Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Guess this one never got a title.

Last week I took one last run out into the countryside before embarking on a month or so of traveling. Hoping for a haze-free day that would reveal the craggy mountains just beyond my scruffy desert home, I brought along my camera. The mountains didn't show themselves, but I did run into a friend I often encounter on my run past the fields and pastures north of town. Ambling far behind his flock, my little shepherd friend was holding up what from a distance looked like a turkey but, as I got closer realized was a lamb. Newborn, still wet.

I wonder, sometimes, what my shepherd friend's life portends. He's 10 years old and obviously isn't in school. (I think of my 10-year-old niece and a life immersed in school, friendships, music lessons and sports fields.) Will he live his entire life out here, in these fields? Is that a bad thing?

My bac class ~ baccalaurea students, or high-school seniors ~ has been growing exponentially in the past week. What started as three or four quietly well-spoken girls has developed into a real class, boys and girls who talk and joke fairly freely with one another and with me. Their English vocabularies are impressive, and while at first they were shy about attempting extemporaneous conversation, now I have a hard time hearing one student for all the side conversations and joking ~ in English! ~ from the rowdy boys in the back row.

It feels like a bad time to be leaving; I'm finally starting to feel productive here. But left I have; I'm writing from Rabat, the capital a two-day trip up north, where we are engaged in a week of medical appointments at our midpoint in service. Rabat means friends and laughter and foods unavailable in site, cocktails and urban sidewalks and some semblance of nightlife.

From here, it's on to Amrika and three weeks with my family and friends. Yia-Yia's, Maggie's, the Zoo Bar, Amy's front porch, William's new house, niece and nephews and mom's Christmas goodies. A chance to wash my clothes in a machine rather than in the kitchen sink. A chance to replace a laptop currently held together with duct tape.

When I return, I'll have my hands full. Beyond getting my regular classes back on track, I'll be traveling north again to lead a two-day workshop on gender issues for the new crop of volunteers. I'll be assisting with a regional workshop on women's health, training local women to bring accurate information back to their villages. I hope to get my kids excited about hosting a regional theater workshop for neighboring dar chebabs. Also hope to work on a grant to outfit our new library/computer room. And I'll be preparing for spring English immersion camps ... and then summer camps ... only halfway done here and I already feel like time is running out ...

Currently reading: Selected Stories, Andre Dubus

Currently listening to: My pitifully small music archive (Lincolnites! Share music with me when you see me these next few weeks!)

Quote of the day: "When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So ... leap." -- Cynthia Heimel

Saying a temporary goodbye to my hostmothersister.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Photo essay: My week in animals and meat.

My host family's hamar (hachak!) was not into being petted. Rakya nearly dropped my camera, she was laughing so hard. (Donkeys are considered dirty and shameful here, even as they are relied on to haul many times their weight for hours in the blazing desert sun.)

Today was 3id al Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, honoring Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. This year I managed to hide out long enough to miss most of the festivities ~ the killing of the sheep in every courtyard or on every rooftop, and my city apparently tidier than others, no blood running in the streets for us ~ but I did happen past this doorway on my walk through town today.

Dinner with the host family: Hooves and kebabs for them, fried potatoes and zucchini for me. Everybody wins!

Earlier this week, I helped Kaitlin pick out a couple of turkey drumsticks for her Thanksgiving dinner with Vish. Note the blood on the tiles of the butcher's shop.

The butcher was so tickled to hear us speaking Darija and Tashelheit, he tossed in a bag of innards ~ no extra charge.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks, the giving of.

Laughing with Anny at her going-away party in Tioute.

Vish and Joy with the birthday feast they prepared for me.

Just a few things I'm thankful for:

The palpable sense of being surrounded by love, both by new friends here who feel like old friends already, and by enduring and ever-growing relationships back home, loved ones who do not feel at all far away.

My looming visit home, where those loved ones will be within hugging distance, where those beers will be within hoisting distance, where the Southern slice at YiaYia's will be within savoring distance.

In the meantime, care packages of unnecessary luxuries that bring home back to me ... Constant Comment tea, nag champa incense, peanut butter, books books books books books ...

Wonky podcasts.

The recent discovery of such delicacies for sale in Taroudant as panini bread (perfect substitute for tortillas), soy sauce and red wine vinegar.

