A Barbadian Thanksgiving at Sea

I’m not sure how many people know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I was standing on deck earlier leaning over the railing and staring at the open sea trying to figure out why that is;  I’ve discovered that staring blankly into a few thousand miles of ocean feeds my brooding mind.  I went out there on this grand mission to spot whales, sharks, porpoises, or dolphins, but I only saw some seaweed and a whole flight school of flying fish.

I did manage to decide, however, that of all the emotions I could think of, the one I’m most connected to and understand the best is gratitude.  And I think that’s why I like Thanksgiving so much.

Mostly, right now at least, I’m just thankful that I successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in one piece.  I know Mom is happy about that.  Although, I should add – boat lag… is definitely a thing.  I wake up at 4:00 am ready to go, and I’m exhausted midway through dinner.  For the past four consecutive days, my time zone changed each night, making the last four days 25-hour days.  Weird, right?

But with all there is to be thankful for, I think this year is a special Thanksgiving for several reasons.  Maybe part of it is that I’m technically retracing Columbus’ (and other voyagers’) routes seeking the West Indies on the open ocean.  Not exactly same as the Pilgrims but close enough, right?

Or maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I chose to return to America by boat the same way my grandfather returned from French Morocco after World War II.  When I told that to the Brits at our dinner table, John kinda laughed and said, “I bet your grandfather didn’t travel in this luxury.”  Nah.  But it’s the same ocean.  And now that this story is coming to a close, I think I’ve got this incredible sense of gratitude for him and the impact he left on me.  I catch myself at times smiling the same way he smiled, turning my lips just so and making an almost impish grin that no one else in the world could make the way he could.  I’m thankful for that.

It also occurred to me that much of my last two years was a lot like that first Thanksgiving.  Maybe that’s another reason I find this one so special.  Two wildly different cultures coming together and feasting – both with so much to learn from the other.  That was every day for me for the past few years.

[I realize, of course, that in the years that followed the first Thanksgiving, the natives lost their land, and for many, their lives to some strange notion of divine entitlement among the white settlers.  Sadly, that story was a history lesson we never learned, as even today, the idea that God favors some more than others prevails almost everywhere.  So, it’s worth a mention that I don’t believe any divine force could work that way, you know, favoring Europeans over natives or Israelis over Palestinians or the wealthiest 1% over the 99 below it.  When things work out that way, I don’t find anything godly in all that violence whether it’s physical or financial or emotional violence.  Of course, the irony is not lost on me that, as an American aboard a cruise ship, I’m an incredibly privileged bloke talking about how much privilege disturbs me.  I’m so friggin’ privileged, I even have the education to critique my own privilege.  I guess if you spend two years living in the developing world, and a lot of that time is spent fighting the perception that you’re just a bank, it can be easy to (want to) forget about that privilege, strangely enough.  I remember working really hard to be viewed as my own person and not as just “an American.”  When I realized that one of the families I grew close to, toward the end, really just saw me as a bank, I mentioned to Jon, “I just don’t get it.  They understood what Peace Corps was; they knew I wasn’t wealthy, that I was a volunteer; I even explained to them that I had all these loans waiting for me when I got back to America.”  Jon’s reply was probably one of the wisest things I’d heard in a while, something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, they also understand that you had the opportunity to take out money to go to a really good American school, and eventually, you’ll have opportunities to pay off all those loans.”  That’s when it hit me: there was no use in pretending like we weren’t banks.  We were.  We’re Americans, and we’re privileged, and while we’re encouraged to “live at the level of the people” on a volunteer salary, it made complete sense why we’d never fully overcome that image of being wealthy with opportunities and money.  Because maybe we never should.  It’s better to be honest about who we are, even if that honesty might cause cultural conflict of some kind.  But.  However it’s handled, I won’t ever believe that the opportunities that were handed to me were God’s choosing, as though God chose me over all my Moroccan friends who would kill for the chance to be traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean (or anywhere) like this.  Nor would I ever believe that I, by my own ability to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” earned or deserve this in any way.  I don’t.  I have it; I took it, because I was privileged enough to be born with an American passport and raised in what really is a land of opportunity.  It’s that simple.  And it’s something I wish I could give everyone, but I can’t.  I can only give up a little bit of my time and my energy to give back, and sadly, even then, I gain more than I could ever hope to give.]

