Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sun Is Setting On My Peace Corps Service

I'm getting so close to the end of my Peace Corps service that when I do a lot of things now, it's the last time that I'm going to do them here in Morocco.  Today I went to the city that's near my town, making the last round-trip journey during my Peace Corps service to that city.

Very early this morning, here in Morocco, we shifted our clocks one hour back, so that we're once again on "old time," as folks here sometimes put it, or in the time zone of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).  However, not everyone alters their schedule to conform to the time change.  So, just to be safe, I showed up at the bus station as if the time change hadn't occurred.  Sure enough, the bus was there at the bus station as if the time change hadn't happened.  I was glad that I got up an hour early to catch the bus!

When I got to the city, I made my way to a cafe I've frequented there in that city.  I was enjoying the glorious day, the brilliant blue sky and the temperate weather as I savored a "nuss-nuss," (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "half-half"), which, in the context of going to a cafe, is a cup filled half with coffee and half with milk.  Moroccan coffee tends to be pretty strong, so usually I order a nuss-nuss, rather than follow my practice in the US of ordering a cup filled mostly with coffee and a little milk.  Even so, a nuss-nuss often still gives me a minor case of the jitters!

As I was sitting outside, basking in the sunshine and enjoying my hot beverage, I saw a girl, perhaps in her late teens, ride a bicycle around the roundabout, her head covered in a hijab, that is, a headscarf.  Upon seeing her exercise her freedom of movement, I was reminded of the words of a young friend of mine, another Moroccan teenage girl.  While traveling outside Morocco, she had recently met Muslim girls from other nations and realized that she and other Moroccan girls enjoy freedoms which Muslim girls in certain other countries don't have.  I was glad to hear my friend's thoughts, her realizations about her life and the world.  I was happy that her realm of experience had been widened such that she had altered her perceptions of herself, her life, other girls, and the world around her.  Observing the Moroccan girl on the bicycle this morning, I once again began to wonder how I'm going to process my cultural observations from Morocco once I'm back in the US and have the changed perspective of being back in the states.

After my visit to the cafe, there in the city I attended Bible study with some of my Christian expat friends who live here in Morocco.  I've been so thankful to God for the fellowship and spiritual community I've shared with them, getting to worship God and celebrate His blessings with them.  I certainly didn't expect to live in a location here in Morocco where I would be able to commune regularly with other Christians, so I've been very grateful for their presence, care, warmth and support of me in my Christian faith.  After Bible study, we had a lovely outdoor barbeque, with grilled chicken and sausages, potato casserole, cake and cookies, among other delicious food.  I felt better after getting to say goodbye to my Christian brothers and sisters there, as well as to some fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) who were there in the city today.  I feel like I get more of a proper sense of closure, putting me more at ease, when, in person and with sufficient time, I get to properly say goodbye to people. And, in this particular context of completing my Peace Corps service, when I get to say proper goodbyes, I feel like I'm appropriately preparing to leave this country where I have lived for two years.

On the bus ride back here to the town where I live here in the Sahara, I consciously looked at this town as we approached it, realizing that surely it was the last time I would view it from that location and angle during my Peace Corps service, and, quite probably, for the last time at all.  Returning here to town so late in the day, admiring the sun setting on the mountains near this town, I considered an analogy of the scope of the sun today to my Peace Corps service.  As the sun set today, so the sun is setting on my Peace Corps service.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mixing US Culture And Host Country Culture

Among the many culinary creations I enjoy are jelly doughnuts.  I've been looking forward to having some when I get back to the states.

In the meantime, while I've been living here in Morocco, from time to time I enjoy "shfinj," which are Moroccan fried doughnuts.  I've been glad that one shop here in the town where I live in the Sahara sells shfinj.

I'd been thinking for a while of buying not only shfinj again, but also some strawberry jelly and making some shfinj into jelly doughnuts.  Accordingly, yesterday some of us at the dar shebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where I do most of my volunteering as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), went and got some shfinj, strawberry jelly and granulated sugar.  Although the shfinj they sell here in town have holes in the middle, we cut open the sides and stuffed them with strawberry jelly.  Then we sprinkled some granulated sugar on top of them.

I explained to the dar shebab moudir (Darija for "director") and some of the kids there that some of the doughnuts in the US resemble the creations we were eating.  Thus we took a little bit of the culture here in Morocco, added in some elements used in similar cultural offerings in the US, and had a bit of cross-cultural exchange--in the form of some tasty treats!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Losing Fluency In English Redux

My COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) date is two weeks from today.  Consequently, I've been working on transitioning out of my service.  I've been preparing to leave the town where I've been living here in the Sahara for the better part of two years.  I've been looking ahead to the adjustments I'll be making once I finish my Peace Corps service.