Having survived, as of this week, an entire year here in my dusty southern village, and knowing that the second year will be, comparatively, a piece of cake.

Realizing how far I have come in that year. Learning, at last, the value of perserverence, of things not coming easily, of not giving up.

My host sister Kabira reminding me recently how, at first, I cried a lot and my face was hard like this (as she hit her palm against the wall). And look at me now, completely wllft (adjusted), she added, as we sat around the kitchen table, roaring in laughter over nothing in particular, making hlwa (cookies/sweets) to sell at her shop, me doing my best to ignore the distinctly non-OSHA-compliant process.

The amazing ability to communicate and forge connections across vast barriers. Common language isn't everything. Shared cultural norms, neither. A smile, a shrug, a pantomime, a raised eyebrow of understanding, and a new kindred spirit.

My firmly established vegetarian status in the days before L3id kbir, the biggest holiday in the Muslim calendar, the one my neighbors and students remind me of by slicing their fingers across the neck in the sheep-slaughtering manner. (You can see last year's post if you need an explicit reminder.) But, also, my greater understanding this year of the holiday and, once again, how we global peoples (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Pagan) are connected far more closely than we allow ourselves to realize.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Words aren't enough.

Our Peace Corps Morocco family is in shock at the sudden loss, far too young, of one of our own.

So-Youn was an exuberant soul, feisty and fiery and feminist. She could be tempestuous, but she also had a great deal of empathy and arms big enough to enfold those twice her size in the most generous of hugs. She held fast to her moral code, and her strong sense of right and wrong drove her to speak out, to rally for change and to lead by example. She gave a great haircut. She loved her work and her village. She had a great deal to look forward to.

She lived large. She was ~ no, is ~ an inspiration.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How cool is this?

CNN photo: Muriel Johnston, left, meets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Morocco.

(CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday praised as "one of the best" the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in the world, an 85-year old Florida woman serving in Morocco.

Clinton recognized Muriel Johnston during a meet-and-greet session of U.S. Embassy officials and other Americans in Marrakech, Morocco. Clinton was representing the U.S. at an international conference in Morocco, during a trip that stretched from Pakistan to the Middle East.

"I have to recognize -- I just learned about this last night -- Muriel Johnston. Muriel? Stand up, Muriel," Clinton said to applause and cheers from Johnston's fellow Peace Corps workers and other Americans.

"My young staff said, 'Oh my goodness, Muriel Johnston, she's the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in the world.' I said, 'That's not the way we think about it.' No, Muriel and I might say she is one of the best Peace Corps volunteers in the world," Clinton said to more applause, emphasizing "best."

"And it's also a great reminder that in America in the 21st century, there are not only second acts, there's third acts and fourth acts and fifth acts and -- if you're ready to embrace new challenges," Clinton said.

Later, Clinton shook hands with Johnston and asked if she was enjoying herself.

"I'm having a wonderful time, " Johnston told the secretary.

Johnston is serving as a health worker in the Moroccan province of Azilal. She hails from New York but has lived in Sebastian, Florida, since 1992. Peace Corps headquarters in Washington confirmed that she is the oldest Peace Corps volunteer currently serving.

She is one of more than 7,600 Peace Corps volunteers at work in 75 countries.


The first-year health and environment volunteers were lucky enough to be at a training workshop in Marrakech when Sen. Clinton visited there this week.

I've not yet had the pleasure of meeting Muriel, but I've heard nothing but great things about her, including that she's one of the most active volunteers in her group. Time for me to stop complaining about getting older ~ look how much I have yet to accomplish!

And while I'm not a fan of everything Sen. Clinton has done (most notably her votes on the Iraq war), she has been a great role model for serious, strong, successful and powerful women.

It would have been a great honor to meet either one of them. However, despite various nefarious plots, I couldn't come up with a way to sneak past either Secret Service or Peace Corps security. Drats.

It's a beautiful morning ~ the temperatures have finally dropped into the 80s after an extended autumn heat wave. I wake to the pitter-patter of construction rubble raining down into my courtyard, the hammering of steel on concrete as a third floor goes up on a neighboring home. Time to head out into the countryside for a run before lunch with the host family. Life is good here ~ busy with classes, awash in project ideas and only a month to go before I'm home for the holidays. OK, life is more than good.

Quote of the day.

"Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate."

~ the Buddha, Dhamapada, Chapter 1

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do what you fear most.