I guess I’m still learning that it’s hard to go from living in the developing world to eating some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life on a luxury cruise ship that has its own gym, theater, casino, cigar shop, wine bar, jacuzzi and pools.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints and conversations in the last two weeks that were pretty shocking – especially shocking when you consider that nearly all the staff are Asian and seem overworked and underpaid.  In some ways, it makes me feel guilty, like I’m somehow contributing to slave labor, and I apologize if that’s an offensive metaphor, but it scares me to think it may not be a metaphor at all.

I’ve also noticed that people who are wealthy, particularly wealthy, love to talk about their wealth.  Or maybe they just don’t know how to talk about anything else.  Or maybe they don’t even realize that not everyone else has been to Barbados four times or can gamble $50K away like it’s no big deal.  I don’t know how to connect with someone like that at all.  I just stare at them blankly or in awe and think fondly of sitting on a wool rug with one little table and one plate where we break bread together and share a communal cup.

My point is that it’s all kind of disjointing.  I look at my plate of food (e.g. tonight’s menu included “rose of prosciutto and kiwi fruit on a pineapple carpaccio, cream of potato soup with baby shrimp and chives, and turkey served with candied sweet potatoes and buttered scallops over an old-fashioned bread stuffing and giblet gravy), and the first shock, of course, is that I have my own plate of food.  It’s my plate, and we’re not all sharing one.  The lines between poverty and wealth are confusing to me.  And for as good as the food here may be, I feel weird thinking that I already miss being… poor.  Or pretending like I was.  Or maybe I actually am poor and right now I’m just pretending like I’m rich?  See, I can’t even keep it all straight.  It’s just plain disjointing.  But I think that’s a good thing, maybe even something worth being thankful for: those little disjointed moments keep us on our toes, force us to ask tough questions about who we are and what, if anything, anyone is “entitled” to – it keeps us… thankful.

I had several little moments today where I thought, “This is absolutely ridiculous.  I’m swimming in the Caribbean; the water is crystal clear.  There is a friggin’ sea turtle right there.  Woah.  Duuude.  It’s a sea turtle, dude.”  Right now, back home, my parents are setting up the Christmas tree in what I imagine is considerably cooler temperatures.  Meanwhile, I’m swimming with turtles and chatting it up with Brits and Barbadians in 93 degree heat with a sunburn.  Life can be strange sometimes.  Crazy even.

But whether we’ve come from the poorest of the poor or the wealthiest 1%, whether we’re layered up in a chilly Tennessee winter prepping for Christmas or turning beet red in Barbados, we all have some little voice crying forth a quiet “thank you.”  We might sound that in our different ways or to different folks, but it’s there across every culture.  I’d like to think that our varied ways of saying thank you, despite their tonal differences, come together like a harmony of sorts, where we’re all really driving the same point home.

Anyhow, we set sail for Guadeloupe a few hours ago and arrive there in the morning.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

The Open Sea

Yesterday, when I was headed to board the MSC Poesia in Barcelona, there were two large buses shuttling passengers to the harbor.  I stood in line next these absolutely beautiful Spanish girls and just thought, “Oh yeah.  Awesome.”  Then when I showed the bus driver my ticket, he said, “No, no, your bus is the next bus.  We’re going to a different ship.”  Okay, slight disappointment.  But that’s okay.  This is still a good sign.

I climbed onto the bus to realize almost immediately that I was the only person on the bus under about 45 years-old.  And I’d put the average age closer to, I dunno, maybe 65.  I couldn’t stop laughing.  Here I was, a lone American on an elderly person’s cruise ship.  And all I could think was, “No, this is still too awesome.”

I am probably not your average cruise goer.  I don’t really drink.  I generally tend to think twelve hours in a country isn’t long enough to really appreciate it.  I’ve no interest in playing bingo or really any of the ship’s activities.    [Although, there was a lecture today on the history of Morocco, since the ship arrives at the Port of Casablanca tomorrow morning, and that was a really nice capstone to my past two years.]

Still, each night, when the “daily schedule” is delivered to my room, I sit down and plan out the entire day, the majority of which is spent sitting somewhere on board with a view of the sea and working hard on my most recent novel.  That’s what this trip is to me: an opportunity to romanticize this experience just enough to let it work my creative juices.  After all, I have six thirty-page manuscripts to clean up for graduate school applications.

What time isn’t spent writing will be spent dealing with culture shock.  Tonight’s dinner, for example, is formal attire (suggested by the Captain).  However, I do not own a tuxedo or a tie.  I have to say, I have had this incredible fear that someone will smell me and think I smell like sheep or goat.  Dinner is assigned seating, and I am the only American at a table of seven Brits – Fiona, John, Nigel, Patsy, and I don’t remember the other three.  As we sat there discussing the super yacht’s they had toured in Barcelona (which cost 475,000 quid to rent per week), all of us with our own forks and knives, I couldn’t help but think of Driss or Omar, of eating with Ahmed – one dish, no utensils.  Two weeks ago, I was sitting on the floor of Allal’s house to eat lunch.  Now, I’m surrounded by carpet and cushions, and everything is perfectly upholstered and clean, so painfully clean.  And everyone is dressed like we’re going to a wedding or something.

The only escape I have is the bow, really more to the starboard side, where I like to stand and look out at the open sea.  It’s quiet and no matter how fancy the ship is, nature brings it all back for me.  It always has.

The open sea is not the hues of blue you might expect.  That color is a lie crafted by those who never ventured far from the shore.  Instead, the waves are a thick, rich black abyss as far as the eye can see, and as they ebb-and-flow, the color shifts from a lighter black to a darker black.  This, of course, changes depending on the location of the sun, and in the distance – particularly closer to the horizon – those deep black tones fade into a grey and eventually a white or yellow where they meet the sky.  The only other place the sea is not this darkened color is next to the ship as she moves swiftly cutting through the waves and churning up a thousand blue-and-white ripples and bubbles.  If I’ll see any dolphins on this trip, that’s where I’m expecting them to play.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be back in Morocco.  I have not made plans to get off the boat.  My time with Morocco has ended for now.  When I say goodbye one last time tomorrow, I’ll do so the same way my grandfather did some 70 years ago, leaving Casablanca by boat.  In the meantime, I’m going to sort through what few clothes I have that are not completely disgusting and try to put on something half-decent for dinner and the Gala.

America: What I’m Most Excited For, or A Top Ten List of Sorts

Over the course of the next few weeks, in anticipation of my two-year anniversary of living in the Kingdom of Morocco (Sept. 15), I’ll be posting a series of “top ten lists” detailing some of my favorite things and some of my least favorite things about this country, some of the ways I’ve changed, and all the things I will and won’t miss as November quickly approaches and my time here comes to an end.

So, without further ado, I bring you the first in this series, a top ten list of what all America has to offer, from everything I’m excited to get my hands on and buy to all the people and animals I just can’t wait to see:

