What does this space know?

Some thoughts from Rupert Meese

Original Volunteers in Marrakech

Posted by Rupert Meese on August 16, 2009

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I have been in Marrakech for two days. Arriving I am met at the airport by a man holding a sign with the words “Original Volunteers”. He speaks little English and I, of course, little Arabic. We wait for Sally another volunteer on the same flight as she goes to get some Moroccan Dirhams. We stand for a while, then Abdul (we’re on first name terms now) starts to look agitated and ushers me outside of the airport. “A problem” he says. This is a little unnerving but I can’t get any more out of Abdul about what kind of problem. We wait outside the main doors. Sally finds us ten minutes later and we head to the taxi which turns out to be a beaten up old Mercedes with torn and tattered upholstery broken door handles and missing window winders. We drive to the old town. All hot, dusty and orange brown. Pass the ancient Medina city wall and pull up in a poor but busy market. The driver points to Sally and says “you only”, “only one place”, and to me “you wait here, five minutes”. Sally has some French and we get the idea that there is only one place left in the original volunteers house, that Abdul will take Sally there, then return to take me elsewhere. This was the last I saw of Sally, walking off with her rucksack down a narrow alleyway lead by Abdul. Abdul returns and we drive off. Back outside the Medina wall and on, then the wall again, back through another city gate and stops in the middle of a busy square. He looks around then calls to a young Moroccan man wearing shades. I’m wondering if I need to pay the driver, but there is some exchange and the young man says to me “Come”. I set of with my rucksack following him down a busy street. It’s hot. Topping 50 degrees (122 F). “Pretend you don’t know me until we get to the riad” he says. This is Rachid, he is soon to become my very dear friend. I follow (at a distance) along the street and into Djemaa el Fna the huge main square of Marrakech. It’s filled with people, stalls, snake charmers, dancers and the sounds of drumming, shouting, bells, cars and scooters. “You want orange juice?” Rachid says. Sure. We stop at an orange stall. There are many of these in the square and they are soon to become a mainstay of my Moroccan life. The vendor smiles and chats with Rachid, shakes and squeezes oranges with a flair that seems to involve elbows more than you might imagine. He fills two tall glasses with cool fresh orange juice which, when drunk, the body welcomes in like it hasn’t since breast milk, it’s a surprise in itself. We move on, out of the square down ever narrowing streets, then left through a small dark archway into a narrow high walled and strangely pungent alleyway, dodging mopeds and bicycles all of the way. People sit or stand in corners and doorways, tending to unfathomable business. Rachid sees Brian, another volunteer and calls after him. Brian is carrying a plastic shopping bag full of groceries. This seems to me to be the strangest sight that I’ve seen so far. I am amazed and full of admiration that someone could so casually go to the shop for groceries in this so strange and other worldly place. Brian, it turns out has been ill for almost two weeks, off and on. I like him immediately. We share a fondness for a cup of tea and although I have never had the kind of stammer that Brian does, I’ve always knew that I could have done. It makes sense to me. When later I show him my solution for making fresh coffee by using my scarf as a filter, he says “There’s nothing like a bit of improvisation for making small tasks seem more worthwhile”.

Rachid and I move on, down an even darker narrower alleyway – it must be 30 feet high and no more than five feet wide, ending in a dark archway and some impenetrable doorways. Here we are, we turn to an ancient studded low wooden door and Rachid lets us in to a rather lovely tiled riad apartment.

Over the next three hours I meet the fourteen other people in the riad. People come and go daily and so the group is in a constant state of flux, but today we are the fifteen volunteers that make up the house. I quickly hear the discontentment over the orphanages – they are all shut. Closed during August. What we, the volunteers were doing was running a club for street kids, helping at a kids summer camp and visiting kids in the mountains. This all sounded fine to me, but everyone had some view about how acceptable this situation was. “We should have been told” was the frequently aired view. To most people the “other house” was a mythical place where everything was running smoothly and everyone was doing what they came here to do.

