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 ❤

 

Days Go By…

If there is anything I can take away from my second month in Morocco, its simply that I’m apparently more resilient that I thought. This month has flown by, but not without its inherent struggles on a daily basis. The Peace Corps is a mental game – some days you’re thriving and feeling great about your integration into the community and some days you’re piled under five blankets in the fetal position questioning why the hell you’re living in a mountainous village in rural Morocco without WIFI. In most cases, there is an entirely different story panning out behind those stunning Instagram worthy photographs that we post to update the ones we love abroad. I can’t speak for all of my staj, but I fight every single day to keep my sanity at bay.

This month I found out where my permanent site is. In mid-December, I’ll be heading to a very small town about an hour away from the coveted seaside city of Essaouria. It’s a town of roughly 1200, that straddles the main road from Marrakech to Essaouria. Aesthetically speaking it’s an eye sore, but the location itself is its redeeming quality. It appears I’ll have ample work opportunities whether it’s in the nedi newsi (women’s center), dar talib/taliba (boarding schools), lycee (high school), and the sports complex. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the sports complex opens soon and is receptive to any kind of help I can give them. My host sister is 35 and recently widowed. She has two sons (Teha 1.5 years old and Reda 8 years old) that are absolutely beautiful, but incredibly ornery. My sister appears to be a force to be reckoned with. She’s a preschool teacher, works in the nedi newsi, tutors girls in her house for several hours every night and is extremely respected in the community. They truly are a wonderful family, but it was easily the most exhausting three days I’ve experienced in a long time. For anyone who knows me, you know that I don’t work with children often. It doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I just honestly feel that my skillset works better with high school or college aged students. I was lucky enough to spend three solid days in a Moroccan preschool during my site visit (I use the term lucky extremely loosely). It was overwhelming and the set up contrasts significantly from what I’ve experienced in the United States, but I’ll save that for an entirely different post. The moral of the story is that (inshallah) I’ll be working more with the women and older kids than the preschool aged children in the community for the next two years.

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Essaouria, Morocco

 

Other than my site visit, I’ve spent most of my days in Ben Smim in language training with my CBT group. Darija is designated as a category four language which means it’s in the same group with Mandarin Chinese as one of the hardest languages to learn and its definitely proving to be just that. Peace Corps also dropped it on some of us that we get to simultaneously start learning another language depending on our site. So lucky me – I will also be learning an Amazight language called Tashlheet now. The language barrier is easily the most frustrating aspect of this whole experience. No matter how much I study every night, the language does not stick like Spanish did for me. I’ve actually taken a liking to learning script, which for most trainees is their least favorite aspect of language training. In truth, I think the language barrier facilitates part of my mental struggle. Try going almost three days without speaking but a few words – it takes a toll on you. Not only can I not express my feelings adequately in Darija, but I feel as if I can’t show anyone my true abilities without being able to communicate fully. At the end of the day, it motivates me to spend most of my nights curled up with my Darija book.

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Ben Smim, Morocco

 

 

Aside from my life in Ben Smim, I look forward to going to “Hub” every few weeks in Meknes. Hub consists of all of the CBT groups in the Southern region meeting to train together for several days. It’s a breath of fresh air to stay in a beautiful hotel and have access to a normal shower. It also helps us keep our sanity in my opinion. While I enjoy my CBT group, it’s nice to interact with others in our region. We have around 54 trainees in the Southern region, so there is always an adequate number of people to interact with. The training itself isn’t the most riveting, but it does consist of vital information that we all need to absorb at some point. All in all, no one can complain about being in Meknes where we have access to a Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and a “candy store” (I think we can all figure out what that means).

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Meknes, Morocco

 

I think by this point, my health has slowly started to deteriorate. I used to be proud that I didn’t consume hardly any sugar and I stuck to a rigorous training schedule, but this surely is not the case anymore. I think I’ve worked out MAYBE 5 times since I’ve been here. (I know I’m ashamed too) My biggest fear has been that I would not be able to stay healthy here due to being a strict vegetarian. While I literally never go hungry, I am constantly pumped full of bread, olive oil, honey, and mint tea. I have maybe one source of protein a day in the form of loubia (beans) or l3das (lentils). Unfortunately, I know this isn’t a sufficient intake of protein, but I’m also not in the position where I can cook for myself yet. I’m almost positive I’m anemic at the moment, so I’ll be putting in a phone call to the Peace Corps Medical Officer soon enough to confirm that. Eventually I know this will all get better once I’m on my own, but I still have a solid two and a half months before I’m living on my own. Until then, I’m afraid I’m going to feel sluggish and fatigued.

 

I know this wasn’t an exciting post by any means, but I wanted to give a quick update of some of the past month. I promise once I’m in my permanent site I’ll start updating more about my experiences. Like I’ve mentioned before, there is no Wi-Fi access in my village and the 3G network is useless most of the time. If you want a day to day account you’re more than welcome to follow my journey through my Instagram and Facebook page too.

Missing you all greatly,

❤ Kayla