The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, nor any other governmental or non-governmental organization.

Nor is anything written here necessarily drawn from my own views, opinions, and observations. Please consider all postings and pictures complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality. For legal purposes, please additionally regard the author as utterly imaginary.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Environmental Day

It's Easter. Nobody here gives a damn.

Yesterday we had a great environmental day at one of the dar shebabs and pulled in maybe 75 kids from ten different schools, public and private. Here are some photos:

cute kids explaining the classification of different 'dechets'

girls from the school outside of town

environmental play

Quiz with the King looking on approvingly 
happy prize winner

mudir laying it out


Friday, March 29, 2013

up and down and up and down

Yesterday I went to meet the director at one of the youth centers on the other side of town. We spent three hours making something to give to the schools around the city publicizing an environmental workshop we're running on Saturday. I found out that the guy who had said he would be working with me is probably peace-ing out and 'might show up for part of it'. Next I biked all over town to various schools to try and rouse up some participants. Got the usual questions:
"Do you live here?"
"Morocco is beautiful right?"
"Don't you like Islam?"
"Are you married to the other American who's here?"
"No? But do you co-habitat? really?"
"When are you going home?
"Where are your parents?"
And also managed to confirm 88 kids to come to this thing tomorrow, here's hoping some of them show up. In the mean time, the ministry of education tried to show Krista as explicitly as possible that they have no respect for her and are very important people with very important stamps to stamp on papers. Next, I found her bike stripped of its wheels and back gear-set even though it is inside our apartment building, locked to the railing. What an asshole. From running around to the schools I went directly to my intermediate class, which was actually great fun, as I had them discuss a sufi poem in a sort of Harkness-style class. Then I went back across town to meet with the director again and find out that the guy who had said he would be working with me is probably going to be there and would like some money from the director to finance the art class. And I went home. 

Today, after a 2-hour eastern darija class in the morning, Krista and I made bacon and homefries and a coffee-banana milkshake to feel better about the whole bicycle thing, and then I headed back to meet with the guy who had said he would be working with me. He was a half-hour late, and then we spent two and half hours making a certificate of participation for the kids, and then another couple hours driving around town getting materials for tomorrow and then gluing things onto folders.

I have spent about 10 of the last 36 hours in in meetings with Moroccans. Usually this is fine and I'm cool with it but sometimes the whole 'culture' thing gets a bit overwhelming and, quite frankly, irritating. Such as the 40 year old principal of one of the schools asking first if I'm married and second if I live with a woman I'm not married to. I mean, seriously, how is that any of your goddamn business? Or the afore-mentioned guy who had said he would be working with me talking about Islam.

Him: "Mike do you pray?"
Me: "haha, no"
Him: "But Islam is nice, right?"
Me: "sure"
Him: "you know there are really beautiful girls in heaven right?"

Really dude? Why would there be beautiful girls in heaven? Do only beautiful girls get into heaven? Or does God only use women as a reward for righteous men? How exactly does this belief shake out?

I came back home, made myself an entire pizza and haven't started to plan for my 2 hour class tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

PCVs unite

When I arrived in Philadelphia on March 19th, 2012, I was nervous. I had somehow forgotten that there might be other volunteers going to Morocco along with me. That in fact there are thousands of us spread all over the world and, to a certain extent, we're all in it together. One hundred and fifteen or so other people met me in Philadelphia and so started one of the oddest getting-to-know you experiences I've ever been a part of. Most of us were fully in the throes of an emotional hurricane, while trying not to show it too much.

Who the hell were these other people? How could there possibly be other idiots who thought this could be a good idea?

Now our numbers have dwindled to well under 100, as many have wised-up and decided it is time to go home. Friendship is weird in the peace corps. There are almost 100 people just like me, who've been here just as long. I don't know some of their names, and I only regularly talk to 2 or 3 of them, but they are all good friends. Everybody's site and work and daily life is different, sometimes radically so. But, we all sort of go through the same crap.

And that makes hanging out together one hell of a relief. That and the chance to celebrate America in absentia.

So Krista and I used the excuse of an AIDS-related-project-development-training this past weekend to go to Oujda and see maybe 8 other volunteers. Making burritos and eating some sort of ambiguously asian chicken stirfry with sandy mushrooms. And talking in English about American things like what music is popular and what the hell is going on with politics. Drinking beers and talking about AIDS. Great.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

One year and 4 hours, but who's counting?

I landed at Casablanca airport one year ago today. It has been the longest and shortest year of my life.

