Life in Transition and Second Annual Slaughter

Well, a lot has changed since my last blog in August, namely that I now live in a new house, in a new site, about two hours away from my old one. Many of you have gotten the details, but basically a few unfortunate events and testimonies made it clear that I needed to pick up and head out after over a year in my village. Saying my goodbyes was really upsetting, and I had to leave a few projects unfinished, but all that said, about two months have passed, and given the circumstances, I couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out.

The whole move only took a couple of hours, a few devoted friends, and a guy with a big van that we’d paid to fill up. The new house was the product of a week of searching and asking questions of store owners, vegetable sellers, butchers and taxi drivers as to where, in this 50 village site, there were houses for rent. There were already two volunteers in this sprawling rural mountain area, and my move not coincidently coincided with another volunteer’s. We searched about eight different villages, saw everything from exposed mud homes to fancy new two story situations, almost got stranded, rode with cows, got stood up by landlords, and bargained rents. After this non-stop real estate tour of rural Morocco, I ended up finding a nice concrete home, literally around the corner from one of my best friends and fellow health volunteers.

I told myself I could have until October, about two weeks, to fulfill my wallowing and settling in needs. I began setting up my home, putting things away and hanging pictures (easier said than done on concrete walls), and then came October. As our six month countdown approached, so did the deadline for grant submissions, and I really wanted to make up for lost time and projects, so I headed to the local school which serves my village and the three surrounding ones. I introduced myself and we began talking about what kind of improvements would benefit the community. After a few weeks of discussions between the teachers and a man from another village, who then directed me to association members in the town center via a name scrawled on a piece of paper, we had created a plan. The new project, if approved, will involve building a wall around the perimeter of the school to keep the kids safe from the trucks which pass through and wild dogs that roam the area. In addition it will cover the cost of new paint for the classrooms, a world map mural, new story books for a small library and educational classroom posters. So, cross your fingers and I should be hearing if the plan’s approved in the coming weeks.

After the grant submission, and about a total of six weeks in my new site and home, I decided I deserved a little reprieve, and met up with a friend to celebrate Halloween. As we looked at each other, in our dirty, baggy sweats, splitting a bottle of wine with an open sleeve of cookies on the table, we knew that was what giving up socially looked like. We couldn’t have been happier though, and it seems like proof that life here has become just that, life, and the more we’ve settled into it, the less we’ve felt the need to act out and get crazy. Although, as a disclaimer, I’m sure those impulses will reemerge with a passion once we’ve returned stateside. We did search the market the following day, letting the second hand clothing vendors guide our costume fates, and the fates decided on Aladdin and a yodeler.

Returning home refreshed, I was informed that the next day, members of the Ministry of Health, Environment and Education would be coming for a big health and environment event, and we had been asked to participate. When the four of us volunteers arrived at the event, there were about 40 adults all dressed professionally, and we really didn’t know what we were in for. After a breakfast of coffee, mint tea, bread, butter, oil and honey, we were directed to help with eye exams in one of the classrooms. Four eye doctors had come to test the children’s eyes, and we weren’t sure exactly where we’d fit into the process. Eventually though, each of us found a niche, checking the kids in and taking their names, helping them understand the eye charts, and what it would mean for their eyes to be dilated. The doctors were Moroccan, but since they came from the cities, most only spoke Moroccan Arabic and French, so there were times in which the doctors would speak to us in French and have us translate to Tashleheet for the kids who hadn’t yet taken Arabic in school (a pretty hilarious sight).

Just as the hoards of kids slowed down to a trickle, one of the coordinators asked us to give a quick class on dental hygiene. We knew that this might happen so we had come prepared with visuals, activities, tooth brushes and tooth paste. However, we were not prepared that the classroom would be loaded up with over 200 kids at once. We did our best. I tag teamed with my friend to talk to the children about why tooth brushing is important, healthy foods that help keep teeth clean and how to brush properly. During our lesson, some of the doctors and other professionals had wandered in, and a few were taking videos on their cell phones. I can only imagine that those videos were sent off to their city friends with the message of “Can you believe these crazy foreigners…”

After the lesson, and the children’s mad bulrush to the door to receive their complimentary tooth brushes and tooth pastes, we were served delicious beef and prune tagines with fruit to follow. During which, I casually asked the coordinator if he had intended for me to give a women’s health talk. He was game, and before lunch had ended, the room next door was filled with women ready to hear what I had to say. I start every class situation by apologizing for my spotty Tashleheet, which makes most women laugh and more importantly more inclined to ask questions. I showed them a video and then we talked about why it’s important to get pre-natal checkups and what they can expect. A lot of women are skeptical of health clinics because they don’t trust the staff, don’t want to travel, and/or just don’t believe they have anything to offer that can’t be taken care of in the home. This being said, they were still willing to listen and at least knowing what’s supposed to happen and why these checkups are important might sway a few more of them to head to the clinic. We also covered danger signs during pregnancies, healthy food choices, breastfeeding and the proper way to take birth control.

Just a few days after this event ended, began the biggest holiday of the year, L’eid K’bira/Mqqurn/Tafaska depending on whom you’re talking to. In preparation for this three day event, my fellow lady volunteers in the area and I gathered with a few of our local friends for a day of tacos and henna- a cultural exchange if I’ve ever seen one. With our hands covered in temporarily tattooed designs, we were ready for the festivities. The holiday arrived and with my friend and I both in traditional dresses, we headed over to a neighbor’s home for the slaughtering of the ram (symbolic of the story of Abraham and Isaac). As this was my second time around for this holiday, I knew what to expect: the ram was held down and calmed, and then his throat was slit quickly and efficiently. After he passed, the men began the skinning process, and then took out the organs one by one. The first meal would be heart, lung and liver kebabs, layered in alternating pieces with a layer of fat: delicious. The slaughter initiated a day of socializing with everyone in their new and best clothing, more meat, and about six glasses of sweet tea and plenty of cookies and nuts. The next two days would continue the holiday, leading to the progressive eating of the holiday ram including all of the innards the head, eyes, etc. which I’m looking forward to sampling tonight for dinner. Brains anyone?

The last couple months of transition although unexpected, have given me an opportunity to experience life and work in two different rural villages. I had to give up a hot water heater, but I have more counter space. I have to travel two hours for internet instead of thirty minutes, but I can buy cheese and plain yogurt in site. I’m having to reinvent uses for grant money in a new environment, reestablish relationships, and keep moving forward. Some days I do miss my old friends and my old life, but this challenge has forced me to stay engaged and to not take this experience for granted in my last months. There’ll be more to come as my time here winds down, and I’ll be home for Christmas (bobbies, nachos, steaks, salads and Chinese buffets beware)!


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WHAT have I been doing? (5 months later…)

I was at my gate in Gatwick today, watching all of the people eagerly line up to board our plane toMarrakesh.  Half of them looked like they were headed straight to a club and the other half was decked out for mountain climbing or a safari.  I was busy thinking how ridiculous everyone looked, until I realized I’ve more or less done all of that here (minus a safari…unless goat watching and camel riding count) which is what makes Morocco so interesting: you can be on a camel trek in the desert one day with honest to God nomads and having a beer and McDonalds the next.

Entering Morocco on a plane, the experience couldn’t help but usher in the feelings of nervousness about the unknown that I felt when I first came (about a year and a half ago).  I had to keep reminding myself that I actually have a life here now, work and friends, and know (at least more than I did) about what’s going on. It was a strange feeling getting off the plane with a boat load of English tourists, about to have a wholly different experience than I’ve had here.  We touched town, and I said my official good byes to Starbucks, nachos, chili cheeseburgers, wine with dinner, and my parents for another 8 months (I might have teared up…maybe about my parents, maybe about the wine).

I realize that it’s been a pretty long time since my last update, so maybe this is as good of a time as any to plunge back in.  Shopping with my parents for things to take back with me basically gave me a full facial hit of how lame I’ve become.  I actually bought a rubber egg to bring back and fool my local egg salesman with it.  I also got a coloring book, gold star stickers, and garlic powder, amongst other unusually mundane souvenirs from theUK.  However, I understand my needs, and these things will satisfy them.

Let’s see.  The spring was a really busy time work wise.  The midwife training went off successfully, but with lots of on the fly adjustments as per usual.  For example, I invited 23 women from about 20 villages, but instead ended up with 23 women from 13 villages.  So some didn’t show and some brought a midwife friend.  But true to form, things usually work out here in their own surprising ways.  The women learned most importantly about danger signs and at-risk pregnancies: when they need to make sure women go directly to see a doctor.

I also worked at two festivals in May.  One was at the annual Rose Festival an hour and a half north of Ouarzazate.  Local volunteers arranged to have a health tent there, and we were supposed to hook in festival goers, who would then enter our tent (men on the men’s side and women on the women’s side) to be educated by previously trained high school students about AIDS and HIV.  The idea was fantastic, although at some points the students weren’t available to talk, and I think it’s just too sensitive and technical of a topic for us to effectively cover at our language levels.

The other festival was held on the topic of ecotourism and sustainability, and arranged by a local association in another city about an hour and a half south east of Ouarzazate.  At this one, we helped out wherever we were needed.  For a few hours, myself and another volunteer talked to women one-on-one about breast cancer and the importance of self exams and seeing a doctor (which is difficult to ask of them, the nearest doctor being almost two hours away).  There was a foot race involved, and also soccer games, and a hodge podge of other activities which brought in tons of people from the community to participate.

After these events began to pass, summer approached, and I was scared!  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to fill my time, but I had an idea to have a volleyball camp.  I joked about the camp with the women at the carpet association, and it turns out there’s actually a man in our town in charge of sports!  I should have known someone was behind the pre-Ramadan summer soccer tournaments.  Anyway, I brought the idea to him, and three little meetings later, the idea ballooned into building a volleyball and basketball court next to the elementary school and getting sports equipment.  I had about a week and a half to write and submit to the grant I was eyeing, and it was approved! But because of the way the funding works, and Ramadan falls, we won’t be starting construction until September.

I decided to take a bit of a victory lap and checked out some of the country’s great, unexplored (by me) north territory.  It was absolutely fantastic up there and a totally different feel.  It was a great breather, and I felt lucky to see some new beaches, the view of Spain across the ocean, and sit in tree trunk chairs in a fantastic whimsical blue village.

