Thoughts on getting hit by a car

I could feel the weather finally start to cool down. It was the first week of October but nearing 1pm the temperature inched towards 90 degrees. I slid on a pair of jeans and a light cardigan and rolled my bike out the front door. I rode slowly towards the center of town, as always marveling in the beauty around me.

As I passed the Dar Chebab where I work I casually looked over my left shoulder, checking for traffic on the deserted road and wondering what Abdelwahb’s family was making for lunch. I hadn’t visited their house in months and as I turned left thought about how excited I was to see them again.

The next thing I knew I was laying on the ground, my lungs burning and gasping for air. A small SUV sat parked twenty feet away from me, the driver still in his seat, unsure if he should get out or just drive away.

Slowly I put the pieces together. I had been hit by the car.

I looked down and realized I could barely feel my left leg. I tried to crawl out from under my bike which was laying on top of me. A crowd of men had already formed and were asking me questions in rapid fire – Do I want to call an ambulance? Do I want to go to the hospital? Do I want to call the police? Do I want to file a police report? – I answered none of them, shock still ringing in my ears and my lungs desperately searching for air.

With the help of two of the men I stood up and hobbled to the side of the road. Someone else found my shoes, which had flown off and scattered in the road, and brought them over to me. I asked for my phone and called my doctor from Peace Corps. She could barely hear me over the shock in my voice and the group of bystanders which had now amassed more than 20 people. I asked her if I should go to the local hospital (which I was explicitly instructed never to do). She said it was up to me. I asked if I should talk to the police. She said it was up to me.

Confused, and crying now, I hung up. The questions from the crowd continued. I didn’t know what to do.

I called my Moroccan dad, but he didn’t answer. Arabic failing me now, I needed someone to make decisions for me. I called one of my best friends, who coincidentally was in an accident in the very same spot just six months earlier, to come help me.

Ayoub arrived on the scene a few minutes later, out of breath as I was being led slowly into an ambulance by the local firefighters. I called another friend and told him to meet me at the hospital.

The emergency room was deserted on that sunny Sunday afternoon as Ayoub led me into the examination room. I was instructed to sit on the examination table and Ayoub was asked to leave. I slowly hoisted my leg onto the table and recalled my last and only other visit to a hospital in Morocco – the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir where Ayoub had surgery on his knee last spring after the accident.

Hassan II Hospital is notoriously known as the worst public hospital in Morocco. When I went to visit him his mom and I had to walk through blocks of rooms that almost looked like large jail cells. Ayoub’s section was dark, with floors that looked like they hadn’t been mopped in weeks. He was staying in a room with five other male patients with severe leg injuries. There was no nurse in sight and if he ever needed real assistance he often had to bribe someone with money to do so. He told me stories about how he had to hide his belongings because people would come in and steal them at night while they slept. He had been transferred there from our town’s hospital more than a week previously, and would have to wait more than another week to receive the surgery that would insert metal rods to repair his fractured knee.

As I pulled my own damaged leg on to the examination table at the Tata hospital, I couldn’t help but think of my friend who sat on the other side of the door and the horrible experiences he had gone through – yet knowing selfishly that if I had seriously injured my leg, I wouldn’t have to go through that. I would be rushed to a hospital in the capital or more likely, flown back to see doctors in America. In that moment the power of my privilege – my citizenship – hurt more than the leg I was unable to move.

Just then my friend Ilyas rushed into the room, panic-stricken and out of breath, interrupting my train of thought. As soon as he saw my face he breathed a sigh of relief while I consoled him – “I’m fine, I’m fine,” a motto I would stick to in the coming weeks while my limp persisted. He stated his purpose as my translator and refused to leave the room.

The nurse walked toward me and began applying red anti-bacterial ointment to the road rash cuts still bleeding on my knuckles and tops of my feet. He never washed them with soap and water. He then began to examine my leg. It had been crushed so hard between the car and the bars of my bike that the swelling was clear from across the room. It was so swollen that I couldn’t roll up my jeans above my ankle for him to examine the injury. He never asked me to change. He moved his hands across my calf and shin, over my jeans, never feeling my foot or above the knee. He stated what I believed to be true already – it wasn’t broken. Then he stepped away from the table and the exam was over.

He never asked if I had hit my head (I did). I was never given tests to check for a concussion. I was never given tests to check for internal injuries. No x-rays were taken. He never physically saw the injury to my lower leg, nor the bruising and cuts on my upper thigh.

The doctor sat on the other side of the room and never examined me. She only asked if I was up to date on my shots, prescribed pain medication, and gave us a serious attitude.

The whole encounter lasted less than ten minutes.

I received a call from Peace Corps the following afternoon requesting that I immediately make the more than sixteen hour journey to the capital. No Peace Corps contracted drivers were available that week so I had to make the entire journey via public transportation, further aggravating the severe swelling to my lower leg.

