Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


2/28/09 Community Meeting

Earlier this week, one of the biggest and best-funded Moroccan NGOs in the region hosted a discussion on tourism in the Berberville region. The presenters all spoke Darija (Moroccan Arabic), but the powerpoint slides were all in French, so I got a lot out of it.

I had conversations with my counterpart, the professor whose project I worked on over the summer (and which has received funding for next steps, lhumdullah!), women from artisanal cooperatives throughout the province, the president of another influential NGO, and the caid. Yes, I'm grateful I was there. :D

What's funny is that I'd planned to go into SouqTown on the 11:30 to meet with my counterpart and discuss our next project, a tree-planting on March 21st. I got a buzz from my sitemate about this conference at about 9:45am; she'd known about it for all of 24 hours, but didn't know the subject. (Advance planning is not a local forte.) Once she was there, and knew that it was about tourism, she called me. I planned to attend till 11:15, and even had pre-packed my backpack so that I could hop the tranzit. But since it turned out that everyone I needed to talk to was *there*, I stuck around for the entire day-long conference. (It was supposed to end at 1, at which point we'd break for lunch, but, well, adhering to a schedule is not exactly a local forte either.) So around 3:30, we did break for "lunch", which I ate with various conference attendees, and then I moseyed back to the old homestead. Oh, but not before I scheduled meetings with two important contacts. :)

And there was great rejoicing.


2/27/09 Final Thoughts for Applicants

Since it's the last odd-numbered day in February, this is my last post explicitly dedicated to the future PCVs out there. For those of you late to the party, just look for posts with the PCinfo tag. :)

I'm delighted that this has proven to be such a popular topic. My PCinfo posts have been read more times than the other 200-some posts combined, which tells me that there's a hunger out there for this information. The official Peace Corps site actually has a huge amount of information, but it's poorly organized; even if you know that the answer you're looking for is there, it can be hard to find.

I'm sorry it's so hard for interested folks to find straightforward answers to most of their likely questions. The problem is that PC service varies immensely, based on region, sector, and even (unfortunately) race and gender.

Will I have telephone access? Will I integrate quickly into my community? Will I work in a school? How close will I live to the nearest PCV?

The answer to all of these, and to so many more, is simply, It depends.

That said, I've tried to provide helpful information. If you are thinking about applying to the Peace Corps, please refer to what I've posted. Peace Corps is a fantastic life choice, and I don't know anyone who's regretted the decision to fill out the application. Tomorrow, innocentablogged will return to its usual diet of snapshots of my life, reflections on local culture, and descriptions of my work. I hope you keep reading, but if not, best wishes as you think through this important decision!


2/26/09 Languages of Morocco, aka I love my French teachers!

I keep promising myself I'm going to write a long thank-you note to my French teachers. Mme. Lyons, Mme. Charters, M. Gauche, I can never thank you enough.

Peace Corps can create language requirements for a country, if they want to. If you want to work anywhere in Central or South America, you need to have at least two years worth of Spanish under your belt. They still give you the same 8-12 weeks of language training that all PCTs get, but you're starting from a much better place. I've heard that French is required for some of the countries in the formerly-colonized countries of West Africa, but that might just be rumor. It's certainly *recommended*, but that doesn't actually mean all that much.

I think they should make French required for a posting in Morocco.

Every Moroccan kid learns at least some French in school. The amount of French acquired varies with the quality of the teacher and of the school, but they all know *some*. If you pursue education beyond high school, all of the courses are taught in French, so you're effectively required to be (or become) fluent.

In other words, if you speak French, you can talk to a large percentage of Moroccans. Everyone in a position of authority.

If you speak Darija, aka Moroccan Arabic, you can talk to everyone in Morocco except for a scant handful of people - mostly women and old men - in some rural villages. Those folks speak one of the three varieties of the Berber dialects: Tarifit, in the north; Tamazight, in the middle of the country; and Tasuseit, in the south.

Peace Corps elected to teach me Tamazight, since they placed me in the heart of the Berber lands in the middle of the country. With Berber, I can speak to all the natives of Berberville...but not all the transplants. And nearly everyone employed by the government - teachers, police, caid, judge - are transplants.

Fortunately, they're all educated, so I chat with them in French. My French is far from flawless, especially when I'm talking quickly, and my accent is more Parisian than Moroccan (though that's changing fast), but I can communicate whatever I need, and I can understand probably 98% of what is said to me.

For the PCVs who didn't have a Mme. Lyons, a Mme. Chartres, or a M. Gauche, things are a lot harder. Those who are taught Darija in stage, ie all of the Youth Development PCVs and about a quarter of the rest of us, have it a little easier.

But if your only languages are English and Tamazight, then you're going to have a hard time explaining yourself to a policeman, teacher, or local government official whose only languages are Darija and French.

My sitemate is in this position. Before I got to town, she'd usually end up grabbing a Tam speaker - and the nearest ones were usually a secretary or janitor - and having them translate for her. That sometimes worked. But bureaucratese is hard to translate. When the police were demanding her residency authorization forms, the best the translator came up with was "papers about work". She ended up calling a Peace Corps staffer and having them translate through the phone.

(OK, I fictionalized that particular story. She told me about it a long time ago and I've forgotten some of the details. But the gist is true.)

In non-emergency situations, most of us don't like to bother the Peace Corps staff. They're overworked as it is. So we muddle along as best we can.

I'd encourage anyone planning to spend any serious length of time in Morocco to study French. (Well, study Darija if you can, but it's a lot harder to find those courses!) Studying classical Arabic won't do you much's a lot like, say, a Chinese speaker studying Latin before visiting the US. The languages are related, most definitely, but centuries of evolution have created many immportant differences. More accurately, it would be like that Chinese speaker visiting the US 50 or 100 years ago, when Latin was taught in every prep school and Catholic kids grew up hearing weekly mass in it. Classical Arabic is used in mosques and Islamic Studies courses, but it's a formal, written language that has stayed carefully static for centuries. Modern Standard Arabic, spoken in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, etc, is quite close to Classical Arabic, but Morocco, so remote from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, has let its language evolve further, and incorporate lots of words from French and Spanish (since France and Spain are much closer than, say, Saudi Arabia).

All of which is to say, Americans coming to Morocco should practice French.

In my work with the schools and the Department of Water and Forestry, I've found a total of 3 native Tam speakers. (Added complication: all three spoke regional variations different from mine - the risks of an unwritten language. It's a bit like an Aussie talking to someone from rural Scotland, or a midwestern American watching The Full Monty. If you listen hard, you'll do OK, but there are enough differences to make it challenging, especially if your ear isn't attuned to it.) Three. But everybody employed by the schools and DWF speaks college-level French. Lhumdullah.

I don't mind translating for my PCV friends. Honestly, I feel useless a lot of the time, so I'm grateful to have something to contribute to the work going on here. But it concerns me that it's so needed. Which brings me back to my point: Peace Corps should make French a requirement for service in Morocco. (Or else teach us all Darija, but that would preclude conversations with rural women, one of our target demographics.)


2/25/09 Your Peace Corps Toolkit

There is a tremendous amount of information available to potential PCVs. Here are some sources that I've found helpful:

The Official Peace Corps Website

SoYouWanna Join the Peace Corps

The so-called "Real Peace Corps," which says in a page what I've said in a month.
Campbell to Cameroon, the excellent, up-to-date (revised just last month!), and free 26-page book that walks you through the application process, by Travis Hellstrom

...just Google "join Peace Corps" and you'll find dozens more.

Many books have been written by PCVs about their experiences, but the world is changing so fast these days that some of the classics (my favorite is A Life Inspired) don't always reflect the current reality. I'd recommend reading Peace Corps Volunteers' blogs. They've recently given the site a big facelift, but they haven't addressed their biggest weakness, which is out-of-date blogs. Once a blog is listed, apparently it's there forever, even years after the Volunteer has left their country.

There's also a Peace Corps Wiki site, but it's not as useful as I'd hoped it would be.

