Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moonfest and Smoked Salmon

The last few weeks have been busy and memorable. I left off in my last blog post with the preparations for the international music festival, Moonfest, taking place in Lalla Takerkoust. As planned, the women came to my house each day for a week to prepare platters of sweets to sell at the festival. I enjoyed having my house be the center of activity, especially since I knew it was just for a little while. I learned how to make new types of colorful and tasty Moroccan cookies. On the first day of Moonfest, our pick-up truck man Hassan came to my door at daybreak and we piled everything in the back. The women spent the morning setting up the display cases and products in the tent up by the lake. Meanwhile, two of the association members participated in a cooking contest coinciding with the festival. Choumicha, the host of a cooking show on national television (channel 2M), had selected a group of about 10 women from the commune to prepare traditional meals in front of a panel of judges. Our two members, Aicha and Rabia, won first and second place! They proudly returned to the tent, holding their trophies. Choumicha was impressed with their work and brought her film crew by the tent to interview Naima and the women about the Association. They showed up on national television a couple weeks later, making the whole village proud.

The rest of the festival went well. There was much more competition this year with other associations and community members often selling the same items. Association Tamyourt didn’t gain as much as in the previous festival, but we came out positive in profits thanks to some faithful customers. There were a few great bands in the concert roster, including the nationally famous groups Udaden and Rouicha. I was particularly excited to see Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara perform on Saturday night.

A few days after Moonfest, my parents came to visit! We spent a fantastic two weeks hanging around my site, hiking in the High Atlas, visiting Marrakech, Essaouira, and the Imouzzer Falls down by Agadir. I was happy to finally show them where I’ve been living and working the last 18 months and introduce them to my local friends and counterparts. Several people showed such immense kindness and hospitality in helping me welcome them that we scratched our original plans to travel up to Fes and Ifrane so we could spend more time in my village. Their visit gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for Lalla Takerkoust, and Morocco in general.

Once the parents went home, I returned to normal life in village. I busied myself with English and French tutoring and elaborating a new project proposal with the local sports association. I’ve applied for another USAID small project grant to purchase exercise machines (treadmill, spinning bikes, step machines) for a new youth and sports center being built by the soccer field. The grant has been approved, but we’re waiting on USAID to release the funds for the fiscal year. The recent budget cuts are causing some delays, and I hope it comes through.

The Women’s Association building is coming along nicely. We were lucky enough to get a visit from the Canadian Ambassador himself on Halloween. He and a small delegation came to check up on the construction site before the Embassy sends the next allotment of funds. They were happy with the work accumulated thus far, and the women can be proud of their accomplishments. The Kaid (equivalent of town mayor) and Communal Council helped us set up a welcoming tent and we of course prepared an impressive spread of Moroccan pastries and breads for the Ambassador to taste. In return, he presented Naima with a fancy wooden box of Canadian smoked salmon. After the delegation left, the women came to me inquiring what in the world was in that box. I wonder how they will divide up this gift. I can just picture them divvying out single pieces of smoked salmon to each member. It’s definitely not a type of food they’re used to. But, the gesture was nice and the whole visit was quite positive.

Today is the eve of the Eid Al Ahda. Tomorrow, many rams go under the knife. I look forward to participating in this week’s festivities. Things have evolved a great deal for the better since last year at this time.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

As my mother reminded me yesterday, it’s been a while since I posted an update on Lalla Takerkouste, the women’s association, and life in Morocco. Summer has come and gone, as has Ramadan. Work at the bakery came to standstill in late July and August because the tiny loft becomes an inferno in high summer. That with the addition of heat emanating from gas stoves and the fact that everyone is fasting all day long killed any remaining motivation to work. During the summer, many Moroccan families living in the hot interior regions move out to vacation with relatives on the coast or up in the mountains. I followed suit.

In June and July, I took a couple trips to Essaouira, probably my favorite city in the country, to help out with an AIDS and health awareness campaign with other Volunteers and to enjoy the cool coastal winds. I took several exhilarating kite surfing lessons and wound up severely bruised from a technical mishap with my kite on the beach, but I don’t regret having done it.

In August I opted to escape Morocco altogether for a large chunk of Ramadan. I joined a small group of fellow Volunteers on a lovely trip around central and southern Spain. We visited, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, and spent a week at a beach resort in Marbella. The trip involved generous amounts of sangria, tapas, wine, and many games of cards. We returned to Morocco via a short ferry ride from Algeciras to Tangier, in time to spend the last 6 days of Ramadan in village.

