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5/30/10 Cross-Cultural Moments

Some RPCVs have told me that re-entry to America is the hardest (or at least *one* of the hardest) part(s) of their service.

So far, my return has been smooth, but maybe it'll get harder as I get more settled in a routine so different from anything I've lived for two years. For now, I still feel like I'm on vacation. I've lived out of two backpacks for the past three weeks, and have traveled at least once every 2-3 days.

A few things surprise me - these plastic flat things y'all call phones (dude, what happened to the buttons!), the speed of cars on the roads, the willingness of folks to drink alcohol *in*public* - but I know those will seem normal soon enough.

But I do keep having moments of cross-cultural ... surprise? disorientation? confusion?

Little things, only lasting a split second.

Like when I hear a voice 5-10 feet away, speaking in American-accented English, and my head snaps up in excitement. ("Ooh, somebody I can talk to! From **America**!") And then I remember that oh, yeah, that's not extraordinary anymore. I'm *in* America.

Or when I see some long-inaccessible treat, like root beer, and get all excited, and feel that I have to buy it immediately. The other day, I wasn't hungry or thirsty, but I felt like I didn't buy the a can and stash it in my bag, I might not see another can of root beer for months or years. And once I'd convinced myself that yes, I can buy root beer *whenever*I*want*to*, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer availability of everything.

Or when I was halfway to the coffee shop where I'd said I'd meet a friend, and thought, "Oh, no, I didn't bring any tissues with me!" ...and then realized, Oh, wait, they'll *have* toilet paper in their bathrooms.

Or when I talk about the Moroccan city you know as "Marrakesh", and it takes me three tries to come up with the American-accented version of the name. (My Peace Corps buddies and I call it Kesh, which is how I think of it, but if I'm talking to a non-PCV, it's MarrrROKsh, and here I have to remember that it's MARE-uh-kesh.)

Let alone all the times I drop Arabic and Tam words into conversation, and then can't figure out how to translate them. For two years, everyone I've spoken English to can understand these handy little words, and now I get blank stares. Safi. Baraka. Inshallah. Marhaba. These words are *useful*, precisely because they don't have a direct translation. Their idiomatic connotation is the thing I mean to express...and I end up communicating nothing. Sigh.

So, yeah, there are a few bumps upon re-entry. But so far, I'm mostly just thrilled to get to see so many friends and loved ones again. :)


5/20/10 The Loiterers

Morocco is drowning in loiterers. If they hung "No loitering" signs, they'd half to arrest half the youth in the country. The male half.

While girls are expected to stay in the home, cooking and cleaning and doing various household chores whenever they're not in school, young men really have *no* demands on their time, apart from school. (Assuming they live in a place that offers school for people of their age, and further assuming that they haven't dropped out.)

Some percentage of young men are working, earning money to support their families. But in my experience, that's the exception. The rule is young men with nothing to do but hang around.

Thanks to the legacy of the French school calendar, school demands something less than six hours per day.

Some young men fill their leisure hours (and hours) with soccer, but most just ... hang out. Loiter. Linger over coffee and tea for hours. (This particular habit starts in the teenage years and lasts through adulthood and old age.) Lean on doorframes. Sit on curbs or front stoops. Gather around ... well, anything of interest, really. And then watch the world go by.

The cost in general productivity is nearly incalculable. Thousands of man-hours wasted in sheer idleness. The cost societally is that it's impossible to do *anything* in public without being observed (and, usually, commented upon) by this peanut gallery. And I mean anything. Walk down the street. Eat. Shop. Apply chapstick.

But sometimes there's an upside.

These loiterers always know what's going on. They're the human version of Wikipedia, at least as it applies to recent local events.

Today, May 20th, as I strolled out of Morocco (across the border into Melilla, a quasi-independent town controlled by Spain), the loiterers repeatedly protected me from my own ignorance, preventing me from making mistakes. They pointed the way through the bewildering array of checkpoints, half-finished walls, and idling law enforcement / customs officials.

And when I sauntered past the completely unmarked Border Control, the loiterers collectively shouted at me, "Al shtampa!".

My linguistically crowded brain replied with, "La timbre? Fin? Donde?" (The stamp? Where? Where? in French, Arabic, and Spanish, respectively.)

And they pointed and said, "Alli." (Ayi? As I've said before, I can speak some Spanish, but I can't write it *at*all*.)

