Sunday, September 1, 2013

Feeling a part of a Moroccan Family


While serving in Morocco, I have learned about some essential components that any human being needs to thrive. In addition to having a sense of control over one’s daily activities and feeling a sense of purpose, feeling connected and a part of a community is of the upmost importance. We are energetic beings and need the positive energy of others to keep us motivated and fulfilled.

If it weren’t for the connections I have made with Moroccan families in my community, I don’t think I would have had the strength to continue my service. Life in Peace Corps is extremely lonely. However, the warmth I have received from Moroccans has helped mitigate some of the negative aspects of isolation.

I spend a lot of time with one particular family. The mother’s name is Aziza, whom I consider a mother to me in Tissint. She is calm, caring, and motherly. I have never heard her yell or get angry. She parents with love, and it is beautiful to watch. Then there are three girls, Baya, 16, the oldest, Fatima, 14, Selawa, 9, and one boy Unis, 12. Baya is always busy cooking, cleaning, and helping her mom with daily chores. She is the quietest of the three girls, has a warm smile, and a curious nature. Fatima loves to learn, especially English, and go on adventures. One of my favorite memories with her is when we took the bus to the bigger city, Tata, about an hour north of Tissint. Together, we shopped, walked around, and we were even invited to share a meal with a Moroccan family we met that day. Then there is Selawa. She is one of the funniest girls I have ever met. If she were to come to the USA, she could easily be cast in her own comedy show. She has a star quality about her and a sense of humor that brightens anyone’s day. Unis has been deaf and barely able to speak since he was young. However, this does not stop him from living his life to the fullest. He is expressive, energetic, and loves to help. He is kind, gentle, and trustworthy. He loves to walk Haven and help me with my chores. We often go on walks and share the peaceful nature of our community.

I truly felt like one of them the other day. It was a beautiful morning, and we walked 30 minutes out into the palmery. Here we collected palm tree leaves, which are used for baking bread and creating roofs over open spaces in homes. We collected them into four bundles. Then we each hoisted one bundle onto the tops of our heads and made the journey back home. The image of me walking alongside them with a bundle of palm tree leaves on my head is a memory that I will never forget.

They call me their sister and I call them my sisters and my brother. It is as if they have adopted me. They come by daily to check up on me. The door is always open for me to go and drink tea, share a meal, or even sleep at their house if I am feeling particularly scared or lonely. I am not sure how I can ever thank them enough for how they have impacted not only my service, but my life. Through them I have seen the goodness of humanity. They have become my family here and will continue to be long after I return home.
Love to all the Moroccans who have welcomed Americans into their homes!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March Marks One Year!

March marks one -year in Morocco, and I couldn’t feel more excited. This past year has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging, but rewarding years of my life. As I reflect on this past year, it is amazing how much has happened. I moved to Morocco, learned basic Moroccan Arabic, moved in with two Moroccan families, survived my first desert summer, facilitated activities for Moroccan youth, and experienced the many emotional highs and lows of Peace Corps life. It has been an unforgettable year, and I feel more blessed and grateful than ever for the wonderful people in my life and the opportunities that I have been given.

March not only marks one year in Peace Corps, but is also one of the busiest work months of the year. Since returning from vacation, the dar chebab (youth center) has been packed with youth. I have had a consistent work schedule and routine, which has really helped me feel adjusted and productive. My work includes teaching English, soccer, art, dance, hiking, and girls/women’s empowerment activities. I love to watch the young women learn and be engaged in the activities at the dar chebab. I also recently celebrated International Women’s Day with a few other volunteers. My friend organized a program, and I helped facilitate an activity about the Moudawana Code, a law that now gives women more freedoms and rights in marriage, divorce, and guardianship.

In addition to being busy with work, I also celebrated a Moroccan holiday with a local family. We walked to a nearby village where they slaughtered a camel and a cow in honor of Muhammed's birthday. There was a large market set up with local jewelry and goods.

I have also been busy taking care of my new dog, Haven. I found him alone and abandoned in a little cave in the mountain. I couldn’t say no to his sweet, innocent puppy face. My neighbors and community members think I am a little weird (something I am sure they have been thinking for the past year).  The concept of having a dog as a pet is a little foreign to many Moroccans. He has been a positive addition to my life here in Morocco. He is one lucky pup and will be returning to America with me next spring.

In general, life in Morocco feels pretty normal now. There are fewer surprises, and I feel settled and comfortable in my little Moroccan house. I have my little routines that bring me peace and help me re-center after a stressful day. I especially love to sit in my courtyard, look at the stars, and drink hot cocoa. I have also figured out how to cook tasty meals using the local ingredients and have had a lot of fun in the kitchen. The hiking and bike riding is also spectacular this time of year. I have never seen beauty like I do here in Morocco.

That’s all for now. I hope life is going well for all who read this. Sending love and light to friends and family in the USA!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Since my Peace Corps Detour, life in Morocco has been going well. My volunteer community is filled with kids, which means I am always busy! I have created a consistent work schedule. Sunday and Monday the youth center is closed. Tuesday is girls club in the morning and soccer in the afternoon. Wednesday is girls club in the afternoon, Thursday is English class, Friday is art club, and Saturdays tend to be more soccer and Frisbee time. Slowly but surely, I hope to facilitate a girl’s empowerment workshop, a health day, and a mural painting at the youth center. I am looking forward to the many project potentials in my community.

In addition to becoming busy with work, relationship building with the Moroccan people has been great! Within my community, four Moroccan families have extended an open door policy to me. They are always inviting me over to share meals. I don’t think I have eaten lunch once in my house since coming back! Eating lunch with the Moroccan people is important for me to do in order to feel connected and apart of the community. I feel safe in their presence and there are moments where I feel like another link in their family. I also find eating the Moroccan food heart-warming and comforting. The dishes seem to be perfectly balanced with just the right amount of spices.

Christmas is right around the corner! I will be going to a nearby town to spend the holiday with other Peace Corps volunteers. Then, soon after, I am going to Europe for a two-week vacation to Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Austria.

Merry Christmas to all my wonderful friends and family! This is my first Christmas away from home, and I will definitely be missing our annual giant family gift exchange, grandma’s stuffing, cookies, but most of all the people who make the holidays so special, family and friends. Lots of Love and Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Peace Corps Detour

During training, the Peace Corps talks about the cycle of emotions that volunteers tend to experience throughout their service. They even gave us a handy diagram as a reference. Around this time is the adjustment phase, which tends to accompany feelings of anxiety and stress. Homesickness tends to intensify and the challenges of living abroad become more apparent.  
These past few months have been the most challenging thus far. After completing my work at the orphanage, I continued to attend more volunteer trainings. The stress of living out of my pack for many months was wearing on me. I went back to site with the hope of feeling more relaxed, because I would finally be in one place. When I got to site I woke each day and tried my hardest to focus on my work and mission as a volunteer, but I still didn’t feel right. I felt scared and confused. I wanted with all my heart to be a volunteer in my site. Yet, I felt out of balance. I needed to see my family and be around people who would provide me with lots of rejuvenating energy.

Thus, I made the decision to return home to reconnect with loved ones. When I was home, I did lots of yoga, ate healthy, spent lots of time with family, and focused on getting stronger. I think my decision to return home will make my Peace Corps service more productive. Because I myself feel stronger, I believe I can be a greater source of peace for my community.
I have learned that I need to be strong within myself, before I can efficiently support and serve others. Thanks to my wonderful friends and family I am feeling stronger! My journey these past few months have also filled me with humility. I am human, which means I am vulnerable. I am not invincible, and I need to protect myself.

Transitioning back to Peace Corps life has been challenging, but each day is becoming easier. Everyday has been filled with a blessing of some sort. I started a girls club at the youth center, which includes dance, music, art, and hopefully some cooking! I am also teaching English and playing lots of UNO, soccer, and Frisbee.

Today I finalized my plans for a mini-remodel in my house. I am going to put Moroccan tile into my courtyard. It has been fun decorating my space!
It feels good to be settling back into Peace Corps life, and I don’t have to leave site until the end of the month! Hamdullah! (Thanks be to God in Arabic)

Lots of Love and Merry Christmas from Morocco!


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My First Summer in Morocco

August 19 marks month 5 in country! I really can’t believe it! Overall, time has moved quickly, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that some days have passed at snail’s pace. My overall experience here continues to be positive and life changing in many ways.

My appreciation for the United States has grown immensely over these past few months. Just by being born an American, I am given so much privilege and opportunity to live a quality life. I will carry this appreciation with me for the rest of my life, and I am extremely grateful for this.

There are always opportunities for self-growth and discovery. In many ways I feel my emotions are clearer and more easily identifiable in Morocco. The sadness that I feel here is a pure sadness, not sadness mixed with anger, nervousness and frustration. I am simply feeling sad, because I miss my family and friends. I will continue to feel waves of sadness during my Peace Corps experience. However, I continue to move forward with the knowledge that there is nothing more important to me in my life than my relationships with my family and friends.

I have had many days here, where my only obligation is to just live in Morocco, to be with myself, be with others. This is a freeing feeling and an opportunity to be in the present moment. I am slowly learning to give up a little control and let go. I am learning to make friends with the millions of ants that live in my house, rather than trying tape up every hole they may inhabit. I am learning to breath when I am frustrated when Moroccans don’t form a line at the post office. I am learning to have lots of patience with kids when they want to play 20 games of UNO in row. I am learning how to live each day open, awake, and alive to the beautiful things that each day brings.

These past weeks have brought many eye-opening experiences…

I participated in summer camp in El Jadidia, a city north of my site on the coast. I taught Intermediate High English, went to the beach, and played games with the youth. In my English lessons I incorporated topics like health, mental health, self-esteem, careers, travel and culture. I had tons of fun getting to know other Peace Corp volunteers, interacting with Moroccan youth, and enjoying the cool, coastal weather!

During one of my English classes, I spoke about self-esteem. We talked about how self-knowledge and understanding provides the basis for high self-esteem. Many times we learn about ourselves through interacting with others. Thus, I had my students write their names on a piece of paper. Then, the papers were anonymously passed around the room, and the students wrote down one nice thing about that person. Unfortunately, one of the students wrote, “I hate you” on one of the pieces of paper. I was shocked and upset that the activity took this path. However, it was during this time that I felt my presence was extremely valuable. This occurrence provided me with an opportunity to talk to the youth about the importance of treating others with respect. I felt like they learned a valuable lesson, and I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with them about this topic.

Driving back to site after summer camp felt similar to the experience of going up a steep hill on a rollercoaster. I was anticipating and waiting for the heat to hit me full force. I felt nervousness associated with the lack of physical comfort that I would be experiencing in my site. To my surprise, the heat was more bearable than expected. There were actually a couple nights where I covered up with a blanket! No 140-degree heat wave, just summer desert heat. (which still lingers around the 120s)
My journey back to site brought not only the heat, but also the start of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Moroccans fast from sunrise to sundown for thirty days. In order to assist in the cultural integration process, Elizabeth and I decided to participate in the first 10 days of Ramadan. (After 10 days we left for Agadir to work at an orphanage for the month of August) Elizabeth and I went without food all day. Then around 7:30, the call to prayer would sound, and we would break fast with our host family or one of our neighboring families.

Breaking fast after withstanding from food all day was a unique and enjoyable experience. The realization that every Moroccan is eating at the same time brought a feeling of community and oneness. Every taste bud was awake for this meal! Every night, we broke fast with figs, hairara (a Moroccan soup with spices, chickpeas, lentils, and noodles), pancake-like bread with honey, and shbekia (fried dough with honey). I drank their rendition of coffee (really sugary milk) and lots and lots of tea! Then, I would drink more tea and play UNO with our host siblings and the neighbor kids. Around 3:00 AM, we ate our second meal, which consisted of a Moroccan tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish in a circular bowl with meat, spices, and vegetables, homemade juice, and fruit. Around 4:00 AM, we went to bed and the cycle continued for 10 days.  

Ramadan in the desert was also a challenging experience! With low blood sugar and the heat, I lacked so much energy I could barely speak during the day. I had a lot of time to think. I thought about how I could apply this fasting experience to my own faith. I though about my family, my friends, the comforts of home, and things that I want to accomplish in Morocco. When I couldn’t think anymore or was too hot to read, I found myself staring at the wall. (Seems to be a normal occurrence for me) Despite the long days, Elizabeth and I managed to pass time by playing lots of Rummy, watching movies on our computers, reading, and listening to music.

I found the experience of Ramadan valuable and necessary to do in order to relate more fully to the Moroccan culture. I appreciate the communal experience of Ramadan, and I loved tasting and savoring every flavor of food. I also appreciate that I always have the ability to eat when I am hungry, something I easily take for granted.

After 10 days of Ramadan, Elizabeth and I traveled to Agadir to work at an SOS Village orphanage, which is where I currently reside. Our youth center is closed during the month of August, and the heat reduces the amount of activity in our site. Thus, we thought working at an orphanage would be a great way to utilize our time and skills. There are about one hundred children and ten mothers living here. Each mother raises about ten children. The children are fully equipped with an outdoor playground, an indoor jungle gym, an art room, an auditorium, and a computer room.

During my time here, I have been teaching yoga, playing games, and doing art. Keeping the kids attention focused on an activity for more than 15 minutes has been a challenge, but I learning how to have lots of patience with them. Many of them simply desire our attention and to be held. They are adorable, and I have loved getting to know them over the past few weeks.

I also learned how to surf with the kids! We all had wet suits and our own surfboards. The experience of riding a wave felt exhilarating.  

In addition to interacting with kids, I have had the opportunity to do stress-reduction and teach yoga to the mothers. I have loved working with these women! These mothers work so hard raising these kids by themselves. In order to be an SOS Village mother, one has to commit to never get married. Raising these kids becomes their life-decision. I have admiration for the strength and dedication these women possess. They have enjoyed having some time to themselves to breath, relax, and re-center. My experience with them has solidified my decision to get my yoga teacher training when I come home.

Our time at the orphanage is wrapping up and then I am off to more trainings and workshops. Then, I go back to site, where I am looking forward to the many possibilities that lie ahead!

That’s all for now! Sending love to everyone!!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Life in Peace Corps Begins

I traveled by suq bus to my site. As we drove the terrain began to change from luscious green fields to rocky mountain formations. The mountains were endless and from a distance appeared to be swirled in design. As we winded up and down the mountains, the land became more barren. Yet, from time to time we would stumble upon a large collection of palm trees. They would surprise me every time. I observed landscapes that I have never seen or experienced before. The drive seemed to be an endless journey into an unknown world.

By about six hours into the bus ride, we experienced the regular bout of vomit from passengers that are not used to traveling long distances. “This is something you will never get used to,” another volunteer told me. About 7 hours from the time we left Agadir, we arrived in Tata, a small city about an hour west of Tissint. Upon our arrival in Tata, the other volunteers previously placed in our region welcomed us with a giant sign that said Peace Corps and all of our site’s names. I immediately felt supported and a strong sense of community among all the volunteers. Because we are so far away from everyone and in places so vastly different from our homes in America, the volunteers in our region are a close-knit family.

From Tata, we took a Taxi to Tissint. The hour drive to my site was an experience I will never forget. We drove straight into the distance, encircled by breathtaking rocky mountain formations. The land surrounding us was dusty and barren. There were a couple small villages along the way, but nothing more.

We pulled into the one road town of Tissint. Welcome home I told myself. I introduced myself to my new host family as Malika, the Arabic name I was given by my Arabic teacher in training. I have three host brothers, Said, 17, and Rachid, 18, Youseff, 10, and two host sisters, Jamiea, 12 and Zahara, 21.

Said has a curious, inquisitive nature. Having had little exposure to American culture, everything is new and different through the eyes of Said. He thought my ipod was a phone and loves taking pictures of anything and everything. Things that I thought were trash were a treasure to him. He wore my lanyard from orientation around his neck and thought it was the coolest thing. He is hardworking and loves to help out in any way that he can, even if that means painting weird random shapes on the walls of our house. (We made it into a vine of flowers) He helps clean and makes tea daily. Kindhearted and loving, he is always excited to see us and always sad to see us go. One week Elizabeth and I had to travel to Agadir for a meeting and he woke up early and ran ahead of the bus just so he could wave goodbye to us. When I first met Jamiea she was sweet-tempered and shy, but since being around her for about a month now she has shown her bubbly, outgoing side. She is easy-going and like Said, curious about Elizabeth and I. We love to play Frisbee with them in the afternoons when the sun goes down a little.

Speaking of the sun, I haven’t spoken about the heat here in Tissint yet. Currently, we are in the midst of a heat wave and a dust storm. Temperatures reach over 120 degrees and there is dust everywhere (we don’t have a roof on part of our house so it has been an interesting process cleaning our living area – may have to save this story for next time). The afternoon, from about 12-5, is the most difficult time of day to move through. The heat is intense and every hanoot, or store, in town closes. People eat lunch, sleep, and wait for it to cool down. The heat causes me to go into this hazy fog. I try to sleep, but I mostly lay on the ground in front of my fan. I try to read, but am too uncomfortable. I try and write my blog, but my computer over heats. I can’t go anywhere so, I basically wait patiently for the sun to pass. Sometimes the afternoons seem endless, but they do end and then my entire way of being here shifts. When it cools, people emerge from their houses, stores re-open, and there is life once again in Tissint. I love the afternoons and evenings here. Sometimes, Elizabeth and I find time to take a walk to our oasis with a beautiful waterfall and palm trees, play Frisbee, or enjoy or our evening snack under the desert stars with our host family. 

The stars in Tissint are incredible. The first two weeks here in Tissint, when I live with my host family, we slept on the roof under the stars every night.

Now, I live in my own house! Finding and furnishing a house in Tissint has been an adventure to say the least. We walked around town and asked hanoot owners and anyone that would talk to us if there were any empty houses available for rent. This approach brought us good responses. We saw some houses that were definite nos, but we were finally able to find two houses that we both loved. We thought everything was set to go, but when I returned to ask about the contract for the house I was to rent, the landlord told me he rented the house to someone else. However, the other house that we found is a great house. It has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living area, and a roof that has a great view! Anxious and excited to live in our own space, we decided to both move in and start creating a home for ourselves.

Since moving in, we have put a lot of work into our house and are finally feeling settled here in Tissint. It has been a process though! In order to buy a fridge/freezer (an essential item – frozen melon makes the desert heat a tad more tolerable) we had to travel about an hour to Tata, via suq bus. In Tata, we bought a fridge, two beds, two nightstands, a small table, and 4 wooden blocks to prop our beds. We loaded all of these items into the bottom of the suq bus and traveled back to Tissint, all the while drenched in sweat. When we arrived in Tissint, the bus employees helped us unload everything. We got off the bus and oh was it a site to see! Tissint is encircled my mountains so picture this…me, the mountains, a fridge, two beds, two nightstands, in the middle of the dusty road in the centre of the one road town of Tissint. Everything was also closed so we were all alone. Wish I had captured this image.

All of a sudden a boy rode up on his bike and observed our situation. He went and got help and brought back a wagon and a few other people to help us. We loaded everything we could into the wagon and took what we could in our hands and meandered down the narrow dirt road into our new home. Thank you to the kind people of Tissint! In addition to purchasing what we need for our house we have each painted murals in our rooms and in the living area. It has been a fun process creating a space in which I feel comfortable and can finally call a safe haven.

In addition to establishing a place of residence in Tissint, I have also started to familiarize myself with the environments in which I will work for the next two years. Our first day in site Elizabeth and I went to the Dar Chebab, and as we walked into the classroom/theatre room about 150 kids surrounded us. They immediately started clapping and cheering when they saw us. My eyes welled up with tears as I stood and looked upon the faces of these beautiful children. I couldn’t believe I was finally here looking at the kids that will define my Peace Corps experience. Since that day, we have had a few meetings with our mudir, the man that oversees the youth center, and had a meet and greet session with available youth in our community. Because Tissint is so hot in the summer, many people leave and live somewhere else for the summer. Most of our work with the youth here will begin in September.

Tissint also has a women’s center or neti neswi. We have met several of the women and have observed them making beautiful rugs. I am currently in the process of trying to help the women sell their crafts internationally.

The women in Tissint are full of life. I have been to a few Moroccan parties in Tissint, which have been rich cultural opportunities. The parties are usually held in the large courtyards of homes. We sit on colorful rugs on the cement, and I listen to the women sing and play the drums and watch them dance. At the last party I danced with my host mom in front of about 75 women! I imitated her movements and tried to dance like she does! It was such a rush! The women put necklaces on me and said BssHa or “to your health” as I danced. The women are fully dressed in the hajib with beautiful colored fabrics. Tie die tends to be the most popular. I purchased one and sometimes wear them to the parties. They seem to appreciate my effort to dress like them. They are adorned in gold and silver jewelry. Women also come around with bottles of perfume and spray it all over me. Either before or after music and dancing we eat a typical Moroccan tagine, which consists of meat, spices and vegetables in a circular dish. At parties men and women are completely segregated, men in one room and women in another. Eating, dancing, visiting are all done separate.

On a side note, since being in Morocco I have observed that Moroccans relate differently to time and space than Americans. Moroccans tend to take their time with everything. Eating is always a formal process, never rushed. Visiting a neighbor is never a quick hello. Morning tea easily turns into lunch and evening snack. It was a challenge the other day to leave our host mom’s sister’s house to go the youth center, because she insisted that we stay and participate in after lunch dancing and drumming. Spending time with others tends to be highly valued. In the United States, I am accustomed to having a personal and a physical space that I call my own. In Morocco, every physical space tends to be communal and the concept of having an individual space tends to be less prevalent. I also have a lot less personal space. When I lived with my second host family the only time I had complete personal space was in the shower. Otherwise I was constantly around my siblings and my host mom. 

A few other things I want to mention… I have learned that the choice to work out is a luxury. Doing laundry by hand and completing simple everyday tasks are a workout! Laundry is usually a three-hour task and my arms and back are pretty sore by the end. I will never take for granted a night’s sleep without flies swarming me at 6:00 AM.

I have had moments of homesickness, but I am finding ways to pick myself up and keep moving forward. I discovered that one of the hanoots has chocolate milk sometimes! It was a good day. Going on walks in the evenings and going to the dar chebab have been great ways to get me out of my head and into the present moment.

Heading to El Jadida tomorrow, a city on the coast, north of Agadir, to teach English at a summer camp.

That’s all for now. LOVE to family and friends!