Sunday, March 31, 2013

Where "Mad Men" Meets the Peace Corps

For those of you who don't know, before the Peace Corps I worked in advertising agencies in New York City. My life has gone from developing marketing strategies and producing television and radio commercials, billboards, websites, and lots more... to teaching English and aerobics, developing programs for youth, spending time with people in the community, studying a new language, learning about a new culture, teaching about America, doing activities for women in the community, and so on. 

A pretty big change as you can imagine! But one thing that I did not count on was being able to continue some marketing/advertising related work in Morocco. Recently, I was highlighted in a "Peace Corps 101" radio interview to provide marketing tips for Peace Corps Volunteers. You can check out the interview here!

On this blog I haven't talked about all of the projects that I've done in Morocco, but here are a few specific things related to marketing that I talked about in the interview. With Peace Corps Morocco's Gender and Development Committee, I helped to revamp the committee to be more relevant and helpful for Volunteers and used strategic planning models to develop a vision and mission statement. I created a website and new communication channels to make it easier for Volunteers to learn about and access resources for gender initiatives. For Peace Corps Morocco, I created a website (which is almost finished!) at the request of staff to showcase Volunteer efforts and to promote our programs to governmental and NGO partners in Morocco. And lastly, as the PR Senior Advisor for the Serving Volunteer Advisory Council, I'm currently running all PR outreach efforts for this global group dedicated to connecting Volunteers and helping provide strategic solutions to worldwide issues.

These are the big ones - and I have one more big marketing-related project in the works that you'll hear more about in the coming months. So while a lot has changed, it's been nice to continue some of the marketing-related work that I enjoyed back home!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Old Friends and New Friends

Before Justin and I left for Morocco, we spent a lot of time with our old friends. We had a two week-long NYC tour, we took a road trip along the east coast, we even threw ourselves a grand goodbye party with our New York friends. And we took a piece of our friends with us - Here's a picture of our wall which is covered with cards, pictures, and memories of our time back in the U.S.

I didn't really know what to expect in terms of forming relationships in Morocco. I knew that we would be expected to integrate, to get to know a community and to form relationships with counterparts to help plan activities... I didn't know what that meant in terms of friendships. But after 18 months of living in Morocco, I have been able to form real, true friendships with some people in my community. And when I leave Morocco, I will be overjoyed to return to the friends that I have left behind in the U.S. but will also be incredibly sad to leave these wonderful people who have become such an important part of my life.

The last week has really intertwined this idea of old friends and new friends. Last week, one of my closest friends of more than 18 years, Ellis, came to Morocco along with her boyfriend Alex. They drove far out of their way to spend 2 days with Justin and me and it meant so much to get to spend time together in our home. Ellis now lives in Portugal, and it was also really interesting to discuss our similar experiences in being ex-pats and in creating new relationships and learning a new language and culture. Here's Ellis and me from then and now - nothing has really changed :)

A few days after Ellis left, I planned a program for girls and women along with one of my closest friends here, Riham. Riham shares my belief in the importance of giving women a safe space to speak and to express themselves and we created a program together about dreams, goals, and obstacles. Getting to work with Riham on the program and to share our own dreams, goals, and obstacles was really inspiring and brought us even closer together. The program was truly amazing and I think that Riham has been inspired to do more good work in the community. I certainly hope to do more with her in my remaining few months here and I can't wait to see what she will be able to accomplish in the future for the women of Morocco. Here's a picture of Riham and me, and a few other photos from our women's event:

I'm so thankful and happy for both the new and the old friends in my life, and that I've been able to create new relationships where we can teach and learn from one another!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Moroccan Travels... The Roman ruins of Volubilis

This post is very delayed as Justin and I actually traveled to Volubilis back in January! But it was an amazingly impressive site, so I wanted to be sure to share it with you.

