Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Ma-Rockin' Eve

I'm still not really sure how I ended up here, or what I'm doing here, but I'm confident that my time here is not wasted. I know I still haven't found what I was looking for when I left (I know...thanks a lot Bono...).

Not yet, anyway.

I took the picture below while the sun was setting two days ago. My camera did something crazy which I will probably never understand, but I like the result.

Some less ambiguous entries to come within in the next few days.

Happy New Year!
<3 - M

Friday, December 25, 2009

12/25/2009 (No way to avoid being cheesy)

I've been writing this entry in my head for at least a couple of months. I had a nice paragraph worked out on how much you all mean to me, how much I miss you all, how I wouldn't be where I am without every one of you, and how the irony of all of that still confuses/amuses me.

But now that the day has finally arrived, I'd rather just say:

Merry Christmas.


p.s. I bought a hat that plays a crazy Christmas medley. Thought I should share.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Richard, I can hear you asking me if I want some cheese with that whine.

It's been raining for 5 days straight. Which wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't also 40 degrees (max) in the forest. The waterproof stuff I bought after realizing the stuff I brought with me was not, in fact, waterproof, has been failing as well. I guess they don't design this stuff for standing in the rain for 10 hours. I guess they figure sane people seek cover after 1 or 2.

Yesterday was too much for me. It was just above freezing and absolutely pouring. I was soaked to the bone within half an hour. The giddiness that we normally get in such conditions over the ridiculousness of the situation, which is normally good for at least an hour, was gone in about 5 minutes. I could clench my hands into a fists and a small streams of water would run from my gloves. After four hours, I started to second guess whether I could make it the full 10, and on the fifth hour when it started sleeting I told Dave I couldn't take any more and called Chris at the flat to tell him I had to drive home. I've been torn up over this decision for the past 2 days, but I don't regret it because I think I know my limits. And I'm pretty sure I reached them. Dave had better gear (he also hadn't lost his hat in the forest a few days ago like...someone) and was significantly warmer and drier. Still, there's a certain amount of shame that's naturally associated with throwing in the towel, and I haven't been able to shake it off yet.

Dave stayed on to collect a few fecal samples, and I drove to pick him up around 4.30 with a fresh pot of coffee in the passenger seat.

This morning was significantly warmer, but Murphy's law was in full swing. I lost an important focal subject (a jumpy fringe male named George who we hadn't seen in 3 days) after the first 20 minutes when he ran from some other males. Running after a monkey in the rain in the middle of a forest, over rocks and sliding down hills, is a lot of fun, as long as you can keep track of the monkey. My weather station, a little device that we use to get temperature and humidity readings, got waterlogged and broke. The otter box that keeps my palm pilot dry started leaking. I misidentified a focal subject.

To top it all off, the beer shop's been closed for 4 days and we have no idea why.

I feel good, though. Can't say exactly why. But the sun came out for 15 minutes this afternoon before we left, and the monkeys ran up to the tops of the trees into whatever little patches of sunlight they could find and looked down at us as if to say 'we're not can go'. So we did.

'Tis the season.

Rain in the forecast for tomorrow.

A footnote:
Dave just informed me that as of two days ago we have collected 400 monkey poops. 150 of those are mine.

I know you're all very proud.

Soundtrack: TV On the Radio -- Family Tree

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I should really be asleep...

...I can hear the rain outside my window (I can't see it because the metal blinds are closed to keep the heat in) and I'm thinking about how tomorrow will probably be pretty miserable. But then again, with stuff like this happening every day:

...It's hard for any day to be a complete loss.

Still. Brr...

Monday, December 14, 2009

This is so cool.

Pictures, pictures, pictures...

First, some pictures of Azrou:

It was a brutal day in the forest today, around 40 degrees and torrential rain/wind.
Luckily I had the day off. Chris and Dave don't hold any grudges though. They know my time will come.

I snapped these from the roof during a break in the rain.

And now, some more pictures of monkeys.
First, Ben contemplating whatever a monkey contemplates:

Larssen (a young adult male) in splendid repose:

Another round of find the monkey:

Chris and I spent last Wednesday getting acquainted with another forest about 15 kilometers down the road from our field site. It's much more isolated, and is frequented only by Berber shepherds, who have lived in the region since pre-Roman times. Lots of the valleys have small settlements like this one (it's very small and in the center):

I really like it here.

But that doesn't mean I don't miss you all as much as ever.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

nothing to report

so here are some pictures from the office:


Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I was looking at the weather and saw that it was forecasting snow on Friday.
I started freaking out and writing a whole entry on how I wasn't ready for snow, how it wasn't supposed to snow in Africa, how I missed Texas weather, etc...

