Sunday, February 28, 2010

Here comes the rain. Again.

Greetings from the boys in the 'hood.

I've been spending the past few days locked in battle with the mold trying to encroach upon my living quarters. While I was in Rabat, the rains came again, even more fierce than the last time. Everywhere in Morocco has seen unprecedented rains this winter, but we in the Souss Valley were among the hardest hit. Everyone says this is a record rainfall for at least the past 50 years. To my east, helicopters swooped in to evacuate a village of mud houses that had collapsed back into the source from which they came. To my west, the road to Taroudant was closed for days because a long-dry riverbed, far below, had overshot its banks. Farther north, as you may have seen on the news, the minaret collapsed at a mosque in Meknes, killing 41 people. From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic to here in the Dirty South, homes have been washed clean away.

The desert soil doesn't know what to do with all this rain in such a short time, leading to flooding. More than a week after the storms, lakes of standing water remain dotted around my site; at their height they had people wading to their waists, trying to evacuate animals and automobiles. The past few days of heavy sunshine have done their best to shrink those muddy waterways, but it showered this morning, and the forecast calls for several rainy days again this week. I can feel the moisture in the air, inside and out ~ warm and damp, tropical.

This is normally a road, not a river.

The uninsulated walls of homes here hold the damp in nicely, leading to mold and, eventually, cracks and deterioration. Windows and doors are too swollen to shut properly. The walls of my dar chebab classroom are covered in black plaguelike spots. So are my host family's. I thought I'descaped, but a few days ago I recognized that earthy smell, and in the morning my bamboo shelves, home to my clothes and personal items, were coated in white, beardlike fuzz. Out came the bleach and a fan (it's probably sending those spores somewhere they shouldn't go, but I really need to get things dried out, and it's the only option.) Days later, I'm still wiping off the mold several times a day ~ and this morning discovered a new one, pink mold on my bedroom walls.

Still. My home is standing, victim neither to flooding nor earthquakes. Everyone I love is alive and accounted for. I don't wonder where I'll sleep tonight or whether my home will hold up. The earth is holding firm (if muddy) beneath my feet. A couple of moldy bookshelves? Big deal.

Speaking of natural disasters, people here are deeply concerned about the people of Haiti, especially, and now of Chile and elsewhere. My neighborhood knows from earthquakes. Fifty years ago this month was the zelzla, the devastating earthquake that flattened the city of Agadir, about an hour west of here. Watching the news with Kabira the other day, I saw amazing historical footage of the aftermath ~ very like Haiti, in fact. The city is long since rebuilt as a booming tourist destination for Europeans. The nondescript whitewashed highrises may be built to last, but they lack the charm of the "real" Morocco. May Haiti manage to both rebuild itself better and simultaneously keep its individual personality.

Lessons learned.
Went to the dar chebab fully expecting my bac class not to show, being the middle of a three-day holiday and all. But even the slow days are mini-adventures. I found myself being serenaded by three young singer/guitarists practicing their set list ~ a mellow, gorgeous combination of Arabic and western tunes. Never seen these kids before in my life, to my knowledge; no idea why they'd set up practicing in my classroom, but it was lovely to sit and journal and plan next week's lessons with my own private, live soundtrack. They were quiet (aside from their beautiful harmonies), respectful toward me, quietly proud to answer my questions.

I wondered if in fact our paths ever have crossed before ~ if these gentle souls had ever been in the many groups of teenage boys who like to laugh, point and jeer whenever I pass by, trying to get my goat. (Side note to self: "Get my goat" ~ a good idiom for next week's class.) Would they treat me so respectfully next time we meet, after our mutual music appreciation?

After about half an hour of my mini music festival, one lone high school senior wandered in ~ Mohamed, one of my top English students, as close to fluent as anyone I've met in town. I know my classes are usually too simple for him, so it's always nice to have a chance to simply chat, let him practice his conversation skills. The talk left me a little sad. He's in the science "track" at the high school ~ early on, students have to opt between the science/math or literature tracks, and Mohamed now feels keenly that he chose the "wrong" path. He loves to read and wants to write; science, he says, bores him. Is it really too late to change, I asked ~ can't he decide to take literature classes at university? No, he said. Too late. A student's future is determined by a decision made at the middle-school level.