Naima had been holding down the fort all summer, as she was required to stay for her job at the pharmacy. She and I had gone up to Rabat in July to settle paperwork for the Canadian Embassy grant. She’d received the first chunk of funds and launched the construction of the new Association building (foundation pictured on right). Luckily, her brothers and a couple other allies in the community have been giving her guidance on how to go about directing the labor, since she has no experience in that field. The building needs to be finished by the end of the year, at which time we will hopefully receive the solar-powered fruit dryers promised to the association since 2008 by CDRT (Development NGO in Marrakech). Once the building is finished, the women will finally have an adequate place to work freely, baking goodies and drying fruit.

In the meantime, there is a big international music festival next week in Lalla Takerkouste, called Moonfest ( ). All the local associations will have stalls to display and sell their products and the women are hoping to make a killing selling their sweets, crepes, and soup like we did last April. The festival will be shorter this time, but there should be many more visitors, including tourists and people from Casablanca and Rabat. Because the loft is too small to operate in, I’ve donated my house for the preparations. Today began the association take-over. We hauled ovens, ingredients, and other materials into my spare room and will spend the next 6 days baking away. Let’s hope it all goes well!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

All In A Day's Work

After days of doubting and pondering how to proceed with the next 11 months of my service in Morocco, yesterday everything seemed to just come together. Following the Spring Festival at the Barrage in April, work at the Women’s Association began to wane and I was worried the bakery project was losing fuel. I had turned in my project completion report to Peace Corps and handed over the Association treasury to Batoul. I wanted to see if the members would continue to propel themselves forward with the bakery. A few of the women stopped coming to work, therefore discouraging other members to work as well. The reasons I was given for their reluctance to show up were varied and hazy. Some weren’t getting enough monetary compensation, others didn’t get along with certain members, some had family matters to attend to. I had also stopped going every day partly because I needed a mental break and in part because I felt the members should upkeep their product demands in the community on their own, without me around to handle deliveries and money exchanges.

By mid May, 4 women bobbed back up to the surface and returned to work diligently. We decided to move out of the leased locale because rent was robbing them of the majority of their profits. They moved back to the tiny loft donated by Naima’s father, while I sent a grant proposal to the Canadian Embassy in Rabat for the construction of a new venue. The Commune had recently signed over a piece of land for the Association, and they’ve been dreaming of having a proper building to work out of for years. I was prompted to apply with the Canadian Embassy by a Moroccan Peace Corps staff member but honestly didn’t hold very high hopes for it. However, two weeks ago, the Embassy called to say they were interested in our project. We scrambled to send them a few more requested documents and then sat down to wait.

As June arrived, bringing with it the first tastes of summer weather, I began fretting about the prospect of sitting through the next 3 months of hellish heat, with Ramadan looming 8 weeks away and not many activities in store. I holed myself up with books and television shows for a few days, beginning to wallow in my uncertainties.

Yesterday I opted for a change of pace and called up my new friend Delphine, a French woman who lives in my site with her Moroccan husband and their beautiful baby boy, Ismail. I suggested we go for a hike along the lake and maybe venture for a swim. The two of us spent an absolutely beautiful day touring the villages and orchards, visiting a few of the other Europeans living in the area. We finished at Brigitte’s, a German leather artist who’s lived at the Barrage for the past 12 years with her 4 children. They have an ultimate utopist hippies’ lair on the water, 7 km outside of town, with a quiet grassy beach that Delphine and I took full advantage of. I’ve been here for 13 months and this was my first swim in the lake! I can’t believe I’ve waited this long. I even coaxed (dragged) Haddock to come in for a swim, though he wasn’t as big a fan. He much preferred wreaking havoc with the neighborhood guard dogs.

On our hike back to the village, I received a call from the Canadian Embassy, informing me they’d selected our project for funding! I hurried home to spread the good news to the Association members and found them in the midst of creating new delicacies. They were trying out new Algerian recipes they’d found online, courtesy of the laptop my dad donated to them in February. On top of a new wholesaler client they’d found in Marrakech who ordered 50kg of cookies, they were making another order for some women at the governor’s office. They seemed proud and motivated, which made me so happy. I ate a celebratory dinner at Delphine’s house, with good laughs, good drinks, good stories. Some days can be pretty lonely and rough, but it’s days like these that make it all worthwhile.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Festival

Spring break in Morocco has come and gone, and we’ve survived the first annual spring festival in Lalla Takerkouste. The days leading up to it and especially the seven days during it were exhausting to say the least, but it was well worth our efforts. This festival has given me a unique opportunity to really see how Moroccan women operate and work together under stress. I saw some true colors.

