Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


August 18, 2008 Lalla Japan

One of the many women who came by today to congratulate Xalti is one who I call “Lalla Japan”. The Japan Lady. She is planning a trip there in December, and it’s already all she can talk about.

Lalla Japan has the makeup and attitudes of a European lady, and speaks a bit of French (which she keeps trying to use with me, to our mutual confusion), and generally considers herself more elegant and worldly than the rest of the Berberville populace. She’s also some kind of cousin or great-aunt or something of mine, I think.

Lalla Japan asked me all sorts of questions about Japan. I did my best to field them, but had to claim ignorance on many. (Do they eat a lot of meat in Japan? Do most people in Japan have a lot of money? How many people in Japan have servants?)

She was surprised that I knew so little about a country that’s so close to America.

Me: It’s not close to America. It’s very far away.
LJ: No, it’s not. They’re very close.
Me: No, really, Japan and America are very far apart.
LJ: No, they’re neighbors. I know someone from Japan. I’m going to stay with her. She’s been to America. It’s right there.
Me: Yes, people travel between Japan and America, but they’re very far apart.
LJ, turning to the person next to her: Did you know that I’m going to Japan? It’s right next to America.

A few minutes later, she turned back to me, and we more or less repeated our previous conversation. Finally, I turned to the old debate standby, the made-up statistic.

Me: Japan is, maybe, 5000 km from America.
LJ: 500 km?
Me: No, 5000 km. I think. Maybe. Veeeery far away.
LJ: 5000 km? That’s far.
Me: Yes. Very far.

I haven’t checked a map, but I’m thinking now that I underestimated…it’s more like 5000 miles, I think. Maybe it’ll be 3000 miles (5000 km) from Hawaii, and I can pretend that was what I meant…


August 13, 2008 Word of the Day: Uru

In PST, we learned that uru can mean to write or to give birth. We all laughed when we heard that, although the nine months I spent gestating my senior thesis give the truth to that interesting word.

Here in Berberville, though, I’ve only heard it used in the maternal sense. My xalti is da-turu, which literally means “she is giving birth” or “she gives birth”, but when conjugated in the present tense like that *functionally* means “pregnant”. Yes, that’s right, my xalti is giving birth for nine months straight. And to think American women complain if labor takes more than 24 hours! (Kidding, kidding…don’t hate me.)

After two months of hearing da-turu consistently referring to pregnancy, I’d nearly forgotten its other meanings.

Then this afternoon, Ama stopped by my room and asked if I was da-turut. My hand instinctively went to my belly, even while my language centers reminded me that the expression can just as accurately be translated as “writing”.

Which, in fact, I was doing.

My family usually uses the words qra (read/study) or xdm (work) when referring to what I do in a notebook or on my laptop. Occasionally, they’ve used ktb, which is the Arabic verb for write. But today I got uru’d.

(Which might, I’m now speculating, be an idiom for becoming pregnant.)

(Don’t panic, Mom. I’m not.)

August 12, 2008 Hey Deuce Variations

Yesterday we went to three more Hey Deuces. That’s not a typo or hyperbole. My family attended three different wedding/dance/parade things last night. That makes *five* in *two days*.

Things I hadn’t seen before:

* Only one car for the “motorcade”
* Six women carrying on their heads trays full of gifts from one family to the other, plus one holding a pole with money (maybe a dozen bills of different denominations) wrapped around it. It was moving a bit, but I think I counted about 700 dirhams.
* Two were concurrent, and one had about 100 people, while the other had about 300, in a smaller area.

* Kids approaching me en masse. The spokesgirl for the group spoke Castillian Spanish, and assumed I did, too. At least it’s different from assuming that I speak French. When she asked, I told her that I understand a poqito of Spanowiya, but then she launched into something I totally missed. I’ve only ever spoken with Spanish-speakers from Central and South America; I’ve never tried to talk to someone who is deliberately lisping. It makes sooo many words sound completely different. It took two tries before I understood the word “Barcelona”. And “Ethtathoth Unithoth” took even more. (Estados Unidos, aka USA)

**Update on the dancing**

I was too harsh on the male dancing. I joined in (women can do it too, but in a separate arc from the men), and it’s harder than it looks. I mean, you could *almost* do it if you just clap and shuffle side-to-side a bit, but to do it *right* requires following the rhythm of a 9-beat measure. Also, because your shoulders and upper arms are pressed tightly against the people on either side of you, if either one of them doesn’t have the rhythm right, it’s seriously distracting.

Also, I had a better view of the women’s dancing, and am even more impressed. Their sparkling hipbelts were moving in so many different patterns! I think I’ve worked out a couple of them, but I definitely need to practice with some of these women. The most common pattern looks a bit like a can-can dance of the hips: a short move to one side, then a longer move to the same side, and then repeated on the other side. I kept trying to do it just horizontally, and it wasn’t working. I finally figured out that it’s a circular move: it’s a vertical hip circle, more or less, followed by a hip drop. So it’s sort of a circle-drop, circle-drop, in alternating directions.

And that’s just the most basic move.

This is going to be so much fun!!

And it even counts as Peace Corps work, because it’s helping me integrate into the community on multiple levels: not only will I be participating more actively in weddings, which are the biggest social events in the village, but if I ask women for help (as I clearly need to), I’ll be creating an opportunity to validate their expertise, show that I’m willing to learn from them, and create a mutualistic relationship very different from the teacher-student that an Environmental Educator could so easily fall into.

L-humdullah! Da-tchtagh! (I’m dancing! – sounds more or less like duh ch-tuh)

August 12, 2008 Words of the day: Ishirran and Ishirrwan

Ishirran means “boys”. I’ve learned three or four words for “boys” since I came to Morocco, but that’s the one they use around here. Tishirratin is the corresponding word for “girls”. (Yes, language nerds, you’ll continue to notice that masculine words usually begin with a vowel and feminine words begin – and often end – with a t.)

And tonight, as we walked past a herd of sheep – ulli, I’d been taught during PST – the gaggle of girls surrounding me told me that they are ishirrwan. And it was later confirmed by Ama. One short letter distinguishes boys from sheep.