I meet Pete, Julia and Phoebe in the kitchen and love them instantly. They, the three of them, are a day older than me, that is they arrived yesterday. They, the three of them, have a kind of energy that bubbles between them like they’re constantly playing some kind of three way volley ball. Looks, words, laughs, smiles, nods and agreements all flip about between them in a crazy game and it makes me want to play too. All three are young (as is everyone here), just out of university and, being a day older, they take me under their wing a little. We go out for dinner and we lounge on a rooftop restaurant together, eat tajine, drink mint tea and chat. It’s 10pm and the day has cooled to around 38 Celsius.

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Next day it’s the children’s club and the street kids. I’m amazed at how cool and competent the people here are. Alyson, who must be 19 or 20 calmly negotiates the taxi , head held high in the bustle and confusion – it should be no more than 4 dirhams, she says, to Dawdiat. Don’t let them charge you 50. Alyson and I climb in the back and squash up against the two Moroccans already there. Two others share the front seat. The seven of us in the one car career off among the cycles, mopeds and donkey trucks in the intense heat. I look over and Alyson is not even sweating, she doesn’t even look hot. She’s just sailing in the taxi, completely confident of where she’s going. There’s something quintessentially British about her, something Kristen Scott-Thomas. I can learn something here I think, and picking up from her energy I cool my body down, let go of the stress and find some poise. It doesn’t last long once we’re in the Children’s club. I sit at a table packed with twelve ten year old boys and playdoh and we launch straight into a riot of words and ideas in at least three languages. “Teacher, Teacher – Asmitek?”, “Bushka, Bushka, ana Bushka”,”Tweener”,”Teacher, Teacher – regardez”,”Khobs!, “Khobs, Ayah”,”Parle vous Frances?”, “Repeat, repeat an ilallah…”, in an endless cycle with always at least three boys at once wanting attention. Sweat pours down my face and back constantly as I get stuck in and shower in responses and questions, repeating a word I catch here and another there. The boys think I’m hilarious, it’s like having some kind of merry idiot sitting at the table with them, and this is fine by me. I came prepared to be ridiculous, intentionally or not.

Eventually it’s all over and we meet the others and make our way through the poor back streets of new Marrakech to the old hall where the street kids club starts. The building, like every other building in Marrakech, is salmon pink and square. This one has has high barred windows most of which are broken. Rachid unlocks the main doors and we enter a high hall empty but for a few plastic garden tables and chairs. Rachid hands out coring books, pens and a couple of tennis balls and a skipping rope. The kids start to arrive out of nowhere and pretty soon we’re swept up in the energy, running around playing hand tennis in this huge oven. I’m overdoing it I know. Overheating, but by the time I notice it’s really too late. I’m going to be stuck with feeling sick and a cracking head ache. Still, I’m having fun. I teach the girls the clapping games that my daughter taught to me before I went. “Hi lo Chickelo, Chickelo, Chickelo” is soon ringing around the yard and I have a queue of girls waiting to try it out… The girls catch on quickly and soon come back to teach me – “We’ve changed it” they say. Boys, it has to be said, are rubbish at this and generally prefer to create intersecting games of volleyball, football, and hand tennis. When we leave a few hours later we all walk down the street, volunteers, little kids, teenagers, and all of us, between us, are clapping a complex and varying rhythm, walking and clapping. We’ve been here.

Back at the riad Mel and James have arrived. I’m a day old now, practically a veteran and it’s nice to be introducing to newcomers. Mel asks where the shop is and I say “Oh, it’s only round the corner, I’ll take you if you like”. It feels nice. Only problem is I know I can’t take Mel around the corner to the shop because right now I have to throw up from overdoing it in the heat.

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The next morning we are off into the mountains. A hours bus ride to Oui Toria where we meet with Mohamed, Hamed and Fattizara who sings and dances constantly and brings a Djembe. Then the mini-bus up into the Atlas. The mini-bus operates on the same principle as the taxis, fit as many people in as possible. In a mini-bus (i.e. van with benches in the back) as many people as possible does mean many many people. The benches aren’t bolted to the floor and glide and rock as the mini-bus travels the bumpy roads and the heat of the day starts to build. The clapping starts again and for the next hour of cramped, oven hot, bumpy ride we play and sing and joke and laugh. It seems as though this kind of bus ride is designed for having fun. We pile out at the top and walk and chat and sing up the dusty road by the flowing river. The first village that we stop at has a natural mineral water spring. This makes the village into the seaside of Marrakech. The narrow main street is full of stalls and covered over with plastic sacking strung between the roofs for shade. It has a similar air to the souks – the covered markets in Marrakech only the poverty stands out much more clearly. It is on this trip that I make an important discovery- that when Rachid says tentatively “would you like to…” a really good answer is “Hell yes”. This discovery stands me in good stead through the rest of the trip and brings me to (among other things) the most delicious yoghurty gunk in a glass, amazing spiced coffee from a man sitting on the side of the road with a Thermos flask, and some incredible herbal tonic made from twenty four different roots, herbs and spices by an old man with a kettle.

Right now Rachid says “Would you like to have a little something to eat?” – I’m not very hungry but only he knows when we’ll eat again. “Sure”. He leads the way into an empty concrete building. There is a row of plastic chairs and a man behind a concrete counter on which rests an old fire blackened kettle – I don’t think I’d even have recognised this as somewhere to eat. I sit with the Moroccans and chat and eat white beans with bread. They show me the knack of eating the beans and bread together with the first three fingers of the right hand. The something in the beans that I at first take to be broccoli turns out to be sheep’s intestine, turned inside out so that the flowery fronds float in the soup.

We move on from this village having tasted the mineral water which is cool and salty. We continue up the mountain and after a little while come to the second village, the Burber village. This is not like the Marrakech sea-side. The whole village is made from mud and straw bricks and is eerie for being exactly the same cor as the bare hillsides around it. There are virtually no windows in any of the buildings and inside the dark doorways there are glimpses of well – very little. Dust floor and sometimes a plastic table.

We drum and chant as we walk through the streets and the children come out and, cautiously at first, begin to follow. We work out way down to the river valley, cross the clear water flowing over a pebble river bed and make our home for the day in the mouth of a sand floored cave. There we drum and clap and sing (and these kids know how to drum, clap and sing), we hand out felt tip pens and coring books and play all sorts of games. Mostly organised by Rachid who has such a natural and easy playfulness that is a pure delight to be with. At the end of a long day we pack up and do the whole thing in reverse. Back through the Burber village saying goodbye to the kids, back down to the mineral water village where we stop and inspect the tajines – As Rachid and his companions lift the pot lids and peer at the curled up piles of potato and carrots it seems to me that they look pretty old, cold and unappetizing, however the Moroccans give the nod of approval and we settle down in the shade on a muddy blanket or on broken and rickety plastic chairs and chat and drink tea. Here I discover a variant on the Moroccan mint tea which I quickly come to love. Here it’s made with a herb called Louisa which grows in these mountains and has a soft and sweetly citrus nature. Needless to say the tajine when it comes in 20 minutes is piping hot and the best that I eat in Morocco rich and subtlety spiced. Then onwards, back down to the mini-bus – twenty minutes of negotiation. It’s more expensive getting back of course. Once you’re there you have to get back of course! Thirty people in the mini-bus, more singing, tired but cheerful, goodbye to the guides, then the long bus ride back to Marrakech to walk through Djemaa el Fna stopping for a quick orange juice, through the mediaeval alleyways and back through the low studded door to meet with our friends and eventually to sleep together out on the roof under the stars. All this in order to be variously lulled, soothed or irritated by the 5am call to prayer from five mosques and so begin another day.

