Camp Saidia. July 28-August 6, 2019.
With my Youth Center closed the month of August, it was another opportunity to stay busy. This was a very different camp experience from Kharzouza, for many reasons. The travel, the people, the accommodations, the location…all made for a very different time. After discussing those things, I will try to summarize our busy 9 days, including the rewards and failures.
My friends who had organized the Kharzouza camp invited me to participate in another, where they would participate, but not be in charge. Our town’s group was only 7 young children and 3 adults. All but 3 of the little boys had done Kharzouza with us. Our small bus took us to Sefrou, where we met up with similar sized groups from all over the region, and traveled in large beautiful (before all the busy little boys had their way with the windows and floors) buses to our destination. We picked up a group in Taza. These leaders were the first people I have seen in Morocco that tried to get the children to pick up their own mess. Futile as it was, it was nice to see. Two of those 3 leaders would leave the camp after 3 days. We traveled mostly on freeways, through desert that looks like eastern California or Nevada. We saw cut fields of small grains, olive orchards, alfalfa, almonds, salt ponds. There was one area over a mountain pass, including the restaurant-filled, cutesy town of Tafouat. But there was so much construction there that we returned a different route. We left early and arrived in time for lunch.
It was on this trip I also got the answer to “how, logistically, are all these city people going to manage getting a ram to slaughter for the upcoming holiday, Eid Al Adha?”. They do it the same way we buy and sell Christmas trees, in pop-up lots next to grocery stores and downtown. I’m told you can also buy one “by the kilo” at the larger grocery stores.
Our destination was a resort town at the very farthest north-eastern tip of Morocco. Saidia sits right at the border with Algeria. This is a very popular destination for Moroccans of all ages. There are many government owned/operated camps right on the beach, where government officials are invited to spend one of the 5-12 day sessions. There were official ministry of youth camps as well. I visited my friends in one of those. Our camp was located in a school that was closed for the summer. Our group had 120 children, but there were other groups, totaling about 450, at the school at the same time.
Let me start by saying I loved Saidia, and hope to have time to return there for a few days of vacation. I suspect it is as nice as any Mediterranean beach (and at a fraction of the prices). The beaches were beautiful and clean (due to crews that never stop cleaning, even at night), the water just the right temperature. The water is shallow for a long distance out (at least where we were). The police make sure that no one puts their stuff too close to the water, so there is a very nice view. The water is a gorgeous range of blues. There were very nice clubs, restaurants and attractions (mostly catering to Europeans) the entire length of the beaches, a wide promenade on the inland side of the clubs. One block in are all the Moroccan style restaurants and hanoots. In addition to the many camps, there were many private homes. At Camp Kharzouza, there were no conveniences, such as stores, or attractions. Here there were lots of options. The weather was near perfect, a little humid, but not bad for seaside.
The down side was the lack of soul in our group. All groups included at least one local director, all part of a national association. So, right off the bat, few people knew each other in advance. Each leader tended to take care of their own group, rather than foster the one-big-happy-family-camp. Instead of mixing with other groups at meals, each stuck together, with their leader. We never even took a real group photo. Still, kids made friends, and some activities crossed town borders.
The living conditions were mostly ok, except I firmly believe the mattresses had either fleas or bedbugs. I could not find them, but we were all being bitten by something other than mosquitos. The smallest children, many who did not have blankets, sleeping right on these old mattresses, suffered the worst. The bathrooms were not as dirty as Kharzouza, but not good. Always an inch of water on the floor between door and toilet. There was no hot water. But after the beach, one must bathe. Standing over the pit toilet dumping buckets of coldish water on my head sounds bad, but it was ok. I slept in a room with 2 other women and 15 girls, though I escaped to the roof a few times.
At each meal we were responsible for cleaning our tables before and after, bringing the food from the kitchen to the table, in courses. Here the adults ate with the kids, one per table, instead of after. The food was fine, and miraculous if you consider they were serving nearly 1500 meals a day, plus the Kaskaroot snack, as groups came in one after another. As “mom” another of my jobs at lunch is to pull apart scolding hot meat, with my right hand, and distribute it around the edge of the place. Nearly all foods are eaten from a common dish in the center of the table. Bread serves as your utensil and your napkin. For salads and a few other things you are given a spoon or fork.
