Wednesday, May 15, 2013

To be or not to be...

Today the taxi driver taking us from Essaouira back to my village was speeding, even by Moroccan standards. I couldn't verify it because his speedometer was no longer working, but I could tell by the way the car was shaking and by the centrifugal force we were subjected to when we hugged the curves. Despite the horrible safety record of Moroccan drivers, I sat calmly in the back, wedged securely between two other passengers, and read my book. I was glad for the quick pace because I was late for the aerobics class I teach. I had been on a tight time schedule; I had planned to make the trip to Essaouira for the meeting and turn around and come back. But the person I was meeting with had been 45 minutes late because of a taxi-related delay. So this was poetic justice coming to my rescue.

I looked up from my book from time to time and watched the familiar scenery speed by. I suddenly saw it anew, as if for the first time. I had the surreal thought that this strange and exotic world that had become my normal, like the blurry scenery I had begun to regard with disinterest, would soon be a thing of the past, a figment of my imagination. It occurred to me that I was possibly already starting to pull away in my mind, preparing myself to adjust back to life in America by finding a psychic separation between me and this world I had come to take for granted. Yet that is the last thing I want to do - leave before I am gone. I want to drink it up, every last drop, before the cup is taken from me forever.

As soon as the taxi pulled into my town, all such thoughts were pushed out as I rushed up the hill to class. Soon as I was jamming to the music with my four faithful attendees, throwing myself into the rigorous dance moves that had become our tri-weekly form of exercise. Enjoying the connectedness with the women in my class as we moved to the music, leading them yet fully together with them. Feeling their energy, their affection and respect, enjoying their laughter and feeling the inexplicable bliss, in those moments of comprehension, of truly laughing with them. I was fully back in the present and there was nowhere I would rather be.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I Believe I Can Fly...Be My Wind

High school is a confusing and stressful time for everyone. But for rural Moroccan girls, it is particularly so. They are relatively lucky to not be pulled out of school during elementary or middle school to help out at home, as becoming good homemakers is generally considered to be the most important contribution they can make to society. There is little incentive for families to invest in an education for their daughter which will, once she is married, merely accrue to the benefit of her husband’s family. Families who sacrifice to keep their daughters in school are taking a risk, and these girls feel significant pressure to succeed. But once they do succeed in school, and many do, they find to their disillusionment that the social and cultural pressure to forgo what few professional opportunities there are in order to become homemakers is often insurmountable. So despite heroic efforts to overcome their circumstances, they are right back where they started and find marriage and domesticity to be the only acceptable option.

As a Women’s Empowerment Agent in the Peace Corps in Morocco, I am working to give women the tools to free themselves from the societal and cultural norms which restrict self-actualization. This spring, three colleagues and I are collaborating with El Khir, a women’s association in the city of Essaouira, to plan a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp. Forty girls from high schools around the region will come to Essaouira for five days of intensive exploration of their moral worth as people and as women, their own belief in their power to determine their values and make their own choices, and ways that they can contribute meaningfully to the world around them. We will conduct sessions, lead activities and host guest speakers all with the goal of expanding the girls’ capacity to imagine and create healthy self-directed lives, challenging them to seek greater meaning in their lives beyond domestic duties and equipping them with concrete skills to be effective leaders in their communities. Which in the developing country of Morocco today is more needed than ever before.

In addition to the community contribution, it will cost us $4000 – or about $20 per girl per day – to implement this camp. If you are passionate about fighting for gender equality and eradicating oppression of women, nowhere can you do more good than in the developing Muslim world. Even a donation of $5 dollars will go far in enabling us to offer a girl a desperately needed glimmer of hope. Please help us make a difference in these girls’ lives so they can make a difference in their world. Click here to donate. Thank you!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Just Chillin' in Morocco

