Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's not easy to write a wrap-up post.

I know that we haven't posted in months, and for I while I struggled to figure out why I couldn't bring myself to write.  But it hit me last night: I wanted to wrap everything up nicely, tie up our experiences and return in a pretty bow, and end our blog with a final post that would be sweet and flawless and provide the perfect conclusion to our Moroccan life while simultaneously being an introduction to our American life. 

And nothing is really like that, right?  So why is it so hard for me to admit these things?  

We are still grieving.  Now that Ramadan is here, we remember how magical the Moroccan nights felt when, after breaking fast with dear friends, we would walk around town and then have a soda at La Piscine, the local swimming pool that became a gathering spot during warm Ramadan nights.  Occasionally, I'll hear a noise in the distance that sounds like the call to prayer, and for a second a wave of sadness washes over me and I miss hearing that call five times a day. We miss seeing the ocean in Essaouira and roaming the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.  We miss our friends who were kind to us and the meals that they shared with us.  As we see photos of our fellow volunteers still in Morocco, we feel both proud of their accomplishments and a twinge of jealousy over their successes (knowing in our hearts how rich and deep and beautiful and hard and painful those successes can be).  We wish we had done better, learned more, traveled more. We wish it had worked out for us.

La Piscine, during the daytime

The ocean, Essaouira

Hiking in the Atlas Mountains

We are still getting our feet under us. I knew that coming home would be challenging.  But I didn't think that, as August approached, I would still feel so lost.  The job hunting process has been a real self-esteem crusher.  Despite some part-time successes, I'm still writing countless cover letters and prepping for interviews in the hopes of finding the right full-time position.  Luckily, my better half is working for a fantastic organization, and we are able to live independently.  We've resumed morning runs, and we live in a great neighborhood within walking distance from an ice cream shop.  On the outside, we look exactly the same.  But, inside, we've had an incredibly transformative experience, and we are still figuring out how to share our new selves and stories with our friends and family.

Our lovely welcoming committee on the evening we landed back in Texas,
sans bags (they arrived about a week later)

We are still thankful.  I recently saw a former colleague who I don't keep in touch with very often. "I'm so glad you're back," she said, hugging fiercely.  "I was worried about you.  I prayed for you."  You know what?   We felt that.  We felt supported and cared for when we were in Morocco, and we still do.  In Morocco, people sent us emails and letters and packages and prayers.  And our Moroccan friends shared food and supplies and stories and hospitality.  Now that we are home, our family and friends have provided us shelter, transportation, meals, and listening ears.  We've been able to be part of so many wonderful things:  welcoming our new niece, spending Mardi Gras with my grandmother in Louisiana, attending music class with our nephew, watching my dad perform a few gigs, hiking in trails around my mom's new home, celebrating the 4th of July with Willie Nelson, reconnecting with our religious community, and sharing many meals with friends and family. Thank you for being patient with us.

Transitions are hard, they always are.  Even when you're making the best decision for yourself.  We continue to take baby steps like our friend Bob Wiley, and we are so grateful that you walk with us.  

This is the wrap-up post, y'all.  Check, and thank you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One Woman's History in Morocco Month

Since we've returned, the question of "What was it like to be a woman in Morocco?" has come up almost as often as "What was the toilet like?" and "Did you get sick a lot?" and "Can you drink the water there?"** In honor of Women's History Month, I thought it might be fun to share a little bit about what it was like to be a woman in Morocco, for me.  

**Before, though, let me just say this: not so bad, just a few times, and yes--- most of the time.

When we first arrived, we spent four months living with host families.  We integrated into Moroccan culture and our host families by embracing fairly strict gender roles.  After eating a meal, I headed to the kitchen to wash dishes, and Pete spent time vegging out and watching television.  On the weekends, I could frequently be found sweeping floors, hanging laundry, and shelling pees.  Pete helped as much as our host mother would allow him, but more often than not he was shooed out of the kitchen.  Basically, he has to do the dishes for the rest of our lives together to make up for the amount of time I spent hunched over the sink.

Delivering lunch and then using the hot food to warm my hands.

But, truthfully, I didn't mind helping in the kitchen.  My Moroccan Arabic was so limited, and washing a few plates was a tangible way for me to say thank you.  Thank you for allowing me into your home, thank you for washing my clothes, thank you for teaching me new words, thank you for sharing your life with me.  

Couscous lessons from Malika
Once we moved into our own place, we divided housework more evenly.  But anytime we visited Moroccan friends, I immediately found myself drawn into the kitchen with the other women.  I sat on a stool while women stirred pots of harira.  I held babies in my lap while their mother chopped onions.  I was able to enter an intimate sphere of womanhood that I've never fully felt in the US.  We talked about our husbands--- the good ones and the bad ones--- while we fluffed couscous.  Farida applied kohl makeup to my eyes and told me about how much she wanted children.  Habiba showed me how to dance as lamb simmered in the pressure cooker.  Sana made jokes--- so many jokes!--- as she talked about the women's exercise classes she taught.  Fatima served me warm bread with butter her mother had churned that morning.  Malika tossed food scraps to the sheep while wrangling her three curious children.  

A lot of my time in the kitchen was spent sneaking couscous to this cutie.

Teaching Kate how to prepare msmen.

Measuring rugs with Fatima.

Watching Sana weave
Hiking with Fatima
I don't want to romanticize what it is like to be a woman in a country where the role of women is quite different than the role of women in the US.  But I can say that it was an intimate experience, one I will treasure forever, and one I am grateful to have had.  In the privacy of the kitchen, I felt connected to women in a profound way.

Love this girl.
In public, being a woman, for me, was more challenging. Despite my conservative dress (I've really learned to rock the dress-over-jeans look), stares from men made walking around town fairly uncomfortable.  Sexual harassment, especially when I was walking around with other women, was rampant.  Occasionally Pete would leave for a few days to attend a Peace Corps training.  In the US, this sort of separation would have me exclaiming, "Sweet!  Girl's weekend!!!"  Instead, I felt anxious and isolated---- and I didn't like feeling that way.

There is an excellent PSA from Egypt that demonstrates what kind of harassment a woman might face walking around alone.  I'm fortunate that my experience with sexual harassment was fairly limited, but it did contribute to our early return.

In addition, I frequently felt like I was fighting in public.  Fighting for the attention of our landlord who preferred to talk only to Pete.  Fighting for a fair price on the cab ride between our town and Marrakech.  Fighting for a seat on a bus, preferably next to a woman.  Fighting to catch my breath in the chaos that is Marrakech.  Being out and about left me exhausted, and I grew to yearn for the comfort of our small, quiet home.

Occasionally, though, public interactions led to private hospitality.  Once, while riding on an over-crowded transport, a woman overheard me speaking in broken Arabic to the driver.  She was sitting next to me and started to ask me questions.  She was patient with my language skills and thrilled to find out that I lived in the city she was traveling to.  She was going to visit her daughter and her daughter's new baby.  Her daughter's husband was very ill, she told me, so she wanted to go help out as much as she could.  By the end of the ride to our town, Pete and I were invited into her daughter's home for tea and snacks.  We stayed for several hours--- they simply refused to let us leave--- and shared cup after cup of tea with them.  I could sense that things were challenging in their home.  The new mom was exhausted and worried over her very sick husband, but that didn't stop her from preparing pots of hot, sweet, sticky mint tea.  These people, these moments, are what I will choose to carry with me from my time in Morocco.

I'm incredibly proud of my female friends in Morocco and the ways in which they are working to improve themselves, their families, and their community.  My friend Sana is working on opening a women's-only gym in our town so that women will have a more comfortable place to exercise.  Fatima weaves rugs and teaches herself English through books and television.  Malika helps her children with their schoolwork and then spends extra time teaching herself English. Amina runs a women's couscous co-operative to provide income for widows and divorcees.  My European female friends run a facility that brings guests to Morocco to learn about Moroccan culture and to provide social services to the surrounding communities.  I have felt the strength and will of women in intimate, powerful ways, and I am grateful to have been a small part of their lives.  I hope to continue to connect with women and tap into our power to make this world a better place, together.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Serving with your best friend

In honor of Valentine's day (I know, it was last week. But still), I thought it might be appropriate to share a few words about what it was like to serve in the Peace Corps as a married couple. Before we left, as I've mentioned before, I poured over blogs of other volunteers to get advice and recommendations.  I googled the phrase "married couple peace corps blog" more times than I can count, and I enjoyed reading about what other couples were up to, what they were learning, and what was tough.  Before we departed for Morocco, we also met with two different married couples in our town that had served years before.  Their advice was invaluable. So, without further delay, here's my two cents on the experience.  These are my opinions only, and they don't reflect the approximately 10% of all Peace Corps volunteers that are married.


Service in the Peace Corps as a married couple is amazing because:

1. Your best friend is with you.  Here you are, in a new country where everything is foreign and strange and exciting, and you get to have your very favorite person in the whole world there by your side.  And even though we couldn't hold hands in public, it was nice to know that I had a hand to hold.

2. You have a built in support system.  There are days in the Peace Corps when you don't really feel like leaving the house.  It's nice when you have a partner who can run out and fetch milk.  There are days when communicating with your host mom is more difficult than usual, and it's a gift to have a partner who can step in and try to help you say what you need to say.  Those days when diarrhea is never-ending?  Many thanks for a partner who can make homemade applesauce, per the BRAT diet.

3. There is always someone around you who speaks English.  This is incredibly helpful when you are trying to process your emotions, when you need to vent, when you just want to cry and have someone say, "I know, it's really hard sometimes."  It's also great because you've got someone to share in your excitement.  And someone who can make you laugh.

Service in the Peace Corps as a married couple is challenging because:

1. Your best friend is with you.  ALL OF THE TIME.  Pete and I are lucky lucky lucky because we like each other.  I mean, we love each other, too.  But we also really like each other.  Which is extra nice when you spend 24 hours together every single day.  Sometimes, one of us would say to the other: "Listen, I'm going to go visit Fatima, but I'll go alone so you can have some recharge time."  We had to be intentional about carving out a little private time as we are both introverts and like to be alone in our thoughts from time to time.  Frankly, our year in Morocco feels like it should count for 5 years of marriage.

2. You have a built in support system.  There are days in the Peace Corps when you don't really feel like leaving the house.  Sometimes it's important to make yourself get out of the house on those days.  Not always--- being gentle with yourself is important, too.  But sometimes.  And when you have a partner, at times it can make you less brave, less willing to push yourself.  In addition, this means that you might not reach out as much to fellow volunteers.  Those folks can be a great support system and great friends, and we are bummed that we didn't invest more in friendships with some of the awesome volunteers we served with.

3. There is always someone around you who speaks English.  Which meant, for me, that I was a little less motivated to practice Darija.  Since my husband was around to communicate with and to depend on if I was having trouble conversing in public, I was less motivated to study.

See what I just did there?  Turned the tables!  Fooled you!  Made you look at things from both perspectives!

No, but really.  There are a few other things worth mentioning that don't have such an easy counterpoint:

In Morocco, being a woman is hard.  Being a man is hard, too, just in different ways.  Many other volunteers have blogged about what a challenge sexual harassment is for female volunteers.  It exists, it is a huge problem, and it did affect our decision to return.  When I was walking around with Pete, the harassment was usually not a problem.  I wish it wasn't that way.  It's unfair, unjust, and heart-breaking.  But it is what it is.  

Your Peace Corps living allowance goes a little further.  Since we both received a small monthly stipend but had just one rent to pay, we were not as stressed as some of our single volunteer friends about money.  This made it a little easier for us to travel around Morocco, enjoy a nice meal in Marrakech, or treat our friends to snacks.  Also, we had two medical kits.  This translates into a near endless, much-needed supply of Pepto Bismol.  Not being stressed about money (or upset stomach pills) is a huge gift.

You have someone to make memories with, and that person goes home with you at the end of the adventure.  Already since we've been home, I've recognized how hard it is to explain just how profound this past year was, especially in short conversations.  Luckily, my husband and I can sit on the couch and talk about how delicious msmsen is and laugh about how infrequently we took baths and cry about how much we miss our friends and hiking in the Atlas Mountains.  Together.  This, for me, is the #1 reason to serve in the Peace Corps with your best friend.*

* And the #2 reason? Having a secret language once you get back home.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Saying goodbye

We've been back home about a week, and it's strange to say the least.  In Morocco, it was very clear that we were outsiders.  Our dear Moroccan friends expected us to make mistakes: to kiss too many times during a greeting, to be confused about how to order chicken, to buy the wrong kind of soap for the public bath.  Here, even though I feel entirely like an outsider, people expect us to behave like regular people, insiders.  I'm not supposed to linger in front of the yogurt selection at the grocery store, mouth gaping at the variety, the choices.  I can understand the conversations around me, and strangers expect me to respond if they ask me a question (I've gotten fairly used to just shrugging my shoulders and walking away).  Transitions are always hard, and we know that with time we will get our feet back under us.  Until then, we are grateful for the patience and kindness our family and friends have shown us.  And, in the meantime, we're happily enjoying our nephew and our brand-new baby niece.

