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Showing posts from 2012

Between Rivers

Before and after are words that define a thing relative to another thing. Two events or objects, sequential or spatial. These words are powerful because they limit. But their limits are incomplete. They leave an open end in what is at least a two-dimensional world. Much more powerful is a related word: between. Yes, now, assuming there are only two dimensions to our subject, we have real limits. We have contained an idea. Now we can wrap our minds around the possibilities, see the whole potential spectrum, as it were.

Anal retentiveness and indecisiveness are inconvenient bedfellows, but both seem to sleep comfortably within me. It's frustrating. I get very frustrated sometimes. And this is why the idea of between comforts me. Ah, I can control this more easily. There are parameters. It's manageable. Maybe I'll even come to a decision.

This last week, I took a trip to a place called Bin El Ouidane, "Between the Rivers." The Bin (pronounced like "bean") is…

Electric Autumn

Often, on those electric Autumn evenings, I would wrap up my work and, finding myself unwilling to sleep, step out into the night. I liked to observe the town late at night, when most students were in their dorm rooms and most other folk asleep or reading a book in bed. Getting away from people was important. Away from people, things would acquire their own vitality. Sterling itself seemed to hold its breath, and I drifted about, aimless and content.

Oddly-lit structures drew me. I liked to observe the various moods Cooper Hall took on at different angles by moonlight, liked to see it in motion, walking the length of the sidewalk across the street, the contrasting motion of foreground and background.

Parks, too, drew me. As a child, the swings were dearest, and even today they lure me. I could swing for hours, ruminating, tracking the motion of the stars, taking in the gravity, the silence.

These moments are therapeutic. More than that - enriching. How often I've sought somebody with…

Around and Around

They say that you only appreciate the value of a thing or a place or a person after it is taken away from you.

Bull, I say. Often enough, you know just how much it's going to hurt even before the separation happens.

Take a look at these people. Do you see them? Do you see me? Well I'm near the back, center-left. Now, stop looking at me and look at the group again. These are most of the people that came into Morocco with me back in March.

I like many of them, but I love only a few. Undoubtedly, I would love more if I only had spent more time with them, gotten to know them better, but things work one way and not the other, who can say what would have happened if etc etc.

I'm thinking about these people because I have been remarkably lucky this past month to have spent so much time with them. The above picture is from a week of In-Service Training (IST) conducted in Marrakech with my entire staj.

After IST, I ascended Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa (13,700 ft).

Morocco, Land of Ambiguity

The sun was pummeling me. On my shoulders and on the back of my skull. When Moroccans catch the sniffles, they say "The cold hit me." On this particular afternoon in Sidi Bennour, as I wandered from street to street, that bully Sol took no mercy, and as my fragile frame absorbed each blow, I could feel the scorn from the sun, the mocking and scorn, and not just from celestial bodies, but Arab bodies as well, from behind their piles of watermelon and cactus carts, straw hats and tooth-ish grins going "What is this white guy doing wandering around here in the middle of the afternoon?"

What I was doing was looking for a damned pair of socks. Eventually, I found a guy selling piles of used clothes. There appeared to be no order to the mess, so I just asked him if he sold any packages of socks. Hell, I didn't know. I've witnessed butchers selling toothbrushes on the side. Anyway, I might as well have asked the man if he had any poisonous snakes for sale. He could…

First Impressions

To avoid the mistake of trying to outline every major thought, development, action, and reaction that has taken place since my last post and thereby invoking tedium in every reader, I will aim at making the opposite mistake: of painting my experience in strokes far too broad. The impressionistic effect this will have should by no means be taken as a summary of my experience to date, but rather as one moment in time, one in a series of many, changing moments.

And so now it is quiet, early afternoon, just before the air begins to chill and the streets begin to fill with the Moroccan socialites and children come out to throw rocks at dogs and -- well, tonight, I just want to be in my apartment to write a little.

So here goes:

Arbaa Aounate. Arbia Lawnate. 3rba Aownat. These are just three ways (of many) to transcribe the name of my little town into English. It is located not far from the ocean, two hours by Souq bus (read: 40 minutes by car), and in the other direction, about three and a ha…

Moving On, or: Why I love the Peace Corps Phone Plan

Swearing-In took place on May 24th. My official acronym has changed from PCT to PCV.

This may not seem too significant, but it's importance cannot be stressed enough.

Firstly, it means that I'll now be living on my own. Until now, the Peace Corps has held my hand (and looked over my shoulder) at every moment of every day, tracking my whereabouts, calling me, sending me emails and phone-calls and visits from administration.

Now, nothing.

After swearing-in, Peace Corps took us to their compound in Rabat, fed us lunch, and said, "So long. Good luck finding your way back to the hotel and then to your site."

I possessed piece of paper with a name and a phone number, along with a limited vocabulary. Despite the circumstances, I managed to make arrangements with my new host father. In addition, I was expected to arrange transportation on my own, which to my general astonishment, worked without a hitch. Perhaps my Darija is better than I thought.

Secondly, and perhaps more importa…

Ifrane and Azrou

During training, I had two getaway weekends. One was in a little place called Moulay Yacoub, and I've already mentioned that trip. The second was a double-whammy trip to a French Garden Town called Ifrane and nearby Azrou, situated in the Middle Atlas mountains.

Ifrane is a completely different world from Fes and its proximal towns. First, it's new. The French created it during the protectorate period as a Hill Station, a summer retreat for French citizens wanting to escape the oppressive heat of North Africa. Therefore, it is very European. It looks like somebody transplanted a Swiss town right into the middle of the Atlas Mountains (it's nickname is "little Switzerland"). The houses are very European, and one might think they were in Europe if it weren't for the giant stork nests perched atop the chimneys around the city.

