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La Vita Grassa

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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Shut down

I just experienced some of my first real cultural struggles tonight ... I kinda shut down.

My friends and I were over at Nicole's house (the current volunteer who works in Khenifra) to hang out and enjoy another round of Peace Corps gossip. My family had said that we would be eating couscous (my favorite meal here) for L-Eshiya (the 11PMish dinner). I said I would be home before 11PM.

I arrived at 10:30ish and found the house empty, save little Sara (11). She instantly whisked me away to another home around the corner. I fretted that the meal was already in progress and "the American" was being rude and showing up late when a lot of people were expecting me. It turned out that I was the first, not last guest to arrive. Sara left me there with some unintelligible explanation of the whereabouts of our family. There I sat with a vaguely familier man on the floor cushions while his wife flurried about in preparation. We chatted ... or stumbled through Diresia, as best I could speak.

One by one the crowd called my family piled in, and subltely the men sifted themselves to a room further back to celebrate the holiday. (CULTURE POINT: This night is called the Night of Power, the night near the end of Ramadan when the Qu'ran supposedly was given from Heaven and everyone stays up all night praying. Whatever you pray for this night is supposed to come true.) Even Anis, my little brother of 15, was eventually chided to remove himself to the men's table. For some reason this all bothered me a bit (it never had before much, but maybe that was because it had not really occurred much before). I looked around at the dozen women and children crowded together around the low, round table. They were all chatting and using guestures, trying to speak to me. Suddenly I grew tired of diciphering tid bits of language and pulling verbs out of my head, trying to conjugate them, and then ending up that I completely misunderstood what they were saying. A dozen heads peering at me, laughing at me, and demanding "Kuli! Kuli!" (eat! eat!).

It got worse. They brought out the main entree .. it wasn't the couscous I'd been promised but a tagine of vegetables and turkey .. turkey! It was THE turkey that had stared and clucked at me, his legs bound together, and startled me when I was walking down the stairs in our home that afternoon. Now I had to eat him. They took his biggest leg (blatantly a leg, skin, bones and all) and shoved it at me while they proceeded to divide up the rest by lottery. No one was eating but I was supposed to dive in. My stomach churned. All I could see was his pitiful face looking up at me from the floor. I slowly broke off some bread and peeled back his skin and ate.

I supposed my mental anguish was somewhat apparent as they asked if I was sick or needed to sleep. I assured them I was fine and tried to melt into the background. The couscous eventually arrived, but I was full and wanted to crawl in a hle. I forced myself up again (it was now midnight) and stuffed more food down my esophogas. My stomach hurt. I refused more meat and sufficed with a mandarin to finish. FInally Mama Amina suggested that Hajar take me home to bed. I fled with pleasure.

Nothing about the situation seemed too tramatizing, but maybe just a cumulation of similar circumstances provoked my strange reactions.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Khenifra take 2

I'm back in Khenifra with my CBT group (Andrea, Jesse, Cory, Carolyn, and Juliana). I was quite scared to come back because I was afraid my language wasn't as good as I hoped upon returning. However, during our travels back, my teacher said she was really impressed with my ability to communicate with the taxi drivers and store owners, so that was encouraging.

I slept a lot the first day. We had the day off, upon arriving, and I was a bit shy about talking with the family, didn't know what to do with them as they were working and at school. I needed some alone time anyways, so I just read the Economist, my Bible and slept a lot. I still feel like I haven't been as participatory in their lives this time around, hiding in my room to study or rest more, but I also feel like I can communicate a good bit better. Not struggling to find words for one simple sentence, now it's usually a matter of trying how to conjugate the verbs I need.

Last night we had Lftor (breaking the Ramadan fast/feast at dusk) with Carolyn's family. I usually love having Lftor there because her "mother" is such a good cook and quite the regal, large, queen-like lady of a host. When we walked in, however, the movie Little Women was on TV and was instantly wisked away into old America, to a happy, old familiar story.. of four women, like me and my sisters. I was quite taken with how much it affected me.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

TRAVELS ACROSS MOROCCO.. our field trip to a PC volunteer's house in souther Morocco..

Me in Meknes, waiting for the train..

Overall the experience was superb. I was thankful for a break from the routine of classes and technical training. In fact, I commented to a friend this afternoon that I feel the most healthy, happy and full of energy since arriving in country over five weeks ago. To gain a realistic picture of the field trip, an itinerary would probably be a helpful place to start.


Three groups traveled together via taxi to Meknes and then caught the 9:51AM train to Marakesh. We arrived in time for Lftor at a local restaurant, spent the evening exploring the city, souk and a fabulous Indian restaurant, before retiring to Sindi Sud, the Peace Corps hotel in Marakesh. Laura facilitated a price and product comparison excursion and was constantly functioning as a dictionary to our ever-expanding vocabulary.


Jesse and I woke at 4AM to listen to the chorus of chanters call the devout to prayer. We watched a giant moon set on the horizon and ran back to bed, shivering. We breakfasted at a nearby café before grabbing a petit taxi and headed to the Mahata (grand taxi station). Laura haggled a good rate to take the four of us – Lindsay, Juliana, Laura and I – all the way to Agadir/Tefroute and we climbed in. The scenery was beautiful; the taxi was not… we suffered TWO flat tires on that stretch. Shortly before Lftor we were dropped off along the road, and walked into Ain Chaib on foot, suitcases in tow. Laura lives with a Moroccan family in a compound, so we met all of these sweet, hospitable people, shared Lftor and played Frisbee together. The three of us set up camp in the salon on the far side of the courtyard, after admiring Laura’s cozy room.


We rested from our travels, made breakfast (as the family was fasting) and looked through the Peace Corps cookbook, hunting for the perfect dinner. We made a shopping list and took off on a 5-kilometer hike across dirt fields to Huwar, the big city neighboring Ain Chaib. On the way, we met with the local “FBI” (as they called themselves), and then gendarmes, giving them pertinent personal information. In Huwar, we strolled through the massive souk. Laura negotiated prices, we made our purchases, and hiked back. We shared our Mexican fare with the family for the second dinner and laughed and laughed.


We again developed a meal plan and headed out of the compound. It was Monday, so we visited the Nedi where Laura works. She conversed with them for a while and we observed for over an hour. She would come discuss problems with us or explain what was going on, while we greeted everyone and discussed product development ideas. Again we hiked into Huwar, but this time Laura took us to several fabric stores where the Nedi purchases materials. Then we went to her aerobics class, shopped at the souk, and headed home. The kitchen was a favorite hangout, with coffee and oranges to satiated us while we cooked. That evening the family experienced bineen Indian fare.


Tuesday we woke early, packed a backpack and took a taxi into Agadir. We intended to meet the delegate and visited the Artisana. One of the Artisana managers answered many questions for us, in informal interview style. Laura pointed out where the PC hotels were, and the central square where the Music Festival is held. We walked about the city and then ... we went to teh beach. Yes, we put our bikinis on and lounged in the sun. A waiter came up and asked what we wanted .. we ordered squid, basil/tomatoes/mozzarella. I marched to the bar in my bathing suit and ordered a Sex on the Beach... I had to pinch myself to remember I was still in Morocco. The land where you have to cover every inch of skin. We soaked in the warm sun, splashed about in the waves and finally pulled ourselves away. Then it was a trek across town to the Marjane (like a Target or Super Wal-Mart) where I scoped out pricing on household items for future reference. We headed back home exhausted but happy.

DAY SIX (Teaching Laura how to Swing Dance)

We packed up and left town early, wishing goodbye to a few sisters and children that got up to see us off again. My last memory of Ain Chaib was all the little schoolgirls following us down the main road out of town laughing and waving and calling after us. They were adorable. We took taxi’s back to Marakesh from Agadir, bidding Laura goodbye, and met up with Elbert’s group for lunch and more exploring of the city. Many of us studied language and debated long about which transportation option to take in the morning, trains or taxis. Elbert introduced us to yet another scenic restaurant overlooking a town square.