In July, in addition to helping out at an English Immersion camp and a different volunteer’s camp, I attempted a couple of quasi-experimental health events.  I investigated what it would take to have nurses and/or doctors to come administer Pap Smears in my town, and it was a go! I had spent a few days recruiting women, and they seemed pretty enthusiastic about the idea, but when the day arrived, about 20 or so women showed up, but only four went through with the Paps.  I still consider it to have been a success, mostly because I feel a big part of my role is to provide people with opportunities that they might not otherwise have.  Whether they take every one is up to them, but at least they know it’s out there.

My other attempt came when the men in my town approached me to organize a health event for the women, which was exciting because it means they actually see me as a health worker and resource (or they just didn’t feel like doing it).  I decided to tap my known resources and asked one of the trainers from the midwife event if she’d come talk.  She agreed, and I started recruiting women, and asking those women to recruit other women.  The day arrived, the trainer arrived and…crickets.  My first explanation was that although the time does change for daylight savings, most people in the villages stay with “old time” which meant they wouldn’t think the event was for another hour. In addition to “old time” there is a different “sense of time” which means that “starting times” don’t mean too much.  Eventually though (about two and a half hours after “new time, start time”) we had a crowd of about thirty women to listen to a lecture on child nutrition and development.  I was pretty pleased at this point, although the lecturer started to seem a little pressed for time at one point.  I wasn’t sure why, although moments later, a small table with pre-measured ingredients for pastry making were brought out, and the health event took quite a turn.

I made sure things were on track (as far as pastry demos go), and then I was on my way to a mildly impromptu mountain climb.  I wasn’t sure if I was up for it exactly, but it was on my service bucket list, and it was a great group of people, so I went for it.  The hike was about 15 hours all together, and we had a place to stay the night before the summit.  It felt really good and freeing to go up, although there was undoubtedly a “slow and steady” mentality going on, and it was especially good for a pre-vacation distraction.

These milestones about bring us to present day, returned from my parents and my driving tour of Englandand and Scotland.  I saw the sights of London, the International Festival in Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Stomp and even Bridesmaids and Harry Potter at the Cinema.

It was a fantastic trip, and I was sad to leave it.  This fall is shaping up to be a busy time, and hopefully I’ll be more inclined to update!  Hope all is well!

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Planting Sticks and Taking Names

When we were last here, about 6 weeks ago, I had just submitted my grant (shameless plug: donate here!) for the midwife training that I’m hoping to have by the end of April, God Willing, as I’ve now learned to add to almost every statement.

January came to a close, and February started off with a regional meeting and then some odds and ends of down time, which I filled by sorting yarn with the weavers and taking an interest in my garden (formerly known as my dirt/organic trash pit).  I set out to my market town to buy trees and plants.  What I found is that most trees for sale closely resemble sticks.  Although I had the vague suspicion that I was the victim of a practical joke, later that day I would plant my two sticks (one a ‘walnut tree’, and one I didn’t understand the name of).  Over the next few weeks I’ve added a sprig of rosemary, mint and a grab bag of other plants and assorted seeds.  I figured if I bombarded my dirt pit with life, the strong will survive.  I even went so far as to pull up weeds around town and replant them in my garden.  It’s still looking pretty pathetic.

My next official adventure would start a week after the ceremonial stick planting, as I’d be accompanying some assorted doctors and nurses on the mobile health clinic.  They’d be distributing medicine and shots in about 20 different villages over two weeks, and I’d be recruiting midwives to come to my training.  It was a long two weeks.  At the best of times it was beautiful and inspiring and at the worst of times it was 12 hour days with disheartening results. Overall the trip was a great success, the traveling band of doctors and nurses took pity on my and helped whenever language was an issue, and I managed to fill all 24 spots, with some villages making up where others lacked.

In addition to achieving the overall objective, I played soccer with children, was gifted saffron wrapped in newspaper on several occasions (usually immediately after I was referred to as ‘that poor thing’), and ate approximately 6 meals a day.  I attempted makeshift hand-washing lessons with children who were albeit more interested in hearing the foreign girl speak Tash than in what I had to say, was driven hours down dirt paths to villages that I couldn’t have even imagined existed, had a picnic on a mountain side, tea by a river, and too many impromptu Ahawash (traditional dance) parties to count.

As the mobile clinic wrapped up, March snuck in and we all rejoiced in hitting our illusive year anniversary of being here! It’s amazing and terrifying to think back to getting off that plane without much more than a shred of an impulse as to what the next few years would bring.  I didn’t know what to expect, but now I have a house, a cat, a tenuous grasp on a language I didn’t know existed, and an exciting project in the works.

The next big health move was helping out at a breast cancer event in my market town.  Another volunteer who works at the youth center there had been approached about the event, and having access to eager children, she gathered them to give presentations, perform music, and write/act a little play.  I was there to help, and the women really seemed to enjoy it.  The second day, we took the show on the road to a smaller village nearby.  This event was pared down with less frills.  Right before it was about to begin, I was asked to give a presentation on pre-natal care, birthing at the health center, and pregnancy in general, in Tash.  Even though my language is “on track” I am really in no way at a level to be giving impromptu presentations to 30 women a pop, especially on a topic that I’m no expert in.  But, as with many situations we find ourselves in, I did the best I could, and promised that if I’m asked ahead of time, I would actually come with a coherent presentation.

I had a few days to mentally regroup after the four day breast cancer project, during which I agreed to help with a similar anti-smoking/anti-drug campaign in a month, and then I was off to a town about 2 ½ hours away.  About 20 of us gathered to have a workshop on how to present HIV/AIDS in a culturally sensitive way.  We also did some planning for a big festival that happens there in May.  Volunteers have been setting up a health booth at this festival for a few years running, usually with an HIV/AIDS focus.  The idea is that a local organization will train high school students to work in a health tent and present health information to festival-goers.  Volunteers’ roles are mainly logistical and working pulling the whole event off.  I signed up for the Hooker committee, which means my role will be to help hook people in with clever conversation and visual aids. We’re contemplating screen printing, “We hook ‘em…You cook ‘em” T-shirts.

Immediately after the 3 day training, I made one more push, and headed out to a village about 10 km away from me, where a new volunteer might be placed in May.  It would be a new site, so there’s a lot of basic paper work that needs to be filled out, as well as sniffing out a suitable host family for the volunteer to stay with the first couple months when they arrive.  The town is really interesting, because it’s only about 400 people, but it’s on the road to a mountain that many tourists visit, so it actually contains about 4 little hotels.  One family I met owns one of the hotels, and I also met one other family- both recommended by the local nurse.  It was a long day, but I was once again reminded of the unparalleled hospitality of people here.  Families are willing to take in and feed a bumbling foreigner, who will barely know the language.  And, most will feed me, and agree to taking in the new volunteer before they even realize they’ll be compensated.

Now, I’m finally back home again and taking a moment to pull it together, before the next adventure.

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Italy, London, English, Grants and Neutering

There’s a lot to be happy about since my last blog: vacationed out of the country, taught my first English class, completed a grant, and finally got Sal fixed…

Vacation was Amazing.  10 days in Italy and a week in London were a very refreshing break.  I was reminded of everything I had been missing: an indoor home (aka not having to walk outside to go to the bathroom), heat, packaged foods, dips, TV, Christmas movies, couches, curling irons, going out, living in a home with other human beings, etc. etc. etc.  But it did also make me appreciate my time here, and was good to have a “big picture” moment and know that the good life would still be waiting for me in another 15 months (which can seem very short or long depending on the day). After a mild period of post-vacation blues, I was back on track.

Two days back, and I was scheduled to have my first English club meeting.  The teacher had said that there would be about 12 students in the class, and it would be mine for the taking, as he, and all of the other staff would be in meetings.  So, I prepared some games and activities, and walked off to the junior high.  It’s about a 15 minute walk for me to the center of town, and then 10 minutes more to the school.  The last 10 minutes consists of one dirt path, with nothing but the school looming in the distance.  I spent the whole path repeating, “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”

I arrived, got the keys to the classroom and settled in.  I tried to look busy and not to make eye contact with the students outside, although I knew they were talking about me.  The first bell rang.  The second bell rang.  I could have blinked in the time it took the entire room to fill up with almost 30 students.  Apparently word spread that the foreign girl would be holding class.

Anyway, the students ranged from 12 to 17 and were all boys except for two.  I tried to put myself in a teacher mode, and we reviewed greetings, numbers and the alphabet.  Some things went better than others, but I have to say, I came out alive, and I’m willing to go back. (Although because of scheduling, it won’t be until next semester, and I’m not sure when that is, exactly).

I am very excited to say, that I have just submitted my grant for the Traditional Birth Attendant training I hope to have in April! After it’s reviewed by staff, the country director, and Washington, it will be posted on a website which accepts contributions.  I’ll be posting donation information as soon as I know!  It took a lot of leg work, and I’ve been building contacts and making plans since September.  This past month included two hour meetings with the Ministry of Health, another with the closest birthing center, various health clinics, my local government and staff.  Between Tash, French and a healthy amount of charades, I’ve come to terms that I usually left these meetings with an optimistic 60% understanding of what went on in them, but, little by little, I was able to connect the dots, find trainers, a cook, budget supplies, get approval and come up with a plan. I’ll never take for granted having meetings in English ever again or being able to present myself in a mildly competent way.

As far as Sal’s concerned, I’ve been trying to get him fixed since I arrived at site.  You may think, how is it possible that it’s taken you this long?  Well, I fruitlessly barked up the wrong tree for six or seven months, being told to come back, that the vet was on vacation, that they didn’t perform procedures at all, etc.  I finally switched gears, and with a reference from another volunteer, I was able to find a veterinarian.  This past week, I bundled up Sal in my backpack and waited on the side of the road.  About four hours later, I was home and Sal had his rabies vaccine and was finally neutered, which I know for sure, because I was shown the evidence on the table.  He’s been recovering and sleeping a lot, and although it made me so sad to see him hobbling around a little, I’m pretty sure it was the responsible thing to do.  I also found myself telling the vet that I would be taking him back to America, even though I had been planning on transferring him to another volunteer after two years, I think my little pussy cat is wheedling his way into my heart. 

Also this month, my site mate held a workshop for the women in the carpet association, for which she invited three other new small business volunteers and their women.  I was so excited to meet the new volunteers, and they were really great.  I left them to their own devices through the trainings, but I did meet up for a few tea times, when we danced and hung out with all the ladies.  I’ve been getting better and better at my Ahawash dancing, and my shoulder shake is now drawing nods of approval from the ladies.

I got to meet a few more new kids at our regional meeting, and I definitely took away some things, like dates for upcoming events and camps.  I had gone in thinking I’d be hearing words of wisdom, and realized after looking at the new make up of our region, that I was supposed to be giving the wisdom, because all but four volunteers were new arrivals.  I tried my best, and then at night we went out to celebrate my friend’s birthday.  We ended up in a basement setting, dancing in a circle, fending off the handful of other people in attendance, and going next door to buy our beverages, where they were half the price.  The usual make up of any “celebration.”

So, all in all, things are still going! In February we’ll be having a regional health volunteer meeting, and then I’ll be off recruiting women for the birth attendant training on the mobile clinic.  There might also be a Valentine’s Day party involved.

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Loose Ends, Puppies & New Friends

After Eid, I had a few days to recover before Thanksgiving.  I decided to check up the loose ends of work that I had left before the training/parents/Eid onslaught.  The ends were definitely still loose.  I had created a list of questions with my nurse, to ask midwives in the outer villages on the equipe mobile (traveling clinic) in order to help us construct a midwife training in the spring. But, the equipe mobile didn’t hit the road as planned because the driver’s father  had passed away, and then again because of rained out roads, so, unfortunately on all accounts, that information has to be postponed another month or two…or three.  I didn’t have any better luck at the middle school, where, last I left it, I was in reach of working with a budding English and health club, although when I showed up to our tentative meeting time, I spent the hour alone, with no email or phone response, and the next week’s meeting was thwarted by a strike.  I think these issues are part of why we stick around for two years.  There isn’t much to do, but to keep trying.

As Thanksgiving approached, I was so happy to think about celebrating a holiday that I have a grip on, with friends from America, and I wasn’t disappointed.  As far as Thanksgiving potlucks go, it was pretty fabulous: turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, pies and desserts.  The only major difference from home, food wise, was that our turkey was alive Thanksgiving morning.  I missed everyone back home a lot, but couldn’t help being thankful for the people around me that helped make the day what it was, and I of course, made everyone say what they were thankful for.

Next, I was on to my first work-travel event in my friend’s town, which was a full day away.  Over a hundred doctors were coming to do specialty consultations for people, and we were going to try and do some health education.  When we showed up, it was pretty much chaos.  People lined the streets and no one seemed to know exactly where they were headed.  The doctors first asked us to put everyone in order based on their ticket number, although the line started with a number 37, than no ticket, 2, 17, no ticket, everyone crushing in, and finally we were replaced with police officers. 

One of my friends ended up running women to the pharmacy in order to pick up their medications, and another volunteer and I found ourselves in a room with a delightful nurse from Agadir.  There was absolutely so much going on that it was hard to get a grip on what our role could be, so we started herding the kids, who had accompanied their parents, into a side room and treated them to some hand washing and tooth brushing lessons.  It was extremely intimidating, although the critics were no more than eight years old.  My teaching vocabulary isn’t very good, and I never conjugate verbs in the ‘you plural form,’ but what were we do to but go for it, and luckily we had our fabulous nurse as a safety net.  I have to say that although it was pretty shaky, it did feel really good.  It’s so scary to take that first plunge, and actually teach in a second language, in the role of a health educator.  “Fake it till you make it” is what comes to mind.

A grueling day of travel later, I was back home, and was greeted the next morning by my friend and her site mate, with a puppy in tow that I had agreed to watch for a week.  That day was very rainy, and on my way across the village and into “town” to pick them up, I came across a little boy who kindly told me that the river (which cuts the town in half) was flooded today, so I wound my way through the brush until I hit the road, where a group of kids sat watching the rushing water. I was so happy to see my friends getting dropped off in the distance, and I shuttled them back to my home where we scrapped together lunch. 

After they had time to settle in, we ventured out toward the carpet association building, again having to skirt the river, and picking up interested friends along the way.  When we finally arrived, the door was hopelessly stuck.  After calling on some reinforcements from the village, and jiggling it for a good hour, we gave up and went to tea at one of my favorite family’s home.

They brought out the full spread of coffee, tea, sweets, nuts and bread with butter and honey for me and my friends.  This all had to happen by candlelight though, because electricity was out for the night.  We had a really pleasant time and talked about women’s work and men’s work and joked around.  Finally we decided to trek through the blackness back to my house, but not before being offered candles and blankets for the road.

My friend’s puppy, which was now residing in my home for a week, was a terror but what are friends for, and I started trying to figure out how to wear her out but not go crazy.  Coming back after Thanksgiving and work leave, I was all set to clean house.  Midway through sweeping my courtyard, after getting the puppy to stop latching onto my broom, I looked over to see her kicking up dirt filled planter into the other side of the courtyard, so I decided I might as well postpone till she left.

The new youth development volunteer had just arrived in my souk town (market, about 30km away), and I finally got to meet her, (a good excuse to avoid the puppy and pick up vegetables, internet and blankets).  It’s so nice just to have other volunteers in reach, and I think she will really be a good one.  I feel very empathetic though, talking to her, and hearing the overwhelmed tone of her voice as she tries to figure things out from step one. I decided that I would take her under my wing, and so I invited her over on the weekend as a way to escape the constant contact that is home stay, and because I was getting yet another puppy dropped off. 

