My new home. September 20-23, 2018. I am writing this on the Sunday following my arrival. So much has happened that it seems impossible I have been here only 3 days. I will try to tell you some of the major hallmarks, but to tell all would take too long. I will break it into subjects and events.
First of all, I just love my host family. Everyone is incredibly welcoming and sweet. They constantly tell me that they are my Moroccan family. There is a perfect mix. My “baba” Moha, and “mama” Mehjouba are my age, perhaps a little older. Apparently, they don’t really know how old they are and had listed their ages as 65 and 45, with a daughter 35, son 25 and son 8, leading me to expect a 2nd wife situation. This is not so. The mother is likely in her 60s and certainly the mother of the daughter, my “sister” Hassanna, who lives with us another 2 weeks, when she will be married, and three additional daughters, as well as 4 sons (all these are actually in their 20s). Two of the sons, Driss and Farid, are here daily for at least one meal. There are also two grandsons that are here frequently, Mourad and Adem. I have met several other family members and will reveal them in time. They served as a host family last year and had a great experience with Robert (aka Mohamed while in Morocco).
My home is very nice and in a great location. We have 3 stories plus a roof top. The first floor is an entry way and bathroom (more on Moroccan bathrooms later). My room is large and is traditionally the dining room/family room. It is on the second floor, along with a 2-butt kitchen and a small utility room. The third floor is a very large community room/bedroom. My floor has very nice tile floors and the thirds floor has elaborate marble floors. On the roof is a large open area for hanging laundry and viewing stars, the distant city of Fes, and for catching the activities of the street below and various neighbors. Here you will also find a second toilet and area for bathing, along with laundry. All floors are joined by very steep steps. Thankfully, there are handrails. Everything about the style of the house is very different from the US, but it is very nice, and clean as well. We are located kitty-corner from the mosque, so nearly everyone in town will go by here at least once a day. Our front door is one of only two at the end of a short cul-de-sac, just off the main street of the mosque. We are just a few feet from the family store, located just across the street from the mosque.
My town/village is idyllically small, like a picture postcard of any small Italian village. In fact, the terrain is very similar to Italy. Peace Corps does not permit us to publish the name of any town where we are staying, but it is in the region of Sefrou, and not terribly far from Fes. I was told there were 9000 residents, but Google has it nearly double that. This clearly includes residents of the surrounding area, since the town only has a few streets. The town is surrounded by agriculture. The predominant crop around and below us is olives. As one travels up the hill to the nearest city it is predominantly apples and peaches.
My host family owns a small store, selling vegetables, fruit and a few other things. This is really great because the entire family takes turns running the store and so I get to have a lot more social interaction by hanging out there than I would otherwise. That first afternoon I sat in front of the store with my host mom and met just a ton of people, including lots of children. Many of these folks are relatives of our family. The store has lug boxes full of all sorts of fresh produce, arranged on the floor, a balancing scale, a few shelves behind the owner’s chair. 1-2 customers can comfortably shop, though more can jam in if needed. And to sit in the doorway is common.
There are lots of little stores here, called “hanoots”. Most are big enough for 1 customer at a time, some 2, some you stand at the counter and make your request. I have seen two restaurants, again, very small. I have seen two coffee shops. Two of my host brothers, Driss and Farid, run the closest of the coffee shops. This would also be the place to hang out and watch the soccer game with your buds. These coffee shops are normally men only, though I am sure I can swing an invitation at some point. I have also seen two barber shops and a game room. Most of these are on my street, or the main road through town, but they are sprinked throughout the town. There is no place in the town that cannot be reached in 5 minutes by foot, more if you allow for chit chat.
My host sister is an amazing cook. You can all imagine how much I am loving the wonderful dishes she prepares. There are four feasts a day. I am coming to realize they eat like this all the time and not just because they have a visitor. The schedule is slightly altered for me, with an early breakfast since I go to school earlier than their normal eating time. All of the dishes are deliciously seasoned, typically meat and vegetables, prepared in a pressure cooker. Meals are organized to follow key calls to prayer at the mosque. Lunch is around 1:30, “tea” around 5 and dinner around 10. They have been serving me breakfast at 7:30, but now that I am home on Sunday, I see the normal time is around 10 am for them. Every meal contains olives, assorted fresh fruit and lots of bread. The bread serves as your eating utensil for helping yourself to the main dish from a common plate. There are a few things served with utensils, but most things are eaten with your hands. Likewise, a few things are eaten from plates, but mostly you either go straight from the common dish to your lips. Plastic tablecloths are the norm and seeds, peelings and bones accumulate there to be cleared after the meal. Most meals include an extremely sweet, mint tea. I have also been served milk and a beet smoothie. I can describe the meals, but it is the spicing that makes them magical. The first meal included cooked celery with tomatoes and chicken. One of my favorites was a red meat (lamb or beef?) cooked with prunes and raisens. On Fridays all Moroccans have couscous. Ours had chicken and carrots. Breakfast is usually bread, eggs, butter, with the olives, fruit and tea. Today I cooked the breakfast while Hassanna went to the funeral service of her cousin (more on that later), so that is was ready on their return. She did the first one and I finished. It was a type of corn pancake, cooked on one side until the bubbly top is dry, later sprinkled with oil and re-heated. Served with jam. There were boiled eggs and popcorn. I love everything, but am not accustomed to eating so much, nor so late. I am not sure how to handle it long term. Such a problem to have. “an embarrassment of riches” as Jennifer Pina would say. This also means that there is rarely a moment of the day when one is neither cooking or washing dishes. This is especially true because some family members eat at different times to accommodate taking turns to keep the shops open.
Our classes began on Friday, the day after our arrival and go from 8:30 to 4:30, 6 days a week. We are primarily learning language, but also cover cultural information. We also have activities outside the classroom. First, was reporting to the proper local authorities to show our passport, introduce ourselves and be welcomed. This is required by local law, but was also important practice for our future work in our own town. We reported to the Qaid, sort of like a local mayor/police captain. After that we took a taxi to the bigger town to report to the head of the Gendarme, sort of like a royal police, for this region. Other activities have included walking to each volunteer’s house to get an idea where we are and get the lay of the land. We walked up the main road to see the “college”, which is the local term for middle school, after which we had “tea” which includes a “snack” at the home of one of the volunteers. On Saturday we had “tea” at the restaurant owned by the host family of another volunteer, then walked around town, along with a hike to one of the higher points to see a cave and have a great view of the town and surrounding area. Today was “self-directed learning” since we do not have days off.
2 funerals. In the short time I have been here my family has experienced two deaths/funeral services. The first day was a cousin to my “father”. It was sad I am sure, but not as involving as the second. Yesterday the niece of my “mother” died. This has really affected everyone. She was younger and left 4 young children. Here the custom is to bury the person within a day of death, so she died on Saturday afternoon and was buried this morning. My mother spent the night with her sister’s family, came home briefly this morning and returned. Two of my sisters were here before the service. They were both dressed in a traditional robe/covering, black with red beading. Later today the mother-in-law of another sister visited and she had the same robe.
All men and women have similar robes, ranging from white (higher status) to very colorful, that they don over their daily clothing to go to the mosque, or even to say prayers in the house. Depending on the service, they may be at the mosque a few minutes, or an hour or more. There are 5 required daily prayer times in the Islamic faith. For an in-depth explanation of the faith, turn to the internet, as I am likely to get the explanations wrong. Still, I will mention things from time to time as they seem to affect our lives. My window is right by the mosque and the first call is around 5:20 am, the last around 9:30 pm. My family is dutiful about performing the prayers. My father seems to do most of his in the mosque, while the ladies are mostly at home.
Moroccan toilets are very different from the US. The first part is the squatting over a floor pit to do your business. Secondly, one does not clean with TP, but with water. Thankfully one of our fellow volunteers gave a pretty explicit explanation/demonstration of how to direct the water, pouring from your bucket/cup into a waiting hand that splashes the water upward to the dirty area. The “fanny” hand must be the left hand, as one eats from communal dishes with the right. One splashes repeatedly until one thinks they are clean. She said that when she returned to the US and had to return to TP she felt dirty. Hmmm. People carry a small towel to dry the cleaned area. However, being a rookie at all this, I undress from the waist down, as I get the water pretty much everywhere. There is a squeegee to clean the floor after. Clearly there is a better technique, but these things take time. I imagine the plumbing could not accommodate toilet paper, so I don’t even ask. The hotel and rest stop had the western style, so not sure of the percentage of each style in the country.
On arrival my sister asked me if I wanted to wash and proceeded to show me the area on the rooftop. I observed large tubs of water, buckets and the drain/toilet, in addition to the small laundry machine. I also saw my Mom bring a tea kettle of hot water to the rooftop and mix it with cold water to wash her face. I was invited daily to wash, but we are told by Peace Corps that Moroccans only wash 2-3 times a week. This is partly tradition from the Bedouin days, part expense for the water and power to heat the water. I also demurred because the facilities I was shown are essentially out of doors and so I was trying to catch a part of the day that was warm and not busy. I received a rare occasion when no one was home, due to a family death. These facilities are 1/4 open to view from the few houses with rooftops as high as ours. I am not sure what everyone else does, but I hung my towel and robe to block the opening. I could not figure out how to light the stove to warm water, so went cold turkey, bucket bathing over the drain. It felt so good to wash my hair. Then I did my laundry, also in buckets. I have since learned that the family washes in the downstairs bathroom and that there is a little instant hot water heater one can turn on to feed into there. I will get a lesson on that tomorrow. Apparently the showing of the upstairs was just for washing the clothes. Normally we have tap water from 8 am to 10 pm, however the family stores buckets and jugs to always have water. Again, we are very fortunate that here in Morocco all the tap water is treated and safe.
I have been much healthier than expected. By all accounts I expected to be ill during a period of transition. I had mild symptoms of a cold for some days, but was able to address it with cough drops and one day of Benadryl. Those symptoms are gone. I have had mild diarrhea, but not to the point of needing medication. I am tired, with the constant changing of times, places, late meals, noisy hotel and now town. However, yesterday I used my teacher to help explain that I needed to skip the late-night meal and go to sleep. While they consider it shameful that I was going to bed without dinner, I just needed to put my foot down. My teacher is not happy that we are all sleepy in his class and I am hoping this will help. It is too noisy (until around 2 am) to really sleep, but being in bed helps and I drift in and out. The Moroccans actually sleep on carpets on the floors. I sleep on a sofa in the family/dining room. This is my room and I can close the door and have privacy. This leaves them to eat and socialize on the floor in the tiny utility room. I tried in vain to change to make that my room. In truth, since the refrigerator is in there, that would not have worked. Still, most of the time I make my room available. The sofa and pillows are hard, intended for decoration, not sleeping. I am using my airline neck pillow, but if I don’t find a western pillow at a store when I get to town, I will send home for mine. Still, since I expected to be sleeping on the floor, it is a luxury.
The weather here is very mild. I have yet to be hot or cold and all the windows are open all the time. There are bars or decorative grates on the windows, but no screens. Still, the are only a few flies and no mosquitos. I have not seen cockroaches in my home, or anywhere here. The climate is much dryer than the Rabat area where we started, which I really appreciate.
I have covered a lot so will make that my closing remark for this first entry in my new town. More will follow.