Tuesday, May 27, 2008
On Friday I had my couscous lesson from Youssef’s mother. She always seems shy about talking to me because she is afraid I don’t understand, so she always has her daughter or daughter-in-law talk to me in English. Neither of them was around on Friday morning, so we talked in Arabic, and I think it was really nice for both of us. Although my inability to cut vegetables without a cutting board (an old boyfriend once told me I wasn’t good at cutting them, even with a cutting board, so it has always been something I don’t feel good about, even though I have since taken several cooking classes, but without a cutting board, I am pathetic) was unfortunate (I need to overcome the feeling that I’ll slice right through my hand).
I imagine that most of you out there who are interested in making couscous will open a box of Near East and follow the ready-in-minutes package directions (I just looked at the web site and there are a bunch of yummy-looking recipes), but if you want traditional Moroccan couscous…. Well, first you need actual couscous, with is probably available at upscale grocery stores (or maybe any; not sure!). You need a couscousier, which is a metal bottom pot with a small upper pot with holes – the upper pot holds the couscous, which steam-cooks while the vegetables and meat are cooking in the bottom pot; I think I may buy one before I leave because if I decide after I get home that I want one it will cost ten times as much (so place your orders now). You also need a tagine – or really just the base of one - so maybe any huge flat dish with sides will do.
We made couscous for ten. They told me to allow 250 grams of couscous per person; the vegetables should be proportioned appropriately (but I can’t tell you a number because I don’t know how many we used for ten!). We chopped everything into big chunks – maybe for a smaller number of people you also want to make smaller chunks, but everything cooks so thoroughly that you can break them apart with your spoon or your fingers, whichever you eat with. We cut three onions, one peeled tomato, ¾ of a head of cabbage, several small turnips, and several cored carrots and put them in the bottom of the couscousier along with meat, a handful or two of parsley (fresh, from the freezer), about 2 tsp each of salt, black pepper, and ginger, a packet of saffron (several strands), a generous helping of vegetable oil and a little bit of olive oil, covered that in water to the top of the vegetables, and put it on a medium flame.
Then you spread the couscous out in the tagine base and add a little cold water, and mix with your hands until all of the couscous is moist. This is the secret to why the couscous doesn’t just fall through the holes in the top of the couscousier – it is moist! Aha! Youssef’s mother tore open a plastic bag and put it between the top and the bottom of the couscousier to seal it, and then put the couscous into the top part. Every ten to fifteen minutes she removed the couscous top, put the couscous back in the tagine and covered the bottom pot with a dish (why doesn’t cookware here come with lids?), mixed it again with cold water (first with a spoon, since it is steaming, and then with her hands) to moisten it again, and put it back on in the pot and put the pot back on top – she did this at least three times. At any point, if the water in the bottom is boiling away, add more.
With about half an hour to go, add chunks of zucchini and pumpkin to the bottom – they take less time to cook – and add chicken if you are using chicken instead of sheep or beef as your meat (I like chicken). And that last time, add LOTS of water to the couscous as you put it in the tagine base (I did not witness the zucchini/pumpkin addition – had to go to cyber – but I will come back to cook again!). Also the last time, add lots of salt to both the couscous and the cooking pot, to taste. Don’t put the couscous back on the pot – keep it in the tagine base and lower the flame on the vegetables. Total cooking time is about two hours (which is why in Morocco it is a Friday lunch special dish and not an everyday thing!). When cooked, put the meat on top of the couscous, ladle the vegetables out so that everyone’s wedge gets some of everything, ladle out sauce to cover the couscous and then put the extra sauce in bowls to bring to the table for people to add once they have eaten away the saucy top layer (or for those who just like more sauce).
I’ve never had the couscous with caramelized onions and raisins on a Friday (just at parties) – I’ll have to ask if the cooking time varies – or if you even caramelize the onions and cook them in the bottom of the couscousier? I love that dish – definitely another cooking lesson required! I had a wonderful time with Youssef’s family, too. I’d been meaning to go over there for a couscous lesson for a while (my host family doesn’t like couscous, or I’d have a lesson from them too – partially to spend more time with them but also to see if there are any subtle differences!).
I’d also been meaning to go for a hike in the mountains for a long time too, and on Saturday I finally did. I went out in the morning and bought some ponge foam, which I realized would be perfect for protecting the breakables, and that gave me the peace of mind to go on the hike, which also gave me peace of mind. Lee called it the enchanted forest and it really is nice to hike through it, up and up to meadows with views of the city and the surrounding fields and of more mountains in the distance – it’s beautiful. I hope it’s not long before I hike again! Down from the mountain, I packed one more carpet and my selected ceramics. It’s interesting that the things I am choosing to bring back now are for the most part things I bought early on – as I stay here longer, different styles of weavings, pottery and other artisan items have grown on me, but for the most part the things I bought early on were things I fell in love with from the beginning. I also know what my favorite things are that didn’t fit, lest I need to prioritize again.
I had ALSO been meaning to go to Meknes for quite some time, and on Sunday I had the chance for that! Linda, my “high school buddy,” met me there and we went to the Dar Jamai Museum, which the book says is one of the best in Morocco – it’s another old palace and is charming, with a lovely garden in the middle, and what was really nice is that even though it was about to close for lunch, they let us in and waited until we were through. We then had tagines on the big square (somehow I was hungry even though I had breakfast before I left and a Magnum bar while I was waiting for Linda) and then dove into the medina. When I’d been in the past I hadn’t gone in an organized manner; this time I read up on recommended routes through the souks. Meknes has a smaller medina than that of Fes and Marrakesh – it also has more things for locals than for tourists (i.e. traditional clothes such as jellabas, lots of shoes, and tracksuits for under the jellabas) but also some nice things for tourists, and well-known woodworking and metalworking sections and a carpet/embroidery souk – we went in the general direction that the books recommended but also took our own turns when things looked interesting, and we found our way back out. The picture is of some traditional embroidery – the technique is called “Fassi” but it’s also used in Meknes and nearby. I think it’s exquisite but I’m not really a tablecloth person, so have more or less resisted so far (I did get a table runner in Fes last year). We covered a lot but didn’t get souked out, so could go back! Then we did the part of the imperial city that I hadn’t gotten to last time (which, fortunately, was just inside the entrance, because we were fading) – Moulay Ismail’s ambassador reception hall, underneath which (according to every book but one, which says it is a myth) were prisons that held 60,000 Christian slaves. You can visit that part, too, and we did.
