Year Abroad in Rabat: Part 1. A Less Familiar & Certain Place

After clicking “Publish” on WordPress, sharing this, the first post of a 5-part blog series, I’m very relieved. I should have done it a long time ago, yet various issues got in the way. Now, it is something less to worry about from my hectic to-do list. Yes, life has been stressful for the last few weeks. I’m entering my final year as an undergraduate, and I need to plan what I’m going to do afterwards. However, whilst I’m worried, I’m neither anxious nor full of doubt about what’s going to happen, particularly during the upcoming weeks.  I just know what to expect. Nothing is out of the ordinary. I’m at my university’s campus. I’m looking forward to more lectures and seminars from modules I have just started. I will be working some shifts at my usual jobs. I’m getting on with a couple of recently adopted volunteering roles. Nothing too different, too adventurous, or too nerve-wracking.

Looking back to a year ago, I was in a very different place. A less familiar and certain place. More worrying and stressful. On an evening like this one, instead of being in my bed in my flat at my university’s campus in the UK, I was on the back seat of a minivan driving in an unacquainted place. Whilst it was dark outside, there was enough lighting for me to see the fast-moving surroundings through the vehicle’s windows. The numerous amount of palm trees down the road indicated I had really left England and its oceanic/temperate climate. I was now in a place that reminded me of Southern & Eastern Spain, and its Mediterranean climate. Not just because of nature, but also due to the coastal appearance of the houses across the streets.

As I gazed outside for more recognisable sights, my ear heard fast-spoken French and Arabic words it couldn’t totally understand. I had been studying the later for 2 years, the former for even more, yet my fluency and confidence in both were limited. That was the first time I had to use them in a real-life situation. Fortunately, when the taxi driver picked me up some moments ago, I was able to utter some basic greetings in Arabic and some nearly-coherent French sentences. From the moment we got in the car, the conversation between him and I had been non-existent, as he was on the phone most of the time.

At some point, the driver turned towards me, which made me panic a bit because I feared I wouldn’t understand him, or he wouldn’t understand me, though all he did was hand me his phone. I put it on my ear and heard a voice addressing me in English. It was one of the team members at the international office of Ecolé de Governance et D’Economie Rabat (EGE Rabat). She was making sure I had arrived properly and I was okay. I didn’t expect it, and I really appreciated her kind gesture. We had spoken before, but just over email. She was the one who had sent me details on how to book a driver to pick me up at the airport, and she had also helped me to secure accommodation upon my arrival. I was infinitely grateful for both arraignments.

After talking with the woman, though still nervous about the new adventure I had just started, I felt a bit more relieved, realising I wasn’t totally on my own. Now, at present, you might be wondering where I was back then, and why. If you read the title of this post, you know a basic answer to these questions already. If you follow me on social media, you may know a more detailed answer. However, in either circumstance, you almost certainly don’t know how or why I got there. To understand the responses to all these questions, it is important to go back to years and years ago.

In summer 2014, I was entering was last year at college, and it was my time to choose universities for my UCAS application. Among various, the option of spending a year abroad was a deal-breaker: it had to be offered for me to be interested in a course and an institution, as it was something I really wanted to do. It would be a good chance to be outside a British/European environment for a long, but temporary, period. Not only would it help with my desire to have a somewhat “international” career in the future, but it could potentially be a great experience to diversify my knowledge/skills. Moreover, if I had something clear about my future time at university, it was that I wanted to maximise it as much as possible. My goal was doing most to everything that was possible, particularly travelling, whilst having a relatively secure and stable source of income.

Although I really fancied the idea of going abroad, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a placement in industry (work experience) or an academic exchange (studying). I thought I would eventually figure it out once I began my degree. Of course, I was right, and by the beginning of my second year at Sussex Uni in 2016, I decided to go for an academic exchange. Following some thinking and research, I applied to be nominated for either one of two overseas universities I selected, one in Morocco and one in Canada. My main motivations behind those choices were them being 1) outside Europe, 2) affordable, and 3) places where I could improve my foreign languages skills.

Morocco was my preferred option, not only because it would allow me to work on the two languages I wanted (French & Arabic), but because they offered an intensive Arabic research-based study program. Besides, the country was in Africa, and close enough for me to travel to countries like Senegal easily. In addition, it would be the biggest possible change from the Anglocentric/British way of thinking in my academic subject area. Even though I loved my university, I was overly used to the content and teaching style by my second year. That had many positives, as it allowed me to prepare better for assessments, but I felt too comfortable at times. I needed some change.

