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Wednesday, June 9, 2010


15 hours of travel over the course of two days brought me out of my mountain village to the seaside Capital of Morocco, Rabat. I came here as part of my duties to the "Volunteer Action Committee"(VAC), a position I was elected to at the end of my training in early May. VAC represents the volunteers of Morocco to Peace Corps Staff, and to other people as well, we are the liaisons, in a sense. Dragged me unceremoniously out of my site and into the big city was a two hour meeting; but it made the trip worthwhile.
The director of Peace Corps worldwide, Aaron Williams, was visiting Morocco for the first time in his career and certainly for the first time in his 8 months as director. He was appointed by President Obama late last year. We had the opportunity to meet with him and air our few concerns about Peace Corps in a casual setting (or as casual as it could be, in light of the company). Mr. Williams turned out to be pleasant and down to earth, very easy to talk to, and full of stories about his work in Aid organizations including his start as a PCV in the Dominican Republic.
After the meeting we sat down to a meal of Couscous and I had the opportunity to sit at the Director's table to hear more from him, about his plans for the future of Peace Corps. I stared in consternation at my spoon and realized that I couldn't use my hands to pull apart the meat and eat Berber-style. So, I attempted to look like I had some semblance of etiquette, most of which I have completely lost and forgotten over the course of the last two months. The spoon felt awkward in my right hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to switch over to my left simply because it had become habit to do everything with my right. The Couscous was good, different from what I had been served in my training village of Ait Gmat, or in my site in the mountains. The conversation was stimulating and we spoke of many interesting thing at the table, most of which I can’t post on the public domain as they are unrealized ideas and best kept under wraps.
That essentially sums up the meeting, but I ended up spending three days in Rabat getting a full medical evaluation (I have parasites; don’t get worried/excited/envious). I did not mind this extra time, as there was so much to see in the Capital. Plus there was also something to be said for the basic creature comforts I happily experienced on a daily basis. These included hot showers, western toilets, real pillows, and soft beds. The night after the meeting, several other volunteers and I took a Petit Taxi down the winding, narrow streets until we got to a nondescript white wall with a small plaque that read “the American Club”. We flashed our Passports at the security guard, who determined that we were not a threat, and entered through the gate.
It was like stepping into a backyard BBQ. There was a lush green lawn spreading from an outdoor bar and patio; the air smelled like burgers and fries, with a hint of beer, and the only language to be heard was English—American English. There were several families there, drinking and talking with friends while the kids ran around the lawn and the playground that sat in the corner. I sat at a table, slightly dazed, and enjoyed a dinner of a hamburger and chicken wings while in one hand I held a frosty Samuel Adams (Boston Lager). I nearly forgot I was in Morocco until the sunset “call to prayer” spilled in from one of the Mosques outside the walls. We spoke to some of the other Americans, all here for different reasons, but most living in country rather than visiting. A woman from another agency invited us to a beach bonfire, but the taxi ride was too long and we walked back to our hotel instead—in hindsight, I wish I had accepted the invitation.
I got up the next morning and ate breakfast at “Toast” a CafĂ© near the hotel. Here their signature breakfast dish is also called “Toast” but it was so much more than that. It was two slices of toast with a slice of cheese and sunnyside-up egg on top; it came with orange juice and coffee. As the typical Berber breakfast consists of bread, olive oil, and coffee, I was understandably excited. The food onslaught continued, reaching its peak with a Royale w/ Cheese from McDonalds: Rabat, an establishment that also offers a burger on Pita Bread called the “McArabia”. Add fries and a coke and it was certainly a meal that made me happy, if not actually a happy meal. I know, I am traitor to everything I believe in—I ate at McDonalds for the first time in many years. But man, that burger was good and somehow, sitting back in my site the Atlas and thinking about the parasites I was told I have (and am currently treating); the guilt is just not coming. Dinner that night was at the German Institute and involved a bruschetta salad, pizza, and some more cold beer. Not losing sleep over that either. Why am I elaborating on food? To stress just how amazing it was to me, and how mind-boggling things I took for granted back home are now that I am deprived of them on a regular basis. To list a few, in no particular order:
- Beef: it’s what’s for dinner, but not here, and I am sorry but mutton is not an adequate replacement.
- Hot water: this is obtainable only with a butane heater, some of which are deadly.
- Pillows: I have mentioned this before but I didn’t realize what a big part of my sleep depended on a nice soft pillow to rest my head on. Hard and often rough couch cushions simply don’t suffice.
- Bacon
- Decent Beer: growing up around some of the best beer in the world has left with the opinion that no beer is better than bad beer, but even bad beer would taste ok when it is cold and socially acceptable.
- Toilets: when you are exhausted and ravaged from Dysentery, you have no idea how nice it would be to have something to sit on so if you pass out… ok enough said.
- Raw vegetables: These aren’t entirely gone, but they are rare and occasionally dangerous.
- English: I just miss not having a headache every time I talk, this will go away and it gets easier every day, but I miss days that didn’t focus entirely on trying to get my point across.
- Real Cheese: I am sorry Morocco, but “Laughing Cow” is closer to “Cheese Whiz” than actual cheese. Why is the cow laughing? Because it’s not f**king cheese, that’s why!
Ok, that’s more than enough, I’ll write an entire entry on things I no longer take for granted later… Eventually. Incha allah.
