Thursday, December 25, 2008

Upward spiral. -


You all know how I love spirals – I’ve always seen them as symbols of the ever-changing but ever-present cycle of nature, of life. It wasn’t until after I got my tattoos that I learned such a set of three spirals, arranged triangularly, is an ancient Celtic symbol of nature – earth, water, fire.

Now I come to Morocco and find that the spiral is also an ancient Berber symbol of infinity. It’s everywhere – from carvings to pottery to wall tiles to jewelry, like this pendant I picked up in Marrakesh, my first piece of Moroccan jewelry:

Some people think a spiral is a ridiculous infinity symbol, because it does in fact have a beginning and an end. I’m OK with that. Everything does end – change is the only constant in life. But then things begin again, slightly altered.
“You are Welcome here.”
It’s funny how aghast some people here are that I don’t speak Tashelheit, the regional Berber dialect. That I’m new to this country, that I’m here as a volunteer, that I’m trying to learn the language spoken by the vast majority of Moroccans – these mean nothing to them. Why would I come here if I don’t learn the language? (This after I’ve been in the village for all of four weeks.)
Sound familiar to those of you back in the States?
Of course, the vast majority are so pleased, proud even, when they here the slightest trickle of pidgin Darija dribble out of my mouth. At the post office, in a taxi, at the corner store, I’m constantly congratulated … and when I demur as to my lack of skills, it’s they who encourage me: “Shwyia b shwyia, shwiya b shwiya.”
And while I feel keenly the stares of disbelief when I walk down the street (not to mention the calls of “Hey, foreigner” and various French phrases), often mixed with a healthy dose of suspicion, I do my best to look people in the eye, smile, and say, “Good morning, are you well?” Those unblinking stares generally turn into surprised smiles and handshakes and the usual 12-minute exchange of greetings.
Even better is when a stranger takes it upon her/himself to greet me first. The ancient man with the toothless grin, bumping along on his donkey cart. The heavily wrapped Berber woman walking the long road to the weekly suq market, rattling off a string of Tashelheit I can’t possible unravel. Especially the children, running up to kiss me hello (instead of throwing rocks, the alternative means of capturing my attention). Such small gestures can make all the difference between a good day and a bad one in my mind, between feeling welcome here and … not.
So if you see a possible newcomer in your own little village today, smile and say hello. It takes so little, but it can change that person’s entire outlook on the day and on the town you share.
L3id update.
First off, I now understand why the sheep was pumped full of air on the L3id Kbir holiday. You maybe don’t want to know … if you’re squeamish, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re curious … it’s to blow all the s**t out of the bowel and intestines. So’s they can be eaten, y’know. Remember: 99.9% pure from bacteria!
However squeamish I may be about all this, I also have a great deal of respect for those so in tune with their food sources. The procedure is little different than what happens to that Christmas roast (or ham, or goose) you might be enjoying today. Perhaps we are the odd ones, feeling the need to distance ourselves, pretend that meat is just another shrink-wrapped, value-added “product” that comes straight from the supermarket.
As my brilliant 9-year-old niece told her mother on viewing pictures from my previous post, “Well, Mom, but if they do this every year, they’re probably used to it and it’s something for them to look forward to.”
The days after L3id entail an odd tradition in several Moroccan communities, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse. My host sister Khadija asked if I’d like to visit her family’s home in one of the many dyour that surround our village. A duoar is kind of a mini-village of Berbers who work in the surrounding orange groves. Little did I know our visit meant a 5- or 6-mile hike, through several dyour, a walk I enjoyed immensely but for which I would have shod myself far differently had I been apprised.
We stopped at one duoar and walked the dusty path toward the sound of chanting and beating drums. Women were gathered in every doorway. The closer we got to the center of the duoar, the louder the music got. A pack of children started running from around a corner.
Then, there they were, the main attraction: A young man dressed in a costume sewn of goat and sheep skins, with a posse of friends dressed in a variety of costumes, striding authoritatively through the town, weapons in hand. The aim is to stop at every house, and corral every running child, to demand dirhams. For those cheeky children who refuse, the punishment is to be whipped … with a bicycle innertube.

This -- the animal skin, the chasing of children, the innertube -- is the tradition regionwide. But here the festivities seemed more ceremonial than real. The kids seemed to enjoy the chase; I saw not a single use of the innertube; and this prosperous-looking foreigner, with a giggling-yet-scared-stiff Moroccan woman in full caftan regalia cleaning to her elbow for dear life, got no hassle when she calmly said “Makaynsh l’flus” – I have no money.
But my friend and kind-of neighbor Faye had a far more hands-on experience, and she does better justice to the tradition at her blog.

Khadija with girls from the family’s duoar.

Today is our own l3id kbir, or big holiday. Christmas. In a country that is 99 percent Muslim, Christmas isn’t even on the register here. No shop windows adorned in red and green, no fake snow in the desert, no annoying pop stars belting out Christmas “classics” on a half-hour loop. No crisp cold snap hovering at the zero-degree mark, as it has been back home. No going overboard on gifts and paying the bills into next summer.

Also no baking cookies with friends, then walking the neighborhood to look at the lights. No helping my niece and nephews draw Christmas cards; no spending the afternoon sprawled on my parents’ sofa after inhaling way, way too much food and so much love. No reminiscing about holidays past … the tree ornaments that used to fascinate us for hours, the ancient Christmas records that were the soundtrack to my childhood festivities.