A good 20 minutes later, on the bus from the border into downtown Melilla, I began dusting off my Spanish vocabulary. It was born in conversations in Middle School, when I compared notes from French class with buddies in Spanish class. My knowledge of the Spanish language was deepened, enhanced, and generally made useful by my years spent teaching in the Houston barrio. But it was from my own middle school days that I knew Aqui, Ayi, and Aya. (Or however they're spelled.)

The pieces clicked together.

I'd assumed they were saying some local variation on "Aji", which means "Come here!" in Darija. I figured that maybe since "Aji" meant come *here*, maybe "Ayi" meant go *there*.

But with my freshly reawakened Spanish making space for itself, I realized that these loiterers must have been Spanish-fluent kids who'd spent their lives loitering on both sides of the border. And they were telling me to go there - just as they pointed - to get my passport stamped.

Without their assistance, I'd probably have schlepped my 25 kilos of stuff a good half-kilometer beyond the border before finding an official who sent me back.

So for the first time in Morocco - and, I guess, the last time, since I was within moments of leaving the country - I found myself grateful for these loitering layabouts. There's a lot to be said for having knowledgeable folks with nothing better to do than help a stranger out. :)


5/23/10 Twenty-Seven Months

[[Yes, there will be lots of posts about COSing. Most are written, and just need to be typed up. But I'm only getting 2 hours of sleep tonight as it is, so I'm not typing them now. Just some thoughts from today...]

I've been out of touch for 27 months.

Not out of communication. Thanks to the miracle of teh intarwebs - with its gifts of Skype and email and Facebook and oh, yeah, my blog! - I've stayed connected to my loved ones.

But I'm out of touch with developments in America.

I hear about the big stuff. I watched Election Night and the Inauguration. I've heard about the tea bagger movement and the various economic crises.

But I've missed the other stuff. Like what movies have come out, and who's the latest "It Girl", and other things that honestly, I didn't mind missing.

I've also missed the recent waves of technology.

How much can change in 27 months?

A lot, it turns out.

iPhones. Dude, people can check their email and surf the web with their PHONES now. What's up with that!? Sitting in a cafe in Holland Park, London, I can confirm my flight and figure out how to get to Gatwick at 5am. Plus, with their built-in GPS and Google Maps and Enhanced Reality, people may never be lost again.

Computer chips embedded in ATM cards. This one's a bugger. I've been spending the remnants of my Peace Corps stipend, transfered into local currencies...but in order to get more funds, I need to use the ATM card attached to my American bank account. Problem is, my cute little twenty-seven-month-old card doesn't have one of these chips...which means that 90% of ATM machines reject it. Whoops.

Kindles. Which are just SO COOL. ::drooling::

How much can change in 27 months...

And in non-technology changes:

* The host cousin who was a silly 15-year-old when I arrived in Berberville is now married. MARRIED. (She's 17, he's 18. She met him the day before the wedding.)
* The host cousin who was a thoughtful 18-year-old is now married AND HAS A BABY BOY. (She's 20, he's 30. She met him TWO days before the wedding.)
* My host mom had a baby.
* My sitemate's host mom had a baby.
* My host aunt had a baby.
* My American nephews grew up from being a munchkin and an anklebiter to being a kid and a munchkin (respectively).
* I learned enough Tam to carry on complex conversations with nearly anyone. Well, any one of the 50,000 or so people who speak it. =/
* My American friends and cousins got married, had kids, graduated from their doctoral programs, and changed careers...without me being there.

Twenty-seven months.

In which I learned to walk down the middle of the street, how to eat *anything* with my hands, how to handwash anything, and other lessons that won't be terribly useful in the First World. (That first one has nearly killed me a few times already. Dude, you can't take me *anywhere*.)

Some cravings that have already been met:
* Mexican food
* Leafy green vegetables (including broccoli!)
* Seeing a movie on a screen larger than my laptop
* Lots and lots of cheese
* Root beer (including a root beer float!)
* Wearing a tanktop in public (and I have the sunburn to prove it - skin that hasn't seen sunlight in two years is *sensitive*, it turns out)

The "reverse culture shock" has begun. And will hopefully be of very short duration. :) 'Cause if I've learned nothing else from Peace Corps, it's how to deal with the unexpected with grace.


5/14/10 Berberville Says Goodbye

In its own, inimical style, Berberville has given me a goodbye present.

It snowed!

Yes, it's mid-May.

Yes, I had left laundry out overnight, since it was still damp after yesterday's clouds.

So, yes, snow piled up (about an inch deep) on every cranny of every recently cleaned garment.

But it's still the prettiest goodbye present it had to offer, and I'm taking it in that spirit.