Yesterday marked the COS minus six months mark. Wow. Time is flying. Then, to put it in perspective, I walked to the post office and found that they moved back to the front – all the construction done, new service windows and new post office boxes. When did they move to the back – over a year ago? So when they moved did they find all the letters that they took from me and didn’t mail and the packages that were sent to me and I never received? Alas, my mailbox was empty…. I don’t know how long it was supposed to take, but my counterpart asked me again if I want to stay an extra two years (at first he had said an extra year) and see the new artisana built, with the restaurant and the café and all of the nice new features…would it be ready?
I went out to Ain Leuh yesterday – with rain threatening (I did my laundry in the morning anyway – and at night it got “nature’s extra rinse cycle” – last year I remember being inundated with “May bugs” this time of year but this month has been cloudy, chilly and even rainy much of the time!) I couldn’t take photographs, but I did get biographies of the women for the web site. The addition of Ain Leuh has really increased my workload – I spend only a couple of hours there when I go, but getting there and back takes an hour, and I work at home to prepare and follow up, so it adds up. I am going out to Timahdite tomorrow for the cooperative’s Annual Meeting – it was great to go last year for the meeting at which they became an official cooperative, and it is nice to continue to be involved in some way. I’ll check out their latest inventory and I’ll bring some baked goods with me (actually, I’m making no-bake cookies) for cultural exchange (last year all of the women baked and Katie did too but she didn’t tell me to bring anything; this year I know that all meetings end with tea and cookies!).
I was asked to go to IST for the first-years to co-lead a VSN session. This would involve getting off the plane next Tuesday after an overnight flight and going from Casablanca to Agadir (nine hours on CTM) at my own expense (last year they paid the expenses of the volunteers who came to train; not this year), and they may say no since I am also on the GAD committee (they made an exception to the only-one-committee rule so that I could get the training, but that doesn’t mean they will let me go, since I do travel already for GAD, and there are other people who were asked who may not have the complications I do). If they say no, that is all right – I’ll come home and unpack and shower and go to bed! It was rewarding to be asked (since I am still sad about not getting asked to do the GAD training for their PST). I did enjoy the VSN session last year at IST though – a reflection exercise and a little bit of active listening training for everyone – so I did say I would if I could. If I do go, it’ll be that much longer before I get back here next week and that much longer before I write again! Now to pack the clothes, toiletries and reading material and to figure out what else I need to do before I go and what I need to do when I get back (not to mention at least two meetings with other volunteers, a trip to the artisana and other errands – plus Frank staying over on his way back from the dentist)!
Thursday, May 22, 2008
It was chilly and rainy and I didn’t feel well – perfect conditions for staying home most of last weekend! On Saturday, one of the nearby volunteers had a birthday celebration, which came to me – four of us played Piffle and rummy and had chocolate-chip brownies. Brownies aren’t necessarily the best things to have when you have digestive issues, but since I don’t make them often, I decided to take my chances. Perhaps I might have stayed in town on Sunday regardless, but since I was still on shaky ground, that cemented the decision – though I did go out a couple of times, to visit with Abdou and also the still-celebrating volunteers.
My burst of productivity continued, though, with some self-reflection exercises that I had been meaning to do for a while (not sure I came to any conclusion, but just getting to them felt like an accomplishment) and a first pass at my resume. I’ve long had in mind the thought that with six months to go (and/or after I came back from Reunions), I would get my resume together and start to explore options. I’ve looked at job sites every once in a while as the mood strikes me, and have even sent out a couple of resumes, but soon I will think about getting more serious about it. I still have work to do on the resume – it’s a bit unwieldy at the moment, and it emphasizes my marketing background too much (too much, that is, as long as I want it to be a background, which I do). I had spent a lot of money on a resume guru, who had an innovative approach and format, but I may have to jettison the format to streamline it. I also want to play up various aspects of my Peace Corps service – not just the SBD assignment but KSA, GAD and the volunteer support things – though I may end up tailoring different resumes for different opportunities.
I used the resume and wrote several essays for the Foreign Service Officer Test registration, and thanks to the timely receipt of a transcript from Princeton (I needed one for Peace Corps too – I really didn’t think I would be using transcripts anymore – but then again, I know several people who say they won’t use a resume anymore, and I can’t put myself in that category) submitted the registration last night. In looking at the study guide and the suggested reading list, I don’t know what my chances are on the test, but I think I would like to have Foreign Service as an option. I would also consider another Peace Corps assignment, but in asking the Administrative Officer how one goes about pursuing that, I think I have to be sure that’s what I want to do before asking the staff here to put in a good word for me; I’ll talk with her further when I’m in next in Rabat to get her opinion.
And that’s about as much thinking as I’ve done about Next Steps so far – I’m considering going to a career seminar next week at Reunions, even though it falls during a time slot when I usually attend another event and when people who come on Friday are just starting to arrive. More definite for me is a lecture on the nation’s infrastructure, featuring my favorite professor, still going strong at 80. It’s hard to believe that next week at this time I will be on the way to New Jersey – and that two weeks from now I will be back here, with Reunions a memory. Fortunately, the schedule worked in my favor and the Mets will be at home – once again defying the name of the blog – and the other Annual Card Game players are all available for a Sunday night spades gathering.
