Living in Marrakech
Welcome to the American School of Marrakesh! You are embarking on an adventure that will provide memories to last a lifetime! Here is some information about Marrakesh and the school community that you may find helpful as you plan your move to Morocco.
Marrakesh itself is a blend of the traditional and modern. The medina, or old walled city, is full of history and tradition – ancient buildings, souks (covered markets), historical sites and museums, and traditional entertainment like snake charmers, storytellers, and acrobats. In contrast, the newer parts of town, including the neighborhood where most expat teachers live, are much more modern. Family homes and older businesses are quickly being torn down to make way for the standard five-story buildings that comprise a good part of the “downtown” area. You’ll find stark contrasts on a daily basis between the old/traditional and new/modern. Cars and other forms of modern transport compete on the roads with donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages, and pushcarts. Fixed prices stores in shopping malls and modern grocery stores compete with “mom and pop” groceries and other shops found in each neighborhood, and bargaining is still a common way of making purchases, especially in the medina souks. Traditional clothing is worn alongside modern clothing, and you’ll see a bit of everything on the streets of Marrakesh.
The Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija, and French are the most commonly spoken languages, although English is quickly gaining ground, especially among young people. Learning just a bit of Darija (especially greetings) will help you feel more comfortable and should contribute to your ability to negotiate your way around with ease. You may even find that long-forgotten high school French or Spanish will end up serving you extremely well here!
School housing is located in a central Marrakesh neighborhood called Gueliz, and teachers occupy apartments in a complex comprised of 5 large buildings situated around a large central courtyard. Building access is controlled for the safety and security of all residents. The school housing is within easy walking distance of a few small groceries (just a few steps from the building), as well as 3 larger grocery stores, shops, restaurants, gyms, bakeries, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and two shopping malls, one of which has a Starbucks, Burger King and other fast food options. There are lots of decent cheap- to mid-range restaurant selections in the area, including those featuring Italian, Japanese, Thai, Spanish, Lebanese and Moroccan specialties. It is very easy to get around on foot in the neighborhood, and taxis are readily available on the street (or via the phone) at all hours of the day and night.
ASM faculty who live in school housing can often be found socializing together in their apartments, on the building rooftop or out on the town. There is an active nightlife in Marrakesh, including nightclubs and an English-language weekly quiz night at a local restaurant. Invitations to social events such as Thanksgiving and birthdays are usually widely distributed throughout the staff community and often include families. There’s a private FB group for teachers that will keep you well-informed of unofficial gatherings, dinners, grocery runs, etc. It is administered by volunteers and can be joined upon arrival in Marrakesh.
Our school is located about 20 minutes from the faculty apartments, and most faculty members rely on the school bus to take them to and from school. If it is ever necessary to get back into town during the day, there is a public bus that runs regularly from right outside the school gate. Faculty who choose to rely on school and public transportation during the work week have the option of renting a car on the weekend or during holidays to be able to explore without having to rely on public transportation. In past years, teachers have scheduled weekend trips together using hired vans to visit places such as the dunes at Merzouga and to go whitewater rafting and camping near the Bin el Ouidane dam. It is probably only if you plan to stay more than 2 years that you may think about investing in a car to be able to get out more on the weekends, sleep in on weekdays, and run errands more easily, but most people get by without. Faculty members who end up getting cars are usually those with kids.
There are several weekend destinations that are close and cheap to reach from Marrakesh – beaches in Essaouira and Agadir, hiking in the Ourika Valley and High Atlas range, waterfalls at Setti Fatima and Ouzoud, zip lining near Tahanaout, skiing in Oukaimden, shopping in Casablanca and others. The highway system in Morocco is relatively new, and it is easy and quick to get to points north and south on the map. It is also possible to reach continental Europe by ferry crossing from Tangier in the north. Interurban taxis, hired drivers, trains and buses make it possible to visit the beautiful mountains outside of Marrakesh (1-2 hours), numerous beach towns (2.5-4 hours) or the desert (less than a day’s drive). Many faculty members use school holidays and long weekends to travel within Morocco or to Europe (which can be very cheap directly from Marrakesh using carriers such as Easy Jet, Ryanair and Vueling).
Expat salaries for ASM employees, while modest by U.S. standards, provide for a very comfortable lifestyle here. It is very common here for expats and locals to rely on at least part-time domestic help. Depending on your priorities, your salary may allow you to pay off debt, travel extensively or save!! The overall cost of living in Morocco is very reasonable, and staples such as fruits, vegetables, bread, milk, rice, lentils, etc. are typically very fresh and just a fraction of the cost of home. In contrast, meat, poultry and fish, and just about anything imported (cheese, peanut butter, breakfast cereal, etc.) tend to be quite pricey. Please contact the school to see about the availability of any food items you wish to bring. You may be surprised to find that you can get most food items here now, including gluten-free items (at a price). It is easy to find a variety of goods, including adult and kids’ clothing, shoes and toys/games in any price range; however you will pay significantly for quality. You may wish to consider paying for an extra bag or two to bring along what you think you will need for the year or until your next trip home.
Upon receiving residency papers and opening a bank account, expats are legally allowed to export the majority of their salary. Because it may take at least a few months to establish residency, it’s important to make sure you have money set aside at home to cover at least a few months of payments, especially if you have a mortgage or other important bills to pay. Unfortunately, bureaucracy in Morocco is not known to be efficient nor particularly easy to negotiate! Make sure to bring along all necessary paperwork for you and any accompanying family members (birth and marriage certificates, police background checks, college transcripts and diplomas, etc.).
Regarding safety, please keep in mind that Marrakesh is a “big” city like many others, and crimes of opportunity are not infrequent. Just as you wouldn’t leave a bike unlocked, walk with a large purse, carry large sums of money or important IDs, use a flashy cell phone on the street, or walk alone at night in other big cities, it’s important to employ that same common sense in Marrakesh. That being said, however, Marrakesh is quite safe and is considered to be an excellent place to raise kids. If you are bringing your family to Marrakesh, you should know that kids are treated with great affection and are a super way to make inroads with local shopkeepers, neighbors, parents at school, etc.
The extremes in weather here are something often unexpected by new residents. When you arrive in the summer it will be very hot (temps in the 90-120 degrees Fahrenheit range are not unusual) for a few months, followed by a short fall and then winter temps that usually begin in November and last through February. The temperature range can be quite shocking in the winter, with hot daytime temperatures in the sun and cold temperatures at night, as well as in the shade and indoors. Definitely bring layers and lots of fleece, if possible. Please be mindful of Moroccan culture when choosing which outfits to bring. Despite the hot temperatures, you should be appropriately dressed so as not to offend. Of course, you can certainly don a bathing suit to go swimming at the beach or pool, but in town and at school, it is best to dress a bit more conservatively to avoid negative attention. This advice would include covering your shoulders and your legs to the knees and avoiding cleavage-bearing tops. Currently the school uses space heaters in the winter and fans when it’s hot, and only a few rooms are air conditioned, although there are plans to install central air and heat! Your apartment will have air/heat in the living room and in the bedroom.
After a few weeks of drinking bottled water, it should be quite easy to transition to tap water inside the city. Tap water in Marrakesh is of excellent quality and taste. After a short adjustment period of drinking bottled water, having a few Nalgene bottles handy will allow you to avoid the expense of bottled water and the need to recycle hundreds of plastic bottles.
Regarding health coverage, school employees have comprehensive coverage which covers a wide range of illnesses and conditions. Unlike the co-pay system in the U.S., here it is necessary to pay cash up front for doctors’ visits, prescriptions, lab work, etc. Sometimes the insurance company will send you to a doctor of its choice for a follow-up visit – especially for expensive claims – to make sure you have the problem you’ve been diagnosed with or to verify that you’ve done what the paperwork says you’ve done (dental work, change in eyeglass prescription, etc.). Occasionally, you need to get pre-approval – especially for dental work, orthodontics, non-emergency surgical procedures, etc. Upon presenting all necessary paperwork and prescription boxes (and paper inserts) you will usually be reimbursed 90% of what you’ve paid, unless you’ve surpassed the allowable limit. There are a number of English- and French-speaking specialists in town, and it is usually quite easy to get doctor’s appointments, as necessary.
At school there is a faculty room and adjoining large balcony with a few picnic tables. On clear days in the winter, there is a breathtaking view of the High Atlas Mountains. The fact that the air is fresh outside of town is a major bonus. The campus is spacious with room for growth. The Administrative offices in the middle of the school provide the physical division for the Upper School and Lower School/Pre-School. Most classes are equipped with mounted projectors and/or interactive whiteboards, and all teachers have a desktop PC in their rooms. There are two spaces (faculty room and a wing off of the library) where there are computers and printers for faculty use, in addition to the computer lab.
In coming to Morocco, the essential thing is that you are flexible, open-minded and have a good sense of humor. This applies to school and life in Morocco. Please recognize, for example, that the school calendar is not entirely fixed in stone when it is published, as it is the sighting of the new moon each lunar month that determines when certain Muslim holidays fall. Sometimes buying tickets in advance to travel in anticipation of a holiday is not prudent, as the official date of the holiday is unknown until it is announced based on the lunar sighting and you may end up having school for an extra day before the holiday. We celebrate all Muslim religious holidays and also have a two-week winter break, a two-week spring break and typically some type of short mid-term holiday in the fall and winter. Marrakesh is an excellent destination for visitors, and almost all expat faculty members have visitors from abroad at some point during their stay.
We look forward to welcoming you to our school, our community and the great city of Marrakesh when you arrive!