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Visiteur (Saturday, 2011 December 31)

December 31st, 2011

Last year I went to Bamenda for New Year’s, which was a good if complex time. This year it seems as though no sincere plans are being proposed. I might just be staying here in village, kicking it with whoever’s still in town. In the meantime, Boris is (still) here, still mumbling along with his favorite English songs, including "I Want It That Way" by Backstreet Boys. So it is that I learned the True Meaning of Christmas: some motherfuckers are in your house and just won’t leave, so grin and bear it. Boris has been generously telling me that I sleep way too much, am weak, or otherwise sowing chaos and discord in my house. I am tired of him specifically and maybe the rest of the country more generically. I want to go home..

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Mount Cameroon (Tuesday, 2011 December 27)

December 28th, 2011

Haven’t written in a while. It’s been busy; since coming back from the Maroc I’ve been back to post, then to a wedding, then, in a fit of senselessness, to Mount Cameroon. A bunch of people climbed it last year, and although I was never really interested in going up there, word on the street was that it’s hell, but worth it for the descent on the other side (lava fields and crap). Apparently dry season is the best time to climb Mount Cameroon, which for Education Volunteers means Winter Break. Everyone else in my stage has either already climbed it or had no interest in climbing it, so I was unable to convince any Volunteers to come with. Instead I went with Boris. Boris has some weird male-ego bullshit going on, and so it was important to him that we prove that we were very strong, and especially that we were stronger than the group of women, including my postmate, who had made the journey a few weeks ago.

I will spare you the details of just how the trip went. I will tell you that we didn’t make it to the top, due to some kind of foodborne illness afflicting both me and Boris. We turned around about the middle of the second day, and managed to get back to Buea, the nearest city, by nightfall. Over the two days of hiking, I got to listen patiently to Boris as he talked, variously, about: how strong he was, how strong we were, how weak I was, (after he threw up) how weak he was, and finally about how strong we were. Then: the singing. Francophones singing English songs generally involves a lot of mumbling and guesswork. "We Are The World" is not improved by such treatment.

One way or another we got down without my stabbing him and then crashed at Allison’s. Allison’s brother and his wife are in town for a couple weeks, and we got down in time for Christmas. When in Rome, make Romanade, so me and Boris joined them for Christmas on the Beach in Limbe. Nice place.

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Boris recently bought a CD of Nigerian music. Cameroonians are often quite eager to play music, sometimes even when other music is already playing. Accordingly, we got to introduce Allison’s family to the latest musical craze — the equivalent of their Top 40 being played to death across the nation — which is to say that if you know anyone in Cameroon at all right now, they are probably hearing this song (hi Lauren’s mom!). It’s called "Chop My Money" by Nigerian band P-Square (so-named because its members are the brothers Peter and Paul). The lyrics do rely a little bit on some cultural background — in this part of the world, purchasing things for someone is a completely legitimate way to earn their affection. The bigger the purchase, the more the affection. "Chop" is Pidgin for "to eat" or "food", and so a girlfriend might legitimately be expected to chop your money. Which seems like a bad thing, but the singer of this particular song is saying that he is completely willing and even eager for the object of his affection to chop his money, because she’s so beautiful and he has so much money ("Cos I get ‘am plenty").

Uploaded: 01 – P-Square – Chop My Money.mp3 (MPEG ADTS, layer III, v1, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz, JntStereo, 4.0 MiB)

I’ve also been reading REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson (thanks Allison!). I’m not quite finished with it yet, and as such I’m a little hesitant to say very much. I will say that in my opinion, REAMDE may sometimes look like Stephenson but is not Stephenson. Which is to say it’s more like Tom Clancy. The Tor.com review says that each Stephenson book is completely unlike the others — which is true to an extent. But there’s always at least one big idea which is to an extent the spine of each work — whether it’s the Metaverse, post-national United States, cryptography, platonic ideals, or gold — and in REAMDE the spine of the work is just a simple adventure thriller. Cryptonomicon is the comparison I keep coming back to — which is also a great yarn, but a nerd yarn, mostly about nerds. In REAMDE the nerds are almost peripheral to the story. Example: "REAMDE" is the title of the book and for a while it seems like it’ll be a plot point. Spoiler alert: It’s not. The writing is also tangibly different — thorough, meticulous, almost plodding. I’m enjoying it all the same, of course — but it’s not really what I was expecting.

