The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, nor any other governmental or non-governmental organization.

Nor is anything written here necessarily drawn from my own views, opinions, and observations. Please consider all postings and pictures complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality. For legal purposes, please additionally regard the author as utterly imaginary.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sargent Shriver and an old berber henna

One of the basic ideas behind peace corps is that everybody is pretty much the same everywhere, and if we realize that, then we'll all be better people. Sargent Shriver (Sarge) said 'Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.'

This sameness is apparent when walking around a small city like mine. Unfortunately, the most obvious similarities are due to coca-colonization- there are cars everywhere (old ones); there are apartments for sale and for rent (all-cement ones); there are people going to their jobs as mechanics and salespeople and carpenters and shop owners and cigarette-peddlers. There are gas stations; there are also people selling gas on the side of the road out of 2-liter plastic bottles. There's soda, there's sugar, and there's rampant diabetes.

Usually, this is mildly depressing for me. This country is playing a game which is stacked against them. This town will not turn into New York City. Ever. And if it did, we'd all be screwed because the world doesn't have enough for everybody to live like Americans do (flamboyantly wasteful, that is).

However, other times the sameness comes through on more of a human level.

Krista and I were hanging out a friend's house. She is our Sharqiya tutor, seems pretty conservative, always dresses all in black and covers her head. We'd been talking about all these local names for various foods and vegetables. Our friend was in the kitchen and we were sitting in a living-room space hanging out with the old, berber granny. Over here, grandmothers are called Henna, as in, that stuff that women use to draw patterns on their hands and feet for special occasions. This lady had a pretty serious mountain accent and one minute I was with it and the next had absolutely no damn clue what she was talking about. Here was one particularly lucid exchange:

Henna: And potatoes! There are three kinds of potatoes yeah? "blah", "blah", and "blahblah"

Me: Potatoes? What? Which is the brown one, which is the red one, and which is the scrawny one?

Henna: The red! yes, the red, that one is "blah". 

Me: really?

Henna: Yes! Hey, grand-daughter, get in here.

Our Tutor: Yes Henna? 

Henna: The potatoes! Red ones are called "blah" and ...

Our Tutor: What? No, a potato is a potato is a potato. There aren't different names.

Henna (clearly affronted): You don't know the names for the potatoes?

Our Tutor: No I don't, they're just potatoes.

Henna (grumbling): These kids don't even know anything, all they do is watch tv.

Kids these days.
In our tutor's defense, it's unclear whether the names could be considered dialectical Arabic at all- they may have been beni snassen amazigh words a.k.a. mountain language old people speak.


In other news, it is January 29th, and it is 74 degrees. As a world champion in sweating heavily, I've got 8 months of nastiness ahead of me.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

By the Numbers

Here's a snapshot, by the numbers, of what's going on in my life.


Days since I arrived to Morocco: 309
Days since my stomach worked properly: 309
Days since I swore in: 246
Days until I finish my service: 484
Vacation days taken: 14
Remaining vacation days: 34
Hours per week I teach: 0-12 depending on week and season
Hours per week primary boss allows me to teach: 6
Hours per night I sleep: 8-10
Hours per week spent doing laundry: 1-2
Hours per week spent studying: 5-15
Hours per day struggling through basic communication: 2


Eggs eaten per week: 15
Cartons of yoghurt eaten per week: 7
Kilos of clementines/oranges per week: 1.5
Bowls of popcorn per week: 2
Kilos of vegetables per week: 5
Ice cream: 0


PC Volunteers in Morocco: 300
PC Volunteers in my group: 97
other PC Volunteers within 3 hours of travel: 7
PC Volunteers I live with: 1
People in my city: 80,000-200,000 depending on who you ask
Students in all my classes: 75
Friends in my town: not many


Rent: $71 a month
Internet: $12 a month
Water: $0.96 a month
Electricity: $7.18 a month
30 eggs: $3.95
kilo of lemons: $0.36
kilo of clementines: $0.60
Liter of olive oil: $5.98
Kilo of flour: $0.60
Kilo of onions: $0.48
Kilo of avocados: $2.15
Kilo of bananas: $1.20
4-kilo butternut squash: $0.60


To get to Spain (Melilla): $2.39 + 1.5-2.5 hours
To get to Rabat: $24.50 + 11 hours
To get to Marrakesh: $36.50 + 15-16 hours
To get to Agadir: $48.44 + 18-20 hours
Number of people fit into a standard "grand taxi": 7


Number of pepto bismol pills I took yesterday: 8
New words I got today which I hope to learn: 36
Cats we have: 2
Number of 5 gallon buckets full of stolen construction site sand needed for their litterbox: 2 per month

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A spelling bee & freedom of speech

It took only 10 months in Morocco but we finally pulled off an event. A spelling bee. It was a local competition and we'll send on the winners to the next level. It went off without a hitch and actually was pretty fun.