10. Fox News, Tea Partiers, the American South, and all the things I just can’t stand — I guess there’s just one point I want to make here, and that’s that I love America.  I even love the part of America that I despise.  Why?  Because I just love to despise it.  Two years abroad really brought out for me just how awful of a country we can be – how bigoted and idiotic, and I won’t start down that path, because my point really is that I’m so excited to get back to America that I’m even excited to get back to that side of America that disappoints me.  It’s like sitting down in front of the T.V. to watch an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.  It’s a guilty pleasure, and you do it not because it’s a good show (it’s not), but because there’s nothing funnier than watching Walker round-house kick some awful Texas stereotype that misrepresents someone’s race or gender in some terrible way.  And so while I am, honestly, terribly disgusted with some parts of American culture, I’m still glad that America comes with all these rich complexities, that we’re filled with so many different human beings from all walks off life, some good, some bad, and most just trying to get by for themselves.  I think when you remove yourself from a place for any lengthy period of time, you long for that place in such a way that it’s like you’ve stepped outside of a box and can now describe every detail of the box with a clear memory.  That’s, in large part, how I feel about America.  I left one box for another, and now that I’m re-entering the old box (or about to), I worry a little how that will go.  It’s as if I became box-less in there somewhere, as if I lost my culture, because I no longer wanted to be associated with all the quirks and traditions and social stigmas that make up whatever we call ‘us’.  But rather than re-entering the box and suddenly regaining culture, I just want to be able to appreciate what it is for what it is without having to be a part of it.  And while I think there’s a lot wrong with our culture, I do earnestly want to believe that most people, even though they may get caught up in silly little beliefs and traditions, just want to be good people.  No one wants to believe that they are guided or socialized by Fox News or CNN or whatever Pastor so-and-so has to say or whatever the popular music of the moment may be.  So even though we may get sucked into all of that, I like believing that no one wants to be.  It’s the only way to trust people, and it’s the best way to believe that we all have a good heart in common underneath all that crap we’re fed all the time by our interwebs and T.V. stations, and etc.

9. New things of 2012, from clothes to shoes to cars to interwebs — It’s not just because my shoes are falling apart.  Or that a series of Moroccan haircuts have officially resulted in my growing of what some might call a combo between a “fro” and a mullet.  It’s just that Peace Corps is going to hand me this nice, fat readjustment allowance, and I’m tired of living off $250.  I’ve detailed some of the things I’m going to be buying in my “Official Wish List,” (see the bottom of the list) in case you’re just eager to buy it for me first.  *Wink.*  Shameless, I know.  I’ll let the wish list speak for itself, though.  Moving on.

8. My Transatlantic Cruise, followed by a six to nine-month vacation of doing absolutely nothing.  No, I don’t mean a second round of Peace Corps.  I mean really doing nothing —

I’ve already posted about the cruise, but here are the details again.  I’ll let this speak for itself, and for any naysayers who realize this isn’t really “America,” two weeks of luxury aboard the MSC Poesia are the antithesis to my life in Morocco.

7. Finding Moroccans in America and using Arabic with them — Several weeks ago, my friend Zach went to a “Moroccan” restaurant in Memphis called “Casablanca.”  I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that there’s probably one Moroccan working there, if that.  It’s probably just some Arab guy who decided that a restaurant named after the famous movie would probably make more money than, say, Saudi Arabia Restaurant in Memphis (although “Lawrence of Arabia” could’ve been a good restaurant name).  The menu looks delicious, but very little of it is Moroccan, except for harira (Moroccan soup), a couscous dish or two, and kifta (ground beef or lamb).  Actually, the idea that I could get kifta (if it’s prepared anything there like it is here) in America is incredibly exciting to me.  The rest of the menu is Levantine food between baba ghanoush, chwarma, and hummus.  Still great food, and on a rare occasion, and I can find it in Morocco, but I am hoping for something traditionally Moroccan.

You just can’t have an experience like this living in a country for two years and then suddenly be plopped back into your own culture, as if you’re supposed to forget this two years like it was all some fantasy.  All that is to say that one of my chief goals getting back to America is to find a Moroccan community or at least one Moroccan person and surprise them with some Arabic.  Or actually get to know them.  I’m not going to pretend like I wouldn’t love to meet a Moroccan-American girl either (take note Katie Frensley).  Or my God, if I could make friends with some Moroccans, and they invited me to their house for some real Moroccan food?!  Best idea ever.

Whatever it takes.  I just want to know that I can continue to connect with this beautiful country even when I’m far from it.  It’ll always be a second home of sorts.  Next.

