Monday, May 28, 2012

Conquering Your Fear, Not Letting It Control You

Last week 110 PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) swore in and became PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) here in Morocco. All of the brand spanking new PCVs have been traveling to, and arriving in, their sites over the last several days. Last night, I thought about how remarkable all of these new PCVs are. In choosing to live the lives they're living, they're so brave, bold, and audacious, in pursuing their vision of a world shaped by love rather than by fear.

I've told them that as they feel unhinged, as they cope with emotions perhaps on a scale which they've never before felt, as they adjust to a markedly different culture, as they adapt to so much that's foreign, they'll view their situation objectively if they remind themselves that most, if not all, people would feel fear while confronting such challenges. I've told them to remember that in the choice they made to enter the Peace Corps, they've chosen to conquer their fear.

Most, if not all, PCVs, soon after swearing in as PCVs, freak out to a degree they've never before experienced. If you're a new PCV, you're pushing yourself into new territory, and it's scary because it's unfamiliar. As you freak out, and conquer your fear, remind yourself that many people never do what you're doing. What you're doing is remarkable.

In the context of being deposited into towns where you don't know people, where you're struggling to express yourselves and understand what's happening around you, reconsider what's normal and what's amazing. Every day you're choosing to live ridiculously unfamiliar, insanely uncomfortable lives. When you just walk down the street, in the context of feeling such culture shock, you're doing something which, for many people, is unbelievable, unfathomable, unimaginable, unattainable. Think I'm saying something untrue, falsely flattering, exaggerated? It's accurate, considering that many people let their fear prevent them from ever even trying it, even once in their lives. And you're actually doing it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spelling Bee Morocco 2012

Yesterday and today other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and I volunteered at regional spelling bees down here in southern Morocco. Over the last few months, schools and dar chebabs (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth centers") held spelling bees. Later, citywide spelling bees were held in those same cities and towns.

The top spellers, who are high school students, from those previous competitions came here to the city of Ouarzazate for the regional spelling bees this weekend. They competed in a spelling bee yesterday in which teams of three students each competed against each other. A team of three girls won the team spelling bee yesterday. Today another spelling bee was held, in which individual students competed against each other. Today one girl won first place, another girl won second place, and a boy won third place.

I was glad to see girls winning most of the top places in the regional spelling bees this weekend after they made it here. Today when we were gathered for the solo bee, one of the Moroccan teachers thanked parents who let their daughters come to participate in the regional spelling bees here in Ouarzazate this weekend. Some of the girls' parents had been hesitant about giving permission for their daughters to attend the regional spelling bees here this weekend.

I can't help but suspect that many of those reticent parents didn't grasp the full scope of constructive impact that these spelling bees could potentially have. And yet in giving or withholding their permission for their daughters to attend, the parents held the key to the doorway of not only opportunity but also development for their daughters. To the extent that, in their reluctance, they refused to grant permission for their daughters to attend and participate in the spelling bees, they correspondingly hampered their daughters' development.

All of the students, but especially the girls who competed, stood to benefit in so many ways above and beyond becoming more proficient in English. In the team spelling bees, the students were practicing teamwork. In both of the bees, they were developing public speaking skills. In gradually becoming more comfortable while speaking in front of an audience, they were probably developing confidence. They may have raised their self-esteem by succeeding at spelling words in these contests. These youths, who are especially studious, and particularly the girls among them, might not have other opportunities through which they can derive these benefits.

Here in Morocco, athletic students, especially boys, seem to have many opportunities to exhibit, practice and develop their talents. As is often the case in many countries, and which also seems to be the case here in Morocco, studious kids, bookworms, seem to have fewer chances to compete in public events. And here in Morocco, I've seen fewer competitions--of any kind, athletic, academic or otherwise--in which girls compete.

I hope that we helped these studious youths--especially the girls, who can find it even harder to speak up--to become more bold and assertive in expressing themselves. I hope that they gained some skill in collaborating with each other as teammates this weekend. If they have been developing these qualities and skills through these activities, they will be improving their standing and their station in life so much more than by simply learning more English.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Get Used To The Wait

On my travels back down south this week, I stopped in the town where my friend, who's also a fellow PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), lives and works. After he met me at the bus station, he took me to the shop where his friends, some Moroccan women who are local artisans, sell rugs. As we were sitting in their shop speaking with them, they invited us to their home for dinner.

After we were at their shop for not too long, we left to go to their home. When we arrived at their home, perhaps around 10:00 p.m., some helwa shebakiya, a sticky, sweet Moroccan dessert, was served. While we knew we would be eating pasta for dinner, there was no sign of when mealtime would be. As the night wore on, it became clear that we weren't going to be eating dinner anytime soon.

