Thursday, November 25, 2010


I gave myself three goals on returning to America. I swore that my first meal – the first food I ate period – would be a junkyard dog (with curly fries and a root beer) from Spike's. That probably sounds pretty easily accomplished, but you're forgetting that I landed in New York, and Spike's is strictly a Rhode Island franchise, and that's about four hours of hungry driving from one end to the other, but three Ramadans of training paid off, and at exactly ten o'clock at night, I had my hotdog.

My second goal was a promise that before the following weekend (when I went to Birmingham to see Salma) I'd take at least one shower every day. That one didn't work out quite as well, though I did get most of them. Obviously, it didn't bother me – it's the cleanest I've been in over two years – and nobody said anything about any smells, so I'm going to go out and say that the joke's on all of you for being stooges of the Shower-Industrial Complex.

My last plan is to have all my doctoral applications finished by Thanksgiving, which isn't looking too good at the moment, but, you know, inshallah.

In the meantime I'm working on remember how to be an American without forgetting that I'm a Moroccan. I'd expected that I'd have the most trouble with touching my heart after shaking someone's hand (what people do in Morocco), but it turns out that American's don't really shake hands that much. Of course, the few times that I did shake someone's hand I did also touch my heart, but I'm pretty sure that that one's just going to go away on its own by virtue of the fact that I'm not shaking hands with everyone I meet every time I meet them. What's been dying a lot harder has been Bismillah-ing everything. Here's your change, bismillah. Time to eat, bismillah. Start the car, bismillah.

I don't usually say that one out loud, but I make up for that with inshallah. In Morocco, everything is inshallah, which makes talking about the future a lot easier than it is out here. Here, someone says something about what's going to happen or what they're planning to do and everyone just lets it go at that, and I don't know what to do about it because where I come from, if you don't inshallah, how's anyone supposed to know if you're on board or not? “Let's meet again at six.” “Inshallah.” Now you know that I know the plan. If I don't say anything, though, then anything could happen at six, so I've been inshallah-ing as much as possible.

There's a handful of other Darijia words I've been throwing around, too. “Yumkin” (maybe), “wakha” (okay), “ajjie” (come here), and “enshof” (let me see) being some of the most frequent. It's not that I forget that I'm speaking English, or that I expect people to necessarily understand them, or that I just want to be that much more pretentiously obnoxious, it's just that these are the words that we (volunteers) tended to use with each other – and not just with our communities – which we obviously did, too. The English equivalents just don't exist for me anymore, which means that my family and friends get to enjoy that much more of Duncan-is-more-culturally-diverse-than-we-are.

Which, as it turns out, is probably going to be the Peace Corps legacy for me. I'm not going to be one of those RPCVs who goes around wearing jellabas (though I have already toured Birmingham, Alabama, in my finest stamping-out G Star). I'm not going to be calling myself Amin or listening to sha'abia music in my car, but I'm also not going to be able to blend back in with the normals. You're going to be able to tell that I was a Morocco volunteer. Inshallah.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Full (dis)Closure

My name is Duncan Palfrey de la Feld, and I was a Peace Corps youth development volunteer in Morocco. I served in the small village at the northern edge of the Middle Atlas Mountains called Immouzer Kandar, not Freedonia as I called it here (a simple anti-terrorism ploy that undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands). On November 20th, 2008, I swore into Peace Corps service in Fes at the Merinides Palace Hotel to the accompaniment of all the pomp and circumstance you'd expect from one of the most exclusive hotels in northern Morocco and the setting for Paul Bowles's The Spider's House, only without any reference whatsoever to either Paul Bowles or The Spider's House. I arrived in site on the 21st, and served until yesterday, November 12th, 2010, at around three o'clock in the afternoon (Greenwich Mean Time), when I stamped out of the Peace Corps amidst the fanfare one normally associates with an intermission during a PBS Masterpiece Theatre marathon.

And though I may no longer be receiving US government subsidized healthcare, I'll always be a volunteer – even if it's an RPCV (the “R” stands for “returned,” in case you didn't get that). When I enrolled I signed away the rest of my life to the Peace Corps's Third Goal: to educate all of you about the people and culture of Morocco. So that means that even if I'm no longer living overseas, you can still look forward to reading about culture, dialogue, and whatever other nonsense I think you need to know about, with the sole disclaimer that as I return to American society and achieve gainful employment, it may hopefully be happening with increasingly less frequency.

I hope you've enjoyed the ride so far, but either way I'd like to thank you for sticking with me as long as you have, and I hope that my journey has taught you something about the world outside of America's borders. It's certainly schooled me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Some Things, Not Specifically 9 (in Fact, 16), That I've Learned, or Been Surprised By, or Have Changed about Me in the Course of Being a Volunteer

I've been in Morocco for two years now. I've seen a lot of places, met a lot of people, and done a lot of things, and I've written about the better parts of it for your entertainment. What I've never talked about, though, is the coming. I didn't wake up here from a coma; I knew in advance and chose this destiny. I spent a lot of time before leaving telling myself not to have any preconceptions, but it turns out that I'm more like Ray Stantz than I'd realized, and try as I might, once in a while an idea or two would pop in there. Sometimes I pictured the Stay Puff'd Marshmallow Man. Other times I didn't. These are a few of those others:

1- We've talked about cats a lot, but I like cats, so we can always talk about them a little more. I've had a lot of cats in my life, and always felt like I had a pretty good relationship with them. At the very least, if you'd asked me what a cat is like, I would have felt confident in answering you. Not as much anymore. The cats here are different (the cats here, for all intents and purposes, are squirrels), and perhaps that's a convenient microcosm for the world of cultural anthropology. Neither the living environment nor the history of cat-human interactions is not the same between America and Morocco, and thus their societies have evolved in different directions and formed what we could very anthropomorphically call cultures (or, if this was a children's cartoon, “cat-tures”). Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification, but that's essentially how it works: culture is the by-product of the collected history of a certain group's stimuli and responses, which, over time, becomes an entity in itself. On the other hand, I could just be spending too much time with cats. One thing I know for certain, though, is that Amal knows more about sustainable development than I do, and she's always there to remind me. I like to pick up cats and pet them, but she doesn't, and she's happy to bite me if I forget. And that's important because development needs to be based on the needs of the local community, and not the desires of the developer. She's a sharp cat.

2- The stereotypical image of a Peace Corps volunteer is probably along the lines of dirty, long-haired hippie. A bleeding heart who's too concerned with saving the world to worry about how long it's been since he washed his 100% all-natural pants or had a decent shave. I would have taken exception to all this, but the reality is that you all might be closer to the truth than you think. My hair has certainly never been as long as it has while serving (in no small part due to the fact that I still haven't been able to convince any barber that it's full of cowlicks and physically cannot be styled in any way that Moroccan dudes like), nor have I ever had as high of a bearded to clean-shaven ratio in my life. More importantly, what would you answer if I asked how many days in a row have you worn the clothes you're in now? Probably not many, and that's what I would have said two and a half years ago, but now I take a shower every four or five days (at the best), and that's even including when I'm in Rabat for trainings and staying at fancy hotels. I've been riding this one pair of pants for about a week now, and I'm planning on taking them all the way through until I peace out of Freedonia. I'm not proud; I just don't really notice it anymore. As for hippie, well, we sure didn't sing Kumbaya on the plane ride over, but I'd also never put patches in my jeans before living in Morocco, so you be the judge.

3- It might not seem like it to people reading this, but I've usually got a lot I want to say. Unfortunately, for these past two years in Morocco, I've been largely on my own. It's one of the hardest parts of the Peace Corps to explain – and deal with – that you can be living with people but be by yourself. A big part of it is language, though culture plays a large part (sometimes you just want to talk about things that you're interested in, and small town Morocco and small city America just aren't always the same in those areas), and there's also the fact that every night I'm back at my house by myself. All volunteers deal with this loneliness in different ways. Some drink, some leave, some make new friends. Me? I just talk to myself. This is something I've been doing for a long time, actually. Whenever I want to think of a word in a different language or using a different pronunciation, I have to say it out loud, which is weird, so I don't. But I have to move my mouth in the shape of the words, which, in the end, is just about as weird. And so there I am, walking around Freedonia by myself, and moving my mouth around like I'm having a very serious conversation about whatever it is that I'm thinking about in my head. From time to time I'll catch myself doing this, which is very distressing, so I concentrate on keeping my mouth closed and before I know it I realize I've been having a silent conversation with myself about how ridiculous I must look to everyone walking past me in the street. This cycle plagued me for a good chunk of my service until I final hit on the perfect solution: chewing gum. Unfortunately, ever since I had braces in high school, I haven't (emotionally) been able to chew gum, but I figure you don't really need to actually be chewing anything if all you're trying to do is seem like you have a good reason to be moving your mouth, so I jut pretend like I'm the poster child for Big League Chew whenever I'm out of the house. At first I had to think about it, but steadily it became more and more natural until I'll frequently be out in the street chewing away without any knowledge of what's going on in my mouth. And that's started to become problematic, too, because now my jaw's working pretty much all day without any respect for my traditional control of its movements, and it hurts. I should probably just go back to talking to myself.

