Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jack Is Back

I have a Golden Retriever named Jack who will be 14 in December. It always upset him a little when I packed a suitcase to go on a trip, so last August, to spare him the big trauma of moving out of my apartment, I took him permanently to his new home with my former wife Mary, where he would be able to live out his days with two cats and someone who already knows and loves him.

The problem was, I missed him. I wrote a piece called “Missing Jack” a couple of weeks later but never quite finished it and never posted it to the blog. In it I talked about how he slept much of the time, and how he’d become so hard of hearing that he often didn’t notice me come in the door any more, and how much of our interaction had come to consist of a certain nearbyness and an occasional sigh.

In the busy-ness of getting ready for the trade show and preparations for Peace Corps departure, I accommodated myself to Jack’s absence. But now Peace Corps has been postponed, and last week, as I was beginning to settle into a routine here at the cottage, I again became aware of my aloneness and the emptiness of this big house. Coincidentally, and thoughtfully, Mary suggested that Jack move back in with me for these five months till I leave for Morocco.

“He’ll be happier with someone around all day,” she said.

“And so will I,” I said to myself.

 So yesterday, I picked up Jack and all his things and moved him up here to the cottage with me. He’s always loved the beach. As soon as we got here, he headed off toward it. It’s amazing how it quickens his step. For about 10 minutes he walks with a regal prance, races along the water’s edge, chases a seagull if one is handy, and screeches to a halt to sniff at something half-buried in the sand. In general he acts like the young dog he probably still, in his mind’s eye, imagines himself to be. I’ve included some pictures of our very windy beach walk. I also included one – more typical – of what greeted me this morning as I came down the steps from the top floor.

In one of his books, Henri Nouwen talks about the quality of the profoundly disabled people who lived at the home where he spent the last decade of his life and career and what it gave him. He calls it Presence. It's what I get from Jack, I think.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Morocco Bound!

I’ve received my official invitation to serve in Morocco. I immediately emailed my official acceptance, and on Friday I got their official receipt of my acceptance (this has possibilities for theater of the absurd, doesn’t it?).
I’m scheduled to depart in late March. My job will be different - an NGO development worker rather than an English teacher. I’ll be part of the first group of volunteers to serve in this new program, a pilot project to help community-based associations (CBAs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) improve their organization, management, accountability, capacity, etc.
Unusual with Peace Corps, I know in advance the general region where I’ll be working. It’s called the Tensift, an area in Central-Western Morocco made up of five provinces and including the major cities of Marrakesh and Essaouira, a port on the Atlantic Ocean. As best I can figure out, it’s roughly 150 miles by 150 miles (about the size of all of Lesotho), centered on the 32nd parallel (think Savanna, Georgia). Geographically, it’s made up of coastal plains in the west and the High Atlas Mountains in the east, including Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Winter weather could be spring-like on the plains to bitter cold in the mountains. Summer weather, hot and humid in the plains to just hot in the mountains. So packing will still be a challenge! If only I knew which part of the Tensift region….maybe they could just send me the address of where I’ll be living?
I’m pretty excited about Morocco. I get to learn Arabic, something I’ve always wanted to do, and I get to know the country. In my imagination, Morocco is the epitome of exotic – camels, belly dancers, incense, strange musical instruments, Kasbahs. What will it really be like? But I have a personal connection, too. My oldest brother, Hamid, was a Muslim convert who did the Hadj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and travelled to several other Muslim countries later in his life. He loved Morocco and spoke of it often with affection. Morocco is also close to Europe, a realistic and economical option in case I need a vacation from the exotic. I have a friend who owns a house in southern France; we’ve already made tentative plans for me to visit him there.
I’ve just begun my study of Morocco – with travel guides, what else! (Lonely Planet - thanks, John - and the Eyewitness Guide) – but I’m hungry for suggestions. I have five months, after all. Books, movies, send me your thoughts. In this age of the Internet, it’s easy just to Google it, of course, and I’m doing that, too. I’ll soon add a tab to this page, with links and other information on the country, language and culture, creating my own little portal to Morocco.
That's it for now. More soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is This a Test?

Of the ten “Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers,” the third on the list is “Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”
In July I received my invitation to serve as an education volunteer in Lesotho, a country I’d never heard of before (only later did I realize it was the country called Basutoland  in colonial days). I was scheduled to leave November 2.
In August, I moved out of my apartment, distributing most of my worldly possessions to friends and family, charitable organizations, and the junk yard, keeping only the things I intended to take with me to Africa. I moved into a cottage I own and began commuting 45 minutes each way to work.
In August and September, I helped my employer interview and hire my successor and set my last day at work for October 15. I also prepared for my trade association’s major event of the year, our annual fall trade show, which was held October 8-10.
Two days before I left for the trade show, Peace Corps sent me details on staging and departure for Lesotho. I called SATO travel, the Peace Corps’ travel agency and booked my flight.
The evening of October 12, two days after I came back from the trade show, I had a message on my cell phone telling me to call the Lesotho country desk. It was about 6:00 p.m. when I called, not sure I would still find someone there. But I did, and she told me, apologetically, that the Lesotho education group had been cancelled. The good news was that there were many other programs leaving in the next few months and they would put all of us Lesotho invitees at the top of the list for placement with those programs.
The next evening I got a call from the poor woman in the placement office whose job it was to find a spot for all 27 of us who had been assigned to Lesotho. It was late (about 7:00 p.m.), she said she was probably going to be working another 4 hours, and I could tell she was just opening my file as she said, “We’ll find something….” She paused and said, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many options for you.” (I have a medical restriction that prevents me from being sent to a malarial region – and almost all of Peace Corps’ programs are in malarial regions!) The earliest available departure for me would be January 28. After that, there was one in late March, then one in April, and another in May.
She emailed information on each of the possibilities. In the morning I emailed back with my preference. That evening, Thursday, the day before my last day on the job, she emailed back saying my choice would work. So, even though I haven’t yet received my official invitation, I know that I’m now scheduled to depart in late March (about five months after my original departure date) for Morocco as a non-profit development volunteer.
So my question is, “Is this a test…and do I pass?”

Actually, lest I leave the impression that I’m a whiner, I see that this situation – the tragic killing of the young man that I talked about in my last post – and Peace Corps’ decision to go into the country and do a security assessment – is an extreme example of why Expectation #3 is on that list. And, I must say, the Peace Corps staff have been most sympathetic, understanding, helpful, and efficient. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.
I’d been wishing I had a little more time between my last day at work and my departure. I’ve never had such a big chunk of time to do with as I please since I began my working career. Even though I hadn’t planned on not having an income for this length of time, I’ve decided to not to go out and find a job. Instead, I’m going to do some writing and lots of reading. There a couple of projects at the cottage I now can do instead of put on the shelf as “things to do when I get back.” And I can buff up my French and maybe get a start on Arabic. I’m going to read Paul Bowles and some of the Beats who found their way to Morocco and go back and look at the paintings of Matisse and Delacroix. That sounds like more than enough to fill up those five months already.
While this decision has caused a disruption in my plans, I’m sure I’m in an easier situation than some of the other 26 volunteers who were affected, and I feel for them. In these last two weeks, I’d planned to sell my car, change lots of addresses, discontinue various services, etc. But I hadn’t actually done those things yet, so I don’t have to undo them. I also have a wonderful place to live – a vacation home on Lake Michigan that I built between 1998 and 2001, photos of which you see in this blog, along with my view to the north and the south from the top floor porch. I’ve never even spent that much time there – a week or a weekend here and there – as my work schedule was especially busy in the summer. So now I’ll get five continuous months - glorious months, I'm sure. I’m looking forward to logging the changes in the weather, the beach, and the wildlife. The summer people have already left!.
I plan to continue this blog – and post to it more regularly (I should be able to, don’t you think!) – since, though I’ll be using these months just for themselves, they will also be preparation for my Peace Corps experience. I hope you'll stick with me.