s, waffles, and gelato, we went back to our hotel.

The next morning, after I sent my mom to the airport for her flight, I decided to go to West End to look at theaters, which was something mom had no interest in.  I found the Apollo Victoria theater and the Victoria Palace theater, where Wicked and Hamilton were playing.  IMG_5599I tried to find other theaters, but to no success, so I went back towards the city center where I found The Monument.  The Monument was simultaneously one of the best and worst things I possibly could have done.  The 311 spiral steps threw me off, but the view at the top was phenomenal.  Since it was in the city center, I got to see the London Bridge (which never gets old), the London Eye, and the Shard.  It was a great way to end my trip, since I had to go back to the hotel and collect my luggage to go home.

I’m so glad I got to explore London, especially with my mom.

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The view from the monument

I think she had a great time, and I could probably convince her to go abroad again.  It was nice to get away for a few days, because now I have to go back to studying, learning Arabic, and getting ready for final exams.  I leave for Merzouga tomorrow to ride camels, so I get another long weekend away from my home city.  Check back next week for more adventures!

How I’m Learning Arabic

I’m about to be very honest: Arabic has not been an easy language to learn.  I went into this process knowing that this would be something I’d probably struggle with at one point or another, but its been a bit more challenging than I expected.  Here are a few things I’ve done to become more familiar with the language and keep up with the class pace.

  1. Always done my homework.  This may seem like a given, but the professors here are less strict and will accept work after its due.  I’ve made a point to not turn in anything late so I don’t get behind on chapter work.  My professor is great about getting our work back to us in a timely manner, so I get to see feedback quickly and can make corrections for my future work.
  2. Made flash cards. Y’all.  I have so many flash cards of so many random vocabulary words, with both the transliteration and the Arabic spelling.  We started with easier vocabulary, such as greetings, how to introduce myself, and basic conversational skills.  Now, we’ve moved on to verb conjugation and noun-adjective agreement. Vocabulary isn’t the kind of thing I can get behind on when I now have to apply it to write sentences.
  3. I’ve actually started re-writing my notes into a different notebook that had my previous Arabic notes in it, so I can keep everything in one place.  This is helping me go back and review what I’ve learned in previous weeks. I’ve been in class for about two months now, and the class is considered “intensive”, meaning it moves at a faster pace than a regular class, so I’ve had to work to keep up and practice what I’ve learned.
  4. Taken advantage of tutoring. The office allows students to come in and ask questions about their Arabic classes, which has been good to have just in case I have a quick question.  Plus, my professor was available before our midterm to answer our questions.  It’s also nice to know students who are in the 200 and 300 levels, because I can ask them quick questions too.
  5. Forced myself to speak it. My host family doesn’t speak a lot of English, so I’ve had to use some Arabic at home.  Google Translate still gets its fair use, but I’ve tried (emphasis on tried) to have brief conversations in Arabic.

It’s been a bit of a struggle, but I’m glad I’m finally learning the Arabic language. Also, It’s been a while since I’ve posted pictures with blogs, but after this weekend in London, I’ll have plenty to share.  Come back next week for a travel post!

Answering Your Questions!

Earlier this week, I asked my friends on my various social media accounts to send me questions about what it’s like to be abroad.  They delivered, and here are a few answered questions!

Q: What’s the best thing about studying abroad?

A: I love that I’ve been able to travel so much while taking classes.  My program had built in excursions, so I’ve seen a lot of the country just from that.  They also built in three long weekends so we could travel on our own.  By the time I come home, I will have been to Barcelona, Rome, London, and Amsterdam, plus all of the in country traveling I’ve done.

Q: What’s the worst thing about studying abroad?

A: I’m not about to lie, I’ve had some pretty bad American food cravings.  Most recently, I’ve wanted Chick-fil-a, good lemonade, and soft chocolate chip cookies. Other than that, the entire study abroad experience has been amazing.

Q: What do you like most about Morocco?

A: I like being able to walk everywhere, and that everywhere I need to go is so close.  Back home, I don’t have much of a choice but to drive everywhere, even to the grocery store.  Here, I rarely take a taxi, and that’s only if I’m going to a different district.  Seriously, the longest walk I have is 20 minutes to the supermarket.

Q: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about studying abroad?

A: DO IT! This is going to be the International Programs intern coming out when I say this, but there are affordable ways to go, especially if you’re a WCU student.  We have an exchange program that allows you to pay our tuition, so it’s not any more expensive, plus there are grants available that can pay for your flights! If you end up going (which I hope you do), keep an open mind.  There are going to be parts that make you uncomfortable, and you’re going to want to go home at least once, but this experience is so worth it.  I can’t describe how much fun living in another country is, and I think it’s something everyone should do if they can.

Q: Do you miss working at the International Programs office?

A: Umm, yes! That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a job.  If I can, I’m going to try to come back next semester because I miss my college home.

Q: What is it like to be surrounded by a culture that is centralized on another religion?

A:  It was different at first, but I’ve definitely adjusted.  It’s helped that all of my classes are teaching me about Islam and what Muslims believe, so I’ve better understood my surroundings as time goes on.  I live right down the street from a mosque, and I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the call to prayer every day.  In general, it’s been a great experience because I didn’t know a lot about Islam before I got here.

Q: What is the food like?  What’s your favorite food here?

