In the bled

A couple weekends ago I went to visit a Moroccan friend of mine who lives out in the bled. “Bled” means country in Darija, and PCVs have adapted the phrase “in the bled” to mean any fairly isolated place. There used to be tons of PCVs in Morocco who lived in the bled – this was when there were still Health and Environment sectors instead of only Youth Development like it is now – and I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to live out there. I love nature, hiking, and being outdoors and so I tend to romanticize what it would be like; consequently this trip was an incredible experience for me, both because I was really looking forward to it and also because it was a good eye-opener.

My friend lives in a small farming community in a valley on the north side of the highest peaks in the High Atlas range, and as you’d expect it’s a breathtakingly beautiful place. I think I spent half my time there just sitting outside enjoying the view. The other half of the time I was taking advantage of the great hiking and the fresh fruit, butter, honey, buttermilk, eggs, and meat. My friend’s mom was even nice enough to show me how to weave on her loom. It was everything I’d envisioned and I had a great time – but I was only there for a short period of time, playing the tourist.

One day when we were walking around talking about how beautiful it is there, my friend pointed out to me that people only live there because that’s where they grew up, and they’re poor enough that most of them don’t have much of a choice of moving away. There are very few jobs there, and most people farm or raise animals because they have to in order to have food. Many kids don’t get to stay in school because they need to help support their families, and so they don’t learn Arabic (only the spoken form of the local Berber dialect), which further limits their prospects of moving away or finding a job. The real shock for me was when I asked if anyone really liked living in her village, and she told me no, she didn’t think so. Even if I lived out there for my entire two-year service, I’m still not sure I could really appreciate how difficult subsistence living can be.

I still feel the pull of the bled, and I can’t bring myself to give up my vision of what serving in Peace Corps there would be like. Matt and I are planning at least one more backpacking trip to the area, but this time instead of walking through these isolated villages and wishing I lived there for a moment, I’ll try instead to keep in mind the endless hard work it takes to just live in a place like that, and consider myself lucky to be able to see these beautiful places from a tourist’s point of view.

The view from my friend's house.

The view from my friend’s house.

We walked up the hill behind my friend's house. Later in the day her family made fun of me for wearing sandals.

We hiked up the hill behind my friend’s house – it was hard! Later in the day her family made fun of me quite a bit for wearing sandals.

View of the village from the top of the hill

View of the village from the top of the hill – you can see it’s pretty small.

Me trying and failing to be helpful. It was fun to learn though!

Learning to weave a rug – aka trying and failing to be helpful.

– Cori

The Cold Mountain

This past weekend Cori and I met up with one of our good friends to climb a mountain near Beni Mellal.  The mountain’s name, Tessemit, comes from a Berber word meaning ‘cold’.  For the end of March it certainly was cold!  This was also one of our final opportunities to hang out with some of our best friends that we’ve met here in the Peace Corps. The group that came to Morocco a year before us is about to close their service and return to the US – we will truly miss them over the next year. This was a great opportunity to share another few moments with a few of them before we head on separate paths.  Below, some photos of our trek.

Cori perched on the top of a cliff that we climbed near the beginning of our journey.

Cori perched on the top of a cliff that we climbed near the beginning of our journey.

Beautiful valley #1

Beautiful valley #1

Beautiful Valley #2

Beautiful Valley #2

Jeff kicking steps in the steep snow slow as we near the summit.

Jeff kicking steps in the steep snow slow as we near the summit.

Summit!

Summit!

???????????????????????????????

Posing at the top!

Also, here’s a bonus video!  It’s a tourism video from Morocco and it’s got some incredible images from around the country (aside from the belly dancer – I’ve never actually seen that here).  Enjoy!

It’s cold in the mountains…

Sorry for the delay in posting… it’s been a little hard getting back into a routine after the holidays and my parents’ visit. I’ve had enough trouble motivating myself to write lesson plans, let alone a blog post when it seems like nothing worth writing about has been happening here. Luckily, yesterday something exciting did happen… it snowed!

So pretty!

So pretty!

Snow is not common in most areas of Morocco. It shows in the way the houses are built – flat roofs used to dry clothes are not fun to clean off if it snows, and most buildings are built out of concrete and have zero insulation, which means the average indoor temperature in Azilal is in the high 40s right now. We do have a space heater in our house, but that only helps so much. We compensate by wearing the same amount of clothing inside as we do outside… or sometimes more.

It's cold here.

It’s cold here.

