Eye checks, check.

Yesterday was good… my eye check partner, Tim, and I checked a dozen or so eyes yesterday of children ranging in age from 5 to 18.  2 failed.  We had hoped to see a lot more kids but Mohamed said it may take a bit for this new program to catch on.  He tried to drum up some “business” for us by going into the living quarters and knocking on doors.  Many of the mothers simply said their kids eyes were fine.  I’m sure vision problems are not first and foremost on their minds right now.  But word eventually got out and we had a bit of a rush at the end of the day.  I’m sure as the days go on and more and more find out about it, we’ll get the numbers of 30 screenings a day, which is our goal.  Shae and Lynette are next door to us, doing the same thing, also seeing about 12 kids.  There are over 300 in Ritsona and the hope is to get most of them screened in the next few weeks then the process will move on to the 18 and older crew.

The kids caught on quickly to the process, and we were surprised by how many of them had a grasp of English, though limited, enough to understand the directions the antimatter bear gave them on the computer software (the Arabic language didn’t seem to work so we were stuck with the English, which was just as well as we did have a handful that didn’t speak Arabic either.  Only Kurdish, with limited English.

I think my biggest takeaway from the day came from watching the behavior of the boys, especially the 8, 9, 10 age group.  They were extremely aggressive with one another – throwing rocks, fighting and circling each other in real animal stances to show dominance.  I had tested two of them, who Mohamed referred to as the “baddest boys in the camp” and to say they were a handful would be quite an understatement.  While I tested one, the other was running around the room, grabbing things, throwing them, taunting me with threats to push different computer buttons etc.  I know boys will be boys, I had two at those ages so know the score, but this felt very different to me.  They would go from charming, adorable boys to aggression so quickly.  Eventually, they left to go join up others in their age group (where volunteers from our group would have the opportunity to corral them…) and two younger (five or six?) boys became the show for us.  They would circle one another in acts of dominance then the rock throwing began (much of the ground is rock, much larger than gravel and just the right size it seemed for throwing).  They would pick up a rock and reel their arm back as if to throw it at the other boy then slam it onto the ground, almost as if they had gotten caught once and were told never to throw rocks AT someone.  When I mentioned it to Mohamed, he pointed to one of the little boys and said, “Him?” When I answered, “Yes,” he told me that only moments earlier he had seen that boy’s mom throw a rock at him out of desperation because he wouldn[t come when she called him.  Kids learn.

So often throughout the day I had to circle my thought pattern back to the understanding of where these kids, and their parents, have come from and what they have been witness to.  These are clearly acts of PTSD .  The kids have few boundaries in the type of living situation they are in and seem to wander around the camp without any supervision (I watched two toddlers, pacifiers attached to their clothing, who were climbing on chairs with absolutely no one watching them).  It is so hard not to place my own value system on their behavior, which keeps me in constant check of remembering the horrific violence these families have been through, especially the innocent children.  They can’t unsee what they have seen or unfeel what they have felt and so such emotions are played out in the aggression I witnessed yesterday.

I skipped the group dinner in our “assigned” restaurant last night and had dinner with Lynette and Michelle, two sisters who I’ve really come to enjoy, and we talked about the aggression over dinner (while watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea – had to throw that in…).  Michelle works with 5 to 8 year olds and said she saw a 5 or 6 year old boy constantly bullying one of the girls.  This isn’t easy.  I’ve got to remember the history of where these people have come from and don’t want to paint with too large of a brush here as this kind of behavior and those “baddest boys of camp” were definite the exception, and not the rule.  The kids overall were a delight.  They are beautiful with their big brown eyes, olive skin and black hair.  In addition to our vision screening, we also did BMI scores (height and weight ratios) and many were underweight or very over weight, which no doubt could be attributed to poor nutrition.

I have found a nearby coffee shop and my morning routine is to walk there, get a latte, then walk along the boardwalk and watch the sunrise while I relax and contemplate the new day’s arrival.  Although not quite the exercise I was getting before with my hour walk around the horseshoe-shaped sea walk, it comes much closer to giving me the gentle start to the day that I need.

I feel very safe here in Chalkida and really enjoy the pace of life here.  It’s a nice oasis to return to every day.

Ritsona Camp – day one.

