Sunday, July 5, 2009

Collection of Random Stories

First, thanks to Yasfari for your comment. My few trips to some cities (Meknes and Fes are my favorites so far) confirm what you said: the difference between urban and rural folk is great. I couldn't think of a theme for the post, so I just started writing down random things that happened to me the past week.

I was Khenifra early this week for a Ministry of Health meeting. I finished with my meeting and went to the bus station/taxi stand to find transit back to my site. It was about 9:30 or 10 am in the morning. In the bus station there are always lots of guys standing around who work for the bus companies. I asked one of them if there was a bus to Boumia, which is the hub I have to go to get to my site. He said the bus left at noon. So I walked over to the taxi stand. Although taxis are just big Mercedes that would normally only fit 5 people, they take 6 passengers, plus the driver in Morocco. The taxi will not leave until there are 6 paying passengers. So I asked if there was a taxi for Boumia, I was told that yes there was and that I was the third person to ask about it. Not bad, I hoped to be leaving within a half an hour. But waiting and waiting and the number of people kept hovering around three. Sometimes less, sometimes more. And meanwhile it is hot. Khenifra sits in this bowl between some big mountains and it gets heated. Some people would get impatient waiting for the taxi to fill and leave. Around 11:30 the taxi got up to 5 people, but then 2 walked over to the bus station to take the noon bus (about two dollars cheaper). Five minutes to noon, I gave up too and walked to the bus. There was one seat left, which I took. But then this guy came up to me and said that he had saved the seat and everyone around him was in agreement (Stealing a saved seat is a crime worthy of death here). Shit. So I asked the bus driver if I could stand – sometimes buses will let people stand and other times they will get kicked off the bus. I had a moment of panic when I thought about walking back to the taxi stand and waiting for the unfillable taxi to fill. But then the guy actually found me a stool to sit on and he shoved it in the aisle in the back row. I sat on the stool, pressed between two sweaty, hot men (very sweaty myself) and was grateful. Luckily, hot transits normally cause me to fall asleep, which I did while leaning on my neighbor. Two and a half hours later, we roll into Boumia.

A guy playing a guitar/banjo and walking alongside a donkey comes into my town the other day. The donkey is loaded down with lots of sacks. I am standing next to one of my friends and I ask him what this banjo-donkey guy is doing. My friend says that they guy goes around from house to house with his banjo, playing and begging for wheat. There is a pause in the conversation. Then my friend says: “The guy is an idiot. We’re harvesting wheat in two weeks. He won’t get anything now. If he waited two weeks everyone would have wheat to give him.”

A girl that I went to middle school with is in Peace Corps Morocco. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen her. Her site in Morocco is on the other side of the country. We happened to be in the same city last week so we met up and hung out for a while. It’s a small crazy world.

There was a wedding this past week that was a little different from other weddings I’ve been to. The family is a little wealthier than most due to some of the sons working in the army. They hired some musicians to come play, which was cool. The boys/men in the family were all drinking in public, which was weird, to say the least. People are sometimes drunk at weddings here, but I’ve never seen someone walking around with a bottle of vodka in their pocket. Finally, a girl (20 years old?) from another village was there who had different ideas about what was socially acceptable. She danced much more provocatively than other girls. She took off her headscarf and swung her head around quickly, with her hair flying all around. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve only seen on TV Berber weddings. Everyone in the village was talking shit about her the next day.

I’ve recently had two more religion conversations that were more interesting and in depth than the normal “convert” conversations. One was with a nurse in a nearby douar. We were speaking in French, which allowed us to have a bit more nuanced of a conversation. He quoted the Karl Marx “Religion is the opiate of the people” line to me as an example of Western hedonism. He is going through a tough time in the village (lonely, lack of support from the Ministry) and he says that prayer and God helps him get through the difficult times. I pointed out to him how similar what he was telling me was to the Karl Marx line, and he agreed. The other conversation was with this guy from out of town who is from a very religious family. This guy takes his prayers very seriously. He is intense. Unfortunately his Tamazight is not great, so he slips into Arabic a lot. He read the Koran for me and explained parts of it to me. Other than these two men’s devotion to God, the common theme of the conversations was that they both were explaining the wonderfulness of Islam to me. The implication (sometimes more explicit than implied) as they are exalting praise on Islam is that I would be foolish not to convert.

Two of my host mom’s sisters are visiting. They will stay at my host family’s house for a couple of weeks. They are both quiet, but smart and educated. It’s clear that they have more money than other people in our village. The story of my host mom is a mystery to me; everyone in her family is well-educated and living fairly comfortable lives in a city. Her youngest sister is fluent in English and starting her doctorate studies this fall. Somehow my host mom got married to a man 34 years her senior in a poor mountain village 300 kilometers away.

The last story requires some explaining before I dive in. The culture of rural Morocco forbids talk of anything related to the toilet. People don’t go to the bathroom at each other’s houses. There is a word “hashek,” that you use whenever you talk about anything dirty as a way of apologizing for the dirty talk. You say hashek if you wash your hands in front of someone, if you talk about a donkey, and especially if you talk about the toilet.

With that explanation as context for the final story, I’ve been feeling kind of sick for the last week. A little diarrhea, but not much. Mostly just uncomfortable stomach cramps and maybe I’m feeling a little tired. My work this week (and for the past month) has been traveling to my outer villages to recruit women for our upcoming traditional birthing attendant (TBA) training. I was scheduled to go out to a very isolated village 18km from mine to recruit on Saturday. Although I was feeling a little sick in the morning, I got on my bike and headed out.

The whole ride I was feeling pretty good. I had a couple of cramps, but nothing bad. I got to the village and to the house of the guy (Mimoon) who was going to help me. He wasn’t there so the family put me in the guest room with the family patriarch. He started giving me the usual quiz on America, inevitably leading to demands for my immediate conversion to Islam. I wasn’t really listening; my stomach had started cramping pretty bad. Mimoon returned to his house and came into talk to me. He told me that he had spoken to a couple women about the training, but that the women wanted to speak to me about it. Good – I wanted to talk to them as well. But Mimoon said that we ought to have lunch first and go talk to the women when we finished. If there is a guest, tea must precede lunch, so we waited for that to be prepared. And my stomach is getting worse and worse. Unlike the cramps that I’d had previously in the week, these feel like they will require a bathroom. Oh no. The tea is made and I sip on it a little bit. I really don’t want to ask about the bathroom; I’m doing a mental risk calculation. If I ask for the bathroom, it’s certainly a little inappropriate and everyone would feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if I don’t ask, then 90% of the time, no one knows differently. However, 10% of the time I can’t hold it and there is a drastically more embarrassing event. Added to this calculation is the near certainty that this family does not have a bathroom – the village that I’m in is quite poor. A little time passes and it seems more and more likely that I do not have control over my bowels. I decide to embrace my privilege as a Westerner and ask for the bathroom. There isn’t one, of course, but I’m directed to a spot outside. The spot is not very secluded; just on the edge of the village and easily in view of fields and some other houses. (The cultural taboo against speaking about the bathroom and the fact that the lack of toilets turns going to the bathroom into a very public event makes for an interesting combination.) I do my business as quickly as possible and go back inside. We sit around for a little bit, drinking our tea, (no mention of the bathroom is made) and then lunch is brought out. I tell them that I don’t want to eat very much because I’m sick. Unfortunately Morocco has another cultural taboo against guests refusing food. They tell me to eat, eat, eat, eat. I eat as little and as slowly as possible. As they’re telling me to eat more, I’m developing bigger worries. My cramps are pretty bad; should I go back outside? I’m embarrassed to leave in the middle of lunch to go to the bathroom again. Suddenly my choice on the matter is taken away: I crap my pants. Feeling a little diarrhea escape, then realizing that there is nothing I can do to stop myself from emptying my intestines in my pants during lunch is a unique feeling that I have never felt before. There is a sense of resolution to the dilemma about whether or not to go to the bathroom and a resignation to the inevitable humiliation. And a bit of panic. I say, “Excuse me, I’m returning there.” On my way out I grab my backpack and my 1 liter water bottle. Back outside I am feeling at a loss. I take my pants and underwear off and finish my bowel movement. I can see a woman and her child in a field. They probably don’t notice me, but who knows. However, half naked with bigger problems on my hands, I’ve thrown caution to the wind. I’m glad that I’m embarrassing myself in a village that I don’t live in, but at the same time it sucks that this is happening where I don’t know anyone that can help me and is so far from my house (and bathroom). Thankfully Mimoon has always been nice to me. What to do? Can I wash my pants (and myself) with my half-full water bottle? I use most of the water, but it quickly becomes obvious that this will not nearly be enough. The pants are pretty well ruined. Should I put the pants back on and go inside the house to ask for another pair? No, that seems to be a terrible idea. I put the pants back on (sans underwear) and sit the side of the hill to collect my thoughts. I write a text message to a couple of Peace Corps friends telling them what happened and seeing the story in written form lets me laugh at it. I decide to sit on the side of the hill until someone comes looking for me and then ask them to get Mimoon. Well 5 or 10 minutes later (although it feels much longer) a little kid walks behind the house and I tell him to go get his Dad. Mimoon comes walking out. I ask him if he has some pants he can give me. When he comes back with the pants (two pairs, actually. Moroccans I live with almost always wear two pairs of pants regardless of season) I say, “I’m very sorry and thank you.” He says, “It’s no problem. You’re like us. We all have problems with our bodies/health. It’s no problem” A time that could be totally humiliating turns into a recognition of our common humanness. How wonderful. I just wish it didn’t take me crapping my pants for someone to recognize the human need to use the bathroom. He goes back inside. I use the rest of the water and clean myself as best as I can. I put his pants on and my stomach actually feels OK. Hopefully this is my last trip behind the house. Back in the house, Mimoon and Mimoon’s dad are feeling a little uncomfortable, but that doesn’t last long. I no longer feel embarrassed about it and I think that makes it easier for them to relax as well. They have finished eating, but pour me another glass of tea and try to get me to eat some more. Luckily, the whole “crapping my pants” thing makes it easier (although just a little easier) for me to turn down food. I end up with a little piece of bread (which I kind of want to eat) and a glass of tea (which I don’t want to drink). I finish them both. Alright. I turn to Mimoon and ask him if we can go see the women. He asks, “are you better?” I say “a little.” We go outside and walk to a nearby house. A man whom I’ve met before and another anonymous man are finishing their lunch. The first man’s wife is serving them. We get into the conversation and the woman is having a hard time believing that I speak Tamazight, so Mimoon is translating for me. She is youngish, kind of smart, talkative, and interested: an ideal candidate. The husband (who gives permission about whether or not she can go) is flip-flopping. When I tell him that we did a training like this last year, he is sold. I get the woman’s information and we go to the next house. Another good candidate who is interested (and widowed, allowing her to decide for herself). All the while my stomach is feeling pretty good. A few cramps, but nothing to scare me. We get back to Mimoon’s house, I gather my things and say goodbye. I tell Mimoon that I will meet him in Tounfite the next day (market day) to give him the pants back. He says, “llay-ha-nik.” Which normally means “goodbye,” but in this context means, “forget about it.” I don’t know if he’s telling me he never wants to see his soiled pants again or if he just means “don’t worry about it” in a polite way. My mom calls on my bike ride home, allowing me to laugh about the incident some more. I get home, excited for a bucket bath. Of course, my water is out (it happens about once a week). I have just enough water stored up to take a bucket bath and put the offending pants in a tub with soap and water to soak.


mary ellen newport said...

franny was hysterical when i told her the story and said the same thing i wondered: what is UP with our family??? is it that this stuff never happens to anybody else or is it that we just think it's funny and turn these GI events into drama???

Franny said...

duncan, i love you. i am so happy you're my brother. this story made my week.

Mark said...

Duncan, I would think twice about going out in the sun. :-)