“Street Smarts” by Liora Silkes
One week into my semester in Rabat, I am thinking a lot about orientation. Not just the official sessions that AMIDEAST held over the last few days to prepare us for our coming cultural and academic experiences, but orientation in its more literal sense: figuring out where I am in relationship to the streets and buildings around me. I pride myself on having a good sense of direction, and that sense has been put to the test over the last few days.
First and foremost, there are three main modes of transportation in Rabat: the tram, the petits taxis, and by foot. The tram is fast and clean, but there are only two lines and they’re not always near where I want to go. The taxis are an excellent way to get somewhere quickly, as the drivers expertly weave their way through traffic, but it’s hard to learn the lay of the land while sitting in the back seat of a car. Feet are the tried-and-true travel method, limited only by the thickness of your sole and the willingness of your soul.
Overall, I have found traffic in all its modes traffic to be much less organized in Rabat than in cities in the United States. Trams seem to be the only moving objects that follow a set path — if only because the tram cars are locked to that path. Pedestrians often walk in the roads, cars are parked on sidewalks, and even though lanes and crosswalks are painted on the streets, they serve more as suggestions than decrees. I’ve also noticed that there are many fewer street signs here: where the signs do exist, they are plaques mounted to the buildings on the street corner rather than standing alone on a pole. After learning these rules of the road on the first day of orientation, I set off to explore my new city.
My first task was to understand where my host family lived, especially in relation to AMIDEAST. The first few trips home without my host mom were fairly simple: tell the taxi driver the name of the nearby mosque and get dropped off across the street from our apartment building. After my roommate and I felt comfortable with taxis, we tried taking the tram. This involved a lot more preparation.
We found the tram stop near AMIDEAST, figured out which direction to travel, navigated transferring lines, got off at the right stop, and headed down what we thought was the right street (remember, there are very few signs). After a few minutes of walking, we finally saw the name of the street we were on… and realized we had walked in the opposite direction of our apartment. Ten minutes later — and with a bit more knowledge of the neighborhood — we returned to our host family.
By the end of the week, our classroom orientation sessions had just about ended, leaving me with plenty of time to orient myself in the real world. Most of my adventures so far have included a destination: a specific café, museum, or historic site to see. Before beginning each journey, I look at my map and take note of the landmarks I will (hopefully) pass en route. Then I go outside and start weaving my way through the cars, trams, and people of Rabat in the general direction of where I hope to end up. Call it pride, call it stubbornness, but once on the road, I would rather follow my nose to the correct location than pull out a map to ensure I’m on track. Luckily, most pedestrians are very kind and will help you find the best way through the maze of cars if asked. Just make sure if your conversation is multilingual that you clarify whether “la” means “there” (French) or “no” (Darija) — I learned that the hard way.
Walking in a new city is certainly not the fastest way to travel, nor is it the kindest on my feet. But it is by far the most rewarding. Strolling down narrow paths stuffed with street vendors that open into wide boulevards full of monuments and parks; standing in front of stoic medina walls and turning around to face the dynamic shoreline; accidently circling an irregularly shaped block and returning to the same street corner: Transportation is just as exciting as the destination.
Street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, I am building a mental map of Rabat. On paper, AMIDEAST Spring 2018 Orientation is over — but I feel it has just begun.