Friday, July 3, 2009

Exploring the possibilities

June 20th

Location: Women's Co-operative for Argan Oil (Somewhere between Had Draa and Onagra)

Weather: High 90's, Sooooooo Hot.


Sometime last week I was sitting in the new Cyber (Hamdullah!!) in my souq town, busily typing away trying to form some sort of coherent response to the 30 or so emails which build up every few days, when I noticed two women sitting opposite pretending to use the computer while sneaking glances in my direction. Being used to such matrimony seeking tendencies everyone seems to have here (not to mention the usual attention a big white guy draws here anyway) I did not really give it a second thought so I continued on with the business at hand. An hour or two passed by and I noticed that they ladies were still sneaking glances, not the same women as before though but from the same group, they seemed to be well organized and taking shifts. What were they up too? Was I under surveillance by a group of jellaba-clad women? Finishing up I packed up my things and went to pay up. The Cyber owner, congenial as always, gave me my change and with it a business card for an Argan oil Co-operative. As he did so he pointed towards the door and the women keeping an eye over me, it turns out she was the president of the Co-op! These women had been hanging out not for a marriage contract to be signed but for my help! The woman's name was Hassna and she asked if I would come visit them to see what they do. I agreed and went on my way.

It has actually been something of interest to me and had been planning on engaging with one the many Argan Co-operatives for some time now, but a week had passed between this specific invitation and the actual visit. What was I waiting for?!?!? The meeting went great! Hassna was extremely welcoming and treated me to tea (like any good Moroccan would do) and cracked open a bottle of their Argan oil for me to try (very nutty, but absolutely delicious!). While sipping on tea we discussed what the Co-op did and what their needs were, during the conversation she mentioned that they were hoping to expand into other areas such as goats and beekeeping. Hold up a second, BEEKEEPING! (Weird, she just called while writing this…sorry for the digression) Beekeeping is exactly the kind of project I was looking to do and now I found an educated, motivated, and, best of all, mobile female who was looking for the same thing! Way to fight the trend Morocco. I hope to visit twice a week and really get to know the ladies in the Co-op (and them to know me) and get something going here, hopefully some sweet, sweet honey.

During the meeting with the Co-op President this guy, wearing cargo capri, tight shirt, and colored glasses came strolling in looking to buy oil for his store. He greeted each one of us (about 5 people in the room at the time), after responding to him "Salaam Alikum" he turn back to me and said "Espana?", "La (no)" I replied. "Lubnon? Suria?" he continued, "La, La, Ana mn Mirikan" I replied. He just froze and stared at me, stared at me for quite some time actually and then he said "m3aqul (seriously)?" "m3alum (of course)" was my response. At this time he turned to Hassna to confirm with her, once confirmed he turned back to me and "Tbark 3la 3lik (similar to 'congratulations')". Such events as this are what make my day, changing hearts and minds one person at a time. Just giving this man the opportunity to meet and American face to face and being able to converse in his language left him dumbstruck and hopefully changed whatever perception he may have held about Americans. Job accomplished.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In-Service Training

June 15th, 2009

Location: Tigmijou, Morocco

Weather: High-80's, Beautiful.


So, I just returned from IST is Marrakesh and it was wonderful! Wonderful in so many ways too; The giant pool which I took advantage of every chance I could, getting to know Marrakesh better other than just the famous Jam3 Lfnaa square (I was not a big fan of the city before), and being able to see my fellow 23 stage-mates (most whom I have not seen since PST 6 months ago) and catching up was probably the best part of all. Aside for the sometimes mind-numbing day long meetings it was a very positive experience overall.

As horrible as some of the meetings were, the ideas which were shared amongst the volunteers has left my head and notebook filled with many avenues to explore which will sure keep me busy the rest of the 18 months I have here. It was extremely interesting listening to PCVs about what their sites are like and what type of work they were doing, the range of difference between experiences is astonishing. There are volunteers spread all over the country from the Sahara Desert to the High Atlas mountains to the Coasts, but the geographic differences are not what is the most interesting (myself already being quite aware how topographically diverse this wonderful country is). It is the work which the PCVs are doing which was stimulating to hear. Within in my stage of 23 there are people working with associations of all stripes; one woman is working with ladies who produce Couscous, jams, and other food spreads. Another, down in the Valley of the Roses, brought the authentic Rose water which her artisans produce. Of course there were tons of carpet associations as well, their offerings were quite distinct for the most part with designs adhering to local tradition, but not as many I had assumed there would be when before arriving in Morocco, reading the work description of the SBD program here as working with "weavers". As for our product, my artisan brought the bags made from water-reed our town produces, which sold out promptly in the first hour :0!

