“For me, volunteering abroad is an act of selfishness.”

This is an excerpt from an open letter I wrote to my friends and family in August 2013, while we were in the process of applying for the Peace Corps. Before we knew we were going to Morocco. Before we knew anything. These thoughts I had are a vital part of my personal journey.

Let’s get something straight here—I’m joining the Peace Corps for selfish reasons.

When people tell me that this decision is so “selfless” and “noble” of me, I feel very uncomfortable. The main problem is that this line of thinking reeks of privilege. It’s a complicated issue, and I’m afraid of oversimplifying it, but I’ll do my best here… Teaching English abroad is at best a Band-Aid-over-gaping-wound solution (temporary, superficial, inconsequential in the long run) and at worst an act of colonialism. International lenses are pivotal to social justice movements, but it is disingenuous to treat international volunteers as idealized “do-gooders.” Voluntarism is problematic. Good intentions are not enough. (See: TOMS shoes).

No rose-colored glasses here, but also… not as much cynicism as you might think. Criticizing something does not mean I think that thing completely sucks! It simply means that it is worth being cognizant about. I’m critical about a lot of things I like. (See: Game of Thrones, T.S. Eliot, Starbucks). The difference with the Peace Corps is that I am in a position to do more than passively criticize it—I can actively work to bring awareness to certain issues. By that, I do not mean colossal human rights issues like educational equity or human trafficking or racial justice. Productive and profound work still needs to be done in these arenas, but I’m referring to something just as systemic but much more difficult to pin down. I’m trying to discuss the kind of privilege that drives people to join the Peace Corps—not something to feel guilty about, but something to be aware of. It’s a difficult thing to maintain awareness of one’s own privilege. Anyways, these thoughts aren’t full or complete. I’m still working it out. These are not my last or definitive thoughts on the matter.

As the old saying goes—what is right is not always what is easy. We have to follow some basic “rules” (i.e. Do not usurp the voice of another community. Do not start unsustainable projects that will be abandoned in two years, etc.) and I have to be completely honest. I’m not joining the Peace Corps because I’m “altruistic”—I’m joining because it’s a job that happens to encompass all of my passions and because it’s a stepping stone towards what I want to do with the rest of my life.

I am NOT thinking: “I can save all those poor starving third-world children.”
I am thinking: “I will build the skills and experience I need for the field I want to work in.”

I am NOT thinking: “It is super gallant of me to give up American luxuries to serve the greater good.”
I am thinking: “I can travel. I can learn a new language. I can work with community programs. I can teach English. I will have more time to read and write. These are my favorite things!”

I am NOT thinking: “The global scale of my altruism makes it even more significant.”
I am thinking: “I can do the type of work I care about while making a positive impact on a community. Plus, this will be a good chance to learn more about the complexities of human rights and global development.”

I am NOT thinking: “I can change the world.”
I am thinking: “I can make my life richer and more resonant, and hopefully be a positive force in the lives of people around me.”

Now, two and a half years later, I’m still working it out. I still don’t have any definitive answers. And I think that’s okay! These thoughts are a process. A journey I’ll have for the rest of my life. 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

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400 Days of Habits

Some psychologists say that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Some say 66 days.

Well, here are are—398 days into living in Morocco. Almost 400 days.

These are the habits that have been ingrained in our brains. The ones our bodies do before we even register the action in thought. Honestly, we might not have realized these things were even Moroccan habits if it hadn’t been for the reverse culture shock moments we experienced when we visited Washington DC in October and when we visited Paris in December. In 421 days, when we leave Morocco—how long will it take again until these habits are broken?

  1. Automatically saying “wa alaykum salam” to anyone’s “salam wa alaykum.”
  2. Greeting people with handshakes and double/triple/quadruple cheek kisses.
  3. Putting our right hands to our hearts after handshakes.
  4. Tearing bread by pulling with pointer fingers and thumbs.
  5. Using bread as a utensil.
  6. Wearing pajamas outdoors.
  7. Muttering “inshallah” under our breaths any time anyone says anything about the future.
  8. Asking for prices instead of looking for prices tags.
  9. Grabbing the brika (lighter) before doing anything stove-related.
  10. Turning on the faucet to fill a bucket of water before using the toilet.
  11. Patting random kids on the head as we walk past them / hugging random children.
  12. Lifting teapots as high as possible when pouring tea.
  13. Eating only with our right hands.
  14. Calling everyone “brother” or “sister.”
  15. Saying yes to every opportunity.

And the thing is… there are probably a few more habits we could add to this list that wouldn’t even cross our minds until 421 days from now!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Our Top Five Most Used Arabic “God Phrases”

Klma = Word. Klmatic Monologues is a semi-regular series on words in Moroccan Arabic (Darija). Note 1: I am neither a linguist nor a native speaker, so this should be taken as amateur antics. Note 2: Darija is not a standardized written language, like Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa) or Standard English, so my Latin letter transcriptions are subjective. In other words, spelling will always be questionable.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.


This is a special edition of Klmatic Monologues, fueled by the Blog Challenge! You can’t learn any dialect of Arabic, the language of the Quran, without learning about God phrases. Living in a Muslim majority country means that our everyday conversations are peppered liberally with references to Allah. As Arabic language learners, we find that God phrases are incredibly useful and dynamic. We’re sharing five of our most-used God phrases—it’s pretty much impossible to have a conversation in Moroccan Arabic without using at least one of these!

