Sunday, May 31, 2009

Superhighway? This is the Autobahn.


My biggest news of the week is unfortunately once again related to my solitary pastimes and not to all the great work I’m doing. (Though I did start teaching at the nedi neswi this week and so have a brand new group of women I’m completely smitten with; and I did manage to secure new housing and make arrangements to move next week; and I have collected 40 percent of the paperwork I need to bring to the Ministry of Youth and Sports this week so my five scholarship kids can go to summer camp.)

My dear friend Anny introduced me to my new best friend this week. I am calling her Bouchra, which is Darija for “woman who brings good news.” She comes in a sleek, elegant package, and she’s fast. Oh, she’s fast. If she were a woman in Morocco, she’d be hshuma bzzf.

But she’s not a woman. She’s my beautiful new Internet modem. She connects directly to my Mac. No more extra software. No more 20-minute waits while a page loads. No more crashes. No more individually downloading every podcast. ITunes works. Facebook works. And, if I can sell the old modem for half price, I’ll cover most of the cost of my splurge.

So you can imagine my past 24 hours. I’ve barely risen from the ponj in my innerwebs stupor.

In my resulting obsessive speed-surfing, today alone I have found the following:

* Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday column of international “travel tips.”  Most of his advice is just practical suggestions for navigating any crowded tourist area, whether it’s a developing country or not. The comments on his related blog post take him to task for being overly titillating, implying foreign countries are all dangerous war zones and you’d be crazy to travel without a helmet and flack jacket. I don’t agree. But the blog also mentions an inaccuracy involving Morocco, and my reply got onto his comments page. Shades of Steve Martin in “The Jerk” – I’m somebody now!

* An article on upcoming local elections across Morocco that mentions an increased quota – 12 percent – for female officeholders. I hope to read more about women politicians in coming weeks.

* A Facebook group called Stop Sexual Harassment in Morocco. Harassment by men can seem overwhelming and never-ending here; it’s important to remember that it’s perpetuated by a tiny minority of very vocal young men. Contrary to the common stereotype of developing countries being backward and “not knowing any better” than societies in the west, plenty of Moroccan women and men know that harassment is wrong, and I’m so proud to see active efforts to denounce it. Most of it’s in French and Arabic, but if you’re on FB, join the group and add to the numbers!

* The sad news of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. (I’m not a journalist anymore, so I can call this what it is and not clean it up with “homicide.”) I met Dr. Tiller once, briefly, at a fundraiser. His patient, quiet demeanor spoke to a persisent dedication to helping women facing the most painful decision they’ll ever make, for reasons outsiders can never fully understand. He bravely continued to help women in the face of threatened and actual violence – a previous shooting, never-ending protests surrounding his home and clinic, and a series of attempts to co-opt the legal system to prevent him from providing a legal medical service. My heart goes out to his family, his coworkers, and everyone who stands up against the hypocrites.

Quotes of the day:

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” — William Shedd

“If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.” — E. Joseph Cossman

“It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.” — Unknown

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A day at the beach.

with Vish, one of my closest neighbors and favorite PCVs
In Morocco, Peace Corps volunteers arrive in twice-annual waves -- health and environment volunteers in the spring, youth development and small business development volunteers in the fall. Sadly, on that same schedule, a group of PCVs must depart to make room for the newcomers.
Thus, a group of us down here in the Souss gathered in Agadir last weekend to bid farewell to Tom, a health volunteer making his way back to the States after two years of patient, earnest and meaningful work. That sounds cliche, I'm sure, but Tom really is one of the most dedicated and optimistic volunteers I've met here. We'll miss him.

Tom and Ian on the beach

I don't travel to Agadir very often; the taxi ride is expensive and exhausting -- 45 dirhams ($5.50) and nearly four hours round-trip. It's a temporary treat when I do get there. Agadir is a beach town rebuilt, after a devastating 1950s earthquake, to cater to tourists. The beach is clean and lovely, restaurants abound, wifi and alcohol are widely available, and the shopping approaches that of any western city. Fun for an afternoon, but beyond that I begin to miss my quiet, dusty Moroccan village, which feels a continent away.

