Ghana. The beginning.


I learned a lot while sitting on the tarmac on a rainy day at JFK. Thanks, Ado.

Whatever it was that had me so enamored in my very first cultural anthropology class that I decided to major in the field that I only recently realized even existed, is alive and well and seems to come to life every time my passport is pulled out to be stamped. This was the thought that came to me over and over again while sitting at the boarding gate at JFK for Accra, Ghana. Although I had good headphones with me, so good that they block out all surrounding sounds, I chose to leave them in my pack and instead simply enjoy the music of the different dialects that surrounded me. It was almost melodic and more than once I caught myself staring like a small child who doesn’t yet have a grasp of socially acceptable norms.  Staring, likely with my mouth dropped open, isn’t one of them.  The competing perfumes and strong aftershave smells, mixed in with the melodic sounds of languages that weren’t even remotely familiar (ironically, English is their first language, but it was conspicuously absent)  and the beautiful children, mostly boys, made me smile and totally entertained me for the 3 hour wait I had.

I remember this happening when my daughter, Emery, and I went to Peru for the first time and sat at the gate waiting for our flight, in an area surrounded by Peruvians.  I was captivated!   Maybe it’s a throwback to the many cultural anthropology classes I took,  or maybe I’m just nosey, but I would take this  sort of entertainment, hands down, over any of the several movies I downloaded to watch, just for this very time gap situation.

It was a full flight with the exception of one empty seat and that seat was right next to me. My travel buddy, Lynette, who I met while volunteering in Greece, was supposed to be in that seat, but a sudden onset of what sounded like the flu, kept her in Atlanta, which was such a disappointment to us both, but hopefully it’s just a postponed trip and not a cancelled one.  So my journey continued solo.  I was disappointed to see that eventually the seat was filled, last minute, so gave up thoughts of legs getting to be stretched out as well as a landing spot for the two carryons that seem so big once tucked into the tiny airline seat space.  I can say now, after 2 hours on the ground and 9 in the air, that I feel grateful to have a seatmate, and even more so that it was him, who at this point has no name.

No name is from Ghana but has been living in the Bronx for the past 13 years with his wife and now 4 kids. I’m not usually a chatter on planes, in fact quite the opposite as I wear headphones so I don’t have to chat if I don’t feel like it (often there is nothing coming into the headphones but it gives me the out if I choose to exercise it).  So, my nice seat mate, struck up a conversation while still waiting on the tarmac, when he asked to borrow my pen, which I had just used to fill out Ghana entry forms. I was happy to share it and handed it over, with little thought when I was finished with it.  After he finished his forms, he handed the pen back to me then added,

“I always hand things to the elderly with my right hand, and if you noticed me filling out the forms, I’m left handed, so there’s an extra step for me.”

I knew right off the bat what he was getting at as I’ve traveled many places where the left hand is not used in a social setting, simply because it is the hand that… ok, how do I say this discreetly… tends to the hygiene?  Or more understandable, it’s the wiping hand. I’m guessing I handed him my pen to him with my left hand, because I most likely had a bottle of water in my right hand. That being said, or heard, more accurately, my response naturally was,

“You think I’m elderly??”

“Of course I do, he answered without hesitation (I’m guessing him for early 40’s ). You are my elder so you’re elderly.”

“Well, yes and no, but mostly no.”

He continued to advise me about the left hand and its job description, not in an authoritative way, but rather out of concern and I accepted his words with the intention that they were presented to me. That annoyance of an empty seat getting filled changed to gratitude for what I was guessing at that point would be someone who would be a nice resource for the next 10 hours for any Ghanaian cultural questions that may come up. And they did.

While taxiing, he lowered his tray table, nudged me to lower mine and it must have been my puzzled look that prompted his explaination.

“The tray table will keep you in place along WITH the seatbelt.”

Of course after his came down, I noticed that every one in the center aisle followed suit and put their tray tables down as well. The flight attendant, rushed over, insisting that the tables go UP, not DOWN, which everyone complied nicely with as we continued our way down the taxiway. He asked me if he could get up and go to the bathroom, still taxiing, and I looked him with a cocked head and furrowed brow and said, NO.  You can’t.  We’re taxiing.

“Are you sure? I really have to pee.”

I’m not going to tell this grown man next to me if he can or can’t get up and go to the bathroom so I just shrugged and told him he was on his own. The flight attendant tried to stop him, but without any hostility or harsh words, he simply stated how he really had to go and continued on. This is the only non-stop flight to Accra, Ghana from the states, so no doubt this is not a first for the airline employees.

Once the food and beverage cart came around, seatmate without a name, asked for the non-alcoholic wine to accompany his dinner and the flight attendant looked at him puzzled, then at me ( I had requested the wine with alcohol) then with a shrug gave him an orange juice.  He saw my wine and then asked for one like mine.

“With the alcohol?”


And he proceeded to have 3 more.

Everything I have read about Ghana and its people speaks of their friendly attitude. He confirmed that with me. I told him it felt like all the passengers, with the exception of me, seemed to know one another. He said not really, but they all know they are from the same country and the different dialects seemed to congregate, although English is their first language.
Seatmate also didn’t seem to have a handle on how to latch the bathroom door shut, or maybe didn’t even think it was a necessary thing to do, so unbeknownst to him, when I saw the vacant, not knowing he was in there, I pushed the door open only to see the back of his acid washed jean jacket. I quickly scooted my way out of the area although honestly I don’t think he had any idea I had opened the door. The 2nd bathroom I approached also had a vacant sign, also with a person in it, but it was a woman and she faced out. I’m guessing the whole lock the bathroom door may not be a thing in Ghana.

I’m really struck by the crowd on this plane.  The children, all boys for some reason, are in clip on ties, white shirts and jackets that still have a few more years of growing room in them.  The man behind me was in a black crushed velour jacket, a white tuxedo shirt with French cuffs and cuff links and short black pointy boots decorated with silver studs.  The women are dolled up and dressed up like they were headed to a cocktail party.  I love it.  And in my camo pants, with my pale skin and hair that seems neon bright against all the black hair around me, I’m feeling a bit out of sorts, like I need to add some beads or fluff my hair up a bit.  I felt unexotic and too white.

When we landed, the whole plane burst into a loud roar of applause.  That was truly a first for me.  Ado, (my seatmate now has a name), said that the applause is for God for getting us from NY then across the very big ocean and back down again safely.  I enjoyed what ended up being 13 hours with Ado (4 of those hours on the tarmac waiting) and found him to be a lovely introduction to Ghana.  He’s very proud of his country and told me countless times that I will love it.  He said he has a very good job in NY and makes far more money than he ever could in Ghana – almost $3,000 a month and although his apartment is expensive ($1,500 a month because he needs a large one with 2 bedrooms because he has FOUR kids),  he still has a lot of money left to send home to Ghana.  He’s a good man.

An hour an a half waiting for bags, which I have to say has to be due to the size of most of them.  Almost all of them had the “HEAVY” tag attached and several were the size of small armoires.  No doubt hoisting them out of the luggage hold was no easy task!  This was followed by a 4 hour drive on very bumpy roads to get to the house where I’ll be staying for the next 2 weeks.  I was exhausted and was able to sleep for a bit of the ride, but honestly thought I’d crack a tooth with the way my teeth rattled with every bump, so gave up on the sleeping.  The other 2 in the van are a couple from North Carolina and naturally, I asked if they were Duke fans.  He very excitedly answered, YES!  but felt a huge relief to be away from that depressing loss for at least a few weeks.  Then I told him I’m a KU graduate…..

The drive took us through poverty like I had never seen before, truly jaw dropping, but I’ll share more about that in later posts.  Right now, I’m situated in my room, bottom bunk, under the mosquitoe netting, and just downed my 3rd dose of malaria pills.  This already feels far different from anything I’ve ever done.  Oh, and it’s hot.  Very hot.  I have a fan near my bed, which helps tremendously.  I’m going to try not to complain too much about the heat, but today’s day one.  It’s a free space.

I. feel honored to be able to dip into this culture and learn more… about Ghana, about its people, about myself. These journeys truly fill my soul and make me smile.

This seems like as good a place as any to insert my disclaimer for spelling, punctuation, bad grammar and simply things that don’t make sense.  I think I slept 45 minutes last night.

My cozy nest (there are 3 more in the room, but only one roommate, so far) for the next few weeks.

Volunteering in the refugee camps – final thoughts.

Nearly one in 100 people have been pushed out of there homes due to political instability or war.

4.9 million Syrians, half of them children, have fled their country and are now refugees.

Greece has over 62 refugee camps, housing over 62,000 refugees in total. Although the media coverage on this has dwindled, the crisis is far from being over.

This seemed like an appropriate start to my wrap up blog post regarding my time spent volunteering in the refugee camps in Greece. And now for the more personal:

I’ve been home from Greece several days, and the question, “How was it?” is still a struggle for me. No matter how much thought or effort I put into finding the right words, they will never be sufficient. That being said, I’ll start with the easiest… the physical descriptions.

The camp at Oinofyta, where I spent most of my days, was housed in a large warehouse, which had been subdivided into small housing units (or rooms) that line long hallways, all connecting a main center hall.   As far as the size of the rooms, I went into a few that had a double mattress on the floor that took up about half of the space. I’m assuming they were all of a similar size, with some of the larger families inhabiting two adjacent rooms. The hallways in front of the rooms were filled with miscellaneous items that wouldn’t fit inside, such as strollers, empty boxes, clothing, stray pieces of furniture, trash and of course a variety of shoes right in front of the door as shoes were never worn inside. In the mornings, I’d see women sweeping out their individual spaces and tidying them up, yet no one seemed to tend to the hallways, which were filthy. Most of the common walls had been painted, some by kids with colorful hearts and words of love and others by more skilled painters with poignant messages of both hope and hopelessness. The living units were numbered, in a somewhat logical order, starting with 1 and ending with 105, although 105 was a room I never found, hard as I tried, when I was doing community outreach for the eye screening. My wanderings up and down the hallways in search of rooms became my way of meeting the residents, who were always quick to help me out in my search (we were told to refer to the refugees as “residents” rather than refugees as it was much more positive).  This was when I had some of my most memorable conversations and began to feel less and less like an outsider curiously peeking in.  Although the children often couldn’t tell me how old they were (birthdays are not a day that is cerebrated in the Muslim culture) they never hesitated when I asked their room number, and could usually give me the room numbers of everyone with them as well. An outside flight of steps led to a bank of small bunk rooms, each housing 8 to 10, where the single men slept (ages ranging from 16 on up). I spoke with one man after embarrassing myself by waking him and all of his roommates up when I knocked on his door to let them know about the eye screenings and had to ask,

“How late do you guys sleep anyway???

He told me usually until early to mid afternoon. The reason being, they don’t go to bed until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning because it’s quieter and cooler in the camp at night. There is very little for the men to do, especially the single men, so boredom and depression have become the norm.  There are a handful of tents outside of the warehouse that housed the men who did not care to be around the children.  Their tents looked pretty basic, like Army issue, but I was told that that was what they preferred.  They pretty much kept to themselves.

Ritsona, where I also spent some time doing vision screening, is a camp of approximately 750  residents, who were originally housed in tents but now are all in ISO boxes, or mobile units. They are predominately Syrian and because that they fled a war torn country, they have full refugee status, which allows them to receive help from organizations such as UNICEF or the IRC (International Rescue Committee). Refugees are still coming into both camps and some are leaving to be re-settled in other parts of Europe, although the leaving is happening at a much slower rate.

The children seem to have free run of the camp and at a third of a total population of around 600 at Oinofyta, there are quite a few of them. Even kids who are still in diapers are seen wandering around by themselves, finding whatever they can to entertain themselves with.  These kids were so independent and creative, out of necessity, that they could entertain themselves for hours with a piece of string if that was all they could find. On one of my last days at Oinofyta, 3 kids hung out with me and entertained themselves for an hour and a half by taking turns spinning each other around in an office chair. That simple.  They were a laughing, sweating, shouting trio of joy who moved back and forth between Farsi and English (the English to include me) with unbelievable ease.  Kids are kids are kids, sometime regardless of their past, their present or their very unsure future.  I marveled at the simplicity, the imagination and the raw joy that these kids were able to indulge in on their own.  No coaching, no supervision, no props necessary.

Having so little also led to a lot the kids “stealing,”  which I’m putting in quotes to soften the word a bit.   While I realize that stealing what is not yours is in no way excusable, I can certainly understand where their motivation comes from. Notepads, pens, sunglasses, water bottles and anything else that wasn’t nailed down was at risk of walking out of our space. It became a bit of a game for the kids and often they’d return the item shortly after it had walked out of the door, usually with a coy smile and a hug.  The kids gave up everything they had to make the dangerous journey and that need to recoup belongings was ever present.  While helping some of the volunteers out with a craft project at the summer camp, this really came into play for me.  I had cut up bits of paper to be used to decorate signs and had placed them in piles in the center of a work table while waiting for the kids to join in.  The first girl to the table immediate scooped up all the paper bits with her outstretched arms and pulled them towards her, carefully covering them to insure no one else would get any.  When I told her she needed to share, she looked me straight in the eye and with an intensity that I hardly thought possibly from this tiny, sweet child, shouted, “NO SHARE!!!” And she meant it with every bit of her 3 feet of being.  We solved the problem without tears or tantrums, and as frustrating as incidents like that were, they were also so easy to understand.  Part of me wanted to remove the girl from the craft table, step in with some discipline,  tell her to think about what she’s  done and all that,  and the other part of me wanted to give her more paper bits, my shirt, my shoes and whatever else she wanted. These kids have  gone through situations that we can’t even begin to imagine, crossing countries on foot then getting into overly crowded boats to continue the dangerous journeys on water, with many of them having to throw all of their belongings overboard because the boat was sinking with weight.  Keeping their entry in mind made frustrations as such seem very trivial.

These kids have no boundaries, no structure (short of the a few hours of  school in the morning and afternoon camp sessions the volunteers provided) and very little to play with or occupy their time, yet I rarely heard the whining cries of boredom and “there’s nothing to do…”  One of the regulars to the vision screening room was a 2 year-old who the residents called “moosha” or “mouse” in Farsi, which was an appropriate nickname for her as she was tiny and quick.  She’d wander in, often with a cucumber or a big piece of fruit in hand that she was munching on, looking for something to do but even more so, looking for attention. My last day there, she wandered over to the computer, picked up the mouse and started pretending it was a telephone. She’d hold it to her ear and say “Hello??? Hello???” then would hand it off to me giggling, and I’d do the same. This went on for quite some time. She spoke Farsi and I don’t, but language wasn’t always necessary to communicate.

Now for the harder part on my “What was it like?” descriptions…

The emotions…

Getting to know some of the faces behind the stories that I had read so much about before hand, of dangerous crossings across countries on foot then across water in overly crowded boats, was humbling to say the least. Conditions in the countries that were fled (in Ritsona, primarily Syria and in Oinofyta, mostly Afghanistan), had to be so horrific that families were willing to put themselves and their family’s lives in incredible danger, only to end up in a psychological and legal state of limbo that has been going on for most for over a year – far longer than any had anticipated. Babies have been born in the camps (27 at Oinofyta to date) who are now walking and talking and are considered stateless – children with no country. Germany, a country that many of the refugees hope to immigrate to, does not automatically grant citizenship to those who were born in the camps, leaving these kids without citizenship to any country. There really was so much heartbreak and frustration that I felt like I became a gatekeeper to a sea of emotions, knowing that there was only so much I could take in for the sake of my own sanity.  That process has continued for me, even after settling into my regular routine for the past several days.

These refugees are not statistics or headlines or political fodder, but rather, they are real people. They are the sad and hopeless eyes of the mothers who would hold their baby out to me with pride, wanting to know if I wanted to hold him/her. That was especially hard for me when one woman’s baby was the age of my grandson.  They are the fathers, who made a point of proudly showing off their English to me with “hellos and how are you?” in English as I passed them in the hallway. They are the sticky hands of the children who would grab my hand, and walk along side me, always desperate for any attention they could get. They are the families, grasping onto whatever hope they can find while days become weeks, and weeks become months and now over a year has passed and still they wait. I was told by so many that they feel forgotten and unwanted. Those were times I was grateful to not speak their language as I had no words to give in response, whether Arabic, Farsi Urdu or English.

My first night back, I dreamt I was back at Oinofyta, only not as a volunteer, but rather, as a resident. The volunteers I had worked with for the past 2 weeks didn’t recognize me as part of their group, but instead thought I was a resident. I tried to explain to them who I was, but hard as I’d try, I wasn’t able to speak. I was without a voice and felt I had been forgotten. I woke up in a sweat, out of breath, my heart pounding. The same thing happened again on my 2nd night home, only I seemed to be more accepting of not having a voice, and spent much of my dream wandering up and down the hallways, trying to find the room where I belonged. I’m still struggling nightly in my dreams, which is a pattern with me that started the first time I volunteered in Perú, over 10 years ago.   It seems to be part of my processing mechanism and although it does not allow for an easy re-entry, it has become a predictable part of my journey.  I really don’t know what these refugees are going through on a daily basis emotionally, physically or spiritually, but for one brief moment during my sleeping hours, my psyche seemed to be trying to give me a small taste of what it feels like to feel totally forgotten and unheard. And for these past few nights, if only in my dreams, it has been terrifying.

Since I’ve been home, I feel like I’ve only been present as a physical shell, my emotional system still residing in Greece, not quite ready to join me. This re-entry seems especially difficult for me and maybe that’s the reason why it seems to be taking my heart so long to catch up to my physical body. We are not yet in sync and that’s ok, as this is a process that moves at its own pace, and for that, I’m patient.

It would be easy to paint this whole experience with a large brush of sadness, despair and hopelessness, but that wouldn’t be totally accurate. There was joy… on the faces of the children as several volunteers would make their way down the main hallway, led by a song and a guitar, to indicate that it was time for summer camp, Pied Pipper style. This was the highlight of each and every day at Oinofyta and one that makes me smile just thinking about it. The kids and parents as well, would come out of their rooms, smiling and clapping along with the song. Moments like those helped cushion the underlying pain of feeling forgotten and unwanted that has become so much a part of these people’s lives.

There is an NGO (non-government organization) that is involved in both Ritsona and Oinofyta camps called “I AM YOU.” I was so struck by that name and how appropriate it was. I AM you, and you ARE me and we have to be in this together for the sake of humanity. Another NGO, and the main one at Oinofyta, is called “Do Your Part.” And so I try. I know that what I do is only a drop in the ocean, but if that drop can send ripples out far enough to open up the heart and mind of even one person, than I’ve done something, not near enough, but something.

It will be a long time before I completely process the magnitude of this experience, but for now, as I work through it, those sweet innocent faces of the children and the pained faces of the adults come into focus for me  nightly and have claimed a piece of my heart.


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 hadanticipated, 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 onewith 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….