I woke up the next day refreshed but disturbed by anxious thoughts: “are my hosts doing too much for me? How could I possibly repay them? Am I getting in their way?” I had presents for everyone that I had not given out yet and was worried when would be the proper time. These petty ruminations come up for me when staying with others. It is indeed a precarious situation: you want to show your gratitude to your hosts but the way isn’t always clear as to how. I did find that appreciating the food and my experiences were such a way!
Getting up was leisurely, which was fine with me, since I enjoy sleeping in. I was asked what I wanted to do and I replied, “Go to Jemaa el-Fnaa.” This is the main square in Marrakech surrounded by medinas, or wandering paths, you can get lost in. I was anxious to see it but when Amal mentioned she was going into the country and I could come with her if I wanted, I mulled over my choices. I didn’t feel secure enough yet to go by myself to a big marketplace full of pushy dealers and risk losing my way in the medina. (See, I’m not THAT brave!) So, after we took the children to the preschool, I told Amal I wanted to come with her. She was a bit surprised and called to check if it was okay if I came. Getting permission was important. But everything turned out okay and we got the green light!
We drove out into the countryside, the sights becoming more rural. My first glimpse of a shepherd dressed traditionally with his sheep in some misty fog thrilled me! More similar scenes were to follow. Amal told me they were preparing the sheep for Eid, which comes at the end of Ramadan. At that time, they are slaughtered, with a quick cut to their throat, in accordance to Muslim traditional celebration of the holiday.
We stopped at a gas station, and somehow it amused me to be getting gas in an Arabic country. There was also some tagine pots in the window, which proved further that we were in Morocco!
We stopped one more time to get some water at a small shop. It was crammed with goods and had a small counter. Amal got two big bottles; one for each of us. As we got further out, the scenery became quite beautiful: green and hilly. And the road got more precarious. At one point there was road work and the gravel was so deep, we got stuck! With some help from a road worker, and dancing around a taxi and other vehicles coming from the other direction, we finally made it through. I congratulated Amal on a job well done!
Not long after that, we got to the small town where the school grounds were. There was a gate, so we needed to get out and open it. Some of the students came just in time to help! Amal parked the car inside the compound, and we went in to greet the school director, after meeting another staff member through the window of the car. He stuck out his hand and I shook it but he let go before I could complete the typical three up and down motions. And with the director, he only touched the outside of his small finger to mine, rather than shaking it. I was told later, this was because he was a rather religious man and wasn’t comfortable shaking women’s hands. I felt rather awkward, as if I had failed a cultural test, but the moment passed by quickly.
Soon we left the school grounds by foot and made our way to a small open market. There were donkeys everywhere, and I realized they were waiting to get new iron shoes for their feet. The market place, or souk, was the sort that mostly men frequented. Amal tucked her arm in the crook of mine as we made our way around and gazed at the fresh vegetables. There was mint, so green and fresh, my eyes almost popped out, so Amal bought two bunches, which were wrapped in paper. I asked about some rolled up sticks and she said they were natural toothbrushes and bought one as well for me to try. Finally, we returned to an egg dealer who had a very good price on “bio” eggs (organic). Amal decided to buy 60 of them, as they were very healthy for the children. The seller wrapped them up for her, when she said she was traveling by car.
We brought our purchases back to the school, and upon putting them into the car, I was introduced to a few other staff members, including Ahmad, who was the sports instructor. First, I just listened to them speaking Darija (Moroccan Arabic), but suddenly, Amal revealed that Ahmad spoke English quite well, and he and I started a tentative conversation. He told me right off that he had a FaceBook page where he taught Moroccan Arabic and I asked him to type the title into my phone (Moroccan Arabic with Ahmad – check it out!) Soon thereafter, we were called inside the director’s office and served a steaming tagine with flat bread. I felt very honored to invited to lunch! The tagine tasted a bit more smoky than Amal’s. I believe they cooked it over an open flame. Again, there were vegetables, including potatoes and pea pods teepeed over flavorful meat – this time beef. We washed our hands before and afterwards at an outside row of sinks.
After lunch was over, Amal went inside to inform classes on their possible career choices, while some white plastic chairs were brought for me and Ahmad to sit beside a soccer field. There were a series of matches that day that some of the male students played as female students looked on. They had to stand or sit on small hills of dirt. They were wearing pale pink lab coats and the male students who were not competing wear wearing white ones. In the morning, at the preschool, I saw Amir talking to a woman in a white lab coat and immediately assumed she was a nurse. But when all the other women in the school were also wearing the same coats, I realized they were all teachers! So in Morocco, it’s an educational thing, not a medical one!
I greatly enjoyed my conversation with Ahmad, as we talked about a variety of topics, such as Moroccan culture, American culture, women’s rights, marriage and divorce, as well as Tony Robbins! The time passed very quickly in such a pleasant fashion. I did notice one interesting speech pattern: when Ahmad was thinking of some words, he would say “for example,” much as Americans would say “uh” or “like.” When I asked him about it, he didn’t realize he had been saying it and didn’t know why. Later I asked Amal, and she said it was an often used phrase in Darija!
After about three hours, Amal came back out and we went to wash our hands. I decided to use the facilities, and found them to be basic: a white porcelain block with ridges where you place your feet and a hole to aim your waste into. A bit tricky to balance, when you are not used to squatting!
We were treated to some lovely tea with rosemary that grew there as well as some pastries, before we had to hurry back to Marrakech to pick up the kids. Ahmad came with us part of the way and got out on the side of the main road to walk the rest of the way to his accommodations.
When we got back into town, Abdellah had already picked up the kids and we went to meet them at a parking lot by Jemaa el-Fnaa. After some creative parking, where the attendant pushed the cars that are left in neutral back and forth, we made our way to Koutoubia Mosque and the square.
Amal bought us all stretchy bracelets with emblems. I picked one with a ship’s wheel. Then we weaved through Berber musicians beating out rhythms on their drums, snake charmers provoking cobras into flatting out for a selfie, and many food vendors who tempted us with their delicacies. At one point, I lost track of Amal and the kids and a man came up a little too close and said, “Your friend is over there.” I did not see her but rather a place to eat. The man told me to come over and “not to be afraid.” I was frozen for a second before I remembered the phrase “la shukran,” meaning no, thank you, and he backed away. Simane found a place where they were offering snails and she climbed up eagerly on one of the stools ready for a bowl. Abdellah asked me if I would like to try, as he was giving some to Anir, who liked the taste but didn’t like seeing the horns of the snail. I decided to fish one out of its shell and try it. It was somewhat chewy but not too bad, but the herbs and spices were too much for me – something had a slightly bitter taste. After that, we went off into the medina. I felt a brisk pace was needed, to keep up with the family, and as I felt pushed from behind, and also didn’t want to be a target for vendors. Sometimes, riders on mopeds would race by as well. So unfortunately, I did not enjoy the medina as much as I thought I would.
We looked further among the food vendors and decided to have a special kind of beef dish, I believe with the pickled lemon. Amal asked me if I wanted to try some brain. I decided to take a little and had trouble with the texture, while chewing. After the meal, which we ate with bread, the vendor gave us paper napkins with some water freshened with lime to cut the grease on our fingers. I liked this idea, a natural method of cleaning hands! The kids and I also had some fresh squeezed orange juice, which I really enjoyed!
On the way to the car, I asked Abdellah to take a picture of me with the mosque background, as it was so mystical looking in the moonlight! When we got back home finally, I told everyone I had brought presents, even though Abdellah had told me not to bother, and unpacked some further toys for the children, small chocolate candy bars and other snacks, as well as a t-shirt for Abdellah and a necklace for Amal. It was then that I realized they truly didn’t mean for me to bring anything, but were happy that I had brought some things the children liked. I was ready to go to bed earlier this night after such a lovely, but extensive day!