Departing Marrakesh was bittersweet. Knowing that once again most of the PCVs would not see each other again until our next gathering (Mid-service medicals, another 6 months time), but also a bit sick of hanging out with a bunch of Americans, I left with an eagerness to get back to site. Speaking personally, I feel a bit unsettled being away from my town for more than a few days at a time, almost guilty in a way. This may be due to the fact that we are supposed to stay in site and I have just become accustomed to it or possibly because people in my village do not travel and somewhat expect me to be there as well and when I am not, I'm somehow letting them down in an odd way. Anyways, the return to town felt good. It really did feel like I was returning home, back to normality, back to comfort. First order of business was to retrieve the key I left with the boy Aube, who was tending to my plants and cat. It should be easy to understand the images of a destroyed house and things on missing swirling in my head as I walked to his house. You never know what can happen no matter how well you lock things up, Moroccan children just find a way into the places they want to go. Upon entering my home with three children in tow everything appeared to be as it should; all doors closed, courtyard clean, plants alive (except the ones I was growing in egg cartons, you failed Aube!), and the kitten just a bit bigger than last I'd seen here. The kitchen though was another story, a mess, just how I left it J, one of the children leaned his head in an made the comment about it possibly containing a Djinn (spirit, think Genie) or two which brought a smile to my face, I was home.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Independent thought

Today was interesting as it gave me the opportunity to experience up front the teaching methods applied in Moroccan education. It all happened when I was in my market town, 5 KM from where I live, in order to meet up with one of my friends. This friend happens to work at the local hospital and helps teach nurses-in-training, a group of which happened to be visiting that day in order learn to test well water and invited me to tag along! So there we were, standing around the huge well in the blistering heat listening to these two doctors go on (in Arabic) about water treatment (I could actually understand the gist of what was being said, which gave me a little smile). Being a bit restless I begin to glance around and notice that no one was asking any questions (nor being solicited for their thoughts either) and decide to give it a shot myslef. My question was about chlorine evaporating from water, which I said it does and the two teachers said it does not, started a constructive little argument. The rest of the students just seemed shocked and were laughing a bit and exchanging smiles as this foreigner was going about arguing with their professors! It was a nice situation which revealed the teaching and learning dynamics in Morocco in which the teacher talks down to the students and they are expected to sit and listen. It was fun for me and I think for them as well, and by the way, I still think I was right about the chlorine thing.



New addition to the homestead

This past week I warmly received a new addition to my home, a small kitten! She was the pick of the litter from my souq town Had Draa, meaning of course I found her sitting alone on a wall and shoved her in my bike bag! No joke, I actually consider myself to be a bit of a humanitarian (or felinitarian?? Who knows) for rescuing her from her stoop, but a sad fact of life here are the many unwanted stray dogs and cats in Morocco and their progeny fending for themselves on the streets of every city, town, and village. This was a decision I have been pondering for a while now, since before arriving actually, and could not be happier having finally made it. She, Grace, the Kitten, is a nice addition to my home, which she has taken to quite quickly. Why would a PCV want to have a pet while serving? Well, probably the main reason is a companion to get you through those low moments we all face from time to time. Another could be that is it just too difficult seeing a small kitten or puppy all alone on the street and not be so overwhelmed with pity that you quickly pack them away from a new life with you. Personally I was a little from both columns. I haven't really faced a big low moment yet, but when I do she better live up to the task of keeping me company or out the door she goes!

The inhabitants of my wonderful little settlement (I wouldn't go so far to even call it a village) greeted the new member of our town with a bit of surprise, a bit of curiosity, but mostly confusion. I could just imagine what they were thinking: Why is he carrying a cat in his bag? Strange enough that he lives alone and does not want to marry any of our daughters, it is all starting to make sense now, he's nuts! You see, no one really keeps pets here. Dogs and cats do live in their homes, dogs on the roof to scare thieves and cats inside to eat bugs, but never as a "pet" as people in the States understand it. What blew their world even more was when I brought to town a bag of cat from Essaouira, the kids were so curious that I had to keep them from tasting it! (The stuff isn't cheap).

