dimanche 25 mars 2012

Goats, Fish, Camels, and Haggling for Leather

Today was an epic day. Hassan took us to the oceanside resort city of Agadir. We left Taroudant by the back road, and stopped along the way to grab a quick photo op with a herd of goats in an Argan grove. The symbiosis among goats, argan trees, and humans is amazing... the goats climb the trees to eat the raw fruit, and then swallow the pits. Later at night, back in the fold, the goats regurgitate the seeds to chew their cud, and spit out the pits conveniently for the farmers. The pits are gathered, hulled, roasted (if to be used for cooking, and left raw if to be used for cosmetics), and ground by hand into a paste. The paste is then kneaded by hand until the oil separates from the solid matter, and once the oil is drained off the solids are formed into balls which are then fed back to the goats.

I never realized until I picked one up today how snuggly kids are. That's kids as in baby goats of course. The little thing just went totally limp when I picked it up and carried it around.

After about a 90 minute drive we arrived in Agadir, a totally modern resort city (the old city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1960s). After a taking in the beach area, marina, and bird sanctuary, we drove up the coast a bit to the town of Tagazhout, where we found camels on the beach just beggin for us to ride them Naturally we obliged, and we have the video to prove it! My advice to travelers-- when you'rea tourist, just be a tourist. Don't try to blend in like the Rhode Islanders who come to Camden, Maine, wearing pink polo shirts and carrying canvas bags with whale logos.

Lunch, by the way, was remarkably familiar-- deep friend seafood in the open air. Different varieties than on our side of the Atlantic, but otherwise it was remarkably like sitting outdoors at the lobster pound.

We ended the day with a visit to the souk in Agadir, where I made some of my big purchases for the trip-- a lambskin jacket and a cowhide courier bag. My haggling skills, refined through my adventures in Beijing pearl markets, were employed with Jedi-like focus. In all honesty-- I did quite well-- even Hassan was really impressed. He did help considerably, though, when he said to the leather merchant, "Look, these aren't tourists, they're friends. And they're teachers like me. When he says that's the most he can afford to pay, he's not giving you a hard time-- just being honest." In the final estimation, it was fairly successful to decide how much I could pay and simply say, "This jacket is beautiful and I love it-- I really just can't afford it at that price. I'm really sorry." And then start to leave. I Must have been called back a dozen times for each purchase and finally got very close to my original offer. Firm but respectful seems to do the trick. Kind of like teaching.

samedi 24 mars 2012

Teaching in Taroudant

Today we spent our first real morning in the school, and I had the opportunity to teach two classes. They were all high level students, between 30 and 42 per class, and very attentive and respectful. I started by asking them to brainstorm about "America" on paper, and indicated a number of categories such as "Culture," "Government," "People," etc. Then the students shared their responded, and I encouraged them to be very honest. A very broad range of responses ensued. In the first class, I actually had time to talk to them about lobstering in Maine, and passed around the lobster gage to see if they could guess what it was (they couldn't). One, very enthusiastic student, Miriam, gave a powerpoint presentation about the history of Taroudant, and invited us to come to her home to visit with her family, which we gratefully accepted.

I asked all the students to end the lesson by writing me a note about what they think they learned-- can't wait to share these responses with my students back in Maine.

vendredi 23 mars 2012

I blog; therefore, I am.

At long last, I am blogging.

We are actually well into our trip, and now I am sitting in the lobby of Caesar's Palace in Casablanca, sipping a glass of red wine, waiting for a 10pm overnight bus to Taroudant, in the southern part of the country. Thankfully, this hotel is right next to the bus station, and with free wifi, live guitar music, a 5-star restroom, and Sharolyn's fine company-- it makes for a nice little hiatus from our hectic schedule of the past several days.

So I need to catch up on the highlights of the trip thus far. Our journey out last Saturday/Sundaywas uneventful until the last leg, when our flight from Paris to Rabat was rerouted to Casablanca due to high winds. From there, we took a long, slow, stinky bus ride back to Rabat. Naturally it took the bus quite some time to get going, and after we had sat waiting outside the Casablanca airport for about 45 minutes, a Moroccan guy in a Red Sox jacket got up and started yelling at the driver in Arabic. Then he turned to the rest of us and shouted in English, "You should all get off this bus! I'm Moroccan and I know what he means when he says 2-3 minutes. Try 2-3 hours!" He then stormed off the bus, and clearly he hoped the rest of us would follow in some sort of protest. We, however, we sheep. He came back after a minute, defeated. 

We left about an hour later. Dinner in Rabat was late, and very welcome. Finally in bed around midnight-- adventure underway.

