This blog is a personal publication and does not reflect the views or opinions of the US Peace Corps or US Government...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Day by Day: a Week in the Village

I am trying something new in this entry and will attempt piece together a series of short entries over the course of a full week rather than one long entry at the week’s end.

Monday: 07/19/2010

It is so quiet this morning. I was awake at 6:15 and in my running gear 10 minutes later. My run is only a couple of miles to begin with, as I get back into the swing of things, readjusting to altitude, and rouse my body from its state of atrophy. When I stepped outside, the sun had not yet crested the mountaintop at the eastern edge of the valley, yet the clouds were alight with shifting shades of gold and palest pink. No one was about, as I ran across the patchwork of tiny fields, save one man several fields from the road that was already hard at work.
It is almost harvest time here and the wheat hangs heavy on the stalk. Some fields are already cut and the grain stands stacked in sheaves, giving off a smell not unlike freshly mown hay. The river flows by in the distance, marked by a line of stately poplars, the only trees in the valley. The bare mountainsides rear suddenly behind the river, their folded flanks rising and undulating high above the village. The mating pair of storks that live on the minaret of the mosque soar silently over the fields in search of breakfast, followed closely by their two fledglings which are now nearly the size of their parents.
I am now running even with the “college” which is the equivalent of an American highschool; it is a new-looking government building, painted yellow. No students now, mid-summer, but in the fall I may pick up where the previous volunteer left off and do some Environmental Education classes here. Who knows? Too much to think about now. I see a man seated on the side of the road and I recognize my friend Khalid, I say “good morning” in Berber (sbah lxir) and continue running. I am sure I’ll have a chance to talk to him later in a CafĂ©. I continue running with the fields on one side and a cliff on the other. A few dump trucks shatter the silence by trundling sleepily past, but the disruption is short lived and I am alone and unmolested until my watch beeps and I turn around.
Back at my house, I turn on John Denver and open all the windows. Americans are known in the region for playing our music too loud so I embrace the stereotype. I light the stove and put on a kettle for coffee, then I head up the stairs to the roof. The roof door opens with a bang like a gunshot which has frightened a fair share of houseguests over the past month; it’s loud but it has ceased to startle me. I step out on the roof and feel close my eyes as the sun hits my face; I look around. The sun has lit the tops of the poplars by the river and the banded cliffs south of the town. Looking west the ruin of a Berber fortress, also lit by the sun, cuts a sharp profile against the distant mountains at the end of the valley; the mountains are half in sunlight and half covered by cloud shadows. Nearer to me, the spire of the mosque rises from the chaos of mud and cement buildings and the storks have returned to their nest there with whatever breakfast they had been able to find.
After a satisfying workout, I make breakfast between my final sets. My breakfast is very simple but satisfying, to say the least. If you wish to duplicate it, here you go: First get a couple tablespoons of the smoothest Olive Oil that you can find and heat it in a frying pan. Next crack 3 eggs into the pan and turn the heat to medium, cook unit the whites are no longer runny and but the yolks are still move when you shake the pan. Slide it carefully onto a plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Leave the fork in the drawer and opt instead to eat Moroccan style and get a tear a hunk off of a round of fresh bread, the crustier, the better. If you’re in Durango, go to Bread bakery! Using the bread, and your right hand, (not your left, this is important) eat the eggs . Chase with fruit yogurt or, better still, a few cold slices of cantaloupe; which, in this country, is green. This goes great with coffee too.
Well, I need to attend to the rest of my day. I have a site inspection from a Peace Corps employee today or tomorrow and I need to go to the post office. Ar askka, inchallah (Until tomorrow, God willing).
Around sunset I took a long walk which began with a tea invitation from one of my favorite elderly Berber ladies, Fatima, who greets me every day and is one of the few women that talks to me on a regular basis. She led me up a cool, dim staircase into a small salon deep within her lovely mud house. She served me tea, cakes, and peanuts and I talked with her and later her granddaughter who came by. For the first time I felt at home in this village and basked in the Moroccan hospitality; I will have tea here again, I have a feeling.
My walk took me far up the road by the river and I wound back through the laden wheat fields and through thick groves of Poplar and Weeping Willow that I hadn’t the slightest notion existed in this place. It was refreshing and I saw people who knew me; what’s more, not one child asked me for anything. It was a good walk all around.

Tuesday: 7/20/2010

I woke up late this morning and it affected the rest of my day, most of which I spent inside. On the one trip I made outdoors, I was waylaid by two arab men (you can tell them fairly easily in a Berber) village. They were grilling me in French and Arabic about something I think pertaining to me being a tourist and what hotel I was staying in. I was frustrated by the whole exchange and told them several times that I don’t speak French and when I tried Tam they looked at me as though I had grown a second head. I finally managed to grab a nearby boy (one of my neighbors) who I spoke to in Tam and who then translated to the men that I was actually even less of a tourist than they were and lived here in the village. I think they were with some tourism agency or something, I never figured it out, but at least they deigned to leave me alone at this point. The boy, whose name was Murad, invited me in for lunch. I declined, but will go back later to be neighborly.
I didn’t do much of anything for the rest of the day, and stayed in my house, feeling alone and very American. I watched a couple of movies and talked with some friends back home while on Skype. I didn’t really begin to feel like myself until I spoke with my friend in Peace Corps Paraguay who related the advice to me that we all have days like this, and you simply have to roll with them and let them wash over you, because tomorrow will be better. I hope so.

Wednesday: 7/21/2010

I woke up at 8 or 9 this morning and made eggs and coffee, determined to have an easygoing day to myself and to get my house ready for company as several of my fellow volunteers had things to do in my village and I was going to have to go down the mountain to Rich to meet with my Ministry of Water and Forests “counterpart”. I was informed that morning that my counterpart had been transferred and I no longer had one; needless to say, spending four hours in the Mercedes van was suddenly not necessary. The Peace Corps employee who had driven all the way from Rabat said she would be in my village tomorrow and I am just to stay here until then.
I decide to do laundry instead. I fill up several tubs of water in my bathroom and proceed to wash all of my garments by hand, one at a time. It is tiring and time consuming, but I think I will get the hang of it eventually. I load my clothes into bag and haul them to the roof where I hang them on the clothesline. The only garment I have that is still clean is one pair of boxer shorts and my brown Jelaba which I am currently wearing.
I stop to look out over the fields and at the puffy white cumulus clouds building over the mountains. I it is calm and quiet, with only a slight breeze stirring the poplars by the river and the willows where I had walked on Monday. Women walk to and from the fields, their domain by rote immemorial, but up in my valley, the men work too especially as the wheat begins to harvested. I see it laying cut in the fields, or stacked in sheaves; waiting to be loaded onto patient mules and donkeys who have walked these fields so long that they need only a gentle tab to send them on their way to the house. In between the wheat fields are the flowers of potato plants and small apple orchards whose floors are planted with lush alfalfa. All this will be cut, used, or harvested in some way before the snows come in November and the valley will be as barren as the surrounding hills until the land re-emerges (along with me) the following spring.
I like the feel of the soft jelaba against my skin and realize just how well made it is, not bad for 150 DH. I go downstairs and clean for awhile, alternating with reading or playing mandolin. I go upstairs again to check my laundry and notice threatening clouds above the mountains, most rainstorms last for only a minute or two so I don’t worry too much and go back downstairs. About a half-hour later the sky opens wide and rain begins to beat down on my roof. I run up to my roof in my Jelaba to gather my laundry. It is raining sideways in merciless, stinging drops. And soon my Jelaba is sticking to my bare back and I am shivering. I take my laundry downstairs and hang it from every surface of my apartment; literally, doorknobs and doors, nails, drawers, everything.
My jelaba gets hung up as well and I sit shivering in one of my blankets on a ponj. I try to read and eventually just take a nap as the storm subsides. I get up sometime later and don some dry clothes and go out to buy ingredients for the dinner I am planning to make. I get back and try to make tea, realizing that I am out of butane. As it transpires, so is the rest of the village, so I trudge back to my apartment and call my friend who agrees to bring some with him on the transit later.
When my company finally arrives, all volunteers from the “mountain” as we call it, they bring in bags of food and the butane tank and I get to cooking. I don’t have much experience cooking, nothing but a few signature dishes, and I was flying blind on this attempt. But I just started throwing ingredients in the pot and before I knew it I had an entire chicken in the pressure cooker and was mixing up a green chili “roux”. I combined my ingredients, no measuring or recipe, and then shredded the chicken. It turned out to be an amazing Green Chili Stew with just the right balance of spice and flavor to it. I was thrilled and can’t wait to try out another recipe. I threw the chicken leavings back into the pressure cooker and left it to boil into stock.
We ate all of the stew as my friend Molly made a wonderful barbeque chicken pizza which we ate with cookies and coke. A good meal all around. We stayed up and talked for hours about our villages and our homes in America, friends and foods we missed, and interesting things we had seen. I came to confirm what I already suspected; that we have an awesome crew of people here on my mountain and that this next year I have a feeling we will be there for eachother and ready to hop on a transit at a moment’s notice.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, I will mention it here: Peace Corps has a wonderful social circle. Volunteers as a rule are kind and giving people and we are influenced both by our volunteerism and the hospitality that we are learning from our surrounding Moroccans, which is like Southern hospitality, but magnified. Imagine how much more we would know about eachother if we invited in passerby for tea and trusted our fellow countrymen enough to accept such invitations. These are commonplace here and issued without guile; there is even a specific hand-wave that people will do at passing cars that literally means “stop, and come in to drink tea with me”. We could learn a lot from these people.
I feel that my fellow Americans here in Morocco help to keep eachother sane and give us shoulder’s to cry on that have had similar experiences. Until you finish your two years, there are always volunteers that have been here longer than you that you lean on for experience and advice. We are all here for eachother and I look forward to many more evenings like this one.

