Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Time Speeds Up

Months ago, I noted to my friend and then fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) Ben, that it seemed like time was passing more quickly than when I had first arrived in Morocco. He responded, "Yeah... time speeds up."

Yesterday I was reminded of this phenomenon. I was sitting at a cafe here in town with some friends who are also expats, but who aren't PCVs. One of them asked me if there are any other PCVs living here in this town. I told him that there aren't any other PCVs here. I explained that there used to be another PCV living here during my service, but that he decided to put an early end to his service. Then I added that about 120 new PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) will arrive here in Morocco in March. I said I figured that there's a good chance that another PCV from that stage, or group, will be assigned to start living here in late May or early June.

Then I noted to him that at this time last year, I was finding life here so much more challenging, and thus time seemed to be passing so much more slowly then. I thought of the blog post I had written in late January last year, and of how distraught I was then. I remembered how, at times, I would cope by asking myself if I could make it until the end of the day: of course the answer was always "yes." And then I said to my friend, "And now, I think about when the new PCTs are going to arrive in March, and I think, 'Wow, that's just right around the corner!'"

Monday, January 30, 2012

I Was Already Having A Great Day...

Last Friday, I was already having a great day, and then I went to the post office and found a care package waiting for me!  Newman O's, peanut butter, chocolate hazelnut butter, and chocolate bars!  Yippee!!!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Explaining To Kids What Their Shirts Say

Last night in the dar chebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where I do most of my volunteering as a Youth Development PCV here in Morocco, I saw that one of the boys was wearing a sweatshirt which said "Oklahoma Training Team." I asked him if he knew what Oklahoma was. He admitted that he didn't know. I told him that it's a state in the U.S.

A few months ago, a Moroccan girl was wearing a shirt which said "Lover Girls," and under that, "London." I asked her if she knew what it meant. She said, "Girls who love London." I explained to her that the shirt did not say what she had thought it said.

I often tell kids who come to the dar chebab to ask me questions about forms of speech in English that they don't understand. It has occurred to me that I could add, "And if you want to know what your shirt says, I'll explain that to you, too!"

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Simple Pleasures

The Peace Corps is preparing for new Peace Corps Trainees to arrive here in Morocco in March. As part of that preparation, Peace Corps is asking us to find out if families are interested in hosting PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in their homes for several weeks, when the PCVs arrive in the towns where they will live for their two years of service. The Peace Corps then decides with which families PCVs will live when PCVs arrive in their final sites to start living there.

I went to one family's home in the last couple of weeks and asked them if they would be interested in hosting a PCV in their home. They said they would. When I then took out the information sheet so I could write down their basic information, they said to do that another time. Later I realized that that was their way of saying that they really weren't interested. Moroccans are often indirect. Rather than directly saying that they cannot do something, they'll respond indirectly to a request, such as by postponing the time for doing something.

Yesterday I went to the home of another family. They already hosted a PCV in a previous year. Also, I had previously asked them multiple times, and each time they had said that they would host another PCV, so I was a bit more confident that they would indeed host another PCV. After gathering their basic information, of course when I got up to go, they told me to stay for tea. So I sat back down. With the tea, they also served bread with olive oil. The olive oil was delicious! After the snack, I was enjoying simply sitting in the sun, looking at the blue sky, and noting the other brilliant color, the electric blue on their window frames. It was so serene and calming, to just sit there for a little while, and take it all in. I love simple pleasures!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Treat Each Other Well

Earlier this week, I was walking through a douar, or small village, near my town. One of the men who lives there in the town had started walking with me, and was telling me a little about the history of the area. At one point I looked over to the other side of the road. I saw a boy, perhaps about 9 years old, appearing to push a much younger boy, who was about 4 years old. The younger boy was crying. The older boy let him go. The younger boy continued crying, and started throwing rocks at the older boy, who didn't look that concerned, but picked up a rock anyway.

I thought, "That's it. I don't care what this guy walking with me thinks, or what any of these kids think." I walked over to the boys, got them to stop throwing rocks at each other, and physically removed the rocks from their hands.

It reminded me of a writing exercise I had some students do a couple of weeks ago at the dar chebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where I do most of my volunteering as a Youth Development PCV here in Morocco. Sometimes students ask me to give them a topic, so they can write about it, and so I can then correct the grammar and spelling mistakes in what they have written. On this one day a couple of weeks ago, when students asked me to give them a topic, I gave them the first idea which occurred to me. I suggested to them, "Write about why we must treat each other well." Each of the three of them wrote about various reasons. But all three of them wrote that we must treat each other well "because we are all sons of Adam." I was struck not only by how all three of them gave that reason, but also I wondered at how they didn't refer to any Biblical figures after Adam.

I noticed how none of them mentioned Jesus. Later I thought about how I've often heard people living in the USA say to me, "Jesus is in the Koran." While some people add that Muslims believe that he isn't the Son of God, I never remember others informing me about how Muslims believe that Jesus didn't die on the cross. In my mind, those seem to be significant differences, which, I believe, account for a lot. Additionally, if Jesus, who spoke so much, and so extensively, about treating others well, is in the Koran, then why, when these students were asked to write about why we must treat each other well, did not even one of these students mention Jesus?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Relevant Experience

It seems like the Peace Corps takes a fairly broad view of what experience is relevant to being a Peace Corps Volunteer. More and more I've been thinking, though, that they might underestimate the range of experience relevant and helpful to being a PCV.

Last April, a Moroccan high school sports teacher and I organized a bicycle trek to some nearby douars, or villages. On the trip, some other PCVs did some health presentations to some children and women. My Moroccan counterpart, other PCVs and I ran some sports activities for some of the local kids. In helping to plan the bicycle trip, I considered various logistics, such as where we would be able to get food and water along the route. Having ascertained that we wouldn't be able to buy food along the way until we reached our campsite, I advised my fellow PCVs to bring whatever food and water they would want before we reached our campsite. I also determined that we would have a van with us which could pick up a rider whose bicycle got damaged or got injured. It was relatively easy for me to think of these logistical concerns, insofar as I had participated twice in the California AIDS Ride, a bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. One could think, "What does going on a bicycle ride have to do with being a PCV?" In retrospect, having done the AIDS Ride, I was much better equipped to plan the bicycle trek with my Moroccan counterpart.

Last May, a Moroccan Arabic teacher and I conducted a mock trial event at the dar chebab, or youth center, where I do most of my volunteering as a Youth Development PCV here in Morocco. Again, one could think, "How can a former attorney help kids while he's in the Peace Corps?" Having participated in mock trial events both as a law student acting as a attorney, then later as an attorney acting as a mock trial judge for law students' mock trial events, I was that much better equipped to train and guide the students in the mock trial event we held in the dar chebab.

Last week, some students at the dar chebab asked me to teach them how to write a report of a meeting. As I started writing an example of a report of a meeting on the dry erase board, I wasn't particularly thinking about the source of the structure and style of the report as I was writing. As time passed, however, I realized that I was writing the report based on minutes of labor union meetings I had read while previously employed in the states. At the time I had been reading those minutes, I was reading them to be an informed union member and employee. I wanted to be able to make intelligent decisions, and to converse with others with the knowledge required to have meaningful conversations with them. Now, however, I realize that having read so many minutes of meetings, I was that much better prepared to help those kids last week when teaching them how to write reports of meetings.

So I would submit to you that you might have more experience that is relevant to your work as a PCV than you think that you have. Draw on as much of your experience as you can; it might turn out to be more helpful than you had previously thought.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Surprising Question

Yesterday I was a tutoring a student at the dar chebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where I do most of my volunteering as a Youth Development PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) here in Morocco. He was asking me to explain certain words to him. He pointed to the verb "to mean." He asked me, "What does this verb mean?"

I replied incredulously, "But... you must know what it means! You just used it in a sentence!" He started to laugh and admitted that he knew what it meant.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Classroom Shenanigans

At the end of last week, a dozen teenage students asked me to teach them how to write a cover letter to send when applying for a job. So I started teaching them how to do so. First I wrote an outline of the letter, with a general description of its structure. At one point, a few girls got up and left the room, then re-entered after not too long. When I finished laying out the structure on the dry erase board, I turned around to get the eraser so I could erase the structure and go through an actual example with them. The eraser was gone. I kept asking where the eraser was. Finally one of them got up and retrieved it outside where they had hid it.

