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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,