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.

I read the articles and the letters, including the one from my senator. Very interesting. Very conflicting opinions. I found the letter about not using metrics to measure success because the Peace Corps is about "humanity" specious, at best. I'd be curious to know your opinion about the matter with regard to your experience. Do you feel you are enriching the lives of the local people, either from their association with an American or from your actual work with the artisans? Do you feel that they want you there? Is there a perception that they are being patronized and that Americans feel they need to "rescue" them? Have you come across resentment? If you would prefer not to address these issues in an open blog, I'd still be curious about your experiences and would welcome an email about them.
Very interesting questions - I'll briefly answer here but write more about this as well.

I like to think I enrich the lives of everyone I meet, just by being me! Enrich is an interesting word. I think that the most motivated artisans (rock-carver, seamstress) see that I can help them improve their business and therefore their lives, and the others think I'm a friendly sort and they enjoy my company and maybe the most help I give to them is bringing in friends who then buy their products. When I have tea with people and talk about Moroccan and American culture I am working on Peace Corps goals and I guess enriching lives by broadening horizons.

I think they are happy to have me here and again that the motivated ones want me here. I think there are things I cannot do for them (e.g. give them money) but that they know that and accept that. It helps that there have been other volunteers at the site - volunteers in new sites spend a good portion of their service just explaining why they are there.

I don't get any sense that they feel patronized at all. I think they welcome help. There are others who help too in this country - there are French NGOs, Japanese and Korean Peace Corps equivalents, and someone was just telling me about the Dutch Embassy giving grant money. There are a lot of associations in various sites, many of which partner with international organizations. That said, I think there is a prevailing mode of hopelessness, of no jobs available, of wanting to move to another country to get a better life, more than any sense of an improved life available here. The Peace Corps approach is one of grass roots and if we look at the small picture we can make a difference, but the big picture here can sometimes be bleak.

I have not come across any resentment - I really feel lucky at this site. People who are less lucky, though, don't seem to be unwelcome because of resentment - more because of closemindedness or lack of willingness to change. I have alluded to some of the problems of friends of mine - harassment, lack of meaningful work - elsewhere in the blog but everyone really has his or her own experience so I tend to focus more on my own (positive) experience. Yet these are issues that perhaps I should address more - it is interesting to think about Peace Corps from a bigger perspective, and development....

Thanks for asking! More questions welcome!
P.S. I would also encourage interested parties to look for other Peace Corps Morocco blogs. Scanning them may give some idea of the range of experiences - keeping in mind, of course, that we have been warned that these are screened and that negative comments are not encouraged!
Speaking of which, do you feel that you have to censor your blog? You mentioned about them screening for negative comments. I know they'd rather there not be negative comments out there about the Peace Corps, but don't they realize that it's more valuable to have the truth out there than an edited version that people will find suspect because they know it may have been edited? Seems rather un-American!
If there is something that I know that might hurt someone's feelings or potentially get them in trouble I don't put it here; more omission than censoring....but I don't feel I whitewash things or leave out things I observe and feel. The story is that Peace Corps was kicked out of a country because of some negative comments posted on a blog. I could have chosen a password-protected site or a mass email, but I am not a negative sort or complainer by nature. This is a public forum and I respect that.
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