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

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Zephyr

Ok, ok. I realize that it has been about 5 months since my last entry. This is unforgivable and I have very few excuses; but here they are. Since my last entry, I have been engrossed in a complicated (and hopefully rewarding) project that will be coming to fruition in the next week... Wait for an update on that! Also, I have had to deal with my second Ramadan (the entire month of August), the Imilchil Wedding Festival (in September), the onset of winter, and winterizing my house. Lots of things to keep me busy.

I have five months left, and expect regular updates from me until my term ends. It's winter now, and there is not much else left for me to do.

For now, I would like to turn your attention to my work in the "Canyon Country Zephyr", a publication out of the red deserts of Southeast Utah, that I write for bi-monthly. It's a wonderful paper, one that I grew up reading (I picked up a copy whenever I was in Moab), and I hope that you will enjoy the Z as much as have! Enjoy the other authors work, and maybe even contribute to the Z! You know how difficult it is for the written word to survive in such dire economic straits, and we are already losing papers and post offices left and right! Ok, getting off my soapbox now, read on.

I may slack on the blog, but I don't slack on the Z! Below, you will find links to all eight of my entries so far, which you can download as a PDF and read at your leisure. If you would like to comment, you can have your say on the Zephyr main page or email my editor, Jim Stiles at Enjoy, and please forgive my blogging lassitude!

Volume 1: Oct/Nov 2010

Volume 3: Feb/Mar 2011

Volume 4: Apr/May 2011

Volume 5: Jun/Jul 2011

Volume 6: Aug/Sep 2011

Volume 7: Oct/Nov 2011

Expect more entries soon; on Winter, Ramadan, Wedding Festival, and of course my project (once complete).

Thanks for reading,


Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm In...

Reading back over several of my older blogs from the same time this last year I have come to realize how much my life here in Morocco has changed. The same things still happen to me every day; I still go to the same stores, run the same errands, and sit in the same cafes. But now it's all normal, it's all easy, I can speak as much Tam as I need to in order to communicate in conversations about, well, anything. I have learned the importance of descriptive terms and how, if you use enough of them, you will eventually arrive at the word that you were searching for. I have friends now, good ones. Guys that walk down the street with me with their arm around my shoulders (a step up from holding hands, which everybody does), an older woman that yells at me whenever I forget to come over for tea, and merchants and cafe owners that try to marry me off to any woman that they happen to know (or see). Everybody knows me now, or at least knows of me. I can't say how many times a person, that I would swear to having never seen before, has walked up to me and struck up a conversation... always having started it by greeting me by my name (Hassan).

The gendarmes and town officials are my friends now as well, and I find them helpful and easy to work with. At fourth of July, they told me I could erect a flag pole on my roof and fly Old Glory proudly and prominently in the center of the village... provided of course that I fly a Moroccan flag above it. They loaned (or at least that was my impression) me a Moroccan Flag to use (full sized ones can be tough to obtain outside the cities), and when I went to return it the next day they refused to take it back. They said it was a gift and that, since I was Moroccan now, I could have it.

This is not the first time anyone has called me a Moroccan; no, I remember the first time very clearly. Seven or eight months ago, I was just emerging in late morning from my little cement house, blinking in the rich, golden sunlight of late fall. Feeling thin and frail, still sporting a headache and mild vertigo from my latest intestinal malady, I carefully fitted my sunglasses over my uncomfortably pale eyes and stared down the street. A boy of about 14 was headed my way, I had seen him often working in the warehouse across the street and he would always nod to me as I passed by. He stopped and appraised me for a second as I stood there swaying slightly. I smiled a little and murmured "Sbah lxir" (Good morning). He smiled back and repeated the phrase and we exchanged morning pleasantries. As I bid him farewell and turned to go to the store to buy the first food I had had in days, he took my hand and placed his other hand on my unusually prominent collarbone (did you know I have collarbones? I didn't before coming here!). He looked at me seriously and said: "Hassan, you are berber." "Hassan, shyin amazighn". Without waiting for a response, he turned and vanished into the warehouse and left me there staring after him dumbfounded and more than a little pleased. I'll always remember that.

This boy was the first, but now it is commonplace for people to call me amazighn or Hassan win Ait Haddidou (the tribe of berbers in the area; the sons of Haddidou). In fact, if an outsider from another village walks up me when I am with my Moroccan friend and refers to me as an aromi (foreigner), my friends will shame him and correct him with "No, Hassan is berber, Hassan is one of us. Hassan belongs in [village]". If I am alone and the same thing happens, inevitably a diminutive, white bearded old man in a jelaba robe and head-wrap will shuffle over to us, shake my hand, and wheeze out the same barrage of chastisements and insults to the outsider before bringing one hand up to the side of his head and shaking it in the motion for "crazy". Apparently, not only am I a member of the tribe now, but everyone and their uncle is expected to know it immediately.

I have also forged deeper connections with select Moroccans here in the village than I thought possible with my limited language. My best friend in the village, I'll call him "Haddou", and I have had hours long conversations on life, love, religion, and girls. He has come to lean on me as a confidante and often tells me many things that I likely didn't need to hear. He lights up whenever he sees me on the street and I spend a few hours with him every day in his brother's cafe where he works. He is the son of my host father's oldest brother, effectively making me his cousin, but he refers to me as his brother. One night when he was upset, (Haddou is 18 and, as I recall, being a teenager sucks) He was just sitting in a chair outside the cafe and staring at the ground. "What's wrong?", I asked. "I hate it here." He replied.

"In [village]?"
"No, the whole country, all of Morocco!"
"Oh, well, do you need a break?"
"Well, let's go to America for an hour..."

