Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Running, stinking, wedding in Morocco

Hi from the Maghreb! It’s my second time here, but this time, elhamdulelah, I’m a tourist. I came here from Cameroon. Next is Tanzania and then home sweet home on the 28th :)

I got to go for a run along the Atlantic the other day, in the port town of Essaouira. Man, it seems some things are universal. I love that running is something you can take almost anywhere. Feet slapping on wet Atlantic sand, it reminds you of any other time you’ve gone running in a weird new place, and makes you feel connected. I hadn’t even packed my running shoes on my short trip to the beach, so I strolled through the old city wearing my swimsuit, with an old T-shirt and my culturally-appropriate (read: ugly) long running shorts on top. I pulled off my flip flops at the beach and ran, holding them in my hand, until the crowds were far behind me.

At the beach in Morocco it’s interesting to see the huge variety of dress, as in Egypt. Some women literally swim in their FULL CLOTHES, head scarf and everything, the wet fabrics sticking to their necks or trailing out behind them in the ocean. I always wonder what they thing of me, pale calves blazing in the sunlight! Very few Moroccan women were out in a swimsuit. I feel scandalous.


I also love to play the game “Find the Moroccans!” It can be hard to tell who’s a tourist and who’s not! On the plane on my first trip here I was stunned (and flattered) when the flight attendant asked me if I was Moroccan. I’m pale. My hair was orange. Apparently, that is the same color as the queen’s hair, and a more common color among people from Fez. (I’m in Fez now… really??) I wonder if I kept my mouth shut, and wore a lot more clothes, as opposed to my what-the-heck African pagne dresses, if people would start thinking I’m local and asking me for directions. That would be sweet.

I got to stay a couple nights with a Peace Corps Volunteer here who is a friend of friends. I loved it! She speaks the language, knows the food, is appreciated in her town. Honestly, I felt much more at home there than with the bunch of backpackers at the hostel where I first arrived. Soon, even better, I’ll get to meet up with my old co-worker and dear friend from MCC, Cathy. Til then, I’ll be bumbling around the old medina of Fez, snacking on the occasional olive (there are LOTS to be had here!) and hanging out with naked old ladies in the public bath houses. Woopee!


The dye pits in the tannery of Fez

The secret ingredients used to treat the skins? Pigeon poop and cow piss. Mmmmmm.

I was fascinated to see the tannery and the dye pits in action in Fez; I’d heard tons about them through my work at MCC. I spent a long time gazing out at them from a balcony, despite the pervasive I-might-barf odor. Apparently, one strapping young lad mistook my general interest in the pigeon shit pits for a specific interest in him. He pulled out a little extra bicep flex for me (which I appreciated) and gave me the smile and wave. I reciprocate. He points to his ring finger and makes a come-on-down sign with a big grin. I take this to be a marriage proposal. I leap into the shit pits too and that’s the story of how I’m no longer a single lady. Just kidding. Standing in chemicals up to my knees withholding nausea is not in fact my dream wedding. Instead I waved good bye to Prince Charming and went to haggle over some sweet-smelling finished leather goods. Maybe next time…

It’s funny the things that can set me off these days. I think I’m growing up—less emotional than when I was younger. Just when I’m about to pat myself on the back for that, I get lots of liquid products confiscated at the airport in Paris before my flight down to Morocco. (I guess I should know better, but I haven’t flown on a rule-abiding airline in over two years… I forgot!) I feel myself get teary over losing my deodorant, sunscreen, and toothpaste. It was certainly high quality sunscreen, but really? Teary? I surprise myself. I didn’t even cry when I left Mokolo. I try to bargain for the return of my liquid cosmetics… but this is not Africa anymore and the lady just gives me a sorry smile. I shuffle away dejectedly. What is more worth crying about were the ten days when I smelled like… good ol’ me, with no added advantage of ANY deodorant! My apologies to all gentle travelers and hostel owners whose paths I crossed in those recent days. Maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places, but deo is not easy to find in Morocco! My earthy odor was moreso something to cry about than my replaceable toiletries. At least my would-be husband in the tannery dye pits didn’t mind.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What’s next?

So you thought I was done in Africa? Heheeeeee. Nope.

The exact same day I left Mokolo for good I found the e-mail waiting for me: Peace Corps Response, Invitation to Serve. Peace Corps Response does short-term, more intense projects in sketchier countries than standard Peace Corps, for those who have completed their two years of Peace Corps service.

It was like a whirl that brought me back to when this all started over two years ago: the excitement of knowing the next steps, a new job description, getting to discover a different country. I’ll go to Guinea for six months—October to April— serving specifically as a Microfinance Training Consultant. The work involves developing and implementing training programs for both clients and employees of the Associations des Services Financiers (ASF), small Guinean microfinance organizations that are linked under an umbrella organization called CAFODEC. The trainings will be in response to what the CAFODEC management and I perceive as the weaknesses of the ASFs, to see how we can strengthen their management, and improve lending practices and reimbursement rates. The second part of my gig, independent of the ASFs, is to scope out the players in the microfinance sector in Guinea, see who’s healthy, who’s not, and who could potentially partner with Peace Corps in the future and how.

My parents’ generation is pulling out their hair at this news. But they know I love them too much to not come back. The way I see it, I’ve got the rest of my life to have a “real job” and settle down. This is a sweet opportunity to learn, grow, and do work I enjoy doing. And it’s only six months.

Here’s a few reasons I’m excited to discover Guinea.

-Same and yet new? I already know the name of my new town, Dabola. It’s practically EXACTLY the same latitude as Mokolo, just six countries over… From Mokolo, cross a little Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and VOILA! Welcome to Guinea! In Dabola, they even speak mostly the same language, Fulfulde, except it’s called Pular in Guinea. So I’ll be able to hit the ground running jam jam jamming my way around in the local language. (“Jam” is the answer to everything in Fulfulde.)

-Wild west of banking? Guinea sounds more like Haiti than Cameroon and the other CEMAC countries in terms of banking regulations. CEMAC is the Central African Monetary Union: Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Central African Republic. They all use a common currency and abide by the same banking regulations. Another group of eight more francophone West African countries does likewise. Guinea is like that kid that refuses to fit in. Way back in 1958 when France was negotiating with its territories for their complete independence or a form of close alliance, Guinea was the one to say “Done with that, suckaaas!” So ever since, Guinea has been completely on its own system. In Haiti, my old organization Fonkoze just had a letter written from some ministry allowing it to operate—that was it in terms of government oversight. I think the case in Guinea will be somewhere in between. It will be interesting to apply to the less structured environment of Guinea what I’ve learned in Cameroon of CEMAC’s stricter banking standards. The less regulations that exist in Guinea, the more work I have to do. And added bonus. One of the big guns in CAFODEC—my new host institution—just got appointed to run the new Ministry of Microfinance. So it should be an interesting and evolving work environment!

-Democracy… what’s that? Cameroon has had President Paul Biya for 28 years, and his wife Chantal’s ridiculous hair for 16 of those. (Don’t believe me? You decide.) That hair is just one symbol of all the excesses and wasted priorities of the Biya regime. No one my age can recall anything else, or has lived under any other political system; opposition has been violently squashed down. Guinea? They just held the first round of presidential elections last month—a whole different story! A run-off is in the works. Elections don’t solve everything, but it gets people talking and interested in their government again. I’m excited to see that new reality on the ground. As long as the new first lady steers clear of Chantal’s hairdresser. Fashion junta, please?

To answer people’s worries, “But it’s an unstable country!” True, there was violence there a year ago. That's why the Peace Corps initially pulled out, and why only a small group of Peace Corps Response Volunteers are going back in now. But that violence was an isolated incident limited to the capital city. Dabola is a small town with good transport links. It’s unlikely anything would happen there. If it did, I have options for where to go! Also, the people who got injured in last fall’s violence were political protesters in the streets. I will be sitting in a bank crunching numbers. Less glamorous. Less risky. Not as many bad-ass points but I will come home in one piece.

So, leaving Cameroon was bittersweet, certainly. Saying goodbye to people I care about and work that I’ve been invested in for two years was hard. But as I rode away from Mokolo for the last time, it was hard to be sad for long. I’ve got a lot of good things to look forward to. And if you didn’t make it to see me in Cameroon before, Guinea is now six countries closer… :) Conakry International Airport… I’ll pick you up in full ridiculous pagne, how can you say no to that?