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La Vita Grassa

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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Friday, March 30, 2007

Sam Sam & Me musing on the rooftop

What are you going to do for us??

The repercussions of traveling always seem to take a toll. I came back to Agdz on a "high".. very excited about all the things accomplished, progress made, prospects of new projects and organizations to work with, follow-up workshops, more presentations in Rabat, etc.

But coming back to my little village, people asked where I had disappeared for so long. To make matters worse, after a couple days' weekend recuperation in my house - just when I was hoping to jump back into my normal schedule here - I was confined to my bed with a stomach flu. So work would have to wait. So here it is, the end of the third week and I've barely shown my face in town. Girls have come by to visit..rumors of my illness spreading; an association came by to request my help on their project; the landlord's wife dropped by to ask where in the world I had been and urged me to "move a little" ... as in, get out of the house. I tried to briefly explain my work over the past couple weeks, and then my sickness in the most recent days. Not sure what she understood but I'm sure it all sounded like excuses.

I went to my host family's house finally, last night. Tried to recount many of the exciting events in Agouim and Rabat. They laughed and smiled, "she's advanced all the way up to the Minister himself!" they told each other. "So please put in a word for us!" They half-jokingly begged. I told them about wonderful Moroccan friends who housed me in Rabat, and spoke fluent English. And then wished I hadn't said it. I was talking to my "family" in Agdz. They were surely comparing in their heads. "Do you like it that they speak fluent English?" Nadia queried. I tried to answer diplomatically that it was a treat, but that I wasn't practicing Arabic. She nodded... "You have forgotten a lot of Arabic." My smiled died. I knew she was right.

I told them I was planning a craft festival in Zagora. My host mother, president of the Neddi, where I've been working, listened quietly. I regretted even mentioning it as I spoke. When she left the room, Nadia asked if the girls from the Neddi could exhibit items at the craft fair. I vaguely assured her they could, but hoped Lakabira wouldn't follow up on that... Frankly speaking, the girls' products are not ready for display yet. I just started working with them months ago and many of their products are still typical of Neddi's all over Morocco.

I went to visit the Ben Mammas family and check on the progress of the hammock. I blabbed on about my workshops with artisans in Tifaltout, again regretting my words. "Well it's been a loooong time since you helped us! What are you going to do for us?" They reprimanded. I tried to explain how the shipping/transport survey work was (at a macro level) intended to help them and all the artisans in the region. But the ideas sounded so hollow, so disengaged from their lives sitting on these dusty berber carpets, hoping for work the next day; another carpet commission, anything. I frowned and asked to see the hammock. Was that not work? Was that not product development?

Walking out of the Internet Cafe earlier in the week (trying to quickly get a few items of business taken care of over email before returning to my bed) I strode past two young guys with barely a word. Normally I'm a rather enthusiastic greeter. "Hey, hey!" They called. "Where did you disappear to?" I turned, smiled and greeted them and tried to again retell the stories and meetings and travels. "I've been to Sefrou and Fes, Rabat and Erfoud, Marakesh, Agouim..." on and on. I could hear myself talking. To anyone listening, I'm sure they would be little convinced of any productive work happening, only a tourist rambling about the countryside. One of the guys was part of the tourist committee in town that I've basically kept abreast of my survey work. They were the group that offered to help and then, four months later told me they could not help if they could not be guaranteed responsibility for a shipping service center in Agdz. So I've worked alone. And I have not mentioned their name to date, to the Ministry of L'artisanat in Rabat... as there seemed no need nor place to mention a particular association. Yet again, I felt I was betraying local friends thought it was not my intention. "When I come back from my meeting with the Minister, I'll let you know what happens!" I promised and turned to go. "Hey wait!" Said the other fellow. "Ina in Zagora tells us there will be a craft fair?" "Oh, yes! We're trying to confirm the exact dates with the Delege this week. I'll let you know when we find out." I am sure he was thinking that I would never have informed him if he hadn't found out from another volunteer in a site 1.5 hours away.

I've begun to realize that most people will never be able to understand one's work... especially when it is varied and involves many different organizations, local and far. I feel guilty and then internally frustrated: "why should I feel guilty that I am neglecting locals when the whole goal of larger projects such as the rural transport research is to help artisans in this region?" I guess these struggles just come with the nature of the work. I never cease to learn more nuances of the life of a Peace Corps volunteer (and I should think many development agencies) ... these enlightening yet challenging, emotional and psychological side affects.

I went home, grabbed my Bible, bowed my head and prayed to God. "Give me wisdom, Lord. Only you know the right paths for my feet to walk in among the many opportunities and expectations of people around me. Let my every effort be guided by Your hand, and not by pressures I put on myself, and compounded by every encounter. My struggles are but busywork if You do not bless and guide."

