Guest Post: Visitors from Home

Over the Christmas and New Year’s Holiday the Erb Family visited Cori and Matt in Morocco.  Wow, what an adventure.

Arriving in Casablanca on the evening of December 21st, Ron, Cindi, Eric and Rachel met Matt and Cori at the airport and the adventure began.  Our indoctrination into the Moroccan culture began right away as Matt gave us our first lesson in bartering for a taxi ride.  Back and forth, walking away and then agreeing to a fee, the six of us (yes, six) joined the driver in a Mercedes sedan (designed to carry five at most) for a ride into town.  Taking a “grand taxi” in Morocco means you have to squeeze 6 people into the taxi.  If you do not have 6 people, you wait until you do.  Luckily for us, we were a group of six and never had to wait.  Doubly lucky for us is that we are relatively small.  Can you imagine 6 big people squeezing into a taxi ride that sometimes lasted us 2-1/2 hours? 

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Our first night was a great time catching up and getting a tour of the local street shops.  We started off  in the bigger well known cities of Casablanca and Marrakesh.  In Marrakesh we stayed in a charming Riad just off the medina and enjoyed numerous trips in and out of the medina to shop, eat and tour the local culture. Rachel showed off her newly learned bartering skills (the above picture was one of her techniques… or, on second thought, one of the shop owner’s) and Matt and Cori really impressed us all with the ease in which they communicated with the local Moroccans.  While in Marrakesh we took a short two day excursion into the Sahara Desert (near Zagora) for a camel trek.  Nothing like showing up just after dark to jump onto (literally no training, just walk up, sit on and then get lifted into the air as your camel rises up) your camel for the ride to your camp.

Getting ready to leave the next morning

Getting ready to leave the next morning

What a blast! We rode to the camp, dropped our stuff into our tent, enjoyed a great tajine dinner,  music around the campfire and laid on the dunes in awe of the stars.  In the morning we were treated to a sunrise in the desert.  A bright blue sky, sunrise over the nearby mountains, and our camel buddies carrying us back to our vans made for an awesome start to the day.  The drive back to Marrakesh included a stop to an ancient Kasbah that had been abandoned in the mid-1900’s.  Talk about taking a step back in time.    

Uh, Dad... that's not a camel.

Uh, Dad… that’s not a camel.

We then headed to Azilal for our Christmas celebration. A great time was had by all and the best present was being together as a family. We even had bacon in the morning – it was a nice treat for Cori and Matt who NEVER get bacon.  We stayed a few days in Azilal and got to know the town that Cori and Matt call home.  We visited the Dar Chabab, met their host family and visited Ouzoud Falls where we hiked for hours.  Matt, Rachel and Eric took the plunge off of one of the falls and all of us were surprised by the local monkeys (that were not afraid of us in the least). 

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After Azilal we were off to Fes for a visit to the local Medina, tannery, shops, shops and more shops, and then a trip to Taounate.  Taounate is the town where Cori and Matt spent the first three months doing their initial training.  We spent the day visiting with Mama Naima and her family, had a wonderful meal and tea, and danced the night away.  It could not have been better.  We were very happy to meet with Naima and to thank her for being such a great comfort to Cori and Matt when they had first arrived in their country. 

A delicious cousous meal at Naima’s!

 We also visited Volubilisan ancient Roman Settlement just outside of Meknes. We got to walk around these ruins pretty much by ourselves (except for a lone Moroccan guide who kept trying to explain to Cindi and Ron in French what everything was).  What a treat to be able to see these ruins that had been around since the 3rd century BC.

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We  headed out after twelve great days with Cori and Matt. We got to see quite a variety of Moroccan landscapes – the high mountains, beautiful foothills, desert, small towns and villages and big cities. We immersed ourselves in the Moroccan culture by experiencing all types of public transportation; no big tour bus for us – we squeezed into taxis, got driven around by maniac taxi drivers (no rules of the road here), explored all types of Moroccan eateries and stayed in charming local riads and hotels (hot water never guaranteed).  Cori and Matt treated us to many great sites and introduced us to an ancient culture much different than our own.  Through it all we could not have met nicer people. 

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 – Ron and Cindi Erb (pictures added by Cori)

A Moroccan Wedding

A couple weeks ago, our host family from Taounate invited us to attend the wedding of our oldest host brother. We were excited that they invited us, but also a little nervous; like l-3id, Moroccan weddings are much-discussed among PCVs here as a kind of volunteer rite of passage. Still, we were glad to have the opportunity to see our host family again and to experience such a big cultural event!

The pre-wedding festivities included multiple meals with our host family (which we tried to refuse to save our host mom some work, since everything that happened this weekend took place at her house, but she was having none of it) and a henna party the night before. Along with a bunch of other guests, we ate a delicious dinner followed by some dancing while the poor bride had to sit and watch us all while she waited for the henna to dry on her hands.

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Matt in a nice shirt and me in my bright blue jellaba waiting for the bride to arrive. I got lots of questions on why I was wearing a jellaba – apparently it’s not formal enough for a wedding. Whoops!

