Monday, January 28, 2008


I crossed the finish line at 2:52 and I made the 1:00 train to Meknes – as golfers retell every hole and fishermen recall every bite, runners also relive every step; you can read on, of course, but just in case it’s too much detail, you already know the pertinent info.

First, let me say that the bagels were a hit. I won’t relay the recipe – when I put the peanut butter recipe here, I thought nobody would ever make it because you can just go out and buy a jar of peanut butter. You can also go out and get bagels! It’s pretty simple – flour and yeast, mostly – and you have to knead it a lot and let it rise for a while and then boil them and then bake them – so it’s a bit time-consuming. We added cinnamon as well; the results looked fair and tasted pretty good – and were good for the bus ride and for a pre-race breakfast and for the post-race train ride and for breakfast today!

The bus ride down to Marrakesh is long – it’s just long. I was with Andrea and Sherwin – it was nice to have company – and I read an entire book – it was nice to have company and also to read. We had the very last seats on the bus, which isn’t ideal but wasn’t bad. I drank more water than usual – there was one stop that I remember bring a long one last time, so I went to the ladies’ room – only to come out and find that the bus had pulled away! I ran for it and jumped on it as it was moving – having friends with me helped, because they told the driver to wait – and I got a little practice sprint in. Still, I had a headache when I arrived, and promptly started to drink more water.

First stop was registration – Dominique was there at the same time to register, and Connie was there to keep her company, and then Laura and Jong joined us – only Dominique, Sherwin and I from my stage were running but the others, as well as Rob, had put in for the weekend to cheer us on. There was a significant discount for being a foreign resident, they never asked for the health certificate that I was told was required, and the T-shirt was just okay, but there was a T-shirt.

We all walked to the Jemaa al-Fna; maybe a half-hour walk? I remember walking home from the pasta dinner before the Chicago Marathon – it was a beautiful night, and a perfect temperature for walking, though perhaps resting would have been smarter. Well, in Marrakesh it was hot, but it was nice to walk and stretch out after being on the bus, so I think it was all right. I had made reservations in a riad so that I would have my own room with bath and shower – under other circumstances I would have been fine sharing with fellow PCVs but I wanted to do all I could to ensure a good night’s sleep. Met up with Rob and he, Connie, Sherwin and I headed out for a pasta dinner, joined midway by Dominique, Jong and Laura. There were some environment and health volunteers there too, and they gave us directions to the race start. Peace Corps makes an exception to the five-person rule for the marathon, but of the 20 allowed to be in the area, most aren’t there to run the race – instead, they come to cheer or party or both. Only about eight of us actually ran, two the full and the rest the half.

We lingered at dinner for a while – once again, I felt sad that people I enjoy spending time with are so far away, but I can go back, long trip and headache and all….and then we got ice cream; not sure if this is the perfect pre-race food but it’s become something of a Marrakesh tradition. We then headed for a bar – I knew I wouldn’t stay long because it’s smoky, but (Piffle) Aaron and Mic, who I had met back in Asilah were coming so I wanted to say hi. Mic recently ET’ed – he had been caught out of site. Two other health volunteers in his stage had recently ET’ed as well for the same reason (basically you can ET, the equivalent of resigning, or get Admin Sepped, the equivalent of being fired) – they were in Marrakesh as well. I think they are all staying in the country for a while – not ready to leave. As long as I am updating, the Ain Leuh volunteer in my stage is ETing – she won a Fulbright and is leaving for that, so that’s six total so far. The recent SBD/YD group was the first to get through training intact – since their swearing-in no SBDs have left – yet – and three YDs have, all with combination of homesickness, tough site, and somehow not having it be what they expected.

It was okay to leave the bar when it got too smoky for me – I realized I was tired, and I laid out all of my things, pinned my race number to my powder-blue Chicago Triathlon shirt, showered and went to sleep. Got up before the alarm, dressed and met Sherwin to walk to the start, passing the health and environment volunteers having breakfast before heading there themselves. I told him that the biggest difference between this time and the last time I ran a race this long is the word, “inshallah.” God willing, I’d do all right.

I had in mind that it would take me two-and-a-half to three hours to run the race. I’d heard it started at 8:30 but then heard that the announced start is 8:30 and the real start closer to 9:00. I thus had added incentive to run fast – I really wanted to make the 1:00 train so that I could get to Meknes before dark. We got to the start early – saw the snow-covered High Atlas, finally! Not as much haze this time of year; as they say in California, the mountains were out. Stretched and talked to other runners and closer to 8:30 than to 9:00 (I wish I knew exactly, but there was no timer at the starting line, and my running stopwatch is in storage) we took off. Sherwin left me right away and I found myself behind some runners wearing yellow shirts identifying them as a running club from Casablanca. They were a shade faster than I but I thought that if I could keep up with them for the first 5K I would be off to a good start. And I did, almost – my side started to twinge so I had to slow down, but I stayed within visual contact of the two slowest of the yellow shirts (who, like me, walked through the water stops) for most of the race. The weather was cool, the desert has no humidity, and we went through and by the Menara and Agdal gardens, which provided even more coolness and sometimes shade – not bad at all! Still, I am glad I switched from the winter-weight long pants I had been training in (bought for modesty but helpful for the training weather) to my quik-dri capri pants (even though I didn’t look as like as serious a runner in them).

There was water at the 5K mark; I had a bottle with me for between-water-stops sips and also Gu energy gel that I had brought from home. At the 7.5K mark they handed me a wet sponge – it was nice to cool my head, but I didn’t want to wash all of my sunscreen off. It was fun to see lots of colored sponges on the ground – looked like art. There were two other sponge stops, but by the time I reached them, there were no more being handed out – that’s okay, one was enough. When I run 5Ks there are plenty of people where I am, at the 11-or-so-minute-mile pace, so I never feel alone. When I ran a 10K a couple of years ago to make sure I could do 10K alone before signing up to do it in the triathlon, I was clearly in the back of the pack – the longer distances weed out the slower runners. So for the half-marathon I knew again I’d be in the back of the pack, and most of the time I could see people around me, but I had the feeling I was running solo, which was strange. I am sure that for the majority of the pack they held up traffic, and for us slowpokes they did make crossing traffic wait, but for a portion of the race after that 7.5K mark I was sometimes alongside motos. At times the race crossed to face oncoming traffic and I had to dodge motos, bikes, cars and a couple of donkeys – how many other marathons have that!

They tout the flat course and indeed it is flat. Very flat. Nice and flat. Flatter than Chicago, which is flat except for the overpasses that become mountains by the end. There might have been ever-so-slight inclines but it is flat. There are no port-o-sans anywhere – not at the start, not at the middle, not at the end (which is at the start). This wasn’t an issue for me at all but I did see people try to hide behind trees and I heard that people duck into cafes. Rob, Jong, Connie and Laura had said they would be at the 10K mark but they weren’t when I got there – probably thought they had missed me even though I had told them my expected pace. It was about there that I realized that my camera had a time stamp, so I took a couple of pictures to check the time – about an hour had passed, which might have been my best 10K split ever, but I don’t know exactly.

We then went through a long corridor of trees and I was feeling good. The marathon runners went right and the “semi” went left and there was a Gnaoua band playing at the split. We then went through a neighborhood – lots of spectators, just when I needed them - my IT bands and the knee I feel on were starting to get a little tight and I did a little walking but then a cheer or a smile or a hand slap from a kid or a “bon courage” from a policeman would get me going. I did have to confirm that I was going in the right direction a couple of times when I lost yellow-shirt contact and there was a lot of vehicular traffic. Andrea was somewhere in this stretch, and I’m glad that I was running at the time; I actually ran more and walked less than I was prepared to, partially with the train incentive, partially with the crowd motivation, and partially because I felt good! We joined up with the marathon again – it said 17.5 but I knew it was their 17.5, not the half’s – and then there were more runners around me and that was a lift. We went past a bunch of pottery and I thought again that you don’t get that at every marathon. We split off again and there was a definite feeling of heading back around towards the start/finish line. I was really looking forward to the 15K mark though, to know I was three-fourths done, and it seemed that it was a long stretch after the 10. There wasn’t one! The next marker (and water stop) after 10 was for 17.5, so it had seemed long for a reason. Almost done!

Not really though – the last 2.5 K also seemed long. Right about then I found myself running stride for stride next to someone, and without talking we knew we were pulling each other along. We then started talking – she was nice. Then her husband came, medal around his neck, to help her – he took her hand and she took mine. I had to break off to walk a bit, but they slowed down and called for me and I would run to catch up with them. Somewhere in the last kilometer, Rob, Jong, Connie and Laura were in the middle of the street cheering, and then I found myself running next to one of the health volunteers. I lost both her and the couple when I stopped to take a picture of the finish line, but I finally crossed at 2:52 – and there Aaron, Mic and some of the volunteers who had finished earlier were, cheering. And I got a medal! I didn’t expect there to be one at this race.

Let’s say it took five minutes to get to the starting line. 2:47? I don’t know – and I looked at the web site and my results aren’t there. I was careful to run through the electronic-chip-check stations, so I’m disappointed. All I know is that I talked to some of the health volunteers for a few minutes and I ate a couple of clementines and I walked back to the hotel, taking my time, and it was 11:50. It’s maybe a 20-minute walk…so what was my race time? Not that it matters…what does matter is that I had time for a shower before leaving. I had thought I would miss the 1:00, giving me more time with friends before taking the 3:00 and calling the duty officer, but since I could manage it, I thought it best to get going.

I was focused on getting to the train but not so much on other post-race things. I had the bagels, of course, and I had brought some oral rehydration salts from the medical kit. I knew that the best thing would be RICE – rest/ice/compression/elevation – but that those would be hard to get. I did rest, but the train was too crowded for me to put my feet up. I tried to stretch and to self-massage, but by the time I got to Meknes I was stiff. I limped down the stairs and up the stairs and found a hotel and went to McDonald’s (nearby, and a sundae seemed appealing).

