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Field Trippin' and language queries

Field trip!

I've reached the stage in my training where I get to go visit a current Peace Corps volunteer, and spend a few days seeing her work. She works with a local association that's supposed to be excellent, plus she tutors, works with a school, and does...I don't even know what, but I'll find out soon. :)

I'll be travelling with other volunteers, but without any of our staff. This is one of the many ways in which they aim us for the deep end and ask us to swim. We'll get to navigate local transit and find our way from here to there, on our own. I've learned the requisite phrases in Tamazight, plus I can take advantage of the Darija speakers who we'll be with for the first leg of the trip...and if necessary, I can pull out the French. It's very handy, but I like the idea of leaning on the Tamazight. I'm pretty sure I'll learn it faster that way. :)

Last night, a COSing volunteer came to talk with us. She works with the Volunteer Advisory Counsel, which means that she's travelled all over Morocco, talked to every current volunteer and staffer, and pretty much knows everything. We've been picking her brain on all sorts of topics, and it's been wonderful. She has funny stories, inspiring stories, and plenty of sobering accounts, too. It's an education. One of her big accomplishments - she has gotten the shopkeepers in her nearby souk-town (aka a weekly gathering place for all the local villages) to stop giving out plastic bags with the groceries. In fact, they tend to lecture people who ask for them. These plastic bags are a tremendous littering problem, plus a nationwide eyesore, so the fact that she's gotten Moroccans to teach Moroccans about why not to use pretty fabulous.

Plus, I got questions this week. (I love getting questions!) Here they are, with answers:

Does your host family speak Tamazight or Darija?
Tamazight. That's why they sent me to that village - to continue my language training via immersion.

Are the peacecorps folks who are learning other languages in other villages?

Yup. That's why they're using this region of Morocco - it has villages within driving distance that speak all the major languages that Peace Corps is using right now. In previous years, they have used a different mix of languages and were located elsewhere.

What does Abdelbast mean in English?

No idea. I'll try to find out.

How goes the Tamazight language training? Are you able to use it with the family or is it too soon?

Shweea-b-shweea. Imiq-s-imiq. Which are different ways of saying "Little by little." As my Language and Culture Facilitator (aka teacher) says, "Practice makes progress." I used some Tamazight with the family, along with lots of smiles and charades, but used French with the older brothers when I ran into problems (which was pretty frequently!).

I'm very glad to hear that you all have a common language in French and that you have a baby to play with all the time.

We don't all have French - just the kids. Mma and my sister-in-law don't know any French, and the littler kids only know "Hello" and the numbers, more or less. But yes, I do love playing with the baby!

Does Mma speak English?

Not a word. Nor do any of the others, although the teenage brother is working on a few phrases he asked me to translate for him. "Let's go hang out in the fields" was one; "Come and drink tea" was another. It's interesting to see what his priorities are...


Greetings and Salutations!

{big happy sigh}

So I've just gotten back from my week in [Mountain Village]. It was fabulous. :D

I've mastered the bit l-ma (hashek), learned how to gracefully turn down extra helpings of food, and successfully used the past tense in conversation with Host Country Nationals (aka Moroccans, in Peace-Corps-Speak).

I've also gotten to know and love my host family. There are a few members I haven't met, because they live in other cities, but here are the family members I know: Mma (47), my sister-in-law Z (22), her husband Big Bro S (28 and almost never around, since he works in Marrakesh), Teen Bro M (15), Middle Bro N (13), Little Sis K (10), Little Bro (7), and Baby A (9 months). They're fabulous. All of the siblings (except the littlest ones) know some French, which has been very helpful. I keep meaning to write a long thank-you letter to all of my French teachers. While I was in Houston, I kept wishing I'd learned Spanish, but now that I'm here, I'm sooooooo grateful to have not-fluent-but-definitely-functional French at my disposal. :)

Mma tends to be overprotective, which is sweet, and the kids are all tons of fun. They all love helping me with my tmrin (homework), and the baby is good for hours of language-free playtime. One or more of them usually walked me to or from madrasa (school, aka sessions with the rest of the Peace Corps group and our Language & Culture Facilitator), and the two littler ones both held my hands when doing so. :) I don't think they're a hug-friendly culture, but I remain hopeful. :)

I've got lots of fun stories to share, but there's a growing line here at the Cyber, so I'll save them for later. Suffice to say that I'm safe, sound, happy, and so grateful to be here! :D


End of CBT Week 1

Thus endeth my last full day in our village, and my 3rd week in the Peace Corps.

There was no special fuss made, no henna or big meal…and I don’t know if it’s because I’ll be back in a week, because I still haven’t figured out this family’s customs, because they’re far from wealthy, or some combination thereof with who knows how many other factors. But they know I’m leaving for the the big(ish) city tomorrow morning at 9, so we’ll see what happens then. I love these guys! I’ll be back soon enough…and in the meantime, I get to return to the land of hot showers and western plumbing – neither of which I miss half as much as I’d expected to. Of course, it may help that I don’t have a mirror bigger than the palm of my hand, so I don’t know how badly I need to wash my hair!

Today’s Tamazight review was pretty amazing. It was fun, yeah, because we all did a good job at coming up with games (especially Dan’s Verb Smackdown), but also because we’ve learned so much. In addition to mastering all the basic greetings, we’ve got the numbers COLD, days of the week, groceries, money conversions, body parts, past participle conjugation, directions, family relations, and a mountain of vocabulary under our belts. Yeah, there’s a nearly infinite amount left to learn, but I’m going to take a beat to be grateful for all that we’ve learned so far. Today I recognized numbers, time, and greetings from Moroccans, as well as “afla” (above) from one of our gaggle and “wllf” (become accustomed to) from a woman in the village. OK, that’s not huge, but it’s an accomplishment. Plus, last night, I explained to A**’s family (and assorted visitors) that we’d only been studying the language for a week and a half, because we’d studied Darija before that. And they understood me! Who knows how many mistakes I made, but I was able to communicate and be understood, which is the entire goal of communication, as A** keeps reminding me.

Working on the pictures and powerpoint was fun, too, as was chatting with Peace Corps staff making their rounds. Our staff is so awesome. OK, I should probably stop raving so repetitively, and spend more time whining or something, but there’s just so much to be grateful for! :)


J-jam3 (Friday)

Happy First Day of Spring! Spring was greeted with a cold rain that made me grateful for all the layers I’d brought to this mountain village. I can do cold, and I can do wet, but I DON’T like doing both at once. Yeah for layers.

Today was pretty normal by village standards. Class, community mapping (we finished the map! Yeah!), walking around town taking pictures. We hiked down to the fields, across the river, upstream a mile, and our gaggle still got us back to class in fifteen minutes flat. Those kids are awesome. Then we met with not one but two imams, which meant that school got out late. Middle Bro actually came to school looking for me, so H** ran out to explain that I was not delinquent or naughty, just meeting with imams. (Name-dropping is apparently an international phenomenon.) I ran around taking pictures of my classmates, came home for dinner, and crawled into bed.

Update from the final day of CBT week 2: the bit l-ma (hashek) is downright mundane. Yeah! Yesterday, Little Bro came to get me at 6pm on the dot, so Mma wouldn’t worry. Today’s discussion ran till nearly 7, and Middle Bro was waiting at the door *and* Little Sis and Little Bro were playing across the street. The fam was out in force to make sure I got home safe. :) I walked home holding Little Sis’s hand, telling A** and B** (fellow PCTs) that my family is the BEST – not in a competitive way, just that I’m crazy about them. Visiting the other households tonight underlined that further. I love these guys!


The 3id That Wasn’t

So today is the Prophet’s Birthday. Which is supposed to be a Really Big Deal. As in, we spent half an hour yesterday discussing the various ways that it’s celebrated, and we learned the phrases we’re supposed to say. We also were told that nothing happens before 9am, so we can sleep in. (L-mdrasa starts each day at 8, so I’m generally up by 7.) So…here’s my day.