And considering the way young people – male and female, in every country I’ve been to – tend to travel in herds, I’m tempted to speculate…

Oh, and another, shweeya-related funny word pair: tabrat and tarbat. Envelope and girl, respectively. One of my CBT buddies got them confused every time…I hope he’s keeping them straight now, and not asking the postman how much it costs to send a girl to America…

August 11, 2008 Wedding Season

Here’s a wedding analogy for you: August is to Morocco as June is to the US.

There are weddings every weekend, and sometimes on weekdays, too. The music/dancing/celebrating/public part of the weddings – always outside, and involving **everyone** in the community – is called a Hey Deuce. (Or at least, that’s how I’ve always spelled it in my head. It’s probably written something like “hay doos”, but whenever I hear it, I think “Hey Deuce”, so that’s what y’all are getting.) I’d thought that a Hey Deuce was any party with music, and I still think it might be, but when my cousin invited me to come with her to a wedding – a tamghra – she also said Hey Deuce. To clarify, I asked, “Tamghra, Hey Deuce, kif-kif?” “Eyyah, kif-kif,” she agreed. So now you know as much as I do.

A Hey Deuce wedding procession follows a path from the bride’s house to the groom’s house (or vice-versa – I’m not positive). Everyone who knows the happy couple and owns a car comes together to make a headlight-flashing, horn-honking, brake-riding motorcade that alerts everyone for miles around to the face that a wedding is afoot. Everyone who doesn’t own a car flocks around and moseys along with the motorcade (yeah, it’s that slow). Every once in a while, the Hey Deuce band strikes up a number, and the dancing starts. Men stand shoulder-to-shoulder to form a ring (or, if there aren’t enough men around, an arc) around dancing women. When they get to their final destination, they stop outside of the house (or within a block or so, if there’s a conveniently located open space conducive to dancing).

The men kind of shrug their shoulders in time to the music, sometimes with a little side-to-side shuffle. Yeah, the male dance routine = not hard to pick up. Even guys with two left feet, no sense of rhythm, and a walker could dance along with these dudes. The women, though, are swaying, shuffling, stomping, hip-swinging, shoulder-shrugging, hair-tossing, shimmying visions of grace and rhythm.

Highlights of The Season so far:

A guy in a “Tektonik Killer” shirt crashed the dancing and put the moves on the ladies (borderline Hshuma, but not egregious).

The music. There’s always a live band – that’s what makes it a Hey Deuce – and they’re a blast to listen to and dance to. Although interestingly, folks don’t clap at the end of each number. The band usually consists of several drummers on drums that look like big tambourines plus one guy playing an oboe-like instrument. (You know the snake charmers you’ve seen in movies? Yeah, that’s the instrument.)

The little clasps on the back of the kaftan that turn a column dress into a form-fitted one. Some are as simple as a safety pin, others look like the laces on a corset, and there are as many variations as there are families, but they all serve to create a waist in a garment that was originally designed to hide the curves of a woman’s body. Without these, the dancing would look a lot less interesting, since most of the moves are hip-centered and would be invisible under a loosely-draped caftan.

In a related note: hip belts. American fashion does everything it can to draw attention away from the hips, usually the widest part of a woman’s body. Here, women tie spangly coin belts (the fake coins are called mzum*) snug around the widest part of their hips, and then … shake what their mama gave ’em, as the saying goes.

It’s no coincidence that these “highlights” all relate to dancing. The dancing is my favorite part of the Hey Deuces.

Oh, a dance-free highlight: Cousins I hadn’t seen in a month *lit up* when they saw me. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

* That’s what it sounds like when they say it, but when I repeated it back to them, they slowed it down: the full word is mrzum.


August 9, 2008 Cupcake Capers

There’s a PCV in our region who is renowned for her hospitality and generosity, especially around birthdays. She knows all of our birthdays, and bakes us all cakes for them. She’s awesome. :) Her adopted name is the Arabic word for beauty: Jamila.

Her birthday is coming up in a few days, but she’ll be leaving town early enough that we can’t celebrate with her on the day…so we had to conspire to celebrate with her early.

“Fatima”, my sitemate, told her that a meeting she’s been planning had been moved up to Saturday, so would she be able to come then? Jamila said sure, so Fatima and I put our plans in motion.

Fatima has a cupcake pan. I’ve studied cake decoration.

And the rest is history.

We scoured the Souq and several taHanoots, but were unable to find cupcake cups. (We did learn the word for them, though: tawrqt n helawa or tawrqt n gato, depending who you ask.) So we had to grease and flour the cupcake pan. Mashi muskil.

We made up the Yellow Cake recipe from the Peace Corps - Morocco cookbook, adding a few spices to give it a little something extra. (Dashes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, if you must know.) When we began, I was still measuring out amounts – leftover habit from American cooking – but I quickly discovered that bled cookery involves a lot of guesstimation, not least because the ingredients are usually being adapted slightly. (Margarine being used for butter, powdered milk being used for cream, and powdered sugar that has seen at least two kings…)

When we got to the final step of the recipe – cook at 350° for 20 minutes – we looked at each other and laughed. “In other words, light the oven and put the cupcakes in?” I asked. “Yup,” Fatima confirmed.

We’d planned to mix up the frosting while the first batch of cupcakes baked, but were stymied by the lack of a second mixing bowl. I suppose we could have scooped out the remaining cake batter into a sauce pan or something, but we opted to wait.

After 10 minutes, we began peeking at the cupcakes pretty regularly. They were kind of golden, but not *really* golden… They were starting to brown, but still hadn’t pulled away from the sides of the pan… They still looked damp on top… Finally, we pulled out the smallest cupcake – which involved using the handle of a tea spoon to lever it out of the greased and floured cupcake cup – and ate it. Yup, that one was done…but it was the smallest of them. We put the rest back in for another minute or two.

Then we attacked the pan with tea spoons in one hand and a fota (towel)-turned-potholder in the other hand, for leverage. We managed to get all eleven of the remaining cupcakes out of the pan without too much damage. Then we picked off the stubborn bits of cake (mostly bottom corners) that had stuck to the pan, and ate those. Once the pan was picked clean, I regreased and refloured it, and then we loaded up the second batch of cupcakes.

We didn’t have a full dozen – perhaps due to the amount of raw dough we’d consumed already – but we were close. We loaded those into the afran (oven), then washed the bowl so we could make the frosting.

