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4/25/10 QOTD: "So, are you Ali's wife?"

I've been meaning to write this blog for a looooooooong time. Almost a year.

Last May, I visited my PCV buddy "Ali". He's one of my very oldest PCV friends - we met in Philadelphia, and were hanging out even before we flew to Morocco. But this was the first time I'd made it out to his site.

His is a hike-in site, so after I'd taken the requisite buses and taxis and such to his nearest decent-sized town, he met me at a cafe and walked me the half-hour uphill walk to his house. (And this being a Moroccan town, as opposed to a city, my enthusiastic and warm greeting after 12 hours of traveling to see him consisted of ... a handshake. In a city I could hug him, but in a town, that would raise too many eyebrows.)

As we walked, we stopped to chat ... oh, must have been at least a dozen times. Ali is friendly and outgoing, plus he lives near a tourist town where half the folks speak English (and are always looking to practice it!), so he's developed warm friendships with ... everybody, apparently.

And every time we stopped, the first question he got, in either English or Tamazight, was, "Oh, is this your wife?"

Sometimes they'd address it to me: "So, are you Ali's wife?"

He's lived in this place for a year. Been chatting with these guys for a year. Don't you think they'd know if he had a wife?

And for that matter, I'm the third female PCV who's come to visit him. Do they think he's that big a philanderer? And that his American wife would have left him alone for a year?

I couldn't find any logic by which it would make sense that they'd think I was his wife.

This was before I'd fully understood the need of folks here to place people in family networks.

Whoever had gotten the question, we'd both laugh, and shake our heads. It wouldn't work to say "We're friends" - the concept of cross-gender friendship doesn't exist here, so they'd think we were confirming a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. So we tried other options. "We work together." "We've known each other a long time." "We're both Peace Corps Volunteers." Of course, none of these necessarily rule out being married, but they do present other relationships...none of which make as much sense as marriage.

But once folks had accepted that no, we're not married, they'd usually follow it up to Ali with, "So is this your sister?"

By the time we'd fielded these questions for the 5th time, I was ready to say "Yes" and let it go. If they seemed to want more, I'd say, "Just like his sister," or "He's just like a brother to me," but they were often happy to drop it once they had a familial category to drop me in.

We look enough alike to fool someone who doesn't see too many foreigners. We both have reddish hair and pale eyes (mine blue, his green). That's enough to be family, right? :)

I've said before that I'm a terrible liar, and it's true - but calling Ali my brother didn't feel like a lie. Cheezy though it may sound, I do see Peace Corps as one big family. Ali is like a brother to me.

But definitely not a husband.

4/28/10 The Law of the Mikka

As you may remember, mikka means plastic. In any context. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic chairs - I don't think it has the metaphorical meaning that "plastic" can in English, but otherwise, the words are identical.

If mikka is paired with another word, it's an adjective. But if it stands alone - Do you have a mikka? - it refers to a plastic grocery bag.

Mikkas are everywhere around here. They don't break down, don't burn well, and blow away with the faintest breeze. They're one of the commonest forms of litter in Morocco.

And people use them for everything. Every vegetable you buy comes home in a mikka. Everything from the dry-goods hanut. Flour and rice and spices are all sold in bulk, so they're put into small mikkas (plastic bags about the size of a ziplock sandwich bag), knotted, and put into your big mikka (grocery bag).

During the government's Earth Day extravaganza, they pledged to phase out / ban mikkas. I look forward to seeing this...

But what is The Law Of The Mikka?

Because they're so ubiquitous, they've developed uses beyond their original intent. In addition to bagging groceries, they're used to wrap henna'd hands, as emesis basins, and as seat-reservers. And that's what we're talking about today.

If you're planning to ride a transit, but it won't be leaving for a while, you can leave anything - anything - to reserve your seat. I usually leave a scarf or a book, but most folks leave a mikka. It's often filled with whatever they bought in souq that day, but even more often just empty. A regular empty plastic bag, sitting on a transit seat, is a universally-understood sign for This is my seat, so back off.

One day, I'd climbed aboard the transit early - like many women, I'd rather sit inside than wait at a nearby cafe, as most male passengers do - and I got to see this scene play out:

I'm sitting across from a bench seat with two clearly-laid-out mikkas. Obviously, both seats are claimed. A heavyset woman climbs aboard, moves one mikka to the side, and sits down - filling the whole seat. As she shifts around, I realize that some of her bulk is a small child strapped to her back, which she now moves to her lap.

I mentally shrug - apparently the two reserved seats were for her and her kid. Whatever. I go back to my book.

A few minutes later, a man walks up to the door of the transit, takes one look at this, and starts shouting. Though his Tam is too angry and rushed for me to pick out many words, it's clear from his gestures that the mikka she moved was reserving a seat for him. She tries to protest - she needs a seat, she has a baby, etc - but chivalry is not only dead, it never lived in Morocco, so he bullies her off the seat entirely.

His mikka was there first, and he therefore has immutable claim to the seat. A rumpled, crumpled plastic bag...and it gives him absolute dibs.

The Law of the Mikka.

(Don't worry - the jumper later found a seat for the woman and her baby. It turned out that she'd asked him to reserve them a seat, and he had, so when she moved the mikka, she thought it was from her own saved seat. She understands the Law of the Mikka, too.)

4/29/10 Blogs to write

When an idea strikes for a blog entry, I like to jot it down so I don't forget about it. If I don't have paper and pen handy - as I often don't - I type it into my phone, as a "draft message". (Yes, I text enough that I can jot things down pretty quickly with just my thumbs and a candy-bar sized phone.) But when I'm sitting in front of my laptop, I'm usually thinking of other things, so the messages in my phone stay unwritten. The number of notes I've written myself has gotten so ridiculous that I'm running out of phone memory. So in order to clear some space in my phone, I'm transcribing the various blog ideas. Originally I was writing it just for myself, but then I realized that these little notes are kinda entertaining all on their own. (For one thing, it cracks me up that these notes are written in three languages. Yeah, my head is a linguistic stew...) A few I've already written, a few are so telegraphic that even I don't know what they mean any more, and hopefully the rest, now that they're publicized, I'll be prodded (not to say shamed) into writing. Y'know...soon.

Those that have already been written get hyperlinks. Hopefully, within a week or so, they'll all be linked to actual blogs. Inshallah...

WOTD tesarut.
Walnut bullies.
COSers stamp out.
Kitty transportation.
Soyoun's service.
Zaka sadaka.
Popcorn &
7passengers-like you said.
Voluntaire de la paix?
Makeup w Ama
Barbarians 'betes'.
Adxllsg' addug' - aud Rebha.
On birth control.
Narrow-bedded sandstones as grave markers so they can Point Due East! Of course!
Buta tanks of milk line the road.
Peanut butter and maple syrup.

If any sound especially intriguing to you, lemme know and I'll write those first. I do take requests. :)

In the same vein, during a chat-conversation, my sister recently asked me to write some posts reflecting on things I've learned over the past two years. Since that's an awfully big (and vague) request, I asked her to be more precise. Here's her list. Again, if there are any that you especially want to read, be in touch (via email or hitting the comments button), and I'll tackle those first.

