Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Big Holiday!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Except, in Morocco, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. However, they do have a holiday that is sort of similar and happened to fall on the same weekend as Thanksgiving in America. It’s called Laaid Kbir (literally, “Big Holiday”) and families travel from all over to be together to have a big feast. Sound familiar? Well, it is, sort of, except that instead of eating turkey, each family saves money all year to buy as big of a ram as they can afford. In the week or so before Laaid, you see people walking around with big sheep all over the place. We happened to be traveling through Rabat and Marrakech, so it was pretty funny to see people riding motorcycles with sheep in big, modern cities. We saw them waiting at lights to cross the street with all the normal people, in the trunks of taxis, and on top of transit vans. It was pretty amusing. After all these sheep get to their final destinations, they wait in anticipation for the big day. After the king has killed his sheep on national television, everyone in the neighborhood brings their sheep out into a communal area and proceeds to slit its throat and skin and gut it. Meanwhile, everyone is out and about in their fanciest new clothes greeting, kissing, and talking to each other. It’s pretty festive.

The rest of the day is spent cutting and preparing the meat. I didn’t realize until now how much meat a whole ram can yield. It is a lot. Sean and I and everyone else in Morocco have been eating delicious sheep kebabs for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner for about a week now. There are other less savory parts of the sheep to eat as well. Actually, I say less savory because I don’t find the head and intestines to be very good, but Moroccans consider them the best part. I am developing a taste for organ and gristle kebabs, though. Even after all this, there is still a lot of meat left over. What is left after a week or so is dried and turned into a form of jerky. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying that yet, but from what I’ve heard, it is the best part. Moroccans sure do love their meat!

Laaid Kbir is not just a Moroccan holiday; it is a Muslim holiday. The whole thing with the ram is done in remembrance of when Allah (God) told Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his only son to prove his devotion. At the last minute, Allah told Ibrahim to sacrifice a nearby ram instead. This and many other stories are shared between the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faiths. It’s pretty interesting, actually. Of course there are definite notable differences, but I am really grateful for the opportunity to understand another culture and another faith so thoroughly, especially one that is so misunderstood by a lot of the Western world.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Posts, Finally!

Okay, so it turns out I kind of suck at keeping up a blog. I don't really have any good excuses, except that I seem to be keeping surprisingly busy at my job. That doesn't mean that I have necessary accomplished anything yet, but I like to think that I am laying a good groundwork. Despite all this, Sean has somehow managed to be pretty good at keeping up his blog. Don’t tell him, but I secretly think that is because he doesn’t do as much work as me. That being said, I am currently holed up in a hotel in the nearest big city with a bit of a cold and two days of wireless internet. I guess that means I have no excuses now.

I just noticed that my last post was in June. Yikes. Well, there really isn't any way that I can catch everyone up on the last five months or so of my life in a foreign country doing a very loosely defined job, so I will take two approaches. The first approach will be to give you all a general idea of the major things that I have been doing. The second will be to tell you about a single day event that happened recently. The last one sort of simulates what a post would look like if I were actually doing a good job of keeping up with this thing. So, just use your imaginations here. Oh, and I also managed to post a bunch of pictures. There are also a few pictures up on my facebook account. And now, with no further ado, updates!

The General Idea

I think technically according to the table they gave us when we swore in, we are supposed to be wrapping up the “integration” phase and getting into the “real work” phase of our service. That just means that while we definitely still spend a lot of time drinking tea and talking about the weather, we are spending a lot more of our time doing things like having meetings with school directors, teachers, association presidents, and random other people who think that we will give them money.

During our first few months here, we have gathered quite a list of problems that need solving and potential ways of doing so, but after running around like silly chickens for a few weeks, we decided to narrow the list. We also discovered, as we suspected all along, that we will be working in slightly different areas. My main projects are probably going to be doing a women’s wellness conference in which women from all over are taught about a variety of issues by local health professionals, association members, and lawyers. This is still very much in the planning stages, but some of the sessions we hope to cover include nutrition, maternal and child health, exercise, mental health, Mudawana rights (the new Muslim Family code in Morocco), HIV/AIDS and other STDs, and family planning. This list will undoubtedly change over time. Another thing that I started working on a few months ago is teaching women’s yoga classes. Believe it or not, this was actually an idea that the women asked me to do, and it was going really well until the holy month of Ramadan kind of put a stop to it because no one had the energy to do anything while fasting. It never really picked up after that because, apparently, Moroccans fast intermittently the whole next month after Ramadan ends in order to get extra heaven points. The plan is to restart those after I get back from another week long training in Marrakech and a vacation with my Mom (Yay, Mom! I am excited to see you!)

