Tuesday, August 17, 2010

800 Days in Morocco, 100 Things I Will Miss

This blog has never been a guide book. I don't recommend Morocco for everybody, I recommend her for the deserving. I will miss Morocco for an incalculable number of reasons, but the following matter to the blog;

Easy Things to Miss:

Drawn-out greetings

The neglect of personal space

“Magharba” the only way Moroccans say 'Moroccans', and no one else

Fes, the biggest small town in the world

Commercials during Ramadan

Bitching about mild, comparatively pleasant weather

Praising G_d for bad weather

The fact there are no trees around my house that do not bear fruit

Subsistence agriculture, generally, especially amongst those who don’t need it

Buying great organic veggies for no money off the muddy ground in souk

Unloading animals from trucks w/ non-chalance

Carrying things for old ladies

Open, respectful affection among men (kissed lots of cheeks)

Making wordplay jokes in Arabic and Tamazight

Learning how to plant wheat with draft animals

The fact that none of this was a big deal at the time

Saying hello to the room/bus/café/anywhere and getting hello back

The bad-ass history of Berbers in Marmoucha

Living in a 100% Berber town

The worldview of illiterate women

Gaining a new appreciation for women, here and in the West

The “guesting” culture

Never ever ever running out of small talk

The 1985 Mercedes Benz Taxi

Explaining a part of a man’s language to him

Learning from my village, and how they scratch it out

Becoming friends with old men with great stories

Putting Shabekia in my harira

Dakshi li kayn, dayn ag illan; how else could you end a sentence in NAfrica?

My go-to jokes… for when I’m in a tight spot (TWSS)

Being endeared instead of feared for my size and demeanor

“Casa sport, kaysift lqbur, blla passport, qabl lftoor.”

Having full conversations with my hands in Moroccan sign language

A few really cool American people

My water project, and knowing I made people’s lives easier

The knowledge that no matter how bad a day gets, you can just go drink tea



Teaching my village “That is what she said” and having them use it fluently

Goat shoulder and plum at your wedding!

Shiba, na3na3, l3ashoob camliin in your tea without special request

Hanging out at the Ministry of Health and talking shop

Getting respect from the new Volunteers

The Traveling Sink

The fact that I, once again, lived where you vacation

Barreling through the Northern desert on an old French train

Having that train derail and having to walk

Spending nights on the road with friends

Treating Fes like Las Vegas in the winter

Marjane (admittedly)

The fact that I lived on an apple orchard in a desert country

4 full seasons in Marmoucha

Finding a bomb during a toilet survey

Teaching in my schools, and getting good at it

Getting the replacement that I wanted, and being right about him

Good sleep

Facial tattoos, especially those of my host Mother, Fatima

Making fun of Guigou

Unpretentious gastronomy

Never having to worry about where you will eat or sleep, anywhere, ever

Jerry-rigging everything, and making it work

Not having running water, and learning to appreciate the resource

Dispelling or properly ameliorating myths/fairytales/rumors about life and people in Europe and the US

The Barbary Macaque

No cars, anywhere, really

Being held in high regard by the village, and being asked for help in tough situations

Encouraging bright young students who don’t get much encouragement

The looks on faces when they really can’t figure out why you speak Arabic, Berber

Being asked to prove that I am an American National

Watching large groups of grown men completely F simple tasks up

Being assigned simple tasks around the family farm

Doing the books for the apple farm, and learning a bit of the business

Learning something at 9:00, applying it at 9:03

Discussing important, sensitive, world issues and nobody takes it personally

Working with educators

Doing health education


Doing my laundry in the river with the women

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Next New Thing

Living in a remote part of the Middle Atlas in Morocco, I have become accustomed to a certain pace of life. What I expect out of a day, week, or month has been re-calibrated to bled living. Looking back on my life in the United States, I am foxed by my productivity. I could complete a number of tasks simultaneously (Americans even have a name for that), and many in a single day. Work, school, social life, exercise, personal hobbies, and random adventures could fit into a single 24 hour stretch with 7 hours to spare for sleep. Here, one hopes only to achieve a simple goal like grocery shopping, bathing, or holding a meeting with work counterparts. Time allotted to a recognized form of western social interaction like drinking a beer involves a multi-day commitment. A quantifiable performance of professional duties like teaching a class, holding a meeting with local government, or communicating with superiors in the Ministry requires a series of informal meetings, chance encounters, and the development of professional-looking documents stating “Purpose” to satisfy a lumbering post-colonial bureaucracy.

