How Nepal Changed Me

Note: This post first appeared in the Elephant Journal.  It is a cummulation of my story of how I became the thirdeyemom, why I started this blog, what inspired me to make a difference in my life and others and why I began fundraising for Nepal. The link to the original post is here:  Nepal was utterly amazing.  How it changed me forever.

I am also going to include a copy of the post here.  My trip to Nepal and my recent efforts at fundraising have made a huge impact on my life.  It is a way to change the dynamic of being a simple traveler to being a compassionate human being who gives back to the community visited.  I strongly believe that travel is a gift.  It is important to give in return.  Without further delay, here is my story.

How Nepal Changed Me

By thirdeyemom

Nepal was utterly amazing. The trek was arduous, humbling and long.  We hiked over 100 miles doing on average 4-8 hours of strenuous hiking a day at altitudes up to almost 18,000 feet.  But what amazed me most was the magical culture and people that I found in Nepal.

 
Thorong-La Pass Nepal

Photo of my dad and me at 6:30 am summit of the highest point of our Annapurna trek, Thorong-La Pass at 17,769 feet.

Coffee. Tea” the flight attendant asked wearily. “I’ll take a coffee with sugar, please” I responded half-awake yet with a smile.  We were two hours short of our 15-hour non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi and I could hardly believe we were almost there.  I had seen the sun set and rise and set again all within that time and needless to say, my body was confused.   I had no idea how I’d manage to go to bed that night.  It was 8 PM in India but my body was still on Minneapolis time, a bright and early 8 AM.  It was going to be interesting. 

As we made our final descent through the thick, dark blanket of pollution that covered Delhi I couldn’t help but think about why I was here and where I was headed:  To Nepal to hike the mighty Himalayas with my beloved dad.   How on earth did I come so far with such a grandiose plan for a vacation?  Even I, a stay-at-home mom of two young children, couldn’t believe it was real.

My father and I have been traveling partners all my life.  What started out as numerous family vacations throughout my childhood lead to annual vacations with just my dad to destinations around the world.  Over the past ten years, we hiked Machu Picchu in Peru, dived in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, hiked in Patagonia twice, played golf in Ireland, went skiing in Italy and France, and went on a safari in South Africa.   My friends thought I was crazy.  But I felt invigorated and alive.

Nepal was one of those elusive, mystical places in the back of our minds that we had dreamed of visiting one day.  It had everything we wanted in a travel destination:  Majestic scenery, world-class hiking, unbelievable mountains, and a diverse and fascinating culture.  Yet it was impossibly far away and would require a fair amount of time to see.  We also had no idea how safe or doable it was to hike.  When thinking about Nepal, my mind easily crept to those crazy, over the top athletes who climb Mount Everest.  I thought there was probably more tame hiking adventures but didn’t truly know.  Thus as an actual travel destination, Nepal remained a very distant possibility.  Perhaps someday we would go there.

Pokhara Nepal

Little did I know it would be sooner than I ever imagined.  My dad and I had just returned from a spectacular hiking trip in Patagonia, Argentina where we had first caught wind of the real possibility of trekking the Himalayas in Nepal.  During our trip to Patagonia, we had met an exciting couple from England who were in their sixties and had just completed the world-famous Annapurna trek the year before.   My father and I listened in awe and fascination as they explained their trip and we were instantly hooked.  It sounded like the trip of a lifetime that we could easily accomplish physically.  Yet we just had to figure out how we could manage such a long trip.  My children were only three and five years old and we would need at least two to three weeks.  I wasn’t sure my mother or husband would be willing to babysit the children for that long.  Thus once again, the thought of going to Nepal was placed on the back burner.

Almost like a sign of fate, my dad happened to see an article in the New York Times on March 10, 2010 called “Hiking the Annapurna Trek Before the Road Takes Over”.  Basically what the article said was that this world-renowned hike was going to be ruined within a matter of years by the building of a dirty, dusty road that would tear through idyllic villages and pristine nature and open this once hidden, mystical land to jeep, car, and bus traffic.  That was all we needed to hear and it was soon decided that the time to go was now.  We gingerly presented our idea to both my husband and mom who surprisingly were in full support of our plan and gave us the green light to start planning.  We were thrilled.

 
Annapurna Trail Nepal

Me and my dad at the start of the trail.

A village along the Annapurna Trek in Nepal

The start of the Annapurna trail is gravel now. Yet not for much longer as a road is in the process of being built from the start of the trail all the way to Manang which currently takes eight days to reach by foot.

The New York Times article recommended two trekking companies.  We sent query letters and received a reply almost immediately from Earthbound Expeditions, a locally owned and run outfitter in Nepal.  We received a custom itinerary that perfectly met our needs and time constraints, and had amazingly prompt replies to all my crazy questions such as the safety records of internal flights in the mountains to the availability of calling home while on the trail.  I was amazed and impressed by the high level of personal attention and service given by Earthbound’s owner, Rajan.  This kind of service has long disappeared from most American travel companies. We booked the trip for the end of October 2010 for a 17-day journey that inspired and excited me beyond my expectations.

The desire to give something back

Before leaving for Nepal, I made a decision that I no longer wanted to be simply a tourist that visited a country, enriched myself in all its culture and beauty, and left nothing in return, no gift behind. My new way of thinking all began on a recent trip I made which was different from anything else I’d ever done: A volunteer trip to work in Costa Rica.  Although I was only there for one week, the impact volunteering made on my life and the people I helped during that short time led me to believe strongly that we must give back.  Travel is a gift and it is important to give in return.

I wracked my brain for different ways I could raise money. I knew that I wanted to donate money to a non-profit organization that focuses on education in Nepal. After reading several inspirational books on education in poverty-stricken lands, I knew that this was the area to attack.  I searched Lonely Planet who has an excellent listing of non-profit organizations as well as volunteer opportunities, and found just the organization I was looking for:  READ Nepal.

READ Nepal is part of READ Global:
READ Global pioneered the concept of sustainability as an international development organization dedicated to combining education and private enterprise to make rural communities viable places to learn, build, and prosper. READ partners with rural communities to create, sustain and grow projects in a manner that is politically and culturally appropriate. READ has helped establish forty nine Community Library and Resource Centers paired with for-profit enterprises throughout Nepal and India that serve over a half million people annually and has also recently opened up a center in Bhutan”.
Nepalese children headed to school

Nepalese children dressed proudly in their school uniforms waved as we passed them by.

Finding the right organization was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out how a stay-at-home mom could raise the money.  I didn’t want to ask for donations from friends and families.  Instead, I wanted to earn the money and somehow involve my children in the process so they could learn the importance of giving back.

That was where creative thinking came into play.  It was summer in Minnesota, a time to be outdoors, out of our long winter’s hibernation, and back into the world again enjoying our 10,000+ lakes, beautiful parks and nature.  Initially, I set a small goal of raising a couple hundred dollars for my cause.   But as time went by, I realized it was possible to do more.  I just had to be creative!  I set my first goal at $500 and used traditional American-style activities to raise the money.  In June, I ran a co-op “babysitting fundraiser” at my house on Friday mornings.  Each Friday I babysat up to ten kids in exchange for a small donation.  Although it was incredibly exhausting, it was a terrific success.   In July, my children and I ran a car wash and lemonade stand to raise money for Read Nepal.  Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity of my friends and neighbors who contributed donations.   Finally, in early September my family and I held our first annual yard sale in the name of charity.    Through these efforts, my initial goal of $500 suddenly amassed to $2,000 and I was ecstatic!   The $2,000 raised was matched by my husband’s employer, bringing the total donation to READ Nepal up to $4,000.  Just like that a small idea ended up being a big help. The funds were donated a week before I boarded the plane to Kathmandu.

READ Nepal was delighted with the donation and informed me that the money would be more than enough to open up an entire library and reading center in rural Nepal.  They were beyond thrilled and continually showered me with compliments and called me “their little Angel”.  I was so shocked to receive such immense gratitude for what I thought was a small amount in the grand scheme of things.  Yet it made me realize how much ANYTHING can do to help, especially in this economic climate. It just goes to show how far your money can go in a third world country. The gift was given and I realized that it is the things you do for others in life that makes you feel the best.

Nepali girls

Photo of three Nepali girls dressed in their finest clothing in honor of the Festival of Lights, one of the biggest holidays in Nepal. The girls went from table to table, singing and dancing and then asking for a small donation to help pay for school.

Why the third-eye?
As a world-traveler I was completely unprepared for what I would see in India.  Complete and utter chaos, poverty and pollution beyond anything I’d ever seen before in any of my travels.  My heart sank.  The cultural shock of India hit me like a punch.  I was blown away and honestly, a bit afraid.
Delhi Street Photography

View of one of many slums in Delhi.

Delhi Street Photography

Many unpaved streets

Delhi Street Photography

Women living on the streets outside the US Embassy

We arrived at our hotel, thankfully without hitting someone or something in the chaotic lines that made up the roads and I took a deep breath and sigh of relief.  I had heard that India was a little chaotic yet what I had just seen stirred up some serious culture shock in my normally open mind.  That was when I met the owner of the hotel and he told me the most important thing I’d ever learned about traveling and culture shock:  The importance of having and maintaining the third eye.

In the Hindu and Buddhist religions, the third eye is a symbol of enlightenment and wisdom and is commonly seen in Indian and East Asian countries represented by a dot, eye or mark on the forehead of deities or “enlightened beings”.

I received my third eye in a timely manner.  Right after we entered the hotel, we were welcomed with a traditional marigold necklace and the third eye dotted on our foreheads to remind us that we needed to see India with an open mind.  This idea stuck with me throughout the trip and was probably the best advice I could have ever received.  It was so powerful that I decided that it would become the name for my new blog as it incorporated all my ideas about how I wanted to see the world and how I wanted to communicate my travel experiences with others.  For travel is definitely an enormous learning adventure and when visiting other cultures, especially ones that are so incredibly different than your own, you must keep a third eye.  Otherwise you would miss out on seeing what travel is really about: seeing and learning how other people around the world live, thinking about what you’ve learned, formatting opinions on it, and most importantly, sharing this knowledge with others.  If you don’t have a third eye, what could you possibly learn?

Me after I received my marigold necklace and the third eye.

Me after I received my marigold necklace and the third eye.

The trip of a Lifetime

Nepal was utterly amazing. The trek was arduous, humbling and long.  We hiked over 100 miles doing on average 4-8 hours of strenuous hiking a day at altitudes up to almost 18,000 feet.  But what amazed me most was the magical culture and people that I found in Nepal.  It is one of the world’s poorest countries in which over 80% of the population is rural and the majority of people survive on less than $2 a day, not even a cup of coffee in the US.  Yet, the rich culture and traditions of the people rose above the impoverished conditions that most villagers live in.

Leaving Kathmandu

Leaving Kathmandu and heading to the mountains.

Kathmandu Valley

The beautiful rice terraces and lush green Kathmandu Valley.

Manang Nepal

My first sight of a fresh coat of snow over the Annapurnas in Manang took my breath away.

Villages along the Annapurna Trek

Along the Annapurna trail, you walk through many villages and are greeted by the rural Nepalese, goat herders, chicken sellers, mule trains, and yaks.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

The Buddhist influence greets you at each village as you pass by Buddhist prayer flags, temples, prayer wheels and the smell of burning juniper.

Temples in Nepal Annapurna

The Buddhist influence.

P1020085

Monk in Manang Nepal

Being blessed by a 94-year-old monk who lives in a cave monastery at 13,000 feet near Manang.

After completing the trek, I realized why it is called one of the best treks in the world because no other trail has such magnificent scenery and fascinating culture.  No other trek I’ve done has ever gone directly through villages and has allowed me to walk side by side villages doing their daily business.  We passed goat herders, mule trains, men carrying 20 chickens on their backs in a wire cage doing his sales rounds, happy children dressed in their worn school uniforms, Buddhist temples, shrines and prayer wheels and prayer flags.  It felt like being on another planet.  And that is what brings me back to why Nepal changed my life.

It is possible to make a difference:  Little things can have big results

As our jet plane took off for home and climbed five thousand, ten thousand and then eighteen thousand feet, I realized in awe that only a few days ago I had been at almost the same altitude as the plane.  It was a wild thought; almost a little frightening.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

Our porter Chhring, me, our guide Hari and my dad in Manang, where the road will end. We shared many wonderful days together talking, laughing and sharing our cultures.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

Where it all began….

As I looked down, I was finally was able to conceptualize how high 18,000 feet truly is. The buildings became smaller and smaller, the cars like ants lining the roads. The vastness of the green, voluptuous rice fields stacked one on top of the other, bursting in color and life. Then, for the last time, I saw the godlike, mighty Himalayas, strikingly beautiful, like a mirage of flying towers soaring upwards into the heavens of the sky. I found it hard to believe that I was really here and had really been there.  It was all like a dream.

Nepal was one of those eye-opening moments in my life in which I realized not only how blessed we are to live in a free, prosperous country (where we have the pleasure of the “western toilet, clean streets without piles of garbage, education, opportunity and space), but how important it is for us as privileged people to give back.   Visiting Nepal struck a chord in my heart and made me realize how impoverished these wonderfully, peaceful and loving villagers are.  Over 80% of Nepalese live in rural areas that have little or no access to education.  I believe strongly that education is the key to a better future and a better life.  From that trip on, I was determined to change my life and figure out a way to keep giving back.

Young Nepali girl

This young Nepali girl made me smile.

Almost as if an act of fate, I somehow or another found a way to follow my dreams and continue my work fundraising for education in Nepal.  As we were leaving Kathmandu, Rajan, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he is involved with in Nepal.  On the back of the card was the small, grass-roots NGO called HANDS in Nepal.  As soon as I got home, I contacted them.  It was the perfect fit and my charity work continued.

Over the last six months, I have raised money to help HANDS in Nepal a small grass-roots organization created by a young American Danny Chaffin.  HANDS in Nepal’s mission is to create educational opportunities and community development programs in rural Nepal by building schools, donating educational supplies, teacher’s salaries, and student scholarships.  I have done most of my fundraising work through the sale of beautiful, homemade Nepali goods such as pashmina scarves, yak-hair blankets, and purses and bags. Since May, I’ve sold over $4,000 of my Nepali wares and over half of that profit goes back to HANDS in Nepal (after taking in account the cost of the products, shipping and customs).  It has been a win-win opportunity as the sale of the products not only benefit HANDS in Nepal but also the rural, poor Nepalese people who are making and supplies these little treasures for me to sell.

I have also used my second annual yard sale as a way to raise money for HANDS in Nepal.  After scraping together all my old clothing and miscellaneous items that we no longer need, I was able to raise $540 for HANDS in Nepal.

Perhaps $540 sounds like nothing. Yet, it does make a difference. What does $540 do in Nepal?  This money can buy:

A composition notebook and pencil for 540 children.

-or-

Two school workbooks and a composition notebook for 108 children.

-or-

A school uniform and backpack for 54 children.

-or-

Chalkboard and teacher supplies for 10 classrooms.

-or-

A book set for 27 classrooms.

-or-

Bench seating and work tables for 27 classrooms (approximately 40 children per room)

-or-

Almost enough for one teacher’s salary for an entire year.

-or-

A combination of some of the above items.

In a country where 82% live in rural communities and have little or no access to education, and the average daily salary is less than $2 a day, this small amount of money goes a long way in fighting poverty and helping educate Nepal’s future generation. With a literacy rate of barely over 50%, there is a long way to go. However, it is my belief that every effort, no matter how small, can help make the world a better place.

There is something so special and magical about giving back that just makes me feel complete and my hope is that I can eventually reach the $8,000 mark to build a new school in rural Nepal and have a lasting impact on an entire village and generation of people. It will take time of course to raise the money but with the help of my friends, family and children as well I plan to achieve it!

Photo above of Jan and her son Danny along with the children of the new school made possible by HANDS in Nepal. 
Adventure Travel Nepal Trekking/Hiking Volunteering Abroad

Update on Hands in Nepal: Building of Second School Completed

As many of you know, I’ve been actively fundraising for a small, grass-roots NGO called Hands in Nepal which focuses on building schools in rural Nepal.  Most of my fundraising efforts have been done through the sales of beautiful Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian treasures such as hand-woven pashminas, scarves, yak-hair blankets, bags, purses and even baby clothes.

Since late spring, I’ve been able to fundraise $1,670 to date and now have over four boxes of lovely merchandise to sell at upcoming events.  My goal is to raise the $6,000-$8,000 required to build a school in rural Nepal, a place in which 82% of the population live in remote villages and many have little or no access to education.  Only about half of the population of Nepal is literate and most people live on less than $2 a day—-less than a cup of coffee!

I became involved with this organization after trekking the mighty Himalayas last November mostly because I fell in love with this country and its people and more importantly, I wanted to help and make a difference in people’s lives.

The founder of Hands in Nepal, Danny, is an impressive young man, still in college and in his early twenties who works together with his fabulous mother Jan, an educator, as well as several local Nepalese contacts.  This summer Danny, his girlfriend Bree and his mother journeyed to Nepal to build their second school in the remote village of Phulkarka to help with the completion of their second school.

Here is a video Danny recently posted to YouTube which highlights the remoteness, beauty and poverty of this unknown village in Nepal.

http://www.youtube.com/user/Dchaff

Danny’s mother Jan, is working on setting up a sewing co-op with village women to help them learn to make a living and improve their lives.  Together, Danny and Jan make a wonderful team and go to show you “if there is a will, there is a way” to making a difference in people’s lives.  Each school will educated over 80 children that had little or no access to education at all.  An amazing story and testament to the will and power of people to make a difference!

To read more about Hands in Nepal, Danny’s work, and my personal travels to Nepal, please visit my earlier posts under the topic “Nepal”.

Nepal TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Update on Hands in Nepal fundraising efforts

Rural village in the Annapurna range taken from my recent trip to Nepal in October-November 2010.  (For more photos and stories on my trip to Nepal, please refer to older posts located under “Nepal”).

Hello Readers!

As some of you are aware, I’ve been actively fundraising over the last two months to try to raise money to help a fabulous grass-roots NGO called HANDS IN NEPAL (www.handsinnepal.org) build a new school in rural Nepal.  A recent trip to the Annapurnas back in late October/early November struck a cord in my heart and made me realize how impoverished these wonderfully, peaceful and loving villagers are.  Over 80% of Nepalis live in rural areas that have little or no access to education.  I believe strongly that education is the key to a better future and a better life. Thus, I have worked hard over the last year or so finding NGOs that work in education and help to improve the accessibility of education and learning to the masses, especially in poor, third-world countries.

I’m pleased to say that over the last two months I’ve been able to raise over $1,000 for HANDS IN NEPAL mainly through the sales of hand-made pashmina scarves, yak-hair blankets (made in Tibet) and other local Nepali products.   To me, it feels like a win-win situation as I’m able to offer beautiful products to my friends and family that are made directly in Nepal (and Tibet for the blankets) and donate all the funds directly to Hands in Nepal.  After two weeks hiking from village to village through the Annapurnas, I saw firsthand how hard these women work to sell their beautiful, handicrafted products.  They would be sitting there all day long, some of them not much older than twenty selling their handwoven scarfes, blankets, hats and gloves all for the mere price of two US dollars a piece!  For us, it is less than a cup of Starbucks coffee but for them, it is a day’s living (as the average salary in rural Nepal is less than $2/day).

As someone who has been so incredibly fortunate to have traveled to these amazing places, I feel like it is a requirement to give back to the community.  Hence, I contacted Hands in Nepal and have worked with them ever since on trying to raise the necessary funds to help build new schools.

Per Hands in Nepal, here are some amazing facts on what our money can help build or buy:

$20 = Cost of Student Annual Supplies

$50 = Chalkboard and Teacher Supplies

$600 = One-year Teacher Salary

$1500 = One year Boarding School Scholarship for one orphan

$6,000 – $8,000 = New construction of a four room schoolhouse

Thus, it is amazing to me what a long way our money can go in such a poor country!

Last night I held my fourth fundraising event, a wine and cheese party at my home where I told the story of HANDS IN NEPAL and offered a select collection of Nepali products for sale, all in the name of charity.  It was such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to hit over the $1,000 mark! It felt so good….like nothing I’d ever experienced in corporate America (I was in sales for many years).

There is something so special and magical about giving back that just makes me feel complete and my hope is that I can eventually reach the $8,000 mark to build a new school in rural Nepal and have a lasting impact on an entire village and generation of people.  It will take time of course to raise the money but with the help of my friends, family and children as well I plan to achieve it!

To learn more about Hands in Nepal, please visit:  www.handsinnepal.org

Some exciting news is that Hands in Nepal’s founder Danny Chaffin’s mother Jan is headed to Nepal this weekend to see if she can start up small sewing co’ops for the women.  Many rural Nepali women are forced into prostitution as there is no other way out.  Human trafficing is a huge deal in Nepal and Jan is hoping to start up another NGO to help these women and give them more options and hopefully a better life!

Global Issues Nepal Poverty SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Paris unplugged

It has been eighteen years since I lived in Paris.  Eighteen entire years.  For me, Paris was a turning point in my life.  I was young, free, educated and ready to explore the world.  In 1993, shortly after the new year my mom and I boarded a plane from Minneapolis to Paris where I would be living for the next six months on a study abroad program through the University of Wisconsin. I t was a dream of mine for years and at twenty-one I was finally following my dreams.

I first set eyes on Paris at the young, ripe, adolescent age of thirteen.  My mother and father, both avid travelers (see my first post ever titled “The wood-paneled station wagon“) had always wanted to take us children to Europe.  Throughout our childhood, we had always heard stories about it.  My father had visited several European cities while he was in the navy, stemming his life-long passion for the continent.  My parents had eloped in Switzerland at the tender age of 23 and 25 and spent three months backpacking all over Europe on less than $2 a day.  For my sister and me, Europe represented a place of legend, offering mystique, wonder and fascination in our young, romantic, girly minds.  We had dreamed of going there as we lived through my parents’ multitude of stories.

Then one day in 1984 it actually happened and it was all the result of spending three, long, miserable days being “bumped” in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.  You see, back in the 80s airlines always used to overbook their flights, especially during the holidays.  It just so happened that my grandparents lived in Harlingen, a southern Texan town near the Mexican border.  Every single Christmas (until I was 15 years old), my entire family went to Harlingen for a week. Usually we drove, jam-packed, a family of five along with our Irish Setter in tow, we crammed into our wood-paneled diesel station wagon and drove the long three days from Minnesota to southern Texas, fighting all the way.  It was pure hell.  Nothing was ever fun about those drives. We were constantly fighting, never really sleeping, and miserably bored for most the ride. This was before DVD players, before computers or any kind of real electronic or portable games.  So we had to pass the time fighting, driving my parents mad or playing “I spy”.  Plus we usually drove in late December meaning the weather and road conditions were questionable and sometimes darn right dangerous.  After almost killing the entire family spinning out on an icy overpass at 2 am, my mom and dad decided to pay the bucks and fly for the next Christmas.

That Christmas flight ended up being my lucky pass to Paris.  The flights were outrageously overbooked.  Desperate, American Airlines was offering over $300 travel voucher per ticket.  For a family of five, this meant a lot of dough.  Thus to our chagrin, my mom and dad continually jumped at the chance to “bump” us to the next flight over and over again until we ended up spending three full days in the Dallas airport!  I believe this was even worse than the car ride given our grumpy, awful, outrageous behavior.  Yet, we made enough money in travel vouchers to send the entire family to Europe the following summer!  Thus in the end, despite the misery, boredom and never-ending fighting, three days in the airport was nothing compared to a trip to Europe!

The following June, we packed our bags and were off to my first trip overseas.  I remember it clearly.  I had permed, dyed blond hair, a full set of braces and was still somewhere between a girl and a woman.  I was at that terrible age where my mother once informed me that she “didn’t know me anymore”.  Puberty was hell yet at least I was on my way to Europe.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Paris.  The beauty, the romance, the aura enraptured my teenage heart and soul like nothing I’d ever felt. It was love at first sight and I knew that I’d be back. I made a promise to myself right then and there, standing looking at the Eiffel Tour, that I would someday study abroad here.  And, that, eight years later, I did.  I spent my junior spring semester abroad studying at the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and then stayed on as a fille au pair (nanny) for a French family in rural France.  My semester abroad was one of the best experiences of my life.  I loved Paris with all my heart.  It was a young, dreamy girl’s dream.  It was incredibly beautiful, hip, romantic, charming, mystifying, big and international.  I could walk for hours never once getting bored and always finding something fascinating to look at.  I could spend an entire day sitting in one of the many perfectly manicured parks watching the endless display of PDA (aka love).  I could spend even more time eating at one of the delicious patisseries, boulangeries or multitude of French or ethnic restaurants.  Or I could just sit there at an outdoor cafe in the heart of Paris on a sunny day watching the world go by.  My six months in Paris felt like living in a dream, especially for an overly romantic, coming of age, young woman.

After six months in Paris and three months in the countryside, it was time to head back.  I wasn’t ready to leave Paris but I missed my family terribly as these were the days before internet and calling home was expensive.  I finished my last year of school at UW-Madison and then returned to France once again for a three-month internship in Marseille.  Marseille (or as we used to call it “merde-seille”) wasn’t anything like Paris.  In fact, it was dirty not so pretty and a wee bit dangerous.  But it was still France.

I was able to make it back to Paris a few more times in my twenties but then times began to change.  I got married, had two children and for my future travels chose to explore other parts of the world.  It wasn’t until my recent trip to Morocco that I actually got to see Paris again (see post “I’ll Always Have Paris”).  I had a six hour layover at Charles de Gualle airport and on a whim, decided to take the RER train to the city for a cup of coffee and some memories, then headed back, somewhat satisfied.

While in Morocco, I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris. That was when I decided to look into changing my return flight.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could have one more day in Paris? I pondered, dreamily.

On one of my last day in Morocco, a fellow CCS volunteer and I spent a crazy afternoon trying to find the Air France office in the middle of a protest. The roads were blocked; the police were out with their machine guns; and there was a bit of uneasiness in the air.  Yet I wasn’t afraid.  Everything was so peaceful and so organized.  It was nothing at all like the media lead you to believe.  Plus I was a woman on a mission.

After fifteen minutes of walking circles and trying to remain as anonymous as possible, we finally found the Air France office.  Against the backdrop of chanting and protests (peaceful mind you) I asked in French what the charges would be to change my flight to the earlier time. “$250” she said.  Without hesitation, I changed my ticket.  Not because I wanted to leave Morocco.  I loved my stay in Rabat.  It was because of that little girl excitement beating loudly in my heart that told me I had to do it.  I had to spend just one more day, albeit short, in my beloved Paris.

The night before my departure, I tried to go to bed early so I wouldn’t feel tired the next day but I found sleep impossible.  Thoughts raced through my head like the night before Christmas.  What would I do first? Where did I have to go? What sites did I want to see? Where would I want to eat? What shops could I possibly squeeze in?  I found myself restless, tossing and turning all night long in my twin-sized bunk.

I woke up at 5 am to the now normal Call to Prayer, not able to sleep any longer.  I knew that I had to wake up shortly to get ready to catch my 7:45 am flight to Paris.  Plus I was beyond excited for my day.

The flight was non-eventful.  I tried to sleep but I had a screaming, kicking baby behind my seat and an unhappy, rude mother who yelled at me for declining my seat.  Thus I ended up chatting with the Moroccan man next to me who was very kind and loved the fact that I spoke rusty French.

