This blog is a personal publication and does not reflect the views or opinions of the US Peace Corps or US Government...

Monday, December 13, 2010

a Wild Month...

It was cold this evening. This is normal now, here in the Atlas, as winter as arrived after a long and glorious autumn. The poplars on the river are bare and the mountaintops are dusted with a delicate rime of snow. I lay back in my chair on the roof of my house and looked up at the sky. The stars were beginning to show small and cold against the blue darkness of the dusky sky and the half moon was perched, glowing at the very apex of the dome; neither coming nor going.

I lay there and listened to the sounds of the village around me; children playing in the street, dogs barking in the distance, every once and a while the grate and rumble of a vehicle passing my house. As the cold began to permeate my clothing I stood and looked down at my shadow cast by the moonlight. Long and thin, I could make out the folds of my dark cloak, and the peaked hood of the jelaba robe that I have taken to wearing every day. I looked out over the village, at the smoke rising from the chimneys of the mud houses, and the glowing string of street lights strung out along the road where it passed through the sleeping fields. It was so quiet and peaceful, I wished I could stay longer, but the cold forced me inside.


This has been a month of many things, some the normal every happenings of life here, and others wild, unexpected, and delightful. L’عid axatar, the great feast of Abraham, occurred mid month and I spent three days with my family and their relatives talking, laughing, and sharing in the holiday spirit. I was able to assist in the ritual sacrifice of a ram in front of the house and the subsequent butchering and consuming of the same animal. It was an excellent few days, though seeing the entire family together reminded of how much I miss being with mine and sharing in the easy camaraderie of kin.

Later in the month, I headed to Rabat the capital city in a wild day of traveling across the country by car and by train. It was good to be back there, and it felt fairly normal to navigate and spend time with my friends there. The committee of which I am a member met with Peace Corps staff in a small room at a hotel in the seaside town of Mehidia. While there we also got to meet the members of the new staging group of Volunteers who were just finishing up their two months of training, just as I had seven months before. Suddenly I realized that I was no longer among the newest volunteers in the country, and that the volunteers ahead of me would be leaving soon and suddenly I would be among the “experienced”. Soon enough I would be breaking in the replacements for my friends on the mountain who will be returning to their lives back in America.

In a moment of time alone, I stood on the beach and looked out over the dark Atlantic as the waves lapped at my toes and the warm sun beat down on my back. I thought of my country out there across the interminable swell, of my mountains, my desert, and the tall lighthouse where I worked all last summer, gazing out toward Morocco. So much has changed since then, and most of the change has been in me. Running back through my experiences of the past nine months, I had difficult thinking about all that had occurred and all of the things that had happened to and around me. So much behind me, and even more ahead, I look forward to it with excitement and caution. I no longer fear the unknown, as it is slowly revealing itself to be yet another chapter in the life of a global citizen.

A few days past that moment on the beach, I sat back in my seat and listened to the train clicking and whirring as it passed through countless small towns between Rabat and the port city of Casablanca. I adjusted my tie and looked out the window at a white minaret silhouetted against the blue sea as we passed. I was nervous, for whatever reason, to meet the people who were to pick me up at the railway station in the city. I was to spend Thanksgiving with an American family who lived in Casablanca and had bought a tie and dress belt for the occasion. I still looked a little rough around the edges, but I was clean at least and was ready for some time in upper echelons of Moroccan society; a direct contrast from my usual day to day experience.

As the family pulled up in their Subaru, the first I had seen since coming to Morocco, they greeted me warmly and helped me with my bags. Thanksgiving dinner was several courses of amazing food and wine served at an English speaking club in Casablanca. Dancing followed and I enjoyed mingling with my fellow Americans; one woman threw her arms around my neck simply because I was in the Peace Corps. Her hug and whispered thank you meant the world to me; I never get hugged anymore.

What followed was a string of four incredible days spent in a beautiful Villa by the sea, eating good food, taking hot showers, and playing tennis with the godson, who was my age, on a clay court behind the house. The godson, my new friend, took me out one night to see Casablanca and I enjoyed having drinks with him at Rick’s Café Americain (movie enthusiasts eat your heart out). We ended the evening on the top floor of a hotel looking out over the lights of the largest city in Morocco and the minaret of the Hassan II Mosque looming against the dark ocean. The next day we walked by the cafes and shops along the waterfront talking, laughing, and enjoying the salt air. The couple hosting me was incredibly kind and generous; they treated me like family and gave me the run of the house, sharing meals with me as well as their time. I learned much from them and I will always be grateful for the sanctuary they gave me from my sometimes harsh reality here. But all things must end I soon found myself back in Errachidia blinking in the Saharan sunlight, steeling myself for the long journey back to my site.

It took time getting back and I was fairly tired and depressed by the time I stepped off the transit at the top of the hill. But I heard a voice say my name behind me and my friend Mostafa threw an arm around my shoulders and shook my hand, demanding to know where I’d been. I smiled realizing that yeah, I was home.


So here I am in my little house in the Atlas, I have one last day remaining in my site before I start the long Journey home for a Christmas spent with my family and friends. I can't wait, and the time to leave will be here before I know it.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Early Morning in the Atlas

I woke minutes before my alarm went off this morning. As it began its incessant beeping next to my head, I stirred beneath my warm mound of blankets and swore softly. 7:00 am is early, especially here in the High Atlas at the beginning of winter. But knew I had to get up this time; I wanted to run. I remember the last time I really ran, a full year ago, barefoot on the beach in North Carolina as the sun rose sluggishly above the breakers and seabirds wheeled, crying above the surf, searching for breakfast. I ran a couple of times at the beginning of my service here, slowly and painfully between spells of illness. But now I have been well for almost a month and can feel my strength slowly returning. It is time to go again.


I pull on an 80s style tracksuit that I bought at the market a few weeks ago, and a baseball cap with the Colorado flag on it, and pound down my front stairs to the street. I open the door slowly to silence and stillness. It is bitterly cold and my breath turns to steam in the air before me. No one is in sight, most everybody is still asleep at this time of morning. I lock the door behind me and walk to the edge of the fields, where I begin to run. Frost covers the ground in a thick blanket of silver, every blade of grass or ploughed furrow of earth made ethereal and ghostlike. The morning sun blazes on the mountain tops above the village, but the valley floor where I stand is still thick with cold and shadow. The only sound in I can hear is the pounding of my feet on the pavement and the rhythm of my breathing.

Across the wide swath of the fields, another small village is perched on a long fin of dark stone. Smoke trails from the stove pipes of several of the mud houses and rolls across the grounds, the cold making it impossible to rise. Everywhere holds the air of sleep and perfect peace. Out across the fields a lone farmer slowly makes his way out to his land. He is a small dark figure against the silver frost and the bone-white trunks of the bare poplars that grow along the River Melloul.

The sun begins to shine over the summit of the folded mountain and I watch as morning and warmth comes slowly to the valley. Later, on my roof, I stretch and drink a cup of coffee. The frost is melting from the fields and color is slowly returning to my village. Down below a group of children chases a pair of Storks, their feet pounding on the bare ground; they laugh as the Storks float upward and away, like great kites against the mountain backdrop. The smoke is rising now, forming neat plumes above the village near the river; spiraling, twisting, and dissipating in the warming air. Soon all is as usual in my village in the Atlas, the sun has come and the light is the even and constant gold of Fall. This was worth waking up for.

Saturday, October 16, 2010



This is a short entry concerning an experience I had today on souq day.

I woke up late to a cold bedroom and dragged myself reluctantly out of bed. I pulled on my clothes and walked into the kitchen, put on some music, and made coffee. As is my custom, I went up onto the roof to drink it. There was the new stovepipe with its fresh collar of cement that my host father/landlord applied only yesterday to prevent any future flooding of my study. I added some water to the cement to keep it from cracking as it dried. Looking out from the house I could see that it was a sunny day with high clouds scudding across the sky. The sunlight held very little heat however and the breeze was cold on my face.

I walked aimlessly into souq and wandered among the tents for awhile. I spoke briefly to merchants that I knew and had tea in a small shop with a man about my age from a nearby village. I just didn’t feel much like talking with people today, I wasn’t really in a bad mood or feeling particularly stressed, just somewhat anti-social. I didn’t buy anything and was on my way home when I ran into Fatima.

Fatima is one of my favorite old Berber ladies in my village. The female culture is very difficult to learn about as a male in this society for many reasons. But Fatima is my main window into the other half of life here and she invites me over for tea occasionally, which is what she proceeded to do as we stood off to the side of the road talking. I promised to come by at four, expecting a pleasant and very formal tea in her little sitting room. This was the case last time I went over for tea; I sat on a hand woven carpet on the floor of the salon and looked around the room at the nice sideboard with its silver teapots and at the rich carpets and plump cushions lining the walls. Salons are often the fanciest room in a Moroccan home, and they are also the only room a guest usually sees. The kitchen is off limits; I am normally entertained and impressed in the salon while being fed lots of tea and various food items such as this year’s almonds or maybe some bread and fresh olive oil.

The bread here, called aġrum in Tam, is a white bread shaped into flat round loaves. Many people here get their bread from the shops on the main street. Where it is stocked fresh every morning, I have often wondered where it comes from. It is one of my favorite things here in Morocco, fresh bread every morning. I am not entirely sure how I’ll go back to eating sandwich bread back in the states. Maybe I won’t, we’ll see. The bread is always perfectly baked and there always seems to be enough to go around, but never so much to leave “day-olds” the next morning.


Four o’clock rolls around and I step out of my house onto the deserted street. All of the commotion from Souq is gone and the people have returned to their respective villages with their purchases. Ducking into a small alley, I walk up to Fatima’s small, mud house. The door is ajar but I knock anyway and wait for an answer. I voice inside the house yells something in Arabic and I announce myself. The voice does not belong to Fatima, but I soon hear her sweet, lisping Tam explaining who I was. A young girl, about my age, comes down the stairs and beckons me to follow. She is lovely, and I am mesmerized; I have never seen her before. She leads me upward and I start to turn into the salon as before. She shakes her head and points farther upstairs. I continue climbing and find myself in a large kitchen with a high ceiling. Fatima is there, next to a large flat table covered with about ten rounds of unbaked bread dough. Another woman I didn’t know sits next to her and looks up at me quizzically, but not startled, and Fatima explains that I was invited for tea. I am given a small plastic stool to sit on and tea was put on a small butane burner in to corner. The girl takes her place next to Fatima and explains that she is her daughter, now living in the south near Agadir, she is up here for a visit.

The girl, whose name is Naima, sits across from Fatima on the floor; each has earthenware dish before her into which she throws premeasured lumps of risen dough, deftly using the dish to pat them out into rounds. This is done with incredible speed and practiced grace; there is a sort of beauty to the whole affair and I find myself caught up in watching them work. We speak in short simple sentences, but most of the time is spent in comfortable silence and I feel as though I am part of something I have not yet experienced. I imagine Fatima teaching Naima how to do bake bread, as her mother had taught her, on the floor of this same kitchen and now here they sit facing eachother, their hands moving in mirrored rhythm, the girl grown up and married to a man on the other side of the country.

I watch as layer upon layer of unbaked rounds is piled upon the table, with clean cloths between them to stop them from sticking together. I am still confused though, why so much bread? I ask and Fatima explains quietly in her soft Tam, that this is the bread for the entire town. I am still confused for a moment, and then it hits me; this is the bread that I buy every morning in the shops on the street. This is the bread that I see the boys running back and forth to the cafés and hotels in the afternoons. I have been eating Fatima’s bread for 5 months and never thought to ask where it came from. When do we ever ask where our food comes from in the states? Usually we don’t really want to know. But here I am able to complete the cycle in my mind. There are no unknowns left the equation. This bread comes from the golden fields of wheat I see caressed by the morning breezes in late summer. This is the wheat that is cut by hand and stacked in sheaves along the road; the same wheat that is then sold in massive sacks at the Souq every week. Then being ground into flour either by hand or by the machine that people wait in line to use down near the square. The flour that Fatima then uses to make her bread that I buy every day. It is so simple and elegant and for the first time I feel a sense of loss, wondering at the
degree of separation between us and our food back in the states.

The water boils for tea and they add peppermint, a rare treat; peppermint tea is my favorite of all of the varieties I have been served here. The room fills with the smell and we continue to talk, the conversation speeding up as I adjust to hearing women speaking Tam instead of the men that I normally talk with. The tea is ready and Naima pours and serves it to us as we all sit around a small round table on our plastic stools. Tiny shortbread cookies are brought in and a plate of zmita, the baked flour I was served a lot during Ramadan, is here as well. But of course, there is fresh bread, and sweet olive oil to dip it in.

When tea is finished, Fatima begins bake the bread in her butane oven, which has two shelves. It is a quick process and most of it is done with a flat wooden spatula and by hand. The smell of fresh bread mixes with the earthy smell of the house and the sharp scent of peppermint tea that still lingers. It creates a magical, indescribable fragrance that I feel is uniquely Moroccan; it is one of many things I will miss when I go. I can sense a bond slowly forming between myself and this place, it is like the bonds I have felt in the past with the parks I have worked at or really any place that I have stood still long enough to know. These bonds are forged over many months, but they are permanent. I firmly believe that I leave a piece of my soul behind in the places that I love and that that piece is what calls me back as the years go by, like a child forgotten on a road trip.

I sit for awhile longer and talk to the women in the kitchen, watching agrum slide in and out of the oven and watching the golden leaves on the poplars outside the window quake and shimmer in the afternoon sun. It has been a wonderful tea, and I hope to come back soon. I thank Fatima and Naima and walk back toward my house, blinking in the sunlight and reflecting on what I had just seen.


Later that night, I find myself sitting drinking tea alone in a café, my friends are inside cheering for a football match that I am uninterested in. I watch people on the street for awhile and then get up to go. On my way home, I stop to buy a sandwich at one of the shops. My friend Hamid makes it for me, wraps it up, and hands it to me. As I hold it in my hands, I realize that the bread is still warm from the oven, and finally I am able to understand why.

Another day draws to a close and I feel that I am the better for it…

Thanks for reading,


Friday, October 15, 2010

A Fireside Chat

Autumn has always been my favorite season; it moves in gently just as I have grown weary of summer’s heat and light. Of a sudden, although I can never recall the first day I notice each year, the colors become richer. The light is the color of honey in the late afternoons, and the west facing mountainsides and earthen walls of the houses across my valley are painted in shining golden hues. All not illuminated at this time of day is hidden by long shadows and, even a robed farmer leading his donkey home from the fields in the evenings, looms large upon earth and stone as he passes. Sometimes I sit with my friend in his café, overlooking the souq market area, which today was abuzz with the weekly buying and selling. Most people know me now, at least enough to correct those who don’t, and café sitting has become a pleasant experience. I usually just order a silver pot of Moroccan tea and two glasses and then invite the first person I see to sit and drink tea with me.

I won’t say my life has grown quieter with the advent of Fall, but I do feel that stress is beginning to ebb away. I feel more comfortable outside, although there are still bad language days; I simply have to choose whether or not to let it bother me or not. My health has improved somewhat as well, thanks to a round of anti-parasite meds and some probiotics to aid in the repopulation effort. I don’t feel perfect, but I do feel healthy, so I suppose that is something. I have been here in North Africa for approximately seven and a half months. It has been almost a year to the day, since I left the Outer Banks behind me and drove off of Hatteras Island and headed west toward home. I also can’t believe in four short months I will have been here for a full year. It has been fascinating to watch my mind try and cope with the fact that it lives somewhere as exotic and foreign as North Africa. Only, it’s not so foreign anymore, and as I have said before, some of the things that I thought the most peculiar upon arriving here I now view as normal. I am beginning to realize now why re-entry into the society and culture of the United States, is considered so difficult. I’ll get a taste of it when I return home in December for a three week stay.

I am writing by candlelight in an effort to conserve some of the remaining electricity in my “pay-as-you-go” account. I like doing things by candlelight, it shrinks your world down to whatever you happen to be doing at the moment and everything else fades into darkness around you. I am listening to an Appalachian waltz and enjoying the warmth of my dying fire. I am now the proud owner of 300 kilos of firewood which I helped weigh, load, and stack in my hallway last evening. It should hopefully last me the better part of the winter, but there is much splitting and sawing to be done. The stove is a nice little construction; solid and small, and made from thick metal that holds the heat long after the fire has gone out. My host father helped me to cement the pipe in the roof today and I have to keep the cement moist for a few days so it doesn’t dry too quickly and crack. Apparently the leaks in my roof have been fixed before, but then the cement dried to fast and the roof simply began to leak again. I am working hard to ensure that this house is as warm and snug as possible before the hammer falls and it will soon.

I can see the half moon through my window from the desk, it was a beautiful crescent a few nights ago riding high above the mountain at sunset. The clouds have taken on a peculiar quality of late; they ride low in the sky, pouring over ridgetops like the foam on the crest of a wave and then flowing along the valley floors like a slowly retreating tide. The poplars along the river have become golden candles which, when coupled with the honeyed light, burn brilliantly every evening. The fields are being harvested for the last time and being turned over to slumber beneath the coming snows. Looking out from my rooftop in the early mornings I can see mule teams turning the sod with an old style heavy-plough, all the while being coaxed gently forward by their masters.

The apple crop this year was a good one and fresh cider has begun to flood the little shops in the village. Some volunteers in other more apple-rich areas have reported having many bags of apples being given to them by people they may or may not have ever met. A couple months ago in fact, as the apple crop had begun to ripen, I was sitting on the roadside with a friend of mine in a nearby village. The dusty street was silent and the sun was warm and bright overhead. There was no sign of transportation going our direction, but waiting is no longer tedious for most of us at this point. Looking up the road, I saw a venerable and quite aged Berber woman. She was dressed neatly in a white robe and walked hunched over with the aid of a cane. Her dark headscarf was bound with a pale cord and she shuffled toward us, smiling sweetly. Since I oftentimes am unable to see the mouths of women here, I have begun to appreciate the asked of “smiling with the eyes”; and this ancient woman was positively beaming.