Her: I think that covering up women is a sign of repression. I'll fight for a woman's right to dress as she sees fit, but I would prefer that women don't veil themselves at all.
Me: I used to completely agree with you, but I see more layers to it now (no pun intended)
Her: interesting. that sounds like it would make a good blog entry.
Me: hmm
Her: I know that you have a lot of finishing up stuff to do, but you might think about at least writing notes about stuff that you know now that you 'thought' you knew before and your new perspective is very different
Me: gimme ideas
Her: madrassahs
* veiling for women
* sexual harassment - how it's different for foreign women - how it's different btw large cities and the bled
* in general, the thousands of ways that the bled is different from the big cities
* when folks visit Morocco, they usually never leave the big cities, so even though they might travel around the world, they'll just see the European front that Morocco shows Westerners. Morocco absolutely has European-like cities, but it has many more places that are totally unique
* feral dogs and how 'pets' are treated, in general
* how MANY women are totally deprived of schooling
* and how that's slowly changing
* what folks can do to help (if they're so inclined)
* which NGOs are helping and which are not, & why


4/23/10 Mural Painting 101

A How-To Guide for Mural Painting

Step One: Prepare the wall
  1. Decide which patch of wall you want to paint.
  2. Decide how big the final mural will be.
  3. Wash the wall.
  4. If you're scaling up from an existing image, figure out the dimensions, do the math, and calculate the precise size of the mural.
  5. With a tape measure and Sharpie marker (and ideally either a bubble level or a third partner who has a good eye for level), designate the boundaries of the mural.
  6. With a chalkline, ensure the boundaries are perfectly straight.

Step 2: Prime the Wall
  1. Decide what color the background of the mural will be. (For world maps, it makes sense to prime the wall in light blue. That way, the oceans are done, without having to be hyper-careful around continent boundaries. You can just roller them on!)
  2. Mix your paint.
  3. Roller in the bulk of the paint. (Is roller a verb? What else do you call applying paint with a paint roller?)
  4. With a small brush, cut in the edges. Most Moroccan walls are thinly plastered and then whitewashed, so taping the edges isn't an option - you'll rip off half the wall. Hopefully you'll have someone as attentive to detail as we did.
  5. If you're gridding your mural - ie, scaling it up, bit by bit, from a small image, using a grid system - you'll want to snap chalklines at even intervals, so you have a visible grid above your primed surface. To make a precise replica, you'll need to figure out the scale factor between the image in your hand and the mural on the wall. It's math you probably haven't thought about since 7th grade, but sit down with a ruler, tape measure, pencil, and calculator and you'll work it out. :)

Part 3: Draw the Picture
  1. Either freehanded or using a pre-existing image (with or without a grid), draw your picture onto the primed surface. Use a pencil. You can't really erase unless you have an art gum eraser, but you can smudge it pretty easily, so at least you'll know later that you didn't mean that particular line. Besides, you'll be painting over it all, right? :)
  2. If necessary, go back over your penciled lines with a Sharpie. In bright, direct sunlight, our pencil lines were nearly invisible. We shaded them with our arms and redrew them in Sharpie, so they'd be easy to see later, when we had paint brushes in-hand.
  3. Color your own copy of the picture. (This step can be skipped if you have access to a color printer.) We used colored pencils and the black-and-white printouts of the map, and I got to regress to kindergarten. :) Also, we thought that a few of the colors on their map were too similar (like an orange and a peach that we had to squint hard at), so we changed them.
  4. Choose your paint colors. If they match the colors from (3), your life will be a lot simpler. Then mix your paint colors. Our art guru did this for us, with gorgeous success.
  5. Color-swatch your picture. (Especially if your image is complex, like a world map.) That is, daub paint in each little section, so that your mural becomes more or less paint-by-number. This prevents you frantically referencing the printout in your hand (that you hopefully remembered to bring!), trying to figure out if that little corner of Madagascar should be dark green or light green, while swarmed by eager children. Also, this allows children to paint all the sections of their color, without having to check back with you. (Yes, this does make your map look like it has technicolor smallpox, but that won't last long.)

Step 4: Paint the Mural!

Step 5: Bask in your accomplishment

Here are the 21 kids, some teachers, and the PCVs.
(L) Half of the world biome map (R) Half of the Water Cycle mural

Part Six (Optional): Touch Up the Mural

Go back the next day and clean up the edges, make sure there isn't any primed surface still showing through (a big problem on textured walls like these), fix any mistakes... The kids accidentally painted across the Red Sea, making the Sahara contiguous with the Arabian Peninsula. Little things like that.

Water Cycle Mural, End of Day 1 Water Cycle Mural, End of Day 2
The obvious differences are the appearance of the water cycle arrows (whose label words will be filled in soon), and the more obvious nature of the three-dimensional diagram. Also, a cloud shrunk. If you look more carefully, the snowflakes and raindrops were redone, and patchy paint was filled in to present a smooth surface.

World Biome Map, End of Day 1 World Biome Map, End of Day 2

The kids had done a good job, so the only obvious differences are the reappearance of the Red Sea, the biome key (which the Arabic teacher promised to fill in), and that the Kamchatka islands are now islands, and not a big streak of brown. There are also subtle changes, like the thickness of the paint (which shows up best in Antarctica, now white instead of whitish-blue) and the sharpness of the contacts between colors.

Heart-Healthy Foods Mural, End of Day 1 Heart-Healthy Foods Mural, End of Day 2

The fruit and heart got outlined, the frame completed.

Touching-up is optional, and depends on the skill level of your students. And how particular you are about the final product. :)

Step 7: Celebrate!

We went home and had delicious food. I highly recommend this. :)

So there you have it, friends: the seven-step guide to a fabulous mural day. Our Earth Day was a huge success, in my opinion. The kids had a great time, they learned good things, and now their school has trees and murals to embed the memories permanents.

And there was great rejoicing. :D

4/22/10 Earth Day 2010

Happy Earth Day!

This year, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, Morocco's capital city of Rabat was one of 6 cities worldwide that the Earth Day powers-that-be selected for ... I'm still not quite sure what, but something cool. So Morocco has gone *all*out* for Earth Day this year.

Every tree in every public nursery for hundreds of kilometers has been claimed for tree plantings. 400 were planted in SouqTown. 500 in Berberville. Some friends of mine, organizing an Earth Day celebration for their village, located in the heart of the Eastern High Atlas National Park, requested 50 trees and ended up with 12. Which we planted! Along with another 10 olive trees that they purchased from a private nursery.

Earth Day! So many happy memories and fond associations...

In my friends' village, they celebrated Earth Day at their local madrasa (elementary school) with a tree planting, mural painting, and an environmental presentation (originally to be given by our Water and Forestry partner, but when he had to cancel, a friend from SouqTown's English Club stepped in). They asked me to come, since I've helped paint my share of murals. They also invited up an art guru, a PCV who has years of experience as an artist and art teacher, and one of the newbies, here for site visit. (My newbie stayed in Berberville - his choice.)

In the morning, we planted trees with 75 kids - 33 girls and 42 boys.

After lunch, the 21 students from the two oldest classes came back to help us paint the murals.

Pictures and details to come! :D


4/26/10 Ice Cream in Morocco

You'd think a desert country would be filled with cold treats.

You'd be wrong.

If you want American-style ice cream, you're limited to the biggest cities. I've been to a Haagen-Daaz in Marrakesh, where I was so bedazzled by the *glass* *dish* and *spoon* and *napkin* and other amenities that I actually snapped a picture:

In the Jm3 al-Fnaa in Marrakesh, you can get ice cream cones that slide down deliciously, but which always make me feel thirsty. (Maybe extra rock salt was used to make the ice cream?) In Essaouira, you can find gelato by the harbor. In Rabat, a gelaterie is located across from the train station. (You can also get a cone or shake at McDonald's, found in every major city, but would you really want to? They taste just as plastic here as in America.)

There are also pseudo-ice cream dispensers in most of the moderate-sized cities, where for 1DH you can get a cone with a swirl of cold squishy stuff that *looks* like ice cream but tastes like dirty water. (COLD dirty water, though, so I've gotten it more than once, on blisteringly hot days.)

