Monday, May 31, 2010

My day in pictures.

"There are camels in the yard next door," Kabira tells me, giggling.
Um, okay ~ why?
We don't know. But we go up to the roof for a look. Some of them look back.
(She also tells me people have been reporting minor earthquakes in Agadir and Taroudant. I don't have pictures of that.)

You'll be glad to know I finally snagged a fan. Hope it lives up to its name.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Just a day.

My "garden" ~ still growing, Basil seedlings are healthy, cilantro less so, mint didn't make it, canna lilies going gangbusters but in too-small pots.

Where’s this headache come from, interrupting my unusually tranquil Sunday afternoon? Probably from the heat. Summer has set in. Supposed to be at least 95 degrees today, and this is just the beginning. Time to start setting my alarm and going for my morning exercise earlier, to beat the heat. This morning I had a good run despite the heat, laughing out loud to the amazing Bettye LaVette on my weekly “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcast. But after hopping on my bike to get back home to a cool shower and a cold salad, I stopped to talk with my friend Hafida, on her way to souk in Ouled Teima. Minutes after stopping my forward motion, my head started spinning, the landscape closing in on me, and I had to rest my head on the handlebars until my vision cleared. Hafida held my hand and chided me for exercising in this weather. I get a lot of scolding around here for doing things that to me seem perfectly normal. But, yeah, this time, Hafida was right.

Still, I’m lucky. The third story tacked onto the building next door has thrown extra shade down on my courtyard. Kept things chillier than I’d become used to last winter, but I knew it meant my house would be cooler come summer, as well. It’s working. I haven’t even needed a fan yet ~ good thing, too, as I can’t seem to find a suitable replacement for the one I broke this spring, trying to dry out my moldy walls after those unprecedented rains. Hard to believe, now, that such a thing as flooding could occur here.

It’s hot. It’s hot, and windy, and the wind just reminds you how hot it is, while sending dust flying through your house, clinging in a fine layer to everything you own, rattling the satellite dishes on the roofs, the metal gates clanging in unison.

It’s hot, and this is just the beginning. Wore a tank top under a long-sleeved but slightly sheer shirt yesterday, with pants cropped just over the ankle. Felt like the town slut, but I couldn’t even imagine wearing anything more than that. How more women here don’t have heat stroke, wearing a heavy woven djellaba over at least two long layers of tops and skirts and pants, is beyond me.

I’m rambling. I blame the heat.

After a cool shower, I feel ready to tackle the dust, sweeping out my floors and the courtyard, chasing it all with a few buckets of water, which may not really erase the dust but at least tamps it down.

So I’m in a somewhat clean, somewhat cool house. Bonus: At least the daily din from upstairs is missing today; the landlord’s family must be out visiting. It’s gotten bad lately, with Morocco’s partial move to daylight savings time. Most people don’t recognize the “spring ahead,” simultaneously taking full enjoyment of the longer daylight hours summer brings. Thus, it’s nothing for the music upstairs to be blaring, television on full blast, visitors calling up the stairs and being met by return hollering, the 3-year-old running relays up and down the hall or throwing unassuaged temper tantrums, at what to me is midnight, 1 in the morning.

Do I sound cranky? I’m not, really. These things are just everyday life. And necessary lessons to battle my natural tendency to self-righteousness. The noise is not intended to disrespect me or cause me harm. It is my expectations that are outside the norm here, not their daily living habits.

The Dalai Lama has said, “People who cause you difficulties, you should think of them as very, very valuable teachers because they provide us with the opportunity to develop patience.”

So I’m trying to be an eager learner.

Another exercise in patience: I’ve been asked to organize volunteers to serve at a two-week camp for disadvantaged girls this summer. It’s a great concept, arranged by Morocco’s Ministry of Youth and Sports. The frustration has come in the lack of answers to what, to me, are very simple questions on which our arrangements depend. Attempts to elicit such information from my program manager, my Peace Corps “boss” who gave me the assignment, were met with belligerent defensiveness and the insinuation that I ask too many questions instead of just doing my job. Sadly, comfort comes in hearing similar stories, just this week, from at least two other volunteers who I respect and admire greatly. Feelings of being undermined and disrespected transform into a sense of solidarity.

