First: Congratulations! Nice job on your acceptance. I hope that you decide to accept it, or that you already have. If you do, you’ll have an amazing time. To make the most of it, here are a few things I wish I had known before going or had done sooner.
- Before going, you’ll probably hear all sorts of things from family and friends about how dangerous your trip will be. And that as a foreigner, you’ll be targeted. You’ll even have a safety briefing from someone at the Embassy when you arrive. And they will tell you yes, there is crime, but if you’re not an idiot you’ll be okay. There are fewer guns in Morocco then the US, and most crime is petty, such as pick-pocketing.
- Rabat is a major city, and like any major city in any country, you do have to be aware. Don’t leave your bag alone, don’t walk down dark alleys, and don’t get into cars driven by strangers. Basic stuff that applies in NYC or Rabat.
- I felt very comfortable in Rabat, much more so then I would in NYC. I never felt like I was in any danger, and the most uncomfortable experiences I had were with the beggars, who can be insistent, but not dangerous.
- Girls have a much tougher time than guys. There will be comments and “Bonjour, ca va?”s, as well as lots of stares. This will mostly come from young men, and no response is the best response. For the guys on the trip: make sure your female friends get home safe at night, even if it’s a little out of your way. Just your presence will cut down on the number of comments. For the girls: don’t respond to comments, and just keep in mind how you dress.
You are probably going to be sick. You’re traveling, trying new food, and living in a new environment. That being said, you can minimize how sick you get.
- Be sure to eat lots of fruits. If your host family isn’t big on them, there are stalls on nearly every street where you can pick up a banana or orange for just a few dirham.
- Drink lots of water. Rabat is hot in the summer, and you will be doing lots of walking. Always carry a water bottle with you, because dehydration isn’t fun. I would also suggest drinking the tap water, pretty much as soon as you arrive. You can go without, and only drink bottled or filtered water, but I found it easier to just drink from the tap most times. It’s perfectly safe, just a little different. Will it make you sick? I did not, although a few people had the sniffles for a day or two. Better to get that over with as soon as you arrive, instead of during a weekend excursion when you’re constantly on the move.
- In Morocco the public space is governed by different social norms than we’re used to in the US. Beggars are persistent to the point of pushing their cupped hands against your arm and standing in your way. Westerners are perceived as rich too, which makes for attractive targets. While they mean no harm, the invasion of personal space is unsettling. There are certain phrases you can learn to dissuade beggars, and it’s important to note that there are not nearly as many people as there are in cities like NYC, Boston, or DC.
- Public bathrooms usually have someone sitting outside of them that expect a dirham or two. They might also sell you toilet paper, but the best strategy is to have some in your backpack in case they don’t.
- Standing out 24/7 is mentally taxing. Do not underestimate the culture shock you may experience. After a long and busy day of speaking a foreign language to strangers in an unfamiliar place you return to an equally new home. There is no reprieve from the differences between your host and home culture, so I suggest finding a time/place that is solely your own. This can be an hour of listening to your music from home, exercising, walking, or journaling. This little ‘break’ from everything can sometimes be just what you need to jump back into the thick of it.
- Bartering is not an option to dabble in when shopping: it is how you shop. If you were to pay the price that shopkeepers throw out, you would be through your stipend in a day. It’s intimidating at first, but gets easier the more you practice and can even be fun. Plus, it’s a great way to practice your Darija. Shopkeepers want nothing more than to talk to you to try to sell you something!
- Being foreign, we stand out, if not for our appearance then for our touristy actions (Please don’t walk around the souk wearing your bag on your chest. You need a different bag if it’s that easy to reach in and grab something.) This means you’ll often have a lot of attention on you. Act appropriately and respectfully. You’re representing the US and you’re not in your hometown. Also know that because we stand out as foreigners, we will be overpaying for most things. The sooner you get comfortable with bargaining, the better.
- If you don’t love mint tea now, learn to because you’re going to be drinking a lot of it.
- I found the stations around 99.7FM (Hits Radio) to have current Western music when I wanted to hear some songs from home, mixed with Spanish and French hits. (Pandora and Spotify won’t work here because of licensing restrictions.) The phones they gave our year also had FM radios built-in, which was nice.
You’ll be told this at orientation, but one of the most important things you can do is be flexible. Things will not always run as planned, and even if they do, they probably won’t be on time. The sooner you accept this and relax, the better. If you worry about the fact that the group is 4 hours behind schedule you’ll miss out on the present. Just focus on what’s in front of you now. Try and be prepared for what you can, but don’t stress when you can’t.
I hope some of these tips help you! If they didn’t or you’re wondering about something specific, send me a message and I’ll try to help you out. There’s also some pretty good FB resources available here and here.