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October 13, 2008 Tourist Tea Talk

I’d planned to go for a walk through town around teatime, as a bald-faced ploy to get invited in somewhere for tea. But I got caught up in what I was working on, and teatime slipped away from me. I thought about giving up and just staying in for the night, but convinced myself that at the *very* least, I should try to buy some apples or bananas. (Both figure largely in recipes I’m thinking of trying.)

So out I went, into the approaching twilight.

As I walked up Main Street, I got the usual number of “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, in the usual variety of languages (French, English, Tamaizight, and Arabic).

When I’m greeted by a child or a female, I always respond, and often pause to go through the full greeting ritual. (Peace be upon you! And upon you! Are you well? I’m well. Are you fine? I’m fine. Is everything fine? Everything’s fine. Praise be to God. Praise be to God. And you, are things well with you? Yes, things are well. Everything is well? Everything is well. Praise be to God. Praise be to God.) …or at least some substantive subset.

But when I’m greeted by a male between the ages of 15 and 50, if I’m not related to him, I usually give a one-word response without breaking stride, or just ignore it entirely.

I made an exception to that tonight, mostly because the guy in question, a middle-aged business owner, knew my name. He called out, “Kawtar! Come drink tea!” In the gathering gloom I mistook him for my host uncle, so I stopped. (It’s becoming more and more common that people I don’t know, know who I am.) When I recognized my mistake and started to head back for the fruit stand, he repeated the invitation, with a little more urgency. “Come in and drink tea!!” I reminded myself that I’d been hoping for a tea invitation, though I’d expected it to come from one of the dozen or so women in town who I’m related to. With no less urgency in his voice, he added, “Please, there are foreigners inside who speak English!” It occurred to me that this might be a face-saving way for him to ask for help to communicate with the tourists.

(Tangent: This isn’t the first time I’ve chatted up tourists. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, because I don’t want to be “The American Who Only Speaks To Foreigners”, but from time to time, it’s fun. For one thing, it’s *relaxing* to get to speak in my native language, and for another, it’s a wonderful opportunity to share what I’ve learned about Morocco. The third goal of the Peace Corps is that Volunteers will share with Americans back home what they’ve learned about the culture they live(d) in. That’s one of the reasons I keep this blog. The tourists I’ve met haven’t been Americans – they’ve been Dutch, German, Swiss, French, and now English – but I think that “Goal 3” can embrace them, too.)

So I entered his shop, for the very first time. It’s full of lovely jewelry and souvenirs, as well as two Caucasians who were sitting down and drinking tea. There were three Moroccans in the room as well, one of whom immediately pressed a teacup into my hand.

Having no idea of the nationality of these tourists, I decided to start with English. That’s what my host had suggested was their native language, although that’s nothing like failsafe. (I’ve encountered Dutch and German both described as “English”.) If that didn’t work, I could try another language I don’t know as well, but it couldn’t hurt to start from sure footing.

“Hello! Welcome to Morocco!”

The couple turned, and responded in English. Lhumdullah! Turns out they’re from England, somewhere down in the area around London (I forgot to ask, but that’s what it sounded like). They were involved in negotiations for some jewelry. I admitted that, since I’ve bought very few souvenirs since coming to Morocco, I really have no idea what constitutes a fair price. I’d’ve been happy to help them bargain if I could, but I was as ignorant as they were when it came to the value of enameled bracelets.

But I sat and talked with them for a while, sharing our experiences in Morocco, discussing local hiking routes (they were going out the next day), pros and cons of the different kinds of transportation available, etc. I learned that 40% of the Moroccan population is under the age of 14 (according to the Rough Guide guidebook, anyway); they learned how ownership of the fields works.

The shop owner and guide had a laptop up with photos from his expeditions to some popular Moroccan destinations (the deserts of Merzouga; the summits of Toubkal and Jbel Mgoun – the highest mountains in North Africa, and the second and third highest on the continent, after Kilimanjaro; Lakes Tislit and Isli; the tanneries of Fes; Place Jm3a al-Fna in Marrakech). He called our attention to some of them, then just let the slideshow run while we chatted. I was dazzled by the presence of Powerpoint, and found myself wondering if he had a website to advertise his guide services.

By the time we left, it was almost dark, and the fruit stands were closed. We went to a café for half an hour or so, then said goodnight. As I walked home from the café, I passed the shop where I’d met them. The owners, both the one who’d pulled me in off the street and the guide who I’d met inside, were both eager to talk. They introduced me to an Israeli tourist, whose English was actually weaker than my Tamazight, but who I was still able to help them engage in smalltalk with.

Then I headed to my favorite buHanoot (shopowner), to pick up some eggs for an omelet. The buHanoot next door said, “Hey, Kawtar, you speak English, right? Help me out here.” More Israeli tourists were hanging out there – apparently there’s a busload of them in town, filling up all of the hotel rooms in my little tourist-friendly village – and one of them had lived in America for about a year, so we chatted easily, with me occasionally translating for the curious buHanoots. The question that they’d originally wanted me to translate was where they could find couscous for dinner (answer: on a Monday night, nowhere; it’s a Friday dish in people’s homes, and a common lunch dish in restaurants, but because it takes hours to prepare, these guys were out of luck if they tried to just show up and request it). One of the two guys had heard of Peace Corps, but neither was familiar with it. I kind of fumbled my explanation of our government relationship – Peace Corps pretty much functions like a development organization NGO, but yes, we are technically part of the US Government…we’re not part of the State Department or any other department, but the head of PC reports directly to the President…no, I have no idea how often the President gets briefed on Peace Corps activities, though I doubt it’s “Every Sunday in the Oval Office”, as one of them suggested… Yeah, I should have handled that better. Oh, well.

Interesting note: All of the Israelis I met were men, as were all the shop owners – the English girl was the only other female outside at such an hour – making this the first time I've chatted up groups of men. My buHanoot friends were grateful to me for helping them answer the guys’ questions, and no one appeared to think it was particularly Hshuma of me to be out. Maybe I’ve absorbed too many of my shy host mother’s attitudes. There’s certainly a line I don’t want to cross, but maybe it’s further away than I’d realized…

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