Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sunrise, Sunset

So, last month, new Environment PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and new Health PCTs arrived here in Morocco. Since then, they've been learning how to speak Darija and Berber, and have been adjusting to life in Morocco. I met some of them this past weekend. Knowing the challenges I've faced, and the changes I've experienced, since arriving in Morocco, and especially how much more comfortable I feel now in comparison to various points in my first few months in Morocco, I encouraged some of them to remember that their feelings will almost certainly continue to evolve as time passes.

In addition to enjoying meeting them, this past weekend I also had the very enjoyable experiences of meeting PCVs for the very first time who have been here for over two years. They had just left their towns for the last time when I met some of them this past weekend. They were traveling north on their way out of Morocco, since they are closing, or finishing, their service, nearly having reached their COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) dates. I was glad that I got to meet them before they left Morocco (indeed, I met some of them just in time!) since I feel that they are among the new friends I made this past weekend.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter in Morocco

This past weekend, I came to the site of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and friend of mine who lives in a bigger site than mine. She invited me to her home for Easter dinner. I made sure to arrive early in the day so I was able to join a few other PCVs in going to an American couple's house where we had a Bible study. I hadn't previously been with that many Christians since arriving here in Morocco. It made me very happy.

Some of them are here in Morocco for a week-long basketball camp. Others of them are working here in Morocco long-term providing greatly needed various forms of medical attention. Yet others of them are here in Morocco on vacation.

After the Bible study, some of us went out for lunch together, where we were asking and telling each other about our respective work. At the end of the meal, one of my fellow PCVs got up to pay for her part of the meal. We found out that the owner of the cafe said that there was no charge for the meal. He had said that we didn't have to pay because it was Easter Sunday, which I thought was very nice of him, and which I certainly appreciated.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Big Game

A couple of nights ago, I headed to the barber shop of a Moroccan friend of mine. (No, he doesn't cut my hair, as I do that myself with my electric razor at home). He's a friendly, sociable and welcoming guy, so I go to his shop from time to time to socialize and practice my Arabic. This particular Wednesday night when I headed there, I knew that a big soccer match was going to be played, and that he would be watching it in his shop.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays this time of the year, many Moroccan men and boys watch soccer matches (remember that here they call it "football," not "soccer"). I have found it most interesting how Moroccan men and boys in my town are so engrossed in matches between the two teams which were playing on Wednesday, which were Barcelona and Real Madrid. That's right, these are Spanish soccer teams, which is why I find it so intriguing that Moroccan men and boys enjoy watching these teams so much. It's not like there aren't Moroccan soccer teams.

In fact, when I arrived at the barber shop, my friend the barber had his flat screen TV tuned to a game between teams from Fes and Agadir, two Moroccan cities. He might have detected a look of puzzlement and concern on my face, since he said to me, "We'll turn on the game between Barsa and Madrid in a few minutes." It hadn't yet started. And sure enough, once the players on Barsa and Madrid were doing the coin toss to see which team got the ball first, my friend did not change the channel until halftime. He only switched back to the game between Fes and Agadir once the game between Barsa and Madrid had reached halftime.

So, many Moroccan men and boys here in town seem to be more excited about Barsa and Madrid than they seem to be interested in Moroccan soccer teams. It's expected that someone is rooting for either Barsa or Madrid. Before the game started, my friend the barber asked me if I liked Barsa or Madrid. When I responded that I didn't like either, he responded, "Maymkansh," which is Darija for "impossible," which made me smile, knowing the excitement over these teams.

When Madrid got possession of the ball at certain points, I was struck by, and enjoyed, how some of the Moroccans in the room were encouragingly saying, "Seer. Seer." It reminded me of how American men and boys, watching sports games, cheer the same word in English, "Go! Go!" even when they are not in the stadium.

When the first 45-minute half ended, and halftime arrived, neither team had scored. When the second half ended, still neither team had scored.

In the end, during extra time, Madrid finally scored a goal. Madrid won 1-0. I must admit, that although there was cheering in the room when Madrid scored that goal, it was not as loud or as raucous as I had expected it to be.