Thursday: 7/22/2010

We all woke up late and slept well, no mishaps or sudden illnesses, so that is certainly a good thing. I staggered groggily out of my room and put on some coffee everyone; breakfast was a simple affair of yogurt and different kinds of fruit. We sat around a discussed our plans for the day and I shared that a Peace Corps employee would soon be here to do my “site check”.
I get a call from her a short time later and go outside to meet her. She is surprised, but unfazed, by the unexpected houseful of Americans. I make some Moroccan tea, which I think is pretty terrible; I suck at making Moroccan tea. But she dutifully drinks it and we go to have lunch with my host family up on the hill. It is my host father and mother with the baby, along with my host sister Fatima; the boys are at a relative’s house in another village for the weekend. Tea (better tea) and salted peanuts, followed by a small tajine for lunch; it is strange to see the room I had slept in for 2 months converted into a living room instead.
The Peace Corps liaison leaves shortly after lunch and tells me that I am integrating well. I walk back to my messy and still people-filled house and settle down to hang out some more. The water is done for the day so we really needed to scrounge for the water to clean the kitchen with, but we take care of it eventually. I put part of the stock in the fridge and the rest in the freezer for use later.
People left the house one by one, the last was my nearest neighbor who caught the last transit of the day and sped off down the mountain to her site. I spend a little more time out in the village and then went back to the house to begin the process of cleaning up. I am alone again, but it’s not as sharp as it was a few days ago. When dinnertime rolls around I get out the stock in the fridge and combine it with spaghetti noodles and some fresh vegetables and more spices to create some amazing chicken noodle soup that I eat before going to bed.

Friday: 07/23/2010

I get up late again and groggily go about making coffee and breakfast which ends up being 3 eggs sunny-side up and hashbrowns. It is excellent and wakes me up quite well. I go out into my village to go to the store; today is the first of the two souq days (no, I don’t expect to sleep tonight), and the town is flooded with hundreds of people I don’t know, and don’t need to know so I go home. The day was largely uneventful and I spent it cleaning and organizing things in my life in preparation for the 2 week training in Azrou that starts on Sunday. I will leave tomorrow on the transit and spend a night with a friend in Rich and then take a 5 hour bus from there. Nothing further to report on this quiet day save the fact that I made delicious marinara sauce from scratch!
Well, that is one week in my site and I will go ahead and post this entry now as I may not have time to later on during training next week.

As always, thanks for reading,


Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Long Week Alone


At this point I have spent about 10 days in my house cooking for myself, cleaning less than I should, reading, writing, and working out enough to prevent utter complacency. Days run together and are divided into two distinct parts: morning (with water) and afternoon (without water). I can do dishes and fill drinking bottles when the water is on from 8-12, but once it’s off that’s it. So an average day looks like this: Up at 8 or 9 and working out until ten; eggs and coffee for breakfast, followed by water related chores. This is then followed by swearing at the half-assed Moroccan, well everything. Be it my dishwater backing up in my shower, along with every single sink in the house leaking, internet not working for any apparent reason, especially aggravating when my phone has full service… from the same tower. Couple that with the drafty windows and a leaking skylight, and I am almost convinced that many things in this country are made by the lowest bidder and this makes me oh so grateful for American building codes.

It’s Souq Day again today and, as I mentioned before, the Souq is two days long and starts up bright and early at 4:30am Saturday morning. So I got the rare “pleasure” of being woken up by barking (occasionally screaming) dogs, large herds of bleating sheep being inexplicably driven through the 4 foot wide alley beside my house. Also, no vehicle in Morocco is required to have a muffler and the truth is that most Moroccans do not know how to drive and the few that do should never ever have been given a horn. Truck drivers honk at least six times and then noisily get out to crunch up my alley and audibly (oh yes) piss beneath my window. On hot nights, of which there are mercifully few, I have to have my window open and enjoy this rousing audio presentation. Granted the windows, also being Moroccan, don’t shut out the sound anyway, but they do enough to make it possible to sleep through it. Those of you who know me, know just how much noise bothers me…

But this is the living situation I have chosen, and I am just venting. After all, a blog that is all wine (or in the case of this country, Grape Juice) and roses is simply not honest and no PCV just sails through their service with absolute ease… I am shooting for relative ease. Psychologically I am a textbook PCV and am gutting my way through the “initial vulnerability” period at a predictable pace. While I am enjoying myself, I am also incredibly homesick. There! I said it! Yes, I am homesick, I want nothing more than to be home in the southwest with my friends and family doing southwestern things like river trips and long perilous hikes in a more familiar, though still howling, wilderness. Now, this is what my heart and reptile brain tell me, with their fierce admonitions to get back into my comfort zone. But if I do that, what will I learn? And who will do my job? My brain acknowledges that the pros outweigh the cons by a huge amount; I have friends here, I have opportunities here, and a (very much) howling wilderness to explore with more caution than what I have previously exhibited thus far.

No, leaving Morocco early has not even crossed my mind as a consideration, simply because the things the siren song of my homesickness tells me I want will be there, relatively unchanged, when I return! I have a lifetime to enjoy the Southwest, but only a two year window to experience North Africa. Thus does my mental cycle spin round. Besides, I’ve only got 659 days left, and I have been here for 140 days already.

Other things keep me honest, and securely in Morocco for two years, aside from just my reasoning. One is a PCV in Paraguay (you know who you are!) who served as a Ranger with me at Grand Teton two years ago (yep, it’s been two years this month!). She lived with her host family much for much longer than me and had to watch setback after setback as she had her house built. She’s moved in as of now, and much happier for it and we occasionally talk and/or exchange letters across the Atlantic. She works for a rain forest reserve which is about as similar to the Atlas as it is to the surface of Mars. Yet our jobs are similar and we work for our countries’ version of the National Park Service in an Environmental Education capacity. If either of us were to leave, I think we'd let eachother down in some way. The second external factor is an RPCV friend of mine who I worked with during my season at Cape Hatteras and who said simply, and with a smile: “Charlie, if you get all the way to Africa and E.T. (early terminate) for any reason whatsoever, I will hunt you down like a dog and I will kill you.” Ah, yes that is an excellent motivator as well.

I had a question posed to me in a recent email that simply asked what the hell my job actually is. There is a reason I haven’t really detailed this yet, it is because during the “initial adjustment period” I am not allowed to actually “work” (does this mean learning Tamazight is considered “recreation”?). Mainly though, I do know what my job will be and I will post a blog entry all about it in about 3 weeks. I have a crucial meeting with my counterpart in a few days, and two weeks of environment sector technical training in the city of Azerou after that. When I return, I can begin my work in earnest, and then I will tell you the details.


I suppose I should write about some good occurrences this week. The first and foremost being the discovery that I am able to cook! Between the Huevos Rancheros stew detailed in last week’s entry, and last night’s achievement: Green Chili Queso Soup, it has been a good week in the food department. I received a large windfall of green chilies in two separate care packages (thanks guys!) and, along with the containers of ground Chimayo Red and Chimayo Green that I brought from home, most of my dishes have a great Southwestern flair to them. There was a Green Chili Cream-cheese Omelet a few mornings ago that I was quite pleased with. So, if nothing else, I can learn how to cook from my time here!

Other good things of course include the books I have been reading (keep track of them on my booklist on the sidebar of this page). Since my last entry, I finished “Teaching a Stone to Talk” by Annie Dillard and “The Milagro Beanfield War” by John Nichols; both were amazing and taught me a great deal in very different ways. My current books are “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner, and “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. A third that I am enjoying as well is a gem that I found in my favorite used book store in Durango, the “Southwest Book Trader”. It is called “The Wilderness Reader” and it cost about 2 dollars; it’s an old book as well from the 1970s and it has been beaten up and dragged around for much of its life. But here’s what makes it special: it’s a compilation of works on the American Wilderness and includes work by: William Byrd, William Bartram, Meriwether Lewis, George Catlin, John James Audubon, John C. Fremont, Francis Parkman, Henry David Thoreau, Clarence King, John Wesley Powell, Clarence Dutton, Verplanck Colvin, Isabella Bird, Plenty Coups, Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, John Muir, Mary Austin, John C. Van Dyke, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edwin Way Teale, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, John McPhee, and David Roberts. Pretty amazing stuff.

Other good things from this week are that I am enjoying playing my Mandolin a lot and have also gotten much better with the Penny-whistle (as one PCV described: The ultimate portable instrument). Also, despite the anti-social nature of this week, my language continues to improve.

So, in conclusion, it has been a long week alone. But I am learning more every day and this is as it should be. I have a feeling I will be well into the swing of things by the time Ramadan concludes in late September… my seven month anniversary.

Thanks for reading, I’ll try to make it more poetic next time,


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Musings: a Day of Peace, Quiet, and Contemplation

So finishes the most quiet and satisfying day I have yet passed in Morocco. I have either had houseguests, or been the guest of someone else, for nearly a week. I have had little to no time alone and am still in the "getting used to" phase of occupying my new home. So today was my first full day entirely by myself and it was, in my opinion, well spent.

I awoke to sunlight shafting through the ornate bars on my window, which I had left open to let in the cool night air. I stirred under the single woolen blanket that covered me and staggered to my feet, checking the time briefly on my phone. No need to dress in my own house and the morning air felt cool and gentle on my skin. I walked blearily into the kitchen, looking briefly at the pile of dishes in the sink from the spaghetti my PCV neighbor and I had made the day before, and filled the tea-kettle with water. I turned on the stove and lit it in one quick, fluid motion; I smiled, realizing how I was getting used to the Moroccan kitchen. I turned on some music, "Very Best of Sons of the Pioneers" and listened to old cowboy ballads as I poured the steaming water into a french press over several spoonfuls of French Roast that I had a received in a wonderfully thought out care package that had arrived yesterday.

I carried the press and an empty mug into my study where I checked my email briefly before settling in to read from Proverbs, my favorite book of the Bible. I also scanned my favorite Psalm, Psalm 50, which gives the most eloquent defense of Christian Environmentalism I have yet found. I think of John Muir again, as I often do these days, how he constructed an argument for biology and environmentalism, solely from biblical references, in an instant. He had been accused by a blacksmith that he was staying with of laziness and frivolity; of misusing his God-given talents and skill on something as useless as cataloging plants. His argument was this:

"You believe in the Bible do you not? Well, you know that Solomon was a strong-minded man and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great Cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.
Therefore you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I'll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to 'consider the lilies how they grow,' and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ's? Christ says, 'Consider the lilies," You say, 'Don't consider them. It isn't worth while for any strong-minded man'"1

I love that exchange, Muir was about my age when it transpired and he was walking 1000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico from the heartland near the Great Lakes. This was years before he first glimpsed the Sierra, his muse, the 'Range of Light' and yet he was still completely, well, Muir.

I finished my coffee and completed a workout; a light one to bring me back from the illness induced atrophy that I found myself in after 4 months of... 'distress'. I ate a protein bar for breakfast (also a care package gem, from a different package) and, with resignation, put on some clothing. I go out into the village for roughly 20 minutes, talking to those I know. I buy some vegetables at the 'daily souq' and pay an amazingly low price for them. I make another stop by my favorite 'hanut', or shop, and buy some essentials from Ali.

I return and look at my watch, realizing that I have only one hour of running water left in the day, so I fill my big kettle and top off a couple of black buckets in my bathroom. I do last night's dishes while I wait for the water to boil and listen to more quiet music, not thinking of anything in particular. When the kettle begins to steam, I strip back down and take it into the bathroom. I enjoy a long and much needed 'bucket bath', mixing the warm and cold water in my bucket and pouring it over myself with a plastic cup. I use the handmade soap from Kelaat M'gouna that my host sister, Nouhayla, gave me when I left Ait Gmat 2 months ago. Eventually I use all my water and towel off. I pull on a pair of linen trouser that I purchased in Rabat and go back into my study.

I pick up Desert Notes/River Notes by Barry Lopez, another of my heroes that I have already mentioned. I read for a long while my mind entirely focused on his words and the meaning behind them. I read the story of Coyote and Rattlesnake, a story I have never before heard (and I have read many Coyote Stories). This one had a great deal of depth to it, and struck a deep chord within me as I absorbed its words. One passage, in which Coyote has climbed the sacred mountain to consult the Great Spirit, is especially poignant as Coyote pours out his concerns for himself, his friend the rattlesnake, and for his beloved desert:

"Akasitah [Great Spirit], I have come here to ask you to change your mind. Below it is chaos because of the Shisa [humans]. In a while there be no place to go. I and all my friends, even the mountains, they will be taken away by the Shisa. It is said that you are wise and fair. How is it that the Shisa have come to this? Must I always be a coyote to the Shisa? Can I not be who I am? I ask you to change things. Let me walk out of the traps. Let Rattlesnake up off the ground so he can see something coming. Let these things happen or we will be no more. There will be nothing left. The Shisa will take even the desert."2

Coyotes concerns echo in my own heart and, as look out on the ravaged hills surrounding my village I realize that they are this way because humans (and their beasts) have destroyed them- they have been taken by the Shisa. But here is Akasitah's reply:

"Coyote, you see like a man with only one eye. The Shisa are like a great boulder that has broken away from the side of a mountain. The boulder makes a great noise as it comes down the side of the mountain. It tears away great chunks of earth and rock and breaks the trees like twigs, throwing up a cloud of dust against the sun and you are afraid for your life. There is no need to be afraid. It only seems this way because you have never known the world without the Shisa. You have spent your life under the boulder. I understand your fear.
Once there were no Shisa at all... Coyote: they are like a boulder fallen off a mountain. Soon they will hit the earth at the bottom of the mountain and roll out into the desert leaving a little trail in the dust. The boulder will come to a stop. You can sleep on it at night. Do not worry. Go."2

I won't expand on that much, I'll just leave it for you to digest as I did; if you're anything like me, you'll feel a vague comfort and a lessening of that sense of doom so common in our times of Climate Change and Oil Spills. Not to lessen these problems, they are terrifying and disgust me to think we, the Shisa, have anything to do about it. But the comfort comes from the feeling that we are dealing with a power and a creation so much greater than ourselves, that it will always be greater than humanity at its most powerful.

I place by bookmark with the lizard on it that reads: 'readers find heat between the covers' and open my mandolin case with a click. I select a large pick and play a clear and ringing 'Ashokan Farewell', before methodically moving through the songs that I already know and the songs that I am currently learning. I was given this mandolin by one of the men I most admire in my life, a musician, civil war reenactor, and close friend, by the name of Michael. He lives with his family in a house by a tidal creek off of Mobile Bay in South Alabama. I have spent many weeks in his home, drinking sweet tea on the screened-in porch or dangling my toes in the brackish water of the creek, dark with tannins leached from the over-arching trees.

I played until my fingers began to sting, and then a little more;I winced and look at my fingertips which were now blistered. A good practice session... I rise and begin to make lunch in the kitchen, Annie's Mac and Cheese (oh joy!) which I make in an automatic sort of way, but eat slowly,savoring it and knowing that my supply is limited. I walk out into my sitting room. Sun streams through the skylight and I lay down a mat in the center of the room.

I put on some quiet music and spend the next hour engrossed in yoga, flowing from form to form, my mind emptied of all thought save the intake and exhalation of breath, and the slow beating of my heart. I feel the sun on my back and sweat beading there, I am aware of my skin, my muscles; I feel what is tight and what is relaxed, what is weak and what is strong. I explore my senses, but keep my eyes shut, aware of only the suggestion of light from the warmth on my shoulders and the glow through my closed eyelids. I slow and stop, settling into a seated position to meditate. I concentrate and let the music flow through me. Thoughts try to surface, but sink back into the nether before they can break the surface and be realized. The music stops and I open my eyes. My brain reactivates, but slowly like a catatonic pulse; a scarcely discernible rhythm. The sweat dries on my back and shoulders as I pour a glass of sweet tea, cold and smooth, from a pitcher I had made the day before.

In my quieted state I simply stare into space, I am happy and carefree. Not the fleeting, manic (and brief) ecstasy of personal triumph, but a quiet happiness; a contentment and acceptance of myself, my circumstances, and my surroundings. No worries could be recalled and that was enough. I looked at the pictures on my kitchen wall, they are of national parks from across America, some of which I have worked, most I have not. Over my sink is a small painting of the mountains near Lake City, purchased there and sent to me as I worked on the island in North Carolina. Below the painting is a tally of the days I have spent here and a small notecard with a tiny watercolor of downtown Durango on its cover. Inside the card is a short message from my grandmother, written in her tight and beautiful cursive: "Dear love of my heart, don't forget your way home!" The date is the day I walked into the conference room in Philadelphia, confused and unaware of what lay ahead. The card arrive a couple months ago in a package from home and has occupied a place of honor ever since; it reminds me every day of my way home, as it should.

There is a blank space above my gas stove and I am going to fill it by painting a Muir quote that I have selected in black calligraphy (yes, I can). It is short, simple, and inspiring. It is one my favorite quotes:

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."1

I sip my tea and walk around my house a bit before picking up Desert Notes/River Notes and reading it until I reach the end. I read of deserts and of rivers; of dark forests, running salmon, drought and plenty, dusk and dawn. I read of a vision, a vision of being surrounded by the creatures of the wood and river who speak to the storyteller who has just saved a fish from the encroaching drought:

"Before we could ask for rain there had to be someone to do something completely selfless, with no hope of success. You went after that fish, and then at the end you were trying to dance. A person cannot be afraid of being foolish. For everything, every gesture, is sacred. Now stand up and learn this dance. It is going to rain."2

Lopez' words ring true, a person absolutely cannot be afraid of being foolish. Especially here in Peace Corps; here in the high Atlas of Morocco, the mountains that hold up the sky. If I can make myself realize that my actions are sacred, that what I do here matters, maybe I too can make it rain.

I close the finished book, and go into the kitchen to make dinner, a successful experiment that I name "Huevos Rancheros Stew". I eat a bowl and I go pull on my clothes. I pick up a notepad and a pen, with a couple letters to answer, and head to the nearest Cafe. My host father is there and we speak, both in English and Tam, laugh, and drink mint tea as the sunset fades into gloaming and dark clouds growl on the horizon promising rain.

I think back on the day, of what I have learned and what I have felt; I feel more whole from today. I feel that I touched something greater and feel a sweeping humility that perhaps heralds the beginnings of wisdom. I will not worry, what I am doing here is right, it matters and is sacred; I will not fear being foolish, because perhaps even my uncoordinated dance could someday bring the rain...

Thanks for reading,


1: The Wilderness World of John Muir, edited by Edwin Way Teale
2:Desert Notes/River Notes, by Barry Lopez

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Homes, Here and There

Today is July 1st and it marks the beginning of my 5th month in North Africa. I can't believe so much time has passed already, but there is plenty of time still ahead, 22 months of time in fact. My end of service date is the 5th of May, 2012, and that means I have almost two summers and two long, hard winters to deal with. We apparently don't have a spring and fall here, just a sudden transition that is characteristic of any high mountains, be they in Colorado or Africa.


Talking to home, I hear that the flowers are blooming and the grass is high, my mother is debating whether to let the horse out to graze on the lawn or not, and the dog is so dusty that my parents have to brush him off when he comes in the house. The indoor cat is shedding, and the outdoor cat is still successfully hunting small animals despite his advanced age and senility. My brother is home from his college in Seattle for a few weeks; he is enjoying seeing his friends and mine and just spending time at home and in our hometown.

According to the local paper, spring runoff is beginning to slacken in the Animas River and the rafters and tubers are out in force, enjoying the two month window of heat that you can actually swim in the river without getting hypothermia. The Farmer's Market is in full swing with local foods, meats, and vegetables, not to mention live music and fresh gossip. The tradition at the Farmer's Market, at least mine, is to get a cookie from my favorite bakery, and a glass of Hibiscus Juice from the tamale cart and then stroll around talking to the farmers that I know and running into friends. When the sun gets too hot, I sit in the shade of one of the trees by the side of the bank building and listen to the live music and watch the kids chase each other around.

My parents and brother are headed to Lake City for Independence Day, it is a small community of 300 high in San Juan Mountains, about 8500ft, and we have a place there that my parents like to spend much of the summer. It is cool and the people are kind, the small size of the community means that everyone know everyone else, and that everybody has a role. They are meeting with a family of our friends from Helena Montana and will stay there for about a week enjoying the company and festivities of the fourth. There will be games, food, and a parade which my family will be in, the dog dressed up in red, white, and blue and loving all of the attention. I will miss being there with them, Lake City is one of my favorite places.

Several years ago, I lived in a three-room guest house there for the better part of a summer, working as a fishing and hiking guide for an Lake City outfitter. I had just graduated from College a month before, and was using it as a time to decompress. I spent three solid months there; two of those entirely in the mountains with my blue heeler, who had never hiked that much before or since. All day was spent in high basins on the edge of sparkling lakes or trekking through dark forests of fragrant pine, spruce, and fir. These days were punctuated by vast fields of nodding wildflowers, and the jags of mountains on every horizon. Thunderstorms came most afternoons in towering blue-grey pillars of cloud. A solid-seeming landscape of swirls and billows, they were often visible for several hours crawling over the lands below, trail curtains of rain illuminated by forks of lightning. When they broke, it was with a beautiful, shattering violence that was both frightening and awe inspiring; only rarely did they last for more than a half hour.

I learned to Flyfish while working with the outfitter and it remains one of my favorite things to do, and is high on the list of things I miss most. Many golden afternoons were spent making cast after cast into streams smaller than the one lane road used to access them. I fell in love with the sport because it was silent and beautiful; it allowed me to be outside for hours at a time watching my line curl and loop over the riffled water's surface and watch the fly land delicately in a quiet hole, suspended there in the still eddy before a fish took it or the current swept it away. Evenings were spent walking in the canyon or sitting at the bar of the saloon named for the Colorado Cannibal, Alferd Packer. As the light died on the peaks, I would sit on my stool nursing a good beer and talking to people around me, who quickly became my friends. On cold days I would light the woodstove and read a book while the exhausted dog snored at my feet. Then Grand Teton National Park hired me on and I was sucked back into the park ranger whirlwind. I wouldn't have it any other way but I still consider my months in Lake City as one of the most peaceful times in my life.

I will always remember the sunny days and quiet evenings of home, in both Durango and Lake City. Memories of place and also of people; memories of friends and family talking, laughing, and sometimes crying, together. These are strong memories of the one place that have been most open to, the most involved in, and the place that has the left the most indelible mark on my soul. It is that piece of a soul, the piece that is affected by place, where you forge connections with a land and its people; intimacy through vulnerability and then understanding through intimacy. It is these connections that create the concept of home and the sense of belonging that comes with it. Some people never feel this, some never open themselves and allow their souls to be touched by the places they reside. But this has always come easily to me, and I have many connections to places that have touched me in some deep way. My parks: Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Big Bend, and Cape Hatteras; those were all home, they all became places that I understood, loved, and now miss. The mountains and the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, as I have said before, are always an unshakable first for the place that I love most deeply, understand the most, and to which I will always return to. These places have all left their mark, and have contributed to who I am as a person, each one in a unique way. From Mesa Verde I learned of time, from Yellowstone I learned of wilderness, from Teton I learned of beauty and serenity, from Big Bend I came to know austerity and balance, and Hatteras I learned of the quiet and deep mysteries found only on the edge of the sea. What do I learn now? As I feel Morocco's mark being etched in slowly beside the others, I wonder what I will take away from this place?


I have moved out of homestay after four months spent with a Moroccan family, two in the desert and two in the mountains. Today is my second day independent and alone, and the first full day I have to do whatever I wish. Yesterday I spent with my host father in the Land Rover, we went down to the town of Tinghrir to buy some appliances, like a refrigerator and oven, things that I would have a difficult time obtaining for myself. It was a long day and I crashed hard, falling asleep without dinner or evening ablutions. This morning, I woke up with the sun and took advantage of my two hours of water by filling every water container in the house. Eventually, when I have the water tank and heater installed, I will have water round the clock and hot showers; a thing invaluable in the single coldest site in Morocco. A treat for guest and other volunteers who visit. I made coffee on the butane stove and and sat on my roof with a cup watching the clouds form over the mountains.

I like my house, it's five rooms (including bathroom), and made entirely of various forms of concrete. The central room, my living room is illuminated by a skylight (which currently leaks, but is being fixed next week.)it has two ponjes, which are like Moroccan couches, and will eventually have a central low table for tea and entertaining Moroccan guests. My kitchen is one long counter with a sink and gas stove; a gas oven sits below. There is a chest of drawers for dishes and the refrigerator sits by the door. The stairs to the roof lead up from here as well. My office is off the living room and consists of two windows, my desk, one ponj, and a bookshelf of crates, on the walls are maps of Morocco, a map of Colorado, a poster of Grand Teton, and a poster of the endangered mammals of Morocco. Eventually there will be a woodstove in the corner and this will be my wintertime retreat; the "warm room". My bedroom is simple, a metal shelf of clothes and camping gear, backpacks in the corner, and one large bed in the middle. The whole place is the perfect size with the perfect amount of furnishings; plus it's utterly impregnable when locked.

After my coffee, I went to the post office and picked up a package for a friend, I am waiting on one myself, but it looks like it will come next week. Kids don't badger me as much anymore, I think they are used to seeing me around and there is always someone around who knows me. My Tam gets better every day and I sound less and less like a moronic 1st grader. Now I am sitting at my desk, surrounded by books, with a window that looks out on the mountains. After this entry is finished, I will read or practice my mandolin; maybe I will pick out a soup recipe of some kind for dinner tonight and go buy the ingredients, haggling with the merchant as vegetables are weighed by the kilo on a rusted scale. I may go sit in a Cafe later, write letters, and people-watch. I will clean some more as well and contemplate my place here. I am enjoying the peace and quiet already and, while it is not Lake City, I can see it becoming a home.

Thanks For Reading,