October 16, 2012

to let go

It's time to close the book on my service and move forward. The finality of it has seemed particularly dramatic. While it was difficult leaving the familiarity of the United States--the people, smartphones, affordable cheeses and exercise equipment--I was pretty sure that I'd be back in two or three years. I'll see you later. But leaving the village where two of the most emotionally intense years of my life were spent, with no certainty of return, brought with it an unsettling sense of finality that remained with me for several days.

I welcomed the feeling. What would it mean if it weren't difficult to say goodbye? That I didn't fully engage? Or maybe that I'm a sociopath? Seriously. I believe that periods of transition are always difficult; we invest so much of our minds and bodies carving out small places in the world where we can feel safe, connected and purposeful. When the boat rocks and we choose to take leaps of faith, it is at these times when we are the most alive--we force ourselves to be uncomfortable, to trust our instincts, and to open our hearts. It's a vulnerable time.

If there is one thing that I can say about my experience living in Morocco, it is that I learned to "open my heart," or to be compassionate. The hardest times were in the beginning, when certain motives (you could say the self-centered ones) drove me. Of course I wanted to make a positive impact in an underprivileged community. But, in the process, I wanted to be liked by everybody in my village. I wanted to make it rain all over my resume. I wanted to be seen by my American family and friends as being adventurous. And during the beginning of my service, these misplaced incentives allowed for the manifestation of unreasonable expectations. They were the remnants of previous environments where these values were priorities for me.

I realized that I had to adjust. I wouldn't survive two years comparing myself to others, or trying to be everything for everybody. Slow down. Stop worrying. Embrace the experience. Slowly, but surely, I stopped behaving like a small town politician and, instead, put my effort in developing a couple substantial relationships. I fasted during Ramadan (mostly), stayed up all night at weddings, learned to cook tajines and washed my laundry down at the irrigation channel. I also feel good about the work I was able to accomplish. Of course, things frustrated me all the time. That was part of it. But I learned to actively manage my attitude and to take a few step backs when necessary. I learned that there will never be as good a time as now. And that the most rewarding thing in the world is caring for others and doing what you can (when it's reasonable) to improve their lives.

I signed off as a Peace Corps Volunteer on October 11, 2012. Another unemployed American.

And that's a wrap.

I'm going to take advantage of my lack of responsibilities to do a little traveling. Right now, the plan is to leave Morocco at the end of the month to visit Germany, Turkey, India, Malaysia and Singapore before returning the the marvelous United States of America. I love the idea of posting during my travels, but if history is any indicator of the future, I should say that it's unlikely. I will be able to check email relatively frequently, so I'll be looking out for any messages from you! I should be flying into Nashville on March 13. See you then!

February 15, 2012


I woke up the other morning to the sound of strong winds against my bedroom door. In the winter, that often means rain. It was a pleasant surprise when I stepped outside to instead find a clear sky, because it was souk (market) day and I needed some groceries.

For most people in my village, if you want food you must go to souk. There are no grocers. Some families have farms and will eat a portion of their harvested crops when the time is right. But for the majority of people, souk is a necessary part of the weekly routine.

The weekly souk in my commune is held on Saturdays and Sundays. Sundays are when the most vendors come into town and one can find the best selection of produce and housewares on that day. Every week, I put on my boots, pick up my plastic vegetable bag, and head down to the street that runs through the village to wait for a ride into town. It is usually only a few minutes before a taxi stops to let me in. The whole transport fleet is out on the weekends to accommodate for all the people that want to get to market.

It is about 5 kilometers to town. Generally, the taxis and pickup trucks stop before attempting to penetrate the crowds of people in transit between cafes, vendors and transport hubs.

A view down the street that connects my village to the market town

The market is arranged into groups of vendors, loosely divided into categories: fruits, vegetables, spices, grains, meat, housewares, clothes, barbers, legumes, cleaning products, livestock, plants, seed and cafes.

