First Meetings

Like so many government institutions, Peace Corps loves its acronyms. Pre-Service Training is PST. A PCV is a full-fledged, duly sworn Peace Corps Volunteer, and now I’m an RPCV — Returned Peace Corps Volunteer — but for those first ten weeks, we were just PCTs — Peace Corps Trainees. (And when you’re really official, as our Country Director Darcy liked to say, they’ll give you an LoA — List of Acronyms!) We were divided into five groups, each assigned an LCF — Language and Cultural Facilitator — who would usher us through PST, supervised by Sultan, who had started out as an LCF himself.

That first day, after twenty-eight hours of travel and our arrival in the wee hours before the fajr adhan, we were allowed to sleep late, but in the early afternoon we all assembled in the training center. The LCFs had taken a big empty box of a room with twenty-foot-high whitewashed walls and made it bright and welcoming. They and Sultan with his wide smile were all lined up on the right as we came in, shaking our hands and welcoming us to Jordan. The wall to our left had been festooned with bright floral shapes, cut out of posterboard and outlined in thick, bold strokes of silver marker. Our names were each written on one of those shapes. Mine was a dark red flower with tall, willowy lettering, tulip-like with long tapering petals on a pair of horizontal lotus-like leaves. It was about midway up the wall, well over my head in the middle of a field of twenty-five Peace Corps Trainees, each unique, all elegant.

It was a profusion of bright color in that cavernous white room. It bespoke their excitement to meet us, and reminded me of the optimism with which I had applied for this “hardest job you’ll ever love,” as the Peace Corps slogan goes. I was exhausted and under-caffeinated, jetlagged and displaced. From somewhere under all that, my excitement began to float back up like soda bubbles. The gentle effervescence tickled against my ribcage, rising to flutter in my chest, lifting the corners of my mouth.

I was really here. This was really happening.

As we waited for the other PCTs to arrive from the Black Iris Hotel, we tacked about the room in little clumps, exploring. Everything was curious, new. I remember following Katja and Laura into the bathroom. “Check it out!” exclaimed Laura. “They’re squatters!”

We would learn the finer points of how to use a squatter toilet from Andrea. Her recent experience in Peace Corps Cote d’Ivoire had abruptly ended not long after PST with a military coup and evacuation, so she had been offered an opportunity to start over in Peace Corps Jordan. In Africa, which we would come to refer to as “the real, mud hut Peace Corps,” her toilet had been a literal hole in the dirt. Jordan must have seemed a luxury with so-called “Turkish toilets,” flushable ceramic fixtures sunk into the floor with ridged grips for the feet. I had done my share of peeing in the woods in high school, backpacking stretches of the Appalachian Trail with my Girl Scout troop. This looked much better than that to me.

Eventually, we were all called together, onto a large, worn Persian rug under the wall decorated with our names. Sultan was there, and Mohammad. The security guy Samir was probably off to one side, so quiet and reserved that I didn’t notice him. Darcy, our Country Director, welcomed us to Peace Corps Jordan and introduced the staff we hadn’t met yet.

Zain was the other TEFL supervisor with Mohammad. She was a short, sturdy, dark woman, middle-aged and favoring deep earth tones. Laurene was our Peace Corps Medical Officer — PCMO, more alphabet soup. She was a tall, broad shouldered Canadian with a wide, placid face perfect for the bedside of her little exam room up in the Amman office. There were some other staff who would cycle out of the office in the next few months. There was no need to introduce ourselves to the staff. We were the first group of Trainees since the 2003 evacuation, so they had little else to do but study us for weeks: our photos, our applications, our skills and abilities.

Then Darcy introduced us to our LCFs. They were all women. Four were Muslims in carefully wrapped hijab, and the fifth was Christian, with the easily remembered name Jennifer. Svelte and stylish, they were not what I had expected Arab girls to look like. Yet another reminder of how ignorant and unprepared I was for Jordan.

Jennifer was a beautiful young woman. She dressed like an H&M fashion plate, though conservatively. Her long black pants were wide and loose, her shirts were not too tight and the sleeves always came to the wrist. She had long, thick locks of jet black hair, which she blew out daily into a luxurious mane that I instantly envied. Her bangs perfectly framed her dark eyes with their perfect black eyeliner and precisely threaded elegant brows.

My first memory of Jennifer is sitting on a table near the entrance to the training facility, swinging her legs in her stylish little sneakers, hands braced on the edge as if she were about to push off on an adventure at any moment. Her casual confidence was both soothing and inviting, her smile always warm and welcoming.

Once introductions had been made, Jennifer was eager to point out the flower she had made on the wall for me. “I told them your name was pronounced ‘Mariah’! They kept trying to say your name was ‘Maria’ or ‘Mar-yah,’ but I knew it was ‘Mariah,’ even if it has a Y instead of an I. And I’m so glad, because it means I spelled it correctly in Arabic.”

Her flower with my name emblazoned on it would go up on the wall in my house when I moved to my site after training. When I left Jordan at the end of my two years as a PCV, I slipped my posterboard flower into a flat compartment in the cover of my suitcase, and there it travelled around the world with me. I forget for months at a time that the compartment even exists, but at any moment I might remember it’s there, discover my posterboard flower, and think of Jennifer and our Ma’in cohort.

She was probably also the first person to tell me that my name, though not an Arab name, did have a meaning in Arabic: “mirrors.” This would prove to be very good news indeed, because it meant that for the first time in my life I would have a name that was instantly recognizable and pronounceable, after going through my whole childhood resigned to answer to any name that began with M. Other Volunteers — Catharine, Jeremy, Josie (aka “Juicie”) — would have their names repeatedly mangled for perhaps the first time in their lives, even by villagers and students who knew them well. I would get some incredulous looks whenever I introduced myself to someone new, but pronunciation was never a problem.

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