As she drew closer, I noticed that she was carrying a large digging tool on her back and realized that she had probably been working in the fields all morning long. There are no retirement plans here in the Atlas, work is life; it is simply what you do and while I have seen many of the people here tired out from a long day, I have seen very few that are unhappy with this simple existence. When the woman was even with me, I raised a hand and said “lعwn” and she turned and spouted off a stream of Tam that I understood most of. After the formalities of greeting were out of the way, we spoke about the weather and about the Wedding Festival. As she was turning to walk away, she reached a weathered hand into a fold of her robe at her back and drew out two small apples, handing them to my friend and I. She then blessed us and hobbled off into the dust. That is how this culture operates here, these are genuinely kind and loving people. And their religion fosters this warmth and strong sense of family. I am beginning to understand now that I understood nothing before coming here and being immersed in a culture that many people in our country are convinced hates us. And I can tell you now, that it simply isn’t true, it just isn’t! I have had conversations with only a handful of people here that dislike my country; while I have had countless conversations with people back home that despise not just this nation, but an entire race and creed.

Some events in the past few months have given me pause; I occasionally read the news here in Morocco, trying in vain to keep abreast of current events outside my mountain walls. I watched the overblown fiasco of the “mosque” at Ground Zero explode into protests and hate-speech. I saw as Reverend Jones threatened to burn the Qu’ran, which thankfully did not happen. All these people see on the news is that the U.S.A. hates Islam and, while this I am sure has my liberal friends muttering their disapproval, it has many of us PCVs over here in absolute fits. On 9/11, a day where we were meant to unite in reverence and mourning for those who fell when the twin towers were destroyed, I found myself confined to my house; alone and ashamed of my country. On that day of all days, I should not have felt ashamed to be an American, but I was told to stay inside by the agency “just in case” any Anti-American sentiment be expressed. Few Moroccans mentioned the Qu’ran burning to me and those that did expressed confusion and sadness, not anger or hate. I think I was angrier than most of them.

This is not to say that I am actually ashamed to be an American, I am just ashamed of what we do sometimes, we are like a belligerent relative at a family reunion that everybody tries to ignore. No, being here in Morocco, I have come to realize that I love my country deeply and I love the principles on which it was founded. But sometimes think we need to consider that there is a world outside our borders filled with humans who are just as kind, decent, and incredible as we are.


So why am I going off on this? Well because it’s my job. Here are the three goals of Peace Corps:

Goal 1: To fulfill a community’s need for training and skilled manpower

Strangely this is the only goal that seems to do with the “aid worker” image of the PCV, and as you can see from the next two, the main purpose of a PCV is diplomatic.

Goal 2: To educate residents of the host nation on the culture and traditions of the United States of America.
So we are essentially P.R. agents, preaching a message of “hey look! This is what Americans are really like. We’re not all fat, rich, and arrogant. Most importantly, we don’t hate you, in fact we would like to be your friends.”

And then there’s goal 3, it’s one of the most difficult. Because we will be fulfilling it for years after we return, not just while we are serving here.

Goal 3: To educate residents of the United States of America on the unique cultures and peoples encountered while serving in the Peace Corps.

This, to me, is the most important goal of all. To promote global understanding of one another. This is what JFK had in mind when he created the Peace Corps in the 1960s. His ultimate vision was to have a huge number of future Americans that not only know about other cultures, but that can truly say they can understand another culture. Ultimately, JFK hoped this would lead to better foreign policy on our part.

So this blog, everything I tell you in my correspondence, and the stories I will inevitably tell when I return, are all part of this Third Goal. I hope that by reading this, you feel that you understand Morocco a little better; I certainly do. Because I haven’t just learned about these people, I have learned from them; and many have become my friends along the way. So when I do finally return from my two years, I will see a lot of things differently than I did before and I am not sure what that will be and to what extent. But I do know this, if anyone trashes these good people or their faith in my presence. They will have me to answer to.

Well it’s getting cold and the fire has gone out. I have a lot of work ahead of me for tomorrow and bit by bit I am getting ready for winter. In a couple of weeks I go to Marrakech for a week-long training and after that I have a meeting in the capital. Couple that with possibly teaching at the local Highschool and counting Barbary Sheep (Ammotragus lervia) for the Moroccan Eaux et Forets I have a busy time ahead of me.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Seventh Month

I woke up to this morning to sound of rain on the roof. I smiled slightly at this welcome noise, I have always loved listening to the rain from the warmth of my bed. But then I remembered I had about 20 books drying on the roof from my house flooding last week. I hurled myself out of bed and threw on a jelaba, taking the stairs two at a time. After three armloads of books were safely deposited inside, I sat back in the doorway, looking out over the rainy fields, and began to laugh.
Being up early in the morning is rare thing for most Peace Corps Volunteers, especially after Ramadan, but I love it and hope to make it more of a habit in the future. I put a pot of coffee on the stove, no filters or presses (though I have both), just a pot, some water, and a handful of grounds. Cowboy Coffee; it is said that if you put a horseshoe into the pot and it stands on end, it’s done. I sigh and settle back into my chair to write. The rain continues on the roof and I turn on some quiet music in the background.
It’s October 3rd, and I realize that it has been 7 months since I arrived. This makes it officially the longest time I have ever been away from my family, friends, and the Southwest. 7 months ago, I stepped off the plane in Casablanca. It was so early in the morning, and I was exhausted from the transatlantic flight Looking out on the vast green farmlands around me, punctuated by villages with their tiny pale minarets gleaming in the early morning light, I didn’t know what to think or expect of this strange new place. I think so much of those first few weeks were marked with denial. I don’t think “two years” really sank into my brain; instead I felt like a kid standing on the edge of the high dive looking down in the water and yelling down to his friends “I’m thinking”. In some regards I am still there, after all these months spent here, and I have not fully surrendered myself to being here.
Some days I don’t even feel like I am here, I feel more closely connected to home on the Colorado Plateau than with the people I right in front of me that I can see, touch, and speak with. Some days my reality here seems surreal. But then other times, I feel as though I am fully engaged in this reality, and Colorado seems to be only a distant memory. On those days, I feel as though I am touching something greater; the place I need to be. But now I simply slingshot back and forth between two realities and sit back and enjoy watching my psyche do somersaults. There is a name for this, “the Peace Corps Volunteer Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment” and I am right on schedule.
I think that I have made no progress here, but then I think back on the first few months and realize how far I have come. Take this recent trip to Er-Rachidia for example:


This is only the second time I have seen rain in Rich, my souq-market town. I pours down and cleans the thin patina of dust from the pink-sided buildings, looking toward souq I see throngs of people moving up and down the street, parting briefly to allow a car or moped splash past them, through the puddles that reflect the slate grey sky. Climbing the dark stairs in the beautifully tiled “Hotel Isli” the night before, I was overwhelmed by memories of just 5 months prior. I look at the door of a little room on the third floor, and remember sitting inside on the floor playing cards and laughing with people I barely knew, but who were destined to become my friends and neighbors. I knew nothing about this place and I had not even seen my village yet, it was just a name in my mind. I walked to the roof and looked down the long valley where the Atlas stretched away into the distance and, my village lay behind those grey peaks, shrouded in uncertainty.
Leaving the Isli, I step back out onto the street and wave to Dris, a store owner that has become my friend in recent months, I buy a yogurt from him and remember how intimidating it was when I first arrived trying to make any transaction in any of the stores. Now it’s so commonplace, I feel that I would freak out in an American supermarket. I take my yogurt to the bus station and quickly claim a seat on the departing bus. It’s the best seat on the bus, the one near the back door with lots of leg room.
As we pull out the station and pick up speed, I look at the now familiar buildings of Rich and realize with a start that I will actually miss this place when I go. My bus soon leaves the town behind and we are soon out in the open desert; the rain makes small worm-trails on the window beside me. The first leg of the trip from rich crosses a wide plain ringed with mountains and dotted with small earthen villages and silvery olive groves. Tall cane lines the dry riverbed which the bus is now crossing on a low bridge.
We climb onto a cliffside road high above the river and I look out at the shattered and twisted sediments that seem piled haphazardly here and there. We go through a small tunnel and proceed into a deep gorge, reminiscent of Santa Elena Canyon on the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, back in the states. The bottom of the gorge is palmeries and villages, some with huge crumbling Kasbahs. The palms sway gently in the breeze, heavy with clusters of orange dates, and small fields of tasseled corn are visible in the openings between their segmented trunks. Here and there, men are plowing the fields with a steel blade hooked to a team of mules.
The gorge walls tower high above and it all makes for a lovely sight; but a familiar one. The beauty of the gorge remains, but its strangeness has gone. There is nothing unusual to me here now; this is just another bus trip. Passing the dam above Er-Rachidia, I see a rainbow unfurl across the sky above the city. Beyond it lies a dark curtain of rain. Er-Rachidia is the gateway to the Sahara and the last time I was here for any significant length of time, was shortly after the backpack trip I took through the National Park. That was 4 months ago.
Er-Rachidia feels different as well, and I look around at all the familiar sights as I made my way through the back alleys to my friend’s apartment where I am staying the night. Later that evening, my friends and I sit in the back garden of the Café Imilchil and I think about all the progress I have made so far. I look at my friends, all have been here longer than I. One is coming up on his one year mark, my friend and neighbor Jack is just reaching 18 months, and my friend here in Er-Rachidia has only six months left. Although their experiences are very different from mine, I still look to them as an example of what I will experience in the coming months and suddenly 7 months doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore; after all, I am still a “freshman”.

