With a sharp intake of breath, I muster up the superhuman courage reserved deep within to vacate the wholly awesome (and awesomely holy) refuge of my -40°F rated North Face Dark Star sleeping bag and two blankets.
I lumber to my feet, the cold air greeting me with unsolicited rawness and familiarity. Despite burning firewood with the furnace idgam (last night), the temperature has climbed back down to an unfriendly 42°F.
The count-down to warmth and equilibrium starts.
Hurriedly I pull on my wool socks, followed by Carhartt pants, a long-sleeve thermal, and a sweatshirt. For good measure, I tack on a final loose polyester jacket and beanie.
I exit the bedroom, my breath trailing closely behind me. Frost on the ground shows itself plainly. It’s close to 9am, yet it’s still barely above freezing. I duck so as to not hit my head, enter the kitchen door, and begin boiling a tea kettle of water for coffee.
I open the refrigerator door and pull out some bread dough sg asnat (from yesterday). I take a grapefruit-sized portion and work my magic.
Knead, dust with flour, knead, slash with knife, sprinkle with salt and pepper, slide into oven.
I turn on the butane tank and nervously hold a lighter up to the outgoing gas. A flame bursts out and I pull out my hand as quickly as possible. Hair from the bangs, eyebrows, and knuckles have all fell unfortunate victim to these frightening outbursts from the unruly oven (and its smaller cousin, The Stove-Top).
I pour myself a cup of coffee from the French press and enjoy it outside, sitting on a bench gradually built from mud bricks, cement, and sand by yours truly. I lean my back against the mud wall, small bits and pieces of straw and rocks exposed.
The sun creeps above the enclosing stone wall of my house and scatters across the yard. I may not be photosynthetic, but the sun invigorates me.
I savor the home-made loaf of bread with olive oil, continuing to bask in the glory of sunshine.
A donkey brays off in the distance, reminding me that we’re not in Indiana anymore.
A few minutes later, a loud habitual cry emanates: “Woooooah, tijlay!” (whoa, eggs!). Excited, I rush to grab my sturdy plastic bag and within ten seconds flat, I’m out the door.
Like a rapacious eagle scouting its prey, I search for the two-wheeled cart and find it around the corner. I greet Mohammed, the cart owner and yeller-of-tijlay!, and wish him salaam (peace). Inside the wooden cart is an assortment of plastic containers, women’s clothes, and a basket of eggs. Ɛchra n tijlay (ten eggs) are placed into my bag, I pay, and a goodbye is said (llahy3awn, literally “May God [Allah] help you”).
Mohammed continues to wheel the cart around the village, yelling “woooah, tijlay!” as he passes houses.
And I continue my rendezvous with the sun, coffee, and bread.
I wolf down a cheap 1DH (dirham) cookie bar, spoon out a yogurt with raisins, and hydrate myself with half a liter of water (remind me again what a gallon looks like?). I pull open the squeaky and make-shift wooden door of my bathroom and relieve myself into the four-inch hole in the ground.
I pull on my running ensemble: quick-drying short-sleeve shirt, followed by long-sleeve shirt and second short-sleeve shirt, UnderArmour running beanie, running gloves, running pants, and newly acquired Asics running shoes from Casablanca.
A hop, skip, twist, stretch, and jump or two later, I’m ready to do business.
Let’s hit the road, Jack.
With another sharp intake of breath, I close the door to my Americanized and safe abode and enter the world of rustic Moroccan village life.
An older man of perhaps 80 years of age passes by with an aznar (over the shoulder cape). The guy is someone I’ve seen around but with whom I don’t believe I’ve conversed before. In accordance with Moroccan custom, I greet him with “salaam 3laykum!” (peace be upon you).
Ingrained habit towards foreigners manifests itself as he returns the greeting with an instinctive but unfeeling “bonjour”.