Of course I'll be adjusting to life after Morocco as a result of how I've been living here in Morocco.  While I've lived here in Morocco, I've gotten used to operating in certain ways.  For one thing, I've been speaking English less than I did in the states.  It is true that many people here in Morocco know enough English that a good deal of the time, people speak with me in English, and, consequently, I speak with them in English.  Nevertheless, much of the time I'm speaking Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic, or French.  Thus I've been speaking less English than I did in the states.

As a result of speaking English less often, PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) sometimes stumble when they try to speak English.  Yesterday I had exactly such trouble, as I was on my way back from this cyber, when I crossed paths with one of the students who often comes to the dar shebab (Darija for "youth center"), where I've done most of my volunteering as a PCV here in Morocco.

He asked me, "You was in the cyber?"

I corrected him, "You were in the cyber."

He posed his question rephrased, "You were in the cyber?"

I replied, "I was in the cyber," but then I immediately doubted whether I had correctly conjugated the verb "to be"!  Hopefully I'm not going to have trouble speaking English once I'm back in the US!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Some Snapshots Of Morocco Right Now

Since loved ones back home always ask me how I'm doing here in Morocco, I thought I would simply provide some slices of life here in Morocco from the last few days. I thought people might appreciate some narrative snapshots, that is, some brief descriptions, of what I've recently experienced.

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I was in Marrakech this past weekend. While walking down the street, I saw everyone simply going about their usual business. I often enjoy seeing women on motorcycles in Marrakech. I saw a woman, with her head completely uncovered, who was riding a motorcycle. I saw another woman who was wearing a hijab, or headscarf, who was riding a motorcycle. I saw a man riding a motorcycle with a completely veiled woman as his passenger. I looked down the street and saw it filled with the same traffic I always see. People were just going around the city as usual.

Despite my visit to Marrakech happening on typical days there, I had an unusual visit there, since I met up with a good number of my fellow PCVs to say goodbye to them. I knew that I wasn't going to get to say goodbye to them if I didn't see them there in Marrakech that weekend, so I went up to the city to spend some time with them and bid adieu to them in person. I felt calmer, and less separation anxiety, about parting ways with them once I had said proper goodbyes with them.

Once I had gotten back here to the town where I live down here in the Sahara, again I saw people simply going about their business. I was struck by one very brief slice from my day yesterday. In the space of literally one minute yesterday, a man who I'd recently met stopped and chatted with me for a moment or two, grinning from ear to ear. In that same minute, I exchanged waves with a city hall employee who was passing me on his motorcycle. And in that brief span of time, I stopped and shook hands with one of the kids who lives on the block where I live, which made me smile.

So, in case you've been wondering, this is what my world looks like. This has been my recent experience here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Being Content Despite The Circumstances

Not only can you have valuable and insightful self-realizations in humbling and austere circumstances, but, I would contend, you're actually more likely to have such realizations under such conditions. I feel like I had such helpful musings today during a stop on my return trip south from Marrakech, after I went there for the weekend.

Soon before I left Marrakech, I was sweating since it has been hot there. Hence I was happy that I was taking a CTM bus back south to the Sahara. CTM buses are newer, cleaner, brighter, and safer than most other buses here in Morocco. Given that CTM buses are nicer than most other buses here, the air conditioning was on in full force on the bus. I had both of the vents above me completely open, and with the cold air blasting down on me, it felt downright chilly despite the heat outside the bus.

I spent much of the trip south from Marrakech admiring the landscape. While we were riding through the High Atlas mountains, I pointed out a waterfall to a couple of friendly, pleasant French tourists sitting across the aisle from me. Soon after that, we went over the Tichka Pass, at an elevation of 2260 meters, or 7414 feet, above sea level.

When the bus stopped for a lunch break in the small town of Agouim, about one hour north of Ouarzazate, I got off the bus and looked across the street, at the line of shops there. I walked across the street to find some shade. In small Moroccan towns, most shops, including hanoots (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "grocery stores"), close at lunchtime, starting between 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m., and re-open in the latter half of the afternoon. Given that it was nearly 2:00 p.m., I had no trouble finding a closed shop, where I sat on some unused steps.