While the second batch baked, we mixed up the icing. The texture was a little off, probably due to our lack of a mixer (yay for forks and elbow grease!) and the antique sukar glacĂ©, which was grittier than “powdered” sugar ought to be. But it finally combined, and the powdered milk-margarine-sugar-vanilla sugar blend tasted good and had a good consistency (which meant using less "milk" than called for, since we had no fridge in which to let it firm up after mixing).

For the final touch, we planned to decorate the cupcakes to spell out a happy birthday message. I’d originally thought that the recipe would only make a dozen cupcakes, so I’d spent some time thinking about what could fit… “LOVE YA JAMILA” or “HAPPY DAY WE <3>
This is a no-brainer in the States, but had me stumped for a while, here…until Fatima told me that she had one small vial of food coloring. Green. Humdullah! So while I finished putting a white “base coat” across the tops of our cupcakes, Fatima put some icing into a smaller bowl, added a few precious drops of food coloring, and blended it up.

And then came the final hurdle: how do you decorate cakes without decorator bags and plastic tips? I’m spoiled in the States, because my mom has decorated thousands of cakes and has every imaginable piece of equipment. I have since been told that I could have just taken a ziplock baggie and cut off a corner. That would have been…smarter.

I didn’t think of that, though. I’d scoured souq for some plastic-like material from which to make decorator bags, and to no avail. I racked my brain for water-tight material with a big end and small tip…and thought of our surgical gloves. Lovingly issued by the Peace Corps Medical Officer in our well-stocked Medical Kit, a pristine set of surgical gloves was still sealed in its ziplock baggie. (Yes, this means I had a ziplock bag Right There. And it still didn’t occur to me that it would make a fully functional cake decorating bag. Sigh.)

So I rinsed out the gloves – ours aren’t not lined with that dusty stuff like some gloves are, but I wanted to try to clear out the rubbery taste – and then snipped a tiny hole in the end of one finger with the tiny scissors on Fatima’s Swiss Army knife. I rolled the edges of the glove down, filled my chosen finger (and part of the hand section) with green frosting, then pulled the edges back up and squeezed. Some water had lingered in the glove after the rinsing process, so the first thing that spurted out was water. Once that had cleared out of the way, the hole clogged up – it wasn’t big enough to let out frosting. So I widened the hole a tiny bit more with the Swiss Army scissors, and squeezed again. This time, a pale green, watery goo oozed outwards. I kept up the pressure, though, and was soon rewarded with a trickle of green icing. I claimed triumph and brought my surgical mitt over to the first cupcake.
Fatima was a step behind, following my example with the other glove. Not having a cake-decorating fiend for a Mom, she was somewhat less experienced in the fine art of icing cupcakes, let alone doing it with medical supplies.
Soon we were both scripting our message, being careful not to overlap. (“OK, you’ve got D-A-Y? I’ll do BIRTH.” “I did the T-H, too. You’re doing her name? OK, I’ll do HAPPY.” “I finished her name. You still need the Y in HAPPY?”) We finished minutes before she arrived (several hours ahead of schedule – thank goodness she texted us to let us know she was en route!), arranged the cupcakes on oven tray (the only tray big enough to fit all the words – and BIRTHDAY still had to be staggered a bit), and cleaned up the kitchen. Tada!

August 9, 2008 Recipe 7: Sfa

Sharia noodles (vermicelli spaghetti, broken into 1” – 2” segments)
Vegetable oil (zit)
Cinnamon (qrfa)
Sugar (sukkar/samida)

Boil water in the bottom pan of a couscous set (or vegetable steamer).

While the water is coming to a boil, toss together the (dry) noodles and oil. This involves pouring the oil over the mountain of noodles and working it through, with your hands, until the noodles are all well coated. Then transfer the noodles into the top pan of the couscous set (or the top of the double boiler).

Let the noodles steam for several hours.

When well cooked, arrange on plate with cinnamon and sugar. You can mound the cinnamon and sugar in the middle or arrange it decoratively over the pasta, as you choose.

This was served as the main course for lunch today, even though it seemed more like a dessert. (Although, come to think of it, it probably has *less* sugar and cinnamon than the sweet potato casserole that I love at Thanksgiving, and that’s considered a vegetable…) I’d probably serve it as a side dish.

August 8, 2008 Recipe 6: Lmsmn (a lot like naan)

Lmsmn is the Arabic name for this bread. In Tamazight, it's aghrom aghsis. And it tastes a lot like naan, the Indian bread I love (and miss!), although I've never baked that and don't know how the recipes compare.

2 T yeast (tamtont)
2 C flour (ourH)
½ C cornmeal (smida)
~2 C ?? water (aman) (Even more tentative than usual, b/c Ama just pours it in a splash at a time, as needed.)
½ C sugar (sanida)
½ T vegetable/corn oil (zit)

Sift together flours. Combine yeast with a tablespoon or two of water. When it’s a cloudy liquid, add combined flours. Knead, adding a small amount at a time, until you’ve achieved the desired texture (a wet dough, similar to biscuit dough). Combine sugar with water a few tablespoons of water. Knead the sugar-water mixture into the dough until evenly distributed.

Once dough is well combined and at the right texture, shape into a patty ~2” tall and ~8” diameter. Pat oil over the top.

Let rise.

Coat your hands and your work surface in oil. Pull off a ball of dough approximately the size of a baseball. Press it into a flat round, about the size of a medium pizza. Toss it into a large frying pan over medium flames.

The top should puff up a bit, looking almost foamy. After two-three minutes, flip it over. Both sides should be lightly browned.

Pull off another baseball-sized chunk of dough and repeat.

Makes ~6 loaves.

August 7, 2008 Recipe 5: Harsha (Moroccan cornbread)

3 C cornmeal (smida)
½ C vegetable oil (zit)
1 packet baking powder
1 egg (taglayt)
½ C sugar (sanida)

Combine all ingredients. When well mixed, pat into pan. Scatter another handful of cornmeal across the top. Cook on upper level of oven until done.

August 7, 2008 Surprise guest

After lunch, Ama told me that we’re going to be getting a visit from Neddia this afternoon. It took her a *lot* of tries to make me understand this. Part of the problem was that I thought she was saying we’d be going to a Neddy, which is a women’s center and/or nursery school. (I thought maybe we were signing Little Sis up for kindergarten.) When I finally understood that someone was coming over to our house, Ama tried to explain the rest. This was complicated mostly by the fact that I had no context for what she was talking about. Apparently, when I was in SouqTown, I ran into someone who I’d met at my uncle’s (3mti’s) house.

