Fez, she says? Why sure… why not?

 

My Moroccan travel buddies…. Dee Dee and Mimi

 

 Given that it was on all of our “must see” lists,  Dee Dee, Mimi and I decided to go to Fez on our “day off.”  Morocco has a lot of holidays,  this one, their Independence Day.  The national holidays, in contrast to the religious holidays, seem to garner far less importance and when I asked my students earlier in the week how they were going to celebrate the holiday, they all responded with rather ho hum answers, most with the main theme of “do nothing.”  Deciding that leaving the day before after placement and spending the night in Fez might be more Fez than we wanted, we opted for an early morning, three hour express train.  After an enjoyable and scenic ride from our own “compartment” on the train, we were met at the station by Aziz, a guide that Khadija, our house manager, had set up for us the previous day.  All of the guide books spoke of the importance of having a guide, especially through the tangle of over 9,000 roads in the medina (or old town).  Once deep into the bowels of the medina, we understood the need and were very grateful to have someone with us who knew where they were going.

Our first stop with Aziz was the Kings palace… that would be his “other” palace, the “main” one being in Rabat.  I found out yesterday that “other” means 48…more on that later.  It was similar to the palace in Rabat… nothing simple, mosaic for miles and lots of ornate brass.  It feels rather disrespectful to say once you’ve seen one Moroccan palace, you’ve seen them all, but I will say it anyway.  It felt uncomfortable for me to see such an excessive display of grandeur and wealth in a 3rd world country.  Most of the front of the palace is done in zillij tile, or a type of mosaic, which is an old technique used by skilled artisans who hand cut and glaze each and every tile then lay them in intricate geometric patterns.  It really is quite impressive, especially when seen in such massive fields.

The tile is quite impressive, especially when seen in massive fields such as that around and above the door…

 

Every single tile is glazed,  cut and laid by hand.

The bigger interest for us was the medina and the labyrinth of streets and maze of markets or souqs.  Once inside the medina, it felt as if we were walking deeper and deeper into a civilization that isn’t seen at all from the outside.  There are no cars allowed inside, which became clear as we got deeper and deeper into the bowels of this ancient, walled city, that was built in the early 700’s.  The streets seemed to narrow the farther in we went, with some of them so narrow that I couldn’t even stretch my arms out completely while touching both walls.  As we zigged and zagged down the narrow pathways, I asked Aziz how anyone would give directions to their house to an outsider?  He said that everyone knows where everyone lives inside of the medina and that even though he also lived there, he still gets lost on occasion.  I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to be lost in the maze, especially at night, as the only natural light that was coming in was from the narrow openings where the tops of buildings didn’t quite meet.  There is electricity, but I’m guessing it’s pretty dark in there at night.  Before we went in, Aziz did ask if any of us suffered from claustrophobia.  I’m guessing if one of had said yes, we would have turned around and gone back to the King’s palace.  This was no place for anyone who suffers from a fear of small places!

 

Furnishings that are wider than this narrow road, have to be brought in through the roof.

 

Aziz told us that the medina in Fez is the oldest in Morocco and within its walls is the oldest university in the world.  Surprisingly, the original plumbing is still in use, which was really hard to wrap my head around.  Over 10,000 people live in the medina and their houses all have simple, understated doors that line the narrow streets and pathways.  Moroccans believe that large, ornate doors that would portray wealth, are bad luck and it is better to have a modest, very simple door, regardless of what’s behind it.  The palaces it would seem are the obvious exception to this belief.   Most had small hand knockers on them, one placed at a “normal” height for people walking and the other placed higher for those seated on mules.

Lunch was at a place that Aziz recommended for us, with assurance that we’d really like it after we told him we were growing tired of tagine  (a type of Moroccan stew) and was there a restaurant that sold anything else??  Without answering our question, he then added that it was really clean.  Our confidence to eat outside of the traditional faded on that one.  The menu had 8 different meal options, all with the same salad and dessert and different entree options,  well, I say different, but all but one were variations on the tagine theme,  and the non-tagine dish was couscous.  After almost 3 weeks of having some sort of tagine at least once a day, our stomachs longed for bland, white food.  Mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese with ginger tea to drink would have been nice.  My stomach had started giving me the 3rd world nudge the day before so I was exercising caution, not an easy task in this spice loving country.  With little enthusiasm, we ate what we could and did a lot of moving food around on the plate to look like we had at least tried.

Tile for miles…

 

This was our “salad”… a hint of what was to come… and it wasn’t mashed potatoes…
Here’s a piece of advice for anyone traveling to Fez… don’t eat lunch, most likely a spicy lunch,  then go to the tannery.  It’s not a good fit.  Tanneries, if you’ve never been to one, smell like a combination of rotting flesh and vomit.  It’s not pleasant.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is you’re handed a big handful of mint to bury your nose in while you make your way through  and by the end, at seeing all of the beautiful leather, at least for me, the visual overcame the stench. Hands down.
The animal skins are soaked in water and pigeon droppings… the droppings are acidic and soften the hides.  They are then placed in these large kettles of natural dyes.

 

Hides… hanging everywhere…
Moroccan slippers or babouche.  A very common footwear in Morocco, even though it seemed more like a slipper to me…

From leather tanning to weaving… the traditional Berber scarfs are made in part from the silk from inside the agave plant.  The weaving, all by hand, was a very interesting process to watch.  At this point, however, I realized that our pal Aziz has directed us to “specialty shops” where he shares a bit of the profit of anything sold to us.  It would explain why when I stopped to look at one of the smaller “booths” for a scarf, he told me to wait, that he had a place that would give me a much better price.  I guess I could have been annoyed, but it’s good business for the guides, who are a necessity, and if they can make a little extra on top of the little bit he was charging us, then why not.? The sales style in Morocco is NOT aggressive.  It’s a very comfortable place to shop.  Once in a shop, there is a little more salesmanship, especially once the bartering starts (a custom that is as much of a game as much as anything else and one that Moroccans really enjoy, in fact I’m told that prices are doubled so the bartering is a necessary part of the shopping experience).  I never once felt like there was any aggression directed towards me to shop in one place or another with shouts of prices and deals, which was very refreshing.

One of the many weaving shops…
The sales man was trying hard to sell me a Berber scarf…. I was one step ahead of him.  Already have one.  Already donned it in the desert.  He did have a pretty cool way to tie it though…
I think I would have enjoyed a few more hours wandering in and out of the many markets, but 3rd world stomach had caught up to the 3 of us, and we were souk’d out and called it a day after about 4 hours.  The highlight for me was getting to experience a living city along the same lines as it has done for a thousand years.  The endless confusion of lanes with various shops, homes and mosques felt very exotic to me.  Very Morocco.
Our journey home was quite a bit different from the nice quiet train ride we had in the morning.  By accident that morning, we bought one way tickets, which of course weren’t accepted at the gate,  so we had to make a quick scramble to purchase tickets and given that it was a holiday, the train was very busy and since we got on last minute,  we felt lucky to find seats at all let alone ones that were close to one other.  At almost 30 minutes past the departure time, while we were still sitting, a very agitated, very angry man got on our car and started yelling as he was walking through the train car.  I didn’t think a whole lot about it until I heard…
“All people who speak English need to GET OFF THIS TRAIN!!!!”
Which was followed by a lot of Arabic, which I could not understand, but the English, laced with quite a bit of profanity that I will spare you,  I understood.  Clearly.
For the first time during my stay in Morocco, I truly felt afraid, especially given that it looked like we were the only “English speakers/Americans” riding on that car.  The yelling continued, with some around us looking confused, while others simply ignored him and couldn’t be bothered to look up from their newspapers.  The conductor came over and said something to the man, which only escalated his anger, eventually leading to him getting off the train and moving the scene to the train platform.  We had no idea what was going on and no one to ask, given that everyone was speaking Arabic.  The train, now 40 minutes late, started up and all the women on our car then began to pound their open palms on the windows, perhaps to get the conductor’s attention, but I really have no idea, and why just the women?  And what did they want?  It was all very surreal… scarfed women hitting the train windows while the yelling and screaming continued on the platform.  To be in a situation like this and not understand what’s going on because you don’t understand the language is really frightening.  Fortunately, a few minutes later,  a young man who we had met on the train that morning and had spent quite a bit of time talking to, got on and sat in an open seat right in front of me.  He witnessed enough of the yelling that he was able to tell us what was gong on.  The man was simply voicing his anger at the trains delay, something that sounds like it happens quite a bit.  Something that ended up being an irate passenger voicing his opinion about a 40 minute delay, with a heads up to the “English speakers” who may not know about the trains frequent tardiness, looked a whole lot different to us given that we couldn’t understand what was being said. When you hear “English speakers” and “GET OFF THE TRAIN,” followed by a whole lot of profanity, it’s easy for your mind to go places out of fear. After all, the world has become a different place post 9/11.  Thankfully, I was wrong, but how sad that because of what’s going on in the world today, my mind went there initially.

A fun day in Fez…
and that’s what I told my students the next day when they jokingly asked me if I did anything to celebrate Moroccan Independence Day.  They didn’t do anything.

piles and piles of pashminas (or stacks of scarves…)

 

Welcome to Chefchouan… a memorable entry ino this charming town

It’s not always the most obvious memory that comes to mind when recalling an adventure, but rather the funny, odd one that comes to mind.  No doubt when I think back on my weekend in Chefchouan, Morocco, I will think of the beautiful blue and whitewashed buildings that were nestled in between peaks of the Riff Mountains, but high in the queue on memories will be our entrance into town.  It was raining, and dark when the bus pulled into the station and the lack of taxis waiting at the ready, gave us all concern as we had no idea where we were going.  Three of the girls were going to a hostile and Mimi, Dee Dee and I had a reservation at a hotel, which just happened to not be near the bus stations, near being a relative term as the town is small (30,000 and change).  I grabbed the first (and one of the only), drivers I saw and claimed him as ours but wires got crossed and the girls traveling with us, but who weren’t t staying at the same place, joined up with us as we were pouring
ourselves into the tiny van, luggage and all.  The driver, upon seeing 6 of us rather than the 3 he had
anticipated, said something, in a not so happy voice,  that of course none of us understood as it was in
Arabic.  I’m sure it had something to do with “bait and switch.” Figuring he might be able to make some more money out of the whole deal, he agreed but suggested with gestures, that one of us sit in the very back with the luggage ( it was a very small van… a “vanette”, if you will, that barely could accommodate 5, let alone the 7 we had just mashed in).  Kelsey took one for the team and crawled into the very back with our bags.  The driver had a hard time getting the vehicle started, (I think what he was trying to do was pop the clutch…think “Little Miss Sunshine” car scenes here…) but was unsuccessful. Being on a hill going up was only adding to his problems.  He finally asked us all to get out, which we did, and while standing in the cold rain, watching the taxi roll farther and farther down the hill, someone asked where Kelsey was… it was then that we realized she was still crammed into
the back of the van, that was now rolling faster and faster down the steep hill.  Eventually, he stopped, pulled up the parking break and deeming the situation as hopeless, got out of the cab at which time we ran down the hill to the car to rescue Kelsey.  She seemed no worse for the wear, but did say she prayed more during her “ride” than she had in a long time.  Fortunately, another cab came
by and the hostel girls grabbed it and our driver, willing to give it another go, motioned for us to get back in for another try.  The extra weight must have been the cause of the problem because once the 3 of us were back in, the driver had no problem getting the car started and up the hill.
Not even a block from our start, the driver motioned to the curtains in the back, and thinking he wanted to insure the best view possible of this charming city, I pulled them back all the way.  He responded abruptly with a “No!” and gestured to me to close them… something that a man who he picked up during all the chaos and who was now riding with us in the front seat, translated his driver friend’s words to broken English that said something about the police and the law and he could only
have two passengers in the back seat.  OK,  so I promptly closed the curtains and wondered what explanation he would have had for the police when there were FIVE of us in the back a seat and one
with the luggage!
Once at our hotel, there seemed to be a problem with the payment as the “friend” was insisting on payment in Euros while the driver was quoting prices in dirhams (the currency of Morocco).  After
about the fifth time of telling him we didn’t have Euros (a likely assumption given the proximity to
Spain), he old me 20 dirhams a piece (about $7 each), which was sky high.  I gave him 20dh and he shook his head no, so reluctantly, I gave him another 20 dirhams and he then nodded yes and promptly gave me the first 20 back, which put us back to square one and the number I had argued for in the first place, 20dh for all 3.  Welcome to Chefchouan.