I then started going through the specific example letter, with specific (though fictional) addresses and people, and an imaginary job mentioned in it. At one point, I had to change something I had written on the board. I again turned around to get the eraser, and again found that it was gone. I was both irritated with the students, as well as with myself for placing it behind me again after the first time they had hid it. I let myself get angry enough so that they could see the anger on my face, but I didn't yell at them. One of them told me not to get angry, then soon thereafter the eraser was returned to me. For the rest of the lesson, I kept the eraser on the board in front of me, avoiding any further shenanigans.

Last night I was teaching an English class with a much larger group of students, mostly about food and mealtimes. I used the opportunity to teach them that people in the USA often eat lunch and dinner earlier than many Moroccans do. (Moroccans tend to eat lunch between 1:30p.m. and 3:00p.m., and sometimes later than that! They tend to eat dinner after 8:30p.m., and sometimes after 10:00p.m.!)

Anyway, the classroom was nearly full; I think that there were nearly 30 students in the room. Soon after I got started, more students were coming into the room. I had to keep stopping the lesson because the new arrivals were distracting the students who were already in the room. Finally a couple of students came in with a couple of chairs, and were trying to shove their way to some free space near the front of the room. I concluded that I had to stop the distracting and disruptive interruptions. Although I wasn't actually as irritated as I probably appeared to be, I bodily removed the two students who were trying to shove their way to the front of the room. For the rest of the class, the rest of the students who were left in the room behaved much better than Moroccan students usually behave when I teach...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Classroom Management Strategies

Now that the Moroccan academic year is in full swing, kids are coming to the dar chebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center") often, and in large groups, for a variety of classes, including French, math, philosophy and computer science. They also come to the dar chebab to attend English classes, some of which I teach. Being kids, they tend to be fairly restless in class. For the most part, disruptive kids mostly just talk during class.

I alternately employ a variety of strategies to try to keep them in line and to manage classroom misbehavior. They work to varying degrees.

I think I best like letting the kids police each other. I have them do this in various ways.

One, I ask the kids who I know to be studious and attentive to help me keep the other students to be quiet. Then, during class, those kids I have enlisted to help me tell the talkative ones to be quiet.

Two, and perhaps even better than the first way of getting students to police each other, when students start to talk too much, I simply stop talking. I just stand in front of the class until the talking subsides, a result helped along by the more studious children, who want the lesson to continue, and thus get the more talkative ones to be more quiet.

Sometimes if a student is talking quite obliviously to how I have noticed that he or she is talking, I demonstrate a teaching point with that student. I draw attention to the student. For example, during a recent class I was teaching the students some verbs. I had gotten to the verb "to throw." A student in the front row was talking and seemed completely unaware that I was looking right at her as she was talking. So I demonstrated the verb "to throw" as I tossed my magic marker at her. When it landed on her, she seemed embarrassed at being caught in the act of talking during class.

Sometimes I just loudly tap the end of my magic marker on the table in front of me, especially if the students at that table are talking. If they're unaware that I've noticed that they're talking, they're usually startled by the tap and thus immediately stop talking.

And sometimes I resort to an even more common approach. Sometimes I just utter a quick "Shh!"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reflecting On An Anniversary That Never Was

A few days ago, I was reflecting on how, if I hadn't left the job that I left just before joining the Peace Corps, it would have been my ten-year anniversary at that job earlier this month. I sometimes get quizzical and puzzled looks when I tell people that I left my comfortable, unstressful, secure job to enter the Peace Corps. Similarly, people, including at least one other PCV, have asked me if I miss what I had before I left the U.S.

I was aided in my decision to leave that job, and, as far as I can see at this point, to stop working in that field, insofar as I had concluded that that particular job wasn't a good fit for me. I'd concluded that, given what my skills are, there were other jobs where I could perform better, and be happier.

But I also have long tried to maintain an approach to my life in which I evaluate the life that I'm living. I try to ask myself if I should make changes in my life, so that I can live a better life. Throughout my life, more and more I've tried to do what God wants me to do. I've tried to open the door so God could enter my life more easily as Revelation 3:20 suggests:

Here I am!
I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

Indeed, after composing parts of this blog entry in my head over the last couple of days, I found it very appropriate when, this morning, I read the following passage from the book of Tobit. I felt that Tobit was expressing what I have experienced in my life:

Turn to Him with all your heart and soul,
live in loyal obedience to Him.
Then He will turn to you to help you
and will no longer hide Himself.
Remember what God has done for you,
and give thanks with all your heart.
- Tobit 13: 6

Over the years, as I've tried to listen to the Holy Spirit, and thus as I've sought to follow God's Word, I've found it easier to hear the Holy Spirit. Consequently--at least for me--I have also increasingly found it much harder to evade what it is telling me. After a period of some years, I found that I prefer to submit. I prefer to try to enter by the narrow gate, as Matthew 7:13 advises. Though the path is narrow, and thus has its own trials and tribulations, I find those challenges much easier to brave than the challenges on the wide path, the difficulties which have arisen when I have chosen not to follow what the Holy Spirit has tried to tell me, when I have tried to follow a more selfish path. At least amidst the difficulties of trying to follow what the Holy Spirit is telling me, I gain the satisfaction and warmth and community and mutual support that arises out of helping others.

Otherwise I would be facing the difficulties arising from not following the Holy Spirit's guidance--and at the same time not reaping the benefits arising out of trying to follow God's will. In that case, I would be deprived of the fulfillment, interconnection, and strength through interdependence on others that I gain by trying to follow God's will.

Faced with these two paths as alternatives to each other, I am reminded of a film I recently watched, "St. Giuseppe Moscati, Doctor to the Poor." In the film, St. Giuseppe Moscati ponders, "Life isn't that unfair, really. In every test it sends us there is an opportunity." So I have tended to view choices in my life, especially ones posing more formidable challenges, more and more as choices between trying to follow God's will or trying to follow some other path where I am helping others less.

In trying to follow God's Word, long ago I also saw that it is important to help poor persons, given how many times Scripture passages advise to help impoverished people. In the last few days, I was yet again reminded that it is important to help those who are impoverished, again while reading the book of Tobit. Tobit advised:

If you are stingy in giving to the poor, God will be stingy in giving to you.
Give according to what you have.
The more you have, the more you should give.
Even if you have only a little, be sure to give something.
This is as good as money saved.
You will have your reward in a time of trouble.
Taking care of the poor is the kind of offering that pleases God in heaven.
Do this, and you will be kept safe from the dark world of the dead.
- Tobit 4:7-11

And I feel that I am aided on this path, of trying to help impoverished people, and of otherwise trying to follow God's Word, by having chosen a life here in the Peace Corps, since my current life affords me the time to do such work and to reflect on these matters. In addition to instances evident in some of my previous blog entries, here in this blog entry, I've presented one example of how I've found such contemplative use of my time here helpful. This morning I gained insight when I read that particular passage from the book of Tobit: it clarified for me how I got to be here, and why I am here, in the Peace Corps in Morocco.

And you know what else? As a result of having made these changes in my life, which are allowing me to spend more time helping impoverished people and which are also allowing me to devote more time to my spiritual well-being, I like myself better. I am glad that I am investing the time to try to foster my own spiritual development. And I am glad to be here helping others. Again I am reminded of the film, "St. Giuseppe Moscati, Doctor to the Poor," and how, in that film, one of his contemporaries explained, "This is the love that makes you happy, the love you give to others, expecting nothing in return."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Second Visit Back to the USA, First Visitor From the USA

For the last nine days of December, I was back in the USA to celebrate Christmas with my family. It felt great; in fact, it was a relief to be there, in many ways, for various reasons.

