I’m languidly floating in our hotel’s pool when a fellow Peace Corps Trainee swims over to me. “How are you liking everything so far?” he asks.
“It’s been nice,” I say. “But I’m ready to get away from this place.” I laugh when I realize the ridiculousness of my statement. At the time, we were three days into our training at Peace Corps Morocco, but it already felt like three weeks. It only took a day with Wi-Fi (or wee-fee, as it’s called here) to realize how Morocco has gotten its “Posh Corps” reputation. PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and the LCFs (Language and Culture Facilitators), along with the rest of the Peace Corps staff have been living the life with ice-cream and sushi shops, a oceanside view, and most importantly, Western-style toilets with more toilet paper than any American could desire.
At any other time, staying there with 100 of my new closest American friends would be the dream. However, I had been waiting to go to Morocco now for nearly two years and I was ready to jump into our service. The Peace Corps Country Director has assured us how important it is to ease into our service, but my old nemesis Guilt enjoys creeping into my mind. Here I was vacationing on the government’s dime. Of course, I was already on the job. We were spending over eight hours a day preparing to arrive at our CBT (community-based training) sites. This consisted of administrative work, basic safety and security information and what to do in an emergency, the beginning of language and cultural understanding, and bezaf shots. Between blood tests and immunizations, I’ve been stabbed with a needle more times in the last six months than I have in the six years previous.
One of the things that I especially appreciated about this first week was that our training was done almost entirely by in-country Moroccan staff. The Peace Corps Morocco staff consists of over 40 full-time staff members, along with the Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs) who are in charge of teaching us the language and cultural norms of the country. These LCFs–most of whom are in their 20s and 30s–are our lifelines at our community-based training sites and are just as eager to learn about us as we are to learn about them. I love that from the moment we stepped off the plane we were already practicing the 2nd and 3rd goals of Peace Corps.
At the recommendation of previous Peace Corps stajs (or incoming PCV group), our training time before going to the CBT sites increased to eight days. This has allowed our staj to have a SDL (self-directed learning) day. Most people would refer to this as a day off. However, Peace Corps has stressed that even on our “breaks,” we still have a responsibility to learn how to better integrate into the communities around us. I joined most of our staj in getting a group together to go to Rabat. Though some members of our staj chose to take the bus to get there, our group of five snagged a Grand Taxi.
Grand Taxis are one of the main modes of transportation between cities in Morocco. They are old white sedans with only one window handle per car that gets passed along to passengers if they want to roll their window down and an engine that sputters every time it goes up the hill. There is a set price per person in Grand Taxis and taxi drivers will wait until all six seats are full before leaving. If you don’t want to wait for a full taxi, or have a lot of luggage, you are expected to pay for any empty seats.If you’re wondering how six passengers fit into a sedan, be prepared to cram four people in the back seat and two up front with the driver. So if you’re traveling by Grand Taxi, expect to get VERY close to your neighbors.
Rabat is a great transition city between the States and Morocco. It is the seat of many government buildings and is considered to be very cosmopolitan. We rode on the Metro tram while there and it was beautifully designed and immaculate. As Rabat is on the coast, the city has a nice breeze that keeps you comfortable even with the heat of the sun. Our time in Rabat mainly consisted of walking the winding streets of the Medina and eating our weight in delicious food.
While there, I learned one of the most important phrases for a shopping girl like me: “sh7al” or “How Much?” Unfortunately, I only know how to count to ten, so the shopkeepers’ replies did me little good. We first entered the Medina as shopkeepers were just beginning to set up for the day. It was idyllic to be able to truly soak in each little area of the place before it became a bustling madhouse. When we returned that afternoon after exploring the rest of the city, the place was markedly different. The morning primarily consisted of locals, but in the afternoon, you could see many shopkeepers competing for the attention of tourists. To be honest, I was happy to be able to escape into the inner Medina, where we were able to walk the cobblestone paths admiring the incredible colors and designs of Moroccan-style doors.
While in the outer Medina, our group attracted the attention of one man who kept wanting us to follow him to his “shop.” Judging by the words he kept muttering under his breath, we’re fairly certain he was trying to sell us drugs. For a good hour, we would tell him “La, Shukran” no thank-you, and he would disappear, only to show up again fifteen minutes later urging us to follow him. We would say La and he would get angry at us. Eventually, he called us all Imitation Americans – possibly the worst insult he knew in English – and disappeared for good.
Other than the lone trailer, however, the people of Rabat were amazing. I tried my hand at bartering, but with my limited funds, I was unwilling to buy anything until I understood fair prices. All of the waiters we met were charming, kind, and willing to humor us with the three phrases of Darija we currently knew. My favorite person we met in Rabat operated an orange juice stand at the edge of the Medina. With a mix of Darija and French–neither of which I know–along with a sprinkling of English words, he entertained us with his knowledge of America and pop culture. He let us know how worried he has been about the guns in America and how in Morocco they didn’t have that problem so we would be much safer. The man instantly remembered the guy in our group who had spent a few weeks in Rabat two years before, calling him “his American friend” while calling us ladies, “flowers.” In any other country, I would find an invitation to a stranger’s home weird, but it fit perfectly with the Moroccan mode of hospitality when he told us we should all return to Rabat tomorrow to admire the view of the city from his roof. (Don’t worry Mom, we declined.) While drinking the best-squeezed orange juice on either side of the Atlantic, he explained the printed pictures of his favorite Americans, including Albert Einstein and Mark Zuckerberg and let us know of the great love he had for Facebook. He really admired Mark Zuckerberg, but didn’t know why the facebook guru chose not to marry an American.
The concept of Americans coming from all ethnic backgrounds is something that many foreigners have a difficult time grasping. Over the past few years, Peace Corps has made a concentrated effort to diversify the volunteer pool through both age and ethnicity. This is very evident in our current Peace Corps staj. Of the 109 trainees, there are almost twenty Black PCVs alone. This does not account for the wide range of other multi-cultural PCVs and PCVs of color. In my CBT group, we have two second-generation Americans – one Pakistani-American and one Indian-American – one first generation American from Kenya, one person with a strong Scottish heritage, one person who grew up in rural America, and me – half-Black, half-White, and all love. Although Peace Corps has a long way to go before they truly reflect the multi-faceted American people, I am very grateful of the efforts that they have made so far and that I will have the opportunity to support these efforts in the years to come. As I begin my journey as a Peace Corps volunteer, I get a little thrill knowing that each of my fellow Peace Corps trainees has a unique story of what it means to be an American and each of us will have the opportunity to share our story with the people of Morocco.
As I begin my journey, what aspects of the Moroccan culture do you hope to learn more about?