Oh, the people you meet

A short two-day trip to a land not so far away yielded a wealth of interactions and acquaintances that made it hard to leave. Oh, the people you meet!

  • A fellow passenger in a grand taxi, who spoke to me only a few minutes before inviting my roommate and me to her niece’s evening wedding.
  • A lady passing by on the street who helped us pound on the locked riad door and stuck with us until the owner and his maid came back from the market.
  • The riad owner with a surprisingly Western perspective and his maid who loved engaging in deep conversation about cross-cultural marriage and religion. But just when I thought I was making an excellent point, the owner leaned back in his chair, grinned, and said that if he had met me 24 years ago, he would have married me. The maid, an adorable but hopeless romantic, kept returning to the cross-cultural marriage part of the conversation.
  • A young lady who seemed to know everyone in town and was delighted to take us around to her favorite places…and even fish out a party invitation for us (which we turned down). But before we parted, she took us to a crumbling café for evening tea above the sea. There, she told us about her life. At the end of her story she shrugged away any traces of self-pity, smiled, and said, “Well, what are we going to do? Praise God.”
  • An old gentleman who led me to a store to buy water, waited for me, and led me back. He escaped before I could thank him.
  • A taxi driver who took us to an ancient ruins sight and then meekly offered his phone number in case we couldn’t find a taxi back into town.
  • Our guide at the ruins who led us through the layers of sights on the hillside. But he stayed far ahead of us to not disturb our sight-seeing. And he topped off his hospitality by calling the taxi driver to return for us (thus saving me a phone call in Arabic).
  • Our guide at the music conservatory who didn’t seem to mind that class was in session as he banged around on a piano in the courtyard… and then tried to get us to show off as well. He made my heart swell in hollow pride when he mistook me for a local.
  • The owner of a souvenir shop who seemed sincere in his beliefs, but wanting to listen as much as explain.
  • A family on the train who knew how to enjoy each other and the people around them. What fun to be a part of their lives for that ride. And before they got off at their stop, the father found us seats with other women so we wouldn’t have to travel alone in our cabin.

My November guests

In November, three guests traversed the Atlantic to visit me: my mom, my brother, and my friend. Some of our adventures included:

  • Finding each other at the airport… and managing to convince security that I was not a risk
  • Traipsing around the city as each phone place we had been directed to directed us to someone else
  • Arguing with taxi drivers who were even more stubborn than I
  • Tasting the old medina, literally and figuratively
  • Posing for awkward pictures
  • Sampling camel burgers and a salad that tasted “like donkeys”
  • Wiggling cooked snails out of their shells with wooden toothpicks…and sampling them too
  • Long talks
  • Laughing until we cried
  • Visiting my friends for tea, dinner, or just to say “hi”
  • Tasting uncured olives that pickled our mouths
  • Eating most of our meals standing around in the kitchen
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain again
  • A long train ride in the rain
  • Walking along the bay in the rain
  • Two nights of cold showers
  • Spending a night snuggled in the musty hotel blankets
  • Staying in a concrete hotel room which reverberated with the early morning call to prayer and reading of the Qur’an
  • Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry only to find that the rain in Spain does not stay mainly on the plain!
  • A long bus ride around many many roundabouts…in the rain
  • A bus break-down which seemed to temporarily mend itself
  • A few days in Spain with friends, church, a birthday party,  an open air market, olives, churros, pastries, cocido, and tapas
  • Goodbyes

Aisha- part 3

Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.

But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.

Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.

Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.

I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.

The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.

In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.

Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.

Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.

We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.

For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.

After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.

More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.

We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.

For now.

Aisha- part 2

Aisha was waiting for me on my way to school the next day. And the next. And every morning that I had the early hour of class. Because of her, I began to recognize the network of house workers who met regularly to chat on the way to their respective jobs.

Although I was glad for the chance to practice conversational Arabic, I still was unsure of what she wanted from me.

The day she had invited me to stay at her house grew closer. Because of my apprehension, I managed to whittle the overnight adventure down to a day trip. On the Friday before, we rehearsed what would take place on Sunday: I would meet her at the same place under the berry tree across from the bus stop at 11:00 a.m.

I don’t think she believed I would follow through with the plan. She tried calling me five times while I was in church. And when I finally answered, I was on my way to the meeting place.

“I’m coming!”

She spewed a string of sentences I couldn’t understand, but what I assumed to be a reason that she was behind schedule.

“Okay. Okay. No problem. Okay.”

