Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Day of the Year

It's New Year's Eve, 4:00 in the afternoon and I just got myself showered and out of the house. Don't think I was just lounging around though. Oh no! I cleaned 3 bedrooms, changed all the linens, scrubbed three toilets (ugh, I hate that part the most), shined up the faucets and cleaned up the clean-up materials. I have one visitor in my house (a friend of a friend) and two more expected tomorrow (brothers who own a guest house and rented all their rooms so asked to crash at my pad for two nights). After they all leave I won't be able to house anyone else until there are a couple more days of sunshine so I can have the linens washed and hung out to dry. But today began with a howling wind and rain, followed by sunshine and wind and then all hell broke loose and the rain and winds returned in full force.

I am sitting at Cafe Clock. I had hoped to order their incredible sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream but that is not to be. The wind and rain drove everyone into the Clock and they are out of everything. Except coffee and tea. Oh well. I'll just have to return later to indulge myself.

This year has been one of hard work. But, I do see the results of that work and hope it will abate for 2010. I am not doing any more work on the house for a while. Without the construction work, I will not have the cleanup and inevitable disruptions of having workers in the house. It's almost like a full-time job has been eliminated. I rather like that. The house is staying warm-ish and dry --- unlike previous winters here. I have hot water showers (one caveat; the hot water heater mysteriously shuts itself off after a 5 minute shower so I cannot linger like I did before. But no problem. I just view it as a ecological and economical benefit). I have some great, warm, woolen blankets on all the beds and a neighbor who washes my linens for me when the sun is shining. My teaching job, although not exactly on auto-pilot, is easier to do because I know the materials so well and can be more creative with my presentation of the lessons. The belly dance lessons are not plentiful, but they come with enough regularity to supplement my income and keep me moving.

Yesterday I taught two Slovakian women a small dance routine and showed them a few maneuvers with veils. As they left, one told me "I will never forget you". I was taken aback as I just did what I always do and although she seemed to enjoy herself, she didn't seem over the moon. But then I realized one never knows the impact one has on others and I was grateful I helped make her Moroccan experience a little bit more memorable.

So, to celebrate the close of a difficult, challenging and enlightening year, I plan to spend a quiet evening at home. Reading. Watching a movie. Eating chocolate. I am not inclined to join the group headed to the bar at the Hotel Batha where it is rumored that 200 Cameroons will be in attendance. Somehow, drinking the night away doesn't appeal to me, even though there will no doubt be lots of dancing and highjinks.

No, I plan to see the year out quietly and give thanks for the delights that await me in the coming year:

1. A visit from 4 good friends in April
2. A 3 month trip to California to see my sister and friends
3. A house that is comforatbly habitable
4. A secure job -- and one that I enjoy
5. Several sources for extra income
6. Continued good health
7. Developing new friendships
8. An escape from the brutal summer heat of Fes
9. The possiblity of a segment on my story on House Hunters International
10. The unknown

Happy New Year Everyone. Peace. Goodwill. Prospertiy to all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another Day

I awoke at 5:00 this morning. This might have something to do with the fact that I fell asleep around 9 pm last night. I went to the hammam with two friends and the treatment evidently wiped me out!

I don’t care for the public hammams. I’ve tried several of them. I’ve gone to 4 or 5 different hammams in Fes and one in Chefchouen. I didn’t really like any of them although it is an experience one shouldn’t miss. The reason I don’t like the public hammans is probably because I am a rather private person and have always been one to shy away from crowded places. But the hammam I prefer to go to now is really posh compared to the public baths and I always enjoy my time there. My attendant gave me a hard scrub, taking away one or two layers of skin that left my body red and smooth. We purchased the spa package that also included a clay-like body mask of rose water and who-knows-what other substances. It felt great and I could have stayed there all afternoon, sleeping in the ‘relaxation room’ afterwards.

Right now the first call to prayer is underway. I love the early morning call to prayer. Outside the garbage collectors are sweeping the streets clean of all the debris from yesterday. This time of the day Fes is clean, quiet and spirit-filled. I am drinking coffee at the kitchen counter and planning the belly dance lesson I will give at 1:00 this afternoon. The fee I collect for the lessons will reimburse me for yesterday’s hammam.

I am on holiday right now and like every other holiday; I never seem to get out of town for the break. I seem to need the time to regenerate from the previous semester and all the various jobs I do in-between. Or my money is earmarked for something else and I can’t afford to travel. These days, I have some longer term plans for my money.

I’ve stopped spending money on the house. I still need to plaster and paint the rooms above the ground floor (that’s 7 rooms plus the stairwell), I still need to install some electricity on the upper floor and purchase a washer and dryer. I need a sink in my water closet, plumbing for the washer and shelving in the kitchen and closet. Oh yeah, I also need two more windows made and dozens of light fixtures. I estimate another 15,000 dirham will finish this place nicely. It’s not a lot of money by U.S. standards, but it will take me months and months to accumulate the money on my income. But that’s okay. The house is eminently habitable now and it can wait.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rain, rain and more rain

Winter has arrived. And with it has come the blessed rain. I enjoy the rain because it washes the air and the streets clean. I don't really mind the mud that accompanies it. I just wear industrial boots and clean them up from time to time.

I am happy to report the plastic on the skylight is keeping the rain out of the house. Even though I spent a fortune building a pitched, metal frame around the skylight and added tempered glass to it, the cover never did stop leaking. Seems no matter what you try or how much you spend to cover your skylight, in the end it's plastic that solves your problems.

The house is much cozier that the past few years. I have had windows built and doors made for all the rooms so I can now shut out the cold. Well, not all the windows have glass on them yet but the majority do. Those without have bubblewrap and other creative solutions to the drafty air that whistles through them. But comparitively speaking, the house is quite warm this winter.

Right now the sky is blue. Perhaps I should take advantage of this and find Rachida. She's a neighbor who washes my linens for me. One must grab opportunity when it arises and with a breeze in the air and a brief respite from the rain, perhaps now is the time to get my laundry done!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The water fountains that pepper this city draw many people. There is a fountain across from my house and I witness many comings and goings.

Some people use the fountain because they don’t have running water in their house or they are trying to save a few dirham by using the city water instead of the metered water in their homes. Dishes and clothing are routinely washed in the fountain. Donkeys and mules are given a brief ‘coffee break’ here and the myriad of stray cats jump in and out of the fountain’s well to take a sip of the cold water.

In the early morning hours, vendors with large bunches of mint wash the dirt off it before taking it to their designated spot to sell it. Passersby drink from the spigot or perform their morning ablutions. Feet and hands are washed and plastic containers are filled and carted away for a variety of household duties. There is hardly a moment that goes by without someone turning on the spigot and using the fountain water.

I’ve seen motorcycles, hand carts, work materials and laborers themselves washed by the fountain. And each use has it’s own sound or smell. I particularly like the smell of the mint being washed.

Occasionally a fight will ensue at the fountain. Someone wants to use it for something not really acceptable … like cleaning fish. Or some harried housewife is taking too long washing her clothes and a workman is pressed for time. But in the end, everyone works through their differences and the fountain continues to provide for all who need it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The children in my neighborhood are rather poor and I always find it interesting to see how resourceful they are in creating games or finding things to occupy their interest.

Of course this can often include things that are rather mischievous.

The young boys like to fight. Nothing serious (most of the time) but they grab one another and wrestle their opponent to the ground and chase their friends from one end of the street to another. Typical of young boys all over the world I’d say. The young boys also like to pick on one particular, be-speckled kid named Omar. He inevitably responds by crying and some adult inevitably makes the perpetrators apologize.

The girls like to chant as a group. A chorus of their bird-like voices carries a long distance. The girls also like to take chalk and write on the doors of their neighbors. I’ve had pictures drawn on mine, various words like “father” and “mother” and some nonsensical words. Someone once wrote “Non-believer” on my door. I didn’t particularly appreciate that. After all, how do they know what I believe or don’t believe?

Soccer is often played in the streets. Much to my annoyance when it’s right outside my door because the “thunk, thunk, thunk” sound of the ball hitting my wall reverberates throughout the house. And the boys’ voices are always rough, loud and aggressive. But all I have to do is ask them to move a little bit and they almost always comply (with someone grumbling mightily but acquiescing nonetheless).

Kicking empty, liter-sized plastic bottles that litter the street is great sport and amazingly loud. Kids will kick them up and down the street until all the air is gone and the bottle becomes a flat, sorry imitation of a cylinder. They also like to pull apart Styrofoam and other packing materials that occasionally find their way onto the street into little bits that make me cringe on behalf of the planet.

Yoyos were popular in the summer and games of tidily winks come and go. Top spinning is also great sport and the kids like to slam the metal cover to my utility gauges against the metal bit to sharpen the point on the bottom of their top. Card trading turns into a fury of bargaining and shouting. And every year when elections are held and leaflets literally paper the street, the kids take great joy in grabbing a handful from the adults (who have been paid to distribute the leaflets) and then throw them hither and yon or stuff them through the doors of the houses on the street.

I live across from a public fountain and spraying your friends with water from the spigot is great sport; especially when it’s hot outside. Kids also like to take a mouthful of water and spit it through the keyhole in neighboring doors. Knocking on the neighbor’s door and then running away before it is answered is full of fun, too!

