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! 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Journeying to the Desert

My whole being has been consumed with joy these past couple weeks. Everyday has brought something new. Everyday has brought insights into another’s life experience. Everyday has brought me into closer relationship with Moroccans. I am living so outside myself, and I feel liberated.

These past couple weeks were filled with many great memories with my family. My host brother, Sufian, took me on a day trip to the town of Sefrou outside of Fez, where we hiked and saw a beautiful waterfall. We took lots of pictures and shared a great afternoon. I will never forget the moment when I gave him a printed copy of a picture of us together. He said with a huge smile “I am so happy now, but I am sad you have to go.” I will always consider Sufian my brother.

I cooked pizza for my family, which they LOVED! They had never had pizza the way I made it..lots of fresh veggies. They said they would always make pizza like this from now on. I also helped my mom cook lots of great Moroccan lunches.

I continued to participate in Miriam’s preparation for marriage. I had a “girls” night with Miriam and my cousin, Bassma. I also stayed the night at her apartment with my other sister, Hudda. Bassma took me out in the city with Hudda, where we ate pizza and rode a horse drawn carriage around the city. Such a fun night! During my last night with my family, we danced and took lots of funny pictures.

Saying my good-byes to my host family was sad. My Mom cried as I hugged her and waved goodbye. My brothers gave me one final hug as they went off to school. I consciously stored Humza’a awesome smile in my long-term memory. Miriam and Bassma walked me to the taxi stand, where I gave them hugs and said my usual expressions (it became a daily ritual to exchange these expressions with one another)…Eziz Eliya (you are precious to me), hbiba kul nhar (my love everyday), and xti kul nhar (sister everyday). As they closed the door, tears welled up in my eyes. It’s amazing how I was able to form such deep relationships with individuals even though I had limited language. As I reflect on my stay with them, I am overcome with gratitude for their genuine kindness. The love that I have experienced in my host family was so pure and genuine. They have changed my life forever.

From Fez, I traveled by bus to Rabat, where I returned to the original hotel that I stayed in for orientation. It was nice to reconnect with other people in my training group, and I had a great day at a beach town outside of Rabat.

I also found out about my final site placement! Before the announcement of our final sites, the room of 110 volunteers was bursting with energy, anticipation, nervousness, and excitement. We all signed up for the Peace Corps with the knowledge that we could be placed anywhere in the country. However, now that we have been in county for two months, we have seen the beach, the mountains, the city, and the countryside and preferences and hopes about site placement had definitely surfaced. First, we were separated by region. They called my name and Elizabeth’s for region 5! (The south) We went into another room, where our regional manager had a map of the region on power point. One by one he put our faces on the map with a single click. My face went far southeast in the small desert village of Tissint. My initial reaction was laughter. For some reason, I found it funny that I would be placed far far away from everyone else in the middle of the desert. I think there was some fear rooted in my laughter as well. After a few other individuals were revealed their fate, my regional manager clicked his mouse and Elizabeth’s head floated right next to mine! We are site mates! I screamed with relief. I don’t think this type of situation has ever happened in Peace Corps history.

We were told by our regional manager that there are swiya hard (little hard) and hard sites. Our site is a hard site. Volunteers tend to get lonely at our site, so I am happy that the Peace Corps is using Elizabeth and I in a positive way. A guidebook describes our region as virtually uninhabited. Our village has one road, no bank, and very little resources. The heat will rise to as high 130 degrees in the summer! I am beyond excited about my site. I requested a smaller village, because I feel I will be able to integrate deeper into the community. Because there are few resources, there is also so much room for growth in my site. I will never be able to engage in a living experience like this in the states. I am excited to experience desert living!  

I swore in as an official volunteer yesterday and it felt awesome! All our hard work during training was celebrated in a ceremony that brought together the US Ambassador, the Moroccan Minister of Youth, our Community Director, Peace Corps Staff, and previous volunteers. They spoke words of inspiration and encouragement and applauded our commitment to service. Swearing in was comparable to graduation…a time where our past accomplishments are celebrated, but also a time to think about how we will carry our skills and talents out into the world. We are trained volunteers. Now it is our responsibility to apply our abilities to our communities and facilitate positive change. I found myself so happy about the knowledge that I will be living in this amazing country for two more years. This experience doesn’t stop at the end of training…it is only the beginning. I can’t wait to see what these next two years will bring. This experience has already been rich with growth and exploration. I feel I have learned so much about others, the Moroccan culture, and myself.

