Sunday, December 23, 2007

Culture Shock? Not in Beirut, but…

Forgive the delay. Motivation = gone.

I am back in the US, and for all the talk from Peace Corps about “reverse culture shock,” etc. etc., I somehow thought I’d be immune. Hey, I’ve come back from months in developing countries before, and even visited home a couple of times during Peace Corps. Of course I knew that things like shopping (especially this time of year!) would be awful – stuff stuff stuff (now, I like my stuff as much as the next person, and am certainly grateful to have access to some of it again, but really, how much of this does anyone actually need!? And I can't even identify what some of these things are!). I am happy to be with my family again, but otherwise (still unemployed and apparently will be for the foreseeable future) within a week I was going stir crazy. Enough student loans to pay for a small HOUSE aren’t good for my psychological state either…

How can I be so tired of traveling and yet want to do something already?

I visited Beirut for a week on my way home from Morocco. Honestly, hitting a few nice(er) restaurants, shops (not that I had money to spend), an amazing museum, and even a jazz club made for quite a nice culture fix. I was flattered when people in the street spoke in Arabic to me (and shocked to understand a word or two since it is a very different language from anything I picked up in Morocco), but French and English were everywhere. Yes, there was a strong military presence – soldiers everywhere and a tank every couple of blocks – and plenty of remaining bombed out buildings not too far from quite a bit of redevelopment, but (and perhaps this was the neighborhood where I was staying – near the American University of Beirut and the Hamra shopping district) I often felt like I might as well have been in New York! After seeing King Mohammed VI’s portrait all over Morocco (to the right, in Al Hoceima), looming billboards of Rafik Hariri (Lebanon’s Prime Minister who was assassinated in 2005) seemed perhaps morbid to me, but not otherwise unusual. A friend showed me the site of the blast that killed Hariri – a large hotel on the Mediterranean coast – which remained a shell of a building. Politically, Lebanon remains unstable – enough so that some of my Moroccan friends asked me to reconsider my travel plans. I had hoped that a new President would be elected during my visit, but the December 7 deadline came and went. I left two days before the assassination of General Francois al-Hajj.

A variety of religions represented in downtown Beirut.

That said, I wish I had stayed longer, and seen a bit more. Due to an unfortunate bit of miscommunication with my would-be host, I didn’t plug into my own agenda until later in the week, thus missing the ruins of Baalbek, which I had very much wanted to see. Other out-of-town sights weren’t necessarily at their safest, but I still made several nice day trips. One afternoon I visited the stunning Jeita Grotto (sadly, no photos allowed), where my claustrophobia was not at all an issue. Even though it seems set up for tourist traffic to the point of potentially being a bit cheesy, it was nearly empty during my visit, and admittedly one of the more beautiful natural spots I’ve seen in my life.

I spent a day in the town of Byblos, with several hours trying to figure out all of the archeological layers and history in its seaside ruins. Indeed, there, Beirut, and even looking at the artifacts in the National and university museums, I simply had a hard time wrapping my head around the millennia of history literally at my feet.


Apart from a couple of other short trips north of the city, and viewing part of the legendary cedar forest, I also traveled into the Chouf Mountains – traditionally a Druze stronghold. There, I visited the Ottoman’s Beiteddine Palace (built by Italian architects in an Arabic style...):

I have to say that, on the whole, one of the best parts of this trip has been my opportunity to learn a bit more than my spotty BBC signal and out-of-date Newsweeks (not my publication of choice, but it’s what I got my hands on most regularly in Morocco, courtesy of Peace Corps) had previously afforded me. I’m hardly an expert on the Middle East, and found the unique religious and cultural complexities of this country to be especially compelling.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Saying Goodbye

A couple of weeks ago, the new volunteer who will replace me came to visit Assoul. What a wonder it was to see it again through her eyes. And it made me that much happier that I could see all this through, in spite of all the things I wish I could have accomplished but did not…

This has been a hard week for me, both logistically and emotionally. I thought I had my packing all planned out. But by midweek, I’d dispensed with my entire “MAYBE” pile, and was starting to give away things like hiking boots, a (nice) backpack, small electronics… After this lifestyle, one would think I’d not be quite so attached to stuff anymore. Mina grew increasingly frustrated that it was taking me so long to finish getting organized and emptying out my house (hamdullah my replacement is not letting my greedy landlord benefit from any more Peace Corps rent!). “If it’s old, then don’t take it,” she told me. If only it were that simple. There are souvenirs and gifts, and of course I need to not be naked for the next two weeks (or quite so cold, for that matter). Of course being the packrat that I am, I am very impressed to see my Moroccan friends happily take and make use of stuff that most folks I know (but not me!) would throw away: shredded mosquito netting that I had used to keep flies out during the summer, all varieties of packing material that came from my numerous and very welcome care packages, (bubble wrap was an especially big hit), and plastic bags, both cheap Moroccan mikas and leftover (some used) Ziplock bags from home. Mina’s excellent Ziplock advertisement: picture a Berber woman standing by the window of her mud house, holding up a Ziplock and exclaiming in Tamazight, “You close it, and it stays closed!”

And, of course, I much preferred to be spending time with friends in Assoul than rummaging through my junk collection. There were far more tears in the end than I expected. It turns out that, for all my ups and downs here, saying goodbye to Assoul was just as tough as saying goodbye to my family 27 months ago. Will I come back? Insh’allah.

But my travels aren’t quite over yet…

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Slipping Away...

My third and final Ramadan in Morocco is now over. Yes, all the sugar and fat in the food still tears up my insides, and I am glad to be done with that on a daily basis. But, I am also a little sad. As with Eid al Kbir, earlier last winter, this time it felt like a “real” holiday to me – a time not to observe and learn about local customs, but rather a time to spend with the friends and family that I’ve come to know in Assoul, to live those customs. And this is my last one…

This year’s Eid al Fitr (the day celebrating the end of Ramadan) last Saturday was a fun one. I’ve always thought this may be my favorite Moroccan holiday. First thing in the morning, everyone wakes up and shares a big bowl of mhamza (a sort of thick pasta soup with melted butter drizzled over it – traditional on all holiday mornings). Then, the children and some women walk from house to house passing along holiday greetings (“mbruk la-eid”), drinking copious amounts of tea and eating cookies (and sometimes more mhamza). It’s sort of like a cross-between Christmas and Halloween (some people just take the cookies, which they call hlwa, meaning “candy,” and go), if you can imagine that. This year, I chose to spend it with a few of the families with whom I am closest (beginning the day with an early morning phone call – everyone loves having cell phone service here now! – from my artisan Mina, saying “addud, atftr dghi!” – “Come eat breakfast now!”). After Mina’s, I spent some time with my host family watching a movie, In Berber (! …this is rare…) that was one of the most melodramatic things I’ve ever seen, and then went to my friend Najat’s house where I listened to her and her sisters/friends have one of the most hashuma conversations I have ever heard from a group of Moroccan women, especially in Assoul! (You can e-mail me if you want details on that one!)

October is one of those rare months when it actually rains in my village, so I came home and halfway napped through one afternoon storm, and then returned to Mina’s for some holiday henna. Remember the beautiful henna I got in Ait Hamza? Well, “traditional Assoul henna,” as they call it, isn’t quite the same, as there tend to be no syringes involved here, except among the fancy people. In fact, the last time I let someone in Assoul do it to me, one of my friends told me I looked like a leper. This time, it looks more like cat paws, which I guess is a step up ☺ Since my hands weren’t free to pass the time reading while the henna dried and stained my hands, I watched the news, which was showing the king fulfilling his ceremonial role for the day, as various officials and dignitaries greeted him by either shaking or kissing his hand. It made me think about how awkward I still feel when hand kissing is the greeting of choice with some of the older women around town (it’s not the kissing itself that’s a problem – I lived several years with the kissy-face New York greetings – but rather the timing that I can’t quite figure out!). Even on this holiday, not long after I fumbled through such a greeting, I heard a young boy say in Tamazight to one of my friends (if there’s one lesson I’ve learned here, it’s that you should never assume that someone doesn’t understand you), “Foreigners don’t know the culture.” Part of me wondered what I did wrong, if I had in fact done something specific to provoke the comment. But part of me was impressed with such a thoughtful observation coming from a kid – after all, part of the reason we’re here is to help people understand and accept differences in others…

With about a month and a half left here in Morocco, October has not been the month for me to simply hang out in my village, preparing both logistically and emotionally to leave. Instead, it has been a time for a lot of travel and busywork (let’s not forget that Peace Corps is a U.S. Government agency!). The new volunteer trainees – one of whom will eventually replace me, inshallah – arrived in Morocco a month ago. I’m now in the middle of my second trip down to their training site to work with them on everything from gender roles in development and sexual harassment to organizational management and adult learning patterns. I’ve spent a lot of time observing this group during training sessions, and chatting with them during meals, and all I can think is, “Wow, has it really been two years already?” I remember how new and scary everything seemed when I was in their shoes, and am grateful that those feelings have passed. Having seen so many of my friends and fellow volunteers leave early – some of whom really needed to do so, and some of whom were not yet ready to go – I am grateful that I am still here. There are so many things that I wouldn’t have known had I not stuck it out. Yes, the novelty has worn off, but then so has the jaded feeling that then follows. There were times when I thought I had it all figured out, and now I realize that time will never come, and I’m sad about that too. But the difference now is that, no matter how much I truly miss about home, it’s nice to look back at the beginning and realize just how comfortable I am here now. I laugh because my artisans keep telling me, “Don’t go. Add another year. The new person won’t be like you, and we’re used to you now!” Of course they’ll eventually get used to her too, and vice versa, but that is a process that, in my opinion, goes a lot deeper than some of the cultural integration tools that Peace Corps tries to instill in us during training. So much of this is about the adaptation that sneaks up on you, not all the effort you have to make towards that end when you first arrive… Just being here no longer feels like work.

A final thought – on a trip down to Ouarzazate, a man in one of my shared taxis turned to me and said, “You know, the Arabs have been here over a thousand years, and they don’t know Berber, but here you’ve been here two years and you do!“ Then he shook my hand. Berber nationalism lives on. I’m gonna miss that too…

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Shebekia may be the best thing ever. And it is everywhere during Ramadan (the month of fasting, which began this week). Yummy, nutty dough rolled out and cut and knotted, then deep-fried and dipped in honey. I’ve gotten fat off of this stuff in previous years, and this year I finally learned how to make it!

These are some of my cooperative members - Mina, Aicha, Fatima, Mina, and Mina (another Fatima didn't make it into the frame of any of these, but also worked hard!) - in action:

Sunday, August 26, 2007


I’ve been in the northern town of Larache for a couple of days now. The kind folks at my hotel tried to dump a bunch of English-language books on me, saying they didn’t remember the last time they had an English-speaking guest (among tourists, mainly Spanish and some French). Alas, my bag is heavy, and I still have another week in Rabat to go before I return to Assoul, so I only took one, swapping it for a novel I just completed. Besides, now that I only have 3 months left in Morocco, I really need to do my best to stifle my book hoarding tendencies… Time is short, and if I start feeling obliged to read everything I still have on-hand (which doesn’t appear to be possible at this point), I won’t get around to some other things I really need to be taking care of as well right now! And I know I am just impractical enough to want to try to carry home every unread book I have accumulated in this country, on top of all my other possessions (that said, I hardly own an article of clothing here that isn’t stained and/or in shreds, so it’s not like much of that will be coming back to the States with me!).

Still, a little reading material (and a stack of DVDs) certainly doesn’t hurt here in Larache. I realized after planning my vacation, but too late to want to bother with changing my itinerary with the Peace Corps Morocco powers that be, that there isn’t really all that much going on here. Even the “real beach” is 14k out of town (I have no desire to go play with Moroccan boys on the rocks here in town), and after having a pretty good dose of that earlier this month both in Asilah and Essaouira, I just can’t seem to motivate for that haul. Besides, I have yet to find a beach in the world that I enjoy so much as my Outer Banks back in North Carolina! It’s never the same here.

I did, however, walk (I am tired of public transportation, and miss all the walking I do back in Assoul!) north to the Roman ruins of Lixus – the main curiosity that led me to put Larache on my itinerary at all. These were very run-down, yet fascinating in their contrast to Volubilis, outside of Meknes. Guided by the groundskeeper, I walked through some parts directly beside the busy Tangier highway, before heading to the top of a windy hill overlooking the Loukkos Estuary. We ran across three Moroccan tourists picnicking at the top, but the place was basically silent, which I loved! I could have guessed the spot but would never have seen the only remaining mosaic had it not been for the caretaker, who carefully pushed away some rocks and dirt before pulling back a small piece of plastic to reveal a portion of tiles depicting the god Neptune. While part of me thinks it is a shame to see these pieces of history deteriorate, the postmodernist in me also appreciates the beauty in nature’s winning the battle with the relics of humanity. It certainly does not diminish the history itself.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Asilah and Tangier

Well, I’m on vacation. Again Seems like I do a lot of that here, but then it’s been a pretty slow summer back at the ranch.

So I spent the first few days of my last Moroccan vacation (for now, I should say) in the northern coastal town of Asilah. Like Essaouira, Asilah abounds with Portuguese influence, although as a vacation spot, unlike Essouaira, it remains dominated by Moroccans. Still, my stay there involved reasonably peaceful days, punctuated by some gorgeous seaside strolls (sans camera, I’m afraid, in an attempt to lighten my load), a little sunbathing, and exploring what may be the most sterile medina I have ever entered (I have to agree with my guidebook on this point). Interestingly, stroll is about all I do (and sometimes eat, of course – shrimp yum!). While I have been known to make the occasional impulse buy during my almost 2-year stay in this country (September 13 marks the anniversary), I have yet to go on a major souvenir/gift-buying binge! My apologies, in advance, to friends and family, just in case the shopping bug permanently fails to bite!

