Tag Archives: Culture Shock

And Thus Begins Chapter 3: Mali

29 Nov

So, I have attempted now on 4 separate occasions to start this post, but each time it has failed. This experience is not conducive to my prior writing style, so instead of doing this like I had in Morocco and France, I intend to keep a journal while here, and then edit parts into blog posts for all you wonderful people who still have regular internet access and modern amenities.

1 month in and only at blog post #1. It’s funny how a lack of modern amenities can make a pastime start to seem more like a chore. Step 1: Write in journal. Step 2: Find “reliable” internet. Step 3: Read Journal. Step 4: Write blog post in my increasingly deteriorating English while I continue to lament the fact that I can’t understand the Bambara of anyone in my host community.

As you can see, what started as a cathartic activity in Morocco has shifted into a category closer to work. But, at the same time I have to keep reminding myself that sharing these experiences with those I care about most was the true underlying desire to start this off in the first place.

So, anyway, about this “Mali” place…

Today it finally hit me that I was here. Yes, I know I have been in country for just under a month, and now, today, I finally mentally arrived. I say this because during the last few weeks I felt as though I have been in a dream, floating through my life as I know it, but expecting at any point to wake up and realize that I hadn’t yet begun the journey. I could process and retain information, but my mind had not come to the realization that the environment with which I was interacting was not just a product of itself (Please take that last statement at face value, this is not the place for further philosophical discourse).

Today, however, was unique. I used my broken Bambara to explain to my host father last night that I wished to spend my day off from school working in the fields with him (working: watching him work, making tea and performing simple tasks once every 45 minutes). We departed this morning, and as I made tea under a tree and learned how to irrigate a field using a pump and a well, something came over me, and stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly my brain had reengaged with my body and I realized that “I am actually in Mali, in the Peace Corps, learning how to irrigate a field.” It took a month, but I think I am officially here.

Now to recount the events of my 29 day dream…

The breakdown of the past month goes something like this: 1 week orientation, 3 weeks of homestay/language training. Nothing of any noteworthiness occurred during my first week here, other than the stark realization of everything that I was going to miss most about the life I left behind in the states, and the ensuing struggle to accept this new and drastically different lifestyle.

Highlights:

–  I now have a beard and am debating how far I will attempt to take it.

–  My bathroom is now a roofless brick enclosure with a cement hole in the ground.

–  I officially hate any and all donkeys on sheer principle (due to their 4 am, well, really all day howls that sound as though they are in immense amounts of pain).

Looking back through my journal, I get the feeling that I didn’t arrive here mentally until today due to a processing backlog. When so much changes so rapidly you fail to process quickly enough to keep up, and in the process revert to your college years: more work then you have the time for, so everything gets done later than anticipated.

Now, on to something you really want to hear about: food.

I’ve been relatively pleased with the food here, considering that as a non-tourist I don’t have a whole lot of say over my food choices, and my food options tend to be limited in a small village. Most mornings begin with a piece of bread (I’m relatively sure nothing other than baguettes exist in this country) filled with fried or boiled eggs, and sometimes peanut butter. They use about a quart of oil in everything they fry and every sauce they make, making my use of olive oil at home seem sparing, and also makes the fried eggs just a touch bit gross at times.

Lunch is usually rice or pasta with a peanut or tomato-based sauce and random pieces of gristle, bone and meat I assume were at one point an animal. It’s a decent set up, but starch seems to be an overwhelming dietary staple here. Dinner doesn’t tend to differ much from lunch with only the substitution of potatoes, sweet potatoes (looks just like a regular potato but has a sweeter flavor, and they are awesome) and the occasional yam. Fried plantains and onions add a little color every once and while as well.

Anything that is legitimately cold here tends to be a relatively hot commodity (pun unintended). Refrigeration is hard to come by, so a cold soda is a wonderful thing to stumble across when in larger towns. The options are relatively limited (Coke products and more local brands tend to dominate), but a cold soda is a nice luxury to indulge in from time to time.

Diversity of food here is very much dictated by the seasons and regions, but this place is much more green than I think most people give it credit for, writing it off as a giant chunk of desert with no real diversity in diet. Although the north is more arid, it’s not quite what many people assume: Mangoes and Watermelons are dirt cheap and all over during the correct season and vegetable gardens are quite common. Even more diversity exists in fruits and veggies, but I honestly am not well versed enough to speak on this issue, though I will be sure to address it in later posts in much more detail.