Once you know which country you're going to, I'd recommend buying the Lonely Planet guide and the Culture Shock! for your nation, if they exist. Lonely Planet offers a 20-50 page overview of the history and culture of each nation, as well as detailed and constantly updated information about places to go and things to do, for when you take a weekend (or longer) trip around your new country. The Culture Shock! series delves more deeply into the culture and practices of the countries. It's written primarily for Americans living abroad - like you soon will be! - and therefore focuses a bit too much (imho) on the opportunities available to the monied foreigner, but includes vital information on everything from transportation options to hammam mores, as well as anthropological discussions about the origins of current practices. (Oh, and like all books, you can often find them for less on or another online bookseller. This is one case where the used book option may not be your friend, though - make sure you're getting the most up-to-date edition.)


2/24/09 Mural Mapping (Map Muraling?)

This weekend, we had the third meeting of our group, the Future Leaders of Berberville. We talked about the upcoming tree planting and **painted a world map mural**. They already had a world map with geographical boundaries (although it was flaking badly, and more than one country had been knocked off the map by knocking out the plaster under it - reminded me of the now-headless images of Hatshepsut in her palace in Luxor), plus we wanted to maintain the Environmental Education aspect of the project, so we created a map of world biomes. Polar and Mountain Ice, Tundra, Chapparal, Savannah, Desert, etc. The geography teacher and English teacher worked together Friday night to translate the names for us.

Friday afternoon, Volunteers had scrubbed and primed the wall, using a baby blue basecoat to represent the world oceans. Saturday morning, we snapped chalklines to create a grid pattern and then used the grid to reproduce the world map. When the rest of the teachers and students arrived at 2, they began painting in the continents. We started with Antarctica, since it's just all white, and then as the kids grew more confident with the paint and the brushes, we moved to more complex regions. First the desert in Australia, then the shrubland around the desert, then the forests, and then we began tackling the rainforest across the southern hemisphere. (To reach the Northern Hemisphere required ladders). By the time we were ready to close up shop Saturday afternoon, we'd finished the southern hemisphere and were making progress on the northern.

Sunday, we trekked back to campus. We took advantage of the students' lunch break and siesta to do some of the detail-work ourselves - there are a *lot* of tiny islands in North America! - and then passed it to the students when they returned. Towards the end, the principal of the school, who had observed us closely throughout the process, actually climbed a ladder to help paint Greenland and North Canada (you can see him to the right).

He also insisted we paint a flag of Morocco, which we had originally planned to do but had somehow forgotten.

And then, after two and a half days of work in the Berberville sun, we were done! We packed up all the supplies, said goodbye to the kids, and went home to make pizza and apple pie for dinner. :)

2/23/09 FAQs

How long will it take from when I submit my application to when I ship out?
Will I end up in a mud hut?
I'm [a minority]. How will that affect my experience?
What about gender roles? Is it hard being a woman in a Muslim country?
How far from modern amenities will I be?
What are the jargon words I'll absolutely have to know?

How long will it take from when I submit my application to when I ship out?

It varies, of course, depending on how rapidly they can clear you medically, legally, etc. The shortest I've ever heard of was 2 months, and she worked in a hospital, so could get all of her medical tests and bloodwork - the biggest culprit in the delay - as soon as she wanted them. Peace Corps says that the average timeline is 6 to 9 months. For more details on what to expect, check out this post.

Is it better to join Peace Corps straight out of college or after doing other things for a while?

There's no right answer to this one. I will give you two facts: Peace Corps is working hard to increase the number of older Volunteers, especially those over 55. I believe the oldest active PCV is 82, and he's on his third term of service. (Personally, I can't imagine a more fascinating retirement than to join Peace Corps and just keep re-upping after each experience. What a student of the world you could be!)

That said, the vast majority of Volunteers are fresh out of undergrad. Most don't ship out within the first month or two of graduation, but only because ship-out dates are pretty evenly spread throughout the year, so there's only a 1/12 chance that the country you've been nominated to will ship out in June. :) On March 1, when my Peace Corps service began, around 20 of the 26 Volunteers in my stage had graduated the previous May/June or December.

So wherever you are in life - an undergrad, at a mid-career crossroads, a retiree - if Peace Corps is calling to you, give yourself a chance to listen to the call. Maybe it's time to live the life that so many people have longed for: traveling the world, immersing yourself in a foreign culture and language, broadening your definition of yourself.

Will I end up in a mud hut?

Maybe! Peace Corps still serves many deeply impoverished regions in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia where the most common accommodation is, yes, a mud hut. But Volunteers also serve in Eastern Europe, in Central America, and pretty much all around the globe, in every climate and in cities of every size. Urban Volunteers and those living in "developing", as opposed to "under-developed" nations, usually live in houses or apartments. Me, I live in a cement house with a steel door.

I'm [a minority]. How will that affect my experience?

Every PCV's experience is different, of course, and I hate to make sweeping generalizations...but then, that is sort of what I've been doing all month, so why stop now?

I should say that "Political Correctness" has not percolated into many of the countries where we serve, so people will probably not hesitate to comment on any perceived difference between you and them. *Any* difference. Height, shoe size, skin color, clothing choices, you name it. Also, people living in isolated areas have little chance to learn about the diversity of the world, other than what they see on TV. I've encountered some shockingly ignorant comments, even from educated people, because all they have to go on is their own prejudices and what they learn from movies and the international media.

You may encounter the belief that all Americans are pale-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, and therefore be challenged that you're not "really" American. Or, if you can "pass" for a native of the country where you serve, you may be criticized for acting differently than natives are expected to. For example, in Morocco it's inappropriate for women and girls to go into public restaurants and cafes, and no good Moroccan female would set foot in a my friends who "look Moroccan" have been turned away by bouncers and maitre d's, been refused service at bars, and generally held to a different set of expectations than those who meet the stereotypical image of Americans. Also, many folks here know little about Asian cultures, and assume that all Asian-looking people are Chinese. A Vietnemese-American friend of mine said that the first full sentence she learned, and she learned it in both Tamazight and Darija, ie the language of her village and the language of bigger cities, is how to say, "No, I'm American, but my parents came to America from Vietnam a long time ago." Every day, where I hear "Tarumit, tarumit!" (Foreign girl!), she hears "Chinois" (pronounced sheen-wa, the French word for "Chinese") and "Jackie Chan! Jackie Chan!". A dark-skinned African-American friend hears "Senagalese! Senagalese!"

I don't mean to sound discouraging; my goal here is honesty. And honestly, the best way for isolated citizens in the Third World to learn about American diversity and world diversity is to meet "diverse Americans". To see Americans of Indian and African and Asian and Latin and Native American descent, and get to know and love them.

Every Volunteer faces his or her own set of challenges. Diverse Volunteers whose deviation from the stereotyped norm is not visible, such as members of a minority religion or sexual orientation, have to make the choice of whether to publicize their difference, and live with the consequences of that choice. Here in Morocco, Jewish Volunteers may hear vehement anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments. Homosexuality is a crime, and widely considered a perversion. So do you tell the truth about yourself, risk the possible censure and distancing of your friends and neighbors, and even the chance to do work, if people stop collaborating with you? Or do you hide the truth, hide yourself away, and present a more publicly acceptable, if painfully dishonest, face?

We all have our own challenges. But they're also our own unique opportunities, whether it's to correct stereotypes, or to erode prejudices, or even just to educate. Foreign nationals will learn more about America by our very presence here than by anything we do deliberately. So we all, of whatever age, skin tone, background, religion, sexual orientation--of whatever piece of Americana we represent--we're here to bring the world a little closer together.

What about gender roles? Is it hard being a woman in a Muslim country?