The next day (after enjoying breakfast and lunch with the family) we showed up for the wedding at 8.  We all went out to the street to watch her be carried inside on a litter, accompanied by the traditional group of drummers.  The entire town seemed to come out to dance to the music and see the show. Afterwards, we headed upstairs for dinner where we had three huge courses of food – first big platters with 3 or 4 whole chickens, then another platter full of beef, and finally gigantic trays of fruit for dessert – each served Moroccan style, 1 plate per table with bread for utensils. After everyone was completely stuffed the dancing started. Moroccan women looooove to dance, and the men of our host family do too, which means we got pulled on to the dance floor often to make fools out of ourselves trying the Moroccan dance moves. There’s lots of shimmying that goes on… I have no idea how they do it. It’s a blast to watch though!

Some self-conscious dancing with Naima

Some self-conscious dancing with Mama Naima

For the rest of night (another 7 hours!!) we danced on the roof and in the streets and enjoyed more food courses – platters of cookies, a slice of cake for all, and a bowl of traditional soup. The party lasted until 5 in the morning – a Moroccan wedding isn’t over until the couple has completed their 5-7 outfit changes and the subsequent photo and dance sessions. We were surprised to see that the wedding seemed to be more fun for the guests than for the couple, since the bride and groom spent so much time changing outfits and sitting for photographs that they rarely got a chance to join the party. Throughout the night they were presented in traditional wedding dresses from a bunch of different regions in Morocco, had their pictures taken, and sometimes did a little extra (there was a second go in the litters, and at one point we ended up back outside again for the groom’s henna ceremony and, of course, more dancing).

After the last outfit change, basically the entire room got up gratefully to go home and sleep – us included. It was great to see our host family and celebrate with them, but 9 hours at a wedding (especially while speaking a foreign language) is exhausting no matter who you’re with. But now we can say we’ve made it all the way through a Moroccan wedding!

– Cori and Matt

p.s. I know you’d all love to see some of the bride’s outfits, but without her permission I don’t feel comfortable posting those pictures. If you do an image search for “Moroccan Wedding Kaftans” you’ll get an idea of what her dresses look like. They’re beautiful!

Summer Camp: Or, a lesson in expectations vs. reality

Sorry for the few weeks’ lack of posting – at the beginning of August we went from having very little work to having two straight weeks of it, and we’ve been unable to update.  With the end of Ramadan, Summer Camp Round Two started, and since we had no camp in Azilal, we got to go help out at other volunteers’ camps. We decided to split up – Matt went to help at a camp near our training site, Taounate, and I went to one on a nice beach town on the Atlantic. We both had a great time at our respective camps, but we also each got a reminder that when it comes to planning work here in Morocco, the result rarely matches the plan.

I was scheduled to work at an 8-day-long camp of 40 kids led by some other volunteers. What actually ended up happening was a camp that started a day late and ended a few days early. We had 15 kids the first day, 40 the second, and 15 again the last couple of days.  I’m not complaining by any means – it was a great camp and I’m really glad I went to help out – but it definitely didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. I suppose the whole week was a nice reminder for me that when things don’t go as planned, sometimes it can actually be for the better.

Matt was scheduled to work at his camp for 10 days with another volunteer. His camp also got cut short, but in his case it was because the supervisor was 5 days late in taking them to the camp (partially because of a trip he took to Casablanca, a city 4 hours away, without letting anyone know). After an unexpected overnight detour where they were enlisted to help clean up a different camp that had just ended, they finally made it to their camp and started working on their main activity, which was to organize a soccer tournament for the kids. Despite the fact that many of the games had to be cut short or cancelled because they started over an hour late and daylight ran out, Matt had a good time and he also counted his camp experience as a good one.

The funniest thing to me about our two camps is that in Morocco, the fact that the reality barely met our expectations is basically considered to be normal. Every time the situation at my camp changed our general reaction was “well, of course,” because it’s not work in Morocco if things don’t go differently from how they’re planned. If any other PCV read these stories, they wouldn’t be surprised in the least because stuff like this is so common in all that we do. And it’s not just us Americans resigning ourselves to a cultural point we don’t understand – Matt was visiting our host family a couple days after his camp was supposed to start, and when he told them it had been moved back, their only response was “OK,” no questions asked.

There’s a word in Arabic – “inshallah” – that means “God willing.” It’s a favorite among PVCs because it just captures so perfectly the attitude among Moroccans that what will happen, will happen. You expected 40 kids but you have 15 (or vice versa)? Well, that’s just how it is. Camp got moved back 5 days, partly because your supervisor took an unannounced trip to Casablanca? God willed it, so you’d better adjust. This situation is often amusing, sometimes infuriating, but most of all is a great lesson in flexibility. When it comes to planning work, what actually happens is often far from what we’ve planned – summer camps are just one really good example. But we’re learning to be flexible, and inshallah everything will work out fine.

– Cori

Camp is all packed up... and apparently shoved into this one truck.