Ok, maybe a little about the city itself; please forgive the “stream-of-consciousness” nature of this entry. It’s written, like most of my entries, in a short time span and is entirely unplanned. So back to Rabat... It is a beautiful city; most of the buildings are white and many of the streets are lined with palm trees whose trunks play host to twining English ivy. Fountains spray and pigeons take flight against the white sky; in many respects, Rabat feels like an average European city. That is, until I see the swirling Arabic script on the store fronts or have the call to prayer carried into my hotel room along with the honking of car horns, and the murmur of conversations on the street; all hard “q’s” and nasal vowels. Walking down the street, the illusion of European normalcy is further shattered by the abrupt appearance of a massive wall of beige stone with yawning archways leading to the medina, or old city.
Inside, merchants hawk everything from traditional Moroccan clothing to Barbie dolls. The streets are narrow and winding; laundry is strung above the crowd and colorful rugs hang from the windows and balconies of the homes of the people who still live in this place. At intersections where the crowds come together, traditionally dressed water-sellers stand shouting the name of a particular spring from which they get their water. The water is dispensed from a goatskin bag slung against their back into one of 3-4 golden cups that hang from a bandolier across their chest. They are dressed in red, green, and blue, with wide brimmed fringed hats.
Sometimes the street passes under a building or a shade covering. One street in particular comes to mind, thronged with people and wares hang or sit on every surface. Silver teapots on gleaming trays, carved wooden camels and intricately enameled furniture beckon from some stalls, while still others contain ornate jewelry and ceremonial daggers from the deserts of the south. Every once in awhile I pass a “spice stall” and look inside at the wizened patron sitting among the baskets piled high with spices of every kind and color, each spice forming a cone above its basket. The smells are intense in this place; from the spice stalls a strong and heady aroma floats on the still air, mingling with the smells of livestock and human sweat. Further on is a smell of cooked food and I purchase a sandwich of spiced ground beef (called Kefta) mixed with scramble egg and sprinkled with even more spices. They are cheap and wonderful; I slip into garden and eat mine underneath the towering palms. I talk to another volunteer who is with me, and listen to an ancient Arab man admiring my watch from a nearby bench (zwina l’magana, zwina l’magana).
The next day, I return to the medina alone and navigate the narrow streets from memory. I know that the medinas in the major cities are the most dangerous parts to be alone and ignorant but they’re not that bad if you keep your head. Rule number one is to watch your valuables; I carry a backpack in the cities, but it goes under one arm if I enter a medina, so I can keep an eye on it. Also, do not express interest in any wares, just admire in passing unless you want a long and frustrating exchange with a merchant; which I could tolerate if anyone here spoke Tamazight. Interestingly enough, a being white kid who, when confused, lapses into an obscure dialect of Berber, in a city that speaks predominately Arabic and French, earned me more brownie points than I expected it would. More often than not, merchants would pull out their rudimentary English simply because I was gutsy enough to try Tam on them. One merchant in particular told me to go get married in the Atlas and bring my new wife to his shop where I could buy her clothing at a discounted price…
On the other side of the medina, after making it through alive, is the sea. The last time I saw the Atlantic was in the rearview mirror as I left Cape Hatteras last fall and suddenly I am faced with the same body of water but on the opposite shore. I walk down the beach for a ways; the social mores of Islamic culture are scarcely discernible here as young men and young women walk this way and that in their bathing suits. It looks like any beach on the east coast except the people are thinner and darker. I see a lighthouse further on and go to it. There is a guard charging a 10DH entrance fee; he speaks English and we talk about lighthouses and I tell him about my lighthouse in North Carolina. After a few minutes of conversation and questions, the guard looks around him and, seeing no one, motions me inside. You do not have to pay, but be quick about it, okay? I walk across the battlements around the lighthouse stand next to a rusted cannon watching the sun glitter like diamonds on the rolling swells. I enjoy the smell of salt spray and listen to the crash of the waves on the sharp rocks below, thinking of other beaches and other times spent on the seashore.
Reluctantly, I walk back into the city and re-enter the medina in search of another sandwich. This sandwich I eat in the dappled sunlight of the Royal Arboretum, filled with tropical trees and plants including a row of box-cut Ficus that are the size of buses. I sit and people watch for awhile as the palms rustle overhead and birds sing. A Moroccan couple in western clothing watches their children run ahead of them, partially covered in Ice Cream, and following them is a woman in a full veil, with only her eyes visible to the rest of the world. Men with long beards walk with their hands clasped behind them, clad in the plain white Jelabas of the devout. Older men pass wearing business suits, the outfit made Moroccan by the addition of a red Fez.
Wandering around the city after the arboretum, I came upon a strange and wonderful thing: a Cathedral. I didn’t expect to find one, but here it was. It appeared to be a modern construction, but with proportions similar to the Cathedral at Canterbury, in England, or the National Cathedral in New York. The door was open and I slipped inside. It was dim, and the only light came from a large stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Here, in the middle of an Islamic Nation, I was faced with this literally shining representation of God made flesh; I looked for a long time, awestruck. Despite the look of suffering in His face, I felt like I was greeting an old friend who I had not seen for awhile, just then realizing how much He was missed.
The next morning, I left Rabat, to return to my site, where I am now. But I feel that that journey, crossing the country alone using every approved mode of public transport, deserves its own essay, which I will post shortly. Until then, as always, thank you for reading.