I do remember chatting with a woman on the street; I didn’t recognize her, but I did recognize her kid (that’s me – when I’m in a crowded room, I’m more likely to play with the little dudes than make conversation with the grownups), plus she knew my name, so I accepted her assertion that we knew each other. I remember making chitchat, but I don’t remember inviting her over…which apparently I did.

So she’ll be here this afternoon for kaskrut (5pm teatime), and I have no idea how long she’ll be staying. Ama used the word “hotel” repeatedly, but I don’t know whether she was saying that I’d talked with the woman on the street in front of the hotel in SouqTown – which is true, if it’s the woman I’m remembering – or that she’s staying in a hotel here in Berberville, in which case Ama will almost certainly invite her to spend the night here.

Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that I’d made plans with another Volunteer for this evening. But I texted my friend, explained what happened, and she’s being very understanding. Apparently, this kind of doublebooking isn’t uncommon, and she understands that I’ll need to put Moroccan hospitality above American socialization.

August 7, 2008 Recipe 4: Miskota

½ C sugar (sanida)
½ C milk (l-hleeb)
½ C vegetable oil (zit)
4 eggs (tiglay)
2 packets baking powder
2 C flour (ourH)

Combine wet ingredients, then add flour in small amounts until you reach the desired texture (which is the same as for any cake mix cake). Mix together until well blended. Pour into greased and floured pan. Cook on upper level of oven until done.

August 6, 2008 Biking to the Lake

I think I’ve ridden a bike about five times in the past 15 years. And then today, I biked up to the lake and back (about 3 miles each way). I’ve been thinking about doing it for three months – the bike has been sitting and waiting for me – but it took an invitation from “Hannan”, the Volunteer a few towns over, to force me to dust off the bike and take her out for a spin.

It’s uphill most of the way to the lake, but not steep. It’s uphill enough to be a serious workout, but not enough to make me get off and walk my bike. OK, there was one bit where I was tempted to, but then I saw a bunch of little boys walking *their* bikes, and my inner competitor pushed me to zip past them. Also, because the path goes over rolling hills, there are a few small downhills and level places where you can catch a breather and coast for a few seconds.

I discovered that you really *don’t* forget how to ride a bike, just like the expression says. I also remembered that I never really figured out the fine art of shifting gears. On this snazzy Peace Corps-supplied mountain bike, the gears are a lot more straightforward than on my old tenspeed, but it’s still not entirely intuitive. On my old tenspeed, I pretty much let the “big gear” rust into the up position, meaning that I was always in gears 6 – 10 (I think).

This one has a left “big gear” with a 1, 2, and 3, and the right “little gear” has 1-7. I assumed that this meant it had 21 possible combinations, from 1-1 (the least friction, for climbing monster hills), up to 3-7 (for coasting down mountains). But 3-1 feels easier than 2-7…or is that just because to get there, I shift up from 2-7 to 3-7 and then march the right gears down, so by the time I’m down at 3-1, it just *feels* easy? I don’t know. Maybe there’s a “biking for dummies” on wikipedia.

Anyway, after about 20 minutes of serious riding (as opposed to an hour of steady walking), I crested a hill and saw my beautiful lake. A black butterfly was lifting off some flowers in front of me; the shrubs have turned yellow (although I don’t know if this means midsummer or autumn…winter is coming, but I don’t know how soon); the lake was Caribbean-blue in the midday sun; the mountains were their usual overturned, arcuate, pink-brown-and-gold resplendent selves.

I was tired and winded enough to be delighted to get off my bike at the lake, but not enough to regret doing it. In fact, I’m looking forward to doing it again. Maybe tomorrow. :)

After wading through the crisp water for half an hour or so, we climbed back onto our bikes and headed down to town. *That* was *awesome*.

Biking downhill is like flying. (In all the ways that airplane rides really aren’t.)

The hills were steep enough that I barely needed to pedal on the return trip, but not so steep that I ever needed to use my breaks (except when we had to maneuver around some donkeys, and then for the hard left – on loose dirt – half a block from my apartment). So I just cruised down the hills, feeling like a bird on a thermal. The wind was rushing past my face, whistling in my ears, making tears stream from my eyes…and all with virtually no effort from me.

Biking uphill is one of the most straightforward examples of “work hard and enjoy the benefits” that I can think of. Climb, climb, climb, climb, and wheeeee!!!! :D

August 5, 2008 Pictures of loved ones

I brought with me a scrapbook and my laptop, both filled with pictures of family and friends. The scrapbook was compiled by a family friend who’s been like a grandmother to me, and includes dozens of pictures of me and my sister from our infancy onwards. My laptop has pictures taken by me and others, mostly showing my friends.

My host family has loved looking through both sets of pictures. They can always recognize me, whatever the angle or the hair style/color (both of which have changed repeatedly, especially during college), and they’re getting good at recognizing my family members, too.

Just now, I was showing Ama the set that I’ve pulled out as friends-and-family highlights, and she kept asking, “Is this one going to come visit you?” “Is that one going to come to Morocco?” All I could answer was, “I hope so,” and “Inshallah.”

Many of you have expressed interest in coming to visit me…I hope you’ll do it. I miss you guys. It’s not usually a painful, active longing (though I’ve had a few moments of that), but just a low-level, background, white-noise kind of hope. And now Ama is adding her invitation to mine. She wants to meet you guys, too. (Plus, she’s the best cook in Morocco – in my opinion and that of the tour groups who have come through our house, all of whom have commented, even out of her hearing, that her food is better than any they’ve had, in restaurants or homestays, in the country – so you’ve *got* to try her food.)

Fall and winter are the best times to visit Morocco, since so much of it is in or near desert. Nobody wants to ride a camel in 140* heat…but in the 80* winter afternoons, it’s lots of fun. :) Also, Morocco’s mountains have wintersports, like skiing and snowshoeing.

So come! Be welcome! Marhaba bikum! :)

August 4, 2008 Zri-ing the dentist

Here, folks often use the word “pass”, zri, to mean “go”. Like, when people ask me if I went to SouqTown, they’ll often say, “Is tzrit lmdint?” (“Did you pass the city?”) Any short trip can be described as “passing” the destination, whether it’s “passing” a friend in another town or “passing” the souq to get some vegetables.

Zri onomatopoetically captures fast movement, too…it sounds zippy and zingy, rhymes with “Whee!”, and has a rolled r in the middle, like a motorboat engine. Zzzzrrrrrriiiiiiii.

Today’s visit to the dentist is accurately described by the word zri. I was in and out of the dentist’s office in twenty minutes flat, including the time I spent waiting in the reception area. I’ve never had such a speedy dental visit.

When I told my PCV friends about the trip, including my misgivings – can you really get a thorough cleaning and checkup in less than 15 minutes?? – one pointed out that since the dentist himself performs the cleaning, it’s actually far more efficient, and not necessarily less effective, than American dentist offices. In my experience with American dentistry, I’m used to a cleaning by a dental hygienist, a medium-length wait for the dentist himself, and then a quick pop-in from the DMD.

In America, the dentist zri-s past the patient…in Morocco, the patient zri-s the dentist.


August 1, 2008 Conversational snapshots

During lunch, a couscous feast with several visitors:

Baba’s rattling off a paragraph, directed at me. At one point he holds up six fingers, but I don’t hear him saying “six”, just something that sounds like the word for “month”, and he uses the verb “fill” repeatedly. His tone of voice makes it clear that he wants me to agree with whatever he’s saying, and he’s never once tried to trap me into agreeing with something inappropriate, so when he wraps up his paragraph with, “Right, Kawtar?” I cheerfully agree, “Eyyah.” Usually, that’s all people really want from conversation. But he actually wants me to have understood. “Tsntt?” he presses. (You know this?) “Oho, ur sngh,” I admit. (No, I don’t know.) He gives a half-laugh, saying, “You said ‘Yeah’, so I thought you understood. OK.” (Yeah, I understood every word of *that*, but missed his long explanation.) He launches into it again. He’s speaking more slowly, but all I’m catching is i3mmr (fill), ixsayam (you have to) and asid (which means either stomach or electricity, and I always have to stop and think for a while before I remember which – the other one is adis). His hands are moving in slow circles, implying something repeated, and he’s pointing very explicitly, to a particular place across town. I take a stab. “You mean the gas station?” There’s an almost-completed gas station outside of BerberVille. It’s exciting for our little town, and I’m sure is a common topic of conversation over couscous, but I’m not sure why he’d be going to so much effort to tell me about filling up a gas tank, especially in front of strangers.

He sighs. He’s not irritated, yet, but he’s becoming frustrated. “Fill with what?” I ask. Ama tries.

Ama: Tsnt l-kart n asid? Ghorm l-kart n Zahra? You know the electricity card? The one you got from Zahra?
Me: Eyyah.
Ama: Do you know that you have to fill it up every six months? You have to put at least a little bit of money on it every six months, or else they cut off your power?
Me: Oh, yeah, Zahra had a problem with that; she had money on her card, but waited more than six months, so there was a big problem and she had to go to Springfield to fix it.
Ama: Right. (throws triumphant glance towards Baba)
Me: But she put money on it in Month 3 [March], so I won’t have a problem before Month 9 [September].
Ama: OK, good. Now eat more fruit.

The visiting men murmured to each other while I was speaking. All I caught was “Hey, she does know some Tamazight”, but they said more; I’m not sure if they were discussing why I understood Ama better than Baba, or the quality of my accent, or just marveling at a tarumit speaking Berber, but I admit that I was proud I was able to string a couple sentences together in front of strangers. Of course, after two months in homestay, I should be able to string whole paragraphs together, but I’m still celebrating the tiny victories.

After lunch:
Ama: Mani tishirratin? Where are the girls?
Me: Ur sngh. I don’t know.
Ama: [Says their names] Little Sis, Little Cuz
Me, laughing: Eyyah, snghtn, walayni, ur sngh manis dant. Yeah, I know them, but I don’t know where they went.

I’m not sure whether to be indignant that she thought I didn’t know the word girls, or grateful that she was patient enough to explain what she meant.

July 31, 2008 The Rumors of My Love Life are Greatly Exaggerated…

The last time I stayed in SouqTown, I ran into some friends of my little brothers at our hotel. I chatted with them for a few minutes in the hallway outside the bathroom, but slipped away when their dad came over, since I was in a tank top (dressed for bed), which is Hshuma. (I had my towel wrapped around me, since I had been on my way back to my room from the shower, but still.)

The next morning, the boys and their dad walked past the open door to my room, and one of the little guys recognized me and called out my name. The dad didn’t break pace, but I saw his head turning as he passed the door.

I cringed inwardly, because I realized that he’d see the PCV in the next bed over…who was a guy. The hotel that PCVs always patronize has big dorm-style rooms with three or four beds in them. The buhotels always charge us 30DH apiece, whether we’re in a room alone or if all the beds are filled. They just pack the Volunteers in, unless there’s more than four, in which case we get another room. Of course, if we ever asked for a separate room, they’d gladly give us one – I don’t mean to imply anything ungenerous. Both of the two buhotels are kind, thoughtful men who have done us countless favors and services over the years. In fact, asking the buhotel if there’s already a Volunteer in the hotel is the easiest way to find out if you’re alone in the city or if you’ll have company for dinner. :)

For the most part, we pack ourselves in like sardines, mostly because it’s more fun to hang out with other PCVs than to rattle around in a hotel room alone.

Prior to this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me to mind that the rooms are nearly always coed. I had coed dorms in college and have had many guy roommates over the years (I’ve had almost 50 roommates altogether, and at least a dozen have been men), so I really didn’t give a second thought to our sleeping arrangements… Until I realized that someone from BerberVille would have seen me sharing a room with a man.


I told my friends what had happened – there were actually 3 other PCVs in the room at the time, but the other two were at an angle where they wouldn’t have been seen from the hallway – and they all assured me that no one would think anything of it. We were in separate beds, several feet apart, and besides, no one would ever report back in BerbervVille what they’d seen in SouqTown. (What happens at Souq stays at Souq.)

I’m not so sure.