It started the eve of the festival. Batoul and I had ordered a set of glass display cases nearly two weeks prior with the village welder, but each time we went to check up on it, we received new excuses as to why they weren’t ready. The down payment was made and there was no chance of a refund. We had about 10 platters heaped with freshly made sweets and nothing to display them in. Naima, who barely stands at 5 feet, marched over to the welder’s on her lunch break and let him hear it. She told him, “Take off that mustache of yours and put on some lipstick, because you are not a man!”. By that night, somehow, he delivered three gleaming and beautiful display cases that became the envy of the festival participants. The next day, we piled all our platters, equipment, and a few young women on the back of a villager’s pick-up truck and slowly paraded our delicate cargo on the rocky dirt road to the festival grounds in the town center.

We started selling sweets (or Helwa in Moroccan) practically the minute we arrived. It took us a while to get relatively organized. The first few hours involved one girl accidentally knocking an entire plate of cookies on the ground while another one wearing ridiculously pointy cowboy boots with heels tripped on the gas burner and crashed against the side of the tent, nearly bringing the whole operation down. Then, just as we’d managed to set everything up nicely, a hail storm came out of nowhere, pelting bullet-sized hailstones all over our display cases. But, through all that, we kept on selling. Each evening, the women brought a large vat of Harira (Traditional Moroccan soup) and we made Moroccan crepes (L’Msmen) on the newly purchased L’Msmen grill. The commune set up a stage and had a DJ and live music groups animate into the night. A couple of the girls and I were logging 12 hour days working at the stand while the older women worked all day at the Association making more Helwa to replenish our quickly disappearing stock. During the evening rush hour, as I played cashier and had 6 women yelling out orders in French, Arabic, Berber, Ryals and Dirhams, and shoving bills at me, I got flashbacks of my 80 hour workweeks in busy South Beach restaurants. I don’t know if I would have made it through this week without that experience under my belt.

During the day, the Commune organized activities for the kids. A local artist did drawing and painting workshops and I helped out one day with a waste management education session. About 75 kids showed up and I thankfully had a translator help me out. It was chaotic but I think I got the basic message across about trash and hygiene. A group of three boys who attended the session stuck by my side every day, helping to pick up trash and bringing me an endless stream of paintings and drawings.

By the end of day seven, we were all weary and ready for rest. I crawled home and slept for 12 hours. I think I’m still recovering. After crunching some numbers, it looks like the Association will be able to pay rent for a few months with their festival profits. The members are happy and looking for another festival in the region to participate in.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just Another Sunday

After a weekly visit to my town’s market, I saw Batoul, an Association member and close friend, making a fire for their Hamam on my way home. She said I should go see Naima (Batoul’s sister and Association President) at the Association. She had some updates to give me regarding the upcoming festival in town. So I dropped off my groceries and went to meet her. She was having mint tea with Latifa and Malika, who’d just finished their order of bread for the day. FtaH, Naima’s nephew, was off delivering. Once the 2 women left, Naima and I discussed the festival. The Commune has recently decided to organize a type of fair in town during school spring break. It will last a minimum of two days, April 5-6 (but may extend for the rest of the week if the turnout is good). There will be stands available for local associations to display and sell their products. One of the stands is reserved for us. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next week, preparing pastries and figuring out the logistics. The Commune has also asked that I help them coordinate some environmental activities: trash management education, community clean-up and tree planting activities. (Finally, something related to my educational background!).

For the next couple hours, Naima and I organized the Association locale. We moved all the equipment we don’t use on a daily basis to the empty room, on top of the newly purchased table. Batoul and I had spent the day in Marrakech yesterday, buying the remainder of the equipment for the SPA grant. As we were emptying one of the large cardboard boxes of plates and bowls, I reached in to shift some items around and saw a sudden flash of dark fur swirl out of the box. I screamed and jumped upright. It was the biggest mouse-rat I’ve ever seen! Well, I’ve seen bigger in my house in Benin. But, it’s been years since I’ve been so close to one. Naima was in the other room and yelled back in alarm. I told her it was just a rat. She’d just filled two mouse holes in the room with pieces of rock and glass. I saw the rodent run straight for one of them and banged into the wall. He couldn’t find a way out. We slowly started emptying the rest of the equipment to move to the other room, wondering if the thing was still around. I eventually spotted it behind the flour bucket. As I moved it, the mouse-rat made a run for the oven. Naima and I cornered it there, emitting sporadic giggles and shrieks from the gross excitement of having a rat in our midst. We could hear its great mass clunking around between the gas tank and the storage cupboard. We shook the oven around until the rat finally exited the room and scurried out the front door to the gardens across the way. Hopefully it’s been terrorized enough never to return.

