Letters to My Family from Morocco

by Nicholas Castans


Mt. Toubkal

Dear Family,

Since my last email I have gone to many places. I will try to tell you as much detail about these experiences as I can.

In the previous email, I mentioned community learning services. Over the previous three weeks, I have been learning more about the Moroccan culture and improving my Darija speaking skills by spending three hours with local kids every Wednesday. Myself and two others were assigned with a Moroccan TA and professor to play with the 4-16 year old children in the town of Ben Smim.

Near this town includes a water purifying factory that provides the bottled water to the town of Ifrane, and a haunted hospital that used to treat tuberculosis, but was abandoned 70 years ago. The town of Ben Smim is an impoverished and small village that is 15 minutes away from campus. Although the houses in the village are made of mud, Ben Smim sits within an incredibly beautiful mountain range which extends beyond view.

During our time here, we helped the 40 some kids occupy their day by playing games and teaching each other our native languages. This was a difficult task though because the kids had no supplies to play with and only a dirt street to play in. Therefore, it was a challenge to create different games, especially when there was a major language barrier. However, it was a great experience, and I really enjoyed bringing the game heads up 7 up to Morocco. The children had never heard of this game before, but loved it so much, that we played it for over an hour.


Community Service in Ben Smim

On June 7th, most of the study abroad students took a class trip south of Morocco to the city of Merzouga to see the dunes in the Sahara Desert. TA’s and professors accompanied on this interesting trip. The bus ride was eight hours long, with no air conditioning in 100 degree weather, and through windy mountainous roads. So, needless to say, no one received any sleep.

When I was not trying to sleep, I was hanging on to my life as our bus passed other trucks on thin two way lanes without guard rails. On the way, we stopped to take pictures at the largest oasis in Africa. We spent one night in a hotel that also did not have air conditioning, and then spent our last night sleeping in tents in the desert. After out first night in the hotel near the Sahara Desert, we explored a souk (open market area) where we bought our desert clothing, journeyed through a kasbah (ancient city protected by fortress walls), and finally, in the evening, began our trip to Merzouga, to climb the dunes.

We took off road vehicles through the pre-Sahara until we reached an extremely nice hotel in the middle of the desert. From here, we saddled up on camels, and began our trek on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert. Natives led us on the camels deep into the Sahara, until we reached a massive sand dune. Here, the group climbed the dune, and took pictures of the setting sun. From the top of this sand mountain, we could see the Algerian border to the south and the Sahara desert stretching to the eastern coast of Africa.

At night time, a group of students and I enjoyed a campfire in the pitch black Sahara near our tents, and then explored the desert at night finding many interesting insects. In the morning, I woke up in my tent with sand in my nose and all over my body. The other most memorable part of this trip was the several occurrences of people throwing up from both ends do to food poisoning as they baked in the sun. Luckily, I was not one of those people. Despite many uncomfortable events, the trip was totally worth it.


Castans in the Sahara Desert

The next weekend, a group of 15 friends and I traveled to the northern coast of Morocco to visit the beach city of Tangier. All of us had a great time staying in a hotel together for two nights, except for one of our members who forgot his passport, and had to sneak into the hotel in order to sleep there for two nights. We had great sea food, and saw a beautiful view of the Strait of Gibraltar from a famous cafe called Cafe Hafa.

We also visited Roman tombs overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Then a smaller group of people and I, explored the Hercules Cave near the Atlantic Ocean, and went cliff diving with some locals next to the caves. Following that, we spent the rest of the day on the beach with our taxi driver who took us to the location. To end our trip, we took a long train ride home.



The following weekend, I visited the west coast of Morocco to experience the capital city of Rabat and the large city of Casablanca with a couple other of my friends. In Rabat, the U.S. Embassy threw an early 4th of July party at the embassy’s children’s school. Going to this party made me miss the U.S. for the first time during this trip.

The next day, we took a train to Casablanca. In Casablanca, we payed for a tour of the Mosque Hassan II. This mosque is famous for its size (7th largest mosque in the world) and for its incredibly beautiful and detailed architecture. Some notable architecture included a football sized roof made out of cedar and gold that could silently open at the touch of a button, three-story titanium doors, and intricately carved cedar and marble everywhere.

Finally, last weekend, we took our last class trip to the famous southeastern city of Marrakech. It was an 11 hour bus ride and also 100 degree weather. At night, myself and two others explored the main square and market place, Jemaa el-Fnaa, with our TA’s and professors. This area is the heart of Marrakech, especially at night, because it is covered with thousands of locals and tourists. It was full of freshly squeezed orange juice vendors, snake charmers, witch doctors, street performers, and many cafes with rooftop views of the entire square.

Here, we ate tagine, watched the street performers and snake charmers, drank mint tea on the rooftop of a cafe, and then took a horse-drawn carriage ride back to the hotel. During our last day, a friend and I ventured through another extensive souk behind Jemaa el-Fnaa. We spent the entire day in the souk haggling with vendors.


Azrou in Middle Atlas Mountains

I only have two and a half more weeks in Morocco. I can’t believe it went by so fast. I am planning to take my last trips to the blue city of Chefchaouen to explore the surrounding forrest and waterfalls. Then go to another beach city in Tetouan, and finally, hike up Mt. Toubkal, the second largest mountain in Africa. I look forward to sharing my story with everyone when I get back.


Nicholas Castans