Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hiking in my Site

Thanksgiving Pics

Our Turkey... it was honestly one of the best Thanksgiving turkeys I've ever eaten. We killed and plucked it ourselves.

Chris and I playing guitar.

Enjoying our feast

A hike later that day. This is Barry and Madeleine on top of a mountain we climbed. I just like this picture of them.

Jamming out in the rug store the next day. I bought one so my room would be just that much warmer. From left to right that's Andrea, Madeleine, Josh, and I. I think we were singing Wagon Wheel.

Bathing and the Hammam

Ok, so let me tell you what happens when you get lazy. You’ve cooked yourself a meal and it took a while to make so after you have enjoyed every last morsel you sprawl out on your couch, loosen your pants, and maybe even let out a satisfied burp. What you are by no means in the mood to do, however, is to clean up after yourself. What awaits you the next day (or if you are like me and don’t have running water so washing dishes means lugging water back to your house) or a couple of days later is pots that are no longer able to be cleaned with a mere sponge. What do you do? Well, you probably fill whatever it is with water and let it soak and then maybe even attack it with some steel wool.

If what I’ve just described isn’t a situation you ever find yourself in then congratulations, you either don’t cook for yourself and you really need to learn, or you don’t ever get lazy. If you’re never in a lethargic mood, then… well… I have nothing to say to you. You’re super-human. Sit there and wait a while, someone is coming with your medal.

I don’t want to tell you about cooking right now, although I did just make myself a spectacular chicken tajine stuffed with almonds and dates. I want you to now turn your mind to personal hygiene and specifically bathing. I live in the bled (countryside), have no running water, and so don’t really get to bathe myself very often and much like the pot I described above when I do get around to bathing myself, there is a lot of… well… collected nastiness that needs an extra effort.

During the summer it wasn’t a major issue because I could bathe on my roof in the sunshine and the sun would dry me before I was even done bathing. Now it is so cold that during the “heat of the day” I’m bundled up in three or four layers and a blanket and I’m still shivering. I end up getting up much later because it takes me a full hour to get up enough courage to brave the cold outside my blankets (all four of them). Yes I know, I’m cold in Africa, go figure. Before I could take a trip into town and visit one of my Peace Corps Volunteer friends who had a hot shower (that would be the Small Business Development and the Youth Development people otherwise known as Posh Corps) and I would be all set. Sadly, however, all of them just COSed (Close of Service… there two years were up) and the new crowd is still with their host families. What is a poor Peace Corps Volunteer to do? Good thing that in Morocco we have public baths that are the personal hygiene equivalent of a long soak and steel wool.

When I lived in Budapest there was a Hammam (public bath) that I went to every other weekend and in Budapest what that meant was heated pools, steam rooms and a massage all for like four dollars. It was spectacular. Granted everyone in there was naked so some of my friends couldn’t really handle that which meant that a lot of times I went solo. The point is, the Hammam in Budapest was a relaxing experience. I would call it luxurious but it was so inexpensive. That is not at all what the Hammam is here. There are a few similarities… there is steam, and there is water, and a bunch of men although they aren’t fully naked. That’s where the similarities end. People come to these places to actually get clean. Who’d a thought?

So let me describe this process with you and I’ll start by letting you in on the tools you bring with you. You of course have your soap and shampoo. What would bathing be without those? Most people, including myself, also bring their razors from some spectacularly close shaving. I have a nice straight edge razor that someone special gave me that I like to use. It’s shwiya dangerous, but it makes me feel cool that I’m using a straight edge which of course makes up for the danger. You also have to bring your “aghlaf” (I’m not sure of the Arabic word for this thing) which is a large container for water about twice the size of a coffee mug. This is what you use to get the water out of the buckets they provide for you and onto your person to rinse away the week long build up of mud, sweat, and, you know… it’s a week without showering, you get the picture. The final piece is what makes this Hammam experience so cleansing; it is the “Kis”. In dishwashing terms, this is the steel wool. Picture a wash cloth that fits on your hand like a mitten but is only a fraction softer than actual steel wool. Sound horrifyingly painful? I thought so too until I charged recklessly into the unknown.

So you pay your fee, usually about seven Dirhams which used to be like 80 something cents, but now is closer to a dollar thanks to the dollar being extremely weak right now.

