I Got a Dollar...
Barbara Ehlen, a fellow Muni 06 volunteer, text messaged me with ¨Hey, were you surprised that your Partnership Project was fully funded? Can you believe it?!¨ I read the text and, immediately assuming it as meant for someone else, responded ¨Oh Barbara, how funny! You must be mistaken, I have over $1,700 left to raise. You must have intended this message for (anyone else alive)¨ Five minutes later, she texted back saying ¨Oh man, I could have sworn it was you, I saw your name on the email I thought… I´m sorry if I was wrong!¨ I just sort of shook my head and wrote her back, ¨No problem, must be someone else who was almost finished raising their funds.¨
Ten minutes later Barbara calls me on the phone. ¨It IS you! I´m looking at the email right now. Someone donated to your project and it´s been fully funded.¨ I just about fell out of my hammock. I had been raising money slowly but surely for the past two months but still had almost 2 grand to go, which I assumed would take me until about Christmas to raise. Apparently, I was mistaken. Many of the donations we´ve received have been anonymous and this one was no exception. All I can say is, to everyone who suffered through my shameless pleas, who cares both for me and for the people I work with in El Salvador, and who took the time to hear us out, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and generosity. This initiative truly would not have been made possible without you, and I can´t wait to share news and pictures of our progress in renovating the room and getting the computers up and running with all of you. Muchas gracias, todos y todas!
¨Walk slow, pack light¨
Morocco. The first thing I noticed was its size. In El Salvador you can certainly stare for miles but your view is inevitably interrupted by wayward homes, people meandering about, coconut stands and the color green. In Morocco there can be no such distractions: passing through the mountains or the desert alike, I noticed how much wide open, seemingly unfettered space there is. As one PCV there remarked, it appears to be a sea of endless caramel, waves of nothing but God´s own earth. It wasn´t until I saw the night sky that I truly felt tiny and insignificant in an infinite universe. You can see the stars from Salvadoran soil, and plenty of them. But something about the vast starkness of the land, the complete silence and the domelike expanse of stars so close they appeared more like vague clouds or apparitions, really got to me. The feeling of being just one tiny speck in such a huge world sort of stuck throughout my time there. It was not a negative sensation, merely daunting and quite grounding. In the United States and now in El Salvador I can work my way around fairly effortlessly, at least for the most part. I can successfully navigate public transportation, engage in trite and meaningful conversations alike, communicate gratitude and frustration, and act in culturally sensitive ways. I have a sense of what is going on around me, and feel somehow involved in those daily workings. In Morocco, I felt like a fish so far out of water I was practically a tuna salad sandwich. It goes beyond not merely being capable of speaking Berber or Arabic, or even French, although that of course is a formidable aspect of a debilitating sensation. I could not speak or read and was therefore completely dependent on others to do so for me, for the first time in my adult life. That alone is baffling enough. But I also did not know inherently the cultural norms, the obvious characteristics that make up Morocco and that are completely apparently to anyone who has taken the time to get to know the place. By growing up in America and fumbling my way through El Salvador over the past 17 months I have become a part of these two countries, learning without realizing it, calling these places home because I am comfortable there. Of course it would not be so in Morocco – a mere ten days there put me roughly back in my first week in El Salvador – wide eyed, mouth in an O shape, permanently confused and astonished at such a foreign place. And how foolish of me to assume that JUST because I am a Peace Corps volunteer, just because I understand (partially) what it is to live outside the US in one country I could successfully, instantly master the challenges and do so in another country, no matter the location. I am humbled, to say the least. Yet my infantile position was quite beneficial in myriad ways, just as it had been in the beginning of my own service in Central America. Being utterly incapacitated and unaware meant being utterly amenable, unable to express abhorrence to things I knew nothing about. I went from talker to listener, attempting to understand things out of sheer necessity and curiosity alike. And when I shut up and opened my eyes and ears, I learned.
Boy, did I learn. I learned a few essential words in Berber, like ¨salam u alaykum¨ (spelled incorrectly I´m sure, but that´s how it sounds in my head) and ¨shukran¨, but more importantly how the people of Aaron´s region speak Berber rather than Arabic, and how proud of Aaron they are that he communicates to them in that tongue. By travelling a bit I saw firsthand how rural and urban Moroccans live, and the stark differences that can exist between those two worlds. I saw the immense faith in Islam, heard the calls to prayer and watched the faithful solemnly sacrifice sustenance between sunrise and sunset to celebrate Ramadan. And I witnessed similarities between Moroccans and Salvadorans that I hadn´t expected – though worshipping different religions, both are a faith driven people, the mosques and churches both a central part of a community in both location and social life, a people of fatalistic beliefs and a deep recognition of God´s plans and the power of prayer. Just as in El Salvador, I experienced hospitality like no other. No matter the economic condition of the family in El Salvador, the doors are opened, coffee is served and inquiries about health and life in general are exchanged. It was the same in Morocco from what I experienced, except that the café was substituted for tea. As Aaron´s friend I was welcomed with open arms, just as my friends have been with my close Salvo families, despite the fact that I could not speak more than a few words. The same characteristics plague some aspects of development in both countries – poor wealth distribution, machismo attitudes, poor customer service. Children still smile curiously, yell out greetings and demand rewards from the foreigners. Basic survival takes precedence over luxuries such as owning and caring for pets, but owning satellite TV and a cell phone is still considered a symbol of high wealth status and therefore essential. In Morocco as in El Salvador, it can take a half hour to complete a five minute task and yet, no one is in a rush or panic over it. Not everything was different – some things shockingly familiar.
And as it turns out, PCVs are quite similar from country to country. The volunteers I met in Morocco are humorous, laid back, a close knit family offering sanity and support to one another. Just like us, they have completely independent site experiences from each other, complain about a lack of work, get together to keep from going mad and intermittedly throw Berber or Arabic words into their regular conversation (our version of Spanglish… Arabish? Or Berbish?) If I met any of them on the street someday back in the States I am confident we would feel a connection and familiarity as RPCVs, serving in different countries but sharing similar experiences in trying to discover what it means to live as an American for two years in such countries. And that´s what it really is all about – not becoming Salvadoran, or Moroccan, and completely integrating into our communities as members who simply appeared one day and became like everyone else. By the fact that we´re Americans, different, we are not allowed this unnatural luxury. What it´s all about is finding ways to successfully coexist as an American, maintain that identity, in a small community in the rural third world, the bled, the campo. To be unique and yet integrated. It´s a daunting task, but as I realized through my ten days in Moroco I am long past those early days of insecurity and discomfort in El Salvador. While my independence and confidence suffered a bit in Morocco, the trip taught me that I´m well past that point in my country of service and also, that I should not forget the process of what it took to get me to my fairly comfortable place. Looking about in bewilderment for ten straight days, I recalled how humbling it is to try and be a respectful foreigner in an entirely new place, to regard with reverence the power of diversity and the myriad experiences the world has to offer. El Salvador is great, but it’s just the first stepping stone to walking a path of real understanding of what it means to know different cultures, and not just blindly feeling ones way through them for a few days. And to remind me of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to even brush that surface of coming to experience different places. By travelling with another PCV, I was able to see rural and urban Morocco alike, to shake off the tarnish of ¨tourist¨ for a bit and see Morocco through the eyes of a dear friend who can call the country a second home. By sharing his world with me, I was invited into what it means to for Aaron to be an American integrated in a Moroccan community, and the experience was valuable beyond words. I am so honoured to have been his guest for a week. Due to my somewhat reticent attitude at being in such a different place, I´m not sure Morocco got to see the confident, independent person I am in El Salvador. But the important thing is that I got to experience a small part of what is the true Morocco.
…And Back in El Pulgarcito
Upon arriving back in El Salvador, one of the first thing that happened was that I was accosted by a bolo, or drunk, at the bus stop waiting to get to my site. Ah, El Salvador… welcome home to the lunacy. As I stood there looking more gringa than usual, with my two huge bags and clean clothes, I could make out few words, ¨gringa,¨ ¨su culpa,¨ and ¨los Estados Unidos¨ given his slurred speech and my efforts to turn away from the stench. Add this to my experience in the airport on the way to El Salvador: in Washington, I suddenly couldn´t use my ticket that my sister bought for me without having her credit card on me (despite having used that same ticket without problems three out of the four legs of the trip already), so I had to dish out an impromptu $572 one-way ticket from Dulles Airport to San Salvador, thirty minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. Ouch. Despite sitting in first class, the complementary warm towel and egg and spinach omelette could not make up for the gaping hole in my already deficient bank account. As I stood at the rainy bus stop keeping my face inches away from the crazy drunk, I can recall wondering why I paid an additional $572 to be a gringa again and have a drunken idiot spit all over my face.
Alas, I came home, unpacked my bags, chased some bugs out and arrived at the Alcaldia for the afternoon. Here, I was accosted as wlel, but on a different level – everyone wanted to know EVERYTHING about the trip. How was the wedding? How that you´ve seen your sister get married, when´s your wedding going to me? Am I invited? What´s the weather like in Morocco? Is the food good? Is it better than the food here? Did you ride a camel? Did you eat a camel? One conversation with Mercedes, one of the secretaries, went like this…
Mercedes: How do the women dress there?
Me: They wear long skirts, shirts and pants, oftentimes with their hair or faces covered.
Me: Yeah, it´s conservative there compared to here.
Mercedes: (Looking down at her outfit of a tight blouse, short skirt and high heels). Huh. I´d better not go to Africa then, they´ll think I´m a whore.
I gave my counterpart a little wooden camel wrapped in Moroccan newspaper for safety, and he put both the camel and the newspaper clipping on his desk. ¨To look at the words,¨ he said. Mirna, another secretary, asked me how to greet someone in Morocco and now she´s running around the Alcadia pronouncing ¨salam u alaykum¨ and bowing to everyone. This is one of the great parts about coming back and sharing the stories – there´s now a tiny bit of understanding, of knowing what Moroccan culture consists of, amongst some Salvadorans in Central America. They´reall aware of where Morocco is geographically now, Carlos is enthralled with the Arabic symbols on the newspaper and Mirna is greeting people in Berber. I can´t help but think, how absolutely cool is this? Their genuine interest and wonder amazes and excites me.