Thursday, November 27, 2008

A pilgrim’s lack of progress.

Unusually ominous clouds looming over my new town.

“Wesh nti wllfti?”

“Have you become used to it yet?”

That’s the question I face about a dozen times a day here in my new village.

Well, no – not quite yet. But then, it’s only been five days since the taxi plopped me down here in the dry desert heat of southern Morocco. As one shwiya bit of progress, at least I finally understand the question.

So far, I’m more than a little overwhelmed. With no translators to rely on, and no training mates to wind down with, every conversation is short and stilted and yet still beyond my ability to fully comprehend. A five-minute transaction can wear me out enough to sleep for 12 hours. I spend my days with brows furrowed, and surely my interlocutor can actually see the gears slowly grinding as a I try to piece together a sentence. Said sentence is always wrong, and said interlocutor considers it his/her personal mission to point out my error, repeatedly, until I say it correctly.

What dismays me most is how difficult it is to get past my own notions of what is and is not culturally appropriate. The notions of personal space or waiting one’s turn, of personal hygiene or public litter or household sanitation, of doing anything one one’s own (particularly if one is a woman), of walking unnoticed or uncommented on (if one is a gowria, or foreigner), of politeness (as a Westerner sees it) – all these notions and more are tilted some 180 degrees.

I knew all this, of course. But hearing about it isn’t the same as living it. How naïve I was, to think it wouldn’t bother me just because I chose to live this experience. Yet how disturbing to find that my own cultural norms are so deeply ingrained that adaptability is superceded by frustration, resentment – even anger. (It’s the seething anger that bothers me the most; I’m not sure where it comes from or why it continues to linger. I watch it, late at night as I ruminate over my day, and encourage it to pass on through.)

The point is not to show this culture the many errors of its ways, according to me. The mission is for me to adapt to what is here in front of me.

Believe me, I know how fortunate I’ve been in life. I’ve always had everything I ever needed and more – a variety of healthful and delicious foods, a clean and comfortable house, my own transportation, fulfilling work, spare time to spend doing things I enjoy, plenty of fresh air and beautiful outdoor space in which to inhale it, every toy or gadget or pretty little thing that diverts me for a moment.

Perhaps my biggest frustration is my overwhelming sense of guilt for being frustrated in the first place. Do my new counterparts ever get frustrated with the daily difficulties they’ve faced for generations? No; they wait patiently, chat contentedly over another pot of tea. Now is what matters, not what happened before or what might happen later.

I have much to learn.

Back home, today is Thanksgiving. Here, of course, it’s just another day. But I am taking a moment to be grateful for all that I have: Family and friends and family who care for me in every way possible; a lifetime of excellent health, buoyed by the ability to enjoy good nutrition and time to exercise; a free, well-rounded education that allowed me to pursue any career path I chose; the great good fortune to be able to pack up my life and do as I wish; all of the luxuries I have taken for granted; the independence I also apparently have taken for granted; and so much more.

And particularly grateful for the little brother, who despite being a year older tomorrow somehow still has yet to catch up to me.

Quotes of the day.

“If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” – Erica Jong

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I swear.

“I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.”

– Nadia Comaneci

As of this afternoon, I’m now longer a lowly trainee but a bona fide Peace Corps volunteer. A two-hour bus ride to a zwin hotel in Fes, a half-hour ceremony, an hour or so of hors d’ouevres and small talk, and a two-hour bus ride back to the dorms. Safi. Tomorrow we hit the road by bus or train or taxi or some combination thereof, going our separate ways to our new homes.

Like any ending, this one doesn’t feel quite real yet. And like any ending, it is in fact a beginning.

Our final days of training ended rather anticlimactically as well. As if reliving my college days, I procrastinated studying for the final language exam, tried to cram at the last minute, got frustrated and felt sure I would fail. Instead, I managed to score Intermediate Low; only needed Novice High to “pass.” (Failure to “pass” only means scoring more money for private tutoring; I half thought to bomb it on purpose, but my overachieving nature got the better of me.)

