This blog is a personal publication and does not reflect the views or opinions of the US Peace Corps or US Government...

Friday, January 20, 2012

First Fire

Note: Chronologically, this belongs before "Aziz", but I am just now getting around to publishing it. The original date on this entry was December 2nd, 2011.

It’s the coldest night so far this winter in the High Atlas and the stars themselves seem frozen in place as my friend “Moha” and I walk back to the village center from his family’s house on the hill. The trees along the river are bare and silver by the starlight, and the snow on the mountains seems to glow with an ethereal light. Our breath spreads out before us in clouds as we pass beneath a streetlight, and turn onto the deserted main street. Nearly all the cafés are closed at this hour, save for a few that cast slabs of light out onto the night-dark pavement. I sigh slightly, thinking of the cold (it’s only gonna get colder) and of the five months that remain of my time here.

I have been here for twenty-one months. According to the tally in my journal, this is approximately 642 days. As I have said before in this blog, the longest I had lived away from home, prior to Peace Corps, was about seven months when I was working off of the coast in North Carolina. 642 days; this is a long time. I consider my home in the Southwest to be nothing short of paradise (not exaggerating). When I close my eyes I can still see endless ranges of snow-capped peaks festooned with dark forests of evergreen and carpeted with nodding summer wildflowers. Trout leap in the streams and cougars stalk the night-haunted forests. Farther west, canyons brood in perfect red silence, a shining ribbon of water along their bottom the only movements save for the gentle sighing of a few luminously green cottonwood trees. The mountains lavish and fecund with life, the deserts spare and perfectly balanced; beautiful opposites they are yin and yang. The Navajos call it hozho, harmony, and if you sit still long enough in my Southwest, you will feel it seeping into your very bones.

Morocco is beautiful as well, stunningly so, but the balance is broken; the scales are tipped. It manifests in my psyche as a vague tiredness, a heaviness. I still find joy in my day-to-day life here, I still love my friends and host family, but when five months is up, I will be ready to go. For now, it’s time to enjoy my last Atlas winter, so I turn my thoughts to something else. I think back on the past hour spent with Moha in his house.

Turns out that my friend is one of the only people here in the valley that has internet and I desperately needed to check my email; I had some important stuff coming in. It took awhile as I had to learn to navigate the French keyboard and menus, and the welcome interruption of Moha’s large, exuberant mother (my host-auntie) who came in to fuss over me and ply me with tea and food.

Our teeth were chattering by the time we got to my street, and Moha bade me goodnight before for going off to a café. I continued the additional hundred feet to my front door, numb from head to toe, and could barely turn the key in the lock. I tromped coldly up the stairs, trying not to trip over my frozen feet, and made my way into the study. The woodstove I had made for me last year sat sadly in the corner, grey with dust and rust-spotted from a leak near the pipe. That sight was normal to me, but next to it… was wood.

Wood is rather difficult to acquire in the Eastern High Atlas, an area that has been deforested for close to three hundred years. It is trucked in from afar, or poached from the National Park; I try not to ask which at this point. A friend of mine in the village, “Mehdi”, had been trying to sell me firewood since the summer, and I finally acquiesced to his frequent requests last month. It had been awhile since then, and neither of us could seem to get a date nailed down to do it. As of this writing, it’s still not entirely done (we’re chainsawing the large pieces down to size tomorrow so they will actually fit up my stairs), but I do have enough wood for tonight.

I looked at the stove for a moment before gently lifting off the top panel and easing an entire ifssi (a shrub-like and extremely flammable High Atlas plant) into it. On top of that, I placed a few chunks wood and held a lighter to the bottom of the ifssi. It went up like a firework, and within five minutes I was shedding layer after layer of clothing. After an hour, the room was comfortable and all of my extremities were alive and accounted for. First fire of the year, and based on the huge amount of wood being delivered tomorrow, this will be the first of many. If this is a vision of days to come, I am ready for you winter! Let’s go one more round!

Thanks for reading,


Friday, January 6, 2012


Note: This is just the compressed story, and doesn't include any of what happened after I returned to my site, but enjoy it all the same! This will answer the question that some of you have posed regarding whether or not I actually work... the answer is yes. Read on.

Also, for photos to go along with the story, go here:

Rain falls softly from a slate grey sky, and drips slowly from the drooping tips of the palm leaves that dominate the view from my hotel window here in Rabat. Birds sing unseen, sheltering from the rain, and people rush across the courtyard beneath my window. The rain today is a slow, gentle fall, almost a mist, and smells of the nearby sea. It’s quiet, for the city, though the call to prayer drifts in on the breeze every few hours. It’s a good day to just sit and write; a good day to read and think. This I do, for a time, but my thoughts seem to turn where they have tended to over the past few months; they turn to a 17 year old boy in my village named Aziz Atmani.


I met Aziz in the early spring of last year while I was on a walk from the nearby lake, accompanying Molly’s dad and stepmom back to the village. I remember the day very well, it was clear and cool, and from the top of the volcanic sill above Lake Tislit, we watched as a pale gold of the spring sunlight painted a startling array of swirling colors across the flatlands between the two lakes. Mark and Molly had gone back another way and I agreed to take the parents back; following the road below a neighboring village, and crossing the fields back to my house.

It was late in the day by then, and the slanting light cast long shadows on Tissekt Tamda, the mountain that looms over my village. The children were walking home from school in clusters of three or four and greeted me loudly and raucously, laughing at my accent when I replied. All save one.

I didn’t see the boy until he was at my side, he said nothing and looked at the ground. He was small and thin, dwarfed by a massive wool coat that was several sizes too big for him; still looking at the ground, he greeted me in a whisper. When I replied, he finally looked up at me. He had the look of the Amazigh that live in the deep mountains; slanting almond eyes, high cheekbones, and brown hair. He said his name was Aziz. I was at a loss as to why he had approached me, most kids just greet me and run off howling with laughter; and yet he lingered. I asked what he wanted, and the resulting string of Tam was even more confusing. One word kept popping up, however; afous, or hand. I looked over at him, belatedly noticing that one sleeve of his overcoat hung dark and empty. He had no left hand, and he was asking me what I could do about it.

