Thursday, July 17, 2008


After visiting Safi last year, I felt I had enough Safi pottery, but as time wore on, I realized I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted some small square plates in various colors. You can get Safi bowls all over the country – but the more you narrow down something that you are looking for, the harder it is to find. I found some plates in Marrakesh in May but when I got home I wasn’t happy with some of them – not flat enough. So when it turned out that I had to be in Casablanca on a Sunday night to be there for the Foreign Service Officer Test the next morning, I felt I could make the long trek to Safi, since I didn’t have to make it all the way back home by Sunday evening.

On Friday night, I went to the taxi stand and told them I wanted an entire taxi for six o’clock the next morning, though if there were other people who wanted to go to Meknes at that time they were welcome. I also got up a little earlier – no cutting it close for me. And I paid the extra up front to go directly to the train station. We didn’t stop for gas or oil checks and I got to the station half an hour early! Too early – but better than too late. Dawn over the Middle Atlas was spectacular (as are many of the sunsets); the fields are now shades of dried green and yellow and brown – gone is the lush green of the spring. We need rain! It rained a little bit today, but not much. Still, sheep and goats are grazing here all summer. What will happen to this country if there isn’t more rain? The desert will creep north…and the forests will disappear….and then we went into a fog bank. I found myself thinking, “Mediterranean climate – great for grapes” and almost at the line where the fog began, so did the vineyards.

When I went to the CTM office here in Azrou, they told me that the CTM to Safi was sold out. But when I was at the CTM in Casablanca last week on the way to Oualidia, I thought I might just ask if they had tickets – and sure enough, they did. After patting myself on the back for that, I treated myself to spaghetti bolognese during my train-to-bus layover. I had the seat in the front of a bus with a big picture window – which functioned much the way a magnifying glass does in cartoons – it focused the sun right on me. Still, I read the U.S. Constitution and also read a pocket atlas cover to cover. At one point, the bus was directed to pull over. It couldn’t be the King, could it? Not enough flags lining the road. Turned out it was a bicycle race coming through – that was neat to see!

Once I got to Safi, I felt the cool ocean breeze and decided to go right out for a walk. First, to the new part of the medina, where I got a Magnum bar and looked at the Moroccan clothes. The fixed-price pottery shop where we had had good luck in December was closed; I went on to the pottery souk. Lots of pottery, but not a lot of square plates. I went to the ocean for the sunset and then back to the room for a shower and a bath, deciding that sleep the night before the night before the test was of the essence.

Sunday morning I had a chance to do some of the things we hadn’t had time for in our half a day in December. I went to the administrative center and took a picture of the world’s largest tagine. And then to the former palace, now the home of the National Ceramics Museum. It contained mostly things I have seen before – representative samples from Fes, Meknes and Safi - but I did photograph some 19th century Tamegroute pottery for Jong to use in the web site we’re going to build next week. And I saw some Safi pottery with traditional Middle Atlas Berber carpet designs – why don’t they make more of those!

On the street under the pottery hill there are more pottery shops – I probably looked in every one of those, and then I went to the hill, but not many potters were working on Sunday, and the store where we had had good luck in December was closed. I didn’t realize this would be such a quest! I actually started running low on time. I bought a bowl with a small Berber design (not as dramatic as the one in the museum, but still nice) and went back to the pottery souk for some plates – found a few I was satisfied with, but none in blue, which I think is my favorite Safi color. The quest continues.

I took a CTM back to Casablanca – CTM as it was meant to be – air conditioned, with few stops – although I wouldn’t have minded a longer ride had it meant going by the wild and scenic coast that we drove past in December. Kareem met me at the terminal and we went out for a fresh fish dinner at the port and talked about how the test the next day could be life-changing (he said it, and then I told him I had been thinking about life-changing things lately. Speaking of which – Elisa’s experience so far in Uganda has included a lot of rain. Send some here!). I had agreed to share a room with Kareem but was a little anxious about it after getting little sleep with my roommate at the warden meeting coughing all night – but it worked out; we had a budget hotel with a spacious room and shower and I slept well.

The Foreign Service Officer Test the next day went – well, I guess I can cautiously say it went well. It was computer-based, and somehow I didn’t know that – if I had, I’d have brought my computer glasses. I knew the majority of the general knowledge questions and was able to make educated guesses on most of the others. Personality is what it is...and I feel confident enough in the style manual section that I didn’t go over my answers. The essay was on a topic of interest to me, but half an hour wasn’t a lot of time to put it together. The test was held at Dar America – an arm of the consulate, with a library and public programs, and also, as Kareem pointed out, the site of the April 2007 bombings. Kareem, Clark, another PCV who took the test (my alternate warden, who is from the Chicago area and whose mother was told about my blog before he left – we have yet to figure out by whom!) and I went out for Chinese food after the test – yum! It’s not as good as the Chinese food you can get in New York, but it was tasty. Kareem and Clark left, but I had planned to spend the night there so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting back to the room before checkout and getting home before nightfall.

This was a chance to explore Casablanca. Conventional wisdom says that other than the Hassan II mosque, it’s not worth it, but the tour books have information on things to see and do, and I was never one for conventional wisdom while traveling anyway. First I went to the Quartier Habous, a new medina (as opposed to Ville Nouvelle) built by the French – kind of sanitized, with lots of shops – a pleasant place to walk around. Saw the King’s palace there (couldn’t get very close to it) and the Pasha’s residence, now a court, yet another example of beautiful Islamic architecture. Then I did an Art Deco walk in the downtown district with information culled from three of my tour books. I love Art Deco architecture and it was a pleasure to walk around and be a tourist, looking at and photographing buildings, unharassed and feeling (though it probably wasn’t true) unnoticed. There are some impressive buildings, and it was also nice to just walk for hours. The picture is unrepresentative (most of the buildings are white – Casa Blanca, after all) but I had to include it because when I saw this theatre I thought I could be in any rundown town in the Midwest.

I went out to a restaurant on the Corniche, the strand of beach outside of town with fancy eateries, clubs and resorts. Another great ocean sunset, and a treat of steak au poivre. I went back to the room and a few minutes later heard an explosion. I jumped – and then I heard another and another and realized that it was fireworks for Bastille Day! I had even walked by the place where they were setting them up, thought they looked like explosives, and failed to put two and two together. I went up to the roof and saw most of the show – I miss seeing fireworks from the roof, which I used to do all summer in Chicago.

The next morning, I went to a church that I hadn’t gotten to on my Art Deco walk. They say that the stained glass, by an artisan from Chartres, is based on Berber rug motifs, but I didn’t really think so. Still, it was pretty. And then I walked to the Hassan II Mosque. I toured it last March with my family and might have toured it again had I been able to time it right, but I felt more like walking anyway; now that I have seen more I see how massive and impressive it is. It’s the third-largest (or second- depending on the tour book) mosque in the world, and larger than almost every church and cathedral. The workmanship is exquisite; it was enough this time to appreciate it from the outside. I then went to three different addresses that three different books referred to as artisanas – one was a non-descript building and the other two were stores, not government-run. Walked through the old medina for a few minutes, and then it was time for the train.

Jong is on vacation or work-related leave until the end of August (avoiding the hottest part of the summer in perhaps the hottest PCV site) and she had saved a seat for me on the full train (the 12:15 from Casablanca is the 1:15 from Rabat – same as last week). I had invited Kathy, Elizabeth and Briana over to play Piffle with the person who had brought it to me – almost a year ago to the day.

Yesterday I welcomed four Al Akhawayn summer students to town – the daughter of a Princeton classmate (who is also a Princeton student) and three friends of hers. We went to the pizza place and then to Abdou’s (I brought them for the tea and the kittens, but since it was their second-to-last week in the country, they were ready to buy rugs and also wood products at the artisana). Their big paper is due next week, so they may come back after that for more! The daughter of another classmate of mine is going to be a student at Al Akhawayn in the fall – I may see both her and her parents. Jong had a chance to see what my life is like – people coming through all the time – very different from life in her isolated site.

Jong left today for Sefrou and I thought it would be a good time to back up my computer – that turned out to be more of an ordeal, frustration, even panic than I thought, but I think it’s under control. Went out to Ain Leuh – turns out the weavers were away; I had a cup of coffee and made a long-distance call and felt much better. De-taxied (similar to de-planing) at Ait Yahia Oualla and had a refreshing walk into Azrou with Kathy. Seeing Abdou and the kittens (in that order) was uplifting as well. Jong’s coming back next week and I’m looking forward to it, but it’s been nice having the evening to myself.

By the way, I found out what the mystery herb in the beans and lentils recipe is – cilantro! It was hard to tell when it was mixed with parsley and taken out of the freezer...

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