Early the next day I hear a bang on my door accompanied with little chatter (tall-tale sign there is a pack on children outside). I sneak up to the roof to see who is there and as I thought there were the kids but holding two more kittens! Apparently they brought them so I could give them food from the bag I bought the day before. Being somewhat of a pushover hearing the kittens meow I bring a small handful to the door not knowing that it would create my mission for the rest of the day. I handed over the food and the children quickly set down the kittens and set out feeding them, then suddenly something else down the trail catches their attention and they all run off, leaving two kittens sitting out front of my house. Now, my house is somewhat set apart from the rest, sitting on a wonderful little hill with a commanding view of the valley. Unfortunately, this makes it an impossible task for the two kittens to make it back to where ever they came from (I have no idea where that may be). To try and solve this problem (who wants three kittens!), I start to beg the each little girl to remove them, to no avail. Then it came to me! I make the announcement: "First to remove these kittens gets a handful of almonds!" Like a flash of lightening they kittens are gone, just another day in life in Morocco J.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Returning from the Ether

Hello! Sorry for the long delay but I've decided to continue on with these posts and I hope you agree with me that is the right decision.

So, let me just give a quick update to fill you in with what has been going on. For the past four months I have been enjoying integrating with my wonderful town (which unfortunately I cannot give the name for security reasons) right outside the relaxing sea-side city of Essaouira. The first couple weeks were difficult with the adjustment to a town of just three hundred people which can arguably not be called a town but rather an outcropping of houses in the middle of nowhere. This was somewhat to be expected as I came from a city of one million in the States with all of the common convinces one is used to in such an environment. I am not just talking about cafes, restaurants, and other outlets in which one finds entertainment but just the knowledge that if you wanted to go somewhere to hangout there were such places to do so. Here on the other hand, with such a small population that the places one spends time is at others houses. This took a bit getting used to but now I extremely enjoy it and find it quite fulfilling. Besides, if I ever get that urge for a bit more activity Essa is just a short hop, skip, and jump away J

Life here is a slower pace than I am used to but have adapted to it very well. Mornings are fantastic and drawn out which usually includes hours sitting on my roof, taking in the sun with a big cup of coffee and some good reading material. Afterwards I venture out to see how my donkey (running water) is doing and bring him a bucket of hay and oats. Once the little chores are taken care of I like to walk around town and meet with people just to talk and share some cups of tea. This can usually be followed up with a bike ride through the country side or visiting with my tutor who is located 5 KM down the road. The day usually ends with a nice meal cooked up at home and some more reading, work, or a film on the computer. Now this is a generally day but can vary dramatically, such as a day trip to Essa or all meals eaten with families in my community.

As for language, progress has been steady and surprising. It is hard to imagine that after only eight months someone can go from no knowledge of a language to being able to discuss subjects ranging from why the economy is so bad to why "No, I do not want to become a Muslim". That last one is a bit trickier but personally I enjoy it because it gives to opportunity to explain how in the US there are many different religions, which are usually come to through the choice of the person based on personal experience not just born into like they are here (Every Moroccan is born a "Muslim", although most Americans are also "born" into their religion as well, raised into the religion of their family).

I hope that was a good, if not brief, overview of what is going on here. These will continue on a weekly basis continuing to document my experiences here and capture any thoughts on the interesting cultural differences I encounter. Please continue to follow and enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Back to the Bled

First off I want to give a giant shout out to M'Hammed, our Peace Corps librarian, for being a generally all-around good guy. His response time to book requests is fantastic as I received the book I desired the very next day!(granted he did come to Azrou to give us a lecture). But still, the services provided by the IRC(in-country resource center) will keep me well supplied with reading materials well into the two years of service here. So far the books I've eagerly devoured have centered around Muslim culture and include the following: Three Cups of Tea, The Caliphs House, and Secret Trespass(the one brought to me). Also a non-partisan political book which I have just started dipping into. Needless to say the stereotype of PCVs reading more during their service than the previous span of life leading up to that point is so far turning out to be true. I can only imagine what it is going be to like once we get placed in our final sites(which we find out in twenty short days!).

