One Year in Morocco

I’ve lived in Morocco for one year now and wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along the way:

1 – Moroccans have this amazing ability to fill every open space beyond normal capacity

2 – I’m learning day by day to let go of anxiety knowing everything will work out

3 – I’ve learned to sit and do absolutely nothing for hours at a café, at my house, at someone else’s house, waiting for a taxi, being in a taxi/bus/train, etc

4 – Donkeys are the most pathetic miserable animals ever

5 – I’m terrified of preteen boys, especially when they are moving in packs

6 – Sleeping under the stars in relaxing – but doesn’t mean I want to start camping

7 – Cement houses in the south are a bazillion times hotter than traditional mud houses

8 – I now fully understand that this is the ‘cold land with the hot sun’

9 – The generosity and hospitality of Moroccans is overwhelming and awesome

10 – Stepping outside your own box can be extremely difficult when you struggle with the language and being an introvert

11 – I used to be an extremely independent individual

12 – Moroccans are not shy about their curiosity

Hope you’ve enjoyed a little insight in to my day to day living in Morocco!  Looking forward to what I’ll learn the next 15 months.

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Traveling Morocco, Part II

Back in January I posted up some photos of my travels within Morocco for the first 4 months being in country. I figure it’s time to post up pics from the last 8 months as well!


Boumalne Dades


The Gorge


Marrakech 


Zagora 


Rose Festival at Kelaa M’Gouna


Chefchaouen 


Taza


Larache


Agadir


Taghzoute

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Mosques

I have a fascination with mosques (Muslim place of worship), especially the minarets (where the call to prayer is announced) in this country. Here’s a small collection to enjoy!

 

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The Big Eid

Eid Al Adha, aka Eid al Kabir, is the biggest (and most holy) holiday in the Muslim world and took place on Friday, September 1. It is also known as the Festival of Sacrifice and honors the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son.  The animal sacrifice is observed in each Muslim family around the world with the head of the household killing (most commonly) a sheep or goat. Traditions within Muslim communities vary and I wanted to share my experience in my small douar in southeast Morocco.

Volunteers were under a travel ban starting on Monday, August 28 through Wednesday, September 6. The main reason for this is the massive increase in Moroccans traveling to visit their families. Because there are more people on the road there is a higher chance of accidents. Also, there is an increase in the cost of travel as bus and taxi fares go up 5 to 10 dh.

I did a little research ahead of time to be prepared for what I should expect and knew people purchased new clothes for the event (similar to Eid el-Fitr celebrated at the end of Ramadan). A few days before Eid I was having lunch with my host family when my host siblings received their new outfits and it was so awesome seeing how excited they were! I confirmed with my host mom what time I should arrive on Friday. She originally said 1 pm for lunch, then noted maybe 8 am or 9 am. Thinking things don’t typically happen on exact time in Morocco anyway, I planned to leave my apartment at 9 am for the 12-minute walk to their house.  I was just finishing up dressing in my new black tunic shirt when I heard a group of men pass by singing.  I knew I’d already missed the beginnings of the celebration!

I rushed outside and felt like a salmon swimming upstream as the males in my community headed to a field next to my apartment to begin the day with prayers. Next year I’ll be prepared to video the procession.  As I arrived at my host family’s house I received a text from a fellow PCV stating she’d already witnessed three sacrifices.  While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing this myself, I really hoped I hadn’t missed out.  Not to worry though.  The female members of my family were finishing up breakfast while the male members were praying. They complimented me on my new shirt and the fact I was wearing earrings (not an everyday thing anymore!) Then the ladies started getting ready and I realized my host mom and aunts were wearing the same beautiful dresses from Eid el-Fitr.  This makes practical sense because there are not many occasions to wear dressy outfits and the cost of such outfits would be difficult for many Moroccans.

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With my host mom, Naima

At approximately 10 am the visiting began. This was exactly like during Eid el-Fitr where people went from house to house to extend greetings and pleasantries. These visits don’t last long but they are very important.  After receiving people for about an hour, the men folk arrived and settled in for some chatting. This whole time I’m thinking ‘has the sacrifice taken place and I didn’t realize it?!’.  Finally, one of my host cousins gathered all the guys together and out they went.  The ladies stayed put. So, my concern with how I was going to handle and react to the actual sacrifice was alleviated.  Apparently, my host mom knew exactly how long the actual killing would take and she suddenly called for me to follow her. We stepped out of the house and I was confronted with a dead sheep hanging upside down while my host dad was skinning it. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. The entire process is very humane, done for a religious purpose and nothing about the animal goes to waste. We took a few photos and then went back inside where I got to witness King Mohammed V sacrifice his sheep on TV. This was actually a replay and tradition in the country is that the King makes the first sacrifice and then the rest of the country can proceed on with their own.