I flushed and said I didn’t know anything about prosthetics, that I was an environment volunteer and that wasn’t my area of expertise. He looked unsurprised, and slowly walked away. By this time, Molly’s family had walked off ahead and I was left alone in the fading light, watching Aziz’ back retreat down the road, every movement giving off an air of defeat. “Blati!” (wait), I said as I trotted to catch him. I put a hand on his shoulder and looked at him again before saying “I don’t know anything about what you’re asking, but I will research it; that’s all I can promise.” For the first time, he smiled.

A few weeks later, I had him into my house to take a couple pictures of him and what was left of his hand; as well as getting a clear view of what had happened that had caused him to lose it. He told me slowly and haltingly, and I had to ask him to repeat much of it before I got an idea of the story:

There had been an accident, two years before, when Aziz was just fifteen. Like any fifteen year old boy, he loved playing with fire, regardless of the consequences. I flushed, recalling several close calls I had had with bottle rockets around the same time in my life. Aziz, it transpired, was an avid watcher of NBC action, a channel where they play old, American action movies over and over, without ever once saying that they are fictional (this is important). One day, after watching a movie, Aziz decided to make a pipe-bomb. He took a length of metal tubing and stuffed it with industrial-grade fertilizer (widely available and loosely regulated in a country whose primary natural resource is phosphates). The only problem now, was a fuse… for which he used a match.

You can all guess, as I did, what happened next. The makeshift explosive detonated before he could throw it, leaving his hand a charred ruin. What little remained was amputated at the hospital in Er-Rachidia. I could only imagine the pain and horror of that four hour ambulance ride; the smell of burned flesh, the screaming. Yet he told it to me so matter-of-factly, he had had two years to come to terms with what had happened; what had shattered his life forever. He had gone from whole and normal, to broken and outcast in a matter of seconds. A few snapshots and he stood up, we had gone quiet after his story, but he broke the silence and said “shukran” (thank you). Then he took my hand, kissed it once, and ran out the door into the darkness of the street.


Four months later, after several meetings and innumerable emails and phone calls, Aziz and I waited side by side for a midday transit. It was mid-July by then, and the leaves of the poplars shivered in the warm breeze. The mountains were lit up by the flat, hot light of the summer afternoon, and people hid from the sun in cafés; beneath awnings or sometimes even an umbrella. A month or so before, Hakim, my contact in Rabat, had put me in touch with a prosthetics specialist who lived and practiced in the Spanish enclave-city of Melilla, on the northern coast. He had taken an interest in Aziz’ case, and was on vacation in our area. Our destination was Merzouga, where we would meet the doctor on the fringe of the Saharan Erg, a dune sea. But first we would spend the night in Er-Rachidia, which Aziz had not returned to since the accident.

The transit arrived in short order and we watched as the miles of silent mountainsides and deep canyons slid by our window. A taxi from Er-Rich completed this leg of the journey, and soon we were sitting together at my favorite café, drinking sweet coffee and enjoying the shade provided by the towering eucalyptus trees in the back garden. My friends, Driss and Said, both joined us and Aziz looked back and forth between us as we spoke in English. I explained to him that one of them would be our translator tomorrow, to enable me to speak with the Doctor, who spoke Spanish, French, and Moroccan Arabic—no Tamazight. The entire process hung on what he would tell us the next day, and it would be then when he would tell us whether or not Aziz was even eligible for a new hand.

Said agreed to join us the next day and the rest of the evening was spent introducing Aziz to other volunteers who were in the area. He also had the opportunity to try his first pizza, which he thoroughly enjoyed. We went to bed exhausted, and met Said the next morning at the taxi stand. The morning sunlight was already hot on my back as we crammed into the taxi bound for the city of Erfoud, considered by some to be the gateway to the northern Sahara. I ended up buying out the additional seats in another taxi who said he knew where the Auberge was that the doctor had referred us to. Before long we were powering across the Saharan Hamada, rock-plain, and watching as the heat roiled off the scorched landscape of blackened rock in shimmering, viscous waves. Soon, the sparkling sea of dunes rose from the rippling horizon, their gigantic reality seeming a fevered mirage in the midday heat.

Merzouga itself was not much of a town, the center being a cluster of one-room shops and small hotels, half-swallowed by the eternally encroaching sands. Sun-darkened men in indigo jelaba robes and a few tired looking camels watched as we drove around trying to find our destination The auberges were scattered along the edge of the erg itself, and the shining red-gold dunes loomed over everything as we searched. After a time, we pulled up to a low, earthen building half-buried by the shifting sands. My throat was dry, and sweat rolled down my back as I stepped out into the sunlight and knocked on the front door.

I was greeted by a rather suspicious Moroccan man, who turned out to be the owner, demanding what my business was asking after one of his guests. I looked sideways at Said and asked him to translate for me. “Tell the Spanish doctor that the American is here to see him, and be fast about it.” Shooting me a glare, the proprietor vanished into the dark interior leaving us to stand in the heat, which had climbed to nearly 115°F. After a while, a tall gray-haired man came striding up the hall toward us, with the proprietor trailing behind him sullenly. I had never been more relieved to see anybody in my life.

Aziz was measured and evaluated in the doctor’s sweltering hotel room, and a cast was made of his damaged wrist and forearm. Speaking with the doctor through Said, I was told that Aziz was the ideal candidate for a prosthetic hand. There were a variety of options, but all were expensive; even with the doctor being willing to work for free, this would require a grant of some kind. Though the doctor said he was willing to start work right away, I asked him to hold off while I researched the funding possibilities.

Aziz was ecstatic on the ride back to Er-Rachidia, but I was more subdued; I knew how much work I had ahead of me, and I knew how easily everything could come crashing down around my ears, sliding away like sand through my fingers. That night, I sat on the front steps of the apartment building where we were staying with my friends Marcus and Dipesh, looking up at the stars. I thought of the impossible responsibility and fragility of the task ahead, and how much was riding on it. I remembered what Aziz’ father had said to me a few weeks before as we sat at a café table back in the village “I know that this may not happen. But if you do this for my son, the whole valley will be happy.” The door opened behind me and Aziz sat down on the steps as well. “Hassan, I know this may not work out, but I want you to know that either way, we’ll still have a party in my village to celebrate.” I sat there in silence, not knowing what to say.