Camp is all packed up… and apparently shoved into this one truck.

Planning the tournament

Planning the tournament

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Matt had the camera all week, so you only get pictures from his camp 🙂

A Bittersweet Good-bye

This week we’re having our Swearing-In ceremony, which is our first big landmark of Peace Corps service. It signifies the end of our training period and our transition from being Peace Corps Trainees to being actual Volunteers (which is actually a pretty big deal although it might not seem like it). This is one of those parts of service when Peace Corps people like to reflect about how far they’ve come and all that stuff… so hang on with us the next few weeks if our blog posts get a little cliché.

We left Taounate on Saturday to come to Rabat for our Swearing-In later this week, and leaving ended up being an extremely emotional experience.  We thought that integrating into the community and learning Darija would be the most difficult part of our training period, but it turned out that leaving our host family was pretty difficult and painful as well.  Our family has been amazing for us (which is not something that can be universally expected in the Peace Corps – it wasn’t even the experience for all of the trainees in Taounate) and we really felt like we had become part of the family. There were lots of hugs, tears, invitations, and promises to come back and visit in the days before we left. The final morning Mama Naima even got up at 5:45am to walk with us to the bus stop so she could give us each one last long hug before we left.

The whole experience of leaving really emphasized the power of making connections in the communities where we live. The Peace Corps has been telling us this from the start, but it wasn’t until we left our first homestay experience and looked back on it that we really understood the experience of connecting with a Moroccan family and their community. As Mama Naima has told us at least 20 times, we are welcome in their home for the next two years and probably for many years beyond that, which is pretty amazing. We might not be able to converse above a 2nd grade level, we might have miscommunications on a weekly (if not daily) basis, and we might not enjoy being told to “KUL!” long after we’re full at the end of a meal, but a Moroccan household has accepted us as part of the family. We’ve shared meals, laughs, and a mutual respect for each others’ cultures, and that makes up for a lot of what we’re lacking in other areas. And the fact that we made such a deep connection with our family in just two months really put in perspective what the friendships we’ll make during our years in Azilal have the potential to be. We need to make strong connections so we can put down roots in the community, so we can offer useful assistance, and so we can stay sane while living so far from our family, friends and fellow volunteers.  After living in Taounate for a couple months, we’re finally (mostly) confident that we can accomplish that.

We’ll end this post with a half-sad, half-funny story from the night before we left:
We made a handwritten card to give to Mama Naima and the family along with our thank-you gift to them, and we wrote it in Arabic script to make it a little extra special (she can’t read but we figured the rest of the family would appreciate it). When we brought it out to give it to her we wanted to read it out loud for her, but we were both so teary and emotional that we had a really hard time deciphering the Arabic script in the first place (even though we had written it) and pronouncing it correctly after we figured out what each word said. We interrupted our gift-giving to run and find our notes that we had used to write the card, but we still didn’t end up making much sense, so Anass had to re-read the card for Naima. I’m sure you all can imagine us sitting around crying a little, laughing a little, and hugging each other as this is all going on – it was a sad moment, but also something nice to be a part of. Hopefully Naima and Anass felt the same way.

Can’t wait to head to swear-in on Wednesday and head to Azilal to start the next two years on Thursday!
-Cori and Matt

Settling in

Hey all!

We’ve had an exhausting but great week here in Taounete. Some current volunteers came to work with us this week to lead a couple Peace Corps mandated activities with the kids at our Dar Chebab, and it’s been really helpful to hear first-hand from them about their experiences. Our activities were pretty chaotic – tons of kids showed up and we’re all still pretty limited in our language abilities so we had a hard time moderating – but they were great learning experiences.

The volunteers also gave us some great ideas for activities to keep us all sane here, which we took full advantage of. We had an American movie night, complete with popcorn – we were able to use one of the Peace Corps staff members’ projectors to watch (what else…) Casablanca. It was a really nice chance to get all of the volunteers to hang out together in an atmosphere that didn’t include any learning, and we all had a really great time.

Today was also an awesome day – one of the host families in the group offered to host our whole group for lunch. This is a great example of Moroccan hospitality considering our group included 18 people! They fed us basically a 5-course meal, which included salad, chicken, meat, fruit parfaits and then fruit for dessert. Then after we’d all finished eating (around 3), she informed us that she was also making us cascarot (teatime “snack”) at 5:30. Matt and I took the opportunity to go for an awesome hike up one of the neighboring peaks with a group of volunteers, and it was so nice to get out and do some physical activity, which is something we rarely have time for. Not to mention we had a beautiful view from the top. Then we got to come back to a massive snack that included some pretty delicious and surprisingly American-tasting pizza! So even though this week has been exhausting, it’s also provided us a nice break from learning Darija and some great opportunities to do more around Taounete.

Back to the grind this week – we have a trip to Fez for more Peace Corps training, and we should be back to regular Darija lessons as well after that. Miss you all!

Cori and Matt

Cori with Taounete across the valley (please ignore the goofy look on my face)

Cori with Taounete across the valley (please ignore the goofy look on my face)