67: The Ants Go Marching One By One, Hurrah, Hurrah

The Ants Go Marching One By One, Hurrah, Hurrah

I like vacation, especially in an exotic foreign country with white-sand beaches, glittering water and a lovely lounge chair pulled up cozily beside the swimming pool, sunshade nearby if required. I prefer to lie in reverse on the lounger, with my head hanging off the end of the chair, because that is a comfortable position in which both to bask in the sun and to read whatever novel I have currently chosen. This time, the pool was the preferred location anyway, since the Wi-Fi would only pick up if one were seated nearby, and I had been earlier earning money online answering student questions for my part-time job as an online tutor. I had also already been in the pool for a nice, cooling dip, and while paddling around, I had noticed that there were honeybees that apparently had come to the pool for water and had been caught and drowned by the pool wavelets. Not trusting that these bees were actually good and drowned, and therefore, no longer stingable, I flipped several of the sad, little, water-logged carcasses out of the pool onto the side, where I was sure I would not be surprised by any stings.

While sunbathing, and reading of the latest exploits of the air-headed heroine who was assiduously fighting off the advances of the tall, dark and handsome type (of course), I noticed that there were some black ants roaming around the concrete and tile pool apron, searching for whatever they could find. Of course, one of them found a bee carcass, and was quite excited over the veritable feast he had discovered. Antennae waving madly, he (she??) thoroughly inspected this great find, even clambering over the bee a time or two, as though verifying the size and scope of the potential meal.

Intrigued, I watched. This little ant, deciding upon the best vantage point for pulling, grabbed hold of the bee and gave a mighty heave. Nothing. He readjusted his grip, and tried again. Nothing. He abandoned that side of the bee, and trudged off to the other side, whereupon he took another advantageous hold, and heaved again. Nothing. Stumped, he let go, turned in a circle (I do this myself sometimes when thinking), and, apparently stymied, he paused, obviously lost in deep thought. I thought to myself, “Give it up, dude. That’s like me trying to drag off an elephant.” But, undeterred, the little ant grabbed hold of a bee leg, and heaved yet again. This time something moved. The bee leg stretched out to full length, until the weight of the rest of the bee halted the celebrating-too-soon ant in his tracks, like a tied-up dog hitting the end of his tether. Another pause for thought, antennae waving madly. Then the determined, but not-too-bright little fellow chose another grip, and commenced to heaving, again unsuccessfully. Occasionally he would pause, but he always returned to the bee and tried again, as though absolutely unable to give up on all this potential food going to waste.

By this time I was feeling sorry for the courageous little dude, even if he wasn’t too smart. I reached out a cautious finger and gently nudged the bee in the direction the ant was tugging. Not realizing that he had help, the ant apparently decided it was working THIS time, and he kept pulling. As long as I helped, the ant figured he was making progress. After a few inches of this, I realized I was hungry, and left the ant to his own devices. I sat up and ate my sandwich, brushing the bread crumbs off me and my towel-draped lounger, and returned to the story of the slightly stupid, but brave beauty in the novel, who was now about to be predictably abducted by the handsome hero (of course).

That’s when I noticed that my sandwich crumbs had been discovered by all the ant’s friends, who were hoisting them over their heads like trophies, and happily trundling off to the nest with them. All the ants, that is, except for the dude who was tugging on the bee – he was still doggedly pulling on his erstwhile feast, ignoring the bounty of bread crumbs around him that were being rapidly collected and toted off by the other ants. I pondered this single-mindedness, wondering at the degree of dedication being displayed by this tiny creature.  I considered times in my life when I had been faced with insurmountable obstacles, and decided that this little ant had far more determination than I had so far displayed in dealing with life’s occasional problems. Jeepers, sometimes I can’t even finish a hobby project! Then, as I watched, I saw that another ant had found the bee carcass, too.  The newcomer inspected the find, along with the original ant, still stubbornly and unsuccessfully pulling. Then the newcomer chose a grip and gave a mighty heave. Lo, and behold: the bee moved.