And the sun came out this afternoon, so my clothes may yet dry before I have to pack them.

I'm leaving Berberville for the last time - for the foreseeable future, anyway, though I keep promising folks that I hope to return - in less than 24 hours.

This week has been filled with goodbyes - with PCVs and HCNs - and yet more giving away. Ama has a sister with eight children, so most of my clothes are going to them. (The thermals I'm not keeping are going to a newbie PCV, though.) I've made several dozen cookies, and have more to bake, 'cause that's part of the goodbyes, too....

Off for tea and cookies with yet another family!


5/8/10 Not all days are good days

When I was a child, I loved the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. Young Alexander starts by telling us:

"I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day."

Every once in a while, I know how he feels.

I went to sleep without doing the dishes and now they're all dried and crusty and when I woke up the water wasn't on yet, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up again, I made tea and yogurt with granola and sat down in the living room and then there was a knock on the door and I hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf, so I put the dishes in the kitchen and opened the door and it was Ama.

And she reminded me I'd forgotten to do something and she tsk'd at me and she left while I sat down and took care of it. And when I finished I went to do the dishes but as soon as I'd put the gloves on there was another knock at the door and I still hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf, so I pulled off the gloves and went down to the door and discovered that it was OPEN because Ama hadn't closed it.

And I showed her the work I'd finished and offered to make her tea but the teapot was still dirty 'cause I still hadn't done the dishes so she sat down while I started the dishes but then she said she'd go buy vegetables so she left while I washed dishes and then there was ANOTHER knock at the door and I STILL hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf.

So I went down and my door was STILL open because Ama hadn't closed it AGAIN and there were two girls looking for Ama, who I sent towards the souq, but across the street was a truckful of men who saw my long blonde hair and my open door and got that look in their eyes that makes me want to break things.

And I knew it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

So I closed and latched and locked the door and went upstairs and brushed my hair and tied it back with a scarf and started to do the dishes so I could brush my teeth ('cause I only have the one sink) and there was ANOTHER knock at the door and I went back down and didn't look at the truckful of staring men while I let Ama in and we went up to the kitchen where the teapot was STILL dirty and I started to cry.

'Cause it was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

To be continued...


5/6/10 Word of the day: Dwr

Like many words borrowed from Arabic, dwr has just three key letters. And it's related to dur, which is spelled the same in Arabic (where o, ou, u, and w are all varying transliterations of the same character, "wew").

Dur means turn. As in, "Taxi driver, please dur right here." But if you linger over the central oo sound, stretching it from dur to duu-wer, it shifts meaning. Dwr can be used to mean "turn all the way around in a circle", but it's most commonly used to mean "walk around" or "wander" or "go walkabout".

Today, my visiting friend and I dwr'd town all afternoon.

At noon, we headed up to Ama's house for lunch. (Bread, mashed potatoes, and tea.) We hung out there for a while, then came home just long enough to grab a drink of water and change shoes before going for a walk through the fields. We wandered behind the caid's palace (perched on a jutting outcrop in the middle of town), down by the river, over to a nearby village, and back. We passed clover patches (which we promptly paused in, to hunt for four-leaf clovers), buttercup-filled meadows, dandelion fields, poplars, weeping willows... The perfect spring weather simply iced the cake of our perfect spring walk. :)

We got back, grabbed more water and a mikka of baby clothes (and I changed out of my mud-spattered pants!), and headed up to see the world's cutest 3-month old, who lives up on top of the caid's outcrop.

NB: My little brother is 10 months old. They're not in competition.

His mom fed us bread, jam, and tea.

Then we walked back down, swung by the house again, I picked up yet more baby clothes, and headed off to see a newborn. (And his mommy, my cousin.) First, though, I swung by Ama's house, so we could go over together.

An hour in a room full of chattering women, and I was finally free to go home. After eating a pancake, and jam, and tea. And a plate of aHrir (Moroccan mac & cheese, aka the food always served when a baby is born).

As I kicked off my boots, I told my friend, "I'm ready to not leave my house for a year." Or ever eat again.

Dwr-ing is fun, but 7 straight hours of socializing? Whew.


4/16/10 Travel Conversations

Whenever I travel, I strike up the most interesting conversations. We might talk about dance, books, my marital status... Here are a few snippets from conversations I haven't recorded before:

"So why are you here in Morocco?"
"I'm a Volunteer with the Peace Corps."
"So what do you do?"
"I'm an environmental educator. I talk to children and adults about the environment."
"Oh, teaching is good. You should be a full-time teacher. You could teach everything!"
"Yes, I could, but for now I'm working for the Peace Corps."
"But you could teach Hsb, arabiya, aud lbiya..."
"Yes, but I'm not a math teacher or Arabic teacher."
"But you could be!"

