Saturday, April 18, 2009

Should I Change my Title from “Traveling Couscous Salesman” to “Travel Agent”?

A couple of weeks ago I was going to Fes for a Peace Corps meeting, and beforehand I took orders for couscous from the Peace Corps office in Rabat so I could bring them couscous. I packed my rolling suitcase full of bags of couscous (about 50 pounds of it) and lugged it across the country, onto and off of half of dozen modes of transportation and up and down several flights of stairs and all around a not-very-roller-suitcase-friendly city to make the hand-off to the Peace Corps staff that had come for the meeting. And after that whole ordeal, I realized that the profit for the Association came to about $5. I discovered that I would have rather just given the Association $5 instead of struggling with that ridiculously heavy suitcase. That was the moment I decided that there was no way couscous could be our answer to the development of our village. It just isn't worth the hassle.

And so I made the executive decision to enter the tourism industry. I linked up with an American travel agent in Ifrane, a city a few hours away, who organizes tours for small groups of Americans coming to Morocco on vacation. The week of our meeting she had some tourists coming through who wanted to do a cooking lesson, and as luck would have it, her normal cooking lesson man in Fes was going to be out of town. So I offered to bring one of the women of the Association to Ifrane and we would lead a couscous-rolling and couscous-cooking lesson for these two American tourists. The president of the Association was a great sport and trusted me enough to come along even though she probably had no idea what was really going to happen, just that we were going to be cooking couscous in the house of a family we didn’t know, in some other town, for random people we’d never met.

Except for a couple of small kinks (one of the tourists was feeling sick and couldn’t really eat anything, and the woman whose kitchen we were using insisted on hovering over us telling us we were doing everything all wrong), I think it went well. And the profit we took home from that was more than we would get by selling 300 kilos of couscous.

The next month is going to be a busy one. . . two girls coming this Monday for a cooking lesson, and then two groups of tourists coming in May to have lunch in Khoukhate, and then maybe a group of study abroad students for a weekend; and I’ll be in the states at a wedding in the middle of all this. So much for thinking I’d have lots of time in the Peace Corps to read books and write letters.

A Moroccan Tupperware Party

A couple of weeks ago my host sisters and I got invited over for tea to this house in our village where a group of other sisters lives, and I didn’t think anything of it, because I get invited over for tea all the time to random people’s houses. The spread was more elaborate than usual – all kinds of cookies and different breads and oil and jam and nuts and olives and pretty much everything. But even this isn’t really abnormal, because even now, five months into my living here, I’ve found people still serve more and fancier tea snacks when I show up. But then after we were done eating, the women pulled out this big bag of clothes that they then expected us to buy. And it all made sense, that’s the only reason we were invited over in the first place. So this caused quite the moral dilemma for me, which I still haven’t quite resolved: should I have bought something from them or not?

Reasons I should have bought something:

· I’m a small business development volunteer, so I should be encouraging entrepreneurialism whenever I can

· I could definitely afford them, and the women definitely needed the money more than I did

· I did eat a lot at tea-time

Reasons not to buy from them:

· I don’t want to set a precedent for buying whatever people bring to me to sell, even if everyone already knows I probably do have more money than anyone else in the village

· There wasn’t really anything that I especially wanted or needed

This same dilemma is the reason I still haven’t bought any carpets from anyone, even though I need/want some, and there are women who make beautiful ones in the next town that I would love to support. I’m just afraid that people will start coming to me every time they finish a carpet asking me to buy it, which I’ve heard has happened to volunteers in the past. And so far people don’t seem to see me as a walking bag of money. I’m still trying to figure out a sneaky way of buying things, like taking them to a craft fair and selling them to myself.