Monday, January 29, 2007

Walking in a Moroccan Winter Wonderland

Ask a local and they will tell you that winter arrived in Rabat three months ago. Not winter as I know it: there’s obviously no snow and, depending on the day, the drop in outdoor temperature is either slight or barely appreciable. For the past several months, more Rabatians than I can shake a ski pole at have cocooned themselves in parkas, ski jackets with fur-lined hoods, pulled on stiletto-heeled leather boots or furry uggs (think Nanook of the North at his sexiest), donned pompom-ed toques, and wrapped their vulnerable necks in colourful scarves to ward off the "freezing" 13-19° Celsius temperatures.

For the past few months I've remained comfortable in t-shirts and flip-flops, although on the odd evening I have capitulated and worn a long sleeve shirt. I used to think that you could spot Westerners by their shortish hair styles, fair skin, and generally stunned expressions, but I now realize that our bare arms and toe-wriggling feet betray us – at least after mid-October. Walk down the street in a t-shirt, and a skirt with bare legs and sandals and the locals will look at you as if you were just released from the local mental health institution on a day-pass. Or off a plane.

But now as we head into February, I am willing to concede that it's winter - not so much because I have to wear a jacket when I go out (which I sometimes do) but because I have to carry an umbrella (which I always do). Because winter in Rabat means rain. And lots of it. However you wish to express it - whether it rains cats and dogs, or pitchforks, comes down in buckets, or rains like a pissing cow (a personal favourite) - it rains a lot here. I was not wholly prepared for that my first winter, but as the adage goes (or should go) "once drenched, really wet" so I consequently brought back from my last visit home a shiny yellow raincoat and a formidable umbrella that can withstand Rabat's torrential downpours, high winds and sour-faced Rabatians (it's plastered with bright yellow happy faces).

I lived a third of my life on the East Coast of Canada in a maritime city which boasts the second largest ice-free harbour in the world. I thought I knew rain, understood gales; I have lived through hurricanes that crippled my province for weeks. But because the Immortals have deemed that my hubris must be reined in on a regular basis, I can now say with no uncertainty that compared to Rabat's downpours, Halifax's storms don't hold water. This in spite of the fact that the annual rainfall is actually higher in the latter; it just seems worse in the former. Never before had I experienced such intense rainfalls - dense curtains of water these - the mood-altering duration of which compelled me to hide the razorblades and delete the Dr. Kevorkian urls from the Bookmarks on my laptop. And the thunder and lightening storms are - forgive the pun - a force of nature that I had never before encountered. They are bright, loud and very very scary. If my mother were forced to endure a Moroccan electrical storm, she would spend it sequestered in a closet.

I have been duly humbled.

Now don't get me wrong: I loathe snow and given an opportunity, I would throw my lot in with Morocco's walking sodden any day of the week. But rain exacts a high toll on people, notable drivers. Simply put, rain (often) turns drivers into assholes. The corollary to this is that rain turns Moroccans into inconsiderate cretins. Their obtuseness and/or complete disregard for pedestrians is vexing at best; during a rainstorm, it disheartens me to the core. Their driving "skills" are no match for wet road conditions nor are they able (either through sheer wilfulness or innate stunnedness) to see the wisdom (or kindness) of reducing their speeds as they pass pedestrians or take corners.

Streets in Rabat are not equipped with sewers that can receive the overflow of rainwater; consequently, streets swell with water which then congregates along the curbs. Generally that's where you'll find me. I've been soaked to the skin in my fair share of car-produced tsunamis; I have stood sopping wet, my umbrella no match for Rabat's horizontal rain, hopelessly marooned on street corners because I can't find a passage across the street that is less than 20 centimetres deep. I can only presume that it is Allah's will that my shoes squelch for 3 months of the year.

Rain in Rabat is a taunting thing. It can start without the sky offering the slightest intimation of incoming inclement weather, and when it does begin, it can go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it starts. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it hails. Then it starts to rain. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it starts. See the pattern? It's insidious, isn't it? And the constant barrage of celestial water makes everything damp. Everything and everyone. Often it is warmer outside than in; it will take a solid week of warm weather to dry out most people's homes and that blessed event is still weeks away. Fortunately, my building is blessed with heat: somewhat inadequate (the heat isn't turned on until sunset and is turned off sometime after midnight) but satisfactory enough. My less fortunate friends and colleagues are forced to watch in horror as their portable electric heaters turn their hydro meters into whirling dervishes; it is some consolation that I haven't had to auction off a kidney on eBay to pay my electricity bill.

Still, I remind myself that if I were home right now I’d be whining about today’s -15° Celsius temperature, the skin-peeling wind chill factor, having to scrape the ice off the car windshield, and shovelling. Which brings us to the snow. Perhaps the drifts aren't as high as when I was a girl, but if there’s enough snow on the ground to compel me to wear winter boots, then I’d be complaining about it. For now, I'll stick with Rabat's moderate temperatures and alluvial precipitation and restrict my bitching to today's blog. Furthermore, I may even resist the temptation to hum a few bars of "rain, rain, go away" and instead hop about in a raindance or two to help thwart the threat of drought this summer. Should there be a third Moroccan Winter Wonderland in my future and if it doesn't fly in the face of Allah's hitheto soggy plans for my feet, I’ll have to bring back a pair of bright yellow rain boots from my next trip abroad. After all, cats don’t like to get their paws wet.

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