Lessons Learned in Morocco pt. 1
One of the bloggers I read has invited other people who have lived abroad to contribute to a “lessons learned” theme. I started a list of things I learned while living in Morocco. What I discovered is that most of the lessons, while learned, in part at least, while I was out of my “native” environment, had more to do with being in my twenties than they did from living abroad. What my experience did add, however, was an immediacy to the lesson, a quickness to the learning, that would have otherwise taken years to learn. In come cases this was because I had little else to think about beyond trying to untangle the snarl that was often my life in Morocco. In other cases it was the lack of cultural buffering that often obscures lessons learned at home.
Einstein was right, time is both flexible and relative, but maybe not exactly in the way he meant.
I took the time to walk more in Morocco. Part of that was necessity; there was no convenient alternative transportation to get from one place to another. It was a half mile walk to school, twice a day since teachers and non-boarders went home for lunch and an hour’s nap. Even after I had bought my moped (a Peugeot 103) I never used it for short trips. There is only just so much company you can have on a moped and the arrangement of driver and passenger precludes conversation. I remember having walked out with a friend to her aunt’s house, somewhat less than 10 miles. It was spring, the weather was warm. I was wearing a shirt and jeans, my warm woolen man’s djelleba was packed away for the next winter. The sun was shining and the lentils growing in the fields were fresh and green. We browsed as we walked. Harvest was still more than a month away. We left early and arrived about lunch time, not particularly hungry, but willing to be polite. I spent the night, and in the morning my friend’s uncle lent us a couple of mules to ride back to the village. That was it. The sum total of the adventure. The big lesson I learned was that riding a mule was a lot harder, in the long run, than walking. Time was not even a consideration. I had not planned on a two day excursion when I headed out, but had nothing on my schedule except for needing to be at school to teach on Monday morning. We left in the moment and stayed that way.
Visiting friends in the village where I lived was a minimum of a three hour commitment of chatting, tea drinking, begging off dinner, helping to shell beans, or make buttons, or roll couscous. There were no private telephones; this was in the day before cellphones or laptops even existed. So chatting with anyone required either a visit to their house, participation in the evening walk, or hanging out in the public baths. Calling my family in the States required a several hour wait for a phone line. I would go to the post office and submit a request to use the phone. A small man, in function and looks a lot like Radar from M.A.S.H., took my information, the number I wanted to call, how long I expected to be, and the small fee required just to get in the queue, and I hung out chatting with people until my name was called. My calls were more private than most since I spoke English, but shouting was the custom and people waiting for their turn made a pretense of not listening to what was being said.
Little things took a long time. Bathing, for example, was a serious business. Some westerners clung to their showers or tubs, but I embraced the hammem. That, too was a half day affair. I’d gather my wash things and head to one of the few heated buildings in town. I’d get warm in the winter, but it was good any time of the year. The women in charge would hand out two or three black buckets made from reprocessed tires, and I would start shifting from room to room, slowly working my way to the hottest room, then backing off to one of the middle ones. In one of the cooler areas I’d talk with neighbors and eat tangerines that had been floating in cold water, and get scrubbed. I learned how to help out scrubbing children with a scratchy textured fabric mitt called a kis. I’d leave the hammem all warm and rubbery from the heat. I’d drink tea and eventually go to sleep. It was a well known fact that doing much work after having bathed was seriously bad for your health, so modest meals were prepared before hand, and someone was always left home to take care of supper on the day the women of the house bathed. In the States, we are advised to make time for ourselves, Calgon takes us away, and we are cautioned against trying to “do it all.” I will tell you that I have never felt so pampered, nor entitled to the pampering, since I left Morocco.
I don’t believe that there was any one thing I ever planned that did not take at least half a day. Traveling the 45 miles from El Menzel, my Peace Corps village, to Fes (see “Taxi Baby“) took at least half a day what with taxi connections, walking across Sefrou to get to the next taxi stand, and waiting for a taxi to fill up with passengers. It was never a single day trip. I’d get to the only bookstore that carried books in English, shake hands and chat briefly with everyone there, and anyone who came in, and only then start browsing for books. I might go to the house of the PC Volunteers that were stationed in Fes, or to the home of a friend from the States who taught English at the American Center, or some of the teachers from the university. I would get a “broken” coffee, an espresso dumped in a glass of hot milk so that the border between liquids floated charmingly until a couple of hunks of sugar were stirred in. Or I would go down to the old city and get almond milk, regular cows’ milk blended with marzipan and orange blossom water. I would try to get an International Herald Tribune. This was my regular list while I was in the Peace Corps. It was long enough that I knew there were some things that could get done if I just happened upon them; others would take a bit of effort to accomplish, but I gave myself time. I would leave home early Saturday morning and make it back home late Sunday afternoon. If even half of this was accomplished, I felt it was a job well done.
Some years later, still in Morocco, but by then living in the city of Fes, another friend, a newly arrived American, was griping about not accomplishing her list of chores. She had wanted to get her green card stamped, her leaky pipe in the kitchen fixed, grocery shopping done, and purchase some clothing for her daughter. These were, in my opinion, heavy duty goals, things you had to try to do. Certainly not on the level of getting a coffee and hoping to run into some pals.
“You’re trying to do too much,” I told her.
It came out that she had interpreted this as meaning that she was trying to do too much for someone who had just moved to the country and didn’t know the local rules. “When does it get easier to finish your list?” she asked.
“What? A list like that? It never gets easier. You just get used to it. You plan less and quit worrying if you don’t finish. Your sense of ‘job done’ changes.” She called me the most cynical person she’d ever met.
I can’t say I let it go, because here I am writing about it after all these years, but it didn’t bother me so much that I changed my ways. I know I didn’t see her again until she needed help with translation services when her French wouldn’t hold up to the demand. I certainly didn’t start making long and complicated lists. Rather I continued to take my time wandering the city, being impulsive when opportunity arose, keeping my eyes open, and taking the time to chat and learn about the things I saw. I put this to good use giving tours, of artisans in the old city, to tourists who caught my fancy.
Now, I drive friends and family crazy by being late. I always think I’ve got more time than I need. I’ve drawn on this relaxed sense of time in the classroom. Students have said I’m one of the few teachers who actually works right up to the bell. I plan far more than I expect to accomplish. I have a few things in my pocket in case a miracle happens. I try to go with the flow. If I get stuck somewhere, or involved in an interesting discussion, I let it happen. I’m not rushed, or at least I try not to be. I sometimes need to remind myself that outcomes may vary, but you will never encounter surprising pleasures if you are a slave to a list or the clock. When you are enjoying where you are and what you are doing, in the moment, you have all the time in the world.