Friday, August 29, 2008
Back in training one of the language sessions we had was on travel safety – we learned the words for “cracked windshield” and “bald tire” and were told that if we were sent to a taxi that looked unsafe that we should ask for another taxi. The reality is that you go into the taxi they tell you to go to – sometimes it takes long enough for the six people you need to fill the taxi; if you waited for another taxi you might never get anywhere. I used to text Rose whenever I got into a taxi with a cracked windshield, because I was thinking of her and those days in CBT, but on this trip – and I would say also near me recently – there were more taxis with cracked windshields than without. I don’t remember the words in darija anyway. It’s enough for me to ask for the window handle (“key to the window” – and the word for window sounds like the word for chicken so as I ask I always think “key to the chicken”) should I be lucky enough to be sitting next to the window and have control. On some parts of this journey, I bought two seats – rare in terms of the lifestyle I am supposed to emulate, but not unheard of – since most of the legs of my trip involved more than one taxi and I wanted to make sure I was in a taxi and not waiting for one during the lunchtime lull.
At one of the transfers, in Tiznit, I put my luggage in the back of the taxi and told someone I was going off to the bank…then I came back and told him I was getting a snack…then I came back and told him I was going to buy water. Each time I left my luggage in the back of the taxi, I thought, “what am I doing?” Maybe I felt okay with it because it was a station wagon and I could see it, but if someone wanted to run off with it while I was away, they could have. Shawn had his bag taken from a taxi in Marrakesh, but in general what goes in the trunk stays in the trunk. Still, usually when I am waiting for a taxi and I hear the trunk open and close I make them open it and make sure my stuff is still there before we take off. This may be too much detail, but I think it paints the picture of travel here. They remove the window handles in the passenger and back seats and you have to ask for them. Remember, there are four people squeezed into the back and two in the front, one next to the door and one next to the gear shift.
The time changed on June 1, but many of the taxis in the south (also in the east, I noticed) still had their clocks set to “old time.” They won’t have to worry about it much longer – instead of the planned fall-back date of September 27, we found out this week that the time will change back on Monday, September 1, which is also the first day of Ramadan. That’s good; those who do have to work by the clock – the people in the artisana, for example – will be able to break their fast that much earlier. Well, not really – it goes by the light and the call to prayer – but they can leave work earlier.
Back to Tafraoute…the Berber language there is Tashelhit, and the second language most people spoke was French or even English, not Arabic. So my darija was of little use, thought I did try to use it, but I did pick up a few words of Tashelhit. It is similar to the Tamazight that is spoken in the Middle Atlas – that is, someone who speaks one could understand what the other is saying – but many words are different. Tarifit, the language of the Rif Berbers, is the most different from the others. In Tafraoute, the women wear long black wrap-around pieces of fabric that have beaded or sequined edges, sometimes with white headscarves but usually they are in all-black, with exposed faces. When I walked through town I looked for and eventually found one that had orange trim – something about that color combination – but I decided I probably couldn’t pull it off….
After breakfast by the pool, I set off for a walk among the villages of the Ameln Valley – there are 26, along the mountainside, with a network of springs and irrigation and therefore palm trees and agriculture. I have thought it would be cool to walk the Cinque Terre in Italy, and I imagine this to be similar (now I have to move it up on my list so I can confirm yea or nay!). No young men, so it occurred to me that there was no harassment, and no dogs (which can be a problem on country walks near Azrou); actually, I didn’t see many people or animals at all, though I did talk to a couple of old men, a couple of children, and a woman with big silver Berber jewelry (someone really wears it!) to try to figure out which village was which. My plan for the morning was to just walk through some of the villages, and I had a chance to contemplate this – if you have no real aim in mind, but you’re not where you think you’re going, are you lost? I saw four or five villages, all picturesque. The closest village to the auberge has the Traditional House, which is decorated as it was back in the day, and I thought I would walk from there to the former PCV’s village, but I overshot the first one and then it would have taken too long to get to the second one. Four of the villages also have Jewish cemeteries – I did see a couple of cemeteries but there was no reason to think they were Jewish ones so I probably didn’t see any of those either. So was I lost? I still had a nice time, and just when it was getting hot I got back to the auberge for lunch and an afternoon by the pool. And I have something to go back for – more villages, maybe a bike ride – and a day trip to a gorge with some waterfalls that sounds really nice.
I thought I would go into town in the evening. Liese had a cow thermometer – I suspected and confirmed that it was from Holland – and I walked over to it every so often. 41 C/104 F at 3 pm – in the shade. 43/100 at 4:30. I wrote some postcards, and I was running low on reading material with several days to go, so even though it was still hot I walked the 4K into Tafraoute. Inspired by the 3000m steeplechase the night before, I ran the last part of the way. Just kidding! There’s a way to hike there, but since I hadn’t found the “right” villages that morning, I stuck to the road. In a nearby village there’s a prehistoric rock engraving – which I walked to but didn’t find (of course not!). The current first-year SBD volunteer lives in town, and it would have been great to see her, but she was on vacation herself. I walked through the medina – it’s another haven for traditional shoes, and here I found some I fancied – and then ended up in a taxi with fourteen other passengers. Granted it was a station wagon, but it was still packed. Three people in the front (if you ask me they could have fit one more – for example, me, the only other woman, in there), five in my row (at least I was by the window), four in the back seat, and three in the trunk with the hatchback open. Liese invited me to join her for dinner (and the Olympics weren’t on in the bar, so it was an easy decision) on the terrace under the stars, and I had perhaps the best vegetable soup I have ever had. Plus my first pomegranate of the season! They’re not up north yet, and not sweet yet in the south, but it was good!
Tuesday morning, Liese drove me towards the Traditional House – the way was marked by plenty of signs so I can see why she was surprised that I missed the way; hey, I was hiking off the beaten track. The owner is an old blind man who showed me all of the tools and implements of simple village life - I am glad I saw it. I walked back, and once again it was time to move on. When I designed the trip originally I thought I could keep moving east, but when I reviewed it with a map I realized that to get east I would have to backtrack west, which meant spending most of the day in taxis. There’s a bus that goes along the hypotenuse straight to Agadir, but it wasn’t at a good time for me, so I went on the sides of the right triangle. To Tiznit, where this time I took my bags with me when I went to find a snack (and where the artisana, with its silver jewelry, was open, but I resisted), then Agadir (not Inezgane), then Taroudant (where I thought I had seen a Magnum bar the week earlier, but there weren’t any near the taxi stand, so I went without) and on to Talioline, the saffron capital of Morocco and the largest saffron-growing area in the world.
Saffron is, of course, the world’s most expensive spice. It comes from the stamens of the crocus sativas and over 1000 flowers have to be hand-handled to get one gram of saffron. The flowers bloom in the fall, and it would have been nice to see a sea of purple in the brown, but learning about the process (and buying some saffron) had to suffice. I stayed in a place called the Auberge du Safran and had a saffron dinner – Moroccan salad (diced tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers) with argan oil and saffron dressing and a Berber omelette made with saffron. Yum! And now I have some cooking ideas for my saffron; it also has many medicinal properties.
