Preparing for the Slow Season

April 7, 2013

The past ten day have changed my attitude and approach to Peace Corps and living in Morocco.  As I adjust to living on my own, the changes are abundant.  The biggest change is my daily patronization of the local cyber café only a few blocks from my house. Suddenly, I am now seen and known by most of the men in this city.  This café is one of the biggest (and had great coffee and internet), so there are always a couple dozen men here (women who frequent cafes are regarded as prostitutes, so you will rarely see a woman at a nice café).

The thing is, coming to this café has changed my life in other ways.  The ability to access the internet has allowed me to access any movie or TV show that I want.  I am now slowly working on a Bucket List goal of seeing every single movie on “1001 Movies to See Before You Die.”  With about a movie a day and 680 days of Peace Corps left, I honestly think I can get through about half the list.  At the same time, I am also watching new TV shows (currently Joan of Arcadia, next is Community) and reading several new books (I’m finishing “The Good Earth” before reading the “Matched” series so I can talk with my mom about it).

These two simple changes in my life—plus a constant source of coffee—have made life so much better.  Before, my life was little more than “Time for Work” and “Free time.”  Now I have a better understanding of how to dedicate my free time.  Having constants in life is very important.  I realized that back in The States last year.  I’m glad I figured it out quickly here.

The only part of my daily schedule I haven’t quite figured out is work.  I made it to final site at the end of the semester.  I thought this meant that a lot of students would come to me to try to solidify their English skills.  It does not.  They need to prepare for the English Exam.  What I teach is not the same as what the schools teach.  Here, more importance is placed on “past perfect” or “Present participial.”  I have to admit, I couldn’t care less about the functions of language.  My focus is about getting the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and grammar straight so they can have meaningful conversations (or writings) in English.

So now I’m comfortable in site, with a strange feeling.  I will have little work to do over the next three months (aside from integrating into my community).  School is about to end and the summer kills most activities around here.  Since I am finally comfortable here, I am coming up with plenty of ideas about how to engage the youth.  The thing is, using these ideas now would be a waste.  I need to develop these ideas and put them in my back pocket for September—when everything picks back up.

In the meantime, we have trainings.  We just finished a three day training that took place at my house.  It was fantastic.  Going around with eight other volunteers in my site gave me much more confidence here.  I now know where to buy a few more items because others wanted to cook very specific meals.  At the same time, it is always relaxing to spend time “acting like an American”….meaning not being hyper-vigilant every moment in the day.

We have two more of these events in the month ahead—including a ten day training at a resort-like hotel in Marrakesh.  I’m excited to have these trainings as the slow season starts—but I can’t help but wonder what the rest of summer will look like.  I’m doing everything in my power to pack it with random events—like a trip to Spain and possibly a concert.  If I can make it through the summer of nothingness, I can make it through two years.

The Mental Stress of Service

“The far darker side is the mental effects. For all intents and purposes, you will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt of being in your entire life. Sure, you will be a ‘member of your community,’ insofar as a 20-something foreigner with a very limited knowledge of their language and even less understanding of their cultural norms can integrate into a community which is physically and emotionally homogeneous. Let me say again: You Will Cry. You will cry, you will want to curl up in your empty bed and scream for the ‘simple’ things in life. You will want somebody to hold you, to just wrap their arms around you and pull you into them. There will be days when you feel like you are empty inside, there will be days when you feel like going nuclear and destroying anything you can get your hands on, including your neighbors, students, colleagues, and yourself.”

–Shawn (http://shawngrund.blogspot.com/2011/05/dark-side-of-peace-corps.html)

I’m starting to find that having a host family was a way to force us as volunteers into a routine.  In the week since I got my own place, my routine has broken down in a few places.  On top of that, I no longer have a reason to bottle up my emotions.  This weeks has had some of the highest highs and the lowest lows of my service thus far.  It’s hard to predict what will happen tomorrow–or this evening–and that makes everything either really entertaining or really annoying.

Like yesterday.  I had a difficult day in class and was supposed to follow it up with a second class.  As I walked to my Youth Center, however, I realized that would not be the case.  Instead, there were two armed guards at the two entrances   The governor for the region was inside, giving a speech to the educators of the regions.  I waited in an office nearby and ended up meeting with several of the educators afterwards.  Take my word for it: every day takes a severe turn from what you expected.  This is why all former volunteers tell you not to have any expectations.

The lonely part is terrifying.  I can visualize my best case scenario and worst case scenario back home….and I wouldn’t be as lonely as I am here.  I have friends nearby, yes, but my daily life is in this town.  This town where I don’t honestly understand 95% of what is being said.  Where I’m having trouble starting my work.  Where social interaction is important and it’s hard to be included if you are an outsider.  It’s all very frustrating.  In the end, I force myself to do things everyday.  Leave my apartment at least twice a day–at least one of those times should be long.  I force myself to buy something–something small so I have some interactions.

The thing is–it’s okay from there.  All you have to do is go out.  People who know you, want to talk to you.  People who don’t know you stare, and sometimes try to talk to you (in French .   But it gets you out of your head.  That’s the most important thing.  This has been a difficult week–and I think it will only get harder.  And better at the same time.  Only time will tell.

100 Days Into My Peace Corps Experience

Fes

100 Days In

100 Days Down.  700 to go.  The past week has changed everything for me.  It started with Spring Camp.  That gave me the first experience of interacting with kids in Bhalil.  Once camp concluded, I got to work on some of the most important aspects of my time here.  First, getting a house of my own.  As of yesterday, I have the key to my very own beautiful apartment.  I will be spending the week ahead furnishing it and moving in.  Secondly, I am filling my schedule with classes.  I already have three English Classes scheduled in the week ahead.  I am likely to get a couple more over the next couple days.  Most of them will be reoccurring.  This will be the core of my service.  All of my projects will branch out from the kids that I teach.

Starting to be successful is changing a lot.  There have also be recent changes back in America.  It has all brought me to a strange understanding.  I now know what I am doing in Morocco.  I now know the full extent of the sacrifice I made by leaving America.  The combination is strange.  On the up side, my feet are planted firmly in Morocco and my service will benefit from that.  On the down side, there is no going back to the way things used to be.  I knew Peace Corps would change my life.  But what surprises me is how it changed me.

The emotional roller coaster that was 100 days of homestay is over.  It made me realize how many emotions can be active at the same time.  There was one point when I almost exhausted my vocabulary for emotions and honestly felt all of them simultaneously.  It is exhausting.  However, considering I was an anxious wreck only six months ago, this is a great change for me.

The other aspect is Love.  I have come to realize the true meaning of love here.  In all forms.  I have never truly understood how much I love my family…because I have never had to miss them this much.  It is a great thing to realize.  The same happens for friends.  I coming to realize who I was close to because they were around…and who is honestly a good friend (and how I can be a better friend).  As for romantic love, that is a whole other can of worms.

I am ready for the second 100 days.  I know that I do not know what they hold.  That is clear.  I barely understand what tomorrow holds.  But that is part of the beauty of Morocco and Peace Corps.  You never know what is going to happen…but is usually turns out for the best.

Like being ushered into a random house and given cake, peanuts, and tea.

Morocco is awesome.

The Fishbowl Effect

Sad T-Rex

Sad T-Rex (Photo credit: iJammin)

There’s a pain that comes with Peace Corps service.  At least it accompanies the first 100 days of service.  I can’t pretend that it won’t also be a part of the next 700 days, but it will be less intense.  It’s something that Peace Corps warned us about.  When they told us about it, I didn’t understand.  How could I?  Now I’ve been through it.  Now I understand.  Now…how do I explain it?

Peace Corps’ description: You are always “on.”  In the Peace Corps manual, you will find a list of Core Expectations.  I have number five circled: “Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance.”  Add that on top of the reality that you are the only American in town, and you’ve got yourself quite the fish bowl.

This hit me hard today.  I wanted to do some writing.  I needed some inspiration, so I looked through some old pictures.  The pictures stabbed me with memories.  Beautiful memories of a time that feels so long ago.  Whenever I get like this, I like to go for a walk.  It clears my head.  But I can’t go for a walk.  My host family will ask where I am going.  I’ll tell them I want to walk.  They’ll tell me it’s not safe with all the dogs out at night.

How do you deal with this?  My host family has a puppy.  I thought I would love it.  The thing is, that little dog reminds me of my two dogs—who died within two months of each other right before I left for the Peace Corps.  But I can’t be sad.  I can sneak into my room—because that comes across as antisocial.  And I can’t cry.  Having someone ask questions would only complicate the situation.

But…I move into my own apartment in 13 days or so.  That’s the small light at the end of the tunnel.  It’ll be nice to have a whole apartment rather than a small room.  It’ll be great to control my diet.  It’ll be nice to not be expected home at a certain hour.  Most of all, I can go for walks whenever I want.  It’s this beginning part—these first 100 days of service that have worn on me.

I know there’s a part of me that will always be “on.”  That part of me will either learn to adjust or sigh a long awaited sigh of relief when I finally hit American soil in 2015.  That’s such a strange thought.  The idea of being here two years is realistic now.  The thought of returning home is so…surreal.  All the food.  The flat sidewalks.  Movie theaters.  Strong Internet.  Not having trouble understanding someone in a basic conversation.

I feel like I’m in a constant state of over-alertness.

I need a vacation.

The Signs That Guide Us

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle (Photo credit: agirregabiria)

I believe in signs.  I’m not entirely sure when this started.  The change was gradual.  I used to laugh when people talked about a sign guiding them to their purpose.  Now, those signs are what guide me.  It is this belief in signs that makes me agnostic.  I could never be an atheist.  The more I live, the more I see that chaos is not in the cards.  Although my jump to religion will likely never take place, I take a great comfort in the signs that I decipher from time to time.