Peace Corps grants are tricky. They come in a variety of forms, but all are clear that they should be used only for a “sustainable” project, that benefits the community rather than the individual. What I was trying to do for Aziz, was not a Peace Corps project by the standard definition. It would change only one life, rather than many. In my estimation, this was still entirely worthwhile; I came here with the hope that if I could change one life, help even just one person, my time here in North Africa would have been worth it. But how was I going to do it?

I researched on my own for awhile, making phone calls to various Peace Corps staff members trying to work things out. Finally, we found what we were looking for, a much needed loophole; one that could make many small scale projects that don’t fit Peace Corps guidelines a reality. It was so simple, I was at first wary of its legality. Although I wasn’t allowed to raise the money on my own, privately or through grants, there was no reason that an association could not do it on Aziz’ behalf. In essence: If I never touched the money, I wasn’t raising it. I racked my brain, trying to think of a Moroccan association willing to accept donations for a project like this. When I put the question to the Peace Corps staff on the other end of the phone, they replied slowly:

“You misunderstood; when I said ‘any association’ I meant any association.”

“So, means any non-profit back in the states?”


“How about a church?”

“Sounds fine to me.”

I immediately sent an email to Christ the King Lutheran Church, back home in Durango, Colorado. I told Aziz’ story, and what I had been able to do so far. Their reply was brief, and very positive. The tagline of the email? “Let’s give the boy a hand”


Summer crept by, and I watched as my friends back home, faculty from my college (Fort Lewis), and colleagues from my work with the parks donated to Aziz’ cause. Ramadan came and went in a blaze of dehydration and delirium and I soon found my hands full with the Wedding Festival in Imilchil in mid-September. The nights lengthened and grew colder; the days began to be filled with the crisp, golden light of another Atlas Autumn. Finally, I got an email. We had reached, and overshot, our original goal on 9/11, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York which planted the bitter seed of distrust and hatred of Muslims in many Americans. Aziz is muslim, and this fact had been emphasized passionately by my old friend, Kip Stransky, during that service. He explained that on that day, of all days, we should remember to love those who are different from us and to extend our love and goodwill even to those that society tells us we should despise. After all, isn’t that what Jesus would do?


The leaves had been swept from the poplars by the river by the bitter winter wind, by the time the doctor informed me he had finished. We set a date for mid-December, and again I found myself sitting with Aziz as we waited for the transit. The morning was pale with frost and the people followed the weak sunlight from café to café as it slowly moved from one side of the street to the other. The first snow of the year glistened on the mountains high above and I was just beginning to warm up when the transit arrived.

In the days that followed, Aziz and I made our way to the Northeast corner of Morocco. We stayed with friends of mine the whole way; they were very generous to take us in, and I thank them for it. Errachidia was the first stop, then ten hours by bus across the Saharan plain to Oujda, a rest in the beautifully forested village of Tafelghalt, and finally to Nador, a city perched on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was a journey of firsts for Aziz, and he marveled at things that I too often take for granted. Here are a few highlights: Stoplights exist to regulate traffic, ice can be used to cool drinks, occasionally the water that comes out of the tap is hot, just because the nice man tried to sell you something doesn’t make it legal, and so on and so forth. It was quite an experience for him, and for me as well, as I got a fresh look at my own life (which I long considered to be mundane and rather normal) through the Aziz’ eyes. We stayed in a hotel, for which the doctor had kindly paid the bill, and walked along the seashore for awhile which was another first for Aziz.

My friend Socorra, who had been in Morocco as long as I, joined us in Tafelghalt and accompanied us to Nador to help out with translation. She was proving an invaluable source of support to both Aziz and me, as Aziz was not always on his best behavior, so two pairs of eyes were better than one. He started calling us ‘Mom and Dad’ which I found rather appropriate as we always seemed to be hollering at him about various things. In the space of two minutes I had informed him, much to his chagrin, that, no, he couldn’t ride the pony that we passed and Socorra then had to pull him out of traffic. So yes, ‘Mom and Dad’.

After our walk, we took him to McDonalds, (yes, there’s one here too) a place I avoided like the plague in the states but rather enjoyed in the Moroccan setting. To Aziz it was a veritable ‘cave of wonders’, with well dressed people forming orderly lines to place their orders, music playing quietly from invisible speakers, and a non-fluctuating room temperature. I can empathize with him of course, as central heating now makes me patently uncomfortable (do people really need their houses so warm!?). Socorra and I chatted in English, blessed English, as Aziz tried to figure out what to do with his cheeseburger and McFlurry. He enjoyed it of course, but not nearly as much as the two rounds of bumper cars I paid for at a traveling carnival on the way back to the hotel.

By the time the doctor arrived the next morning, I had few remaining fingernails after biting most of them to the quick. We exchanged our greetings in the hotel lobby and proceeded up to the room. The new hand was a wonder, a delicate sheath of life-like plastic skin fitting over a carbon-fiber frame. Aziz was dumbstruck by how real it looked. He told me he had never seen anything like this; to be honest, neither had I and I told him so. The hand was adjusted to fit right there in the room and, after an hour or so, it was on Aziz wrist and he was running around giving everyone high fives. The doctor was grinning ear to ear, as was Socorra who had been an amazing translator. I smiled cautiously, not believing it was done. But as I looked at Aziz’ face, I saw ecstasy; so different was he from the tired and downcast boy I had met on the road nearly a year before, that I could scarcely believe them the same person. We had done it, he and I, a little project that could have died at anytime was kept alive by a veritable chain of friends and advisors. This wasn’t my doing, as the doctor insisted to Aziz, I just had the pleasure of being the facilitator—a catalyst for change. But after all, isn’t that what Peace Corps is all about?


