Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Where to begin, where to begin? Currently, I find myself in the sun room of a country house in southwest France. A fire crackles nearby, a broken grandfather clock looms silently over my shoulder, and light streams in through the skylights during breaks in the rain. Two Herculean dogs patrol the yard, over which a blanket of maple leaves has fallen. The forest beyond is all shades of autumn. Everything is very.... still. A voice floats in from a far room in a lilting tone, sing-song-y and pleasant. What am I doing here? How did I get here?

Less than two weeks ago I was at Peace Corps HQ in Rabat, sitting in the verdant lawn, as the Ambassador, a U.S. Congressman and our Country Director gave short speeches. After several chaotic days of paperwork and frenzied last-minute activity, all was done, save for one final signature. The mood was cheerful all around as we gathered to write our names and "stamp out" in the Peace Corps COS book, the rite signifying twenty-seven months under the belt. Some headed out right away, off to places all over the world; some stayed the night in the city. I went with to dinner with a small group, said goodbyes at the hotel, turned in early and set the alarm.

The hotel desk guy assured me that a cab to the airport would be available at 4 AM. The "taxi" driver, as I might have predicted, was some friend of the hotel guy's who had brought his car over and planned to charge me two hundred dirhams for the ride. He was ready and waiting as I lugged my bags downstairs at ten till four, smiling politely as though nothing was amiss. I suppose in Morocco terms, nothing was. Just wanting to get there, I put up no fight and we headed off in the non-taxi. I arrived at the airport to find it dark and locked... a bit early, perhaps. The single security guard paid me little notice as I waited, sitting on my bags outside the front doors. It seemed as though no one else had planned to fly that day. After some time, however, car lights made their way down the road, and people lined up behind me. Airport employees sleepily marched in, and the lights flickered on.

The plane waiting on the tarmac in the purple light of dawn was picturesque (didn't take a picture :/), and I had butterflies realizing I'd be leaving Morocco for real this time-- that I was finally done. It was a quick trip to Paris; I sped right through customs and baggage, finding S waiting at Arrivals. After nearly two years, our time apart had finally come to an end.

Paris was a whirlwind. Every day was filled to the brim with activity. It was a surreal place-- the endless rows of Art Nouveau apartment buildings, and everything so old... like, really old. We walked and walked and walked, seeing all of the sights-- Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower and so forth. I ate amounts of food that rivaled the most intense of homestay meals. My God. Such a beautiful city though, and accented well by the overcast skies and chilly weather during our stay.

Six days in Paris passed like a blink, and suddenly we were on a fast train headed south to the town of Dax. We were met at the station by S's host brother (she first lived in France with a family eleven years ago, and has remained close since) who drove us out to their house in the countryside. The family are wonderfully sweet people, very welcoming and generous with their home. It's quite the opposite of being in Paris; here there is no plan-- nothing to urgently do or see but enjoy the tranquility. And sauna. And jacuzzi. And food. I am spoiled already. Ahem, anyway...

That about brings us up to speed. We still have several days here before taking a night train back to Paris and flying out to Copenhagen. Alright, off to more epicurean delights!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Via Chicago

...and Rabat and Paris and Copenhagen.

I'm comin' home.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Replacement, Standing By...

The last five days were spent running around town with my replacement. Yassin, as we will call him for now until he chooses to reveal himself, is now acquainted with his host family (the same one I had), has his future lodgings secured for life after homestay (my house), has met his new sitemate (Donniell) his counterpart and "the guys", has a P.O. box and has seen a good amount of the town. There's a lot to take in, of course, and five days doesn't cover much. That's what the two years are for, anyway, right? He's excited to be here. I'm excited for him, and am looking forward to hearing how his service progresses. Currently he's on his way back to the training site to finish up and swear in, then will be back later this month.

Having my replacement arrive has given me some perspective on my own service; he represents the future of Peace Corps involvement here, and thus I am more able to see what I have done as part of a bigger picture, placed between his time to come and Dominique's time before my own. I feel appreciative of them all-- past, present and future-- as great contributions to a worthwhile endeavor, and a pretty amazing thing to have been a part of. Just when you thought I had exhausted all the cliché lines in the previous post...

Only three more nights left in Amizmiz. There's tonight, I'll be in Marrakech over weekend to meet a visitor, then back to town for the last two nights, leaving Wednesday morning. Crazy. The goodbyes have been going fine, though the tough ones are still to come. My plans to say farewell to the host fam have been thwarted repeatedly, as my mom has somehow persuaded me into coming back for coffee again and again, drawing it out to a total of four goodbyes on successive afternoons thus far. At least soon we'll run out of days; my will to decline the invitations sure doesn't seem to be getting any stronger. But really, what the hey...

