Saturday, September 24, 2011

Six Months in Morocco

I just got back from Ouarzazate where I spent eight days in training and meetings. While I was there, my six-month anniversary in-country slipped past.

Six months is an important anniversary because…well, I’m not really sure why, but it seems like it should be. It’s such a tidy chunk of time – six months, half a year, a quarter of my Peace Corps commitment. During pre-service training, staff gave us a session on the emotional cycles of PCVs. Six months was typically a low point: you’re still having difficulty with the language, you haven’t done much tangible work yet, you’re isolated in a village where you don’t really have any close Moroccan friends and you’re separated from family and English-speaking friends by hours of travel or thousands of miles.

The footpath to Kalaa, with donkey
All those are true for me - check, check, check - though I can’t really say I’m feeling sad or useless (a word I heard more than once from staj-mates in Oz). However, I do sometimes wonder if I’m having any impact or how effective I am or ever can be. And I still have trouble articulating why I’m here – in English, let alone Tamazight!

And then this morning, I walked to Kalaa to check my mail and found a small package from a friend, Jessica, an artist who runs Springtide Press in Tacoma, Washington. It was a packet of her cards to help me with my color project (and state of mind, too, I'm sure). On top was a note card that said “Your brain is a map, your heart is a compass. Now find your way.” It wasn't exactly the meaning, but the the reassurance, that settled my spirits. And it complemented so well the motto I adopted shortly before entering the Peace Corps: “Proceed as the way opens.”

I went off to do my other errands.

I searched high and low for a pillow to fit the case that came with my hammock. Eventually, I found myself in a narrow shop that sold mattresses and bedding. At the back sat a young man behind a sewing machine – Hafid. Like all the others, he shook his head: No, he did not have one. “But I could make one for you,” he said. He showed me the materials he would use. “Fine,” I said, “When?” Right now. So while I watched, in about five minutes, he made a perfect, 60 cm square, soft pillow (not hard and heavy like most Moroccan pillows). I gave him the 40 dirhams ($5), we exchanged names and mtshrfin (pleased to meet you), and I went on my way

Next I went to a fabric shop. There’s a tailor there – Mohammed, a dwarf who stands about four feet high, with a hunchback and a club foot, and the sweetest smile you’ll ever see. I chat with him for a bit whenever I pass the shop. I thought it was his shop, but it turns out he’s hired help. Anyway, from the owner, I bought two pieces of fabric to help keep the dust and sand out of my book case and clothes chest. I asked Mohammed if he could hem the green one for me, which had unfinished edges. He was in the midst of sewing fringe on meters of black lace, a material women in my region traditionally wear slung over their shoulders. He interrupted what he was doing, threaded some green thread into his old Singer treadle sewing machine, and hemmed my piece of cloth. When I asked how much, he waved it off – walu (nothing) – he said with his sweet smile.

They're building a new bridge over the river...
When I went to the transit stop to catch a ride back to my town, the driver, who has been known to drop me far from my usual stop just because it happened to be inconvenient for him to go that far that day, told me he would wait while I ran to the city market to buy some olives. And he did!

In the afternoon, I met with some men who’ve formed an association to improve the road. Last time I was in Rabat, I’d bought a topographical map of the area and one of the Peace Corps staff members had pointed me to a couple of government agencies that fund this sort of high-cost work. The four of us spent about three hours checking the agencies’ websites, pouring over the map, brainstorming about the reasons our project should be funded – creating our “story” – and agreed to meet Sunday morning to drive the whole route to make notes and take pictures.

...but the road, itself, is little more than a rough 2-track.
It’s my running day (I run about 45 minutes every other day). About 6:00, when I took off, there was a light rain, and the wind was in my face. Off to my right, I could see the rain hanging from the clouds in brown wisps and in the distance a band of clear sky and an orange flat sun. Dusk is a time when there are many people on the road. When I first started running here, I was often met with jeers from teenagers and skeptical, or even hostile looks from adults. But now they know me. Little kids will run with me for 100 meters or so, teenagers nod in recognition, adults give me a thumbs up. Some people call me by name. Every now and then, someone will ask me to stop for tea, an invitation I have yet to accept – though some day I expect the time will be right.

When I got back to my house, it was nearly dark, with just a thin band of light silhouetting the Atlas Mountains and the electric lights of Kalaa floating in the pool of black in the middle ground. Fatima, one of my host sisters, and Sulayman, my six-year old host nephew, were at my door. I hadn’t seen him since I’d gotten back from Oz. He wanted to come in, but I told him I had to take a shower and would see him at dinner, which Fatima had just invited me to. When I got there an hour later, he had already fallen asleep. After dinner, his parents, Mohammed and Sadiya, and I left the house at the same time. Sulayman’s infant brother Ayman was in a sling on Sadiya’s back, Sulayman was walking in a sleepy stumble, clinging to the folds of his mother’s caftan. At the corner, where we separated to go our own ways, Sadiya said, “Say goodnight to Jamal.” Sulayman, rousing himself, twisted his skinny body this way and that until he spotted me in the dark, then blew me a kiss.

So, six months in-country. A landmark.


  1. Yes, a landmark indeed. I read your posts with interest regarding the choice I didn't choose. I love hearing about your life in Morocco and looking at the pictures while I am in Bulgaria. The places are very different, yet the experiences have so much in common. My processing the "journey," the challenges and the gifts. This post is an eloquent summary - thanks for sharing. Patricia S. PCV B-27, Legacy grouup

  2. Thanks. I read your posts as well and sometimes wonder "what if...?"