7am – Wake up. Remember that H** told us that 3ids don’t get rolling until 9am. Go back to sleep.
7:30 – Wide awake. Decide to get up early and straighten up my room so that I can have my door ajar for the hordes of visitors H** told us would be coming.
8:00 – While half dressed, hear a knock at the door. Finishing dressing and discover Little Sis, announcing breakfast. An hour early…right?
8-9 – Breakfast followed by hanging out in the courtyard. Watch the boys make their windmills. Bounce the baby on my knee. He falls asleep in my arms. :)
9-10 – Increasingly confused as to what’s up. Watch Teen Bro get his head shaved.
10 – Mma tells me that my shirt is dirty. Which it is – it’s my dressy shirt, which I wore to meet the Quyd, and which therefore got massacred by the sandstorm. But I was told to dress up for the 3id (and told that, regardless of what I wore, the family would undoubtedly dress me up in traditional garb). Maybe they want me to change out of this outfit so they can dress me up…??
10 – 10:30 – Do laundry with Sis-in-Law.
10:45 – Sis-in-Law invites me into the house. Is this where I get dressed up in traditional garb??? No. She’s sweeping my room (over my protests) and wants me to watch so that I don’t worry about the invasion of my privacy. They take my private locked room very seriously. Giving me the key to the padlock on the door was the first thing they did, after all.
11 – Tea with the barber. (The guy who shaved Teen Bro’s head, anyway.)
1 – Lunch
2 – Off to l-mdrasa. Everyone else had comparable stories. H**, our usually unflappable LCF, was noticeably bummed. She said that she had talked to her family earlier in the day, and when they’d asked how the 3id was going, she’d said, “There is no 3id here.” :( On the plus side, we did get to meet the moqaddim of the village. He’s the mayor, more or less. I could elaborate on the meeting, but in the interests of political correctness, I won’t.
6 – Home again. I’m greeted with three kisses by Sis-in-Law. Is this an 3id thing, or a thank-you-for-getting-my-baby-to-sleep thing, or a thanks-for-doing-your-own-laundry thing, or is she just happy?
6:30 – Evening tea. Mma has a candy bar for everyone, including me. H** had explained that parents traditionally give gifts to their children today, and I guess this is the manifestation of that tradition, here.
8 – Dinner. Huuuuge dinner. I stuff myself silly on the vegetables in the tagine. Like every tagine, once the veggies are all eaten, the meat, nestled into the middle of the dish, is revealed. It’s usually a chicken thigh, but tonight it’s beef. It’s the first time I’ve seen beef in this house. (Note – beef is absurdly expensive in this country. Like, over 20 US dollars a pound, and that’s not even the choice cuts. And in this country, you can get a full-length outfit hand-tailored for 20 bucks. So that’s a loooot of money.) Since I don’t eat meat – and my host family has always respected that, humdullah – they’d hidden aside a hard-boiled egg for me. I protested that I was stuffed silly (djiwngh), but they protested more strongly that I had to have a meat equivalent. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of the gesture, and guessed that the meat was extra-important, because of the holiday. So I ate the egg, but waved off any hint of dessert. It helped that I was dozing off over the table. :) They sent me off to bed.

3id mubaruk!


3/19/08 - Tagrut of Terror

When we’re out in our villages, doing our Community-Based Training, we alternate our days between language lessons, led by our beloved Language and Cultural Facilitator, and technical training activities, which we conducted as a group. Some of our tasks involved learning what our community already knew about their natural resources. For one, we were supposed to ask local children to collect insects, tell us their names in Tamazight, and ask what they knew about them. (Are they harmful or helpful? What is their life cycle? Etc.) Finding local children wasn’t hard; every time we set foot outside, we were surrounded by a group of young boys that we referred to as our “gaggle”. This gaggle of boys ranged in age from about 5 to about 13, and had a core of three boys, at least two of whom are related to our LCF’s landlord.

When we set out to learn what the children of [River Village] know about insects, we turned to Lahcen and Mohammed, two core members of the gaggle of boys who accompany us everywhere. H**, our LCF, explained to them in Tamazight that we wanted them to find insects and bring them back to us. We then went in to meet with a farmer and his wife, to talk with them about the crops and herbs they grew. After a very fruitful discussion with them (pun intended), we went back outside to find our gaggle. They appeared within minutes, clutching a wiggling mikka (plastic) bag. They handed it to H**, who flinched, blanched, and thrust her arm outwards, shouting something indistinct.

For the record, I have never—before or since—seen H** be anything but poised, gracious, and articulate. So this was a bit of a shock. She held the bag in her outstretched arm. Arik moved to take it from her. She said something like, “But it’s got a tagrut!” When Arik just shrugged, she shoved it into his hand. We looked inside. Apparently, the gaggle had interpreted “insects” as “small slimy things”. We had a larvae, a tree snail, an ant, and the tagrut: a frog. A cute frog, as frogs go. (It would be an agro if male, tagrut if female. Have you ever tried to sex an amphibian? Yeah, me neither. The gaggle called it a tagrut, it’s a tagrut.) We took her out to get a better look at her. Once freed from the bag, the tagrut made a break for freedom, in the form of a huge jump…which flung her out into space, then crashing down onto the ground. We picked her back up, checked her out, and asked the kids our questions.

I looked around for H**, so she could translate for us, and discovered that she’d moved about ten feet away. Every time the tagrut had made another lurch for freedom, she’d moved further. She translated from a distance. The boys didn’t know anything about her life cycle or her role in the ecosystem – what she ate or what ate her – but they did know that she lived in the targua, the canal, since that’s where they’d found her. We took her back there, and, with the gaggle’s help, returned all the animals to their homes. (Except the ant, who crawled away while we were walking down to the fields. We didn’t mention that to H** – no need for her to know that Arik wasn’t holding the bag that tightly closed.)

H** admitted later that if Arik hadn’t taken the mikka bag, she would have flung the whole assemblage of critturs as far away as she could. Turns out our unflappable LCF has an Achilles heel, in the form of a reptile phobia. I asked her if she’d explicitly requested invertebrates, or had avoided the technical term when talking to the gaggle, and just asked for little creatures. With a shudder, she replied, “I asked them for insects, and they brought me a tagrut!”


*Remember, a star in the title means that there’s going to be some religious overtones in here. No heavy God-talk, but definite implications. If you don’t want to hear it, feel free to skip along to the next post. :)

Grateful for…so many things. Mom and Dad, regardless of the distance. My Moroccan family. The infinite flexibility of Mind, which embraces new vocabulary and new family members and whose infinite resources meet all of my needs. For the heart-stopping sunset tonight. For Teen Bro inviting me to participate in the arritshta (dancing) tonight. For Sis-in-Law’s loan of the coin belt. For our gaggle’s collection of creepy-crawlies. For Ali’s and his wife’s willingness – eagerness – to share their knowledge with us. And the reminder that everything, however strange, becomes normal with repetition. Once I clear the first hurdle with my community, anything is possible. For my friends’ confidence that community members – like Ali and the gaggle – will want to help us. For the technical assignments that push us to independence and interdependence. For H**, with her patience and humor and smiles and adaptability and tremendous language abilities. For Mma worrying about me (because “school” ran until 7 instead of 6). For my little siblings, teaching me every random thing I ask them. For the buzzing flies that remind me that I have more than enough to eat. For the roses. Ah, the roses. For coincidence # 67, starting a prepositions list inside the back cover of my language notebook, which I needed today and which will help me organize my thought/notes/studies.

For the imam and quyd and moqaddim and everyone else who is willing to meet with us. For the reminder that, while some volunteers may be in it for the money or the paid vacation or the career perks, the vast majority are in it to help heal the world.

For the infrastructure support that has already been given to my village, in the form of the targua (canal) and the steps down from the cliff-top to the igran (fields), both of which have eased the lives of my friends and neighbors. For Peace Corps giving me yet another support network – my host family – to ease me through the steps towards becoming a successful Morocco PCV. For the Environment Program Director Mo, quietly demanding that the PCVs bless his country. For H**. OK, so I’ll have to wait a little longer to learn Classical Arabic. If I’d been assigned Darija, aka Moroccan Arabic, I wouldn’t have gotten H**. For getting a hot shower this afternoon, in the local hotel!

For realizing that, while the shower was lovely, I could have survived without it. For realizing that familianu (my family) holds dinner until I admit that I’m sleepy, since bedtime immediately follows dinner. For the gaggle bringing us an ant, a larvae, a tree snail, and a front. And for their knowing absolutely nothing about them, meaning that there is LOTS of space for environmental education. For coincidence #23, my friend’s melt-down coinciding with Ali’s wife’s search for plants, meaning that we had the time to comfort her without delaying the progress of the day. For visiting the local hotel, which (1) gave me the western toilet that I love, (2) gave me an idea for when Mom/Dad/Sis/et al come to visit, and (3) made for a nice mid-week break. For solving the mystery of the disappearing sheep*.

So I still haven’t mastered 3in. It’s getting better. And I’m realizing (with Teen Bro’s help) that ing and other sounds are as challenging for Moroccans as 3in is for me. That helps.

