Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Day in the Life

So here's a taste of my new life in Ribat El Kheir:

7:30-Get up and dressed and ready to go at 7:35-Yeah! No makeup, no hair styling, no shower-just pull on the clothes-love that! Of course I usually have to dress quickly-besides the fact that it's cold, the bit l-ma is downstairs (my room is on the roof) and I’m not gonna run around the roof and house in my nightgown (shuma).

7:45 L-ftr (breakfast) in the cucina (kitchen) w/whoever is home. Breakfast is typically coffee w/milk and homemade bread w/cheese or olive oil. The girls go to school in the morning or afternoon (private school) . Jamila and Mustafa (host “Mom and Dad”) teach Mon-Sat at a public high school 2 km from here, but only ½ day each day-alternates mornings or afternoons.

8-9 work on computer in my room or study

9:00 leave house. Typically I'll be going to the coop and sit w/the women and study while they weave. This way I get to know them better, get in study time and pick up more language. If it’s Monday, which is souk, I may go there in the morning. It is at other end of REK, and the grand taxis (big Mercedes, packed w/6 passengers + driver) ferry people to souk and back into center of town all day long for 2DH each way.

10:00 (last Monday) Went to the souk and met up w/Steve, Nate and Fatima at Honey Coop. Fatima was one of the LCF’s during training-all her family is from REK, and she’s very active in associations here, even tho’ she lives in Fes. She helped start the weaving coop that I’m assigned to work with. She’s also been a terrific resource for PCV’s here in the past, and I will continue to be able to work with her. Hamdullah and Inshallah! Steve and Nate are Environmental PCV’s from sites near REK (they come in here for souk, cyber, mail, etc.). Nate is working with the Honey Coop (Taeawniya Bouyablane) to help them market their honey and is setting up a tasting w/a shop/café owner in Fes-they harvest 11 different types of honey, varying by plants that the bees use. We’re going into Fes on Wednesday to meet w/this person to see how we can make the tasting a success. Fatima took me on a “tour” of the souk. I’ll have to get pictures of it and post them-about 3x the size of the Ain Leuh souk which was big. There are sections for meat/poultry/fish, used clothing, new clothing, hardware, repairs, building supplies, furniture, get your haircut, misc. supplies, and of course tons of fruits and vegetables. This is put up every Monday and taken down at the end of the day. People come from all over the region, as it is the only souk in the area. Talk about a people crunch! Go to café to have coffee (ns ns for me-that’s ½ and ½-half coffee, half milk).

12:30 Get a grand taxi back to town center. Easier said than done. Everyone is vying for the same seats, but they’re all carrying their purchases from souk. Madhouse to get 3 of us into the same taxi (Nate left for his site from the souk). I’m afraid that I’m gonna push the woman w/her baby out the other side of the back seat as we cram into it from our end. Snooze you lose.

1:00 Busta (post office)-first piece of mail to my new PO Box! Thanks Jo! Mailed Nov 12th, it’s here already-and who knows when it arrived, as this is the first day the busta’s been open since I arrived on Friday afternoon. Also got my first piece of Moroccan junk mail-from the Post Office.

1:30 Back home. Late for gdda (lunch)-oops. Should be home closer to 1:00 to eat w/family. But the good news is that it was l-eds (lentils)! Kayejbani (I like) l-eds bzzaf (a lot)! Moroccan women make THE BEST lentils. Note: our cook in Ain Leuh cooked them in water w/onions, then added shredded tomato, garlic and coriander, later added ginger, pepper, cayenne, saffron and cumin. Ate dish of lentils and homemade bread while talking w/Hannan and Basma. (There was also a dish of meat and vegetables, but I passed on that). Jamila is a good cook, and as is typical, most dishes are cooked in a pressure cooker over the buta stove. The mid-day meal is the main meal of the day. Everyone is home to eat together-round table, food in the middle-this family uses fork/spoon/knife as well as bread as utensils.

2-4 Study language, take care of business

3-4 (Monday) Met w/Eziz-potential tutor. Introduced to him by Nate at souk in the a.m. He speaks good English, tutors physics and lives here in town. Jamila and Mustafa have connected me w/another potential tutor-teacher for one of their daughters-I’ll talk w/her on Thursday. Hopefully I’ll have one of them lined up this week and can get started w/more language lessons. Peace Corps gives us a tutoring allowance for 1 year of 400DH/month (about $50). I’ll supplement this to get more time w/my tutor if possible.