Motivated, educated, idealistic young American Peace Corps Volunteers are well-suited to rise to this challenge, but that doesn’t mean that some of the local “chill-the-fuck-out” attitude doesn’t rub off in the long-run. Successful completion of a day’s goal before lunch often meant I spent the afternoon hiking, watching movies, or drinking tea at my neighbors and watching Arabic-dubbed Mexican soap operas. This pace of life is quite agreeable, especially when your mediocrity is praised by locals as hyper-productivity.

In the last few months I have made some moves. Got into a grad program at the American University in Cairo, secured a fellowship, made the necessary arrangements therein. In May, the group of PCV’s I came to Morocco with left, I stayed due to the fact that I was in the USA convalescing from the broken leg for 4+ months and need to satisfy the 24-month commitment. In the time since they left, I have dealt with the business-end of my year-long potable water security project that has created or improved access for 600+ (and did some other cool stuff), helped organize and fund an environmentally-themed summer camp in a local town, began a sanitation survey for our commune with my replacement, and wrapped up a health education curriculum for the local primary schools.

In the next month I will finishing my service, saying all the necessary goodbyes (including a very tough one), giving away all my stuff, doing medical check-ups, leaving Morocco, going to America for 2 weeks to see a lot of important people, and then going to Cairo to find an apartment and start school and work.

This is a significant acceleration of pace compared to the last 2 years. After a few busy hours and a heavy lunch, I begin to feel the gravitational pull of my couch, cat, computer, and cold coffee. To combat this and order my affairs I started using two modern devices; a calendar, and a clock. I have been giving myself tasks and times by which to compete them. Yield is up, leisure is down. After 2 years of integration, assimilation, capitulation, and relative relaxation I am getting my wind and legs back.

Soon I will have running water, reliable electricity, a home that protects from weather, internet, graduate level-courses to attend, a vehicle to drive, and a bunch of really fancy humans around me getting really stressed out about a bunch of things that aren’t really that big of a deal. I will be tempted to say things like “hey man, be thankful for all this” and be the victim of an aggressive ocular assessment.

Not to say it isn’t overwhelming, but I really am thankful for it. My days are now filled with mandatory duties with direct consequences. My job is to get a bunch of different places that are far away from each other and make the best out of it all. While I am satisfied with what I have accomplished in this country, I have learned much about what I understand as the minimum requirements of happiness. That is, by meeting basic material requirements and building a sturdy scaffold of good people around you, you can be happy. Beyond that, invented and in-bred expectations force people to measure life, grade themselves, and freak out.

Soon I will step off my last sheep truck, get out of my last ‘85 Benz, take my last French colonial train from the sweaty Gare de Fes, take my last Petit Taxi ride, and step onto a 747 again. I couldn’t be coming from a better place. I couldn't have a better mindset. I’m pretty stoked, and really thankful.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Adventures Near the Home and Tamarmoucht

For over 5000 years, North Africa has been inhabited by Berbers, or Amazigh. For at least that long I‘m sure, Berbers have been yelling at each other in a slew of unintelligible guttural sounds and hacks that confuse and frustrate the untrained ear.

For a majority of those working with the Peace Corps Health and Environment Sectors, Berber is the lingua franca of our work. Assigned to mostly rural (and thus predominantly Berber) areas, those who wish to integrate into their communities and perform meaningful work are charged with acquiring working ability in these languages. For many, it is too large of a task. A language with no similarity in sound, usage, or structure to those we are familiar with, Berber is often impossible to learn.

For some reason unknown to me, I have an affinity for the language. After being assigned to an extremely isolated corner of the Middle Atlas mountain range, I discovered that my area had its own distinct language in which pronunciation, verb usage, structure, and nouns were completely different and bore little similarity to the Berber spoken in other parts of the country or even that which is spoken in the greater Middle Atlas region. Tamarmoucht, as locals call it, is an insane mixture of Berber and Arabic with organic and imported elements. Upon my arrival here, I was pretty intimidated by how very different it was to the Berber I learned in training, and how it apparently followed none of the “rules” of more widely spoken dialects.

I cannot estimate how much time I have spent studying the dialect, but during my first six months I know I practiced and studied at least 20 hours/week on vocabulary. I also spent countless hours chipping away at conversations of limited substance with my host family, with whom I stayed for four months.

Well over a year later, I have gained a deep appreciation for the richness of the language, and have more fun speaking it than I ever imagined. I am no longer limited by tongue- and throat-tiring pronunciation and constantly changing verb usage. I can think of 5 ways to say “chop wood” in Tamarmoucht. I was once interviewed on a Berber-language radio show about a cultural festival I was working at. I love speaking Berber.

Like many other things in life, Berber language abilities snowball. Once you learn a little, your desire to learn more increases. The more you desire it the harder you try, and the harder you try the better you get, and the better you get the easier it gets to keep getting better and better and better. Although I personally do not believe it is possible to achieve total fluency in Berber, I think you can become something resembling a fluent speaker. Lately, though I am white with blue eyes and blond hair, look, act and dress “western” or American, people have been asking me where in Morocco I am from. This is an extremely gratifying question to be asked, and one I often indulge by asking people to guess by the way I speak and look. The answers I get are hilarious and fun.

The best thing about speaking Tamarmoucht is open doors. In this region, I feel I can go anywhere and do anything and be taken care of because Berbers just want to sit and hear me talk. To the north of my Commune lies a vast expanse of rough mountains, rivers, forests and high plains. The existing human infrastructure in this region is cursory, and reflects well-worn nomadic routes more than trade connections. Exploring on foot in these areas is insane. With language, I can walk into any far-flung village and be invited into homes, where time has stood still for decades. Most of the families survive on herding and traditional crops, and work from sun-up to sundown. Talking with these people and contributing my services as a health educator for a few hours is one of my favorite things to do in this country.

I am always fascinated by how far I do not have to go from my home to find adventure and feel like I am in cultural outer space. Often there are things happening within one hundred meters of my home that I have no understanding of.

My next near-home adventure is going to be trekking out to the high plains about 20km from my house to meet up with some semi-nomadic herders. These families walk between 100 and 300km seasonally to green pastures in the Middle Atlas region, carrying everything they need on mules and their backs. They build their wool tents on high-altitude plains and next to springs and stay until it is too cold to stay so high. During longer treks, I have run into a few families and been invited into their tents for a meal. They often lobby for me to stay. I never take the invitation because it would be a huge stress on their supplies to feed an extra big mouth. I am planning to take 4-5 days, pack in some food for a family, show up at a tent and stay there, doing whatever chores or duties they assign me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter, Reflections on 2009

We can all reasonably expect the New Year to be “different” from the previous year. For me, I have found myself hoping my year will not be as intense as the year before. I guess it is just me wanting my life to slow down. I can honestly say that I thought 2009 would be that nice, easy year.

A year ago I spent New Year’s at a friend’s house with a small group of people. The next day I made the familiar journey back to my house in Marmoucha where I was beginning the first stage of a water project that continues to this day. I taught some lessons in some rural schools before making a trip down to the Marrakech region to snowboard for my birthday. At Ouakaimedden, I bought a snowboard to bring back to Marmoucha and ride the many peaks around my house. I even got to do a first descent on my birthday. That week and those adventures is documented in an earlier entry titled “3 Close Calls.”

My 4th close call was the real thing. Broke my leg, got medically separated from Peace Corps. At this point, I knew 2009 had no plans to make things easy on me.

In the 4 ½ months away from Morocco I had 2 surgeries on my leg. In the healing time, I went to Colombia and Venezuela. This trip allowed me to live day-to-day, forget about my potentially permanent disability, try to forget about losing Morocco, and prove to myself that I could deal with the lows of life the same way I deal with the highs: by myself. A couple months in Latin America and then I was back in the USA. The best part of breaking my leg, and one of the reasons I have found peace with the event was that I got to hang out with my Grandmother while I was home. When I got healthy, I would have a light surf session in the morning in the freezing New Hampshire waves, and then go hang out with my Grandmother. It was perfect.

After months of struggling with Peace Corps, I finally got to return to Morocco. I picked everything back up and it was like I never left. Work went smoothly and I couldn’t help but think everyday that I had missed out on spring and done irreparable damage to my project’s progress for not being there for so long. The regret will always be there. Even as I write, none of that time spent injured and exploring seems real. I can’t believe that happened.

I unintentionally got into a relationship with an American girl here in Morocco. It is not my style to not be single. In October I took a vacation and met this older woman in Barcelona. There is only one way to describe what happened; I fell in love with her. Then I left her in Barcelona and came home to Morocco. I’m really glad it happened because now I know what that feels like. I will never mistake some other feeling for love. Its like having litmus test in my pocket, I will never fake myself out. Unfortunately, she was getting married so yea that didn’t work out.

Summer passed and November came. I went to Cairo to start planning my next life step, which also doesn’t seem real. When I got back my best friend in Morocco closed her service and went back to the USA. Not fun. Later that month I lost my Grandmother to cancer. Though I knew it was coming, and I had been preparing for her death for a long time, when it happened I felt thousands of miles away. I was.