I expected either 150 kids to show up, or zero. It ended up being somewhere in-between (but definitely closer to the zero mark). This may have had something to do with the weather. The day started off abnormally with a violent sandstorm. Then the sand turned into rain. I think we probably lost a number of potential kids because of this. At least, I'll tell myself that. 30 total, 15 little kids, 15 big. The little kids alone were from 8 different schools, which is a great sign to us that we're reaching a wider group in the town than we could have hoped for months ago.  Some pictures are below:

The little kid competition
The boss. Great guy

On another matter entirely: Free Speech

We have started to make things a bit more interesting with some of the classes. We haven't started training a guerrilla militia just yet but things are getting a bit edgy- we've done two classes focused on free speech. One of them was based off a report from Voice Of America, which releases a number of potential ESL classes that are culturally significant. The second was a debate between absolute free speech, and restricting free speech when it is hurtful to others.

The arguments were not particularly well-articulated. But that's okay. However, one salient idea came through in both classes. Moroccans have a very different conception of personal freedom. At least, our students do. Perhaps our student Mohamed (one of many Mohameds), put it best when he said: my freedom ends where yours begins.

He's quoting somebody but I forget who. Regardless, this is not a new idea. But whether or not you concur has significant ramifications for how you view free speech. And all of our students agree with this statement.

When a Dutch cartoonist drew a comic of Mohamed with a bomb inside his turban people across the Muslim world were understandably upset. But they weren't just upset. They were really, really fucking angry. And a number of people died in violent street protests around the world. From the American perspective, this was a gross over-reaction. A similar thing happened when an idiot in Florida burned a Koran, and another idiot in California made a movie about the prophet Mohamed. Why were Muslims so mad?

Let me be clear, our students think freedom of speech is a great thing, they're all for it. But when we point out these examples they say, oh, well, of course not, you can't insult somebody's religion. You can't hurt somebody else, you can't do that. That's not freedom of speech, that's just mean.

Individual freedom means something different here. Freedom of speech is naturally restricted. Unfortunately, it's a little different where we come from. When the two worlds meet, there can be trouble. I told one class that you can't go on the internet as an American without seeing something disparaging of some religion or other. We think personal expression is so important we're willing to let a 'church' go around protesting funerals with signs that say "god hates fags". That same group even protested the childrens' shooting victims' funerals. Which brings me to the other side- ours.

Our student said that his freedom ends where mine begins. I do not agree with him totally. But there is something to what he says. Think about the 'freedom to bear arms'.

Where does one person's 'freedom to bear arms' end and another person's freedom to life begin? It seems obvious that they are competing freedoms. So perhaps we need to take another look, as Americans, at this perspective.

Rambling post.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Time and Space

Today, like every day, was weird.

I was reading an article in the Economist today about ultraviolet light-collecting solar cells which use some sort of nanotube technology and, incredibly, creates a totally transparent surface. The next article was about self-driving cars which use LIDAR which is like sonar, except with light (I guess the technology hasn't been around long enough for the acronym to transmute into a lowercase word). As I was sitting on the roof, getting a nice January sunburn, I noticed an all-too-familiar smell. 

It only took 7 months here but Krista and I have finally secured a Sharqiya tutor. On the walk to the house (ldar '3ndi), I noticed a tidy pile of burning trash on the corner across from our door. And what's the word for that, I asked. Oh, zubiya, she said. There is a single word that means "burning pile of trash".

I read a novella today by George Saunders. The story takes place in a dystopian near-future United States, in which water contamination has led to millions of mildly-mutant humans known as Flaweds. These people are treated as slaves by the Normals. The main character in the story (a Flawed who has talons instead of nails on his toes) starts out as an employee at a sort of theme park that imitates royal life in the middle ages for its wealthy visitors. The entire story is in a cryptic, corporate-lese mixed with hokey idioms and excessively Capitalistic proper nouns. 

And now here I am on the internet. 

All of these things (and Krista studying GRE vocabulary), got me thinking about the word anachronism. "A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists". Thanks internet. I also found a mildly made-up word: anatopism. Which is to space what anachronism is to time. While reading about breaking frontiers in nanotechnology and alternative energy, I got a strong whiff of poison from a nearby zubiya. I'm reading about cars that drive themselves and drastically cut down on traffic accidents in a place where people laugh at you when you wear a helmet. 

Time itself exists on a different spectrum here. (Time, in my opinion, ontologically relevant only in so far as it is experienced ...thanks philosophy degree). People are capable of sitting for hours, literally doing nothing but staring into space. I am expected to be able to sit down for a cup of tea with anybody at any time of day, and not leave. There are no commitments.

I feel like I am an anachronism. And, perhaps, an anatopism. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that I have easy, although painfully partial, access to that other world thanks to this here internet. I can read op-eds about USA stuff, and hear about friends in jobs that start at an exact time of day. I can take online classes on topics like game theory and world history. I can watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report.

But I wear a hat to bed most nights because there's no heat. I can practically work when I feel like it.  I can buy veggies and fruits, some of which are called names that only exist in this one town, by the kilo. I have time to make pasta from scratch (still bragging about this one). If I wanted to, I could wear the same clothes for a week or two and nobody would care-- they'd understand -- it can be tough to do laundry in the winter. 

I wonder if peace corps volunteers 30 years ago felt like they were visitors from another space-time. Probably at first, but after 9 or 10 months? 

So far, I have no plans to cut myself off.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cheaters, poison gasses, and hard drives

My mold-induced cold tenuously holds on. There are now odd patches of yellow paint around the apartment, put there with the intention of fighting back the fungus.  Perhaps overly optimistic, but we will know before too long. Unfortunately, even Moroccans warn that there are bad chemicals in the paint, so you know it may as well be rat poison. With this in mind, we slept with all the windows open for a couple of nights. Which was cold. It was like camping without a tent, in winter. Now Krista may have a cold.

But the windows are closed and the walls are, if not all the same color, at least not splotched with brown. Yesterday I khemmel-ed the apartment which is when you throw all your stuff out onto the roof and then pour bleach water throughout the apartment, squeejee it all out the door, and bring your stuff back in. With the painting and the khemmel, we may have won the first battle in the mold-fighting saga.

moving on.

Cheaters.  For the first time, I saw what taking a test is like here. We gave our beginners a test, to see if they learned anything over their first 3-month cycle. I have no idea what they learned because they all cheated. They talked among themselves, looked at each other's pages, wrote down notes for each other and passed them around, passed the tests themselves to their neighbors to fill out, it was horrendous. Why? One of the students is a 44 year old mother of 3 and she was cheating with the best of them. Why? I'm not sure but I have some ideas.

-communal culture: in a place where the group matters more than the individual, self-improvement is silly. We did a class last week on free speech, and asked whether free speech should be constrained when it hurts other people, pointing to the Dutch guy who drew a comic of the prophet Mohamed. They all said, yes. The freedom for you to say what you want stops at the point where it hurts me. The well-being of the group > freedom of individual. I think the cheating may partly arise from the communal culture. I saw one girl try to write down all the answers from her own test and pass them to the 44 year old woman, to help her out. There was no benefit there for the girl, but she was trying to help out somebody else. Cheating in this context isn't cheating, it's sharing.

-do whatever it takes: perhaps we're not so far past the level of struggling-to-survive. That mentality can pervade every aspect of your life. You do what it takes. If you have to cheat people out of money, you do it. If you have to use connections to get anywhere, you do it. Cheating in this context isn't cheating, it's surviving.

-Nobody teaches that cheating is bad: why would they? Do teachers care? Probably not. Many teachers simply don't show up. Many parents pre-date education like it is today and may simply not understand. On the BAC, which is the biggest test in a person's life, cheating is rampant. This is the test that determines whether you can go to college and what you can study there. It's a big deal, and everybody cheats. Cheating then isn't cheating, it's the status-quo.

How well does this prepare people for the individualist pursuit that is modern capitalism? Very poorly. I saw yesterday that perhaps Moroccans have chosen to move slowly forward, together. Or perhaps just in this corner of the country. How hard should I try to stop that? I'm not sure. I'll have another opportunity tomorrow, when we test the intermediates.


Hard drives. My computer died, again. Hard drive, dead. It lasted 3-4 months. I bought it from a guy on the street for 25 us dollars. I suppose that's what I deserve.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013

Sometimes, I forget there are people here who I get along with

Work today was a total flop. Krista and I biked 20 minutes out of the main part of the city to do a one-off session at a tiny school by the mountains near town. We had prepared a 'cultural competition' jeopardy and were pumped.  One girl showed up. We gave her the first English lesson she'd ever had. Two teachers, one student. Except the head of the school stuck his head in occasionally- he was somewhere between a third teacher and a second student.

The day started off well- I slept an obscene amount, as per usual, and was up and at 'em at the break of 10:30. Then I spent three hours or so cleaning- the moldy bed, the moldy ponges (like couch cushions that sit on the ground), the moldy guitar case, the moldy sheet, and my hopefully-not-moldy-just-dirty clothes. Laundry for the week came to about 8 articles of clothing. Then I got a call from one of my mudirs (bosses), Zakkaria. Gal liya arwah druki ntggdaou. meaning come on over it's lunch time.

And then I had a great lunch. cous cous 'cause it's friday. It felt perfectly comfortable to hang out and eat with some of the guys who work at the Dar Shebab. It was great.

For dinner, we went over to hang out with Krista's old host sisters. Again, we ate cous cous cause it's friday. It was great. Easy. Totally relaxed, enjoyable time. Made it a good day.

It happens sometimes- work and third world inefficiencies do their best to screw up my day. And then some Moroccan friends come through in the clutch with cous cous.

In other food news, I made pasta from scratch yesterday. It's a very good way to spend a couple hours. I highly recommend it to other volunteers trying to fill their evenings.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Back home

sunrise on the Oriental region near Laayoune

I do not know why the bottom is screwed up
from train, my town is over those mountains

christmas presents. 
5 Dh, aka 60 cent butternut squash


two cats on top of each other on top of Krista


The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, governmental or non-governmental organizations.

Nor is anything written here necessarily my own views, opinions, or observations. Please consider all pictures and texts here to be complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality, this one or any other. For legal purposes, please additionally consider the author to be utterly imaginary.