6. The Unknown

[vimeo 7670356]

Although it can be the source of significant stress, I like not knowing what’s next.  I like the betwixt and between stage of life and the crisis that comes with it as you’re sorting out what to do or where to go.  I like the freedom that comes with that – some feeling that I could pick up and go anywhere in the world and do almost anything, and I like not knowing what that is, because uncertainty fosters dreaming for me.  Of course, I love planning and scheming, too, but I don’t take them seriously anymore.  So much of the time I spent planning things out, I’ve come to realize, is all part of the imagining and dreaming I like to do in the place of all my uncertainties.  Once, that was a place of angst for me, and I loved the angst.  But I no longer have fears about what’s next.  I just trust that whatever’s next will be here before I know it, or as the song says, “The doctor asked him what he was afraid of, just what he was running from; it’s not a fear of success nor of closeness; but of going through life feeling numb.”  You could say, the experience of Peace Corps has made me want to experience so much of life, as much as I can get my hands on, but grabbing hold of those experiences often means not knowing what’s next – of always being on the go in some sense.  I think that fits and describes me well.  And even now when I’m heading home, I’m still heading into the unknown.

5. Nashville, Tennessee – the Athens of the South — Despite all the scene and hipster kids who just want to use Nashville to break into the music world with their raspy, wannabe folksy voices, Gotham City – so named for its one tower too tall – is a lovely, cultured community with everything from the Bluebird Cafe to Vanderbilt University to an arboretum of trees planted by Andrew Jackson.  After living there for nearly four years (and being born there), I’m proud to call it my home, and there’s nothing quite as exciting to me as driving around the 440 with  my city in sight.

I’m most looking forward to hanging around the Bicentennial Park, my favorite state park in the world with its grassy mall, its large state map engraved into the concrete, and a 1400-foot “wall of history” that stretches the length of the park.  To one end of the park, there’s an international market, where I’m hoping (but not sure) I can buy couscous and Moroccan spices, including Moroccan tea, but I’ll have to explore the market again to see if that’s true.

So, yeah, Nashville had to make the list.  It’s just a great city, and it’s a place I very much look forward to calling home again, even though I’m open to moving almost anywhere in the world if that’s what I gotta do to make some money or get back into school.  That Nashville would be on my list should come as no surprise, though.  Who couldn’t love a city that gave us the Bat Poet:

4. Five Guys Burgers & Fries. [and other restaurant chains of American cuisine] — At this point, they really should hire me for all the press I give them.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer, probably every person living abroad ever, has experienced the craving, the deep, heartfelt yearning for American chain restaurants.  That’s because like cigarettes, the internet, heroin, and fast women, Five Guys Burgers & Fries – and other chain restaurants across the United States – are blood-sucking, money-grabbing forms of addiction.  You think I’m joking, don’t you?  Just try to go six months without eating that beautiful, cheesy Gordita crunch from Taco Bell; go a full year without a Lemon-Berry Fresh Fruit Slush from Sonic.  You’ll see what I mean.  If you can make it past two weeks, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  You’ll crave it.  You’re stomach will gurgle and ache for it.  You’ll dream about it, and you’ll even have visions of a giant taco singing, “Eat me, Philip.  Find me and eat me.”

Then, just when you think you’ve broken free of that horrid addiction, they come out with this, a dorito-based taco shell.  And you think, “My God, America.  What have you done?!  What is this delicious morsel sent from the third circle of hell to appease the second deadly sin?  You sweet red, white, and blue damsel, you.  I’m coming for that Doritaco.”

I should not be writing this while I’m hungry.  That was a terrible idea.   Whatever, you get the point: I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into a double-bacon-burger with cheese cooked medium well with lettuce and tomato and extra ketchup and served with a bag of heart-attack fries.  Oh God.  I’ve opened Pandora’s Box.  Next.

