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On Saturday, Feb 20th, I dropped Abel off at his friend Mathis’ house (pron like French painter—Matisse).  It was the start of their two-week Winter Break, and Mathis’ family had invited Abel to go on a trip to the desert with them. They were going to ride camels, camp with nomads, and have an opportunity to buy souvenirs. Here is his account of the trip:

Sunday: we went traveling through the mountains. There was snow! We stopped by the side of the road and played in it, even though I didn’t have snow gear. No one really had snow gear. I was wearing long sleeves though, so I didn’t even put my jacket on.

We had a snowball fight! It was fun, like all snowball fights.

We continued on and we reached the hotel where we stayed that first night. I forget what it was like. We ate supper and then left next morning after breakfast.

Monday: we traveled some more, through more mountains, except this time there was no snow. We went to the studios at Ouerzazate…well, one of them.

We saw a Roman boat being made for the second movie of Ben Hur, and we went on the boat and pretended to row. Then we went on deck and I pretended we were getting boarded.

We saw the ark from Indiana Jones, I think.

At one point, at the very end right before we got on the boat, we saw a mummy (a fake person wrapped up in a coffin) and we also saw how they how made dead people. It was weird.

We also saw Egyptian stuff, and we could see the castle from Cleopatra (the Asterix and Obelix movie) but we couldn’t get to it because there was so much mud, from all the rain we’ve been having here in Morocco.

Then we traveled through more mountains. Mountains, mountains, mountains. We got to this one place where we spent the night. There were a ton of little kittens that were really cute but they were scared of us.

Tuesday: in the morning we got to this one place, left our cars and unloaded our stuff and put them in 4x4s, and drove off through the desert. At lunchtime after we had a tagine (with a ton of vegetables which I was fine with), Mathis’ sister’s friend brought binoculars and she let me use them to see when the camels would come. They came, we got on them, and traveled through the desert.

My butt hurt after a while. After a time, your butt just starts to HURT. Sometimes it kind of goes up and down and moves a lot, shakes, kind of…it depends a bit on your camel.

We traveled through dunes, then rocks, then we got to some giant sand dunes where we camped out for the night. Tents were already set up there. They brought two sleds, and we went down the dunes on them. I stood up on them, like I was surfing the dunes!

At dinner, there were other people there and I met some Americans. (Finally, someone to speak English with! I didn’t talk to them much though) One was Italian or Irish or something but still spoke English, and there were 2 men, one from the place where the Pittsburgh Pirates are from…Pennsylvania I guess. We had tagine for dinner. After dinner, the nomads did some nomad music for us.

Wednesday: In the morning we got back on the camels. At first, my butt didn’t hurt, but it only took about 15 minutes for it to start hurting again! We went over more rocky dunes, and I got off the camel for a little bit to walk with the parents. Mathis got off also, because really we couldn’t stand it—our butts were hurting!

The saddle was this round thing they put around the hump and they put blankets on the hump. At the front of the saddle it had a metal bar so you could hold on. You had to hold on cuz it was bumpy. It was fun when they stood up and got down. It was like WHOA!

So then we stopped at this well to get some water for the camels. Then we went off again and stopped at the main dune in the night. It was this giant dune, and I had to drag the snowboard all the way up it! Believe me, dragging it up that far plus that high is not fun. It is tiring! I wanted to run back down to the camp, get some water, and go back up. But I didn’t.

At the top, I was so tired I let Mathis’ sister’s friend use the snowboard. They all go down sitting. I pretended to swim after her, but you get going fast cuz it’s soo steep! I stopped about 3/4s down and climbed back up again. By the time we were all back up again, no one wanted to play anymore because we were too tired, so I rode the snowboard back down again. It was really steep; it was a GIANT dune.

The parents had already left with the camels, so we caught up with them quick cuz we were in a 4×4. We passed them! We made it back to camp, and there were some souvenirs to buy and I bought stuff for everyone in my family, plus a knife for me.

We got back in our normal cars and were off.

Friday: Two days later, in the night, we got back to Rabat!

I know it’s corny to end this way, but this is…

THE END!!!

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“Michael Jackson isn’t dead,” announced Ahmed yesterday, in the middle of a discussion of the scale of “somewhat-quite-very-extremely.” “Yes he is,” I countered.

“No, teacha,” he argued. “I saw a report. They had a lot of proofs.”

With my class of teens, I don’t mind going off subject. They take English in school and my class is meant to improve their overall level of the language. I figure that even a tangent like this can do that, especially as they are quickly bored with worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises. I don’t even bother with involved grammatical lessons, which result only in them yawning, punching each other, and playing with their pens until they spin across the room, with bonus points for hitting another student.

“You can’t believe everything you see on television,” I tell him. “Do you believe everything you see on television?”

“Yes, teacha,” he responds.

I turn to the others. “Do you believe Michael Jackson is alive?” I ask them. They nod.

I write the words conspiracy theory on the board. I ask them if they know who Elvis Presley was. Some nod, some shake their heads. I explain that he died when I was a child, that everyone was very sad, and that some people were so sad they claimed he didn’t really die. “But know what? He did!” I tell them. They nod. They have no problem accepting that Elvis is dead.

We talk some more. Ahmed has a hard time putting his thoughts into English. He gives me the “proofs.” The ambulance did not take the autoroute or use its lights and siren. His sister wrote him a letter. I point out that these are hardly convincing, and yet he remains convinced.

“Why would he do that?” I argue. Ahmed tells me Michael Jackson is in hiding and is going to come out with an international movie, the like of which has never been seen before.

“His doctor is about to go to jail for manslaughter. (another word written on the board) Michael Jackson would have to be a total jerk to do something like this.” I write jerk on the board, add the word cruel which they recognize.

“Yes, teacha,” they all nod. “He is jerk. He is cruel jerk.” “But he is live,” Ahmed adds.

This is not my first time dealing with the peculiar brand of obstinacy created by Arab conspiracy theories. I am reminded of my time at the University of Nouakchott, in Mauritania. My first day as a teacher there, I hadn’t realized I would need to bring my own chalk and eraser to use on the cracked and pitted blackboard. I mentioned this to friends, who sent boxes of Crayola chalk from America as gifts for everyone in the English department.

I glanced at the familiar yellow box with the green chevron and didn’t think twice before tucking it in my bag. But when I pull it out later, my students gasp. “No!” “Don’t use it!” “We’ll all die!”

I am completely mystified. I mean, breathing in billowing clouds of dust isn’t good for the lungs, but it shouldn’t affect them this strongly. My friends who come to my house for conversation group fill me in. They gingerly take the box in their hands, show me in tiny writing on the side where it says “Made in Israel.”

“They’ve put anthrax in it and sent it here to kill us,” explain these educated university women. “They wouldn’t have sent it to you—they like you because you’re American. But they don’t know you’re here.”

I was supposed to get shudders at that point, and they all looked disappointed, and a little put out, when I burst into a hearty peal of laughter.

I’ve heard lots of other theories that make just about as much sense, and I am powerless to dispel them.  Laughing, explaining, pointing out logical things—none of these things have any effect. It’s so much more fun to be freaked. And although I have called these Arab theories, I realize that no human is exempt. There are a lot of conspiracy theories in America these days, on both sides. Whereas in the past it tended to be fringe people who believed that the investigation of JFK’s assassination was a huge cover-up, or that the UN was sending in black helicopters to take away our freedom, now I watch from a distance in dismay as my own country becomes more and more polarized and people believe more and more improbable things.

But my students yesterday are still young. “Use your heads!” I urge them. “Think about things! Don’t just believe everything you are told—consider who is telling you these things! Look for other points of view.” I write the word agenda on the board.

But they leave convinced that Michael Jackson is a cruel jerk who is not really dead, and I leave in desperate need of a cup of coffee.

…parting is not always such sweet sorrow.

Our friends have been back to visit us and are again gone, but things were a bit slower this time round. For one, it’s not the twins’ birthday. We have actually managed to get both of them feted and fed with cake (well not Ilsa, but at least she had baked apple French toast with strawberries and fake maple syrup last Saturday) and they’ve had the friends over and we’re done. At least till July, when Elliot has his birthday. I’m impressed that we managed all this within 2 weeks of their actual birthday. Believe me, this is not a normal occurrence.

Also, kids are back in school. It’s spring; the evenings stay light; the yards and gardens and roadways are green and filled with wildflowers.  Abel and I are sneezing up a storm.

In between our friends’ first visit and their second, they spent a couple of weeks in Nouakchott closing up the house where they’d lived for years. It’s the end of an era for them. They were there before we arrived in 2001, and they stayed on after we left.

Mauritanians are an unusual people. I don’t want to generalize, but there are certain tendencies that outsiders who live there notice. And so, the difficulties they faced are in many ways typical.

For example, their landlord. They had a standard contract, renewable yearly. They gave 3 months notice. He waited til their last evening, then announced they owed him a year’s rent. “It’s in the contract,” he claimed. He threatened to surround the house with policemen, effectively holding their stuff hostage. He also pointed to tile damage obviously caused by the ground resettling after unusually heavy rains, and claimed that, although they’ve been gone for 6 months, they must have dropped something heavy. “Like an elephant?” they quipped.

This is, sadly, not unusual behaviour. The thinking goes something like this: These are rich Americans. I wanted Americans for tenants, and these have lived up to expectations:  They have been good tenants, paid on time every month, paid more than a local would have paid PLUS taken good care of the place. But they’re leaving now. This is my last chance to get as much money out of them as I can!

And so he pushed and pushed and pushed, keeping them from their supper for hours, continuing on with emails after they left.

We could relate. The same thing happened to us once. Our landlady had always been nice, until we gave notice. Then she sent in her sister, a lady that would make the Harpies seem like reasonable and kind elderly ladies. The sister brought with her someone who was viewing the house, and proceeded to insult us up and down (You’ve never cleaned these toilets in the two years you’ve been living here! And, like all Americans, you’re stupid with languages! etc. It was actually much worse, but I’ll keep it family friendly.) We were shocked, angered, and embarrassed. I’ll say the potential renter was also embarrassed. We were very hurt too—after all we’re good renters, who pay on time and who clean the toilets regularly. Also, and ironically, if you’ve ever visited a house recently vacated by Mauritanians, you will know where she got the idea that some people never clean toilets.

Our friends sighed a bit as they told us the story of their landlord, the story of the final electric bill that was $500 when it should have been about $40, other stories of acquaintances trying to squeeze a last bit of money out of them. They had good stories too, but their landlord’s tricks on their last evening left them with a bitter taste in their mouths.

It’s hurtful to be viewed as just a resource, just someone to be exploited, to be judged on the colour of your skin instead of the contents of your heart, to paraphrase someone who approached the problem from the opposite end. But, I told them, in some ways it makes it easier to leave.

An incomplete list

  • Sniff glue. Or something. Dude had a twitch like you wouldn’t believe and a sketchy taxi.
  • Read books while stopped in traffic and at lights. I had to keep saying, “um…we can go now…” Then he’d put the car in gear and drive like mad till he could jerk to a stop and pick up his book again. I was really curious about the book, and what made it so gripping, but it was in Arabic so I couldn’t tell. (also I could kind of relate, since I’ve done this myself…I mean, of course I haven’t Donn! Not in years! It was before we met! No really!)
  • Hum. This can be sweet or slightly un-nerving, depending on the driver himself.
  • Drive looking back at you the whole time. Um, traffic?

It’s raining lightly and the streets for once are quiet as I leave the Berlitz office and start scanning the road for a taxi. It’s nearly five, and for some mystical reason the traffic has died. Finally I see a taxi, with a woman sitting in the back. It pulls over and the driver leans to open the window. I state the name of my neighbourhood. “Which one?” says the driver. My neighbourhood is not that well-known; although the houses are old, the designation is relatively new. So I state several landmarks. I name my road, which most taxi drivers know. Non? I state the nearby now-defunct theatre. I mention a fountain. The driver continues to look blank.

The woman in the back rolls down her window. She speaks some English. “Where do you want to go?” she says in English. I state my neighbourhood again, more loudly this time. I name the theatre again—all the taxi drivers know it. Sure enough; this time the taxi driver nods and pats the seat. I get in.

“You need to work on your French,” the woman tells me.

I grimace. Just what I need after 3 hours of lion-taming—er, teaching teens, I mean.

“I do speak French,” I tell her. “I don’t know why he didn’t understand me. I don’t usually have a problem.”

“You need to add some verbs,” she tells me. Then, thankfully, she speaks to the driver in Arabic and has him pull over. She gets out. We continue on in a blessed silence, except for the conversation we have, in French, about where exactly my street is.

***

On Wednesday afternoons, I teach a group of teens, all boys. I find this challenging. The split instant I turn to write something on the board, they punch each other. Why? I tell Elliot, “You know how I always thought your teachers shouldn’t shout at their classes? I’ve changed my mind.”

So I bail on the curriculum (which is not Berlitz and is not good; they are teaching “cool” vocabulary like “going to a gig tonight” and have a lesson on NOT sending a cassette of your band to a recording label, but sending something new called a “CD.” Uh, yeah). Instead, we play a lot of educational games in there, where to score a point you must say if a sentence is grammatically correct, for example, or change the grammatical tense to change the meaning. “All we do today is games,” says one of my students. “Are you learning anything?” I ask. “Well yes,” he admits, “But the time goes so fast.” For you maybe, I think, but I keep my mouth shut.

Teecha-teecha-teecha, they chant, until I make them stop. I am teaching them to talk one at a time, to raise their hands and keep their mouths shut UNTIL CALLED UPON. I leave this class feeling frazzled and in no mood to deal with stupid women in taxis criticizing my language abilities. But I like these kids, one on one at least. They’re nice boys. I wouldn’t want my one free afternoon taken up with extra school if I were their age. They’re really not bad.

I ask their favorite movies. “Twilight!” announces one. His neighbour punches him. “You like girl movies,” he mocks. “No, I like it…how you say?…loup-garou,” says another. “Werewolves,” I tell him. This is necessary vocabulary when you’re 14.  We end up discussing battle scenes in Gladiator, which I would consider too violent for my own children, basically the same age.

They all know Twilight (one is reading the books in French). They all know the Percy Jackson movie, which Ilsa is DYING to watch. Their cultural references are overwhelmingly American; I know the bands they listen to, the actors and actresses they admire. They probably know the pop culture aspect of my own country better than I do, although that’s not surprising—I was never all that cool. At least I don’t say gig!

***

I return home and my own teenagers are punching each other.

Last week was a crazy week. I live-blogged it in my head but didn’t write down. Then my computer had issues; first I couldn’t get on the internet, then Outlook refused to cooperate at all and had to be reinstalled, and then Word went out completely. Never a dull moment. Now I’ve forgotten all the catchy phrases I came up with to describe things, so you’ll have to put up with a basic recounting of the facts.

We spent the weekend trying to shop (Saturday; it was a feast day and the medina and the funky mall in L’Ocean were both closed) and actually shopping (Sunday) for the twins.

Monday started with a bang. The twins were 13 at long last! “What time was I born?” Abel asked, but when I pointed out he was born in Oregon and would have to add 8 hours to that, he quickly just went with the day being close enough.

We gave them their presents and ate homemade cinnamon rolls and bacon and eggs (real bacon!) and I had a lot of coffee and then let them join facebook. They already have about 200 friends each, and I basically never get to see my computer anymore. They are having a blast. They can tell you what colour they are, what superhero they are, what Lord of the Rings character they are, and what flower they are. They were even bickering in status updates until I put a stop to that.

Monday was also the day to finally get the mold off the ceiling. I mixed a solution of bleach and water and sent Abel up the ladder in his underwear, so that he wouldn’t ruin any of his clothes. I have some very funny pictures of him that I won’t post. We’d had to borrow a ladder and then I’d been putting it off, but no more—guests were arriving to stay in the boys’ room that very night.

I’m teaching a class on Mondays from 5-7:15, and our guests were arriving by train at 5. I got home at 7:45 and we didn’t actually eat supper till 9:30, which was okay by me since I wasn’t hungry thanks to the extra cups of coffee I drank during class, but I suspect it was a bit late for the other Americans. Ilsa, drooping, was pleased to inform me that this was their first birthday EVER that I hadn’t made Welsh cakes for. She’s right, but I didn’t need the reminder.

Tuesday was the wee-est bit insane. Abel wanted to have his party while his friend Erik was visiting, which meant that I got up and went shopping (hadn’t had time to before) and made and decorated a cake while Khadija chopped lamb and onions for a tagine for 12 people.

One of the adventures of life overseas is that stores can at any time run out of some random item you need. On Tuesday it was icing sugar. No one had icing sugar. I had to make my own by putting regular granulated sugar (also not always available) in the blender. It mostly worked.

The party started at one. We were still eating, but Abel took his friends off to his room to play. Donn took the kids and several assorted adults off to Mega Mall for ice-skating. I made some more coffee and did lesson prep for my 4 p.m. class. I’d just found out that it was going to be observed by my supervisor! You can’t make this stuff up!

No worries; I got through it all by resurrecting a past self. Much like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible at the start of the movie, I’d gotten used to hiding my alter ego. But she came in handy this week. Caffeine Girl, in her spunky boots with a black cardigan slung over her shoulders, is able to leap from metaphor to metaphor while speed-talking so rapidly that mere mortals get left hopelessly behind, stuck several subjects back. She enabled me to teach that class with ease and get a very positive review (my supervisor: It’s obvious you have a background in business. Me: Uh, no, literature actually). Next day, with Caffeine Girl in action, we whizzed with ease through morning shopping, afternoon teaching teens, evening cooking and having new friends over to meet the old.

So all in all, it was a fun week. It’s good to see old friends.

And yes, this was all LAST week. See above. I’ll hopefully get back into the swing of things soon. Upcoming attraction: Abel’s account of his trip to the desert!

Morocco has an athlete in Vancouver for this year’s Winter Olympics—an Alpine skier. He’s certainly not the first Moroccan Olympian—Morocco’s been participating in both summer and winter events since 1960, winning several medals along the way.

Judging from my own casual and unofficial survey, it seems not many people here have been following the events from Vancouver. I realized today, however, that people on the street are participating in their own particular way. With characteristic dedication, these men and women are tirelessly practicing their chosen events. If driving Olympics are ever held, I think this country will be a shoo-in.

Giant Slalom–Cars: Today I watched in amazement as several cars sped past me on the left, swerved in front of me to avoid a car in the left lane, zipped back in front of that car, and continued on out of sight, weaving from lane to lane at speeds nearly too fast to see. Impressive!

Giant Slalom—Scooters: Like comparing snowboards to skis, the scooters are working on a much tighter race course. This is the most technical of the driving events and requires nerves of steel or a complete disregard for personal safety. Darting in and out amongst moving vehicles, gaining ground at traffic lights, their engines sounding like overgrown mosquitoes, they are an inspirational sight. There are several versions of this event: Men’s Single, Men’s Double, Mixed Doubles, and Entire Family.

Curling: A common sight on the streets here are the street sweepers, wielding long palm branches to sweep trash and debris up. Saturday we had a windstorm, and the nearest thing Rabat has yet produced to a sand storm. Of course no one who has lived in the Sahara could view it with anything more than amusement—there was just the tiniest bit of dust and it wasn’t even 80 degrees! It was almost cute!—but the wind was fierce. And, in the middle of it, the street sweepers were out with their palm branches. I think such dedication deserves some kind of medal.

Ice-Dancing–interpretative folk dance: There’s a lack of ice here, except in the small but famed ice rink located at Mega Mall (known affectionately in our family as Mega Prix). But nothing can stop these drivers! They are interpreting their folk music on their horns, using a variety of rhythms, force and mood to convey shifting emotions, from the simple “please move on; the light changed a millionth of a second ago” to the more forceful “I would be quite happy to put you in front of your Maker this very second.”

Biathalon: Guns are illegal here, which I personally feel is a very good idea. Instead, drivers must stop and shoot insults at each other! A panel of judges will decide who wins each individual shouting match.

Four-man Bobsleigh: That’s nothing! I’m pretty sure you could fit at least 8 people into one of those bobsleighs—plus several kids! Helmets are optional.

Most impressively, all these events are held at the same time on the same course! Picture skis and snowboards and sleds all competing at once on the same hill! That’s the kind of excitement the streets of Rabat have to offer.

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