I can't speak for Volunteers in Jordon or other Muslim countries, but here in Morocco, the answer for many of us would be that we're in the "third gender". Moroccans see enough tourists to realize that the customs governing the behavior and dress of Moroccan women don't have to apply to non-Moroccan women. (Of course, this means that friends who do look Moroccan have a different set of challenges, as I discussed before.) There are a few, very remote, very conservative villages where the female Volunteers have found that they need to dress identically to the women in their community in order to be accepted. Most of us do not experience that. I brought scarves to Morocco in case I'd need to "cover", as they say here, but I've never been expected to. I've gotten dressed up in Berber clothes more than once, from the top of my covered head to my bangled wrists to my henna'd toes, but it was always for fun - playing dress-up. I am expected to dress modestly, to show no skin from my neck to my elbows to my ankles, but that's mostly because Moroccan prostitutes wear revealing clothing as a signal to their potential clients, and my friends and neighbors don't want me to send inadvertant signals. Gender roles in Morocco, as in many developing and under-developed countries, are very different...but not uniformly so. In some villages, it's shameful for women to work in the fields. In others, it's shameful for them *not* to. Regardless, as a non-Moroccan woman, I'm invited to share in whatever customs I choose to, but my choices are respected, either way. My neighbors all think it's odd that I buy bread in the shop instead of kneading it myself, but they don't look down on me for it. It's just another arumi oddity, like wearing a parka or having pale skin. A male friend got stares from the women in his village when he did make his own bread, on an external wood stove like everyone else's in town, but they decided (after they got over the shock of seeing a man kneading) that they liked him for it.

That said, the experience of PCVs in Morocco varies widely, and I'm sure the spectrum of acceptable and unacceptable behavior is different in whatever country you serve in. This is one area where I can't give you a clear expectation before you go. You'll just have to go and figure it out. Flexibility, remember, patience and flexibility. :)

How far from modern amenities will I be?

It absolutely varies. If you're serving in a big city, they may all be within a few blocks of your doorstep. If you're in a tiny rural village, you may have none. Here in Morocco, just one country the size of California, we have PCVs living without electricity or water...and we have Volunteers in Posh Corps with hot showers and wireless internet at home. You'll get some say in how "posh" your post is. By which I mean, you can talk to your recruiter about it, and then once you're in-country, you'll have an interview with your staff

What are the jargon words I'll absolutely have to know?

Well, they introduce them a few at a time, so you'll learn them easily, but here's a short list:

Country Director - The buck stops there. Well, for your country anyway. They can always reach up the food chain to Peace Corps/Washington, the world headquarters, but within your country, the Country Director has the final say on matters of policy, making exceptions to the rules, deciding whether to send you home (Administrative Separation), etc.
Program Staff - The shorthand for referring to your Program Manager and/or Program Assistant. As in, I contacted my Program Staff about taking vacation next month, but haven't heard back yet.
Program Manager - The head of your sector. As an Environmental Education volunteer, I get training, resources, guidance, and work ideas from the Environment Program Manager. Each sector gets its own PM.
Program Assistant - The right-hand man or woman to your Program Manager. The job responsibilities differ on levels I don't see, like in setting the major goals and country plan for the sector, which I think is just done by the PM, but in terms of PCV-Program Staff relations and support, the PA can generally do whatever the PM does.
PCT - Peace Corps Trainee - Someone newly arrived in country, still going through training (aka stage). This is what you'll be from the day you travel to your American jumping-off point until the moment you swear in, 8-12 weeks later.
PCV - Peace Corps Volunteer - You, after swearing-in. A Peace Corps term consists of 2-3 months of training as a PCT followed by 24 months of service as a PCV. We usually refer to it all as "two years", just because it's simpler, but you'll be in-country for 26-27 months.
HCN - Host Country National - Someone who was born and raised in the country where you serve. Here, the HCNs are Moroccans, but for a PCV in the Ukraine, the HCNs are Ukranians. By referring to them as "HCNs", Peace Corps/Washington can make policy that affects all countries, without having to belabor "Moroccans and Ukranians and Russians and Jamaicans and South Africans and..." every time.
In-country - The shorthand way to say "in your assigned Peace Corps country." As in, How long have you been in-country? or I went home for Yom Kippur but got back in-country a week ago.
PCMO - Peace Corps Medical Officer - One of the doctors or nurses responsible for you. Here in Morocco, we have two doctors and one nurse, all HCNs fluent in English. They're collectively referred to as PCMO. One of them will be available by phone 24/7 (assuming you can get to a phone), as in, Ooh, you did you call PCMO about that?

I think that's all the ones you'll use in your daily conversation with fellow Volunteers. Those are the ones I've found myself using (or consciously avoiding) on the blog, just because they're part of my ingrained vocabulary.


2/22/09 Merzouga, aka Return of the Camels

Mmmm... Merzouga. (Pronunciation guide: Mer as in mermaid, zou as in zoo, and ga as in gumdrop.)

I'm told that it's the only true erg in Morocco. When I told some Berberville friends about my trip, their first response was usually, "Was it warm there?", but one guy surprised me by switching from Tam to French and sighing, "Sable d'or." Golden sand. Merzouga is justly famous for it; when you imagine the Sahara, you're probably imagining something like Merzouga.

Golden sand dunes reaching into a crystalline blue sky...until sunset, when rose-gold dunes kiss a flaming sky.

In my three-day, two-night trip there, my friends and I put in a lot of quality time on those dunes. There was the barefoot running towards the oasis, the hours throwing around a football (carried back from America after a friend's Christmas trip home), the camel ride under slanting sunlight, the bonfire under a velvet sky covered with diamond stars...

There's also a lake. The hotels are perched at one edge of the erg (and it really does have sharply defined edges, which surprised me), and if you walk 3-5 miles directly away from the erg, across a field of shimmering black lava-rock, you'll come to a huge body of water. Reports differ as to whether it's actually a lake, a manmade lake resulting from a dam, or just a really wide spot in a river. Regardless, it was a bit surreal to have a huge, sparkling pool in front of us and massive mountains of golden sugar-sand behind us. We'd been told that flamingos frequent the lake/river/whatever, but apparently we frightened them off. All we found were footprints. Thousands of footprints.

But I promised you details of the camel trip.

So here they are. :)

We were scheduled to leave at 4...but this was vacation, in an easy-going city, in an easy-going country, so the camels didn't actually show up until twenty or thirty minutes later. Two were placid and docile, as I always camels to be...but the third was having a fit. He howled, honked, roared, and generally made a big-mouthed nuisance of himself. I had approached another one of the camels, and was petting its nose...which apparently conveyed to the cameldrivers that I was the camel expert.


So they put me on the crazy one.

He lurched to his feet with even more awkwardness than I remembered from two years ago. I really thought I was going to be thrown off. But in moments, I was up, looking at the world from at least 9 feet in the air. Atop Cranky Camel.

Cranky Camel was the first to get his name. The second was Mr. Piggy, named for his habit of grabbing a mouthful of whatever vegetation we walked past. Ergs are virtually vegetation-free, of course, which is good, or else we'd never have made it out into the heart of the massive dunefield. The third camel to be named was dubbed in honor of Sir Lancelot, famed knight of the Round Table: Sir Farts-a-Lot. I regret to say, he truly deserved his name.

And I was riding behind him.

As our massive beasts strode out across the golden sand, I kept snapping pictures. I especially wanted one with our shadows stretched out across the dunes, so I took a dozen or two shadow-shots in hopes of landing a good one. It worked. :)
We rode for half an hour or so, then stopped to watch the sun set from atop a dune, then headed back to the hotel. It was a quiet way to spend a few hours...and created some genuinely beautiful memories. :)

2/21/09 5 Reasons to Reconsider Joining Peace Corps

I love my Peace Corps Service and love my village, but that doesn't mean that I've never reconsidered my decision. So you're considering joining Peace Corps? Wonderful! But don't imagine that it'll be easy-breezy. Few things of any real value ever are, after all. I did an informal poll of some PCV friends, and here are the consensus answers for "Reasons to Reconsider." I don't mean to be a downer, but my goal with all of these posts has been to give potential PCVs a realistic expectation of Peace Corps service.

5 Reasons to Reconsider Joining Peace Corps

1. It's hard. I mean, really hard. You'll be living hundreds or thousands of miles away from everyone you knew before. You probably won't speak the language all that well, certainly to begin with, though that improves over time. You'll be stared at, marginalized, fetishized, ignored, dismissed, mocked, and blamed, possibly all in the same day. You'll encounter ugly stereotypes about yourself and people you love. You'll eat food that's foreign to you and foreign to your digestive tract. You may not have running water. Or electricity. Or paved roads. You may go a month without hearing a word of English.