We landed around 10:30 am and by the time I gathered my luggage, went through customs and walked out the airport doors it was already noon.  Without thought, I grabbed a cab and gave him the address of my hotel.  Immediately, I realized I had done something terribly wrong.  The cab driver, an immigrant from some other French-speaking African country began to berate me to the point of humiliation.  I was no longer in Morocco that was for sure!  He yelled and complained that he had waited three hours in line and then wound up with a short fare. My hotel was only three miles from the airport and I should have taken the courtesy bus, he claimed, fuming.  My mistake.  I apologized and gave him a measly tip yet inside I was glad I didn’t take the slow-boat to China courtesy bus.  It was already one o’clock and I was famished.

I checked into my hotel, nothing special, yet convenient since I was flying home the next morning.  I asked if there was a place in the hotel or nearby to grab some lunch and then I was sent on a wild goose chase ending up with only an apple and a yogurt from the only open place in the Roissy village.  By this time, it was approaching two o’clock and I wasn’t anywhere near Paris.  The RER ride is at least 45 minutes long to the center of town.

I waited for the black courtesy bus and waited and waited.  Thank goodness I didn’t take it from the airport (despite having an angry cab driver, it would have just wasted more time).  I finally got my ticket to Paris for about $10, sat down in the un-airconditioned train, sweltering (yes it was 80 in Paris!) and beyond hungry.  Once again, I met some friends along the way.  My henna attracted the attention of a group of young Moroccans who talked to me happily the entire ride to Paris telling me that yes they do date and no, there parents far away don’t know. Ha Ha.

By 3:30 PM, I was finally there!  It wasn’t the “whole day in Paris” that I had planned on.  But I was going to make the best of it!  I walked and walked throughout herds of people.  I couldn’t understand why there were so many people there.  It was absolutely nuts.  Nothing like I remembered it eighteen years ago.  It was gorgeous, hot and sunny.  Plus it was Saturday and finally, it was Easter weekend (Yes that was really the reason.  Easter is one of the biggest holidays in Europe and prime time to take a holiday). Thus Paris was packed.

I desperately looked for an empty table at one of the hundreds of outdoor cafes in St. Germain and finally, like a vulture preying on some road kill, found a couple vacating a table and I snatched it.  Here is a picture of me, finally eating my lunch (a mouthwatering tartine au fromage) and having a much deserved half carafe of white wine, freely and openly (we’re no longer in Morocco baby):

There I was, drinking wine and watching the world go by in one of the greatest, most beautiful cities in the world. I could have stayed here all day!

You would think being alone in a huge city like Paris would be intimidating for a foreigner but not for me.  I found traveling solo to be invigorating.  In fact, it actually opened a lot of doors for me, especially because I speak French.  The people I talked to and the conversations I had during my time alone in both Morocco and Paris were amazing.  I found that being alone and just talking to the locals is when you learn the most about others and even yourself.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, window-shopping and rediscovering Paris.  Yes, it was outrageously crowded, and it truly bothered me.  Yet, it was still the same old, wonderfully amazing Paris.  A city I once loved and will always adore.

At one point during the day, the skies above suddenly rumbled and let down layers of thick, heavy rain in the midst of a blue sky. I t was wild!  Of course I didn’t have an umbrella.  The sky was perfectly clear when I left the hotel hours before.  Yet I didn’t care.  Paris in the rain is still unbelievable.

Before I knew it, it was getting late.  I had walked for hours and was exhausted.  Plus I didn’t want to deal with taking the RER back too late by myself.  Conflict arose.  Should I eat dinner down here or at the measly, airport hotel?  That hotel was so boring.  Paris is so exciting!  But I was so incredibly tired.  Wouldn’t it be great to just kick back, go online, and have some wine before bed.  Just relax.  Yeah, right.  This is the thirdeyemom, someone who can never relax. Plus, when on earth would I ever be back in Paris? The decision was made.  I would eat downtown.  Now I just had to find the nearest metro station.  Ok, without a map that took me another hour and once again it was getting late and I was t-i-r-e-d!

I changed my mind and decided to go back to the hotel.  I bought my $10 RER ticket, boarded the train and was ready to chill out for the long ride when all the sudden a zillion young twentysomethings boarded the already packed train.  What on earth was going on? I wondered, feeling my anxiety rise (I don’t like being crammed like a sardine in a hot, stuffy train!  Never did, never will).  I asked wearily to the young man next to me.  It was the big match de foot…the soccer game!  After two stops of pouring down sweat and nearly passing out, I desperately crammed my way through the mass and jumped off the train, forfeiting my $10 ticket back.

I jumped off the train and checked my surroundings.  Hmmm…where was the nearest place I could go?  It couldn’t be anywhere, of course.  It had to be awesome, somewhere special, and somewhere that had memories.  I looked at the large map pasted on the dingy, dirty subway walls.  A-ha! Montmartre!  It was only a few blocks away.  So, not thinking about the tourist hell I’d experienced all day long I headed out the door and towards the Sacre Coeur and “quaint” Montmartre.  Instantly, I knew I’d made a big mistake.  There were hordes and I mean hordes of people taking up the entire width of the street.  What was I thinking?

Disappointed, I decided to at least walk up the hill to Montmartre just to see if it was indeed packed. I  walked up the steep steps to the whitewashed Sacre Coeur and knew that eating in the beloved square of trendy Montmartre was out of the question.  I couldn’t even more through the layers and layers of tourists thus immediately turned around and headed back.  Thankfully the visit wasn’t at all moot, as I was able to catch my favorite Parisien landmark on film, the beloved Tour Eiffel in the distance.

It was nearing eight o’clock and I really needed to find a place to eat, even if it wasn’t the best.  I walked down the windy streets of Montmartre, trying to get off the beaten path and find a less crowded street.  Then, alas….I saw one empty table outside at a cafe and grabbed it. I ordered up a typical French meal with a prix fixe (set price) of aperitif of kir royale, followed by a delicious salad, salmon and a dish of “deadly for the figure” profiteroles.  I sat back, relaxed and truly enjoyed the last hour of being in Paris. Ahhh…..Paris.

Happy, I headed back to the metro and had to once again spend $10 on a ticket back to the airport (since I had earlier forfeited mine).  About thirty minutes into the ride, I realized I had to go to the bathroom….a terrible thing in Paris because there are literally NO public bathrooms, anywhere.  I sat and sat on the slow boat to China, once again, because after eight pm apparently there are no direct trains to the airport.  There are only the ones that stop at each and every metro stop.  An hour later, I was at the airport and desperately looking for a bathroom.  There was none. Ok, I could keep holding it, I thought.  Then, I waited for that black courtesy bus, still holding it.  I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Until finally twenty minutes later it came and I was nearing tears.  I boarded the bus which stopped at every single hotel and didn’t arrive back to my hotel until thirty-five minutes later.  By this time, I was ready to explode.  I ran to my room and finally relieved myself.  It was 10:30 PM.  It has taken over two hours to get from downtown Paris to my hotel.  I was spent.  All I wanted to do was go to bed which I did after packing up my bags, sending off a quick email to my family and thanking the Air France ticket agent for changing my ticket.  Was it worth the $250 and all the craziness and adventure of the day to be in Paris once again.   All in all….YES!  Paris, je t’aime toujours.

France Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Morocco Today: A Land of Complexity and Contradiction


A Moroccan stop sign

An afternoon tour through the ancient Roman ruins (AD 40) and Merenid necropolis of Chellah (built in the 14th century by the Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan) reminded me just how much history and change has passed through Morocco.

Here are some photos of the ancient city of Sala Colonia and Chella:

The overgrown ancient city is filled with towers and crumbling defensive walls that once protected the powerful Merenid sultan:

Per Lonely Planet Morocco (9th edition), “Making out the structures takes a bit of imagination, but the mystery is part of the magic of this place”.

Now the towers and trees are home to the hordes of migrating storks which are in the process of mating in the spring (I was wondering what that loud, obnoxious sound was! Apparently they clack their bills in order to attract a mate). That was almost as impressive a sight as the ruins!:

Note in this picture there are three levels of nests!

Up close and personal with a stork:

Here is a photo of the remains of a beautiful Islamic complex (note the colors are green and white, the sacred colors of Islam):

The gorgeous, lush Moroccan countryside and farmland offers the visitor a glimpse of what the countryside is like:

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Today Morocco remains a country full of complexity and contradictions. It’s rich cultural heritage starting with the Amazigh (Morocco’s “free people” or natives also known as the Berbers) then subsequent invasions by the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish and the French (Morocco gained independence only in 1956) have made it the complex, mystical place that it is today.

As a bridge between both the Western and Arab worlds, Morocco is loaded with complexity and contradictions. While it is an Islamic kingdom with over 99% of the population being Muslim, Morocco is widely regarded as one of the most modern, liberal-thinking Islamic countries in the Arab and North African world. Traditions remain sacred in Morocco yet some are changing, especially with the younger generation. Veils can be seen worn by young and old women side-by-side other women wearing their hair down freely and uncovered. Praying is done five times a day, yet if it is missed, that is accepted as long as it is made up over the course of the day. Restaurants, cafes and discos are opening among the main city centers while the majestic medinas and world-famous souqs remain the main shopping area of town.

As many people would like to believe, camels cannot be seen walking down the street (like in India!) but are seen in the sahara desert. And, believe it or not, goats can be seen in the trees (in Agadir, goats climb the trees to eat the Argan nuts which is passed through the goats feces and made into the world famous Argan oil. This is a fact!).