At one point, my fellow PCV's female artisan friends left the home. He explained that someone had called expressing interest in buying rugs from them, so they went to meet the potential purchasers. As we commented to each other that it was already late to eat, and that it was getting later for dinner, my fellow PCV joked that his female artisan friends went to Italy to buy pasta.

I was getting very tired since it was getting so late. I was glad when we finally ate, partly because the pasta sauce was delicious, also since I was happy to be eating vegetables in the sauce, and because my fellow PCV cooked the pasta so it wasn't so soft as it is when Moroccans cook pasta. But I was also thankful to be finally eating, since we ended up eating dinner at 1:00 a.m.!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Traveling As A PCV In Morocco

I still have a couple of weeks of vacation time left. Given that I'm nearing the end of my Peace Corps service, I've got to use my vacation time now, if I'm going to use it. Therefore, I've been traveling this week. At the beginning of the week, I visited a friend, Bill, who lives north of my town. He showed me around his town. Since he's a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who works in small business development, he was introducing me to women who have been learning how to make shoes, weave rugs and baskets, and make keftans (long Moroccan women's robes) and handkerchiefs. In addition to giving me the tour of his town, he also hosted me in his apartment until the next day. I was grateful for his hospitality and generosity. Since it's been getting hot, I especially appreciated how he served another PCV and me cold watermelon and green cantaloupe.

Later in the week, I was happy to visit a Franciscan monastery. I managed to make it there for a service at 7:15 a.m. It was all in French, so I understood very little of it. I'd previously attended masses in French here in Morocco, but for some reason I seemed to encounter a particular difficulty which I don't recall experiencing on prior occasions. I found singing hymns in French more difficult than I'd expected. Later I considered that when singing in English, I'm not only reading the words, I'm also looking to see if the notes go up or down in the songs. Then I realized that when trying to sing in French, I'm struggling with words I don't know in French as an added element on top of trying to read and seeing whether the notes go up or down. But I was glad to be worshipping God with other Christians, since I don't get to do so with other Christians much here.

After the service, I spoke with the expatriate Franciscan monks and nuns who live in the monastery. They were very warm and friendly. I told them that I've benefited considerably from having a lot of time to read while living here. Consequently I've devoted much time to opening the door for God, to trying to place myself before God, so as to be receptive to what He has to say to me. I often think of Revelation 3:20 as a reminder to approach my relationship with God in this way. I was grateful to these monks and nuns for their implicit support of me and other Christians in our walk of faith and path in trying to emulate Jesus.

A couple of the elderly nuns were especially sweet, continuing to clasp my hand as they spoke with me. As I spoke with one of them, I was finding it difficult to speak in French, since I've been infrequently speaking French. She told me to speak in Darija, which was much easier!

After not too long, I was parting ways with the monks and nuns. As I was saying goodbye to them, one of the elderly nuns called me "Xuya," which is Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "my brother," as she next further noted that we're all brothers and sisters.

After I bid adieu to the monks and nuns, I caught a bus so I could continue further north on my journey. I was happy to be able to take a bus with the CTM bus company. CTM buses are nicer, and newer, than most other buses here in Morocco. In addition to also being more reliable than a lot of other buses, they're also air-conditioned, unlike many other buses here in Morocco. As I traveled north, I enjoyed more beautiful scenery, including green meadows giving way to hills covered with evergreen trees. In this area of Morocco, snow covers the ground in winter. But this month, there was no snow on the ground there, unlike when I traveled the same route on my way to PPST (Post-Pre-Service Training) back in February 2011.

This time as I approached Azrou, although I didn't see any snow, in addition to the green meadows, I also saw purple and yellow flowers. At one point, the bus slowed down since sheep were running into the road. Their shepherd, protective of his sheep, got them back off of the road. I saw other flocks of sheep later before arriving in Azrou.

Once I arrived in Azrou, I caught another bus to the town of Ifrane. I'd heard that Ifrane seemed different from the rest of Morocco. The French built Ifrane in the 1930s. Thus it has architecture different from rest of Morocco, namely houses with pointed roofs. However, I must admit that I was disappointed once I arrived in Ifrane, given how people had told me that Ifrane was very different. It didn't seem significantly different from the rest of Morocco. Ifrane is also known for its gardens, some of which are quite pleasant and pretty, with trimmed grass and flower beds with purple, lavender, orange and yellow flowers.