Today I felt like I entered a parallel universe… one I knew was there, but in reality, had no idea.  I spent most of the day at Ritsona, the Syrian refugee camp, working with 3 other volunteers on honing our skills with a vision check computer program to test the 300 plus kid’s eyes at the camp beginning tomorrow.  We then went to another camp about a half an hour away where we met up with the other 2 in the vision screening program and spent the last few hours sorting and cataloging hundreds of donated glasses (most from the 70’s I might add…).  This camp, Oynofyta, is primarily refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq so the languages vary immensely, only adding to the language barrier.  The camps are very different (I’ll likely spend a week  in each) both in their size and set up.  Ritsona is larger, 750 residents (it is suggested that we refer to the refugees as residents, not refugees as it’s far more positive…) who are housed in ISO boxes, or caravans as they refer to them.  They look like a small trailer and are placed very close together, two or 3 of them sharing a small kitchen and bath.  We aren’t allowed to go into their living area for privacy reasons so only saw them from a distance.  The other camp has 500 or so residents who are housed in a large warehouse.  Their living spaces are partitioned off by I believe heavy fabric with doors that aren’t much more than shower curtains.  Given that they are all under one roof, in very tight quarters, I felt a much greater sense of community in my short time there, with kids running in and out of the room we were working in, desperate for our attention.  They are, by the way, adorable, and more than anything, I wanted to scoop them up and just hold onto them as long as I could.  Of course we are discouraged from that as some of the parents may object and they already have deep seated separation issues.  Still, there were a couple of girls that just loved trying on the big-framed glasses while we laughed and played along with them.  I’m not sure the language they spoke (several…as there is such a mixed bag of countries represented) but there is some English.  One of the girls asked me if I was Greek and when  I told her no, she said well you have clothes on like a Greek.  I asked her where she was from and she quickly responded, “Sweeden!”  With her olive skin, black hair and dark eyes, I hardly think she was from Sweeden, but my guess is that that is where they are hopeful to be processed.

Kids are kids, no matter where they are from and the experiences they have had, and it delighted me to see them being goofy, laughing and simply having fun.  Some of the other volunteers who worked with the older children (mostly boys) did comment on aggression issues, which is not surprising given the tight living conditions they are in and the horrific violence that they have been witness to.

I found it hard to let my mind wander to the conditions the kids as well as their parents, came from, but it couln’t escape me and that’s when I became vulnerable to my own emotions.  Overall though, it was a very good day and I feel ready to start testing eyes tomorrow!  This is a huge project that CCS (the volunteer NGO I’m working with) has undertaken and we are the first ones to use this program.  If it works, and if they can procure the necessary funds, this will be an ongoing and growing endeavor throughout the world.  I’m so proud to be a part of it!

On a side note, my gluten restriction paid off today…. my gluten free lunch was forgotten and although I said no worries, I’ll eat fruit, Mohammed insisted he could do better and the two of us went to a small hut where a man fixed me the most amazing falafel with salad, no bread.  I got to sit with the local men and Mohamed, on cushions and absorb it all. Truly, it was the best lunch I’ve had in a long time.  I’m reminded at times like those who cultural anthropology spoke to me so much and why it was what I majored in in college.  I hope they forget my lunch again today…. I’m onto something much better!

I’ve arrived…Chalkida, Greece. Home for the next 2 weeks.

After what seemed like days of travel – KC to Minneapolis to Paris to Athens then an hour drive to Chalkita I have arrived to my home for the next two weeks. It was a shot in the arm to see Mohammed at the airport (Mohammed was the director of the program in Rabat, Morocco, where I volunteered a few years ago).  The woman who was seated next to me on the flight from Minneapolis to Paris asked me about my travel plans while we were exiting the plane.  I told her and her eyes geared up.  She was American but from Israel and was headed there to see her family.  She praised my efforts, we said brief goodbyes, then were on our separate ways (we didn’t talk at all during the flight, so it was a rather quick “introduction”).  She later caught up with me in the airport as I was finding my way to my next flight, and gave me a hug and wished me a safe journey.  That was an encounter that will stay with me.  Her gesture meant so much, especially as I’m entering a huge unknown here….

I’m staying in a small hotel a short block from the water. Chalkida is on an island just an hour away from Athens so is a popular vacation spot for the locals. I’ve not yet been to the camp where I’ll be working, but can already say that this spot will feel much like an oasis at the end of every work day.
Our room (I’m sharing with a woman from England), is small, but adequate, and “air conditioned”, although I do have to put that word in quotes. It’s hot, exceptionally hot for this area, I’m told, and after today’s projected high of 109, we are supposed to be in for some cooling tomorrow. 90 will never feel better. The camps are totally exposed, no trees, so it will be much worse.

There are 25 or so of us, all staying in the same hotel, most from the USA and a few from England. Today will be an orientation day – learning more about the camps as well as our job assignments.

I’ll have much more to day tomorrow, no doubt, but so far, I’m feeling content, happy and filled with anticipation….

Pulling back the veils… discovering the culture…

 

Rabat is situated on the coast, but it wasn’t until my last day that I saw the beach.  This geographic tidbit seemed to be overlooked by the people of Rabat, and odd as it sounds, I kind of forgot about the beach while there!

 

 

God, Country, King – the motto of Morocco (in Arabic script on the mountain side)

 

Driving into the Sahara Desert

 

 

 

Things I’ve learned about Morocco:

~    The literacy rate is about 50% and even less in the countryside.  The number falls even more when you’re talking about girls.  That, in part, is due to the fact that the schools in the country usually do not have a bathroom.  Whereas, it’s easy for the boys, the girls will simply stop going to school as there is no bathroom for them.  Sometimes the answer to the problem is so easy….

~    Moroccan Arabic (Morocco’s first language) is not a written language so there is no “correct” or “incorrect” when it comes to spelling a word.  You spell it as it sounds to you.  Classical Arabic, on the other hand, IS a written language and is the language taught in school, but it is Moroccan Arabic (or darija) that is spoken in the home.  Berber is also taught in the schools and is spoken by at least 50% of Moroccans.  French is taught in the schools from grade one, and is considered the “second” language of Morocco. The Moroccans aren’t willing to give up the French from the time when they were under French rule, as they see it as a more “sophisticated” language and would rather have it as a 2nd language than English.  When I asked Khadija (our house director,  who speaks Moroccan Arabic, classical Arabic, Berber, French and English) which language was the most difficult to learn, she said French, by far.  Then of course there is the difference in alphabets, both with the letters, the pronunciations,  the way the letter is written and does it go from right to left or left to right?  I’m beyond impressed.

~   When I asked our guide while in the desert if a Moroccan woman would wear a swimming suit and swim in the pool (there was a pool at the place we spent our first night in the desert), he hesitated then said…
“No…. unless she was a bad woman.”

How about men, Hamza?  Would a Moroccan man swim in the pool???

Again, he hesitated, but with a look on his face that clearly said, “Huh????”

Then he answered, “But of course a man would!”

Double standards.  All over the place.  And they know it.

~   The call to prayer (or adhan) that we hear over the loud speaker 5 times a day is the same call in every Muslim country in the world.  It sounds like chanting and at this point, I find it rather soothing, if, that is, I even notice it at all any more…

~  Every Arabic speaking country has a different dialect, and there’s not necessarily an overlap in the language.  Women tend to know more dialects from other Arabic speaking countries than men because they watch soap operas on TV.

~  Tipping is considered a gesture of kindness and is in no way required or considered rude if
neglected.  The students in my classroom were amazed that there are “tipping jars” in so many places where we make purchases or receive services.

~   My students told me that Moroccans don’t feel the “need” for the money to go from hand to hand in a customer/merchant situation.  They would actually prefer to just leave the money on the table and leave.  There is no sales tax so it is easy to know the exact amount of money to leave.  The fact that there is a difference between the price on the price tag and the price we are asked to pay due to taxes, amazed them.

~    Time moves much slower here and being 20 or 30 minutes late to appointments is not that
uncommon or even considered rude, which explains why when class starts at 9:30, there are still students straggling in at 10:15 or 10:30 with nary an apology!

~   I’ve never been in a country who displays their flag more…. there are groupings of the Moroccan flag that look like flowers in a vase with all the flag poles slanting out from the middle.  These displays are up and down every median from the cities to the small villages.   The flag is quite pretty in its simplicity…. a red background with a 5 pointed green star outline in the center.

~   The first law of  Islam is to never kill, whether another person, or yourself.  The second law of Islam is to honor your parents, ESPECIALLY your mother and to never speak bad of her.  Lots about Islam that I like…

~    Dogs are rare in Morocco and only owned for protection.  They are considered unclean and one needs to wash their clothing if it comes in contact with a dog.  That being said, they are not touched and obviously are not petted.  Cats, on the other hand are considered sacred and pretty much have the run of the place!  They are not owned “individually” but rather are owned and fed by everyone.

~   When you sign your name in Morocco, it does not necessarily have to be your name, but could be a design you make up.  It has to be consistent, though.

~   Morocco is the biggest importer of China’s tea.  These folks love their Moroccan mint tea!

~    Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world next to Christianity, which is the largest and Hinduism the 3rd largest.

~    Security always is seen in a trio – a police officer flanked by military

~   Women start to wear the hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest) at the onset of puberty.  The Quran says that women should lower their gaze and guard their modesty and should not display their beauty.  When I asked Khadija why it is that I had some women in my class that never wore a jijab and others, such as herself, always wore one and she said, although the Quran instructs women to wear it, the choice is between them and God.  It is not worn while at home, or as Khadija said, “I take it off when I’m hanging with my girlfriends at someones home.”

~   Dating is illegal – for example, a couple spotted alone in a park could be stopped by a police officer and asked what their relationship to one another is (which prompted me to ask if there are a lot of “brothers and sisters” spotted in parks!  They can be arrested and thrown in jail for the night if caught.  Men and women are introduced through friends and get to know one another in “group gatherings.”  Pre-marital sex is also illegal, as is being an unwed mother, which explains why the orphanages are over-run with babies.

~  The King of Morocco is the 7th richest statesman in the world and when I asked Mohamed if there is any resentment among Moroccans given the huge disparity of wealth between the King and the people.  His answer was, no, but it doesn’t matter if there is as the country’s motto is,

“God, Country, King”

Because of this, if there is resentment, it wouldn’t be voiced.

~  I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such a gracious and warm group of people as the Moroccans.  A few days into my trip,  I went with one of my housemates to the bank to exchange money.  That particular bank didn’t do exchanges, but we were told by one of the tellers that there was a nearby bank that would.  He started giving directions, and given the communication difficulties (he speaking Arab, we speaking English..), he told us to just follow him and he’d take us there.  He delivered us to the doorstep of the bank that could help us… a good FOUR city blocks later!

Chellah – Roman ruins outside of Rabat

 

 

My wonderful housemates in this adventure!

 

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.