Upon arriving to Rabat thirty-six hours after the accident I was walking on my own, albeit slowly and with a noticeable limp. I had also developed severe whip lash pain in my neck that made it difficult for me to lift my head on my own. There, in Morocco’s capital city and in the care of Peace Corps, I received all of the tests my local hospital had neglected to give me. My head was checked for a concussion (negative). My body was checked for internal injuries (negative). I had more than ten x-rays taken of my neck, left leg, and left foot (all negative).

Everything came back clear. I was going to be okay.

I’m not writing this story to garner sympathy. I am not concerned about the status of my health care. I know that in the case of an emergency I would be given the best health care Morocco has to offer. In the case of an extreme accident I would be airlifted out. I would be flown to America. I never would have to go through what Ayoub did. I would never be taken to the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir. My citizenship guarantees that.

Someone asked me while I was visiting in America a few weeks ago what the hardest part of serving in the Peace Corps is. He asked me if it was hard to see things that I know I can’t change. This situation is exactly what he was asking about.

One of the cornerstones of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is learning to live just as your community members do. Sure, I speak the local language, I shop at the local markets, I work at the local centers with local women and youth. I eat the same food, drink the same water, live in the same type of house. I don’t have hot water or modern plumbing or air conditioning or indoor heat.

But I have disproportionately better health care. If I so much as cough funny Peace Corps will pay for me to go to the capital to be checked out by our doctors. I see a dentist once a year for a check-up. I know that in the case of strife I would be one of the first people out of the country and out of harm’s way.

My community members don’t have that.

If you’ve ever heard of Peace Corps Volunteers or humanitarians or aid workers talking about the guilt they feel – this is it. The harsh reality that we never will understand everything, never will be fully integrated, never will be just the same.

Because our privilege prevents it.

Over a month after the accident, I still feel butterflies in my stomach every time a car passes me. But it’s not because I’m afraid of getting hit again. I’m afraid one of my friends or one of my students or one of my neighbors will.

Words I Forget in English (Part I)

I’m sitting in an empty airport terminal in Germany right now, waiting for my connecting flight that will take me to the United States. When I land tomorrow it will be the first time I’ve touched American soil in nearly two years.

A lot of things have changed since I’ve been gone. I can honestly say I’m not the same person now as when I left — and I’m proud of that.

But still, I’m nervous. I’m nervous to confront how I’ve changed, how my world has changed. I’m nervous about being thrown back into a society driven by the needs of individuals (and not communities). I’m nervous about surrounding myself with things I’ve learned to live without — my family, my friends, my dogs, Texas barbecue…

But I’m also nervous about something a little less abstract…

My English.

As time has ticked on and my Arabic fluency grown, my hold on the English language has slowly been falling out of my grasp. I find it more difficult to recall words and realize that my use of advanced vocabulary has sharply decreased.

It isn’t uncommon for me to say “What is it called when…?” or “What is the opposite of…?” during conversations in Arabic so that I can learn new vocabulary.

Except I do it in English now too.

It’s as if my English and Arabic language proficiencies operate inversely to one another, often leaving me feeling voiceless in both.

(Side note: it took me 5 minutes sitting here mid-paragraph to find the word “inverse” in my brain.)

Recently I’ve been keeping a list of all the words I’ve forgotten mid-conversation in English. When applicable I’ve included in parentheses what I said instead of the correct word. Here is the list for your viewing pleasure.

Words I Forget in English (Part I):

  • waiting tables (waitering?)
  • horoscope
  • drill team (kick team?)
  • cafeteria
  • greenhouse gases
  • opaque (not… transparent?)
  • light bulb (that thing that makes light?)
  • carbon dioxide
  • upgrade
  • progress
  • burnt out (died?)
  • suspend (block?)
  • excluding (discluding?)
  • permanent (things that don’t go away?)
  • parasailing
  • advisor
  • hoop
  • especially
  • trivet (those things you put hot plates on?)
  • the straw that broke the camel’s back (the needle that broke the haystack?)

America, I can’t wait to see ya.

Just please be kind to me and my English, okay?


the blog it home contest


GUYS. Amazing news!

I was chosen as a finalist in Peace Corps’ annual “Blog It Home” contest!!

The finalists (there’s 20 of us!) were chosen from more than 400 different blogs that are written by Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world. There is now a public voting contest on Facebook to determine the winners, who will be sent to Washington, DC in October to participate in a week full of intercultural sharing, professional development and sharing.

To vote for my blog please click on this link and “like” my photo (and share it on your own social media)!!!

