The Post-Porto Grind, or the so-called “Mid-Service Crisis”

I feel like lately, I’ve been hearing lots of people talk about Peace Corps as though the two-year service is akin to a condensed version of your life.  You show up in a strange place where you relearn to eat, sleep, talk, etc.  As you grow as a volunteer and have real work, you start to think of yourself as the old fogy to the younger volunteers.  By the time your service is coming to an end, it’s actually like a death.  Some part of you that has temporarily committed yourself to this one place is now going somewhere else, going home.

I don’t know if putting it in those terms seems a little extreme or not.  I can definitely relate, and now that I’ve passed the year mark, I’m bordering on my “fiftieth” birthday, which is a bit like a mid-life crisis.  If I were allowed to drive, I’d go buy a motorcycle at this point, which would make me the hippest (despite the only) American in this town of 17,000 people.  But alas, I can’t act out in any extreme way like that, so I’ll just write a blog instead (it’s the new way of dealing with a mid-life crisis).

Actually, Peace Corps maps out the “volunteer life,” emotionally, on a chart, and the chart looks a bit like a roller-coaster displaying the highs and lows of service.  And, as it turns out, the year-mark is the lowest of the lows.  The Mid-Service Crisis, it’s been termed, and I’m starting to know a little bit about what that feels like.

Two weeks out from vacation to Portugal, and I was back in my town negotiating my schedule for teaching English only to discover that there are too many students who want English and not enough Fouad’s.  It’s the first time since May that I’ve had a “schedule” in my life.  All summer, I was bouncing around from city to city doing camps and projects and trainings, and now that I’m slowly getting back into the grind, I’ve had a few moments where I thought to myself, “Oh my, another year of this?”  That is to say, no matter how much of a do-gooder any volunteer is, I think every one of us has these moments where we feel like what we’re doing is worthless, unhelpful, or a waste of time, even if that’s not true at all.  And we know it’s not true, but that’s bound to happen with any job where a lot of what you’re doing is planting seeds that you may or may not get to see grow.

But in returning to the life of long days and short weeks, I literally flip-flop from feeling like I’m not doing enough to feeling like I’m doing too much.  Or not able to do it all.  And it’s not really depressing or upsetting; it’s more of just this constant nagging voice in the back of my mind, an added stressor I managed to avoid all summer while I was on the beach.  I think when we volunteers get to this stage, we miss the days when everything was new and exciting, when something as simple as walking by a donkey was a reminder that this was some exotic land, and now it’s just… my life.  The abnormal becomes normal, and that’s something I was hoping I could avoid, but it’s just inevitable.  I think that’s why people say that happiness doesn’t depend on where you are but on who you are; that is, it’s attitude, not location.

We have to challenge ourselves to never become so accustomed to our surroundings that they become mundane.  Or rather, when monotony settles in, we have to learn to look at it from new angles with new eyes, constantly facing our world from a different perspective.  In doing so, we bring the sacred to the mundane, the abnormal to the normal.  The next few months could just be another slew of English classes, or I could tackle it in new ways, and because I am a  year older, I’m bound to experience it differently.  Case in point, I don’t have the same language problem I had explaining our lessons in Arabic last year.  It’s smoother, more fluent.  And instead of only teaching fourteen year-olds, I’m stepping up to forty-year old Berber women who run a sewing association.  That should be… different.

So, some new stressors are on the horizon, while old ones seem to be fading away.  You could say it’s sort of a paradigm shift in my service, all of which seems to revolve around the arrival of my Carte de Sejour.  After a year of living in Morocco, I recently became an official resident – something that should have happened in February.  To make a long story short (be glad I’m not making a short story boring), my residence card was delayed after my paperwork arrived too late at the police station in my provincial capitol, and since the police in the city and the gendarmes in my town (think: state troopers v. police, aka “Super Troopers“) don’t exactly get along, what should have taken a month at most took over ten instead.  After arguments with the gendarmes, trips to the police station, sitting for hours drinking tea in government buildings, and finally pulling in the Safety & Security Officer over at Peace Corps HQ, I now have myself a bona fide residence card in the Kingdom of Morocco.  I thought it would never come, and now I have it.

So, after that experience, the card itself has kind of become a reminder of life in Morocco, a little symbol of the things we stress about here that probably need no stress at all.  It’s like we create drama to have something to worry about because there is nothing to worry about.  So what if it took the police and gendarme’s eight extra months to make me a legal resident?  So what I had to sit drinking tea for hours?  An inconvenience?  Sure.  But not the end of the world it seemed like it could be.  This place teaches patience, but more importantly, it teaches us to just be okay with, well, everything.  Most things, no matter how stressful, no matter how bureaucratic, silly, or full of long-suffering, almost all of it is something we can sit back and, eventually, laugh about.  Although, big, big emphasis on the word “eventually.”

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