Arriving late to Rabat from London Stansted meant that my first impression of Morocco was delayed until the following day, when the orientation for the volunteering project took place. It was here I was introduced to Rabat Medina. There is no other way to describe walking through the Medina than being launched into a sizzling frying pan. Immediately you are struck by sensory overload from the intensity of noise, smells and exotic colours. Stall vendors pushing goods, street food being cooked from scratch and ‘street restaurants’ scattered sporadically on street corners adorned with red plastic chairs and tables. At late afternoon stray cats and dogs are everywhere – taking advantage that the Medina is heaving with local shoppers all bargaining in fast paced Arabic and French or grabbing a quick snack. Just when you reach a street that seems so narrow and packed that motor vehicle access seems laughable; a car or a scooter would appear from nowhere – parting the crowd with a rumbling engine. The Medina was a place of chaos and constant discovery, every stall captivated and offered a new trinket or surprise. If visiting, you will inevitably spend multiple trips here. In the fifteen-minute walk through the medina to Plan My Gap Year’s office I had fallen in love with Rabat.
With Plan My Gap Year I was completing a week volunteering in childcare and english teaching, on my first day being sent to a private secondary school to assist an older volunteer with a class of mostly 13-year olds. Having never taught English before and just finishing A levels, it was really interesting to observe the lesson format from a teaching perspective and see how students responded to activities. As mentioned, the main languages spoken in Rabat and the surrounding areas are Arabic and French (as Morocco was colonised by France) – putting me at a huge disadvantage in terms of communication since I spoke neither! This became more apparent the following day when we were taken to the orphanage where a local teacher gave us 8 children and motioned towards an empty classroom. Looking down at 8 expectant faces, knowing that we had no overlap in language, I honestly wondered if I had made a massive mistake. Luckily, both adrenaline and an intern at Plan My Gap Year (a girl our age who took down the children’s names and level of English) seemed to kick everything in to action. Ages ranged from 4 to 13 years old and as most of the children had been found on the streets by local police, they seemed academically behind those children in the private secondary. Starting with the alphabet and numbers, we moved on to basic introductions and animals. The children were utterly fantastic in their enthusiasm towards learning and would excitedly grab my hand and drag me to pictures and objects to ask for their English translation. Although I would highly recommend volunteering in Morocco in the teaching and childcare sphere, I would also add that the backgrounds of the children are sometimes emotionally difficult to process. This was especially the case when an adorable little girl with a mop of curly black hair appeared alone at the door of the classroom. With a beaming smile she walked right up to me and stretched out her arms wanting a hug, making her way round the whole room and repeating this for every person. We later found out she too had been found on the street and that nobody knew her real age, although they guessed about 4 years old. Many of the children would not be adopted and would remain under the care of the orphanage for the duration of their childhood, however, even more disturbing was the grim reality thousands of other children were still unsafe and alone on the streets. Despite being able to help for a week, I left feeling like I had not done enough at all and if anything felt only more aware of the scale of the issues so many children faced.
Plan My Gap Year actively encouraged sightseeing in spare time and we had afternoons and evenings free. Rabat has multiple attractions and also day trips which can easily be accessed by train. Although Rabat had a beach, bikini wear wasn’t greatly tolerated and honestly it seemed as packed as the medina – we instead headed to Skhirat, a 20 minute and 30-dirham train ride away. From Skhirat train station we then took a taxi to the beach, which was so much more spacious and bikini friendly. There were even camel rides being offered on the beach which turned out to be one of the funniest experiences of the trip! Additionally, we visited Casablanca – an hour’s ride by train and 80-dirham return. Other people seemed to have a drastically different experience of Casablanca to our disastrous trip; top tips include checking the closing times of attractions you want to see and researching the distance between these said attractions. Casablanca is, I stress, a big city. The attractions are spread out and it would take over a 20-minute walk to get between even the closest. The public transport system was also, in our experience, extremely minimal which meant relying on taxis for transportation which also heavily overcharged us as blatant tourists. After struggling to initially get directions to the Hassan II Mosque, we approached a police officer and two armed soldiers for help, they informed us kindly of the above information and told us that our best option was an 8 dirham taxi ride. The first taxi we flagged down refused to negotiate from 50 dirhams and we eventually settled for 30 dirhams with another driver a little walk from the station. Although as tourists its natural to expect to pay more in taxis and markets, our experience in Rabat differed massively to that in Casablanca and transportation should definitely be a major factor in preplanning a visit. Aside from the mentioned negatives, the mosque’s exterior was breath taking and Casablanca was filled with abstract street art. If I were to visit again, I would be tempted to purchase a half day tour which can be booked cheaply online, I believe this would offer a less stressful alternative to see all the city has to offer.
In Rabat itself, my ultimate favourite attraction was undoubtedly the Hassan Tower. Free to enter, the site held the burial tomb of the late King and his son in addition to the striking half completed structure of the tower. As a millennial, the photo opportunities here are fantastic! If you have already researched things to do in Rabat you will have inevitably seen pictures with a walkway of columns framing the tower itself – don’t let the touristy portrayal of the Hassan Tower put you off visiting and if you want to avoid the crowds simply go a bit earlier. A more cultural experience of Rabat can be sought out in the traditional Moroccan Baths, we paid 20 MAD entry (an additional tip of around 50 MAD is required for the staff) and were washed with black soap and exfoliated within an inch of our lives! If you are comfortable with nudity this is the activity for you, we did get some confused looks when we opted to keep our bikini bottoms on but we were definitely not that brave… There is an art gallery in Rabat which is worth a look around if art is something that interests you, the marina is also a good place to spend an afternoon as there are boats offering rides. The prices in rides vary depending on distance so its best to agree a set price and distance beforehand or even pay first, we didn’t have any issues but with prices getting quite steep and a potential language barrier its best to avoid any nasty surprises. Although we didn’t get to see it, the Chellah Ruins are renowned as a good place to look around as old roman ruins to explore.
Finally, before I went to Morocco, I had lots of people mention how as a woman I would be unsafe and a target – especially after the recent 2019 incident in the Atlas Mountains. There was partial truth in this as catcalling and persistent attempts at conversation was almost constant, however, the local coordinator advised us to simply ignore or if needed look angry which honestly seemed to work fine. Any negative attention I experienced was purely verbal and didn’t prove to be an issue, though I did not leave the volunteer house without my legs and shoulders covered so if I had not dressed conservatively this could have been different. Especially in the Medina, sales techniques in general can seem quite aggressive at first but we soon learnt it was best just to be firm and seem confident. Haggling was a good way to start this and helped us feel more involved with the local life as oppose to feeling like ‘vulnerable outsiders’! As a woman it’s mostly the usual precautions to bear in mind but heightened, for example, I did not leave the volunteer house after dark and only went out alone during the day if someone knew when I was returning. On the flip side, I believe I was often looked after more because I was a woman or by myself: when I got to a busy road a man ran over to help me cross safely, security guards would come over to help hail taxis and translate our destination and two girls walked 15 minutes out their way to show us which bus to take. In general, the locals wanted to go out their way to assist you and guarantee your safety which I hadn’t experienced to the same degree in Europe. In short, volunteering in Rabat was an intense and emotional experience but incredibly rewarding, Plan My Gap Year were also great for anyone looking at doing a volunteer placement abroad they were really supportive and it was a great way to meet other people. Exploring the local area was a culture shock and taught me more in a week than any of my trips around Europe! I would highly recommend Rabat as a destination to someone wanting to challenge themselves further but still experience the quieter nature of a less touristy city.