A: I’m writing this on couscous Friday, which is one of my favorite days of the week just because I love couscous so much.  It’s the one time during the week that everyone in my family is home for a meal at one time, so it’s good to see everyone while eating one of my favorite Moroccan meals.  Another food I really like is French tacos, which aren’t even really tacos.  You can customize it, so I get mine with chicken tenders and barbecue sauce, but all of them have cheese and French fries in them.  It’s the kind of thing that people either love or hate, and I’m a fan, so I frequent Urban Tacos.

Thank you everyone for sending in questions! I loved seeing what you guys wanted to know, and I hope I did a good job of answering them. If you have another topic you want me to write about, just let me know!  I still have four weeks here and I would love some input on what aspects you want to know about.

How I’m Dealing With Homesickness

Living abroad has presented me with several challenges that I’ve had to overcome in the past month and a half.  My most recent struggle has been homesickness. For the past two weeks or so, I’ve really only left my house to go to class.  I’ve done a few extra things here and there, like play volleyball and go to the office to get some work done, but the vast majority of my time was spent at home in my room.  I hadn’t really dealt with homesickness like this before, even when I was back at WCU away from home.  Here, everything is different because I’m not in my comfort zone or a place of familiarity. I miss my mom, my dorky dogs, and sleeping in my own bed. Instead of those usual comforts, I’m halfway across the world figuring out for myself what it’s like to live outside of my norm.  It’s a new normal.

Now that I’m able to talk about it since I’m feeling better in general, I’m going to explain how I got out of it.  I’ll admit that it wasn’t easy since I didn’t have my usual sources of happiness (my mom, my dogs, etc.), but I did have something else at my disposal: cheap travel.  We went to Rabat and Tangier two weeks ago, and this past weekend I went to Barcelona.  I figured out that if I could distract myself from my own mind with something fun that it would help, and it did.

I almost dropped out of the Rabat excursion because at that point, I didn’t think I could handle anything.  Two weeks was a pretty rough time, but I forced myself to go anyway because I knew it would be good for me to get out of the house.

Let me tell you, that was the best possible thing I could have done for myself.  It was good to get away from home and see a different part of the country.  They brought us to the country’s capital, Rabat, and a Mediterranean town, Tangier.  I had an amazing time just being around other people and touring a new place.  Traveling is one of those things that makes me so happy, so I’m glad I forced myself into that situation, regardless of how crappy and homesick I felt that night before.

The other half of feeling better was remembering what my purpose is here.  My one goal for the semester was to learn Arabic.  Two weeks ago, if you had given me a plane ticket back to RDU I would have gladly accepted.  Now, you couldn’t get me to leave if you wanted me to.  I started to go through everything I had learned so far, and was amazed at even the small amount I had retained.  I realized that I could have a (short, basic) conversation, which I couldn’t have even dreamed of before I left the states.  Seeing that helped me understand that I’m achieving what I’m here for, and that this experience, no matter how frustrating at times, is worth so much more than I could have imagined.

I write all of this to say that dealing with homesickness isn’t easy, but I’ve managed it.  I don’t usually like talking about what goes on in my mind, but I felt like I needed to get all of this out there because this is such a big part of living abroad.  The reality is that at one point or another, you’ll miss home and everything you’ve loved for so long, regardless of how happy you are with your new home.  This entire study abroad experience has been challenging in the most amazing way and I’m so happy I decided to take this step in my life.  Yes, I’ve struggled and missed NC, but it’s all been so worthwhile.  I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process, and I honestly don’t want to go home anymore, even though I still miss my dogs.

Hiking With Monkeys

Two weeks ago, I got to go on another ISA excursion with the group.  We went to Ifrane and Azrou, two smaller mountain towns that had both the local and tourist-y feel.  Downtown Ifrane was our first stop. IMG_4656 Iman brought us to a restaurant that was connected to a hotel, and told us that ISA was paying for our meals.  I had an amazing Nutella crepe, plus the meal came with a grilled cheese sandwich, which I didn’t know before ordering.  It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had at a restaurant since I’ve been in Morocco.

After breakfast and a brief puppy playdate , we loaded the bus back up to go to the rural part of Ifrane where we would be hiking for the day.

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This is the sweet puppy we met after breakfast

 

The bus dropped us off at an empty field in front of a mountain, and that’s when I knew this was a serious hike. Our guide started bringing us towards the mountain, which managed to get steeper as we went on.  The incline was about 45° for about half of the hike, so I got tired pretty quickly.  We hiked for about an hour, and the terrain started to flatten out.  Iman brought us to a part of the forest we were in so we could play with monkeys.

I think the best part of the entire hike was with the monkeys.  Some locals had bags of peanuts and crabapples for sale for about ten dirhams, so of course I had to get some.  This is probably the best ten dirhams I’ve ever spent, just for the record.  The monkeys were adorable.  They just walk up to you and snatch the apple and run away.  It’s clear that they have adjusted to being around people, and they didn’t seem to care that we were there, even when we surrounded them to take pictures.

The next part of the hike was downhill, at least for a while.  IMG_4701Right after we walked away from the monkeys, there was a little Berber village with a few houses and North Africa’s tallest tree. IMG_4704There was also a man playing an Oud, a traditional Berber instrument.  We hung out there for a while, and eventually continued the hike.

I know I talk a lot about excursions, but that makes up such a big part of the trip that I feel like I should tell everyone where I’ve been and everything I’m seeing. This weekend we are going to Rabat and Tangier, so I’ll try to not talk about it next week, but I can’t make any promises.