Especially because now my host family has taken to teasing me about the boyfriend I must have in SouqTown. Why else would I go out there so often? I’ve sworn up and down that I don’t have a man (ur ghori aryez) – doesn’t work. I’ve explained that I’ve always been a good girl (du nishan) – makes no difference. I’ve explained that my tutor and my work counterpart both live there – no use. Also, just in case the story of the hotel room did get back to my family, I explained to Ama and Xalti how the SouqTown Hotel housing works. They both thought that coed rooms are a bad idea, but were appeased at the knowledge that when there are more than 4 of us, we do split into two rooms, and usually by gender. I said (repeatedly) that we all sleep – just sleep – not “sleep together”. (Thank goodness our language training covered that euphemism, which is pretty much identical in Tam as in English.)

Ama and Xalti still didn’t let up on teasing me about having an asmun – a boyfriend – in SouqTown. [You know what just occurred to me? They’re right. I do have an asmun who I go see. Lots of them. Asmun just means male friend. It’s just a cultural interpretation that makes male friend = boyfriend. Oh, well.] I tried a different line of defense: I told them that if I get pregnant, Peace Corps will fire me and send me back to America. “That would be a big problem. I don’t want a problem. So I don’t want a man. If I don’t have a man, I won’t have a problem. Understand?” My language is limited, but I can make myself clear. And they did understand.

Later that day, all of the girls & women of the household were hanging out in my room, admiring the skirts in my latest care package from Mom. Xalti hadn’t noticed my stuffed hippo before, and I thought of something. I’d told the little girls when they first played with him that he was my asmun (I do sleep with him, after all), and they’d gotten a big laugh out of it. I now told Ama and Xalti that he’s my asmun. “See? No problem at all.” I gave him a big squeezy hug (he’s terribly huggable, which is why he’s shared my bed since I was 10), then a kiss, and then I handed him to Ama so that she could hug him.

She made a big show of looking between his fuzzy back legs. (Don’t worry, he’s not anatomically correct.) “OK, no problem at all,” she agreed, handing him back to me with a big twinkle in her eye. I buried my blushing face in my hands and laughed. I’ve always blushed easily, which is helpful here when I never know if I’m supposed to be shocked or entertained by naughty jokes; I figure I can’t go wrong by making a show of how Hshuma they seem to me to be.

I’m due to go back to SouqTown in a couple days, for a dentist appointment. (The appointment is actually in Springfield, but I have to go through SouqTown to get there.) We’ll see if the jokes start back up…

July 31, 2008 TaHaruyit & aHrandir (n Ait YaHta)

I thought that aHrandir meant cape, but I was only partially right. It means the black and white striped capes, whose specific design tells you what tribe its owner belongs to. Ama is Ait Brahimi (the Tribe of Brahim, aka Benjamin), even though she lives in an area known as Ait Hadidu (the Tribe of Hadida – don’t know if it has a Judeo-Christian equivalent). Ait Hadidu is actually a collective term for several tribes in the area, including Ait Brahimi and Ait YaHta (the Tribe of YaHta, aka John).

Last night she showed me the gorgeous cape that MaHallu had worn. I called it an aHrandir, and that’s when Ama explained the difference, and showed me her Ait YaHta aHrandir. It must belong to Baba’s side of the family, who are Ait YaHta. MaHallu’s cape, which is snowy white with stripes of fringe and gorgeous embroidery (known as zuaq, which can also be translated as “multi-colored”), is a taHaruyit.

Ama is going to sell MaHallu’s taHaruyit to a Dutch friend. We measured it last night, so that Ama could tell her the dimensions: 2.06m x 1.23m. That doesn’t sound so big, but it’s about 30 square feet, which sounds more impressive. Up close, it’s enormous, bigger than a beach towel, and breathtakingly beautiful. I took pictures since I won’t get to see the original any more....but of course, I forgot to bring the pix with me to SouqTown, so y'all will have to wait a bit to see it. :)

July 31, 2008 Peeling Poplars

Did you know that bark peels right off trees? I mean *right off*. Get a piece started, and you can strip a tree naked.

Maybe not all trees. But definitely poplars. I spent all morning peeling the bark off of poplars – sfsaf – and was stunned at how easy it was. Sure, it takes work (and did a number on my fingernails, which I was using in conjunction with an adz), but I had never dreamed that a tree would so readily surrender its protection.

Also, it was fascinating to see how many of the scars, burrs, knots, etc, visible on the outside of the tree, are only bark-deep. Once you strip away the outer layers, the core of the tree is clean and smooth. I had plenty of time, peeling away with my nails and adz, to think about this as a metaphor. How much time and emotional/mental effort do we lavish on thickening our skin, toughening up, protecting ourselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? And how little of that is actually needed? The stripped poplar trunks – most well over 20 feet long – will serve as roof beams in the hotel that Baba is building, up by the lake. But it’s the naked beams that Baba needs for construction, not the gnarled, toughened tree trunks. How much of our protective shells actually get in the way of our usefulness? How much more could we accomplish if we left ourselves open and vulnerable? Also, the ease with which even the toughest knots gave way to smooth wood gave me hope that human hearts are as easily uncovered. The wood seemed to want to be laid bare, to show its pure, whole, useful self to the world…

July 29, 2008 Environmental Festival

The President had asked us to show up by 8:30, so the PCVs who were helping out agreed to meet for breakfast at 7:30. (Breakfast is important. It’s also a chance to patronize the best patisserie in Morocco – the best I’ve yet seen, anyway.)

Some of us got to the mural wall by 8:30; others trickled in over the next hour. The President was there, though, and glad to see us. He had set up a huge tent, and we set about getting other things together: tables and chairs inside, etc. A woman brought us tea and cake (miskota), which made me rue the juice and pastry I’d downed half an hour earlier. But I still managed to do right by the excellent miskota.

The kids showed up a while later, and The President explained what they were to do. About 75 picture frames had been painted on the wall, each about 1 m x 1.5 m, and the kids got to paint individual murals within them. There were also some larger frames, maybe 2 m x 1.5 m, which were to be painted by some professional artists and the PCVs. (Two of the PCVs have serious artistic ability – the rest of us agreed to paint in whatever they outlined.)

The kids showed up in steadily increasing numbers. Around noon, I walked the length of the wall – probably about two city blocks – doing a headcount. People were walking around, and I probably counted a few passersby by mistake, but my highly unscientific snapshot headcount came up with 142 people: 70 boys, 14 men, 55 girls, and 13 women. I had expected to have about 80% boys, so the fact that it was under 50% delighted me.

