ATA heads to Morocco

Moroccan musician

Moroccan musician

I was standing on the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech in March when I “got” something about Morocco that had been eluding me.  The Djemaa is the sprawling square in the Medina where the sounds, the smells and the soul of Marrakech jump and dance and waft all day every day and far into the night. I was standing there as evening began to fall, watching a group of gnaoua musicians perform for an appreciative crowd of Moroccans. The audience surrounded them in a thick circle on the square, clapping, laughing, swaying their shoulders to the infectious beat. I didn’t understand the words of the song, but I could feel how completely involved the audience was with the performance. I could see it in their eyes, feel it in the movement of their bodies.

That’s when I understood this simple truth: despite the impossibly rich spectacle of Moroccan markets and the awe-provoking tableaux of deserts, mountains and farm villages that greet you as you travel through, the real richness of Morocco is in the people. This is a truly warm, friendly country where a sincere smile will melt a scowl like the spring sun on the Atlas snow. They are as complex and diverse as their long turbulent history, but their hospitality is sincere. Even when Moroccans are trying to sell you something (often), they will be happy just to talk, learn about you, offer you sweet tea and opinions. Yes, it helps if you speak Arabic or Berber or French, but they will find a way to communicate with you.

Street olive market

Street olive market

On the Djemaa that night, when the musicians had finished, a story teller came into the circle, dramatically took off several layers of clothing, then began to move around the group, making jokes about people and extracting a 5 dirham coin from each of them.  Again, I didn’t understand the words, but couldn’t help myself from joining in the infectious laughter of the crowd. I was enfolded into Morocco that evening, entranced, enticed. I am very glad indeed to be going back.

Andrew Simon
Tour Manager


National Geographic Expeditions: Moroccan Odyssey

American Museum of Natural History: Morocco

Academic Travel Abroad

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National Geographic Expeditions Scotland’s Highlands

I accompanied the National Geographic Expeditions group on the Scotland’s Highlands and Islands program, July 31 – August 10, 2008. From the very beginning, I was awed by the country, the people (our expedition staff in particular!), and this fantastic itinerary. While it’s hard to list every fond memory I have of our time in Scotland, I am eager to share just a few of my favorite highlights:

Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle: The stunning skill of the marchers, musicians, and performers could not have had a better backdrop than this fortress. And we could not have had a better view!

The Lord of the Glens: Our home for seven nights, the ship and her staff were warm and accommodating. From the bagpiper’s welcome to the elaborate haggis presentation during our farewell dinner, no energy was spared by Brian, our hotel manager; John, our captain; or Sandy, our bartender; to make our stay entertaining and comfortable.

Scottish music and dance private performance: While we were docked in Banavie, Cullough, Natalie, and Angus joined us on board to perform classic Scottish piping, dancing, fiddle, and accordion. This group is famous in Scotland for its award-winning shows – we all felt so lucky to have the chance to chat with them about their skills after the performance.

Whisky tasting led by Jim and Stuart: No one knew we had such a wealth of knowledge about the many varieties of single malt whisky on board until Stuart and Jim chose their three favorites to describe, characterize, and sample with us! A whisky beginner myself, it was the perfect introduction (after they added a little water . . .)

NG Expert Jim Russell and Blue Badge Guides Iris Barry and Stuart Cowie: – Between Jim’s lectures on Scottish history, and Iris and Stuart’s ability to bring the battlefield of Culloden or Glencoe to life (in addition to some colorful commentary on Highland sheep and cows!), I was never left wanting for background on anything I was seeing. Or eating.

Natural Beauty: A few members of our group rose early most mornings for a run around the town we had docked in the night prior. The clean, crisp, cool air was a welcome respite from the heat and mugginess we had felt in D.C. for the weeks prior to our departure. With days spent in quaint towns with one-lane roads surrounded by lush, green, rolling hills, it was hard to imagine returning to the hustle and bustle of most of our lives.

There is so much I haven’t mentioned – but I could go on forever. Thanks to all our travelers and staff for a wonderful trip! For more photos from the trip, visit Academic Travel Abroad’s Facebook album HERE – and “friend” us while you’re there!

– Whitney Kulesz

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