If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
-Mother Teresa

May 19, 2008

A New Normal

It’s not often that I wake up before the first call to prayer. But yesterday morning was an exception and I dragged myself out of bed at 4:15 AM to be sure I would be on time. It had been a long time since we had all gone on a Sunday hike and being the furthest one from the meeting point I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the one to keep the girls waiting.

I got dressed in the dark and walked across the blustery courtyard to my cozy little kitchen (the temperature was an unseasonable 42 F). My little cat Mr. Potato Bed, who has stopped sleeping on the potatoes and has now taken up residence next to the new mini-fridge in an empty cookie box, looked at me as if I was crazy. I could almost hear him saying “you’re never up before me!” I lit the stove, put my little coffee maker on the fire, and pulled the cinnamon pancake batter out of the fridge. I was excited to surprise the girls with a tasty American treat in addition to the 2 kilos of oranges I had already neatly packed in my backpack.

As I shuffled about the kitchen cooking little silver dollar-sized pancakes and eagerly awaiting the sound of the coffee gurgle to signal it was ready to consume, I looked at the clock: 4:45 it read. Excellent, I thought. Just enough time to sit down and have breakfast before I had to head out. I pulled up one of my plastic stools and rummaged through the stack of Newsweeks I had just received (2 months late as usual). It was then that my phone signaled a message had been received, and to my dismay I saw that the girls had decided it was too cold to go on the hike. Too cold?! We hiked in January with 5 layers under our jackets! I sat down defeated and looked at my beautiful stack of warm pancakes. It was way too early in the morning to be disappointed.

I was determined not to let this get me down, so instead of hopping back into bed I changed back into my pj’s, threw on a sweater and moved my feast outdoors under the navy blue sky and twinkling stars. It was there that I ate the entire stack of pancakes (save the few the Mr. Potato Bed woke up long enough to eat), drank my coffee and some fresh-squeezed orange juice, and watched as the sky began to lighten.

After I was stuffed and cold I went back into the screened, mosquito-netted sanctuary I call my bedroom these days and crawled back into bed. I read a few chapters of I’m Proud of You by Tim Madigan (thanks Mom!) and finally dozed off into a pancake induced sleep.

At 9:30 I was awoken by the hungry mewing of Mr. Potato Bed from outside the door and the voice of my neighbor. “Mi-gan! Mi-gan! Ahmen!” I jumped out of bed, threw the sweater back on and ran out to find my neighbor waiting there with the ever-patient donkey hauling water. As I absentmindedly went through the familiar routine of carrying the water jugs in the house and emptying the contents into the large container in my courtyard, I counted in my head: 27 days. Yes, it had been 27 days since any water had reached the houses in my section of the neighborhood. And it had taken me almost as long to finally become used to using only tiny amounts of water to do everything. [On a side note, I am now astonished at how much water we waste in the States. I can take a very nice bath with 2.5 gallons of water, not much more than most toilets use in one flush.]

Having already eaten breakfast I headed into the salon and got to work doing any number of the menial tasks I had put off since before Anny’s visit. I balanced my financial records, marked my calendar with the past week’s events, wrote up a list of things to do in my cyber town the following day, worked on the June play list for our CD exchange, and so on. Every so often my mind would wander up into the mountains though, where my feet itched to be. The mid-day temperature was perfect, there was a steady cool breeze blowing, the sun was shining…maybe I should propose that we go for an afternoon hike?

I debated this idea as I went about my business and by the time I gave up on the idea it was 12:30. I headed back into the kitchen, put yesterday’s lentils on the stove to warm up, and laid out the tray I used for every meal: a banana, a bowl for the lentils, some bread, and a clean glass for water. Back in the salon I settled in to enjoy my lunch and watch a movie as a reward for getting so much done in the morning. I picked “Blood Diamond”. In retrospect it strikes me as an odd choice, but these days any moving picture on a screen is engaging. Just as the plot was thickening, I got the second message of the day: If you want, we will go for a hike at 2:30. I was overjoyed!

At 2:20 I headed down the hill to my old neighborhood, lathered in sunscreen and shaded by my yellow baseball cap. There I met the usual crew and after the usual rounds of greetings we headed up into my favorite group of mountains. I couldn’t help but notice that all the girls were in particularly jovial moods, and that my host sister looked especially beautiful and energetic. What a day this was turning out to be.

Twenty minutes in we took a turn south on a path I had never been on. It took us up between the most majestic peaks in the area, away from houses and animals. We climbed straight up for the first hour or so, and with each step I became more and more aware of the thin air of the rising altitude, and my tightening leg muscles. Is this the hike were going to do this morning? Sheesh. Maybe I was glad I had time to eat breakfast and lunch before this! Too bad I hadn’t stretched or done any yoga…

All the way up the first incline I was consumed with thoughts about how lucky I seem to be these days (a great turn of fate for me). When I heard I was coming to Morocco, I desperately wanted to be in the mountains where I could go hiking. And here I was in arguably the most beautiful mountain range in the country with a group of women whose outdoor habits are certainly unique by conservative, rural Berber standards. These women are no-nonsense about their hiking, and I am so grateful for that! I had also hoped to be in a place that wasn’t too hot, and while I’m acutely aware that August has a mean surprise in store for us all, I know I’m lucky to have an altitude upwards of 4500’ on my side. So many things I thought were beyond my reach had all come together in this magical little mountain village. With each step up the steep hills I counted my blessings.

When we finally came to the top of what I had begun to think was an endless path, we were afforded a breathtaking view of the whole range on all sides. And to my surprise and delight just to the south was the tallest mountain in the region (just under 8000’), so close that I knew I could hike there and back in a day. We stopped to rest under a lovely tree, a type which I had not seen in the area before (I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that we were now up at an altitude of about 6500’). Each of us sat enjoying the weather, the view and the company, and no one found anything to complain about. Looking around at the group of us, I once again found myself in awe of my good fortune to be surrounded by what I could now call my group of dear friends.

One hour turned into another as the sun made its lazy way across the sky, and still we climbed up and down rocky slopes. We picked tiny apples, told jokes and stories, talked about the weather, laughed over the early morning texting frenzy, even had a race or two when the terrain allowed. At a certain point we passed a group of people (three women and two boys) who were gathering herbs and feed for their animals, and I was pleased to discover that while I did not know them personally, I recognized them as relatives of a friend and they treated me as one of the girls. The indifference to my obvious differences was so comforting that I found myself thinking about it all the way down the path to our picnic spot.

Perhaps one of the loveliest things about hiking with my girls is that at the halfway point of every trip we sit down and enjoy a delicious feast. Everyone brings something, and everyone takes some leftovers home. As I offered up my oranges I confessed to eating the treats I had made in the early morning, and they all had a good laugh at this. We dined on tea, cookies, bread, sardines, almond butter and honey, jam and butter, oranges and apples. A glass was broken and we all laughed. I accidentally threw an orange peel at my friend RabiE and we all laughed. Tleit fell backwards into a prickly bush and we all laughed. Saadia piled her veil on top of her head and rested her baseball cap neatly on top of the cloth mountain, and we all laughed. Not once was I aware that I was the outsider, that I didn’t belong.

The trip home was much easier, and while I didn’t admit it out loud I was grateful for this. We made our way down a precarious rocky slope to the road a mile west and headed back down in the direction of town. Normally at this point in our hiking trips I would become keenly aware of a creeping sense of disappointment compounded by the fact that I was too tired to carry on any conversation. But not this Sunday. No, I was too distracted by more funny stories, more races, a brief and hilarious encounter with a group of young men, a pit stop, and the view of the huge moon rising over the dusty rolling hills to the east.

As we finally reached the town one by one we went our separate ways. Amidst a flurry of goodbye kisses and handshakes, we told each other that we would see each other soon, inshallah. Finally, I headed up my hill racing to beat the second-to-last call to prayer (the time when any decent single girl should be safely back at home). As I stepped into my courtyard to face the hungry mewing of Mr. Potato Bed, I heard the mueddin’s voice crackle over the loudspeaker. “Allah ackbar!” Phew! Just in the nick of time.

In the confines of my cozy little kitchen I unpacked the treasures of the day from my backpack: some freshly picked medicinal herbs to put in my coffee, a jar full of left-over almond butter and honey, some of Saadia’s home-baked cookies, and a whole liter of fresh buttermilk from little Saadia’s cow. But as I took inventory of the contents of my bag I was acutely aware of the fact that on this day I had brought back much, much more than what physically lay before me now. Nothing had been stressful, nothing had been unfamiliar, and nothing had been confusing; everything had felt so normal. So very normal. I looked at the things in my kitchen, at my house keys in my hand, thought back over the events of the day and realized: I can finally call this home.