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).


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!

I didn't know the border was closed between Algeria and Morocco. Can you explain more about this?
I think it's over a dispute about the Western Sahara, which Morocco claimed in 1975 in the "Green March" - 150,000 people led by King Hassan II marched over the border and it has been part of Morocco since (there may be a U.N. referendum). I think I also talked about this when I went to Figuig, which is also very close to the border and has suffered since the border has been closed.
"Lagniappe." Cool word. I had to look it up!
I think I first heard it in New Orleans - it is one of my favorite words! My father's was schadenfreude....to save you time, I will tell you its meaning - pleasure in the misfortune of others.
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