We wanted to share a few more photos of our last weeks in Morocco.  After we told our friends that we would be leaving, they went out of their way to send us off feeling loved and appreciated.  Our friend Fatima started weaving through the night, and with the help of her sweet sister, she managed to complete an entire rug as a parting gift.

Fatima also arranged another henna party.  This time, though, I was the only one getting henna-d.  She painted my feet in the traditional Berber fashion.  My toes will be henna-orange for many, many weeks.

Knowing how much we love msmen, Malika made it for us several times in our final weeks.  

Malika, Firdous, Sana, and I enjoy the roof after lots of msmsen.

The Friday before we left, we arranged to host a big farewell couscous party with many of our friends.  The cooking started at 11am.  By 3pm, we had 3 kilos of steaming couscous tifaya and about 15 friends around two tables.  Once the food was gone, we grabbed pots and pans and started singing a mix of Arabic and Tashelhit songs.  You can click the image below to hear a snippet of the sing-along.

Our host mother wanted to celebrate our birthdays on our last night in town since we wouldn't be able to do that together later in the year.  She also sewed us bags full of gifts: embroidered sheets, teapot covers, and aprons.  With the help of her English-speaking son, she managed to embroider an apron for me that reads, "I love you." Her kindness was touching, and the goodbyes were painful.

Our birthday cake.

Family portrait.

The goodbye process was heart-breaking as our new friends were the best part of our experience in Morocco.  When we announced we were leaving, I shared with them that I truly believed we would never be far apart.  "My heart will always be close to your heart," I explained, "So no matter how far away we are, our hearts will always be together."  Except the Moroccan Arabic word for "heart" is very close to the word for "dog."  So go ahead and make those substitutions in my emotional speech.  Try not to laugh too hard.

We hope to share a few more photos and stories on the blog as we continue to transition home.  In the meantime, know we are grateful for your patience with us.  And know that my dog will always be close to your dog.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Discernment and Decisions

It is with much disappointment that we write today to share that we have decided to end our Peace Corps service early. For some, this may come as a surprise; for others that have been part of the discernment process with us, this is a long time coming. Shortly after making our painful decision, I was reminded of a camping trip we took in 2012 that slightly mirrors our Peace Corps experience.

That year, my job in the wedding industry left me with few free weekends. Camping has been something Pete and I have loved for many years, but it was hard to do when our weekends were frequently full. One spring day, we recognized that we had a free weekend and fair weather ahead of us, and we decided to take advantage of it. On Saturday morning, we packed up the car with our tent and sleeping bags, trail mix and dog. The trip meant we would miss a birthday party for a friend who had been living abroad in Mexico for a year, but we decided we needed the outdoors too much to pass up the opportunity.

We drove west to Lake Mineral Wells, stopping on the way to pick up more camping snacks (marshmallows!) and firewood. We were as prepared as we could be when we pulled up to our car-camping spot. Sure, it was already 90 degrees in the late morning sun, but we were too enthusiastic to care. We put the pup on his leash and headed for the trails.

But when we arrived at the hiking trails, we found that the park rangers had blocked them off. A posted sign read that the trails were closed due to recent heavy rains. It hadn't rained in a few days, though, and the trails looked good from the trailhead, so we decided to give it a try. Within 10 minutes, our shoes were sticking to the mud. A half hour in, and we were carrying our pup over our heads while wading through ankle-deep water.

Defeated, we turned around and headed for our tent. Without access to the trails, our camping weekend was looking pretty bleak. But we were there! We had made the time, grabbed the s'mores kit, and we wanted to enjoy the chance to be outdoors. Drops of sweat slipped down our faces, and I honestly can't remember who said it first: "Maybe we should go home."

It felt taboo to say that, to acknowledge that going home was even a possibility. If we went home, we would be giving up on our camping weekend and wasting the work that we had put into making it happen. And we would be disappointed: in the experience, in ourselves. But we would also make it back in time to attend our friend's birthday party: a Mexican-food feast attended by those we love most. We debated for a bit, but eventually we decided to pack up the tent, put the dog in the car, and drive east to the enchiladas. Over cheesy tacos and conversations with dear friends, we accepted that the return was the right decision. For us.

A camping weekend is such small potatoes compared to applying for, preparing for, and joining the Peace Corps. The stakes are so much higher here, and our decision affects so many more people. The pain of goodbye stings so much more after you've been welcomed so kindly. But some similarities exist.