It does snow semi-regularly if you go about an hour further into the mountains from us, but here in Azilal we only see it a few times per winter (or so I’ve heard), and that scarcity is what makes it all the more exciting. We didn’t get an official snow day (pretty sure those don’t exist), but there was still such a general air of excitement in the air that it felt like some kind of holiday. We got stopped on our way to the Dar Chebab to take a couple pictures with some friends, we had a couple quick snowball fights, we saw our supervisor the most excited we have ever seen him, and since no one showed up for our classes, we got to take the night off to play in the snow and build snowmen with the few kids who came.

He's a little bit dirty... there wasn't THAT much snow.

He’s a little bit dirty… there wasn’t THAT much snow.

We really only got a couple inches, and for two people from Ohio that’s not actually that remarkable. But the combination of seeing snow in a country known for its deserts, experiencing the pure joy of kids who rarely get to see snow, and feeling a little bit closer to wintry Ohio made it almost as exciting as the snow days we used to get as kids. Although I gotta admit… now that I’ve seen it snow here once, I’m ready for it to get warm again. Come on spring!!

– Cori

Beautiful Morocco

This video has been making the rounds among Moroccan volunteers lately. It’s a beautiful video that does a great job of showcasing the diversity of what Morocco has to offer, and it has some really gorgeous shots… if you’ve got 5 minutes to spare, I’d definitely recommend it (I feel the need to add a disclaimer that neither I nor Peace Corps are affiliated with the filmmakers in any way – I just think it’s a great video).

Matt and I have done quite a bit of traveling around Morocco (which anyone who reads this blog already knows) and we’ve really enjoyed getting a first-hand look at the beauty of this country. Our most recent trip was to go hiking out in the valley of Ait Bougamez, which is a popular hiking destination a couple of hours from Azilal. That area is also where a lot of health and environment volunteers used to live before their program ended; they lived in lots of tiny, isolated Amazigh villages way up in the mountains. It was really interesting to get a quick glance at what life in those towns is like, and what it would have been like to be a PCV in those areas. This hiking trip is probably the coolest trip we’ve taken so far, and undoubtedly it’s where we saw some of the most amazing scenery we’ve seen here. We’ve posted some pictures to give you a peek – enjoy!

IMG_2728

IMG_2787

IMG_2768

IMG_2783

IMG_2825

Let’s Climb!

This past week I had the amazing opportunity to help out with a program done by another volunteer called C.L.I.M.B (Creating Leadership In the Mountains and Beyond).  The program involves teaching Moroccan youth about teamwork, leadership, nature, wilderness first aid, and hiking over 6 months.  The final hurrah combines everything in a trip to the highest point in North Africa – Mt. Toubkal.  My job was as simple as it is awesome – hike with the group during the final ascent!

The climb itself was excellent.  We spent 3 days on the mountain.  The first was a beautiful 7 hour hike up (almost 4000ft) through the surrounding mountains to the mid-mountain refuge.  The second day was summit day, another 3000 ft of elevation gain to reach 13,671ft , and then a dangerous return hike to the refuge over loose scree slopes to the refuge – total time = 9 hours.  On the final day we made the 4 hour downhill return hike to our starting point.  Throughout the trip the kids were incredible – sure some of them had their moments where they didn’t think their legs could take another step or they thought there was no way that they could descend some of the steepest, loosest slopes without falling – but they pushed through and made it.  It really was incredible to see 12 kids that had never truly been hiking before this program summit the tallest mountain around.

IMG_2038

The last 1000 ft to the summit!

The last 1000 ft to the summit!

??????

Summit with the group!

Summit with the group!

With so much time together during the hike and at the lodges I really had the chance to connect with some of the Moroccans despite my lack of language skills after a certain point.  My favorite moment involved teaching the group the OH-IO cheer after finding out that one of the girls had a M*ch*g*n hat on the mountain – I have no idea how she got it and she had no idea how terrible a thing she was representing :).  Half the group said that Michigan was “xayb” (bad) after that and the other half used it as an opportunity to mess with me by saying that it was “zwin” (good) or “aziz عliya” (close to my heart – seriously who could say that about Michigan…).  I also got the chance to introduce them to geocaching – which they thought was really cool but also ridiculous.  Hopefully I was able to pass on at least some of my love of nature to them…

Ew...

Ew…

Introducing the kids to geocaching

Introducing the kids to geocaching

After all of the running around on the mountain and corralling kids I finally had the chance to reflect during my 4 hour bus ride back home from Marrakesh.  There I was, sweating profusely and sitting squeezed into a seat with a Moroccan woman and her small son… and I realized how absolutely ridiculous and amazing this whole Peace Corps experience has been so far. I smiled a huge grin and stared out at the mountains just happy to be lucky enough to be here.

-Matt