Other than that I found myself interacting quite politely and with kindness and friendship to a student at the lycée, which hasn’t happened since the beginning of my service. Guess I had a refreshing vacation.

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Retrait (Wednesday, 2011 December 14)

December 15th, 2011

Well, I’m still on the plane, may as well write up some more pictures.

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Decorating your moto is a time-honored tradition in Cameroon. This one is labeled "the black pope".

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We did a surprise baby shower for Guillaine, who used to work at our favorite bar.

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This MTN ad campaign (half a year old now?) is still a little inspiring to me. Be unstoppable.

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"Detective Whiskey" and "Officer Vodka" are brand names that we find amusing. But nowhere near as amusing as..

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Gin My Lady! Purchased by Allison for a stunning 1000 CFA.

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Bunch of people came to my house to watch the Retirement Dance (Dance de Retrait).

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One of the dancers!

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Dancers in traditional garb. Note the designs on their, uh, skirts. That’s a traditional Bamiléké design.

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One of my students, who borrowed my camera to film the event. The shirt I’m wearing is the coordinated pagne for one of the concerned families.

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Queue de cheval, horse tail.

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This kind of cane is traditional in this dance.

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Here’s a bonus: some pictures of our Thanksgiving in Bangangté.

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Rabat (Wednesday, 2011 December 14)

December 15th, 2011

I’m writing on the plane back to Cameroon. I’m trying to sleep but can’t — the light is on, and unlike last time, I wasn’t sufficiently drunk (and it wasn’t sufficiently late) before boarding for me to just pass out. So instead I’m preparing this blog post, which I really should have prepared and then uploaded when I had access to good-quality Internet.

I took the train, which is run by a national train company, to the Casablanca airport and it was quite pleasant. A transfer at Ain Senaa (am I remembering that name right?) was called for, but I managed to navigate that successfully. I know it’s not entirely fair, since I spent my entire time in Rabat, which is the political capital, and only got to briefly see Casablanca, which is the economic capital, but everything I have seen so far suggests to me that Morocco is tangibly more developed than Cameroon — not to say that it’s completely and evenly Westernized, of course. A volunteer in Morocco named Yanyi snapped at me with a line about how East/West African Volunteers tend to unfairly envy Morocco just based on what they’ve seen in Rabat. So I stared out the window of the train as the landscape rushed past and tried to imagine what she saw when she looked at it. I almost had it, but then a guy walked in and sold me a small can of Pringles for 15 MAD (almost $2), and I lost it. All I could see were paved roads (OK, Cameroon’s way below normal there), streetlights (though come to think of it, there’s a couple streetlights in my village too), and then horses. Why can’t I have horses???

So I’m sorry Yanyi, but I’m inclined to think along the lines of what Quad said: the challenge of being a Volunteer in Morocco isn’t material, it’s cultural. Not to say that all posts are easy and wonderful or that the country isn’t a developing nation, but every indication I was able to acquire indicated that Volunteers lived just a little bit better in Maroc than in Cameroon. More Volunteers have running water in Morocco, and almost all of them have electricity (which is not a given in Cameroon). Women Volunteers get harassed a lot more in Morocco (which is saying something), but that’s definitely cultural, not physical. Not to say that it doesn’t wear you down.. I wavered between daring to go out and find things to enjoy on the town and wanting to just hide in my room and wait to go home, wherever that is.

Here are some more quick facts contrasting life in Cameroon and Morocco for your average Volunteer.

  • Volunteers in both countries get to learn an exotic foreign language. In Maroc: Dirisia (Moroccan Arabic). In Cameroon: French.
  • In .cm, Volunteers drink. In .ma, Volunteers smoke.
  • In Morocco, "grand taxis" (inter-city travel) are old Mercedes Benzes. In Cameroon, taxis are old Toyota Camrys.
  • Morocco has political protests (I saw at least one and perhaps as many as three in Rabat) as part of what has been referred to as "Arab Spring". (Although some of the things that I had thought were protests turned out to be football games.) We don’t have protests in Cameroon.
  • People beg a lot in Morocco. Also, cats are all over the place. In Cameroon, cats are a kind of meat.
  • As an American, local nationals will address you using a distinctive vocabulary. In Cameroon these words include "le blanc"/"la blanche", "whiteman"/"whiteman woman", "wat", etc. In Maroc, corresponding words are "Roman", "Christian", "outsider". I think this basically sums it up — Morocco has a very old relationship with the Western world, and it’s not based on skin color but rather on religion, or something else entirely. Plus, it’s way cooler to be addressed as a Roman.

