Friday, March 25, 2011

Kulshi Bikhir

Kulshi Bikhir!
(Everything is fine.)
Since I’ll be leaving Oz today for about ten days in my village, I thought I’d try to do a little catch-up beforehand.

In our first three days in our training village, we met our host families, went to the souq (market), registered with the royal gendarmes (a requirement of all people here in Morocco, as in many other countries), were invited to a wedding, and of course studied our butts off. I don’t have much time right now to do more than attach a few pictures to give a sense of how it looks. More details later, I assure you.

Wednesday morning, we went to the souq and did grocery shopping.

The pack animals (all donkeys) waited on the hillside.

The girls all had their hands decorated in henna for the wedding.

The interior courtyard of our training house.

360 degree views from the roof of the training house.

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I'll have much more to tell you and upload to photo albums on my next trip back.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I have a new name…

We drove northeast from Ourzazate in a grand taxi with our LCF, Said. Before we even left the city limits we started bombarding him with questions. “What’s the word for ‘mother?’ ‘Father, sister, brother, son, daughter…?’ You get it. Words for our everyday relationships and surroundings, words for the things we knew we would want to say, or need to say….and we knew none of them. About halfway into the drive, Mohammed, our driver, commented to Said that ours was certainly a different group. Apparently the previous group had been very quiet. I guess those are the two ways to deal with panic – go silent or jabber.

We talked non-stop, so that before we knew it we were in Qalaa, our souq town. We got out there and did some shopping – soap, toilet paper, and kitchen supplies. Also tubing and a valve for butagaz (butane?) the fuel that is used here. Apparently, we are going to have a shower with warm water in the LCF house – the first group to get such a luxury, according to Said.

From Qalaa, we turned onto a dirt road. The roads up to this time had been very good, but the road to our village is a two-track, and the going was slow, and not just because of the dump truck ahead of us spinning up dust. We’re in a rocky desert here, and we seemed to go up and down and around, every now and then pulling to the side so that another vehicle could squeeze by going in the other direction. After passing through several other villages, we finally arrived in our training village, wound along some rugged streets and pulled up in front of the LCF house.

Mohammed, the landlord greeted us warmly, and led us into his house. From the entryway, he took us through an open courtyard into a long, narrow room with carpets on the floor and pillows against the wall. We sat down and were treated to our first experience of tea. As soon as he had passed the glasses around and we had all taken a sip or two, the landlord’s wife came in, greeted us, and began asking our names. At the very first one – Ryan - she repeated it, thought about a moment, shook her head, No, and said, “Brahim.” She then went around to the rest and at each one gave us a new name – Nicole – “Najat”; Emma – “Amal”; Lindsey – “Zizi”; Jim – ” Jamal (جمال).

By this time, several other people had come into the room and sat down. The fellow next to me, a young man about 30, turned to me and said, “Jamal, my name is Hussain. You are my brother.” And in a few more minutes, I went off to my new home where I am known as Jamal.

I'll tell you about my home, my family and my town in future posts, but for now, just know that it's all good l-hamdullah (thanks be to God).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Language and a Village

The moment all of us have been waiting for this first week occurred about 10:00 this morning when we found out what our language assignment and training village would be.

I will be studying Tamazight (tam-a-zeert), one of two dialects of Berber that Peace Corps volunteers learn. The other is Tashelheit (tash-l-heet), colloquially referred to as Tam or Tash. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed at first that it wasn’t Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. But that lasted only about half an hour and disappeared once we got started actually learning Tam.

I’m in a group with four other volunteers. We’ll be living and studying in a little town about an hour and a half northeast of here. Our LCF, Said (Sah-yeed), got us started right away with a little bit of “survival” Tam. We’ll be driving to our village in a “grand taxi” starting at 9:00 tomorrow morning and our host families will meet us at the training house.

My host family is headed by a dagger maker – you read that right – I’m sure I’ll have more to tell you about that later. Also in the house are his wife, seven children, all over the age of 20, and an eight-year old neice. And me, of course. I’m going to need to learn a whole lot more “survival Tam” on the drive up, I can tell you that!

I’ll tell you more details of course as soon as I can. I know that it’s safe to say I will not have Internet access in my training village, so my emails and blog posts will become less frequent. I encourage you all to send me snail mail. I love receiving email, too, but I can’t guarantee I will be able to return it in the way we all expect for email.

