Saturday, June 30, 2012

Life in Peace Corps Begins

I traveled by suq bus to my site. As we drove the terrain began to change from luscious green fields to rocky mountain formations. The mountains were endless and from a distance appeared to be swirled in design. As we winded up and down the mountains, the land became more barren. Yet, from time to time we would stumble upon a large collection of palm trees. They would surprise me every time. I observed landscapes that I have never seen or experienced before. The drive seemed to be an endless journey into an unknown world.

By about six hours into the bus ride, we experienced the regular bout of vomit from passengers that are not used to traveling long distances. “This is something you will never get used to,” another volunteer told me. About 7 hours from the time we left Agadir, we arrived in Tata, a small city about an hour west of Tissint. Upon our arrival in Tata, the other volunteers previously placed in our region welcomed us with a giant sign that said Peace Corps and all of our site’s names. I immediately felt supported and a strong sense of community among all the volunteers. Because we are so far away from everyone and in places so vastly different from our homes in America, the volunteers in our region are a close-knit family.

From Tata, we took a Taxi to Tissint. The hour drive to my site was an experience I will never forget. We drove straight into the distance, encircled by breathtaking rocky mountain formations. The land surrounding us was dusty and barren. There were a couple small villages along the way, but nothing more.

We pulled into the one road town of Tissint. Welcome home I told myself. I introduced myself to my new host family as Malika, the Arabic name I was given by my Arabic teacher in training. I have three host brothers, Said, 17, and Rachid, 18, Youseff, 10, and two host sisters, Jamiea, 12 and Zahara, 21.

Said has a curious, inquisitive nature. Having had little exposure to American culture, everything is new and different through the eyes of Said. He thought my ipod was a phone and loves taking pictures of anything and everything. Things that I thought were trash were a treasure to him. He wore my lanyard from orientation around his neck and thought it was the coolest thing. He is hardworking and loves to help out in any way that he can, even if that means painting weird random shapes on the walls of our house. (We made it into a vine of flowers) He helps clean and makes tea daily. Kindhearted and loving, he is always excited to see us and always sad to see us go. One week Elizabeth and I had to travel to Agadir for a meeting and he woke up early and ran ahead of the bus just so he could wave goodbye to us. When I first met Jamiea she was sweet-tempered and shy, but since being around her for about a month now she has shown her bubbly, outgoing side. She is easy-going and like Said, curious about Elizabeth and I. We love to play Frisbee with them in the afternoons when the sun goes down a little.

Speaking of the sun, I haven’t spoken about the heat here in Tissint yet. Currently, we are in the midst of a heat wave and a dust storm. Temperatures reach over 120 degrees and there is dust everywhere (we don’t have a roof on part of our house so it has been an interesting process cleaning our living area – may have to save this story for next time). The afternoon, from about 12-5, is the most difficult time of day to move through. The heat is intense and every hanoot, or store, in town closes. People eat lunch, sleep, and wait for it to cool down. The heat causes me to go into this hazy fog. I try to sleep, but I mostly lay on the ground in front of my fan. I try to read, but am too uncomfortable. I try and write my blog, but my computer over heats. I can’t go anywhere so, I basically wait patiently for the sun to pass. Sometimes the afternoons seem endless, but they do end and then my entire way of being here shifts. When it cools, people emerge from their houses, stores re-open, and there is life once again in Tissint. I love the afternoons and evenings here. Sometimes, Elizabeth and I find time to take a walk to our oasis with a beautiful waterfall and palm trees, play Frisbee, or enjoy or our evening snack under the desert stars with our host family. 

The stars in Tissint are incredible. The first two weeks here in Tissint, when I live with my host family, we slept on the roof under the stars every night.

Now, I live in my own house! Finding and furnishing a house in Tissint has been an adventure to say the least. We walked around town and asked hanoot owners and anyone that would talk to us if there were any empty houses available for rent. This approach brought us good responses. We saw some houses that were definite nos, but we were finally able to find two houses that we both loved. We thought everything was set to go, but when I returned to ask about the contract for the house I was to rent, the landlord told me he rented the house to someone else. However, the other house that we found is a great house. It has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living area, and a roof that has a great view! Anxious and excited to live in our own space, we decided to both move in and start creating a home for ourselves.

