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.