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

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Souq Day


Souq Day in the village. Walking to my future apartment from my Host Family’s house, I dodge herds of sheep, leathery men in dark jelabas, all between massive brightly colored trucks loaded with vegetables and stock. Weighing of produce and arguments over tent placement erupt all around me, and I enjoy an unusual anonymity; for once everyone is too busy to stare at me. It is like being back in the city, everyone flowing around you, going about your business. Occasionally someone’s eyes focus on me, some recognize me and we exchange a brief greeting in Tamazight; mostly the men, although some women acknowledge my presence if out of view of their husbands. The women are clad in loose-fitting robes with a blanket-like cape covering their shoulders, the striping on the cape denoting the tribe. On their heads are purple scarves, broadly folded, and bound tightly with pink or white cloth in a uniquely Berber fashion. It looks difficult to tie and makes me once again grateful to be a male in Morocco; oh so many reasons.

The main street of the village is one long hill descending from the Gendarmarie (Police) and l’bosta (Post Office). It is lined with cafés and small stores and ends at a crossroads. My future apartment is just east of here, on the second floor of a brick building owned by my Host Family. It needs a very good cleaning and some basic decorating (make it a little piece of home), but otherwise it is ready to move into. Unfortunately I cannot move in yet; I am required by Peace Corps to stay with my Host Family for another month. That’s alright, they are wonderful people and very helpful when it comes to my language. But I am still ready to regain some semblance of independence and control; three months is long enough, and four is too long.

After a long and complicated trip to Errachidia (again) I sorted out my internet contract and now have a wireless modem installed in my apartment-to-be. So here I sit, catching up on peoples’ lives and reinitiating contact with the life I left behind. This lulls me into a sense of complacency and normalcy, immediately shattered when I walk outside and am once again confronted by the throng of people and livestock, the air full of strange sounds.


Today is so clear that the edges of the mountains against the deep blue of the sky look as though they could cut glass. The only clouds are wispy mare’s tails; the air is still, the souq people have gone back to their villages and the locals are sleeping off their lunches and long morning of haggling. The storks on top of the mosque seem busy, feeding their young; not sure how many chicks there are. Sheep move lazily on the mountainsides, distracted and scattering as their guardians stop to make tea in gleaming silver pots that hang from their belts when not in use. High up on a mountain in recent weeks I discovered the shattered remains of a lone teacup in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.

But then, that could define this place in general, especially now in the lull after lunch. I am back in my apartment-to-be, picking up where I left off. Looking about and seeing what needs to be done, what needs to be moved, cleaned, purchased, or fixed. There is much to do, but too much time to do it; granted this statement seems to sum up the entire Peace Corps experience. Although, I am sure after two years, I will find that my time here has been too short. But on this side of things, looking down the barrel of 706 remaining days, it seems that time in my greatest obstacle.

The truth of the matter is, that I love the Southwest, the Colorado Plateau, the Four Corners—All of the peaks and spires, domes of white, canyons of red, interspersed with the high, dark intrusions of volcanic laccoliths. The cascading song of a canyon wren on an otherwise silent evening or the sparks popping from a burning juniper limb as the Coyotes wail unseen on the distant mesa. I think that this is irreversibly a part of who I am as a human being; it is my desert, my mountains, my place in this world. It is not that I am homesick, or would even leave Morocco now if given the choice; it is simply that, as I have more time to think and to examine the life I left behind in the Southwest from this great distance. It becomes more and more clear what I want to do with my life and where I want to be. Already, Peace Corps is teaching me things about myself and making me quieter and more focused.

Why am I writing this to you, you may wonder? Why is this simply not another account of my doings in Morocco? Because I want to catalog some of my thoughts and decisions here in my village; share my frustrations and give you, the reader, a clearer picture of my experience here...

In closing I would like to share a couple of technical things the first is the fact that I was informed by one of you that some people are unable to leave comments due to technical problems on the site. I will try to amend that, but in the meantime, feel free to drop me an email: . Also, I now have a flickr page, so go to if you want to have a look at some of the places mentioned here. Also feel free to send requests of things you would like to see or hear about!

