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In ESL class the other day, the topic was Halloween. This was because Massi, who came from the Middle East this summer and is mystified by much that she sees in American culture, asked if we could talk about it. I asked her what she thought it was. “Americans believe it’s a day when ghosts come back and walk the earth,” she told me. Well, no, not exactly, I told her. But she was adamant. She was sure someone had told her that.

I tried to explain how people like to be scared, how they pretend to believe scary stuff but really don’t. I had prepared a lesson that included some of the history of Halloween, questions that asked if they believed in ghosts or witches, and references to the Salem Witch Trials.

We were talking about that, and it suddenly occurred to me that what’s happening with the Ebola scare is, in many ways, a modern day version of the same paranoia and fear of something that’s just not well understood, something that happens to this group of people there who need to be kept away from our group of people here. I tried to explain this, although I think I lost most of my class. They are doing very well but this was just too theoretical!

Ebola is perfect for Halloween. It’s really scary but in many ways it doesn’t seem quite real, occurring as it does only on our televisions (unless you live in Dallas or, of course, in West Africa).

Donn and I are on our way to Mauritania again (literally. I’m typing at 36,000 feet, although it won’t post till later) and it’s been fascinating to me how many people have asked us about Ebola. No, it isn’t in Mauritania or Morocco. Senegal had one case but contained it and is now considered Ebola-free. Our risk is virtually non-existent. Africa is a very large continent, not a country.

I had mostly given up on this blog. I never even finished writing about our last trip to these 2 countries, and I was saving the best, funniest stories for last. Maybe I’ll still write one last post about the ’13 trip, but it seems unlikely at this point. In spite of previous failures, I’m going to try again. I started an instagram (planetnomad) and I’m hoping to at least post lots of photos, but I want to write. I brought a laptop this time. We’ll see how it goes.

And, when we landed in Nouakchott, they checked our temps. Donn joked that, had he known that would happen, he would have kept a mouthful of food and pretended to vomit. I asked why he’d want to get quarantined here? He’s crazy.

The airport here is changing; we got the most modern, up-to-date visa I’ve ever seen, and they even took my fingerprints. We have wicked jet-lag. The airport personnel in the Casa airport lived up to their reputation and rifled through our bags, helping themselves to some of the gifts we’d brought people.We had a 36-hour layover in Casa, where we stayed with friends and spent an afternoon wandering round the Grand Mosque and the Corniche, and I found a mall filled with American stores…Starbucks, Payless Shoes, H&M, all high-end and gleaming here, stores for the Very Rich. 

I’ll write again soon.

photoBoarding our last flight to NKC

Why yes, I’m still working on telling you all about a trip I took last fall. Hang in there. Only a few more posts, and then I’ll go  back to posting once every three months.

When we first moved to Mauritania, I was amazed at the driving. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We’d lived there only a few months when 3 kids racing horses down the street flew around a corner and smashed a horse up onto our car, leaving the horse screaming in agony with a broken leg (they didn’t put it down either; the poor thing lived another week). They claimed it was our fault, and the police agreed after a rapid discussion in Arabic in which some money may or may not have changed hands.

Driving in Mauritania was never ever relaxing. Stopping for a red light was like a jeopardy game. You know how the contestants wait with their hands on the buzzer, and the instant the question flashes they hit that buzzer, only to sometimes realize they don’t know the answer? That was what it was like. The instant the light changed–literally before you had time to move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal–the honking started.

Some events remain green in my memory. The woman in the pink muluffa driving 5 km down one of the main streets with her eyes closed, muttering prayers as her car drifted dangerously near mine. The donkey cart in the right lane suddenly swerving in front of me to turn left. Me jamming on the brakes and shouting and gesturing a bit (not rudely, just exasperatedly) and the children being so embarrassed. The habit drivers had of simply stopping their cars in the middle of the street and getting out and going into the school/shop/wherever. The pointless traffic jams where each car claims each inch of space it can, resulting in a full intersection of angry people and no one going anywhere.