I felt like cheering. Together, the two ants laboriously began the arduous task of shifting the great carcass back to the nest. They did not coordinate too well at times, occasionally pulling in different directions (like my husband and me in our marriage, I thought), but when they did pull together, the massive load moved (like my husband and me in our marriage). Slowly, but surely, they dragged that huge bee on the trail back to the nest. I watched for a while, then returned to the adventures of Miss Helpless and Beautiful, who was resisting seduction while being irresistibly attracted to her strong and manly kidnapper (of course). Every time I glanced up from the novel, I noticed that the ants had moved the bee further down the trail, visible only to them, towards their nest, off in the distance somewhere. At one point, they even dragged it over a water hose lying in their way: a veritable mountain of an obstacle, accomplished while dragging another mountain of food.

Becoming discouraged with the plight of the heroine, who was struggling with the conflict between being a good girl and giving in (of course), I sat up again, took another cooling dip in the pool, and returned to the lounger to give myself a pedicure. By this time, the bee-dragging ants were totally out of sight. As I trimmed my toenails and my cuticles, and applied a tasteful shade of mauve polish to my neatly trimmed nails, I saw that some of the trimmings had fallen to the tiles. One ant, finding a piece of toe cuticle skin, hoisted the piece up over his head like the bread crumb toting ants had done, and made off for the nest. As I watched him go, it occurred to me that all these foraging ants I had been observing were on expeditions to supply food to the other worker ants in the nest, and the queen. I wondered: will the queen be dining tonight on my toe?


66: Traveling in Morocco: Azrou

Azrou is a lovely little city in the Middle Atlas Mountains, a little less than a mile elevation. Azrou is famous for hand-made Berber (tribe) wool woven rugs. It has a lovely little medina in the old part of town, and a bustling newer city center as well. There are several rug merchants who will be happy to display their rugs, often over a steaming pot of traditional Moroccan tea – hot and strongly sweet, served with mint. The rugs are lovely, colorful, various sizes, with geometric patterns. Some of the smaller rugs are not really rugs, they are intended as capes, with strings to tie them on for the really cold days. Remember this area is nearly a mile high in elevation, and gets snows in the winter fairly often. The prices are astounding. Remember that these are hand-made artifacts, some of them antique, some newer. Many are 100 percent hand-shorn, hand-carded and spun, hand-woven wool. Some have mixed fibers, especially the plant-based silk. Some are flat rugs, and some have plush pile. Some are simply too lovely to walk on, and I would only hang them on the walls, like tapestries. If you ask the merchant, he can usually tell you from what part of the country the rug is from, and perhaps even the tribe of the women who created it, by the patterns in the rug. Ask him if there are any weaver’s “signatures” in the rug. If there are, he will show you the places where the pattern of the rug varies subtly, which is the weaver’s “mark,” or signature in her rug, much like when an artist signs their painting. I am wearing one of the heavy cotton/wool capes, and my husband is wearing an antique wool d’jellaba, the hooded wool cloak that men and women both wear. Behind us is a display of some of the lovely rugs that this particular merchant had up for display.

Azrou also has several shops where you can buy the wool yarn in hanks, if you would like to try your hand at knitting, crochet or weaving yourself. In other shops, there are mouth-watering displays of lovely women’s traditional caftans, or indoor clothing. D’jellabas are for outdoor wear, and are usually hooded. The indoor garments are much more elaborate, made of delicate fabrics, embroidered, beaded and sequined, and don’t have hoods. I don’t have pne of those yet, even though we have lived here for about twenty months. They are all lovely, and come in such a fantastic array of colors, patterns and design, I get paralyzed at the bounty of selection, and end up not buying a single thing – every time. You are measured, and the garments are made especially to fit just you – although you can buy one “off the rack,” if it fits you. Everything about the garment is color-coordinated, even down to the especially woven flat braids that are applied for trim. They are custom-made for each garment. And get this – these delicious confections of feminine magnificence usually cost less than 100 US dollars each. Some are a single layer, some have overlayers of transparent, matching fabric, some come with matching trousers. They are all gorgeous, stunning, elaborate and fantastical, especially when you are looking at a store full of them, all lined up in glittering, glimmering rows.