Here are a few shots from market:

A main entrance to souk

Some shopping in action

My well-stocked spice man

This week, I made the following purchases:
  •  1 kg of peanuts (15 dirhams)
  • 1 kg of dates (30 dirhams)
  • 0.5 kg of bell peppers (2 dirhams)
  • 0.5 kg of lemons (1.5 dirhams)
  • 0.25 kg of hot peppers (2.5 dirhams)
  • 1 kg of apples (8 dirhams)
  • 1 kg of oranges (2 dirhams)
  • 1 container of orange juice (10 dirhams)
  • 1 package of laundry detergent (8 dirhams)
  • 1 kg of white beans (12 dirhams)
  • 0.5 kg of popcorn (7.5 dirhams)
  • TOTAL: 98.5 dirhams (about 12.32 USD)

After I got everything on my shopping list, I headed back to the spot where the taxi dropped me off, hopped in the next taxi that was headed towards my village and waited on the driver to be satisfied with the number of passengers he had--today, it was 8--and we took off back home to the village.

Riding 9-deep in the old Benz

January 3, 2012

two thousand and what?

I'm sitting in the living room of a friend's house waiting for my clothes to dry in the courtyard. I have finally cashed in on one family's offer to let me use their washing machine. I had refused for a year--they do so much for me as it is, but today I am out of clean clothes and have too much Arabic homework due tomorrow to spend the day at the river. Sometimes, I've decided, it is acceptable to make things easier for yourself.

Clean laundry.

On the subject of things becoming easier, I'm going to tell you a little story. I woke up last week to the sound of hacking and digging outside my front door. The sun had barely risen. My landlord, who usually lives in Casablanca, was in town for the olive harvest and was hard at work. I asked him what he was doing, although it was clear that he was digging some kind of trench alongside my house. He explained that it was for water, which I initially misinterpreted as being an irrigation ditch. He was actually connecting my house to the village's water pump and had surprise plans to install a faucet in my entry hall. That's what I'm talking about. I did a little dance, called a few of my friends, and fantasized about how life will change with daily access to water during my second year of service. Last night, during the 45-minute window that the village's water pump is turned on, I filled up my first water container from my new faucet (picture below). I felt like I had just been drafted to the big leagues.

Real excitement.

At this point in my service, I feel like I have almost completely adjusted to life in Morocco. And I love it here--the work, the people, the village, the volunteers, the food...almost everything. The hardest thing for me is, without a doubt, being away from my friends and family. Major holidays create dangerous opportunities for me to dwell on my separation from some of the most important people in my life. Last year, I had just moved to my site and everything was so new that homesickness wasn't so much a concern--I had a lot of distractions. This year, I think it would have been a little harder spending the holidays away from anybody that I care for. Luckily, I didn't have to. I visited Ceuta (a Spanish exclave in northern Morocco) with some of my best friends in country. It was a lot of fun and, as it is technically Spain, we were able to find some Christmas trees and pork.

Street view outside out hotel in Ceuta on Christmas Eve.

Some of my friends in the holiday spirit.

Delicious tapas.

2011 has come and gone and this year promises to be another interesting one. I will spend it almost entirely in Morocco and will strive to wrap up all of my work before my service concludes in November. I recently got a grant approved to fund the conversion of an unused building in the village into a workshop, as well as to purchase some leather working equipment in order to train the artisans how to make their own leather (and imitation leather) handles and product accessories. This will take the place of purchasing the more expensive inputs from Marrakech. In theory, the project will help improve the product quality, reduce productions costs, and shorten fulfillment time for each order. We shall see...

View of building to be converted into workspace.

In the next year, we also hope to (1) create a new product catalog, (2) create a web presence through the creation of a website and/or Facebook, (3) sustain the exportin business (which will include finding an English-speaking transaction facilitator, forming a cooperative, arranging business education, and resolving certain online payment obstacles), and (4) implement a youth sports and hydration (health) project.

Anyway, I hope to keep you updated with our progress this year. Thanks for keeping up with me and I hope to hear from you soon!

December 3, 2011


I recently noticed that I hadn't posted any pictures of Essaouira, my nearest city. This is where I go to do any legal paperwork, meet with my tutor, and treat myself to the all-too-frequent restaurant splurge. Here are a few of shots of the city:

November 28, 2011

catching up

I have decided that it is finally time for me to resurface from the digital abyss and assure my friends and family that I am, indeed, still alive and eager to reconnect.

Not knowing where to start, but determined to send an update, I'm going to present some photos from the last couple of months with brief descriptions. Feel free to send questions if you want further explanations:

The last day of Ramadan. Everybody in the village celebrated the end of the fast by feasting on couscous and tajine all day, wearing new clothes, and meeting with neighbors, friends and family. In this picture, Brahim, Hicham, me and Yassine are sitting down having some tea before lunch. I'm sporting my brand new djellaba.