So there you have my week in a nutshell. I do sound cranky, I’m afraid. But I’m not. It’s amazing what little it takes to make me happy. Cold shower. Good book. Iced tea. Cheese. Fellow volunteers. Friendly faces in my village. Green things growing. Time. Actually, I don’t even need the cheese. But it doesn’t hurt. Cheese never hurts.
Rooftop of the Sindy Sud.

(on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I decided, Why Not? and entered a contest to submit a blog entry on my favorite Moroccan destination, hoping to go a little off the beaten path with it. Winner gets two nights at a zwin riad in Fes. That's why this, now.)

Oasis in Marrakech

From the Djemma al Fna in Marrekech, force your way through the crowds promenading along Rue Prince, take a left into the winding narrow alleys of the medina, turn this way and that, past one backpacker hotel after another, past the mul hanuts selling Danon and toilet paper and egg sandwiches and sugary packaged cookies and American toothpaste and anything else you might need, past the rubble of construction either coming up or going down, and eventually, if you've meandered correctly, you come upon the Sindy Sud, one of my favorite places in all Morocco.

Never in my life did I, a middle-aged divorcee from the American Midwest, think I would have a "regular" hotel in Marrakech ~ one where the proprietors not only remember my name but which room I prefer. They indulge my desire to speak my still-fledgling Darija when it would be so much easier to communicate if I gave in to their fluent English. And they never, ever speak French to me. They always ask about my latest Peace Corps project. They always seem genuinely happy that I've returned.

It's a budget hotel, to be sure ~ 60 dirhams (about $7 USD) for a single room, 100 for a double, sinks in the rooms but toilets and showers in the hallway. But it's a cut above the others in my price range, with its clean sheets and clean floors, its always hot showers and its vibrantly tiled rooms.

Tiles in the room.

And the rooftop! The rooftop is the main reason for my delight in having the Sindy Sud as a halfway point between my organization's headquarters in Rabat and the dusty southern village where I live and work. Filled with lush green trees and plants clustered around several seating areas, 'an oasis from the earth-hued, dusty grimy medina below. It is quiet. It is away from the crowds. Fellow travelers may make small talk, but they will never, ever ask you, "Ca va, gazelle?" It's a serene place to read a book while sipping fresh orange juice, waiting for the call to prayer to rise from the several mosques clustered in the Djemma square.

Many Peace Corps volunteers quickly develop a distaste for Marrakech, especially the Djemma area. The crowds, the cost, the touristiness of it all. Even more, the racism and sexual harassment shown to many of our volunteers is indeed often unbearable.

But I have a routine here that I've come to enjoy, one that takes me away from all that. My bus pulls into the station, I argue with various taxi drivers until one agrees to work the meter instead of charging me three, four, five times the actual price. I dump my bags at the Sindy Sud, peel off my sweat-drenched clothes, shower away the rigors of travel, start up my podcast downloads via the free wifi, and head out to feast on a 20 dirham falafel sandwich with fries. On my return, I make small talk with Hicham or Rachid while they retrieve my room key. I head back up to the roof, now cooled with the sun's setting, or retire to my room, to the novel concept of clean white sheets, and the distant hum of the crowd.

This is my Marrakech. Not the snake charmers and storytellers and dark bustling souk of the Djemma, not the bus tours or European restaurants and shops of Gueliz. Not even the western-style superstore Marjane, a beacon of light for expats craving curry powder or alcohol or "real" cheese.

Just a small, inexpensive, family-run hotel that feels more like a home away from home than any Holiday Inn Express ever could.

View from the roof into an alley of the medina below.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Taman zwin ~ good price.

Captured this last weekend ~ best laugh I've had in a while. Twenty dirhams = about $2.50.
I decided to splurge on knockoff designer sunglasses instead. My loss?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A healthy crowd.

Atika taking questions from curious girls.
Can I just mention again (and it won't be for the last time) how PROUD I am of my students at the nedi neswi (women's center)? The young ladies who accompanied me to last month's training workshop have almost literally leapt at the chance to share what they learned with other women in our village.

This week we arranged for our new friend Atika, a volunteer with Association Marocain de Planification Familale, to visit our village for a public session on women's health, covering the menstrual cycle, birth control options, SIDA and STIs, breast cancer awareness and more.

To accommodate a hoped-for crowd, we used the gathering room at the dar chebab. I knew about 20 women from the nedi would show up, and I would have been happy with that number. At the appointed time, we had a solid handful of ladies on hand. Half an hour later, a darned good crowd.

But they kept coming ... and coming ... and coming. I lost count, honestly, at 120 ~ and for any event in our town, that's an amazing crowd. I'd be surprised if a televised World Cup match this summer brings a crowd of that size. We were fairly evenly divided between late teens/early 20s and middle age. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to know that these women were genuinely interested in the topic; got facts they may never have known before, at least not in such concrete terms; and would be sharing that information with still more girls and women.

Between Atika giving the presentation, and Malika, Fatima and Fatna from the nedi making most of the arrangements (not to mention the cakes and tea for post-presentation), I really didn't do a thing but set out more chairs, rush to find a microphone as the crowd noise began to exceed Atika's vocal skills, and keep toddlers from running amok.

Showing contraceptive pill samples, with concrete information on how they work and how to obtain them.
Atika's PowerPoint presentation is comprehensive and factual.

Walking around town with Fatna and Malika a few days before the event, placing fliers at the schools, post office and local stores, handing them out to schoolgirls and encouraging them to share the information with women who can't read, I was amazed by the transformation I can see in these two 20-something women. When I started visiting the nedi, they were eager to meet me but shy, giggling into their hands, eyes cast downward. Here they were striding into the principal's office, at a school they'd left before graduating, talking knowledgeably and confidently about the information we hoped to provide, discussing possibilities for future sessions in the schools (the public schools! Can you imagine that back home?).

Not only that, but after a long sweaty afternoon traipsing around town, they brought me to a little hole-in-the wall restaurant I hadn't known existed (if a bench, two plastic tables and an elderly man behind a grill counts as a restaurant), ordered me a fish sandwich with hot sauce and an ice-cold Coca Cola, and wouldn't even hear of me paying.

All I did was help them gain some new information and make connections with people who have that information. They've taken things from there. Needed my fellow volunteer Vish to remind me that, in fact, that's the point of my being here ~ not to do the work for them, but to give them the skills to do it themselves.

Taking pictures via cell phone for future reference.
My job was pretty much limited to child care, including playing with this little zwina.

Here is my first successful attempt at uploading a video. It' s not much, but you get to see Fatna's lovely dimpled smile and hear her introduce me, followed by titters and head-turning:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A day at the races.

High school girls (are these your girls from Gfifat, Anna?) who take their running seriously. Girls in my town could learn a thing or two from them.

Morocco's Ministry of Youth and Sports ~ under whose auspices I work at the dar chebab ~ has been organizing a series of races around the country, or at least in our neighborhood. Girls and boys, big and small (not to mention a few old men) ran distances from 1 to 8 kilometers today. The track was the highway that bisects our town ~ runners were bused out of town so they could run in to the applauding throng. Several neighboring towns were represented, and I was proud to see, at least in the younger set, as many girls as boys.

My only job was to show up and take some photos. I wasn't even the "official photographer" ~ my little Canon snapper can't hold a candle to the industrial vidcam hired by the ministry to record every detail. The equally industrial sound-system was thumpin', the MC was rappin', and the crowds were cheering everyone equally.

The runners ranged in age from 5 ...

... to a very fit, and deservedly proud, 70-year-old.
As usual, I was less interested in the actual event than in the people on the margins. So my camera wandered away from its official duties.
Waiting to spot the next group of runners in the distance.

The roadside was filled with onlookers.

Smain, possibly the sweetest of my little neighbor boys.

A group of men standing, sitting, watching, waiting ~ this is a photo that could be taken anytime, anyplace in Morocco.

The VIP tent.

Trophies for the winners.

Best part of the day was getting to play peek-a-boo with 3-year-old Zakaria.

Playing catch-up.

For your sake, I hope the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true. I've decided to go ahead and post a severe backlog of images from recent events ... if I haven't gotten around to writing about them yet, I'm not likely to. Maybe that's to your benefit.

Anyway, several new posts follow ... starting with these two shots of me being all dressed up by my host family to go to a party out in the bled (countryside).

Padding the resume.

Some of the young women who enthusiastically took on the task.

The young women from my nedi neswi, or women's center, who accompanied me to last month's weekend health workshop in Agadir are taking quite seriously the charge to share the information they learned. We have a big session on gynecological help planned for this coming week, open to all girls and women in the village, kind of a test run before we start visiting the remote outlying villages that surround our community.