So often the things we dread turn out to be either not so bad, or in fact even a joy. It's a lesson I've learned many times over the years, so why I need to keep revisiting it I don't know ~ but it's also a wonderfully easy lesson to learn, so I welcome the review.

This week it came in the form of my first week of yoga classes at the nedi neswi, or women's center.

I was really dragging my feet at first, even though the young women were clamoring for "sport" and I truly want to help them practice healthy habits. But ... I'm no yogi, not by a long shot; I'm still a beginner myself. I'm a long shot from memorizing the necessary vocabulary. I really, really, really hate being "on stage" ~ and never more so than when I'm exercising.

Yet far from the disaster I was sure it would be, after only two classes I can easily see our twice weekly yoga sessions becoming the highlight of my week.

Working off a vocab list and a very simple flow of positions offered by another volunteer, I tried to explain the basic concepts ~ that yoga is good for strength, flexibility and tranquility ~ a good overall workout. Then, we began, me mostly saying "do like me" and "breathe" as we did some very simple stretches and a few basic yoga poses.

There was quite a bit of giggling, which I always dread because (narcissist that I am) I'm always sure it's directed at me ~ my pathetic vocabulary, my oversimplified idea of "exercise." Maybe to some extent it was, but I could also sense that most of the women were just so glad to be using their bodies. And while I was afraid my program would be too simple for them, many of them were struggling after only half an hour. Downward dog just about killed a couple of them. A good opportunity for us to talk about starting small and building as they get stronger. Just like English class ~ or, for me, Arabic.

I know they were expecting aerobics, but they seemed satisfied when I explained that yoga may seem simple but is a good whole-body regimen. I also suggested that if anyone wants to go walking and/or running with me in the mornings, or after yoga, we could also get an aerobic workout that way. Several are game ~ even eagerly suggesting that we start Sunday. (Alas, I leave town again Sunday for a few days in Rabat, meeting with the Gender and Development Committee. I've charged them with keeping the class going while I'm gone.)

The best part of my week was the 20 minutes or so spent saying goodbye as we rolled up our mats. Those young women are just so glad to have something new to do (and, I think, a new mascot to do it with). Their ebullient thanks, their reluctance to leave, their hugs and cell-phone snapshots ... this afternoon, I felt welcomed into a group after a long time watching, yearning, from the sidelines.

The other highlight of my week.

Pomegranates! So much trouble, so totally worth it.

Donkey talk.

One of my favorite writers, Susan Orlean, has a delightful piece in September's Smithsonian about the ubiquitous Moroccan donkey. Gorgeous photos, too.

Donkeys are the workhorses of this country, so to speak. Moroccans don't anthropomorphize their animals. No such thing as pets or cuddly creatures, and donkeys get the worst of it here ~ to the point that one is supposed to say the equivalent of "excuse me" if they even say the word "donkey" (also after "garbage" and other topics we Americans are slightly less ashamed of). They carry loads that would sag an automobile trunk, working long, hard days in glaring sun, surrounded by flies, on little water and occasional scraps of food. The bray of a balking donkey is like nothing you've ever heard ~ and it usually breaks the silence right around sunrise, just after you've drifted back to sleep after hearing the morning call to prayer. They're a constant on the modern Moroccan highway, plodding along unperturbed by crazy taxis and lumbering semis. As Orlean describes better than I can, they can go places no motorized vehicle can go.

Tagine, tea and donkeys ~ there's far more to Moroccan daily life than these three stereotypes, but they're not at all far from reality, either.

Photo op.
Yeah, my eyes are closed (so what else is new?), but I couldn't resist sharing this image. Anny needed passport photos for a job application, so we visited a photo studio in Taroudant. Note the classy combination of desert, waterfall, camel and giraffe ~ and just how did that ceramic tiled floor get into this abundance of authentic Moroccan nature?

Quotes of the day.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” - Maria Robinson

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” - Chinese Proverb

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." - the Dalai Lama

Currently mourning: My favorite jammy pants, which finally bit the dust this week. I've mended them three times now; they're just plain worn through in the seat. They were good to me for at least eight years. RIP.
Currently reading: "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
Currently listening to: "World Cafe" on NPR/WXPIN

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Waiting for The Man.

Waiting along the 'toroute, hoping for a glimpse of Mohammed VI,
with my hostmothersister* and some of my favorite little girls.

