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Friday, September 10, 2010



Four short days from the end of Ramadan, and I am sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee. I allow myself liquids during the day, although by rote I am not supposed to. The agonizing smell of sugar cookies which fills the room is my penance; emanating from the small butane oven under my counter. Outside, rain drips slowly and softly from the roof and afternoon storm clouds rumble above the folded mountain above the village. It is a about an hour until evening call to prayer and lfdur, break-fast, which I will share with my host family tonight, as well as with Allen, another volunteer visiting from a village 2 hours to the north. The cookies are for them.

I spent the last two hours alone on my roof, burning trash and cardboard, much of it remnants left by the previous volunteer who left here in May. As each scrap burns in the rusted woodstove on my roof, I feel another step closer to really being here in the village as the current volunteer; transitioning from the former which has now moved on, to the current and future. Each day I feel a little bit closer to actually living here than having just stepped off the plane in Casablanca. Some days I feel as if I have been here for years, other times I still feel as I just arrived; it is frustrating, but expected.

Looking out from my roof I could see west up the valley, past the old fortress of mysterious origin, to the sun illuminated mountains far away near the Azilal region. Storms moved across the dun-colored landscape then, and their shadows, as well as the shadows beneath the pale, striated cliffs, are dark and shifting. A fresh breeze blows out of the river canyon to the east and bends the poplars like deep green flags. There is a crack of thunder above and I look up to a dark and brooding cloud, roiling around the summit of the folded mountain. Brilliant white, almost glowing against the dark back ground, flew a lone stork; one of the minaret dwellers from atop the mosque. The stork was not moving; soaring in place in the face of the east wind, it was stationary before me. I could make out the details of its powerful orange bill and white plumage, bordered by pinions of deepest black. And then it banked out of sight, gone as suddenly as it had come.

I jabbed at the fire with a stick, flipping over an issue of the Christian Science Monitor and watching the pages curl and contort before finally succumbing to flames. Above the hiss of the wind in poplars, I listened to a program that I had downloaded from BBC: Radio Wales, about farmers and their lives in the Welsh countryside. Strangely comforting, though incongruous, I thought that maybe this was a taste of what Peace Corps used to feel like, back before the technology of mobile phones and internet became readily available to PCVs worldwide.


In a program on NPR about a week ago, our former Program Training Officer, Gordie Mengel, who is now stationed in Rwanda, spoke of how technology has changed the face of the Peace Corps. He mentioned how many volunteers can access the internet and call home whenever they wish, the connection with home is never broken; it remains there like a tether.

I am certainly in this category; I have internet in my little house, and I can access services such as Skype or Facebook at any time of day or night. Sometimes the net goes out for several days, but it is to be expected; nearly everything here works about 80% of the time. It’s not a problem; Gordie mentioned that his village in Zaire, now Congo, didn’t even have a post office and letters to months to arrive. Let alone care packages filled with coffee, peanut butter and chocolate that arrive every so often. I remember him telling me how he was without water and power his entire service, both amenities that I am used to here and try hard not to take for granted. Gordie’s argument makes a lot of sense, that having this technology available so readily does not just make the Peace Corps less brutal and challenging than it was in the 60’s, but it actually eliminates the need for community integration at our sites. All of us have social needs and back in America those needs were met by our friends and family. But in Peace Corps, before the advent of lightning-fast communication, those needs were met by your friends that you made in your community. You didn’t just feel obligated to get out there and learn a new language and culture; you had to learn the language and culture, because if you did not, you could (would) go insane. On clear nights you could turn on a shortwave to receive news of the outside world, sometimes weeks old, and learn that the rest of the world is still there and that life is going on without you.

In some ways I crave this sort of disconnect, it’s not that I don’t miss you, my friends and family, but I need to be here in order to be most effective in this place for this short time period I have been given. This will likely be the only time I will ever live on the African continent, or anywhere else abroad, for so long a duration. I need to absorb all I can, and let this experience teach me and shape me as it surely must. I have shelves of books to be read; some left behind, some borrowed, most from care packages. I have pages of material begging to be written, including my work for the Canyon Country Zephyr (the first article will come out early next month), and I have projects to plan, both for the Eastern High Atlas National Park and for the village of Imilchil. Add to this working on my house, preparing for winter, and just surviving day to day in a land of squat toilets and parasites, I have no time to spend holding on to connections and threads that will simply slip from my grasp regardless. If I have learned nothing else from moving five times in the last 3 years, it is that life goes on without you. I hate to let go, but I know that the truly important threads will still be there for me to pick up on my return in two years; it is the way of things.

In think in some ways our version of Peace Corps requires more self-control than the Peace Corps of yesteryear. I think that the “classical” Peace Corps was a gauntlet of mental and physical anguish with shining moments of success and deep wells of failure. But once you stepped off of that plane and rode for hours through the savannah, finally getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere, the things that began to happen to you could not be controlled. The disease, the social barriers, and the lack of amenities were just a few of these things. You didn’t communicate with your family and friends back home, because you couldn't.

But now, a lot of things in my life here in Morocco are still far beyond my control, and there is still plenty of disease and mental and physical hardship. The amenities are all there though, most of the time. Granted, I do miss western toilets and real showers that aren’t from an aluminum teapot. However, I think that having these things, and having the internet readily available, is a slippery slope. To not have these things available to you is one thing, but to have to choose when and how you use them is another. Did my friends and I come to Morocco to live like Americans? I don’t think so, but it is incredibly easy to get sucked into the comforts of your house and the line of communication that is always available there. The outside is still dark and mysterious, the people speak Berber and dress differently from you. They watch you wherever you go and kids laugh at you when you pass, some occasionally throw rocks. It’s uncomfortable and, as Gordie mentioned, if integration is optional thanks to your social needs being filled from that communication lifeline. It’s simply more comfortable to stay home and bury yourself in America. That mystical place where toilets can be sat upon, showers are hot and actually drain, dogs do not want to eat you on sight, and where you can understand everything that is said and everything that happens around you. Some people still dress funny, and some still may throw rocks, but it’s home; a place where life can be summed up multiple times a day in a Facebook status consisting of a song lyric of some kind.

The malaria-riddled and shell-shocked volunteers of Peace Corps’ golden age may have acquired higher pain thresholds by the end of their service, but they never had to choose to let go; they were forced to. It seems I have a choice to make regarding my time here, do I choose to be here in Morocco, mentally and physically? Or do I continue to hold on to my tether as tightly as possible hoping that nobody back home will forget about me?


I put the internet modem in a box on my shelf two days ago; I’ll bring it out in a week to post blogs and answer emails. I have read a great deal and spent a lot of time out in the community socializing. The day Allen was here, and I spent all that time on my roof burning remnants and watching storks, we enjoyed our l-fdur, break-fast, with my host family and then went to the Café to sit and drink coffee. It was l-ayd al-kadr , the night of power, the night close to end of where the entire Quran is read cover to cover at the mosque and when people are to make their peace with Allah. It is a day of repentance and celebration. Allen and I just sit in the Café with our coffee, my host father sits down nearby, telling me earlier that he does not pray or go to mosque, no matter what Rkia, my host mom, says. I suppose he has been around too many Americans and Europeans. There were many other locals about as well, and all were fascinated by Allen and I, who were playing cribbage and shuffling the cards very fast (this is a skill many Moroccans have not been able to master).

My good friend, Khalid sat down with us and, after Allen butchered me in Cribbage, we played several hands of Gin. The conversation was mostly Tam and I was pleased with my language performance; not simply being able to get things accomplished, but to actually enjoy the conversation is a new level I am not used to. I look forward to more time spent like this.

Allen went to wait for the taxi to his site and I went off to run errands for a while. It was another glorious fall day with a crisp breeze and high clouds above the mountains. Laundry flapped on the lines strung on the rooftops and blankets hung drying from the windows of many of the small hotels. I stopped to talk to several of my friends, snoozing in the shade beside the smoke shop, and realized that my language was excellent today, at least compared to its normal quality. I made my way down to the commune, which is the county government, to ask about the upcoming wedding Festival. For an event so significant, it is amazing how few people actually know when it is. I nailed down dates as well as I could, and then spoke with the men at the commune for about a half-hour, they filled me in on environmental woes in the area, and told me a fascinating story about the tribes that were here before the Ait Haddidou; the people who took away the trees. Leaving that meeting I met up with several more of my friends in the street and spoke with them as well. My errands continued, I made a trip to see the Gendarmes to renew my Cartes de Sejour receipt, since I still don’t have the physical card yet, and that was carried out without a hitch.

That evening, I made a chicken stew from stock I had frozen and fresh chicken. I spiced it more with Rosemary, sage, and salt and sliced fresh carrots, onions, green pepper, and potatoes into it and simmered it for a couple of hours. I also made another batch of sugar cookies and ate a few myself, after call to prayer, and sent the rest home with my neighbor Molly, our mutual friend Naomi, and Molly’s Mom, who is visiting from the states. They stopped through on their way to Molly’s village; I will see them tomorrow as well. The stew turned out amazingly well, and I gulped down three bowls of it. I really love being able to cook, it is a skill I will put to good use after this is all said and done.

Later that night, I put on my warm clothes and my Jelaba and walked up the street away from town, climbing the stone fin that the Qaid’s palace sits on. I sat down on the top and looked up at the stars. The Milky Way was a brilliant silver splash crisscrossed with shooting stars and floating wisps of nebulae. Off to my left, another duwar, small village, sat illuminated by a single street light. The village did not have any power and no lights shone in the windows of the mud houses, save for the pale, wavering flicker of the occasional candle flame. The folded mountain loomed above, an inky silhouette against the star flecked sky, untouched by the lights of my village. Behind the fin lay the isolated section of the fields where I had walked a few days before. The river sang softly, unseen behind its screen of poplars and the patchwork of fields was cloaked in the darkness that only comes when there is no moon. As my eyes adjusted, I began to see lights in among the fields, small ones, of a cold, wavering blue almost the color of ice. They pulsed and flickered silently and I knew they could not be fireflies. Then I realized what they were; they were stars. Stars reflected in the still waters that still sat in the fields from yesterday’s storm and the flood that followed. I looked out into the darkness, filled with river-noise, and looked long at the twinkling lights of the fallen stars.

Walking back to my house, I realized again something that I realize at least once every week; how lucky I am to be here, in this deep, mysterious, and ancient place. This place where strange fortresses loom against the sunset sky and storks hover motionless on the winds of coming storms, truly this is a place of beauty and wonder and, while I may not get Malaria or spend months at a time not hearing a word of English, I think the experience will be incredible just the same. I believe that with each passing day this strange place will become more real to me. My paradigms are shifting slowly but I know that one day soon, Morocco will seem more real than the home I left behind. The Southwest will still be there, in the back of my mind, like a wisp of juniper smoke, so faint as to be nearly imperceptible; a dreamlike reminder of a time now passed, and a land far away on the other side of the world.