Many people are not aware of this, but part of what is now Morocco included some of the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. There are several archaeological sites throughout the country, and the most well-known is called Volubilis in English ("Oualili" in Moroccan Arabic). Volubilis is fairly close to our town, so we decided to make a day trip of it. 

Approaching the site through the hills north of Meknes, massive white stone shapes appear against the surrounding farmland. And as you get closer, the monumental architecture begins to come into focus, and you are taken aback at the scale of the place. Unlike archaeological sites in the United States or much of Europe, you are largely left to your own devices, and allowed to wander, climb, and touch where you will... though guards will start to whistle at you if you are too close to something they decide you shouldn't be close to. 

Most of the remains speak for themselves, but our pictures really don't do justice to the gorgeous mosaics that you just happen to come across at seemingly random intervals. They are unfortunately left exposed to the elements and some have pretty significant weathering damage, but it's still a very different experience to view them in situ rather than in a museum.

We strolled around for a few hours and I think we could have spent days there! I selected some photos that hopefully will give you a sense of the scope and beauty that we saw in Volubilis:


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Some of the work I've done recently

You might already know that International Women's Day was last week - If you didn't, you can read a bit more about it in my blog post from last year. This day marked the culmination of a few fun projects that I've been working on, so I wanted to share them with you!

My role as the Chair of Peace Corps Morocco's Gender and Development (GAD) Committee is to help motivate Peace Corps Volunteers to plan gender awareness activities for women and men, boys and girls, in towns throughout Morocco. The Committee tries to create resources to provide Volunteers with ideas for projects and helpful information on gender-specific language, cultural ideas, and current events. As International Women's Day is a great opportunity to do gender awareness programming in Moroccan communities, we wanted to focus great effort on motivating and supporting Volunteers during this time. So here are some of the things that we did:

  • Created a toolkit for Volunteers with 5 different types of activities that they could do during International Women's Day, with topics ranging from volunteerism to leadership, harassment to empowerment. If you are interested in seeing the toolkit, you can view and download it here.
  • Partnered with the "Division des Affairs Feminines" (the Division of Women's Affairs) of the Moroccan government to plan a special event to celebrate women and to symbolically launch a week of gender programming throughout the country.
  • Partnered with the U.S. Embassy to print t-shirts that we distributed to Peace Corps Volunteers who committed to leading a gender awareness activity during this time. We also printed stickers to match the t-shirts that Volunteers could give out in their communities.

I'm so excited to say that almost one-third of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco committed to leading a gender awareness activity in their communities! Which means that if each event has 20 people, we will have reached thousands of people with programs ranging from leadership to volunteerism, running to empowerment, women’s and girl’s health to film screenings, harassment to art, women's rights awareness to employment, self-esteem to gender roles and stereotypes… and the list goes on and on!

Yesterday, I attended the event that I helped to plan in conjunction with Peace Corps staff and the Moroccan government. I was asked to deliver a speech at this event on behalf of the Peace Corps, highlighting Volunteers' gender-focused work in Morocco during this time. The most exciting part of the speech, for me, was that I chose to challenge myself and deliver the speech by myself in ARABIC, instead of with a translator. I wrote the speech in English, translated it into Moroccan Arabic, then sat with a friend to review the speech line by line (special thanks and a shout-out to Abdellah Boutahar!). I was really happy to see that I was able, fairly successfully, to write most of the speech by myself, and when an American started delivering a full speech in Moroccan Arabic, the crowd was blown away! I gave my speech alongside several Moroccan government officials, and I was told that many people thought my speech was the highlight. It was a massive language challenge and I'm so excited that it was a success.

So that's what I've been doing lately! Justin and I have a few other projects up our sleeves in the coming months, so you'll be hearing more about those soon. Enjoy a few photos from yesterday's event:
Schmoozing with the Minister of Youth and Sports,
along with the Peace Corps Country Director.
With other members of the GAD Committee, showing off our t-shirts.
Dancers from Casablanca perform at the event.
Last minute language prepping before my speech.
Delivering my speech!
I love this paparazzi shot - I am being audio recorded,
video recorded, and photographed all at once!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moroccan Cooking 101: Harira!