Fainting spell ... oh the drama

There is apparently no end to bizarre health issues with me. I know most of you probably do not care to know, but in some ways, I see it as an integral part of my Peace Corps experience ... so why not share?

After two insane weeks, my body needed rest. I rested over the weekend. That was last weekend. Monday morning I rushed down to Zagora to meet with a certain Delege regarding our April craft festival. He failed to inform me that he had meetings in Rabat. Trip wasted. Well maybe not entirely as I met another lady I've been trying to reach for weeks ... but that is beside the point. Arriving back in Agdz at 2PM, I felt a bit odd and weak. I went straight home to bed.

Almost the entire week lapsed while I lay in that bed. Stomach problems mostly... but "stomach problems" so grave I stumbled into the bathroom in the middle of the night and fainted. I woke up to find my head resting on the bathtub. The nausea and dehydration were so severe I could not move, nor determine what to do for myself. Thankfully Miss April was around to guide me back to bed and give me water and drugs.

The drama just makes me chuckle sometimes. Everyone gets a stomach flu once in a while, but do they faint? Everyone gets a tooth ache once in a while, but do they need to travel 24 hours - twice - to get a root canal removed and replaced? Everyone gets a pimple once in a while, but do they turn into horrifying boils oozing from your neck? Guess I just have to be a drama queen.

Guarding Hassan II's Tomb

Survey Results PowerPoint Link

I uploaded my PowerPoint presentation in case anyone is interested in perusing it. It is the results of the surveys conducted with Tourists and Bazaar owners (i.e. carpet stores) in the region, regarding rural shipping challenges in regards to Moroccan handicrafts.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Enabling generosity

As I look back over the past couple weeks of travel, I realized that much of my travels and work would not have been possible without the generosity of many. My parents, first of all, supplement the Peace Corps stipend, allowing me to pursue all sorts of activities that otherwise would be impossible. For instance, when traveling often, the Peace Corps salary usually only lasts through the first couple weeks each month. After that, my parents generosity supports work-related activities by helping fund stays in cheap hotels (i.e. $5-10/night) or buying out an extra seat in a taxi so my legs aren't cramped.

When I was with the U.S. Embassy crew, they offered to let me travel with them and covered all my meals in transit between Ouarzazate and Rabat. Then one of the ladies, Wafa offered to let me stay with her for the duration of my stay in Rabat. (Peace Corps policy would only have covered one night in the city for my health-related appointments.) She made me breakfasts, packed a bag lunch, and sometimes even drove me to different locations around the city. One evening, riding in a petit taxi back to Wafa's house, I had completely run out of money. I paid a partial fare and apologized a million times, telling him that was all the money I had. He smiled and said it was no problem..and then leaned out the door and said, "Wait lady, are you married?" When I returned to Wafa's, I realized I had not a dirham left to get to my morning appointment and somewhat embarressed, asked if I could borrow 10 Dirhams ($1) for a morning taxi. Wafa walked into my room that evening, laid 50 Dirhams on the table, quietly smiled and said.. "You don't have to repay it, dear." I could have kissed her.

In Sefrou, I visited/stayed with Rose, a new volunteer. I did not know her well, but she welcomed me into their dinner party and we had an excellent evening. In Ouarzazate I stayed with Pete and Elspeth, a wonderful Scottish/British couple I've befriended. Coffees and meals were paid for everywhere I went. In Fes, my phone stopped working and I took it to a Maroc Telecom office. They guy sent a fellow employee off in a taxi to find a technician who could work on it while I shopped. He returned forty minutes later, phone fixed, bill paid. All I had to do was thank him for his time.

All in all, I realized that the generosity of friends, family and strangers had saved (or paid) for what could have amounted to a steep bill worth of hotels, transportation and meals in expensive cities. The work I am doing is not possible without this generosity. Hence, I am very humbled and thankful for it. For those of you who may long to do some type of missions or development work, but feel that your calling is to function in a financially (or otherwise) supportive role, do not underestimate the importance of your work. You are an enabler. Your friendship and financial backing are a joy and encouragement to those you support.

A few windows into the past couple weeks..

The panel "experts" and interpreters discussing our next point.

Shaina going crazy making carpets ...

Discussion-weary panelists. (L-R) Brahim, Shaina Adams, Me, Cheryl Bostwick, Amina.
The women of Tifaltout and Isfoutalit, eager for assistance.

Cary Ruscus and I sharing a laugh during the Aguoim volunteerism presentation.

A gentleman from Ighoram Nogdor requesting health and small business Peace Corps volunteers to be placed in his site. Shaina Adams listens in the background.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Two Week Whirl

I have just returned from two remarkable weeks of travels. It was an amazing, productive trip.

