Kimani Isaac: Adventures Abroad and At Home

I'm a NYC native, but I've been exiled to NJ for the past 11 years (not literally exiled...just, you know, bored in the suburbs). I'm currently a theatre major at Northwestern, and the thing I love most about this school is the faculty and staff support. I'm also a Questbridge scholar, so NU has been the ride of a lifetime thus far. Mostly, though, I'm just very excited and grateful to have found a way to be productive and resume build during the summer while staying at home with my mom and cat.   If you're wondering whether or not to do a URG, I hope this blog will give you some insight and (hopefully??) wisdom into why or why not you should apply for a URG.*   *(Pssst: Personally, I think you should go for it! Even if you're undecided, at what other time in your life will you get paid to design your own project and research something you deeply care about? Hopefully, tons of times, but this is such a unique and awesome chance!)

Black/Brown Girls Travel, Lamentations of a Mixed Chick

It feels like a cliché to complain again about my own racial ambiguity, but that’s honestly because I always live in the same soup.

I’m feeling a little disappointed. My friends who are international students told me that it’s really only in the US that they talk about race. The obvious problems of not having a vocabulary or conversations about systemic racial inequality aside, I was hoping that maybe this would translate to questions about my own origins desisting once I went abroad. Unfortunately this hasn’t been true. It’s about once a day now that I’m asked some version of, “Where are you from?” and of course they’re never satisfied with “New York.”

It’s just tiring.

Take this example:

We all live our lives having the same conversations over and over. We introduce ourselves a million times, meet new people, and repeat the same scripted introductory conversations over and over. Except that when I was taught about the, “Where are you from?” conversation, it wasn’t something that someone prepared me to be harassed over and over again for. No one explained that it would be something I would be asked more than anyone else I know, at all hours of the day from strangers who barely even know my name.

And I know why it matters that I’m even asked.

But remember when I said that it was just tiring? I live my existence as everyone’s familiar stranger. When they ask me where I’m from, or where I’m REALLY from, or what my nationality is (Which is not the question they think they’re asking), or what my origins are, or where my parents are from, or if I’m Brazilian, Guyanese, Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Venezuelan, Colombian, Dominican, or Puerto Rican, they see both the familiar and the strange in me. It’s like when you approach someone from behind, thinking it’s your friend, but when they turn around, it’s just some random person in the street you don’t know, who is wondering why you’ve interrupted their day.

I am refusing to embrace the noise. If I were cleverer, or more relaxed, I would have better evasions for these questions. I would ask them to guess, or ask them the same question. If I weren’t so bothered, maybe I would. The truth is that an ideal situation doesn’t exist. Even if people don’t ask, I’m left wondering what assumptions they’ve made. Most often, they’re wrong anyway, and need to be corrected.

I once wrote that race has given me the burden to redeem it as a concept, but fuck that. I’m not the one who invented it. I’m not the one responsible for others’ assumptions, but having to deal with the consequences is the shit I don’t like.

So, if you’re reading this, and you’re a person of color, I want you to know that this is some of what you might experience as a traveler. My struggle may not be yours, but I hope that being aware of it will help you in your journey.

If you’re not a person of color, please don’t let your guilt get in the way of you actually doing something to assist others in their struggle. It’s okay if you feel disconnected from this struggle. If you have a friend going through this, be there for them. Don’t make assumptions. Just ask what they need.

Feeling Contemplative

I think that today it really hit me that I’m somewhere different from every other place I’ve ever been before. Casablanca isn’t like any other place. The call to prayer sounds five times a day. The architecture is completely different from everywhere else.

I think that my first impressions when I’m abroad are usually how similar the world is everywhere. Weird, right? But people here live in apartments and drive cars. There’s electricity, wifi, and TVs. I have all of the trappings of the modern world still available to me. I think that when people travel they usually have a highly outdated idea of what the place they’ll be traveling to is like. People back home in the States think that when I say I’m in Morocco, I’m in the Morocco of the 1800s or something. They expect me to say that I take a camel to my next destination and that I’m living without running water or something. But it’s not that at all. The challenge of traveling is reckoning with the subtlety of differences between what is familiar and what’s strange. The challenge is to acknowledge that difference isn’t necessarily measurable through a lack of things that are common back home, but rather a society’s choice to value other things and make them common in the place you’ve decided to travel to.