But we did it up right last weekend. A quiet afternoon lounging lazily on Zach's -- sorry, I mean Z Star's -- incongruously purchased Playboy beach blanket, trying to entice Moroccan toddlers to play with us, trying to avoid staring at the overly disrobed, moon-white skin of European tourists. Lunch at an authentically Indian restaurant, with some of the spiciest and best samosas I've ever had. Drinks at the English Pub, followed by Tom's rousing (to us, anyway) karaoke performance of "Folsom Prison Blues."

Later, though, the celebration pointed up a sad commentary on my personal habits: I am completely out of training. One samosa, one plate of dal, and a single Beck's, and my stomach was tied in knots for the entire evening. Spicy food and beer are no longer in my daily routine, and my body didn't seem to know what to do with the combination. I fear for my future.

The big event.

Essaid discusses ways of contracting SIDA

Workwise, the big news of the past week was the SIDA (AIDS) education event we pulled off at the dar chebab on Friday night. The theater group failed to materialize, but its leader was instrumental in helping me pull the event together and I know it wasn't for lack of effort. The SIDA awareness group ALCS Taroudant gives a fabulous presentation, low-key but factual and informative. We had 20 kids show up, which was about 18 more than I allowed myself to hope for. All of them male, nearly all of them teens or young men. A candid and enthusiastic discussion about whether talking about condoms promotes forbidden sexual activity; the ALCS folks handled some pointedly accusatory questions with an equal passion for preserving the health of their country.

I think we can count the evening as a success. Vish showed up for moral support, and I'll go to a similar event at her dar chebab this week so we can compare notes.

For those of you keeping score at home, yes, the dar chebab is still closed. I miss my kids, but I'm keepig plenty busy with my women's classes, a new English class at an association that teaches homemaking and literacy skills to adult women, and making arrangements for English camp in July.

Every summer, Peace Corps, the U.S. Embassy, and Morocco's Ministry of Youth and Sports puts on four two-week English immersion camps in the northern coastal resort town of Al Jadida. I've spent the past week lining up the five students I plan to take to camp with me on scholarship.

I'm so proud of my group; they're all on the young side (13 and 14), and none has studied English yet in school. But they are good kids, motivated to learn and eager to interact with me. Most of them come from families that could never afford to send them on an opportunity such as this. I really look forward to watching them bloom, make some new friends and realize some new talents later this summer.

In meeting their parents to make the arrangements, I've also made some new friends that I already cherish. Nothing beats randomly meeting a woman in a taxi, realizing she's the mother you've been trying to track down for a week, and in the half-hour's drive home become giggly and sisterly, carrying each other's packages down the street and landing in her home for tea, a look through the family photo album, the squeals of delight as her daughters enter the living room to find me sitting there.

As if all that weren't enough, I'm in the midst of switching houses, a topic for another post. I hope to secure a new place, pack and move all within the next week -- before leaving for a week's training with my stajmates in Marrakech next month. After in-service training, a week's respite back home before going to Rabat for a meeting of PC Morocco's Gender and Development Committee. By then it'll be nearly time for summer camp. And not long after that school will start again, the dar chebab will be back in business (inchallah), and I'll be marking my first year of service.

While individually days sometimes move unbelieveably slowly, on the whole these past nine months have passed in the cliched blink of an eye.

I’m still here ...

Early on, I noted that people here have trouble saying my name, and I liked to suggest that it sounds like “bakiya,” which means package, or like “shebekia,” a sticky-sweet pastry served during Ramadan.

Lately I’ve been thinking about two other words that sound similar to Becki: “Bki,” the present-tense form of “to cry,” and “bqi,” a conjugated form of a verb which that means “to remain” and is usually used to imply that something is continuing and/or is sticking around.

There is metaphor here, too. In short, sometimes I cry … but I keep going, and I intend to stay right here.

... And here's one reason why.