As the rain slowly dies down and daylight begins to fade from the hotel courtyard, I shut off my computer and sit in the dark quiet, listening to the drops of water falling from the drooping leaves of the palms. I think of all that I have seen in the past 22 months here. I think of the four months I have remaining in Morocco, and wonder what challenges and opportunities they hold for me. But most of all, I think of Aziz and smile.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for the delay,


Friday, December 9, 2011

The Zephyr

Ok, ok. I realize that it has been about 5 months since my last entry. This is unforgivable and I have very few excuses; but here they are. Since my last entry, I have been engrossed in a complicated (and hopefully rewarding) project that will be coming to fruition in the next week... Wait for an update on that! Also, I have had to deal with my second Ramadan (the entire month of August), the Imilchil Wedding Festival (in September), the onset of winter, and winterizing my house. Lots of things to keep me busy.

I have five months left, and expect regular updates from me until my term ends. It's winter now, and there is not much else left for me to do.

For now, I would like to turn your attention to my work in the "Canyon Country Zephyr", a publication out of the red deserts of Southeast Utah, that I write for bi-monthly. It's a wonderful paper, one that I grew up reading (I picked up a copy whenever I was in Moab), and I hope that you will enjoy the Z as much as have! Enjoy the other authors work, and maybe even contribute to the Z! You know how difficult it is for the written word to survive in such dire economic straits, and we are already losing papers and post offices left and right! Ok, getting off my soapbox now, read on.

I may slack on the blog, but I don't slack on the Z! Below, you will find links to all eight of my entries so far, which you can download as a PDF and read at your leisure. If you would like to comment, you can have your say on the Zephyr main page or email my editor, Jim Stiles at Enjoy, and please forgive my blogging lassitude!

Volume 1: Oct/Nov 2010

Volume 3: Feb/Mar 2011

Volume 4: Apr/May 2011

Volume 5: Jun/Jul 2011

Volume 6: Aug/Sep 2011

Volume 7: Oct/Nov 2011

Expect more entries soon; on Winter, Ramadan, Wedding Festival, and of course my project (once complete).

Thanks for reading,


Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm In...

Reading back over several of my older blogs from the same time this last year I have come to realize how much my life here in Morocco has changed. The same things still happen to me every day; I still go to the same stores, run the same errands, and sit in the same cafes. But now it's all normal, it's all easy, I can speak as much Tam as I need to in order to communicate in conversations about, well, anything. I have learned the importance of descriptive terms and how, if you use enough of them, you will eventually arrive at the word that you were searching for. I have friends now, good ones. Guys that walk down the street with me with their arm around my shoulders (a step up from holding hands, which everybody does), an older woman that yells at me whenever I forget to come over for tea, and merchants and cafe owners that try to marry me off to any woman that they happen to know (or see). Everybody knows me now, or at least knows of me. I can't say how many times a person, that I would swear to having never seen before, has walked up to me and struck up a conversation... always having started it by greeting me by my name (Hassan).

The gendarmes and town officials are my friends now as well, and I find them helpful and easy to work with. At fourth of July, they told me I could erect a flag pole on my roof and fly Old Glory proudly and prominently in the center of the village... provided of course that I fly a Moroccan flag above it. They loaned (or at least that was my impression) me a Moroccan Flag to use (full sized ones can be tough to obtain outside the cities), and when I went to return it the next day they refused to take it back. They said it was a gift and that, since I was Moroccan now, I could have it.

This is not the first time anyone has called me a Moroccan; no, I remember the first time very clearly. Seven or eight months ago, I was just emerging in late morning from my little cement house, blinking in the rich, golden sunlight of late fall. Feeling thin and frail, still sporting a headache and mild vertigo from my latest intestinal malady, I carefully fitted my sunglasses over my uncomfortably pale eyes and stared down the street. A boy of about 14 was headed my way, I had seen him often working in the warehouse across the street and he would always nod to me as I passed by. He stopped and appraised me for a second as I stood there swaying slightly. I smiled a little and murmured "Sbah lxir" (Good morning). He smiled back and repeated the phrase and we exchanged morning pleasantries. As I bid him farewell and turned to go to the store to buy the first food I had had in days, he took my hand and placed his other hand on my unusually prominent collarbone (did you know I have collarbones? I didn't before coming here!). He looked at me seriously and said: "Hassan, you are berber." "Hassan, shyin amazighn". Without waiting for a response, he turned and vanished into the warehouse and left me there staring after him dumbfounded and more than a little pleased. I'll always remember that.

This boy was the first, but now it is commonplace for people to call me amazighn or Hassan win Ait Haddidou (the tribe of berbers in the area; the sons of Haddidou). In fact, if an outsider from another village walks up me when I am with my Moroccan friend and refers to me as an aromi (foreigner), my friends will shame him and correct him with "No, Hassan is berber, Hassan is one of us. Hassan belongs in [village]". If I am alone and the same thing happens, inevitably a diminutive, white bearded old man in a jelaba robe and head-wrap will shuffle over to us, shake my hand, and wheeze out the same barrage of chastisements and insults to the outsider before bringing one hand up to the side of his head and shaking it in the motion for "crazy". Apparently, not only am I a member of the tribe now, but everyone and their uncle is expected to know it immediately.

I have also forged deeper connections with select Moroccans here in the village than I thought possible with my limited language. My best friend in the village, I'll call him "Haddou", and I have had hours long conversations on life, love, religion, and girls. He has come to lean on me as a confidante and often tells me many things that I likely didn't need to hear. He lights up whenever he sees me on the street and I spend a few hours with him every day in his brother's cafe where he works. He is the son of my host father's oldest brother, effectively making me his cousin, but he refers to me as his brother. One night when he was upset, (Haddou is 18 and, as I recall, being a teenager sucks) He was just sitting in a chair outside the cafe and staring at the ground. "What's wrong?", I asked. "I hate it here." He replied.

"In [village]?"
"No, the whole country, all of Morocco!"
"Oh, well, do you need a break?"
"Well, let's go to America for an hour..."

We spent the next hour or two in my living room looking at pictures of the states on my computer and listening to "The Best of Jimmy Buffett" on my massive speakers. We didn't say much to eachother at first, but by the end his head had cleared and he was smiling and laughing. I stood up and shook his hand as he got up to leave and asked he was still upset. He said no, and thanked me. I told him to come back any time.

No one insults my language anymore. Or rather if they do, they tend to retract the statement later in the conversation. One day I was sitting on a cement sewage cap by the side of the road in a nearby village, waiting for the afternoon transit to come by and take me home. A man in his fifties walked up to me, took my hand and, after we had exchanged pleasantries, he said "You don't know any Tam". Instead of my standby reaction of last year, which was blushing slightly before looking at my toes and agreeing sheepishly, I locked him in a steely gaze, smiled a little, and replied "How would you know? We haven't even talked about anything yet.". The exchange ended after a long talk about the lack of snow last winter, the wheat in the fields, whether I was fasting for Ramadan (yes, I am), and inquiries after our respective families Moroccan and American. He showed me a nasty burn on his hand, and complained about the clinic being closed (a reasonable thing to complain about), and asked me for a light for his cigarette (always carry a lighter). As he turned to go I took his good hand, and asked quietly "Do I know how to speak Tam?", he smiled broadly and smacked me on the shoulder before answering "Yes!".

When it comes to language, I am my own worst critic. I hate my lack of vocabulary and lack of training (I have never had a tutor here in the village). I think I speak like an unusually slow toddler, if was in school here, I would be the tall kid who repeated the third grade... twice. But, to my constant surprise, people continue to understand what I say and even more shocking, I understand what they say. A couple of months ago the second years, the most experienced volunteers in the country, my icons and friends, left. Their service was up, they had finished their 26 months in typical style and panache, and suddenly the people I had grown so used to spending time around and learning from were gone. In their places arrived two starry-eyed new volunteers, fresh out of training and ready to take on the Atlas. Suddenly I had two people that looked to me as I had looked to the second years. I was suddenly an example, an advisor, someone to assist in insurmountable daily obstacles that didn't seem to me like such obstacles anymore. My memories flooded back quickly and I remembered how this place, these people, and this language seemed to me a year ago. The presence of the new volunteers gave me another perspective on the village and their arrival signaled a distinct change in the nature of my service. I was no longer on the uphill scramble. I was no longer trying to fit in and integrate. I was already there, I wasn't Charlie anymore, but Hassan win Ait Haddidou. I had arrived. I was in.

Thanks for reading, sorry for the delay,


P.S. If you are still wondering, "Does Charlie ever work?" The answer is yes I do, and it's going great... but that's all a story for another time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Out of Hibernation

Before I began my service here in Morocco, I was unaware that an entire village could hibernate. I mean, sure there’s Silverton that gets snowbound every winter and Lake City as well, but for the most part, American cities and towns just change activities. In Durango, kayaks are put away in the fall and swapped for skis and beacons, the climbing harnesses stay out but the medium changes from rock to ice. Or people go to Utah and claw their way up the sun warmed walls at Indian Creek.

My village, however, hibernates. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I had the pleasure of watching it begin to stir this past week. Shops are getting new awnings painted and the café owners are renovating to best accommodate the tourist rush that we all hope will come. Today, I went down to my favorite café, run by a host cousin of mine, and brought my hookah with me. We sat upstairs in his newly refurbished seating area and smoked the hookah and talked about various things, such as when I was planning on getting married (a frequent question here, in the marriage capital of the Atlas). As I sat with my tea glass in hand, I looked around at the newly painted walls depicting various scenes from around the region. To my right was the lush shores of Lake Tislit and the sweeping expanse of the Plateau du Lacs; before me was a scene from the annual wedding festival depicting fully decked out amaizighn and Tamazight. The women in the painting were depicted in wedding garb resplendent in tribal cloaks and colorful headscarves, both signifying their belonging the Ait Yaza and Ait Brahim, the two tribes that make up the Ait Haddidou. The men wore white jelabas and head coverings; behind them all loomed a towering Kasbah.

The painting that interested me most was that to my immediate right, of a moss shrouded waterfall. Cascade Agouni, the waterfall that I am currently writing grants and proposals to build a permanent trail to; anything to increase tourism. I have not yet seen it, though I will go up to survey it any day now with one of the local guides. I am sure I can find it myself, if you have been reading this regularly you know that I have been in far sticker situations in the wild Atlas, but I would prefer some company even if I have to speak Tamazight the entire day, an activity that wears me out far more than any physical exertion.


I went on my first run in a long while early this morning. The sun was not yet up and red dust still hung thick in the air from the recent Saharan sandstorm that howled around my house for three days prior (try sleeping through one of those, it ain’t easy). The snow was almost gone from the mountains and the fields were green with new wheat. I reached the end of my run and encountered a dog who woofed at me halfheartedly; I didn’t want to try him so I turned around. I’ll bring him some bread tomorrow and see how that goes. Dogs, like elected officials, accept bribes. The college (middle school) was free of kids since most of them are on holiday right now; Moroccan spring break and the remainder of the run was quiet except for a few confused farmers that jumped at the aromi (foreigner) that ran by them in sweatpants and a soccer jersey. Just wait till I start wearing shorts next month…

The poplars are beginning to leaf out and the willows along the river are drooping with innumerable grey catkins, birds are beginning to return and as I run by the stands of poplars Hoopoes hurl shrill warnings at my back. Sometimes if I am sitting in my study reading, with the windows open to let in the warm spring air, sparrows will perch on the ornate iron bars and chirp at me tentatively as if asking to be let in. Not that this is unheard of, in the house that I lived in down in the Dades Valley, a year ago now, I often shared my afternoon tea with a couple of small birds and several gorgeous calico cats.

Looking up at the mountains this afternoon, I realized that the snow is almost gone and suddenly I was back at the point in the seasons that I was first introduced to my high mountain village. I have come full circle and now I know what comes next. The gentle warm of Atlas summer, the glorious golden light of fall, and then once again a harrowing winter; I suppose it’s time for an encore. I have grown to love it here, and am loath to spend much time in my house anymore. If I am not walking in the mountains above the village, I am sitting in a café surrounded by Moroccan men and we talk about, well, everything. Projects are moving along slowly, but at least they exist. I am slated to start teaching at the secondary school next month, and have a few other things going as well.

