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June 27, 2009 Travel whirl

Sorry I haven't posted much this month. I've been whirling around the country, going up to the capital for MidService Medicals, traveling with my family, going to Toubkal with American students... I haven't spent much time sitting in front of a computer.

The upside of this is that I'm having a jam-filled, wonderful month. The downside is that you're not hearing about it.

I'll try to get better; we're heading towards some larger cities, that should have dependable internet access. But I'm still on vacation, so I'm not making any promises. :D

In the meantime, here are two posts to tide you over. Hopefully, more will come.

-the wide-eyed innocent

June 26, 2009 SRAs vs PCVs

June 26, 2009 SRAs vs PCVs

A new acronym is born: the SRA.

Peace Corps, like most governmental organizations, loves the acronyms. The CD and APTO came to IST, along with PCMO. I saw friends I hadn’t talked to since CBT in PST. Etcetera.

So without further ado, I introduce to you: the Stinkin’ Rich American.

I suppose it could be extended to Stinkin’ Rich Westerners in general, or even Stinkin’ Rich Moroccans, but right now I’m traveling with Americans – my parents and sister – so SRAs it is.

Of course, “rich” is all a matter of perspective. After a lifetime in academia, my folks aren’t exactly dot-com billionaires. But here in Morocco, where a Volunteer (a PCV, to use the official acronym) can live on 250 dollars a month, you don’t have to be a billionaire to get to live awfully well.

What do I mean? It’s the little things. The four of us have been renting out the six-person “grands taxis” when we go from city to city. We stay in hotels where the bathrooms with ***western toilets*** are *inside* the rooms, and even have luxuries like *toilet paper* and *towels*.

Traveling with my SRA family has highlighted just how much I’ve wllf-ed to my Peace Corps life. I’m used to being squished when I travel. I’m used to having to walk down a hallway while carrying my own toilet paper, to use a squat toilet with questionable plumbing. I’m used to having to wait the minutes or hours for taxis and tranzits to fill up with fellow travelers. My SRA family, by contrast, walks to a taxi stand, picks out a car, and gets whisked away immediately.

But even more than getting to live in the comparable luxury of a bathroom *in*your*own*hotel*room*, SRAs get to go wherever they want. Not limited to routes available to public transportation, they can just wander the countryside.

In the company of my parents, I’ve gotten to seen parts of Morocco I’ve only ever heard of. Places like wildlife preserves and RAMSAR sites and other locations never served by public transportation. Without the deep pockets of my favorite SRAs, my only chance of visiting these spots would be hitchhiking, hoping for a passing dump truck to carry me within a few miles, then hiking the rest of the way. (Oh, yeah, and hitchhiking is a violation of Peace Corps policy, so if I did it, I’d be risking expulsion from Morocco.)

I also get to eat reeeeally well. We’ve been mixing it up, food-wise. A few times, we’ve eaten at the super-cheap sandwich shops I usually frequent…but then, a few times, we’ve eaten at places serving cheeseburgers and pizzas (which count as a splurge here). We stopped once at a super-zween restaurant featuring pastilla (a Moroccan delicacy) and Italian food and luxurious tagines. The d├ęcor alone was worth the price.

…to those with the pockets for it. My meal cost a reasonable percentage of my monthly salary…but it was still only a few dollars to someone living on an American budget. Even with the weakened dollar, Morocco is just plain cheap. I routinely stay in hotels/hostels costing less than 10 dollars a night. My usual haunt in Souqtown is less than 4 bucks a night. You can buy pastries for pennies, kilos of farmers’ market produce for quarters… My folks are spending more than they’d anticipated, but that’s because we’re enjoying luxuries like en suite bathrooms. And they’re still paying a quarter to a half of what they’d pay for a comparable room in the US.

So, friends, come visit my country. Revel in the luxuries that feel cheap to American pockets (though astronomical to my Peace Corps budget). Eat better food than you’ve ever had, for pennies on the dollar.

Get to live like a Stinkin’ Rich American. Because by local standards, you *are*. :)

June 25, 2009 Birding in Morocco

Morocco gets plenty of visitors from Europe and the US, but not enough birdwatchers. This means that there’s pitifully little information available to birders in Morocco. One of the best resources is Bird Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published by Harper Collins. It has a pro-Britain bias, so includes statements like “This bird is only a summer visitor here, but winters in Spain and Africa,” but even so, its maps – available for *every* bird in the book – include the entire Mediterranean rim, including all of North Africa.

That one pairs well with Birding in Morocco, which is not meant to be a field guide. It cuts Morocco into a few dozen regions and tells you what to look for in each region. There are a handful of maps to the more remote sites, but is mostly useful for the lists of birds you can expect to see in each area. Partnered with the Bird Guide mentioned above, you can actually figure out what you’re seeing.

That said, neither book is 100% accurate. It’s not really their fault; Morocco is a big country – the size of California – and has dozens or hundreds of different microclimates and micro-ecosystems. This means that we have birds that haven’t yet been noticed by the nice folks writing the books. So if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and has webbed feet, don’t worry if the map says that it’s never found south of France. :)

My dad is a devoted birder who has several hundred birds on his “life list”. I’m a tagalong birder; when I’m with him, I’ll do the field guide thing and have a fair eye for diagnostic details, but when I’m on my own, I tend not to pay too much attention to our flapping feathered friends.

But in just a few days with the family, I saw dozens of species of birds that I’ve either never seen before or just never noticed before.

