The Angel of the Household

My host family has a one-year-old son. Despite my general indifference to children I have to admit that this little guy is cute. That is, until I leave my door open for a few moments and turn around to see my toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

He also loves phones. He will take your phone and put it against his ear as if he were deep in conversation with someone on the other line and he shouts “ooh!” and “ahh?” Take the phone away, however, and he howls like a banshee on the moors.

He’s got an excellent set of lungs, that’s for sure. He should take up a brass instrument one day. In any case he is a big hit with company. Yesterday a few members of the extended family showed up for lunch and they didn’t give a damn about the three foreigners at the table. Not that I minded of course. They didn’t speak a word of English, so communication would have been difficult.

They loved that little boy though. Everyone loves the cute little kid, sometimes even when he’s screaming. As guests fawn: “oh I want to just take you home with me!” a strange look appears on the parents’ faces. It’s a sort of flash-back look, as if their minds are remembering last night, when junior threw a tantrum after the phone was taken away, and how he then threw his yogurt at the volunteers, all the while screeching in the language of dolphins from Hell.

After the flash-back has passed another look graces their faces, one that says: “I’m glad you offered!” He’s all yours! I’ll put the stroller in your trunk right now.”

Group F

I like all the groups that I teach: the little ones, the middle-schoolers, and the adults. I admire the adults the most, however. This venerable group shows up twice a week for their two hour lessons of their own free will. I admit to spending the most time on their lesson plans because I want to ensure that they get something out of the class, and I want them to see how much I respect them for trying to learn something new in adulthood. 

There is one student in the adult class, I’ll call her Amalia, who rarely speaks out and has low confidence in her ability, even though more often than not she knows the answer. In the beginning I wondered why Amalia was even in the class if she refused to participate. How much can someone learn if he or she doesn’t participate and just silently takes notes the entire class? 

The adults, group F, need as much speaking practice as possible, so I made a game out of basic introductory phrases. The previous class we had gone over introductions like “Hello, my name is___. I am from___. I am ___ years old,” etc. etc. etc. So I made name cards with new names, nationalities, ages, likes, and dislikes. I then put all the name cards in my hat and had the students pick a card from the hat and introduce themselves to the class as that new person. I had fun making the cards, (my personal favorite was Gregory, the one-handed and two year old man from Germany, who likes his grandchildren and dislikes teenagers and stairs) and the students seemed to genuinely enjoy the absurdity of introducing themselves as wildly different people. 

Amalia introduced herself as Brad from Brazil, a laid back surfer dude who liked yoga, reggae, and the beach, and who disliked bad vibes, his mom, and responsibilities. After “Brad” introduced himself the class was free to ask him any introductory questions, and someone asked “Brad, what do you do?” 

Amalia couldn’t think of a fictional occupation fast enough, so she said “nurse,” to which the whole class laughed. I thought the joke was that Brad, being so lazy, would be a terrible nurse, but it turns out that everyone in the class knows each other, and thus know that Amalia is actually a nurse. 

It then made total sense to me why Amalia was taking this adult English class. 

Cynics hold that man is essentially morally bankrupt, and only out for self-gain and pleasure. I don’t see any of that in Amalia, group F, or in any of the groups I teach. 

Taroudant 

I’m staying in a small city in Morocco. It’s not really much of a city at all come to think of it, at least not in the classic sense of tall buildings and the bustle that comes along with a large population. Taroudant is relaxed. You will find no one rushing from place to place within its narrow streets. People amble about, chat in groups in front of vendors, and mill about in cafés watching football and drinking copious amounts of frothy green tea at a pace that a sloth might call dilatory. 

It’s a life style that isn’t for everyone, especially because I’m told the slow pace here is due to high levels of unemployment. Regardless, a volunteer arrived last week and upon his first walk through the city he spoke of how he was “in love” with life here. But two days later he confided in me that he’s thinking of leaving earlier than anticipated. He feels like he’s not doing much here, not going out every night and constantly meeting new people. I understand his desire to go somewhere else. He wants excitement from a city that feels as content as a cat that’s sleeping in a sun beam on Sunday afternoon. 