I pulled out the round bread and the can of tuna in tomato sauce which I'd bought this morning in Marrakech. When I know that I'm going to be traveling during lunchtime, I try to bring a sandwich, or at least what I need to make a sandwich. A lot of the time when buses make these pit stops, they stop in towns where folks sell street food, that is, food that's cooked on the sidewalk. When I eat street food here, I get sick; thus, usually I don't eat it. Consequently, I was glad that I had brought along this food; I was happy to be packing the tuna into the bread and eating it.

After a little while, I became conscious that I was happy to be sitting there eating my lunch amidst discarded tires and scattered garbage. I wondered what had happened to me. Earlier in my Peace Corps service, I had been disgusted and irritated to be constantly surrounded by trash. I wondered if people would think me radically different when I arrive back in the states.

Then I considered how, before I'd started making and eating my sandwich, I'd disinfected my hands with hand sanitizer. I still have some of the same outwardly visible habits I'd had before I came here to Morocco. I figured that people back home wouldn't think I'd become a completely different person. I came to a similar conclusion again after I'd finished eating, when I cleaned my hands with a sanitizing hand wipe.

It's not that I haven't changed in significant ways. I have changed in a variety of ways. Yet I've also retained certain habits. As I noted above, I've changed how I approach the phenomenon of garbage on the ground here. It's not that I no longer care about it; I certainly do still care about it. I just don't let it irritate me. I do what I can about it. I've done environmental lessons about properly disposing of trash and respecting the environment, and I've otherwise tried to instruct youths about properly getting rid of garbage. Knowing that I've been doing something about it, I'm less prone to get angry about it.

Yet it's not just about doing something about it. Yes, if you care, you're going to do something about it. But I'm not less bothered by trash on the ground simply because I've been trying to address it. I'm also increasingly more at peace with my surroundings, because I've been endeavoring to value what's most important in life. Thus I try to focus on what nourishes me, and especially what is most essential, namely treasuring how God feeds my spirit, and I try to ignore what ultimately are more trivial matters.

I've always strived to live as simply as possible. I've always tried to value most highly those gifts of each day which have been most supportive and nourishing of my mind, body and spirit.

Thus, I realized, as I was sitting on that concrete stoop, eating my lunch amidst scraps of garbage, that I was content merely because I had food to eat. I found irrelevant the circumstances in which I was eating it. I try to focus on what's important. I thank God for my daily bread.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Friday Lunch In Morocco

Last Friday, I went to the home of one of my favorite families here in Morocco. They live in the town where I live down in the Sahara. If you don't know people well here in Morocco, it's proper etiquette not to show up at their home unannounced. On the other hand, if you've established a warm, familiar connection, it's acceptable to arrive at their home without having been invited on a specific day when you arrive at their home. Indeed, it almost seems that it's expected that you'll show up unannounced. With this particular family, in the past when I hadn't shown up to dine at their home for weeks, and then when I ran into them while out and about in town, they asked me where I had been and when I would be coming over to their home.

Accordingly, as it had been a few weeks since I had been at their home due to my recent travels, last Friday I went to their home for lunch. Given that it was Friday, they served couscous for lunch. Moroccans usually eat couscous for lunch on Fridays. Thus when it was time to eat, around 2:30 p.m., one of the daughters in the family brought out a large tajine filled with couscous. The word "tajine" refers either to the stew-like culinary creation bearing that name, or to the actual clay pottery in which either the tajine stew, or, instead in this particular case, couscous, is served. To keep the meal warm, the high, pointed clay pottery tajine lid is kept on top of the tajine dish until the meal is served. In the large tajine dish which was about 18 inches wide, on this particular day the couscous was topped with well-cooked carrot and pumpkin.

When she brought the couscous, she brought a few spoons for us to use in eating the couscous directly out of the communal tajine dish. Her sister, however, as usual, ate the couscous without a spoon, as some Moroccans do. She gathered some couscous from the tajine dish and rolled it into a ball in her hand and brought it to her mouth in her hand.

After we had finished with the couscous, we had some muskmelon for dessert, which I always enjoy. I find the muskmelon quite refreshing during warm weather such as we're having in the Sahara now.

As I rapidly approach my COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) date, which, at this point, is now less than a month away, I'm beginning to note in a fresher, almost urgent kind of way, what I have been appreciating during my time here in Morocco. I certainly include the hospitality I've experienced here, including at lunch last Friday, amongst the aspects of my experience here for which I've been most grateful to God.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Twilight: My Two-Year Anniversary In Morocco

Today is my two-year anniversary of my arrival here in Morocco. I arrived in Morocco as a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) on September 15, 2010. My COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) date is less than a month away. Thus I am in the twilight of my Peace Corps service. People have been asking me how I feel about my Peace Corps service, now that it is about to end. I feel pretty good.