Thus times are changing for Morocco as it advances towards modernization and globalization. Yet with these unprecedented changes, tensions arise in a deeply traditional and highly religious society. Morocco has not been untouched by the recent wave of revolutions touching it’s Middle Eastern and North African neighbors. Although King Mohammed VI has implemented some dramatic changes in Morocco (most notably in regards to social, economic, and political laws), Morocco is still a constitutional democracy in which power filters down from the throne. In 2007, only one out of three Moroccans bothered to vote thus there is some discontent and disillusionment with the government despite the King’s high level of respect and regard among his people. Protests and strikes are a daily occurrence in Morocco. I witnessed them every single day during my stay. Yet, the main difference is that the protests and demonstrations are peaceful. They are well-organized, with hand-out flyers, brightly colored t-shirts, sectioned off streets and an ample supply of police. This is the Morocco that may very well be able to make headways and change for the people and their future. It will be very interesting to see how everything plays out in Morocco. Only time will tell what path it will follow.

Like many nations around the world, Morocco has been significantly effected by the global recession and its economy is slowly picking up. Tourism plays a huge role in Morocco’s economy and Morocco was fortunate to pick up the tourists from its neighbors such as Tunisia and Egypt after the uprisings in each country. However, the recent bombing on April 28th of a trendy cafe in the tourist haven Marrakech which killed 15 people, will most likely have negative repercussions on Morocco’s tourism industry. Terrorism has not really been as huge of an issue in Morocco as it has in other Arab and African countries. There have been two terrorist attacks both in Casablanca since 9/11 (one in 2003 which targeted hotels and restaurants that killed 45 people, and another one in 2007 which occurred outside the U.S. Consulate General and the private American Language Center). Other than that, Morocco has remained relatively safe and even with the recent attacks, I still feel that Morocco is very safe, perhaps even safer than my own country.

Of course there are still concerns that the safety of Morocco may change and become unstable. One issue involves Morocco’s growing population of youth. In a country of 34 million people, 30% of the population is under 15. That could lead to an increase in problems with unemployment (Morocco already has a high level of unemployment, especially among the youth and newly college-degreed), strains on the educational system, and the desire for young, technologically-savvy (yes, they all have access to the internet and satellite TV) to start demanding more freedoms and more opportunities in which the government is not providing. Morocco is plagued by massive social injustices and a large gap continues to grow between the rich and the bare-bones poor. If the King can implement changes soon then perhaps this young, volatile population will be satisfied. If not, well then we know what could happen down the road.

Now that I’ve been back at home in the States for a little over a week, I’ve had some time to reflect on Morocco. I must say that I was completely surprised and taken aback by what a wonderful, amazing country Morocco is and what warm, generous, kind-hearted people the Moroccans are. I was welcomed with open-arms and accepted into their culture and world. Throughout my stay, I always felt safe and never once felt threatened. I realized that part of this feeling of security has to do with the Moroccan culture and spirituality. The Islam religion places God at the top of their lives and everything falls down after that. Violence is rare. Stealing not as common. And, capitalism is not important which was a refreshing concept given how materialistic and consumeristic American society and culture has become.

By going in to Morocco with the “third eye” approach, I was able to experience all the wonders and joys of a phenomenal culture and religion. I am truly thankful that on our first day at CCS Home Base in Rabat, Mohammed, the Country Director, told us some words of wisdom. He said, “the experience in Morocco should teach us how different we are yet to remember that nothing is right or wrong. Just different”. Thus in order to have a successful volunteer experience in Morocco, you have to remember to keep an open-mind and heart. This will help you learn about Morocco and share our culture with them.

Mohammed is 100% correct. My stay in Morocco further confirmed my view that there are a lot of misperceptions about the Islamic religion and that part of the world. Not all Muslims are a bunch of terrorists! In fact, only a very small few are terrorists and if these people are terrorists, are they truly Muslims? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Prophet Mohammed does not condone violence. Killing another human being is against the Qur’an. Thus terrorists (many, by the way, are illiterate and cannot even read the actual Qur’an) are not even following the Muslim religion.

I think as Americans we have to rethink our viewpoints and perceptions on the Islamic world and take it for all the wonderful things it has to offer. It is only by traveling and learning about the world, we can make ourselves better as well. I feel extremely blessed to have been one of the 800 people who have volunteered with CCS Morocco since it’s opening in 2007. Now my hope is that someday I’ll be able to go back…

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Moroccan cooking 101: How to make tagine

Anyone who has ever traveled to Southern Spain, Turkey, North Africa or Middle East knows that the food is quite magical. Food from these regions generally contain an array of fresh spices abound in flavor such as saffron, cumin, ginger, paprika, black pepper, cinnamon, mint and garlic. Mouthwatering fresh fruits such figs, dates, oranges and pomegranates can often be found added to freshly prepared tagines and couscous. Delectable olives, delightful almonds and mouth-burning harissa (a capsicum-pepper sauce which I adore) make any meal legendary.

The warm, gentle climate of Morocco provides an abundance of fresh vegetables as well (such as pepper, beans, tomatoes, artichokes, eggplants, onions, beets and pumpkins) which are common side and main dishes throughout Morocco. Being a world cuisine lover, I found Morocco to be a culinary paradise and was not once the slightest bit disappointed in the fantastic, fresh, exciting and worldly food I found.

My first night in Morocco was spent at a gorgeous Riad (see earlier posts) which served my first true Moroccan tagine, the famous Moroccan stews containing chicken or lamb with an assortment of fresh vegetables and spices that are cooked in a conical earthenware pot creating a lovely, tender and moist stew. I chose the chicken tagine with almonds and lemon over my beloved couscous (a type of semolina, small circular rice that is also served usually with a stew). After eating detestable plane food for the last twenty-four hours, my first Moroccan meal felt like heaven. I was also surprised to learn that Morocco, an Islamic country (over 99% Muslim) produces fantastic local wine. I ordered a half-bottle of Moroccan red which was delicious: Full-bodied, bright, with a smooth finish. I went to sleep after hours of travel feeling happy and full, anxiously anticipating my next Moroccan meal.

My visit through the local souq showed me exactly where these fresh, delightful ingredients come from. Vendor after vendor sold spices in all colors and flavors by the bag, and olives, nuts, figs, dates and fresh vegetables were at each and every corner of the market. I could have spent hours and dirhams passing through the souq and sampling up everything they had to offer. No wonder why Moroccans are such good cooks! In fact, each region and every city is known for its unique dishes and influences. This is probably not a surprise given that the distinctive flavors of Moroccan cooking come from a variety of origins such as Portuguese, Jewish, Spain, Persia, Senegal, France, Berber North Africa, Italy and Turkey—all countries that have ties to Morocco.

Some of my favorite market delights:

The couscous:

The dates and figs:

My week-long stay at the CCS Home Base in Hay Riad, Rabat, was another week of culinary delight. For an entire week, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared by two native Berber cooks and we ate like kings and queens. Here are some pictures of our meals:

Lunch:

This gorgeous dish is called a bastilla. It is a multilayered pastry made out of phyllo dough and filled with a crushed mixture of toasted almonds, ground chicken, cheese and spices. Finally, it is topped with a dollop of cinnamon to give it a dessert like taste and appearance. It takes hours to prepare and looks were by no means deceiving….It was incredible!!!!

Here is a photo of the nummy inside:

Another favorite meal we had was the long-awaited Moroccan couscous, a quasi-religious experience in Morocco and what also just so happened to be one of my all time favorite meals thanks to that year spent living in France. Apparently the preparation of couscous takes an entire day and usually is made to feed an army thus it was usually made for the volunteers on the last day of the week’s stay: Friday. Here are some pictures of this amazing meal:

Our fantastic chefs preparing the couscous:

A close-up view of the finished product;

Ready to eat!

One of the highlights of my week stay in Morocco was our two-hour cooking class held by CCS at the Home Base. We learned how to make two main staples of Moroccan life: Moroccan Mint Teat and Chicken Tagine.

Throughout Morocco, mint tea is a way and tradition of life. Moroccans, like many others around Asia and parts of Africa, love their tea and tea time is a sacred time in Morocco that cannot be denied. Usually tea time happens in the late afternoon from 4-6 PM however tea time can happen anytime in Morocco, and to be invited to tea is a big honor.

Throughout the day, we could see Moroccans have traditional tea in the medina, in the souq, in the CCS Home Base and at our volunteer placements. Outdoor cafes serve tea as well however it usually isn’t the labor and love-intensive home-made Moroccan Green Mint Tea.

One afternoon at CCS, we learned how to make this Moroccan treasure. Here is how it is done:

Traditional Moroccan Mint Tea

preparation time: 20-30 minutes

Boil Water on the stove

When boiling, pour the hot water into the tea pot, rinse and dump out. This warms up the pot.

Add two tablespoons of Green tea into the hot pot.

Pour a cup of hot water into the pot and let stand for one to two minutes.

Don’t shake the mixture, and pour it out into a cup. This is the soul of the tea.

Add another cup of hot water to the tea pot and shake.

Pour the contents into another cup. You will notice that the tea is a different color (this is because the tea leaves open and may have some dust or dirt on them, so you shake the leaves to get rid of the “bad stuff”). You take all the poured cup(s) of this tea and dump it out into the sink.

