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November 25, 2008 Butagaz Blundering

Setting up my new buta stove took some serious effort, on the part of … five? six? … different people. First there was the clerk, who put up with my waffling and indecision for far longer than he had to, before I made up my mind as to which stove I was getting. Then there was the cart-guy – the man whose business consists of wandering around SouqTown with a big cart to help people transport their belongings for a tiny fee – who schlepped it across town to the tranzit, and then waited in the hot sun (yes, SouqTown is hot, even though Berberville is icy cold – it’s 140 km closer to the Sahara and several thousand feet lower in elevation) while my tranzit driver ran his errands around town. Then there was my tranzit jumper, who hauled it up from my outstretched hands up to the top of the tranzit, a good ten feet off the ground, and secured it for the trip back to Berberville. He also lowered it back down to me, 4 hours later. Then there were the Berberville youths – probably students from the high school – who helped me carry my things to my house from the tranzit station. (I’m really not as much a dilettante as this makes me sound; I’d acquired several bulky packages as part of my Winter Provisioning, and had much more than one person could carry. Two cardboard boxes that children could sit in, plus various bags and other things.) Then the biggest gold star goes to my buHanoot (shopkeeper), who first sold me the giant butane tank to supply it with, then ran back to his Hanoot (shop) twice more to get various accessories, like the gas regulating knob known as a magana and the little metal fasteners that guarantee it won’t leak at either end of the butane connection. He cracked open the seal on the buta tank, attached all the hoses and accessories, fitted the hose to the heater (which required a neat trick with his lighter, to soften the rubber), and waited with me for the better part of half an hour while we tried to get it working.

…because it didn’t work perfectly right-out-of-the-box. I followed the directions carefully – I don’t mess around with butane – and it didn’t work.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
1) Open the buta tank.
2) Hold down the dial (a lot like the knob on really old-school TVs) for five seconds.
3) Press on the spark-generating button.
4) Voila! You have a pilot light.
5) Keep holding down the dial for 60 seconds.
6) Turn the dial to the highest setting, and release.
7) Voila! You have heat.

Here’s a more honest version of the instructions:
1) Open the buta tank.
2) Hold down the dial for five seconds.
3) Press on the spark-generating button. This does nothing.
4) Keep holding down the dial.
5) Press the spark-generating button a few more times.
6) Don’t panic at the thought of all the butane gas flowing into your room.
7) Keep trying to generate the spark. After seven or ten tries…
8) Voila! You have a pilot light.
9) Keep holding down the dial for 60 seconds.
10) Turn the dial to the highest setting, and release.
11) The pilot light goes out.
12) Repeat steps 7-11. A lot.
13) While you’re holding down the dial, gas is flowing into the heater, creating a whooshing sound and lots of exciting red flames and heat. But whenever you release the dial, the pilot light vanishes.
14) Hold down the dial for 120 seconds. When you release it, the pilot light goes out.
15) Wonder if you really need the pilot light.
16) Wonder if you’re going to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
17) Hold down the dial for 5, 10 minutes. When you release it, the pilot light still goes out.
18) Wonder if the lightheadedness you’re feeling is the first symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning, or just a psychosomatically induced side-effect of the boredom caused by holding down the Same Doggoned Dial for ten minutes.
19) Wonder if your friends will mind holding down the button when they come over for Thanksgiving.
20) Decide you’re warm enough from the twenty minutes of heat, and you don’t really need it to work by itself.
21) Close the buta tank.
22) Get cold. (It’s 39 degrees indoors, after all.)
23) Start over.
24) Hold down the dial until your hand cramps up.
25) Switch hands.
26) Notice a sudden change in the sound. Instead of the roaring of an open fire, it’s now the low, gentle white noise of a distant waterfall.
27) Warily release the dial.
28) The pilot light stays on.
29) Voila! You have heat.

I’m hoping that it’s only this big a pain because it’s still shaking its kinks out, and will soon follow the six-step instructions. But even if not – even if I have to stand over it for twenty minutes every time I want heat – it’s still worth it. Because I’m WARM! My thermometer – a whole five feet away – still claims that it’s only 46 degrees in here. But here, next to my beautiful, pricy heater, it’s more like 75. :) It occurred to me that my thermometer is portable. I bring it next to me. 47…53…58…63…73…83…93. Hot diggety dog. :D And now it’s falling for some reason…83…75. Whatever. Maybe the flames generate an uneven flow of heat. Regardless, I’m snug as a bug in a rug, so llahyrhim lwalidin (blessings on the parents of) whoever invented this thing and whoever else imported it to Morocco.

November 25, 2008 Warm Face, Warm Hands, Warm Feet…

(Thanks to Rogers & Hammerstein, or whoever else is responsible for My Fair Lady.)

Christmas has come early. At least a month early. :) Wonderful loved ones from the US have sent me presents focused on keeping Kawtar kozy. Hats, mittens, electric gloves, down comforter, Uggs, thermal underwear, cocoa packets, chai packets, oatmeal packets…and I love it all. Also, one relative just funded my single most expensive purchase in nine months: I bought myself a butagaz (gas) stove.

I’d been planning to buy a wood-burning stove, for several reasons: I love the smell of burning wood; I have tons of waste paper from old newspapers and magazines and junk mail (yes, even in Morocco); butagaz stoves pose a carbon monoxide risk; wood stoves are dirt cheap… I think there were more reasons, but that’s enough. But on the flipside, this area is dying from the deforestation driven by fuelwood consumption. I’ve been blaming the erosion and desertification on the ravenous sheep and goats…turns out there’s more to the story. Anything the sheep and goats don’t eat – notably a prickly plant known as ifsi – is fed to the fires. Wood brought in (not to say poached) from the National Parks up north is also absurdly expensive – easily ten times the price elsewhere in Morocco, simply because it has to come so far, over such awful roads. So if I buy a woodburning stove, I’m contributing, very directly, to the deforestation (and subsequent erosion, and desertification, and general degradation) of Morocco.

And in a non-environmental aside, wood stoves are inconvenient. Splitting wood is a pain. My friend’s tiny stove that we used at our pre-Thanksgiving party – the size that would meet my needs – needs to be fed smallwood every few minutes. Most local families have larger stoves, that can be fed larger chunks of wood, but those are even less efficient.

So yesterday I splurged horrifically and bought a big butagaz stove. It’s about three feet high, 18” across, 18” deep. Most of the depth is used to hold the butane tank. It has wheels, which are a huge advantage; I can bring the stove anywhere I go. It can be in the kitchen when I cook, in the living room when I entertain, and in my bedroom when I’m swunfuing at home. (Have I made swunfu a word-of-the-day yet? I don’t think so. It’s onomopoeatically perfect: it means rest or relax, and is pronounced like swoon-foo.) It has the one drawback of all point-source heaters, whether electric, fireplaces, or whatever: the side closest to it gets mosty-toasty, but the side facing away stays cold. But I’m OK with that. As all of my relatives can attest to, I’m the one most likely to sit on the mantle when there’s a fire in the fireplace. I’m OK with flipping back and forth, like a human grilled-cheese sandwich. :)

So thank you, thank you, thank you, to all of you who have contributed to my physical warmth. And thanks to you all, for reading my blog and making me warm and fuzzy on the inside. :)

November 24, 2008 Camio Calamity; A Fictional, Fanciful Fable

Disclaimer: This fully fictional fable bears no possible resemblance to anything that happened anywhere, ever. Really. I mean it. Stop speculating. No, seriously, cease all conjecturing…


Once upon a time, in a faraway land, on a snowy afternoon, there was a camio.*

This camio carried a couple categories of cargo. One should be sold in a showy souq shop, and the other quite quietly, in downplayed, discreet dealings. The former were carrots. The latter were… substances consumed by some, to swindle their cerebella into sensing something like summery sunshine. Let’s call them “kettles”.

But back to our blarney… The driver of this carrot-and-kettle-filled camio discovered that the dirt road he was driving was dead-ended. Darned blizzard, he derided.

He reckoned he’d return the same route…but then he received word that the rural watchmen had created a checkpoint behind him. They’d comb through his camio and come across his carrot and kettle cache. Carrots create no concerns…but his kettle cache, which he’d counted on changing for cash, could conceivably contribute to correctional confinement. Crud, he cursed.

At this juncture in his journey, he just jettisoned the junk. Great – what’s gone won’t get the guards’ gander, he thunk.

He continued on contrary-wise, and his carrot-carrying camio caught no condemning consideration from the cops. Congratulations to me, he cheered.

Aways a-hinder, his abandoned aforementioned articles…attracted attention. Allelujiah! all announced.

Locals liked the look of the leafy left-behind lumps, and pocketed portions of the piled produce. Lucky us, they pronounced.

And with words of would-be wisdom and loud, lilting laughter, they all lived … weirdly … ever after.


[* A camio is a truck, usually a dump truck, used to transport produce, sheep, people, merchandise, whatever – sometimes all at the same time, sometimes not – and is the most commonly seen vehicle in rural Morocco. I assume the name derives from the French camion, which means truck. There are no nasal sounds in Tamazight or Arabic, so it’s easy to see how caa-mee-onh, ending in that uniquely French sound halfway between a honk and musical note, became caa-mee-oh.]

November 22, 2008 Thanksgiving Gathering

I actually get not one but two Thanksgiving feasts this year. The second will be on Thanksgiving Day, and will include about a dozen Peace Corps Volunteers and about an equal number of Moroccans. This requires a lot of food, so I’ll be spending most of Wednesday baking with my sitemate “Fatima”.

But today, the Saturday before, I gathered with a mostly-overlapping group of PCVs way up a different mountain. We huddled around his wood-burning stove and watched his TV and ate mountains of chicken, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and desserts. A wonderful time was had by all.


(When I’ve explained Thanksgiving Day to Moroccans, I usually translate it as “Wess n Humdullah” – the Day of Thanks to God. They don’t understand why we take a day to do something they do in every conversation – literally, the greeting ritual isn’t complete until both parties have said lhumdullah – but they understand the importance of it.)

November 22, 2008 Geo-luck-y

This morning I met a French man who lives in Berberville. He’s a professor of geology at a university in one of Morocco’s biggest cities, but he lives during the off-season in Berberville. He has traversed most of the local terrain searching for fossils and minerals. I don’t know how it is that I haven’t met him before.

We rode the tranzit into SouqVille this morning. We spent most of the four-hour ride discussing the geology we were driving through. It was fantastic, on so many levels: I’ve *missed* having these kind of technical conversations; I’ve had tons of questions about the local geology, many of which are now answered; I got to practice my French with a native speaker, and I understood something like 90% of what he said; I made a new friend and got invited to his house.

I also reflected that, even though I studied French for seven years and geology for about the same (counting undergrad and grad school), I’ve never studied geology in French. Many of the words come pretty directly from Latin or Greek, and many more were borrowed between the languages (mélange and roche moutonée are both in every Intro Geo textbook), so for the most part it wasn’t too bad. I also learned the words for “sandstone” and “limestone” by the simple expedient of driving past them and saying “What’s that called?” (Marne and calcar, respectively, though I’m guessing at the spellings.) He told me about an outcropping of what sounded like gavreaux (might have been graveaux) that is world-renowned. It was the better part of half an hour, during which he talked about the relative properties of intrusive and extrusive volcanic rocks, before I figured out that he was talking about gabbro.

But linguistic fumblings aside, it was a wonderful conversation, and I look forward to pursuing a friendship with him and his wife, a Berberville native. :)

November 20, 2008 Congratulations, New Stage!

Today, 56 new Peace Corps Volunteers swore in. They have successfully completed their training, passed their language tests, and visited their sites. They’re in the Small Business Development and Youth Development sectors. There are more of them in cities than us Health and Environment Volunteers – we’re more heavily concentrated in rural areas.

I haven’t yet met any of them, but hopefully that will change soon.

New PCVs: Mbruk! Tbarkallah! Marhaba to your sites! :D

November 15, 2008 Berber Yoga

Today, my friend “Jamila” tried to teach a yoga lesson to some Berber women in her village. This was the first time she’d gathered this group together. They’re hoping to be given money to build a neddi, a women’s building, where they can make clothes to sell. They were quite impressively on-target throughout the session, repeatedly asking the PCVs for money for the neddi. Jamila kept reminding them that these foreigners were *not* the source of funding – a group in “Springfield” will hopefully be providing it in a few months – but that the purpose of today was to help them with the back pain many of them experience as a result of carrying 5-50 pounds of children and/or produce on their backs every day.

So the PCVs modeled the poses and described them in Tamazight. The Berber ladies, understandably confused by the crazy tarumin (foreign girls) moving their bodies in bizarre ways, reacted in different ways. Some claimed they were too old, and just sat out. One said she was sick, and lay down for the whole session. About 4 remained upright and attentive. Two actually did the yoga poses diligently, with varying degrees of success. The other two decided that we were doing something that looked like what they’d seen Jean Claude Van Damme do in a movie (I’m guessing it was Tai Chi), and so decided to engage in kickboxing/wrestling/kung fu.

At one point, a Volunteer found herself lifted off the ground in a wrestling hold. At another, while on her back and holding her knees to her chest, a Volunteer heard a woman shout, “Oh, soccer! I love soccer!” just before stepping on her and then grabbing her arm and dragging her across the floor. “Goal!” A little later, a Volunteer and a Berber got into a contest to see who could get their legs the furthest over their heads.

Things got a bit out of hand…

Upon reflection, the Volunteers concluded that Berber females have so little unstructured time – essentially none – from childhood onwards (I’ve seen five-year-old girls washing dishes and sweeping floors) that this window of opportunity, featuring tarumin who were using their bodies in odd ways, gave them an unprecedented outlet for a physical freedom. Never having had this kind of freedom, they'd also never learned how to school themselves to manage it responsibly...with the result that several of the women simply devolved into giggly, goofy girls.

Some haiku that emerged from the debriefing conversation:

Giggly Berber girl
Thinks Yoga is Kung Fu. Oops.
Airborne instructor …

Ball pose, hence korra. (soccer)
Berber lady steps on me.
How to score a goal?

November 13, 2008 Recipe: Rice Pudding

1-3 C cooked rice (just throw in whatever leftover rice you have)
1 ½ C milk
1-2 T butter
3 eggs
½ C – 1 C sugar (depending how much rice is in there)
1 t vanilla
½ C raisins or sultanas
dash of ginger (probably ~ 1T)
dashes of cinnamon (probably ~ 2T)
~1 t nutmeg

Reconstitute the raisins/sultanas. This means leaving them in a dish of warm water for hours (ideally, overnight). This step is optional, but I find juicy raisins a much better fit for rice pudding than the leathery ones available here.

Mix together everything except the nutmeg. The butter doesn’t have to be blended completely, but there shouldn’t be any huge chunks.

Pour into buttered baking dish. I used a 9” pie pan, but any small or medium casserole dish or cake pan would work fine.

Scatter nutmeg over the top of the dish.

Light oven and cook for approximately an hour. In a Moroccan oven, put the dish on a cookie sheet on the highest rack above the flames. In an American oven, keep the temperature low (but I have no idea how low) – you want it to cook slowly and evenly. It’s done when the custard sets.

November 13, 2008 Alice’s Tea Party

When Alice sat down to tea with the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter, she had a tea party unlike any she’d had before. My tea party this afternoon was just about as odd.

In my defense, I wasn’t planning to host a tea party. If I had been, I’d have acquired some of the key components. I’ve been planning to buy a small table anyway, but I’d’ve definitely picked up a tea pot and, um, the tea.

But instead I got to wing it.

Lhumdullah, Zahra (the previous volunteer here in Berberville, whose apartment I took over and whose furnishings/kitchenwares I bought/inherited from her) had a teapot and glasses. Moroccans – well, the ones I’ve had tea with, anyway – drink their tea out of small glasses, not teacups or mugs.

But Zahra’s teapot is meant to serve two or three. It’s small, and really very cute, but it’s not up to the task of a tea party.

Well, neither am I…

Here’s how it happened:

Yesterday, Ama asked me to babysit for my baby cousin, who I’ll call Mumu (the Tamazight word for baby). She and Xalti (who’s visiting) and my little sister and cousin were all planning to go to the hammam today, and that would be a lot easier if they didn’t have a two-month old to handle.

I cheerfully agreed, delighted to have a way to give back to the family who has given me so much.

I figured they’d come by around 12:30 or 1, since that’s when the hammam opens, and when you go to the Berberville hammam, the earlier the better. The men get it in the morning, women in the afternoon, and since tomorrow – Friday – is souq day in Berberville, everyone wants to bathe today. But when the wood runs out, the fires die out, and the hot water runs out. So if you get to the hammam late, it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up with a cold bath instead of a hot one.

Anyway, I started looking for them around noon. I’d been up on my roof, doing laundry (see previous entry), but decided to start cooking the rice pudding I’d mixed up last night. I figured the heat from the oven would keep the kitchen warm while I made lunch – macaroni & cheese fresh from America – and by the time it was done, I’d have a little munchkin to entertain.

I started the water for the macaroni, then lit the oven.

That sounds so simple.

In the US, when I’ve lit a gas oven, it requires a little finesse – to make sure the oven ignites before you crank it up to full temperatures – but it’s somewhat more complicated here.

First, I crunch my thumb on the brika (lighter). It usually takes a couple of tries before I get a flame. (Smoker, I am not. Given my lack of practice, it’s not surprising that I find lighters to be tricky little buggers.) Then I light a candle.

I copied this practice from previous Volunteers. It gives you a steady flame to work with, without risk of either (a) burning your thumb or (b) melting key components of the plastic brika – both of which I’ve managed to do when trying to hold a lighter flame alight for more than a few seconds.

Once the candle is aflame, I turn the nozzle on top of the butane tank, aka the butagaz or buta (sounds exactly like Buddha). Once the gas is flowing, I turn on the oven. Then I wave the candle around in the 3” space under the gas nozzles, hopefully lighting all of the dozens of tiny flames. I try to move my hand quickly enough to light everything without creating a fireball, but slowly enough that each little nozzle actually ignites. It usually takes a few broad sweeps across the oven, then a slower trip up and down the 8 lines of flames. All without setting my hand on fire or dripping wax on my fingers.

(Is it any wonder that there’s no hair on the backs of my hands anymore? There used to be – little tiny fine white-blond hairs that were essentially invisible – but they’ve all singed right off.)

Oh, and the oven sits right on the floor, so in order to see that all of the flames are lit, I have to have my head on the floor or half an inch above it, with my neck craned to look into the oven. Someone walking in would probably imagine that I’m a few seconds away from a suicide attempt, but that’s just what lighting my oven looks like.

One more thing – the flames blow out from time to time, so as long as the oven is on, I have to check it every few minutes, and relight any flames that have gone out, lest the gas flow into the house and kill all inhabitants.

Ah, fun with buta.

Where was I?

Ah, yes: I’d just tossed the macaroni into the boiling water, and was lighting the oven to cook up the rice pudding. So there I was, with my hand in the oven and my head on the floor, and I hear a knock at the door.

I’m catsitting again, or else I’d have left the door open so they could just come on in.

But I have no idea which corner of the house Sheba is hiding in, or whether she’s in an exploratory humor, so I leave the doors shut.

…which means that when the knock comes, and my head is on the floor, I need to get up and answer it.

I make sure that all the flames are lit – I don’t want to come back to a big gasball – and then run downstairs.

Ama is there, but no sign of anyone else. I invite her in. I explain that I’m cooking lunch, so she brings a chair into the kitchen and makes herself comfortable.

I put the rice pudding in the oven, stir the macaroni, and then take Mumu from her. (He’d been cleverly camouflaged as a pile of blankets on her back.)

Turns out Ama decided not to go to the hammam after all, so she and Mumu just hang out with me till the rest of the family is done. We spend most of the time on the toasty roof.

At one point, while I was down in the kitchen checking on the rice pudding, Ama invited my 3tti (another auntie, and the sister-in-law of Ama—their husbands are brothers) to come over when the gang comes back from the hammam. But she neglects to tell me that she’s done this.

Around 3, my cousin and sister knock on the door. They’re all scrubbed clean. I ask where Xalti is. Answer: She didn’t come. Which I’d figured out. But whatever. I invite the kiddies in, and bring up the rice pudding and a bunch of forks to the roof.

We all eat out of the common dish (as is perfectly normal here).

Maybe an hour later, there’s another knock on the door. I figure it’s Xalti, come to see why nobody followed her home. (I later discover that I was wrong – Xalti hadn’t gone home, she’d just lingered longer in the hammam than the girls wanted to.) Instead, it’s 3tti.

I’m surprised to see her, but invite her in. She says, “Your mom invited me to come over, so I’ve come for tea. Did you make tea? If not, you can make it now.” She’s trying to be accommodating; I’m actually impressed that it occurred to her that I wouldn’t have a pot of tea on constant simmer, like most Moroccan women. I say, hesitantly, “I’m not sure there is any tea. Well, any Moroccan tea. Would you like some American tea?” She laughs. Hard. She’s fit to bust a gut. She comes in and finds everyone hanging out in the kitchen. She joins the gang, immediately recounting for Ama and the kids what had passed between us. She can barely get the story out, she’s laughing so hard. Apparently, not having tea on hand is the single most ridiculous thing she’s ever encountered. Ah, culture barriers.

Really, it’s my fault; I should have expected women to invite themselves over for tea long ago, and been prepared for it.

Anyway, I dug through the food Zahra left me – mostly condiments, but a few other things, too – before finally saying, “I’m sorry, there isn’t any Moroccan tea. Would you like some American tea?” She just laughed more. I put water on to boil.

[[ Sidenote : I owe Ama a big thank-you for never having made me feel awkward for never offering her tea. She’s come over to my house a few times, never for more than a few minutes, and has never asked for tea. I kinda figured that she both (a) had all the tea she could stand at home and (b) expected her foreign daughter to be eccentric, so I never thought much about it. I now realize that she was waiting for me to offer it, and when I didn’t, she just accepted that with a graciousness which I hadn’t even noticed, let alone appreciated. ]]

I invited everyone into the living room, then returned to the kitchen and the Tea Problem. I could have sent one of the little girls to the hanut (corner shop) for Moroccan tea, but it was too late for that – I’d promised them American tea. So I stood in the kitchen, wondering what I should serve them. I have several varieties of chai that I brought from America, as well as some chamomile, jasmine tea, and citrusy rose hip tea, all inherited from Zahra. I finally decided that the jasmine tea, having a green tea base, would probably taste the most like Moroccan tea, which is mostly green tea.

It’s all bagged tea, so I went ahead and put three tea bags in Zahra’s tiny teapot, then poured in the water from the kettle, then put the teapot on the stove. (I really have learned how to brew tea, despite today’s debacle. I didn’t think I’d be put to the test – and definitely not today – but I’ve paid attention whenever I’ve been in a kitchen during teamaking.) I poured in all the sugar I had – it’s been on my shopping list, but didn’t seem urgent – and hoped it would be sweet enough. Jasmine tea really doesn’t need sugar, so I said a silent apology to all my Asian friends who would be horrified by my actions, but Moroccans expect tea to be incredibly sweet.

Then I considered my next step. When a Berberville woman serves tea, she brings out the teapot and glasses for everyone on a pretty tea tray, which she then places on the small table in the living room. The only variation to this is that she might carry in the small table with the teapot and glasses already on it. Or she might have it waiting on the small table, with a pretty tea towel draped over everything to keep off flies. That’s the extent of the tea-serving variations I’ve ever seen.

…But I don’t have a small table. Or a tea tray. Or even a full-sized teapot.

Apparently, either Zahra didn’t have them or she gave them away when she left. And whenever I’ve had PCV friends over, I’ve just handed them mugs or dishes and we eat off our laps, so I’ve never bothered to buy any of these things in the souq.

So I looked around the kitchen, wondering how I could improvise a tea tray. Digging through my inherited ikshushan (kitchenwares), I found a glass casserole dish that I’d forgotten was in there. It’s good that I’d forgotten about it; had I remembered, I’d’ve used it for the rice pudding. It’s exactly the right size for five glasses plus the tiny teapot.

I washed it off and loaded it up. I wasn’t sure if the tiny teapot could hold enough tea to fill all five little glasses, so I went ahead and poured out two cups. I mixed one back in (it’s part of the teamaking ritual), but then poured another out and refilled the tiny pot from the kettle of water on the stove. Hopefully, it would steep enough before I’d need to pour any more tea.

When I entered the living room, holding the casserole dish, 3tti was gone. (Note on pronounciation, for those who read aloud inside their heads: 3tti sort of rhymes with patty, and sort of rhymes with petty. Imagine the word halfway between patty and petty and that’s the sound you’re going for.)

Ama explained that 3tti had gone to take care of something at home, but that she was planning to return for tea. The little girls were dispatched to let her know that the crazy foreigner had produced something vaguely tea-like.

Before 3tti arrived, Ama gave me some maternal advice: Go to the market and buy some tea. Keep it on hand. Next time something like this happens, you’ll be prepared. In fact, if I’m here, she added, I’ll even make the tea for you. Don’t worry about it. But you’ve got to have the tea. This stuff is OK for being American tea, but we expect tea to be … redder. Ever kind, she didn’t say “tastier” or even just “better”. She also offered to give me a small table; she’s got several, like most Moroccan hostesses. And her tone of voice when saying "You've got to have tea" was pretty much the same tone you'd use if you were saying "You have to breathe in and out all day long." There was no irritation or sarcasm, just the tightly-wound patience I've found myself using with unusually slow students.

3tti came in, holding her daughter, another little cousin of mine. I poured 3tti a cup of tea. She took a sip, nearly spit it out, and handed the cup to Ama, who drank it. (Bless you, Ama!) I took Mumu from Ama so that she’d have more freedom to drink tea without worrying about spilling on the baby.

Ama, gracious as ever, used my holding the baby as a pretext for taking over hostessing responsibilities. (No, don’t get up! I’ll take care of this for you.) She managed to create the impression that of course I was about to do these things for myself, but couldn’t because I was jiggling a two-month-old (swaddled to the size of a Golden Retriever). I don’t know if 3tti was fooled, but I’m still grateful to Ama for trying.

She went into the kitchen and brought back a bowl full of rice pudding. She offered it to 3tti’s daughter, knowing that 3tti would taste it and therefore find *something* that she would probably like. It worked. 3tti made a face and said, “This is American??”, but she kept eating it. It’s sugary and full of ingredients readily available in Morocco, so Ama had guessed correctly that it would appeal to her.

Ama and 3tti kept up a steady stream of conversation. I chimed in occasionally, but was humiliated enough by the catastrophe of a party to mostly keep my head down and bounce Mumu on my knee. Then Ama ducked into the kitchen again and returned with tangerines for all the kids, another big hit. Again, something I should have thought of, but hadn’t. Ama is a gifted hostess. So is my American Mom, for that matter. Hopefully it’ll rub off on me soon…

Somewhere in there, Xalti showed up, and Ama went through it all again, explaining my tealessness and offering my rice pudding as proof that I’m not hopeless, despite appearances. Both 3tti and Xalti asked for the rice pudding recipe, but I’m not sure whether it was curiosity or actual interest. They both ate a lot of it, though – Xalti polished off the baking dish – so I hope it succeeded in proving Ama’s point. Although 3tti got the last laugh: when she said she’d had enough (Baraka, which literally means “I have been blessed”, and is closely related to the name of our President Elect), she looked at me expectantly…and I realized that I didn’t know the response. I’ve always been the one to say, “Baraka, lhumdullah,” after eating someone else’s food, and never heard a murmured reply. Apparently, it’s fsHa. So Ama told me, I said it, 3tti laughed, and the Mad Hatter’s party was done.

It was after 5, the tea was mostly gone (the kids had liked it, and Ama kept hoping it would help her stomach feel better), and the rice pudding had been polished off, so everyone piled out the door. We exchanged bslamas (goodbyes) and I closed my front door with a sizeable feeling of relief. I have a mountain of dishes to do when the water comes on in the morning, plus I’ll need to clean my living room (there are stray bits of orange peel and rice grains around), but I’m still happy. I fed tea and sweets to six people and nobody died or held a grudge, so I’m calling it a passing grade.

Ar mn b3d, inshallah... (Until next time, God willing…)

November 13, 2008 Laundry Quandary

I’ve gotten pretty good at handwashing my laundry, if I do say so myself. But there’s always more to learn…

One of my secrets is letting the clothing soak in soapy water for several hours before I wash it. Everything’s faster and easier to clean when it’s been soaking for a while. I understand that it’s a little harder on the fibers, but who am I kidding: I really don’t expect any of these clothes to come back to the US. Moroccan life is hard on clothes.

The other advantage of leaving the clothes to soak is that, if I leave them on the sunny roof where I do my laundry (‘cause it’s far and away the warmest part of the house, especially on sunny days when it’s a good 20° warmer in direct sunlight than it is indoors), the water warms up. Washing clothes (or dishes, for that matter) in ice-cold water is never fun.

Yesterday, I put my clothes up on the roof to soak at around 10am, figuring I’d let them soak till noonish and then wash them and hang them to dry. But the afternoon completely got away from me, and by the time I was home, it was twilight. True, twilight comes early in my mountain valley with just over a month till the shortest day of the year, but still.

I figured that an extra 24 hours of soaking could only help clean the clothes, so I didn’t worry too much about them.