4-5:30 Cyber

5:30-6:30 Exercise DVD in my room kul yumayn (every other day)

6:30 Tea w/family

7:00 Hot bucket shower if I worked out

8-9:00 Study, read, talk w/family, etc. This is usually done wrapped up under blankets. Buildings are built w/cement block and there is NO insulation. There is also NO heating, so the temp inside is pretty close to that outside. Electricity is unusually expensive in Morocco. Rural homes may have a wood-burning furno to heat the room. We have a portable buta heater in the family room (only) that is lit most nights for a couple of hours-think space heater. You still need the blankets. Side note-the guy I replaced had a portable electric heater that he left me. My host dad has mentioned a couple of times about the expense of electricity, so I’ve assured him that I don’t plan on plugging in my heater in my room. I’d hate to blow their budget on electricity-besides, so far I haven’t really needed it-w/3 thick blankets on my bed, I’m ok at night.

9:00 l-esha (dinner). This may be soup, couscous, pasta, meat and potatoes-or more than one of these. This (and lunch) always includes fruit for dessert. We’re in the mandarin orange season and I could eat them until I pop, they’re so good.

10 or 10:30-go to my room to read and sleep.

I’ve taken care of my carte de sejour application-that’s basically a work permit I need to carry with me. It took almost 2 hours w/the gendarmes-things move at a slow pace. Anyway, while I was there, speaking w/them in my limited Darija, they wanted to know if I was going rent Sherwin’s apt. (He’s the guy I replaced). Somehow they communicated that his apt was pretty dark and I might like something w/more light (sounds familiar-exactly what I told my host dad-no secrets around here). So one of the guys tells me he knows of an apt you can see from the gendarmes’s ofc-upstairs, very zwin-he’ll go get the landlord. So, long story a little shorter-it’s the same apt that my host dad was going to show me, one that the PCV before Sherwin rented. On the 4th floor, in a safe area, w/a balcony and view, roof access (important for laundry), very nqi (clean), newly done bit l-ma and duwsh (bathroom and separate shower room/hamam), salon, 2 bedrooms and kitchen. More room than I need, but very zwin. Need to determine the rent (he wouldn't tell me today), as they’ve cut the budgets in ½ since Sam rented the place. I have 700DH/month (<$100/mo!!) vs Sam’s 1400DH/mo 4 years ago. Still have a couple other housing options to check out, but I should be in good shape to move in 2 months. Inshallah.

Another fyi on how things work. I went by the post office to mail a letter. I had a notice of a Mandat in my box. A Mandat is how you get money, at the post office, when there is no bank or ATM in town. They basically operate as the town bank. This is how the Peace Corps pays us right now. We’ll be getting ATM cards after we get our carte de sejour, but then I’ll need to go to Sefrou or Fes to access my money. Oh well, it’s not like I’m spending much here in town!

I won't post again until after Thanksgiving, so I hope you all have a great one-will be missing you, but I'm in great hands here, and will celebrate w/other PCVs on Saturday in Khemisset.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Last Week of Training/Sworn in


Despite numerous sessions this week that felt like time-fillers, it was a mezyan (good) week. We had demos and hands-on experience setting up the buta gas tanks for stoves (aka; how to cook w/o losing life or limb-wili wili), lectures on how to avoid and detect carbon monoxide poisoning (if aforementioned buta gas procedures are faulty-wili wili) and lots of policies and procedures. Since the language test pressure was behind us, it was a lot more relaxed. Late night movies in the 3rd floor salon-we’d rearrange the siddaris and ponges (think wooden form w/foam cushion covered by thick woven fabric) every night to make it comfy for about 15 of us to squeeze in to watch some DVD or illegal download on someone’s computer. This coziness was supplemented by fires in fireplaces for heat on all 3 floors of the Auberge. Two nights saw SBD vs YD (Small Business Development vs Youth Development) touch football and soccer games on the asphalt field of the Dar Chebab behind the Auberge. YD beat SBD in both cases. OK, so they play games w/kids all day for their projects and we’re building businesses (maybe an exaggeration) but we can make a mean spreadsheet! We had a fun Talent Show with 15 different performances. I was even recruited as a last minute addition to the dance team-go figure! One of the trainees had a crocheting lesson for about a dozen of us one night. All this and an early dismissal a couple of days for errands and an extension of our 9:30pm curfew a couple of nights made for a good end of training.

Thursday was swearing in day in Fes. We all dressed up (that equals a shower and clothes as zwin as possible after living out of suitcases for almost 3 months) and loaded on a bus to Fes. Our host families from CBT were invited to attend, and given their financial situations, it was remarkable how many actually came, since they had to pay their own transportation (note-no one has cars). It was great to see my host mother there-so sweet-she doesn’t have a spare dirham. The ceremony itself was fairly brief-speeches by 2 volunteers-the top Darija and Tamazeigt speakers-in those languages, a speech and terrific poem (that incorporated a reference to each of the 50+ of us) by the Ambassador, a speech by the Country Director, and the actual swearing in. That was followed by the usual photo opps and a buffet lunch by. Back on the bus to Azrou. No playing in Fes. Bummer. However, finally we're official Peace Corps Volunteers. Hamdullah!

Friday it was time to say our goodbyes to everyone and make the final move to our sites for the next 2 years. My predecessor had rented a car and came by the Auberge and drove myself, another volunteer and a friend of his to our sites-SWEET! OK, so the car thing. We’re not allowed to drive anything-car/motorcycle, etc. while we’re volunteers. We are also restricted to the type of vehicles we can ride in. We’re not allowed to travel at night, so that limits when and how you travel, whether on business or pleasure. Safety. Inshallah.

Another word about the travel procedures. If you go out of your site, on business OR pleasure, you must inform your Program Manager, the Out-of-Site Coordinator, your site counterpart, your region warden and your local gendarmes. If it is business, the out of site trip also has to be approved. This is if I am travelling within Morocco-even if only to my Delegate’s office in Sefrou. Think about a family member having an emergency or a country safety issue. The PC office/staff is responsible for knowing how to contact us and where we are at all times. Likewise, the Ministry expects the gendarmes to know where we are at all times. While if feels extremely restrictive, it is not to curtail travel, but to keep PC informed. Safety and security, Inshallah.

Thanksgiving. Can it be next week already? It’s just another work day around here-no 4 day holiday for us -that will have to wait for the full moon in December for Leid Kbira. However, before you shed any sympathy tears, I will have at least one opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving. I have to go to Rabat next week to the dentist to (finally) get my broken crown fixed. I’ve scheduled the appointment on Friday. That means travelling in on Thursday. I’m trying to see if there’s anything that’s done thru the Embassy or the PC office on Thursday for Thanksgiving that I can attend (since I have to be there before it’s dark). I’ll stay Friday after my appointment and go to the Peace Corps office to work. On Saturday I’m attending a craft fair (the Aiwa Bazaar) in Rabat. It’s a Peace Corps sponsored event, primarily for American ex-pats who want to buy Moroccan artisanal products to take home for holiday gifts. A lot of artisans that PCV’s work with will be there. It will be a great opportunity to meet SBD volunteers who have been here a year and to pick their brains. It is also a great opportunity to do a little market research on what is being made, relative quality, and pricing from other coops. I’ll be able to use this info with my coop as they determine things like where to sell, what to sell, how to price and market their products. After the Craft Fair on Saturday, I’ll go w/a couple of the volunteers to Khemisset (it’s on the way back to Ribat El Kheir) and stay overnight. That will be our chance to do a shwiya Thanksgiving.

Since we left the US, the elections have taken place, the US economy continues to tumble, wildfires have razed Southern California and the holidays are literally around the corner. Meanwhile we’ve been in this protective bubble/womb of training-and the gestation period is over. PC Morocco just gave birth to 50+ new volunteers who are ready to try out their wings. Triq slama.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Passing Time in Azrou

So here we are in Azrou-for additional information sessions and language training. This is all in anticipation of our Language test (more later) and official swearing-in next week in Fes-then we're official Volunteers!

OK, so my trip from Ribat El Kheir..... w/o stopping, it could be driven in about 1 1/2 hrs...took 4 1/2 hrs. Travel in Morocco is not for the weak and timid! It is a test of endurance. OK, so I wait for 40 min in REK for the "nuckle" (think van) to fill (they don't leave until all seats are taken and seat 15-20 people), 30 min to El Menzel where we stop for more riders (constantly stopping along the way to drop off and pick up passengers). 1 hr to Sefrou (big city). Petit taxi across town to a different grand taxi station. 20 min to fill that taxi. 30 min to Imitzer. 45 min to gather 5 passengers (need 6-4 in back and 2 in front w/driver)-I pay for 2 seats in the front so we can get going. 45 min to Azrou. Petit taxi to the Auberge. Whew! Who knew? Total cost for the entire trip (5 different transports) was 78DH-that's less than $10. Afterwards I found out that I can take a grand taxi direct (but the opposite direction) to Fes-abut 1 1/2 hrs, then a 1 hr grand taxi from Fes to Azrou. Even if I wait an hour for the taxis to fill, that is 1 hr less in travel and far fewer vehicles. Note to self-check out this alternative next time!

It's good be in Azrou for a little bit-the bad weather has passed and it's warmer here and sunny-great to walk around w/o an umbrella. It's also great to catch up w/everyone-lots to share about our one week site visits to our final sites-all kinds of stories, as you can imagine-from one person in a site w/no plumbing at 7,000 feet where it gets below zero, to another person who is sleeping in the same room w/8 family members (although we're supposed to have our own rooms-she was told there's another room w/o heating and no bed-she could buy a bed and sleep there if she wanted). There's one couple who arrived in their host town to find that their host family was gone for the weekend. Another trainee gets to his final site to discover that his host family backed out last minute-the mom was sick and wouldn't be able to cook, etc. Another family took him in the next day w/o knowing him, what the Peace Corps is, how long he was going to stay, really no information-talk about a welcoming family! Endi zzhr (I'm lucky)!

So about that Language Proficiency test. There are 3 levels of Proficiency (Novice, Intermediate, High) and 3 levels within each Proficiency Level (low, medium, high). The "requirement" for swear in is to be at Novice High, however it appears that if you don't get to that level, you are still sworn in, but get a language contract w/certain requirements and additional testing. Anyway, we checked that box yesterday. I'm speaking Darija at an Intermediate Low level (think 3 year old). So nice to have that behind me, but the work is really only beginning. Just wait until I'm back at my site-alone, without the LCF safety net-that's when the learning really starts! We also are provided w/a tutoring allowance of 400 DH/month. That apparently works out to 10 hrs/month. Given that any travel and translation has to come out of that same allowance, the money doesn't go very far. Since this is my #1, #2 and #3 priority in the first several months, I plan on supplementing the PC allowance w/my own $$ to front-end-load my learning.

We have 3 more days of sessions-getting us prepared for life on our own in our sites-swear in on Thursday, and "home" on Friday. We are required to live w/our host families for 2 months, but I'll need to also identify a place to rent pretty quickly. It shouldn't be hard to find a place (a couple of alternatives have already been identified), but the Peace Corps has to come out and approve our rental before we can sign a lease, to ensure it is safe, secure, etc., and that can take some time.

P. S. Did you know that there are 3 sectors of Peace Corps? Posh Corps (those that had 2x our rent and 2x our tutor budgets), the Peace Corps and the Hard Corps (no running water or "du" = electricity)!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Site Visit Cont'd

Nov 6

It’s been a good day. It is actually a National Holiday. Something to do with the Western Sahara-the topic is haram/controversial, so I don’t know the whole scoop. Anyway, a day off for all!