Most of the camp events are very formulaic and tracked on a large chart. There are groups (we had 9). They line up regularly, practice army style formations, chants and songs. When it is time to move, it is normally two at a time. Meals are late. After hours of doing nothing after lunch there is normally a very late activity. Exhausted children falling asleep and being chastised for doing so. There was the youth talent show, the adult talent show (yes, I was required to sing), the Quiz night (including the recorded message from the King), the wedding, the traditional games of “radio”, “find the leader” and such. The “wedding” is always popular and many girls asked me to put make-up (eye shadow) on them. The girls were constantly changing clothes, and generally dressing up every evening. They wear a lot of cologne. I saw my friend put on three kinds, as she was telling me I must buy her a gift of cologne because she loves it so much. There were also some new activities, including what could have been a fun one, a city “passport” game, that was just really poorly organized, and then there were my activities.
I did a shortened version of the Piñatas. No paper maché, or paint, meant we had 4 sessions instead of 6. The kids were great, but I had a terrible time with the adults constantly disrupting and interfering. It was interesting to see the kids start strong, then quit with areas uncovered. None of the animals’ eyes were finished. They were drawn on the cardboard, but the colored paper was kept well back of the eyes. (any phycological evaluations?).
I also did a Scavenger Hunt. In typical Moroccan fashion, I was told at 9 I would be in charge of an activity at 10. There is a totally different sense of time, preparation here. I was ready by 10, kids there by 11, but did not have the needed adults until nearly 12. So, after being in formation for an hour, they were tired, hot, thirsty and cranky. Then, immediately two groups were eliminated for cheating, eventually 5 of the 9. One because I caught the adult leader (who was clearly told not to help or even talk to his group) cheating, looking for one of the items while his kids watched him going through the trash. The prize for winning was to be first to break their Piñata, and an extra kilo of candy. I had wanted one of the stops on the hunt to be the on-campus police station. All I asked the police to do was to hand out a piece of paper on which I had written “police”. I talked to three different men and all refused. Pfff! I had other activities ready, but there was never time. Or, they were all too miffed by my enforcement of the rules. Plus, I refused to take the late-night time slot.
And then we had the “off-campus” activities. We had 5 beach mornings and one pool morning, two long walks through town and a concert on the beach.
I loved beach days. The kids just had so much fun! The first day the girls went before the boys. Our group was smaller, 25, and not very structured, just “get in”. Most of the girls were afraid of the water at first, but gradually enjoyed it very much. I wore a long shirt and underwear (though eventually bought some shorts). The Moroccan women mostly wears swimsuits that cover everything, including their hair, though one of our women was scarf-less and wore a shirt-short ensemble. I also noted that my friend and her girls wear two layers of pants, even in the hot weather. The boys had to wait for us to return that first day, but I switched back to get pictures of them. Their leaders had a long rope, and they formed a square in the sea. The boys had to stay within the square. The water was all very shallow. On subsequent days we all went together. Not a gender thing, just a management thing. Older kids were allowed outside the rope, and one day they even forgot the rope. They would pull the kids out for rests, while the rope monitors (adults and older kids) swam, and let them go back in after. Lots of playing in the sand, burying friends, one game of tug-a-war. There were guys selling donuts on the beach and I thought I was in heaven. The next day, our resident Nazi took all the donuts away from the kids, so I did not get another. Seemed rude. The first day they let 100 little boys hit the hanoot on the way back, but not every time. The little boys were just enthralled with the notion I would swim with them. Lots of “Linda, shuf (watch)” as they fall or dive under the water. I would get another kid and let them step into our clasped hands and toss them a little.
About one of our leaders with a strange sense of purpose. The first day, after we (the girls) had all moved all our stuff, including mattresses that had to be selected from a pile at the gate, into a large, downstairs room, with an interior bathroom right outside our door, we were moved. For “our security” we had to move everything to the other end of the school, to a room that did not have room for half the girls to have a bed. What? When I moved my mattress to the balcony, to give some room, everyone had a heart attack. Well, what is the solution then? They squashed more boys in together so girls would have two rooms. We were upstairs, and to use the toilet we had to go downstairs and pass through the camp of the Saharans. Great security. This same man, the last night, after the camp director departed early with his family, locked me in, without access to leave or even the toilet. When he did it again after I went to bed, (this time not just me, but everyone) and I had to rattle the gate to be permitted access to the bathroom at 5 in the morning, I kept his lock. Why didn’t I do that the first time?
About the Saharan girls. I thought it quite unique in Kharzouza, when I found large turds (twice) on the middle of the floor, next to the toilets. Yet, here they were again. Huh? It is really taking the lack of respect for common space to a new level. The trash thing is always a problem.
It is quite a show to see 120 kids, in matching shirts and hats, marching 2 x 2, along the promenade. Crossing streets is a production. A long walk, with a couple of rests, brought us to the Agricultural Co-op exhibit. We visited booths and sampled honey, oil, dates and such. We had our kaskaroot snack outside. I bought a juice from a vendor. The next moment she had stripped her toddler naked on the street and was dowsing him in cold water, rubbing him down, while he screamed. At the very end of our walk, near the Algerian border, we skirted a carnival, a huge concert stage on the beach and a street market, to return via the interior road, passing many restaurants and such. We stopped at two neighboring hanoots, and of course there was drama as some kids were told there was no time, while others (including leaders) allowed to dally. Our walk home was mostly in the dark. Passengers of passing cars, and people on the street would engage the kids in common camp chants.
For the second trip downtown, the groups were split into two different nights. We left quite late. My eyes grew wide with fear as the leaders lead 60 kids into the thick of concert goer mayhem. But they took us straight to a VIP area beside the sound control, very close to the stage. I still don’t know how that came about. These were top-named entertainers, on a professional stage, provided by the major cellular phone company here. We watched two performers, and then, as everyone was tired, marched the kids out the other side to the ocean. As soon as we had the kids lined up 2 x 2 at the ocean, two of the women headed back to hear the next performer. So, the rest of us had to wait, trying to keep the kids up and out of the water. This is the kind of thing that gets my panties in a knot, but is just very Moroccan. The offending party, that has just inconvenienced a large group for their own whim (or shown up late, or not at all, or ruined an event you put a lot of work into, or failed to prepare for an activity, or tell you the certificate party has been cancelled when it wasn’t, or take your hat-pens-shovel-whatever, or charge kids for a 12 day camp and then go home in 9, or tell you to be there at 5 am and not show up until 6, or push in front of you in any line, or…), will say “it is no problem”, and here, apparently it isn’t.
One day we all went to the camp of our friends, the two young men that had worked Kharzouza with us, and the leader of that Association. They invited us to swim in their pool. Another very nice experience. Some of the kids who are regulars from the Youth Center, and the Kharzouza Camp were there as well, but we had the pool (again, waist high) to ourselves.
The 4-5 hour nap times in the afternoons became my free time, to walk, to shop, visit friends at the other camp, or slip down to the O’Dream Beach Club. Here, amidst the hooka smoking, jet setters in bikinis, I would enjoy a truly delicious juice or milkshake. The club had alcohol, but did not want to go back with liquor breath. One day I had lunch there and caught up on emails. I would also get up well before anyone else and go to the neighborhood hanoot for a juice, just to get out. The dinners are 9-11 in the evening. I would skip these to have my “shower”. Water pressure, quiet privacy and go to bed “clean”.
Thursday night, all but one of the leaders escaped to the beach hanoot, to sit and have a tea or soda. 5 of us took a walk down the promenade.
On the last afternoon, 3 of us took the bus to the Marina. I was surprised to learn that the town is much larger than the tourist area we have been walking. Big apartment complexes, a big mall, a big water-slide park, jet-ski park, more beaches, the latter very crowded, and right to the water’s edge, unlike our beach. I was hoping to take my picture at the border crossing, but while we easily reached the border, the crossing was too far to bother.
We returned in time to take the kids to play in the sand and do activities, at night, after showering, the night before leaving. Huh? Next day, traveled home. Lots of vomiting, despite the straight smooth road. Broke down in the desert, but only for 30 minutes or so. Our driver turned off the AC through the hottest part of the trip. More vomiting. Glad to get home.
Favorite images include: Tiny boy, up before everyone else, hanging is own laundry, and then spraying it with cologne. Young girl, truly tense as she had the responsibility to answer quiz questions for her team, and their explosion of joy with each correct answer, and on winning. The transformation of Hussain, from the boy with tears running down his cheeks most of the time, lonely for his mom, his home, not quite fitting in…to the boy with the biggest smile, lots of friends, on the winning team, frolicking in the ocean. Makes all the little annoyances melt away.
Next time, Eid Al Adha aka Eid Kabir (the big holiday).