I had gotten permission to attend a trade fair in Meknes today – the weaving cooperative and the rock-carver were there. I had a bagel for breakfast and slowly but surely walked there. There weren’t a lot of customers and there wasn’t a lot for me to do – I recommended that they make signs (which I can help with) and bring business cards (which they already have but didn’t bring) and scoped out the competition and stayed for about an hour talking to the artisans. Then I decided to walk along that long corridor past the palace to the granary, finally getting to the other end of the imperial city. It was impressive – huge granary and cisterns and stables for 12,000 horses – and then I walked back (leaving the prison for another day because it was closed for lunch, and not going to the medina either for the same reason). All in all I probably walked about two hours today – stiffly, but I think it was good to walk. Though I have a tiny blister on my foot from the run and a sorer spot from the shoes I wore today! Went to Marjane – I wanted to buy some frozen peas, which make good ice packs; didn’t find them but I did find ice. And I had compressed my legs today by wearing pantyhose. And now I’m home! Resting and elevating and icing some and going to bed early. Contemplating an April half-marathon (or 10K) in Casablanca…or perhaps a massage here this week, if I can get one.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I haven’t been sleeping well this week. I think it’s mostly nerves about the ns-marathon (ns is darija for half; I usually have qhwa ns-ns when I go to the café – half coffee, half milk). I felt pretty good when I did my last long run last week, but I can’t help but feel I have not put in enough miles. I have been running here at altitude and Marrakesh is flat – that should help. I think just getting into the race atmosphere will help too – being with all of those other people should help carry me along. So should the memory that the last time I ran 10K (less than half of a ns-marathon, which is 21K or 13.1 miles) I had just swum 1.5 K and biked 40K, and I made it, though with lots of walking. If I have to walk this Sunday there’s no shame in it! I had a massage on Tuesday – here (as opposed to at the luxury hotels), the room is a little cold and there’s a little less modesty involved than I’m used to back home, but it did help loosen tight muscles. I did two short runs this week, after the latter of which I went to the hammam for further muscle relaxation – stretching in the steamy hot room felt good. Now I’m in hydration mode – drinking as much water as I can. It’s always a challenge to drink enough water when I travel, and I’m hoping that hydrating now will be enough, because on the eight-hour bus ride tomorrow I want to drink just enough – not too little and not too much. The next step in my preparation is positive thinking/creative visualization – I can do it!

I’ve probably been just as stressed (or maybe more) by the logistics of getting down there and back than I am by the race itself. I decided that the CTM bus down there makes the most sense – I don’t have to get up as early as I do when I take the train, and I can just walk down the hill as opposed to worrying about a taxi making the connection in time. I won’t have as much time in Marrakesh as I would like, but I don’t want to do a lot of walking around anyway; I’ll just have to schedule another trip down there soon for more souk and more tourism (which probably still won’t be enough…). I already have my bus ticket, I already registered for the marathon, I have a riad reservation. I’m planning to have a carbo-loading pasta dinner with Rob and to play cards with Connie (we’ve been talking about cards for a while and now I think we are finally going to be in the same place at the same time) and drink water. As for getting back, well, if all goes well I will get home by dark – and if it’s a little bit after dark, that’s okay, and if it’s a lot after dark, I just have to call the duty officer. So I have nothing to worry about! I was talking to a friend here about bagels being the perfect post-run food – and she’s coming over later to make bagels! They might be good bus food, too.

I might also not be sleeping well because there’s a lot on my mind and a lot going on. Last weekend a friend and I were on our way to Michliffen to ski – I knew it had been warm in Azrou but thought that since Ifrane is at a higher elevation there might still be snow. We got there and it too was warm and sunny and all the snow I had seen the previous week when on the way to Figuig had melted – it had to be 70 degrees – and I was overdressed so too hot to negotiate. We would have had to buy out a taxi and have it wait for us. I would have done that if I knew for sure that we would ski, but it just didn’t seem possible that there was enough snow. So I suggested we get a cake mix and go home and bake it and tally GAD harassment surveys (I usually bake from scratch, but since cake mix is hard to find, it now falls under the category of treat). First we had lunch at a café in Ifrane – it seemed far away from the rest of Morocco and felt like a mini-vacation.

I discovered in the fall that it is good to visit COSing volunteers; they are ready to give things away – I got some teas, knitting yarn, books and spices. Well, now I have discovered that it’s also good to catch people near the end of home stay – they are eager to get out of the house. We returned after lunch and spent Saturday afternoon on the surveys – I tallied them and she typed up the open-ended comments – and then we spent most of Sunday on it too. Didn’t finish though and it was on my mind. She came back again and we finished on Wednesday and I sent the raw tallies and 20 pages of open-ended comments to the rest of the GAD committee for analysis, comments and next steps. While the task of tallying was on my mind, also on my mind is the subject of harassment itself and what we can do about it. I have mentioned before that harassment is prevalent here. The surveys helped to document that. Most of the harassment takes the form of catcalls, but there is also some stalking and inappropriate physical contact. Men don’t get harassed in the same way, but (from all indications) could use more training in being supportive of female PCVs who are harassed. And sexual isn’t the only form of harassment – other forms mentioned were racial, religious, political, anti-American, and kids throwing rocks. My initial recommendations would be to have more training, with PCVs talking about their experiences and coping strategies, and maybe an additional diversity panel just focusing on harassment and how all volunteers can support those who get extra harassment. But half of the respondents said that they felt there was enough training (I think only half, but staff could look at it as fully half). Are we going to be able to convince staff of this so that extra sessions can be included in the next PST and IST, which are right around the corner? Can we put something about this (at least coping strategies?) in the next Peace Works? Can we do something with VSN as well? This was keeping me awake. Perhaps not coincidentally, I had encounters with three men this week, all of whom I have had encounters with before, and all of which made me uncomfortable. This morning I found two love notes under my door - if they weren't left by the little girls who live down two flights, then I'm even more uncomfortable.

We also got approval on the natural dye/weaving training-of-trainers workshop! When we still hadn’t heard on Monday, I was beginning to get a little down, and then when we heard on Tuesday, I put other things aside for the moment to work on that! We sent out the official invites to the other PCVs involved and started working on logistics. I’m really excited about the workshop. I had already adjusted my thinking of what I would work on this week when my counterpart asked me for a report for the Ministry on my projects – what I have done, what I am doing, and what I will do. This seemed similar to a report I had done before, but as I started working on it I realize that it’s different – and that I have a lot to say, meaning that I feel I have done a lot, am doing a lot and hope to do a lot! So I’m still working on that one, and I am going to also work on a topline version that I’ll have translated into French. It bothers me a little that I haven’t finished it yet, but I think that’s because initially it looked like a short form to fill out so I didn’t mentally budget enough time for it at first. I actually think I can finish it today and then it won't be on my mind over the weekend. It also occurs to me that listing my accomplishments and projects this way will be helpful when it comes time to update my resume.

Sandwiched in with all of this was the burning desire to read a book. Sue Grafton is my favorite mystery author; I was introduced to her abecedarian series when she was around E, and somehow made it through to R with the willpower to wait for the books to come out in paperback. For my birthday two years ago, Debbie gave me the hardcover edition of “S is for Silence” – a great present, because it was something I would have wanted and wouldn’t have done for myself. This year I decided that as a Peace Corps treat, I would order for myself the hardcover edition of “T is for Trespass.” It came on Friday. Since I had convinced someone to help me with the surveys, I decided that that took precedence over reading. Did some more tallying on Saturday night and Monday night on my own but then I couldn’t take it any more and started reading – and with the pressure of holding out off, that was my best night’s sleep of the week so far. Tuesday night I was trying to figure out how to get everything done and still finish the book this week. Wednesday night – with the surveys done and emailed out, the logistics memo started and commented on, and the Ministry report unfinished but reasons why justified, and anything else on my to-do list postponed until the mystery was resolved, I stayed up until Thursday morning to finish it! I have two more mysteries, also hardcover versions of series I’m emotionally invested in, but I don’t feel I need to read them right away (though I sense that I will soon).

I also felt I had to/wanted to/it was time to see my “host families” this week – both the one I lived with when I got here and Youssef’s. But first – tea at Abdou’s, which was also overdue, and we were joined by Youssef the rock-carver and his adorable two-year-old daughter. More kittens are on the way – this time I had not just a purring cat on my lap but a purring pregnant cat! I saw my homestay family on Thursday afternoon; brought over the absentee ballot I got in the mail for a little cultural exchange (since I had already printed out and mailed a ballot that was on the internet). And will see Youssef’s family for couscous today at lunchtime! I made an album of l-Eid photos for them. All of these visits have calmed me down – it would be healthy to adopt the feeling that there’s always time to stay for tea…. Hopefully I’ll sleep well tonight, and I think I’ll bring my white noise machine on the road for tomorrow night.

Joy will be here next week – she’s an international consultant who has done quite a bit of work in Africa; she’ll be here between trips to Madagascar and Jordan with some Paris thrown in. She had good advice for me before I came here and I’m interested in what she might say about possibilities for the rest of my service and beyond. It will be fun to make the rounds with her - I’ve already penciled in a cooking lesson and a couscous lunch – and I’d like to get some work done on the web site if she has work to catch up on as well. I also woke up Sunday night with my heart pounding about filing (of all things… filing… in the Peace Corps) so maybe I can do that too. And/or maybe a hike if the weather stays this nice! It’s hard to believe it will get cold again but even harder to believe that it won’t. Looks like a busy month ahead – or two months – or ten-plus months….

The picture is another from vacation – taken at the medersa in Marrakesh. Last but not least - strawberries are here!

Friday, January 18, 2008


I met a princess this week. Had lunch on Monday with the new Timhadite volunteer, went to tutoring, and went back to the artisana, where I saw a bunch of people in camouflage gear, plus a couple of dogs. I asked my counterpart what was going on and he said it was the king’s sister. King Hassan II, that is – I would call her the king’s aunt, because that’s her relationship to the current king, but to them she’s the king’s sister. Anyway, a member of her entourage started talking to me and she told him I was Peace Corps – she said it in English, and I’m not sure how she knew. I remembered our car picnic by the lake, where a shepherd had told Youssef that the king’s sister likes to hunt ducks. Camouflage – dogs – aha, hunting party. I asked the entourage member if they had been hunting ducks and he said yes, but not him personally – he was just along because he’s her friend. I told him I had never met a real princess and he told me she was as modest a princess as you’d find, and he introduced me to her and I shook her hand. Little-girl fantasies of blue chiffon evening gown and diamond tiara became the reality of camouflage jacket and pants, but she did use a cigarette holder, which was a nice touch. Later I asked my counterpart if she had bought anything and he said yes, but I’m not sure what….