We finished organizing all the equipment and ingredient stock, making sure to keep all the foodstuffs in closed containers. We don’t have enough storage buckets for all the kilos of nuts, sugar, and flour we purchased for the upcoming festival. It will be good to get that display case and closed cupboard we ordered from the welder. Any day now… At 1, we went home for lunch, and returned a couple hours later to work with the women. A good group showed up: Naima, Rachida, Saida, Aisha, and Malika. Batoul was at home for her Hamam day. I’d made a comment to her about it yesterday while in Marrakech. I’d said, “what is it about the Hamam that renders women out of commission for the entire day?” She’d just laughed, then patiently explained yet another cultural norm I’d thus far failed to comprehend: The Hamam is a once a week event. It takes hours to prep the Hamam (if it’s in the home), scrub yourself down, and gather the energy afterwards to get yourself out of the hot steam room. It’s true, I’ve felt it. One is completely drained after that experience. Batoul gets a sort of flu half the time she goes. That’s why I’ve been staying away from the public bath. My flash bucket showers with never enough hot water are quick and sometimes painfully cold, but it gets my blood flowing fast and leaves me with enough energy to go about my day, most of the time.

Anyway, we made 4 kg of Qrishlat (little goldfish cracker-sized cookies with anise and sesame) today and discussed our gameplan for the festival. This will be good practice for the larger Moonfest taking place in September, and hopefully any other festivals we can attend during the summer. We are making Karbozel tomorrow: Crescent -shaped pastries filled with marzipan. I need to buy a carton of eggs and some margarine in the morning.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Bakery

I’ve finally made some time to conjure an update of my work in Lalla Takerkouste. The last couple weeks have been a whirlwind of activities at the Association, which has been a welcome change in routine for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In early February, I received a Peace Corps Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant to set up a bakery at the Women’s Association in the village. This wonderful news came just before I went home for a brief vacation in Ohio. With the immense help of my family and friend Caitlin, I took the opportunity to host a Moroccan dinner to share my experiences and talk about my upcoming bakery project. Just before going to Ohio, my Moroccan friends Naima and Batoul spent a day teaching me how to make couscous and tagine, so that I could replicate the feast in the States. We served traditional Moroccan salads and bread, Couscous with vegetables and caramelized onions, beef tagine with prunes and almonds, and an assortment of Moroccan baked goods, some of which were made by the Women’s Association members. All of the guests who attended the dinner, plus other family friends wanting to lend a hand, graciously donated funds to supplement the SPA grant. I returned to Morocco quite excited to get to work!

On February 28th, two Association members and I began purchasing bakery equipment in Marrakech. We spent hours in various house-ware shops and covered market stalls in the old city hunting for all the items on our list and negotiating with store owners before transporting it to the village in an ancient little covered pick-up. On March 4th, we set up shop and started operating from the newly rented locale. It’s an old house on the edge of the village, near the river, and right next to the olive and fruit orchards. For the past 10 days, a group of 5-6 women have been spending a minimum of 6 hours in the afternoons and evenings baking Qrishlat (little tea cookies we served with the dates and nuts at the dinner) and Ghriba (sesame cookies). Two women have also started working from 6-9AM to make traditional pan bread. They deliver it to the tagine cafĂ© owners each morning, who’ve been selling them like hot cakes. We are currently the only source of this type of bread in town, and the demand is quite high!

The funds collected at our Moroccan Dinner in Ohio has been extremely helpful and will continue to be so in the early stages of the bakery. We’ve been able to purchase start-up ingredients and some extra equipment that hadn’t made it on the SPA budget. I’ve been monitoring all the expenses with the Association Treasurer and we’re aiming to get the bakery on its feet as soon as possible, so that we can save the funds for other projects. For example, we would like to do a computer literacy class for the women and students in the village and purchase internet modem sticks. This would permit students to do online researching for school, and allow the women to look up new baking recipes.

Yesterday, March 13th, we had an opening ceremony, along with a visit from Peace Corps staff from Rabat. We gave the staff a tour of the locale with our newly purchased equipment on display, along with samples of tea and cookies. The Association boomed with dancing, laughing, singing women all afternoon.

