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4/25 Sorry for the interruption...

Lots has been going on in the past few days. Some has been wonderful - I just attended the Berber wedding of two PCV friends! - and some has been upsetting. I'm in a fairly toxic mood right now, so I'll wait to update y'all until I can maintain the positivity that I'd rather share. OK?

Peace out,


4/21/09 Duncan on Wood Stoves and Other Benefits of the Redesign

Some of you have commented on the new redesign. :)

One of the new features that no one seems to have noticed yet is the list of links down on the right-hand side. Under the heading "Hey, I Know These People!" is a series of links to blogs written by some of my Peace Corps/Morocco buddies. No one you've heard about before, I'm afraid; as far as I know, I'm the only one of the SouqTown gang who keeps a blog.

I wanted to draw your attention to Duncan's current post. He cites a New York Times article discussing the effect of soot from wood-burning stoves on global climate change, and provides an excellent and thoughtful counterargument to some of the scientists' assumptions. I could summarize or paraphrase it, but I'd rather you see what he has to say, directly.

Another frequently-mentioned aspect of innocentablogged's redesign is the "Favorites" list, on the top of the right-hand column. That list includes the most popular blogs (according to my spies at Google Analytics) as well as a few cult favorites. If you have a favorite blog entry that is not on the list, please let me know via email or by posting to the comments, and I'll add it. :)


4/20 Soccer Tourney Day 2.5

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...a really high header.

Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, I watched the 3rd and 4th guys' elimination games. Somewhat against my will, I'm actually becoming a soccer fan.

Like yesterday, we had a student step up to ref the games. Also like yesterday's ref, today's was skilled and fair, and all-around impressive.

In Game 3, the Tall Ones faced off against ... a team whose name nobody could remember. Fortunately for our tournament chart, the Tall Ones dominated the game, ending with 2-1, so they'll advance to the semi-finals to play the winners of Game 4.

All the teams played well today, helped by the clouds which minimized the sun's glare, but hindered by the incredibly dry ground which kicked up dust with every step. You can actually see the dust in some of the photos, it's so thick.

The final game of the day was also the most exciting, in part because of a last-minute bending of the rules: only 3 players showed up to play for the Sons of the Lions, so we let them fill in their ranks with ringers from previously-defeated teams (including Saturday afternoon's ref).

In the first half, the Gazelles*, their opponents, dominated the field, scoring one goal right away and a second in the middle of the period. Coming up on halftime, it looked like a blowout. But the Sons of the Lions (who I keep wanting to call the Cubs) shot in a bullet kick from midfield, right before the buzzer, that pulled it up to 2-1. After the half, the Cubs - ooh, sorry, the Sons of the Lions - nailed another goal, and suddenly the game was a lot more interesting. With about 15 minutes left to play, they bombed in a third goal, and suddenly the crowd was on its feet. The Gazelles couldn't pull it together to tie it back up before the final bell, so the Sons of the Lions, complete with 4 previously-defeated players, advances to next weekend's semi-finals.

* I found this a weird team name, because "gazelle" is the single most common thing shouted at girls walking through big cities. More accurately, it's the thing I hear most when walking through cities. It's meant to be flattery, as gazelles are universally perceived to be beautiful and graceful creatures. It comes across as harassment, though, since I don't actually *like* having "compliments" shouted at me by strangers. When I asked one of the teachers why the guys would choose such an effeminate team name, he pointed out that gazelles are also fast, strong, and deft. Which they certainly are, but still...


4/19/09 Soccer Tourney Day 2: Hope Springs Eternal

Today, we have one match in the morning (girls) and two matches in the afternoon (boys). Then the tourney will pause for a week and recommence next Saturday, with the boys' semifinal rounds. Sunday will be the championship games for both the girls and the boys.

The match was set to start at 10, so I got there at 9:45, and by 10:15, we were rolling. That's pretty extraordinarily prompt given that one of the teams didn't actually show up. I don't know where the miscommunication occurred, but we ended up a team short. Fortunately Hope, the losers of yesterday's girls' match, appeared (in uniform, which makes me think some of this was pre-arranged) to fill the void.

Sunday mornings, the students get to sleep in. It's the only day of the week without any classes at all. I therefore expected minimal attendance, as students chose their snug beds over the windy, dusty soccer field.

As the game began, there were indeed only a handful of onlookers. As the sun rose higher, though, more and more brave souls emerged from the dorms, and by halftime we had 35 guys and 20 girls watching the game. The second half, cheerleading erupted spontaneously, and we had rival factions shouting the names of the two teams (Hope and Sisterhood). More and more students trickled into the stands (by which I mean the dirt hump next to the field.) At the final buzzer, the score was tied 2-2, so the crowd of now 80 guys and 21 girls held their breath for the sudden death overtime. Three or four minutes later, Hope executed a slick triple-pass that slid the ball all the way around the goal and then slipped it just inside the goalpost. Looks like their defeat yesterday wasn't the end of the story after all; they'll face Jasmine again for the championship, next week.

More to come, including a bunch more pictures, but it's time to head back for the boys' matches...


4/18/09 "But Girls Don't Play Soccer"

I realize that it's counter-intuitive to start a blog about girls and soccer with a picture of *boys* and soccer, but, well, I really like that picture. And I promise, we'll have pictures of girls really soon.

Today's story actually began several months ago, in October of 2008, when Peace Corps informed us that the People Of America had donated hundreds (possibly thousands) of soccer jerseys to the People Of Morocco. Exactly how the POA did this, I'm not sure. But we had hundreds (thousands?) of jerseys available to us, to be distributed as appropriate.

So we requested some - we being the PCVs working with Berberville's college and lycee teachers to organize a club for 3rd-year students [the equivalent of 9th graders]. We've been planning to hold a "soccer tournament" for the final few weekends of the schoolyear, and that time is upon us!

From the begining, we said that we wanted this tournament to be for boys AND girls. Which is when the teachers said, "But girls don't play soccer." We tabled the conversation at the time, saying only that after all, one of our long-term goals for the club is to develop leadership skills in the students, so we'll let the students--the male AND female students who come to every club meeting--organize the tournament. Over the many Saturdays we've spent on campus, with the club (holding meetings, painting murals, planting trees, etc), we've noticed girls on the soccer field. We brought this up with teachers, who shook their heads and calmly reiterated, "Girls don't play soccer."

It's really quite frustrating to have someone calmly and blandly say things you know to be untrue. But again, we didn't want to make a big thing of it, so we went back to our trump card: the kids would organize everything, anyway.

This past week, the students created the teams for the tournament: 8 teams of boys (7-10 players per team) and FOUR TEAMS OF GIRLS.

Fatima and I jumped up and down a lot when we got the rosters. :)

The students had originally planned to keep the tournament limited to the 3rd-year students, which would have meant a total of 12 girls. (Some other time I'll rant about the extraordinary drop-out rates among female students. For now, suffice to say, of the 3rd-year students - the equivalent to American high school freshmen - only 10% are female. Yeeeeah.) In their planning sessions, though, they must have changed that rule in favor of having an actual elimination-style tournament for both boys *and* girls, which meant that they opened the soccer tourney to every girl in the school, and netted FORTY eager players.

"Girls don't play soccer"?

The first two teams to compete selected the team names "Hope" and "Jasmine". And this afternoon, they battled it out for the chance to go to next weekend's championships. These girls knew their stuff. I saw headers, chesting, high kicks, straight kicks, tight passing, fancy footwork, and hustle, hustle, hustle. The teachers had originally suggested two twenty-minute periods, but after 20 minutes, the girls protested pausing for halftime. "We're not even winded yet!" they insisted. So the referreeing teacher agreed on the spot to extend the periods to 30 minutes each - the same length as the boys.

Oh, and to address the question that the boys wouldn't be interested in watching the girls play? Picture a crowd of one hundred and forty-nine boys and thirty-five girls, peering through shuttered eyelashes against the blinding midday sun, buffeted by frigid winds, blinking away the dust clouds being kicked up by the ... girls playing soccer. In slick-looking jerseys and headscarves. (Of the 20 girls on the field, only 3 have uncovered heads.) That's 184 students who are here to watch the girls' match. :D

After the final whistle, Jasmine had defeated Hope 2-0. The girls headed back to the dorms to shower and change, and the boys took the field for the battle of the Berber Lions vs the High School Lions. (Did I mention that the kids picked their own team names?)

The crowd whittled down slightly. 19 of the female spectators went down to the practice field to prep for their own game, tomorrow morning. A few more guys showed up. At the half, I counted 154 boys and 16 girls, for a total of 170 students watching the lions compete.

My favorite thing about the above shot is the contrast between the high-powered players on the field and the indolent spectators on the hillside above. :)

Final score: Berber Lions 2, High School Lions 1.

The third game should have started at 4pm, but things were running late, and it was 4:45 before the Lions finished up. The shadows were long, the team facing west had a blinding low-angle sun staring at them, and the chill in the air was making me shiver under my four layers.

But the students wouldn't hear of putting their game off till tomorrow, so at 4:50, the whistle blew for the match between the Berber Brotherhood and the Stars. Oh, and who was blowing that whistle? Not the teacher who had been refereeing the previous two matches. One of the most skilled players from the defeated HS Lions asked if he could ref the third game, and in the spirit of encouraging student leadership, we enthusiastically approved his request. I wondered if he'd show favoritism to his friends or exhibit any other shortcomings that would make me regret my decision...but he was phenomenal. Quick, responsive, alert, and brutally fair, he made the final match of the day feel professional. Final score: Berber Brotherhood 2, Stars 0. Next weekend's semifinals will feature the Berber face-off: Berber Lions vs. Berber Brotherhood.

Tomorrow, we have three more elimination matches - one for girls, two for boys - so stay tuned, sportsfans!


4/17/09 To-ing and Fro-ing

Today was a nice, full day, and I thought I'd share it with y'all.

7:00 Wake up. Go back to sleep.

8:00 Wake up. Stay up.

8:01 Remember that my butagaz ran out yesterday, and thanks to the strike, there were no full buta tanks to be had, and that I therefore won't have hot water for cocoa, laundry, dishwashing, etc.

8:02 Discover that my toilet, which has been slooooow ever since a mouse drowned in it (and I just flushed it down, rather than extract its bloated little mousy corpse and think of another way to dispose of it) is now completely blocked.

8:03 Do laundry. Heat up water with electric hot pot (which blows the circuit breaker every 5-15 seconds, which is why this is not a good system) and then say forget it, I'm using the rubber gloves anyway.

9:00 Hang laundry on the roof.

9:15 Count soccer jerseys and sort into bundles of 10.

9:30 Go to "Fatima's" house. Feed her cat. Look for toilet plunger. (Unsuccessful.)

9:45 Buy toilet plunger in souq for 14 dh. Probably a ripoff, but I'm not in the mood to haggle.

10:00 Meet with the Middle School English teacher to discuss tomorrow's soccer tournament. And life in Morocco. And employment opportunities in America and Morocco. And racism in America, France, and Morocco.

12:00 Go home. Plunge toilet. It now flows free as the Father of Waters (anyone get that? please?), lhumdullah. Encouraged by success, plunge shower drain (which hasn't worked in the year I've lived here - one reason I rarely shower. The lack of hot water is a bigger reason). It works! I now have TWO functioning drains in my bathroom! This is very exciting.

12:30 Pick up miskota (coffee cake) and bring it to my host family's house, where I partake of couscous lunch, my favorite Friday tradition. :)

2:00 Go home. Pick up full butagaz tank en route, but don't bother installing it. Clean frantically, because Ama is coming over soon. There's a chance we'll just meet up at my doorway and then head to the sbitar (medical clinic), but she'll probably come up...

2:30 I hear a knock at the door just as I finish sweeping the front hall. I hastily shovel the mountain of tracked-in dirt into the dustpan, flick the broom over the remnants to scatter any visible dirt into the anonymity of my mudbrick floor, and run down to welcome Ama.

2:32 Give Ama tour of my house. She raves over most of it, especially the pictures of my family (thanks, Dad!), and makes a few adjustments to the decor. Notably, she thinks the top of my TV looks naked, so she puts a flag* in my favorite mug** and sets it next to the satellite box.

3:00 Ama and I visit the sbitar. She's in the 7th month of her pregnancy, so she had some bloodwork done in SouqTown a week or two ago. The results were sent up to her on yesterday's tranzit (the first tranzit to run in a week, because of the transportation strike), so now she's taking them to the doctor for interpretation. She asked me to look them over while we were waiting for lunch; they're in French, so legible to me, but even though I know what the words *are* in English, I don't know what 90% of it *means*. What's a hemoglobin, anyway? At the sbitar, Ama was very disappointed to discover that the doctor was in. Counter-intuitive, no? Being a traditional Berber woman, Ama infinitely prefers to visit with the female nurse-midwife. Fortunately, the nurse came in halfway through our visit, and Ama happily followed her back to the OB/GYN ward for her examination. All is well, but the doctor prescribed some routine pregnancy supplements.

3:45 I go to the pharmacy to pick up the supplements for Ama. The pharmacy is right in the heart of downtown, so Ama never goes there. Most Berberville women avoid downtown, for that matter. Of course, I live half a block from downtown, but fortunately, there are back-znqt (alley) paths that sneak past the city center to allow Ama and my other female friends to slip up to my door. The pharmacist is still at lunch/siesta. I walk back to where Ama is waiting for me, by the preschool, and tell her that I'll try the pharmacy again later, and then bring her the prescription.

4:00 Back home. :) Set up the butagaz tank, cook the zucchini bread whose dough has been sitting in the oven for 36 hours (which involves re-lighting the oven every three minutes for the first half-hour, at which point it settles down obediently), heat water, wash dishes, make a pot of cocoa, check email, check zucchini bread, check email, check zucchini bread, check email, try first batch of zucchini bread - big success!

5:00 Wrap up second batch of zucchini bread. Head to pharmacy. Hand pharmacist prescription. He asks (in Tam), "Are these for you?" I say no, they're for my host mom. He clarifies which, of the 58 women in town who share her name, she actually is, and then fills the prescription.

5:15 Deliver bread, meds, and April rent to Ama. She asks me to verify how often she's supposed to take the meds, so I pore over the French fine print. I burst out laughing. Ama wants to know what's so funny. "This medicine is for women who are pregnant," I explain. "The pharmacist asked if it was for me. He thought I was pregnant! Hshuma! I'm not married!" We both chuckle. Then, after a beat: "You did explain that it was for me, right?" Ama asks, sounding a bit worried. "I did, lhumdullah," I reassure her.

5:30 The kids get home from school, accompanied by Baba. We all share the zucchini bread. Ama asks for the recipe, and is shocked to discover that you can put xodart (vegetables) into Helawa (sweets). It took a while to find the word she for zucchini, though, since the one I learned - kurjet - she doesn't recognize. I try to sketch them out with my hands, explain that it's a green vegatable (which there aren't many of, here - I live in a land without broccoli or spinach), and she finally says, "Taghsayat?" Squash? "Yes!" I agree. I hadn't realized that the word was so flexible. There's orange taghsayat, which is pumpkin, the yellow taghsayat, which I'd call squash, and now a green taghsayat, zucchini. "Yeah, I saw some of those in your kitchen," she said, pleased with her deductive skills.

6:00 I head home, tired but happy. :)

* My latest package from home featured 3 small American flags. Not knowing what to do with them, I displayed them prominently on my tea-shelf (the eye-level rack on the north wall of my kitchen).

** The mug features a cow in bas-relief, complete with an emerging head which serves as the handle. I bought it to give to my cow-loving sister, but figured I'd use it for the many months till I see her. Then I cat-sat, and the visiting kitty knocked it to the ground. It now has several hairline fractures, so I'm scared to pour boiling water into it, lest it shatter...but I still love it, so I had it perched on top of my tea supplies, in the kitchen. It's purely decorative now (sigh), so Ama's use of it to enhance my TV aesthetics is entirely appropriate.


4/16/09 My Brush with Algerian Prison

At some point, and I'm not going to say when, I drifted close to the Moroccan-Algerian border. I was with a group of ... people ... and we were all excited to see it.

I saw the barriers and the guards and the flags, and it all seemed mighty photogenic to this shutterbug. I reached for my camera, but fortunately I was reminded that it's a federal offense to photograph government installations, whether they be office buildings or dams or border crossings. I put my camera away.

Shortly thereafter, as we were heading away from the border, an honest-to-goodness stretch limo drove past me. I didn't know those *existed* in Morocco, so I snapped a couple shots of it. (Like I said, shutterbug.)
A minute or two later, Algerian police stopped us. As they approached, a brown-skinned American who is often mistaken for Moroccan quickly said, in English, in his down-home-iest Midwest American accent, "Hi, there, can I help you with anything?"

They brushed past him and looked around for blond heads. There were two of us, and we were urgently ushered over to them. "Did you just visit the border?" one demanded in French and then English.

"Yes..." I let my voice trail off.

"Did you take pictures of the border?" he barked.

"What?" I asked, feeling the blood drain from my face.

"Pictures. Of the border. Do you have any?"

"I took pictures of the limousine," I stammered. I have no idea if I spoke French or English. Probably English, but I really don't remember. For that matter, I don't remember which language he was speaking. The sudden interrogation left me a little shaken.

"Where's your camera?"

I pulled it out of my shoulder bag ('cause really, when is my camera *not* in arm's reach?) and handed it to him.

"Your pictures?" he barked again.

With shaking hands, I turned the camera on and flipped it to the display setting. A shot of the limo, receding into the distance, appeared.

"The next one?" he demanded.

I obediently hit the button to show the previous picture: a closer shot of the limo (the one shown above).

"I'd never seen one in Morocco before," I stammered, but he waved away my explanation.

"You didn't take pictures at the border crossing?" he demanded a final time.

I shook my head, wide-eyed and chalk-white.

He growled something to his associate, and they both strode off.

Shaken, my blond friend and I continued on our way, away from the border. Far, far away from the border.

Note to self: Don't irritate border guards.

The prisons here - in both Morocco and Algeria - are scary, scary places. I'd probably just be deported, not actually jailed, but we don't want to test that theory, now do we?

No, no we don't.

4/7/09 Word of the Day: 3mmr

Whenever I travel in Morocco, my ears stay open for the few words of Darija that are the same as words in Tamazight. One that comes in handy is 3mmr, which means full. It is used to refer to pitchers and buckets, as in "the opposite of empty", and is also used where we in English would have some other antonym for empty, like "taken", as in, "This seat is taken," (l-blas-tx i3mmr).

[Sidenote: The longer I'm here, the more complex English vocabulary seems. Why do we have so many words for virtually the same concept? I mean, I know why - our complicated linguistic heritage, giving us words from Provencale, French, German, and the Nordic languages - but it still seems bizarre.]

While traveling back from Spring Camp, I started to board a bus and was told that it was i3mmr. Full. But Moroccan buses routinely carry more passengers than there are seats, and I really wanted to get going, so I climbed on anyway. Sure enough, there were no seats available, but I found a space by the back stairs where I could nestle in on the floor.

Moments later, the jumper asked for my ticket. I told him I didn't have one, and asked what the price was. He quoted me a price that's at least double a fair fare. (Hey, that's a homynym.) I stared him down, and asked what the real price was. He didn't flinch, but the onlookers ('cause when are there *not* onlookers?) shared the mischevious smile that I've come to associate with being tricked.

(Side note: deception is a key part of the Moroccan sense of humor, I've discovered. People will look you in the eye and tell you (1) your bus left an hour early, (2) your pet died while you were away, (3) there are no more of [whatever staple item you're trying to buy] left in the province, etc...and after you start to panic/flip out/cry/whatever, they laugh and laugh and laugh and tell you it was a big joke. I've run into this countless times. I never find it funny, but folks around me always do.)

So I chuckled, and quoted back a more fair price. He stood his ground. I caught the eye of the only woman nearby, and asked her what a fair price was. She looked away. All the men watching this little scene chimed in that the price he'd quoted was the real one. When he refused to back down, I gave up and handed him the money. Everyone around me had a good laugh at their collective ability to deceive the tarumit, and I felt a bad mood begin to percolate.

I nestled back down into my corner and felt grumpy.

A few minutes later, though, the woman nearby leaned over and whispered that yes, I'd been more than double-charged.

I wondered why she hadn't stood up for me before, but appreciated her honesty enough not to take out my grumpiness on her.

She continued, "The people sitting right over there will be getting off in a second. If you move quickly, we can get those seats." Sure enough, they stood up as the bus began to slow down. Some of the encircling men tried to move towards the soon-to-be-freed seats, but she batted them away, then motioned me over. A moment later, I found myself perched on the rise between the two bucket seats. Apparently, three of us were going to share these two seats. (All female, of course.)

As we continued on our route, the three of us chatted while the bus continued to empty out. When we got to my new friend's stop, she told me that I should come by for tea whenever I came back through, and then she and the other girl climbed down off the bus, leaving me with an abundance of space and a heart i3mmr.

3/27/08 Muralled maps (final)

A few weeks ago, I told you about the world map ecosystem mural we (PCVs, teachers, and students) painted for the school we've been working with. But I don't think I ever showed you the final map, so here it is.

Note that we used a non-Mercator projection, so Greenland is visibly *smaller* than South America. Also note the Key on the left, where we describe the biomes we mapped (in English and Arabic), the title (between Africa and Antarctica), the compass rose (upper right) and the Moroccan flag (lower right).

A week or two later, we painted a biome map of Morocco. In the map above, it's all averaged out as "Chaparal", but when you zoom in, you can begin to see some of Morocco's extraordinary biodiversity:

Instead of a text key, we have an illustrated one.

Hopefully, the teachers will continue to use these as learning aids in talking about ecosystems, biodiversity, geography, and countless other topics. Plus, they make the school look gorgeous. :)


4/15/09 Weather update

In reviewing old posts, I noticed that I spent a lot of time this winter talking about the snow, the cold, more snow, more cold, etc. So now that the weather is gorgeous, y'all deserve an update. :) The picture is from Spring Camp, on a day when the near-sea-level air was heavy with gorgeous clouds. As a quick aside: I found an unexpected benefit in dropping from my mountain aerie down to sea level (ish) in a single day. The heavy, oxygen-drenched air was so thick that I could feel my lungs exerting themselves to breathe it, but the flood of oxygen felt nearly euphoric. I could run further, fly up and down flights of stairs, and generally revel in air that felt thick enough to swim in. How ironic that I had to drop low to feel high. ;)

Up here on my mountaintop, we've been getting a few sprinkles some afternoons, but no serious precipitation for a few weeks. Instead, each morning dawns blue and clear, then the day warms steadily, till a glorious sunset brings chilly evening air, the stars glitter over a cold village, and then the cycle repeats. It has been very windy, which is the only thing keeping me from spending all day every day out enjoying the glorious days.

The thin, dry mountain air up here at 2100m can't trap the heat the way humid, heavy, sea-level air can. This means that it's always warm in the sun and chilly in the shade. You feel a cloud passing in front of the sun even before your eyes register the darkening. The cool air and warm sun combine to make me feel hot and cold at the same time, in a way that always reminds me of ski trips I took as a kid: I'd sweat because of the ski parka and the exertion, but the air would still feel cold against my face and any exposed skin.

When I went to bed last night, around 10 or 11, the outside air temperature was 43 and the inside temperature was 52. In the fall, 52 would have felt chilly. Now it feels comfortable. I guess I'm adjusting to more than just the language and culture. :)

Happy Spring, everybody!

4/2/09 Field Trip (with pictures!)

Every Spring Camp takes a field trip.

Our group went to an herb garden.

They grow medicinal and edible herbs, as well as aromatic plants and flowers, then process them (hang them, dry them, press them, whatever) to generate perfumes, oils, soaps, teas, etc. It wasn't the most exhilarating field trip of all time, but I enjoyed learning about their garden, since there's a chance we'll create a similar one here in Berberville, plus I loved all the greenery. I love my little village, but it is... brown.

To the right, see Asma (our beloved English-speaking Moroccan staff member!) and a friend looking at the drying herbs hanging along the wall of the shed.

Below: a wild rose. Well, it looks like a wild rose, but now that it's in a garden, it might not count. :) I don't know if roses have any medicinal value, but they readily yield their scent into oils and perfumes; in fact, roses provide most of the economy of Kela'at Magouna, a small city in southern Morocco. This one looks to be a different species of rose. I'm now regretting that I didn't buy any of the products in the garden's giftshop.

I like these kinds of herb gardens for many reasons, but one of the most straightforward is that it's an inherently renewable resource. If my village gets on board with the professor whose project I worked on last summer, we'll be cultivating plants like these, and hopefully moving this region from a grazing-based economy, which is devastating the local ecosystem, to one featuring products cultivated and processed into products like those sold at the garden we visited. If we focus on peppermint, oregano, rosemary, lavendar, and others that grow wild in our national park, hopefully we'll generate an appreciation of the park as it is, not just as a place where sheep eat every green thing down to the dirt.

Baby steps, baby steps...

4/1/09 Games Night (with pictures!)

Here's another long-overdue Spring Camp post. :)

Wednesday night, we had a session of "American Games". One of the biggest hits was Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Dinosaur. Wait, you mean Pin the Tail on the Donkey, right? Donkeys are actually really common in Morocco, and not widely respected. I don't think they're unclean animals, but we didn't want to get into it. Also, none of us knew how to draw a donkey, but Jonathan had confidence in his dino-drawing skills. Justified confidence, obviously:

Note that this shows the the tail in its correct position. It's coated on the backside with masking tape curls, for easy removal and re-attachment. :)

So we blindfolded the kids with handkerchiefs, spun them in circles, and watched the fun. Jonathan spun the boys, Erica spun the girls, and I took pictures.

Much fun was had by all. This little dude, Zakaria, threw himself enthusiastically into everything we did, from games to English lessons to everything else. :)

The next game we played was "Balloon Stomp." The picture shows us bringing the balloons down to the main room. (L-R: Erica, M'barak, Jonathan, Cara)

Kids tied balloons around their ankles, then did their best to step on everyone else's balloon without getting their own stomped. Our idea was that the winner would be the last person with an intact balloon tied to their ankle.

The kids turned out to be HIGHLY interested in competing, but not remotely interested in who won. They just liked the stomping. :)

...and there was great rejoicing. And even more stomping. :D

Our third "American Game" was musical chairs. Which turns out not to be particularly photogenic, which is why you get the picture of Hicham, playing his drum. We'd planned to use an iPod and sound system so that the kids could play while hearing American music...but it turned out that Hicham and his drum worked better and involved a lot less set-up. :)

In the other room, the kids were playing Pass-the-Orange and Egg Carry, neither of which I got pictures of, as well as...

BOWLING!! One rubber ball + 10 water bottles = big American-style fun. :D

We played the games for about an hour, then switched the kids between the rooms, played 'em all again, and a great time was had by all. :D


4/14/09 Strike struggles

As I mentioned in my previous two posts, the Moroccan transportation industry is currently on strike.

Whenever anyone goes on strike, one of the messages is meant to be, "See how awful it is without us? Treat us better, because you NEED us."

It couldn't be more true than in this case.

Moroccans depend on public transportation to a degree hard to imagine in the US. Maybe my New York and DC friends understand, but folks in rural areas and/or California probably don't. Especially out here in the bled, but even in the cities, Moroccans depend on public transportation. Virtually nobody owns cars. Farmers don't own trucks. Families don't own cars. Only a very, very small percentage of people own an automated conveyance of any kind, and the majority of those are motorbikes and motorcycles.

So this strike, dragging into its second week, is inconveniencing EVERYBODY. City people can't get to work. Farmers can't get their produce to market. Buyers can't get themselves to market. Doctors can't get to their offices. Patients can't get to their doctors.

I took The Last Tranzit that ran between Berberville and Souqtown, on Sunday. On a regular week, there would have been 12 tranzit runs between that one and right now. As it was...

Yesterday, I had a great meeting with my counterpart. I felt very grateful to have made it into Souqtown.

But I had no idea how to get back.

As I walked back to town from the Water and Forestry office (a 3km journey), I got beeped at by about 80% of the passing cars. So when S* beeped at me, I ignored it. It wasn't till the car swerved over to the side of the road and rolled down a window that I even looked at it. Inside was a colleague of mine and his friend. If he'd been alone, I probably would have told him I was enjoying the walk, but with two men... I climbed in. S* asked me when I was headed home. I explained about the strike, but that I hoped that the driver of The Last Tranzit would continue to make his once-a-day run. S* laughed at that. Before I could get upset, though, he mentioned that he and his buddy would be driving up to Berberville the next day, and offered me a ride. I accepted.

This morning, I discovered some more side effects of the strike. Camio drivers - the Moroccan equivalent of Mack trucks - are striking, too. Which means no produce into souq. Which means that there *is* no souq. Which means no produce into Berberville. Most families in Berberville grow their own food, but there's a reasonably high percentage who count on souq. That's why there *is* a souq. But not this week.

And the students who live in the dormitory? Their food is supposed to come in by camio as well. The kids are getting leaner and leaner meals.

S* had come to town from Berberville in order to buy food to bring back to the dorm. He hadn't realized that Souqtown's cupboards are as bare as Berberville's.

What produce there is, is already dramatically overpriced. Last week, a kilo of oranges cost 4dh (about 50 cents - take a beat to appreciate how cheap my farmers' market produce is!) . This morning, a kilo of oranges was 10dh. That's a 250% markup in a WEEK. And even so, enough people are buying that the market stands are running empty.

I went to a cafe this morning, to meet S* for our trip home, and tried to order an orange juice. The cafe - the ritziest, classiest cafe in Souqtown - was out of oranges. I got a banana juice and tried not to worry about the starvation of my province. ("Banana juice" = milk + banana + sugar + blender = mmmm)

There are no potatoes to be had in the Souqtown markets. None. Potatoes are nearly the only export *from* my region - we have poor soil, what can I say - and the stalls were *empty*.

I saw one kid delivering eggs on a three-wheeled contraption that looked like the unholy offspring of a motorcycle and a wheelbarrow. The front half was pure motorcycle, but where the back wheel should have been was a flatbed, probably halfway in size between a wheelbarrow and a truck bed, with two widely-spaced wheels. To my surprise, no one mobbed him to seize his high-protein load, but he did deliver over a thousand eggs to one hanut owner. I guess that guy will be keeping his doors open.

After S* rounded up what food he could - including one lonely hunk of meat about the size of a human brain - for THREE HUNDRED HUNGRY TEENAGERS, we hit the road.

We didn't make it far.

Right outside of town we met the mob.

Not the Italian or Russian or Sopranos mob. An actual mob, of angry citizens. At least they weren't carrying pitchforks or bayonets.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little. But in all honesty, a crowd of about 75 men had gathered to block the road. Some arrayed themselves in a human barrier across the road, standing three deep, extending six feet on either side of the pavement. Others closed in on us from the sides.

I wondered if they were transportation-strapped travelers, hoping to beg for a ride.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

These were the striking drivers, and this was the picket line.

And S*, in their eyes, was the scab daring to transport people across it.

He slowed down, since they made it clear they weren't going to move out of our way. They shouted into the car. He got out and showed them the sacks of food he was bringing to the hungry boarding students. They shouted some more. He backed up, executed a one-point turn, and drove away.

I wondered if this was surrender.

Just a few hundred meters away, though, there was a dirt-path turnoff. We took it. It led us into the tiny village next to which the picketline drivers had made their stand.

We drove through the tiny village, down to the next one, never finding a path back to the paved road we'd been so effectively blocked from.

The small sedan averaged 20 km/h on the dirt path. I live 140 km from SouqTown. It was already past noon. I began to wonder if I'd get home before nightfall.

After half an hour of scraping along over dirt and rubble, we came to a place where the targua - irrigation ditch - crossed the road, and had flooded it out. S* didn't trust either his suspension or his engine in driving through the irrigation canal, so we turned around once again.

