Saturday, June 27, 2009

Shut it down.

Well, the internet has apparently melted, and with it any access I
have to this website (I'm posting via email). Google in Morocco is
slow and unreliable at the best of times, and the other six days of
the week is slow to the point of uselessness.

So I've moved shop! I'll be posting here from now on:

If you head over now you can read all about my adventure on Toubkal,
with pictures!

I think its pretty cool so far, and I'm hoping to add some other fun
stuff in the future, like audio or even video.

Stay tuned, true believers...

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Find You Strange and Off-Putting

It's strange to see yourself through the eyes of a non-PCV. Like
peering through a disconcertingly clear looking-glass, you begin to
see not only how much you've changed, but just how simple and
downright embarrassing many of your pleasures in life are. Also, you
should probably shower more.

During our week in Rabat another PCV, Phil, had two friends visiting
from the States who tagged along on many of our group outings. He
ended up apologizing to them on more than one occasion. "I'm sure the
last thing you guys wanted was come to Morocco to eat pizza," he said,
sheepishly. They were good sports and game for just about everything,
from pizza at Fast Pizza (second best pizza in Morocco!) to pizza at
the Goethe Institute (best pizza in Morocco!), to endless stops for
juice and ice cream and long meandering walks through the medina in
search of knitting supplies and guitar strings. The joy on our faces
as we sampled each and every flavor of frogurt was, evidently, highly

When we stopped en masse for makouda sandwiches from a vendor tucked
away in the medina they sat back, asking diplomatic questions skirting
the issue of food safety. A year ago I likely would have shunned it
as well for fear of food poisoning – now it took all my willpower not
to go for seconds.

Most of the time, though, they eagerly asked us question after
question about Morocco – the culture, the people, the languages – they
were restless to put Rabat into some sort of context. We happily
obliged, realizing just how savvy we were about everything from cabs
and dress codes to pop-culture and slang. At once it occurred to us
that women in veils, the call to prayer, haggling for a pair of socks,
bread baked into flat circles, too much sugar, and utterly wee cups of
coffee have become not only normal but downright mundane.

Sometimes I forget that I live here.

Also normal: texting five people at once to ask for the Arabic word
for 'ministry' when my cab driver speaks no Tashlheelt and my French
sounds like I'm Charlie Brown's teacher and the fare is growing by the
minute and the cabby is like, "Seriously, why do you not even know how
to do this?"

It's 'wazirat'.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bill Paxton is Rarely the Answer

Psyching yourself up to climb a mountain by watching Vertical Limit may not be the most sound strategy, particularly if said strategy leads you to ignore a possible case of low-grade altitude sickness because hey, its not like its pulmonary edema or anything.

Occasionally I lack good judgment.

Full Toubkal report coming soon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Relativity: A Silly Concept Surely to Be Disproven!

While traveling through Agadir last week I got a call from another PCV. She was downtown, about to eat dinner with a representative from an American NGO she hoped to work with, and invited me to come along. Curious (and hungry), I obliged and met up with them shortly

The rep was from an organization that donates medical supplies to needy and under-funded clinics. They'd spent the past few days visiting sites in and around my friend's area to assess the needs of health centers she'd identified as potential beneficiaries. Now they were traveling north to a larger meeting with ministry officials to report on their observations and recommendations.

I listened to their tales of desperate nurses and frustrated doctors, travel mishaps, and even one truly weird/hilarious story from the rep about medical practices in Uzbekistan.

When we made it back to the hotel I asked my friend how she'd thought it had gone so far. She paused, searching for the right words. "I guess," she sighed, "That I just hadn't considered the relative situation." Compared to conditions in many of the countries the rep had visited, the clinics they'd visited were almost posh. "There are places that still need a lot of help," she went on, "but I guess I just hadn't considered the larger picture."

Had he been unimpressed with the needs expressed or the conditions they'd seen? Not necessarily, she said, "But it affects him a lot less."

This is one of the more sticky aspects of international development and aid work. When funds and supplies are divvied up, there's no real formula (well, I'm sure someone has a formula, but that's really not the point because quantitative is Not The Point) for how they are distributed, but the natural inclination is to give more to those with less. This is good and proper. But what about those who have a little?

Having no supplies or infrastructure is bad, but in many ways a little can be worse. To paraphrase Lyle Lanley, it's like a mule with a spinning wheel – nobody knows how he got it and dang if he knows how to use it. And if, like many in Morocco, they have a little already, they are overlooked by many agencies that would otherwise be ready to offer support. And then the monorail crashes.

This will likely lead into another, larger discussion of Peace Corps proposed expansions plans (hi-O!), but for now lets keep it simple.

Monitoring and evaluation of development can be the single most important aspect – beyond needs assessments and community outreach, implementation, and planning – of any project. If no one is there to make sure things run smoothly, chances are they won't (you can apply
this to anything, obviously, not just development – chocolate chip cookies won't bake themselves). But neglecting situations because the relative need is insufficient is, I think, deeply stupid.

Just because you punched me in the face doesn't mean I'm allowed to punch you, it doesn't equal things out. It just means we both punched someone in the face, which is wrong. And if a clinic needs beds, even though it has a blood pressure monitor, it still needs beds.

So far this has been the major problem I've seen in Morocco - there is just enough that need does not come out sirens blaring, arms all akimbo, but there isn't nearly enough to be effective. Be it medical supplies, project funding, or technical know-how, it's just not quite there. How to fix it is, like most things, beyond my area of expertise, but it does pose some unique dilemmas when the question of aid is raised.

We parted ways the next morning. I wished them luck and happy travels, then got in a taxi headed for home, where we have running water…that's improperly treated.

I also enjoy pastry.

"Somebody told me about a juice place down the way," he said, holding the door as we stepped out onto the street. "Want to check it out?" He knew better than to wait for a reply and lead the way down Rabat's main boulevard. A few blocks later we found ourselves gaping at the menu hanging from the wall, six feet high and four across, speechless. Good juice place.

Juice bars are ubiquitous in larger towns and cities, but most of them serve the same basic menu – seasonal fruits, nuts, and the ever trendy avacado juice (which tastes like vanilla pudding, weirdly). There was a small place near our training center in Ouarzazate that became ou de-facto hangout. We practiced our pronunciation on the bemused waitstaff, who always seemed confused by the combinations we dared try, as we settled into Moroccan culture. We've been on a collective hunt for good juice ever since. This place, though, left us in awe. There was carob and plum and raspberry and banana/coffee and starfruit and mango. There was even walnut. Rabat, again, was proving itself awesome.

I glanced down at the deli counter where one of the chefs was working on a couple sandwiches when I caught sight of them. Blueberries. Honest to god blueberries.

I gracefully tripped over a chair and flagged down the head waiter. "How much are those?" I asked, pointing to the packs a little too eagerly. He gave me a concerned look and consorted with the head chef. "For juice, 20 dirham". He wasn't going to let me walk out of there with a box, I
could tell, but I happily settled for a strawberry/raspberry/blueberry juice and took a seat. It was magical.

I sat, savoring every bit, watching Rabat go by. Half an hour later I finally went back in to pay. Which is when I noticed a picture on the wall. Of a juice. With cranberries.

"How much is that one? Do you really make this?" I again needed to, perhaps, take a breath.

"Of course," he answered, pointing to a high shelf above the blenders. There were three huge bags of Craisins. He smiled at me. "They're from America."

I got juice seven times in four days. I have very little in the way of shame.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hey, You Kids!

The Peace Corps lawn in Rabat. I picniced. I sat. I napped.

"Thank you for getting my Mall Rats joke."

I sat in the food court watching teenagers giggle at boys, moms buy their toddlers happy meals, and one guy pick his nose while munching on a burger. I'd just finished a plate of nachos and beside me Jon was working on the last remnants of his hot dog. Across the table Alex took a deep, happy breath. "So," he said, smiling, "are we ready for bowling?"

Rabat is many things. It's easy to navigate, largely hassle-free, and with so many foreign officials and ex-pats running around there is almost zero harassment. There are spots everyone knows and loves and shares, and secret places people call their own. It's a place where volunteers can drop the affectations they put on in their sites and simply be for awhile, which is a more powerful thing than you can imagine. But it still looks and feels very much like Morocco; from the calls to prayer and immense minarets to the medina and kasbah by the sea, you'll never forget where you are. That is until you hit Mega Mall.

We'd only recently learned of its existence, and while we'd heard any number of stories about the wonders it held, none of us really believed what we were being promised as we entered the place. The security guard waved his metal detector over us and, with a glare, let us loose inside.

I can only describe it as a mall. Three floors, though its total footprint could have been only 100 yards long, with escalators and elevators and high-end stores left and right. It's assumed the only people coming here would be those with cash to burn. Just to the left of the entrance is a lingerie store.

We hurried down to the food court and soaked it in. There was a Domino's, sushi, Italian, Tex-Mex, gelato, and in the far corner there was real live honest to goodness ice rink. I rushed over but was quickly turned away by security. If I had no ticket, I could not enter. I explained how I just wanted to peek, but they held their ground. A small child carrying a hockey bag walked past - he played for the Rabat Capitals, he explained, and had practice soon. Aieee!

I pleaded with the guard one last time, begging for the chance to smell the ice and Zamboni exhaust and coolant that means, well, home. They still said no, and I slunk off.

Everything felt tempting, but I finally settled on a plate of nachos and, after putting down the same amount of money I usually spend on a week's worth of food, dug in. It was glorious.

We made our way to the bowling alley, and again were turned away. It was league bowling time, and the lanes wouldn't be free for two hours. Could we just go in and peek? No. We turned back towards the food court and puzzled over which gelato to try. Then we sat down and people watched. We were in Morocco, yes, but this was the first time I'd ever truly felt I could be somewhere else. The teenagers and couples and families around us were dressed in largely western style, toted shopping bags and baby strollers and take-out dinners, and made us feel utterly, completely relaxed.

There's an episode of This American Life that opens in a food court with a bunch of teenagers sitting beside a Sbarro's, and when I first heard it I was hit with one of my few true moments of homesickness. I don't much like malls or food courts or Sbarros or even teenagers. I didn't want to be there. It was simply the reminder of this wholly common, ordinary, American place that hit me in an unexpected way.

My life is so detached from anything even remotely 'normal' in the States that any reminder of the truly mundane hits in a strange, piercing way; the notion that such a thing exists at all is jarring. The Peace Corps office has a huge grass lawn to picnic, lay, or simply frolic on. It reminds you of America in a very deep, weird, almost subconscious way. And its feels wonderful.

But what was even more odd (to us) was that of the many influences American culture has had on Morocco, this is one of the things that got transported. And not just the concept; there's a mall, fully replicated, in Morocco, seemingly picked up and shipped wholesale to Rabat. As Jon said, taking a last look around before we left, "You guys, we did this."

"Well, obviously not very well," replied Jeremy as we made our way back out, "There's not even a Starbucks".