Tuesday, August 31, 2010

If You'll Soon Be Joining Peace Corps Morocco

Throughout my service, I've often received emails about this experience- what to expect and what to pack. When it comes to meticulous preparation for life events, I'm not your best role model. As my mother can testify, I spent the last couple weeks in America scurrying around, buying (but mostly debating about buying) this and that. From what I packed, somethings I found indispensable, somethings are great but not completely necessary, and other things I, quite frankly, would have been better off leaving at home.

Below is my staagmate Colin Huerter's "Unofficial Guide" for Moroccan-bound Peace Corps Volunteers. This serves as a great supplement to your Peace Corps Welcome Book. It leaves no stone unturned. Congratulations on your invitation and I applaud you for the journey you lead to chose Peace Corps as your next step! Marhbabikom! Welcome!


Unofficial Peace Corps Morocco Guide & FAQ
Hello and congratulations on having been invited to Peace Corps Morocco! I wrote this guide/FAQ to address some of the questions and concerns that volunteers-to-be commonly have, and to try and disseminate some information I wish I’d known before coming. I should, however, make it clear that everything here has been influenced by my experiences and is written from my own perspective. I’ve tried to make my advice as general as possible while still being useful, but there is a common (and completely true) adage that every volunteer has a different experience, so keep that in mind and do not take anything I say as gospel.

Here is some basic information about me. I am male, 25 years old, and a second-year volunteer in the Small Business Development (SBD) sector. I am posted in a town located in the Atlas Mountains with a population of approximately 50,000, which makes it one of the largest sites. By volunteer standards I live luxuriously with fruits and vegetables available daily, easy access to transportation, and a large apartment with running water and electricity. I even have a refrigerator,hot shower, and DSL hooked up to my apartment. I never dreamed I would have these things when I applied to become a volunteer, but this is how things ended up and I am grateful for it.

Now onto what you really came for…

Welcome Book
It’s a good resource, and I would recommend reading it. This guide is meant to supplement the information in the Welcome Book, not replace it.

Morocco has a varied geography and many different climate zones. This makes it harder to prepare, because you won’t know where your final site is until just before swearing in. Some places are bone-chilling and there will be winter days where you think you have never been so cold in your life. Others can get so hot you have trouble sleeping at night and during the day you can wash a pair of jeans, hang them up on the clothesline, and watch them dry in minutes. No matter what, you can be fairly sure that for about three months of the year, the weather is going to suck.

There are sites almost throughout Morocco. The only places you are guaranteed not to end up are areas south of the Tiznit/Tata regions and north of the Rabat-Meknes-Fes-Taza axis. In general, it seems that many health education (HE) volunteers get placed in the south (i.e. warmer regions), while environment (ENV) have more mountainous sites, located close to or within national parks and forests. Youth development (YD) and SBD are split fairly evenly.

Site size varies as much as climate. HE and ENV usually have the smallest sites, followed by SBD, and finally YD with the largest. SBD sites have the widest range of population, with some volunteers in tiny villages of 300 people and others in large cities of 100,000+. YD work in dar chebabs, or youth centers, so their towns are necessarily large enough to support a dar chebab and typically 10,000+ people. Staff sometimes will put females in smaller towns to minimize harassment issues, but they can and do end up in large sites.

During Pre-Service Training (PST) we were interviewed by our programming staff and could state any preferences we had such as climate, potential projects, site size, and access to running water/internet/etc. However, none of that was guaranteed and in fact in some cases was completely disregarded and people ended up with exactly the opposite of what they asked for. It was at the whim of our programming staff and where they decided our skills and background best fit.

There’s a lot to be said about languages, no pun intended. Morocco is like a melting pot of languages and almost everyone is at least bilingual. Occasionally you will run into polyglots (some PC staff for example) who speak five or more languages – Moroccan Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a Berber dialect, French, and English.