All-in-all the children don’t have many toys to amuse themselves. At least I haven’t seen many aside from a kind of rubber punching ball sold at carnivals back home. I remember one boy coming to me with tears in his eyes because his ball had a hole in it and was now a rubber blob that was unusable. I walked down to the neighborhood store and bought him a new one. The look of surprise and delight on his face was priceless! I saw him proudly carrying that ball with him for about 1 week. I guess it, too, became a rubber blob before too long. Then it was time for him to start kicking plastic bottles again or jump on the discarded wrappers of cookies and other junk food to try to elicit a loud “pop” from the cellophane. Another amusing sport.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Daily Economics

When I read about all the economic turmoil around the world, I often thank my lucky stars that I am living in an affordable place. Even though I haven’t been able to save any money yet, and even though I often long to return to San Francisco, in Fes I have been able to find gainful employment and live within my means. And while I only make the equivalent of $20,000 U.S. a year, I do live in a house I own and have a relatively stable job. Fortunately, the language center where I work has a waiting list of students each semester and I can work as many hours as I want.

Some things are comparatively cheap here while others are over-the-top expensive. But it seems the things you really need are affordable and the frivolous or ‘exotic’ things are what cost an arm and a leg. Food is eminently affordable. Bread, which is baked fresh every day, costs only 1 dirham (>8 cents). A baguette is a dirham and a half. A cup of coffee that would cost $2.00 or more at Starbucks can cost under a dollar here. You can buy a fresh sandwich with lots of healthy ingredients for under a dollar. But then it’s going to cost you nearly $7 to purchase a “Big Tasty” from McDonald’s.

Utilities don’t cost much either but then I am unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. One does live with the elements here. But every month I spend less than $20 for my water and electricity. If I need to refill the propane gas for my heat and stovetop, each large canister (I have 3) costs 40 dirham to fill (5-6 cents).

Some skilled artisans work for very reasonable prices, too. I had someone build 5 cedar wood doors (each with nice detailing and including all the necessary hardware and installation), three shelves for my kitchen, and a step for about $750.

A taxi ride to work is about $1. Hiring someone to carry heavy items in his push cart from Bab Boujloud to my house is about $1.25. And you can hire someone to clean your house for a mere $7.00. I can even get a very professional haircut and highlighting for a fraction of what I would pay in the U.S.

But then there are some other ‘luxury’ items that cost way too much. A very small tube of foundation makeup cost recently cost me almost $20. Votive candles are cheap at home but costly here. Paper products like napkins, tissues, toilet tissue and paper towels are priced dearly. Cleansers and Edam cheese, familiar brand name products from home and 100% cotton sheets and towels all cost way too much.

So, you pick and choose what you need vs. what you want or can afford. And at the end of the day you realize how the choices between what you want and what you need are really simple choices to make … and it’s not always a matter of economics.

My biggest challenge now, economically speaking, is to save enough money to visit and live in the U.S. for three months next summer. I know I can manage to live on 100 dirham a day here when I have to. I can feed myself, take taxis to and from work, buy a cup of coffee and a pastry to treat myself and even have some money left over to handout to the local children or local indigents. But that same money will only buy me a fraction of what I need just to eat every day in the U.S. What can I buy with $15 there? Not much.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Back to School

Last night I returned to teaching after three days off. I haven’t had two days in a row off -- let alone three -- in quite a few weeks. Unlike my Moroccan colleagues, who routinely work 6 days a week, I am a spoiled American who craves long weekends … one day to do household chores and prepare for the upcoming week, and one day to play or do absolutely nothing productive and the occasional third day off to read, see a movie or treat myself to some shopping.

But I was glad to see my students and with many shops still closed for Eid, I had found myself doing more household chores than usual with the time off -- I actually even cooked some meals in my new kitchen … something I have not done for almost three years! My return to work was kind of a relief.

My students routinely give me pleasure. I was teaching a more advanced English class last night and our discussions are always enlightening. We were discussing the topic of plagiarism and drawing lines around ‘acceptable’ cheating and other questionable behaviors. I asked them if there was ever a situation when not telling the truth acceptable. We talked about stealing – would their principles change if one person stole 20 dirham from them and another stole 200 dirham? Most said 20 DH would be acceptable. What if it was their child who stole 20 dirham. Would that be acceptable? No one could accept that but first, they said, they would have to verify with absolute certainty that their child had, indeed, stolen the money. Good answer.

Finally, I asked my students if it was a teacher’s job to help educate students about these matters. Or should a teacher just stick to the curriculum and let students learn from their own social network. My students were quite adamant that a teacher should broach these subjects. “You are more experienced than we are and we need to learn from you.” I can hardly imagine American teenagers responding in a similar fashion.

When I stand in front of the classroom and look out at all the beautiful and open faces of my students I am often filled with gratitude. Mind you, they drive me to distraction many times, chatting away in Arabic while I’m trying to teach them the difference between a defining and non-defining clause and furtively checking their cell phones for text messages or taking note of how much time is left before they can bolt out the door. But there are those times when what I say captures their full attention. I can actually feel the atmosphere change in the classroom and I am aware of the responsibility and trust I hold. When I speak from my heart they, too, can feel it and always give me their full attention. More than once it has brought an incredible fullness to my heart and tears of gratitude to my eyes. I cannot recall feeling so honored for my years of experience in my own country.

What a rare and wonderful honor.