Arabic is hard…

This is what I learned today… (well, actually, I learned a lot more than this, but these are my stand out points…)

1.  Arabic is a very difficult language, but I had kind of figured that out before I came, so I’m not going to count that as one

1.  TRUE Argon oil (very popular here) comes from the Argon tree, which is only grown in one city in the world… Agadir, Morocco, which also happens to be where our house manager is from.  Goats climb the argon trees and eat the hard shell off of the nut, which then falls to the ground and is harvested.  I’m hopeful to be able to witness this… trees filled with goats.  Mohammad said it looks a lot like a tree full of birds, only of course they are goats, not birds.  Seems like something worthwhile to seek out.  I mean seriously… a tree full of goats??

2.  Bread is considered sacred (it is a very bread-centered diet here… again, died and gone to heaven on the food here…) so all bread scraps must be put in a separate container when we clean up our plates after mealtime.  The leftover bread is then fed to animals.  All other trash is thrown out.  No recycling (or at least not here…)

3.  If you are Moroccan, and want to get a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex, you must show proof of marriage.  It is illegal for Moroccans to share a hotel room unless married.  This does not apply to other nationalities.

Pretty good stuff.  This is a very interesting country and our in country manager, Mohamed is extremely personable and very knowledgeable.  He served in the Peace Corps, has a law degree, is fluent in several languages and has an incredible sense of humor.


She’s not in Kansas anymore…

You know you are far from home when you have to go through two other translations before you finally hear English, but are discouraged that you can’t understand a word of your native tongue that’s hiding behind a very thick Arabic accent with a whole lot of French influence.  And then there’s the signage, as beautiful as it is curious.

Yep, that’s me… Laurie Sunderland, reading from right
to left.

The journey to Rabat was long… not because it was all that far (a “short” 2 plus hour flight from
Paris), but because the biggest part of the flight, Boston to Paris, felt more like a KC to Albany run
given the size of the plane…knee to knee, elbow to elbow, bad food and generous pours on cheap
wine (ok actually free wine), all added up to a not so great experience, short of a lovely French
woman sitting next to me (seriously, are we ever so intimate with strangers but on a plane???) who was interested in what I was knitting and pulled out her phone to share photos of her recent knit projects.  Sometimes words aren’t necessary.  I love that.  I think I will need to keep loving that communication with few words in the weeks to come…

The house where I’m staying is small but very charming and efficient.  It’s also incredibly clean and I would totally feel comfortable eating off of any part of the floor, where, by the way, shoes are not allowed.  Barefoot all the way!  I will be sharing this small 2 bunks room with another girl
who I haven’t yet met, as she is away this weekend.  I’ve taken cues from her neatly stacked belongings and have tried to organize my things with that in mind.  I think she’ll be pleased with her new roommate’s organizational skills.  Not even knowing who will be in the bed a short 4
feet from mine is just one more curious anticipation that I find myself faced with right now.

Tomorrow, we ( the 4 volunteers who arrived today, including myself) will have our orientation, at which time I will learn more specifically what I will be doing during my time here. It sounds like I may be the only one at my placement at the women’s center as it sounds like everyone else will be working at the orphanage, but I will learn more tomorrow.  It is this unknowing, this going to bed with new sounds, new smells, and new sensations, that reminds me of why I love this so much, which kind of surprises my orderly, Virgo side.  It takes me back to so many first nights in 3rd world countries when I teetered between waking up in the middle of the night with feelings of “what the hell???” and not being able to fall asleep because I was so anxious for it to be morning when I’d be able to get a closer look at my new temporary home.

Those of us who were around tonite (only 4 of us) had a lovely light supper of lamb, rice, fruit salad, roasted fennel, Moroccan soup, homemade bread (which I smelled all afternoon baking), dates, pomegranates, and a combination of sautéed vegetables.  Not only was it a beautiful spread, but very tasty as well.

For now, I’m tucked comfortably away in my lower bunk ready to sleep off some of this jet lag.  I’m
soaking in the smells and sounds of this new city, this new country, this new continent and it’s feeling pretty amazing.  I can smell a hint of jasmine that is coming through the billowing curtains of my open deck door. Perfection.

I feel like I need to add a bit of a editing disclaimer… I’m not used to my new iPad combined with my blog site that’s totally gone French on me ( I definitely need to learn how to say “delete” in French and quit pushing that button.) This was quite a challenge for me to get this tiny bit of typing done tonite…I’m hoping I can blame much on jet lag but that may be hopeful. So ignore the obvious, including the creative indents that insist on being present regardless of what I do.  
Salaam from Rabat!



Going to the “BEYOND” part…

In a few days, I’ll be leaving the many comforts of home and stretching my travels a bit father than my usual 677 miles east or west down I-70.  I’ll be headed to Morocco, where I’ll be living in Rabat for three weeks.  I’ll be spending my time volunteering at the Feminin Pluriel,  a women’s center that uses social, cultural and educational activities as a means to help empower women.  That being said, I really have no idea what I will be doing.  The language barrier is a bit daunting to me right now, given that I don’t speak Arabic, and they don’t speak English. Several months ago, I did go through the motions of thinking I’ll learn some basic phrases in Arabic… I bought the book, turned some pages, got discouraged.  Then of course, there’s the whole Arabic characters situation, which although quite lovely on the page,  it’s all very unfamiliar and overwhelming.   I will never complain about the subjunctive tense in Spanish again.  The book tells me that with a vocabulary of only a few hundred words, I will be able to “survive in an Arabic speaking country and even communicate some thoughts.”  I’m still working on “good morning” (sabaahal kyayr) but am not sure how far the one phrase will get me.  Especially once the sun goes down.  I think I’ll bring my knitting.  That’s one thing I can teach without words.  And photos.  Pictures tell stories without words.

I’m going to call that “how to communicate without fuss or fear… instantly!” false advertising…

This will be my second volunteer trip with Cross Cultural Solutions organization (my first being to Perú) and my first time to Africa, which is feeling very far away to me right now…. 4,681 miles to be exact.  While preparing for this (ie packing, unpacking, rethinking then repacking etc.) I find myself teetering between feelings of excitement and anticipation laced with a bit of what the hell am I doing?  I’ve been down this emotional path before while anticipating the pathways to new adventures,  and whether it’s on a mountain trail by myself, or getting ready to travel to a foreign country for three weeks by myself,  where I don’t speak the language and know little about the culture,  I think a bit of fear and trepidation is good.  I believe it helps keep me safe.

People will ask me when I return home, what did I do? Did I help build houses or schools or develop programs that will live on long past my stay?  And I’ll answer just as I did when I returned from Perú.  None of those things.  But what I did do was…

I listened.  I held hands.  I accepted gracious invitations into homes that were dirt floored hovels and was invited to sit on couches that scared me because of the rodents that I’m sure were sharing the cushions with me. I danced to Peruvian music that I never could find the beat to and painted the thickened and dirty nails of grateful abuelas with old sticky nail polish while I held their hand in mine and recognized the thread of vanity that connected us both.  I listened to countless stories of abuse, fear and pain told to me by some of the strongest women I’ve ever met.  I laughed with them.  I cried with them.  I held their hand and accepted their affection.  I immersed myself into a culture that I thought I knew about before going, but really had no idea.

But what did you DO???

What I did was learn that the world is far bigger than the country where I comfortably reside and that there is so much to be learned from the handful of third world countries I’ve spent time in.  First off, how much we take for granted.  Clean water comes to mind.  I saw a lot of sickness that was a result of drinking the local water without adding bleach to it first.  Seriously.  Bleach.  While we run our water through filters that we’re told will take out the impurities, these people were adding drops of the same substance we use sparingly to whiten our whites.  Fortunately, I had the luxury of bottled water at my disposal, unlike so many in the community where I lived.  One of the first things my daughter, Emery, said to me during our initial stay in Perú, was how little the people we were volunteering with had, yet how happy they were and maybe, just maybe, they had a much better understanding of what makes a person happy than we did.  What a beautiful realization about life for an 18 year-old to recognize.  To see such joy on the faces of people who live their lives in a constant struggle to simply survive, was a tremendous lesson to us both on living in the moment and finding gratitude in the simplest of things.

I have no idea what to expect during my stay in Rabat, but am guessing many of the experiences will mirror those from Perú, which is what has attracted me to volunteer again with this organization.

Years ago, during my second attempt with college, I decided to major in anthropology after sitting through the first lecture of a cultural anthropology class.  Before signing up for the class, I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t even sure what the study of anthropology even was.   After making a definitive declaration that my major was going to be cultural anthropology with a minor in Spanish,  I was asked countless times what I planned on doing with such a degree. Teach Spanish,  perhaps?  I really had no idea.  Almost 30 years later,  it’s all starting to make sense.

Although I’m feeling a bit nervous and with no idea as to what is ahead for me in the African country of Morocco, or  “al-Mamlakah al Maghribiyyah(المملكة المغربية), which translates to Kingdom of the West,  this feels exactly like what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

I look forward to writing my blog posts from Rabat, as much as both time and internet connection will allow.  So, for now…. as-salaamu alaykum – the most common Arabic greeting and one that thankfully gets shortened to “salaam”, which means peace be upon you.


Hands…The Dangling Strength That Hangs From Our Arms…

Hands.  Although hardly pretty, I’ve really come to love my hands.  They’re the outward representation of my spirit and in their lined palms, they have held all that I’ve loved, lost, hated, feared, created and comforted. They even hold the scar from a mishap with a tomato can lid while I was pregnant with Emery and trying to precook meals in anticipation of her arrival.  I was told, after my 10 stitches to the palm, that I’d never be able to get an accurate palm reading on that hand as there’s an extra line.  Maybe that tomato can lid added something to my life by adding the line – at least that’s the theory I’m going with.

My sister, Susan, told me that she had a yoga teacher once ask the class to look at their hands deeply enough that they almost seemed separate from the rest of their body and think about what they’ve done in your lifetime.  I had never really done that before and became rather obsessed with the idea of my hands.  Sure, the other parts of my body have also been along for the ride,  but it is the hands, the very visible hands,  that have created,  destroyed, cradled, protected and applauded their way through this life.

Susan told me that during the process of thinking about her hands, she thought about other hands and which pairs she would recognize.  She told me she would recognize my hands easily and wondered, would I be able recognize my own children’s hands out of a group of several?

“Of course I would!!!”  (this definitive YES is in no way trying to neutralize my confession in an early post of not recognizing my own new born in the hospital…)

But I later wondered…. would I?

Somehow hearing that Susan would recognize my hands gave me a deep sense of comfort.  She said they were hard working hands.  She’s right. My hands have always felt right at home digging in the dirt.  I know there are tools for that, and they do help me get the job started, but when it comes to placing a new plant into the earth I want to have full on skin to dirt contact.  That being said, I’ve entered into the season of perpetually dirty nails that do not know their way around a nail salon and quite honestly, kind of feel like they don’t belong.  With garden centers, on the other hand,  I’m full in.

While thinking about hands, I couldn’t help but think back to a few years ago and the volunteer work I did in Perú at a center for the poor elderly.  One of the activities I chose one day was to give manicures to any of the women who wanted them. Much to my surprise, almost all of them did, creating a bit of a frenzy at the small “station” I had set up.  I had danced with these women, chatted with them in their homes,  played games with them, but my favorite, by far, were the manicures.  There was a real intimacy in holding their hand, while painting their nails and like little girls, they were in awe of the process, watching carefully and boldly pointing out to me when my little brush painted outside of the nail line.

These hands made my hands look pampered and delicate.  THESE were working hands and just like Madge on the Palmolive commercial, I had all the waiting hands soaking in soapy water.  I told them it was to soften the nail so I could cut them, but in reality it was simply to clean them up a bit as most were filthy. Again, these were working hands.

One of my favorites, Maria Rivera, waited patiently in line and finally took her spot as my last customer.  She had the hands that needed the most work.  Her fingers were bent with arthritis and her nails thick and dirty and terribly ignored.  She had definite ideas as to how she wanted them to look – cut short, painted bright pink and made to look pretty.

“Bonita y rosada por favor.”

I did the best I could to make them not only bright pink, but well manicured and far cleaner than what she started with.  She seemed pleased.  As I held her hand in mine and tried  to file the nails down to a respectable length (they were far too hard to cut), I couldn’t help but think about what Susan had told me about hands.  As I worked my way across the nail of each of her short, thick fingers, I thought about the history I had been told about her, specifically how her own son had tried to strangle her.  Were these  hands that I was holding the same ones that pulled her own son’s hands off of her neck while trying to save her own life?  What else had these very strong hands done to protect the body that they dangled from?  No doubt there were many stories and I wanted to sit back and hear all of them while I held her fight, her strength and her integrity in my own hands.  These same hands, that were her protectors, still honored her vanity and drew perfectly arched brows over sad brown eyes, and placed a gold hat that looked like a half-popped jiffy pop container on top of her neatly coiffed hair every morning before coming to Los Martincitos.

Me and Maria Rivera

I felt honored to feel such intimacy with these women while working on their nails and making them pretty and pink.  The task at hand was the manicure, but I felt like I gained far more than what I gave.  The simple pleasure of being with these beautiful hard-working women who had experienced so much hardship in their lives, one at a time, while holding their hands and letting its energy mingle with my own was a gift.

Amelia… far prouder than she’d let on…
Petronila de Leon’s nails… pretty in pink!


These hands looked a whole lot different 24 hours later…

Besides the fact that the polish was old and sticky and the women insisted on sitting right next to me rather than across from me, which made for awkward angles, plus having to work under the frustration of swarms of flies (I later discovered that directly on the other side of the wall we were sitting in front of was a garbage dump), it has become one of my most treasured memories of my time in Perú.

My own hands, the same that so often had been told to put it down, leave it alone and stop picking at it, followed the rest of myself into a nail salon for a manicure the day before my son, Thomas’ wedding last year.  After the nail tech brought out the third wrong shade of pink,  I had to leave because I started crying.  Yes, crying. That’s not a typo.  When I got home my other son, Grant, asked me if I got my hands all fixed up (boy speak for manicure) and I told him no that I had to leave because I started crying.  He said nothing for a few seconds then responded with:

“You’re not ready for him to get married, are you?”

“No.  He’s still 9 years old… or so it seems.”

Clearly this was not about the wedding, but rather was about my having to face, full on, the passage of time, which felt a whole lot faster than was comfortable.

It’s easier for me to be more accepting of my stubby fingers with rough cuticles and often less than perfectly manicured nails when I think of what these hands have done for me.  The small hands they’ve held while crossing the street, the plants they’ve placed with hope into the dirt and the weeds they’ve pulled out in frustration,  the family dog that they held while he was being put to sleep and the tears they wiped away for so many days that followed, the babies they’ve held, the stories they’ve typed.  I love them in all of their flawed imperfection as they represent my history, my life and my spirit in full view.   How can that not evoke a crazy sense of pride of ownership…dirty nails and all?

The End.