Prompted by friends, I decided to write a letter to the editor of the Times about the op-ed I mentioned last time. I sent it to our country director first – he likes to review anything sent to the media. When I submitted it (and if I get published I would be following in footsteps – my mother was once mentioned in the Times; Albert Shanker wrote an open letter to her in a United Federation of Teachers ad, and a creation of my father’s appeared in a Times crossword puzzle book) I noted that it had to be 150 words or less, so I revised it. It did lose some of its punch, I think, but is still fit to print. I sent the revision to the country director with a cover note that I didn’t want him to be surprised if he saw it in print. He wrote back saying that he likes to avoid surprises when possible. I replied to him that I didn’t know if this qualified, but that I had met the princess, and he responded that yes, meeting a member of the royal family definitely fell into the no-surprise category, and that the Timhadite volunteer had called our program assistant on Monday night to report it. Got it.

I did submit the longer version to an RPCV blog, and it was published there. Let me know and I can send you the link, or just send you the letter. It hasn’t generated a lot of comments one way or the other here, as far as I can tell – not sure what that implies – maybe people aren’t as into thinking about the big picture of the Peace Corps as I am?

On Tuesday I had lunch with the new SBD Ait Hamza volunteer, and then later in the week with the new SBD Ain Leuh volunteer and the new SBD in Ait Yahia Oualla (new site! One of the rural communities I was supposed to visit way back when….). All of the new volunteers have varying degrees of stress – language, host family, finding housing and getting it approved, not sure about work yet – I am sure I sounded like this last year and was grateful to have Amanda and Katie as sounding boards, and I am happy to serve as one for them. I know I didn’t feel settled for months – living out of a suitcase, then getting my apartment set up, having frustrations with tutoring and with mixed messages from counterpart and staff….

Another major part of the week has been hosting an export contact. She’s a student who lived and worked in Rabat last year and had an idea to open a fair-trade rug business in the states; she’s applied for an entrepreneurial grant for seed money to do it and is here on a grant that she won in order to do research and lay groundwork. We had a long talk with my counterpart – I knew (and had told her) most of what he said but I also learned some new things about the weaving cooperative here in Azrou and its history. For example, most of the women are illiterate. I knew that was the case in the rural sites, but the people here that I talk to the most (the officers) are literate and even know French; that may be part of the reason they are officers. I set the contact up with the other volunteers in the area, and when she was out visiting them, I did a training run and some errands and other things such as writing to my World Wise Schools class and cooking dinners. Dinner on Wednesday was just ready when the butagas went out – empty! Only my second kitchen empty; I have gone through four or five shower butas already. At least dinner was done! But this was a test of how effective the hot water bottles are in keeping me warm. She said she would be okay without the guest hot water bottle, so I didn’t fill mine from the shower-buta water (it wouldn’t have been that hot anyway). Well, I shivered for at least half the night, under four blankets, with my fleece long underwear/pajamas! The next buta should get me through the winter – and in all likelihood run out next time when I have a lot of guests and am just beginning to cook a meal!

At all of the lunches with the new SBDs I have brought up the trainings and the idea of working on them collaboratively – after I looked at everything last week I decided that I would still like to be involved, but I also still don’t want to take on too much more than is already on my plate. Working with the new volunteers in the area seems to be an ideal way to go – and I did write the program staff to keep them in the loop so they don’t think I am distracting the new volunteers from their community integration and primary projects in their own sites. We’ll see where this goes. We don’t have an answer yet on the natural dye/weaving training-of-trainers either. And I decided to write program staff to say that I heard that I would not be replaced and should I approach my work differently – I have been approaching it as if there would be someone following me – and if so, how I would do that.

Today one of the LCFs was coming through, testing people for language – they didn’t necessarily meet the minimum level before swearing-in, but were told they would be retested rather than sent home (the threat of being sent home, in my opinion, is not a motivator, but I digress). I asked her if she would evaluate me informally and give me some strategies for what to do next in tutoring. She noted improvement, especially in comprehension, and told me to work on verbs and conjugations and that vocabulary would come. I mentioned that I also wanted to read – at least to be able to sound things out, not necessarily to learn classical Arabic (which is the written language; darija is a spoken dialect) and she got very excited when I mentioned that – so that’s added incentive. I still want to add French as well, and I am not sure when I’ll feel I’ve had enough darija to do that, or whether I should try to add it now – that, I didn’t bring up. I was glad she took the time to spend with me on the darija and somehow it seemed – I don’t know, disloyal? – to tell her. I didn’t do any language work this week with hosting the export contact (just after I found the rhythm, too – I wasn’t planning to host her, either, but it just seemed to be the right thing to do to offer her a place, and not only was she a good guest, she also had a lot of ideas and interesting perspectives) so I’ll try to some this weekend.

The picture is of some of the Safi pottery I bought. I looked at my pictures of Safi and they didn’t seem to capture the colors and patterns. The pottery is depicted on top of the rug I bought (under some duress, but I have since gotten many compliments!) from the Azrou cooperative. And I wrote a poem for Peace Works – foregoing haiku, limerick or iambic pentameter, free verse seemed to flow this time. It was partially inspired by a new dish I made; having company made me want to try something new – using available resources, I made eggplant (plus zucchini) parmigiana (actually red ball)…

Ode to Red Ball

Back in the states, I knew you as Edam
I liked you and enjoyed your company every so often
But you were one of many options

Now, you have elevated status
You make my eyes light up
You are a splurge, a treat, a delicacy

You are the parmesan on my pasta
You are the mozzarella on my pizza
You are the ricotta in my lasagna
You are the Monterey jack in my tortillas
You are the cheddar on my macaroni
And oh, a little bit with eggs? Mmmmmm!
You are all cheeses! You are every cheese!

You are breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
Grate, slice, chunk, even take a bite out of the big wedge….
Etini eshrin dirham, 3afak! La, tlatin!
Plus, I can play with the red wax.

And now I’ve been introduced
To La Vache Qui Rit with Red Ball!
This could be the start of a whole new dimension to our relationship…

This weekend I was planning to tally the harassment surveys for GAD – our next meeting is in mid-February and it seemed a good block of time to work on those. But I talked one of the new volunteers into skiing! Azrou has had an even warmer spell this week than last, but I heard that there was still lots of snow at the higher elevations. And – I ordered some mystery novels in the mail and had them sent to my sister and two of them arrived today (along with one shoe – I thought if the shoes were sent in separate packages they would have a better chance of getting to me – so far so good). Hm – in the Needs Assessment and Priority Matrix, skiing vs. tallying surveys came up skiing. How about reading a long-awaited mystery novel vs. tallying surveys? I did my final pre-ns-marathon long run today but still want to get in a couple of short runs (and a hammam to loosen things up, if not a massage) before next Sunday’s race….

Monday, January 14, 2008


Figuig or bust! That’s not what I said at the time, but when I showed Linda how to make postcards in Power Point (skills transfer from a COS’ed volunteer) that’s what we put on the postcard, and it is apropos. To appreciate how remote Figuig is, you have to look at a road map of Morocco, not just a map with cities marked – or maybe you have to look at the map in the Peace Corps office that has pushpins indicating where the volunteers are placed – Figuig is way off to the lower-right-hand side, possibly further away from other volunteers than anyone else.

Which is why they put the married couple in my stage there. Of course, the last married couple they put there ETed. I remember the woman who represented married couples at the diversity panel last year saying that people assume that they don’t need other friends because they had each other – shortly after that panel, she and her husband ET’ed – word on the street was that Peace Corps was putting a strain on their marriage. Anyway, I remembered that and resolved to visit Bob and Linda if I could – though it was more because I really like them than because of the diversity panel or the desire to see Figuig, though those were factors as well. When last weekend’s trip was cancelled and this weekend’s four-day weekend was announced (it wasn’t officially Islamic New Year on Thursday until nightfall on Wednesday, when the Moroccan imams saw the moon and proclaimed it so), it seemed destined that I go to Figuig!

I had to catch the 10:55 train from Fes to Oujda. I now know exactly when a grand taxi has to pull out of Azrou to get to either Meknes or Fes to make a train – allowing an extra few minutes for a stop at the police station (to check papers, which sometimes happens – though only once has it been my papers) or the gas station – and at 9:10 I bought extra spots so that we could leave; I just made the train. For the bus rides on my journey, I read Real Simples and New Yorkers, but on the train, I worked on my darija dictionary. New motivation! The train pulled in on time at 4:35 and I had a chance to explore Oujda.

Oujda is the largest city in the east, near the Algerian border, and has seen some hard times since the border was closed in 1995. It’s at the end of the train line (Marrakesh is at the other end, so I’ve covered it all!) and, like Taza, which I visited almost a year ago now, is on a strategic route – with the Rif mountains to the north and the Middle Atlas to the south, it’s the main overland connection to the rest of North Africa, and it was invaded routinely. Oujda is the only Moroccan city that was once ruled by the Ottomans; they didn’t get any farther. The French took over Oujda before they took the rest of the Protectorate and built a big provincial capital. It’s not far from the Mediterranean, so that might be a reason to go back, but other than that there’s nothing special about it. I had a little time to explore the medina before dark – lots of jewelry shops, lots of kitchenware and the usual assortment of jellabas and knockoff-type Western wear, along with food stalls that were quite crowded. I thought people might look different – I’ve heard that the accent is very different, close to Algerian Arabic – but I could understand people well enough, and there’s no “typical Moroccan look,” so I can’t say people looked different! There seemed to be more people in Western dress than in traditional garb, but I also saw people in their “Friday best” for the New Year! I was looking forward to the store with imported foods so I could stock up for the bus ride, but that had closed. I was looking forward to the French restaurant so that I could treat myself after having cheese and cookies on the train, but that had closed too (or was otherwise unfindable). So I found an inexpensive place to eat and an inexpensive place to sleep and some more cookies for the bus ride and called it a night.

CTM goes from Oujda to Figuig every other day and I was in luck; Friday was the every other day. The bus left at 5:45 am, but the beauty of CTM is that it doesn’t make those random stops that souk buses make, so it stays more or less on schedule and arrives around noon – had it been a non-CTM day I would have left around eight, I think, and arrived around 5:30 pm. We were a little delayed because of thick fog in the green part of the north (I guess it’s green because it gets fog and things can grow!) but then we were in the flat desert for most of the rest of the way, punctuated by a dusty city every now and then. No hint that at the end of the road, an oasis with 200,000 palm trees awaited.

