The hundred of us Peace Corps trainees are spending a week in a suburb of Rabat until we move in with host families in our Culture Based Training sites. We have been warned that the town of Harhoura will be nothing like our final destinations; the mint tea cost 18 dirhams instead of three or four, and it is common to see women in cafes wearing jeans with their hair down. Other than the 24/7 police presence at our hotel and the preponderance of stray dogs and cats, staying at the hotel feels like any old vacation. There’s even a pool.
Though I had been across the street to a few French and Italian themed cafes, yesterday I decided to go with a group of about fifteen other Peace Corps members to the closest town. I knew about two things about Temara, that it was about a twenty minute walk, and that it was a nice place to hangout. I wanted to experience something outside of our hotel, so I tagged along with a group leaving the reception area.
Looking back on the experience, I can say that many mistakes were made. First of all, the group was too big. They say that safety is in numbers, but sixteen people is just too many. Not only because decision making was difficult, but due to our size, we also brought a lot of unnecessary attention to ourselves. While we were blocked the sidewalk debating what to do next, a few children came up to us and threw fire poppers at our feet. If our western appearance didn’t attract enough stares, the screams of surprise as the poppers exploded solidified our position as the town spectacle.
The larger issue was that we didn’t have a plan. We figured that we’d simply walk into town and find something to do, but that proved to be difficult. Even though we were near the liberal Rabat, the public sphere in Temara seemed reserved for men. I would have loved to sit and drink mint tea after the long walk, but there were no women relaxing in the cafes or even chatting with their friends on the side of the road. The only women seemed to be rushing off to their next location. Rumor has it that other parts of Temara had more inclusive cafes, but we weren’t prepared well enough to know where those were.
I wanted to be courageous and ignore the stares, but when a member of our group, who had spent time in Palestine and had been in the US Army said that she felt uncomfortable, I knew it was time to go. After only a few minutes in Temara, I turned around and went back with a few other volunteers. In that moment, I realised that while bravery as a Peace Corps Volunteer is important, I’ll need to know the difference between pushing personal boundaries and pushing cultural boundaries. Even though it was disappointing, I was glad to have done the first and not the second.