Fellows' Reflections: Katherine Butler-Dines

While Surfer Magazine may seem an unlikely place to find profound life advice, in a column a few years author Beau Flemister wrote some very sage words: “School will make you smart, the world will make you wise.” He recounted a series of vignettes from his globe-trotting adventures and explained how the experiences you accumulate through travel can be ultimately much more meaningful that the knowledge you’ll gain attending school. The article deeply resonated with me as I thought about all the funny, awkward, and enlightening moments I had already experienced traveling. But now as my year as a MENAR fellow is beginning to draw to a close, I have started thinking about his article again. So, in an ode to his article and because my mom keeps telling me to write it all down, here a few of my favorite and most educational experiences.

A Most Unusual Conversation

On my way home from the train station one night, I hopped in a cab and per usual the driver was curious about where I was from. I told him I was American, and he immediately asked if had heard about the school shooting. I said yes but was surprised he already knew about the Parkland school shooting that had occurred just hours earlier. He quickly launched into a speech about how appalling it is that these shootings happen so often, yet the media portrays Morocco and the Arab world a war zone when you’re probably certainly more likely to get shot in the street in the U.S. than Morocco. I struggled to explain the hypocrisy of my own country, it would be a difficult task in English let alone in my broken mix of French and Darija. But I didn’t have long to ponder my response as he quickly switched gears and asked if I believed in God. Again, a hard question to answer, and while I am agnostic, I answered Christian to save myself a strange look and more explaining. He smiled, and he said that when you look at all the beauty in nature and the vastness of the universe, how could you ever doubt that there wasn’t some all-knowing being who had created them. I figured that he wasn’t really interested in hearing about evolution and I don’t exactly have the language skills to explain it, so I just agreed that yes, the world is full of beauty and magic.

While we were quickly approaching where I needed to be dropped off, he had more hard-hitting topics to discuss. Next, he wanted to know what my salary was and how much my rent cost. I was stunned and answered a bit evasively, but he wasn’t bothered. Instead he took the opportunity to lament how all the young people in Casablanca now seemed obsessed with money and material things. He offered a piece of sage advice: happiness is not determined by your salary, and a good life requires taking time to enjoy the small things and live at a slower pace. I smiled and adamantly agreed, promising to remember this when work got stressful.

Having already discussed politics, religion, and money in just the first 10 minutes of the taxi ride, I shouldn’t really have been surprised by his next choice in topic. He asked if I was married; I said no and began to get a bit nervous being a female alone a night in a cab, but he did not respond with a come-on like I expected. Instead said he had a daughter my age and he knew that just because we aren’t married doesn’t mean that we “go with men.” But he advised it is essential we always use condoms and that our partners get tested since AIDS is a serious problem in Morocco. To say I was shocked to get advice on sexual health from a Moroccan cab driver would be an understatement. When he dropped me off, we parted with a final reminder to “be safe.”

Politics, religion, money, and sex are not usually the topics we choose to discuss with total strangers. But what took me even more by surprise was that this older Moroccan gentleman, who I assumed to be an uneducated cab driver, was asking informed questions on U.S. gun policy, arguing against materialism, expressing his religiosity, and still showing an acceptance of sex before marriage. This experience was a valuable lesson on the importance of not pre-judging people.

Lost and Found

A second unforgettable story happened as my company was hosting our annual spring break trips for MBA students. While I greeted some of the students upon their arrival to Marrakech, one girl was visibly distraught and told me that she had forgotten her new iPhone on a bus. Unfortunately, she did not realize this until the bus had already driven off; where to, she did not know. The girl did not know the name of the bus company or of the driver. I sent her with my colleague to see if the airline that had arranged the bus could assist; of course they were no help. The best they could do was have her file a missing items report. I said we would keep working on locating the phone, but internally, all I could do was roll my eyes because even in the U.S. if you leave your iPhone on a public bus the chances of you getting back are slim to none. Then, after midnight that night, when she called my cell to “ask for an update,” at this point I lost my cool. I told her point blank the chances she would get her phone back were basically nonexistent, but that we would continue to call the airline and bus company on Monday to see if we could locate it. The next day, I spoke to her group’s guide to explain the situation. He mentioned having a cousin who worked for the airline who he’d try calling. I thanked him and mostly moved on, because we had done everything we could, but at this point I was sure her phone was already being sold on some electronics black market.

Lo and behold, I got a call on Monday from the guide saying his cousin had located the phone and that it was being sent to Marrakech. Turns out his cousin spoke to his friend, who spoke to another friend who worked at the Casablanca airport, who found the name and number of the bus driver. The bus driver had returned the bus and had not seen the phone, so the friend of the friend of the cousin dispatched someone to check the bus, and there in the crack between the seats was her phone. Three days later, she was reunited with the phone and my cynicism was proven wrong.

