Title in Arabic. Translation: “New Horizons.”
On the evening of April 16th, I lounged on a futon in a friend’s apartment, nursed a beer, and enjoyed my Saturday night like any other 21-year-old. We listened to music, chatted, and intended to sip our evening away. I placed my phone on the coffee table earlier, deciding to keep it away from myself so that I could be 100% present with my friends. A couple hours later, I reached for my phone to check my texts; I received one from a friend that shook me. All it said was, “Ecuador :(,” which struck me as odd. Why did he send me such a cryptic text? After reading it once more, I Googled, “Ecuador,” and what I saw nearly knocked me out. Images of collapsed homes and bleeding children filled my screen. “WHAT THE FU** HAPPENED,” I thought to myself. I clicked on a Washington Post article titled, “Powerful earthquake kills dozens in Ecuador.” It stated that a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck the country’s central coast, killing 77 people and injuring hundreds.
I couldn’t believe it. How could this happen? How could such a devastating natural disaster strike the country that stole my heart before I could even set foot on it? How could something like this happen to the people I’d grown to love, but had yet to meet? I couldn’t believe it. I excused myself and stumbled to the bathroom. I wasn’t drunk, yet I felt like I was about to black out. The pain I felt was real, and the agony struck me like a lighting bolt. I’ve watched a parent go through cancer treatments, witnessed the death of a grandparent, and had my heart broken by a boy, but nothing compared to this. Not even close.
I wanted to do something—ANYTHING. Nearly seven-hundred dead, thousands injured, entire towns flattened, and all I could do was watch helplessly from the sidelines. I was a month from moving to Ecuador to serve its people, but at the time, I felt completely useless. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t qualified to do any of the rebuilding necessary to lift Ecuador back up, but I sincerely hoped that my Peace Corps cohort could be of service in some way. We were scheduled to receive our flight and staging information the week of April 17th, but when we received a frantic email from our Country Desk Officer, stating that Peace Corps needed to account for all Volunteers and staff in-country before they could deal with us, we weren’t surprised. To help ease our anxiety and uncertainty, we discussed what we might be able to do once sworn-in as Peace Corps Volunteers. It was a waiting game, and it was an atrocious one.
To take my mind off the stress and intense sadness, my parents and I joined my friend Colin at a Peace Corps event at Washington State University. It was a beautiful spring day, and I enjoyed spending time with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and future Volunteers, like my friend Colin; he’ll be teaching science in Mozambique, come August. As the event drew to a close, a Peace Corps Morocco RPCV handed souvenir mugs to both me and Colin, wishing us luck on our great adventures. I thanked her wholeheartedly, and as I walked with my parents back to the car, feeling the warm setting sun kiss my cheeks, I felt happy.
Then it happened.
I checked my iPhone, spotting a notification on the “Peace Corps Ecuador” Facebook page. I expected it to be unrelated to me—maybe a recipe, or someone trying to give away kittens—but I was wrong.
“Obmnibus 116 was canceled,” someone posted on the feed. Omnibus 116 is the name of our cohort, with omnibus roughly meaning, “group,” and 116 denoting that we would be the 116th group of Peace Corps Ecuador Volunteers.
“WHAT,” I exclaimed from the backseat of my dad’s Honda Civic. I read it over and over, trying to absorb what was written. Someone from an earlier omnibus was inquiring on the page whether this was true, and other people commented back, confirming that the Country Director had indeed decided to cancel our omnibus. I burst into tears, unable to contain my grief. My parents begged me to tell them what was going on, but I could hardly talk. As I read it to them through stifled tears, they both shouted out profanities, and my mom started tearing up, too. It was a nightmare, and it seemed to be one that I wasn’t waking up from.
After a sleepless night of not knowing whether my cohort was officially canceled, I received “the call.” A Placement Officer at Peace Corps Headquarters delivered the official news to me while I was walking to class. He was kind and cordial—a little embarrassed that we discovered our fate via Facebook—but I could tell he meant what he was saying.
“You’ll receive a call from a Placement Officer in a couple days with options for a reassignment. Again, we’re so sorry,” he said.
“No, don’t be. I completely understand. We’ve grown to love Ecuador over the past year, and we only want the best for it. We also hope Peace Corps’ staff and Volunteers are safe and sane. We want to be located in countries where we’re helpful presences, not nuisances,” I reassured, trying not to cry.
But I really did understand! As I mulled the situation over the night before, I knew Ecuador wasn’t meant to be–but Peace Corps still was. I’ve wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer for most of my life, and just because I was losing the country of my dreams did not mean I was losing Peace Corps. I was beyond devastated, but I wanted to create a positive impact, and that wasn’t going to be feasible in such a disarrayed country.
For the next day, I remained religiously by my phone, making damn sure to keep it charged. It’s almost as if life moved in slow motion that day. I Facebook messaged some of the future PCVs in my Ecuador cohort about the situation, watched as each of them started receiving their reassignment calls, freaked out, watched more of them receive calls, freaked out some more, and eventually realized I wouldn’t be getting a call until the next day.
As you can imagine, I tossed and turned all night, hoping it was just a terrible nightmare, and that Ecuador was actually completely fine—that I’d still be going. However, when my ringing phone jostled me awake at 5:30 AM (I live on the West Coast, and Peace Corps Headquarters is in Washington, D.C.), I slapped my cheeks a few times and answered the phone with a jolly, “Hello?”
The quick conversation that ensued inevitably changed the course of my life. It’s interesting to think that a five-minute phone call could ultimately reshape all of my future plans.
“Morocco,” the voice on the other end stated. My mind immediately flooded with visions of camels and calls to prayer. I thought about mint teas and medinas, wealthy European vacationers, the famous movie Casablanca, even Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. My dad is a huge old movie buff, and I don’t expect you to know what I mean by “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope,” but they were in a film called Road to Morocco in 1942. Here’s undoubtedly the best musical number from the film:
The Placement Officer expressed that my position would be in the Youth Development sector; the only sector remaining in Morocco. I would be a Youth Asset Builder, which is essentially a fancy term for an English tutor and club leader. I would be assigned to a Dar Chabab (Arabic for a youth center), or to a Nedi Neswi (Arabic for a women’s center), and would be expected to tutor students in English, host clubs and girls’ empowerment camps, prepare students or women for higher education, and ultimately serve as a positive presence in their lives. I was immediately surprised by how different this position was from the Community Health position I was originally assigned to in Ecuador. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive and nervous for this position, but I must have been qualified, so I told the Placement Officer I’d think about it.
After spending the next day considering my future roles as a leader for Moroccan youth and women, I realized how much I actually liked the idea of the position. I read the Assignment Description multiple times, perused the Morocco Welcome Book, and even watched Anthony Bourdain’s Tangier episode on Netlix (Watch it. He’s the best.). I paced around my bedroom, panicked, contemplated life, panicked again, read a number of Peace Corps Morocco blogs (à la this) into the wee hours of the morning, panicked one last time, then finally decided to accept the invitation.
I emailed the Placement Officer, telling her that I’d do it. She replied within minutes, sending me an official invitation:
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter serves as a formal invitation for you to serve as a Youth Asset Builder in Morocco, departing September 19, 2016. By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
I opened the link in the email titled PCV Invitation Decision Form–something I had done eight months before—and hit, “Accept Invitation.” It was one of the most bittersweet decisions I ever had to make, yet I felt surprisingly ok. In fact, five other trainees from my Ecuador cohort accepted invitations to Morocco, too. I was thrilled that some of us would remain together, because we had already spent months getting to know each other. Plus, we went through this extremely difficult time together.
Those of us who are going to Morocco together now have our own Facebook group chat, fondly titled Ecuador Rejects. We’re supporting each other through this strange time, but we’re also getting pumped for Morocco! This is a country that I’ve always kind of viewed through rose-colored glass, never really considering more than what I viewed on the surface. It’s scorching hot during the summer, frigidly cold during the winter, close to Spain, and home of the dromedary camel. However, since delving into my research, I’ve realized that it’s so much more.
The Kingdom of Morocco is a nation that’s well on its way out of the “developing country” stereotype. Its king, Mohammed VI, is keen on improving quality of life in rural areas, raising the social and legal status of women, and alleviating poverty. He’s married to a computer engineer, and is even called “King of the Poor.” The country is influenced by a broad range of cultures (Middle Eastern, European, Sub-Saharan African, and others), making it a melting pot for language, food, and arts. Its national language is Moroccan Arabic (or Darija): a dialect infused with French and Spanish. Its cuisine consists of a marriage between the Middle East and Spain, creating quite the culinary experience. Its people are kind, hospitable, and loving (to the point of suffocation, I hear). It’s home to mountain ranges, the Sahara Desert, Mediterranean coastlines, and even ski resorts. Morocco is a versatile gateway to multiple worlds, and the more I read, the more infatuated I become.
Peace Corps Morocco was established in 1963, and has quite the reputation for being a sought-after and revered program. Each incoming trainee is allowed a mentor, and when I looked through the list of endlessly qualified and fascinating Volunteers, I only had eyes for one.
Enter: Alice Carter. Age: 87. She’s the oldest Peace Corps Volunteer currently serving, and the second oldest in history.
However, Alice’s captivatingly advanced age wasn’t what made me choose her. I actually already knew Alice–or at least knew of her. A friend of mine sent an NPR article to me a few months ago about the oldest Volunteer currently serving, thinking I’d enjoy it. Neither of us would have ever believed that Alice and I would correspond, let alone become pen pals. I’ve emailed back-and-forth with her a few times over the past week, and I know I’ve made the right decision. She’s wise, passionate, kind, and hilarious. She has explained life in Morocco in great detail, all while her iPhone keeps trying to autocorrect her words to French. Some of hèr words look likê this. So çute!
I was terrified to begin this new Peace Corps adventure, and I still am, but I have such an incredible support group behind me. My family, friends, fellow Ecuador Rejects, professors, and now Alice, have truly supported me throughout this Ecuador-to-Morocco transition, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the way this incredibly heartbreaking circumstance has blossomed into something new. Peace Corps is ultimately an adventure into the unknown, and my unknown awaits.
If you’re interested in donating to the Ecuador earthquake relief, take a look at this fund created by three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs):