Snail Mail from Cassandra Ernst

Do you like a good story? Here are some snail mail from Cassandra Ernst that give you some insight into her thoughts, her heart, and her very soul.

Turkish Toilets, Wedding Crashers, and Home Sweet Home

My host family's Turkish Toilet.

My host family's Turkish Toilet.

It is just before 5:30 a.m. After pro-actively filling my flush bucket with water, I squat down and brace myself against the wall, wrapping my left arm under my leg for extra support. My stomach grumbles in sweet anticipation and just as my business slides out, the morning call to prayer sounds. This seems incredibly sacrilegious, yet strangely fitting, I think to myself as I quickly finish and scrub up.

And so my life as a Peace Corps Trainee begins.

After spending a week in the lap of luxury, I was more than ready for the three hour journey by bus and Grand Taxi to my new home. Although not so ready to have my bags bungie cord tied into the back of Grand Taxi -- none of our CBT group had believed our LCF when she told us that all seven of us and our bags could fit in two Grand Taxis, but somehow, the drivers made it work.

After riding through miles (kilometers?) of rolling farm sides and foothills, along with a sprinkle of small communities, we arrived to our new home. Despite the lovely hand-drawn map our LCF created, I couldn't quite picture the one road community, but as soon as we arrived, I knew that this town was not the Morocco of Rabat.

View at the outskirts of my new town for the next two months

View at the outskirts of my new town for the next two months

We were in town for less than ten minutes when the country authorities showed up to record our passport information. The police love us here, by the way. One day I'll take the time to explain the unique relationship between Moroccan authorities and Peace Corps volunteers, as I understand. But I truly felt like a delegate with our police escort from the airport to our training hub. To be clear-and to protect myself from the PC Overloards-we are not delegates and are the only US organization in Morocco that is not connected to the Embassy. Peace Corps is independent from all other US government organizations and fun fact from the United States Ambassador of Morocco himself--so if it's wrong, that's on him--besides the military, we are the largest group of Americans in the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region. How truly humbling is that? But I digress, once we're placed at our permanent site, we will be on first name basis with the local authorities in our town, who will be keeping tabs on us and will call us if we leave the site without letting them know first. It's sounds a bit disconcerting at first glance, but there is something strangely comforting to know that somebody's job description actually states that they must look out for me, personally.

Before we even made it inside our LCF's home, Moroccans gathered around us to meet their new guests. As we settled around the cushioned seats, more and more Moroccans made their way inside. Each time we would stand up and say: "S-salam or Salam 3alaykum (Peace be upon you)" the response of which is: "Wa 3alaykum s-salem (and peace be upon you)." From there, they would ask Labas or Bikhir - both of which mean "good?" And we would reply back with "Labas, l Hamdullah." The women would grasp hands and lean in for cheek kisses on both sides, while the men would shake hands. It was at this moment that everything began to seem real. Before this, it was a vacation with a bunch of strangers and some really cool Moroccans. But now we were surrounded by our families in a little town with about four or five streets of houses. This was real life. My life.

What had I gotten myself into?

As I carried my much too heavy bags down the street, while simultaneously trying to grab my other bag from my new host sister who is about twenty years older than me, I wondered how far we'd have to walk before arriving to our home. Not far, apparently, it was less than a block away - like all the homes in the town. Inside, I met my new host Mama and Baba - who are about my grandmother's age - and was ushered into my new room. I smiled largely and exclaimed one of the only two words I knew in Darija -- "Zween, Shurkan." It's beautiful, thank-you. "Shurkan Bezaf" Thank you, a lot. Soon, I was surrounded by my new family -- my host mama and baba and three host sisters, along with my new best friend: a barely toddling, perfectly fat little baby boy whose walking gave me the first word I learned in town - tmsh-sha. Which means to walk. Although I'm suppose to know the word for "go," I always tend to forget it, so I always say: "I walk to class", or "May I walk to the Cafe?", or "I would like to walk to the souk with you on Sunday?" All of these sentences I've almost successfully used - and that's with less than two weeks of learning, so I'm basically a native speaker.

I barely settled in before dinner was served. We had been training for this moment during each dinner at the hotel with the LCFs, so I felt prepared. Although the full chicken in the center of the shared plate looked appetizing, I stuck to the outside of the plate, eating the vegetables first. For each bite, I pulled off a piece of warm bread with my right hand and dipped it in the juice before using it to pick up the vegetables, pinching each bite closed with my thumb and two fingers. My host mama placed a towel on my lap in anticipation for the mess that I would inevitably make, but I chowed down on that meal with barely a crumb falling to the wayside. "Kol. Kol." she would urge me as I slowly ate my food. "Eat. Eat." "Sufi," I said when I didn't feel like I could eat anymore. Finished. They all looked at me expectantly. "Kol." I took a few more bites. "Kol." "Sufi, Shbt. l-Hammdullah. "I'm finished. I'm full. Thanks be to God." This seemed to please her and she took the main meal away to place out dessert. Dessert here is fruit and I am obsessed with their green grapes. I wish fruit was the only "dessert" they had, but during tea time - which I have between one and two times a day, depending on my class schedule - we are fed sugar-filled mint tea or "atay", which I adore, and little Moroccan shortbread cookies covered in powdered sugar, along with more bread with oil, butter, and jam to spread across it. And taking just one cookie and drinking just one cup is not acceptable -- not that I would be able to stop at just one if I could -- suffice to say, I need to come up with a sustainable exercise plan.

It only took three days on site to find myself at a Moroccan wedding. Although I have heard that they often start at night, this particular wedding (as many weddings in rural areas) started late in the afternoon and only lasted for a few hours. One of the girls in our CBT group was invited by her host mother, while the rest of us basically invited ourselves in the most Moroccan way possible. I did feel a little bad, however, as all the children at the wedding spent most of the time crowded around our table, urging us to dance. Additionally, since we didn't know about the wedding until the day of, we arrived having already eaten lunch and therefore could not fully enjoy the food presented to us. The first course was three full chickens for the eight of us at the table. I glanced at one of the tables of women near us and saw that the ladies at that table had somehow managed to eat it all.

 

We thought that we would be receiving "dessert" next, as was customary at mealtimes, and was surprised when the waiter lifted the tray to a second meat dish. At this point, one of the girls in our CBT site widened her eyes at the idea of having to eat more. Of course, at that moment the videographer came over to our table and filmed her reaction. Now when the bride watches her wedding video, she's going to think the Americans hated the food. I am here to say that there was bezaf food and I adored every bite.

During mealtime, we spotted the bride in white with jewels in her hair. After we finished eating, music began and her husband came to take her away. This is probably the point that I should mention that the three men in our CBT group were the only males at the wedding, save the boys who kept running into the tent in twos and threes, only to be shooed out again. They also happened to be the best dancers of the group, as they moved to the music in their seats, barely able to contain themselves from bursting out of the chair. Of course, there's always one lady at the wedding that wants to break all forms of protocol. While some of the woman were dancing to the music at the time, we all knew that it would be incredibly inappropriate for the male crashers to get up and dance. We were already drawing enough attention to ourselves, as the rag-tag group of Americans, as it was. This lady, however, was urging us all to get up--men included--and dance. She even had the audacity to point towards me and one of my male colleagues and urge us to dance together.

Definitely scandalous.

We looked at the Host Mama that was at the table with us. She had an amused look on her face and gave us a mock stern look before shaking her head and urging us to stay seated. We really wanted to dance and it didn't help that the lady kept motioning for us to get out on the floor or that our new little girl fan club continued to surround our table and beg us to dance with them while giggling and occasionally saying a few English phrases (Hello, how are you? What is your name? Their English skills directly correspond with my Darjia skills, so we made a pretty fine match). After a few confusing exchanges about whether or not the women in our group had permission to dance--apparently this Host Mama had been assigned as our chaperone in order to ensure that we didn't make a fool of ourselves--the women of our CBT group got up to dance with the girls. At this point, the three of us were basically the queen of every schoolgirl and town and like celebrities, all of the teenage girls wanted a selfie with the Americans, which was quite a strange experience for me.

Preparing for the bride's henna

Preparing for the bride's henna

When the bride returned with her husband for the second time, she was wearing a green dress. The women of the wedding escorted them inside, burning incense as they did and loudly exclaiming as they surrounded her and swayed to the music, their arms out-stretched in front of them as they motioned their hands towards their chests. They continued to burn incense as she and her husband sat in the high chairs of honor and painted henna on her hands. After the henna was complete, the bride and groom left. We were served tea (I can't begin to describe how much tea I drink in a day) and a bag full of cookies. The bride returned for a third and final time--this time in red--in order to exchange rings and throw out sweet candy. I later learned that this candy was to be eaten by single women who hoped to find a groom. So, now I have that expectation hanging over my head. The wedding was over, or so we thought. Two of us ladies from the CBT site were brought back to the wedding tent in order to witness some men and women with hand drums, crying out and singing in Tamazight. The bride, like most of the people in our small town, was of Amazigh heritage. This very strong culture--whose name literally means the Free People--was reflected as part of the wedding. I was also happy to return as I was actually able to speak to the bride for a moment and wish her well in her marriage.

As I reflect back on the wedding and the journey that is to come, I can't help to swell up in joyful anticipation. I've committed to celebrating with the people of Morocco for two years and celebrate we will. Through food, traditions, and new friendships and families, I am so eager to soak up every moment that I can.

Salem Morocco. Smiti Cassandra. Mtshrfin.

What is one of the biggest life changes you've undergone?