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Today's traveler is increasingly looking for more than just superficial sights and experiences. Many visitors come to Morocco hoping to scratch beneath the surface and really get to know the country and, more importantly, its people. Travelers will be confronted daily with random opportunities to interact with Moroccans; many times you'll be invited to share a glass of mint tea, often at the home of the person offering. There are also other, more organized avenues, which take away the initial concerns of safety and communication difficulties. These include volunteering on regional development projects, studying Moroccan Arabic at a local language school, or joining a specific community-based tour.

Volunteering

Volunteer programs abroad used to be the exclusive domain of students and youth travelers, but with the increasingly high profile of eco-tourism, a desire from the average traveler to become more involved in the country he or she is visiting has increased. Collectively being dubbed "voluntourism," more and more short-term volunteer projects are now being offered by tour operators to complement the choice of volunteer and exchange programs already offered by an established network of volunteer organizations. No matter how short or long, volunteering in Morocco is a great way to see the country in more depth and to greater appreciate the harsh realities faced daily by many locals. Most volunteer organizations are not-for-profit entities that charge participants to go abroad, combining homestays with voluntary service in a variety of community service projects. Voluntourism operators are private tour operators that typically offer 1- to 3-week accommodated holidays, combining sightseeing with the opportunity to assist locals on short-term development projects.

Cross-Cultural Solutions (tel. 800/380-4777 toll-free or 914/632-0022; www.crossculturalsolutions.org) has offices in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, and has recently begun placing volunteers in a variety of locally run organizations dedicated to improving the life of residents in and around Rabat. Programs run from 3 to 12 weeks and are typically geared toward those that assist children and empower women.

Different Travel (tel. 02380/669-903; www.different-travel.com) is a U.K.-based voluntourism specialist offering worldwide volunteering holidays. Their annual 9-day Moroccan Sahara Challenge is specifically geared toward sponsored travelers raising funds for their selected charity and includes 2 days working alongside Berber villagers to refurbish a community center.

Very few girls in Morocco's rural communities are afforded the luxury of continuing their education after primary school. To help tackle this, Moroccan NGO Education For All (tel. 0208/8927767 in the U.K., or 0661/158179 or 0661/158173 in Morocco; www.educationforallmorocco.org) has commenced building and managing boardinghouses specifically for girls and located near secondary colleges, allowing some girls from rural families to continue their education. They often require a volunteer during the school year for their boardinghouse in Asni to assist the housemother in the daily running of the house, as well as assisting the girls in gaining a wider perspective of the world.

The Peace Corps (tel. 800/424-8580 toll-free; www.peacecorps.gov) has been placing American volunteers of all ages and backgrounds in local communities worldwide since 1961. In 1963, Morocco was one of the first countries (73 so far) to invite the Peace Corps to assist in its development. Since then, more than 3,500 Peace Corps volunteers have served in the country in a dazzling array of fields ranging from beekeeping to urban development. Currently, the sectors of environment, health, small business, and youth development are open to volunteers. Projects Abroad (tel. 888/839-3535 toll-free; www.projects-abroad.org) is based in the U.S. with a local office in Rabat, and places Care & Community volunteers in orphanages and centers for children with special needs in and around Rabat.

Operation Smile (tel. 888/677-6453 toll-free or 757/321-7645; www.operationsmile.org) coordinates more than 30 Medical Mission sites in 25 countries, providing free surgeries for thousands of children to repair facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palates. They have been well established in Morocco for the past 10 years, with mission partnerships in Casablanca, Fes, Tangier, and others. They welcome medical specialists -- plastic surgeons, pediatricians, speech pathologists, and dentists -- as well as fourth- or final-year medical students to volunteer on annual 2-week missions to Morocco, which besides treating up to 150 children also provides an educational opportunity for local healthcare professionals.

SPANA (tel. 020/783-13999; www.spana.org) is a U.K.-based animal-welfare organization that operates veterinary centers, mobile clinics, and educational programs throughout North and West Africa and the Middle East. Their Morocco branch has been operating since 1925, and gives volunteer graduate vets the opportunity to work for up to 3 months in one of the country's refuges.

Language Programs

One of the best ways to learn more about both Islamic and Moroccan culture is to enroll in an Arabic language program. Although Moroccans speak their own unique dialect, courses are also conducted in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is used throughout the Arabic world. Additionally, Morocco is also a good place to learn French, as it is still used widely in the country, especially in business and tourism.