I counted nine different cities/villages visited in this order: Erfoud/Merzouga/Ouarzazate/Villages of Tifaltout and Agouim/Rabat/Fes/Sefrou/back to Rabat/Marakesh/back to Ouarzazate for workshops/Agdz. God’s direction was certainly evident in this trip, the connections made, etc. I wrote in great detail for my own memory, and for those who have time and are curious. For the rest, here are a few highlights:

Marketing Workshops in villages near Ouarzazate with U.S. Embassy staff & 150 women (between two days) – from regional carpet-making cooperatives. I monitored/participated in a panel of "experts" – that being in quotation marks because I was one of the expertsJ, leading a discussion about selling handicrafts abroad/online/marketing in-country, functioning of cooperatives, etc.

Presentation of feasibility study results via a 45-page PowerPoint (for the rural handicraft/tourism shipping problems survey I conducted in the region) to the Ministry of L’Artisanat in Rabat. They were impressed and asked me to return and present the results to the Minister himself… apparently this is useful information at this particular point.

I was asked to coordinate a craft festival in Zagora next month.

Many new contacts made: Foreign Service Officers and wonderful embassy staffs; a lady (Cheryl Bostwick) who might be interested in being a State-side partner for a womens’ carpet cooperative in Agouim; new, energetic delegates in the region to work with; Shaina, a volunteer who came to Morocco completely alone with no support structure and doing phenomenally well; Fulbright scholars studying different problems in Morocco that might be useful to my work; a Moroccan Air Force Pilot whose plane was shot down in Algeria and himself imprisoned for twenty-five years while his wife waited his return. Apparently she was a personal friend of Arafat and many well-known names in the Muslim world. The list goes on.

Boils dealt with; root canal removed… awaiting approval from Washington to refill root canal – properly this time.

Photo/Internet workshop in Ouarzazate with 18 woman from Agouim & Tifaltout

COLLAPSING ON A BUS to JUMPING ON SAND DUNES: I started the trip by throwing myself and a couple bags onto a bus, en route to Erfoud to visit my friend Frank. The month previous to this trip had already been extremely busy and I was almost at mental break-down stage from the non-stop activity and needed a restorative break. Frank's place was great. He's the most generous guy… walks around town buying the most expensive dates and handing them out to every shop keeper and cafe friends. We took a SUV to the Merzouga one evening accompanied by his little hip-hop host-brothers and father. We spent the afternoon jumping down sand dunes, chasing each other with beetles and watching camel (tourist) caravans tramp through the sands under a setting sun. Our driver scared us to death that evening, flying across rocky flatlands back to Erfoud. No road. Just open, flat nothingness. We looked behind us. An army of SUV lights raged toward us, all returning from tourists’ trips to watch a sunset on the dunes.

NGO’S IN Ouarzazate: After a relaxing weekend, I returned to Ouarzazate to meet a group from the U.S. Embassy. They were planning to do marketing workshops in Tifaltout/Isfoutalit and Agouim and received my name from Peace Corps. In the morning we toured several NGO's (non-government agencies) that provide educational opportunities for women and children in the Oz region. It was very helpful to know what resources were available to offer to women in Agdz, etc. (i.e. Oxygen provides computer classes: MSWord, Excel, PPT, basic Internet, etc.)

A.D.D. DELEGATE: We returned to an association building where the military attaché in our group had been conducting a workshop on volunteerism in America/Morocco and cross-cultural communication. The entire delegation and association was served a huge lunch of Lamb and Prune tagine (my favorite Moroccan dish) at a local family’s house. I was introduced and bear-hugged by an American girl named Shaina. She came to this little village on her own (at least we have a support network!), three months ago an already speaks an astonishing amount of Berber and Arabic. She had not spent any time with an American girl since arriving and was delighted to see me. I was delighted to find a volunteer working with these women. I met another man over lunch. He was a very handsome, well-dressed, sharp, energetic young Moroccan official. I soon realized he was the new Oz region delegate for a new ministry. (I had met the first delegate in Zagora last year, and - unbeknownst to me until this week – I was the one that introduced him/their ministry to Peace Corps, inspiring a close collaboration with a much more effective government branch.) I instantly realized this new guy, Si Boubkar Ouazza would be a key component in my shipping/transport research/solutions and to Peace Corps projects in the region. I tried to explain my project to him over lunch and only achieved revealing to him that I did not know the word for a silver hand-washbasin in Arabic. He would turn to me, as a question such as: "So how exactly are you working with Si Zahir in Zagora?" – which is not easy to answer. I work with the guy on many different levels and most of my work has been independent of anyone. After literally 12 seconds, he would be distracted by another conversation, turn back to me and proceed to give me a full history of a certain artisan co-op; half-way through he would be distracted again, turn back and ask if I understood everything; repeat his original question and then startled: "Oh! Are you the one giving the presentation on marketing this afternoon?" I confirmed that I'd been invited to participate, but that I was no expert, giving no formal presentation and wanted to first listen to the needs of the women before spouting off some random marketing ideas. He got distracted before I finished.