Wednesday, I headed up to Tangier. Perhaps to seek a little literary inspiration, given my failure to write (1) blog updates, (2) grad school statements of purpose, (3) any epic e-mails (although surely the usual recipients of those are probably enjoying the respite!), or (4) anything otherwise thoughtful or interesting.

I’d been to Tangier once before – a brief overnight stay on my way to Spain via ferry. Suffice it to say that under those circumstances, the city didn’t do much for me. This time, however, I booked a slightly pricier (or perhaps I should say, “less cheap”) pension outside of the medina. A breezy, polite little place that is making things all the more comfortable. So I could go walk around the city’s not-quite-as-sterile medina, and then return to some relative peace and quiet. Not to mention there are actually museums and fancy restaurants here!

View from Terrasse des Paresseux in Tangier.

My weird cemetary thing: I had company at St. Andrew's Church.

Perhaps, literary inspiration permitting, more updates will follow, as I have a few more days of leisure travel before heading to Rabat for a meeting next week. (Meetings or not, Rabat is always a welcome break for me!). Normal travel stresses notwithstanding (I’ll leave griping about those for another day as well), I have very much enjoyed the change of scenery. This part of the country always feels so much more developed than my home in Errachidia…

Random thought for the week: I miss rain. A good, solid rain. Every time I watch a movie or TV show with a good rainstorm, I feel so nostalgic. It’s not that it never rains here, or that it isn’t sometimes horribly inconvenient and dirty when it does, but it’s a rare enough event that, as I grow more and more anxious about returning to the States, it is one of those little things that I realize that I never realized I would miss the way I do!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Ramparts, as seen from my lovely hotel view... That's the island of Mogador in the distance.

Me chillin' on the beach in low light, so you cannot notice the awful shade of red I have become...

Treats at a nearby supermarket (that would be a rabbit, for those who don't read French, and that would be its guts seeping out, for anyone wondering what that blob is that's barely visible above the label)...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reach Out and Beep Someone

So, my village finally has mobile phone service! It is as though, after nearly 2 years, I am almost living in the real world! People are nuts over it too. Everywhere you go, folks are experimenting with ringtones, consulting the local American "experts" on how their phones work (if only they knew...), and "Berber beeping" like crazy -- a practice that, to the best of most of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers' understanding, is simply meant to remind you that your friend So-and-So exists when So-and-So calls you, lets the phone ring once, and then hangs up. But sometimes it can also mean that So-and-So actually wants to talk but would rather you pay for the call. It is hard to tell which is which. So, now that my phone works all the time, I have, ironically, taken to leaving it on silent mode far more frequently!

Outside of that, most of my technology has been down the tubes for the last month. Apart from not having electricity for two weeks in July (see below), my computer crashed once and for all (but a new one is on the way thanks to a friend who just visited the States...!).

In any event, I have escaped all that (and I should have done so about a month earlier, it would seem) with a lovely, albeit brief sojourn in the beach town of Essaouira. Details and/or pix to follow (probably pix - the summer lethargy and laziness are sure to set back in the second I get home...!)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Forever Young

I am officially hooked on the Facebook. Gotta keep up with the young'ns these days...

Meantime, I had a little meat and fried food fest last week in celebration of the 4th. The expansion of my culinary repertoire here constantly amazes me, especially with somewhat limited resources. Although I can now do without meat or fried food for another year...

Other fun news: my digestive critters are back. Fortunately, I have confirmed that is not connected (directly, at least) to the meat and fried food. None of my guests -- at least the ones I have run into since Wednesday -- have accused me of poisoning them!

Unfortunately, my landlord is convinced that I possess the secret means of turning the electricity back on in my house, which I don't. We quickly reached an impasse. So, the hottest week of the year (so far) and there has been no juice since last Tuesday. At one point, I was lying in bed convinced I would get brain damage from my 103+ degree fever (damn s%#t critters), unable to turn on my precious fan!

Ahhh... time for another vacation! I was planning my last few "to-do's" in Morocco (Essaouira and Toubkal), but now thinking a short European escape wouldn't be the worst thing!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Just as fun as it looks... (?)

As promised...

This is me doing a really crappy job of harvesting alfalfa while Mina learns to use my camera!

Mina shows me how it's really done.

Me trying to prove you can look cute and pretend to work.

Mina actually working (this is hardly the worst of the loads that I wrote about last time!).

Monday, June 11, 2007

It's summer again...

It’s summer again. Don’t get me wrong – any of you who know me well will believe me when I say that I’ll take this any day over being cold. However, there are a few things I don’t like so much about summertime here:

1. Bugs. Flies everywhere. Only a few manage to breach my house on any given day (although that’s enough to drive me nuts), but most everyone else doesn’t cover their windows or even close their doors. In spite of the livestock (and livestock leftovers) right outside! And it is considered dirty to kill them, so a little lackadaisical shooing away from the food is the best one can hope for. Then, even in my house, all those little things that eat you alive have no problem infiltrating my faux curtains (shredded mosquito net). So I go to bed feeling all creepy-crawly. Itch itch itch. And then there are the larger ones that just somehow manage to go wherever they please… And there are also these little armored brown things that seem like flies but are actually some sort of evil alien creature that bite the crap out of you and then REFUSE to die even after being pounded and squished multiple times. Unfortunately, they seem to really enjoy the odor of human sweat.

2. Scorpions. Technically could be categorized as “Bugs”, but I believe they merit a special mention.

3. Mushy body. Who can possibly exercise for long in this? Plus, just sitting all day can put me in a really wicked mood. (Upshot: who feels like eating?! Also, less sweat means fewer alien flies attacking me.)

4. No more sun tan. (Upshot: a 3-month detour from my road to basal cell carcinoma). I pretty much bake on my roof all winter in an effort to stay warm. Now, the sun is my enemy, even if it means sacrificing fresh air too.

5. Transportation. It’s crowded, and people here refuse to let you open the windows. Because the wind will make you sick (that damn fresh air again). Why this rule doesn’t apply to houses and flies I do not know…

6. Napping. I’ve just never been good at it unless I am violently ill, so I can’t quite manage to join in on the fun. But it’s hard to feel like a productive volunteer when everyone else is asleep all afternoon (even the few women who still go to our co-op can often be found passed out on the floor there!).

7. Stinky garbage (see also, Bugs). The dumpsters in Rich have disappeared one by one (and it goes without saying that we have no garbage collection in my village, in spite of some noble efforts on the part of my first sitemate – I’m on my third one of those now, by the way, and that’s not counting the 2 who’ve also passed through the village right down the road!), so now I have to get rid of everything but glass (often of the hashuma variety that I don’t want anyone in my village to know that I possess) a little closer to home. But there are days I just can’t cart it out into the desert fast enough! (Not to worry – everything I dispose of here is biodegradable, and there are occasional rooftop fires to speed that along as well!). My kitchen is permanently foul. (The clogged sink doesn’t help either).

8. Stomach crud. I’ve been luckier than a lot of volunteers on this front, but still… I don’t have a refrigerator. After no electricity last summer, I didn’t feel like investing in one now for such a short time (and a cheap used one recently slipped through my fingers). I’m having to readjust my produce storage habits – eat more beans and fewer veggies, etc. etc... And I got a good reminder this week that I need to stop buying more than 2 eggs at a time, and use nothing but powdered milk till September (besides, that European boxed stuff is weird anyhow). It’s just that it’s so hard to throw out GRANOLA, even if it is covered in lumps, so you just do your best to pick off the “milk”… (I’d do it again in a heartbeat)!

9. Local diagnosis of stomach crud: “Najia, have you been drinking warm water again?”

For a few weeks there, our village fields were incredibly lush – much more so than last year, as our water situation has improved a little bit. I periodically accompany some women into the fields around dusk, after things have cooled off – sometimes to harvest, and sometimes just to hang out. And the sights and sounds really are lovely right now, which is good since every time I have ever followed a woman here somewhere, especially through the fields, we seem to take the least direct route possible. I can forgive these detours though, because the fields (each of which is about the size of my smallest New York studio apartment) all kind of look alike to me, and I have come to realize that sometimes the woman I am following is just as lost as I am! How they know whose is whose remains a mystery to me, although I am getting better at recognizing one or two patches.

After all this time here though, I still am simultaneously amazed and disgusted by the loads I see women carrying back from the fields… These are the same loads that the donkeys carry, and donkeys – as cute as I still find them to be – are pretty much considered lowest of the low among beasts here. I’ve even had to stop and help women on the side of the road who’ve sat down for a rest and can’t stand back up again. It is utterly demeaning. When I am out for a stroll (the running has pretty much stopped for now, see #3 above) the women applaud my attempts at exercising in the hot sun, but then invite me to get some real exercise by carrying packs like theirs. I smile but refuse. I told one woman heading back into town that it was horrible for one’s back, pointing out how stooped over she was. Not missing a beat, she promptly explained that if she stood up straight, she’d fall over (that silly American girl just doesn’t understand the laws of physics!), and began to demonstrate. That’s one of those moments here where you think you’re having the same conversation with someone, but then not really… I’ve tried to find an opportunity to photograph this for you (and honestly, I think I know a few women who wouldn’t mind if they knew it was to show people in America how hard they worked), but I just feel uncomfortable whipping out my camera and overtly focusing on someone who, in my mind, is in such a humiliating posture. I may still find a willing model…

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Couch Potato

I just put our cooperative president, Mina, on a bus for her first solo mission to a craft fair down in Zagora. I feel like a parent sending her child off to college for the first time (too bad I couldn't join her... for once lazy me wouldn't have minded the travel!)! Worry worry... But the ladies are doing all right these days - working together a lot of afternoons, and even baking to earn a little extra money (no, that's not some strange Berber bread, it's wool being dyed red for our traditional tamindilts, or bread wraps):

How is it possible that I am loving Assoul more than ever, but at the same time, feeling pangs of homesickness? The more I have to start planning for (well, thinking about planning for) Life After Peace Corps, the harder it is not to sit around imagining myself doing “normal person” things – reading quietly in a café (without being leered at by Moroccan men) while I nurse a hazelnut-amaretto latte, going to museums, going on a real (gasp) date, sipping wine nice mellow lounge (hashuma!), wearing sleeveless clothes (or anything showing much skin for that matter (I’ve suddenly realized that now I pretty much always have my head covered when I am in my village, although that’s more because the awesome haircut I got when I went home in March didn’t grow out so nicely, plus I don’t have to wash it so much when it’s covered…), and FOOD FOOD FOOD. (I can’t complain about the latter though – I’ve done all right with all the fresh produce I can get either in Assoul or Rich, and Mom keeps me hooked up with the Rocher chocolates, granola, and energy bars in-between my Big City trips!).

[Oh, point of clarification: “Life After Peace Corps” may not necessarily include “normal person things” either, so I guess I ought to keep my daydreaming under control… ]

All of this has been made worse by the arrival of electricity in Assoul. As I have mentioned in the past, there is nothing like a DVD for true escapism (even with a book, it’s hard to ignore the Berber music that is usually blaring from my downstairs neighbors – a couple of Arabic-only speaking guys who are residing here temporarily to work on road crews, one of whom has already proposed to me). So on my “bad volunteer” (e.g. recluse) days, of course there are the movies… and I’ve done an okay job keeping up with new(er) releases and amassing a collection of my all-time favorites. But then so much of my movie viewing is historical, political, or in some other way “good for me” (recent recommendations include “Bobby,” “Blood Diamond,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “An Inconvenient Truth," “Thank You for Smoking” – well, that one’s more pure entertainment! – and “Paradise Now,” which, happily, I found I was able to manage just fine with French subtitles, after making multiple unsuccessful attempts to find it with English!). But the real beauty is in watching American TV shows. Everything I have either tried to stay caught up on or gotten hooked on while here:

- “Lost” (weekly downloads keep me at the cyber café far longer than I care to be, but this is the most important one of all!)
- “West Wing” final season (finally – I brought this back from my last trip home)
- “24” (I began at the beginning, and am currently halfway through Season 3)
- “Nip/Tuck” (although by the end of Season 2 of that one, the number of times I have caught myself yelling “eeeeewwwww” out loud has reached a point where I am reassessing how much further I may continue…)
- "Weeds"
- “Alias” final season (ok, a little embarrassing, but who doesn’t like to watch skinny girls kick ass, even if they are pregnant-skinny!)
- “Sex and the City” and “Friends” smattered here and there, now in circulation courtesy of one of my favorite departing volunteers. (“Sex and the City” is so much better sans the TBS edit!)
a season each of “The Simpsons” and “South Park” (reliving the good old days, thanks to my first sitemate)
- …and waiting in the wings, “Grey’s Anatomy,“ “Dexter,” and a few discs of “Futurama” (unsolicited gift)

You get the idea… This is hardly a rough life I am leading, and I feel like a real loser to boot! And I am still not half as bad as a lot of my fellow volunteers! My friend Laura says the appeal here is that you can watch an entire season of something in one sitting. I have yet to do that though. For me, the beauty is that watching TV from home feels, well, so much like watching TV at home. And where the old favorites are concerned, it’s even a little like hanging out with old friends… (pathetic, I know…). And I (sometimes) watch my favorite characters doing things that remind me of the time when I… (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which shows have more bearing on my pre-Peace Corps reality…)

Ironically, now that we have electricity, even my “good volunteer” days also involve a lot more television. I walk around town, and hear the same f***ing shows coming out of everyone’s windows! When I hang out with my artisans, all they talk about is their favorite cooking show (at least the recipes are more interesting, even if I have yet to notice any change in what I eat at their houses!). Usually, I can still tell when they’re gossiping about a TV show they saw as opposed to someone in town (but, my language skills being what they are, not always!), and some of the women in our cooperative have even been complaining about others not pulling their weight because they’re watching too much TV!