In our country director’s latest weekly email, he included a portion of the speech given (in Tashelheit, translated here) by the language “valedictorian” of the newly sworn-in group of volunteers. I don’t have permission to use it and so haven’t included the author’s name; I hope he doesn’t mind. He says so eloquently what I think many of us hope to achieve here:

“‘Why are you here?’ The answer may have changed during the last two months, and may change again tomorrow. But for all of us, the answer is more than “I work for hay at salam.” [Arabic for Peace Corps] I’m here because my Moroccan [host] father thought the US, Canada, Mexico and Argentina were all rich states ruled by Barack Obama. I’m here because my American mother was afraid for me to live in a Muslim country and last week she said ‘ssalaam ualakum’ on the phone to my Moroccan mother. I’m here because last week my friend in Boston joked and asked if I had met Bin Laden yet, and because I don’t want my Moroccan brother to think all Americans are like Vin Diesel in ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ I’m here because I believe a peaceful world is a world in which and women of different nations, cultures, and religions understand each other despite their differences."

Currently grateful for: The dear family and friends who keep me not only in their thoughts but in their lives; the Mizzes Krista, Amy, Melissa and Cinnamon; my folks and my brother, who keep me in their hearts, the tax returns in my bank account and the care packages in the mail; the many friends who randomly send little things not only for me but for my dar chebab (thanks most recently to the Mizzes Jill and Nealy and again to the Marvelous Melissa!); my fellow PCVs who keep me grounded and sane and laughing, especially but by no means limited to Candace, Vish, Anny, Tricia, Matt, Linley and so many more.

Currently obsessively listening to: “Raising Sand,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, iTunes gifted to me ages ago by the darling Miz Jill, but which I just managed to download

Currently halfheartedly reading: “Double Fault,” Lionel Shriver, possibly the most overwritten novel I have actually continued pursuing in my life

Monday, May 11, 2009

In the field(s).

This weekend I met up with the other volunteers in my region for a gourmet picnic hosted by the talented and cheery health PCV Michelle. We gathered to mourn the imminent departure of several health and environment volunteers, who are two weeks away from the end of their two-year service, and to welcome the newly initiated volunteers who will be moving into their communities.

A short hike from Michelle’s remote duoar brought us to a pastoral clearing where we layed out blankets and the feast Michelle had prepared, along with the yummy, heart-shaped carrot cake Joy prepared in my kitchen that morning. The weather was simply perfect for a picnic – not sweltering hot as it had been most of the previous week. A girl from the village flirted shamelessly with all of us as we idly tried to stretch out the afternoon as long as possible.

I don’t know when I’ve had a lazier, more enjoyable meal. Now that I’m home, however, I begin to realize that the mosquitoes had quite a feast of their own.

The outgoing PCVs will be missed. They’ve been a source of sanity, great advice and such good humor and optimism when I’ve been overwhelmed. I hope we can sufficiently pay it forward to the incoming crew.

Also on my day off I bought what may have been the last strawberries available in Taroudant, the only kilo I saw anywhere today. And no cherry tomatoes to be found. But the fruit seller tossed in a handful of red plums with my berries, juicy small plums sweet like bonbons. Peaches have arrived as well, and melons. Before I know it summer will bring pomegranates, tiny candies better than Skittles.

The fields surrounding my village, undulating waves of wheat just a week ago, are being harvested, bundled and stacked up neatly like so many pencils. As I pass through them on my morning walks I hail and am hailed by women (and some men) working in the fields. Already, next door to the wheat fields now reduced to stubs, expanses of green stand out in the desert landscape; the next crop is coming along nicely, whatever it is. This Nebraska girl doesn’t know her cash crops.

But I am pulling in a crop of my own. Months later than optimal, I finally procured some decent soil (gave a giant Ziploc to a student, who brought it back filled with dirt from her family’s farm) and started a few seeds on my balcony. Basil and parsley and garlic chives, the only herbs I had on hand. Really want to grow my own mint, my favorite for the simple pleasure of tearing off a leaf and crushing it for its scent, or popping it in my mouth. Instant pleasure.

Fruits and crops and fellow volunteers already have come and gone in my short time here. Can it really be nearly six months since I arrived in my village? Aside from the basil, what harvest do I bring; what do I have to show for my time here?

Not much, I’m afraid is the answer.