Before I Got Sick…Again: Oliveri’s and Tajine

So, before I got sick I drafted this post to document my first evening in Casablanca. I can happily tell you that I’m sitting in my host family’s home feeling much better. The medicine the hospital gave me is working really well. So below, you can find what happened my first night of Rabat.

  • ***

Okay, no lie, I think I just had the best ice cream of my life.

It’s called Oliveri’s, and we drove for twenty minutes to get there (and we were still in Casablanca. This city is huge) and the ice cream shop was so cute, decorated like the inside of a gift box. It had a line just out the door and when we got inside, our host brother, Abdou, explained all 20 flavors to us. We got 2 scoops of different flavors and they came with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle.

Moroccans eat dinner super late, like 8:30 and beyond, so we went for ice cream before going back to Abdou’s home for dinner.

We walked around the neighborhood around Oliveri’s, and Jes had to go to the bathroom. We found a Starbucks and in response to Jes’ question of whether or not she would be able to use their bathroom, Abdou said, “Just start speaking English. Be an American and they’ll let you use the bathroom.”

As we were driving back, for some reason we had a discussion about pineapple pizza, and it led to a discussion about fruit on pizza in general. Which led to a friendly disagreement about whether or not you could have strawberries on pizza and make it work.

Abdou’s sister made tajine for us with lemon, potatoes and chicken. It was better than what we ate today at the restaurant, in my opinion. The chicken was really tender and delicious. We cleared the plate.

***

That’s the end of the post I wrote. For the record, I don’t think the food made me sick. The doctor said that I’m not used to the microbes in Morocco, and it’s what’s making me sick.

Any advice for a traveler? I tried taking Immodium the first time my stomach got upset here in Morocco.

 

Sick, Yet Again

Imagine, for a moment, that you are deep in a peaceful sleep. You are relaxed after a long day, dreams floating through your mind. Then, you feel a pressure in your stomach, and you turn so that you can relax. But the pressure doesn’t go away. You wake up to the pain, but everything still feels dreamy, including you. The pressure continues, more insistent, and then comes the nausea. Your mouth waters, you know that you need to go to the bathroom to throw up. You do, and you go back to bed even as the pain continues. You next find yourself waking up to a concerned Jes and host brother who are wondering why it’s noon and you’re still not awake.
But you feel even worse than before. You’re so tired for some reason, and Jes and your host brother are worried, because you keep throwing up. You can’t hold anything down. Your host brother’s mother comes down. She makes you tea to help calm your stomach. But it doesn’t work. You take Immodium. Failed again. You drink water, but it just comes back up.
Next, your host family urges you to go to the doctor, but you’re worried about the prospect of going to the hospital in a foreign country. Plus, there’s three flights of stairs between you and the car (and no elevator). You’re too tired and nauseous to stand, how will you get to the car?
But you have to try.
So you get up on legs that sway like a newborn deer’s. You make it to the stairs, and everyone in the house is here with you, watching, hovering, hoping that you’re going to get better, encouraging you, rubbing your back. It’s vaguely claustrophobic. As well-meaning as everyone is, it’s vulnerable to have your sick body watched like this. You get to the top of the stairs, and you throw up into the trash can that you’ve started to clutch like a teddy bear. You sit down, and someone says that you shouldn’t stand if you’re still throwing up. But then you know that you need to get down these stairs, so you just use your hands to stabilize your body while you move to the next step down, and the next one, and on and on until you reach the foyer. You’ve finally exited the apartment. The sunlight hurts your eyes. You can see neighbors going throughout their business, wondering why you are in the street in your pajamas. Your host brother brings the car around so you, his sister, and Jes can get in. The car is warm, womb-like, after sitting in the noon day sun. You drive for fifteen minutes to the hospital, dozing, and manage to keep from throwing up. When you arrive, someone brings a wheelchair for you, and you are wheeled into the ER while your host family takes care of the papers. It is a rush of people, and doctors and nurses rush around you. When you finally see the doctor, someone translates for you as you try to explain what you’ve eaten in the past couple of days, but at some point your vomiting interrupts you. You keep trying to speak around the dry heaving (because at this point nothing is left in your stomach. If anything is coming up, it’s bile) until someone pats you and quietly says, “It’s okay. You can stop talking. They’re going to give you a shot.”

So you are wheeled into the next room, where you receive a shot and a list of medications to take, and then you are wheeled back to the car, where you doze until you arrive back at the apartment and fall asleep.

