Temperatures hovering around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. No air conditioning. Enormous flying cockroaches. Big blood-sucking mosquitoes.
Those are hardly the conditions that make for an ideal summer vacation, but Erin Schutte tells the story of the seven weeks she spent in Morocco with a big smile on her face.
Schutte, the daughter of Paul and Lisa Schutte of rural Rushmore and a 2008 graduate of Worthington High School, is a sophomore majoring in political science and modern Middle East studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
"I have studied Arabic at Yale for two summers, and I continued with the program and took the next semester in Morocco at an Arabic language institute," she explained. "I've always been interested in the world, all the back to age 3, when I knew all the states and their capitals and recognized countries by their flags. I've always had a strong interest in the world around me."
Every Yale student who is on financial aid also receives assistance to spend one summer abroad. Erin chose to use that opportunity to further her Arabic skills.
"It's a completely different alphabet, not the traditional Western alphabet," she detailed. "You read Arabic from right to left, and it has a completely different sentence structure and grammar. There are pretty much no similarities between Arabic and English. I could have picked an easier language, but I was up to the challenge, and Arabic is becoming more and more an important language to learn in the realm of political science. I'm interested in international relations and specifically foreign relations in the Middle East, so Arabic is an important language for me to learn."
While she'd previously traveled abroad in Europe and on a mission trip to Jamaica, north Africa was a completely unique experience.
"It's such a different society, with different standards than America," she noted. "Religion plays a key role in culture and society. It's part of the Arab world, and Arabic is the official language, but French is also an official language because it was colonized by the French. It's also influenced heavily by Europe because it's so close, being in north Africa. You can take a ferry from Spain to Morocco. So it's Arab, but European, but in Africa. It was interesting to see the different cultures intermix."
The language school was in Fez, one of the oldest and most traditional cities in Morocco with about 2 million inhabitants. Erin had to secure her own housing — and make all the other travel arrangements — and lived in a villa with other students.
"It was extreme conditions," she said. "The heat was very extreme. I saw on a thermometer that it was 51 Celsius one day — which is 123 degrees Fahrenheit — and that wasn't even one of the hottest days. There was sunshine every day; it was desertish but yet felt humid at times. The bugs were pretty bad — big cockroaches, big mosquitoes — those were probably the most prevalent insects in the villa where I lived. I got bit every night by mosquitoes and cooked in a kitchen infested with cockroaches. But I was living in the best housing I could have possibly gotten. I had to be thankful for the conditions that I did have and not dwell on what I'd like to change."
Each day, Erin spent four hours in class — two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon — with at least four hours of homework to complete at night.
"I was constantly busy," she recalled. "I was there for the language study, but also the cultural immersion, so I also did what I could to take advantage of the opportunities I had. I became good friends with a Moroccan family who had a girl that was my age. I went with her family to a friend's wedding, so I got to attend a traditional Moroccan wedding. That was one of the best experiences. It was very different (from an American wedding) — a celebration that went all night long with music and dancing and tons of food."
Erin also noted that while Morocco, like many Arabic countries, continues to undergo social turmoil, laws have changed in the last decade to give women more rights. Women of an older generation continue to wear head scarves, while the younger women and men dress in Western attire.
With her fair skin and blonde hair, there was no way for Erin to blend in.
"So I dressed very conservatively," she explained. "I did my best to cover up and blend in with the other people. I experienced some gender inequalities, segregation. For instance, only men are allowed to sit outside at cafés, so I had to go inside to sit even if it was hotter. Women don't wear the full entire gowns, but they're still covered from head to toe in pants and long sleeves no matter the temperature."
During a trip to the desert with some other students, Erin got to experience life outside the city.
"We drove to southern Morocco and then took camels for a two-hour ride through the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. The sand was so fine — nothing like the sand on the beaches that we have here. We rode two hours and then spent the night at a camp set up for us. We took off as the sun was going on and returned as the sun was rising, as you didn't want to be out there in the heat of the day."
A camel is not the most comfortable mode of transportation, Erin noted.
"The camels had just gotten their watering — they only drink once a week — so they were extremely wide because they have all this water stored in them," she explained. "That made it more difficult, because you had to straddle so much more. … But I would do it again. It was very serene — riding your camel in complete silence, just the sound of the camel's hooves slapping against the sand. Everywhere you looked, in all directions, just sand dunes."
As far as the Moroccan cuisine, Erin was cautious about what she ate due to some of the unsanitary conditions she witnessed and washed everything she bought in the market thoroughly, but she enjoyed the exotic flavors.
"The food is delicious," she enthused, "but they don't eat with silverware, and you don't put everything on your own plate. It's completely family style. I especially loved the tajine meat with lots of juices and vegetables around it, like we'd put in a Crockpot, and the homemade French fries. I did see camel (meat) for sale in the streets, and I think I did eat camel. I didn't want to know. Sometimes I didn't ask what it was. If it smelled good, I'd try it, and if it was good, I kept eating."
While living conditions were difficult, Erin found the shopping conditions favorable.
"The standard of living is low, so it's cheap to shop," she said. "I tried to buy high-quality goods made right in Morocco. At the tannery, I bought a nice camel bag for myself and also camel purses for my mom and sister, and I got to see how they are made. It's the best leather you can get. I also bought camel belts for my dad and my boyfriend. They have lots of street side shops, not really stores, and you bargain for everything; there are no fixed prices. I love to shop, but it can be a stressful situation in Morocco — really put my Arabic skills to the test."
During her time in Morocco, Erin's language skills definitely improved, but she also learned some new things about herself.
"I went to Morocco feeling like I was a pretty independent person," she reflected, "yet I grew so much and handled more than I knew I was capable of. Overall, my perspective on different cultures and societies really broadened, and that was a necessary step for me to really understand what I'm studying in the classroom. To experience that firsthand was a step of growth for me."
Someday, Erin hopes to put her newfound language skills and knowledge of the world to use, perhaps working for the government.
"I would like to work in the State Department, possibly the United Nations," she speculated. "I'm interested in foreign policy, so the State Department, that would be my dream job. Some people say I could be Secretary of State — it's a long career path until then."