Once the game had ended, monada (Darija for "soda") was broken out in celebration, and shared liberally, in the typical Moroccan fashion of generosity and hospitality. I finally left my friend's shop at 11 p.m. As on that night, if one sees a good number of men and boys out at 11 p.m., it's most likely because a soccer match has been played that evening.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Road Show

This past weekend, I went on a bicycle trek with a half dozen other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), a Moroccan counterpart of mine, who is a high school sports teacher, and a half dozen other Moroccans. We rode our bicycles to surrounding villages nearby my town to educate local community members and play sports with local youths. One other PCV, Hanna, was a Health PCV; one other PCV, Jeff, was a SBD (Small Business Development) PCV. Both of them speak Berber, which is helpful, as many people speak Berber in this region. The rest of us PCVs on the bike trek, Katy, Molly, Ben, Olivia and I, were YD (Youth Development) PCVs.

I should first note that my counterpart has done this bicycle trek multiple times in past years. So, I was working with the benefit of this event having previously happened.

However, I still wanted to make sure that certain logistics had been addressed. For example, in helping my counterpart plan this activity, I asked if there would be places to stop for water along the way. Since I found that there were not any businesses along the route, I accordingly told PCVs to bring along sufficient water and snacks for the ride.

We started out this past Saturday morning on our bicycles. Before we had gone a few hundred meters, the vast majority of the houses started to just be houses made of mud and straw. After a couple of kilometers, there were virtually no businesses, except for an occasional one where one could buy credit for one's cell phone. After a few kilometers from the start of the ride, we stopped in a douar (outlying village). The two PCVs who speak Berber did presentations on hand washing and toothbrushing to Moroccan kids who are probably three, four and five years old. These kids are so cute, and I was so glad that we were helping them given how impoverished they are, that I had to keep myself from starting to cry while those presentations were being done. In that village, the female PCVs, thus including the Health PCV, met with local women about women's health issues.

After eating lunch in that village, we continued on our bicycles. We rode for a good deal of the afternoon. Finally we arrived at our destination, a beautiful gorge near another village. We camped in the gorge. The next morning, after having breakfast in the gorge, we hiked back up out of the gorge to the village.

In the village, we played some sports with some of the local youths there, including playing frisbee. PCVs and Moroccans split the kids into groups, so we had a few different groups of kids doing different activities at the same time. At one point, my Moroccan counterpart sports teacher was playing volleyball with some kids, though without a net.

A little later, we had lunch in that village. After lunch, the female PCVs again met with local women to educate them about women's health issues. There is no hospital, or even a clinic, in either of these villages we visited, so it seemed helpful that the female PCVs conducted these women's health education sessions.

After these educational sessions, all of us on the bike trek rode our bicycles back to my town. I was happy that we got to help some people living a little further away from resources in the area.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On The Way Back

On the way back from Spring Camp to my town down here in southern Morocco, I took the train from northern Morocco to Marrakech. On the train, I once again enjoyed seeing lines of what looked like prickly pear cacti, arranged much as fences would be in the U.S.

I also noted satellite dishes on top of modest dwellings with concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs. Usually when I am in Moroccan homes, which are typically those of poor people, there is a TV. But seeing from the outside so many satellite dishes on top of these simple dwellings, I was reminded of how frequently one finds televisions in Moroccan homes, despite poverty.

I also definitely enjoyed seeing some camels while riding the train. This time I saw only a few of them. Last month, east of the High Atlas mountains, I also saw camels, but more of them than I saw this month.

Once I arrived in Marrakech, I stopped at a cafe to quench my thirst. As I entered the cafe, it felt a bit surreal to note that a flat screen TV was playing a music video, "Learning To Fly," by Tom Petty, in its original English. I had grown a bit more accustomed to this perk by the time the next song, "Satellite," by the Dave Matthews Band, had started playing on the TV.

I was very happy that I got to attend Mass at a church that evening in Marrakech. It was all in French.

I was pleased to run into other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Marrakech. As I was arriving at a hotel there, by chance I happened to rendezvous with other PCVs.