Yesterday started off fuzzy.  After almost two weeks in Final Site, I felt useless.  I was making progress on certain things—like finding a house and integrating.  But tangible things were not happening.  I do not have a daily routine that gives all humans a sense of purpose.  So, when I woke up to a text message from a new friend, I jumped at it.  The moment I left the house, someone called my name.  After a five minute conversation, I suddenly had a second place to teach youth in my community.  The sign was a good one.  I was right to get up and do something this morning.

I got in a cab and headed to Sefrou.  For more than an hour, we walked on a website.  The hope is that this website can be a place where youth submit their written work.  But, yesterday, it was something to fill the endless hours in the day. It filled the hole.  In return for the help, my new friend helped me find a cord to my Kindle.  I don’t think he realizes how grateful I am for this cord.  Without the cord, I was down to 3 physical books to read.  With the cord, my Kindle opens a world with more than a thousand books.  I will be able to read to my heart’s content during my time here because of a single cord.

I also got pooped on by a bird.  I’m not sure how to interpret that sign.

By getting an early start to the day, I was ready for anything.  I spent the afternoon at my youth center—starting the process to sign up students for my English Classes.  I signed up five kids and left the signup sheet on the wall.  To be honest, it doesn’t matter how many people sign up.  The sheet has two purposes.  First, it lets me figure when the best time to hold classes is.  Second, it gets students excited about the class.  They will talk to their friends and word of mouth will fill up my classes.  Most of them will not come regularly…but some will.

That’s all that matters.

Market day in Sefrou, Maroc

Market day in Sefrou, Maroc (Photo credit: See Wah)

 

 

Cultural Misunderstandings & Moroccan Integration

English: Extension of Moroccan Arabic (Darija).

English: Extension of Moroccan Arabic (Darija). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I need to talk about yesterday. Out of nowhere, yesterday became my biggest step forward with regards to integration.  At the same time, I made a mistake that will likely come back to bite me.  All in all, the day was busy and worthwhile.  I went to sleep unsure of how to interpret everything…but that is happening more and more here in Morocco.

The day started normal.  I woke up late.  I walked around town.  I read at the park.  That part of my routine is set.  It’s perfect for what I want to accomplish here.  I need to integrate, so walking around daily is a must.  I meet at least one new person a day.  The reading in the park is something that came out of nowhere.  After being told that “I’ve never seen a person in Bhalil read in public,” I decided to do it every day.

When I got back, my family whisked me off to lunch at my mother’s parents’ house.  I’m starting to get to know everyone in the family.  More importantly, my Host Uncle has taken a liking to me.  He tries harder to communicate with me than anyone I have met here in Morocco.  After lunch, he took me to his barbershop.  At first, I thought I was going to be forced to get my hair cut.

Turns out I was wrong.  The barbershop is kind of a local hangout.  A dozen people came and went throughout my three hours there.  I met several friends of the family.  We had conversations about language, indoor heating, money, and clean energy.  It was fantastic.  Later, the English teacher at the local high school dropped by.  We had a long conversation and suddenly I have another counterpart in my work here.  Those three hours at the barbershop integrated me as much as a week’s worth of walking around town.

I headed back to my family’s house.  As we ate, the conversations somehow turned to how long I’m spending in Morocco (two years).  That quickly turned into whether or not I would marry while in Morocco.  This isn’t the first time a conversation has started about me being single.  Back in Bouderham, it was an ongoing joke between the postman and I.  So when the topic came up, I gave an overenthusiastic, “No, no, no, no.”

This is the first time the subject came up with my host family.  They were confused why I was so adamant.  It’s not that I’m adamant against it…it’s more that I can’t see it.  Back in America, I really wanted to have a house and a good job and be more like 30 when I started a family.  If my ideals play into it—religion, writing, etc..—I just don’t see marriage anywhere in the picture during my two years here.

Problem: How do you translate that into a language you’ve been studying for two months?

I missed my opportunity to explain myself.  Instead, my host mother asked me if there was a girl back home.  I said no.   My mother decided my “no” was a little sheepish and interrupted it as a “YES I DO!”  Before I could do anything about it, the conversation flew by me.  I was only asked one more question, “Is she still studying at University in America?”  Unsure of what else to say, I just said yes.

So my host family things I’m halfway to engaged.  This being on the heels of me suddenly feeling single again.  I want to set the record straight with my family…but bringing it up would be inappropriate.  The best I can do is set the record straight if they bring the subject again.  But what am I supposed to say?

Back in America I would explain it eloquently, “We never officially dated, but we were defiantly together.  We never officially broke up, but we are definitely not together anymore.”  In Darija, I will inevitably sound like a bubbling idiot.  I live in a culture where dating is considered inappropriate.  I quickly discovered that it’s not as much of a big deal as I was led to believe.  Still, it is quite a strange situation.

Every day here is unexpected.

I love that.

But it’s exhausting.