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9 Responses to “Original Volunteers in Marrakech”

  1. Chelsea Jordan said

    I loved reading your story, Rupert! I wrote a story in a similar style about my experiences in Marrakech in both April and June this year as well, and reading yours just made me smile. Our experiences were so different, yet so alike! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    ~Chelsea Jordan

  2. Natalie Wood said

    This is an excellent post Rupert. I was a volunteer late April / early June as well and it’s great to read of your experience and like Chelsea, it makes me so nostalgic and eager to return (I’m back in November and honestly can’t wait to see the kids and the staff again).

    Rachid is such a fantastic chap and it sounds like he is really looking after all of you.

    The experience is very different from the early days when the orphanages weren’t closed for summer but again, like Chelsea says, so similar also.

    Keep enjoying your time out there – I know you will.

    Natalie

  3. Vicky said

    It was very deep and beautifully written 🙂 wish I was back in morocco Vicky xxx

  4. It’s really weird reading the thoughts of someone who started soon after I left, when half the people were still there. You enjoy it?

  5. Stuart said

    Wow, great story Rupert, I can’t wait to here more

  6. April Jones said

    My daughter’s experience was very different. Granted, she is only 17 but was accepted to volunteer in Marrakech by OV. I had my reservations but she has travelled overseas before with me, her father and her church. She passionately wanted to work with disadvantaged children and spent many months working and saving in order to achieve this. When she arrived in Marrakech it immediately became clear that there was nothing useful for her to do and, yes, she could have stayed and had a bit of a holiday, but that wasn’t what she wanted. We had to arrange a return flight for her and it is telling that many of the other volunteers also returned home within days.

    The fact that the orphanages are virtually inaccessible to volunteers during August and that there was little or no alternative for volunteering work is not made at all clear on the OV website.What was also misrepresented were the working hours, which we understood to be all day, every day, during the week, with weekends as rest periods, rather than a few hours a day, here an there. All this was a huge disappointment for my daughter, cost us a lot of money and has done no good to anyone. We have recieved a refund of the accommodation fees, and in fairness this was done promptly, but surely the situation should have been made much clearer before we went to the time, trouble and expense of sending her on what has proved to be a complete waste of all those things. Not to mention the demoralizing feeling of returning home without having achieved something so passionately felt.

    My daughter is a committed Christian but was prepared to suppress her beliefs in order to do some good in a Muslim country. She has not had the chance to do so, and it is hard to understand why Original Volunteers are sending young people to Marrakech, and presumably to other parts of the world, when those young people are not being allowed to demonstrate their philanthropy.

    I would recommend a great deal of research before embarking upon a gap year programme with OV. We believed we had done enough checks but feel severely let down. I do not believe that this company has the best interests of it’s stated charitable programmes at heart.

  7. Abi Nelson said

    i have applied to go to the Moroccan and Indian project next year in September and October. I am 18 and am a little worried yet very eager to go through with it. Do you have any advice or recommendations 🙂

    • Hi Abi, You will have an amazing time. Advice and recommendations? Well remember that people everywhere are mostly like people everywhere – i.e. kind, honest, helpful. If you see Rachid trust him, say ‘hell yes’ to anything he suggests (coffee from the old man on the street corner, odd milk curd stuff, games of mastermind), and say hello from me, he’s one of the finest men I’ve met. Remember mostly the point of travel is to discover how ridiculous you are. When you act with sincerity and the locals laugh or give you that funny look like they can’t quite believe what they are seeing, that’s a gift. You are that funny. Act from your belly and your heart. Remember that fear is mostly more damaging than the consequences you might fear. Let it go in favour or responding to what is around you – and that you can only know by looking and listening and feeling and being present and open to the moment. Write about it and what you find on your travels.

      You always have more energy and resources than you think you have. Every time they are called on you will find them there. For Morocco learn a little about Islam before you go. It might not be much use practically but will make you feel more akin to the place and the people.

      And drop a comment on the blog when you get back 🙂

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