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

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