IMG_1115This is my attempt to show you a pointless traffic jam. This is a normal intersection. In America, there would be one lane of traffic going each way. We are headed towards those buildings. The picture is taken through the windshield of Aicha’s car and you can see the hood and the direction we’re pointing. I’m not sure this picture does it justice, but I knew no one there would want to be photographed.

As bad as Mauritania was, Morocco was worse. The driving was the same, except there were more cars going faster, since streets were paved, and there were high curbs and sidewalks, which took away your getaway. (In Mauritania, even paved streets have wide sandy shoulders filled with children and handicapped people that you can swerve into if necessary.) Morocco was insane. If Mauritania was hell on wheels, Morocco was the 9th circle. But I learned to love the challenge. There was one road that I always felt would be instrumental in teaching fractions. It was divided in half (one half for each direction) as normal, but the entire road was also divided in thirds. This meant 1 1/2 lanes for each direction. Naturally Moroccan drivers were able to turn this into 3 lanes for each direction. I found it just as effective as anything else to simply close my eyes and use the force to steer.

When we first came back to the US, I found the driving tame and insipid. I tend to express my feelings vocally while driving, and I would sit at the green light muttering “GO!” at the car in front of me while Ilsa chirped, “Use the horn, Mom!” from the back seat. Seriously, she could not understand why her parents were suddenly so mealy-mouthed, so to speak. I tend to be a really impatient driver with a bit of a heavy foot on the gas pedal. I swerve (politely) in and out of traffic, making up time so I’m not too late, usually going ever-so-slightly above the speed limit, until I notice I’m 15 10 miles over and slow down. And this is on surface streets.

I assumed I still had what it took to be on the streets of North Africa, so it came as a shock to find that I have become timid. I’d be sitting in a taxi watching a bus coming straight towards me, about to T-bone us, and I would find myself tense, gasping, bracing for the inevitable collision as our taxi moved with less than a second to spare. When we lived there, things like this didn’t bother me. I rather liked the excitement of the near miss. But on this trip I spent a lot of our time in taxis tensing up and feebly fumbling for something to hold on to–the edge of the seat, the door handle if available, anything. My heart pounded. Pitiful.

Morocco has spent the last 3 years attempting to re-do its driving. Right about the time we were leaving, they were introducing a system of “points” where you could lose points for various infractions, although how on earth this would be enforced remained unclear. Foreigners had to get a Moroccan driver’s license, whether or not they really spoke French or Arabic. Supposedly this would make everything calmer, more civilized. I had visions of intersections with drivers saying, “No, you go first. Please” instead of charging ahead, guns blazing, so to speak. On this trip, there came a moment when we were in a taxi heading downtown and I realized that everyone was waiting in his or her own proper lane. There were supposed to be 3 lanes–there were 3 lanes, instead of the normal 5 or 6. “Wow, it’s really working,” I thought.

The traffic light changed, everyone surged forward, and within 2 seconds I realized that actually nothing had changed. Battles were still being fought over inches of pavement space. The only difference was my stress level and, apparently, gullibility.

By the time we got to Mauritania, I’d pretty much adjusted back. Donn’s friend Mohammed, who is doing really well for himself, loaned us a car for a few days. It was just like old times, driving around town, getting stuck in pointless traffic jams where the only way out is to join in and fight for those inches of progress, singing “Anarchy in the UK” (Sample lyrics: I know what I want and I know how to get it) as we wove our way in and out of oncoming traffic. It was Oregon that was once again the shock.

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When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.

We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?

In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.

IMG_1094This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?

That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.

We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.

Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.

IMG_1801Look how pink Donn looks! I don’t know why. In real life he is not raspberry coloured.

We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.

That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.

As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.

In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”

It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.

Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.

broken chair one

I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”

See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.

And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.

I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries.  And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.

Waking up that first morning back in Nouakchott was strange. I had slept surprisingly well on my solid-as-a-rock mattress. But I was unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, as I rubbed sleep from them and stared out the front window.

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Puddles and puddles and puddles! What was up? I well remember, in fact it is seared into my memory, how hot and dry Nouakchott was. Located where the sands of the Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean, built on some salt flats by the French who decided on a relatively-neutral spot to build a new capital city for a new country in 1960, Nouakchott was the exact opposite of Portland. It rained 4-6 times a year, always harsh and sudden and preceded by a wind that whipped the reddish sand straight up into a wall that was then slammed down hard by the rain, rendering anything outside, like clean clothes on your washline, covered with reddish mud. Rainstorms lasted anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then they were over. They left lots of puddles, that disappeared within a day or so as the hot thirsty air drank all moisture available and the sand eventually absorbed what was left. It only rained between July and September. I remember one year in which it really didn’t rain at all.

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This was different. Since we left in 2007, the sea has risen, so that now there are actually permanent ponds, almost lakes, in this desert city. There are rushes, and ducks and egrets. I can not emphasize strongly enough to you how strange this is. It would be like leaving Portland for 6 years and returning to find a barren wasteland that no one had thought to mention to me.

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We arrived very late on a Wed. night, around midnight. Thursday was normal weather-wise, but the Friday and Saturday of that week it rained all day. It was bizarre. In spite of huge changes in the amount of paved roads, most of Nouakchott remains sand instead of pavement, and the sand turned instantly to mud. I was wearing very long skirts (well, long skirts on a short person) that dragged in the mud.

After 2 days of rain, the place was truly flooded. Several large intersections were impassable. When I went to visit Aicha, we had to park a long ways away and walk to her house over a trail made of sandbags, cement blocks and other debris. We heard stories of people in the poorer sections of town who lost everything, of children drowned in houses. Tim and Debbie’s old house was unreachable without wading through deep water.

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IMG_1026(sorry this is blurry. I was trying to be subtle with my camera. Also this was taken from a moving car using telephoto)

It rained for 2 days and was pleasant, temperature-wise, although unpleasant to walk around in. But then the weather cleared. The sky was actually blue! (In Nouakchott, it’s usually white with dust and haze) And it was hot. It was around 100 degrees for the rest of the time we were there. The heat slowly shrank the puddles and the wind whipped up the drying sand. It achieved a state I would previously have thought impossible–it managed to be muddy and dusty at the same time.

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I wrote the kids long emails that I would send when we had internet access, which wasn’t very often. (Ilsa: “Your letters are so long. You’re not going to have anything left to tell us.” It’s like she doesn’t even know me. She complained often about the length of my emails, which made me feel great about her interest level in me, but she did read them.) I told them over and over about all the water. Donn did too. And yet, when we were back and Abel was looking at my phone pics while in a doctor’s waiting room, he shouted, “WHAT??? WHAT IS ALL THAT WATER???” Everyone looked. I tried to explain, sort of. It was awkward.

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Seeing all that green was nice. Donn and I are hoping that the city learns to deal with its new water, and that it ends up being a good thing. In the meantime, the water is brackish and not really anything you’d want to get too near.

 

I’ve noticed that when one is flying to another country, one’s experience in that country often seems to begin in the first country’s airport.  So, for example, when one arrives at the gate at Casablanca’s Mohamed VI airport where one will board the flight to Nouakchott, it’s like one is already there.

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At the end of October, we took the train down from Rabat to Casa. It was yet another gorgeous day, the sky a deep blue, the shade crisp and cool and the sun giving off real warmth. Since we would be landing in Nouakchott (I’m going to call it by it’s airport name now, NKC. So much easier to type. Thank you) after midnight, I dared to wear jeans and a long tunic. The daring to wear jeans bit has to do with heat, not culture. I figured it just might be bearable, and I was mostly right.

We got to the train station early, and had a coffee in the newly-finished cafe. Well, new-to-us. From when we first visited in 2007 to when we left in 2010, the main station in Rabat (Gare de Rabat Ville) was under construction, with no end in sight. Now it’s finally finished, and it’s very nice.

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The basic platform hasn’t changed, but the inside has–now you take escalators up to a small shopping centre/food court area. Ok, that part isn’t totally finished yet, but it may never be. Who knows? The point is, it’s much improved.

The part that’s the same is the platform. I was amused at the security officer standing there, bored, while everyone crossed in front of the sign forbidding crossing. IMG_1002“It is officially forbidden to cross the tracks,” says the sign. A steady stream of people crossed in front of it, while a bored officer watched them.

We took the train to the airport, found our gate, and joined the “queue.” It was like already being back in Nouakchott, paying my bill at Mauritel. It was actually a little surrealistic.

I’m going to be stereotypical for a minute here, but of course I know that not all White Maure women are this way, blah blah blah. Seriously. Aicha, for example, doesn’t behave this way. But in NKC, it is not uncommon to see White Maure women standing imperviously, snapping their fingers, while darker-skinned men scurry to obey. They have been raised to expect their every whim to be attended to, and that carries over into their interactions with you. They sail through intersections, expecting others to stop. They cut “queues” at Mauritel and anywhere else. They hire other people to write their papers for English class, which means an A in class and an inability to carry on even the most basic conversation in English. Maure society is very much based on class, and while slavery has officially been illegal for several years now, old habits die hard.

In the “line” at the Casa airport, we watched in bemusement as White Maure women, their faces the colour that can only be produced by years of lightening creams, snapped their fingers at young men pushing carts heavily laden with luggage. The women would sit at cafe tables nearby and watch while porters nudged their heavy carts in front of other people. We stood in the “queue” nearest the edge, where the cafe was roped off from the area where we were all standing with our luggage, and watched as people tried to cut by going up to the front, leaning over the rope, and attempting to push their tickets and a wad of cash into the airline person’s hand. The airline people mostly ignored them, waving them away like mosquitoes.

We eventually got through the melee, and made our way through passport control to the gate and then onto the plane itself. There it was evident that many people were unaccustomed to modern flying. The young man sitting next to Donn was unfamiliar with seat belts and adjustable seat backs and the concept of personal space. Many people didn’t feel the need to sit down even when the attendants demanded they do so. As the plane began to taxi down the runway, I watched a White Maure woman, strolling unconcerned, baby on hip, to fetch something from her carry-on, which was now safely stored in an overhead compartment. She snapped her fingers to get someone to get it down for her. I thought the flight attendant was going to have an apoplectic fit! He turned quite red and shouted at her. She won though, returning complacently to her seat with the baby’s bottle. Donn and I exchanged glances, but I must admit mine contained mostly amusement. We were really back!!

The instant the plane’s wheels touched ground in Nouakchott, everyone was on their feet, while the overhead announcement pleaded uselessly in 3 languages for everyone to remain seated with their seat belts securely fastened until the plane had come to a complete stop.

An old friend met us at the airport in the dust-filled midnight and took us to our first guesthouse. Two other couples were there, both close friends and colleagues from our time in Mauritania, both of whom now live in another country. We had a joyous reunion and stayed up another couple of hours. Then we sorted out sleeping arrangements. Donn and I had a room with a twin bed and bunk beds. My mattress was so firm that you could have bounced a ball off it. And so, feeling a bit like the princess who woke up black and blue from the pea in the mattress, I drifted off under the whirring of the fan. November in Nouakchott.

As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted by my own stupidity, I adore the Rabat medina. Each of the ancient Moroccan cities has its own medina–the old part of the city, usually a warren of winding tiny alleyways punctuated by closed doors and cats that weave their way in and out, along with a colourful marketplace selling traditional hand-crafted items to tourists. And if some of these items have been added to the repertoire more recently than others, who really cares? It’s cool stuff.

IMG_0996This isn’t exactly what I’m talking about, but I was amused to see they’re now making beautiful lanterns out of old olive and tomato paste tins, and managing to make treasure out of trash.

There are medinas–old cities, marketplaces–in all of Morocco’s major cities. Many are bigger, better-known than Rabat’s, which is relatively small and straight-forward. Fez’s medina, for example, is the largest pedestrian-only city in the world and a guide is requisite to get through it. It’s fascinating, but enormous. Meknes is built over a huge prison that housed European slaves, and people told us you used to be able to explore it but too many tourists got lost and died so they closed it. Marrakesh is world-famous and has huge variety. But Rabat is nice. It’s big enough to have plenty of variety, but small enough that you don’t get overwhelmed.

We went to the shop where we bought our leather pouffs, over 3 years ago now. This guy has beautiful leather-work. Donn asked him the price of one of the pouffs, and he said, “Same as last time.” We did a bit of a double-take. “It’s been, what, about two years?” he asked us. “Three,” we said.

We couldn’t believe it. This guy’s shop is popular; he has a workshop in the back and uses really high quality leather, and his shop is constantly busy. How could he remember us from 3 years ago? But he had. This cemented the beginnings of a real friendship. We ended up sitting and chatting; we drank tea with him, and discussed our pasts and futures, and told him to come stay with us sometime if he ever comes to the US.

(I had a photo for you of him sitting in his shop, but when I uploaded it off my phone the quality was so bad I can’t share it with you. Unless you like feeling slightly queasy and motion sick from blurriness.)

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Random shot of fountain and one of the doors into the medina, or ancient walled city.

The medina is more than the marketplace. It is also home to a lot of people. Medinas are where you find the old riads, those houses built round courtyards that are so often turned into stunning hotels by foreigners these days. But more often, normal Moroccans live there, climbing uneven tiled staircases daily where grandmas and toddlers come to grief,

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walking past shops,

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doing their laundry,

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and going about their daily lives.

IMG_0986(and yes, that is a total hip shot, because I knew he wouldn’t want me taking his photo!)

 Donn and I spent a fair amount of time just wandering the back streets, getting away from the touristy end of things and more into just the regular part. He got great photos. Me, not so much.

IMG_0974This is near the wool market, and also near, or possibly a part of, the old slave market, where the Barbary pirates used to sell European slaves captured on raids.

IMG_0988Motorcycles are great for these tiny alleyways, especially if you are comfortable swerving around small children, cats, elderly people with canes, and the occasional somewhat clueless tourist.

IMG_0976I couldn’t figure out what was going on until we walked by, and I saw that everyone was gathered round a giant plate of couscous.

IMG_0992I never get bored of these alleys. At least I haven’t yet.

The markets we came across in the residential area (for lack of a better term) sold fruit and olives, or pots and pans, or soap.

IMG_0946Soap with ground olive pits in it

When you go to a Moroccan hammam (the local kind, not the tourist kind. I went to a tourist kind on this trip and it was fantastic! We’ll get to it at some point, possibly in February at the rate I’m going), you take this dark soap that has ground olive pits in it. You smear it on your body and let it sit a bit, presumably loosening up all that dead skin. Here’s my description of going to a local hammam.

Donn and I wandered through the alleys, turning at random, hoping not to get lost. Eventually we always found our way out, although I was sometimes surprised at where. IMG_0968

A shrine near the wool market

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also near wool market

IMG_0944 where we came out

Anyone who read this blog during our years in Morocco knows how much I love the Rabat medina.

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When we lived there, I was always posting pictures about it. Nothing’s changed.

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I just accidentally hit “publish” instead of “preview.” Augh! Oh well. Enjoy these pictures, and come back tomorrow for more pics and a teeny bit more text.