A new year.

Far from home, I was wondering whether my birthday would pass unnoticed.

I needn’t have worried; friends near and far made this truly a special day.

Jill sent an entire kit of handcrafted goods, from a new market bag to an iPod cozy to an entire collection of adorable notepads to this rockin' headband:

Melissa and Naomi chipped in the hippest pair of over-the-knee cable-knit socks this side of the Atlantic, as well as some Jhumpa Lahari.

The divine Miz K begifted me an iTunes download of the new Lila Downs CD (awesome, btw!) And my family showered me with phone calls and blessed cash and handmade cards and letters from the little ones.

Here at the training site, I got an amazing dinner when my friends Trish, Christa, Kristen, Eric and So-Yoon hijacked the cafeteria kitchen and produced eggplant parmesan and a yummy lemon cake.

Trish also added to my bandana collection with a specimen from her previous life in China

… and Candace gave me a lovely beaded frame with a photo of us together in Marrakesh.

I’ve known these people only a few months, and some are already family in my heart. And of course my family at home, by birth or by choice: I miss you more than I can say.

The only birthday disappointment: I was expecting parades in the street. Nov. 18 is also Morocco’s Independence Day, a holiday that passed practically unnoticed here.

A year ago, on the big 4-0, I was traipsing around Mount Lemmon outside Tucson with my dear friend Krista. I’d just received my Peace Corps nomination and was navigating the long road to medical clearance. I remember I felt quite serene, sure that I had chosen the right path.

Now I’m not sure of anything. I’m about to move to a town where I can’t speak the language, where I have to teach my own language with no background in teaching, in a place where the simplest tasks can take all day and the infrastructure to which I’m accustomed is a rare and distant luxury. (Read: Squat toilets and bucket baths!)

I have no idea what I’m doing.

And yet … I continue to feel this odd sense of calm, even when the culture shock is at its most trying. I know I am becoming stronger and more patient. I have an amazing opportunity to experience a sliver of the world as the vast majority live it – and, perhaps, to pare life down to its essentials. Despite many trepidations, I look forward to seeing what comes out of all this.

Hokey, perhaps, but here’s an image from a session on stress management: A tree that is battered with continuous wind from a single direction will actually grow more cells on the side facing the wind, in order to strengthen itself against the blows. And it’s the roots, widening below the surface, that keep it standing in the fact of the constant barrage.

What you can do.

I’ve had the luxury, these past few months, of being surrounded by others who speak my native language and understand my culture and lifestyle and expectations. I’ve made some wonderful friends during training, some of whom will live nearby and others who I am sad to be so far away from.

But I know, especially in these first few months, being the only foreigner in my town will lead to the occasional bout of loneliness. Inshallah I will keep myself too busy to get homesick, but there will be times when I will be even more eager for connections with y’all at home.

You’ve no idea how much even a short note or phone call can boost one’s spirits during those times. I guess what I’m saying is: Keep in touch, eh?

PS to Jenny’s dad: How kind of you to keep the dar chebab on your radar! Your daughter set such a strong foundation here. The village adores her and will miss her greatly; I have a lot to live up to.

More photos.

Artisan weaver.

Limun (orange) seller.

The man who made it all possible: Lahcen, our intrepid language instructor.

Entering Fes.

Staged photo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

At home.

My new host “mother” (right) with her niece and eldest daughter.

Just spent a week in my new home, a dry, warm, beautiful small village in the south of Morocco. If you look on a map and find the beach resort city of Agadir down south on the coast, and Taroudant a ways inland, I am in between the two. For security reasons, I won’t name the town here on my blog; drop me an email if you want more information.

I am already so in love with this place and look forward to doing some good work here. Originally, I’d requested a large site, but as soon as I saw it I knew this was a good fit for me. Close to a large city where I can find anything I might need and get away on the occasional weekend, but the town is very manageable and I won’t face as much harassment because everyone will know me. Even so, during my visit I got the usual leers and catcalls from (mostly) young men, and some little boys threw rocks. It’s all part of the celebrity dynamic though, and it’ll die down as soon as people get to know me.

This is a very small (population about 7,000), new town, created in the ’50s when the king sold off royal land so Berbers could create orange groves. That’s the main business, and the village is surrounded by duoars, or neighborhoods, full of orange grove workers. A lot of corn fields lie further east, and also a lot of olive trees and argan trees; argan oil is very expensive and supposedly the best for both cooking and facial products. Goats like to climb the argan trees and nibble the leaves. I’ve also seen a few camels around.

The landscape is amazing … very southwestern U.S., with red soil and prickly pear and sagebrush, with craggy mountains surrounding and snow-capped peaks beyond those. Kind of like Arizona’s mountains bumping right up against the Rockies. It does get chilly at night, but nothing like the alpinelike villages where we’ve been training. Sure, it’ll be 120 or so in the summer, but I can deal with that in exchange for a temperate winter!

The surrounding orange groves are a short bike ride away and will be a lovely, peaceful place to exercise. Apparently the youths at my dar chebab love to take long weekend bike rides, so that will be a great way to get acquainted.

The people here seem quite nice, and there’s a lot of potential for work. Besides the dar chebab where I’ll do most of my work, there’s a nedi neswi, or women’s center, that teaches life/marriage skills to young women. I hope to do some type of work there, as well as at two boardinghouses for teenagers from the duoars who live in town during the school week. Some type of girls club seems like a natural place to start; girls especially have little to do here.

My new host family is quite sweet and quite poor. They have satellite TV and Internet, but virtually no furniture. The salon (living room) has become my bedroom, which I feel badly about because the family could use the space. I sleep on a mat on the floor, wash with a bucket of warm water, and wake to the sounds of the goats and chickens living on the roof. I am trying not to be a sissy about a way of life that is normal for the vast majority of the world. I still can’t believe it sometimes, the adventure I’m having. But there are times when it’s quite difficult to adapt.

The volunteer I’m replacing was a godsend during my visit. She’s so organized and went out of her way to help me get introduced and acclimated around town. And she’s short like me, so she’s leaving me her bike and a lot of her clothes! She was the first volunteer the town has ever had, and she did a lot of good work, so I have a lot to live up to.

One highlight of last week was staying up all night with said volunteer to watch the election results roll in. They sure were able to call it quickly – it was about 3 a.m. our time. I’m pretty cynical these days, but even I teared up at Obama’s acceptance speech. I’m pretty proud to be representing the United States at such a pivotal time in history.

Other volunteers live in several nearby sites, so I’ll have friends to hang out with on the weekends. And I’m 3 to 5 hours from Marrakesh, the wonderfully bustling international tourist enclave that will be my overnight point when I travel. Spent one night there on the way down and was enthralled by the tiny taste it gave me of Djemma el Fna, the main square where anything and everything can happen.

When I return for good I’ll get a post-office box set up, and then bring on the care packages! One or two Polarfleece or long sweaters would be great, but otherwise I shouldn’t need the warm clothing I’d begged for earlier. Hamdullah! A few cheap things from Target would mean the world to me. But I’m also learning to adapt to what is available here and (inshallah) what I can afford.

Language barriers will make things hard for a good while. I’ve got a line on a good tutor, an English teacher at the high school. It was inspiring to see how fluent the current volunteer is after two years; she swears that when she first arrived, she was as tongue-tied as I am now.

Nervous as hell about returning and negotiating my new life without being able to communicate easily. But I am truly thrilled with the location, I can see innumerable (that’s for the Bookstore Maven!) opportunities for working with people here, and I can already see ahead six months to when this will truly feel like home.

Swearing in is Nov. 20, two days after my 41st birthday. Hard to believe this new life less than two weeks away.

Photos from my new village.

Hanging in the dar with my host sister.

Rooftop barnyard.

Front door of the apartment where I hope to live after my homestay.

The street where I’ll live … note the dentist’s sign, Dad!