The next day we had conferences in the hotel for the better part of the morning, lunch in the hotel, and in the afternoon a visit with the Moroccan Minister of Education. He emphasized Moroccan's lack of natural resources, and explained that the government sees human capital as the country's greatest resource. For that reason, Education is the largest budget line in the national budget.

Imagine what American schools would be like if we decided to spend more on Education than anything else?

That afternoon, we toured Rabat's medina-- a maze of little shops selling everything from rugs to leather goods to turtles and sheep's heads. It was fantastic-- probably what most westerners picture when thinking of Morocco.

Moving ahead to yesterday (Tuesday), we spent the morning in conferences again, and then left for the Fulbright center for Moroccan-American exchange. This was fascinating, and I left half-convinced that I should take my Foreign Service exam and go into the diplomatic corps. Maybe in my future life...

A really funny thing happened as we were boarding the bus that day.  As we were all boarding a bus, and I was digging in my bag for those Altoids I bought. In the meantime, the door to the van was open, and some vagrant/beggar guy with rotten teeth came up and started talking obtrusively to the people sitting near the door. I was behind them and I didn't really notice. The I found the Altoids and staring offering them to everyone on the bus. When I looked up, the vagrant guy was looking at me and talking to me in Arabic, except I thought he was the bus driver, and that he was asking me for an Altoid. So I reached over the woman in front of me and gave him the box of Altoids, thinking that he would hand them back. He looked surprised, stepped back, and then took about 7 of them and ate them while putting the box in his pocket. That's when I realized this was not our bus driver. The look on his face, though, would have been perfect for an Altoids commercial-- "curiously strong." He was totally surprised by them, and shouted out in French, "C''est bon!" It was pretty funny.

That night I had an amazing dinner-- lamb Tagine. Look it up online-- it was exquisite. Honestly, the food here is the best I have EVER had.

Finally, today we spent the day in Casablanca, and I had a chance to interact with some high school students in a senior level English class. They really went out of their way to impress us-- they put on a play with costumes, trying to teach us about Moroccan customs and culture. Then, afterwards, they really wanted to talk with us, take pictures with us, hug us-- it was really touching. Their hospitality and appreciation of us was definitely genuine, and it really touched me. It makes me eager to get into the school in Taroudant to interact with kids again on a daily basis.

Pictures will come soon! Signing off for now!

Finally in Taroudant!

At long last, Sharolyn and I  have settled in Taroudant. First, the backstory.

We were the lucky first pair to leave the main group, and were dropped off at the bus station in Casablanca for an overnight bus ride to Taroudant. Luckily for us, there was a Caesar's Club Sheraton hotel right next to the bus station, so we were able to go next door and enjoy drinks, wifi, and 5-star bathrooms before we departed. On the way back to the bus station, Sharolyn stopped at a pay-phone to call home for her daughter's birthday, and we  were approached by a few (clearly drunk) older men who made some moderately coherent conversation with us. This didn't last long, as a couple of guys sitting in the doorway of the nearby bus station came over with their dog, who barked at the old drunk guys. They said to us, "I'm sorry!" and basically drove off the old drunks. I could discern that they were saying to each other in French, "The poor people just want to use the phone-- they don't need this!" It was quite nice of them to come to our rescue.

Shortly thereafter, our bus was late in boarding, and Sharolyn and I were beginning to be afraid we had missed it. We walked around the station and tried all the doors. It wasn't long before and older man in a traditional Berber gown approached us and assured us, in English, that we hadn't missed the bus. He had been living in Australia for the past 30 years (a very interesting accent!) and was coming home to Taroudant to visit his brother ofr 3 months. I think he was a bit concerned about us because he certainly made efforts to take care of us for the rest of the trip. Another example that travelers can usually take some comfort in the goodwill of people to help out.

At long last we arrived in Taroudant, and our host, Hassan, was not yet at the bus station. Our self-appointed caretaker lingered a bit to tell us where our hotel was, but had to leave before Hassan arrived. I think he was clearly worried about us, but we were certainly fine-- Hassan arrived within 10 minutes and showed us to our hotel, Palais salam. A gorgeous place-- it was formerly the residence of a pasha, and is built into the city's medieval walls. It has extensive, lush garden, and is divided into 12 suites for the pasha's wives.

After napping away the morning, we met Hassan again and toured his school, met the headmaster and several other teachers. Again, the hospitality and consideration shown to us has been very touching. Tomorrow we will observe several classes.

This evening we toured the city and had another excellent meal-- Tagine Pigeon aux prummeax. That's pigeon with prunes-- and it was exquisite.