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This was my second time on a volunteer vacation abroad program. Last year I went to Russia so this year I decided to try a very different place. Africa was on top of my list of places to travel to. Luckily Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) offers 2-12 weeks programs in Morocco. Their structure is very convenient for a working professional like me, who likes to travel the world but has limited time and budget. The volunteers are required to work for 5-6 hours a day and have organized cultural events, field trips and free time in the evenings and weekends. A flat program fee to CCS covers all local transportation, meals, lodging and some sightseeing. The onsite staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They give cooking lessons, talks on culture and religion, and act as local guides. The kind of work involved in Morocco would be teaching English or working in hospitals or orphanages, depending on the need at the time. Although the main languages spoken there are Arabic and French, there wasn’t a requirement of volunteers to be well versed in them. I did some research and found that it was relatively cheap to travel within Morocco and there were many places that I wanted to see.
When I arrived at the home base in Rabat, we had a total of 22 volunteers staying in a sizeable house of three floors. Men and women were accommodated on different floors. We had bunk beds and 2-8 people to a room. The place was very clean and well maintained. The house had an open floor plan with common areas including a traditionally decorated living room, a sitting area, a resource center, an office for the staff and a nice backyard. It was located in a nice suburb with a few shopping centers and restaurants within walking distance. One of the best parts about going for an organized program like this was you get to eat homemade authentic Moroccan food. The experience is as close to living with a local family which you wouldn’t get by staying in hotels and eating at restaurants.
My volunteer placement in Rabat was at Le Feminin Pluriel, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999. This organization has a small center that focuses on women’s empowerment and educational programs. They host conferences such as the one of the Mediterranean women’s writers every year and bring in guest speakers on various topics to their center on every Thursday. The programs are mainly in French. There is also a library and a computer lab for the members to use.
I was asked to teach English for two hours each day to the women and occasional men who are interested in learning. Their motivations to learn English included wanting to help their kids study, converse with English speakers when travelling to the US, work in the travel industry, etc. They have ongoing classes in the daytime and evenings, taught by volunteers from other organizations. The biggest challenge here was that I didn’t know the competency levels of the students who would be coming, what the past classes had been about and not having a lesson plan outlined. The students don’t necessarily sign up for a class. They come in on any day randomly so I never know who or how many to expect each day.
Each day, I would start the class by doing a conversation exchange or grammar exercise, and then divide them up by their skill level between myself and the other volunteer. I taught my Advanced Beginners class how to order food in a restaurant, shop for clothes in a mall, festivals and holidays we celebrate in the US, describing people and personalities, cooking and the grocery store, amongst many other things.
The students were very appreciative and seemed to like me a lot. They would say at the end of each class “Thank you for you” which I found very sweet. They said my name “Sucheta” rhymed with “Usteda” which means “teacher” in Moroccan Arabic or Berber (I am not sure). On my last day, one of the students got me a recipe for a meat with potatoes tagine that she managed to write herself in English and another gave me a box of tea as a gift. They also surprised me by throwing a farewell party. One of the ladies walked out of class and made fresh green tea and served it with assorted Moroccan cookies that were delicious! Everyone took pictures with their cell phones to keep as memories.
Combining volunteer work with a vacation abroad is the perfect way to experience a new place. You not only get to understand the culture better, but you also give back to the society you spent time in and form meaningful bonds. The best thing about volunteer vacations is the interaction with people. I really enjoyed the social exchange with the locals through our conversations and storytelling. Also, meeting other like minded people who had come to volunteer from all over the world was another opportunity that you can’t find otherwise. I learned about their travels and experiences and formed deep friendships. There are so many memories I brought back with me in those short three weeks that I would cherish for the rest of my life.
As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in December 2010.
I never thought one could have so many adventures in less than 24 hours! For starters, our flight from Atlanta was delayed, which left us with a very tight layover in Paris to get our connection to Casablanca. Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, things slowed down to a “French” pace. The bus took forever to go from one terminal to the next, under freezing tempratures & passengers packed in like sardines. We ran with all our might while it was way past our boarding time, only for me to be held up by the security for my tiny bottle of Purell hand sanitizer! Surely, it would have been a pity if that made us miss our flight but we made it.
Along the way, we also met a lady quite randomly & started talking, only to find out that she had also done a volunteer abroad trip through CCS in Russia couple of years ago. What a small world! In case you didn’t know, I went to Russia summer of 2009 for this same trip.
Once we made in into Casablanca after 13 hours of travel time, the adrenaline kept us going for the rest of
the day. We checked into our modest hotel just outside of the Medina, freshened up & got out into the city. We had only walked a couple of blocks from our hotel to find police barracades, high speed cars & a sea of people gathered on the streets watching. Leslie tried to find out from one of the spectators about what was going on & his only response perhaps due to his lack of English was “danger.” Should we stay & watch danger or continue to walk to the Hasan II Mosque, we thought to ourselves. Then I found out that the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI was due to pass by any minute, on his way to the same mosque we were headed to. We stood there & watched his motorcade & it wasn’t dangerous by any means!
Because the King needed to pray byhimself, we had to postpone our visit to the mosque till after lunch (which is a seperate blog entry in itself). My first glimpse of the city of Casablanca is polluted! I am quite sensitive to dust & smoke, so this is not the ideal city for me. There are tons of cars everywhere.
Most of them are old & release a lot of exhaust. Men smoke in cafes, restaurants, parks, sitting & standing on the streets. A lot of them don’t seem to working it seems. Once the sun set at 6pm, I saw a distant round ball in the sky (the moon), barely visible due to the extent of smog in this city.
On the bright side, people seem to be very friendly & willing to help you no matter how linguistically challenged they are, or we are. I ended up speaking in Spanish to one of the King’s security guards as he couldn’t speak English & I barely understand a few words in French.