WORKSHOP #1: FASICNATING CHAOS: The marketing workshop that afternoon was fascinating chaos. They put me at the head of a table of "experts", facing over 75 Tashelheight (Berber) women all looking to us for magic answers. I repeatedly had warned Cary - the embassy contact who invited me and now sat as support at my left - that I was completing a rural shipping service survey, and was familiar with regional carpet makers and their needs, but that I had no great strategies or answers to bring. At the moment we were to begin, this lady Cheryl, (whom I had only briefly met) leaned over the table to whisper a few thoughts in my ear. Apparently we were leading this workshop together and had no idea who the other person was. She rapidly transferred her life experience as a textile weaver/artisan in the States who was just accompanying her husband (the military attaché) on the trip, until she realized she could be of service.

We sat, translators welcomed all, introduced us, and I gave a brief introduction of myself in Arabic. Someone hurried up to me and told me to speak slower. I started over and then moved to English and let the translators deal with Tashelheight and Arabic. We tried to turn the discussion over to the women almost instantly to hear what their needs were, their questions, and their interests. (Nothing speaks of irrelevant more than an trainer who has no idea what his audience wants to learn.) The problems were typical: some carpet making skills, no buyers, the women are not able to travel outside their villages (it is often socially and financially unfeasible). I tried to venture into website sales. It was over their heads. I backtracked. Cheryl and I tried to give them ideas of what Americans like: subdued colors, standard sizes, etc. Each of these subjects could literally take months to show up in their work, if taught well. We tried to discuss distribution of duties within a cooperative: accountants, website developers, (i.e. not everyone should make carpets, the purpose of a cooperative was to distribute responsibilities). A girl marched up and whispered something in the translator's ear. "Apparently they said that none of the women work together well in the cooperatives, they all fight and bicker and are not organized." There would be no advanced business development going on when the women couldn't work together. I then tried to stress the purposes of cooperatives and associations. Teamwork. Division of duties. Collaboration.

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR US?: They wanted training sessions. I mentioned that we could bring a Peace Corps volunteer to their region. "What are you going to do for us?" They pointedly asked. "Are you just going to talk and leave? Will there be follow-up?" Cheryl, with each passing discussion was becoming more and more fascinated by their dilemmas and wanted to help, but was returning to American in two-weeks' time. However, she has a network of buyers she could take advantage of. Cary, at the end of the table, was offering her services in researching the Free Trade Agreement in the U.S. Commercial Dept. of the embassy; I mentioned that I was on my way up to Rabat to present the rural handicrafts transport problem to the Ministry of L'Artisanat and would be seeking solutions that would hopefully benefit them. Each of us were trying to offer what assistance we could. I mentioned doing a workshop on very basic website skills. They were very eager. "When!?" I motioned for the energetic Si Boubker (delegate) to come near. "Do you have an office in Ouarzazate we could use for computer classes?" "Yes, we have everything you need," he rapidly confirmed. "Okay, what about next Thursday?" "That works." I turned to the ladies.. "Okay, you have to understand that I am a Peace Corps volunteer and have my own site, artisans, classes, etc. to work with, so I cannot give all my time to you, nor can I commit to anything long term without gaining permission from my directors at Peace Corps, but we do want to help you...and this is where we will start. Shaina lives here among you. She will be here until June. She and I will conduct a website workshop next week in Ouarzazate if you're interested in attending." They heartily agreed. "Now, I don't want your presidents or artisans. If you are going to come, you must know something about computers and hopefully the internet. Those are the people I want." We left with a list of the eight associations and members interested in attending. I had hugged and kissed and been framed in cell phone camera pictures with many of the eager, sweet girls before we departed.
The embassy crew and Shaina strongly urged me to stay for the workshops the next day and delay my trip to Rabat. I could just travel up with them. I made calls, rearranged everything and stayed. I knew that I, myself could provide no solutions for any of these women, but our collaboration and networking would be beneficial to all parties, and an even poor Arabic speaker inspires good-will, etc. Besides, Shaina, Cary, Cheryl, Wafe and all the members of the embassy party were such sweet, exuberant people to spend time with.

SELF-SURGERY IN THE SHOWER: In the evening I went back to my hotel, restraining tears from boils I'd been hiding all day. One on my neck, below my ear swelled out past the line of my chin. I touched it and puss and blood oozed out. I lifted my arm to find the second, in my armpit bloodying my shirt… I stood under the steaming shower doing surgery with tweezers: pulling globs of puss out of infected canyons making their way through the ever-expanding boil. I feared I would pass out and had to take a break for a while. Finally I fell into bed.
I rose at 5:45, had a coffee and read the Bible at a local cafe before meeting them at the Berber Palace. The pharmacy wasn't open, so no more band-aids or alcohol yet for my boils. We took off in the tourist van to a further village: Aguoim. The trek wound us through beautiful mountain passes, valleys filled with almond blossoms, streams wisping along, snow-capped peaks in the distance, mud-villages built into the hillsides. As always, extraordinary scenery that is Morocco. Arriving in Agouim I noticed a village marker for Tid*, 20km away. One of my PC friends lived there. I texted her to let her know there was an independent volunteer living there. They had never met.