A total of 240 kids signed the Association’s list saying that they had come, so apparently a lot had already left when I did my headcount. Given how hot it was, I'm not surprised that some people didn't stick around that long; under the tent, it was a cool and breezy 98 degrees (yes, like the band) but out in the sun, we clocked a solid 109. Yowza.

That night, there was a party, complete with DJ, hip-hop stars, traditional musicians, Qur’an reading, and the awarding of prizes to the boys with the best murals. (Yes, all boys.) Interspersed with all these events was The President, talking about environmental protection and what the people of SouqTown can do. I counted heads at the party, and got around 300. (They were moving too much to have a precise number, but it was close to that.) Also, tons of them were women, who were scarce at the mural painting.

I’m thrilled that there was such great turnout for an “Environmental Festival”. I don’t know what the population of SouqTown is, but it’s probably around 5000, meaning that several percent of everyone in town was involved, either in painting a mural or in attending the party. :D

July 27, 2008 Trip to MonkTown

I’d hoped to be helping out with Environment Week, but the President made it clear that he didn’t want my help today, so I took a trip up to “MonkTown”, a medium-sized city north of SouqTown that is the home to a monastery. It’s also the site of a large Souq, so I was able to buy a few things that are hard to find, like soy sauce and Pringles. (I even found rice vermicelli! I don’t even know how to cook it, but I was so excited to see it that I bought some!) I met two PCVs who live and work near MonkTown, both of whom I’d met before, briefly, but who I hadn’t spent a lot of time with.

One works with a co-op; we went to their shop, where I bought a certain something that one of you will be getting soon. :) I asked the Volunteer (“Brahim”) what would be a fair price for it, since I expected to have to haggle. He answered, “You won’t need to bargain; she’ll give you a fair price. And besides, she speaks English.” I looked up at the young woman who I’d thought was just a shopgirl (turns out she’s the President of the Co-op), smiled apologetically, and told her how beautiful I thought her products were.

I dithered for a long time, wanting to pick out the *best* of the beautiful products before me, and finally settled on one. Then I asked her to hold onto it, since my PCV friends and I were going to walk up to the monastery, which is a good 10 minutes away.

When we got there, no one responded to our knock. I wondered if we’d caught them at a prayer time or nap time or in some other condition which precluded answering the door. A little girl was passing by; we asked her how to get in. She looked at us like we’d asked her if the sky was blue. After realizing that we weren’t pulling her leg, we really were that clueless, she walked up to the small box next to the large doors and pushed the buzzer. We Volunteers exchanged sheepish looks, and were soon let in. We were greeted by a young novice who spoke some French, who went off to find the English-speaking monk for us.

While he was away, LaHcen showed us into a small room that had a memorial to seven martyrs, members of this order who had been abducted, held, and eventually killed. That had happened in Algeria; the surviving two brothers had come to Morocco to re-establish their order. The English-speaking monk found us in there, and told us more details of their story. He also gave us copies of a statement written by one of the martyred brothers. He’d anticipated his death, and had written a truly beautiful statement of love and forgiveness for his captors/killers.

While we were talking to him, a lay sister of the monastery came by, and told us (at the Brother’s urging) of her conversion experience, and how it was that she came to be a lay sister of their order. I teared up repeatedly during her story; maybe someday I’ll record it for all of you. The Brother then took us out to see the garden and guesthouse of the monastery; he invited us to come and stay anytime we felt the need for contemplation or reflection. LaHcen said that he had come last Christmas – I guess he wanted to share the holiday with some of the only other Christians in the country – and had a wonderful, peaceful holiday with the brothers.

As we were leaving, the Brother asked us if we were Catholic; each of the three of us answered no, but Christian nonetheless. He eagerly reassured us that we were still welcome at the guesthouse anytime, and that he looked forward to seeing us again.

I found myself remembering how I’d felt as a child, watching the Sound of Music for the first time, wondering why you had to be Catholic in order to be a nun. A life of prayer and reflection sounds pretty wonderful, really, but not if I have to become Catholic first.

I look forward to going back. I might go with Fatima, my PCV sitemate, who actually is Catholic, and who has been looking forward to her first opportunity to attend Mass in 10 months. :)

July 25, 2008 Meet the President

Today I had a meeting with the president of one of the associations (NGOs) of SouqTown. He’s energetic, active, and full of ideas for his city. I admit, I’m a little jealous of the PCV who works with him regularly, “LaHcen”.

But this afternoon I got to take advantage of their excellent working relationship and meet with them (and with visiting PCV “Tariq”, a buddy from stage) to discuss the planned Environmental Week activities for SouqTown.

Members of the association have already been working to clear the trash from the souq. They’ve shoveled mountains of refuse into dump trucks that they’ve hired to carry it to a dump near Springfield. Theoretically, SouqTown has regular trash pickup and transportation to the dump, but it doesn’t always materialize. Also, only some of the dumpsters in town get emptied into the trash trucks…the one near the river, which is the one I usually use*, gets periodically burned. (This is all news to me.)

In addition to shoveling garbage, the men of this association have been cleaning and patching a big wall along the edge of town. Before, this area was used by SouqTowners as a de facto dump, and was full of trash and assorted nastiness. Now, it’s cleared out, and will soon be the site of an Environmental Festival.

It’s all very exciting.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s festival, members of the association will be going around SouqTown, explaining to people about the pros and cons of different waste management ideas (eg dropping trash in the streets = bad, carrying it to the dumpster that gets burned = OK, carrying it to souq and leaving it in the dumpster that will end up in a landfill = awesome). They’ve also hired some painters who will prepare the big wall for Tuesday’s mural-painting extravaganza…

* Since BerberVille’s plan for waste management is to set it on fire, and since burning plastic = releasing various neurotoxins and carcinogenic chemicals, I pack out my trash to SouqTown. I’d thought that all the dumpsters ended up in a landfill…turns out I was wrong. From now on, I’ll be packing my trash out from BerberVille to the dumpster by the souq. It’s a longer walk through the streets of SouqTown, but it’s worth it to know that I’m not poisoning the air.

July 23-24, 2008 L-grup muadrn

BerberVille is being visited by some American high school students. They’re here as part of a month-long trip through Morocco. I don’t know why more groups don’t stop here – as the coolest spot in the country, it’s really the only part of Morocco that makes sense to visit in July. The kids’ previous stop was in the Sahara. Camel riding = fun. Camel riding in 140* beating sun = mostly miserable.

