Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Things I Will Miss

The countdown has begun. On Wednesday we will begin our closing paperwork with the Peace Corps, and then if all goes smoothly, by Friday or Saturday we'll be heading back to the US. It's all felt very surreal recently, but last night as we took some photos with our wonderful host family after the Ramadan break fast, things started to set in and I spent some time reflecting on the last two years of our lives.

Justin and me with our adoptive family.

A while back, I put a sheet of paper on the wall with 2 columns: Things I Will Miss About Morocco and Things I Miss About the US. As we near the end I thought I'd share the list here.

Things I Will Miss About Morocco
  • The relationships that we've made with the wonderful people we met here.
  • The smell of fresh bread baking in the community oven down the street.
  • People saying "Bssaha" to me when I run through the community (it means "To your health" and it's like I have a group of cheerleaders along a race route, I love it!).
  • The stars at night (particularly during the summer when we have clear nights, it is breathtaking).
  • Walking everywhere in town, and always seeing people we know.
  • Going to the daily market to buy cheap vegetables, fruits, and meats and being able to spend several hours cooking amazing meals with all fresh ingredients.
  • The unbelievable hospitality and generosity of Moroccans. I can't even begin to describe it.
  • Amazingly crazy color combinations in homes (we're talking pink and orange couches with purple and lime green curtains - sounds crazy but it works!).
  • Delicious olive oil, cheap and straight from the press.
  • Minty wonderful sugary tea.

Things I Miss about the US
  • Our friends and family, of course.
  • Gyms and exercise classes - Some days I could kill for some Zumba that's not just on my computer screen!
  • Movie theaters. I'm already gearing up for some summer releases :)
  • An array of foods that are hard to come by here, most notably cheese, portabello mushrooms, and black beans.
  • Air conditioning and heating.
  • Restaurants and take-out food.
  • Knowing that when I speak to someone I am definitely understood (and I understand them too).
  • Microwaves! Reheating food on the stovetop or in the oven can get old.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Despite What Your Guidebook Might Say You Cannot View the Atlantic Ocean Through a Glass Floor at the Hassan II Mosque [Guest Post]

GUEST POSTER in residence: Justin

Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque is one of the few active Muslim religious sites in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims, albeit only on a guided (paid) tour. It is a breathtaking and impressive building, and one of the largest mosques in the world (our guidebooks disagree about where exactly it ranks – one says it is the second largest, another agrees with the guide from our tour that it is third, a third book states that it is the fifth, and Wikipedia asserts that it is seventh largest mosque – the point is that it is big, and everyone is on the same page about that). The Hassan II Mosque is large enough to accommodate 25,000 worshippers, but according to our guide, only about 600 people typically attend, not including during Ramadan or for Friday mid-day prayers.

We had admired the exterior during a previous visit to Casablanca, and on our most recent trip decided to splurge for the tour. It isn’t terribly expensive if one is traveling on a US salary, but the 120 Dirham (about USD 14) per person fee can feel pretty hefty, considering that entry to most monuments and museums in Morocco costs no more than 20 Dirhams (about USD 2.40). According to our guide the money goes towards upkeep and salaries for the staff, making the Hassan II Mosque self-sustaining. Note to other Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers: As residents we get a 50% discount off the usual price (bring your Moroccan ID), which was a pleasant surprise for us.

The Hassan II Mosque has no historical significance, having been built in the late 20th century. While some might consider it a poor allocation of funds (public subscription, which Rough Guide characterizes as having been “not entirely voluntary,” covered much of the construction costs), it certainly is beautiful. And if, as our guide claimed, Hassan II’s goal was to attract visitors to Casablanca, a city otherwise holding little of interest for most tourists, he seems to have at least somewhat succeeded. There were plenty of people on our tour, and aside from the tour itself I’m sure most at least spent money to eat in Casablanca even if they did not stay there, which at least somewhat undermines potential cost-to-the-public grievances.