If you've kept up with this blog or with my Facebook albums, then you may know that I have tried to embrace the extra time that life in the Peace Corps has afforded us to engage in many activities: from traveling to gardening (update: we have a few sprouts!!), from music to exercising, to perhaps most importantly, cooking. I've spent lots of time learning to cook and bake with fresh and healthy ingredients and I've learned many new techniques in the kitchen (if you're interested, I keep an ongoing cookbook which you can download here).

But as much as I've learned about cooking many different types of foods, surprisingly I haven't cooked a lot of Moroccan food! I think because we eat Moroccan food when we visit other people in the community (which happens fairly often), I haven't felt the need to spend time cooking traditional dishes in our house. But recently I've had several female friends who have tried to teach me some of the typical dishes made here. I've done well cooking alongside them, but had yet to try anything on my own. UNTIL TODAY!!! And HOLY HARIRA, this stuff is GREAT!! 

Chickpeas and lentils and chicken and amazing spices.... so good!

I present to you my first (and hopefully not last) successful Moroccan cooking endeavor! Harira is a very traditional tomato-based soup, often eaten during Ramadan to break the day's fast. There are many variations between recipes, some of which I noted in my recipe below. It's quite a long cooking extravaganza, made a bit shorter with the use of a blender and a pressure cooker, but for me it was well worth it. I made mine a bit thicker and chunkier than what I've eaten in other homes but I'm not gonna lie, it's one of the best I've eaten. If you make it, please let me know what you think!!

Serves 6-8 people (depending on how much you pile in the bowl!)

1/2 lb of raw chicken with bones (I recommend removing the skin)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped (I used a blender for this)
1 large onion, grated
1 handful of dry chickpeas, soaked overnight
6 large tomatoes, peeled/cored/pureed (I used a blender for this)
Spices: 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ginger, 1-1/2 tsp pepper, 1 tbsp salt, 1/2 tsp turmeric
3 tbsp dry lentils, sorted and washed
3 tbsp tomato paste mixed into 1-1/2 cup water
3 tbsp uncooked rice (you can also use vermicelli noodles but the cooking times may vary a bit)
1/2 cup flour

1) Soak chickpeas overnight, then rinse and drain. To prepare ingredients before you begin cooking, do the following: Sort/wash lentils. Peel, core, and puree tomatoes in a blender. Chop parsley and cilantro finely. Puree celery in a blender. 
2) In a large bowl, combine the finely chopped cilantro, finely chopped parsley, pureed celery, grated onion, drained chickpeas, pureed tomatoes, and spices.
3) Put the chicken into the bottom of a large pressure cooker. Brown on medium heat for 2-3 minutes (you can use a little vegetable oil if you'd like to keep it from sticking, but if there's some fat on the chicken you should be fine without it).
4) Add mixture from #2 along with 3 cups of water. Cover with pressure cooker top and turn heat to high until pressure is reached. Then reduce heat to medium and cook 20-30 minutes.
5) Release pressure. Add lentils, tomato paste mixture, and 4 cups water (if you want thinner soup, you can add a bit more water here). Cover again with pressure cooker top and turn heat to high until pressure is reached again. Then reduce heat to medium and cook for 30 more minutes.
6) Release pressure and add uncooked rice. Cover again with the pressure cooker top and turn heat to high until pressure is reached again. Then reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes.
7) In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup flour with 1 cup water. Be sure to whisk it well and check the bottom of the bowl to make sure that all of the flour blends together.
8) After 15 minutes on pressure, release pressure. Taste and season if needed with salt and pepper (I didn't need to add anything). Reduce heat to a constant simmer. Pour in the flour/water mixture slowly and in a thin stream, while stirring constantly to thicken the soup to your preference. It should thicken very quickly. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
9) Enjoy it!! And save some extra for me :)