Bslama (Goodbye)

With every risk in life, there are unknown consequences waiting to unfold. If you’re lucky those consequences can be an absolute blessing, but sometimes those risks prove to have a detrimental effect on your entire being. One day you’re incredibly happy living in the beautiful Ozarks and another you’re applying to the Peace Corps because you feel like it’s “now or never.” The spontaneity of your youth and the lack of responsibilities (AKA a husband or child) you possess seem like the perfect pairing for an adventure abroad. After all this is your dream – right? The one where you show everyone how you were meant to be a humanitarian, vowing to live as the impoverished do and wow everyone with the life changing projects you implement with locals. You set wildly high expectations for yourself and are determined you’re going to make it past any challenge that’s set forth in front of you – because after all, you dropped everything and moved to Africa. This experience was meant to challenge you physically, culturally, spiritually, and mentally and you welcomed any struggle that was to come your way. Basically – you were ready to be Wonder Woman with a dash of Mother Teresa.

And then – you realize that the best expectations are to have no expectations. It’s only human to have them, but we tend to create an entire fairy tale like world inside the depths of our mind, turning everything that could be a set back into the best possible outcome. We become naive to the real situation around us and when reality finally hits, we act so surprised to be in the environment around us. No matter how prepared you feel – some things in life you cannot prepare for. There is nothing that could have prepared me for the last 3 months. It’s strange because it wasn’t the actual training or the lack of amenities that was a true struggle for me. I loved every moment of learning Darija, until drama in my CBT group caused a somewhat hostile learning environment. It wasn’t showering once or twice a week that broke me and it surely wasn’t from the smothering love my host families gave me in BenSmim or in Taftacht.

I wish I could pinpoint the exact reason for my disdain. Is it Morocco? Is it the Peace Corps? Is something wrong with me? I tried to stay positive and encourage other volunteers to work through their discrepancies, but why haven’t I been able to help myself? Why were other volunteers having the time of their lives since the moment they got here and I’ve felt a level of anxiety since the moment I stepped into Rabat? Every single volunteer knows that it is detrimental to compare your service to other PCVs experiences. EVERY SINGLE VOLUNTEER’S SERVICE IS DIFFERENT. Do I need to repeat that again – because I will if you don’t understand this concept. Every Peace Corps country is set up differently from one another. They all possess different cultures, programs, languages, transportation, relationships, hardships, etc. Just because your friend completed an amazing two years in Sub-Sahara Africa does not mean your experience will be the same. This concept also rings true inside of Peace Corps Morocco. Every single site is different. Some have site mates, some are completely isolated. Some have urban sites, others live in towns of less than 2000. Some have amenities like WiFi, others have to go to the next town over to stay connected. Some live a more Western lifestyle in more liberal areas and some are confined to the cultural bounds of a conservative site. Some have to navigate the intricacies of a brand new site, some have current volunteers showing them the ropes. Some have great host families, and some are counting down every minute till they can find their own place. So, whatever you do – don’t assume every experience is the same – it’s not a fair assumption.

I wish that I could have been the Peace Corps volunteer that everyone says “wow – I want her service.” I wish I could have traveled around the entire Moroccan countryside, photographing the beauty that encompasses this entire country from the enchanting blue city of Chefchaouen to the desert oases in the depths of the South. I wish I could have perfected Moroccan Darija and had successful conversations in Tashelheet. I wish I could have gone back to visit my host family in BenSmim and told them how much I adored them in perfect Arabic. And even though I wish for so many things to have happened, I know without any doubt in my mind I NEED to put my mental and physical health first.

