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7/31/09 Pumpkins!

Ask anyone who knows me - I love pumpkins.

I like carving jack'o'lanterns, visiting pumpkin patches, and I **LOVE** cooking with pumpkins. In the US, I was never quite brave enough to cook the actual gourd, and stuck to canned pumpkin. Here in Morocco, I've been forced out of that comfort zone, and have been delighted with the results.

In both countries, I baked pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pies, plus I even made a pumpkin-and-shrimp-soup once in the US (land of readily available seafood, unlike my mountain village).

Pumpkins make me happy.

So I was *delighted* to see them appear in today's souq.

Even more delightful: they're orange!

Every pumpkin I noticed last year was green on the outside, but satisfyingly orange on the inside. But these are orange inside *and* out.

Hooray for pumpkin season!!

(Oh, and yes, in the US, pumpkin season is mid-October through late November, when the air is crispy-cool and the leaves crunch underfoot. But last year, I made the mistake of not buying any sweet potatoes when I saw them - I think it was in September? - and waiting till which time sweet potatoes were out of season and completely unavailable, to my great disappointment. So I'm accepting that a "season" is from whenever a fruit or veggie appears in souq until it disappears, regardless of what the weather is like. Right now, it's over 90 here in my mountain aerie, and well over 120 in most of the lowlands...but if there are pumpkins, well then by golly it's PUMPKIN TIME!!!!!!!!!)


7/30/09 Well, that's the world

During lunch, my host mom and I were sharing the problems that we've both run into this week. I got my backpack stolen off a transit. Her oldest son was in a bike accident and shredded big patches of skin. I'm being condemned by neighbors for involving the widely-shunned gendarmes in my efforts to get my stuff back. Her second son poked a finger in a flour mill to "see what would happen" and lost part of said finger, plus refuses to go to the doctor. Etc. It's been a rough week.

After lunch, she rattled off our mutual lists of misfortune while nursing Baby M'Barak. At the end, she murmur, "Problems, problems..."

I chimed in, "There are always problems." (I know, this doesn't sound like me - and it isn't like me. I'm just feeling disheartened lately.)

She shook her head. "No. Not always. Sometimes, everything is going well, and then other times, there are problems. Sometimes, people laugh; sometimes, people cry." I suddenly remembered Ecclesiastes 3 (or The Byrds, depending on your frame of reference): To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven...a time to laugh, a time to cry...

She continued, "That's dunit. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad. It's not all just one thing. It's dunit."

I sat there nodding, feigning comprehension, spinning through possible meanings of dunit. I remembered learning the word...but what did it mean?? A near-homonym, d-dunnit, means they will come to it, but obviously that's not what she meant. Dunit, dunit, dunit...I tried to joggle the memory out of whatever crevice it was wedged into, in my cluttered attic of a memory, but without luck.

I grumpily (but silently) reflected that one of the things in my backpack was my Tamazight notebook. Every word of Tam I've learned or studied is in there...wherever that may be. Dunit is in there, I'm sure of it. But what does it mean???

When I got home, I dug out my Tam-English Dictionary. It's not comprehensive and includes lots of words from Tasuseit, the southern variation of the Tashelheit dialect, so I rarely use it...but it's all I've got at the moment. Flipping it open, I remembered why I'd let it fall into disuse: because Tam is an oral language, not a written one, there are a dozen possible "spellings" for any word. I looked for dunit, dnt [since short vowels are often dropped], dunnit, doont...I finally found it as ddunit - world; Earth; planet; universe.

That was the piece it took to dislodge my stuck memory. World! Of course! I'd learned the word when preparing for Earth Day last year. I usually use the Arabic word 3lm instead of the Tam word dunit, which is why I'd let myself forget it, but they mean the same.

Reflecting back on my conversation with Ama, I realized that I've just discovered the equivalent idiom for English's "That's life" - It's the world.


7/14/09 Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate - pronounced Waar-zuh-zat, rhymes with Car-the-cat - is an often-overlooked city in southern Morocco. Perched on the edge of the Sahara, it used to be known as the Bab Sahara - the gateway to the desert - since every caravan traveling across the great desert would stop here to take advantage of the rivers and palm trees.

Ouarzazate looks like what tourists imagine Morocco will look like. Low buildings with crenelated roofs, scattered palm trees, huge expanses of scrub desert... Also, it's within an hour drive of a dozen different desert subecosystems (scrub desert, sandy desert, New Mexico-looking-desert, oasis-in-the-desert, etc), which is one of the many reasons it has become the filming destination of choice for most desert movies.

If you've watched a film made in the past 20 years with a desert scene in it, odds are it was filmed in or near Ouarzazate. Which we PCVs call Oz for short (and which suddenly makes me wonder if there's any connection between the nickname and the film industry...enh, probably just a coincidence). Kingdom of Heaven. The Mummy. (All the Mummy movies, for that matter.) Gladiator. Lawrence of Arabia (which, I know, is way more than 20 years old - it was the birth of the Oz film industry). Babel, which is one of the few actually set in Morocco. Charlie Wilson's War. Thanks to Hollywood's recent interest in desert-set movies (Rendition, Charlie Wilson's War, The Kingdom, Three Kings - notice a theme?), dozens of film crews come to Morocco each year...and over the years, a true film industry has grown up in Oz. There are hundreds of Moroccans trained as grips, sound boom technicians, sound engineers...all those names at the end of the movie? The ones that aren't actors or special effects guys? Yeah, those people. Morocco now has hundreds - maybe thousands - trained to do all that stuff. Plus, Oz citizens get to be extras a lot. Moroccans are mostly golden-skinned, black-haired, and black-eyed, which means that, especially in crowd scenes or in deep background, they can pass for most of the world's ethnicities. Mexican, African-American, Arab...

So that's the film industry. Which has been immortalized in Ouarzazate's Museum of Film History, well worth a visit.

But there's also the casbah - a gorgeous, if crumbling, testament to Oz's strategic importance in past military conflicts - a half-hour walk from the center of town.

There are the juice places, where you can get any conceivable combination of juices blended, smoothie-style (though without ice). *Any* combination. I usually play it safe with something in the mango-orange-peach-banana family, but some of my friends swear by the avacado-almond, and my sister fell in love with the mint juice. Yeah, you read that right.

And there's my all-time-favorite-place-to-shop-in-all-of-Morocco, the Fixed Price Store.

Of course, there aren't any useful posted signs or anything...just look for the shop to the right of the SuperMarche on Boulevard Mohammed V. (Oz has at least 3 supermarche's, I know, but only one on MoV. It's also across from Chez Dmitri's, a famous - and famously overpriced - restaurant.)

At the Fixed Price Store (not a real name, just what my friends and I call it), you can buy all the same things you'll find at other shopping-friendly cities (like Essaouira and Fes), but with posted prices that you don't have to haggle for. And the posted prices are *fair*. Not a ripoff for you, not a ripoff for the artisans. Fair prices. (Happy sigh.) Plus, if you buy a lot, as I tend to when I'm there, the owner will drop 5-10% at the register anyway. Although...that might be the discount for those of us who speak the language. So if you don't get the extra reduction, don't feel bad. The prices are still excellent, plus you don't leave with that icky Did I just get ripped off? feeling that dogs me whenever I haggle.