(To follow a quick rabbit trail, I had the shock of my life while my granddad and uncle were here travelling. I went to go change some money and the teller at the bank told me that I should have brought Canadian Dollars. I’ve lived abroad for half my life, and have never heard anyone say anything remotely similar to that. I almost had a heart attack laughing.)

Then you go into this room where everyone is changing. Now like I said, in Hungary people just walked around naked and no one cared. Here, that is not the case. There is a sense of modesty so as your are putting on your underwear to go into the Hammam area you cover yourself with a towel. You then leave all of your things in a little cubby hole, grab two buckets and head in with only yourself, your underwear, and your “cleaning supplies”.

Now you have two options, you can bathe yourself or you can have someone do it for you. Most of the time I bathe myself, but on the rare occasion that I’m in the mood, whatever that means, I get someone to do it for me. This is an extremely intense experience and I guarantee you that after this guy is done you will be the cleanest you have ever been in your life.

I usually just do it myself so I’ll describe that process. You walk in through three rooms of increasing heat to where the water is dispensed. There’s HOT water and COLD water. Those are capitalized for a reason. You make a mix of the two you deem appropriate and tolerable and then pick out a spot on the floor next to some other guys also dealing with a week’s worth of build-up, wash down that spot on the floor (this part is necessary) and then plop down. I usually just sit there for a bit and pour hot water all over myself while the heat starts to take effect. I then follow that by stretching for a good long while just relaxing and breathing in the steam and letting my pores open.

After I feel sufficiently stretched out, I plop back down and then shave by feel which is extremely satisfying because you are bearing witness to just how close the shave is as you are going. When you have a mirror in front of you, you can be tempted to rely on the visual which can be misleading. You’ll make it to work later and then there’s a whole spot near your Adam’s apple, just below your nose, and under your jawbone that you missed. After the skin on my face is as smooth as I could possibly make it I move on to washing my hair. I don’t think that needs any explanation.

And now we come to my new, favorite part… the steel wool. I put this thing on my hand and then basically scrub my entire body… ENTIRE body… until about three layers of dead skin (and probably some life skin too… I usually come out looking red all over) are scraped away. Is this painful? Not really. It works a lot like a washcloth should, but when you use a washcloth with soap you are basically lubricating the cloth so that it doesn’t work well as a scrubbing agent. The “Kis’s” sole purpose is to scrub and it does a very efficient job at it.

After you are all rubbed down you then rinse off and then pick up your soap. This part, like the shampoo, needs no explanation. Now when I am finished and have rinsed off, I usually do something that most Moroccans do not. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen any Moroccans do this so I guess it’s a little American twist to the whole thing. I fill up a bucket with the COLD water and dump it all over me. I think it’s a nice cool down from the entire experience. I guess you could say it brings closure to the relationship you just had with the Hammam.

You then exit to where your clothes are, dry off, change and be on your merry way with your skin all over feeling the smoothest it could possibly be because it was basically just sanded down and then varnished. If I ever find myself making the kind of money that would allow me to design my own house, I am definitely building myself a personal Hammam. However if my past is any indicator as to the type of salaried jobs I’m likely to see in the future, I’m probably going to having that dream for a great deal longer before it gets fulfilled.

Now if you had someone else wash you the experience goes about the same except it adds a bit to the price, and the whole time (except the shaving) you have someone else scrubbing you down, rinsing you, stretching you, washing you, and then rinsing you again. All of that is spectacular except for the stretching. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff the guy did to me today is going to permanently damage something inside me.

Let me use this opportunity to comment to all of you who cringe at the thought of another male, especially one who, like you, is only clad in underwear, wash you down. If that makes you uncomfortable, no problem… just do it yourself. In America if we see girls walking down the street with their arms linked we think nothing of it. Here it is the same with men. Men who are walking down the street together will hold hands, link arms, etc. They don’t even have to like each other. Two guys in my town who loathe each other had to attend a meeting and were talking on the way there and held hands. I don’t want to offer a public explanation for this cultural difference although I have had many discussions about it, some serious but others comical. I’ll leave the why up to you.

So there you have it. I’m sitting here writing this, listening to Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, and David Grisman jam out and feeling extremely clean but disappointingly cold. Next time I might write about what happens when I let the dirty clothes build up for a long time… well, that’s a different story. The only communal solution to that is the weekly party the women have down by the river where they wash the clothes and I am most definitely not invited to that party. They have offered to wash my clothes, but I don’t feel comfortable asking someone else to do that for me. I will say this… vinegar in your rinsing water acts as a fabric softener. You learn all sorts of cool stuff like that living here.

I hope this finds you all warm and content in the direction your lives are taking. If times are rough, know that joy comes in the morning. And for those of you who pray, please remember the victims of the attacks in Algeria this past week.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts on Service

I want to take a moment and write something out of character for this blog. If you are looking for experiences about Morocco, cultural insights, or funny stories you can go ahead and skip this entry. Times have been a bit tough lately in terms of work related to Health, yet I must constantly remind myself that I am not just here for the purpose of development.

I’ve been re-reading an old American history textbook from college that I had my parents send me. You can go ahead and laugh, I’m fully aware that I’m a bit of a nerd… ok, very much so a nerd. I’ve also been re-watching the Band of Brothers miniseries. For those of you who know me well or are mildly acquainted with my story with the military as well as my development in relation to patriotism, the fact that I am in the Peace Corps should offer no surprise. Let me tell you though that as many of you are, I too am not a static individual. I never have had all of the answers and continue to discover my own ignorance and immaturity… I am a twenty something after all. I guess that’s all part of growing up. That being said, I want to try to explain to you how I see this time in Morocco…

There is a part of me that is extremely individualistic and let’s be honest… selfish. I guess that’s a part of having moved around a lot and never having to take anyone else into account for very long. That goes for friends and girlfriends on one level, but on an entirely different plane that also includes my country of birth.
I confess that I have been all over the map when it comes to seeing myself as an American. At a younger age I was more enchanted with the dream that is our nation, but as I began to get beyond the “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” account of our story and then found myself living abroad, I began to be alienated from my birthplace. I viewed myself at various points in my life as either a “kingdom citizen” (those who grew up in the Church will understand that one), a citizen of the world, or as some kind of a being constantly creating its own meaning and divorced from any labels. The journey through these paradigms has left conflicting voices in my head all vying for dominance, but let that lie for the moment.

There were many things that factored into my decision to join Peace Corps, some noble, others less so. I’m not going to talk about them right now. Interestingly enough, though, I am coming to find that it is not necessarily what motivates you to begin something, but what motivates you to stay. I’ve had several opportunities to leave; a job offer to which I had applied before coming, an outside shot at joining the world of musicians here in North Africa and in Europe (that’s an interesting story for another day), as well as simply how easy it is to just leave. Every time something has come up that could switch my direction so far, I have done my soul searching and make the conscious decision to stick. I don't know that that means this will always be the case, I can only speak for the present.

Yes, there are times when the work surrounding Health is slow or really non-existent. My Programming Staff has actually looked into changing my site because of the lack of people with which I have to work here. Let me take a moment to explain why that is. Over the past few decades there have been plenty of examples of failed development projects worldwide and the stories mostly go something like this…
X (where X is a large sum) amount of money was donated to buy Y (where Y is some sort of thing that was supposed to make life better) for Z (where Z is some people we consider desiring of our help) and we come and install it. For a certain number of years Z all feast on the bounty of the land that didn’t exist before we got there until one day Y breaks. Z then comes looking for help only to find that we have moved on to Q (where Q is the next new thing that is supposed to make life better) and are now working with V (where V is some other people we consider desiring of our help). The problem was that we dropped something off and didn’t bother teaching anyone how to fix it, or build it or really do anything other than use it. The end result is that we really didn’t help anyone; we just kept people in a cycle of dependency.

What we are supposed to be doing is what we call “Capacity Building” which means we’re supposed to be teaching people how to do things for themselves. So when I talk about a Medical Waste Incinerator project what I mean is that I’m working with people to assist them in raising the money and building the medical incinerator and then helping them educate others in running and maintaining it. Let me just say that although my tone at the moment may sound sarcastic (or maybe that’s just in my head), it’s not because I don’t believe very strongly that this is what should be done. The sarcastic tone is that this approach means that seeing the fruit of your labour is neither frequent nor guaranteed which leaves for a frustrating day to day experience. The difficulty in my site is that there are no active associations with which to work, only farmers who are scattered throughout the hills and aren’t given to working together on any particular anything.

