WorkAway in Oulad Teima, Morocco

At long last, Monday rolled around and we were ready to begin volunteering at the school in Oulad Teima after twiddling our thumbs for the previous five days. It was a light schedule, entailing no more than 2 to 3 hours a day, depending on the day of the week, but it was exhausting – or at least the morning session was.

In the morning, we would have two classes with preschool/ kindergarten groups of about 30 students each. Almost none of them spoke any English. And the teachers were not much help. One teacher in particular made absolutely no effort to assist, intervene or maintain order. She just sat there and zoned out for the entire time, doing paperwork while her students ran amok. It was quite a challenge to rein them in and keep them focused, not being able to speak their language, or they ours.

To make matters worse the classrooms were tiny, far too tight a space for the number of students –particularly the classroom where the unhelpful teacher was in charge. This made it extremely difficult for us to stage any kind of performance, which is our preferred means of holding kids’ attention and introducing them to vocabulary and language concepts. But we gave it our best Ivy League try, and managed to come up with some songs, games and activities that accomplished a thing or two.

It should be noted for readers who may not be familiar with our background, that we have a lot of hands-on experience with this age group with 30+ years of performing children’s theatre for them in the United States and as volunteer ESL teachers through WorkAway in several other locations around the world. Typically, we find the vast majority of 3-5 year-olds easy to engage and a joy to teach.

The afternoon classes were a totally different story. There would be one or two of those, depending on the day, and they were much smaller – generally anywhere from 3 to 7 students. These kids were older, ranging in age from about 8 to 18, and all could speak English fairly well. They were also bright, attentive and motivated to learn.

With these students, we did some fun creative writing exercises, such as creating acrostic poems based on their names (which among other things helps us learn and remember their names) and some scenario-acting exercises. These included acting out scenes in a shop, a restaurant, and so on.

Additionally, we gave them some English practice, and learned about their country and culture, by asking them questions on such topics. They explained to us about how their government and elections work; they told us that their country is both a democracy and a monarchy. The citizens elect a president, who has lawmaking powers, but the ultimate authority is the king. And it’s actually against the law to criticize the king – we don’t know what the penalty is – whose face, by the way, is on all the currency. (Sounds rather like the megalomaniac despotism the U.S. was slipping into not long ago.)

One of our most memorable students was a 9-year-old girl who always wanted to give an answer to every question, and in turn, asked some great questions herself. While she was certainly a very bright girl, she also benefited from the encouragement (perhaps prodding is a better word) she received from her father. He came to classes himself, and participated in the discussions and exercises. He was always pushing her, playfully, to excel; and by golly she did. (He had another daughter who was younger and also came to class at first, but he decided she was not quite ready for it and pulled her out.)

This father, whose name was Yusuf, invited us to come to dinner at his house one night, and we gladly accepted. We looked forward to breaking out of our culinary and home routine, which had left something to be desired.

When we first began considering applying to this gig, we encountered a couple of red flags, one of which was the meal situation. Having already had problematic experiences twice with volunteer positions that provided meals, we were leery of doing a third one – particularly since at this one we had to pay 100 dirhams (10 dollars) a day for them. We’d much, much, much, much, much rather just buy our own groceries and cook for ourselves. And at the first volunteer position where we had to pay for food (Jaibalito, Guatemala), we got the impression that our hosts were feeding us as cheaply as possible so they could pocket the difference. But we reluctantly agreed to the present deal, figuring that maybe they just didn’t want us puttering around in their kitchen. (We did so a little bit anyway; there’s no way we’re going to forego our morning cup of tea.)

Having meals provided may sound like a dream and may indeed be ideal for many short-term travelers. As we are entering our fifth month of ongoing world travel, we are discovering that honoring our preference for meal times and having some form of autonomy when it comes to what we put in our bodies is indeed important to us. We’ve also discovered that we actually like cleaning our own rooms – which might seem odd when given the “perk” of maid service.

When we arrived (and were not picked up at the appointed time), we were still thinking that there was a possibility we might want to ditch out before the three weeks were up. So we told them that we preferred to pay them for board on a weekly basis. But they insisted they receive it all up front, so they could do all the grocery shopping at once for the whole three weeks. (Which they didn’t.) So after trying out a couple of ATMs in town, with the one we preferred to use because of its lower fees being out of order, we settled on withdrawing the cash from Bank Of Africa, and reluctantly paid them the 1800 dirhams for the whole 18 days.

The first morning, when we were served our (very late) breakfast, it turned out to be… bread. That’s it. Bread. And that was breakfast almost every morning thereafter. Usually with a little olive oil to dip it into, and sometimes with a little cream cheese spread and/ or jam. But nearly always bread. Finally, they asked us what we normally ate in the morning, and we replied oats, so they said they’d go to the souq and get some. And they did. Enough for two days. Then it was back to prison rations.

Bread or pasta also usually figured heavily in lunch, and quite often in dinner as well. One of our very first lunches also featured a generous serving of beets, just like in Colombia. What are the odds that in two of the countries where hosts provided meals, they immediately would hit us with the one vegetable we have a very hard time choking down.

But at least dinner was always good, since it was a meal that they were eating too. And sometimes it was rather creative – the mom was really quite a fine cook when she actually put the effort into it. She whipped up some especially outstanding desserts. But the breakfast and lunch we received were monotonous and very sparse. So even after paying 180 dollars for our food, we still had to supplement what we got by going shopping ourselves. At least there was a liberal supply of oranges in the house, which they apparently obtained somewhere for free, two whole crates of them. The area around Oulad Teima may not have much else going for it, but it produces the most delectable oranges on the planet. We suspect these particular oranges may have come from one of the trucks or donkey carts that were in the constant state of being loaded or unload below our window at all hours of the day and night.