Well, maybe not everyone. The Regional Governor (who I understand to be like a State Governor) came from Sefrou to Ribat El Kheir to cut the ribbon to officially open a girls’ dormitory that’s been open a couple of years. The dorm is for girls in the surrounding areas who live here during the week for school. It houses 50 girls and is a nice facility. Anyway, this is obviously a big deal, so my host dad was called to be there-along w/every key person in town. I asked if I could come along and see what was going on. Sure glad I did. But first, let me be perfectly clear about this-I invited myself-I was actually just bumming along w/my host dad-figured it was good for a few photos-I'm in my yoga pants and fleece sweatshirt, tennies, and hair the usual Moroccan mess (note to self: next time ask more questions before heading out in sweats!)....I'm thinking I hang back in the outskirts and snap a few shots, right? I forget I stand out like a sore thumb around here-there's no hanging in the back-I'm pulled into the line w/the important men-end up being introduced to the governor as the new Peace Corps volunteer here-when he congratulates me on Obama-I say "Inshallah" (with Allah's blessing), rather than the more appropriate "Hamdullah" (thanks be to Allah). Anyway, my counterpart in the taeawniya was there, the Delegate from Sefrou who I officially report to was there (who I met on Monday in Sefrou), and I was introduced to the woman who oversees the dormitory and her boss who oversees multiple such facilities (who asked if I would teach English to the girls here). It was really a great opportunity to meet so many people here in town-even if we didn’t exchange names, their faces will be familiar when I’m walking around, Inshallah.

Afterward, since it was the first sunny day since I got here, I decided to go walking around town-took a couple of pictures, but mostly I just wanted to see the town, and kinda get myself out so people get used to seeing me. Believe me, you really stand out here. Everyone stares, but not unkindly, just curious. A couple of women standing talking on the curb motioned me over-I went over and spoke my broken Arabic with them-both named Fatima, they’re neighbors to one another, they wanted to know why I was here, was I looking for a husband (more on that later), and that I was invited to come to their homes. Other than that, a smile and Salam Alekum typically gets a smile or positive response from everyone. Merhaba!

OK, about the husband thing. Apparently (and not particularly surprising), there are a lot of young Moroccan’s eager to marry Americans-can you say green card? Apparently there is also a wave of “cougars”-American women in their 40’s+ eager to marry those younger Moroccan men! One of the PCV’s in a town close by was going to a wedding on Tuesday night (the celebration actually lasts 3 days) for one of these unions, which was of course being followed by a move to America. Hmm.

Well, I am officially now on my own as well. I don’t know what happened, but the PCV here in Rabat El Kheir who I’m replacing was called this morning and Peace Corps came out and took him to Rabat and he’s going home today-not the end of the month. Weird. Hope he’s ok-was a lot of help to me this week, especially w/travel logistics which can be very confusing even when you kinda know them. He left me his bike, so I not only will have one (yeah!), but I have it already, and he only used it twice. In addition, he left me an electric space heater that Peace Corps bought for him. Right now, at 5pm it’s 42 degrees outside, and w/o the heater on it’s 54 degrees in my room. That space heater will be a godsend. Hamdullah! In addition, my host dad is going to see if he can get their internet connection up here in my room (on the roof)-would that be sweet??!! Inshallah!

Sooooo. It’s just me here now. I’ve got the women of the coop to work with, potentially the girls in the dorm and kids at the Dar Shebab (think youth center) to teach English, and the women of the coop want help learning English and computers. This is good, ‘cuz you know me-I like to stay busy. I have the inside scoop on a good place to rent-former PCV’s place, but will check alternatives (would prefer an upper floor place for more light and air). My host dad is going to help me find a tutor here in Ribat El Kheir (much better for tutor to be here for integration). I’ve got a host family situation that is ideal. My good luck continues. Inshallah.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ribat El Kheir Site Visit

Hamdullah! I have a home for the next 2 years! I'm here for a one week site visit, before returning back to Azrou for another 1 1/2 weeks of training, swearing in and back here on Nov 21st for good.

My new home is a small town officially called Ribat El Kheir, originally Harmoumou or Harmou. The orginal Berber name was changed some years back after an attempted overthrow of the prior king-in turn the town's Berber name was changed to the Arabic Ribat El Kheir. Harmoumou is a town of about 10,000 people, at about 3,000 ft, with 2 main streets, a busy taxi and transit (nukl) stand, a bus to Rabat every morning, a post office, but no bank. The nearest bank is 50 KM away in Sefrou, and it's a 1 hr grand taxi ride to Fez.

OK, so I was hoping for a larger site. BUT, I signed up for this gig knowing that I may not have ANY amenties like running water, etc. I will have running water, electricity, cell phone service and internet. I will be working with a group of women at the weaving cooperative who are very nice, produce good quality products and as of now have absolutely NO marketing or sales efforts underway. They've been in existence as a coop (teawniya) since July 2006. The PCV volunteer that I'm replacing has not done anything with the coop (by his own admission), and they really need and want help. So maybe I was sent here for a reason! Besides, I'll get to Sefrou (the town 50 KM and 1-2 hrs away) to see the Artisanat Delegate every month, and that's where the bank is and Fez is only 1 hr away. So, who's to complain, right? Plus, I couldn't ask for a better set up w/my host family here. Both the mom and dad are teachers of Classical Arabic in a town 12 KM away. They have 4 daughters. The oldest just started studying medicine in Fez, the other 3 are in a private school here in Harmoumou. The dad and the 2 oldest daughters speak pretty good English and the rest of them speak some English. This doesn't mean we speak English, it means that they can help me (and they do) with words I don't know, pronunciation and correct verb conjugations. What a help that is! They have a very nice house, esp by Moroccan standards-incl. internet, a "hamam"-that means a water heater for a bucket shower in a separate shower room, a large salon and smaller one (like a family room), large cucina (kitchen) and bedrooms for the mom and dad and the girls. My room is up on the roof-a separate room w/complete privacy and there's space for my Pilates/Cardio workouts. The only downside-and this is not unique to my host family's home-is that no one has heating in their homes. So last night, when I went to bed, outside it was 39 degrees, and in my room it was 47 degrees. The sleeping bag and 2 thick blankets they have for me on my bed are certainly appreciated!

I've had a chance to meet with the women of the coop twice, set up my new PO Box (see blog homepage for address), met with the Delegate in Sefrou, introduced myself to the gendarmes (have to keep them posted on our whereabouts), met a potential tutor, and sat in on an English class.

My next big task is to line up my Darija tutor. This is really my #1 priority. I would really like to find a tutor here in Harmoumou, to help me first with language, but also with integration into the town. One of our LCF trainers is from here, so I have her and my host parents thinking about who I could use. I have a very good alternative in El Menzel-about 20 KM away-he tutored another volunteer posted there, but again, I don't want to have to travel for tutoring if possible, esp. since I want to front-end-load the tutoring, ie; several days a week. We'll see.

Travel factoids from Harmoumou: Grand Taxi (6 passengers-4 in back, 2 in front w/driver) to Fez = 25DH and 1 hour. That's around $3! Travel to Sefrou is more complicated-involves a combination of nukl (think VW van w/seats for 15 and stuffed w/20 +) and possibly Grand Taxi. It's about 50 KM, only 13DH for nukl (that's about $1.50), but can take 2 1/2 hours. This is because you have to wait for any vehicle-nukl or taxi-to fill up before it will leave. You can buy out the Grand Taxi if you want.

As I mentioned, I am replacing a PCV who COS's this month. Remember this is gov't service, so it comes w/the obligatory acronyms. PCV= Peace Corps Volunteer. COS = Close of Service. Sherwin has been very helpful, esp. w/transportation, around here. There are no transport schedules, and there are just vans and taxis sitting there-sometimes someone is calling out the destinations. You have to find out what is going where and which taxi stand is for which destinations in each town. He has a very nice apt here in town-much nicer that I expected to find. He's unfortunately sold all his stuff already, so I'll need to buy everything, ie; furniture, probably in Sefrou. I did buy the Sefrou PCV's bed and kitchenware while I was there on Monday-will need to arrange for a truck to bring that stuff and anything else when I get my own place. Re; Sherwin's apt-he doesn't recommend it, as it is pretty isolated (only one other apt in bldg and they're in France all the time), and kids go by on the way to/from school and are always knocking on the door or ringing the bell. I have the landlord's info, but will enlist my host family's help in identifying alternatives before deciding where to rent. I have the next 2 months to find a place.

A word on the election. Hamdullah. OK, more words....it is interesting to see how many people here in rural Morocco have been watching the election process and were interested in the outcome-and particularly happy to know that Obama won. Hatta Ana (me too!).

OK, that's enough chatting for today. B'slama.