On Monday I visited with Abdou and went to souk – the tomatoes look lovely right now; I am planning to get some sun-dried tomatoes when I’m in the states but I may oven-dry some of these. Fruits in season are peaches, apricots (two kinds), peaches and nectarines – more smoothie ingredients! Then I went out to Ain Leuh. I discovered a major flaw in my Apple computer – the Word program cannot accommodate Arabic script. You may recall (from fall 2006) that in Arabic, the letters look different depending on whether they stand alone or are at the beginning, middle or end of a word (one of the things I like about Azrou is that it is made up entirely of letters that don’t connect – something unusual). Anyway, my computer can do only individual letters, not script, and it only dawned on me that that was the problem when I brought the proposed brochure out to Ain Leuh. We had a productive meeting anyway – they asked for some different pictures and some additional pictures – and on Tuesday I revised everything at cyber, where of course the computers can handle the script. I hear that on the new Apples (“Leopard”) the problem has been resolved and the operating system can handle script, but I like my version (“Tiger”) for its Princeton association. I went back out to Ain Leuh this afternoon and everything’s a go. The photo is the one on the front of the brochure, showing the charming mountain village of Ain Leuh – though for the brochure they had me crop the satellite dishes from the bottom of the picture!
I finished the questionnaire tallying and my writeup and recommendations – including the recommendation that we don’t keep the questionnaire going through this year’s tourist season unless there are specific questions we want to ask regarding the new Artisana. From this questionnaire we learned that the most popular purchase at the Azrou artisana is wood, followed by ceramics, rock carvings/collections and carpets. We also learned that most of the tourists (responding, anyway) are Moroccans, here for the day, who heard about the Artisana through friends and family. About half of the respondents went to a restaurant or café during their visit to Azrou, which implies that my idea to put brochures into the local hotels, restaurants and cafes is one that may lead to more traffic.
I went to Tuesday souk; I always look at the rugs there when I go, just to see what’s there, and I ran into Aziz; he was one of the first people Lee introduced me to and was helpful to me when I first got here. He married a PCV (someone who had ET’ed before I arrived in site) and his visa came through last January. Good to see him again! He’s here for the summer, staying in his family’s country gite, and I hope to get a chance to hike up there sometime. Speaking of ETing – Shawn, my rummy buddy from Kelaa, called Rabat yesterday to say he was ETing – so we’re up to eight people in our stage leaving early. He’s going to graduate school in Brussels in the fall and is going home to make sure his visa is in order. As he put it, he thinks of this as graduating early – he’ll be COSing with the Environment and Health people next week. I’m glad he was part of my experience and glad I could visit before he left.
I also visited my host family on Tuesday – there’s a chance they may move to Essaouaira. I do feel I will be back to visit Azrou, and if I had to add Essaouaira to any return visits that wouldn’t be so bad (other than the fact that they’re nowhere near each other). They asked me to spend the night – I wasn’t prepared for that, physically or emotionally, but now that the offer is out there, I suppose I have to go one of these days. I haven’t scheduled any more cooking lessons, either – I’m not sure what else to ask for.
I had lunch with four of the Environment “six-pack” on Tuesday – I hadn’t seen them in a while! Several had been on vacation or traveling to PST for the new stage, and it was good to catch up. Ain Leuh is getting a married couple from the new stage; hopefully they’ll be able to work with some beekeepers with whom Jackie was developing a relationship but that I as a part-timer wouldn’t be pursuing. Frank was supposed to come up on Wednesday on his way to the dentist in Fes, and was going to spend the weekend here on the way back down, hiking and going to Meknes, but a one-day strike affected transportation in his area (it didn’t appear to affect things here, but I wasn’t trying to go anywhere). I still think I will hike and go to Meknes this weekend – maybe the former with Kathy and the latter with Linda. Since Frank didn’t show, I spent Wednesday evening putting together the GAD section of the next Peace Works – it’s good that people are doing more GAD activities and reporting back to us; we’ll have a substantial piece! Still have to pursue staff response to the harassment survey – I know everyone is busy, but it is too important to go unaddressed. And I put together (to be finalized June 3) my last column of the year for the Princeton Alumni Weekly – it has been good to keep in touch with classmates while on the other side of the world from most of them; our co-secretary will do next year’s columns since I have no idea where I’ll be after November.
I find that the process of figuring out what is most precious and therefore going back with me this time to stay at Howie’s is tough – I want everything to make it back, but given the mail, I know that that may not happen. I have always had in mind that I have to enjoy my purchases and treasures while I have them here, and that once I get settled things may not fit (but then they would be gifts – so I still want everything to make it back home), and that I can return some day and buy more things….but still, packing is emotionally draining, and this is only a taste of what it will be like later on. Then again, I have a feeling that once I pack a few pieces I’ll find that that’s all I have room for, so maybe it’s just a matter of getting started…. I borrowed Kathy’s carry-on for the breakables, meaning I am taking a chance not only on checking the medium suitcase that contains the rugs, but also in checking the bag with all my clothes and toiletries for the weekend – but you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ll leave the medium suitcase at Howie’s and transfer the breakables to a souk bag (a fancy one with a zipper!); that means I’ll have room in Kathy’s carry-on on the way back here for things like chocolate chips and new decks of cards; Debbie volunteered to pick everything up for me so she and I can spend quality time together in New York Monday after next playing Piffle! I think I’ll have time to write again between now and the time I leave, but if not, I’ll write when I come back!
I keep meaning to mention the three little girls in my neighborhood – one who lives downstairs and two neighbors. When they see me they run to me and kiss me and want a kiss from me. It is so sweet! And just a few of the things I’ve seen this week, things so random and yet so commonplace that it occurred to me that I should make a weekly bingo card and see how I do every week – a man carrying a live rabbit (I could have separate spots for chicken or turkey or sheep), sheep passing as I walk down the street (ditto donkeys), a marriage proposal (it should get a bingo marker only if someone asks me, as opposed to one of the other volunteers), a fight, a near-miss car accident….
Friday, May 16, 2008
I track my expenses, just so I can see where the money goes. I don’t usually stay within the 2000 dh/month (plus rent) that we get, mainly because of travel, but I don’t mind going to the ATM. On the other hand, I don’t usually spend as much as I did on the Marrakesh weekend. Everything adds up – hotel, meals out, travel. And the souvenirs add up, good value as they may be (and the ceramics will only be a good value if they make it home intact!). That was a bit of a budget-buster – but still, given how I felt before I left, the splurge was a good thing. And it’s all relative.
So I was looking forward to a low-spending weekend last weekend; I was going to visit a friend, stay at his house, and not shop or do anything extravagant. The stay itself was as expected but the transport was expensive. Oh well. I went to Kelaa M’Gouna, which is about as far as I can get in a Saturday overnight, and I wanted to maximize my time there. There’s a 7:15 am bus that goes from here to there, but I was afraid it would make long stops and take about twelve hours, so I decided to taxi-hop. The grand taxi system is actually a pretty efficient way of getting from point to point – but it helps not to be in a rush. The taxis, which are older white Mercedes, accommodate six passengers (two in the front and four in the back – squished) and don’t leave unless they are full or the spots are paid for. I’ve bought extra spots when in a hurry and even entire taxis, but I did that more than I expected to on this trip and it added up. Still, it was nice to arrive in Kelaa M’Gouna when there was still day left and to not rush off in the morning and still be able to get home within policy. I even stopped in Tinghir at the place where Elisa, Steve, Youssef and I had delicious Berber omelettes and had another one!
In fact, I want to make my own Berber omelettes. Youssef told me you grate onions, tomatoes (yes, with a grater) and (optional) peppers and cook them in the tagine along with the usual tagine spices, and then you add beaten eggs on top and keep heating until cooked. I should try to do it for myself! I was going to learn to cook couscous with his family today but by the time I got there the couscous was already made. And I couldn’t even stay – I had said I’d go to Abdou’s for couscous, for Kathy’s birthday. For some cultural exchange, I made a birthday chocolate cake. But Moroccans are used to having fruit after meals and sweets either with tea or cassecroute – Kathy and I had our pieces, Abdou had a piece, his father had part of a piece, and his mother and sisters didn’t touch theirs. I left the rest of the cake there, so I hope they enjoyed it later.
Anyway, back to Kelaa. Taxi-hopping involved a two-hour ride to Midelt (I waited, and then bought two spots at 40 dh each), a two-hour ride to Errachidia (a wait, and then I bought all six spots at 45 dh each), an hour-and-a-half to Tinghir (once again, all six spots – 40 dh each– but I know the bus makes a long stop on the way to Errachidia and I think this leg would have had a stop as well). The omelette (so I made my own stop) and then I finally got on a bus – 15 dh – for the last hour and a half to Kelaa. So all in all it took about nine hours to get there. Shawn came to get me and we went up to his roof for a visual tour of the area. We went out for sandwiches, and then it was an evening of rummy! We’d played a lot of rummy in training; he introduced the wild 2’s that provide a nice twist (though Kathy won’t play with them). We had time for four hands on the Steve and Elisa trip – not enough! - so I’d been talking about coming down for a cards night and I am glad I was able to. We played some piffle, too, after a game in which he kept going out and I was stuck with high-value cards in my hand every single time.
On Sunday morning, we explored the area a bit. Kelaa M’Gouna is situated along a river, and up and down the rivers of the south there are casbahs, some of which are still inhabited but many of which are in various states of ruin. It doesn’t take much to ruin them, since they’re made of mud – a flood or even a good rainstorm is all it takes (in the old days, enemies would drown the foundations). The ones in use require constant upkeep, and several are being restored. But there are hundreds of them – most are too far gone for restoration but are interesting and beautiful in their deteriorating state. Possible holiday card background? They’re so different from the desert and Fes pictures of last year, so another side of Morocco…. We explored two casbahs and walked back to town through the fields. Kelaa M’Gouna is known for its roses – rose water, rose lotion, rose cream, rose soap, etc. – and the roses grow along the fields and are in bloom this time of year (I had to stop and smell them, of course). And all too soon it was time to go. The 11:30 bus did make some long stops and it got to Errachidia around four. I could have waited for a 5:30 bus, but that would have taken about six hours and I would have gotten home way after dark, so I opted for another expensive (but much faster) taxi ride – at least that one got me all the way back to Azrou!
And shortly after I arrived, so did Bob and Linda, traveling around with two friends from home. I’m glad they put Azrou on their itinerary – too bad Figuig, their site, is so far away. I liked their friends right away when one of them spied my Boggle game and asked if we could play. We played and talked but were all tired so called it an early night. One of the other places they had been is a gorge out east; Morocco has it all – interesting cities and natural beauty! The gorge might be equidistant from both of us, so maybe they will go back sometime and I can meet them.
Monday morning we went to the Artisana, where they bought a lot of things – guests who buy things from my artisans are always appreciated! We also went to Abdou’s, where ditto and ditto! Had some bisara and went to see monkeys – and then they had to go. The rummy and Boggle had me in the mood for more games, though – luckily, Kathy and Elizabeth were both in town to go to the cyber, and they were happy to play some Piffle.
I had a nice visit with Abdou on Tuesday. I see him often, of course, but it seemed as though it had been a while since it was just the two of us (or the three of us, since Minush was there too, on my lap). I’m having him “professionally pack” my favorite rugs; when I go back for Reunions I’ll take a suitcase and a carry-on and leave some things at Howie’s (for which I am most grateful!). Everything that Jackie sent from Ain Leuh has gotten to the U.S., so when the time comes, I’ll mail the rest of my things from there with some confidence, but I have more confidence that what I take with me on the plane will arrive (inshallah), so I thought I would figure out what things are most precious and take them with me; needless to say, this makes me sad, and I started welling up as Abdou was compressing my double-size Berber wedding cape/bedspread (and as I’m writing this). Then my landlord came upstairs to confirm that I was leaving in November and ask if he could start showing the apartment in October. At least I’ve known all along that this time was precious and have treated it as such! Next week the new Environment/Health stage will swear in and the week after that the old Environment/Health stage will leave – and then we’ll be “seniors.”
Reunions is soon – less than two weeks away! Last year I bought running shoes while in Princeton but ran out of time in New York so didn’t have time to shop for groceries or toiletries, so came back with a half-empty suitcase. I just discovered that I’m down to my last bag of chocolate chips, and I could use new decks of cards as well – I simply must find time to shop while I’m back! Some people think me daft for going home for such a short time (leave Thursday morning, fly back Monday night) but it worked out well – I’ll see lots of people at Reunions, go to a Mets game with family and friends (despite the blog name), play the Annual Card Game, and have a “free day” in New York that is already, as it did last year, filling up!
The rest of the week has been up and down. The up – I had an amazing burst of productivity. Wrote a memo with my recommendations for improvements in the artisana. Did some work on the artisana web site - it’s time-intensive, so if you look at it, it may seem as though not much has changed, but I feel I made a lot of progress. Revised a brochure and a business card for Ain Leuh and brought them over to the cooperative for review. Brought Azrou brochures to the Auberge and cafes down the hill – I used to walk up and down that main drag all the time but haven’t been there much lately; I’d been meaning to do that for a while. Compiled “take your daughter to work” reports for the GAD resource guide - previous volunteers had organized events at which girls could shadow professional women and perhaps see the benefits of staying in school and the options that are available to them; we haven’t held any of these since I’ve been here but maybe putting it in the resource guide will inspire others. And I wrote to my World-Wise Schools partner class. I also started tallying the latest round of tourist questionnaires – based on the results, I’ll make a recommendation as to whether to continue to have the questionnaire there for this summer’s tourist season, revise the questions, or wait until the new artisana is finished (my memo included a recommendation that there be a mechanism for customer feedback).
The down – sometime in the middle of the night on Wednesday I felt feverish and achey. I should have stayed home on Thursday, but I had “called in sick” already once on an Ain Leuh day and I didn’t want to make a habit of it. I know I’ve said here before that I don’t get sick a lot, but I haven’t been feeling well lately. I’ve been having trouble breathing – allergies, maybe? I don’t remember having trouble last spring. And that leads to trouble sleeping. I’ve had two fever-achey days in the past month or so, and yesterday and today some “Big D.” I came here with a bunch of acidophilus and then had Debbie replenish it, but when I ran out about a month ago and told her I thought I could go without. Maybe I spoke too soon! Chilly, rainy weather the past couple of days has made it all the more appealing to stay in and lie down – finished both of my books and am contemplating what to read next. I’m glad I didn’t make plans to go away for the weekend, though we just got a new out-of-site policy and are no longer restricted to two Saturdays out a month. I do have plans for day trips both days. A hike tomorrow may be postponed anyway because of weather, and may turn into a Piffle/knitting/movie day with nearby volunteers. Sunday I have invites to both Fes and Khenifra, but I am just going to wait to see how I feel. If I end up staying home, I have plenty to do!
Friday, May 09, 2008
I have said this before – Marrakesh has an energy that no other city in Morocco seems to have. You notice it immediately when you get off the train, even though it’s a half-hour walk to the hub of the energy, the Jemaa al-Fna, and even though that square itself is so crowded with snake charmers, storytellers, henna painters, food stalls and people that I tend to walk along the fringe and never linger. With a holiday for Labor Day on May 1st and a Friday that changed in classification from vacation to work-related to finally medical (an actual mental health day), I had the luxury of spending quality time there – most of my visits there have been more of the arrive-on-Saturday-afternoon-and-leave-on-Sunday-morning ilk, which have always left me wanting more. I finally got it.
Rose joined me, and as we were finalizing things on Wednesday night, she suggested that we take the 9:20 out of Meknes (for her, 8:50 out of Fes) rather than the train two hours earlier, which we had been aiming for. Off to a good start already, without the need to get up early. Except that due to holiday traffic, I precision-timed the taxis a little too close and arrived at the train station at 9:28-and-a-half, just as the train pulled in. Cutting it so close added to the stress I had already been feeling, but by the time I arrived in Marrakesh I had calmed down, thanks to lots of conversation, some reading and some rummy. It’s a long trip, but much easier when shared. We arrived around four and had a late lunch and found a hotel. Rose took a nap and I called Linda, who had come down by bus; we talked and then when Rose woke up we all ventured into the souks.
I finally feel I know my way around the Marrakesh souks. I’ve felt that way about Fes for a while, helped there by stars marking touristic themed circuits (“monuments and souks,” for example), a book with a good map describing the circuits, and frequent visits. I’ve had it as a goal to come to Marrakesh and get to know it well enough to know my way around, and this trip did that; as a bonus I found a detailed souk map on Sunday so now I really know where I’ve been and where I might want to go back to next time. Thursday night’s walk was an appetizer; we went along a wide, open street to the west of the more crowded covered souks, enjoying the cool night air and the colors and sounds. I also had my first Magnum bar of the season – double chocolate. I remember having one on December 1st – a true May-December romance for me.