A few days ago, I also got to work in the fields for the first time. I loved it. I accompanied a friend of mine to his fields in the shadow of the rock fin that houses the Qaida and he taught me the finer points of irrigation. We diverted ditches and watched as the water rushed around the tender young wheat shoots. It was a beautiful morning and I went home to lunch thoroughly muddy and satisfied. My friend Ali has told me recently that he would teach me about farming in his fields as well. He has apple orchards and I can’t wait to learn about their upkeep and management, not to mention snag a few apples in the fall to make apple butter with.

I am finally reaching the point that I am fully comfortable in my village, and reaching it makes me realize how uncomfortable I was initially. It was incredibly intimidating being here all alone, with barely function language surrounded by people that were different from me in so many ways. It’s hard to describe how one can feel alone surrounded by people, but I assure you it’s possible.


A friend of mine recently commented that I was having an easy time over here because all my blog entries are so positive and “uplifting”. I know this is true and the reason behind it was that I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear me complain. So, in attempt to bridge this gap in communication with you all, I will now try to convey some of the difficulties I have experienced throughout my service. This is not complaining, please understand, but a matter of fact reality check.

First and foremost, is language. Imagine having communication taken away from you and then having to learn it all over again. Speech, hand gestures, and even etiquette. I was suddenly in a place where I couldn’t use my left hand for much of anything in public, since that is the hand people use to clean up after a visit to the bathroom. I have even been shamed by an old man who saw me writing with my left hand while sitting in a café! The language has been incredibly tough, Tamazight berber is even more difficult than Arabic, and little is actually written town about it. Not to mention it changes every fifty miles or so.

The second hurdle vies for dominance with the first and that is illness. Not many people realize that I was sick for the first seven months in Morocco! I wrote about my brush with Typhoid last year, but otherwise I haven’t really mentioned it. Well, I will now: I have had at least 4 intestinal infections and 3 different parasites, I have been or more medications taken in tandem than I have ever before had to consume, and happily, got over it six months ago. I have been well ever since then. The last parasite that I had back in October was never identified, and the Peace Corps medical staff and I simply called it “The Kraken”. It took three days of the pharmaceutical equivalent of a hydrogen bomb to slay it. I can take one more round of that medication this year if need be, but no more than that due to its other damaging effects.

Third hurdle: isolation. I have been alone more in the past year than I have ever before. I got a lot of reading done I suppose, and am more in tune with myself than I have ever been. But there were days, sometimes weeks, that went by when I really needed a friend to talk to (in ENGLISH) and had no one to turn to. My neighboring volunteers have been amazing. We really look out for eachother and are willing to drop what we’re doing to go nurse someone that’s sick, or to cook them dinner if they’re in a funk. We are all in this together.

So, there are other things as well, and they vary from day to day; even easy days here are more difficult than being back in America. But those are the three big ones, and I hope they clarify for you “why this is the toughest job I’ll ever love”

Happy spring, and thanks for reading,


Saturday, March 12, 2011

a Journal Entry from a Year Ago

Here is an entry from my first Peace Corps Journal (I am now on my second). It is from my first week spent with my host family in Ait Gmat on the Dades river. I was getting to know my family and my fellow trainees and had no idea where my site was as of yet. It's a good look back....

03.09.2010 (Day 9)

The wind howled all night last night. I slept very hard though, and awoke without knowing where I was, but my confusion made me smile. I was energized all day and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I felt like we were connecting to the community today, especially on our community walk out into the countryside. Everyone is so very friendly and I spoke to many people.

The countryside is beautiful here, and there are raised paths between fields of wheat and clover. These are bordered by blooming almond and apricot trees and what I swear is aspen. Silvery olive trees are everywhere; in fields and in every courtyard and garden. These fields have been cultivated for more than 1000 years and the crumbling kasbah that we walked through to is testament to the region's violent past. The valleys of the Dades and Draa anre the first actual civilization you hit coming north from the Sahara so the kasbahs defended the local people from Tuareg raids and also served as centers of commerce.

It's all so rich and fascinating and I am devouring every moment; the warm breezes, the rich golden light, and the echoing call to prayer. This country is beautiful and mysterious. I know this euphoria will not last, but taking it one day at a time, I think the two years will fly by in no time at all. Well, now to my host family, to dinner, and tomorrow to Ouarzazate for debriefing.


It's strange, in some ways it feels like my life has started over. I am learning even the most fundamental things in life all over again: how to use the toilet, even how to eat. This evening Hayat was having a great time teaching me to eat lentils with my fingers. I felt like an accomplished toddler when I finally figured it out and was lauded by the family.

I look forward to experiencing my site, wherever the heck it is, for two years. The opportunity to watch a village grow and change throughout the seasons will be a joy indeed.


And it still is... There have been many ups and downs, some of which you have read about here on this blog, but ultimately the euphoria did give way to a gentle acceptance and contentment. I am happy to be here, I am happy to stay, and in a year's time, I will be happy to return home with stories and memories to share with you all.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, March 11, 2011


NOTE: I just dug this up in my freewriting file on my computer. I forgot that I had even written it.The original date is below:


Last year, at almost precisely this time, I found myself standing in line at the tiny Durango-La Plata County Airport waiting for my tickets to print. Behind me, the La Plata Mountains loomed large and icy, framed by the thick glass of the terminal windows; to my left a stuffed bear in a flyfishing getup stood sentinel by the gift shop.

We were pretty quiet, my family and I. Looking back I think we were in shock. Peace Corps had been thrown around our family dinner conversation for almost a year and a half now, but I am not sure if it really hit us until we stood there, next to a flyfishing bear and backed by the familiar mountains that supported our world.

I had decided to join the Peace Corps on a whim in the fall of the previous year. I had just finished an idyllic, albeit short, season at Grand Teton National Park; living in a one room cabin, flyfishing every day at twilight, and always with the rugged, glaciated backdrop of the Teton Range framing my every moment. After such a jaw dropping experience, I found myself back home in a strange doldrums of sorts. I like my home and I love my parents, but it didn’t feel right to be back in the role of live-in son. Sleeping in my room and eating for free weighed heavily on my mind. I was no longer who I was and thus home was no longer the place it had long been to me. In the midst of all of this confusion, I grew more and more frustrated by the lack of job offers from the NPS, despite the slew of applications I had fired off to many parks all across the country; I am not picky. No bites. A large part of this, I knew from unfortunate experience, was from the Preferential Hiring points afforded veterans; most of whom deserve it. Many hiring officials never even make it to my application.

