Monday, May 11, 2009

In the field(s).

This weekend I met up with the other volunteers in my region for a gourmet picnic hosted by the talented and cheery health PCV Michelle. We gathered to mourn the imminent departure of several health and environment volunteers, who are two weeks away from the end of their two-year service, and to welcome the newly initiated volunteers who will be moving into their communities.

A short hike from Michelle’s remote duoar brought us to a pastoral clearing where we layed out blankets and the feast Michelle had prepared, along with the yummy, heart-shaped carrot cake Joy prepared in my kitchen that morning. The weather was simply perfect for a picnic – not sweltering hot as it had been most of the previous week. A girl from the village flirted shamelessly with all of us as we idly tried to stretch out the afternoon as long as possible.

I don’t know when I’ve had a lazier, more enjoyable meal. Now that I’m home, however, I begin to realize that the mosquitoes had quite a feast of their own.

The outgoing PCVs will be missed. They’ve been a source of sanity, great advice and such good humor and optimism when I’ve been overwhelmed. I hope we can sufficiently pay it forward to the incoming crew.

Also on my day off I bought what may have been the last strawberries available in Taroudant, the only kilo I saw anywhere today. And no cherry tomatoes to be found. But the fruit seller tossed in a handful of red plums with my berries, juicy small plums sweet like bonbons. Peaches have arrived as well, and melons. Before I know it summer will bring pomegranates, tiny candies better than Skittles.

The fields surrounding my village, undulating waves of wheat just a week ago, are being harvested, bundled and stacked up neatly like so many pencils. As I pass through them on my morning walks I hail and am hailed by women (and some men) working in the fields. Already, next door to the wheat fields now reduced to stubs, expanses of green stand out in the desert landscape; the next crop is coming along nicely, whatever it is. This Nebraska girl doesn’t know her cash crops.

But I am pulling in a crop of my own. Months later than optimal, I finally procured some decent soil (gave a giant Ziploc to a student, who brought it back filled with dirt from her family’s farm) and started a few seeds on my balcony. Basil and parsley and garlic chives, the only herbs I had on hand. Really want to grow my own mint, my favorite for the simple pleasure of tearing off a leaf and crushing it for its scent, or popping it in my mouth. Instant pleasure.

Fruits and crops and fellow volunteers already have come and gone in my short time here. Can it really be nearly six months since I arrived in my village? Aside from the basil, what harvest do I bring; what do I have to show for my time here?

Not much, I’m afraid is the answer.

Workwise, I’m frustrated. The youth center remains closed while the new building sits halfway finished. Another two weeks I’m told; I’m betting that means another month at least – long after school closes for the summer and kids tend not to hang around town.

I keep on doing as best I can. I’m arranging an AIDS education event in a couple of weeks, with an amazing organization based in Taroudant and a local theater troupe. My women’s class still meets faithfully three times a week, although it’s far more about socializing than about studying, which is fine by me. Still tutor a few older girls, in my home or theirs.

But I’m constantly stood up by students and adults alike. I never know if my day will work as planned or if I’ll have the “gift” of an extra hour to read or study while I’m waiting for an appointment that never materializes. My hopes for working at the girls boarding school have yet to come off, and the director of my youth center won’t return my messages so I can set a meeting for us to make a plan for the coming summer. In the midst of all this, I’m supposed to start lining up five scholarship students for summer English camp in El Jadida. Hard to do when I don’t have a dar chebab where I can hang out with the kids I’m supposed to be serving.

Last week, my program manager from Peace Corps headquarters in Rabat came for a visit. I was next to last on the list; he visits all new volunteers before the six-month mark. He seemed to think things were going fine here, considering my current circumstances. Patience once again seems to be the lesson I am supposed to be learning here.

The lack of work leads to plenty of time for introspection. At times the solitude is welcome. Other times, I feel far more than an ocean and a few time zones away from everyone I love. While I have friends here, I cannot achieve the level of understanding that comes with years of closeness and common experiences (not to mention a shared language). The loneliness catches me unawares at times, sneaking up from behind so I don’t even see it coming until I suddenly find myself feeling utterly alone in the world. It’s easy to fall off the radar (of friends and family alike) when I’m not in the daily line of sight; it’s easy to feel forgotten, abandoned even, when of course it is I who did the leaving.

And to what end, my leaving? Paul Theroux, one of my favorite authors and one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, has a long piece in this month’s Conde Nast Traveler. He writes about the benefits, individually and collectively, of the U.S. sending volunteers into remote locations overseas to better understand – and, where we can, to help – the greater world in which our culture, we too easily forget, is just one part of the whole. While I agree with most of what Theroux writes, he holds a fairly elitist view of his early service, at a time when Peace Corps meant nearly complete disassociation from the greater world for two years. He pokes a bit of fun of the idea of Peace Corps in an age of Internet and cell phones, when he managed without even electricity or running water.

“What sort of a life is it,” Theroux writes, “when, on the days when things are going bad, you are able to dial Mom for consolation? The experience should involve remoteness, inconvenience, hardship, even risk; isn't that the whole point of being away?”

Hm. Is it? I thought the point was to serve our fellow humans and to share our cultures. I don’t know that physical hardship is required. Certainly I expected such challenges when I accepted my original invitation, which would have placed me in remote Tanzania, possibly in exactly the circumstances Theroux describes. For completely unrelated reasons, I ended up here in Morocco instead. I have the luxury of electricity, running water (and a water heater), comfortable sofas and, yes, Internet and telephone service. That places me squarely within the norm for the region in which I’m living.

Instead, I face different challenges. It is never easy to be accepted into a new community, less so when every single thing about you – hair and skin color, language, gregariousness, even gait – screams “foreign!” Every cultural norm ingrained back home – that people queue up in lines at the post office rather than press, en masse, toward the counter, waving arms and shouting demands; that garbage is deposited in dumpsters that will be emptied and hauled away on a regular basis, not thrown into the street or the hallway of my apartment building; that I go for a run, or even a walk in my own neighborhood, unhindered by men circling me on motorbikes; that my efforts to do good in the world and to learn another language will be welcomed with patience and interest, not suspicion and belittlement – all of these expectations are turned on their head here. It is up to me to adapt to my new surroundings, not the other way ‘round.

And yet, for every strange difference that makes me feel as if I’m straddling a crevasse between two universes, there is at least one moment in which I am instructed that “huma huma” – people are people, everywhere. The man who just (to my mind) harassed me in the street can be seen a block away, tenderly stooping to kiss a toddler’s cheeks. The woman who just jostled me in line will, if I smile and joke with her, be the first to tell everyone else that I’m a dear thing who’s actually learning Arabic and actually lives right here in our town. The field workers I pass on my morning runs will not only wave, they’ll insist I come home for tea even though they don’t know a thing about me except that I'm passing through their sphere.

For every challenge, whether it’s homesick loneliness or inept communication skills or a life ethic that dares to put people before work, there is a lesson and a reward. May I be able to see every challenge for the lesson that it is.

Excitement of the week: The water main that broke and flooded my village, including the highway. Here’s Mohammed, the 16-year-old who works (along with everyone else) 14-hour days in the supermarket downstairs, surveying the damage:

Milestones marked: One-year anniversary since quitting my newspaper job of 20 years.

Currently reading:In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World,” Elizabeth Dodd

Currently listening: podcasts newly discovered from the Council on Foreign Relations

More picnic photos.

Cultural exchange.

Using a knife to open the closed fly on new Eurotrash denim purchased for the trip home

Packing up the pic-i-nic

Gourmet breakfast, too

Quintessential Peace Corps gathering: Leave your hard-worn shoes at the door


Melissa said...

Ah, Becki, I love the taste of mint as well. That sweetness and sting to your senses. It sounds like your journey to Morroco shares both qualities. Sending you hugs from here!

Rachel said...

Great Post Becki! I can't wait to see you at IST!

faye cassell said...

Your village made the 2M national news with the flooding! I was watching the story with some friends. Guess you're glad you didn't get an apartment on the ground floor, yek?