Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Good Week

When I got back to my village on Monday, my host family had already heard the news that I’d been placed there permanently. They were pleased, but when I told them that the assignment made me very happy, they were overjoyed. We immediately had tea (of course) and began talking about places I might live. Soon I was up on the roof with one of my sisters, looking across a dip in the landscape at a house with a yellow door at the top of the hill opposite us. Close enough, she said, so we could see each other and visit often. That evening, I took a walk through town. I got a warm welcome from everyone I told about my permanent assignment to the town. It was a great way to begin my week at my permanent site.

I got a lot done this week, but the best thing about it was being able to experience village on my own, to follow my own schedule and go where I wanted to go, even to take a nap if I wanted, which I did nearly every day. My two favorite moments occurred yesterday (Friday).

In the morning, Mohammed, my father went with me to look at my prospective house. I liked it. If I get it, I'll tell you all about it and show you inside photos. Afterward, I tagged along as he walked through his fields. He grows a wide variety of crops – wheat, barley, corn, and grass for the livestock; almonds, figs, and olives; beans and other vegetables; and roses.

It was a treat to be able to see the fields through his eyes – what was ready to be harvested, what had not produced as well as he’d hoped. We ate some beans from one patch, and he picked roses that were blooming. It turns out I’m in another festival town. Kalaa, my market town has a Rose Festival each May that is widely known in Morocco and Europe and attracts huge crowds (shades of Tulip Time and Coast Guard Festival).

In the afternoon, I walked to Kalaa with my youngest brother, Rachid, the “free spirit.” He’s just twenty-one and he’s going to driving school. Just like kids in the States, he’s pretty excited about getting his license. On the way there, we practiced English. “It’s hard,” he said. He also told me he’d really like to go to back to school (he went only through eighth grade). I said, “So, go.” He looked at me a bit skeptically, the desire to go and the cultural norms of obedience warring in him. I dropped him at the driver’s training school. When we met up later, he took me back to the school and introduced me to the director and one of the teachers, who immediately started badgering me to teach them English. On the way home, Rachid took me a little out of the way – there was a wedding, he said. When we got there, I could tell he really wanted to stay (weddings are the big social events here), so I told him I would go on alone. He took me to the turn to make sure I would not get lost, then headed back to the party. I didn’t see him come in last night, and I didn’t see him at breakfast this morning. I’m sure he had a good time.

The big thing I discovered this week was the great hunger among adults to learn English. The high school students practice their English on us all the time, but I hadn’t realized adults wanted it, too. There was the driver’s ed school. But I also had men in two different associations tell me they wanted to learn English for their work with tourists. And my host sisters, who want to learn it “just because.” So I now know what my first “secondary project” will be – teaching conversational English to adults - incha’allah. Besides providing my community members something they really want, it will provide me a great vehicle for “integration,” something essential for any other work I do here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Site Assignment!

The moment we’ve been waiting for came along this afternoon. We all learned our permanent site assignments in Morocco, the places we’ll live for our two years of sevice.

And my site is…the same place I’m doing my training, near Qalaa (also shown as Kalaa-M’gouna on maps)!

I was unprepared for that (it’s unusual for PC to assign a volunteer to the same town they do their training in), but I’m really pleased. I like the town. I already have good relationships with a number of people there. I’ve been listening to the local version of Tamazight since I’ve been there, so communication won’t be quite as difficult as it might be elsewhere. (Because it’s an unwritten language, Tamazight can differ considerably in pronunciation and vocabulary from village to village and many volunteers say they have to practically relearn a new language when they move to their permanent sites).

I’m happy, too, because I wanted to be in what we call a “new” site, i.e., one that has never had a volunteer before. Even though my town has been a training site, it’s never had a volunteer to live long-term there and actually help it with its own issues. In my short time there, I’ve observed a number of areas where I might be able to do significant work. Of course, that will be a process we work out together. “Sustainability” is the watchword.

Compared to the other volunteers, I have it easy because I have a head start. My immediate problem is to explain to my host family why I’m showing up at their doorstep on Monday. They think I’m going to be gone for 12 days to visit the site I’ll be moving to in June. At least I don’t think they know yet that I’ve been assigned to their town. I don’t they would have been able to keep that info a secret from me.

Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes

Last Sunday I had to cook for my host family. I wanted to make sure it was something “American.” At first I picked a cauliflower-cheese pie recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook that I love and have often made, but the difficulties in creating that dish here in Morocco soon discouraged me. Eventually, I settled on something better – meatloaf and mashed potatoes. What could be more American than that?