When she came over, I was very excited although it quickly turned in to an overwhelming experience for her.  Since she really likes puppies, we grabbed the little rascal, leashed her up, and headed out towards the outskirts of town.  People on the way were very curious, because it is really uncommon to have a dog as a pet here, so we answered a lot of questions on the way. Just when we hit the point of town where I thought we’d be able to proceed undisturbed, I heard the vague tinkering of bike wheels, to which I turned around to find 4 boys following us.  They weren’t really doing anything intrusive or rude, but picture, walking out in the middle of nowhere, trying to relax, with 4 boys following you on bike.  It didn’t help that the puppy was being sassy and refusing to calm down. 

When we finally stopped by the corner store on the way back home, my friend said she’d watch the puppy while I went in to get us food.  I knew I’d only be a few minutes, so that she’d probably be okay outside, but just after I entered, about twenty children came out of no where to swarm her.  I tried to get stuff as quickly as I could and usher her home, although by then the psychological damage had been done.  All I thought to do for her is what works for me, lock us in, turn on country music and make coffee.

A few days later, free of puppies and left by friends, I got a call from one of my program staff, and found out that one of the new health volunteers coming in the spring may be placed in a site about 6km from me.  There is some development needed, aka finding out what kind of amenities are there, if the medical staff is willing to work with a volunteer, if there is a family available to stay with, homes to rent, etc.  So my assistant manager stopped by and took me on a field trip to this potential site. 

It was pretty wild because our destination was actually where I was originally going to be placed, and I couldn’t help seeing my alternate reality flashing across my eyes as we drove by.  We stopped in a chatted with the nurse, who I had met and really liked, although I was at a linguistic disadvantage since the conversation was happening in Moroccan Arabic and not Tashleheet, but I could follow along more or less, having some idea of the major talking points. After touring the dirt paths with the company vehicle, I was handed a packet of questions about the town, for which I am to find answers in the next few months, and, if everything adds up, I could be welcoming a new baby volunteer there in May.

The same day, I got a message from the English teacher that he was available to meet, and was delighted to find out that when I return from vacation, I can jump right into English club!  Finally, something I know how to do!  So that’s some good news to wrap up with.  I have one more meeting at the Ministry of Health this coming week so I can find out more about their stance and resources for Traditional Birth Attendant trainings, and then I’m off to Italy and England for my 24th, Christmas and the New Year!

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What’s a Holiday without Slaughtering a Sheep?

So this Eid al-Kabir/Eid Tafaska…we’ve been hearing about it since Ramadan, at most knowing that we were in for a grand scale sheep slaughtering where each family that can afford one, kills a sheep in remembrance of the story of Abraham and Isaac (or Abraham and Ishmial) in which Abraham agrees to sacrifice his son to God, but after proving his devotion, was able to offer a ram instead.  This holiday comes at the end of the month devoted to the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca.

On this holiday, families kill, disembowel and take apart their sheep, taking care to eat all of its parts for the ensuing days, and many families dry the extra meat and consume it throughout the year.  In accordance with Koranic Law, the animal is not to suffer or to be killed in the presence of other animals.

The night before Eid, I was feeling a little sad, as the departure of my parents and the lull post-training set in, and I was again, all alone in my house.  I decided to take a walk and hopefully have some nice interactions that would brighten my mood.  I first encountered a group of boys who greeted me and then giggled when I responded, the usual benign mockery.  Then I passed by some ladies washing their clothes in the irrigation canals and stopped for a little bit.  That was nice enough but I was having a slow language day and I could tell the one was probably waiting for me to leave.  After a few more run-ins of the like, I headed back home a little disheartened, although in the midst, I did make a date that evening to go to one of my friend’s homes.

I had to buck myself up, but I went later that night, and sat with her, her mother, her grandmother and later her father, and because of the never-ending flow of Moroccan hospitality, had tea, dinner and then, after I pulled a ‘poor me’ card because I had no sheep or celebratory henna for the holiday, I was henna-ed.  Most people are familiar with henna, usually from boardwalks.  It’s like temporary tattoos.  The women mash up the plant and boil it until it forms a paste which they apply to hands and/or feet either by syringe (sans needle) or may use stencils to create floral or geometric designs.  I was given the stencil variety, and it made me feel really nice that this family was taking care of me and preparing me for the holiday with them (it’s custom to get henna before holidays, travel and other special occasions).  It lifted my spirits to be taken under their wing so much that when they just left the paste on my fingernails, and as usual, I imagined my fingers as little people with henna wigs, instead of suppressing the urge to share, I made them talk like little puppets, and I think they accepted me for it.

On the morning of Eid I woke up to the sounds of many a sheep, so I knew I hadn’t yet missed the slaughter.  I made some biscuits to take with me as a contribution to the breakfast.  I don’t think most things I make are to the taste of the recipients, but the contribution says, “I care.”  Right as I was about to head out to my friend’s house, she arrived at my door.

Outside her house, we saw a procession of the town’s men, chanting prayers, which would lead them to the mosque before they would slaughter their sheep. My friend knew I was intrigued by the process, so she led me to one of her family’s barns to see the main event.  A man came out of a home with rain boots and a kitchen knife, and I knew he was the one selected to do the job.  I crowded in the barn with other curious children as the man took a sheep, placed it down on the ground, and slit its throat with one swipe of the knife.  This clearly wasn’t his first time, as he waited for the sheep to die and then immediately began to skin it, cut off the hooves and then hang it on the meat hook in the barn to drain out its blood.  I really expected this whole experience to leave me light headed and queasy, but somehow knowing that the entire animal would be eaten by the family (insides, outsides, etc.) made it feel okay.

After Eid had thus officially began, I walked around with my friends, and was gifted jewelry and meat, saw some of the women from the carpet association wheel barrowing sheep skins back to their garage to shear, and was hospitably force fed sweets, tea and meat for the next four and a half hours, until I excused myself to go recover for just enough time to head back out to my host mom’s house for dinner.

Before my host mom and I could sit down to eat, we went to her neighbor’s house in order to bundle and string up a bunch of her sheep’s chopped organs, presumably to dry for later.  I was so full at this point, the thought of dinner was nauseating, although it is hard to resist a meat feast, so I did my best, and was sent home with more treats.  One more visit and I was down for the count.


On only the second day of Eid (it seemed to stretch on up to five), I got up, ate breakfast, popped my keys and phone in my pockets, and headed across the village, back to my host moms for lunch.  She had some things to do, so I sat in her house and watched BBC and made semi-awkward Tash conversation with her very nice nephew about work, living away from home, and why I’m not married, until she returned.  I filled up on lunch and we headed off to wedding celebrations.  When we arrived at the house of the bride’s family, I assumed we would head straight in, but the women I was with started pulling rocks in a circle, so I settled in to sit with them.

About an hour later, there was some signal I missed, but all the clusters of ladies stood up collectively and started filtering through the entry way.  I lost my initial posse in the bustle, so I greeted other women I knew and befriended a little ten year old smarty outside. After a while more of waiting, men came spilling out of the house, and the rest of the women outside stood up to go in, so I followed.  I grouped up with some women I know, and I have to say that weddings are a far less daunting task now having some actual friends and acquaintances to sit and chat with rather than having to look occupied and feel awkward while I follow my host mom around and people stare at me.

Inside flowed the rituals that I’ve now come to expect.  We all squeezed into the carpeted room, women started singing and playing the drums, and gradually standing up to Ahawash (stand shoulder to shoulder, clapping and swaying to the beat).  Men brought around trays of tea, nuts and cookies.  Then a few women made rounds with various perfumes to spray all of the guests with each.  And finally, tables were brought out and the four course meal commenced of bread with butter and honey, meat, couscous (or often sugary pasta) and finally, fruit.  Now that the pattern has become familiar, I’ve started picking up on other things, like there are always the city girls that come in for the wedding, in their saucy dresses and flowing hair, I’m starting to recognize some of the songs, and I know that securing a good table when settling in for dinner is clutch.  I tried to sneak out before the meal, but was caught red handed and convinced to stay, although I couldn’t fit in one more bite.

As night fell, and dinner ended, I was reminded that day three would hold two weddings, one on either side of the village, and a third and fourth wedding on day four, and so on.  I lost track of days and weddings.  I hid out the next day, thinking that I would go if someone came to escort me, but otherwise I just couldn’t handle the sensory overload showing up alone.  I thus entered myself into a cycle of guilt for the weddings I sat out on, to feeling a little overwhelmed by the ones I went to, and tempted by the solitude and conversation offered by both respectively.

This back and forth happened for the next three or four days, until, finally on the last night of Eid, I had begun to settle in and say my thanks that things would finally return to ‘normal’ by morning (although ‘normal’ has no solid definition these days).  And then my doorbell rang.  My host mom was outside, tapping her foot, and told me to follow her.  I knew we were en route to a wedding.  I was busy trying to decide if I was relieved to have an escort or sad to leave in the middle of my Will & Grace DVD, when we arrived at the wedding house.  My Moroccan mama led me through about four rooms and told me to sit, next to a child, and in front of a plate of chicken bones.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but I usually just do what she says, because she’s a lady who’s always got a plan and because she looks out for me.  Anyway, a few minutes later, she returned with a plate of chicken, a plastic bag, and told me to take my chicken and go home.  I smiled. What a lady.  And, a mere 10 minutes later, as I ate my chicken in my kitchen, alone with my cat, I officially said a, somewhat fond, farewell to Eid al-Kabir…until next year.

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Fall into the Mgrib (Sept-Nov)

After the wedding festival, I took one more Ramadan-is-over-I-need-to-travel trip to the Date (the fruit) Festival.  When I was dumped out of the taxi, I wasn’t concerned about locating a conspicuous group of Americans.

I should have been more concerned.  I walked up to one of the white tents and asked where a group of health-educating Americans might be.  Every answer ensued, in Darija, Tash, French and English, from, “Americans? There are no Americans here,” to, “Oh yes, Americans, they were here yesterday, but not today,” to, “Oh yes, Americans, they are outside of town, it’s very far,” to, “Oh yes, Americans, follow me…” –YES!- “…Oh, no, I’m sorry they are not here.”  I felt some weary travel tears brimming, and as a last ditch attempt I asked a policeman- nothing, nothing at all.  My phone was dead, my dialect was off, and the tears were brimming.

A gracious café owner let me charge my phone, while I successfully fended off friendly offers to sit and join for tea, and I made contact.  One grateful hug hello to my friend, and I was sitting with a few volunteers, who had just packed up for the day, at a local café.  I found out from them that the festival setup had been a learning experience, if nothing else.  They had been promised certain materials which weren’t delivered and some support that wasn’t there, but they improvised and made the best of it, which seems to be a common theme here and were able to provide some health education on HIV, smoking, hand washing, etc.  It seems my travel time had caused me to miss out on most of the date related festivities, unfortunately, because since arriving in country, my sugar taste buds have developed a tolerance and dates had become my snacking obsession (after stints with almonds and olives and preceding my love affair with pomegranates).

When I returned to site after the festival, I told myself, okay, four weeks until Halloween, another week of training in Marrakesh, and a visit from the parents: travel embargo.  I made myself a pre-training bucket list which included everything from “be prepared to write a grant for midwife training” to “make a Halloween costume,” and I’ve been doing alright knocking things off the list.  Christmas presents for the parents, visiting the Ministry of Education, and most recently I walked the long and daunting path to the College (middle school), with my permission to enter, to see if there was anyway I could help.  It went about as well as I could have imagined, and to sum things up, there’s a new English teacher to whom I will offer my services in his English club as well as a teacher responsible for a health club who’s willing to work with me.  Success for now; I’ll update later, as each return visit seems to only produce another date to meet.

The next weekend, in congruence with my travel embargo, was a weekend of solitude spent exclusively in my home.  I read, listened to country music (which I love even more over here if that’s possible), giggled to myself, rode my bike in circles around my courtyard, started “My wall of feelings” (don’t ask), and realized that I’ve probably never spent more than 4 or 5 waking hours alone in one stretch, much less 48 in my entire life, and it’s quite a learning experience.  After that weekend, I remembered that friends help ward off the crazies and so I hosted a visitor and then made a visit to another friend.  When I arrived to meet my friend, I had unknowingly come the same day that a tour group was scheduled to come through.  They had plans to have an “authentic tea break” with a family and we were there to help translate if needed.  I felt a little guilty because the conversation geared more towards what we were doing here, than questions targeted to the hosting family, and seeing the tour group’s reactions pointed out how, at least in these villages, our comfort level/identification is starting to lean more towards the locals rather than the tourists.

The next weekend, I was off to Halloween celebrations, a week of training, and time with the parents, which have been absolutely awesome. It started out last week with an 8.5 hour trip up to a Halloween party at one volunteer’s home who had extended an invitation for a real, American style gathering.  It was impossible to resist the invite, no matter how impractical the travel route, although the costumes were pretty make shift- I was a fly, other costumes included a blanket and a couch- all drinks were served out of tea pots.  It was a pretty excellent time, and allowed us enough excitement to fill most of the 11 hour trip into Marrakesh with recaps.

That night, before training started, a few of us ran into new volunteers who will swear in the day before Thanksgiving.  It’s pretty amazing that the new batch is here, and it gave us a little boost to remember how little we knew when we first got here and how relatively far we’ve come to find ourselves actually giving some advice instead of only asking for it.  We’re almost officially sophomores in Peace Corps high school, with two more groups to come in before our time’s up.

Training included visits from members of our Ministries of Health (which, given language barriers and individual agendas, was interesting to navigate), talking about grant writing and project planning, language exams, shots, personal concerns, etc.  But, because my group/staj is uncharacteristically social, we also had a chili cook off, prom and a talent show.

On Friday night, I got a call that my parents had landed, and to their credit, made the drive from Casablanca into the daunting city of Marrakesh, and found their way through alleys, into the medina, to their hotel.  I was very proud, and two of my friends and I made the trip into the city to come find them.  We planted in the hotel for a little while, until I could tell they had recuperated from the harrowing ride in, and after I promised them we’d get the real Moroccan dining experience later, I suggested sushi for dinner, which felt unbelievably decadent, and we had a great time catching the parents up on 8 months of stories.

The parents and I stayed in Marrakesh for the weekend, managing to see gardens and a palace, while balancing the monkeys/snakes/crowds and general pandemonium by sneaking into side restaurants to recover about every hour or so.  We made it to see my two host families and my site as well. It was amazing to have my parents see where I live and the people in my community.  They understand so much more now about the life I’ve been leading, the struggles, but also the openness and the generosity of the people around me, and even my all-carb diet.  They were given cookies, tea and sweets, and shown how to spin wool and the shown the processes of carpet making.  They were told how I was being cared for and taken care of here, and it meant so much to my parents.  There are so many nuances to life here: having to set up house and a new life, in a different culture with different traditions, while trying to navigate the language, building up a work niche from nothing, establishing contacts, and working to maintain a personal identity while fitting in with the surrounding community.  I feel very grateful that I was able to show this to my parents first hand, and feel at peace that for the next year and a half here, they will be able to feel personally connected to my stories, struggles and successes.

Next week begins the holiday of meat slaughtering, which is based off the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It is scheduled about two months from the end of Ramadan, and each family slaughters a sheep, and spends the following week eating all of its parts (insides, outsides, faces, etc.). God bless the vegans and vegetarians.  I’m sure I will have much more to add after I experience the festivities first hand.

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