4- During my Peace Corps application interview, they told me to be ready to have free time, so I came over ready to catch up on my hobbies. I planned on learning to play the guitar (or some local variety thereof) and finishing the zombie-themed role-playing game a friend and I had started ages ago. While in country I decided to construct a mosaic from broken pieces of tile and to design brilliantly hilarious shirts for the other members of my training group. I didn't do any of those things, and I can't really say that I filled that time with other more productive ventures. I did some writing, I learned to cook some local dishes, and I pursued a lot of nonsense for my fellow volunteers, but my number one pastime turned out to be watching illegally pirated films. I don't think I've ever been so up-to-date with American pop culture than when I wasn't even living in America. No matter the movie, or whether it's even been released yet, you can find a dude walking around the cafes selling a copy. And it's not just the blockbusters but also the classics (and completely nonexistent titles like Titanic II). I found copies of A Fish Called Wanda and Coming to America at the local pirated movie shack, which is a great place to go shopping on a Friday night, as long as the guy will play a scene or two so you know it's got an English soundtrack. The Peace Corps is a great place for television shows, too. Although your internet tv doesn't work in Morocco, your torrent downloaders do, and any time volunteers get together it's like the floor of the NYSE, swapping season two of Lost for the most recent episode of Community and an Uwe Boll film to be named later.

5- My name is Duncan, which I'm hoping is coming as a great surprise to any of my more faithful readers. My full name is Duncan Palfrey de la Feld; you might not have known that. In either case, you know that in Morocco – aside from when I go to English language summer camp (and sometimes even then) – they call me Amin. I'm cool with this, too. Amin means a couple of things, but generally comes out as “trustworthy,” which is great defense when people don't believe the many things that I like to make up (“What's my name? That's right, you can trust me.”). There have been times, however, when I haven't been happy to be Amin, which is usually when, after introducing myself as Amin and a foreigner, someone asks me what my “real name” is. Obviously, I tell them Duncan (this is one of the few areas when I generally don't make things up), and it's usually settled at that or with a few attempts to pronounce it. But every once in a while I'll get someone who tells me that Amin is a great improvement. This makes Hulk mad. First of all, Duncan is an awesome name. It means “dark warrior” (to be fair, “dark-skinned warrior” – “swarthy warrior”), not pansy “trustworthy.” Boy scouts are trustworthy; dark warriors kick ass and take names. I'm happy to be Amin, especially if the best you can make of my real name is “Junkel,” but just so long as we all agree that Duncan is the most empirically bitching name available.

6- I love to travel – I've been to twenty-four countries so far (some legally and some not) – and now I'm starting to worry that I'll never be able to travel again. Not because I won't have any money or time, but because I don't know if, after having been a volunteer, I'll have the ability to be a tourist. The most incredible part of living in Morocco has been living in Morocco. I see all these tourists (some of whom are friends of mine) and I think to myself, “They have no idea what this country is about.” It's not really their fault (unless you hold not joining the Peace Corps against them), and they probably don't think of their chance to be in Morocco as anything short of a lifetime opportunity, but from where I'm standing, a lot of them are just wasting their money. But by knowing this, I can now never take a trip to a new and interesting culture and not feel that I too am wasting my time, but at the same time I don't think I'll be able to be a Peace Corps volunteer everywhere. I don't know, I don't know if I'll have enough time.

7- During my interviews I was told that volunteers are given a stipend roughly equal to the salary of a local person doing the same work. That is entirely untrue. My closest parallel is a teacher, and being a teacher is a great profession in Morocco. From my experience, you can live in a big house, have a car, and raise a family on a teacher's salary, which I certainly could not do with my living allowance. The idea of the living allowance, though, is for us to live generally at the same level as the people in our communities, so it's better that we don't get very much (never mind the fact that almost no one would believe that my income is anything less than infinite, but that's a story for another day). If you want the luxuries usually enjoyed by expatriates – cooks, maids, microwaves, western-style toilets – you'll have to pay out of whatever funds you had before you got here, or whatever you can guilt your parents into sending you. Otherwise, it's a holiday in Cambodia for you, which really isn't all that bad. Yes, there is poverty in Morocco, though not everywhere, and yes, there are people who live each day thinking about how they're going to eat tomorrow, and those aren't all beggars, but in general you can get what you need without having to struggle to find a way to pay for it (with the exclusion of medical care, though that too is a story for another day). Nevertheless, a lot of volunteers still ride their monthly allowances down to the end. A lot of that goes towards cheese, and alcohol, and recharging their phones, and it's taught me a very important lesson: I'm a wicked cheapskate. You can't get cheese in Freedonia, and I won't spend the exorbitant prices either for the cheese or the taxi rides to Fes and the grocery store. I've never been a drinker, but that too is partly because I was too cheap in college to get interested, and I can't remember the last time I made a phone call that wasn't absolutely necessary and couldn't be said in just a text message, and that I couldn't walk across town to say in person. I've learned to pinch centimes in ways that would make a mul souk tip his hat, and not because I have to, either – I have mountains of dough in my Moroccan bank, enough to buy my ticket home entirely in cash – but because it's just my nature, and it's made me a better person. Not a better person than I was before, but a better person than you. I go so far as to save the laundry water to use for flushing the toilet, and that's environmental awareness you can take to the bank.

8- I've talked a bit about fashion in Morocco, and don't think I'm bragging if I say I've become a bit of a Peace Corps folk hero for my ability to wear incredible Moroccan G-Star clothing – it's just the truth. And like countless volunteers before me, as my bags get packed they're becoming more and more full of Moroccan clothes. However, there's a lot more Freshness than traditional with me than you usually find with the typical volunteer. And they ask me what I'm doing; I'm never going to wear that stuff in America. And they don't get it that G-Star isn't ironic for me anymore. I take a walk in the Rabat medina souk and honestly think how awesome it would be to walk around declaring “Lost for Life” on my chest, and I would, too, if only I wasn't such a cheapskate.

9- I've faced a lot of obstacles in the Peace Corps, but the biggest is probably the realization that I don't think I really like youth. It's not a moral opposition, but more of an irrational fear that originated from the fight or flight choices I made back in high school. Let's face it: youth are terrifying. Of all the potentially dangerous areas in Freedonia, the only place I ever actively avoided was the one short stretch of road and small souk right in front of Mohammad the Sixth High. I would regularly – and happily – walk long out of the way if it meant I wouldn't be seen by the kids always hanging around outside of the gates, which in my town means literally scaling cliffs rather than face a sixteen-year-old. Regardless of all this, however, I've come to love youth development and the kids that I've worked with for two years. This has had no effect at all on my policy of hiding from them as much as possible, but it's nonetheless a genuine respect for them. Despite my emotional handicaps, however, we've managed to do some great activities, like the supercool Rocket Bottles Project I just did with Andrew and Zack of making and launching soda bottle rockets filled with water and air, and it's because of this that I feel I deserve my status as Golden Child of second year youth development. I mean, youth development volunteer that's afraid of youth? The heartwarming screenplay practically writes itself.

10- I'm not an overly athletic person (that's really the domain of my younger brother), though I'm passable enough that I can feel shocked to be picked last, and can even sometimes be a sort of mutant superman to my nerdy, nonathletic friends. Coming here – especially as a youth development volunteer – I not only expected but genuinely looked forward to all the soccer games I was going to play. First of all, I could probably compensate for my American ability by being bigger than the kids, and, more importantly, there was no way I wasn't going to develop the necessary technique playing soccer everyday to not be able to come back and school my little brother. Even if I didn't have these lofty goals, there was no way I wasn't going to be playing, and so you can imagine my surprise as I recount to you that in my 27 months in Morocco, I have played exactly four games of soccer. One was a bit of after-tagine playing around out at the lake (I scored a goal), one was the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em attempt to get some kids to play frisbee when they clearly weren't going to sit still and learn English (I scored a bunch of goals, but half the players were under ten years old), and one was a pick-up game in the town's central park after the US victory over Algeria in the World Cup (I scored another goal, but all anyone is going to remember is that I was still wearing the patriotic face paint I'd put on at the cafe). The last game was my one attempt at a pre-breakfast Ramadan game, which was a lot more like a two-hour fight, and it's arguable that I played in it. It was more like I huddled in a corner of the field and prayed for the call to prayer so desperately that I almost converted. I sure got to watch a lot of soccer, though (and I'm immensely proud to say that I never called it “football”), but I never got in to the Moroccan league, probably because no one seems to be really all that interested. There are only two teams that are of really great note, Raja and Wydad, and they're both from Casablanca, so who cares about them? Every once in a while we get some new graffiti for the Fes team (that's what Fatal Tigers means, if you recall from long ago; they wear yellow and black stripes on their jerseys and apparently have a somewhat indifferent outlook concerning their destinies), but there are only two teams anyone in Freedonia wants to hear about: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. For my part, I couldn't care less about Spanish soccer, but I did finally find a Moroccan team I could believe in. Honoring the glorious history of Morocco's ocean renegades, the Salé team (Association Sportive de Salé)has the simultaneously most awesome and most unfortunate name in all of soccer: ASS Pirates. I bought a jersey.

11- It could be that I spend all my time with youth, or it could be that the vast majority of my colleagues have just graduated from college, but whatever the reason, something about being a youth development volunteer has caused me to revert to the maturity level of a thirteen year old. Granted, it's a really witty thirteen year old – kind of the thirteen year old we all wish we could have been when we were thirteen years old – but to give you an example, the first thing my training group asked our language teacher how to say I Darija is “that's what she said” (“dak shi li galt,” for those of you interested). Then again, it's pretty entrenched in Peace Corps Morocco identity that each sector has a unique personality. Environmental education volunteers are your stereotypical mountain people that don't shave for months and actively seek to live in the remotest possible sites, small business volunteers are sophisticated and goal oriented and like to get together for cocktail parties and brunch, health volunteers may not actually exist – at least I've seen no conclusive evidence to that effect – and youth development is known for having training sessions on how to play games. During our Mid-Service Medicals and Miscellaneous Methodology Meeting, the small business volunteers were having a session on international marketing strategies while we were staging a flash mob to the Black Eyed Peas' “I Gotta [sic]* Feeling.” So it's probably not entirely our fault that we spend our free time laughing about farts and telling dirty jokes, and, in case you're wondering, one of the best resources for dirty jokes is Darija itself. Every year we get summer cam scholarships, which every kid and association in town wants a part of, so we get non-stop requests for “folders” for a month or two at the end of the school year. And how do you say folder in Arabic? “Milf.” And, of course, hanging up the announcements about camp scholarships requires going out and purchasing peneez (thumbtacks). It's not limited to youth development volunteers or dar shebab activities, though; anyone can join in on the fun. Just do like I do every morning and tell the world “I woke up.” “Foqt min na'ass.” I guarantee it'll brighten your day.

*As a matter of principle, allow me to state categorically that I am a full supporter of informal speech, as well as using said in writing, with the exception of using numbers in the place of words (“Got 2 go” is going to be the downfall of modern civilization). That being said, “gotta,” as in, “I Gotta Feeling,” is an unstressed truncation of “got to,” as opposed to “got a” (meaning “in possession of”), which would be written as “got a.” Thus, the song's title is best paraphrased as “I Have to Feeling.” Damn kids, with their music.

12- I've always thought of myself as somewhat of a gentleman, and, if popular superlative awards are any indicator, I've probably always been right. And part of my well-documented gentility is the lack of bad words in my vocabulary. It's not that I've been overly opposed to foul language, it's just that I've always liked to think of myself as smarter than you, and that I can think of a much more scathing and demoralizing comment than a simple curse. Over the course of my service, however, a change has occurred, and I now find myself putting Popeye to shame. I'm convinced that it's largely the result of my linguistic impotence – that no matter how good I've gotten with Darijia I could never really get into a passionate fight – and thus I compensate with foul language. The only problem is that despite spending every day with the youth of Morocco, I don't actually know any bad words in Arabic, and so I'm forced to do what every meat head jock I've ever made fun of did: swear. And I imagine it's from there that it's gotten into my regular English, though I can't make any guarantees. Whatever the cause, it's gotten to the point where I'll drop an F Bomb as soon as look at you, and I'm starting to worry that I might not be able to do that when I get back home.

13- The first thing my mother said when she came to visit last summer was “you need to take a bath.” It's gotten me thinking about what she's going to say when I land at JFK in mid-November, and what she's going to say when we're eating Thanksgiving dinner a week later. It's not a question of Moroccan manners vs American manners, it's going to boil down to living by myself vs being a member of a society. If I want to eat dinner straight out of the pot, there's no one who's going to know, and if I don't want to wash my clothes for a few months, there's no one who's going to say anything. Every now and then I catch myself closing the bathroom door and wonder what I'm doing – it must be some sort of vestigial reaction. Very soon, though, and I'll be back in America and mooching off my family, which means I'll have to remember all of the polite society that was drilled into me as a kid, but I don't wager it'll be an easy transition. I should probably just stick to pizza and Chinese food until I get my fork legs back. Then again, I imagine that when Tom Hanks got back from his castaway island, he fired away a good burp or two himself.

14- Unlike some, I didn't join the Peace Corps looking for love, nor did I ever have need to change that goal during the course of my service. In fact, from what I've been told (and I know it's true for the youth development program), I'm the only volunteer that arrived in September 2008 in a relationship that will be leaving in November still involved with the same person (that's just a little shout out to the girl with long black wavy hair). Still, they set us up to expect to be bombarded by proposals (because the Peace Corps volunteer mantle is a visible aura of charisma, and it's the easiest way to send your children to America), but even if they didn't, who's not going to want what I've got after they've seen me in my G-Star G-Pants? In reality, there were a few girls who flirted pretty hard (though the chick from the dentist's office might honestly have been really excited about my teeth), but not a single proposal. Nor did any fathers come up and take a stab at me. It could be that, not having converted to Islam, I'm still off-limits (Muslim girls aren't supposed to marry non-Muslim men; they say it's because you can be sure that a true Muslim – being a God-fearing man – will necessarily protect and respect any woman, whether Muslim or not, but the real truth is that's it's just a matter of eliminating the potential for inheritance problems), but I honestly don't think that was the reason. They could easily just ask, “Why don't you convert and marry my daughter?” No, I think the real truth is that the dar shebab gave Salma and I a wedding when she came, and say what you will about Morocco, there's apparently a “no home wrecking” rule in place. And it was just after Salma left that I noticed the pack of girls who hang out on the main street weren't whistling at me or calling me over to talk anymore, which is too bad because I secretly loved that they did that. For gender development reasons, not because my ego is that fragile that it needs to be stroked by lusty teenagers. I hung up the “will you marry me, Duncan” poster the lady volunteers made for our summer camp boy band performance to take care of that. I turns out that's the only proposal I got. Then again, the other day I showed up to the dar shebab early, and the director's wife was hanging around outside with some of her friends, and, as I stood there awkwardly waiting for someone to unlock the front door, they got to talking about me. “Who's that?” “That's the American who teaches here.” “American? You should have him marry one of your daughters.” “He speaks Arabic” was all she said in reply, but maybe that's the key. Folks here might have been planning my married life ever since I set foot in country, I just wasn't listening.

15- I read a few books before coming to Morocco, all of which were written in the traditional, Orientalist style, and all of which loved to talk about Morocco's love of magic. Anywhere you look you'll find references to how Morocco is the only Islamic country that still believes in djinn, the spirit-like beings made of fire (as opposed to humans, who were made of clay). Although it's the route of the word, djinn are not genies; they're more of a parallel species living on an alternate plane of the same universe who generally ignore people, though sometimes they can be malevolent – especially when people invade their territory, such as uninhabited homes. They're servants of God, however, just like people, so they can be commanded by those with great knowledge of the Qur'an, and compelled to lead the faithful to hidden caches of ancient Berber treasure hidden in the mountains. Truth be told, though, I've heard absolutely nothing about magic from anyone in the country who wasn't a foreigner. In all my experience, no one puts food into their wells to keep them happy, no one uses the hands of the dead in their couscous for magical purposes, and no one is consulting village witches about their medical problems. Of course, there are people who do all of this I'm sure, but from what I've seen, it's a lot like voodoo in New Orleans, which is to say that everyone knows about it, and perhaps plays lip service just for good measure, but it's not something that happens with anywhere near the kind of frequency to call legitimate practice – certainly not on the scale of what's written about on the outside. Then again, maybe people just don't talk about it with me. Our G Star guy in Sefrou once wanted to give us his business card, so he did, and we immediately commented on how the picture on the card wasn't him, it was soccer megastar Ronaldo. He didn't seem to think that was all that strange, but, after about five minutes of ragging on him, he produced a second card, this one featuring himself standing in the entrance-way of his shop. That's a great card we said, but he was unconvinced. He explained that he didn't like to give out this card just in case it fell into the wrong hands – the “wrong hands” in this case being girls who might want to take his card to a magician and use it to put spells on him to do who knows what, so maybe there's more magic than I thought.

16- It's getting to be a pretty old story: Morocco is a lot colder than everyone thinks. Yes, there is desert, and yes, the temperature in the desert will regularly break 120 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer, and yes, being assigned to a site in one of these places is the most horrible fate imaginable, but the surprise is still always the cold. And, if you're fortunate enough to be placed in a cold site, you will learn the meaning of ultimate suffering. You know about bone-itis (though maybe not that I was already getting flares of it before Halloween), but let me leave you with one final story of just how cold it is. Like all Peace Corps volunteers, I've got my share of psychological disorders, and one those is the inability to take off my pants while still wearing a shirt. Call me crazy, but I think it looks weird when dudes are both beshirted and pantsless; the proportions are just all wrong. Conveniently, I don't often have to remove only my pants, but when I'm getting dressed for bed (or undressed for work), I have to take off my shirt first, then my pants, then put on the new pants, and lastly the new shirt. That's just the way I do things, and I'm sure anyone can see the obvious benefits. Life in Freedonia has been a different matter. It's so cold that it is literally impossible to be naked – even in the house. I can't take a shower (whether hot water is involved or not), and I can't take off both my pants and shirts (obviously, by this point I'm wearing more than one) at the same time. How cold is it? It's so cold that it cures my neuroses (Yakov Smirnoff said that), and when it's cold enough that you're making clinical breakthroughs, it's time to go home.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

9 Things That Duncan Forgot to Mention about Morocco

In the course of our journey through my service in Morocco, we've talked about a lot of things. We've traveled from one corner of the country to the other, explored the culture of Morocco and the life of a Peace Corps volunteer, and come to understand the meaning of development. Our time, however, has been finite, and I've been busy, or lazy, and I haven't been able to write about everything I needed to. Fortunately, it turns out that there are only nine things that I neglected in all of Morocco. Here they are:

1. There's a book that was spreading around when I first joined called Three Cups of Tea. I never read it, but from what I understand it's about integrating into an Islamic society somewhere in Central Asia (Pakistan, maybe?) and drinking tea. I imagine that the appeal to Morocco volunteers is based on our own being required to drink copious amounts of tea, many times under duress. You, too, probably think that you can only drink two glasses of scaldingly hot tea hypersaturated with sugar at any given sitting, but, let me assure you, when your large Moroccan host mother is standing over you with a look composed of 63% dissapointment, 34% concern for your nutritional safety, and 3% sassy antagonism and refilling your cup in complete disregard to what you're saying, not saying, or say every time the issue comes up, you're going to drink it. Fortunately, there are a handful of varieties to choose from, though, unfortunately, tea is never served individually. Unless you're the world's biggest loser (and not the kind of big loser that's going to get us in trouble with the registered trademark police), you drink your tea from loose leaf form, in a large pot filled with one part boiling water and one part sugar, and everyone else drinks the same. Every family has special tea glasses used strictly for tea (and Coke, on special occasions), and the flavor (of the tea, not the Coke) depends on what time of year it is. The most popular is mint, though few realize that this is a summer (or warm weather) drink only. In the winter, we drink sheeba (wormwood-laced tea), and sit around pretending we're French Romantic-Era homeless people. And pretty much any other green, leafy herb can – and is – made into a special tea, too, though no other is as common. Louiza (lemon verbena) is my personal favorite. There's also z'aater (oregano) to calm your stomach and salmia (sage) to calm your blood. Trendy stalls in the big city souks will market their own blends, which are usually made from just about anything mixed with everything else (usually really good). And if you're really lucky, you might find yourself with a steamy glass of flio (spearmint), which tastes exactly like what you'd expect if you drank a steamy glass of Double Mint Gum, which is to say, awful. On Eid Seghir (end of Ramadan) this year I made a running tally on my arm of how many glasses I drank during my four hours of visiting family and neighbors. I got up to somewhere between hyperglycemic shock and early onset diabetes (twelve glasses). I shortlisted Three Thousand Cups of Tea as one of the possible titles for my Peace Corps memoirs until a friend and I did the math and realized we've had far more than that in our 26months. Then we stopped talking about that and started researching insulin supply companies in Morocco.

