We began our time in the diverse and beautiful country of Morocco in the barren suburb of Berrechid. Later, when we told students at Fez and Casa that we had stayed in Berrechid, they would laugh or shake their heads in confusion, because even Moroccans didn’t venture there unless they had business to attend. But for us, everything was so different and new that we had plenty to look at as we explored the city on our first day.
For starters, the roads of Berrechid were lined with a mix of horses, donkey carts, hand carts, motorbikes, and cars. There weren’t many cars on the roads during the day, so pedestrians also frequented the streets, despite the wide sidewalks available. One man raced his horse-drawn cart up and down our street each evening, standing on the empty cart like a chariot with a whip in hand as he flew by the school. Men led donkey-carts laden with mountains of watermelons or tomatoes or onions to the open market that filled several streets near the school, or would stop on random street corners and sell their goods straight off the cart.
Joe and I walked through the open market on our first day, absorbing the chaotic blend of smells and colors of people selling everything from huge bundles of fresh mint to fried bread to live chickens (which would be slaughtered for the buyer upon purchase), plus every kind of fruit and vegetable. People haggled over prices in Arabic and French all around us, and vendors tempted us with their wares as we walked past. We didn’t know enough about local prices to try haggling in the market, so we moved on and eventually found a large chain grocery store where we did most of our shopping (to get a better sense of local prices). Most shops were closed during the day, as promised, but between the big grocery store and the open market and a delicious bakery near the school, we never had a problem finding what we needed.
There was also the question of drinking water; allegedly Morocco had good tap water, but after a fellow volunteer told us it made some of the volunteers sick (though he himself drank it without issue and encouraged us to give it a try, just in case) we decided to buy bottled water during our stay (which we noticed the locals did, too).
To put it plainly, I sucked at Ramadan. The first day of fasting wasn’t too bad; Joe and I spent the day walking around and distracting ourselves from our hunger. We bought snacks and treats to enjoy in the evening and planned out our evening meal in delicious detail. When sunset finally came, the food for that first iftar tasted utterly magical. We were giddy as we wolfed down our treats and snacks and prepared the dishes we had been dreaming about all day. I crashed soon after our little feast, happily satiated but exhausted. This was my first mistake; as I later learned, people often stay up late during Ramadan to get in a second full meal around midnight, and then wake up before dawn for a small breakfast. This means that they don’t get a lot of sleep, but they can have a normal amount of food. I kept to my usual sleep schedule while fasting, so I ended up eating just once a day and felt more and more tired and miserable each day. Joe fared somewhat better, but he also started to feel the ill effects of our diet. On day 4, our last day in Berrechid, I cracked and broke the fast, and Joe followed suit. I told myself I’d resume the fast again later in the month, but it never happened (though Joe managed a few more days of fasting toward the end).
Despite my fasting failure, I came to appreciate Ramadan as I learned more about it from the students. Everyone I talked to said they loved this month, even though it was hard work. It was a time for family and food and staying up late and praying and doing good deeds, and there was a deep sense of connection that came from sharing the struggles and joys of the holiday with one’s entire community. On several occasions our students invited us to join their families for iftar, as the hospitality and generosity of Ramadan extends to everyone, not just fellow Muslims. Once, we were able to attend a student’s invitation, and we were treated to a Thanksgiving-like feast of Moroccan dishes (including creamy barley soup called hssoua belboula, roast chicken, a pastry filled with fish, veggies, and noodles called pastilla, rice with vegetables, flatbreads with honey butter called m’smen, fruit smoothies, dates, and various local sweets like chebakia and croissants). It was an eye-opening experience to see the way the whole country adapted and operated during this holy month celebration.
Joe and I only had one day of actual classes while in Berrechid due to the timing of our arrival. On that day, we were dropped right into the classes with no instruction or direction, which turned out to be fine; our job as volunteers involved simply chatting with the students in English to give them practice with native speakers. Each volunteer was paired off with one or two or three students to chat for 20 minutes or so, and occasionally to administer conversational tests. Sometimes there were specific topics to discuss, but more often we would just talk about our lives. Depending on the age of the students, we would ask them about school or work, family or hobbies, and what they liked about Morocco or Ramadan. Older students often had recommendations for the best cities to visit in Morocco, and everyone wanted to tell us about foods we had to try (food was a popular topic since the students were always hungry from fasting). In turn, they would ask us questions about our lives and home countries. Usually those 20 minutes flew by, and I always came away with new insight about Morocco.
Although I enjoyed the work at the school and was quickly intrigued with Moroccan culture, our time Berrechid was certainly our most challenging time in Morocco. It was a hot and desolate place, with little to do or see; the city was too young to have a historical center, too rural to worry about tourist attractions. Harim organized weekly trips for the volunteers there to visit the more interesting and beautiful sites of Morocco, which made Berrechid a favorite for many volunteers; the weekly schedule was usually four days of teaching and three days of travelling. But Joe and I wanted a place where we could settle in for a while, a city that was interesting in its own right. So we were both relieved when we boarded the train out of Berrechid and headed to Fez, one of the largest and oldest cities in Morocco, excited to see what this next stop would bring.