During our first few days at school we have been given a crash course in Moroccan history, traditions, and general way of life. The first of our discussions was about Ramadan. Now I thought I’d done pretty well with my google research, and was quite proud of my efforts to be culturally aware. What I failed to discover in my research is that during Ramadan all people are expected to dress more conservatively than normal. Having spent the first few days with long trousers and sleeves I observed that some local women wore vest tops, shorts or skirts, unaware that as it was before Ramadan this was fine. As a result of this I have occasionally worn shorts, sleeveless tops and fitted Lycra 3/4 length trousers to run around the compound. Little did I know that I have now probably offended nearly every person I have passed in the last week or so. The realisation of this came along with an even worse realisation that when I had been out running I had been taking a bottle of water out with me to keep on a wall and drink on each lap round the compound. This has been before sundown each evening and when many families are out for their evening walk. How, after being so careful each day when out and about the town could I have been so oblivious that I forgot I still couldn't drink water in the evening. It is actually illegal in Morocco to consume food or drink in public during this time. I have not only been dressing inappropriately in front of the parents of my students, I have also broken the law. Yes, few cultural boo boos there then. Good start all round.
As well as learning more about Morocco we have been learning some Arabic. This is a language that has so guttural arrah! sounds that it has to use a 3, 7 and a 9 when it is written phonetically. Nick seems to be grasping it pretty quickly, as usual. Whereas I am experiencing that same blush inducing fear that I always felt when in a language classroom. I’m going to focus on my French for now.
For two of the three afternoons that we have been in school we have been taken out to explore. Our coordinator Kim and her Moroccan husband are going well beyond the call of duty to help us settle in. As well as taking us out for ftor (the breaking of the fast meal) on the first evening, they have driven us around Ifrane and the neighbouring town of Azrou. While exploring Ifrane we went up to see the recently refurbished Michiflin Resort. This is five star luxury at its best, well beyond our price bracket, but a treat for an occasional meal or spa day. http://www.michlifenifrane.com/eng.html The restaurant, spa, pool and view definitely rival that of Bangkok's top hotels, and a main meal in the brasserie costs from $12-$18, an affordable treat.
The next day after our tour of Ifrane, Kim and her husband, Mustafa, took us on a two car tour of the surrounding countryside. We are in the Middle Atlas Mountains which are at around 1600 metres above sea-level. Although the area directly around Ifrane is quite flat, the journey 16km to the neighbouring town of Azrou is quite hilly. On the way there we learnt more about the history of the area, Mustafa is part of one of the most powerful Berber tribal families in the area and still has a very grand house with land and orchards which we drove past. This is a fruit growers heaven; peaches, apples, pears and cherries are everywhere. I have never eaten so much fruit. It's about 60% of our diet at the moment. We went up into the National Park area to the Grand Cedar, a huge and now dead cedar tree that has become a tourist hot spot. Here every car gets accosted by men touting horse rides on highly decorated Arab horses. There were also lots of little wooden shacks that were closed up, presumably normally selling lots of the same tourist tat. This is a mineral and fossil rich area and people sell them everywhere. As well as going there to have their photo taken in front of the depressingly dead and graffitied 'grande cedre', many tourists go up into the forest to feed the Barbary apes that live there. Once wild, they have become tame from being hand fed plums for so many years. Obviously sick of 'Ramadan restraint', one of the apes decided to try and pull Kim's skirt down. Sadly, along with the 'tame' wildlife, one of the most noticeable things about the area and the beautiful cedar forest was the large amount of trash everywhere. People here haven't developed the same level of environmental appreciation as we've become used to in the countryside. Just wait till I start teaching... time to do some environmental awareness brainwashing.