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June 23, 2008 Peace Corps Factoids

I cleaned my room today, which included going through some of the mountains of paperwork that I’d stashed away. Some is useless now (like tips for Pre-Service Training), some will be useful soon (like the official Peace Corps Morocco cookbook), and some is very interesting…like the notes I made during our first session, with the Peace Corps statistics.

As of March 1st, there were 8079 current Peace Corps Volunteers or Trainees. That number is different already, of course, because some PCVs have finished their service, and other trainees in other countries have started theirs…but it gives an idea of the scale of Peace Corps. I wonder how it compares to the other corps…the Army Corps, the Marine Corps, etc. We’re the smallest, I have no doubt, but by how much? 5:1? 500:1? How many Marines are there, anyway?

In the 47-year history of the Peace Corps, some 187,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. We’re in 74 countries now.

The average age of a PCV is 27; the minimum age to apply is 18 (though they prefer you have a college degree, so there are probably few to no 18-year-olds serving) and the oldest active volunteer is 80. Only 5% of PCVs are over 50, and they’re currently recruiting heavily in this age bracket. (The tagline on the poster I used to walk past on my way to work read, “What’s over that hill, anyway?”) The world needs experienced people, not just younguns.

17% of PCVs are “minorities”, and about 60% are women.

Our budget as of March 1st was $330million, but that number has changed. There’s been lots of discussion about it, but I don’t know the actual new number. One statistic I’ve heard is that Peace Corps / Morocco lost the equivalent of $7 million from their budget just because of the tanking dollar.

Speaking of the falling dollar, some PCVs who just finished their service told me that when they arrived in country, $1 could buy 12 Moroccan Dirhams. Today, the number is closer to 7 Ds. (When I came to Morocco, it was 7.7, but it has continued to fall.)

And speaking of budgets, I heard that the Peace Corps budget is approximately equal to HALF of the budget for the military BANDS. Now there’s a factoid for you. The money that Uncle Sam devotes to the Air Force Band, Army Band, etc, is twice what they’re devoting to an organization whose stated mission is to promote world peace and friendship.

Oh, and here’s a quote that was posted on the wall during our Philadelphia training (and which I copied into my Pre-Service Training notebook): “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” – Georgia O’Keefe

June 22, 2008 Walk to the Lake (with PICTURES)

There’s a lake not far from me, and walking there is both good exercise and a chance to survey the plants and geology of the region. Plus, it’s gorgeous:

Walking to the lake was also a chance to try out my new GPS toy, so that’s exciting. The test wasn’t completely successful, mostly because I didn’t realize that my camera was still on standard time and the satellites are on new time, but that’s why this was a practice run.

I’ve been to the lake before – twice so far – but this was the first time I took a full lap around it. Turns out it’s bigger than it looks. Or maybe that’s just because I was taking pictures every minute or two, in order to create a GIS map of the lake. Well, if everything worked out, that’s what I’d have done. In order to see the map, though, I need internet access – it works off of Google maps – so I’ll check it out during my next trip to SouqTown…bringing my laptop will also give me a chance to update my antivirus protections, so that’s a good thing, and will stop my utility from whining at me whenever I turn it on.

In any event, between my shutterbugging and my walking the full perimeter of the lake, I ended up spending two hours by the waterside. It’s really a beautiful area, and I’m glad I took the time. I also gathered some plant specimens, learned the properties of some medicinal herbs from my new friend Malika (who asked me to return sometime when I wasn’t racing the sunset, so she could make me tea and teach me more!), and analyzed some rocks (there was a xenolith-bearing basalt! Plus lots of gorgeous folds and faults – this is the High Atlas, after all; you can’t throw a rock hammer without hitting a fault or fold), so all in all, it was an excellent Sunday afternoon. :D

Here’s one of my favorite shots from the day:

Looks like a volcano, doesn’t it? I haven’t walked it yet – hope to some time this week – but I’m pretty sure it’s sedimentary, all the way up. Gorgeous shape, though. I love the colors of the red rocks, blue water, and green and gold marsh grasses. The water really is that blue…looks like the Caribbean.

I was hoping to post a bunch more pictures of flora and fauna, but uploading the pix is really draining my laptop's battery (and taking forever!) so I think I'll save those for next time. I'm glad I've figured out how to do it, though! :)

June 22, 2008 Bunny bite

“Just vegetables. Do you understand? Just vegetables. Carrots, potatoes…” I thought she meant that this was an entirely vegetarian tajin, and I was touched. Then, as we ate, we uncovered the meat at the center of the dish. (For the record, every tagine I’ve had has had the meat buried in the middle of the dish. That’s just the way tagine is prepared.) It was a very dark meat, and I asked, as I often do, what animal it came from. Tiwulut. About that time, I saw the skull. I don’t know how much meat there is on a bunny skull, but it wasn’t wasted. Turns out you can eat floppy bunny ears, too. Not me. I really don’t think I could eat a floppy bunny ear, and I’ll never be asked to, lhumdullah.* (And that’s what Ama had meant by saying “Just vegetables” – she didn’t want me to have any meat or broth from the meat.) But my little cousin did. First, she held it up to the side of her head and waved it at me. That was my clue as to what it was. I checked with my auntie, and sure enough, the translucent, crinkly bite that cuz was putting in her mouth was amzogh. Ear. My little brother got the skull, and he carefully prized it apart to make sure he’d eaten all the meat out of it. Looking at the dentition of the skull, I found myself lost in vertebrate paleontology memories. A surprisingly large part of the mammal fossil record is rodents, and most of the jawbones look pretty much exactly like…lunch.

I’m impressed with their refusal to waste food. I keep reminding myself of that. I’m very impressed that no part of the killed animal – no source of protein – is wasted.

* I’ve almost never gotten pressure to eat meat from this family, for which I’m grateful. I did try one bite of the tiwulut on Wednesday evening, though, mostly out of curiosity. As far as I know, I’ve never eaten a rodent before, rabbit or any other kind. Also, this represented a loophole in my personal rationale of vegetarianism (which boils down to: Don’t use resources to feed animals that could be used to feed humans). Since it was a wild animal, it wasn’t fed grain or corn (unless it stole it, Peter Rabbit style!), it wasn’t watered, and its waste materials weren’t filtered into the public water source. So…no reason not to have a taste. I only ate the one bite, mostly because I didn’t want my family to think, “Aha! She’ll eat meat! Let’s feed her lots!” As it happened, though, I had food poisoning-like symptoms not too long thereafter, which the family decided was a result of eating the rabbit. (I don’t think they’re right, but that’s another story.) Long story short…they’ll never let me eat bunny again. And y’know, I’m entirely OK with that.

June 18, 2008 Hammaming it up

This afternoon, we went on the much-awaited trip to the hammam (public bath/Turkish bath). I’d been to one once before, at the Dead Sea Spa in Jordan, and was very curious to see how they compared. Of course, since that was a spa in a luxurious hotel, I was sure that it’d be different from a tiny hammam in a village in the middle of the High Atlas, but I figured there had to be some similarities. What they share: heat, hot water, exfoliation, and public nudity. That’s it. All of the details are different.

The preparations started about an hour before we set out. Ama packed a big bag of things I didn’t see. I contributed a bottle of shampoo when I heard her asking her sister where the shampwin was. Then my little five-year-old sister came by my room to ask where my clothes were. I pointed out the clothes hanging on the back of the door and stacked on a chair, and she said (translated loosely), “No, silly, I mean the ones you’re taking to the hammam.” I went to Ama for clarification: I should bring a towel, a hair wrap, and a clean change of undergarments. I stuffed these all into a mikka bag, and we were set.

We ate the fastest lunch we’ve ever had – a sardine omlette, which was a lot better than it sounds – and then we were off. I’d been a little nervous that my little brothers were going to join us – I don’t know at what age little boys and little girls are separated in the hammam – but they stayed behind. I asked how much it would cost, and discovered that it’s 6DH per person – less than a dollar. Nice! Ama wanted to get there as soon as it opened for women, which was noon. (Of course, that begs the question: noon new time or noon old time?) We got there at 11:30/12:30, and there were still men inside. We cooled our heels outside for about twenty minutes, and then were invited in.

I was anxious to avoid doing anything inappropriate, so I tried to stay a step behind Ama and do whatever she did. I’d read up in the Peace Corps materials and some guidebooks, and there isn’t a lot of uniformity in their instructions; apparently, hammam guidelines vary by community. So what you’re about to read may well not be representative for hammams in Morocco.

We enter a shadowy room. Ama walks over to a set of cubbies in the corner of the room; Little Sis and I follow. She sets down her bags and the bucket we brought. I set down my mikka bag. She begins undressing. She wears a lot more layers than I do, and I didn’t know how many of them are supposed to come off, so I undress reeeeaaallllyyyy slowly.

She takes off her headscarf. I take off my headband. She takes off her outermost dress; I unzipp the neck of my shirt. She takes off two or three more layers. I dawdle in putting down my headband and glasses. When she gets down to skin, I do too. Little Sis gets totally naked; Ama and I do not.

Tangent: I’ve taken off enough clothes that my tattoo is visible, but I don’t worry about it because I know Ama has seen it before. In my first or second week here, I was bent over, helping a neighbor sift her grain, and it caught her eye. She was startled, and asked if it would wash off in the shower. (I don’t think she recognized it as script; she’s completely illiterate, and signs an x for her name.) I explained that it was a tattoo, kif-kif with the traditional Berber design in the middle of her chin. She doubted that – did I understand that her tattoo had been done with needles and ink?? – and I confirmed that yes, mine was done with needles and ink, too. She shrugged it off as another oddity of her newest daughter, and the tattoo hullabaloo was safi. (Finished.) End tangent.

We pick up several big rubber buckets and carry them through a series of chambers, each warmer than the one before. Apparently, you can spend time in a room of whatever temperature you like. Since we have the place to ourselves (benefits of getting there when it opens!), we go straight to the hottest room, which has the taps. Ama sets about filling up all the buckets. I’m sure we’ll need them all, but she explains that if other people come, it can fill up quickly, and there’s the risk of running out of hot water. Best to get your claim in early.

Four of the five taps are HOT water – probably the temperature you’d use for a hot tub. The fifth is as cold as Moroccan tap water gets. Ama mixes the water among the buckets until it’s hot but not excruciating. She sets out thin rubber mats – one for each of us – and hands me a kis – a rectangular scrubby mitt about the size of a big mitten, but with an abrasive surface. There are small plastic cups floating in the buckets, and she uses one to begin pouring water over herself. I copy her. Then she starts to scrub herself down with the kis. I do the same.

It feels wonderful. It’s the comforting sensation of having someone scratch your back, but it’s all over. And as you alternate between pouring cups of hot water over yourself and scrubbing yourself, you end up exfoliating ridiculous amounts of skin. (OK, that part’s a bit gross. But at least the dead skin is immediately washed away, so it’s OK.) I contorted myself to get my back, just as I do with a loofah sponge in the shower, but it turns out that there’s a system for that, too: Little Sis comes back from the next room (she’s too little to be able to take the heat that Ama and I are enjoying) and has Ama scrub her back. Once done, she goes behind Ama and reciprocates, with all the strength in her tiny arms and hands. Some time later, Ama invites me over to where she’s sitting, so that she can scrub my back. In my eagerness to “do it right,” it doesn’t occur to me to decline. I sit down. I’m again grateful that she already knows about my tattoo and I don’t need to worry about it being an issue. She begins scraping at my back, and it feels even better than when I did it. It’s the ultimate combination of back scratching plus a back massage plus the heat and humidity of a steam bath. Mmmmm.

When she says that I’m safi I’m one big matisha (tomato) – I get up, and she motions that I should do hers now. (Note to self: the culture of reciprocity extends to the hammam. Check.) I scrub at her until she says that she’s safi. I go back over to my mat and pour water over myself to rinse off the dead skin. She starts shampooing Little Sis’s hair, which the poor kid hates as much as I used to hate it. Shampoo in the eyes isn’t fun in any culture. I wash my own hair then, and then give myself a final rinse. Ama is scrubbing down Little Sis, who’s either too little or too easily distracted by the fun of running around naked (or are those the same thing?) to have washed herself yet. When she sees that I’m all done, she says that I should go back up to the front and dry off. I rinse off my mat, then walk back out to the front where I dry off and dress. I don’t know what to do next, so I lie down on one of the benches to wait for them.

Some time later, they come out, and Ama towels off Little Sis. The munchkin gets three layers of head wraps; according to my reading, there’s a belief that the more layers you put over your head, the more likely you are to retain in your body the heat and benefits of the hammam. Given that it’s only hot for a few months a year here in Berberville, it also seems likely that this is protection against going out in the cold with a wet head. (It’s hot out this afternoon, but cultural norms are cultural norms.) I’d left my towel wrapped around my head as my approximation of their headwraps. Ama gives me an orange and Little Sis a cup of yoghurt. I’d noticed the food in the bag, but am not sure what purpose it serves. I mean, snacks are always fun, but is there some cultural reason to enjoy fruity refreshment immediately after a session in the hammam?

To my surprise, Ama goes back in. For a very long time. I chat with the manager/ proprietor/ owner? of the hammam, play games with Little Sis, and relax against the cushioned bench I’m lying on. Eventually, Ama comes back out, dresses, wraps several scarves around her own head, and we’re off. Emerging from the warm hammam into the hot afternoon sun makes me glad I’m wearing as few layers as I am, but I also reflect that I’m going to *love* hammam trips in the wintertime. 6DH to get to spend an hour or two in a hot, steamy room? Niiiice.

June 17, 2008 Mail tips

I don’t know how many of you are planning on sending me mail (hopefully lots! :D), but here are some more things I’ve learned:

  • Nicknames confuse my bubosta. Writing out my full name makes his life simpler.
  • Titles (Miss, Ms, etc) confuse him, too. I explained what they mean, but he still looked a little glassy-eyed.
  • If you’re sending goodies:
    • Don’t send batteries. They show up when the package gets x-rayed, and they have a way of disappearing. Several PCVs have mentioned that batteries shipped from the US somehow never get delivered.
    • On chocolate: M&Ms travel well, as do Ghiradelli squares, foil-wrapped chocolate bars, and Hershey’s kisses. The one Lindt truffle I've been sent had melted a bit, though, so obviously I had to eat it immediately. (I mean, really, I had no choice, right?) :D
    • On the green international shipping slip, describe the contents as “used” whenever they might be perceived as valuable: (“used clothing,” “used book,” “used camera,” etc).
    • If sending something brand-new, take it out of all packaging. If the customs folks can tell it’s brand-new, I’ll have to pay customs fees equal to their assessed value of the item. Even if it’s marked as a gift. :(
    • Mark it as a “gift” anyway. It can’t hurt (and besides, it’s true!).
    • Round the “value” down. Way down. And never claim it as more than $50. Apparently, that’s a red flag for customs.

June 17, 2008 Chitter chatter

For the first time in the month (almost) that I’ve been here, the luxuriously appointed rooms near my bedroom are getting used. There are two, one that’s smaller with really gorgeous couches, and a big one lined with matching red carpets.

Right now, I’m in the huge red-carpeted room, along with about a dozen members of my extended family. Three of them I met for the first time last night, and I still don’t know how they’re related to us. But my cousin N** – who may well become my best Moroccan friend – gave the two young women huge hugs. These were the first hugs I’ve seen between Moroccans, so I figure they must be awfully close.

My working theory is that their dad – who’s not in the room with us right now – is my host dad’s brother M**. See, I know that my host dad has two brothers and a sister, and I’ve met one brother and the sister, but I haven’t met M** yet. Unless I met him last night. That would make these two women my cousins, and the two munchins running around, my … first cousins once removed? Yeah, I’m going to use “niece and nephew”. Removed cousins sound … weird. The “niece” is probably napping right now, but the nephew is wreaking havoc in this big room, along with my little sis and little cousin. The three kids, ranging in age from 3 to 8 (at a guess), are chasing each other, playing keepaway, playing on the plastic recorder that somebody found stashed in a corner, and generally having a fabulous time. Everyone else in the room is a female, ranging from 16 to 30-something. They’ve split into a couple of groups, and are chattering at a high pitch and a very high pace. It reminds me of the bird calls I heard yesterday morning; rapid, shrill syllables fluttering incomprehensibly around me. :)

When I concentrate, I can usually pick out 1/3 – ½ of the words in a paragraph, but that’s at a normal conversational pace. Berberville is known for its rapid speaking – my tutor, H**, reminds me of this whenever I despair of being able to follow a conversation – but I’ve never heard people talk this fast. And they’re all talking over each other. And the three kids are laughing and chattering with each other.

The result is a noisy, happy throng that is entirely opaque to me. But I’m still happy to be here. :)

June 17, 2008 Dentist

My neighbor, Rebha, called to me through the window, “Kawtar! Kawtar!” I couldn’t see her (I was actually seated directly under the window), and I was concentrating on what I was reading (ideas for environmental education), so I casually called back, “Eyyah!” She laughed at that. She asked how I was, and I answered, and then I asked her how she was, and about that time it occurred to me that it was ridiculous to be shouting this conversation through a window. So I went outside, to where she was filling bottles and buckets with water.*

We chatted for a few minutes (and I understood everything she was saying! Yeah!! We talked about the weather, my recent trip to SouqTown, and I actually understood it all!). At one point, she asked if Fatima had left. I thought she was referring to the Fatima in my family (actually, there are two), so I was confused, but then I realized that she meant the other Peace Corps Volunteer in Berberville, who has adopted the name Fatima. And yes, she was off traveling. On her way to a dentist, actually.

And I made the mistake of mentioning this to Rebha, thus opening a whole big can of worms.

Rebha was confused at the idea that Fatima would travel to see a “doctor of teeth” (which is the phrase I was using for “dentist”). Weren’t her teeth good? Yes, I began, they’re fine, but … and that’s when I regretted beginning this discussion. I wanted to explain that Americans routinely go to dentists for a check-up…but I didn’t know how to say “routine”, or “check up”. My mind began scrambling for ways to rephrase. She wants to be sure? Don’t know how to say “sure”. She wants the dentist to confirm that everything is fine? Don’t know how to say “confirm”. She wants to verify that nothing is wrong? Don’t know “verify.” I was beginning to feel *really* stupid. I launched into a sentence, hoping that something would come to me. “In America, people like to …” I dribbled off. Do I know how to say… Check? No. Find out? No. Be reassured? No. Know? Yes! “They want to know that everything is good. So they go to the doctor of teeth in order to know if everything is good with their teeth.” And Rebha was satisfied with this explanation! Whew. Or else she didn’t want to put me through the agony of trying to find yet another way to explain it. Tough call.

You know, thinking back on this conversation, I just realized that I conjugated that sentence entirely in the first person. I was so focused on the words that I forgot about the conjugations. Whoops. What I said was, “In America, people I want for me to know that everything is good. So I go to the doctor of teeth in order for me to know if everything is good with their teeth.” OK, so maybe Rebha understood me. Sigh. Imiq simiq.

* Berberville only has potable water on tap for 2-3 hours every morning. Potable tap water only came into the village a few years ago; before that, people had to walk to the river half a mile away, or for cleaner water, up to the spring about two miles away. Only the newest houses in the village have interior plumbing. Everyone else walks to one of the many spigots around the village. Everyone – whether they have plumbing or not – fills up buckets and bottles every morning, so that they’ll have access to water throughout the day. Zahra, who lived for the past two years in the house I’ll be moving into in six weeks (inshallah), came up with a clever solution for this. The house is new, so there is plumbing, but again, that’s only good for a few hours in the morning. So she bought a barrel – sort of like those coolers that show up at sporting events and school picnics, with a tap on the bottom – and put it next to the sink. She ran a hose from the sink spigot to the top of the barrel, and every morning she’d fill it up, and then throughout the day she could have water running into her sink, just by opening the tap on the bottom of the barrel. I bought all of her housewares, from her bed to her leftover olive oil, so soon I’ll have this nifty device! (Inshallah)

June 17, 2008 My mud hut ;)

I got an email from one of my cousins, saying that she was hesitating to send me M&Ms because she had visions of my mud hut overflowing with them.

This made me smile.

In fact, I have yet to receive an M&M [Update: Got a bag from Mom! Thanks, Mom!], and my home is far from being a mud hut. :) Before I joined Peace Corps, I had visions of mud huts in sub-Saharan Africa, but the reality of my PC experience is very different. I’m currently sitting in my bright, sunny bedroom. (Whenever I’m using my laptop, I come in here, because MaHallu lives in the big common room, and my lappy makes her uncomfortable. I leave the door open, though, and sit facing it, so that people feel free to wander in and out. They don’t, usually, but once in a while, one of them – especially one of the little girls, my little sister or my cousin – will come in and hang out with me. It’s the best compromise I’ve come up with for being able to work on my computer and not feel completely antisocial.)

The walls are brightly painted solid cement, about 18” thick. The ceiling is incredibly high – which is very common in Moroccan architecture – and looks higher because everything from the doorframe up to and including the ceiling is solid white. The walls, from the top of the doorframe downwards, are solid yellow. Across from the door is a big square, south-facing window, about a meter on a side, with two sets of shutters: heavy wooden folding ones, for protection from winter storms, and translucent glass ones that open into the room, hinged like doors. Right now, all four shutters are open, so I have lots of fresh air and can hear the bees buzzing around the rosebushes that are ~20 feet from me. :) The overall effect is a bright, airy room that always feels full of sunlight.

But I live in the guest half of the house. With the cement walls, tiled floors, expensive furniture, giant kitchen, and big bathrooms. (Of course, the family uses the bathrooms and the kitchen, too, which is why they’re outside my door so often. :) ) The family half of the house is made of mud bricks, and you can see golden flecks of wheat (hay? dried grass?) in the walls. I’ve been told that mud houses are warmer in the winter, but they’re also more prone to leaky ceilings and vermin problems, of the bug and mouse variety. Of course, given that winter is about 8 months long in this mountain village, being warm counts for a lot. So there’s an ongoing debate about which is “better” to live in. The house that I’ll (almost certainly) be moving into on August 1, when my homestay ends, is a cement house. I’m planning to hang blankets or rugs from the walls; people will think it’s odd, but I’m hoping that it will work the same way it did in medieval Europe, to insulate the walls and make the home significantly warmer. That house is owned by my host parents. They were the landlords of the previous volunteer, “Zahra.” In fact, it was Zahra who recommended that they become a Peace Corps host family. (Thanks, Zahra! :D )


June 17, 2008 Pre-dawn perspectives

3:45am New Time, 2:45am according to the sun. Which is nowhere in the sky, not surprisingly. I see a faint glow off to the west. West?? And then I grin with recognition: it’s the setting moon. Dgholi ayur.

With the nearly full moon down behind the mountains, and the sun not even a glimmer behind the eastern hills, the sky is a crystalline black velvet. The crisp air holds no haze, and makes me snuggle down into my big fleece. (Unlike yesterday, I’m wearing my big jacket. And socks.) The stars shine brightly enough to pick a path through town. I see a pale streak across the sky, running northeast – southwest. At first I dismiss it as a cloud, but then I realize that it’s the Milky Way, as clear as I’ve ever seen it. I stare across the disk of our galaxy, wondering how many worlds are staring back at me.

I pick out a few constellations – the dippers, Draco, Casseopeia. There’s a six-star V near Cassie that might be Taurus, but then, I can never think where Taurus belongs. Off to the west is a spiral of stars that I don’t remember seeing before. The Great Mollusc, I name it, and grin whenever it catches my eye.

This morning, there are other people waiting for the tranzit as well. That should have been my first clue that I’d missed it yesterday, I realize. Yesterday afternoon I checked in with my buHanoot friend; turns out that since his shop doesn’t open until 6am, he really has no idea when the dawn tranzit leaves. But he did know who was driving, so I was able to send him a message, asking when he’d be rolling. His response was in Darija, so I couldn’t read anything except the number: 3am. The full message is “Ghadi f 3h.” Could mean “After 3”, “Before 3”, “Around 3”, “Ask me again at 3”… I don’t know. I decide to hope it’s not too much before 3, but that’s why I’m out by 2:45. (I later learn that it means “We’ll leave at 3,” but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t know that, because then I would have gotten impatient when we didn’t leave until almost 4. As it was, as the minutes ticked away, I figured it must have meant “Well after 3,” so I just continued to enjoy my stargazing.)

I’d originally stationed myself where I’d waited yesterday, but an older gentleman (later addressed as Hajj, which means that he’s been on pilgrimage to Mecca) invited me to sit with him and his grandchildren. They wait quietly enough that I can watch the sky undisturbed. Later, the Hajj moseys across the square to chat with another passenger. The air is quiet enough that their words float over to me, but I ignore them easily.

Around 3:30, I hear an American accent shouting a hearty, “Labas!” (How are you!) around the corner. I consider walking over and introducing myself, but choose not to. I could pretend that I decided not to identify myself as an American-clinger, or that I felt so accepted by the Hajj and his grandchildren that I didn’t want to walk away from their hospitality…but really, I was just enjoying the calm of the pre-dawn morning, and didn’t want to clutter it with the banal smalltalk of strangers.

Just a few minutes after that, the tranzit pulls up, driven by my friend H**. He smiles his enormous grin, ushers me into the first row, window seat (the best seat in the tranzit after the passenger bench, which was already spoken for), and I do my best to go back to sleep.

June 16, 2008 Time Travel Travails

Yesterday afternoon, I checked in with the shop owner to ask when the earliest tranzit of the day leaves. He said 4:30 – old time – so I set my alarm for 4:45am (new time) and went out to catch it.

Berberville is chill in the pre-dawn air. There’s a glow behind the mountains to the east, telling me that sunrise isn’t far off. I use my tiny LED flashlight to illuminate the uneven dirt-and-rock path leading from my family’s front door towards the town. When I get to the edge of the cemetery, I turn off the light; the path past the graveyard is well-enough traveled that even in the starlit darkness, it glows paler than the untrammeled dirt around it. I continue through the deserted souq lot, grateful that I’ve walked this path so many times in the light that I don’t hesitate in the dark. When I come to the main street, I startle at its emptiness. This is what Berberville would look like as a ghost town. I rarely notice the people on the street – they’re nearly always youngish men, and I’ve been advised not to make eye contact, let alone conversation, with anyone who meets that description – but even when I don’t consciously register them, I know they’re there. In the starry darkness of 4:10am, there’s not a soul in sight, and I walk through downtown feeling oddly self-conscious, like I’m intruding into someone else’s waiting dreamscape.

I lean against a dark corner between two cafés, nearly invisible in the dim light; later tranzit passengers will get to share my illusion of emptiness.

The minutes tick by, and I huddle against the chill in the air. I’m wearing the lighter of my two jackets, and I pull its hood over my head. Why didn’t I wear socks? About 4:25, I leave my café corner to stand more directly in the intersection of Berberville’s only two streets. There’s no way any vehicle entering or leaving the city could fail to pass by me.

4:30 comes…and goes. No sign of the tranzit. I begin to worry that the shop owner had meant 4:30 new time, which would be 3:30 old time. But no one in Berberville is on the new time, except me and the other PCV in town. So why are there no other passengers showing up? I understand if not many people want to take a ride so early in the morning, but if no one takes the trip, they wouldn’t run it. And for that matter, where’s the tranzit itself?

At 4:35, I hear a voice and see movement up a sidestreet. I step back into the shadows. The voice approaches; it’s a man, age indeterminate, but who is he talking to? By the time I realize he’s alone, loudly addressing the empty world, he’s spotted me.

He’s walking a wobbly line, and talking and laughing to no one. If I were on a college campus in the States, or really anywhere in America, I’d assume he’s drunk. But this is Morocco, where alcohol use is both illegal and culturally unacceptable.

…for most people. He introduces himself, asks for a cigarette, then immediately holds out the near-empty water bottle in his hand and apologizes to me for his poor English. He knows English, he assures me (repeatedly), but he forgot it because he’s been drinking all night. When I make no efforts to engage him in conversation after telling him he should be ashamed of himself for being drunk (and for thinking that I’d have a cigarette – in Morocco, the only women who smoke in public are prostitutes), he eventually gets indignant. Why won’t I talk to him? I tell him I’m tired, and lean against a wall (away from him). Am I afraid of him?! How ridiculous! He’s never hit a woman in his life, he swears in English and Tamazight. And besides, he’s an upstanding member of the community. His father is [an official in a nearby community].

For the next half an hour, he continues to talk at me in English, French, and Tamazight. I don’t want to antagonize him by yelling or walking away – and anyway, there’s no one around to hear a yell, and nowhere I can walk to that won’t run the risk of my missing the tranzit if it ever shows up. But for all his drunken bluster, he seems pretty harmless. I find myself drawing on skills from college parties to deflect his conversational forays without seeming rude. I’m not sure why he makes me think of “college” so much – maybe because of his repeated claims of his educational prowess (“I got my bac [high school diploma], you know,” he tells me at least six times), or maybe because he smells like a frat house. I ask him when the tranzit will arrive. “Assul.” Later. Every time he asks me something inappropriate, I either answer “Hshuma!” (Shame on you!) or “What time will the tranzit arrive?” They’re about equally effective in rerouting the conversation, but he never does tell me anything other than “Later.” In about four languages. Pas encore. Urta. Not yet. Assul.

After the fifth time he’s told me who his father is, and the eighth time he’s said that he really can speak English, he just forgot it because he’d been drinking all night, someone else finally approaches. It’s an older gentleman. I ask him when the tranzit will arrive. He doesn’t know, and asks my intoxicated companion. “Ts3ud.” Nine.

“Ts3ud!?!?!” I cry, indignantly. Are you kidding me?! You’ve kept me here for half an hour when you knew the next tranzit wasn’t coming for hours!??! “What about the 4:30 tranzit??” I demand. “That one left a long time ago,” he slurs confidently.

The older gentleman shrugs and starts walking the road to SouqTown, 140 km away. I guess he figures he’ll get there at the same time, and the ride will be cheaper if he rides a shorter distance.

I kick the wall, grumble to myself repeatedly, and then realize that my drunken neighbor may not have all of his facts in order. After all, he’s never told me when it would leave; maybe he just wanted the older gent to be on his way. So I ask him why he never told me that the earlier tranzit had left. He shrugs. Then he brags about his big TV set. Biting my lips and swallowing my impatience, I ask him how he knew that the tranzit had already gone. In a broken, drunken mixture of English, French, and Tam, he explains that his first cigarette-seeking expedition had been hours ago, and he’d gotten one from the gendarme who had come to see the tranzit off. This led to a tangential ramble about how the gendarmes are his friends, because they know who his father is, and hey, do I know how important his father is?

While he rambles, I think. If I take the 9am tranzit, it won’t be possible to accomplish my SouqTown business and be back tonight, which was my goal. Moreover, while my intoxicated acquaintance is undoubtedly confused about a great many things, he’s probably remembering his cigarette break accurately. Which means that I’ve been standing in the cold, for an hour, for nothing.

I interrupt his braggadocio with a quick, “Bslama,” and head up the road. He protests to my back – other cars will come along! He can flag one down for me! Everyone knows who his father is, and will give me a ride to SouqTown out of their undying respect and admiration for him! – but I keep walking. I get home, crawl back into my toasty bed, and put off (re-)greeting the day for another few hours.

June 13, 2008 TiHibubin

Tamazight, aka the Berber dialect I’m learning, has lots of words that are fun to say. One of my favorites is “TiHibubin”, pronounced more or less like Tee-(exhale)-ee-boob-een. The (exhale), transliterated with a capital-H, is more or less the sound you make when you’re fogging your glasses to wipe them off, or maybe huffing with frustration. There’s just the audible puff of air.

Anyway, “TiHibubin” are spots on the skin. Any kind. Moles, freckles, zits, you name it. And I’ve got billions of them. (Mostly freckles.) Today, I was visiting my cousin’s house, and was (of course) invited to tea. So I drank tea, ate bread, ate a cookie, and did my best to make conversation with everyone there.

While we chatted, a grandmotherly woman struck up a conversation with me. She has come over to our house many times, to check on MaHallu. She’s called “Doctora”, meaning female doctor, and she was there for the delivery of my two host brothers. Since I’ve never learned her name, I think of her as Lalla Doctora – Lady Doctor (with “Lady” in the British sense, since it is used as a title of respect in Morocco). Lalla Doctora pointed to my freckly hand, and said, “Hey, I have those, too!” She stretched out her hand to show what I think are age spots. “What are they?”

I gave the answer I’d learned during training: “TiHibubin!”, and got gales of laughter.

Apparently, since freckles are unusual in Morocco, the word usually means zits. I decided to ignore the laughter and pushed up my sleeve to show my freckle-drenched arm. “See, I have many of them!”

“What causes them?” pressed Lalla Doctora. What followed was a difficult conversation about melanin. I wouldn’t have attempted it if N**, my cousin who speaks a little English, hadn’t been there to bail us both out of difficult points. “Everyone has color in them. In some people, it all comes up to the top: black people. In me, it comes up in spots.” I was fairly proud of myself for getting all that out.

I don’t know if Lalla Doctora understood me or not, though, because then she changed the subject….to helping me on my plant project! She had promised, a couple weeks ago, to teach me about plants if I my language skills got better. Apparently, they’ve improved enough that she was willing to try.

Actually, more likely, she wanted to take advantage of N** being there as a potential translator.

Regardless, she gave me insight into two of the locally grown plants that are used for medicinal purposes. Lhumdullah! Also, this meant that N** learned what I was up to – it hadn’t occurred to me to talk to her about it – and she has offered to help more! :D

In fact, not an hour later, she saw me filling out the paperwork that I’m supposed to complete for each plant, and she answered some questions that I’d forgotten to ask Lalla Doctora, like when the plants are cultivated. A couple hours later, after lunch, she brought me some rosemary – aseer – and helped me fill out the form for it, too. Yeah! Tangible progress on my work! And a helper who’s also a friend! Lhumdullah!!


June 13, 2008 Closeup on tranzits and taxis

I don’t know if I’ve explained clearly about the two major forms of transportation in this region, tranzits and taxis. (There are buses in the bigger towns, and trains in the biggest cities, but none come through Berberville.)

Tranzits are … how to describe … OK, I feel like the flying fish who tries to explain cows to the other ocean residents. This description may not make a lot of sense…just use your imagination and give me the benefit of the doubt: I’m really not trying to be confusing.

Let's see if a picture helps:

Tranzits are like a cross-breed between a sixteen-passenger van and a short bus. They have five “rows” (using the term generously) as well as a big seat next to the driver. They don't all have the same design - the one belonging to my favorite driver has big, wide, well-padded bench seats - but most that I've ridden are designed like this: The “rows” have a central aisle that runs along the long axis of the tranzit, flanked by seats that are about halfway between a school-bus bench and an airplane seat. Except that they are open at the lower back. Really, they’re like padded park benches, in their design. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to fit a few more seats into the tranzit by engineering a wooden plank that locks into the sides of the benches, creating a middle seat.

So you’ve got five rows that seat five people each. Of course, since the aisle is used for seating, it can be tricky when people get on and off; they tend to clamber over the wooden planks, so whoever is sitting there has to cram somewhere else briefly, and then dust off their seat. Also, the benches could seat two children comfortably, but are snug (ahem) for two adults. What tends to happen is that the benches fill up first, then the middle seats, and whenever somebody gets off, people readjust themselves along the row.

When I’ve been in the second or fourth seat (aka not the window seat or the aisle plank seat), and someone leaves, I tend to push out into the aisle a fair bit, so that I’m ultimately sitting about half on the aisle plank and half on the seat itself. Four people can fit pretty comfortably across a row. When there are five, it’s…crowded. People either twist themselves so that they are narrower (I do this a lot – the ole lean-on-one-hip-at-a-time trick) or lean forward against the seat in front of them, so that they have shoulder and arm room. It can be frustrating when someone gets off and people don’t readjust their seats, leaving three people crowded together and one person with (comparatively) acres of space. (It’s especially frustrating when I’m in the middle of the three, and the other two are men.)

Oh, and the fifth “row” is different from the first four in that it just has a plank on one side, and is open on the other, so that latecomers can cram in, standing up. It’s a bit like a subway in that respect; people who live on the ends of the line tend to get the seats, and everyone else has to stand…and, like the subway, when it’s a popular time to ride (like, say, on the last tranzit westwards after Souq Day), people are crammed in like cattle on a factory farm. The really really latecomers, or the people who want to get on somewhere other than an endpoint of the line, sometimes end up on the roof. Peace Corps forbids Volunteers to ride in an open-topped vehicle, which means that we’re not allowed on the roof, but it’s not uncommon to have two or three Moroccans up there on a busy run.

I believe that the tranzits are independently owned and operated by the drivers, but that may not be accurate. They function that way, though; if you are friends with a driver, you can just send him a text message and he’ll reserve you a seat, pick you up at a special place, etc. If you don’t reserve a seat by texting the driver, you can leave a message with someone who works near the tranzit station (I use Ali, the shop owner next to the tranzit stop in Berberville), and he’ll pass the message along with the tranzit arrives. If you haven’t reserved a seat in advance, you need to get to the station reeeally early, because unreserved seats are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. That’s here in Berberville, anyway. At the other end of the line, SouqTown, the tranzits sit in the station for several hours before departure, so you just walk down to the station (which is only a couple short blocks from the town center) and leave something – a bag, a jacket, a shesh, etc – on the seat you want.

Grands taxis
These got their name from the French, so grand means big, not “grand” in an American sense. They’re nearly always Mercedes sedans, with big bucket seats in the front and a big bench across the back. Grands taxis don’t have a schedule; they go when they fill up. And “full” means six seats paid for – two in the “shotgun” bucket seat, and four across the back. Mercedes builds large cars, but fitting four adults in the back of a sedan is…well, it’s uncommon in America, where we celebrate our “personal space”. It’s easy to understand why Peace Corps advises female volunteers either to sit next to another woman or else pay for two seats, and thereby get the shotgun bucket seat all to yourself. If you don’t do one of these two things, you’re going to end up pressed against a man for the duration of the trip. I’ve been there, and it’s far from the worst thing in the world, but it’s not ideal.

Grands taxis serve as shuttles between the medium-sized cities of the bled (rural parts of Morocco). If you’re in one, and you want to go to another, just go to the maHta taxiyat – the taxi station – and listen for a minute. The drivers will shout the name of the city they’re heading off to. They’ll keep shouting, every minute or so, until they’ve filled up the six seats, and then they head off. In order to make a grand taxi leave more quickly, I’ve been known to pay for two seats – which, again, gets me the shotgun seat all to myself – or, once, on field trip, I banded together with the other four passengers to each chip in towards the price of the sixth seat. If you don’t hear anyone shouting the city you’re heading to, find the person holding a pad of paper and a wad of cash. This is the guy in charge of the maHta taxiyat. Tell him where you want to go, and he’ll steer you towards the taxi that will be headed there, or tell you that you’re the first one and so you’re in for a wait. If lots of other people want to go to the same place you’re going, well then yalla! (let’s go). If it’s an uncommon destination, or just a slow time of day, you could be waiting an hour or more.

Grands taxis have some advantages over buses – they usually leave more frequently, and they move faster because they make fewer stops. (Buses tend to pick up everyone on the side of the road until they’re overflowing with passengers, and then let them off wherever they want to go, which means that they stop a LOT. Like city buses in DC, without the advantages of “bus stops”.) On the downside, grands taxis have limited luggage space, and they follow no schedule. (I’ll skip the obvious joke about the likelihood of the buses following their schedule – anyway, like so many things, it depends; CTM buses and Supratour buses are very punctual, and souq buses often are.) I haven’t yet decided whether I prefer buses or grands taxis when I’m traveling. If I have a mountain of luggage (like when I moved to Berberville), the bus is definitely the better alternative. If it’s just me and a small bag, it’s pretty much a coin toss. Buses are cheaper but take longer; grands taxis are fast but follow no schedule.

June 12, 2008 Shesh sweet shesh

The shesh, called the shud in some regions, is a long scarf. It’s generally six or more feet long and 2-3 feet across. I’ve been using a pashmina as a shesh, and it works great.

I keep it on whenever I travel, or any day that the weather is especially variable, because it’s a fantastically simple way to “layer”. If the weather is temperate, I keep the shesh looped loosely over my shoulders, where I barely notice it. It’s long enough to be able to do a full loop around my neck, probably ~1.5’ diameter, and have the tails hang down in front of my shoulders. This keeps it handy, off the ground, and succeeds in masking my (ahem) silhouette, which helps to deter unwanted attention.

When chilly, I can pull it more tightly around my neck, loop it a second time, or else do the Classic New England Scarf Loop*, all of which turn the shesh into a cozy neck-warming scarf. When it’s really cold, I can shake it out to its full size and use it as a shawl, to keep my arms and torso cozy warm. And when it’s really sunny, I can drape it over my head as an instant sunshade for my face and neck; not only does it prevent sunburn, it also makes me feel about ten degrees cooler. It’s like stepping into the shade.

A completely unrelated use for a shesh is as a way to reserve a seat on a tranzit. Tell the driver you want to go, leave the shesh on the seat of your choice, and you have a guaranteed seat whenever it leaves (up to two hours away). If you tell the driver that you want a seat, but don’t reserve yourself a spot, you end up at the mercy of the jumper (aka the driver’s assistant). He might put you in a great seat or you might end up standing the whole way. Reserving a particular seat with your shesh takes a lot of the guesswork out of it.

Also, since my shesh is actually a pashmina, it’s incredibly lightweight as well as being incredibly warm. (Plus, it was a gift from a wonderful person who traveled to a fascinating place for a great reason, so it’s got all kinds of heartwarming associations.) It also compacts really well, if I feel like stowing it in my bag.

* OK, I admit it, I have no idea what it’s called. But all the scarf-wearers I’ve noticed in Boston, Providence, and New York do it, hence the name. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: fold the scarf in half, put it across your shoulders, and pull the tails through the loop formed by doubling it over. It feels like you’re making a slip knot out of the scarf. This succeeds in keeping a big poofy lump of scarf up around your neck, in a much more stable fashion than simply winding it around (which always, at least on me, slides undone within about five minutes). It’s fast, easy, and warm.

June 10, 2008 Lhumdullah

Quite a day. Much has happened today, and all is cause for gratitude. :)

I was heading down to the capital of the Province (which I’m going to call Springfield, because every state in America has one, and it’s the capital of at least one, and because I saw this city’s bus terminal three times before I saw any other part of it, which is the same as my experience with Springfield, MA, hub of the Peter Pan – Greyhound bus line). I needed to go there because I needed to get a signature to have formal permission to work in the schools. I had also been invited to the university where The Professor works, which turns out to be in “Springfield”. (It’s the University of One-of-the-Biggest-Cities-in-Morocco, but this is a satellite campus.) So I had a lot to get done, and a relatively narrow window in which to do it. I guessed that the Ministry offices wouldn’t be open before 9, and with the whole time-change thing, I didn’t know if they were on Daylight Savings Time, aka “tes3t tujdit”, the new time, or if they, like most of the cities in the bled (rural Morocco), were ignoring it. So I decided to get there at 8:30/9:30; if they were on government time, as seemed likely, that would give me more time in Springfield to take care of everything, and if they weren’t, I’d just chill for an hour in a coffeeshop. That required taking the 7/8 bus from SouqTown, though.

So when I woke up at 7/8am, that was a big whoopsie. I decided I’d take a grand taxi instead of a bus, which cuts half an hour off the travel time, and is only 5DH (less than a dollar) more expensive. It’s a little less comfortable, but it’s a lot faster.

Sleeping in did give me the opportunity to have breakfast with my PCV friends at the PCVs’ Favorite Breakfast Café, though, which I always look forward to. :) I told “Fatima” that I’d meet her there, and I stopped at the grand taxi stand to see about a ride.

Grands taxis in Morocco are different than taxis in the States. This may be common in other parts of the world, but it’s new to me. The way it works is that there are six blas (seats) available in each one, and the taxi leaves whenever all six are taken. It’s more like a tiny bus than a New York taxi. The advantage of grand taxis over buses is that they stop a lot less often, and are allowed to drive faster, so they make much better time. Well, almost always. There are exceptions, like when someone only wants to go partway to the primary destination, but that didn’t happen today.

As I approached the taxi stand, I heard the driver calling out, “Springfield, Springfield!” I approached him, told him I wanted to go, and asked him how many of the seats had already been taken. If I was the first one, the wait could be as much as 15-20 minutes. He said that five were taken, and I was the sixth, so they were ready to roll.

Fatima was waiting for me over at the Café, though, plus she’d said she would order for me…and I’d been dreaming of their chocolate croissants for a while…so I told him that I’d be five minutes while I ran for a cup of coffee. (I actually get hot chocolate in the Café, but that’s considered pretty bizarre, and I wanted to keep things simple.) I also knew that “5 minutes” in Moroccan time generally means about 10, so I figured that while he rounded up the other five passengers, who had probably scattered to the winds while they waited for me, I could grab my cocoa and croissant.

The cocoa hadn’t arrived at the table when I got there, so I ducked inside for the croissant. Hmmm, chocolate goodness. :) By the time I was back at the table, tearing into my fresh pastry, the cocoa arrived. The world was looking like a pretty perfect place. And then the taxi driver pulled up next to the café. It had been 4 and a half minutes, according to my watch, and he was Ready To Roll. So I gulped the cocoa, was glad that I had exact change to leave on the table, and crammed into the cab.

The driver was not only incredibly punctual, he was also a zippy driver. We were in Springfield in an hour flat, including dropping off some of the other passengers at sites around the city. When we got to the Springfield bus terminal, which was clearly the end of the line, I asked him if he could take me to my final destination – the Ministry – since he’d taken the others to theirs. He looked at me like I’d asked him to drive me to Senegal: not unwilling, exactly, but definitely unclear as to why I thought it would happen.

So I said thanks and goodbye, and hopped out of the cab. I’d been to the ministry two weeks ago (the first time I tried to get this signature), so I knew pretty well where it was. I also knew approximately where the DVD store and the market were – two other errands I’d hoped I’d be able to fit into the day – but I had no idea where to find the University. So while I walked over to the Ministry, I shot a text message to a PCV who lives in Springfield to ask about the campus. I also tried to pick a path that would pass the DVD place, since I wasn’t sure exactly where it was, and was trying to refresh my memory.

I missed the movie place, but found the market that I hadn’t even been aiming for, so I learned something about Springfield geography. :) I got a text back from the PCV, saying that it was well outside of town – a petit taxi would be needed to get there – and saying Who are you?? So I shot back thanks and a reminder that he’d met me two weeks ago, and by then I was practically at the Ministry.

I’d hoped to meet with two people at the Ministry: the Delegue himself, whose signature I needed, and someone whose name I didn’t have but who worked on collaborations between the Environmental division and the Ministry itself. I beeped my program staff to ask for the name (which I’d thought would be emailed to me the day before), and got a quick text saying that she was in a meeting but would call me soon.

Since I was cooling my heels in front of the Delegue’s door, I figured I had time to wait for her call. :) I finally got to go in, and ran into a little red tape. Fortunately, that’s when my program staff chose to return my call, so I was able to give the phone to the Delegue and sidestep the language barriers that we’d run headlong into. A solution was reached, and by 10/11, I had all the paperwork I needed, sealed, signed, and delivered. Lhumdullah!

The last tranzit from SouqTown to Berberville runs at 2:30/3:30, and I wanted to give myself no less than two hours to ride back from Springfield to SouqTown, just so I couldn’t possibly miss it. That meant that I had to find the University, find The Professor, and tour his lab in two and a half hours. If things went quickly, I could indulge in some personal shopping. If things took longer, I’d have to wait for my next trip to Springfield, which probably won’t happen for a few months.

Within a block or two of the Ministry I was able to find a petit taxi driver that knew where to find the campus, and off we went. He dropped me at the main gate. From there, I chatted with the men hanging around the entrance, and one of them walked me to The Professor’s department. I went in, planning to wander around until I spotted his nameplate on a door… and then I noticed that none of the doors have nameplates. None. Not a hint. So I asked the gentlemen who were sitting in the courtyard (the architecture of the university, by the way, is truly gorgeous; it’s inspired by Berber architecture, and has a fabulous use of space, beautiful courtyards, gardens, etc). They recognized The Professor’s name, and one of them went off to find him. He returned a few minutes later with the news that the prof was with students, and that class would be over in about 15 minutes. I settled in to wait, but they said I should go to the lecture hall and find him there. One walked me over (making three different people who had escorted me along my journey from the Ministry to my second appoint). There was a young man addressing the lecture hall, so I figured that it was a TA conducting the class. I wondered if this meant that the prof wouldn’t be around. But since I had no better idea how to find him, I stuck around. Maybe he’d show up at the end to answer questions.

I was loitering around the open door to the lecture hall, and exchanged smiles and greetings with the students as they began to trickle out. A few left before the end of the hour; I decided that they probably had another class that started at 12 nishan. After the burst of applause marking the end of the lecture, more students came out, but the majority were still sitting inside. One who passed by me said, “It’s OK if you go in. They’re having an exposé.” The last word was the only one I couldn’t translate. I figured it must mean Q-and-A session, because that’s what appeared to be happening. I slipped into the hall and sat in the last row. The acoustics weren’t designed for a discussion group; I couldn’t hear the questions being asked by the students, and struggled to hear the answers – which were coming both from the young man who had been talking and from The Professor, who was relieved to see sitting in the second row.
Eventually the last of the questions had been asked. I caught The Professor’s eye, and he beckoned me down the stadium steps. After he dealt with lingering students, he explained to me what was going on. The young man was not a TA. Exposé means student presentation, more or less. Each student had to present the results of his or her (yes, her! There were several young women in the classroom) independently researched project to the whole class. This student had studied soil chemistry and desertification (or at least, that’s what I gleaned from the small-font powerpoint slides he had up), but each student had picked their own topic.

We headed back to his office, talking about his class and the architecture of the campus. He pointed out the geology department as we passed it, and I had a compelling urge to go prowl around. Next time I’m in Springfield, I promised myself. (The campus is actually a mile or two outside the city, on the way to SouqTown, so it is a logical first or last stop on any future trip.)

He then showed me the equipment that his team will be using during the plant project. They have machines to do chemical analyses of the plants, to extract the essential oils from any aromatic or flowering plant, to do heat decoctions, cold decoctions, and a fridge and freezer to hold the extracted materials. (Unfortunately, the power for the fridge and freezer are controlled by a switch on the wall, next to the light switches; despite a big sign saying DON’T TOUCH and the switch being taped in the ON position, somebody had flipped it off. We figured this out, and solved the problem…I just hope no permanent damage was done.)

Then I performed a partial taste test on the tisanes that they’ve prepared. (Turns out anise makes a really delicious tea.) These tisanes – which are more or less tea bags of herbs – are being tested for flavor, enjoyability, color, appearance, etc, and for medicinal benefit. I had to keep consciously rejecting my Western, knee-jerk assumption that herbal medicines are all old wives’ tales. All drugs started as plants (well, most, anyway), so there’s no reason to believe that the fact that it’s infused into hot water instead of distilled into a small white pill makes it any more or less effective than any other form of medicine. I don’t know what benefit the ones I tasted were supposed to have; for all I know, they’re just to add flavor to the medicinal herbs. (The final products will have a mixture of three or more herbs per teabag.) They’re also working on packaging and marketing; if they are successful, they’ll have a product that is helpful to the community on multiple levels. Not only will it accomplish whatever medical benefits, they will also be bagged, labeled, and packaged by women in Berberville or other mountain villages, and sold cooperatively. I was reminded both of CASEM, the women’s coop in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and the gift shop at the Dana Nature Center in southern Jordan; both sell products made by women in the area, and therefore provide a source of income to the households and a way to increase the power of women in the family.

We then rode back into the city, grabbed a quick (very quick!) lunch, and I headed to the grand taxi station on the stroke of 2pm. I got there just in time to wave goodbye to a grand taxi headed to SouqTown. It had all six seats filled, so I couldn’t jump in. (Seating seven in a grand taxi happens occasionally – though it’s hugely uncomfortable – but it’s illegal, and if a gendarme is conducting a checkpoint, the driver can lose his taxi license.) Then began an anxious time. The minutes ticked away as I waited to assemble enough people to fill another grand taxi. I had one blas (seat, from the French “place”), then an older gentleman showed up for the second... 2:10… The third finally appeared… There was a long dry spell. 2:15… 2:20… I went up to the driver to see how close we were. A fourth had appeared, who I hadn’t noticed, but there were still two seats vacant. I told the driver that I wanted to pay for two seats. (This is recommended for women anyway, because it means that you get the bucket seat next to the driver all to yourself; ordinarily, that bucket seat has two people, and there are four in the bench seat across the back. Whether you’re in the front or the back, you’re squished up against the person next to you, and in a culture that forbids male-female contact, inter-gender squishing can lead to … well, “unwanted attention” is the Peace Corps’ euphemism.) So then we were down to one. The driver was doing his best, hollering, “One for SouqTown! One! SouqTown! One!” [Yes, I’m translating, in two senses of the word.] 2:25… The fifth person showed up. Since I was taking two seats, that accounted for all six blases. We all paid the driver, loaded up our stuff, and were rolling by 2:30 on the nose.

Of course, this morning’s ride had been an hour, almost to the minute, and there were no checkpoints or other stops along the way. And the last tranzit was leaving at 3:30. So it was theoretically possible that I’d make it, but the odds were against me. Then the odds stacked higher: we drove the five blocks to the Springfield bus terminal and stopped. My eyes bugged out, and I exclaimed something unintelligible. I was able to get out, “Makh??” (Why??) The driver answered, saying something about getting permission, and waving a government-issued carte of some kind. The backseat doors opened, and the four gentlemen who were crowded in there stepped out to stretch their legs. Several agonizing minutes later, the driver returned, everyone piled back in, and we were rolling.

As we drove out of town, I asked the driver if everything was OK. I was referring to the situation with the bus terminal (and hoping to find out if there would be any more of these unexpected stops), but he thought I was engaging in the greeting ritual. (That usually goes, “Are you relaxed?” “I’m relaxed.” “Are you free from harm?” “I’m free from harm.” “Is everything good?” “Everything is good.” “Thanks be to God.” “Thanks be to God.” Then you do it over again, the other direction. These greetings can be done in any order, and you don’t have to do them all…so when I asked, “Is everything good?” he perfectly reasonably thought that I was just asking how he was.”) He said that he was fine and asked if I was.

The familiarity of the greetings took the edge off of my nervousness, and I began chatting with him. Like many Moroccans I’ve met, he was so delighted that I spoke Berber – even just a little bit, and not very well – that he was happy to attempt a conversation. I explained that I live in Berberville, and that I was hoping to catch the last tranzit out. He looked at the clock, looked at where we were on the route, and answered, “Inshallah.” I echoed the sentiment. God willing, I’d get back to SouqTown in time to grab the tranzit. I’d had a friend reserve me a seat, so I knew they were expecting me…and they’re not always perfectly punctual (though they usually are)…and I figured that I’d be no more than 10 minutes late, and probably less than that…but there was just no way of knowing for sure if I’d make it.

To make a long story … less long … I did. And there was a seat on the tranzit reserved for me, right behind the driver. :)

I got back to Berberville late in the day, but thanks to Daylight Savings Time, it wasn’t yet twilight. I stopped at the souq to pick up some fruit for my host family. I’d planned to get some in SouqTown, where it’s about half the price, but hadn’t had enough time. I chatted with the shopkeepers, asking them what was good (Everything! Of course!), and then checked the fruit for myself. The peaches weren’t ripe yet; the apricots were small; the honeydew melons sounded funny…so I settled on oranges. Sometime during CBT I learned how to pick good oranges (go for ones that feel heavy for their size: density = high juice content = sweet and yummy), so I sifted through the crate of oranges, pulling out the best ones. I ended up with about 2 kg, paid for them, and headed home.

When I came into the courtyard, Ama heard me from the house. She didn’t want me to go to my room first (which is on the opposite side of the courtyard) – she wanted me to come straight in to the kitchen, where she was. When I came in, I glanced into the salon and saw the usual crowd (teatime at my house always means at least a half dozen people, and often more). When I came into the kitchen, I discovered that my xalti was still there! She and her daughter (the 8-year-old cousin I’ve been playing with) had been planning to leave on Monday morning, but here it was Tuesday evening and they’re still here! I was delighted to see her, and told her so. Then I ate kaskrut (which was the main reason Ama had wanted me to come straight in – I was clearly tea-deficient – but which featured a new type of bread, called limsmen, that is just like the naan I know and love from Indian restaurants in the States). After tea, I headed into the living room. And that’s where I had the biggest surprise of this wonderful day: MaHallu, who everyone had thought was on her deathbed on Sunday, was sleeping in the corner of the room. Lhumdullah!

And just to put the icing on this cake, dinner was great (tasted like Spanish rice), and dessert was fanastic: tkrm, which looked like a green apple but tasted like a plum, and sweyhayda, honeydew melon. Mmmmmm.


June 7, 2008 Thna l-Hal

It’s been sunny for the past week or two, so yesterday’s sprinkling was nice. It turned into a harder rain for a couple minutes, but it was such a tiny storm that a friend who’d gone running to the lakes – just 5 km away – didn’t even know that there had been rain.

Today, though, we got a slam-banging thunderstorm. The winds were fierce enough that the poplars outside my window were leaning like the Mad Hatter’s hat, and the rustling leaves from those four trees were loud enough to be heard through my closed window. When I heard the storm coming, though, I threw open the window to watch it. (This isn’t quite as foolish as it sounds: the walls are 18” thick concrete, and the windows are set all the way back in, so there’s quite a bit of shelter, even when they’re open.) The drops came slowly at first, then faster and faster until they were pelting the ground like guided missiles. They were falling sideways because of the driving wind. The smell of the wet mud from the courtyard – the smell of summer rain – grew stronger and stronger with the passing minutes. Soon the whole yard was drenched, and the shutters were rattling. When the wind shifted slightly, I drew the shutters partially closed to shield me from the falling rain, but I kept leaning on the windowsill. It occurred to me that I’d meant to do laundry this morning, but got distracted. Good thing - the clothesline strained and flailed in the wind like a leashed wildcat.

It was coming close to lunchtime, so I decided to make the dash from my side of the house across the courtyard, just so that no one would have to come out in the rain to let me know when it was ready. In the time it took me to pull on a jacket and shoes, the rain had slackened enough that I barely got sprinkled during my walk across the courtyard.

Now, about two hours later, the sun is out, the birds are chirping (loudly!), and I’m ready to trust my clothes to the line.

The weather is fine (thna l-Hal). Of course, being a storm nut like I am, I’ve thought it was mighty fine all day. :)

June 6, 2008 Kawtar*

Zahra, the Volunteer who just left Berberville, left me her English-language copy of the Qur’an, but it was locked in her house, so I haven’t yet taken a look at it. I had to go over there today, though, to check the fit of the bike helmet she’d also left me, so I took the opportunity to begin reading the Qur’an. I started with the Introduction, which took the better part of an hour, and then flipped ahead to the index. I forget what I was planning to look up, because I got distracted by the sight of my name. It was transliterated there as Kauthar. I checked the classical Arabic (which is of course included – you can’t have a copy of the Qur’an without Arabic!) to see the cause of the discrepancy.

I’d taken my spelling from the way Kawtar in my CBT village spelled her name. But in the Qur’an, it does have a “th” instead of a “t” in the middle. In Moroccan Arabic, though, all the “th”s are pronounced as “t”s. (The number 3, for example, is thalatha in standard Arabic, but tlata here in Morocco.) Oh, and the “u” vs “w” thing is a meaningless difference; I’ve seen the Arabic character “wew” transliterated as “o”, “u”, “w”, and “oo”.

Spelling aside, I got to see my name in its original context, and discovered that it means even more than “river in Paradise”, as I’d been told. It actually means “abundance of good”. The verse says (and I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you can look it up in Sura 108:1 to get it perfectly), “I have surely given you an abundance of good.” The following verse (108:2) indicates that the only appropriate response on our part is to pray and sacrifice – give of our time, money, or labor to help others.

Really, I can’t imagine a better name to use here.

Oh, and as for the “river in Paradise” – which seems a significantly different translation than “abundance of good” – the footnote/commentary explained that a key Islamic scholar, when asked if “abundance of good” meant “river in paradise”, answered that of course it means that there will be a river in paradise, along with every other good thing.

June 6, 2008 Pick a hand

There are currently four kids living in our house who I get to play with: my two little brothers, who generally just play with each other (though I’ve recently gotten to the point of being able to trade teasing banter with them, which delights me), my little 5-year-old sister, and our 8-year-old cousin. The two of them have latched onto me like I was a present from America just for them. :D Their current favorite game to play with me is ridiculously simple (which is good, since I have a ridiculously limited vocabulary). They’ll pick up any small object – a rose petal, a few inches of thread, a rock, a pen cap, etc – and hide it in one hand. Then they hold both hands out, and I pick whichever hand I think it’s in. If I’m right, I take it and it’s my turn.

Before our cousin and her mom (my xalti, aka Ama’s sister) came to stay with us, Little Sis and I used to play this. It was more straightforward with just two players: if the other person guessed which hand was holding the amzyan (little thing), it was their turn. If not, you’d hide it again.

Now that there are three of us playing it, it’s impossible to get two turns in a row, because someone is picking each hand. In other words, if it’s Little Sis’s turn, she hides the amzyan and then holds out her two clenched fists. I pick one and Cuz picks the other one. Whichever of us has found it hides it next.

Statistically speaking, each of us should get a turn a third of the time. But it doesn’t work that way. I’m “it” half of the time. Because both Cuz and Sis do their best to make sure that I get the amzyan each time. At first, it was as simple as holding it in the hand closest to me. But then I started reaching for the hand I knew it wasn’t in. When Cuz is it, this works, because Sis is fiercely competitive and wants to find it every time. But when Sis is it, she does everything in her power to ensure that I end up with the rose petal, or thread, or rock, or whatever. She pretty much shoves one fist into my hand, and then holds out the other one for her cousin to “choose”. Cuz isn’t much better. She gives me suggestive looks, or shakes one fist in my direction, or does everything but announce, “Hey, Kawtar, it’s in this hand.” The fact that I’ll invariably choose the other hand, just so Little Sis gets to find the amzyan as often as possible, doesn’t deter her much. She’s just gotten craftier about which hand she puts it in.

Basically, the game has gotten to the point that she’s trying to outthink me in order to force me to win each round. :) It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors, which is easy to win as long as you can think two steps ahead. (Or, if you’re playing against someone else who knows this strategy, think three steps ahead.) She’s thinking, “OK, it was in my left hand last time, which Kawtar knew, so she went for my right hand. If I put it in my right hand this time, and she does the same thing, she’ll get it.” The strategizing can’t get too complex, because Little Sis’s moves are pretty predictable. As long as Cuz can figure out how to keep Little Sis from getting it, it’s inevitable that I will.

Oh, and what about when I’m it? Since both girls grab for whichever hand is closest to them, I was running into hurt feelings from whichever girl I didn’t “give” it to. So then I started stacking my hands vertically, criss-crossing them, doing the congo-line arm-spin, throwing fake punches left and right…basically everything I can think of to ensure that the both hands will be near both girls, and that the winner will be random.

I would think that this game would grow old quickly, but we’re going on two weeks now with no loss in enthusiasm. :)

June 6, 2008 Dessert

I haven’t yet worked out the rules on dessert. Some days we have it, some days we don’t. It nearly always consists of fresh fruit: so far we’ve gotten limon, banane, dlaH, swayhayda; (orange, banana, watermelon, honeydew melon, respectively). It appears anywhere from immediately after we’ve finished—sometimes the dish of fruit is in the room with us, instead of in the kitchen—to 10-15 minutes later. The times when I’ve left the room too soon, thinking that the meal was done and it was time to sleep (because naptime and bedtime immediately follow lunch and dinner), Ama has been quite distressed. In fact, I think the reason the fruit began accompanying us to the meal was that she was afraid I’d miss it otherwise. But then some days there is no dessert, and I linger sociably until the people who want to sleep are wishing me gone.

I thought that today was one of those days. Tamghart, which means “old lady” (and is more respectful than it sounds to my American ears), and which is how everyone refers to my MaHallu (grandmother), had already dozed off in her corner. Her sister, my great-aunt, was nodding off in another corner. I wished them a peaceful sleep and crept out of the room…only to be chased down by Ama, wielding a banana. (And she wasn’t afraid to use it.)
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