First, the Medical Part
Back in February, I wrote about my ongoing struggles with Tirana-induced eye irritation (blepharitis) and said that I was about to be Med-evac-ed* to Morocco so that I could see a U.S.-level ophthalmologist and get better eye drops for keeping the condition under control. Prior to joining the Peace Corps I always thought that the term “Med-Evac,” referred only to emergency medical situations but it turns out that relocation for any medical condition — even something as basic as irritated eyes — is considered a Med-Evac. But, I still feel self-conscious about using that term — even with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) — because people always gasp, grab my arm and say “are you alright?” when I say I was Med-Evac-ed.
*I have no idea how to form the past tense of the word Med-evac and am not sure it’s even a verb…
Morocco is one of Peace Corps’ regional medical hubs. There is high quality medical care there and two Regional Medical Officers (RMOs) who shepherd Med-Evac-ed PCVs through their visits with specialists. My RMO was Dr. Viktor, a Moldovan-Bulgarian who was formerly a doctor in the Russian army and has been a Medical Officer for Peace Corps for nearly 20 years. He is an excellent doctor and a truly compassionate person and I enjoyed getting to know him, listening to his interactions with each of the specialists we saw (who knew that I still understood French?) and hearing his advice about how to manage blepharitis. It turned out that while he was a Medical Officer in one of the -stans (Tajikistan? Turkmenistan?) he had also suffered from blepharitis and, because he didn’t care for it adequately, ended up needing surgery.
Ultimately it turned out that — more or less — I went all the way to Morocco simply to get eye drops! Morocco, the U.S. and many other countries have eye drops that are significantly more advanced than those in Albania but Peace Corps wasn’t allowed to give them to me without specific orders from an approved ophthalmologist. The eye drops, which are gel-based have made a huge difference and, although I will need to manage the blepharitis while I am here, day-to-day life is much more manageable and comfortable.
Now, the Fun Part
It’s hard to imagine that I spent seven days in Morocco just to get eye drops but the wheels of the U.S. government move very slowly. Most days I ended up with significant amounts of free time and was able to use them to explore — as long as I didn’t leave Rabat. I have heard that Rabat is one of the less exciting tourist sites in Morocco, but it is so much more colorful and exotic than Tirana that I appreciated it tremendously. It was fun to dust off my French and to have the choice between French and Moroccan cuisines. I was on a Peace Corps per diem and had to eat modestly, but it’s possible to eat well for little money in Rabat. The tagines were great — it’s pretty easy to love stewed meat with cinnamon and raisins — but my favorite was b’stilla, aromatic shredded chicken wrapped in crisp phyllo and covered with almonds, cinnamon and some powdered sugar.
Impressions of Rabat
I’ve written in the past about Tirana as an overwhelming mish-mosh of streets and buildings, many of them half-built. Some areas of Tirana befit a capital city but mostly Tirana doesn’t feel particularly orderly, attractive, or elegant. Rabat, on the other hand, while unlikely to be one of the world’s great capitals, does feel like a showpiece. It’s a walled city with wide boulevards, palm trees, plazas, fountains and a sense of order. There is a unity to the way the buildings look and the latest architecture is attractive and appealing and blends well with the old architecture. There are civic buildings, high-end retail stores, museums and historical sites and it’s all well labeled, neat, trimmed and clean.
I was particularly impressed with the city’s tram system: modern, easy to navigate and super-quiet.
The Ruins at Chellah
Just outside the Rabat city walls is Chellah, a historical site that includes both the ruins of a Roman city (40 AD – 1154 AD) and an Islamic burial site dating from the 1400s. A colony of storks lives there (you can see their nests at the top of the minarets) and they make an unusual, incredibly loud clacking noise.
The medina is the old walled section of Rabat, a huge outdoor market full of narrow winding streets jammed with people, and stall after stall of all types of merchandise: everything from clothing, shoes, and cell phone accessories to meat, nuts, spices and grains. Wandering around, it’s easy to get lost or to have difficulty finding your way back to something that caught your eye earlier. One area — by far the most colorful — is full of artisans selling textiles, leather goods, ceramics and metalwork. I found the textiles – scarves, table linens, blankets, rugs – particularly beautiful and was amazed by the sheer volume and variety of what was offered.
Near the medina – perched above the Atlantic – is the Kasbah des Udayas (alternatively Casbah des Oudaias), a walled fortress dating from the 1100s. Outside, the Kasbah is a majestic piece of architecture and inside it’s a quiet residential area full of winding streets, mosaics, and cats galore.