We climb mountains on Sundays. We share everything as we hike: our water bottles, our chocolate bars, our hats, our frustrations, our joys. When it’s time for lunch, we sit in a circle and pass around containers of rice and olives and cucumber salads and fish-stuffed sandwiches and home-blended juices until everyone gets a taste. Sometimes someone packs surprise wafers for dessert.
We chant our team affirmations on the summit, first in Darija and then in English. “We are strong! We are confident! We are leaders! We are brave! We are a team!” Then we take a minute of silence to muster up all of our frustrations from the week. On the count of three, we scream at the top of our lungs in a barbaric roar releasing the weight of our stress. We laugh, we cheer, we snack, we skip back down the mountain.
We’ve broken social barriers and introduced youth to the power of the great outdoors and adventure. This team of 10 has taught me the power of community. The power of supporting one another. The power of screaming on mountaintops. The power of picking up and trying again and again and again. The power of breakfast picnic potlucks. The power of transforming spaces of bounds and limits into spaces of endless opportunity.
Ilham (AKA “moosharima”), Club President
“Moosharima” literally means “criminal” but is also slang for “troublemaker.” Ilham wore white jeans on one of our first hikes that inevitably gained grassy green and sandy brown splotches. She embraced the stains and decided to use her pants as a giant napkin by adding chocolate smears after a mid-hike slice of cake and ketchup-flavoring-smudges after munching on trail chips. By the time we returned, her napkin-jeans were a collage of colors and flavors. “Moosharima,” her mom sighed upon seeing her.
Ilham takes pride in the fact that she’s lazy, and she even claims that she would rather stay at home, watch YouTube makeup tutorial videos and straighten her hair rather than venture into the woods. In the middle of every hike, she begs me to drag her up the mountain and argues that she will never in a million years climb Mt. Toubkal, the tallest mountain in Northern Africa, that we plan to summit in June. Nonetheless, Ilham (and her freshly straightened hair) show up every Sunday morning.
One time I was explaining to Ilham that I go through phases of disordered eating (I think we all do, honestly). She stared back at me like I was an alien. I ate four pieces of cake when I got home from school today, she boasted, And I’ll never feel bad about it. Ilham, our club president, is an unapologetic individual. Brutally honest, too. Every time I wear my oversized linen button-up shirt, she questions if it’s my grandpa’s. The world needs more confident, bold, uncensored Ilhams. Thank goodness our team has one.
Mohammed (AKA SiMo, “See-Moe”), Vice President
One morning I tried to ask SiMo if he remembered to pack his food for the day’s hike. I accidentally said “maqla” (frying pan) instead of “makla” (food). He smiled back at me, so I assumed all was well. Then SiMo called out that he had to run back to his house. He forgot to leave the key for his younger brother, he claimed. When he met up with us again, the handle of a frying pan was sticking out of his backpack. He thought he was responsible for bringing one, thanks to my bad accent. This might sound absurd, but picnics are exquisite here in Morocco. Frying pans aren’t out of the question. Despite the entire team exploding of laughter and making fun of me (the Darija-dud), SiMo laughed at himself but refused to throw insults my way. It’s okay, he explained. I talk funny too.
SiMo is a true team player, committed to respect and positivity. He’s on constant litter-patrol and always carries extra plastic garbage bags. His backpack usually becomes the team trash sac by the end of every hike. SiMo loves racing, and the two of us often sprint ahead of the group. He’s trots like a mountain goat and always wins. Your backpack is just heavier than mine, he encourages me after my every loss.
Chaymae (AKA “Shoe-shoe”), Mt. Toubkal Trip Leader
Chaymae is a twig and stands barely five feet tall, but nothing about her personality is meager. Her parents originally forbade her from our club because it would distract her from her house and school work, they argued. Despite the stigma and risk of challenging elders in Morocco, Chaymae confronted her parents with a prepared speech and won the club debate.
As the oldest of her siblings and the only daughter, Chaymae runs her household, which is perched on top of a hill 1.5-miles outside of town. On Sunday mornings, she wakes up before dawn to bake bread, hand wash laundry, squeegee the floors, prepare breakfast and pack her trail lunch. All this without running water. All without complaints.
Recently Chaymae told me she can’t sleep at night because she’s so excited about our upcoming trips. She’s intoxicated nightly by visions of us driving away from our town while singing with her friends and cruising towards new adventures. “Hadshi 7sn mn n3s” (it’s better than sleep), she grins as she recounts her visions.
Nassiyma, Chefchaouen Trip Leader
Nassiyma has filled more pages than all of the other team members combined in her club journal. They’re flooded with pressed flowers, doodles of vines with hearts growing on them and a rainbow of pen colors. A true creative soul. She can pick 50 wildflowers and craft them into a thick, sturdy flower-crown in less than ten minutes. I imagine her selling these at stateside music festivals.
She loves dancing and singing. Even though females in our rural town aren’t even supposed to laugh loudly in public, Nassiyma challenges the rules by belting Shakira lyrics, waving her arms around, pumping her shoulders and adding a bounce to her step while we’re hiking.
Nassiyma is passionate about romance and is constantly trying to dig into my love life. One time I told her that I think our relationships within our club are more fulfilling than some romantic relationships. “BSSA7?” (REALLY?), her jaw dropped, and she skipped away to scribble in her journal.
Selma, Team Secretary
Selma is Nassiyma’s more reserved and poised, yet just as creative, older sister. She doesn’t belt Shakira lyrics on mountaintops, but she does recite them in perfect English.
A couple of weeks ago when friends from the states were visiting, she unleashed her secret vast English vocabulary, and now we converse almost exclusively in English. Lately she’s been calling me “cutie” and “my dear.”
This past weekend, she spontaneously gave a presentation about our outdoor club at our town’s first-ever female leaders conference. Her speech was in Arabic Fusha, so I didn’t understand a word, but her strong, steady and rhythmic voice captivated me nonetheless. “I’m proud of you!” I congratulated her afterwards. “My cutie,” she piped back, “thank you.”
Chaymae, Sessions Leader
Ilham, Nassiyma and I met first met Chaymae while out for a hike last fall. We stopped by a well to refill on water when a nearby guard dog barked viciously to alert the village. “Huwa ghayakulna!” (he’s going to eat us!), Ilham shrieked, but Chaymae came to the rescue, comforted the pup and greeted us with a toasty loaf of fresh bread.
I often jog by Chaymae’s village tucked behind our town’s small mountain. There are only six houses there. The floors of each are made with cow dung and straw. Chaymae is usually perched on top of a boulder as I trot by, looking after her mom’s flock of sheep. I find her in the same spot on my way back to town, but with a loaf of bread in hand. “Bsa7a” (to your health), she tells me as she holds out the bread like a racing baton to send me on my way.
I can’t resist if the bread is still hot, so I crack open the steamy loaf while trotting down the mountain. That bread, that trail, those freeing runs and Chaymae’s endless generosity are things that make my heart ache when imagining life without them next year.
Yaakoub, Team Cheerleader
Yaakoub is the older of my two Moroccan brothers. We have a classic sibling relationship. If you saw him, you’d think I could crack him in half, but somehow he always wins our daily wrestling matches. If I’m lucky and manage to pin him down, I don’t let him go until he admits that I’m strong. He used to always yell back “nti d3iyfa!” (you’re weak!), but recently he’s switched. “Safi khowedriyati, nti qweeya!” (Fine, my sister, you’re strong!).
He bluffs the persona of not having a care in the world, but underneath it all he’s gooey and inquisitive. About once a month, the two of us escape on a really long sibling walk. We discuss religion, gender roles, respect, mental health, romance, politics and our goals and dreams. We decided that when I’m 90 and he’s 83 we’ll meet-up in a tiny Moroccan mountain village and live the last decade of our lives simply by scavenging off our land and playing a lot of cards.
Apart from our outdoor club, Yaakoub leads the library and art club which is filled with 18 squeal-y fourth grade girls who love making paper fortune tellers. About half of them are named “Fatima Zahrae” (a common Moroccan female name), so Yaakoub calls them all “Said” (a common Moroccan male name) instead. All the squeal-ers have crushes on Yaakoub. Probably because he rocks at making paper fortune tellers.
Recently, Yaakoub and I have been holding each other accountable to gratitude journals. Every night we each write three things we’re thankful for. At first, Yaakoub would groan every time I’d remind him. The other day he showed me his notebook and the over 350+ things written in it (over 100 more than me). They range from things like “chocolate cake” to “my belly button” to “my best friend’s honesty.”