Meanwhile, Sean is working on organizing a first aid training of trainers. What that means is that select community members will be trained in basic first aid, and then they will go and spread this information throughout the community. His idea is to train transit and taxi drivers who go out into the remote mountain villages that don’t normally have access to health care so that they can act as a sort of ambulance service. Of course this is sticky because of liability issues, but the idea is to educate them so that they can know when it is important for someone to go to the hospital and then have the means to take them there. They can also provide basic first aid in the case of roadside accidents, of which there are many in Morocco.

We are both also working hard to get into the schools and youth centers to start health clubs. The idea here is to teach lessons about basic health issues--like HIV/AIDs, nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, exercise--in the context of what Peace Corps calls the Life Skills Program. The Life Skills Program is a set of activities that teaches a variety of communication, relationship, and decision making skills to youths. Just like in the States, just because people have access to information about how to live healthy lives does not mean that they will actually be healthy people. Currently, we are in the process of working through the red tape and figuring out who our Moroccan allies are in getting these clubs going. We have one at the Dar Shebab (youth center) in the neighboring town, and we were supposed to have our first meeting last week, but even though we had three teachers and 12 students show up, the doors were locked because the director unexpectedly went out of town, even though he knew about the meeting. We are also trying to get clubs going at the local middle school and at a dormitory where kids who live too far up in the mountains to make it to school and back stay during the school year.

So, that’s basically what I am up to as far as work goes. As far as non-work goes, I am trying to do a regular exercise schedule every day. We are issued Trek mountain bikes, and our site is fantastic for mountain biking, so we are trying to get out at least once a week for a big ride. My dream is to take multiple day trips around Morocco on my vacations. I have a few planned out, mostly in the south where I am. I am also doing yoga decently regularly. Let’s see, what else? I am trying to knit a scarf. Nothing fancy, just something to keep warm during the winter. My language is getting a little better. I am able to communicate basic concepts to most people, but when it comes to anything sort of complex, I still struggle. Like anything, there are good days and bad days.

Okay, I think that is a pretty good general idea of how things are going. I promise to try and be a better blogger in the future. I miss you all, and when you get a chance, let me know how things are going!

Cat in the Bag

So, we got a cat. When we first moved to our site we told everyone that we wanted a cat because we thought that it would keep bugs down and would be fun to have around. Some of our friends had a pregnant cat, and they promised us one. We went to their house to pick one out right before we left for training in July, and they said we could pick it up when we got back. When we got back, they said it was “sick” and that it would “make a mess in our house” if we took it now. A month or so went by and we didn’t hear from them. We figured that it had died or run away and that they didn’t have the heart to tell us (Moroccans are pretty indirect communicators). But then, a little while later, after I got back from Volunteer Support Network training, Sean told me that he had a surprise for me. Out crawled a scrawny black kitchen with giant ears and big green eyes from behind our refrigerator. We christened him “Igli” after the big black beatles that awkwardly patrol the paths in the fields. He seemed to like the name, and so we kept it.

However, we soon realized what our friends meant when they said that our cat was sick. He had hopeless diarrhea. I called around and found out that there was a vet somewhere in Ouarzazate, the nearest city an hour and a half and two taxi rides away. I decided to try my luck. So, early one morning, I took Igli wrapped in a towel in my lap to the taxi stand. I got a lot of attention from the people I passed, and as it happened to be souq day, there were a lot of people. Shortly after climbing in the back of the taxi, I discovered that Igli hates taxis. He meowed loudly the entire 30 minute ride to the next town. The other passengers didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think they were pretty tickled that the American was taking her cat all the way to Ouarzazate to see the cat doctor. Luckily, by the next taxi ride, he had calmed down a little and only meowed about half the time. My story proceeded me, though, because before I could even ask the driver if he knew where the vet was, he and the man sitting in the front were already discussing where the best place to drop me off would be.