The king has been in our neck of the woods recently, visiting various projects in the Agadir-Taroudant region. I knew something was up a couple of weeks ago, when all of the sidewalks and medians and dirt paths along the 'touroute -- the highway that passes through our village -- were suddenly torn up, along with several patches of road. The king would be stopping, I was told, and we had to make improvements to welcome him.

The appointed day came and went, with a few new palms hurriedly planted in the medians, a few bricks laid in the dirt, some red and white stripes freshly painted along the roadway. No king, though ~ he took the road several kilometers north instead. I wondered to myself, sarcastically, how long before all of the piles of concrete rubble might be hauled away and the piles of bricks actually laid into walking paths.

On Saturday I started hearing that the king once again was expected to pass through on Tuesday ~ and that, this time, he was even going to stop and give a little speech. He's never visited the village before, at least not in the memory of anyone I asked. Moroccan flags and banners started going up along the length of the village, along with barriers along the highway route. No, the construction work is far from done, but even I have to admit they made a valiant effort.

Things in fact looked pretty festive when my hostmothersister* stopped by to pick me up and we walked to the center of town. School was let out for the day, and kids were already milling about the length of the route. Rakya and I picked out a prime viewing spot on the shady side of the street, squatting on an empty concrete planter where a palm tree should stand. Some of my little girl friends came to hang out with us. We took some photos. The gendarmes (local police) told us we couldn't take photos of the king. They were happy to let us take photos of them, however. Women hauling babies and toddlers nodded in greeting as they passed. Boys trying to look smart made sassy comments about the gowria (foreigner) as they skidded past on their bicycles, sliding dangerously through the growing crowd. My girls offered me water and sunflower seeds. We counted together in English.

A couple of hours of this and even my hostmothersister was bored. Why don't we go have lunch and return later, she suggested. I agreed but parted ways when we reached my house, remembering I had a lesson to arrange for my first English class at the women's center later that afternoon.

Another couple of hours after that and I heard the tree-stiffening rumble of helicopters overhead, and I knew the king was on the highway. Lying in my salon in my post-lunch stupor, I had little desire to jump up, get appropriately dressed and rush out to see the fuss. Turns out I hadn't missed a thing ~ the King waved from his limo but didn't stop. "Oh, but he was zwin (handsome)," one of my little girls sighed, in all the seriousness with which an 11-year-old can sigh.

So that's the news around here this week.

This is my first week of English classes. First class at the nedi neswi (women's center) this afternoon was hilarious ~ this class is going to be much more laughing and chatting than anything else, but I think that's the point. Next week we add "Sport" ~ yoga lessons twice a week. At the dar chebab, where slowly we are seeing more students visiting every day, I expect to have to really cajole the younger students but already have several dedicated (I hope) young women interested in my Friday conversation classes for bac (high school seniors).

For National Women's Day last week, I screened a fabulous Moroccan film at the nedi and the dar chebab. "Number One" is a comedy (in Moroccan Arabic, with French subtitles) about Aziz, a husband and supervisor who isn't the world's nicest guy ~ until his wife slips him a tainted tagine and he suddenly becomes the most empathetic guy around. I won't spoil it for anyone who might watch it; suffice to say it was the best Moroccan film I've seen yet, not only in production value and entertainment, but in the positive message it enforced about the moudawana, the laws that govern marriage, divorce and family. Revised several years ago now on Oct. 10 ~ hence the inauguration of National Women's Day ~ the moudawana now gives women far more rights and equality at home and in the workplace.

Here's one of many looks back at the moudawana changes, their effects on reality, and what remains to be done: http://www.magharebia.com/cocoon/awi/xhtml1/en_GB/features/awi/reportage/2009/10/09/reportage-01

* This is what I've decided to call the wonderful woman who normally would be considered my host mother but who in fact is likely several years younger than me. She insists she's my Moroccan mother, I insist that if anything, she's my little sister; the one thing we agree on is a great deal of affection for each other.

And in other news ...

Because I'm a lazy blogger ~ because these give a very accurate flavor of my daily Morocco life without me lifting a finger ~ I am linking to several other bloggers today. There's good stuff here if you have time to take a look.

