Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Medical Schools

Hey again guys. This week I’m on the East Coast and will continue the medical school application process to the bitter end. Here’s how it works in a nutshell.

1.) February – June: Prepare and submit AMCAS initial application while deciding what schools to apply to.

I was busy filling out the online American Medical College Application Service’s (AMCAS) generic application. This includes a full list of college courses, all letters of recommendation you wish to send, MCAT scores, GPA, a complete report of all volunteer and work experiences you’ve had, and finally a page and a half personal statement. It took a lot of preparation and time to put this bad boy together. I got my generic AMCAS admitted to all the medical schools I wanted to apply to in early June which is actually when many applicants get theirs’ out as well.

2.) July – September: Submit secondary applications as they come in.

Medical schools then reviewed my file and sent a second application to be filled out in July and August. These differed significantly between schools. Some actually screened applicants based on what was submitted in the initial generic AMCAS application and other schools didn’t. All of my schools asked for secondary applications to be filled out. Some had one or two large essay questions that forced me to elaborate on particular aspects of my initial essay and talk about why I specifically fit for that school. Others just wanted me to fill out extra contact information and answer a few simple questions (Any family members attend our school? Did you serve in the armed forces? Etc.).

3.) September – March: Interview with schools

Finally, if the school likes you after two applications, you are invited for an interview so they can get a feel for what you are like in person. These come in all different shapes and sizes but have a fairly similar format. You meet with other candidates in the morning, are given a talk about the school specialties, get lunch with current students, tour the facilities, talk about how insanely in debt you’re going to be, and of course…INTERVIEW!

The interviews themselves run differently between medical schools. The University of Minnesota Duluth medical school had me interview for two hours straight with two different professors who both had seen my MCAT scores (which were a little low) and GPA. They actually did more of the talking than I did and asked questions that they thought would come up at the admissions committee meeting where a panel of admissions committee members will vote to let me in or not because. When the day my file is drawn to be voted on, the professors who interview me will be my advocates in a room of nay-sayers. The University of Wisconsin Madison medical school was completely different. I interviewed for about 30-45 minutes with a surgeon/professor who had never seen my MCATs or GPA but knew my personal statement and essays. After the surgeon and I finished, I met with two current students and three other candidates. We sat as a panel of candidates and were asked simple questions about why we want to do medical school at Madison and what we were like as people. These student interviewers had no information at all about us (at least they didn’t show it). The current students later will write up a report on all of us and submit it to the admissions team.

Interviewing is strange because you never know what to think about how your interview went. In each case the interviewers were nice and wanted me to relax while asking me questions that I had great answers to. There was nothing to make me think that the interviewers were having misgivings about me. So you leave the room and talk to every other candidate and we all say the same stupid thing, “how did it go?” to which everyone replies, “really well!” Great! Awesome! But what does that mean for all of us. If we all had amazing interviews – or at least think we did – then how will some of us be selected to attend the school and the others dropped? The admissions committee can go about this in two ways: How much a candidate stands out from the others and what they are like on paper.

For any average American, I’m pretty stellar on paper, but for medical school I would say I float somewhere around average to below average (MCAT of 27P, regular GPA of 3.6 and science GPA of 3.5). I look pretty pitiful compared to these burn-out pre-med undergrads whose sole purpose in life is to become a doctor. If we were computers these guys would be the new Macbook Pro and I would be a simple Macbook. We all function well and can do great work but just because you can move your two stupid fingers to the side and the screen moves horizontally on their screen, they seem so much cooler!

On the other hand, the admissions committee can look at how much an applicant stands out from the crowd. Everyone and their mom have a B.A. or B.S. in biology, minors in chemistry, physics, blah blah blah. Sports, shadowing in hospitals, volunteering, published research, and president of any club dealing with medicine or the sciences is nothing new to admissions committees. However, if you were a professional actor, marathon runner, former prostitute, kidnapped in the congo, or hung out with Santa Claus for a while then you have something interesting that sets you apart. In this case, I’m the shit because I live in a mud house on a lonely mountain in Morocco and have been doing self-lead public health for the past year and a half. To all the stupid science kids who spent three years hunched over glowing mold to find some miniscule gene that was published last year, you can suck it! Not only have my past two years been more interesting to me but they are much more fun to talk about.

