Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflecting On Nearly Two Years Of Peace Corps Service

I just finished my Peace Corps service earlier this afternoon, as today is my COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) date.  About nine other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and I spent yesterday afternoon and this morning and this afternoon completing various administrative tasks.  In the last day or two, we've signed a lot of forms.  We also visited various offices at Peace Corps Headquarters here in Rabat, getting signatures of various Peace Corps staff members documenting that we've complied with various reporting requirements.  We had them verify that we've complied with assorted administrative requirements, including returning Peace Corps property, such as our medical kits and smoke detectors, and any books we took out from the Peace Corps library here at Peace Corps Headquarters in Rabat.

It feels good to have just finished my Peace Corps service.  Though I'm not sure how much I've helped here, at least I tried to help.  As a PCV, you'll never know the full effects you've had.

Although I won't know much about how I've helped here, there will be some interactions from my time here in Morocco and from the application process, and from the decision process to apply to the Peace Corps that I think I'll never forget.  Among them are:

* Sitting in church in August 2009 and listening to the pastor say that when we set out to help others and are worried about being lonely, that Jesus reassures us that He will be there with us.  That was the moment when I decided that I was definitely applying to the Peace Corps.

* Standing on the Sundial Bridge in Redding, California, in November 2009 and being approached by three middle-aged men who told me that they were on a treasure hunt.  They told me that they were looking for people who needed their prayers.  Immediately I responded that I needed their prayers, since I was applying to the Peace Corps to teach English in a foreign country, and was studying for the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) test to show my proficiency level in French to the Peace Corps.  We stood on the bridge, with our arms on each others' shoulders, praying, asking God to help me. 

* Driving north on Interstate 280 from San Jose to San Francisco on one particular afternoon in June 2010, knowing that the big blue envelope with the invitation from the Peace Corps was waiting for me at home in San Francisco.  As I drove home that day, I remember thinking that I was on my way to find out where I would be living for the next two years of my life.

* Driving north on 19th Avenue in San Francisco on that same day in June 2010, and, as I was only a few minutes from home, listening to the classical radio station play "Palladio" by Karl Jenkins.  I felt, and still feel, that its urgent, charged tempo and rhythm was apropos, as I only had a few more minutes to wait to find out to where I would be moving and serving in the Peace Corps. 

* Driving east on Interstate 580 right after I left the San Francisco Bay Area in July 2010 and sobbing as I left behind so many loved ones and the life I had lived there for years.  As I was sobbing, gasping for air, I was listening to the band Coldplay perform the song "What If."  As I listened to its message of being bold and taking the leap to live bravely, I reaffirmed my commitment to enter the Peace Corps. 

* Freaking out in early September 2010 as the time imminently approached for me to move out of the United States, in the only culture I had ever known. 

* Walking through the airport in Philadelphia where the other PCVs and I were meeting for our Staging date, when we had our orientation in the US preparing us to leave the US and fly here to Morocco.  As I neared the exit of the airport, I saw a poster advertising the Peace Corps which said, "Never have to start sentences with 'I should have...'"

* Speaking with my host brother, in whose home I lived during the first two months I lived here in Morocco.  In particular, I especially recall one conversation I had with him in which he was persistently apologizing for the attacks made in the US on September 11, 2001.  Despite my protests that he didn't have a responsibility to apologize for those attacks, he continued to apologize for them.

* Meeting a courageous young Moroccan Christian woman on the train between Marrakech and Fes in November 2010.  After she stated that it's illegal to be Christian in Morocco, she nevertheless shared her story of how she converted to Christianity despite the initial opposition of her family, who at first ostracized her and shunned her for deciding to be a Christian. 

* Leaving the cyber one day in November or December 2010 in the town in the Sahara where I lived for the better part of two years.  As I walked out into the Sahara sun, I despaired at how I felt that no one in the town would be able to understand how I felt, with the homesickness and culture shock I was feeling. 

* Crumpling emotionally in late January 2011 as I felt like I didn't have the strength to continue as a PCV, yet simultaneously feeling as if I had no choice but to continue with my Peace Corps service.  Feeling trapped, I cried out.  Soon after feeling so emotional, I found renewed fortitude as I thought of Jesus' words in Matthew 25:42-43.  I recalled His words there, how He reminds us that when we help the disempowered and disadvantaged, we are respecting Him.  Reminding myself of this teaching, I realized that I wouldn't be going anywhere, and that I would be finishing my Peace Corps service as scheduled, so as to help the people who I came here to Morocco to help. 

* Talking with a particular student at Spring Camp in 2011.  I was so glad to be discussing with him how God wants us to help each other.  I so enjoyed discussing the meaning of life with him, and even more knowing that he had been trying to live his life in a way to infuse it with meaning. 

* Meeting other expat Christians here in Morocco and attending Bible study sessions with them.  As I experienced spiritual community and fellowship with them, which I cherished very much, we supported each other as we tended to each others' spiritual growth.  Along with much of the spiritual reading I've done while here in Morocco, I felt like I benefited enormously from their support.

* Helping youths here in Morocco develop their critical thinking skills.  In the process, I feel that they articulated their ideals, what is most important to them, and how they want to live their lives.  In such creative writing exercises, they seemed to be describing the kind of people they admire and the type of people they aspire to be.  I hope that I helped them to be more conscious in how they choose to live their lives.

* Enjoying the magnanimous hospitality of Moroccans so many times.  I've been reminded that it is so important to be generous towards others and to take care of others.

Rather than bringing back a lot of new material possessions from Morocco, I'll be returning to the US with the insight gained from having lived in a markedly different culture.  I've learned, from different cultural norms, how I can benefit from approaching life in different ways.  I feel that I've learned how to be a better person.  I feel that during my Peace Corps service, God has taught, guided and directed me.  I'm so glad that I made the major changes in my life which were necessary to come here, since I feel that I am a much better person as a result of having so drastically changed my life. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Whistling In The Dark

Recently one night when I was in bed, trying to fall asleep in the Sahara, my post during my Peace Corps service here in Morocco, I was reminded of a certain superstition which supposedly some Moroccans have.  As I was resting there in bed in the dark, I barely heard a television playing somewhere.  On the TV was a commercial which sometimes plays here which includes whistling.  For some reason, even though I'd heard this commercial numerous times before, only as I heard it then in the dark did it remind me of the superstition here that if you whistle in your house, you're going to let a djinn, that is, a genie, into your home.  However, just as in the US, here in Morocco certainly not everyone subscribes to superstitions.  I was so reminded during a recent visit to the home of a family I know in town.

Perhaps a few days after I heard that commercial when I was trying to fall asleep, I was at the home of this particular family in town, visiting them for dinner.  As usual when one visits the home of a Moroccan family here in Morocco, the TV was playing.  As I sat there with the family, that same commercial which features whistling started playing on their TV.  I mentioned the superstition that if you whistle in your house, you'll let in a djinn. Some of the family members nearly seemed to chuckle, apparently unconcerned.  As an added expression of their lack of concern, one of them noted that the pressure cooker on the stove was starting to whistle!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A New Friendship Between A PCV And A Moroccan

Today I joined my friend David, who's also my site mate, that is, my fellow PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who also lives here in town, when he went to his host family's house for lunch.  I invited our fellow PCV Ariana, a young woman who lives about five kilometers south, to join us at their home for lunch.  I was glad that she joined us.  I'd been wanting to introduce her especially to the younger daughter of the family for a while.

Before she arrived, David and I were admiring the keftans, or Moroccan women's robes, which the younger daughter of the family had made in the course of her occupation as a seamstress.  One was yellow and the other was purple.  Both were embroidered with intricate weaving down the front middle seam.  The yellow one had a rust-colored vest which went over it.  The purple one had matching loose pants which accompanied it.  As a side note, most Moroccan women's clothing, and especially keftans, tend to be loose-fitting, unlike, for example, Malaysian women's clothing which is a bit more form-fitting.  My site mate predicted that our fellow PCV would thoroughly enjoy such colorful, decorative keftans.

When our fellow PCV Ariana arrived, she was absolutely thrilled with the beautiful handiwork of the younger daughter of the family.  She was all smiles, and thoroughly enjoyed trying on the keftan which the daughter put on her.

Normally when one goes to a Moroccan home, the food is a primary, prominent part of the visit.  During this particular visit, the family had to redirect us, from the clothing, and the new friendship which my fellow PCV had struck up with the younger daughter of the family, back to the tea and cookies which had been sitting waiting for us on the low round table.

Also, normally the hosts pour the tea for the guests.  For some reason, the father of the family repeatedly directed me to pour the tea, so I poured the tea.  I forgot to pour the tea in the typical Moroccan fashion of drawing the teapot high above the glass, so that the tea falls in a long arc from the teapot which is high above the glass.  Accordingly, the younger daughter reminded me to do so when she took the teapot and demonstrated the customary way to pour tea here in Morocco.

After the tea and cookies, we enjoyed our lunch, a tajine, which is essentially the Moroccan equivalent of a type of stew.  The tajine we enjoyed today was one of chicken, potatoes and green olives.  We sat on the floor around a low round table, each of us grabbing morsels from the part of the communal dish which was nearest to us with pieces of bread--which the family baked themselves--which we ripped from large, flat, round loaves.  Here in Morocco, it's customary to only take food out of the communal dish with one's right hand, as it's understood that the left hand is reserved for performing private sanitary functions.  One also uses the bread to soak up some of the tajine oil which sits at the bottom of the large communal dish.

