My Arabic: a Progress Report

Having been in Morocco for little over a week now my Arabic is understandably limited. I am always impressed, however, by the aptitude others show for languages. On my second day here my host told me all about a Korean girl who volunteered for a month and how she was speaking Arabic fluently by the last week. “And there was another volunteer from the U.S. who stayed for three months, and by the second month he and I could have conversations in Arabic!” My host was so enthusiastic about these past volunteers and he looked at me expectantly. 

“Wow! Good for them!” I said. What I really should have said is something like “If you’re holding me to that standard then boy howdy are you going to be disappointed.” 

A new volunteer from Canada arrived the other day and of course because he’s Canadian he speaks French and English. That’s impressive enough for me, the man who was taught Spanish from kindergarten to high school but still sometimes forgets how to ask for the bathroom. 

Why stop at two languages though? So while our host family is speaking Arabic to one another this Canadian rummages in his bag and pulls out a notebook filled with Arabic lessons he had written for himself. Oh how the host family gushed. 

Did I say I was impressed by people who pick up on languages quickly? I miss-typed. Those people are invited to keep company with short shorts, skinny jeans, tight t-shirts, probably speedos, and all the other things that make me look bad. 

Etiquette

This is the first time I have lived with a host family during my travels. I’ve always thought that host families are awfully brave for opening their homes to strangers from all over the world, so I want to ensure I pay that kindness back in full. 

Forget about teaching—trying to be a good guest has been the real source of anxiety. It is so important that these families continue to welcome guests, and I do not want to be the guest that makes them re-think their entire operation. “Did you see Elliott use his left hand when he ate tonight? We can’t be having anymore of that under this roof! No more guests!” 

Of course my host has never said such a thing. Eating with your left hand, by the way, is considered gross because the left hand is reserved for bathroom duties (the same is true in India). Anyway I knew about that rule, but I knew there must be more, which is why I did as much reading about Moroccan etiquette on the plane ride as possible.

Really that’s all one needs to do in order to be a passable guest. There are many guides online that make dining and conversational etiquette explicit. The one rule those guides leave off is perhaps the most important but also the most obvious: be good. Here good is a catch-all term meaning say thank you, offer to help clean up, don’t make a mess, compliment the cooking, etc. etc. etc. 

Just be good. Be good to your host family and be good in life. 

HOWEVER. I do have one major complaint about the etiquette guides I read online. Olives are a staple food here, and NOT ONE GOD DAMN GUIDE mentioned the proper etiquette for spitting olive pits out of your mouth. I have come to my own conclusion that there is simply no graceful way of accomplishing this task, just like there is no graceful way to get out of a pool that doesn’t have steps or a ladder. Some things, I suppose, must be learned from experience. 

Teaching 

I had never taught English to kids before, let alone kids of a different country who grew up speaking a language totally unlike English. So, I prepared a lesson plan and I prepared for the worst.

I dreaded having to keep up an air of enthusiasm around the kids, but when they walked in the classroom any fears of mine vanished. This small group of middle school kids were quite fluent in English, and their unembarrassed enthusiasm took me completely by surprise. These kids were here because they wanted to learn English. The way this particular Workaway host operates is by having volunteers from all over the world come and teach these little Moroccan kids English. As such, these kids have been exposed to countless cultures and ways of life. They aren’t embarrassed by their interest in the world outside of Morocco. 

I was expecting the apathy I remember from my middle school days, and when it wasn’t there I realized I could talk to and teach these students with ease. I had written out discussion topics as a part of my lesson plan, and I feared that I would run out of topics (I teach them for two hours straight through,) but running out of things to discuss became an impossibility just twenty minutes into the class. There were non-stop rapid fire questions about the U.S.—what do people from the U.S. know about Morocco? What is the biggest state? Where is Hollywood? And how do you pronounce Connecticut? 

I really was expecting the whole process to be like pulling teeth, but the two hours sailed by and I had a great time. This was of course just a positive first experience and in no way telling of education and teaching as a whole (my mother could tell you plenty of stories that make teaching seem awful—plenty of stories that make it seem incredible too). But first experiences are so important for anything, and I’m just glad my first exposure to teaching didn’t leave me with the bitter cynicism of Argus Filch. For reference I recommend re-watching “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” wherein Filch, played by the inimitable David Bradley, says “there was a time when detention would find you hanging by your thumbs in the dungeon. God I miss the screaming.”

Intro to Morocco

My passport is four years old. I got it just after graduating high school, and now that I’m fresh out of college my photo naturally looks outdated. My hair was longer back then (I have none to speak of now,) and I didn’t have a beard, so I can forgive the immigration officers at the airport for doing a double take when they see who I was four years ago and who am I today.

The old photo had never been a problem until I was leaving Brussels airport for Morocco. The immigration officer studied the passport for a few moments and then held up the old photo to me. 

“You expect me to think this is you?” Most immigration officers only joke about the photo, so I figured he was simply being incredulous for the sake of humor. I laughed and said I’ve changed alot since high school. 

He stared at me; my smile faltered. 

“If you were trying to immigrate into Belgium I would send you back to Athens.” I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. “Well?” he said. I didn’t have a response so he just sighed dramatically and stamped the page. “Good luck landing in Morocco. Moroccan people are not so simple.” 

That prick gave me such undo anxiety about safely getting into Morocco, because when I arrived at immigration I wasn’t hassled at all. I got the stamp and moved along. 

When I met my host he greeted me with a hug, and gave me so many kind words of welcome. My host family had dinner ready to go when I arrived, with plenty of mint tea to boot. 

The word for greeting in Arabic is “salaam,” which literally translates to “peace.” I fail to see the supposed duplicity in Moroccans that the Belgian immigration officer implied. Generalizing a people so broadly seems to me to be a symptom of a person who has some foul complexities of their own. 

Peace and mint tea. What could be simpler?

Sarnath

The ruins of the Buddha’s palace at Sarnath are spread across a few acres of land, and are now an archeological site available to travelers and pilgrims. Dhamek Stupa dominates the skyline, and the air is filled with the singing chants of Buddhist pilgrims, making their way from one ruined pillar to the next. Signs read “Do not place gold foil on the ruins,” and everywhere around the signs are tattered pieces of golden foil, stuck on ruins that are thousands of years old.

The tree under which the Buddha gave his first sermon is not original, but is rather a sapling from the tree under which he gained enlightenment. In any case the spot is still authentic. The tree is walled in, and visitors must remove their shoes before walking inside the sanctuary. Surrounding the tree are prayer wheels, which pilgrims turn clockwise in order to gain wisdom or purge demons or something. I don’t know exactly what spinning all the wheels does, but I did it anyway figuring I’m in no position to potentially refuse blessings.

Walking through these sacred Buddhist sites I remembered a thought I had a long time ago when I was taking a class on Buddhism in college. The Buddha was just a philosopher. At age twenty-nine the Buddha left his wife, child, home, and all his worldly possessions to discover the connection between human experience and suffering. This not so much a spiritual task as it is a philosophical one, and is therefore the work of a great philosopher. The amount of reverence and worship he receives makes us sometimes forget the truth of the Buddha’s occupation. I wonder what the west would look like if we worshiped a philosopher as much as they do in the east.

“Drink the Demon,” Goodbye India

I knew I had settled in to Varanasi when I was able to successfully find and buy alcohol on my own. When I returned with the spoils my host laughed and said “I never have to show foreigners where to buy beer. They always figure it out.”

We had already been out in the city that night, and I wasn’t planning on drinking the beer. I was saving it for the next day or maybe the day after that. I was standing around in the kitchen with a few other house mates when someone suggested we all have a drink. There was enough for everyone, but I refused, saying I was tired and wanted to sleep right after dinner. 

It was then that Ricardo, the gentle Italian giant, put a hand on my shoulder and said something in his thick accent. What he actually said was “drink with dinner,” but what I heard was “drink the demon.” 

As I mentioned in my first post in India I had never really wanted to visit here. India had loomed in the back of my mind the entire journey up until finally landing in Bangalore, when all those anxieties were suddenly real. 

But now, sitting in my comfortable Airbnb in Athens, India is no longer an anxiety but a place I hope to see again one day. I did it, I drank the demon and it didn’t kill me. In fact, it left me better off than I’d been before.

Goodbye India. Until next time.

Cows

There really is no equivalent in western countries to the cow situation here in India. I knew that cows were sacred here before arriving, and I knew that they more or less roamed free. I did not anticipate the sheer number of cows, however, and I definitely did not anticipate how moody they can be. 

My first real face-to-face interaction with a cow happened a few weeks ago in Ravandur. Our host had a small garden in which a few neighboring farmers let their cows wander. I had gone out to the garden to walk around for bit, when there blocking the path was a big white cow, the horns having been freshly dyed green and purple for Diwali. The cow was munching some grass, so I figured I could just walk by undisturbed. The cow had other plans. 

He raised his head and trampled towards me with surprising speed. Luckily his tether was only long enough for his dyed horns to tickle my chest, but he was giving it everything he had, tether be damned. 

His owner came stumping along and halooed at the beast, who lowered and returned to munching the grass. The owner patted the cow affectionately on the rump and gave me a nonchalant grin that said “Cows. What can you do?” 

Despite every conventional law of nature I have seen more cows here in the city of Varanasi than in the rural village of Ravandur. They just traipse around here. They apathetically stand in front of traffic, eat garbage, although when they can get away with it they eat fruit from fruit stands, which never fails to cause a scene as everyone stops what they’re doing to shout and slap the cow. I imagine the cow is thinking “Yeah yeah I’m going, just one more apple. What are you going to do about it?” And most importantly, after your foot slides through something oddly mud-like, you remember that cows take un-holy dumps, whatever their spiritual status may be. 

On our way back from a night out in the city we asked out tuk tuk driver about the cows. “They belong to Shiva,” he said. This makes complete sense. Shiva is one of the three principal Hindu gods, and is responsible for destruction. Shiva is perhaps the most worshipped god in Varanasi. The Ganges runs through Varanasi, and, according to Hindu mythology, the river itself lives in Shiva’s dreads. Yes, Shiva has dreads, and given how dirty the Ganges and dreadlocks are in general, I’m willing to admit that this bit of fantasy might actually be reality. 

Shiva isn’t just about destruction in the classic sense of breaking things. Shiva is also considered the god of change, like winter becoming spring, or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Somehow, though, I feel like Shiva is much happier when his hoards of cows upturn fruit stands and charge unsuspecting passersby than when the leaves turn in the fall. 

There’s no equivalent for the cows back home, though. It would be as if we decided alpacas were sacred and instructed every farmer with alpacas to turn them loose on the general public. Alpaca milling about in front of your place of business? Just shoo him away! Alpaca poking around the supermarket? Give him a stiff slap on the ass! But don’t hurt him—he’s sacred after all. 

India is considered one of the most spiritual places in the world, and perhaps that is why we have no equivalent in the west to so many things that occur here. Honestly, our lack of roaming cows could be because there are not as many Shiva worshipers in the west as there are here. Less worship equals less power, so in the west Shiva doesn’t have the power to set his lumbering army against us. 

After all the things that I’ve seen in India this explanation seems just as reasonable as a more scientific one that correlates poverty with cows per square inch. I would be the last person to know if such a study has already been conducted, but I have my doubts. That brave researcher would be up against a bovine force of seemingly immeasurable numbers, and the even greater number of cow pies they leave in their path of destruction.