Reverse, Reverse Culture Shock, or Just Another January in the Desert

My life has been turned upside down lately trying to figure out where I’m going to live.  I’ve never liked house-hunting or the stress that comes with knowing you have an eviction date.  But if that’s bad in America, it’s ten times the stress in Morocco, navigating everything in a different language and never guaranteed that, just because you signed a “contract,” anything is set in stone.  In short, the house I wanted to move to in the olive orchard has fallen through.  I suppose there’s a small chance it could still come through, and I’m doing everything I know how to make that happen, but as of right now, there’s still no electricity hooked up to that house, and it just doesn’t look promising.  I’ve been scrambling around all week looking at houses, most of which are complete dumps.  There was a glimmer of good news when my current landlord agreed to let me stay here until February 29, giving me an additional month to house-hunt.

It’s kind of hard to stay upset about all of that, though, because the glasses project has been fully funded!  I can’t say how ecstatic I am that this is actually happening after all we went through and all the fighting we had to do to make it a reality.  The truth is, Peace Corps will love this project when we get it all wrapped up and have pictures of happy, little Moroccan youth with their new, adjustable lenses.  But, this kind of project isn’t the kind Peace Corps likes to get behind, because it’s not really “sustainable” (except for the fact that the glasses themselves are a sustainable form of technology).  Sustainability is everybody’s new favorite word in development, especially after the Three Cups of Tea author, Greg Mortenson, got caught up in all kinds of criticism after it was learned that the schools he’d built and founded in Afghanistan were empty and unused.  And that was a lot of wasted money.  On top of that, the first go around on the glasses project, I was told quite frankly, “You really shouldn’t focus on projects that make you look like a bank to your community.”  Newsflash: I’m an American.  I already look like a bank to my community.  And the truth is, if we have the means to provide an impoverished community with something that can better them in some way (like their vision, quite literally), then let’s do what we can and not pretend like we have no money.

Anyhow.  This morning, I went to check the website only to see that the link for my grant had been removed by Peace Corps.  In the next week or so, I should be receiving $2000 into my Moroccan bank account, and almost immediately after that, I intend to purchase boxes and boxes of Girl Scout Tagalongs, muahahaha, 120 self-adjusting glasses from Owen and the boys out of Oxford.  We’re hoping to do the project in March.  I’ll take a bus to Ourzazate and then another transit south to Zagora, where I’ll meet up with volunteers to begin the screening and distribution process.  Then, I’ll bring 60 of those glasses back with me to my town.

All of that means the next few months will be packed full.  I’ll continue teaching English classes through February and move to my new house (if I can swing finding one).  I’m also trying to spend an extra amount of time with Caity and Avery and Nicole, as their last few months of Peace Corps are dwindling down.  I won’t lie; they have been my best friends this past year, and I can’t imagine Peace Corps without them.  I dread it even.  March will be all about the glasses project.  April is two solid weeks of English Camp during “spring break.”  Then, Caity, Avery, and Nicole leave.  Then, theoretically, if any of them get replaced, there will be new volunteers in the area (or I’ll be alone for the next six months with Jonathan an hour or so away).  May is a month of travel with Patrick and Lindsay Drake coming and Hope Montgomery after them (her project approval and plane ticket purchase pending).  June is SOS camp and summer camp begins.  July is Ramadan.  August is Close-of-Service Conference, followed by two months of English teaching and by November, I’m done.  So there you have it.  Somewhere in there,  I hope to extend the glasses project to bring far more glasses to the country (uhm, thousands for free, please; why thank you, grant from the World Bank), and I’m also still aiming to do a project on diabetes (it’s been slated until I can get the glasses thing finished up).

Although, what I’m really trying to point to in saying all of that is, in the Peace Corps, change is this very dramatic, very constant undertaking.  Things that would be major life events back home, spread out over the course of several years, seem to happen here on an emotional level every month or so.  Very close friends suddenly all leave at once.  A new group of people suddenly “replaces” them (or there isn’t a new group of people at all).  Time is this strange blur that may or may not exist.  I sometimes feel like I’ve stepped away into neverland and all around me the world is still busy and moving, but I’ve put things on pause for two years while I frolic about like a lost boy.  When I flew from Madrid to Casablanca, there was one point looking out the window where you could see the coast of Spain as we flew out into the Atlantic Ocean.  I’m not sure if it was something about the angle of the sun or the fact that it was hazy or that the clouds were spotty little sheep grazing low along the horizon, but there weren’t any ripples in the water, and the color of the sky blended so well with the sea that you couldn’t make out where the water ended or where the sky began.  Just endless, dizzying blue.  And in that moment, I felt like I was flying off the edge of the earth and returning to “neverland.”  It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had, I have to say.

But I haven’t really had a lot of “return culture shock,” other than to feel like America never really happened.  A lot of my time being back was spent early on just sitting and reflecting on everything that happened, the people that I saw and love, those I deeply miss and those I probably realized weren’t as good friends as they once were, I guess.  I think there’s a part of me that, as I get older, things that used to deeply upset me just sort of roll off my shoulders, and now the things that do actually upset me bother me much, much more than they use to.  But I seem to be dealing with all of it differently than I used to, as well, and that’s kind of disappointing, because I miss the old Philip who could just lash out at people when they did something hurtful or stupid.  Now, when people hurt me or someone I care about, I feel like the “grown-up” thing I have to do is, well, just let them get away with it.  Is that what it means to be grown up?  That old passion we had to fight for what we believed was right just sort of dies away, all principles compromised, and instead of naming injustices where they lie, we do what we need to do to, well, make sure everybody keeps a smile on their face?  I guess I’m still working out whether I’m going to be someone who makes those kinds of compromises or if I really am a student of the schola prophetarum, after all.   I don’t know if that makes any sense, actually.  Or if I’m oversimplifying something far more complicated than I can wrap my mind around.

