Monday, December 18, 2006


I am grateful to my regular readers and appreciate the time you take to follow along with my adventures and my day-to-day life here. At the same time, I know there are friends and family out there who can’t handle the volume. So I’ve come up with the concept of a quarterly report – every three months or so, mid-month, check back for a summary of my experiences. I’ll also endeavor to answer all questions, comments, e-mails and mail.

So far, I am really glad I made the decision to join the Peace Corps and I’m enjoying Morocco. I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer three weeks ago today and arrived at my final site, Azrou. It’s a town of about 40,000 in the Middle Atlas Mountains, on a crossroads between Fes and the southeast and Meknes and the southwest. I had told them I was flexible, but ended up with everything on my final site wish list – electricity, running water, internet, proximity to other places in Morocco. It also has mountains for hiking and is known for its Barbary Apes. The medina, or old shopping district, may not have everything I want but I can probably find everything I need.

It also has work possibilities that I’m happy about. Again, I had told them I was flexible and to put me where they thought they could best use me, but as training continued, I developed a wish list there too – I wanted to be able to work with a variety of artisans and to have the possibility to work on tourism (which falls under the same ministry). The artisana, where I’m based, has weavers, wood carvers, and a metalworker. Some of the artisans in town I’ll work with include a rock carver, some seamstresses and a sewing cooperative, and I’ll also be helping budding weaving cooperatives in two nearby rural communities. Lots of possibilities for both primary and secondary projects.

The first eleven weeks consisted of intense training. Language, culture, technical, health and administrative sessions took place at our seminar site, Azrou. That’s right, the training was right here – meaning that I was already somewhat familiar with my final site (though of course when I knew I was going to live here I started to look at it through different eyes). Sessions of a few days at a time here were balanced with community-based training – we split up into small groups and had more language as well as a chance to implement some of the technical information that we learned with artisans in rural communities; my group was in TimHdit, about 40 minutes south.

The other trainees (now volunteers) in Small Business Development are an interesting and varied group – more women than men, more artists than business people, a variety of ages (most are younger than I am but I don’t feel out of place; I might have with the other group that started training when we did, Youth Development – almost all of them are just out of college), a variety of U.S. cities and states represented, a variety of interests – during training I played cards, Scrabble and Boggle, learned some somatics and some belly-dancing, got knitting and crochet refreshers, and had many interesting conversations. One person left after a couple of weeks – she decided it wasn’t for her – and if statistics hold up, close to half the group won’t finish the two years, but it’s hard to predict now who that might be because almost everyone seems excited to be here. We’re all scattered now; some of the people I like are nearby and others I will visit.

In the seminar site we stayed at an Auberge – a cross between college dorm, summer camp, reality show and prison – there wasn’t a lot of downtime. I enjoyed it! I’ve always liked school and it was good to learn, to participate in a classroom setting, to be around other smart and interesting people. In TimHdit, we stayed with host families. I’m with a host family in Azrou for two months and am now looking for my own place.

The week after we arrived, the month-long Ramadan began. Muslims fast during daylight hours; it was tough to get used to (as was the food and water in general at first – one of our first health sessions was on diarrhea and it soon became apparent why). Ramadan wasn’t that bad in retrospect – I liked the l-ftur (break-fast) of eggs, breads, dates, juice and sweets, and didn’t need the late-night or pre-dawn meals – but I prefer non-Ramadan. The food here is delicious – recent meals have included chicken with frites, lentils, stuffed peppers, a tomato-and-eggplant dish, quince, ground meat and tomatoes. Some of these are things I already loved and some are things I have developed a taste for and am even trying to learn to cook. There’s always fresh fruit, too – my favorite, clementines, are now in season and I have a new discovery, the pomegranate. Eating is done out of communal plates – you take a little bread and grab yourself a bite of whatever the main dish is. I’m okay without a fork or knife but I miss having a napkin. The communal water glass takes some getting used to as well – usually I get my own. I’m not drinking enough water though, much as I try to remain hydrated.

The country is about the size of California and probably contains as many climates as that state – coastal, mountain, desert, arable. I know I had an image of Morocco as hot, as did many of my friends when I told them I was going there. Where I am it’s dry and forested (because it’s protected – look in the other direction and it’s deforested). Azrou is known for having pleasantly cool summers (that is, tolerable) and cold winters – made to seem even colder because houses are unheated and there isn’t hot water (unless you heat some up). Both of my host families have been well-off (not the Peace Corps norm) so we have had wood stoves (in one room of the house, where we all huddle; the family sleeps in that one room – I prefer my own room, cold but with many blankets) and occasional hot water for bucket baths. The hammam is the public bath where you go to get warm and clean; it’s also a social occasion for women. I’ve been, but more out of necessity than fun, and when I find my own place I want to get a hot water heater and a shower head.

Our assignment for the first few months is to get better at language and integrate into the community – no big business plans or projects quite yet. Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect, is a challenge, in training we learned the basics to get by. The little bit of French I know helps too; I hope to learn more and have been told that a few words of Tamazight, the local Berber language, would go a long way so I want to do some of that too. I look forward to getting beyond basic conversation; Peace Corps pays for tutoring. I’m lucky to have a counterpart and a host mother who speak English, so I can learn from more than one person. I visit the artisans and I’ve been having tea with carpet-store owners. There are some seasoned volunteers who come into town regularly (the one from TimHdit and one in the environment sector) so I have regular coffees with them and share ideas.

I’m not content with just integration though – I have also attended a craft fair with some of my artisans, been elected our group’s representative to the Gender and Development committee, joined the steering committee for a regional girls’ leadership camp, sat in on a meeting with the TimHdit weavers about the legal status of their cooperative and worked on a brochure for the rock carver. We’re allowed two Saturday-night overnights a month and I’ve been to Fes twice – great getaways. Of course, there is much that I miss, too. Come visit!

The picture is of the carpets for sale at the Azrou souk; these are representative of the rural weavers of the region. Lots more to say! My objective was to make this holiday-letter length, so I’ll stop here. For more, print out some blog entries and pretend we’re talking on the phone or having dinner out!

Thanks for the quarterly report - very helpful! Now I feel like I've caught up a bit.

(Off to Google Earth to take a look at Arzou...)
How does it look from above? I do have more pictures to post but if you scroll to earlier entries there are some pix there of Azrou...
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