2. Your isolation. Unless you're fortunate enough to have a site-mate, you are the only American around. The only native English speaker. The only person who understands the importance of peanut butter and Good Night Moon (or pick examples from your own childhood). You may have functioning phones and even internet, but if you don't, you may go weeks or months without hearing from loved ones. (Even if you do have a phone or internet, they may not work dependably.)

3. The slow pace of development. A lot of us thought that good old American elbow grease and determination would be enough to accomplish wonderful things. They're not. There are dozens or hundreds of factors that affect the work you're doing, not all of which are in your control. There could be bureaucracy issues. You might face a demand for paperwork you've never heard of, as a precondition to further action, minutes or hours before your planned activity. There's the fatal combination of weather and limited infrastructure. It doesn't matter how important or urgent it is that you get to your destination; if a blizzard drops a meter of snow on you, the road will be closed for awhile.

To those of us used to busy days crammed full of appointments and to-do lists, the slow pace of development can be devastating. Downtime is the one thing that stage, with its frenetic pacing and relentless activity, does not prepare you for. If you have two meetings in a week, that may be a pretty good week. If you want your work to be sustainable - to outlive your service here - you need to move forward by building consensus, creating relationships, training people who might think that the thing you're training them for is ridiculous...and these things take time. When everything else is (or seems to be) dragging along, discouragement and cynicism can grow rapidly.

4. Your minimal access to western medicine. There is a western-trained doctor or nurse (known as PCMO, for Peace Corps Medical Officer) available by phone 24/7, but sometimes that's not enough (even if you have access to a phone, which isn't a guarantee). If you need face-to-face medical attention, you may be referred to a doctor who doesn't speak your language, or else be asked to travel the hours or days it takes to get to the capital and see PCMO. When you get in-country, PCMO will give you a giant case full of drugs, gauze, surgical gloves, chapstick, etc, and then expect you to dose yourself with that as the occasion arises. One friend was asked to look in a mirror, find her tonsils (which she'd never looked for before), and describe them to PCMO, who then diagnosed strep throat and prescribed antibiotics...all over the phone. Another thought he had pnumonia, but was waved off with "It's just the flu; take two ibuprofin and call back tomorrow." He dragged himself, with a 104* temperature, to an American doctor who happened to be working nearby. That doctor diagnosed pnumonia at a glance, and sent him for chest x-rays...but the x-ray technician didn't image the whole lungs, so missed the key symptom, so PCMO still thought it was the flu. He had pnumonia for a month before getting treatment. There are many, many horror stories like this.

5. You're poor. You do get paid, plus Peace Corps covers your rent and tutoring, but it's a stipend, not a salary. You are expected to maintain the same standard of living as people in your community. This means that my take-home salary is less than US$250 a month. Fortunately, taxes aren't withheld - our stipends are well below US poverty line! I live in one of the cheapest regions in the country - quite possibly *the* cheapest - and I don't eat meat (which is quite expensive here), and I still spend nearly all of my stipend every month. Living modestly. People in more expensive regions, or who are more fond of vacationing around and eating out, usually subsidize their stipends with money from the US. Our stipend hasn't been increased in years (how many years? Depends who you ask - some say 5 years, some 15), and won't be unless 75% of us fill out an online survey detailing exactly how much we spend in a month, and what we spend it on. Given how few of us have regular internet access, plus how hard it is to account for every centime (worth about 0.12 cents), I don't foresee a raise any time soon.

Did I scare you? Depress you? I'm sorry. Peace Corps service is life-changing and rewarding to degrees almost unimaginable before...but it's not easy, and it comes with no guarantees. But if you're too depressed, go back and read the Top 10 Reasons to Join Peace Corps. :)


2/20/09 The Tarumit Show

A few of you have mentioned, via email or chats, that my relentless positivity might not be giving the whole story.

I freely confess that I've tried to keep the tone of the blog positive. I like dwelling on the good things in life, and focusing on what I have to be grateful for. It keeps me a happy person. :)

But my friends have pointed out that if I'm trying to give an honest portrayal of my life as a PCV, especially for potential future PCVs, it's only right to talk about the negative sides of the experience, too.

Today, I'm going to address what one of you referred to as "how they treat you as an outsider". I call it "The Tarumit Show." [Update: My friend Maggie discusses the same phenomenon here.]

Arumi means outsider or foreigner. My tutor swears up and down that it's not pejorative, but simply descriptive. There are different theories as to its etymology. Some say that it's from Roman, referring to conquering tribes from two thousand years ago. Others claim that it refers to Roman Catholics, and by extension all Europeans. Others say that it has the same root as Romani, also known as Gypsy, and refers to travelers, as outsiders encountering Berbers always would have been.

Whatever its origin, it is used by Berbers to refer to non-Moroccans, especially those of us with fair skin. (Sadly, they have different terms they use for dark-skinned outsiders, and they're less kind than foreigner.) Like all Tamazight words, it is conjugated. An arumi is a foreign man. Arumin are foreign men, or a mixed-gender group of foreigners. Tarumit is a foreign female (girl or woman). Tarumin is the female plural form.

Despite my nine months living here in Berberville, I still hear "Tarumit!" every time I walk through town, let alone when I walk through the much larger SouqTown. I usually ignore it. Some days I make it a "teachable moment" and explain that I'm no longer an outsider, because I live here. If I'm visiting a school, I laugh and tell the kids that my name isn't tarumit, it's Kawtar. They're usually so shocked that I have an Arabic name (from the Qur'an) that they're stunned into silence.

I get stared at a lot, too. At first I perceived it as vaguely threatening. In America, "personal space" is not only physical but "attention-al": staring at someone, giving them your undivided attention, is an invasion of that space and is usually overtly hostile.

Here, it's not.

I get watched because I'm different. To a community that, prior to this generation with its advent of TV and paved roads, hadn't changed much in ten thousand years, newcomers are news. Here in Berberville, Berber cultural patterns are so ingrained as to be instinctive. And then along comes a pale-skinned foreigner who doesn't follow the patterns, or at least not with the unconscious grace of those who have done them for a lifetime. She's different. And that makes her interesting.

I get watched with the dispassionate attention of people watching TV, which is why I think of it as "The Tarumit Show". The viewers are my neighbors and the strangers I encounter on the street or in my travels.

Today on "The
Tarumit Show", watch as the tarumit blows her nose *into a small white object* and then *pockets* the object. What is she doing with it? Do arumin use their mucus for some bizarre purpose? Watch and discuss!

Tune in tomorrow, when the
tarumit will read a book for hours while bouncing along a mountain road. She travels and she *doesn't* *get* *sick*. Everyone knows that females get sick in moving vehicles; that's why we have plastic bags on hand, for the inevitable vomit. But the tarumit never uses one! Watch and see if you can figure out why!

Here's a classic episode: the
tarumit buys a tank of butane gas and carries it home in her hands, not strapped to her back with a sheet. She's done this half a dozen times before, but it never gets old!


Another side effect of having pale skin is that everyone assumes I'm French and therefore speak French. Given France's decades of influence and colonization, it's not surprising that many Moroccans, especially in rural areas, believe that all arumin are French-speakers. As it happens, I do speak French, which makes it less annoying for me than for the majority of my PCV friends, who know no more than "Bonjour" and "Ca va?", which we hear every day. Every. Single. Day.

When I travel, I'll sometimes chat with the other passengers in the taxi or tranzit, but I'll more often read - it makes the long trips go by faster. But whenever I say something, even if it's just greeting the driver (since all the drivers are old friends at this point!), I hear whispers of, "Ooh, she speaks Tamazight!" On cheerful days, I take this as a compliment, and feel grateful that I can dispel rumors about foreigners who only ever speak their own oddly-accented French. On challenging days, I'm tempted to shout, "Of course I speak Tam! I live here! What do you expect??" I haven't done it yet, but I've come close.

I've never received outright mistreatment. I've never been insulted or assaulted.** I just get watched. I understand why, and rarely let it bother me, but sometimes it ... wears on me. I find myself wishing that I could do something as simple as pick up groceries without having to endure the passive stares of a dozen or two people. It makes me less likely to visit the big souqs, either here or in SouqTown. It's like being pelted with oatmeal flakes. It's not painful or scarring, but I do wish it would stop.

