Ten Ways the Peace Corps Changed Me, or Another Top Ten List of Sorts

It would probably be better to title this, “The Ten Ways I’ve Changed in the Last Two Years,” because I doubt that it’s fair to say what role Peace Corps did or didn’t have in the ways my life has drastically shifted.  But those changes took place here, in Morocco, within the context of hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day being constantly reminded by what I eat or how I speak or what I see that this isn’t America.  So while some of these changes were the result of outside forces, they were only understood within this very specific context.  I’ll try to speak to that a little.

Anyhow.

Why a top ten list on the ways I’ve changed, you might ask?  Maybe it’s just that I’ve changed that much.  Or maybe it’s just my need to reflect on the impact of this experience.  Every once in a while during my service, I’d come across a volunteer who would say something to the effect of, “Oh, well, this isn’t really your life; I mean, this is just two years; it’s so temporary, so it’s not who you really are.”  I disagree wholeheartedly.  The fact that there was a time-limit on this experience didn’t negate the impact of the experience.  Morocco will go with me wherever I go for the rest of my life.  I’ll carry it with me secretly at times.  Other times, I’ll share stories out loud, to the annoyance of everyone in the room.  But the experience is mine, and it’s carved the direction my life seems to be taking these days.  All the more reason I need to understand it the best I can.

Finally, a word about the words below.  It’s a top-ten list, so it’s kind of like a countdown, but I wouldn’t say any of these changes outweigh the others (except maybe the last few).  They all sort of flow together instead, which brings me to my next point:  I don’t mean to imply that you’re going to see me back in America and suddenly be like, “Wow, Philip’s changed so much.”  Most of these changes are related to the way I reflect on life and understand it.  So, it’s all interpersonal brooding.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet a ten-minute conversation with me would have you saying, “Geesh, Philip Eubanks hasn’t changed at all.”  My sometimes sardonic wit still shines.  I’m still very much socially awkward, and if anything, now I’m both socially awkward and lacking any hygienic sensibilities.  But I think the people who spend real time with me will see something different (not just smell it).  And I don’t know what that looks like exactly or just how different it will be or feel once I’m through the reverse culture shock that is quickly approaching.  But I think the people who really get to know me, if they knew me before, will see that I’ve changed, and that it’s been a good change.

But enough on all that.  Without further ado, here’s just a few ways I currently feel different.

10. I’m a cook.  I love cooking.  And I’m not too bad at it, either.  Peace Corps gives you all kinds of time on your hands, and very few processed foods.  I suppose if I had wanted to, I could’ve spent two years jumping from house to house eating with Moroccan families, and in fact, I think most families would’ve absolutely loved having me over that often.  But with all that time and all the vegetables you have to figure out how to manage from scratch, it’s inevitable that you’ll learn how to cook.  So, I’ve got a few favorite recipes.  I love doing soups, especially a tomato soup, and I usually mix in carrots.  I’ve gotten incredibly good at whipping up a French roux, or making curry dishes.  Then, of course, there’s always “Outat Tacos” or ravioli with the pasta and the cheese and the sauce all from scratch (this one takes a while).  And Avery, before he left, got me into making lentils on a regular basis, and I’m tellin’ you, I can cook up a mean set of lentils like nobody’s business.  So, yeah, there’s something kind of awesome about picking up cooking skills in two years.  You could say that the Peace Corps Recipe Guide might be the single-most important document I will bring home to America aside from my passport.  No joke.  But sadly, I won’t be returning with the knowledge on how to cook many Moroccan foods.  I mean, most of them, I could easily figure out, especially with the recipe book, but it’s just hard getting an in with a Moroccan woman who is comfortable letting a boy hang out in the kitchen.  I might try to finagle my way into the kitchen at my landlord’s house.  We’ll see.

The one Moroccan dish I did learn how to cook (and even helped to cook with a friend named Abdelcreme) was the tajine.  I uploaded this video a while back, but here it is again if you’d like to know how to cook a tajine:

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9. No fear of failure. Peace Corps is really a lesson in failure.  I mean, you have all these twenty-somethings show up right out of college gung-ho about changing the world, and then they get into the thick of it and realize, “Oh, I don’t have the language to navigate this country’s insane bureaucracy, so I guess I’ll just stay in my house and read books.”  I don’t mean that to be a critical statement against volunteers who give up and do that.  The bureaucracy almost killed me on more than one occasion, so I have complete respect for anyone who tries even once to battle this ministry or that just to do one ounce of good in their community.  I also don’t mean to suggest that Peace Corps is just some joke of an organization.  To the contrary, I think in my two years, I saw a lot of volunteers doing a lot of good things, and despite all my efforts not to become one of the technical assistance do-gooders, I guess I had a bit of an impact myself.  But it wasn’t an impact without its obstacles.  I can’t name you the number of hours that all I did was sit and wait for someone’s stamp just so I could hand out glasses.  I can’t name you the number of times I was told “inchallah” when it meant “no.”

You know, we came here not to just do what we wanted to do but to help our community do what it wanted.  That was part of why it  became so frustrating at times when you had people voicing, “We want this,” or, “We want that,” but there was always one official or another in the way of making it happen.  And usually, that official gave you some menial task sending you out of his office, only to be shocked later when you showed back up in his office with, “Okay, I did what you asked; what’s next?”  And sometimes, no matter what you did, it was still met with a “no” in the end.

I feel a little like I’ve been rejected and told “inchallah” and “no” so many times that they’re just the norm.  Life here wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t having to jump through those hoops.  And all the failure made the few successes we had all the more exciting.  So, yeah – I’m not afraid of getting turned down anymore.  It just means I get to try a different angle.  It’s like approaching life through the goggles of a mad scientist.  Everything you do is “trial-and-error” with the hope of perfecting the trial.  You come to expect your experiments will go wrong with a kind of curiosity that asks, “I wonder how big the explosion will be this time,” and when you do stumble upon an amazing scientific discovery, you realize the best ones happened by accident.  That, my friends, is working with Peace Corps in the developing world… in a nutshell.

8. A patience with sadness rather than a rush to anger.  Along with failures comes patience.  If you don’t learn patience in the Peace Corps, you’re doing it wrong.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re on hour five of sitting in a room during a baby-naming ceremony (isboura) doing absolutely nothing; it doesn’t matter if it’s hour three of sitting on a sidewalk curve waiting for a taxi to fill.  Life moves little-by-little, and you will learn patience, even if you thought you were already the most patient person in the world.  You’ll have it all tested over again here.

I think when I showed up two years ago, I had already undergone this shift toward recognizing that I had some serious anger issues.  Maybe it was that one email I fired off to a former boss comparing their new hire with Hitler (that one came back to haunt me for a while).  Whatever it was, I had a knack at opening my mouth and saying really cutting things and immediately regretting it.

That patience I mentioned, though, has slowed my anger significantly.  Sure, like anyone, I still get angry, but I’m quick to warn people ahead of time, and I’m quick to apologize afterward.  I’m also less likely to fire off an angry email or explode in your face unless I earnestly feel I’ve been wronged.  I think for far too long, I carried around this mentality that made me think of myself as some sort of modern-day prophet telling too many folks why they were wrong.  Such is the nature of an opinionated person, I suppose, but – and maybe this has more to do with getting older and, well, giving up – nowadays, I just sort of shrug my shoulders, recognize that I ain’t gonna change the system, and then I huff-and-puff and resign with a sense of sadness.

And I think that’s actually a good thing, you know, being sad instead of being angry.  There’s more humility in it.  It leaves open a door that recognizes how wrong I could be, even if I don’t feel wrong.  So, maybe what’s changed in me isn’t so much my temper but my willingness to try to look at every situation from the standpoint of as many perspectives as possible.  And that breeds a humility that holds my temper at bay, too.

7. How I understand Relationships.  I used to say – and I think this is true still – that college and graduate school is a really selfish time in our lives.  I mean, you go to school specifically to better yourself.  You major in something specific to what you want to do for how much money you want to make.  You’re learning to be independent for the first time, which requires a lot of you-time.  It’s a time for dreaming and following your dreams, and that doesn’t always leave open lots of doors for sustainable relationships, and I’m sort of talking here about the so-called “significant other,” but I think that statement is somewhat true for friendships and family, too.

I started to feel during my Peace Corps service a little like all my friends had chosen this settled down lifestyle, watching all of them get married or have children or get into serious relationships, and meanwhile, I was off gallivanting across the Moroccan desert doing my own thing with little time for anyone but myself.  None of my relationships, even friendships on some level, seemed lasting, largely because I was focused on following dreams and traveling and not on, well, people other than myself.

That’s not to say that I would’ve been less selfish had I married and settled down.  I sometimes wonder how many people have kids just so they can live vicariously through their own little mini-me they created just for the purpose of some giant show-and-tell.  Anything can be selfish.

But I can’t say I want to stop living this life of always being on the go with few commitments. Let’s face it, I’m a bit of a nomad, even if that is selfish.  I think what I am trying to figure out these days is how to have my cake and eat it too – how to follow my dreams and travel and whatever else while remaining mindful of how selfish that is and trying to find a place that says, “Let’s not be quite so selfish this time.”

I used to either want all the doors open or all the doors closed on relationships of any kind.  Nowadays, it’s as if I’m not really closing or opening any doors.  I’m just walking.  I just want to take a walk.

I’m a-okay if that metaphor makes absolutely no sense.

6. A stronger sense of Impermanence.  Along with that thinking, I’ve sort of stepped into this fully Buddhist notion of impermanence.  I no longer have any expectations that any relationship of any kind can be lasting.  People die.  People change.  People hurt each other.  Even our notions of God over the past few millennia paint a rather impermanent picture.  If the sacred is lasting, we’re incapable of capturing any immutable understanding of whatever is divine.  We cannot place our hopes that anything lasts, and you might think that sounds sad, but I’ve come to think of it as very freeing.  Rather than looking hard to find or make something permanent out of this life, we can more simply carry a gratitude for the fleeting moments we do have with the people who shortly grace our lives.

That is, I don’t mean for that sense of impermanence to carry with it the kind of fatalism that I encounter here all the time, and I think that’s an important distinction, because I think the fatalism of Islam certainly informed my thinking on all the ways life isn’t very lasting.  There’s just something about getting into a taxi with no seat-belts, driving 140 kilometers per hour through a sandstorm with zero visibility and trusting that God will either keep you alive (or God won’t), and either way, it’ll be just fine.  There were times when I sort of took that attitude on and figured, “Well, if I die in this country, so be it.”

But I don’t think impermanence, at least not in the Buddhist sense of the word, should evoke that kind of fatalism.  Living carpe diem cannot mean living destructive lives.  To the contrary, our willingness to recognize the preciousness of life should give us pause and help us grow thankful for the time we get.  It should demand we move with care and ease through every walk of life.  Or, to restate that, you don’t seize the day so there’s no tomorrow.  You seize the day so when tomorrow comes, you can be proud of what passed the day before.  It’s like when Gandalf tells Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  Impermanence is something we can trust.  It is a kind of permanent state itself.

5. The Maghrebi in Me.  I’ll never be Moroccan, but some part of me will always carry Morocco in my heart.  I hate how cliché that sounds, but it’s true.  During our Close-of-Service (COS) Conference last week, I read over an aspiration statement I’d written two years ago filled with goals I’d set for myself, and the very first thing I said was that I wanted to build a kind of kinship with this country.  I think I have.  I think I’ll go home to America and my heart will still be with my brothers and sisters in Morocco.  I’ll ache for this Kingdom for a long time.  I’ll miss its language and it’s food.  I’ve got two blogs coming up all about that in the next few weeks, so I’ll just leave this one nice and short.  Next.

4. The truth about legacies and our need to carve our own path. When I sat out on this journey, it was very much – and still is – about my grandfather, Jewell Francis, who lived in Casablanca for nineteen months during World War II.  I admired him and wanted to follow in his footsteps, but somewhere along the way, I figured out that you have to carve your own path.  We can’t just mimic the exact same moves of those who came before us.  We inevitably find our own way.  It’s as if I was thinking of a legacy as a kind of inherited obligation to live like the people you admire.  But the problem with that is that we do a disservice to the people we admire when we make them out to be something they weren’t in our admiration for them.  I think I adored my grandfather so much that I was remembering the idea of him and not the actual person.  I mean, by the way I used to talk about him on the blog, you would’ve thought he was some All-American G.I. Joe movie star riding a camel with a cigar in his mouth or something… I dunno… maybe that’s a bit much.  But the point is, he was human.  He made mistakes.  He carried huge regrets with him throughout his life for some of those mistakes.  There were times in my service where I got disappointed in myself specifically because I thought he would’ve been disappointed in me, as if he would’ve been let down by how I’d handled this or that situation, but I think I was holding him on a pedestal and trying to live up to some impossible standard when I did that.  In hindsight, he would probably be eager to hear my stories about Morocco, would probably listen intently with an occasional nervous laugh, and he would be deeply, deeply embarrassed to know how much I admired him and how much I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  And he would be proud.  No matter what.  Because that’s what grandfathers do, and he was especially good at that.

At one point, I had thought that I would join the military as a Chaplain after Peace Corps.  It was one more way to follow in his footsteps.  But somewhere in my service, I realized that I needed to make my own path, and while I think I could handle the toils of boot camp (I know who you are, doubters), let’s face it, that’s not who I am.  It’s not the path I need to take, and I can still admire my grandfather and “live a legacy” without having to follow some strict path based on my assumptions of a man so complex I couldn’t have begun to understand why he did all the things he himself did.  Maybe he, too, had moments where he was trying to follow his own legacies.  Hard to say.

3. Religion.  I’m a theist.  I’ll always be a theist.  I think it’s absolutely essential that we concern ourselves with questions that are connected to what’s sacred – “the intuition of the universe,” as Schleiermacher called it.  But what I regard as sacred has expanded in some ways and contracted in others.  Since coming here, for example, I left the United Methodist Church, because I felt the way I saw that Church treating the people I loved was completely opposite to its mission, and I’ll just say rather bluntly that I do have an absolute disdain for much of modern Christianity, if not all of organized religion.  I can hear you younger folks snickering to yourself, “Oh look, Philip is just like everyone else in his generation.”  Maybe.  But I’d like to think that I held out a little longer and tried to fight the good fight, the fight worth fighting until I just reached this point where I had to separate myself from it.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still regard it with respect or even love.  It doesn’t mean I’ll never go back.  But somewhere in there, I got tired of watching hurt people hurt people.  I got tired of being one of them.  Of course, I know removing myself from what the average Joe calls “Church” doesn’t remove me from what I believe is “Church.”  It sickens me, in fact – and always will – how many other people out there got to hijack the definition of Christianity.  Contrary to that, I know that hate and bigotry and manipulation are just as bad and just as prevalent in all institutions, not just the Church.  I know that, despite its hypocrisy, most religion exists for the sole purpose of welcoming hypocrites and giving them a place they can dwell on something more positive than their brokenness.  I know that there is good happening in the Church, because so many people I do care about are involved in making it happen.  But I just need my time, need my space.

