This time last year, I was spending many waking hours sitting around in my parent’s living room, newly homeless, and staring at two large backpacks ready to leave for Morocco. I was still a month away from staging in Philadelphia, but I was ready to go; I was ready for a big change in my life.
I think that’s probably true for most volunteers; in some way or another, our lives had become stagnant (or at the least, one phase of our lives was coming to a close) and a change was welcome and needed. Everybody goes through those phases, but most of us don’t usually think “change” means, “Oh okay, I think I’ll move to an entirely different country with an entirely different language and culture and just settle down there for a few years.” I remember one friend telling me it was incredibly courageous to just up and move like that, how that was something she could never do. In contrast, I found myself having to ask the difficult question about whether or not what I was doing could be, in actuality, some cowardly escape from the stagnancy of my life, and that all us “adventure seekers” out there were mostly just folks who couldn’t get good jobs or into good schools in a poor economy. So, we all just sort of decided we’d go out and do that one thing we’d always wanted to do, and Peace Corps gave us just the right doorway to walk through to be able to accomplish that dream.
A year later almost, and I no longer think this was some extravagant escape, or if it was, it’s not that anymore. But whatever it was, whether it’s been an attempt to live into my grandfather’s shoes or to share cultures or to simply break away from some stagnancy, the results have taught me everything from humility to strengthening my sense of self to giving me a new appreciation for the little things in life. And it’s that last one – the appreciation for the little things – that’s really hit home lately.
When we all first arrived in Morocco and everything was new and mysterious, every single day, almost every moment of it, carried with it an aspect of scary and exciting. From seeing camels on the beach just a day or two after landing in country to staring at the stars on the roof with Khalil in Sefrou unable to communicate with words, everything was a constant reminder that I was in a different place. It’s easy to cherish life when life feels new and different. But we should cherish life all the time. And all too often, when our lives are filled with the mundane chores of the “new” turned old, we stop cherishing; we stop appreciating.
I was thinking the other day about my trip to the Grand Canyon a few years back and how everything there, this strange, vast landscape of gorges and sharp, rugged rocks, was exciting, if not breathtaking. I wonder if people who lived in the Grand Canyon, Native American tribes or early Americans trudging westward (or even people today), ever felt bored with the Canyon; I wonder if you would’ve ever caught any of them saying, “This place is so awfully desolate,” or complaining that it was too dusty and sunny and wishing they lived somewhere else. One moment, we stare at a sunset and think, “My God, it’s like a painting; it’s just so beautiful,” and the next moment we’re complaining about the heat.
I’ve caught myself lately doing that and forgetting where I am. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about a phrase that just kept popping into my head everywhere I went: “When I walk into a small shop that is selling pastries and bread, and it’s filled with bees flying all around me; or when Khalil and I are on his roof spinning twine together to make string that his mother can use for jebella decorations; or when my host mother gives me a hand-me-down G-Star jacket to wear because I left mine in my packed bag in Fes; when all these simple things add up and overwhelm me, I just think to myself, “This is Morocco,” and I smile. I smile for the simple things, even the things that don’t quite work like they would in our more efficient society back in America.”
But nowadays, that phrase has faded from me a little. I would literally kill for a dishwasher and, at the very least, a good laundry-mat. Going to buy produce is a chore and not an exciting cultural experience. Walking across my site to check my mail is something I rarely do unless I just think there might be mail waiting for me, and even then, I put it off to the last possible minute. Even spending time with Moroccans is part of my life to the degree that it’s easy to forget the “adventure” to this life we all chose. Mint tea, instead of being exciting, is now something I try to avoid in excess, because I don’t want the sugar high that makes me certain diabetes is just around the corner. I have to work up the energy to go visit my host family, because I know if I do, visiting for less than two or three hours is unacceptable, if not insulting. Somewhere in the middle of our two-year adventure, the experience becomes less “adventure” and more just “reality.” And I hate that; I hate that we would let ourselves take it for granted, and to anyone living back home in America, I’d imagine that’s probably a little bit insulting. You’re getting this opportunity of a lifetime; you should cherish it; why are you complaining? A reasonable question.
But it’s also a question that’s divorced from the reality of our lives. I think it’s okay to strike a balance between learning to let the newness of a place fade and appreciating every moment of it, as well. Besides, learning to let that newness fade doesn’t have to mean that you’re taking the place (or the opportunity) for granted.
Last night, I went over to break fast (el-fitur) with Omar and his family. Avery and I had only planned to be there for an hour or two, but it’s easy to get sucked in, and somewhere in the middle of the night (and after watching Scream 2, the Untouchables, and some really awful American film I’d never heard of and don’t even remember now), we agreed to stay until after the last meal of the morning (s-sahoor), usually served around three or so. Most of the evening was spent just – quite literally – lounging around doing absolutely nothing, and there’s probably nothing you can do that will make you feel more like you’re a part of a family than lounging around in their house doing absolutely nothing. But at one point, we all got tired of sitting on our butts and decided to take a stroll outside.
Walking around Tirnest, Omar stepped off the gravel path and into a patch of trees. The next thing I knew, we were using our phones to give him light as he picked grapes from a vine hanging in the trees behind his house. When we sat down to eat them, I had another one of those moments, one I haven’t had in a while, where I just had that same little phrase pass through my mind, “And this is Morocco.” But whereas in the past, that cultural moment had been something new and refreshing and so very “Moroccan,” this was more of a reminder to just be thankful about where I was and how I got there. I sat there spitting out the seeds of the grapes with a group of Moroccans and Avery, and I just kept thinking about how happy I was that things like this were normal and everyday. I kept thinking about how important it was to hold onto those moments and to appreciate, again, the simplicity of something that’s not all that out of the ordinary here.
Maybe that’s not quite the same as if I had been doing laundry and suddenly thought, “Wow, laundry by hand is so Peace Corps and Morocco; I should cherish this.” But then, it’s all about perspective, is it not? I might not be able to appreciate those two loads of laundry I’ll be doing by hand tomorrow at this point in my life, but I guarantee to you they make me appreciate the washer and dryer I’ll purchase when I move back to America. And to those of you back home with those “luxuries” that have become “necessities,” you should look around at your life, at the comforts of your carpeted floors and couches and cushy beds, at the machines that do your “work” for you. You should step outside and watch a sunset over suburbia, which might not be that astonishing Grand Canyon sunset you wish you were watching but is astonishing and beautiful in its own right. Can you see it? Do you need to look a little harder? I hope, as you look, you hear the phrase, “This is America” (or whatever country you read this from), and I hope wherever you are, that phrase brings you a smile and makes you thankful again.