Today I am began my journey to the remote, rural desert town of Tissint, my home for the next years. I just took a train from Rabat to Marrakesh and a bus to the beautiful beach city of Agadir. I will spend one night here and then continue on to Tata tomorrow and Tissint on Saturday. That’s all for now…

LOVE to all my family and friends! You will be in for an adventure when you come visit me. : ) 

Monday, May 7, 2012

My CBT Adventures

WOOPS – getting a little behind on my postings!

I have been so busy since my last post…

Spring Camp was a weeklong occurrence that brought in youth from the surrounding area. I taught English, nutrition, and helped facilitate activities with the youth. We even had a Moroccan-American dance exchange! Spring Camp was a little taste of the kind of work I will be doing in my final site, and it was definitely a source of joy for me. I felt more connected to Morocco, a sense of purpose, and enjoyed beginning to form relationships with Moroccan youth. I found myself energized, excited, and motivated to make a positive change. I plan on carrying a sense of this spirit and passion with me as I continue on my journey here in Morocco.

During the week of Spring Camp, I also celebrated my 23rd birthday Moroccan style. It was definitely one of the most memorable birthdays of my life. My CBT group surprised me with a big plate of vegetables (I love my vegetables!) and my host family made a homemade cake and fresh lemonade. After, we danced for hours to Moroccan music!  

I also went to the Hammam or public bathhouse for THREE hours! There are hammams in every neighborhood in Morocco, and going to the Hammam tends to be a weekly occurrence for men and women. It is a time to socialize and get a weekly scrub down. I guess I would describe it as something like a 5 star bucket bath. We sit on these little stools, surrounded with buckets of hot water, in a giant-tiled, steamed room. Women scrub their bodies and each other with Hammam gloves that help get all the dead skin off the body. I must say I was very exfoliated after the Hammam!

A couple weekends ago Elizabeth and a few other trainees came to visit, and we walked around the Old Medina in Fez. The Old Medina is beautiful part of my CBT site, a place that attracts many tourists and is filled with vibrantly colored rugs, shoes, and clothing. The streets are narrow and surrounded by endless shops of Moroccan goods. We discovered a cafe that overlooks the entire Medina and has spectacular views! 

Unfortunately, I also experienced the seemingly normal bout of sickness during training. I wanted nothing but to be home in my own bed. To cure my illness, I was encouraged by my host Mom to eat only yogurt and cheese and to never drink coffee from the café again. Feeling physically depleted, I also felt emotionally depleted. However, with my health restored this week, my spirits are up and I will not take my health here for granted EVER again.

Last weekend I went with one of my CBT mates to her host Mom’s sister’s house for a night. The home was spacious and decorated “Moroccan style,” beautifully tiled and vibrantly colored fabrics. We had a Moroccan-American dinner. We made pizza for the family from scratch and they made bastillas (thin dough filled with chicken and fish)! We surprised ourselves by our ability to make homemade dough with little previous experience or a recipe. The next day I went on a walk with my CBT mate and the sons of the family. It was interesting talking to them about the importance of marriage in Morocco and other aspects of Moroccan culture. I also observed a donkey pulling a carriage next to a mercedes -- quite an interesting contrast! 

The more I interact with Moroccan people, the more I feel a sense of Moroccan pride. All of the Moroccan people I have met have wanted me to feel comfortable in their presence. Their hospitality is endless, and they are extremely kind and open towards people they meet.

I feel  extremely comfortable and relaxed with my host family. I have adjusted pretty well to their routine and lifestyle. My language is improving and in between some Darija (Moroccan Arabic), Spanish, and English we are usually able to articulate our thoughts to each other.  I truly feel loved and apart of their family. We have inside jokes, laugh a lot, and act super silly around each other. I am able to be my weird self and they whole-heartedly embrace me. My mother and sister work so hard, always cooking and cleaning. The more I get to know my host mom, the more I see that she is a smart and open-minded woman. She has done a wonderful job raising four children! My oldest host sister is talented in fashion design. I love watching her design in our parlor room. My youngest host brother is always full of smiles. His kindness and calming energy makes me love hanging out with him. My spirits are always lifted in his presence. I LOVE my host family so much, and I will definitely miss them when I move on to the next chapter of the Peace Corps experience. 

My oldest host sister is also preparing for marriage and this has been an interesting process to observe. She is helping design her many dresses and busy buying things for her new life with her husband. I am learning that weddings are an elaborate and an integral part of Moroccan culture.

Last week we taught English at the Dar-Chebab. The youth that I have interacted with are extremely motivated to learn English. We even talked at length with some of them about their Education system and ways they want to see it improve. Their energy got me excited to continue having these empowering interactions with Moroccan youth.

I just returned from Azrou yesterday, where I was visiting Elizabeth and her host family. Seeing her was a huge source of relief and comfort. I almost feel like I am at home when we have the chance to spend time together and talk about our experiences. Having someone here that knows me well helps me feel less foreign in an unfamiliar place. I am thankful for this blessing everyday.

My life in Morocco is picking up speed. I have been extremely busy with language and cross-cultural training. I wake up at 7:30 and have four hours of language training from 8:30 to 12:30. Then I go home for lunch until 2:00. We do cross-culture activities in the afternoon and finish around 6:00. I go home and have caskroot ( a big snack) around 7:00. I have dinner anywhere between 10:00 and 11:00. Then I go to bed. The days are long, but the weeks are short. There are constant challenges, but I try and let go and move through them. I see these challenges as a chance to reflect on what I am grateful for and to learn about myself.

I only have two weeks until I am officially sworn in as a volunteer and proceed to my final site! I do not have any idea where I will be living next month and this has been a source of excitement and nervousness. I am looking forward to regaining a little bit of control and independence, but will miss my host family and am aware of the challenge of adjustment that is ahead.

Overall, my experience continues to be positive and I feel I am where I am supposed to be. Sending so much love to my friends and family. Being away from you is a huge challenge. LOVE to you all.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Living with my Moroccan Family

I have officially been living with my Moroccan host family for a little over a week now, and I feel like I am living in a completely different world. I live in a small apartment in Fez, Morocco with two younger sisters, 20 and 16; two younger brothers, 17 and 19, and a wonderful host mother who treats me like one of her own. She says I am one of her girls and even insisted that I take a beautifully sequined Moroccan dress as a gift to symbolize my presence in their family. I have a father, but I have not met him. He is a marble maker and lives and works in another city. 

My 20 year-old host sister is full of energy, bubbly, funny, and extremely kind. The first day we walked arm and arm around the markets. I immediately felt safe in her presence, a feeling I so desperately need throughout this experience. Oh, and she loves to dance! The first night she blasted Arabic music and started dancing. Hesitant, I got up from the couch and joined her. We laughed and had fun even though we had only exchanged a few words at that point. Dance is truly a window into another culture. I am grateful that I can rely on dance as a form of communication, especially when there is a huge language barrier.

My host sister got engaged yesterday! She dressed up in a red, sequined Moroccan dress and the family of the groom came over to the apartment to chat over tea and sweets. I think it went really well. She is full of smiles. 

My other sister and brothers are wonderful as well. My 16-year old sister took me on what I think is her typical night out. This consisted of walking around the city for a few hours and congregating with other adolescents by the candy shop. My 19-year old brother took me into the city last weekend acting as my personal tour guide. I loved experiencing more of Morocco through him.

