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May 24, 2008 Settled into Berberville

Wednesday evening, all of Thursday, all of Friday, and now most of Saturday. That’s how long I’ve been a resident of this lovely Berber village. Sunday morning, I’ll be heading back to SouqTown for tutoring and paperwork.

Yesterday – Friday – the departing Volunteer, “Zahra”, and I walked up to a nearby lake. It’s about 5 K each way, and makes for a really nice walk. The lake itself is very beautiful; the water is crystal clear, which bodes well (no muddy water = no nearby erosion = no overgrazing). There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the lake itself shifted from Caribbean green to sapphire blue as the water got deeper. I’ve heard that some of the regional Volunteers have gone swimming here, but the water is still waaay too cold for that to sound appealing.

Like in my first village, the only large green areas here are the irrigated fields, the igran. Everything outside of the igran is mostly brown, with a few bramble-bushes. This area has some wildflowers, though, which my previous site lacked. I shot a few pictures yesterday, and will be taking more; one of my projects, according to my ~meeting on Wednesday morning, will be a comprehensive plant survey of the region.

By the way, while I sit here typing up notes from the past two weeks, my little sister (five years old and overflowing with the beauty, strength, and joy of Soul) is bouncing up and down on a ponj (big cushion thing) outside the open door to my room. She’s obviously doing it for my benefit, but that doesn’t stop me from laughing at her antics. She’s a gem – plus the only person in the house I get to cuddle with. (No babies here.) She talks very rarely, and I have no idea if she understands anything I say beyond the numbers. We play a lot of number games. She’ll start school next year, and I’m sure she’ll know her numbers up to 50 or so. We do a lot of count-the-fingers (which always segues into tickling), count the flowers, etc. :)

Update: She came over and sat next to me for a while, and I handed her my stuffed hippo to give her something more interesting to look at than letters magically appearing on a screen. Now she’s tossing him up and down and bouncing around the room. Have I mentioned that I love kids? (And don’t worry, my stuffed animal has been through harsher treatment than this before, without a mark to show for it. He’s a hardy little hippo.)

Oh, and I forgot to mention: there is virtually no shade anywhere along the walk from downtown to the lake, and I’d forgotten sunscreen before we headed out. I’ve been really conscientious about it thus far, but I was running late, and didn’t think about it until I was meeting Zahra. So…today, my nickname is “Matisha”. Which sounds pretty, but means “tomato”. Sigh. Live and learn, live and learn… :)

May 21, 2008 Culture Blips

Ito, my new friend riding next to me in the tranzit (and balancing precariously on a plastic stool, just like me), noticed the ring I wear on my right hand. It’s a silver band, which I wear mostly to discourage strange men from approaching me in the larger cities. I’ve decided not to claim I have a fiancé or husband back in the States, as some female Volunteers do, mostly because I don’t like the idea of lying to my family and friends for two years. But I have no problems with waving a shiny ring at strange men and saying, “Shame on you, I’m married!” (Hshuma, iwlgh!) I haven’t done it yet, but I keep it handy.

But I wanted to tell Ito the truth, as far as my limited language abilities would let me. I don’t know the equivalent phrase to “family friend”, so I had to go with “friend of my mother” or “friend of my father”. It was a mental coin toss, and I picked the latter, saying, “Iga kado sg tasmunt n banu.” It’s a present from a friend of my father.

She gave me a rather horrified look, and I hastily thought over what I’d just said. Yes, I’d conjugated the verb correctly. Yes, I’d remembered to conjugate “friend” correctly. (Because even nouns – and adjectives, for that matter – get conjugated in Tamazight.) Asmun is a male friend and tasmunt is a female friend. And that’s when I realized my mistake. There are no cross-gender friendships in Tamazight. Asmun translates more literally as “boyfriend” and tasmunt as “girlfriend”. So a guy can hang out with his boyfriends (we’d say “guy friends” in American vernacular) and a girl can hang out with her girlfriends, but if a boy has a tasmunt or a girl has an asmun, it means they’re dating. So I’d just told her that the ring was a gift from my dad’s girlfriend, aka his mistress.


I shook my head quickly as though I’d made a minor slip of the tongue, and said, “Tasmunt n manu.” Friend of my mother’s. She repeated it back, I repeated it to her…it took about three rounds before she was reassured that I’m not parading a token of parental infidelity. Sigh.

I’m not sure if I can count this conversation towards my goal to have at least two successful conversations in Tamazight every day… ;)

May 21, 2008 Day II as a volunteer

I’m writing en route from SouqTown to BerberVille. I’m currently the most interesting commodity around; better get used to that. Ito, the woman on my right, says she wants to go to America, but only if I come with her. How’s that for making friends quickly? :) The man on my left is dredging up high school French to try to make conversation. Is my accent really that bad, that they’d rather speak a language they barely know than try to understand my attempts at their language? Or is it just habit for folks in this friendly, tourist-heavy country to assume that all Westerners would rather speak French?

I got to the tranzit station half an hour early, which turns out not to be enough; the bus was already i3mr – full. There wasn’t anyone sitting on it yet, but everyone knows how to reserve a place: leave something sitting on your seat. So since all the seats were spoken for, with jackets, handbags, etc, I set down my shesh (long scarf) on a plastic stool. Hopefully, folks will get off soon, and free up some seats. Of course, there are about five people who are standing in the back; I’m guessing that they have dibs on available seats before I do.

But my pinched posture aside, it’s a beautiful ride. The mountains – aHli – are gorgeous. And everyone is nice. They probably still view me as an odd and possibly dangerous foreigner, but they’re perfectly nice. :)

This wonderously austere countryside is inspiring geological rhapsody # 17 or so. See, yesterday I saw differential deformation on the way into SouqTown. As I explained to my friend (who was either interested or faking it well – thanks!), the top layer had been battered but the lower layers were flat and even, like the pages of a book. It’s either an unconformity that’s been completely overturned or else a weak layer that deformed before its neighbors – but is strong enough to resist erosion, and is therefore the highest visible layer of the stack, aka the resistant layer. Hence the rhapsodizing: Bend, slide, surrender to pressure…but endure. If pushed, give…and be here after the pusher has rifted away across the sea. It reminds me of bamboo, the wonder-plant: it bends and sways, but it can resist thousands of pounds of torque without snapping.

Grateful for: the tranzit driver, who recognized me from my visit three weeks ago, and was delighted to see me again. His boisterous greetings instantly transformed me, in the eyes of everyone around, from an awkward tourist into one of the gang. Llayrhim iwalidin. (Blessings on his parents.)

…for the mountains. When they are folded, they roll and rise like puppies at play. When they’re not, their extreme lateral extension is suggestive of infinity.

We just drove through – oh, hey, there’s more, we’re not through them yet – a herd of grazing camels. (Herd? Flock? Bunch? Knobble?) Those placid, llama-faced tan or brown beasties always look so calm. Maybe it’s the heavy-lidded eyes.

… that the cyber had my thumb drive!! I’d lost it there three weeks ago. I went back the next morning, but the morning shift of the 24/7 business didn’t know whether or not the night shift had found it. I told them I’d be back in 3 weeks, but I didn’t hold out a lot of hope. But I was wrong to doubt! They found it, kept it for me, and now I have it back! :D

…and the journey continues. March 1st, I met a roomful of strangers. Yesterday, I said goodbye to dozens of friends. And now I’m heading to Berberville, where I get to implement the advice of D**, my almost neighbor (he and his wife are 4 days’ walk away): “Love them. Let them love you. Drink lots of tea. Let them trust you. And then you can find ways to work with them and help them.”

May 20, 2008 First full day as a Volunteer. Travelicious.

I haven’t blogged or journaled in days – almost a week, I think. And so much has been going on…if I were going to be alone in SouqTown tonight I’d write for hours, but I think there will be one or more PCVs – fellow PCVs!! – in town, so we’ll probably be hanging out.

What has been notable in the past week? Besides the obvious – passing the Language Proficiency exam, finishing training, swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer – there have been a few moments:

* the dlaH. Yes, our training city has been hot, hot, hot, but when I had my first bite of dlaH in almost a year, I knew it was summertime. Nothing tastes like summertime as much as crispy, juicy watermelon. I’d actually forgotten that watermelon wasn’t endemic to North America. If I remember right, I think it was brought over by enslaved Africans on the slave ships. So I’m in watermelon’s continent of origin. :D

Two nights after my first dlaH, I got more, but I had to gulp it down because I’d missed dinner – spent it in the cyber chatting with Dad, which was a fine use of time – and there was a show immediately after dinner, up on the roof of the hotel. The hotel owner – aka our host of the previous three months, off and on – had arranged a feast of tea, soda, and cookies up on the rooftop, along with a troupe of traditional musicians and dancers. So I snacked on watermelon (and a plate of fries, which I’d grabbed along with the dlaH on the way up to the roof) while I watched the dancing…and eventually participated in it. Of course. In the battle between shyness and dance-y feet, the feet always win out. :) I also got to chat with two Moroccans – one who’s Peace Corps staff, and whose grandparents lived in a village where this kind of music and dancing was common, and another who was one of the dancers. She was downright extatic to find a tarumit – foreigner – who spoke even a little of her language. And she loved the henna. :)

Wednesday night, my group took our beloved H** out for a goodbye dinner. It was over too quickly – much like Pre-Service Training itself! – but I’m glad we took the moment to show her, even in a tiny degree, how much we appreciated everything she did for us. She was our language instructor, our cultural facilitator, our go-between on everything we attempted to do in our village, and she made our lives better in a thousand – a million – tiny and huge ways. She said once that she has never had a Trainee who didn’t pass their language exam, and her record still holds true. (Believe it or not, all of our cohort – all 59 of us, counting Health and Environment Trainees – all passed our language requirement. Lhumdullah!) She was available to us for at least 18 hours a day, 7 days most weeks (even though she was supposed to get Sundays off), and never lost patience. Or if she did, she never let us see it. :) She’s the kind of teacher I always hoped to be.

Friday night, I had dinner out with a departing PCV, J**. Her short span as a Volunteer has come to its natural conclusion, and she’ll be leaving the country about a week after I get to my site. She is one of the most forthright of the PCVs we’ve met; she doesn’t pull her punches, which is actually reassuring, in a sort of oxymoronic way. It has been clear from what the other Volunteers have said that they’ve softened the edges on most of the incidents, or glossed over some parts. Instead of making everything sound easier, as was surely intended, it’s actually made me wonder what is hiding in the shadowy corners they don’t mention. J** shines a flashlight on them, addresses them, and is calm and matter-of-fact about the whole thing. It’s almost like, if we step into the world of Monsters, Inc. for a second, she’s the one saying, “Yes, there are monsters who will occasionally come out of your closet. They come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Let me tell you about a few that I’ve met…” Maybe I just tend to fear the unknown more than the known, but I find that reassuring. The known I can prepare for, mentally and in other ways.

My first full day as a Volunteer consisted of waking up early to see everyone off, giving hugs to as many of them as possible (I think I missed a total of 4 out of the 26, and 3 were together – they left for the far bus station while I was helping 2 other friends take their bags to the nearer station, but I did get to hug a bunch of the health people, so I think I ended up with more than 30 hugs for the day), and then embarking on my own bus. Ours was the last group to leave.

BTW, today there was a whoopsie on my part – we’d been given tiny stamps that we will need to get our cartes de sejour, which are sort of like Green Cards. I’d carefully tucked mine in the tiniest pocket I have – a little sleeve inside my camera bag – and when I double-checked it this morning, it wasn’t there. I turned my room upside down, looking for this tiny slip of sticky paper, no more than 1cm x 2cm. No luck. It probably fell out when I changed my camera battery after the swearing in. I told myself that it was for the best that it had happened while we were still in a reasonably large city, since there aren’t many places where you can get these stamps. But it turns out that the one and only vendor in our fair city had already been bought out, when our staff bought the stamps to give to us. Oops.

I was wondering how this would be resolved harmoniously…when the training coordinator summoned me over. I launched into a mea maxima culpa, which he waved off. “They are small, and stick to things; it happens.” I was rather startled; I’d expected something more condemnatory. And then it got even better. Apparently, a year or two ago, six of these special stamps magically appeared on his desk. No one knew where they had come from, and no one knew what to do with them. He couldn’t just distribute them to Trainees, because there is a place in the budget for acquiring the right number. He couldn’t use them, because they don’t belong to him. He couldn’t even take them back to the vendor and exchange them, because there would be no legal way to use the money. (For the record, I’ve been impressed with all of our staff right along, but the shining integrity in this account just dazzled me.) So he stuck them on a cork board by his desk, to be available in case of PCV emergency. Such as mine. He called someone at his office, told them to drop one of the stamps into an envelope, gave them my address, and safi. (It’s done.) Lhumdullah.

About half an hour after that, my group gathered up our bags and headed for the bus station. We embarked without incident and had a smooth five-hour ride. The next leg of the trip was only an hour, so if there weren’t an immediately available bus, we’d just grab a taxi – but the bus heading our way was actually in the process of pulling out when we got there, so they flagged it down, told the driver to wait for us, and threw our bags from one bus to the next. That has to be the shortest layover in history. :) An hour later, I hopped off the bus in SouqTown. In the next hour I said goodbye to my friends (several of whom had been on the bus with me), ran a few errands in town, enjoyed a European snack at my favorite SouqTown café (steamed milk and a chocolate croissant), met up with some PCVs, and made a night of it.

In short: much travel; many, many, many hugs; lots of beautiful countryside; yummy food; good friends. I miss them already... But there is much to be grateful for, too.

May 19, 2008 Swearing in

Monday morning, between 9:15 and 9:30, we made our way from our little hotel to a huge 5-star palace of a hotel. (When we had done a mapping exercise early on in training, and had had to construct a map of our training city from memory, we had referred to this swanky place and its neighbors as the “Fancy Pants Hotels.” Because they are. When movie stars come to town, this is where they stay.) The Fancy Pants hotel lived up to its name. The decorations were breathtaking, the ceilings were enormous (in a country where 12-foot ceilings are standard, that’s saying something), and the courtyard was landscaped by an artist.

After a few rounds of oohs and aahs, along with a bunch of pictures taken of each other in our own fancy-pants finery (ranging from a three-piece suit to jellabas to the full spectrum of the business casual rainbow, we made our way up to a meeting/banquet hall where the chairs had been set up for our event.

Health and Environment trainees faced each other across the front of the room, separated one more time, in front of the podium for the speakers and assembled notables. Our families, Peace Corps Staff, and other invitees all faced the podium from a little further back. Come to think of it, I think the chairs were set up pretty much the same way for my high school graduation.

I took a bunch more pictures of the assembled Trainees, the big Peace Corps banner, etc, and then it was time to get down to business. There were a series of speeches, from Moroccan dignitaries (translated by our Training Coordinator, since only ~12 of us have learned Darija, which is what he was speaking); from our Country Director, who spoke in careful Darija as well as English, addressing our host families and us, respectively; from the Ambassador’s representative, who spoke in French and didn’t translate his remarks; and then from three Trainees. One representative of the highest scorers on the Language Proficiency exam, in each of the three languages we’ve been studying – Darija, Tamazight, and Tashelheit – gave talks. The Tam speech was the funniest, according to the laughter of the invited Morrocans. (It was also the only one I understood more than a quarter of, which may also be part of why I enjoyed it.)

And then came the big moment. The Country Director – who will be leaving Morocco before the next group swears in, so this was an emotional moment for him, as well – instructed us to raise our right hands and repeat, line by line, the oath we had all signed and sworn a few days before, to protect the Constitution and to serve the people of Morocco. Most of us were misty-eyed before we got through the paragraph-long oath. The girl next to me was clutching my hand for emotional support.

And then we were no longer Peace Corps Trainees. So long, PCT status, hello two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Then there was feasting, more picture taking…and there was great rejoicing. :) Eventually, we said goodbye to our host families – mine was one of the last to leave – and ran back to our little hotel to grab our bathing suits. The Fancy Pants hotel, of course, had a pool. And we were allowed to avail ourselves of it for the next four hours. And there was great rejoicing. ;)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 Henna, cont.

The henna continues to catch eyes, mostly because it’s really beautifully done. (I have no modesty qualms about praising it, because all I had to do was sit there. The talent was all on the part of B**’s host sister, M**, who is an artist with plant-based dyes and a syringe. Yes, syringe. That’s how they apply it in such delicate lines: they take out the needle and use the narrow tip to dispense the henna.)

When I was hanging out at a tapas restaurant with a group of Trainees, some American tourists wandered by and chatted us up for a few minutes. We would have talked longer, but curfew is curfew. :) They noticed the henna, and asked for a closer look. I wondered for a moment if either or both of these guys were flirting with me – if they’d been Moroccan, it would have been downright naughty to ask to hold my hands, even for a moment – but then I remembered that these are Americans, from a culture where it’s entirely appropriate for men and women to hug in public.

Anyway, after they admired my hands, they asked where I’d gotten it done, and implied that they were interested in getting henna’d themselves. As I talked about it, I heard myself saying something I hadn’t consciously realized: “Henna is done as a gesture of friendship, usually when someone leaves or on momentous days (like weddings). I don’t think you’ll find anyone around here who will henna you for a price.” Before I said it, I hadn’t thought about it, and it made me all the more grateful for the gift M** had given me. Not only did she give me her time and her talent; this is also the gift of friendship, painted onto my hands for weeks to come. Like the tattoo on my back and the piercing on my tummy, this is a way of turning the body into a passport, stamped with important moments of life’s journey. The henna will fade, but the friendship that put it there is a gift for a lifetime. :)


May 21, 2008 Billions of biscottis

Language blip of the day: While I was having breakfast, I told my table-full of SouqTown area PCV buddies that I was going to go to the pastry shop next door. One of them asked me to get him 5 Ds worth of biscotti cookies. So I went, found the biscotti, and asked for khams n drahm of them.

(Sidenote: “Dirhams” – the local currency, are drahm if there are 10 or fewer, and dirham for 11 or more. But given the quality of my language skills, they probably sound the same when I say them. Also, n – of – is almost always used when counting numbers of things. I have since learned that it’s never used when counting money. End of sidenote.) Now, what I’d forgotten is that khams is the prefix for any five-related number (5, 15, 50, etc), but if I mean just 5, I need to say khamsAA. One tiny syllable, but oh what a difference it makes…
Khams n drahm n biscotti, 3afam?” 5 Ds of biscotti, please?
The girl behind the counter said, “Khamsin dirham?” 50 Ds?
Yeh. Khams n drahm.” Yeah, 5 Ds.
Yun kilo?” A kilo?
Wow, I thought, you can get a whole kilo of biscotti for 5 Ds? This is the best deal in town! But my buddy said 5 Ds, and if that’s what 5 Ds gets me, that’s what I’m getting. “Waxa, shukran.” OK, thanks.
So I waited (and waited) while she measured out more and more of them, filling a big pastry box way past capacity, tying it shut... I also picked out a roll for myself. When she was finished with the biscottis, I gave her a 20 D note. She seemed a little confused. I ran through it in my head again. 5 Ds for the biscotti, 3 Ds for my roll, so I should get 12 Ds back. I couldn’t figure out why she was hesitating.
Iga tlata o khamsin dirham,” she explained. (It’s 53 Ds.)
Yeh, tlata o khamsa n drahm”. Yeah, 3 (pointing to the roll) and 5 (pointing to the bursting box of biscotti) Ds.
Iga tlata o khamsIN dirham.” It’s FIFTY-three Ds.
My eyes bugged out. “Khamsin?? Oho, samhi, oho, righ ghas khamsa n drahm.” FIFTY?? No, sorry, no, I only want 5 Ds worth. (And I hold up 5 fingers, to sidestep the language issue.)
Aah, waxa.” Oh, OK.
Samhi bzzef!” I’m so sorry!
She waved off my apology, took a few biscottis out of the huge box, put them into a small paper sack for me, and made my change, all while waving off more apologies. If the biscottis had been for me, I probably would have paid the 50 Ds and just eaten them for the next week, to avoid the embarrassment…but I don’t even like biscotti, and I’m pretty sure my buddy didn’t want two and a quarter pounds of them, plus the 20D note was all I had with me. So… oops. Live and learn. And apparently, today, I learn humility. :)

May 21, 2008 Volunteer!!

After three months of long days and short weeks - days that were filled to bursting with language lessons, conversations with Moroccans, hanging out with fellow Trainees, new foods, new reactions to food, and language language language, days that were individually exhausting (I haven't gone to bed at 9:30 every night since high school!) but which collectively flew by as week turned into week and month passed into month - and suddenly it's not March 1st anymore. I'm not a wide-eyed newbie looking around the hotel in Philadelphia, wondering which if any of this crowd of people was going to be friendly. Over the past three months, that crowd has shifted from strangers to friends, spanning the spectrum from acquaintance-you-smile-at to people who I'd trust with anything (and have). And now that crowd is scattered across the Moroccan countryside.

Monday morning, I raised my right hand and swore to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to serve the people of Morocco. It was very moving - yes, I got misty, as did many others, male and female - and very sudden. What happened to the four hours a day of language training? That was good! That was helpful! That was ... what Trainees get. And now I'm a Volunteer.

I'm still not sure why the Peace Corps makes such a distinction between Trainees and Volunteers - after all, we're all here to serve, we're all here to learn - but now that I've crossed the divide, I'm really missing all the security and comfort that comes with having dedicated instructors and a room full of friends.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Peace Corps dropped us in the deep end of the pool. They provided an amazing and devoted staff to train us as well as people can be trained in 11 weeks. A more accurate metaphor than the cliched "deep end" would be to say that the Peace Corps gave us 11 weeks of swimming lessons and then dropped us somewhere in the Pacific. We do, actually, have the skills we need to survive, and even thrive... As long as we don't lose our heads or forget anything we've been taught over the past three months, we just might avoid drowning. Inshallah.

So yesterday, Tuesday, we all loaded up everything we own or plan to need for the next two years, and piled into buses heading to all parts of the country. I had over a dozen people on my bus, including some of my closest friends, lhumdullah, so I wasn't about to miss the chance to give them hugs goodbye, even if it meant that I got stares from everyone behind our group.

And today, Wednesday, I've met with my awesome counterpart, met a professor friend of his (and two of the professor's grad students), and set up a project that will fill the months until school begins again. It's about identifying and cultivating what they call "aromatic plants", aka plants that can be harvested for "essential oils", ie roses, argon olives, rosemary, mint, etc, etc. How exactly I'll conduct this survey in a language I barely speak...that'll be interesting. But it's good to have a project, especially since the primary project I've been given requires contact with schools, many of which have already let out for summer.

So I've got a full plate, a mountain of luggage, and a waiting host family. Off I go... Keep me in your prayers! :)


5/14 Winding down...

The clock is ticking down towards the end of Pre-Service Training. We've seen our CBT villages for the last time (barring future social visits), attended sessions on everything from How To Create an Environmental Education Club to Water Purification to Dealing With Sexual Harrassment, and will swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer within the week, inshallah. (I'm not allowed to say exactly when, since all events where large numbers of Americans will congregate are off-limits on blogs. Sorry.)

Today was our final language test. It went well, lhumdullah, and that means the end of formal language instruction. I'll still be getting weekly (probably) tutoring from the same person, lhumdullah, my fabulous and brilliant LCF H**, once I get to site. :)

5/10/08 Henna

Fellow PCT J** told me earlier that watching me type is distracting. My hands are covered with brown-stained leaves, flowers, vines, fans, swirls, and zigzags, so the movement of my fingers is eye-catching. Apparently. :)

Sunday afternoon, B**’s host sister henna’d my hands. She spent the better part of two hours on it, and the patterns are gorgeous. Each part of the hand is independent – no two fingers are alike – but they still harmonize in fascinating ways. She was incredibly thorough, too. When she started, I’d thought she’d do a simple pattern in the middle of my palms, but she just kept going and going. Towards the end of each hand, she would turn it this way and that, looking for more open skin to decorate. When the side of a finger looks like an inviting palate, you know you’re being comprehensively coated. :)

I left the henna on overnight, and put my hands in mikka bags, but the bags weren’t tied, so they slid up on the backsides of my hands. This means that my palms are covered with a bright orange design, the backs of my fingers are dark brown, and the backs of my hands (the backsides of my palms, to be accurate, but I don’t think that’s a real expression) are light brown. My wrists are so pale that the patterns almost blend in with my freckles, which are more or less the same color.

In the morning, I removed the henna itself – which is a paste made from a plant – which had dried into black, crystalline lines across my skin. As I flaked it off, it looked exactly like chocolate jimmies. (Chocolate sprinkles to the non-yankees in the crowd.) They were really well stuck on, so I ended up spending the better part of an hour prying them off my hands. Once I had more than 80% removed, I went out and used water to try to get the rest off. (I’d been trying to avoid using water, because the water isn’t working well this week – a pipe burst in the kitchen, so they’re keeping it turned off most of the time.) It took another 20 minutes before the black was gone and my hands were just orange-brown.

As I type this, it’s been a few days, and it’s still dramatic and dark. It makes me happy. Henna usually lasts for 3-6 weeks, depending on lots of factors, like how often you wash your hands and how long you left the henna on. Since mine was overnight, and I used rubber gloves when I did laundry (since Tide can erase henna like nobody’s business), I expect it to last for quite a while. :)

Oh, and one other aspect of the henna experience – you’re helpless while it’s drying. Anything you touch with your hands can get dyed orange, so you don’t use them. Someone else had to tie my shoes. When my phone rang, a (female) friend had to pull it out of my pocket for me. I had to eat with a spoon (in a culture that virtually never uses utensils). As H** told me, "Brides have to accept that they can't do anything for themselves." Because brides, like departing friends, are always henna'd. :)

5/10/08 Packing

I’d left myself lots of time to pack up, since this is the last time I’ll be in this village, barring a visit sometime in the future. But when you have three outfits and four books, it doesn’t take that long to pack – even with dawdling and picking outfits for the next two days (to give myself a buffer on doing laundry). I’d also brought a fleece jacket – a Christmas present from my big sis – which was utterly superfluous as a jacket but made a great pillow. :)

5/11/08 Mothers’ Day, aka our last full day in our CBT villages

The day started with a trip to our souk town to buy going away presents for my family. I’d hoped to get one big gift for the family--a playpen for the baby--but that didn’t work out, so I went with individual presents instead. I gave two scarves – one dark pink and one navy blue – to Sis-in-Law, mostly because she’s always been so sweet to me. Mma got a lovely black scarf with a subtle black rose embroidered at the corners. Little Sis got a pearl grey scarf with an embroidered pink rose. (Her choice.) I wanted to give her colored pencils, but there were no open bookstores/papershops in town. Little Bro and the baby both got tomobiles (cars). Little Bro’s is remote controlled, and the batteries are already fading. Bummer. I also got the baby an adorable little outfit that he’ll fit and/or grow into, inshallah. The gift I’m the happiest with is the drbouka for Middle Bro. Ever since I saw him rocking the rhythms on a table, I’ve wanted to give him a drum. Ideally, it’ll be a gift for the whole family; they’re such a dance-y, musical bunch that I think having a drum and drummer will be a source of joy for many evenings to come.

The buying and giving didn’t go quite how I’d intended, but this is a country without Christmas, and I’m not sure how birthdays work, so I’m willing to be flexible about that. Sitting here, I realize that I do possess the language skills – vocabulary, grammar, and syntax – to be able to say, “If you were buying a drum, which would you choose?” But when I was standing in the shop, all I could come up with was “Whatever you want” – Aynna trit – so Middle Bro knew from the get-go that it was for him. But that’s really not so bad. And he did give me a big Shukran! (Thank you!) as he tucked it under his arm and rattled out a walking-along beat for us.

This morning’s walk into the town – about 5 km – was as beautiful as I’d hoped. Gorgeous sunlight and skies, gorgeous flowers blooming everywhere, gorgeous countryside. One of the photos I took looks like an 18th (19th?) century landcape painting, and not due to any skill of mine – this place is just lovely. One picture I’ve shot repeatedly but never captures the effect is the view of the fields from the top of the bluff. You walk and walk along this rocky soil, and then a velvet green, lush valley appears, first as a sliver between this cliff and the matching one across the river, and then as a broader and broader swath of verdant life. It’s such a miracle, this recklessly spendthrift oasis of grasses and trees and flowers and vegetables. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it always feels unexpected, like a surprise pary or an unannounced visit from an old friend. It’s the gift of life to this village – my village – and I’m always grateful for the sight of it.

Today I got to stroll through the fields, brushing my fingertips along the sheaves of barley, ducking the bamboo leaves, dodging the muddy patches underfoot. I took pictures as I fancied – I think my most frequent word of today was “Blatti” – wait – but a photograph can’t capture the experience of the sun shimmering on the poplar leaves or turning the tumbling river into angel-white sprays. I can’t shoot the coos of the mourning doves or the chatter of the sparrows. Pictures of the storks only show long-limbed flight, not the majestic circling of those enormous creatures as they drift across the countryside or lower themselves delicately onto a mosque-topping nest.

My brothers and sisters are happy to pose for me, but I always manage to get them blinking or mid-word, so their beauty looks like heavy-lidded ordinary-ness. So maybe it's for the best that I haven't figured out how to post photos yet... There's so much more to Morocco than I can photograph. :)

5/10/08 Huevos Rancheros a la Marrocaine

Tonight at dinner, I introduced huevos rancheros to Morocco. Lhumdullah. My sister-in-law had made her traditional “salad”, which is diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and sea salt. (And I’m disproportionately proud of the fact that I know all those words in Tamazight: matisha, azilem, m3dnus, d tisnt, respectively.) So there’s a big bowl of that in the middle of the table, a smaller dish of scrambled eggs, and the omnipresent bread (aghrom).

Little Bro was asleep, so Mma made him a sandwich, as she always does for an unconscious kid. (Sleeping through the meal is no reason not to eat, in the eyes of the woman who would spend a million dirhams on feeding her children. So she puts whatever-the-main-dish-is into a piece of bread, and sets it aside to feed the kid later.)

Her scrambled egg sandwich inspired me. I made myself an egg sandwich – which got funny looks, since sandwiches aren’t common except for creating leftovers – and then spooned the “salad” on top of it. By this time, my family was looking at me like I was utterly insane. They’d fully expected to eat both the eggs and the salad by grasping bite-sized pieces with small chunks of bread, like we eat everything. So when I piled the salsa-like salad on top of my eggs on top of a slice of bread, everyone laughed. But I told them that it was delicious food from Mexico (makla tatfot n Mexiq), and it worked! Or else my rockstar appeal hasn’t faded in the eyes of my awesome little brothers and sister. Because the kids all tried it, as did my sister-in-law. Mma stuck to what she knew… But it was universally accepted at tatfot (delicious), so lhumdullah!

5/10/08 Goodbye Party

This afternoon, we had a “party” to say our official farewell to our village. All of our family members were invited, plus there were a few crashers. As parties go, it was very, very chill. Everyone was sitting on one of the cushions along the wall – men on one side of the room, women on the other – and the only people moving around the narrow room were in the process of serving food. I took a few turns making rounds with beverages and snacks, as did all of the female PCTs and a few women from the village. There was no music, because there was a death in the village yesterday, so music would have been inappropriate. So basically, it was people sitting down, snacking, and chatting with the folks within earshot.

At B**'s prompting, I gave an impromptu announcement, letting folks know who has been assigned where, so that everyone would know where we were leaving them for, and then I reiterated the invitation (which they’ve all received hard copies of) to our Swearing-In Ceremony next week (inshallah). Other than saying the date wrong – I treated it like it was in the 20s or 30s instead of in the teens – it went well. Lhumdullah.

Stupid epiphany of the day: It’s really hard to understand someone when they’re speaking a language you don’t expect. At a party this afternoon, I was talking to someone across a room, and he answered me in French. I’d asked the question in Tamazight, and was trying hard to understand him over the noise of the intervening conversations, but just couldn’t figure out what he was saying. When he finally reduced his answer to a three-word sentence with one-syllable words, it penetrated. It gives me more compassion for villagers who will be expecting me to speak French, like most of the Westerners they encounter; when I speak in my shaky Tamazight, they’ll be trying to recall the French they learned in primary school.

May 8, 2008 Wess n Zitoon and the thunder go boom

The bloom is definitely off the rose. OK, not literally. The Rose Festival was last weekend and there are still roses blooming for dozens of miles in every direction. But figuratively… Today was not the best day I’ve had in Morocco.

There were plenty of great things today. We had our Great Tree Distribution (hence the title “Wess n Zitoon”, which means “Day of the Olive Tree”), plus an awesome electrical storm that provided a lightning show to rival the Midwestern United States, and thunder that rumbled continuously for over an hour. So that made me happy..

But some parts of the tree sale were frustrating, and I had a run-in with a teenage boy that made my skin crawl, and the flies keep swarming the table when we eat, and the baby peed on me. Which was kind of depressing and funny at the same time. Because babies are babies, the whole world over. And they’re wonderful and adorable and huggable and curious and beautiful … and sometimes they pee on you.

So why was I frustrated with the tree project? Well...

Here’s a quick recap of the timeline of our tree planting project:

CBT Week 2: The Genesis
§ We met with the president of the association, Mohammed
§ He proposed giving trees to the poorest families in our village.

CBT Week 3: Association Meeting
§ We love the idea of targeting the poorest families, but the association points out that they represent the entire village, so every family should get at least one tree.
§ We’ll sell the trees to ensure buy-in (pun intended) from the village families.
§ Appropriate price: 2DH
§ We’ll have a sliding scale, of sorts: 1 tree per wealthy family and 2-5 trees per family in need, with the need being assessed by the association.
§ Over the next two weeks, they’ll work out the ratio of wage-earners to dependents in each family.
§ They won’t give us a tally of how many trees they want – just the more trees, the better.
§ We’ll apply our full budget to the tree-buying, and should be able to get 200-250 trees, depending on the price from the nursery.
§ We’ll sell them the Sunday after we get back.

CBT Week 4: Association Meeting II
§ Peace Corps bought 200 trees, but for some reason, 198 trees have arrived.
§ Change in plan: They’re getting dry…let’s sell them on Thursday instead of Sunday.
§ Change in plan: Let’s not sell the trees. People might be suspicious if the association makes a profit.
§ Potential change in plan: Should we open the sale to families outside of our village?
§ Change in plan: OK, let’s sell the trees. For 3 DH.
§ Change in plan: Tomorrow’s tree sale wasn’t publicized, so no one knows about it. Association members will mention it at afternoon prayers today.
§ Change in plan: There was no sliding scale assessment. People might be unhappy about getting different numbers of trees. Let’s let everyone buy three.

CBT Week 4: Tree Sale Day(s)
§ Families from outside our village are participating, which means that there aren’t enough for everyone to get three trees.
§ Change in plan: Let’s only provide two trees per family.
§ Maybe people can come back for a third … later.

Sales reports:
§ By noon, 27 families had their trees.
§ By the end of the day, 31 families had them….Which meant that more than half the families still didn’t have their trees. Over 130 trees are continuing to dry out.
§ The second day, the tree sale started at 3pm.
§ By the afternoon of the third day, ~ 2/3 of the families had their trees.
§ By the morning of the fifth day, there were only 15 trees left. And that’s the last I heard.
§ Lhumdullah, we successfully distributed (sold seems like a strong word given that these are priced ~20% of market value) almost 200 trees.

I’d hoped it would take a few hours, not five days…and I’d hoped we’d target the poorest families, not sell two trees to each family…and I’d thought it would be limited to our village, not the surrounding countryside…and I’d thought the pricepoint would be 2 DH, not 3DH…and when I talk about my own hopes and thoughts, I also mean what we put in our proposal to Peace Corps. And when you write a project proposal and it gets funded, that’s more or less a contract. So when the plans suddenly change, we’re more or less in breach of contract with the Peace Corps. Of course, this is the Peace Corps we’re talking about. And a third-world (or second-world, depending who you ask) country. And our big picture was fulfilled. The tree planting happened. But I’m still not entirely happy. We did provide a source of income-generation to the people of our village, which is a good thing. A single olive tree, once it’s mature (ie in about five years) produces enough olives to pay a year’s dorm fees at secondary schools. So we may have just paid the way of our village’s girls to junior high and high school. Inshallah. And we provided trees, which are good on multiple levels that have nothing to do with income generation: they provide oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, stabilize soil, and provide habitats for thousands of tiny creatures. Lhumdullah. But we didn’t do a lot of what we pledged to in our project proposal, and that upsets me.

And then the baby peed on me.

May 7, 2008 Shades of Summer Camp

Sometimes, at odd moments, Peace Corps Pre-Service Training reminds me of summer camp. I’m not sure why. It might be the smell of the kitchen or the fact that we’re all sharing communal meals at big tables, but something reminds me of the camp I attended a few times as a kid. I’ve thought of camp more often in the past two months than in the previous 10 years.

There are obvious dissimilarities. We’re all full-grown. Nobody has to pass a swim test. (Blood tests, yes.) Waterskiing is definitely not on the agenda. But there are some obvious similarities, too. We’re a group of peers under the very laid-back supervision of a few adults. The adults are different from us in obvious ways. (At camp, they were all 10-20 years older. Here, they’re our age, more or less, but they’re all Moroccan nationals.) We’re here to learn, but it’s not school. We’re showering less than daily. We’re walking on a lot of unpaved paths. Also, we play a lot of goofy games, usually as “energizers”. The day we all returned from site visit, there was a round of Sardines, which I haven’t played since camp. We’re sleeping semi-communally; at camp, we were in cabins with 7-15 beds, and here, we’re in rooms of 2-4. I’m in a room of 4. (Quick shoutout to J**, N**, and B**, my fabulous roommies!) And y’know, learning to conjugate in Tamazight shares a lot with learning to shoot a bow and arrow. Both are hard, both take practice, both can be frustrating, and both are tremendously gratifying when you nail a bull’s-eye.

PST, like camp, has routines that shift regularly…food that ranges from awesome to avoidable…laundry that has to be washed by hand. Our CBT groups, like our cabin groups, put us into intense proximity with people we might never have spent time with otherwise, and therefore forges powerful relationships. My CBT group, lhumdullah, has worked harmoniously, and we’ve made some good friendships. My friends in other groups... have other stories to tell.

Oh, and we have scheduled snack time. :)

May 6, 2008 If I had a million dirhams…

It’s our last week in our CBT villages, home of my original host family. So to practice our lesson on the conditional tense, our homework consisted of asking family members, “If you had a million dirhams, what would you do?” I got great answers…

Middle Bro – I’d (1) buy a house, (2) buy a car, and (3) travel to America and France.
Little Sis – I’d buy a husband.*
Little Bro – I’d go on hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) with Mma and Bba.
Mma – I’d feed my children.
Sis-in-Law – I’d travel to America with you [me]. Awwww.

* For the record, she’s 10. When I pointed out that with 1,000,000 DH, she wouldn’t need a husband – she could have her own car, home, life, etc – she just blushed and ducked her head.

May 1, 2008 Traveling back to SouqTown

It’s 2pm and I’m sitting in front of a café, waiting for the tranzit, the shuttle bus from here to SouqTown that runs 4-5 times a day, weather permitting, inshallah. The shuttle is scheduled (loosely) to arrive between now and 2:30, inshallah.

I can see 24 people from my seat – I am in the heart of downtown Berberville, after all – but not a single female. 24 men, 0 women. Really, my very existence at this moment, sitting at a café while being female, is probably Hshuma (shameful / inappropriate) – but I don’t know anywhere else to wait where I’ll be sure not to miss the tranzit. Fortunately, the moqaddim, who I met yesterday, and who knows that I chatted with the Quyd not long ago, is sitting at the next table, so no one will say anything inappropriate to me.

OK, now it’s 3:30pm and I’m en route to SouqTown. The tranzit got in right around 2:30, but didn’t leave again until 3:00. I guess I don’t need to be so worried about missing it; it’s got a nice long layover. We’re driving past the igran – the irrigated fields – some of which are apple orchards. They’re right on the cusp between flowering and leafing. Some are all apple blossoms, some are all leaves, and many are at some point of the journey inbetween those two states. I feel like I should make some sort of metaphor for my own position, about to finish my training and start my Peace Corps service (inshallah), but I’ll let the opportunity pass.

Note to self – there’s a dike about 45 minutes out from Berberville, only visible from the road when you’re heading this direction. Two parallel dikes, actually, looking a bit like an italicized # sign as they cross the bedding planes. One of the prettiest cross-cutting relationships I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to get the GPS-tracker gizmo that can sync up with a camera and tell you exactly where you took any given photo.

April 30, 2008 Inshallah*

Around here, whenever you talk about the future, you say “Inshallah”. If God wills. It doesn’t matter how likely the event is. “I’m going to the souq in half an hour, inshallah.” “I’ll sprout wings and fly tomorrow afternoon, inshallah.” (OK, maybe they wouldn’t say that one.) It’s also used as a graceful way of avoiding invitations: “I can’t stop in for tea now, but I’ll come by later, inshallah.” It’s mostly cultural, but it was originally religious; the Qur’an teaches that no one knows the precise time of his or her death – the Bible has a similar verse or two – so there’s no way to know if your plans will come to pass, and it is impious and arrogant to claim otherwise. The cultural implications of this mean that appointments and plans are pretty much always tentative. It also reflects a grater humility and expectation of God’s influence in daily life than most Americans or Europeans would acknowledge.

It’s just one of the thousands of ways that Moroccan culture is different from American culture. That’s what makes it so fascinating to be here – I never know what I’ll learn next! :)

April 30 Random observations (aka excerpts from letters)

I don’t remember how much of this has made it into earlier blogs. Please forgive any redundancies. :)

I can’t believe it’s been two months already. Where did the time go? Why didn’t I spend more of it studying? Eek!

I’m loving my village. It’s a high desert, with virtually no vegetation outside of the irrigated fields. It’s ringed by mountains that have been battered by repeated rounds of crashing into Europe and North America over the past 500 million years. And there’s no grass or trees to obstruct the view – just a few bramble-bushes. It’s a geologist’s dream come true. :) As an environmental educator, though, I’m concerned for what this means about drought conditions and local ecology. (Though it did rain for half an hour this afternoon) But I have months to work all that out, inshallah.

My village still doesn’t have internet access, but they promise that it’s coming. Sometime. I won’t hold my breath, but it’s possible it’ll be in town before I finish my service. It already has 1200 residents, three schools, a police station, a hotel, several hotels and cafes, a few markets, and two paved roads.

