Sunday, February 19, 2012

Morocco: The Cold Country With The Hot Sun

I just realized that my last email was sent just before Ramadan began last year (about 6 months ago).  You may have been concerned.  Most of you know that the heat and I are mortal enemies.  Add in no food or drink from about 4am until 7pm in 120F heat, and you've got a recipe for disaster.  So, I'm writing this email to allay your fears: I survived Ramadan!  I attempted to fast for the first two days, and I thought I was going to die (no exaggeration).  But seriously, its not so much the lack of food, but the lack of water in the dry heat. 

Scorpions thrive in the heat.  This one decided to come to English class one day.
I'll be the first to admit that if I ever get stranded in the desert Ali Baba style, I wouldn't make it one day.  In the sweltering heat, I frequently ask myself why my studies have repeatedly brought me to the Middle East/North Africa region.  My biology (read: my porcelain skin and heat intolerance) is much more suited for Siberia.

Speaking of Siberia, that is what my house feels like right now. Morocco is know as "the cold country with the hot sun." I really didn't understand what this meant until I spent a winter here.  During the daytime, the temperature reaches high 70s/low 80s.  No coat necessary.  However, the second the sun begins to set, an arctic chill sets in.  I'm talking two to three pairs of long johns, wool socks, hat and gloves, nuzzled inside a 0-degree sleeping bag under three wool blankets.  Don't even think about poking your head out for circulation; breathing is overrated in the wintertime.  And that's inside the house! Due to the lack of insulation, homes here are like refrigerators in the winter - it's actually colder inside.  We've been having a bit of a cold spell these past few weeks, and the crops have been freezing over night.  I checked the weather at 8am this past week and it was 37F. There was no way I was getting out of bed.  I will never again complain that the thermostat is set too low in the winter!

I'll quickly update you on these past few months:

August: Ramadan (aka, trying to not fall into a coma all day in the stifling heat and then breaking the fast by consuming copious amounts of dates, cakes, soup, milk and water)

September-October: School theoretically started the first week of September, but because Aid el-Fitr (the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan) fell on the first day of September, about 90% of the families in my community decided to extend their celebrations. No biggie, I mean, c'mon, school isn't that important, right?  Basically, students didn't start showing up for school until the end of September, and their mothers and sisters (the ladies I work with at the Women's Association) decided to extend their vacations as well.  Hence, September was a gloriously lazy month of planning future activities, as my youth and women were off enjoying their holiday.

October-November: I got pretty sick in October and ended up going home for the month of November to recuperate.  No worries, America has amazing healing properties (I think it has something to do with the matzoh ball soup, bacon, and, did I mention, bacon?...just a theory).

December-January: I returned to Morocco at the beginning of December and three weeks later, Mom and Pops came for a visit.  We had a BLAST.  I took them to my site for the "authentic" part of the tour.

The wonderful feast prepared for my family by my host mom, Fatima.

This was followed by a thankfully touristy stint in Essaouira, Marrakesh, Fes and Rabat.  One of my very good friends traveled with us, and upon dropping off my parents in Rabat for their flight home, we continued our tour of Morocco northwards to Tangier and Chefchouen (the famous blue and white-washed mountain village).

Chefchouen, a beautiful village built into the mountainside.

The winding, blue and white-washed alleys of Chefchouen.
I want to live here!

Fun fact: Did you know that Tangerines got their name when Morocco started exporting those small, clementine-y oranges from Tangier to Spain?  Also, the only National Historic Landmark outside of the US is in Tangier: the American Legation Museum.  We were led on a wonderfully informative tour by its current curator.  Besides this, though, Tangier was kind of a bust.  I was so excited to visit Tangier, intrigued by its history during the French Occupation.  Wait, let me be a little more specific: its history of spies and espionage.  The OSS (Office of Special Services), the precursor to the CIA, had its first mission in Tangier.  Apparently, just in case the Nazis ever made it to Tangier, we developed an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that was to be hidden in donkey droppings on the train tracks, so that we could stop the Nazis by blowing up their trains. 

The view of the Bay of Tangier from our hotel window, the famous Hotel el-Minzah.  In its heyday, it was frequented by Hollywood stars, princes, presidents, and prime ministers (notably, Sir Winston Churchill).  Rick's Cafe in Casablanca is modeled after this hotel. 
After this history lesson, I couldn't wait to hunt down Cafe de Paris. This cafe was notoriously frequented by spies  during WWII.  I was beyond ecstatic when I found it, only to have my hopes dashed when, upon entering, it was JUST like every other cafe found in Morocco, full of men, chain-smoking.  Suffice it to say, we opened the door, looked around, and quickly exited.  It was between the mid 1940s and early 1950s that Tangier gained much of its mystique; freedom reigned during this period.  However, Morocco gained its independence in 1956, and it seems that since then, its just another conservative Moroccan town. oh well...

Back to reality.  Since being back in site, I've been quite busy.  I lead aerobics and walking/jogging club four times a week with the Women's Literacy class and women from my local neighborhood.  I teach copious amounts of English at the Youth Center and Women's Association, and I craft (ya, its a verb for me) with the kiddies on Saturday afternoons.  Yesterday, I held an English competition for my middle-school girls, and they made me so proud.  "Competition" may just be another word for "test with prizes," but, hey, I'm not above bribery.  We gave out medals and English-Arabic dictionaries to the winners.  It was a success!

The winners of the English Competition!
Otherwise, I've just been enjoying my time here in Morocco.  Here's a fun little doozy that happened the other day when my very good friend was bartering for a rug.  She had settled on an appropriate price, but the vendor was pushing an additional, smaller rug for an extra 400 dirhams.  She wanted it, but honestly didn't have the money; she took out exact change from the ATM that she needed for the larger rug. The vendor asked if we had anything from America that he would like. I offered him a few things from my bag: an old Vogue and a hotel pen. The vendor could not have been more ecstatic.  We shook on it, and the deal was done.  Best. Price. Ever.