You know, I broached, there are many scholarship opportunities to study in the United States, or in English-language universities around the world, schools that would challenge his intellect and encourage his talents. Of all my students, Mohamed is the only one I think would truly stand a chance at such a scholarship.

No, I can't, he said, scrunching up his face and waving his hand, indicating the distance, the vast divide between there and heare.

Oh, I understand, I said, nodding. I miss my family so much.

Mohamed corrected me. He'd love to study abroad, but his family would never go for it. They're sending him to a two-year school in Agadir to learn about construction, then he'll be able to come back and help support his family. That's more education than many of his friends will get. Work is valued more than education in this culture, he said, turning his hands up in his lap in that universal whaddayagonnado gesture.

Down he was, this lanky tall boy with the wispy mustache of a budding adolescent. I changed the subject, asking after his family. His sister has agreed to be married. What good news, I congratulated him. Yeah, it's a good thing, he said ~ she's 26, too old in this culture. Another sigh. People here ~ it's not right, he said, interrupting himself. A boy sees a girl in the street, he asks someone, "Where does she live?" His family visits hers, then they are engaged, then in one, two months the wedding.

But that's changing, isn't it? I pushed him. He nodded, but halfheartedly. He wanted to be down on things, a typical teenage boy anywhere.

On the up side, I got to teach him the very American term senioritis, diagnosing him with a bad case of it. And I got my first invitation to next summer's wedding season.

In other news.
The women's health workshop we were to lead this weekend has been delayed. The grant was approved at the last minute, but we won't get the cash for a few weeks. That conflicts with spring camps at the end of March. Most volunteers will be involved in more than two dozen English immersion camps around the country during the spring break from public schools; two of us involved in the health workshop are coordinating camps in our region. So look for a litany of camp experiences at the end of March, and the success story of our road to women's health in late April.

The industrious, illustrious Gender and Development Committee of Peace Corps Morocco.

My trip to Rabat, this time around, was for the thrice-annual meeting of the Gender and Development Committee ~ GAD. Eight members, one representing each training group of each sector, discuss ways to promote projects and outlooks that take local gender dynamics into account. I always come away so inspired and enthused after these meetings. We took a field trip to Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc, an organization that does amazing work promoting legal and social equality for Moroccan women, as well as helping victims of domestic abuse; they seem interested in collaborating in some way, so maybe we can help them connect with women in the more rural communities Peace Corps serves. I was elected to a second term as GAD vice-chair, and our new chair Cortney reported progress on a fantastic project that started as a simple plan to film some successful Moroccan women and has blossomed into a new NGO support network spearheaded by some of those success stories.

Quotes of the day.
"There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold onto the shore; they will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above water. And I say, see who is there with you, and celebrate." ~ traditional Hopi wisdom

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." ~ Leonard Cohen, "Anthem" (thanks, Cheri!)

Currently celebrating: Peace Corps Week, starting Monday
Currently reading: "American Travel Writing 2009,"Simon Winchester, editor; "Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges,"Marvine Howe
Currently listening to: Lots of Sondre Lerche, the Gossip, Leonard Cohen and a new find, Alexi Murdoch

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Two (of many) things I will never understand about Morocco.

1. Door-knocking etiquette. When someone approaches a door in the States, he or she rings the doorbell, waits politely, possibly rings a second time if no one responds within a minute or two, then realizes no one is home, shrugs his or her shoulders, and Goes Away.

That ain’t how it works in Morocco. One raps repeatedly, authoritatively ~ usually on a metal door that dispatches the message in waves of sound that billow throughout the neighborhood. After about a second of silence one knocks again, with yet more authority and for a longer period. Another half a second and the knocking is repeated again, accompanied by a “Wah, Ahmed” ~ Hey, Ahmed ~ called into any open window.

