Of Dirhams and Darija

This week the 109 newest Peace Corps Trainees are staying in a hotel south of Rabat, Morocco. It is a touristy area for Moroccans, meaning host country nationals (HCNs) visit here on weekends and especially during school holidays. The hotel lies a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, a fact I only realized once I threw open my room’s shutters for the first time.

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This is clearly a beautiful place to ease into Moroccan language and culture.

After four intense days of medical presentations, language classes, and safety and security presentations at the hotel, Sunday was a self-directed learning day. Essentially we had the option to leave the hotel compound and surrounding area to use some of our new language “in real life”. A few of my closest friends here – Kelly, Matt, and Micah – and I paid 100 dirhams to get to the kasbah of Rabat. (We were greatly overcharged, but I’m going to let that slide.)


McDonald’s in the Kasbah

Wandering the streets of the kasbah and the medina within, we eventually came across a McDonald’s. Very authentic, right? But in our defense, it is fascinating to note how the McDonald’s menu changes around the world. In Rabat it wasn’t very different than in the States, just that some ingredients were left out or added to the usual menu items, and all the beef is halal.

“Salam,” I said happily to the cashier.

“Salam,” she replied.

Struggling to find the right words, I stuttered out, “McFlurry, s’il vous plaît.” I heard some Moroccans at the next register laugh. Not at me, inshallah, but I certainly heard it.

She smiled. “What kind?”

“Lion, please.”

The cashier turned around and quickly whipped up the Lion McFlurry. She soon placed it on a tray and slid the tray to me.

“Shukran,” I say.

“You’re welcome. Bon appetit.”

And that’s the story of how a McDonald’s employee and I spoke in three languages in 30 seconds.


Language: The Key to Integration

Language is the most critical element in integrating and assimilating into another culture. Here in Morocco people speak Darija, a western dialect of Arabic. Kids learn French as a second language in school, many add English or Spanish in high school, and there is a sizable Berber-speaking population found particularly in the south.

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All Maghrebi (western) dialects are blue. (source)

Critical to my success in learning Darija is my Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF), Abdelmajid. He is a thin, grinning, patient Moroccan hired by PC specifically to teach myself and the rest of my Community-Based Training (CBT) group how to speak Darija and to train us in Moroccan culture. I will describe CBT and Abdelmajid’s role in fuller detail in a future post.

My CBT group of six have had a few language learning sessions with Abdelmajid in the week at the hotel. We have focused mostly on introductory phrases and words, though Abdelmajid is preparing us with as much vocabulary as possible, spelling things in both Roman letters and Arabic script. The idea is to give us enough words so that we can communicate at the most basic level with our host families.

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Over the next ten weeks, all 109 trainees will scatter across the Khemmisset-Meknes-Fes area in their small CBT groups. My group is headed to TifletI don’t know much about it besides that around 70,000 people call it home and there are dozens of cafes (read: I should have WiFi access almost always.)

My CBT group – Matt, Andreina, married couple Caleb and Bethan, and Nikita – will meet our host families on Thursday. I for one can’t wait to continue pushing myself through the challenging language and to meet my new little brother or sister!

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Peace Corps Morocco orientation schedule.
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My CBT site, Tiflet, in relation to where I am now.
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Closer image. I am the gray dot on the left; Tiflet is on the right.

Life in Three Bags

Somehow I have to fit my life into three bags. One will be a carry-on during my flights; two will be checked.

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Here’s everything.

Certainly I will buy many things in Morocco, but there are some things money can’t buy. Flags from every country I’ve visited… a pennant from my university… a tiny framed poster of Frodo in The Two Towers. You know, things that money can buy but have certain memories attached to them.

Then there are those things that a lot of my money went into buying. A laptop… a Columbia Omni-Tech coat… a camera. Obviously those have to come with me, too.

And finally there are those things that I could buy in Morocco but may not be of good quality and/or are ridiculously expensive. Bed sheets… soft underwear… hiking boots. I’m bringing those as well.

So how do I go about packing everything?


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Bag 1 (21.5″H x 14″W x 11.5″D)

My carry-on. An Evecase DSLR/Laptop backpack with all sorts of pockets. An inch and a half deeper than what Southwest Airlines allows – and two and a half inches deeper than American Airlines allows??? – but smaller in height and width. (Nobody tell them.) This bag is the only one of the three with expensive valuables, aka…

  1. Laptop
  2. Kindle
  3. iPod
  4. DSLR camera, including lenses, memory cards, and accessories
  5. Audio recording equipment, including microphones and accessories
  6. External hard drives

This bag will essentially be permanently attached to me – thanks to the waist and chest buckles – from Portland to Casablanca. No theft here.


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Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 2 (24″L x 16″W x 8″D)

Checked bag 1/2. The bag that goes with me to training. It’ll include most of my clothes, towel, some toiletries, bed sheets, office supplies, shoes (like my new, unofficially-required Chacos), and a small jar of honey. This last is a gift for my host family.

This bag flies free on Southwest and on American! Cha-ching!


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Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 3 (27″L x 18.5″W x 9.5″D)

Checked bag 2/2. The bag I’m leaving in Peace Corps storage in Rabat (see Bad Dreams), meaning it won’t have anything I will need for the three months of training. Bye bye, hiking boots, kitchen utensils, a couple pots, room decorations, and cleaning supplies. I’ll place some of my more wintry clothing in here because training ends in early December when my bag and I will be reunited.

I’ll keep a second jar of honey in this bag for my second host family in my permanent site.

This bag flies free on Southwest! Hooray! It costs $100 on American. Boo! This ultimately shouldn’t be a problem, however. Simply showing the desk agent some of my PC documentation should waive the fee. If not, PC will reimburse me.


Bonus: personal item

My camera tripod in its carrying case. It’ll probably hang out next to my feet during the flights, but if I can manage to get it in the overhead bins… again, don’t tell my airlines.


Although I have never really had issues with packing for extended international trips, this time is different. It is more difficult knowing that I’m moving to another country rather than visiting. It is more difficult to decide what stays and what goes. It is more difficult having to leave certain things behind, things that I want but don’t need.

It’s gratifying to have trouble fitting my life into three bags. It’s disappointing that I can actually accomplish it.