Volunteers learn one of three languages. Moroccan Arabic, known as Darija (which literally translates to ‘dialect’), is the most widely spoken in Morocco. Of the three main Berber dialects Tashelheet (Tash), Tamazight (Tam), and Tarafit, PC has language training for Tash and Tam. Tarafit is spoken in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco, where a large percentage of the world’s supply of cannabis is cultivated, thus no volunteers are placed in that area. Tam is spoken by Berbers of the Middle Atlas, and Tash is the language of the High Atlas and the south. Generally, the larger your site, the more likely it is that Darija is the everyday language, and vice-versa for Tam and Tash in smaller sites.I believe all HE volunteers learn Tash and Tam. If any do Darija it is only a very small number.ENV can learn all three, with a bias towards the Berber dialects.

SBD can learn all three. In 2008 there was a bias toward Darija (60%) with a minority learning Tam, and no Tash CBT groups. In 2009, 40% learned Darija, 40% learned Tam, and 20% learned Tash. In 2010 there will only be Darija and Tam CBT groups.YD only get instruction in Darija, you don’t have a choice! But I know of a few volunteers that either switched to Berber after they got to their sites and decided it would be more useful, or started learning Berber in addition to Darija.

Thanks to Morocco’s legacy as a former French colony, French is by far the most commonly-spoken language that any of you are likely to know. Many big-city Moroccans are fluent in it, and even people in small villages usually know a few words. Spanish is common in the Rif area, which used to be a Spanish Protectorate. English is not very widely spoken. Having French knowledge can be nice, but is by no means necessary, and I and many other volunteers have never studied it either formally or informally.

Before anyone gets all excited about Darija and decides that is what they want to learn because knowing Arabic will help them get that dream job after Peace Corps, stop for a minute. Although Darija is related to MSA, it is only used colloquially and they are not mutually intelligible, so the usefulness of Darija is pretty limited outside of Morocco. It might give you a slight head-start if you decide to study MSA, but they are distinctly different languages both in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Moroccans will actually be much more impressed if you can speak Tam or Tash than if you learn Darija. With the changes to training that have occurred since I swore in, I’m not even sure you can express a preference anymore. My advice is stay open-minded and not let your heart get set on anything.

Many people wonder if they should do any independent language study before staging. PC sends out links to some Darija audio lessons and an introductory PDF (which is taken straight out of the Darija language manual that is used for training here), and I believe they also provide access to some French lessons via the peacecorps.gov website. Forget the French stuff unless you’ve had previous experience and want to brush up a little. The handiest thing would be learning numbers, say up to 20 or 30, because many times when you ask how much something costs, the shop-owner will see you are foreign and automatically reply in French.

Before coming I did not do any of the audio lessons or study the introductory PDF, and I have no regrets about that. Not to say they couldn’t be useful, but one hour in PST is probably equal to ten hours of studying on your own. It would also be a bit of a downer if you spent a lot of time studying Darija and then get here only to find out you got assigned to a Berber CBT group. If you do want to take advantage of those tools then I would recommend going over the greetings and numbers (lessons 2, 3, 19, 20, and 21). Those you can use the moment you land in Morocco, and you’ll need them even if you end up learning Berber.

Regular suitcases are fine and you can use them later in your house for storage or to keep your clothes reasonably organized. Hiking packs are very popular and definitely work well for the many times you will be traveling, since they’re usually more practical than trying to roll a suitcase around. And if you are planning on doing any trekking or camping, then it’s a no-brainer to bring one. I usually stick with a duffel bag or backpack for traveling. Suitcases and duffel/travel bags are in plentiful supply here so you can always buy one later if you need to. A normal backpack or messenger bag is essential. Bring luggage locks with you because you will definitely want to use them when you are traveling around Morocco. There are TSA-approved locks that you can leave on your baggage after it is checked and TSA willnot break it.