Talioline has a Glaoui Kasbah, partly in ruins and partly still occupied, and I walked there the next morning. I wanted to see the big saffron cooperative, and was told they opened at 9; when I went there at 9:40 they told me 20 minutes – in other words, they were on old time! The cooperative exhibit wasn’t as informative as the one at the auberge where I’d stayed – or maybe it just wasn’t as interesting as it would have been if it had been open an hour earlier – and I decided it was time to leave. I had wandered into a shop the evening before and had a long talk with the owner (again, with his Tashelhit and my Darija, we spoke mostly in English) and I went to say goodbye to him- I feel I made a friend.
Tazenacht is a small town but is known for being a rug center. It has a couple of cooperatives and several rug stores. It is said that bargains can be found there compared to the rug stores in the big cities. Several of the rug styles I seem most attracted to are from the Tazenacht region; I really liked the rug that Bob and Linda bought there on one of their trips, so I stopped there with a mindset to potentially purchase one and at the very least to have lunch. Tazenacht turned out to be hot and quiet. I wandered into a few stores and didn’t see anything I immediately fell in love with. I had a couple of people pull some rugs out for me but I just wasn’t feeling it – to properly rug shop you can’t be in a rush; you have to look, you have to have tea – and when I asked one person for a price, just to get an idea, he gave me a really high price. Bottom line – nothing I couldn’t find at Abdou’s for much less, not to mention from Abdou. So maybe I will do that. I also didn’t see a place where I absolutely had to eat lunch – so, as with Mirleft, I moved on. Wednesday and Thursday were holidays for the King’s birthday, but there was no decoration for the occasion – when I got back to Azrou there were flags flying, but nothing in the south.
I wasn’t planning to stop in Ouarzazate other than to switch taxis, but there was a Greek restaurant there that Helen, Youssef and I had tried to go to that was closed by the time we got there and we ended up at the pizza place next door. Déjà vu – it was closed, so I had pizza next door. And then went on to Skoura, in the Valley of a Thousand Casbahs. I stayed in a restored casbah, Ait Ben Moro. This is another stop that might not be on a typical tourist trip, but another PCV had mentioned it to me – and it turns out that Susan Schaefer Davis stops here on her cultural tours. I thought it had a pool, but it did not, so I stayed in the room for the afternoon, which was quite comfortable – mostly playing solitaire, because of my running low on reading material. I then went for an evening walk among the casbahs – including the one on the 50 dirham bill! I then took a walk into town to get a disposable camera – two batteries ran out while I was away. It’s all right – otherwise I might not have walked into town, so it was nice to have a sense of purpose.
I was the only guest in the hotel that night, which was a little strange. The caretaker said I was the queen of the casbah – and I felt like it, with a delicious dinner and a wonderful night’s sleep and a good breakfast and some time in the garden, playing solitaire. I took another morning casbah walk and was ready to go. I already had a ticket for the 12:40 CTM, because I thought it would be the most comfortable ride, but I probably could have taken taxis earlier and been all right and arrived at home earlier. Oh well – I did some knitting on the bus, which I wouldn’t have been able to do squished into a taxi, and since I didn’t have reading material (all in all I read three magazines, a mystery novel, and everything from COS conference – I probably should have stuck one more book in the suitcase) it was nice to have something to do. And nice to enjoy the desert scenery – more casbahs, large open spaces, camels, women washing laundry in the rivers. I’ve been on that route enough times that it seems familiar, and that felt good. In Errachidia there was a taxi ready to leave when I got there, and I was reminded of how beautiful the Ziz Valley is. All in all it was a wonderful adventure, - I was really glad I went and I would recommend it to others - but I am glad to be home.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
After the close of COS Conference, several of us took a walk to the Chellah, the Roman/Phoenecian/Carthaginian/Almohad/Merinid necropolis/ruins/garden near the hotel. I had been there with Martha, Susan and Youssef (and then again for the Jazz Festival, but I didn’t walk around then) and had been wanting to go back. It meant not getting to the medina at all, a Rabat first for me, but the Chellah is special. Three of the seven of us had been together for our first walk outside of the hotel in September 2006, and while we still weren’t into processing, we had nice conversations. The Chellah has a spiritual quality to it – there are dozens of storks’ nests and cats that travel in a herd (really) and strange-looking trees and all sorts of interesting architectural fragments from the different eras. A final dinner at the Goethe Institute included, among other people, the entire TimHdit CBT group (those who lasted past Phase I, that is) – we are rarely all together, and that was a nice footnote. There was a big crowd that went out dancing afterwards, but I wasn’t part of it – too loud, too smoky, too late – I had to get up early the next morning (though it didn’t stop me from talking with Rose for about an hour once she came back).
Thursday was a holiday – one of the celebrations of Moroccan independence. The following week there were two days off for the king’s birthday – so with three holidays and a weekend, I could stretch my last three vacation days into a week-long vacation, long enough to go farther than I had gone before (we’re not allowed to take vacation in the last three months, nor could we in the first three months – then it was for community integration, now it’s for closing things out). I had a first-class ticket for the 7:45 train to Marrakesh. A couple of weeks ago, I had suggested we get first-class tickets to Oujda, remembering how hot and crowded the trains were last August. Rose and Jong didn’t want to buy tickets in advance, and when we got to the train station, first-class was sold out – but that’s when I bought my Marrakesh ticket. It costs 50 dirham more, and it’s not traveling in the style of the people we’re working and living with, but it is traveling in style. Six to a compartment instead of eight. Comfortable plush seats. Working air conditioning. Quiet. I napped for most of the ride. Once in Marrakesh I went to the Café du Livre and had a light lunch and a lemon tart (since I hadn’t had one in May), and then it was off to the taxi stand.
I had assumed that taxis to Taroudant would go through the Tizi n Test, a pass that is supposed to be more dramatic than Tizi n Tichka, the famed pass between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate, but they don’t – they go east of the High Atlas. Just before I left, I got an email from Anny, the first-year SBD GAD rep, who lives in that area, telling me about a three-taxi route that did go through the pass – so of course I wanted to do that! I think Tichka was more amazing because of the range of plant life and the various villages, but I am glad I went through Test, especially since I barely had to wait for any of the taxis – that was true for my entire trip. Buses and trains may be crowded and hot and slow, but taxis fill quickly and are bearable as long as people agree to open the windows (some don’t, because of djinns), so maybe that’s the way to do Morocco summer travel.
The long days helped too – I got to Taroudant well before dark. It may be the best-preserved walled city in Morocco, and I had a chance to walk a lot of it on the way to the hotel Anny had recommended. Matt, the volunteer who lives there, came to pick me up for dinner. He had been to my house for VSN training and it was nice to see him again. He, Anny and Megan, a first-year SBD I hadn’t met yet, were leaving early the next morning to climb Mt. Toubkal, and we had a fun conversation and a delicious chick pea tagine that Anny made (find it on www.annyinmorocco.blogspot.com). Nice PCVs down there in the south!
The next morning I set off to explore Taroudant – one of the books likens it to Marrakesh but much more manageable, and it has a history as a staging point for conquering dynasties. I agree about the manageable part. I went to the tanneries, where I bought a pocketbook (the strap of the emergency one I had bought in Tetouan just before COS Conference, to replace the one whose zipper broke the day I left for this journey, had broken on the way to the train). Then I went to the Souk Arabe, which is known for traditional sandals and slippers (I keep saying I should get some, but I am just not a shoe person…I can get some here) and silver jewelry (since I was planning to go through Tiznit but not stop there, I thought I might just take a look…) and stone carvings. And then – I couldn’t talk anyone into joining me for the trip because people thought it would be too hot – I spent the afternoon by (and in) the hotel pool! Yes, the trip covered a lot of kilometers, but I designed a reasonable pace for myself. In the late afternoon, I went back out – to the Souk Berbere, which had spices and fruits and vegetables. Taroudant is in the area where argan trees grow – the southwest of Morocco is the only place in the world that they grow, and I was hoping to see some with goats in them – no luck, but I did see camels grazing along the road, and that will never get old. I walked to the mellah, the old Jewish quarter, and then the kasbah, the oldest part of town and a walled city within the walled city, and saw the Palais Salam, the hotel that hosts visiting heads of state; I sat in its garden for a while. Then I did the de rigeur caleche ride around the ramparts, had a tagine dinner at a rooftop restaurant, and slept well after a full day.
After breakfast by the pool I took a taxi to Agadir (avoiding Inezgane, the out-of-control huge taxi/bus transfer point outside it, where the head-kisser was – Agadir was a little out of the way but worth it) and then one to Tiznit – which took longer than I remembered – and then one to Mirleft. I had debated going to Mirleft, an oceanfront hippie kind of place, rather than Sidi Ifni, just to see something new, but I so loved Sidi Ifni that I felt drawn back there. So I stopped in Mirleft for lunch – the town wasn’t really near the beautiful beaches that we had seen from the taxi, and the restaurants were full of people waiting for food but nobody eating, and I decided that that was enough of Mirleft – I had a Magnum bar and headed for the taxi stand. It was not a great stop, but that was a good call – I was not to see another Magnum bar for the rest of the trip, which was quite a disappointment.
Sidi Ifni was as wonderful as I remembered it – the art deco blue and white Spanish buildings and the long beach, leading to the magical red rocks. Now that I have been to Ceuta, I have more appreciation for the fact that this was a Spanish enclave until 1969. Ceuta and Melilla, the two extant enclaves, are on the Mediterranean, facing Spain, and you can take a ferry from either to Spain. Sidi Ifni is way down south on the Atlantic coast, and when Morocco cut off the land access, it wasn’t as if the people there could hop on a ferry to Spain – so Spain ceded it to Morocco. I took a long walk along the shore (water cold even in the middle of August – hooray for Mdiq last weekend) and then sat on the roof of the spirit-filled Hotel Suerte Loca. The moon was full that night, adding to the mood – and reminding me that when the moon disappears it means Ramadan will begin. It was nice to see the Summer Triangle – my rooftop faces the other way so I usually don’t see it – and other constellations in a sky darker than the one above my site. I had paella and talked with a man who works at the hotel – when we were there last year, he gave a hotel business card to Rose and one to me – and on mine he wrote his name. I used that to my advantage when I called to make the reservation – he said they were full, but once I told him that I was the American from Azrou, he said to call when it got closer and they would find a room for me. And they did! I walked along the beach in the morning, and all too soon it was time to go – but I had the strangest feeling that I will be back. Note to anyone thinking that they might want to come to Morocco with me some day – Sidi Ifni and Azrou are nowhere near each other – but we might have to go to both.
It was weird to think that I was at the halfway point of my travels but still on the front end of the vacation; it really felt as though I was away for a long time, maybe especially since I was by myself at that point, and because I didn’t go to a cyber at all. Back to Tiznit, and then on to Tafraoute. It was the site of one of the then-second-year PCVs who was at IST last year, and she invited Rose and me to come for a day after our planned trip to Tiznit. At the time we had been planning to go to Marrakesh and then home, and we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Sidi Ifni. We both meditated by the red rocks and found energy and peace in being by the ocean, so it was the right decision, but the idea of going to Tafraoute stayed in my head, and as I was thinking of a plan for the balance of my vacation days, I felt it was the part of Morocco that I had not seen yet that I most wanted to see. Tafraoute is in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, the southernmost range in Morocco (if only the Rif, the northernmost, were called the Pro-Atlas). Paul Bowles said that it was like the Badlands of South Dakota, only on a larger scale, and while there were rocks of various marvelous and interesting shapes, having been to the Badlands I would have to disagree.
Both last year’s volunteer and the current one, who I met at the Warden conference, recommended an auberge in the Ameln Valley, about four kilometers from town, called Chez Amaliya. It’s owned by a Dutch woman, Liese, and since my father said the Dutch were the nicest people in the world (I used to take his word for it until I realized that maybe he just said that because he was Dutch – but I am predisposed to agree) I was happy to stay there. Amaliya is the name of the four-year-old future queen of the Netherlands; she had just been born when Liese had the idea to stay in Morocco and build the hotel, and her picture is proudly displayed near the ever-present one of Morocco’s king.
Chez Amaliya had air conditioning (which we also had in the Chellah but not elsewhere on the trip) and a wonderful pool, where I spent the afternoon, gazing at the formation of a lion’s head in the mountains straight ahead. In the Ameln Valley, most of the young men emigrate to work and send back money or build retirement houses there – they are successful, so the Valley is prosperous, but it is also populated almost entirely by old men, women and children, and it is said that the lion watches over the women (Liese told me that the women were unhappy, because there’s nobody to marry).
In the evening, Liese took me past Tafraoute to the Painted Rocks – a giant art installation painted by a Belgian in the mid-80s (the Dutch think the Belgians are a little crazy anyway….we all have neighbors to make fun of). The rocks are painted in various shades of blue; it is way cool. I could have stayed there for hours, walking around, but I was conscious of her time. I did walk down closer to the rocks and several times through a graffiti-rock labyrinth that someone had assembled near the blue rocks. Liese also took me to a spring in the village next to the former PCV’s site. What customer service! I went to the bar to order dinner and saw that the Olympics were on the big TV – so I decided to eat at the bar; that was the most coverage I saw (we did have a few minutes each day at the Chellah as we dressed). I did see a variety of events, more or less commercial- and feature-free, but I did feel I was missing out; oh well, I knew I would be away during a Summer Olympics.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I arrived in Rabat for COS Conference, back in the Chellah Hotel, and thought, hm, whom shall I text to see where they are? And then I thought, why is nobody texting me? Just then I got a text from Linda and Bob, inviting me to join them for coffee. Along the way I ran into several other stagemates at a café and I was stunned by their negativity. Many of them are just waiting to go home. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me – I’ve been around Jong’s Peace Corps negativity for a month already, and (to name just two people) Rob and Connie have always been somewhat negative, but to feel it en masse was a bit of a stunner. People really have checked out. Bob and Linda are enthusiastic (see www.figuigartisanat.com, the great site they and Frank developed), so it was nice to move on to see them. But the negative energy continued back at the hotel for dinner – most of the people I sat with say they have already checked out. It was also weird to be with the YDs again, as we were those first few days in Rabat, the last few days before swearing-in, and at IST – I just haven’t kept up with most of them and they have a totally different vibe, perhaps aided by the fact that most of them had been at summer camp at El Jadida or on vacation, but perhaps also because in general the YD program is more solid and well-defined than the SBD program.
