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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