Another time, the jumper made me grin with a linguistic juxtaposition:
"Montez-vous parlez francais?"
At first I was saying "Montez-vous. Parlez francais.", which is French for Get into the transit already. Speak French. And that didn't make huge amounts of sense.
But then I realized that he'd said, "Montez!", ie Get in, followed by "Vous parlez francais?" Do you speak French?
'Cause if, unlike 90% of the foreigners he's ever seen, I don't speak French, I clearly won't have understood the first thing he said. Which makes it a better question to ask before, rather than after, he's ordering me around in that language...but better late than never, I guess.
Of course, I denied all knowledge of the language, as I do most of the time, so he repeated the instruction in Tam - "Alli!" - and I promptly climbed aboard.

Another time, when in a bigger city, a taxi driver began speaking to me in Arabic. I'd greeted him in Arabic - the greetings are the same as in Tam - so when I protested that I don't speak the language, he gave me a funny look. In my survival Darija, I said, "I only speak Tamazight. Do you know Tamazight?" He laughed and said no, then gave me a look and said, "Voluntaire de la paix?" I laughed, too, and nodded. Volunteer of Peace? Not my official title, but I like it. Clearly, he's driven around PCVs before, and remembered that the only foreigners who speak the language so little-known that even he and most of his fellow countrymen don't speak it...are us. Les Volontaires de la Corps de la Paix. Aka Peace Volunteers. :)

5/5/10 Best Pizza in Rabat

When PCVs go to the Peace Corps office in Rabat, we're often there for the whole day, which means we run into that critical lunch question. Over in the center of town, there are millions of food options, but back in the office's neighborhood, pickings are slim.

My first trip to Rabat, most folks advised me to visit the Ministry of Transportation's cafeteria. It's cheap (10-15dh a plate), but only has about 4 options on the lunch menu, so gets repetitive awfully fast.

Fortunately, another ministry (I'm honestly not sure which, but it's across the street from the PC office) has opened a huge cafeteria, with about a dozen options. Every day, you can choose between shwarma, pizza, salads, tagine, roast chicken, and some daily special. If you don't get a drink, expect to spend about 20dh.

But if you walk out the back door, and head towards Agdal, a bunch of other options appear. There's the usual assortment of sandwich places, plus a sushi restaurant and a few other fancy spots. My personal favorite, though, is a pizza joint.

Run by an incredibly nice guy who lived in the US for 15 years, the pizza is the most authentically American-tasting I've found in Morocco. It's not cheap - about 40dh for a medium, which will fill you up if you're hungry, or two people can split a 65dh large - but it's delicious. He flies in the ingredients from America, for the most part, with a few coming from Europe. His pizzas have real mozzarella, real mushrooms, real... real everything.

I promised him I'd tell my friends, which I have, and now I'm telling the rest of you. Next time you're in Rabat-Agdal, stop in at L. Y. Pizza!


4/21/10 Lincoln and Condy

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln and the men around him, Team of Rivals. On the back is one of the more famous portraits of Lincoln, flanked by portraits of the title rivals - Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Bates.

So I was reading in the transit one day, and the man next to me decided to strike up a conversation.

I'd paused in my reading, to think about what I'd read, and let the book fall closed (my place still marked with a finger). He pointed to the pictures on the back and said, "Who are they?"

I pointed to Lincoln and said, "Ibrahim Liin-kon. The president of America, a long time ago."

Of course, as soon as the conversation began, the two of us became the most interesting thing around.

The moment I'd responded to his question, the peanut gallery began chiming in.

"Hey, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Hey, she's reading about the president!"
"Yeah, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Do you think the book is in English or French?"
"Probably French. Look at the letters - those are French."
"How long ago was he president?"

I answered the oh-hey-you-speak-our-language with a grin, and gave an actual answer to to the one about Lincoln. It took me a second to work out the numbers - I don't usually use numbers over a thousand. "He was president in one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one."

"Oh, eighteen-hundred sixty-one?"

Of course, they simplify the dates - silly me for forgetting. "Yes, eighteen-hundred sixty-one."

At this point, the peanut gallery began asking me the standard questions about my marital status, my age, how much I liked Morocco, whether I thought Berberville was too cold, etc, etc. When I got tired of fielding them, I reopened the book and continued reading.