Hospitality is deeply rooted in Moroccan culture, and my family is nothing but hospitable. With kindness and patience, they give so much and want me to feel comfortable. They encourage me to eat, and I mean EAT! They say Kuli, or you eat! If they see me without bread in front of me they make sure to hand me another giant piece. I have to say sbet, LHamdullah or I am full, thanks be to God a few times before they let me stop eating. Meal times have been one of the most interesting, full of culture experiences. We eat communally off of the same plate and use bread as our means to consume the meat and vegetables. It's not culturally acceptable to each with my left hand. I think I have definitely won the award for being the most messy eater in my family. My diet consists mostly of fish, chicken, bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, some vegetables, and tons of sugar. They love sugar and insist on adding it to everything from tea, to rice, to milk.

I have observed that family bonds are extremely strong. I can sense that my family is close-knit. Communication between the family members are consistent. They share meals, especially lunch together. They argue and get frustrated with each other, but also joke around and laugh with one another. I can see they love each other very much.

Fez is a big city in Morocco, but I am beginning to know my way around my neighborhood. During the day market stands are set up in the streets with fresh fruits and vegetables, clothes, and miscellaneous things. There are many little shops all around that sell everything from almonds to soap. Kids are walking to and from school, and cars are zooming past. I hear shouts of people bargaining, sounds of construction, and kids yelling. The call to prayer also sounds throughout the day. It has been interesting living in a country where religion is so much apart of the culture.

I am a one-minute walk from the Dar-Chebab or youth house where I attend daily language class with my five other CBT trainees. We have language for about 4 hours in the morning. Then, I return home for lunch with my family. In the afternoon, we go on a community walk to learn more about Moroccan culture and fine-tune our observational skills or we have other training sessions. The days are long and I am pretty exhausted by the time I return home. In the evenings I try to engage with my family, study, and rest. Ironically, I think I have been watching more TV here than in the states. We like to watch Turkish soap operas or MTV.

This week has been full of challenges. Using the bathroom is an adventure in itself and hot showers are such a treat. Finding a sense of purpose for being in Morocco amidst the challenges of adjustment has been difficult. I have to bring myself back to my mission as a youth developer in the Peace Corps and remind myself of why I am here. I also remind myself that one of the reasons I applied for the Peace Corps was the knowledge that the experience would be full of challenges. Enduring the difficult times is what will help me grow and learn. I also applied for the Peace Corps, because I yearned for a simplified lifestyle where I could be more in tune with myself and others. However, I am beginning to question the idea that a "simple life" really exists. I think life will always be full of complexities and I now I am challenging myself to find that sense of simplicity and peace within the ups and downs. I have to take this experience day by day and remember that I have the support and resources to get through each day. 

I miss my family and my friends. I miss being able to express myself fully. I miss eating what I want to eat. I miss dancing. I miss exercising. I miss trees. I miss space, and I miss peace and quiet. Love to everyone at home!  

Happy Easter from Morocco!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Peace Corps Orientation

I have arrived safely in Morocco! I have only been here a week, but it feels like months…

The weekend before I left for Morocco I had the opportunity to participate in a life transformation weekend in Chicago. Throughout the weekend we learned how to identify with our emotions at a deeper level in an effort to unleash our greatest potential as human beings. The weekend inspired me to continue to use my emotions to connect to others and myself more deeply. I want to live with an open heart and see the hard times as part of the adventure. I am committed to living this experience in constant self-growth so that I can become my best self. This is the best gift I can give to Moroccan youth.

Saying my good-byes was difficult. I had totally planned to be set and ready to go to the day before I left, but in the chaos of saying my good-byes it didn’t really work out that way. I was still throwing things into my bags the second before I left for the airport. Flustered and out of sorts, I met my first fellow trainee in the Cincinnati airport. It was comforting having a trainee by my side as we carried over eighty pounds of luggage around the airport. We flew to Philadelphia together for one night of orientation/staging. Having slept little the night before I left, I ran on adrenaline for the rest of the day. I met my trainee group of over 100 volunteers, met some of the Peace Corps staff, and completed the necessary forms. I also saw my beautiful friend Elizabeth, whom I haven’t seen since graduation! She has already been a huge source of support during this transitional week. The next morning we took a two-hour bus ride to the JFK airport and took a direct flight to Casablanca, arriving in Morocco on March 21. Then we took another two-hour bus ride to Rabat, where we are staying for nine days of orientation.