Hind, Local Outings Leader
Hind was a regular in my English classes last school year, but then I weirdly didn’t run into her for nearly six months until she knocked on my door one late night in November. I didn’t recognize her at first because she had started wearing a headscarf. “Twhechtk” (I missed you), was the first thing she said, and then she proceeded to ask if she could join our outdoor club “3afak, 3afak, 3afak” (please, please, please).
During a hike last month, Hind stumbled upon a patch of wild marijuana when she wandered off for a nature-pee. She returned looking like a marijuana scarecrow, bunches of it sticking out of her backpack and all of her pockets. I’m going to sell it, she joked, so I can buy you all bakery treats.
Hind’s grandparents own the land that makes up our town’s forest, yet Hind had never stepped foot in it until last week. People are unnecessarily terrified of the forest. An oversized tree-patch is a more fitting name actually. It’s perimeter is only a mile round, and the bottom halves of the trees are charred and barren from a forest fire so you can see right through it. A couple of shepards regularly roam the trails with their cows and sheep, and a surprising amount of turtles wander about in the spring. I asked Hind what she thought after her first forest venture. This place feels like home, she beamed back.
Abdelbari, Team Mascot
Abdelbari is my younger Moroccan brother. He’s always yelping and howling like a wild animal as we hike. “Hooohooooweeehooooooo,” he rejoices as he flaps his arms around. “Woooohooooweeehooooo,” I hoot back, paired with an essential arm flap. His last name is Tair, which sounds similar to the Darija word for bird (“tir”), so I call him my little bird.
We haven’t had too many deep personal conversations, but he’s constantly sticking up for me. Just today he overheard me telling Radia that I was worried people are judging me for wearing skinny jeans. Abdelbari interjected from the other room, if their brains are that small, then they’re bad people! Thanks for keeping my spirits high and my arms flapping, my lil bird.
Radia, Team Leader and Heart-Warmer
I could (and should) write a novel about this woman. Radia’s role with our team reminds me of that woman in Nutcracker performances with the enormous hoop skirt that all the children absurdly emerge out from under. Radia always lets us hideout close to her heart.
“Ntuma kmmlin wladi” (you’re all my children), she reminds us. “Ana maqola m3akum 7it nutma azziz 3liya” (I’m strict with you because I love you). She yells at us all when we’re too loud, and then she’ll whip out a surprise cake that she woke up at 5 a.m. to bake for us. Strict, but soft.
Last week we passed by a group of schoolgirls while out for a morning stroll. Radia heard the crinkle of a wrapper, so she approached them and demanded a bite of whatever they were eating. The girls were petrified, confused why some random lady was trying to steal their chocolate. Radia cracked into a chuckle. After some small talk, she learned that the girls live in a tiny mountain village. “Beb dyali daymon mftu7a” (my door is always open), Radia promised as she encouraged them to stop by for food, water, a nap, anything at all.
“Nti 7mqa” (you’re crazy), I joked with her after. She agreed, but then expressed that people in our town judge for interactions like that. They even belittle her by gossiping about how she has the mind of a child. But who else will befriend the youth if I don’t? she questioned. “Hna fariq” (we’re a team), she asserted. “Ana wyak w shebab kmmlin” (me and you and all the youth). “Kantmnna” (I hope so), I responded. “Ana mtekkeda,” (I’m positive), Radia grinned. “Miya f miya” (100 percent).
We’re a team. We’re sure of it.
A huge roaring THANK YOU from our team to everyone who supported our fundraiser! Thanks to you all, we now have the funds to cover the costs of our upcoming trips! In order to make sure these kids continue adventuring beyond my time with Peace Corps, Radia and I are working to make a free camping gear rental system for youth in our town. If you have any lightly used (or new) tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and/or hiking shoes/boots that you’re willing to donate, please reach out. My dad is visiting from the states the first week of April and is kind enough to stuff his bags with adventure gear. THANK YOU (SHUKRAN) from our team to you! We’re yelling it off mountaintops.
Fantastic images you’ve shared of your Moroccan friends! Proud to be a part of the project through our donation! I’ve shared your post on the RPCV Madison Facebook page; it will pop up tomorrow morning.
How can I get in touch with your father? I have at least one sleeping bag and probably other camping gear to send along. Ok to PM me.
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