I went with one of my pals, Dipesh, to a big square there in Marrakech, where we had some fresh-squeezed orange juice, for only 4 dirhams (which is equivalent to about 50 U.S. cents) per glass. Then he and I went to a nearby rooftop cafe, where we had a great view of the square. We caught up on how we both have been doing, facing difficulties, adjusting to life in Morocco, coping with family and friends back home being so far away, and dealing with challenges in our work as PCVs.

He told me how my training site mates, Liz, Tory, Katy and Margo, with whom I trained for over two months when I first arrived in Morocco, were staying in a nearby hotel. I enjoyed showing up at that hotel and surprising them. I was especially entertained when one of my training site mates, Tory, upon seeing me, was so surprised to see me, that I felt that he seemed to be reacting as if someone had snapped his or her fingers, causing me to instantaneously appear in front of him. We caught up on each others' experiences at Spring Camp of the previous week, since we did not all serve at the same Spring Camp.

As usual, I took a bus south from Marrakech back through the High Atlas mountains. I was pleased to again see waterfalls flowing in those mountains on my return trip back down south.

When I arrived back in my town, I was rather fatigued from traveling, as well as hungry. Stopping by the hanoot (Darija for "grocery store" or "corner store") which I most frequently patronize, one of the proprietors handed me a glass of tea. He also gave me some peanuts to eat. He continued to attend to his shop as I refreshed myself. When he came back to the counter, seeing that I had stopped eating, he again encouraged me to eat. In his behavior that day, he provided a good example of typical Moroccan hospitality and generosity. Being as tired, thirsty, and hungry as I was, I was happy to receive his warm gestures. Experiencing such generosity, having established a connection with him, I was reminded why I am here, and felt further integrated into the community here. It helps that people have been as welcoming as they are. I appreciate their warmth, generosity and friendliness. And, it feels great when I relate it to you, as it reminds me that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, which I have wanted to be for many years. I'm glad that I'm a PCV.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring Camp 2011

Last week, I was very far north in Morocco for Spring Camp, which ran for most of the week. Moroccan kids have the week off from school, so they go to camps all over Morocco to learn more English and to engage in various extracurricular activities. At this particular camp where I was, most of the kids were in their late teenage years. The vast majority of kids who attended this camp came from the city in which this camp was held, or from the immediately surrounding area.

While it was a camp, it was located in a small city. Taxis run regularly on the street where the camp was held. Grocery stores and cafes are within a block of where the camp was held. So, the camp was held in an urban area.

The camps are run by the Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports. As PCVs we help to conduct activities at the camps. In addition to me, there was another YD (Youth Development) PCV at the camp. He's in his second year of his Peace Corps service. He coordinated PCV activities at the camp. There was also a SBD (Small Business Development) PCV, who's in his second year of Peace Corps service, at the camp. There was also an Environment PCV, who is in her first year of Peace Corps service, at the camp. We all traveled from our own separate respective towns further south in Morocco to work at this camp in northern Morocco.

At Spring Camp, the kids wake up between 7am and 8am. Breakfast is served at the camp a little after 8am. Typically it's tea and coffee, milk, with some bread, perhaps accompanied by butter, apricot jam, olive oil, and cheese.

For about an hour and a half in the morning, the kids attend English class. In my camp, there were three different levels of English classes. The PCV coordinating the camp, who is in his second year of Peace Corps service, assigned me to teach the beginners' class. I found it a little challenging to teach this class because some of these kids knew almost no English, whereas others knew more English. I employed the tactic of teaching the basics while simultaneously throwing in words and phrases closely related to the topic at hand which even the more knowledgeable students would not have been likely to know. For example, one day I was teaching the students how to tell the time in English. While I taught them how to say "7:30," I told them also of the phrase "half past." Similarly, while I was teaching them the phrase "Good morning," I explained to them that sometimes they might hear people just say "Morning" when they mean "Good morning."

After English class, the kids played sports for an hour or so. One day the other PCVs and I played soccer with the kids, which was fun.

In the early afternoon, we PCVs and the kids ate lunch together. For lunch, we often ate salad, followed by a tajine, which is like a Moroccan stew. Usually when we eat tajine here in Morocco, we eat it out of one big communal tajine bowl or very large dish. We rip pieces of bread and use the pieces of bread to dip into the tajine sauce, and to grab vegetables or meat from the communal dish. From time to time, French fries rest on top of meat in a tajine. We use bread to pick fries off the top of the tajine as well.