These days, there aren't many caravanseri crossing the desert on camels. Oz fills its role as the
Bab Sahara by providing treking tours. You can explore on foot, on camel, in a 4x4, or some combination thereof. Resist the urge to ride a 4x4 through the desert. Desert polish - that scrubby, weather-beaten surface - is actually incredibly fragile, and host to a surprisingly delicate ecosystem. In some places, the desert winds can repair damage from 4x4 tires within weeks or months...but in others, you can still see treads from WWII convoys. So go hiking or take the once-in-a-lifetime camel ride. :)

7/13/09 Miscellany: CASH / Money in Morocco

More than one traveler to my adopted country has tripped up on the question of money.




Especially Americans. America is rapidly moving towards a cashless society. Before I joined Peace Corps, I almost never carried cash. I paid for everything from a $1.85 Borders' Cafe Chocolate Bundt Cake (wow, I miss those) to a $100 shopping spree with a credit card. And even if I had a bundle of cash in my pocket, I'd never have attempted to register at a hotel, or rent a car, or ... any other of a host of transactions ... with anything but a credit card.

Morocco is different.

I won't say that you can't use a credit card anywhere - because the biggest, fanciest, most tourist-friendly hotels, restaurants, and stores will probably accept them, and I know Marjane does, too - but I will say that I have used a credit card exactly once in Morocco. And I've lived here for almost 17 months now.

So expect to pay for *everything* in cash. Hotel stays. Restaurants. Transportation (petit taxis, grand taxis, buses, and probably trains, though they might take plastic).

Fortunately, cash is easy to come by here.

The Moroccan Dirham (Dh or dh, formally MAD but nobody uses that) is not internationally traded, which means that it's virtually impossible to acquire them outside Morocco.

It also means that it has avoided the currency fluctuations that have been sweeping much of the world this past year.

Every major Moroccan city has Currency Exchange places where you can swap your dollars (or Euros, or whatever) for dirhams. Exchange rates vary from spot to spot; to my surprise, the exchange counter in Casablanca's Mohammed V airport gave us one of the best rates we found anywhere. (That was 7.98:1 Dh:$. Other times we changed money, we found 7.95:1, 8.1:1, 7.8:1, and a deeply depressing 7.5:1 - this last at a bank that didn't have its change rates posted. Grr.)

It's also incredibly easy to find ATMs here. My little village doesn't have an ATM (though we just got Western Union! Woo-hoo! Um...does anybody use Western Union anymore?), but my souqtown does, as does every other town (though not village) I've visited in Morocco.

So just walk up to the machine, stick in your good old American (or German, or Australian, or whatever) ATM card, and extract as many dirhams as you want. OK, I should qualify that statement. As many as you want up to your daily withdrawal limit. My Moroccan bank (BMCI) won't let me pull more than 2000dh a day (about 250 bucks) - but then, I've never wanted to. I could probably change my limit if I tried. But you might want to double check with your bank before you leave. You should also ask your bank what their fee is for international withdrawals. It's probably 2-3%, but some banks are mean about this kind of thing. Plus, the ATM itself will charge a fee - standard is 7dh (about a buck).

And how much should you expect to spend? It depends entirely on your lifestyle. As a Volunteer, my monthly stipend is 2000dh, plus rent. 2000dh covers everything I eat, drink, buy, travel to, etc, with enough left over every month that after a year, I had a ginormous surplus hanging out in my account... But when I was traveling with my family, living like a Stinkin' Rich American, we burned through that much in a week. Sometimes less, depending on the souvenir shopping.

The hotels I stay in when traveling are usually 30-50dh/night/person. That gets me a bed in a dorm-style room. (Often, I get the whole room to myself - Morocco is a popular tourist destination, but I avoid the cities and therefore spend most of my hotel-nights in mostly-empty-hotels.) No towels, no en suite bathrooms - there's usually a squat toilet somewhere on the hallway - and shared showers whose hot water is never trustworthy.

But I'm a Volunteer. I signed up for this. (And for the record, just getting *access* to a potentially-hot shower makes hotel stays feel pretty luxurious. At home, I have water for two hours a day - which still puts me ahead of a lot of PCVs who don't have running water at all - and if I want it hot, it involves butane gas, a stove, a kettle, and five minutes.) And while 50dh makes a decent chunk of *my* monthly salary, it's only 6 bucks to an American. For 20 bucks a night (per person - and that's another oddity of Moroccan hotels, they nearly always charge per person, not per room), you can get four-star accomodation. So it's all in what you want to spend.

Same for restaurants. When I travel, if I'm not in a PCV's home, I invariably get egg-and-cheese-and-veggie sandwiches for lunch, and either lentils or chicken for dinner. Because that's what's available at the cheapo places I frequent. I can get a filling sandwich for 7dh (it'd be 12 if I ot it with meat) or a plate of lentils for 7dh or a quarter of a chicken (remind me to post more about this later) for 15dh.

If I'm in a biggish city, I'll look for shawarma or pizza. Those are going to cost 20-40dh/serving, but I accept it for the splurge it is.

Basically, I live on a dollars-to-dirhams budget. That is, here I make 2000 dirhams a month, excluding rent and tax-free (because we're well below federal poverty standards!). I made something like 2000 dollars a month in America, after rent and after taxes. So what I can spend in dirhams is just about what I could spend in dollars. 5dh for a cup of cocoa in a cafe? Yup, I've dropped $5 at Starbucks more mornings than I should admit. 25dh for a ride into my souq town? That's comparable to Zipcar prices. Buying clothes, staying in hotels, eating out...if I could have afforded it in dollars in America, I can afford it in dirhams here. The PCVs who get into trouble are the ones who keep translating things back into dollars, and thinking Wow, this is so cheap!

Example: Taxis in Marrakesh. Taxis are supposed to be metered. But about 2/3 of taxi drivers claim that their meters are broken (or they break them themselves!) and then charge you whatever they want for the ride. The first time I took a taxi from the bus station to the J'ma al-Fna (Marrakesh's version of Times Square *and* Central Park)... Well, I'd been warned not to pay more than 10dh. So I walked up to the first petit taxi I saw and asked if they'd take me there. "Of course! Get in!" How much? "30 dirhams." I laughed and started to walk away. But in dollars, it's about 4 bucks. Which a New Yorker would find a bargain for a taxi ride across town. Which is why the taxi drivers can get away with asking for it. Not wanting to lose the fare, the driver called after me, "What do you want to pay?" 10 dirhams. Then he laughed. I turned to walk away again. He called, "OK, 25." 10. "20." 10. "OK, get in." 10? "Yeah, yeah, yeah..." And it only worked because I literally burst out laughing and turned to walk away each time. I was perfectly willing to find another taxi - even if it meant walking out to the street to find a cab willing to use its meter - and he knew it. [[Side note: I also carried little enough luggage - a medium-sized backpack and a slung-over-the-shoulder purse - that I could have walked downtown, if I'd had a mind to. Travelers who show up with more luggage than they can carry are at a massive disadvantage here.]] The one and only time I've had a driver use a meter between the bus station and the J'ma al-Fna, the ride cost 6dh. I gave the guy 10 just out of gratitude for his honesty.

So that's my take on Money In Morocco.

Bring cash to convert or just bring your ATM card.

Leave your travelers' checks at home (nobody but NOBODY accepts them).

