Monday, May 9, 2011

A overdue confession

I imagine most people who had been following this blog have surely given up by now. And I can't blame a one of them. If anybody is still following, here's a brief update and information about the future of this blog.

First I want to say that a little over a month ago I was working on a major blog update. I had put in about 5 hours of work on it, and was about half-way done, when my computer caught a virus and went completely kaput. Shortly after that I travelled to visit friends and then my dad came for a 2 week visit, so I gave up on trying to re-do the blog entry. And now, since I don't particularly want to spend 10s of hours in an internet cafe catching my blog up, I have decided to drop a few lines now and then giving basic info, and then worry about filling in the juicy details when I get back. I know that's not the purpose of a blog, but for one, I'm not big on technology, and two, I don't want to use more time than I have to while I'm in Morocco to sit in internet cafe's. I'll be home soon enough and do all the catching up that's necessary and desired!

So, here's a small recap of what I've been up to in the last three months: I indeed started teaching at the orphanage that a local Rotary club connected me with back in January. I began by teaching English, but this didn't last long. I recruited a handful of my friends, both Moroccan and international, and so there was a squadron of us to teach English, science and math. Two was all that was necessary for English, and two of my Moroccan friends decided to teach science, so I decided to just teach math. It has been a terrific, rewarding experience teaching the kids at the orphanage. I have to teach them in Derija (Moroccan Arabic), which is very difficult for me with my level in the language, but it has posed no problem to learning. This is due almost completely to the kids endless energy, desire to learn, leadership (helping each other), and patience with my Arabic. We have a blast for about an hour and a half twice a week, working on math problems and trying to not get side-tracked with curiosities the kids have about life in the United States and my personal endeavors. We start every day with typical, endless Moroccan greetings and beat-boxing, something the kids love to do and tell me to rap in English. Yeah, I've got it pretty good at this orphanage, and I'd like to think the kids are getting something out of it as well.

I have travelled a bit to visit friends of mine, and mydad also came for two weeks, during which we travelled around the Pyrenees and got to know every part of Morocco we could in the allotted time. Now I am back to studying and intend to learn all the Arabic I can before I leave.

My computer wasn't the only gadget to fall victim to bad technology luck - the memory card of my camera also stopped working recently. I lost all the pictures on it, many of which I hadn't yet transfered to my computer. Therefore, I don't have a visual representation of my recent activities, but I plan to get a replacement card so as to be able to show you guys what I've been up to.

Again, my apologies, but such is life and technology. Please feel free to contact me by email with any questions, comments, or further interests (

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Reckon it’s time for an update? I guess I should start this blog entry off with an explanation of why I haven’t posted an update in over a month…Well as for the month of December, one word describes my life pretty well: hectic. I got in over my head with scholarly and extra-curricular activities. I was taking 6 hours of Arabic a day and then teaching English four nights a week. Then I had the other daily obligations with friends and providing for dinner, etc. In short, I hardly had time to respond to emails, much less spend 4 hours to make a blog entry (sadly it does indeed take me at least that long to make even a simple entry. I’m not a technological wiz…) So am I forgiven?

So let me give a brief recap of December, highlighting the big events and animating with pictures, before moving into the new year and plans for the near future.

The intensive Arabic courses I took on for December definitely benefited me linguistically, but because of them I experienced mental exhaustion for the first time in my life. One day I even reached the point of struggling to answer basic questions in English. I had decided to take 4 hours of Classical Arabic classes in the morning and 2 hours of Moroccan Arabic classes in the after noon, and the combination of languages (they aren’t indeed that similar) is what probably did my head in. I speak Derija (Moroccan Arabic) in the street for basic necessities, but once the conversation goes further than simple remarks about food and daily life, I have to resort to French to converse with people. Then at school I learn Fosha (Classical Arabic) and speak it with other students and teachers. Then one day a week I have a Portuguese class which is taught in Spanish…so you see why my brain started to grind gears? I realized I hadn’t made a wise choice in taking so many hours of Arabic (and different dialects of Arabic), so I knew I just had to make it out of the month of December and in January I would take just 4 hours of Fosha (Classical Arabic.) I also decided to stop teaching English at the school where I was. I didn’t think I was contributing to the education of ambitious, motivated, humanitarian-minded students, so I decided my time would be better-spent elsewhere, hopefully making a difference that will help Morocco long-term. December was a productive month, nonetheless, and I’m glad I made it through.

The 14th of December was the birthday of Hessna, the youngest daughter of my Moroccan family in Temara. They invited me to attend a little get-together, so I showed up with some goodies, ready for a party. Birthdays aren’t cause for grand celebrations in Morocco, but they’re fun nonetheless. We ate a nice meal together, and after we had finished the family asked me to sing the Happy Birthday song in Arabic, opera style (I had jokingly sang opera the last time I was there and somehow they thought I was talented and they asked me to prepare the birthday song in opera fashion for Hessna’s upcoming birthday.) I asked Abdessamad to accompany me, so he sang low and I sang probably 5 octaves above him, and I must say we sounded magnificent together. Everybody cheered, took a video, and then joined us as we followed our opera performance with an English version (in normal voices). After the meal it was time for music and dancing. They put on typical Moroccan birthday music, and we started dancing. Hessna was the only one dancing at first, with the whole family around singing and watching, but they soon drug me into the mix, and Hessna began showing me the steps. They took advantage of having a goofy foreigner at their mercy, and they tied a scarf around my hip and showed me how to do the typical dances of Moroccan women…and of course they filmed it. Hey, I don’t mind being the butt of a few jokes as long as everybody enjoys the evening. My little sacrifice (but was it really a sacrifice when I was having such a great time?) Sorry I don't have pictures of this event. I am an amazing photographer who never learned how to take a good picture and who always forgets to take them in the first place...

You must be curious about Christmas celebrations in a Muslim country…well let me tell you about ours! Christmas is not a recognized holiday in Morocco, and in fact most people didn’t even know the exact date (most people thought it was January 1st since it made sense to them that Jesus’ birthday would signify the start of a new year…yeah, kinda makes sense right? I had never considered that before…) However, my roommates Jette and Jull Ian and fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Annemarie and I were able to find a little Christmas Tree and decorations for it, and we set up a nice little Christmas area in our house. None of us are big on the commercial aspect of Christmas, so something quaint and simple suited us just fine. We organized excursions to the medina (old city where the good markets are) with each other to get the others a couple of little gifts to exchange on Christmas. We had several guests for Christmas: Jette’s sister from Germany, Annemarie’s friend from Sweden, and Jull Ian’s friends from Holland. Since we were a mixed European/American group, we decided to split up Christmas celebrations according to tradition: we celebrated Christmas on the 24th for the Europeans, and they cooked an awesome, typical German meal, and we celebrated the 25th for the Americans, and we cooked a quite good, traditional American meal. We even opened stockings on Christmas morning, so all around it was a complete, fun, successful Christmas. We went to mass at the big Catholic Church in town, and for me at least that was a terrific experience. It was filled with people from all over the world, with over half the congregation being from Sub-Sahara Africa. The church choir consisted of only Sub-Saharan Africans, and as a result the hymns and chants had awesome African rhythms and were accompanied by dancing in traditional African fashion. Needless to say, it was my kind of approach to hymns.
European Christmas (24th). The German sisters (two girls on the left) made a soup thing that consisted of potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes and other goodies that I can't remember. It was very good. (Can you tell we don't have heating in our house?)

And voila the American Christmas meal. We cooked up some mashed 'taters, green beans, chicken, and garlic bread. And gosh dernit it was tasty! (crap I didn't change clothes...)

Our humble Christmas tree and what Jette calls "Bahim's Muslim Corner" (Bahim is Jette's Moroccan boyfriend.) Bahim was pretty impressed with our Christmas celebrations. It was his first and he really enjoyed it.

Because Islam has its own calendar based on the lunar cycle, the Muslim new year does not often coincide with the Western New Year (January 1st). Since Morocco does recognize and celebrate the Muslim New Year, it doesn’t give a lot of celebratory importance to the Western New Year. So a group of us foreigners decided to throw a New Year’s party at our house. It was complete with alcohol, dancing, and of course a countdown to 2011. The only thing missing was fireworks. But we stood on our rooftop and yelled “Happy New Years” at the top of our lungs, probably disturbing the neighbors, but definitely catching the attention of some Moroccan teenagers on a nearby rooftop who wondered what the big fuss was about.

So January started and I wasn’t teaching English at the language center anymore, but I got busier with the local Rotary clubs, so my schedule never really slowed down. I have complained plenty about my business, mainly because I’d like to have more time for friends and family back home and also my friends here, but I always realize when I have a dull moment that life is just much more meaningful when I’m busy. It’s better to lose a little sleep and respond a little more slowly to emails and have a day full of productive events than to have nothing to do. After all, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. One of the worse effects of poverty is the idleness that accompanies it. It gives a person time to fret about all the bad stuff. I believe humans were just made to be busy, either with each other or working, and hopefully a healthy combination of the two.

Something very positive that came from getting more involved with the local Rotary clubs was a connection to a local orphan school. I presented to a club and told them about my past experiences with the orphanage in Honduras and my life interests and goals in Morocco, and one of the members, Driss, had a wonderful proposition for me to get involved at an orphan school here in Morocco that he has a relationship with. Last week I went with Driss and Annemarie to the school to become acquainted with its administration and facilities. We set up a meeting with the director to discuss specifics on what we can do to help. I’m very excited about this project. I wanted to work in an orphanage in Morocco, and now it seems I have a great connection to one through Rotary.
Here I am exchanging Rotary club banners with the president of Rabat Rotary club Rabat Chellah.

After my crazy month of December I needed a break, a vacation from my hectic schedule. There was a national Holiday the second week of January, so some friends and I decided to take advantage and go to the desert. We rented a car and headed out early in the morning to arrive to the Atlas Mountains by sunrise. The plan worked and we weren’t disappointed by the view we had as we drove through the mountains with the colored sky in front of us. Then it just got annoying looking into the bright morning sun. Oh the sacrifices we make for short pleasures… Morocco is such a diverse, beautiful country, ideal for road trips. We drove all day, stopping at a beautiful lake to have lunch, at a Fossil Museum so that Safa, the geologist with us, could drool over stones, and we arrived at our destination around 9pm. We spent a few days in the desert playing on the dunes, taking camels to a campsite in the desert and having lunch, and just hanging out. We left enough time on the drive back to make more stops, and this was well planned because Safa and Anne-sophie wanted to stop every 50 feet to take pictures. That led to a lot of jokes on the part of Karim, our friend from Switzerland, and me. The drive back through the mountains was breathtaking, and we really appreciated having our own car to be able to pull over at will to take pictures or to eat, which we did plenty. We even had a flat tire adventure and met some nice people in a small town in the mountains to get the tire repaired. Our last stop was in Marrakech, the famed city of color, wonder, crazy markets, and wild parties. The girls had to do a little shopping, so Karim and I got drug along as body guards. But that’s not such a difficult job when you’re “protecting” two beautiful women. Enjoy the pics!
A view of the countryside as we headed south towards the Sahara.

The lake we stopped at to eat lunch. Karim and I almost dared to take a swim, but the water resembled ice just a little too much.

To explain: I'm kissing a camel made from grass, and Karim is eating a rock made from....rock.

Kings of the Sahara.

The Sahara's setting sun.

The Sahara in front, the little towns that wind along the verge of the Sahara in the middle, and in the background the Atlas Mountains. Morocco is a beautiful country.

Performing magic tricks with the sand.

The evolution of shadows.

A pose for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

The group on camels. We headed into the desert, had a scrumptious lunch, and road back to catch the sunset over the dunes.

No trip to the desert is complete without some sand-boarding. Karim and I did this a couple of times before becoming completely exhausted from climbing up the dunes. Seriously, there's nothing more exhausting than climbing 10 feet up a steep dune.

Jewels of the desert. One endemic to Morocco, one an invasive specie, but both so much fun to travel with!
Safa, I still blame this on you. I told you we couldn't make it through that section of the desert with a mid-size car. But it was fun getting it unstuck.

This camel downed a bottle of coke in front of us. I can't imagine his dental hygiene.

Employees at the hotel played typical Moroccan music after dinner every night, and we joined in playing instruments, dancing and singing.

I'm beating on the guitar since I don't know how else to make music with it. Safa is clapping some very typical Moroccan instruments called...well...I don't know, but now you see what they look like.

And dance!

I don't understand why this picture never diminished in size, but enjoy the view we also experienced in the mountains as we drove to Marrakech.

Typical pizza from southern Morocco. It's like two crusts with the goodies on the inside. And of course no Moroccan meal is complete with very sugary tea.

The cozy, gorgeous overlook we stopped at to eat lunch that oversaw a little agricultural enclave off the highway. 

Marrakech by night. 
Is an explanation needed?

Monday, November 29, 2010

A baby, a desert, and umm....Let's give thanks!

The biggest recent event in Morocco was the birth of Narjis, the first child of my dear friends Abdessamad and his wife Fatima. Narjis was born the 24th of November, the day before Thanksgiving.  She weighed 2.8 kilograms and was completely healthy. I got to see her on her 3rd day after seeing the light and she was gorgeous, had her mothers' eyes. Here are some pictures.
Here's daddy admiring his creation. I hope to have that same goofy grin on my face one day. 
On the left is Abdessamad's sister-in-law, Hessna, who came over for the day to help with household chores while Abdessamad's wife Fatima rested and took care of baby.
I've got a new challenge ahead of me: learning Arabic before the Narjis does. I think I can manage that. I'm just glad I got a 3 month head start.

In other news, last weekend I went on a trip to the Sahara desert with a group from the school where I'm studying now. Oh yeah, did I mention that I'm now taking 20 hours/week of Arabic classes at a language institution? It's a terrific program with a class pace that suits me well: FAST! Anyway, on this trip we visited a city called Erfoud in the Sahara Desert in Eastern Morocco (the Sahara also extends into the southern part of Morocco.) After visiting a mausoleum with some old dead people, we headed to a very poor neighborhood that was a historic neighborhood of the region, built hundreds of years ago. We entered this place and toured around, looking at all the "historic" stuff and observing the conditions these poor people lived in. Our tour guide took us through the winding paths between all the houses and took us to all the "hot" spots that a tourist must see in this historic, destitute quarter. As soon as we entered the neighborhood I felt my conscience start burning and I was immediately aware that we were intruding on these incredibly poor peoples' living space to see what harsh conditions they lived in and take pictures to show our rich friends back home. Essentially we were treating those people and their circumstances as exploitable means to have a nice vacation and see the "real" Morocco. To me, that is not seeing the real Morocco. Seeing the real Morocco means interacting with the commoners without exploiting them or viewing them as simple peasants of the "third world." Sit down and have a Moroccan tea with them over a conversation and you'll see more of the "real" Morocco than you ever will going around taking pictures of all the "exotic, strange, crazy" customs and architecture. Aw crap, I'm getting opinionated again...

Saturday night we went to meet another tour guide who had camels waiting for us to ride to our campsite nestled in the sand dunes. We arrived just before the sun set, so for the first 30 minutes of our ride into the desert dunes, behind us was a sky of the most vibrant shades of orange, yellow, red, and pink. We arrived to already set-up camps, so we decided to go climb the dunes and have fun in the sand. We ate dinner together in a community tent and talked about everything from world politics to local cuisine. After dinner we made a fire and told jokes, stories, sang, and had a dance competition (in which I was the only one who participated...but at least I won!) After everyone had gone to bed, an adventurous Romanian guy and I grabbed a snowboard that was behind one of the tents and we headed up the tallest, steepest sand dune around to slide down. We found this to be harder than we imagined, and we found it possible to slide only on very steep slopes, but we were able to find a couple of good spots and slide about 50 feet before slowly coming to a halt. I've never snowboarded or skied before, and that was a blast! I'm ready to try to real thing now.