Even the most bird-blind visitor to Morocco can’t help but notice the enormous storks (some say “cranes”) atop nearly every mosque in the country. These gigantic birds nest on the highest thing around and ride thermals on sunny afternoons, meaning that they’re nearly always visible, and always striking in their glossy black and radiantly white plumage.

But it turns out that they’re not the only black-and-white birds in my skies. There’s also a tuxedo-colored bird of prey, known in French as a beuze (spelled phonetically) or busard according to my French-English dictionary. Then there are the Eurasian Coots, which are all black except for a streak of white down their faces, and Black-winged Stilts, which look like skinny penguins teetering on stilts, just to name two more.

And colored birds? Ooooh, boy. There’s the blindingly yellow Golden Oriole, the radiant turquoise-and-rust Roller, the rust-bellied Moussier’s Redstart, and the multi-hued Eurasian Chaffinch (North African race) - not to be confused with the Blue Chaffinch, which is, yes, mostly blue.

In a day spent in the Ifrane National Park, visiting four lakes – Dayet Aoua, Dayet Hichlef, Dayet Ifrah, and Agoulmem Afenourir – we saw countless birds. Hundreds for sure. Probably thousands. The other species we’ve so far identified include…

(Eurasian) Common Kestrel

Lesser Kestrel (I spotted this one!)

Cattle Egret (these fill trees in Azrou, near the bus station, and are found *everywhere* up here)

Great Crested Grebe (a truly gorgeous duck-like creature)

Turtle Dove

Ruddy Shellduck (striking black and white wings while flying, but the wings vanish when it sits on a lake; then, you just notice the rusty neck)

Eagle (probably the Booted Eagle, but we’re not sure)

Alpine Swift

Coal Tit

Mistle Thrush

Willow Warbler

Black Kite

Red Kite

Little Grebe

Eurasian Coot

Red-knobbed Coot (incredibly rare – nests only in these lakes!!)

Black-eared Wheatear

Black-billed Magpie

Barbary Partridge

We saw more, but couldn’t ID them in the field. Dad snapped pictures, though, so we may work them out later. Stay tuned…


6/5/09 Grooming habits...

Many of my friends back in the US are in/finishing/recently finished graduate school, so they keep me up-to-date on PhD Comics.

This one made me laugh out loud because it's at least as applicable to Peace Corps Volunteers as grad students (although they at least have hot running water, so they have fewer excuses...).

I know PCVs who have leaned out their window, beckoned over a kid, given him a few dirhams and sent him to the store to pick up eggs and bread, so that they don't have to groom at all and can still eat.

The "Thesis Beard"? Yeah, I don't know *any* male PCVs who shave daily. Maybe there are some, but I don't know them. Most shave when they get to shower, which is once or twice a week for most of us, but nobody shaves every morning. And beards are common.

(Funny sidenote: One PCV buddy showed up for our six-month-in training session (In-Service Training, or IST, officially) with a full beard. He then shaved it down to massive sideburns and goatee a la General Burnside, then to trim sideburns and a goatee a la Sean Penn, down to a mustache, etc. His face looked different every time I saw him, which of course was the point.)

For the record, I've brushed my teeth every day, even when I had to heat water on the stove before I could do it. And I think I've brushed my hair every day, although there were a few weeks in the winter when I had a hat on 24/7, and I may have missed a few days in there. But showering? Putting in contacts?? Wearing makeup??? Ha. Hahahahaha...

6/6/9 Peace Corps Housing

A few people have asked about my "mud hut".


I have a pretty zween house, compared to what I was expecting. Almost no mud. (Honestly, I'd prefer a mud house. My sitemate "Fatima" has a mud house, and it's a good 10-20 degrees warmer indoors throughout the winter. She never has to crack ice before using a bucket of water.)

If I lived in New York, I'd call it a "walk-up". It's actually fairly comparable to the layout I had when I was a grad student. (Except that those apartments had wood everywhere - building material, hardwood floors, woodframed windows, etc - and here it's only the internal doors...most of which are mis-hung, so many of my doors don't close well.)

You open the steel door, climb the mud-brick steps, and go into the apartment itself. You enter into a giant foyer/hallway/entry space that's nearly empty, because the skylight leaks like a sieve. (If the entry space isn't empty, it's because it's full of buckets/basins/pails to catch the water.) All the other rooms lead off from this space, and all (except the bathroom) are roughly the same size.

The smallest room is my bedroom. There's also a salon, which has ponges and a small table, as well as the kitchen. The whole place has enormously high ceilings - at least 10 feet - which is pretty common here in Morocco. (All Moroccan architecture is designed for the desert: high ceilings, flat roofs, maximum shade and minimum - which is to say nonexistent - insulation. Unfortunately, this doesn't work as well in the mountains... The lack of pitched roofs means that we have to shovel them off after every big snow. And the heat-minimizing features mean that they're comfy in the summers but iceboxes in winter.) My kitchen and bathroom both have a tap for running water, which is on 2-4 hours a day, so I fill up bottles and buckets to use for the other 20-22 hours per day.

Peace Corps Morocco just updated the housing guidelines, so here they are, for your information. I have no idea how this compares to housing in any other Peace Corps country, but it should give you an idea how we live...

PCV Housing Criteria

Typical housing contains one bedroom, one salon, and a small kitchen.

