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3/26/09 Blogging hiatus

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog-cast to inform you that, well, there will be an interruption in the regular schedule of blogs.

I'm about to leave for a trip to "Spring Camp", the week-long English Language Immersion Camp for high school students. It may not be what Americans imagine "Spring Break" should look like - most of the Camps aren't on the beach, for one thing - but it should be a great time for us all, PCVs and students alike.

I'll be co-leading English classes and a geography club with a fellow PCV. Should be big fun. :D

The Camp is in a big enough city that I should have regular access to a cybercafe, which means that I may be able to post blogs during the next two weeks or so that I'm traveling and teaching, but in case I can't, I wanted to give y'all a heads-up as to why.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to take advantage of the hiatus to go back through my archives. I've written something like 350 blog entries, on a huge range of topics; feel free to see what you've missed, or revisit some favorites. :)

3/25/09 Picture Page - Lake at Dawn

About a week and a half ago, the Morocco Country Director and I took a walk out to my lovely lake. We left not long after dawn, and watched golden light pour down the sides of the mountains we walked past.

We got to the lake in about an hour. (It's a 5k walk, all up a gradual incline.) No one was up when we left town, and I got to enjoy the sight of my mountain village in its silent, slumbering calm. We weren't quite the only ones awake - we did pass a shepherd and his sheep as we walked, plus a bouncy shepherd puppy decided to herd us. It ran eager laps around us the whole way up and back, delightedly urging us on.

Out at the lake, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves. Even the coots (black and white ducks) that live on the lake were still nestled in their nests. I couldn't resist the appeal of the water's mirror-like stillness, so I shot several pictures of my mountains and their reflections. This one looks almost due east. You can see that the sun has risen over the horizon, but it hasn't yet breached the mountains - my horizon - so we're left with the pearly pink light of the earliest morning.

3/24/09 Antecedents and Tables

Peace Corps Volunteers regularly stumble over vocabulary. We reach for a word, and can't find it.

Everybody knows this. After all, we're learning a language that has no common root with English.

But what is less well known is that this happens not only in our "target language" - be it Tamazight, Darija, or what have you - but in English.

When it happens, the PCV usually slaps their forehead and/or the table and says something like, "I'm losing my English."

You'd be amazed what words we forget. I watched a 2nd-year Volunteer, just a week before finishing her service and returning to the US for the first time in 27 months, struggle to find the word roof. She ended up giving its Tam equivalent - STr - which a friend translated for her.

Last week, I forgot the word table. Fortunately, I was sitting at one, and I tapped it fervidly while staring at my American friend, wide-eyed. "Table?" she offered. I hung my head. "Yes, table," I said with a sigh, then shook my head and continued my sentence.

A few minutes later, the word antecedent tripped off my tongue. I interrupted the point I was making - about the challenging Tamazight pronoun rules - and demanded of my friend, "How can I remember antecedent and forget table???" She just laughed and assured me that it happens to us all.

3/23/09 The Peach Juice Incident

Scenes like this one take place every day, on public transportation across Morocco:

Several people are sitting in close quarters. The awkward conversation and slightly-more-formal greetings indicate that this is a crowd of strangers. One of the group reaches into his travel case and pulls out a liter container of peach juice. He offers it to one of his neighbors, who accepts it without hesitation. The neighbor unscrews the lid and finds the small plasticine seal. This juice carton has never been opened. He tears off the seal and drops it. He takes a few satisfying pulls, then hands it to another traveler. This one takes a drink and passes it on.

By the time the carton of peach juice gets back to its owner, it's at least half gone, and now covered in the germs of half a dozen strangers.

Which doesn't faze him the least bit.

He raises it to his lips and takes a long pull, nearly draining it. Then he rescrews the cap, saving the tiny remainder for the next time he - or someone else - gets thirsty.

This particular scene took place a few weeks ago, and was witnessed by our CD while he was traveling to visit us. It's remarkable because it's so very unremarkable here. Food is meant to be shared. Hospitality - even (perhaps especially) with strangers - outweighs self-satisfaction. And germophobia doesn't exist.

This incident sounds odd, even unlikely, to American audiences, but it's just a perfectly routine event here in l-Maghrb.


3/22/09 Tree Planting!

Friday was the Spring (Vernal) Equinox, and Saturday was the "International Day of Trees". Here in Berberville, it's been a tree-riffic weekend. :)

I've spent most of the past week preparing for this weekend's tree planting. My sitemate "Fatima" and I have met with (and requested participation from) nearly every official and influential citizen in our village: the caid, the khalifa, the moqaddim, the president of the commune (the local legislature), the principal of the junior high and high school, the principal of the three local elementary schools, the president of the parent-teacher association, the president and treasurer of Berberville's biggest NGO, the local representative of the province's biggest NGO, the police chief, and teachers from each of the five schools in the region. We've been working for months with my counterpart, the engineer and director of the nearby national park, to supply and transport the trees from their nursery, about 6 hours to the northeast, into our village. And it worked! This weekend, we planted 500 trees and hosted a "Tree Summit" attended by 16 men (including the caid, khalifa, and most of the other men previously listed), 3 women (all teachers), 131 boys, and 66 girls. That's 200 people out of a village of 1500 or so. :D

Here it is: That was the indoor part of the tree-planting. It was scheduled for Saturday at 2:00, and I'd anticipated it would run 30-45 minutes. For a variety of reasons, it ended up starting at 3:00, and lasting about two hours. At 5, we headed out to Plant Some Trees. Fortunately, we'd done the legwork in advance...

The work started on Sunday, when we went to the junior high/high school campus (the two schools share a campus). We measured the dimensions of the school, decided where we'd put the trees, and figured how many we could place there. Then, on Tuesday, we took spray paint and marked the locations.

Monday and Tuesday, we met with the Caid, the Khalifa, the president of the PTA, and the president of the Commune. It took two meetings apiece, but we ended up getting tools - ten picks and ten shovels - donated by the Commune. I wasn't sure what the picks would be needed for, but I soon learned. Turns out that if you break up the soil with a pick, shoveling it out of the way is eeeeeasy. If you try to dig a hole in this abused, eroded, snow-buried, sun-baked soil with just a shovel, it's frustrating and very nearly impossible.

Armed with picks and shovels, we returned to the campus on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to dig the holes. We attracted quite a crowd, most of whom were happy to help out. :) (In the background, you can see the edge of a mural that we painted with our club students a few weekends ago.)

This shows "Fatima" and the principal of the junior high/high school, breaking up soil and preparing tree-holes. SouqTown's Chief Engineer for the High Commissariat on Water and Forestry and the Fight against Desertification - the official title of my counterpart - had advised that we wanted holes to be about a 50 cm across and about 50 cm deep. So we dug in. (Pun intended.)

Here I am, posing with two of our helpers, students from the junior high. There was a constantly changing flow of students, some of whom helped for a few minutes, some for hours. Due to the never-ending flux, I don't have a good headcount for how many students helped. I do know that we had girls, boys, young men, and young women. I counted as many as 20 at one time, and think it's fair to say that, between Wednesday and Saturday, at least 100, and probably as many as half of the 500 students on campus, swung a pick or hefted a shovel at least once. :D

Water and Forestry staffers drove the trees up on Thursday. They left half at the campus, and put the other half in Fatima's front hall. Saturday morning, we brought Berberville's elementary school their trees. We'd offered them as many as 100, but they had places for 64. Above, you can see three of the dozens of children and parents who showed up to dig the holes and plant the trees. The tree in question is tiny - barely a sprout - but we're hoping that the students will provide the TLC to encourage its growth into a big, strong Aleppo Pine tree.

Here are a high school teacher, a PCV ("Lahcen"), the principal of the elementary school, my 9-year-old host brother, and another elementary student, all collaborating to plant a tiny Cypress.

Here's a tiny cypress already showing signs of love. Without prompting, students watered it and made a protective ring of stones to ensure that it's not accidentally stepped on. :)

We planted about 300 trees on Saturday, all at local schools. On Sunday, the other 200 were planted, at other schools and here, at the caidat (aka the Caid's administrative compound). The big cypress trees were there already; the brown circles with nearly-invisible green sprigs at their center are the newly planted trees.

All in all, I'm completely thrilled with how well this went. We had help from six Peace Corps Volunteers, dozens of teachers, parents, and other Berberville citizens, and hundreds of kids. Over 200 people showed up for Water & Forestry presentations on the virtues of environmentalism in general and trees in particular, and many, many more helped to implant hundreds of trees in Berberville.

The continuing concern, of course, is caring for these tiny trees. My hope is that they will be a tangible contribution to Berberville's ongoing formal and informal environmental education. I love the idea of students protecting and watering these fledgling saplings, ultimately creating a forest of their very own. :D


3/21/09 Tree Day!

The official Arbor Day Foundation website ( makes no reference to Morocco, so I don't know if today's Jour Mondiale des Arbres should be translated as "Arbor Day" or just "International Day of Trees," but either way, it's an excuse to celebrate arboreal splendor.

I've spent the last few months laying groundwork for a tree-planting today. This week has had a massive upswing in effort: I've met with every single influential person in this village, and nearly all of them more than once. The result: Thursday, 500 trees were delivered to my village. Today, about half were planted; tomorrow, the other half will be. I'll go into more detail about that tomorrow, plus I hope to post pictures (though blogspot is being difficult lately, so there may be more of a wait on those).

There are tree-plantings and other environmental activities going on all over Morocco today. As a life-long tree-hugger, this makes me very, very happy.

3/20/09 Berberville's Highways and Byways

I've mentioned before that Berberville has two (and only two) paved roads. Neither has a name, that I'm aware of, though there may be one on a map somewhere. It's just the Road To Souqtown (or the Road To [Insert name of village between here and Souqtown]) and the Road To That One Village North Of Us.

Everything else is known as a znqt, or alleyway.

In the nine months I've lived in Berberville, it's been interesting to observe how these different roadways are used. Probably 80% of the income-generating enterprises (hotels, cafes, shops) and of the government buildings are on one of the two paved roads. But about 95% of the citizens live on a znqt.

I happen to live on the Road To SouqTown. I have exactly one neighbor, my uncle the moqaddim, though I can see many families' houses from my roof - they live in other directions, or are set one building back from the road.

I've always taken the paved roads when walking through town. They're wide, smooth, amenable to brisk walking (I still walk like a New Yorker), and filled with people I say hi to. Plus, the 10 streetlights that Berberville can lay claim to are nearly all along these streets, so when I'm walking home from dinner at my host family's house or my sitemate's house, I use my LED flashlight much less. The only time I took the znqts were when I was walking with my host mom. Since she rarely goes out - we went to the hammam a couple times, and she walked me home from her house maybe twice, but those are the only times we've crossed town together - I didn't think much about the fact that she stuck to the back paths.

I never really thought about my habit of using the paved streets until the night of my cousin's wedding. A group of ladies walked me home around 1am, not because the party was over, but because I kept dozing off. :)

None of us were carrying a flashlight, so I tried to get the group to walk along the lighted no avail. I talked about the lighting, the unevenness of the dirt path, the safety of avoiding dark alleys in the middle of the night...nothing. So I stumbled over rocks and hillocks until we got to the intersection with the main road that's just a few steps from my front door, and there they left me.

That was the first time I realized just how dedicated the women and girls of Berberville are to avoiding the main streets.

There are some who will stride along the pavement, wrapped in their sheets and shawls and capes, but the majority - the vast majority - stick to the znqts.

I know many reasons: avoiding the crowds at The Intersection, aka Downtown Berberville; avoiding the stares of the men who loiter in the cafes lining the streets; staying out of traffic (of every variety - trucks, bikes, mules - though mules and sheep take both the paved streets and the back ways); plus, the znqt paths are often shortcuts.

But I stuck to the main roads, mostly out of habit. I'd also gotten slightly lost, the few times I'd tried some of the back paths. OK, true, you can't get too lost in a village this small, but I did end up at a dead end and have to back track a few dozen yards. :)

I've lately begun to rethink my habits. There has been an uptick in the level of violent crime in my formerly sleepy village, and suddenly it makes more sense to stay out of the main roads - out of the sight of the loitering and shopping and coffee-drinking men.

Plus, these paths really are shortcuts, once you learn them. Or so I tell myself whenever I step off the pavement to slip down a znqt...


3/19/09 My Berber Tan

Anyone who knows me knows that I don't tan. I'm ridiculously fair-skinned, and the best I can do is freckle. I have a lot of freckles. One summer when I was around 13, I tried to count them all.

I started at my fingernails and counted down the backs of my hands. I lost count around 200, and I'd only done the fingers.

But no matter how many freckles you have, it's not a tan.

Or so I thought.

Throughout this cold high-mountain winter, I've taken refuge in the mid-afternoon sun, either hanging out on my roof or going out for a walk. Then I took a trip to Merzouga, and spent a few days in the Sahara. In the summer, it'll get up to 130 or 140 at noon, but in February, it's the perfect temperature for being out all day. :)

When I got back to Berberville, I stopped in to see my host family. Between work and that vacation, I hadn't seen them in a week or two. Ama took one look at me and said, "You look Berber!" She continued, "When you first got here, you were all white and red." (That's a side-effect of tanless skin: frequent sunburns.) "Remember how Rebha used to call you a tomato?" Oh, yes, I remember it well. It made her laugh, every time. "But now your skin is brown, like mine. You look Berber! You really are Ait Hadidu now. You're not a tomato anymore. You have good color now."

I have good color now. :)

Color is an interesting thing in Morocco. The full human color palate is represented here, from ivory-skinned expats and blue-eyed Berbers through the golden-colored Arabs and Berbers all the way to mahogany-brown descendants of sub-Saharan Africans. Racism, or more accurately color-ism, is depressingly common. Many share the wide-spread belief that paler is better; some women therefore use products like "Fair & Lovely", a skin-bleaching cream (that actually turns skin chalky and, when abused, almost corpse-like). Dark-skinned Moroccans and PCVs are routinely called ugly names.

So the fact that my implausibly tanned skin was seen as an just one on a long list of reasons why I love my host mom. :D

And yeah, I'm noticeably tan. Every square millimeter of my face has at least one freckle, so if you look closely, you can see that some are light and some are dark, but from a few feet away, it just looks tan. My hair shades my hairline just enough that there's a line of pale skin at the edge of my forehead, giving me the look of an unskilled sunless-tanner. Plus, my Moroccan-style modesty (which keeps me covered from neck to wrist to ankle) means that my feet have a Teva-tan while my legs remain blindingly white, and my hands are much darker than my arms.

But whatever. I have good color. :)


3/18 Cell Phones

My Facebook status currently says that I "<3 phone plans". What does that mean?

Lemme 'splain.

In America, where around 80% of my readers live, nearly everybody has a cell phone, and nearly everybody with a cell phone has a contract with Cingular, Verizon, or whatever other cell provider of choice. In Morocco, nearly everybody has cell phones, but almost nobody has contracts. I live in the land of the pay-as-you-go cell phones. You walk to your local hanoot or teleboutique, hand them cash, and buy a "recharge card". These cards come in values that match the denominations of the currency (which I imagine makes making change eeasier): 10dh, 20dh, 50dh, 100dh, 200dh, 500dh, 1000dh. About one week out of every three, Maroc Telecom offers "double recharge", when they'll double the value of your card. That is, for 10dh, you buy a 10dh card, but you get 20dh added to your phone.

(Tangent: This is actually incredibly convenient for visitors and tourists. For 10dh, which is about 1 Euro, aka less than 2 bucks, you can buy a new SIM card for your phone, and then buy a recharge card worth 10 or 20 or 50 dh, and *bing* you can make cell phone calls in Morocco.)

So this is how Moroccan cell phones work: You buy a recharge card, add the value to your phone, make calls and/or send text messages until you've run out of money, buy another card... Lather, rinse, repeat.

Calls are 5 dh/minute, text messages are 1 dh/150 characters, and beeping is free.

Beeping? What is this "beeping" you speak of?

This aspect of cell phone culture was new to me in Morocco. Maybe it's common in some circles in the US, but not among people I know.

When you "beep" someone, you just call their phone, let it ring once or twice, then hang up before they pick up the phone. They'll hear the ring, see your name & number, but as long as they don't pick it up, there's no charge. Within Peace Corps, we PCVs use it to get in touch with our staff. We beep them, and they call us back on Peace Corps' dime. Among Moroccans, it's a free way to send a thinking-of-you message.

And it's incredibly common.

There are a couple side effects. For one, people never pick up the phone before the third or fourth ring, to avoid accidentally costing money to someone who might just be beeping them. Ringtones are at least as noisy and varied here as in the US, and probably more so, so this can be fairly obnoxious to everyone within earshot. Also, it means that whenever I've made a new Moroccan friend and exchanged phone numbers with them, I'm guaranteed to get a few beeps within the next week or so, as a way of saying, "Hi, remember me?" These come at any hour of the day or night, which can be annoying, plus I'm also a beeping-troglodyte, so I find the whole practice a bit goofy.

But I digress.

As I said, the vast majority of cell phone owners use the pay-as-you-go recharge card approach, and have no contracts. Maroc Telecom, which is far and away the largest cell company in Morocco, wants to encourage the use of contracts. So they offer an interesting deal: if you pick your two favorite people, you can call them whenever you want, for as long as you want, all for a flat fee. It's not cheap - around 200dh a month, aka 10% of our monthly salary - but it pays for itself if you talk to these two folks for half an hour a month or more. Plus, it *encourages* you to talk to these two folks, both to get your money's worth and just because you know you can.

At 5 dh/minute, we PCVs don't tend to make a lot of phone calls. We send 1 dh texts, instead. But if you're on a "phone plan", as these contracts are called, you can talk up a storm...with your two favorite people. (More accurately, your two favorite people not including those you share a souq town with, whom you see and talk to often enough already.)

So putting somebody "on your phone plan" is a big deal. It means "talking to you is worth 5% of my salary." We PCVs joke that it's the sign of when a relationship has become serious. :)

One of *my* favorite PCVs started dating someone a few months ago, and just recently decided to get a phone plan. And we all know what that means. ;)

Of course, phone plans have *two* blanks on them. So she put down the names of her honey and ME! :D (Feelin' the love...) We've been close friends since stage, but rarely talk on the phone because of the prohibitive expense. In fact, we traveled across the country to see each other about as often as we phoned each other.

But now, thanks to the phone plan, we can talk whenever we want! When I'm having a good day or a bad day or overwhelming day or a happy day or whatever, I can either wait for her to call me, and tell her all about it, or else I can beep her and she'll call me and I can tell her all about it. :D

And vice versa, except that she can just place the call.

So in the past ... four? five? ... days, she and I have had two long conversations, one about an hour, the other about 45 minutes.

That would have been over 500dh in the pre-phone-plan world, but now it's no big deal! :)

Therefore, I <3 phone plans.



3/17/09 Worktastic Monday

6:00am Alarm goes off.

6:10am Alarm goes off again. Get up and dressed.

6:30am Meet CD for sunrise tour of Berberville, featuring a walk to the lake (10 km roundtrip). Discuss parenting strategies, puppies, gender relations in Morocco, Peace Corps policies and the enforcement thereof, the peach juice incident, homosexuality in Morocco, Volunteer attitudes towards Peace Corps staff, Morocco's differing types of natural beauty, Berberville's geological wonders, and Crazy Dancing Man.

8:45am Share breakfast with CD, Fatima, and her host parents.

9:15am Run up the mountain to my host family's house, to make sure Ama is prepared to host lunch with CD.

9:20am Promise to acquire half kilo of chicken for said lunch.

9:30am Discover that there is no chicken for sale anywhere in Berberville. The butcher truck hasn't arrived yet from the nearest larg-ish town.

9:34am Try to call Ama to ask for her second-choice meat. Call doesn't go through.

9:40am Buy half kilo of the leg hanging from the butcher's hook. Might be sheep. Might be goat. Rbi daysin.

9:50am Deliver meat to Ama, with apologies for its obvious non-chicken-ness.

10:00am Rejoin Fatima and CD. Continue discussion of Peace Corps programs, policies, etc.

11:00am Walk down to college campus (2 km) to (1) show the CD our murals, and (2) talk to the mudir abour our plan to plant a couple hundred trees on his campus.

12:00pm Walk to my host family's house (2 km) for lunch.

12:15pm Stop in at the weaving cooperative, so Fatima can show the CD what she does.

12:25pm Run into two French teachers from the school. I explain our tree-planting plans and ask them for various kinds of support - all in French. CD looks on while Fatima explains why Morocco PCVs need to know either French or Darija.

12:30pm Stop at the hanut, where CD buys host presents for the folks feeding and housing him.

12:35pm Say hi to the moqaddim, my uncle.

12:45pm Finally make it to my host family's house. Eat a fabulous lunch prepared by the bestest host mother ever.

1:45pm Walk to a cafe to wait for the tranzit which will take the CD to his next PCVs.

1:50pm CD takes a phone call; Fatima goes to the post office to check on our mail.

2:10pm Arrive at the cafe. Drink cocoa.

2:30pm Say goodbye to CD. Promise to keep him updated on thoughts about PC and how our tree-planting works out.

2:35pm Walk to Caid's office. He's still at lunch/siesta, so sit and wait. Text friends about tree-planting. Discover that virtually all of them have decided to do tree plantings, too, so they can't come help with ours. Curse you, Arbor Day! (Kidding. Of course it's a *fantastic* thing that so many trees will be planted across the province. But it's also, y'know, inconvenient.)

3:30pm Meet with Caid. Explain tree-planting, source of trees, plan for planting, sites for planting, community partners, goals, long-term maintenance, logistics, and about 75 other things. The Caid speaks Arabic and French, so this entire conversation is in high-speed French. Then he remembers that a few weeks ago, we came to meet with him, didn't find him, and left a plan of action for February and March. (I'd written it in English and French, then sent it to Peace Corps, where smart people who took all of their college courses in French fixed up my phrasings, idioms, and word choices. This revamped document was the one we'd left for the Caid.) So he takes out this document, reads through it, and asks us about the status of each action item. In French. Then he explains that, given the king's imminent trip to Berberville (rescheduled from December to, inshallah, April), and the king's commitment to environmental protection, this tree-planting is a key piece of the Berberville Improvement Plan. To underscore the importance of the king's visit, he shares with us the budget that he hopes the king will approve and fund, for Berberville's Capital-I-Improvement. The dollar (OK, dirham) figures make my eyes bulge out and my head spin. At this point, I start translating everything for Fatima. I'd been leaving her out of the conversation, since everything the Caid and I were discussing was stuff that she and I had talked about beforehand, and at length. But this stuff was (1) news to both of us and (2) requiring some serious processing, and translating bought me some time. We wrap up the conversation with him reiterating his support for our tree-planting and saying that we should let him know if we need anything. My head whirling from the highspeed French and higher-speed translations (for the final 10 minutes), I follow Fatima out of the Caidat. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, he decided to call my counterpart and request an extra 500 trees for government properties. Of which he's added a few to our planting-sites-list.

4:15pm Head to meet Fatima's host dad (FHD), who has asked us to visit his preschool and decide where to place his share of the trees.

4:20pm Apologize profusely for being late. (We were supposed to meet him at 4.) FHD, Fatima, and I start to walk to the preschool.

4:23pm My phone flashes CAID OF BERBERVILLE. I blink, then answer it. He's saying that he's contacted the head of the Berberville PTA, who he promised would help us with digging the holes and planting the trees. (This was the "community partners" part of the conversation.) Mr. PTA is waiting for us across town. I explain this to Fatima in English, then try to explain it to FHD in Tam, but it comes out in French. Fortunately, he speaks French - better than I do - so he understands, and accompanies us to meet with Mr. PTA.

4:25pm Meet with Mr. PTA. He says that his group will only help out at the mdrasa, one of the now-four? five? sites where we'll plant over a hundred trees. We thank him for this much help, but continue to hope that some of the parents will choose to help us at the nearby Caidat or Commune building (the latest addition to our list of worksites). Mr. PTA also mentions that the Commune owns a large number of shovels and pickaxes, and offers a few more useful suggestions and pointers. This meeting takes place in a blend of Tam, French, and English - all languages that Mr. PTA speaks fluently, and all of which are crowding each other in my head.

4:35pm Return to the preschool for our 4:00 meeting. FHD knows exactly where he wants the trees, insists he will dig all the holes himself, on his day off, and is generally just fantastic.

4:45pm I make Fatima promise that I don't have to speak anything but English for the rest of the day.

4:46pm We decide to stop at the gendarmarie, in hopes of meeting with the police chief (who we've been missing for the past couple of days). He's not there, we discover through a mix of Tam, French, and Arabic.

4:50pm Walking home, we pass some Tam-speaking Berberville colleagues. Walking up to them, I mutter to Fatima, "You have to do all the talking." She agrees, but of course, I run through all the (Arabic) greeting phrases, and then we all chat for a minute, in Tam. We turn down repeated invitations for tea, coffee, or beer. (BEER?!? Yes. He was trying to be funny. Or else to imply that we're prostitutes. With this guy, you never can tell.)

4:55pm We run into my cousin and Fatima's colleague. (Both female.) We hug, kiss, chat (in Tam, of course). My baby cousin Layla is there, too, so I pick her up and get a baby kiss - the perfect antidote to linguistic meltdown.

5:00pm Only 11 hours later, I'm back home. Fatima gives me a few minutes to decompress (I make cocoa and eat chocolate chip cookies), then we sit down and plan out our To-Do list for the next couple of days. It's long. Actually, our list for tomorrow morning is about as long as our list for today.

6:00pm Fatima goes home. I go online and start writing this. I also check emails, translate some French engineer-ese for a friend, identify potential funding sources for this and future projects, chat about plans for a science club at the upcoming English Language Immersion Camp, write a few emails, console an overwrought friend, and read today's comics. Three and a half hours later, I'm done. (So done.)

Just another Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. A *good* day. :)


3/16/09 Sunday's CD Visit

In PeaceCorps-speak, I'd say that the PC/M CD is doing a site visit today.

In English, I'd say that the Country Director for Peace Corps-Morocco is visiting me. Knowing that he'd be coming, but not knowing if he'd visit our houses, I decide to tidy up anyway. I've been under the weather for a few days, so the clutter/dirty dishes/detritus from my last trip/etc has been piling up.

Shortly after I resolve to clean - like, literally, within five minutes - my sitemate "Fatima" appears at my door, like a godsend from a very tidy heaven. :) She does my dishes and organizes my kitchen while I scrub the bathroom. (When some friends cleaned paint buckets in my bathroom a few weeks back, they inadvertently coated my bathroom floor with a layer of greenish paint scum.) Then she sweeps the bathroom and foyer while I pick up the living room. An embarrassingly large percentage of that consists of shoving the clutter into my bedroom, but, well, oops. This is the first day in months I've felt warm enough walking around my apartment without carrying a butagaz heater. That's the other primary contributor to the mess: it's just been too cold to clean.

Once the house looks presentable, she and I head to the high school campus to prepare for next weekend's tree planting. We measure walls, sketch a map of the campus, and make decisions about where to put the trees.

After we finish there, we head back to my sparkly house to redraw the sketch-map and do some math. The campus is far from being a perfect square - the walls jig and jag all over the place - so it reminds me of those SAT math problems. (Find the area of this irregular shape, where we provide the lengths of 5 of the 9 walls.) After a little figuring, we realize that we can actually plant nearly all of the 500 trees in and around the campus. My original goal had been to distribute them throughout the village and outlying areas, but given the amount of mischief the students tend to get into when they're only minimally supervised, I'm reconsidering that plan. Plus, I had no idea just how big the campus is. We can make it a forest. :)

Then we assemble the shovels; they're sold in two pieces, wooden handle and metal shovel-head, and it's the buyer's job to put them together strongly enough to, y'know, shovel stuff. More accurately, Fatima assembles the shovels while I bake chocolate chip cookies.

Then we head out on afternoon errands. We go to the gendarme's office. The campus adjoins the old gendarmarie, and we want to plant some trees outside the school grounds, so we want official permission before we invade government property. ;) Turns out the chief is out of the office, so we'll have to try that again tomorrow.

Then it's off to my host family's house to remind them that the Country Director is coming to town and will stop by for food sometime soon.

But for only the ... second? ... time since I've been in Berberville, I find the house closed, locked, and abandoned. I can't imagine why *everybody* is gone. It's not a holiday, so there's no reason for everyone to go to a family dinner or something. It's not hammam day, because Ama was there on Friday. Just then, a neighbor wanders by, explaining that Ama has gone over to my 3tti's house. He has his wife walk us there (though I certainly know the way!), and she waits until somebody responds to the knock at the door. It's my beautiful cousin N**, who I haven't seen in far too long. She's delighted to see me, and I feel suddenly guilty for never popping over for tea. She ushers us in, has us say hi to her visiting brother-in-law (who I haven't seen since his wedding, five months ago) and her dad, then sits us down in the fancy-guest-reception room. (My 3tti's house is niiiiice.)

It's fairly obvious that Ama and the rest of the family are nowhere around, but after seeing N**'s delight, I can't bring myself to say, "Sorry, I was just looking for my mom, but since she's not around, I'll be off, thanks!"

So Fatima and I sit down for tea and cookies. Pretty soon N**'s sister (the newlywed!) and a friend come in, and we all sit and munch. Unfortunately, I know that the CD's arrival is imminent, so I'm slightly edgy.

Sure enough, he texts me just as I'm halfway through some bread-and-jam. I inhale the rest of it as fast as possible, apologize profusely while explaining that our mudir is waiting for us, and then Fatima and I bolt.

We head for the post office, aka the informal taxi stand. He's not there. Just as Fatima and I are exchanging concerned glances, he texts me again, saying, "I'm at your house." Fatima and I discuss this en route to my place.

I ask her, "Do you think he knows our Moroccan names? Because everybody knows where Kawtar lives, but I don't think anybody could help him find Liz's house."

She observes, "All he has to do is ask for the tarumit's house."

"Yeah," I counter, "But he might have ended up at your house."

"You live closer to the taxi stand," she points out.

"So what do you think are the odds he's actually at my house?" I ask.

She doesn't answer, but says, "Let's take the shortcut." We slip through the back alleys (OK, dirt paths - Berberville doesn't have actual alleyways, but folks use the same word - znqt - for both dingy city alleys and the narrow dirt-paved spaces between village houses).

We pop out of the znqt half a block from my house. At first, I don't see anything, but then I notice a suspiciously tall shadow in the inset doorway just before mine. "Ah, illa!" I exclaim. Hey, he's there! At the sound of my voice, he turns.

I unlock my door and invite him in. He hesitates, which makes me love his cultural sensitivity. "Are you sure it's OK?"

I explain, "The rule is, no men can enter my house except for my 'brothers of Peace Corps'. You can be an 'uncle of Peace Corps'. It's fine." Also, Fatima's presence makes a huge difference. I've discovered that Moroccans will imagine all manner of inappropriate things between two opposite-gendered people sequestered together, but if there are three people present (or really, any number higher than two), everything is instantly above-board.

So we go up into my apartment, and I say a silent prayer of thanks that (a) I decided to clean this morning and (b) Fatima arrived to help. We go into my sparkly kitchen - slightly dirtier as a result of the cookie baking, but still waaaay better than it looked when I woke up this morning - and I make us tea while Fatima brings the chocolate chip cookies to the living room.

At one point, he's getting something out of his bag, in the foyer, while I'm putting the tea mugs down in the living room. He says, "Your apartment is really warm."

I laugh, "This is the warmest day we've had all year. You should be here in the winter!"

He clarifies, "No, I don't mean the temperature, I mean, it's just a warm, welcoming space."

And I'm suddenly speechless. I say something graceful like, "Oh, um, thanks!" Inwardly, though, I'm realizing that this may be the best compliment I've received in ... ever. I've turned my cement box into an inviting space. My home *feels* like a home. I say another lhumdullah for Fatima's help in cleaning and organizing everything, which of course played a huge role in making the space so appealing, and turn to open the windows to hide the huge smile on my face.

When the tea is ready, we arrange ourselves on ponjs and talk. The conversation ranges from chat about the weather in my chilly site, to a discussion of how sites are prepared for PCVs, to some concrete suggestions Fatima and I have for the structure of our programs. The CD takes notes, asks thoughtful questions, and listens to what we say.

It's a fabulous conversation, but eventually it's time for dinner, so we get up to go. Fatima has arranged for the CD to stay with her host family, and for us all to eat there.

Quick tangent: This is the first time any member of Peace Corps staff has visited Berberville and *not* stayed in a hotel. He didn't come in the fancy Peace Corps car, either. He came on *public*transportation*. Taxis and tranzits. He's eating in homes, not restaurants. He's sleeping on a ponj. This may not sound like much, but it represents a sea change in the relationship between staff and our sites. I can't stress enough how unheard-of it is for a Peace Corps staffer - the Peace Corps Country Director, for Pete's sake - to travel, eat, and sleep like a PCV. Like a Moroccan. He eschewed the climate-controled SUV, the ease of private transportation, the comforts of westernized hospitality, and embraced our lifestyle. Almost as revolutionary is the seriousness with which he listens to our suggestions about Peace Corps.

But I digress. We head to Fatima's host family's house. Our conversation continues through tea, cookies, duaz, and oranges, punctuated by interludes of playing with Fatima's adorable little brothers and having a four-language conversation with Fatima's host dad. (In decreasing order of ability: Her host dad speaks Tam, Arabic, French, and a bit of English. The CD speaks English, French, and some Arabic. I speak English, French, and Tam. Fatima speaks English and Tam.) When the CD and dad get caught up in a French conversation, I translate for Fatima. When her host mom asks a question in Tam, Fatima translates for the CD. When the CD asks a question in oddly-accented Arabic, I translate into Tam for Fatima's dad. It's a highly eclectic conversation, to say the least. At one point, answering a question from Fatima's host dad, I'm pretty sure I included Tam, French, *and* English in my response. Unconsciously.

Eventually, it was time for bed. Fatima and I left the CD to his ponj and multilingual conversation, and headed to our separate homes.

Stepping out into the crisp night air, I discovered one of those diamond-on-black-velvet starry skies that my cold mountain village specializes in. I never go for late-night walkabouts - keeping a promise - and stargazing from my roof always feels kinda lame, so I cherish these moments when I get to celebrate Berberville's night sky.

The stars kept me company as I hustled home. In a handful of hours, the CD and I will explore Berberville's crepuscular delights.

For now, I'm off to bed...


3/15/09 Moroccan Christmas Decorations :)

Three months ago, the whole Berberville-SouqTown region held its breath, awaiting the king's visit. Public works projects exploded in a frenzy. Roads ignored for a decade were suddenly being repaved and widened. School buildings were re-roofed, rebuilt, wired for electricity.

And every available surface sported either a flag or a patriotic banner.

This was in mid-to-late December...just the time when I'd begun feeling homesick for Christmas decorations. I'd never thought I'd miss the sounds of tinny carols through mall speakers...but I did. I longed for an American-style, Christmas-saturated December. And then, lo and behold, the whole area covered itself in red and green decorations.

To the left: Springfield's central square, where dozens of flags grew out of the pavement overnight.

To the right: An apartment building in SouqTown. (Just out of view, to the left, stands the ritzy one where I've only spent one night. It felt justified because not a single shower in our usual hostel was working, so three of us splurged and shared a room with *its*own*hot*shower* AND a western-style toilet. Ah, luxury.)

Below: My own Christmas decorations. I had no tree, but abundant sticky-tak and a deep yearning for Christmas. The tinsel I inherited from a previous PCV, and cut to size. The ornaments were either bought at the expat store in Springfield or else make-'em-yourself craft ornaments from America, sent in a friend's care package and lovingly shared with us all. It's still up on my wall. It makes me happy. :)


3/14/09 The Moroccan Flag

Behold the flag of Morocco. I find it truly beautiful, its crisp red swath cutting the crystalline blue of the mountain and desert skies. The design in the middle is a green, five-pointed star.

These stunning flags are visible at every school, post office, commune building (a local legislature), caid's office, courthouse, or other government building. Plus, when the king was rumored to be visiting - those rumors have returned, by the way, with the date revised to April, now - these flags were *everywhere*. Red and green banners hung from windows, draped across awnings, fluttered along roadways. The 140 km road from SouqTown to Berberville was peppered with flags, usually clustered in groups of three, fanning outwards like a sign-language W.

This particular flag was in front of the ... you know what? I'll leave it vague. Photographing public buildings is a crime, and while I genuinely doubt that extends to their patriotic decorations, it just might. Suffice to say, I shot the picture looking up the flagpole, because I loved the way the red looked against the shimmering blue sky.


3/13/09 Picture Pages

I know I haven't posted in days, and I'm sorry! I'm posting a lot of material today, so be sure to check the links over ----> there if you don't want to miss anything. :)

My laptop screensaver is set to display random pictures. I've taken so many here in Morocco - a couple thousand! - and shared so few of them with y'all, and I want to change that. My hope is to post a picture nearly every day from here on out, and I thought I'd get started with a whole bunch, today. :)

First, a caption for the two pictures you see all the time - the sunset shot next to the blurb about me, and the alpenglow picture above.

The above picture was taken on December 20th, 2008, after a long walk through Berberville and surrounding communities, shared with some of my Peace Corps buddies. (They'd come up to help out with the school club we're working on.) We walked several miles, over the course of several hours, and were coming back only because the sun was sinking behind the mountains. As we walked, "Brahim" and I both noticed what looked like a hawk in a tree up ahead. I shot some pictures, then when we got abreast of it, I shot a few more. I blew them up as big as I could on my camera viewscreen, but couldn't identify anything beyond "bird of prey". Sigh. Only after I got back home and uploaded the pictures did I realize I'd captured my gorgeous Berberville mountains and the alpenglow of twilight. :)

The one to the right was taken a year ago, on 3/19/08, in my CBT village, far south of here. Down there, nearly every building is tipped with crenelated corners that make everything look like a castle. The silhouetted building is a tourist hotel (the only one in the village), so it's trying extra-hard to be photogenic and lovely...and against that flaring sunset, it indeed was.

Here are a couple more shots:
This was taken during that same December walk. We climbed up to the remnants of an old fortress. It's one of my favorite parts of the Berberville skyline, and I'd never gone up, so I asked the guys if they'd mind a detour. The ruins are, well, ruin-y, but I love the patterns of the stonework and wish I had some idea just how old they are, and what they were built for. This was a whoopsie-shot - I didn't mean to let the sun flare into the image - but I decided I liked the effect after all.

This is one of my favorite pictures from our trip to Merzouga. It shows "Brahim", who quarterbacked all through school, and "Lahcen", his willing foil, and the football that encouraged us all to run around and have crazy-fun on the goldensand dunes of Erg Chebi. We all took turns throwing and catching it, with varying degrees of success. One especially fun game put Brahim down at the bottom of a dune, and the rest of us up on top, probably 50 feet above him, up a steeply pitched slope; he'd heft the ball up to us, and then we'd throw it back down to him. Gravity was working for us and against him, which meant that we had a closer-to-evenly-matched game of catch. Talk about your uneven playing field... :)

This is my friend Natalie, at her recent (2/28/09) birthday party. Notice the one chubby candle in the cake. Birthday candles either don't exist in Morocco or just aren't easily found, so we do what PCVs always do: improvise. Our friend Tori made the cake, complete with honest-to-goodness *Betty*Crocker*icing* from America. (Insert happy sigh.) The strawberries were a special touch for me; they aren't ripe in my region yet, so these were the first strawberries I'd had in ... just about a year.

That's all for now...more pictur-iffic posts coming soon, I promise. :)

3/12/09 Snapshot: Family Lunch

A quiet hour in the life of a (OK, my) Moroccan family:

Baba sits by the fire, alternately watching the news and admiring his latest work-related acquisition.

Ama is nowhere to be seen - she went off to the hammam an hour ago. My little sister - 7 years old and growing fast - didn't want to go, so Ama went alone, which is something of an oddity.

Said little sister is lounging between Baba and me. She plays with my ring, asks her dad a question, shows off what she learned at school, launches short-lived tickle-fights, and generally enjoys having our attention.

My little brothers are equally idle, in this interlude between school and lunch. They play with their newest toys - cell phones - and sporadically jump up, go out, wander around for a while, then return.

My baby cousin sleeps under two blankets, though the spring sun is warm. He wakes up eventually - inevitably - and quickly attracts fans, who play with him, tickle him, goo-goo at him, and generally make sure he knows he's the center of the universe. My favorite game to watch is when my little brother lies the baby flat on his back, then tickles his tiny tummy. The baby's legs and arms fly upwards, pulling in, looking for all the world like a rolly-polly bug that got poked. A moment later, the tickling forgotten, he flattens his limbs back to the ground...and then my brother tickles his belly again, and all limbs constrict upwards. :)

Xalti is out of sight, but not earshot; she's in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the couscous. Her daughter, my cousin, runs back and forth between the kitchen and living room, preparing everything. She brings out a kettle of warm water so that we can all wash our hands. She brings out a fistful of spoons, to eat the couscous with. (Some folks - even some of my family members - eat couscous with their hands, shaping it into small balls that they pop into their mouths. For most, though, this is the only traditional meal eaten with utensils.) She brings out the table, which we all arrange ourselves around.

And then Xalti carries in the couscous dish, Baba says the Bismillah, and it's lunchtime! :D

3/11/09 Bus battles

Most people criss-crossing Morocco take buses. They're much more comfortable than grand taxis - you get a whole seat to yourself! - and have virtually unlimited baggage space.

Climate control can be an issue. Only the fanciest buslines - CTM and SupraTours - offer air-conditioning. (They also stop *only* at their scheduled destinations,** which makes them dramatically faster than the regular buses, also known as "souq buses", but they cost ~10-20% more.) On regular buses, there are huge windows, with huge curtains, which offer the only relief from the Moroccan heat. These are often open, flooding the bus with cool air...except when someone superstitious sits near them and insists on keeping them closed, for fear of the djin, who travel in fast-moving air.

I've ridden mostly-empty buses, half-full buses, and buses so crowded that a dozen people stood in the aisle, hunkering down whenever we approach a gendarme checkpoint (because it's illegal to have folks standing on a bus).

Bus fares between major cities are pretty standardized. Shady ticket-sellers will occasionally jack the price for arumin (foreigners), but this is pretty rare. Folks traveling shorter distances, though, or traveling between non-standard destinations, have more fluid prices.

When these factors combine badly - when you have uncertain pricing, hyper-crowded conditions, and stifling heat - tempers can flare.

Twice, in the dozen or three times I've ridden a bus around Morocco, I've seen a full-on fight. Fists smacking against flesh, clothes getting torn, that kind of thing. Two or three other times, I've seen shouting matches, usually between a passenger who believe that his short ride should be free or nearly so, and the jumper, who is trying to charge more than the rider deems fair. Sometimes it's between passengers.

The other passengers react like they'd just won free cable: eyes widen, voices get louder, and the whole bus shimmers with an sudden electricity. They watch the situation escalate, often shouting out comments. These are in Darija, so I don't understand them, and I always wonder whether they're trying to calm things down or escalate the conflict. Eventually, either before or after punches get thrown, somebody will step up into the role of peacemaker, and pull the combattants away from the action.

This rarely ends the fight. There's usually at least one, and sometimes two or three times that one angry party rushes back to the other, and tries to get in another jab, whether verbal or physical. After enough rounds, though, the parties calm down enough to let the peacemakers' efforts keep them separated. Sometimes this means that a passenger is unceremoniously removed from the bus; other times, it just means they resume their seats.

Ah, free entertainment, bus-battle-style. ;)

3/10/09 Taxi troubles

I'm inventing a new category of post, called "VisitorInfo." I'll go back through and stick it on some older blogs soon (probably tonight). It will flag posts that are (I hope) especially helpful for tourists, travelers, new Morocco PCVs, and other folks who are unfamiliar with my country.

I've written before about grands taxis, the sedans (and occasionally station wagons) that are the alternative to buses for long-distance travel. Grands taxis usually travel distances between 15km and 100km. If you're going further, you'll either need to switch taxis along the way or else take a bus. (You can also rent a car or hire a car and driver; I'll talk about those options some other day.)

The vast majority of grands taxis are Mercedes Benz sedans, fairly wide-bodied, and nearly always painted dun yellow. About 90% of the time, they work like this:

You go to a taxi station. You listen for a second as the drivers shout the names of their destinations. If you hear the city you want, walk to that driver, check the fare, and wait. If you don't hear the city you want, look for the kurti (the guy- and yes, it's always a guy - in charge). He should have a fluorescent yellow vest on - those are becoming standard, lhumdullah - but if nobody is glowing, look for a guy holding a list in his hand. Tell him where you want to go. He'll either point you towards the relevant taxi or else explain why there isn't one: it hasn't come back from its last run or you need to take a taxi to an intermediate destination first, and then switch into one to your final destination. Then, again, walk to your driver, check the fare (you can also do this with the kurti), and wait.

Why wait? Why not just hop in and roll?

Because these taxis carry six passengers at a time. Two in the bucket seat, four across the back.**

They aren't like American taxis, which are meant for you, or perhaps you and a travel companion, only. These are more like very small shuttle buses.

The taxi driver won't leave until it has six people or until he (always a he) has the fares for six people. This means that, if you have the money and not the patience, you can hustle a taxi out of the station by buying extra seats.

Example: Imagine you're going from Fes to Meknes, and you're in a hurry. You get to the taxi stand, follow the cries of, "Meknes! Meknes!", and find your driver. He tells you that it's 50dh. (Don't quote me on this: I've never actually taken a taxi from Fes to Meknes, so I'm making a blind stab as to the fare.) You fork over the 50 dh, drop your bags in the trunk, and then notice that the engine is dead and nobody is sitting in the taxi. "How many seats are taken?" you ask. (Sh-Hal n blas 3mmrn?, if you're curious.) "Two," the driver replies, "You're the third." This means that the taxi won't leave until three more people show up...or until three more fares are paid for. You can either wait until three folks arrive - which may be two minutes or two hours - or you can fork over the money for the three extra fares and hit the road immediately. Many tourists opt for this latter option, valuing their time over their money. Most Moroccans and PCVs will wait for the minutes or hours until someone else arrives to pay their way.

This is how it works, as I said, around 90% of the time.

The other 10% of the time, the drivers leave the taxi stand with one or two empty seats, trusting that they'll pass by somebody who wants a ride. (Hitchhiking is incredibly common in Morocco, so any time you're traveling, you'll see people waiting hopefully along the roadways. Most get picked up by private cars, but souq buses and taxis will pick up folks too, if there's room.)

This happened to me a couple weeks ago.

I'd been in a hurry - enough of a hurry to splurge on buying two seats (which guarantees me the bucket seat next to the driver, aka comfort *and* the guarantee that no one will be pressing their body parts into mine) - but the driver was not.

We left with only three people in the backseat. I figured that one of them had bought two fares also, and didn't think much about it...until we stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. Who traveled about 5 km, then got out and paid the driver a few dirhams. A kilometer or two later, we saw another hitcher...and stopped again. This time, we went about 10km before stopping to let him off.

When you're traveling ~100km, as I was on this particular trip, it's always a tossup as to whether you want a bus or a grand taxi. Buses are usually less crowded, plus they're cheaper, but they only run every few hours and they stop for every hitcher they pass, until every seat (and sometimes the aisle) is filled. This makes them sloooooow. Usually. Since I was in a hurry, I'd opted for the taxi - 5dh more per seat, but 30-50% faster. Usually. This taxi, though, was acting like a bus - in fact, we kept leapfrogging with a bus, as both the bus and taxi kept stopping to pick up and let off folks - it took just as long as the bus would have. In fact, once I got to my destination, and was walking from the taxi stand to the bus station to pick up a bus for the next (longer) leg of the trip, that same bus passed me again, and slid into the station just before I walked in. Sigh.

** The sedans can't really fit more than six, though I've seen up to nine passengers - of the extra three, two were small, lap-carried children, and the third had crammed in next to the driver, on his left. The longer, narrower station wagons are meant to carry two in the pinched wayback, three in the middle, and one in the bucket seat. I've seen FOURTEEN people in one of these. As I recall, three were small children, one was the driver, and the other ten were full-sized passengers: two in the bucket seat, four in the middle, and four in the wayback. This violates a sheaf of laws, but the driver paid off the gendarmes we passed; the extra seven fares more than covered the price of the bribe.

3/9/09 Word of the day: Hleeb

Hleeb is milk. It can refer to milk fresh out of a cow, in a bottle, or in powder form.

Given how much time I spend in coffeeshops when I travel, and how much I despise coffee and get plenty of tea at friends' and neighbors' houses, I order Hleeb a lot.

In my favorite cafe in SouqTown, the waiters almost don't have to ask any more, except on hot days (when I might order juice). Cold days, chilly days, rainy days, foggy days...I'm ordering Hleeb b shokolat. Milk with chocolate, aka hot cocoa.

Every once in a while, I find a cafe that doesn't have any chocolate powder on hand. I usually settle for Hleeb b sukkar, sweet milk. One day recently, when I was killing time in a bus station (the 12:00 bus arrived at 1:45, as it turned out), I went to order a hot beverage and got a surprise. "We don't have any chocolate," the friendly barrista explained in Tam, "but would you like Hleeb b Leepton?" Leepton, aka Lipton, is Westerners' tea. Lipton tea packets are available in nearly every hanut, but are sold almost exclusively to tourists and hotel owners, as far as I can tell.

I was so surprised by the counter-offer that I accepted it without thinking. I really had no idea if Lipton tea would make for a good milky tea...but it was awfully chilly, and I figured that, with enough milk and sugar, nearly anything tastes good.

Turns out Hleeb b Leepton is great. It won't supplant Hleeb b shokolat in my affections any time soon, but it's good to know that I have a viable alternative in the event of a chocolate-drought crisis. :)


3/8/9 International Day of the Woman

Today is International Women's Day / International Day of the Woman / World Women Day - depends on how you translate it.

Any way you phrase it, it's an excellent opportunity to raise issues of Gender and Women's Rights. :)

Peace Corps has a committee known as "GAD", Gender And Development, that helps us organize activities and events to raise awareness of women's issues.

Actually GAD's focus is broader - it's a paradigm for developement that means incorporating the attitudes and needs of *all* the members of a community - men, women, boys, girls, and the elderly.

One of the examples they give, to illustrate the importance of GAD, has to do with tree plantings.

Once upon a time, there was a community that desperately needed erosion control and soil improvement. Their Peace Corps Volunteer thought that planting trees would meet these environmental needs. He talked to the men in his village, who explained that they wanted fruit trees, to serve as a cash crop. The Volunteer found funding and there was a massive tree-planting effort.

What the PCV didn't know was that in this community, women were responsible for agriculture. So women were expected to water and nurture the trees, and eventually harvest the fruit.

The women had enough work to do, saw no point in supporting this crazy project, and the trees all died.

So the next PCV in the community talked to the women. They explained that they spend most of their time hiking into the forests nearby to gather "fuelwood", branches and twigs that they can burn to heat their houses and cook with. So they want fast-growing, low-maintenance trees that can serve as a local source of fuelwood.

So she arranged funding for a massive tree-planting effort...which was stymied at every turn by the men, who didn't like being left out of the decision-making process and who saw no point in planting trees that didn't grow saleable products.

The third Volunteer talked to the men *and* the women. She explained to the women the potential benefits of this extra income for their families. She explained to the men that if women didn't have to hike out for fuelwood, they'd have more time to cultivate the fruit trees. She got the men and the women to talk *to*each*other* about their different needs.