People here are incredulous that I haven’t purchased a television. But why would I need one? My exposure was minimal when I first came to Assoul – mainly the evening news or American TV shows dubbed (badly) in French on those rare nights when the town generator was running. Sometimes I would see Al Jazeera (which rocks BTW) at one of the cafés I frequent in Rich, when I’m not being subjected to black-and-white videos of Oum Koulthoum (OMG, either there's no Wikipedia link for her - I can't believe that! - or I really can't spell her name!). I’ve only seen the English version (of Al Jazeera, not Oum Koulthoum) once, for a few minutes, but even in Arabic, it’s a breath of fresh air. Contrary to what the American media would have us think, I’ve actually sat through hours of nature programming, historical documentaries, and the like (of course last year there was quite a bit of the Saddam trial, which I desperately wished I could have understood). Last week, I saw a show that had something to do with astronomy. I was watching it at Mina’s house though, and she doesn’t know Classical Arabic. I asked if she understood what it was about, and she started gesturing about things spinning in the sky – impressive enough given her limited education! But I couldn’t remember the word for planet, so when I asked her, I was reminded once again of how limited the Tamazight language is. Takurt. Which also means “ball.” Of course.

I did see one afternoon show in Tamazight. If only there were more – then I might actually have bought a TV so that I could learn something. But I am impressed by my recognition of at least some basic Arabic vocabulary on other shows (not that I can understand anything of substance) – and Mina giggles when I start yelling out what I understood.

My friend Najat and her family have satellite TV. Just like at home, I find that to be a bit overwhelming. And just like Americans, their channel-surfing makes my head spin. One day at lunch, Najat’s sister Fatima had gotten hooked on some Bollywood flick (not understanding the language does little to inhibit TV viewing here – one day I listened to Najat go on for 20 minutes about a movie she’d watched, and only when she got to the part about someone throwing a ring in a volcano did I have any clue what she was talking about!). Fatima left the room, and Najat grabbed the remote and started surfing. Right to Dr. Phil (with Arabic subtitles). [Wretch]. With her satellite TV, Najat keeps up with all the current stuff – better than I do, it would appear! I’d been looking forward to getting into “Grey’s Anatomy” (see above), so I brought some DVDs back from home. No hurry now – Najat gave me the lowdown on who’s sleeping with whom already… And it turns out she’s an “Alias” fan, so I’ve started bringing over my DVDs from the final season for her to watch. Only problem is that I bought those in the US, and the best I can do is Spanish subtitles for her. So she watches that quietly on my computer (Moroccan VCD players won’t play American DVDs) while her sisters watch Spanish soap operas dubbed in Arabic at full volume. In the same room! But here’s the best part: their favorite show is “Lost”!

But, in the spirit of enjoying any and all forms of passive visual entertainment, Najat also asked me to bring over my informational CD-ROM about the new Moroccan family code, which I’ve been showing to some women around town, so I guess I am being a good volunteer after all… [By the way, I learned during this that the going rate on a dowry in Assoul is about 500 Moroccan dirham (roughly $60). Can’t believe I hadn’t picked that up before now!]

Anyway, just so you don’t think I am a total couch potato, here are some photos from one of my more recent strolls through the desert just south of town:

Scary caterpillar (been hoping to get one of these for a while, but I never seem to have my camera when I run across one of them):

You probably can’t tell how big this is from the photo, but I am guessing it’s a camel part (the nomads around here do come through with camels from time to time, not just herds of goats and sheep… and none of the above ever get old for me, be it watching a small camel caravan cross the road, or literally getting caught up in the middle of a herd of goats while I am out running!):

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dead Turkey

I know I have been off the radar for a bit. Some of that is sheer laziness, but there has also been a lot going on. I spent a little time at home in the States - a little reverse culture shock this time, but quickly settled back into many of the comforts (plus I discovered that I can run like the wind back at home now that I have been "training" - and I do use that word loosely - at higher altitude!).

Happy retirement Dad!

I returned to Morocco just in time to have to say goodbye to another sitemate. At least we finally ate that damn turkey not long before he left. Kebab style.

Can you spot the anorexic turkey?

So this past week, I have been taking my "re-integration" into Assoul slowly, although I realize that I am at a pretty good place in my life here if - even after feeling like I really broke my groove with a trip to the States - getting out and about town again, for the most part, does seem to lift my mood a bit. (Yoga, reading, and DVD escapism get me the rest of the way, more or less…)

I brought back some seashells to share with friends in Assoul. This isn't something they've seen a lot of, and there isn't even really a word for it in Tamazight, so they're called imzyan n islman (literally, "fish ears"). It took a while to explain to my friend Mina (who went to the beach with me last summer) that they weren't actually fish ears, but that the fish live inside (we didn't even get into the fact that these fish don't look anything like sardines -- the only fish that ever make it to Assoul!).

And this weekend, I finally made it down to the desert dunes of Merzouga (most of the desert around me is rocky, but this is what you might imagine the Moroccan desert to look like!). I rode a camel (a first), slept under the stars, and had various adventures that cannot all be reported here... (although my face is feeling remarkably exfoliated after a little sandblasting). It was gorgeous, and a much needed mini-vacation after a bumpy return from the States!

[Pix to follow - unlike my buddy Laura, I opted not to carry my computer out into all of that sand!]

Sunday, March 11, 2007


So, I got stung by a bee last Monday – first time in years. Interestingly, it was not around my house by one of the bees that keep trying to build nests on my roof or around my windows. It was not while I was off hiking through the fields. It was on my transit. Or, rather, inside my transit.

There was not just one bee inside the transit. There were many. One moment, it was a normal, cramped, smelly ride. Suddenly, a scream came from on top of the vehicle, and the driver stopped. “Uh, I think we have a bee problem,” my sitemate pointed out to me (I was just starting to drift off). Sure enough, bees everywhere. People screaming and swatting at the air (I might add there were not so many bees as to induce total hysteria). Apparently, someone was transporting a hive on the top of the transit, and it had somehow come open.

At no point did it occur to anyone to open the back door to the transit to let the wind simply blow the bees out. And, I had previously learned that, as dirty as flies are, Berbers think it is even dirtier to kill them (go figure). Apparently, the same rule applies to bees. Of course I worry a little about good karma and all that, but I let all that go when one little guy stung me through two layers of clothes while my sitemate was picking another one out of my hair. So as I started pounding away at any creature that got near a hard surface (i.e. not my body), everyone else was attempting to implement a catch-and-release technique using hats, etc. (still, no one had opened the back door to try the wind tunnel approach). Bees were crawling all over everyone, and few of us escaped their evil pursuits. One poor guy (maybe the one who had been riding on top with the bees) had stings all over his head.

But the local honey sure tastes good!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

How To Pretend You Speak Berber

So, for any of you who have actually been paying attention to the blog, or suffering my more in-depth e-mail complaints about the Tamazight language, you will know that one of my primary gripes is its failure to express adequately many concepts that most of us would consider to be rather basic. Now, that doesn’t mean that most people around me cannot grasp any complex ideas. Rather, most Berber dialects (to the dismay of the more hard-core advocates of a linguistic revival), borrow heavily from both Arabic and French. So, if you know just a little French, for example, you are likely to recognize the words (used in both Arabic and Tamazight, even where indigenous alternatives may exist) for commonplace items such as a car (tumubil), cheese (lfrmaj), telephone (tilifun), or toilet paper (ppapiyi jinik). Moroccan Arabic permeates Berber’s verb roots, as well as makes up for the lack of Tamazight nouns for more modern concepts. For example, all of the vocabulary I learned for my mock trial project last year was actually Arabic. The words simply don’t exist in Tamazight, so otherwise you are limited to phrases like “I have to defend myself” when you really want to say that you have an alibi.

