Monthly Archives: February 2013

Feb. 24, 2013

I seem to have ventured into the realm of amazing cultural experiences lately. Not that every day isn’t a cultural experience, but some days are just more awesome.

Today I went to the hammam for the first time.

A hammam is a bath, but when people refer to it here, they usually mean the public bath. There are two here in town that I know of. You can also refer to the bathtub inside your house as a hammam, but it’s way less fun.

Going to the hammam is more than a chance to get clean. A hammam trip is typically a multi-hour, gloriously warm, steamy social extravaganza. It lets ladies, who have traditionally had far fewer public social opportunities than men here, get out of the house and chat with their friends and neighbors for a few hours.

From what I understand, most hammams are set up in somewhat the same layout, so I’ll tell you about the one I went to.

My host family’s house is almost directly across from one of the mosques in town, and across the street from the mosque is the hammam. The hammam has a women’s side and a men’s side and more than enough hot water for everyone.

To successfully complete your hammam experience, you need the following:

  • a short stool or mat to sit on
  • several buckets, depending on the number of people you are with
  • smaller plastic scoops, to better get the water from your big bucket onto you
  • hammam soap: slimy, brown, don’t leave home without it
  • a kees, a rough mitt I can only accurately compare to fine-grain sandpaper
  • shampoo, conditioner, regular soap
  • a towel
  • shower shoes of some type

To get into the hammam, you have to pay 10 dirham. Once you’ve paid your fee, you go into the cold room, which will still feel hot if you’ve just come in from a cold and windy day like today. Find an empty hook to hang your stuff on and get undressed. Usually ladies here wear a pair of underwear while in the hammam, but nothing else. Take everything you need for washing into the hammam with you, but leave anything you want to keep dry with your bag and coat.

From the cold room, you go into the main part of the hammam, which is divided into three rooms that range from warm to sauna-esque, all lined floor to ceiling in tile. The warm room has a cold water source and the hottest room has a hot water source. We sat in the middle room, which seemed the most comfortable to me. You fill up your buckets with hot and cold water and mix them together as you want to achieve the temperature you want.

Sit yourself down on your stool and dump some water over you. Grab some brown hammam soap and wash yourself all over with that. Once you’ve done that, put the kees on your hand and get to work scrubbing. Basically your entire self gets exfoliated at the hammam and the amount of dead skin that comes off is pretty astounding. Usually whoever you are with will scrub your back for you, and mine got done twice, once by a lady sitting next to me and once by my host mom. After you’re properly scrubbed, you can take some more soap to wash whatever parts of you might need a bit more attention, rinse again and take care of your hair.

I just used my regular shampoo and conditioner, and most of the ladies seemed to have whatever brand works best for them. They also have a small rubber (?) brush to run through their hair. I just used my fingers and then my regular brush once I got back to my bag.

You can move between rooms as you want, whether you need more water or want to sweat for a while in the hottest room.

Once you’re good and clean or have run out of conversational topics with whoever you are talking to, you collect your things and go back to your bag, dry off and head back home. The other ladies absolutely will not let you outside with wet hair unless you cover it up, so remember to bring a scarf, which I definitely forgot to do and was given one to wear by my host mom.

Going to the hammam was something I had been looking forward to ever since I got to my host family. Scheduling conflicts had thus far kept me from going. Once I heard today that we were going to go, I got a bit nervous, as I suppose anyone with the very American background of bathing in private might do, but I enjoyed the whole experience. After several weeks of tepid bucket baths, being warm and clean at the same time was amazing. Going to the hammam was another chance to really experience Moroccan culture and I look forward to going again.

Categories: Morocco, Training | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Feb. 23, 2013

I haven’t been to a Moroccan wedding yet, but I have now been to a Moroccan birthday party.

Birthday extravaganza. Host sister is in the purple with the long hair.

Birthday extravaganza. Host sister is in the one with the little girl in pink on her lap.

Yesterday was my host sister’s birthday; she turned 22 years old. In addition to her birthday, a few days ago was the birthday of my host dad’s brother’s grandson, who turned 9. The result was a house full of people and a ridiculous amount of cake and candy – in general a good time had by all.

My host dad’s brother, my host uncle, lives in a nearby town, I think, but has been staying with us at the house for about a week now. A few days ago, his son and daughter-in-law and their three kids arrived, including the birthday boy. That family lives in Spain, but came to visit because the oldest grandson and my host sister’s birthdays are so close together.

Yesterday the full party included my family, the grandkid family, my host mom’s niece’s family (who is also hosting a pair of volunteers) and a range of family friends/other relatives were all at the house.

The party began yesterday with kaskrout, or the 6 p.m. tea-time that Moroccans observe, which included bread, jam, tea, coffee, cake and cookies. Dinner came several hours later, at around 10 p.m., and was chicken cooked in a super delicious sauce that I have now decided I must learn to make sometime before leaving training. Dessert for dinner was bananas and oranges.

Then an hour or so later, the party food came out.

Firework candles.

Firework candles.

We had four types of cake – two from a bakery and two homemade. The first bakery cake was with thin layers of vanilla cake with a cream-type frosting topped with some sort of caramel-colored icing. The second bakery cake was more of a custardy tart topped with fruit. The first homemade cake was topped with walnuts and the second, apples.

Cake extravaganza.

Cake extravaganza.

In addition to the cake, we also had three plates of cookies, a dish of chocolates, a dish of hard candies, a dish of some weird sugar-coated candy and another “cake” made out of different types of gummy candy and marshmallows.

Basically the cakes get cut and everyone gets a little bit of everything, which results in a huge plate of dessert foods.

For drinks there were all kinds of soda and juice.

The kids were all given party hats and noise maker and the cakes were topped with these intense candles that were kind of like fireworks.

I noticed the grandson got presents, but my host sister didn’t seem to get any presents, so I’m not sure if Moroccans in general stop giving birthday presents after kids get older or if that’s just my family. I did get her a scarf I bought at the market, so I did my part to spread American birthday traditions.

After everyone had been fully caked, the party developed into a drum circle, with people pounding on tables and clapping and singing together. There was also a healthy round of jokes, which I didn’t understand in the slightest, mostly because my Darija isn’t remotely close to the point of understanding jokes and also my communicative abilities in any language are severely reduced at any time after 10 p.m.

All-in-all, Moroccan birthdays seem fairly similar to American birthdays. Mostly it’s people celebrating together and enjoying their families and friends in both places.


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Feb. 18, 2013

While much of my experience here in Morocco thus far has centered around learning Darija and eating (a lot), once I get to my final site, my official job with Peace Corps will be doing youth development activities at the youth center or Dar Chebab in whatever town/city I get placed in. This past week, my training community group had a visit from a currently serving volunteer who got us started actually planning and carrying out activities in our training site.

Youth Development seems a bit hard to define, harder at least than just teaching English or doing health work or other things Peace Corps Volunteers find themselves doing all over the world. Basically it can be anything that helps young people be more ready for family life or the working world, with our training focusing on teaching English, organizing clubs and organizing camps. On the whole, working at summer camp for all those years in the United States (Yay Presbytery Point!) was great preparation for the work I will be doing here.

Our PCV stayed with us for almost an entire week, with our usual language classes giving way to discussions about doing needs assessments and how to organize our activities.

During the week, we were responsible for teaching an English class, running a club activity and running a camp activity – three required items for us to pass training and qualify for service. Basically Peace Corps wants to make sure we can do the things we’ve been brought here to do.

The first day, our PCV ran a sample English lesson for us to watch, just to get more comfortable with understanding how a class is run and the types of activities you can do in it.

A big part of this week of training was learning to do Participatory Analysis for Community Action activities, which are ways for development workers to begin identifying needs and issues within their community. For ours we had a group of youth draw maps of their communities to see what sorts of places are important to them and where they go regularly, with one of the big focuses being on finding out what girls in our community do and where they go. Two other tools included having the youth write out their daily schedules for us and their yearly schedules, which helps with knowing when are good times to schedule activities.

The PACA activities are all things we will carry out in our final sites as well.

In addition to doing the community maps and schedules, we also taught a couple English classes, did a couple art activities and taught Ultimate Frisbee, which was a big hit with the kids.

Now we have time included in our schedules every day to plan and carry out activities to make sure we get a lot of practice before going to our final sites. It feels really good to be able to start doing what it is we are here to do and it’s a lot of fun to start getting to know the young people who are in town. It’s a big age range and a big range of English-speaking abilities, but we are doing our best.

This coming week we have a couple big training days with the rest of our larger training group, so we will get the chance to see the rest of the trainees and catch up on what they have been up to.

I hope that everyone is doing well back at home. I know it was just sled dog weekend in Marquette, and this was the first time in four years I wasn’t spending the weekend outside with my reporter’s notebook trying to keep my pens from freezing. Oddly enough, I wear my long underwear way more often here than I ever did in Marquette, hehe.

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Feb. 12, 2013

Despite the run of gloriously sunny, yet slightly chilly, weather we’ve had for the past week or so, winter has returned to us. The Moroccan word for “winter” is the same as the word for rain, so literally winter is the “season of rain.” Here in the mountains, the rain comes combined with cold, biting winds and consistently chilly temperatures so that you get wet and cold any time you walk outside, but things take forever to dry so it’s wet and cold the entire day.

Enough of that, however. To take my mind off the ominous clouds outside, let’s talk about something way more fun: food.

Here in Morocco, food has become an integral part of my day. At around 8:00 a.m. every day I go downstairs for breakfast with my host mom. I’m the first one to leave the house in the morning, so I usually eat by myself while she sits and works on making buttons for coats people wear here called jillabas. Breakfast is a wedge of “Laughing Cow”-type cheese with several chunks of baguette, jam, and coffee with hot milk.

Lunch I have on class days with the rest of my language group. The six of us go to our language instructor’s house where an awesome local lady serves us what she has prepared for the day – beans, chicken, lentils, sometimes beef. Usually some sort of vegetable comes with it and a big pile of fruit for dessert, depending on what we bought at the market. Other training groups go home to eat with their host families, it just depends on your community.

The third meal of the day is most closely related to what I call “tea time” in the United States. Kaskrut (breaking of bread) is a meal Moroccans typically eat anywhere between 5-7 p.m. and includes tea, bread, jam and usually a variety of pastries or olives or other small foods.

Dinner doesn’t come until 10 p.m., and depending on the size of your kaskrut or if it’s a holiday, can be anything from a bowl of soup to a full dinner like chicken or beef.

Moroccan meals are eaten in groups, with one platter or dish of food in the center of the table and all the diners arranged around the table eating from the same dish with pieces of bread to grab the food with. We usually use forks for pasta and spoons for soup, but normally people eat with their hands – the right hand as the left is reserved for the bathroom. Also, water glasses are shared, one or two for everyone around the table.

Bread is an integral part of any meal. Besides large round flat loaves, there are a range of different breads: mlawi – a flakey flat bread fried in oil; harsha – another flat loaf made of a rough flour also fried in oil; sfunge – a circular fried bread that looks like a doughnut but isn’t frosted; a type of round bun with sesame seeds on the top that I forget the name of. Baguettes are also widely available.

Usually the different types of bread show up at kaskrut and meals are eaten with just normal bread.

Couscous, which might be one of the more famous Moroccan dishes, is eaten for lunch on Fridays. It is served as a base, covered with meat and a pile of cooked vegetables – zucchini, squash, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and chickpeas. Friday is couscous day because Friday is the big day for going to the Mosque and the couscous can be made ahead of time and eaten when the family gets home.

Dessert after lunch or dinner is usually fruit or yogurt.

Safe to say I am eating very well.

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Feb. 3, 2013

Today, I accomplished the one thing (besides communicating flawlessly in Darija) I have wanted to do since arriving in my community. I climbed up the mountain.

A view from the top.

A view from the top.

My town is built kind of at the feet of, kind of up the side of a ridge that I like to think of as a mountain but is really more like a tall hill. It looks like a mountain compared to what we have in Marquette. All of us (Americans) saw it and instantly said, we need to climb this.

Our mountain.

Our mountain.

So today, our language teacher kindly rounded up a group of boys from the Dar Chebab (the youth center where we work) to take us. Our guides usually climb up the mountain in the summer for picnics and things like that, but we wont be here in the summer so we have to take advantage of every opportunity.

To get there, we trekked a few minutes out of town across a bunch of farm fields toward the hill. The day was brilliantly sunny and many of the farmers were out working. I’m not sure what the main crop is here, but things were already sprouted.

Under the olive trees.

Under the olive trees.

The bottom portion of our mountain is covered in olive trees, which we also had to walk through. No switchbacks for these kids – they lead us straight up and we were all out of breath and sweating after a few minutes. In addition to the olive trees, there were also several patches of low white flowers we passed and a blooming almond tree.

After the trees, the vegetation gives way to spiny pricker bushes and other things that aren’t all that nice to run into or grab a hold of. Threading our way through those and doing a bit of strategic rock climbing, we made it to the top in about an hour, including the trip through the farmland.

Here I am at the top!

Here I am at the top!

From the summit you can see the entire area is ringed with mountains, including several areas with snow-capped peaks. The kids also showed us an edible root at the top, so in case we get stranded somewhere, we can forage for food. Just kidding. You need a shovel to dig that stuff up.

I was expecting the opposite side of the ridge to be just as steep going down as our side is, but the top of the ridge extends into a plateau, with another single hill on top of it. I’m going to mentally refer to it as “Weathertop” because it looks just like the location from Lord of the Rings. The boys wanted to take us to that as well, but we had to get back for lunch with our host families. It was one of the other trainee’s birthdays, so there was lots of cake involved.

After taking in the view, we walked along the top of the ridge and then began our descent, past a couple shepherds, some lonely mountain houses and lots of olive trees.

Outside of mountain climbing, training is still going very very well. In our language classes, we have learned days of the week, months of the year and have finally begun to learn to conjugate verbs, which means we can finally make sentences, huzzah!

We have also completed our first activity at the Dar Chebab – an afternoon of American games held on Saturday. During our planning process, we imagined ourselves with a group of early teens outside in the sporting complex next to the youth center. Instead, it was raining and the majority of our participants were late teenage guys (several of them guided us up the mountain today). So we improvised and switched out some of the games, but still played Red Light Green Light, which they seemed to enjoy. They also taught us their version of musical chairs, where the leader has a song to sing and everyone sits down when he says a certain word three times. Overall I think it was a success and they have been asking us if we are coming back next weekend.


Categories: Morocco, Training | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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