But I don’t really think I’m alone in feeling that way or in being fed up and not knowing what I can or cannot do it about it.  The internet has been abuzz lately with two videos that have gone viral and reflect my generations absolutely disdain for organized religion (or really even generally, institutional hypocrisy).  I think both videos, though one is a response refuting the first, contain all kinds of truth and a whole lot of fallacy, as well.  I think they highlight a conversation that needs to be happening both in and out of the Church and in and out of religious academies.  A lot of people who came across those viral videos felt like people arguing over semantics were wasting their time, as though we should stop arguing technicalities and just get out there and love people.  It’s a nice idea, but semantics can be the difference between a hurtful and a helpful theology.  Semantics are theology.  So, I think it’s important that those conversations are a constant thing for anyone who’d want to live rightly or intentionally.   I digress.

Anyodd.  Part of why I hadn’t written before now was that I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to blog about what Caity and I joked was “reverse, reverse culture shock,” which really just seems to mean “being back home in our uncomfortable world we’ve grown comfortable with.”  I was reminded walking the streets of my town a day or two ago for half a second that walking by donkey carts and dodging sheep was actually not normal.  Then I forgot that again and just settled down with how un-shocking this world has become.  It’s kind of a sad point in your service when the newness wears off and the abnormal and “exotic” becomes everyday.  But I also think reaching that point is really important to our work, where the world around us is no longer characterized by what is “other” and is now the “same.”  If Peace Corps is a post-colonial organization, part of that is because we value what’s exotic about this experience.  Maybe being bored or accustomed to it is one of the ways we learn to strip away any colonial desires?  I have no idea.

I’ll post updates about the glasses project as the money comes through and that process progresses.  It’s exciting knowing that every single nickel-and-dime that you gave will go directly to delicious, amazing Girl Scout cookies purchasing or shipping the glasses.  Until next time.

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3 Comments

  1. It’s good to learn the details of your project ~ and all best wishes on getting yourself a house!!

    My only caveat: If folks are suddenly worried about sustainability because “Greg Mortenson, got caught up in all kinds of criticism after it was learned that the schools he’d built and founded in Afghanistan were empty and unused” then they have hoisted a strawman!

    GM’s Central Asia Institute has built and/or supported 250+ projects since it was founded, the vast majority schools and an increasing number of women’s centers. You can see their master list at ikat.org ~ specifically the number of beneficiaries of each project.

    When you say, “after it was learned…” you really mean “after Jon Krakauer convinced CBS News to air his opinion that…” On that broadcast in April (repeated in August) three schools were shown ~ DURING WINTER. Please think about why schools would run spring-summer-fall in the high
    mountains but not in winter.

    By the way, GM and CAI began their work in Pakistan, grew it into Afghanistan, and have recently grown it again ~ into Tajikistan. Mr. Mortenson was there in Oct/Nov using all of the best practices CAI has developed over its two decades of development work with the elders of so many individual villages.

    Best wishes,
    Susan Hale Whitmore
    Silver Spring, Maryland

    Like

  2. Susan,

    I wanted to give you another response. I didn’t have time to really respond to this yesterday, but now that I do, I thought I would shoot you a message.

    I wholeheartedly agree that using Mortenson as the example sets up a straw-man of sorts. But there are other examples out there; unfortunately, the Mortenson example is the one people seem to turn to all too frequently (at least the people I’ve been talking with). I also have no doubt in my mind that the media has a tendency to twist the truth.

    But having worked on the ground in the developing world for a year now, I have to say, I understand the concern. I understand the difficulty of creating sustainability. Bringing in people who don’t speak the language or the culture but who then try to build something that will last beyond them is incredibly difficult to do, and while I don’t doubt that many people have been able to do it, I nevertheless believe that we should let a country guide what it wants for itself rather than assuming we know what’s best. So if Afghanistan or Pakistan want its people to be educated – and many there do – it’s going to have to create the infrastructure to keep good teachers in the classroom. It can’t be imposed by some outside force, and it’s not good enough that a small community may desire something that, plain and simple, needs serious government support and structure in order to remain a possibility.

    What I was actually saying in my post is that there are some things we can provide (like glasses) that don’t require sustainability. We have the resources to help, so we should be helping. But education isn’t one of those things we can realistically provide. Building schools is important and is something that we can do, for sure, but what about pay for teachers? What about finding teachers who will show up regularly? What about students who will show up regularly? Because Morocco is a good example of a place where, even with infrastructure in place, there’s not always regular attendance, and there are constant strikes over wages. Enough to make many students feel like it’s not even worth going. These problems must be dealt with on a much deeper level and by the country itself before we should throw money at building buildings, etc. I don’t perceive Afghanistan or Pakistan as having the infrastructure in place to guarantee that these kinds of work projects were worth the dime, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Are there better places the money could have gone is the only thing I’m asking. Like building roads. There’s a way to help create infrastructure, to move the goods about. Something that simple might have been a better use of funds.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking response, though. I do deeply appreciate it.

    Like

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