You notice I’ve been circumspect in my discussion of my assignment. Peace Corps asks us not to reveal our exact locations or to use people’s full names in our blogs which, as you know, are available to anyone poking around the Internet, so that’s the way it will be. In snail mail and other private communications I’ll be able to be more forthcoming.

I have to tell you a great story before I close.

We were given a half day off today. I’m learning that what that means is not really time off but what Peace Corps calls SDL – self-directed learning. I worked most of the afternoon on repacking my bags and still have a pile of stuff to read that I haven’t even touched. But I did go for a walk with a friend named Stan. We climbed a hill above the square where our hotel is located to get a view of the city.

A little boy about five approached us and said, “Bonjour monsieur.” Moroccans’ first assumption when seeing a westerner is that they’re French, so this little guy was trying out his French on me. I answered “Bonjour,” and then said “s-salaamu ‘alaykum” (hello) to him. He looked surprised that I spoke Arabic and got shy. “Wa ‘alaykum s-salaam,” he replied looking down at the ground. “La bas?” (are you fine?) I asked. “La bas.” He replied, his head sinking further, but with a smile on his mouth.

Stan and I walked on up the hill. On our way back, my little friend was standing in the road. “Shnu smitk?” (what’s your name?) I asked. “Mohammed” he replied, but that was a bit too much for him, and he turned to walk away. “Smiti Jim,” (My name is Jim) I called after him. But he went off and huddled with an older boy about ten, wearing a soccer jersey.

Stan and I continued our walk back to the hotel. A little later in the day, I was crossing the square in front of the hotel, and someone shouted, “Hey, Jim!” It was the boy in the soccer shirt. I went over to him greeted him in Arabic and asked him his name. He told me. I made the polite replies and walked away. I knew I wanted to tell someone about this but realized I’d already forgotten his name, so I went back and asked him to repeat it. We again parted, but I forgot a common courtesy, l-hamdullah (thanks be to God). He said it, coaching me, Then I repeated it. “Bravo!” he said.

It was my first unscripted conversation in Arabic. And that “bravo” made my day

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Through the Tichka

One thing to keep in mind is that this is NOT a journal. Too much is happening too fast for me to record it all. And while it is endlessly fascinating to me, it would likely – quickly – become endlessly boring to you. I’ll pick and choose and hope that it gives both an adequate reporting of what I’m doing and what’s happening and an accurate description of how it feels to me.

Yesterday, we left our training site in Marrakesh to head for Ouarzazate, a town in the pre-Sahara, which will be the “hub” for the rest of our PST (pre-service training).Our two buses left about 2:15 and drove through Marrakesh, right to the edge of the medina (the walled old city), where we had been the previous evening, taking in the Jemaa l-Fna, a huge square, surrounded by markets. It’s an amazing place with street theater, food stalls, and shops selling every imaginable thing (fabrics, lamps, leather goods, poultry, and, yes, tourist junk). When we left the city we drove through a flat plain directly toward the imposing Atlas mountains between groves of olive and other fruit trees. About 3:00 we began our climb, heading for Tichka, one of only a few passes through the mountains.

About half way into the trip, not quite at the top of the top of pass, we stopped in the town of Taddart (“house” in Berber) to take a bathroom break. We streamed into several cafes to use the bathrooms and I got my first taste (well, not taste, really – experience) of a Turkish toilet (the use of which may be the subject of a whole post sometime). The owner was upset – especially with the women it seemed – because no one was paying. When a Peace Corps staff member slipped him a bill he became more cooperative.

After the pit stop, we continued the climb for a short time, then began our descent. The colors changed, first to gray, then back to red as we got closer to the desert floor. By then a nearly full, translucent moon had floated above the plateau in front of us. About 15 km outside Ouarzazate, we spotted the city, a lush green patch in a shallow bowl of red. 10 km outside the city we passed a film studio (Ouarzazate is the center of Morocco’s film industry – films like, The Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and Babel were shot here), and from then on it was rolling through suburbs into the city as streetlights were beginning to switch on.

The training has been of very high quality and very intense. We have another three days here in Ouarzazate. Sunday is a big day for us. That's when we learn what language (Moroccan Arabic or one of two dialects we'll be learning) and what our CBT (Community Based Training) training village will be. Monday morning we'll be fanning out for our villages with our four or five other CBT mates and our LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator).