2. Islam recognizes Friday as the Sabbath, though in Morocco, that doesn't translate quite like what we do with Sundays in America. Sure, there's a big congregation at the midday prayer, and a lot of people who normally don't do any of their prayers might at least do this one, but in most ways it's just another ordinary day. Kids go to school; government offices are open. It's not even considered the weekend. Some people might close up shop early or in the afternoon, and one person once told me that no one is allowed to work on Friday, but it's basically a day like any other. Except for one thing: lunch. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and Friday lunch is the biggest lunch of the week. The whole family is gathered together (before the kids run back off to school at two and parents go back to work), which calls for something special, and that means couscous. Tagines may be the national dish, lamb and prunes may be the way to impress your guests, and chicken with onions, raisins, and euphoria-inducing amounts of LSD may be what's served at your wedding, but only couscous is good enough for Friday. The couscous making starts around ten in the morning (unless I plan on coming over to learn, in which case it always seems to start earlier), and lasts until around one, or until everyone who's coming home is back home. It's served in a massive bowl-plate called a ksa, and everyone gathers around and digs in the second it touches the table. And it's important to note that couscous is the only dish that is officially sanctioned to be eaten with a utensil (a giant spoon, to be precise, that's about the equivalent of a tablespoon and a half), although the truly hardcore will use their hands. Not bread in their hands, mind you, but go straight for it with their fingers. If you want to blow the socks of your Moroccan friends, the next time you go over for couscous, make a big display of refusing to eat with a spoon (it helps if you take the one offered you and throw it across the room), and plunge your hand (right hand) into the bowl. This works especially well when the couscous is supersaturated with marqa', the liquified butter cream sauce that fell from Heaven, and doesn't work at all when it isn't. Scoop it around for a moment and pull it back out with about a golf ball’s weight of couscous. Sauté this in your hand once or twice and then launch it into your mouth. It really only takes once to prove that you're the baddest couscous eater at the table, though you're welcome to go the whole meal to formally cement your superiority. When you're finished, you can demurely tap your hand clean on the side of the ksa, or you can full-on lick it down. An important safety tip, however: the latter option is not as sexually enticing as it might sound. When you're finished, you can wash it all down with a tall glass of lebin. Lebin is pretty much the same thing as buttermilk, though it translates more closely as “Satan's nightcap,” and drinking this with your couscous isn't so much hardcore as it is an exercise in gastrointestinal hubris. I'd recommend just a simple glass of water, though I wouldn't wait until the end of the meal before quenching my thirst. Don't forget, Morocco has space for individual tea (or soda) glasses, but there's only one cup of water on the table, and it's going to be hard to drink once everyone else's semolina grain backwash is floating in it, no matter how thirsty you are.

3. As in any other society, there are some things you can do in Morocco, and others you can't. For example, you can go to the bathroom, but you can't let anyone hear you (we've talked about this before). And, in those cases when you do something that you shouldn't, you're going to hear people telling you “hashuma.” “Hashuma” basically means “shame.” It also sounds a lot like “shame,” which is convenient for remembering. You can “hashumaed” for just about anything, too, in no small part due to how much fun it is to say. It can mean: “Act right!” as in, “Hashuma, don't eat with your left hand!” “You know better than that!” as in, “Don't grab a girl's butt when she's walking through the souk, hashuma!” “Watch your mouth!” as in “Hashuma, you said 'donkey,' 'toilet,' 'trash,' or one of a long list of other words without asking for pardon.” “This is the end of society as we know it,” as in “You were attacked by hoodlums? Hashuma.” (This one should be followed by “gaa',” which translates most closely as “to an absolute degree, either negative or positive, with great emphasis,” and is my absolute favorite word to say, gaa'.) It can be your response to seeing someone stumbling drunkenly down the street, or a weak attempt to save face when you've been bested in a verbal battle of wits. And you actually don't need to say it at all, as, like all Moroccan communication, it can be conveyed in a simple hand gesture form. It's a lot like our “I'm sad” gesture except instead of tracing a tear away from your eye, you pull the skin down from your eyeball to emphasize that someone is watching. Unfortunately, this can get you (or me) in trouble if you try to tell someone you're sad without saying it. Morocco doesn't have that gesture, and isn't going to get it. Trust me.

4. You might be surprised to know that the vast majority of people don't own cars, though you might also be surprised to know that far fewer have camels that they can use to get around with. No, a good 85% of Morocco lies in between, having only their wits (and the occasional bicycle) to get them to work in the morning. So what do they do? Well, most just walk. This is as true of city folks who walk a matter of blocks as it is of country folks who walk a matter of miles to get to school, usually uphill. But when money is available and time is not, people got with what they know: taxis. Within cities, these are called “little taxis,” which are usually a cute little Fiat and always a pain in the ass. Depending on the city, there's either a set rate to ride or a counter, though in either case you can count on having to argue over the price and probably being ripped off. Between cities you need a “big taxi,” though, and that's where the fun is. Big taxis are all old Mercedeses (Mercedi?) that were run to death in Germany before being sent to scrap, reassembled for Morocco as part of a development outreach, and currently held together by the collective faith of everyone riding on that particular day. And perhaps that's why these [debatably] five-seater vehicles are crammed with seven people: because no one knows just how many more rides are left in it. The front seat includes the driver, a passenger in two thirds of the passenger's seat, and another passenger in what's left plus straddling the stick shift, and the back is crammed with four people and whatever luggage can't fit in the trunk. Again, though, this is a Mercedes, so if you've got four small-to-medium-sized passengers, there's plenty of room to ride comfortably. Unfortunately, though women are more successful, both sexes aspire to huskier sizes, which can make for some tight riding conditions. Usually, one has to lean forward the whole ride, and that's usually the American (who's less comfortable with a lack of personal space). Of course, if you don't like taxis, and trust me, they can be next to unbearable in the summer, you could always take a bus. There are a few national bus lines that cater largely to tourists, but most are local lines or run specific routes, and it's not unheard of for someone to just run their own bus. Similar to big taxis, buses have set passenger limits, though unlike big taxis, this number is equal to the number of seats available in the bus. However, compliance with these set limits is much harder to verify, so what usually happens is that passengers are crammed into the bus until it is physically impossible to add any more, and everyone not sitting in a seat is commanded to hide whenever the bus enters town or passes a well-known traffic stop. Amazingly, though, it's only on the fancy national lines that you ever have any problems with seating. Despite there being as many or more seats than people riding, there's always some neurotic Westerner up in arms about having the seat number that's on their ticket, and you can count on your PCV getting in a fight about how if everyone would just sit down in an open space, we could already be halfway there by now.

5. Morocco's currency is the dirham, which during the course of my service, has fluctuated between eight and nine to the dollar. Of course, being more permanent residents, we don't usually worry too much about the exchange rate. Five dirham is a cup of coffee, one and a half is a wheel of bread, and it goes on from there. And you'll probably be surprised to hear that despite never having to exchange money, we're still constantly worry about conversions. Not between dollars and dirham, but between dirham and rials. I've heard a lot of stories about where rial come from. Some say they are the “old currency;” others that they're “Islamic” (the Saudi Arabian currency is also called the rial). The truth, however, is that they're entirely fictional – a figment of the collective imagination that's taken root in Morocco. A single rial is one twentieth of a dirham, or the equivalent of a Moroccan nickle. Of course, Morocco doesn't have nickles (or five-centime pieces) in its collection of legal tender. (Point of technicality: actualy, there is a five-centime piece, though its use is about as common as that of the two dollar bill in America, which is to say, nonexistent. I found one once, however, so I can prove they do exist, though I can't find it anymore – I certainly didn't spend it on anything – so perhaps it was just a souk-induced hallucination.) No, rials are a way of counting, not a currency. Basically, you take whatever amount of money you're concerned with, and multiply it by twenty (or the number of nickles involved in the transaction), so bread is actually thirty, and a cup of coffee will run you one hundred. At first we thought that people would try to give us prices in rials to take advantage of our gullibility, but in the end we've found it much more likely to meet someone who honestly does not comprehend prices in dirham. My host mother is one, and in the course of selling her my furniture, I had to convert all the prices. Fortunately, two years of practice has made me an expert at the 20s table. Up in the north they call rials “douro,” but they count in centimes instead,which they call “franks.” That means a carton of La Vache Qui Rit cheese will cost you one thousand up in the Rif Mountains or two hundred in Freedonia, but you only have to take ten dirham out of your wallet. But in all this, the thing that doesn't make any sense is what Morocco does with really large quantities of money, specifically for ten and hundred thousands of dirhams. You'd think that 10,000 would be called 200,000, but everyone – not just the north – goes for the pennies on this one and calls it 1,000,000. I recently heard that my dar shebab was going to be getting 16,000,000 this year for improvements, and almost fell out of my chair. 16,000,000 dirham (roughly 2,000,000 dollars) is enough to build a center four or five times the size of what we have now. Forget about cosmetic improvements, let's tear it down and start again from scratch. Of course, it turns out that we aren't getting 16,000,000 dirham, we're getting 16,000,000 franks, which is 160,000 dirham (about 20,000 dollars). That's still a lot of money, but not quite the same, though I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting so excited. My friend didn't say “dirham,” “franks,” or “rial,” he just said “16,000,000.” It makes me wonder though what would happen if we were getting that much in dirham. Would they have to say 1,600,000,000 to avoid confusion? The world may never know.

6. What would you consider a busy day? You get up before the sun so you can get to work or school on time, bust your rump finishing whatever project you need to get done in a few hours less than it's going to take to finish, blitz through all the errands necessary for living, and go spend the quality time with your parents or girlfriend just so that they don't walk out on you, despite being exhausted to the point where you almost wish they would if only just to simplify your life. At the end of it all, you fall asleep still wearing your clothes, which, conveniently turn out to be the pajamas you were wearing the night before and didn't have time to change out of this morning. That probably strikes you as pretty busy. To me, and the majority of Peace Corps volunteers that I know, that's more along the lines of a ludicrous impossibility. A busy day around here (and I should note that I'm speaking for volunteers here) is one when you have to pay your electric bill, buy groceries, and teach an hour and a half of class. Do all that, and you deserve a break. But that's not to say that there's nothing to do as a volunteer, nor I am necessarily calling us all pathologically lazy (though there are a few). The truth is that pretty much everything you have to do is exponentially harder to do hear than it is for all of you back in cushy America. And why is that? In the end, it boils down to culture, or, perhaps, a lack thereof. You have the luxury of buying stamps at the post office in English, and according to culturally enforced rituals that you've been acclimating to all your lives. We, however, have the relatively simple challenge of translating our words into Darijia or some variety of Tamazight and the great challenge of translating our modes of thinking and cultural touchstones into Moroccan before we can even begin to ask the clerk for a book of stamps. Even going over to your parents' house for lunch is exhausting, and that's before they start asking why you never call and what happened with that sweet girl who seemed so nice and why can't you just settle down and start making grandchildren? And that's why I exclude Moroccans from my definition of a busy day, because they, like you, are working in the system to which they were raised. Going to the souk isn't going to be use the day's energy, though I wouldn't be surprised if a Freedonian needed to take a nap after only a one hour expedition to Wal-Mart. So bear that in mind the next time you're feeling wiped from a “long day.” Over here, we're fighting against a lifetime of being indoctrinated into a different way of thinking of just about everything. All you need is a Red Bull.

7. Morocco is know for many things, but television programming is not one of them. Every so often you'll read an article with some Moroccan railing against the two-dimensionality of Moroccan television characters or how they reinforce out-dated gender and cultural stereotypes, or with some American bemoaning how completely asinine – à la “Full House” – they all are. It shouldn't come to you as a surprise, then, that the star of the Moroccan television screen is not Moroccan at all. Turkey stands tall with their hyperdramatic and well-mustachioed soap operas dubbed and transmitted via Syria, who throw in a few struggle-for-independence era dramas while they're at it. South Korea has a historical epic every once in a while, and India usually packs enough tension into a single half hour each day to induce seizures, but none of these can topple the megalith that is the Mexican telenovela. They aren't as frequent as the Middle Eastern shows, but somehow they've learned to capture the Moroccan attention in a way that probably hasn't been done since the first Arabs started showing up talking about Islam. The first reason is probably that these are dubbed into Darijia rather than Standard Arabic (for some reason, the Indian ones are, too), but I would wager that the short skirts and massive cleavage that you don't get from more conservative societies plays their part, too. Whatever the reason, the Mexican soap opera slot has achieved a level of sacredness bordering on a sixth call to prayer. Take “Margarita,” for instance, which isn't even the show's real name but just the name of the main character. This summer the souk featured t-shirts with her face and key chains with everyone else. And now it's “Diablo” – set in New York – that holds Morocco hostage every evening at around seven and preventing any sort of regular dar shebab English schedule from being put in place. And it's convinced us volunteers that if the Peace Corps is a cultural exchange program, then it's wasting its money. Forget about volunteers, our effectiveness could be increased twenty-fold if we just dubbed a cheap plot line into Darijia with lots of hair gel and leather jackets. And cleavage.

8. My grandfather is a man of routine, and he used to go to the same sandwich shop and order the same sandwich so often that they named it after him. The “Coddy special,” it's called (his name is Frederick, but prefers to go by “Coddy,” for his middle name, Codman), and you could go into whatever sandwich restaurant this was in New Orleans and order it off the menu, though it may not be there anymore, as the logical conclusion that it contains codfish (which I can attest it does not) can only have led to confusion. Peace Corps volunteers are similar (to my grandfather, not codfish) in that they too strive to be regulars everywhere they go, and for similar reasons. My grandfather couldn't hear, and was too curmudgeonly to want to talk if he could, and Peace Corps volunteers hate to explain why they're in Morocco. Obviously, a Darijia-speaking foreigner is an oddity around here, and encountering one inevitably leads one to wonder why, where are you from, what are you doing in Morocco, are you married, are you Muslim, do you like Morocco more than America, do you support Bush or Obama, did you know Michael Jackson converted to Islam right before he died, and all I really wanted was to grab a candy bar before going to class and not recite my life story and make empty promises to join your religion just so you'd stop talking to me. Of course, these are all great questions, and I'm happy to answer them, but I've answered them before, and Michael Jackson did not, in fact, convert, he merely produced a cd for Bahrain because they agreed to host him after he was kicked out of America for being an unproven child molester, which he never even delivered on, and I've been here for two years and haven't you all figured out what I'm here for already? And that's why we take every opportunity to be regulars wherever possible. We go to the same corner hanoot, the same cyber, the same cafe, the same barber, the same popcorn guy in the souk, the same phone recharge vendor. Essentially, once you've “broken someone in,” you stick with them, and not the least reason for which is how much effort it takes to get to the point where you no longer have to read an autobiography just to buy a half liter of milk, and that's a beautiful thing. And, for the record, I too have a sandwich named after me. In a little town outside of Sefrou there's a guy named Sandwich Mohammad, and if you go to buy a Sandwich Mohammad sandwich (which I highly recommend as they are the best sandwiches in Morocco), you can ask him for “sandwich Amin,” and he'll know what you're talking about, and you'll know that I know what I'm talking about, too, because sandwich Amin is the best Sandwich Mohammad sandwich.

9. I love teaching English to dar shebab students primarily because of the unmitigated joy it brings to their faces, secondarily because it's really easy for me to do, and tertiarily because it's desperately needed in Morocco. Students are given about four years of English and then expected to pass an exam that's a close second to the TOEFL as a certificate of fluency, which is obviously incredibly hard, but that's not even the real problem. The texts they are forced to use are not only written in British English – it's bad enough imagining that they're going to learn to speak like Hugh Grant – but they're written in incorrect British English. Ask a Moroccan English student their name, and I guarantee you'll hear this, word-for-word: “My name is [Mohammad] and my family name is [ben Mohammad]. I am from Morocco, exactly in [Fes].” It's a travesty that they do this to students who we can assume want nothing less than to sound absolutely ridiculous when they speak English. I mean, it makes sense why this would happen, especially since the Arabic word for “name” is “smiya,” which is uniquely distinct from their word for “last name,” “kinnaea,” but has really no one with any background in English ever read the textbook? The cake-taker, though, is the Moroccan English way of asking how you are. In Darijia, you would usually ask with “la bas?” and answer with “la bas.” Of course, there are other exchanges you could use (such as “bekhair?” and “bekhair”), but they too tend to be the same word just inflected differently. It's not too surprising then that people are going to imagine that English behaves the same way, and thus the birth of “Are you fine?” Myself and almost fifty years of Peace Corps volunteers before me have fought to slay this demon, and I am here to say that we have failed. Rather than admit defeat, however, I propose that we adopt this formally into English, so that we can say that the English spoken by our dar shebab students in fully correct. So do your parts, people, and whenever you see someone, ask them “Fine? Are you fine?” They'll appreciate knowing you care, and I'll appreciate having a little bit of Morocco with me back in America.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

9 Ways That Duncan Blows Morocco's Mind

I have a policy that, no matter what else I have going on, the day isn't complete until I blow at least one Moroccan's mind. Of all the goals of the Peace Corps, that's probably the easiest, but if I'm ever having a hard time with it, here are a few I can always count on:

1. It's lonely being in the Peace Corps. You probably suspected as much, but allow me to assure you that it's far more so than you think, and different volunteers deal with it in different ways. Some drink, some give up and go home, some focus their energy into their work. I got a cat. That's not news to you, either, but it definitely came as a shock to Morocco. Which isn't to say that there aren't animals in and around the homes of Moroccans, because there are. There was a cat that lived at my first home stay, a whole pride of them in the garden of my second home stay, and lots of dogs kept by people I know. The difference, though, is the relationship negotiated between the human and animal. Here, a house animal is generally just that, an animal. It isn't a pet. Very few are given names (the first cat's name was Kitten), and most are treated with a combination of tolerance and appeasement. The cats that live with my new family are fed mostly so that they won't bother people with their mewling. Dogs are a lot more common than cats, and they tend to get names, too (90% are either Rocky or Rex), but I've never seen one that wasn't tied to a tree, and that's because these dogs are around for purpose, not companionship. Most people are afraid of dogs (some of cats, too), but that's because the majority of dogs are feral and would bite you if given the chance. That I not only let an animal into my house, but treat it like a member of my family is a constant amusement for my neighbors and family. Little Mehdi who lives next door lives to chase the cat into some unattainable location, and some of my cousins' favorite pastime is to come over and look for her, and then run out of the house when she's found. They love to talk about how she has a name, and that it's a “people's name.” A few people (usually who know girls named Amal) have gotten upset that my cat has the same name, but not many. I thought about it beforehand, though, and made sure that Amal is neither a name of God or the Prophet, so it's not that. It's just the thought of an animal being called the same as you (or being called the same an as animal), that's shocking.

2. The Peace Corps gives us bikes for getting around in our sites (and beyond, provided we have permission, of course), but they come with a few conditions. Obviously, we have to take care of them, and, unless we can trick an incoming volunteer into taking ours from us, we'll have to pay for any damages when we're finished. We're also, for insurance purposes, not allowed to let any non-PCVs use them, which ultimately means that we're forced to be seen as selfish jerks in our significantly-more-communal-than-America communities. That's not going to blow anyone's mind, though. It'll just give them a bad impression of the States. No, the amazement comes from the other condition: that we must, on pain of expulsion from the Peace Corps, at all times wear a bicycle helmet. Now, it's a good idea to wear one no matter what, and I hope that you're doing so back there at home (even if you're not going to lose your job if you don't), but I think you can appreciate how you might feel if you were the only one in town wearing bicycle headgear. Try as we might, there's just no way to put on a helmet that doesn't make you look like a dork, and that's in a society that accepts them as normal. Out here, I can only imagine it's like walking down Main Street, Anytown, in a spacesuit. Back during our staging (before we got on the plane to Morocco) they showed us a propaganda film starring the nerdiest volunteer ever and his plan to turn being a laughingstock into a bicycle safety awareness campaign. The video actually looked like it had been filmed in Morocco, which makes sense because thousands of American films are done here and because the kids he was talking with were obviously actors. In all my life as a Peace Corps volunteer, I've never met a group of drairi who'd rather learn about bicycle helmets than make fun of a foreigner, or who would receive any benefit from such knowledge. Whether we like it or not, bicycle helmets just aren't available in our communities, and this is one sector in which we can't just make a cheap substitute out of cardboard and empty soda bottles at the dar shebab. A few kids have asked me for mine, and I could tell that at least one of them honestly intended to use it. I'd love to leave it behind when I go, too, if only I wasn't going to be fined out of my readjustment allowance for not returning all my equipment.

3. Our pre-staging materials came with a long list of suggested items to bring with us. As a good Boy Scout, I took it reasonably seriously. I didn't bring a Coleman camp shower. I did bring the duct tape, but I disbelieve in its omniusefulness. I've found myself looking for things to do just to get rid of it. I also brought the sticky tack, but the only thing keeping anything on my walls is superglue. And they recommended bringing some bandanas, so I threw in a few of those, too. Aside from an award-winning pirate costume I put together for Halloween every once in a while, I've never been a bandana-wearing kind of guy, but I figure there can't be a better place to start than in the Peace Corps. It turns out that I don't wear them very much in Morocco, either, aside from under my bicycle helmet, when I'm getting dressed up for the World Cup, and if my hair is just so incredibly funky that it would be a crime to inflict it upon people (I take my hats off when I go inside, thank you very much). And it's times like these when I'm usually – hopefully – on my way to the showers, which just happen to be attached to the downstairs of my host grandfather's house, and only a few doors away from basically everyone else in my family, including the house where I stayed, and I'll obviously see my family as well. Let me tell you, they didn't know what to think the first time they saw me put on a bandana. And why not? Because only women wear bandanas, which is funny because to me a bandana is like a turban as much as it is a headscarf, though I'll grant that there is a certain kind of bandanascarf that women wear, too. One of my little cousins even asked if I was a girl, which his mother very happily relayed to me (he didn't know how to speak Arabic yet), though also added that that was why he wasn't shy of me. I'm sure that's what prompted the Peace Corps to recommend packing them: instant youth integration.

4. One of the first things that we do when we arrive in country is begin learning Darija. Almost every other foreigner, however, does not, and thus (as we've discussed), your average Peace Corps volunteer is quite an anomaly in his or her daily conversation. And it's common enough that when you (or I, this is about me, after all) speak Darija, the host country interlocutor is so blown away that they may very well not hear a single word of what you say, or even reply that they're very sorry but don't understand English. Take for example, the case of the Roman ruins of Volubilis. I'm one of the closer volunteers to the ancient city, and so when one of my close friends from the South (of whom, I can assure you, there are many) come to visit, we'll often takea trip over. You may not know this, but I have an uncanny ability to read the guide book and then five minutes later present exactly what it said as the result of decades of my own personal research, and thus I've earned the title of Volubilis's Greatest Tour Guide. And on one occasion as such I was entertaining a group of PCVs with the Curious Case of the Acrobat's House. You see, there is a particular mosaic in the center of town of a naked man sitting facing backwards on a quadruped equine animal of some sort holding up something in his hand. As you can probably imagine, though, the tour guiding business wouldn't last very long peddling this sort of historical accuracy, and thus we have the invention of Theories. Allow me to take a moment and point out that no one – all of us to a man having been nowhere near Volubilis circa 217 AD – can make any great claim to Truth. Nevertheless, our guide book explains that this man is an athlete, engaging in the challenging and dangerous sport of desultor (jumping on and off of a horse in full gallop), and presenting his trophy to a crowd of adoring spectators (not pictured). As I was explaining all of this to my compatriots, a woman enjoying her afternoon in Volubilis decided that the day would be perfect if only she could tell some foreigner that he's wrong and, more importantly, doesn't know how to read the multilingual placard describing the mosaic of a jester riding his donkey backwards for the amusement of all. Well, sweetheart, let me tell you something: there's one thing you don't do, and that's contradict Duncan in front of the youth development volunteers. Forgive me my snobbery, but if your English was really that good, you'd have heard me say just that only moments ago as one of two available theories, but give me a second and I'll go over the whole lecture once more for you, your family, and everyone else who's gathered to enjoy the show. In Darija. Yes, that's right,I do have the linguistic ability to not only read this placard, but also explain the concept of historical debate. I don't know about you, but I'm more inclined to believe that if someone's going to immortalize their naked self in the floor, it would be for being a death-defying stuntman (I certainly plan on it), but far be it from me to judge the sick sense of humor of 3rd Century Roman colonials. I pause a moment for you to collect your shell-shocked minds, carpet-bombed with Original Duncan's Finest Logic. But it's not applause that I hear. It's some guy who's mind has been blown: “You can speak Arabic? That's adorable!” If he'd been any closer, he would have pinched my cheek. It's probably best that he couldn't. I'd prefer to spare students of international conflict from learning about the Volubilis Incident until after I leave Morocco.

5. You know what, though, sometimes I take advantage of your ignorance. I tell you how great I am, but don't leave you any options for independent verification, and you're left just taking my word for it. Don't get me wrong, I am awesome, but in the interests of Truth, let me tell you how sometimes I come off a little greater than I really am. For instance, I don't actually know how to speak Tamazight. A retiring volunteer once taught me, though, the secret to speaking Berber languages, which is to not be able to speak them at all. The trick is, whenever someone asks you if you do, just say, “of course, etch agharome [eat bread],” and then go back to speaking Darija. Two or three other words might help put icing on the cake, but nine times out of ten you've already floored your audience. Why? Well, though more than half of Morocco is Amazigh, I'd wager less than half can speak Tamazight (despite minimal preservational effort on the part of the government, it's a dying tradition), and it's a good sight fewer Americans who even bother to try. (A nationalistic aside: far more Americans learn Tamazight than Moroccan Arabs, and those are gross numbers, not percentages.) Nearly two years later, and – I'll admit it – there are those who are starting to doubt my linguistic ability, but I've still got some convinced, and those are the people I eat with. This is because I speak a very unique brand of indigenous language called Lunch Time Tashleuheit. I learned from my host family, who only speak Arabic when they're talking to me, and mostly only talk to me when I'm over to mooch lunch. I score advanced level proficiency on Anything Related to What We're Having for Dinner (with a minor in Elementary Kitchen Smalltalk and Gossip), but aside from a collection of Tashleuheit words that I made up, I failed my courses in Everything Else. It doesn't really matter, though, because no matter what I do in my remaining month and a half, Freedonia will forever remember me as either 100% Berber Duncan or That Foreigner Who Really Loved to Talk about Bread.

6. Whenever I meet someone new, be it at a friend's house, in a taxi, at the corner store, or anywhere else, we tend to have to review the course of my entire service. That doesn't mean that I have to do a community map with them and establish their assets and vulnerabilities, but we start with speaking to me in French, asking if I like it here, and then on to Intro to Morocco 101. Naturally, the chronically proud Moroccan people want to educate their foreign guest about every aspect of their country – which is wonderful – it's just that after two years here, I've got a pretty good handle on Morocco myself. For example, did you know that Morocco was the first country to recognize America's independence? That there are three different families of Amazigh language? Yes, I did know that. I can also tell you about the subgroups of Tamazight and that our two countries first got together to hunt the Salé Rovers and Barbary pirates. This usually makes my Moroccans very happy to hear – though sometimes we get into arguments about the origins of Amazigh New Year (Yenayer) – but almost always catches them off guard. But I'm a teacher, too, and I know the feeling. It's not easy to go to class with a prepared lesson and then find out that your students are actually about seven chapters farther along. And it makes me wonder what kind of an ass I've been talking to foreigners in America. “Hey, Kyong Bo, did you know that Americans love to play baseball in the summer?” Really? No kidding.

7. We take it for granted that a single, 27-year-old guy either lives by himself or is a major loser. Not so in Morocco, but we've talked about that before. It's shocking for its mass potential for inappropriate behavior, but it's mind-blowing for its mere possibility. How could a guy possibly function by himself without the assistance of women? He would have to cook, and clean, and wash his clothes, and these are clearly impossible (undoubtedly the basis for the belief that I do not, in fact, ever wash my clothes, and that I subsist on a complex diet of black magic and photosynthesis – a true challenge in rainy, cold, Freedonia). I spend a lot of time with my family, and, though I love them dearly, a lot of this time I'm bored out of my mind. This is because I'm expected to watch the United Arab Emirates' greatest gift to mediocre cinematography, MBC2. But you can only watch Underworld: Evolution so many times before you need to crush your skull with a meat tenderizer, and so I'm often left desperately looking for something better to do. When I'm smart, I'll bring a book with me. Sometimes, though, I'm not, and so I'm left with no choice but to make conversation with my family, who are usually in the kitchen cooking something or elsewhere in town being hoodlums, and so I go chat with my mom while she makes lunch. And it's times like this when I pick up one or two items hanging around in the sink, and blow my mother's and sisters' minds. “Amin!? Are you washing the dishes?” Sometimes, in moments of frustration, I tend to reply that American guys are just manifestly superior to Moroccans for our comprehension of the Four Fold Mysteries of (1) apply soap to sponge, (2) agitate sponge briskly over dishes, (3) extinguish sudsiness with fresh water, and (4) leave in a warm, airy place to dry. Once, in the course of teaching my women's association girls' English class about food, I brought in the ingredients for pumpkin bread and made it with them. I had never before seen such astoundedry. And it's because of this (and that I only have at best three more classes with them, and that I got bored and took out the pumpkin bread before it was entirely finished – I'm not really a baker), that any further studying is going to be dedicated to a combination of culinary cultural exchange and ruining any chances these girls have of domestic tranquility with their future entitlement-happy husbands.

8. Most of my mind-blowing makes me look awesome (or at the very least, unique), but sometimes it makes me come across as a square. For example, in Freedonia, we have a liquor store, which happens to be right below my apartment, where Freedonians exercise their right to be weak in their flesh. I, however, don't drink, and I don't mean that in the sense of how I live in a society where drinking is the Mark of Shame and just don't want to tell anyone – because I certainly do that with other things. No, I legitimately don't drink. I also don't care if people want to (provided they don't then endanger themselves or others, but this isn't that story). So you can imagine how my friends feel when they really want to go out and get drunk and Amin, the only one in town who's got a really rock-solid justification for drinking, turns out to be a teetotaler. I say that tea is enough for me, which almost never gets a laugh out of my audience, and always hurts me in my soul. (Incidentally, if I hear someone tell me about how tea is “Moroccan whiskey” just one more time, I'll probably murder everyone and their families.) Even more alarming is my complete inability to chase after girls. Morocco, as a Muslim country, wavers between a nominal and concerted effort to separate the genders, particularly the unmarried ones. I, however, get a special Navigate the Gender Divide Free card included in my Outsider Package. I still have to fight to get into a kitchen, of course, but it does allow girls – particularly my students – to talk to me in the street, which in turn allows everyone else in my community to convince themselves that I'm the Mac Daddiest of all time. The other day at the post office I was talking with my friend the security guard when a girl from the dar shebab waved and said hi. As she was sitting a bit off on the entryway steps, I called back a quick “how are you” and looked back to continue the conversation I was already having. My pal, though, quickly pulled me around the corner and wanted to know if this was my girlfriend, what my secret was, and how was I so successful with the ladies. In his defense, it's just about impossible to get a girl to play anything other than hard-to-get, but the truth is I'm really not in to the whole Lolita thing. I just teach English.

9. I don't actually like to wear hats. At our recent Close of Service Conference (CoSCon) I made the same confession to the guys who came into the Peace Corps with me, and I'm fairly convinced that none of them believed me. That's because I've a baseball cap of some sort basically non-stop since September 6th, 2008 – which was similarly true of me in middle school – though it'd been almost exactly ten years since my first significant girlfriend made it plainly clear that she wasn't into hats (on me). And, like the people of Stockholm, I came to agree with her and soon realized that I too hate hats on me. I experimented in college with fedoras (my head is too skinny to pull it off properly), but ultimately spent a decade perfecting a way of not combing my hair and fooling people into thinking that I did. On the way to Morocco, however, I got this idea that I should go join the Peace Corps and be the token American, and that means a baseball cap. Now, I come from a land where you either wear a Yankees hat, a Red Sox hat, or nothing at all. The first was out of the question; it's all the evil of the Galactic Empire without the awesomeness of a lightsaber. The second, too, is problematic in that though they're the sworn enemies of injustice, I just can't feel like a unique individual wearing the same hat as everyone else. In the end, I went for the old Houston Astros logo because I have nothing against them and they're innocuous enough that enough people might think that I made up the hat's image myself. I put the hat on my head and went to Morocco, and soon learned that everyone here already wears one. But I didn't despair because I have one last resort of uniqueness: I wear mine backwards. This actually derives from my original dislike of hats – I don't want something (particularly a brim) blocking my view of what's going on. Ironically, though, it's precisely that that's gotten me the cross-cultural attention I craved. Crooked hats in Morocco are the badge of an awakening hip hop culture, which makes my hat by far the most street cred-securing article of clothing I've ever worn. Occasionally the youth will comment on my headgear and hit me up for my rhymes, so I bust a few until it's abundantly clear to everyone involved that I know nothing about hip hop music, but the true human interest story is my little cousin, Aziz, who now puts his on backwards. We're working on pounds and other greetings, but, as he doesn't yet really know how to speak Arabic, it's still a work in progress. I asked him to give me five, so he asked his dad for some money.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's Wrong with the Rough Guide

There are three books in every Moroccan Peace Corps volunteer's house: the most sacred of Peace Corps texts, Where There Is No Doctor; a journal, which only half actually use and only half of those use regularly; and The Rough Guide to Morocco. The Rough Guide is by far the most frequently read book in a PCV's life, but there's never been a volunteer who constantly used it and didn't also constantly complain about it. Of course, there's never been anything that volunteers do that they don't also complain about, but, in this case, they may have a point (beyond the simple nitpicking of grammar and spelling that any schmo with too much time and education can do). The Rough Guide is invaluable, and it is not my intention to pillory the book, but there are a few edits that really need to be made, and who better to make them than me? Here they are:

I would say that the most important aspect of traveling to a foreign culture is language. It's hard to find all the beautiful sights or interact with the interesting people if you can't communicate, and Morocco's language schizophrenia only complicates matters. Most visitors plan on speaking French, and they tend to stay in the parts of Morocco where in some ways it's easier to speak French than Arabic. That's fortunate for them, because if they came armed only with the Rough Guide's Moroccan Arabic glossary, they'd be in for a few surprises.

Granted, the word “Arabic” itself is about as useful in today's world as the word “computer.” Is it a desktop or laptop? Mac? PC? Other? Is it for work or home or both? We understand the idea, but we also need a good deal more explanation. “Arabic” is obviously the language spoken by Arabs, but is it the U'rdania spoken in Jordanian-dubbed Turkish soap operas or the Misria of inane Egyptian comedies? Is it the Modern Standard Arabic of news reports or the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an? And in Morocco, we've got not only the Modern Standard of the classroom, but also the Darija of the streets.

The Rough Guide tackles this issue straight on from sentence one: “Moroccan Arabic, the country's official language, is substantially different from classical Arabic, or from the modern Arabic spoken in Egypt and the Gulf States.” This is not only incorrect, it's the exact opposite of the truth. Moroccan Arabic (known as Darija, meaning “dialect”) is not the official language of Morocco. In fact, the same modern Arabic (called Fos-ha, meaning “pure”) spoken in the east is used here as the official language (which there, too, is generally not the same language as what you'll hear spoken in the streets), though you aren't going to find it spoken anywhere other than in interviews or street signs. They go on to say that most Moroccans can understand the eastern dialects through media exposure and that they'll adapt their speech if you speak to them with one. The former is absolutely true; the latter is rather doubtful. My only experience observing someone speaking to Moroccans in Jordanian Arabic was met with laughter and the exact opposite of paying her any heed.

Ultimately, however, though this is false information, it's largely forgivable. No one's trip to Morocco is going to be ruined because they thought they could get by with Modern Standard. The real problem is in the pages that follow, wherein they proceed to spread misinformation with it's English-Arabic-French glossary. Now, this was not so malevolently constructed as Monty Python's infamous English-Hungarian Phrasebook, but, with a lack of clear premeditation comes the more critical question of how. How could the editors, who clearly have spent some time in Morocco and (presumably) would have had to use some of these phrases in order to learn them in the first place, have allowed this to happen? Despite their lengthy – albeit misleading – explanations as to the difference between Moroccan Arabic and the Arabics of the east, the glossary is filled with Fos-ha.