Maybe that’s weird to say when I haven’t really been involved in Christianity in over two years, but religion has been at the forefront of this experience.  It’s been even more a part of my life here than it was at home, and while Islam is quite different from Christianity, you’d be surprised how similar the two felt at times.  Whether it was watching Mohamed tell stories about Adam and Eve, or having some seven-year old girl warn you that your prophet is a liar and that you’re going to burn, we’ve sure done a good job the whole world over focusing religion on the exact opposite of what its prophets – liars or not – intended.  I think it would be nice, in a way, to go about living life a little like the prophets intended without getting together with other people once a week to have them judge whether or not you’ve lived up to the standards or ideals they had nothing to do with creating, the standards and ideals they still rarely consider on any deep, moral level.  If I ever am a part of some form of organized religion again, it will be a place that breeds humility in a way that questions are welcome and even expected.  Faith will need to be something engaged, not merely some black-and-white rule book and not merely some social setting where people fight each other for power over the kind of music or the color of the friggin’ carpet.

I don’t think I’ve lost something, though, by setting myself apart from the UMC.  I think I’ve gained more than I ever had before in being even more open to acknowledge the sacred in every aspect of human life.  I hope – and pray – that I can remain committed to fighting that fight, one that hopes for a day when all our petty differences are set aside for something better.

2. My Calling as a Writer.  When I gave up on Chaplaincy (and a little later on Ph.D. programs in Religion), I really had to sit down and figure out what it was I wanted to do – at least for now.  Come this fall, I’ll be applying to MFA programs in Creative Writing.  The MFA is a terminal degree, so I could use it the same way I would a Ph.D. (i.e. to teach in the university) without all the ridiculous “dissertating” my poor (literally, they are broke) Ph.D. friends are always doing.  More importantly, it gives me a chance to accomplish another personal dream of mine that’s growing into a calling almost – to publish fiction.  Now, I don’t know if I can pull any of this off, but I know I’d like to try, and while publishing a book that actually sells would be exciting, I don’t think of it as sustainable.  That’s why the MFA gives me an opportunity to do something else I regard as a “dream,” which is to teach abroad.  Get me into Al-Akhawayan University as a professor.  Or any American-run university.  I would eat that up.  And I’d be great at it.

So, what changed?  After all, I’ve always liked writing.  Well, basically, Peace Corps gave me the time to write for the first time ever, and last Ramadan I wrote a 55,000 word novel, and this Ramadan, I made it halfway through a second one.  Somewhere in the process of actually finding time to plan out a book, I discovered that it wasn’t just an enjoyable pastime; it was something I needed to do.  In fact, I don’t even always enjoy the process of writing each chapter, largely because I’m too eager to get to the next chapter, and it’s just this incredibly burdensome process, but it’s this insatiable desire to get all of my thoughts onto the screen.  And I’m not happy with myself until it’s done… and done right.

But it’s not as simple as just doing it and doing it right.  There are problems.  I’m a writer, so naturally, I don’t really think I’m a very good writer.  In fact, I’m pretty concerned I’m not good enough to get into any programs.  Case in point, for those of you who have read this far, props to you for battling through my dangling modifiers and my wordiness for, let’s see, we’re up to 4077 words now – wow, you made it this far reading what I’ve written; pat yourself on the back!  Was that last mumbo-jumbo even a sentence?!  Seriously, though, I know I can throw together a few verbs with some nouns every so often (maybe even with an occasional adjective), but then I read John Steinbeck or listen to David Sedaris and, my God, I’m a terrible, wordy writer.

But, maybe an MFA program can help me with that.  Maybe some of it isn’t just talent but skills we can actually learn.  Time will tell.

1. Origins.  Eight years ago, I was studying abroad in Scotland, and every Scotsman I met always asked one or two questions into our first conversation, “So, where ya from?”  And every time I answered “Tennessee” or “America,” I was always met with the same response, “No, no – where are you originally from?  Where does your family hail from?”  As an adoptee, I didn’t have an answer to that question.  And that semester was spent piling on question after question about my beginnings and where I came from and how I ended up there.  I searched and searched to understand “home” and family.  While I was in Liverpool, I remember walking upon Strawberry Field, an orphanage John Lennon wrote about in his famous song.  I felt deeply connected to that place.  Later that semester, I remember that Garden State came out, and there was a scene in the movie that really clicked with me:

“Maybe that’s all family really is,” Andrew Largemann says, “A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.”   I loved that image.  I latched onto it, and the next few years were spent thinking of family in terms similar to that.   By the time I was at Vanderbilt, I was writing about family and kinship in nearly every class.  I spent my time as a youth director reminding my youth group that we were a “family.”  And even when I was writing my aspiration statement for Morocco, I was still writing about kinship.