In the end the admissions committee will weigh both aspects, how much do you stand out and what are you like in cold hard facts and numbers. If I had a better MCAT score and GPA I would be a shoe in to these places, but I don’t so I will pray for Peace Corps to save my ass.

Either way, that is the application process. I have Burlington Vermont left and will sit in a mud house and wait to see what these schools say. I shouldn’t hear anything for another 2-3 months.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Back in Black

Given that there is another group (or “stage” as they call them here) of Health PCVs entering Morocco in less than a month I decided that it would be good to update my blog and begin again. This is for a few different reasons. First, it allows incoming volunteers (and anyone else interested) to see inside the life and mind of a health PCV serving here in Morocco. Second, it allows me to center my work and mind in what needs to be done each week. So here goes.

To begin to get an understanding of the health work that needs to be done here and in order to figure it out myself it would be good to take a look at how the health system is run in my area. It centers mainly around the local clinic (called a “sbitar”). If you are sick you can come to the sbitar in the morning, talk to the local doctor, get a diagnosis and medicine all for free. If the problem is serious or medication is not available, there is a larger medical center and pharmacy located in a larger town 50km down the mountain. Inside the larger medical center, people are able to do sonograms and other small screenings, however, in order to get major procedures (x-rays, tuberculosis and AIDS/HIV testing) you must go to the city of Middlt, about another 200km away. But for today our focus is mainly on the local sbitar.

Free diagnosis and medicine seem like a miracle in the land of poverty compared to the large sums that must be paid in America to receive that sort of treatment. Unfortunately, this free healthcare comes with its disadvantages. One of the biggest problems is the lack of medicine in the area (and most of the province for that matter). We have a constant shortage of medicine such as penicillin, metrozol, and other antibiotics. This is in addition to good syringes, low amounts of sterilizing fluid which are a necessity for administering much of the medication and care required to help these people.

Lack of medicine stems from a series of problems. First, people have the idea that eating a pill will solve any or all of the medical problems they face. I’ve been asked for medicine that will heal people’s arthritis, years of back pain from hard labor in the fields, tuberculosis, the common cold, and even bad hearing. These are all diseases that can be treated but not necessarily cured. But like all people, rather than improving preventive measures these villagers scramble for a quick fix pill. Thus, every time someone doesn’t brush their teeth and begin to have a toothache more aspirine or antibiotics are used and the supply diminishes.

The second reason for lack of supplies is the poor diagnostics that the doctors are given. There are no culture labs to identify a bacterial infection from a virus, no x-rays or TB tests to determine if someone is carrying a cold or the next epedemic of tuberculosis. Therefore the doctor is left to shoot blindly by administering a slurry of antibiotics to people (which is dangerous in itself by promoting resistance to medicine in the communal diseases). So what can be done about this?

Last week, the men in my village asked me to sit with them in one of the local qHowa’s (cafes). As we sat they brought up the problem of no medicine to me and asked me to set up a health association (with me as president) to address the problem. As there were two existing and inactive associations sitting in the café with me, I politely declined the invitation, although I did recommend a solution to them. I told them that there were two things we could do to increase supply of medicine. The local hospitals located in Middlt and Khunifera (provincial capitals) may have old but non-expired medicine that will not be used but could be used immediately in our village. This would require one of the association presidents going to the hospitals and talking with staff members to create such a plan. Second, each week I could teach lessons on preventive methods to avoid many of the major health problems that require medicine. This way, less people need to use medicine and the strain on resources will be much less. We all agreed to the plan, however, much of it is yet to be done.

Lack of medicine is not the only problem in the area. On of the biggest causes of death that I have observed in my village and the surrounding area is maternal death. Much of the problem I believe is simply getting women to do regular checkups at the sbitar in order to get forewarnings about pregnancy complications. If the women knew there would be a problem, they could go down to the local health care center 50km away and have the problem addressed by professionals. Unfortunately, there is another problem. Transportation is not always readily available and everyone is reluctant to take the ambulance because it is so expensive (130DH to take the ambulance down instead of the 10DH for the usual transport ride). I of course have my suspicions that the ambulance is not entirely an honest system and am hoping to see where the 130 DHs is going for each ride.