And then there are the ice cream bars. Remember ice cream sandwiches, and chocolate-coated ice cream on a popsicle stick (what are those things called again?), and push pops, and nutter butter cones? They all have analogues here in Morocco.

My personal favorite is the Magnum. Usually available (where you can find it!) in Double Chocolate or Double Caramel, this is the brass ring of Moroccan ice cream options. I've spent many an hour wandering a strange city, questing for a Double Caramel Magnum. Mmmmm. Imagine the usual chunk of ice-cream-on-a-stick, dipped in caramel, dipped in a hard-shell chocolate coating, then dipped *again* in caramel, and again shelled in chocolate. Mmmmmmmm.

When Magnums cannot be found (sadness!), I'll settle for a MaxiBon. This half-ice cream bar, half-ice cream sandwich combines my two favorite cold treats into one delicious snack. Tip: eat the bar half first, because it's easier to hold the sandwich half. Especially if it's *really* hot, and the whole thing will melt in something less than five minutes.

Oh, and be prepared to haggle. Smart hanut owners know that Magnums and MaxiBons make the world go 'round, and they charge accordingly. Don't be surprised if they ask for 20dh apiece. Never pay more than 18dh, and do your best to get the price down to 15dh. (I know the difference is less than 50 American cents, but it's the principle of the thing.)

Bon Appetit!

4/20/10 Sprinks' Camp Photos, cont.

And now for the social side of Spring Camp.

When we weren't leading classes or clubs or otherwise responsible for something, the five PCVs could often be found in a cafe or one of our rooms or in the cafeteria, talking and laughing and playing cards. And most of the time, "playing cards" either meant Spoons or else ERS, dubbed "Double Jack Action" by RoRo and "Double Jack Slap" by me. 'Cause the easiest way to win? Slap a pair of jacks. Like this:

Alternatively, we might take a walk into Emerald City's town center, in search of note cards or art supplies or masking tape or ICE CREAM.

Note the remains of the MaxiBons we all got. Mmmm, MaxiBons...

And of course, we also socialized with the kids. Students. Young people attending the camp. Some we got quite close to over the week. On the last day, as they waited for their parents to come drive them home (and what does it tell you about the socioeconomic status of the campers that they all have parents with **cars**), several pulled out notebooks and asked us to write them farewell notes. Which we did, of course:

...So that was Spring Camp. L-mokhiam. English Language Immersion Camp. Call it what you will...I call it my favorite week every March. :)

4/27/10 Word of the Day: Tezolt

Tezolt is the Tamazight name for what Arabic speakers (and ancient Egyptians) call(ed) kohl. It's used where most American girls would use eyeliner or mascara, ie to darken the eyelashes and/or the area immediately around the eyes.

Traditionally made from galena (PbS, aka lead sulfide), it's now usually made from charcoal or other carbon sources. Well, in countries that regulate health issues and lead poisoning.

Here in Morocco, it's still made from galena.

In souq, I've watched artisans grind up the shiny grey metal cubes, shredding them into a very fine black powder that's mixed with a secret liquid and poured into a small container shaped more or less like a perfume bottle. Check out the illustrations here (and, for that matter, the text, most of which is relevant to Morocco).

I'm on a one-Volunteer campaign to reduce tezolt use. I know it's a Sisyphean battle, given the power of tradition, but I'm working on it. Lead poisoning is serious, especially in children, and it's common here to put tezolt on babies' eyes. In their eyes! It's bad enough in the eyes of adult women, where its soft-tissue access gives it carte blanche into the bloodstream. But in babies?! In America, parents are required to strip and repaint entire houses that have old, lead-based paint in them, just in case your kid decides to lick the wall. And here, parents rub a 50% lead goo into their newborns' eyes.

With a stick.

About 50% longer than a toothpick, and about as big around as the bottom part of a golf tee, the tezolt applicator is a wooden stick that you coat with tezolt - lead - and then jab into your eye. With practice, women become adept at it, and learn to do it without making themselves cry. The lead still stings, of course, but they've accustomed themselves to that.

So I explain to my American friends that yes, tezolt is made from galena, which, yes, is 50% pure lead (Pb), and that's usually enough to keep *them* from using it. And we're all trying to explain it to the women in our communities, but... Tradition is a hard one to fight. People here still rub mud into babies' umbilical cords, to "help them heal". In a land where handwashing is ritualized to basically wetting the fingers, and where mud is viewed as antiseptic, yeah, we've got our work cut out for us. But this is one battle I'm not giving up.


4/11/10 Lucky's Wedding

Here in the heart of Amazigh culture, weddings haven't changed too much in thousands of years. The clothes have gotten a little fancier, but the music and dancing and feasting feel as old as these hills.

As I've mentioned, my cousin "Lucky" has been engaged for months now. At least half a year; the first time I asked when the wedding would be, I was told, "Probably after Ramadan." Since I wouldn't have asked if Ramadan had already begun, I must have heard about the engagement sometime in July or August.

And they never set a date.

The wedding has been "soon" for six months. And then, two days ago, I walked home from the transit stand, past my aunt and uncle's house, and they grabbed me. My 3tti and cousin were sitting on their front stoop, as they often are, and they told me that the wedding would be today, Sunday. So this morning, I brought a cone of sugar and my best Berber clothes over to Ama's house, and prepared to play dress-up. She (gently, graciously) vetoed my choice of dress (tejlabbit) and earrings. I'd brought a dozen pairs of earrings, but didn't have any other fancy-dress clothes, so she dressed me up in one of her takshitas (caftans).

My little sister's dress (takshita) was even fancier, being made out of satin:
(Here, she's reading a comic book I'd brought her from Rabat. And yes, we got her to change out of her red turtleneck into one that matched the purple caftan.) I didn't ask why my little sister was so dressed up, but I must have looked a little puzzled, because Ama explained that the dress had been donated by a neighbor. A closer look revealed that it was a good six inches too long and five inches too wide, but a safety-pin across the back had pulled it tight enough to work. (The one-size-fits-all school of caftan design doesn't apply quite as well to little children, who come in a wider variety of sizes than adults.) She further explained that my little sis will get a custom-made, fitted, dress caftan of her own when her big sister gets married (whether that's me or our other sister, now 19 years old), but that for a cousin's wedding, a borrowed one will do.

The bride wore white, which isn't traditional but is becoming increasingly common, and was unveiled, which floored me:

(The other girl is Lucky's cousin, in her best golden-thread caftan/takshita.) Lucky's hair was pulled back in a gorgeous knot, pinned with flowered clips. Really, she could have worn the dress as a bride at the Plaza, and while it would have been clear she came from a different culture, she would have looked like a bride. (Well, I think so, but then, I've been here for 26 months. If I'm wrong, tell me.)

Note that both girls - like nearly every other female at the wedding - have their eyes rimmed intezolt, or kohl. They'd done their makeup before I got there, and I hadn't thought to talk to them about it in the days before (though in retrospect, I should have).

The feasting and dancing and merrymaking went on for hours...into the wee hours. I snuck out early, just after midnight. It helps that I live next door!

And then, in the morning, the 17-year-old bride and her 18-year-old groom - who she'd met for the first time the day before the wedding, despite having been engaged to him for over a year - were packed off to his town. A PCV buddy of mine lives in that town; I'll ask him to keep an eye out for her.

And inshallah, they'll live happily ever after.


4/17/10 Sprinks' Camp in Photos

I know, I know, I promised you pix from Spring Camp - aka Sprinks' Camp - a month ago. But this is the first time I've pulled the photocard out of my camera in well over a month, so now you get to see them. Enjoy!

As I mentioned, we spent some time locked *into* our room. Sprinks, our fearless leader (left), climbed out the window, around the column she's leaning next to, and over to the landing at the top of the stairs. She went for folks with tools, who began the process of breaking into our room. While they worked, we took a moment to bask in the coastal sun...

Once we got our housing squared away, we turned out attention to work. I was responsible for an English class - I got the Advanced section - and I worked with Zifi to organize an Environment Club.

For our club, Zifi and I arranged a nature walk, with environmental mini-lessons on cards placed throughout a nearby park. Here's one:

Placed near a half-acre of dumped trash, it talks about decomposition rates and asks the kids to think about the future of this mostly-lovely park.

A little farther on, we talked about photosynthesis and the ways by which trees help us. Shortly afterwards, a card asked the students to take a bark rubbing and hug a tree. They did both:

Here, in a non-littered space, you can see just how lovely the park could be, if it were left trash-free. Zifi is talking to the students about observing shades of green. How many different shades do you see?

So that was the club. For English class, each day's lesson was organized around the theme of the day. For Environment Day, my students created posters with concept maps linking environmental ideas:

On our last day of classes, we arranged an English Olympiad, with a series of word games so the students could show off their newly acquired language skills. For one, we had the students create thematic acrostic poems around certain key words from the week. This one was my favorite, so I took a picture of it:

So that's the work side of Spring Camp.

But let's not forget about the play side of Spring Camp.... (To be continued)


4/19/10 QotD: "Hey, don't look at my fiancee that way..."

So now that my replacement, Hassan, is here, I've begun showing him around.

I should have anticipated the nearly inevitable reaction, but somehow I didn't. I've been so much in prepare-the-newbie mode that I didn't stop to think through how my - now our - community would react to the arrival of another foreigner. A male foreigner.

According to Ama, virtually every person she's run into in town has asked her, "Is this Kauthar's husband? Come to take her back to America?"

They've learned that Volunteers always stay two years. And they've remembered that yes, I've been around that long. So they very logically concluded that my husband has arrived to help me pack up and return to America. (Of course, I've always told everyone in Berberville that I'm single...but apparently they never really believed me. Or else figured that this fell into place as quickly as the arranged marriages here do.)

When Hassan wandered around town unaccompanied, this morning, everyone asked him, "Are you married?"

I reassured him that that's the first question everybody gets.

Here in Ait Hadidou, everyone is connected to everyone else, one way or another. If you trace somebody's family tree back far enough, they're probably related to you. Even if their family hasn't branched into yours for generations, there are other connections. Our grandfathers grazed sheep together. Our children go to school together. My cousin share-cropped the fields of your wife's cousin's husband's uncle.

And then the PCVs get dropped into the story. Like aliens dropped off by a spinning mothership, we're funny-looking, oddly-dressed folks whose mores will always be just a little bit insane. (Or maybe a lot insane, like living alone or jogging in the morning.)

We're not connected to anybody.

Of course, we're placed with a host family, which gives us a veneer of connectedness. But it's not fooling anybody. They know that, no matter how many generations back I reach, I won't find somebody who bought a sheep from their great-great-somebody. I've told people that my grandfather fought in Morocco during WWII, but that war didn't much penetrate the depths of the High Atlas Mountains, so people mostly nod vaguely and then bring up the war in Iraq. So I don't mention it much anymore.

Lacking any historical ties, they seek to place us in some sort of framework they can understand. So they immediately start asking what ties we do have. Marriage? Kids? How many? Genders? Siblings? How many? Parents still alive? Etc.

Here in Berberville, people are identified first by family, second by individuality. (Quite literally - like in China, the last name is given first.) Your family identity serves to place you in a context first, and you can tell your given name.

Given this family-driven culture, it's inevitable that folks would assume a connection between their foreigner - me - and this new foreigner that I'm walking around town with. Either husband or brother, gotta be. People are probably placing bets as to which it is. And most appear to be going for husband.

But then, I did say that I was single. Repeatedly. Loudly. In several languages. So maybe we aren't married yet. Maybe we're just engaged. Yeah, and that's why I kept insisting that, "I don't have a man." Because it's not official yet. But now that I've finished my Berberville term, it's time to go home and settle down with my man.

Yeah, that totally makes sense.

Well, to a Berbervill-ian, it does.

So when I told Hassan what Ama had reported to me (which she'd also told him, but which she wasn't sure if he'd understood, with his still-developing language skills), we got a good laugh out of it, and it became a running joke.

I've also told Hassan why he's the first male PCV in Berberville. Why I fought all the way up and down the chain of command to ensure that no woman would be placed in this town again. And being an all-around good guy, he's already looking for ways to improve the situation of women here. He's even mentioned opening up dialogues with the guys in town, but that'll need to wait till they know and respect him. But he's already making my life easier, just by walking around town with me. Whenever a man says something to me, he intercepts the comment and greets the guy. More than once, he's adjusted our positioning as we walk, to put himself between me and the guy. (I'm not sure if this is conscious or not, but it makes me smile.)

Mid-afternoon, we walked up a path, in sight of my - our - host family's house. Two men were coming towards us. I kept my eyes on the ground 10 feet in front of me. (I've learned the hard way that making eye contact is really never, ever a good idea. ::sigh::) Because I was watching the dirt, I heard Hassan exchange greetings with them, but didn't see any of the interaction. After we'd passed them, I heard him grumping, "Hey, don't look at my fiancee that way."

Yeah, I'm definitely leaving Berberville in good hands. :D


4/18/10 The Middle of Beautiful Nowhere

It's time.

After 26 months in-country, after 23 months of service, it's time for me to go...which means it's time for me to be replaced.

I'm on the cusp of my Berberville departure, which means Berberville will get a new Environment PCV to carry on my work and begin his own.

My replacement's term of service starts May 5th, which means we'll get 2 weeks of overlap before I swear out on May 19th (inshallah)...but he's here now, getting his "Site Visit", aka sneak peak.

I admit, I was a little apprehensive about my replacement. I knew he'd be male, since I'd insisted on that with my entire staff, all the way up and down the chain of command. But beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. I could anticipate a great person, simply Peace Corps is just about exclusively staffed by amazing human beings, but still...

What if he doesn't like Berberville?

What if my host family doesn't like

What if he alienates everyone I care about in town?

I admit, the first concern was probably the biggest. I could be almost positive that he'd be likeable, since, hey, he's a Peace Corps Volunteer. But what if he didn't like the town I've come to love? What if he took one look at my naked mountains and barren hillsides and recoiled?

This fear is well-grounded: my first stories of Berberville came from a CBT/stage friend, who came here on a field trip. She came back to us with stories of "the ugliest place in Morocco". She said something like, "If they put me there, I'll cry. And then I'll ET."

So when I got assigned this site, I thought, Oh, no, I'm going to the ugliest spot in Morocco!

But then I came here.

And I realized that there are many kinds of beauty. And while my friend didn't appreciate the sere beauty of my brown hillsides, I rejoice in the visible geology, with its sweeping folds and tearing faults and the vertical beds that rise like highways to heaven. I've taken hundreds of photos that I hope will be published in geological textbooks - this place is literally textbook geology. I've seen cross-cutting relationships that took my breath away, and complex folds that stir my heart.

Am I a geonerd? Abso-blimmin-lutely.

But I find my site truly, deeply beautiful...and I want others to, too.

The times I've shared my site with visitors, I wait with bated breath to hear them say something gently disparaging, like, "It must have been lovely when trees covered the hillsides," or "Well, at least the skyline is kind of dramatic."

So far, everyone has admitted only to liking it.


But still, what if my shoes were filled by someone who felt Berberville was a site to endure instead of a place to celebrate?

So his reaction mattered.