 

Our very green, very ornate room…No problem if you have 3, as there is plenty of room, said the website. The 3rd bed (mine), was a mattress on the floor between the two beds.  No complaints though, as it was far more comfortable than the bunk bed I’ve been sleeping in!  Besides, I’m in this for a cultural experience, not to re-experience what I’m already familiar with.  And new and different it was!

 

The very elaborate, and hand painted,  albeit slightly crookedly, ceiling.  As good a view as the TV ( which was Arabic with French subtitles and most of it coming out of the Middle East.
Breakfast included…ala Morrocan style… So many selections but few that weren’t their diet mainstay….bread…
After getting ourselves comfortable in the small room, we headed out for dinner. Now had we gotten past charming and blue and whitewashed on our research, we would have learned that Chefchouan is basically a dry town.  It took asking three people where we could get a glass of wine, before we had an answer, along with directions.  Although Chefchouan may be an “almost” dry town, there is no shortage of kief, or hashish, which is a largely grown crop in the area around Chefchouan.  Although illegal,  it didn’t  sound like the laws are enforced.  We had all been given forewarning on this, both from Mohamed and for me, my students.  Everyone wanted us to understand that there was a strong likelihood that we’d be approached to buy, but that didn’t happen, although the scent was ever present, especially in the market, where the venders were hardly trying to hide it. It does explain the more laid back,  backpacker type of culture that seemed to flood the town, mostly from Spain.
So we followed our insider’s directions and made our way down to the one and only local bar, ironically only a few doors down from our hotel.  I was relieved to be able to dip into what felt like my mother tongue of Spanish and understand the directions and actually have a brief conversation with our directions man, something I’ve missed terribly these past few weeks and why typing this blog feels a bit like a big gulp of oxygen for me right now.  Spanish is  common in Chefchouen due to  its close proximity to Spain.  We had to make it past the bouncer to get into the bar, who basically needed to know what we would  be drinking.  Beer?  He seemed OK with wine and let us in.
Once in,  we noticed that it was all men… all men and a whole lot of cigarette smoke.  A very kind middle-aged man,  who was seated at the table next to us and who I thought was a customer, quickly got up and came over to take our order when he saw us.  He was very excited about our choice, which was his suggestion, of a Morrocan red wine,  After a bit of a wait, he  brought the wine over with sincere apologies for the glasses, as one was a slanted rimmed brandy snifter and the other a very small, I’m talking a few tablespoons small, glass that I’m guessing was for aperitifs.  The drinks were followed by plate after plate of food….rice flavored with red and green peppers, a  plate of
Moroccan salad (peppers, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes, all finely chopped) and a fish dish that we were all reluctant to try as even smelling it was a bit unpleasant.   We told him we weren’t staying for dinner but he kept saying, “no problem, free…” and would bring more!  When the plate filled with fried sardines arrived,  I had to lie and tell him that we didn’t eat fish.  He was so gracious that I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not eating them.
And then I finally  had to ask about the elephant in the room…(or shall we call it a camel…)
“Why are we the only women here?”
“Well, Moroccan women aren’t allowed inside because they…well …they cause trouble with the men and the men have trouble with them.”
Given what I’ve learned about Morrocan society, its  treatment of women and the illegal trouble these women often find themselves in (ie pregnant without a father willing to take responsibility), and then of course the babies and children that I’ve been with the past few days at the orphanage, his answer hit me a little harder than I had anticipated.  No Morrocan women, no trouble, which explains why we were let in so graciously.  We were a bit of a spectical though, which was both kind of enjoyable along with a little bit creepy.  But our waiter was so charming that but we  ended up returning the following night, but this time our waiter was ready and had dug up two glasses of the same size that although not intended for wine, we were touched by his efforts in trying to get it right for us!
We spent the bulk of Saturday walking around this beautiful,town, with plenty of time spent bartering in the medina, and ending up with a few nice treasures.  There was a hike up to a Spanish mosque that we had talked about but by mid afternoon, none of us felt all that great and we opted for naps in our tiny, green, ornately decorated and stinky room.  Living in such close quarters with everyone sick, has finally caught up to me and I’m afraid I am following suit.  We took an early 4 hour bus ride home and all of us have spent the day in various degrees of rest. I did  wander out into the adjoining neighborhood for  a bit this afternoon on my own, which felt good, although I didn’t  have the energy to venture far.  I’ve got a short week left, with a national holiday on Tuesday, so hopefully will be able to knock this thing off before it gets too bad.  Emergen-c’s and zinc are in short supply around here and can  fetch a pretty good bartering price!  No doubt an early to bed night for everyone tonite.
Nothing, but nothing  in the Moroccan culture is simple… this photo is of  the lobby and dining area of our hotel (people use the many coffee tables as dining tables, the same as we do at the volunteer house)

 

 

 

 

Finding my “Moroccan roots”…(.or my ease with this place….)

 

Comfort has set in, which is both good and bad, but I’m going to go with the good.  The first week I was in Rabat, I kept my clothes in nealy stacked piles in the small dresser provided for me, and for items with intermittent use, on the unused top bunk of my bed.  My toiletries were lined up neatly on the dresser top and my books and scool materials stacked in tidy piles on the floor by my bed.  I put a bit of effort into my clothing decisions and would even change my shirt if headed out after placement to the medina (market) or for a coffee.  All bets are off now.  I wore the shirt I had on today yesterday but tried to disguise my repetition with a scarf, and it’s possible I will sleep in it tonite.  My socks don’t match (no shoes in the house so they do show) and my hair… well let’s just say thank goodness for hats and scarves.  Showers come about every other day, if I’m lucky, and are under a dribble of warm water that is quick to turn cool.  The Hassam is not only my pleasure dip into Moroccan culture, but my reassurance that all good hygiene is not lost.  Honestly, I really don’t care, which feels nice and pretty doggone freeing and maybe just a tad bit scary, but I’ve walked these paths before when traveling in developing countries, so it’s familiar.  Whereas the makeup came out the first few days, it’s tucked away now…replaced with a tube of Berts Bees Chapstick and a bottle of sunscreen.  I’m comfortable.  I’m thinking about going Morrocan on my eating….sans silverware, but don’t want to frighten my fellow volunteers….at least not just yet.

I’ve adapted to the slower pace and am enjoying the unscheduled time I have to simply be while I process this new culture.  I love the food.  I love the warm spirit of the people.  I love their deep sense of country pride that radiates from their excited faces when they are sharing a piece of their culture with me, whether it be a place, an artifact or a dish.  I love that they aren’t afraid of color or spices and with both, everything goes together.   For example, today’s lunch of pastilla, which was a grouping of foods that I would never put together….think baklava stuffed with saffron seasoned chicken.  Sweet and savory all wrapped into one dish.  My students will be thrilled that I tried it and even more thrilled that I liked it as they’ve been talking it up to me since my day with them!    I love the afternoon Moroccon mint tea, and am drinking it like a true Moroccan…with sugar and a “tourban” (the foam that is formed on the top when the tea pot is held high from the cup during the pouring).

I love the work I’m doing, both at the orphanage and the school and although what I’m doing is only a small drop in a very big bucket, I know it is changing the way I see the world, and my place in it.  I continue to be reminded of the tremendous fortune behind the country name that’s written on my passport, something that’s easily forgotten, especially during difficult times at home with elections that didn’t go as I wanted and the frustrations that are growing within the social structures at home.  Still, they are problems that although significant, pale when compared to those in developing countries, such as Morroco.

I’m on the downhill part of my Morrocan adventure and in less than a week, will be on my way home.    All of my housemates are in various stages of sickness, upper respiratory crud caught from the kids at placement, or dish washing by hand in cool water, or the close sleeping arrangements, or most likely a little bit of each.  For some reason, I’ve been spared, and am feeling great, with a side of guilt….

After another difficult day at the orphanage…one boy had a seizure, an epidemic of chicken pox among the babies and an older boy hitting me because he wasn’t getting the attention from me that he wanted, I’m breathing a TGIF relief sigh and will be getting on a bus shortly headed for the beautiful (or so I’m told) , town of Chefchouan for the weekend.  Today, I feel like I’ve earned it…

Respect. Dignity. Love.

I’m going with a stock photo since cameras aren’t allowed in the orphanage….

Salema.  Her name is Salema….the little girl who has captured my heart in the orphanage. Today she was in a pink Hello Kitty sweatshirt and almost matching pink pants.  I think it suited her better than the Rock the Band shirt.  I couldn’t help but glance at the size as I was trying to reposition her in her crib, and it was a 4 toddler.  The pants had been pinned to keep them on.  I’m guessing she is 11 or 12 years old and her legs are so thin that when I took one of them in my thumb and index finger, there was at least an inch of overlap on my fingers.  She was happy today, and I reminded her more than once that she had the best seat in the house as her bed is right under a large window and when I pulled the colorful striped curtain back, she was able to feel the sunshine on her face, along with a gentle breeze, as one of the window panes was missing from the window.  The pleasures are tiny….a breeze on her face on a picture perfect day and a soft stuffed dog nestled next to her.  She was happy.  Very happy.  She would grab my lab coat every time I started to leave her so I know she was aware of my presence and that felt good.  I noticed that both of her palms had a brown stain on them, the same stain I had noticed last week.  It looked a bit like iodine.  I assumed it was a marking to indicate a health issue to the nurses or aides, but when I asked Mohamed, he said no, it was the remainder of a henna marking that all the girls were given a few weeks ago for a religious holiday. I was touched to hear that the girls in the orphanage had henna painted on their palms simply for beautification purposes.  Dignity.  Respect.  Love.

I’m starting to get used to the wails, the screams, the wheezing and the raspy crying, or maybe less shocked is a more appropriate description.  I do find that a brief respite with the babies one floor up, is a good recharge for my emotional batteries.  Most of the babies have their name and birthdate above their crib, but the handful with only names and no dates are the babies that were found,
so there is no accurate birthdate.  The babies are usually named by a social worker unless already named by the mother who gives them up.  They are so adorable, and mostly male as the ones that do get adopted out, are usually the girls as they are viewed as being easier to raise.  Mothers are also more likely to give a son away than a daughter as there is a fear that once the son gets older and learns of the circumstances of his birth (i.e. unwed mother), he might retaliate against her.  They are all so hungry for the tiniest bit of attention and touch and it takes so very little to get them to go from crying to smiles and giggles.  I was playing “this little piggy” with one of the baby’s toes, when I realized the irony of the song given that pigs are,a rarity around here as Muslims do not eat pork because it is considered an unclean meat.  No pigs.  And sadly,  no bacon.

I will be back at the orphanage tomorrow as the women’s center is closed on Fridays.  Today there were meetings at the school, which is why I ended up at the orphanage.  The combination gives me a nice cultural, intellectual and emotional mix.

The traffic was crazy this morning as the King’s brother is getting married today (a celebration that lasts several days) and there are many dignitaries in town.  I find it all very exciting… Mohamed, not so much.  He said he doesn’t know that much about it, but if I want to know more, I should ask a girl….