Don’t let anybody ever say that I hid the ugly truth. Traveling is messier than everyone tells you. I’m thankfully feeling much better now, but I’m going to rest here in Casablanca for another day.

Actual footage of me earlier today

 

 

Casablanca

Hello from Casa!

I’m writing this to you while eating a cookie in a host family’s apartment in Casablanca.

It’s a new host family, just for a night, while we spend the weekend here.

They have a gorgeous multi-level apartment.

Myriam (Lankey CoFounder) on the left and Jes, my other Lankey counterpart on the right.

Sectional Couches are really popular and common here.

Click to enlarge any photo.

Today we went to visit Addictest’s counterpart in Casablanca, and then after having breakfast there, we went to eat Tajine (popular traditional Moroccan food) on La Corniche, which is a famous seaside boulevard here.

Cornishe Boulevard

Right now things have settled down. The call to prayer is sounding, and my host family has settled back into their lives around us. The older brothers help with setting the table. The mother takes care of her grandchild, who Jes has busied herself with entertaining.

After lunch, Jes and I walked through the Casablanca Medina. You know, I was looking forward to the idea that talking about race might be something I could leave behind in the US, but oh, how it follows us, my friends. As Jes and I walked through the Medina, all I heard directed at me as the shop owners tried to lure me in was, “Brasilia! Brasilia! Psst! PST! PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Where you from?”

“Espangole!”

It felt like undergoing a million body and facial recognition scans all at once. The infamous question of my life has now officially followed me from the US, to Brazil, and now to Morocco.

What luck.

Au Concert on va! (To the Concert we go)

Oh man,

Strap yourself in for this.

Where do I begin in trying to catch you up on the past couple of days?

Okay, so there’s this music festival in Rabat called Mawazine. The entire city practically goes. There does happen to be a boycott happening for Mawazine because of the rising cost of living in Morocco, but apparently the concert is still really busy this year.

I heard that The Weeknd was playing yesterday, and so I bought a ticket to go see them. However, I must have eaten something bad because right when I got to the concert grounds, I felt really sick and started throwing up.

And there were no trash cans around so I had to pick a tree and try not to be too embarassed. My friends from Addictest were really amazing though. They helped me out, put me in a cab, and sent me home.

I’m safe and whole again, just a little worse for wear.

 

Language is Water

I’ve found the adolescence I always wanted in my adulthood. Growing up, the idea of going wherever I want, whenever I want, with my friends has finally come true. In my adulthood I’ve found a community thicker than the thieves who stole my childhood, who bullied it out from under me. This trip to Morocco has been a continuation of the most valuable gifts that Northwestern has given me: love, acceptance, community, and a bright future. It’s like breathing fresh air after nearly drowning.

And speaking of water, learning a new language is like learning to swim in the ocean. You dip your toes in at first, nouns and articles easy to understand lap over you in the mélange of everything else, but these words you understand. Next, you wade in, knee deep. Things are a mess the first time you actually get in up to your neck. Salt gets in your nose, the water tastes of brine and liquefies your insides so that later, when you go to the bathroom, it can remind you again how incompetent you were. The water overcame you. Language, when you just start out, is a mother of an uncomfortable experience. But next time you get in the water, you set your brow, and you try to flow with the current and pray that the waves of information don’t overwhelm you.

Learning a new language is also like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. It’s an extra layer of humiliation because you know you would be dexterous if you could only change one factor in the situation. If you could just change your hand, you could get the back corners of your teeth, the sides, the parts that you know are hard to reach and need a little more proficiency. But it takes time, and thankfully, time is what I’ve got. I just have to trust that I will progress at a snail’s pace, and then one day I’ll look back and see I’ll have climbed a mountain or something. But in the meantime, it’s an uphill climb at a snail’s pace.

And I live my days on striated levels of understanding. The US, for all of its diversity, is linguistically homogeneous. I don’t mean that we don’t have more than one language spoken there, but when I say that English is dominant, it is King of the land. It is so strong that even Spanish, for all of its profusion, cannot erase the sheer dominance of English in the US. But here, in Morocco, language is like a river with lots of different dyes poured into it. Arabic is most dominant here, and after that, French, Berber, and English. However, the multilingual nature of the country means that when a Moroccan speaks, they might start in one language, and end in another. Trying to keep all these languages separate is like trying to stop all the dyes from mixing with water, and mixing with each other.