HOW DO YOU TREAT MUSLIMS AND BLACKS IN AMERICA?: We sat through the volunteerism/cross-cultural workshop, and as a PC volunteer I offered a few comments and informed them that they could request volunteers. The questions directed to Randy were interesting: "You talk about cross-cultural communications, but what is it like between different ethnic groups in your country, America? Between blacks and whites and Latinos?" "How did America's perspective change regarding Muslims after 9/11?" Many Moroccan teachers spoke to the group in English, doing a phenomenal job and speaking on levels I couldn't hope to reach with my current Arabic language ability. On the other hand, I found one piece of information rather insightful: Miriam, a Moroccan embassy worker who is also fluent in French and English, was attempting to do her Resources presentation in Arabic. She was stifling a giggle most of the presentation because she was attempting to do it in Arabic and the vocabulary simply was not available… often she and the other Moroccan ladies would be whispering back and forth words from French, English and Arabic, trying to find an appropriate way to explain it in the limited resources the Moroccan dialect offered. It made me feel a bit better: yes, I lacked vocabulary, but in many cases it just wasn't available. Native speakers couldn't express ideas without reverting to French or boiling it down to very basic levels.
In the middle of intense topics, the guys I like to call the "tea men" marched in, mid-sentence. They carried trays overflowing with cookies or hot, mint tea. All discussions had to be suspended while maybe 50-75 participants satiated themselves. We had no longer resumed discussions when the tea men returned with more tea and cookies. Cary and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and giggled. That’s the way it is in Morocco.

MARKETING WORKSHOP TAKE 2: Cheryl, Cary, Shaina and I – having experienced the first chaotic marketing workshop – organized ourselves better for the second round, hoping to create more order. They placed me as head monitor and translators for Arabic and Tachelheight. I felt my background gave me no room to monitor the panel, but we all played complementing different roles in the discussions. Our strategy fell apart after the first round of introductions and questions. They, as a group, presented us with their primary need and background: A bishop had lived in Agouim for 40 years. He had become their partner in marketing their products in France and sold the carpets at a very high profit. The entire community – 150 families - had lived fairly comfortably (for a rural village) but the bishop had died six years ago, and not a single previous buyer had attempted to make direct contact with the village. In effect, the entire community (or three combined) was suffering economically. They needed a new buyer, a new partner. Their products were high quality. They were familiar with custom orders. They already worked with a French woman who had created a website and taken photos of the carpets, but no where near the previous volume or profit levels were reached. Cheryl felt even more drawn to this group, and Cary and I recalled different contacts we had available that we could connect them with. It was a much more straightforward, progressive meeting. Cary, Cheryl and I left the workshops with our work cut out for us.

TRAVEL TO RABAT: The next day we headed to Rabat. The third stage of my trip was beginning. Wafe, one of the sweet Moroccan, embassy ladies urged me to stay with her. I refused for a while, but realizing she spoke almost perfect English and had been so kind to me, I thought it might be enjoyable and I could hardly say no. So I did. It was the best decision I made. Her family was delightful. Her husband was an IT specialist at USAID. Her children spoke good English, even if they were too shy to say anything the first day or so. She gave me my own room, bathroom, TV, bathrobe, and tried to make me comfortable in every way. Their maid did my laundry every day; Wafe served me breakfasts and packed lunches. They let me use their internet, and whenever I tried to lift a hand to do anything, they would stop me. I was flabbergasted. This was certainly a different economic level of living than I, or anyone in Agdz was used to living in: two fancy cars, huge flat-screen TV’s, private schools, etc. But beyond all that, the most wonderful part was that I felt instantly at home… Wafe and I would stay up late in the evenings after returning from busy days, laughing our heads off.

