Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Market to Table: A Thanksgiving Sacrifice

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Although I appreciate the religious significance of Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving is relatively free of the headaches and expectations of gift-giving, but full of family and food (what more can I ask for?). Of course this makes it doubly difficult to spend my favorite holiday so far away from those very comforts.

L’Eid Kbir (remember this from last year?), which moves back two weeks every year on the lunar calendar was positioned only two days after Thanksgiving this year. What did this mean? Well, first it meant that the travel restriction put on all volunteers during the week surrounding the Muslim holiday put a damper on gathering on Thanksgiving day. No problem, I still managed to cook a small meal for a group that was not so much comprised of Americans but Koreans and Moroccans (and we had a blast).

It also meant that Saturday would be the final day for a lot of sheep. Last year I compared some aspects of L’Eid Kbir to Thanksgiving, both are centered on a particular animal to be consumed. With this in mind and with encouragement from a friend, I was determined to have my own “sheep” to sacrifice this year. I bought a live turkey.

It was a bit hard to come by on the days leading up to L’Eid, I went to souq the day the sheep was bought buy my neighbors. Nothing but men standing next to their sheep as buyers grab the sheep’s backside and lift its back legs to size it up. We wove in and around the bleating mass and kept track of the favorites until a purchase was finally made.

I found my turkey on Thanksgiving morning. She was a beautiful bird, and what they call a “country turkey” meaning she probably had a free-range life in the countryside surrounding my town. I grabbed her firmly by her tied legs and took her back to my courtyard (which, if you remember, also housed chickens at one point). I made sure she’d be comfortable for the few days she would occupy my home. Seeing her stand up on my courtyard also gave me reference of how much larger she was than my chickens. I wouldn’t allow her to intimidate me, however, and she showed no signs of being particularly feisty.

The big day came, and the animals were assembled on the roof of my neighbors’ house: two sheep (one from their daughter and son-in-law who came in), two kittens (not to be eaten), and one turkey. The oldest son present is in charge of slaughtering the animals, one by one, while everyone else takes action in immediately skinning and taking apart the animal, or else keeping the tile-ground constantly clean. There is an order and efficiency to it that makes its regularity obvious.

Having not grown up practicing first hand what it means for an animal to go from farm to plate, I mostly stay behind my camera. Although this is the second year I’ve celebrated L’Eid and seen the slaughter, it is still a very powerful and sad thing to witness the death of the animal. It is also amazing and disturbing how quick the transition is from animal to “meat”. The way my brain processes the two is very different.

I did put my hands to work in de-feathering my bird. I knew this was everyone’s concern about my extra contribution to the event. Usually chickens are de-feathered at the chicken seller’s around the corner, but of course no one would be open the morning of L’Eid. It ended up not being as terrible as I thought it would, many hands made light work, and I made sure every last feather was gone.

Lunch was grilled liver wrapped in fat, the traditional first meal. The second traditional meal, a stew of stomach, lung, and esophagus, I managed to miss out on this year. When I asked when would be a good time to serve my turkey, I was told the evening of the first day would be fine, turkey would be a healthy break from all the lamb-meat. So that is how I ended up preparing a Thanksgiving dinner on L’Eid. Okay, okay, so I only prepared one side of roasted veggies, but I did have stuffing and gravy to accompany the bird. I received much praise for the meal, which was well consumed despite the day of eating cookies and mutton. Afterwards I went back to my house, left my kitchen a disaster for the night and went to bed.

This year, although I have an ocean between any blood relatives and the assortment of pies and sides that make Thanksgiving what it is, I have my “family” here as well as a will to cook, and a can of imported cranberry sauce. That will do this year, and I’m more than thankful for it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Peace Corps Mourns the Loss of Volunteer So-Youn Kim

Sometimes you only know someone for a short time, and sometimes in that short time you are able to glimpse a bright spark, a fiery, generous soul. This is a great loss to the Peace Corps Morocco family. I can only imagine the magnitude of this loss to her family and friends, both here, in America, and elsewhere abroad. Please keep those she whose lives she touched in your thoughts and prayers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jumping into Trains

11 a.m. That is the time I should have left town in order to catch the train from Rabat down to Marrakech at 1:45 p.m. Lynn will be on the train already, and I’ll join her for our trip down south for a pottery workshop.

No problem, plenty of time. It wouldn’t take much time for me to finish packing my bags. The only other thing I had to do was swing by the electric company to get my new meter installed (it is a whole other story of why I need to do this on this morning, and not too interesting). I was told to be there at 8:15 a.m. in order to catch the man who does the installing. I’m an early riser; I’ll make sure I’m there at 8.

I get there at 8:10, there are a few people in front of me describing directions to their houses to the man behind the counter. My turn is up and I initially baffle the man by speaking Arabic instead of French. I describe the location of my house, he isn’t quite sure where it is but some other guys overhear and help me find a landmark with which he is familiar.

“I’ll stop by sometime this morning.” I hear, a sinking feeling in my stomach. This is going to be like waiting for the cable guy, isn’t it? I almost tell him I need to leave my house at 11, but I sense this will be fruitless. It’s like trying to tell a rain shower to stop by your garden on schedule.

No problem. I go back to my house and finish packing, making sure the house is secured. I’ll just wait until 11 and then leave if he hasn’t shown up. Of course this would require going back to the electric company and explaining that I do actually live where I say I do, I just couldn’t wait around for him, but I will be there this next time for sure.

11:01 a.m. a knock at the door with both my landlord’s voice and the voice of the electric meter man. I open the door as they are sizing up the spot where the meter is to be installed. It won’t be installed until later, he just wants to see the spot. I first need to take some paperwork by the electric company and pay for the meter.

Okay, no problem. I’ll just grab my bags and pass by there on my way to the taxi stand. We converse for a few moments in front of my door. The electric meter man thoroughly amused that I can speak to him in his own language. He hands over the papers I need to take in. I load myself down with my packed bags and head out for the electric company once again.

When I arrive at 11:17 a.m. I notice everyone in the building is in front of one window, the one I need. A short note about lines here in Morocco, people don’t really get in a single file line. Usually people are crowded around the counter, the most aggressive people getting attention first. There might be an attempt at a line with papers and ID cards lined up on the counter if you’re lucky.

I assess the situation, looking for where to get in—maybe it’s a fast moving line. “You need a folder for your papers.” I turn to the man addressing me. “Don’t you see everyone else has folders for their papers. You need a folder so they won’t mix your papers up. Go around the corner to the bookstore and buy an folder.” I try to protest but I feel it might be easier to just buy the folder.
I come back with a folder a few minutes later and study the tangled mass once more. This time I notice one of the women that had been going to my jewelry making classes last spring. She is a petite, and nearly swallowed up by the crowd. She notices me and wiggles her way out. I greet her and ask her how long she has been waiting. “Since 8 a.m.” she replies. Not a good sign.

At this point I’m strongly considering cutting my losses and making a run for the train. I speak with her about how she and her family are doing and the latest news, and then ask, “What should I do? I need to catch my train.” I shift with the weight of my bags, which have been drawing curious stares.

“We’ll make sure you get your turn soon.” A woman who’d been overhearing our conversation says with a smile. Two men take my folder and make sure it is placed in the line of folders on the counter. The line inches up with some speed and surprisingly my turn is up before too long.

The man behind the counter takes my envelope, glances at it and sets it aside.

“Tell him what you need. His name is Hassan. Knock on the window!” Various members of the line have suddenly decided to help me and urge me on. “Knock again, he didn’t here you. Tell him that you have to travel. Tell him you have a train to catch.”

I’m not normally an aggressive person, I knocked timidly and using my most polite language I ask about my folder and my need simply to pay for a meter.

“The man smiles at me and holds up a stack of folders, of which mine was just added. “Do you see? I have all of these before you.”

“Tell him you need to catch your train, you have to travel. Knock on the window again!”

I feel myself fighting my dislike of being the self-centered line-butter and my need to catch a train and the voices urging me on.

Hassan gets up with my folder and walks into the back room. I wait for him to emerge for 5 minutes. Eventually he returns and sits back down, working on something amidst a continuous stream of requests shouted out by different members of the crowd, some who had just walked in. Throughout this time I’d been frequently glancing at my watch and calculating the possibilities of still catching the train. There still may be hope, maybe.

“340 dirhams please.” I quickly hand over the bills. Another trip to another back room costs another 5 minutes before and he returns to sit behind the counter. I’m waiting for a sign to leave, and receive not even a glance in my direction.

By this point I’m still being urged to speak up. My polite requests have turned to quiet pleadings and statements of my departure. “I have to go, I’ll come back next week.” I squeek out with all the power of a mouse.
“You can’t leave, you need your receipt! They have to know you’ve paid.” I’m told repeatedly.

My watch is pointed at noon, my travel calculations put this as the absolute latest I can leave to catch the train. Suddenly Hassan looks up and directs me to another window. I walk over, sweating from the wait of my bags and anxiety. I feel the crowd’s eyes following me. I wait for another 30 seconds and the receipt is in my hand.

“That’s it.” Hassan’s voice is like a gun shot at the race track. Suddenly I’m not just catching this train for myself, or Lynn, but for the entire electric-company-line team. I spot an unloading taxi pulled up right in front of the building. My hope and determination rejuvenated I hop in and am carried away to the taxi stand.

I get there just in time to see a full cab pull away. A movie in my head plays where I run after it and plead with passengers to sell me their seat, but the taxi heads towards Rabat without me as I wait in another cab for it to fill up. 10 minutes later we too are ready to go. I consider telling the cab driver of my train and if he could make sure we get there in good time, but before we take off a man walks up and hands over the paper. He says something about what to say to the police if the driver is pulled over. It sounds a bit shady so I decide not to cause any trouble. If we speed we’re more likely to be pulled over, and I don’t feel good about encouraging a driver to speed anyway.

The entire drive I feel each slow truck and stop light, each fortuitous turn and pass. So close has our time come to my either catching the train or not catching it every move makes a difference. We pull into the taxi stand in Rabat and I hope out like a rabbit to catch a petit taxi. I find one going my way, only to hit traffic, and then maneuver around it. I calculate my fare before the meter. When we pull up I throw my change at the driver and bolt for the ticket station.

At the ticket counter the line is fortunately light. I enquire about the train to Marrakech, which yes, is here right now. My hands are barely visibly trembling as I pass over the bills. Ticket in hand I run to the platform.

My phone starts to ring but I don’t have time to pick it up. I race down the stairs, arriving to find an emptied platform. I answer my phone.

“Where are you? I think I’m towards the front of the train unless we dropped some cars.”

“Did you just leave the station?”


“Okay, I’m not on the train. I’ll have to catch the next one. I’ll talk to you later.” A sudden burst of disappointment and relief at my race having reached a conclusion. I failed my need to be on time for things and I failed all those kind people still likely back in that line at the electric company waiting their day away. I would catch the next train in two hours and spend the long boring ride alone. It is certainly something I can handle in any case.

To recuperate I went to my favorite Rabat treat, the falafel place nearby. I took my bags off my back and sighed, the adrenalin rush leaving me exhausted in its wake.

While waiting for my falafel to arrive I search for something to read and discover a little “Travel” quote book given to me by my friend Claire. I always carry it in my purse next to the miniature sock-monkey, my constant travel-partner, but rarely crack it open. I gravitated towards it suddenly needing something to relate to my situation.

On the first page I flipped to I find a quote to catch my eye, “All his life he [the American] jumps into the train after it has started and jumps out before it has stopped; and he never once gets left behind, or breaks a leg.” –George Santayana

Lies! I wanted to shout out, but I just laugh to myself instead. There is a kernel of truth there. I doubt my Moroccan neighbors would have been as ambitious to get their electric meter installed the morning they were going to catch a train. My real train that morning was the line back there at the electric company. I jumped in at the last minute with the expectation of taking care of business and nearly left before I had everything in order. All the while being carried along safely and as quickly as possible by the kind, considerate people of my town.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wild and wacky workshop week

Last Tuesday volunteers started trickling into my site for a cheese-making workshop. By Wednesday morning we had nine of us crammed into my tiny kitchen hovering over pots of heating milk. We ended up making five cheeses in all, including: Feta, Yoghurt and yoghurt cheese, Neufchatel/Farmers cheese, Gouda and Ricotta. I figured out a way to get all the necessary ingredients and equipment in Morocco, but still no success with Mozzarella. So we picked Mozzarella up at the store—a trip that delighted some volunteers since it included a horse carriage ride to the big grocery store, both of which most volunteers don’t have in their sites.

It was a very cheesy couple of days and we enjoyed Greek salad (with the Feta), cheese and crackers, Ricotta cream dessert, and several different pizzas topped in various cheesy ways. I felt it was a success over all, the cheeses came out great and I managed to sleep nine people in my modest home. I did want to included more Moroccans in this workshop, but realized what worked best for volunteers—scheduling during the slow Ramadan period—was the opposite for Moroccans busy preparing for lftor and maybe not the best to have around a mostly non-fasting American group. My neighbor did attend when she could catch a break from her household chores, but I will definitely have to repeat this again at another time.

On Friday our entire group moved down to Jon and Emily’s site for papermaking. There was a collective stretch as they realized the Lindbergs have considerably more space than I do. We got started right away breaking down egg crates, milk cartons, and other cardboard/paper trash. After turning it all into pulp we each got to try our hand at pulling paper on their roof while keeping an eye on the ominous sky overhead. The equipment needed for papermaking is a little more involved than cheese-making, but I would like to gather the necessary materials together to start my own paper-making fun.

Saturday we made a hike down to the source, the spring from which Oulmes water is bottled, in between rain showers and making paper. It is a good hike down a mountain and back up, but I made it all the way this time! Down at the bottom a friendly man showed us around the pumping site. They have a healthy population of cats breeding down there. I didn’t drink the water, but I did get to stick my hand in the warm baths set aside for hikers interested in the healing properties of mineral water. The spring pumps out perfect bathwater.

The weather has been crazy lately. It went from being so hot that sweat was a constant companion to down right chilly in a week. I am under two warm blankets as we speak. What caused this change was a pattern of rain showers, started by a big old-fashioned thunderstorm. Did I want rain? Yes, considering summer was basically devoid of it. Did I want cool? Yes, I’m tired of sweating. Do I want winter? Not until my toenails heal so they can get frostbitten again on a clean slate.