This brings us back to the question of what motivates me to stay. My answer is quite round about, but I promise we’ll get there. Stephen Colbert in his comic genius once said of the Peace Corps that he loves it because it takes all of the people who hate America out of the country and puts a shovel in their hand. Extremely overstated, but at the time it hit close to home. I’m not supposed to make political statements on here (which for me comes close to being impossible), so I’ll tread lightly. Let’s just say that it had gotten to the point where all I could see was who we as a people screwed over in the past, who was getting screwed over in the present, and who we were setting ourselves up to screw over in the future. If I sound like the joker at every party who has to bring up the topics that utterly ruin the mood, the comparison is a valid one. If this makes you feel any better, my pessimism wasn’t simply related to my country, it was also my faith (but I’m going nowhere near that one now).

An unintended consequence of being here in Morocco is that it allowed me to step outside of the bubble of academia and the day to day of my petty political, historical and theological grievances and into the unknown where none of that mattered, and has caused me to reexamine my identification. When one is constantly surrounded by various “end of the world” problems (at least in your own head) and you tend to be of a sort who dives into them with both feet like I am, stepping out can make you really examine what you really cared about in the first place. Let me say really quickly that I’m not bashing academia, I love that world and am probably headed back at some point, nor am I saying the things I cared about were petty. What I am saying is that I lacked perspective; perspective I am still gaining. That being said, being in Morocco has allowed me to drop the pessimism related to my origins.

I’m going to write a sentence that not too long ago would have been impossible for me to write without pages of explanation and obfuscation. I AM AN AMERICAN.

Now back to why I mentioned my true geekiness with the textbook and miniseries. For the textbook, I believe that there is merit in returning again to the stories of your past. Since I’ve been here I’ve been continually coming back to man’s story be it Herodotus and Plutarch, or the Qur’an, Al-Ghazali, and Ibn Khaldun, or texts on European and Economic History, or Theology and its development. I started broad but have recently been delving into my own national identity. I don’t know that I ever allowed for balance in my recounting, but for some reason it took Morocco to make me see that not only do we have our Nathan Bedford Forrests and George Wallaces in our history, but we also have Harriet Tubmans and Martin Luther King Jrs. The point is that we have been forging our history ever since nomadic tribes stumbled on the land while hunting large mammals across the frozen wastelands of the north. And although that forging has not always been honorable, it is our story none the less. I think it was highly na├»ve of me to assume that we should get it right all the time.

Now on to the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. I got this as a Father’s Day gift for my dad a couple of years ago. It is about the 101st Airborne Division during WWII which happened to be my grandfather’s unit (who I never met). I have always been drawn to service in various areas of my life, and what now seems like three lifetimes ago it drew me to seek an ROTC scholarship in college. I’m not going to go into that episode of my life, but I find myself once again unwittingly serving my country abroad. Some of you reading this may scoff at that idea when coupled with thoughts of the sacrifice made 60 years ago. I understand your skepticism, but let me explain…

The world has changed. What happens in your backyard does affect me and national sovereignty is slowly losing its significance. The United States of America is a world power with its economic and military might stretching across the globe with both positive and negative outcomes and whether we like it or not those negative consequences, unintended as they may be, come back to haunt us. I’m not talking solely of military actions, but also of cultures who one day have no electricity and the next have a satellite signal beamed into their homes with the wonder that is American cinema, TV, and music. We have battles in our own country, as “modern” as it is, over the value of certain types of images. Now imagine a culture that hasn’t based its social contract on the separation of church and state grappling with Chuck Norris, Penthouse, and MTV.

We are here not only to do development work, but also to be who we are… energetic, idealistic, and caring Americans. We are here to bring a little bit more understanding into this constantly objectifying world. We are here to be the counterbalance to blind hatred. We are here to head those negative consequences off at the pass. We are here for ourselves, our country, our world, and all of our futures. It doesn’t come with Purple Hearts, parades, or holidays and no one will ever ask us to stand up during church on a specified day to honor our service, but we are here none the less… I am here none the less.

So now finally to answer the question of why I am still here… Even when work goes slowly, I’m still a part of something greater, and although my part in the play may be small for the moment, I’m still on stage.