Thursday, December 26, 2013

Time flies!

I am writing this blog post from New York, where Justin and I have been spending the Christmas holiday with his family. It's so hard to believe that we have been back in the U.S. for nearly 5 months! I've been a bit delinquent on posting (it's on my New Years resolutions list to be more frequent!), so let me catch you up on the last few months.

New City:
We're now settled into Washington, DC where we are slowly but surely getting used to life there. It's a slower pace than New York City and certainly very different from Morocco! The transition has taken a while but I think we are finally getting used to both life in the U.S. and life in our new city.

New Apartment:
After living in a temporary place for a month or so, we moved into a permanent apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, which I just recently read has the largest concentration of returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the world! So I'm happy that we're in good company. It took a few months but we're almost fully unpacked and settled in.

New Jobs:
Justin has started back at school to get his PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland (proud wife brag: It's the number one program for this in the country!) and he's doing really well and enjoying the work. I am working as a Marketing Manager at an amazing education technology company called EverFi. The company creates interactive, web platform-based programs to teach critical skills to students that might be missing from either the school or their home (for example, financial education for high schoolers or alcohol abuse prevention for college students) and partners with corporations to bring these into schools free of charge. It's very much a change from my days working in corporate advertising, and I love coming to work knowing that my work has the potential to enrich and improve people's future prospects.

New Year:
Now that we are finally feeling more settled, I'm so excited to begin the next year and to see what adventures are ahead! From our home to yours, wherever you may be in the world, wishing you a year filled with learning, wonder, and beauty. I look forward to continuing to chart our journeys in 2014!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

One Month Back

Today marks 1 month since Justin and I returned to America. In some ways I feel like we never even left the US and in other ways I am reminded daily of our 2 years spent away from it. It’s been a whirlwind for sure and I cannot believe that it’s been so long since my last post! I do plan to continue blogging, to talk about our experiences transitioning back, teaching others about our time spent in Morocco, and maybe some other fun stuff in between :)

So, where to start?

So many people have asked about our experiences in Morocco, and it’s hard to give a concise answer about something that has changed and affected me in so many ways. Truly, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life – to learn about a culture and way of life quite different from my own, to have the opportunity to affect other people’s lives, to figure out how to solve difficult and uncertain situations with limited language and technical skills, to be able to truly experience another country for more than a brief visit…  each of these would take days to expand on how they have affected me.

If you’re curious about some of the work that I did in Morocco, you can look at my Peace Corps Description of Service, which you can access by clicking here. This is an informal version as Peace Corps limits us to fewer pages, but I wanted to include as many details as possible!

Since coming back, we’ve spent lots of time in between New York and Washington, DC (our new home) and in the coming month we’ll be moving into an apartment, starting a new job, starting school (Justin), going to a wedding (my brother’s), catching up with lots of old friends, and continuing to adjust to our new lives – so I’ll have lots to cover in future posts! In the meantime I’ll leave you with a photo from one of our last trips in Morocco and our favorite city to visit, Essaouira.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Our Last Days in Tiflet

A short update: We said tearful goodbyes to friends and family and left our 2-year home on Wednesday morning. For the last few days we've been finishing up paperwork at Peace Corps headquarters in Rabat. We will be returning to the US tomorrow and I'm excited to come back, but I remain very reflective about our experiences living in Morocco.

In our last days in Tiflet, we took some photos to help remember things by. I realized that I haven't posted a lot of photos of our community on this blog, so I thought I'd share some of my favorites.

Tile pieces inlaid into cement - lots of houses in Tiflet have this and I love it!
In downtown Tiflet.
Justin in front of our Youth Center, where we worked.
Our favorite animal in Tiflet! Most donkeys/mules are used for work purposes
and are usually tied up by the legs or neck. This guy, on the other hand,
does not appear to have an owner and we often see him lounging in the
grass or slowly meandering across the street blocking traffic. I tried to get
close for a photo but being the independent donkey that he is,
he wouldn't let me too close :)
Wood piled up for burning to heat a hammam, or public bath.
Traditional honey-covered Ramadan sweets.
Piles of fresh vegetables at our daily market.
Our post office. Justin and I have a side hobby of taking photos of
post offices which we haven't done much in Morocco but look forward
to resuming when we're back in the US!
Sunset along the main road to Rabat, with a mosque minaret on the right.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Things I Will Miss

The countdown has begun. On Wednesday we will begin our closing paperwork with the Peace Corps, and then if all goes smoothly, by Friday or Saturday we'll be heading back to the US. It's all felt very surreal recently, but last night as we took some photos with our wonderful host family after the Ramadan break fast, things started to set in and I spent some time reflecting on the last two years of our lives.

Justin and me with our adoptive family.

A while back, I put a sheet of paper on the wall with 2 columns: Things I Will Miss About Morocco and Things I Miss About the US. As we near the end I thought I'd share the list here.

Things I Will Miss About Morocco
  • The relationships that we've made with the wonderful people we met here.
  • The smell of fresh bread baking in the community oven down the street.
  • People saying "Bssaha" to me when I run through the community (it means "To your health" and it's like I have a group of cheerleaders along a race route, I love it!).
  • The stars at night (particularly during the summer when we have clear nights, it is breathtaking).
  • Walking everywhere in town, and always seeing people we know.
  • Going to the daily market to buy cheap vegetables, fruits, and meats and being able to spend several hours cooking amazing meals with all fresh ingredients.
  • The unbelievable hospitality and generosity of Moroccans. I can't even begin to describe it.
  • Amazingly crazy color combinations in homes (we're talking pink and orange couches with purple and lime green curtains - sounds crazy but it works!).
  • Delicious olive oil, cheap and straight from the press.
  • Minty wonderful sugary tea.

Things I Miss about the US
  • Our friends and family, of course.
  • Gyms and exercise classes - Some days I could kill for some Zumba that's not just on my computer screen!
  • Movie theaters. I'm already gearing up for some summer releases :)
  • An array of foods that are hard to come by here, most notably cheese, portabello mushrooms, and black beans.
  • Air conditioning and heating.
  • Restaurants and take-out food.
  • Knowing that when I speak to someone I am definitely understood (and I understand them too).
  • Microwaves! Reheating food on the stovetop or in the oven can get old.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Despite What Your Guidebook Might Say You Cannot View the Atlantic Ocean Through a Glass Floor at the Hassan II Mosque [Guest Post]

GUEST POSTER in residence: Justin

Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque is one of the few active Muslim religious sites in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims, albeit only on a guided (paid) tour. It is a breathtaking and impressive building, and one of the largest mosques in the world (our guidebooks disagree about where exactly it ranks – one says it is the second largest, another agrees with the guide from our tour that it is third, a third book states that it is the fifth, and Wikipedia asserts that it is seventh largest mosque – the point is that it is big, and everyone is on the same page about that). The Hassan II Mosque is large enough to accommodate 25,000 worshippers, but according to our guide, only about 600 people typically attend, not including during Ramadan or for Friday mid-day prayers.

We had admired the exterior during a previous visit to Casablanca, and on our most recent trip decided to splurge for the tour. It isn’t terribly expensive if one is traveling on a US salary, but the 120 Dirham (about USD 14) per person fee can feel pretty hefty, considering that entry to most monuments and museums in Morocco costs no more than 20 Dirhams (about USD 2.40). According to our guide the money goes towards upkeep and salaries for the staff, making the Hassan II Mosque self-sustaining. Note to other Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers: As residents we get a 50% discount off the usual price (bring your Moroccan ID), which was a pleasant surprise for us.

The Hassan II Mosque has no historical significance, having been built in the late 20th century. While some might consider it a poor allocation of funds (public subscription, which Rough Guide characterizes as having been “not entirely voluntary,” covered much of the construction costs), it certainly is beautiful. And if, as our guide claimed, Hassan II’s goal was to attract visitors to Casablanca, a city otherwise holding little of interest for most tourists, he seems to have at least somewhat succeeded. There were plenty of people on our tour, and aside from the tour itself I’m sure most at least spent money to eat in Casablanca even if they did not stay there, which at least somewhat undermines potential cost-to-the-public grievances.

As a caveat for potential future visitors, two of our guidebooks claim that the Hassan II Mosque, which sits partially on a pier over the Atlantic Ocean, has a glass floor through which one can see the waves. But while the prayer hall floor has a couple of small glass segments, the only thing one can see through them is an ablutions room (also part of the tour) downstairs. I asked our guide if she had any idea of from where the misinformation in the books might have originated; she said that there is a separate (private) royal section (she called it a palace, but I am guessing it is something more analogous to the private chapels found in many churches), and that in this royal area the Atlantic Ocean is visible through a glass floor.

Even though some of our photos did not come out great due to lighting, they will speak to the beauty of the Hassan II Mosque better than (my) words would:

One of the entrances.
The prayer hall.
A beautiful light fixture.
Pretty much every surface is covered in elaborate decoration; this section
of carved and painted wood was well-lit enough for a good picture.
The mosque has a hammam (traditional bath) in the basement.
It serves no religious purpose and has never been used.
Hopefully they change the water from time to time anyway.
Another entrance.
Detail from the metalwork on the door.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Moroccan Travels: Agadir

Before climbing Mount Toubkal, Justin and I spent a few nights in Agadir. Based on what we had heard and read about the city, we initially were not too interested in visiting, but as our time in Morocco wore on, and always interested in experiencing another of Morocco’s many facets, Justin became increasingly curious about the city. Since we would be nearby for our Toubkal trek, Justin wanted to check it out, and I humored him :)

With one exception, Agadir lacks any structures of historical significance, because on February 29, 1960, the city was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake (5.7 magnitude - I've been told it's the worst in Morocco's history). Down the beach from the old city, Agadir was rebuilt, supposedly in the style of a European beach resort, and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco. It is also popular among Peace Corps Volunteers seeking a getaway that is more accessible and less costly than Europe. 

Agadir’s main draw is its large, beautiful, and clean beach; we spent a lot of our time walking along it and enjoying the area on and near the beach that are lined with restaurants and shops. We also visited Agadir's kasbah (the above exception, one wall of the kasbah remained after the earthquake and it has a beautiful view of the city), an Amazigh Heritage museum (the jewelry on display in the basement is the highlight) and, set in a lovely garden, an “Exposition Mémoire d'Agadir” displaying photographs of Agadir from before and after the earthquake. Our time in Agadir also happened to coincide with its annual Timitar Festival which began as an Amazigh music festival, but now includes musicians from around the world (including this year Kenny Rogers, though we went to bed before he came on stage!).

Agadir certainly wasn't our favorite city that we visited in Morocco and I'm glad that we didn't go out of the way for the visit but it's always interesting to see new parts of the country, and the relaxing beach time was good before our massive mountain climb. Enjoy some photos from our visit below:

View of Agadir from the kasbah (it was a foggy morning).
Left of the large street in the center is where the city was before the earthquake.
Justin and the remaining wall of the kasbah.
Another view of the kasbah wall.
Camel rides by the kasbah! We were amused.
View of the beach front; the mountain with the kasbah can be seen in the back.
The Agadir beach.
A beautiful entrance to the "Exposition Mémoire d'Agadir" photography exhibit.
The Timitar festival by night (on the side of the mountain is Arabic writing
which means "God, Country, King").

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Please Do Not Take Pictures of the Children [Guest Post]

We had just sat down at one of the tables outside of a restaurant for lunch. This was in Essaouira, and the restaurant was one where we had eaten a year prior and we were happy to see that it was still open (we heard a rumor back in December that it would be closing) because it had great burgers and desserts. Another foreign couple, older than us, was also sitting outside. I noticed the gent of the couple videotaping the neighborhood fountain across the plaza, then sat down with my back to him.

It is summer, so there are even more kids hanging out on the streets with unstructured time (which is not necessarily a bad thing) than usual. A group of maybe eight boys, ranging from probably about seven to twelve, was sitting on some stairs about three yards away. 

A few minutes later, I looked up from my menu and saw the woman of the older couple standing by the boys. She had her camera out. I did not see her taking any pictures, but it seems safe to assume she had, because a few of the boys started getting agitated and it looked like one of them tried to grab her camera or hit it away.

Any worthwhile Morocco guidebook will tell you not to take pictures of people without first asking their permission. And if you think about it, that's really common sense and not just in Morocco. I am not talking about a crowd scene or a photo of a landscape or something where someone happens to be walking across in the distance, but one wouldn't, or at least typically shouldn't, walk up to some stranger in the US and start taking portraits of him or her (or his or her kids). The same holds true here, the people aren't animals in the zoo, so we shouldn't photograph them without asking.

So the woman returned to her table and the situation seemed to be quieting down. Then another patron of the restaurant, whom I had not previously noticed, started talking. He began telling the woman that it's rude to take pictures of people without asking, but somehow or other within 90 seconds he was shouting, cursing, and storming out of the restaurant.We thought he was disturbed but later learned from the restaurant staff that the guy is an American who has lived in Essaouira for years and visits the restaurant from time to time (though I guess this does not preclude his being disturbed). 

You can use your imagination about what the guy said, suffice to say it involved abundant use of the letter F accompanied by corresponding finger-raising. He seemed unaware of the irony of going on a profanity filled tirade about a point of etiquette. He also set a rather poor example for the kids, because as soon as his fingers started flying they picked it up and began cursing too. Now I'm not so naïve as to think that they had never heard foul language or seen raised fingers before, but they were not doing anything until he did.

The woman seemed pretty upset and shaken up. She and her companion even asked the restaurant staff for directions to the nearest police station, though what they thought the police could or would do is beyond me. I felt bad for the woman; what she did was inappropriate but seemed more based on ignorance than malevolence. The other patron's response was completely out of line (at one point it looked like he was actually about to get hit by a Moroccan bystander) and precipitated the boys' bad behavior. As for the boys, one might be tempted to pigeonhole them as looking for trouble or up to no good, but an interesting conclusion to this whole thing, which you can interpret however you will, was that a few minutes after the kids were following the vulgar example of the other patron, they actually came up to Lauren and me to apologize to us.

Moral of the story: Don't take pictures of people without asking for permission.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday, July 8, 2013

Climbing Mountains

Justin and I returned this week from our final round of travels in Morocco, passing through Agadir, Essaouira, Oualidia, Casablanca, and the (literal) culmination, climbing up Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa! 

I had a lot of time to think while slowly making my way up to 13,671 feet. And I spent a lot of that time reflecting on my experience in the Peace Corps and living in Morocco more generally. I started seeing parallels between my mountain climb and my two year experience living abroad.

Justin and I smiling the night before our big climb.

Be patient and deliberate

Climbing up the steepest summit to the peak of the mountain was one of the hardest physical experiences of my life. The summit was filled with tiny pebbles and very few places to get a firm foothold. I found success in patience - surveying my surroundings slowly and patiently, planning my next step very deliberately, then doing the same for each new step. And the same with my experiences living in Morocco. Sometimes projects, goals, even day-to-day duties can move at a much slower pace than I may have wanted, but I have learned to be patient and deliberate, and in time I've been able to achieve my goals and experience success.

Lots of rocks, pebbles, and snow - in June!

Be aware of and respectful of surroundings

I guess this might be an obvious one. Being respectful to nature, to other people, to the culture in which I'm living - it all goes together.

And what beautiful surroundings they are!

Keep one eye on the ground and one eye towards the sky

The mountain climb was filled with steep twists and turns, sharp rocks, slippery pebbles, and all sorts of other impediments, and I realized after climbing a short time that I hadn't taken my eyes off of the ground! Then I looked up and saw the first rays of the morning sun shining through the mountains:

I realized how incredibly important it is to continue to watch steps and be aware of my path, but at the same time, I can't forget to take in the beautiful world around me! The same goes for my Peace Corps experience. So much time focused on getting the language right, understanding where to go and what to do... but at the same time, I've tried to keep an eye on the bigger picture - why I'm here and what kind of legacy I can leave behind.

Celebrate all victories, small and large

It was a long, long climb. At times I got frustrated, nervous, scared, and overwhelmed at the obstacles ahead of me. Not sure whether I am talking about the mountain or about my Peace Corps experience right now :) But whether it was as small as celebrating making it to the next tree or learning a new vocabulary word, I found that in a long journey, making sure to celebrate the small things is just as important.

A quick photo break on the way up.
Celebrating at the top - we did it!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Fountains of Morocco... Drink it in!

I cannot get enough of the beauty of this country... from the tiles, to the lamps, to the doorways, I'm pretty much taking photos of everything I see! Today, I bring you some of the beautiful fountains of Morocco - from simple to incredibly ornate, each one is unique and breathtaking.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

An apple a day...

The newest updates: Last week Justin and I returned from an "In-Service Training" (IST) in Marrakesh for the newest group of Peace Corps Volunteers, where we gave a presentation about our awesome Job Skills training workshops. After IST, I participated in my very last meeting with the Gender and Development Committee in Morocco and was able to sit back and really appreciate how far my efforts have gone in the last 2 years to promote gender equality activities in Morocco.

So all in all a productive week! However, my excitement faded quickly upon getting back home last Tuesday, as that evening I managed to slip in the shower and bang my chin against our bathtub, breaking open a pretty deep gash all the way to the muscle. 

But this blog post is not to complain about the injury - Rather, I want to gush about the medical treatment that I have received in the Peace Corps, which is better than I  have ever experienced! As soon as I banged my chin, I called the after-hours Peace Corps medical duty phone. Within a minute I was connected to a doctor who told me immediate actions to take with supplies from the medical kit that Peace Corps provided us with. First thing the following morning, I went to Rabat where I met with the same Peace Corps doctor, who brought me to an amazing plastic surgeon for a quick consultation followed by stitches in my chin. All within about 18 hours of my injury.

From my fractured leg bone to now this, I have been so impressed with the medical attention that I've received in the Peace Corps. Before we left for Morocco, there was some negative press about medical problems with the Peace Corps, but for me I have had nothing but positive experiences. Even so, I have promised myself that the chin injury will be my very last medical issue, because I need to return to America in 1 piece! :)

In other news, we are finalizing most of our projects and beginning the packing process. I can't believe that our return to the US is getting closer and closer! Over the coming weeks we plan to spend lots of time with our Moroccan friends and family and do some final sightseeing too. More to come soon!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Drew U. Visits Tiflet! [Guest Post]

When I was in college, my school had a pretty amazing program called the Drew International Seminar (DIS). Participants enrolled in a course at Drew focused on a particular issue related to a specific country (occasionally two countries). Then for three to four weeks after the semester ended, the students visited the country/ies they had been studying for an on-site seminar to continue studying the same topic. The DIS program was like a mini study abroad, and in addition to the academic component, students had time for sightseeing, to learn about the country and its culture more generally, and to meet people from the country. 

In February of 2012 I happened to be on Drew’s website and was suddenly curious whether the DIS program still existed. Several years passed since I had been a student, and given the way the economy has been the last few years, I knew many schools have had to cut costs due to financial difficulties. It turned out that not only did the DIS program still exist, but two professors would be bringing a group of students to Morocco in May or June of 2013. Their DIS is on mobility and identity in the context of globalization (seminar description here).

I got in contact with the professors to offer to help however I could, met up with them last July while they were in Morocco making arrangements, have been in correspondence with them, and last week they and sixteen students visited Tiflet during their DIS. It is exam time in Morocco, so a lot of young people are busy studying, but we were able to bring the DIS together with a group of five strong English speakers from our site, and it was a great opportunity for Goals 2 & 3. We have of course explained to our Moroccan students about American diversity, for example, that we have people from all over the world and with all kinds of backgrounds. But us telling them is different from them seeing a group of Americans where the people look very different from one another. The Moroccans loved the opportunity to practice speaking English and both groups seemed to enjoy meeting the new people.

Here's a group photo (a few more are on the DIS Facebook page):

The DIS spent most of its time in Morocco in large cities – Rabat, Tangier, Fez, Meknes, and Casablanca. While in Rabat the Drew students met up with some Moroccan university students, who told them that they needed to get out of the big cities. Some Peace Corps Volunteers also will dismissively tell people that those are not “real Morocco.” It’s not true, as there is no single “real Morocco.” As with anywhere else, Morocco is multifaceted, and particularly since the majority of Moroccans live in urban areas (source: CIA World Factbook), large cities represent a large facet of Morocco. The DIS also visited Chefchaouen, which while small receives a lot of international tourists. But in Tiflet the DIS participants got to experience yet another facet, seeing a minor city that is not often a destination for foreigners and meeting with its youth. While Tiflet is by no means the smallest community in Morocco, the mere thirty-five miles which separate it from the capital city make it far removed from big city life. According to one of the professors at least, the Tiflet experience provided a good point of comparison to some of their other experiences.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Job Skills Workshops Conclusion

This past weekend, Justin and I, along with our two Moroccan counterparts Abdellah and Badr and new Peace Corps Volunteer Tim, presented certificates to 25 Moroccan youth who completed our month-long "Vocational Skills for Moroccan Youth" training workshops. 

Workshop participants with us and our counterparts

Participants attended 7 workshops in total, ranging from writing a CV, preparing a "Demande d'Emploi" or "Lettre de Motivation" (the Moroccan equivalents for our cover letters), interviewing, job search and social media skills, entrepreneurship, financial management, and career planning/goal setting. Participants completed homework assignments including making a CV, writing a cover letter, and even doing a mock interview.

Here, I'm talking about needs and wants, related to financial management.

When Justin and I first began the process of developing these workshops with Abdellah and Badr, we were blown away by how little education students receive here on goal setting or potential career/educational paths and what it takes to realize their potential. We've been told that there's one person in our community who is like a guidance counselor and visits each of the high schools once a year, gives a long-winded speech to students, and leaves without spending individual time or taking questions. Many students end up on a career path based on what a family member or friend does because they don't have a sense of what opportunities are out there, and no one has ever encouraged them to think about their interests and pursue them. Then, when it comes time to look for jobs, not only do many students not know how to create a good CV but many also lack the knowledge of where or how to look for jobs or the self-confidence to express themselves to a company.

Justin in action! He is teaching about the qualities of a successful person.

For our final session, we gave out certificates, had a small party, and asked participants to fill out evaluations about their experiences in the workshops. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Not only did participants highlight tangible new skills that they learned in the workshops, but they also noted some unexpected new qualities that they gained: self-confidence, motivation, and leadership. One participant said that in the interview she/he "learned how to be me in that moment." Another participant learned that he/she "could be a manager, not just a worker." And another participant told us about learning "how to reach my dreams, how to have a will for success, and how to be an accomplished person." Many participants said that the mock interview was one of their greatest experiences. For many it was their first interview - two participants were so nervous that they actually walked out before the interview! Their peers were able to get them to come back in; the group as a whole was really supportive and the mock interviews presented a great opportunity to learn how to express themselves in a safe and comfortable space.

The workshop team! 

Next week, we'll be going to Marrakech to share the program with other Peace Corps Volunteers. We hope that we can encourage others to replicate the workshops in their communities, and maybe this will be one of the legacies that we can leave behind here. For us, it was one of our last big projects and it was great to end things on such a high note. 

A signed banner with all participant names.

A big shout out and special thanks to Abdellah and Badr, who were the primary facilitators and worked with us in every step of the planning process, and without whom we could NEVER have pulled this off.