My friends travelling with me must be tired of listening to me say “This reminds me of India” dozens of times since we came here. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between India and Morocco, to say the least. Here are a few worth pointing out…
Over crowdedness: When I was walking around in Casablanca, it was a similar experience as being in New Delhi i.e. utter chaos everywhere. Traffic pouring from all directions, hundreds of cars and bikes, none following road rules, yet finding their way through the mess without any incidents. My American friends felt very scared of riding in the petit taxis holding on to their seatbealt-less seats in run down cars fearing a collision at every turn.
Pollution: Again, the car exhaust fumes, dust, dirt, garbage-quite like any big city in India! It’s hard to breathe and throat hurts sometimes.
Bollywood: I heard the song dil to pagal hai playing in a taxi where the guy insisted it was Arabic music! Another stalker in Rabat who pronounced me “Princess of Morocco” sang me some Hindi film songs. Many street vendors sell Bollywood DVDs. Shah Rukh Khan is supposedly very popular here as a few people mentioned him to me randomly. Posters of Aishwarya Rai are found on billboards and stores.
Shopping: I was so surprised when I walked into a convenience store the other day to buy some water and found many of the products that I grew up with in India. Lux and Pears soap, Fair and Lovely creams, etc. were cosmetics I have not seen in the west at all! Also, the street vendors, road side book stores, knock off designer bags, etc. eminds me so much of Connaught Place in New Delhi. Even the shops inside the Medinas make me feel like I am walking in a Redi (sort of flea) market. How much you pay for an item depends on how well you can haggle. No tension there-I am an experienced bargainer!
Culture: Apparently, the tradition of arranged marriages and joint families is common here as well. The people are very friendly and always willing to help. I have been warned of men verbally harrasing women by whistling, commenting, etc. but am quite used to it having lived in India for so long. They also like to talk to foreigners, perphaps to entertain us in exchange of cash.
Architecture: The area of Rabat where our volunteer house is takes my memories back to my hometown of Chandigarh in northern India. Here, there are two story bungalows with gardens, surrounded by a high wall and gated entrance. The roads are clean and there is a lot of greenry. The styles of the homes is also very much like what you would find in stand alone houses in India.
Me: I constantly hear from locals “You look like a Moroccan” and am actually getting preferantial treatment (such as not being ripped off and being allowed to take pictures, etc.) so I decided to become one! Now when they ask me if I am Moroccan, I say “I am half Moroccan and half Indian.” Funny thing is other volunteers at the home base actually belived this too! I am sticking to my story for now.
Fes or Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco and its old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. While it was not in our original itinerary of touring Morocco, Leslie, Cheryl and I made an impromptu decision to make a day trip to Fes, which is about 3 hours each way by train and usually done on a weekend. It was a crazy idea, but doable! At least, we wanted to test it if it was attainable or not.
The same evening we went and purchased three first class tickets for the following afternoon. After working in the morning at our respective sites, we reached the train station at 12:30pm and grabbed some food there. I got a BBQ chicken pizza and a Miranda from Pizza Hut to go. It was actually better than I expected. The train left at 1pm and was quite comfortable. Only later we realized we were sitting in the second class cabins having paid for a first class fare.
The views on the way were spectacular! There were tiny villages, open grasslands, factories, mountains and bare desert. The train made a lot of stops. At times we felt jolted by another train passing by, giving the impression that there is an impending collision.
We also had an interesting incident. While Cheryl was waiting for the toilet by the door, a guy started talking to her about what she was doing, where she was going (normal chit chat), etc. He said that he worked for a tour company and could get us a guide in Fes who would pick us up from the train station, take us to the Medina and the major attractions and drop us back in time for our train in the evening. He stated that he was taking some Australian tourists in the same train and that his guide would be wearing an official batch. It sounded the ideal thing to do since we were short on time and people had warned us that it was easy to get lost in the Medina of Fes which boasts 9000 streets! We analyzed his business card and discussed it over. He made me talk to the guide on his cell phone, who spoke good English and asked for 120 Dirhams ($15) for his services. It was reasonable. We decided to go with it.
But then we contemplated with the idea some more. We never saw the Australian tourists and he was insisting on the batch a bit too much. We thought to ourselves “What is the worst that could happen if we go with this guide and he turns out to be a con?” Well, we had been warned of con artists and fake guides by many tourist books and people who have visited Morocco before. My personal experience from watching a lot of movies said that we could be driven to the desert instead of the Medina and asked to surrender our money, and maybe abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So I suggested to the other girls that we hide our money in our shoes, keep a cell phone securely and tie a whistle around my wrist. If something like that were to happen, at least we would have some money to go back home!
During the next two hours of our ride, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We would rather get lost, miss our train and spend the night in a hotel if we have to. When we got out of the station 30 minutes late, the guide was there calling “Leslie, Leslie” while she walked right past him nodding her head that she wasn’t Leslie.
We took a taxi from the train station to the north side of the Medina, got off and started walking, absorbing the sights and smells, taking a lot of pictures and following “Sucheta, the unofficial, unpaid guide” reaching all the way to the south end within 45 minutes, without getting lost! We actually had an hour to kill before our departure, so we walked around the neighborhoods. Then we hired a taxi and got an unofficial drive-by tour of the major attractions. The taxi driver did not speak English and we don’t speak Arabic. He was trying to explain to us what we were looking at and I was playing charades, making reasonable sense and translating it back to English. We made it to our 6:50pm train well ahead of time, so we had gelato and crepes for dinner. The ride back was smooth, uneventful and in first class. We got back home around 10:30pm and lived to tell the rest of the group that a visit to Fes can actually be done in half a day!