If someone was to go to the larger health center there is the question of where they will stay while waiting to give birth and who will take care of the women while they recover. This used to scare women but recently a free maternity house opened up that allows women to sleep, eat, and wait for (and after) labour all free of charge. Although, this is a great deal, many of the women in the outer duars where I live do not know about the house or trust it. The women simply want to sit in their warm safe houses and wait for pregnancy to come. But this leaves them unprepared in greater danger than they could ever suspect.

So what can be done about the pregnancy problem? Right now, I can try and find a way to make the ambulance service more affordable but it may still be of no hope the days roads are shut down and no doctor is available. It is also useless to people in extremely isolated villages that can be reached only by foot. The best solution is to educate these women on the risks of pregnancy and the affordable option available to them; go to the sbitar once every three months for a check up, and go to the larger health center down the mountain the last week of pregnancy to give birth. By thinking ahead and proper planning, lives and much money can be saved.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Being a Health Volunteer: What I do right now

New blog baby! Thought it had been long enough and time for some new spice in this thing.

In my site and so far in my service, it has not been well understood what my purpose is here in Morocco. The job title I work under is “Health volunteer,” and I can claim to work for the Ministry of health here in Morocco. But what sort of work is paper clipped onto my vague title? There is a project outline given to us by the ministry of health. We are technically supposed to talk to “x” amount of women about birthing routines (when to go to the local clinic, when and what shots they need before and after birth, why breastfeeding is so important), talk to “x” amount of families about general hygiene/family planning (How to cook your food, wash you face and hands with soap, etc.), and try to educate or train “x” amount of health workers to do traditional health work (i.e. train traditional birth attendants). But even this leaves something to the imagination.

The health sector of the Peace Corps can be extremely difficult because our work isn’t always clearly defined. Yes, we are told “x” amount of people should be trained in sanitation, but how does one go about starting a bathroom project or assessing that a village even needs such a project? We are largely given handbooks on doing grassroots assessments of our communities and bits and pieces of how to do other projects, but the rest (figuring out logistics, deciding budgets, figuring out who to go to for supplies or ideas) is left to the imagination. Although this is difficult, I can’t really complain, after all, didn’t I just spend four years of my life learning how to educate myself on new topics, think creatively, and problem solve? Isn’t that the basis of a college education (I guess I left out writing, but I’ll leave my skills up to you to decide)? So what have I done in the five months I’ve been here and what do I plan to do?

For the past five months, I’ve been creating a sort of routine that varies day to day, but here it is. I work in the mornings in a local sbitar (a local clinic) with an English/Arabic speaking doctor who doesn’t know Tamazight and a Tamazight/Arabic speaking nurse. The nurse is in charge of giving immunizations and taking blood samples while the doctor is in charge of diagnosing and prescribing medication. My job is to try and talk to the women that come in about general hygiene and all that was said above. Unfortunately most of these women travel outside their duar (neighborhood) only once in a blue moon and never really have to think about listening for another person’s accent when speaking their language. This results In a bunch of confused tribal women who can’t understand the annoying white guy who won’t give them their medicine. But to each his own, soon enough I will get this language and people will have some idea of what I’m trying to talk about. After lunch I take about 4-5 hours just trying not to freak out in my house while reading books, cooking, and studying. After that I may wander around trying to talk to people to practice the language and build community trust.

Now that you’ve seen the short term, lets look at the long term of what I’ve done. As part of the new PC training plan, I’ve spent the first few months just trying to learn the language, getting to know the people, and getting to know the problems, needs, and wants of the community. The past two months have been a lot of sitting around being hungry and tired (thanks Ramadan!) and recently trying to assess my community and get some projects off the ground. By assessing, I mean talking to the community and just seeing what the complaints are. Because of gender roles I mainly talk to men and have heard there plights. This includes:

1.) Lack of nutrition: Most of the people here eat potatoes, bread, some carrots, onions, and if you’re lucky, some tomatoes and peppers. Very few people have fruit, although I’ve been seeing more apples since they’ve come into season.