Morocco has gave me an answer to those questions about family, an answer that I already knew, but it solidified it for me.  I’m a Eubanks.  I grew up with Gordon and Frances and Beth and Beau and later Gibson and Abner.  My home is Jackson, and I’m an American.  And that answer always was good enough.

So, there you have it.  Ten ways I’m different.  Ten ways I think differently about who I am or who I was.  More to come next week.

“The Glasses Project,” Official Recap

They say every volunteer has one big project all their energy goes into, a pinnacle of sorts to their two-year service.  Actually, I don’t know who “they” are, and I’ve never heard anyone say that, so I’m entirely making that up, but it seems to me to be the truth.  Almost all of the volunteers I know seem to have one project that required blood, sweat, and tears.  For Avery, it was his peer education classes at the elementary school.  For Caity, it was the building of her women’s center.  And as you know if you’ve read any of my blog at all, for me, it’s been the so-called “glasses project” all along.

Before delving into all the details of this past week, it seemed fitting to recap how we ended up here, but instead of typing something new, Caity Connolly said it best on her blog from this week, so I will quote her:  “A bit of background: About a year and a half ago, I met with an organization out of Oxford, England that manufactures self-adjustable, cheap, corrective eyewear for the developing world. They prefer to distribute through established aid agencies and organizations, […] and we came to the realization that the Youth Development program in Peace Corps Morocco was a great fit with their ideal distribution model.  This kick-started a five-month period of optimism where I thought writing a grant to make this happen would be simple. Hah.  Long story short, we re-wrote many grant proposals, received and then lost funding, and were left very discouraged by late spring of last year.  This was when, considering my rural village workload, I handed the reigns of the potential project to my fellow PCV, Philip, and told him I wanted to be involved, but had neither the internet access [n]or ability to do the research [or the] multi-continent communication that would be necessary to pull this off.”

Well, here we are.  A little over a week ago, Eyejusters mailed 800 pairs of glasses (400 self-adjusting glasses and 400 reading glasses) to the Kingdom of Morocco, and on Monday morning, I met two representatives – Owen and Greg – at the Marrakesh airport to kick of a trial run of their self-adjusting glasses here in the country across multiple villages (both rural and urban).  No sooner than the morning before their flight landed did we hit the first snag: the glasses were being held by Customs at the Casablanca airport.  When the boys showed up in Marrakesh, one of the first things I said to them was, “I hope you’ve always wanted to go to Casablanca.”  Three hours later, we were walking between the FedEx depot and Moroccan Customs in Terminal 3 of the Mohammad V International Airport, asking for permission to give the glasses to the shipper instead of the recipient (a Moroccan association director who lived some eleven or twelve hours away).  Luckily for me, no one spoke English, so I got plenty of opportunities to practice Arabic to try to explain why it was daroori (necessary) that we receive the glasses as soon as possible.

I explained all this hullabaloo in an email to a few friends that night: “Despite the fact that I had the sender with me, because he was not the receiver of the shipment, we were jumping through paperwork loops, and by the time we’d jumped through most of them, the work day was over.  That lead to re-organizing the entire project in the back of a Dacia rental car.” [Note: slightly smaller than the Kangoo Owen had requested, but really only slightly].  So, stuck in Casablanca, we had to hunt down an affordable hotel.  I went on to describe that experience in the email, saying, “In a nutshell, Google Maps steered us in the wrong direction, and we ended up on the wrong side of Casablanca.  We called the hotel, and someone drove out on a motorcycle so Owen could follow him in the rental car.”  Following a motorcycle through the streets of Casablanca at night is “a bit like playing Grand Theft Auto,” but Owen managed to pull it off quite well.  As many of you know, this was, really, my introduction to Casablanca.  Somehow, I’d managed to live in this beautiful country for nearly a year-and-a-half and had yet to stay in the city.  As the motorcycle whizzed around the corner of Place Mohammed V (formerly the French Quarter), I saw a familiar building, one my grandfather had taken a picture and written on the back of the photo, “This is where they announced the end of the war and the death of Roosevelt.”  It was a humbling introduction to Casablanca, seeing – at night – exactly what my grandfather had seen here some seventy years ago.

The next morning, we returned to the airport for day two of Customs paperwork, hoping we would not have to spend a second night in Casa but more than aware of what might be ahead.  A Canadian couple we met there had been at Customs for three days straight, though one of them asked us if we were having “just as much trouble trying to get cocaine” as they were.  I figure they’re either in jail now for saying something stupid or they’re still at Customs trying to get their “cocaine” released.  Several hours passed waiting for confirmations that funds had gone through or for the right signature or stamp, and at one point, as I sat down on a set of steps ready for a complete breakdown that my project was falling apart before me, Owen said something like, “Chin up, Phil, British men have persevered more trying times in the desert.”  It might be one of the most absurdly comforting things anyone has ever said to me.  As we weaved our way through mounds of endless paperwork and watched inaction take on a completely feckless art form, there was this sense of camaraderie, a kind of bond through the dry wit spoken aloud whilst sitting around with an Englishmen and a Kiwi (read: New Zealander) who had likely dealt with their fair share of bureaucracy in the developing world.

During hour seven, as we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling watching everyone running around looking busy but actually doing very little, the glasses were released, and we rushed them to the Dacia rental car and began the race to my village across Morocco’s beautifully, newly-paved motorways.

The next three days were a bit of a whirlwind of screening and fitting for glasses.  This is probably the hardest part for me to write about, so again, I’ll quote from Caity’s blog: “In the towns of Immouzer Marmoucha, [our site], and Sefrou, Phil, myself and other volunteers were trained […]  in screening and distribution of the product and got to see first-hand how this innovative technology can change lives in an instant.  Literally, a small turn of a knob on the side of the lenses, and someone can go from an inability to read the top line of a sight chart to the level of sight considered legal to drive in the UK.  Nothing I have done during my time in Morocco has been so instantly rewarding.  Few things in life are actually so instantly rewarding!  It is particularly shocking that this distribution began a mere four weeks before I am slated to return to the US, and I’m so grateful to have seen the beginning of this project on-the-ground.”

Hearing Caity’s enthusiasm was shocking to me, because I realized for the first time that I shared no sense of accomplishment with her whatsoever.  Maybe part of it was just that I had come into last week with a lot of stress about a bajillion different things from spring camp to projects to saying goodbye to people I hold dear.  Rationally, I could not have been happier with the project.  I knew Caity was right – this is a huge accomplishment.  I also saw first-hand the excitement and shock on the faces of so many Moroccan youth who were going to be able to read the blackboard in school for the first time.  I would say to them after handing them a pair of glasses, “Bssaha ou Ruaha,” or “To your health and your rest,” for which the response is, “God give you health,” a typical Moroccan saying.  One woman made sure after receiving her glasses to say, “God bless your parents.”  So, uh, God bless you, Mom and Dad.

Still, all God phrases to the side, and I was so embedded into the project’s details and success, so concerned with making sure things went off without a hitch, so overwhelmed by the responsibilities, that giving out the glasses was more like a necessity and not even for a second something where I felt the need to pat myself on the back or to be proud of what we had done.  Somewhere in the process of connecting myself to ensuring the success of the project, I had disconnected myself from the emotional value of what was actually happening.  So, hearing Caity say what she said brought it all back for me.  It reminded me that behind all the red tape of Customs, there was something happening that had only been a dream of ours as recently as November.  It reminded me that we could actually have a deep, meaningful impact on someone’s life.

At one point, I put on the glasses and played around with the dial twisting it to a point where my vision was terrible and then back to 20/20 vision.  I sat back in the car seat as I was doing that, and thought to myself, “I’ve never in my life had a moment where not being able to see something was a reality that I just had to accept.”  But so many of the students who came to us had been forced to accept for far too long that not being able to see was just going to be the way of their life.  With optometrists and glasses so easily available in the States, that reality just isn’t one we have ever had to consider, so our ability to see is often taken entirely for granted.

As the week came to a close, I looked around at the glasses we have yet to give out, knowing that this project is ongoing.  Over the course of the next few weeks, glasses will be distributed across Morocco from towns that border Algeria to the deep south in the Sahara.  I will be attending a few of those distributions and continuing to give out glasses in my village, as well.  I sort of had to sit back and realize this week that the “glasses project” didn’t just define a small section of my service in the Peace Corps but will continue to be a major part of the rest of my service, as we work to establish sustainable projects “on the ground” that can see distributions beyond my two-year time here.   I am looking into purchasing plane tickets, as well, to Oxford in June to see Eyejusters in action.

My introduction to work in development a few years ago left me with a sometimes bitter taste in my mouth, having to deal with so many government bureaucracies before this past week, but what I learned this week in partnering with Eyejusters was probably one of the most important things you can learn in doing development work – that the success of your work largely depends on who you choose to partner with, their motivation, and perhaps their humility.  And what defined Eyejusters to me wasn’t just their commitment to working with us to see this project through but also their understanding of why this need exists and their desire to do something about it not for their own selfish benefit but just because that’s the kind of thing you do – you know, that you help people, if you have the means to do so.  I say a lot on my blog that I don’t like to think of myself in those terms, you know, as some American come to help poor people.  But when you have the means to figure out how to make something slightly better for anyone – regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they do or don’t have – you should take it.  And that’s what made this such a success for us.  We few volunteers shared a vision (pun intended) with an organization a continent away, and it was the process of holding to that communal vision that we were able to make the right connections to benefit a small group of people in a little North African country I’ve come to call my second home.  So, Al-hamdulilah.  Thanks be to God.  And here’s to hoping the next few months and distributions go as well as the past week went.