1. Tbarkallah

“May God grant you grace”

Used as a “congratulations” or “good job.” And just like the English phrases, yes—it can be used sarcastically. (Yes, we’ve combined tbarkallah with a slow clap.)

2. Alhamdulilah (most often shortened to Hamdullah)

“Praise be to God” / “Thanks to God”

Used to express that all is well for any occasion. You can use it to express happiness or contentment or gratitude in any form. Some common times to break out the hamdullah: during greetings (you can use it by itself to answer “how are you?” questions), after you burp, after you finish a meal (especially if a Moroccan mama is insisting you eat more! Invoking the hamdullah often—though not always—stops the urging).

3. Bismillah

“In the name of God”

Used at the start of anything or before you begin any activity. Before you start a meal, before you eat or drink anything. Before you exchange money. Before you read something. Before you start on an adventure. Before a new work project. Before you start studying for an exam. Before you start an exam. Before you start a car (heard very often from taxi drivers). It’s also the first word of the Quran.

4. Inshallah

“God willing”

Used for any sort of future tense. Things will happen only if God wills it. Even as nonbelievers, we’ve come to really respect inshallah. After all, it’s true—no human can really know the future. We can have all the intentions in the world to see our friend later, to go the event, to start the work project—but still, things happen that we can’t control. Plus, inshallah is the perfect cover for things you don’t reeeaaallly want to do.

“Come over for lunch next week!” says someone we don’t like very much. “Inshallah!” we say in jaunty unison.

“Next time, I’ll pay,” Robert tells a friend who treated us to coffees. “Inshallah,” she replies. We look at her suspiciously.

We use inshallah so often that even when a character in a movie or TV show says “see you later,” we whisper under our breaths, “…inshallah.”

5. Llah yrHm l-walidin

“God bless your parents.”

When we first learned about this phrase, we were told by our teachers and our textbook that it’s used when asking for a service/information or to express gratitude to someone. For example, when you’re lost and ask someone for directions, you can throw in a “llah yrHm l-walidin.” This is true, but it wasn’t until much later that we learned about the other side of this phrase. After we had passed the fifth or sixth shouting argument in which we heard this phrase screamed, we realized that in certain contexts, “God bless your parents” can also mean “SCREW YOU.”

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

What Happens When Your Headphones Break?

Everyday situations when you’re a foreigner in Morocco become far more convoluted and confusing. Here’s Robert’s account of yesterday’s Problem of the Day: 

So big problem, your headphones break and you’re without replacements, what do you do? Also did I mention you’re in Morocco? In America you’d just throw them away and then go to Best Buy or Target or Fry’s and buy a new one! Well, in Morocco, we always think to get something repaired before we buy anything new. Here’s how I managed the headphone sitch.

IMG_1575

You can see the duct tape (one of the best packing decisions we made a year ago!)

I went down to the local game shop where they sell PS2 (first made 16 years ago) FIFA soccer time by the hour and I asked the owner if he knew anyone that could fix a broken headphone cable. He of course sent me to Haybia, the most popular street in our city (think of it as a market street filled with shops of sweets, party favors, and electronics.) I go to the first electronics guy I can find and he says he can’t do it, you see he specifically sells cellphones and can’t be bothered with such inferior stuff like cables, so he sends me to the next guy. The next guy is more promising; his shop is filled with charger cables. But again, he can’t be bothered because he only sells new stuff. So I finally get sent to a back alley dude who will repair my cable. He told me to drop them off and come back 6 hours later… or 8, I couldn’t understand.

So of course I come back 7 hours later to find out if he was finished. He wasn’t; he was closed. So I ask the shop owner NEXT to his shop when or if he’d reopen. Now the problem here is this shop owner was in active bargaining mode, meaning he was haggling with a customer over the price of a new cable for an iPhone. See, the customer wanted to pay 30 dirhams for it but the actual price was 60. Using the sly tactic of handing the shopowner a 20 dirham bill, he starts the haggling.

“Take,” the customer says in Darija. (The English equivalent would be “Here.”)

“The price is 60 Dirhams,” says the shopowner.

“Fine, here’s 10 more,” says the customer.

“The price is 60 dirhams. Are you crazy? Go to a hospital and get help.”

“Here’s 5 more. 45 dirhams is more than enough for a cable as old as this one.”

“It’s brand new! There’s nothing wrong with it! 60 dirhams, God bless your parents!” (an interesting phrase that seems to pop up in most strangely argumentative situations)

Naturally of course this argument took 20 minutes to resolve until they finally agreed on 50 dirhams. I finally had an opening to ask my question.

“Hey, when is the guy next to you open?” I asked.

“Him? Oh he closed early, he’ll be open tomorrow.”

With an audible sigh, I turned to go home.

The next day, I go to get my headphones. Unsure about the price, I pay the man 15 dirhams (1.5 US dollar), a reasonable price I assumed. Turns out, I overpaid because the next thing he gives me a big smile and tells me is that I can return whenever if they break again or don’t work properly and he’ll fix them for free. The thing is this entire expedition wasn’t surprising in the least bit. Most of these things I either expected or didn’t think twice about because things have a way of becoming benign when you spend a full year here and get used to the ways things work.

Anyways, I can happily say I have fully repaired headphones and a newly purchased “infinite” warranty for a buck fifty.   ✌ PEACE.

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015