Thus far, orientation has consisted of medical sessions, interviews, vaccinations, language classes, inspiring youth development videos, introduction to Islam, safety protocol and regulations, a peace corps volunteer support group, and a helpful session about the 7 components of a successful volunteer. The staff has been great, providing tons of advice about health, safety, language, cultural integration, etc. We have been divided into smaller language groups, which I find relieving. I tend to flourish more in smaller groups. My group consists of 4 other trainees. I will be spending a majority of my time with my language group and am looking forward to developing supportive relationships with them. Learning Moroccan Arabic has been so much fun! My teacher is a local Moroccan man who works with the Peace Corps. He seems really kinds and supportive. We are definitely delving right into the language, and I am confident that the Peace Corps will prepare us to work efficiently in our sites in a few months.

The nerves have definitely kicked into gear. Emotions range from fear to joy all in one day! I feel unsettled in an unfamiliar place. I have waited so long to go to Morocco and start my service that it often times feels so surreal. I am excited, but scared and anticipating the many challenges that are ahead. I have been asking myself questions like…will I be able to communicate with my host family? Will I feel safe with my family? How will I apply the skills I have to my community and how will I do it in Arabic!? I try to let go and let the process unfold. I tend to want to know or predict what is coming, but there is so much unknown. This experience is pushing me to give up control and place my complete faith in the journey.

This experience has already helped me appreciate the little things…I was so relieved the other day when we found an Internet café near our hotel. I don’t think I had ever been so excited to check my email and reconnect with my friends and family! Sharing my feelings with my fellow trainees is also helpful. We are going through the same experience and can really relate to one another.

The other day we had some free time after classes and we took a walk to the medina. We walked through the local market, consisting of clothes, spices, soaps, purses, etc. I really enjoyed the time to get outside our hotel and feel a little more apart of Morocco. We also had a free day, where we saw the beach, the mosque, another medina, and enjoyed a delicious Moroccan lunch! The food here is great, and I haven’t experienced any problems yet. The sugar intake may become an issue though! The pastries here are French inspired so they are very yummy.

I will be traveling to Fez next week to begin my Community Based Training experience. I will be living with a Moroccan family and attending daily language classes with my language group. We also have a spring camp with the youth coming up! I am looking forward to meeting my host family, developing more relationships, learning more Arabic, and experiencing more Moroccan culture. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

2 Months until Departure!

In seeing that I am leaving for Morocco in only 9 weeks, I think it is time to write my first post! Hmm….Where to begin….Well, with many people asking me the question, why the Peace Corps? And, in seeing that this blog will be a place to record my ups and downs of Peace Corp life, I think it may be best to start off with an answer to that question.

I have faith that the Peace Corps is supposed to be the next chapter of my life. I truly feel called to become a Peace Corps volunteer. I have a strong curiosity for learning about other cultures, a passion for positively shaping the lives of others, a desire to seek out life challenges that foster self-growth, and an insatiable thirst for travel! Thus, the Peace Corps merges together my many interests and passions and serves as a unique pathway to reaching my potential as a leader and a mentor.

My passion for travel developed during the fall semester of my junior year, when I had the opportunity to study abroad. During this semester, I was exposed to new cultures and experiences that broadened my global perspective. I began to grasp that this type of perspective helped me better understand people from different backgrounds and life experiences. I wanted to learn and experience more and go abroad again in the near future.

My study abroad experience served as a seed that eventually grew into the decision to become a Peace Corp volunteer. During the remainder of my junior and senior year I gained more volunteer experience and began talking to Peace Corp returnees on campus. I made the decision to postpone applying for graduate school and solely focus on my dream of becoming a Peace Corp volunteer. The application process began in the beginning of my senior year. I submitted my application in September 2011 and interviewed in November. I was nominated for Community Service and Youth Development in the region of Asia on December 1, leaving July 2011. Woo hoo!! I distinctly remember jumping around the Knapp computer lab in extreme excitement upon hearing this news. Then I began completing the long medical portion of the application. I submitted my medical paperwork to the Peace Corps, and the waiting process began. I waited, and waited, AND waited to be medically cleared. At this point, I learned what it meant to be patient…a much needed Peace Corps skill, that and flexibility. Once I was medically cleared, I waited some more to hear details about departure and country of service. However, I was given little information and graduated college not really knowing where and when I would be leaving for the Peace Corps. I did not hear anything until June 2011. About a month before I was originally supposed to leave, I received an email informing me that due to the budget cuts I would be reassigned to another region and possibly another sector of the Peace Corps. (Ahhh What!?) I also would not be leaving until sometime between January and March of 2012. (January!!??) And, more waiting began… I was surprised to hear this news, but also grateful. (I must also note that I went through this entire application journey with one of my best friends, Elizabeth. I am so grateful to have someone to talk to about the ups and downs of the Peace Corps application process.)

I realized that after I graduated college I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed time to rejuvenate and prepare for a 27-month commitment abroad. I didn’t mind the idea of saving money…more travel money! More time at home also meant more time to spend with my best friends. (I love my weekly trips to Columbus to see Anna and my trip to Michigan to see Bethany and New York City to see Hillary were fun ones too!) With this news I started to plan a life for myself at home for the next 9 months. It seemed like a long time, but I knew that it would go by quickly. I started waitressing at a local Pizza place and learned about volunteer opportunities in my community. I started teaching English to refugees and immigrants in the city, helped counsel girls in an anger management class, taught inner city kids about healthy eating and exercise, and started nannying for a family.

During the summer, I became close friends with Tom, who is currently serving in the Peace Corps. I had never felt a strong connection to my hometown, but with Tom’s help I learned that Cincinnati is actually a fun and interesting place. I did new things and got to talk about the Peace Corps as much as I wanted with him. Thanks Tom!

It was not until August that I FINALLY received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps as a Youth Developer in Morocco. Quite a drastic shift from Asia, but I couldn’t have been more excited. Tears of joy! All the waiting had paid off. I could not wait to bury myself in books about Moroccan life and culture. Oh, and I have to learn Arabic! (A little more difficult than I suspected. I’ve been trying to self-teach on you-tube…going a bit slow.) I learned that my first preliminary project as a youth developer will include teaching English. Then, I will complete a community assessment. Based on the needs of the community, I will be responsible for developing more youth projects. I am thrilled that I have been placed in the Youth Development sector of the Peace Corps. My passion for youth empowerment really blossomed when I led a weeklong service trip to a girl’s empowerment organization, mentored youth at a Domestic violence shelter, and taught dance at a summer camp for girls. I want to help youth recognize that their unique talents and abilities can foster change in their communities.

I also made a long list of things that I wanted to accomplish before leaving for Morocco, including learning as much Arabic as possible, reading lots of books about Morocco, learning how to play the guitar, spending as much time as possible with family and friends, study and re-take the GRE, save lots of money, do lots of yoga, take modern dance, and be healthy. I can say that I usually set my expectations way too high, but I have managed to read some goods books, do yoga, dance, get healthy, and save money. I still have a couple more months and hope to accomplish a few more things on my list.

My main focus is to try and prepare myself to be the best volunteer that I can be in Morocco. I am still so naïve to what the Peace Corps experience will encompass, but am aware that this will be one of the most challenging, but rewarding experiences of my life. I have read about others experiences in the Peace Corps, but I know that every individual experience is 100% unique. I am looking forward to being immersed into an environment where everyday will include learning and experiencing something new. I am thrilled about integrating myself into the Moroccan culture and am excited about building relationships with people that will shape my life forever. I am so grateful I have been given this opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps. I feel I will be engaging in rare experience of life!

As my time of departure comes closer and closer, emotions are beginning to set in...I find myself tearing up knowing my sisters will grow so much while I am gone and I will not be here to witness it, family members won’t be the same, and I will miss my friends so incredibly much! Life will keep on going no matter where I am in the world. Although it may seem scary at times, I know this is what I am called to do. And so my Peace Corps adventure begins…much more to come!