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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,