Don't expect to be able to use your credit card. (You might be happily surprised once or twice, but if you show up expecting to be able to use'll encounter frustration.)

If you want to benefit from just how cheap this country can be, stop converting everything to dollars (or Euros, or Canadian dollars) in your head, and be willing to share a bathroom.

Oh, and don't be afraid to sass the taxi drivers. Haggling: it's not just for souq day anymore.

PS: Srf. Srf is the word for change, as in "Here's your change!" and also for any small currency. Moroccan currency consists of tiny brass coins, which are tiny fractions of a dirham, and then 1/2 dh, 1dh, 2dh, 5dh, 10dh (all silver or silver-and-brass coins) and then 20dh, 50dh, 100dh, and 200dh bills. Srf is your friend. Keep some on hand at all times. For one thing, cheap little sandwich shops probably can't make change from a 200dh bill. (Imagine trying to buy a cup of coffee with a $100, in the US. Even though 200dh is only 25 bucks, it *feels* like a 100dh bill, and causes as many awkward cash-register moments.) Also, you'll spend srf all the time - 5dh for every piece of luggage on a bus, 5dh for a cup of coffee, 2dh for a packet of cookies (travel food!), 2dh for a packet of tissues (since toilet paper isn't always provided, either) - and you'll have a much smoother, more harmonious experience if you're not asking people to make horrific amounts of change all the time.

Also, waving big bills is an invitation to the unscrupulous. Even the smallest bill - a 20dh note - can get you into trouble. Example: My friend "Ali" put his bag on a bus and got hit up for the usual 5dh. (Technically, it's a tip for the jumper, and therefore you don't technically have to pay it ... but **everybody** does, and if you try to fight it, you will end up with an actual fight on your hands.) He pulled out a 20dh, expecting change - and the jumper immediately said, "Oh, of course, for 20dh we'll keep this baggage compartment just for you - nobody else's bags will be near yours, and nobody will have a chance to steal your things!" and pocketed the 20dh. Ali tried to explain that he really didn't want to rent out the baggage compartment...but the jumper suddenly lost all ability to understand Ali's (excellent) accent. Le sigh.

So keep some srf in your pocket at all times. Good places to break the big bills - and most ATMs will dispense either a mix of 100s and 200s or else all 200s, so you're going to have to deal with this, just like I do - are teleboutiques and large stores. If they balk at making change - although most will happily help you, if you ask with a polite Srf, afak? (Change, please?) - just buy something cheap. I've discovered some yummy 2dh cookie options when trying to break a 100dh bill. :)

7/22/09 First Forty Days

On July 5th, my newest baby brother met the world. That was a Sunday evening. That Wednesday, my family threw a huge party for the women in Ama's circle. 91 women attended, plus assorted children ranging from newborns through teenagers. The next Sunday, my family hosted the sib3, a religious ceremony for the men in Baba's circle. Given the exclusivity of a religious ceremony, Ama expected virtually no women - just a few from her immediate family - but about 20 women showed up, so we got a reprise of Wednesday's dance party fun.

So that was the first week of my baby brother's attendance here at Earth's School of Life. He got his name at the sib3, as is traditional, but the family had been calling him by it since Wednesday morning. I won't post his name here - it's unique, as far as I know - but instead I'll call him M'Barak, a reasonably common Moroccan name and the one that I'd lobbied for. (M'barak is the closest Moroccan version of Barack, and I thought it'd be pretty awesome to have my baby brother named after my president. I'm just sayin'.)

Anyway, we're up do about Day 20 of Baby M'Barak (say baby um BAR ik), and today at lunch Ama explained some of the rules surrounding a baby's First Forty Days.

For one, you can't leave the baby alone. At all. Benign neglect is a defining characteristic of Moroccan childcare. Kids have almost complete freedom to go wherever, do whatever, play with whatever... I've seen infants handed lighters as toys, toddlers crawling up and down uneven packed-earth stairs, and small boys scrambling through tree branches like monkeys or up and down mountains like goats, all without a lick of supervision. And it works. I'm almost scared to describe this to my childrearing American friends, adhering as they do to the baby-gated, baby-proofed, padded-universe view of childcare, but, well, maybe Moroccan kids are just hardier. Or maybe it's just Berber kids. But these little people run, jump, toddle, and crawl through all sorts of scenarios that would give my paranoid American friends heart failure...and keep running, jumping, toddling, and crawling on. The primary cause of infant and child mortality here is diarrhea, not accident. But all that said, babies can't be left alone for their first 40 days. Not for a second. If the mom has to go to the bathroom or to prepare lunch or for anything else, there in the house, somebody else has to stay in the room with the baby. And if she goes anywhere outside the house, the baby is strapped onto her back. This supervision goes on for 24 hours; though he has a small, mosquito-netted space to sleep and peoplewatch from during daylight hours, he spends every night next to his momma, just a turned head away from nursing.

Also during the first 40 days: no part of his little body can be altered. The circumcision waits, as do haircuts ('cause yeah, little M'Barak has a *full* head of hair), nail clippings (and again, he's got some Barbra-Streisand-esque claws), and any other potential changes to his little form. Even baths are few and far between; I think he's had only 1 so far, though he may be up to 2. I know his first bath was 15 days after his birth. (Well, OK, I'm not counting the hospital cleaning him up immediately after birth. I'm counting the times Ama has bathed his little person.) The fingernails are becoming a problem. As I've said before, M'Barak was born two full weeks late. I was also born about two weeks late, and my fingernails got clipped within hours of birth, because they were already long enough to scratch myself with. M'Barak inherited my fingernails (how's *that* for genetics), and has already scratched himself a few times, but they won't clip his little nails till he hits the 40-day mark. (I recommended putting little socks over his hands; Ama seemed skeptical, but might consider it.)

And just as we were walking out - heading to a neighbor's house for Friday couscous - Ama turned around to rush back inside for another scarf. She had the small scarf that is always wrapped around her hair (but only her hair - her forehead and neck are always exposed, as they are for many Berber women), but she went back for a big, pashmina-sized scarf that she folded over her head and shoulders and over half her face, saying, "This is what mothers do, for the first 40 days." I'm not sure exactly what she meant - wearing a scarf? Wearing a really big scarf? Covering her mouth in public? - but I've long since discovered that asking explanatory questions never really gets me anywhere (the usual answer to Why? is Because that's what's done), so I figured I'll keep observing and try to figure it out.

There may be other First-Forty-Days rules as well; for the same reason Ama can't explain why things are done, she can't usually explain things comprehensively. That is, if I'd just asked her, "What are the rules for the baby's first 40 days?" she'd be confused and probably wouldn't be able to think of any. Because she hasn't learned them as a list of rules. She just knows what should be done, and what cannot be done. So again, I'll just keep watching and learning - that's the story of Peace Corps service, right? :)

7/24/09 Snapshot: Lizard

Riding in a 16-passenger van (aka a transit): 25 passengers.

Standing in the middle of the road: a lizard.

A small lizard.

Light brown.

Unusually broad head for a lizard; reminds me of the wedge shape of a poisonous snake, but it's attached to that ridiculous lizard body, not a gracefully curving stretch of solid muscle. (I admit it, I like snakes.)

Stray thought: is it just me, or do lizards look a little bit like minature dachsunds? That long, lean body on top of super stubby little legs?

This small, light-brown, wedge-headed, weiner-dog-lookin' lizard perches in the middle of the road. He edges his body forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, feet stuck to the ground but body weight shifting forwards and backwards, for all the world like a car trying to rock itself out of the mud, or a kid winding up a Hot Wheels truck.


...and he's off, scurrying to the edge of the road, stubby legs appearing to pinwheel from the shoulder (hip?) as he rockets forwards...

...unaware of the giant van hurtling directly towards him.

His trajectory and that of the van's front left tire head towards an inevitable collision...

To Be Continued...


7/20/09 Moon Landing Day!

40 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while Michael Collins orbited above them in the Command Module. For the first time in the history of humanity, we stepped off our small blue planet and dared to touch the surface of another heavenly body.

The same impulse that pushed us to round the Horn of Africa and summit Everest and settle the American West and the Russian Steppe had propelled us off our world and onto another one.

By comparison, my small step across the Atlantic Ocean feels ... paltry. But the quest to know and learn and discover and hope and dream and explore...that quest lives on, in me and in millions of others.

* * *

40 years ago today, we walked on the moon. The footsteps are still there. After Apollo 11, we went back with Apollos 12, 13 (which circled the moon but didn't walk on it), 14, 15, 16, 17, and then canceled Apollo 18, because, enh, been there, done that.

In all of human history, 12 human beings have walked on a celestial body. All American. All men. All white. 24 men have seen the entire earth from space.*

Here is JFK explaining why we had to go (text here). I'd actually never heard the entire speech before; it's far better than I'd expected, setting "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard" in a context of human technological development from cavemen to the space age.

"Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation¹s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension." Why don't people talk like this anymore?

And here is the Onion's cover page from July 21, 1969, just for grins.

* Yes, of course, hundreds of men and women have seen Earth from the shuttles. But their orbit is too shallow to see the whole sphere; you only ever see an arc of the Earth, not the whole thing, hanging in space like the pale blue dot it is. Why 24? The 12 who walked on the moon, plus the six who waited in the command module for them, plus the crews of Apollos 8, 10, and 13, which also orbited the moon. But wait, you say, nine missions of three men each should be 27 men. My answer: Yes, but three men - Jim Lovell, John Young, and Gene Cernan - got to see it twice.

7/12/09 Azrou

Azrou is one of my favorite places in Morocco. It's big enough to have all the amenities I miss in my village (restaurants serving western food, shops that sell *everything*, trees) plus it's in a lovely part of the country, in the forests of Ifrane National Park, in the Middle Atlas mountains. It's close to Fes and Meknes and Ifrane (a swiss-chalet style town that rich Moroccans retreat to in the summer - it's like the Martha's Vinyard of Morocco) while being remote enough to feel cozy and intimate and just friendly.

We stayed in Azrou for several nights while visiting Ifrane National Park. There are some inns deeper in the park, but they're priced for tourists. In the Park, you can find Barbary Apes - sad, tourist-spoiled little monkeys* that will flock to you if you toss them bread - as well as gorgeous ceder forests (mostly secondary growth, but reforestation is succeeding well) and some lovely lakes. The lakes are year-round homes for several unusual species of waterfowl, and are key nesting habitat for a few endangered species, so bring your binoculars and prepare to be impressed. I think 90% of the life-birds that my Dad, an avid birder, added to his "life list" in Morocco were spotted here in Ifrane.

Lakes Aoua, Hichlat, and Ifrah are well known and mentioned in every tour book, but I want to mention Lac d’Afennourir, a RAMSAR site that doesn't get nearly as much ecotourist attention as it deserves. Like the other three, it hosts many species of waterfowl, amphibian, fish, etc, plus it's tucked farther away from agricultural and population centers, and is therefore much healthier as an ecosystem. All of the lakes are difficult (if not impossible) to access by public transportation. This is one outing where it's worth hiring a guide and/or renting a car to get around.

I want to give a quick shoutout to our Inn, the Auberge du Dernier Lion d'Atlas (The Inn of the Last Atlas Lion), for its extraordinary hospitality. The rooms are airy and clean, the food (breakfast and dinner are both available) is plentiful and yummy, and the host/owner, Aziz, is a prince. He adores Peace Corps, which would give him a special place in my heart anyway, but he's just a kind, thoughtful, genuinely helpful man. His inn is about 2km away from the Azrou bus/taxi station, but it's an easy walk or else a cheap petit taxi ride (I think 4 or 5 dh). You can find his place online at or call them at 0535561868.

* Yes, I realize, Barbary Apes are technically *not* monkeys - they don't have tails - but everybody calls them that, and it's hard to refer to such little creatures as apes. That word calls to mind gorillas and orangutans, both of which are about 10 times more massive than these little simians.


7/11/09 Nishan, continued (Rated PG-13)

After writing the previous entry, I had the word nishan on my mind. So when I found myself walking through Berberville with a close Berber friend, passing by the home of someone I’ve found … challenging, I decided to take the term out for a spin. As soon as we were out of the main thoroughfare, I turned to my friend and asked, “Is he nishan, or ifrgh?” She furrowed her brow, so I repeated my question more slowly and clearly, using hand signs. Nishan was easy enough – a bladed hand pushing directly forwards. For ifrgh, I wove my hand in a sinuous path away from me, like I was illustrating a snake or a fish in a game of charades.

She shook her head and said, “I don’t understand.”

I gave up on the idiom and said simply, “Is he a good man or a bad man?” Her forehead cleared and she gave me a look that was hard to read, before copying my handsign for ifrgh.

Then she added, “Why do you ask?”

Since I don’t know the expression for “He just seemed like it,” I settled on saying, “I believe he is ifrgh, but maybe I believed wrongly, maybe I just don’t know, so I wanted to ask you.”

She nodded emphatically. “When it comes to girls, always—” and she repeated the handsign. I nodded, too. She continued, “He has a wife, he even has daughters, but still, when it comes to unmarried women…” Her voice trailed off.

And then my very, very nishan friend, my quiet, modest, studious, nishan friend, did something completely unexpected. She curled her lips in a sneer and spat out the single word, “Asserdun! I threw my head back and laughed.

An asserdun is a mule. What Americans in a previous century would have referred to as an ass. Apparently, this is one idiom that’s just… universal.

7/10/09 Fes Medina

Disclaimer: I haven’t spent any time in the Ville Nouvelle of Fes, so really can’t speak about it. It’s a modern city, complete with McDonald’s and office buildings. Whoopdy-doo. If you come to Fes, head straight for the medina. It’s cooler than the New City in the summer, because the cramped alleys prevent much sunlight from penetrating down to street level, and warmer than the City in winter, because the close press of bodies traps lots of human warmth in the streets.

So you want to visit the north, or else you’re interested in the cultural heart of Morocco – or both. Fes feels to me like the intersection of New York City with Williamsburg. You can buy nearly anything in the cramped streets of the medina, from artisans who are practicing crafts identically to the way their great-great-grandfathers did. Skills and trade secrets have been handed down from father to son (no, sadly, almost never to a daughter) for countless generations. Countless millennia, quite likely.

Fes served as Morocco’s capital hundreds of years ago, and remains its cultural and artisanal capital today. No matter how resolved you are not to buy anything, you’ll likely find yourself seduced by the jewelry, the herbalists’ wares, the woodcrafts, or especially the leather.

Moroccan leather is internationally renowned, and with excellent reason. The tanneries of Fes have been treating and dyeing sheep, goat, kid, cow, and camel skins for thousands and thousands of years. You can get leather shoes, purses, pappasans (cushion seat things, sometimes called ottomans), and leather jackets for a fraction of what you’d pay in the US. And the quality…you can’t fake that kind of quality. We watched our eager seller threaten a scrumptious leather jacket with water and fire. No kidding. First he poured a glass of water onto it, to show that it simply beads up and runs right off (and he neatly caught it back in the glass, to show the next batch of wide-eyed shoppers). Then he struck up a lighter and held it up to a leather jacket. I wanted to throw myself between this gorgeous coat and the clearly insane man who wanted to torch it…but the leather was impervious to the flame. These guys know what they’re doing, and they guarantee your leather product – jacket, bag, etc – will last fifteen years. (Of course, I doubt anyone travels *back* to Morocco in the event her purse sustains water damage, so that guarantee might not be quite as impressive as he wanted it to sound.)

Navigating the maze-like medina is easier than it first appears. There are two major streets running almost parallel to each other – Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira. The Big Street and The Little Street. They run at a steady incline down from the Bab Bu Jeloud, the most common entry point to the medina, where you’ll find lots of inexpensive hostel-style hotels (my favorite is Hotel Cascade, 0635638442) and some moderately priced restaurants. Because Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira run steadily downhill, if you find yourself lost, all you need to do is walk out of whatever alley you’re in and find a street running uphill-downhill, then keep walking back uphill until you’re back at the Bab Bu Jeloud.

One famous Fes landmark is the Medersa Bou Inania, one of the few mosques in the country (or, for that matter, in the world) that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. For a modest entrance fee (10dh/adult), you can come in and see the gorgeous architecture and breathtaking design elements of this Merenid masterpiece. It’s easy to find – it’s at the uphill end of the Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira, which run along two of its outer walls. It’s also next to Fes’s famous Water Clock, an engineering marvel that functioned for centuries before grinding to a halt; modern engineers are trying to get it going again, but the technology is long lost.

Down a well-marked alley from the Water Clock is my favorite Fes restaurant/café, Café Clock (0535637855). Its owner, a delightfully peripatetic Brit named Mike, will cheerfully chat up any and all customers about Fes, his latest project, or the café’s upcoming events – their social calender might even surpass the menu in its array of interesting offerings. The food (and prices!) are European, which makes it a huge splurge on a Peace Corps budget, but the 90dh camel burger and 25dh smoothies are absolutely worth it. And always get the dessert special of the day – you’ll thank me later. :)

For the museum-minded and history buffs, the Armory is Fes’s must-visit. (Follow signs for the Borj Nord.) Overlooking Fes from a hill to the north - and therefore offering unparalleled panoramas - this rebuilt architectural masterpiece (inspired by Leonardo de Vinci) once defend the walled city from attackers, and now houses arms and armaments from the past millenium. It’s the most sophisticated/modern museum I’ve visited in Morocco, with the one minor drawback that all the exhibit information is in French and Arabic. But even if you can’t read either language, the swords, daggers, muskets, flintlock rifles, pistols, modern rifles, and cannons (some several meters long) make for an impressive visual display.

Because Fes is home to so many m3lims (artisans/craftsmen), some city guides will err on the side of showing you storeroom after storeroom, where these gifted craftsmen silkly turn into gifted salesmen, and suddenly this delightful city feels like an overpriced mall. Be straightforward with your guide about whether your interest is in crafts/shopping or landmarks/history (or a combination). He’s almost certainly getting a cut from every store he takes you to, so his interests and yours may not align perfectly. If you get a licensed vrai guide (pronounced vray geed, and featuring ID cards around their necks), you’ll likely get more of what you want than if you go with a faux guide (foh geed), who could be anybody trying to make money off tourists. (Didn’t you see Slumdog Millionaire?)

In short: I’ve spent more time in Fes than in any of the other Big Six cities, for the simple reason that it’s my favorite. Ancient and modern blend beautifully in this city, where you can find the oldest university on Earth and farmer’s market produce fresh-picked this morning, and everything inbetween.

7/9/9 Word of the day: Nishan

Nishan is an Arabic word meaning “straight”. You can use it in directions, as in “Drive straight down this road until you pass the cross-eyed goat.” You’ll more often hear it used to describe someone’s character.

Someone who is nishan is honorable, honest, upright, trustworthy, etc. It seems odd – and rather sad – to me that most of these words have fallen out of common usage. My favorite hanoot guy is very nishan. I rarely even do the math to figure out what I owe him; I just let him tally it up in his head or on his little hand-held calculator and then hand him the cash. I don’t even count my change. I trust him; he’s nishan. My host father, Baba, is utterly nishan. So is Fatima’s host father. If we need to do business with a man in town who’s not nishan, her host dad might accompany us or might just take care of it; that’s how good a guy he is.

The closest English idiom dates back to the 1950s or ’60s, and would be something like “straight arrow” or “straight shooter”. My dad claims that the word “square” meant something similar, before it came to be synonymous with “lame” or “loser.” The nineteenth-century equivalent would probably be “upright” or even the long-abandoned “gentleman/lady,” though that may have had more to do with class than honor.

The antonym to nishan is ifrgh, meaning “curvy”. Like most Tamazight adjectives, it can be conjugated. Tfrght means “You’re curving!” or “You’re being dishonest/deceptive/dishonorable/naughty!” I’ve taught several local children the card game known in America as “I Doubt It” or “BS”, and I always call it “tfrght”. When someone plays a card and you think they’re lying about it, you shout “Tfrght!” and they flip it over to reveal whether they’ve in fact been ifrgh or nishan.

Yesterday, I was asked to write a personal reference for a friend’s job application. They asked me to evaluate her character, honesty, integrity, etc. My first reaction was, “She’s perfectly nishan! Then I realized that I probably can’t write that in a job reference, and wondered why English doesn’t have an equivalent expression. Any suggestions, dear readers? What’s your favorite way to say that someone is nishan? (No need to give me your favorite translation of ifrgh. I’ve got plenty of those, from lying, low-down, crooked dirty snake on up.)

7/8/9 Baby Party

My new baby brother met the world Sunday night, July 5th. I spent all day Monday with Ama and the baby, greeting the dozens (hundreds?) of women who came pouring in to offer their congratulations.

A few cultural notes: it’s traditional to bring a cone of hardened sugar, almost the size of a traffic cone, to any major life event, whether birth, funeral, marriage, etc. I’m sure there’s a cultural/historical significance that I don’t understand yet, but the practical reason is that the home you’re visiting is serving *pots* of tea – tea by the gallon – which means that your hostess is burning through sugar like there’s no tomorrow. It takes about a cup of sugar to make a small pot of tea, so a big pot that can pour 20 glasses probably takes most of a cone.

It’s also traditional to bring money. Every woman who came to wish Mbruk! (Congratulations and blessings) then handed Ama a few coins, or a lot of coins, or even folding money if they can afford it. Berberville still doesn’t have much of a cash-based economy, for the most part (with hotel owners, café owners, and tour guides being the obvious exceptions), so this represents more generosity than may immediately appear.

Also, on that first day of the mother’s lying-in, it’s traditional to eat aHrir (the bastard offspring of mac&cheese and grits) by the gallon. Every woman who comes eats a bowl of it, and then everyone shares huge plates of aHrir at lunchtime and teatime. I asked why, trying to get at the cultural significance of it. “Because of the baby,” my friend patiently explained.

“Yes,” I said, fighting down the irritation at being thought an idiot yet again, “I know, but why? Why does having a baby mean everyone eats aHrir?”

“Because everyone has aHrir after a baby is born,” she answered calmly.

I decided that I’d never get at the driving cause, and let it go.

Ama spent some time that afternoon making up a list of all the women who should come to the big party celebrating the birth of the baby. She ended up with a list of 85 names of friends and relatives, and expected that they’d bring friends sisters or daughters, so anticipated feeding between 150 and 200 women and girls. She then sent out emissaries to invite all these women to a party “maybe Wednesday or Thursday”.

So that was Monday.

Tuesday, I had other things to attend to, and then today (Wednesday), my sister and I headed back to Ama’s house to see how everybody was doing. We got there around 11:45. [[For purposes of today’s blog, all times are in Old Time, since that’s the time Berberville uses.]] She said, “The party will be at 1.” At first I misunderstood, and thought she’d said, “The party will be on Sunday.” (The words sound similar.) I nodded but didn’t react much. She said, “Do you want to invite Fatima? Go ahead and call her.” Recognizing an unusual level of urgency in my usually chill host mother, I thought back over her words and realized my mistake.

“The party is today? At one o’clock?” I asked for clarification.

“Yeah, so call your friend. Or send her a text message. Whatever.”

I had to admit that I’d forgotten my phone at home, so she sent me out to deliver the news in person. “Tell her that lunch will be at 12:00 and the party at 1:00. You know ‘party’? Food, dancing, lots of women…?”

“Yes, I know what a ‘party’ is,” I reassured her. “Should we wear Moroccan clothes?”

“If you want,” she said in a tone of voice that said, “Yeah, that’d be awesome.”

So I swung by Fatima’s house to drop off the news, then returned home to dress up myself and my sister Berber-style. I own two jellabas (also called tejlabbits), both hand-tailored for me in our training city last summer. I’ve never had a tailor construct a garment for me before; it was a pretty cool experience. But jellabas are relatively untailored sorts of garments – think monk’s habit or graduation gown, and you have a pretty good idea of the style – so I hoped that one would fit her. And sure enough, a garment designed for my size-8 self fit her size-16 self just fine, lhumdullah. Maybe tailoring here isn’t as tricky as it looks. ;)

I added a scarf, then remembered how much harder it is to wrap a headscarf than the deft hands of my friends make it look. I fussed with it for a while, then surrendered and rearranged the scarf in to my favorite triple-wrap and substituted a necklace and earrings featuring the Berber representation of the sun (a tight silver-and-black spiral). [A couple hours later, my neighbor Rebha fixed the scarf for me, to my great delight.]

We picked up cones of sugar and swung by Fatima’s to get her, and headed up to the party.

There was feasting – couscous with chicken, chick peas, sultana raisins, and caramelized onions, followed by mutton and prune stew that’s way tastier than it sounds – and then dancing. Much dancing. Imagine a room the size of a large classroom or small conference room, with women lining the sides and covering the floor, sitting and clapping. An open space maybe 10 feet across is occupied by 1-5 girls and women at a time, shimmying and sashaying and generally getting their groove on. (My sister said, “See, sissy?? There IS bellydancing here!” It’s not the same as the Egyptian/Fusion style I learned in the US, but yeah, it’s sort of, kinda, well, bellydancing-ish.) I’d been on the phone with Peace Corps (who always manage to call at the most inopportune times) sat in the back of the room for a while, but was eventually identified as a sister of the baby, and called upon to shake what my mamma gave me. :) My American sister and I both went up, and I grabbed my Moroccan sister and cousin on the way, just so *somebody* would be doing it right. The four of us danced for a few minutes, and then when the music paused, I sat down.

“Are you tired?” an anxious friend asked.

“No, no,” I reassured her.

“Then dance more!” she retorted, and pushed me back up.

So I went another round or two, before leaving the floor again to women who knew better what they were doing. I keep promising myself that I’ll learn how to dance the ahay deuce way, but I haven’t kept that promise. So I kept to the sidelines, clapping and smiling. My sister and cousin (who seem to me to be the Belles of Berberville – they’re both simply beautiful, and smart and polished and skilled dancers and great cooks and generally perfect) got up and did the Berber Hair Flip* for a while, and then tied their hair back up and sat back down. At some unseen signal, everyone got to their feet, and formed the traditional ahay deuce circles of clapping, bobbing women. Not too much later, everyone grabbed their wraps and departed.

Ama and baby had spent the entire dance party in another room, resting, hearing the music but seeing none of the dancing. Which is fairly typical for Moroccan celebrations, in my experience. At weddings, for example, the bride is blinded by an opaque veil and forced to remain sitting still for the entire party.

* Berber Hair Flip – I think I’ve described this before, but since I can’t get into blogspot, I can’t check. If it turns out I haven’t, I’ll explain it. ‘Cause it’s seriously cool.


July 7, 2009 Sorry for the interruptions

Friends, I’m sorry I haven’t been a dependable correspondent lately. I’ve spent much of the past few months traveling, for work and for fun, and now blogspot is down. The current patch of posts has been emailed to a friend (so if you can see them, thank him – I can’t see my blog at all, so can’t tell if they’re up or not).

So I’m back to blogging the way I did before I had internet at home – typing stuff up in Word and then hoping it’ll get pasted into blogspot later. This will make my entries as least as clumped-together as they were last month (and with even less excuse), but, well, so be it.

And without further ado…enjoy! :)

July 7, 2009 Rhapsody on Watermelon

Nothing says SUMMER quite as much as watermelon. Specifically, sinking your teeth into a giant pink-and-green triangle, ripping out chunks of crunchy, squishy, juicy goodness, feeling the juice run down your chin until only the giant green arc, echoing the curve of your giant smile, remains.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s easy to be a fruitarian in Morocco, during the summer months. Moroccan ecosystems range from my mountain aerie, good for apples (tfaH), cherries (lHub al-maluk, which translates literally as ‘the seeds of the king’), and corn (xilu) (which is not a fruit, true, but which still contributes to my summery bliss), down through the plains, home to grapes and olives (zitoon), all the way down to the Sahara. Along the way, we grow the best oranges (limon) in the world, along with watermelon (dlaH), cantaloupe (aftix, which is green here and tastes like honeydew melon), honeydew melon (swihilu, which I can’t distinguish from aftix unless I see the rind), mangoes (mangue), avocadoes (avocat), strawberries (tut), and more than I know I’m forgetting.

And they’re all available in souq for 4-20 dh a kilo – usually 5, but avocadoes and cherries are pricier. Yes, dear readers, I get delectable, melt-in-your-mouth, vine-ripened, candy-sweet farmers’ market produce a block from my front door, for about twenty-five cents a pound.

As the teeshirts say: Life is good. :)

July 6, 2009 Miscellany: Tipping in Morocco

When I asked during stage, my Moroccan cultural instructors explained that tipping is uncommon in Morocco. Most Moroccans will leave a dirham or two for a nice restaurant, but no more.

But for non-Moroccans, that feels weird, if not rude, so tourists have introduced tipping. At this point, wait staff in most touristed cities expect it from their western clientele. Off-the-beaten-path folks will be surprised but grateful to receive any money beyond the stated price for a meal or service.

In general, my PCV friends and I leave small tips wherever we are. Of course, we live and eat cheap, but we usually leave an extra dirham after a 5dh cup of coffee, or after a 7dh plate of lentils. For tourists and travelers eating at nicer restaurants, just figure about 10%. More if it’s really excellent service, but less only if the waiter deliberately offended you. (Oh, and don’t expect him – and yes, it’s always a him – to keep your water glasses full. That really never happens.)

Also, you’ll be presented with a bill only at the zweenest, most tourist-friendly places. Everywhere else, they expect you to lounge around for an hour or two after the meal/coffee/pastry/whatever, probably ordering the odd coffee refill, and so would feel rude and presumptuous to assume that you were done as soon as you finished chewing.

You’ll pretty much have to tackle the waiter to get the check.

My PCV friends and I usually just remember what our meals cost, and leave correct change, plus
whatever tip, on the table and walk away. At some places, they expect you to walk up to the cash register (always near the door, in this case) and pay there, whenever you’re ready to leave. If the cash register is not somewhere obvious, as is usually the case, they’ll actually get indignant if you try to pay directly; they expect you to flag down (or tackle) your waiter, have him calculate your total, give him the money, and wait for your change. This can be a 10-30 minute process, which is why my buddies and I often just leave the cash and split.

July 5, 2009 IT’S A BOY!!!

My host mother, who I call Ama, has been pregnant for a loooong time now. I was the first person she told – even before her husband, and long before her far-distant sisters. :) I was sworn to secrecy for months, as Ama tried to keep the news quiet.

She’s a generously-shaped woman, and like most Berber women, she dresses in many-layered, bulky, shapeless clothing, so she could keep her growing lump hidden for a long time. She even gave up going to the hammam, preferring to bathe at home, just to prevent any sharp eyes from guessing her secret.

Eventually, maybe three months ago, she began sharing the news publicly. Ever since, I’ve been asked by friends and neighbors how she’s been doing. For the past month, the question has always been, “Is she still pregnant?”, which I guess is the Tamazight idiom for “Has she had the baby yet?”

I’ve been traveling a lot this past month, so I made Baba swear that he’d call me with the news, wherever I was. When Ama’s due date came and went, I started calling him. My vacation came to a close, and still no baby. I got back to site two days ago, and immediately went to see her. I told her of our plans to go out to the lake for the 4th, but reiterated that I’d have my phone with me – and there’s signal out at the lake, I’ve checked before – so as soon as anything happened, her husband could call me. “No, no,” she said, “You have your party.”

“NO!” I said as emphatically as I could without quite shouting. “Baba will call me, and I will come back. I paused, to make sure she was getting my seriousness. Fast.

“OK, OK,” she agreed with a smile.

But the 4th came and went, in all its celebratory fun, and still no mumu.

And then tonight, the evening of the 5th, I got the call just as I was settling down to watch a movie with my sister. I bolted to the sbitar (clinic/hospital) and discovered that the baby had already been born. Mother and child were both in good condition, lhumdulillah. I asked if there had been any problems – with a baby over two weeks overdue, I wanted reassurance – and was told both by my Berber lady friends (who were crowding the waiting room with me) and by the French-speaking doctor that there were no problems, no complications… It had been a difficult labor, but a harmonious one.

An hour or so later, we were finally allowed in to see her. Quick explanatory tangent: In Moroccan sbitars, childbirth is an activity for the laboring mother and the medical staff, and no one else. No husbands, no sisters, no friends, in the delivery room. I assume this is to keep out midwives and their “traditional birthing practices” that include things like standing on the womb to “push the baby out” and having the mother cut into the ground with a hand-held scythe to “cut the pain”. But the side effect is that everybody crowds the waiting room and the mother doesn’t have any friendly hands to hold. Ah, unintended consequences.

So anyway, we finally get in, and Ama is looking exhausted but happy, and the tiny baby is slow-broiling under the heat lamp, looking, yes, like Winston Churchill, and I’m so happy I’m crying.

Various friends and family women keep pouring in to give their congratulations. Some bring food – it’s Berber tradition for the new mother to drink fresh milk and eat soft-boiled eggs as soon as possible, so Ama choked them down.

Two or three hours after the delivery, we went home. Sbitars don’t require or even want the standard-in-America 24-hour watch. As soon as possible, you’re streeted. So two of the assembled women helped Ama to her husband’s waiting 4x4, which he eased through the dirt paths of our village. We then helped Ama onto a ponj in the prepared lying-in room, where she’ll be installed for the next week or so, greeting every woman in the village (more or less) and receiving gifts and well-wishes. She’s expected to stay sitting, reclining, or fully lying down for about a week, while all of the women in her family take care of entertaining the dozens or hundreds of visitors. (Excellent tradition, imho. New mommies *should* get to lie down for a week.)

Welcome to the world, baby brother! :D

July 4, 2009 Independence Day

In the great tradition of Election Day 2008, Thanksgiving 2008, Christmas 2008, and Inauguration Day 2009, I spent the 4th of July with a group of American friends, eating American food and having American-scale fun. :D

We celebrated not only the 233rd (I think) birthday of our country, but also the half-birthdays of Fatima and myself (since our actual birthdays fall in early January, when nobody in their right mind wants to come to our frozen mountain village) as well as the upcoming birthday of Jamal. Whenever blogspot starts working again, I’ll post some pictures. :)

The activity had originally been billed as a campout by my favorite lake, but rainy skies and early-morning plans shifted that to a walk out to the lake, followed by returning indoors and baking pizza. :)

A few of the many quotes of note:

“Frosting covers all sins.” – me, sharing patisserie secrets with Fatima

“Yeah, I used to work at Papa John’s.” – Saeed, offering to make garlic breadsticks, and inducing drool more effectively than Pavlov’s bells

“If there’s one thing better than having pizza on your birthday, it’s having secret pizza on your birthday.” – Jamal, referring to the fact that only the kitchen crew and the birthday folks got to eat the first pizza, while everyone else hung out in the living room, oblivious to our surreptitious snarfing

“It’s still only11:05 old time.” “Yeah, all of our neighbors think it’s still the Fourth of July.” “And in California, it’s only 3 in the afternoon.” “And we have apple pie. - Mina and Hiyat, chiming in with reasons for why our celebration should continue after midnight

July 3, 2009 Touristing in Rabat

Rabat is a seriously zween city. Once blogspot stops acting weird, I’ll post pictures.

Rabat’s Avenue Mohammed V is broad, palm-tree filled parkway running from a huge downtown mosque, past the conveniently-located Rabat Ville train station, all the way down through the medina to a lovely cemetery overlooking the coast. (Out of respect, though, if you want to go down to the beach, please walk around.)

It makes a wonderful stroll, especially if you time it to see the sun setting over the Atlantic and then walk back to see Rabat at night, with floodlit mosques and all the bustle of any major city’s nightlife.

If you’re looking for formal touristy things, Rabat’s on the thin side. It’s the government center, home to ministries and embassies, so doesn’t have the cultural weight of Fes or Meknes. It feels entirely European, despite the visible minority of women still choosing to dress in headscarves and jellabas. It’s a city of suits and power meetings, and it feels like it.

The two tourist-like things I’ve done in Rabat are the Archaeological Museum and the Zoo. The former is a must-see, the latter…not.

The Archaeological Museum (10dh per adult) is just a block off of Mohammed V, near the big mosque. It features the best sculptures and findings from Morocco’s Roman era, most from Volubilis but a few others from Lixus and Tangiers. You’ll also find stone tools from the dawn of humanity, and artifacts from every major era of Morocco’s long history.

The collection is limited, but excellent. The docents seem to be delighted to find people who want to hear what they have to say, cheerfully filling in for the mostly-absent signposting. (Individual artifacts are labeled, but the museum lacks the broader contextual information you’d expect to find in the British Museum or Smithsonian.) They speak Arabic and French, plus some English and a handful of other languages.

The Zoo (9dh per adult) is a few kilometers outside of town: a 35dh taxi ride or a 3.5dh bus ride, depending on your budget. :) I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. Flamingoes, Barbary lions, chimps, Barbary sheep…couldn’t wait. I always look forward to visiting zoos, and somehow manage to forget that I always find zoos depressing. Wild animals don't belong in captivity.

But some zoos do their best to create clean, inviting, homey spaces for the animals and the visiting humans. This zoo feels like its waiting for the animals to die off so it can close its doors. It has the same weary, burdened feel of the 30-year public school teacher who keeps showing up but who hasn’t taught an engaging lesson in a decade. When first constructed, the Rabat Zoo made headlines and drew crowds…but now it’s more notable for its filth, neglect, teeny cages, animal abuse, and other heartbreaking images. (Yes, abuse is a strong word. I’m not hyperbolizing: I watched one trainer scare his creatures into acting out, trying to impress us by putting on a show. I felt nauseous. The chimps have been so brutalized that the dominant male runs around shrieking like a 1950s version of King Kong.) The only redeeming characteristic was the set of Barbary lions. There are many, because the zoo is working to breed back a pure Barbary lion, by crossing the last survivors (all in captivity for decades) with an African [Savannah] lion and then crossing it back and back. The lions themselves are gorgeous and powerful and everything that lions should be...even though they're in cages the size of Barnum & Bailey cars. They have a few hours a day access to a “run”, but it's still … wrenching.

7/02/09 Moroccan Cities: The Big Six

Morocco has villages of a few households and cities of millions, and everything in between. It therefore defies broad generalizations and sweeping statements. As your faithful blogger, though, I try to describe snapshots and windows, hoping to paint the big picture Seurat-style, dot by dot.

I’ve spent most of the past year talking about my Moroccan village. Today, I’m shifting gears to introduce you to Morocco’s major cities, which I refer to as The Big Six. In no particular order, they are Rabat, Fes, Meknes, Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Agadir. If I were to expand it to The Big Seven or Eight, I’d add in Tangiers and Oujda, but I’ll keep it at six.

These cities house and/or employ the vast majority of salary-holding Moroccans. (Most farmers grow enough to feed themselves and their families, but they don’t have a cash salary, so getting real “employment” statistics is a little tricky.) Many of my fellow PCVs’ small villages are depleted in men, because most or all of the males between 15 and 75 are off in one of these cities working, coming home to their wives and families for holidays or the odd long weekend.

If you read tour book blurbs on these cities, they’ll tell you that you can visit the walled medina, which they usually translate as old city. The truth has more nuances, as it usually does. Morocco has been inhabited for most of human history. Just this year, archaeologists unearthed 80,000 year old shell-bead jewelry up in Tafoughalt, a lovely off-the-beaten-path village in the northeastern corner of Morocco.

In its millennia of history, Morocco has been home to cave dwellers and city folk, Berbers and Arabs, pagans and Jews and Christians and Muslims, and seen the entire pagent of humanity. It was part of the Roman state of Mauretania Tingitana but never part of the Ottoman Turk empire.

It has had many capital cities – including most of the Big Six, at one time or another – and most of those cities had giant stone walls around them. In an era when conquest by sword and spear was the rule, not the exception, all cities were designed to be fortresses. Within these walls, shops and houses cluster and meander, making straight streets rare and twisty alleys common. Some are paved with asphalt, more with pavingstones, and a few with only packed dirt.

When the French began to make their influence felt, back in the 19th century, they took one look at these maze-like medinas and threw up their hands in cultural surrender. Rather than venture through the giant vaulted archways of the bab gateways, they constructed their own cities, featuring broad, straight roads and spacious, modern buildings, next to them. So now the Big Six have new cities, aka Villes Nouvelles, flush against their original cities, still called medinas.

But medina means city, not old city, and in these original cities you find the heart of each of the Big Six. The Villes Nouvelles can have their palm trees and McDonald’s and villa-style homes. In the darker, shadowy (and therefore cooler) alleys of the medina you’ll find artisans creating crafts exactly the way their forefathers have done for centuries or millennia. You’ll find tiny Berber ladies, still wearing their traditional chin tattoos, haggling down to the centime. You’ll find families living in houses that have been in their families since longer than anyone’s grandfathers can remember. This crowded, noisy, bustling, thriving medina is far from being old, especially in the somewhat condescending way that tour books make old city sound like a quaint little historical tourist stop, like Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation. It’s ancient, yes, but it’s still very, very much alive. Explore and enjoy. :)

One other thing: Every city (and most towns) in Morocco have an Avenue Mohammed V, which is usually the biggest street around. But isn’t the current king Mohammed VI? you ask. Yes. Mohammed V was his grandfather. Some find this confusing, and wonder if they’re confused or if they’re misreading the signs. So why is Mohammed V - the monarch's grandpa - so beloved? From what I’ve been told, he’s the one who was removed from power by the French, in their brief attempt at formal colonialism here, and who was reinstated to huge acclaim just a few years later. He didn’t rule long before being succeeded by his son, Hassan II, but his return to power is still celebrated on Moroccan Independence Day (November 18). He’s viewed with the same nostalgic reverence as, say, George Washington, America’s first leader after colonialism. :)

July 1, 2009 Vacation Planning

Friends, I’m going to let you benefit from my recent (and past) trips all over Morocco, to help you plan your own visit to my adopted country. I’ll spend the month of July – leading up to everyone’s favorite vacation month, August – writing a travel-related post at least every other day. I’ll tell you about some of my favorite cities, some that are popular with tourists (because no, there’s not much overlap there), some information about getting around the country, etc. I’ll show photos from my own travels and those of friends, to illustrate my stories. (I’ll also borrow a few of their stories and write them in the first person, since I haven’t yet been to all of these cities, just FYI.)

Some of the topics I anticipate covering (in alphabetical order, though I probably won’t write them in this order, and this list is subject to revision/additions/deletions/whatever):

Casablanca (Dar el-Beida)
Ifrane National Park / Birding in Morocco
Laarache and Lixus
Jbel Toubkal
Kela’a Magouna
Miscellany: CASH
Miscellany: Tipping in Morocco
Moroccan Cities: The Big Six
Transportation: Grands Taxis and Tranzits
Transportation: Petits Taxis
Transportation: Trains and Buses
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