On the ride to my new site, I felt like I was riding with Andy Day again on our way to the Grand Canyon (here’s to hoping this Christmas is not spent vomiting in a desert again, though). The way the landscape changes – and drastically, I might add – is unbelievable. One second, you’re surrounded by mountains and trees; then, suddenly, the world becomes a large, flat, dry desert for miles and miles.
I should clarify, perhaps, that by “desert,” I really do mean something a bit more like Arizona or Southern California and not the dunes that are found in the south (you know, where Star Wars was filmed and where I certainly hope to visit, enshallah).
As for the drive to the desert, though, there are multiple ways to get to my new home from Fes, but for the first trip, Eric Sneathen, the volunteer I am replacing (and who I’m indebted to for his kindness and willingness to help me get acquainted with the place), came to get me so we could take four Grand Taxis southeast. From Fes, the first stop is Sefrou, which is actually nice to know that my current host family is “on the way” and relatively close (considering most of my friends are two days away, I’m thinking four hours is “relatively close”). From Sefrou, we taxi to Boulemane, a bitterly cold city in the Middle Atlas Mountains and then on the other side of the mountains to Missour, the capital of my province. From there, we took the last, long, endless road to my final destination thirty or so minutes north.
Alternatively, from here, you can bus or taxi north to Guercif, which is in-between Fes and Oujda (on the Algerian border where my friend Meetra is living). Guercif is a rail stop, so on the way back, we took the two hour train to Fes. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
My site itself boasts a scenic view, for sure, but not the kind of “scenic” one might expect. There’s no close mountain to climb, very little green, and mostly what is here might be considered miles and miles of endless, flat land that stretches all the way to Algeria. You can see the Atlas to the west, and they begin to incline about thirty minutes away toward Tirnest (a town where two volunteers – Avery and Caity – currently reside), but there are few places where you can get a good view of the mountains or of the town itself, for that matter.
So, what’s the scenic view? Skyscape.
With so little backdrop and miles of empty desert, the sky becomes its own theater telling a timeless tale of sorts – a story of seasons, of birth and death, as the weather shifts from the hot summers to the cold winters. When they said Morocco is “the cold country with the hot sun,” they weren’t kidding. In some ways, the weather here seems very similar to Tennessee, but I’ve found myself freezing cold and hot…at the same time. I’m not really sure how that works, but Outat can be a very windy and dry place, which can make for an interesting combination (and chapstick essential). Sandstorms are not common – or at least, not strong enough to move through town very often – but they do happen. I look forward to sitting in a cafe and watching a distant sandstorm or lightning on the mountains, if not also a snowstorm or two.
Speaking of the cafe, there are several in town and spending time at the cafe seems to be a good start to integrating myself into this new community (when I’m not walking around saying hello to people who are staring at me awkwardly). It’s a good place where the men go to sit, watch soccer, or meet and chat with friends. There’s always a crowd there, it seems, but that may not be too surprising considering the size of my town.
Outat is a transit town, meaning it’s a nice stop-off point on the one road between Guercif and Errachidia. There’s always people coming and going here. For example, Sunday and Monday is “souq” day, or the day the market is open and the men from the army base nearby will crowd the streets to buy whatever they need at souq. Luckily for me, fresh produce (and more importantly, red ball cheese) is available year round, and clothes – since mine may wear out quickly given the frequency I will wash them – are cheap.
Of course, the people are incredibly pleasant and wonderful, as is usually the case in Morocco. My host family is large, and it’s taking me a while to figure out who is who, especially since the women are currently keeping a distance confining themselves to the kitchen. We don’t even eat together, which is much different from the way things are in Sefrou, where Fatima is so clearly the “head of the household.” Still, I expect this will change once my host father moves to Spain after Eid El Kibir.
Poverty is also common here. There are no couches in my home. We eat on the floor or on blankets with pillows surrounding a small table. I was given what may be one of the three or four ponges (like a body pillow) to use for my bed and a blanket that smelled suspiciously like a mule. Beyond that, my room is empty.
That’s not to say there’s not money in town – an entire section of town, known as the Cartier, boasts nicer homes, but it doesn’t appear to be well-inhabited. The Cartier is separated by a large bridge to a river that looks like it’s straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Dar Chebab, where I work, is on this side of town, along with the Gendarmes (think, military police of sorts) and the hospital.
The Dar Chebab (house of youth and sports) is only a few years old and Mohammed V, the current King, came himself to the opening ceremony. It boasts a computer lab (currently without internet, but I hope to change this, enshallah), a nice soccer and volleyball field, a classroom, a library (in the works), and a small stage with sound equipment. What more could a guy ask for? I am ridiculously excited about this and about working with Hasan, my mudir, or director. He appears open and excited to let me do pretty much whatever I want, and the freedom to be creative is the very environment where I thrive.
Aside from English help, especially for BAC students (I’ll explain the BAC later, maybe; just know it’s really smart teenagers who are learning Arabic, French, English, and reading Jean Paul Sarte and Immanuel Kant; they put American education to shame), I’m looking forward to playing lots of soccer with the new balls just purchased, organizing the new library (along with getting some chess boards up), or even writing grants for new projects or new “stuff.” This last week, in fact, I helped Eric with an art project promoting peace that drew nearly 120 kids.
Anyodd, those are several scattered thoughts, and this blog is a bit different from the ones I usually write, but I wanted to give something concrete about Outat to kind of draw a picture for you. I’ll close with two brief stories:
The first night I got to site, there was an “event” at the Dar Chebab put on by an association (Atlantis) that was basically a talent show. There were probably easily fifty to seventy people there complete with Moroccan songs, poetry, and dancing. One dance in particular included five guys and one girl dancing the macarena to “It’s a Barbie World.” This was epic and certainly the best introduction to Outat I could’ve asked for. Enjoy the German version, especially if you’re one of my pledge brothers (in which case you know what I’m referencing).
Later that week, I walked into my room to find a kitten curled up in my socks next to my bed. I asked one of my host brothers to come to my room and showed him the “problem.” As he got closer to the cat, it hissed and began running around the room and then around the entire house swiping at people like it might bite them at any second (hello rabies). Suddenly, the house was astir and noisy. We chased the cat toward the door, hoping it would leave, but instead, it climbed into a hole in the wall and then got stuck in a pipe where it whined for several minutes. One of the brothers took a bag and held it open over the hole hoping the cat would crawl into the bag.
And then it happened. The cat was in the bag. The cat was actually in the bag. My brother, Hamza, then let the cat out of the bag just outside the door where it whined the rest of the night.
And that’s my village in a nutshell.