For learning Arabic, the best-known language school is the Arabic Language Institute in Fes (ALIF) on the eastern edge of the ville nouvelle at 2 rue Ahmed Hiba (tel. 0535/624850; fax 035/931608; www.alif-fes.com). It offers small-group courses in all levels of MSA and colloquial Moroccan Arabic throughout the year. Most 120-hour courses consist of 6-week sessions, though there are special content-based courses (3 weeks), and private or specialized lessons can also be arranged. The current costs (excluding materials, accommodations, and living expenses) are 5,200dh for 3 weeks, 9,400dh for 6 weeks, and 200dh per hour for private instruction (discounted rate for two or more students). Located in a large Moorish-style villa, ALIF also shares its classrooms and grounds with the American Language Center, providing a good place for meeting young Moroccans. In addition to their courses, they also offer a range of cultural and social activities to students.

In Rabat, the highly regarded Center for Cross-Cultural Learning (CCCL), avenue Laalou, Derb Eljirari, 11 Zankat Elhassani (tel. 0537/202365; fax 0537/202367; www.cccl.ma), is located in a 19th-century riad within Rabat's medina. It organizes a variety of cultural and educational activities, including courses in both MSA and colloquial Moroccan Arabic. Its "semi-intensive" (4 weeks/60 hr.) and "intensive" (6 weeks/90 hr.) programs are great for visitors. As part of its partnerships with various U.S. educational institutions, it also offers study-abroad programs, as well as adult programs that combine language lessons with field trips, excursions, and cultural performances.

DMG Arabophon (tel. 0535/603475 or 0535/749893; www.arabophon.com) specializes in Moroccan Arabic, but also offers lessons in MSA, Berber Amazight, French, and German. Along with standard Moroccan Arabic courses of 4 weeks or longer, they also offer a series of traveler-friendly introductory courses, including a half-day "Curious Explorer." The main office is in Fes, and they have branches in Casablanca, Rabat, and Meknes. Institut Français (www.ambafrance-ma.org/institut) has cultural centers located in most of Morocco's major cities, and offers French-language courses along with various cultural activities. Projects Abroad (tel. 888/839-3535; www.projects-abroad.org) is headquartered in New York and has a local office in Rabat. It offers Arabic- and French-language courses, and places you with a local family who converses in the corresponding language. Sixty hours of private, one-on-one tuition are included each month, and participants choose the length of stay.

Cooking

An increasing number of travelers are combining their loves of cuisine and culture. Moroccans take great pride in their culinary skills, as well as their reputation as exemplary dinner hosts, and are always eager to share their kitchen knowledge. In the past, however, the language barrier proved a difficult hurdle for English-speaking travelers, but recently a few select options have begun operating in Fes and Marrakech. Clients are exposed to the other side of the kitchen, joining the cook as he or she visits the local produce souk, butcher, spice seller, and others. This is followed by hands-on instruction in the kitchen, after which you can sample your labor of love in a sit-down meal. Besides the operators listed below, some maisons d'hôte in Fes and Marrakech offer 1-day cooking lessons exclusively to their guests, such as Dar Roumana in Fes and Dar les Cigognes in Marrakech.

Tour Operators

  • Fes Cooking (tel. 0615/866144; http://fescooking.com) is operated by Lachen Beqqi, a young Fes-based chef who has quietly built a reputation as a superb culinary guide. His English is as good as his humor, and clients rave about his culinary knowledge and his love for his country. Courses offered range from a single-day lesson to a weeklong "Culinary Adventure," which includes visits to a Meknes winery and the Middle Atlas Berber village of Azrou.
  • The International Kitchen (tel. 800/945-8606 toll-free or 312/467-0560; www.theinternationalkitchen.com) is based in the U.S. and has been providing cooking school vacations since 1994. It offers a range of itineraries to France, Italy, Spain, and Morocco, where its 7-day tour is based in Fes. Cooking lessons are intermingled with tours of the city as well as visits to nearby Meknes and Volubilis.
  • Rhode School of Cuisine (tel. 888/254-1070 toll-free or 252/790222; www.rhodeschoolofcuisine.com) is a well-respected specialist gourmet holiday operator offering tours in Italy, France, and Morocco, where its Moroccan cooking school is based in a top-end maison d'hôte in Marrakech's palmeraie. It offers weeklong tours that cater to both culinary and gourmet guests, the former for those who wish to be in the kitchen, the latter for those who don't.
  • Souk Cuisine (tel. 0673/804955 or 0524/426965; www.soukcuisine.com) is a cooking school based in a riad within Marrakech's medina. Operated by English-speaking Dutchwoman Gemma Van de Burgt, the 1-day cooking classes are a great way to get to know Marrakech a little better and are very reasonably priced. There are also multiple-day options in conjunction with staying at a nearby maison d'hôte.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.