Eat Well. Travel Often.

"HAPPY LIFE IS JUST IN FRONT OF YOU"

Real Peace Corps

We joke and we kid, but it’s true here in Morocco and probably across the Peace Corps board: There are two things that must happen at least once to every volunteer in order for him/her to have truly experienced PC Morocco. 

1) You have to crap your pants. 

I think I’ve written a lot about my GI issues in the beginning of my service. Alhumdullah, I haven’t had anymore serious bouts in well over a year, so we can move on.

2) You have to have gotten thrown up on. 

I shouldn’t generalize, but I will for a moment: Moroccans are notorious for how easily they become motion sick. For a country that probably has more unpaved S-curve ladened roads, than nicely paved roads, you would think that the people would have stomachs of steel, but a lot of them do not.

I’m not sure what the fine print is specifically on real Peace Corps rule #2, but I had my backpack thrown up on once (culprit unknown) and I hoped and prayed that that was the last time I’d have to clean up someone else’s puke from off of my property. 

Welllllll, I’m sure by now you know where this post is headed. I wish I had a picture to accompany the following but that would have been rude of me to take it, and anyway I’m sure you’re thinking how thankful you are that you’ve been spared a sickening sight. I still have two more months left here though, so don’t exhale just yet. Bwahahaha!

Anyway, so today I’m coming back from basketball camp in Agdz, which is a small town about an hour south of me on the road to Zagora. I’m sitting behind the driver, and this is in a grand taxi so as usual there are two men sitting in the passenger seat up front, and 2.5 males sitting next to me in the back seat. I say 2.5 because one was my friend Karsten who was seated directly next to me, and next to him was a young boy maybe 12 years old or so, and his father seated next to the other window. 

As we pull out of the city, Karsten and I finish up our lunch, sandwich and fries. I notice Karsten sharing the end of his fries with the kid sitting next to him. “Aww, so cute!” I think to myself. So we’re going along, we’re going along and the road becomes windier, and windier. I’m lost in thought listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance album, and staring out of the window at the mountainous terrain we’re speeding by. Next thing I know, I see Karsten looking over at the other window, where the little Moroccan boy is splayed across his dad’s lap with his upper torso out the window, his head supported by hands cupping either side of his face. 

My first thought was “Oh, how cute; he’s enjoying the warm air and scenery too!” Then I spied, what looked like dirty water droplets on the lower right portion of the window. “Hmm, I wonder where that water came from?” I thought. “Weird.” And then the father starts repositioning his legs so that the son can occupy the position next to the window instead of being spread out across his father’s lap. And then Karsten turns to me and smiles briefly and knowingly to still-completely-oblivious-me and quickly puts his head down between his legs.

"What the heck is he doing?" I thought to myself, as I stared down curiously at my friend. And then it hit me! I looked over at the window and took note of the kid’s position: head in hands, tilted downward, and a quarter of his body hanging outside of the window… Oh, yeah! That kid is puking!

But oh oh oh! Woe as me! The slow one, with the even slower reaction. As I’m realizing what’s going on, the kid lets it rip, and the fries and whatever else he’d just eaten came spewing out like Vesuvius. And me, the poor unsuspecting Pompeii, got a nice light sprinkle of everything on the right side of my upper face as it caught in the stream of air circulating from the window through the car.  

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t a lot of puke, but it was still puke—someone else’s puke— that was on my face. And it was still repulsive. At that point though, there was really nothing to be done except to wipe it off, and take cover just to be safe. And that’s what I did. I kept my head down, for almost the entire rest of that taxi ride. 

Uhhhh…only 62 more days to go in country…

Words I Try to Live By

"I was hoping to reduce terror by putting myself in terror’s path as often as possible."

I just read this statement in an article about a man who similarly shares my fear of public speaking. The words resonate with me on a really personal level though because I’ve grown and learned so much about myself over this past year, and really over the past almost two years that I’ve been in Morocco. I definitely do not feel like I’m the same person as I was pre-Peace Corps as I am now. And I like it.

I can’t think of anything that’s brought me feelings of “terror”, but there definitely is a laundry list of fears that I had when I started out as a volunteer in March 2012: Traveling alone, speaking Arabic and not being understood, eating mystery meats like sheep heart and stomach fat, being robbed, missing my train stop and getting lost, and losing someone I love are a few that come immediately to mind when I think about it. Fortunately, the first five fears have been realized and overcome, usually with a funny story attached. But unfortunately, losing someone special while overseas is a fear that is in the process of being realized, and adding to the woes is the fact that this, like so many other things, is out of my control… 

So, to be brief, with this year wrapping up, and another on its way, I just want to cheers to the fears that have been overcome this past year, to those friends and family that have seen me through the tough times, and to all the promise and unknown that is to come next year. I’m looking forward to 2014!

For Mr. Mandela

A few months ago I was mulling the idea of taking a trip to South Africa. I thought the first two weeks might be a nice time to go. In the end, though, I decided against it. I can’t remember why exactly. 

How emotional and memorable it would have been to be in South Africa to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela among his people. Instead, on the day of his passing, I was at a youth center in Agdz, a small town about an hour south of Ouarzazate, participating in an impromptu cultural exchange session with my fellow volunteers David, and Carter, and David’s friend Jack, and about 30 young Moroccan adults. 

Probably the two most memorable questions from this session were: 

"Are American women happier than Moroccan women?" and "Why is America a great country?"

These are the type of social/political questions I both love and avoid: They have the potential to blossom into deep and meaningful discussions or “teachable moments”, or they can be likened to quicksand to the unsuspecting volunteer, and the more she struggles to backtrack, the deeper in it she sinks. 

So, with the help of a translator I answered the first question as diplomatically, honestly, and briefly as possible:

I said that that is a very general question, but that women in the U.S. are happy that they have the freedom and usually the support from their families, including their fathers and husbands to choose to be independent and to pursue their education, career, or marriage and family life, or all of it if that is what they choose for themselves. I used myself and my situation as a young, single female living and working in Morocco as an example..

And I said that everyday more and more women in Morocco are sharing in that happiness because more and more people, including the king, are realizing that education is important for women here too. And that both countries will continue to improve equality for women in the future. 

As for the last question my other three fellow Americans and I collaborated. We decided to begin with: America has many shameful parts in its history that cannot be overlooked, and despite and yet because of that, America is a great but imperfect country today. 

And from there our answer consisted of four parts:

-The horrific treatment of Native Americans, and the agricultural benefits early Americans reaped from the land.

-The atrocities of slavery which allowed the economy and the country’s infrastructure to flourish. I also brought up how the majority of African-Americans like myself are unable to trace our family history back to an original country, and how because of that history I’m entitled to call myself an American just like anyone else. 

-Jack talked about the U.S. coming out of both World Wars with its cities, infrastructure, and economy intact, and how that gave us and advantage over Europe and Asia. 

-And finally we talked about our amazing Constitution which has stood the test of time, and guaranteed our freedoms and independence, and how because of that all Americans have a responsibility to try to make the country a better place. 

As we shared our perspectives I saw a lot of head-nodding, and note-taking. We even got a huge round of applause after the session was over. That night was a really wonderful and memorable highlight of my Peace Corps service, and that it happened on the day Nelson Mandela passed, makes it all the more special. I can’t think of a better way I could have honored and celebrated his life and legacy. Thank you Peace Corps. Thank you Morocco. Rest in peace Madiba.

Photos courtesy of DMD:

image

Clockwise from left: Carter, me, Jack, and our gracious translator.

image Group photo.

A Tale of Two Kindnesses Pt. II

After Thanksgiving festivities in Rabat I was up and out the very next morning, determined to make it back the eight and a half hours to Ouarzazate so I could have the evening and next morning to rest and organize my thoughts before beginning the life skills and leadership program I’m piloting at the local university. 

Because I had a train to catch, I didn’t have time to eat breakfast. I figured I’d arrive four hours later in Marrakech and then grab some junk for the following four hour bus ride from Marrakech to Oz. I downed the rest of the soda I hadn’t finished the night before, ate two leftover sugar cookies, and finally headed to the train station where I bought my ticket and a bottle of water, and set off on the train south. 

Well, after buying my ticket I only had seven dirhams left in my pocket, so I figured I’d need to go to the ATM as well. It would be tight to manage that and buy food, and make it on the bus in the span of fifteen or twenty minutes, but so long as the train arrived on time, I’d probably be okay.

As I write this, I think retrospectively how cute it is that after 21 months here I still think that there is a possibility that any train in this country will arrive on time. So, needless to say, the train did not arrive on time. I did not have time to go to the ATM and then buy something to eat. I had just enough time to run and catch the bus just as it was pulling out of the station. My last seven dirhams I wouldn’t be able to spend on some peanuts at a rest stop, because I needed at least six dirhams to take a taxi from the bus station in Ouarzazate to my house. 

So when I finally made it to Ouarzazate, and grabbed a cab to the city center, only to realize too late that I’d left in the back of the cab my purse with my passport, credit cards, Moroccan ID card, and the pearl earrings my mother gave me, I was tired, physically fatigued, and starving. 

I stood there in the spot where the cab dropped me off willing the passenger that was sitting next to me to see the purse and tell the driver to turn around. I stood there for at least twenty minutes going over and over in my head the sequence of events that got me to my current situation, and what I was going to have to tell the people at the consulate when I went in to apply for my second passport in three months (The other was stolen in August. Check the blog archives for that post.). 

Suddenly I was just so overcome with stress and emotion that I started crying. And that’s something I rarely do. I called my regional manager, and she suggested I go directly to the police station with a Moroccan I could trust. At this point it was 7:30pm and dark out. I called my landlord who is one of the sweetest men I know here. He was by my side in less than ten minutes. As we walked to the police station and I told him what happened he calmed me down telling me not to worry and that the cab driver was obliged to bring the purse to the police. In my head I agreed with him, and I was thankful that this had happened in my city, in Ouarzazate, where people are generally very honest, and not in Marrakech or Rabat where I would have just be S.O.L. 

After we finished at the police station, Mohammed walked me back to my house and insisted that I take 500 dirhams from him since I didn’t have any money or ATM cards. I thanked him profusely, my heart brimming with gratitude for this man, and for the kindness and compassion that is so common among Moroccan people. 

The next morning he called me and we went to the police station. Fortunately, the cab driver had found my purse, and given it to the police. I got my purse back fifteen hours or so later with everything inside. ALHAMDULLAH! Thanks be to god! I was so so so happy and thankful to Mohammed, the police, the cab driver, and everyone involved that I’d gotten my bag back, and that people had watched out for me and helped me when I needed it the most. 

This is why I love Morocco. I know there are good people in the US, but they are few and far between, or sometimes just too busy and wrapped up in personal things to care about doing good for another just for the sake of doing it. That is rarely the case in Morocco, and I am so thankful and humbled by these people, and stories like mine that I hear from other volunteers. 

I admire much about the Moroccan people, and I can’t say enough how lucky I am to be having this experience, especially in this country where I never expected to end up. I’m so fortunate, and appreciate each day.

A Tale of Two Kindnesses Pt. I

In the spirit of the holidays I’d like to share two stories of the uncommon kindness that defines the Moroccan people, and has inspired me to be a better person, friend, family member, and volunteer.

—-

About two weeks ago a friend of mine, Martha, had a birthday. I’d told her I wouldn’t be able to make it, but at the last minute I decided to show up and surprise her. I’d never been to her town before, and I knew it was going to be at least a days travel from where I live to her house. Still, I thought that if everything went smoothly I would arrive in her town before nightfall. 

Well, one thing happened, and then another thing happened, and so on and so on. I finally made it to her town, but it was night time, and cold out, and again I had no idea where she lived because I’d never been there before. I called her boyfriend, Jared, with whom I am really great friends with. He’d told before that he could direct me to her house, and he almost did, except when it came to the last piece, the street she lives on and how to spot her house, we had some difficulty. 

I walked up and down the barely lit street, looking at door after same door, unable to determine from Jared’s description which one was Martha’s. Down on the corner I noticed a man watching me from the outside of his auto shop. Still on the phone with Jared and trying to figure out which door to knock on, I paid him no mind. At the same time however, my phone calls kept dropping, and of course right in the middle of a sentence with perhaps critical information. 

In the end I couldn’t get my phone to connect to call Jared back, and I wasn’t having any luck finding Martha’s house. Especially in the dark. So I walked over to the auto shop where the old Moroccan man had been watching me wander from door to door, and I asked him a fail-proof question: “Hello, sir. Where does the American live in this neighborhood?”

As I’ve said in previous posts, Moroccans are always in the know, especially when it comes to foreigners. Someone’s eye is always on us, and if one person knows something, it’s safe to assume that the whole community knows it too. 

"Yes, she lives on the next street over, not this one. I saw her leave her house an hour ago. I don’t think she is home, but come with me. I will take you there." he said to me. And so I followed him. 

Yes, single female, alone in a strange town, in the dark, and her phone doesn’t work; That is not an ideal situation. But this is also Morocco, and if I didn’t know the country and the culture inside and out I never would have put myself in this type of situation. 

So I followed this man to her house and sure enough she wasn’t home. “Where is the youth center? I think she may be teaching right now.” I ask him. 

"Yes, she goes to the Dar Chebab everyday at this time." he tells me. "I will take you there."

And so once again I follow this man, in the dark, unsure of where I am going. But I have a good feeling about him. He smiles, and his eyes are kind, and in our conversation his words are sincere. His name is Abdelhak, which I deduce to mean “servant of God or of the Prophet.” 

We arrive at the Dar Chebab and sure enough Martha is there. And when I walk inside she’s totally surprised and in shock that I made it all the way up from Ouarzazate without her knowing. She hugs me and she asks “Um, who is that guy with you?” 

"He works at the shop near your house. He brought me to you."

"Wow that was really nice of him. I’ve never seen that man before."

"Well, he knows you. That’s Morocco."

I went back to the door and thanked Abdelhak for his help, and blessed him and his parents. He told me it was no problem. We shook hands and he went back to his shop. 

The vast majority of Moroccans are uncommonly hospitable, and so so so kind that it takes many Westerners aback because we just aren’t used to people being so nice. That’s really sad when I think about it. And it makes me appreciate even more the wonderful people of this country I’m so lucky to have been chosen to serve in.