Thinking back, I don’t know that I fully realized the complexity of what my situation would be in Morocco. I look like someone who comes from the region geographically in some sense. I am learning and speaking the language of the colonizer, however. Add to this the realization that now, English is a private language for me. It’s hard not to lean on it. Today, I took a taxi via a technically illegal but ubiquitous Uber app called Careem, and the driver didn’t speak French. I ended up at the main station for leaving Rabat entirely to go to another Moroccan city. I had to take another taxi to the tramway. It was a funny experience, but it does make me go like

Because honestly I have to laugh at myself coming to Morocco to learn French. In some ways it’s honestly bizarre or brilliant and it’s become both and neither at the same time. It was the best option, and I’m proud of it. It’s just weird to experience, no matter how much I rationalize it.

That’s all for tonight. I have more to say, but I also have class tomorrow and I’m tired.

Good night!

 

Do Your Homework Overlooking the Ocean

Second day of classes!

I am in Rabat, still alive, still healthy, and I even walked my host family’s dog alone today to go buy sunscreen.

That was also a new experience. I’ve never walked a dog by myself before.

So, here’s the part where I unpack my preconceptions. As a woman, I definitely thought that I was going to have trouble here in Morocco. I thought that I would get catcalled all the time (not that it doesn’t happen in the US anyway) that I would have to wear a scarf all the time, couldn’t travel unaccompanied, that all the men I spoke with would be sexist jerks, etc, etc, etc.. Now, granted, it’s only…day four or five, and the female tourists I’ve met have definitely been more skittish than the Moroccan women I’ve met, but I have not encountered any of my preconceptions as true.

But also bear in mind that everyone thinks I’m Moroccan when they first meet me, and my experience is subjective and not true for everyone who has visited Morocco, nor for everyone who will visit it.

That being said, it’s been nice to encounter the best of my hopes and not the worst of my fears.

So, after my classes this morning and lunch at the Addictest center, Jes and I did another walking tour of the Marina and we went back to L’Oudaya with our guide, a student associated with Addictest.

He kept telling us how much he loved the fresh air of the Marina, but the wind smelled like brine and old fish to me. The best part was going back to L’Oudaya. We stayed there for hours drinking mint tea and our guide was able to teach me some good grammar.

I’m going to try to start taking note of things throughout the day so I have more detailed posts for y’all.

Oh! I almost forgot. It’s impossible to unlock my phone, apparently. Myriam’s mother said it was impossible without being in the US. BUT they got me a cheap Moroccan phone. Not a smart phone, but hey, better than nothing.

I hate my phone company.

The Beach!

Yesterday we had a small snafu when starting the day’s programming. A Lankey rep was supposed to come pick me up but they had a personal emergency so I ended up taking the tram with my host sister to the Addictest center. Once we got there, it was beach time!

Miryiam’s mother drove us in the Addictest car to a beach called Skirat. It was near Casablanca. The weather today was kinda cloudy, so maybe it wasn’t stereotypically perfect beach weather, but it was gorgeous all the same.

We ate sandwiches, bought some snacks, and relaxed for a couple hours. There was one snack I bought though, that really drew my attention. It was a bag of mixed, assorted nuts. It was packaged in Spain, but all my alarm bells went off.

Racist mixed nuts package.

Closeup. You can kinda see in the corner that it’s manufactured and made in Spain.

 

You know, it’s one thing to know that anti-Blackness is global, to study it in class and watch it manifest as Colorism, but it’s definitely another thing to experience it. When I saw this and took a photo of it, it ended up sparking a conversation with two of the high schoolers who were at the beach with us. They’d never noticed that part of the wrapping before. They feel that Morocco is a country that’s really welcoming and accepting because tourism is such a huge part of the country’s economy, which is why one of them was quick to point out that this snack was manufactured in Spain. I hope that their perception of things are true.

I guess that at the very least I’m happy that this iconography is no longer found in America this blatantly. We definitely have our issues, but this sort of thing would immediately go viral back in the States.

We stayed on the beach for another hour or so after eating, and I got some nice shots of some volleyball players.

It was kinda cloudy yesterday.

I have more photos of the beach, but I forgot to ask permission from the other people there if I could put their photos here, so I’m gonna leave the photos in my private folders until then.