The Moroccan door-knocker is the last of the cockeyed optimists. He simply will not give up. I timed it today ~ 20 minutes someone stood at my landlord’s door (just outside my own), knocking, calling out, knocking again, yelling again. And again. And, if he gives up at all, it’s only to go home for a glass of tea (reinforcement, dontcha know) before he returns, within 10 minutes, to start the procedure all over again.

(Timing of the knock is different here, as well. I had to get out of bed last night at 11 p.m. to dissuade a couple of would-be visitors, and they started up again just after 6 this morning.)

I am sure that, in this culture, none of this is not considered rude. It’s rare, considering the large extended families living together, that no one is at home. One might have to simply keep on knockin’ until they wake from their post-lunch nap ~ which, again, I am sure is not considered rude.

This is one of the ways in which I will never fully wllf (adjust) to Morocco.

2. Making change. The official currency of Morocco is the dirham. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but it’s been around a long time. Shal hadi ~ long, long ago ~ the currency was the ryal. The exchange rate is 20 ryals to the dirham. (And, for those of you keeping track, there are about 7.5 dirhams to the dollar.)

For some reason, most items are still priced in ryals. Actually, taking today’s supermarket visit as a typical example, most things, if priced at all, are priced in dirhams ~ but for some inexpliable (to me) reason are rung up in ryals.

So. I went to the store. I asked for 5 dirhams’ worth of rice. I picked up a jar of Nescafe clearly marked “30 dirhams.” I asked for two croissants, which (due to an unfortunate pain du choclate habit I’ve picked up here) I happen to know are a dirham each. I also bought a bottle of bleach (see upcoming post on mold) and another of dishwashing soap, both unmarked. And a couple of other things.

I brought my items to the counter and made small talk with the shopkeeper’s son as he examined each item, punched a number into his calculator, and put the item into my bag. (Why, yes, I do bring my own, unless I need a garbage sack!) Then he waited for me to ask the price ~ this is something that is never offered unless asked for.

I don’t remember the exact price, only that it was in ryals.

And so the dance begins. I asked, as I always do, Shal f dirham? ~ how much in dirhams? The young man scratches his head, completely flummoxed. He looks to his friend for support. He looks skyward, either figuring numbers in his head or requesting help from above. I suggest he use the calculator. (Yes, it’s lame that neither he nor I can divide by 20 in our heads, but I plead further ignorance/stupidity in that I can never quite understand the precise number quoted to me, it goes by so quickly.)

Now. Imagine I hadn’t asked the price but had only handed over a 100 dirham bill. The kid, like any shopkeeper I’ve yet encountered, would be able to hand me the precise change without all of this rigamarole. I can only presume he is doing the exact same conversion in his head that I have just asked for. But, if I ask, it’s a seemingly Herculean task.

Go figure. So to speak.

Just two things I’ve been pondering, bemused and amused, on a sunny February afternoon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From the old country.

I haven’t found time, since returning from my latest foray up north, to do a darned thing I plan to do ~ mostly because other opportunities keep coming up, such as in the form of old friends who rush me in the street ~ fin knti? (Where have you been?) ~ and ordering/ushering me to their homes for tea. Such is the case again this evening, which will further delay a long-delayed new blog post.

Meanwhile, here’s what welcomed me at the post office yesterday:

Mmm … Chohula, how I’ve missed you! Black beans! Curry! Conditioner! Books!!! And multiple other goodies. Thanks for the love, Mom and Dad! (Oh, and a lovely holiday postcard from the Phoenix photogs)

A first batch of letters from my new World Wise Schools penpals ~ shoutout to Beveridge Magnet Middle School in Omaha. Their questions are perceptive, their enthusiasm infectious. They even included a roundup of Nebraska news clippings. Thanks for writing, y’all, and I will respond very soon!

Umm … this one’s a little hard to get excited about. At least I know I don’t owe any money.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


OK, can anyone explain the logic of this to me? Anyone?