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My host dad taking care of the skinning

The ladies then headed out for a few visits around the neighborhood. We enjoyed some locally grown dates as a pre-lunch snack. Around 2:30 pm we had lunch, which was a traditional tagine of veggies (oh yeah – I had hung out in the kitchen that morning while my host mom prepared this!) and some type of meat served separately. I didn’t ask if it was from that day’s sacrifice, but I assume it was. My host dad suddenly realized I didn’t eat meat (I’ve only been here for nine months) and joked that I could have sacrificed a chicken while everyone else was killing sheep.  He’s a pretty funny guy.

At 4 pm I decided to head home for a quick change of clothes (everyone else had already changed in to more comfortable attire) and a quick rest. I told them I’d be back for tea.  So, at 6:30 pm I arrived back expecting tea to be served around 7:15, only to find my host mom and aunt cleaning the insides of a sheep my host dad killed as I had left earlier. So, I sat there watching them do this incredible task while helping keep the flies away.  At 8:30 my host mom looked at my Aunt Fatima and said ‘go make Laila some tea’.  After tea, I hung out with the guys watching Morocco and Mali play soccer – Morocco dominated the game winning 6-0. My host mom said she was fixing salad for supper, which surprised me with all the meat from the day, so I agreed to stay. Turns out she made the salad just for me cause the rest of the family had what I believe was kidney kebabs.  It may have been liver – not being a meat eater I didn’t get too close to examine them.

All in all, my experience with Eid al-Adha was just as incredible and mind expanding as every other experience I’ve had here in Morocco. I love seeing how people celebrate and enjoy the things in their cultures and traditions that are so very far from my own way of life.  Trying to explain to Moroccans that we don’t celebrate Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, or drink tea the way they do can be difficult and mentally exhausting when you don’t have the language skills. But it is also a great cultural exchange to help them understand that other people in the world are different from them. And I hope that blogging about my daily life and experiences are helping my fellow Americans understand this as well.

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Moroccan Packing Tips

As the new staj is preparing to join us in Morocco, I thought a post on things I was glad I brought, wish I’d brought and should have left at home would be timely.

Glad I Brought

*Microfiber towel – they dry quickly so are great for travel for trainings and visiting other volunteers

*Uno and Phase 10 – card games in general are good; they are easy to pack and perfect for long train rides, visits with volunteers and playing with your host family

*shower shoes/flips – necessary for bathing and the hammam

*external hard drive filled with movies – mine is a 4 TB and about half full; it’s also a great back up for all your work

*extra USB – Peace Corps Morocco gives you one with PC resources, but if you are like me you are likely to misplace it (a couple of times)

*Bestek converter – #gamechanger;  best purchase ever

*fresh undies in your stored bag during CBT – just trust me on this one

*travel size toilet paper – great for when traveling around the country

*Crest toothpaste – I’ve used Crest my entire life and it’s not readily available

*Kindle – with tons of books downloaded (although I’ve mainly been reading books from the PC Library)

*Qtips – good quality ones are hard to find here

*Carmex – in general chapstick is hard to find, but I’ve been a Carmex fan since high school so I brought a large supply

*Gatorade/Propel packets – necessary for living in southern Morocco (I brought a small quantity and have requested more)

*Sleeping bag – perfect for visiting fellow PCVs and staying warm on cool nights

*Excedrine Migraine pills – I’m prone to migraines and these are the only thing that help.  Peace Corps provides us with a medical kit to cover every thing from headaches to bug bites to allergies to dehydration, but I knew I’d need something more intense.

Could Have Left at Home

*multiple bars of Dove soap – for some reason I collected like 20 bars of Dove soap (for two years??) yet Dove is sold in Morocco

*hairspray – when you only wash your hair once (maybe twice) a week and wear it in a ponytail every day, hairspray is completely unnecessary

*extra makeup – I’ve only worn makeup once in the last nine months

*vitamins – the medical office will provide if requested

*shortwave radio – all I can say is ‘what was I thinking?’

*ipad – didn’t use it at all the first six months; have been doing some reading and using a yoga app the last couple but I could definitely live without it

Wish I’d Brought

*slightly small computer – I have a 13 inch MacBook Air and I wish I’d bought the 10 inch

*travel backpack – I thought I’d bought the right size but it’s only good for one night

*index cards – necessary for studying and aren’t available in country

*small notebook for new words – I found one about a month in to CBT but I wish I’d had it earlier)

*scissors – the ones in country are not good quality

*a cooling towel – cause it’s freaking HOT down south and one of these bad boys would be oh so handy

*sweatshirt/sweatpants – thanks to my good friend Teresa for sending me some!

