The Importance Of Drinking Tea
Morocco is a country to be explored - as if by design. The number of hidden corners; the amount of diversity; the culture of hospitality and community; and the strong, continually changing landscape all desire to be discovered and studied. While I thought that my village was at the extreme edges of both isolation and charm, there was always one more hidden corner, one more isolated valley, one more rugged hillside that was more diverse, more distant, more alluring. So, when I could, I always took the opportunity to travel.
The regional trachoma drive gave me a regular opportunity to travel to even more remote villages. Trachoma is a contagious eye disease, usually spread by flies, that causes blindness if left untreated. Prevention is simple with basic improvements in sanitation, usually by removing areas that gather flies. The Moroccan government had instituted a program to saturate the affected areas with treatment and awareness-raising education.
I would join the jeep full of local doctors and nurses and we would go jarring along a road that wasn't really a road to the distant settlements, villages, and nomadic tents of the region. We would set out early in the morning and return hot and tired at night. It would often take two or three days to cover the whole region. The same process was used for the quarterly vaccine drives.
One site was inaccessible by car. We parked next to a sandy, brown hill and hiked 20 minutes on a high path above a river to descend into a wonderful green valley. Another site was a nomadic tent far in the desert, far from even the nearest village. Carpets were laid for us on the sandy ground to rest in the shade of the tent after we'd finished working.
Since there was no health facility in these communities, we sometimes worked from the local sheikh's house. We almost always began the visit with some mint tea, poured in an elaborate ceremony. The villagers came to receive their medication and instruction, along with a bit of socializing. Then we would be served couscous, eaten from a communal plate with our hands, followed by another round of mint tea.
This process was generally followed in every community we visited. Before the actual work began, we always had at least one glass of mint tea with some conversation about the local goings-on, regional events, and how everyone was doing. Then, after the work was finished, we generally had another glass of tea, some more conversation, then we were off to the next community.
It seemed to me that we could get much more work done if we refused the tea. In fact, we might be able to get to all of the communities in a single day. We didn't need to be rude, just a polite, "No, thanks; we have a lot of stops today" should do it.
"Jake, sit down and drink your tea. The villagers aren't even here yet; they just learned that we arrived." Sometimes I just received an impatient sign to sit down and not worry.
At one stop, a few houses were nestled in the side of a rocky hillside surrounded by small herds of goats scraping for what greenery there was to eat. I was delighted to see a generator-powered television and the host served us warm soda instead of tea. As I drank my soda and squinted into the fuzzy green TV screen, I became aware of the silence around me. Our host was sleeping; the rest of the household was trying to watch the television program, just like me.
I quickly realized an important aspect of our visit was gone. While the work was done in short order, there was no real connection between this community and us. I had been complaining about drinking tea before and after our work, but I saw that it helped establish respect and connection in each community we visited. I still have no other memory of that village; I don't even remember its name. I only recall that TV screen and the sleeping host.
As we got up and reloaded the jeep, our host gave us a sleepy goodbye and, rather than try to hurry home, I started to look forward to my next glass of mint tea and lively discussion of local gossip.
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