Since moving in, we have put a lot of work into our house and are finally feeling settled here in Tissint. It has been a process though! In order to buy a fridge/freezer (an essential item – frozen melon makes the desert heat a tad more tolerable) we had to travel about an hour to Tata, via suq bus. In Tata, we bought a fridge, two beds, two nightstands, a small table, and 4 wooden blocks to prop our beds. We loaded all of these items into the bottom of the suq bus and traveled back to Tissint, all the while drenched in sweat. When we arrived in Tissint, the bus employees helped us unload everything. We got off the bus and oh was it a site to see! Tissint is encircled my mountains so picture this…me, the mountains, a fridge, two beds, two nightstands, in the middle of the dusty road in the centre of the one road town of Tissint. Everything was also closed so we were all alone. Wish I had captured this image.

All of a sudden a boy rode up on his bike and observed our situation. He went and got help and brought back a wagon and a few other people to help us. We loaded everything we could into the wagon and took what we could in our hands and meandered down the narrow dirt road into our new home. Thank you to the kind people of Tissint! In addition to purchasing what we need for our house we have each painted murals in our rooms and in the living area. It has been a fun process creating a space in which I feel comfortable and can finally call a safe haven.

In addition to establishing a place of residence in Tissint, I have also started to familiarize myself with the environments in which I will work for the next two years. Our first day in site Elizabeth and I went to the Dar Chebab, and as we walked into the classroom/theatre room about 150 kids surrounded us. They immediately started clapping and cheering when they saw us. My eyes welled up with tears as I stood and looked upon the faces of these beautiful children. I couldn’t believe I was finally here looking at the kids that will define my Peace Corps experience. Since that day, we have had a few meetings with our mudir, the man that oversees the youth center, and had a meet and greet session with available youth in our community. Because Tissint is so hot in the summer, many people leave and live somewhere else for the summer. Most of our work with the youth here will begin in September.

Tissint also has a women’s center or neti neswi. We have met several of the women and have observed them making beautiful rugs. I am currently in the process of trying to help the women sell their crafts internationally.

The women in Tissint are full of life. I have been to a few Moroccan parties in Tissint, which have been rich cultural opportunities. The parties are usually held in the large courtyards of homes. We sit on colorful rugs on the cement, and I listen to the women sing and play the drums and watch them dance. At the last party I danced with my host mom in front of about 75 women! I imitated her movements and tried to dance like she does! It was such a rush! The women put necklaces on me and said BssHa or “to your health” as I danced. The women are fully dressed in the hajib with beautiful colored fabrics. Tie die tends to be the most popular. I purchased one and sometimes wear them to the parties. They seem to appreciate my effort to dress like them. They are adorned in gold and silver jewelry. Women also come around with bottles of perfume and spray it all over me. Either before or after music and dancing we eat a typical Moroccan tagine, which consists of meat, spices and vegetables in a circular dish. At parties men and women are completely segregated, men in one room and women in another. Eating, dancing, visiting are all done separate.

On a side note, since being in Morocco I have observed that Moroccans relate differently to time and space than Americans. Moroccans tend to take their time with everything. Eating is always a formal process, never rushed. Visiting a neighbor is never a quick hello. Morning tea easily turns into lunch and evening snack. It was a challenge the other day to leave our host mom’s sister’s house to go the youth center, because she insisted that we stay and participate in after lunch dancing and drumming. Spending time with others tends to be highly valued. In the United States, I am accustomed to having a personal and a physical space that I call my own. In Morocco, every physical space tends to be communal and the concept of having an individual space tends to be less prevalent. I also have a lot less personal space. When I lived with my second host family the only time I had complete personal space was in the shower. Otherwise I was constantly around my siblings and my host mom. 

A few other things I want to mention… I have learned that the choice to work out is a luxury. Doing laundry by hand and completing simple everyday tasks are a workout! Laundry is usually a three-hour task and my arms and back are pretty sore by the end. I will never take for granted a night’s sleep without flies swarming me at 6:00 AM.

I have had moments of homesickness, but I am finding ways to pick myself up and keep moving forward. I discovered that one of the hanoots has chocolate milk sometimes! It was a good day. Going on walks in the evenings and going to the dar chebab have been great ways to get me out of my head and into the present moment.

Heading to El Jadida tomorrow, a city on the coast, north of Agadir, to teach English at a summer camp.

That’s all for now. LOVE to family and friends!