But to kick things off, my young women totally took the initiative to plan and execute a workshop at the nedi on making "gladrags" ~ homemade, reusable menstrual pads. From making the announcement to gathering the materials to leading the class, Malika and Fatna took care of everything on their own, absolutely no assistance from me. I was as proud as a mama bird.

The session was well-received, too ~ 15 enthusiastic young women and another 10 older women hovering around the edges, asking questions and offering suggestions while attending to their own needlework. Everyone went home with a new pad and the pattern/materials to make more. This seems like such a simple concept, but again ~ with commercial pads prohibitively expensive, this can really transform how a girl feels about herself during her monthly period. Even better, they had a great time making them together ~ a sense of solidarity and accomplishment. Kudos again to Tanie, Laila and Lori ~ the Peace Corps volunteers who introduced the gladrags at our Agadir workshop.

Tracing the patterns.

Cutting the pads out of old cloth.

Announcement and schedule for the workshop.

Malika studying her Arabic-English phrasebook.
After the workshop, and the yoga class that followed, I marked a major (to me) milestone in my work at the nedi. I was invited into what I call the "inner circle" ~ the women who make hlwa (sweets) in the kitchen, which is also the home of the mudhira, or nedi director, Aicha. It seems like such a little thing: "Wah, Becki, come in and help us bake cookies." But it was the first time I was invited, and I read it as a mutual sense of comfort with one another. Our relationship has been taken to the next level, you might say. Or, at least, I do.
Filling cookie tins with a mixture of jam, sesame seeds and glace fruit.

Aicha makes a yellow cake with a glaze of freshly squeezed orange juice and sugar. It reminds me so much of my mom's "lemonade cake" ~ a much-needed taste of home so close to Mother's Day.

On the road.

Joy, me and Donna just outside Taroudant.

Last weekend, a couple of neighboring volunteers spent the night with me, feasting on hummus and pasta salad and zucchini bread, watching a waaaay-too-long Brad Pitt movie, all in preparation for biking into Taroudant the next morning.

How can I not have done this before? It's only 24 kilometers ~ 15 miles. I used to routinely ride 20-30 miles on a Sunday morning back home. The road is flat as a pancake and two lanes wide; the wind, what there was of it, was at our backs. Yet this was the first time I've made the trek by bicycle. Inch'allah it won't be the last.

The perfect way to spend a lazy, unseasonably cool Sunday morning ~ and with excellent company.

Pit stop for water.

That sandpit in the background used to be a river, the Oued Souss.

Entering the medina.
We then enjoyed a lazy day of shopping, eating and people-watching. I took the opportunity of having friends in the souq with me to play tourist and take a few pictures.

My favorite souq entrance, of Place Assarag, near my spice guy .

Bread for sale at the souq entrance.

When I asked permission to take a couple of pictures, my spice guy insisted I come behind the counter and mug for the camera.

Spices, olives, incense, penile enhancements, jewelry, baskets and who knows what else ~ what can't you buy here?

Back home again, my bike in the parking lot that is my hallway (those other vehicles belong to the landlord's family upstairs)

New friends in an old town.

Rachel is just amazingly photogenic ... and gorgeous on the inside, too ...

Returned to town the very next day to see my stajmates Rachel and Michael, who decided to take a quick trip to see Taroudant. "Quick" means they probably spent at least as much time traveling to/from as they did actually in the medina. I hope they'll come for a longer visit, but we spent a lovely afternoon wandering the souk and hanging out in the zwin cafe.
Mike tests the orange juice, freshly squeezed by the guy with the orange bucket.

I never get tired of the elderly men, who never get tired of sitting and watching the world go by.

I call this nook of the suq "Pottery Barn" ~ the clay cones are the lids of tagines, the official cooking dish of Morocco.

Broken tagines and graffiti.

Mesquin (beggar) in the souk
Figs and dates ... a delictable dried variety ...

Menu at the restaurtant we call "the cheap panini place" ~ I love the copyright-infringing use of the little scout from "Up" in the corner ...

I never get tired of taking pictures of Dentist signs, ostensibly for Dad's benefit (but really because they just make me giggle)

Come back for a longer visit, xti!