2.) Lack of education: The younger generation is learning to read, write, and count. But the distance of schools only allows for education up to the 5th or 6th grade. Most of the older men and almost all of the older women don’t know how to read or write. In fact, most of the women don’t even know Moroccan Arabic, the standard of language here. I’m assuming that this is because of the lack of schooling in the past, but this new generation seems promising.

3.) Lack of sanitation: Very few people have bathrooms here resulting in people having to go outside to use the bathroom. This could be a huge problem as many of the kids run around barefoot and could aquire a hook worm from the human feces that is dropped around. Also, what do you do if you have your period? This is a question I’m waiting for a female volunteer to ask. Needless to say, bathrooms are required.

4.) Lack of cafes: Don’t hold your breath!

My plan of attack is this: Do some small scale projects that can be repeated throughout the two years I’m here, and focus on doing one larger project. This means trying to do health education and English lessons once a week in the schools while working to get a women’s literacy project and a bathroom project going. Unfortunately everything moves slowly in this place and something that would take me a day to do in America can take me a month here. One example is my encounter with the school system so far. I waited all day for the new director of the schools in my commune to show up today so I could get permission to speak in the schools. Unfortunately he never showed up and I have no way of reaching him, especially since he lives somewhere hundreds of kilometers out and I don’t even know his name, let alone his number. My best chance is to talk to the Moqadam (town know-it-all) or to the new school teachers that just arrived in Anemzi to see how I can get in touch with this director. Of course, if this was America I could just look the director up on the internet and call him in under ten minutes. But I suppose that’s part of the adventure of living in a third world country.

Anyway I will let you in on what develops after this crazy system works itself out. Thanks for tuning in, and now you have a taste for what it’s like to work as a health volunteer for the PC.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Some Short Tails

Sorry about the lack of blogging. These past couple of weeks have been busy with anxiety, hope, sprained feet, and pregnant women. I decided that for my re-entry into the blogging community I’d just talk about a bunch of my favorite happenings since I've been here.

First, I need to talk about the dogs at my last site in Ait Heloaune. The bathroom of the house was a little shack located outside of our house on the far side from where my room was located, and I had to go out in the middle of the night to use it. On my way to the bathroom, two large shadows about 10 feet from me appeared and started snarling in that sort of, "insane-dog-that-is-going-to-bite-you-so-run!" sort of way. I decided that my bladder could stand to wait till daylight and headed back to my room. But as I approached my room’s door I heard one of the large shadows move around the back of the bathroom to my side of the house and cut off my route just before I could reach the door. The snarling began again but on both sides this time and now at full force. I desperately began searching for a rock or something to protect myself with when I saw my host mother's light turn on. Normally I would think, "awesome, she'll call the dogs off," until I realized that I was standing in just my boxers and sandals. It is a huge insult just to wear shorts in this country let alone your skivvies with hershy stains and all. I had to make a quick decision, risk the dog and get to my room or horrify my Moroccan mother with how furry I really am. I chose to kick that damn dog in the face and entered my room just as my host mother stepped out. I have always used the bathroom before going to bed since then (when I had a bathroom).

Next, I have been at my site for a month now and am getting to know the people. Their favorite question to ask is whether or not you're married (or Muslim). I always reply “no, I haven’t got a girl” and the usual response is, “don’t worry, you’ll find one here in Morocco.” One night while sitting with a bunch of construction workers in my town I was asked this question which was followed with the usual response. Again, the answer to my reply was, “you should get one here in Morocco” and then it got suddenly quiet for a few moments…”but don’t take a girl from here!” I instantly burst out laughing. You know you’re in a hard hit village when even blue-collar (or turban in this case) construction workers don’t think the girls are worth fooling around with.

