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5/27/08 Surprise, Surprise...

K**, the Moroccan I work most closely with, has a knack for surprising me. Surprise #1 was that he didn’t exist. Fortunately, that one turned out to be a mistake.

I’d gone looking for him during my site visit. I visited the Park headquarters, and that’s where I was told that he didn’t exist. Since he’s the director of the Park, I found that both surprising and a bit unlikely. So I called him. He answered the phone, thus proving his existence, and then gave directions to the Park employee I was talking to. Turns out that he doesn’t work in a park office (Surprise #2), but is another two miles outside of town in a Water & Forestry Department office. So I headed down there, met him, had a great conversation about my project, and all was well.

Three weeks later, I returned to the region, this time for good (inshallah). Even before making it out to my site, I scheduled a meeting with him, since he works in SouqTown, which was my layover en route to Berberville. I was supposed to meet him at 10am, in his office, but (Surprise #3) he showed up in the café where I was having breakfast at 9:15. He had a completely new project for me (Surprise #4), and wanted me to meet with the leader of that project, a professor…who was in fact sitting across the café, waiting for me (Surprise #5).

Two days later, I was wandering through downtown Berberville with Zahra when I heard a honk-honk. I barely registered it, since I wasn’t in the middle of the street and therefore it was unlikely to have anything to do with me. Then there was another double-beep. I glanced over in case it was my host dad in his jeep, but it wasn’t, so I deliberately turned my back on the truck (following the advice of other Peace Corps Volunteers to ignore unwanted attention from Moroccan men). Then Zahra said, “I think that’s your counterpart.” I turned…and it was. (Surprise #6) He was in Berberville, a 4-hour ride away from his home and office in SouqTown, driving around with the professor. He laughed at me for forgetting him so quickly. While we chatted, we set a meeting for the Monday 10 days away.

The next Monday – only 3 days later – I was in SouqTown on other business. I’d planned to leave on Tuesday’s 9am tranzit back to Berberville, so about 8:30 I put my scarf down to reserve a seat, then went to the PCVs’ favorite café for a quick breakfast. When I walked into the café (the same one where Surprises #3 and 4 had taken place), my fellow Environment Volunteer “Brahim” told me, “Oh, hey, K** was just here. He’s driving out to Berberville right now with “Sku”*. Do you want to go with him?” Surprise #7. And, for that matter, #8 – he’d been planning to go to somewhere entirely different and coordinate a tree planting today. I told Brahim that of course I wanted to go, so we went outside to look for him. I didn’t see K** or Sku, but Brahim recognized K**’s truck…which was pulling away. He chased it down – which took three blocks of hard running – and was told that K** would meet me back at the café.

I heard this news after I’d caught up with Brahim—he’s a better runner than I am, but I was doing my best—so we both turned around and retraced our steps, breathing hard. I wondered if I should run back to the tranzit to grab my scarf and tell the driver not to wait for me, but I didn’t want K** to miss me, either. The other PCVs pointed out that the only road to Berberville goes right by the tranzit stand, so it would be easy to take care of it as we drove out. I waited at the café for about 20 minutes before seeing Sku, the third member of our Environmental triumvirate*. K** had dropped him off to find me and tell me to meet him at the end of the street.

Of course, the streets in SouqTown don’t follow a particularly regular grid pattern, so neither Sku nor I really knew what that meant. We waited at the end of the big square in town for a few minutes. By then it was 9am, and I was feeling anxious about retrieving my scarf from the tranzit driver. (I didn’t want him to wait around for me and delay everyone else’s trip.) I told Sku my plan and walked the two blocks to the tranzit station…where I found K** in his truck. Surprise #9. I told him that Sku was waiting at the square, so he went jogging off to find Sku while I retrieved my scarf. 10 minutes later, we were all rolling west. Lhumdullah. The fourth person in the car is also named K**, so I’ll call him GradStudentK – ‘cause he is one. For the first hour or so, Sku and I chatted; this was my first chance to talk to him for more than a couple minutes, and we’re probably going to be working closely over the next year, so I wanted to take advantage of my chance to get to know him. Then K** dropped him off in his village instead of bringing him on with us to Berberville (Surprise #10).

For the next few hours, I had a conversation with the two K**s. They both speak a lot of French and a little English. GradStudentK turns out to be fluent in Tamazight, lhumdullah, so he helped both K** and me work on the language. Yes, high-ranking K** is actually working to learn a Berber dialect. Surprise #11. Every other high-ranking Moroccan I’ve met denies any knowledge of Berber. (For that matter, several Berbers have tried to speak to me in Darija – Moroccan Arabic – because it’s considered the more appropriate language for educated people to use. But I don’t know Darija. I’m not stupid, I’m American.) So as we drove, we attempted to speak to each other in Tamazight, falling back on French or English when needed to ensure comprehension. (Which happened a lot. But hey, imiq simiq.) And then, about an hour into our multilingual conversation, I was pointing out a really beautiful anticline, and I discovered that they’ve both studied geology (Surprise # 12). GradStudentK has actually taught biology and geology classes to middle schoolers. So then I got to learn the French and Arabic terms for geological structures, which was a blast.

When the terms are from Latin, they’re virtually identical in French and English (syncline is syncline, for example, and eclogite is éclogite), but the more basic terms cracked me up. A “layer”, aka a bed or a stratum, is a couche. Which is a bed. Like the kind of bed you sleep in. It has been so long – over a decade – since I first learned these words that I’d forgotten how many of them have non-geological meanings. Like “fold”. Which in French is plie, aka bend. Because y’know, folds are bends. “Crust” is crût, which I learned in French class as the thing that goes on a pie. I’ve gotten so used to thinking about the Earth’s crust as kilometers of rock that it takes hearing the word in another language to make me remember where these terms came from. Yes, the crust is the crispy outer layer. Yes, the mantle – manteau – is the thick blanket inside. Of course earthquakes produce a tremblement (trembling/quaking). Isn’t science fun? Oh, and K** still has some of his textbooks on the geology of Morocco, which he has promised to lend me. L’humdullah!

Eventually, we got to Berberville, where it turned out we weren’t going to tackle the Park information booth that Sku had speculated was the purpose of the trip. K** needed to speak to someone else about a completely unrelated project, so I wasn’t even part of the conversation. He just dropped me off at the bosta (post office) near my host family’s house and said goodbye (Surprise #13).

I’ve known him for less than a month, and only had two official meetings with him, but he has managed to surprise me THIRTEEN different times. They say the first step towards overcoming “culture shock” is being able to predict actions. I’m getting there in the home life of my host family – I know when to sweep the floor now, and when to expect afternoon tea – but I’m still apparently in phase one of “counterpart shock.” :)

* There are a total of 5 Environment PCVs assigned to this national park. K&D, the married couple, live on the north side of it. They’re in a different province, and there’s not much transportation between us, but we’re still planning to work together on projects. Sku, Brahim and I live along the southern edge of the park, on the road between Berberville and SouqTown; they’re both closer to SouqTown than I am. For that matter, everyone I know is closer to SouqTown than I am. Sigh. Anyway, Sku and Brahim and I are all assigned to work with K**, but I hadn’t had a chance to talk with either of them before this weekend.

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