Thursday, December 4, 2014

Storms, Not Just Physical

There's a quiz on the Internet that gives you twelve minutes to type in the names of all 197 countries in the world. I discovered it back in April, tried once or twice, and forgot about it.

In the last few weeks, though, I've been playing it more and more. Once a day, maybe more. I couldn't figure out why it held such pull for me, but I memorized the countries in Oceania as I navigated the process of setting up my work schedule and classes, and then the power struggles and confrontations that resulted. I worked on the Caribbean during a bacterial infection, the flu, a knee injury, and asthma that just kept getting worse, but I stopped after Ferguson and Eric Garner because I wasn't really in the mood to think too much about the Americas. I began memorizing all the African countries and their location on a map as my town received three days of the heaviest rain I've ever seen, but I had to finish that process out of site when the rains worsened and roads flooded and they told me that if I wanted to make it home for Christmas, I needed to be in the next taxi. I stopped taking the quiz for a few days, but as the floods in southern Morocco spread and homes were lost and people killed, as roads were blocked and I found I couldn't have gotten back to my town even if I wanted, as tendrils of guilt crept in because I was safe and warm while my friends were dealing with I didn't even know what...well, that was when I started playing three or four times a day.

My obsession with this quiz still didn't seem all that strange to me, though. Not until the day I got the news that some colleagues of mine, people I knew decently well, and liked and respected immensely, had been killed in Afghanistan. I mourned them that night, both the expats and the Afghans killed in those many attacks, and it was the most heartsick and angry and bitter that I've been in a long time. The following morning, I was on Facebook reading some of the tributes there, and I started to tear up again. Two seconds later, Facebook was gone and my twelve minutes had begun.

Not the most normal reaction, I know. But in the midst of everything, it felt good to have one activity that placed all the control in my hands. Where only I could make my score increase, and only my follies caused harm to me. In that game, Morocco was a blank shape, not the site of floods and danger and friends who weren't answering phone calls. Afghanistan and America were just words. The map showed no injustices, no deaths, no fear. The world was, truly, black and white, and it was lovely.

When I realized the extent of my escapism, I shut off my computer. Because I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn't hide from the world. That I would mourn and I would celebrate and I wouldn't give in to the desire to stop caring. Because I can't help, can't solve anything, if I pretend it doesn't exist. And most of all, because I owe it to my friends down south and my friends in Kabul and the friends I've lost to keep going even when it's hard. To tell them that their lives matter, regardless of who they are or or where they are or how many others seem to have forgotten them. To tell them that I won't take for granted the fact that I'm still here. To promise them that even on the days when rainstorms or sandstorms or political storms or emotional storms make me want to hide inside my house, I won't. Because storms are precisely the moments when I most need to keep fighting.

These rivers aren't normally here...

Nor is this lake.

This is the view from my roof during a sandstorm. I don't take many pictures of these storms because, well, it hurts to be out in them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When Carnivals Are Capacity Building

We're walking to dinner when we crest a hill and find a carnival, its glowing lights bright and inviting and eerily reflected in the water of the Atlantic that sits behind it. Fatima* looks at me, and in her eyes is the same combination of fascination and curiosity and pure joy that has characterized her reaction to everything we've learned this week. 

"I've never been to a carnival before," she says, and though I hear the wistfulness and the request in her voice, she doesn't ask the question.

"Let's go, then," I say, and her face lights up.

For three days now, Fatima's face has been a study in emotions. Pure delight when she walked into a hotel room for the first time in her life, the first time she went wading in the ocean, the first time she tasted filofel. Embarrassment and shyness as our professional development program began, as she introduced herself to other attendees and compared her education, language skills, village roots to their accomplishments, as she looked around the room and found herself lacking. But then came determination, desire, a genuine desire to learn. She took copious notes on every presentation. She applied herself to every exercise, eyebrows furrowed, the concentration coming off her in waves. She made her first budget, wrote her first list of goals and objectives, took a tiny element of our program and, based on a need she sees, made it an integral part. She stood before the group and gave a presentation for the first time in her life.

That emotion? When she sat down? That was pride.

It's fascination on her face now as we wander among the bright lights and happily screaming children for a few minutes before choosing a ride: the Bouncing Rabbit. Fatima grins at me with a childlike joy as we start to move, turning rapidly to delighted squeals as the car lifts us to a height with staggering views and drops us with stomach-clenching speed.

As we leave the carnival, Fatima's eyes are shining.

We're back on the sidewalk again when she turns to me.

"I want to do this program with you," she says, "to learn everything there is to learn. And then? I want to do this for a program. I want to bring girls from towns like ours on trips. So they can see." She falls silent for a moment, looking out at the water. "I want them to see how big the world can be."

Carnivals. Joy in simple pleasures. Public speaking. Pride in a job well done. Inspiration and intimidation from others. Determination to improve. Dreaming.

This is capacity building. 

*name changed

Friday, September 19, 2014

From sea to shining... Sahara

Ifran, Northern Morocco
Work down south has been scarce this summer, since 50+ temperatures (Celsius) cause mass migrations to cooler climates and a near shut-down of activity. As disappointing as it was to arrive in site in April and hear "We'll talk about that in October" every time I suggested something, it was also very freeing. It meant that I spent some of my summer in site, but I spent a lot of it traveling around Morocco and working in various places. I worked camps, attended trainings, and got to spend weekends going hiking and seeing the gorgeousness of this place. And now that my traveling is coming to and end and it's time to get some work, I thought I'd share some photos of the place that is my home.

(Click on a red marker to see photos of each place I visited!)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Go Hug A Teacher

I started writing this post at 3 am on a Saturday morning, when I was still awake planning the lesson for my English class the following day. The idea I had wasn't going the way I wanted, so I was doing more sulking than planning. How am I supposed to teach with almost no supplies? When I can't print anything, when we have 10 crayons for 40 kids, when there aren't even enough pens for all my students? And this is at one of the more well-funded and well-supplied summer camps. When I start classes in my site this fall, how will I be able to teach effectively with so little to work with?

Thankfully, my whiny thoughts ended there, when I fell asleep at the table. When I woke up, I was a bit embarrassed to remember that particular line of thinking. Not only because I have access to far more supplies than many teachers in many parts of the world, but because I know perfectly well that supplies do not a good teacher make.

I've had many incredible teachers who have changed my life in ways I may not even completely see yet. There was my first grade teacher, who spent fifteen minutes in the hall with me while I finished writing the story I was working on and who clued me in on the fact that people write books for a living. Then and there, I decided what I wanted to do with my life, all thanks to Mrs. Schultz. There was the economics professor who tried to persuade me to switch majors and gave me a shot of confidence even as I said no, and the sixth grade teacher who let me study a more advanced textbook on my own because I was bored and tired of being asked to follow along with the class doing work I already knew. The soccer coaches, who helped me grow from a wimpy, skinny freshman to someone slightly resembling an athlete and who sat beside me when I cried in anger after a particularly frustrating game and reminded me gently that it was, frankly, just a game. The history teacher, who caught me reading Alfred Hitchcock under the desk and, instead of getting me in trouble, commended me on my literary taste and told me I'd better get an A on the next test. The English professor, who had us read Utopia and challenged my flawed argument instead of just letting it slide. The journalism teacher, who encouraged me to write articles outside the box. The debate coaches, who taught me to argue logically and to give a standing ovation to whoever beats me. 

That list could go on for ages, but more than anyone else, it is my mom who has become my role model. I worked in her classroom last fall, in a school is in a low-income area, where students come to class with far more baggage than I ever did. And yet, when they step into her room, she makes them welcome. They come to her with problems, and she listens. She designs individual curricula where they are needed, skips lunch to read a math test aloud to a student who struggles to read but knows the material, uses alligators to teach them to round numbers, spends I don't know how much money to build a classroom library for a group of kids who don't all have access to books at home. We commuted to work together for a few months, and it was amazing that after a forty-minute drive home, she would still be talking about one particular student.

None of that requires supplies.

Since I started teaching (and I use the term lightly, because my work load is minuscule compared to that of most teachers I know), I've come to understand just how much teachers put in to their work. It's not iPads or smart boards or even pens that make a student successful in school. It's the moments of connection, the displays of faith in a child's ability, the teacher who stays up late to finish a lesson plan because she knows that her students deserve her best. I've done that once. To all the teachers, in my life and in everyone else's, who have spent years and years doing that for us: thank you.

A few photos from camp:

Making masks
Trust falls
Scrabble riddles

Dance club!

*None of these photos are of classes I taught, since I was spending my time teaching, not being the photographer. These activities were led by other awesome PCVs, but I thought they showed the spirit of this post.

Friday, August 15, 2014

City Ramadan, Country Ramadan

Picture a Peace Corps volunteer traveling the length of Morocco celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.

She starts in a little town in the Sahara Desert, in the July heat and summer sandstorms. The residents prepare herrera
 and hard-boiled eggs and delicious juices
for lftour, the breaking of the fast. As temperatures climb, the volunteer learns to follow the town's example and retreat inside to rest during the day; streets empty, stores close, not a soul is in sight. It is too hot, and everyone too thirsty to exert themselves when they aren't allowed to drink. Everyone would like to sleep, since most don't go to bed until 3 am, but the heat wakes them by 7:30 and makes it difficult to nap during the day. The volunteer has to fight to rein in her temper, knowing that the high temperature and the fasting and the lack of sleep are just as hard on everyone else.

An hour before lftour, everything changes, and the town comes to life. The street souk opens; the main square fills with bustling people. Vendors hawk their vegetables, and the stores' extra freezers filled with milk quickly sell out.

