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!