Thanks for reading,

Charlie Kolb

Friday, September 10, 2010



Four short days from the end of Ramadan, and I am sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee. I allow myself liquids during the day, although by rote I am not supposed to. The agonizing smell of sugar cookies which fills the room is my penance; emanating from the small butane oven under my counter. Outside, rain drips slowly and softly from the roof and afternoon storm clouds rumble above the folded mountain above the village. It is a about an hour until evening call to prayer and lfdur, break-fast, which I will share with my host family tonight, as well as with Allen, another volunteer visiting from a village 2 hours to the north. The cookies are for them.

I spent the last two hours alone on my roof, burning trash and cardboard, much of it remnants left by the previous volunteer who left here in May. As each scrap burns in the rusted woodstove on my roof, I feel another step closer to really being here in the village as the current volunteer; transitioning from the former which has now moved on, to the current and future. Each day I feel a little bit closer to actually living here than having just stepped off the plane in Casablanca. Some days I feel as if I have been here for years, other times I still feel as I just arrived; it is frustrating, but expected.

Looking out from my roof I could see west up the valley, past the old fortress of mysterious origin, to the sun illuminated mountains far away near the Azilal region. Storms moved across the dun-colored landscape then, and their shadows, as well as the shadows beneath the pale, striated cliffs, are dark and shifting. A fresh breeze blows out of the river canyon to the east and bends the poplars like deep green flags. There is a crack of thunder above and I look up to a dark and brooding cloud, roiling around the summit of the folded mountain. Brilliant white, almost glowing against the dark back ground, flew a lone stork; one of the minaret dwellers from atop the mosque. The stork was not moving; soaring in place in the face of the east wind, it was stationary before me. I could make out the details of its powerful orange bill and white plumage, bordered by pinions of deepest black. And then it banked out of sight, gone as suddenly as it had come.

I jabbed at the fire with a stick, flipping over an issue of the Christian Science Monitor and watching the pages curl and contort before finally succumbing to flames. Above the hiss of the wind in poplars, I listened to a program that I had downloaded from BBC: Radio Wales, about farmers and their lives in the Welsh countryside. Strangely comforting, though incongruous, I thought that maybe this was a taste of what Peace Corps used to feel like, back before the technology of mobile phones and internet became readily available to PCVs worldwide.


In a program on NPR about a week ago, our former Program Training Officer, Gordie Mengel, who is now stationed in Rwanda, spoke of how technology has changed the face of the Peace Corps. He mentioned how many volunteers can access the internet and call home whenever they wish, the connection with home is never broken; it remains there like a tether.

I am certainly in this category; I have internet in my little house, and I can access services such as Skype or Facebook at any time of day or night. Sometimes the net goes out for several days, but it is to be expected; nearly everything here works about 80% of the time. It’s not a problem; Gordie mentioned that his village in Zaire, now Congo, didn’t even have a post office and letters to months to arrive. Let alone care packages filled with coffee, peanut butter and chocolate that arrive every so often. I remember him telling me how he was without water and power his entire service, both amenities that I am used to here and try hard not to take for granted. Gordie’s argument makes a lot of sense, that having this technology available so readily does not just make the Peace Corps less brutal and challenging than it was in the 60’s, but it actually eliminates the need for community integration at our sites. All of us have social needs and back in America those needs were met by our friends and family. But in Peace Corps, before the advent of lightning-fast communication, those needs were met by your friends that you made in your community. You didn’t just feel obligated to get out there and learn a new language and culture; you had to learn the language and culture, because if you did not, you could (would) go insane. On clear nights you could turn on a shortwave to receive news of the outside world, sometimes weeks old, and learn that the rest of the world is still there and that life is going on without you.

In some ways I crave this sort of disconnect, it’s not that I don’t miss you, my friends and family, but I need to be here in order to be most effective in this place for this short time period I have been given. This will likely be the only time I will ever live on the African continent, or anywhere else abroad, for so long a duration. I need to absorb all I can, and let this experience teach me and shape me as it surely must. I have shelves of books to be read; some left behind, some borrowed, most from care packages. I have pages of material begging to be written, including my work for the Canyon Country Zephyr (the first article will come out early next month), and I have projects to plan, both for the Eastern High Atlas National Park and for the village of Imilchil. Add to this working on my house, preparing for winter, and just surviving day to day in a land of squat toilets and parasites, I have no time to spend holding on to connections and threads that will simply slip from my grasp regardless. If I have learned nothing else from moving five times in the last 3 years, it is that life goes on without you. I hate to let go, but I know that the truly important threads will still be there for me to pick up on my return in two years; it is the way of things.

In think in some ways our version of Peace Corps requires more self-control than the Peace Corps of yesteryear. I think that the “classical” Peace Corps was a gauntlet of mental and physical anguish with shining moments of success and deep wells of failure. But once you stepped off of that plane and rode for hours through the savannah, finally getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere, the things that began to happen to you could not be controlled. The disease, the social barriers, and the lack of amenities were just a few of these things. You didn’t communicate with your family and friends back home, because you couldn't.

But now, a lot of things in my life here in Morocco are still far beyond my control, and there is still plenty of disease and mental and physical hardship. The amenities are all there though, most of the time. Granted, I do miss western toilets and real showers that aren’t from an aluminum teapot. However, I think that having these things, and having the internet readily available, is a slippery slope. To not have these things available to you is one thing, but to have to choose when and how you use them is another. Did my friends and I come to Morocco to live like Americans? I don’t think so, but it is incredibly easy to get sucked into the comforts of your house and the line of communication that is always available there. The outside is still dark and mysterious, the people speak Berber and dress differently from you. They watch you wherever you go and kids laugh at you when you pass, some occasionally throw rocks. It’s uncomfortable and, as Gordie mentioned, if integration is optional thanks to your social needs being filled from that communication lifeline. It’s simply more comfortable to stay home and bury yourself in America. That mystical place where toilets can be sat upon, showers are hot and actually drain, dogs do not want to eat you on sight, and where you can understand everything that is said and everything that happens around you. Some people still dress funny, and some still may throw rocks, but it’s home; a place where life can be summed up multiple times a day in a Facebook status consisting of a song lyric of some kind.

The malaria-riddled and shell-shocked volunteers of Peace Corps’ golden age may have acquired higher pain thresholds by the end of their service, but they never had to choose to let go; they were forced to. It seems I have a choice to make regarding my time here, do I choose to be here in Morocco, mentally and physically? Or do I continue to hold on to my tether as tightly as possible hoping that nobody back home will forget about me?


I put the internet modem in a box on my shelf two days ago; I’ll bring it out in a week to post blogs and answer emails. I have read a great deal and spent a lot of time out in the community socializing. The day Allen was here, and I spent all that time on my roof burning remnants and watching storks, we enjoyed our l-fdur, break-fast, with my host family and then went to the Café to sit and drink coffee. It was l-ayd al-kadr , the night of power, the night close to end of where the entire Quran is read cover to cover at the mosque and when people are to make their peace with Allah. It is a day of repentance and celebration. Allen and I just sit in the Café with our coffee, my host father sits down nearby, telling me earlier that he does not pray or go to mosque, no matter what Rkia, my host mom, says. I suppose he has been around too many Americans and Europeans. There were many other locals about as well, and all were fascinated by Allen and I, who were playing cribbage and shuffling the cards very fast (this is a skill many Moroccans have not been able to master).

My good friend, Khalid sat down with us and, after Allen butchered me in Cribbage, we played several hands of Gin. The conversation was mostly Tam and I was pleased with my language performance; not simply being able to get things accomplished, but to actually enjoy the conversation is a new level I am not used to. I look forward to more time spent like this.

Allen went to wait for the taxi to his site and I went off to run errands for a while. It was another glorious fall day with a crisp breeze and high clouds above the mountains. Laundry flapped on the lines strung on the rooftops and blankets hung drying from the windows of many of the small hotels. I stopped to talk to several of my friends, snoozing in the shade beside the smoke shop, and realized that my language was excellent today, at least compared to its normal quality. I made my way down to the commune, which is the county government, to ask about the upcoming wedding Festival. For an event so significant, it is amazing how few people actually know when it is. I nailed down dates as well as I could, and then spoke with the men at the commune for about a half-hour, they filled me in on environmental woes in the area, and told me a fascinating story about the tribes that were here before the Ait Haddidou; the people who took away the trees. Leaving that meeting I met up with several more of my friends in the street and spoke with them as well. My errands continued, I made a trip to see the Gendarmes to renew my Cartes de Sejour receipt, since I still don’t have the physical card yet, and that was carried out without a hitch.

That evening, I made a chicken stew from stock I had frozen and fresh chicken. I spiced it more with Rosemary, sage, and salt and sliced fresh carrots, onions, green pepper, and potatoes into it and simmered it for a couple of hours. I also made another batch of sugar cookies and ate a few myself, after call to prayer, and sent the rest home with my neighbor Molly, our mutual friend Naomi, and Molly’s Mom, who is visiting from the states. They stopped through on their way to Molly’s village; I will see them tomorrow as well. The stew turned out amazingly well, and I gulped down three bowls of it. I really love being able to cook, it is a skill I will put to good use after this is all said and done.