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The First Two Weeks


I have been in my site for two weeks now and am beginning to settle in nicely. My service got off to an inauspicious start with a solid week of Dysentery (yes, like Oregon Trail) and went be with very little accomplished by yours truly. I stayed in bed, went to the bathroom every half-hour (which is not easy; squatting is difficult when you’re dehydrated), and watched TV on my computer. A course of hardcore antibiotics cleared me up and I am feeling great now, although I have no false hopes of staying this way for long. But hey, while I am well, I should write a blog entry! So, after my first wasted week of dysentery induced fog, here is a full report on week 2!


I started my week with two days of traveling to Errachidia for a two hour meeting with other volunteers concerning our evacuation plan (just in case…). Traveling involved a four and a half hour transit (Mercedes Van) ride from my site to my souq town and then a one hour taxi ride from there. I enjoyed seeing my friends again, especially two of my CBT mates (you know who you are!). We talked and had our meeting, and hung out in the Café Imichil, which has extensive shady gardens and serves chilled banana juice, which is as good as it sounds. I ate a wonderful sandwich from one of the vendors near the bus station; it was fresh bread (a round, cut in half like a pita) and stuffed with eggs, something like sausage, fried potatoes, and spices. This was made even more sublime by the fact that it was the first real food I had eaten after a week of malnourishment!

My friends and I stayed with another volunteer in a town south of Errachidia; located in the Sahara just north of Erg Chebbi. Our hostess was (is) an excellent cook and we enjoyed a dinner of made-from-scratch Buffalo Chicken Pizza! It was absolutely incredible and made better by the fact that the only hard cheese available in this part of Morocco is Edam, which is amazing anywhere.

The next morning, after an unsuccessful attempt to get my internet renewed (yes, I live in unimaginable hardship…) I was informed I needed a Cartes du Sejour which is a form of identification proving residence in Morocco. These are very difficult to get; more on that later. So, I shrugged off the general frustration of failure and went to breakfast at a high end “French” café and breakfasted with other volunteers from the region on runny (and delightful) eggs, pastries, and juice. Afterward, as I walked down the street toward the bus station I realized that this was the first time I had been completely alone and independent in a third-world city, and that I was actually comfortable with that. The throngs of people didn’t bother me and I enjoyed some urban anonymity for awhile (anonymity in my site is completely impossible; i.e. “fishbowl effect”). Then I saw a familiar face in a Café, it was a man from my village that now lives in my souq town. My predecessor introduced me to him days before and now here he was in Errachidia. I said hello (in Tamazight) and we had a short conversation before I continued on my way; two months and Morocco is already getting smaller.

I bought a bus ticket with no problems and rode the hour to my souq town. The bus was nearly empty, which was unusual, and I enjoyed having my window open with no locals around to protest the “bad luck and illness” brought in by the wind. After the bus ride (I will never get over that stretch of road, it’s breathtaking) I arrived just in time to reserve my spot on the last Transit of the day, which is something you have to do about an hour before departure. It’s an honor system, all you have to do is leave a belonging in the seat you wish to claim and nobody will move it until you get back. This can be a book or plastic bag and occasionally a vegetable of some kind. I went to get some yogurt (I am trying to do right by my antibiotic ravaged intestines) and returned just in time to grab my seat. I am glad I arrived early to claim a spot; at one point during the ride I counted 21 people inside the transit, with a few more on top. Needless to say, it was grinding up the hills and, in the Atlas, there are many of those to contend with.

I arrived back in my village and realized that, for the first time, I was alone in my site with the added benefit of being well. I went to my future apartment and sat for awhile, taking in the quiet, and then walked up the hill to my family’s house. I enjoyed dinner (mashed potatoes, Ait Hadiddou style) and after some conversation and some tea (which keeps getting better, the conversation, not the tea; that’s always good) I went to bed. I slept late because my shutters were closed and woke up refreshed. I had breakfast of coffee and bread and enjoyed conversing with my host mom. The rest of my day consisted of a trip to the post office and a trip to the Gendarmes where I learned what I needed to acquire my all important Cartes du Sejour. Otherwise I spent the afternoon napping and writing letters; I figure if I can just accomplish one or two things a day, at least at the beginning, I am doing well.