At this point, Igli had made a mess of the towel I was carrying him in, so I put him inside a large woven bag that we use to buy vegetables with. His head was poking out, and several passersby did a double take a smiled. I asked for directions a few times before I finally arrived at the farming association. I walked in with my cat in a bag and explained very eloquently in Tashlheit that my cat had diarrhea and that I had come to get some medicine. After looking at me for a second, he said in good English, “Good morning. Please have a seat in the next room while I finish up with this person.” I felt a little silly, but also relieved that I wouldn’t have to risk misinterpreting instructions on how to give medicine to my cat. A little later, he came into the room and examined Igli. He prescribed a medicine for worms and gave me a powdered packet of antibiotics intended for cows. He said that normally a cow gets the whole packet and a sheep gets half, so for a kitten, maybe a tenth. We then had a friendly conversation about the time when they filmed the movie Hidalgo in Ouarzazate and the animal protection agency had offered him a job making sure that the horses were well treated. He said that he loved Americans and that I was welcome anytime. He said that I should come back in a few weeks to get a rabies shot, and that if I wanted to get him fixed, I could do that too. All this was free, except the cost of the worm medicine, which I had to get at the local pharmacy.

On the walk back to the taxi stand, I put Igli inside the bag again. He was pretty tired, so he just laid down at the bottom. Every once in a while, to the surprise of passersby, he would meow. One woman was so surprised and delighted that she followed me on the street for a little while laughing and telling everyone that I had a sick cat in the bag. It was pretty great.

Igli slept pretty much the rest of the way back home. Now, about a month later, he is totally healthy and happy, although he is starting to “come of age”, which means that is he meowing constantly and desperately searching our house for a lady cat. I think I am going to have to pay my cat doctor friend another visit soon to get this little problem “fixed”.

Friday, June 5, 2009

There is a Haunted Castle in Our Town

That’s right, I said haunted castle. Well, it’s actually as Kasbah, but still. Allow me to explain.

A few days ago after our tutoring appointment, we were talking with our tutor, Samira, about who knows what when she mentioned that every night after midnight there is a mysterious light that comes out of the middle of the field. No one knows what it is, but it originates from a 700-year-old crumbling Kasbah and rises into the sky over the field. If you are outside when it happens and you look at it, the light will rush towards you. No one has ever been hurt by the light, but everyone knows about it and is terrified.

Apparently, about 40 years ago the old man who was living there was crushed when the ceiling caved in after some heavy rains. No one has explicitly said that the old man is the light, but there are pretty strong superstitious beliefs in gins in the rural parts of Morocco. Whenever we ask any specific questions about the light, they shrug their shoulders and give us vague answers.

A few days later, we met with our tutor to see the haunted Kasbah in the light of day. During the day, it is just like any one of the numerous crumbling Kasbahs that line the river. Teenage boys and the rare brave girl challenge each other to go inside during the day, and until this day, Samira had never had the guts to go inside. However, her fear of looking wimpy in front of us was apparently stronger than her fear of the mysterious light, because she followed Sean and I inside. We found some trash, spider webs, and the bottom half of a Gila monster, but otherwise, it looked pretty normal.

Later on, some of the other young women in our neighborhood found out that we went inside, and they thought we were crazy. I can understand how superstitions like this one exist in relatively rural, isolated areas--they are common in other parts of the world as well. The strange thing is that our tutor, who is college educated and teaches feminist law classes, adamantly believes in the paranormal. And she is not the only one; there are plenty of similarly educated people around the world who have equally strong convictions about the paranormal.

Personally, I am not convinced. I have never had an experience that is remotely paranormal, but there is a growing number of seemingly sane people who claim that they have. My curiosity is piqued, and I plan on having a rooftop sleepover sometime soon. After all, how often to do you run across a haunted castle? I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Has Anyone Seen My Thief?

For anyone who doesn‘t already know, learning another language is really difficult. This is especially true if the language is one of the oldest languages still spoken, doesn‘t have a true written component, and is not codified (meaning that there are no grammatical rules and structure and vocabulary differ from one place, even person, to another.) All of these things are true of Tashlheit.

Oh, did I mention that there are at least 5 sounds that do not exist in the English language and are therefore impossible to pronounce? Well, there are. This is especially important if the difference between two of these sounds changes the entire meaning of the word. A comical example: thlgh* with one kind of ’t’ sound is the conjugated verb for “I am married”; thlgh* with another kind of ‘t’ sound is the conjugated verb for “I am tired.” (Note: the gh sound is similar to choking on your tongue and clearing your throat at the same time.) Similarly, tamghart means “wife” and tamgHart means “thief.” The inventors of this language obviously had some strong opinions about marriage.