Later that night, I put on my warm clothes and my Jelaba and walked up the street away from town, climbing the stone fin that the Qaid’s palace sits on. I sat down on the top and looked up at the stars. The Milky Way was a brilliant silver splash crisscrossed with shooting stars and floating wisps of nebulae. Off to my left, another duwar, small village, sat illuminated by a single street light. The village did not have any power and no lights shone in the windows of the mud houses, save for the pale, wavering flicker of the occasional candle flame. The folded mountain loomed above, an inky silhouette against the star flecked sky, untouched by the lights of my village. Behind the fin lay the isolated section of the fields where I had walked a few days before. The river sang softly, unseen behind its screen of poplars and the patchwork of fields was cloaked in the darkness that only comes when there is no moon. As my eyes adjusted, I began to see lights in among the fields, small ones, of a cold, wavering blue almost the color of ice. They pulsed and flickered silently and I knew they could not be fireflies. Then I realized what they were; they were stars. Stars reflected in the still waters that still sat in the fields from yesterday’s storm and the flood that followed. I looked out into the darkness, filled with river-noise, and looked long at the twinkling lights of the fallen stars.

Walking back to my house, I realized again something that I realize at least once every week; how lucky I am to be here, in this deep, mysterious, and ancient place. This place where strange fortresses loom against the sunset sky and storks hover motionless on the winds of coming storms, truly this is a place of beauty and wonder and, while I may not get Malaria or spend months at a time not hearing a word of English, I think the experience will be incredible just the same. I believe that with each passing day this strange place will become more real to me. My paradigms are shifting slowly but I know that one day soon, Morocco will seem more real than the home I left behind. The Southwest will still be there, in the back of my mind, like a wisp of juniper smoke, so faint as to be nearly imperceptible; a dreamlike reminder of a time now passed, and a land far away on the other side of the world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

a Ramadan Entry

I took a long walk today. Strolling on the dirt road up the Melloul valley towards the fortress on the hill, I felt very content with my site. The tiny apple trees in the orchards beside the road are heavy with green and ready fruit; almost ready to harvest. Many of the trees down the valley toward my souk town of Rich are not bearing any fruit this year, as an unseasonably warm spring followed by a sudden snowfall in mid-May killed off their crop of blossoms. But we are lucky here I my village and many of us here, including myself, thank God for sparing the trees here. Turning off of the road, I walked between the tiny family plots toward the river. The wheat has been harvested already, and fields formerly filled with waist-high swaying stalks of golden grain, are now just closely cropped stubble. Most of the alfalfa and clover has been cut and dried by sickle-wielding women, ready to feed their sheep and goats through the long, and swiftly approaching, winter months. I saw a flash of movement off to my right and recognized the retreating gold, black, and white form of a Hoopoe; the first I had seen up here in the mountains.
There are still crops of potatoes being carefully tended while the tubers swell to unknown size underneath the meticulously kept earth. Most of the produce from these fields stays in the community and I buy it every week at the vegetable souq. Even the wheat is threshed and ground in the courtyards and homes of the farmers and made into flour. It’s amazing to think that the local bread that I buy every few days was growing in the fields just last summer. I was walking beside the river now, underneath a spreading canopy of poplars and huge weeping willows of unknown age and origin. It is sometimes easy to forget where I am in this cathedral of massive trees, but the dry slopes of the Atlas are readily visible between their trunks and I simply accept the strangeness of this juxtaposition. I was walking through a portion of the fields that I had never seen before; a place hidden from the village by the fin of gray stone on which the Qaid’s (mayor’s) palace sits.
There were few people back there, just a woman cutting grass with her sickle; her young son sitting next to her in the weeds, talking to himself in fast, childish Tam. This is the floodplain back here, and not much of it is cultivated; for good reason too. Just last week, I watched the river burst its banks and flood all of the fields and orchards that were within its reach. I walk past a field of sad, drowned potato plants, completely smothered in silt and look over at tiny orchard of apple trees; the high water mark is half-way up there trunks.
On the day of the flood, I shrugged on my red raincoat and joined a crowd of onlookers on the cement bridge that crosses the creekbed that runs from the nearby lake. Normally dry in the summer, it was bursting its banks and sending great jets of flood water high into the air where it hit the pilings of the bridge. In the distance I could see the floodplain, where I was now walking, entirely drowned in coffee-colored water.
I passed another woman cutting grass with her sickle, I waved and she waved back smiling, unguarded; looking at me not as a strange foreigner but merely an everyday passerby. I wish I could have talked to her, but talking to a woman alone in the fields is considered a breach of etiquette. Although here in the Berber lands of the High Atlas, that line is much fuzzier than down below. I just have not figured out exactly how much. On the rock fin, the sprawling structure of the Qaid’s palace and offices sits perched on the top, a wide balcony overlooks the field, river, and mountains behind; I am sure that it is very pleasant view indeed. I may have to work at acquiring a dinner invitation sometime in the next two years. Below the balcony was a grove of old growth Walnut trees, huge and spreading. They are beautiful, but then any tree is lovely when they are such a scarce commodity.
I came out from around the back of fin and was suddenly back in sight of the village. I took a trail toward the road, stopping to talk to a farmer working in the irrigation ditch next to his potato field. I am still amazed at the complexity of hand irrigation in Morocco, everything done without the use of hoses or pipes. Just ditches and hand tools.


I am hungry, but that is not a surprise considering that I am now halfway through the month of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Yes I am fasting, a question I answer at the beginning of every conversation that I have with people in the village. Except for many of my friends, who already know this. I am cheating somewhat though, as I drink water during the long days. My body is not used to dehydrating for 15 hours a day. I tried it for about a week and got quite sick; I decided that my health was more important than ceremony and I now drink enough water during the day to keep my organs functioning, although sometimes I do throw in tea to shake things up. But I still do not eat during the day and I have changed my schedule like everyone else here.
People wait until about 7:00 in the evening for the “Call to Prayer” to echo through the village from the minaret and then break-fast in large meals called l-fdur. I try to alternate between cooking my own food and breaking the fast with Moroccans in the village. At my host family’s house, break-fast is an extensive affair with dates brought in from the southern oases, large fluffy flat breads drizzled in butter and honey, schebekkia—a honey soaked pastry like baklava, olives, and a roasted spiced flour called zimitta. The main course is a meat and chickpea soup called harira; this with tea, coffee, and fresh tangerine juice makes for a good way to refuel. You just have to pace yourself during this first meal of the night; many nights, especially in the first few days of Ramada, I saw lots of otherwise rail-thin berber guys staggering around the streets after l-fdur clutching their visibly swollen bellies. Pretty hilarious.
All of the cafes open after l-fdur¬ and I sit with my male friends, and any PCVs that happen to be visiting, drinking coffee or tea and talking about anything within the boundaries of my language skills, which are expanding more every day. Sitting on a stoop with my friends Mustapha and Bassou, I was told an Arab proverb—that even the small, slow drops of water will form a mighty river in time. I said that I hope that my river will be like last week’s after living here for two years.
After café sitting for an hour or so, I go back to my house to read and catch up on things that need my attention, such as a blog that I have been neglecting, and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning. I eat my last meal around 3:00am, just before the morning call to prayer, and go to sleep until noon the following day. Then the Ramadan cycle begins again. Every night is new and different. Tonight I broke fast in the cafe of my friend Aziz. I sat outside with Aziz and watched the streets empty as the call to prayer echoes died away. I ate a wonderful bowl of harira and chased it with bread, chilled dates, and fresh black figs. We drank tea and talked about the village and life in general, my friend Mustapha joined us after awhile and he and I sat out talking for an hour as the town came back to life.
Ramadan. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either; it’s just a different experience. However it will be nice to be able to eat during the day in 11 more days; how this month has flown by! Fall is just around the corner, I can smell it in the air some days, when the wind is crisp and the clouds are high. Snow will be falling before I know it, but you know what? I feel like I am ready for it. I was riding down to the site of another volunteer a little while ago and was looking out on the barren mountains and the green fields from the transit I was traveling in. The villages of mud-huts that clung to the hill sides around the minarets of their mosques no longer seemed quaint or strange, but rather beautiful and normal. Wind swept the valley that day and stirred the poplars along the river. Taking in the scene, I realized for the first time that, not only was I not the least bit homesick, but that when I did go home after two years, I would truly miss this place. I don’t know what sparked the change, but it felt like a thread breaking somewhere in my chest; a slight letting go.

Ramadan is almost over, but I feel that the adventure is still only just beginning, I wonder what comes next?

Thanks for reading, please don't forget to comment!

-Charlie Kolb

Friday, August 13, 2010




This essay is a tough one to write because I have a huge amount of material to draw from. I have done so much in the last few weeks with my friends in Azrou, that I don’t know where to start from, or what to tell you. I can’t give a step by step account of any kind, because that would just turn into a novel. So I think the best plan is to simply pick four different stories from the course of the week and then write a conclusion. Okay, go!

