2 Week Specials, Care & Community in Morocco by Lydia Thurlow
I simply had the best two months in Morocco! My whole experience was just utterly overwhelming; the colours, the spices, the music, the hospitality and generosity, the high levels of sugar in the mint tea, the weddings that end extremely late, the stifling 4 seat taxis that would cram in 6 people, the little street children who kiss you after every class, wore odd socks and don't know their birthday and not to mention the pink sunsets and the Friday couscous... It was everything I imagined and so much more!
My Moroccan Host Family
I was really lucky to be living with a wonderful host family who were incredibly generous, fun and taught me so much more than I would have discovered through just being a tourist.
They lived in an exquisitely decorated home, in the heart of Rabat’s Medina. It was a short walk through the streets where you’d find freshly cooked crepes and horse-heads roasting on spits, accompanied by a deafening chorus of vendors (selling everything from bread and toothbrushes to rainbow-dyed chicks and embroidered ‘babouches’!), to the capital’s centre with its wide avenues lined with palm trees where I would catch my taxi to work.
Perhaps the only thing which took me a while to adjust to was the very different eating styles and meal times. On my first weekend, I was taken to a 'Lafakek' to celebrate the birth of my host mother's 3 day-old niece, where an entourage of colourful ladies flocked around crying, laughing and passing the baby around for all to see. Afterwards, a roasted chicken arrived on the table. I was surprised to see there were no plates or cutlery, and then it dawned on me that we were expected to eat with our hands! Something that felt very bizarre, if you’re not used to it, but something you get used to after a while.
Generally everyone returns home for lunch and mint tea (poured from a great height!). Harshas and rifas are served in the early evening, and then eventually dinner around 11pm, after a paseo where everyone hits the souks - elderly grandpas arm in arm with their sons, wolf whistling guys on the prowl and little children cart-wheeling and riding around on rollerskates. British mothers would be horrified to see how late bedtime is there!
I spent one roasting weekend playing football with my host brother, Khalid, on the roof terrace. During half time I drew a sketch of him in his favourite Barcelona t-shirt, which he was so pleased with he sat admiring it all through lunch! Another weekend, my host sister took me to the beautiful Kasbah fortress where a lady inked henna on my hand and we sat watching the fishermen eating little almond filled pastries called ‘Kaab el Ghazal’ (Gazelle's hooves).
My Arabic Lessons
I wanted to pick up some Arabic during my stay so I had a few weeks of lessons, which I absolutely loved! It was such a great challenge to learn something so utterly different. I had a brilliant teacher called Yasmin who would say things like “Brav” and “Merv” when I got it right and we'd sit in her cool sky-high turquoise and purple sitting room and drink strawberry juice.
It was tiring learning a new language with all the new guttural sounds and backwards reading but it was fantastic being surrounded by so much Arabic and I quickly began to recognise words. I remember being so happy when I was able to read "share with a friend" on a Coca Cola advert!
The Moroccan Wedding
One evening I was very lucky to be invited to a Moroccan Wedding, which was like nothing I've ever seen or heard before! I was prepared for all the belly-dancing but I didn't expect so much warrior chanting and costume changes! It was a full 13 hours. I was starving from hunger because dinner wasn't served until 2am. At 7am, we emerged exhausted into the street as the sun was rising and the street lights were going off. All 30 of us clambered into a truck in our elaborate kaftans, takchitas and heels and made our way home.
The Weekend Trips
Another totally Moroccan experience was when my host mother took me and my wonderful room-mate, Sara, to the Hammam; a cross between a public swimming pool and a spa. We were stripped and scrubbed with pumice stone and smothered in henna until we were released into the sauna room with skin like silk.
We really had the best of both worlds, with work that kept us busy during the week and then free weekends to travel. The waterfalls in bright blue Chefchoen, the freshly caught Sea bass in Tangiers, the Marrakesh rooftop sunrise and the fortune-tellers and snake-charmers in Jema-el Fna amidst the sizzling street-food stalls (which make the skyline look like it’s on fire!).
One weekend a group of the volunteers went on a road trip from Meknes via Volubilis to Fes. One of my favourite nights was when we sat on the roof top of our Riad with sushi and beers listening to the call to prayer and an instrument that sounded like bagpipes. The next morning we were taken around Fez Medina by a wonderful Berber tour guide called Hassan who would say "you're welcome please" at any opportunity. We saw the mosques and the theological schools and the tanneries where I bartered for a slate grey suede jacket and bought it for half the price.
The Care Project
I volunteered in an association called AMESIP in Salé, a charming little school with a basketball court, little tents to work outside and a lorry that had been converted into a library with little benches and a chalk board where I taught. The schoolchildren were the liveliest and most adorable children I’ve ever met. We had so much fun together and they got a lot out of the activities, learning French and a little English too. I think it was really refreshing for them to learn through sport and art and songs rather than sitting-up-straight rote learning they have for French Arabic and Islam studies.
After the first day they asked me if I could stay forever, and one girl was planning to have two daughters so she can call them Cecilia and Lydia! Stickers were a huge success! I produced them thinking they'd be too childish or girlie but it was the boys who came to my desk at the end of the lesson asking for another sticker. I asked them to tell me which colours they were wearing in French and they'd skid off really chuffed with themselves, wearing their little stickers like little badges of honour!
It was so wonderful to get to know them over the two months, some were really bashful at first and had no confidence in their French and it made me so happy to see them coming out if their shell and shouting and laughing. I don't think I've ever fallen in love with a country so much before. I was very sad to leave but I know I have a home there now and I'll be looking for an excuse to go back.
To all the brilliant guys at the Projects Abroad office and all the wonderful Moroccans I met here, I really can't thank you enough for introducing me to your amazing country and its fascinating culture. An enriching and beautiful experience which will stay with me forever!