And then I realized I was looking at the weather forecast for Austin. Friday here is supposed to be sunny and in the lower 60s.

Stay warm, y'all!

Monday, November 30, 2009


Chris and I went to the forest today, and after 4 hours of standing in freezing rain while the monkeys shivered in the trees above us we decided our time would be better spent at home (but not before warming up again at the Hammam). We won't be fleeing the forest every time it gets cold, but 35 degrees and heavy rain/mist is a bit much.

Abrahim (the landlord who lives downstairs) and Eto (his wife) installed the woodburning stove today. It's in Chris's room, which means Chris's room has become the de facto living room as long as the cold weather sticks around, and it's supposed to stick around for a while. We've set up various implements for drying forest gear around it, and have arranged the couches accordingly. It's nice to have the smell of cedar smoke in the apartment. Reminds me of home.

Eid el-Adha ended up turning into quite an affair for me. The family invited me downstairs for lunch, where we feasted on lamb stomach and intestines, as well as kabobs of meat wrapped in fat that they grilled on the spot in the living room. It was incredible. Afterwards they invited me to go on a walk to visit friends/family around the town.

After dropping in on a few houses in Azrou ("Sallam alaykum, la bes, bekher, etc...", we walked to a small village about a kilometer outside of town where Eto's family lives. It was a beautiful area, and something I would have doubtless never known about if I hadn't been shown it. I missed some fantastic pictures of the family and friends due to shyness, but grabbed a few on the way there and back:

On the way back to Azrou

Eto, A nephew (Muhammed), Abrahim, and wee-man (never got his name)

At every stop along the way we were offered tea, cakes, and crepes or some combination of the above (at one we had MORE LAMB).
I had a few hours to rest after we returned home before it was back downstairs for more food.
All in all it was a great holiday. It was not the equivalent of being at home for Thanksgiving of course, but certainly a wonderful accidental substitution. To be honest, the day took a lot out of me. It was difficult seeing people interact with close friends and family while I was completely unable to communicate on any meaningful level with anyone. Dave wasn't there to translate, and while Eto was able to explain who was who, conversations were largely limited to the single-sentence point-and-"see!" variety. Afterwards I felt not only like learning Arabic was all but impossible (many of the words I thought I had learned got blank stares), but like all I wanted was to talk in person with anyone who knew me as well as these wonderful people knew each other. I feel better now after a few days (yesterday was a really fantastic day with the group), but the feeling lingers.

Blake, as per requested, here's what we found on the roof a few nights ago:

All the yummy bits have been removed at this point. The head was by the door. I'm not sure what they're going to do with this.

Friday, November 27, 2009

There is a sheep carcass on our roof...

With good reason, of course. The Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) is tomorrow. Every family sacrifices a lamb (they don't buy it dead, they kill it themselves). From the roof, through the darkness, you can hear the bleating of countless others who await a similar fate. I've got the day off tomorrow and I'm hoping to catch some of the festivities around town. The family downstairs has invited us to dinner as well, so this will definitely be a two-part posting. I took a picture but it's a, so I included a pleasant picture of this morning's sunrise instead.

Take THAT Thanksgiving: 'You buy a bird at the supermarket? We sacrifice a large mammal and let it bleed out on the roof overnight.'

More tomorrow!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And the monkey stares back

The great thing about the monkeys is that most of the time the moment you feel tired and just want to go home and sleep, they do something like this:

This curious infant was just checking me out for a while, and I took the opportunity to casually snap a few photos. The two small infants are the most wary individuals by far, so it was a real treat to have one approach me this closely. The picture shown above is the best one of the series, but I also like this one:

Hopefully during some of my days off I'll still have time to poke around Azrou and/or find something interesting to write about, but unfortunately today have to concentrate on work. I was intending to go to the souk (huge open market -- lonely planet's #1 thing to do in Azrou) but it looks like I'll have to get my residency card squared away instead. Not exactly something to write home about.

I've been planning on posting a 'day in the life of' entry, but it involves me having enough concentration in the mornings to take pictures, which has proven difficult. Sometime soon, though.

I'm going to miss you all like hell on Thursday. I think I'm going to avoid all things turkey-related so as to not remind myself of what I'm missing out on. First big holiday away from home, and I'm expecting a few twangs of homesickness (which have abated in recent weeks). On the subject of holidays, however, it looks like Chris will be here over Christmas, so I won't be as alone as I thought I was going to be. Which is nice.