 

 

One of the adventuresome things about traveling in the Arab world is learning how different the dialects of neighbouring countries can be. How hard can it be? you think at first. Say, for example, you have been working on Hassiniya, the Mauritanian dialect. Surely Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, will be similar, since they share a border and were divided up by those pesky French in the 60s, which really wasn’t all that long ago. You will be wrong though. And one of the fun differences is that in Mauritania, 2 is “ethnane” and in Morocco it is “juge.”

Of course this isn’t just the Arab world. We lived in the town of Chambery, France, for a year. Chambery is located so close to the border of Italy that it was at one point part of Italy, and the last king and queen of Italy are buried by the shores of a lake not too far away. I figured when we went to Italy, my French would work better than my English, but I was wrong. Also in Spain, English will get you further than French or Arabic will.

But today, our topic is Morocco. IMG_0926

I loved living in Morocco, and I cried like a baby, only more bitterly, when we had to leave. But living anyplace is…well, just life. There are bills, and you have to go to work, and kids have problems at school, and housing is hard impossible to find, and sometimes the taxi drivers are surly and you get a cold and it’s so damp that your books mould. Visiting Morocco, however, is just wonderful, plain and simple.

We spent a lot of our time in Morocco playing tourist. Oh sure we visited people, and it was wonderful to see them. We had lunch with old colleagues and ate chicken and olive tagines for about $4 in a basic area of the city, and we met a friend for ice-cream in the expensive European part of the city and it costs $7 for 3 little boules (scoops), but mostly we just wandered around happily. I got a pedicure. I love getting pedicures but I never do, as they are expensive. In Rabat, you can go to the European section and visit a spa and still pay $12 for a very nice, very long pedicure. My nails are still a delightful red, although of course now I’m wearing socks and no one can see them. But I know they’re there.

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No you don’t want a pic of my toes. You want cool arches!

We took a lot of taxis and it was fun to watch Donn plunge right back into Darija, chatting away to the taxi drivers, who are always impressed and happy if you speak even a smattering of Arabic with them.

When we lived there, I made friends with an Italian woman with a Moroccan husband, whose daughter was in Ilsa’s class at school. Irina’s dream was to open a small store selling organic produce and her own home-made jams, jellies, and sauces. She was an incredible cook. We’d lost touch, and I wanted to find her. We walked to her old home and rang the bell several times. No one was home. A Moroccan man came up to see what we wanted. “The Italian woman?” we asked. He shook his head, but went to talk to someone else who was coming up to see what we wanted. (This is common.) Oh yes, he knew her, and pointed to a house across the street.

When we pushed open the door, we saw mounds of gourds, enormous pumpkins and squashes, piles of pomegranates and peppers, and more. The small garage was filled with parsley, lettuce and other greens, and behind a table with a cash register on it was a shelf groaning with jars of jellies and sauces, all prettily labeled in Irina’s own hand. And there was Irina herself, in a white coat, chatting with a French woman who had obviously just come to pick up her order, and was loading it all into an enormous straw basket.

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This would prove to be a theme of our trip–finding people with whom we’d lost contact, and finding them doing really well, succeeding at what they’d hoped to do. I was thrilled to see Irina, and to see how busy she was. She had people stopping by nonstop to pick up their orders. She asked us to come back on Monday afternoon for coffee, which we did, and had a great time catching up on the news. I took her card and gave it to all my friends, hoping to drum up even more business for her. I hope next time we go, she has her own shop.

So. Our first day in Morocco, we walked by the kids’ old school and took pictures, visited Irina, and went downtown and wandered round the Oudayas until sunset, at which point we went back to our friends’ house, where we spent a thoroughly delightful evening eating and talking till late. Sunday we went to church with them, where we saw many old friends and attempted to cram 3 years into 10 minutes. Then we had lunch with former colleagues. Then we had expensive ice-cream with a Moroccan friend, then another late evening just talking with our hosts. We sat round a table in their garden, staring out at trees and sometimes with a fire warming our backs from the small fireplace on the patio, ate good food, drank good wine, and shared good conversation. Life doesn’t get much better than that, right?

IMG_0872Gate in Oudayas

IMG_0867Door in Oudayas, where most everything is blue and white except for the cats and the bougainvillea.

Isn’t THAT an exciting title? I knew you’d be impressed.

So we set off from our Portland home on Oct. 24th. Our flight was nonstop to Amsterdam, then we had an hour and a half layover and then another non-stop to Casablanca, where we planned to take the train to Rabat, our former home. And already, when you read the words “we planned,” your heart did a double-thump because you knew the best laid plans of international travelers gang aft agley.

Actually it really wasn’t too bad. The flight from PDX was 15 minutes late or as we call it “totally on time, dude” and we landed just fine in Amsterdam some 10 or 11 hours later, having learned that the new comedies are so stupid one can’t sit through the whole thing, and having read the entire new Bridget Jones book and a lot of classic Sherlock Holmes in which I pictured Holmes and Watson as Cumberbatch and Freeman, which was actually kind of fun. Try it on your next long trip.

We landed and taxied for so long we were wondering if perhaps we hadn’t inadvertently landed in Germany and were driving to Holland. We rushed off the plane to our other gate, where there was an enormous incoherent line for no apparent reason, which we joined. It didn’t budge at all. Time ticked on, the people around us weren’t speaking Dareja (the Arabic dialect of Morocco) so I couldn’t see how much I remembered, and we stood and stood and said, “At least our bags will make it.”

Finally, about 30 minutes after the flight was to have left, we reached the front. They scanned Donn’s boarding pass and got an ominous beep. We smiled feebly at the impatient passengers behind us while the flight attendants peered anxiously at a computer. “Your bags didn’t make it so you can’t board for security reasons,” they announced.

This does not make sense. If you have a bomb in your bags then you would want your bags on board, not you. Right? We have told this story to many people and they have all agreed–this was something new, thought up by KLM and illogical to mere mortals.

We had to leave the line, argue with the lady at the KLM counter that if they sent us to Rome at 5:30 which had us arriving in Casa at midnight, we wouldn’t be able to go up to Rabat that night as the trains stop at 10. Finally she put us on a Royal Air Maroc flight leaving Amsterdam at 4:30 that afternoon. We had landed at 9:30, which gave us a whole day at the airport. She gave us vouchers for 10 euros each for lunch, which got us a small plate each and nothing to drink at a pizza place. We had to collect our bags which meant we had to leave the airport but we couldn’t check in again till 3. We spent several hours in the boring part of the airport, napping on hard chairs with dividers digging into our ribs, until we were able to splurge on desperately-overpriced instant coffee, check our bags, and wait another two hours at the gate. IMG_1723 The place we napped had rows and rows of empty slightly-padded black chairs, joined with metal armrests as dividers, with a table every 2 or 3 seats. We stretched out so our hips were on the table (which was very firm, I must say) and dozed off. At one point, a group of Brits came up and sat right next to us, ignoring the rows and rows of empty chairs around us. All 4 of them began to talk about past holidays, and it was nearly exactly like this sketch:

Monty Python sketch that won’t load

start it at about the 2 minute mark. The accent was the same, but they were going on and on about Prague and King Wenceslas Square and darling, the crowds! and they didn’t once mention Watney’s Red Barrel.

Eventually we made it to Casa, landing about 9:15 which just gave us time to rush through the airport, change money, collect our bags, buy our tickets, and make the 10:00 train to Rabat. We got to our friends’ house after midnight, having been unable to phone and tell them we’d be 9 hours late. It didn’t matter. In the morning I opened the shutters and looked out on white walls, bougainvillea in magenta and scarlet, spiky palm trees, and a blue sky, and felt I’d come home again.

August 2017
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