When I started applying to the Peace Corps, initially in 2008, at that point already for at least a dozen years I'd already wanted to be in the Peace Corps. I wanted to live in a foreign country, and more specifically in Africa. I'd always envisioned my Peace Corps service being in the Sahara. I'd been wanting to live somewhere where I'd be speaking a foreign language. I'd already been wanting to teach for well over a dozen years. And it had long been important to me to help impoverished persons, as the Bible instructs. Thus, I supposed that teaching English classes in the Peace Corps would be a fine way to do all of these things.

Indeed, I've enjoyed teaching English, and I've enjoyed doing the other work I've done here in Morocco as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer). While teaching, I've mostly taught English, though I've also taught lessons about geography, health and the environment during my service. During the process of teaching here, I've learned how to teach better, learning for which I have been grateful.

I've come to see how, just as the Peace Corps encourages PCVs to conceptualize, teaching English can be a vehicle, a means, to other, more significant, ends. I've taught English as a means of addressing gender issues and as a way of leading youths to develop further their logical reasoning and critical thinking abilities.

While teaching English, I've sought to catalyze boys to consider their responsibility to respect the human rights of girls and women. I've tried to spur them to evaluate how they may support women and girls and promote their human rights by the seemingly mundane choices they make in what seem to be their everyday, routine lives. As I've taught English, I've sought to empower girls by encouraging them in the classroom. I've had them consider their own perceptions of themselves, and I've suggested to boys that they be more conscious of how they perceive girls.

I've introduced logical reasoning and critical thinking elements into English lessons to suggest to youths that they might want to question their own assumptions. I've tried to help them to be more objective. I've hoped that perhaps they've expanded their minds. I've hoped that in taking these reasoning approaches, they've realized things about themselves and their world.

In addition to this work I've done, I've made new friends. I've established connections here, both with Moroccans and with other PCVs, which I value.

However, I can't help but think that I might have benefited more than the students and others I've taught and tutored here. I feel that I have gained enormously during my time here in terms of my own personal journey.

On a relatively superficial level, I have indeed been living in a foreign country, and more specifically in Africa, and even more specifically in the Sahara, as I had wanted to do for so long. I've admired some beautiful landscape in this country, and while I've been here in town, I've often enjoyed taking walks in a calm, serene palmerie, the massive grove of palm trees which stretches through this town where I've been living.

But more deeply, while I've lived here in Morocco, I have enjoyed a simple lifestyle. I haven't missed the money and property I had back in the states. Indeed, as I've neared my COS date, and have come to shed more and more property, I've been yearning to jettison more and more physical possessions from my life.

I've greatly enjoyed the solitude I've had here. I've used it to read the entire Bible and re-read a significant portion of it. I've used my free time, with its peace and quiet, to pray and meditate, and to study the Word of God.

I've been very grateful to God for the spiritual community I've experienced with other expat Christians here in Morocco. I've cherished the opportunities I've had to worship God and celebrate God's many blessings with them. I've come to appreciate much more the ability to go to church, since, while I've been living here in Morocco, I've not always been in a location here where there is a church.

As a PCV, I've been grateful for the camaraderie and support I've experienced with and from my fellow PCVs. I've also been glad to live in this community where I've been living here in the Sahara. I've felt satisfaction and fulfillment in serving the community here, teaching and doing other work while I've lived here.

While serving here, I've often felt challenged by this culture. I haven't felt like my personality meshes well with Moroccan culture. Indeed, I've often thought that, in placing me here, the Peace Corps was doing something akin to trying to mix oil and water. However, in experiencing the challenges I've encountered here, I've realized that such difficulties present opportunities to grow and to learn, not just about another culture and the people who are native to it, but also to learn about oneself.

I've experienced the most emotionally challenging period in my life during my Peace Corps service, largely as I struggled to deal with culture shock and adjusted to life in a culture significantly different than in the culture in which I had been accustomed to living previously during all of my life. In grappling with these circumstances, I've been reminded of how Francis Collins, in his book "The Language Of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief," muses, "Hard though it is to accept, a complete absence of suffering may not be in the best interest of our spiritual growth." Indeed, one would do well to ponder the question, Do we learn more from a comfortable situation, or from trying circumstances?