Result: Impasse. Deadlock. And ultimately...compromise.

The community ended up planting a combination of fruit trees and fast-growing fuelwood trees. (Pines, I think.) Since the women didn't have to go as far to get fuelwood, they were available to cultivate the fruit trees. Since the men understood the purpose of the fuelwood trees, they helped plant them.

And they all lived happily ever after. :)

I don't know how exactly this example was drawn from life, or how many details have been changed in years of retellings, but the take-home lesson is a good one: a clear understanding of gender roles and gender-based needs is key to effective, sustainable development.

Happy Women's Day! :)


3/7/09 "Another Solution"

Last weekend, when I went to visit a friend for her birthday, I went traveling through parts of Morocco I haven't explored before. I ran into a series of obstacles, which culminated in my being about two hours behind I missed the last tranzit of the day. Or at least I thought I had. But I didn't know where the tranzit station was in this town. All I knew was that it was "near the taxi station to [her souqtown]", not to be confused with the other taxi station, and that the taxi station was "across town" from the bus station where I'd arrived. (Like most long trips, it involved every conceivable type of transportation: buses, taxis, tranzits, etc. I'm kinda surprised I didn't end up on a mule.)

So I asked a gendarme where to find the taxi station I wanted. "Go straight, for a while. There's some big streets, then some small alleys. Turn left at the second alley."

I figured I'd walk straight for a few minutes and then ask somebody else.

"Madame? Bonjour? Madame?" A voice nagged at me from behind. I ignored it, as I always do when strangers try to chat me up in French. For that matter, I've heard "Bonjour" from kids whose French consists of about four words. The clue is when they say, "Bonjour, monsieur," to me. I don't care for the "madame", but I really hate being called "Monsieur." I know that the kids don't mean to call me "mister", but it bugs me that they spend half their schoolday being taught in French, and clearly, nothing sticks.

Anyway, I was ignoring the voice. And then it said, in flawless French, "You're looking for the taxi station to [her souqtown]?"

My head spun around involuntarily. I hadn't noticed anyone lingering within earshot, but apparently somebody had.

I saw a young man, probably 16 or 17, looking at me with an earnest expression.

"Do you want help finding the taxi station?" he pressed.

I figured he was an enterprising kid looking for an easy few dirhams, but I didn't begrudge him. If he could get me across town without my having to admit to another dozen strangers that I had no idea where I was going, that was worth a few D's.

As we walked through town, we chatted. Turns out he's 19, a year away from sitting for his baccalaureate exams, and has grown up in Belgium and France as well as Morocco. He's hoping to start his own construction/development company, or else study architecture.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, we got to the taxi/tranzit station. There were no more taxis heading my way. My young friend, Mehdi, was undismayed. "We will find another solution," he said confidently.

We walked to the tranzit part of the station. The last one had left about 45 minutes earlier. "We will find another solution," he reiterated.

He has a friend with a car, who could drive me out there if I'd cover his gas. I was wary, because it sounds too much like hitchhiking, which is a violation of Peace Corps rules. Turned out to be a moot point, because the friend wasn't picking up his phone.

"We will find another solution."

And we did. It was more expensive than I'd hoped, but it got my to my friend quickly, safely, and without violating any Peace Corps rules. He stayed with me, cajoling, encouraging, and haggling with anyone who could help, until he waved me off on my path. He didn't take a penny for his troubles, either.

During our walk across his city, he'd asked me if I were Muslim, or planning to convert. I smiled and said that I'm happy as I am. He assured me that all people have the right to their own beliefs. I heard a "but" coming.

"But in my opinion, Islam is special because of its attitude towards the stranger," he said with his trademark seriousness. As I looked at him, I realized that he was living his beliefs. What better illustration of that "attitude towards the stranger", usually expressed by unfailing hospitality, than his willingness to take an hour out of his Saturday afternoon to shepherd me through his city and make sure I made it safely on my way?


3/6/9 Ruminations on the Fifth of March

On March 5th, 2008, I woke up in a hotel in a Europeanized city for my very first full day in Morocco. Though I now know that it's a thousand-dirham-a-night fancypants hotel, at the time it seemed a bit quaint. As I recall, I claimed first shower, took a quick one out of consideration for my two roommates (and felt vaguely righteous for doing so), then dressed and headed down to the enormous buffet breakfast, where I helped myself to pastries, fruit, and juice.

March 5th, 2009, awakening and breakfasting looked a bit different. I opened my eyes, slithered out of my sarcophagus-style sleeping bag on a living-room ponge (where I've slept for the past several nights, because the living room is warmer than the bedroom), then ran into the frigid bathroom, whose door doesn't fully close, and squatted over a ceramic plate. Then I opened the spigot to one of the two functioning taps in the house, positioned a banyo (rubber basin) under it so that I'd hear the water splashing into it whenever the pipes opened, and went back into the living room. I pulled the sleeping bag over my lap and reached for the lighter & candle. The lighter struck on the first try, lhumdullah. I lit the candle. Once its flame was steady, I released the lighter, set it down, and reached for the gas nozzle on the small heater. (The big one is overkill for daytime.) I cranked it all the way up, holding the candle in front of the flame-plate. It kept catching in bursts, flaring with spurting blue flames that died instantly. Once the gas had increased from a trickle to a flood, it finally caught with a sustainable, rumbling red-blue sheet of butane-scented flames.

Then I booted up my laptop to see if anyone had responded to the email I'd sent out the night before, about my first year in Peace Corps. An hour or two later, I heard the splishing and gurgling of water pouring into the bathroom banyo. I waited a few moments to let the banyo fill, then slipped on my shoes - cement floors are cold, even through the wool socks I never go without - and went into the bathroom. Once the basin was brim-full, I turned off the tap and walked into the kitchen.

I filled the large aluminum teakettle, then lit the stove and set the kettle on to heat while I did the dishes in my rubber gloves. Once the water was hot, I rinsed the last of the dishes, then made a pot of cocoa while I straightened up the kitchen. (When I want just one cup of cocoa, I use a Swiss Miss-style packet from a care package. When I want a pot of cocoa, I make it from scratch.) To make the cocoa, I scoop 3 heaping tablespoons of powdered milk into an old jam jar. Then I pour in hot water, till the jar is about half full, screw on the lid, and shake it till the powder is all dissolved and I have a jar of cream. I pour this into the white-enameled coffeepot. Then I light a candle off of the flames under the teakettle and use it to light the tiny burner for the coffeepot. (All the other burners leave too big a gap in the iron cage over the flames, so the coffeepot tips over when I try to set it down.) Then I pour more water into the jam jar, to get every last bit of milk off the sides. (Why waste it when I wash the jar?) I pour that into the coffeepot. I add in a heaping tablespoon of cocoa powder and another of sugar, then enough hot water to fill the coffeepot. If there are still traces of milk in the jar, I swirl the hot water in there before pouring it in the pot. Then I leave the coffeepot - cocoapot, more accurately - on the stove until it just starts to simmer. I know when it has reached the precise moment because the cocoa starts to inflate, swelling higher in the small pot with all the tiny puffery of a winter bluebird. Just like that, I have a pot of cocoa, with enough for 2 full mugs and a little extra. So I pour a cup, carry the pot and mug, and come into the living room to drink.

Not exactly the same start to a day.

I imagine that the next March 5th will look rather more like today than like last year, but who knows...and of course, two March 5ths ago, I was restarting my long-dormant Peace Corps application.

Life is funny.


3/5/09 March came in like a lamb...

...but that didn't last long.

The first few days of March were chilly and overcast, but calm. Then, the night of March 3rd - March 4th, we got our first snow in ... two weeks? Three? Long enough that there were only a few drifts left.

The storm system reached across most of the province, but at lower elevations it showed up as rain. Up here in Berberville, (one of?) the highest-altitude site(s?) in Peace Corps, we got snow, naturally.

When I left town for the weekend, I noticed that I could watch Spring arriving just by traveling down the long road to SouqTown. As we steadily lost elevation, the trees grew more and more blooms, until by SouqTown they were flowering and glorious.

I imagine that driving up on the 3rd would have shown a similar switch from rains to a wintry mix to pure snow, as the seasons wound backwards with the increasing elevation. Up here on the mountaintop, I got to indulge in childhood's pleasure, watching chubby flakes swirl and twirl in the wind. By morning, we had about six inches, much of which melted throughout the day, even though the sun barely poked through the thick clouds.

The snow shut down the town, for the most part; nearly everyone chose to stay indoors. I was no exception, spending most of the day in front of my heater. Power flickered on and off a few times, but never stayed off for more than a minute or two.

Just another winter day in March!


3/4/09 Happy Anniversary!