I’ve woken up nearly every single morning in the last two months wishing for the sun to go back down so I didn’t have to deal with another day here. And when you start living your life in terms of wishing entire days away – it’s time to change something. So, I’ve decided to go back home to the United States – for now – to find the happiness that I felt for life prior to this experience. I’ve exhausted what coping strategies I have left and have found them useless. I’ve felt my physical health deteriorating since the first month I was here. You don’t have to google anything to know that having poor nutrition is detrimental to your mental and physical health. For over two months, I’ve experienced terrible headaches, extreme fatigue, and nausea. I’ve complained to the PCMO about this, but their answer was to “have a better diet” and take iron pills (easy to say when you don’t live with a host family). Pair the physical ailments with stress, anxiety, isolation, and exhaustion and apparently, you find yourself trapped within the walls of depression. Despite my ability to perfect smiles, give laughs, and show cheeriness to locals, I don’t want to live my life in a series of fake emotions. I’ve always been a firm believer that you shouldn’t bottle up your emotions or neglect feeling a certain away if that’s how you truly feel. We are all guilty of faking it till we make it to an extent, but if you never allow yourself to feel real emotions how can you can truly recognize and tackle the underlying issue causing the negativity?

Although I’m going back home with no job, no car, and basically no money, I know that everything will be okay with the help from my support system. During these last few months, I’ve come to realize that I 100% want to work in international higher education like I did previously. After 6 months of being away from this field, I know that this is where my true passion lies and where I want a long term career in. Maybe the Peace Corps wasn’t exactly what I was intended to do, but it’s comforting knowing I can cross it off my list of what I’m not interested in doing. I’ve come to understand that I value structure in the workplace – which is something that I didn’t realize that I wanted in a job. And though I do not want to be confined to a desk from 9-5, I’ll be searching for positions that allow me travel like I so desperately want to do. To be honest, there is nothing in this world that brings me more excitement then knowing I’ll be home for two of my closest friend’s weddings, getting to spend time with all my family and friends, and enjoying being me again. I can’t wait to show my personality again, to be able to communicate my feelings and frustrations to people who understand me, to gain a better relationship with food and enjoy being vegan again, to drink copious amounts of ice tea, to be able to work out on a regular basis, and to be able to bathe whenever I want to.

My biggest fear is that someday I will regret this decision. That I didn’t try hard enough. That I couldn’t get past the inner fears and anxieties in my own head. I’m over trying to cheer myself up with posting entertaining stories on Facebook or posting breathtaking photos of this beautiful Kingdom – it just isn’t working. Just because the Peace Corps didn’t work out the way I intended, there are PLENTY of causes in the United States that need dire support right now especially with the current political and social climate and I have every intention on becoming an active supporter. There’s a part of me that isn’t ready to have to answer question after question about why I came home and why I failed to complete my full service. And the more I think about it – all I can say is – I’m not living for anybody else’s approval. I’m here to live a life full of passion and full of happiness, doing whatever I need to find that. Tell me – when was the last time you took a risk? For me, the only regret would have been not trying this whole experience. I’m proud of the US Peace Corps and what it stands for and I know that I have over 100 passionate friends there that will do life changing projects to fulfill the Peace Corps mission. Inshallah – I’ll see you again Morocco. You have a piece of my heart ❤

 

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We Did It!!!

Salam 3alikum! I know, I know it’s taken me nearly a month to update you guys again on what I’ve been up to lately here in Morocco. So, let’s start by talking about Thanksgiving!

On Thanksgiving Day, more than 200 volunteers, Peace Corps staff, and friends at the US Embassy enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving meal at the Peace Corps headquarters together in Rabat. It was the first time most of us had visited PC HQ since being in country and let me tell you – it’s easily one of the most beautiful PC Headquarters around the world. I happily got to enjoy a heaping mound of mashed potatoes, keeping with my own Thanksgiving tradition of gorging myself with useless carbs. I sure missed that homemade apple pie my parents made in my honor though. You’d think I was dead by the things they ‘dedicate’ to me back home. Bless them.

 

While most of the staj went back to their CBT sites that afternoon, I was sent to a hotel in Rabat so I could get blood tests done the next morning. It was a wonderfully rainy day that I spent with a fellow trainee. As he waited for his hotel room to be ready, he graciously let me download nearly 30 movies onto my computer, which will provide me with entertainment during those lonely moments over the next two years. My blood tests were painless the next morning – and as I thought – my results came back saying I have low iron. No surprise there. So iron pills it is! I’m praying these will help me feel better until I can start cooking for myself again. My diet here sure does bring my attitude down.