Ultimately such metamorphosis, painful and unpleasant though it has often been, due to its attendant growth and learning, has been one of the more profound reasons why I have valued my time here so much. Learning, growing, becoming more than one had been, while serving and giving to others, this is part of the meaning of life.

Thus when circumstances not only seem less than ideal, when not only do we not get what we desire, but events are additionally incredibly trying and stressful, and seem to stretch us to our limits, something better, something more, something deeply and wonderfully transformative lies waiting for us on the other side, as described in Hebrews 11:39-40:

These were all commended for their faith,
yet none of them received what had been promised,
since God had planned something better for us
so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Squeaky Wheel Gets The Grease

Yesterday my Regional Manager, who is a Peace Corps staff member, came to my site, that is, the town in which I live down here in the Sahara. She was here to do a site visit for my site mate, the other PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who also lives here in town. She also visited the site of another my fellow PCVs, who lives in a village about five kilometers south of here. She came here to help each of them as they adjust to living in their sites.

My fellow PCV in the nearby village called me and let me know that our Regional Manager would be driving her up here into town. I went and met them at the post office, since I have been holding the key to the post office box which I have been sharing with each of these two other nearby PCVs. I retrieved the envelope from the post office box which had arrived for my fellow PCV.

Then our Regional Manager went with us to the electricity company office. My fellow PCV still hasn't received an electricity bill, even though she's been living in her apartment for a few months. I also asked the electricity company employee behind the counter when the bills would be delivered since I hadn't yet received one, and since usually I have already received one by this point in the month. The electricity company told us that the electricity bills would be delivered soon. He asked me where I lived here in town, trying to confirm his belief about where I lived. I confirmed his perception of where I lived.

Today I received my electricity bill under my door. I didn't intend to try to get my bill delivered more quickly, but I suspect that it might have arrived more quickly because I was in the office and asked when it would be arriving!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Bus Ride In Morocco

Recently on my way back to the town where I live here in the Sahara, I was trying to catch a bus south from Marrakech. I went to the CTM bus station, but found that both of the CTM buses out of Marrakech which would be headed down here were already full. I walked to the SupraTours bus station, but soon learned that the SupraTours bus south to the Sahara was also full. Accordingly, I went to the main bus station there in Marrakech, where I was able to get on a bus back south. At the main bus station, one catches buses less fancy than CTM buses and SupraTours buses. The buses are older and generally less comfortable. PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) refer to these buses as "souq buses," because the driver will let you off wherever you like; thus you can take these buses to the souq, or the farmer's market, whereas CTM buses and SupraTours buses generally won't make special stops for you such as at the farmer's market.

Once I'd gotten my bus ticket, I found my bus and boarded it. When I ride buses here in Morocco, if I can, I always sit in the row furthest back. On the route I travel south from Marrakech back to the town where I live here in the Sahara, the buses go through the High Atlas mountains, and over the Tichka Pass. The buses make many turns on this curvy route. Consequently many people get motion sickness and become nauseous and end up vomiting. Given that I both don't get motion sickness, and given that I also don't want anyone sitting behind me potentially vomiting on me, I always sit in the row furthest back if there's an empty seat there for me. Thus on this particular day, I was sitting all the way in the back of the bus. Admittedly the spot where I was sitting didn't look that comfortable. Thus the Moroccan man sitting across the aisle from me asked me if I was sitting in a good seat. I replied in Darija, that is, in Moroccan Arabic, that it wasn't a good seat, but that I was a little insane. One is always likely to elicit a laugh if one insinuates that one is crazy. Accordingly, the man laughed, and, as people here do when they think that someone has made a good joke, he shook my hand.

Soon after we had this laugh, we were visited by some folks on the bus who did not end up traveling with us. Moroccans who are not traveling walk onto these less fancy buses and peddle different things, most commonly bottles of water, snacks, shoes and jewelry. Moroccans also walk onto the buses asking for alms. After I'd boarded this bus, there was quite a while until we were going to leave. Thus multiple people boarded the bus trying to sell their various items.

At one point the Moroccan man sitting across the aisle from me was surrounded by four kids, seemingly about eight to twelve years old. They were trying to sell him different things, which I believe included water and gum. Noting the little gathering around him, I suggested to him in Darija, "It's a little market here on the bus." Later, after the kids had left, I joked with him that if someone has to go shopping, he or she doesn't have to go to a hanoot, which is Darija for "grocery store." Rather, all someone has to do is board a souq bus and sit there for a little while before it leaves, and someone can do all of his or her shopping there on the bus. Of course, I exaggerate. One can't buy anything and everything from the folks who board trying to peddle their goods. For example, after my comment that being aboard a souq bus just before it leaves is like being at the market, that fellow sitting across the aisle from me noted that no one had come aboard the bus trying to sell vegetables.