Next, you go back to “the soul of the tea” which is the spare, original tea that was not mixed and poured into a reserve cup. You pour the cup of tea into the teapot and fill with more water, leaving some space on top for the fresh mint and basil. Bring to a boil.

After boiling, you add a handful of fresh mint and basil, then add a lot (Moroccans like their mint tea very sweet!) of sugar, perhaps 4-5 larges tablespoons.

To mix, pour the cups into tea glasses and then pour the contents once again back into the tea pot. You do this 4-5 times (no joke!).

Finally, the tea is ready to serve. You pour the finished product into glasses (not mugs) as the Moroccans prefer and get ready to sweeten up your mouth! Enjoy!

Voila!

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Chicken Tagine with lemon

Preparation time: 1-1.5 hours

Note: It is best to have a traditional tagine earthenware pot to make this but I am sure you can improvise with a large saucepan and tight-fitting lid (yet may want to leave a crack open while it is cooking).

Here is a picture of a tagine:

Heat the tagine on the stove (i.e. the clay pot or else a large saucepan)
Add 4 tablespoons of oil and heat
Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt along with 8 pieces of chicken parts (@ a whole chicken).
Cook on medium high

Chop a fist-full of fresh cilantro along with two to three cloves of fresh garlic.

Flip the meat (continue on medium high)

Chop one white onion.

Add the below ingredients to the tagine and the after adding, flip the meat:
1 heaping teaspoon of fresh grated ginger
1 heaping teaspoon of cumin
1/4 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoon of saffron
1 tablespoon of the cilantro/garlic mix
1/2 of the chopped onion

Flip the food and then add the other half of chopped onion on top of the tagine ingredients (you want one half of the onion to cook underneath the meat).

Add one preserved lemon*.

Add another heaping tablespoon of the cilantro and garlic mix.

Last step: Add one cup of water to the mixture; cover the tagine and let boil. Then turn to low heat and simmer for 45 minutes. ENJOY!!!!!

*You can either buy preserved lemon or make it yourself. To make it yourself: Cut one lemon into fourths. Add salt into each lemon section. Preserve pieces of lemon in a closed jar for two weeks at room temperature and shake every other day. When ready, take seeds out and place small pieces with rinds inside the tagine.

The finished product:

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I was so impressed with my newfound knowledge and with the delicious taste of the tagine, that I actually went on a mission to buy a real clay tagine the day before leaving Morocco. I have no idea what on earth I was thinking. Tagines are fragile and cumbersome. Not something you want to try to carry back on multiple international flights. But I was a woman on a mission. I had to have one!

With little time left in Morocco, I opted to hit the nearest shopping mall, a place called Margene, which unbelievably enough contained what I call a Moroccan version of Costco warehouse. I walked in and the place was packed with local Moroccans going about their shopping. There I was, of course the only blond-haired woman, searching for deals and salivating once I found them. I found my tagine, for $15 as well as a boatload of Moroccan spices such as cumin, ginger, saffron, etc. All for the meager price of $1 per enormous year-long-lasting bag! I stocked up knowing that even Target charges the outrageous price of $10 for a tiny bottle of two-use saffron. If I could have filled my entire suitcase with spices, I’m sure I would have done it (yet I probably also would have (a) smelled up my suitcase to beyond repair (b) got busted at customs for it.

Anyway, I had loads of fun at the Moroccan Costco and successfully managed to get all my beloved spices and the tagine home safe and sound. Now, if I can only find the time to actually make a tagine or even more so, one that is edible! I’m sure my husband and friends would be impressed! 🙂

Here is a photo of my Moroccan Costco:

The cumbersome to carry purchase:

Our final Moroccan Cooking 101 experiment was to make those delicious deadly pastries: Phyllo dough, filled with either the crushed almond, cheese, chicken mixture OR carrots, garlic and cheese, OR feta cheese and spinach mixture.

Here are some pictures of our group learning the drill:

Preparing the “stuff’ to stuff the phyllo. Here is the carrot mixture sautéing in oil and butter of course:

More ingredients to stuff your phyllo (the crushed almond, cheese and chicken mix):

Stuffing and rolling the phyllo before it is either baked or fried:

In the meantime, for those readers who I’ve made really hungry, here are some recommended Moroccan Cooking sites found in my copy of Lonely Planet Morocco:

This site offers a compilation of different recipes and sites. It also has great information on Morocco:

http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/food.htm

Here is another one with over 370 recipes….alas…if only I had the time!

http://www.astray.com/recipes/?search=moroccan

Finally, if all else fails….find a good local Moroccan restaurant and eat without the work!


Coming Next…..I want to wrap up my week in Morocco with a post on my visit to the ruins and one on Morocco today. Stay posted!

Morocco SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching English as a Second Language

About two weeks before my departure to Morocco I received the long-awaited email answering the great unknown: My volunteer placement for my program in Rabat. Before signing on with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), I knew the deal. Volunteers would not find out what their placement was until two weeks before the trip. It is standard protocol for CCS and although it may sound strange, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.

In order to really make a difference, there is no way for the organization to know exactly what volunteer work and service will be needed at the time of a volunteer’s arrival. This is especially true since most volunteers like me sign up at least three to six months ahead of time. As a past CCS volunteer, I knew the drill and was not concerned. Once a destination is picked, the rest would follow. Each country offers similar kinds of work such as placements in an orphanage, a day-care center for underprivileged or disabled kids, a nursing home, a hospital setting or teaching English to those in need. I had already done the nursing home last year in Costa Rica and surprised myself by loving it (see earlier blog posts filed under Costa Rica). However, I was game for anything.

As expected, my email came approximately two weeks before my flight to Morocco. I would be teaching English to local Moroccans at an organization called the East West Foundation that works with Moroccans and other Africans living in Rabat who want to learn English to improve their lives. The job sounded interesting enough (although for some reason I personally craved the chance to work with kids). I would be teaching my own class and would have to prepare some lessons in advance. Lessons? What? Then the panic hit. How would I prepare lessons when I had no idea what level I would be teaching or where the students were at? Furthermore, how would I plan lessons when I could hard plan the last two weeks left at home in Minnesota with two kids and a husband and nothing at all packed. I took a few deep breaths, remembering CCS’s words to be patient, open-minded, and flexible. Ok, I could do that, but still how on earth was I going to find the time to prepare for teaching this class?

I sent off a few emails to past volunteers at the East West Foundation and received many helpful and positive responses. Everyone who had worked there loved it and had plenty of advice for a stressed out, over-tired mom like me. I tried my best to print out the best ideas and bought a book called “Teaching ESL The American Way”, and quietly thanked myself for my past ESL experience ten years ago teaching English to illegal immigrants at a church and tutoring Somali girls at a charter high school. Sure, it was ten years ago but I could do it again successfully, especially if I was under pressure.

The days before I left for Morocco were a blur. I could hardly get everything in order before I left, let alone any lesson planning. But I remained optimistic and tried to ease any fears or concern. I’d be fine. I knew how to work in the spur of the moment and make things happen.

I arrived a day and a half early in Morocco which I spent on my own, discovering Morocco and adjusting to the time change (Morocco is six hours ahead of Minneapolis). On Saturday, I did a five hour excursion to neighboring Casablanca which was fantastic and then headed over to the CCS Home Base late Saturday afternoon to check in and get settled. There were five volunteers already there who had been volunteering in Morocco for the past few weeks. One woman was from Canada in her mid-twenties, another woman from New Zealand in her thirties, an American woman in her eighties from the East Coast, and a semi-retired couple from Canada. The new batch of volunteers coming in for my program included a twenty-five-year-old woman from CCS in New York (who is amazing and just so happened to be in a wheelchair, an amazing accomplishment in itself), a grandmother and her grand-daughter and friend from the west coast, and a well-traveled quality manager from New York in her thirties like me. We had quite a diverse group of people (ages, backgrounds, geography) which added to the fun and adventure of the trip.

Sunday afternoon we had a group meeting to discuss the volunteer placements for the week. CCS Morocco was currently working with three NGO’s inside Morocco:

1. A group that worked at the Children’s Hospital to provide entertainment and care for the children in the asthma ward (and give their worn out parents a much needed break).
2. A local NGO called “Ibny” (which means “my kid” or “my child” in Arabic) which provides care and education to the street children of Rabat who the NGO is trying to keep off the streets (in 2009, a survey conducted counted 2000,000 beggars on the streets of Morocco. Sadly enough, many parents use their children and even drug them to get money). The objective of this NGO is to get kids off the street, fed, bathed and in school, for a few hours a day.
3. The last volunteer opportunity was at an NGO called Femin Pluriel, a women’s association created in 1999 to offer courses in English, French, computers and other subjects to help improve the lives of women.

Apparently the placements at the East West Foundation were put on hold for awhile so I was slated to work at Femin Pluriel helping Gwen teach English classes to beginners. I remembered the words be flexible, be patient and be open-minded and decided to go with the flow on the change in plans. It wouldn’t actually be that different from the East West Foundation, just a different kind of clientele (mostly educated, unemployed women looking to learn English and improve their lives).

Monday morning I spent some time pouring over the CCS internal library which provides a wealth of information on ESL courses, sample lessons, vocabulary and grammar books. I decided to bring a few good books along in my bag and then headed to the CCS van that would drive us to our placements. First stop was the hospital, followed by the school which hosts Ibny, and finally we were at the gray stone building that held the offices and classrooms for Femin Pluriel.