If the papers they sent you in your invitation packet are the same ones I got, then you’ll have a flyer which says something about being able to bring two pieces of checked-in luggage but the combined weight cannot be more than 80 pounds. Ignore this; here is what you really need to know:

All major U.S. carriers are now charging for checked baggage; it will be something like $15 for the first bag and $25 for the second. Save your receipts for those and you will be reimbursed at staging. You will not be reimbursed for more than two checked pieces. Also, please save yourself a lot of potential trouble and make absolutely sure that no individual piece exceeds more than 50 pounds. Use a bathroom scale to check before you leave for the airport. Once you go over 50 pounds you will trigger all kinds of ridiculous fees which PC will not reimburse.

On the Royal Air Maroc flight from New York to Casablanca, the limit is basically identical (23 kilograms), and you can check two bags at no cost so you don’t have to pay anything out of pocket. Basically what this means is that you can have two 50 pound bags for a total of 100 pounds, not the 80 that is stated. Finally, do not count on there being people who have room to spare that will take some of your stuff on the flight over.

One great tip I got was to pack an empty duffel bag in one of my suitcases. During PST you get a huge stack of books, manuals, and handouts, not to mention the medical kit. Once I got to Morocco I just got that bag out and put all my training materials in it instead of trying to cram them into my luggage with the rest of my things.

Electricity: almost every volunteer has electricity in their house, even if it’s just one outlet. However, the plugs, voltage, and cycle are the European standard and different from the US. US electricity is 120 volts at 60 hertz, while in Morocco electricity is 240 volts at 50 hertz and the plugs have two round prongs.

Power adapters vs. power converters: an adapter is small device that allows you to plug a North American appliance into a European outlet. It does not alter the power in any way. A converter is larger and bulkier, and will either ‘step-up’ (120v -> 240v) or ‘step-down’ (240v -> 120v, which is what you want in this case) the voltage, in addition to changing the plug so you can use it in a European outlet.

Almost all high-end electronics are self-converting and can accept both 120v and 240v. For example, look at your laptop’s power brick. It should say something like ‘Input: 110-240v, 50-60Hz’. Ditto for things like mobile phone chargers and digital camera battery chargers. If it says that, all you need is the adapter to plug it in.

However, many simpler electronics like hair dryers and curling irons are only designed for 120 volts and in that case you need the more expensive converter like this. Make sure your device does not exceed the wattage rating of the converter.

Solar chargers: I wouldn’t bring one. You will almost certainly have electricity in your house. I believe there are only one or two volunteers in the entire country that do not have electricity.

Batteries: all common formats including AA, AAA, and 9v are readily available here and about as expensive as they are in the US, so save the weight and don’t pack extra. If you have something that takes batteries which you know you will be using frequently, e.g. a digital camera, then rechargeables are a good investment.

Laptops: some people don’t want to bring one and they get along just fine. However, if you are undecided about what to do, I recommend bringing it. There are an increasing amount of surveys, reports, forms, and other paperwork that you need to complete for PC, not to mention any number of other work-related things that are much less painful with your own computer. It’s also a lot more convenient to type up blog posts and replies to emails from the comfort of your own home rather than struggling with French keyboards at the cybercaf√©. A lot of volunteers find they use their a lot for downloads, watching movies, etc. on those evenings that can become long and boring alone. Be aware that if you have a Mac, hardware and software support may be hard to come by or simply nonexistent.

Internet: cybercaf√©s, or cybers, are cheap and littered throughout the country. The vast majority of volunteers are within one hour from a cyber. I’d say at least 50% of SBD volunteers can get internet in their home, either with a wireless modem through Wana or a hardwired DSL connection through Maroc Telecom. 95% of YD volunteers can get internet in their home. If you are ENV or HE you’ll just have to pray. Not everyone that can get it does, as it takes up a sizable chunk of your monthly living allowance. Computers at cybers all have MSN Messenger and Skype installed already if you want to chat with family and friends. Cyber owners will let you bring your own laptop and plug the Ethernet cable in (some places also have wifi), which is nice as you’ll have all your programs and bookmarks available.