I fell asleep on the ride home. The beach is one of my favorite places, and I always know I’m going to sleep really well after visiting one. There’s something about it that just makes me go right to sleep as if I was a child again. We ended up back at the Addictest center eventually (which I’m just now realizing I should probably take a picture of, since I’ll be mentioning it often). I met up with Aïda there (my host sister) and we went to meet up with her mom, who coincidentally works at the Royal Palace as a secretary for an official there. I got to walk around the royal grounds.

Somehow this is my life. As with any photo, click to enlarge.

We hung out, Aïda, her mother, and I, at a series of compounds built for workers at the palace. Aïda has family who live there, but it was interesting for me. Almost none of the family we visited spoke French or English. I sat there, eating a bunch of snacks, listening to the conversation flow around me. They were really kind, but my miscommunications definitely became small jokes for the conversation going on around me. The family we visited had a housekeeper, and at one point someone said something in Arabic to her along the lines of, “Show her your English.” She knew how to say, “My name is [her name].” It was  sweet to witness.

There was one family member I met there who spoke French. He was an older gentleman, maybe in his mid-fifties. At first, when he offered his hand and I shook it, I froze up because I didn’t know if he was bilingual or not, I was trying to remember the Arabic word for hello, and my brain goes really slow sometimes when I have to switch between languages.

It became a joke. Aïda’s mother asked me in French if he was handsome, and not wanting to be rude but also trying to sidestep more jokes about marriage, I said, “Bien sûr!” which means “Of course!” and the room burst into friendly laughter.

After that, we stayed for a little while longer, but when we finally made it back home, I crashed on my bed and went straight to sleep. (The effects of the beach on my system).  I’m awake now, at 7am, because of the roosters in the neighborhood.

I have my French placement exam today and my first classes. Wish me luck!

Opening Reception with Lankey

The good thing about Lankey, my language program, is that it’s really flexible and gives us a ton of independence. Another Lankey student arrived today. She’s 28, badass, and I’m really looking forward to going to the beach with her tomorrow. Her name is Jes. She is also blogging on this trip, so as soon as I can get a link from her, I’ll be putting it here. She’s from Micronesia, but has been living in the US for the past 9 years. She’ll be here for 3 weeks, studying French. Lankey runs an 8 week program and a 3 week program.

I journaled earlier today that I was bored because I felt like I suddenly had so much time. Northwestern makes you get used to being pressed for time, and then when you have it again, you don’t know what to do with it. Whether or not I actually have a lot of time in the coming weeks, we’ll see, but thus far it’s been a nice acclimation. I think that if this was a Northwestern led trip, I would already have a packed day, whereas I think Miryiam is building time into my schedule for me to catch up on sleep and get on a regular schedule again. (It’s truly a blessing).

My host bedroom. Click to enlarge.

They sent a driver for me around 6pm in an Addictest car (remember, the sister org to Lankey? It mentors high school students to help them get into top colleges around the world).

I have to say, after living alone at college for two years now, it’s both nice and weird to be back in a real home. I got so used to temporary living arrangements (read: dormitories) that it’s strange to be in a nuclear family arrangement. I feel weird having someone else clear away dirty dishes, even if they have a dishwasher. I think I have to get used to cohabitating with other people again. When you’re in a dormitory, you can pretend that you’re alone, but here things like mirrors and bathrooms are shared.

So, they had someone pick me up around 6pm, and we drove to pick up Miryiam from her apartment (which is gorgeous) and then we drove to the Addictest center for a short orientation.

That’s when I met Jes. She landed today. We got orientation packets, and a short presentation from one of the Addictest students about Moroccan history, architecture, music, and food. Apparently, it was the first out of a few different ones we’ll get while we’re here. Then, a couple of the students walked us back to Miryiam’s apartment, and we had dinner together with other Addictest staff, interns, and Miryiam’s mother and brother. Lankey is sort of the family business.

Terrace in Miryiam’s apartment. Click any photo to enlarge.

We stayed at Miryiam’s apartment eating dinner until about 10:30 and then Miryiam’s mother drove me home. There’s a popular music festival happening here called Mawazine. It felt like everyone in Rabat was out and walking to the festival. (The Weekend is playing. I’m gonna try to go. Wish me luck!) I wish I had gotten pictures. Hopefully there will be some coming soon!

And then, to my surprise, my host family had adopted a puppy while I was out today!

His name is Kimbol! He’s the sweetest puppy.

My host brother with his new puppy!

The puppy is so cute!