Next we went to Azrou and checked into a hotel. Azrou is also fairly new, though it has an old section. It has very few tourists, especiall…

For Mother's Day

The Lanyard By Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, p…

Food Matters

Some of you are wondering, no doubt, about the food situation here in Morocco.

You can be sure of two things:

1) It is nothing like American cuisine
2) It is nonetheless delicious

I've posted about food before, but now that I've been living here for two months (and eating with Moroccan families), I can update you on the chow-down sitchiashun.

The first thing a newcomer will notice at the Moroccan dinner table is that the times are quite different. Moroccans have breakfast, of course, when they wake up, but lunch is typically served later than noon - maybe 2:00 or 3:00. At 7:00 or 8:00, a mini-meal called kaskrout is served, typically consisting of sweets, bread and jam, tea, and occasionally a treat like mlwi or bgrir, things I will describe later. True dinner is served very late, sometimes 10:00 or even as late as 11:30.

Once the meal times are adjusted for, the visitor will next notice the preponderance of bread. Moroccans treat bread reverently, as they believe it is a gift from …

Around Fes

Fes is a big city. It is the 4th-largest in Morocco, after Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakech, with a population of about 950,000. It contains a huge royal palace, and an absolutely enormous Medina.There are basically three parts, Fes el Bali (the old, walled city), Fes-Jdid (or "new Fes") which includes the old Jewish quarter (and which is only "new" relative to Fes el Bali), and the Ville Nouvelle (the really new part, created by the French). Fes el Bali is considered the world's largest contiguous car-free urban area. It is absolutely packed with shops and people and merchandise and from what I'm told, lots and lots of poverty. All of the old city is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. Included are beautiful mosques, countless artisans, museums, mysterious relics. The oldest continuously-operating university in the world is here as well - University of Al-Qarawiyyin (founded 859).

Fes is an old city, established in 789 by Idris I. During three separate…

A Moulay Yacoub Kind of Day

Fes is big.

Too big.

I need a break from big.

Actually, I needed a break from big, and I got it (come to think of it though, I could use another).

Weeks ago, several of my friends came together, and we traveled to a nearby town called Moulay Yacoub. Built on a hillside, Yacky looks out over rolling hills blanketed with dill, cereal grains, and shepherds with their flocks. Underneath the countless stairs and hills, trapped in the earth is a simmering cauldron. These hot springs have been diverted into the Hammams of Yacky and provide a sizable stream of tourism.

Members of my group walked through the Hammams, but we weren't interested in what was below as much as what was above. After a quick walk through the town and the procurement of picnic items, the group set off over the hills. It was a muddy adventure, and the wind was constantly thwarting our attempts at finding quietude, but the view was absolutely gorgeous, and we couldn't help but enjoy ourselves immensely.

Highlights inc…

My Moroccan Family

Like I explained in my last post, the Peace Corps pairs each volunteer or volunteer couple with a host family.

For the sake privacy, I'll shorten their names. We'll call my host family the Zs. There are five Zs in my host family:

Mama Z is always very considerate and kind. She treats me as if I were her own son, and she is always finding ways to make me feel welcome in the house. Additionally, she is a very devout woman, soft-spoken, and hard-working. Her cooking is tremendous and generously portioned. When she laughs, the whole room brightens.

Mus-Z is the oldest brother and hence the oldest male in the house. He rides to the city center on his motorcycle every day to work. He is a man of fashionable taste and few words, and he often wears a serious expression. Mus-Z took me on my very first Hammam trip and oriented me to the layout of the community.

Mou-Z is the middle brother in the Z household. He goes to school every day and seems to be a serious student. He is especially int…

CBT Phase

In my last post, I offered you a little glimpse into what Peace Corps calls pre-service orientation. Now, you will be granted an equally unsatisfying glimpse into the world of real training, the 2-month phase Peace Corps calls Community Based Training, or CBT.

Here is how it works:

After the trainees have had enough time to form intense emotional bonds in Rabat, Peace Corps cruelly separates everybody into groups made up of six trainees each. These six people, plus a Language and Cultural Facilitator (LCF) (a Moroccan, of course) are the trainees' new family. All of the CBT groups are divided into three Hubs: one around Fes, one around Azrou, and one around Immouzer. As mentioned previously, my CBT landed in the Fez Hub.

What this means for me is that after nine wonderful days of togetherness at the Hotel in Rabat, 2/3 of the group will be largely out of reach to me. Of the remaining 1/3, about 40 trainees, I will see only my five site-mates on a daily basis. However, three times dur…

Hospitality in the City

Rabat is known in the guidebooks as the "bland city."

For nine days, 112 Peace Corps Trainees occupied a hotel in downtown Rabat, roaming herd-like from session to session and indulging in the ubiquitous, sweet-as-sin mint tea and pastries in between. We had 24-hour police protection around the hotel, yet PC staff gave us plenty of freedom to explore the city on our own during free time.

Rabat is beautiful: the Old Medina is labyrinthine and magical, the percussive notes of Darija dancing with the smells of spice stands and shawarma. In ancient Chellah, storks nest in the upper levels of the ruined structures. The Atlantic waves crash into the walls of the Kasbah, lapping up around the lighthouse. Lounging on the breakwater, one can watch the sun gently lowers herself behind the delicate veil of ocean mist.

"Bland" can not, in other words, accurately describe any part of my experience thus far.

Allow me to share a few first impressions:

Desperate Measures

On the bus ri…