But now they’re here. BerberVille, brace yourself…

I’ve gotten to chat with several of the students, and have been largely impressed with them. They’re bright, eager, and genuinely interested in the culture of Morocco.

I’m less impressed with the organization that brought them here. It’s built on a constructivist model, which is educational jargon meaning that the students are responsible for “creating their own experience,” ie nothing but a sketchy itinerary is prepared in advance; everything else is determined by the collective will of 12 high school juniors and seniors. In other words, whatever they choose is what happens.

Constructivist learning* works fantastically well in many circumstances; the school where I spent my final year teaching was a big believer in it, and led to some amazing projects from the students. For that matter, my Peace Corps service is essentially constructivist: I’m finding the intersection of my skills with the needs of my community and creating projects where I can make a difference. However, international travel is not a good place to let teenagers grope their own way forwards. There are just too many logistical details that need to be considered in order to have a successful venture. Because those logistics are left to the whims of high schoolers, things get … overlooked.

My family has taken to calling this group l-grup muadrn, which means “The group of crazy people.”

For example: Mountain guides. The group leaders had talked to Baba about taking them out to meet some nomads in the mountains around Berberville. He was willing – as a certified guide, he not only speaks half a dozen languages and has memorized every trail within a 30 mile radius, he also keeps tabs on the nomad population as well as migrating birds and wildlife. But when l-grup muadrn got here, the students talked to several other people claiming to be guides, and ended up choosing a different person to lead them on their expedition. The man they chose is not a certified guide, doesn’t know where the nomads are, and really doesn’t know the mountain all that well. He promised to help the students “search for” the nomads; I don’t know how their search turned out, led as they were by an unskilled and possibly incompetent guide, but I hope everyone got back safe.

Another example: Lodgings. “Fatima”, my fellow BerberVille PCV, had made reservations for l-grup muadrn at a hotel in town. There are several hotels, and this is the cheaper of the two nicer ones, so Peace Corps Volunteers have used it on a number of occasions, both to house visiting family members and for work-related reasons. Over the years, PCVs have built up a relationship with the buhotel, the owner/manager. Fatima had to lean heavily on that relationship, because every time we’ve heard from l-grup muadrn in the past month, they’ve changed what they wanted. First they wanted hotel rooms. Then they wanted to rent out the big salon and all sleep in that shared space. So Fatima apologized profusely for the confusion and change in plans, and got the buhotel to agree to rent out the salon, even though it’s not generally available. Then they wanted to shift the reservation by a night, because they’d been delayed in their travel by rampant illness. So Fatima goes back to the hotel, apologizes again, and changes the reservation. Then they arrive in town…and choose a different hotel. Where they’re in hotel rooms, not a salon. So Fatima has to apologize profusely to the buhotel one last time, for canceling the reservation altogether, and hope that he doesn’t bear a grudge.

Oh, and before they chose their hotel, they had to evaluate all the options, which meant that not only did they go to every hotel in town and ask for room prices, they also knocked on random doors and asked housewives how much they would charge to have a group of Americans sleep on their floor.

Maybe that works in bigger cities, but here in the bled, it’s utterly unacceptable. The law of hospitality decrees that shelter and food be provided to anyone who asks – but you don’t charge for it, except in unusual circumstances, and you virtually always know the person who is asking for it. People *still* talk about the Volunteer from five or six years ago who went around, knocking on doors and introducing herself to families in town. And she lived here.

And don’t even get me started on the way they treated the lovely woman who had agreed to make them lunch in her home. But I will say that they ended up paying her barely 2/3 of the agreed-upon price, after she’d gone so far above and beyond what they’d expected that I’d thought they’d give her a bonus.

After talking with the kids, I’m convinced that they don’t have any idea how much their whim-driven choices are affecting the people they meet. They think that they are “travelers”, not “tourists”, because they’re savoring the “experience” and not just checking items off of a must-see list.

But after witnessing the fallout from their visit, on transit drivers, hotel owners, shop keepers, mountain guides, restaurant owners, co-op members, and housewives, I’ve developed a new definition for “tourist”: someone who feels entitled to have their every whim fulfilled by foreign nationals. Tourists feel entitled. Travelers respect the people and cultures they encounter.

I don’t blame the students. They made mistakes out of ignorance. I’ve certainly made my share of those here, too. But I do blame the group leaders (one Moroccan, one former Peace Corps Volunteer, and one mountaineer). They should know better. Letting kids blunder around and learn from their mistakes is one thing; letting young people inconvenience and offend dozens of strangers is quite another.

* The secret to successful constructivist learning is Building Background Knowledge. When I was teaching, I spent a lot of time learning how to Build the Background Knowledge of my students so that they were set up to succeed in their self-directed learning. These poor high school students aren’t given enough Background Knowledge to be able to succeed at planning their trip. And they also don’t know how to speak the languages of Morocco, so I can’t imagine how they’re supposed to learn what they need to, here. (A few had studied Classical Arabic in the US, but that only works with highly educated people, of which there are very few out here in the bled.) Among other things, the kids were tasked with arranging transportation between BerberVille and The Big Apple. When I heard that, I took pity on them and spelled out what they need to do. Did I cheat and “give them” the answers they were supposed to construct? Yeah, probably. But there are four different legs to the journey between here and there, and there’s no directory anywhere that publishes the list of waystations. There’s not even a transportation building here in BerberVille where they could expect to find someone who would know. What were they supposed to do, wander around town hoping that they’d bump into someone who knew how to get to The Big Apple and could explain it to them in language they could understand?? I’d learned the route from PCVs who had been here longer, and I shared the fruits of my learning with the kids. I also told them how much they should expect to pay for each part of the trip, so they wouldn’t get ripped off by unscrupulous drivers. Another example: the kids had to choose what food – and how much – to get for a three day, two night hike. I’ve been living on my own for about a decade, and I still don’t know exactly how much I’ll eat in three days. I buy food and then buy more when I run out. How are these students supposed to know how many tomatoes, loaves of bread, etc to purchase for a group of hungry teenagers? Especially when they’ll be carrying it all on their backs? I’m hardly the most organized person around, but I still think that this group is dangerously unstructured.
Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps