Thursday, September 29, 2011

Feeling Like a Goldfish in a Bowl

When my Peace Corps recruiter interviewed me at the Peace Corps office in Oakland just over two years ago, a couple of weeks after I had submitted my online application to be a PCV, he asked me a lot of questions, all of which were very appropriate. In the midst of those questions, he explained that in many towns and villages where PCVs live and serve, some people have never previously seen a US citizen. He added that a citizen of the US potentially might look very different to them than citizens of their own country. He then continued that, consequently, people might stare at PCVs. He then asked me something roughly like, "How are you going to deal with a lot of people staring at you as you walk down the street?" It was a very appropriate question, because when a PCV lives abroad, people often do stare at the PCV.

Indeed, I was led to write this particular blog entry because my experience here in Morocco provides a reliable example of the phenomenon which the recruiter described to me, of how a PCV might sometimes feel like a goldfish in a bowl, receiving stares. Last week the school year began here in Morocco. It reminded me of how I was very conscious, when I first started living here in my town, of how I received many stares as I walked down sidewalks and streets, amongst schoolkids who were loitering and going to and from school.

Not only have I not escaped stares here in my town, I have received stares here despite the presence of other non-Moroccans in my town. Tourists frequently visit my town, in order to see the palmeries and the rest of the desert landscape here. Further, I'm not the first PCV to have lived here in my town. Thus Moroccans living in my town have seen many non-Moroccans for years.

However, I have received, and still receive, stares here, from people of many different ages, because, in Morocco, it is not considered rude to stare at others. Without learning about such cultural phenomena as this one, one could potentially become quite unnerved and irritated. It's important to take the time to learn about cultural norms, so that one understands what is happening when it does happen. Of course, partly one learns about cultural norms while living in another country. But I suggest that upon arriving in a foreign country, it's best to deepen the understanding of the culture which, hopefully, one started to acquire through research one did before arriving in the host country, the foreign country.

One can then have a deeper, more educational and more satisfying experience in that foreign country. Regardless of the amount of research you've done before arriving in the host country, though, remember to consider the perspective of the other person, and how that person's life experiences have shaped his or her perspective. Having done so, you'll be in a better position to help achieve the third goal of the Peace Corps, that is, to help citizens of the U.S.A. gain a better understanding of people of other cultures.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gone Food Shoppin'

When I was in the city at the beginning of last week, I took the opportunity to go shopping in one of the supermarkets there. When Moroccans call a store a supermarket, or a "supermarché," as they are called in French, Moroccans are often referring to a store which would be too small to be considered a supermarket in the U.S.

As I've mentioned in previous blog entries, when I'm here in my town, I buy food at hanoots (which is the Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, word for a grocery store of sorts, and which often is a stall carved out of the front of a building with a counter at its front). Typically a hanoot is so small that you just walk up to the counter. You don't walk into the hanoot, because there's no doorway, there's just the counter. In that case, you ask the person (almost invariably a man, at least down here in rural southern Morocco) for what you want, and he brings it to the counter for you. Sometimes a hanoot is large enough that you can walk inside and peruse items on the shelves and bring them to the counter yourself. However, given that I live in a town of less than ten thousand people, not a city, there are items which I can't get when I go shopping at the hanoots here in my town.

So, when I go to the nearest city, which has a population of tens of thousands, I usually visit a supermarché and buy items there which I can't get in my town. A supermarché here in Morocco is often about twice the size of what we would usually call a corner store in the U.S. Sometimes in the supermarché I can buy things which I can't buy in my town; other times in supermarchés, there are more varieties of items than I can buy from hanoots in my town. For example, last week at a supermarché there in the city, I bought some applesauce, which I can't buy in my town. Given how much Moroccans sweeten their food and drink, unsurprisingly I found the applesauce to be too sweet for my liking. However, it was still nice to have it. Much more often, at either of the two supermarchés there in that city, I buy peanut butter, which I also can't get here in my town. There's one brand of peanut butter which has entire peanut halves mixed throughout the peanut butter. There's another brand which manufactures both creamy peanut butter and crunchy peanut butter, both of which are just like peanut butter you can buy in the U.S.

In some cities, such as El Jadida and Rabat, there are slightly larger supermarchés, perhaps four times the size of a corner store in the U.S., which consequently have more variety, and which belong to a chain. When I visited one of them for the first time in El Jadida, I was amazed (coming from the perspective of living in rural Morocco) at the variety of yogurt available in that supermarché. I noted to my friend and fellow PCV Ben that one side of part of one aisle, a part of the aisle which probably ran for 25 to 30 feet, stocked an unbroken stretch of yogurt. I can, and do, buy yogurt in my town, but not from such a wide variety.

Moving beyond supermarchés of these aforementioned sizes here in Morocco, there are stores here in Morocco which citizens of the U.S. indeed would consider supermarkets. In large cities, including Fes and Marrakech (each of which has a population of about 1 million people), one can visit these large supermarkets. Again, sometimes one can buy things at these large supermarkets which one can't buy in a rural town, or, someone has more choices amongst varieties of items than one can buy in a rural town.

Frankly, though, I don't find myself feeling any strong need or desire to visit and shop at these largest supermarkets here in Morocco. Even when I go to the small supermarchés in a city here in southern Morocco, I'm not buying things which I need--I'm buying products which give me a little taste of home, which are nice to have, but which I don't have to have. I'm thankful to have such supermarchés fairly close to my town, but I realize that they're a luxury, not a necessity.

Thus one can try to be conscious of the distinction between necessary sustenance, and food and drink which are simply nice to have. And that in buying certain food, which is not essential, but which is nice to have, one is buying things which one can buy because one has enough money to buy it. Thus one can see certain purchases as reflecting one's wealth.

However, one can also choose to notice a disparity in wealth as reflected in changes in location within a country. One can choose to be conscious of a disparity in wealth while shopping in urban Morocco as opposed to when shopping in rural Morocco. One can see this disparity in multiple ways.

Partly this disparity is reflected in how one gets to one of these large supermarkets in urban Morocco as compared with how one gets to a hanoot in rural Morocco. Most people shopping at the large supermarkets in urban Morocco drive there, though one can also take a bus or a taxi to some of these large supermarkets. I think that relatively few people walk to these large supermarkets in urban Morocco. By contrast, virtually all rural Moroccans will walk to a hanoot to shop. Indeed, the vast majority of people living here in my town don't own cars.

One also can witness a disparity in shopping between urban Morocco and rural Morocco in the denominations of bills customers use. It's far less likely to be problematic for a customer to pay a grocery bill with a 200 dirham note in a large supermarket in urban Morocco than it is to be difficult at a hanoot in rural Morocco. Although a 200 dirham note is equivalent to about 25 dollars in the U.S., if you want to buy a week's worth of groceries with a 200 dirham note at a hanoot in rural Morocco, as another PCV put it, it's like trying to use a 100 dollar bill in the U.S. Since smaller amounts of currency are flowing in and out of stores in rural Morocco, it's consequently harder to get change for a large bill.

Thus even when doing something as mundane and simple as grocery shopping, we have the opportunity to practice being conscious. To notice what is going on around us, and how we fit into it, and what our part in it is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Balancing Community Interaction With Rest and Solitude

At the beginning of this week, I was in a city here in southern Morocco for a regional meeting with other PCVs and Peace Corps staff. We were discussing upcoming work projects on which we might collaborate over the next several months. I was glad that we had that regional meeting, since during the summer, I have had less work. I left the meeting looking forward to more work on the horizon.

I actually arrived in the city the day before the meeting started. On the day I arrived in the city, I was happy to go to a Bible study session with the group of expatriate Christians I had met there in that same city during Easter weekend.

Since Easter, at times I tried to return there for Bible study with that same group, but they weren't meeting when I was able to go there. On other occasions when I would've gone there for Bible study with them, I've had work commitments, and travel, including to the U.S., which have prevented me from returning for Bible study. Also, the Peace Corps expects us PCVs to spend the majority of our time in our sites, in our towns where we live. Consequently, from time to time, I had also felt that I should refrain from returning out of a need to spend enough time here in my town.

Thus while it's important to find support through community, it's also important to strike a balance while doing so. As I mentioned in my post last month entitled "Tips for PCVs and PCTs," it's important to find an appropriate balance between spending time with host country nationals, spending time with other citizens of the U.S., who are usually PCVs, and spending time alone.

We feed different parts of ourselves depending on whose company we happen to be sharing. As PCVs, it's important for us to spend enough time with host country nationals in our towns, since we are here largely to engage in cultural exchange. And we can, and hopefully do, find a sense of community in our own villages and towns. Of course, we feel a different sense of community when we spend time with other citizens of the U.S., who are usually PCVs. And each of us has our own particular need for time alone, in which we can recharge and reflect. The key is finding a balance between spending time with host country nationals, other PCVs and time alone. Having found a healthy and appropriate balance, one is far more likely to be successful as a PCV.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Calling Home as a PCV

I had a great day yesterday. I got to introduce Stan, the other, newer PCV living in my town, to more community members. The moudir (director) of the Dar Chebab (youth center) where I do most of my volunteering, walked with us around town, so Stan got to see a little more of the town.

After that, I wrote my blog entry yesterday, which brought me much joy to write. If you've got a message which can be a source of strength, support, learning, joy and community, don't keep it inside you; share it, so that others may benefit from it.

Stan and I met to have dinner to celebrate the one year anniversary of my arrival here in Morocco. At first, we went to the cafe here in town which serves pizza, but unfortunately the guy who makes the pizza wasn't there. Instead we ate at a cafe in the middle of town which serves rotisserie chicken and French fries, with a small accompanying plate of diced tomatoes and onions, and also with bread. By the end of the meal, I was surprised that the cats there at that cafe hadn't asked us for some of our chicken. I told Stan that the other time when I had that chicken meal at that cafe, the cats repeatedly and vocally solicited me for some food. There are many feral cats in Morocco!

Then I called my parents in the U.S. A while ago, I got hip to how it's cheapest to call the U.S. from Morocco using a calling card. I pay 20 dirhams for a card which gives me about 12.5 minutes of time to the U.S. It's roughly 8 dirhams to each dollar; thus the calling card lets me call at the rate of between 17 and 18 cents a minute. I say this mostly so my readers in the U.S. will have an idea of what the calling rate on a calling card here is.

When one PCV says to another PCV how much something here in Morocco costs in U.S. dollars, the other PCV often responds, "Remember, we get paid in dirhams, not in dollars." Essentially we usually remind each other to evaluate expenses in the currency of the host country, not in U.S. dollars, for at least two reasons. Usually the same item won't cost the same in each country; also, since we're getting paid, and spending, in the host country currency, we should evaluate our expenses in the host country currency. And, we're here in the host country, not in the U.S.! So we try to think in terms of the host country currency.

Earlier in my time in Morocco, I called the U.S. using my cell phone, which was quite expensive, costing between 8 to 9 dirhams per minute. So those of you in the U.S. have an idea of how much that is, it costs the equivalent of a little over a dollar per minute. Hence I stopped using my cell phone to call the U.S.

At this point, I mostly use my cell phone to call within Morocco. Every other PCV in Morocco has a cell phone. There was a PCV here in Morocco who didn't have a cell phone, and the Peace Corps here in Morocco told him to get a cell phone. He replied that he didn't want one. Peace Corps Morocco told him that they needed him to get one for security purposes. In other words, they needed him to have one so that they could contact him quickly in an emergency, just like the rest of us who already had cell phones. So, in the end, he got a cell phone.

There are some PCVs in Morocco who have contracts for cell phone service. They're signed up to have cell service for the rest of their terms as PCVs.

Rather than signing up for a contract for cellular phone service, I decided to use my cell phone with "recharges," which I buy at cell phone service provider stores, or at grocery stores or electronic gadget stores. I visit such a store and tell the person in the store in whatever amount I want to recharge my phone. The vendor then sells me a card for that denomination of money; I scratch the back off of part of the card, and send a text message containing the code which I just uncovered to the phone company with which I have cell service. That phone company then recharges my phone for the amount of the credit which I have just bought.

In Morocco, a few different companies provide cell service. One company often has specials giving credit double or triple what one has just paid. If they're having a double dirham special, someone can pay 20 dirhams, but get 40 dirhams of credit. Another company, however, always gives someone triple dirham credit if someone pays for a recharge of at least 50 dirhams. Thus if someone knows they're going to use the minutes in the long run, then it pays to recharge for a larger amount.

I just told you in a long-winded way that I used a calling card to call my parents in the U.S. When using these calling cards, I go to public phones to place the calls. So I took a brief walk to a public phone, waited a little while for a woman to stop using the phone, then called my folks. I'm certainly grateful that I can call the U.S., cognizant of how technology now exists that PCVs didn't have in years past. I'm also thankful that I can call the U.S., because I know that not every PCV today has that luxury.

However, I also know that while I have luxuries and conveniences here that other PCVs don't have, other PCVs also have conveniences which I don't have. I think that the key during one's service as a PCV is not to bemoan what one doesn't have, but rather to appreciate and enjoy whatever one does have.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Exodus: My One Year Anniversary in Morocco

"Open your eyes,
and look within:
are you satisfied
with the life you're living?"
- Bob Marley

I have long loved the above quotation, from the song entitled "Exodus" by Bob Marley. For two decades, in fact, I have tried to live by it, which has meant asking myself the above question at different points in my life. This has been an inquiry which has been easy for me.

It has been easy for me to see when I am happy as well as contented, when I feel fulfilled, when my being is joyous. I try to pay attention to, and thus it's fairly easy to see, what elicits and fosters these feelings in me. It's easy to ask myself these questions. Years ago, it became clear to me that I feel best when helping others. And it didn't take me long to figure out what my skills are, and thus to ascertain how I can best help others.

Thus I came to the conclusion that I should leave the job which I left last year. Although I felt fulfilled in that job, was grateful to be helping others, considered my co-workers to be blessings in my life, and respected them and the work which they were competently, compassionately, and passionately doing, I felt with a good deal of clarity that I had to move on, because my answers lay elsewhere.

Hence the inquiry was easy. And the general conclusion to leave was easy, despite, for so many reasons, how comfortable I was there with them.

Accepting the answers, on the other hand, at times has not seemed as easy. I consciously use the verb "to seem" rather than the verb "to be" in the previous sentence. As I've tried to suggest in previous blog entries, I have been coming to realize that my feelings of contentment, fulfillment and joy have largely depended on how I choose to perceive what happens in my life. And, now, in this paragraph, I am suggesting that it's up to me how easy the answers seem to be. If I choose to perceive the answers as being difficult to accept, then they will be difficult to accept. If I choose to perceive the answers as being easy to accept, then they will be easy to accept.

While I did not feel especially challenged in my inquiry into whether to leave my job last year, at first the answer of what specifically I should do next did not seem as easy, as I suggested in my very first blog entry, entitled "Up Until Now." I grappled with the idea of joining the Peace Corps, and finally accepted this path one day as I was sitting in church. I changed my perspective, and accepted God's way, rather than resisting it. I knew that there would be difficulties, and challenges, and I chose to confront them, knowing that I would be strengthened in meeting those challenges, because I was accepting God's way, of love and truth.

Perhaps because I approached the Peace Corps from this direction, I appreciated how the Bob Marley song "Exodus" spoke to me about my spiritual journey which has included joining the Peace Corps. When I was on a bus on my way to Spring Camp earlier this year, I was listening to this song. At that point in my time here in Morocco, I had adapted a good deal to life here in Morocco, thus I had just started to feel that I could survive my two years of Peace Corps service here in Morocco. Hence I was listening to the song with a sense of exhausted relief and gratitude, the kind of gratitude one feels after having completed an especially harrowing part of a journey, when one feels that although there are further challenging parts of the journey ahead, that the worst of it has passed, that one has, in effect, been safely shepherded through the stormiest, most trying periods.

Having felt resonance with this song as I listened to it during that bus ride, I later began to inquire why it especially resonated with me at that particular moment. At first, the most basic associations arose in my mind.

Having started to read the Bible with the first chapter of Genesis on November 27 last year, which was my first full day living in my town here in the Sahara, and having read some of it every single day since then until I read the last chapter of the Book of Revelation on August 29 this year, I thought of how I had read the Book of Exodus. Then I immediately began to think more of this association, guided, in part, by Bob Marley's treatment of that book in his song of the same name. In that song, Bob Marley sings, "Exodus: Movement of the People." The Book of Exodus describes the exodus, or movement, of the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. I thought of the similarity of their leaving Egypt, and my having left the U.S. I also thought of how they left Egypt and went into the desert, and how I left the U.S., and came into the Sahara Desert. Of course, my inquiry did not end there.

I thought of how God delivered them out of slavery and out of the desert. And I thought of how I have trusted in God, how he has safely delivered me thus far, and how I know that He will continue to safely deliver me. And in continuing my inquiry further, I thought of how I am on a journey of faith, just as the Jewish people were, when God delivered them out of Egypt. I took a leap in starting a new life, just as the Jewish people took a leap and started a new life when they left Egypt. However, to state it merely so, and not explain it further, would be incomplete, since it was a leap of faith which I took. As the Jewish people had faith in God when He delivered them out of Egypt, so I had faith in God when I took the leap of faith to enter the Peace Corps.

And as I've previously noted, God has provided for me. For that, I have been extremely grateful. For that, I thank God.

But what if tragedy struck? What if dire, calamitous circumstances, on a scale which I have never before experienced, arose in my life? Unfortunately, in such circumstances, some people lose their faith. Or, if they are not already believers, they justify their disbelief by asking how God could allow such misfortune to occur. However, what it seems that they fail to realize, is that we gain strength through adversity. It is exactly when times are hardest, and test us most, that we have the best, most promising, most valuable opportunities to grow. In his book "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief," Francis Collins asks, "Have you learned more about yourself when things were going well, or when you were faced with challenges, frustrations and suffering?"

It was in this vein that I have tried to learn from the unexpected and tragic deaths of loved ones. My friend Liz died nearly eight years ago, when she had been married less than a couple of years, and when she was five months pregnant. As if that didn't make her passing tragic enough, she was an extremely caring and giving person. A couple of decades ago, before I met her, she was a PCV in Niger. Later in her life, she and I worked together at both of the jobs I held just before I joined the Peace Corps. She was my mentor, and my friend. I was shaken up by her death. I began to ask myself more and more how I was spending my life, to evaluate more often my life choices. Thus, in this vein, I applied to the Peace Corps.

As my friend Maral said at Liz's memorial service years ago, "She's only dead if we let her die," meaning that we must not forget her. Meaning that because I admired her so much, I choose for her to live on, by trying to emulate her in her generosity and kindness. Thus I found it immensely appropriate that it was on her birthday last year that I boarded a plane to fly here to Morocco to enter the Peace Corps. And thus, as I am writing this blog entry on the one year anniversary of my arrival here in Morocco, I am conscious of, and grateful for, and choose now to honor, her service as a PCV, her kindness and generosity as a human being, and her guidance of me.

Since Liz played such an important role in my life, I have been conscious each year of her birthday and the date on which she died. Consequently, at some point, I thought about exactly how old she was when she died. Very soon after I thought about exactly how old she was when she died, it occurred to me when I was going to be that exact age. On June 16 this year, which was the day when I became exactly as old as she was when she died, I thought a lot about her that day. And I realized that none of us should expect to live for any particular amount of time. I was yet again reminded of my own mortality. I was again spurred to evaluate how I am living my life.

Since I always try to take this approach in my life, I appreciated it when, in the last few days, I just read a particular passage in Jon Krakauer's book "Into The Wild." In that book, Krakauer explores the life of a young man named Chris McCandless, struck by a severe case of wanderlust, uninhibited by society's expectations about how he should live his life. In his book, Krakauer includes a letter from McCandless to a friend, in which McCandless urges his elderly friend:

I'd like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.

Some of you may have read "Into The Wild"; others might not have read it. For those of you who have read it, please keep in mind that I am quoting McCandless because, when he was pondering how he wanted to live his life, he was brave enough to think outside of the confines of societal expectations. Tragically, he also was careless, and did not sufficiently prepare for his adventures. However, one can define one's own life, which can be contrary to societal expectations, and also plan properly to avoid unnecessary danger. So, please know that I am not quoting him for the purpose of endorsing a reckless, imprudently unsafe lifestyle; rather, I am quoting him for his uncommon ability to boldly define his own life. I am quoting him for the purpose of illustrating that anyone can bravely choose to define the parameters of their own life, perhaps unconventionally so, in order to live a more generous, loving, kind and compassionate life than a life which society generally encourages people to lead.

And in the context of my life experiences, which has included unexpectedly losing loved ones, I choose not to wait to make adjustments to my life, when those adjustments occur to me. I remember that a few years ago, I went with a friend of mine named Liz (not the Liz I mentioned above, but rather, another friend named Liz) to a concert in the splendidly art deco Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The main performer of the evening, Madeleine Peyroux, at one point, in between musical numbers, while commenting on a song which she and her fellow musicians were about to perform, advised us in the audience, "Don't wait too long."

When I recalled this advice which we received from Madeleine Peyroux that evening years ago, I thought how appropriate it was that Vienna Teng was the opening performer that evening. Vienna Teng left her comfortable job in Silicon Valley to pursue her passion of being a singer-songwriter. In that sense of making a bold change in her life to pursue her passion and develop her talent, she was one of the people who implicitly supported me, and inspired me, to decide to quit my job and enter the Peace Corps.

So, I try to live my life now. I ask myself what I want to do before I die. Which includes thinking about my values, and trying to live according to my values, conscious of my own mortality, conscious of how I don't know how much time I have. Conscious of how, in Mark 13:33-36, Jesus said:

Be alert!
You do not know when that time will come.
It’s like a man going away:
He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge,
each with their assigned task,
and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

Therefore keep watch
because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—
whether in the evening,
or at midnight,
or when the rooster crows,
or at dawn.

If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Eve of an Anniversary

In the last few weeks, I was helping Stan, my site mate (the other PCV living in my town), as he looked at potential apartments in which he was considering living. Last week, he moved into his own apartment. He is very happy to have his own space. I'm glad he found an apartment.

I've also been introducing him to Moroccan teachers who live here in town, as they arrive back in Morocco after traveling for the summer. Last night, I introduced him to a Moroccan who teaches Arabic in a primary school here in town. We met at a cafe here in town, where we enjoyed some coffee for a couple of hours. It's not uncommon for men in Morocco to sit at a cafe table, each having just one cup of coffee, over the course of a couple of hours.

While the teacher was asking me about what I had done during my summer, and I was asking him where he had traveled over the summer, for a significant portion of our time together, we were having impromptu language lessons. He was explaining words and phrases in Darija to us, and we were telling him about words and phrases in English. I learned some new words in Darija, but I think that Stan, being newer to Morocco than me, learned more new words than I did.

Given that this teacher is so friendly and helpful, I was glad that I was able to introduce Stan to him. Which, I suppose, is a reflection of how I am glad to helping Stan in general, as he gets to know the town and the people here in it. And it occurred to me that I am helping him in the context of me having been here in Morocco nearly one full year. Just a few days shy of one full year in Morocco, actually. And I feel pretty good about being here one year. I feel relatively well-adjusted, glad to be here doing the work and helping the people I'm helping, and feeling competent at knowing how to cope and handle certain challenges.

Which got me thinking, on the eve of my one year anniversary of arriving here in Morocco, about how I got to where I am mentally and spiritually now, through all of the challenges, many of a type which I had never before faced, over the last twelve months. I've tried to learn from what others have tried to tell me, even when it was something I very much didn't want to hear. I've tried to pay attention to what my experiences here have been telling me. I've tried to follow my own advice (which, in my particular, individual case of being here in Morocco as a PCV, has consisted largely of the tips I listed in my August 2011 blog entry entitled "Tips for PCVs and PCTs"). I've tried to take responsibility for how I contribute to what happens in my own life, to try to avoid going down paths where things go seriously awry. It hasn't always been easy. It has involved taking a hard look at myself sometimes, sometimes learning things about myself I didn't expect, and realizing I need to adjust my image of myself and my approach, which often demands humility. But I certainly think that I'm a better person for having done so, and for that, I am very glad.

It's been even easier for me because I have faith that I am trying to do what God wants me to do, to help impoverished people try to better themselves. I have been strengthened by having that vision, which has made this journey considerably easier than it otherwise would have been.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Electricity and Running Water

I count electricity and running water among the blessings I have in my apartment in my town. Knowing that not all PCVs around the world have electricity and running water, I feel grateful.

When the water or electricity goes out, it's usually only been for a day or two at a time, at least thus far during my time here in my town. And that's only happened a few times since I've been living here. So I essentially always have electricity and running water, virtually without interruption.

Most of Morocco has potable water. Indeed, one of the places I go to pay my water bill is the ONEP office, or the "Office National d'Eau Potable," which is French for the "National Office of Drinkable Water." I also sometimes pay my water bill at the same place where I pay my electricity bill, at Espaces Services, a company which processes payments of utility bills.

Either my neighbor, Ahmed, or I pay our water and electricity bills. I have only one neighbor in my apartment building; Ahmed is a French teacher here in town. He also lives on the first floor, right across the hall from me. Ahmed and I split both the water bill and the electricity bill, so we each pay half of each bill.

Last week, I went to pay the electricity bill at the Espaces Services office. By now, I've started to get a little bit better at positioning myself when I go to buy something at a store or pay a bill at an office. When I went to the Espaces Services office the other day, there was another guy standing in the office, and the woman working behind the counter had a few bills in her hand which it appeared she was processing. I walked right up to the window, rather than standing behind him, to avoid the risk that someone else would walk in past me up to the window. When another man walked into the office, I stuck my bill in through the window, so that he wouldn't stick his bill in through the window, so I wouldn't have to wait until he had paid his bill.

It has taken me a little while to get used to this practice of not forming lines in stores and offices here in Morocco. Not what I would do in the USA, but, obviously, I'm not in the USA!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Take Care Of My Sheep

Dusk was near
Alongside the train from Marrakech to Rabat
The silhouette of a shepherd and a dozen sheep.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Luxury of ATMs in My Town

In writing my blog, I've been trying to think of things in my life which, for various reasons, don't even strike me as noteworthy, but which would interest folks living in the USA. I've been asking myself this question since people I love have said to me that they want to be able to visualize my life here in Morocco, and learn about Morocco. It was in this line of inquiry that it recently occurred to me that I should mention ATMs (and, yes, this acronym does, in fact, stand for the same things which you almost certainly just envisioned, "automatic teller machines").

Not every PCV in Morocco has an ATM in his or her town, and there are certainly PCVs posted in other countries who don't have ATMs in their towns. I'm fortunate to have two ATMs in my town, which has a population probably of around 9,000 people living in it. When you add in the people living in the surrounding douars (villages), that figure probably rises to over 20,000 people living in the immediate, contiguous area, to provide a little context for my commentary here.

Thus, I think that I have a couple of ATMs in my town because of the size of my town. By contrast, my friend Ben, living in a smaller, nearby town, has no ATMs in his town of less than 5,000.

Last night, Ben was here in my town, since he needed to stay overnight at my apartment on his way up north. We went out in the early evening, first to a cafe, where we ordered a couple of small pizzas. Given that the cafe worker said that the pizzas wouldn't be ready for another hour, Ben suggested we go for a walk. I suggested this particular hill here in town, which is fairly close to that cafe where we ordered the pizzas, and which I visit from time to time for some pleasing views. We completed the short walk to and up the hill in perhaps ten minutes. As we sat on top of the hill, we were enjoying our view of the town and the palmerie, the huge grove of palm trees which extends through and beyond the town on both sides, as the sun was setting. We were talking about a variety of things: the hike we had done months ago to the top of a mountain here in town; what we could see from the top of the hill on which we were currently sitting; and how often we leave our towns. He explained to me that he always has to leave his town at least once every four weeks, to withdraw cash at an ATM, to be able to pay his rent and his other monthly expenses. I can count ATMs among the conveniences which I have here in my town, which I wouldn't have had, had I been placed in a different site here in Morocco.

However, I also thought of blogging about ATMs for another reason other than that they are a convenience I have here in my town. A few blog entries ago, I had mentioned that Moroccans tend not to stand in lines when they go to a store. People just walk up to the store and ask for what they want, regardless of whether there are people already standing there, rather than forming a line. However, Moroccans do stand in lines when waiting to use ATMs. I find it an interesting exception to the general practice concerning lines, or lack thereof, in Morocco.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting News Reports as a PCV

When I'm in a Moroccan's home, the TV is usually on. When I go over to my site mate Stan's host family's home, the TV is always on. Sometimes we'll be watching a telecast of a musical performance in Arabic, or perhaps the Moroccan news, which is broadcast in either Arabic or in French.

Sometimes, though, when all of the members of the family happen to be out of the room, Stan will put on the BBC World News channel. Thus in the last week or so, we've gotten to watch news in English, which we've enjoyed. Recently on the BBC news channel, we watched coverage of Hurricane Irene making landfall in the USA.

I read news stories in English on the Internet when I'm in the cyber. As far as newspapers go, even when I'm traveling, most of the newspapers available are in Arabic, and the rest are in French. While I have gotten some news from French language newspapers, I've rarely done so, since I only do so when traveling to and through large cities.

When the Dar Chebab (youth center), where I do most of my volunteering, is open, the moudir (director) often watches news broadcasts on his computer, which include video footage, which I sometimes watch with him. However, those broadcasts, being on Al Jazeera, don't convey much information to me, since they are in Arabic, so I understand virtually nothing of what is being said in them.

Until Stan and I recently watched the BBC news, I hadn't thought of how I rarely watch video news coverage in English in the cyber. It's interesting how sometimes I don't realize that a particular thing has been missing from my life until I re-encounter it. It makes me start to think about what we habitually do in our lives, which it turns out we don't miss once it's gone, and which therefore perhaps we don't actually need...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Epiphany

This morning I got a phone call from Stan, my site mate (that is, the other PCV who also lives in my site, or town), asking me to meet him and his host father at an apartment they were visiting to see if perhaps Stan might move into it. Stan had previously said to me that he felt that I could help in translating for him when he goes to look at apartments, since I know more Darija than he does. So I got up and went to meet Stan and his host father. Given that the apartment was only a few blocks away from my apartment, I didn't have to walk far to meet them.

The apparent owner showed us into the apartment. First he brought us into a carpeted room with many pillows on the floor, common in Morocco. We all removed our shoes, as one typically does when stepping into a carpeted room in a Moroccan home. He offered tea and pastries to Stan and me. I appreciated that he asked if I wanted tea with or without sugar. Given that Moroccans typically sweeten their tea more than I like, I asked for tea without sugar.

Moroccans typically sit down with the person with whom they might potentially do business, and have tea and something accompanying it, like pastries in this case, or perhaps peanuts, before getting down to business. So, once I had had some tea and a pastry, we stood up and left that room, and went to see and discuss the rest of the apartment.

Though at this point, I must clarify that it turned out to not be an apartment, but rather two rooms in the apparent owner's home, unseparated from the rest of the house. In one of the rooms, a doorway with no door in it, and the shape of a window, with no window in it, led from the space which the owner wanted to rent, into the space which would not be rented. He said he would complete the wall so that the doorway and the window would be closed up and filled up by a wall.

Although this arrangement seemed a bit sketchy to me, Stan requested that I ask the apparent owner how much he wanted to charge for rent. The apparent owner replied with a rate that was more than twice the usual amount of rent for an apartment here in town. Given that the Peace Corps sets a ceiling for the amount of rent money they'll give us PCVs to pay our rent, and that this proposed rent amount was well above that ceiling, a counter-bargain clearly had to be forthcoming if Stan was going to rent this space. So he asked me to tell the apparent owner that because I rent an apartment with four rooms, that he would pay a certain amount he suggested, which was less than what I pay for my apartment. I can't say that I was surprised that this particular logic was not successful with this particular man who was showing us this space for rent, because he initially proposed such a high amount of rent. Essentially I felt that today provided another instance of how some Moroccans try to charge more for something when they are interacting with someone from the USA.

So, in the end, we left the building without having found someplace for Stan to rent. We walked along until we reached the main road, where we ran into a Moroccan teacher I had met a few months ago. He organized the festival of student talent, which I had briefly mentioned in my first blog entry in June of this year, with a PCV who lives in the town where he lives. It was good to see him. Notably, he speaks English fairly well. So, the vast majority of our conversation with him was in English. We spoke about a variety of topics, including some projects involving youth on which he has worked. At one point, when we were discussing development work, he said that he feels that it is more important for students to develop skills and abilities than it is for a community to receive gifts of money and property. I thanked him for acknowledging the value of developing oneself as compared with receiving cash and goods. It encourages me when I interact with Moroccans, certainly including Moroccan teachers, who recognize and express this principle.

I also enjoyed his easygoing, welcoming, familiar and jocular manner. At one point, he said to Stan and me that you don't see a lot of dogs in Morocco. He said that Moroccans are not fond of dogs, so that they don't treat them that well.

Then he said to us,

"OK, I'm going to tell you a joke.

So there was this exchange program between Morocco and the USA. A Moroccan dog went to the USA for a year, and an American dog came to Morocco for a year. After the year was over, the two dogs met in the airport in Casablanca.

The American dog asked the Moroccan dog, 'So, what did you think of the US?'

The Moroccan dog replied, 'It's a great place. There is a lot of beautiful scenery; there is a lot of diversity, people of many different origins, like Japanese, Mexican, Irish. So, yes, it was very interesting.' The Moroccan dog then asked the American dog, 'So, what did you think of Morocco?'

The American dog replied, 'You know, I never realized that I was a dog until I came to Morocco.'"