Linda and Bob might be the people in my stage closest to me in age and in business background. Their life circumstances are different – they’re married and have children – but they are thought-full people and it was great to talk with them; I had a great walk on the beach with Linda at IST, a nice coffee with them in Sefrou on the Elisa and Steve trip, a dinner with them at MSM, and two dinners with them when back for the Rabat Craft Fair, and even though I saw a lot of them last month, there were still so many things to talk about! Before I go on, however, I must say something about the acronyms. I was filing some changes to the Policy and Procedures Manual recently and I noticed that COS is Completion of Service! Where did I get Close of Service from? This changes everything! Okay, maybe not…. Anyway, they live in a great house, with a courtyard for breakfast and lunch al fresco, lots of built-in shelving and cabinets, a garden, and all sorts of little decorative touches. We had multiple-course meals – where I pile everything into one dish, they had side salads, soup, cheese and bread for lunch, eggs and cereal and yogurt and fruit for breakfast and a main course with side salads for dinner. I happened to be there just after a care package arrived, too, so in addition to fruit for dessert we had chocolate!

Figuig is another city that used to be a busy border town but has suffered since the border was closed. At its closest point, Algeria is 2 km away – and Algeria surrounds it on three sides. It was also a stop on the land route to Mecca. Its people feel so isolated from the rest of the country that they think of themselves as Figuigis first and Moroccans second, but because of that there is a lot of civic pride. The people who left send money into the town and there are strong town associations, with cultural events, clean streets, and people who help one another (people told Bob and Linda it would be insulting if they locked their bikes – nobody would take them). The married women cover themselves in white except for one eye, but traditional does not mean conservative – many people said hello to us as we passed, and we to them. Bob and Linda are very happy there and doing interesting work!

After a delicious lunch, we hopped on bikes (they borrowed one for Bob, I used Linda’s and Linda used Bob’s) – great ns-marathon cross-training for me! Figuig is made up of seven separate ksars, and they live in one on the lower part of town; we rode to the upper part (I walked the last part; it’s a steep ridge) to the Figuig Hotel, where we had coffee and looked at the view of the palmerie – palms not quite as far as the eye can see but made even more dramatic by their abruptly ending where the water ends and the desert begins, and then mountains beyond that. We rode to the artisana, closed for the holiday, but their counterpart was there working, so I saw the showroom – carpets, knitted clothing, and baskets made of hefla, a grass that grows only in eastern Morocco (as opposed to helfa, which is a party – I think I have that right!) were the featured items. The baskets and woven bags are made by nomads (which reminds me – if you take the desert trip out of M’Hmid, you visit nomads, as I did on the trip with Helen!). Bob and Linda work with a newly-formed weaving cooperative, are working on a web site for the artisana, teach English to some of the artisans, have visited the nomads and may work with them, are doing secondary projects such as bike safety and working at the dar chebab, have Gregg coming in the next couple of weeks for a natural dye seminar, and in general have done a good job of community integration! I bought some baskets and a sweater poncho that was and will be a nice additional layer for cold interiors. We then took a ride around a big loop and back to their house – they do that loop almost every day for exercise. Figuig is great for biking.

On Saturday morning, we rode out to Figuig’s historic attractions – an old agadir, or fortress, now undergoing restoration, and a thousand-year-old mosque. We went to the dar chebab and the center of town and then rode on the paths of the palmerie. At one sharp turn, I fell. Simultaneous thoughts ran through my head – I hope I didn’t rip one of the few pairs of pants I have that fit (sort of – they’re all loose)…I hope I didn’t wreck Linda’s bike…I hope I didn’t damage my knee just before the ns-marathon. None of the three happened, though I did skin my knee and require a rummage through their first-aid kit. And I got right back on that bike! We rode to an overlook on Treq (street) Azrou (how about that!) and once again viewed the expanse of palmerie. Figuig reminded me of Quebec City, with its upper and lower towns (but the similarity ends there). We then went through the older part of the lower town, Zenaga - the narrow streets there are tunnel-like - with ceilings made from palm stems and fronds - which keeps things cooler and dark. We were lucky with the weather - last year at this time (and last week!) they were bundled up, but this weekend no hats and gloves were necessary (though layers were) - perfect biking weather (I don't need to say that the summer is hot). On the way home for lunch, I asked if they had to do a lot of bike maintenance – whether that sent the thought to the universe or made them more conscious is unclear, but before we went back out they had to fix three flat tires. Back out, we rode out to some rocks to see the sunset – a little climbing and another nice view – and then stopped at the community center, where some of the dar chebab youth were performing skits and dances (early nominee for Best Live Performance – actually, early nominee for Best New Place and maybe Best Weekend as well, though not for Holiday Card Photo – helmet hair!). Bob’s vegetable tagine followed (he’s just started cooking with a tagine – more inspiration for me to do it too!), and some Boggle, and then the skills transfer and other sharing of work.

Yesterday was the long ride back – but all things considered, not a bad ride. It started in the wee hours of the morning with beautiful desert stars, and thirteen hours, two magazines and three souk buses later, I was back at home. I had my papers checked on the way in and out of Figuig (and also at another point on the CTM ride) – maybe the proximity to the border means the gendarmes want to account for all foreigners. I did sleep twelve hours last night and I’m dragging a bit today, but I loved my visit to Figuig and had a great time with Bob and Linda!

Before I close, I want to draw your attention to an op-ed that appeared in last week’s New York Times, “Too Many Innocents Abroad,” I hope the link is still active when you look – I would reprint the article in its entirety but don’t know if that would be uncool – if you can’t get it, I can email it to you. Basically, it says that while older volunteers have a lot to offer, the majority of Peace Corps volunteers are still fresh out of college, and don’t have enough experience to be productive now that the world has changed since the Peace Corps began. The Times has since published several letters to the editor with conflicting (but also concurring) opinions, and since friends have asked me what I think, I may weigh in as well.

Monday, January 07, 2008


I don’t know when or how I first heard of the Paris-Dakar rally – might it have been on Wide World of Sports? I have this image in my head of vehicles skittering along through sand at breakneck speeds. When I went to Erfoud last year and our guide said that we were on the Paris-Dakar rally route, I thought that was cool. Michael Palin, in “Sahara,” timed his visit so that the rally crossed his path (or vice versa). On the way to M’Hamid, the guide there also said that we were on the Paris-Dakar route. And when I went to Merzouga the next week and Hmad mentioned that the Paris-Dakar rally would be in the area on January 5 and 6, I invited myself to go! I figured it (and Hmad confirmed it) to be like the Tour de France (which I would also like to see some day) – you wait around and all of a sudden the race goes by so quickly that you can’t even get a picture of it. But it still sounded great! As did the thought of bicycling in the palmerie with Frank and whoever else was going to join us.

Slowly but surely the plan unraveled – first, I looked up the rally on the internet and it turned out that it was going to start in Lisbon this year. Not a deterrent, but it didn’t have the same ring to it. Then, it turned out that this year’s route wasn’t going to go through Merzouga – that’s okay; it seemed that there might be an opportunity to see the encampment in Errachidia on Sunday. It was never the driving force (no pun intended) of going away for the weekend anyway – just seemed like a good reason to choose this particular one. Then the big snowstorm happened. When it took Janeila over two hours to get here from Immouzer (it normally takes maybe half an hour) I started fretting about the road conditions – here to Erfoud is a long trip on a clear day, and the thought of taking several extra hours to get there made it start to seem unappealing – not to mention that the pass from here to there is the first to close and the last to open. So I mentally prepared myself not to go, though I packed (in the dark – more on that in a bit). Then Frank texted to say that he heard on BBC News that this year’s rally was cancelled due to safety concerns in Mauritania (look at the BBC web site or the Dakar web site for details – incidentally a fellow PCV thinks that the Marrakesh Marathon is a terrorism opportunity; my feeling is that I would be far enough in the back of the pack…I have spent much more time thinking about how I am going to get there and back than whether or not I am a target – not that I’m not cautious of course).

And then I got an invitation to go skiing with the six-pack on Sunday – something I had said I had wanted to do! There were a few inches on the ground here in Azrou, but over two feet in the higher elevations. And next weekend is a long weekend due to holidays – without the rally, I could go to Erfoud next weekend if Frank were up for it and then not feel so pressed for time. Or somewhere else, efficiently using one of my two monthly allocated Saturday out-of-sites. And then I could stay home and read on Saturday, satisfying some pent-up reading demand! I still packed. After all, Frank (and, it turned out, Jong) awaited.

In the meantime, I had an enjoyable birthday morning on Friday – once on my birthday Chicago had its biggest snow in all my years there; I felt that was a present from above and that this year’s was as well. I wrote a little and read a little. When Janeila arrived, we went to the pizza place and then to get travel snacks and a light bulb. I think the joke needs a better punch line, but the real answer is two – one to balance on the counter and the other to “spot” (as in gym class back in sixth grade). I pulled the bare-bulb wire down to the point where I can now safely reach it should I need to replace it again. Not quite immediately after we replaced the bulb, the electricity went out. The ground-floor neighbors had snow-water coming out of some sockets so they decided to cut the electricity off for all of us. I’m not sure why my apartment had to be cut off and not just theirs (or even just that room), but I did not have the language skills or knowledge of wiring to argue or reason with them. Last week when Janeila was here we saw some Buche de Noel on display at the Escalade – and noted that it was really Buche de New Year’s here since there’s not much in the way of Noel – and we thought about going there to see if they still had some and then it would be Buche de Birthday, but her shoes and socks were soaked through and with no space heater to dry them or warm up by, we decided that our travel snacks would be dinner and dessert.

She read my tarot cards by candlelight (good thing I have purchased candle holders from both the rock-carver and the metal-worker!), which added to their spiritual quality. Some things that I will share: The cards said a man helping me with my career (last time they said this too but it was two men), maybe Washington D.C. next, something possibly requiring more training – maybe library or archiving, something with research and books. She saw that what was most significant for the rest of my service was just showing up and that I should not discount how much that alone is appreciated. She said that I have many friends who care a lot about me (see, this is why I put stock in the tarot cards!). I wanted to ask something about this simplicity issue I have been wrestling with, and we found it was hard to frame a question. When I finally did, the answer was that yes, it is hard – I use my brain a lot and I find everything to be interesting. So the answer isn’t cutting anything out but just scaling back – maybe going to three games a year instead of one a week, as an example, or focusing on the post-season….

Saturday morning I carried my pack down to the CTM, where we learned that the pass was closed and I could not get to Erfoud. Not only that, but the CTM to take her to Marrakesh wasn’t coming (we played some rummy while waiting for that news). So we went to the Escalade for pastry and Bilal for coffee and tea – alas, no more Buche de Noel. She decided she really wanted to try to get home, so she took a grand taxi to Meknes and got on the train – and I hunkered down in the living room, since the glow of the sun made it nice for reading, piled on some blankets, and started a book. It’s cold in there though, and even when the electricity came back and I moved the space heater in there, I was too cold, so it was back to the kitchen.

As I was trying to stay warm under the blankets, though, I had an epiphany. This week I was planning to start working on the grant proposal for the follow-up to the Katie-Jehan-Lauren workshops; I really felt inspired when I spoke to them about it. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I don’t have to do it though. The program assistant called on Thursday to question the natural dye/weaving workshop and requested that the trainers come to Rabat to justify it. Janeila said that she would rather drop out than do that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gregg does the same. I thought I put a great proposal together, and I don’t know that I feel like putting together another one that will be so scrutinized. Bouchra didn’t let me go to the Katie et. al. trainings last year, and the Azrou cooperative was not invited. It seemed logical that I help carry it on, since most of the SBD people in the area are first-years, but I’ve noticed that when I mention working on it with her to Rose she pretends she didn’t hear me. Why don’t the first-years work on it after their IST? Maybe it’s even better for the artisans if more time passes. I’ll still look at it this week, but maybe with the same mindset with which I looked at the GRE material. Why should I work so hard? I have a lot on my plate as it is! The web site alone is a worthy project to carry me through to the end of my service if I decide to make it so. I have the rest of my life to work so hard – or not, since I don’t want to work so hard then either! How is that for an ephipany? Have I finally come around to the mindset that other PCVs have? My saying of 2007 was that if I can’t learn to relax here in the Peace Corps in Morocco I will never learn it - am I finally, finally getting it? It took a lot of fortitude to be at home this weekend and not look at the files for those trainings or work on the web site or the GAD harassment surveys. I had been saying for a while that I had pent-up reading and writing (as in with a pen) demand, and decided to feed those needs instead! In addition, the quarterly report I did last week had questions (albeit towards the end of several pages that focused on goal #1) about goal #2 and goal #3, so it served as a reminder that I work on those too.

I didn’t go skiing either, and I had a mindset change there too. As Saturday unfolded, the plans of the six-pack kept changing (partially due to the fact that half were without electricity or phone and/or were snowed in) and they decided that there would be other chances to ski. I thought about going on my own anyway, since the ski area never opened last year at all, and I felt that this could be the one opportunity. But then I decided to adopt the same attitude – there’ll be other chances. Now whether there are or not remains to be seen, but I think it’s a healthier way to think and a good approach to the new year and to life in general – there’ll be other chances! So – armed with my new outlooks, I went for my longest run yet – on a sunny, warmish day – and bought vegetables and fruit and a first, meat just for myself (in the mood for a meaty pasta sauce!) and read more and wrote!

This week I am going to resume tutoring, and I am happy about that. It was a long time without, but worth it to wait until I am eager to do it. I hope to make some progress on the web site, and I am going to work to keep the natural dye/weaving workshop a possibility. I am going to look at the Katie-Jehan-Lauren material to see how I want to proceed with that, although as of my epiphany I am ready to let it go. I should expand on that a little more because when I refer to it I know what I mean but it may be too much shorthand. They brought together members of their cooperatives as well as others in the Middle Atlas region (again, not mine) as well as some individual artisans for three days of basic business skills and also technical/artistic skills training. They located a place to host the trainings including transportation, meals and lodging, they found guest speakers and created materials, they engaged students from Al Akhawayn to sit with small groups and help with language and exercises, they wrote a grant and raised the money to make this happen, they wrote a detailed report. They came through in November to interview all the participants as to what they learned, what they use and what they still need – I attended one of these interviews and talked with them about it and that’s what made me think it would be a good project for me (that is, for me to work on with other PCVs, since it is a big project for one person). Now that I write this I still think it might be, so maybe I should think about how to make it happen without overextending myself as opposed to dropping it entirely…. as the tarot cards recommended, still getting involved but somehow scaling back…. And this is a three-day work week. Thursday is a religious holiday for Islamic New Year, and Friday a Moroccan holiday that celebrates the Presentation of the Independence Proclamation (as opposed to the Feast of Independence, which is November 18).

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Last installment of the vacation writeup, only a little over a month afterwards…. So – a comparison of the two desert trips: well, they were both wonderful; that’s a start. M’Hamid was more of a turnkey operation – the same operator had the lunch spot, the camels, the 4x4 and the overnight oasis. We were the only people for miles around, although there were more people than in our camp in Merzouga. We had a personal guide take care of us at the campsite. The dunes themselves were comparable – awe-inspiring. I guess for me it was nicer to ride the camel through the Merzouga dunes as opposed to flat desert, but the sandstorm may have impacted that, and the 4x4 ride on the M’Hamid trip was too long for me, but you have to go that far to get to the big dunes. In a way I liked it better because it was more intimate, and if all things were equal I might go there again before Merzouga. But all things are not equal – it is much farther from me than Merzouga is. In Merzouga the flip site of intimate is that it seemed more touristy – but maybe also a better overall package. If you are of the mindset that five minutes on the camel is enough, you might not like the fact that you not only go two hours in on a camel but also two hours out! The side trips of the fort, the fossils and Rissani made it a more varied experience. Who knows – maybe I will do both again! Or neither. I definitely would recommend either – or both!

Even though I had not thought about it while in the desert, I had in mind that we would leave the area earlier than we did. I already knew it would be a long driving day to get all the way to Marrakesh, and leaving later made it longer. In retrospect, it might have made more sense to stay over somewhere on the way, but it was nice to wake up the next day and be in Marrakesh! And our baked goods and other car snacks came in handy. And I am glad we didn’t rush out of the Erfoud area – the camel ride was relaxing and the stops were interesting. We did make a couple of short stops on our long drive – one in Tinghir for lunch, a delicious Berber omelette, and one in Kelaa M’Gouna, where we met Shawn at a café and played four hands of rummy with him. A power –rummy visit but a really fun stop, all the more delightful because Helen and I had not had time to stop the week before – I didn’t want that to happen again!

Steve and Elisa said they didn’t mind sharing rooms – I shared suites with Martha and Susan as well, but they don’t have children, and I thought Steve and Elisa (who do) might want some time to themselves, but if they were okay with it so was I. In Marrakesh we had a room with a single bed on one floor and a double bed up a staircase, so at least they had some space. The riad I booked was about the same distance north of the Jemaa al Fna as the one Helen and I had been in was south, so once again we saw overlapping but different parts of the city. Lonely Planet has a “recommended walk” with interesting shops and boutiques – turns out our riad was right on the street mentioned in the book, so we looked at some of the shops and boutiques. We then did the triple attraction of the north side of the medina – the Medersa Ben Youssef, which was as striking and impressive as the ones in Fes, the Musee de Marrakesh, a stunning former palace with some interesting displays of costumes and jewelry, and the Koubba Biadiyn, the model from which all the koubbas in the country (and there are a lot of them – they are white-domed little shrines to founders of towns and other descendants of the prophet) was derived.

We then had lunch at Café des Epices, where I had met Rob before IST, with Rob – tried to see him later for gelato as well but the timing didn’t work out. On to the souks! To the dyers, who unfortunately were closed for lunch so we were unable to get a demonstration, and around – again, not souked out by Marrakesh yet! After our ice cream, we walked to the Menara garden, site of the postcard shot of the pool and pavillon with the snow-covered High Atlas in the background. The mountains were obscured, but the next day we saw a postcard truck with the postcard shot, so at least I could show them what it looks like! Maybe I will see it when I am there for the half-marathon; I haven’t seen it yet either. As it was, we saw the pavilion, the reflecting pool and the sunset, and we had a nice walk there and back. We also had a quick stop at the artisana. And then we had dinner in the same restaurant Helen and I and my family and I had been to – Rob had said that if he had one dinner to go to in Marrakesh, that is where he would go, and he’s a restaurant guy. And it wasn’t hard for me to go back to the same place – the food was delicious!

Saturday’s destinations were all new to me, and therefore especially appealing (not that the others weren’t, of course). This was a chance to fill in much of the Atlantic Coast between Essouraira and Casablanca – and to see the ocean. We started in Safi, which had much more to it than I’d expected, so we spent a good portion of the day there, and I might want to return! First the “castle by the sea,” an old Portuguese fortress. Safi is known for its pottery – where Fes (where I happened to go with Helen) is known for its blue and white and Sale (where I happened to go with Martha and Susan) doesn’t seem to have a distinct style (I thought it did, based on the Sale pieces at the Azrou artisana, but it turns out that those are the work of one cooperative, and each of the many sets of potters there has different things), Safi is known for bold colors and a few traditional patterns painted in black or blue onto the bold colors. We went to a fixed-price shop to get an idea of pricing and then to the pottery souk, which had an overwhelming abundance of offerings. Someone quickly spotted us and offered us a tour of the pottery works – we had wanted to see that anyway so we let him guide us. The clay is red where in Fes it is white, the works themselves are small and on a hill, the master potter sat in a hole and his wheel was level with his floor, so when he was finished with a piece he would rest it on the floor (I knew he would smash all of his demo pieces but it was still hard to watch that). The tour ended in a showroom of course, and we bought some pieces, and then went back to the fixed-price shop and bought more (Youssef even bought some!), and I thought safi (enough) for Safi (the place), but when they got home Elisa said she regretted not buying more, and I could see myself getting more before I am through as well – it really is festive!

We ate lunch there as well, and after ordering our food, Elisa and I walked around the corner to take a picture of the billboard of the king (I hope it is okay to say that!). The king’s picture (and/or a big crown sculpture – and/or a big “God, country, king” written in Arabic) graces every town, and his picture graces almost every shop. That last part isn’t a law, but it was when his father was the king, so it is still done. I started thinking about all the pictures of the king that I have seen: on the throne, in his fes and white jellaba, in his checked jacket (I call it the Lindsey Nelson look – for those who would get that), drinking tea, with his wife and son, with his wife and two children, in his military uniform, as a young man, making pottery (I have seen this one only in the Azrou artisana) – at one point I think we got to the high double-digits but can’t recall more at the moment so I will have to think more about it or write them down as I see them. Anyway, Safi was a great stop and we didn’t even get to the museum of ceramics (though the souk and the showroom might have been exhibits enough!) or to the Portuguese church, or to the giant tagine sculpture. And I don’t think that many of the other PCVs (or tourists) get there at all!

Our drive continued along the ocean, with views of cliffs and of beaches – it was beautiful, including a dramatic sunset. We had time for just a drive-by of Oualidia, known for oysters and for being quiet and relaxing, a coastal town with a nice beach and a lagoon. That might be a good place to return to and spend more time, although I don’t think there’s much to do other than walk along the beach, and there are closer places to do that – but of course the feel is different in each place. At any rate, I dubbed it my new favorite city, because we found Magnum bars there on December 1! And then it was on to El Jadida, where we had a beautiful riad to stay in, leaving the touring for the morning. The riad, Le Mazagao, is named for the Portuguese name of the city (El Jadida means “the new”) and it was the owner’s childhood home – he left for France for a while and then returned to his roots.

El Jadida was wonderful! Another place to try to get back to. We toured the Portuguese walled city, the crowning touch of which is the Portuguese cistern, used by Orson Welles in the movie “Othello” and maintained with water at the bottom to create a reflection. We went out the boat gate to the seaside as well, and around the ramparts past a former synagogue. The shops had attractive merchandise at off-season prices, and that is where I got my Tazenacht rug (the one with the squares of three different processes of weaving and embroidery) and also a blanket and a new leather pocketbook (my artisana one is ready to be put to new use – maybe as coasters, if I can cut it well enough) and Steve and Elisa bought poufs. The town just had a pleasant feel to it, though I imagine it is very different in the summer when there are tons of tourists! We then went on to Azenmour, a small town nearby, stopping to have lunch overlooking a wide beach with crashing waves. Azenmour is much smaller than El Jadida and few tourists visit, so we were quite a novelty. We walked around the medina, saw the end of the Oum Rbia, and found the old synagogue and got someone to unlock it for us so we could see the inside. And then it was on to Rabat and the card game that ended Steve and Elisa’s trip and started mid-service medicals!

I am so glad that these friends (and earlier, my family and also Mike and Carol) made the effort to visit, that in the case of the last three, Youssef was available to drive us around, and that I was able to show off my site and home and work, introduce people from home to Moroccans and fellow PCVs and vice versa, and show them both parts of the country I had seen but wanted to get back to and parts of the country I hadn’t seen and hope to get back to! The story of my life has been not enough vacation days, and between these visits, the upcoming See the World trip in March, and Reunions, I will have used most of my available days. But I’m still anticipating more visitors! Some have contacted me to set things up and some are still thinking about it. The visits would be different – you can either do what Janeila’s visitors have done and hang around with me at my site, or you can base yourself here and take day or even longer trips on your own and I could potentially go somewhere with you for the weekend – but I think they will also be memorable! There’s also the potential to visit post-COS, when I won’t have to abide by Peace Corps policy, though at the moment the plan on the table is to travel elsewhere right after COS – and also the potential to come back with me later in life; I hope to do that and would welcome company! Morocco is a wonderful place to visit with lots to see and do, nice people, good food, and so on….

Saturday, January 05, 2008


More vacation writeup! Elisa and Steve and Youssef and I started in Fes, entering through yet another Bab and seeing a part of the medina between where Martha and Susan and Youssef and I had been and where Helen and Rose and I had been. Not that there isn’t much, much more to explore, but this pretty much covered the beaten track. We started mid-Talaa Kbira, right near the herbalist, and stocked up there. On to the Nejjarine (carpenters’) fountain, supposedly the finest in Fes – there had been a painting of it in the riad in Rabat, and now was a chance to photograph it (I had been by there before but didn’t have a good picture). We also went to the Nejjarine museum, where we saw all sorts of artisanal wood items, and to a different tannery. By the museum we ran into all of the SBD PCTs, in Fes for swearing-in the next day. Elizabeth, the new volunteer in Timhadite, recognized me, and several others introduced themselves to me, but they were a swarm so I didn’t get to meet all of them. I am not going to lament that I didn’t go to their training, nor shall I lament that a day trip to Fes was not part of our final days as trainees! Elisa and Steve’s family is very musical and we spent some time looking for Moroccan musical instruments – I had bought a few early on and now think I might buy some more! On the way back to Azrou, we stopped in Sefrou for coffee with Rose and also with Bob and Linda, stage-mates from the very southwest corner of the country, who were vacation in the area with their son. We were planning to have the de rigueur rotisserie chicken, but there was just one piece of chicken left, so we supplemented that with kefta sandwiches, another crowd favorite.

Big weather difference in one week – it was cold in Azrou. Really cold. Especially in my apartment. I don’t know if it has been that cold since – or maybe it has, and since I am holed up here in the kitchen I can cope. Or maybe it was just that the first few days of really cold weather are always a shock, no matter how mentally prepared you are. Luckily, Steve and Elisa came physically prepared, with many layers – all of which they wore to bed, along with my blankets and sleeping bags! That did not deter us though. They slept late (my first jet-lagged friends – or maybe it was so cold they didn’t want to get out of bed! I know I have felt that way on more than one morning since). We went to the Escalade for pastry and to Bilal for coffee and then to the artisana. It was not a Friday so Youssef’s family was not making couscous, but they had us over anyway, for beef with prune tagine, one of the standards – another delicious meal with that wonderful family. Back to the artisana – Elisa and Steve had gifts in mind and had brought an extra suitcase and bubble wrap – and then to see the monkeys! I don’t usually feed wild animals, but the ones we went to see are so domesticated that they practically rely on tourists for sustenance – so I did it, and we had fun giving them peanuts. We ended the day at Abdou’s, where they bought a little rug made of cactus silk; it was one of a pair, and I decided to go by the next week and buy its partner!

Tuesday began early with coffee with Katie and Lauren, on their way to Rabat for COS, and Chris, the environment volunteer in Timhadite who came along to see Katie off. Katie was a part of our stage’s training in Azrou, she was the volunteer in our CBT site, she and I had had the same host family a year apart and came over for lftur almost every night in Ramadan while I was there, she kept me informed and involved in the doings of the cooperative and invited me to meetings and to do errands with her, she spearheaded the GLOW camp and got me involved in it, she listened to my woes and gave me advice, she shared some of her frustrations and successes with me. In short, she has been a key element of my experience here, and I will miss her. I have already heard from her (and have a good friend in Park City, where she lives, so I have a strong chance to see her again) and I hope to keep in touch. Lauren I always liked but didn’t see enough of! Chris is still here and we plan to play with the full-sized Boggle set that Katie bequeathed me (since it was my teeny-weeny Boggle that inspired her to request it). Katie and Lauren went on to Rabat, and Chris came with us to have bisara, the fava bean soup that seemed just the thing to fortify us for a day in the outdoors (it’s good to know that the bisara place opens at 7:00 in the morning!).

There are beautiful places to see right around Azrou – the Middle Atlas has a lot to offer – and many of these spots are most easily seen if you have your own vehicle. It was great that Steve and Elisa agreed to another Azrou day so that we could visit them, even though if you have just one week in Morocco they might not make the standard tourist’s short list. Of course, visiting a Peace Corps volunteer who is living here for two years means you are not going to get a standard tour! Plus Youssef has done a lot of trekking and guiding in the area so we could take advantage of his expertise. First we did what the book calls the Lakes Tour – Dayat Aoua, Dayat Hachlaf and Dayat Ifrah. It’s an area known for birds when the lakes are full, but the first two were dry – we need more snow and rain! Still pretty though. On to the Valley of the Rocks – I had seen pictures of these formations at my Azrou host family’s house and at Abdou’s shop, and now I have finally seen them in person! We stopped by Mischliffen, one of the two ski areas of Morocco – I still hope there’s enough snow to go this winter, but it is not a big mountain, and maybe I’m better off setting my sights on Park City when I return! On to Lake Ifnourir, another picturesque spot – I had seen pictures of it as well, as a big lake full of water. It was dry, and Youssef had never seen it dry; he was shocked and sad. We then found some water at Ouiouane, a nice lake with some ducks that the king’s sister hunts, and we had a picnic in the car (nothing wrong with a car picnic if it’s cold outside). Then we went to the source of Oum Rbia, the beginning of the longest river in Morocco. Here the water was gushing, and we took a hike along the rushing river to the waterfall. As I had in Ouzoud, we passed a lot of empty food stalls and camping areas right next to the river – and again, I didn’t mind being there without a huge crowd of tourists. My favorite stop was the last one, Zaouiat Ifran, with caves a cliff and waterfalls and a path marked with red paint – we hiked for a little while and then it was time to go; maybe I will get back there, but if not, it was a lot of fun and the end to a fulfilling day! Well, the end of the outdoors part that is – we came back and went to the hammam, which was a wonderful way to warm up. It was so good, in fact, that when Elisa came back she talked Steve into going. Prior to the trip I asked Youssef if he would take Steve if he was interested, and Youssef said that most of the American men are uncomfortable with it, but sure, he’d go. So we didn’t think Steve would be interested, and it took some persuasion, but Elisa was so happy to be warm that she was able to do it, and in the end Steve was happy he did it as well. We then made some pasta and also some brownies and a chocolate chip pan cookie (they had brought several bags of those very valuable chocolate chips!) that sustained us on the car rides for the remainder of the trip.

On to Merzouga for our camel ride! We stopped in Errachidia, saying hello to Rachel and to some new volunteers on their way to their sites. We also visited the artisana, which pales in comparison to Azrou’s. A showroom with a display of a smattering of items but not really much to sell or visible sales staff, and no working artisans. I would like to consult for the Ministry of Artisanat as a whole, not just for Azrou! Maybe I will work on that. Anyway, we then went on to Erfoud. Unfortunately, Frank had a visitor from the states as well and was out of town; I had been looking forward to having lunch with him. But we soldiered on without him – and met Hmad, the guide he had set us up with. We climbed into his 4x4 and drove up to the fort overlooking Erfoud and the Ziz Valley (the Ziz is the third major river of the south). The Tafilalet oasis near Erfoud is the largest in – Africa? I think so. We then went to the area where the Erfoud fossils are found – an ancient sea with all sorts of creatures frozen in black and brown marble. And then we went to a “camel parking lot,” where we loaded up. For M’Hmid I had not repacked – couldn’t think ahead as to what I might need and not need – and there happened to be a luggage camel; for Merzouga, we had to carry everything with us, so it is a good thing I had downsized into a smaller bag for the overnight.

We had a two-hour ride through big dunes. Rose had shown me pictures of the shadows of her and her friends on camels; I had wanted to take such a picture with Helen but the sandstorm meant no shadows. In Merzouga I took a bunch of shadow shots and a bunch of dune shots! We stopped to watch the sunset and then rode into camp. We had tea and played some cards and then had a delicious dinner and sat around the fire talking with the other guests (there were only two of them) and the guides. They brought out drums and put them by the fire to warm up – literally! We went out of the camp to see the stars – just one week later, the phases of the moon were such that we had moonless stars and Milky Way in the beginning of the evening and moon later, as opposed to the other way around. Where the M’Hamid camp had been lit by lanterns with candles, this one had a solar panel powering some lights! I had my own Berber tent, which was cozy, and we climbed the big dune to see the sun rise. At one point in the evening (deemed Best Moment of 2007 in the annual awards that Martha and I give out), I realized that I was totally and completely in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about what time we were going to leave the next day or what we were going to do next, I wasn’t thinking about the to-do list of things to do after the vacation, I wasn’t thinking about anything at all – I was really in the moment. And I realized how rare that is for me. I mentioned it to Janeila over New Year’s weekend and she said to hold on to that moment – I will try!

From the top of the dune we counted sixteen little tent communities – it was like Grand Central Station in the dunes! We did not get a feeling of isolation in the morning, since several neighbors were also climbing the tallest dune, though we did at night. Then again, looking beyond the campsites there were dunes and more dunes and we could also see the edge of the dunes and the beginning of the flat desert, so it was still pretty remote. After breakfast, we had a two-hour camel ride back out of the dunes and Hmad was waiting (so was a shower, but we hadn’t planned on that, so we just skipped it!). He took us to Rissani, a town on the other side of the dunes. Rissani is built on the spot where Sijilmassa, an important ancient Sahara trading town, was – not much of it is left. I have mentioned a lot of ruins of palaces and casbahs as I’ve seen them, so when I say not much I mean really not much. We went to the mausoleum of the founder of the reigning dynasty. And then I asked if we could go to one of the Erfoud marble factories – we had a tour and then ended up in the showroom. I bought some fossil-filled platters – I think they are just beautiful!

Friday, January 04, 2008


Vacation writeup, continued….M’Hamid is at the end of the road, the end of the Draa Valley. It’s small and dusty. I had in mind a one-hour camel ride and desert overnight as outlined in the Sahara Services web site, but when we went to pay at his office in Marrakesh (Helen’s chance to see the Ville Nouvelle as well), Abdoul upsold us – we didn’t want baby dunes, did we, when we could see big dunes? Couldn’t argue with that! We had a quick lunch (a Berber omelette – basically eggs with vegetables, made in a tagine – something I would like to learn to make! Maybe I can even figure it out for myself, now that I have that tagine that Youssef gave me!) and then got onto our camels! It’s a good thing that Mohammed gave us those turbans, because right about then the wind picked up and there was quite a sandstorm! I know another PCV who says that a two-hour camel ride is about an hour and fifty-five minutes too long for her, and I think Helen felt the same way, but I enjoyed myself – we picked our way among sand and stones and scrub. We reached the camp where we would have stayed had we not gotten upsold - the setting was all right but not spectacular - and then got into a 4x4 for a long ride to the big dunes, stopping for the sunset just before getting to our camp. Abdoul was right – big dunes were the way to go! Our camp of Berber tents had music and tea and cookies, and we took a little walk – there were a few other guests at the camp, but other than that there was nobody as far as we could see. We had a delicious vegetable tagine, and afterwards a guide, wearing the traditional blue robes of the Tuareg, took us up to the top of a dune in the moonlight and told jokes.

How do you get a camel into a refrigerator in three steps? Open the door, put the camel in, close the door. How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator in four steps? Open the door, take out the camel, put the elephant in, close the door. I got that one, but then had to ask where the elephant was going to come from in the Sahara – not to mention the refrigerator! Then some jokes that seem to be more Tuareg in origin - What is born with a horn, lives without a horn, and dies with a horn? The moon. What eats everything but dies when it takes water? A fire. What talks on its head and knows every language (something like this)? A pen. The neatest thing our guide told us is that what we know as Orion is called the stars of the caravan – since when it is in this position in the sky, it is neither too hot nor too cold, so this is the time of the year for caravans. It was great to be on the dunes – really relaxing. Eventually, though, it was time to go down – we had climbed quite a bit! The guide grabbed Helen’s legs and pulled, and Youssef and I slid down in the track she’d made. Later that night, I got myself out of my cozy (if sandy) bed to see the stars after the moon had set. Stars and dunes all around! It was quite a sight.

I was even more glad to have gone to both M’Hmid and Merzouga (the ones near Erfoud) when I went to the latter with Elisa and Steve the following week – I’ll save the comparison for that description. For now, suffice it to say that they were both similar but also different and that I would recommend either or both! We woke up the next morning for sunrise – climbed partway up a dune, but we had climbed enough in the moonlight, so partway was enough. Then breakfast and back to the 4x4 and then back up the Draa Valley with a quick lunch stop in Agdz (delicious chicken, as recommended by the COSing volunteer there, but since she was in her final days, she didn’t come out to meet us) - we drove through Tamegroute and Zagora and then Ouarzazate and then turned into the Dades Valley, which was new to me. I had in mind that we might stop in Kelaa M’Gouna to see Shawn, the rummy-playing PCV, but we were running out of day; the area near his site looked beautiful and might merit a return as well. Our stop for the night was the Dades Gorge – in the rain (just the night before, our guide in the desert said the last time it rained there was six years ago! Not all that far away, it is completely different), we found a nice auberge about 28k up the gorge.

The next morning we did some exploring. If you don’t have a car, you probably explore the area around the 28K mark, where the valley is small and farmed and has trees. A little ways up, where the river narrows and there are beautiful walls around you, it felt like the Todra Gorge. We had a car, so we kept going – up above, where we could see the narrow walls and the river below, and even farther, where we saw little Berber villages and a small souk and some caves. And even farther, it looked like a grand canyon. There is a way to drive off-road up the Dades Gorge and down the Todra Gorge – that would also be an interesting thing to do – but driving down the Dades Gorge we saw some interesting rock formations that we hadn’t seen in the rain – fingers and toes. This might have been Helen’s favorite part of the trip, and I know Youssef enjoyed seeing another part of Morocco he hadn’t seen. We then had lunch in Tinghir, very close to the spot that had previously been my westernmost point of exploration. There was no time for the Todra Gorge, though, because we had to press on to Azrou, though we did stop for ten minutes to see some stage-mates who were gathering in Tinjdad for Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, it was Thanksgiving! We crossed the High Atlas and the plain and as we entered the Middle Atlas we encountered snow! Lots of it – already inches on the ground and lots of it falling from the sky. This made Youssef quite happy. No snow in Azrou though. Our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of rotisserie chicken from the place down the street, since we got back too hungry to cook, but we did dress it up with cranberry sauce and yams that Helen had brought with her, and we made pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread with canned pumpkin and pie shells and brown sugar that she had also brought!

Friday was our Azrou day – we started with pastry from the Escalade and coffee at Bilal, and then – based on rave reviews from Martha and Susan and other people Helen had talked to – went to the hammam, which she too enjoyed! Then we went for couscous with Youssef’s family – again, delicious – and on to see the monkeys. Next, to the artisana and then Dar Neghrassi, where she bought a carpet. Rose came for the previously-planned Thanksgiving dinner, which was sage-rubbed steak and mashed potatoes, made by Youssef, along with some more trimmings and the pumpkin pie.

And then it was on to Fes! Rose came along with us and spent the day. First we went to one of the potteries, where we saw the production process from start to finish and of course the showroom. Then Youssef left to pick up Steve and Elisa at the Rabat airport, dropping us off at a Bab R’Cif, at the far end of the medina. As soon as we were on our own, or so it seemed, faux guides and other predators started to ask us if we need help and/or otherwise harass us. We told one fellow that we just wanted a place to eat – maybe chicken and fries – and he showed us a place (it even had fried shrimp – a find). We suspected that he would be waiting outside the restaurant after we were finished and sure enough he was – and we decided why not have him show us around. It turned out to be a great decision – he was friendly and knowledgeable and not hard-sell and kept other faux guides away from us and showed us interesting things, and I felt able to put away the tour book and the map and just put myself in his hands and be a tourist and not a tour guide. I was able to relax! He showed us the Andalusian quarter, including a medersa in some disrepair (not the one I have been to before, and I’m glad to have seen it), a rooftop view of the medina from the top of a music school, a carpet shop where Helen bought a rug, a tannery where she bought a pouf, and a brass workshop where I bought a door knocker. The Royal Palace in Fes has some beautiful knockers, and I had been on the lookout for a while – eventually it became a quest (for what I call “the king’s knockers.”), fulfilled that day!

That was the end of the trip with Helen – she left early the next morning. Steve and Elisa overlapped with Helen for dinner (and confirmed that they did not know each other in business school, which is how I know all of them), and the next day we started the next trip. To be continued…..

In the meantime I want to mention the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I haven’t heard anyone here talk about it – there’s much more talk about the weather. Wednesday was windy with clouds coming in – but I couldn’t breathe, so I didn’t go for a run. Yesterday was rainy and then it got quiet – looked outside late at night to see my laundry on the clothesline covered with snow! This morning there is a lot of snow on the ground but it is raining again. I have mostly stayed inside, but I still have time to get more runs in before the ns-marathon. It’s a good thing, actually – we need rain and snow! The snow may close the mountain passes and keep me from going away this weekend; if I go I’ll write all about it next week and if I end up here I can read a book! Except – I was dreading this, knowing it would happen some day – the light bulb in my semi-warm kitchen blew out and I cannot reach the socket to change it. Youssef! (There’s a joke in there somewhere – how many PCVs does it take to change a light bulb? Or should it be Moroccans?). In a New Year’s message, our country director mentioned that Bhutto’s death is a reminder of “how fragile peace is and that it is important that we remain committed to do our part and to encourage others to become involved in helping others.” He also said, “As 2007 is about to end, and it is time to both look back and look ahead, I am reminded of a meeting with Volunteers in which I was asked: ‘Are we about development or are we about cross-cultural understanding?’ When I answered that we are both, I was then asked: ‘But what is Peace Corps really about?’ I was somewhat surprised by the question because for me, our name speaks for itself - we are about peace and all that is involved in working for peace.” I wrote back to him that when I was first applying for Peace Corps, I mentioned it to my aunt in Holland, expecting her to be encouraging. Instead, she replied that she did not think it was a good idea; it seemed to her that people are much more interested in making war than in making peace. She didn’t live to know that I did indeed continue with the process and am here now, but I like to think that she would, upon learning more about it, be supportive of my decision to come here. For his part, the country director said it was a great supporting story.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Time for the vacation writeup! Youssef rented the same car that we had used in October; we left early early early to get to Marrakesh only to find that Helen had missed her connection in Casablanca. So – we went to the Café du Livre, where I had the lemon tart that Rob, Janeila and Dominique had had in May while I was one course behind and having gazpacho. Took me a while but I caught up! And then met them for coffee; we talked until it was time to pick up Helen. And re-met them and we all had lunch; it was interesting for her to meet them and ask them questions – sometimes we all think so much about day-to-day life here that it is good to take a step back and remind ourselves of why we are here, why we came, what our expectations were and how the reality matches that. I actually think about that quite a bit on my own, but it was interesting to see how they answered Helen’s questions. As I said about mid-service medicals, everyone seems to have arrived at a good place in regard to his or her situation, but there was still a sense of expectations unmet – again I find myself glad I read that book about Keeping Kennedy’s Promise – it doesn’t surprise me to hear that people’s realities don’t match their pre-conceived notions or ideas coming out of training.

Rob, Janeila and Dominique can go to Marrakesh every weekend, but that is not the same for me – nor for Helen – so they went off to do errands and we went off to tour! First the Koutoubia Mosque, and then we got into a caleche and rode along the ramparts – very touristy but that is fine with me – to the Jardin Majorelle, again a place of beauty and peace. We then went quickly to the Jemaa al-Fna, the big square, and into the souks. One day maybe I should spend a whole day in the souks of Marrakesh! Not souked out yet. We found ourselves entranced by a woodworker who works completely differently from the ones in Azrou – he turns a tool with his toes and then carves spinning items with a blade. So we bought things from him – and he showed us a picture of him with Ronald Reagan. I also bought some felt slippers – and now am looking forward to learning how to felt in that workshop that I hope comes together! We ate dinner – somewhat coincidentally (though not entirely, because it was near our riad) at a place I had eaten with my family when we were here in March – excellent food.

Youssef had said that one day in Marrakesh was enough – that instead we should take a day trip to the mountains or to Essouaria – and in a way he was right; one day is enough for an overview, especially when there are those attractive options, both of which I hope to get back to. But it was nice to have another day in Marrakesh (and another night – somehow there’s a big difference between spending one night somewhere and spending more). Of course, there is much more than a day’s worth of things to do, and left on the table was bicycling in the palmerie. On Sunday we did things in the area of our riad, on the south side of the Jemaa al Fna (or at least the south side of the map, if the compass direction isn’t right). First we headed towards a museum that we’d heard was closed; it turned out to be closed, but on the way back we met a brass artisan and watched him at work on plates and trays. Truly an artist, carving out designs with metal stamps, he said that if we could find any two things in his shop that were the same we could have them. I had in mind to get a brass tray some day but felt that Fes was the place for it; after watching him, though, we bought from him! He even etched our names on the bottom of our trays, in Arabic.

We then went to a museum set up by a Dutch man to house his collection; the museum was organized so as to represent a trip from Marrakesh to Timbucktu and back. Very cool. And to the herbalist – I guess this is a now-traditional place to bring guests too. Peace Corps does not want us to use herbal or home remedies, but I will say that nigelle has helped me with headaches and colds, argan oil has given me soft skin and soft hair, and on this day I bought some herbs to go into teas – I don’t think I could ever make tea as good as Abdou’s but this might be nice for those cold winter days and nights! We then went to the mellah, the former Jewish area. Helen’s friend Sharon had had a driver who refused to take her to the mellah – it might have been in Marrakesh – but we had no shortage of people who wanted to point it out to us. We found our way to a synagogue, which was guarded by a policeman (unlike the one in Fes) who kept Youssef from going in (unlike the one in Fes). It was all blue and white tile, with six-pointed stars, and had a school as well as the synagogue; inside the sanctuary was a blind old man who described the history and talked about the community, in return for a donation. We then went on to the Jewish cemetery, where it is customary to make some wishes at the graves of the famous rabbis. I never turn down opportunities to make wishes!

And that was all before lunch! We ate at a terrace overlooking the Jemaa al Fna (I had gazpacho for old times’ sake). And then more touring! To the El-Badi palace, only the huge walls of which remain – one can look at the scale and imagine immense splendor, but this was pillaged I think by Moulay Ismail to build Meknes. There were also a large number of storks’ nests, complete with storks. They are supposed to be lucky! Then the Bahia Palace, which I had seen on the family visit but was happy to see again – intact wooden painted ceilings, mosaic tile, fountains and gardens give a better idea of former opulence because it is still quite opulent – and still used by the royal family on occasion or for private parties. We then headed for the north part of town but it was too late for more museums. We took an unplanned detour away from the souks and into the real life of Marrakesh – and then found our way to the souks as they were closing. Dinner again was at the Jemaa al Fna (the food stands are an attraction, but they kind of scare me, and when Youssef said they kind of scared him too, we quickly agreed to go to a restaurant overlooking the fray).

The next morning we left bright and early – something Martha and Susan were never quite able to manage (not a complaint – just an observation – after all, it was vacation) and crossed the Tizi n Tichka (I want to say pass, but Tizi means pass – kind of like saying ATM machine), with its variety of vegetation and geology as we climbed up and passed through the rain shadow; we kept stopping for beautiful views. I was excited about this part of the trip, having never been east of Marrakesh or west of Tinghir, which is the town at the south end of the Todra Gorge. Helen had said she wanted to sit in the front sometimes, and it turns out she sat in the front for the rest of the trip (again, not a complaint, just an observation – Martha and Susan and I never switched seats either! They were always in the back. And while I’m on the subject, I may as well mention that Steve sat in the front and Elisa and I in the back). We then “off-roaded” on a short-cut that led us to Ait Benhaddou, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the best-preserved casbah of the south and the setting for various Hollywood movies (such as “Gladiator”). A casbah is a walled city with many families that live there (a ksar is the same but with one extended family). It was interesting to walk around and to talk with some of the people there. It might have been nice to spend more time there – but I guess I could say that about every stop on the trip, so instead I will say that I am glad I saw what I did.

On to Ouarzazate, where we were joined at lunch by Ren, a stage-mate – is it possible that I hadn’t seen her since July, when she changed sites? I feel we’ve been in frequent contact but yes, it’s possible, and it was good to see her and to see how happy she is in her new site. Helen had mentioned that I seemed more relaxed and when I mentioned this to Ren she just looked surprised – I may be stressed in comparison to other PCVs but I am less stressed than I was in my old life! She works with an association that helps the disabled – one of the few of its kind in Morocco, they make artificial limbs and wheelchairs, have therapy for patients, have a school where they teach parents exercises to do with their disabled children, and have workspace for disabled artisans. Ren conducts tours frequently and gave us one, and she also works with the artisans – we met them and then bought several items in the shop. This was an impressive organization and is quite an assignment – she went from having no real work in her old site to having a plethora of possibilities in the new site! And I gave her some more ideas. We also saw her house but left the rest of Ouarzazate for another time – it was time to go on through the scenic, palm-lined Draa Valley to Zagora!

Jong lives near Zagora – for almost a year I have looked at the map and wondered if I would ever be able to make it down to visit her. As I was designing the itinerary for the trips, both Helen and Steve and Elisa wanted to go to the desert. There are dunes near Zagora and dunes near Erfoud, and it occurred to me that if Helen was okay with the extra driving, I could see both and then see Jong in the process. Jong had invited two friends, Aaron and April, to join us – Aaron I had met over the summer and April I had only heard of but had heard good things about. They were going to go to a hole-in-the-wall for dinner and said they would meet us afterwards; we said we would go there too and we had delicious lentils and kefta-and-egg tagine – Helen paid, and for the six of us it was less than 100 dirhams! Aaron, of course, is the person who introduced Piffle to Morocco; we had played half a hand when we met in August so here was our chance to play – I had four decks with me (Jong and Aaron don’t carry decks with them - what’s up with that?) so we rotated.

Aaron’s friend Mohammed, who we had met at dinner the night before, gave Helen and me presents – turbans for our camel ride. He also offered to show us around his town, across the Draa from Zagora. After a morning walk along Zagora’s main street, which included meHlfa (the large cloths that Saharan women wear, as opposed to jellabas), and the obligatory photo stop at the “52 jours to Tombouktou” sign, we went off to his town, Amezrou. There we saw the casbah, the mellah with its synagogue that looked more like a cave carved out of the rock, and one of the silver shops for which the town is known. There we had a little demonstration - a mold is made out of clay and then molten silver is poured into it. We then went to Tamegroute, Jong’s site – it was neat to finally see it and to see her place; we also saw the potters who make distinctive green-glazed pottery. I didn’t care for it at first but now it has grown on me. We couldn’t talk Jong into joining us for the camel ride, and I left feeling a little sad at the thought that I may not get back there. So I just won’t think that! Maybe I can make it back there…a perfect time to say inshallah.

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