I keep telling myself that the longer I'm here, and the more I interact with people, the fewer shouts of "Tarumit!" I'll hear. But interacting with people means exposing myself to the "Tarumit!"cries. Some days I just hang out at home, and leave The Tarumit Show to its reruns, aka people swapping stories about me over cups of tea.

But here's the silver lining that anyone who knows me, knows that I'll look for on every cloud: One day, on a crowded tranzit, someone asked, "What's with the tarumit?" Another voice - I couldn't even tell who, because of the crowding - indignantly responded, "She's not a tarumit, she's one of ours." I wore a grin for a long, long time. :D

**OK, once, while I was traveling, some kids threw rocks at me. Pebbles, really. But they were pretty obviously just looking for attention, not trying to hurt me. Nonetheless, I do need to add a caveat to that statement. While I haven't been mugged, beaten, kicked, or otherwise physically assaulted, the sexual harassment in Morocco is both severe and pervasive.


2/19/09 Top 10 Reasons To Join Peace Corps

As part of my ongoing series for future PCVs, today I'm going to give you what constitute, in my opinion, the ten best reasons to join. Some are as altruistic as our mission; some are more pragmatic, for those of us not channeling Mother Theresa; some are just funny. For the flipside...see my post in two days.

1. You'll love it. There's a reason that Peace Corps used "The toughest job you'll ever love" as their tagline for so many years. Many jobs are tough, and many are deeply rewarding, but once you've climbed this mountain - crossed language barriers, culture barriers, and thousands of miles - you'll stand on the summit, surveying all you've accomplished, and feel a core-deep thrill.

2. You'll be working for peace. You'll be in the business of strengthening connections between America and the world, deepening understandings across cultural divides, and enriching the world's peace dividend. Remember the old joke about the military? Travel the world, meet interesting people, and then kill them? In the Peace Corps, you get to travel the world, meet interesting people, and share two years of your life loving and helping them. It's not as funny, but it makes up for it. :)

3. You'll make some of the best friendships of your lifetime. Your connections to the people in your community as well as your fellow PCVs will sustain you through these two years and through the decades beyond. My stage-mates and my neighboring Volunteers are a constant source of laughter, strength, and renewal.

4. "Peace Corps Volunteer" and "International Development Worker" both look awfully good on a resume. You'll instantly demonstrate to future employers that you're resourceful, adaptable, and persistent.

5. Many international aid organizations want you to have experience abroad, to know that you're up for the challenge. Two years living and working in a developing country is more than they'd dare to hope for. You'll be beautifully positioned for any number of NGOs or government posts.

6. In the current economy, jobs with a guaranteed future are hard to come by. In Peace Corps, you'll get twenty-seven months of a living wage and benefits, plus your readjustment allowance of around $6500, payable when you return to the US. And to steal a line from the Hegemonist, if your employer goes under, you'll have bigger things to worry about than your career.

7. Considering grad school? Dozens of graduate programs have partnered with Peace Corps to offer advantages to returning PCVs, from waived application fees to course credit. For details, look here.

8. Your host family gives you a whole new family to love (or hate). You'll have new birthdays, new siblings, and a mountain of aunties, uncles, and cousins to share laughter and love with. Many PCVs stay in touch with their host families for the rest of their lives.

9. You'll gain a new appreciation for the amenities of life in the US. Alternatively, you'll discover that you don't actually mind going a week without a hot shower. Or probably both. :) Living a lifestyle that doesn't prioritize this year's shoes or this month's hairdo frees you to celebrate the deeper aspects of individuality. Plus, your morning routine will drop to a minute or two. :)

10. The weight-loss plan. As in, "Do you have a parasite or have you been working out?" (Which, yes, is a real quote.) The adjustments your body makes to the hygienic conditions and new foods will have all kinds of effects on you, but yes, weight loss is a frequent side effect. Most of us lose between 10 and 50 pounds. (Seriously.)

So whether you're in it for the altruism, the careerism, or the diet plan, Peace Corps offers these and countless other benefits. I know I'm thrilled to be here; wouldn't you?

Update 2/20:
11. Your cooking skills will expand exponentially. You're likely to be in a place with abundant produce and few (if any) pre-processed foods, so you'll be forced to learn how to cook everything from scratch. And with two years of trial and error, it's inevitable that you'll become quite a cook. :)

Update 4/20:
12. You'll grow as a person. You will have hours upon hours in which to reflect on life, love, God...all the big questions. You'll face challenges that most Americans can't imagine, and learn things about yourself that will change the course of your life. Maybe that's why Peace Corps changed their motto from the one quoted above to, "Life is calling. How far will you go?"


2/18/09 Camels!

{happy sigh}

Everybody should ride a camel at least once in their lives. I've heard the same is true for riding an elephant. I haven't done that yet, but I've now ridden camels twice. Once in Egypt and once in Morocco. And it was good. :D

In Egypt: My sister and I had traveled together for about a week or two. We had some free time in Luxor-Karnak. We'd had some help in setting up our Egypt itinerary, but hadn't scheduled in camels...which we abruptly decided we were going to do. So we flagged a taxi and asked the driver to take us to camels. He talked to a few friends, and suddenly announced that his cousin would boat us across the Nile, to the camels on the opposite shore. For a price. We haggled fearsomely. Eventually, we came to a price we were happy with - who knows how reasonable it actually was, but we were happy with it - and off we went on our adventure. Mounting the camels turns out to be the hardest part of riding them. There's a massive lurch, and your center of balance shifts about three feet...and then suddenly you're ten feet in the air. (Oh, if there are any belly dancers out there: the move called "The Camel" deserves its name: if you move your hips and spine that way while riding a camel, you'll be much more comfortable and get a much smoother trip.) With an old man and a young boy leading our camels, we wandered through some fields, through a village or two, past some children shouting for baksheesh, and then stopped in front of the driver's house. He invited us in for tea, and we met his wife. Our Arabic was limited to "Hello, what's your name, nice to meet you," but we used our phrases with a smile, and his wife seemed happy to meet us. :) Then he took us up on his roof and showed us the rooftop, open-air accommodations for his camels. I couldn't imagine how the gangly beasts climbed the mud stairs, but decided to let that go. Then we re-mounted the camels, hearts in our throats, and returned safely to the Nile shore. Half an hour later, the boat came for us, and shortly after that, we were back in our hotel.

My Moroccan camel venture was a little different...

Sorry, no more time to write now, but I promise to fill you all in soon!


2/17/09 The Sectors: Environment

As part of my ongoing, every-other-day series on Peace Corps, I'm going to discuss each of the four sectors in which PCVs serve, here in Morocco: Youth Development, Small Business Development, Health, and Environment. They are four of the five most-populous sectors in all of Peace Corps, so this should be useful information for Peace Corps applicants, regardless of which country or region they're hoping for. Today, I'll focus on Environment.

Last, but absolutely not least, we come to my sector. Environment Volunteers work on a wide range of issues, focused around the theme of "Environmental Education". This could be formal education, working with groups of students; or informal education in schools, such as starting an "EE Club"; or having conversations with shopkeepers that lead to them using fewer plastic bags; or teaching people how to build more-efficient woodstoves so they burn fewer trees; or planting trees and explaining their many benefits; or putting on an Earth Day festival; or anything else you can think of.

Environment Volunteers have the least-direct supervision of the sectors, and are most responsible for creating their own work. If you thrive in this kind of environment, this may be a good fit. If you like directed projects and to-do lists and external guidance, you may struggle as an Environment Volunteer. Also, because we work in Parks and other sites of biological or ecological interest, we tend to be remote. Most of us are at least an hour from the nearest decent-sized city. I'm four hours away from mine, which I think is the record. (I believe I also have the coldest and highest-elevation site. Lucky me! PCVs, if you think you can challenge me on either of these, bring it on...)


2/16/09 Tree Planting Update

Everything's coming up ... pine trees!

