Trading work for lodging in Morocco

“Welcome to Dar Naima,” I exclaimed, as I ushered two Spanish tourists into the opulent parlor of a Moroccan guesthouse in Fez.

The visitors looked slightly perplexed — not because an American was greeting them, an origin story I would later share, but because of the man lurking in the doorway, his face several shades of agitation.

“He wants us to pay him, but we didn’t ask him to carry our luggage,” said one of the sisters, who were traveling around Morocco together.

I explained that porters linger in the parking areas outside the medina and will cart bags through the car-free zone, sometimes without asking first. To defuse the situation, I reached into my wallet, pulled out a 10-dirham coin and paid the man. He asked for 20, but I firmly shook my head, as I had seen my host do. He departed with a huff, and our guests sank into the cushioned couch with relief.

Less than 24 hours on the job — and in the country — I was already fulfilling several of my responsibilities as a work exchange volunteer. (I presumed paying off the disgruntled porter fell under “guest assistance.”) I had flown a red-eye from Washington to Casablanca and caught about a four-hour train to Fez for the primary purpose of helping out at the hostel — plus several fringe benefits. In return for pitching in wherever and whenever, I received free accommodations, daily breakfast and a sense of contentment knowing that, in some small way, I was alleviating the pain caused by the pandemic.

“We had to close for two years,” said Hannan Diab, the 42-year-old owner who, until several months ago, had been running the property single-handedly. “It has been so hard. We need more people to come.”

For a trip to Morocco, I did something I never thought I’d do: Left the planning to a tour company

The global health crisis has ravaged the travel and tourism sector, causing debilitating hardships. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the industry lost almost $4.9 trillion and 62 million jobs in 2020. In 2021, the industry recouped more than 18.2 million jobs globally, but gaps remain. For instance, the July employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 1.5 million openings in the U.S. leisure and hospitality market, a 74 percent fill rate. The American Hotel & Lodging Association does not expect staffing to return to 2019 levels for at least another two years.

“Demand is back, but hotels can’t fill rooms, because they don’t have the staff,” said Chip Rogers, the association’s president and chief executive. “A lot of people are leaving the industry.”

To attract employees, lodgings are raising wages, offering more flexible schedules and ramping up the benefits, such as covering continuing-education expenses. Others are compensating for the labor shortage by limiting housekeeping, streamlining food-and-beverage menus and relying more on technology, such as mobile check-in, digital keys and room service delivered by robots that resemble paper shredders with personality.

Smaller, independent lodgings without HR departments or a strata of managers can pursue more audacious hiring practices. Bob Monahan, who owns Hostel du Nord in Duluth, Minn., has employed former guests who overstayed their travel budgets. This summer, he welcomed a professor from Mexico City who responded to a “volunteer wanted” post on Worldpackers, a work exchange website.

“He was the best employee I’ve ever had,” Monahan said of the educator, who he said plans to return for a second stint in November.

Though not always advertised, many establishments around the world accept travelers as temporary workers on a quid pro quo basis. The arrangement — to change sheets or wash dishes for room and board — is a win for both sides. The hotel can plug holes in staffing, and for the traveler, the free accommodations and meals can lessen the sting of escalating expenses, which these days include such basic necessities as food and fuel.

“It won’t fill millions of jobs,” Donna Quadri-Felitti, the Marvin Ashner endowed director of Pennsylvania State University’s School of Hospitality Management, said of work exchange programs, “but it is a fun idea.”

To find a volunteer opportunity, you can cold-call — or email or DM — a property. I messaged Heb Hostel in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and received this positive reply: “We ask for 20 hours of work (mostly cleaning with some reception) in exchange for free accommodation in a dorm, free laundry and access to the free food cupboard. Mostly dry foods and some veg.” For more expansive searches with a high rate of success, I also signed up for Worldpackers and its fraternal twin, Workaway.

“Before the pandemic, it was more budget travelers and people on sabbaticals,” Ricardo Lima, the chief executive and co-founder of Worldpackers, said from his home in Brazil. “Now, it is especially used by Gen Z and people who are asking, ‘How can I help?’ ”

Workaway, which was founded 20 years ago, and Worldpackers, which is approximately a decade younger, do not charge to browse. For no cost but eyestrain, you can scan pages of listings, which include such essential information as location, description of tasks, daily time commitment, sleeping accommodations (often shared) and preferred skills or personality type. To apply for a position, however, you must pay an annual membership fee ($49), plus create a profile that is equal parts dating bio and résumé.

The sites corral thousands of opportunities on six continents, such as helping maintain and sail an electric catamaran in New Zealand, care for rescue animals at a shelter on the Galápagos Islands or manage the social media accounts of a desert camp in Jordan. Sympathetic to the struggles of hoteliers, I focused on guesthouses and hostels needing an extra pair of hands in housekeeping or at the front desk.

On Workaway, I discovered a familiar face: a lodge and bakery in Talkeetna, Alaska, where I had spent a weekend chasing down the northern lights and baking pies. In the “Help” section, the owner wrote that she had trimmed the staff down to one (herself). I submitted a request but never heard back. The site’s support team told me this happens and to move on.

In Morocco, 44 hours of lingering in a small village leaves a big impression

So I did, to British Columbia. I corresponded with an inn on Cormorant Island, but the manager later sent me an apologetic note informing me that our calendars were not aligned. A family near the Black Sea in Turkey invited me to their guesthouse to clean rooms, tend the garden, feed the animals and entertain their daughter, but I had to decline because of the region’s fraught political situation. I took a swig of coffee and sent out a second wave of applications — to a hostel on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a boutique hotel in the Austrian Alps, an eco-resort in Costa Rica and a rental property owner in Greece. No matches.

I was about to suspend my quest when a cheer erupted in my inbox: “Andrea, you’ve been chosen to be part of Dar Naima Fes Team as a Worldpacker! Yeah!”

I returned the “Yeah!” in the form of a confirmation.

For two years, no guests slept in Dar Naima’s six private rooms or eight-bed dormitory. No visitors sat down for a traditional Moroccan breakfast on the rooftop terrace. No new voices filled the 600-year-old riad inhabited by five generations of one Fez family.

Pre-pandemic, a staff of three cared for up to 30 international guests. The hostel reopened in March, and one employee — the tireless Amina Tawssi — has been cooking and cleaning six days a week for a trickle of primarily European visitors.

“I hope we can get back to three staff in December,” Hannan, the owner, said one evening, when we were eating grapes and drinking mint tea under a periwinkle North African sky.

I was the fourth laborer to land on Dar Naima’s doorstep. My predecessor, a Colombian woman who stayed for a month, taught Spanish to Hannan and produced alluring videos for the property’s Instagram account. My assets, I soon discovered, were my strong legs and native tongue.

Hannan put me on breakfast duty, which, as I informed guests during check-in, “is served on the terrace between 9 and 10:30.” However, when adjusted for Moroccan time and the volunteer’s jet lag, breakfast actually started closer to half past the hour.

The staff had previously prepared the morning meal in the rooftop kitchen, which the riad’s restaurant also used before it temporarily shuttered. (Morocco last suspended air travel in November and restored service in February.) Hannan was waiting for a part to repair the fridge. This meant that Amina had to whip up breakfast in the second-floor kitchen, and I had to scale several flights of steep steps carrying a silver tray laden with a carafe of coffee, a silver pot of tea, breads with spreads and eggs in a ceramic tagine pot. I often had to repeat trips when Amina would notice my empty hands, pantomime “tray” and point to the stairs.

In addition to serving, I was also a sous chef. My first job was to fill the tagine condiment vessels with strawberry and apricot jams and margarine. I graduated to squeezing oranges for the juice (an electric juicer, thankfully, so no wrist strain to hamper my tray-carrying duties) and slicing baguettes purchased from the charmingly gruff vendor around the corner. Amina, who was warming to my presence in her personal space, taught me a few skills along the way, such as how to make the sacred mint tea. On my third morning, she presented me with my very own apron.

“This is the best breakfast I have had in Morocco,” a Russian guest named Alex said as I cleared his table. I passed the compliment on to the Arabic-speaking chef, giving a thumbs-up over the empty plates. (A possible misinterpretation of my charade: I nailed busing the tables.)

Hannan typically did not need me again until later in the day, when I checked in guests or replied in English to booking requests. One afternoon, when we were not expecting any new arrivals, she showed me an English-language workbook. “I need help with verb tenses,” she said. Her 15-year-old son, Mohammed, joined us at the outdoor table. I quickly realized they had a firmer grasp of English grammar than I did. “I know how to say it but not why,” I admitted to my students.

Hannan suggested I watch YouTube videos of Molly Stone, an English as a second language educator, to improve my understanding of the language and sharpen my teaching skills. That night, as children squealed and cats howled beneath my window, I prepared for our next lesson. “Present continuous in the future,” I wrote in my notebook, which also contained a few Arabic words I was planning to try out on Amina.

Between my shifts, I wandered around the medina, forcing myself to navigate the maze of shops without the aid of GPS and testing my resolve not to buy any pottery, carpets, baskets or spices. (I aced one challenge and failed the other.) I took air-conditioned breaks at Carrefour, a French supermarket in the newer part of Fez. While there, I would pick up apples and carrots for the patients at American Fondouk, a charitable hospital for horses and donkeys along my route. I chatted with guests about their adventures to Meknes and the Merenid Tombs but never visited either. I didn’t want to stray too far, in case duty called.

“I need you,” Hannan texted me one morning on WhatsApp. I turned back from my walk to receive my assignment: Transfer the information from the guests’ contact forms to the registration book. “I don’t have time to do it,” she told me, as she attempted to herd her four children like a shepherd with a rogue flock.

A few days later, while at a pottery factory outside the medina, I received an urgent call from Alex, the Russian guest. He had departed with the room key. We triangulated a pickup, dispatching Hannan’s husband to the train station minutes before boarding time. I felt as if I had stumbled into a Jason Bourne plot, with less dire risks.

At some point during my two-week stay, I transcended from hired help to honorary family member. On Hannan’s day off, a Sunday, I held the riad down while she took her family swimming. She sent me a photo of a clear blue river and a promise to bring me along next time. The following weekend, she informed me that we were going to Carrefour (shorthand for the mall that also houses the supermarket) and the Atlas Mountains to visit cousins. We piled into her husband’s compact car, parents in the front, me squished in the back with the kids. Her husband stopped the car, and three of us jumped out.

Hannan, her 7-year-old daughter, Hiba, and I walked hand-in-hand down narrow medieval lanes to a hair salon. Hiba wanted her hair straightened for the first day of school. I waited on the couch with the moms, encouraging her through the mirror to stay strong as the stylist annihilated her curls with what looked like a ray gun. Afterward, we hailed a taxi to Carrefour — the Atlas outing had been inexplicably axed — for back-to-school shopping and ice cream, a universal ritual.

Hannan left me in charge of Hiba, so she could buy clothes without her daughter’s sartorial objections. Steps from home, we climbed to the top deck of a restaurant. I ordered a honey, ginger and lemon drink for myself and a pot of honey for Hiba. We curled up on one of the restaurant’s couches and watched Disney videos until work roused us from our sugar-induced stupor: A Californian wanted to settle her bill.

I departed on the same morning as the last guest I had checked in, an Italian residing in Madrid. Hannan handed me a gift — a tagine condiment holder, a piece of dishware I knew all too well — and invited me to breakfast with her mother, who lived in the riad. Amina joined us, the four ladies of the manor gathered around the table one final time.

On her phone, Hannan showed me a request from a Worldpacker volunteer from Brazil. I read his profile and approved. “Can you reply to him, please?” she asked me.

I started typing away in English. “We would love to have you come help out at the hostel,” I wrote, before changing the “We” to “I.”

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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