A few minutes later, my neighbor poked at the page and asked, "Is that French or English?"

"English," I answered. "In America, we speak English."

"And this man was the president of America?"


"So who are these other people?" he asked, pointing to the gallery of faces on the back. [I tried to find an image of the back cover to post, but couldn't. You can see it here if you click on "Look Inside" and then "Back Cover".]

"They're his ... um ... ministers," I said, suddenly recalling the word from my trip to Rabat, when I spent the better part of a day taxiing between different ministry offices, looking for the secret trove of geological maps for sale (which I found! but that's another story).

I pointed to Seward. "This was his ... First Minister," I said, trying and failing to come up with a better translation for "Secretary of State." Then I thought of something. "You know how Hillary Clinton is the First Minister for Barack Obama? Kif-kif."

He still looked confused, so I tried again. "Seward was the same minister to Lincoln that Hillary Clinton is to Barack Obama. And remember how Hillary Clinton wanted to be president, but Obama won, so now she's the First Minister? It was the same with Seward. He wanted to be President - all these men [gesturing to the other faces on the page] wanted to be president, but Lincoln won, so they were his ministers, instead."

At that point, the peanut gallery began an involved discussion among themselves, in an incomprehensible mix of Arabic and Tamazight. When they'd reached a consensus, a designated spokesman explained the problem to me.

"But Hillary Clinton *isn't* the First Minister of America. We know who the First Minister is, and she's a black woman."

I blinked for a second, then figured out what he was talking about. "That was Condoleezza Rice. She *was* the First Minister, for President Bush."

The guy next to me put it together first. "You mean, when you get a new president, you get new ministers, too?"

"Yes! Exactly." A new president gets to pick a whole new Cabinet, I thought, but lacking the words for "pick" and "Cabinet", I let his explanation stand. And I really didn't want to get into the nuances, like Secretary Gates.

"So Hillary Clinton is not president, but she's the First Minister now? Like the black woman was?"

I felt a lot of muscles clenching at their repeated use of "the black woman" to refer to our former Secretary of State, but I took a deep breath and said, "Yes, Hillary Clinton is the First Minister, like Condoleezza Rice - the black woman - used to be." (By the way, the word for "president" in Arabic and Tam is raiis, a perfect homophone for Rice. So this was probably confusing.)

"Yeah," chimed in another voice, "America always has women for their First Minister. Before the black woman, it was the old woman."

More muscles clenched, but I calmly replied, "Yes, President Bill Clinton had Madeleine Albright - the old woman - as his First Minister. And then President Bush had Condoleezza Rice and now President Obama has Hillary Clinton." Then I thought of something else. "But it isn't always women. It can be a man or a woman. Yes, the past three First Ministers have been women, but it can be either."

At this point, the men wanted my opinions on the presidents, and tried to bait me into a discussion of the Gulf War. I dodged most of the bullets and returned to reading.

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

5/4/10 Final? Tea Party

Yesterday afternoon, my family came to visit me. They don't do it often, and Ama gave me plenty of advance notice, so I'd be sure to have tea on hand. :)

I made zucchini muffins (using the pumpkin muffin recipe, and substituting one squash for another - they came out delicious, possibly because I quintupled the spices) and had hot water on the stove, so I could make the tea as soon as they arrived.

One of the local teachers came by, too.

I'd choreographed that.

He'd asked to come by to pick up some books I'd promised him, but I really don't like having men in my house - even really nice guys like him. So when I knew my host fam would be here, I invited him to come, too, so there'd be plenty of folks here.

They showed up, and began munching the muffins and drinking the tea.

He showed up, did the same, and waited for me to offer the books (being too polite to ask for them).

After a few more minutes of chatting, he went on his way.

I then brought out some of the things I'd found, in the course of packing, that I'm giving to my host family. Some stickers and sidewalk chalk I'd meant to give them before, some hats and jackets inherited from previous PCVs, stuff like that.

We continued munching and chatting for a bit before Ama said, "Would you like us to go, so you can get back to work?" I've learned something about Moroccan indirectness, so I answered, "I do have a lot of work, but you can stay as long as you like." She packed up the kids and off they went. :) When *both* parties understand the subtext, it's actually plenty direct.

Of two dozen muffins, I ate 3 and kept 3, and sent the rest off with them. (Well, the rest that we hadn't eaten already - three adults and four kids can go through a lot of muffins!)