I felt like I was flopping around like a fish. I didn’t know how to feel about being in Morocco, about my work, about my community, or about my future plans to be away from my family again. I expected someone to kind of swoop in and give me advice, put my head right, remind me of who and where I was. I shouldn’t have expected that. As I mentioned in an early blog, when it comes down to it, you have to pick yourself up and you can’t expect to have people help you out of a rut. I guess, if you’re a fish, you have to flop yourself back into the water. Don’t count on any waves to bring you home.

I thought 2009 was going to be just me in my village working and loving Morocco. I had no plans to leave the country, instead I went to the US, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain and Egypt.

Predictions for 2010:I expect 2010 to be calm and restful. I doubt I will learn anything or be tested. Nobody will die or be born. My passport will not acquire any unplanned markings. My body will stop showing signs of age. If I become romantically involved it will end in a long, successful marriage. The weather man will always be right. I will suffer a gunshot wound. I will step confidently onto the icy ledge of life and pass with impunity. Also I will cure AIDs and unfriendliness and design a universally-accepted peace plan for Afghanistan and be rewarded incongruously.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shameful Blog Negligence

Cairo, 11.20am

I feel awful that I haven't written in so long. Ever since I returned to Morocco I have been using my time to focus my energies locally. I have neglected emails, phone calls, letters, etc.. for no reason other than I really do not feel anything of great interest is happening.

I have been working alot; teaching in the schools and running my Potable Water Security Project. I have been traveling a little bit. I went to Barcelona and had an exceptionally strange emotional experience with a woman. We started a beekeeping cooperative in my village. Now I'm in Cairo at a water management seminar and interviewing for a fellowship. That is all.

I have been learning more Arabic. I can even speak to Egyptians. It is fun and frustrating to go back to feeling like a 6-year-old with language. I remember feeling it when I first got to Morocco and moved into my village. I like this helpless feeling and I also like the rush of excitement when you accomplish something trivial like talking about last night's match.

My leg is better. Everytime I meet a foreigner in Morocco I introduce myself and they inevitably say "Oh you are that guy who...blah blah." This is one way for people to pretend they know me, when they actually just know one weird version of the leg-break story.

Egypt is cool I guess. I came here to figure out if I can live here and be happy, and also to interview for this thing. The University is funny. It is like a fashion show. Thousands of Egypt and the Middle-East's stratospherically-wealthy youth walking around with Lattes and big sunglasses. That part of it makes me want to run away. The fellowship is cool, though. I would be doing similar work to what I do now, but on the research and academic end while gaining my Master's. Sounds Ok.

I had a girlfriend, kind of. I mention that because it has been a really long time since I last "dated" anyone. Anyways that is done.

Morocco is wonderful. One of my best friends, Briana, is leaving and it is a heart-breaker. She is one-in-a-million and she will be missed. Other than that everything in the Kingdom is good. My dog, Maybe, is huge and beautiful. Whitey is healthy and happy. Winter is coming on easy this year. In the spring my parents may come.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Big Call

This past week I had surgery to remove the screw that was holding my leg together. My first unassisted steps since the accident were quite painful, and my leg looks like it belongs on Benjamin Button, but I can walk. With my recovery on track, I have the opportunity to return to Morocco to continue my Peace Corps service.

Good news, right?

Since I broke my leg I have been forced to re-evaluate alot of things in my life. I will not go into all of my conclusions here, but the important ones follow:

-It sounds cheezy but, life doesn't come with a map (but alot of people will try to sell you theirs)
-I will not always come out of things unharmed
-"You're not alone" is BS. When it comes down to it, you absolutely are (but it can be nice to hear)
-Self-determination is the key to my happiness

When I found out I wouldn't be going back to Morocco for a few months, I thought to myself "that doesn't change anything, I'll finish what I started." In fact, I have kept a scrap of paper in my pocket this whole time which has a note that I wrote myself on the plane with reasons why I must return.

But alot can happen in 3+ months. I went to South America, I re-thought some things, I put in some applications for grad and law school, and I found photography.

Peace Corps service is really difficult. You have to learn a couple new languages, a culture, start a new life, make new friends, self-direct work and execute in tough circumstances, integrate and gain acceptance into a skeptical community, just for starters. Being away this long the mind naturally wanders on to the next adventure, and trying to get it back on track to Morocco has proven difficult.

Then I pull that note out of my pocket.

Why I must return
-The kids (the center of my work, and most of my days)
-Larry & Whitey (my dog & cat)
-Ait Hamza (the village where two very awesome friends live)
-Bou Iblane (the mountain)
-Tamarmoucht (the local language)

I look at this list and I compare it to a list of other things I could be doing, and I realize that the things I love about Morocco will not wait. Law school, a photographic odyssey through Pakistan, all those other things will.

I have made my decision.