My life has been a whirlwind as of lately.
A month ago was my last night on trail. I sat around a fire, surrounded by towering pines, eating cold-soaked pasta and reminiscing about the past couple thousand miles. One fellow hiker, Monkey Butt, is in a band back in Germany and hiked with a mini guitar. He serenaded us as the sun set. I remember one song that he wrote on trail: “I’m setting forth and I’m heading north to see what life has in store for me,” was the chorus. I cowboy camped next to the warm fire embers, like a toasting burrito. The stars appeared in masses, and I thought of the saying, “I count my lucky stars.” I began naming one thing I was grateful for upon each star, somethings counted twice, some three times, others 20 times over.
Endless amounts of stars blinking above me, endless amounts of gratitude within.
I hiked to a ridge and watched the sunrise in silence the next morning and cried all sorts of tears. Happy tears. Thankful tears. Overwhelmed tears. Sad tears. Scared tears. I ate my last Nutella bagel sandwich, skinny dipped in one last alpine lake and crossed the border into Canada.
I flew back to the Midwest for dozens of reunion hugs and another dozen goodbye hugs all too soon.
Now I’m in Morocco to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer until 2020. I no longer feel like a powerful, strong, free thru-hiker. I’m so far distanced from Hot Fudge already.
Here, my face is perpetually turning red because I’m usually embarrassed and unsure of myself. Here, I’m more like an oversized infant. My Darija, Moroccan Arabic, vocabulary is mainly limited to: “hello, how are you, thank you, beautiful, good.” Plus a lot of random topics; I can name any school supplies item and any type of juice, but I can’t confidently say, “Please let me help you wash the dishes.” But shwiya by shwiya (little by little), I’ll get there.
For the first couple of months, I’m living with a host family (mama Hajiba, baba Kassimi and my little 7-year-old sis AKA my mini teacher and best friend Chaima) in the small rural community of Sebt Jajouh, southwest of Meknes.
I’m overwhelmed by the generosity and love from my family. My mom already has me hooked on awfully dramatic Turkish soap operas that we watch together daily. My dad has explained to me multiple times that all people – regardless of their religion, ethnicity or origins – are the same. “Kif kif” (same, same), he repeats over and over. Everyone is welcome in his home, and he wants my American family to come for couscous. I walk my lil sis to school with him every morning. Amongst the fig and olive trees, we pass by three community bread ovens. He always yells “FERRAN” (oven), and I yell back, “KHOOBZ” (bread), and we laugh the whole way.
My lil sis and I have found many ways to nonverbally communicate, including a handshake I’ve done at least 100 times now. She doesn’t have many toys, but we play catch with plums and soccer with giant sugar cubes instead. Most Moroccan families don’t eat dinner until 10 or 11 at night, but Chaima and I like to go to bed early, so the two of us sit on the kitchen counter before bed, chowing on sandwiches or leftovers and whispering to each other in creepy voices, “nti hamak” (you’re crazy), so I know we’re true friends.
The other day, I thought Chaima taught me how to say “I love” in Darija, so I went around saying things like “I love this sandwich” and “I love cheese” only to find out that I was actually saying: “I love you, sandwich” and “I love you, cheese.”
Adapting to life here is hard though. Really hard. Back on trail when I’d tell people that I was nervous about the Peace Corps, they’d always encourage me, “well if you can do this, you can do anything.” It’s not true though. These past couple of weeks in Morocco have ben tougher than all of trail combined. I truly do feel like I have reverted back to an infant. I originally didn’t know how to do my own laundry or take a shower. I didn’t even know how to use the toilet. And it’s impossible to build relationships in the way that I’m used to because of my limited vocabulary.
It’s isolating. Especially isolating being female. I’ve only seen my host mom leave the home once since I’ve been here. No way women can leave after dark, and it’s just not “normal” to be alone as a woman. I’m not supposed to go to the cafes alone. Even when I go with my language teacher and the five other volunteers in my group, men sit and blatantly stare at us women. I can’t run alone, and the one time I walked home from the cafe by myself in board daylight, groups of teenager boys continuously yelled things I couldn’t understand ate me.
The lack of independence is tremendously tough, especially after running free and powerfully in the woods all summer. I crave that freedom again so badly, but it simply isn’t an option here.
Upon leaving the states, a good friend of mine gave me a letter in which he explained that there’s beauty everywhere, it’s just a matter of finding it. I think about that daily, even hourly. Despite my incompetence, despite my isolation, despite the trash scattered everywhere though out this town, I’m surrounded by beauty. Raw beauty.
It’s in the way that my family greets me when I wake up in the morning and bombards me with hugs when I return from language classes as if I haven’t seen them in months. It’s the herds of children running up to me with exploding hugs and kisses even though I’ve never met them before. It’s baba Kassimi and mama Hjiba continuously reminding me that they know I have an American mom and dad, but here in Morocco – they are my mom and dad. It’s how Chaima finds joy in the plum and never takes anything for granted. She loves school and loves doing her homework. It’s dancing with Chaima and her surprising newfound love for The Beetles and Daft Punk. It’s the lack of advertisements and materialism here. It’s the kids at the dar shabab (youth center) shouting songs and trying to help us learn Darija. It’s Chaima yelling at me about how she already taught me the word for “pillow” an hour ago, and she can’t believe I already forgot it. And it’s Chaima yelling “BRAVOOOO JACKIEEEE” even louder when I finally (and rarely) pronounce something correctly. It’s my language teacher Abderrahim’s patience. It’s my Peace Corps language group and how we laugh until we cry at least once a day during lessons.
Through all the confusion, I’m sure I’ve found beauty here, and I’m lucky to have two more years of uncomfortable and humbling discovery.
Zwina, Maghrib, zwina.