The upside of all this is that when Sean and I come back, we will have a super cool secret language to speak to each other in that no one except the isolated mountain peoples of Morocco and us will be able to understand. Awesome.

Festival of Roses

For the last week and a half we have been running around the province meeting various Moroccan officials whose language we do not speak. There is a ton of bureaucracy that we have to go through in order to work here, and you never know how long something is going to take or even if they will have time to meet you for a scheduled meeting. As a result, we’ve spent 4 out of 10 days away from our new home. These are necessary evils, and thankfully, the volunteers who are already here have been extremely helpful in facilitating all these meetings.

There has, however, been some enjoyable time away from home. Last weekend was the Festival of Roses in nearby Klaa L’Magouna. Several of the health volunteers in our province set up an AIDS education booth at the festival, and so Sean and I as well as many of the other new and existing volunteers were able to help out. We actually didn’t really do much in the way of helping because we don’t know the language, but we were able to see first hand how events like these work and to talk to the old volunteers about all the work that goes into putting together an event like this. Next door was a booth the Small Business Development volunteers helped organize to sell products from the cooperatives they worked with. It was a great opportunity to meet and network with volunteers from all over the region.

Of course, we also got a chance to see the festival. The region surrounding Klaa L’Magouna has an abundance of wild roses that grow there. They are famous for their soaps and beauty products, and the whole town smells delicious. Many of the roses had already been harvested for the festival, so we didn’t see many in the fields, but normally there are vast fields of pink for miles. We knew that we were getting near the festival as we began to see kids selling rose necklaces on the sides of the road. There were many other vendors selling everything from soaps and oils to rose candies and heart-shaped rose wreaths--and everything was pink!

In addition to the rose-related festivities, there were also lots of other carnival-like things going on. There was a variety of song and dance performances with people dressed in their tribal garb. The outfits varied from tribe to tribe, but generally, the women wore a variety of brightly colored scarves with bells and sequins and black coal on their eyes. The women from the local tribe wear long black lace tied over one shoulder over their normal clothing. The men wear long white jellabas, white caps or scarves, and yellow pointed slippers. On the first day, they had a marathon, which we saw the tail end of, and on the second day, they had a parade. There was even a Ferris wheel and carousel!

Sean and I left a little early on the second day because we wanted to get back to our site for a language tutoring appointment. We were also pretty exhausted from all the travel and just wanted to relax and settle into our new life. The festival was a great way to get started, though!

Welcome to Home

A little more than two weeks ago our pleasantly uncrowded grand taxi pulled up to a dusty t‘Hanout (store) at the edge of a quiet, windy town where the rocky, barren High Atlas mountains meet the Saharan Desert. We were greeted by our strikingly tall host father, Ahmed Maghni. The first things I noticed about him were his easy smile and his large, well calloused hands. After the traditional elaborate exchange of greetings, he closed up his store and walked us across the road to his house, where Sean and I will be staying for the first two months of the next two years in our permanent site.

The house is a sprawling and lavish contrast to our last house. Although it is constructed from the traditional mud bricks, the interior walls have been plastered and painted over. There is a central open courtyard with a variety of fruit trees, including pomegranate, apple, and fig. From there, you can enter into any of the 3-4 main wings of the house. The nicest of these is the guest parlor, which features three chandeliers, fancy ponjes (a kind of Moroccan couch low to the ground), and hand-made rugs. This is where Sean and I had our welcome tea and lunch. Nearby is the everyday use room, which is also lined with ponjes and rugs, and has the satellite TV. Most of the eating and hanging out happens in this room. From the entry courtyard you can also go into the “domestic wing” of the house, which has another open-air courtyard used for hanging laundry, and leads to the kitchen, bread-making room, and the attached animal living quarters. The remaining wing of the house leads to a large room with skylights and a raised platform in the center. This whole wing of the house smells like roses because our family gathers and processes them for bath and beauty products. I have never really seen anything happen in this room, but it has several closed rooms attached to it used for sleeping, including the one Sean and I use. All of the rooms are strangely long and skinny. Our bedroom, for example, is probably about 8 feet wide and 40 feet long. The bed is at one end, and the other end has a bunch of chests filled with pillows and blankets. It’s very nice to have a room all to ourselves, and every day after lunch we come in here and read, study, or sleep for an hour or two.