After visiting Ifrane, next I headed to the city of Meknes, where I stayed for the night. In the morning, I headed further north, to the ancient Roman ruins at the site of Volubilis, or Oualili in Arabic. Volubilis is still being excavated, but there's much interesting already to see there. A massive arch, built by local residents out of gratitude for being exempt from taxes, still stands there. The ancient baths remain. I was most impressed by the mosaics. In addition to enjoying the skill of the artists, I marvelled at how well they've endured against the elements for nearly two millenia.

After exploring at Volubilis, I continued north up here to Chefchaouen. I'd been wanting to come to Chefchaouen for a while, and I'm glad I finally did. I'd heard that a planned visit to Chefchaouen of a few days often easily turns into a stay of a week or more, since it has such a mellow, relaxed atmosphere, which I'm now glad to be feeling myself. I've also been appreciating the scenic beauty here. Chefchaouen is nestled at the foot of the Rif mountains. Its medina, that is, the old part of the city, is whitewashed and also covered in various shades of blue. I also tend to especially enjoy a medina when its streets slope more steeply, as they do here.

I'm thankful to be a PCV here in Morocco. There's so much to do and see here, and, more importantly, I'm grateful to be having mutually supportive relationships and interactions with such warm and generous people here, which is, after all, why I came here in the first place.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Taking Pride In His Heritage

Last week I was playing blackjack with some kids at the dar shebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where I spend most of my time volunteering as a Youth Development PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) here in Morocco. Thinking about how Moroccans so enjoy drinking tea, and how we weren't drinking tea as we were playing "21," and how I've heard some Moroccans facetiously call their tea "whiskey Berbere," I suggested, "We need some whiskey Berbere!"

One of the boys playing the game retorted, "We are not Berber! We are Amazigh!" There's not only one Berber tribe; there are multiple kinds of Berbers, including those who are Amazigh. So it seemed to me that this boy was taking pride in his particular strain of Berber heritage. Also, more recently I learned why he may have such a strong sense of pride instilled in him: Amazigh means "free man."

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Consequences Of My Own Words

I've never been a big proponent of journaling or keeping a diary. However, my attitude about keeping a journal may be changing.

Yesterday I experienced an immediate, inescapable, immensely helpful benefit from reading my own words. I drew toward me a piece of paper on which I had written some musings weeks ago. On it I'd penned some words of potential guidance. When I read them, I was pinned down. I hadn't yet been fully aware of it when I wrote those words, but when I authored those words, I had committed myself. I couldn't escape the necessary consequences of my own words. If I was suggesting to others to challenge themselves by pursuing a course of action which they might not find ideal, I would be hypocritical by failing to do so myself.

So I've come to realize one of the benefits of writing down one's thoughts, which could be in a journal. Since then, this morning, I've already started doing so more often, and I'm going to continue frequently doing so.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is It Really Necessary?

This morning I met up with a fellow PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), Jim, who happened to be passing through the town where I live down here in the Sahara. I mentioned to him that earlier that morning, I had been recalling how I'd recently been in the Moroccan city of Errachidia. I related how I showed up to catch an early morning bus there and was told that it had departed a half hour before it was scheduled to depart. I explained to him that because it had occurred to me early this morning that that might have happened to him this morning, I'd sent him a text message asking him to appraise me about how his trip was going. He arrived here when he'd planned. Similarly, on that recent morning in Errachidia, I got on a bus leaving a couple of hours later than the one I'd originally been planning on catching.

Considering both of these journeys, that of my friend this morning, and my recent trip out of Errachidia, and how neither of us were all that much delayed, since we both got to our destinations when we wanted to arrive, I pondered that sometimes we can make things into a bigger deal than they really are. We can think that things matter more than they really do.

I got confirmation of this realization in another way today. When I finished washing my bedsheets this morning, I began to wring the water out of the sheets, since the spin compartment of my washing machine recently stopped working.

First, I acknowledge that I am fortunate even to have a washing machine at all. I am conscious of, and often note, how most PCVs around the world don't have a washing machine at their disposal. I thank God for this and the many other blessings in my life.

To further explain, once I had squeezed the water out of my bedsheets, had hung them, and then retrieved the sheets from the clotheslines on my roof this afternoon, I noted that it didn't matter that the spin function no longer works in the washing machine. The sheets dried in just as much time as they would have dried had I still had the spin function to use. I had despaired when it stopped working, partly because of issues I have in gripping things. But it turns out, now that it's gone, that it doesn't really matter that I don't have it to use anymore. It leads once again to the question, which can apply to so many things in our lives, "Is it really necessary?"

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One Of My Favorite People

Today I ran into one of my favorite people. He's named Sala. He runs a shop on my way into the center of town. So on most days, whatever I'm walking into town to do, whether it's just to buy bread, or also to go to the post office, or pay a utility bill, or come here to the cyber, I usually run into him.