Getting There

The day after my last blog entry I find myself walking to the center of town, a tattered pack on my back bearing the emblem of the US Peace Corps on its front pocket. Hanging by my side is a sack of books, left by the previous volunteer, which I am bringing to donate to the Peace Corps Library. I caught a ride with one of my favorite transit drivers and settled in to enjoy the now familiar trip down the mountains to the town of Rich. I alternate reading “Cadillac Desert” and listening to music on my iPod player, which really is a lifesaver for transit-related situations, plus I enjoy sharing whatever I am listening to with the Moroccan next to me. Call it “cultural exchange”, not that the strange English lyrics are any more intelligible to them as a Berber “Ahaydus” is to me, at least at this point.
Looking out the transit window, I am always struck by the geology that is laid bare along the way, tilted beds of sandstone and limestone, and dark lines of volcanic dikes. There’s a deposit of metamorphic slates after you emerge from the canyon that are colored a deep purple and streaked with sea green; they have eroded into smooth, low hills that extend colorfully up the valley as far as I can see. In the villages closest to this deposit, the slate is crushed and used as roofing for the mud houses; as rain falls it washes down the earthen walls leaving purple streaks that remain vivid even when dry.
The road curves down to Rich over a distance of 150 km. It crosses high passes and hugs rivers lined with poplars and orchards of tiny apple trees. The wheat has been harvested, but the potatoes are huge and blooming. Under the apple trees, clover and alfalfa is knee deep; the women cut it by hand with small sickles and carry it on their backs to their houses where it will feed their stock during the winter. If there is even a small amount of water, it is used carefully and shared among the clans and families in an ancient water rights system that I do not yet fully understand.
The transit passes through villages, some have volunteers in them, most do not; the volunteers along this route are considered the “mountain” volunteers. Volunteers from the hot lowlands call us “bledies” which is essentially Peace Corps slang playing off of the word “bled” (Berber for “country”); basically, we’re hillbillies. It’s a good group, three of us from the environment sector, four of us from the health sector. The three of us from the new “stage” group, the group that arrived in March, are headed down the mountain to Rich and then to our two week long PPST (Post-Pre-Service Training). Of the three, I am the only environment sector volunteer, so I am headed North to the city of Azrou in the Middle Atlas; my two friends will be making their way south to the city of Ouarzazate, where our original PPST was held. It is strange to have the two sectors separate; many of us have friends on the “other side of the aisle”, and it is sad that we won’t get to spend any time as a full group for another few months.
I arrive in Rich with no problems and catch a taxi to a friend’s site that is just South of Rich. It is so there, but I enjoy his company as we make dinner and eat with his host brother who has fairly good English. We end up having to sleep in the same bed because there is only one fan in his house; it is simply too hot to sleep without it. Even with the fan, I don’t sleep well, and sweat all night. I have breakfast with my friend and catch a bus. It is bound for Azrou and I pay the driver the necessary fee before settling into a seat and zoning out. I spend the next 4 hours reading and listening to music. I have been on this stretch of road before, on my way to Rabat last month, and my ability to ignore it is a testament to how I am getting used to my North African surroundings. I only start watching again when we climb into the Cedars and I know we are getting close to Azrou.
It is a city built into the mountainside and many of pale buildings are roofed with green tiles. The Minaret of a huge mosque dominates the city center, filling my view as a flag down a taxi to take me to the Hotel that Peace Corps had mentioned in their email to me. I was swarmed as soon as I checked in, first by my friend Pete, who hugged me from the front and then my language teacher Haddou who grabbed me from behind and said “Guess who?!” in Moroccan accented English. The rest of the evening was spent in a similar state of happy greetings and after lots of hugs and handshakes, we walked into the city for dinner and coffee, swapping stories all the way.
Being with other Americans, especially friends who are going through the same experience, is therapeutic and I was not surprised to hear my own story echoed by my peers. We all had fascinating pathogens of some sort and some of us even bonded over having the same species of parasites in our intestines. Besides that, there were stories of language barrier and culture shock, host family woes, and social victories; half-baked project ideas sailed around the group like projectiles and I was overwhelmed by the huge amount of English being spoken at me.
We go back to the hotel and talk for hours on the hotel roof while the moon rises over the rooftops of the city. I finally go to bed late, exhausted from socializing and sweat my way through another hot night. Training begins in the morning and the two week clock is ticking.

Field Trip

I wake up at seven to find my friend Eric standing over me sweating from a run, I roll over hoping it’s just a nightmare; no, it’s not, and it’s time to get up and get moving. I yawn and stretch, sore from a night of tossing and turning in the heat. Pulling on one of my two sets of clothes, I stagger downstairs and grab the typical Moroccan breakfast of bread and jam, chased by sugary coffee. I return to my room to pack a daypack. Today we are headed to a lake deep within Ifrane National Park and there we will do exercises in environmental education and be trained more.
Most of the training up to this point has been lecture based and involved sitting in the same room for hours answering vague questions. It felt like every federal training I have ever been to; hours and hours of jargon with buzzwords thrown in for flavor. So, at least I can be entirely sure that Peace Corps is without a doubt part of the US Federal Government. Needless to say, we were all ready to go outside.
I traveled in a school-bus yellow transit with half of the group, the other half traveling in a white Toyota van behind us. The climb begins on the highway that winds back into the forest, and at the top of the pass we turn onto a smaller road that is soon entirely swallowed by the trees. The cedar forest here is thick and healthy; I had almost forgotten what dappled sunlight looked like. It was great to be going through a forest again after so long in the barren mountains. The road continued to climb and then leveled out as we emerged on an open plain covered with interesting volcanic geological features. I was told that this entire area of the park was resting in an old caldera; I am not sure if this is accurate, but based on the calderas back in the San Juans, they aren’t necessarily obvious (the Rio Grande valley near Creede and South Fork is the rim of one of several overlapping calderas from the formation of the range).
All of the grass has been eaten down to a nub by sheep and goats, the same is true of the lakeshore when our van crunches to a stop in the gravel and we get out to walk around and enjoy the sunshine. It is so cool up by the lake, reminiscent of being back in Imilchil; the coolest place in Morocco. Group photos are taken and we go exploring. The lake is full of frogs and waterfowl indicating ecosystem health, but the lakeshore is utterly devoid of the riparian vegetation I would expect to be here. Everything has been eaten, and the feces that washes into the lake has caused massive algal blooms. I think even of the small lake near my parents’ house in Colorado; of the rushes and cattails, the splashing of muskrat and the whirring of red-winged black birds. I think that we don’t realize how wonderful even the “nature” that we consider mundane in America, is still amazingly healthy; especially in the west. I am continually amazed by how much I learn about my own country by being here; it’s what I signed up for, after all.
After a long lecture on field trips and outdoor environmental education (the best kind) and several demonstrations of this, we had lunch and reluctantly piled back into the vehicles. We stopped at the pass to walk around in the trees. We had requested that we stop in the forest, figuring that we would stop in one of the deep, virgin stretches full of Macaques. Instead we stopped at the pass, one of the most impacted and touristy parts of the road. This became more apparent when three people with saddled horses brought them over to us trying to make them ride them. This is strictly against policy, horses are an unauthorized vehicle, but as the Safety and Security coordinator was busy riding a small donkey, I figured it was ok. So I grabbed a large Bay, swung in to heavily decorated fantasia saddle, and trotted off in to the forest with the horse’s owner running to keep up.
I am not very good with riding horses, but I could handle this one; so I took it to the end of the road, swung it around and trotted back. It only spooked a couple times, pretty good for an Arabian, but I just calmed it down and kept going. I got back on the bus smelling like horse, but having had a good time.


During our free weekend midway through training, a friend and fellow volunteer, Steven, took me and a few others to his site in the southern section of Ifrane National Park. It was a long taxi ride to get there and we had to change Taxis once. Soon, however, the taxi was winding its way through a high, forested valley full of fig tree and fields. At the top of the road lay a small village surrounded by trees and all clustered around the pink central spire of the village mosque. What was most striking about the scene is the gigantic travertine plateau rising 400ft above the village. Vines and other vegetation hung off its sides and a massive 200ft waterfall gushed directly above the town, its spray twisting into billowing plumes and comets before crashing into the slope below.
Steven’s house was a palatial construction, two stories high and tiled and ornamented on every surface. It was filled with nice furniture and also had a western toilet. This is Peace Corps? We spent some time cooling off in the house before follow Steven down trail that wound up the canyon. Pines and cedars covered the canyon slopes and fig and poplar trees grew by the river. We made a stop at a berry bush that was bursting with fruit and then headed to the river. The river was full of city Moroccans (holiday weekend) and some were even as white as we were. Eventually we found a pool that we could have to ourselves and slid into the icy mountain water. It was sublime, Steven gets to do this every morning after his run.
I wasn’t really experiencing “site envy” I still love my site in the Atlas, barren though it maybe, and I wouldn’t trade. But a massive waterfall certainly wouldn’t hurt. On our way back along the trail we heard a noise and looked up to see no fewer than 8 Barbary Macaques on the slope opposite us; we watched them and they watched us for awhile before we both moved on. We walked back to Steven’s house cool and content. The taxi came back to pick us up, and we left the valley as the sun set behind the mountains. It is always good to see a glimpse of Paradise.


I wish I could say more about these two weeks, I would talk about the long social evenings we spent out on the town looking for food. I would talk about the hundreds of Egrets that pour in to roost near the Mosque at sunset or maybe talk about the winding streets of the medina. I may say more about my incredible friends and their experiences or perhaps elaborate on the rest of the training. But I simply don’t have the time. It is Ramadan now in my village and I need to focus on that experience; expect a blog on that fairly soon.
To conclude I will say that training went well, it ended well, but it is good to be back in my site where it is cool and relatively quiet. Pictures of Azrou are up on my facebook account and will be up on flickr soon as well. Also, I have a new blogsite for any of you who like my writing enough to actually want to read more of it. It’s a blog that I am posting some of my older work to about my experiences as a Park Ranger as well as just adventures around America. You can find it at .

