Today marks a month since I left the Peace Corps. It’s been a strange, yet fantastic month back. Next week I turn 25. More than ever before, I finally feel like an adult preparing for a whole new phase in my life. Within two months of that time, I will have a full time job (likely within the US government) in a new city. I can’t wait to get started. Until then, I’m just working on making my transition home a healthy one. I decided to wait a month to write my reflections. This weekend I finally sat down and wrote it out. Here it is:
I sit here staring up at the stars. The first shooting stars of the night should be come at any moment. There is no moon—making tonight the perfect opportunity. It took me a couple minutes to find the darkest place to sit. A place where the dim yellow light of the city doesn’t interfere with the night sky. I sit there and stare up at the sky.
That’s when it hits me. I don’t know how to tell you what I am experiencing. I can tell you about the stars. I can tell you about the dim light of the city. Hell. I can tell you about the dogs wailing off in the distance—in their eternal fight for more territory. I can show you the mountain behind my city and how tell you how angry I am that it is being mined into the groud. I can point out the mosque I can see from my roof and explain to you that I can hear the call to prayer—every day—five times a day.
But that will only graze the surface. There’s no way for me to paint a picture that properly tells you how amazing this experience is. How difficult it is. How I’ve cried for hours. How I’ve been numb for days. How I’ve been happier than I’ve been in a very long time. There’s no way to put 90% of what I see into words. Sure, I write to you every day in my diary. I tell you what I encounter on a daily basis. But I pick and choose. If I wrote a full account of what I came across every day—I wouldn’t experience as much because I’d be writing for hours on end.
The only way I can get you to understand what I am going through is by bringing you here. My parents are coming in a month. As I figure out what to do with their short time here, I’m hit with a strange dilemma. I want to fit in so much. But I have to accept that they won’t be able to see what I see. I can wander this country without being much stress anymore. That’s not going to be the case with my parents. It’ll be a whirlwind. They will understand my life much better. But it still won’t put them in my shoes.
As I sit here looking up at the stars, I can tell you that I am lonely. And that’s okay. Today marks 1/3 of service. That is a strange comfort to me. I can feel time passing—a necessity to remind myself that I will be back home someday—even if I do not understand where home is anymore. It also reminds me of how much time I have left. A deep reminder that I need to fit as much as I can in to the little time I have left here.
It impossible to tell you about the passage of time. I look back home and see people living their lives. A few things have changed, but life remains the same. Meanwhile, I’ve been sucked into a vortex. The person I was nine months ago wouldn’t recognize the person I am today. I could Early Terminate right now. I could go home. I could see my friends and family. You. I could eat the food I so desperately want to eat. It would be good for a week. Maybe a month. But I wouldn’t know what to do. How do you explain what has happened to you when you can’t even understand it yourself?
540 days from now, I’ll sit out here again. Downstairs my apartment will be bare—picked apart my new volunteers who are just starting out. It’ll be my last night in the apartment. In the morning I’ll hand over the keys. I’ll get in a Grand Taxi and say goodbye to this strange town. Sitting there, staring up at the stars, I’ll breath. I’ll cry. I’ll laugh. I’ll be terrified and excited about the idea of returning to America—much like how I felt in the days prior to coming here. I will have come full circle—ready for my next adventure.
Until then, I’ll enjoy the ride and continue writing.
WARNING: This post has pretty gross images. If you get easily grossed out, I would suggest hitting the back button now.
The Bad Side of Peace Corps Injuries: You are alone when they get scary.