Cebele’s group decided to take a direct taxi and did not meet up with us in Marakesh. We finally decided to all travel via taxi across the countryside. It was a long, wearying day, but we had many stunning views and happy memories to humor us.

The trip provided ample opportunity for learning. Several notable areas included traveling, geography, living in a small village, witnessing a volunteer’s life in a small village (and her ability to maintain a sense of self), steps of preparing a meal, visting the nedi where she works, the artisana in Agadir, and the post office.

We traveled via taxis a majority of the time, but realized that there are many ways to reach most destinations in Morocco. On the way to Agadir we took a train, on the way back we took taxis – three one day, three the next. Each mode of transportation has its own pros and cons. The buses (we heard), are not as reliable and stop more frequently. The trains (my preferred form of transportation) take a little bit longer but are much more comfortable, allowing us to walk around, use the restroom when needed, and access our luggage. They are also a bit cheaper, it seems. The taxis’ the most commonly used form offers a much more direct route, and allow more control over when and where we are going, but are usually rather uncomfortable and we cannot stop at our discretion. Laura was instrumental in helping us learn when and how a taxi driver can cheat “tourists” and what we should expect to pay. There was a rather extensive discussion in Marakesh, weighing our different options; determining the preferred mode of transport. We realized this was something we would face throughout our service in Morocco.

Considering we traveled from northern Morocco to the southern coast, we saw a vast expanse of the countryside. I was very pleased to see so much of the country through train and taxi windows. The mountain ranges were spectacular, the desert lakes dazzling; the coast soothing. The myths about goats climbing in trees and camels wandering through frenzied city streets became reality. I spent much time imagining myself in many different situations. A tiny rural village near the coast or a sprawling mountain village, and in the end decided that I could be happy under many different circumstances here. It was just delightful to see what I had only known from maps and the Lonely Planet.

Laura lives in a small village, with a family, and it was insightful to see how she operated in the family structure and engaged in local culture. It became clear that there were both advantages and drawbacks to living with a Moroccan family. On one hand she had a much more fulfilling home life with sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews, a family to dine with, to protect her, to continue language practice, etc., but we also learned that with that comes the need to take great pains in protecting a family’s reputation in the community. This can be quite constricting in some ways and the family did place rules on some things she could or could not engage in, and somewhat hampered her AIDS community work. In addition, she explained to us, while introducing us to her best friend – who was also her counterpart and tutor – that the roles of family, friends and work were all very integrated, sometimes to a point of frustration. There was little distinction.

In training we have had many sessions regarding cultural integration, but Laura (thankfully) modeled a healthy balance between integration and maintaining a healthy sense of self. She weighed cultural norms and determined for herself where her boundaries would be, and what activities or actions were not suited to her, such as drinking sweet mint tea or wearing the traditional headscarf. She set healthy, but strong boundaries for herself and the family, which, in the end it seems, contributed to her ability to continue living happily with a family and still preserve her own space and life. She demonstrated this to us beautifully with simple things such as cooking an American dinner and then sharing it with the family alongside the normal Lftor fare.

We learned how to go about preparing a meal with limited resources. After reading through the Peace Corps cookbook, we developed a shopping list appropriate for a Moroccan souk and hiked into Huwar to make our purchases. Lo has worked hard developing intentional relationships with certain vendors to build trust and fair pricing at the souk. It seemed like a good strategy. The kitchen in Laura’s house had a camp-stove, rudimentary knives and other cooking utensils, but we made do and made some fabulous guacamole and fajitas one night, Palak Paneer another.