There’s much work left to be done, but we’re advancing, little by little!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Olive Mill

I had a really interesting day yesterday: I went to visit my host mother in the morning (Malika) and we got to talking about olive oil. I inquired if there were any old-fashioned mule-powered olive mills in one of the villages here. She said there were but wasn't sure if they were using them right now because the olive harvest was bad this year. She offered to take me to see one in the afternoon. We met again at 3pm and walked into town, first stopping by the pharmacy to say hello to Naima. We told her of our mission and she said we should go see Abdul's mill out on the road to Marrakech. She knows him and his family well and they have a little roadside shop selling various olive oil and argan products. It's about 2km away and Malika wanted to take the bus. As we were talking logistics, in walked Abdul himself! He owns a car and immediately agreed to show us the mill and drive us there. He's about 60 years old, speaks some English mixed in with German. Malika and I piled into his car with one of his construction workers and went to the farm. We entered the gated orchards and were greeted with a handful of parked 4-wheelers and a couple houses in construction. Abdul invited us to his house, a total bachelor pad; the kind of place you'd imagine some old renowned author to be hiding out in. Olive trees and dried out flower pots and fountains surrounded a courtyard sprinkled with roaming chickens, cats, and two enormous peacocks. We passed by decrepit couches scattered on the mosaic tiled verandah and entered his lair: One long room filled with more sofas and wicker furniture. Opaque laced sheets were draped loosely across the ceiling while vases of dried flowers and piles of old books filled every table. I loved it. He motioned for us to go sit on a sofa next to his bed while he disappeared to his kitchen. The coffee table in front of us was overflowing with “stuff”: Empty bottles of wine and orange juice, a plate of cracked pumpkin seeds, more books, an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes. Abdul handed us each a glass, placed a bag of dates in front of us, and perched himself on the edge of his bed. We held on to our empty glasses as he lit up smoke after smoke and told me about himself. Abdul is originally from here but studied in Germany and married a German woman. He spent 30 years there, raising 2 daughters. After his wife died, he retired and moved back to Morocco about 2 years ago. He indicated each of his family member’s portraits on the wall surrounding his bed. The biggest one was of a gorgeous young woman with long auburn hair: his late wife. He said he’s happy here, back in his homeland, running his farm, enjoying the sun, his whiskey and cigarettes. I kept wondering how Malika was taking all this in. She smiled and nodded even though we were speaking mostly English and German.

Abdul then took us next door to a house he’d recently begun leasing to an English-Austrian couple: Kevin and Bettina. They look to be about Abdul’s age- in their 60’s. Kevin was sitting on the patio, in his sweats and rubber boots, smoking and drinking “Speciale” beer. Bettina and her 3 little dogs gave Malika and me a tour of the house. They’d moved in a month ago from Portugal. The house was beautiful and spacious, all tiled and painted in blues and whites. Afterwards, she offered me a glass of wine or whiskey and I self-consciously declined, feeling slightly embarrassed to even be offered that in Malika’s presence. We sat on the patio and chatted a long while as Bettina, Kevin, and Abdul puffed and drank away. Kevin has lived in several Arab countries working with the British military and is retired now. Bettina is a golf teacher and works in partnership with Hotel Palmeraie in Marrakech. I told them of the bakery project we’re working on with the Women’s Association, and the prospective fruit dryer project we hope to be working on this summer. Abdul had heard about it all through Naima and offered to help in any way he can.

As the sun set and the cold surrounded us, we bid goodbye to Bettina and Kevin and finally went to see the olive mill across the street. Abdul was slurring his words considerably more now and his breath smelled of wine, but he was lucid enough to give us a pleasant tour of his domain. I photographed the mill (not in operation but cool nonetheless) and we visited the orchards and vegetable gardens. We looped back to his house and he offered to sit a while before driving us home. We hesitated but Malika seemed okay with staying a while longer, so I agreed. We sat next to his bed again, huddled around his space heater, and listened to his comparisons of Europe versus Morocco: Morocco is full of bandits, but there is sunlight and life is good. Europe is efficient and correct yet stressful and has a tendency to seep the life out of you. Around 7, we made a move to go home. Abdul graciously and carefully drove us back to town, where we met Naima closing shop and gave her a recount of our adventurous afternoon. Malika seemed pretty happy with the way the day had turned out, despite that it wasn’t at all what we’d expected. I learned there is a wealth of personalities in this place, and I hope to meet more of them in the future.