Speaking of misconceptions, let me dispel a couple other ones that were flung my way during the months I was preparing to make my move here:

All Malians are poor, and therefore they are all going to want to steal my nice stuff

Mali is amongst the ten poorest nations in the world. Food security is a major issue even though most of the economy is based in subsistence agriculture. And, on top of all of that, a less than stellar rainy season prior to our arrival has hurt crop yields significantly that are going to need to sustain Mali until next year. So yes, I do witness extreme poverty, and extreme poverty does tend to lead to increased crime rate.

BUT

I have been living in a small village within Mali with my things under lock and key, but at no point in my stay thus far have I legitimately feared that any of my personal belongings were in danger. Many people may be poor here, but communities are communities. If you live in a community of 2,000 people, everyone knows everything about everything, and immoral acts don’t fly. Socioeconomic disparity does not essentially dictate theft, and vigilance in any situation is an effective deterrent.  So no, I can safely say that I don’t feel as though any of my personal belongings will be stolen if I follow the same safety precautions I did in Morocco.

Africa time is real, therefore Africans are lazy which is obviously why they are suffering

Yes, Africa time does exist, it is not a myth.

BUT

I live with a host father who looks like he is easily 70 (though he probably is younger), and every day he leaves for the fields at 8 am, comes back for lunch before leaving for the rest of the evening. And when I mean every day, I mean every day. Monday through Sunday. And after seeing him teach me how to irrigate a field, I can say without a doubt that he does not just drink tea out in those fields, he does back-breaking work that would make me desperately need a chiropractor. As far as I’m concerned there is much more to this story than blatant generalizations, and although this place runs on its own time, there is much more to it than meets the textbook. Although, since I am working in Small Enterprise Development, I’m sure I will spend time discussing this issue in the future.

The all being said…

I get the feeling from the volunteers here I have met that this experience is going to be a difficult and humbling one, and worth every moment. This makes moving out of you comfort zone in a study abroad seem like child’s play.

Until next time…

(K’an b’en)

See you later

Addendum 11/29/11: My first experience with Malian soccer ended in a small flesh wound. Soccer in Mali is a full contact sport, something I will most definitely keep such things in mind in the future. I’m quite fine and healthy, but something to keep in mind during future games.

Advertisements

Ce n’est pas Maroc…

8 Jun

Instead of harming the internet, my friends, family, and imaginary group of avid readers with another blog, URL link, and page that will never be checked, I’ve decided to update my current page and continue to use it as my source for these “musings.”

It’s been a while since the last update, and many things have occurred since then. My triumphant return to the U.S was relatively dull, and my subsequent month in NY even duller. I mean, let’s face it, after 4 months in Morocco, daily showers, utensils and a soft legitimate bed had never before in my life been so welcoming, but that’s not the stuff that makes stories. No one wants to read about how I was nice and clean, could eat whatever whenever, and slept like a baby at night. Comfort and convenience don’t build character, and idle hands find a video game controller much more easily than they should. As you can tell from this short description, there isn’t much here to tell other than that I caught up with my friends, relaxed, and tried to digest everything that had just happened to me.

My final week in Morocco was filled with exams, so like any other finals week, it was nothing but stressful. However, after writing over 100 pages of double space material over the course of the semester on nothing other than the shabby (but lifesaving) computers in my family’s house and the internet cafes, I will never again complain about any technological set-up that I have in the U.S. No matter what it is, anything would be easier than trying to pen a final paper under cover of night in my house hoping someone doesn’t yell at me for using the computer, or sitting in a humid internet café jammed next to 4 chatting Moroccans trying to pen a worthy research paper on a questionably legal version of Microsoft Word. After a trial like that, you begin to appreciate your good fortune in a way you never thought possible. With perseverance, some help and a little luck, everything I penned turned out decently, and I was proud of the work I accomplished. I ran the gauntlet, and spent my final hours in Morocco seeing my first sunrise and pre-dawn (much easier when you just don’t go to sleep), saying my final goodbyes and avoiding any embarrassing displays of emotion in the process (الحمد لله, or “praise be to god”), and buying all those presents I had been avoiding shopping for until my final day. My trip back was the closest to Odysseus I’d ever felt, and it was damn good to be home.