The Calm Before the Storm, or Awaiting the Arrival of 700 Eyejusters Glasses

All’s been quiet on the western front lately.  Lots of my classes have been canceled due to rain.  Even a light mist or lots of dust can keep students from coming, and it’s not advantageous for me to ride my bike all the way to the youth center if there’s not going to be anyone who shows up.  I’ve done lots of one-on-one tutoring for students, though, at cafe’s or in the youth center, and I guess if they think that’s helping them, then I’m happy with it, but I feel like my students are sometimes upset with me for not being able to magically click something in their brain that helps them get it overnight:  “BAM!  Now you know English (and we just spiced dinner).”  I’m sorry, but, if you don’t study the material, why are you even bothering to come to my class?

But mostly, the quiet and peace has been a good quiet and peace, though I know what it is – a calm before the storm.  Allal, my landlord, checks in on me a lot.  It’s become tradition to have couscous with him and his family and one of my students.  I’ve just about decided that moving into the house he built and paying him each month may actually be the most helpful thing I will ever do for a Moroccan family.  At first, I thought, well, he owns a house he’s renting out, so he must be wealthy, but owning buildings here is not necessarily a sign of wealth.  Buildings are actually quite cheap to build; in fact, there are more buildings out here than there are people, probably [#overstatement].  I can’t help but wonder if his sole reason for building it was a matter of desperation, hoping someone would want to rent it.  And then, he just got really, really lucky when an American walked by.

But the reason I think that I’m helping him by paying him rent is because I’ve seen his actual house.  There are dogs and cats and chickens and pigeons and rabbits.  But not in cages.  They’re all just running around making everything dirty.  He lives between the river and the fish market, and the foul smell next to the house is just overwhelming.  One of his kids, Soufianne, was excited to show me a severed cow head that was diseased just laying on the floor of the fish market.  Thanks, Soufianne.  I had to continuously fan my face from flies and gnats.  I caught myself going from thinking, “Wow, this is disgusting,” to, “Why are you so disgusted?  This is what you signed up to do; this is the actual ‘African poverty’ people devote their lives to helping.”  And then I had this moment of clarity (or guilt) where it just sort of hit me all over again, that colonial sense of self-importance where I realize I’m being the white man who has come to “save” these “poor” African people and how much I just don’t want to be that.  Actually, all of it disturbed me.  It disturbed me that I was disgusted.  Then, it disturbed me that I felt pity for them.  They are a happy family, a very close-knit and loving family, and in some sense, they have what, in America, is so hard to come by, happiness with what you have, with simplicity.  So, my take-away from those encounters has been some strange attempt to ignore the poverty and just enjoy the people.  Allal is a nice man (despite his insistence to try to marry me off to some Moroccan girl).  His family could not be more welcoming.  And despite their excitement over severed cow heads, Soufianne and M’hammed are good kids whose faces light up every time they see me.

I call all that the ‘calm before the storm,’ because I’m about to be insanely busy and stressed.  Tomorrow or the next day, I will start making my way for Zagora and Marrakesh.  Owen and Greg from Eyejusters have purchased their plane tickets, and 700 glasses have been shipped.  They are bringing an additional 100 on the plane with them.  Now for the stressful part – convincing the post office to give us the glasses without charging the ridiculous customs tax of nearly 500 quid.  Then, there’s the worrying over whether or not the glasses will arrive on time.  Owen thinks he can pull strings to make sure they arrive by 2 April, but I’m just a crazy worry-wart over it.  As of right now, the glasses are being shipped International Priority and are sitting in Paris.  I think I’ve got a lot riding on how smoothly this process goes, because Owen’s offered a potential several hundred more, provided all the kinks are worked out, and I know several volunteers who could benefit from that.  It’s nice to see it all coming together.  It’s just a lot squeezed into a short period of time.

I’ll get pictures posted or update everyone as soon as we’ve got the glasses.

On Progress and Development, or How to Approach Volunteering in the Right Way, or simply, the Wild Wild East

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to say this, so here it is: regarding recent world events, ranging from the bombing in Marrakesh or the death of Osama bin Laden, I am not at liberty to comment.  So, that said, you may see a few passworded posts here or there.  Forgot my password?  No worries, ask again.  If you do read a passworded post, I ask for your discretion and that you not copy, paste, or send that blog to anyone.  It’s “passworded” for a reason.

I’d been on the road a lot lately, and when you say “on the road a lot” in Morocco, you really mean it.  Be it because of road conditions or because of vehicles with 400,000K on them, it can easily take five hours to travel what, in terms of distance, would only take maybe two back home.  It’s funny, the easiest way to refer to distance here is not in terms of how many kilometers but in terms of how many Dirhams and how many hours.  Case in point, I am the same distance between Avery that I am Nicole, but on a bad day, it could take me twice as long to get to Nicole’s site if I were to go there.  The roads are just windier.  But American car mechanics could learn a lot from the tricks Moroccans must use to keep these cars running for so long and so well.  It’s a shame we “need” a new car every couple of years when some of the BMW Taxis I’ve been riding in have got to be pushing at least ten or fifteen years.  Most taxis move at twice the speed of the buses, and what’s impressed me the most here is that Moroccans will know exactly where and when to stand in the road to wait for the right bus to come along and pick them up.  I sometimes find myself wondering, “Did they just stand there for hours until a vehicle stopped, or did they know this particular bus was going to come by at this particular time?”  There are no “bus stops” in the countryside, just convenient places in the middle of the desert where people stand.  It just fascinates me.  Then again, the buses here are actually quite on schedule and reliable.  They’re just long, slow, sometimes break down, always crowded, and not always the cleanest mode of transportation.  And yet I’m still very thankful for them.

