A shopkeeper’s donkey trod over my 27kg wheeled backpack and my instant reaction was to yank the zip open and check that the coloring books and crayons had survived. I didn’t care about my shoes and toiletries; those were luxuries that I could live without. I was here for the children and as far as I was concerned, the tub of Hasbro ‘Play-Doh’ in my luggage was more important than my hair straightener.
Volunteering abroad is full of highs and lows so choosing to do that in one of North Africa’s most thriving capitals seemed less difficult in comparison to the next two choices on my list, Peru and Cambodia. Within the first five minutes of stepping out of a small, sputtering beige taxi, I was convinced that this was going to be a trip I’d never forget.
In 45 degrees blistering heat, I stood in a grey hoodie, black leggings and knee-high brown boots, at the entrance of a narrow, stone-laden alleyway, in the district of Bab Doukkala, in Marrakech. I had just endured a hot and bumpy 15-minute drive from Menara Airport and, forgetting that I was sweating profusely, I smiled – looking around at palm trees, camels and buses without windows. I was genuinely excited to be here on a three-week project, living with 18 strangers, eating whole grilled chickens every day and, most importantly, working in orphanages and local villages around Morocco’s pink city.
I was taken to a converted riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden), boasting richly carved patterns in marble walls with simple single bed dorms. This is where I stayed during the project. From the top terrace, I saw that the riad was set in the middle of a jungle of cubic rooftops dotted with hundreds of large white satellite dishes. The panoramic views were breathtaking though. In the distance, Koutoubia mosque’s tall minaret towered above the Bab Doukkala district skyline which itself was set against the backdrop of the High Atlas mountains.
On my first evening, all the volunteers made their way to the heart of the city, the one spot where Marrakech is truly alive, Djemma el Fna Square. A 10-minute walk through the meandering souks and I was face to face with a place that touched every one of my senses. I saw belly dancers and snake charmers, heard storytellers over the sound of reedy music, smelt and tasted the delicacies being prepared in open-air food stalls as the air carried a distinct aroma of kebabs, tagine, scampi, snails and other weird and wonderful delights.