As always, thanks for reading,


Friday, July 23, 2010

Day by Day: a Week in the Village

I am trying something new in this entry and will attempt piece together a series of short entries over the course of a full week rather than one long entry at the week’s end.

Monday: 07/19/2010

It is so quiet this morning. I was awake at 6:15 and in my running gear 10 minutes later. My run is only a couple of miles to begin with, as I get back into the swing of things, readjusting to altitude, and rouse my body from its state of atrophy. When I stepped outside, the sun had not yet crested the mountaintop at the eastern edge of the valley, yet the clouds were alight with shifting shades of gold and palest pink. No one was about, as I ran across the patchwork of tiny fields, save one man several fields from the road that was already hard at work.
It is almost harvest time here and the wheat hangs heavy on the stalk. Some fields are already cut and the grain stands stacked in sheaves, giving off a smell not unlike freshly mown hay. The river flows by in the distance, marked by a line of stately poplars, the only trees in the valley. The bare mountainsides rear suddenly behind the river, their folded flanks rising and undulating high above the village. The mating pair of storks that live on the minaret of the mosque soar silently over the fields in search of breakfast, followed closely by their two fledglings which are now nearly the size of their parents.
I am now running even with the “college” which is the equivalent of an American highschool; it is a new-looking government building, painted yellow. No students now, mid-summer, but in the fall I may pick up where the previous volunteer left off and do some Environmental Education classes here. Who knows? Too much to think about now. I see a man seated on the side of the road and I recognize my friend Khalid, I say “good morning” in Berber (sbah lxir) and continue running. I am sure I’ll have a chance to talk to him later in a Café. I continue running with the fields on one side and a cliff on the other. A few dump trucks shatter the silence by trundling sleepily past, but the disruption is short lived and I am alone and unmolested until my watch beeps and I turn around.
Back at my house, I turn on John Denver and open all the windows. Americans are known in the region for playing our music too loud so I embrace the stereotype. I light the stove and put on a kettle for coffee, then I head up the stairs to the roof. The roof door opens with a bang like a gunshot which has frightened a fair share of houseguests over the past month; it’s loud but it has ceased to startle me. I step out on the roof and feel close my eyes as the sun hits my face; I look around. The sun has lit the tops of the poplars by the river and the banded cliffs south of the town. Looking west the ruin of a Berber fortress, also lit by the sun, cuts a sharp profile against the distant mountains at the end of the valley; the mountains are half in sunlight and half covered by cloud shadows. Nearer to me, the spire of the mosque rises from the chaos of mud and cement buildings and the storks have returned to their nest there with whatever breakfast they had been able to find.
After a satisfying workout, I make breakfast between my final sets. My breakfast is very simple but satisfying, to say the least. If you wish to duplicate it, here you go: First get a couple tablespoons of the smoothest Olive Oil that you can find and heat it in a frying pan. Next crack 3 eggs into the pan and turn the heat to medium, cook unit the whites are no longer runny and but the yolks are still move when you shake the pan. Slide it carefully onto a plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Leave the fork in the drawer and opt instead to eat Moroccan style and get a tear a hunk off of a round of fresh bread, the crustier, the better. If you’re in Durango, go to Bread bakery! Using the bread, and your right hand, (not your left, this is important) eat the eggs . Chase with fruit yogurt or, better still, a few cold slices of cantaloupe; which, in this country, is green. This goes great with coffee too.
Well, I need to attend to the rest of my day. I have a site inspection from a Peace Corps employee today or tomorrow and I need to go to the post office. Ar askka, inchallah (Until tomorrow, God willing).
Around sunset I took a long walk which began with a tea invitation from one of my favorite elderly Berber ladies, Fatima, who greets me every day and is one of the few women that talks to me on a regular basis. She led me up a cool, dim staircase into a small salon deep within her lovely mud house. She served me tea, cakes, and peanuts and I talked with her and later her granddaughter who came by. For the first time I felt at home in this village and basked in the Moroccan hospitality; I will have tea here again, I have a feeling.
My walk took me far up the road by the river and I wound back through the laden wheat fields and through thick groves of Poplar and Weeping Willow that I hadn’t the slightest notion existed in this place. It was refreshing and I saw people who knew me; what’s more, not one child asked me for anything. It was a good walk all around.

Tuesday: 7/20/2010

I woke up late this morning and it affected the rest of my day, most of which I spent inside. On the one trip I made outdoors, I was waylaid by two arab men (you can tell them fairly easily in a Berber) village. They were grilling me in French and Arabic about something I think pertaining to me being a tourist and what hotel I was staying in. I was frustrated by the whole exchange and told them several times that I don’t speak French and when I tried Tam they looked at me as though I had grown a second head. I finally managed to grab a nearby boy (one of my neighbors) who I spoke to in Tam and who then translated to the men that I was actually even less of a tourist than they were and lived here in the village. I think they were with some tourism agency or something, I never figured it out, but at least they deigned to leave me alone at this point. The boy, whose name was Murad, invited me in for lunch. I declined, but will go back later to be neighborly.
I didn’t do much of anything for the rest of the day, and stayed in my house, feeling alone and very American. I watched a couple of movies and talked with some friends back home while on Skype. I didn’t really begin to feel like myself until I spoke with my friend in Peace Corps Paraguay who related the advice to me that we all have days like this, and you simply have to roll with them and let them wash over you, because tomorrow will be better. I hope so.

Wednesday: 7/21/2010

I woke up at 8 or 9 this morning and made eggs and coffee, determined to have an easygoing day to myself and to get my house ready for company as several of my fellow volunteers had things to do in my village and I was going to have to go down the mountain to Rich to meet with my Ministry of Water and Forests “counterpart”. I was informed that morning that my counterpart had been transferred and I no longer had one; needless to say, spending four hours in the Mercedes van was suddenly not necessary. The Peace Corps employee who had driven all the way from Rabat said she would be in my village tomorrow and I am just to stay here until then.
I decide to do laundry instead. I fill up several tubs of water in my bathroom and proceed to wash all of my garments by hand, one at a time. It is tiring and time consuming, but I think I will get the hang of it eventually. I load my clothes into bag and haul them to the roof where I hang them on the clothesline. The only garment I have that is still clean is one pair of boxer shorts and my brown Jelaba which I am currently wearing.
I stop to look out over the fields and at the puffy white cumulus clouds building over the mountains. I it is calm and quiet, with only a slight breeze stirring the poplars by the river and the willows where I had walked on Monday. Women walk to and from the fields, their domain by rote immemorial, but up in my valley, the men work too especially as the wheat begins to harvested. I see it laying cut in the fields, or stacked in sheaves; waiting to be loaded onto patient mules and donkeys who have walked these fields so long that they need only a gentle tab to send them on their way to the house. In between the wheat fields are the flowers of potato plants and small apple orchards whose floors are planted with lush alfalfa. All this will be cut, used, or harvested in some way before the snows come in November and the valley will be as barren as the surrounding hills until the land re-emerges (along with me) the following spring.
I like the feel of the soft jelaba against my skin and realize just how well made it is, not bad for 150 DH. I go downstairs and clean for awhile, alternating with reading or playing mandolin. I go upstairs again to check my laundry and notice threatening clouds above the mountains, most rainstorms last for only a minute or two so I don’t worry too much and go back downstairs. About a half-hour later the sky opens wide and rain begins to beat down on my roof. I run up to my roof in my Jelaba to gather my laundry. It is raining sideways in merciless, stinging drops. And soon my Jelaba is sticking to my bare back and I am shivering. I take my laundry downstairs and hang it from every surface of my apartment; literally, doorknobs and doors, nails, drawers, everything.
My jelaba gets hung up as well and I sit shivering in one of my blankets on a ponj. I try to read and eventually just take a nap as the storm subsides. I get up sometime later and don some dry clothes and go out to buy ingredients for the dinner I am planning to make. I get back and try to make tea, realizing that I am out of butane. As it transpires, so is the rest of the village, so I trudge back to my apartment and call my friend who agrees to bring some with him on the transit later.
When my company finally arrives, all volunteers from the “mountain” as we call it, they bring in bags of food and the butane tank and I get to cooking. I don’t have much experience cooking, nothing but a few signature dishes, and I was flying blind on this attempt. But I just started throwing ingredients in the pot and before I knew it I had an entire chicken in the pressure cooker and was mixing up a green chili “roux”. I combined my ingredients, no measuring or recipe, and then shredded the chicken. It turned out to be an amazing Green Chili Stew with just the right balance of spice and flavor to it. I was thrilled and can’t wait to try out another recipe. I threw the chicken leavings back into the pressure cooker and left it to boil into stock.
We ate all of the stew as my friend Molly made a wonderful barbeque chicken pizza which we ate with cookies and coke. A good meal all around. We stayed up and talked for hours about our villages and our homes in America, friends and foods we missed, and interesting things we had seen. I came to confirm what I already suspected; that we have an awesome crew of people here on my mountain and that this next year I have a feeling we will be there for eachother and ready to hop on a transit at a moment’s notice.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, I will mention it here: Peace Corps has a wonderful social circle. Volunteers as a rule are kind and giving people and we are influenced both by our volunteerism and the hospitality that we are learning from our surrounding Moroccans, which is like Southern hospitality, but magnified. Imagine how much more we would know about eachother if we invited in passerby for tea and trusted our fellow countrymen enough to accept such invitations. These are commonplace here and issued without guile; there is even a specific hand-wave that people will do at passing cars that literally means “stop, and come in to drink tea with me”. We could learn a lot from these people.
I feel that my fellow Americans here in Morocco help to keep eachother sane and give us shoulder’s to cry on that have had similar experiences. Until you finish your two years, there are always volunteers that have been here longer than you that you lean on for experience and advice. We are all here for eachother and I look forward to many more evenings like this one.

