Eat. Sleep. Bathe. Poop?

How a cultural exchange in Morocco made me rethink the basics

A gray-haired, Guatemalan Harvard graduate, my professor of Latin American Short Story squats over a dusty, orange, dirt path outside a crumbling, white-cemented public bathroom in Morocco.

“The best way to do it is to lift your butt higher, so the pee goes into the hole, and not on your feet,” Bobby Kuhl says, demonstrating the best angle for relieving oneself in a Turkish toilet.

I squat beside him, comparing technique, waiting for my turn to go. For those lucky enough to have never encountered the Turkish toilet, it sits like a white, ceramic drain hole in the bathroom floor. Two raised steps separate feet from fecal matter (but only a careful squat can save you).

I grab a roll of TP from my bag before settling into a hover over the porcelain piss platter. To avoid the public facility stench, I focus on breathing from mouth only (but, in turn, forget squatting technique). I pour the water bucket over the hole to flush, and stretch my toes to cover the drips of pee that splattered my camel-brown leather sandals. My third day in Morocco and I have yet to poo.

I came to Morocco on a four-day cultural exchange with 10 students, and my professor Bobby, our chaperone from Syracuse University Abroad Madrid, where I spent the semester studying last Spring. We arrived, semi-strangers in Tangier, and ate lunch with Moroccan students who studied English. We ask a college woman about her veil. She likes wearing it, she says softly, over the distant, wailing sound of the afternoon call to prayer. She only offers that because of it, she can no longer swim, something she loved to do as a kid.

In the countryside: Me, Bobby, and Rose 

We leave Tangier in a white van with our guide, Darren, a 30-something, Californian, Peace-Corps vet, who taught us key Arabic phrases like shabet (I’m full). The prose proved necessary when my home-stay mother in Rabat repeated kool, kool, (eat, eat) as she filled and re-filled our dinner table with fresh bread, tomatoes, and beef tagine. Darren reminded us to eat only from the portion of the bowl directly in front of us, and only with our right hand. The left hand remains, by tradition, the unhygienic “bathroom” hand (and the reason we packed our own toilet paper).

The following night, after a second family dinner in Rabat (this time kool, kool the cous-cous), the girls of the group meet, separately from the boys, to wash up at a traditional hamam. We walk through the dark, narrow, maze-like streets of the medina (city center). We pass a messy open-air market, huddles of men,,and women veiled in various colors. In the steamy, powder-blue tile room, we fill buckets with scalding hot water to cleanse our naked bodies (one girl wears a T-shirt). We giggle and rinse, none of us knowing what to do with our eyes. I scrub the thick, brown, liquid soap onto my belly with a glove as rough as chain mail, and let the water cool before pouring it over my reddened skin.

Smooth and clean, we leave Rabat the next morning, and head for the Berber countryside. We visit a farming family — a wife, husband and child — who live on a green hill, and prepare a fresh lunch for us. From the bowl of communal cous-cous, the mother teaches us to form cous-cous balls by scooping the rice into her right hand, and bouncing it in a circular motion. She smiles and pops the ball into her mouth. But the tiny grains just stick between my fingers and to the palm of my hand.

Preparing Moroccan tea

After lunch, the mother, wearing her thick, black curls tied back in white cloth, sets a kettle on top of a rusty, blue heating tank. She sprinkles mint leaves, sugar cubes and green tea into the kettle, before pouring the ready tea into small glasses. The sweet, minty tea warms my belly like a hot mojito.

I never did poop in Morocco. But as I returned to Madrid (immediately joining the group in line for bathroom at Barajas airport), I longed for the minty Moroccan tea to settle my stomach.

Focus Group

Hi Mallory,

Great article, very well written. I am super excited to read this becasue I am trying to put together a focus group to discuss cultural exchange/study abroad programs. I would be using the information we discuss for my master's thesis. I am hoping to get this set up for the first week of May. We would meet over Skype,along with a few other former MoEx Participants. Would you be up for participating?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Warmly, Darren

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