February may seem too early to be thinking about planting season, especially given the severity of winter around here, but tree plantings require a lot of advance planning, so ... 'tis the season. :)

Berberville is planning a festival for the International Day of the Tree, to be held (probably coincidentally) on the Spring Equinox. It will feature the planting of hundreds of trees, as well as talks from locally important people, student skits, and whatever else the students can think of. :)

Another local village has asked me to help them plan a tree planting as well, so I'm doubly excited!

Due to our high altitude and long winters, we're focusing on pine trees and cypress trees. I'm planning to visit the nursery soon; I'll post pictures.


2/15/09 The Sectors: Health

As part of my ongoing, every-other-day series on Peace Corps, I'm going to discuss each of the four sectors in which PCVs serve, here in Morocco: Youth Development, Small Business Development, Health, and Environment. They are four of the five most-populous sectors in all of Peace Corps, so this should be useful information for Peace Corps applicants, regardless of which country or region they're hoping for. Today, I'll focus on Health.

Health Volunteers typically partner with a nurse or doctor in a sbitar, or rural clinic. They may provide health lessons on topics like toothbrushing, handwashing, anti-smoking, SIDA (AIDS) prevention, prenatal care, or nearly anything else that has to do with keeping yourself healthy. They may directly assist the medical staff with tasks like weighing babies. One popular project among Health Volunteers is arranging the purchase of an incinerator, to safely dispose of medical waste. Another is helping a community install sanitary bathrooms.

Some Health Volunteers have medical backgrounds or even nursing degrees, but the vast majority do not. (What about people with medical degrees, you ask? They usually join Doctors Without Borders, not Peace Corps.)

Health Volunteers are often groundbreakers, moving into sites that have never had a Peace Corps Volunteer before. These are often very remote and underdeveloped villages. If you're looking for a "real" Peace Corps experience, without running water or electricity, Health may be the sector for you.


2/14/09 Solar Seduction

For Valentine's Day, it seems appropriate to describe my most recent seduction. It was Thursday. I walked the 2k roundtrip to the lycee twice - once at noon, then again at two - and was utterly seduced by the beauty of the day. I scrapped my original plans in favor of a long walk to the lake. As I walked the 5k (uphill, but it's pretty gentle), I found myself in that simultaneously warm-and-cold sensation that always reminds me of skiing. The air is cold, but the sun is warm, and the exertion heats me up from within... It's early February in the mountains - there are still multi-foot snowdrifts along shadowed hillsides - but the sun's whispering, cajoling, teasing, baking rays won me over. I wasn't wearing a coat, because the sun shone so brightly, but I was wearing a thick fleecy sweatshirt...which I unzipped...and finally removed.

By the time I got back to town, friends I passed on the street were all asking, "Aren't you cold??" but I'd cheerfully answer, "No. There's sun. And the sun is good." (This alliterates nicely in Tam: Tlla tafuyt. THla tafuyt."

Sun: 1 Winter: 0
Total kilometers walked: 14 (about 9 miles)
Total number of tea invites: 2
Total number of meal invites: 2

It's a good day. :)


2/13/09 The Sectors: Small Business Development

As part of my ongoing, every-other-day series on Peace Corps, I'm going to discuss each of the four sectors in which PCVs serve, here in Morocco: Youth Development, Small Business Development, Health, and Environment. They are four of the five most-populous sectors in all of Peace Corps, so this should be useful information for Peace Corps applicants, regardless of which country or region they're hoping for. Today, I'll focus on Small Business Development, aka SBD.

Small Business Development Volunteers are partnered with artisanal or agricultural cooperatives and associations-working-towards-becoming-cooperatives. These coops may focus on crafts like weaving, carving, or metalsmithing, or they may focus on niche crops, like argan oil, honey, medicinal herbs, or saffron. SBD Volunteers help these fledgling enterprises with product development, marketing, finding craft fairs to display their wares, etc. Some SBD Volunteers have backgrounds in craftwork or art, while others have business or economic degrees.

SBD is a new sector in Morocco, so it's still finding its footing, and in fact is in the process of rewriting its goals right now. SBD Volunteers are sometimes placed with YD Volunteers in amenity-laden cities, where they can help established coops move towards business status or microloans, but they're also placed in rural villages like mine, to help nascent businesses get off the ground.


2/12/09 Gaggle of guys

I walked to the middle school around noon today. I've been trying to meet with a science teacher to discuss next month's tree planting, but we keep missing each other. Today, I hoped to catch the students and teachers walking towards town for the lunch break, but I ended up misjudging the time, so instead fell in with a few students who had already walked to town and were now walking back.

One started chatting with me in surprisingly good English. I asked him where he had learned, and he pointed to the high school. I answered his queries in Tam, so that the other students could understand. As we walked - it's about half a mile to the school - more and more students began tagging along. At one point I looked back and realized that I was leading a gaggle of 15-20 boys, ranging in age from about 10 to 17. As we got up to the school, though, they dropped back, and not a single one entered the campus gates with me. Apparently, they're not allowed on campus during lunch. I braved the fortress alone, therefore, only to discover that the teacher I was looking for wouldn't be on campus till 2. (Teachers in Berberville only work half-days, but which half flips back and forth in a Byzantine pattern.) So I'll try again this afternoon, then head out to the lake with Flat Stanley, to help out a different group of students, in a different school, in a different country! :)


2/11/09 The Sectors: Youth Development

As part of my ongoing, every-other-day series on Peace Corps, I'm going to discuss each of the four sectors in which PCVs serve, here in Morocco: Youth Development, Small Business Development, Health, and Environment. They are four of the five most-populous sectors in all of Peace Corps, so this should be useful information for Peace Corps applicants, regardless of which country or region they're hoping for. Today, I'll focus on Youth Development, aka YD.

Youth Development Volunteers spend most of their time with young people, not surprisingly. They work at youth centers, summer camps, schools, and anywhere else the youth congregate. Here in Morocco, most YD Volunteers go to a Dar Chebab (youth center, literally a "House of Young People") to teach daily English classes. As I mentioned a few days ago, Moroccans who get to work with these native speakers end up speaking much more fluidly, not to say fluently, than students who encounter English only through Victorian novels. That then opens opportunities to live and work abroad, or with tourists or the government here in Morocco. YD Volunteers also run week-long English Language Immersion camps for advanced students, during Spring Break and throughout the summer.

Perks of YD:

Because they go to the Dar Chebab nearly every day, YD volunteers have the closest approximation of a 9-5 job that you'll find in Peace Corps. If that kind of structure is important to you, Youth Development may be a good fit. Also, YD volunteers are always placed in the bigger towns and smaller cities. (Rural villages don't have enough youth to support a Dar Chebab, and the biggest cities are forbidden for security reasons.) This means you'll have constant access to electricity, water, stores, cafes, restaurants... Nearly every YD volunteer I know has internet in their home and satellite cable TV. Many have hot water heaters, too. If you prefer this slightly-more-comfortable lifestyle, this might be the sector for you. The final "perk" of this sector, some would argue, is that all YD Volunteers in Morocco learn Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. For anyone planning to work in the Middle East after Peace Corps, fluency in Darija is a big step towards fluency in the Standard Arabic spoken from the Levant to Egypt. Morocco PCVs who don't learn Darija learn a Berber dialect, which is spoken only in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

If you have any further questions, please let me know via email or by posting something in the comments.


2/9/2009 Leaving Peace Corps Service

I've spent a few days talking about getting into Peace Corps. Today I'm going to address the flipside: ending your Peace Corps Service. Turns out it can end in one of four ways...

1. COS - Close of Service

Let's start with the happiest one: COS-ing. (Yes, in our endless love of acronyms, we've actually turned these into verbs, to wit, To COS, with the letters pronounced in full: to see-oh-ess.) In order to COS, you must have served successfully in your host country for two full years since swearing-in. The COS process starts about four months before your scheduled departure, with COS Conference. You gather with all of your stage-mates, who you haven't seen en masse since Mid-Service Medicals, at your country headquarters. You hear from your Program Staff and your Country Director about wrapping up your projects, saying farewell to your community, planning for post-Peace Corps life, and generally finding ways to leave with success and closure. This conference lasts about a week, and then you return to your home village. For your final three months of service, you're not allowed to take any vacation days; it's time to hunker down and tie all your work off with a bow. Once you've said your farewells to your host family and neighbors, you head back to headquarters for a final goodbye week (and the requisite final goodbye medical exams). And then your service is closed; you've COS'd. Peace Corps buys you a plane ticket home (which most PCVs choose to cash in, preferring to find a dirt-cheap multi-leg flight and use the balance of funds to travel for a bit). COS-ing is the fate that most of us hope for.

2. ET - Early Termination
Some PCVs don't choose to stay the full two years. Countless factors contribute to this. Perhaps their bodies never adapted to the food/parasites/bugs, and the constant sickness wore them out. Perhaps someone back home needed them more than they'd anticipated. Perhaps something awful happened and they wanted to run away. Perhaps there was no productive work in their site and they thought they'd be more useful to the world back in the US. There are as many reasons to ET as there are Volunteers - more, actually, since it usually takes more than one reason to get you to go. But for whatever combination of causes, you decide to terminate your service early, and go home. Folks outside the Peace Corps vernacular tend to refer to this one as "quitting" or "giving up", but I challenge that characterization. Most of us knew what we were getting into when we joined Peace Corps, and prepared ourselves for the challenge...but the unexpected can catch up to anyone. It's less common than you might think - out of the 26 Environment PCTs who showed up on March 1st last year, only 1 of us has ET'd. (Knock on wood.)

3. MedSep - Medical Separation

Peace Corps also reserves the right to send you home. If your body succumbs to something that the local health care providers can't accommodate, they'll ship you back to the US in a "MedEvac", aka Medical Evacuation. But that's a temporary state of affairs. If you're once again hale and hearty within 45 days, you can return to country and return to service. But you only get 45 days. If it takes more than six weeks to make you all better, you lose the chance to return, and you're medically separated from service - MedSep'd. Over your vehement protests, in some cases. I've had several friends ripped out of their service, against their wishes, because their bodies had failed them. Liver failure, kidney failure, even long-dormant genetic problems that had lain dormant until the stress of the Peace Corps lifestyle caused them to flare to life. Of the 26 in my cohort, one was MedSep'd quite early on. Of the 59 Trainees that went through stage together - 26 Environment Sector and 33 Health Sector - we've lost almost half a dozen to MedSeps. The most recently MedEvac'd was my friend Casey, but I'm still hoping that he'll make it back within the 45-day window. He tells his story here. Also, if you refuse treatment by the Peace Corps Medical Officers, they can send you home. They enforce this with especial vigor in malaria countries; if you don't take your malaria prophylaxis (preventative medicine) every single day, and they find out, they'll MedSep you. When I first heard about this happening, about a year before I joined Peace Corps, my reaction was, "Peace Corps can fire you??" And they can, but getting MedSep'd isn't considered getting fired. That's reserved for...

4. AdSep - Administrative Separation

...getting AdSep'd. This is Peace Corps' big gun. Before you swear in, you'll get to hear your Country Director rattle off a laundry list of offenses that you can be AdSep'd for. It includes things like Riding your bike without a helmet, Failing to accomplish anything, Driving a car (or plane or motorcycle), Taking illegal drugs, Impregnating a local woman, and Conduct unbecoming a PCV. Some of these have discretion built in, on the part of the Country Director; others are a zero-tolerance policy. Some shenanigans will actually get you MedSep'd instead of AdSep'd; alcohol abuse, for example, is considered a medical problem. Pregnancy, if carried to term, falls under the medical umbrella. But MedSep'd or AdSep'd, you're still going home. The only difference lies in how it looks to future employers.

In writing this, I have conflated separation from service with going back to the US. In point of fact, as far as I understand it, Peace Corps can't force you to leave the country. They can't deport you if you haven't committed a crime. They can strongly encourage you to go, and in some cases I've heard, it sounded pretty forcible, but there does exist an option known as "Field Separation". If you accept a Field Separation, you're no longer a PCV - no longer associated with Peace Corps at all - so you get no living allowance, no stipend, no right to attend future Peace Corps gatherings, etc, but you are still allowed to remain in-country. Volunteers who have married Host Country Nationals and then chosen to ET will often accept a Field Separation.

So these are the ways your service will end. We all start off hoping for a successful COS, but sometimes things intervene. Peace Corps understands that, and therefore created all these different mechanisms. (...not with a bang, but a whimper...)

As always, if you have follow-up questions, feel free to email me or post them as a comment below.

2/10/09 "Win Layla!"

One of my young cousins has the not-uncommon name of "Layla", from the Arabic word for night, "layl". This adorable toddler has ringlet curls, deep dimples, and a small spoken vocabulary. She loves saying her own name, though, especially in the context of saying, "Mine!"

Actually, she says, "Layla's", which in Tamazight is win Layla. This is a transcultural phenomenon; I can't even count the number of babies, in various countries, I've heard pronouncing ownership. I'm sure that child psychologists have a name for the phase.

It has become a favorite game of all of the adults in her life to point to various things - clothes, body parts, etc - and ask variations on the theme of, "Whose is this? Is this mine? Is it Layla's?" The munchkin always responds, loudly and indignantly, that it's "Win Layla!"

Layla's family lives next door, so I regularly hear her little baby voice, which for some evolutionary reason carries like no adult voice can, calling through the window. I often hear indistinct shrieks and nonsense syllables, but at least once every day I get to hear a tiny but fearsome, "Win Layla!"


2/8/09 SouqTown English Club

Some day, inshallah, SouqTown will get a Youth Development Volunteer and will have regularly scheduled English classes. In the meantime, two English-fluent guys have started an informal English Club. It meets Sunday mornings, and all dozen PCVs in the region have a standing invitation.

Last week, four Volunteers came. This week, it was just me. (Nearly every Volunteer in the region is traveling, mostly for work-related reasons.)

The class is divided between four men, all college-aged or older, and about a dozen girls, all in high school. Not surprisingly, the college students and graduates are much more fluent in English than the high schoolers. Unfortunately, this creates a dynamic where the men speak constantly and the girls hardly speak. Once the club is more established they're hoping to split into ability groupings, but for now, there's just the one group.

They're all friendly and eager, and when we exited at 12:30 I was mobbed with lunch requests. :)

2/7/09 The Three Goals of Peace Corps

2/7/09 The Three Goals of Peace Corps

Though it's not talked about much, in this post-idealistic age, the actual mission of Peace Corps is to "promote world peace and friendship". Hard to believe, isn't it: the United States government actually pays me to promote world peace and friendship. Lhumdullah! I must admit, the very existence of Peace Corps makes me proud of my government. :)

More often discussed are the "Three Goals" of Peace Corps.

Goal 1: Provide technical training.
Officially: Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Back in the day, this meant that Americans did jobs that needed to be done, from teaching English classes to digging wells. These days, that has come to mean "capacity building", or teaching Host Country Nationals (HCNs), aka Moroccans and Ukrainians and Togo-ans and other citizens of the countries where we serve, the skills they need to do those jobs. We hold workshops for teachers, teach grant-writing so our HCN partners can fund their projects, and demonstrate new practices for farmers...just to name three examples.

Goal 2: Share American culture.

Officially: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

This is where I get points for chatting with people. Heck, I get points for living here. Everything I do, say, don't do, don't's all interpreted as What Americans Are Like. This is reinforced and expanded when I explicitly talk to people about American culture, whether it's describing Christmas, or inviting them to a Thanksgiving feast, or sharing my excitement over the election. There are huge misunderstandings of America and Americans, and I'm working bit by bit to identify and remove them. Some are complimentary, like my host mother saying (after describing a mean ex-husband), "There are no bad men in America." Would that it were true, Ama... Others are uncomplimentary, like when a neighbor from my CBT village said, "I saw a documentary that said all Americans are fat." Since there were five of us living in his village at the time, I was able to point out that such a thing couldn't be true, and that in fact, we're not the only five skinny Americans. And still others are neutral but inaccurate, like my host-auntie saying, "No Americans get circumcised. Only Moroccans do that." She was inclined to doubt my assurances that circumcision is common in America - after all, as an unmarried girl without brothers, how could I speak with any authority? - but I reassured her that I've changed enough little-boy diapers to be sure. (I knew all those years of babysitting would pay off eventually!)