Azrou has delicious, fragrant pastry shops that also serve tea or coffee. Moroccan men sit in sidewalk cafes, drinking coffee or tea, watching the world walk by. Moroccan women usually are served inside, but I like to sit outside with my husband, even if that is a trifle strange. I think I get away with it because it is apparent that I am not Moroccan, so perhaps they just figure that I don’t know how things are done here. Our favorite restaurant is actually a little sandwich shop just off the centreville plaza. They serve a delicious, hearty Moroccan traditional sandwich filled with grilled ground beef that is mixed with spices and grilled. Meat prepared this way is called Kefta, and it is stuffed into half a round loaf of bread, a meal in itself, for the grand total of 11 dirhams – less than 1.25 US. You can even add cheese for another couple of dirhams. Azrou also has a fish hatchery for trout, which is served fresh at several of the town’s restaurants. Hard to get better than that! At the hatchery, you can buy fresh-sealed packages of smoked fish and other delicacies, too.

And then, you can roam around the narrow back streets of the medina, the old part of town, and shop for all sorts of necessities and luxuries.

Happy exploring in Azrou!

65: Traveling in Morocco: Tetouan

We LOVE Tetouan!

What a super place for a budget traveller (that would be US). We found a lovely, well-run, clean and tidy pension: Pension Iberia (www.travelwolf.com), which rents clean decent rooms at 100 Moroccan dirhams a night – about US 12.50. This pension, which is located in an auspicious spot on the Plaza Moulay al Mehdi, is near everything you would want to see. This traffic circle, attractively planted with palms, including a nice fountain, is just a few blocks away from the royal palace located in this imperial city. Near the palace is a small architectural museum (small fee) that has some great artifacts of the Roman occupation of Morocco near the time of Christ.

The royal palace, in turn, fronts the old part of the city, or the medina, where there are TONS of little shops for the shopaholic. In addition, the streets all around in every direction are filled with great little shops and inexpensive restaurants, all accessible within a block or two, so you don’t need a car or a taxi.

And the best part: the streets come alive in the afternoon with entrepreneurs who fill the area with street stalls including every single thing under the sun that you might want to purchase, all at bargain prices, if you don’t mind a little haggling; including snail soup, my husband’s new favorite!  These soup sellers have a wheeled cart with a huge pot of soup. For just a few dirhams (usually less than eight, which is less than one US dollar) you get a whole bowlfull of snails in the shell, cooked in a tasty, spiced, sweetish broth. The snail seller usually has a lemon-half, studded with pins that you can use to pull the tasty tidbits out of the shell for eating. When you are done with the empty shell, you leave it on the cart, and finally the snail seller will spoon up a full bowl of the spiced broth for you to drink. OR, you can just buy a bowl of the broth instead, for even fewer dirhams than the snails cost. YUM! The baked, spiced fava beans and chickpeas are also superb, but they are gaseous, so you might want not to indulge if you have a return flight coming up soon.

Most Moroccan shops don’t have the prices posted. That is so prices are set at the rate the shop owner *thinks* the traffic will bear. That means, often, that if you speak French or Arabic or Berber, and you look like you could be Moroccan, you get a better price than you do if you look like one of US – obviously English-speaking and American (or European). Unless you know what you are doing and are familiar with prices, offer HALF what you are quoted, or at least one-third less. And be prepared to walk off – usually you will be called back, and things will suddenly become reasonable. If not – keep walking! There will be another vendor soon who will catch your eye with their wares. You can get A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Just enjoy the looking!!

We like the candy sellers who are located to the right of the king’s palace. They have peanut-brittle candy in chunks, and sesame seed candy and caramels with all sorts of nuts (your choice) and other delicious, colorful treats, all at reasonable prices. Also, if there is a big crowd of Moroccans sorting through a vendor’s wares, that generally means the prices being asked are VERY reasonable: knock-off perfumes for 5 dirhams (60 cents), new sweaters in the package for 10 dirhams (1.25), or shoes for 10 dirhams. You might want to take a look! The other Moroccan desirables are handmade wool rugs. These are colorful, well-made, and lovely, with geometric patterns, and are available for very reasonable prices. A small rug (two feet by three feet) should cost less than 500 dirham (less than 63 US). Small rugs are easier to pack in your luggage, too!

Everyone cautions you to watch out for pickpockets, but we have not had any trouble with that. We HAVE had trouble with men (women generally do NOT approach you) who will approach you in a friendly, chatty way, who end up wanting to be your “guide” to the “berber market” (you can find your own way to the medina quite well, thank you) or who will simply ask you for money. The Arabic word that usually works to get rid of them is SAFIE (SA-fee), which means: enough! Mothers use that word to unruly children, too, so it is effective.