3. Abner Doubleday, puggle puppy dawg extraordinaire — I’m afraid, over the last two years, Abner has become like some big Berber woman who loves chomping down white bread and sprawling out on the sofa watching hours of daily soap operas.  Abner has gained approximately 120 lbs. since I left, so once I’m home, we’re going on a strict diet.  While I’ll be busy gaining back the 40 lbs I’ve lost (and that number is not a joke), Abner will hopefully be losing the same amount (that one is).

Truth be told, while Abner is my dog, I haven’t decided what to do with him.  It almost seems cruel to strip him of his life of luxury.  He does pretty much whatever he wants.  He’s a puggle living like a King at the Eubanks’ residence.  And his friendship with Gibson, our golden lab, is like no other.  The two play in the backyard for hours until Abner gets to go inside, while Gibson watches longingly in the sweltering heat.  Actually, according to Mom, Abner didn’t go outside as much this summer to visit Gibson, because it was too hot.  He’d just stand at the door waiting to be let back in to the cool air conditioning.  That’s my dog.  He knows where it’s at!

But since I don’t yet know where I’ll be in four months, let alone six to a year, it’s a bit premature to predict what will happen with Abner, whether I’ll schlep him up north if that’s where the winds take me, or if he’ll continue living like a King at Chateau Eubanks.  Time will tell, but we’ve come a long way since those early days of bein’ a puppy, so I’m looking forward to giving him a big hug and letting him curl up to nap with me in the fetal position.

2. Katie Frensley, Harold Burdette, and the Frensley Family Extravaganza — There’s a lot of people I’m excited to see, a lot of folks who are like family to me, and I hope I don’t offend any of you if you didn’t show up on this list.  But I figured Katie, Harold, Greta, and Jacob had a special place on this list, because come January or February, there’s a good chance I’m movin’ in.  For good.  I’ve warned Katie about this, and to a lesser degree, Greta, but never tell someone they’re “like family” if you don’t want them mooching off you like a leech.  I mean, all I asked for was a corner, and Jacob’s already offered his whole room, so….

Of course, they’ve no need to be too worried.  They are more than welcome to pass me around.  Two weeks at one Frensley residence, three weeks at another.  I’m also willing to cook Moroccan dishes or soups or other delicious meals.  I require very little maintenance; although, if they have guests over, I guess I can try to shave and put on deodorant and use toilet paper temporarily.  And if the guests are still offended by me, they can always just warn them ahead of time: “We, uh, we have a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer staying with us, and uhm, he doesn’t always use utensils when he eats… and he’s kind of offended if you use your left hand to eat… and don’t be surprised if he takes your clothing from you and gives you something of his own in a strange barter system of sorts; he means well.  Oh and sometimes, he clicks.  One click means yes; two clicks means no.”

In all seriousness, though… no, wait, I was being completely serious.  I am moving in, Greta.  Get ready.

But seriously.  Srsly.  I can’t name the number of messages, texts, or emails I’ve had from Katie or Harold reminding me how much they miss me and how much they just want me home.  I think having a community of people is really important, and in some ways, they are my home base, my center-of-gravity, my fan club, my band and we’re gettin’ the band back together.  You get the idea.  Being around them is like being in a sitcom.  So, while I may eventually head off to some new city for school or work, or while I’ll be in Jackson for some time, too, it’s nice to know that I’ll always have a place I can return to – my own little posse, my homeboys (and girls), Team Fouad.  I need to stop doing that.

It’s just that I think one of the things that scares me about America is that I’ll turn into some recluse, that Jackson or whatever city I end up in will be some stale place to me, and the task of having to start over, to work at making friends again, is just this daunting reality I have no desire to face.  I don’t want to explain Peace Corps to people.  I don’t want, like I had to do at Christmas, to have somebody say to me, “So, Morocco, what’s that like?” and then have to explain an entire culture in a thirty-second sentence the other person could care less about.  Katie and Harold and Greta and Jacob are four people I don’t have to start over with or explain myself to.

And besides, Katie is on a mission to find future Mrs. Eubanks anyhow.  She’s got a tough job ahead of her, you know, finding a girl who’s going to be totally okay with the fact that I am mooching off of my friends indefinitely.