With nouns borrowed from Arabic, the convention in Tamazight is often simply to add the letter “T” at the beginning and end of the word (these words are usually feminine, by the way; if a word is exactly the same as the Arabic, it will more likely be masculine, unless it already happens to end in an “A” sound). I have no idea how this happened. Did someone just think this was a sneaky way to co-opt another language without anyone noticing? Because, to me, that would be a lot like Pig Latin or Ob or one of those other ridiculous fake languages I used to torture adults with when I was a kid (“…wobon obof thobose robidobikyobulobous fobake lobangwobajobes obi yobusobed tobo tobortyobure obadobults wobith whoben obi wobas oba kobid”). For example, the word for “Arabic” in Arabic (Darija) is laarbiya, while in Tamazight, we call it tarabt (Tamazight also tends to lose the Arabic indefinite article “l”). The word for “house” in Arabic is dar, whereas (surprise!) in Tamazight it is taddart.

Then, there are words that are universal, such as “pizza” or “taxi.” (Way to go Western hegemony!!!)

So, a friend of mine who learned Arabic but who lives in a predominantly Berber town, has taken to calling Coca-Cola “tacokt.” The first time he said that to me, I laughed (once he explained what the hell he was talking about), but then felt – in a moment of Berber solidarity – a little offended. Yesterday, I realized he was not at all out of line. Because I don’t have Internet or mobile phone service where I live, and because I am a muskina (poor thing) for living alone away from my family, I often field questions about how often I speak with them and by what means. While I happen not to be a huge fan (especially when I cannot do it in the privacy of my own home), Internet chat is HUGE in Morocco. I listen to people on online dates all the time at the cyber cafés (often quite laughable). Anyway, yesterday, a girl I know who now lives in Errachidia (where Internet cafés abound) asked “Is dattchat?” (In this sense, “Is da…” is the equivalent of asking about whether one engages in an activity habitually). Now, even though we were talking about the Internet, my brain had apparently shut down. “Dattchat” sounds a lot like “you eat” or “you are eating,” but I knew that didn’t make any sense given the context. I asked her to repeat herself, but to no avail. Finally, knowing my friend speaks a little French, I asked her what that verb meant. “Chat!” she answered, “You know, when you use the Internet to talk to people.”


Sunday, February 25, 2007


Thursday, February 22, 2007, 3:30pm GMT: The light bulb in my salon came on. Yes, there will be some time before I stop constantly expecting the lights randomly to go off again (which they did Friday night), like they used to do when we had the generator powering Assoul some evenings (although it's been months since we've even had that luxury!). And, oddly, I almost feel as though I’ve given up a small badge of pride (one of the few stereotypical Peace Corps things I’ve had to deal with in Morocco). But I am not complaining. Yesterday, in celebration, I watched three movies and did a yoga DVD. It’s nice not having to plot my course around the house in the evenings according to where I have planted my gas lamp. Although I still catch myself trying to wear my headlamp to the toilet at night…

Ironically, when I arrived in Rich this morning, the power was out.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Have I told you about Itto yet? The old Berber woman who sits in front of my house all day? Itto yells out her own name every time she sees me (I think, at one time, she worried that I might forget, even though unlike Ait Hamza, I’ve only encountered two women named Itto in Assoul so far). In a world without telephones, most every visit to my house tends to be a drop-in, so Itto (along with my neighbor Aicha), also serves as my old-fashioned answering machine, telling would-be visitors whether they even need to bother knocking on my door. (My sitemate has one of these too, but his old lady is legitimately crazy, and not always particularly helpful or accurate in her efforts: “Oh, he went out, but maybe you should knock anyway… Knock harder, sometimes he plays loud music… See, I told you, he’s not there. Can I have your shoes?”). In the summer, with my windows open, I can even listen to Itto’s updates to other women as to what the tarumit (foreign girl) might be up to in there. When I go out for my morning walk or run, she always laughs and says she would join me, but her knees hurt.

The funny thing is, in spite of my periodic aggravation at my lack of privacy in Assoul, I have never viewed Itto as an intrusion – only a delight. When she smiles and yells her name at me, I simply smile and yell it back. Too bad the only photo I have of her is the only time I’ve ever seen her without a smile.

Please keep reading. I posted two at once today...

Trying to Light a Fire

Suddenly, I’ve been busy. So busy that I miss those days when the neddi is locked up for no good reason (uh, well, that’s often still the case), and all I have to do with myself is go for a run, read a little, and perhaps drop in on a friend for tea.

Two weeks ago, I was back up in Rabat for a Gender and Development (GAD) Committee meeting. Sometime several months ago, it was decided that of course the Harvard lawyer would be an appropriate chairperson (if only they knew!), so suddenly, these little trips up north are less about hours of DVD shopping and fancy (relatively speaking) meals out. Now, I have to work. It is nice feeling genuinely responsible for something – and at a policy level too – again. Our whole mission is to focus on better integration of women’s and men’s needs in development work, and to promote volunteer awareness and projects to that end. The problem is, in a country like Morocco, GAD is such a core element of all of the work that we do that it often goes unrecognized and unreported, and therefore remains underappreciated among our support staff (with a few exceptions, of course).

Just look at what I do. It is all about women’s empowerment and capacity building; about teaching female artisans and their counterpart (and primarily male) association to work together without creating dependency. And yet this, my primary Peace Corps project in Small Business Development, turns every feminist ideal I have on its head. How do I effectively “empower” these groups when, over the course of the past year, my own confidence in their ability to effectively organize themselves has been shattered repeatedly? I know this is really a problem of a rural mindset, which happens to play out on the gender front, but… Here I see women who won’t even show each other respect, show up for a meeting unless a male association member has intervened. Or they turn to me – who can barely even speak the language – to tell them what to do in the most basic decision-making situations (“Should we take a bus or a grand taxi to Errachidia? You’re coming with us, right?”).

We finally held our General Assembly meeting this week to officially begin the cooperative. And even after a year of discussion, the women began arguing about capital, product focus, and officers as though they were hearing it all for the first time! They still don’t know exactly who the cooperative members are (a final list being a requirement at this point!)! With my government supervisor present, I was mortified. He has no way of telling if I’d even tried to organize these women beforehand (I have).

At least Mina, the cooperative president, may eventually rise to the occasion. Last weekend, I accompanied her and Aicha, the neddi’s treasurer, to a GAD conference organized in Errachidia. Unfortunately, even though Peace Corps had been told this was a training conference for rural leaders, the host organization, in fact, had a far more elitist agenda, trying to turn away people at the door who didn’t speak French (when much of rural Morocco actually doesn’t), saying that they required a minimum educational level not only for language, but also for concept comprehension. HUH?!? A colleague and I fought hard to have all participants included, and ultimately, it was the guest speakers – truly practicing what they preached – who stepped in and helped out, offering to present all of their programs in Arabic (mainly Darija, although some materials were already printed in Classical Arabic), and during breakout sessions, being awesome facilitators by going out of their way to include even the least educated in the group.

Fortunately, I had hired my friend (and former teacher) Malika to come translate for me (plus, I knew that Malika would very much enjoy the event for its content). Malika ended up being a great help also for both of the women from Assoul. Aicha, even though she didn’t complete high school, is quite smart: literate, multi-lingual, and perfectly capable of following even some of the more abstract topics being discussed at the conference, as she has attended similar events in the past. She is, however, quite reserved, and I worry that her treatment by the host organization may have been a blow to her confidence (I was hoping she’d return to Assoul and teach about some of this stuff). Mina, on the other hand, is completely illiterate, and not even particularly functional in Darija, much less French or Classical Arabic. Nevertheless, when these Rabat academics specifically sought her opinion during workshop sessions, and fellow association leaders offered to switch small group discussion to Tamazight for a bit (which all but one participant in our workshop group spoke anyhow!) in order to make her more comfortable, I could see her start to blossom a little. Maybe she really is ready to lead this cooperative, I thought, as she began speaking up more during our meetings back in Assoul this week. (Too bad it was often to complain about money and product focus…!)

In any event, this week I am finding myself simultaneously encouraged by the behavior of some and disappointed by others. The conference, as envisioned by the host association, was fabulous. For a bunch of Harvard students. Good thing the rural leaders were ready to look out for each other…

Rabha (Imilchil’s cooperative president, whom I seem to run into nearly everywhere I go), me, Aicha, and Mina, at the fanciest hotel in Errachidia.

* * *

A final note, thanking my former sitemate Zach for leaving me the cheesiest jigsaw puzzle ever. Of course, I couldn’t resist doing it anyhow (and it was harder than I expected!). Only problem was that I had a Curious George Goes to the Hospital moment. See if you can spot it:

Thursday, January 25, 2007


I first met Houria a little over a year ago. She had completed her university degree and was enrolled in an advanced English program in Meknes. Her family lives in Assoul, and she was home for the Eid holiday. She had sought me out because she was writing (in English) a monograph on the teaching of Tamazight in Moroccan schools, and wanted feedback from me both as an English speaker and a Tamazight learner. She taught me quite a bit about the evolution of her language and its role as a cultural marker. On a personal level, Houria was often distressed to see the erosion of her language even in her home, as more and more Arabic and French words replace what my tutor often refers to as the “old language.”

Thoughtful and driven to expose herself to more of the world than most of Assoul's women genuinely aspire to see, Houria became a quick friend. We visited whenever she was in Assoul, and would often speak or send messages when she was studying or at work in Meknes. She often struggled with the limited options facing educated women of her generation – jobs are unavailable, but for many, a more “traditional” marriage back at home becomes untenable as well. She told me about the places in the world that she wanted to visit one day, and we discussed how she could continue to build upon her chosen field of research – the preservation of Tamazight culture through its language.

Last week, she was back in Assoul to celebrate her father's return from the Hajj. I happily spent time with her family and one-on-one. As a perpetual “outsider” in Assoul, I very much valued her sincere kindness and curiosity about how my culture compared to hers. She was supposed to return to Meknes last weekend, and we were already discussing plans for our next opportunity to meet up.

Sadly, last Wednesday afternoon as I was running errands in town, people began to stop me, breaking the bad news about someone they knew to be my friend. Houria had died of a heart attack. She was only 22. I am sad not only to have lost a friend, but also to know that perhaps one of Assoul’s most promising young women will not have the opportunity to make the mark she so dearly wished to make in the larger world…

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith

So, I just finished reading The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost - a hilarious read, and one that gives a pretty good sense of the sorts of adjustment issues, deprivations, and daily absurdities one might face when transplanted into the developing world for a couple of years.

One thing Troost talks about is his starvation for any and all information from the civilized world. I definitely feel that too, although (not being stuck on a desert island) I haven't done too badly on most fronts. Peace Corps volunteers maintain a pretty good network for book and DVD circulation, and I do make it to the internet once a week, more or less. And, like Troost, I do a constant dance with my shortwave radio, seeking out a little BBC, or, barring that, anything in English (although I am occasionally disappointed to realize I have, in fact, stumbled onto Vatican Radio - not exactly the semi-objective news source I am normally seeking out).

One interesting side effect of living abroad for some volunteers is an enhanced obsession with celebrity gossip. I know people who circulate mass text messages with updates from (I'm out of that loop now that I don't have cell phone service in my village). Still, I too am somewhat susceptible. A couple of months ago, an American visitor to my house left a copy of US Weekly. I confess, I read it.

... And then I took it to my friend Najat, who is probably the closest thing I have to a "girlfriend" (in that giggly teenage sense, although Najat is at least my age) in Assoul. Having spent plenty of time with her browsing through various French fashion and celebrity magazines (and sometimes Arabic ones) from the 1970s and 80s, I knew Najat would not likely be offended by photos of women in skimpy dresses or underwear, candid (i.e. kissing) photos of celebrity couples, or a shirtless David Beckham in a "Got Milk" ad (yum - have I mentioned just how non-existent my social life is in Morocco?!). Indeed, it was Najat who informed me that Beckham was going to the US (she's also a big radio listener), so she definitely stays somewhat posted on pop culture, although she's one of the few Moroccans I've met who doesn't seem to know who Celine Dion is (but I digress...).

Due to the dearth, and cost, of popular publications in Assoul, once people get their hands on a magazine, they keep pulling it out and re-reading it (or just looking at the pictures, if it happens to be in the wrong language). This is why I am constantly having to tell women that shoulder pads are not, in fact, fashionable. So even though I'd given Najat the US Weekly a while ago, one day this week as I was visiting, out it came again.

Najat opened it up to a spread about Anna Nicole Smith and the disputed paternity of her new baby - new husband (and her lawyer), or ex-boyfriend? As I again explained the contents of the article, Najat was fascinated, asking about how they could perform blood tests, etc. "This woman is hashuma," I explained, hoping to impress her with my respect for local values (hashuma roughly refers to any number of social/religious taboos - in many cases pertaining to sex, alcohol, or - as I've heard a few times - single women who do not live with their parents...). "No she's not," Najat said. This baffled me as, obviously, Anna Nicole has been sleeping around.

Now, Najat's French is not very good, but neither is she too inclined to try to follow my heavily accented Tamazight, so the details of our conversations occasionally get lost in the garble that we speak together. Nevertheless, I pressed on, "She married a very old, very rich man just for his money." "That's okay," Najat answered, "Maybe he just couldn't find anyone else to marry." At this point, Najat's younger sister Miriam jumped to defend my point. Miriam, who rarely leaves the house and speaks only Tamazight and Arabic, seems to have a startling knowledge of English obscenities (words and gestures) thanks to American movies on TV (back in the days when Assoul's generator sometimes worked). "She could get SIDA [AIDS]," Miriam said. Way to go Miriam. As a reward for her insight, I asked her if she had yet learned the word "slut."