Today I crossed paths with Sala when he wasn't at his shop. He was around the corner, on the next street. As usual, he grinned at me and greeted me enthusiastically. Literally I have never seen this man unhappy or discontented. He genuinely seems to be both the happiest and most contented person I have ever seen. Sometimes I think of him as being like a Moroccan version of Santa Claus: he's tall, big, burly, with a big beard, and he is incredibly and indefatigably jolly and friendly. After exchanging our usual brief greetings, I continued on my way to the bakery, where I bought my bread for the day.

On my way back to my apartment, I saw Sala sitting outside his shop. Given how I seem to always walk away from interactions with him with a big smile on my face, I was pleased to get to joke around with him a little in an effort to try to amuse him. I remarked to him in Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic, "There's a man back there who looks just like you!" Sala continued the jest, explaining that it was his brother. (I do know that it was him, both because he would have to have a twin to have someone look so much like him, and because he was still dressed in the same fairly distinctive jillaba, or long robe, which I had just seen him wearing.) This morning I parted ways with him happy to have run into him yet again since he's one of my favorite people, and also pleased that I had seemed to amuse him with my jocularity.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Are You Going To Bring Home?

This past weekend, I was up in the city that's about an hour north of the town where I live down here in the Sahara. In the morning, I was at Bible study with some friends who are also expats living here in Morocco. As our Bible study was starting, I sat down on a ponj, which is like a long sofa without a back. It appeared to me as if I had taken the last place in the room. A moment later, one of the young children entered the room and was looking for somewhere to sit. My friend, who was sitting next to me on the right, and I seemed to have the same idea at the same time. She called to the child as I scooted over to make some room for the youngster. A little while later, another of the kids entered and sat in the small space between me and my other friend who was on my left.

I was immediately reminded of how I've had to adjust my conceptions of space while I've been living here in Morocco, in different ways, at various times. We pile into grand taxis here, cramming them more full, with more people, than many US citizens would expect to be in such a vehicle. I've considered that I should not be hostile to sharing space, for many reasons. For one thing, I made a conscious, voluntary decision to come here. Therefore, I decided to submit myself to the customs here, including those which demand that I handle space differently than I typically did in the USA. Insofar as I invited such external changes in how I conduct myself, implicitly I further chose to explore what internal transformations might occur. How am I going to allow these experiences here affect me? How am I going to change as a result of living here? Surely change is a necessary by-product of being here, including by aspects of life here which I've found uncomfortable and which I haven't liked. Otherwise I run the risk of merely complaining about what I haven't liked here, of not learning anything about myself and others. And if I go down that road, then I'm traveling down the road toward being the arrogant and closed-minded American who comes here, criticizes the people and the culture here, and leaves, not having gained anything, and consequently, likely not having given anything, of lasting value. So at this relatively late stage in my Peace Corps service, I've been thinking about what I can take back to the USA with me, not just in terms of physical, material goods, but also, and far more importantly, in terms of what can help me conduct myself better, what can help me be a better human being, and treat others better.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Your Money's No Good Here

Yesterday as I was walking to the dar shebab (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, I ran into one of the boys here in town who's especially warm and hospitable. I've eaten lunch with him and his family at their house. He said that his family has been asking where I've been. I explained to him that I'd been traveling for a few weeks, since I'd been working at Spring Camp in northeastern Morocco. He said that I should come over to their house again soon.

Moroccans seem to enjoy having me over for lunch. So we started talking about me coming over for lunch. So I said to him in Darija, "Waxa, l-gda?" meaning, "OK, lunch?" However, given that my pronunciation in Darija is not the best, it occurred to me that perhaps he thought that I just meant sometime the next day. The word for lunch, "gda," is very similar to the word for tomorrow, which is "gdda." You use the same letters when you say each word, but when you say "gdda," you're merely stressing the letter "d" more than when you say "gda." Wanting to be clear, I figured I would just see if lunch the next day would work, so I said, "L-gda, gdda?" He agreed that lunch the next day would work.

After we parted ways, I soon arrived at the dar shebab. There's been less activity at the dar shebab since I returned from Spring Camp last week. Moroccan schools follow the same academic year as schools in the US, starting in September and finishing in June. Thus kids are starting to spend a lot of time studying for their exams at the end of the year, and with good reason. They have to do well enough on them to be qualified to continue on to universities. If they don't pass these baccalaureate examinations, they won't be allowed to enroll at universities. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with their decisions to spend less time at the dar shebab, and more time studying for these exams, since these tests greatly affect the course of the rest of their lives!

