Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Winter holiday!

It’s a winter break from school in Morocco and Justin and I are using the time for work and for play! We finished up our fall/winter session of classes and had small parties with the students to celebrate the completion of our “semester” – check out some photos below from some of our classes:

Our adult conversation class
Justin and 2 students from our beginner class for young students.
Our beginner class for high school students and adults.

We’ll be starting a new semester of classes in February, but in the meantime, some new experiences and adventures: First, I am currently in Taznakht, (a small town near Ouarzazate, in the south of Morocco) helping a Peace Corps Volunteer to run a girls-only leadership and empowerment camp called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). The camp is geared towards girls in underserved rural communities, and includes 4 days of programming aimed at building leadership and self-confidence, developing a safe and supportive community, and teaching girls valuable lessons related to gender roles, health, and future planning. I’ll be running one program about gender roles and another about sexual harassment. I’m extremely excited about this unique opportunity and can’t wait to share more with you in February!

After the GLOW camp, Justin and I are taking some time to explore some parts of Morocco that we have not yet seen! With less than a year left we still have a long list of places we want to visit, and we are going to try to get to as many as we can. More on these when we return, I promise with lots of photos :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Things I Wish I Knew

I just spent 3 days with a group of 96 excited, apprehensive, eager, and motivated Peace Corps trainees! They just arrived last Wednesday and have been thrown into the grind with 2 months of intense training to learn everything from Moroccan culture and language to figuring out how to assess community needs and develop an action plan to lectures on Peace Corps policies and procedures. My time in Rabat was spent in sessions talking about gender-specific programming, volunteer diversity, and harassment, and out of sessions talking about everything and anything on these trainees' minds - how to manage language learning, volunteer experiences, the kinds of programming we do, what the food is like, you name it.

Sharing some of my experiences with them was really exciting, and in return I soaked up so much of their energy and motivation. Watching a group of individuals who are about to embark on this amazing adventure, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic about those first few months when everything was so scary and overwhelming, but at the same time incredibly new and exciting. I have now been living in this country for over 16 months (scary!) and while I’m no expert, I certainly feel I’ve come a long way from those scary initial months. So I thought it might be fun to make a quick list of some of the things that I wish I knew (or wish I understood) about this experience at the very beginning, for better or for worse!

1.   My job might will be ambiguous
My official title is a Youth Development Volunteer. What that means in Morocco can vary from being an English teacher to running sports teams to doing job skills trainings to developing health activities to cleaning up neighborhoods to teaching about citizenship to training teachers to supporting cooperatives and artisan groups to promoting cultural exchange to working with people with disabilities… and pretty much everything in between. What’s awesome about this is that Volunteers truly have the opportunity to match their skills to the work that they feel is both important and needed in the community – but what makes it difficult is actually determining what those are.

2.   Making mistakes is okay
I very distinctly remember on day 2 of our training, my Moroccan Arabic language teacher sent me out of the classroom and into the street to have my first “conversation” with a Moroccan. He picked out a girl near our training center, asked if she wouldn’t mind speaking with me at a 1st grade level, and then pushed me towards her. I consider myself an outgoing and friendly person but I remember feeling more scared of this encounter than anything I could remember… mainly because I wasn’t confident in my language skills (pretty reasonable after only 1 day!) and I was practically paralyzed with fear about making mistakes. But I sucked it up and went into that conversation, and laughed with her as we worked together to construct a very broken conversation. And this spills over into so many experiences that I’ve had – I can only improve from learning and I can only learn from doing and if doing involves making some mistakes, then it’s an important part of the process. 

3.   Morocco gets COLD!
Yes, I know that Morocco is on the edge of the Sahara Desert. But there are mountains and forests and large bodies of water and did I mention ski resorts or that homes are generally not heated? And I’m fortunate to be in an area that’s not even the coldest part of the Morocco by far.

4.   Everyone’s experience is different
Peace Corps staff teach that we shouldn’t compare our experience to any other Peace Corps Volunteer’s, because every person’s situation is so different – varying communities, backgrounds, attitudes and perspectives contribute to totally different experiences. But it’s certainly hard when we’re all trying to figure out our ways at the same time.

5.   Relationships take time to build
Just like making a good couscous here, relationships take time to develop, build, and nurture. It has taken me until just a few months ago to develop strong relationships with young women in my community. Part of this comes from cultural restrictions – these women just don’t spend as much time out of the home, so there’s less opportunity to create relationships – and part of this comes from me being with Justin and spending less time on my own developing individual relationships. Regardless, I have been patient and I am so happy that I have done so, as I’m now being rewarded with some wonderful friends and potential partners.

6.   I am stronger than I think
I am truly proud of what I have been able to do here – not just in terms of programs or classes or partnerships but for the personal leaps that I have been able to make: living in an unknown place separated at an enormous distance from friends and family and the comforts of the U.S. that we are used to; learning a spoken language for the first time (other than English) in my life (regretting that choice to study Latin in high school); figuring out how to understand, appreciate and respect a new culture, religion, and way of life; dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity (see #1); and taking new experiences and adventures head on and with drive and positivity!