With some help on simplified recipes from my “food advisor,” Joan, back in the States, I created a four-course meal for sixteen people: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, tossed salad with a vinaigrette, and rice pudding for dessert. We even managed to make it more American by having a dish (quite small) and silverware for everyone. Usually, we all eat from a common bowl using bread or a spoon to pick up our food.

They loved it. As you can see in the “after” picture, all the meatloaf is gone. So, take note, future Peace Corps volunteers: Moroccans love meat. You can’t go wrong with meatloaf.

I had help, course. There are two kitchens in our house - one for douaz (vegetables, tagines, soups, etc.) and one for aghum (bread). I had only seen them once before since, as a man, I am not encouraged to go there. I would never have been able handle the equipment and preparation on my own. My host sister, Aicha, a couple of nieces, and other people who wandered in from time to time to check out this curiosity, gave me a hand. I wish I could show their pictures, because they’re lovely, generous, and truly hospitable people, but they’ve asked that they not be shown on the Internet.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Imik s imik

My favorite phrase at the moment is imik s imik. I like its sound (ee-MICK-see-mick), and also its meaning – “little by little.” My host family taught it to me the first night I was here, and it’s been my by-word ever since. It was a generous and encouraging comment on their part that this person sitting in front them, unable to speak or understand much of anything, would eventually get it. Most of our early conversations ended that way – imiksimik – and a lot of them still do.

That is not to say I have not made progress. I have, for sure. Last Sunday, for example, our CBT group made an outing to Hadida, a picturesque village about 40 minutes away, then came back through Qalaa, our souq (market) town and did some shopping. That evening, for homework, I wrote about a half page in Tamazight describing the day. One of my host brothers read it aloud to the family. They understood it and gave me a little ovation. Another of my host brothers asked me to write his name in Arabic script (he was skeptical that I could). I did, and then had to write the names of four others. And lately some of them have been asking me the English word for something in Tamazight – a definite sign that my vocabulary is growing.

Our main objective at this point is what Peace Corps calls “integration,” i.e., making ourselves functional and comfortable in our new communities. Language is the most important aspect of that, but it can be accomplished in other ways, too. My most important tools so far have been a sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously. My family and I laugh a lot and have developed a genuine affection for each other.

Another critical factor in my progress has been our CBT group – the four other volunteers and our instructor, Said. We’ve been together for about two and a half weeks now and have really begun to bond. This is an intense experience (the Peace Corps slogan is “The hardest job you’ll ever love”). I’m grateful that, even though I’m three times the age of the others, I feel like I fit right in. Does that say something about my immaturity, or their maturity? They are definitely an amazing, talented group of people. And good humored, too. We laugh a lot in training, mostly at ourselves. One of the keys to making progress in another language and culture is being willing to make mistakes, which we do in spades. That leads me to probably my second most favorite phrase – mashi mushkil – no problem.

You’ll hear more about my CBT mates - Ryan, Lyndsey, Nicole, Emma, and Said – and my host family in future posts. For now, I’ve included a few photos showing a few ways in which I’ve been “integrating” – imik s imik – so far. I'm having trouble uploading my photos at the moment, so I'll give you little captions right here:

The top photo is a view from the roof of our training house over the fields adjacent to the town. In the distance you can see our souk town and beyond that, in the haze, the mountains. On a clear day you can see that they are snow capped. We've had rain only one day since we arrived, but we had a bad wind storm on Monday that knocked out the power for almost a full day.

The second photo is me, dressed in traditional garb, for a wedding. That is my house on the right side of the photo. On the third day we were here, all of us were invited to the wedding of my host family's niece. My host father lent me a tajlabit (the hooded robe), an aznar (the red cloak), and wrapped my head in tahramt (the yellow cloth). The women in our group all had their hands decorated with henna. The hands you see in the third photo are of one of my host sisters, with an especially fine design.

The fourth photo is of our CBT group, minus one, taken on the foot bridge that crosses the river that flows by our town and supplies water to irrigate our fields.

And the last photo is of me getting my first haircut in Morocco. As Zizi, one of my CBT mates said just about the time this photo was shot, "Uh oh, you're not going to have any hair left," one of the risks of going to a barber in a foreign language. Oh, well, I'll save on haircuts this way.