MEETINGS WITH MY PROGRAM MANAGER: Friday morning I strolled into Peace Corps armed with a notebook full of ideas, contacts, the results of my rural handicraft shipping service feasibility study compiled into a 45-page PowerPoint presentation on a USB, and meeting agenda points for my program manager. She took me out for coffee and we covered one subject after another. She informed me that I was in charge of the Zagora craft fair next month. I pointedly asked her why I was being asked to facilitate the exhibition, not the volunteer living in Zagora. She responded: "Because you have a good relationship with the delegate, Si Zahir, and because you, as a second-year volunteer have better language skills. You speak Arabic." (That’s certainly a relative term …"speak Arabic".) That was all the reason I needed. We assembled a team of volunteers to help me. I briefed her on the past couple days’ events in Tifaltout and Agouim. She was delighted. I was given a free hand to conduct the planned workshops, and make regular trips to the region if I found time. I passed on new helpful contacts – most importantly Si Boubkar Ouazza, the new delegate I’d met. She asked for a full report write-up. Then we moved to the PowerPoint presentation. She had already seen it. We discussed the meeting with the Ministry, arranged for Monday morning. Back at the office we made calls to several delegates in Ouarzazate to pursue funding options for the craft festival. I spoke briefly with each at the end of the conversations, confirming meetings the following week when I returned to the region.

BOILS & BLOOD TESTS: Then down to the Peace Corps doctor’s office. I lifted my arm and showed Dr. Iman the fantastically horrible growth in my armpit. She took pictures, prescribed a very heavy antibiotic and informed me I would be sent for blood tests in the morning. (The blood tests came out clear, and the boils started receding the next day… almost healed by now, a week later.)

MOROCCAN EXCHANGE: Another lady called to ask me to participate in a Q & A time with a group of American university students studying abroad - sharing with them the life and opportunities as a Peace Corps volunteer. That was how I spent my evening.

PCV WEEKEND DISCUSSIONS ABOUT WIDER PROBLEMS IN ARTISANAT SECTOR: Saturday I took off for Fes, met up with PCV friends at McDonalds and then on to Sefrou for a dinner party/evening at a new PCV’s house. We had some interesting discussions. My friend Frank (who came as well), is currently working on a website framework that could be passed on to artisans all over Morocco. He’s arranging it such a fashion that with each new group/artisan, they would only have to change the "face" of the website; and then use built-in category dividers to customize lists of all their products and categories. We discussed proposing a "website starter kit" program to the Ministry of L’Artisanat. Potentially a cooperative could apply for a $500 grant to receive this starter kit, which would provide them with a PCV or Ministry official to customize the website for them, do front-end programming; teach them how to customize the product areas and upload photos without ever touching computer languages; and a digital camera to take pictures of their products and upload to the site with descriptions.

FREE TRADE? NOT SO FAST: Then a second volunteer, Lisa, who has focused on exporting and the Free Trade Agreement (Morocco just signed with the United States last year) brought up a second major challenge: payments for products from abroad. Currently most western banks (U.S./European) will not approve payments transferred to Moroccan banks for security purposes. The Moroccan commerce/banking system still has too many quirks in it and it is virtually impossible for Moroccan artisans cooperatives to accept payments. They are mostly likely not set up to accept credit-card payments, the only other obvious option for online/export sales.

THREE COMPONENTS: We realized these two challenges (internet sales; payment delivery on export sales), combined with the problem I’d been attacking: transport of goods from rural artisans to market (bazaars, middlemen, exporters, clientele abroad) were three interconnected glitches in the Moroccan Artisan section of the economy. Morocco is currently placing a huge emphasis on their tourism/artisan handicrafts sector. They are trying to support the middleman. We realized that these three challenges will have to be solved (mostly at the Ministry/national level) to spur growth of Moroccan artisan products. 1) Sustainability of online sales management; 2) Ease of payments transfer into Morocco; 3) Improved transport system for handicrafts from rural areas; exporting with guarantees.

PHONE PROBLEMS: After a relaxing weekend among friends I returned to the big city to "get back to work". (I traveled five hours Saturday to get to Sefrou, and five hours back on Sunday.) I stopped at a supermarket (only available in big cities like Fes) to fix my cell phone. The Maroc Telecom staffer sent my cell off with a guy in a taxi to get it fixed. He returned an hour later, water and sand cleaned out of the phone; bill paid for me. Talk about service! It was another reminder of willingness of a Moroccan to go out of their way to help someone… something found on a scale here unimaginable in America. Another reason I love this country. (Of course, being a young, female, single blonde has had its benefits, if frustrations as well.)

PRESENTING THE FEASIBILITY RESULTS TO THE MINISTRY: Monday morning I showed up at Peace Corps with my USB in hand. Bouchra and I strolled over to the Ministry of L’Artisanat. We were ushered into a conference room and greeted two officials that I had met the previous June in Agadir (and at that time, together with Bouchra, "did a sales job" on them to convince them of why I needed to conduct these surveys and why the current services of the Post Office were insufficient in the region.) The surveys were mostly in English, only parts (i.e. executive summary) translated to French. Hence, I sat down at the computer, scrolling slowly through imported excel graphs (i.e. revealing how many tourists are frustrated with lack of shipping options or how artisans are only able/willing to travel to the local village to ship items). Bouchra translated into French, the ministry officials responded to me in French, I responded - as best I understood their French – in Arabic or referred back to Bouchra (in my head I was thinking, I absolutely need to know French, yesterday!).
They were apparently already working on solving the rural handicrafts shipping problem, so this was vital information coming at an opportune time. It was very entertaining to me to see their reactions to some crucial pieces of information. They were startled at the results in some cases. They had no idea of some of the problems, or at least the extent. They insisted that we immediately translate it completely into French and that I return to present it to the Minister himself. Bouchra instantly promised to turn the entire presentation over to their professional translator. I beamed.