Given how relatively few youths were at the dar shebab, it was fairly good timing for the renovations being done at the dar shebab yesterday, including on some of the flooring. Once the floors had been fixed, the dar chebab moudir (Darija for "director") was getting ready to close the dar chebab for the day, since he wanted the floor tiles to set and not be disturbed by people walking on them until the next day. As he was about to close the dar shebab, he asked me if I wanted to join him for a beverage at one of the cafes in the center of town. That seemed like a nice idea, so we walked for a couple of minutes to the cafe. On the way, he said in English that it was seven o'clock. Since his English is not the best, and since he therefore doesn't always say the correct words, I thought that he might have been giving the wrong time. I thought it was six o'clock. I looked over at his wrist and his watch indeed showed that it was seven o'clock. I suddenly realized that he had in fact given me the correct time. I told him that I'd forgotten that we were supposed to set our clocks an hour ahead. He reminded me that because we've jumped forward an hour, here in Morocco we're now one hour ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). So, we're now on what Moroccans often call "New Time." When someone has forgotten to switch his or her clock ahead, or is simply operating on the old timeframe, often we say that that person is operating on "Old Time."

Soon after we discussed the time, he told me that he wanted to go to a shop on the far side of the square in the center of town. He told me to go to the cafe and wait for him there, so I got to the cafe first and got us a table. When he arrived at the cafe, he gave me a chocolate-covered wafer which was the size of a candy bar. He'd also bought one for himself. When the waiter came to see what we wanted to drink, the moudir ordered a "nus-nus," which is a glass half full of coffee, and half full of milk. Since it was so late in the day, and I was concerned about caffeine keeping me up, I ordered a glass of hot milk. The moudir and I sat for a while, enjoying our beverages, speaking about past PCVs who had lived here in town, and a little about the PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) here in Morocco who soon are going to become PCVs. When the time came to leave the cafe, I reached for my pocket to get some coins, fully expecting the moudir to gesture to me not to get my change, which is exactly what he did. I didn't press the point. I knew that when a Moroccan invites you out to a cafe, he intends to pay. Indeed, it would be bad etiquette to try to insist on paying for the drinks in such a situation. While I felt somewhat uncomfortable about him paying not only for the candy, but also the beverages, given how little money he probably has, I also appreciated that one has to respect the local customs where one finds oneself.

Later, pondering our time at the cafe, and how he paid for the food and drink, and how I felt a bit uncomfortable about it, I considered that we should let others give to us, even when they don't have a lot. I don't want to stifle people being generous. The real issue is not whether I am getting something, and, if so, what I am getting. Truly it is important if someone feels in their heart the need and desire to be generous. It's also important how we respond when they try to give to us. We want them to feel that they should be giving. We want them to feel that they are living at their best when they are being magnanimous.

It also occurred to me that I can not only reciprocate his kindness by continuing to bring food to the dar shebab to share with him as I've done, but that I can also simultaneously share a little of the culture in the US by sharing some food from the US with him. It pleases me when, after an interaction has made me uncomfortable in some way, through it I find a way to try to help people. I love helping others to give, and giving to others, thus hopefully bringing them joy.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day

Today, May 1, is May Day. It's being celebrated in many countries around the world. In fact at least two separate holidays are occurring today. In one sense, in certain festivities today, people are consciously ushering in the season of Spring. Others, in recognizing today as a holiday, seek to support workers and their struggles for their rights as laborers.

For centuries people celebrated the beginning of Spring and the end of winter, partly by taking part in banquets. It has been in this sense of celebrating May Day that Swedes have made bonfires on May Day and the Irish have crowned a May Day queen. Throughout Western Europe and the US today, persons celebrate May Day as the start of Spring by dancing around a maypole.

Insofar as May Day is known as International Workers' Day, it has more recent historical origins. International Workers' Day was borne out of events in the late 1800's, when American laborers organized for an eight hour working day.

In recognizing International Workers' Day, many people are recalling the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which occurred after someone--it was never discovered who--threw dynamite at police who were breaking up a gathering of workers striking for an eight hour workday. The police then fired at the workers, killing dozens of people.

Several years later, riots broke out on May Day in 1894. US President Grover Cleveland was concerned that if Labor Day was celebrated on May 1, some would see it as endorsement of the riots which had occurred. Thus the US now celebrates its analogous holiday, Labor Day, in September. However, labor unions in many countries were urged to agitate on May 1 for an eight hour work day, and to refrain from working on May 1, in efforts to work toward that goal.

Today in many countries, working people still honor the labor movement on May 1 in recognition of efforts made on behalf of employees. Accordingly, here in Morocco, today people are celebrating May Day in honor of the struggles of working people. The post office and the city hall here in town are closed today. Kids have the day off from school.