First, my friend Faye writes beautifully about the sounds of her nearby town here in the Souss, our southern Morocco desert region: http://fayexcassell.blogspot.com/2009/10/sounds-of-soussand-beyond.html

Next, our stajmate Duncan gives a hilarious account of some of the cultural "exchanges" that often have us Americans laughing, cringing, or both: http://moroccanroller.blogspot.com/2009/10/9-things-that-will-shock-american-in.html

This YouTube video is a couple of years old, and barely scratches the surface, but it gives a good overview of the various lives and challenges of Moroccan youths. It also shows the gamut of female attire, typical Moroccan homes, architecture, streets, foods and music (and, warning for those sensitive of stomach, a fairly grisly but entirely typical scene of a sheep slaughtered for L3id Kbir, the biggest holiday of the year).

My dear friend Kari linked me to this blog post about the perspective Peace Corps service bestows on us, about the world and about ourselves: http://ivancampuzano.com/top-10-lessons-i-learned-as-a-peace-corps-volunteer/

Finally, the Pew Center has released a major study on global Muslim populations. Muslims make up nearly a quarter of the world's population. Contrary to popular belief the Middle East is synonymous with "the Muslim world," more than 60 percent of all Muslims live in Asia. Lots of interesting facts and perspective here, if you're interested.

Word of the day.
"Moroccracy" ~ Morocco plus bureaucracy (nicked from Anny's blog)

Quote of the day.
"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." -- Emily Dickinson

Currently reading: "African Visas: A Novella and Stories," Maria Thomas
Currently listening to: Leonard Cohen and Neko Case (not together ~ but wouldn't that be a duet!?)
Currently loving: Peanut butter and Hot Tamales sent from the States (again, not simultaneously ... chokran bzzf 3la mma u bba u sahabti Jenny!)

More photos of Waiting for the King.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Getting the ball rolling.

Aicha (one of my favorite "little girls") shows me a thing or two about playing jacks.

The good news (and it's really good news): My dar chebab did, indeed, finally open this week. Hamdulilah! Nearly six months we've been closed. It felt so good to slide open the rusty bolt that latches the metal gate and throw the doors open to welcome the village children.

The bad news: If a rusty bolt squeaks in the vast desert and no one's around to hear it, is it really open?

In the four days we've been open so far, I've seen a total of seven youths ~ and two were repeats. We have some work to do in getting the word out that kids can finally come back. I have a few of my devoted regulars acting as town criers, charged with bringing me warm bodies. I'm also posting announcements around town, promoting the dar chebab's opening and the schedule of English classes I've arranged with the help of my regulars.

This week, I'm visiting the schools to meet with the principals and English teachers. One cannot just make arrangements with a teacher, accompany her to school and speak to her class. One first must meet with the school director and have tea. Then one must ask for a letter of reference to the regional minister of education in Taroudant. Then one must take the letter to the ministry and get it stamped. Then one must return to the school director with the letter. Then, and only then, can any arrangements long ago struck between Moroccan public school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer be carried on as planned.

Shwiya b shwiya.

I spent some time at the lycee (high school) this morning to that effect, assisted by an English teacher named Halim. We had a good conversation about ways I might participate in his class occasionally throughout the school year, doing some activities that force listening comprehension and spontaneous conversation ~ in a fun way, we hope.

I'm really impressed by Halim's approach to his classes. You hear a lot about Moroccan schools focusing solely on repetition and rote memorization. Halim has all kinds of ideas about theater and games and an activity he calls the "hot seat," in which students will take turns peppering me with questions and then I'll lob questions back at them. I'm excited to try some of my leadership/teamwork/communication exercises that are part of our Gender and Development curriculum.

Halim also has eyes on the dar chebab's datashow, or screen projector. He wants to show English-language movies that show education can be fun and that teachers and students can have positive relationships. One favorite he mentioned somehow involved a fat man who answered the phone and lied and then became a teacher and the kids loved him and then later the teachers did too ... eventually, I was able to determine that he was referencing "School of Rock." Awesome. I'll be looking for a copy when I come home for the holidays in December. Also "Dead Poets Society." Any other ideas?

When Aicha and I broke out the sidewalk chalk, even my mudhir got into the action.

Meanwhile, the quiet atmosphere around the place Saturday afternoon gave me time to play with Aicha, one of my favorites among the young girls who like to follow me around the neighborhood. I brought out a new package of jacks, realizing as I did that I couldn't even remember how to play, much less explain it in Arabic. I needn't have worried; Aicha was a pro. She even knew how to toss the jacks up in the air and catch them on the back of her hand before letting them drop to the ground.

We also had a good time with some new fat pencils of sidewalk chalk. My effigy is now emblazoned on the basketball court, available for anyone to walk all over.

So, no ~ not much activity at the dar chebab our first week, but we'll get there. I'm also branching out, spending two afternoons a week at the nedi neswi, where I'll be teaching English and yoga. And somehow I've agreed to teach English at a daycare/preschool run by two of my favorite adult students. Somehow, that intimidates me more than anything else. Well, that and the yoga.

As a bigger project, I'm planning to write a grant to stock our new informatique/library with books and other supplies. This is the new building that forced us to close for construction so long ago. I've still no idea why it all happened, but I'm really happy with the results. A clean, brightly lit new room outfitted with desks and eight computers that have been in hiding since I arrived last winter. The computers have Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and even Publisher. (Also, as the mudhir's assistant happily demonstrated for me, a variety of computer games.)

I'd really like to set up a schedule of computer literacy classes for youths, as well as for my nedi women if they'd like. Two problems there: 1) I'm about as literate in computers as I am in Arabic, and 2) a for-profit computer school in town means we probably won't be able to find an instructor who'll do it for free. The grant I hope to write would cover the costs of hiring an instructor, and also to stock our empty bookshelves with a variety of books in Arabic and beginner English.

Fair warning, dear readers: The type of grant I'm planning involves not NGO funds but participation from Peace Corps supporters and especially from friends and family. You'll be hearing from me soon!

Our new "informatique" ~ I'm impressed by the lavender/peach color combo.

For some reason, this morning's visit to the school gave me an unusual burst of domestic energy. I started by defrosting my fridge, which likes to leak icicles. I also did a little refrigerator repair, in the form of duct tape, to close a gap that may be leaking air and contributing to the public.

Once the defrosting was a success, I had quite a puddle of water to clean up. One thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was giving the whole place a good cleaning, top to bottom. Just yesterday one of my favorite Peace Corps neighbors, Matt, was saying that one of the things he'll miss most about Morocco when he finishes his service next month is the way we clean here: Just dump a basin of water on the floor and push water, dirt and debris right out the front door. Pretty dang satisfying.

I've made two of my favorite salads and hard-boiled some eggs and whipped up some iced coffee, all of which, along with the fat, juicy apples that have appeared with the change of season, should get me through at least the next couple of days' worth of meals. I've caught up on the news via at least 10 podcasts. Now I'm ready to curl up with Paul Theroux*. I think I've earned it. Goodnight.

My well-stocked, (temporarily) icicle-free fridge.

Kitchen towels in the courtyard. (My mom makes these ~ aren't they pretty?)

*Currently reading: "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux

Currently listening to: Patsy Cline, Portishead, and some Gnaoua music (a Berber/Arabic/Saharan mix that's kind of Morocco's answer to jam bands)

Currently pondering: "Understanding engenders care." -- Natalie Goldberg

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spain 1: Me encanta Madrid.

“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

Hallway of the Reina Sofia.

No, I didn't get away from myself ~ but I did get away from Morocco for awhile this summer. Five nights at a yoga/reiki retreat in Andalucia, followed by four nights in Madrid. I traveled solo, purposefully. A quiet, restful break from the rigors of Peace Corps life. (insert sarcastic smirk here).

Seriously, I needed the break. And it was nice to find I can still butcher Spanish as badly as I currently butcher Arabic.

Madrid was everything I wanted in a vacation. I walked and walked the historic streets of the city center. I would meander around a bit in the morning, find a place to sit and have an iced latte while reading the International Herald Tribune/El Pais, then head off to a museum, passing majestic churches and historic buildings on the way.

I wore makeup and a tank top and a knee-length skirt, and was not bothered once in four days. I got a pedicure. I read five books* ~ in fact, I had to restock and was grateful to find a bookstore with some English selections. I bought street art, and postcards, and souvenirs for my host family, and some Morocco-appropriate tops for only 6 euros each. I snacked on tapas and calamari, and splurged my last night on a seafood paella.

And I will admit that for some reason I indulged in a daily habit of Oreo McFlurries at the nearest McDonald's. Y'all know how I feel about chains, what they do to our eating habits, our economies, our environment. And yet, it felt oddly ... comforting.