The cooler weather did inspire a fall dinner on Saturday. We roasted a stuffed chicken, made bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was a mini-thanksgiving. We eat pretty well when we get together around here, I must say. I’ve also found my ultimate cooking partner, Kristen. I’m more of a baker, so I prefer to take care of anything that involves flour, and she is an excellent cook. We’re a dangerous combination.

Sunday I stayed behind as the others filed out and got back to their lives. The paper we made was dried and ironed and I was determined to make a sketchbook with it. I learned a bookbinding technique from Emily, which I made a cover for back in my site. I’ll never buy a sketchbook again!

To wrap up this “summary of my week” post, the end of Ramadan is in sight. All during the workshops last week I had stopped fasting. Fasting is much more fun when you are breaking your fast with other Moroccans. I have gone back to it though, and it wasn’t so hard of a transition between the two. I’m actually considering fasting once in a while, like once a month. It really makes you slow down and think about food in a new way. I don’t need to constantly obsess about filling my stomach. It is important to enjoy what you are eating, and pick good foods both in taste and nutritional content. Many people go without food for much longer stretches of time, and many not by choice. It is also about fighting instant gratification, which I feel is a big problem in contemporary America. Of course, in my head I know these things already, but fasting makes them present.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thinking Through My Stomach

Recent discoveries:

1.) Not eating for long (up to 20 hour) periods of time won’t necessarily result in torturous stomach pain, inability to work, or death. I think I may have believed the contrary up until last week. American culture is focused on eating at every available opportunity-- woe the person who suffers from a pang of hunger. I definitely had an almost diabetic’s obsession with making sure I had access to something, anything, at all times just in case my stomach was empty and I started to feel tired or hungry.

It was hard to imagine that it could be possible to go through the day without food (or water) and still be able to function. So with Ramadan coming up I prepared myself to suffer considerably and was completely surprised to find I could grow accustomed to it, virtually pain-free. In part I think it helps that I have no other chemical habits to give up (cigarettes, coffee), but there is a lot to say about forming eating habits. When at my most scheduled, I can feel the first signs of hunger exactly at 12 noon, when I allow myself to declare “lunch”. A snack at 3pm becomes almost necessity to get me through the afternoon. However, if I simply tell myself I can’t eat until exactly sunset, well, so be it. There is no big temptation in treating myself to something between meals if I’ve forbid myself from putting anything in my mouth until the appropriate time. The hard rule makes it easier for my body to accept the challenge.

Of course, I’m also glad that Ramadan is only a month for the fact that I am a morning person and don’t think I could put up with eating for the day between sunset to first light for much longer than that time period. Also, if you make the mistake of not drinking enough water during the night, you may suffer more considerably during the day (we need water before food, after all).

A final note, it doesn’t seem like condensing your meals saves much time. Every day I wonder where the time went, I never feel like I’ve accomplished quite enough “before breakfast”.

2.) I can eat my chicken and her eggs too. So, to follow up on my chicken experiment, I’ve found that I would definitely keep chickens for their eggs if I had space to do so in a future living arrangement. However, they sort of took over my small courtyard and with the cooling weather I imagine a nice outdoor sanctuary for me and a few potted plants. Also, the landlord upstairs was starting to complain about the noise (this was mostly due to a visiting rooster, and grumpy Ramadan mornings, but I don’t need to pick that fight).

What did this mean for my hens? It meant finding out if this suburban child had enough farm girl in her to mercilessly eat her “pets”. Apparently, the answer is “yes”. The scrawny, noisy one was up first. We made pastilla, the delicious and famously Moroccan savour-sweet pastry dish. We buried my hen between layers of thin pastry, herbed scrabbled egg, and almonds, topped with cinnamon and sugar.

“Big Momma”, my other girl, is up next. She once extended her life by allowing me to pet her, but now my cold, cold heart races as I flip through cookbooks.

3.) It is, in fact, worth it to take a trip back up to the mountains specifically to pick blackberries (and visit my former host-family). Wild (i.e. free) fruit is sweetest!

4.) Cheese can be a simple, yet tricky culinary challenge. I’ve been learning leaps and bounds as I gear up for a cheese-making workshop I am hosting this coming week. It has been interesting trying to figure out what ingredients are really available in Morocco. I think I can find everything locally now.

It amazes me how much variety you can get simply by changing the timing and temperature of the same basic ingredients. Nope, still no Brie without the mold culture. Bummer.

5.) It has been nearly a year since I’ve arrived and I have been free of any major stomach issue! Even the minor stomach issues have been few and far between. I can only imagine the amazing stomach flora and fauna I must have to put up such a good fight. Keep it going team!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Paradise and Ramadan

The last two weekends I have been fortunate enough to take advantage of Morocco’s beaches. The first I visited with Jon, Emily (who happened to be doing some errands in Rabat) and Nadiya. Skhirat Beach, just south of Rabat was great for swimming, and a bit over-crowded. By contrast, KaHf l’Hammam (or “Paradise Beach”), south of Asilah, was empty when we got there, and had a rougher surf. Asilah itself was cute, decorated with murals from an annual festival that took place just before we arrived.

In Asilah our group consisted of all PCVs, using our Holiday four-day weekend for a break on the beach. Coincidentally, Ramadan also started last weekend, which means a major-shift in schedule for Morocco. Food is harder to come-by in the middle of the day, since Muslims fast during daylight hours. Although I was planning on fasting when I got back to my site, I didn’t want to start while on my mini-vacation. Fortunately the little food-shacks at Paradise Beach were happily catering to tourists and didn’t have an issue with preparing a delicious tajine for us. I guess it is okay to be a tourist now and then.

I came into this country a lunar year ago, during the month of Ramadan. The specific smells and atmosphere of this special month bring back memories of those first weeks. I keep thinking of my first host family, whom I recently visited during my trip to Ain Leuh.

I remember my host mother sitting on her kitchen floor, patting out the milawi (flakey pancakes) or heating up the bgharir (cross between a pancake/crepe) and slathering them with butter and honey. I remember tending to the fish frying on a pan balanced precariously on a gas tank burner, or the warming milk on the stove; the dates that break the fast and the harira that follows; the sticky shbekiya, the grainy zmita. I didn’t attempt to fast while dealing with the whirlwind of other changes, so when l’ftor came around I didn’t exactly have an empty stomach to take in all the calorie-rich foods.

A year later and here I am again, a whole other person, yet not. This year I am going to try to fast for part, if not all of Ramadan. This was a common question asked amongst PCVs leading up to it, “Are you going to fast this Ramadan?” Everyone has reasons for or against fasting, and I do agree it must be a personal decision. I’m not Muslim, but I am open to another insight into the culture I’m currently living in. I feel more prepared this year to handle the physical strain I might endure. Of course, I won’t go so far as to put myself in any real danger health-wise, and am prepared to drink water if the day proves too long and hot.