Yesterday we were measured up for our Trek mountain bikes which we should be issued shortly after arriving at our sites. This is something that I have been waiting for since arriving in country. The freedom of movement that mountain bikes will afford us is excitement I can barely contain. Interesting side note: apparently Morocco is the only PC country to issue bikes to their volunteers. Many people have speculated on the reasons but the prevailing one has to do with the history of the country. Earlier volunteers to Morocco used to be issued motorcycles(can you believe it!) and issuing mountain bikes is a way to somewhat stick to that tradition and offer us a cheap and healthy mode of transportation. I for one will be utilizing this perk to its fullest, hopefully my site is not in the steepest of the steep High Atlas Mountains, Inshallah.

So winds down our week back in Azrou. A week filled with story exchanges, mind-numbing lectures, and even more vaccinations(the flu shot knocked many people on their ass, myself included). In a way it is refreshing to be returning to our sites for a few more weeks. It gives us a chance to enter back into the life we had grown to enjoy during our previous foray. A life that ticks away at a slower pace, in a place where everyone knows your face and their fall over themselves to offer you a meal, a life that I have missed. I wish everyone well and cannot wait to tell you of the time we have had during this second phase. Be well!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Back from the Bled

So I have just returned from our first foray into a Moroccan village and face-to-face experience living with a host family. To say the time spent there was fulfilling would be an understatement, a readjustment of my preconceptions about what village life would be like is more on the mark. The beautiful town of Ben Smim is what I called home for two weeks and will be again soon for another three weeks. The town of 1,500 inhabitants is situated on the slope of a hill that spills into a valley containing the farms and lively-hood of the local population. The town is known for its wild blackberries, pomegranates, honey, and natural spring water was a wonderful introduction into beld(rural) life.

The greatest highlight of the first phase of our CBT was the warmness and generosity of the community which embraced us from the first moment we arrived. Everyone we met wanted to come say hello and see who the new foreigners were. This was nothing new to them though as there is a Peace Corps volunteer currently stationed in the village. Shortly after arrival we were introduced to our host families who cheerily took us in as new members of their families. The family I was placed with was very small in comparison to most and gave me a different dynamic and thus experience from others in my staging group. My family consisted of a mother named Fatima, a grandmother named Azizi, and a son named Abduliyah (I still have trouble with that one). Fatima had been divorced for about 23 years, very unusual for a Moroccan woman to do but apparently her ex-husband was an ass who beat her and they are much better off because of it. You may be wondering how does a single mother in a little village support herself and family? Well, they ran the towns hemmam (public bathhouse) which was wonderful for me since I was allowed to have all of the free baths my dirtied body could handle (about every three days). Their house was a bit above the center of town on the hill and had a great view of the mosque and valley below. The house itself is something I never imagine staying in; It was a very, very rustic mud and stone hovel with a dirt roof which floods water during the many storms which passed through the valley. As shocking as it looked on the outside it was surprisingly comfortable inside. It consisted of four rooms: a kitchen, bedroom, living room(where the mother and grandmother slept), and a salon(sitting room) which is my bedroom.

The past month on the Islamic calendar was Ramadan where the days are spent fasting and praying from sunup to sundown. I did not take this opportunity to fast but was more than happy to take part in the break-fast which occurred at the setting of the sun. This meal consists of a flaky bread which is dipped in honey, boiled eggs, this deep-friend, honey-soaked wonderful creation called shebekia, a almond and flour mixture called zmita, and plenty of overly sweet mint tea. In reality Muslims do not forgo their three meals a day, they are just eaten throughout the evening instead. First, the break-fast I mentioned around 6:20ish; Then a dinner around 10 or 11; Last but not least a meal at 3 AM before the fast begins again at 4:30 AM. What do people do in between these meals? Sleep, watch T.V., and for the women: prepare the meals. One aspect of this joyous month is the mosque which starts blaring Koranic verses at 3 in the morning to make sure people wake up and eat before the fast beings. If that is not enough for you, a man walks though town banging on a drum just to make sure you get the message. It is a great feeling and makes you realize where you are as you drift happily back to sleep.

Well, I am going to wrap this up. I promise to write again before we leave again for the second phase of our CBT training. I hope everyone is well back in the States!