Friday, October 29, 2010

rêve marocain

In joining Peace Corps, initially I had minimal intent toward bettering the world. A bit embarrassing to admit, but it's the truth. Rather, I needed to escape from a personal rut and the bounds of my comfort zone, and viewed the "world peace" and "international development" aspects as attractive side effects. If I could contribute to those, great-- but I needed to do something for myself first.

I haven't often thought of my service as a job, but more of an opportunity to experience a series of environments and relationships-- an experiment, in a way-- to put myself in an entirely new situation and see how it goes. The relationships formed here-- the potential they have overturned, the good examples that have been shared, and the friendships that have come to be-- are by far the most rewarding aspects of the experience, and are where the most significant successes can be found, in my opinion. Though it feels unwieldy and pretentious to consider myself a facilitator of world peace, I believe that when people from different worlds come to understand and respect one another, it's a step in the right direction-- one that echos out long after the initial parties have gone their separate ways. The effects of our having known one another will carry on after my departure, through them in Morocco, and through me in America.

The friends I've found are some of the wisest people I have ever met, though they don't realize it. They live without concerns for status or reputation, ignoring the expectations of anything or anyone in order to share a connection with others, and for the joy that can be found there. I have looked up to them, learned from them, and am forever humbled by their struggles, hard work, and the spirit they retain despite such hardship and no promise of anything. Their families have taken me in, called me their son and have shown me warmth unlike any I have ever felt.

One constant of my service has been the dream-like quality to it all. Many times I have literally stopped in awe and disbelief that this is the life I get to live. I wake up each morning and look out over snow-capped mountains and a green valley. Forests, a river, olive groves, almond trees, wheat fields and a mountain range are my backyard. I walk down the street and am greeted by people who have accepted me into their place and their lives. I am lucky, grateful and can't help but occasionally feel undeserving of it all.  

I've had the support of the Peace Corps community-- fellow volunteers and sitemates, my family, friends back home, and a partner who fell into my lap four months into my service, who has waited this out with me for nearly two years, helping me through every step. I was able to show this place to my brother, who can indeed report that I haven't just been somewhere in the Bahamas the whole time. 

Looking through my photos, their inadequacy is striking. Reading past blog entries and the journals I've kept since minutes after leaving home, I can tell they don't reflect accurately what this has all been. I wouldn't expect them to, but I've tried, and I'm glad I have them. Only the experience can equal the experience, and it only happens once like this. It will all seem like a dream the moment I step off the plane, and there's nothing I can do to prevent that. Perhaps the truest ways I will see Morocco will be in my own thoughts and actions to come-- those parts of people I've known having become a part of myself, and in the confidence that comes from having done something I once couldn't even fathom.

The path through these last twenty seven months has reinforced my belief in the precept that things are always happening as they should, even if you can't see why or how at the time-- and that whatever you need at the moment is there for you. It has proved itself to me time and again, and shapes the way I try to live.

I think that to better the world, each person has to work to better him or herself. I'm glad I made the decision to join Peace Corps, selfish as it may have been at the time. It's the best thing I've ever done. As it turns out, the desire to be a better person hasn't been as one-sided as one might think. It's a process-- an exchange, nudged along by the help and example of others-- one that requires a lot of giving, and one that can continually be improved upon.

The days here lately are as beautiful as any I have ever seen. I find that trying to appreciate something "more" because you're about to part with it never seems to really work. You just gotta do what you normally do, while you can. Speaking of which, there's a knock at the door... I'll be out for a walk.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eighteen Days

Eighteen days. In eighteen days I'll be signing my name in a book at the offices in Rabat, then I will have finished Peace Corps... two years, three months and a few tajines later.

At this moment, things are quiet. The boxes have been shipped home, the gifts bought, final reports submitted, and everything is ready to be left behind or packed into suitcases, all of it resting in neat little stacks around my forever emptying house. A few goodbyes have been said. S is in Paris. The days are sunny and bright and chilly. It's somewhat of a limbo phase, where I'm all ready to go, but it's not quite time yet. I'm spending quality time with the sitemate and the guys, and have paid visits to TeaMaster Abdel Ali and the host fam. My surplus books, DVDs and clothes have been distributed, and all but a map of Morocco and some insect guts has been removed from my walls.

I'm awaiting a phone call to inform me of my replacement, who will be here on the 31st for a short site visit. Going on past experience, that should be several days of hurried activity as the new guy gets a crash course on Amizmiz. The day following his departure a friend of S's will be here to visit, staying through till my last day in town, the 10th of November.

As far as what it's like to be this close to finishing, it's a bit of everything, as one might expect: bittersweet, surreal, exciting-- though nothing has hit too hard just yet. It feels like that's all waiting at bay for the time being, ready to rush in as the final goodbyes are said and I'm in the taxi heading out of town. I'm not quite sure what to expect, really. It does sneak in here and there, as I walk around and think to myself that it's one of the last times I'll do so during this experience. There's a lot to be said about what this whole thing has meant to me-- more than I could ever articulate on here, but I'll probably attempt something of the sort in another post soon to come. Get yer tissues ready!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

COS Conference/Chefchaouen

Medical? Check.
Dental? Check.
Mostly pointless conference sessions? Check.
Seeing my fantastic staajmates? Double check.
Lasagna at La Mamma and five meals of falafel over the course of a seven-day period? Oh yeah.
Done. Onward...

Chefchaouen: A town of somewhat mythical status, the place up north I'd just never had a good opportunity to visit. In fact, I had already come to acceptance with the likelihood that I probably wasn't going to fit it in during my Peace Corps service, but was invited along for a short trip following COS conference.

Expecting to step off the bus into a teeming throng of European hippies, faux guides (pronounce: geeeeds) and hash peddlers, we were instead greeted with an empty parking lot, not a tourist in sight and no indication whatsoever that we had even arrived in the correct town, aside from the fact that the driver turned off the bus and disappeared into the night. Where were the enchanted blue alleyways? The cobblestone streets? The hanging lanterns? Turns out they were just up the road a bit. The town itself is spread across the long, slow slope of a mountainside, providing a perfect lookout across the valley. It is clean, vibrant, and according to my companions, has a very "European" feel. The majority of the city consists of modern, well-kept buildings and businesses with a backdrop of high rise condos, though the "old medina" section provides a more quaint, traditional feel, and yes, the beautiful blue and white-painted passageways. We woke early the morning after our arrival to explore them, getting lost amid their twists and turns, stairways, archways and canopies of grape vine overhead.

Perhaps it was the low season, or my expectations were simply skewed, but there seemed to be hardly any tourists. I suppose I am accustomed to Marrakech where the streets overflow with them, but in Chefchaouen their presence was shockingly minimal. I had also expected to be solicited hash constantly, as reported by other Volunteers and guidebooks-- the city is notorious for it-- but it only happened once, when a guy at the hotel flashed a tiny baggy and promised "good quality". We declined, though the other guests, hotel manager, restaurant waiter and every bleary-eyed shopkeeper we passed seemed otherwise. Also, due to the city's northern location and, therefore, prevalence of Spanish-speaking tourists, we were offered holas as opposed to the usual bonjours.

We took a taxi outside of town to an area called Akchor, at which you can hike to either some cascades or a natural arch called God's Bridge. After fighting off the multitude of faux guides lurking where the taxi dropped us off, all of whom insisted that we needed a "son of the countryside" to lead the way (which was most certainly arduous and fraught with peril), we opted for the clearly marked and worn path toward the Bridge. The day was perfect-- warm, blue-skied and sunny. Along the way were several neglected gardens, with squash growing plump and vines taking over the crumbling bamboo fences. I'm a total sucker for that kind of stuff. The hike was relatively short, and provided great views of the surrounding mountainside-- the forest, sheer gorge walls and the lagoon-blue water of the river below. The bridge itself was impressive, though considerably more so when standing at a distance, as when one is on it, it ceases to be visible. Right. We ate lunch on the rocks in the river below, shoes off and feet in the frigid water, the sun pouring down into the gorge above us. 

Two nights was just enough, I think, as there isn't really a whole lot to DO aside from shopping and simply walking around to take in the sights. It was nice to feel the slower place of a town that seemed content with itself and in no rush (insert hash joke here)-- a welcome change of pace from the weeklong rush of Rabat and familiar chaos of Marrakech, a great place to feel the chill of autumn setting in, and a perfect way to wrap up my Peace Corps travels. Unless you count the 5.5 hour bus ride, taxi, 4.5 hour train ride, taxi and hour bus ride fending off pickpockets on the way back to site the next day. Which I don't.

Sunday, October 3, 2010