Friday, September 11, 2009

Volunteer Community

I have written a lot about Moroccans and Moroccan culture because I figure that’s what is new and interesting to the reader. In doing so, I’ve neglected one huge part of the volunteer experience here: spending time with other Americans.

There are about 200 Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco. There are a couple volunteers who are very isolated from other volunteers (more than 3 hours), but most volunteers live within an hour of another volunteer. That means that we congregate and see each other pretty often.

There are two volunteers that live in Tounfite (one hour away), my souq town. There is a third volunteer who shares Tounfite as his souq town. I see the three of them once a week when I go in for souq (unless they’re traveling). I have to go to Tounfite to use the post office and Internet, so I often see them on days other than souq. In addition to the four of us in Tounfite, there are seven other volunteers within four hours of me. I see some of those seven maybe once or twice a month.

Having Americans nearby me is very important to staying sane. When volunteers get together, we cook American food, vent about the troubles we are having in our site, and relax. It’s impossible to forget that you are in Morocco, but spending time with other volunteers lets you ignore that fact.

Being in Morocco has gotten progressively easier, meaning that my first six months were the hardest time. Back then, the only other Americans in Tounfite were a married couple: David and Kristin. They were very generous with their house and I felt welcome there anytime I wanted to unwind. They would cook me good food and we would talk or watch some American TV show on their computer. They joined Peace Corps a year before me, so they were already established in Tounfite by the time I got there. Thus, they were also helpful in giving me advice on how to manage difficult cultural situations and introducing me to people. I was very lucky to have them close by for the beginning of my service.

Living in the developing world, away from your family and friends for two years can be difficult at times. Sharing those difficulties with a small group of people naturally brings them close together. We are experiencing things that are impossible to completely share and explain with those back in America; we’re the only ones who understand what we’re going through. The isolation of Peace Corps means that a lot of the problems that people have are personal. When you’re alone for so much of the time, you learn more about who you are. It can be very intimate watching your friends struggle with that challenge while you are having your own struggles. At the same time, that makes sharing successes and happy moments all the sweeter.

While Peace Corps programming staff tries to put volunteers who are compatible with one another close by, that’s a difficult task (especially because Peace Corps has volunteers from 4 different sectors with 8 different bosses). Pretty much, you’re just thrown in this intimate environment with random people. It means that you don’t get to choose your friends. If your best friend during training was placed on the other side of the country, you’re probably not going to see them but a couple times during your service; you have to make friends with the people who are geographically close to you. Inevitably, that means that you have to be friends with people whose personalities may not closely match yours. Nonetheless, I think it works out pretty well in most cases. I like all the people that I live close by.

I was at a gathering with five other volunteers a couple weeks ago and it was an interesting experience. Five of us have been in the country for at least a year, so we’ve gotten to know each other. I think we were all, simultaneously, going through a bit of a rough patch, although some more than others. People were acting pretty weird; collective insanity is a better way to put it. Being in another country means that volunteers become de-socialized to behavioral norms. Such an evening, where people were so open (unintentionally open) with their personal problems, would be rare in America. But here, it wasn’t that far out of the norm.

The only downside to the volunteer community is that volunteers spend a lot of time with other volunteers. Being with other Americans is a lot easier and more comfortable, but it’s not why any of us came to Morocco. It’s difficult to find that balance between maintaining your sanity and spending the quality time in your site.


Man I feel like that’s the least interesting post I’ve written in a while. I’ll stick to Moroccan topics from now on.

We have been getting a ton of rain over the past couple days. Rainstorms here are normally short and light. But we had a 24-hour long storm that was quite intense. My mud roof held up quite well and I only had one leak. All the water coming off the nearby mountains means that rivers rage and flood their banks, eroding fields and destroying crops. People ask me if that happens in America and I tell them no: we have soil to absorb the rain – there are only rocks here. It makes sense to people and lets me drive home my environmental message.

Ramadan is still happening, believe it or not. Sunday is the 23rd day in Morocco (out of 29 or 30, depending on the moon). I’m spending a lot of time reading and writing, still. Ramadan is boring. I’ve also been doing some exciting work; another volunteer and I, along with three Moroccan counterparts did HIV/AIDS and STI education with 20 sex workers. The primary language for the education was Arabic, but I was still able to participate in a productive way.

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