I’m okay with the pace of life here, though. I imagine this relaxed lifestyle is nice for the retired among us, which would explain why my flight over here was packed with French people in their golden years. I’ve discovered a lot about who I am as a traveler. When I travel I like to eat a lot, walk around a lot, and mill about as much as possible. So Taroudant is perfect for me. There’s surely no lack of street food here, and walking along the old walls that surround the city is great way to get some exercise after sitting at the table for two hours, and best of all there are numerous cafés where I can sit and drink tea and no one will bother me. 

This couldn’t be my life though. It’s good to live like this for a little while, but my will to work and to be constantly engaged with something overpowers my somnolent travel ways. 

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 India

I was reluctant to agree to India. I think Billy has always wanted to visit India, but it’s never really been on my list, so he had to talk me into it. I didn’t take much convincing, however, because even though I never planned on going to India, I knew it was a place that I would never regret saying I visited. 

For all this time that we’ve been traveling India has always been in the back of my mind. Not in a fearful way, just in a mindful awareness. Each day would bring us closer to touching down in India, a place that changes western travelers and possibly gives them diarrhea. On the three plane rides over I began mentally preparing to be shocked. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend what I was about to experience because even my conceptualization of India, as bad or as good as I made it, wouldn’t be enough to prepare me. So with an open mind but fearing the worst we landed in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) at two o’clock in the morning, needing to somehow take public transportation from the airport to the remote village of Ravandur, where our Workaway host is located. 

We were both exhausted at that time, but I remember each step feeling cautious, like at any moment we could walk into the wrong place at the wrong time. The security guards walking around with machine guns didn’t alleviate this feeling, but somehow we found the bus station, paid, and were on our way to Mysuru, where would have to get a taxi to Ravandur. I was so tired that much of this process was a blur. The bus ride was long (four hours) and thankfully I slept through most of it, despite the fact that the bus driver honked the horn practically every five seconds.

A word about honking. Honking culture here is much different from honking culture in the US in that here nobody stops laying on the horn. Billy noted that all this honking makes it lose its meaning. A honk in the US is guaranteed to startle, but here it is so frequent that it is just another part of driving communication. 

I did wake up around five in the morning, just outside of Bangalore, where the bus was going through a toll. Outside hanging around the toll booth were crowds of people, squatting, begging, and doing everything in between. I knew that if I looked more in my exhausted state what I saw would overwhelm me, so in moments I was back asleep. 

It was light outside when I woke again, around seven o’clock, so I again took a look out the window. We were far outside of Bangalore at that point, so everything was rural, and the buildings we passed were in various stages of ruin, yet still people congregated outside of them to eat or just sit around. The country side is green and beautiful, but it is at all times at odds with the filth from humans. Trash is strewn all along the sides of the road, and meandering alongside the garbage are herds of cows. Cows, being sacred here, are everywhere. They have no leash it seems, and are free to just roam wherever. 

The longer I looked, though, the more I realized that nothing I was seeing particularly shocked me. Here, like in Thailand, there are tuk tuks and buildings in disrepair, family-run restaurants and food stalls at frequent intervals. It all became normal so quickly that I was slightly alarmed. I voiced this observation to Billy and he concurred. India, like Japan and Thailand before it, was just another place on the map. We have become so used to traveling and suddenly being outside of our comfort zones that, in a way, we were totally prepared for India. 

Getting a taxi in Mysuru was absurdly easy. We just stepped off the bus and were immediately greeted by a taxi driver who set us up for a ride to Ravandur. I’m sure his price was high by Indian standards, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to get settled in our new place. 

Once we did arrive and meet our generous and friendly host, the realization really sunk in. Somehow, we navigated ourselves from a major city to a rural village in India. There were no tears, complaints, or major complications to speak of. When did we become adjusted to this single backpack life on the road lifestyle? And how come it happened so fast? I thought it would take us much longer to become comfortable bouncing from place to place. This is not to say there still isn’t difficulty involved, but it’s a difficulty we have become acclimated to. 

With all this in mind, I feel prepared for whatever India throws at me. Though it may still challenge me, I know that I’ll get through it before I know it. So I feel prepared, yes, even for the diarrhea, because I have traveler’s diarrhea pills.