Christmas eve dinner was a little tagine of cauliflower, tomato and potatoes, scooped up with bread. Plus a little dish of fried zucchini, which I know was placed there because the family has seen how much I love it. Woke this morning on my hard flat mat, three heavy blankets guarding against the morning chill, to the sounds of teenagers rushing to the school across the road rather than rushing to see what Santa left for them.

This weekend I’ll gather with some other Peace Corps volunteers in the area for just some of those traditions – too much food; maybe even a little too much wine; overdose on Christmas movies and music. It will feel like home, and not.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy holidays! (Unless you’re a sheep.)

My host sisters primping for the holiday.

(Warning: pictures below may affect my fellow vegetarians or other sensitive souls)

Tuesday was L3id el Kbir, the Great Feast. To atone for their sins, each family must sacrifice a sheep or a goat (or a chicken, if that’s all they can afford).

It’s one of Islam’s most important holidays, akin to Christmas in the States, so I tried my best to participate. The day started off lovely, sunny and tranquil, Kabira and I taking a short walk around town, the streets empty and quiet, all the stores closed, everyone home with their families.

Then the man came to kill the ram.

Kabira proudly holding the trophy.
I tried to watch, I really did. I even took pictures (though many of them were snapped with my eyes averted). I could only manage about a minute at a time. I kept coming back, trying to keep my stomach strong for the family’s sake, only to have to escape once again.
First they slit the neck, allowing for a fast (and presumably painless) death as well as for the blood to escape quickly, crucial for both religious and sanitary reasons. Then the head and legs were cut off; these were disposed of by fire.
The part that really surprised me was when they used a bicycle tire pump to inflate the animal. Better blood drainage?
Inflating the carcass with a bicycle tire pump.

The ram was skinned, then relieved of its various organs and bowels. Partly I found it nearly impossible to watch, but I was also surprised by how well I stomached (so to speak) what I did manage to stick around for.

What icked me out the most: Various platters and bowls of entrails being carted down from the rooftop barnyard and washed off in the kitchen and bathroom. We will be eating off these same dishes later, I have no doubt.

Ick factor No. 2: Rakiya happily poking at the ram’s head in the fire, squatting in the pool of blood, wearing my brand-new house slippers.

The animal’s torso is now resting, halfheartedly wrapped in plastic, on a bench in the bedroom. What may be the stomach is soaking in a basin on the chair next to me as I type this. Lunch was a tagine of heavy chunks of bone dripping with meat. (For me, it was bread and some of the best oranges I’ve tasted yet.)

Some of the luckier ones.

Afterward, Kabira dressed up in a gorgeous orange kaftan and took me on a long, exhilerating walk out of town, to visit a friend at her family farm. Of course this meant a little snack – coffee (Coffee! Haven’t had it in weeks), bread with olive and argan oils, dates, olives, nuts.

Home just in time for dinner – another meat tagine, this time of the hooves. But, just for me, Khadija made a delicious bean stew as well. My non-meat-eating ways perplex them, but they’re more than respectful. Although I count it as a step toward integrating into the family that the teenage boy at one point caught me looking at him and made little walking movements with his bones, a sly smile creeping across his face.

Zwina bzzf! (My host sisters are so lovely.)

All in all, a holiday just like we’re used to in America: A day spent with family, eating too much food, followed by too much food. Not sure I’ve ever eaten a holiday meal in the States with a zombie movie on TV as the background noise, but why not? I’m not a zombie, and I’m not a sheep. Two good reasons to celebrate.

Holiday text message from my language tutor:

“Don’t miss to eat a portion of meat it’s blessed u can’t find it in Am its 99%pure from bacterha.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The base may be shaky, but it holds.

The kids at my dar chebab build a pretty impressive Jenga tower, no?

This pretty much sums up how I’m feeling lately. Hollow at the base, but somehow everything is holding together.

Actually, things are improving by the day. Yes, there are plenty of moments when I’m scared, when I wonder what the hell I’m doing here or whether I’ll ever be able to speak Arabic or make any kind of difference in these kids’ lives … but these moments pass, I find, and I can mark plenty of progress in just the past week.

I’ve started sessions with a tutor, a teacher at one of the town’s two colleges, or middle schools. Things started out rough. Even more so than in the U.S., Moroccan education is based on rote memorization. Comprehension is less important than simply repeating what the teacher says. I however, have tons of questions and want to steer our sessions in a different direction. We both felt pretty uncomfortable with each other’s styles at first. By the end of the first session, though, Latifa was promising to teach me how to make tagine … and then, upon discovering I don’t eat meat, pledging to convert me from such an unhealthy practice.

I can feel my language slowly coming along, too. One rung up from nothing isn’t much, but it’s still progress. Instead of comprehending walu (nothing) anyone says to me, I’m starting to pick up a few words per sentence (if the interlocutor is patient enough to repeat the sentence a few times beshwiiiyyyaaa, or slowwwwlllly). Enough to think I usually get the gist of things … which is probably going to get me into trouble sometime soon.