And I waited under the berry tree until a taxi pulled up and honked. Aisha was in the backseat, bouncing in her excitement. She grabbed me in a warm embrace before I had the chance to close the door behind me. And she talked, one rapid sentence after another, often missing the fact that I didn’t understand.

The taxi wound through the new city, behind the old city, and up up up on a hill. There was no containing Aisha’s joy as she led me out of the taxi and into her world.

It was the first bite of a day full of exquisite North African hospitality.

First day of school

This wouldn’t be so bad.

I gathered my school supplies, double-checking everything at least once. Forgetting a necessary item on the first day of English class wasn’t acceptable. Where was my flashdrive? In my handbag next to the stapler.

Ready.

It had been almost three months since I had arrived in North Africa. Three days after arriving, I started teaching English to twelve students ages 13-16. Each class period was different because depending on which trouble-makers attended, the dynamics could swing wildly. I planned each lesson with trembling, trying to predict the mood of the class upon its execution.

I had signed up to teach English, not manage behavior.

But this semester would be different, right? I locked the front door and went in search of a taxi. At the school gate, the guardian’s familiar smile was hardly encouraging. I had seen that smile every day last semester just before my carefully planned lesson was trampled by misbehavior.

I worked with the other teachers in the computer lab to make copies. I hesitated to leave the lab, knowing that unprotected by chatter and laughter my stomach would begin its nervous churn.

What if this semester was just as stressful as last?

“Here is your class roster.” The director handed me a sheet of paper. I had been told I would be teaching a class of 5-7 adults. This list had fourteen names. But it was okay. They were adults. Easy, right?

Except that last semester I had heard several teachers complaining about adult ego problems. “Classroom management is still an issue with adults,” they had said.

“And could you sign the contract please?”

Fourteen students. And what exactly did the contract say again? I pressed the pen to the paper and then signed my name quickly. What would the semester hold?

I still don’t know. But I do know that I loved every minute of my first class with these students. And I know that no matter what problems I may face this semester, I have a God who has not given me the spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7).

A morning of sounds

What does my typical North African morning sound like?

  • Mourning doves cooing outside of my window and a lonely rooster penned in someone’s courtyard
  • Slated shades being pulled up from various apartments
  • Water running, the electric kettle steaming, my own munching and slurping
  • A few mumbled “Good morning”s and “Have a good day”s
  • The bang of the door as I pull it shut behind me
  • Clomp, clomp, clomping down two stories of steps and the banging the apartment building door
  • The murmur of passing cars from a perpendicular street
  • A few snatches of conversation between school children and university students
  • A cat meowing as it digs through leftover garbage
  • “Bonjour!… Bonjour! Hola! Hello?”
  • Horns honking around a busy intersection as other cars and pedestrians assume the right-of-way
  • Motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, bicycles weaving in and out of each other—the screech of brakes and more horns and perhaps some yelling
  • A jackhammer of busy men working on the street
  • “سلام”
  • The scratching of a stalk broom on a sidewalk
  • The buzz of the Arabic school’s call button and consequently the opening of three heavy doors
  • “صباح الخير. لا باس؟”  “لا باس الحمد لله.”
  • The sharp sound of chairs on a bare floor and the rumble of moving wooden tables as we all pile in and settle down for a long Arabic session

A day of smells

What does a typical day in North Africa smell like? Well, this is my day in smells:

  • the cold of the morning outside of my blankets
  • the bathroom: a strange mingling of soap, wet, and a scent that creeps up the drain overnight
  • the sweet of a clean kitchen until I open the refrigerator and catch a whiff of leftovers with a hint of aged dairy
  • outside the front door, there is a deeper cold smell mixed with the trash that cats have been sorting through during the night
  • and speaking of cats, their odor lingers despite their absence–not overwhelming, just there
  • walking past several men’s cafes guarantees a pair of lungs full of cigarette smoke
  • exhaust fumes from cars, taxis, and buses
  • the smell of used taxi seats partially covered by an air freshener and the cold
  • trash, fumes, and the sweet citrus of the orange trees on the walk from the taxi to school
  • the faint smell of gas from the lounge heater
  • wood smoke seeping out of a nearby house
  • food cooking in the cafes mixed with the ever-present cigarette smoke and the scattered trash
  • rotting fruit rolling along the sidewalk, kicked and trodden upon by passersby
  • garlic and chicken for lunch and consequently garlic on my breath after lunch
  • exhaust fumes and the sharp stench of urine on my walk to the park
  • the lovely freshness in the sweet acres of green and water: herbs, damp dirt, falling leaves
  • drifting in the open taxi window on my way to teach English is cigarette smoke, meat cooking on open grills, smell of humanity, and exhaust fumes
  • the pungent scent left over on the school desks of my classroom: what I imagine to be from unwashed hands
  • dry erase markers
  • mixed scents emanating from my junior high students: perfume, body odor, energy
  • and as the darkness falls, so does the cold, again suppressing the daytime scents
  • but there is still a damp that hovers in the air
  • and there is still the soap scent lingering on my sweatshirt as I cuddle up to study Arabic before bed

Photo by Brian Jimenez on Unsplash

Update on taxis

In my last post, I mentioned how I liked to imagine myself as a taxi savvy. Well, ladies and gentlemen, the day has not arrived.

My first day of catching my very own taxi was yesterday. Perhaps the only reason any driver stopped at all was because I was a foreign target with light hair and trembling knees.

As the first taxi pulled up, I forgot to greet the driver. Instead, I stumbled over the two words that I needed to say. As we zipped down the road, I fretted that the driver would overcharge me. But I had prepared for this. I pulled out my orange sticky note and reviewed the transliterated Arabic phrases that, if correctly delivered, could save my pocketbook.

I was blessed, however. The driver began to chat with me in English and just before he deposited me on the side of the road, he tried to undercharge me. Imagine! The phrases I had reviewed were all for naught!

I was confident on my way home from school. So confident, in fact, that I when no “petit” taxi stopped for me, I decided to crawl in a “grand” one. The driver misunderstood my butchered pronunciation of my neighborhood and drove me in the opposite direction.

“Wait! No! This is wrong!” He slowed to a stop and had me repeat my neighborhood name several more times before realization dawned. “Aaaaaah!” And then he said the name with the emphasis on the second syllable instead of the first.

We cruised along in the “grand” taxi, the driver overeager to make conversation and the passenger overeager to remain in deflated silence. The driver pointed to random things along the street as we zoomed past them and projected loud words toward my side of the car, as if I was supposed to know what he had pointed at in the first place. I stared out my window.

When we arrived safely in my neighborhood, I looked at him and shrugged to indicate that I didn’t know what he would charge. He pulled out a bill from his stash as a suggestion. I laughed out loud. It was the equivalent of $10 for a ride that normally cost $1.10. Not encouraged by my response, he shrugged and pulled out a hopeful $5. I shook my head and rattled my coins then handed him $2 to compensate for riding in a “grand” taxi and getting lost. He shrugged again and then rushed to introduce himself.

So far, not one taxi driver has known of the school where I teach English. My afternoon driver was no exception. He made a phone call and tried to look at the map I gave him…upside down. I tried to direct him in Spanish while he interpreted through his French filter. He finally believed the school existed when we screeched to a halt in front of it.

The adventures in taxis are probably just beginning.


Photo credit: W.K.

Of taxis

One 24-hour period here has exposed me to a common piece of North African culture: taxis. The exposure I have had with taxis before North Africa is generally isolated to rides that cost both an arm and a leg. I believe, however, that my exposure is soon to be enhanced.

There are two kinds of taxis here: a “grand” taxi and a “petit” taxi, differing in both size and price. To flag one, hold out your finger(s) to show how many passengers would like to accompany the driver on his merry way. This way, the drivers can decide whether or not you will fit in their vehicle, depending upon the number of other passengers (if any). When (or if) the taxi squeals its worn brakes for you (and try not to leap out of the way), politely tell the driver where you need to go and he will determine whether or not he plans to venture to that part of the city. Also, it’s nice to greet the driver to show that you are not just a rich, clueless tourist.

I am not writing this from experience but from observation. Apparently, a key in succeeding in this culture is to act confident (regardless of how I feel). So I guess you could say that this is what I dream of doing someday with poise and expertise.

Yesterday morning a “petit” taxi picked us up and we were thrown into the morning traffic, swerving around a parked car and narrowly avoiding collision with a bus. The driver didn’t check his blind spots before attempting these distressing feats; rather, he trusted his side view mirrors, one so cracked that a chunk was missing. (I can’t imagine how that could have happened!)

The bright sun glared in the driver’s window and rather than adjust his sun visor, the driver pulled out a perfectly cut piece of cardboard and wedged it in the rubber window rim just above the open window.

Right now I am still just a clueless foreigner, but I may learn a lot about North African culture by riding in taxis.