After lunch, there is a little bit of time, anywhere from a half hour to two hours, to nap. We had more time to nap if lunch started earlier; if lunch started later, then we had less time to nap.

In the middle of the afternoon into the late afternoon, we PCVs ran clubs for the kids. One of the other PCVs ran a club involving leadership and team building activities. Another PCV ran a dance club. I ran an Environment club. So, I taught the kids some basic concepts about the environment, and why it's important to protect the environment. I taught them, and tested them on, basic vocabulary relating to the environment. Then they made posters representing why we should respect the environment. Near the end of club time each day, some of the kids did short presentations in which they explained why we have to take care of the environment.

In the late afternoon, the kids also participated in activities run by some of the Moroccan staff running the camp. For example, one day the kids went on a treasure hunt on the grounds of the camp.

On another day, some guest musicians came to the camp and performed for us. Soon after the musicians started performing, most of the kids got up and started dancing and clapping in time to the music.

After these late afternoon and early evening activities, we, the PCVs and the kids, ate dinner together. For dinner, first we always ate harira, which is a type of Moroccan soup which contains chickpeas, among other things. Sometimes after the harira, we ate Spanish omelettes (keep in mind that this camp was so far north in Morocco, and therefore so close to Spain, that particular aspects of Spanish culture are present in that area). On another night, for dinner after harira, we ate angel hair pasta which was sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Sometimes after dinner, we ate yogurt for dessert.

In addition to these activities I've already mentioned, we PCVs also spent time just sitting and talking with the kids about various topics, including the USA. At one point, I was explaining to some of the kids that not everyone in the USA sounds similar when they speak. Given my appreciation of the various accents people in the USA have when speaking, I was enjoying explaining and describing and demonstrating some of the accents of people in the USA. At another point, I was showing them my passports, and explaining to them places and events in US history. While we were looking at a drawing of Mount Rushmore that's on one of the pages of my passport, I was explaining where in the US it is, and which US presidents are represented there. While we were looking at other pages of my passport, I was explaining to them that July 4 is Independence Day in the USA.

One night after dinner, the other PCVs and I held a trivia contest for the kids. We wrote questions in the categories of US culture and Moroccan culture. We also wrote questions testing them on what they had learned in the English classes we taught them. We additionally wrote questions testing them on what we had taught them during the clubs we held for them.

For example, we asked them, "Which country was the first to recognize the US?" We were surprised that both teams got the question wrong, given that the answer was Morocco. Also, neither team correctly guessed the number of stars on the American flag. However, they both knew that the Mississippi River is the longest river in the USA. We also asked them from which country the current US president's father came; one of the teams knew that he was Kenyan.

The kids were fiercely competitive. I so enjoyed watching the kids at that trivia competition, largely because they were so excited about it. When we announced which team won the contest, the winning team erupted into loud, raucous cheering. I felt bad for the kids who didn't win. They looked so dejected.

The last night of the camp, and the following morning, the kids shed many tears. I too was sad at the impending farewells. Yet I also felt encouraged. As with certain kids in my town down south, I love seeing, teaching and speaking with kids who are motivated to learn and who apply themselves.

But at this camp, I was even more pleased, because of conversations I had with some youths there. This one especially motivated youth, who is perhaps 18 years old, told me that he sees kids who are addicted to hard drugs. He added that he also sees others who aren't. He went on, "I teach them a little English, a little Arabic, a little French. And that makes me feel good." I replied to him, "Yes, it feels good to help others." I continued, saying roughly, "I think that this is part of the meaning of life: to help others." I didn't expect to have a conversation like this at camp, but was so pleased that I did.

I had been looking forward to Spring Camp. I had been expecting to enjoy Spring Camp. I just didn't expect to enjoy Spring Camp as much as I did. I'm looking forward to Summer Camp.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Revisiting old friends, visiting new places

At the end of last week, I started traveling north. Since three weeks had passed since the big storm here in Morocco, thus giving the high elevation snow ample time to melt, I didn't expect the bus ride through the High Atlas mountains to be more spectacular than usual. However, I was thrilled to spot five waterfalls created by snow that was still melting. I also enjoyed the sight of dozens of goats walking toward us on the other side of the road, obediently staying on their side of the road under the skilled care of a shepherd as we continued further north through the mountains.

