Back in the Good Ol’ U.S.A.

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:

on Peace Corps

28 Things to do before you leave for Peace Corps Morocco

1.  Watch The (Unofficial) Peace Corps Theme Song

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koUWaAr-itY

 

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.

peace corps what i do

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgN-HBTsxRQ

 

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.

Peace Corps Africa

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

The Heat of Summer

This week-long gap between two camps has been rather weird.  There is so little that I can accomplish in the period of a week.  This week felt like a bit of a waste.  I spent a lot of time thinking–which is why many Peace Corps members fear the Summer.  Too much thinking can make you remember what you are doing here AND what you left back home.  It’s a time where you can figure out what you want to do with your service or pine over the life you left back in The States.  I feel like I’ve gone through both of these at the same time.  I am starting to develop a realistic plan of what I want my service to look like.  At the same time, I see too much of my life back in The States.

On the plus side, I developed a lot of plans during this week.  I worked on my big project–which I hope to start in full force this Fall.  I figured out what kind of books I want to spend my time reading.  I started writing more than I have been.  During the heat of the day, I feel like there is little I can do other than watch a TV show or take a nap.  The think is, the rest of my city does that too.  I guess what I thought was laziness is just cultural integration.  This really is the strangest job I’ve ever had.

Here’s a poem from yesterday.

The Quarry

The Staj of Love: The Story of Zero Early Terminations

Swearing In Ceremony

I am going to write this entry as carefully as I can.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am advised to write about my experiences rather than the Peace Corps itself (as is the case with all government jobs).  But something special is happening here in Morocco—and I feel I must address it.

95 new volunteers came to Morocco on the 16th of January.  This size is fairly large—but that’s because Peace Corps is rather active in Morocco.  On average, each incoming group will lose around 1/3 of their group over the two years in country.  A lot of these are volunteers are lost during the intensive training process.  Many more are lost when the work dies down for a month or two.  In the end, every group losses a significant part of the group.

My group has been in Morocco for 20 weeks.  There are still 95 of us.  No one has left.  We went through the same intensive training and have not lost a single volunteer.  We made our adjustment to our final site and have not lost a single volunteer.  Many volunteers have been extremely sick—but they have not left.  One of our volunteers even lost his father—but he returned to his site after the funeral.

One of the best parts of Peace Corps is that you can Early Terminate whenever you like—no problem.  You will not receive the benefits of being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, but you are not punished or given a “dishonorable discharge.”  This great policy, however, also plagues the Peace Corps.  Without any real punishment, it is extremely difficult for them to curb the 30-33% crop out rate.

So what is happening in Morocco?  I’ve spent plenty of time talking about this subject with other volunteers.  The longer we last without losing anyone, the more we feel like we are becoming part of something special.  That being said, the longer this goes on, the harder it will be for someone to leave if they feel like they need to.  So, I want to let the other 94 volunteers know that none of us will look down upon you if you find the need to go home.  Our mental and physical health comes first.

All Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers are about to hit the difficult season.  Summer in Morocco gets so hot that many cities and youth centers shut down for an extended amount of time.  However, the PC administration in Morocco seems to have listened to the troubles of past volunteers.  We were brought into country in January so that we would be somewhat integrated before this downtime.  Plus, we have plenty of opportunities to continue working through the summer.

But what I really want to point out is the people.  We refer to ourselves as “The Staj of Love.”  With 13 married couples and several volunteers with significant others back in The States, we have far fewer single volunteers than most incoming groups.  But what I find most impressive is the way our group has bonded.  We have built such a support system amongst ourselves that each person seems to have an outlet and a mentor.

I, for one, have severely considered the idea of Early Termination twice so far.  Both times I have talked with fellow members from “The Staj of Love.”  They helped me change my perspective.  They helped me realize that I am here for several reasons that I had never realized.  Although I have only become close to a few members of our group, I have witnessed and heard of the support that we have been giving each other—and I can’t help but be impressed.

I know our “Zero Early Terminations” headline will soon disappear.  There are too many circumstances.  Difficult situations in site.  The death of family members back home.  Unforeseen circumstances.  I know that we will not go our full 27 months without seeing someone go home.  But that doesn’t matter.  The fact is, we are about to go to a training that will bring us to five month in-county.  Five months in Africa without losing a single person.

I am proud to be part of “The Staj of Love.”

A Day in Peace Corps Morocco

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I’ve come to realize that most of my writings revolve around specific events.  However, in order for you to understand those events in a larger context, you need to understand what daily life looks like in Morocco.  In order for you to understand, here is my average Wednesday—the strangest and fullest day in my week.

I wake up every morning around nine in the morning.  I may live on the edge of town, but it is busy enough to wake me up.  I live in an apartment complex over a builders’ supply store.  I often wake up to the owner negotiating with customers.  If his voice doesn’t wake me up, it will be the fishman.  Every two or three days, a man will walk up and down my street at eight in the morning, yelling, “Aji!  Hut!”  This means “Come! Fish!”  His voice has never failed to wake me up.  I often go out and watch him.  A lot of the wives in the neighborhood buy from him (my town is known for having fantastic fish).  I enjoy watching the feral cats try to steal the small leftovers.

I make a simple breakfast every morning—usually just eggs and cheese and olive oil.  Since everything is so expensive here, my only form of cooking is by turning on the equivalent of a propane tank which is hooked to a portable stovetop.  After I finish, I turn off the propane so as not to die a couple hours later.  I eat breakfast while watching a TV show (currently, I am watching Community).

When I’m done, I go to Souk.  Souk is the weekly market.  In Bhalil, it is Wednesday.  I walk down the tall hill by my house.  Overnight, the dirt field by the taxi stand turns into a massive market.  I squeeze to get into one of the two small entrances.  I go mainly for vegetables (a kilo of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, or oranges only cost 3 dH….with is about 30 cents).  Once I stockpile a week worth of vegetables and fruit, I trek back up the hill back to my apartment.

Lunch usually consists of a vegetable stir-fry.  I tend not to eat meat on my own because I don’t like buying meat here….I don’t like watching them kill the animal I intend on eating.  Plus it saves me money.  Anyway, I tend to watch a movie over lunch hour because I don’t have anywhere to be until the late afternoon.    After the movie is over, I gather up my things and head off to the Youth Center.

I got an apartment far away from the Youth Center so that I have to walk each day.  After lunch, I make the long trek to the other side of town.  I usually show up early so I can set up for my English Class.  Class starts at 4:00.  Students usually don’t show up, to be honest.  I’ve had a couple show up a couple times, but I’ve had a hard time getting these classes going.  I usually stop class by 5:45pm.

I get to the Cyber nearby by 6:00.  I have a regular class there.  This is my group of BACH students.  BACH is the program that all youth have to go through in their final two years of high school.  I help them build their English.  Usually the lesson evolves into more of a cultural exchange (because I am not really here to teach English…I’m here to encourage student to become active in their community).  This class usually ends around sunset—which is 7:30 right now.

I stick around the Cyber and talk to Adil (the owner) and some of his friends.  Meanwhile, I use his Wi-Fi to download movies.  We talk about everything t from movies to religion.  He’s become one of my closest friends in town.  After a while, I head back home and piece together dinner.  I watch a movie or a couple TV shows.  If I need to plan for classes or do any Peace Corps work, I do it.  If not, I read or relax.  I’m usually in bed around midnight every night.

That’s a busy day.  There are plenty of days that don’t have that much.  Those days usually involve a couple hours at the Cyber Café.  Some days I want to get away and I head up to Fes.  The one constant is that every day has strange complications that make it extremely difficult to define a “normal day.”  I hope this explanation helps you understand life here.

Getting in the Grove

The more time that passes living alone, the more I figure it out.  In the first week, I didn’t have a good place to read or write.  Yesterday, I made space.  I ended up reading quite a bit of a fantastic book–The Good Earth–and actually wrote for the first time in a while.  I’m slightly confused about what came out, but I hope you enjoy it all the same.  I always return to poetry when I have pent up emotions I need to ventilate.

The next forty days or so promise to be crazy.  I sat down and wrote out a schedule of events.  I don’t have much free time starting this Wednesday.  There are trainings, festivals, events, and much more.  I like being busy.  At the same time, I am starting to get somewhat of a schedule for work.  What more can I really ask for?  I needed a way to stay busy and I am starting to figure it out.  Now if I could just find a place to buy a desk…

Pacify

 

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.