Ultimately, my university accepted my application, and I got nominated to the Moroccan institution, my first choice. Next, months of paperwork and other preparation came. I had to apply directly to the university I was nominated for, sort out my funding for the year, deal with insurance matters, plan travelling, and attend preparatory workshops. To be honest, that process wasn’t very tough, since the Study Abroad officers at my university were very helpful. I sorted my insurance and funding through them, and they gave me, and other outgoing students, comprehensive information packs. Nevertheless, issues did arise throughout those preparatory months, some more significant than others.

The most salient problem I had was the one I expected the least: when applying to the Moroccan university, I discovered I was no longer able to do the intensive Arabic research-focused program I had planned, and really wanted, to do. They had out of the blue increased the Arabic requirements for it, and I no longer qualified.  This made me incredibly upset, as it was what the main aspect that made me apply to be nominated to that university. My discontent was such, that I even discussed with the Study Abroad officers not doing the exchange.

Had I known earlier, the Canadian university might have been my preferred option, because at least I knew the modules I could do, and I liked them. Meanwhile, I couldn’t find much information about the normal exchange program for the Moroccan institution. In the end, I proceeded with my application as semi-planned, applying to the university I had been nominated for, holding on to my desire to improve my Arabic even if things weren’t as I wanted.

Another prominent issue I had was non-study related: organising my actual journey to Morocco. Booking the buses and plane wasn’t hard, but packing and deciding what to take with me was. Since I’m an independent sort-of student, meaning I don’t really have a proper home outside my university’s campus, I had to take all my belongings to Morocco with me. I really couldn’t leave anything behind, except goods that fitted in two big bags that a friend could store for me in her house, and kitchen utensils that I gave to my family. The rest of my things were split into two sections: stuff I paid a company to ship for me (4 big suitcases), and stuff I would carry with me on the plane (3-4 medium and big suitcases).

Unsurprisingly, since I own too many things, I ended up having to leave a lot of my unpacked/unsorted things behind, for charity and for recycling.  I must admit that I was very sloppy in this area, not properly organising, researching and thinking about my plans. The shipping company didn’t come till a day before I left, which I spent majorly freaking out because the delivery of my suitcases to pack my belongings was delayed by Amazon, and it was that exact day as I had to give them away. From then, I ran out of time to properly organise the rest of my things. Whilst everything I ultimately left behind, intentionally and unintentionally, was non-essential and/or replaceable, I did mourn the loss of some of my favourite clothing.

However, I didn’t have much time to feel sad. The 5th of August of 2017, the day of my departure to Morocco, was truly chaotic. I left my room on campus in such a hurry that I couldn’t even clean it properly. I was late to the Brighton coach station for my bus to London Victoria, and, consequently, the one to Stansted Airport. I was overwhelmed at the airport when checking-in because we had to use self-checkout machines and there was no one helpful around. And, I was stopped for long during the security check because, due to a check-in mistake, I took with me a bag with liquid products that were too large to be carried onboard.

At last, I ended up having to semi-run to my departure gate, being in such a hurry that even the flight attendance noticed, as I was very out of breath. In retrospect, my train-wreck appearance probably helped to conceal the fact that I was unintendedly carrying an extra bag with me, which I didn’t manage to check-in. So, I guess it wasn’t a total disaster. Yet, it was definitely the worst travel experience I had ever had. It was a nightmare. The relief I felt when finally sitting down on the plane, taking off with all the bags I had left my university’s campus with, can’t be described with just words. I was also exhausted, and I could barely do anything during the 3-4 hour flight, just eat and try to go through some Arabic notes.

Looking back at the whole ordeal, it is funny how the worst part of that journey was my departure from UK, the place I knew and was familiar with, and not my arrival to Morocco, somewhere I had never been before. The later was not only not troublesome, but it was an absolute non-event. I landed safely in Rabat, capital of the North African country, went through security without major hassle, and found my pick-up driver easily, who drove me to my accommodation without any problem. Still, I was far from calm or self-assured when we arrived outside the private apartment block where my flat was located, as the only thing I knew about where I was going to live was the price and the address.

Circling back to the beginning of this post,  I will reiterate how, on an evening like this one a year ago, I was in a very different place. A less familiar and certain place. Which slowly became my new secure home over the following weeks. How? Stay tuned for the next post of the series.

P.S. I apologise for my choppy writing, I’m trying to get done with this series as soon as possible because it should have been published a long time ago.

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