Continuing on the topic of women, I happened to bring my ipod touch with me to Morocco. This is great for sharing hundreds of pictures of friends and family to Moroccans. I have an incredible amount of pictures of myself hanging out with my closest friends, many of which are girls. Hundreds of pictures of me with an arm around a girlfriend at a café, at a ballgame, or some random party, and with each picture I would say “tamduklt-inu (my female friend).” As I would say this, I couldn’t figure out why all the guys smiled broader and broader and the women’s faces would grow red. I soon discovered there is a stark contrast in the interaction between the sexes here in the Moroccan bled (country side) compared to in America. You don’t hang out with girls or even necessarily talk to them without the intent of marrying or fooling around with them in some way. Needless to say, there are many Moroccans who believe they have met the biggest player ever from America!

It is difficult to know how to enter into a community. Luckily a friend of mine gave me an American soccer ball just before he left to return for America. I can’t speak the language but you don’t entirely need to in order to play soccer. I try to play three to four times a week now with the local kids and I think this has given me a great name in the village. After a game of soccer one day I told a group of children I was going out for a run. Several five and ten year olds asked to join me and I agreed to it thinking that they would pitter out after I blew by them in the first five minutes. I didn’t care to look back at the fading specks as I ran out of the village, but looking back after stopping to stretch I noticed three small figures on the horizon getting closer to me. I couldn’t believe these kids followed me all the way out of town and fully expected to run with me. Once they got to where I was stretching I told them to go home as I was going to run for a longer amount of time and possibly to a farther out village. After much deliberation I got them to understand and took off. I ran for about twenty minutes and stretched and took an easy walk for another thirty (mountain running is difficult). When I got back to the outer city limits after about fifty minutes I noticed that these kids had been waiting for me the entire time. We walked holding hands (which is what buddies do here in Morocco) back to the village. I think I’ve made an impact on at least someone in this village and hope I can platform off of that.

The other day my doctor and I decided to help teach some of the smaller boys of the village how to play soccer. We walked through the middle of town and instantly attracted about thirty knee-high Moroccan children who were mesmerized by the sight of our quality American soccer ball. We split the children into three teams. Two battled it out on the field while the other sat on the sidelines waiting for their turn at glory. Because I had a sprained ankle from the week before, I sat on the sidelines explaining to the children the dangers of cigarettes. For a good half an hour I tried to explain what was wrong with cigarettes, “they kill more people in one year than all the wars in the world,” or, “you’ll fill up your lungs with terrible things,” and still better yet, “they make you tired so that you can’t play soccer.” I tried to use my best explanations in Tamazight and even recruited some of the older boys to explain. Not thirty minutes after my explanations I looked back to the children who were trying to light some old discarded cigarette butts with an even more tired lighter. “Son of a bitch!” was my first thought but it was shortly followed with the realization that you can’t change behavior patterns with an hour lecture in broken Tamazight. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I guarantee that my work won’t be completed in one day either.

I hope that you enjoy these short stories or at best, got to kill some of that precious time that you Americans hold so dear. Take care and good luck over there in the land of the free.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"It's Lonely At The Top"

Where do I start with this blog? I finally made it into my site and have been hard at work. Of course, by work I mean I’ve been trying to keep my sanity. Let’s talk about the biggest problem for me right now, language.
Tamazight is a dialect of Amazight, which means that there is no written form of it. It is only spoken. It is also an ancient language that has changed and evolved over time. Since the indigenous Berber people have arrived several empires have conquered their territory and left, these empires being the Romans, Arabs, and recently the French. Only the Arabs have stayed for good and have maintained political control over Morocco. The significance of this is that the Berber language stopped evolving on its own and started adapting words from these other languages. More importantly, the language never became a truly written language.

Writing a language down allows it to be definitive and set in stone, “this word means this,” and everyone knows it because they read it. All languages are fluid and change over time (we aren’t still speaking Old English) but all people experience this change and learn from it through communication. On the other hand, when not everyone is reading the same material or communicating with each other, the language is able to change course as it likes without the rest of the world knowing. Especially when the people speaking that language are isolated and self-sufficient. There is no contact with others and their language becomes distinctly different than the communities around them. That’s incredibly frustrating for goofball Americans who spend two months of their life believing that the language their learning in one region will be understood in the other.

I am starting over almost from scratch. To ask what your name is in Azilal where I was training you would say, “may sminik.” But now I have to say, “may dims.” To add to the pain, I’m dealing with people who don’t know how to listen to my heavy foreign accent because I’m in a region that has never had a foreigner try to speak the language. English is derived from Anglo-saxon origins with a heavy emphasis of added vowels where we don’t expect them. For example, try saying “A” without an “ee” sound at the end. It’s impossible because the “ee” is an added vowel that helps make the word. Tamazight is more latin based and involves speaking straight vowels, i.e. “A” sounds like “eh.” So when I say something like, “I hate your language,” everyone thinks “ayee haeet youar lang- shit, I’m done listening to this guy.”

Luckily, there is a monstrous advantage to knowing Tamazight, and it lies in the politics. A man of Arab descent and a man of Berber descent are indistinguishable except in dress and name, but there is still a political divide between the two after centuries of Arabic political control. To add to this, king Hassan II had outlawed the teaching of all Amazight dialects (Tamazight, Tashlehit, and Tarafit) after Morocco’s independence from France and Spain in the early 50’s. The king’s intention was to unite the kingdom under one language (a common person in the nation will speak up to three or four languages), which would make life easier for everyone but is impossible to do without stepping on the toes of the Berbers. Hassan II has since died and the laws have changed to allow the teaching of Amazight under the new king Mohamed VI. But the divide still exists between Arabs and Berbers in language. Many people in large cities that are largely Arabic refuse to have an Amazight language spoken in their house, only Arabic. Here in the Berber mountains you are not very special if you are speaking Arabic, but no one learns Amazight unless they are from that area. Especially not white tourists. So when some white American guy comes to your mountain speaking what sounds like the faintest bit of Tamazight and says he wants to learn more…the shit hits the fan! I am a rock star. I can walk five miles down the road after being in town for four days and have truckloads of construction workers yelling my Moroccan name, “HDDU!” People will sit and listen to me stumble over their language like an imbecile for hours on end and love every minute of it. I’m sure in a month it won’t be the same, but for right now I’m going to soak it up.

This doesn’t mean that life is easy. Because they’ve never had someone trying to learn their language before, the people here don’t understand the concept of speaking slowly and deliberately. My host family doesn’t know what to do with me either. The women are all too scared to talk to me and most of the men can’t get past asking me if I’m a Muslim or not. All these problems amount to a roller coaster ride of emotions. I feel like a superhero in the morning and will feel like a prisoner in the afternoon. It’s too bad Randy Newman didn’t live on a mountain as a foreigner, because “it’s lonely at the top.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stuck In Tounfite With The Mobile Blues

Hey there folks, sorry it’s been so long, but I’ve been in a bit of a transition. I’m moving from Ait Helouan to a small town far up in the Eastern High Atlas Mountains. Most other peace corps volunteers (PCV) have entered into their sites a week ago. But I still haven’t even set foot in my site. For the past week I have been coordinating with the local Gendarme (like the police but not, I’ll explain another time) to have much of my paper work processed, helped with a 5K in nearby Middlt (When I say nearby I mean 3 hours away) to raise AIDS awareness, and made my way to the large city of Khunifera to meet with the heads of the Khunifera health department (Khunifera is my province). I’ve been a busy man and am excited to get to my site tomorrow. But what am I going to actually do once I get to my site? That’s a big problem indeed. So let me deliberate a little as to what I’m thinking or at least have heard.

While in Khunifera, I met with several department heads and heard many different ideas of what is needed. It seems that there is a basic need to connect the people in these rural bled (country side) areas to the medical support that is available. For instance in my site there is a doctor and nurse, a clinic where I will hopefully work where pregnant women can be examined, children can be vaccinated, and pre/post-natal care can be delivered. But no one goes. Why?

It can’t be money because all the vaccinations and exams are free. The clinic is in site so transportation shouldn’t be such a large problem, although for some women in farther out cities this very well could be a complication. But from what I’ve heard from previous volunteers, a big problem is that these women don’t trust the doctors or simply don’t see the importance.

So my job is behavior modification, i.e. get these women to trust the doctor/nurse and to give a damn. But that raises another question, how am I going to change their behavior and get them to seek the health care they need? And is that the specific health care problem these people are facing? I don’t know. Hell, I don’t even know how to ask. So I’m going to do what every other health volunteer has told me they have done their first few months here, sit in a sbitar and talk until I just know. Until I know what people are saying, what they want, what they think, and what I can do for them.

Of course this is all if I can even get to my site. For the past two days I've waited for a big white and green cargo van called a transit to come rumbling down the street, driven by an old weathered Moroccan named Mustapha. Happened to finally meet Mustapha today as he rolled into town and I was told that he would be heading to Anemzi at 3:00. I waited from 2:30 until 5:00 unti outside a cafe with everything I own until I finally was told the transit left at 1:30. Enshahala (God willing) I will make it tomorrow. Looks like tonight is another night at my fellow PCVs' houses.

Peace America!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another Day In The Life!

Sorry about the leave of absence there folks but I’m back and typing on a regular keyboard. Time is a tight commodity around here. Let me take you through one of my days.
Each morning I get up around 5:30 a.m. to try and study some new verbs and nouns while most of my family is asleep. At 7:00 it’s time for tea and fresh bread with the family and a bucket shower if I’m lucky. I walk on a paved road that spans over rolling hills and is laced with and mountains and wheat fields peppered with poppies on all sides. It’s pretty picturesque!
We start our language sessions at 8:00 and go until 10:00 when we stop for tea and more bread. We hit the language again at 10:30 until 12:00 when we stop for a two hour lunch of Tajin and (not always) fresh fruit. After that it’s more language (or cross culture training) until 4:00 – it’s time for more tea and bread at 4:00 – and the same from 4:30 to 5:30. During the whole time we are covering mostly new material that we have to somehow memorize by the next session.
Of course you never do get time to study it all because there’s a family of Moroccans waiting at home for each of us with small children that want us to give our undivided attention to them. It’s not just the kids either, the family is constantly pushing me into the family room to drink tea and eat more of that damn bread I thought was so delicious earlier that morning. After four sessions of tea and bread a day you start having nightmares of bread eating its way out of you like in the movie Aliens. But the next day it seems great again, don’t ask me how. Still, there is little studying I can do when people are force feeding me and asking questions I don’t know the meaning of.
Despite all of this you may ask “why don’t you just go study somewhere else?” There are two reasons I don’t do that. Number one; where the hell else can I go? This is a town of about 300-500 people with nothing but a few houses, a mosque halfway in construction, and a small shop about as big as an ice-fishing house. The only real place I can go to is another trainee’s house, which brings us to number two; I have no independence. The other night I went over to a fellow trainee’s house to have dinner and ran into one of my host brothers there. I told him to tell my host-mom that I was having dinner at the trainee’s house. Unfortunately half way through dinner I heard a familiar nagging voice as I was midway into eating some more of that damn bread. It was my host mother.
I couldn’t understand a word she said. I didn’t have to, it was written all over her face, “why weren’t you home yet? I thought you were dead. Do you know what time it is? Why are you eating here?” She had been pretty congenial up to this point but now was a blaze of angry-mother glory. Tight lipped with her hands on her hips she was ready to ring my neck.
Like when Luke Skywalker first realized that he had the hots for his sister, I had the wind knocked out of me. Luckily I thought enough to glance at the time, it was only 8:30. I quickly concluded that I had done nothing wrong because it was still early and I was a twenty three year old man for crying out loud. All fear subsided when the family I was eating with just laughed and started arguing in my defense. My host mother ended up going back home only for me to find her laughing as though nothing had happened when I got home. She has never scolded me since, but always demands to know where I’m going to and at times doesn’t let me go where I want.
My host mother is really sweet at heart but it is no secret that she is overbearing at times. Every where I go in the village, if I mention I’m living with Miriem the person I’m talking to gets a broad smile and follows with the word “ishqqa” which in Tamazirgt means “difficult.” Life can be pretty sweet here in Morocco as a trainee, but everything comes with some sacrifices.