* On my first day, I saw Mma and Sis-in-Law with some sheep in the back yard. I went out to hang out with them, and ended up watching the sunset. While we were sitting, the kids shooed (shepherded?) the sheep through the gate towards the house. I wondered if the sheep would be sleeping in the house with us, but not to worry - they just disappeared entirely. They weren't in the courtyard, they weren't in the house...they were disappearing sheep. I referred to them as such from then till now. Turns out there's a small, completely enclosed mini-sheep-pen built into one of the courtyard walls. I'd never noticed it, thinking it was just the courtyard wall. But tonight, my brothers showed me the wulli (sheep) by the light of their glowing cell phone. :)


The Sandstorm and the Qaid/Quyd/Kaid

Note: I have no idea how to spell this guy’s title, in English or Arabic. My guess would be Quyd, but everyone around (I’m typing this while hanging out in the common space) is saying Qaid. Enh, forget it. I like quyd better. Regardless, he’s the representative of the government in the region. He’s below the governor but above the sheikh and the moqaddim. The executive branch of Moroccan government looks like this, more or less:






We’ve met our village’s Moqaddim twice now. He oversees three villages, of which ours is the largest. Once he came to our little school; the other time, we went to his house to meet with him. We met the Quyd because he requested (required?) our presence. We presented our papers to him, explained what we were doing in his region, and asked him a few questions about the government. My impression is that, like most politicians, his job is 90% knowing what to say, and 10% doing it. He said that he is most proud of the roads that he has put in during his tenure, and that most of his goals revolve around building more. (Paved roads -->Trucks carrying equipment --> Cell phone towers --> Community development!) I wonder how well distributed the roads are; do they cluster, or does my village get an equal share?

When I write it that way, our visit to the Quyd sounds nice and normal.

Now add a sandstorm.

The biggest sandstorm that I’ve ever seen.

And the taxi that drove us to the Quyd’s town didn’t drive into our village, but met us on the paved road. (Because no, the Quyd hasn’t yet brought pavement from the main road into my village.) So we had to hike out the half-kilometer, through the sandstorm. How bad was the sandstorm? When we came back, I discovered that the road to the village is curved. I’d hiked half a K on a road with two switchbacks, and I hadn’t noticed that the path was turning. My field of view was limited to the friend at my right hand and about two steps ahead on the path. I held my notebook in my right hand and used it to shield my face.

I was wearing a cowl-necked shirt (the one dressy shirt I brought to Morocco – if meeting the local poobah doesn’t justify dressing nicely, what does?), and I pulled the cowl all the way up to the bottom of my sunglasses and breathed through it. When I washed the shirt, it made the water turn brown.

After our sand-blasted trek, we made it to the taxi. The ride into the town was short, but the wind was as harsh to the car—a Mercedes Benz with seven people in it—as it had been to us. We were pushed all over the road.

When we got to the Quyd’s palace, the wind still hadn’t let up. Inside the palace itself we experienced a lull, but when we went into his office, we were reminded of the storm: the awning outside his window was pulled loose from its moorings, and it began to furl and unfurl, slamming against the window every few seconds. The Quyd and H** both did a masterful job of carrying on their conversation and pretending nothing was going on. It added an element of the surreal. If this had been a movie, the howling winds and whipping awning would have created an environment of foreboding and portent. Since it was reality, it was just distracting.

But it got better.

The Quyd used his unsubtle foot-pedal-summoning-device to call in an adjutant, who he instructed to take care of the awning. This unlucky soul headed out into the storm. He squinted against the driving sands, but couldn’t shield his face because he was trying to hold down the flailing cloth. It didn’t take long to realize that he couldn’t just tuck the corners in, so he went back for reinforcements. He came back with a friend and a length of wire that they used to tie the awning to the bars around the window. It kept slipping away from him or from his friend, and they’d start over. The whole process, performed against the howling winds, and requiring the best efforts of two of Morocco’s finest, took about 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes of my looking back and forth from the Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy outside the window to the serious discussion taking place inside, between H** and the Quyd. I’ve had *dreams* that made more sense than this afternoon. Dreams with ukulele-playing, French-speaking Japanese tourists that seemed more plausible than the disconnect I witnessed from my seat in the Quyd’s office.

An unexpected effect of today: I’ve reopened the question of chopping off my hair. After three days without a shower and an hour when the wind whipped it and drove sand and dust into it, it’s unthinkably grimy and snarled. I might even have a start on dreadlocks.


I continue to think that we should get more language before we’re dropped in CBT, but I’m definitely appreciating why we’re here. Before this week, Morocco was a post, and Moroccans – they – had their culture. As I ease into this family – which already sees me as pretty well nestled in, as far as I can tell (they even let me wipe the table today!) – Moroccans are rapidly moving from a them to an us.

Coffee Talk

Sunday, Mma served me coffee. I was determined to be a good guest, so I braved a sip, despite my life-long antipathy for the stuff. I discovered that it was so crammed with milk and sugar that it was basically a coffee-scented Steamer. I drank it down, and felt proud of myself. Then, yesterday, they served me qahwa b sukar – coffee with sugar. Turns out the milk makes a biiiiig difference. I managed to force down a glass, with help from large amounts of bread and jam…and looked up to find the glass refilled. I crumbled. I told Mma (by way of French-speaking Teen Bro) that a doctor had instructed me to never have more than one cup of coffee a day. Okay, so it was a bald-faced lie. My bad. But Mma knew I’d been sick earlier, so this seemed plausible. I could have said that I’m not allowed to drink it at all, but I didn’t think of that, plus I was still considering how best to be a gracious guest. (I know it’s hard to claim ethical considerations while I’m lying to my host mother, but, well, so be it.)

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried. Between my mediocre French, Teen Bro’s mediocre French, and whatever he told Mma, today she served me sweet hot milk. My favorite café beverage after chai. So I’m pretty much in heaven. Oh, and later, Little Sis asked for the same, which Mma described as “Like Eliaz*”. Which gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies.

* After several attempts at my name, they’ve settled on calling me Eliaz. Apparently, Elias is a boy’s name (but not pronounced like I’ve heard it before – more like Ee-lee-ass), but Eliaz (Ee-lee-az) is a made-up collection of syllables that they invented just for me. When they write it out in Arabic script, it’s Iliaz. I might ask my next host family (at my permanent site) to pick a real Moroccan name for me…or maybe I’ll stay Eliaz. Who knows.

Fun with language, technical, and cross-cultural training

My teenage brother is now studying English, starting with the phrases of his choosing. (“Let’s go hang out in the fields” was an early favorite.) Listening to his accent gives me a whole new appreciation for H**, our Language and Cultural Facilitator. Every day, she listens to us butchering and abusing her language, and she keeps being gracious and encouraging. And funny.
My own language progress is continuing, but I keep setting higher bars than I’m reaching, so I keep feeling frustrated. (I *still* haven’t mastered that darned 3in. Try saying the letter A, with your jaw extended and tensed, and a hint of nasality and stress in your voice, and you’ll be close. But that’s still not quite it.)

The technical sessions are a bigger challenge for me, at least in part because I expect people to reject these community-building exercises as lame. As in fact Mma might have been doing when she refused to draw a map of her community, and as Sis-in-law might have been doing when she drew a map of only her garden. Sort of a conscientious objection to mapmaking. Or maybe H** is right that they just had no idea what to do, and didn’t want to admit it. But the kids were fabulous in their efforts to map our village. I may not have gotten the biggest house in CBT, but I totally got the best family. More accurately – I got the best family for me. Like thhe job, the house, or the spouse, it just has to be right for you, not perfect. And from the francophone Teen Brother to the eager beaver Middle Brother to the sunshiny Little Sis to the hug-a-bug Little Bro and the Baby, they’re just awesome. The adult women – Sis-in-Law and Mma – are taking longer to get to know, although tonight Mma said she loves me (as relayed by teen bro) and she chewed me out for not serving tea to my CBT group when se all came over to interrogate Sis-in-Law, Little Sis, and Teen Bro about their daily schedules. (One of those aforementioned community-building exercises.) According to Teen Bro, Mma said, “This house is your house. If people come to your house, you have to serve them tea. You have to. How could you have your friends here and not serve them tea???” Whoops. I guess that was my cross-cultural lesson of the day.
(Speaking of language lessons – H** translated her name for us. Turns out it means “The Right Path.” Well, I’d been looking for signs that I was following the right path… ;) There’s coincidence # 112 for you… :))


My “What Was I Thinking?” Moment

They warned us that this moment would come. The moment where we question our self, our commitment, etc. Mine came today. The unripe almonds I snacked on yesterday made for a veeeery unpleasant morning…and the only bathroom within thirty miles is a bit l-ma (hasek). Basically, one of my worst fears came to life. And I survived it. But when I was trudging up from the floodplain-level igran (fields) to the cliff-top village, I didn’t feel like I was surviving anything. All I was conscious of was that my mind was befuddled by this morning’s prepositions lesson, in a language that is not the one I was hoping to learn; my body had betrayed me entirely; the only “home” I had was filled with people I couldn’t communicate with, but with whom I was expected to spend long, lonely hours… Yeah, I had a What Was I Thinking?? moment. It got worse when I reflected that today is my first real day as a Peace Corps Trainee. I was on site, in a rural village, walking the countryside to assess the surroundings. We’d spent two weeks in classrooms, preparing for this, but this was IT. And I wasn’t hacking it.

But then the day improved. I conquered my fear of the bit l-ma – it lives at the unlikely intersection of the Twist, diaper changing, and honeydipping, but it’s not actually a nightmare – and I learned more “Tash”, aka Tamazight. I walked home with kids who are crazy about me, involved the whole family in my language lesson (body parts!), had a tatfot (delicious) veggie tagine for dinner, watched them dance and toss the baby (!!!), and ended the day feeling pretty great. Kulshi bikhir. (Everything is good.)


Reflecting on Day One in River Village

It’s amazing how quickly you can learn to grade on a scale. If I were in a hotel, I’d be whining about the lack of sheets and the peeling plaster. But I’m in my host family’s home, so I’m dazzled by the size of the room and the lovely wrought-iron headboard. I first made acquaintance with the bed at 1:30pm, when I went into my room to crash. I was exhausted from the drain of being the center of attention, and from the soul-sucking silence of a-lingualism.

Having two of my four host brothers speak French makes everything easier. The baby, though, Abdelbast (which turns out to mean Servant of The One Who Makes the Path to Heaven Straight, more or less – it’s from one of the 99 names of Allah), is the only one I can speak to without effort. Turns out I speak fluent baby-talk, Humdullah. Little Sis and Middle Bro are fun, too. Little Sis reminds me of one of my favorite students. (I know, I know, teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites. Whoops.) Middle Bro is a prototeen, in all the best ways – he’s clever and funny and excited about everything. Plus, he climbs trees like a goat.* On our walk this afternoon, he and Little Sis taught me that green almonds – which are unripe fruit that will become the almond nuts we all know and love sometime this summer – make a nifty snack. Sis-in-Law vouched for it, and it turns out they’re tart and crunchy. [Later note: It also turns out that my tummy vetoed the idea of eating unripe fruit. I later remembered that the Peace Corps Medical Officer had also vetoed the idea of eating unripe fruit. Apparently, it’s unanimous. Whoops.] On the walk back, Sis-in-Law dazzled me with her ability to balance about two cubic meters of dried grasses on her head while walking up an uneven, rocky pathway that left me gasping.

* No, that wasn’t a typo. In southern Morocco, one of the most striking sights for tourists is goats climbing trees. You see, one of the biggest cash crops of the region is Argon (sp?) olive oil. It’s famous because the olives aren’t harvested directly. Instead, they let the local goats climb the trees, which they do as easily as mountain goats climb scraggy mountains, and eat the olives. The goats then (ahem) relieve themselves of the olive pits. The pits are then harvested, pressed, and the oil is sold. Don’t worry; it’s not used for cooking. At least, I don’t think it is. It’s made into lotions and soaps and used as a beauty product. (Hey, it makes at least as much sense as injecting botulism into your face.)

Host Family Gifts

This afternoon, I gave out the gifts I’d brought: cocoa butter lotion for Mma, and Halloween-sized bags of Skittles for the kids. The kids loved (and hoarded!) the candy, and Mma seemed very pleased with the lotion, and shared it around, even rubbing it into Little Sis’s face. Talk about your different cultural expectations of food, though…have you ever seen someone bite into a Skittle? For that matter, is there a singular form of “Skittle”? In my experience, Skittles are eaten in twos and threes, and sometimes by the handful. But that’s because, in my experience, there is an infinite available supply of them. (Not that I eat a lot of candy, but if I ever felt compelled, I know that I could buy as many Skittles—or M&Ms, or Oreos, or whatever other junk food I craved—as I could want.) Here, though, American candy is hard to find, and outlandishly expensive. It’s effectively impossible for my cash-poor host family to get. So when your new host sister brings you your Very Own Bag, it makes sense to savor each Skittle. And that means taking small bites to make each one last a little bit longer.

Food in River Village

The food today was a bit of an adventure. Dinner was just salad – which apparently means a salsa-like mix of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro – and fries, Humdullah. At lunch, though, we had a big meal, and my “triangle” never seemed to get any smaller. (Since most Moroccan families eat out of a shared dish, we’d been taught that, to be polite, you should mentally cut the dish into evenly distributed, pie-piece-like “triangles”, and then only eat from the triangle in front of you. It’s the same idea as splitting a dessert by cutting it in half, but applied on a larger scale.) It took me a while to notice that Mma kept pushing vegetables and other chunks of food, from her triangle and those of my assorted brothers and sisters, into my space. So even as I diligently ate the food from my triangle, it kept getting refilled. I finally had to surrender. I’d really been hoping to empty out my triangle – an impulse undoubtedly left over from my being raised to “clean my plate” – but it was impossible. With many, many “baraka, Humdullah”s (I’m blessed enough, thanks be to God), and finally a “Safi!” (Done!), I got them to stop urging me to eat more.

Day One in River Village

We were first introduced to the River Village community in Ali’s* living room, a long, skinny room full of overawed, silent PCTs and chattering women, plus Ali, MCing the whole event. My host mother turned out to remind me enormously of an old family friend, which was comforting. Her cheeks are round and pink, and appear to be engraved by decades of smiling. She suggested that we PCTs talk amongst ourselves while the women talked among themselves. It was a nice suggestion. J

Some of my new siblings took me for a walk after lunch, which was great. I learned some useful new vocab: azro = rock, jbel = mountain, aswo = whooping crane [Later note: no, it doesn’t - it means wind - and besides, it was a stork], ayur = moon, aman = water. My host sister-in-law kept trying to teach me the names of all the plants and trees, God bless her, and I just kept smiling my way through this mix of Eden and Lilliput. (My oldest host brother is almost my height, but everyone else in the family could walk under my outstretched arms.)

The local geology is striking for its conglomerates of GINORMOUS rounded clasts, which are poorly (if at all) sorted. This area must have been near the headwaters of a really massively large river, many moons ago, if I’m remembering my Sedimentology notes correctly. The matrix is a very clay-rich sand. It’s surprisingly resistant, given how readily the clasts fall out. The result is massive cliffs that look like they’re made of a pinkish-tan swiss cheese. [Later note: it’s not just the clasts that fall out…the house Ali grew up in was destroyed when heavy winter rains soaked into the cliff face, ultimately dislodging a ~250 cubic foot chunk of mountainside that fell into his home. It isn’t a slump or a landslide or an avalanche…it’s an intact chunk of cliff that fell less than 20 feet. Is there a name for that? It knocked out several walls, obviously, and the family moved up to the top of the cliff.]

* I know I said I wouldn’t use proper nouns in this blog. But Ali is probably the second most common man’s name in Morocco, after Mohommad, so it’s not particularly identifying. Plus, there are already too many people with A names in this blog – it’s getting confusing.

En Route to River Village

While wedged into a taxi that made me appreciate why the Peace Corps recommends female volunteers buy two seats – yes, Mercedes sedans have a wide backseat, but there ain’t no way four adults can comfortably ride, side-by-side, even skinny ones! – we drove past herds of camels! I wonder if they serve any purpose other than giving rides to tourists? Not that it’s bad if they don’t – tourism provides income for the locals – but I’m curious what role they might play in the local ecosystem / economic system.

This region is ringed in mountains, many of which are still snow-capped. I wonder if they’re permanently like that, maybe with alpine glaciation going on, or if it’ll all melt off in the next few months?

Driving through our Souq Town, we were outed. Recognized and announced. I have no idea how they did it, either… We were driving through town in a grand taxi just like the thousands of other grands taxis all over Morocco. We were going slowly, as is necessary on streets as pedestrian-choked as these are, but not crawling – probably going around 20 mph. A group of Peace Corps Volunteers were walking down the sidewalk towards us. As we passed by them, we still hadn’t recognized them. (There are lots of European tourists all over Morocco, especially in the larger towns and cities, so seeing a group of young non-Moroccans is in no way a giveaway.) They’d recognized us, though. Through the maze of identical grands taxis and even though the windows of the car, they’d seen us and pegged us as the new crop of CBT-ing PCTs. As we drove by, they shouted out, in unison, “PEACE CORPS!!”