In Marrakech, I doubted the accuracy of one of those screens outside a bank which claimed that it was 42 degrees Celsius, which would've meant it was 107 degrees Fahrenheit. I continued north and I visited Casablanca for the first time. While there, I slaked my thirst at the bar named Petit Poucet, where Saint-Exupery used to relax between runs delivering mail across the Sahara.

The next morning, I caught a train and headed further north. Later that day, I had much fun visiting old friends in the community where I trained as a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) during my first couple of months in Morocco. When I first saw this one boy, who's a wonderful friend of mine, for the first time again in months, he literally jumped through the air into my arms. I was joyous spending time with my friends there.

The next morning, I continued even further north, since I am up here this week for work activities as a PCV. Yesterday I spotted a cafe high on a hillside and made a mental note to return to check it out. After exploring the older part of the city, known as "the medina," I was exiting the medina on an old brick staircase which led me through the middle of what I thought was another hillside cafe with remarkable views of the Rif mountains. I continued on to the newer part of the city, where I finally ate a meatball sandwich, and walked across the street to eat a delectable eclair and another delicious dessert at a patisserie. I then continued back to my lodging for the night.

Today some other PCVs and I met with some Moroccans to discuss logistics of activities we'll be doing here later this week. Toward the end of the day, I headed back out and came to this hillside cafe, with its amazing views. Once I was sitting here enjoying some fresh squeezed orange juice, I realized that the cafe in which I was, and still am, sitting, is both the one I spotted from below as well as the one through which I walked when exiting the medina. It is very pleasant here. I have been very much enjoying the views of the Rif mountains from this spot.

In the last couple of days, I've also been enjoying seeing a different region of Morocco. Given that this city is so far north in Morocco, many people speak Spanish here. Also, cultural norms are different this far north than they are in southern Morocco where I live. Thus far since I've been here, I've seen couples sitting on benches openly displaying affection towards each other, which would definitely be "hshuma" (considered shameful) in the region in which I live.

Also, there have been women sitting here in this cafe. In my town, as in many small towns in Morocco, you don't see women in cafes. So this is another change which is noticeable as one travels to different parts of Morocco.

So it's interesting to see a new part of Morocco, and see what changes, whether it be cultural norms, or the landscape, or the weather. Right now it is getting noticeably hotter in the town where I live way down in the Sahara Desert. But here in this northern city, it is quite cool, with a constant breeze and the sea air, the Mediterranean Sea being a scant dozen miles away. The environment is most definitely different here. One sees, in the contrast between where I live, areas through which I have passed on this trip, and where I am as I type this post, some of the meteorological diversity of Morocco. In my town where I live, I have considered retreating inside a cafe when winds were blowing a lot of sand and dust at me. Up here, there are most definitely different weather concerns. While it was barely sprinkling on and off in the early afternoon here, by the early evening, it had started raining slightly more, so I migrated inside the cafe, where I still have been enjoying views of the mountains as dusk has been falling.

In addition to admiring and loving the scenery, I was also amused when this young Moroccan woman ran inside here, squealing and waving her arms. She rushed into the bathroom. Once she had emerged, and breathed a sigh of relief, I asked her in Darija, "Kulshi mzyan deba?" which means, "Is everything good now?" She affirmed that all was well. It turned out that she had had a close encounter with an insect.


When a Moroccan sees that you're about to start eating, he or she is likely to say "Bssaha" to you, which is Darija for "To your health." However, Moroccans also say "Bssaha" when you're wearing clothes you've just bought, or when you've just gotten a haircut. So, when I showed up to my Dar Chebab last week after having just given myself a haircut with my electric razor, one of the kids accordingly said to me, "Bssaha!"

One responds by saying, "Lla yEtik ssaha," which is Darija for "May God grant you health, too." As is often the case when I respond with those words, when I answered, "Lla yEtik ssaha," the boy with whom I was conversing smiled.