One year without seeing my brothers. One year without driving. Excepting 12 days of vacation, one year without air conditioning or heating. One year of washing clothes by hand, dishes by hand, everything by hand. One year on a budget of less than $3000. One year without squash, without tennis, without bowling, without frisbee, without weights. One year with no bed frame. One year with no sit-down toilet. One year without bourbon. Unquestionably, it's been hard.

And there are benefits- avocados cost a dollar a kilo. I've met dozens of other volunteers from radically different backgrounds who are all amazing. I can spend 20 hours a day with Krista. I have all the time in the world. I make my own schedule. I can read as much as I like. I've learned a new language. I've learned some patience, and I've gained the ability to have a conversation with an illiterate goatherd without feeling awkward about it.

Peace Corps volunteers describe their time as 'my service'. It is service- you give up most of yourself, the people you love, and the objects you enjoy for the small, ethereal benefit of an uncaring nation and world. No volunteer needs to be reminded of this and the internet has made it even harder to forget. But I am happy to be here.

Besides the occasional food-borne illness, I feel good. I feel good about the work I do. I feel proud of the tiny impact I have. I feel good about the person I am becoming, and the values I'm developing. It takes practice.  I'll skip the lecture on Aristotelian ethics. At this point, I believe there is no better way to spend my time than what I'm doing now, in a small city in Morocco. Now I'll stop with the self-aggrandizement.

When I applied to Peace Corps, I figured it would be a good option to take, if I didn't have a job that I would rather do. I wouldn't quite say it was my first choice at the time. But one year in, I am glad that I made that choice.

I have more than a year left in my service. And somehow, I can both dread and be grateful for it.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I have started to fixate on milestones. In the next two months I will pass one year in Morocco, one year with Krista, and one year of service in my city. These dates are sitting on the horizon, but seem to be receding away from me. They weigh heavily on my mind and make time telescope uncomfortably ahead. 

A year and a half ago I read a book by Bernd Heinrich called Why We Run: A Natural History. The author is a half-crazy German evolutionary-biologist. He decided he wanted to be a very good runner, and so plumbed the depths of his own specialty to do it. He looked at how bees can fly so far without tiring; how gazelles can move so quickly; how birds can hop over continents. He tried to follow their examples. And then he looked at human history and the role that running played for some ancient peoples. He explained that humans are naturally damn strong runners. Groups of people (and I mean men, women, and some older children even) can run down gazelles. Human beings can outrun horses (hilariously enough, there is a race between horses and men in, of course, Wales). Bernd Heinrich took this knowledge, started experimenting by fueling his body in various ways during his runs. He tried drinking olive oil and carrying beer, but he settled on Welch's grape juice eventually. Then he broke the 100 km distance record. I came away from this book thinking two things. Firstly, Germans are insane. But secondly and more significantly, people are built to last.

He hit upon something else in his book, which was also mentioned in Born To Run. Ancient runners could chase down gazelles because of foresight. Gazelles see a man chasing them and they dash away, ver,y very quickly and lose a whole lot of energy doing so, while the man just keeps plodding along. Because we can imagine ourselves enjoying the endgame, we can finish marathons or run down a horse. It's all about motivation, and people are capable of finding motivation in the unseeable future. Some even credit these distant hunts as the stimulus which spurned the growth of the prefrontal cortex. And anybody who works in youth development knows that foresight is one of the best things you can learn as a kid. 

But what if you're too focused on a point ahead? You forget the best way to make it there- steady and unyielding. In my first marathon I took off for the first 10 miles at an absolutely unsustainable speed. I was pumped to be churning up the ground in my first race and thinking about how good it would feel to make it across the finish line. And then I crashed. Each mile was slower than the last and I didn't pass a single other runner in the last 16 miles. 

As I obsess on these points ahead, time has slowed. When you focus on the end you lose sight of the run itself. How nice it is to be moving along. And all that stuff along the way.

Now if only I could run in my site. I don't know where stray dogs, piles of trash, and psychopathic donkey-cart drivers fit in to the analogy.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Peace Corps Dream

One benefit of Peace Corps service is sleeping. I have never slept so much in my entire life. It's great.

In the winter, it's cold at night. There's nothing to do, and the best place in town is under all the blankets you own. So that's where I go, usually waiting until at least 10 pm, but increasingly hitting the bed even earlier. I almost never have anything to do before 10, and rarely have to be anywhere before 3 in the afternoon, so I don't exactly have to get up and at 'em early in the day.

