How To Go On A Date

A step-by-step guide for a single Moroccan gal in her twenties.

 1. Acquire boyfriend. This could be someone you meet at school or work, or maybe the brother of a close friend.

2. Get their digits. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Begin to text each other constantly. Do not feel afraid to express your love soon, and often. Exchange furtive conversations when your parents aren’t around, but keep them short because cell phone recharge is expensive. And make sure not to label his number, so his identity is hidden in case someone borrows your phone or gets suspicious.

3. Arrange the time and place of the date. Make sure you have cross-referenced your family’s social calendar (see step #5) and enlisted the help of a cousin and your awkward foreigner host sister to tag along as chaperones. The location for the date will be where all dates are, obviously: food court of supermarket mall in nearby city.

4. On the appointed day, get dolled up in skinny jeans and a shirt that might suggest at cleavage. Take a lot of time straightening your hair and applying your makeup. Pay special attention to achieving those dark, thick eyebrows you see on TV.

5. Catch a bus into the city with aforementioned chaperones, your mother, and a few other village women, in order to attend a wedding.

6. Put your mother in a taxi and tell her you are going to the mall with your friends and will show up at the wedding later.

7. Go to mall. Browse stores that sell clothing you will most likely never be able to afford.

8. Begin frantically texting date to ascertain that he IS, in fact, on his way. He is traveling an insanely long way for this date. Like, hours and hours on a bus. So it’s important to check in about his new status every few minutes.

9. Visit bathroom. Remove makeup and re-apply.

10. Sit nervously in food court.

11. Your date shows up with his brother. Congratulations! Your date has begun!

12. Although you text each other a gajillion times a day, and you haven’t seen each other in four months, you and your date have very little to say to each other. You, your date, your date’s brother, your cousin, and your awkward foreigner host sister sit in near silence in the food court.

13. Eventually, some conversation strikes up, and you adopt a nagging, scolding tone with your date, probably emulating the way most male-female interactions appear to you.

14. After 25 minutes, remind everyone that you do have to be on the way to that wedding, but suggest the group stays together while you all try to find a cab. Then while you’re all walking through the dark streets “looking” for a taxi, you can get a little hand-holding action in. Genius move.

15. As you walk, it becomes apparent that this was a double date all along, and brother pairs off with cousin. Awkward foreigner host sister is awkward.

16. 45 minutes after the date began, you, cousin, and host sister bundle yourselves into a taxi. The date is over.

17. Once you arrive at the wedding, spend the next two and a half hours in the corner with cousin and host sister, dealing with the fallout from the date. (Don’t worry, the food will not be served for another few hours after that.) Reassure your date that you do, in fact, love him, despite any behavior to the contrary. Accept his poetic re-affirmations of love in response. Spend a long time discussing possible merits of brother with cousin. Numbers are exchanged. Cousin and brother begin texting each other. They will fall in love soon.


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Why I Don’t Believe In Organizing Trash Pickups

Okay, okay, I do. I do believe in picking up trash. But I want to talk about why I am, by and large, opposed to trash pickups when it comes to youth development programming, and how I believe they can be done better.

I’ve organized a LOT of trash pickups. Working in community development in New Orleans, we were often besieged by volunteer groups looking for a project in a poor neighborhood. Often it’s more work than it’s worth to coordinate volunteer projects for large groups, particularly out-of-towners, so setting them to clear up trash from a few empty lots was an easy enough task that would keep them out of our hair.

I managed to stumble onto my first trash pickup in Morocco after only a few weeks in my site. For a combined Earth Day/Global Youth Service Day program, my counterparts and I organized a trash cleanup session for elementary and middle school aged youth.

Here’s how I wrote about it for Peace Corps:

As one of the events for our Earth Day/Global Youth Day of Service, the leadership of the youth center and the boarding houses organized a trash pickup in the area next to the middle school and the boarding houses. About sixty children came out and picked up trash, resulting in several large trash bags. That afternoon, there was a Powerpoint lecture at the Dar Chebab led by a teacher from the middle school. Everyone had a good time and the Moroccan counterparts felt the event was a great success.

And I would have included pictures like this one:


Here’s how I DIDN’T write about it for Peace Corps:

The event was attended by a random assortment of students who were either yanked out of their classes by adults, or happened to have a free period at the time. The trash pickup was hugely ineffectual as we were picking up litter in an area strewn with trash, and it would have taken a monumental movement to make even a small dent in the aesthetic appearance of the site, let alone create an environmental difference. All this was conducted next to a HUGE trash pit filled with trash. Children were not provided with gloves, and much of the trash was unsanitary-looking – and, of course, there is no soap available for washing hands in the schools, the boarding houses, or in their homes. The large trash bags that were quickly filled were left on the site after everyone posed with them for several group pictures. It is unknown to me how they were eventually disposed of, but they were not there a few days later. (Hopefully they were not just rolled into the pit.) The lecture that followed that afternoon was about smoking and completely unrelated to anything resembling environmentalism or trash habits. Everyone had a good time and the Moroccan counterparts felt the event was a great success.


Clearly, there was way more trash than we were equipped to pick up.


Remember the giant trash pit?

I think, for youth and community development practitioners, organizing trash pickups is lazy. It’s a cop-out. It’s easily organized (if you’re not doing it right, that is), it requires minimal planning or materials, the idea is sexy, the photos are brochure-ready, the numbers shine on a grant. And for western eyes with a western conception of garbage and litter, an area with trash is so demonstrably aesthetically improved once the trash is removed that it’s easy to say: well, even if it wasn’t sustainable, at least it will be a little better for a little bit of time.

And remember, I say all this as someone who has organized way more than my fair share of trash pickups. No one needs to hear this message more than I do.

 Here are Leah’s recommendations for how trash pickups should be done:

1. They must be sustainable. Are there going to be places that youth and community members can deposit their trash from now on, instead of continuing to toss it on the ground? Who will empty the newly installed trash cans? Where should they be installed? Where will the trash deposited into them (hopefully) be brought?

2. They must be accompanied by education. Community members will not alter their trash habits without significant education about why it is beneficial or preferable for them to do so.

3. The trash pickup must happen in an area where an actual impact can be made, and maintained – perhaps an area where youth are responsible for most of the trash, and not a vast pit where mothers put their trash because they have nowhere else to put it.

4. They must be done in an organized manner. Think team captains, quadrants, etc.

5. They must be done safely – with gloves, washing stations with soap, and so on.

6. The trash collected must be well disposed of, and this should also be a learning experience. Where trash goes and where this particular trash will go should be an integral part of the educational element.

7. They must teach work ethic. No picking up trash for 20 minutes, and then 10 minutes spent taking pictures.

8. The space where the trash has been picked must be USED afterwards. Is it just going to remain unused space? Then why bother? Consider sports area, park, activity space, etc.

9. Alternatively, the space picked should be a place where trash is actively creating a health or environmental crisis, and education can be used to show how the trash pickup is creating a positive effect on the ecosystem. Is it demonstrated that this trash is affecting a water supply? Is it demonstrated that animals are eating this trash and dying?

10.  And, as with every single goddamn thing we as development practitioners do, it MUST be resident driven.

I struggle with all this a lot, but I’ve learned a little about trash in my time spent living abroad, and about my own conception of it. I had the hardest time in India, where the trash situation is even worse than it is in Morocco. If I was standing in the road outside my school building in India and eating a candy bar, I would save the wrapper until I got back inside and could deposit it into a trash bin. And then I would watch that trash bin get emptied out onto the curb right where I had just been standing. I really should have just let that candy bar wrapper drop right where I had eaten it. I would have been saving myself time and energy perpetuating my Western conditioning, which was completely untenable in that environment.

That conditioning was so strong, however, that I just couldn’t bring myself to so blatantly litter – and so I continued to let Indians do it for me. Looking back, I feel my behavior was fairly disgusting. There I was, insistent on carrying out a fairly meaningless ritual just to make myself feel better, and letting Indians (who were employed by my school, and therefore working for me) do the literal dirty work while I sat on my righteous American pedestal as a non-litterer. Oh, pat me on the back and give me a banana. (I’ll admit that by month four I had gotten over this and was able to litter, a little, though I could never get over the guilt of letting something just drop from my fingers into the street.)

Some of my classmates in India felt that the Indian relationship to trash was actually more honest. Whereas Americans had found a way to sanitize the experience of trash, to hide the reality of our consumptive and materialistic natures away in covered landfills (where only poor people would have to see it), Indians were confronted by their trash every day. They were living with it. Who’s to say which approach was better?

Well, I’m not ready to go that far yet, but I am comfortable saying that conceptions of trash radically differ in the world.

Working with youth in Morocco, the best way I’ve found to connect littering to hurting the environment is to connect it to nationalism and national identity. You know, when you trash you are hurting your country/your mother land, don’t you love your country, why are you hurting it, etc. It’s effective for getting a group of youth rallied up and (hopefully) receptive to your message, but I’m uneasy about the implications of using nationalistic rhetoric in this way. Ideally, one would cultivate the idea of “environmentalism” first and then discuss trash. And if you’re working with youth and you are able to invest the time and resources to communicate – and, ideally, instill – environmentalism, then might there not be better things to rally around? Clean water access, say? Less pollution? Green alternatives? Might trash on the streets, which strikes westerners as so palpably and perceptibly awful when they step into developing countries, actually not be the most pressing issue facing the global south?

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Trashy Mysteries in Morocco

Nope, I’m not over here in Morocco catching up on the oeuvres of John Grisham and James Patterson. Instead, I’m up to my ears in literal trash! How this happened is not a mystery to me, but what I should do about it is.

Living in a new culture, I am frequently stumped by many of the banal, routine tasks associated with adult life, due to my complete ignorance and lack of exposure to the culturally appropriate method. Usually this results in some awkward conversations or me making a fool of myself, but never has the dilemma been so onerous (dare I say odorous?) as the mystery of what I should be doing with my trash.

What do the Moroccans do? As a proper Peace Corps Volunteer, this was obviously my first question. My host family feeds some of their organic waste to their animals, and tosses the rest into a giant trash pit across the street. This pit is right next to the mosque, so anyone entering in through the main door (the women’s entrance is around back – hello, Leah’s undergraduate thesis!) cannot escape the strong whiff of garbage, not to mention the unsightly mounds of waste.  Goats and chickens are often hanging out in the pit, ingesting goodness knows how much plastic (animals that we eat later on, mind). Occasionally, trash gets out of the pit, and we find used diapers or other refuse strewn about the mosque pathway.

When I asked my host family what I should do about my trash, they thought about it, and then remembered that is another giant trash pit near my new house. “You can put your trash in there,” they comfortably reassured me.

I was not reassured.

Unfortunately, one of the first projects I helped organize in my community involved a trash pickup with youth – you guessed it, right in the environs of the giant garbage pit. Since the pit is visible most times of day from the youth boarding schools, I felt that if I dumped anything in it (and was spotted) it would be a hugely hypocritical action. I’m doing my best to be a role model here!


Trash pit visible in background on the left.

Talking about trash is shameful in Moroccan culture, but the trash in my apartment was piling up, and eventually I got up the nerve to ask my supervisor what I should do with it. “A man comes every Monday and Friday,” he said. “Ten dirhams a month. Nine o’clock.”

I was elated. I had discovered an actual system for disposing of trash! And I could pay a local in the process!

The next Friday came. I got up super early and waited by my window for half the day so I could spot the garbage man coming and pay him.

No garbage man came.

Undeterred, I resolved to try again the following Monday. Outtakes from my interview with Johanna Boyle are mostly me saying “Wait a second – I think I hear something –” and then dashing to the window to scan the street below for the garbage collector. One time I even thought it was him and went running outside with my trash bags – only to discover it was the oil-dispenser-and-bread-scraps-collector. Yep, there’s a guy for that. (A guy who was confronted that morning by a wild-eyed foreigner, dressed in a Moroccan nightie and clutching about eight bulging plastic bags, running toward him and babbling about trash. …It can’t be helped.)

But later that day, I noticed that my neighbors had set plastic bags out by their doors. Ah, maybe the trash man had not come yet! I brought a large bag down, placed it outside my door, and left to run an errand, hoping for the best.

When I came back, my trash was gone! Hallelujah! The trash man cameth! Except…all my neighbors’ trash was still outside. Hmm. Who had taken my bag then?

The next trash collection day, I tried to see if the magic trick would work again. I placed my plastic bag outside the afternoon before, as I was on my way out to spend the night at a friend’s house. When I came back the next afternoon, not only was the bag still there, but it had been torn apart by animals and there were remnants of my garbage littered about the ground in front of my house.  Yuck.

Well, clearly this elusive trash pickup man could not be relied upon. I would have to resort to…the Pit.

Yup...some of that's mine.

Since I was still petrified of being seen actually bringing my trash to said pit, I started sneaking out of the house at 5 am or under cover of darkness (dodging the street dogs that become lively at night), dressed as Moroccan as possible to decrease the chances that I would be recognized.

You probably would think that I was going overboard, but before long all my fears were confirmed. One day, I foolishly thought I could chance taking my trash out to the pit in the middle of the afternoon. Unfortunately I was immediately spotted, and to my horror of horrors, a man started hurrying toward me and gesticulating wildly. I went to meet him, and he seemed to be telling me not to do what I was doing.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” I asked him. “Someone told me that a man would come Monday and Friday to collect trash, but he didn’t come today, and I have this garbage. What am I supposed to do?” Although I was exasperated and embarrassed, I secretly hoped that perhaps this man would be the answer to my conundrum. Maybe he was about to be forthcoming with new information about a better alternative than the Pit! But instead the man surveyed me thoughtfully, seemed to understand my predicament, and gave me the go ahead.

In the end, it’s just a big, stinking mystery to me. I’m not sure why I shouldn’t – or should – be using the Pit, although I do know that I don’t want youth to see me using it. I don’t understand how the trash collector system works, and I don’t know how to find the man in order to pay him. It’s unknown to me why occasionally my trash bag disappears but my neighbors’ bags stay. So until I get more answers, I’ll continue sneaking off to the Pit every so often under cover of half-light, clutching my trash bags, heart beating overtime at my oh-so-cunning stealth.

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PCV POV #1 – Meet Johanna!

It goes without saying that many of the Peace Corps Volunteers I’ve gotten to know here in Morocco are some of the dang darndest most awesome people I’ve ever met. I thought I would use my sophisticated audio equipment amazing editing skills oodles of free time to introduce some of them to you! 

On a recent visit to my duar, I got the chance to catch up with Johanna Boyle. We talked about Peace Corps expectations, her time chillin’ with Barack Obama, the camel herds found in Taroudant, and a lot more. Enjoy!

To follow along with Johanna’s journey, check out  her fantastic blog here.

Johanna enjoys her last meal stateside.

Johanna enjoys her last meal stateside.

Johanna and her sitemate Liz (modeling djellabas!) point out Taroudant on the map.

Johanna and her sitemate Liz (rocking henna and djellabas!) point out Taroudant on the map.

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How I Became Illegal

Well everyone, I’ve hit upon the one universal element of the human experience. Is it creativity and artistry? The importance of family? Religious devotion?

Nope! It’s bureaucracy.

That’s right! Wherever you live, small town or capital city, nation-state or territorial protectorate, you will have to jump through a lot of hoops. (Remember my fun times at the DMV?)

Those hoops are especially onerous for those who cross borders. The quest for citizenship aside, overstaying a tourist visa becomes a bureaucratic crisis in every place I’ve ever been. I distinctly remember numerous visits to the local police in India, making friends with migrant workers and staring at teetering stacks of hundreds of dusty ledgers, waiting to be told what document I had failed to procure this time.

Morocco, of course, is no exception. Foreign residents in Morocco must apply for a “Carte de Séjour” (residency card) from their local police or gendarmeries.

When Peace Corps sent my group of 95 volunteers off to our respective towns, we had only a week and a half left on our entry visas. This meant we had to scramble to get Carte de Séjours, and fast. Helpfully, Peace Corps gave each of us a large folder filled with a number of documents: work attestations, medical certificates, homestay verifications, host country statements of support, etc. The looming deadline of visa expiration proved a sheer impossibility to meet, given that we also had to wait for the national government to issue us security clearances – but only AFTER we had visited our local government for one form or another.

On top of this, most gendarmes didn’t seem quite sure what was going on. Some gendarmes wanted their volunteers to give them thirty copies and five pictures; others just wanted the originals; mine wanted three copies of everything and eight pictures. (Not long after they changed their minds: ten pics.) Why are the requirements so different on a town-to-town basis? We’ll never know…but I suspect that most everyone was making up the rules as they went along. Almost every time I visited my gendarmes, I learned about something new I was expected to provide: a new attestation, a certificate of residency, a copy of my lease agreement.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention that the Moroccan government has a serious thing for stamps. I’ve never gotten so many documents notarized in my ENTIRE LIFE as I did in the month that I applied for my Carte de Séjour. Even once I had all my paperwork in hand, I had to get numerous photocopies of each piece, and then get all the photocopies notarized.

As you know, I live in a village. The gendarmes and a photocopy machine are a bus ride away, but my local government offices are close by. So in the course of a single day I would take the bus to the gendarmes, then ride back to the government offices to pick up the paperwork I needed, go back into town to get them photocopied, go back to the offices to get them notarized, and then BACK to my gendarmes to hand everything in.

All this would be exhausting enough, but navigating even simple day-to-day tasks in a foreign language requires a lot of mental concentration. Trying to fulfill the requirements of my Carte de Séjour wiped me out on a regular basis! And this must have paled in comparison to the stress that our Safety and Security team was going through in Rabat, scrambling to get 95 security clearances and repeatedly explaining the requirements to befuddled local authorities who had never dealt with foreigners before.

I have now been illegal in Morocco for about two months, and I’m still waiting for that illusive Carte to become mine.

Luckily, I never lost sight of the absurdity and hilarity of the entire debacle. While bureaucracy might be tedious, I always find it a funny and even poignant expression of a distinctly human relationship to rules and order.  I thought that bringing a little levity to this exasperating shared experience might be a great idea, so I decided to try my hand at songwriting for the first time ever. (Unless I count the folk song I co-wrote for History of the 60s in 12th grade…which I tend not to.) After the lyrics were hammered out I roped in the musical talents of Pete and Britt Luby (check out their insightful and beautifully written blog), and the Ballad of the Carte de Séjour was born! Video of our performance after the jump.

One last thing: I don’t want to write about this topic without bringing up the sheer privilege it is to have legal residency assured. I think it’s safe to say that most international development and aid workers do not have to worry about deportation – a fear that overshadows the lives of millions of productive and law-abiding United States residents, and tens of millions of refugees worldwide.  As glib as this blog post’s title is, I am under no illusions that as a citizen of a world superpower working with an established international organization, my illegal status is an amusing annoyance at worst.

And finally, The Ballad of the Carte de Séjour:

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New Time, or Old Time? The Wackiest Daylight Savings Time Ever

Last Sunday I slept in. By accident.

Accustomed to a world in which cell phones automatically change to accommodate daylight savings time, I slept blissfully through the 2 am Morocco Daylight Savings Time switch, in which time advanced an hour – but my cell phone alarm clock did not.

But mashi mushkil (no problem), right? I was a little late to the Dar Chebab (youth center) that morning, but so was everyone else probably – Moroccan sense of time is different than the regimented one Americans cultivate. At least, so every guide book and culture guide has told me.

The week before, I had discussed starting English classes with some high school boys in my village. “Thursday at 5:30 is good,” they told me. “Most of us will be done with our classes and we will come then.”

Great! Thursday at 5:30! I have a day! A time! A place (the Dar Chebab)! Interested students! Mashi mushkil!

Then, on that fateful Sunday of Daylight Savings Time, I talked over my plan with some high school girls.

“The boys I talked to said Thursday at 5:30 would be good. Does that sound good to you?”

The girls conferred. One of them said, “Yes, but that was old time. This is new time. So now it would be 6:30.” The others all nodded.

I was a little nonplused. Was the high school not observing Daylight Savings Time? No, of course it was, the girls assured me. Everyone was using “new time” now.

“Well, then it would still be 5:30. That makes no difference. There’s just more sun in the sky.”

“No, no silly!” they corrected me, laughing. “You spoke with them last week. They said 5:30. But NOW it is 6:30! New time, not old time!”

I decided it was easiest to give in. “Okay, I’ll do classes at 6:30 then.” In my head, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to show up for my class at 5:30, just in case any students were confused by the word-of-mouth memo.

“Meryem, when you say 6:30, do you mean new time, or old time?”


Then I went home. Dinner was, to be expected, very late; instead of the usual 9:45, it was at 10:45 (in new time, of course).

However, I noticed that the clock on the wall still read 9:45, which: of course! Whenever Daylight Savings Time happens in the states, it can take me weeks to get around to changing all the clocks. I totally understand.

As dinner was winding down, I stifled a yawn and idly commented, “Oh I’m so tired! It’s so late!”

Everyone in the room looked at me blankly. “Well, it’s late!” I pointed at the clock. Everyone looked. “I mean, that clock isn’t right. In new time, it’s an hour later.”

“Oh, new time? We don’t bother with that,” my host mother said. “We stay with old time.”


So that’s why all this confusion! To be fair, Daylight Savings Time has only been around in Morocco since 2008, so I can easily see why many people would simply poo-poo the practice. Everything I’ve tried to plan this week has involved a confusing “new time, or old time?” conversation, until I inevitably lose track of what time it is, and what time it should be. As one PCV friend commented, it seems like the only thing that changes during Daylight Savings Time is the hour hand – everything else simply happens an hour later! 

But here’s the real kicker about Daylight Savings Time here: Morocco actually drops Daylight Savings Time for the month of Ramadan, reverts back to standard time, and then picks it back up again until it’s over at the end of September.

Here’s what I want to know. That first week of Ramadan, when we will surely have more “new time, or old time?” conversations, will “new time” be the newly-reeinstated-no-longer-DST-time, which is what is at this moment in April considered “old time,” or will standard time be consistently referred to as “old time,” in which case we will be leaving “new time” and going back to “old time”?

I already have a headache.

What has really struck me, though, is the vastly different comprehension of time that Moroccans have. Sure, every guide book says “Moroccans have a different sense of time,” but usually they mean it in this glib, slightly-offensive way that covers up what they’re really trying to say, which is, “Americans, be warned, Moroccans will be late for everything, just chill.” But what I was encountering here wasn’t that. It was a sense of time dramatically less bounded by clocktime than mine was.

I affix time to a clockface. If something is at 6 pm, then it is at 6 pm, no matter how much sun is in the sky or what the weather is. But the Moroccans in my village do not define time by a clockface; they define it by what they see, what they feel, how many things they’ve accomplished since they’ve woken up, or how much time since they had their last meal. So when those boys told me 5:30, they meant not 5:30 but a certain time in the day indicated by 5:30 – a time that would best be represented by 6:30 a week later.

It makes me think of something I remember vividly from reading Madeline L’Engle books, where she talks about two kinds of time: kairos, and chronos. Chronos is “ordinary, wrist-watch, alarm-clock time,” while kairos is “real time, pure numbers with no measurement.”

I guess I am a chronos person living in a kairos world! Talk about a wrinkle in time. Har har.

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New Home, New Media: Introducing My Duar

Well, y’all, I decided to try my hand at radio. This is my first attempt EVER, accomplished with embarrassingly cheap equipment, no audio editing software, and no skills to speak of. I abjectly beg you to forgive me the unutterably shabby quality of this overly-long radio story ramble, sit back, turn that volume up!! (did I mention about the crappy equipment?), and listen to the sounds of a typical family in a small Moroccan village, as captured by a Peace Corps Volunteer with slightly too much time on her hands.

Who knows? If I like doing this, I might make it a regular feature of the blog. Recommendations of free, user friendly audio software (that isn’t Garageband) are welcome!

For those confused about my whereabouts, here’s the skinny: For several months I lived with a host family in a small town in the north in order to learn Moroccan Arabic. Now that I’ve passed my language test and been sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve been assigned to a village (known as a “duar”) waaaaay down south for my two years of service. I’ve been staying with a second host family down here while I acclimate to the duar and search for an apartment.

Remember about my new name? See if you can spot it, it’s in there a few times.

(And in case any of you were appalled at my strangely affected radio voice, I promise you it’s not pretension – it’s the result of telling my host family I was “napping” in order to be undisturbed in my room, and then trying to stealthily record myself, sotto voce into the laptop microphone, saying the narration.)

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