And indeed, people are limited in how many different types of things they can sell on the buses partly due to time constraints. After a while, we were off on our way south from Marrakech and on to the High Atlas mountains. When we were passing through some of the highest spots on that road, I was pleased to yet again spot a waterfall, despite it being so long since the winter, thus with presumably less melting snow to feed a waterfall. Thus I was happy that day not only to get in some good laughs, sharing some humor with one of my fellow passengers, but I was also glad to get to enjoy some natural beauty on my way back south to the Sahara.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Some Tasty Treats

During my recent travels, I was happy to get to enjoy some b'ghrir, as well as milwi, which is also known as missimen. B'ghrir and milwi are a couple of tasty treats often enjoyed at breakfast here in Morocco. B'ghrir is like a small, round pancake with a light, spongy texture which contains a lot of little holes in it. Milwi, or missimen, is also flat, but is flakier and heavier than b'ghrir. Milwi is cooked in roughly square shapes with rounded edges. Moroccans sometimes eat b'ghrir and milwi plain, with no toppings of any kind. But sometimes they eat b'ghrir and milwi with honey or jam, which is how I prefer to eat milwi and b'ghrir, unless I'm eating the savory kind of milwi, which I prefer to eat plain. When I've eaten the savory kind of milwi, it has seemed to have tiny pieces of vegetables woven into it.

While I often see folks cooking b'ghrir and milwi at shops on the street, that is, at shops with grills actually on the sidewalk, I tend to avoid street food. Invariably I develop some sort of digestive difficulties if and when I eat street food. Given that I thus often pass up opportunities to eat b'ghrir and milwi, I was happy to get to eat some b'ghrir and milwi in the last couple of weeks. When I was in Rabat for my COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) Conference, the hotel served b'ghrir and milwi for breakfast on certain mornings. More recently, when I was in Marrakech, I happily enjoyed some savory milwi at a rather nice bakery there.

When I was in Rabat, I also picked up some amlou, which is essentially Moroccan organic peanut butter. While I've found amlou here in the town where I live down here in the Sahara, I haven't bought any here in town. While I want to support smaller, more local vendors whenever I can, here in town I only found amlou which is bottled in used plastic water bottles. I'd wondered how many people had drank out of the bottle before the amlou had been added to the bottle. I'd also imagined that a lot of plastic might have leeched out of the bottle. I do think it's great that Moroccans reuse plastic bottles, but I also suspect that they might use them too long, considering health concerns. Anyway, when I was in Rabat, I bought some amlou in jars in a supermarket. I've been enjoying it on what are essentially peanut butter and jam sandwiches. On some bread I spread some amlou, then add some Aicha brand jam, which is my favorite jam here in Morocco, I believe since it contains pectin, which I think helps the jam hold together well and have a firm consistency.

As I rapidly approach my COS date, which, at this point, is less than one month away, I'm continuing to enjoy some tasty treats here. I've been thankful to God that I've been able to enjoy some tasty treats while I've been living here in Morocco!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Listening

A group of other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and I just finished a couple of days of training. Another PCV and I trained a half dozen other PCVs to listen empathetically and to otherwise practice active listening skills. Here in Morocco, as in other countries where PCVs serve, there's a VSN (Volunteer Support Network) in place, which supplies VSN peer counselors, who are also PCVs, who listen to fellow PCVs who need to talk to someone about their problems. Insofar as the other trainer and I had already been trained as VSN peer counselors, we trained the half dozen PCVs who swore in as PCVs a few months ago.

We spent some time with our trainees discussing the counseling relationship and what it looks like. Thus we talked about how a VSN counselor is different from a friend. A friend might talk about himself or herself, whereas a VSN counselor focuses on the person asking for a listening ear. A friend might also criticize or rebuke another friend.

We also reviewed the importance of building rapport with the person who contacts the VSN counselor. It's important to establish trust so the person is comfortable sharing.