As we rode up on our four-hour journey from SouqTown, he kept asking me about the geology.

This encouraged me.

His field is biology, not geology, but he finds it interesting.

I felt hopeful.

When we got to the final 5 km of the trip - the most breathtaking geology I've ever seen (and yes, I've been to the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park and other gorgeous spots) - he let me revel in the beauty. He sounded appropriately appreciative, for which I was grateful. I told him how nervous I'd been that he might not like it.

His response: "Anyone who can come to the middle of beautiful nowhere and not appreciate it shouldn't even be in Peace Corps."

The middle of beautiful nowhere.

150 km from any decent-sized town.

12 hours from any city.

The cultural, historical, and geographical center of Morocco.

The middle of beautiful nowhere.

Oh, and my host family and everyone else? They like him.

Yeah, I'm leaving Berberville in good hands.

Alhumdulillah! :D


4/14/10 Four A.M.

Last night, I checked in with the driver of the crack-o-dawn transit. He said he'd be leaving at "Arrba nishan." 4'o'clock, straight up. O-dark-hundred.

So I set my alarm for 3:30, packed, and said goodnight to my visiting buddy. I left her playing on the internet (not everyone is as lucky as I do, having internet at home) and crashed out. Except that I couldn't sleep. Till almost 2. At 3:30, the alarm went off faithfully. I pulled myself together, assembled my bags (one to bring to Rabat, one with zucchini bread, and two of muraling supplies, for next week's Earth Day fun with Zakaria and Nacima), and trudged out to the road. I got out at about 10 till 4, and saw nothing. No one.

Did the transit leave early? It sometimes does...but the driver knew I wanted to go, and I even told him where I live, so I know he wouldn't have left without honking outside my door.

5 cold minutes go by.

I look up the road. No sign of the transit. No one waiting for the transit.

10 cold minutes.

I wonder if anyone else will drive past that I can hitch a ride with. Seems unlikely.

I hear the wake-up call. It precedes the predawn call-to-prayer by about 15 minutes, giving people time to wake up and clean up before their morning prayers. The caller says things like, "Prayer is better than sleep," and "You will be rewarded for your devotion!"

It occurs to me that the morning transit never leaves before the prayer call. Folks pray, *then* travel.

I stop worrying that I've missed it, and simply wait for it to show.

I hear the morning call to prayer. "Alllllaaaaaaahu akbar! Alllllaaaaaaahu akbar! La illa...." the voice rings out over the dark town.

I see shadows shifting on a nearby building. Where's the light coming from? Both moon and stars are too dim on this overcast morning... I get up, look around, and can't find the source of the light. I sit back down. A moment later, headlights approach over a hill. The transit is here! Alhumdulillah!

I stow my bags on top (with a lot of help from the jumper) and climb on board. 4:23am, my phone claims. So much for 'Arrba nishan', I grump to myself, then settle down to try to sleep. (Unsuccessfully. I can never sleep when sitting up.)

We finally roll at 4:45, rolling eastward towards the approaching sunrise...

Just another morning in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.


4/14 Ait Merikan

Introductory note. In Tamazight, "Ait" means "Tribe of" and/or "Family of" - there's really no distinction in the concepts. In Darija, nobody refers to the US as anything other than "Merikan." America = Merikan. Meh-ree-kan. As a new arrival, I kept thinking they were saying "American", not "America", but eventually I figured it out. In Tamazight, they've adapted the Darija "Merikan" to "Ait Merikan": The Tribe of America. I come from the Family of America. :)

This afternoon, Ama and I went over to have tea with my 3tti - the mom of the cousin who was arrested on suspicion of mugging. He was recently exonerated, so Ama told me that I should bring 3tti a cone of sugar. It's a traditional gift, brought to weddings, funerals, baby-naming ceremonies, and pretty much every other occasion where you expect someone will do a lot of entertaining and will need to have a lot of sugar. (Because every visitor needs tea, right, and every pot of tea requires a good cup or two of sugar...right? Right.)

So off I went, cone of sugar in hand.

We had a nice visit with 3tti, though she spent most of it fluttering about, chastising Ama for not warning her that I'd be coming over, and thus not giving her a chance to prepare cookies and cakes and other treats for the fancy visitor. It still bugs me that she sees me as the fancy visitor, and I kept assuring her that the bread and oil and cup-o-tea were **really** all I needed, but she kept fluttering anyway. She found cookies squirreled away, so brought those out. She dug out some stored peanuts and almonds that she put out on a plate for us. She made aHrir, the macaroni-like pasta dish that's often served at teatime.

Every time she brought out something else, I begged her to sit down and rest, but she kept buzzing back to the kitchen.

So Ama and I got a nice chat, which I'll write more about later. (Or not...we talked about some fairly personal things, which I found fascinating - and assume my culturally curious readers will, too - but which maybe I shouldn't share. Hm. I'll keep thinking about that.)

When 3tti finally stopped her impression of a hummingbird on crack, and sat down with us, she began issuing instructions. She's the family matriarch, since the death of my Mahallu two summers ago, and she takes it seriously.

But I couldn't take anything she said seriously, because she started her lecture with, "When you go back to --" she paused and turned to Ama. "Where's she from again?"

"Ait Merikan."

"Right, when you go back to Ait Merikan, you need to..."

I smiled and nodded, but paid only as much attention as I needed to in order to be able to respond with the appropriate (vague, unbinding) phrases.

She doesn't know where I'm from.

I've lived in her town, with her brother-in-law's family, for two years, and she doesn't know where I'm from.

More to the point, she doesn't remember the name of America.


The only remaining superpower. (Well, except China.) The most powerful country in the world.


She couldn't remember its name.

Last week, a buddy of mine discovered that his Moroccan neighbors had never heard that the Earth goes around the Sun. He spent a week goggling about that, but it didn't surprise me that much. Most of our neighbors are illiterate, living lives that haven't changed much since the times of the Pharoahs...not knowing that the Sun doesn't orbit the Earth? Yeah, that fits. But this one took my breath away.

She doesn't know the name of America.

Welcome to the third world, wide-eyed innocent....


3/30/10 The Huffer Environmentalist (Rated PG-13)

Zifi and I put the cards for our Nature Walk out on Monday morning, then led groups of campers on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons. Each day, we had fewer cards than the day before, as they were lost to wind, curiosity, or vandals. (At least one was deliberately moved, and another torn to pieces.)

On one walk, we found that the Make a leaf rubbing card had fallen from the tree we'd tried to tape it to. Moreover, it had landed in a puddle of motor oil, so it was saturated and greasy. Someone had dropped a not-yet-empty bottle of oil, uncapped, so it had poured out. Whether the same person dropped our card into their mess or whether the wind took care of that, we'll never know.

After we retrieved the card, and greasily attempted to re-affix it to the tree, I noticed that one of the kids had picked up the plastic bottle. I was touched that he'd internalized the lesson of decomposition, and that he remembered that plastic bottles take hundreds or thousands of years to break down completely. I leaned over to Zifi and pointed out our little tree hugger.

A few minutes further up the path, I looked back and saw the kid with his nose in the bottle. Either he was checking to see if that noxious odor was really coming from the bottle, or he was huffing. Odds are, it's the latter. I remain hopeful that it's the former.

When we got back to the camp, a few minutes later, I was relieved to see the kid drop the bottle in a trash can. Either he really was trying to clean up the park, a little at a time, or he'd discovered that motor oil may smell awful, and in fact be awful, but it won't get you high.

Either way, he'd learned a valuable lesson, right? :)

3/29/10 Nature Walkin'

At the Spring Camp in Emerald City, Zifi and I led an Environment Club. Over three days, we took the three groups of students on a walk through the neighborhood park adjoining the camp.