The next day, today, was great. I slept not quite so late this time and had breakfast like before. I took a shower after breakfast and spent the morning doing laundry, a chore which was supervised closely by my host mom. After hanging the clothes out to dry, I finished my lengthy letter to my best friend (in response to his equally lengthy work) and walked to the Post office to mail it. Before I left I found, quite unexpectedly, the missing document that was needed to apply for my Cartes du Sejour, a document that I was not supposed to have yet and that I thought I had to go back to Errachidia to obtain! I immediately went to the Gendarmes and after a long wait, one round of tea with the officers, and a few miscellaneous errands , I was all set.

After this, I walked down the street toward the center of town, greeting people in my broken Tamazight, until I spotted my host father in a Café on the side road. I sat down with him and one of his friends later joined us. We talked about Imilchil, about the weather, our work, basic guy stuff really. I left after having coffee and went back to the house for dinner.

Imichil is looking like it will be a great site and I am eager to settle in and find my place here!

Thanks again for reading,


Swearing In


This last week and a half has been a blur of training and testing, hellos and goodbyes. Training ended and service began, and that two year clock is ticking…

When I began this entry I was sitting in the Bab Sahara Hotel for what was likely the last time for the duration of my service, unless I am asked back to Ouarzazate for anything. Ouarzazate really has treated us (my stagemates and I) well and we have gotten to know it far more than I thought we could. It doesn’t seem strange or foreign anymore, and it’s only that I still can’t speak the language that reminds me that this is not actually my norm. But it was time to move on and that meant moving up to my site.

Getting my luggage consolidated was a bear, I have 2 big duffel bags and a suitcase and I had to get on the bus to Errachidia; then another bus from Errachidia to Rich and finally on the 4 hour transit ride to… my site. Oops, almost slipped there… Once I got to my site, I just needed to get my bags to my host family’s house and then, save moving into my house in July, I was done moving for 2 years solid; which will be longest I have ever stayed anywhere at one time since I moved out of my parent’s house in Colorado after college. In the past 3 years I have moved 6-7 times for my job and for Peace Corps. So, in some ways it is a comfort to know that I can go somewhere and not move for awhile.

As of now shoulders are still sore from carrying my things all over the country, but I am here and settled in with my host family. The very beauty of this place still makes my heart beat faster. But this entry is not meant describe my initial time in site; that entry is next. No this is about saying goodbye to a family and swearing in as a volunteer. Please allow me to backpedal…


My last week in training was somewhat slow, especially after the excitement of site visit, and the relief knowing what I was in for, brought to me. No, my CBT group and I worked our way through some final language lessons and took some final walks through the fields. The fields were in full flower and the wheat was waist high and hissed as the breeze rushed through it from the river. The roses reached above our heads and the almond branches drooped heavy with fruit. I realized that we really had been in our training site for a full season; that trees that had not even leafed out when we arrived here in March were now casting dark pools of shadow upon the path and that the flowering trees were now green and bearing fruit. The river was no longer fast and viscous with silt, but was then flowing cool and clear with no hint of its earlier turbulence.

I had a nice introduction to Moroccan humor from a stately Berber woman who, after I was able to adjust to her voice, told me that she liked my Moroccan name (Hassan) and that if I was to change it in anyway, even back in the states, she would then ritually slaughter me… She said this in a sweet, old lady kind of way, so I knew that I was in no danger of being killed in a ritual fashion. I replied in halting Tam that I would inform my parents back in the states that they couldn’t use my given name anymore. She laughed at this and general hilarity ensued.

