A Bittersweet Good-bye

This week we’re having our Swearing-In ceremony, which is our first big landmark of Peace Corps service. It signifies the end of our training period and our transition from being Peace Corps Trainees to being actual Volunteers (which is actually a pretty big deal although it might not seem like it). This is one of those parts of service when Peace Corps people like to reflect about how far they’ve come and all that stuff… so hang on with us the next few weeks if our blog posts get a little cliché.

We left Taounate on Saturday to come to Rabat for our Swearing-In later this week, and leaving ended up being an extremely emotional experience.  We thought that integrating into the community and learning Darija would be the most difficult part of our training period, but it turned out that leaving our host family was pretty difficult and painful as well.  Our family has been amazing for us (which is not something that can be universally expected in the Peace Corps – it wasn’t even the experience for all of the trainees in Taounate) and we really felt like we had become part of the family. There were lots of hugs, tears, invitations, and promises to come back and visit in the days before we left. The final morning Mama Naima even got up at 5:45am to walk with us to the bus stop so she could give us each one last long hug before we left.

The whole experience of leaving really emphasized the power of making connections in the communities where we live. The Peace Corps has been telling us this from the start, but it wasn’t until we left our first homestay experience and looked back on it that we really understood the experience of connecting with a Moroccan family and their community. As Mama Naima has told us at least 20 times, we are welcome in their home for the next two years and probably for many years beyond that, which is pretty amazing. We might not be able to converse above a 2nd grade level, we might have miscommunications on a weekly (if not daily) basis, and we might not enjoy being told to “KUL!” long after we’re full at the end of a meal, but a Moroccan household has accepted us as part of the family. We’ve shared meals, laughs, and a mutual respect for each others’ cultures, and that makes up for a lot of what we’re lacking in other areas. And the fact that we made such a deep connection with our family in just two months really put in perspective what the friendships we’ll make during our years in Azilal have the potential to be. We need to make strong connections so we can put down roots in the community, so we can offer useful assistance, and so we can stay sane while living so far from our family, friends and fellow volunteers.  After living in Taounate for a couple months, we’re finally (mostly) confident that we can accomplish that.

We’ll end this post with a half-sad, half-funny story from the night before we left:
We made a handwritten card to give to Mama Naima and the family along with our thank-you gift to them, and we wrote it in Arabic script to make it a little extra special (she can’t read but we figured the rest of the family would appreciate it). When we brought it out to give it to her we wanted to read it out loud for her, but we were both so teary and emotional that we had a really hard time deciphering the Arabic script in the first place (even though we had written it) and pronouncing it correctly after we figured out what each word said. We interrupted our gift-giving to run and find our notes that we had used to write the card, but we still didn’t end up making much sense, so Anass had to re-read the card for Naima. I’m sure you all can imagine us sitting around crying a little, laughing a little, and hugging each other as this is all going on – it was a sad moment, but also something nice to be a part of. Hopefully Naima and Anass felt the same way.

Can’t wait to head to swear-in on Wednesday and head to Azilal to start the next two years on Thursday!
-Cori and Matt

Azilal!

Our long-awaited site announcement was yesterday, and we learned that in a few weeks we’ll be moving to Azilal! It’s a mid-sized town on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains, and we couldn’t be more excited about it.

Population: around 70,000
Amenities: It’s a regional capital so it has government buildings, daily markets, restaurants, and lots of sports facilities. It basically has everything except a national bus line and a Marjane (Moroccan equivalent of Wal-Mart).
Entertainment: It’s surrounded by mountains and is close to some spectacular waterfalls, and the town is apparently kind of a hub for ecotourism. It’s also only 3 or 4 hours away from Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa (Matt’s excited to give it a try).
Accessibility: 1.5 hours to Beni-Millal (the city with the closest national bus station), 2.5 hours to Marrakesh, 7 hours to Casablanca, 9 hours to Taounate.
Where we’ll work: Dar Chebab (Youth Center) and Nedi Neswi (Women’s Center)

An extra fun fact is that there have been continuous Peace Corps volunteers living in Azilal for the last 10 years straight, so the town is very accustomed to us being there and to the work that the Peace Corps does. There is currently one volunteer living in town but she is leaving in May, so we’ll get to share the site with her for about a month. And when she leaves our regional manager told us we’ll take over her house, so that’s a huge load off our minds! We move there on March 28th and we’ll be sure to keep you all updated on what the town is actually like as we get settled in and get to know it.

Taounate has felt more and more like home the longer we’ve lived here, and we’ve absolutely loved living with Mama Naima and Anass. We’re sad to be moving so far away from them, and it’s really hard to express how thankful we are for everything they’ve done for us with our limited language – we have no idea how to say “You really made us feel like we were part of the family”. We’re not happy to be leaving them, but we are looking forward to being done with training and to becoming true Peace Corps Volunteers.  We know that our new site will have just as many challenges as the ones we’ve encountered so far (if not more!) but we’re still excited to see what it brings. Azilal here we come!

Biding our time…

There’s not much new happening this week – we’re still just anxiously waiting for the 18th to come around so we can find out our final site placement. With that in mind we figured we’d write up a few quick stories for you this week to illustrate a little bit of what homestay is like on a day-to-day basis.

***

Moroccans looove to compare people to each other. We hear a lot about how Anass is crazy, but his older brother is way crazier, or about how Naima’s youngest daughter is the best student of the family. It took only about a week until we were also included in these comparisons. Here’s a sample of the comparisons we’ve gotten to be a part of:

On our Darija –
Ahmed has good Darija! Layla, yours is just ok.” Naima said this until one of her kids pointed out it was actually the opposite, and then it changed to…
“Layla has good Darija! Ahmed, yours is just ok.” Which eventually morphed into…
“Layla has good Darija and Ahmed dances well.” Our best guess is that this reflects the fact that Matt communicates well with his face and with acting things out, so Darija’s not really that big of a deal.

On food –
“Kul!! (eat!!)” *pats hips and shoulders* Naima’s way of saying ‘eat more so you can be fat like me!’
“When you first got here you were skinny, but now you’ve gained some weight.” Naima said this to Cori yesterday (approvingly) to express how glad she is that we’re happy here (Cori’s pretty sure she hasn’t gained any visible weight, but if it makes Naima happy to think she has, then that’s no problem).
“Whose food is better?” When Naima’s daughter was in town, she cooked for us a bunch and we got this question from both her and Naima. We quickly learned that the answer is whoever is asking the question, of course, unless they are both in the room in which case the answer is Naima. Matt was unlucky enough to be asked this question about a dish that Cori, Naima AND her daughter had all cooked on separate occasions, and when he answered “Naima” she threatened to beat him with a sandal (a normal joke of hers) because of course he should praise his wife’s cooking above all else.

***

A couple of weeks ago we realized that the Darija command to eat (kul!) sounds exactly like the English word “cool!” We noticed this because Naima was wrapping up different cuts of meat she had bought to put in the freezer, and she held up a pair of cow testicles to see if we knew what they were. Matt’s reaction was to laugh and say “cool!”… at which point he immediately made the connection between the two words and regretted what he’d said. Naima didn’t seem to notice (although I’m sure she would have just laughed) but ever since we’ve been a bit more careful about using the word “cool”, so we don’t end up telling people to constantly eat the things that we think are interesting.

***

One of our fellow trainees wrote a cartoon recently about how we’re basically “Pet Americans” to our host families since they feed us, take us on walks, etc. Ever since reading that, Matt and I have noticed that our family has definitely taught us a few tricks that they can show off to their friends.

Naima’s favorite trick is that Matt’s name is not “Ahmed”, but actually “Si Ahmed” (the English equivalent would be something like “Sir Ahmed”), and everyone in the family, Cori included, has to call him this. Whenever she takes us to meet someone new, she’ll explain this to the new person and tell them to get his attention by saying “Ahmed”. Matt’s responsibility is then to ask “Who? Who is Ahmed?” until the new person says “Si Ahmed”, at which point Matt is supposed to make his “Sir” face and acknowledge the new person. This is sometimes accompanied by Matt asking people to do menial tasks for him because he’s too important to do them himself, depending on how well Naima knows the new person. She thinks this is pretty much the funniest thing ever, and it gets a pretty good reaction from everyone else as well.

Matt's "Si Ahmed" face

Matt’s “Si Ahmed” face

We miss you all! We’re looking forward to next week when we hope to post some positive information about our site placement!

– Cori and Matt

Fin? Fin? Fin!?

It’s funny how when you have very little control over what you’re doing at any given time, you tend to fixate on the smallest things. This week, the highlight that everyone was looking forward to was our site placement interview, which is where we talked briefly with a PC staff member about what characteristics we’d like to see in our final site.

Matt and I spent a lot of time preparing what we’d say during our interview. Do we want to live in a cold climate or a hot one? Do we want to live in the desert or in the mountains? A big city or a more rural area? Do we want to work with women, older kids or young children? Never mind that basically everywhere in Morocco gets very cold in the winter AND very hot in the summer, or that no one has control over the age of the kids that come to Dar Chebab, or that when we initially applied to the Peace Corps, we could have gone almost ANYWHERE in the world. At this moment in time, what we want in our final site seems like the most important thing that’s happened to us since we got here.

But of course this is the Peace Corps, and what we want in our final site is not necessarily related at all to what we’ll get in our final site. We can say we’d like to be in the mountains until we’re blue in the face, but in the end that’s just a preference, not a medical necessity or something that will affect our ability to serve effectively. If it works out, PC will place us in a site that includes some of our preferences, but if it doesn’t work out, they won’t. They have to place 97 people all over Morocco in the next 2 weeks, and whether or not we’d like to be in the mountains really doesn’t carry that much weight.

Looking at the big picture, it seems a little ridiculous that we put so much preparation into it. But considering the biggest decisions we make on a daily basis are what to order at the café when we have class there and what to write about for our Darija homework, this was something that at least seemed to be more important. But in the end, we have to look at the advice the current PCVs are giving us: when they were placed in their sites, some of them got exactly what they asked for and hated it initially, and some of them got the opposite of what they asked for and ended up loving it. What ends up being important is the fact that wherever you end up is YOUR site, and the way you develop it and the activities that you build are what make it yours, not the size or the geography or the weather. Almost all of the current PCVs love their sites now, because after a year they feel at home there, and that’s all that matters.

I suppose we’ll have to come back to this advice in a year and see how accurate it is. For now, all we can do is wait anxiously for the next two weeks until we finally get to find out where our home will be for the next two years. That’s the pressing question at the moment – fin? fin? fin!?

Cori and Matt

Lake just outside of Taounete - we'd love to be somewhere just as beautiful as here

Lake just outside of Taounete – we’d love to be somewhere just as beautiful as here

Sunset over the lake

Sunset over the lake