I'm not going to go into too great of detail as to the specifics of the inconsistencies between Fos-ha and Darija. Firstly, that would be boring, and second, my good friend and stagemate Mike Turner has already done it. I would, however, like to point out just a few examples. There are major differences between the dialects, and they begin at the beginning: with subject pronouns. I, you (masculine, feminine, and plural), he, and she are all the same. (Being a gendered language, there is no “it” as you or I would conceptualize it.) Both Fos-ha and the Rough Guide will go on offer nehnoo for “we” and hoom for “they.” Unfortunately, Darija prefers hooma (pretty close) for the latter and hna for the former.

My favorite, though, is given for “go away:” imshee. This was one of the words I knew before coming, as it's yelled with great frequency by Salah, Indiana Jones's Egyptian pal, particularly on the many occasions upon which he steals camels from both Nazis and their stooges. How I wished I could yell imshee with the same gusto, but it is not to be, as Moroccans say seer instead. The root of imshee is used for every other conjugation of the word expect for imperative. It's too bad that's the only form the user of this glossary is offered.

And there are more, but they don't need to delved into now (if you have time, and know about these languages, check out the list of numbers). There are also other translations that I can't be sure if they come from Fos-ha or somewhere else. These include, but are not limited to, the following [in the form of “English,” Moroccan Arabic, and (Rough Guide Moroccan Arabic)]: “there,” tma (hinak); “hospital,” sbitar (el mostashfa); “jam,” confitur (marmelad); and “yoghurt,” dannon (rayeb). To be honest, after reading through this glossary, I was convinced that the editorial staff just decided to copy/paste terms from some other Arabic phrasebook of theirs.

That was until I re-read their numbers. When I first came to Morocco, I was a little worried about how I'd only taken two semesters of Arabic in college, and particularly how I hadn't really paid that much attention in either of them. I learned to relax, however, once I learned to count to two. Modern Standard gives us wahhed for one and ithnain for two. Darija is hip to wahhed, but prefers djooj for two. This actually comes from the Arabic word for “couple” (zouwj is “marriage”), and – amazingly – this is accurately documented by the Rough Guide. Moroccan Arabic, however, returns to its Standard roots for nearly every other instance of two (twelve, twenty-two, etc) except for those in which in English we would say “...and two” (such as “one hundred and two”). This means that twelve is tinash (not “entnashar,” which as given by the Rough Guide is Fosh-ha ), and twenty-two is tnain o 'ashreen (Fos-ha would call for ithnain wa 'ashroon, which is pretty close). Our Rough Guide, however, recommends “jooj wa ashreen,” which you would think is really funny, too, if you realized that saying as much is – literally – like walking into your favorite deli and asking for “two and twenty bagels.”

But the Rough Guide is so much more than glossaries. In fact, only eleven pages are given to the entire language section, including one that simply says “Language,” a second that lists the contents of the remaining nine pages, and a final page index other (and presumably better) language resources. No, the meat of the Rough Guide is concerned with what to do and see in Morocco, and, though I haven't seen enough of the country to offer comment on much of the book, I've been to a good deal, and I want to talk about one of the country's most incredible natural sights: the Caves of Hercules.

The caves are located outside of Tangier, and get their name – supposedly – from the legendary founding of the city by Sophax, the son of Hercules, who named it after his mom, Tingis. The Rough Guide is skeptical of this story, and offers a countertheory that tingis is an Amazigh word meaning “marsh,” of which there are many. Believe what you will, the Rough Guide offers some very interesting perspective on the connection between Herculean mythology and Morocco (Lixus is allegedly the site of the Garden of the Hesperides, the home of the Golden Apples and object of one of Hercules's labors). It also makes it abundantly obvious – in a nearly full-page photograph – the caves' main attraction: “their strange sea window, shaped like a map of Africa.” It even includes Madagascar.

The greatest mistake I've made in my service was to completely dismiss the caves the first time I went to Tangier, and, when I finally returned, I nearly made the second greatest mistake of my service: to take a taxi directly there. Fortunately, however, either our driver didn't quite understand us, or he simply knew better, and he deposited us on a beach some four kilometers from the caves. The walk is absolutely breathtaking, and of the caliber of experiences that can literally leave you indifferent – and contentedly so – to any other disappointment. That worked out in our favor, as, upon descending the depths of the caves, we discovered that the sea window is not, in fact, shaped like a map of Africa.

That's perhaps a bit misleading. There is a strong resemblance; however, there is also a very key difference: it's shaped like a backwards map of Africa. I suppose that if you were of the sort with such a powerful imagination that upon seeing this shape your already distorted sense of reality would simply tell you that this is what Africa looks like, you wouldn't have any problems with this. Alternatively, you could simply stand in the ocean after tossing the sun into the caves, thus allowing it to create an accurately Africa-shaped silhouette. Either of these solutions is preferable to the thought that the Rough Guide would peddle such blatant – and so easily debunkable – falsehoods. I mean, you'd expect that they'd simply advise you to enjoy the “strange sea window, shaped like an inverted map of Africa,” or “a map of South America.” It's enough to make you wonder if perhaps Tangier really is the namesake of a mythological queen.

Perhaps the problem stems from there being just so much to do and see in Morocco. The Rough Guide tries to help, though, by offering 35 Things Not to Miss. To date, I've seen 29 of them and in general, I'd say it's a pretty solid list. There are a few, of course, that I don't think were really all that worth it. Windsurfing in Essaouira (number 5), though fun (like windsurfing pretty much anywhere), is really nothing to write home about, and the Bab Oudaia in Rabat (31) is probably one of the least interesting features of that city. Certainly the Shellah – or even the mausoleums of Mohammad V and Hassan II – are both far more attractive and historically significant. There are others that I haven't seen that I'd really love to, and in the case of the Glaoui Kasbah (1) and Tin Mal Mosque (18) I've certainly tried. I'm a little more skeptical of a few others like the big blue painted rocks (6) in the Tafraoute dessert and the skiing at Oukaimeden (10), but in the end, I'll probably just never see those.

All in all, though – like I said – it's a pretty good list, except, perhaps, for one: number 23, Berber transport. It's probably quite racist – definitely Orientalist – but even more, I'm not really sure what to do with this one. I mean, do I have to get in a truck with Berbers? Or see one? Or merely be aware that they're out there? And once in, how important is it that I make sure my co-passengers are Berber? I've seen the transport trucks before (riding in an open air vehicle is “illegal” for Peace Corps volunteers, so clearly I've never done that), and I know that some of the people I've seen in them were Arab. Does that not count? Also, it doesn't specifically say that it has to be a truck. My family is Amazigh, and I once rode in my uncle's car. I think that counts.

To be fair, though, it isn't always the Rough Guide's fault for spreading misinformation,and for this, now turn to Freedonia herself. It's always been a point of pride for me that Freedonia gets a good page and a half – not the most for a volunteer, but more than any of my immediate friends. For obvious reasons, though, I don't really need to read it very often, and so it wasn't until much later that I read this sentence: “A small Monday souk is held just off the central square within the ruined kasbah, location for music and dance events during a Fête des Pommes festival in August.” Freedonia really is famous for her apples, but in my two years, I'd never seen an apple festival, nor heard anyone speaking about it.

Until recently. There are several topics of conversation that are disproportionately popular in Morocco (whether Morocco or America is best is a big one), and one of those topics in Freedonia is how impossibly corrupt our last mayor was. I learned about this right from the beginning, when I was introduced to the town mascot, a cheetah named “Tiger.” You may not know this, but neither cheetahs nor tigers have much of a history in Morocco, and, as I quickly learned, they don't have much history in Freedonia, either.

The national animal of Morocco is the lion (Atlas lion, to be specific, of which there are no more in Morocco), and – allegedly – we used to have a giant stone lion statue to display our patriotism right in the center of town. The mayor, however, in an obvious appeal to popular sentiment, declared that we could do better, and had the statue removed to make way for the future: a scrawny little fiberglass cheetah, affectionately referred to around here as “the cat,” which only ever gets a new coat of paint when an unnamed concerned citizen goes out and does it himself. That may not sound all that corrupt until you hear what he did with the lion. Certainly, there aren't a lot of ways to dispose of a massive stone statue – and I'm sure he was motivated exclusively by civic pride – and he had no choice but to send the old lion down to live out its days guarding his ranch in the valley.

To be honest, I hadn't heard a story like that since they took Carmen Sandiego off the air, but it turns out that our mayor did more than just steal the town mascot. There's a little pond right near the cat where nowadays kids like to go swimming in the algae, but in the past folks would come and try to catch the fresh mountain fish. The mayor sold them all, and I'd always wondered why so many of our hotels and cafes and restaurants were named “something something trout.”

And as if it wasn't enough to steal the town monument or sell all the fish in the sea, he apparently sold off the festival to another town. Despite the fact that Freedonia is well enough known for its fruit that my programming staff have during visits here spent as much time buying apples as they have in talking to me about my work, the Apple Festival now lives in Midelt, for which it does receive credit in the Rough Guide.

Which brings me to my last issue: the general “roughness” of the guide. I'd always imagined that we were talking along the lines of rough-and-ready, “rude or unpolished in nature, method, or manner but effective in action or use” – what Indiana Jones would turn to if Short Round was on vacation. The more I read it, though, the less I'm convinced it's intended for really that much of an adventurous spirit. Taken in aggregate, it's the tourist track that outbid the road less traveled. The little towns get billed as places with nothing to see, fancy dining trumps street fare, and the Majorelle Gardens got listed as number 3 in the 35 Things Not to Miss. It turns out that it's a lot more Ginger than Mary Ann.

Not that there's necessarily that much economy to be made from marketing to Peace Corps volunteers – who are too cheap to buy anything, anyway – and the people who want to be like them, but if it isn't that kind of rough, just what kind of guide is it?