Housing must meet basic security and living standards for volunteer service. Basic security standards include such things as secure locks on doors and windows, clean latrine facilities, and an enclosed roof on living quarters. Ideally, your landlord is responsible for providing these things and this should be negotiated before you move in. However, if your landlord is unable or unwilling to provide basic security, please contact your PM to discuss with you how best to secure your house. This could include his/her negotiating with your landlord and/or Peace Corps providing you with resources to make necessary upgrades.

6/4/09 "We left the top 35 minutes ago", and Other Ruminations on Time

Ask any of my American friends or family: I'm a watch-wearer.


About once a year, I drop 10 bucks at Target and get a plastic, waterproof digital watch that I never take off. I sleep in it, shower in it (pushing the band up and down to wash my arm, thank you very much, but still), and look at it a hundred times a day. I use the date feature whenever I need to know, y'know, the date. I use the stopwatch with students, when cooking, to time how long the subway takes to arrive...whatever. I've spent years looking for a pretty watch that has a built-in digital stopwatch and indiglo lamp and is waterproof, but not finding one, I settle for the 10 dollar Target watch. Which breaks after a year or so, when I replace it.

This has been the pattern...for at least a decade. Or two. Probably longer.

Which is why I laughed when I heard the line, "We left the top 35 minutes ago."

I'd been hiking with some American students, engaging in my favorite Goal 3 work of sharing my country and culture with non-PCV Americans. :) We'd talked about geology, environmental history, culture, traditions, language, and a thousand other things. We'd also walked a third or a half of the way up Jbel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa (and the fifth tallest in Africa), going up to the Shem Harmoush shrine. (I know that's not how it's spelled on maps, but that's what it sounds like to me.)

The climb up had been hard for many, but we cruised on the way down. About halfway down, I stopped - and urged others to stop with me - in hopes of regathering the group that had strung itself over a couple kilometers. One of the folks I sat and talked with looked at his watch, reassured me that we still had plenty of time (at least, I think that was his point), and then kept walking.

And I had to smile.

A year ago, I'd have known that without his telling me. I timed everything. I knew that it took 6.5 minutes to get from my front door to my subway station. I knew that I could make it in 5 minutes if I took a shortcut. When I got to Morocco, I timed taxi and tranzit rides. I always knew what time it was. Always. It was almost obsessive. Maybe not even "almost."

But Morocco worked its slow magic on me. I learned how to pace my day by the calls to prayer. I learned that "teatime" isn't found on any clock; it's to do with the angle of the sun in the sky. I learned that "We'll meet at 2" means "I'll see you sometime before 3. Probably." And I discovered that my obsessive attention to the time was ... useless.

So I looked at my watch less and less.

And then, like all 10 dollar Target watches, it died after about a year. I don't remember exactly when. (Irony, there.) I pulled it off and set it aside to give to my little host sister, who loved playing with the indiglo feature (which still worked, unlike the time).

I still have access to the time - my cell phone, like most phones, has a clock as its default display - but I rarely pull it out.

Things take as long as they take. The length of time something takes today is not necessarily the same as the time it'll take tomorrow. Boiling an egg? Depends on how high the flames are. Depends how much water you put in the pot. Walking across town? Depends how many people you run into. Depends how many of them are close friends that you have to stop and kiss cheeks with and chat with, and how many you can breeze by. Trip between Berberville and Souqtown? Depends how many people are riding, and where they want to get off. Depends how many women want to get on, since they will wait outside their front doors, regardless of where the informal-but-generally-agreed-upon "bus stops" are. If five women in the same village are riding a tranzit today, we'll probably stop five different times within a kilometer.

So timing a waste of time. I mean, it'll give you a general guideline, I guess. I know that the ride between Berberville and Souqtown takes about 2.5 hours in a private car (thank you, Peace Corps Zweenmobile!), but will take 3-4.5 hours in a tranzit. But there's a big difference between 3 and 4.5 hours. I suppose I could time each ride, and analyze driver speed and times of day and make lots of pretty graphs. A year ago, this might have sounded appealing. But now...

I understand why my Berber neighbors don't care about Daylight Savings Time. What difference does it make, an hour earlier, an hour later? Summer days are still long. Regardless of what a clock says, the schedule of the day is Bread-making Time, followed by Breakfast Time, then Filling the Water Time, then Cleaning Time and/or Fields Time, then Lunch Time, then Rest Time, then Fields Time, then Tea Time, then Dinner Time, then Bed Time. For women, anyway. For men, there's no filling the water or cleaning or bread-making, but there is Cafe Time (all morning or all afternoon or both, depending on your socioeconomic status) and Prayer Times. (There are women here who pray the five prayers of the day, but there are more who don't.)

I haven't lost the habit of looking at the clock when I go to bed and when I wake up. I'm not sure why I bother - if I'm awake I'm awake (though I admit that I'll probably try to fall back asleep if it's before 6). But other than that...I often go the whole day without looking at a clock.

But the water came on about an hour ago, at which point I filled up several containers of water to last for the day, and now it's Dishwashing Time. Catch y'all ... later. :)

6/7/09 The Moroccan Triple-Wrap

It's a misnomer. I realize this.

But it's still the way I think of it.

When I wear a scarf, which I do whenever I travel and most other times, too, 90% of the time - maybe 99% of the time - it's wrapped loosely over my shoulders, in "The Moroccan Triple-Wrap". Like this:

(Quick captioning: This shows me visiting the lab of the researcher I partnered with last summer, and hopefully will continue to work with once his grant is approved. He's trying to produce and market medicinal and not-medicinal-but-still-yummy herbal teas, using herbs that grow wild in the national park near me. He had me surveying my friends and neighbors to find out what herbs they gathered/bought, and what medicinal properties they believed the herbs had; he then took specimens of each, analyzed the chemistry, combined them in various ways, and offered taste tests. Here, I'm sitting in front of a row of tea blends, sampling an anise-wild mint (nf3a + n3n3) that was pretty fabulous.)