This experience highlighted a valuable lesson about community. In Morocco, it is common practice to refer to people, friend or stranger, your “brother” or “sister.” I thought this was just to be polite, but the story of the lost phone proved to me that it is also because Morocco has much tighter bonds of community than I’ve experience in the U.S. When a friend of a friend of a friend calls to ask a big favor, my expectation would be that this person would say, “Sure, I’ll try,” but never actually do anything. But in Morocco, of course you go out of your way to help a total stranger because ultimately, they too are your brother or sister.

A Difficult Repair

An iPhone was also involved when I learned another powerful lesson. Several months ago, my iPhone’s charging port ceased to function. I knew it would be a challenge to get it fixed as there are no Apple stores in Morocco, but I found a place on Facebook that said they repaired iPhones. When I brought them my phone, they turned me away since it was less than a year old and repairing it would break my warranty. I explained that I didn’t care about my warranty, but they still said they couldn’t help. I tried a second place but was turned away there too because my phone has an American service provider. They said that I could only get my phone fixed in America. I was pretty desperate at this point, especially because I wasn’t going to be returning to the U.S. for several months.

Later that afternoon, while explaining the sad saga to a coworker, the courier for our office jumped in the conversation. While he doesn’t really speak English, his understanding of the language is pretty good. He told me in Darija that he had a friend who could fix my phone. He said that he would take my phone over there and get the guy to look at, and it should be as good as new in a few hours. I was hesitant to give him my beloved and very expensive phone to take to a total stranger to fix, but I didn’t really have any other options. So, I took a leap of faith and handed my phone over.

A few hours later, he returned with my phone that had miraculously been fixed, and even better, he had videoed the entire repair just to give me confidence that he wasn’t ripping me off. When I asked what I owed, he said only 300 dirhams, or 30 bucks – definitely less than what I would have had to pay in the States. For me, it was an important lesson about trust. While I tend to always have my guard up, strangers in Morocco have proved to me time and time again that they will to go out of their way to help me, if only I show them a little bit of trust.

A Chance Encounter

            The most recent enlightening experience happened while surfing this past week. I am regularly the only female in the water, and at least during my pre-work surfs, I am often the only person in the ocean. But on this occasion, shortly after I paddled out, another woman did too. We smiled and said “bonjour.” She was probably in her early forties and looked vaguely familiar. When a set rolled though, she called me into a really good wave and when I returned to the lineup, I thanked her. You never know how friendly other surfers are, as many, myself included, like to use surfing as a time for solitary reflection. But when she asked where I was from, we struck up a conversation in a mix of French and English about surfing spots in Morocco. She was easily one of the best surfers I’d ever seen at the beach and I was so grateful as she consistently helped me pick the best waves to ride.

It dawned on me, as we sat in the line-up together, that she could possibly be the pioneering female Moroccan surfer I had read an interview with earlier that year. She was about the right age and clearly had the talent, but I couldn’t remember the woman’s name. I made a point of asking her name before I went in, and she said Fatima. As soon as I got home I pulled up the article I’d read about female surfers in Morocco and lo and behold, the woman I’d remembered was named Fatima. I looked at the pictures and sure enough, it was the same woman. I really couldn’t believe it. Certainly, the surfing community is pretty small in Morocco, but I never expected reading that article before I moved here that I would end up getting a surfing lesson from none other than the most decorated female Moroccan surfer of all time. This experience reminded me of just how small a world it really is and about how the most memorable moments are often those you haven’t planned for. 

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There have been countless other funny, excruciating, challenging, and instructive experiences this year. Beau Flemister’s words have never rung truer. The lessons travel imparts come with far greater risk than those given in classroom. You risk not just a bad grade, but offending people, humiliating yourself, and getting very lost. The world won’t just hand you the right answers; your wisdom is hard-earned through many moments of cultural misunderstanding and making a fool of yourself. But you’ll come out the other side with greater humility, a stronger sense of wonder, and confidence in your ability to adapt to whatever obstacles are thrown your way.

Fellows' Reflections: Katherine Butler-Dines

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It may seem odd that a girl raised in the mountains of Colorado loves surfing, but starting a few years ago surfing became one of my greatest passions. While I lived in landlocked Washington, D.C., I was constantly planning my vacations to places where I could surf and I was often staying up odd hours to watch competitions happening half-way across the world in Hawaii or Fiji. Surfing was more of an obsession than just a hobby; it consumed my dreams and was a major impetus for my taking the position at Experience Morocco. Moving to Casablanca meant living next to an ocean and the chance to surf every day.