I definitely saw a lot of wonderful things peculiar to Rabat. Right now I’m thinking about a trip I took where I meandered into the medina and stumbled into a "district" of people typing on typewriters, producing crisp black-and-white Arabic. And I probably could have done a much better job taking advantage of my time there, but I’m happy to be going home, even if the Internet connection won’t be as good there.

Here are some of the things I saw in Rabat, starting with the ruins at Chellah.

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Chellah was originally a Roman settlement and it has a giant wall, but it’s been resettled over the years and there’s ruins even of a mosque inside. It costs 10 MAD (about $1.25) to enter and nobody bothered me while I was there, but that may have been because it was almost dusk. That black smudge at the base of the tower is a cat curled up in the sun.

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This is the "site antique", although I’m not entirely sure what that means. It’s definitely antique.

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That might be a bath-house over there, and there’s a mosque or something. Note the cats.

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Foundations of buildings.

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All the informative plaques were long since faded by the elements.

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This building was locked.

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This is the bath-house, I think.

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A couple of storks have their nest up there.

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Access to running water, perhaps?

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Just on the other side of Chellah appeared to be someone’s property.

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In some places, the ruin had been obviously enhanced.

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Cats.

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At the Rabat American School, there was a holiday bazaar, vaguely Christmas-themed but also kind of not. Here I am depicted with cotton candy. I also ate a hamburger and a hot dog and a few sundry other delicious things.

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I also bought this knife, which this gentleman engraved "Stayin’ Alive". (It is the best I could do at the time. A nice fellow suggested that a better engraving would have been "Surprise!") I paid 300 MAD for the knife, and 180 MAD to ship it to America (instead of checking it in my luggage). The $36 per-diem (525 MAD) is very generous; even eating everywhere I wanted and buying this knife, I still came out ahead at the end of my trip by about 300 MAD.

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This is the school itself (and part of its field). I’m not sure if there’s any academic facility this nice in Cameroon? It was cool to watch the kids, who were your basic generic American mix of kids, plus some of other Western affiliations with charming accents.

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Salé, "Rabat’s bedroom community".

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The Casbah, which literally means "fortress". It’s right on the water (the Atlantic, if I’m not mistaken).

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I was told that all the buildings in the casbah have to be painted blue and white to reflect the colors of the sea.

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On the beach, there’s this lighthouse. There’s a graveyard right next to the beach but I think it’s bad form to take pictures in Muslim graveyards?

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During my week-and-a-half long stay in Rabat, I occasionally got to hang out with other Volunteers. Here’s Tina (who also goes by "Mina", since "Tina" means "vagina" in her local language). I’m also thinking of Jo, Kelsey, Marcia, and a group of gentleman named Russ, Bradley, and Xavier. Russ and Bradley play this game where they refer to each other by their own name, and generally encouraging the exchange of their two names — thoroughly confusing the poor helpless Medevac who’s trying to learn everyone’s name. One of them, probably Bradley, is an ENORMOUS ASSHOLE because during dinner, he decided to throw food at me. Having dirty clothes is much more inconvenient when you’re living out of two bags in a hotel. "What are you going to do, Cameroon, write about it in your blog?" he is reputed to have said.

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Here’s his written confession! "Send [the Organization] your cleaning bill!" What cheek! If you or anyone you know is in Morocco in any capacity, FIRE HIM. Bradley Ogata, if that’s even your real name, I will find you.

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The Bibliothèque Nationale. The only libraries in Yaoundé are privately owned, with the best-known one at the Centre Culturelle Français. I got a tour by one of the employees of the library, although really I just wanted him to leave me alone to wander around a little myself. (I was half afraid he was going to ask me for money at the end, but he just said "Bye bye!" and kind of pushed me away.)

