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1/31/09 Blackout

We lose power relatively frequently here in the bled. And when power goes down, we lose the cell tower, too. It has a generator, but it only holds out for an hour or two. Around here, folks use the word rizo - from the French reseau, network - to refer to the existence of cell phone coverage. Where an American would say, "I don't have a signal," a Moroccan - or an American in Morocco! - would say "I don't have rizo."

Today, power and rizo went out around 9am. Often, these blackouts last only a few minutes, so I kept the faith...for a while. By 10, I was resigned. By 11, I was worried.

I spent the day studying Arabic. I've started learning Modern Standard Arabic, known around here as foos-hah for reasons I don't understand. I thought it might be an acronym for Formal Standard Arabic - FSA - but no. It's its own word. I'd hoped to do my studying on the roof. My warm, sunny roof is an ideal place to do any work that doesn't require a plug (ie, stuff on the laptop) or butagas (ie, cooking)...but not today. There was an icy wind that overmatched the high-altitude sun I've come to love. So I was inside, next to my heater, sitting under my window. The panes are frosted, which blocks about half the light. I alternated between opening the window to enjoy the sunshine and closing the window to enjoy the warmth.

I took a few hours out in the middle of the day to finish up a book a friend had sent from America. I do love to read... And it's a great way to pass a chilly Saturday afternoon. :) I also made a batch of pancakes, and indulged in real American maple syrup. Mmmm.

Then I got back to studying. I've made flashcards (reusing waste cardstock from the mail - ecofriendly and handy!) and posted lists of words by category (adjectives, prepositions, pronouns, etc) on the walls. I'm having more fun than I'd anticipated; I keep forgetting how much I like learning. I'm that kid who went to school for the classes, not the classmates. Getting back into a formal language-study routing - as I haven't done with Tamazight in too long - feels good. :)

As the daylight dwindled, I began to wonder if I'd be going to bed with the sun. Candlelight is pretty, but not too useful... Lhumdullah, the power came on just before twilight. I turned my phone back on, and discovered that rizo was back, too. :D As much as I enjoy alone-time, I'm grateful to be reconnected to the world beyond Berberville.


1/30 25 Random Things About Berberville, Part II

25 Things, cont...

16. Schools. Berberville has a mdrasa, which contrary to popular belief does NOT mean a fundamentalist training camp, but simply means school. Primary school, more specifically, including grades 1-5. Middle school covers grades 6-9, and is known by the french name college. (An accent grave belongs over the middle e, but I can't get blogspot to put it there, sorry.) High school also goes by the French name, lycee (again, please forgive the missing accent), and covers grades 10-12. At the completion of lycee, students sit for their bac, or baccalaureate exam. Very few rural students ever go to university, so "getting your bac", as they say, brings high accolades and great respect.

17. Pre-school. This exists in Berberville, but has for only a few years now. Folks call it a neddi, rhymes with )heady, which word also describes a women's center. Berberville does not yet have one of those, but if we get one, this might get confusing.

18. We do have a women's co-op; they weave rugs, handbags, breadcovers, pillowcases, and nearly anything else you can make on a loom, then sell them at festivals and fairs across Morocco. It used to have almost 50 members, but due to recent drama, its numbers have plummeted to about 5. My sitemate "Fatima" works with this co-op.

19. The moussem, our summer festival, includes a gigantic souq. At this market, you can buy everything from silver jewelry to horses and camels to artisanal crafts (like those produced by the women's co-op) to organically farmed honey to...pretty much anything under the sun. There are also informational booths, distributing information about SIDA, the environment, handwashing, anti-smoking, women's rights... Any official jam3a, or NGO, can get a booth (tent space, actually) from which to hawk their message.

20. Berber culture. I dubbed my mountain village "Berberville" both to protect its anonymity and because the name fits: we're the center of Amazigh culture. (There are three groups of Berbers in Morocco, distinguished by their dialects: Tarifit, in the Rif region of the north; Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh - my people; and Tasuseit, spoken in the Suss region down south. All the dialects are collectively referred to as Tashelheit, from the Arabic word Shilha.) Our Amazigh heritage is why we host the moussem. Our deep isolation - even with the recently paved roads, we're hours from the nearest big town or major road, and before that, it was at least a full day's travel to get to any other town - has protected this culture for millenia. You see it especially in the women, who still tattoo their chins with the designating marks for their tribes, and who wear the ahandir capes that they've woven for countless generations.

21. Berber's rapid development creates odd juxtapositions: tattooed women in ahandirs cross paths with men in leather jackets; shepherds lead flocks to pasture while texting on their cell phones; souq sells teapots made in China next to herbs grown 100 meters away. The government paved the road out to SouqTown only 10 years ago; they paved the road to the nearest town North about two years ago; the road to the nearest city South remains a dirt pist, impassable for much of the year thanks spring and autumn flooding and winter snows.

22. We have one of the best legends in Morocco - a real Romeo and Juliet tale - but I'll save that for a future post.

23. Berberville got phones eight or nine years ago, once the Maroc Telecom trucks could make it out on the freshly paved roads. Cell phones trickled in about the same time as they did in the US, leapfrogging over the more-expensive landlines. Interesting note - cell phone contracts are rare here. Everyone buys cards - what we'd call "prepaid calling cards" in the US - to "recharge" their cell phones, then uses the phone until they "run out of minutes". Cell phones can accept calls for up to six months after they've been "recharged", whether or not they have money left, so it's not uncommon for people to use their phones only for incoming calls.

24. As all regular readers of my blog know, Berberville has a post office, known as the bosta. Home delivery of mail doesn't exist in the bled (rural areas). If you want your mail, go to your PO Box and pick it up. Everyone pays for their PO Boxes (boites postales or BP, again from the French) on a calendar-year schedule. Since Health and Environment sector PCVs are on a May - May calendar, not January - December, we traditionally hand boxes down from one PCV to the next. I got mine from "Zahra", the previous Environment volunteer, and didn't pay a dime until a few weeks ago. When I leave, the new Volunteer will get seven free months in her turn.

25. I can't possibly list 25 things about Berberville without talking about the Berberville citizens, my friends and neighbors, some of the most generous people I've ever met. Moroccans are renowned for their friendliness and openness. I've learned a slightly more nuanced reality - invites for tea come readily, but work collaboration requires deeper trust - but the fundamental truth remains the same. I'm honored and grateful to work and live with these wonderful people. :)

Thanks for reading about my fabulous village!


1/29 25 Random Things About Berberville, Part I

There's a meme going around, where people post 25 factoids/hobbies/whatever about themselves. I thought I'd post one for my village. :) Also, since I haven't had access to blogspot in over a week - the posts have been emailed to a friend, who's been putting them up for me - I wanted to get back into the swing with a nice, newsy, informative post. :) I'll try to mix the formal factoids with more flavorful stuff.

1. We have a sbitar, a hospital/clinic. It provides a safe and clean place to take care of birthing mothers, minor injuries, and run-of-the-mill illnesses. The staff includes a doctor and several nurses, who rotate in and out over time.

2. We're famous for our lakes. So much so that to elaborate would be to erase the anonymity with which I've shielded Berberville thus far. But trust me, they're awesome.

3. Berberville is quite possibly the coldest site that Peace Corps uses. I'm not positive this is true, but I haven't found anyone else who's had ice indoors, let alone repeatedly. Of course, that's also because most people in cold sites live in mud houses, which don't get as cold as cement houses do. I'm thinking of upgrading my thermometer to one that can track temperature over time, so as to create a climatological record for Berberville. "Bloody cold" isn't very precise, after all. :)

4. The Caid for the region lives here. A caid is an executive-branch official, outranking the moqaddim, which every village (or three) has, but reporting the the governor, who's responsible for the whole province. Our caidat, the fancy building where he works, perches on top of the hill south of downtown.

5. Most Berbervill-ians live in the valley or on the mountain north of downtown. My host family is in the latter group, in a house as remote from downtown as they could arrange. Ama and Baba had been living right on the main street, and Ama worried about having young children in such a high-traffic area. Now, they're in a house perched halfway up the mountain, at almost exactly the same elevation as the caidat. If Batman shot one of his grappling hooks from the window in my old bedroom to the Caid's office, he could sail across the entire village. :)

6. Berberville has several outlying douars, or suburbs (more or less). These tiny villages - is there a word for something smaller than a village? Maybe "hamlet"? - OK, these hamlets contain only houses, so their residents come to Berberville for all their needs.

7. We have a courthouse, complete with a judge, to attend to the legal needs of the region. I don't know what sorts of cases usually come before the court, but I do know that my Xalti got a ruling forcing her ex-husband to pay her alimony and child support, under the mudawana, the family law code, also known as the new protections for women's rights.