Goal 3: Share world culture with Americans.

Officially: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

And now we come to the purpose of my blog. All the entries not specifically dealing with prospective applicants, anyway. :) The third goal of Peace Corps is to bring the world a little bit closer together, by letting all Americans - not just those of us who get to live abroad for years at a time - learn more about our fellow Earthlings. Every time I share about Moroccan culture, whether it's in this blog, in an email, in a letter to the school I correspond with through the World Wise Schools program, or even in a phone call, I'm supporting Goal 3. Dear readers, every time you check my blog, or read an old post that you missed, or tell a friend something I shared with you, you're supporting Goal 3, too. So if you're still reading this, thank you! :D


2/6/09 Facets of Flakes

Snow is a many-splendored thing.

Some Berberville denizens huddle around stoves and work limited hours, opening late and closing early.

Others celebrate an act of beauty that dusts the world in feathery white beauty.

Some, such as teachers and students who traveled home for the semester-end break, see an opportunity to turn a one-week holiday into a two-week vacation.

Those whose livelihoods depend on free travel, notably the taxi and tranzit drivers, worry about lost income and escalated "workplace safety" issues.

Me, I'm just grateful I didn't have any laundry on the line. :)


2/5/09 What Comes Next: Your First Nine Months in Peace Corps

Every other day throughout February, I'll be posting information specifically targeted to potential Peace Corps Volunteers. My last PCInfo post (see labels below) was devoted to the timeline for applying to Peace Corps. Today, I'll discuss What Comes Next: Your First Nine Months.

So you've applied, interviewed, been nominated, been invited, and accepted your invitation.

Congratulations! So what happens now?

Pre-Service Training - 3 days: Welcome to Peace Corps, Trainee!

You're In The Peace Corps Now...but you're not in your country yet. In fact, you're not even a Volunteer yet. You won't become a Volunteer until you've sworn in, at the end of your training. For now, you're a Peace Corps Trainee. You'll spend two to three days in an American city, learning some basics about the Peace Corps, making sure that all of your paperwork was filled out correctly (and they collect it at the orientation session, so be sure it's done before you get there!), and meeting your fellow Peace Corps Trainees. These folks will be your support network for the next 27 months, so start getting to know them as soon as possible. I have more details about these days here, written back when I was going through it.

Pre-Service Training (PST): Welcome to Your New Country, Trainee!

This varies a bit by country, but the principles are the same. You're now a Peace Corps Trainee - PCT - and you'll spend something between 8 and 12 weeks being introduced to your new home. In Morocco, we spend the first few days in a major city near the coast, so the Peace Corps staff has easy access to us for medical things and overview sessions (and so anybody who gets cold feet can be quickly flown home), then move onto our Training City.

Once in your Training City, you'll begin learning your target language and some of the major ideas you'll bring to your work. What is the role of a Peace Corps Volunteer? What is the role of a PCV in development? What projects can you expect to work on? How will you engage in cultural exchange? Etc, etc, etc. Expect eight-hour days broken up into 2 hour sessions. If you've ever attended any kind of workshop or Management Training, you have some idea what to expect. Flip-chart paper, big markers, big ideas, group discussions... That's while you're in your Training City, ie a minority of PST/stage. (Given how many acronyms there are, everyone in Morocco refers to PST as "stage", with a French pronunciation - stahzh. I don't know how widespread it is, but I like it. The corollary is that your fellow PCTs are also known as your stage-mates.)

So if you're only in your Training City for a minority of the time, where are you for most of stage? Community-Based Training, aka CBT. You'll live in a village where they speak the language you're trying to learn. You'll live with a host family, with whom you'll spend evenings and weekends, and you'll spend your days studying language and culture. When I went through stage, we alternated between a week or two in CBT and a few days in our Training City...but the stage scheduled to start in March will be only be in the City for a week or two, and will spend the entire rest of stage in their CBT village. Here is the information about stage that Peace Corps sent me a week or two before I left the US.
Pre-Service Training + 5-8 weeks: Site Visit

A week or three before the end of stage, you'll take a visit to the site you've been assigned to. This is your chance to learn the route, experience unaccompanied travel in your country, meet your host family, and see your village. Most of us had a great site visit, but a few folks had a really wretched time, due to food poisoning or other complications. Two actually refused to serve in their village, because of the severity of their medical problems and the fact that there was no phone service (landline or cell phone) with which they could summon help. Peace Corps staff listened to their concerns, had some long conversations with them, and ultimately assigned them elsewhere.

Swearing-In: Par-tay!

Congratulations! You've successfully completed PST/stage. You've mastered a new language (more or less), you've learned what you're expected to do for the next two years, and you're being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This is a Life Moment, so don't be afraid to savor it. You'll hear speeches from your Ambassador or his/her designate, from your Country Director, and from the PCT with the highest score on the Language Proficiency test. Your host family will have been invited, so they'll get to see you with all your fellow Peace Corps folks. After the ceremony, you and your family get to feast at a banquet. When the banquet ends and the families go home, the newly-fledged Volunteers get to celebrate however they see fit. My swearing-in was held at a fancy hotel with a gorgeous pool (and I do mean *fancy* hotel - it's where Brad & Angelina stay when they're in Morocco!), so we all busted out the bathing suits and had a pool party. The details will vary, but trust me that this will be a celebratory moment for you - plus your last chance to socialize with your stage-mates, except for those few who are placed near you.

Swearing-In + 1 day: Leave Stage

It's time to say farewell to your training city, the Peace Corps staff, and your stage-mates. You'll probably travel with other Volunteers - there aren't *that* many transportation options in developing nations - so you'll get to postpone your goodbyes with a few for another couple of hours or even a day, but after that, it's time for homestay.

Swearing-In + 1 or 2 days: Homestay

Welcome to your new home! You've just arrived in your site. Your host family, who you met a couple weeks ago during your "site visit", helps you bring your belongings from the bus/tranzit/taxi station to their house, where you'll be living for the next two months. Here is your opportunity to enmesh yourself in the life of your village. Use it as best you can. Visit your neighbors. Help your family with their chores/work. (Girls, yes, you can go to the fields; guys, yes, you can help in the kitchen. You may need to insist, but they will eventually let you.) Befriend your siblings and their friends. And here's a tip: keep studying your language diligently. It's easy to slack off without the structure of stage, but trust me, the faster you're comfortable in your new tongue, the faster you'll be comfortable.

Swearing-In + 2 months: Leave homestay

It's time to say goodbye to the family that has hosted you, fed you, cared for you, and made you one of their own. Or, if you're in the unfortunate minority, you get your Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free-Card. Most of us enjoy our host families - I really love mine - but a few poor souls feel like they've been under house arrest. But however you feel about it, it's time for you to move into your own house/apartment and start taking care of yourself...unless you're in the tiny minority - no more than one or two per stage - who choose to stay with their host families for their entire two years of service.

Swearing-In + 5 to 6 months: In-Service Training (IST)

Spend a week in a Moroccan city with your entire stage. This is a blast for several reasons, not least of which is that you probably haven't seen more than a handful of your stage-mates since Swearing-In. But now you're all back together, in a city which undoubtedly has more going on than wherever you live, since Peace Corps doesn't place PCVs in major cities (for security reason). You'll present information on your site, discuss challenges and potential solutions, learn about applying for various kinds of funding, and hang out. You'll also get various vaccine boosters and your first in-person access to English-speaking doctors since stage.

After IST, you'll meet back up with your stage-mates at Mid-Service Medicals, at the one-year mark, and then again at your Close-of-Service conference, three months before you leave country. The rest of the time, your only exposure to other Volunteers comes through people posted to your region and any traveling you do. Does this sound lonely? It shouldn't. It just means that most of your friendships and interactions will be with Host Country Nationals, aka the people born and raised in your new country. This is a good thing; after all, two-thirds of the Peace Corps goals focus on cultural exchange. More on that next time, on February 7th...

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps