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07 July, 2010

Vacation in Morocco

As an entry point, Tangier doesn’t do Morocco justice- think Morocco’s “Rocky Point”- It’s mildly seed, slightly over-developed, and caters to the young European tourists with a fine beach dotted with nightclubs. Tangier may have its pleasant spots, but we didn’t stick around long enough to find them. Not long after arriving, we took a 4.5 hour bus to the town of Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen is one of those spectacular places you’ve seen pictures of all your life and never knew its name. It’s affectionately termed “the blue city” for its breathtaking characteristic of having had all its walls painted ice blue. The effect is particularly impressive given that the city is a traditional old medina, which means that all houses are built together into what is essentially an expansive adobe Kasbah cut into organic sections by undulating open-air hallways with the occasional archway. The city is also picturesque for its location nestled high on one side of soaring, verdant mountaintops. Multiple steep hikes offer impressive views overlooking the quaint old medina. The main trailhead is positioned just outside the city wall, where a cascading waterfall has been retrofitted to double as a Laundromat and swimming hole. Gazebos on each side of the river house rock wash basins. Water is siphoned to these structures, which each day attract hoards of women who carry their dirty clothes to the site and wash them in nearly the same was the people of this town have for centuries. Their children help carry the clothes and then find a splashing spot in the lagoons to spend the rest of the morning. Beyond the beauty of this place, it provides serenity little known to the tourists of northern Morocco.

After two days hiking around “the blue city”, it was time to move on to the decidedly less peaceful city of Fez. Fez is a “must-see” for many Moroccan tourists, but as I have said before, it can be overwhelming. Karen, for legitimate reasons, had already shown signs of stress upon entering Morocco. Our relatively relaxing time in Chefchaouen had ameliorated the situation a bit, but after another long bus ride and the initial shock of the spectacle that is Fez, not to mention checking into our usual hotel- a favorite of volunteers for being cheap and convenient, but perhaps a bit shabby to the uninitiated observer –Karen’s stresses had returned. Add to that occasional adverse reactions to the food, and we were beginning to realize how difficult it can be to travel Morocco in the style we usually do, without the many months we had to get used to the place. Fighting our urges to live like the locals, we tried hard to accommodate; seeking the less trafficked areas and the higher-end fare. The fact remained though, Fez is stressful, and even if we left, we still faced 2 days of bus travel to get back home. By our second day, we had decided to abandon our more ambitious travel plans and take advantage of the decent train systems in the northern half of Morocco. One days train travel got us to Marrakech, where we spent the night, and then a 6 hour bus/taxi ride got us home before dark- even though the second bus overheated within an hour of our house and had to be doused with multiple buckets of water while its passengers waited in the afternoon heat.

Once in the seclusion of our abode, we were all finally able to relax. We stayed in site for five days. We spent the first few days mostly confined to the house enjoying the silence and escaping the heat. Then one afternoon, our tutor and her sister came over with coffee and snack, and stayed for a few hours chatting. The next morning we met them again at their house for breakfast of egg tagine. After breakfast, it was time to start making the rounds and showing Karen of to the rest of our community. First we went to the local health clinic, where we translated shop-talk between our nurses and Karen- who was most recently a school nurse. This mostly consisted of trying to convince the Moroccan staff that nursing is still a difficult job in America despite access to modern technology and better education- they seemed to imagine a hospital environment where nurses just press a button all day. It proved a useful opportunity to fulfill the second goal of Peace Corps; to engender better understanding of America on the part of host-country nationals.

As we were leaving, the cleaning lady at the clinic invited us to her house. That afternoon, after wandering through the fields, we met her at her house. She fed us tea, bread, cookies, and almonds, and then walked us to her relative’s house, where we chatted briefly with lots of her family. Finally, we made the long walk to the fields so that she could cut her daily supply of animal feed. When we arrived, I offered to help, and suggested a race. She was very excited about this idea, responding with the Berber equivalent of “Bring it white boy”! I was soon declared the looser, despite a decent showing. When I complained that my cutting tool wasn’t sharp, she snapped back smartly with, “you’re not sharp”. We each took our turn collecting some of the weeds, and then our host suggested that we wanted around the fields and look at the aquaducts while she finished up. We did this for a little while, and when it seemed to be getting late, we wandered back, where we found our host twenty feet off the ground in a tree, snapping branches off and throwing them down to another woman below. “Hey”, she said, “Ready to go”? She climbed down, grabbed some of the branches, packed them into a large wicker basket already full of cut weeds, and tossed the whole thing onto her back. When we were within sight of her house, she let Amber and Karen each take a turn carrying the basket, which they were happy to do, and which she got endless enjoyment out of- the idea of a foreigners doing hard labor is hysterical to most Moroccans. She still talks about it.

The next day we did some English speaking, which must have been a relief to Karen. In the morning, we visited the director of the post office for tea. He speaks impressive English, is always welcoming and generous, and has been one of our most helpful unofficial work counterparts. Then, in the afternoon we visited the pharmacist, who studied some English many years ago, and who I have been tutoring in English over the last few weeks. Soft-spoken and blithe, he offered us a light supper, while we gave him the opportunity to practice his newly acquired language skills.

Having visited most of our favorite community members- except for our host-family who were regrettably out of town – it was time to leave site again, and make our way to the world-famous “Gnawa Music Fest” in Essaouira! Essaouira is a gorgeous, well-designed city, with beautiful beaches and a laid-back attitude. Known for its fresh fish, the old medina is built right up against the ocean, waves lapping against its rampart walls. The Music Festival the city hosts each year invites a wide range of world music, but is named for the Moroccan style of music called “Gnawa”. Developed by Moroccan slaves from southern Africa, Gnawa is bluesy, but upbeat. It is usually played with a 3-string rebab and handheld metal cymbals, which are woven with soulful stories mixing TashlHite, Arabic, and the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, so that even native Moroccans struggle to understand the lyrics.