After a few days home, however, the mindset that had made me comfortable in Morocco turned around to slap me square in the face. It’s that cruel mistress we like to refer to as “reverse culture-shock.” It took the form of a crippling boredom, and a general frustration with my fellow countrymen that I question if I will ever get over. Questions like “did you eat dirt there?” “Did you have electricity?” “Did you sleep in the dirt?” still provoke a muscle spasm or knee-jerk reaction that forces me to bite my tongue lest my vocal chords betray me and turn me into “that guy.” These questions, whether joking or earnest, serve as a painful reminder that most people will never know what I know, but more importantly and depressingly, they don’t care either. When ignorance takes the step toward bigotry, toward misconception, toward an ill-informed life, I can’t help but simmer inside. Most people see Islam as nothing more than a sadistic-psycho with a really long beard chanting “death to America” and women with a veil and no rights. Maybe you don’t believe that, and maybe those people joking to me about me eating the same material I sleep and walk on don’t believe it either, but if we continue to perpetuate these defamations, all we do is perpetuate a subconscious feeling of superiority. When we start to break down these notions though, and begin to see people for who they are, we all begin to see that the struggles we face are universal. We all bleed, cry, laugh, love, hate and die. We all fight with our parents, friends, lovers and people who work at the DMV. Regardless of who you are, how big your pocketbook, brain, ego or muscles are, you will always be more like other people than you think, and only once we are able to realize this on a large scale, our path through history will not change. It’s not easy, and I myself have been guilty of these mistakes, but all it really takes is some self consciousness, and a desire and drive to improve. No one can ever ask anything more of you.

*Steps off Soapbox*

These concepts developed during my time in Morocco, and have continued even to today. In a way, this is what I feel my experiences have taught me. You may not arrive at the same end, but I can guarantee you that after 4 months away from your own language, your own culture, everything looks different. It’s an experience I will never forget, and one that will forever be a part of me. Looking back after a month has past; I don’t feel as if much has changed from the last time I wrote. I’ve fallen back into my previous life, but I will continue to feel this way for a long time to come.

My next adventure has brought me to a totally different environment, a small town on the French Mediterranean called Hyeres. I have only been here for 5 days, and the sights and smells have already begun to captivate me. The town is gorgeous, and I’ve had very few complaints so far. I’m slowly trying to remove the obnoxious “In Morocco…” from my vocabulary, and experience this for what it is, not for what it is compared to my last experience. In the end, however, I know that my knowledge will be helpful, as I’m already feeling comfortable here. In the end, I think that, just like my last experience, the people, sights and adventures will captivate me as long as I am ready and willing.  I hope the stories in my next post will be proof of this thesis.

Time to bridge the language gap:

Fi Mustakbell, Inshallah (In the future, if god wills it)

Will now be,

Si tous marche bien (If all goes well)

Experiences Can No Longer Be Contained In Words…

22 Apr
As I write my second to last entry in my Moroccan epic, that bittersweet feeling that has permeated so many moments in this experience has begun to seep back into my mind. This will, effectively, be the last post I author while sitting in Morocco. (The last post of the experience will be written in NY, before I alter this blog to accommodate my escapades in France as well). I’ve found myself worried about the withdrawal of excitement that may strike me when I return to the States, and have already started to concoct ways in which to avoid it (Mt. Washington ski/hike, a few weekends in Boston, plus what will inevitably grow into yet another summer of too much traveling, yet again fighting to contain copious amounts of wanderlust).

The last few weeks, between Gnawa music, the eventual successful trip to Kenitra (thank god), hiking the second highest mountain in Africa, Jebel Toubkal, (prompting the desire to find my way to Kilimanjaro… someday), I have to say that I tried. Regardless of my continued travels, and attempts to see all of Morocco, I still can’t shake the feeling that someway, somehow, I fell short. I don’t see this as any deep failure on my part, the human mind has a funny way of either thinking it has too much time, or not enough. We all fall into the same pitfalls, wasting time on facebook, email, or even just sleeping, and before we know it the time is up.

I definitely squeezed as much as I could out of the weeks following spring break.

Weekend 1,

Physical and economic recovery from spring break, some work and a few low key evenings relaxing and planning the biggest weekend of the semester.

Weekend 2,

Al-hayt Al-usbooah Kabeeeeeer (the biiiiiiig weekend)

Ready?

Go.

Train leaves at 3am Saturday morning.

Arrive in Marrakesh at roughly 8am. After some confusion and a complete inability to procure a decent breakfast, we settle on some coffee and hit the grand taxi lot. After meeting a crazy San Fransisco native who lives as an ex-pat in Paris, six of people cram into a beat up Mercedes to make the 2 hour ride to Imlil, changing drivers randomly and without warning 20 minutes outside Marrakesh proper (This is Morocco, This is Morocco…).