We pulled up to our hotel as twilight really settled on the city, just in time to stay within the Peace Corps rules. It was a great end to a thrilling ride and a comforting end to another thrilling day.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Michigan to Morocco in 48 Hours

“We have a saying here,” said Fatima, a Peace Corps staff member who greeted us, “that the visitor who arrives in the rain brings good luck. You have brought us lots of good luck.”

We touched down at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca in a light rain at about 6:40 a.m. on Wednesday, March 16, almost exactly two days after left Michigan. We moved through customs and baggage claim quickly. By 8:30 the 60 volunteers in our group were on buses and were on the autoroute headed for Marrakesh through intermittent rain and sunshine. At first it looked a little like Indiana, flat, green. It stayed green – there’s been a lot of rain this spring they say – but gradually the contours changed and the earth turned red. First slightly rolling hills dusted with an orange flower, then oddly pointed hills, walled compounds and villages, paths line with prickly pear cactus hedges, and eventually sharper hills with stone outcroppings. We pulled into our hotel where we’ll spend the next two days at about 12:30. It was raining again, harder now, so we got pretty damp as we unloaded and were taken to our bungalows. It’s a lovely place made up of a hotel and bungalows, all a rosy pink.

We had a full day of meetings yesterday. At about 9:30 we all crashed, after about 40 hours straight of travel and work. More meetings and medical checks today, then a promised visit to Marrakesh’s medina tonight. Tomorrow, we head for our next city, which will be the hub for all of our training groups. I promise pictures and more details as soon as I have a little more time. For now, just know that I’m doing well and I’m happy. This is an amazing group of (mostly young) people. This is going to be great.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I had every intention of doing a post before I left Michigan, but the last week filled so full that I didn’t have time until tonight. And I'm in Philadelphia now, having just finished my first day of Peace Corps training.

I sold my car on Friday to a very patient friend who’d agreed to buy it last fall when I thought I was going to Lesotho. On Saturday, my older son Robin picked me up and brought me and my luggage to Grand Rapids, where I spent the last two wonderful days with him and his family. It was a weekend of many farewells – to my car, the cottage, my dog Jack, but most importantly, of course, to family and friends.

Then this morning, I boarded a plane and made my way to Philadelphia, where I met with the other approximately 60 members of the Morocco group and officially made the transition from “invitee” to “trainee.” Tomorrow, we board a plane for Morocco.

It has finally begun. Next post from Morocco!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Foot In…

March 1 was the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, commemorated widely in the broadcast news and press, with the inevitable (and still inspiring to me) clip of Kennedy saying in his inaugural address, “Ask not what America can do for you…”

I began this journey 14 months ago. Next Monday, I board a plane for “staging,” but I’m already feeling as if I have one foot in, even while the other is still firmly planted outside.

  • Last week I was invited to recruiting meeting in Muskegon much like the one I went to nearly four years ago that kindled my interest in serving. How different it was for me this time. My status as invitee, with an imminent departure, was a point of interest for many people – why did I apply, what was involved, etc., so even though I haven’t yet served, I have Peace Corps experience that was interesting and perhaps valuable to those considering the step.
  • Last Saturday I was invited to a Potluck organized by the Grand Rapids chapter of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. There were about 40 people present. Most brought excellent dishes from the countries they had served in. I made an apple pie – so American – but that's my experience so far. There was another pre-service volunteer, a young woman about to graduate from Grand Valley State University, my alma mater, and several recently returned volunteers. It was great to be welcomed in even before I’ve begun!
  • For the past four months, I’ve been part of a Facebook Group for those of us in this Moroccan group. I must say it has been a wonderful experience getting to know each other a little in advance, sharing concerns, questions, advice. And getting a head start on the bonding!
  • And yesterday I found a “bridge” document to PST (Pre-Service Training) in my email. It was a detailed overview of what to expect for the next ten days or so. Boy was it full of surprises! For one, we won’t be going to Rabat (the capital) as I had expected. Instead we’re headed to a more remote place. Think of the initial gladiatorial scene in Gladiator. I’ll send you pictures when I get there. I'm reminded nearly every day that Peace Corps asks us to be flexible.
So, one foot already in…and I’m about to lift the other.