But, again, the food today played a supporting role.  In one way, the food was secondary to the sartorial creations we admired.

However, the food also was upstaged by the new friendship forged between my one fellow PCV and my other fellow PCV's host sister, that is, the younger daughter in his host family.  After the meal, my site mate soon left since he had to meet some community members regarding some upcoming work he hopes to do here in town.  My other fellow PCV kept asking the younger daughter how to say certain words in Tashelheit, which is one of the Berber languages, and which is spoken in this southern region of Morocco where we live, here in the Sahara.  As when my fellow PCV was trying on and was wearing the beautiful yellow keftan and accompanying rust-colored vest, she and the younger daughter of the family were sharing much laughter and smiles as they discussed Berber vocabulary.

While I was sad to be saying goodbye to the family, and while they looked rather sad to be seeing me leave their home, since I won't be seeing them again before I leave town so soon from now, I was very pleased to see my fellow PCV having such a good time at their home.  I left their home with a warm, satisfying feeling, because, despite saying farewells with them, they had made a new friend whose company they seemed to enjoy so much.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Be Like The Children

Last week as I was walking back to the apartment where I've been living here in the Sahara, I passed a few different groups of children. I was struck by how carefree they were, apparently not caring about their surroundings.

First I crossed paths with three little ones, perhaps three, four and five years old, who were snaking their way down the sidewalk, as they trotted along. The one all the way in back had his hands on the hips of the middle one, who had his hands on the hips of the front one. They were pretending to be some sort of motorized vehicle, making beeping sounds as they navigated their way around people and items being sold on the dusty sidewalk.

Later I saw a little boy, maybe five or six years old, who was rolling a bicycle tire down a dirt road. One often sees kids here in town setting a tire rolling and then running after it, keeping it rolling by pushing it along with a stick.  They find amusement and opportunities for play in what they happen to find around them.

During this walk back to the apartment, I was greeted by other little children. As is so often the case when I am greeted by little children here in Morocco, they cheerfully greeted me in French by declaring, "Bonjour!"

Soon after I had seen all these little children, playing and otherwise seeming to be so happy, despite the poverty in which they are residing, unbothered to be living so simply, without many material comforts, I thought of a particular teaching of Jesus. In considering how joyous these children seem to be in such circumstances, I pondered that such an approach to life perhaps is at least part of what Jesus meant, at Matthew 18:4, when he counseled, "Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Peace Corps Service As An Investment That Has Been Paying Off

With less than two weeks of my Peace Corps service left, I've given away most of the things which had been in the apartment I've been renting. Yesterday a couple of my fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), who are much earlier in their service than I am, came here to town and took away some of the last few remaining items. One of them got a grand taxi to drive her to my residence, where the refrigerator I've been using got loaded on top of the taxi and tied down with rope. Another PCV got a grand taxi to come to my place. She took away the ponj, the lightweight foam rectangular cube-like sofa on which I'd been sleeping for the last three months while I've been here in town.

Later in the day yesterday, I emptied the bedroom and swept it. Then I set up a sleeping space in the bedroom, composed of a heavy winter blanket as padding on the floor, covered by a fitted sheet, with a heavy winter blanket to cover me in the slight overnight chill which has started to descend upon us here in the Sahara. In light of how I've been recently enjoying giving away more and more possessions, I viewed this new, simple sleeping arrangement in a satisfying manner, and thought, "All right, now we're really starting to get somewhere!"

Having given away the fridge, now I need to drink all of the milk I buy in one sitting. Thus, I stopped buying one-liter boxes of milk, since I normally wouldn't drink that much milk all at once. Although a one-liter box of milk only costs 9 dirhams, which is equivalent to a little more than one US dollar, since I got rid of my fridge, I've started buying small cold bags of milk which cost 3 dirhams each. Thus, yesterday after my friend and fellow PCV took away the fridge, I went and bought a small bag of cold milk. I was bringing it back to the apartment to eat with an amlou and strawberry jam sandwich. I recently blogged about amlou, which is essentially Moroccan peanut butter. However, I don't think that that amlou I'd previously bought contained argan oil. The amlou I'm currently using contains argan oil, almonds, sugar, salt, fennel, and vegetable oil. So I suppose that it's really like almond butter rather than peanut butter.

In any case, I was arriving back at the apartment to enjoy an amlou and strawberry jam sandwich with some cold milk when I noticed that my neighbor, a Moroccan fellow who teaches French here in town, was also arriving at the apartment building with some of his friends, who are also teachers here in town. My neighbor invited me into his apartment to have tea with them. It was in the late afternoon, or perhaps already the early evening, at that hour of day when Moroccans have kaskroute, which is like an afternoon snack.