Overall, the house is very quiet, and even when there are people inside working, it is easy to escape into a quiet corner and go unnoticed. This is very different than our last house where our bedroom was the main sitting room during the day and everyone in our village was very excited to see what we were doing all the time. Our current town has had Peace Corps volunteers fairly regularly for the last 15 or so years, and so they are used to having an odd American around. In some ways, this is nice because we don’t have to do things like explain the concept of volunteerism or awkwardly explain that we don’t want to drink from the communal water cup. However, it also means that we don’t have tons of people wanting to tote us around and introduce us to everyone and everything within a 25 km radius. This doesn’t mean that our family isn’t helpful when we engage them, or that we don’t regularly receive invitations from strangers to drink sweet mint tea and aghrom (bread), it just means that we are on our own a little bit more. That is probably a good thing ultimately, but it requires a little bit more effort than before.

As I mentioned, our host father, Ahmed is a tall and kind man. He owns a store and telebotique across the street as well as several of the other buildings in our neighborhood. He works very hard from about 6am until 9pm or later every day of the week. He does, however, come home for tea breaks and meals about 5 times a day. Our host mother, Kultuma is equally hard working. She is small, gentle, and has a sandal with a squeak that follows her around the house as she does her various chores. Our host parents have a total of 8 children, but Sufian, aged 12, is the only one who still lives here. The rest have married and moved out. Three of the sons live and work abroad and have families here in Morocco. At least two of the daughters live in our town, and one, Jamilla is often in the house with her two young daughters, Sukayna (5) and Miriam (4). There are three other young women who are often in the house helping Kultuma with household activities. I’m not exactly sure how they are related, but I think they might be wives of the sons who work abroad. When the women are not in the house, they are in the fields that run along the riverbed in the center of town cutting down seemingly impossibly large loads of tuga (weed grass) from the fields to carry to the animals. The river is mostly dry because its contents are diverted to form a lush and shady network of fields, orchards, and gardens. I have yet to explore these fields extensively, but they seem to be a haven for the women who spend much of their time there. It is starting to get hot here, so they wake up at 3am and work by the light of the moon until around 11am when it gets too hot. Then they come home and make lunch, clean, and go back out around 4pm until about 7 or 8. I haven’t been able to rouse myself this early yet to join them, but I would like to so that I can see what it’s like to weed fields at night with a bunch of women.

The people here are generally more reserved than the people in the small mountain village where we completed our training. If the people we knew before were exuberant songbirds, the people here are gentle and kind doves. There is a comforting calm here that may come from the vast openness of the desert and mountains. The scenery is remarkably similar to home, except that there are ancient Kasbahs in various states of deterioration that dot the landscape. Perhaps it is just me, but I feel that the warm and dusty wind carries a subtle but certain sense of calm, adventure, and potential.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Address

Oh, and don't send me anything at the address I gave you in Rabat anymore. I'll let you know what my new local address will be as soon as I set up a P.O. box in my new site. Thanks!

Movin' On Down

A lot has happened since the last time I posted. For the past seven weeks, Sean and I and three other volunteers have been living with host families in a village of about 13,000 in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains. Every day except Sunday we go to madrasa (school) from 8am to approximately 5:30pm and learn language and a little bit of culture from our Moroccan teacher. The instruction has been pretty good overall, although we definitely experienced some really rough spots with our teacher. Fortunately, Peace Corps staff has been excellent in handling everything and we have made it through successfully. We all met the language requirements to move on to our final sites! More on those in a bit.

Firstly, a bit about my training group. Other than Sean and I, we have Marjorie, Nicole, and Jess. Marj (Moroccan name Hinde) is from North Carolina and is an absurdly and loveably dedicated Carolina basketball and football fan. She is really interested in international politics and studied classical Arabic for three years before coming to Morocco, which has been really helpful for the rest of us. Nicole (Moroccan name Hssna) also studied classical Arabic as well as linguistics and Islamic studies. She is from Detroit and is super nice. Another interesting thing about Nicole is that she is looking into converting to Islam and wears the hijab (head scarf). She also drove a 40 ft bus in the States. The final member of the group is Jess (Moroccan name Fadma, which is hilarious because Fadma is an old woman’s name). Jess is from Indianapolis originally but went to school in North Carolina and lives there now. She’s really funny and uses a lot of white-out. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Sean and I have Moroccan names, too, which the kids in our neighborhood gave us when we were playing cards in the first week. Mine is Khadija and Sean’s is Omar. Everyone loves that Sean is named Omar, and after the afirmli (male nurse) gave him his Moroccan hat, everyone calls him “Hajj Omar” (Hajj is a title of respect given to someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca). Our group is really close, which has been invaluable in making up some of the language we missed in class. We often go to each other’s houses for tea, studying, and hanging out with each other and our host families.