We poured our hearts into our Peace Corps application process, and we rearranged so many aspects of our lives to take advantage of the opportunity to live abroad. We prepared as much as we could all the while knowing that we would be leaving many good things behind.

But many aspects of our experience have simply been out of our control. Like the closed trails, our closed work-space meant that we haven't been able to do what we came here to do. This lack of meaningful work, combined with the challenges of daily life in a new culture, has worn on us. It was nearly 6 months ago that those words were first uttered: "Maybe we should go home." Through much intentional discernment, we've finally decide to return.

Our difficult decision calls to mind a song that provided much comfort to us as we were leaving for Morocco.  The song, All Will Be Well by The Gabe Dixon Band, gently reminds us:

The new day dawns
And I am practicing my purpose once again
It is fresh and it is fruitful if I win
But if I lose
I don't know
I'll be tired but I will turn and I will go
Only guessing till I get there then I'll know
I will know

We will return to the United States shortly, though we hope to share more about our experiences in Morocco. Our friends in our town were incredibly supportive our of decision (as was Peace Corps), and they made our last week there memorable in so many ways. So keep checking the blog for photos of farewell couscous parties and the rug that Fatima made us. In the meantime, thank you for supporting us in countless ways. Your emails and care packages have carried us through the tough days, and we are grateful.

Look for us around a plate of enchiladas.

Love, Britt and Pete

Our last dinner with our host family.  For a little while, at least.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

January in Morocco

We returned from Europe to a positive change in our town: the water works 24 hours a day!  In response to drought, the water had been shut off every night around 5pm and turned back on around 6am.  This started back in July, and we adapted as well as we could.  But, now, this means lukewarm showers anytime of the day.  Plus, we were able to start doing our dinner dishes at night instead of the next morning.  Fun, fun, fun!

Changes are coming, and we will fill you in on them soon.  In the meantime, take a peek into the past few weeks of life in small-town Morocco:

Britt and the girls.

Pete and the boyz.
Msmen parties
Enjoying the view
Watching our friends create (photo of completed rug to come!)
Henna party (photo of competed henna to come!)
Finding friends in Marrakech

Our town at dusk.

Monday, January 6, 2014

City of Lights, City of Lines

It was hard to get on a train and leave our friends in Germany.  But Ursula packed us a travel bag full of sandwiches and goodies, and soon enough we were on our way to Paris.  Along with everyone, everyone else.

I underestimated the crowds that would descend on Paris the week between Christmas and New Year.  I thought that the cold and rain might deter tourists.  Instead, we found them at every corner.  Even with our super nifty Paris Museum Pass, and even though we arrived at most museums before they officially opened for the day, we spent as much time in line for most museums as we did in the actual museum.

But we were in Paris.  Paris!  We rented in apartment for the week in Montmartre, and it was our little refuge each evening after a cold day of exploring.  Sure, we had to get up b 6:45 each morning to secure a place in line at the Louvre or the Orsay.  But at night, we could stroll through lovely Montmartre before making ourselves a dinner of cheese.  The Sacre Coeur became our church for the week as it was just a quick walk uphill from the apartment.  Here are some photos from our trip:

The Louvre

The backside of Notre Dame: much less crowded than the front!
Beautiful stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle

The Sacre Coeur at night

The best part about having a whole week in Paris was having time explore other parts of the city besides the big museums.  On New Year's Eve, we headed to Versailles---- along with everyone else.  After waiting in line outside for two hours in freezing rain, this is what it looked like:

The crowds, bordering on manic, pushed us through the palace.  Mostly, I saw the back of Pete's head, the top half of large pieces of art, and the ornate ceilings.  And while Versailles has beautiful gardens, the freezing rain limited our ability to enjoy the outdoors.  Le sigh.  Next time.

We also had enough time to explore something I've been itching to see: the Catacombs!  The spooky underground lair of bones was a first for both of us.

And, since bones aren't spooky enough, we also spent time wandering through Paris' beautiful cemeteries. 

Pete had just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo.
We also found, just down the street from where we were staying, the church that St. Ignatius of Loyola first took his vow of poverty and announced the beginning the Society of Jesus.

In addition to touring churches and museums and catacombs, we also ate a lot of macarons.  So. Many. Macarons.

We rang in the new year at Sacre Coeur, happy to have each other but missing you all terribly.

Happy New Year, bonne année, سنة سعيدة!