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9/17/09 Hugs & Handshakes

Here's a topic I've been meaning to address for a while...

I'm a hugger.

Always have been.

I realize that not everyone is. This is why, on the last day of school, I asked my students to say goodbye with a hug or a handshake. Their choice. Nearly everybody opted for the hug, but a few students - mostly boys - just extended a hand, which I shook warmly as I bade them farewell. I have zero desire to push physical affection on those who don't want it - I just like hugs. :)

So I find it weird that I can hug *some* of my friends here, but not all of them. As I've talked about before, in Morocco, same-gender physical affection is perfectly acceptable in public, but cross-gender PDAs are not.

This means that I can hug my female friends whenever I encounter them, or walk through the streets arm-in-arm with them, but I can't do more than shake the hand of any male friend. If we're in sight of any Moroccan, anyway. Behind closed doors - or in the highly westernized major cities - I can hug my buddies. And I do. :)

But in public, all I can do is clasp a hand and smile.

I must say, it feels odd to travel for 9-15 hours to visit a buddy (which, yes, I've done more than once) and then upon meeting up with him, exclaim, "Hey!!!" ... and then reach out and calmly shake his hand.

But handshakes aren't just for long-lost friends. Here in Morocco, I shake hands every day. It's the first bit of the greeting ritual. Every time I see someone for the first time that day, I shake their hand. It's not a hearty pumping handclasp like Americans routinely exercise; it's a gentle, almost limp, grasping and release of the fingers, followed by placing your hand over your heart. The verb for "to greet" here is slm, the root of salaam, peace, since the formal greeting begins with Salaamu alaikum, Peace be upon you. The whole action, shaking their hand, touching your heart, wishing them peace, and the rest of the complicated greeting ritual, is collectively referred to by this one word, slm.

During my recent week-long visit to America, I found it almost impossible to shake the habit of touching my heart after a handshake. It feels so natural, not only because of 18 months of practice, but also because the handshake-hearttouch combination feels so much warmer than the simple clasping of hands. I love what it represents to me, a silent indication that whoever I'm meeting is invited into my heart, the recognition that everyone is a possible new friend. If you're already friends with them, you can touch your hand to your lips instead of to your heart. It's a bit like blowing a kiss - but without the blowing part. If you're *really* close friends, you can kiss them on the cheek. The pattern of cheek-kissing varies by region. Here in Berberville, it's once on the right cheek and then twice on the left cheek. In another place I stayed, it was right-left-right. Elsewhere, it was two on the right, then two on the left.

I'm not sure *why* people here slm everyone, every time they see them again. It still feels a bit strange to shake hands with my little brothers and sisters and host dad every time I see them. When I lived with my host family, I shook everyone's hands every morning, even before I brushed my teeth. With the kids, it's very casual - almost a "low five" (like a high five but with lowered hands) followed by a halfhearted raising of the hand in the general direction of the chest or lips. But that's because they're little. Adults take it very seriously; I've been chastised for failing to slm everyone in a group. I had walked over to a friend - the only person in the group of six I'd ever seen before - and greeted her, then started chatting with her. She unsubtly reminded me to greet everyone else, which I did promptly, the blush from my faux pas coloring my cheeks as I did so.

Living in a culture so concerned with physically expressed greetings, I chafe against the fact that I can't hug my buddies in the street. I make up for it in private, at PCV gatherings, where I'm known for giving hugs at the slightest provocation. :)

'Cause I'm a hugger. And that's OK. It's not perfectly culturally appropriate, which is why I've adapted my public behaviors, but I refuse to stop being a hugger. And if that means I have to teach cheek-kissing Moroccan women how to hug, than that's what I'm gonna do. :)

9/29/09 Conversation and Changes

It's amazing what a difference a conversation can make. Even a short conversation.

This afternoon, I had two brief chats with two of my favorite Berberville folks, Ali my hanut guy and Ama. I'll leave out the greeting ritual.

Ali: Hey! You feeling better?
Kauthar: Yeah, bit by bit, I'm getting better, thanks be to God.
Ali: Thanks be to God. So what can I get for you today?
Kauthar: I'd like some eggs and butter.
Ali: How much?
Kauthar: Small butter - the one in paper [[as opposed to the plastic tub]]. And four eggs.
Ali: [gathers them, brings them back to the counter] Want a bag?
Kauthar: No, just put them in this one [offering the sack full of freshly purchased veggies].
Ali: You don't think the eggs will break?
Kauthar: No. I mean, it's possible, but I doubt it.
Ali: You doubt it?
Kauthar: Yeah, I doubt it.
Ali: That's it, you pass.
Kauthar: What?
Ali: You officially know Tamazight. 'I doubt it.' Ha!
Kauthar (laughing): Come on, 'I doubt it' isn't even Tam, it's Arabic.
Ali: Doesn't matter. You get your diploma.
Kauthar: OK, thanks a lot. :D

I walk off with a giant grin on my face. There's still waaaay more that I can't say than that I can, but I like knowing that conversations like this one have become effortless. And dude, who doesn't like compliments?

A hundred yards later, I see Baba's truck pulling in front of my door. I start to walk to the driver's side, to greet him, but then I notice Ama in the passenger seat, so I walk to that window. Again, I'll skip the greetings.

Kauthar: Where did you go?
Ama: Down to [big city down south].
Kauthar: Oh, right, you wanted to visit the doctor there.
Ama: Yes, I visited the doctor.
Kauthar: So how did it go? Are you OK?
Ama: He found a problem. I have a [disease I don't recognize the name of].
Kauthar: May God give you health.
Ama: Amen. He says I need an operation.
Kauthar (looking at Baba, switching to French): Surgery??
Baba: Yes, surgery.
Kauthar (looking at Ama, back in Tam): May God grant you health.
Ama: Amen.
Kauthar: When? When will you get the operation? [Literally: When will he cut?]
Ama: Not for a while.
Baba (overlapping): Later.
Ama: And it'll be in Springfield, at the big hospital. You should come over tomorrow, OK? Come for lunch.
Kauthar: OK, yeah, of course. See you tomorrow.
Ama: Until tomorrow, inshallah.
Kauthar: Inshallah.

They drive off, and I turn to open my door. The grin had wiped off my face as soon as I heard the word "problem", and now I walked up the stairs with a heavy step.

Two short conversations.

Two mood swings.

Welcome to the life of a PCV.


9/28/09 Buta Battles Begin...

In the spirit of documenting winter, I should note that I bought my first tank of butagaz today. I haven't fired it up yet, but I'm thinking really hard about it. It's currently looking at me, daring me to cave into the cold.

Today marked another first - the first time I bought butane from the hanut on the hill. I have my regular hanut guy, Ali, who I'm fiercely loyal to. Next door to him is Sayeed, who I'll bring my business to if Ali is busy, sold out, or otherwise unavailable. But tonight, both Ali and Sayeed's stash of butagaz tanks were ismmr. Used up. Their racks were full, yes, but of empty tanks, already traded in for the full ones.

I don't think I've explained this before. If I have, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. (Or, for that matter, scroll down and read one of my friends' blogs from the bottom right of the page.) Up here in the mountains of Morocco, butane gas is available in pressurized tanks. The smallest is about the size of a gallon of milk. There's a rarely-used medium size, comparable to a big bottle of bleach, and then there's the huge size, which is as big as a 5-year-old (if the kid were curled up in the fetal position, anyway). It's really ginormous. I use a big tank for my oven and stove; it lasts for 6-9 months, depending how much I cook. I also use a big tank for my big buta heater - the one that shoots out 4 square feet of flame constantly. That burns through in a few weeks, again depending on how much I use it. In the depths of last winter, when I hibernated in front of the heater and ran it all day, I went through a tank every two weeks. I also have a little heater, whose flame-face is only the size of an index card. That one is powered by a little gallon-of-milk-sized butane tank. Since I only use it in mild weather, it's never on for more than a few hours at a time, so the tank lasts for quite a while.

In the US, I'm most familiar with the gas that we put in cars. You pour some in, drive around for a while, then pour more in. Here, you don't get to refill your container. Because the butane gas is so highly pressurized, there's no safe way to fill a butane tank around civilians. So what you do is this: The first time you decide to purchase a buta tank, you pay a hefty deposit on the steel cannister and then pay a small amount for the butane itself. When your buta runs out, you carry the steel can back to the hanut you got it from, and trade it for a new tank. Theoretically, the hanut guy could give you back your deposit and then collect it back from you for the new tank, but that would be kinda silly. He just charges you the (really very reasonable) price for the butane inside the tank and takes your empty one off your hands. He stores it in the same locked rack as the full tanks, and waits for the return of The Buta Truck. Every week or two, The Buta Truck rolls up the mountain from The Great Buta In The Sky (seriously, I have no idea where the butane processing center is), filled to its massive capacity with full tanks of butane. The Buta Truck swaps out its full tanks for the empties now filling the ranks of the hanut guys, then heads off to another town's hanuts.

When rain, snow, sleet, hail, transportation strikes, or other problems inhibit traffic up the road from SouqTown, Berberville's supply of buta runs low. In the summer, during the transportation strike, this was annoying, but not fatal. A few people had to eat cold food for a day or two. During the vicious winters that hit my mountains, butane heat can mean the difference between life and death. (OK, Kauthar, stop being melodramatic. It means the difference between staying warm at home and going to the house of a neighbor with a woodburning stove.) It's a big deal.

So I was a little alarmed to discover tonight that both of my favorite hanut guys were buta-free. I headed up the hill - Berberville is big enough to have about half a dozen hanuts, lhumdullah - and found butane at the third hanut I tried. Theoretically, he could have demanded a deposit for the tank he gave me...but since I gave him the last tank I emptied last May (the last time I used my little heater), we just let it go. When I leave Berberville for the last time, I'll take my tanks to the hanut and collect my deposit from them. For three of the four tanks I have in my house (two big - kitchen and big buta heater - and two small - little heater and backup for little heater), this deposit was actually paid by the PCV I replaced. For the fourth, Sayeed didn't actually ask for a deposit; he just asked me to remember to return the tank when I left. Note to self: don't ask for money back on that one.

So tonight, September 28, 2009, sitting in my chilly apartment - temps - listening to a cold rain fall outside, I've decided: the moment has come. I'm lighting up.

Winter has officially begun.


9/2/09 Leaving Morocco on RyanAir

They blinked at me. They glanced at each other. With wide eyes and the reassuring tones you’d use on a crazy person, they explained slowly, “It’s not time for Sevilla yet.”

“This line is for Belgium passengers.”

Their voices overlapped as they competed to talk the psycho (me) off the ledge.

“Sevilla will check in over there.” “Later.” “You’ll need to wait.”

They acted like I’d tried to check in for my flight a month in advance, not two hours. Two hours! Exactly the window recommended and often required for international travel leaving from the US.

I took another look at the monitors. The listed flight, the flight that folks were allowed to check in for, was scheduled to depart in less than half an hour. Check-in had officially closed 20 minutes ago. I looked at the boards hanging over RyanAir’s other lines. They were for flights leaving 30 minutes after this one. There were no lines for anyone hoping to check in more than an hour before scheduled takeoff.

I nodded, picked up my Leaning Tower of Possessions, and headed in the indicated direction. Maybe 15 people lingered, loitered, chatted, and generally waited in a line-like cluster that looked no more nor less like a line than anything else I’d seen. Queuing, I have concluded, is an acquired skill that many Moroccans have yet to acquire.

I dropped my stuff and slumped against a column. I’d carried two huge backpacks across half of Morocco yesterday and half of Fes today; I wasn't picking them up again until I had a firm destination.

I pulled out my journal:

So here I sit, waiting. I awakened early this morning, visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. (Dude, I’m flying to the land of sushi and guacamole and ice cream. If that’s not Christmas morning, what is?) I’d set my alarm for 6:15, but popped up at 5:45, and decided to roll with it. Why 6:15? Back calculations: 9:40 flight to Sevilla means 7:40 check-in. Bus to the airport takes half an hour and leaves on the hour from the train station, so I have to be at the train station at 7:00. The train is ten minutes across town by petit taxi, but there aren’t many taxis around at that hour, so I should be out by 6:30. No morning shower means speedy morning routine, hence the 6:15 wakeup call. My entire morning was planned around the expectation that checking in two hours before your flight is, you know, a *good*idea*. Turns out that the good folks at RyanAir think it's a specimen of insanity. Sigh.

My morning had gone as planned. Having the extra half hour meant that I got to repack carefully and take my time, but still got out onto the street by 6:15. No taxis at the Bab Bou Jeloud, so I walked out to the main street, about two blocks away, and found one.

“SbaH lxir. MaHta l-tren, 3afak?”
Good morning. Train station, please?
“You speak Arabic?”
“No, I don’t know Arabic. I know Tamazight, and a few words of Arabic.”
“Are you fasting?”
“Yes, I’m fasting.”
“Do you pray?”
“Yes, I pray.”
“Are you Muslim?”
“No, I’m Christian.”
“Then you don’t really pray.”
“I do pray, but I don’t pray like you. I pray like my parents.”

Just another morning in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer…except that this particular morning, I’m headin’ to America! (OK, yes, heading to Sevilla, Spain. But only as a stopover en route to America.)

9/16/09 L-Abrid Ibbi Addendum (Rated PG-13 – Kiddies, stop reading)

I'm serious about the rating. This is not for children.

I used to feel irritated when the decision was made to close a road due to flooding. I figured that drivers are smart enough to know whether or not to try to cross a shallowly-flooded road, and that if they’re willing to go for it, if they know/believe that their vehicle is heavy enough to make it, then they should get to try it.

I don’t feel that anymore.

Just in the past week, there have been three major accidents, all related to floodwaters. In one, a small transit with three passengers washed entirely off the road, was swept down the river, and was never seen again. As my host mother grimly said, “They’re probably down at the dam, being eaten by fish.” Elsewhere, a bus driver overcompensated, the wheels locked up, and the whole many-ton bus flipped sideways, killing four. Just this afternoon, a transit driver did something similar, killing himself and the jumper clinging to the back. A friend of mine witnessed this one; the other two stories have spread like wildfire through the region. Four unrelated people asked if I’d heard about the washed-away transit and its 3 casualties.

In a country with as much desert as Morocco, it’s hard to see rain as anything but a blessing. Hard, but not impossible.

9/15/09 Word of the Day: Abrid

Abrid translates best as path, and works both literally and metaphorically (as path does in English). Most newbie Tam speakers are taught that it means road, which it does, but it means so much more than that.

If someone asks, “Is tsnt l-abrid?” – Do you know the path? – they mean, do you know how to get to/from here?

“Ida abrid-ns” – He went his path – means he left his wife. “Tda abrid-ns” is the equivalent – she left her husband.

The plural - “Ida ibrdan-ns” – He went his paths – means he hit the road. Left. Done gone. It can also be used as a command: “Du ibrdansh!” – Go your own roads – Get out of here!

The last week or two, I’ve heard the word most commonly in the phrase, “Ibbi l-abrid.” The path is cut. In American English, we’d say, “The road is closed.” Interestingly, though they don’t use closed when the road is impassable, they do use openanf – when the obstacle/flood/landslide/meters of snow are removed and the road is again available to use.

Lately, the roads have been closed – cut – due to flooding. As discussed before, the heavy rains have raised the rivers, and since the roads generally follow the rivers – in mountains as steep as these, river-cut valley floors are really the only places you could put a road – the roads are frequently buried under flooding water.

Places where the river twists but the road goes straight, or vice versa, are the most easily flooded. The bridges are never built very high, so rising water pours across them with little provocation.

The lowest of these bridges is only half an hour outside of Souqtown, which means that my road home gets cut off pretty regularly in inclement weather. I intended to come into Souqtown yesterday, but couldn’t, because the road had been cut (ibbi) early in the day, so no Souqtown transits drove up to Berberville, which meant that I had no way to go down from Berberville back (on their return loop). Then the rain stopped, the floodwaters receded, and the road reopened, but too late for me to have a ride down. So I came down on the earliest transit today, leaving at 4:30am (just after the dawn call to prayer). We made it through, but the driver slowed many, many times, cautiously inching the oversized van across slurries of mud, rubble, and larger stones. Once, we scraped the undercarriage of the transit on some flood-deposited boulders. The shallow bridge, right outside Souqtown, was underwater. Floodwaters poured across it, rushing and splashing, but we pushed over the 3-4 inches of water safely, and made it into town, lhumdullah.

It rained again today, though, so imkin l-abrid ad-ibbi eska – the road might be closed tomorrow. Tomorrow is the first day of our Project Design and Management Workshop; I hope our workshop attendees will be able to make it down the mountain…

2/20/09 Sexual Harassment in Morocco (Rated R)

I'm not kidding about the rating. If you're a kid or teenager, stop reading. If you don't like Rated R movies, stop reading.

The only exceptions to the statement that I've never been insulted or assaulted are of a sexual nature. I've never been explicitly threatened or mugged, though some friends have been. But I have been sexually harassed. It's usually only in bigger cities, though SouqTown isn't immune, and it most frequently takes the mostly-innocuous form of a tossed-off comment from someone walking past me. The comments are often complimentary, along the lines of "Hey, beautiful," but they're still unwelcome. And sometimes it is worse.

Are you still reading? It will get worse. Feel free to stop.

At times, the comments are incredibly sexually explicit, referring to body parts or sexual acts with vocabulary in English that isn't found in any textbook, or even in the usual set of curse words. Vocabulary from the worst kinds of pornography...and strange men use it to tell me what they'd like to do to me. Sometimes they don't use words; they'll whistle or hiss or make kissing noises in my ear as I move past them as they loiter in cafes or streetcorners or shopfronts.

Sometimes it moves beyond comments. More than once, I've noticed men masturbating while staring at me. Sometimes this happens in public cybercafes (which are frequently used to download and watch pornography), and is one reason I spend 15% of my monthly income to have internet access at home. Other times, it has happened in public, outside, on the street. Once, when we were squished in a cab, a man masturbated while rubbing his leg against mine.

That was one of the rare times when harassment reaches the point of physical contact (or "sexual assault", as it would be called in America). This contact is usually "accidental" brushing against me. I'm sure that sometimes it really is an accident. But sometimes it's not.

When men taking advantage of a crowded souq alley or packed tranzit to rub their arm across my chest or rub their genitals against me...I tell myself it's accidental, because it's better than believing the alternative. But when they deviate from their course to cross my path and make sexual contact - grabbing, pinching, groping, rubbing, fondling, you name it, it has happened - I can't make myself believe it's an accident.

Once, a man walked over to where I was trudging down the street, carrying 30 or 40 kilos of bags, and reached out to grab my breast. In the middle of the street. In the middle of my SouqTown. In the middle of a sunny afternoon. Nothing furtive, nothing that he could pretend was an accident, just a fully outstretched arm and grabbing hand, below a middle-aged face bearing the insouciant grin of a naughty schoolboy.

I could write, "Every female PCV has similar stories to tell", but it sounds too much like hyperbole. I do know many others do, because we've shared our stories.

[Update: I first wrote this on 2/20, which is why it still bears that date. I'm revising it seven months later. Rereading it, I just realized something that has changed in the past half-year: we don't share our stories as much any more. The incidents still occur - indeed, worse things have happened than those I've written about here, but they didn't happen to me, so I won't share them. But we've stopped talking about it. Mostly this is because we've realized how little point there it. We all get harassed. We all hate it. Also, we're no longer surprised by it, so the Ohmygoodnesscanyoubelievewhatjusthappenedtome element has faded. Furthermore, talking about it just keeps our attention on it, when we'd rather just move on. In addition, any conversation in mixed-gender settings devolves into blaming the victim, to some degree. What were you wearing? What time of day was it? Why are you so negative? Do you hate all men? All Moroccan men? Are you racist? Should you just leave Morocco and go back to America? So we don't talk about it any more.]

Sexual harassment is a broad and deep problem in Morocco. According to the previous Country Director, it was cited by every ET-ing female PCV as one of the factors driving her out of the country. Every. Single. One. Those of us who stay have different coping strategies. One friend gives vicious stares to every man who bothers her. Another takes a moment to pray, "May God grant you the wisdom to change." Another locks her eyes on the dirt five feet in front of her shoes, to avoid seeing the looks directed her way. Another strips off her clothes and walks around her walled courtyard naked, shouting, "It's MY BODY, GODDAMMIT!" until she feels better. Another acts vaguely dismissive until she's home alone, then curls up and cries.

The government has started making noise about the ubiquitous sexual harassment. Cynics claim that it's because it drives away tourists, and further claim that Marrakesh rarely gets repeat visitors. (Where they get this statistic from, I have no idea, but I can vouch for the volume of harassment that foreign women receive there.) Optimists point to the King's excellent track record with gender issues, notably his support for the moudawana - the new laws protecting the rights of women and girls, and say that a new era is dawning in Morocco. Pessimists point out how little enforcement the moudawana provisions get. Even judges routinely grant waivers that set aside these protections.

Optimism and pessimism aside, Morocco is my home now. So I'll continue to live here, and work here, and hope, here.

Related post here.
Highly recommended discussion of these issues by friend here.


9/21/09 Spring - er, Fall - Cleaning

Happy First Day of Fall!

When I woke up this morning, my house looked like it had been hit by a tornado.

I was OK with this. I'm generally immune to the state of my surroundings, which is how they had turned tornado-esque in the first place.

In addition to the usual role of entropy, there were the complicating factors that (1) I returned about 36 hours ago from a whirlwind tour of the countryside, during which I successfully retrieved my sack from Marrakesh; (2) I'd unpacked said sack, but that consisted of pulling everything out and leaving it in a pile; (3) my crazy Ramadan/insomniac/jetlagged sleep schedule meant that I kept snacking all night and then sleeping through the hours that the water is on (~8-11ish), so the dishes were piling up; and (4) I really and truly don't care if I'm in a messy house.

I've had big plans for cleaning, mostly because I have something like 20 visitors coming this week, for Berberville's annual festival.

But they won't be here till Thursday, so I wasn't feeling any particular rush on the cleaning.

And then.

I popped up this morning around 8. I scraped off the henna I'd painted on last night, then decided to celebrate the end of Ramadan by making myself a pot of tea. (Consuming a beverage during daylight hours! What decadence!) I brewed up some yummy green jasmine tea, poured a big cup, and checked my email.

And then the anklebiter squad attacked.

They banged on my door. I looked down at myself. Lately, I've been using long underwear as PJs, so I was in skintight black from neck to wrist to ankle. Covered? Yes. Modest? Um, no. I wondered if I could pretend not to be here. I hadn't responded...maybe they'd gone away???

They banged again. So much for that.

I hollered, "Who is it?" while pulling on jeans and a fleece.

I heard an indignant, "It's me!" waft up from the door. Yeah, helpful. But "me" was clearly a female child, so I figured that there was no harm in opening the door.

Waiting outside were three shiny faces, none over a meter off the ground.


Cute little-girl anklebiters, but still.

One was my little sister, one was her neighbor, and the third I'd never seen before. They explained that they'd been sent to bring me to my host family's house, for l-3id.

Mindful of the tornado-esque state of my house, I told them to wait at the door while I got ready.

That worked for about 90 seconds, and then they let themselves in.

I grimaced to myself as they took in the messy state of affairs. Yeah, I was going to get ratted out to three different families for being the worst housekeeper in Berberville.

I finished getting dressed (which included flashing them, since one side effect of the crazy unpacking is that all my shirts were in the front hall - it's amazing what you can not-notice when you live alone), then packed up all the presents I was bringing my host family for the 3id, and off we went.

[More on the 3id itself will be posted tomorrow or Wednesday, inshallah.]

Fast-forward eight hours. At 12:30ish, as we were finishing lunch, Ama announced that she'd be coming over to my house for tea. "Around 4," she added helpfully.

I thought about the tornado.

"OK," I said with a show of enthusiasm, "You're always welcome."

As I walked home, I laid out my plan of attack. First the front stairs - create a good first impression. (Emergency Cleaning Tip #1: First impressions are key.) Then the front hall - ditto. Then sweep out the living room and living room and kitchen, then scrub them all.

Sounded manageable. I had 3 and a half hours, after all.

I opened my front door and looked at my stairs, aka Kauthar's Storage Shed. Over the months, I've accumulated all manner of useful things in my stairs...none of which really belong there. My bike, which has accumulated dust since its tire went flat. I keep telling myself I'll take it to the mechanic and get the tire patched, but keep putting it off. Buckets of paint and painting supplies from our muraling projects. Shovels and picks from the tree-planting. Boots and shoes, 'cause hey, this is where the muddy outside transitions into My House.

I started by tackling the bike. I filled a bucket of water and began rinsing it down. No point in bringing it upstairs covered in an inch of dust. (Not that it's really been *that* long, it's just that there's a 1'x2' opening above my door, so every passing truck that throws up a cloud of dust adds another layer onto the bike...and everything else in my staircase. Note to self: Kauthar's Storage Shed needs to relocate somewhere that doesn't breed dust quite this quickly.)

While the bike dripped dry, I started schlepping the picks, shovels, and buckets upstairs. After a moment's consideration, I put everything in my roof staircase. Those are *much* less frequently used than my front stairs (by anyone but me, anyway), so a much better choice for a storage site. (Emergency Cleaning Tip #2: If nobody sees it, it doesn't count as dirty.)

Once the stairs were cleared out, I realized that I couldn't roll the bike into the front room until the front room was itself cleared out. So I started on that.

About half of the stuff I'd unpacked from my rescued Marrakesh sack was food. Wonderful, delicious, happiness-inducing food. Some uniquely American, like dried cranberries and blueberries and maple syrup...some Asian but readily available in America (and NOT in Morocco), like wasabi and seaweed and four kinds of Thai curry paste...and some serendipitous Whole Foods discoveries, like a kilo each of brown rice and brown jasmine rice and granola (all of which I have MISSED but hadn't thought to put on my American Shopping List).

So I transported the food into the kitchen...which drew attention to how much the kitchen needed cleaning. It's usually the cleanest room in my house - I have no problem with untidiness, but I can't cook in a dirty kitchen - so once I cleared out the dishes and made a note to wipe down the counters (the water was still on! At 1pm! Lhumdullah!), I started organizing my foodstuffs into tupperwares. The brown rice went into empty peanut butter jars...the granola went into two matching small tupperwares (since the big ones were all in use)...etc, etc.

Once they were packaged, I started wiping down the counters - and heard a banging on the door.

Deja vu...again, my first reaction was to check what I was wearing.

For l-3id, I'd dressed in several layers of clothing...but to clean, I'd stripped most of them off. No point in getting dusty bike mess on my pretty 3id clothes, right?

So I was in long johns and a short-sleeved T-shirt.


I ran to my room and threw on some pants while calling, "Who is it?" I heard my sitemate's voice come up the stairs and realized that I didn't have to worry about covering the T-shirt. :)

"Fatima" opened the door and stared at my newly emptied stairs. After saying appropriately enthusiastic things, she asked, "What brings on this sudden burst of cleaning?"

I explained about Ama's impending visit. She understood immediately.

Also, as I've mentioned before, Fatima is something of a domestic goddess. She actually *likes* cleaning. Her house stays spotless. She empties every room at least once a month, to scrub the floors. She's kind of amazing.

I immediately turned the kitchen over to her, and went to tackle the front hall. Most of the clothes from the sack got tossed into my room. (Emergency Cleaning Tip #3: Pick one room that is PRIVATE and throw everything in there that you don't want people to see. Remember Tip #2 - It ain't dirty if they don't know.) A bigger problem was the storage boxes that have been sitting in the corner of my front room since, oh, last fall?

Yeah, this part made me feel smart.

See, I had two problems, and I'd figured out how to make them solve each other. :D

Problem 1: Unsightly storage boxes cluttering up my front room. Problem 2: I don't have a coffee table in my living room, which means there's nowhere to serve tea. I have a huge table in my kitchen, where it serves as extra storage space and counter space, but that doesn't help with the tea thing. Moroccans expect tables to be about a foot high, anyway, so the huge table would just be weird in my living room. (See, my PCV buddies and I generally just eat off our laps in my living room. So I haven't really missed having a table in the 3 months since Mina came to claim hers back from me.)

Solution? Put the boxes under a cloth in the middle of the living room. Presto-chango: Coffee table. :D

But before I could magick up a coffee table, I'd need to prepare the living room for it.

Which means sweeping and scrubbing the floor.

I started sweeping, then lifted up the ajertil (plastic rug...sort of) to sweep under it...and saw something unexpected.

The ajertil replicates straw-woven mats used in Morocco since time immemorial, so it has a lovely woven diamond pattern. What had never occurred to me was that woven plastic and solid sheets of plastic are Not The Same. Woven plastic has about a bajillion holes in it...and the dust that pours through my windows every dry afternoon has been sifting through my ajertil onto the cement floor beneath.

When I clean - which admittedly isn't very frequently - I just sweep the top of the ajertil and call it a day. Shamed by Fatima's example, I've been *meaning* to take out all the furniture and the ajertil and scrub the floor...but yeah, that hasn't happened.

Looking underneath it, I saw a lovely pattern of diamond-shaped DUST. The reddish-brown grains that coat every road and hillside in my lovely Berberville were piled, a good 2-3 millimeters deep, under Every Single Crevice of my woven plastic mat.

After taking a moment to reflect (and remind myself why it was worth it), I dove in. I stripped the blankets off the ponjs, the twin-mattress-like-giant-cushions that we use as sofas here. The blankets got trekked up to the roof to air out. Then I flipped the ponjs themselves on end and leaned them against the back wall. Since they weigh as much as a typical twin mattress, this took some doing. But it happened. I felt very Rosie-the-Riveter-esque. :)

Then I folded up the ajertil and carried it up to the roof, shook it out over the edge, then draped it across multiple clotheslines to maximize sun exposure (as I'd done with the blankets - my cobweb of clotheslines is handy for so many things!), beat it for a minute, and finally came back down to face the patterns of dust.

And then there was sweeping, and it behold, was very good. And then what I've been calling "scrubbing", but which I should clarify. There's a tool here called a sioq, which is basically a squeegee's impressive line-backer of a big brother. (You know, a squeegee. Those things you use to wipe off the walls of your shower, or that the guy who washes your windshield at a stoplight of those.) The sioq blade is probably half a meter long, and it's on a broom-handle sized pole, so you can use it to wipe your floor. I call it sioqing, in my own personal Tam-glish [Tamazight + English] blend. (Oh, and yes, sioq is both a verb and a noun here.) The concept is simple: once the chunky grime is removed (crumbs, dead insect bodies, whatever), splash some water around, then use the sioq to (1) push the water over every square inch of the floor, and then (2) scrape the floor clean.

Most Moroccan women sioq their floors at least once a day, and the houses are built for it: the cement floors slope downwards towards an open door or else a drain. My house was built wrongly for it. The only drain in my entire second-story apartment feeds to a drainpipe that slopes upwards for a short ways. So pushing water into it is Sisyphean, to say the least. That's the main reason I don't sioq my floor more often. Today, I avoided that drain entirely, and just pushed the water out my door, down my freshly-emptied front stairs. (Since the house is sloped towards the drain, in the opposite corner of the house from the stairs, it's still challenging, but not impossible. Watching dirty water pour back out of a drainpipe is way more disheartening.)

Once the kitchen, living room, and front room had all been sioqed, I had to pause to let them dry. So I went up to the roof and began beating things. I beat the blankets; I beat the ajertil ; I beat my pretty rug (purchased in Essaouira, one of my favoritest Moroccan cities); I just hit things for a good ten minutes, and watched the dust float away in the light breeze of the sunny afternoon. (By the way, today was the warmest, prettiest day we've had in weeks. If it were rainy and cold and wretched, my floors would probably *still* be wet, and nothing would have aired out on the roof. As it is, today was perfect spring cleaning weather. Fall cleaning weather. Whatever.)

I came back downstairs and checked the status of the floors. Dry already, lhumdullah. I checked the time: almost 3. An hour left till Ama arrived, with whatever entourage.

I beat the ajertil a few more times, then folded it up (it fills my airy living room from edge to edge, so is something like 16 square meters, and therefore can't be carried in any simple way). I laid it out in my living room, adjusting as necessary, then dropped the ponjs back down. (I flipped 'em and switched 'em, too, just on general principles.) Then back up to the roof for the blankets. These got draped across the ponjs, as is traditional here: it keeps the ponj itself clean (since those things are nearly impossible to clean), plus it's available for warmth as needed. :)

Then I got to implement the final step of my clever plan: bringing the front hall boxes into the middle of the room and draping them into passing for a table. The boxes had been shunted this way and that during the cleaning, ultimately perching precariously in the bathroom. But now....their moment of glory. I set them up in the middle of the living room, then draped my favorite lap blanket over them. OK, it looks like something out of a dorm room, but hey, it works. Mostly. There's a noticeable gap between the two boxes, whose sides bulge outwards from age and overpacking and, um, being stacked on top of each other for about a year.

I applied some MacGuyver logic, and realized that all I needed was a strong, flat surface to lie across them. I considered and ruled out: tea tray (needed to serve the tea to Ama et al), cookie sheet (not big enough), sleeping bag groundpad (too big), and then I found it. The box for my beloved giant butane heater, folded up and shoved against the back wall of my bedroom last November. It's just the right size, and plenty strong. It lay flat across the top of the other two boxes, with just enough room that the draped blanket hung smoothly down, and didn't get pooched out by the lumpy boxes. Victory!

I added a chubby candle atop my makeshift table (strengthening the illusion), replaced the pretty Essaouira blanket, tossed the throw pillows (which had themselves been beaten within an inch of their padded lives), and gave the living room my benediction.

The house was sparkly clean, the tea guests weren't coming for, oh, at least ten minutes, and for the first time in weeks, I had a home I could proudly bring guests to.

I don't care which equinox it is today, this counts as a successful Spring Cleaning. :D

9/19/09 Insomnia

A few people have noticed me referring to insomnia on Facebook, and been asking about it, so here's my answer for you all:

Firstly, sorry for worrying you. One side effect of sleep deprivation, at least for me, is that I tend to lose my "filter", and just share freely whatever is on my mind, without much thought for consequences. If I'd thought about it more, I wouldn't have brought it up.

But to answer the question - why is Kauthar awake at 4am?

Honestly, I've been struggling since my return from America. Lots of medium-sized things piled together to become big, hairy, fanged things. So perfectly ordinary concerns, like organizing workshops and trainings, combine with questions of what I'll be doing when I finish my service (a question I was peppered with in America, and which is therefore weighing more heavily than it did before). Then some personal issues came up, in part stemming from conversations in the US, and in part just unburying some old baggage, and that help keep me up at nights.

And of course, factor in the jet lag; I just spent a week living 8 hours behind Moroccan time. :)

The time-slip is exacerbated by Ramadan, which I'm observing here in Morocco. The requirement that you only eat when it's dark out means that many people stay up much of the night, just to space out our chances to inhale some calories. ("OK, it's 8pm and I just finished my first meal in 16 hours. I probably shouldn't consume 2000 calories at a single sitting - though after all those cookies, I feel like I might have - so I should eat again in a few hours. I might as well stay up till midnight and have a real meal." "Well, now it's midnight, and I just ate dinner. I could go to bed and then wake myself up at 3:30am to make breakfast, but maybe I should just stay up till 2 and eat something then, and then sleep through the morning." "Whoops, I got caught up in [whatever] and forgot to eat at 2, but it's 3 now, so I'll go ahead and make some pancakes." And suddenly it's 4am.)

So between the stressing and the eating and the jetlag, I'm not getting normal amounts of sleep. Hopefully this will change soon.

[9/21 Epilogue: I'm doing better. I got so tired that I literally swayed as I walked down the street, but the cumulative exhaustion finally knocked me out and let me get many, many hours of sleep in a row. I'm now reapproaching a normal sleep schedule; the end of Ramadan and its midnight dinners should help, too. Last night I slept from 11pm till 8am, lhumdullah. Tonight I hope to do the same. Many, many thanks to all who expressed love and concern.]

9/20/09 Mbruk l'3id!

Today was the last day of Ramadan. Until last night, nobody was sure whether or not today would be the 3id, the Festival marking the end of the holy month. It all depends on whether or not certain holy men can make out the sliver of the newborn moon. If they see it, and know that a new month has begun, they announce the 3id. If they don't see it, they don't make the call, and we fast for one more day.

The latter happened last night - I suspect the heavy clouds might have hindered the moon-spotting, but that's just a guess - so today we got one last day to fast.

That meant that tonight was my last l-ftor, my final fast-breaking sunset meal.

My host family served bread, dates, juice, shebbekia, tea, and harira - all the traditional foods, but didn't have any fatbread since the oven is on the blink. Ah, fatbread. I'll miss you.

Last year, I spent the night before an 3id at my host family's house. I think it was 3id l-Adha, not 3id l-Ftor, but I don't actually remember. Might have been both.

Ama wanted me to do the same again tonight, but I resisted. "You want to put henna on your hands for the 3id, right?" she asked.

"Yes, of course."

"So why don't you stay here tonight. I'll put on the henna and you can just fall asleep here." I smiled faintly. She pressed on, "Once you have henna on your hands, you can't open your door or take off your clothes or anything." I nodded. Anyone who's had henna, or even anyone with a good imagination, understands how having mud-coated hands makes all sorts of tasks practically impossible. "So maybe you should stay here tonight," she concluded.

I shrugged and said, "Maybe."

"Or, of course, you could go home. I could put some henna in a bowl for you and you could put it on yourself."

I nodded. "That sounds like a good idea."

"Or you could stay here. Your room is ready, you could just sleep here in your nice bed."

I shrugged again. "Or I could go home, with a bowl of henna."

"Right, you could go home. I could fix you a bowl of henna, no problem. That would be fine. They're both fine. Whatever you want is fine. But you know, if you want, you could stay here."

"I think it makes more sense to go home."

"Right, or you could stay here. I'd put henna on your hands, you could just fall asleep..."

"Yeah, or I could go home."

"Whatever you want is fine. It's all the same to me. But you could stay here, if you want."

"Or I could go home."

"Whatever you want. It's your choice. I don't care. But, you know, you could stay here."

And on. And on. And on. I could have caved, but I really did want to go home. I didn't have any clean clothes (or toothbrush or contact stuff or, y'know, *anything*) with me. Plus, I had big plans for emailing and such.

Ultimately, she did prepare henna for me - dried henna + water + a splash of tea, mixed till it reaches the right consistency - and hand me the bowl. She reminded me repeatedly to put it on, let it dry, then wrap my hands before bed. I promised her I would, and headed home.

After taking care of my computer-related needs, I changed into PJs, took care of teethbrushing/contacts/etc, made sure I didn't need my hands for *anything*else*, and then slathered it on. Turns out applying henna is harder than it looks, especially if you're trying to get a mostly-even layer (so the resulting orange stain will be equally dark across your whole hand). I thought I'd finished when I remembered my fingernails. The traditional henna look should cover your entire palm, fingertips, and fingernails. So I buried my fingers half an inch or so into the bowl, re-evened-out the layer of henna mud, and then entertained myself for an hour while waiting for them to dry. (Read: Watched DVDs on my laptop, using my nose and elbow to work the controls.) Then I wrapped myself up in plastic and crawled carefully into bed.

Visions of cookies dancing in my head...

Mbruk l-3id, everyone! :D


9/14/09 How Does My Host Family Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways...

My host family is the best. I know many Volunteers would say the same, but just check this out:

[Quick background: I planned to go into SouqTown today, so I stopped by my host family's house to let them know not to expect me for lfdor. The transit never showed up, though, so I went home, un-padlocked my door (hanging the open padlock on the doorknob), dropped off my backpack, and then headed over to Fatima's house until 6pm, at which point I headed back to the host fam for lfdor.]

(1) As I walk up to the house, my 10-year-old brother (Bro #2) spots me and runs inside to tell Ama. She comes out, waves at me, then goes back in. My 7-year-old sister comes barreling out of the house like a heat-seeking missile and throws herself into the air, trusting me to catch her. Which I do, and then carry her back to the door.

(2) My favorite little missile asks me if there's been any news about my truant sack. I explain that it has been found, and that I'm heading to Marrakesh in a few days to pick it up. She runs inside, shouting, "They found her bag! They found her bag!" Ama comes out, calling, "Lhumdullah!"

(3) My 12-year-old brother (Bro #1) calls, "Hey, I got the lock from your door," as he saunters past, too cool for, y'know, actual dialogue or anything. Ama explains: The boys saw some kids hanging around my front door, speculating that they could steal my padlock. Bro #1 yelled at them to leave my door alone. Bro #2 added, "That's my sister's lock!" They both believed that I was off to SouqTown for the week. Bro #1 then snagged the padlock and carried it home. Ama told him that he should have just padlocked the door, but he replied that just in case someone was inside - like my sitemate, for example, who has keys to my house - he didn't want to trap them.

[Fast forward half an hour]

(4) Ama makes tea, because she knows I don't drink coffee.

(4) She grins as she hands me a slice of fatbread, saying, "Here's my pizza." (The last time I'd eaten her fatbread - which is completely delicious, by the way - I'd called it "Moroccan pizza". Just an offhand comment, but she remembered!) Then she invites me to come over and show her how to make American pizza. That'll be a good time...

(5) She tells a visiting friend (her sister-in-law's mother, to be precise) a funny story about me, designed to make me look caring and witty. Since I'm pretty sure Ama thinks I rode the short bus, this was a deliberate kindness on her part.

(6) As soon as I finish, she hands me my favoritest baby. I bounce him on my knees, talk babytalk, feed him a bottle, and generally bliss out.

(7) He gives me a present he made all by himself. (Read: The two-month-old peed on me. Enh, I walk through worse every day.)

(8) Baba goes totally baby-crazy over his son, too. He's usually reserved, so it's really adorable to watch.

(9) When I was ready to leave, she drafted Bro #1 to walk me home. It turned out that Baba had already gone to get his truck to drive me home. It's only a few blocks, but they just want to have my back. :)

(10) And before I could make it out the door, Ama urged me to take more food, to eat later tonight. Both my moms show love through cooking. :)

...So, yeah, I've got the greatest host family ever. Alhumdulillah!

9/13/09 The Saga of the Sack

Note for Americans and other aliens: The French word for "backpack" is "sac-a-dos", so the Darija word for backpack, adopted from the French, is "sac", which sounds exactly like the English "sack". I've therefore fallen into the habit of referring to my hiking pack as my "sack", when talking to Moroccans or Americans.

Once upon a time, some nice folks at Kelty(TM) sewed together nylon and rayon and other tough, water-resistant, synthetic fibers to make a backpack. It was a massive, internal-frame pack, with a heavily padded back and shoulder straps, dozens of places to attach water bottles, sleeping bags, hiking boots, and nearly anything else, plus more heavy-gauge straps than any three bags really need. This thing was built to last and to lead a rugged life.

And it did.

The sack bounced along in a shipping truck to St. Louis, which made it feel vaguely ashamed - surely sacks aren't meant to travel by truck?? - but it brightened right up when it moved into its new home at the outdoor gear store. It had lots of sacks to talk with and trade stories (though so far, none had a good story to tell), plus sleeping bags and other camping gear, who told some really high-quality campfire tales.

Eventually, the sack found a home, with a nice family. They took it to Costa Rica, which made the little sack swell with pride. It trekked up and down volcanic terrains and through rainforests. It returned to St. Louis stuffed with lovely memories of its adventures, plus all the new stories it had heard from the other backpacks piled into the oversized baggage section of the airplane, en route to Central America.

Not long thereafter, the sack got to walk part of the Appalachian Trail. This proved to be an *excellent* opportunity to trade gossip with other hiking packs, since most of the gear was stashed together each night, while the people sat around the fire and swapped stories of their own.

After that, the sack's life quieted down somewhat. Over time, quietly gathering dust, it began to feel a bit forlorn. Fortunately, its family had *lots* of members, and the sack found itself being transferred from the tallest one to the second tallest one, who promptly stuffed it swollen and flew it to Morocco.

In Morocco, it returned to the quiet life; its new little sister, a featherweight pack, got to go on all of their new person's trips.

Many, many months after it arrived in Morocco, it found itself lent to a friend of its tall person. This shorter person carried it to Ireland, where the sack polished up its story-telling skills (it didn't hurt that the new person took it to the Blarney Stone) and remembered its glory days of hiking and starlit nights near campfires.

The sack returned to Morocco for only a few days before being repacked. It felt a bit confused as to its new contents - there seemed to be an awful lot of hard, lumpy objects, and very little of anything that felt like clothing or food - but when its tall person carried it off to the airport, it felt very important indeed.

The sack bounced through several major European capitals before traveling to San Francisco, where all its lumpy contents - lanterns, instruments, jewelry, scarves, and woven objects - were displayed during a talk about Morocco. The sack leaned against a wall, listening to the presentation. It wanted to make a few points of its own, about the quality of storage spaces on buses and in transits, but decided to wait for a more opportune moment.

The sack soon found itself repacked, this time with what it found more suitable contents: clothing, food, polar fleeces, and other vital items. Some of these would stay with his person; others would be given to friends. The sack slipped into the baggage space under the 777, flying from San Francisco to Europe, feeling very important indeed.

Its person made two quick connections in Europe before ending up in Sevilla, Spain. The sack had a somewhat different itinerary.

Just how different, it is still keeping to itself. Someday, it may share the journey it took during its five days of freedom...but for now, all its person knows is that it found its way to Sevilla after she had left, and that despite protestations from the good people at Air Berlin that it would be shipped to her home in Berberville, it instead came to rest at the airport in Marrakesh, where it will sit until the floodwaters abate and her work level calms down to the point where she can take the cross-country trek to retrieve it.

So now, the sack sits quietly, in a dark room marked LOST BAGS, waiting for its person to bring it home in preparation for its next adventure...

9/12/09 Really? Already?

For all the whining I did last winter, there's a lot I didn't record. Like When's the first time you wore long underwear? Or What day did you first fire up your butagaz heater? In fact, I don't remember if I used my little buta heater (inherited from my predecessor) before splurging on my huge, mamba-jamba heater in November. I think I just spent a lot of time wearing coats inside.

So this year, I'm going to document this stuff.

Why bring it up so soon? After all, it's only September - not even Fall yet, technically.

Yeah, but I'm already wearing long underwear. After shivering for over 12 hours straight on Thursday, 9/10, I came home and poured myself into some CuddleDuds(TM). I haven't broken out the polar fleece yet, but I've been wearing sweats over long underwear, with SmartWool(TM) socks, for two days.

(By the way, if CuddleDuds and/or SmartWool want to sponsor this blog, contact me here. Or if you make a competitor product and are willing to send me free stuff, I'm happy to plug you, too.)

Also, this morning, I heated water in a kettle before using it to do the dishes or laundry.

For the record, it's not *that* cold yet. According to my handy-dandy indoor-outdoor thermometer, it's 52 outside and 59 inside. The water temperature is probably somewhere inbetween those two. But it's cold *enough* that long underwear and preheated water make a nice contribution. I could Stoic it out a little longer - that's why I didn't buy a heater till November last year - but what's the point, really? Why be miserable to prove that I Can Take It, when a few small concessions will keep me comfy?

In fact, now that the endless rain has, um, ended (for now), it's gorgeously sunny outside, which means that it feels like 75. It still feels like 59 inside, which is why I'm signing off now. Time to enjoy the fall sun. :)


9/1/09 Sharing Morocco with America

The longest August 31st of my life finally ended. It was literally something over 33 hours long, but I'm not sure exactly how long because I changed time zones so many times...I woke up in Seville at 5:30, then flew east, then west across ... nine? ... time zones to California.

After sleeping for 11 or so hours, I woke up into a bright San Francisco day.

That night, around 9pm, I gave a presentation to a moderately-sized crowd of my sister's friends and colleagues (plus my parents! Hi, Mom and Dad!). I showed off the dozens of souvenirs I'd brought back with me, plus gave a powerpoint presentation. I'd be happy to share it with y'all, but haven't yet figured out how to do that. (I successfully saved it as a website, but since it's still only hosted on my hard drive, no one else can see it. Any advice, internet-savvy friends?)

The audience asked lots of great questions, laughed in all the right places, and hopefully left with a better understanding of Morocco than they'd arrived with. Score one for Goal 3! :)

8/30/09 Snapshot: Sevilla Street Music

From my conveniently-pocket-sized-journal:

It must be past 10, but I haven't noticed the bells lately, so don't know the actual time. I'm reclining against a column on the stairs of some government building that faces The Cathedral. The buildings reach towards each other as the street narrows here, creating a man-made canyon, an acoustic playground that a flamenco guitar artist is exploiting to the joy of the dozen of us sitting on these steps like the risers at a concert.

The humidity I noticed earlier - not a bath like Houston or a sauna like St. Louis, but still noticeable to someone who has spent a year and a half in mountains and deserts - keeps the night air warm. It's probably 80ish, warm enough that I'm glad to be sleeveless, but not hot enough to be uncomfortable. Rather perfect, really, especially now that a faint breeze has skipped in to toss the hairs that escaped from my ponytail.

The guitarist's fingers dance over the strings, quicker than ballet, rhythmic and dynamic and forceful and subtle and decisive and suggestive and stubborn and teasing and cajoling...

While enjoying the multihued bliss of my dinner, I compared it to a symphony. Now I'm comparing music to wine (the way wine snobs write about it, anyway)...

The music drew me here from my post-dinner perambulations. The acoustics of this smooth-walled chasm amplify his music far beyond the electronic amplifier he also uses. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a concert in the park so much.

But now he's putting away his instrument, so I'll put away my pen and see what else is stirring the Sevilla air tonight...

8/30/09 Snapshot: Tapas de Sevilla

This is for you, my foodie friend. You know who you are.

I ate at the Horno de San Buenaventura at 16 Avenida de la Constitucion, +954221819.

Overwhelmed by the tapas offerings, I took a combination plate featuring
Sherry-braised pork loin (mmmmmmmm...)
Potato salad with prawns (picnicking goes gourmet)
Cured ham (aaaahhh...)
Aged cheddar (ohhhhhhhhh...)

Remember the scene in Ratatouille where Remy the gourmet rat pairs two wonderful foods (I believe a strawberry and cheese)? How each one is rhapsodically delightful by itself, but when he combined them, it opened new possibilities for gustatory ecstasy? Yeah, eating the braised pork loin wrapped around the aged cheddar - the first hard cheese I've eaten in 18 months that's not redball gouda - was like that. It made me think of an orchestra: as much as I love the rich, dark sound of a cello, no single instrument can match the magic that comes from adding winds and brasses and drums into a swirling symphony. The whole really can be greater than the sum of the parts.

So I wrapped pork loin around cheese, then added cured ham on top, then ate a bite with all four piled together... Turns out there's no wrong way to eat tapas. And lots of right ways. Lots and lots and lots of blissfully right ways...


8/30/09 Snapshot: Giralda Tower in Seville

Journal entry from the foot of Giralda Tower:

Sitting on the edge of an enormous fountain at the foot of the Cathedral's massive tower. The Tower that used to be a minaret, when this biggest cathedral in the world was one of the biggest mosques in the world. (The biggest mosque? Then? Now? I wonder...)

Bought this tiny journal for 3 Euros in a Cathedral gift shop, both because I liked it and because I was hungry to do exactly this: sit on the street and write.

Looking at this mosque-turned-cathedral, I see now that you can't possibly understand southern Spain without understanding Morocco. But vice-versa? And how many other examples of crossfertilization speckle the European/NorthAfrican/MiddleEastern landscape?

For that matter, when did this building get its flying buttresses? Who gets the credit for that stroke of engineering genius?

Closer to the tower - just meters from its base - wait five horse-drawn carriages. Quaint, picturesque...and saddening, as I watch the horses stomp and stretch and shake and shudder and generally chafe against their blindered, harnessed, immobile parade rest.

...while above them soar stones who have rested for centuries. Think of that - this jam3/Cathedral draws close to its millenial anniversary. It was old when knights were young.

Sultry, rich, muffled *DONG*s clang out 8pm. Now a higher-toned bell from another tower. Now a tenor submits his entry to the timekeeping competition.

The sun edges towards the horizon, already so low that the cathedral's shadow covers the courtyard, and the western wall of the building behind me glows golden in the rich light.

[Slightly later]

I found a photo book about Seville. I successfully resisted buying it - though it tempted me - but I scanned it and want to record some relevant information: This Giralda tower is sister to the Koutubia in Marrakesh and the Hassan in Rabat (quoth the book, but I wonder if it meant the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca?). Also, the curtain wall I noticed near one corner of the cathedral? One of the last remaining bits of Muslim architecture in the city; it belonged to the palace of a Moorish potentate. The posted sign calls it the oldest royal building still in use in Europe.

I'm now sitting on the steps of one of the cathedral's many corners - no longer at the Courtyard of the Virgin di Reyes - listening to an Irish harper and watching the crowds. A clock just struck 8:45. Since my watch broke months ago, and my cell phone is dead, I have no timepiece of my own, but depend on clocktowers to ring out the time...much as people have done in European cities for centuries.

I wonder how many of the passersby are tourists, and how many are residents?

I'm repeatedly struck by Seville's myriad architectural styles...
...and fashion paradigms
...and ages, languages, clusterings, strides, etc, of the people on the street.

The tapas restaurant across the street is starting to fill. Time to eat.


9/10/09 ...Rain's Gonna Come...

I had this one fragment of song - "...rain's gonna come..." echoing in my head for long enough that I finally put some serious effort into chasing it down. The result? More on that in a bit...

So why was this running over and over on my mental "Repeat 1"? Because for the past days and weeks, Morocco has been getting endless rains. Sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes shaking the mountains with thunder and lightning, other times just a faint drizzle, rain has been falling in my valley pretty much since I left.

The clay-rich soil has little tolerance for heavy rains; most of the water slides over the surface and finds the nearest creek, then pours down into a stream and thence into the rivers that carved these mountain valleys over the past millenia.

When the shallow rivers get hit with this massive influx of rainwater and runoff, they have nowhere to go but up. And so they rise.

And rise.

Last year, the flooding caused millions of dollars of damage in lost crops, flooded homes, and washed-away roads, not to mention the damage to the economy caused by folks getting stranded for days and weeks at a time, as the rivers poured across Morocco's roads.

This year, the flooding is starting even earlier.

I spent all day today trying to get home. I got up at 6:45 (after going to sleep after my 2am saHor) to catch the 7:30 transit from Souqtown to Berberville. I got to the transit station at 7:25, and found out it had already left. I reserved a seat on the 9:00 transit, then went back to sleep. I returned to the transit station at 8:45 and found that not only was it not about to leave, but that the 7:30 transit had returned.

Floodwaters covered the road deeply enough that these many-ton, 16-passenger-vans (weighed down by 20-30 passengers and their belongings, usually) were afraid to try to cross, lest they wash away in the torrent.

So I settled down, out of the ceaseless rain, to wait.

And wait.

10am came and went.

So did noon.

Since we're still in Ramadan, nobody ate lunch; I would have loved a cup of tea or cocoa to fight the bitter chill of the endless cold rain, but Ramadan prohibits drinking as well as eating, so I just huddled in my summer-weight clothes. (I'd packed warmer sweaters and jackets in my luggage, but said luggage had been lost by the airlines the day before. Sigh.)

By 2pm, we'd found enough people willing to attempt a rather desperate work-around. Since the 140-km "direct" road from Souqtown to Berberville was washed out, and since the floodwaters showed no signs of abating, the transit owner offered an alternative to those of us who didn't want to wait another day or three to wait out the flooding, as most folks seemed willing to do.

He proposed a detour. A very, very long detour. I haven't sat down with a map to calculate the mileage, but it was probably twice as long as the usual route. But it *should* bypass all the flooded roads and get us safely home. Inshallah.

So we sent up prayers, crossed our fingers, and trusted ourselves to the road, the fates, God, or whatever else we believed in.

An hour later, we skirted a partially-flooded section of road. The passable section was less than the width of a single car, so the tires got wet, but we made it through otherwise unscathed.

Only a few minutes later, we turned around.

Lhumdullah, we only had to backtrack a short distance before finding a detour around the detour.

Two hours later, we slowed to a crawl as we inched over rubble, gravel, cobbles, and assorted chunks of rock from a nearby rain-induced landslide.

Another hour after that, we bounced over pavement that was more pothole than surface; I was thrown out of my seat, but landed unharmed, and held on tightly after that. (Seatbelts? What are these 'seatbelts' you speak of?)

By this time, we were approaching lftor, the sunset fast-breaking meal. We pulled into the only decent-sized town within 100km, about 45 minutes before the moghreb call to prayer. We rolled to a stop, and I wondered if we would wait in this little town until lftor. None of us had eaten in at least 15 hours - I hadn't eaten in 17, since I ate saHor early - so it wouldn't have surprised me to know that yes, we'd wait.

Lhumdullah, most of us prioritized getting to our homes and families over getting a sit-down meal, so we stopped just long enough to buy some food and then continued on our journey.

The sun quickly dropped behind the mountains, but no one was sure when the sun would drop below the true horizon, and we were dozens of miles out of earshot of the nearest mosque. As twilight dimmed, folks broke out their food, but kept it in hand, waiting. Waiting. One impetuous soul stood up and called out, "Allahu akbar!", but he wasn't fooling anybody.

I kept an eye on my watch, since I knew what time lftor had begun the night before, in SouqTown. That time came and went, but my fellow passengers were conservative. We waited another few minutes, and then another few, and finally a tacit consensus was reached, and folks began tearing into their food.

One man had bought a 1-kg box of dates. Depending on the quality of the dates and the quality of his haggling, this cost him between 30 and 75 dirhams. He unhesitatingly passed it around the entire transit, urging everyone to take dates - the traditional first, fast-breaking bite of food. I took one, got a disgusted glance, and had a handful shaken into my palm. I thanked him profusely, and dug in. Moments later, another man offered me a section of his baguette. I showed him that I had my own bread, brought from SouqTown. A minute later, another man urged me to take a 1/2-liter container of a popular yogurt drink. I turned him down, and he re-offered. We went through the ritual three offers, and I kept saying no. He offered it, I think, 5 times, unable to believe that I wouldn't actually take it. (I didn't want to explain that I reeeeally didn't want to add any more liquid to a bladder already feeling the strain of the six-hour road trip after the five-hour wait at the transit stand.)

As we sat, munching on our respective - and shared - foods, I felt a powerful sense of community, a deep sense of the rightness of sharing both the fasting and the eating of Ramadan with my Moroccan friends and neighbors, and even an echo of every meal I've shared with loved ones over the past decades.

We finished our meal, some quicker than others, and full darkness approached. No longer able to read, and with nothing left to eat, all I could do was watch out the window at the mountainous landscape. It occurred to me that in all the times I've eaten in front of the TV or attended dinner theater, I've never seen anything quite so glorious during a meal as the gloaming of the twilight on the jagged mountains and sere valleys of the High Atlas.

As darkness descended, I began noticing distant lightning flashes. We'd driven mostly under dry skies, but these regular bursts of light reminded me why we were taking the long cut around. I also remembered why I've watched thunderstorms ever since childhood. The awesome power that lights half the sky, the roiling thunder that shakes the earth and heavens... These lightning bolts, shooting half a range away, back-lit the mountains around us. With a silent flash, a mountain would spring from the invisibility of a moonless night into vivid relief, and then just as quickly vanish away again, fading back into the endless dark around us. A moment later, another flash would light a different quadrant of sky, and another mountain would appear from nowhere, before flickering back into the waiting shadows.

I almost didn't believe it when I saw the shimmering of my lake out the window. We'd made it! Despite the length of the road, and the flood-induced detours, and the dinner-shopping-stop, we'd made the huge long detour in just under six hours, little more than half again the length of the usual run. (Of course, if it weren't for the countless passenger drop-offs and pick-ups slowing every "usual run", the trip from SouqTown to Berberville would take 2.5 hours instead of 4...)

I climbed out of the transit two blocks from home, grateful beyond measure to be back in my beloved Berberville for the first time in two weeks. I unlocked my door, mounted my stairs, and released my burdens with a hearty sigh. It was 55 degrees, inside and out, so I wasted no time before crawling into the blankets of my mountain home.

PS: Sometime overnight, the rains started up again, and continued, off and on, for the next 24 hours. The rains are indeed a-gonna come. And come, and come, and come. But after four hours of digging, on my own and with help from friends, I finally unearthed the origin of that fragment of a song.

It turns out it sounds like rain's gonna come, but it's actually the immortal "Change is gonna come," first written by Sam Cooke, and then covered by dozens of artists, from Bob Dylan to American Idol finalists. My very favorite performance, of the dozen or so I've downloaded tonight, is by Playing for Change. Enjoy.

9/11/09 Where There's Smoke...

The American cliche says, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

8 years ago today, smoke indicated something else entirely.

Last night, trudging through darkened streets after an epic journey, I smelled burning cedar wood, and knew three things: (1) I really love the smell of woodsmoke; (2) Winter has already come to my mountains; and (3) My work as an environmental educator has barely begun. Cedars are protected species, and grow only in forest reserves in Moroccan national parks. The fact that my neighbors are burning it for fuelwood means that the woodpoaching has already begun for the year.

Tonight, I smelled the distinctive scent of burning plastic. Either someone was disposing of their trash or impoverished Berbervillians were burning the only fuel they could find to stay warm on this chilly night.

Because, at least in this snow-scented village, where there's smoke, there's usually...winter.


9/9/9 …a few minor RE-adjustments…

[By the way, note the extreme coolness of the date. :D ]

When you join Peace Corps, they mail you a little booklet called “A Few Minor Adjustments.” It’s meant to ease culture shock by giving you a sense of some of the changes you can expect to encounter when leaving the first world for the developing world. I only read the first few pages, because, honestly, it freaked me out.

But today marks my return to Morocco after a 10-day hiatus. After a week and a half in the first world – Sunday afternoon through Wednesday [this] morning – I’ve found myself tripping a couple times as I try to find my feet again.

Example: Money math

Morocco – at least, this Berberiffic part of Morocco – is perfect for mathematicians. Prices are routinely given in rials, which are worth 1/20 of a dirham. It’d be like quoting American prices in nickels. Can you imagine getting a soup-and-sandwich at Panera (née St. Louis Bread Company) or Cosi and being told, “That’ll run you a hundred and twenty nickels. Do you have exact change?” But that’s what happened to me. After breaking fast at my favorite restaurant in SouqTown, I walked up to the counter, and after the usual greetings, was told that I owed seb3in (70) plus something-he-mumbled-and-I-didn’t-catch, which add up to myaoasherin.

And thus began my comedy of errors.

First off, I thought he said myaoarb3in. Which is 140, as opposed the 120 he’d actually quoted me.

Then, I forgot how to do rials-to-dirhams conversions. I haven’t had to consciously think about it in so long that I actually forgot how. I stood there with my change purse out and tried to figure out how much 140 was in dirhams.

…and concluded that it was 14. I divided by 10 instead of 20. I have no idea why.

So I pull out the 10-spot first, then start counting through my ones. He says, “Do you have exact change?” Because of course, he knows that I owe 6 dirhams, so he figures I must be looking for six ones. I still believe that I owe 14 dirhams, so count out 4 ones and put them down next to the ten.

He looks at the change, looks at me, and then – as helpful as ever – says, “You need to add some more.”

I look down at the pile of change, realize that I must have done the math wrong, and conclude that I owe him 16 dirhams. But I only had 14.5 in my little change purse, as a result of a pre-dinner splurge, so now I feel bad.

I pull out the last little half-dirham and hastily say, “I can go back, get more, and return.”

He looks at me with something like pity.

“It’s only one hundred and twenty,” he says again, slowly. He pushes my 4.5 dirhams back across the counter.

At this point, I’m completely lost.

I give up on the Tam and start talking out loud, to myself, in English. “Myaoasherin. Mya-o-asherin. That’s one-twenty. One hundred and twenty. Which is six dirhams.”

My compassionate friend nods and echoes, “Sta dirham.”

He pulls two two-dirham coins out of the drawer and adds them to the 4.5 he has already pushed my way.

I look at the 8.5 dirhams in my hand, finally figure out what had happened, and decide that since we currently have an interested audience of a half dozen Moroccans, I might as well play up the street theater. I clap a hand to my forehead and exclaim (in Tam), “I went to America for a week and forgot everything! Everything!” I get a round of chuckles and take my curtain call, ducking out the door with a quick “Thanks!” to my excessively honest buddy.

Example 2: Ramadan greetings.

After that debacle, I returned to my hotel. The guy-on-duty had changed while I was out, so the new one motioned me over. We went through the usual greetings, and then – “Did you drink soup yet?” he asked me. I blinked at him. I’d been expecting something about my recent trip, or else something more generic, like “Did you break fast yet?” It took me a beat to remember first, that yes, “drink” is the verb used for the consumption of soup, and yes, taharirt, Ramadan soup, is nearly universal as the fast-breaking-food, so he’d effectively asked me if I’d broken fast, just not in the way I’d expected. Fortunately, it was only a second before I was able to answer, “Yes, I drank.” Our conversation moved onto more immediate topics – he didn’t know what room I was in, because the previous guy hadn’t communicated it to him – but as I walked up the stairs to my room, I wondered what more foibles lay in my path… I readjust to my adopted country.

8/31/09 The Tick-Tock

According to West Wing, the minute-by-minute accounting of the President’s day is routinely distributed to the White House Press Corps, and is known as the Tick-Tock.

Yesterday was quite a day. I won’t give you all 1440 minutes of the day, but here are some highlights, compliments of my memory and the journal I kept close to hand all day. [Update: This got way longer than I'd intended. I'll bold the most interesting bits, for ease of s

5:45 Pop up abruptly. Check time, realize I have 30 minutes till my alarm goes off. Decide to stay up.
6:10 Exit hotel.
6:15 Find petit taxi.
6:16 Petit taxi picks up Korean tourist Ho, who’s also on his way to the train station, to go to the airport, to ride the same flight to Seville. Small world.
6:24 Arrive at train station. Wait (with Ho) for bus to airport, which leaves on the hour…and rumor has it, on the half hour, too.
6:25 Grande taxi driver offers to drive me to airport…for 10x the price of the bus fare.
6:35 Ditto.
6:45 Ditto.
6:50 Bus 16 to the airport arrives!
6:58 Bus 16 departs train station. Good thing I didn’t cut it to-the-minute close!
7:24 Arrive at airport, x-ray bags, walk through metal detector, queue up for RyanAir bag drop*.
7:41 Get to front of line, and am told that I can’t “check in”* yet. Told to wait.
8:00 Check-in for my 9:40 flight opens up.
8:05 Drop off bag, boarding pass gets stamped.
8:06 Queue up for customs.
8:10 Get to front of line, am told I need to fill out “Immigration Card”.
8:11 Fill out Immigration Card.
8:18 Return to customs lady, who waves me through to the line for the passport people.
8:25 Passport people won’t allow me through to the gate area – told to wait.
8:27 Eat breakfast of bread, cheese, and juice.
8:45 Gate area opens for passengers on my flight.
8:51 Passport guy stares at my passport like he thinks he sees a watermark pointing towards buried treasure. Eventually asks if I’m a resident of Morocco. I say I am, and hand over my carte de sejour receipt. After much confusion, he stamps me through. I have now legally departed Morocco.
9:01 Walk through metal detector, x-ray carry-on bags (shrug off déjà vu). Security officer grabs my bulky cargo-pants-pocket and barks, “Do you have a cell phone in here??” I actually had it on the other leg, but after being grabbed at by a strange man, have no urge to confess this. Walk on through.
9:03 Boarding pass (aka crumpled printout) examined for the last time; gate check officials tear off the bottom half and wave me to the tarmac.
9:04 Walk across the tarmac. Reflect that walking up to a giant airplane feels waaaay more satisfying than going through those weird extendable tunnels universally used in American airports. (They have a name I’ve forgotten…jetway?)
9:05 Climb onto plane and survey sea of yellow-and-blue seats. RyanAir has open seating, like Southwest Airlines, so it’s first-come-first-get-the-good-seats.
9:06 Stretch out in the emergency exit row. My seat doesn’t recline, but I have acres of legroom.
9:38 Plane rolls off towards the runway. I turn off my phone and therefore have no more timestamps.
9:45ish I leave Moroccan soil.
9:50ish I gape at the Mediterranean Sea. For a while.
10:25ish I arrive on Spanish soil. Bienvenidos à España, Kauthar!
[Two hours magically vanish, thanks to the miracle of time-zone-change. Morocco hasn’t been on Daylight Savings Time since Ramadan began, but Spain still is, so that’s one hour, plus Spain is one timezone west of Greenwich.]
12:55 Make it through customs. The EU-citizen line flies, but the non-EU-citizen line moves at about 1/10th the speed. It’s also only about 1/20th as long, though, so I still make it through before most passengers from my flight.
1:05 Retrieve my backpack.
1:10 Start to board bus to downtown. See sign saying the fare is 2.30 €, and realize that I have no Euros. Return to airport.
1:20 Find the one lonely ATM in the Seville airport. Which rejects the ATM card from my Peace Corps bank account. I realize I have no idea what the PIN number is for the American bank account that I opened only a few days before leaving the US. Stomach tenses.
1:25 Ask at Information, and learn that there are no official money-changers in the Seville airport, but one of the airlines will do it unofficially.
1:30 Learn that that airline has no desire for Moroccan dirhams. Stomach twists. Abruptly remember the $20 bill I’d found while packing and tucked into a wallet on a whim. Give gratitude for the “whim” that’s saving my tuchus.
1:35 Am sad to discover that US$20 is only worth €13.20. I need to pay my hostel €17 to stay the night, so … mushkil.
1:40 Wait for next bus to downtown. Spot lots of folks from my flight – figures that if they’re taking a budget airline like RyanAir, they’re taking the bus instead of a taxi to town.
2:00 Bus arrives. Climb onboard. Only about half of those waiting get on; I hope another bus will come soon, for everyone else.
2:25 Get to downtown Seville. Note for other people taking the Seville Airport Bus: the final stop is officially the Prado San Sebastian, but when you get there, you won’t see anything telling you it’s the Prado San Sebastian. On the side of the bus stop you’re pulled up to, you’ll see Av. El Cid in big letters. I asked folks on the bus, who mostly shrugged. One guy told me – in Spanish – that it was the ultimo stop, which I’m pretty sure means the last one. Since the Prado San Sebastian is the airport bus’s last stop, I went ahead and climbed off. There’s also a city map stuck to every Seville bus stop, just like in DC, so I was able to study it for a minute, reassure myself I was in the right place, lhumdullah, and then start walking the mile or so to my hostel.
2:30 Pass time-and-temperature sign telling me it’s 41°C. Plus, it’s humid here.
2:35 Pass internet café. I stop in with the €11 left in my pocket, and start digging through emails to find the PIN number that I know Mom emailed me a year and a half ago.
2:45 Give up and Skype-call Mom, who comes to the rescue.
3:00 Pull €100 out of my American bank account. Heave giant sign of relief.
3:33 Check in at Friends Backpackers Hostel in Seville. The location is amazing – just steps from the breathtaking Cathedral of Seville – but the hostel’s services are pretty rudimentary.
3:40 Stash my stuff in the in-room locker, change my Moroccan-modest-long-sleeved-shirt for a tank top, and hit the streets of Seville.
3:46 Ogle Cathedral…take lots of pictures.
3:59 Buy ham sandwich (pork! I can eat pork here!) and banana smoothie (not nearly as good as the ones I get for 6Dh in SouqTown).
4:15 No internet café in sight, so I stop into a “WorkStation” and email Mom & Dad that yes, I found an ATM, yes, the PIN number worked, so I’m OK. Also shoot out a couple of work-related emails.
4:45 Begin wandering Seville.
4:50 Wander through park, watch pigeons.
5:10 Wander back towards Cathedral.
5:17 I’m a sucker for Gothic architecture. In I go.
5:18 Browse the gift shop. I’m a sucker for museum gift shops, too.
5:35 Wince, but pay the €8 admission.
5:36 It’s worth it.
5:49 Figure out the camera setting that will let me take pictures of stained-glass windows.
5:51 Sit on floor, lean head backwards against fluted column, look up it at awe-inspiring ceiling. I do this with massive trees – look backwards up the trunk – so why not do it with redwood-sized columns?
5:52 Oh, right, because cathedral docents are as inflexible as art museum docents. Whoops.
6:00 Discover the sign pointing to the Giralda Tower. I start up the gently inclined (fully wheelchair and stroller accessible!) walkway. Each stretch is numbered, so halls 1-4 take me on a full lap around the tower. Halls 5-8 repeat this, higher up.
6:06 Hall 15. How many halls are there, anyway?
6:13 After the 36th hall, I reach the top. It’s worth it. So worth it.
6:25 Return to the main body of the cathedral. Try to ignore the docents shooing me out.
6:35 Wander the orange tree grove, enclosed by this largest of cathedrals. Ignore docents.
6:45 Buy another souvenir or two in yet another cathedral gift shop, then accede to requests to leave.
6:55 Find and purchase a flamenco dress for my little sister. :)
7:00 Wander Sevilla for a while...
7:45 Perch on the corner of a public fountain and begin writing in the journal I acquired at 6:45.
8:15 Walk the entire perimeter of the Cathedral twice, once standing back to look at it, then back around, running my fingers over it. Because it's not real till you touch it.
9:00 Tapas!
10:30 Listen to street music for half an hour or more.
11:30 Wander back to my hostel.
11:35 Chat in my nonexistent Spanish with Sevilla native.
12:00 Sigh with contentment over one fantabulous day.

* RyanAir requires passengers to check-in online and print their own boarding passes. REQUIRES. If you fail to do this, they levy a stiff fine at the airport. I now know why: they don’t use computers at the airport. No computers! I gaped at them in shock. When you “check in” at the airport, they just scan a printed list of passengers’ names and passport numbers, then cross you off and issue bag tags.
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