I am on my third day of fasting, and have been doing all right so far, despite a head cold I’ve been working through. I am embraced by the warm smiles that appear when I answer, “Yes, I am fasting.” L’ftor is shared with friends and neighbors. Although I could probably take on the calorie-rich foods in stride this year, I’m trying hard to drink more harira, and have a healthy meal later in the evening. That is the one major issue I’m encountering right now. When exactly should I eat that second meal? I love to wake up early, and don’t take a lot of joy in the late hours of the night. Waking up at 3:30 the first night to take a meal before the fasting began for the day (a little after 4am) didn’t make it easy to get back to sleep. I ended up not really sleeping at all until the next night when I stayed up until 1am to get in the second meal with enough time (and exhaustion) to sleep through to morning. Even without an alarm it is difficult for me to stay asleep past 7am. I think my days will just have to be a bit long. Amazingly though, they seem much shorter.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Camp

This last week was spent back in my old training grounds, Ain Leuh. I spent my first three months in Morocco there, nestled in the mountains. Once again Ramadan is approaching and it felt almost as if I never left when the taxi pulled up and I took the long, steep staircase up to the PCV’s house.

My second stay in Ain Leuh had its ups and downs. I came to help out with an Environment Camp. My main role was in helping with a mural to be painted on one of the long walls just below the park (which was also to be cleaned as part of the camp). Originally I had planned to do some other art-recycling projects with the kids, but this didn’t work out (and considering the activities I had been thinking of were for a younger audience than our 16-18 year old campers, I’m glad I didn’t). The mural itself was pretty successful. We had two other PCV artists, Jon and Emily, as well as several other volunteers making sure of its success.

We wanted the campers whose town we were in to have a big role in seeing the mural go up. One young artist drew up an environment-themed picture that we translated onto the long wall. We had some good hands in there making sure the mural was painted carefully, but my favorite helpers were the younger kids that came up looking for a way to get in on the action. I think the youngest were even more careful with the paint than the oldest.

Collectively I think the PCVs felt disappointed in the way the camp was run. It was clear that not all the money was being used the way it should have been. Also, there was a lack of adult supervision and group activities beyond the morning work (mural painting and park-cleaning). This lead to too much free time and too many opportunities to get into trouble. It was made clear to us just before the camp started that we were not to overstep our bounds in taking control of the camp. In the end, we decided to not become further involved than the project we had already started with the mural.

It is frustrating feeling helpless in this situation. What more could we have done? Things like corruption are not easy to tackle, but it is hard to sit by and watch. A lot of people seem to accept it as just the way things are.

By comparison the Spring English Camp I was involved in worked so much better.


The flip side of my camp experience was the time I got to bond with the PCVs who came out to help with the camp. It was the longest I have stayed over at a PCVs house, and we all got along very well. It was fun to share good food and conversation, games…and most importantly, berry picking.

By serendipitous timing, we arrived for camp just as the wild blackberries were ripening along the roads. For this berry-starved PCV this was nearly miraculous! The berries ripened fast enough that we could go out daily and collect more berries. In the morning before camp I would grab my berry-picking stick and any other eager volunteers and went out to gather. The hunt is exciting. I’ve never lived in a place with blackberries or their cousins so I haven’t had the experience of fighting prickly thorns and precarious ditches to nab the juiciest berries.

With them we made pancake/French toast syrup, Blackberry custard pie, and jam to take home. It is exciting to eat in season, like an unexpected gift. The season is so brief though, and limited to the cooler, wetter mountains, that it was hard to go back to my berry-free site.

Next year I’ll be ready.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Giving

Giving is an issue that runs through my head on a daily basis. With the current economy-situation it can be difficult to be generous a times. Or maybe that isn’t true—haven’t I heard that those who are closest to poverty give the largest percentage of what they have to help others? Debt is more the burden I bear (student loans that is) that weighs on my heart of giving. There is the constant tug of being responsible to my debt vs. needing to help others who are in harder situations.

Then again, I afford myself indulgences. I travel around this country for more than just work. I’ll even eat out on occasion. Of course I should have enough to share with those sitting on the street with their hands cupped for offerings.

Why is my first response defensiveness and embarrassment when approached by those asking for a hand-out? I think in part it is America’s system of giving to particular charities, which in turn deal with the target groups. We are most often a step removed from that outstretched hand, from the verbal pleading. Or, if we do encounter someone on the streets there is an element of distrust. Why hadn’t they been helped by charity X, Y Z that I donate to? Are they looking for drug/alcohol money? Are they crazy?

Maybe I’ve just been too sheltered by my own accord. Now I feel myself sticking out like a sore thumb—foreigner = money. I’m sure I attract more attention, but those who were on the streets were there before I left my house, palms up.

I’m embarrassed to be followed when I am walking with a friend. Even more embarrassed when the Moroccan opens her coin purse, instead of me, to quiet the pleas. Am I not here to help those in my community? Peace Corps has an emphasis on providing skills and knowledge to be passed along to improve peoples lives, not on providing mere handouts that may not last until the next one. Teach a man to fish and all that.

Maybe it is just my struggle with spontaneity. I am much less likely to say “yes” to an invitation to lunch today than tomorrow. Your chances are even better if we set a time next week. Give me time to consider the consequences and I am much happier for it. Come up and tug on my shirt while I’m in the middle of vegetable shopping and I’m too taken aback to want to say yes, even if I have my coin purse handy. I’m not good at impulse shopping.

Moroccans know the system. Giving is a pillar of Islam. You are expected to give when you have something. This is not just reserved for the needy. If you peel an orange it is rude to not hand juicy sections to those in your presence, especially children. Moreover, the system of charity we have in the US is not seen to the same extent here. From my observation, people in my town are likely to give directly to those in need rather than to an organization.

So what do I do? I can’t say “yes” every time I’m approached. A trip outside my house during peak times can seem almost like a frenzy. I don’t want to feel like the rich foreigner or the fool--the easy target. My discomfort at having to make a snap decision keeps my coin purse shut all too often. When do I say “okay”? How do I judge who is most worthy? How can I be humble enough for generosity?

Monday, July 6, 2009


After some indecisiveness I ended up staying in my site on the 4th of July. Enough with traveling for a while, I think. Give me another week or so and I'll be back on the road.

This isn't to imply a holiday weekend devoid of excitement. I broke out my tiny BBQ pit/tajine-coal pot and grilled cheeseburgers and made french freedom fries! Jon and Emily came up as a convenient over-night stop to traveling down the southern-coast. I also had three of the korean volunteers over and Nadiya. Perhaps we American's were outnumbered, but it couldn't have been a better mix. And nothing makes you feel more patriotic than having to explain exactly who you gained independence from. That, and watching fireworks videos on YouTube.

Sunday I drew most of the day, which was rewarding. I'll be posting some of my recent work on DeviantArt.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Instead of giving you my reasons for not blogging in quite some time, I’ll just pick up where my life is at the moment.

On Friday after work I met up with one of the girls who comes to the nedi in the artisana where I work. Tuesday she had invited me out to the larobiya, or countryside, to stay with her family out there for a bit. I haven’t really gotten to explore the vast rolling hills and farmlands that sprawl from any direction outside of town. This seemed like a perfect opportunity and I got over my initial apprehension and prediction of discomfort and said “Waxxa” (Okay).

We caught a taxi, with her mom, two kids and grandmother. Ten minutes later the stuffit (bus crammed full of people) dropped us off in front of a dirt road. We took this a short way to a small collection of homes and a one-room school. We had our mint tea out in front of the house in the cooling evening air and watched the sheep, chickens, dogs, donkeys, and cows come and go, mingling with us.

Yes, plumbing and electricity are nice, but all in all it was a pleasant start to the weekend. Although the food was unsurprisingly Moroccan, the carrots and squash and milk were amazingly even fresher and tastier than what I buy outside my house (I didn’t think it was possible). Plus, I got to ride a donkey.

I may be back for seconds sometime soon.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Dief (visitors)

How about a few highlights from my April trip around Northern Morocco with my first American visitors, Fred and Candy. We had a great time. My neighbors, who hosted a few meals for them, and I can’t stop talking about how much we miss them!

Here are a small amount of our wonderful adventures and discoveries:

-Putting on the hat as translator and negotiator was surprisingly fun (most of the time).

-Getting lost in the Meknes medina, and finding a “pit stop” in the unlit, unfinished room of a kind Moroccan woman.

-Making Texas chili and cornbread for my neighbors, served in a tajin of course.

-Bargaining for the best price on two beautiful Moroccan rugs at the big Tuesday Souk in my town.

-Listening to Nadiya’s brother play at a nightclub on the beach in Tangier.

-Learning my choice of phrases in English has become more Moroccan—“As you like it” became a running joke.

-Teaching Fred “may God grant you health also” in response to “may God grant you health” in Arabic.

-Startling my guests with my eagerness to dig my hands into the couscous and pop a nicely formed ball of the stuff in my mouth, Moroccan-style.

-Losing 50 dirhams to the slot machines at the casino in Tangier (Candy that is, not me).

-Driving through the beautiful Rif Mountains and staying in a hotel in ChefChaouen with a spectacular view of them.

-Eating snails on the street in Fes…with a safety pin.

-Sitting in a café overlooking Spain from across the straight while sipping mint tea.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Easter away

More backlog.

I was determined to go to a church service for Easter, much in the same way I was determined to have dyed eggs for Easter and boiled vegetables for dye that adorned my homegrown eggs. The truth is I have become an Easter-and-Christmas churchgoer since I’ve come to Morocco. Well, except I didn’t go to church on Christmas either.

There is something about being in this country away from home. On one hand it is easy to be the sponge absorbing the culture around me, learning and discovering. I’m suspended in a new cultural bubble away from what I came into the world knowing. It is in this way I’m developing a new appreciation and understanding for mint tea, Islamic culture, and making sure your guests have too much to eat. On the other hand my own alien quality here sometimes makes me feel like I’m on an island-- those comforts and routines of home and community are sorely missed. Church is among them.

It is with this hunger that I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to attend an actual church service on Easter day as proposed by my closest PCV neighbor, Alex-- never mind that there was an ongoing transportation strike in Morocco.

Alex fell into an invitation by the pastor himself to host us volunteers (including another PCV neighbor, Meghan) the night before so that we could attend the sunrise service with them. So that Saturday we prepared some delicious lemon cranberry scones (thanks for the cranberries mom!) for an Easter potluck brunch at the pastor’s house, and made our way to the taxi stand. Fortunately for us, the taxi drivers in my town had changed their minds from the “la, makaynsh” I got in the morning and took us to Rabat anyway. Well, almost to Rabat. We had to get out of the cab just outside of town so our driver wouldn’t “get rocks thrown at him” by the strikers. We caught a bus, and then a petit taxi (not yet on strike) and found ourselves at the doorstop of a very American couple.

More than anything the experience made me realized how much I’ve adjusted to Moroccan hospitality and custom (it was a joke that I felt compelled to remove my shoes to walk on their carpet). It also, much like the scent of cinnamon-rolls that the pastor’s wife was preparing for the next day, brought on a feeling of nostalgia and longing for the familiar. We were lulled to sleep watching a movie with bellies full of Pizza Hut.

The alarm went off at 4:30am and we all got up, got ready and headed out to the Chellah. Lined up against the crumbling wall and looking out over the valley-landscape was an inspiring spot to spend and Easter service. The cranes were clacking their beaks and gliding low over the trees below us as the sun peeked out between two banks of clouds as we remembered why we were there.

Afterwards the brunch followed. Much English was spoken amongst those from many different countries. As the brunch came to an end, the three of us decided we could use a little more church and went to the next service in the actual church. Here again, the diversity was inspiring. What brought us all to that place at that time were our common beliefs and language in a country where they are uncommon. It was freeing to hear my voice with it’s own Midwestern US accent join in song with those from Europe and West Africa, Asia…

The rest of the day was pleasant, if not newsworthy. I relaxed and enjoyed Rabat after I discovered the possibility of leaving the city that day was slim (Rabat taxi drivers demonstrated more solidarity). I did eventually make it home, but that is another story altogether.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

My first Big Fat Moroccan Wedding experience!

Where to begin?

The last month has flown by. It has come to the point where I feel there is too much to share with you all. My only solution is to take it in pieces. Forgive my time-lagging.

Lets back up to late March. As I mentioned I had gone to Fes for a meeting, returned with a bird and then immediately did Spring camp at my site. What I neglected to mention was that I had gone to a wedding in there too. The day I had bought my canary and got him safely to my house 2+ hours away, I turned around and went out to rent the appropriate attire for my first Moroccan wedding.

I had heard about these weddings. Several of my fellow trainees had already been to a wedding, some early on when language was still such that “We are taking you to my cousin’s wedding across town and we won’t be back until morning” would have been an incomprehensible sentence which would have had to include a game of charades for full comprehension. I had learned from others that there would be dancing all night, huge courses of food and sweets, and a bride with a frequently changing outfit--all to the beat of Moroccan music. So I can’t pretend I hadn’t been forewarned on what this even would entail.

Being a stubborn early-riser (between the chickens, canary and I, we’re all early-birds in this house) I didn’t look forward to the all-night aspect. I approached the event with a mix of excitement, adventure, and the resignation to discomfort you feel before getting your wisdom teeth pulled. I knew I had to seize this opportunity, an invitation by my neighbors to join them in their relative’s wedding, that I would be in good hands and guided through the night with as much forgiveness and understanding as possible.

My attire having been obtained for the evening (a turquoise takshita—or “Disney princess dress” as I would call it), we made ourselves ready and headed out to the reception hall out past the taxi stand at 8:30pm. The room itself looked surprisingly American (I suppose the same variety of reception locations exist here. Some others I’ve heard of taking place on roofs or in tents or just in the street). We took a table with a vantage point of the 2/3 empty room, the band, and the throne-like reception area for the bride and groom.

This celebration itself isn’t one that follows a church wedding. The Moroccan wedding process is different in that respect, and I’m still not entirely clear on the details. I do know that the bride has been properly hennaed (had intricate designs drawn on her with henna, a plant-dye) and celebrated the day before by women relatives and friends. I also know that this event isn’t the last one for the bride and groom, and that we don’t send them off in a car to their honeymoon at the end of the night.

By around 10pm the room had started to fill up and my aching stomach hoped that there would be some nourishment provided soon (I had a very light lunch anticipating a food-heavy evening). Dancing began. The family of the bride came around and welcomed everyone.
At 1am we were served dinner. By this point I would have gleefully eaten cardboard, but instead we were provided three whole chickens (for our table of about 10) with olives and onions. Immediately following this we were presented with a huge slab of beef with prunes. This was barely picked at. These dishes are fairly traditional tajins, and ones I have noticed being served particularly for group occasions. The abundance of meat (there weren’t really any vegetables to speak of) provided more evidence that Moroccan weddings are the same wealth-sharing events we know in America.

After dinner the dancing resumed. I did get up and dance a few times, but I found myself more content watching the others for stretches of time. The bride and groom were carried around on ornate thrones at one point, and in all I counted at least 7 wardrobe changes by the bride—including a traditional shlha (“berber”) wedding dress and makeup. By around 4am I was really feeling the lack of sleep. I had tried hard to stay awake, but with no sugar or caffeine or will to go on dancing I let my eyes close a time or two. Eventually the yells of “you can’t sleep!” subsided and I was allowed to relax a bit and close my eyes in peace. No real sleeping took place, however.

Around 5am the wedding was wrapping up. Official tea-pourers came out and impressively poured tea from amazing heights. We were each given a box of sweet treats and a glass of tea. My stomach had long gone to bed, so I skipped these temptations and gathered my belongings. The night ended as we poured out of the reception hall into the breaking dawn. I got home to a few hours of sleep before Jon and Emily arrived at my door for Spring Camp preparations.

I am very grateful for having had this experience of the all-out Moroccan wedding party. I would attend one again if I knew the couple or if I knew I could escape early. I have, however, found a new appreciation for the short and sweet American wedding receptions where we’ve waved goodbye to the newly weds and gotten to bed at a reasonable hour (I know, I know, me and the other early birds should all go eat worms).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring Break '09

Two weeks ago my lights went out. Or more specifically, I came home at dusk to discover that my electricity wasn’t working. Okay, nothing too unusual. My first instinct was to grab candles and the flashlight, but shortly after doing so I realized that the light in the alley way was working, and the light and hum of the tvs from my neighbors’ indicated that I may be alone in the dark.

It turns out that my electricity had been cut by the electric company—an unresolved issue with the 7-month unpaid bill left by the previous occupants. I knew this coming into the house and made it clear I wanted my own electric meter. I’d been waiting for the day the electric company wound collect this meter so that I could install my own. The day had arrived, sort of, and I was just about to leave for Fes the next day. After an attempt to resolve the issue the morning before leaving town I just gave up, moved some of my perishables to my neighbor’s fridge and headed to Fes for a meeting of the Small Business Development sector.

I felt the meeting was overall a productive one, mainly in just being able to compare notes with others facing similar situations. It is amazing how easy it is to get trapped on your own site bubble. We travel for hours or sometimes days to see each other it is like a little reunion whenever two or more of us gets together.

Fes proved itself to be a suitable host and I left with a canary in tow. Yes, I bought another bird, but this one was promised long ago when fellow CBT-mate Steven and I decided we would have to buy birds together. Steven bought a pair of ring-neck doves and I found a little yellow canary. We found them in a small shop along the narrow-winding streets of the old Fes medina (touted to be one of the largest living medieval cities, btw). The merchant quoted me an outrageously high price, and I got him down to a moderately-outrageous price. Considering where we made our purchases, I think the added character makes up for some of the price-difference.

Turning around from Fes I came back to my site for Spring Camp. My site is large enough to be the host of one of these camps. The school-kids are on their Spring Break for the week and they have the option of coming to these camps for fun and English-learning.

Originally, I thought I might have more time to myself to go about my usual routine to some degree in town. I quickly altered my expectations. I ended up co-teaching English in the morning with Emily (I think we made a great team) and in the afternoons Jon, Emily and I headed art club. In between all of this were other activities and games for the kids, as well as socializing with the other volunteers. I insisted on sleeping at my house, and that is just about all I did there, leaving at 8am and returning at 10pm each day. By the end of the week I was exhausted and I had gotten the best sleep out of anyone.

It was a great break from the usual, but now it is bad to work this week. I still need to solve my electricity problem and prepare myself for my first outside guests in a week and half!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Golden Eggs

Ever since I began thinking about living in my own place in Morocco I’ve had the crazy notion of having my own laying hens. I’m not quite sure of the origins of this thought except that I’m a bird-lover, egg-eater, and like to “grow” my own food. It only seems logical right?

The previous volunteer had a dog, and a doghouse that she would leave behind. I saw a potential chicken-coop. It wasn’t until the rains finally stopped a few weeks ago that I painted it with the help of Alex, a nearby volunteer, and Nadiya, my language tutor. Shortly there-after I went down behind the fish-market to women selling djaja bildeea (country hens…none of those ugly pale-white city chicks). I bought two girls who were close to egg-laying maturity but hadn’t started yet.

Long before I was ready to purchase chickens I had the name “Big Momma” picked out for one of them, I’m still not quite sure who said it, but why not? The other I decide should be called “Rafisa” which is a tasty chicken dish made with fenugreek, raslharnut, and harsha (delicious pan-fried semolina bread) served at special occasions such as weddings and births. Rafisa also sounds like a nice girl’s name so—perfect!

Big Momma and Rafisa are smarter than chickens are usually credited, and I have played many a game of “how did you get in the house this time?” with them. Just when I was eyeing those chicken legs for my next meal an egg appeared! I wasn’t sure who had laid it as neither was laying claim. It was small, oblong and looked as though it had been painfully borne. I almost ululated as a Moroccan mother would after her daughter gave birth to her first child.

Instead I ate it, fried in a little olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of salt. What satisfaction! I had earned that fresh egg.

Two days later, today in fact, I discovered who my first layer was—appropriately named Big Momma. She was acting rather motherly making herself a nest in the wood-shavings and laid her second egg right after I ate breakfast (bad timing on my part, I could have had a fresh egg instead of cereal with chunky milk). When I collected the egg I realized that it was still warm.

This experience so far has even more so than growing my own vegetables made me realize where my food is coming from and how the animal was fed and taken care of who gave me that food. It is nice to have a vegetable scrap-disposal in my courtyard, but I also go out of my way to make sure they are getting a balanced healthy chicken-diet. After all, what they eat will be processed and turned into what I eat. What better motivation to take care of something else when you realize it also becomes a part of you.

Friday, March 20, 2009

6 month mark

I realize it has been a while since I've posted. I apologize for this. I credit my absence here to being busy. More importantly perhaps I'm feeling scattered. I haven't had a neat and tidy event or thought to write to you, and I dislike a scattered incoherent blog-post. But how about a work update?

February brought me travels to a nearby city with 5 women from my town that I nominated to attend the "Women's Empowerment Conference." I think the event passed well, and although I got mixed feedback from the women (I tried to bring a diverse group with differing backgrounds and agendas) I think in the end it had a powerful impact on them. One came back and really took charge of the "Internation Women's Day" event in our city and another took charge in getting another women's association together.

A related travel story: When returning from the conference I was loaded into a bus packed with other women coming form the conference and going threw our town before they went on to connecting transportation to their towns. At the last minute we were loaded with even more women from the conference to the point that they had to bring in chairs for some people to sit in the aisle. This is not an uncommon practice in a "stuffit" (this is what they are referred to by Moroccans), but it is illegal and uncomfortable, and unsafe. At one point we almost hit a truck in front of us that stopped suddenly without signaling, we swerved out of the way in time. A while later down the road we were pulled over by the local authorities who had a complaint with our stuffed "stuffit". An argument ensued and at one point some of the women on the bus suggested I talk with the authorities and say that we were all returning from the same conference and that I was with an American organization, Peace Corps, etc. I was not interested in divulging any of this information--nor in having Peace Corps endorse unsafe travel practices which I had no part in. I asked why I should tell them this and since no one had a good answer and the fine looked like it was payed, we were once again on our way. We passed another city with authorities on the road, but we were warned ahead of time and closed all the curtains. No stopping us this time. We finally made it back close to sunset and I was extremely glad to get out of there.

I've since been busy running from one organization to the next. I've continued teaching English, although I'd rather start phasing it out. Attendance is very mixed and only a few students seem to come every week, the others randomly making it difficult to have a lesson building on the last. I will start teaching other handicrafts like jewelry making, as an interest and expectation exists. Supplies are always an issue for these projects and I'm trying to find the most sustainable avenues. I'm also trying to facilitate a grant that a previous volunteer helped bring to a wood cooperative right before he left.

Alright, there is my work update. I will try to be a little more regular with blog-updates too. I shoot for once a week or at least every-other week. Please check my flicker account (photos to the upper-right) which I seem to update more frequently. Pictures say more words than I do!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Redefining Convenience Food

Yes, there are packaged foods here in Morocco. You can buy reasonably priced packaged cookies and salty-puffed corn – things I am not usually all that attracted to here or in the US unless I’m on a road trip or it is shoved in my face. However, the majority of what I would consider convenience food is either very high-priced, of sub-par quality, or just plain unavailable on a regular basis.

So with great joy and a light heart I have discovered my new convenience foods:

-Just heat and serve: I buy a little bag of pre-soaked chickpeas from the woman who sits outside my alleyway. At a moments notice I can decide to make Hummus or Harira without all that over-night soaking business. I also get to see her warm smile.

-Home-shopping network: Sitting in my house I can sometimes here the fresh-produce prices if the wind carries the voices down my alleyway. Just this evening I heard a price for bananas I couldn’t refuse and walked out and back in under two minutes with my purchase.

-Eating-out: This almost always means that I am enjoying the food freshly prepared from scratch at a neighbor’s home.

-Frozen dinners: Left-overs from the big pot of soup and loaf of bread I made last week.

-Fresh daily: Two blocks away is “bread-street” where all the ladies sell the bread that came out of their ovens that day. At the end of my alley-way there is a man that sells fresh-eggs, and next to him the guy that sells fresh chickens—just point to the one you want and he’ll take care of everything else, come back in ten minutes for your plucked bird (a little gruesome, but no less so than what we try to ignore when we pick out meat at the grocery store).

-Forget something? Need sugar, milk, yoghurt? Junk food? Just head down to the local 7-Eleven…I mean l-Harnut.

Disclaimer: I am in a larger site than most volunteers, and may enjoy some conveniences that are not so available elsewhere. All the more appreciation for what I do have!

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Moroccan Dream Home

“wllfti shwiya?” is a question I have been asked frequently in the last several months. The speaker is asking if I have adjusted a little – to Morocco and now to living by myself. For the most part I have.

Moving into my home has not been a completely smooth transition. I’ve taken on the burdens of being the woman of the house: trying to figure out how to set up the electricity in my name (still not entirely resolved), finding first hand the dangers of gas powered appliances (and not installing your CO detector first-thing), battling the molding furniture in this particularly wet winter, and just generally trying to keep a neat and tidy Moroccan home.

I am more than grateful for my new neighbors, whom I knew before I moved in, who have helped me immensely in setting up my house and feeding me while I still did not have my kitchen in workable order. It is excellent to have neighbors that know how to fix your plumbing and electric problem all in the same half an hour! I only hope I can be as worthy a neighbor in return.

The house itself I’ve already grown attached to. Even on the first night in the place I felt like I was at home. The roosters that crow at all hours from behind my house, the pigeons that roost above the courtyard (and make me cautious about where I hang my laundry), and the kids that play marbles outside my front door all bring me comfort in finding my place for the next two years (Inshallah).

The space is more than I need (and I would have settled for less if a suitable option presented itself to me), and one room has just become my oversized closet. Although I do not have a roof-space as I originally wanted, I do have a walled-in courtyard that the sun peers over in the morning. I may still try growing some things in hanging-baskets as I’ve heard from the previous occupants it is even sunnier in the summer.

I’ve managed to make my tiny kitchen comfortable, and I am delighted to be able to cook for myself – particularly with enough time to make things like fresh tortillas and loaves of bread. As a lot of people in the U. S. are switching from the mindset of convenience-is-best to really thinking about where their food comes from and what’s in it, I’ve got a free ticket to really explore what I can prepare with limited pre-packaged ingredients. Have I mentioned that I am literally living just off the main vegetable-market street?

Certainly, my home is not the dirt-hut I had conjured in my mind before setting off with the Peace Corps, but I won’t complain. There are places in the country that are much less developed than where I am (and even stepping outside of the city center brings me to neighborhoods closer to what I had imagined I would find). No matter my current home this is the base from which I will hopefully become a positive part of the community.

Friday, February 13, 2009

For Rial

Morocco has had a history full of various inhabitants and occupiers over the centuries. You can see this in the language (Arabic, French, “ShlHA”--Tamazight/Berber, Spanish, etc), food, and architecture. It is also apparent in the way Moroccans talk about money.

The current Moroccan currency is the dirham (MAD). This does not stop many Moroccans from talking about money in rials. A rial was a currency replaced by the dirham almost a century ago (1920s).

1 MAD = 20 rials

I must admit that I learned about this before I even entered the country. A former PC volunteer who served in Morocco gave me a quick math test on converting one to the other. This is all fine and good when I’m focusing on the problem, in English, in the comfort of my own country. It was another matter when I finally got here and experienced it as one more layer of confusion.

It isn’t that I’m so terrible at math (although as an artist, I don’t think I exercise that side of my brain as often), but when a number is shouted at you at the souq, where there is already too much going on, in a different language, it can be a little tough. During training I hardly tried. I was always prepared with, “in dirhams please?” They would usually give me the dirahms in French, which I still don’t understand (on my to-do list to learn some basic French, but darija is taking all my language-learning energy right now). “I’m sorry, I don’t understand French, in Arabic please?” By this time if the seller wasn’t rolling his eyes at me he was a saint.

After swearing-in and settling down in my new community I finally started to take the rial seriously. This was followed by many a “why why why?” to my tutor when we practiced. Why talk in a currency that doesn’t exist any more? It is so ingrained into my community (after all not all Moroccans talk in rials, or in the same way) that if you quote a price in dirhams it often has to be converted into rials to be understood. “But the currency is printed with the number of dirhams on it! How is this confusing for you?”