7.   Time will fly.
Cliché but very, very, very true.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cooking and food in Morocco

I just finished writing my monthly letter to pen pals in Connecticut (I do this as one of Peace Corps' three goals, to educate Americans about our host country - you can read this previous blog post for more info). This month's letter was all about food in Morocco - and it got me thinking a lot about how living here has really changed my relationship with and perspective towards food and cooking.

If you read my blog post at the beginning of this year, then you may have seen that I've lost a lot of weight since moving to Morocco (close to 50 pounds at this point). And Justin has lost over 30 pounds. Now granted, both of us gained a lot of weight in the months leading up to our departure from America--mainly because we were trying to enjoy the food and drinks as much as we could before we left! But even so, a lot of this weight loss has come from having a more active lifestyle and adjusting the way that we cook and eat. I wanted to talk about a few of the things that have changed:

Use of Meat vs Vegetables
In Morocco, meat is expensive, relative to other food. For example, a pound of tomatoes might be the equivalent of $0.60, while a pound of chicken (is about $1.50 and a pound of ground meat is close to $5.00. So it might be for this reason that people eat far less meat than in the U.S. - or maybe it's also a difference in cooking styles. The biggest difference that I've noticed is that here, people do not seem to plan their meals around the meat. I remember often planning meals in the U.S. thinking about what meat I might make, and then adding sides/sauces/accompaniments to go with that meat. Here, people plan the meal itself (most typically a vegetable or bean-based meal) and sometimes meat is added into the mix, sometimes not. For example, on Fridays, families eat a massive plate of couscous that is LOADED with vegetables (photo example below)... sometimes meat is placed on top or in the middle, it's eaten last, and only a small amount is consumed per person.
I've found that while Justin and I don't typically eat traditional Moroccan food (I have yet to learn how to make couscous Moroccan-style), we have adopted the approach of eating far less meat. We get protein from eggs, beans, and other legumes and we eat meat only a few times a week, and that's probably still more often than many Moroccans. 

Processed vs Simple Foods
This is the big one for me. I think often about my lifestyle before moving here and how weekday dinners often consisted of a mix of takeout and frozen meals. Here, it's rare that I use a single "processed" ingredient in cooking - if I want tomato sauce, I have to make tomato sauce; if I want an American-style bread, I have to bake it; if I want lasagna noodles, I am rolling them out from scratch. I know that when I return to the U.S., I won't have nearly as much time for cooking as I do in Morocco.  But for me, finding a middle ground that will allow me to still prepare healthy, vegetable-focused meals, and not rely on lots of processed stuff, will be crucial. That's a big goal for me to begin figuring out as we move closer towards the end of our service in the fall.

Low Fat vs Full Fat
I have to say that it's been nice to live in a place where I'm not constantly bombarded by the diet wagon - low fat, low calorie, the newest diet fad, etc. I was explaining to a Moroccan friend recently about the pressure that people face in the U.S. to eat "healthy" and we were discussing what "healthy" really means. Is it worth it to eat low-fat foods that have lots of added chemicals, or high amounts of added sugar and salt? I'm not a doctor so I can't really say for sure what the answer on this is, but I've been eating full fat yogurt, milk, and butter for the last year (in moderation) and I feel healthier than I have in a long time. 

If you're interested in learning about the types of foods that Justin and I eat here, I keep an ongoing cookbook with all of our favorite meals. You can download a PDF of the latest cookbook by clicking here. It's a work-in-progress but I am excited that I'll leave Morocco with a thick stack of papers that might help to continue to improve my lifestyle back in the U.S. If you have recipe suggestions or other thoughts about this blog entry, please leave them in the comments section below! This is a topic that I've become really passionate about while living here, so I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Moroccan Travels, Part Six: Rabat!

This says "Medina Rabat" or "City of Rabat." If you can see the logo at the
top or read the Arabic words underneath, this sign is about
Rabat's recent addition as a UNESCO World Heritage site!

I'll just come out and say it - Rabat is my favorite city that we have visited in Morocco. Perhaps it's because Justin and I live so close (only about 45 minutes away) and thus spend more time in Rabat than in other cities. Or perhaps it's the lack of the crowds upon crowds of tourists that swarm to cities like Fes and Marrakech. Or maybe it's all the green spaces, beautiful gardens, and parks throughout the city.

Whatever it might be, I think Morocco's capital city is really unappreciated on the tourist scene. And before Justin and I went up to Tangier for New Year’s Eve (more on that another time) we spent a couple of days in Rabat just enjoying ourselves - since we are usually there for work, we often do not have the chance to take advantage of all it has to offer. As we were walking around, Justin and I kept remarking to each other how much we love Rabat. There are some absolutely beautiful sites to see throughout this city. So without further ado, below is a photo tour of my favorite sites to see in Rabat!

 1. The Hassan Mosque and the Mohammed V Mausoleum
A must-see, the minaret of the Hassan Mosque is visible from almost any view of Rabat. The mosque was begun in 1195 but construction was abandoned in 1199 when then-Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died. At the time, the minaret and mosque were expected to be the largest in the world (it is currently 164 feet tall; had it been finished it would have reached around 262 feet). The bases of the mosque’s columns give a sense of the size of the place and along with the unfinished tower create a kind of ethereal ambiance.

Facing the minaret is the mausoleum of King Mohammed V, designed by a Vietnamese architect and beautiful inside and outside. A lot of what people come to Morocco to see is the artisanry, but unfortunately in many of the older palaces and museums the work has suffered over the centuries. Because the mausoleum is modern, well maintained, and houses revered figures’ remains (those of Mohamed V (the current king’s grandfather) and his sons, King Hassan II (the current king’s father) and Prince Abdallah, the visitor can see the height of these traditional Moroccan crafts and craftsmanship in perfect condition. It is also one of the very few Muslim religious buildings that are in use and open to non-Muslims. 

The mosque and mausoleum are set on top of a hill towards the northern end of Rabat. We usually come into Rabat from Tiflet in a grand taxi which passes through Sale before crossing the Bouregreg river south into Rabat. The view going over the bridge, seeing the unfinished minaret and mausoleum on the top of the hill, the city stretching out around them, and finally the medina, kasbah, and ocean off to the right is spectacular. Both are free and the view from the top of the hill looking down isn’t bad either!

The unfinished Hassan Tower and Mosque.
Inside the Mohammed V Mausoleum.
Beautiful ceilings in the Mohammed V Mausoleum.

2. Promenade along the water and the Kasbah Oudayas
The River Bouregreg sits on one side of Rabat and feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. The area around the river has been made into a beautiful promenade with anchored boats and cafes along it. The promenade leads into the Kasbah Oudayas - a fortress and city built on a hilltop to be more easily defended. Inside the Kasbah are beautiful gardens, blue and whitewashed walls, and an amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean.

With my parents, looking out over the promenade and the Kasbah.
Bab Oudaia - a huge intricate gate leading into the Kasbah.
In the Andalucian Gardens, just inside the gate of the Kasbah.
Inside the Kasbah.
A musician inside the Kasbah.
Justin looks out in the direction of New York!

3. The "New City" of Rabat
Most bigger Moroccan cities have an "old medina" and the "Ville Nouvelle," or new city - and Rabat is no different. Rabat's Ville Nouvelle features a beautiful promenade leading down one of the main avenues, as well as lots of parks, galleries, shops, and restaurants.

Promenade with lots of palm trees and pigeons.
A very cool gallery in the Ville Nouvelle named Galerie Mohamed El Fassi.
When we visited last week it featured an exhibit of works by young Moroccan artists.
Work by a young Moroccan artist - I thought it was beautiful!
Hard to tell from the picture, but while most of this is painted,
some parts have added pieces (e.g. the jewelry)
which gives it a really interesting effect.

4. The Chellah
Just outside the Ville Nouvelle are some amazing ruins that have been uninhabited since 1154 but for over a thousand years prior, served as Sala Colonia, a thriving Roman city and port. But this is actually two or three sites in one, because while ruins remain of this ancient Roman town, it also has the ruins of a mosque and necropolis from the 14th century built right on top of it. And on top of that there’s beautiful plants and LOTS of storks who have taken up residence on the grounds, with huge nests atop any available surface.

Approaching the Chellah from the Ville Nouvelle.
The minaret of the mosque, and two storks in flight!
A sacred spring pool filled with eels. Women come here and feed
eggs to the eels to invoke assistance with fertility and childbirth.
Remains of tiles and beautiful gates.

5. The Zoo!
Rabat refurbished its zoo and reopened its doors sometime in the last year or two. It is a beautiful zoo which seems to focus mostly on African animals, and has some that we don't see in America (in zoos or otherwise): the Atlas lions, a subspecies that is extinct in the wild, and the African wild dogs, nearly extinct as well. The animals seem well cared for and most seemed to have plenty of space in their enclosures (no bars or anything like that). And also very exciting was a restaurant at the zoo that serves NEW YORK BAGELS! Though sadly they were nowhere near the real thing - still as close as we have found here :) The zoo was unfortunately a bit difficult to get to, but well worth the excursion!

The Atlas lions, playing.
Just thought this giraffe was taking a funny pose :)
The African wild dogs.
Cute porcupine.
Yes, that is an NYC bagel listed there - even one called the Brooklyn!
Here's their "Brooklyn" bagel. Not exact but we'll take what we can get.
The inside even had a few pieces of pastrami!

I hope you enjoyed your short tour of Rabat. There's much more to see, from simple things like walking around in the old medina, shopping in the medina or the Ville Nouvelle, visiting some of the many parks, or soaking in the city life at a patisserie or cafe. As Justin and I discover more about Rabat, I'll be sure to post updates. 

Wishing everyone a happy 2013!! Hope your celebrations were great on whatever side of the world you may have been on :)