The contest ends on Monday, August 10, so please vote and encourage your friends and any strangers you see on the street to do the same :)

Writing for this blog has been a beautiful and cathartic experience for me during my Peace Corps service so far, a way to both chronicle and work through my experiences. I never expected to receive a lot of attention for it — and especially not through a contest that could send me back to my favorite city in the world!

In honor of the contest I thought I’d go back and look at the posts I’ve written over my past 20 months of service.

Here are my 5 favorite posts! Click on the links to read more!

  1. 365 Days in Morocco: Year One By The Numbers — this post sums up my first year as a PCV and chronicles, by the numbers, the milestones of the beginning of my service
  2. It’s Wedding Season! — attending weddings is one of my favorite things to do in my community! in this post i describe what a traditional amazigh wedding is like where i live (don’t forget to listen to the audio clip!)
  3. How To Stay Cool in the Sahara — probably my most embarrassing post to date (why did i think those selfies were a good idea again?), in this entry i give some advice on how to survive living in one of the hottest places in the world — the sahara desert!
  4. the first desert rain — a story about the beautiful experience that is rain in the desert
  5. On quantifying your work — in this post i talk about the reports peace corps volunteers write about our projects, and why it will never truly capture the impacts we make

the desert isn’t brown

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On your first visit to the desert of southern Morocco you might notice a lot of brown. On first glance your gaze may be filled with it. The mountains, filling the horizon. The ground, littered in sand and rocks. The houses, built out of the clay they stand on. Even the camels, if you are lucky enough to happen upon a herd, are brown.

But if you take the time to look, to really see the landscape around you, you wouldn’t describe it as brown.

Here’s what I see:

In the early hours of the morning, when the mountains are tinged with soft blues and purples,

The blue scarves, wrapped carefully atop men’s heads, protecting themselves from the harsh Saharan sun beating down,

The radiant purple flowers shooting up over the mountains after the torrential floods, signaling the beginning of spring,

The vibrant red of a freshly picked pomegranate from a tree in the oasis, its small fruits spilling across the ground as you crack its outer core,

The way the stars shine on a clear night, and seeing a shooting star is more of a when than an if,

The joy in little children’s eyes as we run and play and duck and hide, their happiness and inner light exuding carefree bliss, to which no passerby cannot mirror,

These are the things that I see. This is the desert that I love.

It’s anything but just brown.


What time is it?!

Americans  are well aware that time moves a bit more slowly in other parts of the world. This is surely true in Morocco. Everyone walks a bit slower here, greeting everyone they meet with long and detailed  inquiries (“How are you? How is your family? How is your health? How is your work? How is your cousin that was sick last year?”). The concept of being “late” is generally not a concern, which changes one’s perception of the trek to and from places entirely — to less of a means of reaching an end and more of a leisurely stroll to be enjoyed, an end in and of itself.

This aspect of Morocco has been easy for me to adjust to. If you’ve ever met me before, you’d understand that “being late” is more of a constant and less of thing to be avoided. After living in Washington, DC for four years, with its go go go attitude and signature power walk, I’m happy to be embracing a lifestyle that is more relaxed, to be looking up at the sights and sounds around me rather than at my feet.

But Morocco’s relationship with time doesn’t stop there.

In Morocco, the seemingly innocent question of “What time is it?” isn’t simple at all.

You see, Morocco didn’t begin observing Daylight Savings Time until 2008 — just seven years ago — after abandoning the practice in the late 1970s due to unpopularity with the Moroccan people (foreshadowing). Despite the official adoption of the DST practice in 2012, the country has yet to follow predictable start and end dates and often changes or extends the practice at the last minute.

This year we observed Daylight Savings Time on March 29, 2015, moving our clocks forward one hour.

Or at least some of us changed our clocks…

In big cities with lots of businesses and bustling streets (read: northern Morocco, like Casablanca or Rabat) the practice is almost universally adopted. But here in my little rural town in the desert things get a bit more complicated. Some people change, and some people don’t. Which means asking the question “What time is it?” requires a lot of follow up questions, most importantly of which is “old time or new time?” — specifying pre-time change as “old” and time change as “new.”

Which leads me to conversations like this one, with my Moroccan dad:

Me: What time should I meet you at the gym tomorrow?
Omar: 9 o’clock.
Me: Is that 9 o’clock new time or old time?
Omar: There is only one time.
Me: Okay but is your time the new time or the old time?
Omar: New time. Abir remember there is only one time.
Me: Okay I will remember.

While on the same day having this conversation with one of my Moroccan mamas:

Me: What time should I come over for couscous on Friday?
Rkkia: You can come at any time, but be here by 1.
Me: New time or old time?
Rkkia: Abir you know I don’t change the time.
Me: So old time then?
Rkkia: Yes, old time. Why do we need to change the time?

The start of Daylight Savings Time means the start of memorizing who goes by what schedule. 