We keep expecting it to get permanently cold. Last year at this time it was snowing, and didn't stop until late February. It continues to hold, though, and the past couple weeks have been beautiful.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I think this is the best picture I've taken in Morocco

If you don't understand why, take a closer look.

Just this for today I'm afraid. Pretty exhausted. More later this week (Tuesday at the latest).

Monday, November 16, 2009


Find the monkey.

Today I wrote a letter to lonely planet, went to the market, haggled for and bought a guitar in semi-French/Arabic, shaved my head (not bald, just short), went to the market again, cooked dinner (chicken soup with rice and parsley...or was it rice and parsley soup with chicken?), and watched a couple episodes of whale wars with the gents.

Saturday we all took the day off and went to Fez for a change of scenery. The medina was beautiful. A maze of chaotic dusty alleyways lined with shops selling everything from exotic spices to cell phones. It's the only place I've ever been where you are in danger of getting run over by a donkey if you don't pay attention. Getting lost is obligatory. The problem, however, is that it's one of the 'main attractions' of Morroco, and so comes with its fair share of hassle from men trying to tell you that you will have a horrible time if you don't hire them. Some of them can be quite aggressive. One of them ordered me not to speak Arabic because 'it sounded terrible'. It was the first thing in Morocco that was almost exactly what I thought it would be, which was for some reason a bit disappointing. As always, I was happy to come home to Azrou, where the biggest hassle is trying to figure out how to get across that I'd like some chicken, but without the bones. No, I'd like to take the bones with me please. For soup. Ok, just give me the chicken then. Cool.

I've heard the Meknes medina, which is only about an hour away, is equally as cool and involves half the hassle, so hopefully that's on the list of upcoming trips.

The guitar is a cheap nylon string guitar, but it has decent action, good intonation, and most importantly a nice, mellow tone. My fingers feel like they're made of spaghetti noodles after two and a half months of not playing, but I'm confident that they'll start to remember how it works in a week or two.

Back to the forest tomorrow. The group has been acting especially strange lately. Some of the males seem to actually disappear for most of the day, and strange monkeys have been dropping in at random intervals to hassle the females. According to Chris and Dave, today they were spread out over half a kilometer (normal group spread is about 100 meters).
We'll see how it goes. They certainly know how to keep things interesting.

Miss and love you guys.

Soundtrack: Phosphorescent - Wolves

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I've been eating lots of peanuts lately

The shopkeepers salt and roast them by hand on massive stoves. Sometimes they're still warm, which is incredible after a cold day in the forest.

Normally they hand them over in a plastic bag or rolled up newspaper, but today...

...I got someone's algebra homework.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Case in point

This one was started about half an hour after I wrote the last entry:

This is taken from our living room window.

Lost in Translation

A 'Hey, how's it going?' conversation in Arabic typically proceeds as follows:
You: Sallam 'alaykum (Peace be upon you)
Them: Wa 'alaykum sallam (and peace be upon you)
You: La Bes? (All is well?)
Them: La Bes, Bekher? (All is well, everything good?)
You: Bekher (Everything's hunky dory)
Them: Hamdullah (?)
You: Hamdullah (?)

For a long time this 'Hamdullah' thing perplexed us. It typically followed the whole 'La bes, bekher' quagmire, and was said with a smile and a shrug. It was this shrug, I think, that made us believe it meant something along the lines of 'Everything's okay, you know, life goes on, the day to day struggle to live is sometimes hard, but we prevail through a sense of good humor and perserverance'. Or something like that. Also, we noticed that when we said it, it always got a laugh or a smile. We thought we had an immediate 'in'. Some magical Arabic phrase whose subtext was 'I am not a tourist. I am with you. Brother. (Insert a fist bump).'

So we started saying it instead of 'Bekher'. People would say 'La Bes?' and we would say 'meeehhh...Hamdullah (::wink wink, nudge nudge::)'. We never thought to double check its meaning.

Last night Dave finally asked Abrahim what it meant. Apparently it means 'Praise Allah'. So when people would ask how we were doing, we were apparently responding with 'eeeeehhh...praise God (smile and laugh)'. I don't think anyone found this offensive. I think they just thought we were ignorant. Which, of course, we were. We really should have looked it up.

One of the favorite pasttimes of the local children is building small fires in roundabout around the corner from our house. And in the open lot across from our house. Pretty much anywhere, really. No one seems to mind. It's perfectly natural for kids to burn grass and trash outdoors in residential areas. But I guess they've got to do something with their free time, and it's certainly better than say developing a drug habit or vandalizing buildings.