I was reading a book that fall at home, a creatively titled sequel to Muleady-Mecham’s book “Park Ranger” called “Park Ranger: the Sequel”. It was a good book and shared details about the Ranger’s life that had been too dark to be shared in the first book. But it wasn’t the fatal car crashes or high-angle body recoveries that commanded my attention, it was a brief mention of a ranger who got permanent status through “Peace Corps Preference”. I called some of my NPS friends and researched it. Sure enough, service in the US Peace Corps would qualify me for not just eligibility, but noncompetitive eligibility. Translated, it meant I could be hired without even having to apply for a position. It was a loophole, a magic bullet; hell, I figured, I could put up with anything for two years, so long as it led to that. If I went into the Peace Corps, my career was assured. I began my application that night.

A season in Big Bend fell in my lap shortly after my application went through and I handled interviews from SW Texas trying to determine my placement, which had been narrowed down to the entire continent of Africa. Silence for awhile and I began a summer season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, deliberately turning down interviews for positions in Yosemite and Wrangell-St. Elias so I could be closer to my extended family in the east. I spent the entire summer driving around Appalachia and the Piedmont visiting family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years. It felt so good to reconnect with my forgotten roots; to chase fireflies and walk around barefoot. I reeked of bug-spray and sweated constantly. That said, the serenity offered by the island and the constant boom of the surf gave me amazing peace. I left in the fall, more connected to the place than I had ever been before. I had people to miss and people to miss me, I can’t wait to see my rediscovered family again.

A few months after that, I found myself in line at the airport, waiting to go to Morocco. I was bound for Africa. Africa. A name I had associated with mystery, danger, wildness for my entire childhood was to be my home for two years—four times longer than I had ever been away from home. Add to that the fact that I was to live in the midst of an Islamic culture, the enemy according to some. A few of my friends thought that I would be killed on sight, simply for being an American. Even my parents, two of the most broad-minded people I know, were concerned for my safety. Even I had my doubts, we are spoon-fed so much hate by our national media, that it worms its way into our collective unconscious. America, a nation that defines freedom for much of the world, was pointing the finger at an entire religion, billions of people, for an atrocity committed by a few fanatics. Our spin doctors told us who to hate and who to fear, within a decade the very sight of a man in a prayer robe and traditional beard sent our psyches into paroxysms of terror.

The moment I stepped off the plane in Casablanca, the first time I met a Moroccan in my training village, and when I was fed, tended-to, and loved by two separate families, I knew I had been lied to.


Over the course of the past year, I have learned what defines a culture, I have seen grace, nobility, and love far surpassing my expectations. I have come to legitimately love the people here; even as I struggle speaking their language they are kind, understanding, and amused. I have had to relearn patience in the face of a system that is barely held together. I have relearned how to speak, how to cook, how to bathe, and even how to go to the bathroom. I never realized that culture begins at birth; arriving in Morocco I had to relearn everything. Even now, after so much work, I feel like a precocious 3rd grader. My only real achievement is staying well for the past 5 months—and sick for the first 7.

I have also learned to live with myself, I can be alone for long periods of time without growing lonely; I read and write almost every day. I sit in the mornings on the cement expanse of my roof, regarding a vista that I know would have tourists talking for many months after. The unknown has slowly become known, and the unusual is now commonplace. I have watched my friends grow and change with me, many of them are leaving next month. They are finished with their service; they have done what they came to do, and now it is my turn to help new volunteers through the ups and downs of their first year; just as the previous volunteers have helped me. In many respects, the two years lived in the Peace Corps, is like living an entire life Birth to Death. The amount of personal evolution is stunning; and difficult to encapsulate. I found it difficult to talk about with people when I was home for Christmas—was that really two months ago? I am not sure if this evolution is making me a better person, or simply more accepting of my faults. Sometimes I think the former, other times the latter.

What is for sure, is that I have made a home in this place that was initially so foreign and unknown. I have grown to love it; to find peace in its chaos, and to see indescribable beauty in each day spent in the high Atlas.

Had I known any of this, I would have smiled to myself as I stood in that airport, to the right of the flyfishing bear, between my silent parents. I would have strode confidently toward the gate, ecstatic with the prospect all that was to come. As it was I hugged both my parents, all of us choking back tears, and taking one final look at the mountains through the windows, and at the bear by the door, I boarded the plane and was gone.

Thanks for reading,


God's Wind

The wind rustles the tall golden grass of the silent graveyard as I pass through it on my way home from lunch with my Moroccan family. It is cold today and a chill mist drifts down from the looming clouds that form a grey and threatening ceiling above my tiny village. Tombstones jut at odd angles from their mounds, poking above the sea of grass as immobile reminders of finality; the long stems sway in the breeze and brush the cold stones. Death surrounded by life. In many ways the entire village is like this right now, with the advent of spring. The willows have begun to bud along with the poplars and the tall walnuts that stand hidden behind the Qaida. Snow remains on the nearly sterile heights, but I know from last year that the thorny ifssi that grows here and there on the mountainsides will soon burst into a riot of bloom and the warming air will be heavy with their scent mixed with the raw, flinty smell of Atlas stone.

In front of the post office, I see three of my friends who tell me with no preamble that a tsunami has hit Japan and hundreds of people have been killed. I have a hard time following the fast berber narrative and when they slow down I hear about swamped fields and houses on fire. It seems unreal, to hear of such pain half a world away spoken of in a 3000 year old dialect in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. I end the conversation quickly and I say I will go home to look it up on the internet.

Passing through a narrow alleyway winding through the ruined remains of the Kasbah, I note how pale the earthen walls look against the leaden sky. Looking upward I see whisper-thin tendrils of snow beginning to descend the flanks of Tissekt Tamda, the folded mountain that I watch the sunset light up in the evenings. As the snow begins to fall, it seems as though the mountains are being erased, lines are blurred and the whole scene seems to take on an ethereal tone. I reach my door and let myself in with a bang of metal.

I turn on my computer and let the modem dial, it takes a few minutes to load CNN. The horror is plastered there on the page for all to see; body counts, videos of sweeping waves and homes ablaze. On one part of the island, firefighters are working to quench an oil refinery that has caught fire, on another a nuclear plant is shut down as radiation leaks out into the surrounding countryside. I close the page down and sit for a minute. Trying to comprehend bad news is always difficult, I try to put myself in the shoes of the victims but never can. It is a level of pain and shock that I can’t even fathom; that I don’t want to fathom. I remember another time, nearly ten years ago, when I sat on the edge of my grandmother’s bed watching the twin towers crumble and collapse in New York. It was September 11th, 2001; I was 14 years old. People were running toward the camera, grey with dust and faces streaked with dark trickles of blood.

My family and I sat there, stunned and no one spoke for a couple of hours. Our circuits were fried in the face of the horror that played out before us like a movie. But it wasn’t a movie.

Last night, I listened to an NPR program called “This American Life”, they were talking about a 1950s talk show that hosted a survivor from the Hiroshima blast and I listened he told his story in halting, emotional, English. The show ended with a tearful handshake with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb that fateful day, who was also a guest on the show. The pilot had retired and become a sculptor. His most famous work was a marble mushroom cloud with runnels of blood streaking down its sides. He called it ‘God’s Wind at Hiroshima?’. It is a question he asked himself for the rest of his life.

Pain and Disaster. Death and Silence. Some of this we cause, some sweeps ruthlessly down from the universe. A bolt from the blue; an act of God. God’s wind? I can do nothing to help the people in Japan, I can do nothing from here in my village in the Atlas. I simply will sit here, feeling again as though I am on the edge of my grandmother’s bed and numbly watch as disaster unfolds. My thoughts and prayers are with those who are in pain. Peace be with you all.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, March 4, 2011

One Year in Morocco

It seems that yesterday marked one year in this glorious country that I am privileged to call my home. I have seen a full cycle of seasons here, and cannot believe that the time has flown so quickly. Just last March I had arrived here in Morocco and gone to Marrakech for my introduction to training. Today, I would have been busing over the Tizi-n-Tichka pass to Ouarzazate, which was to be my "hub" city for the next two months. I was tired and apprehensive, but overall I felt excited by the unknown adventure that lay ahead of me; a year out, the adventure continues and is made no less wonderful by the passage of time. I think that I will stop here, and let last night's journal entry speak for itself:

"03/03/2011 (-432) Day 365
Today marks a year in Morocco; one year ago today, I arrived at Aeroport Mohammed V and took the bus to Marrakech. I wrote my first journal entry in the football field at the Club CNSS and wondered at the great unknown before me. I have lived in a state of amazement and wonder ever since.
I am sitting at a high table [on the roof] of Cafe Clock, near the Bab Boujaloud of the Fes Medina. The sun is setting on the city and the horizon is broken by crumbling minarets and banded by purple and gold. Swallows dart and dive about in the fading light and the soft sound of drums is carried to me on the same breeze that bears them aloft on their evening rounds. An old man in a striped jelaba is pacing on a nearby rooftop, laundry hangs from a nearby window, and somewhere far off children laugh as they play. Soon the call to prayer begins to echo from countless mosques slightly offset from eachother. The reverent cries form a round, a whole and circular sound. God is great, indeed.
I spent the morning with [my friends] in their Villa on Anfa Hill that overlooks La Corniche of Casablanca. and the endless swell of the Atlantic. [my friend] and I had a quiet breakfast this morning and later [her husband] took me out into the city in his convertible. As we crusied beneath the fading grandeur of the french art deco architecture. [We spoke for a long time, about many things before he took me back to get my bags and meet the train].
The train took me to Fes and I wrote for most of the journey, sleeping for the rest. After a few hours the soporific swaying of the train and the clicking of the wheels forms an irresistible lullaby. One year has ended; another lies before me. What wonders are ahead for me now?
Tomorrow to Midelt, then to Rich, and finally to [...] the little village in the Atlas that is now my home."

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Snow in the Atlas

The day was bitterly cold and I pulled my jebada tighter about me as I walked up the main hill toward the village Post Office. Dark clouds hung heavy over the mountains toward the North and a chill breeze was beginning to blow through the streets, moaning and kicking up dust. Around me, men in jelabas pulled their hoods down against the dust and some of them sat in the cafes looking somberly at the churning sky.

The transit I boarded some time later was quiet; people chose not to speak, conserving what little warmth there was in that metal box. Crossing the pass above Busemoh, it was beginning to snow, stinging particles of ice that lashed sideways against the windows and formed strange shifting whorls on the pavement before us. That afternoon was spent in the village of Outerbate, sitting by a crackling woodstove and enjoying the company of one of my friends and neighbors on the mountain.

Just before sunset, it began. The wind had died and the snow fell thickly in curtains of fat, white flakes that streamed by outside the window and began to collect on the mud walls of the surrounding houses. Unseen in another part of the village, a mule brayed plaintively, but even that was muffled and then swallowed by the silence of the snow. Anyone who has spent time out in the winter snows can attest to the effect it has on sound, even the loudest shout disappears into the icy depths of a winter forest. All that can be consistently heard is a slight hiss, scarcely audible, of snow falling and collecting around me. Flake upon flake, crystals fusing together and crushing downward beneath the weight of their fellows. The sun the next day will melt the top most layer, crystals dissolving into liquid water only to refreeze beneath the light of the winter moon into fantastic spiraling shapes. Sediment will melt the surface layers faster, dust suspended in the atmosphere, borne in from the desert, leaving the face of old snow sun-cupped and agitated, like the ripples in a puddle during a heavy summer storm.

What storms in summer possess in violence and force, the snow makes up for in longevity. Like the dripping of a spring that erodes stone, the silent and steady force of falling snow is both light and heavy all at once. It covers the mountains in its silent blanket and the world is born anew with the coming of the morning sun.


A day later, only white streaks remain in the chill shadows of the peaks; beside walls and beneath the barren trees. Only these pale remains testify to the majesty of the winter storm. A rare gift of snow in the Atlas…