Workwise, I’m frustrated. The youth center remains closed while the new building sits halfway finished. Another two weeks I’m told; I’m betting that means another month at least – long after school closes for the summer and kids tend not to hang around town.

I keep on doing as best I can. I’m arranging an AIDS education event in a couple of weeks, with an amazing organization based in Taroudant and a local theater troupe. My women’s class still meets faithfully three times a week, although it’s far more about socializing than about studying, which is fine by me. Still tutor a few older girls, in my home or theirs.

But I’m constantly stood up by students and adults alike. I never know if my day will work as planned or if I’ll have the “gift” of an extra hour to read or study while I’m waiting for an appointment that never materializes. My hopes for working at the girls boarding school have yet to come off, and the director of my youth center won’t return my messages so I can set a meeting for us to make a plan for the coming summer. In the midst of all this, I’m supposed to start lining up five scholarship students for summer English camp in El Jadida. Hard to do when I don’t have a dar chebab where I can hang out with the kids I’m supposed to be serving.

Last week, my program manager from Peace Corps headquarters in Rabat came for a visit. I was next to last on the list; he visits all new volunteers before the six-month mark. He seemed to think things were going fine here, considering my current circumstances. Patience once again seems to be the lesson I am supposed to be learning here.

The lack of work leads to plenty of time for introspection. At times the solitude is welcome. Other times, I feel far more than an ocean and a few time zones away from everyone I love. While I have friends here, I cannot achieve the level of understanding that comes with years of closeness and common experiences (not to mention a shared language). The loneliness catches me unawares at times, sneaking up from behind so I don’t even see it coming until I suddenly find myself feeling utterly alone in the world. It’s easy to fall off the radar (of friends and family alike) when I’m not in the daily line of sight; it’s easy to feel forgotten, abandoned even, when of course it is I who did the leaving.

And to what end, my leaving? Paul Theroux, one of my favorite authors and one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, has a long piece in this month’s Conde Nast Traveler. He writes about the benefits, individually and collectively, of the U.S. sending volunteers into remote locations overseas to better understand – and, where we can, to help – the greater world in which our culture, we too easily forget, is just one part of the whole. While I agree with most of what Theroux writes, he holds a fairly elitist view of his early service, at a time when Peace Corps meant nearly complete disassociation from the greater world for two years. He pokes a bit of fun of the idea of Peace Corps in an age of Internet and cell phones, when he managed without even electricity or running water.

“What sort of a life is it,” Theroux writes, “when, on the days when things are going bad, you are able to dial Mom for consolation? The experience should involve remoteness, inconvenience, hardship, even risk; isn't that the whole point of being away?”

Hm. Is it? I thought the point was to serve our fellow humans and to share our cultures. I don’t know that physical hardship is required. Certainly I expected such challenges when I accepted my original invitation, which would have placed me in remote Tanzania, possibly in exactly the circumstances Theroux describes. For completely unrelated reasons, I ended up here in Morocco instead. I have the luxury of electricity, running water (and a water heater), comfortable sofas and, yes, Internet and telephone service. That places me squarely within the norm for the region in which I’m living.

Instead, I face different challenges. It is never easy to be accepted into a new community, less so when every single thing about you – hair and skin color, language, gregariousness, even gait – screams “foreign!” Every cultural norm ingrained back home – that people queue up in lines at the post office rather than press, en masse, toward the counter, waving arms and shouting demands; that garbage is deposited in dumpsters that will be emptied and hauled away on a regular basis, not thrown into the street or the hallway of my apartment building; that I go for a run, or even a walk in my own neighborhood, unhindered by men circling me on motorbikes; that my efforts to do good in the world and to learn another language will be welcomed with patience and interest, not suspicion and belittlement – all of these expectations are turned on their head here. It is up to me to adapt to my new surroundings, not the other way ‘round.

And yet, for every strange difference that makes me feel as if I’m straddling a crevasse between two universes, there is at least one moment in which I am instructed that “huma huma” – people are people, everywhere. The man who just (to my mind) harassed me in the street can be seen a block away, tenderly stooping to kiss a toddler’s cheeks. The woman who just jostled me in line will, if I smile and joke with her, be the first to tell everyone else that I’m a dear thing who’s actually learning Arabic and actually lives right here in our town. The field workers I pass on my morning runs will not only wave, they’ll insist I come home for tea even though they don’t know a thing about me except that I'm passing through their sphere.

For every challenge, whether it’s homesick loneliness or inept communication skills or a life ethic that dares to put people before work, there is a lesson and a reward. May I be able to see every challenge for the lesson that it is.

Excitement of the week: The water main that broke and flooded my village, including the highway. Here’s Mohammed, the 16-year-old who works (along with everyone else) 14-hour days in the supermarket downstairs, surveying the damage:

Milestones marked: One-year anniversary since quitting my newspaper job of 20 years.

Currently reading:In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World,” Elizabeth Dodd

Currently listening: podcasts newly discovered from the Council on Foreign Relations

More picnic photos.

Cultural exchange.

Using a knife to open the closed fly on new Eurotrash denim purchased for the trip home

Packing up the pic-i-nic

Gourmet breakfast, too

Quintessential Peace Corps gathering: Leave your hard-worn shoes at the door

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Plus one.

I’m just home from a fabulous hfla (party) for one of the women in my adult English class, who had a baby boy a week ago today. Silly me, I thought I was just going to pay Zahra a little visit with her classmates Najat and Fatima. Didn’t realize I’d be bumping cheeks with 50 other women, watching them eat chicken and trying to explain vegetarianism, and generally allowing myself, once again, to be laughed at and called mesquina (“poor thing”).
Unfortunately, it was not a photo opportunity, so all you get is this typical baby card. Little Ali was kept heavily under wraps, the honoree was secluded in another room, and women here are notoriously camera shy. Too bad, because some of them were really rocking their djellabas. Not to mention the relative who was serving up the platters of full roasted chickens while wearing a nightgown emblazoned with little blue flowers and the phrase (in English) “I’m a shooting.”
But it was lovely to meet some more women, young and old and in between, explain what I’m doing here and encourage them to send their youngsters to check out the dar chebab … whenever it reopens, that is. (But that's another story ..._
More missed photo ops.
(Or, when will I remember to ALWAYS bring my camera?)
1. The three women greeting me on this morning’s walk/run, each bearing a steaming tagine on her head, inviting me to lunch with them. Every outing’s an emotional whiplash: Each man circling me on his motorbike is more than made up for by the generous, friendly, welcoming women I encounter.
2. My impromptu crochet lesson at the women’s association … now, who among you thought I would ever take up crochet? Wish I could say I made my textile-savvy mother proud, but I’m afraid my stitches turned out as loose as a Vegas showgirl. And why anyone would voluntarily choose to squint and hunch over a tiny hook for hours on end is kind of beyond me, but it was a nice chance to bond with some of the ladies.
3. My post-run adventure Sunday last, when I forgot the key to the main door downstairs (it’s locked when the offices across the hall aren’t open). After several hours spent trying to track down my landlord or anyone else who might be able to open the door, the supermarket owner downstairs agreed to my original idea, which he’d first considered unthinkable: Yep, he found a ladder tall enough to reach my balcony, and yep, I climbed up to the second floor, on Main Street, at the busiest time of day. Because I didn’t quite stand out enough around here.
Quotes of the day:
“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world!" – Anne Frank, age 14 (thanks, Mom!)
"Either today, or tomorrow, or someday, you have got to realize it." – Oscar Wilde (thanks, Staci!)
“Wherever you are, be there.” – Emerson (thanks, Universe, for sending me this when I most needed to hear it.
Currently listening to: “Rebecca” by the Pat McGee Band (narcissistic, much? But I’ve always bitched that no one writes songs about the Beckys of the world, so I was happy to find that someone has)

Currently reading:Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World,” Edward Said; “Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels With an NPR Correspondent,” John F. Burnett; “Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker”; “Quick Fix Vegetarian: Healthy Home-Cooked Meals in 30 Minutes or Less” (thanks, Mom and Dad and Steve!)
Currently loving: Iced tea with Constant Comment teabags from home (ditto!)