April 29 Long day. Ighzif wess

6:00 Wake up. Linger in bed, praying and thinking happy thoughts.
7:30 Get up and ready for the day.
8:00 Go into the main part of the house. For the second day in a row, breakfast was waiting for me. After breakfast, I helped Ima in the kitchen. She’s making ksuksu (couscous) from scratch.
9:30 Went with “Fatima” – the adopted name of my sitemate and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer – to the school and post office and to meet a couple teachers. All the teachers we met today speak English – most of them are English teachers – and that’s a real blessing, because like most teachers in these Berber villages, he doesn’t speak Berber. Darija, Classical Arabic, French, and English, but no Tamazight or Tashelheit. The poor students have to hear everything in a new language.
10:30 Met the gendarmes. Language became an issue again, because they also don’t speak Berber, and Fatima doesn’t speak any Darija or French. Fortunately, I remember high school French (I keep meaning to write a long thank you letter to Mme. Lyons and Mme. Chartres), so was able to communicate well enough to fill out the paperwork we needed. My rusty French was sometimes hard for them to follow, and I had trouble coming up with all the words I needed, but we could communicate, lhumdullah. Volunteers who have learned Tam (Berber) but don’t know any French or Arabic – like Fatima and most of the other PCVs I’ve met – have a really tough time. Or is the Peace Corps trying to subtly tell the Moroccan government that everyone should know some Berber?
11:45 We’d finished our errands, and I wasn’t expected home until 1pm, so I decided to walk up the mountain and look at my home from above. Either I’m at 10,000 feet* or I waay out of shape. Possibly both. The big resistant layer above town is very cool, though – it’s easy to see from anywhere in the town, because it makes a big shelf jutting out of the hillside (hence the name “resistant” – it resists eroding more than anything around it), and it’s got bazillions of brachiopod fossils in a sandstone, plus one trilobite and a really mysterious thing that looks like an octopus leg. For the non-geologists in the crowd, trust me when I say that’s odd and really cool. :)

* I’ve looked at Berberville on a couple of topo maps, and depending which map I look at, I’m living anywhere from 7500’ to 10,000’. There’s a difference.

4/28 Geological Rhapsodies

The rocks around Berberville should be included in a structure textbook. The folds surge out of the ground like a breaching whale. Anticlines arc like rainbows, while complex folds snake into and out of the ground like a Loch Ness Monster toying with tourists. At one point, two resistant layers separated by two meters of soft shale rise vertically out of the ground like guardrails on the road to heaven.

4/28 My craft-astic first full day in Berberville

In response to requests, I'll no longer be faking the dates. Sorry for making it hard to find the new material. I'll just put the dates in the header line, like above.

I have a name! :) Last night, Ama and her neighbor and I had a conversation about it. I explained that I wanted a name from the Qur’an. Ama said that there are many, and rattled some off. One that caught my ear was Kawtar, which was the name of one of my favorite people in my first host village…so now, that’s my name. :) I’m happy.

After breakfast this morning, I helped Ama prepare imshli (lunch)*. I managed to peel one potato while she peeled the other six and sliced the tomatoes. Sigh. I’m trying. Afterwards, two neighbors came and helped Ama set up the warp for her loom. That was pretty amazing to watch; these techniques have probably been around for as long as weaving has, which is thousands of years. I also played with my little sister, who I won over last night. :) While we ate candy and played “count the fingers”, Ama drove three iron rods into the courtyard, and wound a thread in a figure-eight pattern around them. The other two women had separate strings coming up along the two outermost rods, which was knotted into the weft at each turn. I don’t think I’m describing it clearly, but it was fascinating to watch. I had to leave before they finished, so I didn’t see how they transferred it from the courtyard to the loom in the living room. All I know is that by the time I got home, about ten hours later, Ama had woven (weaved?) about a foot of a tazerbit (tapestry/rug). Oh, and this wasn’t weaving like with a shuttle that is thrown back and forth. These are knotted tazerbits, much like the famed Persian rugs. Each row consists of hundreds of individually tied knots, and the cloth pieces are then cut after each knot is tied, leaving about an inch of fringe. It'll be a shag rug, sort of, when it's finished.

At 10, I was supposed to meet with my site-mate, whose adopted name is “Fatima”, to meet with the school director, the gendarmes, the teachers, the postmaster, etc. But there was a change of plan. Her coop was bringing a new neighborhood into their fold, and the first step was distributing materials to them. So I shot a text message to “Zahra”, the PCV who I’m replacing, to ask her to tell Ama that I wouldn’t be home for lunch.

I have to say, I never imagined that dropping off supplies would be a nine-hour operation. We showed up, had tea, separated ~10 kilos of powdered dye (2 kg each of 5 different colors) into 50 single-serving mikka bags per color, then grouped them so that each of the 50 women would get a bag containing each of the five colors. That’s 300 mikka bags altogether, each filled by hand. Many hands make lighter the work, but it was still time-consuming. Once we had the 50 dye bags, 49 bagged skeins of white yarn and 48 skeins of red yarn (big oops by whoever provided the yarn!), we broke for lunch and siestas. The other association who wanted to take part in the distribution said they’d arrive before lunch. At 3pm, when they still hadn’t appeared, we transported everything to the school for distribution. The association members showed up at 5. Then we began sorting the hundreds of interested people, getting them signed up, distributing the materials one at a time… I took pictures.

Somewhere in there, mostly out of boredom, I played my pied piper card. I ended up with over 30 girls and about a dozen boys crowded around me. It’s nice to know I haven’t lost my touch with kids, but it was a little (OK, a lot) overwhelming. Here’s hoping I can roll that into a huge Environmental Education club at the school. I’m still not used to being a celebrity. Our gaggle back at our first host town has (for the most part) died down to the two core boys, Ali’s sons. I’d forgotten how easily foreign strangers draw a crowd. Once we’d finished the work, I told “Fatima”, “I’m officially overwhelmed.” She laughed, “You’re officially beloved.”

Oh, and apparently, teenage boys worldwide have a naughty phase they need to work through. They were asking me inappropriate questions (along the lines of “What would you like me to do to you?”), probably guessing from my repeated “Ur fhmgh, samHi” (I don’t understand, sorry), that I’d have kept smiling at them. And indeed, I didn’t understand what they were asking – but fortunately, Fatima did, and she told me to say wallu (nothing). When that stopped working, I tried seer (go away, but in the wrong language – whoops!) and Hshuma (shame on you), and finally fst (be quiet). Fst turned out to be the most effective.

Anyway, we did finally finish up, have a final cup of tea, and get home.

*Astute readers may recall that the word for lunch was imkli. Here in the northern half of the country, k’s are pronounced as sh’s. And g’s are prounced as j’s, and r’s as l’s. These are minor differences – except for the k-sh one – but it’s enough to make it hard to understand even the words I have mastered.
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