This morning, I woke up around 8. I checked my handydandy indoor-outdoor thermometer. It was 39° in my bedroom – about fridge temperature – and 33° outside, so I decided to give the laundry a couple hours to soak up some rays. Around 10am, I trotted up to the roof to start scrubbing. I figured the water would have gotten chilly overnight, but it had had the hours since dawn to re-heat in the sun…right? I brought up a big teakettle full of boiling water, just in case.

Turns out the water had FROZEN overnight. Yeeah. I guess I should have predicted that, since it was barely above freezing an hour after sunrise, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to me. So what to do? I broke and tossed the pancake-thick layer of ice from the top of the bucket of rinse water, but the buckets full of clothes were harder to deal with; they leak a little (I keep forgetting to buy new washbasins in souq), so clothes were poking above the surface like icebergs. Since there were no handy sheets of ice to lift out and toss, I ended up just pouring the boiling water over it all. Then I went down to the kitchen to boil another gallon or two of water.

Even after I mixed in all that boiling-hot water, the water still felt cold to the touch. And the first piece of clothing I grabbed – a sock – was frozen to itself in about six places. I tried to pry it apart for a minute, then shook my head and headed back downstairs. I’d need to harness a little more sunlight before any laundering would take place.

Fast-forward a few hours… The water is still cold to the touch, but the clothes aren’t frozen, so with a little scrub-a-dub-dub, everything’s soon hanging on the line, basking in the autumn sun. :) Then I go downstairs, use heated water to do the dishes (and warm up my hands), and presto chango, I’ve got a house full of clean stuff. :)

November 12, 2008 Word of the Day: ifsi (if-see)

This morning, Ama and two of her friends got up at 4am and were out by 5am to gather ifsi from the shores of the lake. It’s about 5 km away, and most of these women don’t even walk across town more than once a week, so that made for quite a hike. They’d brought a donkey, to load up with ifsi, and Ama rode it on the way out.

Ifsi is a bristle-y shrub that the sheep and goats refuse to eat, probably because it’s well protected with spikes and thorns. It’s dry, though, and burns well, so the women of Berberville gather it to burn. It catches quicker than wood, so it makes good (if painful) kindling, plus it’s free, if you don’t count labor, whereas wood is hideously expensive here. Absurdly expensive. Most of my PCV friends pay 30-60 dirhams for a donkey-load of firewood. That same donkey-load of wood brings 700 dirhams here in Berberville. The nearest forests are over an hour away, and it’s all national park…which means either going yet further to get wood or else bribing the forest guardian to let you poach trees.

Most Berberville women burn about 2/3 ifsi and 1/3 wood in their stoves. They use the stoves primarily to heat the houses, but they also keep kettles or frying pans on the top. The stoves are incredibly inefficient, but some of the otherwise-wasted heat keeps the top of the stove hot enough to boil water. Of course, if you don’t need boiling water throughout the day, the heat is still wasted. Plus most of it goes up the chimney anyway.

Berberville is an obvious place to do a project with more-efficient woodstoves; the problem is that people are reluctant to embrace change, and Berber women who still wrap themselves in blankets and speak a dying language are even more reluctant than most. A previous PCV here tried to do a stove project, but even her modest redesigns – which boiled down to a different chimney shape – were too radical to catch on. :(

I’ll keep thinking about it…

November 11, 2008 Obama Conversations

I’m still trying to keep this blog (and, for that matter, my Peace Corps service) apolitical, but I wanted to share these snippets. One quick note: For some reason, possibly related to the fact that most Moroccans I’ve met only go by one name, not two, nobody here says “Barack. Obama.” the way Americans do. It’s either just “Barack” or just “Obama” or “Barackobama” blurred into a single word. Also, the vowels get shifted to local intonations, with different emphasis so it sounds like “BAH rock oh bah mah.”

Last week, on Thursday – two days after the election – I was walking up a street in a major Moroccan city with another female Volunteer. We both noticed a man heading our direction, steadily edging towards us. We kept going, hoping for the best but braced for the worst. (Sexual harassment, usually verbal, is an ongoing challenge for female PCVs in Morocco. I try not to profile Moroccan men – I know lots of really great ones, after all – but I’d probably have been equally tense if a strange white guy edged up to me in an American city.) He opened his mouth. “Are … you,” he eked out, slowly and precisely. I gave him points for speaking to us in English, instead of the usual you-must-be-a-tourist French. He continued, with the same careful construction, “Happy … about … election … of … Barackobama?” (As we started on the next block, my friend said, “He really did say what I think he said, right?” “Yup,” I confirmed.)

Another time, walking through souq in SouqTown, I had someone try to catch my attention by calling out, “ObamaObamaObama!”

The same thing happened walking through the streets of Berberville. “ObamaObamaObama!”

Another town nearby actually threw an Obama party (Hatafl win Obama) about a week after his victory, just to celebrate. American expats provided apple pie and chocolate cake; shopowners provided peanuts, Cokes, tea, and soup.

Regardless of my own personal politics, it does make me happy to see Moroccans embracing the American presidency. :)

November 9, 2008 Ghost Town

Berberville today was eerily silent.

Berberville is usually quiet, when compared to a community that has the constant white noise of passing cars, humming air conditioners, airplanes flying overhead, etc. But today it was just noiseless. No stray bleats from sheep. No kids playing throw-the-walnut in the street. No men chattering in the café. No women discussing their shopping in the market. Nothing.

I realized that this is what Berberville would look like if the apocalypse hit. All the buildings and dirt roads would remain; all the bodies gone.

But the story-behind-the-story was much less apocalyptic: there was a community picnic up by the lake. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) was up there. It was quite a scene. ;)

November 1, 2008 Transportation Angel

I’ve met angels of all shapes and sizes during my stay here in Morocco. Some have really appeared at critical junctures to save the day…others were everyday heroes, stepping up to make my life a slightly sunshinier place. I met one of each today.

I was trying to get up to IST, aka in-service training. It’s the big six-month landmark, announcing that we’ve been Peace Corps Volunteers for half a year. There are training sessions, countless hugs from the PCVs who haven’t seen each other in months, and lots of big fun. (And the fact that ours happened to be five months in, instead of six, I suspect was caused by the confluence of Moroccan and American holidays clogging up the calendar for the next two months.)

Anyway, IST was held in a city quite a ways away from Berberville, and I’d gotten off to a later start than I’d hoped. I got to the tranzit station at 10ish, and discovered that the always-irregular transportation in this direction was, well, virtually nonexistent. Well, not exactly; there were four drivers, all happy to head north. But unless I wanted to buy out a taxi – getting a taxi kursa, as it’s known – I needed to wait for five other passengers. So I waited. And I chatted with the four drivers, all of whom were clustered in the same cab, for socialization and warmth. They mostly wanted to talk about the upcoming election. They tried to speak ill of the current administration; since we’re not supposed to engage in political conversation, I just smiled faintly and said, “He’s my President, and that’s all I have to say about that.” Or words to that effect. (Iga raysinu, safi, I believe I said. Tamazight is nothing if not succinct.) But we chatted about McCain and Obama…I learned the word for “election”…we discussed my work in Berberville and with Peace Corps…it was a good conversation. Oh, funny vocab factoids – in Arabic, “mikayn”, which is also how the Republican candidate’s name is pronounced here, means “nothing”, and “baraka” means “blessed”.

But I digress.

Around noon, we finally left Berberville. We got to the first stop on my route at 2:20. The tranzit from there to my next stop leaves every day at 2:00. So that was a problem.

It was also pouring down a heavy, icy, bone-chilling sleety rain…and I’d left my umbrella behind.

Oh, and the tranzit station is about a kilometer hike uphill from the taxi station.

So when I got to the tranzit station, and discovered that I was not only cold and wet – which I knew – but that I’d missed the only tranzit of the afternoon – which I hadn’t known – I was decidedly unhappy.

I talked to the café owner near the tranzit station, and asked him if there were any taxis heading my way (east). (East-bound taxis left from the same place as east-bound tranzits; the taxi station I’d come from only serviced north-south taxis. Why, I don’t know.) He said no, and that with such wretched weather, it was likely that no one would want to be traveling, so taxis were unlikely to show up.

I trudged back down to the north-south taxi stand. My ultimate goal was northeast…maybe I could go north instead of east. Although the next destination up that road was actually well north-west, and not really on my way at all. (Roads in Morocco make no effort to approximate a nationwide grid, like the American highway system does. They just go from city to city, and the towns are scattered pretty randomly.) So I got to the taxi stand, dropped my heavy pack (filled with books that I was returning to the Peace Corps library and/or returning to PCV friends who had loaned them to me), and ordered tea. A man sitting across the café offered to share his tea with me. Ordinarily, I would politely refuse such a request, as a way to sidestep sexual harassment scenarios, but for some reason I smiled, walked over, and joined him.

He asked me where I was going. “To the [Northwest City],” I answered.

“Well, there aren’t any taxis headed that way right now, but if you sit for a bit, something will come along.”

[Note: this conversation was all in Tam, and his accent was different from the one in Berberville, so the translations are approximate at best.]

I thanked him. The teapot arrived, and he poured me a cup. About that time, the driver from my previous taxi walked in. Who knows where he’d been, but he was now ready to wait for his taxi to fill up for its return trip to Berberville. He asked me what I was doing there. He knew I’d been hoping to go to points east, so…?

I explained that there was no way to get east, so I’d resigned myself to going northwest.

“What if nothing comes along to get you to [Northwest City]?”

“I don’t know,” I said morosely.

“What if you can’t get east, either?”

“I don’t know,” I said, even more plaintively than before.

He asked me both questions a few more times, prodding at me like a kid torturing a cornered kitten. “Are you going to go back to Berberville?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. My voice trembled, and I felt tears pushing behind my eyes.

“Are you going to stay here? There aren’t any hotels, you know.” I did know that, which was one of the reasons for the rising panic in my chest. The café owner up by the tranzit station had advised me to wait till tomorrow morning…but where could I safely stay??

“I don’t know!” I burst out. Maybe getting angry would keep the tears at bay.

“So what are you going to do?” he prodded again.

I started to cry.

“Why are you crying?” he continued relentlessly.

“Because I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO DO!” I shouted through the tears.

He pointed to my tea host. “He’s the man you want,” he said. Immediately, my shields went up. The man I wanted for what?? Could I stay with him? Should I say with him? Was this one of those scams like had happened to my friend Ryan, whose tourist visit to Morocco had ended with him imprisoned in his “host”’s house, robbed of all belongings, his cash, his watch, even the sneakers off his feet? “He’ll get you east,” he said, confidently.

“You’re going east?” I asked my tea host.

“Not exactly, but I can get you going that way,” he said. (Actually, I later figured out that must have been what he meant. At the time, I understood about two words out of what he’d said, and was **really** confused as to what the heck was going on.)

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked him.

“Because you said you were going to [Northwest City],” he answered reasonably.

“Because I couldn’t get east,” I whined through fresh tears.

He said something I understood none of.

“So when are we leaving?” I asked him.

“As soon as you finish your tea,” he answered.

I swallowed the last sip and stood up. I still didn’t understand what was going on, but as far as I could tell, this guy would get me east. I figured he must own a camio (truck) and was planning to transport some merchandise eastwards. That would make my travel hitchhiking, which Peace Corps strictly forbids, but between the cold, the wet, and my general misery, I really didn’t care. If he could get me out of the rainy town where I’d feared I’d be trapped for the night, he was a hero.

…and he was. But as we walked the kilometer back up the hill, and chatted a bit, I figured out that he wasn’t a camio driver. I reconsidered the scraps of information I’d understood. Maybe he was a fellow traveler, heading eastwards with me.

A few mistaken conclusions later, he put me into an almost-full taxi heading east. (It was around a bend and over a hill from the tranzit station, which is why I hadn’t seen it before.) It had five people, and was waiting for the sixth. Me. I wondered if he was being generous in letting me take the space he wanted…but no. He’s the kurti for that rainy mountain town, which means that all of the taxi transportation falls under his supervision. I couldn’t have fallen into any hands better suited to getting me on my way to IST…and he just happened to be the guy who offered me tea when I was cold and wet.

I’m going with angel. J

Oh, and the ordinary hero? The fifth of the five guys already packed into the taxi. My left side was squished into the door, my right side squished against him. I’ve come to accept the squishing endemic in grand taxi transportation, and not always assume malicious intent on the part of the men whose bodies are pressed into mine… But when the Fifth Guy shoved into his buddies in order to create more space for me, I smiled at his thoughtfulness.

A little later, Fifth Guy said something in Arabic. I blinked at him, then said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Arabic, just Tamazight.” While I was getting that out (which I say almost daily, so it flows glibly off the tongue), he made a hand motion that clearly meant … something … about the amount of space between us. I’d known that I was getting the full 25% of the backseat that I was entitled to, but which I almost never actually get, so I said, “Kez shwiya?” (“Scootch over a bit?”) and pushed myself harder into the door, twisting up onto one hip like I nearly always do when riding in a grand taxi.

“No, no, I’m saying that *I* should scootch over a bit,” he explained, and was immediately as good as his word, shoving his buddies further over. I thanked him, but explained that there was no need – I already had a generous amount of space. “No, no,” he insisted, “We’re used to being crowded like this, but you’re not.” (And I actually understood every word he was saying! Always a fun feeling. Wllf is the very useful verb that means “to be accustomed to” or “to be used to”.)

“No,” I corrected him, “I’m used to it, too. I’ve lived in Morocco for eight months.”

That surprised him, and he asked me why…which led to another fun Peace Corps conversation.

But in all the dozens of grand taxi rides I’ve taken, I’ve never once had someone offer to make more room for me. And Fifth Guy did. Which makes him both exceptional and as perfectly normally gracious as Moroccan hospitality always is. I’m just not used to hospitality extending to transportation.

So one miraculous intervention, one perfectly ordinarily nice guy… And by nightfall, I was in a friend’s house, within half an hour of the IST city, enjoying good friends and good times.

Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. :)


November 4, 2008 Election Day!

IST continues… The sessions are great, as are the social interactions with fellow PCVs, but all the excitement right now is focused on the election. I’m very grateful to be in a group of Americans right now…I’d still be following the results avidly, wherever I happened to be, but being in a building with sixty or so PCVs (counting the RPCV Peace Corps staffers), in a room with 29 other Americans who have committed at least two years of their lives in the service of their country and world peace…

I know that the election night parties in America must be pretty amazing, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Sessions ended about six hours ago. I probably should have taken a nap, but instead I went out to eat American food (one of the perks of being in a real city for IST, as opposed to a little rural town like SouqTown), did a little shopping (got a pie pan, a mixing bowl, and Qtips, all at bargain prices), and then came back to the hotel, where I settled down for a long winter’s listening-to-CNN-coverage night.

I spent the past few hours working on grant proposals for some projects I want to do in Berberville. (Several of the sessions have dealt directly with how to do just that – IST is nothing if not responsive to our needs!)

I might not have been quite so diligent if my wireless were working…the hotel offers wireless internet (ah, Moroccan hotels of the 21st century – still no bathrooms in the rooms, but wireless internet is here!), but my little internal antenna isn’t doing anything useful. Ah, well. I have one grant proposal nearly finished and another about half done.

The hotel owner has gone all out for us…there’s a huge flatscreen TV on the wall, two big carafes of coffee (plus a mountain of sugar), ginormous bowls of popcorn… And we’ve gone all out, too. A couple volunteers drew up our own Election Map on flipchart paper, and we have crayons at the ready to color the states in red and blue. Some others commissioned an ice-cream cake that read “[Candidate] 2008”.

(While I won’t deny that most of us here feel strongly about our presidential choice – and most of us agree – I’m still trying to keep this blog apolitical.)

…and now it’s 11:22 PM, aka less than half an hour after the first polls closed in the Eastern states, and we’re riveted to CNN and their goofy holograms. :D

PS: Quote of the Day: “Honestly, I have fun at Moroccan Ahay Deuce weddings. All the dancing around…” [voice trails off in face of withering skepticism] “OK, yeah, there’s also the confusion, bewilderment, and general feeling of fear, but there’s definitely fun mixed in.”

November 3, 2008 Training

I’m back with friends from training! Six months (well, five, but who’s counting) into our service, we’re gathered together for In-Service Training, cleverly referred to as IST. We’re having sessions on lots of useful topics, but I confess that I find the most valuable aspect is the quality time with so many good friends.

Only a few of these folks are anywhere near me…my nearest stage-mate is B*, from my CBT group, about 3 hours across the mountains; the next closest is 4.5 hours away down the mountains. So they’re not exactly close by. Well, it’s also because Berberville is one of the most isolated sites in the country. We’re not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but we are definitely in the middle of big, lonely mountains.

So getting to see them all – getting to re-establish and renew the connections built during our first three months in Morocco – is a real joy. The only thing that would make it better would be the presence of the five folks whose Peace Corps careers ended early. You guys are missed.

But still, being back with the other Volunteers is fantastic enough to more than make up for the fact that our training site is one of the coldest cities in the country…not quite as cold as Berberville, but awfully chilly. As M*, Peace Corps staff member and true-blue-lover of American idioms said, “It’s freaking cold!” (I have to say, hearing “freaking cold” come out of the mouth of a five-foot tall Berber lady is a genuine source of joy in my life.) I spent all last night shivering under three blankets, though I was warmly dressed: tank top, long underwear top, sweat pants. Tonight I’ll add long underwear bottoms and wool socks. And another blanket.

Quote of the day: “I’m not a chameleon-ologist, but…”
“Benhamin” telling us of his frustrating conversation with a Moroccan who didn’t believe his assurances that chameleons aren’t poisonous. The guy had coaxed a chameleon into a plastic bag, in hopes of killing it and eating it (or part of it) for medicinal purposes, but was terrified of it. “Benhamin” was trying to reassure him, but was vociferously argued down.
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