Friday morning we went to the Artisana – I’ve gone there before to get ideas to bring back to the Azrou artisana, and with the opportunity to give input into the new construction in Azrou, I wanted to see it again. And also, as I said to Rose, to “let the shopping begin.” I bought a couple of leather things and a straw bag – nothing I had had in mind when planning the trip – but it was nice to spend time there, going through the showroom and visiting the spaces for the cooperatives and the individual artisans, even resting in the shade rather than just cruising through and running on to the next thing, as I have done in the past. And speaking of running – it was interesting to travel over some of the half-marathon route – streets and sidewalks look different once you have run them.
Rob came in to town and we met for lunch at an organic café – a cool place to spend the hot lunch hours; I had pumpkin pastilla and we sat and talked for a while. Rose mentioned that she feels she has seven months more of vacation; Rob feels he has seven months more of a prison sentence. I lean more towards Rose, though I know that part of my stress is the feeling that I want to get a lot more done before I leave. Rob has Marrakesh next door – what a pity that he feels that way. We went with him to get fruits and vegetables (so that’s where the raspberries are!) and then Rose and I went on to the Dar Si Said Museum. This former palace was closed when Helen and I tried to visit, but along the way we discovered the brass artisan and another nice store, so we’d had a good walk. The museum was all right – a good collection of rugs, pottery, jewelry and the like – but its outstanding feature was the building itself, with elaborate décor (though, as Valerie said at the Alhambra, “we’ve been here”) and an Andalusian garden, where we stayed until closing time.
We had gazpacho and a salad at a terrace restaurant overlooking the Jemaa al-Fna, where we heard the sunset call to prayer. I told Rose that being at the Jemaa al-Fna at sunset has to be on anyone’s list of all-time experiences, and there we were. Fortified, we ventured into the heart of the souks, with its explosion of color, sound, and people. The shop after shop aspect of it makes it seem like a theme park, whereas Fes seems more grounded, real, and medieval, but Marrakesh is fun, and there are things there that you can’t get elsewhere. One thing I bought is a ceramic jar made with using the tadelakt process – it’s basically lime plaster, with a smooth matte finish. Some of the rooms at some of the riads where I’ve stayed have rooms with this finish, and if I ever become an adult, I would like it in some of my rooms as well. Marrakesh also has things from elsewhere – I got some square Safi plates (just in case I don’t make it back to Safi).
Saturday Janeila came into town and we met her for breakfast. She commented on how happy she feels lately, and Rose seconded that. I didn’t feel I could third it, and I started wondering what I could do to get back to feeling happy – that put me in a funk for most of the day, but another sunset souk walk lifted my spirits and I’ve felt happy since then. The mental health day itself wasn’t enough, but the Marrakesh Energy Weekend did the trick! We went out to Rob’s site, and the contrast with Marrakesh is stark. It’s, as he put it, unbeautiful, with unpaved streets and smoke from the tire-burning pottery kilns. We walked through the Kasbah – which I had not done on previous visits. It’s tranquil there, an escape from the ordinary rest of the town, with imposing walls, impressive doors and spirits of the past. It feels like a movie set – and it is! They are filming “Prince of Persia” there, and a security guard prevented our seeing the rest of it.
Rob works with a painter, and at the organic café he had shown pictures of some of the works to us; Rose decided she’d like to see them in person. He makes what some call folk art and others outsider art – with no formal training, from his imagination. People, animals, Moroccan doors. Lots of caged birds, representing how the painter feels about himself, and recently, some cigarettes, since he’d just quit smoking. We all purchased some of his drawings and then headed back to Marrakesh for lunch in the Ville Nouvelle – quite a culture clash to be in that posh part of town after Rob’s dusty and basic site. We went to an art supply store, Rob and Janeila left, and Rose and I plunged back into the souks, this time approaching from the right-hand side, where I don’t think I had been before. Nothing I hadn’t seen, but all-new things to look at.
Sunday morning we sat in a café overlooking the square for hours. I felt happy and relaxed – maybe I have learned something about relaxing here after all. I can sit in a café for hours – not sit and read or sit and write but just sit! We watched the square wake up, the stands and stations being set up, and people walk by. We saw a cart pulled by a horse and a donkey and extended the mismatch metaphorically. We saw three older couples put on their gear and prepare to ride off on extremely expensive Harley-Davidsons. And we finished off the banana chocolate chip cake that I had made.
We then went back into the souks; I suggested a detour into the rug souk just to see what was there – wandered into one shop and stayed for hours, observing the rugs that someone was looking at and chatting with the kind owner – they say that in the big cities the prices are high, but you can get good prices if you go to places run by good people. There was just a good feeling in that shop – later the owner asked what brought us in there and I said, “magic.” He looked at me, started to say something, and then just shook my hand.
We missed our train. That’s okay – I had gone from stressed to relaxed to a funk to happy again and an extra night in Marrakesh seemed more than called for. We called the duty officer, paid for another night in our hotel, and had lunch at a little food stand. Rose wanted to take a nap and that sounded like such a good idea that I took one too. I woke up before she did, went to the bookstore where I found my souk map, and wandered to the Koutoubia Mosque – seeing it now after the Giralda in Seville reinforced my appreciation for both. I sat under a jacaranda and studied the map – we had actually managed to cover quite a bit; the map noted some must-sees and some side souks off the main aisle, some of which we covered in the evening and some of which we left for another time.
