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5/30/09 Greetings

I know I talk about the greeting ritual a lot, but I don't think I've ever explained it in full. I'm prompted to by this exchange I heard between newbies:

Newbie #1: It took me *two*weeks* to learn how to say hello.
Newbie #2: It *takes* two weeks to say hello.
Newbie #3: It doesn't take two weeks to say hello. It only takes two weeks if you want to say it *right*.

In truth, exchanging greetings is a long and complicated process, but one which all residents and visitors need to know. (That's a hint to any of you planning to come here.) Let me walk you through it. All the even numbers are the same person, all the odd numbers are the other person.

1: Salaamu 3alaikum! (Peace be upon you!)
2: Wa 3alaikum as-salaam! (And upon you, peace!)
3: Labas? (How are you? Literally, are you fine?)
4: Labas. (I'm fine.)
5: Bixir? (Are you well?)
6: Bixir. (I'm well.)
7: Kulshi bixir? (Is everything good?)
8: Kulshi bixir, lhumdullah. (Everything is good, thanks be to God.)
9: Lhumdullah. (Thanks be to God.)
10: Aud shm/shi? (And you? - km or shm if you're speaking to a woman, ki or shi if you're speaking to a man. As I've said before, my region treats k's and sh's as interchangeable.)
10, cont: Is labas ghorm/ghorsh? (How are you?)
11: Labas. (I'm fine.)
12: Bixir? (Are you well?)
13: Bixir. (I'm well.)
14: Kulshi bixir? (Is everything good?)
15: Kulshi bixir, lhumdullah. (Everything is good, thanks be to God.)
16: Lhumdullah. Aud familia? Is labas ghors? (Thanks be to God. And your family? Is all well with them?)
17: Labas, lhumdullah. (All is well, thanks be to God.)
18: Lhumdullah. (Thanks be to God.)

If you know other family members by name, you can ask about them individually. My host mom always asks about my parents and usually about my sister. Because she's pregnant, I always ask how the baby is doing. She always grins at this - apparently it's outside the norm - but she doesn't seem to mind at all, and I like expressing interest in the wellbeing of my future sibling. :)

OK, so now the pronounciations.

1: Salaamu 3alaikum. Salaam sounds just like salami without the i. 3alaikum sounds pretty much like allay+koom. So if you remember it as salami allay koom, everyone will know what you mean. If you remember to drop the final i from salami, and make it salaam-oo instead, you get a gold star.

2: Wa 3alaikum as-salaam. Almost the same as above, just rearranged. The first sound is like the beginning of What, and is exactly like what authors represent as "Wha--?" Wha allay koom salam.

3, 4, 11, and 17: Labas. The first syllable is like lob, as in "Wow, she really lobbed that ball across the net!" or the first syllable of lobotamy. The second rhymes with the Spanish word mas (more), and has a soft ahh sound followed by a soft sss. Lob ah ss.

5, 6, 12, 13: Bixir. Bi- as in "big" or "bitter". The x represents the back-of-the-throat sound you hear in words like the Scottish "loch" or the composer Bach or the German "nacht". It sounds kind of like radio hiss to me. -ir sounds exactly like ear. Rhymes with year. Bi ccchhh ear.

7, 14: Kulshi bixir. The second word is the same as above. The first sounds exactly like cool followed she. Cool she bi ccchhh ear.

8, 15, 16, 17, 18: Lhumdullah. This is pronounced differently in different regions, so you get a lot of latitude. :) Most commonly, it sounds like you're saying the short French word le, an almost invisible syllable, followed immediately by hum, as in "Will you stop humming already?" Then do, as in "Do as I say, not as I do," then a prolonged llll, and a final ah. Alternatively, you can put together the words duel or dual with la (as in, Do re mi fa so la ti do), and it'll sound pretty perfect. L hum duel la.

10: Aud shm/shi? Aud actually means repeat, but it's commonly used to mean how about you? It sounds like the second half of aloud or the first half of Audi. Shm is like the first syllable of shimmer, and shi is indistinguishable from she.

10 cont: Is labas ghorm/ghorsh? Is has a soft s, and rhymes with kiss. Labas we've already gone over. Ghorm involves gargling deep in your throat, and is close to the French r (that weird sound that makes Louvre almost impossible to pronounce for Americans). If you just say horum (rhymes with quorum and forum), people will probably understand you. rghrghrgh orum. That's if you're addressing a woman, as I usually am if I'm going through the whole greeting ritual. The suffix changes from -m to -k if you're addressing a man, and of course, here in Berberville, k's and sh's are interchangeable, so you'd say rghr oruk or rghr orush. Yeah, Tam is fun. :)

16: Lhumdullah. Aud familia? Is labas ghors? The only new words here are familia, which comes from Spanish and French and therefore sounds pretty much exactly how it looks: fam-ee-lee-uh, and ghors, which starts just like ghorm and ghorsh above but ends with a soft s. It rhymes with force.

So there you go. All the pieces you need to fully and properly greet someone in the Classical Arabic/Tamazight/Darija blend spoken here in Berberville.

So, you're ready to come visit! Marhaba! (You are welcome / Come on in / Help yourself / What's mine is yours / I'm glad you're here / etc)


5/29/09 Recipe: Jamal's Thai Curry

One of my newbie PCV brothers, Jamal, is a whiz in the kitchen. I don't know if he's had any formal training (maybe he's just addicted to The Food Network), but wow, that boy can cook.

Yesterday, he made me a peanut Thai curry that I'm still drooling at the thought of. So of course, I'm going to share it with you. If we can make it here, with our limited ingredient availability, y'all should have no problems. :)

Jamal's Peanut Curry Delight (serves 6)

2 pinkie-sized section fresh ginger (regular or Thai, if available)
4-5 big cloves of garlic
fist-sized clumpof cilantro
1 lemon
1/4 C fish sauce
2 hot peppers
1/2 jar peanut butter
sugar to taste

4 eggs

1 package rice noodles

2 onions
2 bell peppers
2 tomatoes

Sauce: (Start this well before starting the vegetables. Time is your friend.)
Dice or grate the ginger and garlic. Saute with peanut oil (corn oil can substitute) and cilantro. Squeeze in the juice of the lemon. Add fish sauce. Add diced chili peppers. Combine well. Simmer over high heat for two minutes. Add cold water, slowly, until it's no longer simmering. Add large spoonfuls of peanut butter, until it's almost to desired thickness. (The amount of peanut butter can vary; we used about half a jar of creamy.) Add sugar to taste - you want to counter the tartness of the lemon juice. Lower heat and try to keep it from boiling by regular stirring. It will reduce slightly.

Beat four eggs in a small bowl. Pour into frying pan on medium heat. Cook omelet-style. Once the bottom is done, flip it completely (ie not in half) and cook through. Once cooked, roll it burrito-style and slice, ultimately making 1/2-inch thick strips. Set aside.

Start water boiling. We'll get back to this in a sec.

Dice onions and peppers into 1/4-inch squares. Cut tomatoes into narrow wedges (like for a salad). Saute onions and peppers. (Don't add the tomatoes!) When they're about half-done (when the onions are still cloudy), it's time to throw the rice noodles into the boiling water. They'll cook for 3 minutes tops.

Combining stuff:
Turn off all the burners on your stove. No more cooking - time to combine!
Add the egg strips to the onion-pepper mixture. Add the still-raw tomatoes on top. Pour the sauce on top of everything. (The heat from the sauce should blanche the tomatoes.) Drain the noodles; don't worry about getting out every last drop. Toss them on top of everything else, then combine everything gently.

Serve! Enjoy! Feast! :D

To shift the flavor slightly, add sweet spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom) to the sauteing vegetables.
For maximum burn, add chili powder and/or pepper flakes to the sauteing vegetables.
For non-vegetarians:
Pork or chicken: Cut into thin strips (1" long, 1/2" wide, as thin as you can get them.) Marinate the raw meat in garlic, ginger, white wine (optional but helpful - if you choose not to use it, substitute with lemon or lime juice), orange juice, and sesame oil. Drain off the marinade and flash-fry the meat (pan fry for 5 minutes, then add raw onions and peppers and saute together). Alternatively, cook the meat in the marinade, without the vegetables, slowly over low heat, and serve it in its own bowl, so the meat will be laid across the dish at the table. (It's also vegetarian-friendly this way!)
Beef: Create a rub of ginger, cayanne pepper, salt, and garlic powder. Rub the meat and then grill or broil the beef, then cut into thin strips. Serve at the table, as above. Warning: Beef's heaviness doesn't really mesh well with the characteristic lightness of Thai food, so this dish is better with pork or chicken.
Seafood: Prepare kabobs of fish or shellfish. Grill them and serve at the table, as above.

Note: DO NOT EVER saute diced chili peppers by themselves. This is how you make TEAR GAS. Always add to liquid mixtures. Liquid + chilis = yummy. Hot oil + chilis = toxic smoke.

Thanks, Jamal! :)


5/25/09 So long, farewell, aufweidersehen, goodbye...

Today, the SouqTown gang threw a going-away party for our departing Volunteers, COSing after two years of service. It was a night of hugs, laughter, somber moments and riotous good times. I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of an alleged bonfire. ;)

I've known this day would come. All Peace Corps service follows the same schedule, so today couldn't be a surprise...but it's still wrenching.

The newbies came to the party, but it's different for them - just as it was different for me, a year ago, saying goodbye to people I'd known for only a couple of days and who I was looking forward to replacing.

After those folks COS'd, there were 14 of us in the SouqTown region. One has since ET'd, and another was MedSep'd. Of the remaining 12, 6 are leaving now. Fully half of my PCV friends and neighbors are cycling out.

They're excited, of course, because they're moving onto the next chapter of their lives. They anticipate seeing family and friends; some will head off to grad school; others have jobs waiting for them; others apprehensively try their luck, entering the American job market. One has a fiancee waiting for him - he's easily the happiest about going home. :) They're all moving on.

But for the six of us staying behind, we've just lost half our family.

Alhumdulillah, we got a great crop of newbies. Seven newly sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteers have moved into the region; four are assuming the posts of previous PCVs, and three are moving into new sites.

Meeting the newbies has made everything much easier; it helps to know that our now-13-member family will continue to be fantastic. :) But it's still hard to say goodbye.

Farewell, friends... Please stay in touch. I wish you joy and hope and purpose and freedom in your new adventures, and I hope you'll keep us informed as to what form those adventures take.

You will never be forgotten.


5/23/09 Word of the Day: Newbie

As you know, a Peace Corps Volunteer serves for two full years, in addition to their 2-3 months of training. As you also know, Morocco has four kinds of PCVs, which arrive for their training in two batches: Health PCTs and Environment PCTs arrive in March, while Small Business Development PCTs and Youth Development PCTs arrive in September.

As a result, there is a new batch of Trainees every six months, and therefore a new batch of freshly-sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteers also every six months, swearing-in in May and November, respectively.

Well, until now.

Peace Corps Morocco's upper eschelons decided sometime last year that they'd completely rearrange training. Now, it's only two months long, and focuses exclusively on learning the Moroccan languages and cultural traditions. All "technical training", aka how to *be* a Health/Environment/SBD/YD Volunteer, will come three months after the Trainees swear in, as they're ending their home stays and moving into their own homes.

Since this change was made recently, the newest batch of PCVs are the only ones who have gone through this newly redesigned training. They swore-in in April. Shockingly early, I know. ;) The soon-to-depart COSing Volunteers swore-in in late May of 2007, so their service doesn't end till late May, 2009.

Which gives us a solid month of overlap between the arrival of the newest batch and the departure of the oldest batch.

Given the six-month cyclicity of service, PCVs here have appropriated the terms Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior. Once you swear in, you're a Freshman. But no one ever really uses Freshman - the other three are far more common - when they can use newbie. Six months later, when a new batch swears in, you're suddenly a Sophomore. Etcetera. But these terms are only really ever used right around swearing-in, when you'll hear lots of comments like, "Oh, my goodness, how can I be a Junior already!"

The rest of the time, we just refer to ourselves as "First-Year" or "Second-Year" Volunteers, usually by sector. That is, now that I've passed the one-year anniversary of my own swearing-in, I'm officially a Second-Year Environment Volunteer.

Last week, I was still a First-Year....sort of.

Because the newbies have been here for a month already. And they're the real First-Years.

So our lexicon has become a bit addled.

The solutions appears to be referring to our newest PCVs as newbies. And the ones about to reach their Close Of Service are the COSing Volunteers or just the COSers.

My cohort have sort of fallen through the linguistic cracks. As of two days ago, we're the new Second-Years, but even that hasn't worked all that well, because no one dares utter the blasphemous old Second-Years, and Third-Year is just silly. Once the COSers close out their service next week, everything will shake back out, and I'll be a Second-Year and the newbies will all be First-Years, and all will again be right with the world.

For now, I'll just wait out this month-long limbo, where there are three sets of Environment and Health Volunteers scattered throughout the country. Like all things, this too shall pass.

5/24/09 The Berber "Farmer Tan"

As most of you know, a "farmer tan" or "farmer's tan" or "farmers' tan" is the look achieved by people actually spending time outside, and not in a tanning bed or at the beach: tanned hands and arms up to a sharp cut-off where the shirt begins, and then a pale white upper arm and torso. You can also use it to point out abrupt tan lines from shorts or socks.

Here in Morocco, I dress modestly, but still in Western-style clothing. My clothes always cover me from neck to wrist to ankle, and I consider it a little risque even to show my forearms (though I admit that I sometimes push my sleeves up on super-hot days).

One of the thousands of ways that the chic European cities are different from my Berber bled is that the modesty standards are relaxed. As long as you're mostly covered, a little skin is permissible.

So I celebrated by wearing a sundress. A cute little dress that still had a fairly high neckline, but left my arms and shoulders bare. OK, I admit it, there were spaghetti straps. Spaghetti straps! Unthinkable! I know, I know... But the sun was so warm, and the harassment so ... nonexistent ... and besides, nobody there knew that I'm a respectable Peace Corps Volunteer, and not just a random European or American tourist... So I surrendered to the seduction of the sundress.

Of course, I can't shake my bled ways entirely, so I wore jeans under it. (The skirt only comes down to the knee, after all, I can't be completely inappropriate and actually show half of my legs! Hshuma!)

A newbie PCV took one look at me and said, "So this is the Berber Farmer Tan I have to look forward to? A tanned face and white body?" I laughed and said, "Yup!" My face and hands have never been browner, but the rest of me hasn't seen sunlight in over a year.

Apparently I'm now two-toned. Go figure. =/

PS: A funny side-effect of the sundress: I was wearing the handwoven wool satchel that I've worn every day for months, and I noticed that it was chafing against the base of my neck. (The strap is so long that I always wear it slung across my body, messenger-bag style.) I couldn't figure out why it was so irritating today, when it has never bothered me before. And then I realized that this is the very first time the woolen strap has ever actually touched my skin! I've worn the bag over teeshirts, turtlenecks, sweaters, jackets, and parkas, but never once against bare skin. Ahhh, city life...

5/26/09 Mo-Rockin' Rainstorm

I'm sitting in my house (home sweet home!), listening to a storm whirl around me.

Loudest are the drips, splats, plunks, and spatters of the water leaking through the cracks around my skylight, into my front hall. (That's why my front hall stays mostly empty.) It drops and splashes in a never-constant, near-syncopated rhythm that reminds me of improv jazz.

Overhead, the sky roils; thunder growls and rumbles continually.

Out my window, I hear the rain slapping the ground and the nearby rooftops. It sounds like rain on leaves, but there are no trees nearby, so the drops must just be smacking the rapidly-growing puddles.

The light keeps changing, as clouds thicken and blow past, and as lightning sears across the sky.

I don't hear the wind, but I know it's out there. As I hurried home from teatime at a friend's, it hurled dust and sand in widening gyres. I hadn't realized my mouth was open in awe until I tasted the grit on my teeth. Trees swayed like cat-o-nine-tails, while paper bags shot through the air like they were en route to Oz.

My doors are bolted shut, my windows are locked, and I sit cross-legged, camped under a blanket with a flashlight close at hand... But this storm refuses to be shut out of my house, as the rapidly deepening pails of water (from the front room) noisily attest to.

Just another afternoon in my mountain aerie...


5/22/09 Chic City

As I mentioned, I was invited up to one of Morocco's chic-est cities to participate in a workshop. I arrived here Tuesday evening, worked all day Wednesday and Thursday, and am attending to personal business today, Friday.

I've heard Volunteers speak reverently about this place for the past 15 months...and now I see what all the fuss is about.

I do love my tiny mountain village. I really do. But I can't deny how ... rested ... I feel after spending the past few days in this Europeanized city.

The tables have silverware. And napkins. And glasses and plates and sometimes even candles.

The toilets are *all* the Westernized, sit-down kind.

Let me illustrate with a conversation I shared with some other workshop attendees, Tuesday evening (just an hour or so after stepping off the train):

Me: I just have to say...the bathroom here is *amazing*. [Ticking them off on my fingers] I mean, there was a *Western* *toilet*. WITH toilet paper. And the sinks worked. Hot water! And there was *soap*. SOAP!
Friend 1: [snickers]
Friend 2: Really? Soap?
Me: OK, I realize that I sound like the country mouse meeting the city mouse. But I *am* a country mouse now. I mean, did you see how big those streets are?? And how many cars are on them *all*the*time*??
Friend 1: No, I understand, I do.
Me: So I'm just saying, if you're looking for a fabulous bathroom experience, just walk through those doors.
Friend 2: I think...I have to check this out. Excuse me.

I have lived in my mountain village for a full year now, and I've fully adjusted. I'm no longer tolerating or accepting the ... differences ... in my life, I just live them. It's routine.

Everything from squat toilets to traveling with my own toilet paper to sharing dishes and eating with my hands and taking my shoes off at the edge of every carpet (there's a story there, too)...this is my life. I don't think about it. It's as routine as breathing - yes, I'm conscious of it if I want to be, but how often do you think about your respiration?

The verb, wllf, means to be used to or to be accustomed to. In the Tam-glish blend we PCVs speak, I'd say I've wllfed to my bled life.

So yes, I admit it, I pulled out my camera to take a picture of my sunny-side-up-egg-and-toast-and-orange-juice breakfast yesterday. Because this is now extraordinary. (As soon as I'm home, I'll post the picture for you.)

Update: Ta-Da!

I'll be in this zween city for another night, and then head back to my mountain. Back home to my country mouse life. :) But in the meantime, I'm going to celebrate my city mouse vacation!


5/13/09 Casual Conversation

Yesterday, I found myself on a tranzit and not squished, which is probably why I was unusually willing to engage with the people around me. We had a conversation which more or less mirrors every conversation I've had upon first meeting someone, so I figured I'd share it.

I forget what I said that launched it, but here's what followed...

Man #1 (lounging throughout the conversation; speaks a little French and Spanish and therefore feels superior to the others): Hey, she speaks Berber!

Man #2 (closest to me): She speaks Berber??

Man #3 (furthest from me): Yeah, she speaks Berber!

Man #2: Do you speak Berber?

Man #1 (overlapping, in French): You speak Berber?

Me: Some. I'm still learning.

Man #3: Do you speak Arabic?

Me: No. Just Berber. No Arabic at all. [This always gets funny looks, because the phrase used
for "none at all" is actually an Arabic expression that has been adopted into Berber.]

Man #1: Do you live around here?

Me: Yes, I live in Berberville.

Man #2: But you have a bike with you. Why?

Me: I biked from Berberville down to [my friend's village].

Man #1: For exercise? (Answering his own question, without waiting for a response.) Yeah, exercise is important.

Man #2: It's a nice bike. How much was it?

Me: I don't know. It's not my bike, it belongs to my organization.

Man #1: It's not your bike?

Me: Nope, it belongs to my organization.

Man #2: So how much is it worth?

Me: I don't know. I didn't buy it.

Man #2: So how much will you sell it to me for?

Me: I can't sell it. It belongs to my organization.

Man #3: How much did she say it was worth?

Man #2: She didn't. It belongs to her organization.

I'm thinking: Finally! It got through!

Man #2: How about that bike helmet you've got there? How much is that worth?

Me: I don't know. It also belongs to my organization.

Man #1: That's theirs, too?

Me: Yes, it goes with the bike.

Men 1, 2, and 3 (to each other): Yeah, OK, that makes sense.

Man #3: So where are you from?

Me: America.

Man #2: The land of Obama!

Me: Yes, the land of Obama.

Man #2: Is Obama good or bad?

Me: Obama is great!

Man #1: Who is better, Obama or Bush?

We're supposed to avoid political discourse, so of course I reroute the conversation. Eventually. But I'm censoring this part of the discussion anyway.

Man #1: What's your name?

Me: Kauthar.

Man #1: Kata? Maybe in America, but you need a Moroccan name. How about Ito?

Me: No, Kauthar is my Moroccan name.

Man #2: That's not a Moroccan name.

Me: It's from the Qur'an.

They exchange guilty looks. They should have known that.

Man #1: So what's your name in America?

Me: [rattling off all six syllables of my first and middle names in a rush - the most effective way to prevent anyone from trying to use it]

Man #1: What?

Me: [repeating the six-syllable version]

Man #3: [gives a pretty good approximation]

Me: Yes!

Man #3: Yeah, Kauthar is easier.

Man #1: So do you pray?

Me: Yes, I pray.

Man #1: You're Muslim?

Man #2: So do you pray the [starts rattling off the names of the five prayers].

Me: No, I don't pray [zal] like you, but I do talk to God [d3u]. I'm Christian.

Man #1: Will you become Muslim? Then you could pray right.

Me: I pray like my parents.

This is usually the ultimate trump card - the parents.

Man #2: Oh, so you only pray once a day. We pray five times.

I think about correcting him, but decide to drop it entirely.

Man #3: So are you married?

For the first time in months, I'm not wearing either of my fake wedding rings - I'd thought they'd get uncomfortable after hours on handlebars. So I don't take my usual approach when talking to strange men: lie like a rug.

Me: Nope, not yet.

Man #2: Not yet? You're not married?

Man #1: She doesn't have a man? [Note: the same word is used for "man" and "husband"]

Man #3: No, she doesn't nave a man.

Me: Nope. Maybe it's too late for me.

This is one of my standing jokes. It's a pretty effective way of deflecting marriage questions, plus it always gets a laugh. The word I use - bor - is the same one used for fruit that has spoiled. It more or less means that my moment of ripeness has passed me by, so now it's too late. It usually shifts the conversation over to (1) asking how old I am, and the (2) reassuring me that it's not too late to find a man. But at least people stop asking why I'm single, and if I'd like to marry their brother/cousin/friend/neighbor. Usually.

Men: (laughing, looking at each other)

Man #1: It's too late for her!

Man #2: She said it's too late for her!

Man #3: Too late? (to me) It's not too late. I'll marry you.

Me: (Forced hearty laughter)

Man #3: No, seriously, I'll marry you.

Me: If God wills it. (More hearty laughter)

Man #2: So are you going to find a Moroccan man to marry? Or an American man?

Me: As God wills.

Man #2: Well, are you willing to marry a Moroccan man?

Me: God knows. I don't know, but God knows.

As you may have noticed, I'm a big believer in falling back on God-phrases in sticky situations. I don't consider it taking the Lord's name in vain, because I do mean it, though I wouldn't say it as freely among secular friends. But I admit that I like that using the God-phrases can (1) make the more religious mutter "Amen" and drop the conversation or (2) trump anything else.

Man #3: I proposed to Hanan, and she just said No. You say if God wills. This is encouraging.

Me: (Hearty laughter)

Man #2: Do you know Hanan?

Me: Yes.

She was a PCV in a neighboring village until she got medically separated. The official story is that she had a bad bike accident that caused serious head trauma. The truth is more complicated, but also no one's business but her own. She did have a bike accident that everyone knows about, though, so it's an effective cover story.

Man #2: Is she healthy now?

He looks genuinely concerned, so I decide to give him a reasonably straight answer.

Me: Yes, she's doing much better, thanks be to God.

Man #2: Thank God.

Me: Thank God.

Man #1: Do you know what happened to her?

Me: She went back to America.

Man #1: Yes, because she had a bike accident and hurt her head.

Me: (nodding) She wasn't wearing her helmet. That's why I have a helmet. Helmets are vitally necessary. If she had worn her helmet, she wouldn't have hurt her head when her bike fell.

Men: (nodding, suddenly looking at my helmet as something other than a foreign oddity)

Man #3 (returning to the more pressing matter): So are you going to marry me?

Me: (laughing)

Man #3: Well, tell your American friends that there are lots of handsome Moroccan men who want to marry them.

Man #2 (worriedly): You do have lots of American girlfriends, right?

Me: (laughing and nodding) Yes, I have lots of American girlfriends.

Man #3: And I don't want a poor girl. Bring me a girl with lots of money.

Me (still laughing): If God wills it.

Man #1: The American economy is struggling right now. Men in America don't have jobs, but Morocco is fine. They'll want to marry us.

Me: If God wills it.

Man #2: So are you going to take him to America?

Me: He needs papers to go to America.

Man #1: Yeah, but you can arrange those for him.

Me: No, I really can't. That's impossible.

Man #1 (to Man #3): That's impossible.

Man #2 (pointing down the road): Hey, what's that?

And now we begin my favoritest game: test the foreign girl's vocabulary.

Me (watching a horse-shaped animal walking away from us. It's really hard to be sure what it is when all you see is the back of the tail and the haunches, but I give it a shot): Um...I think it's a mule, but it might be -- no, it's not a donkey. It's a mule.

Man #2: Hey, she knows "mule" and "donkey"!

Man #1: Do you know how to make bread?

Me: Yes.

Man #1: Really? How to knead it, bake it...?

Me: Yes. My mom in America makes wonderful bread.

Man #3: American bread is better than Moroccan bread?

Me: They're both great.

Man #2: Is America better than Morocco?

Me: I love them both.

Man #1: Yeah, but which is better?

Me: It's a tie. [The phrase for this is literally: In my soul, they are the same.]

Man #1: She says it's a tie.

Man #3: She says it's a tie?

Man #2 (pointing to a field): Hey, what's that?

Me (looking at a large crop area withgreen stalks blowing in the wind, women harvesting crops, poplar trees, and a canal): Poplars?

Man #2: (to the men) Poplars! She said "poplars"! (to me) No, women. Those are women.

Me: And some girls, too. But the trees are poplars.

Man #2: Yes, they're poplars. What's that? (pointing to a small boy)

I nearly always refer to boys in the plural -
ishirran - and am actually blanking for a second on the singular. Finally, the word arbo pops into my head, just in time for us to say it together.

Man #2 and Me: Arbo. (Boy)

Me (pointing to his friends): And some ishirran. (Boys.)

Man #2: Boys! Yes, boys.

Man #1: So how long have you been visiting here?

Me: I've lived here for a year.

Man #2: A year?

Man #1 (to Man #3): She's lived here for a year. That's why she knows Berber. (to me) And
how long will you stay?

Me: Another year, God willing.

Men: God willing.

Man #2 (pointing to a bull): What's that?

The word for "cow" springs into my head, but I don't want to get into a discussion about the difference between cows and bulls, so I take a second to figure out what the word for "bull" is.

Me: It's a bull.

Man #3: The king of the bulls.

Me: The king of the bulls?!? (genuine laughter)

Man #1 (holding out a small red-and-black bug): What's that?

Me (drawing a blank): I don't know. What is it?

Man #1: Abxosh. (Bug)

Me (recognizing the word, once he said it): Abxosh.

Man #1: What is it in French?

Me: Insecte.

Man #1: Yeah, insecte.

Man #2 (pointing up the road): What are those? (without waiting for an answer) Those are

Me: Yup, clouds.

Man #2: Think there's rain up there?

Me: Maybe. But down here, the sun is nice.

Man #2: The sun. Hey, how do you say "sun" in America?

Me: Sun. And in French, soleil.

Man #3: So are you going to give my phone number to your American girlfriends?

Me: No, that's inappropriate.

Man #3: What do you mean? Of course it's not inappropriate

Man #1: Yeah, what could be inappropriate about that?

I've noticed that men usually deny - with wide-eyed vigorous innocence - that anything they're doing is inappropriate (
Hshuma). I used to think that they meant it, that they thought that the rules of propriety don't apply to foreign women. Now I think that's sometimes true, but more often that they're just hoping that bland denials will get them what they want - my phone number, or the chance to date me [or my American friends!], or whatever else they're pushing for. Once, after I told a man on a bus that I have a husband in America, he said, "But you could still fool around with me. He wouldn't have to know." When I gave him a loud and indignant, "Hsuhma!" he tried to look innocently confused. "Why is that Hshuma? It would be fine."

Me: It's Hshuma to give a girl the phone number of a man she doesn't know.

Man #3: OK, then give me their phone numbers.

Me: That would be worse.

They can see on my face that I mean it - plus, there's no way they thought this was plausible - so they drop it. Except for Man #1.

Man #1: Come on, the American economy is in trouble.

Me: Yes, there are many problems in America now.

Man #1: So you'll be helping your friends.

Me (completely deadpan): Are you insane, by any chance?

Man #2 (to Man #1): She asked if you're insane! Hee, hee.

Man #3: She knows "insane"! Yeah, she knows Berber.

Me: I know some. But I'm still learning.

...and the conversation comes full circle.

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


5/11/09 Surprise Trip!

I just got a call from my Program Manager, inviting me to come to a workshop on monitoring and evaluation next week. I'm delighted that he thought to include me, plus the timing couldn't be better. Yesterday was the final meeting of our club for this school year, so I don't have much on my agenda for a while. I was planning a park excursion with a friend who's COS-ing soon, so we'll have to find a way to reschedule that before she leaves Morocco in a few weeks.

I'm also looking forward to the chance to talk to my PM. I haven't seen him since IST, and haven't had a real conversation with him in almost a year. It'll be great to get to fill him in on everything I've been doing. I owe him a few reports, for that matter, so he'll probably take the opportunity to rake me over the coals a bit for that...but maybe I can knock those out this week. Ah, paperwork. :)

Still, I'm excited by the opportunity this trip represents. In addition to all the valuable work aspects, I don't deny the appeal of an all-expense-paid trip to a major city. Hot showers! Western food! The chance to wear short sleeves in public! Big city, here I come! ;)


5/8/9 Prepping the River Mural

This morning, Fatima and I headed over to the school to begin drawing in the giant river mural. Our first challenge was finding a ladder, since the one we used yesterday has vanished along with the handymen it apparently belonged to.

Once we'd found another, we snapped in grid lines (lhumdullah for chalk lines!) and used them to scale up from the small sketches.

At noon, we broke for lunch - at the urging of a school staff member who wanted to be able to lock up the room with our supplies so that he could break for lunch. He promised he'd be back by 2pm to unlock the room.

We returned at 2, climbed back up on the chairs and ladders, and got back to work.

For a while.

While walking the couple kilometers between our houses and the school, Fatima had pointed out to me the massive stormclouds visible in nearly every direction. They looked thickest in the north, where sheeting rain poured down on the mountains past the lakes.

The wind blew from the east, though, where a few faint blue glimmers gave me hope that the storm might blow past us without quite hitting.

No such luck.

As I stood at the wall, sketching, I heard the distinctive sound of raindrops hitting the ground, but I didn't feel anything. I figured the storm was *about* to hit...but after several minutes of no change, I turned away from the wall and looked around. It took a minute to realize what I was seeing.

Rain was falling - heavily - everywhere I looked. I wondered if we were under an overhang, but a quick glance upwards showed that we weren't. Then I noticed a two-foot strip of dry ground hugging the west face of the building. The building whose west wall we were drawing on.

The wind from the east hadn't let up at all, so all the rain was being driven at an angle just steep enough that the building itself was keeping us dry.

Until the wind shifted.

And then we packed it up and made a dash for home, before we got as wet as the river we'd drawn. :)

Until tomorrow...


4/23/09 The Big Berber Wedding of Noora and Rachid

A couple weeks ago, I got a text message inviting me to the Big Berber Wedding of Noora and Rachid. The happy couple urged us all to bring traditional clothing and big smiles. Check and check. :)

Rachid (left, below) is about to finish his service and go back to America. Noora (right) COS'd a year ago. Both served as Health PCVs on the other side of the mountain from Berberville. They were friends for most of the year that their service overlapped, and developed a romantic relationship towards the end of their time in-country together. They kept in touch through Skype and email, and spent Christmas together at her family's home. During that vacation, they became engaged. When he came back to his village and told his host family (and his neighbors, and his fellow PCVs, and everybody else he saw for about a month!), they insisted that he bring Noora - who they all remembered fondly - back to Morocco so they could throw him a Big Berber Wedding. She came for a several-week visit in April and May. Sometime during the week or three they spent in Rachid's site, they had their Big Berber Wedding...and we all came!

This is the only photograph you'll see that's out of chronological order. It's one of the last photos I took that night...but it's my favorite, which is why I'm leading off with it. :)

This is a terrible picture of Noora, but the best shot I have of her tahruyt. That's the white thing she's sitting on. It's a single rectangular piece of cloth, usually about 1x2 meters, and every bride I've ever seen is sitting on one, usually draped, like this one, over a ponj (big cushiony seat thing). On wedding days, tahruyts are purely decorative, but after that, this hand-woven, hand-embroidered, hand-muzun'd work of art can be worn as a cape in cold weather. See those small grey things, arranged in rows every foot or so? Those are the muzun - small, shiny disks pierced through the middle and tied onto the tahruyt. They're polished and highly reflective, so when a woman wears a muzun-bedecked tahruyt on a sunny winter day, she's eye-catching and quite literally bedazzling. If several women wear them and stand together, it can be almost blinding.

Here, Fatiha is putting the finishing touches on Noora's makeup. The bride is expected to act entirely passive throughout the wedding day. She can't dress herself, apply her own makeup, feed herself, or even move herself from one place to another (more on that in a bit). Fatiha, Noora's adopted host mother, had come with bags full of clothes, jewelry, makeup, etc, to make her adopted daughter's wedding perfect. She had already brushed out Noora's hair, applied her lipstick, rubbed kohl on her eyes, and is now wiping away the tears caused by the kohl application. Kohl dates back to the Egyptians, and the preparation may well be the same now as it was then (if I'm wrong, Egyptology buffs please correct me!): galena, aka lead sulfide, is ground down into powder form, then hydrated into a paste, which is applied to the eyes via a small pointed stick, about halfway in size between a toothpick and a golf tee. Imagine jabbing a lead-covered stick into your eye, and you'll understand why Noora teared up a few times. In later pictures of me, you'll notice that I'm wearing eyeliner and mascara - the first time I've worn makeup since coming to Morocco. I put it on expressly to *prevent* any overzealous Berber friends from trying to put kohl on me. It's beautiful, yes, but it's also the leading cause of lead poisoning in Morocco.

Noora had brought her own veil (left), but someone discovered that she could peer through the gauze, so she was forced to switch to the completely opaque veil provided by Fatiha (right). She therefore spent the next two and a half hours completely blind. (At that point, she was allowed to switch back to the gauzy veil. She didn't gain full visibility till 45 minutes later.)

Rachid, right, reminded me of one of the Wise Men / Three Kings. I think it's the headscarf. Might be the robe. Noora, in the middle, got a running play-by-play of the wedding from her groom, who got to watch all the action. Notice how Fatiha has her hand on Noora's? That's not an affectionate thing - it's to make sure the bride doesn't move At All. Fatiha, in the role of mother-of-the-bride, took responsibility for keeping the bride as motionless as possible. For hours. While the guests got to eat, chatter, dance, and make merry.

This was a just-for-grins shot. The difference between the pedicured feet of Fatima (my sitemate) and Kareem (part of the Souqtown PCV family) cracked me up. Fatima has pink nailpolish on her toes; Kareem has a Chaco tan (from his Chaco-brand sandals) par excellence. That's not dirt, it's suntan. Kareem lives on the far side of Souqtown, where it's been warm enough to wear sandals for months now. Fatima and I, perched in our mountain aerie, haven't worn sandals outside since probably September. :)

Me, Fatima, and Kareem, rocking out on the Berber instruments, in full Berber dress. Fatima and I are wearing jelabbas (also known as tejlabbin) that I bought down in our training city, last summer. Kareem's is much heavier-weight, so I assume he picked it up around here. Note that I'm playing the large drum, Fatima the small drum, and Kareem is knicking two tea glasses against a metal plate. These three instruments were passed around the room, so nearly everybody had a chance to play, but the more musical skill you had, the longer the crowd let you keep your instrument. We didn't keep them too long. ;)

An hour and a half after the bride's preparations were finished, which is when "the wedding" more or less began, we feasted on sheep-and-prune tagine with homemade bread. This is a traditional feast tagine - I've had it at a funeral and a baby-naming ceremony, as well - but it's usually topped with caramelized onions. This was topped with sauteed vegetables. Still delicious. :)

After the feast, we moved rooms. Since the bride (still blinded by the opaque veil) must remain helpless all day, she had to be carried out of our room, up the flight of stairs, and into the reception room. Here, Fatiha is carrying her piggyback-style. She made it as far as the foot of the stairs before wilting under the weight...whereupon an ancient Berber lady, shriveled with age, carried Noora up the stairs as easily as she has carried countless burdens (grasses, fuelwood, children) for decades. Also, to ease Noora's (and Rachid's!) peace of mind, several tall PCVs had their arms up on either side of the open-air staircase as "spotters", in case the old auntie stumbled or slipped. But she brought Noora up easily, and installed her on another ponj in the upstairs reception hall.

Other members of the Souqtown PCV family, Ilahm and Rahma, enter in their Berber wedding garb. They're wearing kaftans, not jellabas, but the only real difference is that jelabbas have hoods and kaftans don't. Aren't my friends lovely?

Both Noora and Rachid got their hands coated in henna. Noora had her feet done, too. Here, Rachid's host mother is neatening up the edge of the thick layer of henna mud she has just applied to her son's hand.

Guests got henna, too, but only a small dot in the middle of each hand.

I now present Sidi and Lalla Rachid Ait Sidi Meh. Actually, I have no idea when the wedding is officially complete, as distinct from the reception; it's all one long party. But Noora's veil has finally come off, plus she and Rachid have washed the henna off their hands (and her feet), so I figure they must be married now.

Another view of Rachid's wedding finery. I really feel like I should caption this one "King Nebuchadnezzar sitting in state", but the jeans poking out from under his dressy white jellaba reveal what century we're in. The glasses are a bit anachronistic, too, I suppose.

Bridal bling. You can see the engagement ring - an heirloom ring from Rachid's great-grandmother (I believe) - as well as the silver bangles and cuffs that Fatiha and Rachid's family had loaned her for the wedding. Bridal bling is a very big deal: Ama, my host mother, has shown me hers a few times. It's solid gold, and represents a major percentage of the net worth of my host family. Up until the current generation, when paved roads, solar panels, satellite dishes, and the rest of the modern world began intruding into these mountain villages, a bride's jewelry represented nearly all of the visible wealth of a family.

So there you have it: the Big Berber Wedding of Noora and Rachid. We arrived around 2pm, watched the bride's preparation from about 3:45 - 4:15, ate dinner (sheep and prune tagine) around 5:45, ate our second dinner (organ meats from the sheep Rachid had slaughtered that morning) around 10:45, ate our third dinner (chicken and prune tagine) around 11:45, and finally fell into bed sometime between 1 and 2am. Inbetween the various feasts, we mostly danced and chatted. :)

And there was great rejoicing.

Congratulations, Noora and Rachid! :D

5/5/09 Changes

It feels like a cliche to say "Peace Corps will change you."

But it's true.

Many of the changes are obvious, like my new lifestyle and hobbies (washing dishes! woohoo!).

Some surprise me.

The other day, I found myself looking around for a way to mark a wall, in preparation for a project we were doing. We'd forgotten to bring pencils or sharpies, so I tried to be resourceful.

I noticed a shard of broken glass on the ground, forming a trapezoid roughly 2" x 2". "Oh, hey, we can use that to make small scratch marks in the plaster!" I pointed out to another PCV. Then we discovered that we needed yet more tools, so I ended up taking the 15-minute walk home to get them all (including sharpies).

An hour or two later, hands absorbed in the manual labor but with my mind wandering, it occurred to me that a year ago, I'd have responded differently to noticing the shard of glass.

I might have thought about litter, and what a problem it is in my new community; more likely, I'd have thought about the danger it poses in a village where most people walk around in plastic sandals. I might even have picked it up and carried it home, so I could bring it to the dumpster 140 km away, next time I pack out my trash.

But now, I noticed it only as a potential tool, and when it became clear that we wouldn't need to use it, I more or less forgot about it.

The two songs currently vying for primacy on my mental iPod are "Ch-ch-ch-changin'..." and "I feel just like I'm walking on broken glass..."


5/6/09 Mapping the Northern Hemisphere

I recently got access to my friend Jamila's pictures, so I may be sprinkling blogs with old pictures for a while. :)

This one shows four of us working on the Northern Hemisphere of our biome mural map, about two months ago. (March 5th, I believe.) The mural itself is two meters tall, plus we had to start about a meter off the ground because of a small fountain (that's the grey thing at the bottom of the image), so to finish up, we had to be well off the ground.

From left to right:
Me, on a ladder, dotting in Alaska's islands; one of our partner-teachers on a chair, filling in Canada's Atlantic coast; Lahcen on a chair, finishing the chapparal around the Mediterranean Sea; and Fatima, on a ladder, working on the forests of central Asia.

One advantage of the chair-ladder requirement was that it limited the number of paintbrushes we could have on the map at any given time. The day before, I'd felt like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus: we had a swarm of kids all trying to fill in the southern hemisphere at the same time.

Oh, and did you notice that, in the picture, my hair is in a lopsided ponytail and I'm wearing two shirts with over-large sweatpants, with bulky things in the pockets, so it looks like I weigh about 200 pounds? Yeah, that's not accidental. On days when I know I'll be surrounded by hordes of teenagers - mostly boys - I do my best to dress as UNattractively as humanly possible. (The heavy rubber boots had more to do with the inches-deep mud than any fashion choice.)

5/7/09 Dressing the Wall (and Myself!) for Mural #4

Today a massive batch of Volunteers - me, Fatima, Brahim, Jamila, and newly sworn-in PCVs Mina, Hayat, and Jamal - assembled in Berberville to take care of some paperwork for the mountain's newest residents...and Fatima and I naturally put the gang to work on our newest (and potentially final) mural. It'll be our biggest one yet, reaching five meters across and three meters up. :D It'll (inshallah) show the impact of pollution on a river system.

We scrubbed the wall and primed the massive space, with "help" (read: active staring) from a crowd of students. Like our previous murals, this one will reside on the campus of Berberville's college and lycee. Tomorrow, inshallah, we'll grid, draw, and begin painting the mural, hopefully with more active help from the students. We hope to finish up by Saturday - Sunday morning at the latest - and will then have our final club meeting on Sunday afternoon.

I keep forgetting how much stuff muraling requires. Buckets (without holes!), water, paint, brushes, rollers, rags, sponges, stirring sticks (though a littered length of hose met that need today), chalk lines, pencils and/or Sharpie markers, meter sticks, right-angles, and, of course, the right outfit.

I'm no Sarah Jessica Parker; I think purses are a waste of time and money and accessorizing doesn't deserve to be a verb. But sometimes I do put serious thought into my wardrobe...and today was one of those days.

It paid off. I think I've found the perfect painting outfit. My problem in the past has been that most of my long-sleeved shorts don't have tails long enough to be able to reach, bend over, stretch, or all-of-the-above, without flashing an inch or so of lower back. Or at least worrying that I'm flashing some lower back. My jackets are all plenty long, so in cold weather, I could just take care of it that way, but our gorgeous spring weather includes some mighty warm sunny afternoons that preclude parka-wearing. But today, I layered a lightweight long-sleeved T-shirt under a huge long T-shirt (that I used as a nightshirt in the US), and voila! No matter how I twisted, leaned, or reached, I stayed fully modest and cool in the mid-afternoon sun.

So when it comes to picking a painting outfit...I'm covered. (Pun intended.)


5/2/09 My mini conversation

This afternoon, I was out running various errands when I crossed paths with the tranzit driver I'm hoping will take me into SouqTown tomorrow. I hadn't expected to see him, but was delighted, because it gave me a chance to verify the departure time of his tranzit. Sometimes the earliest run goes out at 3, sometimes 3:30, sometimes 4am. I'll be helping out with an English language club hosted at the Dar Chebab (youth center) there, and it starts mid-morning, so my only choice is to leave at dawn.

After running through the standard greeting phrases, I started to ask him when his tranzit would leave.

"Eska sbaH--" Tomorrow morning--

He cut me off. "L-arba." Four.

I laughed out loud. I suppose my question was pretty obvious, but I still hadn't expected him to answer quite so quickly. To be sure I wouldn't be left waiting at the crack of dawn for nothing, though, I clarified: "G l-arba, eska sbaH, at-tdut s SouqTown?" 4 o'clock tomorrow morning, you're going to Souqtown?

He nodded, grinning.

"Arba nishan?"
4 o'clock straight up?

"Eh, nishan."
Yup, on the dot. "Trit at-tdut?" Do you want to come?

I nodded and returned his grin.

"Waxa, ar sbaH, inshallah."
OK, see you in the morning, God willing.

"Ar sbaH."
Till morning.

I'm not sure why this exchange amused me so much, but for some reason, it makes me smile. Something about my own predictability and the driver's willingness to be helpful in the face of his assumption that I wouldn't be able to get out more than a few words.

4/29/09 Welcome, New Environment and Health PCVs!

The new crop of Environment and Health PCVs is swearing in today. Exciting!!

I remember swearing-in. There was the ceremony itself, of course, and the partying afterwards, but what left a much deeper impression was the core-deep realization that I Am A Peace Corps Volunteer. 11 weeks as a Peace Corps Trainee is nothing to sneeze at, but actual PCV status left me almost dizzy with a blend of pride and humility.

This also means that I'm a just about year into my service. (Not exactly a year, yet, because they've rearranged stage; now there's 8 weeks of language and culture training, followed by the three months of homestay and integration, and then another two weeks of technical training. We got 11 weeks of language, culture, and technical training, all up-front.)

Because the four sectors of Peace Corps / Morocco are staggered in six-month intervals (Health and Environment PCVs arrive in March, but YD and SBD PCVs come in September), we've adopted the high school designations of Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior to break up our two years of service.

The "newbies" - the freshly sworn-in Volunteers - are the Freshmen. The YD and SBD folks who swore in six months ago are now Sophomores. My cohort just became Juniors, and the YD and SBD volunteers who will leave in the autumn are now Seniors.

I remember Junior Year - both in high school and in college - as the year when I felt most comfortable, most on-top-of-my-game, most king-of-the-hill. As a Senior, I was more focused on the work, whether AP courses or my thesis, as well as thoughts of the future. Senior year was more about *me*; Junior year, I was more about the *school*.

Translating that into Peace Corps terms, I feel like it's time to step up as a PCV and take on more of a leadership role. I no longer get to ride the coattails of the "Second-Years," the Environment and Health PCVs who swore in a year ahead of me, and who will COS in a few weeks. (Which, by the way, is very sad. They're all happy as clams about moving into the next phase of their lives, going back to the US, etc, but I'm looking at losing half a dozen of my best friends.)

Of course, this is all part of the life cycle of the PCV. Arriving, learning, growing, changing, broadening, leading...and leaving.

The newbies are just starting this grand adventure; the "Second-Years" are about to finish it. I'm standing at the halfway point, with interesting paths leading in dozens of directions.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad place to be. :)


5/1/09 Word of the Day: Aqabo

Sleeping Bag Saga, Volume 3. (Scroll down or click to see Volume 1 and Volume 2.)

I got back to Berberville late afternoon today, after about a week away. Walking home, with my mountainous backpack strapped to me, I passed two of my smaller cousins - a boy about 7 and his almost-2-year-old sister Layla. The little boy looked up at me with wide eyes.

"Kauthar! Is tsnt? Illa aqabo-nm ghorngh!"

I caught my name, but after 4 hours of reading in English on the tranzit, I hadn't shifted back into Tam enough to catch anything else. I smiled at him, figuring that he was just saying something routine, like, Oh, look, you have a backpack.

But he stood there expectantly, waiting for my response.

I blinked for a second and tried to remember what he'd said. Nope, it was gone.

I smiled. "Samhi. Nam? Aud, afak?" I'm sorry. What? Can you repeat that, please?

With more poise than most American children as tiny as he is, he slowly and clearly repeated, "Is tsnt? Illa aqabo-nm ghorngh. Aqabo-nm" Did you know? Your aqabo is at our house.

Aqabo, aqabo, aqabo... I racked my brain, and came up empty-handed. A relative? Some piece of paperwork? (His dad--my uncle--is the mayor, after all.) A ritual garment they were hoping I'd wear at the next celebration? I drew a total blank.

"Snnit? Aqabo-nu?" Really? My aqabo? It seemed like a safe response.

He nodded enthusiastically, and turned around to walk back home, still towing his tiny sister. I reached over and took a hand, too. Mmm, babies. :) We walked quickly - swinging Layla over a mud puddle en route - and were at my uncle's house in moments.

"Blatti. Ghorjdum." Wait. Have a seat. He ran up the stairs to their house.

I assumed the instructions were directed at little Layla, who obediently sat down on the curb - just the right height for a seat for her! After a second, though, I leaned over, picked her up, and swung her onto my shoulders, and walked back and forth in front of their house for a minute, bouncing her while holding her tiny hands. And then my cousin reappeared, clutching a giant grey lump. I felt my face light up in a huge smile.

My sleeping bag! My long-lost sleeping bag!

I'd envisioned all sorts of awkward conversations with the mysterious owner of the house next door...but instead, with essentially no effort on my part, it had been returned to me!

Alhumdulillah! (That's the 5-syllable, somewhat more emphatic form of lhumdullah, the 3-syllable, ubiquitous, "Thanks be to God!")

I popped the munchkin off my shoulders and wrapped my arms around a cubic meter of fluffy goodness. Slightly dusty fluffy goodness, to be specific, thanks to the week of daily duststorms, but I wasn't complaining. I thanked him, blessed his parents, thanked God, and acted generally ecstatic.

I opened my padlock and let myself into my house, only mildly encumbered by the armload of down.

Once I was settled in, I shot a text to Jamila. Thanx so much for whatever you did to get my sleeping bag back! My uncle the moqaddim had it at his house-my cousin told me. I'm so relieved! Thanx so much! :-) It's hard to wax rhapsodic with gratitude and convey significant plot development in 160 characters, but I did my best. :)

A few moments later, though, I got this response back: Soooo i um had nothng 2 do w it the sleepn bag gods were there 4 u on that 1. :) She used the rest of her 160 characters to ask a work-related question. We're really *very* efficient texters here. ;)

So now I'm left with a mystery. How did my sleeping bag find its way back to me?

Other than by the direct intervention of the sleeping bag gods, anyway. I have a theory, but I'll spend tomorrow asking around until I get the whole story.

I'll keep you posted...

Oh, and I shot a quick text to my tutor to ask if aqabo means sleeping bag. Answer: Yes, it does. She didn't specify in which language... It's Darija, I suspect, because I can't imagine that the three-thousand-year-old Berber culture has a word for such a modern contraption. But I'll be meeting with her soon, inshallah, and can get it all cleared up. :D

4/28/09 Sleeping Bag Saga, continued

I woke up about 6am.

The house was dark and cold - not icy, lhumdullah, but still chilly - as I ran up onto the roof to continue fishing for my sleeping bag.

Thirty minutes of dedicated casting yielded nothing but frustration. I'm a pretty decent fisherwoman when I have an actual rod and reel (and am fishing for, y'know, fish), but the contraption of bamboo, plastic, and a cast-iron S-hook failed to meet the needs of the day. The fact that my nylon sleeping bag is even slipperier than a rainbow trout couldn't have helped, either.

I finally gave up. I had a 7am date with my fellow travelers - to wait for the earliest north-bound taxi - that I needed to prepare for.

The sleeping bag would have to wait until Friday, when my mysterious neighbor would return and, inshallah, let me climb up on his roof and retrieve my poor lost bag.

I tossed a few bricks over from my own roof, to weigh the bag down and insure that its voyages wouldn't continue beyond my neighbor's house onto the fields or valleys beyond. (We live on the edge of town.)

When the four of us got together to wait for the taxi, I told the other two the Saga of the Sleep Sack. Jamila, the only one of us not actually traveling north right away - she planned to travel east, an hour later - immediately offered to spend the hour talking to my favorite hanut guy and my neighbor/uncle to see if anything could be done before Friday. I thought it might be better if I did it myself...but the taxi pulled up right around then, making her offer all the more appealing.

I thanked her profusely, and then we headed off on our journey.

To be continued...

4/27/09 Sleeping Bag Saga

I noticed on my last trip that my sleeping bag smelled a little ripe. (I choose to blame loaning it to friends who stay over in my chilly house, but I must admit that there's some chance it's my fault.) Regardless of who's to blame, it could do with a good airing.

So this morning, before the soccer tourney, I hung it inside-out on the clothesline. It's big and awkwardly shaped, so I stuck it to the line with every clothespin I own - all 14 of them. I swear, I used to have dozens, but every time I do laundry, a few go missing. It's a mystery - like socks in American dryers.

My sleeping bag tossed and turned a bit in the spring winds, but I'd affixed it as firmly as possible, so I went back downstairs confident it would benefit from the fresh air and sunshine.

Off we went to the soccer finals (more on that later). We hid our faces from the duststorms during the game - I felt grateful for the handkerchief covering my hair, shielding it from the worst depredations of the storm - and when everything had finished, we staggered home against nearly gale-force winds. We leaned forwards into the stiff gusts, huddling in our parkas against the knifing cold.

I didn't think once about my giant, featherweight bag, fighting these same winds.

When I got home, I warmed up thoroughly and took care of some household chores...none of which brought me up to the roof to remind me of my sleeping bag. A few friends came to visit that afternoon, and we all hung out at Fatima's house.

As twilight approached, two of us headed back to my place. Hurrying against the dying of the light, I suddenly remembered my poor, neglected sleeping bag. I hoped it hadn't gotten *too* dusty in the storm.

I ran up to my roof...and saw nothing.

No sleeping bag.

No clothespins (though further investigation turned up four, scattered across the roof).


My eyes bugged further and further out of my head.

Could someone have snuck onto my roof and stolen it?? Could it have blown away in the wind?

Had I really lost my very favoritest-ever sleeping bag, bought new for my Peace Corps adventure?

I looked off all four edges of the roof. The street, alleys, and sidewalk below were all empty.

I took another lap of the roof, looking as far as I could in all directions, peering against the rapidly-fading light.

And there it was. On the (walled) roof of the house next door, across a narrow alley (probably a meter wide), down about 10 feet. The house has been under construction for at least two years, and the exposed roofing rods had snagged the wayward bag in its windy flight.

I could only imagine what it must have looked like - the sleeping bag catching a gust of wind, straining against the clothespins like a billowing sail strains against a ship mast, finally bursting free and flying, soaring...for about 15 feet, before the wind (fickle mistress that she is) cut short the adveture and dropped it on the next roof. Subsequent flutterings of wind pushed it against the roofing rods, where it stayed, trapped, awaiting rescue.

A rescue I tried to mount in the growing dark.

In my living room, inherited from the previous PCV who lived in my house, there's a bamboo rod, probably two meters long, with an equally long plastic cord attached to it, with a metal hook on the end. I've wondered idly what such a thing could be for; I mostly hook the metal end into the bamboo and use the rod itself to prop the living room door closed.

But this bizarre contraption suddenly leaped into my mind - it's a fishing rod, I realized. A big, unwieldy fishing rod! And right now, I'm going to fish for my sleeping bag.

So I ran downstairs, grabbed the inch-thick bamboo pole, and ran back upstairs. Leaning off the edge of my roof, I cast for my sleeping bag. The still-strong winds caught the plastic line, arcing the cord out and leaving my cast short.

I threw the line out again. The hook skittered across the bricks near the sleeping bag.

Again. The hook landed smack in the middle of the sleeping bag - lhumdullah - but it slid smoothly across the slick nylon.

I cast five, twenty, fifty luck. I managed to catch part of the zipper once, but the hook slid off without gaining any real purchase.

My friend had come up to see what was going on. I offered her the pole, but she had no more luck than I.

"Do you want to knock on your neighbor's door?" she suggested.

"I'm pretty sure nobody lives there. I've never seen anyone inside, and only seen somebody on the roof once or twice in the past year."

"Should we try anyway?"

We traipsed over, but repeated knocks accomplished nothing.

We decided to ask my favorite hanut guy who owns the house. He knows everything.

But before we got to the hanut, we ran into my 15-year-old neighbor (and cousin), who was chatting with a woman who works across the street. I asked them who owned the house.

The young businesswoman thought for a second, then said my host dad's name.

"Snnit? Babanu?" Really? My dad? I then clarified his familial connections - there are only about 8 men's names in this village, so I wanted to be clear.

"Eyyah," she confirmed. Yes.

I looked back down the street at my house and the vacant one next to it.

"Snnit? S-snat, tin babanu?" Really? They're both my dad's?

"La, mashi s-snat. Ghas tadart-tx." No, not both. Just this one.

This one, she said, indicating my house.

Which, yes, I knew was (is) owned by my host dad.

"La, mashi tadartinu. L-tadart yadnin. Tin mi tadart-ta?" No, not *my* house. The *next* house. Whose is that?

"Oooh." This was chorused by both women. And yes, it means the same thing in Tam as in English.

[[OK, I'll stop boring you with a language you don't understand.]]

"Yeah, I'm not sure of the name of the guy who owns that one," I was told. "But he only comes to town on Fridays, for souq." I gave her a baleful stare. "He lives a few villages over."

I turned to my cousin. "Does your dad have a key to his house?" It's not uncommon for neighbors to have keys, and my uncle's family and I are the only ones who live on this street. My cousin shook her head with wide eyes.

I realized I'd never explained what was going on, so I did so, briefly. "The wind moved my--" I paused here, having no idea what the word for sleeping bag would be in Tam, "My stuff from my roof to his roof."

"Her sleeping mat," my friend offered. I figured the word she used - ponj - was as good a word as any, though it usually applies to actual mats, not big squishy cocoon-style sleepsacks.

"Oh, that's too bad," the women chorused.

After a few more pleasantries, we went back to my house.

I've had a half-broken ladder in my front hall for over a month now. We decided to carry it up to the roof and use it to climb from my roof to theirs.

It finished breaking as we manoevered it over the alleyway.

As we watched the chunks of wood tumble the three stories down into the dirt-and-rock-filled alley, we decided to scrap that plan.

I tried a few more casts with the bamboo fishing pole, and but between the darkness, the wind, and the bitter cold, I gave up quickly and decided to try again in the light (and warmth) of the morning.

To be continued...
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