And then, by 7:25, the ghost town has re-appeared. The volunteer joins a family gathered around their table as they quiet all sound to ensure that they can hear the call from the mosque that means it is time to eat. When the notes ring out, everyone reaches for tall glasses of milk or water or juice or absolutely any liquid available and downs it. After three or four glasses, it's possible to eat a few dates or a piece of watermelon, but none of  them touch the herrera. Even sitting outside, there is little relief from the heat, and while there is laughter and happy moments sharing Ramadan meals, the moments are punctuated by the use of homemade fans to make the air move or the relief of pressing a cold glass against a hot forehead. 

Dinner has been prepared for later, to be eaten at 2 am, but it is still so hot that nobody wants to eat. They pull the volunteer up to go for a walk and enjoy the town. Boys play street soccer at midnight, and little girls chase in each other in gleeful games of tag. The benches in the square are packed, and people come in from surrounding villages to purchase food at the souq doing brisk business on the main street. While the town is small and many residents gone for the summer, there is still an air of camaraderie and revelry unique to Ramadan. Despite the heat, despite the potential for flaring tempers, despite the thirst that lasts all day, it is a special season.

When the time comes for the volunteer to leave the Sahara, she heads up north. Two days of travel later, she's in Rabat, Morocco's capital city. It is a far cry from the typical Rabat; many restaurants are closed until evening, and all public transportation shuts down for lftour. The volunteer forgets, the first day, and has to flag down what is possibly the last operating taxi in the entire city. She comes in expecting to have a quiet weekend alone in her hotel, but the discotheque below her that plays music until two a.m. changes that plan. Instead, she goes exploring, and ends up welcomed by multiple families who invite her to break fast and by another party of international friends who celebrate the World Cup final with her. She watches sunsets on the beach and finds herself hungry for the first time in weeks. She meets a group of twenty-somethings at a cafe, and they have a lively debate about international politics in a strange combination of Darija and English and even Spanish as they watch little children run around with balloons and ice cream, celebrating Ramadan the big city way.

Now she travels even further north, to a town nestled in the mountains, where every street is a slope and walking home leaves her breathless from the stairs and from the view.

She puts on a jacket here as she walks around town in the evenings with her friends, and when they kill the hours between lftour and dinner by watching a movie on the roof, they wrap themselves in blankets first. Fasting still makes tempers flare on occasion, but here where the weather is cooler, going to bed at 3 am is not such a hardship because everyone can sleep until noon. Herrera is a dinner staple now, but this table is packed full: milawi and harsha and briwats with chicken and with beef.

And, of course, there's chebakia, lots and lots of chebakia.
The volunteers eats until she is stuffed, and still, she is told to, "Kuli, kuli! Eat, eat!"

For the final days of Ramadan, the volunteer returns to the city where she originally studied Darija and where her host family welcomes her with open arms. Most of their Ramadan celebrations are close-knit celebrations, as the family sits on the floor around the little table and laugh their way through lftour, but some nights, company comes and even the big table overflows with food.

In the evenings, the volunteer's host mom and sisters take her out on the town, to walk through the market and the square, to buy cheap ice cream and listen to music and gossip as they take in the sounds of Ramadan nights. The city that usually shuts down by 10 pm is in full swing.

Eid L-Ftour arrives, the holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan and hints at the larger Eid celebration coming in the fall. Workers are given holidays, children new clothes. Family members visit one another in the morning and kiss each others cheeks with joyful, "Eid Mubarak Saeed!" (Happy Ramadan!) The volunteer's Ramadan journey ends here, gathered around the table with her Moroccan family, smiles on their faces.

Country or city, Morocco or any other country: Happy Ramadan, and Happy Eid!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beating Toubkal: Summiting in the Atlas

I either spent too little or too much time preparing to summit North Africa's highest mountain. To be fair, Toubkal is a mountain and therefore possesses all the dangers inherent to that land mass; paranoid backpacker that I am, I'd prefer to carry a large pack than not have a working water filter or a full med kit if I need them. Toubkal is an oft-climbed mountain who does not inspire the awe she once did, as the mighty adventurers who previously braved her ascent now more commonly wear fanny packs and carry expensive looking photography equipment in the fumbling hands of an amateur. Even among my peers in the Peace Corps, summiting Toubkal appears to be more a rite of passage than a pursuit requiring careful planning and caution. This may be an unfair over-generalization, but considering the stories of unexpected storms, injuries, and even death, I fear that our carefree attitudes do not accord Toubkal the respect she deserves.

I tried to keep that in mind during the long first day of hiking, but as we trudged up switchback after switchback, my thoughts grew slowly less charitable. Being a mountain, Toubkal's trails are steep and rocky, difficult enough without an extra 35 pounds on your back. Had I planned ahead, I wondered, would we have decided to hire a mule to carry our supplies, thereby easing our load? My inefficient lungs had me stopping to use my inhaler more often than I would have liked, and I suspect that my companions too were questioning what lapse in judgement had made us believe we were in good enough shape to accomplish this and why we were carrying the packs we were.