We'd prepared index cards with various activities, which we placed at strategic points throughout the park:

  • Look up. How many different colors of green do you see?
We placed this one just a few minutes into the park, to introduce to the students the idea of careful observation. Most kids responded with 3 or 4, until we pointed out that even the same leaf could have multiple shades of green, in the dappled light.

  • Look at the litter. How long do you think it takes these items to decompose?
Decompose was a new word for the kids, in English at least, but most of them were familiar with the concept. We put this card near a huge pile of trash - close to the size of a football field - and pointed out various pieces of garbage while giving the kids these decomposition statistics: disposable diaper 10-20 years, orange or banana peel 3-5 weeks, cigarette butts 2-5 years, plastic six pack holder 450 years, piece of paper 2-4 weeks, plastic bag 10-20 years, Aluminum can 250-350 years, wool sock 2-4 years, Styrofoam never, glass never.

We asked them
if they planned to bring their kids to this park someday - we didn't bother asking if they planned to have kids, since that's a given in this culture - and pointed out that, unless somebody stepped up with a massive cleanup effort, most of this trashpile would be waiting for their children.

The amount of litter in the otherwise lovely park depressed me. In fact, litter is the wrong word. It implies left behind detritus. This trash looked to have been deliberately dumped. In fact, the park was full of narrow mounds, mostly grown over with grass, that looked for all the world like a garbage truck had backed up, dropped a full load of trash, and driven off. Does Emerald City not have a town dump? Or is it cheaper to drop trash in the park than to pay some sort of town-dump-fee? Zifi and I speculated, and even asked the kids, but never got an answer.
  • Stop. Can you feel the warmth of the sun?

This one sat in an open area in the mostly-shaded park, and gave us a chance to bask in the sunlight (since it was chilly most of the week) and to talk about photosynthesis. Virtually none of the kids knew the word "photosynthesis" in English before we gave it to them, but most had learned about la photosynthèse in Science class (which is usually conducted in French, as are half the classes by junior high and high school). They were relieved to find it a cognate (as are oxygen and carbon dioxide, for that matter. Let's hear it for the universality of science!).
  • Hug a tree.
The kids found this one goofy, but did it anyway. We talked about photosynthesis and the role trees play in giving us oxygen, as well as absorbing our carbon dioxide exhalations, let alone providing wood, paper, kindling, etc.
  • Make a rubbing of bark.
The word bark was new, as was the concept of doing a rubbing. After the first group mostly just drew on their papers while holding them against a tree, we were careful to emphasize with the second and third groups to only use the side of their crayon. The trees in question had a really gnarly bark, so the rubbings came out well. :)

  • Using only your senses of touch, smell, or taste, become familiar with one tree. You should be able to identify your tree later on.
This was a fun one. We'd blindfold a few volunteers, assign them buddies (since the ground was uneven at best, and liberally sprinkled with thorn bushes), and then have each buddy walk each blindfolded volunteer to a tree. The blinded kid would grope around at the tree, exploring the texture of the bark, feeling for low branches, sniffing it, licking it, and generally memorizing "their" tree. Then the buddy led the still-blindfolded camper back to the group, at which point we'd spin the poor blind thing in circles till they were dizzy, and then remove the blindfold and ask them to find their tree again.

We did this with about 15 of the 50 kids in camp, and every single one of them correctly identified their tree. Undoubtedly, a few were assisted by unscrupulous (or just overly-helpful) buddies, but most had simply learned so many characteristics of their tree - a knot just at knee height, or a branch at shoulder height, or a gap in the bark just there if you reached around - that no imitation, substitution, or alteration would do. We couldn't fool 'em.
  • Look down. How many different colors of green do you see?
Usually, by the time we'd gotten here, the kids were observing more carefully, and we got much higher numbers than the first time.
  • Look closely. How many living things do you see? Make a list in your notebook.
This card we placed in a relatively open spot, with a view of a stream that usually hosted a few egrets, as well as near some bushes that played home to snails. Most of the students learned the English words for ant and grass and insect here. (This is an English-language immersion camp, after all, they're supposed to be learning new words.) Some kids got really into it, and found all sorts of beetles and spiders and other creepy-crawlies.

That reminds me - once, a student asked me to translate le ver. Thinking she'd said le vert, the grass/greenery, I gave them grass. But as I heard them passing the word to each other, I realized they meant worm, and suddenly remembered the tongue-twister from French class, Le ver vert travers la vert vers la verre vert. The green worm crosses the the grass towards the green glass. And all the words are homonyms (or nearly, for travers). OK, sorry, end tangent.
  • Close your eyes. Listen. What do you hear? Make a list in your notebook.
Most of the students discerned the nearby flowing stream, the wind through the eucalyptus leaves, crickets, frogs, and a few birds. A few snarky kids pointed out that they could hear their not-so-silent friends, too.
  • Imagine - what did this park look like 100 years ago? Draw in your notebook.
We placed this card in one of the most picturesque sections of the park, far from the dump sites and the toxic sludge growing in the pond. By this point in the walk, we were usually running late, so sometimes we had the kids draw, and other times, we just talked about what we saw. Most of the kids knew that the eucalyptus trees in this area were all non-native, introduced from Australia fairly recently. The Water and Forestry Department loves planting eucalyptus trees. Kalaytus, as they're known here, grow ridiculously quickly, so tree-planting projects look successful within a matter of years. Unfortunately, they also poison the soil, so there's never much (if any) undergrowth.
  • Make a rubbing of a leaf.
By the time we got here, we never had any time, so we skipped this activity all three days. Sorry, leaves. You'll get love another time.
  • Imagine – what will this park look like in 100 years?
We placed this card on top of a garbage pile that someone had dumped right smack in the middle of the road. They hadn't even pulled into the trees, like the rest of the trash dumpers. We gave the kids the chance to speculate whether the park would be cleaned up or would turn into a multi-acre trash heap. Most kids went with a middle ground, anticipating that it would be a housing development. Given how rapidly this Casablanca suburb is growing, they're probably right.

At this point, we walked the kids back to camp, thanked them for joining us on a nature walk, and sent them off to their afternoon activity.

PS: Of the three groups we took out, we never once had a kid wander off (helped by having either Zifi or me walk sweep), but we did occasionally have extra kids join in. I'm not sure where they wandered in from, but as long as everyone who we'd left with, came back, I figured we'd done our jobs.

4/09/10 Women's Hour

After hearing from my host dad just how much Ama had missed me, I fully intended to go over to their house for lunch. When lunch rolled around, though, I was in the middle of something, so placated my conscience by promising myself that I'd go over for teatime, around 4:30 or 5.

Instead, they came to me.

At 4:30, I heard a knock on the door.

I trotted down the stairs and found Ama. I started to invite her up, but she instead urged me to come out. My cousin Lucky is getting married tomorrow (which I knew*), so preparations have already begun. We went over to Lucky's house, where I was fed milk and tea (since they know I don't drink coffee) and sponge-bread and lmsmn (sort of naan-like crepe-y bread) and chatted with the women of my family. In addition to the full spread of my 3ttis (ie, all Baba's sisters-in-law), Baba's own 3ttis were there.

So they asked me the usual spread of questions - are you married? do you have children? when will you find a man? - and I gave the usual answers. (Not yet, not yet, as God wills.) Then someone brought up my impending departure. Yes, I'm leaving soon. Yes, the time is close. Yes, very close: about a month.

And then came the rapidfire attack:

"So will you get married when you go back to America?" an 3tti wanted to know.

"As God wills," I evaded.

"When you get married, you need to invite Ama and Baba and all your 3ttis and friends to America to come to the wedding," 3tti Rqiya announced.