Everybody left happy, which gives it points over my first (rather disastrous) tea party. :)

5/3/10 I < 3 my Ama

So yesterday, I happened to mention that I'm bummed not to get another Ramadan in Morocco. I know that might surprise some of you. Fasting all day isn't easy, and as it inches closer to the summer**, going without water (let alone food) all day will just get harder.

But I don't mind the sacrifice, and I do reeeeally love Ramadan's l-fdor food. L-fdor means "the breaking of the fast", aka "breakfast", and is the name for the morning meal, most of the year, and for the first meal eaten after the sunset call to prayer (aka l-Moghreb) during Ramadan.

L-fdor, during Ramadan, consists of olives, dates, aghrom n tadount (fatbread), harira (tomato and chickpea and lentil soup), milliwi (a sort of oily crepe, also known as lmsmn), fresh-squeezed orange juice, and peppermint tea. Plus lots of cookies. It's all delicious.

As Ama knows, my favorite part is the aghrom n tadount - literally bread of fat, commonly called fatbread by PCVs. I call it Moroccan pizza. Like a calzone, it's thick bread filled with deliciousness, in the form of herbs, minced vegetables, and tiny bits of sheep-fat that melt into the bread as it cooks. Mmmmm.

So yesterday, during our conversation, I mentioned that I'm going to have to find some Moroccan friends, and/or a Moroccan restaurant, and go there during Ramadan. 'Cause I'm gonna miss the food. :)

And then today, when I went up for lunch (an hour late, because I hadn't realized that Morocco has adopted Daylight Savings Time again this year - I thought they'd learned their lessons from the debacle of the past two years), Ama presented me with a giant loaf of fatbread. :D

Her kids had opted for her neighbor's couscous, so even though I was late, there was lots left for me. She and I both had a slice (you cut it into wedges, just like pizza), and then she urged another one on me...and who am I to say no to my Ama? :)

More munching, more playing with the baby, more hanging out with my brothers and sisters... I'm really going to miss these folks, and am just so grateful for every minute I get with them, in my final weeks.

** The lunar and solar calendars not aligning perfectly, the Muslim calendar shifts 11 days each year, with respect to the Gregorian calendar we all know and love. This means that my first Ramadan was the whole month of September (2008), my second was the end of August and most of September (2009), and this year it'll be most of the month of August. Could you go all of August without drinking water during daylight hours? In a country without air conditioning, where you work in the fields all day? Yeah, Ramadan is hard.


5/2/10 Chitchat

Due to an odd and unfortunate series of events, I ended up having a longer conversation with Ama than I usually get to.

The conversation rambled, as long talks tend to do. Here are some of my favorite bits:

Ama: You'll be in America so soon!
Me: So soon.
Ama: And then you'll find a man and get married and have a big wedding!
Me: If God wills.
Ama: Here, you can't find a man. Moroccan men suck. But in America, you'll find a good man.
Me: [starting to protest her blanket condemnation of Moroccan men, then letting it go.] Inshallah.
Ama: In America, you can dress all sexy.
Me: [startled laughter]
Ama: You'll go to parties and wear little dresses like this [pantomimes strapless dresses, like the one she saw me wearing in a photo from my one bridesmaid stint] and get a man fast.
Me: [still laughing]
Ama: Here in Morocco, you have to cover up all the time. But in America, you can be sexy.
Me: [giving up on speech, falling over laughing]

A bit later, I thought of something.

Me: Oh, when Hassan comes, he might be embarrassed when you feed the baby.
Ama: What? I don't understand.
Me: In America, it's Hshuma to see a woman's breasts. They don't have to be covered very much [we laugh], but they have to be covered.
Ama: Really?
Me: Yes. It's very, very, very Hshuma to see a woman's breasts. So when you feed the baby, Hassan will look somewhere else. [I pantomime a series of evasive, embarrassed acts.] So if he looks down, or away, or suddenly starts talking to Baba - he's not crazy, he's just trying not to see your breasts.
Ama: But it's no big deal. If my husband is here, if my dad is here, if a male cousin is here...
Me: I know. Even on a transit, when strange men are around, a woman will pull out her breast to feed her baby. But it's strange for us. Because in America, that would never happen. When I was new here, I acted evasive around breastfeeding mothers, too. But then I got used to it. And Hassan will probably get used to it. But at first, he'll be awkward.
Ama: OK, I understand. Different people have different Hshuma things.
Me: Right.
Ama: Like once, Baba brought a group of tourists, and they were all eating dinner. One of them farted really loudly, so the kids and I were all shocked, because that's really Hshuma. They noticed that we were startled, and asked Baba what was wrong. He explained, and they said that there's nothing embarrassing about farting - it's a compliment to the chef.
Me: [laughing] Wow.
Ama: And another time, we took the kids up to [a city 2 hours north]. There, it's really Hshuma to notice when the goats are screwing, but here, it's just normal. So Mohammed pointed out to his auntie that the goats were going at it, and everyone began Hshuma-ing him. He was confused, and his auntie explained that you aren't supposed to talk about it. He said, "But why? In Berberville, we can talk about it."
Me: Right, different places have different customs.
Ama: OK, I understand. So maybe I should cover up with a blanket when I'm nursing?
Me: No, don't worry about it. He'll get used to it.

A little later...

Me: So you know how I told you that my friend Ali was coming to visit?
Ama: Yeah. Shouldn't he be here by now?
Me: I just heard from him - he's not coming.
Ama: Why?
Me: He spent all morning waiting for a taxi to fill up, and they kept asking him to buy out extra seats. They wanted him to pay for two seats, three seats...
Ama: Shame on them!
Me: I know! But he said, "No, I can't afford that, I'll wait for the taxi to fill up."
Ama: Right. Because you volunteers don't have a lot of money.
Me: Exactly! So they waited and waited. Finally, they had enough people - and the driver still insisted that Ali pay double!
Ama: What!? He can't do that.
Me: I know! Shame on him!
Ama: Ali should report this to the Caid. Or the gendarmes. Or both. That's just wrong.
Me: Yeah, he said he was going to tell his friend in the Caid's office.
Ama: Good.

The conversation rambled all over the place, touching on her kids, my future plans, the apartment I rent from her and Baba, and pretty much everything else. I told her that my American mom wanted to thank her for taking such good care of me; she assured me that all moms worry, but that it'll be better when I'm back in America. Of course, that's when she'll start to worry about me.

See why I don't want to leave?

4/24/10 Squished Muffins

The ubiquitous mikka bags aren't *just* litter - they're also picked up and used for various purposes. For one, they're usually cleaner than the ground they're sitting on.

So if you're a Berber lady, and you want to cop a squat somewhere, you might reach for the nearest mikka and sit on that instead of the dirt.

Or, if you see a mikka sitting on the edge of somebody's front stoop, you might choose to sit there. Right there. Even if the mikka is suspiciously puffy looking. Like it might have something in it.

Like maybe a pan of muffins, fresh out of the oven, wrapped in 2 mikka bags to protect them for the coming hours of transit rides.

It was my fault; I'd wandered a few feet away, and was chatting with friends. And then I looked over and saw an aHandir-wrapped woman lowering herself onto my muffins. My freshly baked, still warm, delicious pumpkin muffins. I squawked a protest, but not before she'd sat on them and squished them flat.

In retrospect, I kicked myself for leaving a mikka right on the edge of the stoop like that. Of course it would look inviting. But silly me, I thought that a plastic bag, located next to a big pile of luggage (on the ground in front of the stoop), would look like it belonged to somebody.


Epilogue: The muffins still tasted as good, and they reinflated OK. Leaving them in the pan was definitely the right call - if I'd just dropped them into a bag, they'd never have survived the trip.

4/30/10 On Relationships, aka "That's Why I Got a Dog"

A while back, some PCVs were talking about relationships in Morocco.

Most of us hold the idea that getting romantically (let alone sexually) involved with a Moroccan is just A Really Bad Idea. Some hold differing opinions, and there are more than a few PCV-HCN relationships, but on the whole, most of us think that opening that door invites a host of problems.

Which means that, in the quest for romantic partners, we're pretty much looking at each other. (There are some Fullbright scholars around, and a few people working for European and American NGOs, and I know people who have dated them, but most of us stick to PCVs.)

Not counting trainees, there are around 220 PCVs serving in Morocco. It's a roughly 50/50 split, males and females, nationwide, but we aren't distributed evenly throughout the country. Down in the south, it's been entirely female for years. We call that province "The Convent". My province is famous for its sexual harassment of female Volunteers, so we have far more men than women. I haven't done a head-count in a while, but we have something like 20 PCVs, of whom, um ... six? ... are female. Four are taken. That leaves an awfully small pool for the guys around here.

PCV1: You know, it's not like I can't deal with being single. It's just ... it's nice to have someone to snuggle with. To keep you warm on our cold mountain nights. To go for walks and hikes with.
PCV2: Yeah. ::sigh:: That's why I got a dog.

5/2/10 Compassion-Building Exercise

News reports indicate that there's a boil-water order in effect for the Boston area.

Many of my friends find this an aggravating, frustrating, annoying turn of events.

I urge you to see it as a "compassion-building exercise".

This is your chance to experience, for a day or two, what it's like to live in an area with undrinkable water. Consider it a two-day Peace Corps experience.

Alhumdulillah, Berberville treats its water, so I haven't had to spend the past two years boiling every drop before I can drink it, brush my teeth with it, do dishes with it, etc. On the other hand, I haven't had hot tap water for two years, and my taps only run for 3 hours a day. The rest of the time, I use water from the bottles I refill each morning.

But while Morocco has made tremendous strides with potable water, many of our southern neighbors are still struggling with that.

So here's your chance to take a moment to empathize with the difficulties of their lives. You still have central heat/AC, cars, and thousands of other amenities they could never dream of. But you'll get a taste (no pun intended) of the challenges that billions of people face every day.

When my family came to visit me in Morocco, we did a few of these "compassion-building exercises". They rode a transit with me. They used squat toilets. They sweltered in unairconditioned hotels. And they were champs about it. I was proud. :)

So here's your chance, Bostonians. Are you going to take this opportunity to widen your sphere of experience, to gain some perspective into the lives of those less fortunate? Or will you just whine about it?

5/2/10 Going Away, Giving Away

A few nights ago (Friday night), my SouqTown buddies got together for a goodbye party. Like thegoing-away, giving-away party I threw 27 months ago, this was both to see loved ones and to get rid of my stuff.

Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, I've accumulated quite a stockpile of care package boxes. I distributed these around my living room, labeled with the names of the various guests coming to the party, and proceeded to fill them with whatever I found. Spices, uneaten foodstuffs, books, appliances, things I've bought, things I've been sent, things I've inherited from previous PCVs... They all got divvied up.

Altogether, I filled 3 giant souq bags, which are about a meter long, half a meter tall, and a foot wide. That's a lot of stuff.

All of which I'm now free of!

My replacement is inheriting the vast majority of my stuff - my bed, my furniture, my giant buta heater, my stove, my oven - but I wanted to share the largess, plus my house has felt crowded lately, and I want him to have room for his own stuff.

So I'm about 100 pounds lighter (which made for a beast of a walk to the transit station, lemme tell you) and that much closer to being ready to leave...

...which, honestly, isn't very close at all.

But it's a step.

When we got here, our mantra was shwiya-b-shwiya. (Take the first sound from Garth and Wayne's "shwing!", add "ee" and then "uh". Shw-ee-ya.) Little by little. Step by step. We learned Tamazight shwiya-b-shwiya. We adapted to the culture and food shwiya-b-shwiya. And now I'm getting ready to go...shwiya-b-shwiya.

Two weeks.

I'll make it.

::deep breath::

5/1/10 My Last Month


After months of not-really-thinking-about-it, I can't hide from it anymore. It's May.


I swear out on May 19th (inshallah).

I will be in America on May 25th (inshallah - and that's a big inshallah, because I have a stopover in Iceland).

I will be in America THIS MONTH.

I will finish Peace Corps THIS MONTH.

I need to figure out how cell phones in America work. (Those shiny credit-card sized things with a thousand apps? They freak me out. Moroccan cell phones are candy-bar sized hunks of plastic that are good for calling, texting, telling time, and if you're really lucky, playing two games. How on Earth can you access the internet, take photos, play music, and read a novel **all on the same little gizmo**??) Do I *have* to have a contract, or can I pay-as-I-go like I do here? Will my candybar phone work in America, if I buy a new SIM card, or am I stuck buying a new phone?

I need to finalize my travel plans. Most of it is locked in place, but there are still a few holes. (Like will I take a ferry from Tangiers to Algeceris or from Melilla to Malaga? Or give up my dreams of taking a ferry across the Mediterranean and just hop a flight from Fes to London?) Including what will I do with my final days of service? A lot of my friends are getting together to party...but I kinda want to be a homebody and play with my baby brother and chat with Ama. On the other hand, I've still never gotten down to the south, and I'd love to visit Agadir at least once. And then there are the PCV buddies I haven't seen in months - I'd love to visit them one last time.

One last time.

I have to be at 72-hour checkout in two weeks, which means everything is "the last time".

And while my service in Morocco hasn't been all sunshine and puppies, it's been a good two years. Full of love and laughter and joy. And while I know my next adventure will also be rewarding and's hard to say goodbye to this one.

Very hard.
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