There are, of course, a lot of jokes here, and I’m not willing to divulge fact from fiction, so yeah, moving on….

1. The Eubanks‘ — Family first, right?  Although, I don’t mean that in some hokey, cheesy way like, “Oh man, I missed Mama and Baba so, so much these last two years!”  I mean, I did miss them, but not in some overly emotional outpouring of love.  It’s more of a quiet love, an understanding that comes with a heck of a lot of freedom.  Mom’s [been forced to get] used to the fact that traveling is, well, kinda my thing, and I’ll be surprised if anybody’s expecting me to stick around for more than three months before I’m off again on some ridiculous adventure or another.  But over the past few years, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for how weird I think my family is (though everybody thinks that about their family, right), and I feel closer to them in that I feel as though we actually discuss things like adults these days.  Even though my mother will always remind me if I packed extra underwear and remembered my toothbrush (yes, Mom), between being home for Christmas and a few Skype dates here-and-there, you could say I’ve come to appreciate the range of subjects we can talk about these days.  I no longer feel like a child being talked down to, even though my parents are often saying things I, like a child, need to hear.  In some sense, they are probably the most civil, normal people that I know, and that’s actually what I think makes us so darn weird.  I mean, my parents are some cross between Hank and Peggy Hill from “King of the Hill” or maybe even the Wilkersons or the Morgendorffers.  And Beth is just Beth, you know – hippy sister extraordinaire whose got a bad side and works constantly.  But I love them all anyhow, and I fully expect Mom to be all teary-eyed at the Nashville International Airport in November.  Maybe I will be too.  Who knows.

I guess it can be a little cliché to say that “family” is my number one – what I’m most excited to get home to, but when you go from living in a family-oriented culture like that of the Muslim world, you sort of get this different picture for the value and importance of family.  I think I grew up just thinking that family was a support network of people who loved me, and it is that, but I think it’s so much more than that now.  I think the people who you call family, even if those people aren’t biologically related to you (and I mean those few special friends, too), are the only people you can trust or expect to be there.  I think all our lives are spent trying to find and identify those we regard as that kind of family.  So, it’s a little inevitable that two years in this kind of culture, a culture where family equates with rigid expectations of dependability, and I’m glad to be going home to a place where I know I’ve always had that even though that’s so rare in some ways.

So, there you have it.  Ten things I can’t wait to have or see.  People and places that are consistent in my life.  The days are numbered, and I know at least some of you are counting them down.

“Sometimes, the Only way to Return is to Go where the Winds’ll take You”

When I embarked on this journey a little under two years ago, the idea that this period of my life could ever come to an end was just absurd.  Two years is just long enough that if you want to be here, it doesn’t just become some temporary adventure; it becomes your life.  And when it becomes your life, the adventure behind it dulls a little bit, so when you hear people back home asking you in the midst of your journey, “So how’s that vacation going?” you kind of want to slap them, because while they may see extravagant pictures on Facebook or whatever, this is anything but a vacation (at least for most volunteers).  It carries with it the same ebb-and-flow of everyday life in any other place, except the lows can be harder to climb out of, and the highs can be high enough to let you see miles beyond what you were used to seeing Stateside.

But now that ebb-and-flow is slowing down a little, as the end begins its approach, and I find myself returning to that sense of adventure I caught glimpses of when I first arrived here.  A week or two ago, it was walking by a derailed train with several cars and the train tracks uprooted and flipped over.  It was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea with Algeria in sight less than a hundred yards away.  It was deep conversation with an older PCV couple in their sixties about American politics or the Vietnam War, old stories surfacing – the kind that inspire or give you fodder to chew on for days.   It was watching the moon change its phases this month as Ramadan crept in and now creeps out with Eid El-Fitr quickly approaching.  Even the call-to-prayer ringing out from the minaret again sounds something deep within me, bringing me alive as I seem to catch myself whispering, “This is Morocco.  Do not forget this.  Cherish these last days.”