The Good Side of Peace Corps Injuries: The Peace Corps Medical Team is F******* Amazing
When I went to bed last Saturday night, there was a dull pain in my left forefinger. I didn’t think much of it. I just thought I was getting another kinda-ingrown fingernail. I tend to bite my nails, so I am used to that. But my theory seemed wrong when I woke up four hours later in the dead of the night with a sharp pain in that finger. When I turned on the light, I noticed a black pimple-sized bump had appeared. I was exhausted. So I took some ibuprofen and went back to sleep. When I woke up, the pain was back, and I was looking at this:
I had a lot planned for Sunday, so I didn’t end up worrying too much about the bump. I jammed a baggie full of ibuprofen in my pocket (provided by the Peace Corps) and carried on with my day. It was the first day after getting paid (after a month where I didn’t manage my money very well). So I caught up on grocery shopping. I got myself a Panini. Then I went to a cafe to wait for a friend. From the time that I woke up to the time I was done shopping, my little bump was all grown up. In fact, the skin stretched so far so fast that it couldn’t keep up…
Sorry for the gross picture. But that’s what it looked like as I watched my DENVER BRONCOS kill off yet another team on Sunday night. At that point, I had showed off my finger to the other football fans. I haven’t had a real injury in country until this one. Although I wasn’t worried, there is a strange sense of unease. You don’t want anything to get serious because you don’t want to have to go to a local hospital. I would much rather have the Peace Corps Medical Office help me out–for several reasons. So, before going to bed Sunday night, I contacted the medical office and attached these pictures. By nine the next morning, I got a call telling me I needed to come into Rabat to have it looked at. I jumped on a train and was there by late afternoon.
The cleaned it and wrapped it up for me. They put me up in a hotel and told me to come back the next day. They did everything necessary to make sure it wasn’t serious. They made sure the bone was broken (it wasn’t). They made sure the bone wasn’t infected (that idea kind of scared me). In the end, several cleanings and a bunch of antibiotics were all I needed. It’s rather fantastic to have such a great medical team to put my mind at ease.
I spent my night in Rabat hanging out with other friends with other medical ailments. Also, I go to say goodbye to a friend who had to cut his service short. In the end, my short time in Rabat was great. My finger started getting better and I got to hang out with people who m=put my mind at ease (Plus, Amazing pizza and salad at the German Institute). Anyway, two days later, and I am feeling great. The finger looks gross but it is obviously healing.
Sorry for the gross update. =) Kinda.
1. Watch The (Unofficial) Peace Corps Theme Song
2. Get An External Harddrive. I didn’t think about this one before I left. I vividly remember looking at my hard-drive and putting it in the “do not pack” pile. What a horrible decision. Externals are the life-blood of volunteers. It allows us to trade illegally downloaded TV shows, movies, and books whenever we get together. You will also get a rather large collection of workout videos—a necessity to stay sane since it usually feels awkward to exercise in public. I would recommend getting a Terabyte hard drive.
3. Talk to a few volunteers who are in-country. Most of you will find this blog when I post it in the Peace Corps Morocco Facebook group. That Facebook group is your most valuable resource when preparing to come to Morocco. While reading through all the material Peace Corps gives you to “prepare,” you will be plagued with many questions. The best people to answer these questions (most of them) are actual volunteers. I love talking with newbies and getting to know you guys before you come into country. Get to know a few of us and get a few perspectives on some of your questions. Different volunteers will have different answers.
4. Watch “So You Want to Join The Peace Corps”
5. Ask yourself if Peace Corps is right for you. This one sounds strange, I know. But it is important. You spend so much time convincing the Peace Corps that you are the right candidate that you may gloss over this important question. That is what happened to me. I spent the first several months in country coming to terms with a simple question, “What am I doing here?” If you can start asking those questions now, you will be doing yourself a great service (pun intended).
6. Prepare yourself for Boot Camp. I just said goodbye to a volunteer who had to leave because his wife was being medically separated. When I asked him if he would come back, his answer was simple: “Yes. So long as I don’t have to do CBT again.” CBT is Community Based Training. It is the boot camp of the Peace Corps. After your introductory week in Rabat, you will be divided up into small groups (5 or 6) and sent out to different cities for 10 weeks. Your mind will be flooded with language 6-10 hours a day, six days a week. When you aren’t studying, you’ll be with a family that expects you to practice your language with them. Meanwhile, your stomach will be adjusting to the food and water. You will be getting used to pooping in the hole in the ground. Oh, and it’ll be the middle of winter—which brings us to number seven.
7. Think Alaska, Not Africa. This is one motto of Peace Corps Morocco that I stand by. Your training is in the middle of winter. The temperature will always fall to the 40s at night and sometimes fall to the 30s. It’ll will be slightly colder inside than it is outside. We had two days in my training where we actually had freezes. I’m from Colorado. When I took off 9 months ago, the temperature was -10 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought I would be fine with the cold. The truth is, no one is ready for this. The simple fact is Indoor Heating does not exist here. You will not warm up for months at a time. If you are lucky, you will placed in front of a propane heater for a short while. You will love hot lunches. You will sleep under 3 or 4 blankets while wearing three layers…scared that you can see your own breath. Lesson: Pack appropriately…but also:
8. Think Africa. I live in one of the coldest sites in Morocco. This past summer it still got to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Down south, it is common for there to be days or weeks at a time where the high is above 120 degrees. In short, the reality is that you need to find a way to pack for warm and cold. Cold is the priority since that is what you will be experiencing first. By the time you hit your first summer, you will have the language skills to buy clothes. Still, be prepared.
9. Start Following these two Tumblr accounts HOW A PCV PUTS IT GENTLY and KULLYUM. These tumblrs are run by anonymous PCVs. I am pretty sure the Peace Corps administration will hate that I am directing you guys to these, but they are fantastic sites. They show the life of a PCV—without holding anything back. If you don’t understand one of the memes, there are 180 volunteers in Peace Corps Morocco who would be glad to explain. Find one of us.
10. Make a list of all your favorite foods and restaurants. Eat. This was one of the most important things I did prior to leaving The States. Although there are some places in Morocco where you can get western food (mainly Rabat and Casablanca), you will largely have to convert to the local diet. Have your last Frappuccino. Get some hot wings. Enjoy Chipotle. It doesn’t really matter if you put on some weight. You’ll lose most of it turning the two and a half months of training anyway.
11. Stop stressing out about the language. In my final two months in The States, I memorized the Arabic Script and learned a few choice phrases. It was irrelevant. The Peace Corps teaches you from the ground up. You are not expected to know anything when you get into country. Those who already know a bit of Arabic will be in a different training group entirely. So, put the script away. Stop stressing. There is enough language stress coming your way. Now is the time to spend with family and friends.
12. Make friends in your staj. The last I heard, you will incoming group (staj) will be over 100 volunteers. This is the group you will get really close to. The 100 of you will experience things at the same time and rely on each other as your support network. What’s the harm in meeting a few before you leave? Remember: Everyone is in the same boat. We all want to talk—young, old, married, single.
13. Internalize this.
14. Put Morocco on your news feed. There are a lot of interesting news events in Morocco. Some volunteers decide not to read the news. Others follow it closely. I follow it closely and recommend you do too. You will be asked questions. Even if you decide you shouldn’t give your opinion, it is best to know what is being asked. For example, I had a group of kids ask me if I heard about “Danielle” a few months ago. After a few questions, I realized they were talking about the child rapist the King accidently pardoned the week prior. They wanted to talk about it. I let them and faked limited language skills to stay out of the conversation.
15. Pack a computer. Not a Tablet. This is where laws and reality collide. Peace Corps does not require you to bring a computer. But you need a computer. The reason Peace Corps doesn’t REQUIRE it is a legal one. If they required it, they would have legal responsibility if (and when) it breaks. So, make sure to bring a good computer. Tablets are generally not a good idea for two reasons. First, you need to be able to access stuff on a USB. Also, you are required to fill out forms to explain what you are doing in your site. The program is difficult or impossible to get onto a tablet
16. If you are vegetarian, be prepared. Moroccans do not understand the idea of vegetarianism. If you go to a restaurant and ask for the vegetarian option, you will almost certainly get something that has fish and/or the Moroccan equivalent to Spam in it. But that is something you can figure out. The hardest part will be during homestay. Even if you are vegetarian, your family will almost certainly serve you meals with meat. You’ll be able to eat around the meat, but not the meaty juices and whatnot. It’s a difficult endeavor during training. But afterwards, when you live on your own, you can easily live without meat. But be prepared for 3id.
17. No matter where you stand on the digital versus physical debate, BUY A KINDLE. In the years prior to Peace Corps, I refused to buy a kindle. I had my own small little library instead. Unfortunately, that is not realistic. We do have a librarian who lends out plenty of good books, but it’s still incredibly annoying compared to a Kindle. You can download almost any book in the world for free and you won’t have to worry about returning the book to the Peace Corps Headquarters.
18. Spend some time thinking about who you are and how deal with that in a new culture. We all come in with identifiers attached to ourselves. Old. Young. Atheist. Protestant. Jew. Muslim. Gay. Straight. Asexual. Married. Divorced Single. In a relationship. For each identifier you, have, there is a Peace Corps support system (there is a Facebook group for Peace Corps Volunteers over 50, there is a PRIDE group, etc.). If you want to talk to someone about “What is it like to be _____ in Morocco” you will get the opportunity once you are in Rabat. If you want to talk to someone now, post on the Facebook group. If you want a more private setting, message me (or anyone else) and we will direct you to the right people (I am a Volunteer Support Network Representative and am good at not repeating sensitive information).
19. You will hear people reference a 20/20 report about the Peace Corps. Just watch it now and get it over with.
20. Talk with someone who hasn’t mastered the English Language. This is something a friend of mine did before she left on a semester abroad. If you come across anybody who obviously hasn’t mastered the English Language, try talking with them for a few minutes. Be patient and let them try to get out what they need to say. Take note in how they talk around words they don’t know and guess at grammar half the time. That is how you will sound to Moroccans. Most will not be patient. The rest will expect you to know French. Enjoy the ride.
21. Take a step back from politics. This is something you can start now or when you get to country. I left just after the 2012 Presidential Election and the Sandy Hook shooting—so this break from politics has been good for my soul. You will still hear and read about what is going on, but it won’t be the same. Without a basic hookup to the annoying cable news channels, you will get a new perspective on politics and world news. It is a great feeling.
22. If you are a gamer, here’s the rundown. Computers tend to break here. Make sure you have a computer rated for extreme heat and extreme cold. I would even recommend bringing an extra battery altogether. You are about 75% likely to be in a final site where you can get wifi in your house (it is affordable on the stipend provided). It is sometimes fast enough to run Steam. Either way, be careful. It’s easy to fall in the trap of never leaving your house. Try not to get too addicted to a game….and I would stay away from MMOs entirely.
23. Get to know the country you are about to live in for 27 months.
24. Get on the Plane. If you have any doubts about whether or not you should get on the plane in January, get on it. When I left for the Peace Corps, I was about 90% I would Early Terminate. I decided to give it a try anyway. Now it’s been 9 months and I am only getting more dedicated to my service. If you end up leaving, you’ll know that the Peace Corps wasn’t for you and you can start on your next journey.
25. Be okay with the fact that you will be rather unprepared for the work you are expected to do.
26. Buy a Journal. The best gift I got prior to leaving was a leather-bound journal. I dedicated myself to writing in it every day. Living alone leaves us with a depleted amount of resources to cope. Having a journal has allowed me to work out daily struggles. When I’m doing well, I like looking back at past entries and seeing how far I’ve come. Plus, when service is over, it’s going to be one of those trophies of service.
27. Know in your heart that nothing that I tell you can prepare you for what you are about to experience. This experience is yours alone. Your experience will be unique and a result of what you make of it. Have fun with it.
28. Get Excited
This Fourth of July is bittersweet. On one hand, I get to spend it with three other Americans who I am doing camp with. We plan on making American food and watching Team America. On the other hand, The Staj of Love (Morocco 2013-2015) lost its first member. He will be leaving tonight on a medical separation. It’s sad to say goodbye to someone who shared in the struggles of being in a strange new environment. He will be missed.
Our group of 95 is now 94. Over the next 21 months, that number will gradually go down. People get sick. Family members die. Peoples’ lives change in dramatic and unexpected ways. It’s going to be hard to watch any of us leave. But we know it’s going to happen. I’m still in awe of my Staj. We are approaching six months and still no one has left by choice. It seems we all want to put our best effort forward. Many of us will succeed. Many of us will (and have) hit walls. But it appears that we are ready to find ways around those walls. No one here wants to give up easily.
As we celebrate Independence Day in our own way—whether it be eating watermelon or gathering with other volunteers—we are endlessly reminded of America. I’m starting to realize how strange it will be to experience American Holidays in a place that lets the day pass without a second glance. The Fourth. Thanksgiving Day. Christmas. I’ll be lucky enough to have my parents here for Thanksgiving. And Christmas will be a strange opportunity to gather with other volunteers and exchange stories.
On the other end of this equation, we are about to experience the biggest Holiday in the Muslim World. Ramadan starts on July 8th. For 30 days, every person will go without food and water during daylight hours. Breaking fast will families will become the new form of integration for most of us. I’m starting to get excited. However hard it will be to go without American holidays for a couple years, I believe it is more than enough to experience another culture’s holidays in its place.
I’m starting to realize how long 27 months is. It’s hard to believe that we are already 22% done with our service. The time is flying by. I’m doing everything possible to throw myself into my work. There are plenty of difficulties, but they are always worth it in the end. I just hope I can keep this positive attitude through the heat of the summer.
Until next time.
During In-Service Training, there was a session that a large number of our Staj missed. During that session, there was one quick comment that went something like this, “We also have a basketball camp coming up. If you are interested, come see me after we are done.” That was it. I jumped to the front of the room when the session was over. He put me in contact with the man running the camp and told me it started only a few hours after In-Service Training ended.
When our training ended, I jumped on a train with ten other volunteers. Three of us got off in Rabat. We made our way to the camp site. I was blown away by the campus. It is as close to an American School as you will see in Morocco. We met with everyone and were shown our beds. The guys all slept in this big yoga room on mats. Throughout the week, we would have 20 overnight campers in the room with us. Their late night would lead to my gradual exhaustion as the week went on. It didn’t help that the NBA finals were going on at the same time.
Camp started on Monday. We had more than 100 campers. I was assigned to the Juniors (8 through 10 year olds). It was perfect. I love working with young kids. Since I’m not all that great at basketball, my limited knowledge went a long way. We went over basic Basketball skills in the morning. We usually followed that up with art and pool time. The afternoon was reserved for competitions. To my surprise, these youngsters got really into the competitions as the week went on.
There were plenty of highlights from this crazy, tiring, and amazing week. My favorite happened after art class. One of the young girls came up to me and told me “I drew a picture of my favorite coach.” The picture had blue eyes and a full beard. I seriously felt like I could have melted right there. It was amazing. By the time the week came to a close, many of the campers were asking me if I would be back next year. I told them I would try my best. In all honestly, I really want to bring a couple kids from my town on scholarship next year.
This weekend has been all about catching up on sleep. I completely skipped the Cherry Festival in Sefrou. Instead, I went straight home and slept for 13 hours. I now have a good five days to catch up on everything before I head back out to camp (this time for ten days). This summer is going to fly by. I have a vacation to Gibraltar in July and will spend the whole month of August in an SOS orphanage.
I am at 20% completion of my Peace Corps service…and I can feel the time flying by.
Last night was Prom. After a good week of preparing, the committee was able to get the party off without a hitch. All volunteers were supposed to represent either their state or their country. A few people came in red, white, and blue. But most people came as their state. Lots of college shirts. Someone dressed up as the statue of liberty. I wasn’t sure what to wear to represent Colorado, so I showed up in a sweater. A few of us talked about bringing our lighters to represent the fires—but that seemed a little inappropriate.
The evening started off with a few surprises. For starters, the food. This will not sound amazing for anyone who has not been away from American food for long periods of time. But we had real pizza, club sandwiches, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and so much more. Once everyone got their share, we were treated to a special song. Someone from our Staj auctioned off “An original Blues Song of your life” at the Skills Auction. An older volunteer—and my fellow CBT mate—won that auction. After that, we watched a five minutes movie thanking the staff. We crowned our two members of our staff Prom King and Prom Queen.
Then the music started.
Two and half hours of dancing in horrible heat is a bit much. The thing is, we are in the Peace Corps. When you are used to going without showers for long periods of time and are completely comfortable talking about your bowel movements with everyone, it is much easy to feel comfortable in a pool of your own sweat. Plus, it is amazing to just let loose for just a few hours. To top it off, we were treating to a well-organized flash mob.
We are all heading back to our sites tomorrow (or are starting the slow journey back to our sites). That’s why last night was so important. We have been so busy integrating and making sure we are respecting in our societies. That leaves a lot of pent up energy and expression. Having ten days here in Marrakesh—and a prom to top it off—is the perfect way to release that energy. I’ve heard many reasons for why we have this training. To go back over what we are doing here. To give people a break so they don’t ET. To bring the Staj closer together.
I honestly think all of that play into the need for this training.
I may not be going straight back to site (basketball camp), but I am certainly ready to get down to some real work in site.
When I heard there was going to be a Karaoke Night during our In-Service Training, I didn’t think much of it. I need to stop thinking that way. I am always wrong. When Peace Corps Volunteers organize something, they make sure it happens in the best possible way. The same goes for the 3-hour karaoke session we held last night. What’s better, the second round of Assassin was being played simultaneously.
Pack nearly 100 volunteers in a hot room with no schedule, and they’ll make the best of it. Add some music, and it’s a party. Add in the fact that everyone was watching their back nervously, and you have an experience. From country music to several Adele songs to an original song to Queen, I was astounded by how many fantastic voices we have in The Staj of Love. I ended up taking short videos of each of the performances. If I am able to get permission, I hope to post some of these online in the days to come. Especially the “Carte de Sejour” original song—which details how difficult it is to stay legal in this country.
One of the best moments of the night did not involve the volunteers. The room where the evening took place has several windows that overlook the pool. After only a few songs, two preteen girls were at one of the windows, watching us. We are all in Youth Development. So, of course, we told them to come join us. They ended up singing a One Direction song. A little later, their 5-year old sister joined them to sing Gangham Style. When they finished, we gave them a standing ovation and one of the volunteers put the 5-year old on her shoulders. If nothing else, I hope we gave those three young girls a moment they will never forget.
I joined four other volunteers towards the end of the evening in a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. I don’t know if we were any good, but I do know that we sang with passion. We waved our spoons (the Assassin murder weapons) as we sang “mama….just killed a man.” In the end, everyone in the room was singing together. It was beautiful. When the ITunes account jumped to “Another One Bites The Dust,” we just ran with it. The Karaoke Night evolved into a 5-minute dance party. Ironically, as this song was playing, at least one assassination did successfully take place.
As our training winds down, I’m starting to realize just how lucky I am to be here. Here in the Peace Corps. Here in Morocco. Here at a resort. Here in Marrakesh. Here with The Staj of Love. I know the next 650 days will have plenty of ups and downs. But I think I’ll always feel lucky. It’s cliché, of course, but I am in awe of what I have been given here. I just hope I can make the best of it.
The longer I spend with The Staj of Love, the more I fall in love. There is something electric about what we, as a group, are able to create. When you break it down into what each of us can do as individuals, it honestly feels like we can make a difference here. That’s what took me off guard the most when I joined the Peace Corps. The people. We have people from every walk of life. They are all highly educated and highly motivated to make their world a better place. It is incredible to be one of them.
Towards the end of our 10-Day training event in Marrakesh, we will be holding a prom. In order to fund the prom, we held a Skills Auction this evening. I didn’t think much of it beforehand. I did end up signing up to sell my skills as an editor. In the end, however, about 20 people signed up to sell their skills. It turned into an incredible opportunity to get to know the people that make up The Staj of Love. We had massages. We had yoga lessons. We had mural paintings. We had Japanese lessons. We had a tarot card reading. The list was long and incredible. I honestly feel like I know many of the people from my Staj a lot better because of tonight.
But what caught everyone off guard was how intense the bidding process got. I won’t go into dollar amounts, but the amount gathered was incredible. Bidding wars took place on almost every item. After only a few items, it was clear that the atmosphere was changing. It became electric. People became very serious. There was applause and much hooting when a large dollar amount was met. I even got caught up in the emotion and bought myself a personalized slam poem from a very talented young poet. As for my editing skills, I will be helping out on Maters’ Thesis over my Peace Corps term.
Our time at this training is halfway over. We are going to go out with a big bang—prom. After that, The Staj of Love will separate once more. I’ve been cynical about the ability for us to do much good here in Morocco. But that cynicism is disappearing now. With the type of people we are sending out there, I’m convinced that we will bring forth a strong image of America.