The LPI, or Language Proficiency Interview, took place toward the end of the final week and consisted of speaking with one of the Moroccan Staff (not our LCF) for about 15 minutes on various topics. I scored “Intermediate Low” which was fine, and more than I was expecting. I will be interviewed again at the end of June when I go up to Azerou for technical training and debriefing from my initial experiences in site. After the LPI was over, it was just a matter of waiting for the training to end.

We went to Kelaat M’gouna to buy supplies for the party we were throwing for our host families and, after setting everything up and laying it out, our families arrived in varying degrees of lassitude. Soon the house was full of Moroccans and it was essentially a giant tea party. I gave a speech to my family in halting English (I think all of my language is halting nowadays) and my LCF translated for me. I presented them with the certificate of appreciation that Peace Corps had prepared for them and which we had had framed that morning. After my speech was finished, I heard a scraping noise and realized that my host father, who I did not think was going to attend due to difficulty of approaching the house in his wheelchair, had hauled himself up the stairs and into the tea-room. I was quite touched by this, as were most of my CBT mates, and my family and I settled down to listen to rest of the festivities. My host mother and host sister both gave speeches about how nice it was to have me as guest and how I was part of the family now. After a group photo, we all dispersed back to our respective homes for family time.

My host sister took us on our final walk where we got tea at two different houses and visited with her friends and family. The cook for our CBT accompanied us on our walk as well and I was glad she did. She has been a great friend to all of us and has spent more time with us as a group than anyone else in the village. She has been patient with our halting attempts at language and many times she and I laughed until we cried when I went to talk to her in the kitchen; granted, this was usually at my expense. After the walk, she cried and hugged us tightly (even the guys) and then ran off in the direction of her house. My final dinner was eaten late that night with my family and all of them promised to be up to see me off the next morning.

The final goodbye was oddly formal, but I sensed emotion just under the surface. This suspicion was confirmed when my host sister suddenly burst into tears and hugged me. I assured her that I would be back at least twice, once with my American family when they visit next year, and once in the fall for my host sister’s wedding. My host brother, and a couple of his friends that had stayed over the night before, helped me with my bags and walked me to the taxi which took us away to Ouarzazate.

After a week in Ouarzazate we attended the “Swearing In” ceremony which took place in the opulent Ouarzazate Palace of Congress, signaling the end of training and the true beginning of Peace Corps. Both the American Ambassador and the governor of Ouarzazate were in attendance and gave inspiring speeches to us new volunteers. We went to a reception afterward and ate French pastries and drank chilled banana juice. We mingled, shook hands and walked back the hotel in the hot sun.


I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer for just over a week now and am thoroughly enjoying my site, although I have been sick off and on. My village is beautiful and, on one of the days when I was feeling up to it, I climbed one of the mountains above the town to get my bearings. The mountain is a near vertical monocline that has eroded to the point that it is climbable. It was covered in fossils of shells and corals and it felt almost like I was beachcombing as I climbed. The mountain topped out at about 9300ft and the view was incredible in all directions. The hike is a vision of what I have to enjoy for the next two years in Morocco, and it was comforting to get out alone and do something familiar… or almost familiar. I packed many of the same things and used the same gear that I have hiked with for years. But this time there was no blue dog following close behind, no friends or family to go home to, no cold beverage waiting in the car; hell, there was not even a car waiting at the trailhead. None of familiar comforts of routine; a routine I hadn’t even known I had.

There were other reminders that I wasn’t home anymore, the presence of sheep on adjacent hillsides, the call to prayer echoing from the distant Mosque, far below in the village. No trees on the hillsides, only scrubby, cushiony plants that people gather to use as firestarter. The valleys are fields, wall to wall and the rivers are severely channelized—a consequence of 3000 years of agriculture. At one point as I climbed, I looked over to a nearby ridge and saw an Amazigh man, clad in a black Jelaba (full, hooded robe) and white headscarf, silhouetted against the sky and surrounded by his sheep. I am guessing I could have climbed this mountain anytime in the last three millennia and beheld the same scene.

From the summit of the mountain I could see many villages and many other mountains in all directions. I pulled out my GPS and marked a waypoint. Using the device I calculated the distance between my mountaintop and my family’s home in Colorado (also stored as a waypoint, marked with a shower icon): 5524 miles. Well it’s official, I am very far from home. But I love it here and will try to write and entry once a week from here on out, now that I am here for the long run.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, May 2, 2010

My site in the Atlas...

It’s been awhile since my last blog entry so let me attempt to catch up. Since my last entry, I got over my bout with Zund Typhoid and have not been sick since (hamdullah!). I left my host family in Ait Gmat for my 10 day site visit, and they said that they would miss their American son. My host mother, Aicha, also informed me that I was to bring my mother to visit when my family comes to Morocco from the States; Aicha said that she and mom would be like sisters and that she wants to meet her give her lots of beautiful henna. Gotta follow up on that one.

After a morning of nailbiting in Ouarzazate, waiting for our site assignments, and were finally rewarded for our patience when the head of the Environment Sector, Mohssine, passed out a series of files with our names and the name of our site. Let me go ahead and say I am not allowed to release my specific site, due to safety reasons pertaining to being an American abroad; they do not want us easily located by anyone who cares to look. That said, I will describe my site, my accommodations, and the people I am to work with. If anyone wants my specific site location and my new mailing address (I can get packages now!!) I can email it to you if you email me at: .

The Site

First off, I absolutely love my site. It is in the Er-rachidia Province and is a small, but clean, community in the High Atlas Mountains. It is located just within the boundaries of The Eastern High Atlas National Park, which is roughly 55000 hectares of beautiful vistas, incredible geology, and two of the largest natural lakes in Morocco: Lake Isli and Lake Tislit, the Groom and the Bride. All of the mountains have long been deforested and there is no trace of trees left other than the Apples and Poplars in the fields by the “river”. That said, the area has lost none of its beauty and is as austere and rugged as Big Bend National Park and the geology is stunning. Faults, folds, and unconformities abound along with the occasional dark swath of a volcanic dike. Tilted beds and monoclines are everywhere and there seems to be very little rhyme or reason to it all. It is a clear representation of North Africa as a “bumper”: whenever Africa has collided with anything (like Europe, or South America) another range of the Atlas has been formed. My site is said to be the coldest in Morocco and, two winters ago, it apparently got two meters of snow in one storm. Oh boy, sounds like home! Minus the heated house… There are miles of hiking and backpacking, and plenty for me to do in the Eastern High Atlas National Park. I have no worries about crippling boredom; even in winter I will occupied with trying to stay warm.

The People

My site is essentially the heart of Berber culture in Northern Africa. The people here, while accepting minor changes like running water, electricity, and the Arabs invading their culture a few centuries ago, have essentially remained unchanged for several millennia. The tribe I am living and working with, the Ait Hadidou, is one of the most studied and traditional of all Berber tribes. My site is also the location of what has been called the “Wedding Festival” and “Fiancé Fair”. This is a large gathering of Berbers from the surrounding countryside (or “Bled”) who congregate in my village to find a spouse and buy supplies for the upcoming winter. While this has become a heavily touristed event, it remains very traditional and consists of 4-5 days of dancing, singing, shopping, and people proposing to eachother. This, I am sure, will include plenty of proposals to me, the village’s most eligible (and only) American. I have already been proposed to once, at a wedding dance that I attended. Since I am writing about the people of Ait Hadidou, I suppose I should include an account of this event:

The Wedding Dance

I had only been in my site for a couple of days and my host mother (Rkia) instructed me to get ready to go out, although she didn’t say for what, or at least I didn’t understand right away. I threw on my Jelaba (a traditional robe that I am becoming more and more fond of…) and a hat and followed her through the darkening streets. She had my host sister in tow and my baby brother strapped to her back. While bundled up against the cold, her colorful headscarf was still very prominent as was the traditional blue tattoo that is visible on the chin of most traditional Berber women, especially those of the Ait Hadidou.

As we approached the town center, I began to hear a fast drumbeat. When I rounded the corner I saw a large circle of people in Jelabas and many women watching with the striped capes that indicate their tribes; thin black on white striping for Ait Yaza and thick stripes for Ait Brahim (the melding of these two tribes, according to the legend, created the Ait Hadidou). In the center of the circle where many women, dancers, dressed in fine silks and sparkling jewelry; their wrists and waists decorated with shining silver disks that rattled with their movements. Music was being played by three drummers, holding hand drums and alternating their rhythms, and one wind instrument that had an almost nasal quality like the flutes of snake charmers. The dancing was fast and frenzied and I was surprised to see that the dancers had their hair loose, often in a shimmering fall of black reaching past their waist. As the pace of the songs quicken one woman would step forward and whirl her head around and around, spinning the dark curtain of her hair in a wide circle.

Once between songs, the drummers looked in consternation at their drumhead, which had apparently loosened, and one of them left the ring of onlookers. He returned a short while later with a small, mossy shrub; which I had heard was collected as firestarter from the surrounding mountains. This theory was confirmed when the drummer pulled out a lighter and proceeded to light the bush on fire, placing it on the ground in the center of the circle. The flames leapt high, but the brush burned slowly, and the drummers held out their instruments to the flames, allowing the heat to tighten the drumheads. After this spectacle, the bush was stomped out in a spray of sparks and the dancing resumed as fast as before.

People pressed in from all sides and I was right in the divide between the men and women (the circle seemed half and half). Though I was traditionally dressed, my hair, eyes, and skin made me stick out like a sore thumb; despite this, I wasn’t the most out of place. That honor was taken by three French tourists on the fringes of the circle. People spoke to me in Tamazight and were thrilled when I answered back in the same tongue, I told many people that I was the new volunteer for the village and that I was learning Tamazight as fast as I could. A girl next to me shouted something at me in with a smile, asking me to dance, and then said something else in a more serious tone. I wasn’t sure what she was saying but it soon translated for me by Ali, a shopkeeper that I had befriended and who spoke a little English. “She is asking you if you would like to get married.” said Ali, with a small smile. I looked at the girl and smiled, saying in Tamazight that I was grateful, but that I wasn’t ready to get married yet. She understood and laughed, and we both turned and continued to watch the dance.


I have the feeling that my stay here will be fascinating and enlightening. I have already seen and experienced more new things in four short days than I thought possible; I am excited to live and work and learn.

The Host Family

I am excited about my host family; they are kind and welcoming and patient with my struggling language skills. My host father, Said, is the lead mountain guide for the region and knows the entire High Atlas like the back of his hand. He has hiked from his home in my village to most of the major gateway cities, including Fez, Marrakech, Kelaat Mgouna, Ouarzazate, and Khenifra. He has climbed Mt. Toubkal over 100 times. He wasn’t bragging, it’s just his life. He is well respected and well connected in the community so I hope he will be an asset to whatever project I take on in the next couple of years.

My host mother, Rkia, is the finest cook in the region—no joke. Every meal I have had in my village has been absolutely wonderful and the feces content seems nonexistent, which is exciting. Rkia was initially leery about having a male stay with her; all other PCVs in my village have been female in the past, a trend which I have broken. Rkia told the PCV I am replacing (who was/is wonderful and successful and whose shadow I fully expect to spend at least a year crawling out of…) that she didn’t want a boy to stay because “American boys just come and eat and then leave. Despite this, and also thanks to my predecessor’s encouragement, she seems to like me just fine and says she will teach me to cook (can’t wait).

I have 3 host brothers; Rachid (10), Mohamed (13), and Sufiyan (8 months). I also have a host sister, Fatima, who is 8. They seem like nice kids and, thanks to their father’s line of work, are used to being around the occasional foreigner. I look forward to my time with my host family and arrive in Imilchil again one week from today; this time to stay.


Charlie (Hassan)

Ouarzazate Province, Morocco