I continue my walk towards the paved road. It’s close to 12:30p and children are returning from elementary school. A group of young boys enthusiastically exclaim, “Salaam, Bassou!”. They ask how far I’m going to run, and I jokingly ask if they are going to come with me. They grin, replying that they are tired and unable. Next a group of young girls pass by. I greet them and their response is mostly giggles. I can’t help but smile. I move on, and my perpetual instinct to greet everyone is almost extended to the chickens and mules along the dirt path.
At long last, my sneakers hit asphalt. I jump up and down three times out of habit, swing my arms behind my back a few times, and boom! The crazy aroumi (Roman/foreigner) is off into the races yet again.
Scores of women are treading back home, bundles of gathered wood or the final remnants of wheat and alfafa from the fields laden on their backs. Many of their husbands are gone for the winter – travelling far north or south, where warm weather enables them to work construction or continue their shepherding.
The women seem to be split in their responses to my running: about half stare perplexedly or look away, while the other half smile – the more vocal and less shy of them even greeting me. I make a conscious effort to avoid eye contact, so as to not appear “improper”. Gender relations are still very conservative and any mixing between genders outside of family is relegated to furtive exchanges and flirting (oh my!) in the dark at night time.
After about 20 minutes, I pass the aghbalou (spring). A long truck with a Spanish “vehiculo longo” label on the back and full of sheep and goats stops. Out goes the driver; he’s carrying his prayer rug and orienting it east towards Mecca. It’s time for dhuhr, the 3rd Muslim prayer of the day.
Several young women – probably 18-24 years old – are washing clothes and blankets in the spring water and letting them dry on various near-by stones and boulders. They smile cheekily (are they trying to flirt [oh my!] with me?) and look my way as I continue on towards the next village. I pick up speed and maintain top-notch running form, naturally.
A familiar man sees me and yells out, “llahytik saHa!” (may God give you health/strength!). I make it to the village outskirts (about 6km in 30 minutes), and make a U-Turn for the return trip.
As I run, my thoughts toss and turn.
I think about my failures as a PCV; my (seeming) inability to help my community and get projects off the ground; the frustrating and at times entirely crippling lack of motivation or sense of self-sacrificial cooperation required of the community to do a Peace Corps sponsored project; the barricade of petty bureaucracy and corruption that every PCV – not just in Morocco - can identify with.
I think about how quickly time has passed, how 650+ days have come and gone in this “cold land with the hot sun”. I doubt whether I’ve done enough for my community, for Morocco, and for Peace Corps. Inevitably comes the saving grace (albeit bit of a platitude) that Morocco has done much more for me than I have for it.
The sweat starts pouring and my thoughts (are forced to) clear. I’m getting closer.
As I make it to the final stretch towards “home”, I gather up the energy to sprint. By now, the neighbors along the street know that I run the “last leg” as hard as I can, and children try to tag along as I pass the “finish line”. Afterward, I quickly sit down and recuperate on a small cement marker, meant to indicate the level of flood water. Several children – many of whom look like they came out of a charcoal mine - run towards me and ask where I ran. Soon and sure enough, they want to race me along the street. I oblige, letting them run for about five seconds ‘til I chase after them. The women sitting outside the houses smile and laugh as I create a “scene”.
After about ten minutes of lollygagging, a.k.a. “community integration” and furthering “global understanding”, I make it back to my house, roam(s) of children in my wake. They follow me because they like to ask if they can play my guitar, or have their picture taken, or beg for money. Very rarely do I grant the first two wishes, and never the third. I use my exhaustion to my advantage and preemptively tell them I’ll see them later and implore Allah to look after them.
If there’s one thing I’m terrified of in Morocco, it’s showering.
An absolutely and thoroughly terrifying experience, showering is not something for the weak of mind or heart, especially in the winter.
It’s no wonder Moroccans and PCVs alike avoid showering like the plague.
Showering three times a month is setting The Bar pretty high; impressive and solid work, I’d say.
I may or may not set the bar a bit lower (and such things might be better off left unknown), but let this be known, loud and clear: squatting over a squat toilet and pouring buckets of semi-hot water over yourself, trying not to shiver in between pourings, is not exactly fun.