Photo of road leading up to Femin Pluriel:

View from Femin Pluriel of surrounding street:

Entrance to Femin Pluriel:

I felt my stomach drop as we left the van and rung the bell to be let in. What would it be like? Was I prepared? Would I have enough to teach? All these thoughts raced through my head as we walked into the first floor office and were kindly greeted by two of the woman who ran the administrative side of Femin Pluriel. We took a small tour of the space which featured a classroom at the front, a long library with tables in the middle, and another classroom and computer lab in the rear. It was a nice space with tons of books in French, Arabic and English. Apparently Femin Pluriel has speakers once a month as well usually on women’s topics.

Gwen and I were lead to the classroom area in back near the computer lab where we set up shop and waited for the arrival of our students. Slowly but surely in they trickled in: Four women and two men in all ranging from their early twenties to late thirties. Overall the women were a highly educated group who were fortunate enough to go to university yet were still looking for steady employment (unemployment in 2010 was 8.6% and GDP is $4,600/person). Although education in free in Morocco, if you don’t have the grades to get in to university than you are pretty much out of luck (unless you come from a wealthy family). One of the problems with the educational system in Morocco is that many feel it doesn’t prepare graduates for a real job meaning there is a disconnect between degreed graduates and new employees.
Learning an important world language like English greatly increases a woman (and man’s) ability to find a good job, especially in commerce and the government. That is where Femin Pluriel comes into play: By offering daily classes in English at a small fee taught almost exclusively by volunteers.

The first class went much better than expected. I was extremely thankful for those grueling years of French because teaching English to beginners completely in English would have been impossible (or at least for someone like me who is not a trained ESL teacher). Thus for the most part we were able to teach the class in English and I could clarify things in French. It worked out very well! The students were delightful and very appreciative. We had lots of laughs, especially when we involved a little charades into the mix, and I truly enjoyed the work.

Inside Femin Pluriel: Our classroom

A lovely collage of pictures featuring traditional Moroccan village dress:

The rest of the week was more or less the same, except for the arrival of a new student: Yosef, a twenty-one-year-old security guards who just so happened to be a long boarder on the weekends and illiterate. Yosef was my inspiration. He was abandoned by his parents at six years old and sent to Rabat to be raised by his uncle. He never went to school and somehow managed to survive with a joie de vivre or joy of life that was infectious. His smile was so big and so enthusiastic that his presence in the classroom was hard to ignore. Although he didn’t know how to read or write, he still showed up for class every morning with his enormous grin and desire to learn. He work up every morning at 4am for his job as a security guards, then took two hours off in the morning to attend the english class, then headed back to work until 6pm. Now that is dedication! He had only been coming to classes for a few weeks and had already learned a great deal. It was truly wonderful to help him and the others out.

Our last day came before we knew it. I felt bad to be leaving so soon after we had just gotten to know our new friends and make some progress. We had talked about food, about hobbies, about jobs and about life. It was a great learning experience for us as well. As the class was ending, a fresh pot of Moroccan mint tea appeared along with some homemade Moroccan biscuits and sweats. Traditionally tea in Morocco is something that happens every day from 4-6PM and cannot be rushed. Yet the door bell rang and our van was waiting. It was time to say goodbye and hope that somehow we had ever so slightly made an impact on their lives.

Our students:

Friday morning I had the opportunity to visit another work site, the asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital.

Packing up our bags of fun for the children:

There are only two Children’s Hospitals in all of Morocco: A country of 33 million people! Thus families of ill children often have to travel very far away from home in order to receive care for their children.

Picture of the outside of Rabat’s Children’s Hospital:

The volunteer work needed at the hospital was mainly entertainment (coloring, playing, drawing, singing, reading, etc) of the children in the playroom so their wary, tired parents could get some kind of break. I enjoyed this experience immensely.

Inside the playroom at the hospital:

Although the children are sick and being treated for asthma, they still are just kids and were smiling, laughing and playing with rigor and energy. It was a perfect place for me being an energetic mother of two! I played ball, I tickled and hugged them and just showed them that I cared. The mothers watched carefully from outside the playroom and a few times I caught their eyes and were rewarded with a kindhearted smile of appreciation. As a stay at home mom, I know exactly how important it is to get a break away from the kids and even more so, for these moms who were far away from their homes and villages holed up in a small, not so clean hospital room for sometimes weeks on end.

I also enjoyed speaking with a couple of interns as well as one of the doctors about their lives and work in the hospital. I was amazed by how gracious these people are to work in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital for probably a lot less money than they would receive being a doctor here in the United States. I am always amazed by the incredible people I meet when I volunteer. It sure brings hope that there are good people in the world who care about others and not only money. Truly inspirational people that keep me motivated to come back again and volunteer and help out in any way I can, even if it is small. This kind of rounds up my review of volunteering in Morocco. It was not so much what I did but everything that I learned and everyone I met in such a short time. I hope that somehow they felt the same and I was able to give them something, even if it was small. Perhaps a glimmer of hope?

Me and Mohammed, the CCS Country Manager:

My favorite quote posted inside the CCS Home Base:

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

My Home Away From Home in Hay Riad Rabat

So where do you stay when you volunteer with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) in Rabat, Morocco? Good question! No, we do not stay in some kind of crazy mud hut. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our home away from home, known as the “Home Base” is quite lovely. It is located in the nice, posh neighborhood of “Hay Riad” where all the ex-pats and embassies are located. It is quite a different experience than being in the medina, that is for sure! Instead of ancient, white-washed buildings, the neighborhood is lined in majestic palm trees and enormous, mediterranean mansions all huge, all with gorgeous, lush and tropical gardens and security guards.

Here are some pictures of the Home Base:

Our street:

View down the street:

Entrance to our residence:

The Home Base common area and dining room:

A tagine:

Lunch:

The Home Base garden:


The Home Base at night:

View from outdoor terrace into my room:

I must admit it was not at all what I was expecting. After staying in the old medina area my first night in Rabat, I was very surprised that this neighborhood exists. But as Rabat is the capital city of Morocco, of course there has to be a place for all the embassies and wealthy people to live.

Here are some pictures around the Hay Riad neighborhood:

Some of the gorgeous homes nearby:

Our home base used to be an embassy which opened for CCS in 2007. It is a large building that can accommodate up to thirty volunteers (there are about four bunk beds per room) however we are quite fortunate now as there are only ten of us here, meaning I only share a room with one other volunteer.

The rent cost is huge, especially in Moroccan standards. It costs about $3,500 a month which explains some of the high costs involved in short-term volunteering for CCS.

Our residence has a beautiful, tropical garden and yard space filled with hibiscus flowers, birds of paradise, roses, palm trees and of course turtles! (There are several ones living in the backyard so you have to be careful not to step on them!).

The main living space downstairs is lovely and has a traditional moroccan “coach” that is L-shaped, and the room is lined with large windows. There are also several “poufs” or moroccan ottomans around so you can easily kick back and relax.

We are served all our meals at the home base, which are homemade by two Moroccan ladies. Breakfast usually consists of french baguette or Moroccan crepes, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, coffee and juice. Lunch is served at one pm after we return from our volunteer work and is always traditional moroccan food such as tangines, couscous, lots of vegetables, soups and lentils. Dinner is then served at seven pm and is usually the same types of meals served as lunch (but of course different each meal and each day). The food has been quite delicious so I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The nearby local grocery store is called Acima, and there are three in Rabat. You can buy all Moroccan spices such as in this picture:

And my beloved harissa, my favorite morccan spicy sauce (in red):

Plus there is a gorgeous nearby patisserie, french bakery:

Our general routine has been wake up (today I woke up unexpectedly at 5:17 am to the sounds of the muezzin (call to prayer) which could be heard through closed doors AND my earplugs! I of course went back to sleep!). After breakfast, we leave for our three volunteer placements: The Children’s Hospital, The school for street children and the Women’s Association (My placement where I teach English). We work for a few hours and then come back for a late lunch.

Here is a picture of our CCS bus:

After lunch, we have cultural activities and learning. Yesterday, we did a city tour (which I will discuss more later) and today we are having a two hour lecture on Women in Islam.

Then we typically have a little downtime which can be spent shopping, resting, reading or talking with the other volunteers, followed by dinner at 7 PM and a bit of down time before bed. It is an exhausting day, especially given the jet-lag and cultural immersion (it is difficult in itself being in another country and speaking another language, ie. french, all day).

Everyone is wonderful at the Home Base. All the volunteers are very interesting people. About half are from the US, three from Canada and one woman is from New Zealand. Our Director, Mohammed is fabulous and a super funny guy. He worked in the Peace Corps for several years and now works for CCS. He is extremely knowledgeable and we’ve had several fascinating conversations.

The biggest surprise of all has been our discover (of course from past volunteers) of the one restaurant in Hay Riad that serves alcohol! I totally forgot the rules about being in a Muslim country! Muslims are not allowed to drink thus finding booze can be tricky. We are lucky that Morocco is more “liberal” and “modern” than other Islamic countries as you are able to find alcohol. All hotels serve it and the one french “tapas” bar we found serves alcohol but only after 8 PM. We have been there almost every night so far!

Here is the one and only place to get booze in our neighborhood:

An important point to remember: This neighborhood is NOT TYPICAL Rabat. This is the wealthy area. Most Moroccans live in homes styled after medina area or in old apartment buildings. I will show more pictures of other neighborhoods later. I wanted to show you where we are staying and also that there are nice areas in Morocco! Most people wouldn’t believe that there is money everywhere, of course, along with lots of poverty.