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Just next to the library is a little park, called a jardin. The stairs have a picture of the Spanish "Mona Lisa".

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The jardin provides access to the roof of the library. I think the tower is a book repository. On the top, it’s decorated with Arabic lettering (but not saying anything as far as I know).

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Not sure about these panes of glass.

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If you were going to check out two things in Rabat, I’d recommend Chellah and Tour Hassan, which is a mausoleum for at least one and probably several deceased kings. On the other hand, you have to watch out because unscrupulous Moroccans will try to hassle you if you’re a tourist — stunts like starting to draw on your arm with "henna dye" and then afterwards asking you for money for the service they’ve just rendered. "Even as little as 300 MAD," she said — about a day of my $36 per-diem! I gave her 10 dirham and then wiped this crap off my arm as best I could.

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I gave this guy 10 Ds too but at least he was upfront about what he wanted and for what.

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I didn’t pay the guards anything.

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This is outside the actual tower/mausoleum, which may have been closed that day. (And then I got accosted by a tout. Watch out for faux guides in Morocco.) I didn’t feel like going back the next day.

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An English-Language Bookstore very close to centre-ville. The older gentleman on the right is the owner. I saw Marvel comics!

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The outside of the medina, with the tramway tracks running right in front of it. All these buildings are still occupied. Damn, sorry for the quality of this shot; I neglected to clean my camera lens before I left Cameroon.

Things not pictured: the English-style pub "Upstairs", at which I spent a pleasant 100 MAD; the Chinese restaurant Tianamen Square where I did the same — actual Chinese people walked in and ordered while I ate; the cool shawarma place/guy "Snack Le Broodjest" pretty close to the hotel; or any of the other foods I ate while in Morocco! Google search tagine if you want to get an idea.

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Maroc (Friday, 2011 December 2)

December 3rd, 2011

Nurse Ann apparently got clearance to get my root canal done locally, in Yaoundé, by the same Adventists that drilled the same tooth twice. I politely asked if I could maybe go to any other dentist in the country, since I didn’t have a lot of confidence left in those. Nurse Ann demurred but the next day (Tuesday) called me to let me know I was going to Morocco (the jackpot of medevacs). Then Wednesday she called again to say that I needed to be in Yaoundé the next day by noon because I was flying out Friday. What about my tests, yet ungraded? There’s no time; hurry. So I graded what I could and assembled as much of everything and Thursday morning left as early as I could manage for Yaoundé. Through luck I was present at the gonging-out of Henry, Richard, Stephen, and a few other end-of-service Volunteers. Left that night at 1 AM, with a Driver taking me to the airport and making sure I got onto the plane. Had to drink my last sachet before going through the security checkpoint. Fell asleep in the waiting lounge for the 4 AM flight; the staff woke me up, got to my seat in the plane and pretty much fell asleep immediately again. Touched down 11 AM WAT which is 10 AM in Morocco. Hour-long drive from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital, where I was able to deal with Admin on their home turf.

The drive was a little eerie, as a vague discomfort settled over me. I found myself a little overwhelmed with the look of the place — Westernized in vague outlines, good-quality highways with proper signage, but with Arabic on all the signs. The vegetation is a little different too. I’m thinking of what Allison said, that adjusting to Cameroon was way easier than adjusting to the UK, because in the UK things are always only slightly different. Morocco is only slightly different. I was uncomfortable to be in a Westernized, "developed" country, finding myself oddly homesick for the redness and dusty roads of Cameroon. One of my early posts on this blog, I wrote that life-changing experiences only have as much power over you as you let them, and that historically I tend not to give that power out — but Cameroon has changed me, and the things I consider "safe" and "home" are way different now from when I first touched down a year and a half ago. On top of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to run afoul of some nuanced Islam-ish cultural practice, that I was going to give major offense or violate a taboo that I didn’t know about.

All of this discomfort went away when I landed and met some of the local Moroccan volunteers, passing through Rabat on their way to a training next week. So far I’ve met Luis, a guy named Quad (short for "the Fourth", being Herbert Something the Fourth), Gussy (short for Augusta), Donna, Connor, and Lindsay. Within ten hours I was already fully up-to-date on the Organization Gossip Grapevine, providing me with rumors and opinions about every one of the two hundred volunteers I don’t know in this country.

What I’ve seen of Morocco is wildly, unfairly amazing. Rabat in particular is a real place, with sushi places (!) and even a bookstore where I saw a hardcover copy of McCaffrey’s Dolphins of Pern! By contrast Yaoundé is more like someone trying really hard to make a real place without knowing exactly what that would mean. Whereas the Organization has an "office" in Yaoundé, they have a "campus" in Rabat. The stark contrast between their chic-looking wood cafés and restaurants and our "Wood Bar" with its dented pressed-metal chairs and tables is striking — both because of how much nicer everything is here, and because of the important lesson that the Maroc is culturally "dry" due to Islam — although this appears to be a qualified dryness, and it’s not illegal to sell or consume alcohol, and even "au village" the volunteers here say people are definitely drinking, perhaps behind closed doors. But alcohol’s much more expensive here — last night I paid 30 dh (dirham, about 8 dh=$1) for an American-sized beer — versus 500 CFA, about $1, for a Cameroonian 0.65L beer. Something like 7 times more expensive. Morocco’s a shitty place to be an alcoholic, in sum, and I’ve made a lot of friends by promising to start a "sachet of the month" club, to be repaid in local garments.

Gussy said something about how Rabat is a nice city in the style of a generic European city, but doesn’t have any character. I find this wildly baffling. I’m chowing down right now on a bag of olives and another bag of dates, both of which I bought in the medina (which literally means "city", but actually means the Old City, which is actually actually an open-air market) for presque rien. Does Yaoundé’s ramshackle and aggressive manner give it character? I prefer to think that Rabat’s character is just clean and polite, dignified in a way that Yaoundé definitely isn’t. The local volunteers don’t think I can experience real Moroccan culture or cuisine in Rabat, so I should just carouse and live it up a bit, but I’m pretty sure they don’t appreciate how thoroughly the culture is seeping through the city, like a heart on a sleeve. For them it’s normal, thus uninteresting and bland, that no one call out "white person!" or "foreigner!" to you as you go about your business, whereas for me it’s an exciting mark of serious refinement. The volunteers say that the rest of the country is way worse than Rabat, and I believe it, but I don’t think they realize how good they have it all the same. A large majority of Volunteers here have running water and electricity; in Cameroon most get one or the other, and some neither.

My French serves me well in this country — everyone can speak it, although Dirisia (Moroccan Arabic; sp?) or the variety of Berber tongues would be useful to know too. The accent is pleasant, both a little Frencher in some places and a little lighter, like when Fulbe speak it, in others. And an appalling number of people speak to you in good-quality English, and have no problem with American English. My Cameroonian sense of fashion is a little less useful; no one wears pagne here, everyone wears long sleeves, and there are actual seasons here (we’re coming up on winter). Volunteers in Cameroon very occasionally use words like "summer" as abstract constructions to refer to certain time periods, like the holiday vacation, but more often we just use months, because for us the only seasons that exist are "dry season" and "rainy season". Par contre, here it’s breezy here bordering on chilly, and I’m enjoying the novelty. Dry season can get a little boring so I’m also enjoying the phenomenon of weather, such as rain (last night).

I saw the dentist last night at 4 PM, after having only been in the country for a few hours, and he confirmed the diagnosis of a root canal. That nerve is dead, super-dead, and Dr. Rami decided that we could just start drilling now, and why not skip the Novocaine just to prove that the tooth is dead? So I now have a hole in tooth #5, whence the abscess can drain and be exposed to air and basically get better. My parents will also be happy to know that I am on fucidine 250 mg twice daily. Dr. Rami let me know that the abscess probably stayed mild instead of getting to really incredible swelling because of the doxycycline that I take for malaria prophylaxis. Take your doxy, kids. It’s a wonder drug.

The Organization behaves a bit differently here — there’s no case or transit house, so I’m being put up in a hotel which has adequate, but not incredible, wifi. There’s no Education program — or indeed any programs any more; they’ve changed the whole country over to Youth Development. There are sushi restaurants, plural, in Rabat, and a tram (!), and I expect to be in the country for about a week. Wish you were here.

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