We had arranged to stay with some of our favorite volunteer friends in a rented house for the duration of the festival, so we met up with them and got settled in to our temporary digs. Then we went out in search renowned grilled fish stalls. We found our target a short time later; a number of stalls lined up facing the ocean, each one with a table full of fresh fish displayed at its entrance. The fish is sold by weight and is grilled up promptly after you hand pick it from the selection. Unable to decide, I asked for a mixed plate which came with divine shrimp, sole, sardines, calamari, and a steak of something else I didn’t recognize; maybe shark. As we enjoyed our meal, the sun set on the water in front of us and the music began.

Most of the festival music begins in late afternoon and lasts until 3 or 4am the following morning. At least five stages are set up in various locations around Essaouira. Two are directly on the beach, and the main stage is positioned in front of a huge open plaza overlooking the ocean. We were eating next to this stage, and were drawn into the crowd when we finished out meals. A Gnawa style band was performing with a collection of other musicians who seemed to represent a healthy cross-section of world music. Together they thrilled the crowd with jazzy improvisation over a seductive beat. Colorful beams of light shot out into the night. People stepped, twisted, and gyrated. Children moshed, couples swayed, teenagers break-danced, and friends did the conga line; everybody smiled.

I could probably go into more detail about the rest of our time in Essaouira, but I wouldn’t do it justice. In the mornings, we would sleep in and then head to the beaches; swimming and laying in the sand. Tens of PCVs had come to the festival so we were constantly running into and spending time with all of our friends. As the sun started to fall, we would seek out delicious dinners and then make our way to the stages. It went like that for 2 ½ wonderful days. When it was all over, we spent one last night with Karen in Marrakech. We met up with two great volunteer friends of ours and had a delicious meal of Moroccan specialties- Pigeon Pastilla, classic goat tagine, and “Tangia” a cured meat unique to Marrakech. The restaurant was on the second floor with a balcony hanging over the “Jmaa Al-Fna”, perhaps the most famous spot in all of Morocco. It teemed with humanity, a cacophony of sounds and smells wafting our direction. The smiles that we all found in Essaouira, were still being worn. And though Karen’s trip was not all relaxing and attractive, it was a full representation of Morocco. That is what I love about Morocco; the excitement, the surprise, the excess, the variety. It’s what I hope to remember, and it’s what I’m glad Karen could experience.

05 July, 2010

Catching Up

Things have been busy for us the last few months. Since last I blogged, we’ve had three visits from friends abroad, attended and/or participated in three impressive Moroccan festivals, completed our annual medical checkups, crossed the Straight of Gibraltar; spending three wonderful days in Spain, traversed most of Morocco’s roads and rails north of Ouarzazate, visited Fez twice and Marrakech more times that I’d like to recall, lounged on beaches all along the Atlantic, and discovered my dreams while dipping in and out of minor emotional breakdowns and bouts of exultation.
Not long after our one week High School Spring Camp in Ouarzazate, we zipped up to Marrakech for a quick weekend to meet our friends Chris and Courtney- another married couple currently serving in Peace Corps Albania. Together we wandered the loud streets of Kech in true Peace Corps style; speaking the local languages, savagely bargaining for prices, and seeking out the dingy local hangouts for cheap, delicious, traditional Moroccan cuisine. Though we hadn’t seen Chris and Courtney for years, the special bond that comes from sharing the Peace Corps experience soon had us acting like age-old friends. We shared our successes and our trials, complained about the difficulties of accomplishing work, and related stories contrasting cultural nuances in our two Islamic homes. We also expressed our hopes and concerns for the future. The result of which, was evidence that Peace Corps changes the way people think about their lives. It is difficult to find a PCV who does not think about their future in terms of how they will impact the community and the people around them. The four of us were certainly no exception (more on my dreams to come).
Sad to see them go so soon, we said goodbye to our friends after only a couple days, and headed back to our site refreshed and invigorated. When we arrived, we were greeted with seemly utter apathy. Probably just bad timing, but it seemed that the only person excited to see us was our landlord, who was much more concerned with our house plants getting watered than the fact that we were home. Meanwhile we were coming to the end of many months of preparation for a huge project at the Rose Festival in the city of Kelaat M’Gouna, scheduled for the first weekend in May. As a result, our work focus was not on our site. In fact, we would be spending many days out of our site over the next month working with other volunteers and local leaders to finalize our program. In the weeks leading up to the Festival, we arranged multiple training sessions for local professionals and youth leaders based on a unified message on AIDS and STIs created by us and endorsed by the Ministry of Health. We also jumped through numerous bureaucratic hoops and even managed to acquire signed and stamped “certificates of training completion” and “certificates of appreciation” for our local Moroccan volunteers, who numbered in the forties.
During all the planning leading up to the Festival, we took another long weekend to meet up with our friend Ben. He was in Rabat on work, and had the weekend free to sightsee. We met him in Rabat where we enjoyed the low hassle atmosphere of medina souqs, visited the beautiful Roman ruins, and enjoyed nice weather and breezes coming of the ocean waves on the beach. We then accompanied him to Fez- the ancient medina known for its incredible array of handicrafts and mazelike alleys. Of course, the atmosphere here was quite different. An endless barrage of sales tactics in thick accents left us overwhelmed and exhausted by the first night. The next day, we opted for a walk up the hill overlooking the medina to enjoy its splendor without the constant hassle of vendors. When our eyes were full of the picturesque views, we wandered back down into the city’s winding walls and made our way to the English-owned, expat getaway known as the Café Clock. We sat on the roof patio of the beautifully renovated three story riad, and reflected on the good and bad of Fez. It was mutually decided, that we need not see another Tourist Souq as long as we all shall live. Of course, Ben still had some shopping to do, so within the hour we were back in the maze scouting products and prices. Luckily the midday crowd had not materialized and we found our task slightly more achievable. As we left Fez in a much delayed train that was standing room only, a thought to myself, “Never again; leave Fez to its inhabitants”. We finally arrived back in Rabat and got a hotel about 8hrs before Ben would have to catch a cab to the Airport. We dropped off our luggage, went out for a late shwarma dinner, and finally hit the hay with a few hours to spare before our 4am alarms began to sound. After seeing Ben off in a taxi, I wandered over to the bus station, and sat in the peaceful predawn darkness of Rabat waiting for the 6 o’clock train. I would be home roughly 12 hours later with some unfortunate surprises.
Amber had left from Fez the day before to attend a work meeting in Kelaat M’Gouna. So when I got home, I was expecting a lonely house. Sadly the house was even emptier than I had anticipated, because our adored cat Igli had run away. The sadness this event caused me would build up over the next week as I continued to expect him to be in all his favorite hangouts- waiting for me at the bedroom door when woke up in the morning, running laps on the roof while we lay in bed, jumping on my lap as soon as I sat down, or taking my seat as soon as I stood up. His absence affected me much more that I could have expected. After a few days I was really pretty miserable. It was then that I received a text from Amber informing me that her bag, including our little laptop, had been stolen from inside another volunteer’s house when the door was left open one evening. The combination of my cat and computer leaving me in the same week was too much to handle (I have learned that I don’t take loss well). I fell into a deep emotional breakdown accompanied by all the obligatory, fluctuating feelings of antipathy for the people of Morocco; who I came to help, and who repay me by constantly saying “bon jour”, hassling me anytime I walk by a store, and now by outright theft! In addition, to these fervid, albeit irrational emotions, I was also beginning to question my effectiveness as a volunteer. I did come here to help, and I did expect to compromise my comfort in the meantime, but am I even being helpful? Is it worth it? Should I leave? or maybe spend the rest of my time here reading novels and ignoring my work?
Luckily, these feelings arose on the eve of the Rose Festival. A large group of volunteers expected me and needed me to work. I quelled my emotions and continued to do my job, telling myself I would address these thoughts as soon as the Festival was over. As the 3-day festival went on however, my concerns began to fade. When it was over, we had educated over 2500 people on the dangers and prevention tactics of AIDS and STIs, and had worked with a local association to test over 500 people for HIV. That is not to mention the 40+ Moroccan volunteers who we thoroughly trained prior to the festival, many of whom have already expressed an interest in doing other projects in their towns. In other words, it was one of the most successful projects to date. How could I question my effectiveness when I participated in such a successful project? And how could I question the goodness of Moroccans, when it was Moroccan volunteers and associations who made it all possible? I resolved to miss my cat and my computer without letting it affect my work and my goals here in Morocco.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t have had time to address my emotions anyway, because the morning following the festival, we all woke up early and caught a bus headed north. I was headed back to Rabat yet again; this time for our one-year anniversary medical exams. Between shots, dental cleanings, and pooping in cups, we enjoyed our time in Rabat by eating food that doesn’t exist in the less cosmopolitan areas of Morocco, and restocking our dressers with new clothes to replace the worn and faded ones we brought here a year ago.
A week later we were on our way back home again, refreshed, happy, and healthy (except for the amoeba which was discovered to be living in my gut… but seems to cause no symptoms). Finally home again, we made efforts to continue our four weekly English classes- two for students at the middle school, one open to anyone in our neighborhood, and one advanced class for men. These classes proved successful both because students continued to show up and seemed to genuinely enjoy the classes, and also because of how much our student’s English skills improved over a relatively short period of time. As an unexpected bonus, I was beginning to discover a love of language I did not know I had. The period of time during and shortly after each of these classes, I would glow with pride for my lessons and my student’s improvements; feeling absolutely satisfied. In fact, I realized that it’s not just teaching language that I love, but also learning it. I often find myself boring volunteers with a lesser penchant for language, as I explain “interesting” discoveries about TashlHite or Darija. It should be noted that this fondness for language education and acquisition has not resulted in my being good at language. In fact, I believe I am probably below average at language learning. My fondness of learning it and my persistence to continue studying are the only reasons that I am able to speak TashlHite at an average level.
My lack of ability to learn language, however, does have its advantages. Combined with my fondness for language, it seems to make me an excellent language teacher. Faced with my own language acquisition snags, I have developed lots of strategies for learning, which can be applied in the classroom. In addition, I understand the mistakes, difficulties, and potential barriers my students face, which makes me more patient and more likely to adjust the curriculum to fit their needs. Finally, I find that when I bring my passion for language into the classroom, it is contagious and students begin to have fun learning just like I do.
As I slowly began to realize these facts over the course of a few weeks in my site, my life goals seemed to be forming in front of me. I had been planning to go back to grad school when I finished in Morocco, but until recently, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I have always flirted with the idea of teaching, but never knew who or what I would want to teach. Of course I have much research still to do, but now I am seriously considering getting a teaching degree with a focus on language and culture. I am really excited about the possibilities this could afford me and the people whose live I may someday impact! It’s also a great way for me to incorporate the design, problem solving, and leadership experience of my past, with the unique language, cultural, community development, and education experiences of Peace Corps. I just have to remember not to lose sight of my more immediate goals in Morocco; which brings me back to my current language classes.
The classes were so successful that even though we were only scheduled through the end of the school year, students opted to continue taking them over the summer months. The classes, however, were put on hold for one month, so that we could help out with a 3-day World Environment Day Festival in the town of Taghssa and to take a vacation.
The Taghssa World Education Day Festival was impressively executed and run by the teachers of the town. These teachers asked some Peace Corps volunteers to come and do a few hours of education activities scheduled on the second day of the Festival. As a group, we decided to prepare lessons and activities for proper teeth care and trash prevention/disposal to a group of about 100 children, and Moroccan Women’s Rights and trash prevention/disposal to a group of about 50 women. In preparation for the activities, I made a massive set of teeth from plastic bottles painted white, and a huge toothbrush to match. I also prepared some posters illustrating proper disposal of garbage and examples of handicrafts created by reusing garbage like crocheted and knit items and friendship bracelets out of yarn made from used plastic bags. On the day of our lessons, the roughly 100 students piled in a mid-sized classroom and sat on a woven plastic carpet stretched out on the floor. Meanwhile, teachers from the school tried to set up a projector and speakers for some movies we brought. After almost an hour of the students sitting patiently on the floor waiting, it was decided that the projector wouldn’t work, so we begin without it, and did a fun teeth-cleaning and safety presentation without the video. We used lots of props and got the kids to participate by picking out foods that are good and bad for teeth and by showing how to brush teeth with the giant teeth and brush. When we were done, the students were excused to run around outside while we took a small break and drank tea. While we drank, we discussed not being able to use the video we brought about trash prevention and decided to supplement the presentation with a few small plays. We threw them together over the next few minutes, while the children piled back into the classroom. We took our positions and acted out the rough parts we had created- with much improvisation (all in TashlHite of course). Each act was a sensation followed by great applause from the children. When we were done, we explained the points we were trying to make with the plays and asked questions to gauge the students understanding. We also showed them the posters of how to properly dispose of trash and then brought in a bag of garbage and asked them to properly dispose of each item. Finally, we had them guess how long various items take to decompose, which they found amazing. Again the children were excused so that we could prepare for the women. As the women began filing in, it was suggested that the male volunteers leave, so as not to make the women uncomfortable. The remaining women volunteers eventually presented the chosen topics to the women while my volunteer friend Cory and I wandered around making small talk, sipping tea, and in my case, taking a short hike up the canyon to watch a beautiful sunset go down over the valley. I was told later that the women were thrilled and inspired by the reused garbage handicraft ideas that I made. One woman asked if she could keep one, and another woman got really excited and brought in another reused garbage handicraft idea she had created. While I take no credit for the success of the Festival, which was beautifully executed by the teachers of Taghssa, I was pleased to participate, and take advantage of such a well prepared event in which to educate.
Sadly we could not stay to see the final day of the festival. Instead Amber and I took the only transportation out of town at 6am to get back to our site. We had only one day to pack and prepare our house before we left for our vacation. The following morning, we made a quick trip into town for some last-minute paperwork and stopped at the pharmacy for some Dramamine. Then we hopped a taxi out of town and headed north. It took 2 ½ days of travel to get to Tangier where we paid a ridiculous amount for ferry tickets to Spain. We dealt with some paperwork problems as a result of Amber’s passport being stolen, and then waited in a long line of excited tourists. When we finally got on the ferry, I experienced the most intense culture shock to date. The ferry was actually more like a cruise ship. It had a bar, club-like atmosphere, spiral stairs leading to a second story, etc. All the prices were in Euros of which I had none, and everyone around me was non-Moroccan- mostly speaking English but with various accents- except for one woman who claimed to speak Tashlite, but clearly couldn’t (at least with any discernable dialect I am aware of). In my fragile state, I was shocked into taking a step backwards when the bathroom sink ran with hot water. I tried to stay calm; watching the lapping waves and the Moroccan mountains fading away behind us.
When we arrived in Spain, in the town of Tarifa, I saw people getting on a bus labeled with the same name as our ferry. I asked where it was going in Spanish and didn’t understand the response, but gathered that it was a free trip. From this we inferred that it was probably a free shuttle into town, maybe even the bus station. We got on and were enjoying the beautiful views of Spain’s countryside, when it suddenly became apparent that we were leaving Tarifa altogether. “Great”, I thought. “Now we are in a country where we don’t speak or understand the language and the first thing we do is get on a bus to god knows where!?” Eventually we pulled into the port of Ageciras where we struggled to change Dirhams in to Euros and find a bus to our desired destination of Jerez. Once that was done, we apprehensively wandered into the city for some food. We stopped at a couple unfriendly cafes and found the prices unbearable (we were still thinking about how many dirhams is in each precious euro). Finally at the corner of a quaint back alley, we saw a Moroccan restraint advertising cheap Moroccan soup. We walked in with new found courage and said, “Salaam Walaikum. Wesh 3andik pisara?(Hello. Got any fava bean soup?”) The restraint staff didn’t skip a beat. They set us down with bread and olives, a bottle of chilled tap water, and some bowls of soup shortly after. We felt so at home; so comfortable. A little bit of home right here in Spain!
Having finished our soup, we wandered back towards the bus station and waited for the bus, which arrived a just a few minutes later. The culture shock and fear of this strange land had faded. In fact, I was quickly beginning to like Spain. By the time we arrived in Jerez, I was excited. Everywhere I looked, Spain seemed to be a celebration of life and beauty; lush fields and gardens, beautifully crafted sculptures, impressively detailed architecture, that was both colorful and playful, clean well planned streets traversed by shiny new public buses and spotted with huge recycling bins, even highly-skilled graffiti lined the walls. And the food….just from what I saw on the other side of the large bus windows, it seemed promising to say the least!
From the bus station we made our way to a hotel, where we met up with Amber’s sister Karen. We spent some excited moments catching up, until finally our stomachs insisted that we wander out and get some dinner. After a brief walk, we settled on a small tapas bar with a diminutive but highly energetic waiter. He begrudgingly gave us menus, which I pored over with great excitement and salivation; nearly everything listed was a delicacy that did not exist in Morocco. Furthermore, the entire concept of ordering numerous samplings of carefully crafted amalgamations of gourmet ingredients spat in the face of the major tenets of Moroccan cuisine- you’ve got four options made from exactly the same seasonal vegetables you just bought yourself at last week’s neighborhood souq (it should be noted that Morocco is known for its amazing food, which is outstanding in moderation, but “lacks intrigue”; if I may euphemize). The delicious little plates of food (“tapas” means “tops” and stems from a practice of serving a morsel of food on top of drinks at the bar) came one after the other; each one devilishly rich and flavorful. I thought I was in heaven; a misconception that persisted during my stay in Spain.
The next day we made our way to the city of Seville, where we would spend two joyous days. We wandered the friendly streets of Seville, spellbound by the beautiful displays of architecture, public plazas, and thin, colorfully painted alleyways adorned with flowers and vines growing from the balconies above. Sights of the beautiful city were augmented by sculpture, paintings, and frequent street performers and musicians.
To further appreciate the musicians of Seville, we attended two Flamenco shows; both passionately performed but atmospherically disparate. The first was held in large old adobe tavern, full of people clamoring with the excitement of a Friday night in Spain. So loud was the din of the crowd, the performers eventually gave up shushing them and stopped early. The second, was a private show held in the intimate, candlelit courtyard of a traditional Moorish riad. The seasoned performers theatrically sputtered across the percussive wooden stage for an audience of no more than forty people, all thoroughly engaged by the ardor of angry floating dancers, and a dirge-belting singer with a voice of velvet gravel.
After long days of experiencing Spain’s capacity for passion and playfulness, I would lay in bed reading “A Chef’s Tour” written by a man who has a similar passion for foods, and thus toured the world in search of the ultimate meal. Along the way, he makes a stop in Southern Spain, where he samples and falls in love with “churros”; a tradition Spanish favorite. My curiosity was piqued by his description of churros, which was very different from the fast food churros of my childhood. The morning after reading this passage, I eagerly questioned the hostel staff about where to get churros for breakfast, and proceeded to drag Amber and Karen along the directions I was given. When finally the dish was before me, I could not have been more satisfied; a plate of four golden, deep-fried, rigged circles of fluffy dough and a mug of thick, rich, slightly sweetened hot chocolate. It was just as it had been described in the pages of the book; nothing like the summer day’s snack of my childhood, and oh so delicious! I wished I could stay forever (though it might have meant frequent and premature heart problems).
Our last day in Spain was spent in the windsurfing town of Tarifa. There we enjoyed walks on the beach, a quick dip in the ocean, and an extended evening of dining at pleasant restaurant serving up a few versions of the day’s freshest catches. Though Tarifa lacked the spirit and depth of Seville, it proved an excellent place to relax. That night, Amber, Karen and I sat on the dimly lit patio of the restaurant, finally giving ourselves the chance to have a great conversation. The next morning we woke recharged and ready to begin the next phase of our journey; Morocco.
A curious law declares that if you take a ferry to Morocco, you must have your passport stamped by Moroccan police before leaving the boat. As a result, a line forms at the police kiosk as passengers enter the ferry. By the time the boat departs, everyone is in line. Since the ride from Tarifa to Tagier is only 35 minutes long, we (and most of the boat’s passengers) spent the entire trip in the passport line. This huge boat with hundreds of plush seats was left to waste, while all its passengers used what amounted to a long hallway’s worth of acreage. I think they would do better to just have a long skinny corridor of a boat, but then again, if you’ve done that, you’re already halfway to making a bridge. Why not just do that? Eventually, we did get our stamps, and we even managed few minutes to sit in our seats before landing. Still, it was maybe not the best first impression Morocco could make. Stay tuned to see how we fared on the rest of our time in Morocco...

08 April, 2010

Revelations at Spring Camp

All last week, Amber and I, along with 8 other PCVs and 10 Moroccan councilors, participated in an English Spring Camp for Moroccan students ages 13-17. About 80 students attended from all over the country, (primarily Taznaghkt, Ouarzazate, Casablanca, and Rabat). Of these, English levels ranged from complete beginner to conversational. For the entire week, all the students and councilors lived together in the same building. Each day, students participated in English classes, sports, activities and afternoon clubs. During the course of the week, there were also two talent shows and a full day field trip to Ait Ben Haddou (the famous kasbah/village that has acted as backdrop from movies like Gladiator and others). Too much happened to possibly explain in one blog post, but two major revelations should be noted.
First of all, I think I learned more about Moroccan culture in this one week, than I have in almost any other time since I arrived. The fact is, I have been learning about only one side of Morocco. This is a country that has naturally divided itself between urban and rural since before it’s borders and governmental structure were even defined. I live and experience the rural side of Morocco, and while I sometimes visit the urban centers, this camp was my first and only chance to closely observe and interact with urban Moroccan culture. More importantly, this camp was unique in that it mixed rural and urban denizens into one function, with infinite opportunities to compare and contrast. Not to mention the fact that camps (think about summer camps you did as a kid) are inherently social/culture activities.
On the first day, almost all the girls from the country wore conservative clothes and “hijab” (headscarves). The Rabatis on the other hand, were all without “hijab“, and in fact, were dressed no more conservatively than American teens at the mall. By the second day, girls from the country were exposing their hair and boys were flipping their collars up, wearing cologne, and gelling their hair. All the city kids were dressed better than me and the other PCVs, who have learned to dress a little “country”. These kids looked fantastic! And they had a change of clothes for every conceivable activity. In addition to their well fitting, brand-name clothes and chic hairdos, city kids also tended to carry with them expensive portable electronics, and in general, had surprisingly high-quality educations compared to the education expectations in rural areas. They were also much more likely to know about the world, to have traveled, and to be trained in some skill or sport like singing or tennis. So am I saying urban Moroccans are better than the rest?
Not by a long shot. What rural students lacked in sophistication and style, they made up for with culture and ingenuity. On the first night, three of the boys from Taznaghkt mesmerized the entire student body for hours in a music circle, with just one hand drum as their instrument. They continued to entertain for the rest of the week with their energetic and captivating music and dance, and a knack for social loafing. They also proved to be excellent language students, making incredible strides towards English proficiency over the week period. Since the majority of students did not speak TashlHite, it could have become the marginalized language, but since most of us volunteers speak Tash instead of Darija (Moroccan Arabic), rural Berber students were often put in leadership positions translating our lessons. And since all Berber speakers also speak Darija, knowing Tash isn’t a detriment, they just have that much more accessibility.
What I got from all this, was a clearer vision for the Morocco of the future. Obviously, Morocco has taken great strides towards development in urban areas. While there are still huge populations living in urban slums (check out the movie “Ali Zaoui” about the homeless of Casa), a respectable percentage of urban Moroccans are getting quality educations, living healthy lifestyles, and being given most of the rights and opportunities that any person can hope for. On the other hand, in the bargaining for quality of life, they traded away important aspects of their culture. Meanwhile, the rural areas are also making large steps towards development, but they are far behind. While they still need to progress in terms of access of education, health care, and infrastructure, it is important that they keep a firm eye on the special assets they do have; a unique quality of life that comes from depth of culture and social unity.
These two sides of Morocco can help each other to create one great Moroccan society. I witnessed rural children who taught kids from Casablanca how to drum, play the banjo, and sing traditional Moroccan songs. But I also witnessed children from Rabat teaching rural students about the dangers of AIDS and the negative health effects of eating too much oil or sugar. Most importantly, I witnessed students whose parents speak different languages and with opposite socioeconomic backgrounds, become best friends over night. These are people who can help each other. They just need to be told they are helpful. Which brings me to my second revelation...
I have been here in Morocco for over a year now. I have been working in my site for over 10 months with the singular goal of local community development. I have tried to approach this goal with a constant consideration for sustainability and future impact. As a result, I have focused most of my efforts on large scale projects, which are seemingly more sustainable because they can effect an issue more holistically. But working with students at the Spring Camp made me question this approach.
Without a doubt, we made a huge difference in these students lives. One student was completely unknown by the volunteer in his town, and by the end of the camp, he was so inspired, he single-handedly conceived of recording interviews with students and teachers to show on the last day of camp. A timid young girl from Rabat whose artwork shined in my AIDS/Art club, became a confident advocate for AIDS awareness at the end of the week awards show when I recognized her for her talent and asked her to tell the audience what she learned. A week long troublemaker exercised his demons when he discovered a natural talent for English numbers in the Beginners English class I assisted. A self-proclaimed “awkward computer nerd” from Ouarzazate, spent the entire last afternoon of camp rehearsing a play he wrote in English with the most popular girl from camp. In the play, which they performed live at the Finale Talent Show, and which received loud ovation, he proposes to her over a romantic dinner. And all I had to do was be there to encourage him when fear reared its ugly head. Each of the PCVs connected with students in this way. These kids blossomed into greatness in just one week!
Our success with these students was not derived from a holistic approach, but rather, from a one-on-one approach. With this new wisdom, when I think back to the most important impacts that I have made in the last year, none of them are the fruits of large projects. They are human-scale interactions. Like recognizing artistic skill in my friend who works at the cyber, and teaching him how to use Photoshop. Or empowering our neighbor/tutor enough for her to create a women’s association, just by being here and believing in her intelligence and perseverance. This leads me to believe that people do not need help, but rather, they need to know how they can help. They don’t need to be taught skills, they need their existing skills to be acknowledged. They don’t need to be shown how to do things, they need to be seen for what they do. They need to be respected and celebrated. The rest, they can do the for themselves.

Technological Advancement in Barbarism

This story starts out a bit like a fairytale, but I assure you its not! My host sister is married to a man whose family lives just next door to the house where she grew up, in a kasbah overlooking the fields. She was married in triple wedding so that her husband and his two brothers were all married to different women at the same time. While the three brides now live in the kasbah, taking turns doing household chores and animal husbandry, the three brothers work and live in Saudi Arabia doing fancy plasterwork for rich Saudis. The company that employs them has even worked on Saudi royal palaces. That is, according to one of the brothers, who recently came home to spend his three month vacation with his wife and daughter. While he was home, we had the opportunity to meet him at his house.
We met him as we were walking in and he invited us to sit down for some tea and cookies. We quickly recognized him as a really nice guy; generous, with an easy smile. Once we got past the usual get-to-know-you questions, he pulled out his fancy Saudi cell phone and proceeded to show us pictures and videos he had taken there. He showed us some pictures of some of the plasterwork he has done. He showed us a video of him and a few other guys making coucous in their apartment in Saudi. Then he should me a mildly religious video, in which a huge crack opens up in the middle of a multi-lane highway and swallows up a car; a phenomenon that the video claims is an act of god for whatever sin the driver committed before attempting to drive to work that day. While I didn’t buy the last part, I have to say, he had my full attention.
In the final video, a man wearing all white was kneeling outside on what seemed like a prayer mat. In fact, I assumed he was praying. A circle of men stood around him watching, which made me thing he might be an imam or a street performer. Suddenly, a man standing a few feet away on his right made a quick, grand motion, stepping toward the kneeling man and swinging his arms down. Like that, the kneeling man’s head was gone. He had been publicly executed. The executioner had used a sword, barely visible in the video. At first I thought it was a clip from a movie or the internet, but my tea-drinking acquaintance set me straight. He had taken the video, in person, in a public square in Saudi Arabia. That’s because, as you may recall, public execution by beheading is still normal in Saudi Arabia. I asked him if the stealing thing still holds true, and sure enough, he told me; depending on what you steal, you can get anything from a finger to your whole arm cut off. So I asked the next logical question (despite still being completely shocked and appalled), “Is there any theft in Saudi Arabia”? The answer, he said, was absolutely not. He said you could leave a stack of money unattended on a patio table at a coffee shop all day, come back that night, and it would still be there! A fact that I can only assume is fortified by sharing footage of the consequences everywhere you go on your blackberry. So is that enough reason to sign on to brutal retribution for crimes? Hell no! And remind me to think twice before I cozy up next to fancy cell phone during tea time.

Barbershop Cultural Exchange Part II

So thanks to fellow PCV Mike who recently did an excellent job directing the Oz Spring Camp, I have discovered one of the few upsides to being a male volunteer in Morocco.... the barbershop shave! I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out? Probably because it such an unlikely luxury in the US. But here in Morocco, you can walk into a barbershop and get a nice relaxing straight-razor shave for just 5 dirhams! That’s less than a dollar! Plus its a great chance to hang out with the locals and practice your language. I treated myself to my first barbershop facial shave yesterday after finally returning from a long tiring week of Spring Camp. Of course, I went to the same barbershop I usually go to (there’s only one in town), which luckily, I really like. When I got there, I was pleased to see the younger barber from my last time there with the rap music. He was just finishing up with another customer, so I jumped into the chair as soon as it was free, and he strapped on the bib. He started to grab for the scissors and I said. “Ghir tamaert assad” (just the beard today). He seemed happy with that. First, he trimmed it with the machine, while we watched some news regarding a footrace through the Sahara dessert. When he was done with the machine, R&B artist “Usher” was being shown singing at a concert. Then a “Kid Rock” song came on, which I translated for him. I asked him if he liked the music and he said “I’ll show you what I really like. The other men around here don’t get it.” And with that, he switched the station to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller the Movie”. Visions of childhood Halloween flooded in. Meanwhile, Mohamed the barber grabbed the straight-razor and got to work. Watching the man in the mirror dance with the living dead, I said, “Have you heard the gossip about Michael? They say he might have been Muslim”(partially because I just learned the TashlHite word for “gossip“ and wanted to use it). This is kind of a big deal around the water-coolers in Morocco right now. He had heard of it, but neither of us were convinced it was true. When he was done, he slapped some aftershave on my newly smooth cheeks and offered me the sink to rinse my face. “Good talk Mohamed”, I said, “Until next week”. Classic pop music and a shave: my new favorite weekly habit!

Saltown(not the real name): The Great Adventure

Last Saturday, Amber and I woke up early for an adventure. I stumbled out of bed, rushing through my morning routine (picking up/petting the cat to get him to stop meowing at me, feeding him, starting hot water and coffee, brushing my teeth, and washing my face), and then I quickly started mixing together a big batch of semolina cookie dough. When the dough was finished, Amber baked the cookies while I dressed and packed an overnight bag consisting mostly of water. As the cookies cooled, I threw together a quick snack to hold us over until lunch. We grabbed our backpacks, now laden with cookies, our helmets, and our bikes; and finally headed out the door around 11am.
About an hour later, we were walking our bikes up the last, steep, two kilometer hill to the beautiful mountain village of Saltown. At the top of the hill, there is a collection of adobe houses, a stone-walled animal pen, and two stand-alone schoolrooms. The first is bigger and newer, made of concrete. The second is made of a strange composite; thin concrete-foam panels, braced by intermittent boards of wood. I can tell how the room was constructed because its missing most of it’s front wall and ceiling. There are old rotted school desks piles on one side of the classroom. Staring at me from the back wall, through a gaping whole in the front, is a 10ft painting of Mickey Mouse smiling. I can see straight through this classroom. Behind Mickey is a bright green oasis blooming from the depths of a deep canyon ripped into mountains. One nonsensically tall and narrow kasbah pokes out of the green mass felting the canyon base. Other tightly clustered adobe structures dot the edges of the foliage and cling to the steep canyon sides. The crumbled classroom stands teetering at the edge of the canyon overlooking it all. The children have to hike up the steep canyon walls to get to school each day, and many have a long journey before that. Teachers usually choose to live in the houses up here near the school.
We whizzed by this view on our bikes. Nearing the steep road down the canyon, I passed an old women with a bag of harvested grass on her back. She carried it from the canyon bottom to feed her sheep. I smiled and said hello as I pass but didn't slow down. By the time Amber got to her, she suspected who we were and asked her "Where are you going?". "We're here to visit the new teacher at the school", she said. "Oh. Well she lives over here with me" the old women responded. I back-tracked to them and she walked us to her house. Inside, we were warmly greeted by our friend/neighbor/language-tutor. She recently got a job as a French and Math teacher in this town. She rents a room from the old woman who lives alone near the school. She calls the woman Xalti, which means “aunt on my mothers side”.
We are shown into our friends room, where we present her with the gift of cookies. Then she makes us tea and starts an egg-tagine cooking. Over tea, bread, and eggs, we discuss the news of our duwar. We mention that we saw a grey donkey running through our neighborhood, his owner desperately chasing him, the bottom end of an empty bright orange oil jug strapped around his snout. In other news, I mention that we randomly walked 45minutes down the road into the middle of a vast rock field with two of her sisters. There they met with two of her cousins to chat about secret matters. News trickles in our town.
When the tea and tagine were consumed, we had a language lesson consisting mostly of reviewing our answers on a test we did the week before. We are getting pretty good at reading and writing TashlHite. Its a shame that Tash isn't a written language, and that I don't have time to formulate each sentence in a conversation the way I do when I write. Next weeks homework will be to watch a TashlHite movie and practice listening (by far, the hardest thing about this language).
After the lesson, Xalti’s daughter arrives. She invites us to her house halfway down the canyon wall for tea We pass gaggles of women perched on the path, enjoying the cool afternoon air. When we get to her house, to young boys are chasing each other around giggling. We go into the living-room, which hangs over the path, with windows that expose beautiful views up the canyon. Along with tea and bread, our host offers fresh almonds and walnuts gathered from the tree groves below. We point out the beautiful table cover. Our host knit this herself, but modestly dismisses her skills as the result of boredom. She is soft-spoken, humble, and giving. On our way out, after tea, her husband comes home from work. Also humble, with a small stature and kind eyes, he works at the nearby salt mines. We express interest in the mines, which immediately prompts an invitation to accompany him to work the next morning. We agree to meet him on the road at 7am the next day.
On the way back up the hill, we run into a gentleman sitting outside his house with a few of his sisters. He speaks to us in French despite numerous attempts to explain that we don’t speak French and requests to please speak Tash. Finally we manage a short conversation in Tash (still dotted with French words) and I realize he’s slurring his speech. As we walk away, he calls up to our tutor, “I have a gift for those foreigners. I am an artist. I will bring it to you later tonight”. Our tutor skeptically agrees and passes the message on to us. I ask her if he was drunk and she says “Yes, he is an alcoholic. Everybody here knows it and his family worries about him.” She is surprised I could tell.
When we arrive back at her house, she begins some fried bread and tea as a late snack. Just as the bread hits the table, a knock is heard at the door. Our friend from the road has come with our gift. He presents me with a heavy slate of rock on which he has painted a colorful scene. Its beautiful and quintessentially Moroccan. He joins us at the tea table and spends the next two hours discussing heartfelt, complicated, ethereal matters in multiple languages, with me straining to finding new levels of concentration to try to understand. Shortly before leaving, he admits to me that he has a problem. He has a nice house in Marrakech, but he is here in the country with his family to try to “change his brain”; to find peace. As he leaves, I wish him luck on his journey and express a hope to meet him again happily in Marrakech some day.
It’s late and we have to be up early tomorrow. A quick dinner of pasta with milk and sugar is serve. (Surprisingly, this is the one meal I have discovered in Morocco that I simply cannot stomach. I can’t explain it in words, but I literally gag at the thought of it). Luckily I had already filled up on bread and tea so after choking down a few bites I go to bed satisfied.
The next morning, we wake up and prepare ourselves with the predawn air still chilling our bones. As promised, our guide for the day meets us on the road and takes the lead. We wander to the base of the canyon, through a series of passageways under adobe dwellings, through the fields, over a log spanning the river, up the other side of the canyon, and into the mountains to the north. After an hour of strenuous hiking, our trail begins to glisten. Piles of dark grey and pinkish salt crystal line the road to a large truck standing idle. Behind the truck wooden shacks have been built into the mountain. These are cave entrances. We enter one shack, where a crane hangs over an bottomless hole. Our guide explained that this is where the salt is brought up from the mine. Workers enter another cave to the south, wind down into the depths of the mountain, collect their salt, and bring it to the crane to be lifted out. We hang around the opening of the cave for twenty minutes waiting for the rest of the workers to arrive. A confident man with course speech and mannerisms shows up and offers to take us down into caves. “Is it dangerous“, we ask. Our guide replied, “I don’t go down there. It scares me”. This is the first time I’ve heard a Moroccan male express fear; which only amplified my curiosity. Another man says, “Just be careful. We’ll let you borrow some flashlights. You’ll be fine”. The course man lights a gas lantern, hands me a cheap plastic flashlight, and leads the way. We walk fifteen feet into another wood cabin before the true decent begins. Suddenly, the ground seems to fall way. The trail thins to no more than a foot wide and continues to get steeper. It hugs the chiseled wall on the left and drops into shear darkness on the right. I can see only a few feet of the narrow trail in front of me. With each step, my sandals slip on ground worn smooth from use, lubricated by a quarter inch of damp cave soot collected over decades. The trail levels and I breathe a sign of relief, but we turn a corner and the ground drops off again. When we finally reach the true bottom, my heart is in my throat. I shine my flashlight out into the darkness and a huge arching cave wall sparkles back at me from the distance. The cave narrows to the left where two perfectly square diverging passageways have been chiseled into a flat salt wall. Every surface is like staring at a crystal ocean from an airplane; millions of waves creating an intricate omnifaceted plane. Our new guide explains how to remove salt evenly. We take a few moments to marvel at the subterreanian sights, and head back up the perilous trail.
At the top, we thank the men for showing us their work and we start walking back the way we came. When the canyon town is again in sight, we stop at the top of the hill and eat a snack. We have been hauling bread, tea, and a can of sardines for this event. A couple of young girls are harvesting weeds nearby and we invite them over to nosh. When the food is gone, they accompany us to the bottom of the canyon and split off to the left. We continue on, up the other side, back to the house. My legs are exhausted from a combination of climbing steep mountains and clenching my thighs in fear.
We help our tutor prep vegetables for a tagine. When the tagine is prepped and cooking, she brings us into the TV room to relax until lunch. Xalti wanders in and turns on the TV to entertain us. A while later, she ushers in two strangers. They are also teachers. One works here in Saltown. The other works in a neighborhood near ours. He biked here this morning to spend the day with his friend. Amber is sitting closest to the portable propane tank, so she is put in charge of making tea. We chat and drink tea with the men until finally lunch is served. It is a colorful and delicious beef and vegetable tagine, topped with crisp golden fries. When we are all full, Amber makes more tea, and we explain that we should probably head home before its too late. The teacher who biked here suggests that we all go back together and asks that we wait about an hour so they can go pray first. Meanwhile we wander over to the canyon edge for a last look at the beautiful sight. We run into Xalti’s daughter and thank her again for her generosity. We ask her also to thank her husband for the exciting salt mine experience.
When we get back to the house, Xalti has a bag of walnuts for us to take home. Our tutor fills our empty cookie tupperware with local dried figs. We pack it all up including the rock artwork from the night before. Then the teacher reappears ready to leave. We say our final goodbyes and strap on our backpacks, heavy with gifts, and I think to myself, “Its a good thing the road from this magical place is mostly downhill.”

Barbershop Cultural Exchange Part I

So I was getting pretty shaggy around the neck and ears after a cold winter of not getting my hair cut. Finally I bit the bullet, made the 30 minutes walk into town and stopped off at the neighborhood barbershop. I walked in to find my normal barber not there. Instead, his early-twenties counterpart was sitting alone in one of the waiting chairs flipping through satellite TV stations.
"Are you cutting hair now?" I asked. "Yeah. Come have a seat". I noted that my normal guy was gone and he offered to let me wait until he returned, but I guess I'm not too loyal about these sorts of things so I sat down and let him strap on the bib.
Moroccan barbershops can be pretty nice. Our barbershop is the only establishment in my whole community with glass and carved-wood doors, where ugly sheet metal doors are the norm. Inside are two leather barber chairs strategically placed in front of a wall-to-wall mirror above a tiled countertop. On top of the counter, among the trimming paraphernalia, is a fancy plastic double-wall insulated thermos. This contains piping hot water so that when they sprits your hair or wipe away trimmings with a wet towel, it will be warm and refreshing (a pleasant and thoughtful amenity in these cold months). On the back wall, across from the mirror are three waiting chairs and a coat rack. Above the mirror, looming large in the left upper corner of the room is a medium-sized satellite TV with remote.
Today the remote belonged to my young hairdresser friend. He put it down to settle me in to my chair and got started snipping away at the fringes of my head. Soon another man came in and sat down and we all made small talk. The topic of me being American was broached (as it was fairly obvious), and before long the young hairdresser was developing a plan to make me feel more at home. He grabbed the remote from of the tiled counter and deftly punched in a series of numbers which left the TV above us loudly broadcasting MTV. He thought I would appreciate the "sounds from home", which in fact, were the rhythmic spittings of rap great Jay-Z. MTV had deemed it entertaining to create a "Top 20 Video Countdown" highlighting his extensive work. I'm not sure how the elderly Berber man waiting for his haircut felt about it, but my barber seemed to enjoy at least the beat.
To be honest, I was feeling at home, as a result. Especially when during one song, they asked to translate what he was saying. I hesitated for a moment and then said "ntta, dars bzzef n mashakil, welayni, urdars walo mushkil n tirvatin", which I though was a fairly direct, if not slightly more respectful translation of the original wording "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one".
The American wisdom seemed to resonate strongly with these men. They bobbed their heads while I kept mine as still as possible for the remainder of the haircut. After trimming my neck and sideburns with a straight razor, he invited me to come to his house for a meal. I said that I was in a rush, paid my 10Dhs, left through the carved-wood door, and wandered down the dirt road with a head free from a heavy load of hair,
but full of catchy beats.