USB drives: watching movies and TV shows is a favorite activity of volunteers and we like to swap movies and music whenever there is a get-together. An external USB hard drive will be invaluable for this and general backup and storage, and highcapacity drives are readily available for less than $100. Don’t forget a small USB thumb drive as well to take to the cyber so you can print things, and make sure your laptop has updated antivirus software.

iPod: essential for relieving boredom during interminably long bus/taxi/train rides. Many volunteers rave about podcasts and download them at the cyber so they can listen to them the rest of the week and keep up to date with the news.

Mobile phones: text messages are the primary method of communication between volunteers, and Peace Corps also relies heavily on mobile phones to get information to us. There are two large operators, Maroc Telecom and Meditel. Both have service throughout most of the country, although I believe that Maroc Telecom’s network is slightly larger. If you have a GSM phone you can bring it with you and get it unlocked here for a few dirhams, saving yourself some money. A new SIM card is 20-30 dirhams. There are some plans but they work differently than in the US and are relatively expensive, so most people opt to buy phone cards and add credit as needed. One thing to note is that the GSM service here is on 900 MHz. If your phone does not support this then leave it at home as it will not work here. Any quad-band phone will definitely work here. Tri-band phones with 900/1800/1900 will also work. Look in the manual or call your phone company to find out which frequencies your phone supports.

Hair clippers: I thought it would be smart to bring one and save money cutting my hair, but it turned out to be a waste of space. Haircuts are dirt cheap here (10-15 dirhams, 5 more with a shave) so I would pack something else.

Insurance: I didn’t get any electronics insurance but I think Peace Corps includes some suggestions in the invitation packet. You can have the premiums automatically taken out of your readjustment allowance as an allotment.

Water: running water is more of a rarity than electricity. If you are a HE or ENV volunteer, I would not count on having it, but you may be pleasantly surprised. Some of you will become very familiar with how to boil and bleach well water. As far as I know, PC here does not supply water filters.

Sheets: since bed sizes vary, and you won’t know until several months into training if you are replacing a volunteer (and will thus have a chance to purchase or be gifted their furniture), you may want to hold off on bringing bed sheets. Your host families may have some, and they will definitely have blankets. I had my family mail me a set once I knew what size bed I would have. Note that they don't sell fitted sheets in Morocco.

Cooking: PC will give you a great cookbook that has been written by volunteers and contains Morocco-specific recipes and advice as well as common translations. Unless you are totally averse to it, you will have plenty of time to improve your cooking skills. You may even surprise yourself!

Kitchen supplies: there are a few spices and other items are hard to find here or simply not available. A few that I can think of off the top of my head are basil, curry powder, vanilla extract, and brown sugar. Many volunteers have them shipped here, but if you think you will be using any of those you can just bring them. I would recommend a basic set of measuring cups and spoons as well. The recipes in the cookbook are all given in standard measurements, whereas things here are usually given in metric. And finally, one thing that I would seriously consider is a decent knife. Even a $15 santoku from Target will absolutely blow away the dull, weak, sad excuses for knives that you will find here.

Personal Care
Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, and shaving cream of major brands are all available here. I used up quite a bit of space bringing three cans of shaving cream and other things that were, in retrospect, totally unnecessary. Unless you need something specific, you can pack something else instead. You can also pick up sunscreen from the medical unit in Rabat for free. The quality of the sunscreen varies depending on what they have at any given time. Previously you could request sunscreen and lotion to be mailed to you, but unfortunately they stopped doing this in order to cut costs, and lotion is no longer available at all.

Razor blades: you can find these fairly easily. I have seen both Mach 3 and Quattro blades in shops in my site, although you may need to go to your souk town to get them. I assume that women’s razors are widely available as well.

Small bottles for shampoo, body wash, etc: it is worth your time to pick up a few of these from the store. They come in very handy since the hotels that Peace Corps uses are pretty basic (besides the staging hotel in Philadelphia) and probably won’t provide anything. You will also use them when you go to the hammam, or public bath, and whenever you travel in general.

