The idea of traveling the world was a dream Katrina never thought would come true, as she grew up in a rural and lower-class area in the United States. Her father was a Jordanian citizen and was never able to return home. Her mother has yet to leave the United States. After two semesters of studying at the University of Michigan Katrina made it her goal to study Arabic in Jordan for the summer…and she succeeded. She found the immersion in a culture that she hadn’t previously been connected to invigorating! Needless to say, she has never been able to get enough after that! The following summer she participated in a Fulbright exchange program in Bulgaria for a week and traveled through Greece with a friend for the following week. Somewhere between troubles with Visa’s, traditional Bulgarian women chopping wood in the streets with their bonnets and aprons, losing luggage, and seeing the Acropolis at midnight on a full moon, Katrina fell in love with the rich experiences of the past as well as the ones she was living.
Katrina is a Arabic And Islamic Studies & International Studies student at the University of Michigan and a former UBELONG Volunteer in Rabat. Here is her take on what you need to know about life in Morocco!
I am a former UBELONG Volunteer in Rabat, Morocco. As all other UBELONGers in Rabat, I lived with a family in the capital’s medina qadeema, which is Arabic for “old city”. Large cities are comparable anywhere you go; however, living in the medina of Rabat is a completely new experience – and a memorable one. In my eyes, the medina is the richest form of Moroccan culture, ranging from the scent of spices to family homes that have been passed on for generations. After spending six weeks in Rabat, I am glad to share five tips that I find crucial to everyday life in the old medina – particularly useful for female volunteers!
Luggage. Keep it minimal and consider a travel backpack.
If you’re like me, before you head out you will feel the need to be overly prepared for your experience. However, upon arriving I quickly realized that I didn’t need quite as many clothes as I had brought. What was really important was bringing extra undergarments – you never know when you’ll get to do laundry. Also, in Morocco nobody cares if you re-wear clothing, so just get creative with your pairings. For women, a nice pair of jeans, lighter dress pants, and long skirts will be a great base for your wardrobe.
I also suggest bringing an extra duffle bag if you’re planning on buying souvenirs. Packing a smaller suitcase or even a travel backpack will make your arrival and departure much easier than bringing a big suitcase – it’s not easy to make your way through the narrow winding streets that are jammed like a can of sardines.
Eye contact. Don’t star in your own Bollywood scene.
I’m prone to saying hello and smiling while strolling down the street, but that doesn’t work too well in Morocco as a female. It’s easy to look at people while you attempt to get through a narrow walkway, but beware of the second glance, ladies! Locking eyes for the second time in the same encounter will likely grant you a phone number at the very least.
Ladies, it is also uncommon if you go through a day without being whistled at or given extra attention in some sort of way. If it becomes disrespectful, you should address it verbally and the general public will often chime in. A local term that can be used in a situation like this is h’shooma, which means, “shame on you.”
Bonjour! Hola! Hello? People are quite friendly.
You’re sure to stand out amongst the locals and at some point during your time in Morocco the locals’ curiosity in you will probably spark a conversation with a stranger about religion, politics, or even your personal life. On one occasion my general browsing of tea and Moroccan argan oil (used for culinary and cosmetic purposes) in a shop turned into an hour-long conversation comparing the United States and Morocco, which ultimately ended with a marriage proposal – you need to have a good sense of humor. Other times, locals may just give you an oddly translated compliment such as, “you are the ghazel of my dreams.”
Haggling. It’s cultural.
Hailing from the United States myself, it’s easy to feel uncomfortable asking for a lower price than what is presented. You quickly realize that locals are expert hagglers and during my six weeks volunteering in Morocco with UBELONG I became an honorary Moroccan due to my haggling proficiency. A 100 percent inflated price is very normal and it is important to stay firm while remaining respectful and pleasant during your haggling. If all else fails, smile, say shukran (thank you), and walk away slowly – you probably won’t get far without being pulled back in by a reasonable offer.
On my recent visit to Rabat I spotted a beautifully handcrafted necklace and I decided to tempt myself by asking the price, which of course was inflated by at least 50%. I was offered a new price with a “student discount,” that I knew was still overpriced, so I kindly replied that it was out of my budget, thanked him, and began to walk out of the shop. As soon as I walked out he called me back in to accept my previous offer, which was about a third of the original price.
The sooq will look completely different at night.
“Turn left at the turtles” (there was a pet shop) was how I returned home every day, but that’s just it – following those directions only worked during the day. When shops close down after sunset, the turtles go to bed and so do your place markers. I suggest counting streets or identifying one of the brightly colored canopies above.
The medina became a familiar community that I was happy to come home to every day, especially after a weekend of travel. During my short return to Rabat this summer I was surprised at how the winding streets and merchants yelling their advertisements were all so familiar and unchanged.
So there it is, a couple of my favorite living tips from my time volunteering in Morocco with UBELONG. Do you have any tips to add?