Turkish Toilet Tea Talk (+ Tattoos!)

Most evenings, we have a "tea talk" (although so far, there hasn't been any tea at any of these). The topics cover things that we're interested in learning but which aren't part of the regular curriculum - superstitions, the fine art of haggling, and...The Turkish Toilet. Aka the squat toilet. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been kinda dreading this one. But our fabulous teachers handled this with the same cheer and grace with which they've handled everything else we've thrown at them. Not only did they explain what we'd need to bring (soap, hand towel, shoes) and the relevant vocabulary (stl, the bucket for the washing-up water; robini, the tap; hashak, dirty, which you need to mutter whenever you mention the bathroom--bit l'ma--to say that you are well aware you're talking about something dirty), but they even made a contest out of the ability to hold a squat and sit straight down. (I didn't enter.) Oh, and to clarify - this was all done in the common room, not an actual bit l'ma (hashak).

About halfway through, when no one was volunteering to practice squatting, M** (our utterly fabulous homestay liason) looked me in the eye and asked me to try. I had to admit, "I don't want you guys to see my tattoo." It's covered during every normal activity, but squatting while hunched over is guaranteed to reveal that strip of skin on my lower back. M** and the others assured me that they wouldn't care, so I went ahead and squatted. (I fell over. Twice. I'm reeeally not looking forward to doing this for real...) While I was down there, though, M** exclaimed, "Is it script?" It took me a second to realize that she was referring to my tattoo--which is indeed in Arabic script. I stood up and acknowledged that she was right. She then asked to take a better look at it. I hesitated for a second...and then realized that I'd only been hiding it out of respect for the Muslim proscription on changing the body Allah gave you. If they didn't care, I certainly didn't. (More accurately - it's not that they don't care, it's that they don't expect a Westerner non-Muslim to follow the same rules that apply to them. Also, tattoos are much more common among Berbers than Arabs, so the situation is not as shocking as it might be elsewhere.) So I gave them a better look at it, and M** read it aloud. (It sounded so awesome!) Someone asked for a translation, which I gave and M** confirmed.

Long story short: thanks to our awesome Moroccan staff, I'm less nervous about Turkish toilets *and* visiting the hammam (public bathhouse, where my entire back will be fully visible.). I love these guys!


Language and CBT site assigned!

We've been in-country for a week as of this morning. Every time I've mentioned that to someone, they challenge it, stop and think for a bit, and then their eyes widen. It feels like we've been here for weeks, maybe months...but it really has been only seven days.

Already, the food is familiar, the greetings sound normal (s-slamu ‏3laykum!*), and we're all dropping as many Arabic phrases into conversation as humanly possible, in our efforts to learn the language.

Speaking of language... This morning we were told which of the three possible languages - Darija, aka Moroccan Arabic, Tashelheit, or Tamazight - we would spend the next 11 weeks learning. I had requested Darija, and explained why it was important to me, and then left the decision with them. Turns out I'll be learning Tamazight. I'll also be picking up a fair bit of Darija, just because the languages have borrowed extensively from each other in the centuries that the Berbers have lived in Morocco. Also, Tamazight is spoken, in various dialects, from Morocco to Syria to Mongolia, so maybe it will turn out to be more useful than I'd originally thought.

Along with the language, we learned the site where we'll be doing our Community-Based Training (CBT). Mine will be in [River Village], a tiny village that doesn't appear on any map I've found, but which is near [River Town], which does, and which is actually widely known for its festivals. The nearest Internet access to [River Village] is here in [Mountain City], so I won't be sending emails or updating my blog while I'm at CBT, which will be about 10 of every 14 days for the rest of training. On the plus side, I will have cell phone service. Once I get a local SIM card, I'll be able to receive phone calls. (Calling out is suuuuuper expensive, but receiving calls is not.)

OK, the line for internet access is growing, and some of my friends are in the line, so I'm going to go and let them enjoy the same priviledge I've been enjoying. Love to you!!

* Most of the sounds in Arabic match up directly with English sounds, but there are about six letters in Arabic that don't have English equivalents. One of these, 3ain, is pronounced like an "a" that's half-swallowed. The teachers don't usually bother to transliterate it, but just write it in its Arabic form, which looks like a backwards 3.


Pre-Service Training in [Mountain City]

Hello from [Mountain City]! Oh, and I learned how to switch the keyboard to qwerty-normal, so I'm back to hanging out at the Internet cafe. It costs a little more than typing on my laptop in my room (about a buck an hour) but I'm in a room with other PCVs, so it feels a little more social, plus it means I trust my lappy to the iffy electricity less often. Yes, I've got a five-stage protection shield in place (converter, adapter, surge protector, lappy adapter), but I still feel better when it's not plugged in. :)

We arrived here Friday evening, settled into our rooms, had dinner and quick introductions to the staff - all of whom are fantastic - and went to bed early. Saturday was a series of "culture" sessions - I attended the ones on Food and Language/Geography/History. Learned a ton from both, including how to make tagine, the local specialty. I also learned that my favorite Moroccan lentil soup, called harira, is only made during Ramadan. So I won't get it as often as I'd hoped, but I'll get it every day for a month! :D

Saturday evening we went exploring around [Mountain City]. We are indeed in the mountains, so it gets chilly at night, even though it's hot during the day. I think the average highs and lows have been about 75/45. Quite a swing!

We again have a rooftop view, mostly facing west. We can watch the sun set behind the mountains...truly beautiful. We can also watch kids playing the square in front of our hotel, and sometimes we go out and join them. Lahaba means Let's play!, and the kids (and sometimes adults) usually join in when we're throwing a frisbee or American football around. Our instructors have said that since the Peace Corps has been training here in [Mountain City] for several years, the locals have learned our schedule, and the kids come over to the square every day on our breaks - generally 10ish, noonish, and 4ish - to play with us. :D

Sunday was not a day of rest...instead we got two hours of language training, two hours of biodiversity-of-Morocco instruction, and two hours of ... something else. Drawing a blank. During the long lunch break, some friends and I headed out to find a women's cooperative artisanal center, which I'd seen on a hand-drawn map of the city. Turns out the artist wasn't a cartographer...the road that should have led directly to it didn't exist. So we tried another route, and got utterly lost. But we found ourselves again, and weren't even late for the afternoon session, so we chalked it up to A Learning Experience. Before dinner, I went out with another friend who had been there before, and found it! But it was closed. So I'll be going back another time, *and* I know how to get there now. Turns out it is exactly where it appeared to be on the map - it's just the road that's missing. :)

After dinner, I had my Interview. (The capital I was audible.) Each of the PCTs has had one - mine was one of the last, purely coincidentally. I wasn't terribly apprehensive, and I was right not to be. They asked things like "How do you feel about being placed in a small, remote village?" and "Can you read French?" They also said that they knew at least one of my assignments: in addition to whatever other project I'm assigned, I'll be revising / adapting an environmental education curriculum created by a COSing PCV*. I'm thrilled that my years as a public school teacher will be so directly useful. :) Our language assignment, which also indicates (roughly) where we'll be placed - since there are only limited regions where each language is spoken - will come tomorrow morning. Our final placement assignment will be made after they've had a few more weeks to observe us, towards the end of April. At that point, I'll email out my new mailing address...just in time for you to send an airmailed letter or package that will arrive the same time I do, May 20th! (Inshallah)**

Right after the Interview, three of our instructors held an informal session on Scarf Tying. It began that way, anyway, but quickly became a discussion of religion, fashion, women's rights, and Islam, because the head scarf exists at the intersection of all of these. The conversation was fascinating, as was watching some of the different ways the hijab can be tied.

Today was two language sessions - over 4 hours total! - plus a session looking at the Peace Corps/Morocco Environmental Education Program Plan and examining how we will implement it in the next two years. It's ambitious to the point of daunting, but not impossible. It's all about the big goals, right?

I skipped dinner tonight, in favor of a walk to the casbah. We get about six meals a day anyway, so it's not like I'm going hungry, plus it was a chance to hang out with three of the Health Education volunteers who I haven't seen since Friday morning. (Sooo long ago, I know. But time is moving quickly here!) So the group (seven, total) walked down and looked at the castle. I have no idea how old it is - could be five years or fifteen hundred years old - but it looks beautiful. Plus, it's built right out of the bedrock, which you know makes my little geologist's heart go pitterpat. :)

Speaking of geology (and when am I not?), they asked each of us to prepare a short lesson for the group, so I paired up with the other geonerd in the group to do a quick history of the geology of Morocco. Which, of course, gives me the excuse to read up on it. :) I'll also do an independent one on how to do a formal lesson plan, since I'm the only formally taught classroom teacher in the group. Most of us have worked in some sort of environmental education capacity, like through the Park Service or AmeriCorps, but I'm the only certified teacher in the gang.

The Cybèr owner just brought me a cup of tea. This *is* a friendly country. :)

Off to bed - I've been up late the past few nights, and it's time to change that habit.

bsalaam (Go in peace, aka goodbye)

*Yes, the acronyms can become overwhelming. This one means a Peace Corps Volunteer who is about to leave the country - Close Of Service.

**That's another Moroccan custom - whenever you speak of something taking place in the future, you say Inshallah - God willing.


March 4-7, aka Pre-Service Training begins...

Since typing on these computers is so frustrating; I spent a couple hours today typing all the events of the past few days into my laptop and then saved the document onto a thumb drive / jump drive, to copy and paste into the blog. Unfortunately, this machine is too old to have a usb port. I'll try the other internet cafe in town tomorrow...

Hey, wait, I'm wrong, I just hadn't found it! And I just found the exclamation mark! Yeah!!!

Without further ado...

Blog updates
Since typing on these Moroccan keyboards (which I’ve also heard described as French keyboards) is hideously frustrating, I’m going to start updating my blog on my laptop and then thumb-drive it in at the Cybèr, as Internet cafés are called here. For the past few days, when I couldn’t blog, I wrote in my journal, so this is pretty much a direct transcription from there.

I left off in a sea of fog…an appropriate image to leave y’all hanging. :) So here’s the continuation of my update from Tuesday, March 4th.

…We approached [Arrival City] as the sun was rising, so it was a bit challenging to look ahead – directly into the glare of the sun reflecting off of the Atlantic Ocean – to try to catch a glimpse of the city. Also, it was incredibly cloudy. My seatmate (M**) and I squealed whenever we caught sight of building contours through the haze, but mostly we saw undifferentiated white. As we descended, the clouds never seemed to thin. M** commented, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the clouds *never* cleared, and the plane just stopped in the middle of one?” And then it happened. I turned to her and said, “Wow, that just became the Quote of the Day.” Apparently a fog bank had blended with the low-hanging clouds. On the ground as in the air, we couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet in any direction. As we taxied around, we kept exclaiming over everything we saw: “Moroccan flowers!” “Moroccan shrubs!” “Moroccan palm trees!” “Moroccan shrubbery!” (Insert requisite Monty Python riff.) And then we were disembarking.

We were met by Gordie, the Program and Training Officer (who reminded me a lot of Chuck). He escorted us to customs, which was straightforward. While waiting for our bags, I played the Name Game with everyone I could see, getting significant help from K** and E**. (By the way – and this information is publicly available, I’m pretty sure, which is why I mention it – we have 2 Erins, 3 Elizabeths, 2 Brians, 2 Natalies, 2 Melanies, plus a Kathy and a Kathleen. 53 names spread among 60 people.) I think I’ve mastered everyone’s name by now. Yeah!

We didn’t linger in [Arrival City]. After loading the two buses, we zipped off to [Coastal City]. Impressions from the drive along the coast:- There’s a startling amount of green. Perhaps because of the ocean, or because there’s not a huge area between the coast and the rain-stripping mountains, or maybe the rainy season just ended, or maybe just because it’s spring…in any event, the coastal road was lined with lush grasses, wildflowers (that looked, at ~35mph, like buttercups) and flowering bushes that looked like forsythia. - Also sprouting up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rainstorm, were satellite dishes. There were thousands of them. Every home must have had at least one, and apartment complexes had dozens. Maybe hundreds.

Then I dozed off and woke up at the Peace Corps headquarters. We met the Country Director, Bruce Cohen, and were introduced to the rest of the PC staff (except for some of the Program staff, who were in [Mountain City] preparing for our arrival on Friday. We also got a tour of the headquarters and the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea. It’s very aromatic, and very sweet, and I love it. I guess there’s a chance I’ll become tired of it eventually, but so far – as of Saturday, March 08, 2008, when I’m typing up this entry – I’m still loving it. :)

Then we got back into our vans to get to our hotel in [Coastal City]. One of our company found herself roommateless, so there was some maneuvering that ended up with us changing rooms to a threesome. So I got to schlep my bags twice in about half an hour, and I found myself appreciating the weight restrictions the Peace Corps had placed on us…those things aren’t easy to move around. Then came lunch – also known as the Feast Of Lunch – followed by two hours of informational sessions with the Peace Corps staff. In the evening, rumor floated around that the hotel had wireless internet available up on the top floor. The rumor was sort of true…there was a wireless signal, but it was only available to one person at a time. So we all took turns on A**’s computer, shooting quick emails to our friends/family. The rumor got most of us up to the top story, though, so we hung out up there for a while, watching the street scene below. We were strictly forbidden to leave the hotel before receiving the safety/security briefing from the State Department’s Regional Security Officer, so we were limited to observing from on high. That all changes tomorrow…

March 5, 2008

My first full day in Morocco!! The folks here are following the election with more attention than I would have expected, so I know that Clinton picked up 3 of yesterday’s 4 states, but I don’t know what that does to the delegate counts.

This morning, I missed my chance to shower (too many people with the same wakeup time!), but I shrugged it off as the first of my Peace Corps sacrifices, and headed down to breakfast. I also tried out my new glasses for the first time, in hopes of trying out the transition lenses when I was allowed to go OUTSIDE for the first time.

One of the first things that happened this morning was that we got our “walkaround allowance,” in dirhams (which is pronounced almost exactly like euros – “deurhomms”, more or less)and learned basic Arabic phrases relating to buying things. “La shukran” made an appearance, along with many others. :) During the Arabic lesson, we were cycled in for vaccinations, and then we got to hear from the Regional Safety Officer, which meant that we were allowed OUT during the lunch break. Exciting!! Perhaps because it had been forbidden for so long (or at least, what felt like so long), it actually seemed quite momentous. A few of us headed up the street by the hotel, walked a few blocks, took a right, then the next right, and returned to the hotel. Probably about a half mile or so all together…really not anything dramatic, but it was the first time I was outdoors in Morocco when not accompanied by the entire Corps, so it still felt pretty fantastic. Our group – five Caucasian females, talking loudly in English – did attract some looks, but no undue, let alone inappropriate, attention. :D

This afternoon, we got our medical kits and a long lecture about diarrhea. The take-home message was Don’t Freak Out, which is always good advice. :) Then we met Ambassador Riley and his wife – both really nice people, and Mrs. Riley is doing wonderful work bringing health care to villages. After the Ambassador left, we were briefed on the Emergency Action Plan – yes, there is one, and no, I don’t anticipate it being used any time soon, don’t worry – and then we were done for the day! It was almost 6, and our curfew was 8, so we all headed out into the city, mostly in groups of 3-6.

My group walked up to the Medina (the old city, and effectively synonymous with marketplace, since it’s crammed with hundreds of shops), which was strongly reminiscent of the Khan al-Khalili in Cairo. We tried to stop in an internet café on the way back, but the huge one we’d seen earlier turned out to be temporarily closed, and the others we found were overflowing with other PCTs. (PCTs = Peace Corps Trainees, aka *us*.)

Earlier today, I commented to one of my roommates that it hadn’t really sunk in yet that I was *in* *Morocco*. Walking through the Medina this evening, I realized that what I meant by that was that it didn’t feel foreign. And it doesn’t. I don’t want to make a bigger deal of this than it is – maybe it’s just because we’re in a European hotel in a westernized city, and because I’m hanging out with Americans, speaking English. But it really doesn’t feel any more “foreign” than any other time I’ve moved. It feels *less* foreign than New York City, for that matter. Come to think of it, I felt the same way when I was in [another Middle Eastern city]. Sure, I couldn’t read the signs, and my clothing (and coloring) stuck out, but I had no doubts that I could live there some day. Walking through [Coastal City], I was certainly aware that it was a *new* city to me…I didn’t know where the markets or Internet cafés or bookstores were (though I do know a few of each now!), but I wasn’t uncomfortable except when I was in an especially crowded section of the medina. And I’ve never liked crowds, in any country. But maybe it’s a sign that I’ve already accepted, at some visceral level, that this is my home. For now, anyway. I’m not visiting, and I’m not a tourist…I’ve moved here. With fewer boxes than usual, to be sure, but it was a *move* nonetheless. Morocco is my new home.

And that’s a pretty great feeling. :)

March 6, 2008

Our last full day in [Coastal City]. [Mountain City], here I come! As always, it was a full day. Another shot, more financial paperwork (this time creating our in-country bank accounts), a Drop Out Now anti-pep talk from the Program and Training Officer (which was a bit surreal, but I guess he’s right that it’s easier on everybody if you quit earlier rather than later), the “medical interview”, and Darija numbers. Since I already knew the Arabic numbers, it was an interesting opportunity for linguistic observations. Like most Darija words, the numbers are a little “compressed” from their Arabic originators, with some consonants dropped and vowels shortened or erased. Example: 2, “Ithnan” or “ithnayn” in classical Arabic, is “tnayn” (for all 2s from 22 on up; for the number 2 itself, it’s “jooj” in Darija…no idea why). “Thalatha”, 3, is compressed to “tlata”.

At the end of the day, we were split up by program group, and I got to see the Environmental Educators as a unit. Turns out I’ve mostly been hanging out with Health Educators. Oops…?
At lunch, I ran out to the Internet café and was able to post a quick, fairly gushing, blog. :)

While walking back from the Cybèr, I crossed paths with two tiny munchkins – probably 4 and 6 – walking from (or to?) school. The younger one chirped, “Bonjour!” When I responded in kind, they both smiled widely. The little dude followed with, “Ca va?” I recognized the script from French 1, and gave the response: “Ca va bien. Et tu?” But either his French or his courage failed him, and the conversation lapsed. I smiled all the way back to the hotel. :D

Our post-session “SDT” – Self-Directed Training – took the form of getting to know [Coastal City], aka taking a bigger lap through the Medina, then going out looking for the ocean. We’d heard that it was near the Medina, but didn’t know quite where. We kept heading west, mostly because of my assumption that, since the Atlantic Ocean is west of us, if we walk towards the sunset, we’ll get there. Oops. Turns out it’s north of the city. North of the Medina, anyway, which is in the north part of the city. Guess the coast curves here. So after walking parallel to the beach for probably a mile, A** finally noticed it off to our right, when we were crossing a big intersection. So we walked towards it, and found it less than a quarter mile up. The sun had long since set by then, though, so I tried out my camera’s snazzy NIGHT setting. Worked beautifully. Then I hit the NIGHT PORTRAIT option and got pictures of A**, O**, and T**. The huge long exposure time (while the camera is getting the image of the dark surroundings) didn’t make a blurry image, since the camera was balanced pretty well on my knee, but my friends’ motion did. The photo showed them all with glowing haloes, which A** promptly claimed as pictures of their auras. :)

Oh, and last night, after getting back to the hotel, I started reading Culture Shock Morocco: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, which is more or less a handbook for expats moving to Morocco. As it described the steps of culture shock, I realized that all yesterday’s back-patting on how comfortable I feel here might be due to the fact that I haven’t yet *left* my culture. As long as I stay surrounded by American friends, I’m barely encountering, let alone confronting, Moroccan culture. Food for thought.

March 7, 2008

Notes jotted down while on the 8-hour ride from [Coastal City] to [Mountain City]. Most are geological in nature; sorry, that’s how I see landscapes. :)

We get to do laundry tomorrow! Woohoo!

The Atlantic ocean is right outside the window!

The soil here is so red – reminds me of Georgian soil. Come to think of it, Morocco and Georgia probably used to border each other. Where’s a paleogeographic reconstruction when you need one…

The land is pancake flat, with mostly horizontal stratigraphy…which I guess is to be expected, since we’re on a receding margin (like the Atlantic seaboard of North America). Every once in a while, there are metamorphic outcrops with a straight vertical foliation…from the suture with North America or with Laurentia? And why didn’t I think to read up on the geological history of Morocco when I had unlimited books and Internet access??

E** is sharing some really delicious swiss chocolate…yeah, unselfish PC people! :D

2 hours out, the red soil is replaced by chocolate brown dirt soil.

Nope, it’s cycling back to red. Guess it’s mostly red, with some local variation. Sometimes it’s the bright red of Georgian soil, other times the more dun-mixed tones of Mars…and the wind-carved outcrops rival the painted desert with their pink and tan bands.

Ears popping…mountains are visible in front of the bus. Guess we’ve turned west.

Now we’re in rolling red and green valleys. The contrast between the soil and the vegetation is truly striking.

The adobe-mud block houses wouldn’t be out of place in Arizona…and they’re only a few minutes up the road from a Bedoin sheep herder with his tent.

Ghostly mountains buried in snow hover before us; they are clear to the naked eye, but still invisible to my camera.

Stopping for lunch in [another big city]. The phrase “tropical paradise untouched by time” keeps floating into mind, thanks to these acres of palm-filled gardens. It’s easy to see why films set 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago are filmed in Morocco – and it also means that my image of historical architecture is actually shaped by modern structures. And the lush grasses – are those native species?? They look like they belong on a golf course.

The palm forests remind me of Florida and Southern California. Coincidence? Convergent evolution? Or were palm trees introduced to the US by one of the thousands of Americans who visited this region in the 19th century?

At my right hand are acres of olive trees, and at my left, mountains leaping into relief like the fault-block Tetons.

Ah…the darkness of the red soil is, at least sometimes, a function of moisture. Areas that have been irrigated (or get more rain) are dark, while dry areas are much paler.

There are black and white vultures circling over the town dump. It reminds me that I’ve seen a few white egrets. They don’t have yellow slippers, but I forget which species that makes them.

There are so many teeny villages, clinging to the hillsides and nestled in the valleys. Some contain only a handful of homes. (Literally, less than 5 sometimes.) I wonder how many – if any – are Peace Corps sites?

Update: yes, some of these areas *have* been Peace Corps sites. The terraced agriculture is a giveaway.

The erosion channels feeding the creek/river we’re driving along are visible both from their relief and from the color change – their channels are grey…an alteration product? Erosion product? Polish?

The wind turns treetops silver…

Can these soil-choked brown streams be filtered enough to produce potable water?

The road is following the stream/river pretty closely – after all, it carved this path through the mountains! I can see oxbows and abandoned meanders…the word “anastamose” comes to mind, but I don’t remember if this is a “braided” or “meandering” river. Why didn’t I reread my Geo 11 textbook before I left? I’m pretty sure I still have it…

Hey, a tiny waterfall, on the mountain across the valley from us!

Brown hillsides…

How long has this highway been here? How long as it been paved? What was it like before this, for these communities?

This landscape looks just like the Badlands of South Dakota.

The trees in the hillsides are planted in rows – looks like erosion protection. So why were the grasses in rows on flat surfaces?

No update from today, yet - my laptop battery was dying and a friend had borrowed my converter, so I couldn't plug it in. And another friend is now waiting for a computer, so I'll surrender this one. As always, your comments are welcomed - just click the link below!


Overdue update - the flight to Morocco

I am still on a non-qwerty keyboard, but I have more time to update - almost an hour - so hopefully will be able to write a substantive post. I am slowly adapting to this keyboard - m is where ; should be, a q w and z are all mixed together... And I still have not found the apostrophe or exclamation point.

OK; back to our story.

March 4th 2008

I wrote this in my journal while sitting in the rooftop terrace of Hotel ------- in -----, Morocco. Since my last substantive blog update... We went to JFK airport from Philly on two big buses. En route, I chatted with a ,arried couple who remind me a LOT of Matt and Holly. One of the many coincidences of the trip thus far: after spending four hours getting to know her, we ended up sitting side-by-side for the seven hour flight. While at JFK, we had a long wait to check in, since we arived at the airport at 2 and checi-in opened 4 hours before the 7pm departure, ie at 4pm. Hey, I just found the apostrophe exclamation point

My former roommate's family had come to see her off, so we all had dinner / late lunch together in the food court - last American pizza for a while - then headed to security around 5. Lines were long but fast-moving, and we were at the gate zell before 530, the putative boarding time. I even had time to call Cingular and cancel my cell phone. Turns out there's no cancellation penalty for Peace Corps Volunteers exclamation point

I also got in two last phone calls and hung out with one of my new buddies. 'Twas all good.

The plane ride was long but fairly dull, after the magic DING, which happened just as the fun of watching the eastern seaboard lights had faded. (Oh, and we taxied for 45 minutes. Literally.) During the flight, I dozed, slept, chatted, ate dinner and breakfast, and observed / contributed to a round of Scrabble, and played Go Fish - not quite in that order.

We approached ------ as the sun was rising, so it zas a bit challenging to look ahead to catch a glimpse of the city. Also, it was incredibly cloudy. I squealed whenever I caught sight of building contours through the haze, but mostly saw undifferentiated white.

...and now I've hit my curfew, so will have to finish this later...




In an internet cafe for the next few minutes... The keyboard almost qwerty but not quite so typing is a challenge. Hey, I just found the comma, a small victory. Exclamation points and apostrophes still missing...

Next session starts in a few minutes, so Ill type fast - please forgive the typos.

Everything has been zonderful...the food; the climqte; the people; even the long pqperwork sessions arent so bad.

Fellow PCVs are great. We are all learning a ton, and will be leaving here for our mountain city training site tomorrow.

Wandering this city has been wonderful - I keep waiting for it to feel foreign and strange, but so far I feel at home. Of course, it helps that Im still immersed in my ozn culture, in the form of all my fellow Americans and our European hotel.

Gotta run - love you guys exclamation exclamation


Staging Day 2

Today was another great day, but this will be a short post because it was also a long day. :)

More Staging, which meant more discussions of safety, security, dealing with unwanted attention, what to expect during training, etc. Yesterday's creative expression was illustrating our anxieties and aspirations; today's was creating skits of different types, illustrating adjustment tools and integration/acceptance strategies. One was musical; I couldn't hear the first verse, but the second included the line, "Eeeaaating couscous / All our clothes are loose-loose", which I found hilarious.

Lunch was with another great group of PCVs (I love these people!), and dinner was with a group of old friends who came here to see me. I have such awesome friends! :D In a delightful turn, we ended up at the same fantastic sushi restaurant as a group of my new PCV friends, so I was able to introduce them to each other. (Well, there were about 15 PCVs, and the restaurant was narrow, so only two of my new friends were able to meet my old friends. But as it happened, those were the two I've spent the most time with, and who I'd already told my dinner companions about!)

What am I grateful for today? All the love my friends have shown me, not just in the past few weeks, but over the years. Decades, in some cases. :) These friends gave me two unbelievably awesome gifts: they bought carbon offsets for my flight to Morocco, and contributed to The Loret Miller Ruppe and Loret, Jr. Fund for the Advancement of Women, a special fund that the Peace Corps uses to support projects helping women and girls. I have such amazing friends!

What have I learned today? The Girl Scouts were right when they compared old friends and new friends to precious metals. I love my old friends so much, and I'm making wonderful new friends...and it's all so very precious to me. Love!

Current mood? Excited. Happy. I was in such a ridiculously good mood during dinner that I was almost bouncing. Even saying goodbye to such wonderful friends, sad though it makes me, can't take away the joy of knowing that I'm embarking on this wonderful ... journey. In all senses of the word. :)

Words of the day:
Zween(ah) - cool/neat/pretty/snazzy, usually used as a compliment to a spiffily-dressed person
Courgette - zucchini. Because apparently "zoo-kee-nee" is something very x rated in Moroccan Arabic.


I got a question! I got a question! Actually, I got several!

It's probably the former teacher in me coming out, but I love being asked questions. It gives me a chance to share knowledge when I know the other person wants to learn something. :D So you, gentle readers, are hereby informed: if you want to know something, ask.* Shoot me an email or click the "comment" link below the post.

What exactly is "Staging?"

It's the two-day period immediately preceding in-country training. It's your chance to meet your fellow Volunteers and get your first overview of Peace Corps values/processes/training before you leave the country. It's also your last chance to change your mind - to quit the Peace Corps - without consequences. Not that there are awful consequences later, but there's a little more at stake, plus you've met more of the people who you'd be letting down. It's a lot like the site visit weekend we had just before we began TFA training, aka Institute, aka Teachers' Boot Camp.

Do you get to decide what kind of project to work on?

Sort of. I'll definitely get to decide my secondary project(s), but my primary project is probably going to be previously determined by the Peace Corps. Not necessarily--I might be given an open-ended placement, where I'll work with the community to pick a project--but most volunteers are brought in with something specific in mind. The secondary projects, though, are at my discretion. As the name implies, they're not supposed to be my main focus, but are meant to be smaller, more focused projects. Volunteers often have more than one, hence the plural, even though my inner grammar hound wants to describe any after the first "secondary" project as as "tertiary" and "quaternary" projects. ;)

When do they tell you what you'll be doing?

I'll get my site assignment sometime in the end of April. I might find out then what my project is, if it's one of the predetermined ones, or if it's open-ended, I'll decide my project shortly thereafter. I should add the caveat: I think this is all accurate. There may well be something I've misunderstood, but this is my best understanding at this point.

How many other PC people will be in that same place with you?

Depends on the placement. Urban sites tend to have big clusters, rural sites are more likely to be in ones or twos. Environmental volunteers are usually in rural sites...but these are all tendencies, not rules. :)

* The exception is for things like our specific whereabouts, which I've agreed not to disclose. But I'll still email that kind of information to you, if I know you (and if you know my email!).


Staging Day 1

I am officially a Peace Corps Trainee. :D

Today was a pretty full day. I met an army of Peace Corps Volunteers (irony intended), and they're as awesome as you might expect. As a wise friend pointed out recently, anyone joining the Peace Corps is a pretty awesome person. I tried to challenge the statement, because after all, *I'm* joining, but apparently, that aside, this really is an amazing group of people. I've had short conversations with a few dozen, and longer conversations with about 10, and they're all great people. Most are fresh out of college, which makes me feel slightly out of step, but I'm not the oldest person in the room, either.

Registration started at 1pm, and Staging at 3pm. I figured I'd head down fashionably late, drop off my paperwork at registration, come back up to my room, and hang out till 3. Everything started according to plan. Around 1:30, I headed down. There was a long line of PCVs, finishing their paperwork, witnessing each other's signatures, etc. I made my way through the line (and got two signatures from strangers, and witnessed two other people's - talk about highspeed karma), turned in my paperwork, and went directly into the staging icebreaker. Good thing I'd changed from my plane jeans into my Staging business-casual wear before heading to registration! I chatted with dozens of Volunteers, and laid the groundwork for who-knows-how-many new friendships. :) Shortly after 3, Staging actually began.

I learned a mountain of factoids, including why they call it Staging - because we're in the "staging area" between the past we've said au revoir to and the future that we're about to begin "at post", aka in Morocco. Lots of great statistics, too, like the fact that over 183,000 people have served as PCVs, and in 138 different countries. (We're in 77 countries now.) Also, the Peace Corps was born in a 2am speech on the campaign trail (which I'd heard before, but I hadn't known it was in Ann Arbor, near UMich), and was signed into existence on March 1, 1961 - less than two months after JFK took office. Which makes today the Peace Corps' 47th anniversary. Happy Anniversary, Peace Corps!

We also talked about expectations, safety, Pre-Service Training, anxieties, aspirations, etc. There was lots of community-building among the Volunteers, nearly all deliberately engendered by the Peace Corps. (Not that I mind - as they point out, we are going to be each other's primary support network. Teach for America did something similar with us at our site cities in the weekend before Institute, and it paid off - I can't even count the number of times I leaned on my TFA friends to get me through the challenges of those two years, and I'm still in touch with many of them.)

When we finished, around 6:30, some folks made plans to meet up for dinner at 7. When my roommie and I came down to the lobby, "some folks" had mushroomed to about 20 people. We picked up our per diem money (generous in the extreme!) and headed out into the city. I couldn't imagine where we'd find a restaurant that would seat 20 for dinner at 7:15 on a Saturday night without a reservation. Fortunately, as we wandered the streets of the Historic District, Volunteers began splitting off as they came to likely-looking restaurants. (About 10 of us were on a quest for sushi, and we kept thinking we were within a couple blocks of it, but we eventually surrendered the search.) Six of us ended up at The Plough & The Stars, an upscale Irish restaurant. It was on the noisy side, and incredibly slow (an hour wait for the food after we ordered!), but worth the wait. Mmm, seafood risotto...

What am I grateful for today? So much... Just being here...meeting all these great people...making new friends...the friends and family who are keeping up with me through this blog and email (yes, I mean you)...

What have I learned today? Besides the Peace Corps factoids? Hmm...that I can start a whole new chapter in my life, more or less from scratch, and be happy in it...that Peace Corps selects interesting, thoughtful, selfless, adventurous people to be Volunteers (and somehow they let me in, too)...

Current mood? Eager. Excited. Happy. This adventure is beginning, and I can't wait to see the next development. :D
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