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!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Endi portabl -- call me!

That’s right – I’ve joined the 21st century and finally procured a cell phone here in Morocco. Last night was my first overseas phone call, from my favorite little brother – it was so good to hear your voice, Matt!

Email me, y’all, if you want my number. I would LOVE to hear from those of you stateside, if your calling plan offers reasonable international calls, but no way am I able to afford calling overseas. Or, if you use Skype, you can call me for free … I really need to get one of these young’uns to get me signed up with Skype so I can make calls from the cyber.

Thanks, by the way, to those of you who are keeping in touch … you’ve no idea how much a word or two of encouragement props me up for the rest of the day!


My stage had our first elections last evening, for our representative on Peace Corps Morocco’s Gender and Development Committee. I ran, against two awesome young women, and I’m excited to have won. We’ll meet several times a year to discuss ways to increase awareness of gender and equality issues, both among other volunteers and in the communities we serve.

The Youth Development sector has a special focus on the education and empowerment of young Moroccan women—it’s what made me so sure this location was the perfect fit for me. I can’t wait to get started.


After two weeks of intensive language training in Immouzzer, I finally found myself beginning to understand the stray phrase or two, and even to string together one or two of my own. We learned present and past tense, and I’ve memorized a handful of infinitives (well, there actually aren’t infinitives in Darija, but I don’t want to put you to sleep with an explanation).

Now we’re back in Azrou, with the full Youth Development group, for some teaching methodology and seminars on gender issues, SIDA (AIDS), harassment and other topics. Need to keep going over the language I’ve learned so far, lest I lose the little progress I’ve made. As you can see, my dear friend Trish and I are plenty confused already:

Training so far in a nutshell: Not enough language procurement, personal hygiene or exercise; lots of busy work, babysitting and CYA; plenty of cultural readjustment; laughter still overriding irritation. Inching along, which is better than the “two steps forward and 10 miles back” of my favorite BSOJC lyric.

Tomorrow marks one month since we arrived in Morocco -- we're a third of the way through training. Guess that's more than two steps forward.

Quote of the day.

“One lives but once in the world.” – Goethe