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The Crazy Folk

The crazy folk. Not the most sensitive term, but admittedly the one I use with other volunteers. Every community has them. They are by turns amusing, tragic, and terrifying.

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My first was The Top. I met him in my first week of service in Aounate. At that time, I had no internet access in my home, so I lugged my old laptop, Lappy, to the sole wi-fi-enabled cafe in town. Sipping my bitter brew, I saw him there, in the cafe patio, deftly spinning in place. He must have been in his early 40's, in good physical health, by all appearances. Upon his head, a dark, curly quasi-fro, and on his face, intense concentration. His eyes focused on no man, and through his lips passed nothing intelligible. He simply spun. Spun and mumbled.

Another caffeinated patron noticed my interest and alarm. In a most reassuring tone, he said "Hania, hania. Mashi Xatir. Thnna." - "It's fine, it's fine. He's not dangerous. Don't worry about it." 

That night, long after my neig…

A Haunting

It was during my 14th year of life that I decided to start doing more with my time than play video games. That I had wasted so much of my burgeoning adolescence on electronic entertainment is only slightly less disturbing than that which came to replace it: fervent religious fundamentalism. With high school came devotional readings, bible camps, youth group, and a strong conviction that I had a duty to warn Sterling High that we were all balancing on the precipice, in danger of eternal hellfire. I suspect that this preoccupation made me somewhat awkward throughout high school.

It was then that I transformed from a shy, mild-mannered, sometimes-clownish kid into a terrifying spiritual force, constantly harassing foul-mouthed students, refusing to read Catcher in the Rye, waging war against the teaching of evolution in biology class (a battle which I took all the way to the superintendent's office). I once persecuted my economics teacher for handing out an article that included the w…

A Transition

Saturday marked the end of my summer vacation, a much-needed respite from the doldrums of Ramadan. This was my second trip to Europe. The first was to Italy in the spring of 2005. I visited Vatican City and a pope died. This year I came to London and a prince was born. Make of that what you will. Some highlights:


morning jog along the Thames in London; no feral dogs chasing mebiking through London's parks with North Carolinians/NPR lovers Jake and Ericevensong at St. Paul's and Westminster AbbeyMerrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter theatre in West End; more talent than you could shake a stick atbeautiful, beautiful music at the Royal Albert Hall; clapping only after music stoppedBruges - all of it, from beginning to endwalking through the castle at Ghentbiking in and around Amsterdam (and serendipitously discovering the goat park); no feral dogstaking in the view of the cathedral at CologneBlack Forest hiking; nature without garbageorgan concert (and gargoyles) at the cath…

A Surprise in the Park

The goats were a complete surprise. To be sure, I plainly saw the large goat symbol on the map, but I expected something more like a monument to a special goat, a local hero perhaps, or maybe just a peculiarly goat-shaped rock. Instead, I rode into an alarming situation: dozens of little children with goats - playing on teeter-totters, gallivanting through grassland, climbing wooden structures. With goats, I said. As many goats as children.
I had been cycling just outside of Amsterdam on a rented bike, following a rough plan to ride through some of the biggest parks. At the entrance of this, the Amsterdam Woods, I found the trail map that had so piqued my interest with its depiction of a goat squarely in the middle of an otherwise run-of-the-mill green field. No explanation or legend to suggest its meaning - just a cheerful, bearded bovid.
The park was beautiful. The first part followed the long side of the Bosbaan, which is the oldest artificial rowing course in the world. Afterwards, …

The Story of Saida

The following is derived from a correspondence I sent to a former sociology professor (and present friend) regarding a student in my community. After sending it, I decided to tell her story (with a few changes to protect her identity) for a wider audience.


I want to tell you about a student of mine named Saida. In Arabic, her name means "happy," and it suits her somewhat, as almost every time I chat with her, she is smiling. Saida is an outlier among her peers. In a culture built upon clan identity, she prefers to keep to herself. In a culture that stresses the importance of religious devotion above all, she shows no signs of piety (at least, not the conservative Muslim kind favored in Aounate). Saida enjoys reading books and online articles, especially in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and astronomy. In short, she is curious and full with questions. She tells me the greatest thing she can do in life is to discover herself and discover the world. I have not met a stude…

Troubled Waters

My bathroom has a name: "the beach."

It's called "the beach" because of how it is, with sand and water and strong sunlight and a nice breeze. Most of these things are a direct result of the combination that is 1) a dirty village and 2) the hole in my wall masquerading as a window. The water is from bad plumbing and a sadly-dripping shower-head. The shower-head does not produce any more water than can be dripped, sadly.
Let me tell you a story about the beach.
Some months ago, I noticed that whenever I flushed the toilet, a slow-creeping puddle would hazard forth from it's rear. An ominous portent. A harbinger of future troubles.
I harbor ambivalence toward the toilet. When I was Dar-shopping back in June, the landlords were showing it off to me, complete with a simple flush-with-the-floor turk. They insisted they could put in a Western toilet for me, and I insisted that the turk was just fine, thank you, and kindly stop talking so loudly. I'm standing right…

Love in the Peace Corps

I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to connect with the rest of the world, to see life from the perspective of the oppressed, to spread joy and wonder and curiosity to new places. I did not join, in other words, to find a girlfriend.
Why was it then, that as soon as I walked into my hotel in Philadelphia, I felt like a college freshman? I couldn't get through my first elevator ride without my heart-rate increasing and my breath shortening.
The feeling returned during our introductory meetings: the nervousness, the flurry of disordered thinking that accompanied moments of eye contact.
Damn you, body. Why must you sabotage everything good in this world?
I talked this over with my friend Ted on day one in Morocco. I was prepared for the bugs and dirt and cultural difficulties that come with Peace Corps, but nothing could prepare me for the onslaught of charming, independent-minded, attractive girls that I would be meeting throughout those first weeks. He agreed. It was eerie how ma…