Exhausted at the Refuge.

Other stories tell of evenings spent at Nelter Refuge, and mine varies little. Donning jackets soon after arrival; cooking pasta for our evening meal; sleeping under the stars and waking with a layer of dust on our sleeping bags. The sound of other hikers hitting the trail woke us, and we followed soon after, thankfully leaving our large packs at the refuge and carrying only the basics.

The first hour of that morning was liberating and exhilarating. We set off by the light of headlamps and watched the sun come up as we scrambled over boulders and up the hill. Replacing three large packs with two smaller ones made us feel as spry as the mountain goats we later saw jumping from boulder to boulder, and though the breeze was cool, our exertion was great, and we delayed little before removing our outer layers.

As the second hour wore past, however, the pleasant breezes turned to stronger winds, and then to powerful gusts. We reached for our jackets once more and hunched our shoulders as we fought our way over trails made up primarily of scree. The trail was not readily visible, but we knew the approximate direction in which we needed to head, and so we pressed on. And as the trail worsened and the wind grew stronger, we found ourselves bracing as each wind gust attacked, not only because we were unable to keep walking but also because it was too easy to imagine these forces of nature knocking us off our feet and back down the rocky slope. 

We pressed on, but soon after, an even stronger gust hit. We braced ourselves just as we heard the sound of tumbling debris. The rocks along the ridge line, disturbed by the powerful winds, were rolling down the hillside toward the valley in which we were climbing. We could not easily measure the rocks, as they thankfully did not reach our location, but I would estimate them to be the size of a human head or larger; certainly sufficient to cause damage and more than sufficient to cause fear.

Neither up nor down offered easy refuge, and our current position was likewise unsustainable. One of our number elected to return, wisely surveying her own condition from the previous day's trek, the drop in temperature, and the strain of the wind and the trail. We were afeared to leave her and had committed to all returning together, but circumstance brought us a companion with another party, someone we had known before, who was also planning to descend. We remaining two watched them leave, knowing that it was an intelligent choice but also losing heart at the loss of one of our number.

We continued up the trail, keeping a wary eye on the few rocks continuing to fall and breathing a sigh of relief when they ceased. The wind slackened none, ripping through the valley as though intent on taking us along, and more than once, we stumbled a step or two backward along the slippery trail. Our muscles, already wearied from the previous day, strained further and made clear their complaints. As we ascended, the air grew thinner and the wind just as strong, and I began keeping my inhaler in hand because it seemed not worth the effort to retire it to my pack between uses. 

We emerged from the shadowy valley and reached the approaching rays of the sun at last, and it seemed an end was in sight. Others, who had left far earlier than we, were making their way past us, back down the trail, and we both rejoiced to see them and felt disheartened by our own slow progress. I felt the guilt most strongly, as I was the primary cause of our halting pace, and yet again, I questioned whether I had been justified in attempting this trek, knowing that my lungs' inability can too easily make me a liability. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

After a time (we were not so eager to check our watches by now, as it was too cold to use our fingers more than necessary and only served to hurt our morale), we reached the ridge. This is the subject of many pictures, as hikers silhouetted along the horizon line brave the last stretch of trail. 

We were now protected from the wind and the weather was cold but not unbearable, and whole minutes passed without words as we watched vista after incredible vista come into view and thanked the God who had sent us on this journey.

We reached the final, steep ascent, following the winding trail up to the peak, as the wind met us once again. It blew us around, creeping through our layers of clothing and finding buttonholes and loose collars to burrow into. Our hands and ears and other extremities were quite chilled at this point, and I am ashamed to admit that when we at last reached the summit, my thoughts at first focused little on the beauty or on the feat we had just accomplished but more on the return awaiting us.

However, despite the cold and my wheezing lungs, summiting Toubkal was a moment like no other. Climbing those final feet, reaching a summit empty of people but silhouetted by brilliant blue skies, looking at the distant village we had passed the previous day and saying, "I was there. Now I am here. Despite your best attempts to thwart me, Toubkal, look at what I have accomplished."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Laundry Day

Step one is to check the weather. Any sandstorms today? If so, I'm impressed (your Internet is better than mine) and confused (why do laundry? Your stuff will be sandy in five minutes.) Is it cold? Stop right now; there's no reason to do laundry when you're liable to get hypothermia. (Besides, no one can smell you anyway.)

Step two. Make sure you have water. Easier said than done. In my site, for example, I have potable water for an hour and a half every other day (at 7 am, which is the hardest part!) There's another faucet that supposedly has water all the time but actually just has a mind of its own. It also leaves a layer of some mineral on everything it touches, so while it works for some chores, I try not to wash clothes with it. I know that other sites go without water for days at a time, or have to filter everything they use. And then there are places in the world where water is even more scarce than that, so I'm thankful for what I do get. And for those of you who can get wash water with the turn of a knob, take a moment to remember how lucky you are!

Step three. Take off your shoes, put on some clothing that can get wet, and clear your schedule for a week. You may also want to stretch your wrists before you begin; your muscles will hurt tomorrow!

Step four. Now the work begins. Put about six inches of precious, clean water in the bucket with liberal amounts of Tide. Start with your whites, but I don't recommend letting them soak. Unless you're going for the melancholy gray look, in which case, by all means. I wash mine one at a time by adding a pinch of Tide directly on the item and scrubbing it between my hands while plunging it in and out of the water. It made me feel very authentic and empowered for the first thirty seconds. Now it just makes me tired. (I'm going to invent a workout routine based on house cleaning and sell it to P90-X for big bucks. Get in shape, and get your house clean, all for just $19.99!)

Once your hands are rubbed raw and the items are squeaky clean and soapy, pour the water down the squat toilet, thereby cleaning it as well and scaring off any encroaching scorpions. See all that dirty water? Go you! 

Step five. Time to rinse. I prop my bottle of clean water between my knees and pour it over each item as I fill the bucket, so I can wring and rinse under a clean flow. Be careful how much you pour; remember, you might not have water for two more days.

First load rinsed? Great! Don't dump the rinse water - add more soap and now do your darks. Scrub, dump, rinse. Save the water! If you have another bucket, you can even pour the dirty water into that, to save for what comes next.

I'm getting ahead of myself. (See? This workout routine is exciting as well as effective. Only $19.99, folks!)

Yup, step six is drying. If you are a poor Peace Corps volunteer, you may not have sprung for many clothespins. (Oh, I'm the only one that cheap? Whoops.) Not to worry, because hangers make excellent clothespins. And see that green and yellow device in the far righthand corner? Best purchase I've ever made. It's a hanger with eight clothespins on it, saving a tremendous amount of space. Also its clips are shaped like pandas, and who doesn't like pandas? Made the whole trip to Japan worth it.

If it's spring or fall, you'll want to really wring your clothing out before you hang it. That sounds so simple, but try repeating it twenty or thirty times. Your poor wrists, but remember that beauty is pain, or some such thing.

If it's summer, I usually do a tiny wringing out and then let the sun work its sanitizing magic. Turn clothes inside out, and if wrinkles are a concern, wring the clothes well and stretch them on the line. If you're as frumpy as me, just hang 'em and move on.

Yup, time for step seven. Before you begin, go put two bottles of water in your freezer, if you have one. Thank me later.

Remember the bucket of dirty and/or rinse water you set aside? Dump that on the floor. That's right. Your floor (and you) are already wet and it's 110 degrees in here, so why not splash around in the water and get the floors clean at the same time? Dirty water is great for a first rinse, sweeping up the gifts that sandstorms so lovingly left you. Squeegee all that to the door so it can drain to outside and then return with clean water for that sparkling Mr. Clean look. (No animals were harmed in the writing of this endorsement.)

Now look. How beautiful and clean is your house, and your clothes, and...geez, you stink. Sweatin' it to the oldies style. Those two bottles in the freezer? Thank me now. Add those to your lukewarm wash water, and enjoy a refreshing bucket bath, basking in the security of the lack of scorpions and the knowledge that you own enough socks to put off the next laundry day for at least three weeks. 

*Shipping and handling not included. 
**My name is Rachel, and I approve this message.
***Insert more fine print here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sometimes I don't hate being a girl

I, on a regular basis, hate being a girl. I hate not being permitted to do certain things, or not being physically strong enough to do some of them. My personality is pushy and sometimes abrasive, and empathy is something I have to genuinely work at. I'm a lousy seamstress and have the patience to do crafts about once a year. No matter how hard I try, I see no reason to judge my own worth based on the cleanliness of my house, the quality of my culinary delights, or the fashionability of my clothing.* The only feminine-ish thing I do is ballet, and even there, I'm not a dainty or beautiful ballerina. I dance because it makes me feel free, which means that my favorite dancing is the dancing I do alone, not for the pleasure of others. (For the record, I've never worn a tutu.)

I occasionally feel guilty for disliking my gender. As though I've betrayed some girl code or am a disappointment to my sisters who are fighting for equality or blah blah blah. But then I get told I can't attend a karate class I was counting on to keep me in shape, or I can't go to a cafe because I'll be the only woman there, or I can't play soccer. Because I'm a girl. And guess what happens to the guilty feelings?

Over the last two years, though, I've discovered a tonic that soothes my frustration and disillusionment. I saw it in full force this week.

The scene was karate class, a class I've not been allowed to attend since I arrived here almost six weeks ago. The issues revolved around the fact that it was a class of all men, in a studio with no windows, at 8:30 pm. And I work at the women's center, which means I'm influencing people's daughters and wives. Which means I have to care about my reputation if I want to keep working in this town. Which meant that when they told me I wasn't allowed to engage in the one exercise opportunity I'd found here, I was really frustrated, but (after venting into my pillow for ten minutes and praying for twenty more) I eventually had to accept it.

I've spent the last six weeks teaching a boys' gymnastics class at this same karate studio, so the people in the neighborhood and at the studio have gotten to know me. The people of the town as a whole have learned that I've been a teacher of dance and gymnastics, and that I'm hoping to offer classes in both of those; a sports teacher staying in shape is less scary than a young woman playing the siren with all those men in the karate studio. I've spent hours sitting at the women's sewing club, fighting my way through the process of learning to crochet (I am certifiably awful at it!) I've gone to lunch at home after home, played with child after child, and as I write this, there's a batch of no-bake cookies cooling on my counter, which I'm planning to take tomorrow as gifts for many of the people who've helped me find my place in this town.

And, now that said place is decently established, I was allowed to take a karate class on Wednesday. Of course, my fabulous sense of direction meant I got lost on the way, so I stopped to ask directions of two girls. They shyly offered to walk me there, and as we walk, we talked. I learned that their names were Iman and Fatima and that they are ten years old. I told them about the ballet class I'm starting on Monday, and their eyes grew as round as saucers when I demonstrated a double pirouette, right there in the street.

Twenty minutes later, we're in the middle of the karate warm-up when I see them steal into the room. There are usually a few young boys who come to watch the karate class, but it's the first time I've seen a girl come. They'd stayed until class was almost over, and each time I glanced their way, their eyes were following my every move.

Thursday night was the regular gymnastics class. This time, there were five little girls. They didn't talk, didn't ask to join, but there was a hunger in the way they watched me spotting cartwheels across the floor.

Tonight, karate was immediately after a women's English class I taught at the youth center, so I happened to be walking that direction with several of the young women I know. When I told them where I was going, they asked if they could come watch. One told me that she'd been a yellow belt, before her family made her stop. She asked if she could tie my belt for me.

All class long, I was so very conscious of their eyes on me, and I've never felt more pressure. I knew I should take it easy, because I have a healing injury and I'm out of shape and I'm new to karate, but that row of watchers (six little girls and three young women) made it impossible to give anything but my best. That row of watchers gave me something to prove.

At the end of class, the teacher asked me if I'd teach some gymnastics to these grown men, and the girls watched delightedly as the men attempted clumsy cartwheels and executed surprisingly good forward rolls. Then, as most of the men went to shower and change, the teacher glanced at the row of girls and asked if I'd demonstrate some ballet.

Picture this, please. Bulky karate clothes, at least two sizes too big. The studio as hot as a sauna, and sweat pouring off me in buckets. A newly-healed injury and a badly bruised foot, and every muscle in my body aching because I've exercised more in the last three days than in the last six weeks. Knowing that I've danced once since coming to Morocco, that I don't have my ballet slippers, that my muscles feel like jello already.

But I couldn't say no. There was such hope in their eyes. I couldn't say no.

I found “I Hope You Dance” on my iPod; it seemed fitting. I let the music pull me in, closed my eyes and let myself forget about the world and just dance. As usual, the comfortable steps took me away from aching muscles and dripping sweat. Unlike usual, the freedom was mixed with pressure. I wasn't dancing just for me. This was something bigger.

I'm pleased to report that our first adult ballet class will be next week. No men allowed. Just us, and the dance, and a place where they, too, can feel free.

Sometimes, I don't hate being a girl.

*I realize that I grossly exaggerate what it means to be a woman, and for that, I [sort of] apologize. I could continue ranting, but instead, I'll just say I'm sorry if I offended you.

**I also realize that not all of my frustrations about being female apply in every place I've lived. They've certainly grown and changed since I started living in more conservative cultures, but the core of all this holds true most everywhere. I also didn't even touch on the issue of violence, which is such a big frustration that it shouldn't be called just a frustration, and that certainly exists everywhere.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Welcome to the Sahara!

Welcome to the Sahara! Even after almost two weeks, I still find it hard to believe I live here. Now that I know my way around town a little better, I thought I'd share it with you.

Knowing my way around town isn't hard, because there is basically one paved street in town. It runs from one end to the other, which is about a half mile. The street is lined with little shops, called hanoots. They carry all the daily necessities: milk, water, soap, etc. There are a few little hardware hanoots, a few clothing, a few furniture. There's the bank (with an ATM that works only when you aren't in a hurry), the schools, the mosque, etc. Twice a week, all the vendors come to the big outdoor market (souq) where you can get all your vegetables and bigger items that aren't available on a daily basis, but we still tend to have to go to the nearest city to get anything more than the simple stuff. In short, this isn't a town where you can immediately find items to meet cravings, but basic needs are covered.

The pace of life here is really different and had taken some getting used to. This is mainly due to the climate. It is really hot already (around 100 degrees), and it'll only get hotter from here. The heat dictates everything; when you do chores and when I can go running and when people are willing to come to classes at the women's center where I work. During the middle of the day (from about 11 to 5 ish), there's hardly anybody out. Everyone sleeps all afternoon, because it's too hot to do anything else!

We wake up early to the sound of roosters and donkeys, but days still start slowly; we eat breakfast around 9:30, after many of the chores are already done. I live for the evenings and night, when we set a carpet in the front yard an enjoy the cooling world. After dinner at 11 pm, we carry mats and blankets to the roof and fall asleep under the stars. It's amazing, the perspective that brings to your life. Little frustrations somehow cease to matter, when I weigh them against the immensity of that night sky.

It is a very simple life, and I like it. People sit in front of their houses in the evenings (and during the day), and they greet everyone who goes by. I've helped two elderly individuals make the trek to their homes already, simply because I was walking past and they needed a hand. And you know what? I was free to stop and help, because I wasn't rushing somewhere or running through a to-do list or talking on my phone. I feel like I'm very present in this place, and I like it so far!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Through the Window

Ten-hour bus rides are fun. Especially when they turn into twelve hours when you get a flat tire on the road. All twelve of which you spent staring out the window, because the road is too windy and your stomach too upset to do anything else. And at first, you are frustrated, because you have a book to read and you really want a nap.

But start to actually look. Not mindlessly, not wishing you were doing something else. You start to look, and you see, and you wonder.

You see the landscape changing, from lush green

to spots of green

to mostly just brown.

You see construction sites, and their materials, and their methods. How does that work? Why do they do it that way? You know a little bit about construction here, and the differences, but why are they that way? Does it have to do with the climate? With the culture? Where do these differences come from?

You see colorful laundry and colorful carpets hanging on the sides of the road, draped over short walls and prickly bushes and what looks like wire. The carpets are for sale, but the clothing is there to dry. Why there? Why not on a clothing line? Is it that much cheaper, or is there another reason? And wow, think of the time it took to do all that wash, likely by hand. You think of the woman in 1984, the one who is described as spending her life doing laundry. Do these women ever feel that way? What would they say, if they saw you taking pictures of nature's drying racks?

You see men irrigating fields, and you think of the methods used on the farm at home, and you wonder how they compare. It looks like flood irrigation; where does the water come from? You know there's an aquifer- is that the main source? What are the common crops here, and how much water do they need? 

You notice the phone lines that get in the way of your photographs, and they make you pause. Not every town you pass has phone lines. There are satellites on many roofs, but not all of them. What is it like, to live without those? To live in a world where you don't need those? Does all our technology make our lives better, or would you be comfortable living where cell phone towers and Internet access don't dictate your happiness?

The bus passes through a city, and you get your camera up just in time to catch a picture of his man, wheeling a bicycle with cow hooves hanging off every side. Oh, the things you see!

The bus passes roadside stand after roadside stand, some more elaborate than others. You admire the pottery, the carpets, the knickknacks you see. They shine in the sun, like they want to present their best selves to you as you speed by.

You notice a field of a yellow grain - wheat, maybe? It's full of men holding a tool in their hand - a scythe? You don't know. You can guess, you can imagine, but you have no experience with this kind of crop nor this type of farming, so all your thoughts are pure conjecture. But pure wonder as well. They move so fast, these farmers cutting their crop. How do they do it? Their hands fly, and the wheat falls, and the bundle is tied and left behind before you have a chance to blink. It's beautiful, the field of half waving stalks and half cut and shining bundles.

You pass so many different types of topography- mountains, plains, greenery, desert. You notice the rocks change color during one portion, changing from the browns you've seen all day to a unique dark black. Interesting. You watch the cliffs flash by the bus windows, and you study the rock formations and the marks in the stones, trying to remember the geology you learned in school four years ago but also mostly just admiring nature's art.

You pass buildings and homes and fascinating architecture. People working in the fields, people working in the yard, people sitting in the shade and watching buses go by. You pass children playing by the side of the road, more games of street soccer than you can count. Grandparents and infants and pets and livestock; all these lives so different than yours. It's a privilege to witness them, if only through the window.

You stop in the city for lunch, and you see this adorable girl playing on the steps while her family waits for the bus to leave again. It makes you think of the families you know, here and back home and everywhere else. All these differences you notice, all these strange and interesting new things; it's nice to be reminded that we're all the same in the end.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Ladies of the Hair Salon, anthropologically speaking

My host sister leads me to a curtained doorway on a Moroccan side street and pulls me inside. I'm apprehensive, excited, anxious; I'm about to see the inner sanctum of a demographic to which I've never before had access.

The ladies of the hair salon.

Whether they abide in a physical hair salon, as is seldom the case, or whether they function among us, it is quite easy to spot an LHS (Lady of the Hair Salon) when you see her. She's fashionably dressed, capable of taking the most unfashionable discards and creating an outfit of beauty. She knows words like 'bronzer,' and her make-up kit is a marvelous thing. We know her by the way she walks, the way she holds herself, the way she presents herself to the world. She is an LHS.

It is hard, sometimes, to enter a group to which one does not belong, but this group has long invited me to enter. It was I who hung back, reluctant to give myself over, not knowing if I would emerge a changed woman. It is difficult to suppress your innate personality for the sake of integration, to give up the core of who you are in order to make yourself more like the peoples around you. My core personality could not be more perplexed by this group. When my fashion consists of ponytails and tennis shoes, when my make-up kit includes three items and one of them is toothpaste, when I had to Google the word 'bronzer' before I wrote that... it's clear that I am not an LHS.

Today, though, it was clear: they weren't taking 'no' for an answer. And thus, I found myself going behind the curtain and venturing into a whole new world.

I was greeted immediately by the Moroccan hairdressers, efficient women who were capable of divining my needs despite the language barrier and my lack of knowledge. I submitted myself fully, undergoing the most extensive transformation I've experienced in all my travels. My hair was sprayed and blown and pulled and clipped and a variety of other past participles that appear to be unique to this particular social group. This was followed by the transformation of my face, as layers of a variety of smooth creams were applied to my skin and eyelids and lips. I sat as still as I could, afraid to so much as blink in the fear that they might misunderstand my intentions and potentially drop mascara in my eye. It was difficult, I grant, as my eyes fought their attempts, but sheer will prevailed, and I was soon made over.

Next came clothing, as we left the salon proper and returned to the native dwelling. A blue jelaba (more jargon, which I understood to mean the style of robe native to Morrocco) was waiting, and the LHSes wasted no time in stripping me of my ties to the outside world and cladding me in its silken folds. My feet were tucked into lopsided white shoes, taller in the heel than in the toe, magically making me taller when I walked. Or, at least, they were meant to make me taller; I do not appear to have the genetic make-up that permits one to totter on such shoes, but perhaps it is something I can develop in time.

When my makeover was complete, I was led into a room full of friends, who cheered when they saw me. I felt a redness rising on my cheeks, but that may have been due to the pink powder that had been dusted over my cheekbones earlier in the day. We partied all afternoon, getting henna on our hands, eating delicious treats, dancing to Moroccan music. There was an aura of festiveness and revelry in the air that seemed peculiar to me, given that I was so dressed up. How can one be so festive when one's clothing does not let her breathe and one's makeup does not let her blink and one's shoes forbid her from moving?

I was intrigued by the behavior I saw, so like any anthropologist, I took advantage of my opportunity to observe. I was amazed to discover that the LHS aren't so different from you and me. First, in observing the atmosphere of the salon, I noticed that despite the efficiency, each woman was treated to a period of personal attention as she underwent her transformation. She put herself in the hands of a professional, relieving herself of the responsibility of caring and thereby freeing her brain waves for other things.

But more than her brain is freed. This appears to be a place where, despite the emphasis on being "made over," the LHSes can be free of judgement, whether their own or someone else's. She finds release there, an escape of sorts. Here, in the inner sanctum, she can laugh and joke and chatter with like-minded individuals, and she can do so without fear.

I do not feel this way when I step foot in a hair salon, but I can relate to the feeling. It exists in other communities; I feel the same when I dance, or when I read, or when I play a good game of soccer. When I let go of reality, when I enter a world of other people like me, I don't have to worry about how I appear to those around me. I am removed from myself, and at times, that is a joyous way to be.

I next attempted to understand the reasons behind the frequent forays to the hair salon. All of these women are beautiful anyway, and besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Why spend the money and the time to change your appearance if it doesn't need changing? It is a conundrum that I have long labored to solve, and I think I at last observed the answer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The LHSes find their beauty in a hairstyle and some eyeshadow, and for them, that attitude doesn't fade when they step outside. In knowing that they feel beautiful, they become beautiful, which adds a spring to their step and a confidence to their actions.

Again, other social groups can relate to this feeling. I know what it is like to carry myself with pride, knowing that I just beat my 5K time or that a magazine wants to publish my work. These elements of my being and my life give me confidence, just as the LHSes gain confidence from their time in the salon, and both of us complete our activity with slightly higher self-esteem than we had before.

My final observation was this: revelry is also in the eye of the beholder. If you are most comfortable, most confident, happiest in silk robes and high heels, wear them. If you'd rather go wear jeans and a T-shirt and go square dancing, wear them. If you'd rather stay home and read a book, do so. Know who you are and what works for you, and don't apologize for it.

That said, go out of your comfort zone sometimes, not because you are told to but because curiosity is a blessing and the world is an interesting place. The LHSes and I have different ideas about how to party, but that's okay. Deep down, I still don't fit in the world of the hair salon, but that's okay too. We had a wonderful time together, and I came away with a deeper understanding on the elusive Ladies of the Hair Salon. Also with henna on my hands, which is pretty darn cool.