Feel guilty that I haven’t done much actual “work” yet at my dar chebab. Right now, afternoons are devoted to pingpong and board games and getting to know each other, though I do have some ideas for small activities/projects to propose. About 20 boys, most of them 14 to 16, pass through on any given day. They’re eager to talk about all the things any young boys anywhere talk about – sports, who can dance hiphop, who can pop his shoulder out of the socket. A few speak enough English that we can communicate. And they’re surprisingly solicitous around me, each making sure to shake my hand when he arrives, help me clean up when we leave, walk me home.

And yes – they’re all boys. Girls here don’t come to the dar chebab. Yet. The boys assure me they will come for English classes. But my next mission is to start up a girls club, devote at least one day a week to making a safe and comfortable space for girls, a place they’ll enjoy and where their parents will allow them to gather. From there, will figure out what to do next. Inshallah.

The boys have helped me set up a schedule of English classes, which I hope to post around town later this afternoon. We won’t get started until after L3id Kbir, the Big Feast – one of Islam’s biggest holidays. Every family slaughters a sheep or a goat, or at least a chicken, as a sacrifice, and then lives on every part of the animal until it’s gone. A weeklong celebration, I’m told, with blood from the slaughter literally running in the streets that first day, and the entire town smelling like barbecue – including one’s home, hair, clothes – for at least a week. This vegetarian is more than a little nervous.

Nervous, too, about starting those English classes. My biggest complaint about Peace Corps training is that we received practically no training on how to teach or develop a lesson plan. We learned about 1,000 “icebreaker” games to play with kids, and we each received a box of books that so far I haven’t found very helpful, and we had a one-day session with a linguistics expert who taught us a few more games. We also received a collection of lesson plans provided by current and previous volunteers, which only served to scare me about the “English” being taught in the name of Peace Corps. If the volunteer can’t distinguish between your/you’re or there/their on a lesson plan, should he or she really be teaching English?

So I have moments of feeling unprepared for the task. There are about a zillion resources online, but it’s hard to hone in and determine which are the most helpful. And I’ve really no idea how to start. Thankfully, the previous volunteer told me that the kids here will be eager to tell me what they want to learn (unlike the kids we taught during training, who sadly couldn’t really grasp the concept of having a say in their own education). In the end, I guess my only plan is to wing it. I’ll learn as I go, I suppose.

Village doorway.

Not all is work here.
One afternoon my host sister Kabira asked if I wanted to go to see her a mra, or woman, in one of the tiny remote villages near here. Kabira worries a great deal about the acne on her skin; she’s been to a traditional doctor in Agadir but he was a “big zero” (Kabira hasn’t yet met a man who isn’t a “zero”). Instead, she said, she wanted to see this woman who knows everything and has remedies for everything. Eventually I got what was going on … we were going to see a homeopath.

“Maybe she can help you, too, Rakya,” I managed to say (kind of) to Kabira’s mother. Rakya has been having constant pain in her heel, her back, her stomach. If traditional remedies are still practiced, still acceptable … well, I’d be scared to rely on them myself, but surely my host family would see it as the next natural step.

“Well, no, don’t be silly, Rebecca, she’s not a real doctor,” is the response I think I got. Rakya will eventually wrap herself up dramatically in her brown and purple length of fabric, hiding her face but her hot pink knit longjohns and fuzzy green slippers showing underneath, squeeze herself into a taxi and return to her real doctor in the modern city of Agadir.

My host sister, hiding her homeopath treatment behind traditional Berber women’s garb.

But Kabira and I did go on our journey to the homeopath, which I assumed/hoped would be an exotic daylong ritual. Instead, we got lost for a couple of hours in a neighboring town when Kabira couldn’t remember where to go. Eventually she managed to pay (with my money) a taxi driver to spin us aimlessly around the countryside until she recognized the correct village.

There, as we all squatted on a deep red rug in the crumbling concrete salon, a smiling ancient woman took a powder out of a fold of paper, mixed it with water in a ceramic dish and creamed the brown goop onto Kabira’s face. Safi. In and out in 5 minutes, as with any other doctor. No 12 cups of tea, no hours of nodding and smiling for hours without being able to follow the conversation even though it’s obviously about me. Expecting to be encouraged to participate in some ritual involving magical potions and ulular chanting, I was a little disappointed. If also a little relieved.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice (check out those peels!) in Taroudant.

My days off are Sunday and Monday, and I’m trying to protect those days from getting caught up in all the things other people want me to do. I went for a long, solitary walk this past Sunday afternoon, out of town on a long, winding road framed by orange groves with cedar windbreaks, pointing the way to the craggy mountains beyond. My iPod earbuds protected me from the shouts of men passing on motorbikes, but my few fellow pedestrians were friendly and curious. I finally felt peaceful; I haven’t had many opportunities lately for exercise or being outdoors. It will have to become a habit.

And on Monday I met my stajmate Vish in nearby Taroudant. We did slip in one work-related meeting – with the regional delegate for the national Ministry of Youth and Sports, which overseas all of Morocco’s dar chebabs and the work Peace Corps volunteers do there. But the rest of the day was devoted to relaxation and sightseeing. My host sister described Taroudant as a mini-Marrakech, and I can see what she means. It’s an ancient city still surrounded by rampart walls thousands of years old, with long winding alleys of suq where shops sell amazing leather purses and shoes (there’s a tannery in the city), traditional and modern clothing, homeopathic remedies, silver jewelry and dishes, hardware, vegetables, freshly butchered meat and anything else you can imagine.