While you are wandering around the town, enjoying the sights, don’t be surprised if you spot a donkey. Moroccans who are not exceptionally wealthy still need transportation, and many of them choose this sturdy, mischievous animal to carry their shopping loads home. You will often see them “parked” outside of a shop, waiting for their owners. They are adorable, since they are usually less than waist-high, and are surprisingly strong! They will be saddled with a cushy blanket and panniers for all the shopping they will be carrying home. It is common in the medina’s narrow streets for one to come walking down behind or in front of its owner with a full load, so watch out for the donkey “trucks!”

Happy exploring in Tetouan!

64: Living and working at an international school in Morocco

International teaching is ‘where it is at’ for me. I taught for twenty years in the public schools in Georgia in the United States. Various things were not too good, including the taxation and the standard of living, the disrespect of students and the administration’s views (trickled down from the federal government) that everything wrong with the schools, and why students were not learning, was the teachers’ fault. Since I emphatically do not agree with that diagnosis of the ills of American education, I sold all my possessions, paid off nearly all of my debts and accepted a two-year position teaching at a small international school in Morocco that I found while surfing the Web at a subscription site that lists vacancies at K-12 international schools world-wide (www.joyjobs.com). Did I know anything AT ALL about Morocco before I said YES?? No, I did not. Is this ‘jumping off the deep end’ without doing your research absolutely against the advice of seasoned international teachers? Yes, it is.

After I said yes, I began doing some belated research. I subscribed (for not a lot of money) to a Website that allows international teachers to post reviews of schools and directors (administrators) (www.internationalschoolsreview.com). Turns out I picked a pretty good one. Then, I did a little online research about Morocco. Turns out I picked a pretty good one there, too.

We have been here nearly twenty months. My husband and I have really liked it here. That does not mean there are no problems. Administratively, Moroccan government bureaucracy is legendary, and in no way compares to the American ‘get ‘er done’ attitude. But hey – it isn’t America, and a lot of other things work here just fine, thank you very much. Besides, I live and work here with NO US taxes, which is great for somebody who was more than a little upset how all my hard-earned tax monies were being used (read MISused) by US government. Plus, the school where I work provides some very nice perks in addition to the no US taxes thing, as if that were not enough. They paid us a relocation allowance for the airfares to fly over which almost paid for my ticket AND my husband’s ticket (he is a spouse, and does not work here unless they need an athletic coach part-time). They also pay us a monthly housing allowance which covers our apartment rent, our electricity and gas, water and phone, and computer access bills. That leaves only food to purchase, and the expenses for our little, used, plastic car. Neither of these expenses amount to much in a month – certainly FAR less than we were used to paying in the US. They cover our major medical policy for us, and adding vision and dental is VERY cost-effective.

We have decided that we are NOT returning to the US, and if we do, it will be for a short two-year contract there, strictly in order to increase my Georgia teacher’s retirement pension. I will quite happily finish out my ten year’s worth of teaching in international schools. I have learned a few things. Generally, international school teachers do not pay taxes in the country they are working in for at least the first two years, and they don’t pay US taxes because they don’t earn enough. You have to make more than 80 or 90 thousand US dollars a year before you have to pay US taxes, and most international teaching contracts are not paying that much. For this reason, many international teachers stay only the two years at any one school. Then, they move to another, so they can enjoy tax-free status again for the next two years, and also so they get to see a new part of the world – a primary reason many of us choose teaching overseas.

Plus, the costs of living in most of these countries is MUCH lower than in the US. The salary that they do pay you goes MUCH further than it would in the US. My current school pays about US 24,000 annually. Sounds sucky, right? Now consider: no US taxes – an instant 1/3 raise on federal income taxes alone, much less state taxes, sales taxes, and additional assorted fees (which are also taxes). That 24 K is now much closer to 36K. NOW, add in: no housing or utility costs. My former home cost 1,500 per month for the mortgage, and that did not even touch electricity, gas, water, sewage, storm water utilities tax and various other crap. Now that 36K is up to 54K US money, and I did not include the free utilities every month. That surely adds another 6K a year – so, I am effectively earning 60K in US dollar value here in Morocco, where I can buy a week’s worth of fresh fruit and produce at the market for less than ten dollars US.

What’s not to love?

63: The Art of Napping

I LOVE taking a nap. I remember when I HATED taking a nap. When I was in pre-school and we had naptime, I would finagle every which way I could not to have to take one. Now that I am old and venerable, I would KILL to be able to take a nap during the day. Not too sure what I would kill, but killing is certainly on the list.

I have even gone so far as to joke that I will research the studies and present to the school administration empirical evidence that shows that a nap during the workday increases employee productivity by 37 percent (and that most statistics are made up on the spot).

I am sure (anecdotally) that if teachers could get a nap in sometime during the day, they would not be nearly so cranky as they usually are at the end of the workday. Would that not be enough justification for naptime all by itself??

62: Getting OLD

I want to live my life (at least what is left of it) where everything new is a new toy. Fez, my adorable champagne-colored kitty girl, loves checking out the new stuff that mom and dad bring home occasionally. The boxes, bags and totes full of stuff are a rich source of new toys, especially the containers.

I remember my young children were the exact same way. Their first few Christmases and birthdays, the BOXES got played with for a much longer period of time than the toys did. Fez is SOOOO there.

Mojo wanted to buy a pressure cooker for a project he found on the Internet: a homemade liquor still, complete with recipes for various brews. He needed a pressure cooker to get started. A new pressure cooker was prohibitively expensive, so he searched at the flea market for a used one, found one at a good price, and brought it home. It was discovered within minutes of its arrival by Fez, who determined that it was the perfect size for a nice, cozy nap. If you look closely at her picture, you can see that she is yawning.

Mojo almost did not get his pressure cooker back from her. I want my life to be like that. The joys of discovery, the simple things, the ordinary, delightful little stuff that makes each day special (if you will let it). I am ready to LET IT! I am still much too young to be old, and I am going to live like I am a youngster again. Each day IS special, and I am going to live it that way!

61: CAT style

I learn a lot from observing my cats. They happily share my life, and allow me to see interesting bits of their personalities. For instance, cats nap a lot. I respect that. Now that I am growing older, I have discovered the joys of naptime, too. And the best part is that usually there is a fur child who is willing to share naptime with me, too. Sleeping buddies make naptime even sweeter.

And as for love: there is a LOT to learn from cats. I have observed wild cats outside our apartment building, consumed by the search for love (like some people I know). They make a lot of annoying noise searching for that perfect mate (like some people I know). Having found what they think they want, they engage in lovemaking, being as noisy as possible in the process (like…well, you get the picture). Then, he leaves her, or is it that she leaves him??? Whatever, they part company, and go their seperate ways. Just like most of the people I know. MY kitties have all been fixed. They play with their housemates, and have fun together, but they are not interested in the other stuff. They all get along quite happily. Maybe all of US should also be fixed. The world might become a much more peaceful and friendly place, like my fixed-kitty apartment.

Cats practice the “stiff arm.” This is a football move, best viewed on the Heisman trophy. The little guy on the top of the trophy is doing the stiff arm. This is a move to hold off someone else who is annoying you. It is quite effective. The cats use it when a brother or sister comes too close at dinner time. That stiff arm shoots out, and sometimes they literally hold the offender’s head off the food. That’s about it for squabbling: the stiff arm. That should work for people life, too. Sort’ve a warning not to get too close to MY stuff.  Better than guns.

Cats like warm places, especially sunshine patches. I have learned how nice that is, too. I put my lounge chair in a sunny spot on the roof, and doze in the nice, warm sunshine. Usually I wake up with a kitty person in my lap. That’s nice, too!

My cats like meat: fish, chicken, turkey, rabbit, goat, cow, pig, sheep – whatever. They even like bugs, which I think I will skip. I like meat, too. I don’t plan to become a vegetarian. Neither am I exclusively carnivore, either. But then, neither are my cats. They like some strange things. Baked pumpkin, olives, tomatoes, honeydew melon, peas, vegetable soup, cheese, bread, cupcakes – they all have been eaten by one or more of the kitty people in my house. I like all of those things, too. Variety is the spice of life, and my kitties already know this. I am learning!