And then there was the matter of sanitary differences. By our standards (and probably the standards of most Americans) Moroccans are often very casual in the way they handle food. And they do indeed handle it. With their bare hands, no tongs or gloves in sight. (Moroccans generally eat with their hands too, even messier items like couscous.) And we seldom saw anyone washing their hands – while hand sanitizer was a rare commodity.

In the home where we were staying, hygiene was especially reckless. Food would be picked up with bare hands and sometimes plopped directly onto the table without even a plate. On one occasion, there was one big bowl of pasta in the middle of the table, which we all ate out of – at least we had our own spoons. The whole family seemed hellbent on trying to get their hands on our food as much as possible. If we weren’t on guard, the boys would pick food off our plates, with nary a reprimand from parental units.

The smallest boy liked to play with his food, as little boys do; but he didn’t mind playing with someone else’s as well as his own. As an appetizer, there would always be a dish of dates on the table. Before the rest of the meal was brought out, he’d immediately grab about half the dates and build a little structure with them. And then put them back on the dish. Sometimes, he’d drop some on the floor. So his mother would pick them up. And put them back in the dish. Rather than eat dates at the table, we’d try to surreptitiously squirrel away a few of them so we could add them to our meager regimen the next day – after washing them, of course.

Lest you think that we were being Princess and Pea privileged Americans, bear in mind that we were really concerned about getting sick from being exposed to germs that we had no resistance to – as often happens to travelers to a foreign land. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. And, as we learned when we went to Yusuf’s house, not all Moroccans are as unbridled in their dining practices as our host family.

The dinner at Yusuf’s, in fact, was a gourmet banquet, with quite a variety of tasty dishes. Now of course, they don’t eat like this all the time; it was a special occasion, and they pulled out all the stops for their guests. But what a contrast. Not just in the food, but in the care with which it was served. They were much more mindful of cleanliness and hygiene. One very telling sign was that when we arrived, the dishes waiting on the table were covered by a fly cloth; where we were staying, flies were just additional house guests.

Additionally, Yusuf and family engaged us in stimulating conversation. At one point, he inquired about our religion, and we told him that we didn’t have one. He replied that he really didn’t either. When we pointed out that he did observe Ramadan, he said, “Well, that’s my community. Everyone I know is doing Ramadan, so I want to show them support; but I don’t consider myself a Muslim as well.”

He related how, after his youngest daughter was born, he went to the government agency where birth certificates are issued and gave the official the information about his new child. He and his wife had given her a western name (the older girl has a more traditional Muslim moniker); and when the official heard it, he was startled, and said, “That’s not a Muslim name. I’ll have to call my supervisor to see if we can approve it.” Yusuf bluntly told him, “Of course you can approve it. I’m her father, I can name her whatever I want to.” He stood up to the theocratic bureaucracy and prevailed.

The older girl brought out some of the books in English she’d been reading to show us – simplified versions of literary classics, many of them American. Her favorite was Moby Dick. Even in a simplified edition, that’s pretty impressive for someone her age, especially someone whose native tongue is not English.

At one point, after the meal was over, Dennis walked past a table that some glasses has been placed on, and brushed against one of them, which fell to the floor – and, wouldn’t you know it, broke. It was embarrassing and frustrating, but Yusuf swiftly brushed aside any concerns, assuring us it was nothing, and even added, “We consider this good luck.” Which we’re pretty certain is not true. We left his house that night glad to have made a new friend, and grateful for the lively break from our rather awkward adult conversation deprived life at “home”.

We continued exploring the city on one or two walks a day, sometimes uncovering colorful little sections we hadn’t seen before. One day, we went to the far edge of town and found a little park that must have been the place our host family went to on some nights. A little carnival had been erected there with games and kiddie rides. There were images of popular comic book and film characters, including Superman, Capt. Jack Sparrow and Mickey Mouse. But the carnival had ended, and the equipment was being dismantled. We regretted not coming down some evening to check it out when everything was in operation.

On one of these strolls, we passed a field where rejected produce could be dumped to be a feast for the beasts of burden. In general, the city had a rather haphazard approach to garbage disposal. (though bear in mind that Moroccans don’t generate anywhere near as much garbage as Americans do). We only saw a couple of dumpsters in the whole city, and only a smattering of small trash cans here and there. There were also huge vacant lots where people dumped trash; and many people just left their bags of garbage on the sidewalk, to be picked over by guys with donkey carts, salvaging what they could for reusing or feeding to their animals. The rest would be burned or just blow around until it lodged somewhere.

Back at home, we could get a decent overview of the city on our rooftop terrace, where we’d also hang our laundry to dry. It was especially a picturesque spot at sunset, when it was not too hot, and the mosques we could see in the distance were issuing their calls to prayer. (Pro tip: when you visit a Muslim country, don’t stay anywhere near a mosque if you value your sleep. But then the same advice could apply to churches, which have been known to wake people with early morning bells and chimes.)

Fortunately, we were far enough away that they didn’t disturb us, and close enough to several of them that we could hear their competing chants, which contributed to the ambiance unlike any other that we’d been accustomed to.

Chaos at our Doorstep and under our window

Oulad Teima. Not a place where you’d choose to go on vacation, but it does have its charms.

Not many Birds sighted this week

April 11-17, 2022

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