As anybody who regularly sleeps 10 hours at a stretch while simultaneously being bombarded by low-grade food poisoning knows, you have some nutso dreams. Last night's was particularly vivid.

I was at home in DC. I was feeling pretty good because in the dream I'd just been exercising outside, something I've been missing quite a lot recently. I'd gotten back from my run and was in the kitchen, cooking something, presumably something good and American and with absolutely no cumin involved. My mom was there, and so were about 30 small Moroccan children, sitting both inside at the breakfast bar and out in the yard around some tables. They were all eating quietly. That right there should have tipped me off that it was a dream, but I guess I didn't want to realize that. The children all sort of hovered passively at the edges of the dream, not interfering. I was having a conversation with my mom. She was saying something about some family friends we would go see later, who may want to talk a bit about what the peace corps was like. Then I thought, wow, that last year or so passed by in a flash. Something struck me then and I was filled with dread. I asked my mom if I was done, and she said no, of course not, you have to go back- you're not even half way done. And then I woke up.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Less you know..

Generally speaking, I am fully aware of how little I know. This is clearest with the language. Oujdiya is tough. Tomorrow, Krista and I will attempt to lead 5 hours of classes on the environment, organic vs. nonorganic waste, and make some wallets out of old juice cartons with some kids. We will try to do this in Arabic. Will we succeed? Hell no. 

I have the language capability in Oujdiya that you would expect to have in Spanish if you lived for about 8 weeks in Spain. Guess how you say 'biodegrade' in Spanish? 'Biodegradarse' It's tHllel in Arabic. And that "H" sound doesn't exist in English. Or in Spanish.

Anyway, in addition to speaking like a child, I can be remarkably unperceptive. In early Peace Corps trainings, we were told about something they called RADAR. I forget what it stands for exactly, but the idea is that you must be aware of and assessing your security situation all the time. You know, head up, eyes open, fairly basic. And yet, somehow, I still manage to miss some things. (I'm sure that forgetting what the acronym stands for has nothing to do with it).

Great example from yesterday- it turns out there's an entire family living in one of the youth centers that we work. I've been here more than 9 months and I just found this out. The youth house is not big. I'd seen some laundry hanging up but I figured they belonged to the guy who opens and closes the door. Why does a family live there? No idea. All I know is that the father is Mohamed's brother. Probably 95% of the male population has at least one brother named Mohamed, so that doesn't give me much to work with.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Interminable train rides

This week I hopped the train across the country. Door-to-door the trip is approximately 12 hours, 10 of which are spent on the train. This is a lot of time when you don't have an ipod.

Sometimes you can purposefully sink into a sort of semi-lucid, non-conscious blur for a couple of hours. I believe many old men in Morocco permanently exist in this state, most of them sitting at cafes and peering into a dimension wholly unknown to the rest of us. This is the ideal for traveling here. I usually fall short for a couple reasons, chief among them is the temperature. Trains are typically neither air conditioned nor heated. That means, for 10 hour night trains, you shiver all night long, and for day trains, you get real nice and greasy. So yesterday I sat in my own funk for 10 hours before I couldn't take it any more- got off the train early and took a couple of taxis to get home. alhumdullah I made it.

Traveling put my site into perspective. I stayed with two other volunteers. One of them has a bathroom that's about 6 square feet. The other lives in a huge city and could easily buy budweiser. Awesome. I had a meeting with a number of volunteers from the south who live in small, almost stone-age-sounding villages where people click and hiss as part of their normal language. Another volunteer I was talking with is often told in his town that people 'could kill him' for his non-islamic beliefs. In short, I feel pretty lucky.

Why did I travel? A couple of us are starting a new committee within peace corps' youth development program. We're trying to figure out how to be more inclusive of disabled students, attack the stigma against the handicapped, and prevent disability from happening in the first place. The Moroccan government has actually gone backward in this realm over the last couple of decades, and there hasn't been much formal work on it from our end either. So we've got a big job ahead of us, but it's a work project I'm excited about.

Time to go teach some kids. We're doing positive adjectives and letters to important women in honor of international women's day. (In Morocco, it's men's day 363 days a year).


The views, opinions, and observations expressed in this journal are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions, or policy of the Peace Corps, Peace Corps Morocco, governmental or non-governmental organizations.

Nor is anything written here necessarily my own views, opinions, or observations. Please consider all pictures and texts here to be complete fabrications with absolutely no bearing on reality, this one or any other. For legal purposes, please additionally consider the author to be utterly imaginary.