New time: my Moroccan dad Omar (but not his wife Saidiya), the post office, the Peace Corps office in Rabat, the ministry buildings, official public transportation (trains, buses between cities)

Old time: my Moroccan mama Rkkia and her family, pretty much every other family, all local stores

And then there are the things that operate on both schedules. Here in my town the schools change their class times with DST — but they use new time in the morning and old time in the afternoon. The Dar Chebab where I work operated on new time until I begged the mudir (my boss) to change the hours to old time so that more of my students could participate in activities in the evenings.

Just when you think you’ve gotten it all figured out — BAM — Ramadan hits. And the clocks change again, as Daylight Savings Time is not observed during the holy month. The whole country goes back to old time (or continues on with old time).

On Saturday we celebrated Eid Sghir (or Eid Al-Fitr) in Morocco, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, with it marking the third time change of the year.

And back to the old question we go — what time is it?!


The things that follow you

The pilot’s voice cracks over the intercom. A thirty minute delay.

Passengers on the plane begin to fidget, craning their necks to glimpse the flight attendants. They grab the magazines who wait, knowingly in the neatly organized seat pockets.

I shrug and return to my music, enjoying the cool air blowing on my face. Souk buses never announce delays.

The passengers sitting near me stare at my hands. The henna is etched in deep, dark triangles on my palms. My fingertips are black. I look up, searching for their eyes to explain.

“This is traditional where I live,” I want to say proudly. I stop myself.

I start fidgeting now. The man in the seat next to me has taken ownership of the arm rest, his elbow inching nearer and nearer to my thigh.

My heart starts to race.

Moments on the train, on the bus, in the grand taxi, come roaring back, flooding my mind. All of a sudden my eyes start to tear up.

I ram my elbow into his, to let him know my discontent. I take deep breaths.

Once more I look down at the patterns on my hands. Morocco is following me on this vacation in more ways than one.


Thoughts on community

Mnin ntiya f mirikan? Ach mn wilaya?

Where are you from in America? Which state?

It’s an easy question. Immediately following how-are-you and what’s-your-name. It’s basic getting-to-know-you courtesy.

But for me, it’s the hardest question. It’s the answer I’ll only save for certain people, for friends. For people who will listen.

Because how do you tell people who have lived their whole lives in the same house that I don’t feel like I’m from any one particular place? How do I tell people who are expecting a simple, one word answer my whole story instead?

I’m from Massachusetts-Illinois-Connecticut-Texas-DC-South Africa-DC-Texas-Morocco.

All of those parts are parts of me.

Lwalidin kaysknu f Texas,” I usually reply.

It’s not a lie. My parents live in Texas.

But the innocent interrogator never realizes that that’s my indirect way of dodging their question. It’s not a real answer.

How do I say that just in the past six years I’ve barely lived in the same place for more than six months? In three different countries, in fact.

Growing up I was always the new kid. I never had a shot of being in the “Kindergarten to Senior Year” picture in the yearbook. That faded away at the end of first grade, before I even know what yearbooks were.

Growing up I always had to re-teach people how to spell my name. “Abbey-with-an-E” became the way I introduced myself. Maybe because teaching people how to spell my name correctly was easier than telling my whole life story.

It’s hard making friends with people who have known their classmates since they were all babies. People who lost their first teeth together and went to CCD classes together, whose moms were friends even before that.

And now, at the age of nearly-twenty-five, I feel like I’m a part of a community for the first time in my life.

For the first time in my life I can’t walk down the street without seeing someone I know. For the first time in my life I’m invited over people’s houses for lunch more often than I prepare my own at home.

People ask about my family and they’re worried about me when I’m away. Every week I’m scolded by several of my Moroccan mommas for not eating couscous at her house.

I have found people in my community who I love dearly.

People who call me bnti (my daughter) and khti (my sister). And I believe them.

A few days ago my Moroccan family and I were all sleeping together outside under the stars, each of us side-by-side with me squished in-between my brother and my sister, exhausted from running around and from tickle fights and from splashing water at each other and from the Saharan heat.

And it felt so good. So normal. Like home.

Some Volunteers talk about how they can’t wait to get back to their “real lives back home.” They miss their families and their friends and their dogs and their roots and their homes and their favorite foods.

And I miss those things too.

But for this girl, this transient girl who never settles down, the sentiment isn’t quite the same.

Peace Corps is only a 27-month (or possibly more) commitment. There will always be an end date.

In the scheme of things it’s a quick blink of an eye. At some point I will have to leave this place and move on to the next. It’s inevitable.

But right here, right now, I can’t tell you how good it feels to call this place “home”… and mean it.


(Here are some thoughts I wrote on a similar topic three and a half years ago. Looks like some of my predictions came true!)