Today marks one full year that I've been in Morocco. My plane landed a confusing number of hours (thanks to the five-hour time difference) after leaving JFK. We took off in the evening and landed in the morning, so 3/3/08 was the last day I lived in America, and 3/4/08 was the first day I lived in Morocco. :D

The new batch of Environment and Health Trainees arrived a few minutes ago, ready to begin this adventure...

This seems like a good time to take stock.

In the past year, I have...

  • Made dozens of new friends
  • Joined two new families - three, if you count my Peace Corps family
  • Learned how to peel an apple in one long curl
  • Helped plant 250 trees (and am planning to plant 550 more)
  • Become proficient at feeding myself from scratch - life without a microwave!
  • Helped create EE clubs at multiple schools
  • Mastered the butane gas heaters, stove, and oven
  • Learned conversational Tamazight
  • Mastered the squat toilet
  • Carried on long, complicated, technical conversations in French
  • Survived indoor temperatures below freezing
  • Drank tea with hundreds (literally, well over 500) women
  • Weathered meter-plus snowfalls
  • Helped paint & coordinate three huge murals in Berberville, and hundreds of small ones in SouqTown
  • Baked dozens and dozens of chocolate chip cookies
  • Traversed Morocco from Marrakesh (SW) to Oujda (NE)
  • Bought produce, train tickets, souvenirs, hardware, kitchenware...without using English
  • ...and lots more, but this list is long enough.
It's been an amazing year, and I'm so grateful for it. Thanks, too, to you, dear readers, for sharing the journey with me. :D


3/3/9 Yen Yid

Whenever I go into SouqTown, I spend the night. At four hours each way in the tranzit, and with the last home-bound tranzit leaving at just 2:30pm, doing a one-day round-trip isn't feasible. So I stay over.

I've virtually always stayed in the same little hostel. Whether I'm there alone, with a room to myself, or sharing a 3-bed or 4-bed room with other PCVs, the price is always the same: 30 Dh. Checkout is simple; you return the key (or explain that you left it in the lock upstairs - the better option if you're leaving while the cleaning lady is doing her rounds) and hand over 30 Dh for every night you stayed.

Last week, as I was leaving, the manager looked up at me and said, "Yen yid?" The context and tone of voice made it clear that he was asking, "How many nights did you stay here?", but the words didn't seem to match. I've gotten used to missing words, though, and just responding to context clues and nonverbal signals, so I cheerfully responded, "Ghas yun gid." Just one night.

I wasn't consciously thinking about the manager's words, but somewhere in the back of my head, I was trying to process them. I still hear lots of words and expressions I don't know in the course of a conversation, but quick little exchanges like this rarely surprise me anymore, so some part of me was working to parse it. And suddenly it all clicked.

In this region, g and j and y are interchangeable. (As are sh and k, and r and l, and, well, there's a lot of reasons that lots of words sound the same.) And the word I learned for night, gid, is therefore pronounced "geed" (like "good" but with a different vowel sound) in SouqTown, "jeed" (where the j is the zh sound of the s in "pleasure") in Berberville, and "yeed" whenever somebody feels like it. And "yen" and "yun" are just regional variations for the Tamazight word for "one".

So what he had said, "Yen yid?", and what I'd said, "Yun gid," were actually identical in meaning. Without even understanding the words of his question, I'd answered it clearly. I guess this nonverbal communication thing works! Plus, it's reassuring to know that yes, after a year in-country, I have, in fact, mastered the most rudimentary vocabulary. In multiple accents, no less. Lhumdullah!


3/2/09 Secret Schedules...

Notes written in my journal during my bus ride back from my friend's party. Like so much travel in a developing country, the journey took several stages, and involved several types of transportation. After climbing out of the second sheep-scented taxi, I waited for a bus to pull in, to drive me south. A bus did show up, 45 minutes ahead of schedule, but the waiter at our cafe assured me that it was going a different direction. Made me a little anxious, though. It waited around for ten or so minutes, then pulled out. Fifteen minutes later, another bus pulled in. This time, I walked over to the bus and asked the guy dropping blocks around the back tire where it was headed...

Manis tdit? Where are you going?
Manis trit at-safrt? Where do you want to go?
S [SouqTown]. To SouqTown.
Yalla, alli. C'mon, climb up.

I'd actually been hoping to find out just how far south this particular bus route extended. And my follow-up question would have been to find out where it comes from. (I travel this stretch of highway frequently enough that I know all the major and minor cities along it, but not often enough to have any idea of the schedules or routes of the buses.)

I could ask these more specific questions, of course, leading off with, "Does this bus leave from [a northern city] or [a touristy town just south of it]?" but I'm afraid of the reception I'd get. A look of suspicion, I expect, questioning the cause of my curiosity. Why does she want to know? Is she expecting someone from [a northern city]? A male someone, perhaps? Does she think buses from [that city] are better? Worse? Is it to my benefit if she thinks it's from [that city]? If she doesn't? I imagine these questions flickering across the face of my jumper (the guy who assists the driver and collects the fares).

Curiosity for the sake of curiosity - wanting more knowledge just because I like knowing stuff, and not because I have any pressing reason to apply that knowledge - confuses people, I've found. And given my tarumit appearance, tends to make folks suspect me - ME! - of being a spy.

Well, that's my fear, anyway. Not so much the spy part as the general suspicion. Maybe I'm crazy. Or paranoid. But the hesitation and confusion on the faces of people when I ask questions, and the above-cited tendency of people to answer questions with another question...well, it'll make a body paranoid after a while.

But neither the jumper's reticence nor my paranoia explains why schedules are so poorly publicized, let alone adhered to. *Large* cities have published schedules posted on the wall...on chalkboards, like a special-of-the-day. And as subject to revision. Smaller cities and towns have nothing; you just have to wait for it enough times to learn when it comes by. So locals and PCVs slowly accumulate this knowledge, but travelers and visitors just have to muddle along as best they can. A PCV friend had told me when to expect this bus - which is why I use the phrase "ahead of schedule", perhaps unjustly, above...

3/1/09 Shuttling Sheep

Happy March!

This weekend, I visited a friend in the north, for her birthday weekend. :)

As I was leaving her site, though, something unexpected happened...

At first, everything looked normal. Grands taxis in various states of disrepair, drivers loitering... As we approached, one of the drivers came to meet us. We explained that we were heading towards my friend's souq town, the jumping-off point for all further travel. Since taxis and tranzits are the only way in or out of her town, the taxi driver runs a regular shuttle between her village and her souq town.

So far, everything was perfectly routine.

My friends and I walked to the trunk, popped it open, and started to lower our bags in. "No, no, keep your bags in the car with you," the driver said hurriedly. The other visitors and I exchanged confused looks, but the birthday girl pointed over her shoulder. We looked: some women were walking up to the taxi stand with their sheep.

I see people with sheep every day, so I didn't immediately catch the significance. But then I caught a whiff of eau du trunk, and the picture snapped into focus.

These women were going to be sharing the taxi with us.

So were their sheep.

The women on their way into their souq town, just like us.

In a Mercedes-Benz taxi.

The sheep get the trunk.

That's why our bags stay inside, with us.

As I stood there, considering the ramifications of this, I became downright *thrilled* at the idea of having my hiking pack sit on my lap for the 15 minutes or so it would take us to get to town.

After a surprisingly uneventful ride, during which I tried hard to ignore the series of thumps and thuds from the trunk, we got to my friend's souq town. We unloaded ourselves and our bags from the body of the car, tried not to watch as the sheep were hauled out of the trunk and off to animal-souq, and looked around for a taxi to the biggest town in the region, aka the next stop on all of our journeys.

We found a taxi whose driver was shouting our destination. Ah, sweet return to normalcy.


As we approached his taxi, the odor wafting out of his open trunk was so much stronger than it had been in the first taxi that I almost recoiled. But this guy didn't want us to have our bags crowded on our laps for the much-longer ride. Instead, he had someone else put in wooden brackets and a layer of tarp, and indicated that we should put our bags on top of that.

A wide, gaping, yawning gulf of at least 2 inches separated our worldly goods from the urine-drenched lining of the trunk. I looked forlornly at my abandoned waif of a backpack. Then I gritted my teeth and stepped away.

The smell wafted into the body of the car, too.

I won't elaborate.

Suffice to say that I have a whole new appreciation for my tranzits, where the livestock are transported - very occasionally - on top of the minibus/van, in the open air, but never, ever, in the vicinity of the passengers. Well, except for those poor overcrowded souls who are stuck up on top of the tranzit. Since Peace Corps forbids us to ride up top - ride afla, as it's known - I've never had to ride this close to sheep before.

Just think of how much I'm learning to be grateful for! I've never thought to give gratitude for my freedom from the smell of sheep pee, but now I know that I should. :D
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