When I tired of walking or needed a break from the museum, I stopped at an outdoor cafe and sipped a glass (or two!) of very cold, very crisp white wine. I did this several times a day. Retox, I liked to call it, giggling to myself behind the pages of my book.

(Those of you who can enjoy any of these small luxuries at any time have no idea how lovely it was to revisit a world where they are so readily available.)

My main purpose in choosing Madrid (besides the inexpensive flight from Marrakech) was to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Museo del Prado. And it was just as quietly spectacular as you might imagine. Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Carravagio, Titian, Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" ... and so much more. My favorite: Rubens' version of "The Three Graces," beautiful women drawn with such tender love even when they're "of an age." Spent the better part of a day at the Prado and still didn't see Bellini, Botticelli ... I guess I'll just have to return.

But, to me, the real gem of Madrid turned out to be the Reina Sofia, Madrid's modern art museum. Famous for being the home of "Guernica," Picasso's giant statement on the horrors of war, the Spanish Civil War in particular. It's enormous, overwhelming. But that wasn't the half of it. The Reina Sofia was without a doubt the best museum I (an amateur appreciator, to be sure) have ever visited. A sizeable collection of Picassos, of course, as well as Dali, and the usual modern masters (Duchamp, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Calder). But just so full of works by people I'd never heard of, that mesmerized me by content rather than name. Painting and film and sculpture and installation. I had to leave for lunch and come back, and again for a snack (and, yes, some more wine) before returning to love it some more. And I'm not a museum person, really. That's how great it was.

My third highlight was accidentally discovering the Royal Botanical Gardens, a 20-acre stretch next to the Prado, ill-advertised and hidden by a marble and iron fence, giant yews beyond. I smelled it first, damp humusy fertile earth that almost made me cry with homesickness for my own garden. (Well, actually, it did make me cry.) Another morning spent wandering through plots of yuccas and rosemarys and grasses and sculpted privet and meandering thymes. I wished I could've slept in there, in that damp earth smell.

Madrid. I miss it. I slept well in a private room (24 euros/night) the size of a closet but with the luxury of a ceiling fan, in a hostel where not until I arrived did I realize the proprietor was of Moroccan heritage. He didn't understand a word I said in Arabic; whether that was because of my language-butchering or because he never learned the language of his origins, I never determined.

I'm posting just a few photos here, and yoga photos farther down; many more are available on my Flickr site.

I was afraid that in returning to my dusty Moroccan village, I would lose all the calming benefits of my vacation. I needn’t have worried. Same old ups and downs here (up = crowds of kids running to greet me every time I turn a corner, my favorite transit driver telling me how much my Arabic has improved; down = crowds of young men trying constantly to get my attention, Berber women telling me I really can't speak Arabic very well, can I?)

Mostly, though, it’s been ups. The dar chebab reopens today, inchallah. I look forward to moving ahead and finally getting some work done. And to booking a flight home in December, my next getaway.

Street musician outside the Prado.

Picasso's "Woman in a Garden," with the giant "Guernica" in the background.

Sculpture outside the Reina Sofia.

One of my favorite finds at the Reina Sofia, a 1937 piece by photographer Jose Renau photograph: "Shedding her outer layer of superstition and misery, from the immemorial slave there emerged THE WOMAN capable of active participation in the making of the future"

One of many beautiful churches.

Mercado de San Miguel ~ the Williams Sonoma of mercados. Wine bar, organic nuts in bulk, fruit and veggies lovingly cradled in (recycled paper?) nests rather than dumped into plastic crates as I'm used to.

Graffiti at an alleyway cafe.

Nebraskans, can you imagine a Ministry of Agriculture building as majestic as this one?

Street art purchased in the park across from the Prado.

Toilet paper art sculpture in Plaza Mayor.

I loved this prominent PSA campaign spread across Madrid:
"Shit sack: Plastic bags jeopardize the lives of many animal species."

* Books read in Spain.
1. Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, Mary Pipher
2. Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, Natalie Goldberg (third read?)
3. Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (and just as it takes him halfway through the book to get to Spain, it took me equally as long to realize I've read this one before. But such a delight to actually read Hemingway in Spain!)
5. The Best American Short Stories 1999, Amy Tan, editor