Fun? I don’t think so.
…And so I wash my face with care-package-shipped Aveeno and call it a day. I mask my stink with some Drakkar Noir after-shave, change clothes and head on out with my bike to the auberge for lunch.
I meet Khalid, a 20 year old with a friendly disposition who has been working at the auberge for about two years. Khalid finished middle school (8th year) late at age 16 and then dropped out. The owner of the auberge, Hassan, is off with his family for a break – his wife and kids live in a magical place in Morocco that doesn’t require one to wear more clothing items than fingers: the Sahara. A simple meal is had with Khalid and his friend Said: slow-cooked lamb with bread.
Afterwards, I begin another English lesson with them. Most of my students (i.e. young men) in my village want to learn English so they can (aspire to) marry an American/European one day and emigrate, but that’s OK. I’ll take what I can get.
The previous lesson I pretended I was a client at the auberge and told Khalid, “I’m really cold, can I have another blanket?” Khalid regurgitates this phrase with amazing clarity and recall.
I try to teach him the word, “sheet”, as in a linen sheet. His pronunciation dithers and morphs the word into something else less wholesome.
You can’t win all of the time.
Around 5p or so we wrap up (with a linen sheet?) and I head on home.
The only food I have remaining from souq (market) in my house is potatoes, so I make lfrites (French fries) and a few hard-boiled eggs. It’s not exactly the most balanced or delicious meal in the universe, but like I said, you can’t win all of the time.
It’s rapidly getting dark and so
I load up my furno with The Goods: small pieces of wood,
cardboard, paper, and ifssi. I light up the pieces of paper and before I
know it, my bedroom is back up to a respectable and happy 76°F. I watch an
episode (or two or three) of Community on my laptop, put in a final large log
of wood, then entomb myself into Mummy Bag, Blankets et al.
The bedroom light is turned off, replaced by the small luminance of my Amazon Kindle e-Reader.
I decide it’s that time again, and turn off the light once and for all.
I wrestle yet again with my recurring thoughts from my run…
Ask me, at least for now, and I’d say Peace Corps might not live up to its iconic image in terms of its program outcomes or effectiveness, and Peace Corps volunteers might encounter much more failure than success, but while you can’t win all of the time, you sure as hell can and do win some of the time.
Call all of these moments a “win”, for the record: making a 60-year shepherd bowl over with laughter after saying some apt Berber proverb or mildly funny quip; having small children look up to me (both figuratively and literally) because I’m the mujtahid and ichwa (hardworking and smart) American who runs all the time, reads books while waiting for transportation, and occasionally gives health lessons at the elementary school; scoring the highest in language amongst PCTs (Peace Corps trainees) and giving the Tamazight speech at the swearing-in ceremony; biking over 240km for a Bike4SIDA (AIDS in French) event with other PCVs and educating about HIV/AIDS awareness; organizing and implementing health education at this year’s Wedding Festival single-handedly (while hosting 16 people at my house!); volunteering at the Special Olympics and meeting athletes from Arab countries all around the world; and having small but triumphant successes and moments of hilarity while teaching English.
On the (long and almost completely flat) road for Bike4SIDA!
Taking blood pressure readings at the Wedding Festival
Teaching Wedding Festival-goers how to make an oral rehydration salt (anti-diarrheal medicine)
Photo Credit: Molly
Special needs children at the Special Olympics event in Bouznika
Mostly sentimental anecdotes, you counter? Yeah, probably.
But do they matter?
For me, personally: absolutely.
For Morocco and Moroccans: perhaps.
Perhaps is perhaps not good enough for sustainable development, but the final yawn knocks me out cold – all this in my cold room in the ‘cold land with the hot sun’.
Tomorrow will be another day, for better or for worse.
Eggs will be carted.
Donkeys will bray.
Another sharp intake of breath will be had.
And rest assured, another curious Day in the Life of Bassou, the Peace Corps Volunteer will be had.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
In : peace corps
Tags: morocco "peace corps life"
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