Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

Mandatory Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or people, the Mauritanian government or people, or the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Link to another blog about my thoughts on Peace Corps

Here is a link to some of my thoughts about Peace Corps as a career option. The link is to a blog written by a current Cornell student, who is writing a series about what Cornell graduates are doing post-university.

I couldn't get the link to work but you can just copy and paste this and find my thoughts about the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A kingdom far, far away

The other day, I gave a talk to a group of college students studying abroad in Europe and visiting Morocco for a short time. They were an interesting audience because they were new to Morocco. They were clearly an active, intelligent group who had already learned a lot about Morocco and made plenty of interesting obeservations, however they were still in the honeymoon phase enjoying the novelty of Morocco. This contrasts with almost everyone else who I interact with on a daily basis who is either Moroccan or a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who has been living in Morocco for enough time for the novelty to wear off. After six months a lot of thing that have become normal to me were surprising to these students. After the talk the organizer, an ex-PCV herself, mentioned to me that, " it sounds narcissistic but speaking about Peace Corps to this group makes you realize how cool of an experience Peace Corps actually is."

One of the first questions was, "do you hang out with locals," " how do you meet them." I laughed and replied that living in Taroudant I spend all day interacting with Moroccans, everyone from the Director of the Youth Center where I work, to the guys I play soccer with, to the guy who sells me bread are Moroccan. The question reminded me how lucky I am to have the opportunity to interact with people from another culture on an hourly basis. PCV's often take for granted how easy it is for us to meet Moroccans and we are routinely invited to people's homes for tea or meals. Granted, the excitement often wears off after the 100th cup of tea or the 300th time we have to affirm the greatness of Moroccan tea. It's true, the tea is great, but exclaiming it's virtues four times a day for six months becomes repetitive.

I told them a story about a time in Mauritania when I spent four days at a wedding en brosse (in the middle of nowhere). They asked what I did with myself, a question that could be asked of nearly any four day period of my Peace Corps service. I replied that we played checkers in the sand using dried camel droppings vs. small sticks instead of the usual American style of red vs. black. This seemed to me like a logical way of playing in the desert, far away from the nearest Walmart, but judging by their reactions it sounds to the American ear like an unusual way of playing.

One person asked, "why wouldn't you do Peace Corps forever?" "If you like cross-cultural interactions so much why not just do it forever." Well, I don't think my mother would be happy about that. One of the things that I have learned while living abroad is how distinctly American I am. Spending time with people who have had completely different life experiences than mine, they have never watched Nickelodeon or played little league baseball, and I have never killed my own sheep, makes me appreciate my own culture and how deeply it is ingrained in me. Cross-cultural experiences are fascinating, but at some point we are all most comfortable living amongst people who grew up in the same culture that we did.

Keeping with the theme of narcissism, their questions made me appreciate how much I have learned about Morocco in in these six months. One person asked, "I heard we shouldn't use the word "Berber," is this true?" Berbers are the indigenous people to Morocco and still make up a significant portion of the population although they prefer to be called "Amazigh." I have had many conversations with Moroccans of varying opinions about a plethora of issues related to Amazight culture, including how they should be refered to, and while I don't claim to know nearly as much about any of the issues as the least-interested Moroccan, this question made me feel knowledgeable about Morocco.

On a random side-note, while watching Shrek the other day, I realized that Morocco is in fact a "Kingdom, far, far away." The King of Morocco is a real King with plenty of political power and while the donkeys here don't talk, however they do grunt a lot, Morocco does have its own type of magic.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

10 scrambled, 10 hard-boiled and 1 for good measure

For the past few months blog post have been few and far between. It's not because I haven't had anything too say: Taroudant and Morocco are incredibly interesting places and I could write about these places and my experiences until even my mother would get too bored to read any more. I haven't been writing because I have been busy, a problem I never had in Mauritania, getting to know various association in Taroudant, moving in to my own place and playing basketball. I realize that the following article that I wrote for our internal Moroccan Peace Corps newsletter, doesn't necessarily fill the role of a blog but I think that some of you might find it interesting. I'm sure others will find the article appalling. Anyway here is what happened on the evening of February 4th.

If you have never joked with your host family about your ability to eat 20 eggs, to finish a half-full tajine or to eat a blazing hot pepper, then your name is not Samuel G. One day his host father asserted that Sam couldn't finish 10 eggs, Sam countered that he could eat 11. His host father replied that perhaps 12 was within Sam's range and pretty soon the challenge escalated to the host father stating that there was no way that Sam could eat 20 eggs. This prompted Samuel to make a vow. A vow that he would prove his host father wrong and eat not just 20, but 21 eggs. In addition to personal fulfillment, they made a bet, or what Sam thought was a bet after his limited Arabic and his host family's rooster impersonations. The terms: If Sam could eat the 20 eggs, his host family would give him three roosters; but if not, then Sam would give the family his recently purchased, nice acrylic Spanish blanket. After discussing with region-mates, a Peace Corps training session was chosen as the venue for this bet. Juan Camillio Mendez Guzman, sensing a chance to prove his mettle, jumped at the opportunity to compete and the spectacle was scheduled for Thursday, February 04, 2010.

The preparation began after the usual 7:00 pm dinner when a troop of volunteers went to a local hanoot to buy the 42 eggs necessary for the competition. Upon returning to the “Auberge du dernier lion del’Atlas,” eggs were scrambled and hard-boiled and placed on two plates. Each plate contained a carefully crafted ring of ten scrambled eggs encompassing another ten meticulously shelled hard-boiled eggs and topped off with one last glorious, un-shelled hard-boiled egg set perfectly in the center of the feast - it’s brown shell glistening in the fluorescent lights of the Auberge dining room - just as Sam had envisioned the dish during that fateful conversation with his host family.

The competition started at precisely 10:04 pm amidst a crowd upwards of 30 Yd’ers eager for a break from the monotony of Peace Corps training. Samuel later commented that the initial crowd was almost overwhelming and he was glad for Juan Camillio’s attention-drawing charisma to deflect the attention. However, the loyal fans who stuck it out until the end made a huge difference. Side bets also played a critical role in providing motivation, or as Sam put, “ I love rising up to a challenge.” Gambling also played a role in Juan Camillio’s partial success. His entire strategy consisted of doing whatever it took to eat more than 17 eggs, which was the bet placed by the author who doubted that Juan could eat more than 17 eggs. He ate 18.

The match really started to heat up around Egg 15 when Samuel initially started shaking. A few eggs later someone observed his shaking and Sam kept his trademark cool and flatly stated, “I’ve been shaking since Egg 15.” The scrambled eggs had disappeared quickly, but the last few hard-boiled eggs, especially the yolks, were the real struggle. Sam remarked at one point, in response to unrealistic advice from the peanut gallery to chug an egg, “You don’t understand the yolks…man.” As Sam dealt with his final eggs, it was a solo effort. Juan Camillio had already gracelessly bowed out, his work as the pacer done. After a strong start he had been struggling. He nearly vomited, was shaking uncontrollably and even took his shirt off, much to the dismay of the crowd.

If an egg has ever been eaten slower than Sam ate Egg 19, this author has never seen it. In fact, one observer took a long break from the competition and was shocked to return and find that Sam had only finished one egg in the meantime. The final Egg 21 was especially dramatic as Sam crumbled the entire egg into pieces approximately the size of a grain from your favorite Friday couscous meal. He then proceeded to eat each grain of egg, one by one, in a process that seemed to take almost as long as the most drawn out training session. One loyal supporter later remarked that the final egg took, "so fricking long." Nonetheless, Sam persevered and after 1 hour and 19 minutes of continuous egg-eating - he finished his plate. He would later comment that for the final two eggs he had, “absolutely nothing on my mind.” When someone asked him what he would do next he replied, “I am going to eat an orange, then I am going to walk upstairs, and say hello to people.” That remark was immediately followed with a confused look and comment, "man that was a stupid sentence." Sam then remarked with a well-deserved smile, “ hey, I just won three roosters!”

Reactions from the Moroccan crowd were mixed. Malika, our language coordinater said, “This is dumb.” Amina, a new Arabic teacher, said that, “Americans are crazy.” I think that anyone who saw the competition would be forced to agree with her assessment. Aziz, the hotel owner, said that this was a zwayn adventure, but that he had once seen someone eat a scorpion and that was crazier. Aziz then suggested that Samuel follow up the 21 eggs with 22 oranges. He also generously brought out some oranges for the crowd who alternated between hunger and nausea as they watched the gladiators struggle to achieve their goals.

Numerous observers astutely noted that eating 21 eggs was not healthy and the competitors' post-match feelings supported all of the aspiring doctors in the audience. Juan Camillio reflected after the contest that his mouth tasted like a sponge and that if he stood up he felt, “Eighteen eggs rolling around in my stomach.” One witness observed that, “Juan looks worse than he did last night.” A reference to the previous night's activities in which another volunteer's birthday was over-celebrated by many. At the time of the contest Juan had been sporting one of the least attractive moustaches in the history of bad Peace Corps facial hair. As some egg became stuck in the mustache, one especially astute observer noted that, "eggs in a mustache are not appealing." Samuel’s first comment post-match was that he felt “xayb… I just feel bad. Not full, my stomach doesn’t hurt. I just feel bad.” He also remarked that, “If I had to do this frequently, I would hate my life.” Readers will be happy to note that the next day both Sam and Juan felt fine, although slightly full. Sam observed he felt pretty much how he would have felt if he had just eaten four or five eggs.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

As American as Celine Dion

As a very American looking American living abroad people often immediately ask me where I am from. This is then followed by a question or a comment to their friends about their first impression of America. Sometimes this first comment is about politics or America’s role in the world, sometimes it is to ask if we drink tea or not in America but usually people’s first instinct is to ask me about Justin Timberlake or Celine Dion. It is especially amusing to me that the biggest supporters of Justin Timberlake, the Back Street Boyz and friends are teenaged or 20-something boys. The same boys who in America would be listening to death metal and disrespecting authority.

People’s perspectives of Americans are based on both television and the little that they interact with actual Americans. Americans travelling through Morocco have several objects that are unique to them. The number one prize of course goes to the Nalgene water bottle but following close behind is the frisbee. While Americans might think of baseball or apple pie as symbols of American and might not have any idea what a frisbee is Moroccans immediately identified the frisbee as an American game. After a game of catch with a fellow volunteer who came into my town for an errand I was walking through town with a frisbee and I was expecting to be met with surprise or at least lack of recognition. Instead everyone seemed to know what a frisbee was and while I doubt the accuracy of the average Moroccans upwind hammers they all seemed to have a general idea of how to throw a frisbee. I think a lot of this comes from the nature of people that travel through Morocco and Taroudant specifically. While Taroudant definitely sees its fair share of busloads of Middle-aged French and German tourists a good percentage of tourists in Morocco are of the frisbee carrying hippie type. Just enough hopefully to change the image of America from Justin Timberlake and Celine Dion (who is Canadian by the way) to my favorite disc-shaped object.

Yesterday Moroccans and their brothers throughout the Islamic world celebrated aid il-kbir. The holiday commemorates Abrahams devotion and his willingness to sacrifice his son Issac before a ram was put in Issac’s place. If you think that story sounds familiar you are right. The holy books of Abraham’s three sons share a similar narrative as well as many similar moral lessons. To remember this story everyone slaughters and eats a ram. Think Thanksgiving only imagine that the turkey is a ram and that the ram lives on your roof for the week before he is eaten. The atmosphere throughout the city was crazy last week as all of my fellow urbanites rushed around to buy, transport, and house their sheep. Kids rushed around with carts deliverying sheep to people’s houses and the weekly market last Sunday contained enough sheep to make the biggest American ‘Animal feeding operation’ look puny as everyone from the surrounding countryside brought in their animals to sell.

In the past year and a half a lot of embarrassing things have happened to me but I am not sure if any of them have been more embarrassing than what happened to me during my last session with my Arabic tutor. My tutor who speaks excellent English was describing to me in Arabic A Moroccans sheep cooking method. He mentioned a word in Arabic that I didn’t know so I asked him to clarify in English and he said that it was a ‘hearth’. I racked my brain to think of what a hearth was and came up empty. As I was thinking he spelled the word out on my paper-- h-e-a-r-t-h-- because he thought that he might have been pronouncing the word incorrectly. I told him that yes he was pronouncing the word correctly it is just that his English was better than mine. Note for the record that English is my tutors 5th language and that a hearth is a type of oven used to cook meat.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do you Americans eat this?

The other day I was introduced to someone new. She asked me if I was French and I responded that I am in fact American. She then turned to her friend and said: "like Oprah?" and then started laughing.

On Novermber 12th I finished up my second round of Peace Corps training. Although I wouldn't recommend that anyone go through two rounds of Stage, as us West African volunteers like to call our training, it was still nice to through a little party to thank our host families and host communities for being so kind and generous and sharing their lives with us for the past two months. In order to say thank and bid adieu we decided to make a bunch of American food for the party. To me and to several others in the group American food meant one thing: pizza. While some Italians may have objected to our labelling we went ahead with the cooking. As a non-chef I quickly found my place in the cutting section of the preparation room. I was joined by some members of a stage-mates host family as we hacked away at enough tomatoes to make pizza sauce for our guests. In Morocco people usually cut the skins off of their tomatoes before cooking them. When I say they usually cut them off I mean that people look at you like you are crazy if you leave the skins on. Note that this makes perfect sense in a culture without shoprite and the FDA. I told my ten year old assistant to leave the skin on and she looked at me with shock, but after some convincing did as she was told. After the tomatoes, the next step was cutting, and grating the cheese. My assistant turned to me and with a very confused face asked, "do Americans leave the wax on their cheese, since they leave the skins on their tomatoes."

As I just mentioned I have never been known for my cooking, but as a gesture of goodwill a few weeks ago I offered to make my host family a spaghetti dinner. I made the meal my family pretended to enjoy it and I thought the subject was finished until last week. We had a small gathering before the pizza party to discuss how the training went. My host sister claimed to have had a good experience and mentioned that she had enjoyed having "real American spaghetti with vegetables." The next day the normally shy, reserved cook who makes our lunch every day and makes incredible dishes that I could only dream of making, nearly jumped on me to make sure she got the recipe for how to make, "real American spaghetti with vegetables."

After having gone through two Peace Corps trainings and one year of service I would like to point out one flaw in the cross¬cultural training. I realize the necessity of making Americans more culturally sensitive (especially the ones who insist that pizza is an American food), as well as the difficulties in developing cross¬¬¬cultural materials that are applicable for the wide range of cultures in the countries that Peace Corps serves. In this training Americans are stereotyped as the epitome of direct speech while Host Country Nationals (as Peace Corps so diplomatically calls the "natives")are seen as very indirect saying yes to any idea that the volunteer presents and then voicing disagreement by not showing up to meetings, etc. I have now served in two Peace Corps countries as well as lived in New York for most of my life and I can tell you that both Moroccans and Mauritanians can put the bluntness of the most forward New Yorker to shame. The other day a fellow trainee came to my house for some tea and my family flatly, firmly and kindly, told him that his Arabic was terrible. An experience that even the most fluent volunteers in either Morocco have surely had multiple times. It is not that my family was being mean, in fact they said it with a smile and offered him more cake, it is simply that the style of communication is more direct and honest than any New Yorker I know is used to. That being said I could still use a training session on figuring out how to be nice to people from the Midwest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

screaming pumpkins

Like any proper bureaucracy Peace Corps has its share of acronyms, jargon and words that nobody outside of the Peace Corps community could possibly understand. The one (often funnier) difference between Peace Corps and your average overly-bureaucratized organization is that PC works in many different countries that speak hundreds of different languages almost none of which have good translations for words such as, “counterpart, sustainable, or feedback.” Since there are no proper translations for these concepts Peace Corps staff who, in Morocco at least, speak both English and the local languages fluently usually just use the English words while they are speaking with each other. So if I hear two Peace Corps staff speaking too fast for me to understand it often sounds something like this, “skdjkqdklsj feedback erekkkjrke sustainability sdksjkdlsklj computer skills.”

Last week as part of my training I taught an English lesson at the local youth center to intermediate level English students. In preparation for Halloween I adapted this lesson on the past tense to incorporate some Halloween specific vocabulary with words such as scream howl, and carve. The lesson went well, the students appeared to understand and my demonstration of howling was a particularly big hit. The next day at the Halloween party at the youth center I was standing next to a Jack-o-Lantern and I made a carving motion and asked what I thought was one of the better students how the Jack-o-Lantern was made. She said, “you screamed it.” Well at least she got the past tense conjugation correct.

In preparation for the party a few of us went to the market to buy the aforementioned pumpkin that would one day be screamed into a Jack-o-lantern. In Imouzzer there is a “souk” twice a week. This means that farmers come into town from the country selling their produce for absurdly cheap prices. Pumpkins are one of the kinds of produce. Pumpkins are not a stable of the Moroccan diet like eggs, cous-cous or tomatoes, instead pumpkins are a supplement usually added to cous-cous or in combination with other vegetables. Thus pumpkins are usually sold by the kilo which means that the farmer will sell 1/8th or 1/16th of a kilo. When we explained that we in fact wanted an entire pumpkin he wasn’t quite sure what to do and thought he had misunderstand. We then restated that yes we did want the entire pumpkin. Finally he ended up weighing the pumpkin and so we paid 4 dollars for the 20 pound pumpkin. As we left the market carrying the entire pumpkins peoples looks of astonishment reminded me of the looks on people’s faces as my former Mauritanian sitemate carried his pet turtle through the Tidjikja town center.

Last Monday Peace Corps announced our permanent sites where we will be leaving in Morocco for the next two years. Up until now I have been living in a training site where I have been studying the local Arabic Dialect and doing other training activities. In two weeks I will move to Taroudant a city in southern Morocco. It seems like it will be an interesting place to spend the next two years as well as good place for a visit or a short vacation if anyone is thinking of planning a trip to Morocco. Before the staff made the site announcements everyone was feeling some combination of dread, anticipation, excitement and nervousness. In order to calm the nerves of this group of 20-something future professionals the staff gave out bags of American brand name candy in the same style as t-shirts are flung in the stands at B-level sporting events. The twix bars floating into the crowds distracted us enough that they were able to make the announcements to a relatively calm dread-free group very different from the anxious, panic-stricken group that existed a mere 10 minutes earlier.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Achilles heel: olives

I have found my Achilles heel. Before coming to Morocco, I thought that I could eat anything. Whether it was dog meat or Goat brains I ate and enjoyed pretty much anything and everything. Since arriving in Morocco I have found my weakness in an unlikely place: olives. In Morocco olives are put in pretty much every meal and I have already tried numerous types and cooked or seasoned in various different ways none of which have been even close to edible. I never thought I would be in the position of individually picking off anything let alone olives off of the delicious pizza that our training groups cook makes for lunch on occasion. Olives do have one saving grace. My Arabic teacher lives on an olive farm in Southern Morocco and he brought us a bottle of homemade olive oil from his farm that is every bit as savory as plain olives are unsavory. In my last post I mentioned that the food in my site is incredible and with the exception of olives I still stand by that statement. However I am forced to eat some of my words, as I was bragging about the delicious ice cream that I recently learned that the ice cream shop has been selling the same batch of ice cream since July.

Yesterday I traveled with my host family to visit some relatives in the countryside. One of his family members was surprised and curious to see an American and judging from his reaction had never spoken with an American before. After a few of the usual questions, (What are you doing her, marital status etc.) he went through a long spiel about how he wanted to ask me some questions about religion. I have learned to dread such discussions but I said “no problem” because of the family setting. With a worried look on his face he asked me about circumcision in America. I laughed and told him that most American males are circumcises and then we went back to making jokes about donkeys.

On many American TV stations there is a brief introductory sound or clip before the show transitions into commercials. On one of the Moroccan there is a similar clip: A catchy tune plays in the background and then the word pub short for publicité or commercial comes on to let the world know that a commercial for shampoo or some resort in Dubai is about to come on. One of the first days of Arabic class one of my fellow trainees came into class with the following announcement, “I spent all day yesterday watching TV with my host family, we kept watching this one TV show called the pub all day.”