I turn my head longingly towards the brilliant sun streaming in from the terrace door. Out there, the sun would warm me so thoroughly that after awhile, I would actually want to come back inside. But where I sit working at my computer, on the low sofa and table in our salon, I huddle in multiple overlapping layers to ward off the penetrating chill created by our cinderblock walls. This contrast has the effect of making me feel silly for – and frustrated by – the needless suffering of being so desperately cold only 10 feet from the possibility of being enveloped in warmth. What’s the point of the sun being so warm if it doesn’t heat the inside of your house?
Though despite being unnecessarily cruel in the winter, this odd architectural ability to somehow collect and hold in cold from wherever it finds it is a miraculous blessing in the summer. This common feature in Moroccan homes serves to mitigate summer but, inadvertently and unfortunately, magnify winter. Being indoors is the only way to escape the heat in the summer, but being outdoors in the sun - which, even in the winter, is relatively warm - is the only way to warm up when it’s cold. They say Morocco is the coldest country with the hottest sun. This is the closest I have come to getting an explanation for the thermal confusion Morocco seems to be beset with. 

In learning how to adapt to extremes and confusing manifestations of temperature – in a similar way to how I have had to adapt to other intersections of nature and society in Morocco – I have realized the extent to which it affects my life. I have never had, on a day-to-day and season-to-season basis, such a naked unmediated relationship with the sun. In the States, if it was cold in my house, I would turn up the thermostat. This was made possible by the energy of the sun but indirectly, through a long chain of events. Here if is too cold in my house, I go outside on the terrace and warm up directly in the rays of the sun. In the States, in order to dry my laundry, I would put them in a dryer powered by energy coming, again, after a long chain of events, originally from the sun. Here, if I want to dry my clothes, I hang them outside to be dried directly by the rays of the sun.

One might consider such integration into and direct dependence on the outside world to be an inconvenience, one that epitomizes the disadvantages of living in the developing as opposed to the developed world. Is the definition of luxury the extent to which one’s everyday life is removed from the effects of nature? Since living here, moreso than ever before, I understand and appreciate – at a visceral level – the advantages of being insulated from nature. When I come home from a muddy slog in the cold rain, there is nothing I want more than a warm apartment and a hot bath. But when this is not possible – when your indoor reality reflects or magnifies the outdoor one rather than provides a contrast to it – you realize the inescapability of your own powerlessness over your environment. 

But living at the mercy of nature – engaging in this intimate dance with the forces around me – has been a different kind of luxury. It has taught me humility, patience and gratitude. I have learned to disconnect my happiness from my physical comfort. I have had to adjust my expectations of the potential to compensate for unpleasantness in my circumstances, but have also discovered the satisfaction of innovation to mitigate the loss of creature comforts I used to enjoy. I have let go of the illusion that I can control my environment to suit me. But in return, I have been forced to notice the inherent adequacy – often bounty – of nature to provide for my needs. When I have to go out into the sun to warm up, it doesn’t feel like a quaint and fleeting antidote to inadequate indoor heating. Rather, it strikes me that that is what it is there for.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Morocco as Mosaic

I just wanted to give everyone - who has not yet had a chance to visit - a glimpse of the astounding diversity of the Moroccan landscape. Traveling across this small country - about the size of California - reveals such striking changes in scenery over such short distances as to leave any traveler reeling. From the gently rolling meadows of the northwest to the silent majestic sand dunes at the brink of the Sahara Desert, from the rugged barren mountains of the east to the white rock and olive groves of the Atlantic coast, the Moroccan landscape is rich - and bewildering - in its scenic array.

We begin our journey where the Atlantic Ocean yields to Morocco's Western shores. We choose Mehdia on the northern coast, near Rabat, where we are rewarded with a full and broad beach, wild, pristine and inviting.

We then make our way south into the almost excessively-watered feel of the country's breadbasket, featuring spring-green pastoral hills, shown below as seen from the train (the best way to travel in Morocco, by the way, not least of the reasons being that it features the cleanest windows which allow for better picture taking!).

Changing direction towards the northeast we come upon the craggier landscape around Fez. Here, we see the ancient wall enclosing the city, surrounded by olive groves and grazing pastures for goats and sheep.

Pictured below are the ruins of the 16th century Merinid tombs overlooking Fez, with the hills beyond.

Moving south from Fez, we come upon the forests of Azrou and Ifrane, which was nicknamed the Switzerland of Morocco and is home to one of Morocco's two ski resorts.

Taking a jump to the southwest about 350 km, we come upon the stunning sight of the Ouzoud (which means olives in the local Berber language) Falls, or Cascades, dramatically plummeting 330 feet into a lush green gorge and then tumbling over smaller waterfalls into a succession of pools. Thrill-seeking swimmers can leap into the cold spring water from rocks of varying heights, ranging to the formidable. The rainbow completes the fairytale look of the falls.

From here, we change direction and head southeast - to where the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges meet - and we find Dades Gorge, a precipitous canyon named for the river that carves its way through the rock at its base.

Continuing straight on for about 200 kilometers, we reach the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert (a redundant phrase actually as the word sahara - pronounced SA-hara - means desert in Arabic). The Sahara Desert extends over most of the southeastern portion of Morocco, penetrating the country in a broad swath 1200km wide and 350km deep from the borders with Algeria and Mauritania until it is thankfully stopped in its tracks by the Atlas Mountains (making the greener photos in this blog possible). Most of Morocco's portion of the desert, as is the case with that outside of Morocco, is just disappointing rocky plateau and doesn't really feel cool and Sahara-y until you get to the dunes. Pictured here is the beginning of the dunes at Merzouga.

From here, we head directly west - for about 350 km - and we arrive in Skoura, an oasis in the rocky ruggedness of the Ouarzazate region. Framed by the Atlas mountains in the distance - pictured here with a fresh spring snow (we will be crossing these in a minute) - this spot, the jnen (meaning fields) an inexplicable miracle of life in the midst of a barren wasteland, surrounded by mud villages, epitomizes compactly the dramatic variety of the Moroccan terrain.

Continuing west past the desert city of Ourzazate, we come upon the village of Ait Benhaddou, so authentic and picturesque it has served as the setting for 16 films during the period from 1963 to the present, including, most recently, Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Prince of Persia (2010).

Finishing our tour of the southern desert regions, it is time to veer back up to the northeast, bussing it across the dreaded Tishka Pass (don't leave home without your Dramamine) - a 5-hour-long ride - some of it of white-knuckle caliber - over the High Atlas Mountains. Pictured here, a view at the top. (This is the part of the mountain shown covered with snow in the photo above depicting the oasis at Skoura.)

The mountains come alive as we descend on the other side, gradually transforming themselves into forested cliffs - reminiscent of Colorado - lush valleys and then softening into rolling hills. Pictured here is the scenery near Touama.

If you will indulge in what I believe you will consider a worthwhile detour, we will hang a left from Touama for about 125 km to behold the mystically beautiful n'Fis river valley, south of Asni, near the village of Ijjoukak, right on the border of Toubkal National Park.

Detour complete, we then return to Touama, and then continue northeast for about 100km, until we reach Ouargi, a small oasis town with idyllic fields.

It's now time to head west about an hour into Marrakech itself - the Berber capital of the south - and from there grab the next bus to the coast. We will notice over the 3 hour journey from Marrakech to the ocean that the red rocked desert turns to arid pastures which turn to olive-and-argan-tree-dotted hillsides which, in the spring of a good year, will be shimmering with rolling golden wheat. We take a quick stop on our way in the village of Talmest, 27 km inland in what is nicknamed Green Valley, for a glimpse of the Tuscany-esque landscape.

We then hasten our pace as the cooler temperatures of the nearby beach town - Essaouira - beckon. This 16th century Portugese fort city has been nicknamed the "City of Wind" (not to be mistaken for Chicago, despite it's confusingly similar nickname "The Windy City") because of the strong ocean breezes that relentlessly buffet the white-washed town and her inhabitants (who are afflicted with perpetual bad hair days). Yet the feel of the town is inexplicably relaxed. Though not exactly natural landscape in keeping with the theme of this blog posting, Essaouira somehow breathes - through the ragged cries of the seagulls and the perpetual crashing of the sea - and feels alive like the cedar forests surrounding her, so I am making an exception by including her here.

Heading back up the coast to fly home, we take one last stop at the beach at Mehdia for a spectacular sunset to bring full circle our journey through this breathtaking land.

Note: Despite the comprehensive goal of this blog entry, it only features places I have actually visited - and photographed - in Morocco. There is a broad swath of the country I have yet to discover, as revealed by the map linked below, which marks the points referred to in this blog.

Click here: Photos Mapped

Thursday, August 2, 2012

(Safe) Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Sexual Health Education at the Gnaoua World Music Festival

Every year in June, the city of Essaouira, an old Portugese fort city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, hosts the Gnaoua World Music Festival. During the festival, which primarily brings Gnaoua musicians from all over North Africa but also welcomes musicians from diverse musical traditions from all over the world, the town triples in size, from about 90,000 to about 300,000.

For the past four years, the Peace Corps has been collaborating with ALCS, the Moroccan HIV prevention and advocacy organization, to provide sexual health education outreach – a neglected and dire need in Morocco – and HIV testing to festival goers, primarily young sexually active Moroccan males.

This year, I had the privilege of being a co-organizer of this project. I wrote the grant application and with two other volunteers spent four months planning. Working closely with ALCS, we planned the budget, selected the Moroccan peer educators and the PCVs, developed training programs and organized the trainings, and ordered materials.

But the real work came during the festival itself. Developing and implementing a work schedule for 20 volunteers to do three jobs covering two shifts over four days, monitoring the supply of brochures and condoms for restocking, making trips to the cyber to make additional copies, overseeing record keeping, and conducting outreach ourselves, was exhausting but fulfilling work.

Working 9-10 hour days, the ALCS staff, extraordinary Moroccan student volunteers and PCVs accomplished amazing feats! We conducted outreach on sexual health and disease prevention to 2200 festival goers – in four languages, sometimes simultaneously – tested 1408 people, and found 4 positive for HIV. Although receiving such news undoubtedly constituted a monumental blow to those four, they were from that moment embraced into the support and care of the capable ALCS network.

After four months of preparation, leading up to a hectic and intense four days, the project was a success!

Like the Gnaoua musicians – an ancient pre-Islamic North African tribe whose musical tradition has been influenced by many cultures throughout Africa – we were a diverse group working among the greater diversity of the festival goers to overcome barriers and promote well-being. As we offered our message, with the pulse of the music surging in the background, I hope that it was received, not as a damper on the irrepressible impulse to enjoy life that flowed through every vein, but instead as a reaffirmation of it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Is it Bad Luck to Kill Grasshoppers?

After traveling around the country with a visiting friend, I returned a few days ago to my village in Morocco to find that in the mere span of a week, the cool spring days we had been having before I left had disappeared. The temperatures had gone from temperate all the way to the almost intolerable heat we didn’t have last year until later in the season. With the early onset of summer, my roommate told me, had also come the dreaded onslaught of flying critters invading our rooftop terrace apartment. Last year we had these horrid flying-cockroach-like things. This year, apparently, we were getting grasshoppers.

“Is it bad luck to kill grasshoppers?” he asked. “Because I think I killed about three.”

I didn’t know, so I looked it up. All I found was a survey of the symbolic significance of grasshoppers in various societies throughout history. In China, they are a symbol of good cheer, good luck, abundance and virtue. In Ancient Greece, they signified nobility. In many other societies, they represented honor and respect. In answer to someone’s question about whether to kill a grasshopper, one respondent advised that a grasshopper is more like a messenger. They are merely telling you there is something in your life where you need to leap forward. He said, “Trust your inner voice. What works for you probably won’t always be what works for everyone else.”

So it’s more like a spiritual thing, I thought absently, unconsciously reassured, and moved on with the rest of my day. As it came time to go to bed, and it still being 84 degrees in my room, I stripped down to the bare minimum, opened the window and lay down on my bed uncovered.

Unaware that the motif from earlier in the day was to become recurring, and thinking that staying cool was the biggest challenge that lay ahead, I was startled when I heard something flop into my room. I leaped out of bed, turned on the light, and found a little brown grasshopper-like critter clinging to the side of my nightstand, dazed but determined. For myself, my heart was racing but I was just as determined. Confident I would be the victor, I was nevertheless unsure how this would come about. I made several ineffectual attempts that only succeeded in knocking him further away from me, between the nightstand and the wall. But fortunately, of his own accord, he reemerged and made himself available for capture. As he was standing on the wall, as only insects can do, my brain kicked in and overcame my reactive instincts, and I used my change dish and a piece of paper to restore him to his rightful outdoor home.

Satisfied from my relatively easy victory, though still a bit shaken, I then shut my window, wedging it in with just a crack to bring in some air. But just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard another flop. The intrepidness of my opponent was becoming apparent, as was the thinness of my defenses. The dance began again. I realized I wouldn’t be able to have the window open at all, so I sealed it off completely before lying down again presumably for the last time.

As I was lying there sweltering, though almost asleep, I heard to my horror, for the third time, that dreaded flop. We had left our terrace door open, and the little bastard had come in from under my bedroom door. So, after sending him on his way using my time-worn method, I sealed off the space under my door and settled in, finally confident, to a peaceful night’s sleep in my own sweat.

But as I lay there, my mind began working in a new direction, disturbing my well-earned peace yet again. Man, why are there so many of them? I thought. Three in the course of a half an hour… And so high off the ground? (We’re on the third floor.) Doesn’t their name GRASShoppers kind of indicate a limited vertical range? And then it occurred to me: These aren’t grasshoppers, Larissa. This is North Africa. We are very close to where the Bible happened, and we all know what happened in the Bible. PLAGUES OF LOCUSTS. These are locusts, and this is a plague.

Oh man, it’s going to be a long summer.

So even though they are only 8 dirhams per square meter, or approximately a dollar, nothing has yet inspired me to buy screens for my windows. Until now. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just makin' it happen!

It's starting to feel like the days fall into weeks and weekends now, rather than just in a continuous flow of days, one never the same as the next. With my regular teaching schedule, every night of the week except Tuesday, my week is taking shape. Working nights frees up my days for other work, such as working on project proposals and strategies, attending meetings, reading and planning lesson plans, and studying language. It is good to feel productive.

One of the advantages of working hard for five days in a row is that sometimes I really want to treat myself on my two days off. So this past weekend, feeling like I haven't seen the ocean nearly enough (even though I live only a mere 17 miles away), I decided, with my two nearby volunteer friends, to take a picnic lunch and bike to the beach. It was a lovely ride through idyllic countryside, and then an exhilarating down-hill coast to the expansive sandy delta spreading out below with the ocean beyond. We had the beach, both the serene bay and the thunderous surf, to ourselves. We walked along the beach and took pictures, befriended a dog who politely requested a share of our lunch, and just lay on the beach and took naps in the sun.

There is nothing like the night's sleep after the workout of a 20km bike ride! And I was in a perfect position to enjoy my regular weekend tradition that has started to evolve. I've started going to the hammam on Sunday with a family I'm close to. I go over to their house for couscous around lunch, and then we all head over to the hammam around 4:30, where they teach me all the different rituals, and help scrub my back. :-) We sit in the hot steam, scrubbing and lathering ourselves, repeatedly, and basking in hot water. Then we head back to their house, sink into the couch and watch TV as we eat cookies and drink tea, completely and utterly relaxed from our spa day.

So after a perfectly reinvigorating weekend, I'm ready for another productive week!