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Enjoying the Autumn weather in Ifrane, Morocco

 

Once I returned from Thanksgiving break, I had roughly 2 weeks left at my CBT site. One of the highlights from this time was hosting a dinner for all our families in Ben Smim. We collected all our ingredients from the suq in Azrou, the closest big city nearest to our site. By 8pm, we had cooked up a rather random dinner including: four roasted chickens, guacamole, cilantro lime rice, fajita peppers, Kool-Aid and an attempt at a stovetop apple crisp. No surprise to any of us, they loved the apple crisp because it was full of butter and sugar and two of the families asked for our recipe. (If only they knew we just cut up apples and basically boiled them in butter, sugar, and brown sugar oatmeal packets from back home.) The night was meant to be a thank you to our families for hosting us for the last 12 weeks. I know I can say on behalf of my whole group, we have never felt such love and hospitality from anyone before. This itself, proves that as Christians, or Muslims, or whatever you affiliate with, we CAN coexist peacefully together. All it takes is an open mind and a warm heart and two cultures can eat, laugh, cry, and love each other wholeheartedly.

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Last sunset in Ben Smim

 

After a tearful goodbye, our group headed to Meknes for our final HUB and swear in ceremony on a particularly rainy December morning. The week was full of anxious vibes and excitement in every corner of the hotel. After the completion of a full week of training, including safety and security and Tashelheet and Tamazirght tutoring, we finally made it to our Swearing In Ceremony. On December 9th, 106 trainees swore an oath to uphold the Peace Corps mission to promote world peace and friendship in the Kingdom of Morocco. The ceremony was attended by the Governor of Meknes, US Ambassador Dwight Bush, and several important Moroccan officials. Three trainees gave speeches (2 in Darija/1 in English) and let me tell you – they nailed every sentiment felt during our time in Morocco. Country Director Steve Driehaus spoke beautifully of how we should approach this time with a sense of urgency and seriousness it deserves. The rest of the morning was dedicated to impromptu photoshoots because let’s be real – it’s not every day you see us in jalabas and makeup.

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Crew Love

 

Saturday morning came all too soon and just like that – we were off to our sites all over the entire Kingdom of Morocco. I travelled 7 hours on an extremely crowded train to Marrakech and stayed with a 3rd year PCV in her site situated in beautiful snowcapped mountains. The next morning, I made the 3-hour trek via bus to my site (sorry due to safety concerns I can’t put the actual location.) Once I arrived to my site, I was lucky enough to carry nearly 150lbs (probably more) of luggage for a mile to my host sisters house. Immediately after arriving, I was on my way to an undisclosed location (because once again – my poor darija skills) with my sister, her two sons, and her mom. We ended up in what I can only describe as the middle of nowhere in a village that makes Alma, Kansas look like a city. I spent four days with nearly 20 women, eating roughly every two hours and trying to comprehend any bit of Darija possible. It turns out we were at my host sisters’ aunt’s house to celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, which seems to be quite the affair here in Morocco. On the last day, the whole group of us travelled even further into the country to attend a Moussem (Festival of Horses). It’s almost impossible to articulate this experience, but basically, it could easily be a spread in National Geographic magazine. We spent all day in a huge tent, ate 6 meals by 3pm, and watched groups of men ride horses and try to fire their guns all at the same time. (Seriously – just Google it) This experience also proved to me I couldn’t pass as a Moroccan even if I wore a headscarf – unfortunately – I stand out like a unicorn anywhere I go here.

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Horses, Muskets, and Jalabas – Oh My!

 

All of this leads me to now – I’m sitting here in my room (aka the salon) trying to make sense of what my purpose will be here in my site. I finally met with the mudir (headmaster) of the lycee and college yesterday and secured their blessings to help at the schools and to have a Girl’s Club, possibly an Environmental Club, and help with sports there. They assured me that they would help me as much as possible, but that the kids have a very rigorous schedule and go back home on the weekends, so they have very little free time. I also went to the Nedi Newsi (Women’s Center) and secured an English class there once or twice a week. Right now, I’m without Wi-Fi – so it’s been rough trying to obtain resources to start planning. Other than that, I’m on the hunt for a house to rent once our requirement to stay with a host family is over. I’m looking forward to being in my own space. I’ve felt like I don’t have control of my life currently. Anyone who knows me knows that cooking and working out are the two that make me happy. I haven’t had either of those in nearly 14 weeks, and my mental health is starting to falter because of it (amongst many other reasons). I was told yesterday that I shouldn’t run in my site, so I suppose it’s at home workouts from now on. I’m pushing through though for now and I’m giving myself little goals to conquer so that I feel some level of accomplishment. The first three months in our new site are supposed to be a time of integration and coincidentally little work, so filling my time right now and trying to stay out of my head when I’m feeling down is rough.

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So I have an obsession with Mosques and Sunsets – Meknes, Morocco

 

 

I’m currently sitting at a seaside café, drinking a sprite, using as much WIFI as possible, and staring at the ocean in sunny Essaouria. Things could be worse. I found an adorable French Catholic church a block away from the ocean, so I’m excited to enjoy Christmas Eve mass their tonight at 9pm. I’m also spending tomorrow with fellow volunteers here in Essaouria. I hear they’re making mac and cheese, so I could basically cry right now thinking about it. They all say spending your first Christmas away from your family is the hardest part of service and they are certainly right. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas back home.

Miss you all.

Kayla ❤

 

Step by Step – Day by Day

Every time I begin to write a blog post, I become overwhelmed in the task of trying to explain the experiences of the last few weeks. How is it possible to explain the intricacies of learning about a new culture when it’s far from anything you’ve ever experienced? Or better yet, how do you try to convey the unfamiliarity of Moroccan culture to those back in the United States? To be fair, this first post is just scraping the surface of what I perceive Morocco as. I cannot possibly act like I know the ends and outs of the country, nor can I give a true opinion on the country itself. So for now, I will speak more about what it means to be a current Peace Corps trainee in Morocco.

If you think joining the Peace Corps is easy, I’m here to tell you IT’S NOT. This is not a glorified vacation. This is not like being a college student having the time of your life studying abroad in Europe. The first three months are like boot camp. No – we may not be running miles in record time or be forced to do as many pushups as possible in a minute; instead – we barely get any time/privacy for physical activity and in one way or another your body will fall susceptible to some sort of GI (gastro-intestinal) dysfunction.  In another light, this experience is undoubtedly a mental game. We spend the majority of our day reciting phrases in Darija and learning Arabic script, drinking mint tea that will most likely give us diabetes, and sitting awkwardly amongst our new Moroccan families trying to communicate in any way possible. We are constantly tip toeing around, trying to figure out what is acceptable and what boundaries we can push ever so gently. The majority of us feel dependent on our Moroccan cultural and language leaders; a notion that is incredibly difficult for those who are used to being independent and self-sufficient. The food. The language. The lack of privacy. The busy schedule. The new cultural norms. Simply put – it’s a lot to take in.

But – it’s what we all expected. We knew the risks, the lack of amenities, the loneliness, and the confusion would all ensue. No one goes into the Peace Corps expecting the next 27 months to go perfectly smoothly (If you do – you need to snap back to reality).  Once the initial shock begins to wear off, you find yourself mesmerized by how beautiful Morocco is. You stop comparing everything to how the United States runs and you accept that there are other ways people and society work. Sometimes – what works for the United States does NOT work for other countries. The American way is not always the most feasible solution for other countries to thrive -and THAT’S OKAY! This isn’t to say that Moroccan society doesn’t overcomplicate certain aspects of its’ society, but it’s a humbling moment when you decide to accept a country in its entirety.

That being said, I feel like I am slowly assimilating into Moroccan society. My training site is a tiny village on the side of a mountain near Azrou, Morocco. It’s incredibly picturesque, but lacks infrastructure and work entities. There are no weekly souks, but it’s a farming community full of fresh fruits and veggies. I’ve gotten used to waking up to the Call to Prayer five times a day and the sounds that the donkeys and roosters make. I currently live with an amazing family, who has taken me in with open arms. I’m laughed at on a daily basis for my eating habits, but my host mom Aisha feeds me better than I ever expected. One aspect of this experience I’ve gotten used to is compromise. In no shape or form would I ever eat food that touched or was cooked with meat, but alas, here I am eating veggies soaked in meat juice. (Yes – I want to vomit/cry every time I have to). Another compromise I’ve learned to deal with is the fact that bucket showers are my means of bathing, aside from the hammam (public bathhouse). No longer are the days I spoil myself with a bubble bath once or twice a day. I inherently make it sound more dramatic than it is, but in reality, I’m thankful to have access to running water and a western style toilet for these first few months. This isn’t to say I don’t also have to use the Turk on a daily basis either though. The biggest challenge I face is the lack of WI-FI. Unfortunately, my site does not have this accommodation, so I have used up a large proportion of my monthly data on my phone already. I only find this a hindrance because it’s my lifeline to my friends and family back home.

The speed at which I assimilate is on me. I have to stay accountable every single day while I’m here to get out of my comfort zone and trust in the process. If I start to look too far ahead, I’ll put myself in a state of stress and uncertainty. Peace Corps is all about living in the present. You survive 27 months by focusing on each day in its entirety, and achieving the small goals you set out for yourself. Maybe that goal is going out to the local souk and using only Darija or perhaps it’s going to the town square and playing soccer with the kids. At the end of the day, the Peace Corps is a 24/7 position. The integration and acceptance into Moroccan society is what we strive for every single day, so you best bring your A game if you want to succeed.

Feel free to send me any questions you have!

❤ Kayla

 

Where is the love?

My head has been spinning with questions since I posted the following on Facebook a couple of nights ago.

“Three bombings hit Baghdad today. One killing at least 64 and wounding more than 87 people at a market, the second killing 17 and wounding 43 others, and the third killing 12 people and wounding 31 others. Where is the turmoil? The news coverage? The temporary Facebook photos of the Iraqi flag? I understand that as Westerners, we tend to turn a blind eye to places that are unlike our own environments – but come on – Baghdad was once easily the most intellectual city of its time. Baghdad has contributed immensely to the world through the House of Wisdom, advancements in medicine, algebra, etc. It was the heart and soul of the Islamic Golden Age from the 7th-13th centuries – and now it’s one of the least hospitable places in the world to live because of the Iraqi War and countless insurgency attacks since. I pray that someday humanity will realize that whether someone is from Brussels or Beirut or Baghdad – tragedy is tragedy. Can’t we give just as much compassion towards the Iraqis today as we did to those in Brussels and Paris months ago?”

For years, I have struggled to understand why humans tend to empathize only with those who appear to relate to themselves. I mean, I get it to an extent. I can easily put myself in the shoes of most 25-year-old women in the United States or Western Europe and connect with them on some level. Clearly, we don’t all have the same experiences, but in general, I can relate. Lately, I’ve questioned my ability to relate to women my age throughout the rest of the world. I cannot sit here and act like I know what it’s like to live in extreme poverty, or have a lack of education, or live in a city that has fallen to terrorists. I’m not going to act like I’ve been through the atrocities many women face across the world, like the humiliation of female genital mutilation in Africa or the horrors of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. No – I have not experienced anything remotely as detrimental to ones’ mental and physical health compared to the things so many men, women, and children go through on a daily basis across the globe. So how is it that I can possibly relate?

I find myself going back to three factors (in my opinion) that result in some Americans inability to relate or to empathize with others across the globe.

  • Lack of education
  • Isolationism
  • Media Coverage

How many times do you hear the phrase, “The news is too depressing, so I don’t pay attention to what it going on overseas,” because I hear it ALL OF THE TIME. Now don’t get me wrong, the news can be disheartening because frankly, humanity is scary. Lately, it appears society has gone down a path in which fear has overtaken our senses and we have decided it’s much easier to ignore problems in the world than confront them. However, education is the key to understanding the many facets of this world. Of course, for me, it’s easy to be interested in these issues because this is one of my passions. I realize that not everyone feels this way about politics, humanitarian crises, or foreign policy like I do. I don’t expect you to because we all have our own passions in life. I do believe though that it is our responsibility as citizens to familiarize ourselves with major events that occur on a daily basis despite its geographical location. The better informed we are, the better prepared we may become if we pay attention to what other societies go through. If we want to identify the root causes to the atrocities across the globe, we must take a step outside our bubbles and acknowledge the injustices in this world that inevitably lead people into desperate situations. Don’t we want the world to stop perceiving Americans as ignorant? I know I do. We are so incredibly lucky to live and thrive in a country where we have such visible freedoms. Knowledge is power – seek it, understand it, act on it.

But maybe there is more to this – maybe it’s difficult for Americans to relate to the rest of the world because they want to become isolationists again. Isolationism is based on two main beliefs – the idea that “the United States should avoid any political commitment that ties American policy and action to the policies and actions of other nations” and “the belief that the central aim of American foreign policy was to avoid foreign wars at all costs.” Can I blame Americans for wanting the country to revert back to the policies of the Monroe Doctrine and to focus more on domestic issues (mainly the economy)? Since the 1920s, our country has been in a constant state of war from World War I, to World War II, to the Cold War, to Korea, to Vietnam, to Desert Storm, to Bosnia, to Iraq and to Afghanistan. We always seem to be intervening in conflicts far from our own soil.

According to a 2013 Pew poll, 52 percent respondents believed that “the U.S should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” I must say, this statistic doesn’t surprise me. Is American society simply tired of this war stricken mentality that we have been faced with for decades? Do Americans choose not to engage and to ignore the tragedies that occur in non-Western countries because they don’t want to be sucked into another conflict? The United States, in a sense, is fortunate to be geographically isolated from a large portion of this world. Perhaps, we feel inherently safe in the comforts of our own homes in America, that we don’t feel the need to worry about what is going on in less fortunate countries. Or perhaps, we aren’t compassionate because the majority of us have never even come close to experiencing the kind of danger that we tend to see only in war movies. I can only assume that for most Americans, if it isn’t on US soil, we simply follow the concept of “out of sight – out of mind.” And even so, perhaps we don’t consciously decide we want to be isolationists, but our society pushes us to react this way in order to avoid disrupting the stability of American society.

Perhaps the biggest culprit of all though is the media. Why is it that we can have day and night coverage of the Brussels and Paris attacks, but the CNN writes only two paragraphs dedicated to three separate bombings in Baghdad yesterday? Does anybody even realize that 93 people died and more than 161 civilians were injured in one city? Why was there a massive media frenzy when the Boston Marathon bombings happened, yet, we barely touch on the fact that well over 250,000 Syrians have died since 2012? Why do we hardly ever hear about the most deadly terrorist group in the world? If you think its ISIS, think again. Ever heard of Boko Haram? In 2015 alone, Boko Haram killed more than 11,000 people according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker. In over six years, the terrorist group has claimed more than 30,000 lives in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, but you probably don’t know that because it’s hardly ever addressed in the media.

Did the media decide they spent too much time talking about the pointless Iraq War for eight years; so therefore, Americans shouldn’t have an interest in the Middle East? Did our government decide the media shouldn’t show how much of a mess we left the region after our presence there and the war? How and why does the media get to choose to cover only certain tragedies for expanded coverage while ignoring so many others? Is it all a matter of political interest? Do we really place more significance on American and Western European lives than our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world? We all know the answer is clearly yes. And as painful as that reality is, there is undoubtedly uneven coverage on even the most horrific atrocities say in Africa compared to much smaller tragedies in the US or Western Europe. Just take the attack at Garissa University in Kenya last year. Haven’t heard of it? Well that’s my point.

The more I educate myself about how different cultures live, the more I realize that we are all so much alike. I’m always fascinated by Snap Chat’s videos of how others live in cities and countries half way across the globe. Instagram also offers insights to so many different cultures that I can’t help but say to myself, “I’m dumb, of course 20 something year olds from (insert country) lead similar lives as I do.” We all eat, have relationships, partake in hobbies, have jobs, etc. We all have the ability to feel anger, sadness, happiness, and excitement. We are ALL human. Yes – let me repeat that – WE ARE ALL HUMAN. We can all relate to one another. So why does location matter when tragedy occurs?

 

❤ Kayla