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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Seventh Month

I woke up to this morning to sound of rain on the roof. I smiled slightly at this welcome noise, I have always loved listening to the rain from the warmth of my bed. But then I remembered I had about 20 books drying on the roof from my house flooding last week. I hurled myself out of bed and threw on a jelaba, taking the stairs two at a time. After three armloads of books were safely deposited inside, I sat back in the doorway, looking out over the rainy fields, and began to laugh.
Being up early in the morning is rare thing for most Peace Corps Volunteers, especially after Ramadan, but I love it and hope to make it more of a habit in the future. I put a pot of coffee on the stove, no filters or presses (though I have both), just a pot, some water, and a handful of grounds. Cowboy Coffee; it is said that if you put a horseshoe into the pot and it stands on end, it’s done. I sigh and settle back into my chair to write. The rain continues on the roof and I turn on some quiet music in the background.
It’s October 3rd, and I realize that it has been 7 months since I arrived. This makes it officially the longest time I have ever been away from my family, friends, and the Southwest. 7 months ago, I stepped off the plane in Casablanca. It was so early in the morning, and I was exhausted from the transatlantic flight Looking out on the vast green farmlands around me, punctuated by villages with their tiny pale minarets gleaming in the early morning light, I didn’t know what to think or expect of this strange new place. I think so much of those first few weeks were marked with denial. I don’t think “two years” really sank into my brain; instead I felt like a kid standing on the edge of the high dive looking down in the water and yelling down to his friends “I’m thinking”. In some regards I am still there, after all these months spent here, and I have not fully surrendered myself to being here.
Some days I don’t even feel like I am here, I feel more closely connected to home on the Colorado Plateau than with the people I right in front of me that I can see, touch, and speak with. Some days my reality here seems surreal. But then other times, I feel as though I am fully engaged in this reality, and Colorado seems to be only a distant memory. On those days, I feel as though I am touching something greater; the place I need to be. But now I simply slingshot back and forth between two realities and sit back and enjoy watching my psyche do somersaults. There is a name for this, “the Peace Corps Volunteer Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment” and I am right on schedule.
I think that I have made no progress here, but then I think back on the first few months and realize how far I have come. Take this recent trip to Er-Rachidia for example:


This is only the second time I have seen rain in Rich, my souq-market town. I pours down and cleans the thin patina of dust from the pink-sided buildings, looking toward souq I see throngs of people moving up and down the street, parting briefly to allow a car or moped splash past them, through the puddles that reflect the slate grey sky. Climbing the dark stairs in the beautifully tiled “Hotel Isli” the night before, I was overwhelmed by memories of just 5 months prior. I look at the door of a little room on the third floor, and remember sitting inside on the floor playing cards and laughing with people I barely knew, but who were destined to become my friends and neighbors. I knew nothing about this place and I had not even seen my village yet, it was just a name in my mind. I walked to the roof and looked down the long valley where the Atlas stretched away into the distance and, my village lay behind those grey peaks, shrouded in uncertainty.
Leaving the Isli, I step back out onto the street and wave to Dris, a store owner that has become my friend in recent months, I buy a yogurt from him and remember how intimidating it was when I first arrived trying to make any transaction in any of the stores. Now it’s so commonplace, I feel that I would freak out in an American supermarket. I take my yogurt to the bus station and quickly claim a seat on the departing bus. It’s the best seat on the bus, the one near the back door with lots of leg room.
As we pull out the station and pick up speed, I look at the now familiar buildings of Rich and realize with a start that I will actually miss this place when I go. My bus soon leaves the town behind and we are soon out in the open desert; the rain makes small worm-trails on the window beside me. The first leg of the trip from rich crosses a wide plain ringed with mountains and dotted with small earthen villages and silvery olive groves. Tall cane lines the dry riverbed which the bus is now crossing on a low bridge.
We climb onto a cliffside road high above the river and I look out at the shattered and twisted sediments that seem piled haphazardly here and there. We go through a small tunnel and proceed into a deep gorge, reminiscent of Santa Elena Canyon on the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, back in the states. The bottom of the gorge is palmeries and villages, some with huge crumbling Kasbahs. The palms sway gently in the breeze, heavy with clusters of orange dates, and small fields of tasseled corn are visible in the openings between their segmented trunks. Here and there, men are plowing the fields with a steel blade hooked to a team of mules.
The gorge walls tower high above and it all makes for a lovely sight; but a familiar one. The beauty of the gorge remains, but its strangeness has gone. There is nothing unusual to me here now; this is just another bus trip. Passing the dam above Er-Rachidia, I see a rainbow unfurl across the sky above the city. Beyond it lies a dark curtain of rain. Er-Rachidia is the gateway to the Sahara and the last time I was here for any significant length of time, was shortly after the backpack trip I took through the National Park. That was 4 months ago.
Er-Rachidia feels different as well, and I look around at all the familiar sights as I made my way through the back alleys to my friend’s apartment where I am staying the night. Later that evening, my friends and I sit in the back garden of the Café Imilchil and I think about all the progress I have made so far. I look at my friends, all have been here longer than I. One is coming up on his one year mark, my friend and neighbor Jack is just reaching 18 months, and my friend here in Er-Rachidia has only six months left. Although their experiences are very different from mine, I still look to them as an example of what I will experience in the coming months and suddenly 7 months doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore; after all, I am still a “freshman”.

Thanks for reading,

Charlie Kolb