"If God wills," I dodged.

And then Ama stepped in. "I've told Kauthar that when she finds a man, she just has to bring him here. We'll throw her a wedding like Lucky will have tomorrow." She gestured to the decorations (mostly taHruyts) already in place for tomorrow's festivities.

This seemed to reassure the 3ttis. "Oh, so she will find a man in America," they told each other. Repeatedly.

They were addressing their remarks to each other, not to me, so I didn't respond.

"And you'll bring your man here?" they asked, seeking confirmation.

"As God wills."

"Oh, that's good." "We'll meet your man." "That's very good." Their voices overlapped each other, while I gave my heartiest, slightly pained smile.

By the way, this was all happening at the slightly slower-than-normal speed that the older women have learned they need to adopt if the foreign girl is going to understand them. Berberville's women are famous for their rapidfire delivery. Even my tutor and friend, an intelligent and educated women who grew up just over in Souqtown, has trouble understanding them when they're at full speed.

So they've learned to slow down if they want me to listen and respond. And I've learned that if they are speaking at full velocity, it means they don't want me to understand.

So when Ama rattled off a machine-gunned sentence, I knew it was for their benefit, not for mine. And once I'd heard the whole thing (and taken a second to process it), I understood why. She'd said, "And FYI, the man she brings back might be black. Just be warned."

The 3ttis burst out in a chorus of shock and indignation.

Ama reiterated her point, and I nodded confirmation. She and I haven't talked about this in months, maybe years, but at some point, race came up, and I said that yes, I might marry someone of color. She was surprised (though much less so - or at least less visibly - than any of these women), and I'd told her that my sister and I have both dated men of color, so yeah, anything's possible.

I rarely discuss race with Moroccans, because I know I'm probably not going to like what I hear.
And while I can try to rationalize to myself that different cultures and different countries will of course have different attitudes, it's still hard for me to like anyone who's cheerfully racist. I have a Black Studies minor, for pete's sake. (Plus, yes, the cliche is true, lots of my closest friends are non-white. As are an ex or two.)

So I rapidly girded myself up for this battle, and smiled cheerfully at my 3ttis while they railed at me. I won't reproduce their comments, because it would only hurt some of my readers. Here's my response, interjected among their remarks: "Maybe someone white, maybe someone black. Only God knows. And no, 3tti, I *don't* have 'the good color'. Just ask Rebha, here, who called me a matisha [tomato] my whole first summer. I'm too white. It's better to have some color. Besides, it's all in God's hands."

Our conversation was abruptly interrupted by the news that my sister had just been hit by a car. After a flurry of panic, it quickly became clear that the car was going the routine 5 km/hr that our barely-paved roads require, and that while she was shaken up, she was completely unhurt. (Alhumdulillah.)

But the conversation never got back around to me and my future honeybun, for which I was grateful.

After another few minutes of assorted chatter, Ama and I said our goodbyes and then went to our separate homes. After making plans to go to the wedding, of course. :)

Oh, and why did I call this post Women's Hour? Because in the hour or hour-and-a-half I spent there, I didn't see a single man or boy. (Well, not counting my nine-month-old baby brother.) I knew that weddings themselves were fairly gender-segregated, but I hadn't realized that the preparations are, too.

* When I arrived home last night, I saw my 3tti Rebha sitting with my cousin Lucky (names changed) on their stoop. I greeted them, told them about my travels, etc. They promptly informed me that Lucky's wedding, which has been impending news for months now, is scheduled for Sunday. See, here in Berberville, when folks get engaged, they don't really "set a date". Instead, they just publicize their intent to marry, and then wait a while. I've never figured out exactly what they're waiting for, though I'm sure that saving up money for the wedding plays a role. (It's haram - forbidden - to borrow money, which means that nobody takes out loans for homebuying or weddings or anything else. You just wait till you have enough money. That's why nearly every house you see is in some state of ongoing construction - whenever a windfall comes in, they'll add a room/floor/throw pillows.) I've been asking for months when Lucky's wedding will be, and always get the answer, "Later, inshallah." Accordingly, every time I travel, I accept that she may well be married and gone before I get back. But luckily (hey!) enough, I'll be here for the wedding! Expect pictures tomorrow. :)

3/28/10 The Insurance Samaritan

As loyal readers may recall, I worked as a counselor at a Spring Camp last year, too. Despite the rant I wrote on the first day, camp was a success. The kids had a good time, I met lots of great folks, had fun with my PCV buddies, and got to explore a part of the country that was new to me. Oh, and the students learned some English, too. :)

Even though this year's camp was on the opposite end of the country from last year's, with a 100% different staff (well, except for me), I expected things to be similar. I'm good at making predictions based on past events. It's one of those critical thinking skills the American educational system excels at giving its students.

And broadly speaking, yes, this year's Camp resembled last year's. Similar daily schedule, similar hopes on the part of the students/campers and staff, even a similar menu. (Though this year we got *meat* at every lunch and dinner, which indicates that our mudir - the Moroccan in charge - spent every penny of the food budget on food.)

But a few logistical things were different.

Instead of being housed in a dorm with the students, we PCVs were in a separate building, with a separate entrance. While there were a few computers available for our use, whereas last year there was only one, the printer didn't show up till the second day, and it never worked. Last year we had free use of a printer and photocopier, which made many things easier. (For one, I spent about half of each English class reviewing environmentally-themed songs, which meant the students needed printouts of the lyrics.)

Solution to the printer-less problem? We walked into town, where we found lots of cybercafes.

Interestingly, though, cybercafes in Emerald City don't have printers.


We went into a couple, and they all seemed to think it ludicrous that one might wish to print out that which one could see perfectly well on-screen.

The only printer in the whole town, apparently, lived in a teleboutique about a 20 minute walk from the camp.

So that's where we printed stuff the first night.

The second day, though, we tried to do our printing during the mid-day siesta break.

And the teleboutique was closed.

When we discovered this, Sprinks and I brainstormed possible solutions. (Another of those nifty critical thinking skills.) First we tried the mktaba (office supply store) where we'd gotten cardstock and permanent markers and other tools of the camp counselor trade.

Photocopier, yes. Printer, no.

Next, we brought our trusty thumb drives (aka USB drives, aka flash drives) to a photography studio. They print photos off of USBs all the time, so it stands to reason they have printers and computers, right?

Turns out they have photo printers only.

Or so Mr. Printer Man told me, when I politely asked for his help. (In French, since Emerald City is an Arabic-speaking town, with no more than a scant handful of Tam speakers.)

Then he hesitated.

"How many copies do you need? Like, 10ish?"

"No, like 5." I glanced over at Sprinks for confirmation. In English, I quickly asked her how many she needed. She needed two pages, I needed three. "Yes, just five pages," I confirmed to Mr. Printer Man.

"Well, the machines here only work for photos...theoretically. Hang on a sec."

Sprinks and I exchanged glances. I translated the conversation for her, and we prepared to wait. This being Morocco, "a sec" could be anything from thirty seconds to 2 hours. We'd given ourselves a big time window - about an hour and a half - to print out our five pages, but we both knew that time here flows differently than it does in America.

About 5 minutes later, Mr. Printer Man closed up his side of the shop and headed to the door. Sprinks and I exchanged glances again. "Should we follow him?"

Just then, he looked back. "Come on," he said, in one of the few Arabic phrases I know. (Of course, Sprinks's Arabic is awesome, so I'd planned to rely on her, but it's always nice to know first-hand what's going on.)

We followed him into the street, exchanging further dubious glances. He led us up the block.

"Do you think he's taking us back to the mktaba?" Sprinks asked, in the usual PCV linguistic soup.

"I dunno, imkin," I answered. (It's possible.)