For one thing, I've found being a Christian in Morocco to be more challenging than I would've expected it to be. During my conversations with Moroccans, sometimes they ask me if I'm Muslim. I reply that I'm Christian, and often they reply that I should be Muslim, or with some equivalent sentiment. In this context, I often feel like they're not interested in learning why I'm Christian. Indeed, I had one such conversation on my way to this cyber today, which underscores the very feeling I am trying to express in this paragraph. Being around people who don't share my faith, and who aren't interested in learning about it, consequently I feel like I'm not part of a faith community in the town in which I live. Consequently, when I'm in the town, I don't feel supported in my faith by the other people in the town.

It was in this context that I was quite emotional at Christmas Mass on Christmas morning. I was beyond relieved to be around other Christians. People, I'm sure, often say and do things, and think that in doing those things, that they have no effect on others. And I suspect that some of the people singing in that church on Christmas morning didn't think that their song could have been as supportive as it was. But just listening to others singing Christmas hymns on Christmas morning, I felt so supported and nourished, as a result of knowing that I was surrounded by people who share my faith in Jesus Christ. I was reminded, in an immediate sense, that I am part of a Christian community, even though while living in my current residence in Morocco, I am geographically removed from it.

I also was as emotional as I was on this visit because of other restrictions in my life here in Morocco. Life here in Morocco is challenging for women. How, you might ask, does that affect me, since I am a man?

For one thing, insofar as Moroccan women are expected not to interact with men in the same ways that American women interact with men, I have altered how I interact with women here in Morocco, from how I interact with women in the USA. I interact with women differently here in Morocco than I did in the states, but that doesn't mean that I'm used to the restrictions--or that I endorse them. In the states, many women supported me emotionally in ways which women cannot do so here. In the states, I would meet up with female friends for coffee or meals. Here in the conservative town in which I live, Moroccan women are rarely seen in cafes. In fact, unless they're going to someone else's house, going shopping, or to the hammam, they're generally not going out, but instead staying home. In the states, I was used to female friends greeting me with hugs, and I was used to greeting them with hugs. Here in Morocco, men are expected to wait to see if a Moroccan woman extends her hand to shake hands, a gesture short of a hug. In this context, I certainly don't have the type of conversations with Moroccan women, with the attendant emotional trust, confiding and support, which I enjoyed in the states.

In another sense, I'm affected emotionally by how women here are treated. I don't enjoy hearing about women being harassed. Usually when I hear about a woman being harassed in Morocco, it's a female PCV who has been harassed. Female PCVs are called "gazelles" and other demeaning terms by men who catcall them. One female PCV was treated like a prostitute: a car would roll up next to her and she was asked to get into the car. Not only am I disturbed just hearing about what is said to these women; I'm also disturbed by how they're affected by being treated in these ways. At least one female PCV left Morocco because of such harassment; another confided to me that she is considering leaving Morocco, and ending her Peace Corps service early, partly because of such harassment. While I listen and try to lend support, I feel that there is little I can do to actually make the situation better. Accordingly, at times PCVs deal with frustration over such treatment.

Add in the homesickness. Yes, I still get homesick, homesickness which is brought on in large part by living in a culture which feels as foreign as it does, homesickness which is brought on also by not being able to communicate that well in one of the languages here in Morocco, and which is brought on also by being the only American living here in this town. I feel that no one else living here in my town can really understand my situation.

Consequently, I don't have the emotional support here in my town which I feel that I need. And in addition to the challenge of a lack of emotional support, it's also culturally inappropriate for me to show my grief or sadness around Moroccans when those emotions arise in me.

Thus during my visit back to the USA for Christmas, I was emotional at times. I was letting out a lot which had been pent up in me, even though when I am alone in my apartment here in Morocco, I cry whenever I feel that I have to cry.

I have thought about why this visit was so much more emotional for me than my visit back to the USA in July last year, when I returned to the USA for my friend Rob's wedding. I've thought that just before that visit, I'd had about a month where work was slowing down at the dar chebab, or youth center, where I do most of my volunteering as a PCV. But when I returned to the USA in July last year, I had a dry spell of work which lasted only one month. When I returned to the USA five months later, in December, for Christmas, I'd had a long slow patch workwise: except for Summer Camp, which lasted about ten days in the end of July and the beginning of August, I had very little work to do for a period of five months. For that reason, I think that this visit was more challenging. Just before this visit, insofar as I had been less busy, I had been facing the challenges in a more direct, and less distracted way, since I hadn't been working as much as earlier in the year.

I've also thought about how I have been living here in Morocco for 15 months. Despite how I have been living here that long, I still feel conscious of how foreign and different life here feels to me. I still feel so challenged by it for the reasons I've mentioned above. Perhaps it is as hard as it is because I know that it is still challenging, because I know that it hasn't gotten as smooth and easy as I would have liked it to be.

Given that I have been experiencing these challenges, I am all the more grateful to have gone back to the USA twice during my Peace Corps service. Some PCVs don't go back to the USA for a visit at all during their 27 months in the Peace Corps.

I think that because of all these challenges here in Morocco for me, my visit back to the USA at Christmas flew by. The time with my folks and my sister down south went quickly. Then my time up in New York with more family members also sped by.

Before long, I was back on planes flying back here to Morocco. I was glad to have a long layover in Zurich. I left the airport and walked around the city, taking in the wonderful sights of architecture there in the city, including some magnificently constructed churches. After four flights, I landed back here in Morocco.

I was very glad that when I landed, my friend Melanie from the USA was here in Morocco, where she had already been vacationing for several days. She drove us south in a rental car she was renting, and we visited Cascades d'Ouzoud, a spectacular series of falls northeast of Marrakech. She drove us down to the town in which I live, and she stayed here in town for one night, at a hotel I had helped her to find some weeks ago. Then she drove us up to Marrakech, and we parted ways the next morning, as she drove north to continue her vacation, and I headed back down south to the town in which I live.

In retrospect, I think that her visit brought into sharper relief many of the aspects of life here in Morocco which I find challenging. Hearing about how she was treated during her travels before I met up with her, I was reminded of ways in which I find life challenging here in Morocco. She told me of how, rather than speaking with her, Moroccan men would speak to her traveling companion, who was a man with whom she had been traveling before I met up with her when I landed back in Morocco. She also related how some Moroccans had been very aggressive with her in asking her for money: one woman in Marrakech, who had drawn henna on my friend's hand, pushed her body into my friend when my friend didn't want to give her more money for the henna. For one thing, I didn't enjoy hearing about how my friend had been treated. But also, listening to her, I was reminded of much of what I don't like about life in Morocco.

How have I been reacting to feeling these emotions? I've been taking my own advice, partly as I set out in a previous blog post, entitled "Tips for PCVs and PCTs," which I wrote in August 2011. In that blog entry, among other things, I wrote about how I deem it important to immediately acknowledge one's feelings. So, once my friend and I parted ways and I returned to town here, when I was feeling down, I thought about how I was feeling. I thought, "I am feeling homesick and sad." Next I thought, "It is completely normal for me to be experiencing these feelings." And after that, I thought, "Literally thousands of other PCVs around the world are either feeling this way right now, or they have felt this way at other points during their Peace Corps service." Once I had evaluated my situation in these ways, immediately I felt better.

And then I thought, "OK, this is great that I feel better; but what am I going to do about going forward? From where am I acquiring my strength as I move forward? How am I going to derive meaning in my daily life amidst these challenges?" And when I asked myself these questions, I was reminded that even though I may not see entirely why I am here, there are reasons why I am here which I cannot see. I thought of a Scripture passage which I especially like, 2 Corinthians 4:18, which advises, "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen..." There are so many ways in which we, as PCVs, just like everyone else in life, can have positive effects on others' lives. Yet we won't see all of those beneficial effects. Thus there is all the more reason to go forward in faith. We have our own ideas about how we can be helpful, and productive, and good; and then God has God's own ideas about what we can do, how we can help others. As Abraham Lincoln noted, "The Almighty has His own purposes." So I remind myself that events sometimes might not unfold in my life exactly as I had envisioned or hoped they would occur. I also remind myself that there are beneficial reasons, often unknown to me, why events happen the way that they do.