Speaking of host families, ours has been great. I have been amazed at how quickly and easily I became comfortable cuddling in a big pile with the women in my family and neighborhood. Our whole family really looks out for us, and Fadma especially tries to help us learn about Moroccan culture. Whenever she buys something, she shows it to us and tells us how much she paid for it and how she bargained. She tells us whatever information she can think of that may be useful for us. We planned a big party before we left for our families and community members, and she helped us figure out what we needed and how to get it. She’s been great.

The family dynamic relating to gender roles in Morocco have been really interesting. Our particular neighborhood seems to be mostly women and children, or at least that’s who we interact with the most because the men are usually out in the fields or socializing in caf├ęs. The usual scene consists of the women sitting or walking around talking and with their sing-song voices, gesturing enthusiastically and laughing a lot. If there are men around, they usually sit in the corner and watch while the women make fun of them affectionately. It appears that the women are in control of everything, but if there is something important to be decided--for example, whether or not a daughter will attend school or anything to do with money--the men make unopposed decisions. Our family has hosted four other volunteers before us, all women, but this time they requested a married couple. For a while, they didn’t understand why we did certain things, but they watched everything we did and began to make some pretty enlightening observations. For example, for the first few weeks, whenever we went to souq or to another city, they would ask Sean why he didn’t buy me anything. This really bothered Sean for a while, but after having a discussion with Fadma, we managed to get across with our limited language skills that in America, we both work and that we share our money and buy things together. She mentioned that because she does not have a husband, she has to make her own money and buy her own things, so she understands. After that, she didn’t bother Sean anymore. Later on, during a discussion with Peace Corps Staff and our host families, Fadma mentioned that she liked that we shared our money, and that she loved that when we were eating or drinking tea, Sean never ate anything until after I sat down. We weren’t even aware that we were doing it, but by simply being ourselves and showing respect for each other, we were able to communicate our values to our families.

I am now back at the hotel where we spent the first few days in country preparing for the official swearing-in ceremony. Returning to the same place after having such an intense period of growth has made obvious the changes that have taken place in my perception of Morocco and of people in general. The little bit of language that I have gives me great confidence and power, and many of the things I found to be strange at first are now relatively normal (for example, there are donkeys everywhere and when you enter a group of people, you automatically shake their hand and then put it to your heart). Tomorrow, we will travel on our own to our permanent work site, which is in a completely different part of the country. This is going to be challenging of course, but at least I have a taste for things now.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention where I’m going! Sean and I are going to be spending the next two years in the Ouarzazate province. Our site is on the southern edge of the High Atlas mountains where they meet the Sahara desert. Our town is relatively large and has 11,000 people and 30 douars (sort of like neighborhoods). For those of you who have seen the movie Gladiator, most of it was filmed about an hour away. After our 10+ hour journey tomorrow, I’ll have more to say about that. For now, I'm going to rest and spend the last few hours of my time with my fellow volunteers. I think I'm going to head into town now to get an avocado/apple/banana smoothie--they're to die for!

Village Life

This is copied from an email I sent on March 15th, 2009.

Since my last update, lots has happened! We just completed our first week (of 8) with our Host Families. I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful they are! But let me start from the beginning:

Sean and I are in a small village in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains (the exact location is secret because Peace Corps doesn't want us to spread the word about our exact locations for security reasons). It is so unbelievably beautiful here! As I mentioned, it has been an especially wet winter, so everything is green. This provides a spectacular contrast to the red earth (similar to Sedona). We discovered that the green fields everywhere are wheat fields, although they look more like impossibly verdant meadows. There are steep narrow paths crisscrossing the mountains in the foreground, and when you look up, you are astonished to find looming, completely snow-capped mountians. And then there are the poppies! Oh, my the gorgeous, red-orange poppies! Ahh! I'll have to figure out how to post photos soon!