The "triple" in "triple-wrap" comes from the fact that three separate parts of the scarf are in front of me: the two tails and the central loop. Of course, it's really only wrapped once, hence the misnomer, but it makes sense in my head. :)

The beauty of wearing a scarf this way is that it covers me in a bulky, shapeless way that is handy for deflecting unwanted attention, plus it's loose enough not to be warm (which is a plus in the heat of a Moroccan summer day!). As an added bonus, it keeps the scarf handy, for times when the sun goes behind a cloud (or sets), and the temperature plummets thirty degrees. Then I can either tighten it around my neck and add an extra loop, for maximum snuggle-warmth, or I can open it all the way out and wrap up in it like a shawl.

This kind of scarf is usually called a shesh or a zif. (I think one is Tam and the other Arabic, but I'm not actually sure.) The headscarf that most Moroccan women wear every day is smaller and lighter, and called a telkusht.

(By the way, a year ago today [as I write this, which is actually the 12th, not the 7th], I rhapsodized about the adaptability of scarves. I agree with everything I said then, plus have used scarves to keep dust out of my face, to hide my nose when near unsavory smells, and, of course, to look fabulous. Scarves are awesome.)

6/3/09 Hotel Zween

As I may have mentioned before, zween is a useful adjective that can mean cool/stylish/fancy/high-quality/chic/attractive/exciting/etc.

And zween is the best word to describe a truly gorgeous hotel I recently saw, in one of Morocco's bigger cities...

The hotel has the word "gold" in its name. That should have been my first clue.

But when the taxi pulled past a guardhouse, through a gate, and up a private drive, to stop in front of a group of pale-skinned, silver-haired, shorts-wearing tourists...I knew I'd stepped through the looking glass.

I'd left the Morocco I know and love, and entered the Morocco that wealthy tourists see.

I walked cautiously into the lobby. I held my breath, waiting for someone to shout, "Interloper!" and swarm me with guards to hustle me out of the lushly-appointed lobby.

No one did. I guess my own pale skin and hair gave me an all-access pass to the halls of privilege, despite my general grottiness. (I could rant about this for a while, but I'll leave it at: Sigh.)

For the record: I was clean. Everything I was wearing was freshly out of the laundry. Even my hair had been washed just the night before (for the first time in nine days, so I'd actually shampooed it three times.) But when I caught my reflection in one of the many ornate mirrors bedecking the elaborate lobby, I looked seriously out of place.

Something in my ensemble - long-sleeved T-shirt over hiking pants over seriously abused hiking boots, with a zween Essaouira scarf draped in the usual loose triple-wrap over my shoulders, with a scuffed pack on my back and a faded, handwoven woolen satchel on my hip... The pretty, barely-worn new earrings I'd picked up for 10Dh in Marrakesh's Jm3a al-Fna (my favorite thing about Marrakech, in all honesty, is the selection of 10Dh earrings), couldn't counterbalance the general aura of ... grunge. In fact, the earrings are fairly hippy and funky, so they might actually have made me look more granola-y, and even less suited to the fancypants hotel.

How fancypants was it?

It had overstuffed chairs. Lots of them. CHAIRS, I tell you, not floor ponges, or even the fancy knee-high ponges, nor plastic patio-furniture chairs, which you see in cafes and such...but CHAIRS. Armchairs. Squishy ones.

Sofas. Hosting people wearing jewelry. Using laptops. (Invisible, but evident: wireless Internet.)

Thick carpets. (OK, that's pretty normal for me. Though these were way more elaborate than I'm used to.)

A swimming pool. I stopped and stared at the pool for a while. The water is so ... blue. And there's so much of it! It's like a lake with walls!

The hotel had multiple restaurants inside it. *Multiple*. I didn't dare set foot inside, lest I commit myself to a 20Dh glass of orange juice or something. (Fair price: 6Dh. Best deal in Morocco: 3Dh OJ from a stand in the Jm3a al-Fna.)

Behind the hotel, I found an enormous formal garden. I got nailed by the sprinklers, both because I was distracted by all the greenery - there was grass! Actual wiggle-your-toes-in-it, thick, lush, grass!! - and because I needed the tangible confirmation that I was looking at an honest-to-goodness sprinkler. This desert country gets all its moisture from the snow and rain that fall on its three mountain ranges...which means that the meters of snow I weathered last year (pun intended) have melted, flowed away, and been converted to irrigating grass so that wealthy westerners could feel at home. In Morocco. Isn't the point of going to Morocco to see, y'know, Morocco? If you have grass in your backyard, do you really need it behind your hotel, too? But I digress.

Scattered throughout the grassy, tree-filled garden were rose bushes. So I did what I always do in the presence of rose bushes: take literally the advice to Stop and smell the roses. I inhaled the rich, enveloping, heady aromas, and ultimately decided that the red-and-white ones looked the prettiest, but the pure white ones had the richest scent. (Brides, take note: have some of each in your bouquet and you're set.)

The sun hadn't been up for too many hours, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to have the garden to myself...but I was. I wandered alone through an acre or so of lush, luxurious greenery (and in a dry country, is there a greater luxury than sprinklers?). The few awake hotel guests I saw were sitting on the veranda, looking at the garden without walking in it, or else sitting in an indoor restaurant, far from the sights or smells.

On behalf of all the guests whose overpriced hotel rooms were paying for this indulgence, I wiggled my toes in the grass, and smelled the flowers, and rested in the shade of the giant palms.

It might seem hypocritical of me to find the gardens a massive waste of resources and yet enjoy their beauty...but I felt like I *should* take the time to appreciate them.'s like buying a Lambourghini and leaving it in the garage. Inheriting an egg-sized ruby and locking it in a bank. If someone has invested this much in something - anything - the only moral choice seems to me to be to gain some benefit from all that cost. I can't recoup the spent (not to say wasted) water or all I can do is appreciate what it has created.

6/2/09 Zayd Tas3at

We're back on the whirlwind that is Daylight Savings Time. Still usually referred to as "New Time" vs "Old Time", and sometimes called zayd tas3at. Add an hour. Because you take the time it really is, according to the sun and habit and the call to prayer and everything, then add an hour.

* * *

I looked at my bus ticket. 17h had been scrawled in the box labeled Heure. A giant 4 was scratched over the whole ticket. "Dghi, dghi," people kept insisting. Now. But my cell phone showed 3:45pm. The man who had guided me from the bus station door to buy my ticket and then escorted me onto the bus - a routine service provided by the bus lines - pointed to the scrawled 4, and assured me that the bus was about to leave.

It pulled out at 4:01, according to my phone. So the big 4 was right, and the 17h was wrong...? I sat there, marveling at the miracle of the first EARLY departure in a year.

And then I remembered zayd tas3at. Lhumdullah, a friend had mentioned it on her Facebook status update, which I saw this morning. Peace Corps had warned us a while back, but I'd long since forgotten. Lhumdullah, in Berberville, nothing much is actually scheduled. Prayer calls are based on the sun, not the digits/hands of a clock, and everything else happens...when it happens. School is done for the year, and nothing else follows a timetable that strictly. The post office. The health clinic. They'll probably close an hour early than people expect. Other than that... Life is life.


6/8/09 "I used to take showers every day"

At the workshop I attended a couple weeks ago, we spent some time talking about how people change behaviors. To kick off the discussion, the moderator asked for examples of changes people had made in their lives. "I quit smoking" got big nods. I got a round of laughs for my contribution: "I used to take showers every day."

I was trying to make a point about how some changes are driven by intrinsic factors and other by extrinsic, but I think in the general hilarity, it was overlooked. Which is fine, but it's worth thinking about.

We're trying to change attitudes and behaviors here in Morocco, all the time. "Change agent" is one of my favorite PCV definitions.

Health Volunteers are trying to get people to wash their hands, brush their teeth, and dispose of medical waste safely. (Believe it or not, syringes are routinely reused.)

Small Business Development Volunteers are trying to encourage better business practices, whether it's designing products more likely to appeal to tourists, finding better markets, etc.

Youth Development Volunteers want young people to use their free time productively. They teach English, discuss gender roles, talk about environmental and health issues, and generally support the work of the rest of us, one young-person-attitude at at time.

We Environment Volunteers are trying to build an ethos of Environmentalism. Resources are finite and need to be protected / Just because it's always been there doesn't mean it always will / Overgrazing destroys ecosystems / Trees create clean air and are generally good things / Peeing in a river is bad / and a million other things.

But trying to change attitudes is hard. Trying to change actions that result from attitudes is even harder. Think about how much it has taken to create a culture of environmental protection in the US, where we've been working at it since Silent Spring. Some people still don't even separate their trash, let alone monitor their carbon footprint or support national parks.

But externally-forced changes - like me switching from daily showers to weekly ones - have their own challenges. We could raise the price of gas to 10 dollars a gallon. But would people actually drive less? When it was over $4, driving habits barely changed; folks cut back elsewhere to maintain their car dependence. We could ban incandescent bulbs to force a switch to CFLs...but would the net gain in energy savings be enough to survive the backlash of grumpy people who don't like the white light or the fact that Big Brother is bossing them around again?

It's worth remembering that even dramatic changes take time to adjust to. When I arrived in Morocco, I imagined all sorts of effort I'd be willing to go to in order to maintain something approximating my usual hygiene regimen. And even when I suspected that I'd go a few days between showers, I *never* thought that I'd *admit* it. But times change. After a year, I neither mind the wait nor find it odd enough to want to hide it. (The American Oh, what will people think?!?! mentality fades as quickly as a California girl's tan under the layers of Moroccan clothing.)

The other adjustments I don't even notice until something brings them to my attention. Like when I squeal with joy over *toast* or *root beer*...but I don't miss them when I don't have them.

When I first set up my apartment, I took a trip to Marjane (the Moroccan version of Target or Kmart or Macy's or something) and stocked up on American foods and spices and cookwares, and imagined that I'd take Marjane trips every three months or every time I visited a big city, whichever happened more.

I haven't been to a Marjane since ... I can't even remember the last time. Oh, wait, it was March. But I do remember that when I was there, I was mostly buying things for other people. As a friend pointed out, when we discussed this, "You learn to do without a lot of stuff. And it's OK." I was saying something like, "Shouldn't I miss these things? Isn't it ... odd ... that I don't?" But she's right. It's OK.

Some friends, especially those who live less than 9 hours from one, visit Marjane every week or two. And I'm happy for them - happy that it makes them happy - but I don't envy them.

I started to say "I'm perfectly content with my life," but that might be overstating things. But I am perfectly content with my material goods. It's fun to get care packages, and I celebrate the new arrivals of books and chocolate and oatmeal and mac&cheese enthusiastically...but mostly because of the generosity behind the gift, more than the thing itself.

And it's OK.

6/12/07 Linguistic stew

Sorry I've been so sporadic about blogging lately. This morning, I'm going to try to backfill the dates of the past few weeks, with blogs I've meant to write.

I learned from an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that the human brain stores different languages in different parts of the brain.

I really don't think that's true.

In my experience, language is a big swirly stew pot, and any time you reach in, you're going to grab some of what you want but at the rise of grabbing something you don't.

When I speak French, my sentences are peppered with walayni instead of mais [but, in Tam and French respectively] and 3laqash instead of parce que [because, Arabic/French] and hakak where I should say c'est ca [that's it, Arabic/French].

When I speak English, I'm nearly always talking to other PCVs, so I semi-deliberately mix in words of Tam and Arabic...but sometimes it's not deliberate at all, like when I was talking with some American students, and used the phrase shHal aya [a long time ago, Tam/Arabic blend] to their complete confusion.

When I speak Spanish...I can't speak Spanish any more. I've never formally studied it, and never really even informally studied it (unless you count a few hours with Rosetta Stone). I just gleaned it from my students when teaching in a 98% Hispanic school in Houston. (Want to know how loose my learning was? It took me a year to realize that Hola! should be spelled with an H. In my head, I saw it as Ola!) Not long ago, a Berber salesman asked me to intervene for him with some confused Spanish tourists...and when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Nothing. I was able to dredge up the word Ayuda (that's a blind guess on how to spell help) and problemo (ditto for problem), but I mostly guestured uselessly. They spoke to me, and I understood them fine through their (still-odd-to-my-ears) Castillian lisp, so the Spanish language is still somewhere in my head, but I absolutely failed to access it at will.

And it's not just me.

A few weeks back, when I was up at Peace Corps headquarters for a workshop, I overheard a Moroccan friend on the phone saying, "...kayn training wa kayn follow-up..." In Moroccan Arabic, kayn means there will be or there is or even some, depending on context, and wa means and, but the key nouns in the sentence were pure English. Clearly, he was speaking to someone else who's as fluent as he is in English, but whose first language, like his, is Arabic.

I felt comforted to a degree that surprised me; I hadn't realized how much I'd been kicking myself for my linguistic stew, and how much it helped to know that it's perfectly normal, and perfectly OK. As long as your audience understands you - and here in Morocco, everybody who speaks French also understands Arabic - does it actually matter what words you use?

As a friend kept reminding me during stage, the point of language is communication. If they can figure out what you said, you've already succeeded.

6/11/09 Tea Party Take Two

As promised, the story of my second tea party.

This was infinitely more successful than my first, and it's entirely due to Jamal. My PCV brother and host cousin rocks the kitchen, I've gotta say. :)

Around 7 last night, four members of my host family showed up at my door.

I invited them up, exchanged the requisite greetings, and invited everyone into the living room. I'd kept it mostly-tidy in anticipation of their visit, but very deliberately left out the sleeping bag Jamal has been using, to underscore the point that my PCV brother is just that - like a brother to me - and that nothing inappropriate has been going on, despite the presence of a male and female under the same roof. I don't know if it worked, but it can't have hurt. It also helps that he is in fact my host cousin - his host mom and my host mom are sisters - and that I've brought him to lunch at Ama's house before. I figure it all helps.

Anyway, I offered them tea, which they declined, but Jamal disappeared into the kitchen to make tea anyway. I gave them freshly baked chocolate chip cookies - always a guaranteed hit - and we chatted in the living room while Jamal perfected the tea.

I mentioned how grateful I was for the ahrir Ama had sent over last night, and mentioned that Jamal had made "American soup called chili" for me as well. I offered them some, but they insisted that they only wanted a tiny bit, to taste. (They were coming straight from teatime at my cousin Noora's house, where they'd eaten their fill of bread and jam.)

I brought out a bowl and some spoons, and offered it around. Ama swore she loved it, but only wanted a bite because she was so full. My little sister refused it, and the baby was too tiny to try it, but Xalti took a bite as well.

Ama reiterated how much she enjoyed it, and asked if I could wrap some up for her, so that they could have it for dinner tonight. I know there's a chance she was just humoring us, and that she fed it to the cats, but I think she actually liked it. :)

As I was walking into the kitchen to put the chili into a tupperware container for them, Jamal passed me, carrying a tea tray with a teapot, glasses...pretty much everything I'd been lacking at my first tea party. (I've also since acquired a table, so the tea tray didn't have to sit on the ground, like it did last time.)

He poured out the tea while I wrapped up the chili. By the time I brought it back to the living room, take-out style, Ama had taken her first cautious sip of tea and discovered that Jamal actually knew what he was doing.

She told him the story of my tea debacle (which he'd read about just an hour or two before, while wandering my blog), and explained that she had insisted that I buy Moroccan tea and keep it on hand. I assured her that I'd gone out and gotten it that day (though this was in fact the first time the package had been opened), but she seemed a little skeptical.

Ama loves me, but also remains pretty sure that I'm ... a little dim. I can't speak the language all that well, I have the oddest habits (like living alone?? what is that about??), and for pete's sake, I didn't even have Moroccan tea on hand until she'd told me to buy some. Jamal, though, has scored huge points. He makes darned good chili, and truly excellent tea.

As long as he's around, she seems to think, she doesn't have to worry about me. :) As I mentioned in yesterday's post, she was worried about me when she found out that I've been under the weather, and wanted me to call her to come cook for me...unless Jamal is around, in which case I'm clearly going to be fine.

Yeah, he's won her over. :)

Between the chocolate chip cookies and the delicious tea, teatime was actually a complete success. Ama got to check on me and reassure herself that her idiot stepchild wasn't going to die of her own incompetence (which she'd seemed fairly worried about), we had a great conversation, she got to invite me for lunch tomorrow, and I even remembered to give her the rent payment for June. She left with huge smiles on her face, as did Xalti (who y'all might recall is a little harder to please) and the munchkins.

My first teatime, I scored myself a D...nobody died, but nobody was that satisfied, either. This one was at least a B+, and I give full credit to Jamal. [[A grades are reserved for those who offer bread, jam, honey, olive oil, and cookies.]]

Let's hear it for Peace Corps collaboration! ;)


6/10/09 World's Greatest Host Family

For the first time since the Great Tea Debacle of 2008, I hosted Ama and Xalti (my host mom and host auntie) for tea at my house. You'll get the full story tomorrow. For now, the backstory that explains why my host mom is the awesomest ever.

The story begins last night, when I got a phone call from Ama. I'd been chatting with Jamal, who was up here for work. Ama and I went through an abbreviated version of the greeting ritual, and then she launched into the reason for the call:

"Baba ran into Fatima in the souq today, and she said that you're in town! Why haven't you come by??"

"I'm really sorry - I've been sick. I've just been resting at home." My falsetto voice and frequent breaks to cough underscored my honesty.

"You're sick? Oh, meskina [you poor thing]. Why didn't you tell me you were sick?"

"I'm sorry. [cough, cough] I've just been resting," I repeated.

"Well, it's too late now to come over, but I'll come over tomorrow, OK?"

"OK, marhaba [feel welcome]."

We signed off, and I laid back down.

About half an hour later, I heard a knock on the front door. I don't answer my door after dark, as a general rule, but I thought I heard a woman's voice outside, so I hesitated. I decided to run up to my roof and look over the terrace railing. It's an awkward angle - straight down to the heads of whoever is at the door - but I figured it would do to see if this was a harassing visitor or a friend. Jamal came with me.

When we got up there, I called, "Shkun?" [Who is it?]

The tops-of-heads below rotated upwards to see me, and I saw Xalti and my oldest host brother, who had escorted her on this inappropriately-late-night walk through town.

"Is da-tzumt?" she called up to me.

"Xalti!" I shouted in greeting, then trotted down the two flights of stairs to unlock my massive steel door. I explained to Jamal that this is our mutual aunt (his host mom and my host mom are sisters, which makes him my host-cousin, and this Xalti is another sister of theirs; there are actually five girls in the family, but I don't think I've ever met the other two). As I went down, I pondered Xalti's question. It sounded exactly like "Are you fasting?", which I was asked daily during Ramadan last fall, but which seemed irrelevent today. I tried to think of what else sounds like zum [fast], but nothing came to mind.

When I got to the front door, I opened it and grabbed Xalti in a big hug. I haven't seen her since she reconciled with her husband several months ago, and went to live with him (about six hours away by tranzit and bus). We kissed each other's cheeks several times - the Moroccan equivalent of a big hug - and greeted each other repeatedly. She also passed along greetings from my favorite little cousin, who had stayed behind with her dad.

Then she held out a plastic bag holding a bowl and half a loaf of bread, and said, "Ama made this for you, since you're sick. Tomorrow, ??come?? visit." I've never been very successful understanding Xalti's speech - I don't know if it's an accent thing, a speech pattern, or if she just mumbles - and so I couldn't figure out how she was conjugating come.

"Oh, Ama is so sweet!" I said with a huge smile. Then I asked, "You want me to come to Ama's house tomorrow? Or you guys will come here?" I used hand guestures as well as slow speech, because Xalti has as many problems understanding me as I do understanding her.

"We'll come here," she said clearly.

"OK, see you tomorrow," I said.

"Till tomorrow, inshallah," she answered.

With a few ritual farewells, she and my brother (who'd been mostly silent throughout this) were on their way.

Later, as I was falling asleep, I kept chewing over her first question to me. Is da-tzumt? And I finally figured out what she'd meant. Fasting doesn't just mean the holy fasting of Ramadan; it means any failure to eat. Ama had worried that I was starving, since I live alone and was ill.

Given the hugely interconnected web of family ties in which Moroccans live, interdependence is a given. Independence is unheardof and more than a little wierd. Ama has enough trouble believing that I can feed myself under the best of circumstances. (She hasn't been terribly impressed with most of my food, with the notable exception of the chocolate chip cookies that she and the rest of the family adore.) If I'm too unwell to walk up the mountain and visit her and Baba and the kids, clearly I'm too unwell to feed myself.

And she's not far wrong - I've been eating fairly meskine-ly over the past few days. Instant oatmeal has figured prominently in my diet, as did popcorn and rice - the lowest-effort foods I had around.

So, fearing that I was starving away here in my isolated house with no one to cook for me, she sent over my auntie with a bowl of soup and loaf of bread, so that I'd have something to eat. (I'm still not sure whether the soup - ahrir - was something she'd made for the family's dinner or whether she whipped it up just for me, because she knows how much I like it.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I have the bestest host mom *ever*.

So that was last night.

Apparently, my brother returned this morning to come invite me for lunch. I slept in today though - I got the best night's sleep that I've had in months! - so I didn't hear him knocking on the door.

I spent the day wondering when the family would come over. I assumed mid-late afternoon - the usual teatime - but knew it could be any time.

They finally showed up around 7. The details of the tea party I'll leave for tomorrow. For now, suffice to say that Ama repeatedly told me that the next time I'm sick - Allah ystr [God forbid] - I should call her, and she'll come right over and make me food. She said this at least five times, both to underline the importance of her message and because she has lingering doubts about my language ability. She expressed huge relief that Jamal was here to feed me. (We'd given her a sample of his chili, which reassured her that he knows how to cook.) She was delighted to see how much better I'm doing even since yesterday. I assured her that I'm vastly improved, and she could tell that I'm no longer cracking falsetto with every sentence.

She also proposed an alternative plan to the call me instructions - if I'm sick (Allah ystr), I can come up to her house and stay there indefinitely, so that she can feed me and keep an eye on me in general.

She's such an awesome host mom.

She also asked about my family in America, who will be here in Morocco next week inshallah, and gave me an update on her pregnancy (she's due in a week!!), and we had a great conversation all around. Xalti was here too, as were each of their youngest children, but Ama and I did most of the talking.

Before they left, she made me promise that I'll go over to her house tomorrow for lunch - with Jamal if he's still here - and repeatedly prayed for God to finish curing me.

Yeah, I love my host family. Lhumdullah!


6/9/09 Jamal's Ever-Evolving Chili

Chili is one of those infinitely-adaptable foods, like stew. You can add nearly anything, and it's always good. I'll add a vegetable or two every day for the next week, and the chili will last till I leave town and be delicious every day.

But here's how it starts...

1 onion
2 green peppers
1 head (not clove, the whole head) garlic
2 tomatoes
2-3 chili peppers
2 potatoes
2 carrots
1 can corn
1/2 lb beans (preferably kidney beans and black beans), pre-soaked
1 12-ounce jar of tomato paste (Aicha Matisha is the local variety)
cumin (to taste)
salt (to taste)

Dice onion and peppers. Mince garlic. In a large stew pot, saute the garlic till you can just smell it, then add the onion and pepper, plus the cumin and salt. Saute, then add tomatoes.

Add water to cover all the vegetables, than add another two inches of water on top.

Wait for water to boil. While waiting, dice the chilis, cube the potatoes, and slice the carrots into thin circles. Once the water boils, add the vegetables (including corn) and beans.

When the water has returned to a boil, stir in tomato paste. Reduce to a simmer. Let it simmer for about an hour (or as long as you can hold out - chili only gets better with sitting, but it's also filling your house with nearly irresistable odors, so waiting is hard), stirring occasionally. As it cooks down, don't be afraid to add water, but be sure to salt it to taste before serving.

Optional variations:
1 lb beef - Brown the beef while sauteing the garlic, onions, and peppers. Here in Morocco, kefta [ground beef] comes pre-spiced, so you can mix it directly into the chili.
Bay leaves - I'm a fan, but Jamal thinks that they're "cheating" - if you balance the spices right, you don't need them.
Worchestershire sauce - It gives a richness and darkness to vegetarian food that beef provides to non-vegetarian food.
Whiskey - Then you can light the chili on fire before serving. 'Cause flammable food is cool. :)

Note: Cinnamon makes everything better. Add at your discretion. :)


6/1/09 My Rock Star Friends

Ask anybody who knows me - I love kids. Always have. I could do without the "Donne-moi un bonbon!" kids, but generally speaking, I'm a fan of the munchkin set. :)

Today, I spent a few minutes playing with some of Berberville's munchkins. They were playing a popular game, and it occurs to me I've never shared it with y'all.

Kids here play all kinds of games, and are especially fond of soccer...but their most inventive games they play with the materials close at hand, ie rocks.

Berberville has lots of rocks. We don't have a lot of grass, trees, or, y'know, groundcover of any kind, but rocks we've got.

So that's what the kids play with.

Today's rock game reminded me of jacks, an old-fashioned game I played a couple times as a kid. But, of course, without a bouncy ball or any star-shaped jacks. Just rocks. :)

Here's how it works:

1. Find four small, roundish rocks of roughly the same size (all about the size of a bouncy ball, actually.)
2. Arrange three in front of you.
3. Toss the fourth rock in the air and catch it. (From here on out, we'll call this one the "ball", to distinguish it from the three rocks on the ground.)
4. Toss the ball, scoop up one rock off the ground, and catch the ball.
5. Toss the ball, scoop up a second rock, and catch the ball.
6. Put both rocks down, toss the ball, pick them both up at once, then catch the ball.
7. Toss the ball, pick up the third rock, and catch the ball.
8. Put all three rocks down, toss the ball, scopp up all three at once, then catch the ball.
9-whatever: Keep repeating step 8 as many times as you can.

Your turn ends when you fail to catch the ball or fail to pick up the right number of rocks.

These kids were *good*, though, and routinely went through all 8 steps and then kept going and going. I took a turn, and kept failing to catch the ball. It's harder than you might think to throw it straight up while reaching for balls on the ground... Still fun to play with them, though. :)
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