We had fresh orange juice, peeled and squeezed before our eyes, for 2 dirhams – about 25 cents. We found a Yves Rocher spa where we could (if we had any flus) get a taste of home by buying fancy lipstick or have our nails done. I was able to sit and relax with a book in a quiet outdoor café without being harassed as a foreigner. I have a feeling Taroudant is a place where I’ll spend a lot of my off hours.

Taroudant’s ramparts.

Everywhere I turn lies another beautiful picture that I’m desperate to capture. The colorful spices sifted into cones. Rows of beautiful old women squatting on the curb in brightly colored body wraps. Six bodies piled into a taxi, defying the laws of space and volume. The gnarled, knotty hands of a beggar petting and grabbing for my cloth bag. Men on bicycles bringing their harvest to market, a fresh green block of mint or cilantro that completely obscures both farmer and vehicle. Packs of schoolkids on bicycles, five or six deep and by the dozens, pedaling home down dark highways, flanked by flashy motor scooters and overloaded farm trucks.

But I’m not a photographer. I’m not even a journalist anymore, apparently. I’m too sensitive to others’ feelings to take a photo without permission. Permission is rarely granted. I can understand that. Such images have to live in my head.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A pilgrim’s lack of progress.

Unusually ominous clouds looming over my new town.

“Wesh nti wllfti?”

“Have you become used to it yet?”

That’s the question I face about a dozen times a day here in my new village.

Well, no – not quite yet. But then, it’s only been five days since the taxi plopped me down here in the dry desert heat of southern Morocco. As one shwiya bit of progress, at least I finally understand the question.

So far, I’m more than a little overwhelmed. With no translators to rely on, and no training mates to wind down with, every conversation is short and stilted and yet still beyond my ability to fully comprehend. A five-minute transaction can wear me out enough to sleep for 12 hours. I spend my days with brows furrowed, and surely my interlocutor can actually see the gears slowly grinding as a I try to piece together a sentence. Said sentence is always wrong, and said interlocutor considers it his/her personal mission to point out my error, repeatedly, until I say it correctly.

What dismays me most is how difficult it is to get past my own notions of what is and is not culturally appropriate. The notions of personal space or waiting one’s turn, of personal hygiene or public litter or household sanitation, of doing anything one one’s own (particularly if one is a woman), of walking unnoticed or uncommented on (if one is a gowria, or foreigner), of politeness (as a Westerner sees it) – all these notions and more are tilted some 180 degrees.

I knew all this, of course. But hearing about it isn’t the same as living it. How naïve I was, to think it wouldn’t bother me just because I chose to live this experience. Yet how disturbing to find that my own cultural norms are so deeply ingrained that adaptability is superceded by frustration, resentment – even anger. (It’s the seething anger that bothers me the most; I’m not sure where it comes from or why it continues to linger. I watch it, late at night as I ruminate over my day, and encourage it to pass on through.)

The point is not to show this culture the many errors of its ways, according to me. The mission is for me to adapt to what is here in front of me.

Believe me, I know how fortunate I’ve been in life. I’ve always had everything I ever needed and more – a variety of healthful and delicious foods, a clean and comfortable house, my own transportation, fulfilling work, spare time to spend doing things I enjoy, plenty of fresh air and beautiful outdoor space in which to inhale it, every toy or gadget or pretty little thing that diverts me for a moment.

Perhaps my biggest frustration is my overwhelming sense of guilt for being frustrated in the first place. Do my new counterparts ever get frustrated with the daily difficulties they’ve faced for generations? No; they wait patiently, chat contentedly over another pot of tea. Now is what matters, not what happened before or what might happen later.

I have much to learn.

Back home, today is Thanksgiving. Here, of course, it’s just another day. But I am taking a moment to be grateful for all that I have: Family and friends and family who care for me in every way possible; a lifetime of excellent health, buoyed by the ability to enjoy good nutrition and time to exercise; a free, well-rounded education that allowed me to pursue any career path I chose; the great good fortune to be able to pack up my life and do as I wish; all of the luxuries I have taken for granted; the independence I also apparently have taken for granted; and so much more.

And particularly grateful for the little brother, who despite being a year older tomorrow somehow still has yet to catch up to me.

Quotes of the day.

“If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” – Erica Jong

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I swear.

“I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.”

– Nadia Comaneci

As of this afternoon, I’m now longer a lowly trainee but a bona fide Peace Corps volunteer. A two-hour bus ride to a zwin hotel in Fes, a half-hour ceremony, an hour or so of hors d’ouevres and small talk, and a two-hour bus ride back to the dorms. Safi. Tomorrow we hit the road by bus or train or taxi or some combination thereof, going our separate ways to our new homes.

Like any ending, this one doesn’t feel quite real yet. And like any ending, it is in fact a beginning.

Our final days of training ended rather anticlimactically as well. As if reliving my college days, I procrastinated studying for the final language exam, tried to cram at the last minute, got frustrated and felt sure I would fail. Instead, I managed to score Intermediate Low; only needed Novice High to “pass.” (Failure to “pass” only means scoring more money for private tutoring; I half thought to bomb it on purpose, but my overachieving nature got the better of me.)

A new year.

Far from home, I was wondering whether my birthday would pass unnoticed.

I needn’t have worried; friends near and far made this truly a special day.

Jill sent an entire kit of handcrafted goods, from a new market bag to an iPod cozy to an entire collection of adorable notepads to this rockin' headband:

Melissa and Naomi chipped in the hippest pair of over-the-knee cable-knit socks this side of the Atlantic, as well as some Jhumpa Lahari.

The divine Miz K begifted me an iTunes download of the new Lila Downs CD (awesome, btw!) And my family showered me with phone calls and blessed cash and handmade cards and letters from the little ones.

Here at the training site, I got an amazing dinner when my friends Trish, Christa, Kristen, Eric and So-Yoon hijacked the cafeteria kitchen and produced eggplant parmesan and a yummy lemon cake.

Trish also added to my bandana collection with a specimen from her previous life in China

… and Candace gave me a lovely beaded frame with a photo of us together in Marrakesh.

I’ve known these people only a few months, and some are already family in my heart. And of course my family at home, by birth or by choice: I miss you more than I can say.

The only birthday disappointment: I was expecting parades in the street. Nov. 18 is also Morocco’s Independence Day, a holiday that passed practically unnoticed here.

A year ago, on the big 4-0, I was traipsing around Mount Lemmon outside Tucson with my dear friend Krista. I’d just received my Peace Corps nomination and was navigating the long road to medical clearance. I remember I felt quite serene, sure that I had chosen the right path.

Now I’m not sure of anything. I’m about to move to a town where I can’t speak the language, where I have to teach my own language with no background in teaching, in a place where the simplest tasks can take all day and the infrastructure to which I’m accustomed is a rare and distant luxury. (Read: Squat toilets and bucket baths!)

I have no idea what I’m doing.

And yet … I continue to feel this odd sense of calm, even when the culture shock is at its most trying. I know I am becoming stronger and more patient. I have an amazing opportunity to experience a sliver of the world as the vast majority live it – and, perhaps, to pare life down to its essentials. Despite many trepidations, I look forward to seeing what comes out of all this.

Hokey, perhaps, but here’s an image from a session on stress management: A tree that is battered with continuous wind from a single direction will actually grow more cells on the side facing the wind, in order to strengthen itself against the blows. And it’s the roots, widening below the surface, that keep it standing in the fact of the constant barrage.

What you can do.

I’ve had the luxury, these past few months, of being surrounded by others who speak my native language and understand my culture and lifestyle and expectations. I’ve made some wonderful friends during training, some of whom will live nearby and others who I am sad to be so far away from.

But I know, especially in these first few months, being the only foreigner in my town will lead to the occasional bout of loneliness. Inshallah I will keep myself too busy to get homesick, but there will be times when I will be even more eager for connections with y’all at home.

You’ve no idea how much even a short note or phone call can boost one’s spirits during those times. I guess what I’m saying is: Keep in touch, eh?

PS to Jenny’s dad: How kind of you to keep the dar chebab on your radar! Your daughter set such a strong foundation here. The village adores her and will miss her greatly; I have a lot to live up to.

More photos.

Artisan weaver.

Limun (orange) seller.

The man who made it all possible: Lahcen, our intrepid language instructor.

Entering Fes.

Staged photo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

At home.

My new host “mother” (right) with her niece and eldest daughter.

Just spent a week in my new home, a dry, warm, beautiful small village in the south of Morocco. If you look on a map and find the beach resort city of Agadir down south on the coast, and Taroudant a ways inland, I am in between the two. For security reasons, I won’t name the town here on my blog; drop me an email if you want more information.

I am already so in love with this place and look forward to doing some good work here. Originally, I’d requested a large site, but as soon as I saw it I knew this was a good fit for me. Close to a large city where I can find anything I might need and get away on the occasional weekend, but the town is very manageable and I won’t face as much harassment because everyone will know me. Even so, during my visit I got the usual leers and catcalls from (mostly) young men, and some little boys threw rocks. It’s all part of the celebrity dynamic though, and it’ll die down as soon as people get to know me.

This is a very small (population about 7,000), new town, created in the ’50s when the king sold off royal land so Berbers could create orange groves. That’s the main business, and the village is surrounded by duoars, or neighborhoods, full of orange grove workers. A lot of corn fields lie further east, and also a lot of olive trees and argan trees; argan oil is very expensive and supposedly the best for both cooking and facial products. Goats like to climb the argan trees and nibble the leaves. I’ve also seen a few camels around.

The landscape is amazing … very southwestern U.S., with red soil and prickly pear and sagebrush, with craggy mountains surrounding and snow-capped peaks beyond those. Kind of like Arizona’s mountains bumping right up against the Rockies. It does get chilly at night, but nothing like the alpinelike villages where we’ve been training. Sure, it’ll be 120 or so in the summer, but I can deal with that in exchange for a temperate winter!

The surrounding orange groves are a short bike ride away and will be a lovely, peaceful place to exercise. Apparently the youths at my dar chebab love to take long weekend bike rides, so that will be a great way to get acquainted.

The people here seem quite nice, and there’s a lot of potential for work. Besides the dar chebab where I’ll do most of my work, there’s a nedi neswi, or women’s center, that teaches life/marriage skills to young women. I hope to do some type of work there, as well as at two boardinghouses for teenagers from the duoars who live in town during the school week. Some type of girls club seems like a natural place to start; girls especially have little to do here.

My new host family is quite sweet and quite poor. They have satellite TV and Internet, but virtually no furniture. The salon (living room) has become my bedroom, which I feel badly about because the family could use the space. I sleep on a mat on the floor, wash with a bucket of warm water, and wake to the sounds of the goats and chickens living on the roof. I am trying not to be a sissy about a way of life that is normal for the vast majority of the world. I still can’t believe it sometimes, the adventure I’m having. But there are times when it’s quite difficult to adapt.

The volunteer I’m replacing was a godsend during my visit. She’s so organized and went out of her way to help me get introduced and acclimated around town. And she’s short like me, so she’s leaving me her bike and a lot of her clothes! She was the first volunteer the town has ever had, and she did a lot of good work, so I have a lot to live up to.

One highlight of last week was staying up all night with said volunteer to watch the election results roll in. They sure were able to call it quickly – it was about 3 a.m. our time. I’m pretty cynical these days, but even I teared up at Obama’s acceptance speech. I’m pretty proud to be representing the United States at such a pivotal time in history.

Other volunteers live in several nearby sites, so I’ll have friends to hang out with on the weekends. And I’m 3 to 5 hours from Marrakesh, the wonderfully bustling international tourist enclave that will be my overnight point when I travel. Spent one night there on the way down and was enthralled by the tiny taste it gave me of Djemma el Fna, the main square where anything and everything can happen.

When I return for good I’ll get a post-office box set up, and then bring on the care packages! One or two Polarfleece or long sweaters would be great, but otherwise I shouldn’t need the warm clothing I’d begged for earlier. Hamdullah! A few cheap things from Target would mean the world to me. But I’m also learning to adapt to what is available here and (inshallah) what I can afford.

Language barriers will make things hard for a good while. I’ve got a line on a good tutor, an English teacher at the high school. It was inspiring to see how fluent the current volunteer is after two years; she swears that when she first arrived, she was as tongue-tied as I am now.

Nervous as hell about returning and negotiating my new life without being able to communicate easily. But I am truly thrilled with the location, I can see innumerable (that’s for the Bookstore Maven!) opportunities for working with people here, and I can already see ahead six months to when this will truly feel like home.

Swearing in is Nov. 20, two days after my 41st birthday. Hard to believe this new life less than two weeks away.

Photos from my new village.

Hanging in the dar with my host sister.

Rooftop barnyard.

Front door of the apartment where I hope to live after my homestay.

The street where I’ll live … note the dentist’s sign, Dad!

Friday, October 31, 2008

This just in: I know where I’m going.

Photo from a local wedding procession.

We learned our site placements this afternoon; didn’t realize just how anxious I’ve been until I felt the wave of relief when I learned about my town and the surrounding area.

For security purposes I can’t blog my exact location – email me privately if you want more info! – but I will be way down south, about an hour inland from the coastal resort city of Agadir. Hot climate, near a beach and less than five hours from Marrakesch – how did I manage to score this?

My site is quite small, only 3,000 residents, but it’s flanked by two good-sized cities, so I should have everything I need close to hand. The town is surrounded by orange farms; the current volunteer there tells me I’ll have all the free oranges and clementines I can eat. Sounds heavenly. Other local agricultural endeavors include honey and argan oil, an expensive oil used for cooking and for facial creams.

As soon as I read the current volunteer’s description, I this is the right town for me. Thought I wanted a large community, but small suddenly sounds more manageable (especially knowing I can easily get to a city when I need something). The dar chebab is very active when it comes to boys, but there are opportunities aplenty to encourage girls and young women to get involved. There’s also an active nedi neswi, or women’s center.

I will be only the second Peace Corps volunteer the town has ever had. The current volunteer is very enthusiastic and says my host family can’t wait to meet me. Very few people in town speak English; that sounds daunting, but she says she managed just fine despite having little Darija at first.

It’ll be a busy week – meeting my new host family, seeing the local dar chebab, starting the paperwork for my Moroccan work card and bank account, finding a Darija tutor and learning my way around town. And, of course, staying up all night Nov. 4 for the U.S. election results.

Inshallah, I’ll also be setting up a post-office box – so bring on those care packages! And I may have jumped the gun on my pleas for Polarfleece and wool socks; I’ll scope the situation out and let you know. I’ll have to email the address to y’all privately rather than post my exact whereabouts here.

Can’t wait to meet my new home; I’ll post an update to introduce you as soon as I’m able. May be awol for a while in the meantime, but don’t worry – I’m on top of my game and couldn’t be more excited. Frxhna bzzf! (I’m very excited) (And I’ll be warm!)

Leaving CBT.

We had a final party with all of our families before leaving our community-based training site. They dressed us to the nines in caftans and costume jewelry. I find it difficult to feel attractive in such heavy, bulky fabrics, but everyone gasped when we entered the room. Good fun. Lots of pastries. Lots of slightly hshuma dancing.

This is me with my Hajja and her youngest daughter, Khadija. “Formidable” is the best word to describe Hajja. She’s a force – in her community, in any room she enters. Very religious and conservative, yet also extremely laid back (“Self-service!” she’d call to me me in broken English when I arrived home late every evening, pointing me toward the kitchen) and very, very drifa (kind). I’ll miss her.

Quote of the day.

Htta haja masa3iba: “Nothing is hard.”
– the owner of the shop where I had some photos printed.

(I would say that he’s obviously never tried to learn another language, but he taught himself English via books and “Dr. Phil”)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Head above water, bobbing.

“I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.”
– from “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan

Candace on the steps outside her host family’s dar.

I hadn’t realized just how much I was craving it until I received the surprise gift of a day to myself.
My host family went to the nearby city of Fes on Sunday, our only day off from learning and teaching. Most of the kids in my group went to Fes with their own host families. I figure I have two years to visit this ancient city, so I wasn’t disappointed not to be invited.

Instead, I was so looking forward to a hike into the gorgeous, pine-covered mountains surrounding our little city. But a heavy rain canceled those plans.

What a treat. Alone, completely alone, for the first time in nearly two months. I rolled over and slept a couple more hours – until the luxurious hour of 9 a.m. I took the longest, hottest bath I’ve had in ages. I made my own lunch, much as I would have enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon back home – a baguette with soft cheese, some cashews, a couple of apples. I read; I watched a few episodes of “Weeds” on my iPod; I wrote and wrote and wrote (somehow, despite our jam-packed days, I’ve been journaling my ass off, and my stagemate Trish and I have formed a two-woman writing group via email that I hope will help me get over my writing fears).

’Twas heavenly … though I had to fight feelings of guilt for thinking so.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy spending time with my host family, or the many other Moroccans I’ve befriended so far. It’s just that I’m used to a significant amount of “alone time” to recharge my mental batteries, so to speak. I long for a couple of hours at Meadowlark or Jones Coffee, alone in the company of other funky beatniks. Or to stretch out on a banquette in the parlor, Billie Holiday on the stereo, with a good novel (or even my homework!) and a cup of tea and no one rushing in and out asking Labas? Labas? Kulshi bixir? (“Are you OK? Is everything alright?”)

Voluntary solitude is not a concept here. The idea of going to hang out at a coffeehouse, alone in a crowd, armed with soy latte and iPod and paperback and wifi, as an enjoyable activity – it’s unthinkable.

(Then, of course, there’s the opinion here of the type of woman who goes to a café, whether unaccompanied or not … that’s a whole issue I need to mull over in my head a bit more before I can write about it.)

Life is family-centered here. Any free time is spent visiting loved ones in each others’ homes, to share meals and gossip and opinions … or simply to watch TV together. It’s nice to feel part of a family, especially when my own is so far away. I just need to balance their company with my own cultural needs.


I’ve hit my learning wall – and it’s a wall built of Arabic script. My CBT group (affectionately self-dubbed the “short bus” class) is the last one to begin learning script. We’ve been learning Darija via transliteration – using Roman letters to approximate the sounds the language makes. Most Moroccans can read transliteration because of their fluency in French (the country was occupied by France for the first half of the 20th century).

Lahcan, our intrepid and ever-patient language instructor, started introducing us to script last week. A couple of my classmates had already been learning on their own. The others seem to be picking it up, shwiya b shwiya.

But my own brain is at capacity. It’s all I can do to keep a few new words or conjugations in my head every day. I’m following along during the script lessons, but I’m not really picking anything up – and I’m not at all worried about it, either.

For me, the goal is communication. I don’t need to write in script; I need to be able to share plans, thoughts and ideas with my fellow Moroccans. Right now I spend most of my time feeling tongue-tied and wordless at best, just plain stupid much of the time. My mental energy is better focused on pronunciation, conjugation and comprehension.

When we reach our permanent sites, we’ll have individual tutors to continue our Darija lessons. Inshallah, I’ll learn some script down the road.

And while it’s easy to be frustrated by how much more there is yet to learn, it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come. A month ago I was flipping frantically through my phrasebook just to cobble together “Food good. I go sleep now. Thank much.” Now I’m able to form entire sentences, in present, past or future tense, with an adjective thrown in every now and again if I’m feeling particularly on top of my game. It may take me a minute remember the correct conjugation, and I may need to put my mad mime skills to the test, but I can get my point across. That’s progress.

The blonde leading (?) the non.

In addition to our morning Darija classes, we’ve begun teaching English at the dar chebab. Five classes a week, supposedly for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels – but some youths are so eager that they just show up for all sessions. It’s not easy to corral 30 students of all ages and skill levels and leave them with anything of substance.

I’ve never taught before, at least not formally. The lack of training we’ve received in this area is frustrating, to say the least. I’m not exactly a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, in case you don’t know. Once “training” is over, I expect to be spending a significant amount of time researching lesson plans online and teaching myself how to teach.

Add to that the fact that I got into this not to teach English, but to help young people realize their own potential.

Progress is slow on that front as well.

Our youth group at the dar chebab is gearing up for our final activity before we have to leave. They came up with a pretty big plan: Spend a couple of afternoons at local mdrassas, or primary schools, teaching about the environment and leading a cleanup activity, followed by a morning of related skits and games this weekend to promote environmental issues and draw more youths to the dar chebab.

The process has been … a learning opportunity, for the youths but especially for us. They had a big plan, and we let them run with it when they seemed to have all their bases covered – ideas, execution, materials, permissions, etc.

Now we’re kind of relegated to the sidelines, thanks in equal measure to the language barrier, our reluctance to take over, and the amount of time available. The project has become less about the environment and more about entertainment. It’s been great to see them these young adults take charge of a project; they have good leadership and organizational skills and deserve a way to use them. But next time, we need to do a better job of helping them channel and focus their energies and abilities.

Heading home: A wish list.

We leave our CBT town in a week and return to Azrou to find out our permanent sites – where each of us will be living and working for the next two years. Then a week visiting our sites, meeting the host family and the current volunteer and learning our way around town. Another week or so, and believe it or not we’ll be sworn in as authentic PCVs (see the new glossary at left) on Nov. 20. That’s less than a month away.

A little anxious to learn where I’m being sent. Will I be freezing all winter? Will the dar chebab be active, or vacant? Will I be able to make a comfortable home for myself? Will I ever be able to carry on an intelligible conversation, much less an intelligent one?

In anticipation, I’ve made a sidebar (at left) of things I could really, really use if anyone were inclined to send a care package. I won’t be posting my permanent address on the blog – for security reasons, we’re not to make our specific whereabouts public – but if you want my address/phone number, just send me an email.

Shwiya homesick: A new playlist.

How to Be Invisible / Kate Bush
Somewhere In Between / Kate Bush
Trav’lin’ All Alone / Billie Holiday
Ramblin’ (Wo)man / Cat Power
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone / June Carter Cash
Trouble In Mind / Janis Joplin
Ghost Of Yesterday / Billie Holiday
The Littlest Birds (Sing the Prettiest Songs) / The Be Good Tanyas
One Voice / The Wailin’ Jennys
Why Wasn’t I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet) / Maria McKee
Downward Spiral / Sarah Benck And The Robbers
Poor Girl’s Blues / Jolie Holland
Subterranean Homesick Alien / Radiohead
If I Were A Weapon / Suzanne Vega
But I Feel Good / Groove Armada
I Could Stay Here Forever / Frank Black
The Whole World Lost Its Head / The Go-Go’s
Everything Will Be Alright / The Killers
More Adventurous / Rilo Kiley
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy / Sarah McLachlan

Quote of the day.

“You are herbivore? But you are very fat!”
– A visiting relative staying with my host family, during a discussion (in Darija/French/English) about why I don’t eat meat. It was absolutely intended as a compliment. Still …

More photos from our CBT site.
Afternoon at a mdrassa

You can take me out of the journalism business, but …

… you can’t teach me to read Arabic newspapers

Logan lets himself be traced …
… so we can label body parts in Darija class

Friday is couscous day!

Truck stop

Grainy, but this one’s for Dad

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In absentia.

Several letters from home arrived this week via snail mail. In the dormitory atmosphere of our seminar site, mail call definitely adds to the feeling of being at summer camp. A month into training, the experience still feels more like camp than like reality. (Then I try to negotiate a squat toilet while wearing jeans and a long skirt to brace against the Middle Atlas wind and rain, and it feels quite real. Also cold.)

Along with the cards from my family, I received my absentee ballot. How exotic to be voting surrounded by my fellow PCTs, sipping mint tea, half a world away from Nebraska. Then to go to l-bosta (the post office) and try to negotiate the mailing thereof – such a relief to realize it was not 500 dirhams but 7 dirhams and change, or about a buck. Hope my vote gets back to the States in time – and hope my vote will actually count.


This has been a frustrating week as far as PC training goes. Too many children’s games and not enough language learning. Great to have everyone together again … but the dorm setting took its toll on us all.

And it’s cold – damn, it’s cold! I’m only just realizing how very lucky I am back here in Immouzzer, where my host family has western amenities including hot water and a heater in my room! Afraid I’m being spoiled, only to be dumped at my new home in a couple of months to find a hole in the ground and a water source in the center of town.

Still, I can feel myself making progress. Not least in what I am able to tolerate – despite the above paragraphs, my patience already is not what it would have been even a month ago. And adapting to so many things – the cold, the hygiene, the inability to communicate – is easier than one imagines before one is simply thrown into it.

That I continue to feel so zen about it all either means I’m on the right track or I’m in a state of shock. Draw your own conclusions.

On the phone front:

If your phone rings once or twice but no one’s there and no one leaves a message – it may be me signaling you to call me … give me a buzz!

Currently reading:

“Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan (so nice to finally be able to escape into fiction again … my brain wasn’t having it for the first several weeks … )

Quotes of the day:

“If trapped, stay alive!”
– from the section “Dogs and Other Animals,” Peace Corps Morocco Safety and Security Manual

“But remember: Better to throw it out than to throw it up!”
– from the “When There Is No Fridge” section of the Peace Corps Morocco Kitchen Guide

More photos from Azrou:
View from our hostel: Sheep, cemetery, homes, cedars, mountains

Mouthing the words “F***, it’s cold!” on the walk to the post office

Kate looking lovely behind her scarf

Jeremy’s traditional Moroccan slippers

Fatima in front of Azrou’s dar chebab

Talking with some women we passed on one of our power walks along the highway out of town

Mountain view from the main street


Reid leads a training exercise

With Kara, wearing my stereotypical Peace Corps hippie outfit (complete with lack of personal hygiene … too bad this blog lacks Smellovision!)