Still, Najat maintained her point: "Well, she's not hashuma because she's not a Muslim." Miriam and I both explained that some things are also frowned upon (if not to the same degree - although I kept that nuance to myself) in America or other Christian cultures. I added, "And she posed naked in magazines." Najat started showing me pictures in a French magazine of Spanish soap opera stills (folks in bathing suits making eyes at each other). "Not like that," I said, "a SEX magazine." "Oh," said Najat. This led to a digression about her finding a rather, um, informative, book possessed by one of her relatives when she was a teenager, which she subsequently passed around to all of her friends before it disappeared. "But," she added, "you realize that I only know about these things. I don't do them." [I believe this]. "See, I don't even wear make-up when men are around."

Then, we got to talking about the responsibilities of unwed mothers in the US, and the controversy over the veil in Europe. But we never reached an agreement about Anna Nicole.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Blogger Sucks!

I don't know what's going on lately, but during the very few occasions I have had to travel to civilization during the last few weeks, I have had a terrible time logging into Blogger. So here's what you've missed:

A Sevillano Christmas

In spite of the fact that much of my vacation involved consuming all sorts of food and beverage products that are unavailable to me in Morocco, I did manage to squeeze in a little more sightseeing over Christmas, including the layering of Moorish influence and inspiration in the Alcázar of Seville

…and Seville’s cathedral, the largest gothic cathedral in the world. There, I saw a sarcophagus containing the remains of Christopher Columbus, whose tomb, interestingly enough, I also saw in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, when I traveled there about seven years ago. A true traveler, that man!

This photo was taken from about halfway up La Giralda, a 35-story minaret co-opted by the cathedral’s builders.

I also got a little taste of the modern while strolling through a temporary art exhibition in Seville’s Plaza Nueva, where gigantic and slightly bizarre sculptures by artist Igor Mitoraj dominated the square.

Once back in Morocco, I battled Eid Al-Kbir travel angst – not unlike our own holiday mayhem at airports etc., but far worse when coupled with all the usual transportation craziness one faces around here. Still - even after all of the niceties of civilization - I was happy to be back in my own bed for a few nights before the carnage began...

Eid Al-Kbir, Part Deux

Like a good Berber woman, I woke up the morning of Eid, and paid my social calls. In doing so, I actually avoided witnessing any slaughter (last year I saw it twice, so I'm good). I did my part, eating sheep guts again, although this year I could confidently refuse stomach, and fat wrapped in intestines. I also passed on the head again.

Just a reminder what a beautiful site I have:

...And One More Random Transit Ride

So it appears that a number of women in my village are going to get a gig picking strawberries in Spain for a few months. Sounds a little sketchy to me, but... In any event, a load of them traveled to Rich last week to get the scoop on this opportunity, and I was on the transit with them coming and going. I listened to a woman wretch behind me the whole way back. Nevertheless, as we were passing a village on the way home, a man on the street waved down our transit and offered to share a platter of couscous (which he was eating on the side of the road). I passed. The carsick females, however, seemed to have no problem with it. While I found this interesting, I realized (having been in this country for a while now), I realized I didn't think it was particularly strange. A friend of mine who lives in that village explained later that this is an occasional form of charity people offer, ostensibly for women working in the fields (never mind that this is not harvest time).

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Few Days in Granada

So, Granada is wonderful. I have spent quite a bit of my time enjoying (cheap!) drinks and tapas, window shopping, and exploring local sights like the Alhambra and the cathedral.

One of the interesting things at the cathedral was the amount of northern European art. And I was thrilled to hear a couple there talking with their 10-ish year old son about problems with anatomical dimensions and general anachronisms in paintings of that period. That´s the kind of parent I might like to be one day!

Santa Pimp

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yay – Spain!

Uneventful travel (for once). Even if it took three days.

Nice man on ferry gave me coffee for free when I didn’t have small change in Euros.

Beautiful scenery on train ride to Granada.


Chocolate-dipped churros (fritters).

Christmas decorations.

Wow, I really don´t know any Spanish. And for some unknown reason, I keep trying to speak to people in Arabic!


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Holiday Spirit

After being worked over by the PC docs (and an unbelievably awesome dentist) in Rabat last week, I returned south via Errachidia (a necessary detour, as it is one of the few places I get any real work done).

The night I returned to Assoul, it began snowing. And snowing. And snowing. The first day was great, as I’d been trying to work myself into a bit of a holiday mood. But then I began to worry. See, I’d planned at first to ride out the holiday in Assoul. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Kbir hits around New Years this year, and some related Peace Corps travel restrictions had made it pretty much impossible to return to the States for a proper Christmas without using up all of my vacation days and then some (score one for volunteer morale). But then my common sense got the better of me. Last year, I managed Christmas in Morocco (my first ever away from home, at the age of 30!) because I was still so caught up in the newness of everything. Now, I just needed a vacation anyway! So I’d made very last minute plans to go visit my old sitemate, Zach, who now lives in southern Spain. Problem is, what if I got snowed into my site, and missed my own vacation? (This has already happened on a smaller scale, but here we are talking about a serious vacation!). Three days later, the snow was still falling! Now, I’ve seen this in NYC (where most of it quickly disappears and the rest of it just turns black) and Boston, but there they have infrastructure! And now even my host father was telling me that in his whole life he’d never seen anything like this in Assoul. Oh no, barely December…

Here’s our local landmark, the mountain Baddou. I took this photo from my roof a couple of days into the blizzard. Once it was finally clear enough to differentiate between earth and sky.

I’d diligently written Christmas cards, but since no vehicles were coming or going for several days, the post office was closed (sorry folks – you’ll have to celebrate all over again a couple of weeks after the fact, the same way we Americans have to do it over here as our mail trickles in, although there’s nothing like holidays and birthdays dragging on for months!).

But when the post office finally did open, I got what may have been the best care package ever (and, in general, my mom sends some pretty awesome care packages!). Back before I’d made plans to travel over the holiday, I’d asked for a little cheap, lightweight Christmas décor to help brighten my holiday a little. I’d expected paper crap, but couldn’t believe what I got… THANK YOU!!!

[Yes, those pathetic looking “curtains,” are, in fact, chopped up, mosquito netting (the tinted window panes are not, however, my doing). I hope PC doesn’t expect me to return it intact, as – as cheap as I am capable of being – they do actually serve a functional as well as aesthetic (hah!) purpose.]

Oh, and the fact that you’re reading this means that I did manage to make my escape from Assoul… And when I first got my hands on that essence of civilization – the Internet – do you know what I did? I happily watched holiday commercials on (which, BTW, is a horrible, horrible entity for not allowing people overseas to view episodes of “Lost” online even though they have no qualms about constantly foisting all their non-holiday advertisers upon us when all I want to do is read a couple of sentences about what happened on “General Hospital” the previous week).