After a few minutes of backtracking, we found a route that crossed the targua at a place with better engineering, so we made it over. A few minutes later, we found a path back to the pavement, lhumdullah. S* immediately lept from 20kph to 80kph, and I sighed with relief.

We got home about 2.5 hours after that, but without any further drama. Double sigh. I promptly went to our tiny souq, where I found kurjet (zucchini) and limon (oranges) for their usual price, lhumdullah. I bought 2 kilos.

No one has any idea when the strike will let up, but everyone is feeling the pinch. Private drivers (excluding S*, lhumdullah) are no longer willing to give their friends rides, lest angrier mobs than the one I encountered actually *bash* their cars as punishment for daring to transport anyone. It's not an irrational fear - this is happening in some areas.

The only transportation still running are the CTM buses and the trains, both government-owned-and-operated. Unfortunately, SouqTown doesn't rate a CTM bus stop, and the nearest train station is about 100 km away. Also, both CTMs and trains are sold out for the next week.

I don't mind hunkering down in Berberville for the duration. I have enough produce for a week and enough dry goods to last a month, as long as I don't mind redundant meals. But other PCVs have meetings and appointments they need to attend. The 300 school boarders are growing teenagers who need copious quantities of food. Farmers need to sell their produce before it rots in their storage sheds.

I spoke too soon - we're not just feeling the "pinch". We're feeling the strangulation. And I don't know how much longer it will last.


4/13/09 Word of the Day: Mrkub

I haven't learned this word from my tutor or anyone who speaks good English, so I'm giving you the meaning purely from context and usage. I don't even know if it's Tam or Arabic, though I'm leaning towards the latter because it sounds more like Arabic in some undefinable way.

Mrkub means strike. As in, "We can't go on strike. We don't have a union." "Yeah, but if we go on strike, then we are a union." "No, we're just a bunch of angry kids with no money." (From Newsies, my favorite strike-themed movie)

So who's striking now? Nearly everyone in the Moroccan transportation industry, as far as I can tell. Taxi drivers, tranzit drivers, semi-truck drivers, bus drivers... The strike began early last week, but was originally restricted to the bigger cities (as most strikes are, in my experience). Each day, though, more and more regions joined in. My province jumped on the bandwagon over the weekend. Saturday, all five tranzits were running. Sunday, one ran. It left SouqTown at 7:30am, got to Berberville around 11, then doubled back. (That's the regular route.)

Today, no tranzits ran. Zero. Wallu. So I'm stuck in SouqTown for another night. Lhumdullah, one of my colleagues is driving into Berberville tomorrow, so I'll get a ride home with him. The current rumors say that the strike will go until Thursday, but there's no way to know how accurate that is.

Until the mrkub ibbi - until the strike is broken - I'll be stuck in Berberville. That's not a problem, except for the fact that the truck drivers are striking, too. If they don't bring the food, there's no food in the souq. Fortunately, I have enough food in my house to live for a month, between all the care packages and my last big souq run, but I'll run out of fresh veggies in a week or so. If the mrkoub does lift on Thursday, hopefully the trucks will load up and be there by Friday, Berberville's souq day. Inshallah...

UPDATE 4/14: I was wrong. Mrkub means transportation. The word for strike in both Tam and Arabic is idrab. That's why I kept hearing the phrase "mrkub ibbi" - it means the transportation is cut/broken. That's what I get for trying to glean meaning from sentences like "Can you believe all these problems? Darn mrkub." Also, I discovered that the strike began last Monday, in Rabat (the capital), which means that it's now on its 9th day. And things are getting worse...but that's a topic for the next post.


4/12/09 Egg-straordinary Travel...

Happy Easter! (To those who celebrate it, anyway.)

I had an Easter egg adventure unlike any I've had before or am likely to have again...

The story starts with a strike.

Drivers have been striking for almost a week in the larger cities, but it hadn't reached my little village as of yesterday, so I didn't really worry about today's planned trip to SouqTown.

(I'm meeting with my counterpart tomorrow, to discuss upcoming work projects and so I can give him information about past Peace Corps sheep counts and a CD of photos from my visit to the infokiosk up near Algeria.)

I'd planned to spend the morning reviewing the photos and burning the CD, then have a big Easter lunch with my sitemate (the only other person in a hundred km who will be celebrating the day!), then take the last tranzit of the day down to SouqTown.

The last daily tranzit is at 2:30, but there's occasionally one at 4, so I'd figured I'd ask around and then plan my day.

I hadn't fallen asleep until the wee hours, so I was very unhappy to be awakened by my buzzing phone at 8:30. I was even less happy with the message, from a friend who was staying over with my sitemate: The tranzit strike has spread. No tranzits leaving Berberville today. I've found a ride leaving in a minute - want to ride down now?

I blinked at the phone, tried to remember what day it was, and eventually got everything sorted out. I threw a few things into a bag, grabbed my laptop so I could burn the CD in SouqTown, ignored the nagging feeling that I'd forgotten something important ("It's only an overnight trip, silly, how important can it be?"), and ran down to jump on the ... egg truck?

It looked like a tranzit from the outside - all oversized vans look pretty much alike - but inside, instead of rows of seats, I saw a hollowed-out space holding nothing but stacked-up egg flats and a few seated men.

Turns out the ride my friend had scored for us was in a big van owned by the local egg salesman. He was bringing his load of chicken embryos from Berberville to SouqTown, stopping off in the next town down the road to sell some at their souq.

So I climbed in, and hunkered down on the floor of the van. Next to me were 6 stacks of egg flats, each piled about 15 flats high, each flat holding about 3 dozen eggs. I was far too sleepy to do the math, but that's a LOT of eggs.

When my friend and I climbed on, there were three men already sitting on the wheel wells of the otherwise empty back section of the van. My friend slid in next to one of them, and I took the floor. As we rode, more and more people climbed aboard, pushing me closer and closer to the precariously piled eggs. It made me nervous.

And then I remembered what I'd forgotten: the stack of documents about aoudad, the Barbary sheep, which I'd promised my counterpart. Hundreds of pages of research on the animal, reports from previous Peace Corps Volunteers who studied them, maps of the sheepcount observation platforms... This was a decidedly bad move.

I dozed off, and woke up to find everyone climbing out. We'd gotten to the town holding souq, where the driver intended to wait for four hours. My friend and I wandered through the souq for a minute...and then we saw a tranzit.

An actual tranzit, not a tranzit-shaped egg truck. We went over to find out what was going on.

Turned out that he was the only tranzit driver making his run. He was headed up to Berberville, then would turn around and ride down to SouqTown.

I quickly realized two things. One, I could have slept another three hours and still gotten a ride into town, on the 11:30 tranzit (which this was). Two, I had a chance to go home, grab the stack of documents, and bring them to tomorrow morning's meeting.

So I did.

I said goodbye to my buddy, who still planned to roll down the mountain with the egg guy, and hopped onto the tranzit. The jumper said, "Oh, you're going to ride up just to guarantee yourself a seat on the way back down?" I hadn't even thought about that added perk, but I nodded.

Turns out that was invaluable. The tranzit, being the only one of the day, was PACKED on the way back. Absolutely stuffed to the gills, including people riding on top and even hanging off the back.

But it did have a 15-minute stopover in Berberville, so I left a few things on the seat to save my space, then ran home, dug out the papers (buried among other Peace Corps documentation, magazines, etc), threw them into a bag, and ran back. I saw that the driver was still getting his de rigeur cup of tea, so I paused at the hanut to pick up some bread and cheese.

Then I climbed onboard, and saw the throngs. I was suddenly supremely grateful that I'd reserved my seat (as well as one for my friend, who had texted me to let me know that the egg guy had changed his mind, so he needed to ride on the tranzit with me) - otherwise, we'd have had to ride illegally, on top, or else skip the trip entirely.

I felt a bit like a rich tourist, having a whole two-person seat to myself while everyone else was jammed together. Then the khalifa of my village climbed aboard. Morocco has 4 executive branch officials where the US only has two, mayor and governor. From the bottom up, Morocco has moqaddims, khalifas, caids, and governeurs. (The last one term they borrowed from the French, obviously, but the other three are Arabic.) So this guy is important.