The visit to the nedi was eye-opening. The building was fairly nice and there were dozens of donated sewing machines. When we entered, we greeted the president and administrative ladies, working privately in the front office (with not much apparent work actually occurring). The main room facilitated a class-type setup, with a teacher at the front desk, but once we greeted everyone and sat down we were quite confused as to what was actually taking place. There was no class in session that we could see, just a bunch of ladies chatting, with one or two knitting here or there. Laura explained that they often just came and chatted all afternoon, producing few crafts, and indeed saw little reason to do so. Once in a while someone would approach the front and ask the teacher how to make a certain type of crochet. At one point, Laura helped one lady sell some crafts at a fair and the lady had realized that she could have actually made more money if she was working more consistently when at the nedi. That was progress. Most of the ladies did not understand the incentive of making money. Many brought potential new ideas they had created to Laura, to experiment with, so there was some form of product development occurring, but we could see how the situation presented many challenges for a volunteer. Also there was a high level of mistrust between the ladies and the president. The building and machines were donated, yet a certain percentage of each sold product still had to be given to the president for unknown purposes. The nedi, instead of facilitating their goals, was in a frustrated state. The ladies, last year during voting for positions, were unfortunately too intimidated to vote the older president out of her position of authority. In addition, the many sewing machines they owned were not all appropriate to their needs, but to exchange them, they were required to reconnect with the NGO in France that had provided them and obtain permission for exchange. The visit was definitely insightful to the many challenges and opportunities of a given project.

The day we traveled to Agadir we visited the artisana and had a lengthy conversation with one of the administration officials. He explained how the artisana boasted crafts from all across Morocco, from artisans that lacked the infrastructure to sell their own art. They labeled crafts based on origination of the tradition, not of the actual location it was produced. Originally they center displayed the goods and then divided up any remaining profits at the end of the year, by percentage of sales, among the artisans. However, the artisana was doing so well that they were able to pay the artisans upfront for their goods, and then still divide up additional profits at the end of the year.

One afternoon, wandering through Huwar, we stopped at they Post Office. Laura explained the process of establishing a post office box or similar situation for receiving mail, based on location. She was trying to obtain her mandat, but there was an incredible line (or lack thereof) in the post office. She went around to the backside and demonstrated how connections can make a world of difference in this country. One of the employees was a friend who had learned early on that she lived in his village. He usually treated her with special kindness and came back to look on the shelves for her mandat (which still had not arrived). It was a good lesson in networking for all of us.

(This was adapted from a Field Trip Report submitted to Peace Corps.)

Coke Slamming

I have developed a habit of "coke slamming". As you know, this is the month of Ramadan and many people are fasting, so it is rather inappropriate and rude to drink or eat in front of anyone. But usually mid-afternoon, I develop a profound craving for .. Coca Cola. I know that coke is not friendly to the body, and that my mother would be horrified to learn that I've taken to drinking such a polluted liquid, but there is something about the environment here that makes it appealing. In the states, if you drink a coke with dinner it's enjoyable, but nothing to dwell on. Here, somehow the mix of hot days, intense hours of studying, dirty streets, and just a general sense of grimyness (I think I just made up a word)... makes a cold, glass bottle of refreshingly cool, crisp Coke very seductive.

Between sessions of language, a friend or two will rush to the Coke fridge, drop 5 Dirhams in the clay pot, and pop off the bottle cap. Aaahhh...

I wonder if Americans experienced this same sense of pleasure from a Coke decades ago, when America looked more like a (current) second-world country.. everything a little dirtier, lack of air conditioning, walking was more common than driving, fridges and ice rare... it just adds some dimension and aura to the experience.

... Or maybe millions of people around the world have known something that I'm just discovering. It's a dangerous discovery.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sunsets, Ain Chaib and Soccer

The sunsets here are beautiful.. just had to show you a few pictures from our roof.

We're leaving in the morning for our week long field trips. I'm headed to a small city near Agadir (on the southern coast!) with a Volunteer named Lo (Laura) who is awesome, and two friends, Lindsay and Julianna. I should be able to email from there, but if not, that is where I am.

Also, we played soccer the other day. Here's one pic for now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Curses .. **Parental discretion advised ;)

Cursewords have become dominant in my everyday life (as much as I maintain the position of being "non-cusser"). It's not that I cuss ... at least consciously. On one hand I'm surrounded by hilarious people, like Jesse, who find ways to use the F-bomb for verbs, adjectives and nounces. I'm absorbing them by osmosis, I guess. For instance, I woke up this morning and Jesse, who sleeps next to me, said I sat up in the middle of the night and shouted, "Damn it, Damn it!" I'm quite curious what the problem was :-).