We also talked about helping the person to identify his or her emotions. Insofar as VSN counselors listen non-judgmentally, the VSN counselor doesn't tell the person what he or she is feeling. Rather, the VSN counselor tries to empathize with him or her and checks if he or she has correctly grasped what he or she is feeling. So, a VSN counselor might venture, "It sounds like you're feeling frustrated," or "It seems like you're irritated by this situation." We also reviewed various techniques for making sure that we correctly understand the people who are speaking to us about their problems. Thus we went over clarifying, paraphrasing, and checking our perceptions of what he or she is saying to us.

We also discussed how a VSN counselor can help someone develop a plan of action. But again, rather than telling him or her what to do, we described how a VSN counselor can ask someone how he or she feels about pursuing certain choices of action, and what the pros and cons of various courses of action might be. We talked about how we can ask him or her what the ramifications of certain courses of action might be.

We also spent time talking about various sources of stress which PCVs, especially those in Morocco, face. We discussed sexual harassment and cultural stress, including tension stemming from religious and political discussions which occur here in Morocco.

During a session on diversity today, once again I was reminded of the diversity amongst PCVs. At various points of my service, I've noted and enjoyed the diversity amongst PCVs here in Morocco, whether it be diversity of ethnicity, race, religion, age, marital status and disability. I've also enjoyed meeting PCVs who hail from many different states in the US, and who have lived abroad in various countries. When PCVs think about benefiting from diversity in the Peace Corps, it seems that often PCVs think of benefiting from the cross-cultural exchange of living in the host country where they're living abroad. However, PCVs also stand to benefit from the diversity they encounter amongst their fellow PCVs.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

COS (Completion of Service) Conference

This week I was in Rabat for my COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) Conference. Although my COS date, when I'll return to Peace Corps Headquarters in Rabat to officially stop being a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), won't be until next month, Peace Corps holds the COS Conference a little bit before PCVs actually close their service. At the COS Conference, Peace Corps helps PCVs prepare to complete their service.

During the COS Conference this week, Peace Corps held sessions on a variety of topics. We've got tasks to do in multiple areas, and we're processing and reflecting on our experiences in various ways, so this week Peace Corps helped us to get these tasks done and to consider our time here.

Near the beginning of the COS Conference, Peace Corps held a session on medical concerns, during which they gave us an overview of the medical attention we would receive during the COS Conference. During that session, medical staff instructed us about the medical samples we would have to provide during the COS Conference. They also reminded us how our COS physical examinations and dental cleanings would be done, which also occurred this week. They looked ahead and explained how we'll be able to receive medical care once we stop being PCVs, that is, once we're RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers).

During another session, Peace Corps staff gave us printed copies of our aspiration statements, which we had authored before coming here to Morocco. In our aspiration statements, we had written about professional attributes we had planned to use, and the aspirations we had hoped to fulfill, during our Peace Corps service. In these statements, we had also described strategies we had had about working effectively with Moroccans, and strategies for adapting to a new culture. In the aspiration statements, we had also noted skills and knowledge we had hoped to gain during PST (Pre-Service Training). In these statements, we had imagined how our Peace Corps service would influence our personal and professional goals. In re-reading our aspiration statements, we reflected on whence we had come and what we had hoped to do during our Peace Corps service, and where we had arrived through our cultural odyssey here in Morocco, what we had done along the way, and how we got to this point in our service. We considered our accomplishments over the last couple of years in light of what we had hoped to do while here in Morocco.

Peace Corps staff also ran a session on readjusting to life in the US. Some of the staff working for Peace Corps in Morocco have lived for extensive periods, as in a dozen years, in the US. Thus they've been readjusting to life here in Morocco after living in the US for so long. During the session on readjustment, Peace Corps staff shared their experiences, including their frustration they've felt here in Morocco, as they try to readjust to life here in Morocco.

During another session, Peace Corps staff had us PCVs discuss questions which RPCVs are commonly asked once they've finished their Peace Corps service and have moved back to the US. It seems that once RPCVs arrive back in the US, they experience frustration when asked certain types of questions, particularly those which generalize or are otherwise insensitive, so Peace Corps staff tries to prepare PCVs for such questions.

A panel of a half dozen RPCVs spoke to us during one session. Some of them served here in Morocco, but most of them served as PCVs in other countries. They served as PCVs at various points in the past, one as recently as within the last year, and others more than fifteen years ago. They spoke to us about readjusting to life in the US. They also shared their thoughts on what to do after Peace Corps service, which included thoughts on job hunting as well as on graduate school.

We also had a session on services which Peace Corps provides to RPCVs, including once they're back in the US. We learned about help which Peace Corps provides in finding jobs. We also got some pointers on how to describe our Peace Corps service on our resumes.

Peace Corps staff gave us some guidance on writing the DOS (Description Of Service) which every PCV must write about himself or herself. In the DOS, a PCV describes when he or she arrived in his or her country of service, the training he or she received there, where he or she lived during his or her service, and the work he or she did as a PCV in his or her country of service. The DOS goes on file with Peace Corps and is the official record of the PCV's service. Each of us had time during the week of the COS Conference to write a DOS. Thus by the time the COS Conference had ended, each of us was able to e-mail a final draft of our DOS to Peace Corps staff here, who will review it before signing it and making it official.

Peace Corps staff also administered LPIs (Language Proficiency Interviews) during the COS Conference. That is, they tested our proficiency in whatever language we've been speaking for the last two years, whether it has been Darija, which is Moroccan Arabic, or whether it has been one of the Berber languages, which, for PCVs here in Morocco, is either Tashelheit or Tamazight.

During an administrative session, Peace Corps staff listed the numerous tasks we should be sure to complete before our COS dates. They reviewed how we will have to close our bank accounts. They added that we should inform the post office and the gendarmes, who are our local law enforcement officers, as well as our local government officials in the towns in which we live, of our impending departures.

Peace Corps staff also held a session on safety and security matters. We were asked why we thought they were addressing safety and security at this late stage of our service. Perhaps some of us thought that we've been here so long that there's no need for us to discuss safety and security concerns. But I agree with Peace Corps staff that we needed such a session precisely because many of us may have become lax and careless about safety and security here. We've been here so long that we think that we know how things work here. It's possible that at this point, some PCVs have stopped being vigilant and alert, and are thus more at risk to become crime victims. Or if some PCVs have become more and more frustrated over the course of their service, they might lash out against someone and escalate a tense or otherwise dangerous situation, thereby increasing a risk of harm to themselves. Hence I felt that the time was well-spent talking about safety and security concerns.

The Ambassador to Morocco and his spouse visited us during our COS Conference. I was struck by how they spent most of their time with us in asking us questions about Morocco. They wanted to know what we had observed, what we had learned during our Peace Corps service here. I was very impressed that, despite the Ambassador's position of significant stature and authority, that he and his spouse acted with much notable humility in asking us questions, since, in doing so, they showed that they felt that they had something to learn from us.

We also had a session in which we were able to provide programming feedback. Thus, those of us PCVs completing our service in the next couple of months, being Youth Development PCVs and Small Business Development PCVs, provided feedback to Peace Corps staff about how Peace Corps has run its Youth Development and Small Business Development volunteering programs for PCVs. We offered suggestions on how various programming operations could be improved.

Each of us also had a chance to speak with the Country Director of the Peace Corps here in Morocco. During these individual exit interviews, which provided ample time to speak with her, she asked us how we feel about our Peace Corps service as we prepare to COS. She inquired about challenges and successes we've faced here. I was glad not only that she asked us for our feedback, but that she seemed to respond appropriately to different types of feedback. I felt that she was honestly listening and that she would deal appropriately with various matters.

I left the COS Conference feeling fairly well-prepared for what lies ahead in certain ways. I feel well-equipped to handle administrative tasks and other matters I have to handle in the days ahead.

As the week progressed, I was feeling a bit anxious, since there was much to get done in an effort to get things squared away as instructed. As I got more done, I became a bit calmer.

However, I also realized that I was feeling a good deal of separation anxiety this week. Many of us PCVs who are about to complete our service here acknowledged to each other that some of us probably won't ever see each other again. We're all going to actually officially stop being PCVs on different dates, so we won't all be at Peace Corps Headquarters here in Morocco for the last time at the same time. As the time neared for me to leave Rabat, I got to say goodbye to my fellow PCVs. In just getting to say goodbye, I felt better. In saying our farewells, I felt that we had one last chance to connect, that is, to say proper goodbyes, which seemed to help.

And as I move forward, I'm facing a great deal of uncertainty about what is going to come next. While I've been looking forward to discerning what's going to happen next in my life, I'm more curious, eager, and hungry to know, more than concerned. Multiple times while I've been here in Morocco, including this summer, I've revisited Matthew 6:34, with its guidance "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Therefore, I've been increasingly endeavoring to go forward in the faith I have that God is guiding me toward the next steps in my life. As I take each step, the next one subsequently will become clear to me. Thus I feel that I've also been internalizing what I heard a while ago: do not be concerned about tomorrow; God is already there.