The officials said that I could deal directly with them in Rabat. If I a reginal delegate to do anything for me, I should communicate it to them via Bouchra and they would send him an official letter directing him to do whatever I requested. I also mentioned cooperating with the new Ministry, Entraide Nationale (Si Boubkar and Si Zahir). They said I was free to work with whichever Ministries could provide me assistance and they would be happy to cooperate with them. This was music to my ears. I expected competition. They also gave us a complete list of Chamber of Artisanat heads in Morocco (the elusive Ministry who apparently holds the money bags). Now Bouchra was beaming. She’d found funds resources. We thanked them for their time, and departed in jovial spirits.

BRAINSTORMING LUNCHES: I had lunch with Cheryl and her husband, Randy. She was brainstorming endlessly about how to help these artisans. Her background: an artisan herself, created textile/weaving samples for buyers, worked on the retail end for a decade, has a father who wants to invest in a gallery or whatever she starts, a relationship with these rural artisans, collaboration with the embassy contacts, a Peace Corps volunteer (me) and another one already in the region (Shaina), combined with all sorts of other contacts we were discovering (i.e. a Fulbrighter who is currently studying why artisans are not taking advantage of the new FTA, whose name we both received from different people over the weekend). She was really eager to explore all the options. Cheryl is also a Christian and it was encouraging to talk to her on different levels than I’m usually afforded here.

ROOT CANALS: That afternoon I finally visited the dentist – a visit months in coming. He did a quick inspection and scheduled another appointment for the following afternoon to probe my root canal and do a superficial filling. The next afternoon when I returned, the probe revealed that the root canal had been poorly done, and the base of it was hollow. He completely hollowed out the filling, and sealed it with an antiseptic. I would have to wait for Peace Corps Washington to approve a root canal, and return to Rabat.

DINNER PARTY: The dinner at Cary’s house was fabulous. I met her lively husband, Jim Jiminez, a Foreign Service Officer who had previously been stationed in Iraq. I asked him if Iraq was terrifying. He responded earnestly "No, not at all.." and then proceeded to tell me how terrorists groups had tried to annihilate him twice, and on a third occasion was almost wiped out by American machine guns who mistook his party for Iraqis conspirators (he is half-hispanic and with his little mustache, could pass as an Iraqi easily). Cary had stayed at the Senegal assignment during his six-month term in Iraq. He reveled in it. He was also extremely positive regarding my work. I announced that morning’s successes with the Ministry of L’Artisanat and he robustly shook my hand. "To be making such a practical difference at such a young age, congratulations young lady!" He derided the State Department’s work tongue-in-cheek, saying that they had no near the profound impact that a young, blonde, Arabic-speaking, enthusiastic volunteer did, producing professional results in Peace Corps Morocco. Obviously his comments were very generous, but there are elements of truth that mirror the words of my own father: "Peace Corps volunteers are cultural ambassadors in every smile and greeting in a Moroccan’s native tongue. Each encounter changes another opinion of Americans toward a positive light." In that I have felt inspired and confident that if nothing else, I can be a cultural ambassador everywhere I go – spreading good will and understanding. I’m joyful to play the little part God has given me in this fun, challenging work.

FORMER AIR FORCE PILOT 25-YEAR POW: All the guests - over a scrumptious fare and wineglasses along the massive dining table - were agreeable, even captivating. One elder gentleman and his wife quietly told me (in Arabic) how he had been an Air Force Pilot in the Moroccan Army. Years ago he engaged in the Algerian-Moroccan wars. His plane was shot down. He was beaten and imprisoned for twenty-five (25) years. His wife only corresponded with him via notes from journalists or the Red Cross. She knew he was still alive, but had no way of seeing or speaking to him. In a way, her life was on hold for a quarter-of-a-century. She told her daughter about him, but the girl (who had been three when her daddy left and had no recollection of him) only met her father when she was 28, married and pregnant. He was returned to her only three years ago. She wrote a book about her experiences in Arabic (and I insisted she find a French or English translator and publish it in English. Americans want to read this story.) "You translate it," her husband urged. I laughed. I just stared dumbfounded at the two of them… trying to fathom bits of what their lives had been like.

There were many other memorable meetings, such as a morning spent at the Cultural Affairs department of the U.S. Embassy making phone calls, meeting Michel Cohn, the Cultural Affairs Foreign Service Officer (who everyone raved about as being better than a good boss, a wonderfully kind person). There entire department seemed filled with generous, enthusiastic personnel – some of whom, I am honored to now call friends. I’d never been to the U.S. Embassy before.

BACK IN OUARZAZATE: Briefly: I met with the Chamber of Artisans, along with a friend named Shawn who was coordinating another craft fair. We were instructed to send Demandes along with all the precise transportation, housing, or tents needed for the exhibitions. We had successfully completed a meet-and-greet PR session with the money bags. I met with Si Boubkar (Entraide Nationale) who instantly wanted to know if I had a grand economic strategy for the region. I pounced on the three components-challenges discussed in Sefrou: web sales/ease of payments transfer/rural handicraft transport. "Good!" He pointed a finger at my nose and stared into my eyes abruptly, "good! That’s good." And then his phone rang again. It turns out he develops web sites himself and would be willing to do one for all the artisans in the region if needed. (Of course, he was already working until 9AM that evening, so I think his calendar might be a touch full for such added responsibilities.)

WEBSITE/PHOTO WORKSHOP: Si Boubker Ouazza gave me an entire room full of computers (12 brand new) and a projector for our website/photo workshop. We started with five girls. Three hours later the room was filled with maybe eighteen (18) women and younger girls. Thankfully Shawn and Shaina were both there, so we could each work individually the women. They learned how to use USB’s, CD’s, upload photos from various cameras, edit photos and save them to new locations. I briefly introduced them to kodakgallery.com (using print screen options on the projector as there was no Internet available at this office). I explained to them the big picture: it is important for you to know how to take photos, upload them, edit them and put them in a gallery online in preparation: if you find someone to manage your website from France, they’ll have all the information, products, dimensions, etc. available to them from an online photo gallery. The women were very grateful, thanked me and asked when the next session was and what my training strategy was. They also begged to be trained on the Internet directly next time. It was a start. Some women who came did not even know what a mouse was. They learned quick.

At least in PC terms it was a fast-paced, exciting two weeks. The number of contacts made, various projects and subjects covered, the cities traveled too… great memories, friends made and work developments. I realize I shared in great detail, but to some, I suppose that different recollections will prove insightful regarding the nature of development work at a "grass-roots" level; how helpful collaborations can be between individuals, Peace Corps, the Embassy, NGO’s, host-country Ministries, etc. For some of you, maybe these words inspire you to your own work in similar areas, or to become a carpet buyer, or maybe a publisher for the story of a Moroccan Air Force Pilot’s 25 years in an Algerian jail. Maybe these notes simply a highlight the generosity and energy of many different Americans and Moroccans trying to make a difference in this beautiful country.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mountains and the Moon

A village near Marrakech with a view of the Atlas Mountains (All photos by Rob Revere)

Frank Sposito, the camera man (and a good friend of mine).

Mirage in Merzouga

A lake on the edge of the Sahara Desert. (by Frank Sposito)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Beautiful Morocco

I want to start a series of beautiful photos I've collected from Peace Corps friends. This country eternally fascinates me and I want to share it as much as possible.

(all photos by Frank Sposito, SBD Peace Corps Volunteer)


I just hosted a VSN (Volunteer Support Network) training at my house. Interpreted: I catered three meals a day, snacks, and deserts for almost a dozen PCV's for over four days.

Sample menu items included flafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, Caesar salad, Indian fry bread, Thai coconut chicken curry, all made from scratch. Purchasing all the foodstuffs required a trip to souq in a donkey cart. We used 145 eggs, 10 litres of milk, several kilos of onions ...

One evening we sat on my roof watching a full eclipse ... and singing at the top of our lungs.

the Solar Eclipse (by Erica Wible)
chillin' (by Rob Revere)
Eclipse party
it looked like a basketball, or ping pong or egg yolk ...
My apartment on the edge of the palmery feels like a resort to many friends. Many commented they felt human again after a long bath (also rare), leisurely walks, sitting on the roof in the sun, stuffing themselves with pseudo-American food, or playing with my dog.

(by Rob Revere)

It gives me joy to be a refuge and comfort to friends.

Surprise birthday cake for Jenny...

Front row: April, Dominique, Jenny (by Erica Wible)

Skye and I... gazing at the sky (by Erica Wible)

April: my assistant cook ... without whom I might have gone insane.

Strolling through the palmery. (Rachel, Dominique, Jong, Rob)

Jong undertaking yet another mountain of dishes...

The training center: Erica happily just completed a session.

Sam Sam. She has the life. (by Rob Revere)

Blondies... (by Rob Revere)

The roof scene. I just had a gardner come plant an additional twenty trees and flowers I'd purchases at souq. Oleandras, roses, jasmine, miska, trumpet vines, geraniums... I love my flowers.

Sam Sam my beloved.