*rain boots – the rainy season hits toward the end of CBT; although I don’t need them now in the south

*ziplock baggies – I’m not sure how these didn’t get packed (thanks to my good friend Amy for sending!)

*washcloth (or two) – cause bathing

*2 pair of shorts – instead of one (no females can’t wear them in public, but you need them in your own home when it’s HOT)

*whiteboard markers – the ones in country are not good quality; thanks to my good friend Shelley for sending these!

 

 

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My Ramadan Experience

Now that Ramadan (the Muslim holy month) is over, I thought I’d share my experience and why I kinda fasted.  Briefly, Ramadan the month of fasting from sunrise to sunset (more about Ramadan at the end of this post).  I decided I wanted to fast as a way to understand more about what my community members were going through. Everyone asked me if I was fasting and when I said yes they were surprised and excited that I was. No one tried to convert me to Islam and I appreciate that they appreciated I was being a part of the community. I enjoyed the lftur (breaking of fast) with my family and others in the community. Things went pretty well the first two weeks. Then I got sick; had some female issues; and the heat soared to around 105 degrees every day. At this point I was drinking water during the day just to try to stay healthy.

How My Day Was Structured

I’ll start with just before leaving to go to lftur, I typically rinsed off all the sweat that accumulated through the day, drank 20 oz of water and headed out to someone’s house about 7:00 pm. Most people were utilizing the coolness of their courtyards or roofs for the evening’s festivities. Tables were usually already set up with some of the food displayed. The call to prayer that indicates fasting is over when sound around 7:30 – 7:40 pm and everyone would immediately grab a date and say ‘bismillah’ (In the name of God – said when you begin an activity such as eating, drinking, working, studying and traveling). Water was gulped down and then bowls of harira (traditional Moroccan soup) distributed. Yes, even in 100-degree weather, hot soup was eaten. At this point, everyone would take turns praying. And then the juice came out – mostly carrot or beet juice and it was all delicious. About an hour later we would have a hard-boiled egg, chebekia, and sfouf, as well as some type of bread and Moroccan mint tea. Chebekia and sfouf are typically served only during Ramadan and other special occasions. Chebekia is a sesame cookie folded into a flower shape, fried and coated with honey and it is addicting. Sfouf is a unique Moroccan sweet made from toasted sesames, fried almonds and flour that has been browned in the oven.

**harira and dates (first photo);  chebekia

At about 9:00 pm the final call to prayer happened and the men would head out to the mosque (a few women in my community would also attend at this time). Now it was just the women left in the house and we would use this opportunity to nap or rest for about an hour. Around 10:30 pm fruit would be brought out (mostly watermelon since we grow it in our region) and I would head to my house around 11:00 pm. Occasionally, someone would serve couscous and I would eat that before heading out. Moroccan families typically eat a lunch type meal around 2:30 or 3:00 am.

Once at home I tried to stay awake until around 4:00 am, drinking more water, doing yoga, watching movies and reading. There was a group of guys who played soccer in front of my house around 1:00 am. I would eat something light around 3:00 am (scrambled eggs, yogurt, fresh veggies).  I would wake up around 11:00 am and try not to move too much or even think too much cause it was way too hot. I listened to podcasts, played solitaire on my phone and traced the design in my ceilings. Once a week I did my laundry and 1-2 times a week I’d walk up to the 7anut (small store) to get eggs and yogurt. I would do this around 5:30 because everything is closed during the day due to the heat. Around 4:00 you would start smelling food being cooked to prepare for the nights feasting. And then it would all start over again.

Eid

Eid al-fitr is the festival that breaks the fast and marks the end of Ramadan. The last night of Ramadan I stayed the overnight at my family’s house. My host mom did henna on my hands. The henna process in the south is different than the north. In the north, they pipe on designs by hand. In the south, stencils are used with huge chunks of the henna and your finger tips are completely covered as well. They made up a sleeping palate on the roof for me. I think I went to sleep around 1:00 am – it was hard to sleep that early since I’d been staying up late. At 6:15 am my host sister woke me up for breakfast, everyone cleaned up, put out fresh mats, rugs and pillows, put on new clothes and started visiting and receiving visitors. This was a really cool time with streams of people coming through wishing everyone Eid Mubarak Said and generally being happy that Ramadan was at an end. Mid-morning, we had a snack and then lunch around 2:00 pm. I headed to my house at that point being completely exhausted and happy that I had survived my first Ramadan.

