Friday, September 11, 2009

School Bathroom Nightmare, Part III

Twenty days into Ramadan (a full month after the estimated completion date), and the bathrooms still aren't finished. The foreman only shows up to work every few days, and then got most of the measurements wrong ("if you didn't want me to add anything onto the plan you drew, you should have told me not to add anything."), meaning we had to buy more bricks, cement and steel. Then he forgot to leave a space for the windows. I've passed the point of frustration and now everything that goes wrong just makes me laugh. Though I do want to somehow (without creating any enemies) make sure that the association realizes that if we'd gone with the original foreman, the bathrooms would have been completed a month ago, to the exact measurements we wanted, under budget, with windows. School starts in six days, and there's still a classroom full of cement, random wood pieces and a duct tape, to-scale drawing of the plan on the floor.

School Bathroom Nightmare, Part II

Once the 550 bricks, 200 kilos of cement, 175 kilos of steel and everything else we needed were safely in one of the classrooms, the drama began. The association president was upset that we didn't take anyone with us from the association when we bought the stuff. The vice president of the association was upset at our choice of a foreman, other random men showed up who hadn't been at our previous meetings demanding to know why they weren't picked to be the foreman, and everyone was upset that we'd agreed to a daily wage rate that was $3.50 higher than the current going rate for a foreman. We debated for hours, Jed and I saying that we'd been clear from the beginning that we needed a foreman, that if people didn't come to the meetings when they were invited, they can't complain about not being selected as foreman. The association members (for some reason I'm sure I still don't fully understand) were adamant that we not use the foreman we chose. The president claimed that the toilets were so simple to build that we didn't need a foreman, so everyone would work for free. We agreed to this, skeptical but tired of fighting. After two days, they changed their minds and decided they needed a foreman, but couldn't agree on whom, only that it not be the one we'd hired. The guy we hired gave up on us and went back to Midelt to find real work, and the association decided on three different foreman - one would be in charge of the foundation, one the building, and one the roof. This worked until the wall guy decided he had better things to do and quit. Then the association hired a guy I'd never even seen before to be the foreman for the whole rest of the project. Jed and I just wanted to see the thing built, and Ramadan was only a couple of days away, so we agreed.

School Bathroom Nightmare, Part I

Since my first week in the village, the school director has been talking about the urgent need for toilets for the school. The government I guess is in the habit of building classrooms in villages, but not building bathrooms, so the students have to either hold it all day or use the fields around the back of the school. School bathroom building is a pretty common peace corps project in Morocco, and my site mate Jed is a health sector volunteer who was interested in taking this on, so everything seemed pretty straight forward. We held a series of meeting with the parents starting in April, telling them we would supply all the materials if they agreed to each contribute one day of labor for free. We asked around and found a guy who knew how to build stuff and hired him as our foreman. Jed filed all the paperwork, we involved the association, and received the money from USAID in June. Once we had the money, we arranged with the foreman a day at the beginning of July to go together to Midelt and buy everything we needed and bring it back to the village in one trip. Everything was going great and we had plenty of time to finish building these simple bathrooms before Ramadan started. I was busy getting excited about the blog post I was going to write when it was all finished ("my most concrete project yet").

One year in, and still loving it

So I've been in Morocco a year now. Good time for reflection, I think, and a mass email to make sure you all haven't forgotten about me.
Favorite moments in the past year of service:
1.Evening exercise sessions with my host sisters - turning up loud techno music and dancing our hearts out until we're pouring sweat and can't dance anymore, we're laughing so hard
2.The day we started construction on the school toilets, knocking down the old ones, collecting the rocks and pieces of wood, and being excited that it was finally underway
3.Riding my mountain bike down the dirt road into the village - all downhill and fast and absolutely gorgeous
4.Sunset runs out between the plateaus with my dog. Even after almost a year of daily runs, I'm still blown away by how pretty it is every single afternoon. Sunrise is pretty too, but I'm not very good at getting up for that
5.Hanging out with my host brothers when they sell kitchen ware at souq - taking over for them when they go off to run errands, and pretending like there's nothing strange about an American selling tea glasses, cheap plastic Tupperware and silverware in a random rural market in Morocco
6.Long underwear dance parties in winter whenever volunteers get together - turning out the lights and setting our headlamps to "strobe" while we dance to last year's now-out-of-date pop music.
7.Daily afternoon soccer games with the boys, especially when my host brothers come out to play and I get really competitive
8.Watching my neighbors/landlords/family slowly climb the social ladder with every month's rent I pay them, and knowing there's not another family in the world that I would rather see succeed
9.Harvesting barley, weeding the tomato fields, pulling up carrots, or doing whatever random agricultural work there is that day with my host brother, even if it's hard and tedious and gives me horrendous blisters
10.The day a friend and I set out on foot to find a path to this lake that, according to Google Maps, was right over the mountains and through the forest from the village. Drinking tea in a nomad tent, then thinking we'd lost ourselves in the middle of the mountains and then seeing the blue of the lake after six hours of hiking. When we were tired and hungry, being invited to eat lunch at the lake with a fantastic family who then offered us a ride home and invited us to a wedding that weekend, and whom I still track down at their stand whenever I'm in souq, just to say hello.

