This post was contributed by Kelly Campa.
When I decided to study Arabic in Rabat, Morocco, I spend hours online. I pored through as many blogs as I could, trying to figure out all the niche tips or helpful hints that would make my experience better and easier. Here are 8 tips that I wish someone had told me before I went:
1. SORRY SWEETIE, NO TAMPONS HERE
There I was in my Parisian Airbnb, packing up my massive suitcase for my two months in Morocco. Because I was trying SO hard to live that #minimalistlife, I emptied my period kit over the garbage, watching my large and diverse selection of tampons and panty liners disappear into the trash. Because I couldn’t bear to part with a lot of the clothes I had with me, I felt #cleansed that I could at least get rid of something before my trip, especially something that I could so easily acquire once I got there.
Flash forward to the look of horror/terror of my face as I stand in the feminine hygiene aisle of Marjane, which I guess would be Morocco’s Walmart. A whole wall of pads, but no tampons to be seen. I’ve been a tampon girl for many years, so not having them as an option was jarring. Later, I check in the old medina — nothing. It’s not until I ask around later that I find out that tampons are taboo in some Islamic countries. Apparently, there’s a tampon black market, but I never had the connex to get in on that action 🙁
2. PORK AND ALCOHOL ARE HARD TO COME BY
Again, honey… Islamic country. Improvise, adapt, overcome. And enjoy it! I personally didn’t miss eating bacon or ham for two months. Abstaining from drinking was a little harder, and so we put some time and effort into exploring Morocco’s underground bar scene (literally, one of the coolest bars I went to in Tangier was underground). Not all Moroccans are Muslims, and the country has a pretty sizable foreign population, meaning that bars do exist and weren’t particularly hard to find (mostly in fancy foreign hotels, but my favorite was on an old pirate ship on the docks).
If staying in and drinking is more your scene, some grocery stores sell alcohol in a separate section but don’t go without a bag to hide your purchases on the way home. I’ve been told it’s not a good idea to walk around openly with drinks.
3. DON’T EAT DRIED FRUIT
Wanna hear about my edgy 3 am ER experience on Halloween? No, it was not from getting lit at a costume party, but getting a stomach virus from dried fruit. Given how carefully I washed all my produce in Rabat, I’m still so mad that I didn’t even think that the fruit may not have been cleaned before it was dried. You live and you learn. It’s either a good time or a good story. Alhamdulillah!
4. BUT DO EAT EVERYTHING ELSE
The food will blow your mind.
First things first, get ready to drink your weight in Moroccan mint tea. It’s the national drink; and you’ll have it at breakfast, mid-morning, with lunch, mid-afternoon, with dinner, and after dinner. It’s essentially green tea infused with mint, so be careful about the traces of caffeine and, of course, the sugar!
Now, the FOOD. Tagines, couscous, pastillas, harira, fantastic seafood, raisins, olives, goat cheese were all some of my favorites; I’ve never been so full after meal. You can pick up cheap 1 dirham ($0.10) khbz (Arabic for “bread”) at any corner store, but my favorite part of Moroccan cuisine were the other traditional breads, including harsha (a thick, pan-fried flatbread that resembles an English Muffin), baghir (spongy pancakes that melt in your mouth) and my personal favorite, msemen (a delicious fried buttery bread that was the sole culprit for my weight gain). All these breads can be purchased in the medina at ten cents apiece, so if you’re on a budget, never fear!
You can also find a great selection of Middle Eastern food in Morocco; my favorite restaurant in the whole country was this Syrian place down the street from my school. A 15 dirham ($1.5) falafel sandwich? Mhmmmm, laythith!!
And those were just the savory snacks and meals; don’t even get me started on halawiyat (Arabic for “sweets”)! There was pretty much a halawiyat store on every block, and I’ve never been to another country that has such an appreciation for cookies and pastries. TRY EVERYTHING. Trust me, you’ll be eating WELL!
5. THE WOMAN “QUESTION”
I did a lot of research before I left on what it would mean to be a foreign woman in Morocco. There was no clear consensus, with half the blogs claiming that they had experienced no harassment whatsoever and the other half claiming that it was so awful that they ended their trip early.
Honestly, because of those latter reports, it took me maybe a month to feel fully comfortable navigating the city on my own as a woman. That’s one of my biggest regrets! If I hadn’t been so overly cautious and nervous, I could have had so much more time to explore Rabat and really feel like I was living there.