1st Photo: my henna; 2nd Photo: with my host mom, Naima (in pink) and aunt Fatima in our new Eid outfits (mine was borrowed); 3rd photo: my host sister, host brother and host cousin in their new Eid outfits

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the night month of the Islamic year. There are several features to Ramadan, the most important and most visible is complete abstinence from food, drink, sex and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Muslims typically start fasting once they reach puberty, although some families will encourage their kids to start earlier (usually every few days during the month).

 

The idea of fasting is to bring Muslims closer to God and to remind them of the suffering endured by the less fortunate. In addition, many Muslims give zakat, or donate money, to charities and often feed the hungry and poor. Overall, it’s an exercise of self-restraint and charity. There are specific groups of people who are exempt from fasting: pregnant women, menstruating women, people traveling, and those who are sick. These people must make up their missed days at a later time.

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Dar Dyali

I have a home in Morocco!  I was very fortunate to find a brand new building with six apartments — and a major contrast to the traditional style of mud brick homes in the south.

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My apartment building!

My bedroom!!

The kitchen!!

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The bathroom – on laundry day with my super zwiin mini-washing machine

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The salon with with my super cool ponges! Future plans include a rug and table

Traditional mud-brick houses typically include courtyards, and occasionally roofs.

 

Hope you enjoyed the tour through my home!

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Transportation in Morocco

There are many forms of transportation in Morocco. Here are a few of the most common:

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Feet.  Walking is the main form of transportation all over the country.

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Grand taxi — the only way I can leave my site. They primarily go between cities and are designed to hold 6 passengers but  in my area we can fit 9 people in one.

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Petite taxi – they are different colors in different cities; hold 3 passengers only; and provide transport within cities.

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CTM (and Supr@Tours) provides excellent long distance travel (think 4-6 hours)

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N9l (kinda pronounced ‘knuckle) – mass transit option that takes the place of a grand taxi

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Train – for major long distance travel (like south to north)

Other transportation options include bicycle (many kids ride these to/from school), motorcycles/motorscooter, triporter (like a motorcycle with a truck bed to carry people or items) and the rare personal vehicle.

Getting around in Morocco is always an experience and a topic of conversation when PCVs get together.

 

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The Work We Do

It is said that Peace Corps (PC) is the hardest job you will ever love. Our illustrious leader, Country Director Steve Driehaus, recently said that Peace Corps work is what we do every day. Both of these statements are very true. I’ve also heard that Peace Corps is the longest vacation you’ll ever hate. I’m not too sure about that one, but then again I’ve only been an official PC volunteer for three months.

In Morocco, Youth Development (YD) is what we do and that encompasses several aspects. YD is everything from teaching English, life skills, employability skills, healthy lifestyles and anything else that fits with your personal skill level and the needs of your community. The largest portion of what we do is build relationships and build trust which requires a lot of simply being out and about and engaging in conversation.

So, Peace Corps is the work we do every day. And it’s exhausting. As a PCV, you are ‘on’ every moment of the day as you greet people, talk with counterparts, teach a class and enjoy tea with a neighbor. Because we represent America, we must give a good impression dima (always). If I’m not smiling, people are concerned that I’m not ok – that something is wrong and they need to fix it. At the end of each day I’m physically exhaust from trying to speak the language and hoping that people understand me (not to mention me understanding them).

In my small village, I am the only foreigner here. (My site mate recently closed her service and is now back in the US). Most of us are in similar situations. We live in a bubble. Everyone knows what we do and where we go all the time. It can be difficult to reconcile the individualism of the US and the collectivism of Morocco. And is part of what makes this work ‘the hardest job you’ll ever love’. Or is that the longest vacation I’ll ever hate? The next 20 months will tell.

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Treat Yo’ Self

Living in a foreign country, being ‘on’ 24-7 / 365, and struggling with the language can take a toll on your well-being. Here are a few ways I’ve been treating myself:

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*eating an entire bar (or two) of chocolate in one sitting

*watching entire seasons of TV shows in a couple of days

*hiding out in my apartment (I consider these ‘mental health days’)

*buying expensive smell good shower gel and lotion

*doing yoga

*listening to podcasts while playing solitaire – all day

*going to nearby ‘cities’ to hang out at a café and chat with other PCVs

*paying way too much to have my hair colored and styled

*reading LOTS of books

 

Peace Corps is not easy and it’s beyond ok to treat yo’ self.  What are some of your self-care practices?

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