We spent the next hour or two in my living room looking at pictures of the states on my computer and listening to "The Best of Jimmy Buffett" on my massive speakers. We didn't say much to eachother at first, but by the end his head had cleared and he was smiling and laughing. I stood up and shook his hand as he got up to leave and asked he was still upset. He said no, and thanked me. I told him to come back any time.

No one insults my language anymore. Or rather if they do, they tend to retract the statement later in the conversation. One day I was sitting on a cement sewage cap by the side of the road in a nearby village, waiting for the afternoon transit to come by and take me home. A man in his fifties walked up to me, took my hand and, after we had exchanged pleasantries, he said "You don't know any Tam". Instead of my standby reaction of last year, which was blushing slightly before looking at my toes and agreeing sheepishly, I locked him in a steely gaze, smiled a little, and replied "How would you know? We haven't even talked about anything yet.". The exchange ended after a long talk about the lack of snow last winter, the wheat in the fields, whether I was fasting for Ramadan (yes, I am), and inquiries after our respective families Moroccan and American. He showed me a nasty burn on his hand, and complained about the clinic being closed (a reasonable thing to complain about), and asked me for a light for his cigarette (always carry a lighter). As he turned to go I took his good hand, and asked quietly "Do I know how to speak Tam?", he smiled broadly and smacked me on the shoulder before answering "Yes!".

When it comes to language, I am my own worst critic. I hate my lack of vocabulary and lack of training (I have never had a tutor here in the village). I think I speak like an unusually slow toddler, if was in school here, I would be the tall kid who repeated the third grade... twice. But, to my constant surprise, people continue to understand what I say and even more shocking, I understand what they say. A couple of months ago the second years, the most experienced volunteers in the country, my icons and friends, left. Their service was up, they had finished their 26 months in typical style and panache, and suddenly the people I had grown so used to spending time around and learning from were gone. In their places arrived two starry-eyed new volunteers, fresh out of training and ready to take on the Atlas. Suddenly I had two people that looked to me as I had looked to the second years. I was suddenly an example, an advisor, someone to assist in insurmountable daily obstacles that didn't seem to me like such obstacles anymore. My memories flooded back quickly and I remembered how this place, these people, and this language seemed to me a year ago. The presence of the new volunteers gave me another perspective on the village and their arrival signaled a distinct change in the nature of my service. I was no longer on the uphill scramble. I was no longer trying to fit in and integrate. I was already there, I wasn't Charlie anymore, but Hassan win Ait Haddidou. I had arrived. I was in.

Thanks for reading, sorry for the delay,


P.S. If you are still wondering, "Does Charlie ever work?" The answer is yes I do, and it's going great... but that's all a story for another time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Out of Hibernation

Before I began my service here in Morocco, I was unaware that an entire village could hibernate. I mean, sure there’s Silverton that gets snowbound every winter and Lake City as well, but for the most part, American cities and towns just change activities. In Durango, kayaks are put away in the fall and swapped for skis and beacons, the climbing harnesses stay out but the medium changes from rock to ice. Or people go to Utah and claw their way up the sun warmed walls at Indian Creek.

My village, however, hibernates. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I had the pleasure of watching it begin to stir this past week. Shops are getting new awnings painted and the café owners are renovating to best accommodate the tourist rush that we all hope will come. Today, I went down to my favorite café, run by a host cousin of mine, and brought my hookah with me. We sat upstairs in his newly refurbished seating area and smoked the hookah and talked about various things, such as when I was planning on getting married (a frequent question here, in the marriage capital of the Atlas). As I sat with my tea glass in hand, I looked around at the newly painted walls depicting various scenes from around the region. To my right was the lush shores of Lake Tislit and the sweeping expanse of the Plateau du Lacs; before me was a scene from the annual wedding festival depicting fully decked out amaizighn and Tamazight. The women in the painting were depicted in wedding garb resplendent in tribal cloaks and colorful headscarves, both signifying their belonging the Ait Yaza and Ait Brahim, the two tribes that make up the Ait Haddidou. The men wore white jelabas and head coverings; behind them all loomed a towering Kasbah.

The painting that interested me most was that to my immediate right, of a moss shrouded waterfall. Cascade Agouni, the waterfall that I am currently writing grants and proposals to build a permanent trail to; anything to increase tourism. I have not yet seen it, though I will go up to survey it any day now with one of the local guides. I am sure I can find it myself, if you have been reading this regularly you know that I have been in far sticker situations in the wild Atlas, but I would prefer some company even if I have to speak Tamazight the entire day, an activity that wears me out far more than any physical exertion.


I went on my first run in a long while early this morning. The sun was not yet up and red dust still hung thick in the air from the recent Saharan sandstorm that howled around my house for three days prior (try sleeping through one of those, it ain’t easy). The snow was almost gone from the mountains and the fields were green with new wheat. I reached the end of my run and encountered a dog who woofed at me halfheartedly; I didn’t want to try him so I turned around. I’ll bring him some bread tomorrow and see how that goes. Dogs, like elected officials, accept bribes. The college (middle school) was free of kids since most of them are on holiday right now; Moroccan spring break and the remainder of the run was quiet except for a few confused farmers that jumped at the aromi (foreigner) that ran by them in sweatpants and a soccer jersey. Just wait till I start wearing shorts next month…

The poplars are beginning to leaf out and the willows along the river are drooping with innumerable grey catkins, birds are beginning to return and as I run by the stands of poplars Hoopoes hurl shrill warnings at my back. Sometimes if I am sitting in my study reading, with the windows open to let in the warm spring air, sparrows will perch on the ornate iron bars and chirp at me tentatively as if asking to be let in. Not that this is unheard of, in the house that I lived in down in the Dades Valley, a year ago now, I often shared my afternoon tea with a couple of small birds and several gorgeous calico cats.