As a caveat for potential future visitors, two of our guidebooks claim that the Hassan II Mosque, which sits partially on a pier over the Atlantic Ocean, has a glass floor through which one can see the waves. But while the prayer hall floor has a couple of small glass segments, the only thing one can see through them is an ablutions room (also part of the tour) downstairs. I asked our guide if she had any idea of from where the misinformation in the books might have originated; she said that there is a separate (private) royal section (she called it a palace, but I am guessing it is something more analogous to the private chapels found in many churches), and that in this royal area the Atlantic Ocean is visible through a glass floor.

Even though some of our photos did not come out great due to lighting, they will speak to the beauty of the Hassan II Mosque better than (my) words would:

One of the entrances.
The prayer hall.
A beautiful light fixture.
Pretty much every surface is covered in elaborate decoration; this section
of carved and painted wood was well-lit enough for a good picture.
The mosque has a hammam (traditional bath) in the basement.
It serves no religious purpose and has never been used.
Hopefully they change the water from time to time anyway.
Another entrance.
Detail from the metalwork on the door.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Moroccan Travels: Agadir

Before climbing Mount Toubkal, Justin and I spent a few nights in Agadir. Based on what we had heard and read about the city, we initially were not too interested in visiting, but as our time in Morocco wore on, and always interested in experiencing another of Morocco’s many facets, Justin became increasingly curious about the city. Since we would be nearby for our Toubkal trek, Justin wanted to check it out, and I humored him :)

With one exception, Agadir lacks any structures of historical significance, because on February 29, 1960, the city was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake (5.7 magnitude - I've been told it's the worst in Morocco's history). Down the beach from the old city, Agadir was rebuilt, supposedly in the style of a European beach resort, and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco. It is also popular among Peace Corps Volunteers seeking a getaway that is more accessible and less costly than Europe. 

Agadir’s main draw is its large, beautiful, and clean beach; we spent a lot of our time walking along it and enjoying the area on and near the beach that are lined with restaurants and shops. We also visited Agadir's kasbah (the above exception, one wall of the kasbah remained after the earthquake and it has a beautiful view of the city), an Amazigh Heritage museum (the jewelry on display in the basement is the highlight) and, set in a lovely garden, an “Exposition Mémoire d'Agadir” displaying photographs of Agadir from before and after the earthquake. Our time in Agadir also happened to coincide with its annual Timitar Festival which began as an Amazigh music festival, but now includes musicians from around the world (including this year Kenny Rogers, though we went to bed before he came on stage!).

Agadir certainly wasn't our favorite city that we visited in Morocco and I'm glad that we didn't go out of the way for the visit but it's always interesting to see new parts of the country, and the relaxing beach time was good before our massive mountain climb. Enjoy some photos from our visit below:

View of Agadir from the kasbah (it was a foggy morning).
Left of the large street in the center is where the city was before the earthquake.
Justin and the remaining wall of the kasbah.
Another view of the kasbah wall.
Camel rides by the kasbah! We were amused.
View of the beach front; the mountain with the kasbah can be seen in the back.
The Agadir beach.
A beautiful entrance to the "Exposition Mémoire d'Agadir" photography exhibit.
The Timitar festival by night (on the side of the mountain is Arabic writing
which means "God, Country, King").

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Please Do Not Take Pictures of the Children [Guest Post]

GUEST POSTER: Justin
We had just sat down at one of the tables outside of a restaurant for lunch. This was in Essaouira, and the restaurant was one where we had eaten a year prior and we were happy to see that it was still open (we heard a rumor back in December that it would be closing) because it had great burgers and desserts. Another foreign couple, older than us, was also sitting outside. I noticed the gent of the couple videotaping the neighborhood fountain across the plaza, then sat down with my back to him.

It is summer, so there are even more kids hanging out on the streets with unstructured time (which is not necessarily a bad thing) than usual. A group of maybe eight boys, ranging from probably about seven to twelve, was sitting on some stairs about three yards away. 

A few minutes later, I looked up from my menu and saw the woman of the older couple standing by the boys. She had her camera out. I did not see her taking any pictures, but it seems safe to assume she had, because a few of the boys started getting agitated and it looked like one of them tried to grab her camera or hit it away.

Any worthwhile Morocco guidebook will tell you not to take pictures of people without first asking their permission. And if you think about it, that's really common sense and not just in Morocco. I am not talking about a crowd scene or a photo of a landscape or something where someone happens to be walking across in the distance, but one wouldn't, or at least typically shouldn't, walk up to some stranger in the US and start taking portraits of him or her (or his or her kids). The same holds true here, the people aren't animals in the zoo, so we shouldn't photograph them without asking.

So the woman returned to her table and the situation seemed to be quieting down. Then another patron of the restaurant, whom I had not previously noticed, started talking. He began telling the woman that it's rude to take pictures of people without asking, but somehow or other within 90 seconds he was shouting, cursing, and storming out of the restaurant.We thought he was disturbed but later learned from the restaurant staff that the guy is an American who has lived in Essaouira for years and visits the restaurant from time to time (though I guess this does not preclude his being disturbed). 

You can use your imagination about what the guy said, suffice to say it involved abundant use of the letter F accompanied by corresponding finger-raising. He seemed unaware of the irony of going on a profanity filled tirade about a point of etiquette. He also set a rather poor example for the kids, because as soon as his fingers started flying they picked it up and began cursing too. Now I'm not so naïve as to think that they had never heard foul language or seen raised fingers before, but they were not doing anything until he did.

The woman seemed pretty upset and shaken up. She and her companion even asked the restaurant staff for directions to the nearest police station, though what they thought the police could or would do is beyond me. I felt bad for the woman; what she did was inappropriate but seemed more based on ignorance than malevolence. The other patron's response was completely out of line (at one point it looked like he was actually about to get hit by a Moroccan bystander) and precipitated the boys' bad behavior. As for the boys, one might be tempted to pigeonhole them as looking for trouble or up to no good, but an interesting conclusion to this whole thing, which you can interpret however you will, was that a few minutes after the kids were following the vulgar example of the other patron, they actually came up to Lauren and me to apologize to us.

Moral of the story: Don't take pictures of people without asking for permission.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday, July 8, 2013

Climbing Mountains

Justin and I returned this week from our final round of travels in Morocco, passing through Agadir, Essaouira, Oualidia, Casablanca, and the (literal) culmination, climbing up Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa! 

I had a lot of time to think while slowly making my way up to 13,671 feet. And I spent a lot of that time reflecting on my experience in the Peace Corps and living in Morocco more generally. I started seeing parallels between my mountain climb and my two year experience living abroad.

Justin and I smiling the night before our big climb.

Be patient and deliberate

Climbing up the steepest summit to the peak of the mountain was one of the hardest physical experiences of my life. The summit was filled with tiny pebbles and very few places to get a firm foothold. I found success in patience - surveying my surroundings slowly and patiently, planning my next step very deliberately, then doing the same for each new step. And the same with my experiences living in Morocco. Sometimes projects, goals, even day-to-day duties can move at a much slower pace than I may have wanted, but I have learned to be patient and deliberate, and in time I've been able to achieve my goals and experience success.

Lots of rocks, pebbles, and snow - in June!

Be aware of and respectful of surroundings

I guess this might be an obvious one. Being respectful to nature, to other people, to the culture in which I'm living - it all goes together.

And what beautiful surroundings they are!

Keep one eye on the ground and one eye towards the sky

The mountain climb was filled with steep twists and turns, sharp rocks, slippery pebbles, and all sorts of other impediments, and I realized after climbing a short time that I hadn't taken my eyes off of the ground! Then I looked up and saw the first rays of the morning sun shining through the mountains:


I realized how incredibly important it is to continue to watch steps and be aware of my path, but at the same time, I can't forget to take in the beautiful world around me! The same goes for my Peace Corps experience. So much time focused on getting the language right, understanding where to go and what to do... but at the same time, I've tried to keep an eye on the bigger picture - why I'm here and what kind of legacy I can leave behind.


Celebrate all victories, small and large

It was a long, long climb. At times I got frustrated, nervous, scared, and overwhelmed at the obstacles ahead of me. Not sure whether I am talking about the mountain or about my Peace Corps experience right now :) But whether it was as small as celebrating making it to the next tree or learning a new vocabulary word, I found that in a long journey, making sure to celebrate the small things is just as important.

A quick photo break on the way up.
Celebrating at the top - we did it!