Now living in Casablanca, surfing does in many ways dictate my day-to-day schedule. Lucky for me, my role at Experience Morocco allows for flexible work hours, so I can shape my schedule to allow for trips to the beach when the waves are at their best. But surfing in Casablanca has also posed its challenges.

The first being how get my surf boards from my apartment in downtown to the beach, a 20 minute drive away. I don’t have a car and my surfboards don’t easily fit inside taxis. This often meant strange looks and hard bargaining in order to convince taxi and Careem [the Middle Eastern version of Uber] drivers to allow me to strap the board to their roof or let it poke out the back window. Now, my friendship with some of the instructors at a local surf school means I can keep my board at the school. I also bought a special rack that allows me to carry my surfboard on my bike. I am really looking forward to summer to actually use this. Right now, I get so cold biking to the ocean, I lose my motivation to then dive in the freezing Atlantic waters.

Another challenge is that the ocean conditions this winter have not always been conducive to surfing. The beach in Casablanca is a long stretch of sand that faces north. As winter storms barrel south from the Arctic regions, they create huge swells which translate into big waves. Unfortunately for me, the beach in Casablanca does not handle these big swells well. The beach becomes unsurfable with two and three meter waves crashing on the shallow sand banks, and the wind blows from the ocean to the land, further deteriorating the conditions. But, since I will be taking a surf instructor qualification test later in February, I still need to practice. This means going to the gym.

Some of my favorite memories of this year will actually be interacting with local women at the gym. Three days a week the gym’s pool is open for women. On these days, if I can’t surf, I will go to swim laps. Moroccan women though don’t really use the pool to swim laps; instead it is like a big pool party. Women of all ages floating, splashing, and laughing in the waters. It can be a challenge to find space to actually swim as I dodge other pool users. At first I was getting lots of funny looks, like, "Who is this white girl swimming swimming back and forth?" But soon, women were approaching me to ask where I was from, where I learned to swim, and if I could teach them. It is a challenge to explain in my broken French and Darija the basics of swimming, but I do my best. Mostly, I mime the movements, showing the women how to hold on to the edge of the pool to practice kicking or giving pointers on arm positions. Slowly but surely, I have noticed more women joining me as I swim laps. I never thought I would need to know the words for stroke, kick, and paddle in Arabic or French, but these impromptu swim lessons are growing my vocabulary and connections to the community. I can’t say that these swim sessions have improved my surfing, but they do provide a bit fun and laughter on those days I can’t make it to the ocean.

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Fellows' Reflections: Katherine Butler-Dines

I expected returning to Morocco would feel like coming home. The four months I spent studying abroad in Rabat were some of the happiest of my entire life. I was welcomed wholeheartedly by an incredible host family, my Arabic proficiency skyrocketed, and I developed a new passion for surfing. When I returned to the States, I made it my mission to find a way to move back to Morocco.

So when my start date in October for the fellowship at Experience Morocco finally rolled around, I was undeniably thrilled to be returning to the land of syrupy-sweet mint tea, year-round beach weather, and incredibly hospitable strangers. What I didn’t expect was for Morocco to feel so different the second time around. Sure, I was moving to a new city as a young professional, not a student, but Morocco is Morocco. Or not.

Turns out Casablanca could not be more different than Rabat. Where Rabat is quiet and maybe a little stuffy, matching the lifestyles of its mostly politically and diplomatically employed residents, Casablanca is chaotic, crowded, and runs on a frenetic energy. Everywhere you look is wild traffic and construction cranes. This isn’t to say Casa doesn’t have its charms, it just didn’t feel homey.

Now, as I end my third week here, I am still feeling a bit discombobulated and unsettled, but I also am determined to adapt. Of course, it is not just Morocco that is different, it is me too. I am no longer a student or part of an organized group. This time around I am an expat, a working professional, an individual who must craft her own community.

My priority now is to get to know my new home, instead of pining for the one I left at the end of study abroad. This week, I have managed to find a burger joint better than any of those in Rabat and nearly as good as my favorite back in Washington, DC. Another welcome observations is that I receive significantly less street harassment here than Rabat. Maybe it has to do with Casa’s more “cosmopolitan” identity or that everyone is always busy going to somewhere so they don’t have time to make a little comment here or there, but it is a development I won’t complain about.

Periods of transition personal, professional, or otherwise are never easy and to have one of these while also navigating language barriers, cultural differences, and wild traffic patterns only adds to the challenge. But in the little moments like surfing at sunset, understanding something a colleague says in Darija, sipping some mint tea, I am finding that same happiness I experienced my first time in Morocco. Everyone at work tells me that Casa is a city you either love or hate; I am still hopeful that it’s a place I’ll come to love and make home.