The Beginning of the End
Four months ago, I sat on a seventeen hour bus-ride heading south to a small oasis town in the Moroccan Sahara. Silently in Arabic, I repeated to myself over and over again the exact phrases I would use to explain to my host-community, Akka, why I suddenly had to leave. For two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the Akka community had adopted me as one of their own and one of my favorite memories was the moment they started telling me – “nti bint dyal Akka- you are a daughter of Akka.” Saying goodbye was going to be one of the toughest moments of my service.
Between the muffled repetitions, I gazed outside of the bus window scrutinizing the details of the vast barren North African desert. Loosely, I anticipated my final return to a place that was once so foreign to me but overtime I had grown to love and call home. Occasionally, the souk-bus zoomed past date and fig covered palm trees that provided airy shelter for isolated mud and cinder-blocked communities. In those instances, I reflected on all the spontaneous couscous lunches and countless cups of mint-tea I had relished with various families and friends. I smiled at the thought of all the enriching experiences of having worked at the Akka youth center and women’s center. I giggled at the untold tactics I had proudly mastered to survive the long and excruciating hot desert days; conquering my fears of scorpions and flying cockroaches through nifty broom-swinging techniques. Though still a short distance away from my final destination, pleasant Amazigh Berber tunes dispensed from the frayed bus speakers, timely and indicative of the inevitable beginning of the end for my service with the Peace Corps, and perhaps even more so a sign of my looming transition to new and stirring adventures.
Relocating a little over 5000 miles from the dry Moroccan terrain, India, at first impression seems a world apart from other places I have resided in. Its distinctive smells, bustling roads, diverse religions and unparalleled ancient cultures are astonishing for a first time visitor like myself. In just over a month, my move has presented me with countless anecdotes and a range of memorable encounters. Most notable of these occasions was a humbling experience in Rajasthan, where I visited Bal Ashram, a reintegration center for victimized youth rescued from the perfidious cycles of the child labor system. Despite the obvious language barrier and cultural differences, the charming boys at the ashram quickly acknowledged myself and the other AIF Fellows as their Didi-elder sister and Bhaiya-elder brother. They patiently taught me how to properly inhale and exhale during evening meditation, and fondly taught me how to strategically strike a small disk across a large wooden board during a game of carrom. In Morocco, my service was largely focused on youth development, our visit to Bal Ashram was extremely nostalgic and allowed me the chance to recap so many of the meaningful lessons I had learned as a teacher and youth mentor. Through our casual interactions, I sensed that every child at the center, young and old, they had a story. Even more so, I recognized and admired their unwavering strength to persevere through past adversities. With their unbroken spirits they dared to be kids once more, boys with dreams and eager to learn. They were reclaiming their aspirations, their futures and courageously supporting one another to potential new beginnings.
Monsoon season ended a month ago, but it still rains and pours all day and all night in my site placement. During my fellowship with AIF, my site mate Camila and I have been partnered to work with Profugo Development Initiatives, a grassroots NGO in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Though small in size, Profugo provides a lot of compassion and resources through various community outreach programs and efforts. On our first day at work, Camila and I were enthusiastically introduced to a group of about thirty vivacious women from the neighboring communities. On this particular day at the center, the women were congregated outside in different groups, carrying on with an ayurvedic-pickle making program. In-between several forms of greetings, I sat next to some of the women, and watched them meticulously peel and dice-up papaya and ginger into miniature pieces. Next to the building, another cluster of women busily hovered over a large gray pot on an open fire, blending chili powder, mustard seeds, curry leaf, garlic, ginger, papaya, and oil. Occasionally the women took turns stirring the spices, taste checked the mix, added some salt, and regularly controlled the heavy smokes from beneath the pot. Suddenly, heavy rains (common after the monsoon season) started pouring down. Luckily to some heavy tarp covering the work area, the women continued working energetically pealing and stirring, unbothered by the impulsive rainstorm. Listening to the heavy beating of raindrops above, a couple women turned to me and in Malayalam said “Bhyankara Mazha! – Heavy rains!” I repeated the phrase a couple times, a few other women smiled, laughed, and nodded their heads in approval and they too repeated “Bhyankara Mazha!”
I couldn’t have asked for a more positive first day at my fellowship with Profugo. I appreciated observing the women that day working together as a team, and enjoyed witnessing their confidence in promoting women’s empowerment through their active and creative participation with the Profugo income generating programs. I still find myself staring watchfully outside the rickety bus windows. The backdrop behind the framed opening has changed drastically from my recollected bus ride four months ago. Over-sized banana leaves, and tall evergreen palm trees reign supreme above, rice, tea, and coffee plantations. The local bus always travels with haste, pushing itself up and down the winding narrow roads, sometimes squeezing alongside heavily forested greenery to allow other buses and honking rickshaws to miraculously pass by. As I familiarize myself with these new surroundings and continue to work with Profugo, I am gradually accepting closure from the past, and have started moving forward, finding pieces of gratitude in my transitions and new beginnings.