Make it to Imlil alive and well, grab a quick omelet, haggle over a guide only to realize we can’t, and decide to take the budget tour. Get our crampons (a bed of large metal spikes you attach to a shoe to walk through snow and ice) and start the 5 hour hike to base camp. Our oxygen is slowly disappearing (Base camp is at 10,000 feet. Rabat? Sea Level.), we are getting more and more tired as the day wears on, and the exertion is not ending. But,

Oh. My. God. was it gorgeous. This place was true back country, the wilderness in all its rugged glory and an environment that takes your breath away (in more ways than one).

4 hours in and I’ve given up trying to talk to anyone. Pushing, thinking only about my surroundings and the bed waiting for me not far away. As we approach base camp, snow begins to dominate the landscape and we are engulfed by a a slowly darkening sky (sunset was 2 hours ago due to the sheer rock face rising up on either side of us).

5 hours after our departure, we arrived. Exhaustion now means something wholly different from what it used to. I was on the verge of nausea/body shutdown.

After 30 minutes of slow recuperation and replenishment, I was alive, but exhausted.

8pm bedtime,

Wake up at 4:30am. Let this go on the record as the ONLY time I will ever wake up at that and and feel well rested.

5:30am and we are suited up and ready to go. The sun had yet to make its way above the solid rock that rose on all sides of us, so we started the exhausting hike pre-dawn. After some struggles, we make our way up to the summit (in the process getting lapped by some crazy Spainards…).

Summit at 10:30am. Gorgeous. This is one of those things you have to do yourself, because no amount of pictures will ever allow you to bask in this the way you need to.

“Time to head back down…..wait, crampon is coming undone. Really, again? Whyyyyyyy won’t this thing stay on, and more importantly why is our guide 500 feet ahead of me helping the female of our group who clearly no longer needs help? Does he even know where we are in relation to him? Ahh screw it, I don’t need his help anyway, plus she could use another Berber husband. Forget the crampon, I’ve got one foot that still works. Damn, snow is slippery, boot skiing time, and……go.”

I proceeded to make my way down the last quarter of the mountain on  some skiing skill, a whole lot of slipping, and a whole ton of luck. It was at this point that I determined that my Berber guide was no longer going to keep me any safer than I was going to be alone, so needless to say I stopped listening to him. (But, in retrospect, I would much rather have this story than have had his help…..foolish pride sort of a thing).

After a 4 hour hike back to Imlil, tea and a 2 hour taxi, we arrive in Marrakesh, with the Toubkal Gauntlet clock running at roughly 42 hours.

After a good warm meal, we hit the night train to Rabat.

Sleep?

Not if you don’t have a seat. What was to follow would rank among the most surreal 4 hours of my life. After 30 min stoop sit in the diner car, a booth in the car opens up.

Run.

Seat.

Safe.

I put my head down after shaking off some creepy army guy, wrap my personal belongings tight, and pass out.

1 hour passes.

Awake again.

Creepy army guy is trying to force some strange child’s head into his lap….no….the table? This is too much, back to sleep.

1 hour later… army guy gone, new guy next to me. Good, he speaks Fus’ha and French. We’re in Casa, and that seat bench is open? Great.

Restaurant bed, One more hour. Back in Rabat. Perfect. Sleeeeeeeeeep. (Followed by the most painfully sore 2 days of my life).

Weekend 3? Sick due most likely to the last weekend. Weekend 4? Work and relaxation in Rabat, and a good reminder of why I’m going to miss this place.

Now for a A Tribe Called Quest song, a deep breath, a pensive pose and… scene. Time to try and muse these last 3 and a half months into one thought flow… (and avoid the finals workload a little while longer).

PART II

I came here off of a sigh and a half-hearted acceptance. Oh… Morocco, yeah sure… *mumble* It’s not Niger…

I left behind my ease, my comfort, my stability. I gave up something I had spent the past year and a half building in Boston. I was really finally truly happy in that place, but, I also couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I had to shake so many times before. Comfort was never really the top priority. I left behind a place I was finally happy with when I left Saratoga. I did it again when I left Geneseo, and I did it a third time when I left Boston, and they still to this moment those decisions rank among the most intelligent things I’ve ever done. I now have 4 homes, so many friends, so many experiences and so many memories.

A couch is comfortable. You sink down into it, and never want to leave. You get your friends, your geographical comfort, and you don’t ever want to leave it. I don’t know, maybe something is wrong with me, but I cannot see the time in my future when I’m ever going to be able to fully accept that. I won’t lie, I’ve lost a lot from my wanderlust and movement: money, connections, security, and dare I say, even a tear or two along the way, but at no point in this entire experience have I ever felt that I made a mistake. I look at my future, and more of the same lies in my path. Fullbright? Peace Corps? Am I ever going to spend more than 28 months in any one place? Not likely. I’m not saying that what I set out for myself is something everybody should do, but I think that my underlying motivation runs through everyone:

Never, ever, for the love of god let your mind get the better of you.

Yeah, that was vague, but what I’m trying to say is, people, myself included, tend to get so set in our ways that we lose sight of the truly important things. We stay in the same place for nothing more than fear of moving. We date the same person for a year for shear fear of change. We spend our lives eating the same thing for fear of tasting something bad, and we trod in the same footsteps as everyone else for fear that walking off that path may lead to an injury.


I have, without posting my entire life story on the Internet, been victim to all of the above at some point before, and let me say this : New places are exciting, change is inevitable (and is often a good thing), new things taste damn good, and in my opinion, that less beaten path is 10x times more beautiful.

I write all this to preface my thoughts on Morocco for two reasons. One, I want to explain why I feel the way I do about Morocco in more abstract terms to outline the concrete, and two, maybe, just maybe someone will stumble across this and be inspired to do something daring, something new, and understand the point I’m trying to ramble to death.

A few discussions with old friends, family, weathered colleagues, and new friends have got me to thinking a lot about this experience, and I hope that the cathartic release of these thoughts will give these 4 months a little justice:

I left everything to come to a place that I knew nothing about to learn a language I was half-heartedly interested in and do things that I thought could easily be a boring waste of 4 months. But, on the other hand, somewhere deep down I knew that this was my only shot at study abroad, and I had to either take a leap of faith, or forever spend my life just guessing at what could have been. I held tight, bit my tongue, and sat down to truly prayed for the first time in a long time, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake.

I got here and my honeymoon period lasted about two weeks. Everything was new and cool, but that ended, and the culture shock set in. I can’t speak these languages, I don’t know whats going on, I wasn’t ready for this, what am I doing here? I just want to go home……give me my old life back. I knew this was bound to happen, but I questioned everything, trying to cling to everything I left behind, praying, hoping, that I was still right.

I was.

I adapted, I began to get comfortable, bond with new people, and I began to really, truly fall in love with this place. The daily battles, the constant frustration was accompanied with the most acute feelings of accomplishment I have had in my entire life. My life was constantly changing, and constantly throwing me for a loop, but I was hitting back, and loving every minute of it. Every day a new challenge, and every day a new reason to shake my head,  look into the clouds/ceiling and think “yeah, this definitely isn’t the US.”

Other people I know here have complained, spent many a weekend bound to the house, wondering why they didn’t feel the same way the students in past semesters had felt. I knew why. For many of us, our heart had never been in this trip, in this place, and we spent more energy thinking about home than we did about trying to enjoy this for what it was and stop thinking about what it wasn’t.

I have a confession. I’m going to have to fight back the emotion when I leave this place like those before me. I put myself into this experience. I spent my time in the Sahara Desert, on the tops of the Rif and Atlas mountains, in the obnoxious city centers of Casablanca and Marrakesh, on the beach, in the medinas, in the souks. I spent my time navigating Rabat at two am, getting yelled at for violating house rules, having dumbed down discussions in Arabic and French. I ate unsanitary street food, stopped using utensils. I spent a week in Spain and Portugal by myself just because. I did what I could, I did what I wanted, and I dealt with the consequences of those actions as they came to me. I regret not a single decision. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every decision has lead me to where I sit right now, and dare I say am very happy with that place.

In my opinion, there are less bad experiences than there are bad mindsets. If my battles here have taught me anything, it’s that people will construct whatever they need to in their minds to keep things out, or let things in. Morocco was not what I wanted in my study abroad……but I made it what I wanted. In the end, it was the experience I wanted, and it was the experience I got. I will never forget, for the rest of my days, the places, the people, and the experiences that stole my heart, that made me think, and that made this semester the best of my entire college career. I give up Morocco, you win…….Ahebuka (I love you), happy?

Morocco may not speak the language you want to learn, may not be your top choice of location, but its environments, its people, its cities and its atmosphere will make you love the place, all you have to do is make sure you are ready for it.

Anyway, that’s my verdict on Morocco. You can agree or disagree with me, but I will forever be sticking with my verdict. Come into this country with an open mind, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

I will leave you with this advice: If you ever get the chance to experience something like this… do it. I could just be the best decision you ever make.


“Bi-saha” (this one gets lost in translation)