The first whiff of diesel and hot rubber smacked into us as the air conditioned bus unloaded in the center of Rabat, Morocco. It was like coming home. Bags were piled in front of an arched gate in a stone wall dripping with jasmine. The street was dusty, a clutch of small boys leaned against each other and the wall. “Hey ‘Merican!” There we were, ninety-five spanking new Peace Corps Volunteers, along with the people who would teach language and the ways of the Maghreb – the Land of the West. We passed through the gate into a cool, lily lined garden.
Family tradition meant living abroad, learning new languages, and assimilating into a foreign culture, a sort of Miss Rumphius life. Joining the Peace Corps seemed to be the answer, but it was easy. “Finish college first,” said the woman on the phone who seemed to have answered the lost paperwork question before.
I finished college and tried again. The application process started off well, then foundered as all the transcripts, letters of support, and pages of blue boxed forms disappeared in the world of the postal service.
Thinking a life in journalism might be the ticket overseas, I moved back with my folks and started free-lancing as a writer, covering the political season, writing brochures for cedar fencing and in house newsletters for area businesses. My family was unimpressed. In February, I turned twenty-three. “Get a real job,” they said, “or go back to school and get some practical training. Become a teacher.” Reluctantly I signed up for the graduate school entrance exams.
Then, salvation! A notice appeared, in the local paper, that Peace Corps recruiters would be in Bangor the next week, conducting interviews out of a motel room downtown. Walk-ins welcome. At the end pale green corridor with seedy gray carpeting, the recruiters had set up their office. We chatted. They loved me. “Where do you want to go?” Three countries seemed like interesting prospects. Two weeks later the phone rang. “You’re going to Morocco. Get a passport, get a physical, get fingerprinted. Get the documents translated. You leave the first week of June.”
The stone wall surrounded a girls’ school that would house the new Volunteers for the next two months. Language classes were formed based on past experience, and I was placed with the group who were on their second tour with the Corps. Our teachers spoke only Arabic, in class or out.
I made a habit of going off on jaunts, eating charcoal roasted brochettes, drinking milk blended with marzipan. I explored the stone fortress that lined the harbor. I had grown up watching Dad chat in Swahili, Kikuyu, and Luragoli in Kenya, and later Arabic in Jordan. He picked up new words in restaurants, never failing to address people in their own languages. He the liaison. When students went on strike, he negotiated. When the government wanted to close the school in Jordan, he found the common ground. That became my strategy as I moved about the city. When venturing out with other Volunteers, I jumped in and used my language skills.
Once we moved to our assigned villages, there was a wretched afternoon spent in the garden of a small hotel, slumped on a stone bench, crying on a cleaning lady’s shoulder. She pointed out I was a big girl to be sitting there bawling my eyes out. “You speak pretty well,” she said. “This is what you wanted and this is what you’ve got.” She pointed out that my entire complaint had been in Arabic and she had gotten the point just fine.
Two other volunteers, both men, stationed in the village. Beyond sharing a maid and occasional meals, they wanted nothing to do with me. “We came here to absorb culture. Make your own friends,” and finally “Just get a life.” Our maid said the mostly smoked dope with the other young men in town.
Language immersion was the only choice. Teaching students, and fifty rounds of “Whose book is that? It is my book” did not cut it as far as comforting language went. Some British friends in Fes, a full day’s journey away from what was becoming Home, provided an opportunity to relax and speak English.
I made friends with the girls next door. I frequented the public baths, used sticky black soap, hennaed my hair, and ate mandarins floating in icy cold water. I went on walks with neighbors, my students’ mothers, and other young unmarried women met through my maid. I learned to kiss hands, eat politely, join in bawdy wedding songs. The market-day routine was buying two eggs and taking them to the fried dough maker for a deep fried breakfast sandwich. Spices from cone shaped mounds of red and yellow.
I still dressed oddly by local standards, wearing a wooly man’s djellebah, a kind of over the head, floor length coat with a hood. The one worn by women, while prettier and often embroidered, was thin and required layers of clothing underneath in order to stay warm during the winter. I still misspoke to everyone’s great humor, but learned to avoid saying anything truly rude. Trips to Fes, to spend the weekends speaking English, became sporadic events.
One of the American men transferred to mystical Marrakech, then back to the States. The one who remained lasted about two weeks before suggesting we share a house. His or mine, it didn’t matter. “I know,” he said, “that we weren’t very nice to you. But now I really understand and want to make it right.”
It would, I realized, be an upheaval. “Let me think about it.” That afternoon I went to the baths. I helped wash a couple of kids, got scrubbed myself, and warmed my bones to the core. As I was getting dressed, one of the attendants said, “We’ve been watching you. You’re not a prostitute, like some of those other foreigner women. You try to belong.” Decision made.