The next day we got up at 5:30am and headed out to reach the ideal spot on top of a dune to see the sunrise. This wasn't as impressive as the sunset the previous night, but it was still pretty special to witness over the Sahara dunes.

Here are some pictures from the trip to give visual representation to my shanty English depiction.
A gate to somewhere. I took a picture because this is a typical, ancient, Moroccan city entrance. 
This is the door that opens to a Mausoleum. It shows typical, intricate Moroccan artwork.
These are two perhaps not-so-typical Italians girls who study Arabic with me and who also went on the trip. They were a blast!
This is the sight we encountered before entering the dunes.
The shadow to the right is me on a camel taking a picture of me on a camel taking a it?
There's our guide leading us into the desolate nothingness.
Relax F.B.I.! These things really do help when the wind is kicking up sand and beating you with it constantly.
This is what fell behind us as we wound around and climbed over dunes entering the desert.
This was the sunrise the following morning. The colors don't show here, but I think the fact that we were cold does.
"God, King, Country" painted on the hillside in Arabic, a site often seen on the hills in this region.
A great place to get lost without water, right?

To celebrate Thanksgiving this past Thursday a proper meal complete with turkey, ham, mashed 'taters, green beans, cranberry relish, dressing, and pecan pie was prepared at the American Club in Rabat for a group of us from the school. Fewer than half of us were Americans, but we all came together to enjoy an American meal on an American Holiday and enjoy each other. We Americans did our best to explain the origin of the holiday, but most of our conversation circled around culture and the silly things we have in each culture. Here are a few pictures of the meal we ate:
I can't say I was expecting a terrific Thanksgiving meal overseas, but I have to say I was quite impressed. It couldn't hold a flame to my mom's cookin', but it was delicious nonetheless. And check out the big mug of sweet iced tea! That's how I kept the meal Southern.
And voila the group of international students who decided to partake in the Thanksgiving meal.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Bloody Great Festival!

By dinnertime yesterday I'd helped slaughter two sheep and skin and gut three. I'd also prepared and ate "shwa" -barbecue - with the liver, lungs, and fat of the sheep we slaughtered. Is the title of this blog entry starting to make sense?

Jiull Ian (my Romanian roommate) and I headed to Temara Tuesday night to participate in the Eid al-Adha preparations with my Moroccan family. We went out and bought all the utensils for the slaughtering, skinning, gutting, butchering, and cooking of the sheep, including: knives, skewers, grill racks, cutting boards, spices, and an axe. It seemed the whole town had the same idea, and the streets were full of vendors with all the essentials for the Eid and shoppers with all the essentials for buying these essentials. When we had bought all we needed, we headed home to eat dinner. The intense night activity reminded me of Ramadan when everybody was out socializing and feasting until 4am because of daytime fasting. I was beginning to see the importance of Eid al-Adha for Muslims, but its significance was hammered home when Khalid, one of my brothers in my Moroccan family, refused to eat very much dinner so as to have as much room as possible for the feast the next day. I laughed when he explained why he had stopped eating, but I quickly realized he was serious. Wow, I was anxious for the ceremony to begin.

My Moroccan family and Jull Ian (bottom right) eating tajine Tuesday night before Eid. Everyone scrunched around a little table...what a way to share a meal! Khalid is the one putting food into his mouth. This was probably his last bite before leaving the table to save the maximum amount of room for the next day.
As we approached the family's house, this is the scene we encountered. Everybody was burning the heads of the sheep they had just slaughtered.
Jull Ian and I went back with Abdessamad to his house and were up until 3:30am, goofing off and generally enjoying the feeling of anticipation before the huge event. Because of this, we overslept and missed the slaughtering of the first sheep, so we arrived to a bloody, headless mess. In good-ole Moroccan fashion I jumped right in with a knife and started hacking away at the skin of the beast (actually I was watched carefully and criticized often for bad or unnecessary cuts, but I sure learned fast!).
And this is the scene I walked in on when I arrived to my family's house after waking up late at Abdessamad's.

So I joined right in!

Khalid and a friend taking off the horns.
After slaughtering and cleaning the family's sheep, we went to Abdessamad's to slaughter his two sheep. Voici les photos:
Abdessamad's sheep.

Haziza (Abdessamad's sister-in-law) and her husband Mbark horsing around on the sheep.

A man with special religious significance (and talent with a knife) came to do the actual slaughtering. He came, we held down the sheep, he cut the throat, and he left, quite literally that fast.

You eat meat? Well here's the first step in it arriving to your plate!

Hassan, Abdessamad's brother, began gutting the sheep, taking out first the fat that would be used for barbecue and other dishes, then the stomach, liver, kidneys, intestines, and lungs. We ate all of that, by the way, except the intestines. And I liked all of it! Maybe it was the delicious fat and spices that made these new foods so tasty, but I think the fact that I took part in the entire process of the food arriving on my plate had a lot to do with it as well. (Oh yeah, look at all the blood splattered on the wall in the background. That is due to the sheep kicking out the last of its life and kicking with this all the blood that had been liberated from its imprisoning veins.)
The experience of eating food for which I personally partook in all the processes for preparing was immensely more meaningful than when I have bought meat from the store and cooked it. To know exactly where my meal came from was to be completely responsible for how I treat my body and how I treat the animals that supply the nutrition my body demands. In Spanish and French there are two verbs for the English "to know." One is used when referring to the recollection of information or knowledge of skills. The other is used for things you are familiar with from personal experience. It is this connotation I wish to use when I refer to knowing where my food came from. I knew the sheep, I helped kill, skin, gut, butcher, skewer, and cook its meat, and when I ate it I felt all the work, effort, and emotion that had gone into that bite of delicious energy. I'm no writer, and I'm certainly no wordsmith, but am I conveying how divine this experience was for someone who has grown up so far removed from his food?

The day of the Eid (Wednesday) I spent mostly killing, skinning and gutting sheep. I helped prepare the lungs and liver, which we wrapped in fat and barbecued to perfection, and this was our lunch (at about 3pm, our first meal of the day.) We devoured it, and afterwards Mbark and I took a little nap. Killin' aint easy, and we needed rest. We sat around with the family relaxing and chatting, and later we had a special dinner that consisted of the head of the sheep. Let me tell you, the tongue is especially delicious! The cheek and nose aren't bad, either. (Please forgive me for not posting any more pictures of the best part, the food. I haven't yet found batteries that work for more than about 15 pictures in my camera, but Mbark did get a lot of pictures of the rest of the event, so as soon as I get those from him I'll post them!)

The next day (today) I spent 75% of the waking hours eating, or stuffing my face as they say here. I ate three meals first with my Moroccan family before going to visit their other family members and eating more. I don't even remember now how many times I ate - I just know it was more than I've ever eaten in one day in my life. Moroccans sure have a way of treating guests, especially foreigners. Every house I visited I was offered food and drink. In fact, it's almost unheard of for a guest to come over and not be served at least tea (even if it's close family.) You'd think the least healthy people in Morocco would be those with the most friends, or at least those who visit their friends the most. Darn these good looks! (or more like "darn these people's loving character and hospitality for foreigners!")

Much of the last 2.5 days I spent away from Abdessamad and Jull Ian, who stayed at Abdessamad's house while I was with the family at their house. Therefore I either spoke in Arabic or just shut up and listened, because only two people in the family speak French. However, the fact that a lot of my time was spent just sitting and listening and not partaking or even knowing what was going on or being said doesn't mean I didn't thoroughly enjoy myself. In fact, it's the most comfortable and content I've felt yet in Morocco. That can't make since to a normal person, but maybe that's why it makes so much since to me - I reckon I aren't normal! When I'm with this family, I know I'm with people who love me, who accept me as a family member, and whom I can trust with my life - So who needs verbal communication to be at ease and comfortable amidst such folks? We did often engage each other in conversation, however, but, as always, it was so rough that we mostly ended up laughing at my confusion and forgetting the original purpose of the conversation. This is the kind of language practice I need. This is the cultural experience I hunger for. What an awesome two and a half days!