When the scarves come off, so does a whole lot more… the Hammam

If you are the least bit shy then a Hammam probably isn’t for you, but I figured when in Morocco….

For a culture of women who commonly cover themselves from head to toe, all bets are off when you enter a Hamman.  It’s a large tiled room with high ceilings with faucets lining one wall and hooks for clothing on the opposite wall and a whole lot of naked women.  This, my friends, was a Hamman.  Again, not for the modest or shy but certainly for anyone who wants to shed layers and layers of dead, dirty skin.  Yep, the head scarves are gone as well as every other article of clothing, except the the panties, who a few donned and we were happy to follow suit.  (we, meaning Dee Dee, Mimi and myself).

We were given a heads up by one of the women in the house as to what we should expect but it still came as a bit of a surprise when we stepped into what I would consider the “lobby” and just feet from the door, slatted wooden benches lined the walls and had several women in different degrees of nakedness, simply enjoying a chat with their friends.  OK, so we were in the “changing room”… so… when in Morocco…we all followed suit and started undressing.  Check your modesty at the door,  as there’s no place for it here!

Once down to our panties, we handed our clothing to the woman behind the desk, who promptly put them in a storage bin.  At that point, Mimi and I both realized that we had forgotten to bring a towel but figured we’d sort that out when we had to.  I asked the woman behind the front desk if there was one I could buy, rent or borrow and between her Arabic and my broken French, no information was exchanged, which I took as a “no.”

We were then escorted into the warm, high-ceilinged, tiled room (which by the way was, thankfully,
was very clean…) and given a mat to sit on.  We were each assigned to a woman, who happened to be
from the group of women who were behind the front desk, but now they too were naked, except for swim suit bottoms.  They then began to prep for the “treatment” (due to lack of a better word) by filling several buckets with perfectly temperate water and placing them near where we were seated.  My attendant didn’t seem near as cheerful as the attendants Mimi and Dee Dee had and seemed rather annoyed with me when I didn’t naturally know what to do next, which basically was sit still while she doused me with dipper after dipper of the warm water followed by a generous soaping of my body with traditional black Moroccan soap (a soft, black soap that doesn’t suds up,  but felt very rich, almost oily).  After a few minutes of waiting for the soap to soak in and do its magic (I’m making that up because I had no idea why my attendant left… maybe she just wanted a tea break…), I was once again rinsed and then the fun began.  My attendant used a hand scrubber that looked like a mitt-sized scotchbrite pad, similar to one you would use to scrub a dirty pot.  And as if I WAS the dirty pot, Fatima (seriously, I was all but naked around her, I should at least call her by name…), went over every inch of my skin and scrubbed my skin with short, forceful strokes, while flipping,  turning, and stabilizing me with her free limbs.  With no common language between us, I simply let the bigger and
stronger than me Moroccan woman go about her scrubbing business, moving me as she needed to,
rather than try to anticipate where and how she wanted me.   If I were a wrestler, I might know the name of some of the holds she was using, but I’m not, so will just say that although it wasn’t exactly painful, neither the torquing or the scrubbing,  it was nothing to sleep through either.   I was almost afraid to look at all the sand that must have been piling up next to me after spending the weekend in the desert, but no doubt it was nothing that hadn’t been seen countless times before.

So here I was, nearly naked, lying face down on a tiled floor with a large Moroccan woman scrubbing just about every inch of my body, thinking that this might even beat riding a camel in the desert as far as surreal feelings go… I shared this experience with two women who I’ve known for less than ten days, one with whom I slept inches away from in a tent after less than a week of our introduction and both who I found myself next to, while nearly naked, in a Hassam.  I’m making fast friends here in Morocco!  After all the scrubbing was completed, Fatima washed my hair (I had a heads up on this so had brought my own shampoo.)  It was a most delightful experience and I don’t think my hair has
ever felt cleaner.

After the scrubbing, the washing, and the rinsing, we were escorted into the adjoining room, which was quite a bit hotter and told (via international body language) to stay there for no more than 20 minutes, then re-rinse in the first room and you’re done!  Of course once back in the lobby, I think all of the women who worked there got a kick out of seeing what Mimi and I were going to do without a towel.  I used my sweatshirt and Mimi just put her clothes on over her wet body.  There was quite a bit of chuckling from our “scrubbers” who were now back in their clothes and behind the desk.

One of the sweetest things I saw was a little girl, about 5 or 6, with a bucket full of Barbie dolls that she was scrubbing.  She had just finished her scrub and was now it was her Barbie doll’s turn.  The Hassam is for all ages, a family thing,  although males and females do go to separate rooms, or
possibly even separate buildings as I saw no hint of a man in the vicinity, thank goodness.

The whole process took a little over an hour and cost less than ten dollars, which included a tip for my attendant.   It’s a very popular ritual here that Mohamed told us is done weekly by those who can afford it.  That could explain the beautiful skin the Moroccan women have, although you can see very little of that beautiful skin, outside of the Hamman, that is… I will definitely do it again while I’m here as my hurried showers with little hot water are hardly getting the first layer of dirt off let alone several, like I was able to part with this afternoon.  My students this morning were anxious to hear about my Hamman experience and did I like it?  Did  I want to do it again?  And most importantly, is there anything like it in America??  I think they were delighted to know that I not only enjoyed it, but was planning on doing it again.  So far, so good on all things Moroccan that I’ve tried, although I already gave them a heads up that I will not be a part of eating sheeps head.  I publicly drew the line.

Oh yea, for obvious reasons, no photos… I’ll let you go with your imagination on this one…

 

Working at the children’s orphanage in Rabat…

Last Friday, I spent my morning working at the children’s orphanage because the women’s center where I’m teaching English is closed on Fridays.  The first thing I have to say is that I’m grateful for the placement I got, as working at the orphanage this morning was very difficult for me. The room I worked in was large, bright and very clean and had probably 10 or so cribs and a large play pen in the center of the room where two of the bigger boys were situated. Initially, I assumed that the children were toddlers, maybe the oldest 5 or 6, but once I started feeding them I saw that they all had their permanent teeth (they were all fed some sort of formula but the bigger two in the playpen, who were spoon-fed milk soaked bread.   I later learned that most were in the pre-teen to young teenagers, although there were a few that even the workers knew exactly how old they were.  I must admit to being a bit surprised when I saw pubic hair on one of the girl’s whose diaper was being changed next to where I was.  That told me a lot regarding their age.  Their tiny bodies were contorted, and their limbs bone thin and when I picked a few of them up to move them, they were hard to carry as their bodies didn’t conform to mine as I was used to, but rather, were stiff and unyielding.  I was also terribly afraid I would hurt them so was being overly cautious.

Illegitimate children in Morocco are considered outcasts, non-people or bastards and given that unmarried sex is illegal in Muslim countries, the stakes are very high for a woman who finds herself pregnant without a father that is willing to marry her and accept in the responsibilities.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of repercussion towards the man who gets the woman pregnant, but rather, it is entirely the burdon for the woman to carry.  Although recent legal reform says that an unmarried woman may register her child to make them available for social programs, with the fathers concent or not, this is not a law that seems to be followed and women still seem to be paying the price.  This is why so many children end up in orphanages as they are literally the babies who are “thrown away” by the mother to protect herself.

The children at this orphanage are totally dependent upon others for their care and from what I saw,
couldn’t do anything on their own short of cry to indicate distress.  During my time there,  I was able
to go up to the 3rd floor where the youngest babies reside.  They were absolutely adorable and most of them looked healthy and would be considered “adoptable.”  The adoption standards are rigid though, as only a Muslim can adopt a baby in Morocco and even though they may bring them up as they choose (in a Muslim family), they must promise to keep the baby’s given Arabic name.  The whole process can take years and there’s a reluctancy to adopt to families living outside of Morocco, even if they are Moroccan.  The children with physical limitations, like the ones I was working with, aren’t considered adoptable and even if there was someone who wanted to adopt them, the orphanage is reluctant, fearing that the families would not be able to handle the burden and would leave the child once again.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what my role was going to be once all of the kids had been fed (they were
bathed and in clean clothes before we arrived), but it didn’t take long to realize that once their bellies were full, all these kids wanted was some attention and physical touch.  A simple caress of a cheek
with gentle words or singing was enough to calm them down and more than once, I was able to get a
few smiles or a hand that would reach through the crib bars to touch me.  I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t toddlers, but rather were children, due to the fact that they fit in a normal
sized crib.  There was one girl who tugged at my heart and who I spent most of my time with. She had beautiful brown curls and huge brown eyes and was so contorted that her little body barely took up half of the space in the crib.  She was wearing a child-sized, red “ROCK THE BAND” tee shirt that made mention of a music festival in Buffalo, NY.   My reaction vascilated between sad as it seemed to make her appear even more vulnerable than she already was, and happy, simply because of the irony of it.  That being said, I did tell her several times that she rocked the shirt and for some reason, that became a connecting thread for us, even though she of course had no idea what I was
saying.  My tone, however, I’m sure she understood.

As much as I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of Morocco and the traditions of its people,
(Muslim lessons will begin later this week), I’m finding that I learn so much about a culture through
observation of how their most vulnerable are treated.  I saw this at Mother Theresa’s in Perú and
again at the orphanage in Rabat.  Because of medical issues, which I’m sure are a result of poor
prenatal care coupled with difficult births, most likely without medical assistance, most of these children will have a very shortened life span.  It was so touching  to see the women at the orphanage work tirelessly and with such love to insure that these children are given the best life possible.  All of their cribs were made up with colorful bedding and had at least one stuffed animal propped up where it was visible to the child.  The clothes they had on were clean and gender specific (which was a good thing as I was having a hard time with a few of them determining if they were boys or girls).  I was deeply touched by the love I saw in that room.  When I went upstairs to peek in the babies room, I had to wonder about the ones that may not ever get adopted and will end up spending their entire life
in  the orphanage and what they could become if raised in the protective embrace of a loving family.  The staff does the best it  can, but there are not enough employees or volunteers to give
these children the attention and the touch that they are so hungry for.

Given the time I’ve had to process this initial visit, no doubt my time this Friday at the orphanage will be a bit easier, but that’s not to say that it won’t come with a tear or two.  Gratitude.  For so much.  I
can’t begin to express….

There are no photos allowed inside the orphanage to protect the children, but I did get a photo of me ouside of the building, complete with the jacket they like us to wear to protect our clothing.

 

 

How many Moroccons does it take to get someone out of a bathroom with a jammed lock?

Sadly, I know that answer… it was 4.  One to shout directions to me in Arabic from the other side of the door, one to start tearing the jam down with a crow bar and two to watch.

I spent the weekend with three of my housemates on a jaunt to the Sahara to ride camels and sleep under the stars… well not exactly under the stars as we were in a tent, but pretty darn close.  It’s hard to even begin to describe how magical the camel ride was and the sleeping out in the desert in the middle of no where, but I have to admit, when I returned to the house tonite, the first story that came out was me getting stuck in the small bathroom in my hotel room.

Because it was a 10 hour drive from Rabat to where we were going to ride camels and camp in the Sahara, we got there quite late so stayed in a local hotel, where we would board our camels the following day for our trek to the camp site.  The door bathroom lock was not quite up to par from the beginning, and I wouldn’t have even used it except it was the only way the door would shut and felt it was a courtesy to Mimi, my roomate for the evening.  So…. shortly after breakfast, I returned to the room to get my things in order for the trek and lo and behold, when I tried to unlock the door, it
wouldn’t budge.  I fiddled around with it for a few minutes, when Simone (one of the other girls I was traveling with) knocked on the door to tell me they were ready to go.  When I told her I couldn’t get out, I heard her go down the hall shouting “….uh….we’re going to need some help here…”  And that is when the 4 Moroccan men showed up and started shouting directions to me in Arabic.  I wasn’t having any luck explaining to them that it wasn’t the door handle that was jammed, but the lock below it (honestly, I don’t know why I said anything as they couldn’t understand a word I was saying).    I was in there a good 15 minutes before I saw a crow bar rip apart the door jam to free the lock.

I have to admit, I was starting to panic a bit as the bathroom was quite small and I wasn’t sure exactly how they were going to free up the lock short of knocking the door down.  When the door was finally
opened, and I saw the damage to the jam, I looked at them with a thankful, yet oh so apologetic look and they just shrugged their shoulders and smiled as if to say…”No problem, it happens all the time…” (which I’m sure is not far from the truth).

I was leery the rest of the weekend of bathroom doors with funky locks… and believe me, that includes most of them that I saw.  Between trying to hold doors shut with my foot, (yea, I know… it wasn’t easy) or leaning forward and holding it shut with my hand, I decided the easiest (and safest) route to go was to simply let it swing open and forgo the privacy, which I did and fortunately seemed to hit the public bathrooms when no one else did.

After a weekend of magic in the desert with a camel trek, a full moon and a night under the stars, honestly, it was the getting locked in the bathroom story that came out first to my housemates once home.  The rest of the weekend, I’m savoring and will share in pieces…

Our “Alibaba” inspired hotel restaurant…

 

 

Casablanca has Rick’s Cafe, the 2nd largest religious building in the world and STARBUCKS!!

 

We were without the internet in the house for the past two days and once over the initial… “now what?”… I’ve got to admit, it was nice.  Something happened that I remember fondly from my time volunteering in Perú and that is conversation.  The four 20 somethings in the house did not share that sentiment and not knowing what to do with their hands, their minds, their attention, they left the house for some night life.  Dee Dee, Mimi and I sat around and chatted… something I’ve missed. But now it’s back and we’re all connected, especially the 20 somethings, who appear to have regained their will to live.
I took the train to Casablanca today, a little over an hour away, with Mimi and Dee Dee this morning.
Our first sense of accomplishment came early with successful maneuvering through the prompts on
the machine where we purchased our tickets.  Suffice to say, it took several attempts but when tickets
(and even to the right place) and change popped out of the orange slot on the machine, there was a
unanimous sigh of relief.  People are very friendly and helpful here, although that help usually comes
in the form of French, not English.  Few (I can count on one hand), have been able to offer assistance in English, but I expected that.
The station as well as the train were both incredibly clean and modern, making for a nice, easy ride. The station in Casablanca was a beautiful surprise – almost like a large shopping center,  although most of the stores were closed.  Today is a national holiday for the Moroccans, which is why we weren’t working and could travel in the first place.  I’m learning that there are many national holidays in this country (we will have next Tuesday off as well…).  Today was the celebration of Morocco
taking Western Sahara from Spain.

Much to our surprise and delight, we were greeted with a two-story Starbucks as we made our way
up from the platform… a very welcome sight!  A  couple of sips into my coffee made me realize how bad the coffee at the house is.  It’s instant coffee that’s been boiled and is served with hot milk.  Tea doesn’t seem to be available unless it’s the traditional Moroccan mint tea, which is only served at
lunch at with far more sugar than I’m normally used to.  I don’t usually like to hit up the American sites when traveling outside of the country, but was very happy to enjoy a Starbucks this morning.

A welcome site…
The main attraction in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, the 2nd largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca.  It was completed in 1993 after 6 years of construction by
35,000 craftsmen and had a price tag of over half a billion dollars.  The price tag fell upon the people of Morocco, with even the children offering up their pennies to help pay for it.  We arrived 20 minutes too late for a tour, and really didn’t want to wait 2 hours for the next tour, so asked one of the guides if it would be OK for us to go in a bit late.  No.  There were no exceptions.  Dee Dee added that we were staying in Rabat and were volunteering in the orphanage (where her placement is).  It
was like Dorothy explaining to the wizard that we had come all that way…

“Well in THAT case….

I don’t think any of us like playing the “volunteer” card, but it is nice to gain the respect from the

locals when they find out why you are here.  Well played, Dee Dee. having private tour was nice.  I
must say, as elaborate, exquisite, grand, enormous and incredible as it was, I found myself somewhat
offended by the huge gesture of grandeur that this King built in his honor.  It was built BY the people,
but clearly is not FOR the people.  First of all, it was close to $10 to enter, so was clearly for tourists.
Although the call to prayer went off while we were there, no one was coming in to pray.  It felt overly large and far too empty.  Many of the rooms were for “show” only (our guide shared that with us as I asked..), such as the rooms for ablutions (where the  body is cleansed before prayer).  In a city with so much poverty, to walk into a large intricately tiled
room that’s only used as a display for tourists, seemed like the wrong way to spend so much money.  From what I’ve read, many of the locals feel the same way.  I am glad we went though, and was
happy to be able to step inside, especially given that it is the only mosque in Morocco that a non-
Muslim can enter.

Hassan II Mosque
Intricate tile… everywhere!
BIG door!!!
The other highlight was a delightful lunch at “Rick’s Cafe” (from the movie, Casablanca).  Although the food at the house has been wonderful, it was nice to have a leisurely lunch in a restaurant.  OK, maybe it was the glass of wine that added so much to the enjoyment.  There was a note on the bottom of the menu, by the way, to any Muslims that may be dining there that some of the dishes may have alcohol in them so one should check before ordering.  As Mohamed has said, alcohol is against the law here, but is available for tourists… and tourists only….(I think there is a lot of turning a blind eye that goes on around here…)
Rick’s Cafe
One last observation… I noticed small rooms at the train station, one for men and one for women, where shoes are removed at the doorway and people can slip in to pray during the calls to prayer.  I saw several men going in, but no women.  I asked some of my students about this the other day, and one of the gentlemen told me that it’s more important for the men to go pray than for the women.  I’m not sure how accurate that is, but from what I observed today, it seemed like the women were too busy tending to the children to slip into the rooms for prayer.  I suppose what has struck me the most about the call to prayer is that the women and the men pray separately.
We made it back to the house just in time for dinner, but I must say, I’m still pretty full from lunch.  Great day!

Tomorrow the language school is closed, so I will be spending time at the orphanage.  It won’t be easy.  That I know for sure.

The young man knows his adjectives! And the teacher has success…

Give it time and have and patience…

Today, during what became an impromptu study of adjectives, I had each of the 6 students come up with 3 positive adjectives describing someone they knew, without any repeating.  The next to the last student at the table described her best friend with these three adjectives:

1.  She’s beautiful
2.  She’s stylish
3.  She’s slender

The last student, a 20 something young man with a continual smile on his face and twinkle in his eye, had only one response when I asked him for his 3 adjectives, and it was:

“I want that girl’s phone number.”

And we’ve connected… the teacher and the students.

This is real learning.  We’re getting to know each other well enough that humor is beginning to filter into the lessons….

Today was a much better day.

Nothing to do with teaching today, just a photo I took that I liked…

 

 

English lessons for them, Arabic lessons for me, and we all go home happy… well sort of…

I really have no idea as to the impact I had this morning during my first day teaching English, but I
was given an exquisitely drawn rendering of my name in Arabic by the one student that told me
without words that she was not going to talk.  Instead, she carefully drew a very stylized version of my name in Arabic.  Every once and a while, I’d notice her looking up from her drawing, with a

grin or a chuckle at something I had said, so speak or not, I think she understood more than she wanted to admit, and was simply shy about speaking.

My name is in there somewhere…

There were 20 some students at the school, mostly all female (3 male students trickled in during the
course of the class, which surprised me, but I was told that men were allowed to come for the English lessons).  Although they all had different skill levels, the one thing they had in common was their desire to learn.  I was with another volunteer from the house, Kelsey, which made it a bit easier, if not to simply have someone to share glances of “what do we do now???”  We eventually decided that breaking into two groups of ten might make conversing a bit easier, and it did.  Because we didn’t know what their English abilities were going to be, we didn’t bring any materials with us so were winging it all the way.  I did, however, bring some photos I had of my family and my life,  as I thought it would make for a good conversation starter (although their abilities varied tremendously,
they all seemed to be able to understand most of what I said and string simple sentences together).

Shortly after passing the photos around, I noticed that the woman seated next to me had put her head down on the table.  I thought that perhaps she wasn’t feeling well, but soon noticed that she was
crying.  She explained to me that her son lived in California and she missed him terribly, and seeing
the photos of me with my children made her sad.  Of course I felt terrible and any momentum I had
made with my now smaller group of students, was quickly lost.  One of the other women gave me a glance and unsaid permission to go on as she would be fine.  Maybe this happens a lot?  I couldn’t help but remember something that Mohamed had told us the previous day and that was to never take the worth of our passport for granted.  In Morocco, you have to have a visa to leave the country, which has to be applied for months ahead of time, along with a $160 fee.  He said then you may or may not get the visa and don’t know until you are notified by mail.  Of course the $160 is lost either way (minimum wage is $250 a month, so a $160 fee is quite a bit of money).  This poor woman, working so hard on her English so she will be able to speak English for “when I’m in America,” may not even be able to get a visa in the first place.

I had just gotten started again with my impromptu teaching, when the same woman grabbed my arm
and pulled me closer to her and told me she had recently had an operation.  It took a few tries of her
telling me, but I was finally able to put it together that she had breast cancer, had recently had a mastectomy and had just finished radiation.  She may have found a friend, but I’m not sure sitting
next to me is such a good idea as I think she was trying to turn a classroom situation into “private lessons.”

I pulled out just about everything I had, as they patiently waited to see what I had for them next.  No
one, except for my new best friend, wanted to take any initiative on the talking short of the guy in my
class who was very interested in learning more about Las Vegas.  I’ve only been there once, but did my best to stretch out what little I had.  Oh,  and he wondered…”did I eat at McDonalds a lot??  This
was no easy feat today, and if I didn’t have something to tell them, they would quickly fall into spirited conversations among themselves… of course, all in Arabic.  I experienced several of those
awkward moments of watching myself as I tried to work my way back into the attention of everyone
that was surrounding me at the table.  And slowly, I’d be able to work myself back into visibility with anything I could pull up… “What did you do yesterday?  Wasn’t it hot??”   Sorry folks, but short of
asking you your favorite color, that’s all I’ve got.  I know it will get better.

Kelsey had a similar experience with her group, so once back at the house, we started pouring
through stacks of materials we found in a supply closet and were relieved to at least have something to work with tomorrow.  This is a free language school for the students and is staffed with only with volunteers.  I always wonder how much impact I’m really making during volunteer situations like this, but when Mohammad told us that if we weren’t there, they wouldn’t have class, made me realize
that we absolutely were making a difference, regardless of how inept I felt today.  Teachers, I’ve
always had the utmost respect for what you do, but that respect doubled today.

The rest of the group volunteered at the children’s orphanage or the children’s hospital.   After hearing
their stories, I know I made the right choice in my job placement.  Most of the children at the
orphanage were “thrown away” after birth by single mothers in order to avoid jail time, as giving
birth out of wedlock is punishable by law.  One of the other volunteers told me that most of them were severely deformed and needed complete care.  She also told me that the place was immaculate and that the children were very well cared for.

I remember the long quiet rides back to house after volunteering at my placement in Perú and today was no different.  No doubt, first and foremost on all of our minds was how fortunate we were that we were born in the United States.  It’s easy to forget that…

We had an afternoon of site seeing, with time inside the medina (the old walled town) an ancient fort
and our first glimpse of the ocean.  The colors were amazing.

 

One last thing… in the short amount of time I’ve been here, I’ve already become accustomed to the bells, that sound more like fog horns, that signal prayer time…  four times a day..