Thursday: 7/22/2010

We all woke up late and slept well, no mishaps or sudden illnesses, so that is certainly a good thing. I staggered groggily out of my room and put on some coffee everyone; breakfast was a simple affair of yogurt and different kinds of fruit. We sat around a discussed our plans for the day and I shared that a Peace Corps employee would soon be here to do my “site check”.
I get a call from her a short time later and go outside to meet her. She is surprised, but unfazed, by the unexpected houseful of Americans. I make some Moroccan tea, which I think is pretty terrible; I suck at making Moroccan tea. But she dutifully drinks it and we go to have lunch with my host family up on the hill. It is my host father and mother with the baby, along with my host sister Fatima; the boys are at a relative’s house in another village for the weekend. Tea (better tea) and salted peanuts, followed by a small tajine for lunch; it is strange to see the room I had slept in for 2 months converted into a living room instead.
The Peace Corps liaison leaves shortly after lunch and tells me that I am integrating well. I walk back to my messy and still people-filled house and settle down to hang out some more. The water is done for the day so we really needed to scrounge for the water to clean the kitchen with, but we take care of it eventually. I put part of the stock in the fridge and the rest in the freezer for use later.
People left the house one by one, the last was my nearest neighbor who caught the last transit of the day and sped off down the mountain to her site. I spend a little more time out in the village and then went back to the house to begin the process of cleaning up. I am alone again, but it’s not as sharp as it was a few days ago. When dinnertime rolls around I get out the stock in the fridge and combine it with spaghetti noodles and some fresh vegetables and more spices to create some amazing chicken noodle soup that I eat before going to bed.

Friday: 07/23/2010

I get up late again and groggily go about making coffee and breakfast which ends up being 3 eggs sunny-side up and hashbrowns. It is excellent and wakes me up quite well. I go out into my village to go to the store; today is the first of the two souq days (no, I don’t expect to sleep tonight), and the town is flooded with hundreds of people I don’t know, and don’t need to know so I go home. The day was largely uneventful and I spent it cleaning and organizing things in my life in preparation for the 2 week training in Azrou that starts on Sunday. I will leave tomorrow on the transit and spend a night with a friend in Rich and then take a 5 hour bus from there. Nothing further to report on this quiet day save the fact that I made delicious marinara sauce from scratch!
Well, that is one week in my site and I will go ahead and post this entry now as I may not have time to later on during training next week.

As always, thanks for reading,


Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Long Week Alone


At this point I have spent about 10 days in my house cooking for myself, cleaning less than I should, reading, writing, and working out enough to prevent utter complacency. Days run together and are divided into two distinct parts: morning (with water) and afternoon (without water). I can do dishes and fill drinking bottles when the water is on from 8-12, but once it’s off that’s it. So an average day looks like this: Up at 8 or 9 and working out until ten; eggs and coffee for breakfast, followed by water related chores. This is then followed by swearing at the half-assed Moroccan, well everything. Be it my dishwater backing up in my shower, along with every single sink in the house leaking, internet not working for any apparent reason, especially aggravating when my phone has full service… from the same tower. Couple that with the drafty windows and a leaking skylight, and I am almost convinced that many things in this country are made by the lowest bidder and this makes me oh so grateful for American building codes.

It’s Souq Day again today and, as I mentioned before, the Souq is two days long and starts up bright and early at 4:30am Saturday morning. So I got the rare “pleasure” of being woken up by barking (occasionally screaming) dogs, large herds of bleating sheep being inexplicably driven through the 4 foot wide alley beside my house. Also, no vehicle in Morocco is required to have a muffler and the truth is that most Moroccans do not know how to drive and the few that do should never ever have been given a horn. Truck drivers honk at least six times and then noisily get out to crunch up my alley and audibly (oh yes) piss beneath my window. On hot nights, of which there are mercifully few, I have to have my window open and enjoy this rousing audio presentation. Granted the windows, also being Moroccan, don’t shut out the sound anyway, but they do enough to make it possible to sleep through it. Those of you who know me, know just how much noise bothers me…

But this is the living situation I have chosen, and I am just venting. After all, a blog that is all wine (or in the case of this country, Grape Juice) and roses is simply not honest and no PCV just sails through their service with absolute ease… I am shooting for relative ease. Psychologically I am a textbook PCV and am gutting my way through the “initial vulnerability” period at a predictable pace. While I am enjoying myself, I am also incredibly homesick. There! I said it! Yes, I am homesick, I want nothing more than to be home in the southwest with my friends and family doing southwestern things like river trips and long perilous hikes in a more familiar, though still howling, wilderness. Now, this is what my heart and reptile brain tell me, with their fierce admonitions to get back into my comfort zone. But if I do that, what will I learn? And who will do my job? My brain acknowledges that the pros outweigh the cons by a huge amount; I have friends here, I have opportunities here, and a (very much) howling wilderness to explore with more caution than what I have previously exhibited thus far.

No, leaving Morocco early has not even crossed my mind as a consideration, simply because the things the siren song of my homesickness tells me I want will be there, relatively unchanged, when I return! I have a lifetime to enjoy the Southwest, but only a two year window to experience North Africa. Thus does my mental cycle spin round. Besides, I’ve only got 659 days left, and I have been here for 140 days already.

Other things keep me honest, and securely in Morocco for two years, aside from just my reasoning. One is a PCV in Paraguay (you know who you are!) who served as a Ranger with me at Grand Teton two years ago (yep, it’s been two years this month!). She lived with her host family much for much longer than me and had to watch setback after setback as she had her house built. She’s moved in as of now, and much happier for it and we occasionally talk and/or exchange letters across the Atlantic. She works for a rain forest reserve which is about as similar to the Atlas as it is to the surface of Mars. Yet our jobs are similar and we work for our countries’ version of the National Park Service in an Environmental Education capacity. If either of us were to leave, I think we'd let eachother down in some way. The second external factor is an RPCV friend of mine who I worked with during my season at Cape Hatteras and who said simply, and with a smile: “Charlie, if you get all the way to Africa and E.T. (early terminate) for any reason whatsoever, I will hunt you down like a dog and I will kill you.” Ah, yes that is an excellent motivator as well.

I had a question posed to me in a recent email that simply asked what the hell my job actually is. There is a reason I haven’t really detailed this yet, it is because during the “initial adjustment period” I am not allowed to actually “work” (does this mean learning Tamazight is considered “recreation”?). Mainly though, I do know what my job will be and I will post a blog entry all about it in about 3 weeks. I have a crucial meeting with my counterpart in a few days, and two weeks of environment sector technical training in the city of Azerou after that. When I return, I can begin my work in earnest, and then I will tell you the details.


I suppose I should write about some good occurrences this week. The first and foremost being the discovery that I am able to cook! Between the Huevos Rancheros stew detailed in last week’s entry, and last night’s achievement: Green Chili Queso Soup, it has been a good week in the food department. I received a large windfall of green chilies in two separate care packages (thanks guys!) and, along with the containers of ground Chimayo Red and Chimayo Green that I brought from home, most of my dishes have a great Southwestern flair to them. There was a Green Chili Cream-cheese Omelet a few mornings ago that I was quite pleased with. So, if nothing else, I can learn how to cook from my time here!

Other good things of course include the books I have been reading (keep track of them on my booklist on the sidebar of this page). Since my last entry, I finished “Teaching a Stone to Talk” by Annie Dillard and “The Milagro Beanfield War” by John Nichols; both were amazing and taught me a great deal in very different ways. My current books are “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner, and “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. A third that I am enjoying as well is a gem that I found in my favorite used book store in Durango, the “Southwest Book Trader”. It is called “The Wilderness Reader” and it cost about 2 dollars; it’s an old book as well from the 1970s and it has been beaten up and dragged around for much of its life. But here’s what makes it special: it’s a compilation of works on the American Wilderness and includes work by: William Byrd, William Bartram, Meriwether Lewis, George Catlin, John James Audubon, John C. Fremont, Francis Parkman, Henry David Thoreau, Clarence King, John Wesley Powell, Clarence Dutton, Verplanck Colvin, Isabella Bird, Plenty Coups, Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, John Muir, Mary Austin, John C. Van Dyke, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edwin Way Teale, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, John McPhee, and David Roberts. Pretty amazing stuff.

Other good things from this week are that I am enjoying playing my Mandolin a lot and have also gotten much better with the Penny-whistle (as one PCV described: The ultimate portable instrument). Also, despite the anti-social nature of this week, my language continues to improve.

So, in conclusion, it has been a long week alone. But I am learning more every day and this is as it should be. I have a feeling I will be well into the swing of things by the time Ramadan concludes in late September… my seven month anniversary.

Thanks for reading, I’ll try to make it more poetic next time,