I wonder if it's a catch phrase they use in schools: 'Don't do drugs. Go burn something!'
A sure sign that I'm used to Morocco is that these fires don't worry me one bit.

I'm going to attempt to make pizza tonight (with a side of garlic bread). All of the ingredients below, collected from four different vendors in the haddaf (marketplace) cost around 7 dollars. I'm really hoping that the package at the bottom contains yeast. It smells right, but who knows. Though my haddaf Arabic is progressing, getting that one across was a real challenge.

Work in the forest is coming along nicely. Chris thinks Dave and I are now competent enough to collect usable focal data, which is excellent, as it means there's less pressure on him, but it adds just a little more stress to an already extremely difficult job. Now we're not only doing scan samples every other hour and keeping an eye out for any defecating monkeys, but we're also trying to do 40 minute focals on all 9 males in one day. Give it a month, though, and I'm positive that everything will feel more natural. At least I really, really hope so.

On the monkey poop collection front, it looks like we've had a breakthrough.

I'll give you a second or two to stop laughing.


There's a vocalization that the females do called a 'copulation call' which sounds sort of like your typical monkey grunt ('hoo-hoo-hoo'). We thought was only associated with copulation, but it turns out that they also make this sound when 'making a sample' so to speak. So if we hear this call come from a female and she's on her own, there's a good chance we'll get a sample from her if we can get to her location fast enough. This small and embarassingly simple realization has given us a huge boost in our daily sample collection numbers, and alleviated much of the freaking out that was occuring over our previously short-of-quota daily harvests.

I promise my next entry will have no mention whatsoever of monkey poop. Don't get the wrong idea; behavioral data collection is a huge part of the job too, only it's much harder to write about.

Miss and love you all.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Happy Halloween everybody! Hope everyone has a great time tonight. Send me photos of your crazy costumes so I can live vicariously through you. Or just drop me a line and let me know how things are going.

Miss you guys.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Monkey profile: Oz

While we haven't officially worked out who is dominant, (ie. gone through the data and looked at the frequency of dominant/submissive behaviors exhibited by individuals) Oz is definitely somewhere near the top of the hierarchy. His face is very dark compared to the other males, with a bright white scar which runs from the bridge of his nose to his mouth. While most of the males have similar battle wounds (Artemis lost about half of his upper lip this week in a fight), his especially make him look like a particularly hard individual. The middle finger of his right hand is also stuck in a rude gesture, hence the name Oz after Ozzy Osbourne. He isn't the biggest or baddest of the males, but nonetheless manages to hold on to power through a combination of diplomacy and fearlessness. He also spends a lot of quality time with the infants and juveniles, which is particularly endearing.

In my opinion, he is a noble leader. I'm eager to see how his reign progresses over the course of the mating season.

It took me a while, but I finally decided that If he was a movie character, he'd be Vito Corleone from the Godfather.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ben (Photo by Chris)

It's my first (healthy) day off while Chris and Dave are in the forest. It's nice to have the apartment to myself for the day and to have enough time to check some things off of my to-do list. I took a small walk this morning to a part of town Chris told us was the 'touristy' bit. While it's a nice part of town and it looks like there are a few good places to eat, at the first sight of tourists I turned tail and walked quickly back the way I came. For some reason they made me supremely uncomfortable, and I was happy when I made it back to our small section of Azrou, which isn't included in Lonely Planet's description of town, and so for the most part is blissfully free of anyone else who stands out like a sore thumb. I'm not sure what this behavior indicates, but it worries me.

We've started collecting fecal samples. While one would think it would be a straightforward and simple task, it's actually added a lot of pressure and difficulty to our day-to-day operations. Fecal collection for the purpose of hormone analysis is absolutely integral to Chris's project, and a lot hinges on collecting an adequate number of samples every day. There are 7 females in the group, and in a perfect world, we would collect one sample from them every day, along with one from each of the 9 males every few days. In reality, we've been lucky to get 4 of the females and 2 of the males every day. I'd like to go into exactly what is involved in this madness, but I think it may deserve its own post (you've been warned).

The homesickness has been coming on in progressively stronger waves, and at times is honestly a little unbearable. I've been told to expect this around the 2 - 3 month period, and I knew it was going to happen. But knowing you're going to get hit by a cement truck doesn't make it hurt any less. Needless to say I'm missing the crap out of every single one of you, and if you're among those who have been waiting for an e-mail from me, I apologize. I'm uncertain of what to write about, and my head lately has felt like it's in a thousand places at once. Hopefully I get my act together soon and become more communicative, but in the meantime please don't let my silence discourage you from writing. Every e-mail or letter lifts my spirits a thousand times, and is very, very much appreciated.

My next day off is on Thursday, so expect an exciting update around that time.

Soundtrack: John Lee Hooker

Thursday, October 22, 2009

All better now.

Finally got over whatever it is I had (nausea, fever, headache, exhaustion, loss of appetite, did I mention the headache?...). Spent today in the field and it was wonderful.
Also, I got to drive for the first time today. Wee! Chris and I went to Fez on Tuesday after Paolo left and got the papers squared away. This is mainly useful because now Chris doesn't have to come to the forest with Dave and me every day, and finally makes it possible to have a regular schedule. We're going to try 3 days on, 1 day off per person. This way we can keep at least two people in the forest at all times and don't have to worry about losing the group on weekends and spending all of Monday finding them again.

Love and miss you guys.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Sitting in the apartment feeling useless while Chris and Dave are in the field. Just ate for the first time in 24 hours.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Volubilis (Arrabia: "Yo-yo-wee-lee")

Took a semi-spontaneous trip to the Roman ruins of Volubilis on Saturday. It was the only thing Paolo had left on his wishlist for Morocco, and it was incredible.

Volubilis is about half an hour outside of Meknes, a large city an hour north of us. It was originally founded by Carthaginian traders around the 3rd century BC, but was annexed by Rome in 40 AD. At it's peak, it held around 20,000 people (thank you, Lonely Planet). The Berbers weren't huge fans of Roman imperialism and managed to chase them off, in the appropriate Berber fashion, around 200 years later. It's the best preserved Roman site in Morocco, and has some really fantastic mosaics, standing structures, and foundations. The best part is that you can walk pretty much wherever you'd like. But don't walk on the mosaics. Please don't walk on the mosaics.

I think Paolo felt right at home.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fajita night! Time to right the wrongs perpetrated in Ceuta. Full weekend ahead, so I'm hoping to make it to the haddaf (marketplace) for some photos of our favorite vendors.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What IS this?

Found it in the forest.


Autumn is here

Artemis enjoying the view

Monday, October 12, 2009


I'm sure there are other places on the planet like it. I just haven't been to any of those places. You leave one universe and enter another and all it takes is a walk down a 100 meter no-man's land.

Point: We had to take a cab from the parking garage in Morocco to the border. Dave attempted to put on his seat belt and the driver almost physically restrained him from doing so, amidst many emphatic "No, never in Morocco" mutterings. We cross the border, get in a cab to go to the hotel, and (yes, you guessed it) the driver insisted on seat belts.

Ceuta was, I think, like most other European cities. People zooming around in and on tiny shiny automobiles. Crazy loud euro-pop. Gratuitous PDA. Tapas (yum!). The only difference between it and European cities of course being that Ceuta is on the African continent.

We all suffered from some pretty severe culture shock for the first few hours.

The drive there was also beautiful. I was under the impression that ours were the first mountains you crossed when arriving from the coast, but we descended from the heights of our own Middle Atlas range only to find ourselves surrounded by more mountains (the Rif), quite distinct from the first, which lasted until we reached the sea. All told about a 5 hour drive. It was fantastic seeing more of the country, and I really can't wait to do some more exploring. I think the Sahara might be pretty high on the list, so here's hoping.

Friday night we had an awesome Tapas experience at a wonderful little local place buried in a residential neighborhood, and then went to some clubs. Personally I would have preferred just staying at the Tapas bar for the rest of our time in Ceuta (clubs aren't really, but we had a good night regardless.

We spent Saturday exploring Ceuta, the main focus of which is a giant wall/fortress built by the Spanish, and visiting the supermarket to stock up on tasty treats. The city itself is built on a small peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean, and on a clear day apparently you can see Gibraltar across the water.

We went to a Mexican food restaurant. I don't want to talk about it.

One of the best parts of the trip for me, however, was getting back to Morocco and feeling like things were back to normal again. Which is, of course, ridiculous. If there's anything I like to reiterate about this place it is it's unwillingness to abide by any preconceived notion of normality. I guess that can only mean Azrou is beginning to feel like home.


Sunday, October 11, 2009


Just wanted to post these. A full review of our Spanish adventures should appear within a couple days.

The road we took to Ceuta cut through the Rif mountain range.

Moat! The water flows in from the Mediterranean.

Ceuta and the sea

Moroccan lights