Secondly, learning Dirisia requires a significant expansion of the use of English cuss words to express daily activities. For instance, to say I woke up: "Fuq'd." Or, as we are learning in class right now (I would do good to pay attention instead of journal), to say "the coconut is in the corner" you would say, "Cock fuq qunt." I hope I haven't offended anyone. Most these words I would never repeat out loud in English, but you have to find humor under the circumstances, eh? Fun times.


Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. During the month of Ramadan (October) according to the sighting of the new moon, all Muslims are required to fast for thirty days. Before you fall out of your chair, please consider that this is not a normal fast. The fast begins each day at sun-up and ends at sun-down (roughly 6AM to 6PM). It includes fasting from all food, water and sex. The sex rule is killing me ;-) The evening call to prayer signifies the end of the day’s fast and a feast is spread, Lftor (literally meaning breakfast) in celebration. Dates are offered as a first, sweet, break from cottonmouth and all kinds of breads and soups are spread. Everyone gorges themselves. A couple hours later, usually around 11PM, another more substantial meal is laid out, including Tagine or Couscous in sumptuous portions, more sweet breads and a variety of other dishes. Most of us have been watching movies in between meals, and then heading off to bed sometime after the later meal. For those who are actually fasting (which doesn’t include me), a drummer marches around the street around 3AM to wake the devout for another quick meal before a long day begins. Then back to bed and many people sleep for large portions of the day. We have been told to assume that not much progress will be made with our small business development projects during Ramadan, nor will we be able find people, as they will be napping or preparing meals much of the day.

I have chosen not to partake in this fast for a number of reasons. Number one, it is a Muslim religious activity. Many volunteers say Moroccans are cheered upon learning an American is fasting and encourage them to attend prayers at the Mosque. They (sometimes) take it as a signal that the American is interested in Islam. Others simply appreciate the cultural gesture, and still others are offended at the irreverence of a non-Muslim partaking in a religious activity. I have come to the simple resolution that for me, I’m a Christian, not a Muslim. I don’t partake in Ramadan. Secondly, fasting requires abstaining from even water. I don’t think this is particularly healthy. My family has a history of low-blood sugar problems, hypoglycemia, etc., so I don’t think the imbalance of complete starvation during the day, followed by numerous white, sweet, sugary breads at night is a healthy alternative for me. Thirdly, I am in the middle of an intensive training program that will only continue until Nov. 23. My language and technical skills are crucial to carrying out my responsibilities once in site, and I want to be at my best possible condition. Please understand, this is certainly no condemnation of anyone partaking the fast. Indeed I have the utmost respect for my friends who are trying to become part of the culture, and maintain enough stamina to keep learning in stretching language courses and long days. They have more courage than I.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I feel loved

I feel loved. I just got off the phone with my sweet, loving parents. First phone call from the states. I had given them the correct number yesterday over IM, but in the rush of a Friday afternoon they lost it. I was afraid that might happen, and was laying here in my bed praying that even if they couldn’t find the number, that somehow they would find a way to reach me. They had gone back in to work (on a Saturday) just to find my number and call me! How sweet is that? It was so good to hear a parent’s voice… just as if I was in Cincinnati, talking to them on my cell. It made the world seem smaller, the distance shorter, the separation from their world and mine not so unfathomable. We talked for over thirty minutes with Mom giving her helpful vitamins advice (I’m sitting in bed with a fever right now) and Dad recollecting his Peace Corps training experiences, compared to mine. They sound excited to come visit me, inspired by the beautiful landscape I’ve attempted to capture on my blog. Yeah!

As I mentioned, I am sick. But my many friends have all comforted and taken care of me. Jesse brought me mango juice, cookies and dark chocolate from town (my favorite snacks); Sara keeps popping her head in to make sure I’m okay; and Cory comes in to check on me regularly, fetching vitamins and bringing a plate of dinner. Andrea took my temperature multiple times in the middle of the night. My Peace Corps family is taking care of me.

On another note, we found out our Field Trip sites today. (I was actually already informed of mine, considering the Peace Corps volunteer I’m going to stay with sleeps two beds away and is a way cool girl.) Our site – Ain Chaib, of a 1000 people – is to the far south, near the Atlantic Coast. The two-day journey will require a night stay in Marakesh. Several groups will be heading that direction and sounds like party time for us! So excited. We might even get to go to the coast one day. My site-mates will be a good friend Lindsay and Julianna, one of my CBT site mates. I’m very excited to have more concentrated time to get to know Lindsay, she’s a sweetie. It is interesting to me the consternation that goes into both choosing sites for Trainees and the wish lists of the Trainees. One friend was quite in tears upon reporting her location. I think people are just a little pent up wondering where in Morocco they will be spending the next two years of their lives, and some people have specific reasons they really want particular locations, village sizes, environment, etc…understandably …considering that I could be plopped in the middle of a scorching (44C), parched desert or nestled in a mountain valley.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Now back Azrou, I forced myself to sleep a lot and have devoted numerous hours to language study and flash cards, determined to be a bit more capable when I return to Amina and Omar’s home in a few weeks.

The first thing I did when we pulled up to the Auberge hotel/hostel was to find a western-style toilet. A bit of comfort that I had missed. The many stressful situations and differences, long hours and strange surroundings had worn on me significantly and I was starting to feel a twinge of homesickness. Being back with friends, reading emails from home, resting and lounging about helped to restore my spirits. Today I feel much refreshed, happy with the cool breezes playing at my cheeks and the mountains in the distance.

There is yet another new challenge to face me tomorrow: Ramadan, the month of fasting and feasting for Muslims begins tomorrow morning. I’ve prayed and thought much about whether I should fast or not. I’m quite determined not to fast, as to separate myself from something I consider a Islamic religious activity. Many of my friends are fasting when at homestays, and I will be careful not to offend by eating in front of Moroccans, but thankfully we will be here in Azrou, at our isolated hotel for the next 13 days and will have meals served to us. More about that later.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Week in Khenifra

I’m perched on the rooftop back in Azrou, after a long week in Khenifra, our CBT site. It was good, hard-good. There were many challenges hitting me all at once and it was very exhausting to keep going, but I’m feeling refreshed now with the cool mountain breeze, rest and more intimate time with friends, less constant language struggles.

We drove to Khenifra last Monday, 1.5 hour drive, got out of the car and almost fell over with motion-sickness. The Grande taxi’s are crazy drivers wheeling little Mercedes through winding mountain passes and desert valleys. The scenery was so beautiful… I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road.

Khenifra is a big, red, dusty city nestled in the middle of red mountains. It is a little more exotic feeling than Azrou, with palm and date trees lining the thoroughfare to the governor and administrative buildings. However, crossing the Wed (river), the glamour is replaced with red dust and trash. My travel-abroad experiences are limited, but from second-hand knowledge and perceptions from such literature as the Lexis and the Olive Tree (Friedman, Thomas) I’ve had the idea that you can find a McDonalds anywhere. Guatemala was like that: little towns with a big yellow M near the town center. The last yellow M I saw was in Rabat (the capital of Morocco). Khenifra houses 100,000 people… poor people. Internet Cafes are abundant and you can buy Herbal Essence shampoo in hole-in-the wall tobacco shops, but no westernized restaurants, no fast-food, it is still very much a Moroccan town, just larger than most. The souk is bigger, and the old Medina has a whole shopping district, but it is Moroccan-style too: open-air tube (cloth) stores for Jalabbas, vegetable “stands” … dusty vegetables spread out on tarps, and men, men everywhere, staring out silently from cafes on every corner, calling “Ca Va Gazelle!” from the street, sitting on their fruit cart, banging away at the hind end of skeleton-donkeys carrying goods across town.

We dumped our backpacks at Sadiya’s (our Moroccan Language Culture Facilitator) rented house/training site and immediately took off to introduce ourselves to some important official. The twenty-minute walk, after a long, windy trip, with no food was too much for one of my site-mates, Carolyn. She squatted outside the administration building while Sadiya carried on expected chit-chat with the guards, waiting for the official to arrive. Finally Carolyn’s condition was so bad we needed to find a toilet or something for her immediately. They rushed her into an alcove stuffed with files and a sink … and she emptied her stomach. The official turned out to be gone for the day, so we trudged back to the CBT site, met our host mothers with a few stumbling words of Arabic and departed separately with them to our respective homestays, all a little queasy about being thrown into a home where no one could understand us and our local language skills consisted of Hi, how are you, good, thanks be to God, I’m 24, I live in Cincinnati, it’s a bigger city in Ohio, USA. I was still queasy from the trip. My new “Mom”, Amina was very sweet. With use of a clock, indicated that I should sleep until 4pm and then we would walk about the city or something.

I slept for a long time, woke up and thought the confusing clock said 6pm. I rushed downstairs, flushed and not sure what to do. My little sister saw me and woke my mother.. who was napping in the dining room. We were brought sweet mint tea and cookies and I tried my hardest to indicate my apologies for sleeping so long. I looked at my cell phone and realized it was 4pm, not 6 and laughed. Not sure if she understood what was going on in my mind. Another lady rushed in, greeted me with Salam walekum and kept motioning and blabbing away about going out somewhere. I just nodded, the ladies wrapped the sheets they’d been sleeping in around themselves, covering their heads and hair, and out we went. Around the block, and up stairs we went to a room full of ladies and girls and more mint tea and coffee and cookies. I greeted the many curious stares, with my little phrases, to their delight, and sat down. They pelted me with questions, but upon finding my shrugging shoulders and embarrassed laughs the only response they would get, they switched to talking about me, with little laughing glances at me, once in a while. I meanwhile busied myself trying to avoid using my left hand while eating flats of bread.

That was my introduction to a foreign world. A week later, I have a wonderfully, sweet, happy family to call my own, here in Morocco. The father, Omar Aarab, I saw rarely … late at night or early in the morning. He was a teacher as well as a government official. Very fit, good looking, happy to be alive, friendly, professional and busy. Mama Amina (or Mama Mia, as I teased her) was a very amiable, hard-working, smart mother with many chores, a well-run beautiful home, and (as I later found out) the president of a weaving/rug making cooperation. Hajar, (17), the eldest daughter, was very sweet and responsible for many of the meals, household work and my homework. She spoke a little English which helped. Anis, 15, was very sweet, laughed at my antics, played Indian and Moroccan music for me and was always about town in the evenings, offering to lead us wherever we needed to go. Sara, 13, was quieter, sweet and loved to cuddle on the dining carpet area and teach me new words. Oossama, 10, the family adored. He was always giggling and watching me or cuddling with his mom after dinner.

Most everyone in my CBT was a bit jealous of my homestay. Besides a wonderful family, the home was gorgeous and they were obviously pretty well-to-do. There were three floors, a sumptuous saloon, two bathrooms, and actual hot water in my bathroom (still a bucket bath, but just having warm water, let alone any running water was a luxury many families could not afford). I had a cozy little library for my room.

I was quite happy with my site-mates, Jesse, Cory, Andrea, Carolyn and Juliana. Cory and Jesse were already very close friends, so I was thrilled to have both of them.. and Cory literally lived next door (in a “shack”). Cory’s house, as I mentioned before, was a pretty sorry state .. no running water, concrete, dusty walls and floors, little that made it appear as a home. His family talked with him very little. Over the week he spent more time at my house, and my family loved him. One night I sat with Mama Amina while he made dinner in the kitchen with Hajar. Another night I was exhausted and the the fam and the two of us hung out in my room. Mama Amina brought us yogurts and boiled eggs and juices for dinner on a tray, and Sara brought in a stick of incense. We found speakers in the library cabinet and played Elton John and Allison Krauss from my Walkman. They loved the music. It was a happy evening.

The week progressed slowly, with each day feeling like another massive hurdle of language barriers, hours of language and script lessons, lunches with more language headaches, and then afternoons walking far through the dusty city to seek out Hassan, a shoemaker we had met and were interviewing throughout the week for our test phase project. He worked in a 7x7 little hole in the wall, and we crowded in on stumps and cloth bunches, to chat and ask him questions, while he and a co-worker stitched traditional Moroccan slippers.

The first afternoon we came back from lunch and I prepared to take notes on yet another technical session. Saadia, our LCF just sat there and said “well, what are you going to do?” … It dawned on me that the simple sessions we had back in Azrou about developing a community map, a SWOT analysis were all the prep we would get .. now we were on our own to use the tools we’d been given. It was the first ounce of responsibility and self-directed work that we were expected to carry out . We were led to Hassan, the shoe maker and proceeded to introduce ourselves and explain our mission (via our LCF’s translations). We had him draw a community map of places important to him, institutions that would be helpful to have in Khenifra, etc.

We came back each day with another session of information gathering, but got ourselves into trouble by the third day. Keeping in mind that we had thoroughly explained on day 1 that this was just a training exercise for us, by the third day we decided to meet in his home with a group of five shoemakers that he collaborates with to help them with a SWOT analysis and needs assessment. The day turned out to be somewhat of a disaster… Hassan, Moha, and the three Mustafa’s gave us Atay and cakes, and we presented a poster-sized summary (in Arabic script) of what we had learned thus far, and our assessment of their needs, summarizing with the need for a centralized artisan district. “Who will be responsible for establishing this district?” they queried. We spent a great deal of time explaining again that we were in training and this was simply an exercise to help them determine what their greatest business needs were, that we would not be permanent volunteers in Khenifra and could not, therefore help them reach these objectives. You could see the attentive, needy eyes turn desolate and disappointed. We had escalated their expectations with our proposal, only to throw it all back on them with no offer of assistance. This was very hard for us to relay, and conscientiously to deal with, as a group and individually. We learned many lessons that day. You have to proceed extremely slowly, to keep questions pointed and simple, and to refrain from offering them large objectives or goals right away. We are Americans. They see us sailing in there asking what their needs are and presenting them with a summary assessment and they expected us to execute a plan to reach these objectives. The fact that all but Hassan were illiterate was another issue.

I suppose Peace Corps’ philosophy is to give us some basic tools and let us make mistakes, learn from them and then apply them in our real sites, in a few months. The meeting the next day was much more low-key and concise, but accomplished our next objective, a matrix that prioritized needs based on their communal choices between expressed needs. We all felt much happier about it.

On the last day there were rumors that Carolyn’s mom had invited us all over for Couscous (as my mother Amina had done the day before), but the rumors were not confirmed so we went to our respective houses for lunch. Saadia, our LCF by chance decided to go home with Carolyn to eat. Jesse was sick and came to my house, as it was closer, and I was partially sick and extremely exhausted from the long week and late nights. We huddled in my room over a stuffed fish and lentil lunch. One of my sisters came in jabbering away about Carolyn’s mom inviting us over today. I thought she meant for dinner and kept eating. Another sister came in with a similar message, only now indicating that we were to go for lunch, shortly. Finally Saadia came herself to wisk us away, and I realized that Malika had made us all Couscous and had demanded that Saadia go find all of us and bring us back to her home! Jesse was sick and stayed behind, but we went around to Cory and Juliana’s house, and Saadia repeatedly called Andrea on her cell.. Andrea who lived a 30 minute walk away from school and Malika’s. When we arrived she greeted and scolded us all, and were presented with a massive platter of chicken, squash and couscous” lunch number two. We stuffed ourselves. Malika, quite large herself, kept motioning that we should eat more so we would get big like her. She laughed and slapped her sumptuous thighs.

They brought a pitcher of water, soap, bowl and towel to rinse our couscous-sticky hands and then discovered a huge sweet cake in front of us. After desserts the table was cleared and a dance party ensued. Andrea had learned quite a bit of belly dancing to Malika’s delight. I fell asleep, a rather usual activity after lunch, while they all wrapped belts around their thighs and shook their full bellies. The afternoon development work session started a bit later than usual.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Back from Khenifra

NOTICE: I changed the settings so you don't have to be a blogspot member to post comments. Anyone can post now.

I will write more later, because I'm exhausted and today is our only day to recouperate a little, but I had a great time in Khenifra, loved my family, etc. Gonna go sleep!