I eventually decided that the easiest thing to do is to not fight it. I stopped asking “why?”--it is just the way it is, and there is no way my protests will change it. After this acceptance and focus I’m finally gaining some confidence in my ability to understand and talk in rials. In the afternoons I can hear the vegetable sellers shout their prices from down the street.

“Miya-arbarin-banan, miya-arbarin-banan” = 140 rials /kilo bananas = 7 MAD /kilo bananas ( < $1 /kilo bananas, by the way)

My real moment of integration was when shopping around for the cheapest onions. I was getting most quotes in rials. When one seller gave me a number in dirhams, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “In rials please?”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Baby steps aren't so small

The first day I arrived in my assigned town my host family also celebrated the Birthday of the youngest member of the family, who just turned one. During these last two months I have watched him go from crawling, to standing on strengthening legs, to walking across the room with careful and deliberate steps.

I am continually amazed at how quickly children develop, and how they seem to know what they need to accomplish to make it to the next stage in life. I watched little Ayman work hard at his task, putting so much effort into getting himself up on two legs. When he would inevitably fall, at times with a cringe-worthy “thud”, tears would follow, but so would another attempt. Even if failure hurts, it does not mean giving up. We seem to be programmed to know that we must take the risk of those first unsteady steps in order to grow and experience life fully.

Well, my two-month stay with my Moroccan host family has come to an end. During this time, I two have grown and changed. I started out relying heavily on those whose care I was under to carry me through conversations and situations I was not yet able to handle linguistically on my own. I was guided and encouraged by those I could trust to build my language and understanding of the culture. I formed new bonds, made new contacts and friends. I also had a number of falls, painful failures, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. I had times where I wanted to give up as those I was speaking to gave me confused and frustrated expressions, but I plodded along anyway. Little by little, I’ve been able to navigate more situations by myself. My new world is opening up to me more as I am beginning to hear and understand more each day.

My boxes and bags are packed and ready to move into my new home for the next two years. I’m excited by the freedom I will gain, the control I will have over my life once again. It is also a little sad to no longer be such a part of a family, but I know we won’t be too far from each other. There are no real “goodbyes” to be said yet. I have the affection for this family as the child does for those who helped her go from crawling to walking.

I’m taking my first unsteady steps to my next challenge.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In which more food is consumed

This last Tuesday was, besides being the inauguration of our new president, my first Birthday spent outside of the country and with entirely new friends and faces. It really was one of those days that I woke up and couldn’t believe where I was, and where I have been for four and a half months. This was highlighted with watching the inauguration speech at my Moroccan friend/tutor’s house. It is a strange thing to feel connected to a country when you are outside of it. I believe at one point President Obama mentioned something about reaching out to Muslim nations, and it really hit home.

In any case, as with all reasons to celebrate, much delicious food was made. We ended up celebrating Monday night with two Birthdays, also that of my tutors the Tuesday before. I made two cakes, one strawberry-banana and the other flourless chocolate-almond. The strawberry-banana cake could have used some re-adjustment to the recipe or execution, but the chocolate cake was quite a success in my opinion, and in any case everything was eaten and enjoyed. I am slowly conquering the Moroccan oven and lack of usual measuring devices!

Tuesday, my actual Birthday, my host mom and aunt made Bastilla and Seffa. Bastilla is a famous Moroccan dish made with poultry (chicken in this case) cooked in aromatic spices, nuts (peanuts), eggs, layered between sheets of pastry dough and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. I had heard so much about this dish I had to document the assembly. I’ve included here a photo of my host-mom layering in the peanuts and chicken. Seffa is made with couscous or, in this case thin noodles. Raisins, nuts, cinnamon and sugar are usually incorporated into this sweet dish. I continuously am amazed and admire the amount of time and work put into Moroccan cooking. Although sometimes you can catch a break by serving leftovers from another meal, eating out is almost unheard of if you have a family. Much time is spent in the kitchen. More than perhaps even I would enjoy.

All this tasty and very filling food has strengthened my resolve to go on a post host-family diet come February first when I move out. Inshallah.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I don't know squat

A few weeks ago my host-aunt decided it time to test my knowledge of the basics. I have to admit I was a little hurt, even insulted that she didn’t find it readily apparent that I knew words like “sit, eat, walk, etc.”. Had I not demonstrated I knew these words and in fact employed them myself? Granted, I don’t speak a whole lot. In any case I only failed at coming up with one or two as she preformed the actions and asked me for the corresponding word. As she got down in a not-quite-sitting-or-standing pose she asked if I knew what she was doing, and I didn’t know the word.

“She doesn’t know squat!” she laughed over to my host mom in darija (Moroccan Arabic for those I keep confusing with my jargon). Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until a few days ago when I was replaying the incident in my head that I realized this phrase had another meaning in English (my head is really full).

Right now my world is an ocean with huge waves in which I am bobbing up and down. Sometimes, at the top everything is clear, my language understanding is fairly great and I feel like I’m accomplishing something, meeting people and feeling more comfortable. Other times I’m down at the bottom where nothing seems clear, I’m confused, maybe taken advantaged of or insulted to my face. Most of the time I’m somewhere in the middle, there is a lot of ambiguity, and it is unclear which way the wind will take me. All of this is very exhausting and to stay afloat in the ocean of language takes a lot of effort, but I have yet to drown and I’m building strength.

On the flip side, I have started to teach English with some of the girls. This has already proven to be a great way to get to know them better as it gives me a way to interact with them where I’m in charge, particularly since it is too early for me to figure out my role. There is something satisfying in hearing them struggle with pronunciation and to gradually improve, just as I am with their language. It serves as a reminder that what I’m doing isn’t easy, and that when you step out of your mother tongue you are taking a risk of looking silly. So what if you don’t know squat, there is still time to learn!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year!

This New Years Eve was spent with another volunteer at her much more rural site and with a Moroccan friend of ours. We made typical New Years appetizers from scratch, with varying degrees of success, but the process was a lot of fun. The power went out as it got close to midnight, and we sat with flashlights listening to music on a computer with a dying battery. Right at midnight the computer finally blacked out. It was our own little ball-drop countdown to the new year!

Lessons of 2008:

- I am able to pick myself up from devastation and take on a new life
- It is better to carpool with a friend than to drive alone
- Public transportation will show you a new side to the city you grew up in
- A good boss is priceless
- Friends that will listen to you go on an on until you can't talk about it any more are invaluable
- Horses, donkeys, cars, bicycles, trucks, carts and people can all manage to share the same road
- Traditions become more precious, and more ridiculous when trying to recreate them in another culture
- Drinking whole milk and sugary tea everyday actually can lead to weight gain
- Living in another culture teaches you as much about yourself as it does the world
- Generosity is being patient with someone who cannot communicate like everyone else
- Humbleness is speaking like a child with the mind of an adult
- Joy is finding a common language, like baking
- A sunny day means laundry will dry
- Volunteering yourself to help others sometimes means not being there for friends and family back home
- There is always more lamb meat
- We are adaptable creatures, even to situations that seemed absurd mere months ago
- The internet is invaluable in keeping in touch to far-away people
- There are plenty of edible parts to an animal that we mostly ignore in the US
- You absolutely must be able to laugh at yourself and let things go