When he saw me, he immediately took my hand and shook it repeatedly, then held it while we exchanged all the phrases of the greeting ritual and while he asked about the other PCVs in the region. I wasn't sure whether he was hoping to impress the others with being on such good terms with the tarumit, or whether he was trying to help me out by showing that I'm on such good terms with the khalifa. It was probably mutually beneficial. :) He mentioned that he was only riding to the village 15 km away (which is also under his jurisdiction), so I invited him to share my seat, explaining that it was reserved for someone who wouldn't be joining us for 30 km.

As we rode, I asked him about the strike, and other issues of local politics. The 15 km flew by, and then we said farewell. And suddenly I had the only empty seat on a tranzit with people literally hanging off the rails. I told the several people who moved to take the seat that I'd reserved it for someone joining us soon. The woman who took the seat assured me that she'd be getting off before we got to my buddy's site. And she did. And the man who replaced her graciously got up when we got to my buddy's site. But before my friend could climb in, a woman dropped into the seat and promptly ignored everything I said. She wasn't feeling well, though, plus she had a baby strapped to her back, so I felt really bad explaining to her that the seat was reserved for someone else. Fortunately, my buddy chivalrously let her keep the seat, which was good since she gave zero indication that she planned to move. Or that she could hear me (or the five people around us, including Mr. Gracious, all of whom thought it was tacky of her to take a reserved seat). The woman sitting behind me said that she'd be getting off in just a couple minutes, and said that my friend could take her seat. I thanked her, then offered her some of my loaf of bread. I also offered some to the woman next to me - I don't think there's an exception for seat-theives in the Moroccan Hospitality Laws - but she didn't want any.

After stopping every few minutes for the 140 km trip, we finally pulled into SouqTown 4 and a half hours after we'd left Berberville. I'd left home before 9am and gotten into SouqTown after 4pm, breaking my previous travel record by a couple hours. Seven hours of travel to go 140 km. (Or, in fairness, since I doubled back, 200 km.) That's an average of 30 km/hr, or about 20 miles an hour.

Only the first hour was actually in the company of the Easter Egg Eggstravaganza, but the memory of those towering shells will stay with me for a long time to come...


4/10 Peace Corps Applicant FAQs

I've been getting some offline questions from applicants, and I thought I'd share my answers with you all. If you have more questions, feel free to email me or post them in the comments section. :)

I've been nominated for Peace Corps and have been waiting nine months for my invitation. However, after completing the medical paperwork and being cleared, I'm beginning to worry ... what if my placement officer decides I'm not "highly qualified" and I don't get placed when they told me I would??

Take a deep breath. Getting nominated is hard. For some, getting medically cleared is harder. But if you've cleared those hurdles, it's just a matter of patience.

Two things to do to assuage your fears: (1) Visit your "toolkit" online and verify that you have, in fact, cleared all the hurdles. If any are outstanding (legal, dental, whatever), make a note of it. Then (2) call your placement officer. Ask about the outstanding issue, if there is one. If there isn't, say something about how happy you are to have been fully cleared, and how eager you are to be invited. Peace Corps staff are human. Sometimes they drop things between the cracks, and need to be reminded. Don't hound your PO night and day, but don't be afraid to call him/her, either. At the very least, your PO will be reminded of an eager nominee who's hungry for a posting.

Do you know if one could refuse vaccinations and still be accepted? Our family all have religious exemptions to vaccines.

You should definitely check with your recruiter - policy might have changed - but two years ago, when I was where you are now, that was not an option. That's why I had so very many vaccinations to go through: I'd never been vaccinated for *anything*, and suddenly I had to get them all at once. Hence the polio shot and "booster" shot only a few months apart. Blech. The clinic I went to almost refused me, because they don't usually give polio vaccinations to adults, but I explained to the RN why I needed it, and she went ahead and gave it to me.

As I understand it, exemptions only apply to legally required vaccinations. Nobody is requiring you to join Peace Corps, so the religious protections don't apply. I grew up under the umbrella of religious exemptions, too, so a big part of my decision to join Peace Corps was deciding to let myself get stuck full of needles. I haven't regretted it. When Henry IV was told he'd have to convert to Catholicism to assume the throne of France, he said, "Paris is well worth a Mass." I'd say, "Peace Corps is well worth
some shots." :)

Where are most PCVs in Morocco sent?

Depends on your sector. YD volunteers are in medium-to-largish cities. If you're in YD, you'll be speaking Darija in a town of at least 25,000, with guaranteed 24/7 electricity, running water, etc. You'll almost certainly have internet at home, a hot water heater, a fridge, and all the other amenities of Posh Corps. If you're in Health or Environment, you'll probably be in rural regions, likely in the mountains, since those are the regions still in need of Health and Environment support. If you're in SBD, anything is possible. SBD is trying hard to reach out to the rural co-operatives, so some Volunteers are put in some pretty rural areas, but others share YD sites, with all the amenities at their fingertips.

I've read that Moroccan Arabic is almost unintelligible to most Arabic speakers. Do Moroccan volunteers get to learn much Classical Arabic? French?

Yes, Moroccan Arabic (Darija) *is* very different from Modern Standard Arabic (known here as "Foos'ha"). The "th" sounds all become t's, the vowels are shortened or removed entirely, and there are lots of words borrowed from French and Spanish. That said, Darija speakers are very well positioned to learn Classical Arabic or Foos'ha, since they're written the same and probably 80% of the vocabulary is the same.

But there's no guarantee you'll learn Darija. Youth Development Volunteers do, but the other sectors all have a chance of learning Darija, Tamazight, or Tasuseit (the latter two being Berber dialects). Tam and Tash (as they're known) are useless anywhere outside of Morocco. In fact, they're pretty useless if you go more than 200 km from your site, since as unwritten dialects, they vary *hugely* even from one mountain valley to the next.

But is there opportunity to learn Classical or Foos'ha? Absolutely. Peace Corps will give you money for tutoring, which you can spend however you find most helpful. Also, anyone who has been to school (read: anyone who lives in a city, the majority of men in the rural areas, and a handful of rural women) speaks Foos'ha, so there are countless opportunities to practice it. Ditto for French.

I have a lingering fear that if I join Peace Corps, I may well be saying yes to two years of celibacy. Is this accurate in your opinion?

Most of us accepted that we'd be celibate for two years when we signed on. For some, that was an accurate prediction. For some, it was not. The Peace Corps Office of Medical Services claims that 90% of PCVs request condoms during their service. Some are probably given to our friends and neighbors (we're officially forbidden to distribute them, but I'm sure some PCVs do.) Also, condoms are useful for demonstrations during health and SIDA lessons, for home-brewing wine, for pranks, and various other purposes, so some are probably requested for these reasons.

Do you have much influence on which region of the country you will be sent?

It varies. Peace Corps' priority is matching your skill set to a community's needs, so they'll try to make the match *they* want, regardless of your preferences. Of course, their other priority is keeping you productive and in-country, so they don't want you miserable. You'll have a meeting with your program staff, early in stage, where you'll talk about this. They asked me if I'd be willing to live in the mountains, and whether I'd rather be in a cold region or a hot one. I said I grew up in mountains, and I can tolerate cold but hate the heat. I got the coldest, highest-elevation site in the country. When my ceiling leaks in the winter, the drip-water puddle freezes on my floor. But at least I don't have to buy a fridge! :) In other words, they do listen to what you have to say, but they have their own priorities, too. So, like in so much of Peace Corps service, flexibility is key. :)

But also, prepare for things to be *better* than what you expect. I love my village, my host family, my mountains, even my meters of snow. I love that I speak a language known by less than a million people. (Probably less than 100,000 people, for that matter.) None of this was what I'd imagined originally. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected good - the serendipities of service.

4/11/09 Moroccan Man-Touch (and Implications for Gay Travelers)

One of the first cultural differences noticed by Americans in Morocco is the practice that my friends and I refer to as "The Moroccan Man-Touch".

In America, especially among white Americans, there's a strong cultural taboo against physical contact between men. Handshakes are fine, back-slaps are permissible, but that's about it. Some men will hug each other, but many (maybe most) won't.

Morocco is different.

Here, men touch each other all the time. They hug, they lean, they hold hands, they walk arm-in-arm, they kiss cheeks, they cuddle. In public. It's the Moroccan Man-Touch.

I vividly remember one afternoon, when I'd been here for a week or two, I headed out of our hotel (in a fairly large southern city, popular with tourists) and passed by two snappily-dressed, coiffed guys holding hands and strolling the street. My knee-jerk reaction was, "Oh, look, a cute European gay couple!" (Which I thought to myself, but did not say out loud, lhumdullah.) A split-second later, I realized that nope, this is just a perfectly ordinary pair of straight Moroccan men.

Every time I travel, I think about it again. In my site and souqtown, I tend to avoid looking at men, for a variety of reasons. When I'm 8 feet in the air, though, looking through a bus window, I feel much freer to people-watch and even stare. So I see the man with his right arm wrapped around his friend's shoulders and his left arm rubbing his friend's belly. I see the guy standing behind his friend, arms clasped around his buddy's chest. I see the two men approaching the bus station, one with his arms hanging straight down, the other wrapped around his friend's arm, one hand clasping the elbow and the other the hand. I see the long, lingering goodbye hugs, with repeated kisses on each cheek.

It looks like a scene out of Provincetown, but these are all straight men. (Or so they'd call themselves, anyway, but that's an entirely separate can of worms.)

At the Language Camp, two of my male PCV buddies had a running contest going: They fully participated in the Moroccan Man-Touch with the male counselors/instructors, and competed to see which of them could touch a Moroccan man enough to make him uncomfortable. Neither won. They did both end up with a bunch of new friends. :)

Today we had a SIDA (AIDS) lesson with the students at the nearby middle school. Afterwards, we discussed the next lesson with some of the teachers, and showed them images we're planning to use. The images all relate to SIDA, some more obviously than others. The exercise is a creative one, asking the students to create explanations connecting the photos to SIDA. Sometimes the connection is pretty tenuous, as in, "These corrugated iron shanties represent a community in poverty, where the triple cocktail isn't available and therefore HIV is more likely to turn into AIDS."

One picture showed two men, smiling into the camera, one with his arm draped over the other's shoulder. In America, it would clearly be an image of gay men, and students' possible connections could be that AIDS first appeared in the gay community, or that AIDS continues to be rampant among gay men, or something in that vein. Here, though, everyone assumes that they're just two buddies, and the students say things like, "Even if you have SIDA, your friends won't abandon you," or "You can't transmit SIDA by hugging, so this is safe behavior."

Actually, that last sentence was the one I thought of. It wasn't until "Lahcen," my PCV friend who had brought the pictures, explained that it showed two gay men, that I realized that it hadn't even occurred to me. I've become so inured to the Moroccan Man-Touch that it hadn't even crossed my mind that these two men with their arms around each other might be attracted to one another.

And that's where the "Implications for Gay Travelers" comes in.

In America, gay couples often hesitate to show affection in public, for fear of attracting attention and/or harassment. Straight couples can engage in public displays of affection without a second thought (unless they're approaching public decency laws), but for gay couples, public affection is a nearly political act that requires no small measure of courage. Here in Morocco, it's the reverse. It's Hshuma (inappropriate, shameful) for men and women to touch in public (though, like in the US, handshakes are nearly always acceptable), but same-sex couples can be free to hold hands, link arms, put their arms around each others' waists, etc.

It may seem odd to promote gay tourism in a country where homosexuality is a crime, complete with a 5-year potential jail sentence...but as long as you limit your PDAs to the behaviors described here (as in, keep kissing and the rest for your locked hotel room!), you'll actually find a more tolerant populace than in most American cities.

Oh, and yes, women do engage in Moroccan Woman-Touch, but (1) It doesn't alliterate as well, so it's not as fun to say, and (2) It looks less startling to American eyes, because every junior high in America has girls clinging to each other all day long. Also, women are much less frequently hanging around outside - if they're out-of-doors, they're probably going directly from one place to another, not loitering for the fun of it, as the men do for hours at a time - so you just don't see it as much.

But here are some examples of the Woman-Touch: (1) Last time I was in a grand taxi for a few hours, the matronly woman next to me first put her arm around me, then pulled my shoulders down so that I was snuggled against her bosom. She'd noticed me dozing off, and wanted me to rest more comfortably. (2) Another time, a group of us were crowded side-by-side in a big room, for a meeting. The woman next to me leaned over to hear something better, and (completely unconsciously) balanced herself by holding my thigh with both hands. (3) During Language Camp, there were always more students than available chairs or sofas in the big room, so the girls routinely sat on each other for an hour or more at a time. (4) Whenever I'm seated next to a woman, I can count on her using my leg as an armrest. (5) In every medina in the country, you'll see women shopping together, bodies intertwined to some degree.

This utter unselfconsciousness about expressing friendly physical affection is actually one of my favorite aspects of Moroccan culture. I've always been a hugger by nature, and while it makes me sad that I can't hug my male PCV buddies in public, I can't help but smile when a Moroccan friend tucks her arm through mine while we walk through town. :)


3/28/09 Snapshot: Doctor's Office (aka It Takes a Village)

A few months ago, my friend "Rachid" found himself in a doctor's office in Rabat. There were plenty of other people in the waiting room, and he filled his waiting time by watching them.

One woman was there with her infant child. When the doctor summoned her, she looked at the receptionist and asked if she could leave her baby there on the seat in the waiting room. The receptionist shrugged and continued her work.

The person who had been seated next to the woman and her baby leaned over, tickled the infant, watched it goo, and smiled. After a few minutes, she turned her attention away.

At that point, someone else in the waiting room walked over to the chair where the squirming child kicked its tiny feet in the air. He played with the baby for a few minutes, then returned to his own seat.

And so it continued. Everyone in the waiting room got a few minutes of Quality Baby Time, gooing and giggling and tickling and doing whatever one does with an infant.

When her appointment was finished, the baby's mother returned to the waiting room, picked up her child, smiled at her dozen caregivers, and went on her way.

What I most love about this scene is how unthinkable it would be in America. The receptionist would never have allowed the mother to leave the child behind, for fear of assuming liability. Most mothers would never trust a room full of strangers to care for her child, fearing kidnapping or just some unspecified form of harm. And while there are certainly plenty of Americans who would play with a baby, given the opportunity, there wouldn't have been the unvocalized but clear expectation that everyone would take turns to keep the child happy and attended.

Just one more in the thousands of ways that life here and life in the US are different. :)

3/29/09 Snapshot: Xalti's Departure

Xalti means sister-of-my-mother in Tamazight. It's the name I use to address Ama's little sister, the mother of my 9-year-old cousin and my newborn baby cousin (whose birth I attended, back in August).

As loyal readers may recall, she stayed with my host family throughout the summer. She had originally planned a shorter visit, but sometime in mid-July, her husband informed her that he no longer wanted her or the children. With help from my host father, her brother-in-law, she brought her heavily pregnant body before the Berberville judge and got a divorce settlement, including alimony and child support requirements. Which he refused to pay.

As Xalti was now completely without resources, she stayed on with us until the birth of her baby. She couldn't stay after that, though, because local Berber custom dictates that a man cannot live with two sisters. As long as Xalti was pregnant, she was (presumably) sexually unavailable, so there was no problem...but once the baby was born, it was Hshuma (shameful, inappropriate, morally repungant) for her to keep living in her brother-in-law's home. So when the baby was four days old, ie as soon as Xalti could be expected to bounce along a dirt road for an hour without hemmoraging, she was packed up to live with her father, my Bahallu (Grandpa), in a mud house without running water or electricity.

Bahallu comes into town most Fridays, to visit the mosque on the Islamic holy day, and to pick up vegetables and other necessities at souq. (Berberville hosts a small souq every Friday and Saturday morning.) Whenever he came, Xalti and the infant would come with him. My little 9-year-old cousin usually stayed behind with an uncle so she could keep going to school.

This has been the pattern for the past six months. Whenever there's a school vacation - which happens a lot - Xalti and both cousins come up to stay with my host family. (There's some loophole in the two-sisters custom that allows for long visits but not actual residence.) Ama and Baba also financially support Bahallu and everyone living with him, though I don't know to what extent. Whenever Xalti visits, she takes over all of Ama's domestic tasks. She cooks, she cleans, she does the laundry...I'm not sure whether it's out of gratitude, just because she's nice, or whether it's a formal way of paying Ama back for the financial support. Regardless, Ama appreciates it, especially now that her own pregnancy is progressing.

(Hey, surprise! Ama's pregnant! I've known for a long time, but she asked me not to tell anyone. She even stopped going to the Hammam, the public baths, so that she could hide her swelling body from her neighbors. But now she's showing so visibly that it's undeniably obvious even through her bulky traditional clothing, so I'm allowed to talk about it. :D Ama's pregnant! I'm going to have a new baby brother or sister! I'm very excited.)

Ama loves having her sister come visit nearly every Friday and for longer stays at every holiday. She gets to play with her tiny nephew while her sister takes care of all of the household work. She gets to see the sister she adores. In her opinion, the situation was pretty perfect.

And then suddenly, a few weeks ago, Xalti's husband called up and said that he'd changed his mind. With less than 24 hours notice, he had her pack up her things and the children's things and come join him, several hundred kilometers away.

Ama was broken-hearted. At a stroke, she'd lost her sister, her helper and best friend, as well as her beloved neice and nephew. To make it worse, she'd lost them all to a man who cut off his 8-month-pregnant wife without a penny, who had refused to pay court-ordered familial support, who hadn't even given his children presents for 3id al-kebir, the closest Muslim equivalent to Christmas.

She repeatedly urged her sister that if her husband was a jerk to her again, that she should pack everything back up and come back here to Berberville. But Xalti was thrilled at the thought of exchanging her status of dependent, abandoned, poor relation for that of the prospect of having her children's father back in their lives. So she brushed aside her sister's concerns, packed up all their belongings - nearly all of which had been gifts from Ama and Baba - and went to her husband.

Her daughter was extatic to have her daddy back; her infant son gurgled happily in his daddy's arms. So Xalti was happy.

Ama was heart-broken. Suddenly she was the one abandoned, bereft, stripped of family... She wept. Every time she came across another tiny shoe or other trace of her sister's family, left behind in the hasty packing, she'd start crying again.

I have to admit that Xalti and I were never particularly close (in anything except age - she's 3 weeks older than me, to the day), but I'm mourning her departure for Ama's sake. I hate seeing her so sad.

3/30/09 Welcome to Spring Camp, aka Mini-Rant on Heterogeneous Groupings

I went to the English Language Immersion Camp, aka Spring Camp, with four other PCVs from my region. We're a pretty tight-knit group, thanks to sharing a souqtown and collaborating on most of our projects. (I'm a firm believer that when you have a dense cluster of Volunteers, you end up with *more* than the sum of our parts. We support each other, both emotionally and in our work.)

The five of us from the Berberville Region traveled north on Friday, then east on Saturday. We met up with our Fearless Leader Saturday afternoon, then our final two PCV teammates on Sunday morning.

We spent Sunday getting everything together, and were ready for the kids to arrive today, Monday.

As they arrived, we had a quick, one-on-one chat with them, in English, to determine their English language proficiency. It's a quiz disguised as a conversation. Here's a typical example:

"Hi! Welcome to Spring Camp!"
"I'm Kauthar. What's your name?" [basic statements of fact]
"Mohammad al-Bijanibi."
"Nice to meet you, Mohammed." [basic greeting phrases]
"Nice to meet you."
"Where are you from?" [advanced statements of fact]
{blank stare}
"What is the name of your city?" [simpler words - can they understand "to be"]
{blank stare}
"Your. City?" [simpler words]
"[Some nearby town]"
"Can you tell me about your family?" [can they understand or conjugate the present tense]
{blank stare}
"Do you have any brothers?" [simpler words - can they understand "to have"]
{looking expectantly} [can they conjugate it]
"Two brothers."
"Do you have any sisters?" [checking additional vocabulary]
"Are you happy to be here?" [can they understand basic emotional vocab]
"Why?" [can they conjugate "to be"?]
"Because. Friend. Happy."
"What did you do last summer?" [can they understand or conjugate past tense]
{blank stare}
"What do you want to do this summer?" [can they understand or conjugate future tense]
{blank stare}

At this point, I'd cut off the conversation with a big smile and a reiterated welcome. Kids whose English was still up to the challenge got some more questions, continuing this pattern of taking one big step, then dialing it down until they could respond, taking another big step, finding their level of comprehension and creation, etc, etc.

I'd then assign an English Language Level to the student, based on which questions they'd been successful with. It was complicated by the fact that, because of Moroccan educational methodology, nearly all the students had comprehension levels enormously above their ability to speak or use language. They memorize long lists of vocabulary words and conjugation charts, but never construct sentences, let alone paragraphs. But I'd assign them something, giving it my best guess based on our broken conversation, and then wait for the next arrival.

We kept our records of the students' scores, and our Fearless Leader used them to divvy the students up into four homogenous groupings: Beginner Low (no or virtually no English), Beginner High/Intermediate Low, Intermediate Mid, and Intermediate High/Advanced Low. For simplicity's sake, we referred to them as English 1, English 2, English 3, and English 4.

Our Fearless Leader compiled the lists and typed them up, then posted them this morning.

So where's the mini-rant promised in the title?

Thanks for asking.

Turns out somebody had made other plans, and had grouped the kids randomly. Which educators refer to as "Heterogenous Groupings". ("Homogenous Groupings" are those where students are grouped by ability level - ie, exactly what we'd tried to do - what we'd done! - the day before.) Educational theorists will argue the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two styles. In heterogenous groups, theoretically the stronger students will help the weaker students, thereby enriching their own understanding while supporting others. That's the theory. It works in concept-based disciplines, like social sciences and physical sciences, but tends to be less successful in disciplines that are more dependent on linear progression, like math and foreign language acquisition.

Which is a complicated way of saying that OUR GROUPS WERE BETTER. After we'd realized what had been done, we pointedly asked, "So then why did we test them all yesterday?" and got wide-eyed stares. Grrr.

When you're trying to teach a foreign language (like English is, to Moroccans) to a MIXED group of students, you're guaranteed to never meet all of the kids' needs, all of the time. Even when the kids are at roughly the same level, it's really hard to teach them all the same thing at the same time. But by scrambling our groups, they just ensured that our classes would be useless for at least half of the kids, most of the time. Sigh. I hate feeling like an ineffective teacher.

4/1/09 A Shwarma a Day Keeps the Munchies Away

The food at camp is good if redundant. Every breakfast is hunks of baguette with jam and butter. Lunch is "salad" - cubed vegetables in a salty dressing - followed by a large hunk of meat. Dinner starts with harira, the delicious soup traditionally served every evening during Ramadan, and is then followed by an unconventional spaghetti-and-meatballs.

Why unconventional? Because every night, the dish of meatballs is served first, in the form of chunks of meat (rarely beef) floating in a greasy sauce. After the kids have mostly devoured that, a plate of pasta comes out, coated in butter.

I'm a lax vegetarian - which is to say, pre-Peace Corps I was a vegetarian from 1994 onwards, but here in-country I eat meat two to four times per month. I do my best to avoid red meat (which is usually sheep or goat, since beef is incredibly expensive) so I usually end up getting chicken every couple of weeks.

My extra-special-super-favorite form of chicken is shwarma. Shwarma isn't available anywhere in my province, so I only get to have it when I travel. It's hard to describe...imagine a cross between a chicken burrito and a gyro, with magical Middle Eastern spices mixed in. More or less. There's a fairly good description of it available here, or just google either shwarma or shawarma and enjoy the various links that turn up.

Anyhow, it's delicious, and not too expensive, and readily available in the Algerian border-town where we spent the we had a loooot of shwarma. I think I had enough meat for two or three months. But it was gooood. :)
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