Looking up at the mountains this afternoon, I realized that the snow is almost gone and suddenly I was back at the point in the seasons that I was first introduced to my high mountain village. I have come full circle and now I know what comes next. The gentle warm of Atlas summer, the glorious golden light of fall, and then once again a harrowing winter; I suppose it’s time for an encore. I have grown to love it here, and am loath to spend much time in my house anymore. If I am not walking in the mountains above the village, I am sitting in a café surrounded by Moroccan men and we talk about, well, everything. Projects are moving along slowly, but at least they exist. I am slated to start teaching at the secondary school next month, and have a few other things going as well.

A few days ago, I also got to work in the fields for the first time. I loved it. I accompanied a friend of mine to his fields in the shadow of the rock fin that houses the Qaida and he taught me the finer points of irrigation. We diverted ditches and watched as the water rushed around the tender young wheat shoots. It was a beautiful morning and I went home to lunch thoroughly muddy and satisfied. My friend Ali has told me recently that he would teach me about farming in his fields as well. He has apple orchards and I can’t wait to learn about their upkeep and management, not to mention snag a few apples in the fall to make apple butter with.

I am finally reaching the point that I am fully comfortable in my village, and reaching it makes me realize how uncomfortable I was initially. It was incredibly intimidating being here all alone, with barely function language surrounded by people that were different from me in so many ways. It’s hard to describe how one can feel alone surrounded by people, but I assure you it’s possible.


A friend of mine recently commented that I was having an easy time over here because all my blog entries are so positive and “uplifting”. I know this is true and the reason behind it was that I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear me complain. So, in attempt to bridge this gap in communication with you all, I will now try to convey some of the difficulties I have experienced throughout my service. This is not complaining, please understand, but a matter of fact reality check.

First and foremost, is language. Imagine having communication taken away from you and then having to learn it all over again. Speech, hand gestures, and even etiquette. I was suddenly in a place where I couldn’t use my left hand for much of anything in public, since that is the hand people use to clean up after a visit to the bathroom. I have even been shamed by an old man who saw me writing with my left hand while sitting in a café! The language has been incredibly tough, Tamazight berber is even more difficult than Arabic, and little is actually written town about it. Not to mention it changes every fifty miles or so.

The second hurdle vies for dominance with the first and that is illness. Not many people realize that I was sick for the first seven months in Morocco! I wrote about my brush with Typhoid last year, but otherwise I haven’t really mentioned it. Well, I will now: I have had at least 4 intestinal infections and 3 different parasites, I have been or more medications taken in tandem than I have ever before had to consume, and happily, got over it six months ago. I have been well ever since then. The last parasite that I had back in October was never identified, and the Peace Corps medical staff and I simply called it “The Kraken”. It took three days of the pharmaceutical equivalent of a hydrogen bomb to slay it. I can take one more round of that medication this year if need be, but no more than that due to its other damaging effects.

Third hurdle: isolation. I have been alone more in the past year than I have ever before. I got a lot of reading done I suppose, and am more in tune with myself than I have ever been. But there were days, sometimes weeks, that went by when I really needed a friend to talk to (in ENGLISH) and had no one to turn to. My neighboring volunteers have been amazing. We really look out for eachother and are willing to drop what we’re doing to go nurse someone that’s sick, or to cook them dinner if they’re in a funk. We are all in this together.

So, there are other things as well, and they vary from day to day; even easy days here are more difficult than being back in America. But those are the three big ones, and I hope they clarify for you “why this is the toughest job I’ll ever love”

Happy spring, and thanks for reading,


Saturday, March 12, 2011

a Journal Entry from a Year Ago

Here is an entry from my first Peace Corps Journal (I am now on my second). It is from my first week spent with my host family in Ait Gmat on the Dades river. I was getting to know my family and my fellow trainees and had no idea where my site was as of yet. It's a good look back....

03.09.2010 (Day 9)

The wind howled all night last night. I slept very hard though, and awoke without knowing where I was, but my confusion made me smile. I was energized all day and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I felt like we were connecting to the community today, especially on our community walk out into the countryside. Everyone is so very friendly and I spoke to many people.

The countryside is beautiful here, and there are raised paths between fields of wheat and clover. These are bordered by blooming almond and apricot trees and what I swear is aspen. Silvery olive trees are everywhere; in fields and in every courtyard and garden. These fields have been cultivated for more than 1000 years and the crumbling kasbah that we walked through to is testament to the region's violent past. The valleys of the Dades and Draa anre the first actual civilization you hit coming north from the Sahara so the kasbahs defended the local people from Tuareg raids and also served as centers of commerce.

It's all so rich and fascinating and I am devouring every moment; the warm breezes, the rich golden light, and the echoing call to prayer. This country is beautiful and mysterious. I know this euphoria will not last, but taking it one day at a time, I think the two years will fly by in no time at all. Well, now to my host family, to dinner, and tomorrow to Ouarzazate for debriefing.


It's strange, in some ways it feels like my life has started over. I am learning even the most fundamental things in life all over again: how to use the toilet, even how to eat. This evening Hayat was having a great time teaching me to eat lentils with my fingers. I felt like an accomplished toddler when I finally figured it out and was lauded by the family.

I look forward to experiencing my site, wherever the heck it is, for two years. The opportunity to watch a village grow and change throughout the seasons will be a joy indeed.


And it still is... There have been many ups and downs, some of which you have read about here on this blog, but ultimately the euphoria did give way to a gentle acceptance and contentment. I am happy to be here, I am happy to stay, and in a year's time, I will be happy to return home with stories and memories to share with you all.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, March 11, 2011


NOTE: I just dug this up in my freewriting file on my computer. I forgot that I had even written it.The original date is below:


Last year, at almost precisely this time, I found myself standing in line at the tiny Durango-La Plata County Airport waiting for my tickets to print. Behind me, the La Plata Mountains loomed large and icy, framed by the thick glass of the terminal windows; to my left a stuffed bear in a flyfishing getup stood sentinel by the gift shop.

We were pretty quiet, my family and I. Looking back I think we were in shock. Peace Corps had been thrown around our family dinner conversation for almost a year and a half now, but I am not sure if it really hit us until we stood there, next to a flyfishing bear and backed by the familiar mountains that supported our world.

I had decided to join the Peace Corps on a whim in the fall of the previous year. I had just finished an idyllic, albeit short, season at Grand Teton National Park; living in a one room cabin, flyfishing every day at twilight, and always with the rugged, glaciated backdrop of the Teton Range framing my every moment. After such a jaw dropping experience, I found myself back home in a strange doldrums of sorts. I like my home and I love my parents, but it didn’t feel right to be back in the role of live-in son. Sleeping in my room and eating for free weighed heavily on my mind. I was no longer who I was and thus home was no longer the place it had long been to me. In the midst of all of this confusion, I grew more and more frustrated by the lack of job offers from the NPS, despite the slew of applications I had fired off to many parks all across the country; I am not picky. No bites. A large part of this, I knew from unfortunate experience, was from the Preferential Hiring points afforded veterans; most of whom deserve it. Many hiring officials never even make it to my application.

I was reading a book that fall at home, a creatively titled sequel to Muleady-Mecham’s book “Park Ranger” called “Park Ranger: the Sequel”. It was a good book and shared details about the Ranger’s life that had been too dark to be shared in the first book. But it wasn’t the fatal car crashes or high-angle body recoveries that commanded my attention, it was a brief mention of a ranger who got permanent status through “Peace Corps Preference”. I called some of my NPS friends and researched it. Sure enough, service in the US Peace Corps would qualify me for not just eligibility, but noncompetitive eligibility. Translated, it meant I could be hired without even having to apply for a position. It was a loophole, a magic bullet; hell, I figured, I could put up with anything for two years, so long as it led to that. If I went into the Peace Corps, my career was assured. I began my application that night.

A season in Big Bend fell in my lap shortly after my application went through and I handled interviews from SW Texas trying to determine my placement, which had been narrowed down to the entire continent of Africa. Silence for awhile and I began a summer season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, deliberately turning down interviews for positions in Yosemite and Wrangell-St. Elias so I could be closer to my extended family in the east. I spent the entire summer driving around Appalachia and the Piedmont visiting family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years. It felt so good to reconnect with my forgotten roots; to chase fireflies and walk around barefoot. I reeked of bug-spray and sweated constantly. That said, the serenity offered by the island and the constant boom of the surf gave me amazing peace. I left in the fall, more connected to the place than I had ever been before. I had people to miss and people to miss me, I can’t wait to see my rediscovered family again.

A few months after that, I found myself in line at the airport, waiting to go to Morocco. I was bound for Africa. Africa. A name I had associated with mystery, danger, wildness for my entire childhood was to be my home for two years—four times longer than I had ever been away from home. Add to that the fact that I was to live in the midst of an Islamic culture, the enemy according to some. A few of my friends thought that I would be killed on sight, simply for being an American. Even my parents, two of the most broad-minded people I know, were concerned for my safety. Even I had my doubts, we are spoon-fed so much hate by our national media, that it worms its way into our collective unconscious. America, a nation that defines freedom for much of the world, was pointing the finger at an entire religion, billions of people, for an atrocity committed by a few fanatics. Our spin doctors told us who to hate and who to fear, within a decade the very sight of a man in a prayer robe and traditional beard sent our psyches into paroxysms of terror.

The moment I stepped off the plane in Casablanca, the first time I met a Moroccan in my training village, and when I was fed, tended-to, and loved by two separate families, I knew I had been lied to.


Over the course of the past year, I have learned what defines a culture, I have seen grace, nobility, and love far surpassing my expectations. I have come to legitimately love the people here; even as I struggle speaking their language they are kind, understanding, and amused. I have had to relearn patience in the face of a system that is barely held together. I have relearned how to speak, how to cook, how to bathe, and even how to go to the bathroom. I never realized that culture begins at birth; arriving in Morocco I had to relearn everything. Even now, after so much work, I feel like a precocious 3rd grader. My only real achievement is staying well for the past 5 months—and sick for the first 7.

I have also learned to live with myself, I can be alone for long periods of time without growing lonely; I read and write almost every day. I sit in the mornings on the cement expanse of my roof, regarding a vista that I know would have tourists talking for many months after. The unknown has slowly become known, and the unusual is now commonplace. I have watched my friends grow and change with me, many of them are leaving next month. They are finished with their service; they have done what they came to do, and now it is my turn to help new volunteers through the ups and downs of their first year; just as the previous volunteers have helped me. In many respects, the two years lived in the Peace Corps, is like living an entire life Birth to Death. The amount of personal evolution is stunning; and difficult to encapsulate. I found it difficult to talk about with people when I was home for Christmas—was that really two months ago? I am not sure if this evolution is making me a better person, or simply more accepting of my faults. Sometimes I think the former, other times the latter.

What is for sure, is that I have made a home in this place that was initially so foreign and unknown. I have grown to love it; to find peace in its chaos, and to see indescribable beauty in each day spent in the high Atlas.

Had I known any of this, I would have smiled to myself as I stood in that airport, to the right of the flyfishing bear, between my silent parents. I would have strode confidently toward the gate, ecstatic with the prospect all that was to come. As it was I hugged both my parents, all of us choking back tears, and taking one final look at the mountains through the windows, and at the bear by the door, I boarded the plane and was gone.

Thanks for reading,


God's Wind

The wind rustles the tall golden grass of the silent graveyard as I pass through it on my way home from lunch with my Moroccan family. It is cold today and a chill mist drifts down from the looming clouds that form a grey and threatening ceiling above my tiny village. Tombstones jut at odd angles from their mounds, poking above the sea of grass as immobile reminders of finality; the long stems sway in the breeze and brush the cold stones. Death surrounded by life. In many ways the entire village is like this right now, with the advent of spring. The willows have begun to bud along with the poplars and the tall walnuts that stand hidden behind the Qaida. Snow remains on the nearly sterile heights, but I know from last year that the thorny ifssi that grows here and there on the mountainsides will soon burst into a riot of bloom and the warming air will be heavy with their scent mixed with the raw, flinty smell of Atlas stone.

In front of the post office, I see three of my friends who tell me with no preamble that a tsunami has hit Japan and hundreds of people have been killed. I have a hard time following the fast berber narrative and when they slow down I hear about swamped fields and houses on fire. It seems unreal, to hear of such pain half a world away spoken of in a 3000 year old dialect in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. I end the conversation quickly and I say I will go home to look it up on the internet.

Passing through a narrow alleyway winding through the ruined remains of the Kasbah, I note how pale the earthen walls look against the leaden sky. Looking upward I see whisper-thin tendrils of snow beginning to descend the flanks of Tissekt Tamda, the folded mountain that I watch the sunset light up in the evenings. As the snow begins to fall, it seems as though the mountains are being erased, lines are blurred and the whole scene seems to take on an ethereal tone. I reach my door and let myself in with a bang of metal.

I turn on my computer and let the modem dial, it takes a few minutes to load CNN. The horror is plastered there on the page for all to see; body counts, videos of sweeping waves and homes ablaze. On one part of the island, firefighters are working to quench an oil refinery that has caught fire, on another a nuclear plant is shut down as radiation leaks out into the surrounding countryside. I close the page down and sit for a minute. Trying to comprehend bad news is always difficult, I try to put myself in the shoes of the victims but never can. It is a level of pain and shock that I can’t even fathom; that I don’t want to fathom. I remember another time, nearly ten years ago, when I sat on the edge of my grandmother’s bed watching the twin towers crumble and collapse in New York. It was September 11th, 2001; I was 14 years old. People were running toward the camera, grey with dust and faces streaked with dark trickles of blood.

My family and I sat there, stunned and no one spoke for a couple of hours. Our circuits were fried in the face of the horror that played out before us like a movie. But it wasn’t a movie.

Last night, I listened to an NPR program called “This American Life”, they were talking about a 1950s talk show that hosted a survivor from the Hiroshima blast and I listened he told his story in halting, emotional, English. The show ended with a tearful handshake with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb that fateful day, who was also a guest on the show. The pilot had retired and become a sculptor. His most famous work was a marble mushroom cloud with runnels of blood streaking down its sides. He called it ‘God’s Wind at Hiroshima?’. It is a question he asked himself for the rest of his life.

Pain and Disaster. Death and Silence. Some of this we cause, some sweeps ruthlessly down from the universe. A bolt from the blue; an act of God. God’s wind? I can do nothing to help the people in Japan, I can do nothing from here in my village in the Atlas. I simply will sit here, feeling again as though I am on the edge of my grandmother’s bed and numbly watch as disaster unfolds. My thoughts and prayers are with those who are in pain. Peace be with you all.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, March 4, 2011

One Year in Morocco

It seems that yesterday marked one year in this glorious country that I am privileged to call my home. I have seen a full cycle of seasons here, and cannot believe that the time has flown so quickly. Just last March I had arrived here in Morocco and gone to Marrakech for my introduction to training. Today, I would have been busing over the Tizi-n-Tichka pass to Ouarzazate, which was to be my "hub" city for the next two months. I was tired and apprehensive, but overall I felt excited by the unknown adventure that lay ahead of me; a year out, the adventure continues and is made no less wonderful by the passage of time. I think that I will stop here, and let last night's journal entry speak for itself:

"03/03/2011 (-432) Day 365
Today marks a year in Morocco; one year ago today, I arrived at Aeroport Mohammed V and took the bus to Marrakech. I wrote my first journal entry in the football field at the Club CNSS and wondered at the great unknown before me. I have lived in a state of amazement and wonder ever since.
I am sitting at a high table [on the roof] of Cafe Clock, near the Bab Boujaloud of the Fes Medina. The sun is setting on the city and the horizon is broken by crumbling minarets and banded by purple and gold. Swallows dart and dive about in the fading light and the soft sound of drums is carried to me on the same breeze that bears them aloft on their evening rounds. An old man in a striped jelaba is pacing on a nearby rooftop, laundry hangs from a nearby window, and somewhere far off children laugh as they play. Soon the call to prayer begins to echo from countless mosques slightly offset from eachother. The reverent cries form a round, a whole and circular sound. God is great, indeed.
I spent the morning with [my friends] in their Villa on Anfa Hill that overlooks La Corniche of Casablanca. and the endless swell of the Atlantic. [my friend] and I had a quiet breakfast this morning and later [her husband] took me out into the city in his convertible. As we crusied beneath the fading grandeur of the french art deco architecture. [We spoke for a long time, about many things before he took me back to get my bags and meet the train].
The train took me to Fes and I wrote for most of the journey, sleeping for the rest. After a few hours the soporific swaying of the train and the clicking of the wheels forms an irresistible lullaby. One year has ended; another lies before me. What wonders are ahead for me now?
Tomorrow to Midelt, then to Rich, and finally to [...] the little village in the Atlas that is now my home."

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow in the Atlas

The day was bitterly cold and I pulled my jebada tighter about me as I walked up the main hill toward the village Post Office. Dark clouds hung heavy over the mountains toward the North and a chill breeze was beginning to blow through the streets, moaning and kicking up dust. Around me, men in jelabas pulled their hoods down against the dust and some of them sat in the cafes looking somberly at the churning sky.

The transit I boarded some time later was quiet; people chose not to speak, conserving what little warmth there was in that metal box. Crossing the pass above Busemoh, it was beginning to snow, stinging particles of ice that lashed sideways against the windows and formed strange shifting whorls on the pavement before us. That afternoon was spent in the village of Outerbate, sitting by a crackling woodstove and enjoying the company of one of my friends and neighbors on the mountain.

Just before sunset, it began. The wind had died and the snow fell thickly in curtains of fat, white flakes that streamed by outside the window and began to collect on the mud walls of the surrounding houses. Unseen in another part of the village, a mule brayed plaintively, but even that was muffled and then swallowed by the silence of the snow. Anyone who has spent time out in the winter snows can attest to the effect it has on sound, even the loudest shout disappears into the icy depths of a winter forest. All that can be consistently heard is a slight hiss, scarcely audible, of snow falling and collecting around me. Flake upon flake, crystals fusing together and crushing downward beneath the weight of their fellows. The sun the next day will melt the top most layer, crystals dissolving into liquid water only to refreeze beneath the light of the winter moon into fantastic spiraling shapes. Sediment will melt the surface layers faster, dust suspended in the atmosphere, borne in from the desert, leaving the face of old snow sun-cupped and agitated, like the ripples in a puddle during a heavy summer storm.

What storms in summer possess in violence and force, the snow makes up for in longevity. Like the dripping of a spring that erodes stone, the silent and steady force of falling snow is both light and heavy all at once. It covers the mountains in its silent blanket and the world is born anew with the coming of the morning sun.


A day later, only white streaks remain in the chill shadows of the peaks; beside walls and beneath the barren trees. Only these pale remains testify to the majesty of the winter storm. A rare gift of snow in the Atlas…

Monday, January 31, 2011


Another bus trip down the Ziz Gorge to Er-Rachidia. I love it, looking down from the high windows of the Souq bus into the sea of Date Palms along the river. Nothing contrasts so brightly from the colors of the Sahara-side Atlas than that of green palm fronds and dark Oleander. It was sunset as I rode through, the sun was lighting the tops of the cliffs, setting the crumbling French watchtowers aflame with its golden light.

It was dark when the bus trundled into Er-Rachidia and I made the familiar walk through the dusty alleyways to an apartment where I have spent a great deal of time over the course of my service here. The volunteer who lived there had since left the country and been replaced by a new one, and several members of his Staging Group were there to greet me when I walked in.

After an evening spent with them, swapping stories and eating good food, I awoke the next morning to shafting sunlight and made my way out into the city to find breakfast while everyone slept. Not many people were moving this early; Er-Rachidia is never very busy in the daylight. The people here have learned to hide from the sun, a habit that continues even in the milder months of winter here.

I had a layered pastry for breakfast, chased by an avocado smoothie so thick that I had to eat it with a spoon. I was alone at my table on the balcony above the cafe, watching the people below me finish their breakfasts and working on a letter to my brother, who is in school in Seattle. Paying the waiter a few dirhams and offering my thanks, I walked back out into the sunlight. I went back past the market to another Cafe, this once named for my village, and went into the back garden to enjoy the towering green trees and listen to the birds singing unseen among their boughs. A puppy tottered among the tables begging for scraps and another snoozed in the sun beneath a table at the rear of the garden. Cats mewed from the rooftop of the cafe and everywhere was cool breeze and dappled sunlight. I sipped my coffee slowly and waited for my friend arrive, a Moroccan who I had been introduced to some months before by the volunteer now gone.

When I saw him in the doorway, I motioned him back and he sat with me for some time. We discussed our lives, and work, and ideas that we could collaborate on in the future. He is university educated and knows perfect english, and I enjoy spending time with him. After awhile, he left and I waited for another friend to meet me.


When she came into the cafe, I waved to her excitedly and she sat down. In the cities, women can sit in most cafes free from suspicion or ridicule. This is not the case in the rural areas like my village where even come female volunteers will not sit in the cafes for fear of attracting negative attention. My friend Malika grew up in Er-rachidia and her family still lives in the city. While in the states, I had picked up a computer power supply from a generous friend of mine to replace Malika’s which had been fried on the powerful electrical current found here. I know this all too well, having toted a pair of speakers all the way to Morocco only to have them sizzle and smoke and then die. It was not a good death.

I handed Malika the power supply and she thanked me and invited me to have tea with her family. I followed her as we walked across the city, across the dry riverbed and past the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries to an area of Er-Rachidia I had never before seen, passing between the cool cement houses, with the hot desert sun beating down on our heads, it was easy to forget the brutal cold of the village and the fact that it was January. We arrived in front of a beautiful home draped with crimson bougainvillea, and Malika ushered me into the cool interior of the house where I met her mother and sister.

Tea was soon served and, I confess, it was some of the best tea that I have yet tasted here in Morocco. It was not overly sugared and was flavored with a winter herb that Malika said was called merd’dduš. Almost all Moroccan tea has a base of black tea and sugar, but it is the herbs added that make them unique, and they change according to the seasons. Now, winter, was the time of merd’dduš and, up on the mountain, shiba which is a spicy green herb said to encourage warmth. In the summer the tea is flavored with cooling nana (mint) and it is this variation that makes Moroccan tea famous. Although I am a fan of flio (peppermint).

Accompanying the tea was a variety of delicious edibles, including mascota a moroccan cake, fresh bread (aġrum), fresh olive oil (ziit-ziitun), and locally rendered date syrup (tahaloute) which proved to be absolutely amazing. After a long time talking and laughing in both Tamazight and English, I got up to leave and Malika walked me to the door, but not before her mother put up a hand and walked into her bedroom, motioning for me to wait. She emerged clutching a small parcel to her chest which she handed to me smiling. I removed the plastic wrappings and found myself holding a small shallow bowl made of fossil-filled dark stone. It was beautiful.

I was speechless, a thousand things to say in English flowed through my head, but nothing came in Tam but a simple thank you. It was impossible to convey that this was likely the most meaningful gift I had received in Morocco. I stammered my thanks, several times, and then Malika led me out into the sunlight.

We parted ways at the main road and I walked along under the sun, retracing my route back across the dry riverbed and toward the part of the city that I knew. I drew plenty of stares as a tall, blond aromi (foreigner) was a bit of an anomaly, but I didn’t notice. After nearly a year in the fishbowl, standing out is just a simple fact of my life here.


That night I sat on the roof of the apartment building up among the satellite dishes watching the city come alive as people flooded out onto the streets for their evening shopping and socializing. Meanwhile I watched the sun setting crimson on the desert horizon and watched as scores of white egrets soared in from their daytime haunts along the River Ziz, searching for food among the palms. I sat for a long time and watched the city move and the stars come out. I smiled to myself thinking back over the 11 months I have spent here and realizing how much I love this place.

Thanks again for reading,


... and Back Again

My time in America seems as though it was a dream as I sit here in my village watching the weeks fly by. Already I have been back a month, and it feels as if I was never gone. Life continues to tick by as usual, the same men sit in the same cafes, following the warm sun from one side of the main street to the other. Morning belongs to one set of cafes and afternoon to the other; a time honored system in a land with no central heating. The same group of kids play soccer (football) in the street in front of my house most nights, hollering and carrying on. Sometimes fights break out or a kid knocks at my door asking for me to retrieve the ball he has kicked onto my roof. Souq every weekend with its customary flood of people, and lunch with my Moroccan family on Fridays with the shaking of hands, drinking of tea, and eating of couscous, which is perhaps one of the tastiest foods on the planet. I mention this not to convey boredom, but rather the delightful regularity of life here in the Atlas. Everything moves slowly, and routines change with the seasons. Very few people are transient here, most have lived here all their lives and will continue to do so; in that respect, my village is not so different from small town America.

Everything feels different after my visit home, not only was I happy to be back, but I am still happy to be here. I delight in the culture and the people that I see every day. Interactions that before I would have viewed as negative now only serve to make me smile and laugh; I feel a deep inner peace and satisfaction and feel content to sit back and watch the seasons pass. I am working though, and have several projects on the table. However, as none of them are sure yet, I will not elaborate on what they are, just that they are proceeding and look promising. I hope to meet with the school soon about reinvigorating the defunct Environmental Education Club, so that will be something to do. But mostly I, and really all of the people of the Atlas, simply have to survive the winter cold and await the glorious months of summer. Months that I was unable to fully enjoy last year due to illness and culture shock.

A good friend and fellow volunteer told me that after one year, I would begin to feel more content here. She said that after seeing one cycle of seasons, there weren’t too many surprises after that. I tend to believe her, and I do not think it coincidence that this feeling of confidence and contentment comes so close to my one year mark, which falls in early March. This is also a reason, I believe, that many people say that Peace Corps doesn’t really start until the second year. Well, I am ready to begin and look forward to my remaining months here. May they be glorious.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, January 16, 2011

a Change in Realities

Resting my head against the window of the crowded third class carriage, I could feel the rhythm of the train wheels as they clattered against the rails. I glanced at the other Peace Corps Volunteer dozing quietly in the seat across from me and raised my head to look out at the scenery flashing past. The countryside between Fes and Casablanca was green and lush; olive groves marched up and down hillsides and smooth brown fields stretched to the horizon. The day before, spent in the old city, or medina, of Fes had been cold. But not nearly so cold as my village in the Atlas that I had left behind several days before. I knew I would not see it again for over a month; I was going home.


A cold day in Colorado, with the Mercury having plunged into the negatives at night, and climbing into the single digits and teens during the day. Near sunset, I find myself standing on the cold stone of a Park Service overlook high on the Mesa Verde cuesta, above the Mancos River Valley. The scene below is perfect and still, and the land is a patchwork of sun and shadow from the retreating snowstorm. Over the La Plata range, silver banners of snow connect the earth to the sky and everywhere hums with the dormant potential of a winter world. Snow covers all, the conifers stand black against its brightness while the cottonwoods along the frozen river and the aspens on the mountainsides form a grey fog of uncertain shape and color.

This has long been a special place for me; it is a place where I go to think, reflect, and contemplate my life. I came here minutes after being told I had been hired as a Park Ranger at Mesa Verde and returned many times that summer to watch the thunderstorms roil and growl above the mountains. I came here each time I returned home from the many parks that I worked at after that, sometimes when the future was uncertain and other times when I had only a few short days of respite before being again swept along in its tide. This is a time such as this, in the middle of three weeks in America in the midst of my Moroccan experience.


After ten months in Africa, the familiar and comforting seems strange. I still know how to function here, I remember how to use hot water straight out of the tap, how to get groceries at the supermarket, even how to drive in the snow. But my brain feels as if it is not fully engaged in the actions of my daily life at home. Going to coffee shops to see friends, spending time home with my family, visiting my grandmother; all of it feels like muscle memory, a remembered routine. Every street corner, storefront, and park holds multiple layers of memories for me; memories of youth, adolescence, now adulthood. There are so many associations with everything in this place that I am tied to it eternally; it is unquestionably home. But how do I reconcile all that I have learned in Africa, all that I have seen and felt in these past ten months, with places and people that have changed little, if at all?

I know cannot allow myself to grow comfortable here, to revert into the person I was before Morocco, to pick up my American life where I left off. I have sixteen months left in my Peace Corps Service and travel after that. Who knows what else will have changed in that year? In many ways, I feel as though I am just getting started in Morocco. So these are the things that I sit and think about while looking down into the Mancos Valley, gazing through the many layers of memory and time; trying to make it all fit.
On another day, I find myself driving along the ice-choked San Juan river outside of the town of Bluff, Utah. The snow lies thick upon the ground here also, drifted and swirled by the desert wind; each chamisa or snakeweed surrounded by a berm of pale crystal. The white sandstone cliffs that encircle Bluff rise before me and I know that I am close to my destination. Soon I begin to drive slowly through the town. There is the old trading post, closed and asleep beneath bare cottonwoods, the lodge on my left, the coffeehouse on my right. The town is tiny and quiet, it is also where I ultimately would like to settle down and live quietly with my family, at least in one fogged and distant possible future. The Twin Rocks Cafe is open for business and I pull into the gravel lot at the base of the steps.

Eating in this Cafe has long been one of my favorite pastimes when I am in this part of the world, I like to sit and eat, read the local paper, and listen to the conversations of the locals. Across from me, two older women strike up a conversation in Navajo and I listen to the ebb and flow of their beautiful language. I took a year of Navajo in college, and found the language incredibly difficult, but now after close to a year of speaking Tamazight, Navajo does not sound strange to me anymore; maybe I'll try learning it again. Another possible future.

Later, standing at the base of Comb Ridge next to the wash, I look up along the red and white teeth of the monocline as it stretches away to the north, fading with distance before being abruptly swallowed up but the volcanic laccolith of the Abajo Range. Cedar Mesa rises to the northwest, tiers of red stone stairstepping into the sky cleft to its base by the dark mouths of many canyons. Another place of layered memories, I stay there and look and listen to the desert around me. I look at the tracks of coyote, raven, mouse, and lizard imprinted in the soft dusting of snow at my feet and see where the ice has been broken for them to drink. Everywhere there is life and to me life in the desert is the most beautiful there is. Like a star in the night sky, life here blazes strong in the void and the land's harshness melts away before its vibrancy.


My time in the states came to a close after three weeks when, to my surprise I was ready to go back to Morocco. After saying goodbye to most of my family, my brother having left the week before to go back to college, I watched the landscape fade into faceless cloud as the plane to Denver climbed out of the airport and turned northward. My Dad accompanied me to Denver International Airport and we parted ways in at the gate, him to go to Chicago on business, and me to Frankfurt and finally back to Morocco where I would spend the rest of my term. Ten months down, sixteen remaining. The flight across the Atlantic was easy and painless and I landed in Frankfurt at midday with a ten hour layover to enjoy. As my bags were checked, I only had a small backpack with me so I exited through customs to go out into the city.

An hour or so later, after a bratwurst and paper cup of Gluwein (hot, mulled wine) sitting on a park bench in the square, I found myself walking along the River Rhine and looking out on the fog shrouded city of Frankfurt. I stopped inside a redstone church on the river bank and sat in a pew for awhile enjoying the warmth and the grey light streaming in through the stained glass windows. I was lost in my own thoughts for awhile and I am not sure how much time passed before I left the church and continued on to a small Beer Garden situated on an out of the way street corner. I enjoyed a tall tankard of German lager in the small cozy interior and talked the hostess into posting a “Bread, not bombs” sticker from a Durango Bakery behind the bar.

Looking at it, a little piece of home in the midst of foreign surroundings, it reminded me of myself; only, I am not sure where home is anymore. Is it with my family? They have their own lives now, and my brother is flourishing in Seattle which he seems to view as home now. But where is mine? After the strangeness of the last few weeks I began to realize that home was really wherever I happened to be. The Colorado Plateau will always be my place; I will always belong there. But now, I had reached a point where the concept of home has become more nebulous and abstract. I was surprised to discover, standing later on a bridge staring into the muddy waters of the Rhine, that Morocco now felt more like home than my parents’ house in Colorado; that I was looking forward to being back almost as much as I had anticipated my “homecoming”. I could never have discovered this without taking a trip back to Colorado and the epiphany filled me with an electric anticipation.


Seeing the spire of the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca from the airplane window, I knew that I had arrived back in Morocco and the rest of the day passed in a blur of airport activities. I had no trouble with baggage and I again found myself with my head resting against the train window as it rumbled through the foothills of the Rif Mountains toward Fes. Once there, I got a hotel room near the Bab Boujaloud, the tannery gate and main entrance to the Ancient Medina, and I fell into bed for eighteen hours, sleeping straight through the jet lag. Sitting early the next morning in a café by the Bab Boujaloud, I looked around at the scene before me. Men in flowing jelabas leading donkeys or pushing carts bustled back and forth through the gate. Sleepy school children wandered out from their homes deep in the medina and walked out through the gate to school carrying colorful backpacks. As I savored my coffee and harsha (a cornbread-like flatbread that’s great with honey) and looked at the Arabic script on the storefronts and at the towering minaret of the nearby mosque, I felt a sensation of relief come over me. I was back in the familiar, I was back to communicating in shaky Tamazight and broken Arabic, I was back to using Turkish toilets and questionable transportation. I was home, and it felt good.

As always, thanks for reading,


P.S. To my friends and family that I have once again left behind, I miss you already. Stay as awesome as only you can be!