So those are the great parts of Peace Corps life. Needless to say, this line of work has its frustrations too. A year in, and our couscous business has yet to find a major client, or really anyone who can be counted on to buy more than a couple of kilos a month (I thought for sure we'd be selling in every major supermarket by now). All my hundreds of hours of grant-writing have resulted in less than a thousand dollars of grant money (I thought we'd have a brand new couscous-making facility, and goats and rabbits and a cheese operation by now). And as good as my Arabic is compared to the majority of volunteers here, there are still countless interactions a day where I simply fail to understand or to make myself understood. And the speed at which this past year has gone by makes me afraid that the remaining fifteen months won't be enough to accomplish everything I think I should be able to accomplish.

Ways you can help me, if you're interested:
1.Put me in contact with anyone you know in Morocco, especially if they own/work in a hotel or restaurant or supermarket or travel agency
2.Mail me as many broccoli seeds as you can find, literally. No one here grows any winter vegetables so I want to get some of the farmers to experiment with broccoli, not to mention I miss broccoli more than probably any other food.
3.If you know anyone who's planning a vacation to Morocco, suggest that they take a few hours and stop by the village to make couscous with us - it really is still the best couscous I've ever eaten, and people seem to really enjoy our cooking classes
4.Send me any suggestions you have for anything, really: i.e. grant opportunities, online travel forums I should post to, ideas for other money-making projects or places to sell our couscous.

"You know I have an association. . . "

One thing I find very amusing here is the sheer number of associations there are. Everyone and their mother seems to have their own association, from the taxi driver that drives from Zaida to the village, to the guy I buy vegetables from, to the guys who run the cyber cafÈ. I rarely go one day out of the village without at least one person telling me about their association and asking for my help. It's great, I guess, that this seems to be one area of the government devoid of any and all red tape - one man in the village was talking to me on a Friday about how he was thinking about starting his own association, and the next time I saw him, Monday afternoon, he said he'd started it and filed all the papers and was ready to go. And it's great that people feel like they have the potential to help their communities. But the number of associations that get created and then do absolutely nothing is astounding. Which is why I laughed out loud when the rich land owner told me the other day that he was going to start his own association. "To do what?" I asked. "Everything." "Everything like what? You can't have an association that does everything." "You know, stuff to help the village, like a road and a hospital and whatever it needs." People seem to think that there's just all this money floating around that associations are entitled to the minute they file their paperwork. There is money out there, for sure, but I'm finding that it's really really hard to get.

One Mystery Solved

I've figured out what all the men and teenage boys do between breaking fast and midnight dinner - this was a big mystery to me the first week of Ramadan, when they'd all disappear to the mosque to pray the evening prayer and then not reappear until midnight or one o'clock. In the absence of coffee shops or cafes or any real place to hang out, the teenage boys all hang out outside one of the village's little hanuts (corner stores), I presume the one that sells cigarettes. The men at the same time drink coffee on the patio of the rich land owner's house and talk business and whatever's going on in the village. I stumbled into this the day I got invited there to break fast, and have wandered up there a few times since just to sit and listen. I'm probably the only woman who's ever attended these informal meetings, and I'm not sure if it's inappropriate for me to be there with all the men, but it's fascinating. Yesterday the topic was a truck load of something (I never figured out what) that somehow on its route from the village to Rabat "lost" sixty crates full of whatever it was transporting, worth several hundred dollars. And no one knows who stole it. I'd never really thought about the village as a place of business - to me it's just this happy place where everyone's nice to me and we eat and play soccer and celebrate holidays and drink tea. It also made me really wish my Arabic was better - I understood most of what was being discussed, but I could never participate in conversations like that - the few times one of them turned to me to make sure I was following I just felt like the dumb little kid that you have to speak to in small words. I have the feeling that when it's not Ramadan, these evenings include beer instead of coffee, which means I should probably not attend them. Unfortunate, really, since it's so much more interesting than sitting at home alone or watching TV with the women, and it gives great insight into village politics and social relationships and all kinds of things I still don't know about this place, even after almost a year.

Ramadan Reflections Part III

So Ramadan is now more than half over. People are definitely getting used to it - the first few days when sunset was approaching, everyone would gather around the table, staring at the food, waiting to hear the call to prayer and then dive in immediately. Now it's a lot less important to be there right at the right moment - the call to prayer almost seems to catch people off guard, as they're still preparing food, or bringing in the cows, and what's another minute or two if you've been fasting all day? I've noticed I'm eating a lot more now than at the beginning of the month - I guess at first it felt all wrong to be eating in the middle of the night, and I think my stomach would shrink during the day so I wouldn't be able to eat much at break-fast. But my body's gotten used to the reversed schedule and I'm eating normal amounts of food again, just at abnormal hours. I've stopped eating anything at 4am, just drinking water, since it's never really hunger that's bothersome, it's thirst.

Running Water comes to ____ (This is where I would write my address if I had one)

I've never really minded pulling my water up out of the well (I think the novelty still hasn't worn off, and it makes me feel like a real Peace Corps volunteer). But my neighbors who share my well use way more water than I do, as they actually wash their floors and do their laundry and cook and clean a lot more often than I do. So when I realized that I could buy a pump for the well and set up running water for both of our houses for only about $150, I decided that would be a nice thing to do for the family that has all but adopted me the past seven months since I moved in next door to them. So finally after about a dozen trips to Zaida to pick up the pump, then exchange it for a different one, then buy more tubing, then pick up this or that part that we'd forgotten, I have two working faucets in my house - one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom. Living in luxury now.