This is Morocco.  It’s a phrase I’ve returned to a thousand times, a phrase that runs through my veins.  I don’t know what it is about Africa or the way it just seems to grab hold of you or sink something mystical into your skin, but there are times I’ve had here where I just seem jolted by those words, by the very reminder that this one place is where I currently reside and exist.  And I’m not alone in that experience.  I recently discovered several volunteers had their own little phrases.  “This is Afriquia.”  Or, “I live in Africa.”  Some kind of overwhelming sense of self-awareness seems so evident by this life, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes us all so alive in repeating those phrases.  It’s almost as if we were made more aware of our very nature when we were thrown into a culture so absurd to what we were used to, and from there, everything seemed richer and exploded with diverse beauty.  I don’t know what it is, really.  I can only hope that we will sing the same songs, those same phrases, about America, that our sense of liveliness could carry over beyond this place.

I don’t think that’s too much to hope for.  I mean, yes, America is my own culture, so the little things that catch me off-guard and mystify me here may not shock me with the same sense of awe or self-awareness back home.  But while I’m still currently on the African continent, I can say this: who I am as an American is much more embedded into me and appreciated than it was two years ago.  And I suspect that I’ll return to America feeling just that, a sense of patriotic awe or maybe even a kind of quiet gratitude for what all America is and represents, at its best and at its worst.

Some quiet gratitude much like that has carved out a chunk of my service, usually under the guise of what I called “legacy.”  I’ve tried these past few years to walk the path of someone I admired, and come November, I’ll be walking that literal path one last time.  Or floating rather.  On November 8, just a few days after I send in my absentee ballot, I’ll be making my way to Rabat for the last time, where I’ll “stamp out,” signing my name in the book of volunteers who have completed their service and thus marking myself, officially, a “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.”  From there, I will make my way north to Tangier, where I’ll take a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and into Spain.  By November 12, I have to be in Barcelona to board the MSC Poesia, a cruise-liner scheduled to embark on a transatlantic voyage that evening at 7:00pm.

Strangely enough, the Poesia’s first stop is none other than Casablanca, which will take me to the same port my grandfather left from sixty-six years ago.  I have to admit, I might get off the boat to walk around the Port itself, but I have no interest in walking around Casablanca that day, unless I realize there’s something I’ve forgotten to get (or unless I make friends who want to pay me for an exclusive tour of Morocco’s dingiest city).  We’ll see.

The ship then stops just south of the Canary Islands on an autonomous Portuguese island called Madeira.  If it’s anything like Oporto, I’m sure I’ll love it.   After that, it takes five solid days to actually cross the Atlantic Ocean.  How crazy is that?  Five days at sea in the wild blue ocean.  Maybe I’ll meet some cute girl at the ship’s bow, and we can spread our arms, the wind whipping us in the face like we’re flying, and — oh wait, that story doesn’t have a happy ending.

There are three stops in the Caribbean – Bridgetown, Barbados; Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (Virgin Islands, U.S.).  Some of you may recall that I was originally nominated to the Eastern Caribbean for Peace Corps, not Morocco.  So to be heading there is kind of exciting to me.  I am hoping I’ll get a sneak-peak at what I was missing out on, and if I ever do Peace Corps again, I can say, “Oh yeah, send me to the Eastern Caribbean this time,” or, “Don’t send me there.”

The last two stops are Freemont in the Bahamas and then Fort Lauderdale, where I’ll make my way to Miami in time to catch a flight home to Nashville, Tennessee hitting the ground November 28.  That’s two weeks of travel for nearly the same price as a plane ticket directly from Casablanca to Nashville.  And to be home just after Thanksgiving Day, two years to the day that I arrived in my desert village in Morocco, couldn’t be more fitting.

But it’s not time to get excited just yet.  There’s too much here to still take in.  To let it seep in slowly and quietly mumble, “This is Morocco.”  I have a long way to get before I get back home.