And don’t forget a set of shower flip flips, a large towel, and washcloth. You can buy these in Morocco, but they are things you will need right away and you might not have time to go around looking for them since the first few days are so busy. You can look online or at outdoors stores such as REI for lightweight, fast-drying towels that work very well and are nice for traveling. However, a normal cotton towel is also just fine and is what I use.

Contact lens solution: may be purchased in well-stocked pharmacies in larger towns. I believe they run around 100 dirhams ($12) for a large bottle. Bring at least a few months’ supply with you. I’ve never seen hard contact solution here, only soft.

Medical kit: as mentioned before, Peace Corps gives you a small black case filled with various medical supplies. This has quite a few things in it, from ibuprofen and a thermometer to band-aids and condoms. Aside from sunscreen you can also request multivitamins, pepto, insect repellant, eye drops, etc. One thing that is not provided is toothpaste and toothbrushes. Dental floss may still be available unless that was also cut, but it is unflavored and unwaxed.

“Business casual” clothing is mentioned in the invitation materials but is almost entirely a waste of space. You may want one nicer outfit and set of shoes for swearing in, but I wouldn’t put too much thought into it. Ties and polished shoes are totally unnecessary, and a pair of khakis and a button-up shirt should suffice for men. You may catch some flak from the PC Washington staff at staging if you don’t at least make some effort, but the truth is that will have no effect on your service. You can just wear the same clothes for three days in a row – in fact, I would recommend getting used to that!

Cold weather gear: most people envision a boiling hot sun and endless sands when they get placed in Morocco, but the winters can be brutal. The concepts of insulation and interior heating have not quite made it here. As I type this, it is about 40 degrees both inside and outside. I would bring at least the following: waterproof winter parka, warm leather gloves, a fleece top, set of thermal underwear, and several pairs of wool socks. Consider that a starting point, as ENV volunteers in particular will probably want more. The good news is that if you are coming as ENV or HE, you have seven or eight months before you have to face a full Moroccan winter – plenty of time to assess the weather at your site and have your family mail you additional clothes. High quality winter clothing can be hard to find here, which I why I advise bringing it with you. Even if you do get a very hot site, you will be traveling during the winter so these things will still be useful.

Other clothing: jeans are great since they are comfortable, durable, and don’t show dirt and stains very obviously. You will find that dress etiquette in many sites means you can’t wear shorts in public. I have no problem in my site as a male, but I rarely see Moroccan men wearing shorts. A light waterproof shell/windbreaker can be very useful, as the country was in a drought for several decades but has received a surprising amount of rain and snow the last few years. Layering is important, so try and bring clothes that you can add or shed easily. And don’t forget a swimsuit!

Shoes: I wore x-trainers or tennis shoes 95% of the time in the US, and I do the same here. I took my dress shoes back for good when I went home on vacation. A lot of people live in their Chacos/Tevas and go from wearing sandals one day to boots the next, and straight back to sandals after the winter is other. I don’t think hiking boots are necessary as I hike as much as anyone I know and get by fine withx-tra iners. Many companies offer discounts for Peace Corps volunteers; you just need to contact them to ask about it.

Other items to consider bringing
Sunglasses: you can buy a pair here, but the problem is you can’t be sure if they have UV protection since they are all knockoffs.

Nalgene bottle or Camelbak: I would bring a Nalgene bottle or equivalent at the minimum.

Swiss army knife or Leatherman: quite nice to have, not only for the household uses but also for the bottle and wine openers!

Maps: they make for good wall decorations and you should bring at least a Moroccan map (that includes Western Sahara). Michelin #742 is very detailed, and I also have the laminated and waterproof Borch Morocco map.

Flashlight: the electricity goes out a fair amount, so it’s good to have one of these to go along with your candles. LED flashlights are bright and the batteries will last forever. You can also try and get a phone with a light built in.

Sleeping bag: I use mine all the time, not only when I travel but also when people stay at my house and we run out of blankets.

