Thursday, April 03, 2008


I have electricity! It was out for most of the day – and part of yesterday, too. That doesn’t happen often here – and it’s even rarer that the water is cut off (which is not the case for many of the PCVs here – that is, those with running water; almost everyone has electricity). I do have a flashlight and candles and bottles of water just in case. There I was saying how nice it was to turn on a hot water tap in Europe and have hot water come out – this was a reminder that it’s good that any water comes out, or that when I flick a light switch, most of the time the light goes on!

I did go to a cyber while the electricity was out, and while I was dodging cars to cross the street I remembered that I meant to mention that in Spain and Portugal, when I crossed a street, the traffic waited for me. I like that. I know it’s the rule in some places and I guess it will be the rule in even more places when I get back – of course when I get back, I will probably drive sometimes, and then I might not like the rule so much.

It was hard to leave the family – especially because I had an early train and had to tiptoe out without a final hug. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey, partially because it was early and partially because the trains in Morocco are more often than not hot and crowded. But the train in Spain (which also did not go mainly on the plain) was very pleasant, with mountains and rivers and small towns as the scenery. Grenada to Algeciras was one end of the line to another (note – there is a TGV from Madrid to Seville that covers a much longer distance in a much shorter time); Algeciras is not the southernmost point in Spain but it’s where most of the ferry traffic is.

I arrived around noon and decided I had time for a bonus adventure. Gibraltar is to Spain what Ceuta is to Morocco – a little spit of the mainland owned by another country. I didn’t get a passport stamp – reason enough to go back, if you ask me, but since they might not stamp it next time either, I do have other reasons to go back. From Algeciras it was a short bus ride to the border and then I walked the rest of the way. I think I thought it was an island, but it is a peninsula off the mainland of Spain. After you cross the border you walk across the airport runway to get to the main part of town. There’s a big square, and I had lunch at one of the restaurants there. You can pay in euros, pounds or Gibraltar pounds, and everyone speaks English, but I heard a lot of Spanish as well. Gibraltar was thought to be one of the Pillars of Hercules that form the gates of the Mediterranean, and the name comes from the Arabic Jbl (mountain) of Tariq (the name of the general who led the Moorish invasion there in 711). After lunch, I walked down the main shopping street – Marks and Spencer and other British stores are there, plus there were a bunch of tourists in shorts (hadn’t seen any of those earlier in the trip). Looming over the town is the Rock of Gibraltar, with its classic shape (a la the Prudential Insurance logo). It’s known for Barbary apes – I don’t need to go back to see those, because they’re in my own backyard, but I would love to get to the Rock, which is a nature preserve. It was too windy for the cable cars and there wasn’t time for a hike, so I left it for another time and went back past the harbor and on to Algeciras for the ferry. When I was looking at maps before coming here, I was intrigued by the idea of going to Gibraltar, and though I may not make it back, I am glad I at least made it there once.

In Algeciras I caught the hydrofoil ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar – one hour in whitecapped but not choppy seas. I could have taken the ferry to Tangier, but since I had to use a vacation day to get back to my site (a rule when you go out of the country - as is the rule that you have to take vacation days for holidays out of the country; it was the Prophet's birthday), I decided this was a good chance to see Ceuta. As Gibraltar seemed a mix of English and Spanish but more English, Ceuta was a mix of Spanish and Moroccan but more Spanish. The streets were paved and had sidewalks, the architecture was seemed European, the prices were higher. I did see some jellabas and heard my first, “labas?” (“are you fine?”) so it was actually a good transition. It had been a long day though – up early, train, bus, walk, bus, ferry – so I strolled just a bit and went to bed early. I stayed in a Parador, the Spanish version of a Pousada, next to the city walls.

The city walls are the main sight to see, and I went there the next morning. Defenses built on the narrowest part of the peninsula, they were impressive and picturesque. I also walked along the shore, looking across at Spain, and then explored the downtown a bit. At around ten, I took a taxi to the border – a regular old taxi where I was the only person in it, I told him where I wanted to go, and I paid a fare on a meter. I walked across the border, showed my papers and used my darija, and got into a grand taxi – the kind that goes from taxi stand to taxi stand point-to-point, with four people in the back and two in the passenger seat, for a set fee depending on the distance, and you have to ask for the window handle so you can roll down the window – unless the other people think that the wind contains evil spirits or will make you sick. Welcome back! The ride to Tetouan went past some resort developments along the Mediterranean, with a lot more under construction. I haven’t thought much about having a beach vacation while here – there are plenty of other beaches in the world and so much to see here that isn’t elsewhere in the world – but a Mediterranean weekend might be called for after all.

I caught the 11:30 CTM from Tetouan to Fes and then a grand taxi to Azrou and made it home by nightfall – and again went to bed early after all that travel. It took a few days to adjust my schedule, even though there was only an hour time difference to Spain (none in Portugal, but both will spring forward soon). I was looking forward to being back in my own bed, and then when I came home it was cold (it had even snowed a bit while I was gone, though none was on the ground) and my bed felt like a slab of concrete (somehow I had forgotten that)….again, welcome back! It was good to return to my pillow though.

Before the vacation, the interior decorator had been here – he was a bundle of energy; I’m no longer used to that! Or prepared to go back to that! But I had a great time with him. The highlight was his talk to the weavers of the region – 13 or so women from various cooperatives of the area – but he also talked with the rock carver and with Abdou about business possibilities. I don’t know what will come of it – his market is the upper-end custom market – but at least it got people here thinking about what they need to do if they want to export. We had coffee with the SBD volunteers in the area and (coincidentally) dinner with the Environment volunteers in the area and he had a bunch of ideas and thoughts for everyone, from a different perspective. I’m glad he came to visit!

The day before I left I went for a run and then met some other volunteers for some Piffle. As I got home I saw my neighbors using the rake I had left in the stairwell to clean the area right across the street, where we used to put our trash. The rest of the lot still needs work but even with that small change, it looks much better. Maybe I inspired something sustainable!

The day after I came back started with laundry (by hand, in cold water, in a big tub on my balcony, and then hung on a clothesline, you may recall). I was then on my way to the Artisana when I ran into one of the Environment volunteers, on his way to meet a couple of the others, with some trainees in tow. Three weeks in country and they were sent to various sites for field trip, to see how what volunteer life is like (we didn’t have field trip, though the SBD stage before us did – but much further on in their training). I offered to show them the artisana and tell them what I do, and I invited myself to lunch. Nice to meet new people!

On Saturday I did a favor for the administrative officer at Peace Corps headquarters; she asked me to host some friends of hers who were touring Morocco wanted to meet a volunteer. I have done this before and don’t think of this as a favor – it’s a pleasure! It’s also part of Goal #3 – sharing Moroccan culture with Americans. I do tell them that my site may not be representative, but I of course have a lot of positive things to say about the Peace Corps and my work here and so far everyone who has been sent my way has been very nice. It was especially rewarding because they were shoppers and bought things from the artisans! More, one of the guests was the administrative officer of the US Embassy here. The Foreign Service is an option I would consider as a next career and it was good to talk with her. When you take the exam you have to declare a track that you are interested in – political, economic, public affairs, administrative or consular. There is a little personality quiz on the State Department web site to help you determine which track might be good for you. I took it a few months back and scored high in several, and thought public affairs or economic might be most up my alley (political may get most of the glory but you also have to represent policies you may not agree with, as I saw it). Administrative sounded a bit boring to me – but it is an easier track to get into because it is less popular. It was good to talk with her – she loves her job and assured me that it’s not all minutiae (which was a fear) – and told me that the other tracks have long hours with a lot of social schmoozing and that she may have long hours too sometimes but has her own social life. So now I will take another look! And I may see her again in Rabat; I also invited her here for a hike in the mountains sometime.

Then it was on to Khenifra! Matt and Sarah are second-year Environment volunteers near there. They came to the warden group brunch and I told them I would have another party before they COSed. But as I thought about it, it made more sense to have the next party when the new people come and I have a new warden group. Still, I wanted to see them before they left, and Linda (of Jamaica High School), the new SBD volunteer there, agreed to host me for the night and all of us for a dinner party. I had wanted to see Khenifra anyway and the timing never worked with her predecessor. It’s not far – an hour and a half south, maybe, on the way to Marrakesh. There’s a carpet souk with an auction on Saturday afternoons – we went there and met some of the people Linda has befriended. The previous volunteer had worked with a cooperative that makes stylish jellabas (unless that’s an oxymoron) and we went there; neither a carpet nor a jellaba caught my eye, which is fine. The dinner was great – delightful company and delicious food (I had made the salmorejo for it) though I faded soon after dinner, still travel-lagged. The next morning we went to the souk- bigger than Azrou’s, and with threatening weather not as crowded as it apparently usually is, so it was fun. We played Scrabble on her lovely balcony and enjoyed the leftovers from the dinner party. Then I came back home and still had some day – it was nice to have just a quick overnight trip to see friends and not an entire weekend away with long travel. I’ll have that this weekend! But will save that and more for the next entry…

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