Friday, December 28, 2012

Ringing in an exciting new year

It's hard to believe that an entire year has come and gone! As we move towards 2013, I can't help but reflect upon the past year and think about how much has developed and changed. This time last year, Justin and I were new residents of Tiflet, knowing a handful of people, not sure about what we might plan or accomplish during our time in Morocco, and certainly very nervous about our new lives. Today, we have established strong relationships with people young and old in the community, we have developed some great programs, and we now look at each obstacle and challenge with confidence and readiness. And another big difference from last year - I haven't broken any bones!! 

In looking back on some of the goals that I set for myself at the end of last year, I wanted to call out a few for which I am particularly proud of my progress:

1. Take better care of myself
Coming out of a year in which I broke bones in both my hand and leg, I wanted to make sure that taking care of my health became a priority. And I am happy to say that I have made amazing strides. In November I had a mid-service physical check-up and the doctors reported that I am in great shape - not only that, but I have lost 44.5 pounds since I came to Morocco! This has come mainly from exercising regularly and eating lots of healthy vegetable-rich meals that we cook for ourselves.

2. Explore and travel 
If you've kept up with this blog, then you have seen lots of travel-related posts. I'm happy to have had the chance to see many of Morocco's beautiful places and in the coming year, I hope to visit many more! (Going up to Tanger for New Year's, my first time up north, stay tuned!)

3. Develop a support network
Over the last few months, I have begun to develop some truly strong friendships in our community. And with these friendships, I have been able to learn much more about Moroccan culture and to teach about American culture. Beyond the support network in our community, I have developed a strong support network of Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco and friends and family in the U.S. who have provided more love and strength than I could imagine. Please know that I am so very grateful for it! 
It's been a tough year, full of uncertainty, confusion, and disorder - but out of all this has come so much learning, beauty, and adventure - and I wouldn't trade that for anything. I cannot wait to see what the next year has in store!

From Justin and me, wishing you a year filled with learning, beauty, and adventure
I look forward to continuing to chart our journey in 2013!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Women and exercise

Yesterday, I held my first women-only aerobics class at our Youth Center. In my community (and in many others in Morocco) women do not seem to have access to enough exercise opportunities. Boys and young men play soccer morning and night everywhere you look, and while younger girls run around outside playing with friends, older girls and certainly married women seem to get very little exercise. I run several times a week and rarely do I see any females running or walking, and based on what other Peace Corps Volunteers have told me, in some communities it does not happen at all. There are several gyms in our community, but all are men-only, either by rule or in practice, as far as I can tell.

Now don't get me wrong, women work quite hard in the home - cooking, cleaning, taking care of the house and the family - but they don't have the opportunity to do cardiovascular exercise. The top reported cause of death in Morocco is coronary artery disease - with the most common risk factors including obesity and lack of exercise. And a recent study reported that 67% of chronic diseases in Morocco are due to unhealthy nutrition, lack of exercise, and smoking (though this affects mostly men as women seen smoking are, in many communities, presumed to be prostitutes, so few do), with only 20% of Moroccans exercising regularly and 40% not consuming adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. In comparison, 50% of Americans report that they exercise regularly, and think about how much we hear about Americans' health problems!

So I think exercise and nutrition for women are both really important areas to which I can contribute during my time in Morocco (and hopefully I can discuss nutrition more in conjunction with the aerobics class). The reason I chose to make this a women-only class is simply to help women to feel comfortable. We have women-only gyms in the U.S., but I think even more so in Morocco, for many women to be willing to come to classes, they need privacy and a separate environment from men. For my first session, I had 7 girls and women show up, ranging in age from 16 to 35. It's great for a start, and hopefully in time that number will increase. The class went really well - all of my years doing aerobics classes at gyms paid off and everyone loved getting the chance to move around and listen to fun pop music. After the class was over, 3 of the girls stayed around and danced to the music for a while because they enjoyed it so much!

In case you are curious, the playlist from the class is below. I spent a LOT of time finding the latest "cool" music that Moroccans like to listen to, some American, some Moroccan, and some international. A lot of the songs are available on YouTube if you don’t recognize some and want to know what is popular with the youth here, but for the next class I got requests for more Pitbull and Celine Dion!
1. Warmup Song: Moukana Wein, Myriam Fares
2. C'est La Vie, Khaled
3. Rain Over Me, Pitbull feat. Marc Anthony
4. On the Floor, Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull
5. We Found Love, Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
6. Mr. Saxobeat, Alexandra Stan
7. Love you Like a Love Song, Selena Gomez
8. Glamorous, Fergie feat. Ludacris
9. Run the World (Girls), Beyonce
10. Waka Waka (This Time for Africa), Shakira
11. Cooldown song: Inas Inas, Mohamed Rouicha

I'll post more updates as my class continues!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Morocco 101: Funerals

One of the most amazing parts of living in another country is getting to experience its cultures and traditions firsthand. We've experienced observances of life - birthday parties, engagement and marriage ceremonies (I haven't seen these in person yet, only from afar and through people talking about them - hoping for an in-person experience in the coming year!), traditional events for a newborn baby... each with its own set of music, festivities, atmosphere, and food. And now in addition to those observances of life, we have experienced an observance of death. Recently, Justin and I returned from our travels to learn that our landlady had passed away. Since death is an important part of any community's culture and traditions, I thought it might be interesting to talk about how Moroccans observe death.

Moroccans follow Islamic tradition by burying the deceased within 24 hours of their death. The body is prepared at home by family, or if needed, by someone in the community who has some experience. The body is typically wrapped in a simple and modest cloth and some perfume may be applied to the cloth as well. After prayers have been said, the body is carried through the streets as a mark of respect, and then buried in a cemetery facing Mecca. 

It seems as if almost as soon as a person dies, a tent is erected right next to their home. Neighbors immediately mobilize to prepare food for the family in the tent (it is truly an amazing show of community!). For three days, family and friends gather together in the tent to mourn and read parts of the Qu'ran. After those three days, the tent is removed and the family (particularly the spouse) continue mourning for 40 days, and during that time friends and family come by to pay their respects. 

Justin and I visited our landlady's family during those 40 days of mourning. We had returned from our travels and were doing laundry on our roof, when we heard a neighbor yell over to us from an adjacent roof to tell us about our landlady's death. We were spending that afternoon with two of our good friends who speak English well, and so we asked them to help us understand what we should do when visiting the family. They advised us to bring two large cones of sugar, a typical gift that is brought to families on a wide variety of occasions, and to greet the family with a traditional phrase in Moroccan Arabic, "Baraka f rassk," literally meaning "Blessings on your head" but metaphorically meaning something more like "May God grant you grace." The following day, we went to our local shopkeeper (who also made sure we knew about the landlady), bought our cones of sugar (8 pounds worth) and headed to our landlady's home. We arrived there just as a group of other people were leaving. The family brought us into the "salon," the Moroccan equivalent of the living room. They brought out tea (no Moroccan observance seems to be without it) along with some cookies and traditional breads, and we ate and met new members of the family. Our friends had advised us not to stay too long, so we left after an hour or so. The family seemed really touched that we came there and took the time to understand the customs and traditions.

Certainly there are many variations in funeral observances throughout Morocco - the Imazighen people, for example, have their own set of customs, and Moroccan Jews (which I talked a bit about in a previous blog post) observe death very differently. As our last year ticks by, I hope to experience much more about Moroccan observances of both life and death that I can share with you!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mountains and camels and pumpkin pie, oh my!

Greetings and happy December! Justin and I are settling back into Tiflet after a few weeks of traveling - first with friends from the U.S. in Morocco and Spain, and then with Peace Corps Volunteers in a small town in southern Morocco for an authentic Thanksgiving celebration. I was very happy to have lots of travel and adventures this month, because this same time last year I didn't do much more than stare unhappily at the cast on my leg! Thankfully, this year we were able to spend the holidays with new and old friends and take on new experiences, explore new places, and eat lots of yummy food :) Enjoy a few photos from our Moroccan adventures below - photos from Spain will come in another blog post soon!

Justin and I and snowy mountains! Never thought I would see this in Morocco!
Our friends from the U.S., overlooking Ait Benhaddou
Camel trek in the desert near Zagora! My ride for the afternoon :)
I'm not sure if this is just me, but I swear that Justin and his camel
have the SAME facial expression :)
I have been wanting to ride a camel for a while, so you can see I am very excited!
Camel shadows on the desert
Our Thanksgiving feast, some of which required key items to be shipped
from the U.S. (thanks to Justin's parents!). Stuffed chicken (no turkey to be found),
vegetable quiche, cranberry sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, green bean casserole,
sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and gravy. I think I'm still full from it!
Even some authentic apple and pumpkin pies!
A very happy group of Peace Corps Volunteers, about to partake in the meal.