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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.

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