Shortly after we celebrated the end of Ramadan in August, Tyler (another volunteer in Morocco) and I cashed in about a month of unused vacation days to take a mid-service vacation to East Africa. Our flight transferred in Cairo. Here is a photo of a giant billboard that greeted us at the airport, skillfully selecting a provocative portion of our president's speech to the Egyptian citizenry.

We connected with David (the man on my left) before we arrived in Kenya. He agreed to let us crash at his house for the duration of our stay in Nairobi, which was just short of a week. When we arrived, we met four other travelers from Germany who were also staying at David's place. We spent several nights in Nairobi cooking dinners with the crew. In this picture, David and his family had prepared a traditional Kenyan meal, Ugali with soy stew.

A more-strenuous-than-expected bike ride through Hell's Gate National Park. Tyler and I decided to join the Germans that we had met the night before for a self-guided safari.

Also at Hell's Gate. We left out bikes at a rest stop so we could go on a hike through the gorges.

The view of an intersection in Nairobi from the second floor of a downtown pub.

The center of the town in Arusha, Tanzania is a Coca-Cola clock tower. It was here where we booked a 4-day safari and 6-day trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Tarangire National Park. We were finishing up for the day and on our way out, when our guide/driver, Solomon, turned the corner to find an elephant charging our car. It turns out that we had startled a mother, who was taking care of her baby. Solomon slammed on the brakes of the Toyota Land Cruiser, immediately turning off the engine, and told his five passengers to be quiet. The elephant stopped about ten yards before reaching the dirt road. We watched in silence as the larger elephant guided her child across the road in front of our car. After they had both crossed, the momma elephant turned around and stepped toward our vehicle again. She thrusted her tusks toward us and let out an intimidating yell/moan/growl. It was pretty intimidating. She was definitely making sure we knew who was in charge. Solomon waited for a few minutes before deciding it was safe, turned on the car, and got out of there.

Serengeti National Park.

Campground at Serengeti National Par. Tyler and I were probably sleeping in the cheapest tent at the campsite, as we had bargained so stubbornly with the tour operator that he tried to recover some of the profits by providing us with the lowest-grade equipment that was acceptable. Solomon had told us where to set up our tent, which was on the frontier of the campground--nothing between us and the animals that call the Serengeti their home. I woke up at 2am in the morning to the sound of movement inches from our tent. It was definitely an animal and it was definitely huge. I listened to it for a few minutes before I decided to wake Tyler. Yes, I woke him up. We had spent the day watching lions eat zebras and spotting gazelle carcasses in trees, where leopards had stored them for an evening meal. It wasn't long before waking him that we both realized that we had no absolutely no control over the situation. We decided to go back to sleep. The next morning, we spotted some tracks right next to our tent. Solomon told us that it had been a water buffalo creeping around our tent. Hyenas had also entered the camp during the night and gone through the dumpster, throwing the campers' garbage all over the place.

The first day of our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro was through the rainforest.

One of the many bizarre, yet breathtaking landscapes that are crossed during a Kilimanjaro ascent via the Machame (or "Whiskey") route.

Early morning on day four of the Kili climb. We summit on this day, although it takes us about 12 hours of hiking.

A picture from the top of the mountain. You can see the glacier on the left, pressed against a sheet of clouds.

After Kilimanjaro, we hopped on another bus to UGanda, where we met my long-time friend from Chattanooga and (at the time) Peace Corps Volunteer, Zach Mayo. We spent two nights at his site in Nakaseke, Uganda. This is a picture of Zach cooking burgers on his rigged grill, sitting on his back stoop.


After leaving Zach's site, we decided to end the trip on a relaxing note at the Ssese Islands. This is a picture of the cottage that we stayed in for three nights on Buggala Island, just outside Kalangala Village.

Our view from the porch.

After my trip to East Africa, Zach finished his Peace Corps service in Uganda and visited me in Morocco. Here is a picture of Zach playing with some of the kids in my village.

The day after Zach left for Spain, the most important holiday in Morocco was celebrated. It is called Eid al-Kabir, or "The Big Celebration/Feast." Almost everybody in the country, if they have the means, purchases and sacrifices a sheep. Here is a picture of me pretending to help skin one family's sheep right after the slaughter.