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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Working at the children’s orphanage in Rabat…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our “Alibaba” inspired hotel restaurant…

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


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

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

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

“Well in THAT case….

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

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

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

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

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

Give it time and have and patience…

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

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

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

“I want that girl’s phone number.”

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

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

Today was a much better day.

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



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

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

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

My name is in there somewhere…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Arabic is hard…

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

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

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

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

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

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


She’s not in Kansas anymore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Going to the “BEYOND” part…

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

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

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

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

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

But what did you DO???

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

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

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

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

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


Hands…The Dangling Strength That Hangs From Our Arms…

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

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

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

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

But I later wondered…. would I?

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

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

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

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

“Bonita y rosada por favor.”

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

Me and Maria Rivera

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

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


These hands looked a whole lot different 24 hours later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.