UVA Today Blog

Semester at Sea: Final Port – Morocco

I traveled with a friend who had studied abroad in Morocco just last semester, so we had fun spending time in Rabat with her friends and host family. Along with the majority of families in Morocco, they have a big couscous dinner for the family every Friday, and Ada and I were happy to share in the festivities.

A picture of couscous covered with caramelized onions and peanuts.

A vat of couscous covered in caramelized onions and peanuts. Our 12-person table made it through about half the plate.

The family embraced us as soon as they saw us, kiss-kissed us on either side of our cheeks and was all aflutter at seeing Ada again, who was a student in the study abroad program they ran. After dinner, one man brought out a guitar and sang traditional Moroccan songs, and then all the women sang and danced together in the middle of the room (and made us join, of course).

Ada told me that she guessed that 90 percent of Moroccan families get together for couscous every Friday. That degree of devotion to family and tradition is something you’d never find in America, she said, and it’s a huge part of what she loves about Morocco. “Moroccans have a very different sense of time and priorities, in which 4pm tea and Friday couscous are normally at the top,” she joked.

It’s a country where 98 percent of people are Muslim – the first we’d visited on SAS – and everything from our greetings to the way we handled business was carried out through that lens. “Islam makes everything calmer and more comfortable,” Ada said. In her exchanges with taxi drivers and vendors, the conversation (in either French or Arabic) would include phrases like ‘Bismallah’ (in God’s name) and “Insha’Allah’ (God willing). “When we’ve established a mutual belief in God, it establishes trust,” she said. “We raise the conversation to a whole new plane by acknowledging that we both believe in the same God, and that he ultimately controls our conversation.”

Though it’s a country of 33 million people, the use of faith as part of identity creates a tight-knit community vibe amongst Moroccans. But that doesn’t mean it’s closed – with the current tumult in eastern Africa, Morocco is becoming the new Egypt for foreign visitors to the continent. It’s one of the few predominantly Muslim countries that U.S. citizens, and citizens from anywhere in the world, can, easily and safely, visit.

A picture of the Hassan II mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia.

The Hassan II mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Later in the week, Ada and I caught a train to Marrakech, the cultural capital of Morocco. Today the town is largely a mecca for tourists, but that’s because it really is a cultural hub with its tanneries, carpet stores, snake charmers, food and street entertainment that lasts late into the night. Visitors can take a camel trek to the Sahara desert nearby, or go hiking though the Atlas Mountains just on the horizon. But my favorite part of the city was navigating through the winding medina of the old city. Built with towering walls, skinny passageways, dead ends, and majestic doors concealing all sorts of secrets, it’s the kind of maze you read about in books.

A picture of a young man standing in an alley in Morocco.

At the center of the medina was a town square where the activity happens – markets, restaurants and street entertainment open at all hours. Ada and I spent an hour one night watching a man who had placed a rooster, with a dove sitting on its back, on top of his head, and was singing and dancing around in a circle as musicians with tambourines and guitars cheered him on. It was even more of a ridiculous scene when he invited us to come up and dance too – and we broke out moves we had learned in Ghana!

A picture of dried fruit for sale at night in the Marrakech medina square.

Dried fruit for sale at night in the Marrakech medina square.

Heading back on the train that next morning, I thought about how Morocco was our last port, our last stop in Africa, and how boarding the ship today would mark the final time we would return to sea. Once again, it had been unlike any country I’d visited so far, and I’d learned more than I ever thought I’d know about Morocco, or even an Arabic-speaking country. And with that, we had only four more days to London.

How the Class of 2014 Felt at Final Exercises


This is how the University of Virginia’s Class of 2014 felt during Valediction and Final Exercises this weekend, as recorded by the U.Va. Instagram account.

Draft Day Reactions: Four Cavaliers NFL Bound

This weekend, the University of Virginia football program continued a 31-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL Draft. This year, Morgan Moses, Brent Urban and Luke Bowanko heard their names called and Jake Snyder signed a free agent contract. Here’s how they reacted on Twitter (and bonus U.Va. points to Brent Urban for quoting Edgar Allan Poe):

Semester at Sea: Going Ghana

A picture of a sign at the end of a trail in Kakum National Park, Ghana, that reads, "You survived. Please hand over your badge here. Good bye."

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

A picture of Ghanaian children.

Ghanaian children.

Coming out of uber-European South Africa, Ghana was a whole different world. Since Myanmar, the countries we’d been visiting – India, Mauritius, South Africa – had been getting progressively wealthier; but when we landed in a place where most people in the city are living in one or two-room shacks, you’re reminded again that most of the world doesn’t look like Europe.

Ghana is FULL of color. Women in bright clothes and bold patterns walk along the roadsides, balancing bowls on their heads with goods inside for sale. Kids are everywhere, too: babies slung around their mothers’ backs and groups of school-age children walking adorably in their matching uniforms. It’s tropical, hot and muggy, with wonderful, heavy food (I ate my weight in plantains). And everything runs on Africa time, i.e. the bus will get here …when it gets here.

A picture of a man seated at a table with colorful bowls filled with water for hand washing.

The first thing our waitress put on our table was a bottle of soap and two bowls filled with warm water – for us to wash our hands! I ordered fufu, a ball of dough that Ghanaians eat with their hands and then rinse at the dinner table.

People here love to sing, and as you can imagine, Ghana’s got the bongo-music scene on lock. But when Ghanaian guys discovered that I was from the States, they would immediately start throwing out American rap lyrics (“You know Lil’ Wayne, yah?!”). True cross-cultural bonding thanks to Weezy, check.

The most impactful part of Ghana for me was the day I visited the former slave castles in Cape Coast and Elmina. It’s one thing to read about slavery in a textbook, but another to experience buildings that, at one time, were shipping 60 percent of slaves from Africa to Europe and the New World.

A picture of the "Door of No Return" shown in shadows.

The “Door of No Return” led to waiting ships on the coast, where enslaved Africans who had already spent months in the dark would be packed and transported out of Africa forever.


A picture of Elmina slave castle in South Africa.

Inside the Elmina slave castle. The castle acted as a depot where captured slaves from the African interior were brought and sold to Portuguese traders.

I walked through the dungeons where hundreds of African people were packed in and abused for months; saw the chambers where they’d be sent to starve and die; and climbed to the top of the lookout towers to see the coastline that was once filled with cargo ships. It’s hard to describe how haunting, and surreal it was to be in this place with this history, now empty and hollow.

The castles were powerful places to visit, but Ghana is definitely a different place today than it was 300 years ago. I also trekked through the rainforest, where, I enjoyed seeing this sign at the end of one trail at Kakum National Park:

I also spent a day learning how to drum and dance with a university performing arts troupe. My acting class is studying how other cultures use the performing arts to tell their stories, so in Ghana, naturally, we learned about music. No photos, but the performance that the troupe and my class put on for the shipboard community later on was packed and tons of fun, I promise. I love that for all of these countries we’re able to bring a little piece of it back with us, whether it’s a souvenir or a song!

A picture of a sign at the end of a trail in Kakum National Park, Ghana, that reads, "You survived. Please hand over your badge here. Good bye."

Twitter + Donut = Study Break


Everyone knows that final exams can be stressful. To ease some tension and put smiles on student faces, the @UVA twitter account offered free donut delivery to the first 10 studying students who replied to a tweet on Thursday. Here’s what happened: