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1/28/10 FML

Yesterday, I Froze My Laundry.

Froze it solid.

This has happened to me before. Given the low-angle winter sun and the short days (shorter even than astronomers would predict, because the high mountains on all sides of me mean that the sun is behind a mountain for hours when it's technically above the mythical "horizon"), we don't get a lot of sunlight up here.

What sunlight we do get is intense - enough to make a 20-30 degree difference between sunlight and shade - but it's brief.

So in winter, I often leave my laundry on the line overnight, in hopes that the second day's rays will prize the last of the water drops from my clothes.

This usually works (which is why I do it), but sometimes we get snowfall overnight, so the clothes get re-wetted. Other times, it gets so cold that the clothes freeze solid, and then the morning rays have to thaw them before they can start to dry them.

But this, yesterday, was something new.

Something not good.

I got a late start to the day, and didn't get the clothes on the line till almost 11am. At least they'll catch the highest, most direct sun angles, right? I went back out at 12:30, to check how that high-angle sunlight had fared...and my clothes were crispy. They bent, but didn't ripple.

I froze my clothes.

In direct sunlight - sunlight that felt warm on my back when I hung the clothes, sunlight that made me want to spend the afternoon basking on my roof - they froze.

My trusty thermometer claims that it's 35 degrees outside (in shade) and in my bedroom.

Maybe it's not as trusty as I thought.

'Cause at 35 degrees, nothing freezes.

At 35 degrees, my clothes have a chance to get baked by the sun.

Instead, I Froze My Laundry.


1/27/10 A Blogosphere Year

Well, I've been blogging for over two years, written hundreds of posts filling almost 700 single-spaced pages in hardcopy (according to my mom, who prints it out for my grandmother).

But a year ago today, I set up statistical tracking, with help from the computer whizzes at Google Analytics (and from my dad, my own go-to computer guru).

After 365 days of gathered data, I have some interesting-to-me-and-hopefully-to-you statistics and observations to share.

In the past year:

  • I've received 10,320 visits from 4,752 people on 6 continents. (Where's the love, Antarctica?)
  • 55% of you are returning visitors (thanks!), while 45% are one-timers,.
  • 25% of you are loyal fans of innocentablogged, and come back to me of your own volition, time after time. Another quarter come referred from PeaceCorpsJournals (which has featured me on their homepage at least 3 times - thanks!), another quarter from Google, and the last quarter from a variety of sources, including my Facebook page, my college alumni blogsite,,, friends' blogs,, strangers' blogs...
  • My single biggest day was May 27th, when, for no reason I can discern, 97 different people all decided that they really wanted to read about my life and work.
  • My slowest day was August 5th, when just two folks wandered over to my blog.
  • Originally, I averaged 9 visitors per day. After February, when I began posting information of general interest to prospective PCVs, though, my average jumped to an average of 24-25 visitors per day, largely because I've become one of Google's top destinations for people wondering about Peace Corps. I take this as a compliment from the fine folks at Google. :)
  • I went through a noticeable slump in the summer - could it be that most of my readers are college students?? No, impossible... ;)
  • My most popular page is simply the homepage, accounting for almost a third of all pageviews (almost 6000 out of the 19000 ever). After that, it's the information I wrote about the timeline for joining Peace Corps (over 2000 pageviews), and other applicant-friendly blogs (about 2800 pageviews, scattered among a dozen posts). Of my top 20 most popular posts, the only pages that aren't targeted at applicants are Moroccan Man-Touch, coming in at #6; Noora & Rachid's Wedding, at #12; a recipe for Pumpkin Spice Muffins, #14; my reaction to So-Youn's passing, #16; some of my favorite photos, #17; a cartoon mocking our poor hygiene, #19; and my experiences of Sexual Harassment in Morocco, at #20.
Where are y'all from?
  • I've received 8,184 visits from the US, including all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Go Goal 3! :D
  • Californians were my biggest fans, visiting 1,398 times
  • North Dakota sent exactly 1 visitor. (It's only fair - that's the only state of the 50 that I've never been to.)
  • Arizona was the unexpected second-biggest source of visits, with 929, nearly all from Tempe.
  • That was followed by a near-three-way tie between New York, Virginia, and Louisiana, all sending about 550 visits.
  • If I look city-by-city instead of state-by-state, I see that my two biggest fans are in Tempe, where one person visited my blog 813 times, and Shreveport, where two people visited my blog 519 times. (Care to step forward and identify yourselves, friends?)
  • Here are my Top Ten Cities, looking at the worldwide city listing. Note that "Marrakech" is the hub *my* router goes through, so most of those hits are me, reading my own archives to refresh my memories or find links.
1. Tempe 813
2. Shreveport 519
3. Washington 452
4. Marrakech 366
5. New York 275
6. Palo Alto 217
7. East Lansing 193
8. San Francisco 175
9. Houston 141
10. Rabat 137


1/21/10 Recipe: Vegetable Curry

Not exactly Moroccan cuisine, to be sure, but still, it's something I cooked that was deLICious, so I thought I'd share with y'all. :)

2 large green peppers
1 large red onion
1 bunch green onions (scallions)
2 small tomatoes

2 T olive oil
1 T turmeric
3 T red curry paste
2 T curry powder
2 T cinnamon
1 T "Indian Spices" (probably garamasala, but it's called "Epice Indienne", so who knows)
1/2 T ginger
1 t salt

3 T fish sauce
170mL can of condensed milk
2 T peanut butter

1/2 C jasmine rice

Chop the onion and peppers into fingernail-sized chunks. Cut the dried tops off the green onions, and slice the green stems down to the bulb root, in 1/4-inch slices.

Heat the olive oil. Sprinkle the turmeric. Add the vegetables; saute. (I keep about 1/8 of the onion back, to toss in towards the end for a nice crunch, but that's entirely optional.) Add the rest of the curries and spices; toss to coat. Once the vegetables are sauteed and coated, add the liquids. Stir, and leave to simmer.

In a separate pot, start the rice. (The time it takes the rice to cook will give the sauce time to develop.)

When the rice is almost done, add the tomatoes (cubed) and any reserved onions to the sauce. Check your consistency; if you want it thicker, add more peanut butter. Thinner, add more fish sauce. It should have the consistency of a nice thick bisque.

When the rice is done, serve. You can present it on plates with the rice on the side, or in bowls with the rice under the curry. It's delicious either way. :)

Serves 3

(Huge thanks to Jamal, whose recipe this is built from.)

1/23/10 Playing For Keeps

The other day, I played cards with my little brother.

When I lived with my host family, we did this pretty regularly, but in the year and a half since I moved out, it's become pretty rare. I can't even remember the last time we played cards together.

I taught my little brothers and sisters some of my favorite (and easy-to-explain) card games, like Go Fish, and UNO, and Crazy Eights, and I Doubt It. But their favorite game, then and now, goes like this:

Dealer gives each player four cards. Player to the right of the dealer goes first. On each turn, each player puts down one card into a common "pool". If the card matches a card already in the pool, collect both cards and store them. If the card does not match a card already in the pool, it stays there until collected in a later turn. When all cards have been matched, count your stored cards. Whoever has the most cards, wins.

The game moves quickly, as each player either tosses a card into the pot or swoops down to grab one that she knows she has the match for. There's no real strategy, no advantage to speed or deftness; each turn, each player will either match a card and keep 2, or leave a card behind.

That's it.

It's remarkably simple, so it works with players of any age (which is good for a family whose kids range in age from 19 years to 6 months...not that the six-month-old is much of a cardsharp yet).

So my little brother and I were playing. He beat me two games in a row. I congratulated him each time, but after his second victory, Ama asked, "So what does he win?"

I didn't understand the idiom she used. (She might have said "What are the stakes" - I really didn't catch any of it.) She saw my blank stare and tried again. "You have to take him down to the souq and buy some candy or soda or something." This I in, I understood the words she said, but didn't understand what they had to do with anything.

"You want some soda?" I tried. "What kind?"

She sighed, and tried again. "You can't just play cards to *play*. The winner *gets* something. So you should get your brother a soda or something."

This time I got it. And I laughed. Apparently, we play for keeps here. Who knew that a simple luck-based game was played for high stakes?

I looked over at my little brother. "How about I bring some cookies over tomorrow." He grinned. Everybody loves my cookies, made with real American chocolate chips and brown sugar.

Ama wasn't so sure. "Cookies? I don't should get him a soda."

I looked at my little brother, whose eyes were still shining at the prospect of chocolate chip cookies (which I haven't made in at least a month, and maybe two or three at this point...I don't remember). "Which would you prefer? Soda or cookies?"

He didn't hesitate. "Cookies!" he said quickly, with bright eyes and a big smile.

I grinned back at him. "OK!" I cheerfully agreed.

The next day, I brought two containers of cookies. One for the cardsharp, one for the rest of the family to share. there's a currency I like. :)

1/26/10 Running Errands

Running errands.

Such a simple phrase.

And like so much else, here, hides a world of complication.

I sometimes feel like this blog's primary purpose is to help me tease out the tiny interconnected strands of life that weave together in ways that seem so simple on the surface. It's like every phrase, every action, every conversation is just a little periscope, breaching the surface of the ocean, barely hinting at the Typhoon-class submarine hovering just below the water.

Yesterday afternoon, I had four errands to run. (1) Get three photocopies of my carte de sejour, the small plastic document that proves that I'm a legal resident of Morocco. (2) Deliver the photocopies to the gendarmes, the local law enforcement officials. (3) Print out some photographs I took of a friend's wedding. (4) Check my mail.

Seems so simple. Photocopies, gendarmes, pictures, mail. Given how small the "downtown" area of Berberville is - pretty much a single block - you'd think that this would take five minutes.

Ha. Hahahahaha.

I usually run errands when accompanied by another PCV, because it simplifies everything. Unaccompanied women are rarely seen on Berberville's streets, and for a reason.

But I haven't had a PCV friend up here in a week, and none are scheduled to come before I'm heading out on my next trip, so the choice is either ask a local girl to accompany me - and while any one of several friends would, but they'd also then spend the next month rehashing everything I did with all of their friends, and I'd be fielding questions about it for the next two months. Simpler just to go alone.

So I put my carte de sejour in my pocket, my flash drive with the photos in another pocket, made sure I had money with me, grabbed my keys (including my mailbox key, which I don't usually carry around), and headed out.

I'd mapped out the most efficient route. Straight to the photo guy, then to the photocopy place a few doors down, then up the street to the gendarmes, back across the street to the post office, and finally home, with whatever mail and care packages have accumulated there since the last time I checked, last week.

Step one: Straight to the photo guy. Whose steel doors were open, implying that the shop was open for business, but whose glass doors were locked, implying that the photo guy had stepped out. To his house, around the corner? To a nearby cafe? To the post office? He could be anywhere. I knocked a couple times, mostly in hopes that somebody would see me knocking and retrieve him for me. (This has happened before, and is generally the most efficient way of finding any absent shopkeeper.)

No luck.

I headed down to the photocopy place. Steel doors bolted. Wherever he is, he's not interested in doing business today.

I turned to go down to the other two photocopy machines in Berberville. One is owned and run by a friend of mine, the other by a guy who gives me the creeps. My friend's shop is further, but worth the walk.

En route, I ran into my little brother. I gestured back at the photo shop. "Do you know where the photo guy is?" (By the way, for "photo guy" I said buKodak, technically meaning The Owner Of Kodak, but a title that I knew would make instant sense to him.) My brother spends most of his time running into and out of Berberville's various cafes, so he's likely to know where nearly anybody is. Not this time.

He shrugged. "His house is right behind the shop. Did you try there?"

"No, but I will when I get back. Right now, I'm heading down to the copy shops."

He nodded, clearly uninterested, and ran off. (Literally, ran - this kid rarely walks.) I went down to my friend's shop. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I asked about the copy machine.


He referred me to the shop of The Creepy Guy. I said - truthfully - that it was closed (steel doors bolted shut). "Did you try the cafe?" he asked. Apparently, Creepy Guy owns a cafe next door to the tourist boutique where he keeps the photocopier.

We exchanged goodbyes, and I headed up to Creepy Guy's cafe. I knew Berberville had about a dozen cafes, but I'd honestly never noticed this one before. It's set back a little ways from the road, and looks more like a warehouse than a coffeeshop.

Not surprisingly, a man leaned against the outer wall, smoking. He greeted me. I returned his wishes of peace, then asked if CG was inside. He didn't seem to find it at all strange that I wouldn't want to go inside to look for myself. He went in, called CG's real name (which, no, does not actually translate to Creepy Guy), and out he came. I explained my needs. He unlocked his boutique and invited me in.

I lingered near the door. With one of the steel doors still shut, it was awfully dark and, well, creepy inside his shop. I turned on the lights. CG asked me about "Fatima", my PCV sitemate who left a few months ago. I gave my stock answers. "Yes, she returned to America. Yes, she's fine. Yes, she finished her work. Yes, she was very nice." Then he began asking me about my own timeline. I gave similarly brief but honest answers. He repeatedly invited me to come to his house; I gave the very-useful-but-very-vague phrase blessing him for his generosity, without answering.

Another customer came in, clutching his own set of documents to copy. (Judging from the thick layer of dust over all his touristy tchochkes and jewelry, I'm willing to bet that CG makes 99% of his income from the cafe and copier, not from the goods.) We repeated most of the same conversation. He asked a few questions about America.

By this time, the machine had finally warmed up, and CG began making my copies. I've spent years in the US as a teacher and temp, so have worked my share of photocopier mojo, but I was grateful for his help with this geriatric machine. He actually had to open the front with every copy, and hit about 8 buttons between jobs. He made my 3 copies one at a time, but that may well have been necessary, to keep the thing from jamming up with multi-page confusion.

A good 10 minutes after I'd found him at his cafe, my copies were in my hot little hands. I asked him the price. "Whatever you want to pay, my dear," he answered. I pulled out what I thought was the right amount and left it on a table for him before slipping out the door. I said goodbye to the other customer in the shop, and a less formal farewell to CG, from outside the door.

Shaking off that encounter, I headed back to the photo place.

One of my cousins was walking a similar path, so when I got to the still-closed door, I asked him if he knew where to find buKodak. "In the cafe," he said, pointing to one of Berberville's larger establishments. "He's watching the game. With Egypt!" he added, as he headed around a corner.

I walked up to the cafe. Again, someone lounged against the doorframe. This guy I'd met before, though I can't remember in what context. He greeted me by name. I shook his hand, wished him peace, and asked if the photoguy (this time I used his name) was in there. He said that he was, and leaned through the door to holler for him. He then offered me tea? Coffee? Milk? His treat, of course! I declined politely, and then buKodak emerged, and we walked towards his shop.

I explained what I wanted, and he said, "Oh, sorry, that'll have to wait till tomorrow."

"Is it not working?"

"No, I've just run out of photo-paper. I should get more tomorrow, though."

I thought about how long it would take him to process the images and print them all, added to the time it would take to find him tomorrow, plus having to go back to pick them up - and find him yet again... "What if we just put the images on your computer now, and then when the paper comes tomorrow, you can print them?"

He agreed, and in we went. He uploaded the images easily enough, and I was soon back out in the increasingly snowy street. As we parted, I told him to enjoy the game. "Who is Egypt playing?" I asked.


"Is it a good game?"

"Not really. They don't have great ball-handling skills."

I laughed, and he laughed, and off we went on our separate paths.

Next stop: the gendarmerie.

This was actually the easiest of my errands - I handed them the copies, they thanked me, and off I went - but I'm now wondering if it wasn't too easy. If the guy who accepted them had no idea why I was handing them to him, and will circular-file them, and I'll have to go through this whole charade again. Hopefully, though, that errand is actually now DONE.

Last stop of the day: the post office.

It was only 4:20, but apparently the postmaster had decided that 5pm and 4pm mean pretty much the same thing, because the building was locked. So I'll give that one another run tomorrow.

All-in-all, my errands took only about an hour to accomplish. Which actually makes this one of the easier times I've had.



1/24/10 So How's My Laptop?

My oldest sister is visiting.

She attends university down in "Springfield", so I rarely see her, but she's back in town right now.

A few months ago, she came over to look at pictures I'd taken of her friend's wedding. (NTS: I should post those.) As we looked through the pictures, she asked, "So, when you leave, can I have your computer?"

I'd goggled a bit. She was just so matter-of-fact about it. But...this is my laptop. This laptop has traveled thousands of miles with me, from when I bought it on the east coast of the US to vacations on the west coast, to my parents' house in the middle of the country, back to the east coast, and now to Morocco. This laptop has been my connection to the outside world. On it, I Skype-talk to my family and friends, I gchat and Facebookchat with loved ones, I download TV and movies, I **BLOG** (as y'all may have noticed)... I've used this laptop, not every day, but most days of the past several years. It's mine in every sense of the word. I've spent thousands of hours on it.

So for her to so cavalierly ask if it could be hers...

I laughed.

She was serious.

I stopped laughing. "No, it's mine."

"Right, but when you leave, it can be mine." I blinked at her. "So many of the other students at school have computers, and I don't. I really need one. So when you leave, why not leave it here?"

Because it's MINE, crazy girl.

"Um, it was a present from my parents in America. I'll have to talk to them." And I suddenly remember that, not very long before, I'd *been* talking to my parents in America - via this very same computer - and Dad had mentioned that, thanks to the rough life it has led here, and the rapid obsolescence of computers, it would probably make sense to get a new one when I go back. He'd sort of implied that he and Mom would give me one, actually, though I'm gift-resistant enough that I didn't plan to take them up on the offer.

But my sister accepts the authority of The Parents...but she also knows just how proud they are of *her*.

See, when my American family came to visit me here in Morocco, over the summer, they were here in Berberville just in time to attend my sister's Congratulations! You Passed Your IB Exam And Officially Graduated High School! party. I conveyed to her their congratulations, and they all - mom, dad, and sister - gave her some congratulatory cash (as is typical here, and entirely appropriate).

So she just nodded, smugly confident that my parents' generosity and respect for her accomplishments would result in her getting the computer.

A few months passed, and I mostly forgot about the conversation. When it did cross my mind, for whatever reason, I remembered laughing about it, and finding the whole thing rather ridiculous.

Turns out she remembered it differently.

Today, after we got past the greetings and were just chatting, she looked up and said, "Hey, how's my laptop doing?" I burst out laughing - genuine bellylaughs. "It's at your house, right?"

"Yeah, the laptop is at my house," I answered. "It's fine."

I quickly changed the subject. A few minutes later, at a lull in the conversation - during which I was chuckling about something else - she said, "You laugh a lot." I smiled, acknowledging the obvious truth of that. (Also, the same word - Ts - is used for laugh and smile - my tutor says, "Because they're really the same, anyway," - so I was still Tsing to confirm that yes, I Ts a lot.)

She continued, "You laughed hard when I asked about my laptop."

With a slightly forced chuckle, I said, "Because it's MY laptop."

"But when you leave, it's mine, right?"

I didn't answer, repeating, with a smile, "It's mine."

"OK, fine, it's ours," she said, pleased with her compromise.

I laughed some more. (Laughter is used here - and not just by me - to lubricate nearly every social interaction. I guess it's a survival technique; if you're going to survive in an isolated valley in the heart of impenetrable mountains, you have to stay on good terms with everybody, and if everything is a joke, that's easier to do.)

About that time, lunch was served, and matters of PC-ownership fell by the wayside, as truly important matters, like who gets the rib - it went to my little sister, who loves to suck out the marrow - came to the fore.

[Oh, and just 'cause it's funny: the word that I have variously translated as computer and laptop is actually pee-see. Sometimes folks use kompyutoar, sometimes the French ordinateur, but my sister was saying PC. I guess some words just don't need to be translated. :) ]

1/16 Teatalk

So I'd finished bathing in Berberville's public hammam. I came out into the changing area and began toweling off.

"Oh, it's a tarumit..."
"Did you see the tarumit..."
"Have you talked to the tarumit..."

The voices swirled around me. I grinned to myself, too shy to strike up a conversation with one of these curious ladies while still en deshabille.

Until one of them said, "...yes, she understands Tamazight." I looked over and grinned at a friend I hadn't seen in a while - who I hadn't noticed yet because I was focusing only on putting on my many layers of clothes.

Catching my eye, her neighbor asked, "Really? You speak Tam?" and I answered, smiling, "Yes, I do."

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

It surprised me to hear that anyone in town didn't know about me. "About two years," I answered.

"Where are you from? France?"

"No, America." That brought on a new wave of chatter. Ooh, America...

"Where do you live? Rabat? Marrakesh?"

If I lived in a major city, what are the odds I'd speak her dialect? I asked myself wryly. Of course, she's never traveled any more than 200km from her home in her entire life - may well have never even left the village. How would she know how rapidly her unwritten language changes with geography? Or how few cityfolk speak it at all? Aloud, I answered, "No, I live here." I mentioned the name of my landlord and nearest neighbors.

"Do you live alone?" was the immediate follow-up.


"So where's your husband? Back in America?"

With a sideways smile, I replied, "I don't have a husband."

"You're not married?!?!" was the incredulous reply.

"Nope. Not yet. Maybe someday, if God wills," I finished my stock reply.

I finished putting on my clothes and accepted one of the proffered tea invitations, from an older woman who'd been resting on one of the benches in the changing room since I'd walked out of the hammam.

On the way to her house, the interrogation continued. "So you really don't have a husband?"

Do you think the answer will be different because we're in private? Why yes, I do, but I'm keeping him a secret because life is so much easier if people think I'm unprotected and alone. Yeah. "Really. I don't have a husband."

"But you have a boyfriend, right?"

Since the word can also mean friend-who-happens-to-be-a-boy, I want to answer yes, I have lots...but that'll open a whole icky can of worms, so I let it go. "No, no boyfriend."

"You're alone??"

"Yup, I'm alone." The same word is used for alone and lonely, and I've never figured out how to distinguish the two concepts - I'm single but not lonely. I live alone but don't feel isolated. It works easily enough in English, but in Tamazight? The concepts are too closely intertwined. To be alone is to be lonely. These folks, for whom family is the central aspect of identity, home life, life planning, and life in general, have no way of conceiving solitude as anything other than sad isolation.

We get to her house. I step in, scrape the mud off my boots, set down my bucket and bag full of hammam things (soap, loofah, kis scrubby brush, shampoo, etc, in the bucket, and all the layers of clothes I'd taken off, before scrubbing, in the bag). She shows me into the main room. On the wall she's hung pictures. She immediately explains them to me. "This one is my oldest boy. He's living in Grenada. This is my next boy - he lives in Marrakesh. This one died. My youngest is at school in Marrakesh, living with his brother and his brother's wife." I don't see a picture of her husband. Before I can ask, she volunteers, "He died a long time ago. We lived in Marrakesh when we were married, but after he died, I came back to Berberville."

I murmur the condolence phrase, and then ask, "So this is *your* village?" I'm just trying to keep up.

"Yes, this is where I grew up," she clarifies. She looks back at the photographs. "Aren't my boys handsome?"

"Oh, yes, of course, they're very handsome," I quickly say, feeling, as I so often do, that I'm picking my way through a social minefield. If I'd volunteered the statement, unprompted, it might made me look flirtatious and therefore inappropriate. But the fact that she asked for it makes me feel like I was rude in not complimenting her children immediately.

"And my oldest is in Grenada," she repeats. I nod. "He's a good boy," she says, touching his photo briefly. "Is Grenada nice?"

I've never been there, but I say, "Yes, it's very nice."

"You should marry him," she concludes, triumphantly.

My smile freezes. I should have seen this coming.

I so should have seen this coming.

Before I can demur, she jumps back in with, "Well, you want to get married, right?"

Aha - here's my out. "No, actually, I don't. Men suck." [That's the most idiomatic translation of the phrase I used - Ixxan iryzan. It could also be translated as "Men are bad", "Men are ugly", "Men are useless"'s kind of an all-purpose-insult word, which is what makes it so handy in cases like this, where I don't want to be all that specific.]

She bursts out laughing. "Men suck?"

I nod and say it again. "Yeah, I don't want a man," I continue. "I like my life as it is. And I don't need a man." This has her in gales of laughter. I'm laughing, too, in acknowledgement of how ludicrous such a sentiment must sound.

She stokes the fire, brings out bread and oil and tea, and we continue chatting.

As I always do, I murmur, "Bismillah," before eating anything. It translates as "In the name of God," and it's the phrase that devout Muslims always use before beginning any endeavor, from eating to taking a trip to speaking in public. It implies that whatever action you undertake is done for God, and under the protection of God. I have no theological objections to any of that, so I say it often - more often than many of my not-terribly-devout friends and neighbors.

She hears me, and perks up. "Are you Muslim?" she asks excitedly.

"No," I explain, "I'm Christian." She doesn't understand the word I use - messaHiyan. It's from Classical Arabic, and therefore unknown to most illiterate folks, like this dear little old lady. Women didn't get educated around here until this generation, so women over the age of 30 or so are invariably illiterate; even between the ages of 15 and 30, it's hit and miss.

I try a Berber-ized version of the word: "I'm tamessaHiyanit." I'm a female who's a Christian.

Still getting blank stares.

I pull out the cross I wear around my neck. Today, like usual, it's buried under lots of layers of clothing. She sees it, but has no idea what it means. "I follow Jesus," I try. She recognizes the name of one of Islam's chief prophets, and nods. She probably thinks that Christianity is some Jesus-intensive sect of Islam, but that's fine. I'm just trying to answer her question, not start a theological discussion.

She moves onto more concrete territory. "Do you pray?"

"Yes, I pray."

She beams. Anybody who prays is clearly a good person, regardless of this messaHiyan nonsense. I'm definitely good for her son.

"Do you fast?"

"Yes, I fast during Ramadan, here in Morocco."

She opts not to comment on my slight qualification. (I do fast in Morocco; I didn't fast when I was in the US for part of Ramadan. I'm a terrible liar, so I tell the truth as often as possible. Or maybe I'm a terrible liar because I get so little practice at it - I try to tell the truth, even if I have to "tell it slant", as Emily Dickinson would say.)

Around that time, some other women come in - her sisters, sisters-in-law, and neices, as she later explains - and we go over all of this again. These women, too, find it hiLARious that I don't want to get married immediately. And they love the "men suck" line, and the "I don't want a man/she doesn't want a man" line. They repeat it, I repeat it, they repeat it...and it's always good for a hearty laugh.

One of the sisters-in-law begins telling me about her husband. Her ex-husband, she clarifies. He abandoned her with young children. He's a bad man, she says clearly. All men are bad, she adds.

I've given up on defending men, as I usually do, because for the purposes of this conversation, and avoiding my hostess's marital schemes, I'm sticking to my happy singleton story. "Yes!" I say, guesturing to her emphatically, "This is why I don't want a man."

She blinks at me, clearly at a loss. She'd been arguing with me earlier, and now realizes that she has supported my side of the argument, and she has no idea how to get out of the corner she painted herself into. She's happy to bash men, but still thinks that all women should marry. She opens and closes her mouth a few times, but doesn't say anything.

Fortunately, she's saved by the bell. (Well, by a knock at the door - nobody but the most pretentious have actual doorbells, in this community.)

More women come in; more of the conversation is rehashed; more tea is drunk; more laughter is shared.

Eventually, I say goodbye, promising to return for more tea and bread. And laughter. :)

1/17/10 Beautiful Berberville

Walking back from my host family's house, I looked at the alpenglow tinting the mountains dusky rose and thought, "Wow, I live in a beautiful place."

It's easier to appreciate now, in the winter, when barren hillsides are to be expected. Mid-summer, when the only thing green is the irrigated fields, it's easier to mourn the brown hillsides and naked slopes.

But a few days after a snowfall, when the intense sunlight has melted moire patterns onto the mountainsides, I look unto the hills and my heart catches with a glow of pure aesthetic joy.

I didn't have my camera with me, but here's a picture I took last year that captures it:

And since my internet connection is behaving, I'll upload some more. Here are some pictures I took at sunset, a few days later, from my roof:

Here's the same hillside from the first picture, taken about a year after the shot above (funny how some things don't change):

That's my view to the south. Looking east, I see this:

...and looking west, I see this:

Yes, that's the same mountain range you saw in the shot a few pictures above. This was just four minutes later, and already most of the blue is gone from the sky, but the colors on the clouds are even more intense...

Yeah, my site is beautiful. :D

1/25/10 Butagas Blunders

I've gotten pretty good, over the last two years, at manipulating butane gas. I can open a buta tank in less than a minute; I cook, bake, and heat my house with butagaz (as it's universally called here - or just buta for short); I've even gotten pretty graceful at lugging the empty and full tanks back and forth to the hanoot (market/shop/store).

This has lulled me into a sense of ... complacency? ... at least confidence, with regard to buta. So my recent bumblings have restored a useful sense of humility. :)

Last night, I found myself dozing off in my warm, buta-heated living room, so I got up, turned off the buta tank (which, by cutting the supply, automatically turns off the heater), and staggered into bed. Just as I've done a hundred (or so) times before.

But this was a new buta tank as of yesterday, and what I hadn't realized is that its nozzle isn't as tight as it should be. So simply tightening it till it feels secure...still leaves a trickle of butane slipping out.

Lhumdullah, it was enough of a trickle to keep the pilot light going, so I didn't just release gallons of poisonous gas into my house - I just kept the heat on all night. So I wasted some energy, but didn't kill myself. Alhumdulillah. Now I know: this tank, I have to not only shut it, I have to crank it until it's so tightly closed that it hurts to crank it back open. Useful knowledge.

Another recent (less life-threatening) buta bumble: I ran out. Both my big tank and little tank ran empty. I used to have a spare little tank, so that I'd never be without heat in my house. (Where the unheated rooms are generally around 35 degrees - sometimes colder, sometimes warmer - and even sitting in front of the heater, I can see my breath. I'm warm, but I can see my breath. Go figure.) But last winter, I tried to open my spare little tank...and failed.

It should be simple. Crack the wax seal, unscrew the wax stopper-plug-thing, and screw in the heater attachment. Badda-bing-badda-boom, heat.

But this time, the wax seal had melted into the screw threads...which I didn't realize until I'd mangled the living daylights out of the seal. Then I tried to just cut out all the wax and strip the threads manually...and got most of it out, but not enough to be able to screw the heater attachmednt in. So I have a small tank of butane gas with waxy screw-threads...and I've been too embarrassed to take it to my hanut guy and show him the still-full-but-unusable tank of butane. So I just keep swapping out the other small tank, which is generally fine...but means I no longer have a spare. So nights like two nights ago, when both big and small tanks run house gets cold. (The hanut is open till late, so I could theoretically have swapped out either my big or small tank...but it takes a lot more than shivering in a 35-degree room to get me to want to go out after dark.) So I wrapped up in blankets and crawled into bed pretty quickly thereafter.

So, yeah, not yet a master of the buta. (And since buta and Buddha are homonyms, that's actually kinda funny.)

On the other hand, I do have *some* buta skillz. I made cookies today, for the first time in a month or two, and they all came out *perfectly*. Despite my crazy oven, which tends to burn the bottoms of things and leave the tops raw. So...I'm not a total buta dunderhead. Even when I occasionally feel like one. :)


1/13/10 Hammam Solo (Rated PG-13)

Today I bravely faced my fears.

I took a deep breath, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and faced The Hammam.


I've gone with my host mom twice, and with another PCV friend once, but never alone.

Till now.

Most Americans, I think, are reluctant to appear nude in public. I'm not saying I've never skinny-dipped or gone streaking - but note that I'm not saying I *have*, either - but those things are usually done at night.

Hanging around a group of mostly-naked women in a well-lit space for an hour or three, while mostly-naked myself? This is daunting.

But I did it.

First, I needed confirmation that it was open. It closes at random times, plus it's been under renovations lately (more on that later). So I went out to check. Halfway there, I saw some girls from the local high school walking back to their dorms, swinging hammam buckets and stools and other accoutrements of bathing. But were they clean or returning in vexed frustration? Their twice-wrapped heads and bulky clothing - more than the warm (50ish) afternoon required - argued for clean. There's a belief here that you need to "keep in the warmth" after bathing in the sauna-like hammam, so women (and girls) wrap themselves in two or three times as many layers as usual when they emerge from a scrubbing session.

So, taking in their multiple scarves, multiple sweaters, bouncy stride... Yup, they were clean. Which meant the hammam was open. Which meant I had no excuse not to face up to the challenge of Public Nudity.

Deep breath.

With my bucket of shower supplies in one hand and the other hand clutching a bag of clean clothes (plus a small stool - you *don't* want to sit directly on the floor in there), I strode off to the public bathhouse.

A few steps from my destination, I crossed paths with the hammam owner, who of course I had to stop and talk to for a moment. And then he offered to show me his shiny new heater, which of course I had to admire at length.

But then I was out of excuses.

Except - wait - maybe they'd run out of hot water already. This happens mid-afternoon.

Or did happen, before these snazzy renovations.

So, nothing for it. The hammam was open, full of hot water, and waiting for me.

Deep breath.

I walked in. A few women were getting dressed, but the foyer space was mostly empty. The woman behind the counter (Hanan) began chatting with me. Telling myself firmly that public embarassment is a social construct, and that Nothing Odd Is Going On Here, I chatted with her while stripping off my clothes.

Nothing At All Is Unusual Here, I lectured myself while talking about my recent travels, and getting increasingly naked.

I couldn't remember whether I was supposed to bring the towel inside with me or not. As I stood there, wearing nothing but panties, I moved it into and out of my bucket a couple of times, then looked over at Hanan. "Should I leave it here?" I asked. She nodded. "Just hang it there," she said, indicating the hook next to my parka.

I hung it up.

No hurdles left between me and rooms full of mostly-naked women.

Deep breath.

With my plastic stool in one hand and my bucket of supplies (shampoo, loofah, etc) in the other, I walked through the door.

The hammam is organized into three adjoining rooms; you have to walk through each to get to the next.

The room closest to the foyer/changing area is the coolest. Today, that room - the Cool Room - was empty. I walked from there, through another closed (insulating) door into the Warm Room. A dozen or so women sat on mats or stools around the wall, chattering and scrubbing.

I blinked for a second, getting my bearings. Immediately, a woman (who I'll call Fatima, the most common woman's name in Morocco) invited me to sit with her. I'd been counting on this. I smiled and set down my things. As I did so, I realized that I'd forgotten to pick up an extra bucket, for the hot water. I could have emptied all my shower stuff onto the floor, but that would have struck everyone as odd. Better to go back out to reception and ask for a bucket.

Which I did.

I then walked back to the hot water taps, in the third (hottest) room. There's no closed door between the Hot Room and the Warm Room, just a narrow opening that keeps most of the heat in the Hot Room but without letting it become stifling.

In the Hot Room, I set my bucket under a hot water tap, and pulled the lever. When it was about 2/3 full, I moved over to a cold water tap. (None of this adjustable-temperature-nonsense you Americans are used to, nosirree. We have a Hot Tap, with near-boiling water, and a Cold Tap, which is near-freezing. We mix them in the proportion of our choice, and try not to freeze or scald ourselves in the process, thank you very much.) I got a pretty good temperature my first try, lhumdullah, so I carried my bucket of hot-but-not-scalding water back over to my stool, sat down, and began to wash.

Three cups of water poured over my head got it wet enough to shampoo. (And when I say "cup", I mean a giant plastic cup, probably about a pint/half liter.) I washed it once with shower gel soap, to strip out a week's accumulated grease, then real shampoo (inherited from my sitemate - I've just used shower gel before now), and then I moved onto the rest of me.

I loofah'd myself pretty thoroughly. Fatima, sitting next to me, had been keeping a close but unobtrusive eye on me, waiting for the moment when I began scrubbing my back.

Given my habit of showering alone, I'm actually pretty good at washing my back. Twist one arm up, twist the other arm up, go up over your shoulder, up over your other shoulder... Believe it or not, ladies, it *is* possible to wash one's own back.

But here, that's just crazytalk. :)

Women always wash each other's backs. It's one of the many reasons no one goes to the hammam alone, and why Fatima so quickly invited me to sit with her.

So when I started washing my back, Fatima eagerly reached over and asked if I wanted her to do it for me. I acquiesced readily, and then found myself melting under the sheer primate pleasure of Being Groomed.

(It just makes sense to me that, given the millions of years we spent as primates picking gnats out of each other's hair, we're just hardwired to want to groom and be groomed. I think this accounts for most of the pleasure little girls find in braiding each other's hair, or that women find in going to a spa, or that we all enjoy in getting shampooed at the barber.)

Cleaning myself off was the easy part. I have years of experience getting clean. The hard part was doing it in public. This would be easier for guys who grew up taking daily after-practice showers in locker rooms...but my locker rooms always had individual shower stalls. So while it's weird enough to be scrubbing myself while sitting down, instead of standing up shower-style, it's far, far more strange to be doing it in view of twenty other people.

I had to keep reminding myself that nobody in the room but me had *any* issue with this at all. Seeing their friends naked was no more odd to them than hanging out poolside with bikini-clad friends would seem to me. (And that, by the way, would trip them out: the idea of being so scantily clad in view of **men**?!?!!?)

I had to do the same thing I do when women pull their breasts out in public to feed their babies: figure out how to translate it.

Breast-feeding women I translate to bottle-feeding. There's no need for massive eye-aversion; I can watch just as much or just as little as I would if the mom were holding a bottle instead of a breast. (And when I did avert my gaze, as I did when I was new in country, I actually made the women uncomfortable; they couldn't figure out why I'd suddenly gotten so distant.)

Here, I translated the hammam to a ritzy spa, and mentally wrapped all the women in fluffy, terry-cloth bathrobes (or seaweed-mud wraps, or what have you). A hammam, like a spa, is a warm, safe, innocent space for women to pamper themselves. I can look around the room - and be looked at - as casually as if we were all in bathrobes.

Of course, my American modesty mores kept fighting this, but 22 months of learning how not to react when women pull their breasts out in public has paid off.

So I let her wash my back, and later scrub my back (with my kis, the scrubby mitt thing), and even offered to do hers, but she passed. Her sister had taken care of her before I'd come in.

When I'd exhausted my first bucket of water, I went back for a second, and found a friend I haven't seen in a while. I smiled, and then realized that she was expecting a half-hug and three cheek-kisses - the usual greeting between women here in Berberville. Which is something I enjoy when I'm, y'know, clothed. But kissing a woman when we're both nearly naked? Slightly different vibe, to say the least. But I reminded myself firmly that This Is Normal that moreover, acting in any *other* way would be seen as bizarre, and leaned in and kissed her cheeks.

Eventually, after a few more refill trips to the taps, I got head-to-toe clean, lhumdullah. I rinsed off a final time, then rinsed my area, and then headed out through the Warm Room and Cool Room into the changing area. While putting on the many layers of clothes necessary to survive the winters here, plus the extras that the other women would expect (to help me "keep the heat in"), I got invited to tea - something that hasn't happened in a while.

[[So tomorrow, you get to hear about my tea latest party. :) ]]

My solo mission to the hammam not only achieved its primary goal - Get Kauthar Clean - but scored multiple hits on the secondary goals of social integration.

Fears conquered, social minefield crossed unscathed...

For the win! :D


1/11/09 Sending Care Packages - Tips

I've been wary of posting anything like this, because I don't want to seem like I'm saying GIMMEGIMMEGIMME, but enough people have asked me how best to ship care packages to Peace Corps Volunteers that I'm going to go ahead and share some tips.

(1) Use the USPS Flat Rate Boxes. This will keep shipping costs to less than half what they'd otherwise be. International shipping is hideously expensive, but at least the US Postal Service is trying to help. I've had more than one care package whose shipping costs were several times the value of the items inside, and that made me feel really bad for the shipper. (Note: they're only "Flat Rate" up to 20 pounds, for international shipping. That said, it's really hard to fit 20 pounds worth of anything into a package about the size of two shoe boxes, unless you're shipping rock samples or freeweights. So **stuff** these things. You're paying for the volume, not the mass; go nuts! Also, the less free space there is, the less your contents will shift (and risk breaking) during shipping).

(2) You'll need to fill out the package label with my (or your PCV's) name, address, etc, plus there's a space for "Detailed Description of Contents". Yes, fill this in, but if the box has lots of different things, it's OK not to enumerate *all* of them. Don't put more items than there are lines for.

(3) Don't list any individual item as having more than $10 in value, if you don't want your Volunteer to have to pay a customs fee to pick it up. If it's pretty obviously worth more than that, write "used" in the description section ("used sweater", "books, used", whatever) and make sure it's not in any of the original packaging. Also, avoid words that imply value to the unscrupulous, like "camera" or "computer". You want your PCV to receive this, right? I've had at least one package go completely astray, and I've had batteries stolen out of a couple packages.

(4) Check the box that says GIFT. Which is actually true for most care packages, anyway. :) Gifts are assessed fees much less often than anything the customs officials suspect you mail-ordered.

(5) Double-bag anything powdery. Sending hot cocoa packets? Cake mix? Instant coffee? Astronaut ice cream? Add an extra ziplock bag around the item's own packaging. Nearly every time I've received anything like the above, at least one of the packages had been cut into, I assume in order to check for drugs. (Do people actually smuggle cocaine by putting it in a Betty Crocker box?) The customs folks are good about rewrapping and retaping the contents of the box, but if there's no extra ziplock, the cut item will scatter its remaining powdery mess all over the contents of the care package. (Until we figured this out, nearly every care package I got from my parents had cocoa powder sprinkled everywhere.) Besides, ziplock bags are handy; your PCV will appreciate having them. :)

In 22 months of care packages (you know who you are, and THANK YOU!!!), I've only been assessed a shipping fee once, but it was a doozy. The item in question was marked as having a value of $65, and was still in the original packaging. I had to pay the equivalent amount of Moroccan dirhams - over 300Dh, which is 15% of my monthly stipend - just to pick it up. The point of the fees, as far as I can tell, is to deter the practice (formerly common) of folks importing goods and reselling them for a profit. Customs officials calculate that if they can double the price of whatever you're getting - by charging you an import fee equal to the item's value - it will take a huge chunk out of any potential profit margin. But when you're living on $225 a month, it hurts to have to pay for your care packages.

OK, that's all I can think of for now. And on behalf of whoever you're planning to ship to: Thank you so much! :D

1/12/10 Home again

I made it back to Berberville a few days ago, actually, but have been catching up on things - from social obligations like tea visits to responding to emails - till now.

I'm sorry I left some of you with the impression that I was ETing (or had already). I was angry about a few things, to be sure, but not enough to quit Peace Corps. My blog absence over the past couple weeks has been for a much happier reason: I've been on vacation!

Some friends and I wandered around Europe for the holidays. I'll be posting pictures and stories for quite a while to come, I suspect.

But now, I'm back in my village, drinking lots of tea and chatting in Tamazight for the first time in a while. My Tam is rusty - not surprisingly - but it has come back readily, to my delight. In SouqTown, which I had to pass through on my way home from the airport, I chatted about my vacation to several friends (ie my favorite veggie saleslady and my favorite sandwich guy), answered their questions, and successfully ran all my SouqTown errands.

At the sandwich shop, after the round of greetings and oh-where-have-you-beens:
Sandwich Dude: So, what would you like?
Me: I'll have a sandwich of makoda [[potato latke-like things]] and eggs. Wait, do you have makoda today?
SD: Over here [pointing to the other side of his display case]. Two eggs?
Me: Yup, two eggs and two makodas.
SD's assistant: Soup?
Me: [frozen]
He'd offered me harira, which sounds a lot like hrra, which is hot sauce. And for a second, I couldn't remember whether harira was soup or hot sauce. Because soup sounded like a fabulous idea, but I'm not a big fan of heavily spiced food.
SD's assistant: La soupe [in French]
SD: [laughing] She knows what "soup" is.
Me: [laughing, to SD, indicating SD's assistant with my head] He thinks I don't know anything. Hahaha...

So, still a few bumps in the road.

Like "donut". Morocco has great donuts, usually only available on souq days. I was thinking about those Moroccan donuts as I rode home from the airport, and realized that I couldn't remember the word for them. I was pretty sure it started with a sh... I visualized the donuts, sh'd inside my head...nothing. It was gone.

And then when we pulled through a town having their souq (which lines the main road, as well as extending into a big open space), I saw a guy carrying a string of sfinj and the word was just *there*.

So, yeah, I'm still knocking the rust off my Tamazight vocab, but it's comforting to know that I haven't actually forgotten it, despite not using it for the better part of a month. The words are there when I need them. :)

Welcome back to Berberville, Kauthar!
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