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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 cafĂ© 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!