The conference started on Monday morning with remarks from the Country Director. He seems to have checked out as well – his replacement arrives September 1 for a two-week transition period and then he leaves. He appears to be having separation anxiety – anyway, his remarks were short and far from inspiring, and perhaps they set the tone for the day. We’re the largest group to get to COS Conference since the program re-started after the 2003 evacuation – 43 people (out of I think 56 who swore in and 60 who left Philadelphia) – and maybe it was too big a group for meaningful reflection (again, that plus the chemistry of mixing SBD and YD). That said, Megan, the Administrative Officer, did a great job of facilitating the conference – she is positive and energetic and that almost balanced out the apathy of the majority of the SBDs. She congratulated us and told us to be proud.
That said, Monday was reflection day. We started with a little self-assessment of positive changes we see in ourselves and a funny story; before the beginning of each session, someone would read a funny story and we’d have to guess whose story it was (I used the one about the man going down the bus aisle kissing people on the head and asking for money). Then we had an ice-breaker called “Have You Ever?” We had to sit in a circle, and if we had ever, we had to move over and sit in the lap of the person to the left. Have you ever climbed Mt. Toubkal? About ten people moved. Have you been to Merzouga? Most of the group moved. Have you ever stayed in Sharon Keld’s house? I was surprised to hear that one, but I talk to Megan a lot and she knows. About half the group moved – actually, I calculated one day during a long bus ride that all but four members of my stage who are still here have been to my house, and at least that many people in other sectors – over 50 in all. Not that many YDs though! I don’t remember too many of the other statements from the game – breaking policy was one, I know (almost everyone moved – yes, including me).
We then broke into small groups to for a session on Assessing Your Peace Corps Experience. We wrote down memories of the application process, Philadelphia, Rabat, PST, first few months, IST, those who left early, and other important events, and then shared them with the big group. It was interesting to see some common things and to be reminded of others. Next we did a self-assessment of our experience, completing sentences and filling in blanks several thoughts such as When I Think About My last Two Years I…, Something I Might See, Hear, Taste or Smell in the Future That Will Always Remind Me of My Two Years in Morocco, Something From My Experience That Will Always Bring a Smile to My Face, Something That I Will Really Miss and Will Make Me Sad to Think About. We then put these on flip charts and went around the room as a group reading what each other wrote. I remember vividly being in Rabat at the beginning of PST, in the same room, reading the flip chart pages of the volunteers in Lee’s stage who had just been to COS Conference – on September 9 the new trainees will arrive and they will see what we wrote. The cycle continues.
We then did a group picture – I had dug up the PST picture that was taken of all of us by a professional photographer, and (after seeing this from Amanda’s stage and the two after that) suggested that we set ourselves up in the same spots, leaving empty spaces for the people who have left. This was not taken by a professional photographer (after all, they’re pushing us out), so the lighting left something to be desired, but it is still a nice memory (I wore the same clothes for the occasion!).
More reflection followed – another small group discussion of what are you taking, what are you leaving. This was supposed to be conceptual and metaphoric, a way to discuss skills to present to future employers, and here was where we were supposed to discuss how we have changed and how we have remained the same. For me this was the low point of the day – our group was dominated by one person who effectively cut off discussion (and in doing so brought up memories of PST), and people either took things literally in terms of what they were taking or leaving or talked about harassment and other negative things they were leaving behind, as opposed to good things they were leaving with their communities.
At least the day ended for me on a good note, with a group discussion about moving on – thoughts of going home, how friends and family will react, and career ideas. I was a bit of a downer in the group, with my not looking forward to job-hunting or being in an office, but at least the group dynamics were positive. We then reviewed a list of questions that people in the U.S. might ask when we got back – and Megan repeatedly reminded us that nobody will be interested in what we have to say for more than 30 seconds, so we should keep in touch with each other – and talked about the culture shock of returning.
The day was emotional – for me, disappointment because of the lack of emotion and energy on the part of my stagemates or maybe because I felt that the questions asked weren’t allowing me to express what needed to get out, and for them, I’m not sure what they were going through, because nobody wanted to process - and a walk was in order. A random group of us in front of the hotel just started on a walk, and I mentioned that we were near the American Club, so we ended up eating dinner there, joined by several others in our stage. If someone had suggested we all go there it probably wouldn’t have happened, but it came together spontaneously, which was nice.
Days Two and Three were more administrative than reflective, and had more energy – which says more about the lack of enthusiasm of the first day than about any pep of the following days. We had a session on medical – part of my shellshock just before leaving for the conference was seeing in black and white the days of COS Medicals and 72-hour Checkout – seeing actual end dates in sight – but seeing them again in the medical session was fine. And we learned about Corps Care, the Peace Corps version of COBRA – a reminder that we have been really taken care of for two years and that soon we’re on our own.
We then had panel of RPCVs talking about their careers after Peace Corps. This was interesting, but I’m not sure how typical their experiences are. They didn’t all serve in Morocco, but they all chose an international or development career and are in Morocco now – one was at the consulate, one worked for Homeland Security, one for USAID, one for a consulting firm that does a lot of USAID work, and two who are more or less trailing spouses (both men, including Megan’s). It was relevant – many PCVs do continue in international careers – but skewed by availability and proximity. Perhaps the most important thing that I got out of the panel was that everyone said that it all works out in the end. What a good lesson – maybe Peace Corps experience helps you to realize that and maintain that attitude. Later in the day we had a more nuts-and-bolts presentation on USAID and how to apply – USAID is ramping up for the first time in years, including, for the first time, hiring mid-career people instead of just entry-level people, and I think over half of USAID officers have Peace Corps experience (Lee is there now). I think I will apply – can’t hurt (which reminds me, when I got home I opened an email saying I had passed the Foreign Service written test and am being moved along in the process – yay me).
And we started to talk about paperwork. There’s an on-line COS Survey we must take – we must get confirmation that we took it in order to be checked out at the end of November – and we have to write a DOS (Description of Service) – the only official document that Peace Corps will keep on record for us. There’s a strict format to follow, and the first draft is due at the end of September. There’s a Site Survey form too – something for us to fill out to help the next PCV. Lee’s was very helpful to me; the format has been expanded by an intervening group of volunteers, but it’s in one of my favorite fonts, Comic Sans MS, so it has the appearance of being fun to fill out.
The next day – after a dinner at Le Grand Comptoir, the French restaurant where I had promised myself I would go before I left Morocco – we reviewed our COS Handbooks, full of procedures and even more forms. Our counterpart has to sign off that we are finished, our landlord that we are debt-free, we have to return all of our books and manuals and get a signature confirming that we did so, our Program Manager signs off on a number of items, we have to agree to use an American carrier if possible when making our plane reservations – and more.
Saoussane, the new SBD Program Manager, then had us for two time slots. I was not looking forward to this one, knowing how negative people in my stage are, but I think it ended up being a good discussion – she was able to elicit some meaningful feedback on site selection, program specifics and more, and she got most of the people to weigh in. What happens with the feedback is anyone’s guess, but I thought she did a good job and I was impressed that my stagemates spoke their minds objectively – maybe it helped that people have checked out, because they had no emotion left and it didn’t sound like a bunch of complaining. Interestingly, when asked if they would do Peace Corps again, almost everyone in the room raised a hand.
There was an open slot, for which I had offered to facilitate a discussion of the job search process (since I spent so much of my time before Peace Corps on a job search). I didn’t do much talking, which was great – some of the people in the group who had looked for jobs and some who had hired lots of people talked more than I did, which is what I was hoping would happen. Most of the participants stayed for the optional session, which was also rewarding.
In the early afternoon, we were each given a slip of paper with someone’s picture on it – an individual shot, taken by that professional photographer in September 2006. We had to write a wish for the person whose picture we were given, and at the end we all stood in a big circle, reading our wishes to each other. There – at last – was the emotion, happiness, sadness, camaraderie, sense of shared experience, sense of a mixture of feelings – the realization that we made it and are finishing and all that that means that I had expected to feel throughout the conference. There was some karma in who got whom, and some genuine caring and heartfelt emotion went into many of the wishes. It was a wonderful way to close.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Ibn Battouta was an Islamic scholar in the 1300s, but he is best known for his travels. When he did the pilgrimage to Mecca, he walked – from Tangier. Then he continued to walk, covering North and East Africa and the Middle East and eventually getting to China – over 75,000 miles in 30 years. When I told Abdou where I was going, he said I was like Ibn Battouta – so I decided to call myself Shereen Battouta.
Linda came from Khenifra on Friday night – in an unpublicized change to the out-of-site policy, if you can get to a destination on Friday night between the end of the workday (however that is defined) and sundown, you may leave your site early. Had I known about this I might have suggested we go to Fes, so we wouldn’t have to wake up at 5:30 to take a taxi to get to the 8:00 am CTM, but I didn’t know – and as it was, I had planned a use-up-the-vegetables rice dinner and use-up-the-fruit smoothies. I may have an opportunity to take advantage of that rule between now and the end of Daylight Savings Time, but I may not. So we woke up early and made our way to the bus. CTM is a good way to go – assigned seats, air conditioning (most of the time), comfortable. I read more of “Where there is no Doctor” and we crocheted – turns out I had been doing it wrong with Jessica and Jong, and now it is more fun, so maybe I will crochet more. Going past the border between formerly-French Morocco and formerly-Spanish Morocco, through Chefchouan and to Tetouan, I felt wistful - I realized that I didn’t necessarily think I would be back this way. We made a quick trip to the Tetouan artisana, which fortunately was open – my pocketbook zipper had given way, as all zippers in Morocco seem to do, and I bought a new one from the leather cooperative there.
It was a short taxi ride to Mdiq, a combination fishing port and (relatively) swanky resort on the Mediterranean. I hadn’t reserved a hotel room – there had been plenty of rooms in Saadia, and the place I had reserved there didn’t have our reservation – but in Mdiq there were fewer options and most of the hotels were full. We lugged our bags around, not saying anything – I give Linda a lot of credit for that – and finally found a nice room with a sea view. Off to the beach! Warm water, calm enough for a swim – with ropes and buoys to keep the pleasure boats (yes, there were some here) away from the swimmers. Linda’s done triathlons too, and we swam out to the rope and then took a long seashell-filled walk. At night we did the promenade – or maybe I should say paseo – along with everyone else, had a seafood dinner with a view and a shared glass of wine, and we watched the line of fishing boats go out to sea at sunset. We watched some of the Olympics Opening Ceremonies – with Spanish commentary – but could stay awake no longer. A lovely, relaxing afternoon and evening! Yes, a beach is just a beach, and that’s why I didn’t go much last summer, but I love the beach – it’s a nice place to go. In the morning, we went for an early swim, had breakfast with a view, and parted ways, she going back to Fes and eventually home and I on to Rabat. I had such a nice time that while I was there I started to wonder whether I could go back yet again – but the ride to Rabat was long and hot (so much for CTM being mostly air-conditioned and comfortable – at least they run more or less on time) and I concluded that that was that. There may be another pool day in Fes in my near future, and I may still try for Oualidia again, but I think that was my Mediterranean farewell. I did start thinking, though, about return trips to Morocco in the future – there are so many places to go in the world, and even though Morocco is relatively easy to get to and not too expensive once you get here, it’s not exactly next door. Still, I have to believe I will be back. I can’t imagine not returning – but I also know that it won’t be the same, and that time has a way of flying by.
COS conference warrants its own post – or two – and then I have my post-conference trip to discuss – so here I’ll talk about before and after.
I went out to Ain Leuh on the afternoon of my last blog post – and it was as though I was speaking another language (and it’s not just because I was speaking another language; I had Jackie’s tutor join us so I could write down exactly what they said). I had a series of questions from Aid to Artisans about how things have changed as a result of their grant. How have sales improved? They could not give me numbers. They told me what else they needed – eye exams and glasses. Part of the grant money went to the new space with the horizontal looms, so more women could work at the cooperative; they told me how hard it was to control the quality of the weavers who work out of their homes. I was able to write positive answers to Aid to Artisans, but not because of anything said in our interview. And these women are so nice – I wasn’t expecting complaining. I guess they took this as an opportunity to say what they would do with more money as opposed to the chance to say how much their lives have improved because of the money they have already received. I usually enjoy my trips to Ain Leuh, and everyone who goes out there with me feels depressed that they don’t have the great work situation that the Ain Leuh volunteers have, but this was deflating.
Brian came from Midelt on Wednesday to scope out the space for the Azrou weaving cooperative’s sign. I am glad we got approval to go ahead with this. It shouldn’t have been a big deal – I wonder what the Moroccan equivalent of “making a federal case out of something” is. We went to the tuna sandwich place for lunch – I feel the need to get more tuna and go to cafes as often as I can next week, since Ramadan begins right after that – and then, declaring work done for the day, we played some cards and reprised Mexican night for dinner. Brian recently had a visit from his predecessor, who had ETed last year before site visit, so they had not yet met, and he had some stories to tell – a reminder that when I think about visiting I also have to think about my successor and/or any future PCVs here. I still hear a lot about Lee!
Jong left on Thursday – leaving me alone for the first time since July 20, but only because Janeila was supposed to come and cancelled at the last minute (she had started weaving something and really got into it). I did some work on harassment – I had delegated the compilation of coping and prevention strategies for the new Safety and Security handbook to Kathy; she finished it up and I sent it off to staff and to the Harassment Working Group – and did some other catching up and reorganizing. I have said for a while that COS conference would mark the beginning of finishing up, and I tried to work on developing that mindset.
Friday was jarring, making the mindset shift either easier or harder. I was told there would be a craft fair in Azrou – exactly the week that I would be away! What a missed opportunity – not that I would have changed my plans had I had any notice. And the weavers moved back into their old showroom – right after we had scoped out the space for the sign! Not that we can’t still do it. My counterpart thinks the new construction (which was supposed to start in July) will start in September. The main showroom now closes on Fridays. All of these changes! Too much! So I went home and picked out some holiday photo candidates and waited for Linda.
Being back yesterday was like night and day, though – the stress I was feeling just before the trip was gone (ah, the value of vacation!). There’s a new building being constructed near the sunset view by the rock, and everything was torn up while I was away – meanwhile, the parks building that has been almost finished for months is not open, and the museum near the artisana is still a building shell. The craft fair ended Thursday; oh well. Ran into the rock carver and asked how it went. He never says anything but, “shwiya,” a little, either because that’s how he always does or because he doesn’t want to tempt the evil eye by saying he did well. Talked to my counterpart and now the artisana construction may start in October. So I feel I didn’t miss anything. And I feel more relaxed and somehow more confident about my ability to finish what I can and leave things in good shape. Maybe COS conference did give me some closure. I squeegeed my floors and hand-washed my laundry (a rare day of doing both – usually I save those for separate days) and went to the post office – good to get back to a routine. I had been thinking about having a Magnum bar all week (much to my surprise, most of my trip was spent in Magnum-less towns) but I rarely have them at my site (I think of them as travel treats) and I didn’t even think about having one yesterday – instead, on my mind was the Lemon Tang waiting in my refrigerator (I might have the ice cream today though now that I am thinking about it). I did some work-related emails and sent off a few quick contributions to Peace Works and then went back out for a walk and a visit to Abdou’s. It was so nice to see him! We had some rayb (a kind of pre-yogurt – I would like to learn to make that!) and watched some of the Olympics. When I was there two weeks ago I thought I had seen the kittens for the last time, but they were still there. It was a nice visit.
Today I’m alone again! I will see Janeila and Jong in Fes tomorrow and then Jong will come back with me, perhaps for the rest of the week. I’m catching up on my calendar and writing about my trip and organizing photos; I’ll go out for vegetables and fruits (and maybe a Magnum?) and possibly see Kathy and probably visit Abdou and do an exercise walk. I needed a sheet over me last night – it seemed as hot during the day as it did in the south, but was good sleeping weather. I also want to point out Kantara Crafts, http://www.kantaracrafts.com/Kantara.html. The founder, Alia, stayed with me this past winter. She’s one of the few strangers I have put up - I had told her to stay in a hotel but after I met her I thought she was really nice and decided to invite her to stay with me. I’m glad she did – she was a good guest, with DVDs of “Planet Earth” to watch every night and several leads and ideas. She had applied for an entrepreneurship grant from Oberlin so that she could start a Moroccan rug importing business – she got the grant, started the business and will be back this fall. Several of the photographs are from Ain Leuh. One of my sister’s suggestions is that I start an importing business – I’m not sure I would want to, but seeing both Alia and Susan Schaefer Davis does make me think it’s possible (and would provide a reason to return). Maybe on the side? I like another idea of my sister’s better – being a tour guide. These are both good out-of-the-box ideas… I guess I have trouble picturing myself doing anything but clocking in and out of an office. If I allow myself to dream, I can go as far as being a consultant and setting my own hours.... A nudge further and I can fantasize about being a writer…. I thought it was possible that I would have an epiphany here and figure out what to do when I grow up – that hasn’t quite happened, but I do think this has been a good career move, and definitely a good lifestyle move!
P.S. We walked all over the medina and down the hill - many of the hanuts have retired their freezers for the season! At least wait until the end of August or the beginning of Ramadan (which this year are the same)! Finally, as I was about to despair, I found what might be the one place in Azrou that still has Magnum bars!
Friday, August 22, 2008
I'm back! It feels as though I've been away for a long time. Well, I have! First, Mdiq, on the Mediterranean. Then to Rabat for COS conference - as I'd heard, lots of reflection and lots of paperwork to do. Plus some time for evening walks, and dinners out - the picture is from the Chellah; I had been there with Martha, Susan and Youssef and was happy when some of my PCV friends wanted to walk there on our last evening together. Then, a combination of my last vacation days and three holidays gave me the opportunity to go far south - Taroudant, Sidi Ifni, Tafraoute, Taliouine, Tazenacht and Skoura. I'll write about all of those as I catch up, but in the meantime, here is some haiku - a non-comprehensive list of some of the things I will miss...
The call to prayer
Dates, pomegranates and figs
Spending hours at cafes
Ns-ns, a3fak, thanks
The weavers of Ain Leuh, too
Abdou’s carpet shop
Filling a taxi
Asking for window handles
Vegetable stand guy
Hanut guy, carosa guy
Squeegeeing the floor
The joy of a hot shower
Clothes line-dry outside
Fresh ingredients – and time
Vache qui rit, red ball
Shuffling, dealing cards
More PCVs coming through
Couscous on Fridays
Double chocolate Magnum bars
My host families
Travel far and wide
Coast, desert, city, gorges
Shopping, eating, walks
Phrases I will use
Inshallah, masi mushkil
This does feel like home
Things, people I’ll miss
Getting sentimental now….
I should also mention that since last wrote there was a coup in Mauritania - the volunteers were put on standfast, which is one of the steps in the Emergency Action Plan we reviewed at the Warden Conference. It basically means you stay at your site and await further news - and they have since been given the all-clear and are back at work. More seriously, the volunteers in Georgia have been temporarily relocated to Armenia, awaiting further word on the situation there. There were no PCVs serving in South Ossetia.
And a P.S. - Debbie wrote that as she was catching up, she read perhaps the most shocking thing I have written yet - that there were people at the warden conference who had never heard of Barbra Streisand. Yes, sometimes I am reminded that I am not of the same generation as most of the PCVs here and that cultural exchange is not just between the Americans and the Moroccans. As we were watching the concert, some of the women admired Streisand's son, who is probably in his mid-20s by now. Meanwhile, I was looking at her son's father, Elliott Gould, who I always thought was kinda cute....
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Last Wednesday was Throne Day, which celebrates the ascension of the current King. Flags and a festive atmosphere all over the country and a day off from work. Perhaps more important, it was also Rose’s birthday, so therefore we had two reasons to make a long weekend out of it and get away. We went east – to a part of the country that I didn’t think I would get back to, so this felt like a lagniappe.
We got up early on Wednesday to have a big breakfast so we wouldn’t be so hungry on the train – even though it was earlier than I normally get up and I’m not usually hungry first thing, it was a good idea on Jong’s part. Our taxi filled quickly; we even had time to walk from the taxi stand in Fes to the train station. Rose joined us (or maybe I should say Jong joined Rose and me – I think it was good for all three of us. I realized that I was getting a little cranky, even though Jong is a great guest – I am just not used to being with someone non-stop; it can’t be easy for her either, away from her home and her stuff for so long. This was refreshing). The train ride to Oujda was long – made longer by an hour’s delay before leaving – but it went by with rummy, reading, brownies and snoozing. We then caught a taxi to Saidia and an hour later were along the coast of the Mediterranean!
We searched for a hotel and then for dinner and then checked out the craft fair that was set up along the beach. There was more souk stuff than artisan items – sunglasses, Moroccan clothes and the like – but we amused ourselves, and then we walked back along the beach at night, dipping our toes in the warm water. The next day, we went to Berkane where Kareem joined us for an excursion to the Zegzel Gorge. Bob and Linda had told me about it and it sounded worth seeing. We hired a taxi to take us – the driver, Brahim, was a lot of fun, and became part of our group. It was a beautiful drive – and noticeably cooler in the mountains. We stopped at a cave and then were dropped off at Taforalt, a town along the Zegzel in the Beni Snassen mountains, an extension of the Rif. There’s a new environment volunteer there, Jonathan, and he was thrilled to have his first PCV visitors. We had lunch, went to another cave where there’s an archaeological dig (they’ve found artifacts over 10,000 years old) and hiked back to town over the mountain. Who was waiting for us there (or who had gone to Berkane and back) but Brahim, which was a nice finishing touch.
The way from Berkane (or Oujda) to Saidia passes very close to the Algerian border – a river that even I could probably throw a stone across is all that separates the countries. At one point where there’s a crossing, there are Moroccan flags on one side and Algerian flags on the other. We waved at Algerians and they waved back at us. The border has been closed since 1975 and it’s weird to think about. The people waving seemed nice enough. The impact on the economy has been felt in the east – what about the impact on families and friends? I know it’s that way with every border – think of Germany before the wall fell, or Korea – but it hits you when you see it. When we got back, Jong and Rose rested and I took a walk as far along the beach as I could towards the border. There’s a fence, and then flags, and then the river, and then more flags. There were people on the beach and in the water on that side, just as on this side. Hi, Algeria! The embassy person I met here is married to the Ambassador to Algeria – she has to go through Europe in order to see him. When I got back, Rose and Jong were rarin’ to play rummy but I was ready for bed. I played, but my heart wasn’t in it – it takes a lot for me to get to that state. They then wanted to go for a walk – there was a loud concert on the beach and our room was hot so it would have been hard to sleep – but when we finally got back, I was more than ready! I have another story to tell, but it's not for public consumption, so email me separately.
Saturday we left Saidia – it was a good place to stay, with the beach and restaurants and stores – but the beach was crowded and not tempting. Our final breakfast included an omelette – notable because we had had fried eggs the two days before after ordering omelettes (in two different places). Jonathan (and the Lonely Planet) knew of a smaller beach about 20K away, less crowded and more peaceful, so we went there, joined for the day by Jonathan, Kareem, and Kareem’s sitemate Phil. We played rummy and ate paella before the men arrived and while they hunted for a place for us to stay (and later, while they hunted for some dinner, we played rummy and our first piffle of the weekend). We donned our swimming costumes (as it says in Lonely Planet) and headed for the beach. Warm water and perfect waves for jumping – it’s been a long time since I spent that much time in the ocean, and I loved it. I’d been thinking about going somewhere this coming Saturday on the way to COS conference – at first I thought about Oualidia, since I loved it there so much, but then I thought maybe I should go somewhere along the Mediterranean – first, because chances are I’ll be in the Atlantic again sooner than in the Mediterranean, and second, to go somewhere I hadn’t been yet – and being in the warm water at this beach (called Ras el Ma, but lest it get confused with the Ras el Ma near Azrou that Jong, Jessica and I hiked to, this is also called Cap de l’Eau) convinced me (though I still hope to get back to Oualidia) – so I’m headed for Mdiq on Saturday. It was great to be in the water – and also to have a day of really relaxing and not running around.
Sunday I woke up early and had time for a walk on the beach and a dip while everyone else was still sleeping. We had an easy trip back to Berkane and then back to Oujda – and then a long, rummy-filled train ride back to Fes. The past two day trips to Fes have been stressful because there weren’t taxis waiting to go back to Azrou at the end of the day and I had to bum-rush – this time not only was there a taxi, but it had two spots left, so we left right away and got home in almost no time (if leaving the beach at ten in the morning and being home by nine at night counts as almost no time). It was a fun weekend. Mdiq Saturday and then on to Rabat, COS conference Monday through Wednesday, a holiday on Thursday and the following Wednesday and Thursday combined with my remaining three vacation days means one last trip – this one to Taroudant and Tafraroute in the Anti-Atlas, far south and west – to the part of Morocco I haven’t seen yet that I most want to see. I may not write again this week; I’ll be back on the 21st. Long time to be away – I miss being here already and I haven’t even packed.
Life before and after the getaway weekend has been busy as well. Jessica, Kathy and I went out to Ain Leuh last Monday to watch some of the training that the weavers were getting on their new horizontal looms. They made several blankets, shawls and jellaba fabrics during their week – it takes months to weave one rug on their vertical loom, and the price range is totally different, so this really does present a new business opportunity for them. Jessica and I then went to the Artisana, and Linda came up to meet with the sales staff there; she stayed through dinner. Tuesday morning before Jessica left, she and Jong and I did a little crocheting – I don’t know why, but I just prefer knitting, though crocheting would be easier to take along while traveling. Jong and I then went to visit Rajaa, the seamstress who produces all of the clothing for Amana (www.amana-collection.com) - a fair trade connection that my predecessor set up. Jong and I both ended up ordering things and I may order a suit or something else nice before I leave; I also want to add her to the web site. I am going back to Rajaa today and then out to Ain Leuh this afternoon; tomorrow Brian is coming up to paint a sign for the cooperative here in Azrou. You may recall that the mixed messages I got about that sign led me to a meltdown that resulted in a mental health day in Marrakesh in May. Well, when Tariq came back here I asked again, and he said if it was all right with my counterpart it was all right with him; my counterpart came back from vacation last week and it is all right with him. Jong may leave on Wednesday – she published her web site last night and I helped wordsmith and offered other suggestions this morning (I hope I can get back to her site for further collaboration). Jong and I also had Mexican night last night – instead of my usual vegetables with pasta or vegetables with rice we had vegetables (spiced differently) with tortillas, and grated red ball cheese, guacamole and plain yogurt as toppings – delicious! Janeila is supposed to come on Thursday, on the way to visit her CBT family before COS conference. Linda is coming on Friday evening – she’s coming with me to Mdiq, and we’ll need an early start.
Yesterday Jong and I went to the post office and souk and the artisana and the fruit stand down the hill and the supermarche and the hanut next to it. Jong has been eager to play euchre, and Kathy and Anna, euchre players as well, were in town, so they all taught me. I can see how one could play for hours – we did, and were about to get back to work when one of the hardest rain/hailstorms I have ever experienced started. We watched the storm for a while. My landlady knocked on the door to show us a river that was flowing down the staircase; the roof drain was clogged and the roof was filled with inches of water that had flowed down and into her apartment, which is below mine, and the one on the ground floor, where the occupants are on vacation and will come back to an unfortunate surprise (because the staircase is unfinished on my level, I have a lip, and the water didn’t get into my apartment; my laundry roof, which is sometimes clogged, was draining). I went up to the roof to help her, plunging the drain as rain continued to fall. We noticed that the people across the street were knee-deep in water and bailing – so Kathy, Jong and I took buckets and went over to help them. They have a rooftop garden (I have noticed it while walking or running on the souk road) and must not have any drains – their roof and house were full of muddy water). We bailed furiously, throwing bucket after bucket over the wall (and getting mud over our clothes and bodies, too, because of the height of the wall and its railing – I had thought about switching to my quick-dri before going, but didn’t). One of the men hammered a drain hole into the brick wall and we bailed both over the wall and through the hole. I said to Kathy, “now do you feel you’re helping people here in the Peace Corps?” It wasn’t Katrina or the Midwest floods – both of which I had tried to help with but couldn’t work out the logistics for – but it was quite a scene. It was a cold rain, too – when we first got into the water it was a shock – and when it started to rain again we deemed the water to be low enough and left - but not before they invited us for tea (we told them we’d come back another time).
P.S. POSTED DECEMBER 1 -
One of the rules of Peace Corps Morocco is that when you go on a trip outside the country, you have to start counting vacation days from the moment you leave your site. This has been a big issue for volunteers – especially for those for whom it takes more than a day to get to the airport. It’s also problematic if you are on vacation in the north and you want to take a ferry over to Spain for a day or so – because if you’re in-country, your holidays and weekends don’t count as vacation days, and if you’re out of the country you have to count those, meaning fewer total vacation days.
I have suggested to our “Student Council” rep that trips to the Spanish enclaves be exceptions to that rule – after all, you’re not leaving the continent, and you can still get cell phone coverage, so Peace Corps can contact you if there’s an emergency. I didn’t see it on the agenda for the next meeting, but even if it were, any change would come too late to affect me. Bottom line – we decided to go to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in the east, and I didn’t have enough vacation days to do it legally, so we broke a rule.
Only a few of the people in my stage have not left the country – most have gone home or gone on vacation in countries nearby. I don’t know if it would have felt strange for me not to leave the country at all because I knew I was planning to go to Reunions both years and we had the family trip to Spain and Portugal. Rose is one of those who had not left, and it was part of her birthday wish to do so.
We took a taxi to Nador, where the harassment hit us almost immediately (Saadia and Berkane weren’t bad). Nador is a seaside town and also has a lot of industry as well as a black market for smuggled goods, so the book says it is prosperous, but it just looked crowded to us. On the way back we saw a nicer part of town, with a palm-tree-lined main street, but we didn’t spend much time there and I think we didn’t miss anything. We quickly made our way for the taxi stand to the border – and I think the driver sensed our excitement; he told us to have a good time, which is not something they usually say.
Sometime before or on our way, Rose told the story of friends of hers who had contracted to teach in China for a year. They hated it and one day, even though their contract was not up, they decided they had to go. They left their clothes on the line and stole away in the middle of the night, sweating anxiously until they crossed a border, and they can never go to China again. We joked all day about leaving our own clothes on the line, taking the ferry from Melilla to mainland Europe and leaving Morocco behind, never to be seen here again....
The passport station was unpleasant, with pushy people and long lines (supposed to be separate lines for men and women but people were not honoring that), but we focused on what awaited (and not on the fact that there would be the same kind of line to get back in). Then there’s a DMZ-like “long walk to freedom” as I called it (since I still have Mandela’s book to read) – kind of sad after cheerily waving at the Algerians the day before. And then we were in Spain!
We just missed a bus to the center and decided to walk, but knew that the neighborhood near the border wasn’t the best of what Melilla had to offer, so we hopped on the next bus. I had a few euros with me from the last trip and was able to conjure up enough Spanish to get us around. Once at the center, we really did feel transported to another country. The city is known for its modernist architecture, much of it designed by a Gaudi disciple, and I just kept snapping away at block after block of interesting buildings.
We made our way down a main shopping street of the new town – the stores looked very appealing, but – perhaps fortunately for us – most were closed due to siesta time and we decided to forego the others in order to get lunch. We found a tapas place – air-conditioned, with both Spanish tiles and a Gaudi-like mosaic bench. Rose, feeling free from the oppression of Morocco, had a little meltdown. Frank, another person who had not been out of the country, had been to Melilla a couple of weeks ago, and he texted, “My god, Melilla is paradise. Evidently I’ve been suffering false consciousness for nearly two years. This may render the next five months difficult.” Rose seemed to be experiencing the same thing – though by the time we left the restaurant she felt that being in Spain also made it easier to think about letting go of Morocco and getting ready for the future that awaits. It was good that Jong came too – she almost stayed behind because she thought it might cost a lot of money but that would have been much less fun for all of us.
We had two orders of croquetas, some Iberian ham and manchego cheese, and calamari. We shared a glass of wine – good Spanish rioja. A table next to us was doing shots, and I went over to the bar to look at the bottle (it was some sort of blackberry liqueur that I had not seen before), and the waitress poured three shots for us on the house. When I went to settle up, it seemed as though they charged us for only half of what we ate. Did we look so pathetic that they took pity on us? If so, it was a kind gesture and something that we really must have needed.
We then made our way to Melilla Vieja (Old Melilla), the fortress that juts out on a promontory overlooking clear Mediterranean waters (the water at Saadia just wasn’t that pretty). We walked around the walled town and then went to its small archaeological museum – Romans, Phoenicians, maybe Carthaginians had all been there before the Spanish (one of the exhibits mentioned the prehistoric cave near Taforalt, too, which was nice). One of the employees then took us through to the cisterns, which he opened for us – water still pouring in – and to the chapels of St. Anne and St. James (Santa Ana and Santiago). From there we could see a pristine cove where there were some bathers, and we had to go down there. We missed some (apparently) spectacular caves carved into the hillside by the Phoenicians and expanded by everyone who followed, and a church with an interesting collection – next time, inshallah (and shopping too!). We had to go to the cove.
The water was clear, with greens and blues, and the cove walled in by the fortress on one side and a hill into the main part of town on the other side. We had a chance to dip our feet and take it in and then the lifeguard told us it was closing for the evening….but it was time to go back to Morocco anyway. It would have been nice to stay for the night, but then it might have gotten expensive, plus I might have gotten anxious about the rule-breaking. Just as well.
We took a taxi to the border – the ride was too short – and then pushed and shoved on the immigration line (sigh, welcome back). As we walked to the taxi stand in the border town of Beni Enzar, I noticed that the name of a seedy-looking hotel was Quatre Saisons – a far cry from the Four Seasons Lisbon. The taxi back to Nador was a new Mercedes – smaller than the standard grand taxis here, but still squishing four people into the back. And we got a new, small Mercedes taxi back to Saidia. Sigh, sigh, sigh. At least we had a wonderful day and seem to have gone undetected. And we could have left our clothes on the line!