But we walked past the office supply shop and kept going. We continued to the edge of the business district. We followed, not sure what else to do, both wondering if he was taking us to his house?!

Confused but cautiously hopeful, we kept after him. And then Mr. Printer Man walked up to an insurance office, closed and locked for siesta.

He pulled out a keychain.

Did he live above the office? Did he own the office?

He unlocked the door and walked through. We followed him in. He walked back to the farthest desk, and began powering up the computer on it. He motioned us into the seats across from him. It felt - and must have looked, to someone looking in through the glass doors from the street - like we'd come to buy insurance.

He offered us his card. It turns out that Mr. Printer Man is only a part-time photo printer, and a part-time insurance salesman. This was his desk, in his office, where he could help us out.

When the computer had booted up, he reached for our thumb drives. We handed them over, one by one, pointing out the documents we needed. He printed us one copy of each (and asked if we wanted more, but we refused).

"Should we pay him?" Sprinks murmured.

"I dunno; I'm trying to think how to ask without offending him," I whispered back.

As we stood up to leave, heaping profuse thanks and blessings upon him and his parents, I seized upon an excessively formal French construction that allowed me to ask if one could possibly pay for this? He refused instantly and profusely, as I'd expected, so I reiterated the thanks and blessings, shook his hand, and turned to go.

The photocopy place was only half a block away, and we quickly got all the copies we needed. The whole thing had taken something like half an hour, leaving us plenty of time to join our friends over at the cafe before returning to camp.

So the camp didn't have a functioning printer. So the only pay-per-page printer in all of Emerald City was closed for lunch. The insurance samaritan had gone way, way out of his way to take care of us - two people he'd never seen before and would likely never see again.

I really love this country.

4/10/10 QotD: "Did you die?"

This morning, while picking up bread and yogurt from my favorite hanut guy, my host dad came up behind me and cried, "Kauthar!"

I spun around with a huge smile on my face. We clasped hands, said the routine greetings, and then he asked, "Did you die?"

I laughed, as he expected me to. "No, I didn't die. I just traveled. A lot."

"Your mom keeps asking about you. 'Is she back yet? Is her house still shut up?' and every day I have to tell her, 'No, she's not back. Her house is still padlocked.'"

I reassured him, "I just got in last night. I'll be over soon."

With a tone that said, you better, he said, "OK, we'll see you soon, then."

"See you soon."

As I walked away, I couldn't hide a big grin. It's nice to know that I'm missed when I'm gone. :)


4/1/10 Sprinks' Camp

While a successful Spring Camp experience requires many things, from competent staff to friendly kids to tasty food, in my experience it hinges on having a great group of PCVs. If you love the Volunteers you’re working with, you can weather nearly anything. If there’s drama, tension, resentment, or any other negative emotion, everything becomes harder.

Al-humdulillah, we have an awesome group of Volunteers working here in Emerald City. Awesome.

And from here on out, I’m going to refer to us by the nicknames we gave each other.

Our fearless leader is Sprinks, shortened from Sprinkler, who famously sprayed an entire table and several friends with water after hearing the 10,000th joke of the day from our resident comedienne. That fabulous female is now Wudja, from her habit of posing brain-twisting “Would-you-rather” puzzlers, like “Would you rather run naked through your site for a full day, or spend a full week slapping on the butt everyone you greeted?” or “Would you rather battle a witch pilgrim or a zombie shark?”

My Environment partner-in-crime is now Zifi, truncated from Zombie Fish. See, we Volunteers tend to slip off and play cards from time to time, and one of our games of choice is E.R.S., also known as Double Jack Slap. (You know, the one where you slap doubles and sandwiches, and where face cards let you steal the pile.) If you run out of cards, you’re out – but you can slap your way back in, if your fingers are quick enough. Zifi got out early in one of our first rounds, and his outstretched palm, twitching and flopping and shuddering as it kept reaching out to slap the stack and then checking itself against illegal slaps, looked like a cross between a flopping fish-out-of-water and a shuddering zombie. Hence, Zombie Fish.

The only Volunteer working the camp who I hadn’t met before was RoRo. He’s the newest of the five of us, having only been in-country for about six months. Whence the nickname? Well, we were trying to decide what simple song to sing with the campers at the pre-dinner camp song spectacular (previous favorites include “Boom Chick-a Boom”, “Go, Go Banana” and "The Hokey-Pokey"). Somebody suggested “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” so we gave that a trial run. RoRo opened with an arpeggio. When, after three gentle (and not-so-gentle) reminders that all three Rows are supposed to be on the same note, we just accepted that (1) he’s tone deaf, and (2) he’ll be RoRo forever.

And my nickname? Well, between my penchant for playing the original “Big Yellow Taxi” (which I taught my kids, for its English vocabulary and environmental message), my habit of bursting into random snatches of song, and my general tree-hugging hippy behavior, it was decided that I’m an updated version of Ms. Joni Mitchell. And since I give back rubs to my fellow PCVs, and there’s no record that Joni Mitchell is a massager, I’ve been deemed an upgrade: Joni 2.0.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce the American staff of Spring 2010’s Spring Camp in Ben Slimane: Sprinks, Wudja, Zifi, RoRo, and J2.

1/6/10 Inventory

Yes, this post is three months overdue. Whoops.

As I rode the bus back after my long European vacation, I reflected on the transformed contents of my backpack. I’d traveled with a small pack, so I could carry-on with it (and thus dodge RyanAir’s travel fees), and had deliberately brought my least favorite clothes so that I could leave them behind, in trash cans and/or hostel share-boxes. I managed to drop 2 thick cotton shirts, a longjohn shirt, a pair of socks, and a bottle of shampoo.

I also swapped out an apple for 4 granola bars, and an empty memory card for a full one (despite repeated purgings).

And I filled the space left behind by the abandoned clothes with FOOD. Mmmm, food. 3 bottles of herb-saturated olive oil from Rome. A round of goat cheese from Amsterdam. A wedge of brie from the airport in Brussels (there’s a story there…). A wedge of parmesan from Rome. A wedge of redball cheese from Fez’s Marjane. A box of green tea. A bottle of syrup-infused crème. A bottle of fish sauce. A toy box with 8 Van Gogh paintings, from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum. A Starry Night mug from a tourist shop in Amsterdam. A holy shot glass from the Vatican (by special request for a friend). A rainbow pin saying “Peace” in Italian. ~15 country patches, to be sewn on to backpacks/jackets/whatever. Postcards and notecards from the Escher museum.

But my best exchange story involves books.

4 random romance novels inherited from a COSed Volunteer went into Café Clock, in Fes, where they magically transformed into 3 much better books: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (so much better than I’d expected!), Europe on a Shoestring (necessary for any cheap/broke/PCV traveler in Europe), and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood (as hauntingly memorable as her other dystopian futures). I swapped Dracula for Isabelle Allende’s City of Beasts (nutshell: she should stick to writing for adults) on my second day in Marseilles. I swapped Year of the Flood for David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day (soooo much funnier than his depressing Christmas stories) on my first day in Rome. In Amsterdam, Shoestring and Beasts left me in exchange for James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (not my cup of tea) and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (couldn’t get into it – too much dry psychoanalysis, not enough nice people). In Brussels, a friend gave me John Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (redefining what a “novel” can be – breathtaking!), and I surrendered Joyce for Khalid Housseini’s Thousand Splendid Suns (which made me sob hysterically for about half an hour; Housseini is not for the faint of heart, and his portrait of womanhood under totalitarian regimes and totalitarian husbands…searing, to say the least).

Thus did 4 totally forgettable novels turn into some of the best books I’ve read.

Traveling is cool. :)

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