I joined them for kaskroute. We sat on the floor around a low, round table in my neighbor's living room, drinking tea and eating dates and peanuts. When I finished my tea, my host filled my tea glass. When I finished the second glass of tea, I kept my tea glass by my side. I didn't want him to fill it again. The teapot was rather small and no one else had yet enjoyed a second glass. Despite keeping my glass at my side, nevertheless my host noted that I had again drained it. He asked me if I wanted more tea. I politely declined.

After we had finished having kaskroute, we were standing in the hallway of his apartment. Two of his friends started wrestling with each other. Moroccan males sometimes wrestle standing up, seeing which of them can best the other in the friendly contest. Soon after the brief wrestling match, I took my leave of them, glad that I had snacked with them.

Today I made sure to visit a family here in town whom I've visited from time to time while I've lived here. I wanted to be sure to see them again before I leave town. First we had tea and peanuts. A little while later, we had lunch, sitting on the floor around a low, square table. For lunch we had lentils and beef, each of us ripping apart pieces of bread to grab lentils and beef from the part of the communal dish which was closest to each of us. For dessert, we enjoyed grapes and apples.

After we had had dessert, I bid adieu to most of them. As I was walking back to my apartment, their son was walking with me for part of the way. At one point he asked me if I go to church. I told him that whenever I can go to church, I do indeed go to church, since it's important to me to do so. Then I added that at times, it's been hard living here in Morocco, because I haven't always been able to go to church here; there's no church here in town, and I'm not otherwise always near a church. However, I shared with him that we learn more when we're having a difficult time than we learn when we're comfortable. I suggested to him that I believe that God allows us to face trials and tribulations because in such trying circumstances, we learn and grow and develop. I've been grateful for such opportunities to learn and grow while I've been a PCV. Indeed, I became a PCV so that I would learn through facing difficulties. I'm glad to say that I feel like I have benefited from living in certain trying circumstances here. For that reason and for others, I feel like my decision to enter the Peace Corps has been an investment which has been paying off.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Enjoying Just Walking In The Park

As I rapidly approach my COS (Completion Of Service, or Close Of Service) date, I've been appreciating in a new light various elements of my experience here in Morocco.  Of course, with less than two weeks left until I finish my Peace Corps service, I'm conscious that I don't have a lot of time left to experience in person the benefits of life here. 

In this town where I live here in the Sahara, I've enjoyed walking through the palmerie, which is the massive grove of palm trees which stretches in, through, and out of this town on both ends.  It's so extensive that you can't see the ends of it even when you're on top of the mountains near the town.  I feel a serenity and calming influence there amongst the quiet of the palms.

In addition to the tranquility of the palmerie, it also teems with a variety of life.  I most often have seen dates hanging from the palms, and have been very happy to savor the sweetness of many dates plucked from the palmerie.  However, I've also seen apples, apricots, and pomegranates growing in the palmerie. 

We often enjoy fantastic weather here in town.  On many days, the sky beams blue.  It rarely rains here in town.  In any case, I've always been able to see the nearby mountains when I've gone for walks in the palmerie here.

For quite a while, I'd been wanting to go for a moonlit stroll through the palmerie.  After noticing over a period of a few days that the moon had been getting fuller and fuller, I found out that the moon would be rising around the hour of sunset.  In yet another fortunate turn, the weather had been clear day after day as the moon was becoming more and more full.  Accordingly, a couple of nights ago, I headed out for a moonlit walk through the palmerie.

I purposely chose a route which took me, for the most part, on wider paths so that my way would be less likely to be darkened by moon shadows being cast by mud walls or palm trees.  Consequently, for most of my walk, I was able to see where I was stepping.  By the light of the moon, I also enjoyed seeing across fields there in the palmerie. 

During my nighttime excursion through the palmerie, I not only was glad to experience the palmerie under a different type and amount of light, but I was also pleased to be experiencing its beauty and serenity in an even more quiet setting than usual.  Although I heard some dogs barking far away, usually I only heard a chorus of crickets as I walked under the palms. 

I also was glad to be walking through the palmerie at such a late and unusual hour since I was alone.  Discounting the three toads I saw hopping along at a few different points, I didn't see anyone else the entire time I was on my nighttime stroll through the palmerie.  When I walk in the palmerie during the day, usually I pass someone at some point.  So while I typically walk through the palmerie mostly alone, I appreciated the experience of walking there even more when I was doing so late at night, in complete solitude. 

On my moonlit stroll, I spent about 40 minutes in the palmerie, exiting it a few minutes after midnight.  I was glad that despite feeling fatigued, I had made myself get up and go out for the late night visit to the palmerie.  On that trip, I got to experience a place I very much enjoy, but from a new perspective, which has helped me to appreciate it in new ways.

Since the palmerie is so huge, there are so many trails to explore that I've probably only hiked a tiny percentage of the palmerie's paths.  It certainly has been a tremendous blessing from God to have what is essentially such an immense park here in the town where I have been living, and for one which I have been extremely grateful to God.