And I haven't even mentioned our host family! Our host-mom is named Fatima, and she is shy and laughs a lot. Our host-dad is named L'Houssein, and he looks ancient, although I'm discovering that people age quickly in Morocco. He is a farmer, so he isn't around much during the day, but when he comes home in the evening, he always seems to be in a good mood. He sits with his arms folded across his chest, smiling, and nodding, and occasionally saying something that everyone is the house finds very funny (although I usually don't understand, which of course, everyone thinks is even funnier.) We have two host sisters, Fadma, who is from L,Houssein,s first marriage and seems to be near the age of Fatima, and Houda, who is 12. Fadma is very outgoing and is always laughing and trying to get me to understand what's going on. Houda is simultaniously spunky and shy, and also very smart. She helps us out a lot with the language and pronunciation. Actually, the whole family is very smart, and they are all very close and affectionate. Moroccans in general seem to be very affectionate and friendly. The traditonal greeting are very long and involve asking about each other's family as well as repeating "How are you?" in several different forms as well as the same form over and over again. Imagine:

Amber: Peace be upon you.
Fadma: Peace be upon you, too.
Amber: Are you fine?
Fadma: I am fine, thanks be to God. Everything is good. I am good, thanks be to God. Are you fine?
Amber: I am fine, thanks be to God. I am good, thanks be to God. Are you good?
Fadma: I am well, thanks be to God. I am good. Everything is good. How is your family? (Usually they ask about each member individually and the whole process repeats itself).
The whole process is accompanied by lots of smiles, laughing, nodding, and a combination of handshakes, hugs, and kisses. It's great!

Everyone is very neighborly, and greets everyone else on the street, or from the roof (Moroccan roofs are like American front porches). Also, there are donkeys and sheep everywhere. It's very funny, actually. So, on our host family description, it said "no pets", but when we arrived, we were greeted by 2 rabbits, a cat, 3 turkeys, a donkey, at least 8 chickens, 3 ducks, and 7-8 sheep. No pets! Hah! It's great, though. They live mostly in our small front yard and in the courtyard. Oh, our house is the most beautiful house I've ever seen! It is made of adobe mud brick, but it has an open roof in the center. There is a stairway that goes up to the roof from the center courtyard. There is also an entry courtyard (where the animals stay) separated by a huge ornately carved wooden door. There are several rooms that branch off from the central courtyard, including our bedroom, a traditional kitchen, a modern kitchen, a sitting room, and a few other rooms. The Turkish toilet is in it's own little chamber in the entry courtyard. We also have our own private Hammam (steam sauna/shower) in the backyard, which I had the delicious privilege of using for the first time yesterday. Very nice!

Oh, there's so much to talk about! Let's see, the food is great, although I did get mildly sick a few days ago. My family was very sweet and considerate and prepared special food for me to recover, and I'm perfectly fine now. We live right next door to three other volunteers, who each have their own families. Most of the families are related, so we visit each other often. The kids are great, and we play a lot of cards and they help us with the language. Mostly, there's a lot of laughing and they make fun of us a lot because we don't know how to do anything (speak, wash our clothes, eat properly (with your hands), use the bathroom, etc.) but it's very fun. During the day we go to madrasa (school) and learn language for the first 4 hours or so, then cultural/practical stuff in the afternoon. We have the evenings with our families to practice and hang out. Today was our first day off, so the volunteers in our village made a trip to Ouzoud Cascades, which are the largest in the country. They are amazing! Now, we,re all in the cyber catching up on emails and buying a few things at the hanout (store).

Kulshi Bixr (Everything is good!)

I'm Here!

This is copied from a mass email I sent on March 9th, 2009.

I am in Morocco, and it is late, and we meet our host family tomorrow, so I should be in bed. However, I feel like I should take advantage of the internet while I have it. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get Google Blogger out of French, so I don't know how to edit my blog. Hence, the mass email. In the future, those of you who want to, can check our status on my blog. Fir those who would like to see how Sean and I are doing in the Peace Corps in Morocco via mass email, please let me know and I'll keep you in this group. My first official Moroccan entry is as follows:

Well, firstly, I should probably announce that after a supernaturally long day made possible only by international travel and extravagant changes in time zones, Sean and I have made it safely to Morocco!

We landed in a surprisingly lush Casablanca for an immediate bus departure to our Pre-Service Training site in a medium sized town in the Azilal province at the base of the High Atlas mountains. The 3.5 hour ride out of Casablanca and through the countryside was both surprising and breathtaking. This winter has been the coldest and wettest in Morocco in several decades--a welcome relief from many years of drought. As a result, the dry, brown landscape I’ve been imagining has been transformed into a palette of bright, new green interspersed with brilliant patches of yellow and orange. Occasionally, we would pass an entirely orange square in an otherwise almost exclusively green field, which of course incited excited tugs at Sean’s sleeve.

In fact, excited tugs and pokes have been a decidedly common occurrence in the first few hours and days of our stay in this spectacular country. Along with the verdant landscape, we saw several shepherds with their flocks of goats, sheep, and herds of cattle. Donkeys seem to be everywhere, be it pulling a cart full of fresh local oranges, carrots, or beets, being led by a smiling, weathered old man, or just grazing alongside the road, in a field, or behind some hanuut (store).

Also dotting the landscape are mud or cement block houses. Sometimes solitary, sometimes in somewhat large, high-rise clusters, they all seemed to have laundry or gorgeous, colorful rugs hanging from the walls or strewn in the nearby densely packed prickly pear corrals.

Once we arrived at our hotel and checked in, we had a fantastic lunch with all of the Peace Corps Host Country National staff. The food, even more than we expected, has been consistently stellar--amazing fresh produce, notably the famous Moroccan oranges, which line the streets here, and strawberries, which are in season now. There have been a variety of fresh salads, my favorite being the beets, as well as cooked vegetables, meat and fish dishes, and of course, the national dish--cous cous.

Everyone, volunteers and Peace Corps (PC) staff alike, is sincerely great--interesting, friendly, and intelligent. Our days have been jam packed with Darija (Moroccan Arabic) language classes, policy review, logistics, and a crash course in cross-cultural training. I can hardly believe that it has been only 4.5 days in country! I have already learned so much, and I feel surprisingly comfortable (of course, not too comfortable!) We have ventured out several times to the souk, and I’ve been able to get pretty much everything I want with a combination of gestures and my limited Darija. The locals have been incredibly friendly, helpful, and curious about us. They make an effort to teach us Darija, French, or whatever they think will be useful for us. Today we took taxis to the top of one of the hills at the base of the mountains to see some waterfalls and an ancient casbah. Very nice! Since the weather has been so nice the last two days, we decided to walk back (about 4 miles), through town. On the way back, we stopped at a coffee shop for Moroccan mint tea and French pastries.

Tomorrow, we head out to our host families for our more intimate Community Based Training (CBT). We will be staying with host families for the next 2 months and spending our days with our Language and Cultural Facilitator (LCF) in daily 8 hour intensive language classes. Sean and I will be learning Tashelheit, which is one of two major Berber dialects, spoken primarily in the more remote southern part of the country, although it is widely understood and there is actually a movement to make it the exclusive national language of Morocco. We will spend our evenings at home with the host families, practicing our language skills more and getting to know the cultural customs and etiquette. After that, we’ll swear in and be sent to our final sites. More on that to come! For now, everything is fantastic, and I’m super stoked about the present and future! Hooray!

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Moroccan Mailing Address

So, for the first 11 weeks (in-country training)* I will be receiving mail at the following address:

Amber Shiel, Trainee
s/c Corps de la Paix
2, rue Abou Marouane Essaadi
Agdal, Rabat 10100, MOROCCO

It normally takes 10-12 days for an airmail letter to arrive from the United States. Surface mail takes from 1-4 months. Mail that goes through the Moroccan post office is subject to customs inspection, censorship, and currency control. If you decide to send me packages (very much appreciated, I'm sure!), brown padded envelopes work well. Make sure that they are marked with a green customs stamp and are labeled as gifts, which should prevent the imposition of fees. Mail delivery is sporadic, so don't worry if my letters to you don't get there in a timely or consistent matter. Which reminds me, I'm now accepting mailing addresses from anyone who wants to get letters! I look forward to yours!**

*After training, I will have a local address at my as of yet to be determined project site. I'll keep you posted.
**Since it could take a while to get your letters, it might be nice if you sent some before I left, so that I could have them when I get there.

Welcome to blog.

So, I haven't left yet, but I wanted to set this up before I left. ETD: March 4th (how symbolic--March forth!)