But there were certainly times when I was uncomfortable. No matter what, you’re going to get stared at, so best adopt your best poker face and keep on stepping. No eye contact here, ladies. Sometimes men will call comments or pull over in their cars and try to talk to you — in my experience, it was usually “Bonjour!” or “Marry me?” but on rare occasions, it could get more insulting. The key thing to keep in mind is that never did any man actually approach me or invade my personal space. Walking with headphones isn’t always a great idea, but if it’s light out and you’re in a safe neighborhood, I’d definitely recommend wearing them to tune out the haters.
Note: this only happened to me when I’ve been alone or with one other gal pal. If I’m with even just one guy or a bigger group of girls, I never heard any harassment or catcalls.
Still though, none of these incidents stopped me from taking cabs and public transportation by myself, strolling through the medina by myself or studying alone in public cafes.
Live your best life!
6. THE LANGUAGE(S) BARRIER
Now, I went to Morocco to study Modern Standard Arabic, so you can guess my surprise when I discovered that they speak pretty much every language BUT MSA. Most Moroccans were able to understand MSA but not always respond in it, and if you want to make Moroccan friends, the best language to learn is Moroccan Arabic, known colloquially as Darija. Of all the Arabic dialects, Darija is the most distinct and is pretty much an entirely different language from al-fus7a.
Next is French, which almost all educated Moroccans can speak fluently (note: at least in Rabat, which is a very educated city). A result of French colonialism, many Moroccans have a complicated relationship with the language, but it’s undeniably prevalent and useful. All my friends who took French in school were chillin’, making friends left and right and bargaining away in the medina. If you don’t have a background in French, I’d highly recommend learning the basics (especially the numbers!) if you can before you go. My biggest struggle as a foreigner was actually that most Moroccans assumed that I spoke French; particularly in the medina, when I’d ask shopkeepers questions in broken Arabic, they’d automatically respond in French, and since I don’t speak French, I would be so startled and thrown off my game and second-guessing myself, unsure if I just didn’t understand their Arabic or if it was French or what. Sometimes I’d be too embarrassed to ask them to repeat themselves, and so it would usually end me with walking away, super confused. I was always a mess in the medina.
Other languages include Amazigh/Berber, the language of North Africa’s biggest native ethnic group, and Spanish, spoken in many Northern towns on account of Morocco’s proximity to Spain and the large group of Spanish tourists! I speak Spanish, so it was in the north that I felt most comfortable, because, at the very least, I could make small talk with locals, and more than that, I could have much deeper conversations with the people I met along the way.
Another thing, non-specific to Morocco: the language barrier was tougher than I thought it would be. Not only because I had a crazy hair salon experience in which there was a major miscommunication regarding my hair color (realized only after it was too late!), but I really missed feeling competent and being able to manage my own affairs without a friend translating. However, I think I learned more about myself in those months than I ever have in an English-speaking country; I was forced to communicate in ways other than words, and it really makes you feel good when you’re able to have positive interactions with people without the comfort of a shared language.
7. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AIN’T TOO BAD
Now maybe this is just because I’m a devoted NUMTOT and the public transportation in San Francisco is terrible, but I was really happy with the transpo situation in Rabat. The easiest way around the city is a petit taxi; they’re blue (a different color in every city) and they’ll take you anywhere in the city. They can pick up other passengers though (which I did NOT know until this rando slid in next to me) and will not hesitate to speed away without saying anything if you’re going in a different direction than the cab’s current occupants.
I basically had a massive crush on the tram; in Rabat, it’s fantastic and beautiful and clean and always on time and a great way to people-watch.
Big white grand taxis will take you from city-to-city, which is usually a set price in which you pay for your seat in the car with others. Buses vary in reliability and quality (I’m remembering a cringey bus trip to Chefchaouen with no air conditioning). Trains run on Moroccan time and even though they’re constantly delayed and late and canceled, by railway is still the best way to travel the country.
8. HOW AMAZING OF AN EXPERIENCE IT WOULD BE
I had a slight love/hate relationship to Morocco, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I would book a ticket back in an instant if I could. I traveled the country, rode a camel in the desert under the stars, attended an African music festival, watched countless sunsets over the ocean, and went blonde from a language miscommunication! I learned to speak Arabic, thrive on discomfort, and eat myself full of falafel and msemen!
Breathe in, let go, and have an incredible time!
Meet Kelly: I’m a kid from the San Francisco Bay Area and am now a freshman in college in Vermont, currently serving as the token West Coast transplant who doesn’t know how to function in deep winter. I took a semester before college to volunteer and study, which inspired an intense love of traveling. I’m majoring in International Relations and Arabic, meaning that there will be a lot more travel in my future! Keep up with me in Vermont this spring, New York this summer, and on future adventures on IG!