Back to the souks – I saw some of the stores I had seen with my sister and her family, but now I know where they are in relation to other things (I already knew where I had been on the Helen and Elisa and Steve and Youssef trips, though I never re-found the felt slipper place – maybe just as well, since the ones I bought have big holes in the toes, and I want to make some for myself anyway). The map said that the kissaria, a roofed-over portion of the souks and one of the oldest parts, dating from the 1200s, was a must-see, and it was a sanctuary from the hustle–bustle and had some things we didn’t see elsewhere; it was less touristy, too. We found the felt area and I bought a felt-ball necklace (not that I couldn’t eventually make one of those too!) and a fringe necklace so long that I will use it for a belt. I had seen a fringe belt earlier but the price was much too high. For both of those necklace purchases – and for the ceramics earlier in the weekend – I was able to bargain and to stick to the price I wanted to pay – so I am officially relinquishing the title of world’s worst bargainer! Another skill gained in Morocco! We went back to the rug store, where the owner took us to a roof to see the sun set. Rose noted a cute guy sitting in a rooftop restaurant nearby. I replied that it was interesting to see where we were in relationship to that restaurant and how happy I was to have the map. Rose then said, “you know, if we had known each other in high school, we might have had this exact same discussion.” She – the guys. Me – the map. Perhaps she’s right.
I thought it would be a good idea to get an early start on Monday and get back to our sites; again, Rose’s suggestion of the 9:00 am train instead of the 7:00 am was a great idea. We played a lot of cards, dozed (it remained temperate the whole way down but it was hot on the way back), recapped and read. I still don’t feel that that was my last time in Marrakesh, but I do feel I know it now, which I had hoped to do.
News flash – Morocco is going to Daylight Savings Time, for the first time! From June 1 to September 27, it will be five hours behind the US Eastern time zone (and it will be again when the US gets back to Standard Time). It is good in that I can sleep later – even with a dark bedroom and eye mask, I have been waking up early with the light – and we will have more time to get back to our sites before nightfall. But it means lftur will be that much later during Ramadan….hm, I wonder if the 27th is the night of power, when the skies open up and prayers go directly to Allah – will that night now have an extra hour?
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Last week and this week I have been learning more about the King’s new initiative for Azrou. They are going to completely redo the Artisana as they complete the museum that has been under construction for four years – though they say construction will start as early as July and take maybe a year. New showroom, additional artisans, classrooms for teaching young people the old crafts, a second story with a rooftop restaurant and café, the ability to take credit cards – in short, this may be the nicest Artisana complex in Morocco. When I heard about it last week I reeled a bit – what does this mean for the web site I have been working on and the additional brochures Tariq told me to design? I had convinced myself of their value and now find myself questioning again. A weekend in Marrakesh (which I’ll detail in the next post) put me back on my feet. I can still work on my projects – they’ll be useful at least through the summer tourist season - and if they’re not sustainable as is, they can be revised and built upon when the new Artisana opens. I also have the opportunity to have input into the new Artisana, and I see this as a blue-sky exercise – what if you had a lot of money and the chance to start all over? I have marketing ideas, display ideas, practical ideas (nice bathrooms, shipping, ATM) and more – here’s my chance to mention the participatory tourism and to use those tourist questionnaires to recommend filling gaps in what the Artisana has to offer.
There’s also a part of the King’s initiative just for weavers – the Ministry has decided that the Middle Atlas is known for its weavings, and it is going to promote the products of the cooperatives here. There’s a national trade fair at the end of June in Fes and a big one in Saadia, along the Mediterranean coast, in August – whether I attend one or both of these, with Azrou and/or Ain Leuh, remains to be seen, but I really think I should! Again, this is an opportunity to contribute – whether it be in product development or in marketing or in small business skills – and an opportunity to collaborate with other PCVs and artisans in the province (such as Timahdite, my CBT site). Timhadite, by the way, just secured a new building for the artisans – right along the main road, where tourists stop for a break on the way to Errachidia. This is what they had identified as their primary need back when we PACA’ed (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) them, and it is nice to be close by as they move forward shwiya b shwiya (little by little). The new volunteer there worked out some fair trade pricing with them, which my counterpart thought was too high, so they are no longer displaying rugs at the Artisana, but they didn’t back down, so good for them.
I’ve been going to the Monday souk the past couple of weeks to get vegetables – it’s pleasant under the trees and easy to navigate, and the food looks good. I didn’t go this week though – went to the big Tuesday souk and was so overwhelmed with the noise and crowd that I decided to buy my vegetables today from the daily souk down the hill, with the mul-xodra (vegetable guy) who quizzes me by giving me the price in ryal and watching as I divide by 20 in my head to get dirhams; I hadn’t seen him in a while. There are days when I just don’t feel like getting vegetables, but I have to – there are no dinners that I can take out of the freezer or boxes or cans to open. Which is good – I do not want to get back into the habit of eating a lot of prepared food when I get home. A fear was realized when I heard from a friend who COS’ed last fall and he said he gained back all of the weight he’d lost in Morocco now that he’s eating American food again. Meanwhile, back here, strawberries are gone and cherries, apricots, peaches and melons are just appearing – I see lots of smoothies and fruit salads in store this summer.
Last Tuesday the other SBD PCVs in the area and I went for a hike; they come in on Tuesdays for tutoring, cyber, souk or a combination of all three, and we decided there was safety in numbers. I suggested a Tuesday Afternoon Hike Club, though soon it will be too hot to hike in the afternoon and we’re better off going in the morning or at the end of the day – but they have transport issues with both of those, so we’ll see how much hiking we actually do. Already we didn’t hike this week – instead we had a lunch to catch up and learn about a meeting with the delegue that took place on Saturday, and next week the tutor will be out of town so they may not be coming in – but it was a good idea, and we did have a nice hike last week!
This week I’m hosting a legend in Morocco Peace Corps circles, Susan Schaefer Davis. You can find information on her at marrakeshexpress.org. She was a PCV here in ‘65-‘67 (Morocco 5, back when you were identified by country and sequential stage number – I’m Morocco ‘06-‘08, I think). She then got a PhD in Anthropology, working with Moroccan women, and has returned to study Moroccan girls and adolescents. She then started a business, Women Weavers On Line, which includes exporting rugs from Ben Smim (though not from the weavers I may work with) to the United States at fair trade pricing, and she also leads cultural tourism groups here. I had heard from several volunteers that they had gotten in touch with her and I didn’t want to overwhelm her, but I decided I had nothing to lose by trying to contact her too and she was receptive and friendly. She and her husband spend two months in Morocco every spring, and she’s now visiting the various cooperatives in the Middle Atlas. She has insights into gender, weaving, fair trade, exporting, Morocco and more – she lives up to the legend and is someone I am glad I have met. We spent hours in Abdou’s shop talking with other PCVs from the area and also furthering our education about rugs, we went out to the Cedres where I had more trout, we had a long talk with my counterpart (she had additional ideas for the initiative, such as paying a percentage to the guides, that I can incorporate into my report) and with the weavers in Azrou. She went out to Timhadite this afternoon and tomorrow we will go to Ain Leuh together.
I decided to take a step back when I went to Ain Leuh last week. Jackie had told me about a brochure that she was updating and about the other projects she was in the middle of. When I first visited them I talked about those. But then I thought ah, is this what the artisans want? I did “speed-PACA” – rather than take several visits to go through details I asked some quick questions. Community mapping I had skipped in Azrou and I did in Ain Leuh as well – they have a building where they work, and somehow they get there (though there may be members who work out of their homes – I’ll check on that) so knowing the other places of importance and likes/dislikes in the community isn’t as important as other information. Daily Activities – I learned about the cooperative’s working hours and also that they are not there on Wednesdays, which is their souk day, or on Fridays. So Mondays and Thursdays are good days to visit them. Seasonal Calendar – well, as it happens, right now is when not a lot of work is taking place – several members work in the fields picking cherries. There’s the usual August wedding/vacation lull, and Ramadan has a different schedule, but there are some people who are always weaving. Needs Assessment is my favorite PACA tool (along with the Priority Matrix, though I didn’t do that) and it turns out that the brochure is a priority but so is putting together a catalog to bring to trade fairs and show customers who come to Ain Leuh – not just with photographs but also with descriptions. Well, that is something I can help with! Jackie’s tutor, an English teacher in town, is available to help with the translation; so far I can understand and be understood on my own (which feels good) but it will be helpful to have him for technical terms and precise explanations. I’ll work on those projects, and then we’ll see what’s next. Incidentally, at the meeting with the delegue, the Azrou woman said I didn’t do anything, and the Ain Leuh women – who I have just started with – said I was helping them. There you have it in a nutshell!
I also did some work on the web site last week – I always feel better when I make some progress on it, and there are weeks that go by where I feel I don’t – this one may be one, for example, with Susan Schaefer Davis and suggestions for the new Artisana taking priority. I also started two books; I don’t normally read more than one book at a time (yet I often have more than one New Yorker in progress – what does that say?). Confessions of An Economic Hit Man is written by a man who used to be in consulting, recommending huge infrastructure projects in developing countries. They would have to take out loans to build the projects, use American corporations such as Halliburton, and then vote favorably with the United States on international issues in order to get debt relief. It’s eye-opening and a little depressing – it makes me feel good about being in Peace Corps but a little disillusioned about development in general. The other book is Morocco: The Collected Traveler. The author clipped and saved a bunch of articles on Morocco (and other Mediterranean countries, her area of concentration) and brought them with her when she traveled. So many people expressed interest in them that she got permissions to republish and then added her own insights into travel in general and into Morocco. I really like her style, and the articles are interesting. I now have a collection as well, thanks mostly to my sister (she also sends articles about impressive people who served in the Peace Corps at one time) – but of course the concept – and the book – already exists. It’s fun to read, though easy to put down after an article or two and pick up again later (and as for the Peace Corps, I just found www.peacecorpsonline.org, which seems to have compiled all of those – and to be a bulletin board and general resource as well).
I also put together some submissions for Peace Works, the Peace Corps Morocco newsletter. I felt really stressed last week prior to leaving for my Marrakesh weekend – it just doesn’t seem right that I feel stressed – as I said to Frank last year, if I can’t learn to relax in the Peace Corps, in Morocco, then I will never learn it. I know I am more relaxed than I was when I got here – I can see it, and people have told me – but I feel I still have progress to make. I do have to go back to the two-year cycle of PCV ups and downs – maybe my stress is right on schedule. Anyway, the upshot was that I did an internet search for relaxation techniques. I found a nice web site with some techniques I knew about – progressively telling every part of your body to relax, deep breathing, and guided imagery (imagining yourself in a peaceful location) but also a couple of new ones: Toe Tensing – as the web site pointed out, it may sound like a contradiction to the progressive relaxation, but by alternately tensing and relaxing your toes you draw tension from the rest of the body – and Quiet Ears, where you place your thumbs on your ears to close off the ear canal and listen to the ensuing rushing sound for ten to fifteen minutes. Then put your arms at your sides and actively relax them. The weekend in Marrakesh was enough to relax me (see picture!), so I haven’t tried those yet, but I have them in reserve! The other article I sent in was ways to beat the heat that I had seen in Real Simple last summer. My favorite was creating a cold compress – fill a sock with rice, tie it with twine, put it in the freezer before bed, and then slip it between the sheets – the summer equivalent of the hot water bottle? There are other good tips – and since it is getting hot elsewhere, I direct you to realsimple.com!