The Weekend at Last

It hasn’t been an especially long week, but I found myself excessively tired this morning.  After doing our morning with the young kids, I was glad to be on weekend.  Now I get a day and a half off before doing the intense last week of work here at the orphanage.  It’s been a great month for me–full of reflection and work and writing.  I have come up with several ideas for how to utilize my time in the Peace Corps.  Most of it requires wifi for faster internet.  So September is going to be an interesting month for me–looking for a new house and setting up the internet while I start working with the kids.

Today is the third day of The 50-Day Memory Challenge.  I wrote about last summer–reflecting on the massive fire that burned the mountains just outside my town.

Day Three: Watching Colorado Burn

Working with Special Needs in a Developing Country

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am coming to the end of a ten day camp in Eastern Morocco.  With more than 100 kids between two youth centers, this has been a great experience.  Today, however, opened up a new and rather interesting avenue.  At one of the youth centers, the administration lets two boys with Down’s Syndrome come to camp even though they don’t have the money to pay.  They have been a great addition to the camp.

As the son of a mother who works with special needs, I’ve grown up believing that special needs children need to be integrated with other children.  It helps the kids with special needs socialize while still giving them the care they need.  It also helps the kids without special needs because it teaches them how to interact with special needs kids.  Integration is extremely important.

So, when it comes to the developing world, dealing with special needs is usually a grand failure.  When a family has a kid with special needs, they are usually raised inside the house.  This has many facets to it.  Some families are ashamed.  Others don’t want their child to be subject to the harassment—many Autistic locals are simply referred to as The Local Crazy Man.  Whatever the reason, people with special needs are not integrated well into Moroccan Society.

Today I found a dark side to this divide.  90% of the kids at camp interact well with these two special needs kids.  The problem is three little boys who seem to take pleasure in bullying, harassing, and assaulting these boys.  It started off looking friendly.  The kids would ask the special needs boys to sit next to them.  They would whisper things in their ears.  The thing is, the special needs boys seemed to dislike what was being said and leave.

Later in the morning, I saw one of the boys give the special needs boy a hug.  He obvious didn’t like it and tried to get away.  The boy wouldn’t let go.  It eventually led to both kids on the ground and upset.  Only a few minutes later, I watched as a boy ran past one of the special needs boys and straight-up smacked him in the face before running off.  I ended up yelling at two of the young boys and bringing them to the Moroccan Staff.  The thing is, even the older Moroccans don’t know how to work with kids with special needs so they saw it as nothing more than boys messing around.

On the plus side, I just received an email telling me that I was picked to work with the Special Olympics of Morocco this September.  I really want to learn how to work with Special Needs kids in this country.  I worked with them a lot in America, but the dynamic is very different here.  Something like this could be well worth dedicating my entire service to.  Now if I could only figure out how to access the special needs population in my own town…


Change the clocks, again…this time for Ramadan

IMG_1181Here’s the thing about Morocco.  It has two Daylight Savings Times.  The first one is like most other countries have.  The thing is, it is interrupted by a 30-day second daylight savings time.  This second change is due to the biggest holiday on the Muslim Calendar–Ramadan.  During the 30 days of Ramadan, all Muslims are suppose to fast during daylight hours.  That means no water or food between 5:30am and 7:45pm.  I consider this level of fasting to be a bit dangerous and excessive so I will not be partaking.  But there are several cultural changes I will experience in the days ahead.

  1. First and foremost, I must maintain the appearance that I am fasting.  Eating or drinking during daylight hours is considered very inappropriate whether you are Muslim or not.  Imagine not drinking water for 12 hours and seeing a person walk through the street drinking out of his water bottle.  So, for the next thirty day I will be hiding my water bottle and eating my meals inside
  2. Breaking Fast is the new cultural integration.  I have been told that most Peace Corps Volunteers will be invited to break fast with several families over the course of Ramadan.  I’ve already been invited by one man in this town and my tutor back in Sefrou.  I am excited to eat more Moroccan food over the next month.  It’ll be a good replacement for my own meals.
  3. Daylight hours means ghost town.  Since people need to save energy during the daylight hours, many will stay inside or sleep.  Several towns turn into nocturnal villages–with many people staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning and not waking up until noonish.  This will be an interesting experience.  Since it’s 100 degrees or more every day, this is probably a good thing.
  4. A third clock change at the end of Ramadan.  I feel like I’m never going to know what time it is if they switch the clock four times a year.

I am excited and kind of antsy to experience this holiday.  The thing is, Morocco is 99% Muslim.  By comparison, the US is only about 70% Christian.  In Morocco, this is something that everyone in the country does together.  It is a very community-based event.  I’ll keep you updated as I continue collecting the experiences.

Individual Struggles

In the time that I’ve been in Peace Corps, I’ve come to solidify I thought process that has been growing on me over the past couple years: “Do not judge someone by their actions (or inactions).  Wait until you have the full story.”  This idea grew out of my father who told me this story (which I think is from the book, “7 Habits of a Highly Effective Person):

A man working in NYC just finished an 80 hour work-week.  He gets on the subway, exhausted, and tries to rest his mind as he goes home.  At the next stop, a middle-aged woman enters the subway car with a 2 year old and a 4 year old.  She sits down close to the man.  When the subway starts moving, the two kids start chasing each other around and screaming when they catch each other.  This annoys the man who just wanted a nice trip back home.  He notices that the mother is just staring out the window–not paying attention.  Then one of the boys knocks over the man’s briefcase and keeps running.  This annoys the man so much that he calls out to the woman and tells her to control her kids.  She snaps out of her daze and says, “I’m sorry.  Their father passed away this evening and…”

Ever since I heard that story, I’ve come to realize that there is little value in first impressions.  We all are experiencing our individual struggles.  That is how I am getting through today.  I am one of four volunteers helping run a camp in Eastern Morocco right now.  Tomorrow we will say goodbye to one of the four because his own personal struggle has grown in recent days.  It’ll be hard without him, but I know I cannot judge him for it.  On the same cord, I woke up feeling rather ill today.  In order to be prepared for when there are only three of us, I decided to use this morning to rest and get better.  I hope I won’t be too harshly judge for missing a day (though I’ve come to care less and less about what others think about me).

Then I logged onto Facebook this morning.  I started talking to a very close friend of mine.  She is going through a struggle with her family (the fighting itself sounds like it has a lot to do with judging others when we have no right to judge them).  I did my best to listen because that’s really all we can do.  When someone is struggling, we can listen.  From time to time, you may need to tell someone to snap out of it, but most struggles need little more than a listening ear.  Although, I wish I could be there in person to offer better support.

Thank you Dad for teaching me this valuable life lesson.

Getting into Summer Camp

June 30, 2013Today is the fifth day of a ten day Summer camp which me and there other volunteers are working at.  We’ve done lots of songs.  We’ve taught the kids about eating healthy and exercising.  We’ve done art.  We even did a couple hours on environmentalism.  Now, halfway through the camp, I am really into the swing of things.  Today we are going to the swimming pool with more than 60 kids.  It is going to be crazy.

Today is a special day for me.  It has been since 2006.  It’s a day where I spend a lot of time thinking.  It’s strange how quickly time goes by at times.  Then again, considering how much has changed in the past seven years, it’s incredible how slow time is simultaneously.  Here is the piece I prepared for today.  I hope you like it.

Seven Years Later…

A Bittersweet Fourth of July



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.

Karaoke Night; or How a PC event turned into a great memory for three young girls

Chair in Fountain

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.

IST: The Prom Auction

IMG_3517The 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.

Assassin: Peace Corps Edition

IMG_3507About 30 hours ago, I arrived at a small resort in the tourist town of Marrakesh.  Along with the other 94 members of the Staj of Love (Morocco 2013-2015), we are having our In-Service Training (IST).  Now that most of us are in our own apartments and starting to get used to life and work in own towns, we gather to discuss how far we have come.  More importantly, we discuss how we are going to utilize the next 22 months in site.

But our IST changed drastically about six hours ago.  One of the younger volunteers organized a game of Assassin.  Assassin is a game where everybody is given a target on a piece of paper.  In order to kill your target, you have to touch them with a weapon without anyone witnessing the murder.  For us, the murder weapon can be either a spoon or a sock.  Several dozen volunteers signed up.  At noon, the game commenced.

This game has turned into a fascinating psychological experiment.

At noon, anyone in the game gained an intense sense of distrust.  Anyone could have their name.  People starting going to the bathroom in pairs—unsure if they could even trust their friends.  Walking alone makes it impossible for anyone to “witness” you murder and make it invalid.  The thing is: how do you trust the person you travel around with?

Only half an hour into the game, I saw the aftermath of a murder.  It took place in front of all 94 volunteers at the end of a training session.  It was so subtle that no one could claim to witness it.  The dead assassin handed her target over to her murder.  About ten minutes later, that same assassin made an attempt on my life—by getting me to pick up her pen.  Luckily someone witnessed the attempt on my life—rendering it invalid.  Only ten minutes later, the person who saved my life was killed in front of me.  I would be dead within minutes as well.

This game pulls you in.  You watch your friends fall like flies around you.  All the while, you are watching your own back.  The thing is, none of that can matter.  You have to focus on getting your next target.  This game has only been going on six hours and we are already down to about a dozen assassins.  This game will likely be over before midnight.

Ever since I was killed, it has been fascinating watching the people who have taken this game seriously.  My assassin has gone on to kill again—and has done it well.  Others take the laid back approach; one convinced his friend he was not playing the game and waited till they were alone to take him out.  There have been some very public deaths.  There have been some very private deaths.  The final assassins are all very good at what they do.

I hope it end soon, though.  I’m ready for Round Two.