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If you had told my grandmother, born around 1900, that her grand-daughter would circumnavigate half of the globe not in 80 days, not in 80 hours, but in 28 hours, she would have been amazed. So I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that really, this is kind of cool. But at the same time, it is rather hard on the body.
I’m typing this in my Portland living room. The place is a wreck–obviously the twins’ definition of “cleaning the house” differs more radically from my own than I had realized. (They did great overall but I will share with you that about a week ago, when we said, “What are you going to do today?” they replied “Dishes.”) Add to their peculiar sense of what is implied by “organized” our 4 cases spewing their contents onto the floor, and you can imagine the state of affairs. I am in a daze of jet-lag and travel exhaustion so I’m working at it slowly, with frequent breaks. So far I’ve cleaned out the fridge, gotten the kitchen to the point where one can see the countertops, and started the mountain of laundry. As the Mauritanian proverb goes, “Guttruh, guttruh, i-seel i-waad.” (Drop by drop, the valley fills with water.)
We left our friends’ house in Rabat at 4, driven 100 kilometres to Casablanca by Annie, who went far above and beyond the normal requirements of friendship and hospitality. She dropped us off at the airport, and we were in ample time to commiserate with some traveling Canadians about the Moroccans cutting the line, and buy bottles of water for our flight. We had 2 layovers; one in Paris and one in New York. Both layovers were short–the one at JFK short enough to be stressful, although we made our gate with 5 minutes to spare. The flights were long and boring, enlivened only by seatmates who were also expats. On our last flight, Donn sat next to a woman who’d been in Mauritania for 2 years in the mid-80s with Peace Corps. Truly it is a small world. (I’ll pause while tiny voices start shrieking in your head “…after all! It’s a small world after all!!” You’re welcome)
We arrived in Portland just before 10 local time, which is of course nearly 6 a.m. Moroccan time. We came home starving, as that last 6 hour flight had given us nothing more than tiny packets of pretzels or peanuts. We stayed up another 2 hours chatting with the twins and ravenously scarfing down the dinner Ilsa had made us (all together now: awwwww) and cruelly giving them only half of their presents, because it’s so close to Christmas.
I’m at the point where someone can speak to me in English and I’ll answer in French or vice versa, but this won’t last. We slept 7 hours and then couldn’t, although I lay in bed another hour with my eyes glued shut with tiredness, my mind restlessly lashing back and forth with strange memories of cramped medinas and haggling shopkeepers and open desert skies. I’m off to take a nap soon but thought I’d say hi, and warn you of many more posts lurking in my head.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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. “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.
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.)
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,
walking past shops,
doing their laundry,
and going about their daily lives.
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.
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.
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.
A shrine near the wool market
also near wool market
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. 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:
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.
Ugh. I love traveling, but the two days either end of a big trip are always horrible. I am sitting in my own living room, typing on my own computer, in a dazy sort of cotton-filled fog. To make matters worse, I seem to have a cold. Over the last few weeks, I ate literally kilos of fresh Moroccan oranges, so if anyone’s body should be overflowing with enough Vitamin C to head off any sort of illness, it’s mine. Is everything we’ve been taught a lie?
To add insult to injury, I have had old Simon and Garfunkel songs stuck in my head for days now. Ever since we left Mauritania on Sunday at 8:15 a.m., a mere hour after we were scheduled to leave (Aside: this is good. Donn once spent 15 hours in that airport waiting for an overdue flight), and the words “well we’re homeward bound” popped into my head unbidden, I have had to listen to warbling tenors going on and on about “Home! where my music’s playin’ Home! where my love-life’s waiting silently for me.” And then my mind mixed it up with the one about the boxer (he remembered ever blow that laid him low or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame (pain?) that he’s leaving) and really, it’s not pretty. I sincerely hope that I haven’t now doomed you to a similar fate (let me know!) and also that soon I can listen to a different tune in my head. Not Bob Dylan though. That would not be an improvement.
So. Nothing like beginning at the end. I had hoped to blog this trip as it was happening, but we only brought one iPad to share between us and you know how well that goes. Also internet was far from being easily accessible. So I have brought back a lot of pictures and memories, and I’m going to share them with you! Aren’t you lucky? (Don’t answer that) We left OR on Oct. 24th, spent an unplanned day in the Amsterdam airport and arrived in Morocco on Oct. 25th. We went down to Mauritania, to visit our old home in Nouakchott, on Oct. 30th. We left Mauritania on Nov. 10th, had nearly 2 days in Morocco again, and left Jack and Annie’s Rabat home at 5 a.m. on Nov. 12th. We arrived home on Nov. 13th at about 1 p.m. (9 p.m. Moroccan time), having been traveling 39 hours at that point. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I am in a total fog today. If any words in here are off, this is why.
We left the twins mostly home alone, although there was an adult friend who slept here most nights and was a sort of consultant for them. Ilsa told me before we left that she would cook, so I bought enough food for 3 weeks worth of meals–some easy stuff that I never buy like canned soup, hotdogs and frozen pizza, but also ingredients for Thai peanut pasta, homemade sausage spaghetti, taco bowls made with grilled chicken, black beans and brown rice. My friend Sarita offered to host them any evening they didn’t want to cook, and various Iraqi friends promised food. Ilsa loves mashed potatoes so we bought a big bag of potatoes for her and talked about various things they could be served with, like sausage and peas, or chicken breast and green beans and salad.
We returned to a full fridge and freezer. As near as we can tell, they didn’t eat anything but yogurt and mashed potatoes. Even the hotdogs and the frozen pizza are still there. They went to Sarita’s one night, and Iraqi friends a couple of nights, but we were gone for 20 days. What did they eat? There’s lots of cereal in the cupboard and there are even still some granola bars. It is a mystery. Abel says he made Kraft mac n’ cheese some nights, and Ilsa says she made a lot of mashed potatoes. We are hoping to gradually reintroduce coloured foods–fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, crunchy non-processed fresh items–into their diets. One new food a day to see if they’re allergic, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
We had a fantastic trip. I took lots of photos and collected lots of stories and bought presents for pretty much everyone in my life but you, sorry, cuz we ran out of money and storage space in the suitcases, mostly because Donn bought a large Mauritanian tent since he’s regretted not keeping ours for years now. More to come very soon. How much detail do you want?
Part Three 1/2: Most Official Paperwork, Most Officious Friends.
Part Three was just getting too long. It’s summer; people are busy. Plus, you may recall, there was the whole how-much-detail-to-include debacle. Also, I am in a mood where I am swinging wildly between first and second person, sometimes even in the same sentence. This is frowned upon by all real writers. I do apologize.
Ok, back to our story, back to second person meaning first person, back to spelling mistakes not caught because I’m typing on a different computer and it just messes me up.
We left our spunky heroine, “you,” at the language center where she had just finally gotten a piece of paper stating that she used to work there, no longer worked there, had been paid a total of X dirhams, had paid X in taxes to the Moroccan government, and had been signed and stamped. (The paper, not “you.”) (And what? Now we’re in third person? This blogger seriously needs an editor.)
On receiving this paper in her hot little hands, “you” heads back downtown where she waits about 15 minutes for the woman to come back from lunch. Wait–this is sliding into the too-much-detail error. We’ll skip to the bit where she returns to the office, with Ismail and Donn, at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Our 3 friends are sent upstairs (this is symbolic, I’m pretty sure) to meet with the Chief of the First Subdivision of Moral People (chef de 1ere subdivision des personnes morales). I love this title and am hoping to incorporate it into my personal life at some point. They don’t just have a Moral Majority, for those of you who became aware of American politics in the 80s, they have their Moral Majority subdivided.And we, as tax-paying people who are hoping to leave, are in the very first division. I feel a little proud.
Before we go back into the third person, I would like to explain a teensy bit of French-influenced North African culture to you. Lunch time is sacred, and is taken properly and not skimped. The idea of a sandwich eaten at a desk is nightmarish, rather like a typical American might feel on being informed that lunch today will be a tiny bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke. Oh wait–that’s the airlines. Lunches are minimum 2 hours and involve 3 courses and, for the French themselves, a bottle or 2 of wine. (per familial group that is) And then one lingers over a tiny cup of espresso, while solving the problems of the world. One stretches, possibly goes for a short invigorating walk, then goes back to the office round 2:30 or 3. Many businesses don’t re-open till 4 or so. But the lady thought, and we thought, that the Chief of the Moral People (1st subdivision) might be back about 2. So we went about 2:30, just to give him some time.
We sit. We sit some more. We sit even more. Ismail chats animatedly to a woman in tight jean capris with a henna up her leg, and ends up exchanging phone numbers. I read a book. We sit some more. Ismail exclaims over a very modest outfit and hijab worn by another woman. “That’s how women should dress,” he tells us, but he doesn’t talk to her. We sit some more. Finally a secretary arrives. She introduces us to the sub-chef, who fusses because I didn’t have a “bulletin de salaire.” I point out the sheaf of papers, all officially stamped and signed, which details my salary in minutiae, but they were viewed as sadly inadequate.
Finally, with much rejoicing, came the arrival of the great man himself. Ismail is happy. “I know him!” he tells us. “His family are our neighbours! I’ve even met him before. This is really good.” I am happy too. The chef wears a striped suit, striped shirt and striped tie, all in varying colours and stripe-widths and patterns, yet all dark, muted shades. The effect is sort of numbing, which I’m sure was intentional—kind of like the red “power” tie in America.
We are shown into the office. Ismail shakes the Chef’s hand, reminds him of their connection, tells him what wonderful people we are and that he hopes the Chef will do all he can to help us. The chef frowns over my sheaf of papers. He asks me a few questions. Then he makes a pronouncement: if I can produce a copy of my contract with the language center, that will be enough.
This had actually occurred to us a couple of days earlier, but then we found we’d packed it. So back out to the language center we go. They love me there.
Next morning, we are back in the waiting chairs by about 10. The Chef isn’t in yet. Nor is his secretary. We discuss how when the cat’s away the mice will play. Ismail likes that one. I remodel the waiting room in my mind. It’s a huge room, empty but for 3 chairs in one corner, the attached kind you find in airports. I imagine it with a carpet, paint, a fake plant in a corner, fun Moroccan lanterns. Inviting, comfortable. It helps pass the time.
Eventually the guy shows up about 11 or so. The Big Man, wearing the same all-stripes-all-the-time outfit, looks over the contract and reads it and finally, after some deliberation, agrees it is fine. Back we go to the sub-chef who is now out of the office. Eventually he shows up (aside: he was really working) and prepares an attestation or signs it or something, then he takes it back across to Monsieur Stripes, who actually stamps it. Then it goes back to Stripes Jr, who breathes on it or something, then it goes to the secretary, who records it, then it is placed gently into a snow-white folder and handed reverently to us. It was a big moment for us. We looked, and all it was was the paper from the language center, but now with two (TWO!) additional signatures and stamps. “Is this right?” we queried, but the secretary assured us it was, all the etrangers get this paper. And sure enough, later we give the paper to our shipping agent and it is accepted as right.
Ismail was very proud of himself. “I really helped you,” he pointed out. “Without me, you wouldn’t have gotten very far.” We agreed. We thanked him profusely, from our hearts. He was absolutely right. But he wasn’t done. “If I charged you for my time,” he said, “It’d be a lot of money.” We were puzzled. We were pretty sure, even given our relative lack of cultural understanding, that we weren’t supposed to pay him. We’re friends. He’s our landlord, but we hang out. We discuss the world. Elliot watched most of the World Cup with him. But then he laughs. “Of course I’m kidding,” he says. We laugh too, uneasily. We’re not sure what he’s trying to tell us. And he doesn’t let it drop. For the next several days he tells us how much we owe him, tells us he’s joking, but seriously we wouldn’t have gotten far if he hadn’t come along. And it kind of spoils it for us. We’d planned to do something really nice for him as a thank you, but he takes the wind out of our sails.
Coming soon: Part Four (really 5 but who’s counting): The Container Arrives!
Continuing our new tradition of going to the last night of concert events in Rabat, we managed to make to the final evening of the Jazz au Chellah series. Long time readers (mythical creatures that exist only in my mind) will remember that I have mentioned the Chellah several times before. These ancient Roman and Moroccan ruins surrounded by a medieval wall are a popular spot to visit, and when we saw the posters advertising the event we knew instantly that they would be a perfect venue for an open-air jazz concert. Then we promptly forgot. Fortunately Shannon, my personal event coordinator, was on hand to call and remind me.
I, unusually, had to work till 8—the time the concert started. I’d just rushed my class out and gotten in the car when Shannon called. “I’m saving seats but it’s getting ugly,” she warned me. “They have seats? Cool!” I replied. I flew—that is, I drove sensibly and carefully—across town, picked up my family who were waiting for me, and hightailed it over to the Chellah. Parking was adventurous. The kids spotted several of their teachers’ cars, which didn’t surprise me, since apparently all of Rabat had driven to this very spot at the same time.
Once inside the Chellah, walking along a path strung with twinkle lights, it became apparent where all the occupants of all those cars were now. Every single seat was taken, plus every available inch in the aisles and on the steps. The carpets laid between the bleachers and the stage were crammed with bodies. It was a fire marshal’s worse nightmare. We actually did manage to spot Shannon and her son, and we waved cheerfully. Then, we found a spot at the edge of the carpets, and settled down to enjoy the jazz.
The first concert was a Finnish group, Ilmiliekki Quartet, and they were fine. This is a snippet so I’m not going to get into details. The twins kept insisting that they had “very good views” and borrowing my camera to take blurry photographs.
At the break, Ilsa and I managed to make our way up to sit by Shannon, thanks to her son going down to the carpets to hang out with Elliot, who had been brought to the concert by force. (He took some pains to make sure I understood that he did not like jazz and wanted to go to a café and watch a soccer match, but we insisted that the experience of an open-air concert in ruins that are millennia old was not to be missed). As I was squeezing my way down the row, past others who cheerfully made way for me, I managed to bang a woman in front in the side of the head with my purse. I apologized profusely but she was not to be mollified, pulling a face and muttering about “americaines” to her companion. Shannon, shaking with laughter, told me she’d done the same thing earlier, then her son had kicked their chairs accidentally (he’s tall), plus they’d been extremely irritated with her for trying to save seats. “They talked about me in Arabic for at least 10 minutes,” she said.
We saw several friends, teachers or kids from my kids’ school, and waved at them. It was beginning to get dark by this point.
Finally the second group came out; a combination European jazz trio and a gnaoua group—which is kind of worldbeat, quasi-religious music originally from Morocco, Mali, and West Africa in general. The set up included two complete drum sets and a xylophone made of gourds, as well as spaces for guitar and saxophone and singers. Initially, it was a trio—drummer Ramon Lopez and saxophonist Louis Sclavis , as well as Majid Bekkas, who sang and played the sintar.
A diversion arrived in the form of some attention-starved young men. One, dubbed “Morocco Man” by my family, was wearing a red unitard with a green “S” on the chest and green undies. His hair was a red Mohawk and his cape was a Moroccan flag (red with green star outlined in center). His friend was high on something more than life, I sensed. He had long floaty hair. Together they danced enthusiastically at the edge of the stage. It was funny to watch people’s reactions. On the one hand, many people were simply entertained. On the other, the dynamic duo were definitely the focus of a lot of attention, and you could see that the saxophonist in particular wasn’t too happy about it, although he kept that tight-lipped “hey I’m cool” smile going. The dancers tried to pull everyone into their happy skippy dance, and got yelled at for their pains. But the TV crews filmed them, and I could see why the musicians were less than thrilled.
Why yes, my blog would look much better if I always used Donn’s pics. But I don’t, because I keep finding copies of my blog posts on other sites, which annoys me no end. It’s not fair to subject him to that.
Later, 2 more singers/chanters came out, dressed in traditional multi-coloured outfits, clanking their krakebs rhythmically, and a young man with an enormous smile appeared to play the gourd-xylophone, which had a very sweet sound. A second European drummer appeared, and enjoyed getting the crowd involved. It was a very enthusiastic audience. Majid Bekkas started playing a thumb-piano, which I found fascinating. Donn wanted one of those for years and I was never very sympathetic (although rather that than a dijeridoo), but I found the plunking of the thumb piano to be very melodic and pleasant. Later Bekkas switched to an oud, the sound rich in the mellow dusk. The saxophonist proved to be adept at clarinet and trumpet as well, and the two drummers and the singers added rhythm and harmony to the warm summer night.
Gnaoua music is not our favorite. It’s awfully repetitive, for a start. We were glad we’d come and it was worth seeing, but it was also now after 11 on a school night, and plus we wanted to beat the crowd. So we left early. Ilsa bought herself a very cool black “Jazz au Chellah” tshirt for $3.50, which she now wears with black leggings and bead necklaces, looking freakily like I looked in the late 80s. Seriously. Same hairstyle, same penchant for wearing one long dangly earring and one small stud.
We found our car and took a look back at the Chellah lit up for the night.
It was gorgeous. We wish we’d made it to more of the concerts, but that’s life.