Pocket French dictionary: sometimes you just can’t explain the word you need in Darija or Berber, but they might know the French word. Also handy for deciphering restaurant menus.

Travel alarm clock: not needed in my opinion. I use my phone as an alarm.

Miscellaneous Information
Bringing money: you shouldn’t have to bring any. Peace Corps will give you well over $100 in cash at staging for per diem and spending money. You may want to notify your bank that you are moving overseas as there are many ATMs here where you can use your bank card in the case of an emergency.

Host family gifts: you will have two host families, one during CBT and one at final site. I brought some candy, crayons, and small souvenir trinkets like key chains and postcards. The first time I met each family I gave them fresh fruit, and before I left I handed out the other gifts. I would not worry too much about finding gifts as you can get things here if need be. Unusual or interesting things are great if you have the time, but they will also appreciate practical items. When I went to the US a year into service, I brought back more substantial gifts for my host families and Moroccan friends.

Bikes: Peace Corps will provide a nice mountain bike once you get to your final site. You also get supplies like a tire pump, helmet, patch kit, etc.

Books: the office in Rabat has an extensive collection of books, both professionally oriented and for leisure reading. There are also things such as GRE study manuals, travel guides, calendars, and periodicals available. M’hamed is the librarian and will mail anything to you on request. Volunteers also trade books around frequently.

Reliability of mail ranges from good to questionable depending on your specific post office (try to befriend the employees and manager). It takes 2 or 3 weeks for things to get here from the US, and vice versa. If you get a package, especially a larger one, expect it to be opened and inspected by customs. You may have to pay a duty, depending on what is in it. All of the packages that have been sent to me arrived without anything missing, but I had to pay duties on several. Some people have had things stolen from packages before they picked them up – sometimes valuable things. The only surefire way to get something from the US to Morocco without duties is to have a family member or friend bring it when they come to visit.

Setting boundaries
I include this as a final bit of advice because many new volunteers aren’t quite sure what to do when a Moroccan asks them for something or possibly starts to take advantage of them. Remember that you always have the right to say no, and the earlier you set your own boundaries the better off you will be.

For example, what do you do if your host brother asks you if he can use your computer for the day? You may like him a lot and feel you can trust him, or simply want to accommodate him because you are living with his family. However, what would happen if it was stolen, or he dropped the computer, or spilled tea on it? It is hard to imagine that he would be able to replace the computer. During my homestays loaned a few small items that were not exactly returned to me in the same condition. It was nothing serious but I took that as a lesson and am very careful about whom I loan things to now. Realize that you are the only one that has ultimate responsibility for your belongings!

That is one example of what boundaries mean, but it can extend into many other areas. If you are full, don’t let them convince you to eat more. They will not stop when they think you have had enough, they will simply keep telling you to eat. Don’t feel bad about saying no because you don’t want to offend anyone – in fact, it is a cultural norm that dictates how they are acting, you just need to learn the proper way to respond to it. If you have any cultural questions, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask your LCF or any other Moroccan staff. Remember, that’s their job!

It has taken me far longer than anticipated to cover what I consider the topics of interest in this guide, but I hope that future volunteers find the information helpful. One last suggestion I have is to read the blogs of current PC Morocco volunteers. There is a wealth of knowledge contained in those blogs and it will give you an invaluable glimpse into what your life could be like in a few months! Thank you for reading this, and if you have any questions or would just like to talk, I can always be reached through e-mail. Good luck and I wish you a fantastic two years in Morocco!

Colin Huerter
SBD ‘08-10


Anonymous said...

On the maps, yes make sure it has Western sahara showing as part of Morocco on it!!!!! Not funny but I read they confiscate maps or if you insist on having it back they cut outout the offending portion. So if you dont wan't a map with a hole in it make sure it is "politically correct" by Moroccan standards! :-) Irfan.

Charley Becker said...

Thanks, Colin. Very helpful! I leave next week...