8. We have many cafes, restaurants, hotels, and shops, because of the tourist trade. I only patronize them when other Volunteers are with me. It's Hshuma - shameful, inappropriate - for a woman to go to a cafe or a restaurant in general. People mostly exempt me from that, because of my tarumit - foreign girl - status. But since I live and work here, I try never to play the tarumit card.

9. Why do we get so many tourists? Because of our lakes, a major ecotourist destination, and our festival. We hold a major festival every summer, like many of the larger Moroccan cities do. I don't know if any other villages our size hold a festival, but they might.

10. Berberville hosts the gendararie for the region. This houses the gendarmes, the rural police. (Urban police are called bolis.) Both words come from the French. They colonized Morocco briefly, and held a heavy presence for a much longer span, before being thrown out about half a century ago.

11. You can see the French influence everywhere, in the school calendar, the structures of the ministries, and most obviously in language: it is taught in school from 3rd grade onwards. Throughout primary school and up until the end of secondary school, half the classes are conducted in French, half in Arabic. When you hit the tertiary level, at one of the universities, all of the courses are in French, and French expatriates fill the faculties.

12. Berberville has a large and lovely mosque, located right next to the souq. The call to prayer rings out from its minaret five times a day.

13. Souq? Yes, I said souq. Though I take the trip to "SouqTown" every week or so to pick up supplies, Berberville does, in fact, host its own souq. This is a cross between a farmer's market, a flea market, and a mall. Souq happens every Friday and Saturday in the center of town, and in fact probably defines downtown. The word souq means both the markets themselves and the place where the markets take place - I'll try not to be confusing, but that's what happens with versatile languages like Berber and Arabic. For that matter, souq also means "I bought", but I promise not to use it with that definition!

14. Because Berberville nestles into a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, flat land commands a premium. Farmers cultivate all of the flat land along the rivers (we have two), and the buildings take the steeper areas.

15. In order to create a "market square", as Americans or Brits might call it, they terraced the lower, shallower slopes of the mountain. Souq has three tiers (terraces). At the bottom, closest to downtown, you find the dry goods, spices, and kitchenwares. On the middle level, clothing vendors set up shop, selling imports, second hand clothes, and anything else conceivable. Leather jackets? North Face parkas? Bathrobes designed to be worn as outerwear? I've seen them all. Selection changes week to week, though, so stay alert. The top level holds the food. It remains half-full all week long, lhumdullah, so I always have a selection of produce available to me. But on souq day, it fills to overflowing with grains, more produce, chickens, etc. There's an additional level, yet higher up the mountain, behind the courthouse (which overlooks the food court, you might say). It holds Live Animal Souq. If you want to buy a sheep, goat, or (rarely) a mule, this is where you come.

More to follow...


1/25/09 Husband-ly Generosity

Just about the same time the king's foundation came through, distributing largesse (see previous post), Baba (my host dad) bought Ama a washing machine.

He'd told her he would a month or two ago, and she's been pestering him for it, and now the time has come.

When I was at their house yesterday, I was shown The Machine, in all of its pristine glory.

I was a little surprised it had never been used, but it turns out they'd been waiting for me to make it back from my work/Inauguration/blizzard travels...because the instruction manual is in English.

Baba speaks some English, and can read Latin letters easily enough - he's fully literate in French and Dutch, and probably others - but he hadn't gotten far with this document. I soon saw why: it was written in the miserable, pigeon-English that I've found so often on products sold in America but manufactured...somewhere else.

I read through the manual a couple times, then stared at the machine, then read the manual some took me the better part of an hour to figure out how to hook up and use it. It didn't help that it has a separate "spin" basin, which they recommend you use to "save water and engry". By the time I'd worked it all out, the sun was low in the sky, so Ama asked me to come back in the morning for the trial run. (Baba hadn't bought a dryer, and clothes need a full day of sunlight to dry in this cold weather.)

So this morning, I climbed up to their house, perched halfway up the valley wall, to inaugurate Ama's new toy.

I started by hooking up the water hose, only to be told that their pipes are frozen and have no water. I explained that that was a problem, but Ama assured me it wasn't. Baba had checked with the salesman: it works fine if you pour water in, manually.

So our first task was lugging water from the external spigot closest to the house. Then I got to teach Ama and Xalti how to use it, which was quite a language test for me. I think my explanation sounded something like this: "First, put some water in here. Then some soap-for-machines." Apparently, the ubiquitous Tide is designed for handwashing, not machine washing, so Baba had bought special detergent for the makina win sabbon (machine of laundry). Unfortunately, all the instructions on the detergent were in Arabic. The only part I could interpret was the image of one-and-a-half scoops of soap next to a lightly soiled shirt, and two scoops next to a heavily soiled shirt. But how much is a scoop? There wasn't one provided in the package. A teacup? A measuring cup? A handful? I gave it my best guess with a shrug.

"Then put the clothes," I continued. I was demonstrating as I went, both because it's a useful teaching tool (that sidesteps language challenges) and because Ama and Xalti were wary of breaking their shiny new toy. Though I'd never seen a washing machine as lightweight (only 10.6 kg) or one with attachable/removable filling and drainage hoses, I was still the acknowledged expert on washing machines. I felt the pressure, but soldiered on. "Don't fill the clothes all the way to the top. Just to here," I added, indicating with my hand. "Then pour in more water," I said, dumping a few more gallons in. Ama and Xalti murmured to each other about how much water the machine used. They had a lifetime of experience handwashing, which requires a fair amount of water, but only in small doses. The sight of me pouring in gallon after gallon of water seemed to disturb them. I assured them that once the pipes thawed, this whole thing would get a lot easier.

It just occurred to me that the external taps have only been in Berberville for two or three years. Prior to that, every ounce of water had to be carried up from the river (about a kilometer away, and muddy) or the spring (about 3 kilometers away, but clear). No wonder my cavalier attitude towards the thirsty machine upset them.

Once the water, soap, and clothes were good to go, I closed it up and pointed to the knob. It was a straightforward egg-timer style countdown, that reached up to 15 minutes. The manual had indicated that 7-8 minutes were generally enough, so I turned it to there. "No, no, no," Baba corrected me, "Turn it all the way." I figured that his guess was at least as valid as the crazy folks who had mislabled half the diagrams, so we went for the full 15 minutes.

"Now take out the water," I said to Ama and Xalti. This was the best I'd been able to come up with for "drain it out". There was a separate knob to open the drain hose, so we twisted that, and watched the water pour out towards the drain in the floor. "Now we have to take out the soap," I said, having given up on trying to guess the word for "rinse". They'd done laundry a thousand times, they'd know what I meant. "You can do it here," I said, indicating the wash basin, "Or here," indicating the spin basin. I've never had a separate spin cycle option, but the book recommended it, and I like following instructions. But earlier, I'd told Ama that the spin basin would dry out the clothes - which it is also good for - so she insisted on using the main wash basin again, pouring in clean water and running it for a few more minutes. I hoped a few minutes was enough.

When we opened it up, Ama frowned. "This didn't get clean," she said, indicating the cuffs of her daughter's sweatshirt. I felt like defending the machine - my little sis, like everyone (including me), rewears clothes for days at a time. Those cuffs had been filthy. But she was right, it wasn't clean, so I held my tongue. "And this smells like soap," she announced. Again, she was right. I wondered if the spin basin would have done a more thorough job of "taking out the soap", as I'd put it.

We put a few garments into the spinner, including the soap-scented one, and let it rip.

The second load went more smoothly. The little pink sweatshirt went back in, along with a pile of other clothes. Xalti put in about half the water I had, over my protests. When I looked inside, the water was about two inches below the level of the clothes. Xalti had stepped back outside, so I went ahead and poured in more water. Her daughter started shouting. (All four kids, ranging from 6 to 11 in age, had watched this whole process with unending fascination.) I was irritated that my little cousin had ratted me out - what happened to generational loyalty?? - but when Xalti came back, I explained how important it is to have more water than clothes.

That time, the water that poured out was a greyish brown. We all kind of stared at it. Then Ama told Xalti, "Well, it's the same when you do it by hand." She turned to me and explained, "These are the kids' clothes. They're outside constantly, so their clothes are ----." I couldn't recognized the word she'd used, so made a stab at an echoing statement.

"Yes, they're just full of mud...?"

Ama nodded. "You have to wash them twice," she continued. "Always."

So we threw the second load in for a second wash, with about twice as much soap, and they came out clean. Lhumdullah!

Somewhere in here, I explained to everyone - Baba, the women, the kids - the importance of experimentation with a new appliance. Of course, I don't know the word for experimentation, so what I said was, "Maybe it won't be good the first time. Try something different. Try more water, or less water. Try more soap, or less soap. Try a different brand of soap. Just try. Then, inshallah, you'll learn the best way to wash."

I was afraid that Ama would tell Baba to take it back. Why I sided so emphatically with the machine, I'm not sure. Maybe because I know how much Ama's hands and back hurt after she does all the laundry by hand. Maybe because the washing machine represented Western culture, and I wanted to defend my peeps. Maybe because I saw how proud it had made Baba to be able to give it to her.

By the fourth or fifth load, Ama had found a compromise with The Machine that made her happy. She no longer used the spin cycle or the rinse cycle, but rinsed the clothes by hand. "Just rinsing them, that's not so bad," she explained, as she squeezed and wrung the garments. "It's the scrubbing that's such a problem. Taking out the soap and water is easy."

I liked that she'd found a balance that made her happy. She still got to feel ownership over the process, and not treat the big white box as a metaphorical blackbox of mystery technology...but she also didn't have to labor over a washtub for hours each week. The machine can wash, Ama can rinse and wring, and the sun can dry. That's the plan, anyway. :)

Then, of course, Ama had to feed me - she's much like my American mom in her Need To Feed - and before I left, she told me that I should bring over my own clothes to wash in her new machine. I grinned and thanked her. I'll take her up on the offer, but I'll wait until the water comes back on. That's the compromise that makes me happy. :)

1/27/09 Moroccan Film

Morocco's film industry is rapidly growing. It is based in Ouarzazate, a city near the Sahara, which means that it has access to enormous dunes, scrubby deserts, and tons of extras. It has become the shooting-location-of-choice for most desert films, including movies set in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Holy Land, Egypt, etc. I don't know all the films shot there, but a few that leap to mind are The Mummy and its sequels, Kingdom of Heaven, Charlie Wilson's War [a PCV friend of mine actually met the guy who served as Julia Roberts's bodyguard while she was there!], and Babel. Leo DiCaprio was rumored to be there earlier this year, but I don't know what he was filming.

Babel, the last film I named, is the only one of that list actually set in Morocco. In fact, it's set in Tazarine, a village near some PCV buddies.

I just watched Babel. I can't figure out if I want to recommend it or not.

The plot is wretchedly depressing. Bad things keep happening to good people, usually for no reason. There's gratuitous sex and nudity. It shows Moroccans doing things I've never seen, notably smoking dope and guarding sheep with a rifle. A rifle! The shepherds here use a shepherd's crook, like their fathers and forefathers for thousands of years. So there are lots of reasons not to like the movie.

But... It shows a real Moroccan village. It shows real Moroccans, doing things I've seen a thousand times but can't describe as well as a movie can show it, like eat out of a shared tagine, drive tomobils, sleep on handwoven rugs, follow sheep through rocky terrain, and give selflessly to foreigners (who they also like to watch, incessantly). Watching it, I kept wanting to shout out, "Oh, look, see there's--" something so deeply genuine and familiar. Come to think of it, it reminds me of when my family watched the one and only movie ever filmed in my sleepy town back home. We kept pointing out extras we recognized (especially Mom!), and the buildings and streets of our town.

It's the first movie that I can point to and say, If you watch this, you'll get to see what my life here is like.

But I don't want to validate all the painfully, unnecessarily wrong things the filmmakers felt the need to put in, for drama.

OK, here's my compromise position: rent it, watch it on mute (to avoid the suicidally depressing, albeit brilliantly intricate, plot), and fast-forward through all the scenes not in Morocco. (And if you're watching it with kids, cover their eyes while you fast-forward through the Japanese scenes.) Wait--watch the Mexican wedding. And take it off mute for that. Because that was one of the few joyous moments in the film.

I think that's the only way I can recommend the film in good conscience. Unless of course you want a dark and convoluted movie-watching experience, in which case, marhaba.

1/20/09 Inauguration Special Edition

The Country Director for Peace Corps/Morocco gave us all permission to travel to the nearest way-to-watch-the-inauguration (high speed internet, cable tv, etc), so a group of us planned to watch it together at the home of the only person in the region with a functioning satellite TV.

I got there in the early afternoon. The coverage had already started - it was around 9 or 10 in DC - but so far, it was just dignitaries filing in. I did get to see Michelle and Barack go into the White House for "coffee", and grinned to see that Michelle was carrying a hostess present. Now that's a classy lady.

About a dozen of us had gotten together for the big event. Some were outside, throwing around a football; some were in the kitchen, preparing pizza and cheeseburgers. (Presidential inaugurations require classic American food, naturally!) I floated around a bit, watching some coverage, hanging out... It was bitterly cold, so I didn't spend much time with the footballers, and eventually, around 4 - 11am in DC - I settled down in front of CNN. There were only two other people in there. Someone poked their head into the living room to ask why we were already watching, when nothing that important was happening yet.

I answered, "Because the surrounding ceremony is part of it. Think about the Oscars. When you watch the whole thing, you're excited and thrilled for the Best Picture winner. But when you just read the listings the next morning, it's pretty meaningless." I thought about something a friend had once said, about the need for ritual to emphasize sacredness. She was defending ornate church ceremonies, but made excellent points about the role of context. There's a reason it feels different to go to an opera or symphony, all dressed up in a gorgeous hall, than to listen to a recording of the same performance on your iPod.

And I wanted The Whole Experience, cheezy coverage and all.

Plus, it was fun to get to see all the ex-Presidents and ex-First Ladies. I'm pretty cut off from the news much of the time, so I didn't know that, for instance, Cheney is in a wheelchair and Bush (41) recently had back surgery. Learning those things made me feel...more connected, somehow.

Then, around 4:30 our time, Senator Feinstein kicked off the proceedings, and more and more people began drifting into the living room. There was commentary and side-conversation all around me, so I didn't catch every word, but that was OK; sharing the experience with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers was worth more to me than hearing every syllable.

When Biden was sworn in, several people asked, "What happens if Bush (43) dies right now? Will Biden finish out his term?" Nobody knew, but the consensus answer was that since the rest of Bush's term was something under 20 minutes, it really didn't matter. :)

And then came Obama's swearing-in. We all smiled as little Sasha climbed up onto her platform. Someone - I'm not sure - said, "He's just so human!" When Chief Justice Roberts and President [no longer -Elect, as of noon, which had come and gone, I think during Rick Warren's address] Obama fumbled various words in the oath, the sentiment was echoed.

There was applause, cheering, and general celebration, which all quieted down when President Obama (President Obama!! President Obama!! We get to say President Obama now!!) began his inaugural address.

My friend's living room is pretty big, but we'd all crowded in to have room on the ponges and to have a good view of the TV, so I was pressed up close to the PCVs on either side of me. One, I'd hugged during the swearing in, and then just hung on to throughout the speech. I gripped the hand of the other, too. I needed the tangible reminders that This Is Real, not a dream or a wish or a hope, but Reality, unfolding before my eyes. Also, I was brimful with a thousand emotions - hope, relief, pride, joy, excitement, awe, humility, just to name a few - and wanted to share them with my beloved Peace Corps family. Plus, I've always been a hugger. :)

At the end of the address, there was more celebration. Many of us had tears in our eyes; some were openly weeping.

And then came the pizza and cheeseburgers, and there was great rejoicing.

1/19/09 Random Act of Kindness

I'd planned to travel home yesterday, but yesterday morning, the screw fell out of my glasses frame, meaning that the lens fell out. I found the lens easily enough, but the screw was gone. Lhumdullah, there's an optometrist in the city near where I was staying, but of course they weren't open on Sundays, so I stuck around another day.

Today, I moved through the hazy, sauna-like world that is Life Without Glasses, and was able to follow the careful directions I'd gotten from a friend to find the office. Which was closed. Morocco, like many European countries, closes down for a few hours around lunchtime. We PCVs usually refer to it as siesta, from Spanish, but I don't know if it has an actual name. When I've asked Moroccans, they seem to find it odd that I'm questioning it. Of course everything closes for three hours. (Sometimes four.) Why does it need a name? That's just the way it is!

Anyway, I found my way to a coffeeshop and settled down with my book to wait. (Note to anyone planning to travel in Morocco: bring a book. A chubby one. You never know when you'll need to wait for an hour or three, and books, at least in my experience, prevent impatience and frustration.) I got a hleeb b shokolat, like I always do in cafes. It literally translates as milk with chocolate, and it's cocoa. The milk is steamed, the chocolate powder sprinkled on top, and sugar cubes served on the side. And it's yummy.

An hour or so later, I tried the office again, and this time it was opened.

I was far enough from home that I didn't try Tamazight, I just went straight to French. Virtually all Moroccan professionals speak French, so it's a safe bet. Sure enough, they had a screw that fit the tiny hole. They patched it up in moments, then handed me the functioning glasses. Lhumdullah! The woman also handed me a glasses-cleaning cloth (which I've been wishing I'd thought to bring - shirts work OK, but lint-free soft cloths work better), saying, "Un cadeau." A present. I thanked her, and asked her how much for the repair. "Oh, fabor," she said, with a wave of her hand. Free. Free?! I tried to protest. Even if the moments of labor were donated, the screw has to cost something. But she wouldn't hear of it. She just smiled, gave me her card, and sent me on my way. For my part, I offered blessings to her parents (a common way to say Thanks a million!) and left with a spring in my step.

I love reaffirmations of the goodness of people.


1/24 Kingly Generosity

When I visited my host family, Ama was full of big news. Baba just bought her a washing machine (more on that later), and the king's foundation had come through town, bearing gifts.

Every kid in town had gotten a new set of winter clothes and pair of winter boots, along with a tas of milk, Ama told me. A tas is a cup, or sometimes a bucket, so I thought she was telling me that every kid had gotten a glass of milk - which, while nice, seemed a little...paltry. But then she showed me - every kid in town had been given a tin, a foot tall and 8" across, filled with powdered milk. There are few cows around here, so nearly everyone (including me) drinks powdered milk. She insisted on giving me a few cup-fulls of the powdered milk, saying, "Your siblings got some, so you should get some, too." :)

For the littlest babies, a warm blanket was given in lieu of boots, but they got the giant tin of milk, too.

And have I mentioned before that the king's foundation (actually named for his grandfather: Fondacion Mohammed V) provided textbooks, backpacks, pens, pencils, protractors, etc, for every schoolchild in the province?

I know that as a development agent I should be resistant to charity, and arguing for economic-growth-from-within, but I can't help but be grateful for the royal generosity, making such a tangible contribution to the lives of my family and neighbors. :)

1/23 Dashing Through the Snow...

...I wasn't in a one-horse open sleigh, but sometimes if I wonder if the tranzits have more than one cylinder churning away, dragging our 20-odd-passenger van up a hundred plus kilometers and a thousand vertical feet, on the way from SouqTown to Berberville...

But I have to say, after the Inauguration Night Blizzard closed the road to Berberville for a few days, I was soooo delighted to be riding in a tranzit again. Because it meant that I was going HOME!

As we drove through the landscape, progressing steadily from a near-Saharan gravel desert up to my snowy valley, I was struck by the sere and beautiful scenery over and over again, as well as the responses to it from my Moroccan neighbors. About halfway home, it occurred to me that I'd never recall all my observations unless I recorded them, so I pulled out my notebook and began to scribble.

Here they are, unedited - note the ever-changing levels of snow along the route:

* A woman in a housecoat/bathrobe and bedroom slippers picking a path through two inches of snow, carrying a tarp filled with wood in one hand. [At some point, I'll write a whole entry on the practice of wearing bedroom-wear as outerware. Suffice to say for now - it's not uncommon.]

* Like a scene out of It's A Wonderful Life: Kids sliding on hardpacked snow, some on their feet, hunkered down so their bums and fingers skim the ice, others on their bellies with their feet curled in the air

* Dark-eyed boy with flushed cheeks, bright against his tan skin, wearing thin blue rainboots against the 3" of snow, grinning as I catch his eye

* Moisture stains at the foot of the mud walls show how much has melted already this morning - looks like 6" or more

* As the transit toils upward, low gears straining to haul us uphill, the snow steadily deepens. No, not steadily. The bright, high-altitude sun has done its job to clear the snow, but in shadowed vales and lee sides of slopes, the snow rests 4-5" thick, sculpted into sharp ridges.

* In the village of my nearest Volunteers, which had 2' of snow Wednesday evening, Friday morning reveals a strong dichotomy: on sunny slopes, it has compacted to 6-8"; on the north side of buildings, it's still a heavy, wet 1.5-2', currently being chunked out by businessmen opening a path to their doors.

* I see streaks and stripes, moire patterns of white and dark that dazzle the eye and inspire the mind... Geological features leap out with a new relief, beds and rivulets and resistant layers all standing out in blinding contrast to the snow...

* It's tempting to wave an arm and call it all black and white, but that would diminish the thousand shades of brown and red and gray of this arid landscape, breaching through the dust-tinted snow, where the colors are echoed in the palest pastels.

* Climbing the Divide, we escape from the gloom of the grey-shrouded village below, rising towards cerulean skies with carded-wool clouds.

* Egg whites! That's what the razor-sharp snow ridges have been reminding me of. Not the sea of peaks atop a Baked Alaska, or the shining mounds drifting over a lemon meringue, but the egg whites in the bowl, just as you finish beating them, glossy and perfect, smoothly undulating and swirling up to a startling peak of implausible crispness.

* Going through the pass that crowns the Divide, the road beneath our tires is snow-packed, not cleanly plowed - due to post-plowing winds, perhaps? - and the plow-pushed piles to either side reach 4 or 5 feet, up to the windows of our high-riding tranzit.

* ...but as soon as we clear the pass, we're surrounded by shallow swales; the countryside here is mostly denuded of its blanket of snow.

* The blizzard exerted its force against the flags, still flapping their cheery red and green welcome to the (still absent) King. Their crisp colors glow against the fields of white - they're contiguous here, with only a few brave patches of brown peeking through - but the poles are no longer jauntily vertical (or, when in groups of 3, forming shallow angles like a sign language W). They've been bashed and battered until they lean at every cockeyed angle. Some poles snapped near their base and lie fallen, a casualty of the winter storm. the splash of red across the ground heightens the parallels to a fallen soldier.

* Elsewhere, the flags have ripped off the poles, sometimes just at one connection point, leaving them flapping like a racecar pennant or a lady's favor. In a few cases, they've blown away entirely, leaving their naked pole a forlorn and lonely sentinel.

* Now on the outskirts of my nearest village - passing my favorite volcanic intrusions - the road is almost uniformly snowpack, not sun-dried asphalt as it has been for the past 3.5 hours. The driver's speedometer still reads 0 km/h, as it has for the past 120 km, but we're going around 5-10 mph. A walker couldn't keep up with us, or even a casual jogger, but a sprinter would leave us behind.

* 18 km from home, the dusting over the snow has deepened, and makes me hungry for a Baked Alaska just perfectly browned under the broiler.

* In my nearest village, a man is digging out a path, carving the heavy snow into crisp chunks before throwing each shovel-load over his shoulder. His precise work and the wet, snowman-friendly snow have created a pile of white cubes, scattered across the dust-browned snow like he's assembling the building blocks for an igloo.

* 9 km from home, I see my first flocks of the day. Sheep and goats, their dun and black striking against the snowy hillside they're clambering over. I guess the other shepherds are keeping their animals indoors a little longer...?

* Erosion from today's snowmelt has turned the river along the road into a flood of chocolate pudding.

* From a stretch so naked the plow seems irrelevant, just moments ago, we've rounded a bend to a scene that could be lifted from any New England winter: a narrow ribbon of asphalt winds through deep plow-stacks that reach some 6-8 feet on either side, tapering from 1-1.5' deep down to a scattering of walnut-sized chunks at the farthest reach from the road.

* Clustered icicles drip down off rock faces like a witch's skeletal fingers reaching down to pluck tasty children for a winter stew...

* Berberville looks like a ski resort, the snow so thick and heavy as to make venturing outside seem a fool's errand.

* The sky at the end of my fally looks like the opening of "The Simpson's", an implausibly radiant, pale blue with white-puffed clouds.

* The remnants of the fortress built an age ago, at the summit of the nearest rise, are now clear. Its steep walls and exposed location leave few crannies for snow to linger.

1/21 The New Face of SIDA (rated PG-13)

Many of you will be surprised that I'm writing about this. But it's a story I need to tell.

If you're young or squeamish, feel free to skip to another entry.

I've traveled a lot this week. Covered about half of Morocco. So when I say that you don't know where this girl lives, I mean it. She's just a Moroccan Girl. MG...let's call her Meg, which isn't a remotely Arabic or Berber name, so you know it can't be her real one.

I met her during my travels. I was staying with a PCV, as I nearly always do when I leave my home village. While we were cooking, "Meg" knocked on the door. My friend went down and let her in. Meg came into the kitchen and greeted me with a kiss on each cheek, as is common between women here. She looked to be about high school age, with an open face and a big smile that didn't reach her eyes. Any idiot could tell that she was distraught, and wanted to confide in my friend. They went off to talk while I did the dishes. Slowly.

I've worked with young people for several years, so I thought through the possible sources of teenage trauma. When my friend came in, to get tissues and tangerines, I asked, "Is she pregnant?" My friend didn't answer. "Boyfriend mean to her?"

"Don't I wish," she muttered as she went back. That gave me pause. I finished up the dishes and went into the living room. I'd thought that they were out on the balcony, so I was startled to see them in there. I hesitated at the door, but didn't see any response from them, so I just went to the farthest sofa and began reading a magazine. They were speaking in a dialect unfamiliar to me, so it was easy to tune them out, and give them emotional, if not physical, privacy.

A few minutes later, my friend left the room again. My silent, page-flipping presence began to feel rude, so I set down the Newsweek and looked up at her. She'd been crying for some time, so I said the obvious thing: "Meskina" (you poor thing, more or less). She smiled wanly.

And then, without preamble or apology, she brought me into her confidence.

She pointed to herself, and said one word: "SIDA."

What Americans know as AIDS.

The blood drained from my face. I crossed the room to sit with her. I was prompted by two motives, actually; part was just empathy, wanting to hold the hand of someone in pain...but the other was the knowledge that AIDS carriers are often shunned, physically and in every other way, and I wanted her to know that not everyone would recoil from her now.

I struggled to communicate with Meg. I asked her how she'd gotten it; she said she didn't know. I asked when she'd found out, since all the signs indicated that it was a new discovery. Slowly, with remarkable patience for my poor ability with her dialect, she explained. "Last week." I tried to reconcile that with the shock she was showing. But she wasn't finished, just taking the time to ensure that I understood her. "Doctors came to my school to take blood. You know 'blood'?" she asked, checking for my comprehension.

"Idammin, eyyah," I replied, nodding. SIDA testing is being encouraged by various ministries and NGOs, including Peace Corps, but I was surprised to hear it was being done in high schools.

"For the Palestinians," she continued. And suddenly I got it. It was a blood drive, not a testing round, meant to benefit the thousands of injured in Gaza. I donated blood after 9/11, for much the same reason. The Red Cross - or more likely, the Red Crescent - must be making the rounds of Moroccan villages, asking for tangible help for the Palestinians. And Meg had volunteered to give her blood to those suffering. "Then, yesterday," she went on, "The doctor came to tell me--" and she was interrupted by sobs. The Red Cross and similar organizations routinely test all donated blood for AIDS and other pathogens, and in the unlikely event of a positive result, provide the information to the donor.

I consoled her. When she seemed calm again, I asked her how old she was.


Seventeen. A kid. A sweet kid, who does well in school and had a bright and shining future in front of her...until yesterday.

Later on, I got to see her interacting with her peers and friends. She laughed, played, danced, teased... Her broad cheeks lend themselves to her ready smiles. She loves music. She's generous - she invited my friend and me to her house for dinner, which she'd prepared for us. She's working hard in high school, studying French and English as well as the regular curriculum, hoping to go to university soon. Though girls here often marry by her age, she's only had one boyfriend - who she swears she only ever kissed - and has never traveled, though she hopes to.

She could have contracted the virus in many ways. She might have been born with it; she lost a parent to SIDA about five years ago. She might have caught it at home, maybe tending an injury. She may have lied about her boyfriend, and acquired it from him. She could have been infected it at a hospital; believe it or not, Moroccan hospitals ask patients to provide their own syringes for vaccinations or other shots. If you don't buy your own at a local hanoot, they'll use one they have on hand, regardless of how many times it's been used before. There's a common belief here that washing needles, especially if you use chlorine, kills all germs and bacteria.

But regardless of how it was given to her, it's hers to carry now.

And I suddenly realized how little I know. I've sat through countless lectures and trainings, so I can recite all the vectors, the risky behaviors, etc, etc. I know how not to get it, and how to teach that information to others. But until that moment, I hadn't realized that I have no idea what happens once that threshold is crossed. I don't know if the triple cocktail of AIDS medications are commonly available in Morocco, let alone rural Morocco. I don't know how much they cost here (it varies by country). I don't know what the life expectancy is with the drugs. I don't know what it is without the drugs. I've never known anyone personally who had HIV or AIDS - or if I did, they didn't tell me.

Really, all I know is that this sweet, funny, happy girl is facing a future that's suddenly terrifying, bleak, and short.

Heartbreakingly short.

Update: "Meg" recently confided to my friend that three years ago, during a family celebration, some of her male cousins got drunk and raped her. We have no way of knowing for certain that this was the moment when she contracted SIDA, but it seems likely. So she's not only a 17-year-old with SIDA; she's also been an incest survivor since the age of 14.

I ... I have no more words.


1/23 Homecoming

The early-morning tranzit was on time today (lhumdullah), which meant that I only sat outside my friend's house for 20 minutes to wait for it. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, so I didn't mind a bit. After a beautiful ride (see next post), the tranzit pulled to a stop in front of my house. I don't know why it stopped a block shy of the usual place, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth!

But even before we stopped, I'd been looking ahead to My House, mi casa, my refuge, HOME. I haven't seen it for a full week, and I've missed it. But what to my wondering eyes should appear? Up on my rooftop was not Santa, but a different jolly old soul come to bring me
joy: my host dad.

Of course, I'd left my house locked and padlocked, so I couldn't figure out how he'd gotten up there. And then Elf 1, aka the older of my two little brothers, poked his head over the meter-high wall around my roof. Elf 2, the littler one, was nowhere to be seen...yet.

I hopped off the tranzit, paid the driver (who insisted on taking less money than I wanted to give him - he finally reminded me that I'd gotten on 30 km outside of SouqTown, and therefore had a cheaper ride than I'm used to), gathered my bags, and headed for My Front Door. My host dad called down greetings, which I returned, but when he tried more elaborate conversation, I called back up, "Wait a second, I'll be right up." (Stawil shwee, ad-alligh dghi.)

I lied.

I popped off the padlock without incident, then attempted the Berberville Triple Lutz, aka balancing all my stuff (so it wouldn't sit in the snowdrifts around my door) while I simultaneously tug my steel door towards me and twist my key to the right. It takes both hands, since the door handle (not a knob, a big bar of a handle) is about a foot from the lock. Tug right, twist left, don't drop anything...and nothing happened. The key wouldn't turn.

I tried a few more futile times before looking around for The Source Of The Problem. Turns out that the meters of snow and hurricane winds had conspired to force snow into my doorframe. I'm not really sure how this is possible, but my solid steel door was bent inwards by about three inches at the bottom corner (away from the hinges).

Snowy, icy slush was keeping my door from closing, which meant I couldn't tug-and-align-the-locks like always. So I knelt down, still balancing my bags, and began digging out my door.

Elf #2 materialized at this point, just over my left shoulder. He saw what the problem was, and immediately crouched down to help me out.
10 minutes of scooping and scraping later, with fingers, gloves, keys, and carabiner, there's a stubborn one-inch layer of ice just at the tip of the corner. "Maybe we need hot water, to melt this," I suggested to my little elf. He promptly trotted off to my nearest neighbor, aka our auntie, in search of the kettle-a-boil that every Berberville matron keeps on hand. While waiting for him, I straightened back up and tried the lock, just for grins. No joy.

Then I reached for the old standby, Brute Force And Ignorance: I kicked the door. Sure enough, that dislodged the last of the ice, and suddenly I could turn the lock. Lhumdullah! I called Elf 2 back from his mission, and in we went.

Inside, I noticed a patch of ice on the floor. My ceiling must have been leaking again, and apparently it's been below freezing in my house while I've been gone. No surprise there, given the blizzard. I drew my brother's attention to the ice, and said, "Watch out, this is dangerous." I don't know what I mispronounced, but somehow he interpreted what I'd said as, "Please stand right here." So he did, very obediently, and watched me from the ice patch while I shucked my bags. Then we trotted up the stairs to my roof.

He was ahead of me, so he drew the slidebolt and opened the door. It opens inwards, lhumdullah, or this story would go a very different direction.

Through the door, we could see Aba and Elf #1, hard at work shoveling the snow off my roof, before it could collapse the ceiling of my house. But at the door, between us and them, was a wall of snow. A pristine, vertical, gravity-defying wall of snow. It reached past my hips, making it just about a meter tall. A meter. Of snow.

And there's been two days of sunshine compacting the snow down into snowman-friendly, heavy, wet snow. So it was at least 50% deeper, and maybe twice as deep, when it first fell. Yowza.

After standing there for a minute, just blinking at the apparition, I took matters - and my little bro - into my own hands. I hefted his little 8-year-old frame upwards and plopped him on top of the snow.

He sank only a couple of inches before climbing downwards. I then took a deep breath and followed in his footsteps - literally.

Once I'd conquered that mountain, I was immediately enjoined to drink some tea. Someone - my host mom? my visiting auntie? my host dad himself? - had brought a tea set, complete with teapot, glasses, bread, and olive oil, up onto my roof. They'd brought it up two ladders (the secret of how they'd gotten up there at all - a ladder to my neighbor's roof, then another from that roof to mine) so that they could be, y'know, civilized.

All three guys were hard at work, clearing the snow off my roof. Snow shovels haven't been introduced here, so everyone does the work with balan, spades. The wet snow was holding together so well that all the shovellers had to do was slice downwards once or twice, to delineate some borders, and then lift-and-heft, and a 1-foot cube of snow was removed. While I drank tea and ate bread, I watched their procedure, and once I'd finished, I got Elf #1 to give me his shovel and let me work on my house. He resisted, but I held my ground, so he surrendered his bala. After I'd toted a few shovel-fulls from the rapidly-diminishing snowpack to the edge of the roof, he tried to get it back from me. I was stubborn. "This is my house, so I want to work!" I explained. He went to his dad for advice. His dad was taking a breather also, letting Elf #2 take his shovel while he had a cup of tea. I kept schlepping cubic feet of snow into the alley three stories below (with a very satisfying "WHUMP!", I might add).

Suddenly, Elf #1 reappeared at my elbow, holding out half an orange.
I accepted it, and as soon as I had a hand off the shovel, he snatched it. I looked over at Aba, who had a big grin. Aba speaks a little English, and I thought about asking if he knew the word "conspiracy" - clearly, our dad had given my little bro the orange expressly to get me to stop shoveling - but decided to let it go.

There were two shovels among the four of us. Aba and Elf #1 were definitely doing the lion's share of the work. Elf #2's job was mostly to watch over the front wall and make sure no cars, trucks, bikers, or pedestrians were below in the street, so that Aba could chuck his cubic foot of snow without fear of nailing somebody. Elf #1 and I were throwing our snow out into the alley, where nobody ever walks, which is why we weren't worried about it.

Fast-forward an hour or so. I've shucked all of my outer layers (parka, fleece, sweatshirt) and rolled up my sleeves. I have no idea what the actual temperature is, but under the baking sun, it feels like about 70. It was probably in the high 50s, but who knows? Elf #2, who is lifting each shovel-load over his little shoulders to get it over the wall, has been left with me to do the final touches. We have strict instructions to bring the shovels back to my hos family's house and then stay for lunch. I cheerfully obey.

Fast-forward past a wonderful lunch and chat with the family, including my efforts to figure out their new washing machine. I explained why I'd been away for so long, and got updates on the latest estimate for The Royal Visit: sometime in February.

My favorite exchange:

Ama: Here, Kawtar, have some.
She hands me some Tang-like beverage.
Little Sis: This has so much sugar in it!
Me: Yes, it has tons of sugar.
Ama: If you don't like it, you don't have to drink it. We have water, too.
Me: No, no, I like it a lot! Just like you, I like everything sweet.
Ama: [laughing] It's true, I love cookies and candy!

After leaving, I swing by the post office. I ask the postman if I have any packages. There are a few that were sent from the US a long time ago which I've still never gotten, so I keep checking. "Nope, nothing for you," he answers without looking up. "Hey," he adds, "Where's Jamila?"

"She's traveling," I answer. "Why, does she have a package? I can pick it up for her. And what about Fatima? Does she have any packages?"

"Yes, I have one for each of them. You can sign for them," he adds, pulling out The Package Book. There are two or three of these, depending on how the item was shipped. Why he doesn't log the packages when they arrive I still don't understand, but he always logs them when they're picked up, which means that every care package = hanging out in the post office for 10 or 20 minutes. But they're still TOTALLY worth it, don't get me wrong!!

So he writes for a bit, then hands the package up to me. I look at the label, then do a double-take. "Wait, this is ME!" I exclaim.

He laughs.

"You lied! You're a liar!" I laugh. He keeps chuckling. "Shame on you! You're a bad, bad man!"

Then he reaches for the other package, which I'll take over to my sitemate, Fatima. He spends a few minutes writing in his little book, then hands over the package...which is also for me. We go through it all again.

Turns out I got three packages. Jamila and Fatima had none. This is buposta's sense of humor. :)

I cart everything home, then plop down, home alone at last.

Home, sweet home.

Berberville, sweet Berberville.

It's good to be home. :)


1/22 Snowed Out

I spent Inauguration Day with a group of friends. Our new Country Director had given his blessing for us to consolidate wherever we found a TV, so the one guy in the region with a functioning satellite dish got to host about a dozen PCVs. :) I promise, I'll tell you all about it soon.

After the Inauguration, there was Great Rejoicing by all. Some of us went outside to admire the gorgeous stars - the closest we had to fireworks, after all! - but none of us noticed the clouds on the horizon, blocking the stars over Berberville.

Turns out they were full of snow.

Lots of snow.

By morning, Berberville was buried. Reports have differed, but they're all at least a meter. Some say a meter and a half; one guy said two meters. That's six feet, six inches of snow. I know exaggeration and hyperbole are common traits here, but I'm guessing there was at least two feet, and three or four are possible.

Needless to say, the road was buried, too. As they say here, "L-abrid ibbi." The road is cut. Impassible, impossible, probably imperceptable.

So I spent yesterday, the 21st, hanging out. We played Scrabble and chess, cooked, and huddled next to the buta heater. And did I mention that the electricity was out most of the day? When it came on, in the evening, we checked CNN to see what our new President was up to. He hasn't yet responded to the Berberville Snow Crisis, but I'm sure it's on tomorrow's agenda. ;)

This morning, we cleaned out the house - a dozen PCVs can track in a lot of mud - and then headed to SouqTown. As I waited by the road, there was no trace of yesterday's snow (which had reached even to here, on the outskirts of SouqTown, over 100 km from Berberville). The sun was broiling. There are cacti here. And yet I'm snowed out of my house, out of my town, out of my whole region. Sigh.

Apparently, a snow plow successfully pushed through this afternoon. Of course, since no tranzits had left this morning, there were none here to take us back on the freshly cleared road, which is why, at twilight on the 22nd, I'm still at the bottom of my mountain instead of the top. Tomorrow morning, inshallah, I'll get to go home. And then, if I have electricity and internet access, I'll update you all on the events of the past week. :)


1/18 Biking Backpedal

As you may recall, last Thursday, my friend "Jamila" and I went for a jog/bike trip. She's prepping for a marathon, but I'm no runner, so I kept her company by biking the journey with her. Well, sort of kept her company. Bikers and joggers tend not to go at the same pace, it turns out. (Speaking of which, Jamila did a phenomenal job of maintaining a constant pace of 6.5 - 7.5 minutes per kilometer for the entire 16 Km. Woo-hoo!)

We started at the mile-marker 13km from her town. (OK, yes, if you're going to be all particular, they're kilometer-markers, but that doesn't roll off the tongue. They're about a foot - maybe 30 cm - tall, painted crisp white, with bright red splash across the top. They tell you the distance to the bigger towns along the road for most, if not all, of the 140 km from Berberville to SouqTown.)

Unfortunately, this mile-marker (OK, kilometer-marker) was located halfway up the steepest hill in the region. The crest of this particular mountain is sort of a mini-continental divide. All the rain and snow that falls to the west of it flows down my river, past Berberville and into my lake. Everything that falls east of this divide flows down to SouqTown. This is the highest point of the entire road, so of course it was where our trip began. Sigh. Oh, and while I'm still rambling about geography, I should point out that Jamila's town and Berberville are both well over a mile above sea level, which helps in making ours two of the coldest sites in the country, but the little village perched on the side of this mountain is several hundred feet above either of us. Plus there's no running water. And the Volunteer assigned here has had the roof above her bed cave in. Twice.

...but back to our story. When I punched the button on my stopwatch, Jamila leapt off to a great start, and I pushed the bike pedal. Her lead got longer and longer as I toiled up the side of the mountain. I grumbled to myself and remembered how to work the gears. Jamila just kept plugging away, her red jacket growing smaller and smaller. After enough whines to fill a car trip, I got to the top...and found myself looking down a steep straightaway right out of a biker's fantasy. There was a long, flat section along the top, on which I caught up with my friend. I made sure she was doing well, and I promised Jamila I'd meet her at the top of the next one...and off I went.

Biking is awesome.

My open parka flapped behind me like a superhero's cape as I flew down the mountain. My hair wanted to join in the fun, but was strapped down beneath my stocking cap and the regulation Peace Corps helmet. The wind whipping by crept behind my sunglasses and made my eyes water, making it harder to see the patches in the asphalt. I blinked the tears away and stretched an arm out, doing half of the "King of the World" pose. (Or else signaling that I wanted to turn right, but fortunately there was no one else on the road to misinterpret my bliss.) I flew a full kilometer and then a little more, before a small hill bled off my speed. Just when I would have had to start pedaling, I crested the hill. I rolled to a stop and looked back to find my erstwhile partner. Her red jacket could have been mistaken for a woodpecker's topknot, she was so far behind me.

We continued to leapfrog through the hills and around the bends. The stretch of road she'd picked was nearly all downhill, so I was often well ahead of her, but I never let her get out of sight. Whenever a blind corner approached, I'd stop and wait at the point of the bend, so no reckless motorists could careen around and ... cause problems. This was fairly pointless, though, since we saw a total of three cars on the road - two were tranzits and the third was a private car. But it made me feel like I was playing a role.

My official role was cheerleader. During the flat stretches, I'd pedal slowly enough to keep pace with her, and say encouraging things to her. When I waited for her at the top of a hill, I'd call down praise and support (and once held out a water bottle as the carrot to get her all the way up an especially challinging section). I don't know how much she heard, because I could never tell when her iPod was on, but I liked doing it.

I also pointed out some of the more awesome geologic features, and talked about my plan to bike the full 140 km length of the road, over the course of a few days, to capture them all on camera and GPS. So many features here deserve to be put in a textbook. I use the phrase "textbook example" every time I talk to folks about the geology of the region, and often in reference to widely different things. There are textbook examples of braiding streams, anastamosing rivers, cutbanks, swales. And that's just the assif (river/stream). The prettiest cross-cutting relationship I've ever seen is 5 km outside of that frozen town I mentioned earlier, perched on the mountain between my site and Jamila's. (It's a pair of dikes cutting through a shale.) I showed Jamila the clearest mass wasting example I've seen in years, which I hadn't even noticed before today. Hence my wanting to do it on a bike instead of from the window of a tranzit; not only can you stop as often as you want to get just the right shot, but also, you see more when you're going slowly. Anyway, Jamila wants to come with, and recommends March as the time of year when it should be warm enough to be out for hours every day but cool enough to bike dozens of miles without overheating.

...but I digress.

We got to Jamila's site just after the midafternoon call to prayer. She hoped that meant that we wouldn't see anyone, but no such luck. We got lots of stares as we went through the center of town. On the far side, we picked up a small gaggle of girls, who decided that they wanted to jog, too. They kept pace with Jamila for almost 2km: knees high like dressage ponies, skirts swirling around their legs, hard-soled shoes clop-clopping against the pavement. They finally fell away, leaving us alone for the last push.

Jamila and I both believed that we'd gone the final 1 km, but no mile-marker (whatever) appeared around any of the bends in this extra-windy stretch of road, so we kept pressing on. Finally, she said, "Can you bike ahead and see where the next one is?" I'd been creeping along next to her for a while, keeping the munchkins from swarming her, so was glad to stretch my legs and pull forwards. I went around another bend, and then another, loving the wind whistling past my ears but curious as to why this kilometer felt so much longer than the others. I finally found the next marker, broken and overturned. And sure enough, it was 2 km from the previous one. The block imbetween must have fallen victim to a blizzard or tractor or something. Or maybe it was never installed, for whatever reason. I turned back to reunite with the flagging jogger, but she'd rounded the previous bend already. "Is that it?" she called to me. I shouted back in the affirmative. She pulled up next to me and I pushed the STOP button on my stopwatch. 16 kilometers in an hour and 47 minutes. Less than 7 minutes per kilometer - just a hair over a ten-minute mile - and she'd been steady as a metronome, uphill and down. I praised her effusively as she stretched and panted, and then we turned back to her town for an uphill cooldown. 3 km later, we flopped down in front of her favorite hanoot, tired but victorious.

I threw my bike on top of the next tranzit to pull into town, and rode home. Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

And a quick final note - the sunset, as I went home, was one of the most gorgeous I've seen here. The rosy light hit the clouds just right to splash huge swaths of color across the skies. Frederick Turner, eat your heart out. I promised myself I'd grab my camera as soon as I got home. Of course, by the time I'd finished wrestling my bike up the stairs to my walk-up apartment, I'd forgotten all about the sunset and busied myself getting cocoa and reheating leftover lentils. Oops. I guess all I get are mental pictures (aka memories), this time.


1/17 EE Camp Planning Meeting

Just a quickie -

Today a bunch of us assembled to start planning this summer's Environmental Education camp. Some Volunteers who will COS (finish their service and leave Morocco) before this coming summer held a camp last year, with assistance from a few of us newbies, and we're here to benefit from their experience and hopefully run an even better camp this summer.

Details to follow, I promise. :)


1/16 Biking by Trees on a Snowy Afternoon

...with apologies to Dr. Frost. The Berberville region is short on woods, but we have lots of naked hillsides, which "Jamila" and I zipped past yesterday. She was running, in preparation for the a half-marathon, but I was biking. I wanted to keep her company on her first attempt to go 15 K's (kilometers) without stopping, but I rank "running" somewhere below "being pelted with icy snowballs" and "dying of hypothermia" as things to do on a winter afternoon. Fortunately, the day was the mildest it's been in weeks, so the only snow we saw was melting off the hillsides around us.

Whose hills these are, I think I know.
His house is in the douar, though.
He will not see me biking here,
To watch his hills blur as I go.

My jogging friend must think it queer,
No MP3 assails my ear.
Past naked hills far from the lake,
The second twilight of New Year. [The Berber new year began yesterday]

She gives her iPod buds a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of rushing stream and melting flake.

These hills are lovely, bare and steep,
But I have promises to keep,
And K's to go before I sleep,
And K's to go before I sleep.


1/15/08 Snapshot: Winter classroom

Walking up the hill to the school, I see smoke pouring out a chimney pipe. I inwardly celebrate the comfort that I assume it represents.

Then I get there.

Nearly a dozen students are engaged in Preparing The Forno. Some are out gathering kindling. Others are breaking the gathered sticks into smaller bits, to more easily fit into the mailbox-sized woodstove. One girl is sweeping the floor; the coal dust and ash have created a half-inch layer of soot.

None of them have any control over the clouds of ago, the sooty, choking smoke billowing outwards from the stove’s gaping mouth. The large classroom – easily 20 feet on a side – is thick with it. (It reminds me of the 3id al-Adha, when sheep intestine shish kebabs were prepared in the living room over a charcoal brazier. The clouds of smoke first danced in the shafts of sunlight, swirling into mesmerizing patterns with every passing breath, but eventually settled into a haze so dense that huffing and puffing made no difference.)

When I enter, the students not occupied with The Forno immediately rise from their seats and chorus, “Bonjour, Madame.” I smile at them, then greet the teacher with the requisite cheek-kissing. She leads me outside, where the air is breathable, and we talk for a few minutes. I apologize for disrupting her class (although this is the time that she’d asked me to drop by), and she assures me that, given The Forno’s domination of the moment, she couldn’t teach, anyway.

“The students told me they were cold, so we lit it. It’s coal-fired, but needs kindling to light, so it’s something of a nightmare,” she explains in a mixture of Arabic (which she keeps forgetting I can’t understand), Berber, and French.

When the clouds of smoke start to dissipate, we re-enter the room. The poor kids, except for those few out gathering more kindling, have been attempting to breathe the carbony mess this whole time. I feel like we should be shooting a documentary about coal mining, and gain a whole new sympathy for the poor souls who spend their days breathing carbon dust.

The teacher gives me the seat of honor by the stove, and she begins marking the students’ work. They bring their notebooks to her one by one. She looks them over, highlights any mistakes by asking the class whatever the student got wrong, then scores them. If the student made enough mistakes, they get whacked with a rod that’s about a foot long and the width of my thumb. Two whacks per hand.

The students are used to this; when she gives them The Look, they hold out their hands, stripping off their gloves if necessary. Their body language, shoulders hunched, spine cringing, indicates that they know exactly how much it will hurt, but they don’t hold back. Their hands out, they get the four swats – left, right, left, right – and then the stick goes back on the desk. They respond to their stinging hands differently. One child balls his tiny hands up into tiny fists. Another tucks his under his armpits and squeezes down. Another lets his arms hang loosely by his side. Given the tone of the tonguelashing they get, both before and after the whacks, I find myself wondering which hurts more, the physical pain or the humiliation of having it happen in front of all their classmates. I also find myself wondering why these children keep coming back to school. There’s no enforcement of the requirement that children attend school through sixth grade. If I got hit and humiliated regularly, I’d be awfully tempted to stop showing up.

I try to see it from the teacher’s perspective. I thought back to the inner-city public school where I taught for two years. Of course, my kids were much older – mostly 14- and 15-year-olds, nearly adult sized, unlike these tiny 4th graders – but I remember how frustrating grading and disciplining kids could be. My school forbade corporal punishment – not that that stopped the teachers who wanted to use it – but plenty of others did not. Some even issued rulers to the teachers, with instructions for use.

When faced with the endless needs of students, the never-present classroom supplies, let alone the bitter cold, and the thousands of other factors that make teaching so utterly exhausting, it’s easy to see how teachers burn out. Parents here routinely hit children – not viciously, just the odd cuffing – so why shouldn’t the teachers?

And before this began, I’d been comparing the scene with the stories of Laura Ingalls teaching in North Dakota in the late 1900s, and the fictional Anne Shirley teaching in Nova Scotia around the same time. The cold rooms, the silent rows of children, the nightmarish stove…all players in their stories. And those protagonists rapped knuckles and palms, too.


1/14 A Teatime Substitution

I was invited to a friend’s house for a 5:30 tea. I got there at 5:35, which I was confident was before she was expecting me, and sure enough, she wasn’t home. I loitered outside her door for a while, chatting with passersby and admiring the alpenglow from the setting sun, which was bathing the snow-coated mountains in rosy radiance.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this, her next-door neighbor popped her head out. She explained that my friend was visiting another friend, and would be a while. Then she began scolding me about something I couldn’t follow, but which sounded like What are you doing hanging around? It’s silly. I couldn’t figure out whether she wanted me to come into her house or go home. I responded vaguely, saying that I didn’t mind waiting a little longer, because it was really no problem, but then the scolding turned into haranguing, so I figured I’d go along with it. Plus, I was getting chilly, even through my two coats. But I still wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to go home (to my left) or into her house (to my right). Fortunately, as soon as I took a hesitant half-step straight forwards, away from the lintel I’d been leaning on, she said, “C’mon! Come here!”

So I thanked her and ducked into her house. We went straight to the forno (woodstove) room, where she immediately sat me down next to the heater. Tea and bread followed, inevitably, but I was happily surprised with the wheat-y yeastiness of her bread. I ate slowly, despite urgings, and tried to refuse a second cup of tea (unsuccessfully). After the second cup, I said that I should be going, but was shouted down. Apparently, my friend still hadn’t returned home, even though it was past 6:15 at this point. “Stay! Spend the night here!” offered the matriarch. I thanked her and sat back against my pillow. (Like every other Berber house here in Berberville, the living room was furnished with sheepskin and woven rugs set around the edge of the room, with pillows leaning against the walls.)

By 6:45, though, I was anxious to be on my way. My hostess’s hospitality was genuine, but I still didn’t like taking too much advantage of it. I thanked her for her generosity, explained that I’d see my friend another day, agreed to come back and visit these nice folks another time, reassured them that I’d remember how to find their house, and eventually managed to force my way out. (Fighting your way out of a Berber woman’s home is a job for a linebacker with an attitude.)

1/14 Water! :D

After nearly a week without it, I had running water today! Lhumdullah!

There’s no light that flashes or any other indicator that tells you when water is flowing through your pipes. All you can do is turn the knob and see if anything comes out of the spigot. During these cold weeks, when the pipes freeze as often as not, I’ve developed the habit of leaving my spigot open whenever I’m home. That way, when the pipes thaw, and water is released, it’ll flow into the banyo (large basin) I’ve set under the tap. The sound of the splashing water can be heard everywhere in my apartment, any time of the day or night, so it’ll never overflow the banyo before I discover it and turn off the tap.

Back in the warm months, water was on every morning for a couple of hours. Sometimes 9-11, sometimes 8-12, sometimes 10:30-1…you never knew, but it was always morning(ish) and always for at least an hour, and usually two or three. During these cold months, the water schedule has gotten more random. One day the water popped on at 3pm, and was on for 24 hours; another time, it came on at 6pm and was on until I fell asleep.

This morning, around 11:00, I heard the delicious sound of fresh, clean, (OK, chemically-treated, pathogen-free) water pouring into my banyo. I immediately stopped what I was doing and ran to fill up every water container in the house. A waterless week, even when interrupted by a trip into SouqTown, meant that I was down to my last 5 bottles (about a liter apiece), the bottom half of the kitchen cistern, and the bottom two inches of the water-to-flush-the-toilet-with banyo. So I’d been getting a little anxious.

Once everything was full of water – all fifteen or so bottles, both 5L teakettles, the whole cistern, and every banyo in the house – I moved on to washing a week’s worth of dishes. That was satisfying. :) Then I poured a gallon or two of water down the bit l-ma (squat toilet), refilled the basins, and scrubbed the bathroom floor. I’ve never been a big fan of cleaning, but when you can’t do it for days at a time, it becomes an indulgent luxury, which makes it a lot more fun. :)

Things that I haven’t done since the water cut off:
* Dishes
* Laundry
* Wash the floor
* Fill my 1L hot-water-bottle before bedtime
* Have more than two cups of cocoa per day
* Cook big meals

Things that I haven’t done in the past few days, when water was getting thin:
* Cook at all (I’ve been living on sandwiches, leftovers, and care-package-snackfood)
* Have more than one cup of cocoa per day (and not always even one)


1/13/09 A Mo-rockin' New Year

Yesterday afternoon, walking through town, I ran into Ama's next door neighbor. We exchanged the usual greetings and pleasantries, and then she asked me if I was headed over to Ama's house. "No," I answered, "I'm exhausted. Maybe I'll go over tomorrow, inshallah." She nodded understanding, and we parted ways.

When I got home, I discovered two things: one, Baba (my host father) had called my cell phone half an hour before. I hadn't noticed the call, probably because the phone was buried under eight layers of clothing. Two, my big buta tank had run empty, so I couldn't light up my heater. Sadness! I'd really been looking forward to curling up in front of it and having an early evening. (I hadn't been lying about the exhaustion.)

So I unhooked the big buta tank, schlepped it to the hanoot up the street, then lugged the replacement tank back to my apartment. I live very slightly downhill from the hanoot, and I'm always tempted to roll the tank home. It's super heavy, so it'd be vastly easier than carrying it, but it'd also make me look raaather ridiculous to all my neighbors and anyone on the street. So I always overcome the temptation, and just heft it home.

As I approached my front door, my phone began ringing. I went the last few steps, whoof-ed the tank down on my stoop, and pulled out the portabl (very intuitive word for a portable cell phone). It was my host father again. Two phone calls midafternoon = guaranteed dinner invite. Which means no early evening.

I flipped open the phone and said, "Salaam ualaikum!" I tried not to pant. "Eyy, salaam, Kawtar," Baba responded. Sure enough, he was inviting me to dinner. I felt exhaustion dripping from my bones and sinews as I asked what time I should climb the mountain to their house.

"I'll send over your auntie when we're ready," he answered.

"OK, see you then," I responded.

I went through the elaborate ritual of opening my door, grunted the tank up the stairs, and dropped it gracelessly in the living room. It was installed with as little fuss as possible - which still meant five minutes of banging at it with a knife and blunt object - and then I curled up in front of it, as hoped-for.

Five o'clock came and went. By six, twilight was gathering. Xalti would hate going out after dark, I knew, so I figured I'd just head over now, and save her the trip. I swung by the hanoot to get soda, the traditional (hah) hostess gift, and texted Baba to let him know I was en route. (I really didn't want to miss Xalti like ships in the night - or twilight, as the case may be. There are different paths you can take between my house and my host family's, and she and I have different preferences. I like to walk along the road, because it's paved and well-lit. She likes to walk the dirt path between the houses, because it protects her from the eyes of the men who sit at the cafes along the road.)

I got to the house right around six. The wood stove was churning away, so I quickly stripped off boots, hat, scarf, gloves, parka, and fleece. Fastforward through two hours of conversation...and it's dinner time!

What I hadn't realized before getting there was that Berberville was celebrating the New Year tonight, January 13th. I'm still not clear on why...

But ringing in the New Year BerberStyle is a pretty low key event. There was couscous (Ama’s normal couscous, lhumdullah, not corn couscous, aka ablabl, which sounds exactly like “a billable”, as in “I worked a billable hour for my richest client this afternoon, and will work another twelve billable hours before going to sleep”). The one thing they did to make today’s couscous special was this:

Three date pits, each looking like a black, inch-long torpedo, were hidden in various places around the edge of the platter. (Since all food is eaten off of a shared platter, from the outside in, this meant that all three were guaranteed to be found.)

When they were explaining this to me, and warning me not to swallow the date pit if I came across it, I told them that there’s a similar Christmas Eve and/or New Year’s Eve tradition in Norway; some Norwegian family friends back in the US have shared that with us. Whoever finds the almond hidden in the pudding wins a prize (usually chocolate) and gets to be King/Queen for the evening.

There were four adults and four children sharing the dish, and all three of the buried date pits were found by children. I wonder if Ama did that deliberately… When each date pit was found, the child got a round of applause, but there was no other reward or celebration.

Afterwards, Ama compared their evening with New Year’s Eve parties she imagined I was used to, full of candies and crowds, and said that the Moroccan celebration was ixxa. That word usually translates as bad but really means about 75 different things, from ugly to poor to mean. I challenged her on it, saying that their party was “mashi ixxa, ghas imzi”. Not bad (or ugly or mean), just small. Everyone laughed, and Xalti repeated the phrase “just small” a couple of times, for her own amusement. :)

Then came tangerines, which were delicious, and then Ama packed me home for my 9pm curfew. I walked back through a moonless, star-studded night, grateful both for the radiant stars and for my LED flashlight. It was cold enough to make my eyes water, but the air had a crystalline quality that reminded me why winter has always been my favorite season.

Happy New Year!

UPDATE 1/15: I've solved the mystery of the New Year's celebration on a date that was neither the Muslim New Year (that was 12/29) nor the calendar New Year (1/1/09). Yesterday was the BERBER NEW YEAR, so the night of the 13th was Berber New Year's Eve. By the Berber calendar, we rang in year 2959! :D

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