So between jumping the wrong taxi to Azrou instead of Fes, busing to Meknes and then another taxi to Ouzzane, I finally arrived last week as one of the five volunteers invited to a conference on volunteerism, which included fifteen countries, as well as the United Nations Volunteer Program.  Given that a ton of it was in French, I found myself struggling to understand much of the conversation (although after learning Arabic, I feel like French might actually be somewhat easy), but I was able to follow enough to contribute once or twice (partially in English and partially in [Moroccan Arabic] Darjia – what I call “Daringlish”).  During the Conference, one woman complained, in Arabic, that the problem in this part of the developing world right now is that terrorism hinders the good work that people are trying to do, and ever since her impassioned statements against terrorism, I’ve been brooding – as usual – about the developing world, about progress, about the role of volunteerism, and about how I fit into all of that.  So here’s what I’ve come up with, my own little blog gabbing on about the need to progress.

Actually, first, let me take you back a few years to a conversation I had with an old friend sitting on a beach in Israel.  She took a very optimistic view of humanity and saw all of humanity as intrinsically good.  Somehow, she’d escaped the grasp of Augustine and flown the way of rainbows and unicorns.  I wasn’t convinced, but fair enough, important to know that was her starting point.  For her, all humanity was moving year after year toward social progress, toward a better world.  People became more educated, economically better off, our health better, our governments stronger.  Utopia wasn’t that far off, within sight, capable of being reached in our lifetime.  It was a time when we could all stand around and sing “Imagine” by John Lennon because we’d finally progressed to this Utopian society.

This isn’t a new hope.  You can trace it all the way back to the Enlightenment, and it still pervades liberalism, conservative, any form of fundamentalism today.  It pervades the academy, Churches, the world, really: “get people to think like us, walk like us, talk like us, and we can call that progress, and the world will be better.”  At the time, I criticized my friend from a thoroughly Augustinian, neo-conservative viewpoint:  “No, sorry, no matter how cool our technology gadgets are, even should a period of Golden Peace fall down upon us from heaven, humans are still humans, and whether you want to call it sin or something else, we mess things up.  We always will, and we’re a broken society that needs forgiveness.”

I don’t entirely disagree with that sentiment, though nowadays I find it a bit morbid and cynical, and I think it should be tempered with more hope.  I’m far more concerned in Morocco with a different question, namely whether or not this notion of progress is elitist or arrogant.  Quite literally, what would that picture of progress look like to a Moroccan who has almost nothing but is still happy?  At the time, it didn’t even occur to me; I was still too focused on human nature to comment on human progress despite its nature.  The idea of helping all society develop toward something better is certainly a beautiful one, and let’s be honest, the best fight against terrorism is a war on poverty, not a war on people.  Someone ought to start that fight, because as I look around me, we often attack the symptoms of poverty but not the causes.  The system just remains intact.  So, if we agree that poverty is a problem, and we agree that we need to do something about it, what’s holding us back from that, and to return to the question above, what’s arrogant about wanting the world to do away with poverty?

Nothing.  But in the same way that wars are first fought sometimes with words, other times with force, the “war” on poverty has to be approached first with humility.  We have to know how to fight it or it will be a disaster.  And, for me, that translates into a complete recognition that our presence here, helping other people, is on some level about us and not about the people we are trying to “help” or “serve.”   If we can’t admit that we’re getting something out of this – getting more than giving, even – then we’re doing an injustice and our work isn’t just selfish but also colonial.   That is, I came here because I wanted to, not because someone needed me too, not because I was self-less.  The fight against poverty (or hope toward any level of social progress) is lost unless we stand together with the poor, in solidarity, hand-in-hand.  And that doesn’t mean grabbing their hands and dragging them where we want them to go.  It means helping them determine what climbing out of poverty looks like for them, which I think is one of the most important points – what is poverty, really?  What’s necessary to living a sustainable, happy life?  It isn’t iPads or automobiles.  It isn’t big houses or televisions.  It isn’t an Ivy League, liberal educations with multiple degrees that still can’t give you a job.  It’s a funny thing that we’re taught when we’re so little the difference between needs and wants, but then we live the rest of our lives as though the needs are entitlements and the wants are needs.

So, are we progressing toward some utopia?  Eh, I don’t think so.  I just think we have to figure out first what we want to do together to make our world better, and then how we’re going to do it together while recognizing all of us want a little something in it for us.  So much of life really just requires us to be honest about why we want the things we want.  Then, maybe instead of trying to move or push people forward to some unrealistic heaven-on-earth we’ve concocted for everyone else, we could at least take baby steps away from the hell some people are living every day.