More later!

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

The Handprints

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the CCS Home Base in Cartago was the handprints. They were everywhere. Coated across every wall in every room (including the bathrooms!) and covering every single empty space, making them hard to miss and hard to resist.

Every single volunteer that comes through CCS Cartago’s door is invited to paint their handprint, artwork and a quote on the walls of the inside of the home base before they leave. The handprints represent the mark they made in Cartago and I found it truly inspirational to read them. Not an ounce of wall was free from art, quotes, poetry, songs, handprints and names of past volunteers. I could not believe my eyes and would spend any free moments I had during the week reading the walls and reflecting on what each volunteer had said. I also had to think about what I would want to say before I left and where in the heck I would put it since the free space was very limited.

Reflecting back, of course I was very skeptical about the impact I’d have on others in only a week’s time. However, by the end of my week volunteering I was pleasantly surprised to see that all my doubts were proven wrong. I knew I had made a difference in the smiles and hugs I received by not only the friendships I made at the Hogar Jesus de los Manus Nursing Home and Dona Melba’s foster children, but also in the cultural exchange and friendship I shared with the staff at all places including the CCS Home Base (Santi, Jose, Lucy, the cooks and the security guards) and the volunteers as well. However, by far the most surprising thing of all, was that I realized that I received a gift as well. The gift of an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, contentment and joy by the power of giving back. That is a gift that will forever change me and continue me on my path to somehow, if even small, make a difference in this world.

I thought about the quotes and what my week long volunteer stint had meant to me. It meant many different things. Beautiful, compassionate things about how one can truly make a difference, even if it is small, by just giving someone in need a smile or a shoulder to cry on. The fulfillment and joy received by helping people who can’t help themselves due to poverty, abandonment, disability, drug or alcohol abuse or simply old age. In our busy lives back at home in the States, yes of course we have problems, yet it is easy to loose sight of the bigger picture in the world and all those people who are suffering and could use our help. That is what my week volunteering in Costa Rica taught me. That anything is possible and that anything can help. I feel I can no longer travel without giving back, whether it be volunteering, making a new friend abroad or raising money at home to donate to a local NGO in the country I’m visiting. This is my new mantra and raison d’être. I can no longer be just someone passing through. When a place shares their country and all its wonders with me, I am obligated to give back something in return. That is the promise I made myself after Costa Rica. Now it’s time to start fulfilling my dreams!

Here are some of my favorite quotes that touched me deeply:




Handprints at the front entrance:

Handprints leading into my bunk room:

This is a photo of Cassiano and Lindsey, two fellow volunteers, painting their quotes on our last night in Cartago:

Their quotes:

Here is my quote:

Here is a picture of the entire volunteer group in Cartago:

More pictures of the volunteers:


CARPE DIEM!

P.S. For those who are wondering….where is she off to next? I am heading out April 15th to Rabat, Morocco to complete another international volunteer program with Cross-Cultural Solutions. I will be working with Moroccans and African Refuges on learning English. Stay tuned!

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

The House of Children

Volunteers were not needed Friday morning at the nursing home so instead Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) arranged another volunteer opportunity for the day. CCS works with a variety of different non-profits in Cartago and places their volunteers on an as-needed basis. When you sign up on a CCS volunteer program, you do not find out exactly what your assignment will be until two to three weeks before departure. You have an idea of what it may entail. Normally CCS volunteers work in nursing homes, hospitals, orphanages, centers for disabled children or adults, or teaching English. Thus, when you sign up to volunteer you know it will be one of the above programs. The in-country home base typically evaluates the needs in the community and at each agency to see what the best fit is for the available volunteers. For our week-long program, the nursing home was the best match for the given amount of time and number of volunteers. However, Friday we were not needed thus Santi and Jose found another, exciting opportunity for us: Taking the 35 foster children of Dona Melba’s foster home to the park.

Dona Melba and her husband were well-known throughout Cartago as a wonderful, caring couple who had established a foster home for unwanted, abandoned and abused children over 25 years ago. Their family began slowly, taking in a few children here and there who needed homes and over time grew into a large, close-knit family of adopted and foster children all under one roof.

We had received an update from another volunteer named Julia who was an early high school graduate from St. Louis, Missouri spending three months in Cartago volunteering with Dona Melba’s children. It was a chaotic household with children of all ages and varying degrees of emotional and mental stability living in a small house and being cared for by only Dona Melba and her husband. Occasionally, they would receive local volunteers and ones from other international organizations but most of the time they and their 35 children were on their own. You can imagine the work involved in caring for such a large household. Laundry was done all day long in a large room with piles of washed and folder clothing assorted by age (this was the easiest way for children to find clothing. No one had their own clothing. Everything was shared). Cleaning and work around the house was taken care of by the older children in the family. Cooking was also a shared job by the older children which took hours.

Having two young children of my own, I couldn’t even fathom how much work 35 kids would be! I asked Julia tons of questions on our ride to the home. Over the last three months working with the children, she had become extremely attached and was very concerned about leaving them soon. She knew the ins and outs of each child and told us some of the most devastating, tragic stories of their young lives before they were saved by Dona Melba.

One boy, Alain, had an alcoholic mother who never fed him as an infant and abandoned him barely alive at Dona Melba’s doorstep. There was not even a note. Obviously, he was in poor health and was seriously malnourished which had lead to brain damage. At age eleven, he cannot talk, cannot eat unassisted and struggles with his motor skills such as walking and catching a ball. I spent some time hanging out with him at the park and he was a lovely child who was fascinated by tearing off weeds and throwing them into the creek and watching them float away. He would smile, frantically jump up and down and grunt in pleasure. It was heartbreaking but at least I knew he was loved and cared for with Dona Melba.

Another girl was named Anita who had also been abandoned in a terrible state. Dona Melba found her completely battered up. In a rage, her parents beat her up at two years of age and hurt her so badly that they broke both of her legs. She was rescued by Dona Melba and would not speak or smile for years. A year ago, a CCS volunteer from New York worked with Anita and felt compelled to do something about her terrible situation. Fortunately, her father had connections with a surgeon in NYC and they were able to raise enough money to fly Anita and Dona Melba to New York for surgery that enabled her to finally walk! Although she isn’t perfect on her feet, at least this special little six year old girl can finally get off her hands and knees crawling and walk and play like the others! It was quite a story and brought tears to my eyes.

Then there was Cesar, another disabled child, who was in his teens but was mentally about the age of four or five. He loved playing ball with the volunteers and loved the special attention. To think that this child was abandoned and mistreated just because he wasn’t perfect made me sick. It made me realize that we are all humans.

The morning at the park was delightful. We played ball, chased balloons, ran after the children and enjoyed their imagination and laughter. It was a special day. In light of the horrendous stories and tragic backgrounds, these children had hope. The love and care that they received from Dona Melba, her husband and the endless amount of volunteers flowing in, lead me to believe in the resilience and hope of the human spirit.

Here are some pictures from our visit to the park. In order to provide protection for the kids, I will not include any of their names. The beautiful, serene park:

The beautiful children from the foster home:



Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Life and Death in a Costa Rican Nursing Home

We spent our last day at Hogar Jesus de los Manos preparing for a big celebration. It was one of the resident’s ninetieth birthdays and as with all birthdays at the nursing home, it was celebrated with a grand ole party for all. A large sheet cake was ordered, balloons and decorations were put up, and music was played. Every able resident (save the ones who were bedridden or on their final days) was to attend and excitement was in the air the morning we arrived for our last day of volunteer work.

As we were preparing for the party we heard the sirens approaching. My heart sank. I knew only too well what that could mean. One of the gravely ill residents, Franco, had passed away. I knew it could happen. We were at a nursing home. Yet for some reason it caught me off guard. We were having so much fun with the residents that death seemed miles away even though many of the residents didn’t have much time left on this earth.

The day before Eduardo had us visit Franco, hold his hand and say our farewells. He was dying of cancer and the nurses ensured us that he wasn’t in pain. Yet there was something lost and far away in his eyes that made me deeply sad. His skin was pale and he was extremely frail. I searched his eyes for something but they were staring blankly into space. I grasped his limp hand, held it tightly and said goodbye. I have not idea if he felt anything yet I hope it at least gave him a little peace before he left. A priest was called to give Franco his last rites and floral arrangements were ordered for the chapel. There would be a funeral the next day, in the afternoon, after the birthday party and after we left.

The death put a more serious tone to the day yet the party was still to go on. While we were decorating the main foyer workers were simultaneously decorating the chapel for the afternoon funeral. The irony between life and death was uncomfortably present yet quietly accepted.

Throughout the day I reflected on how amazing it was that we were able to so quickly make wonderful bounds with the residents. I had initially thought a nursing home placement would be very depressing but I was completely surprised. The residents were very peaceful and were cared for by a very loving, caring staff. Each resident was treated with utter respect and dignity and love.

On the last day, we were able to take some photos of our new friends and I took the opportunity to get some of my favorite residents.
Here I am with Javier, one of my favorites.  He would go on and on about how he had traveled the world and was half American, speaking fiercely in Spanish and English.  His stories were always the same and he obviously forgot half the time that he just told you the same thing two mintues ago.  He was full of fire and life and truly made me laugh.  He grew a fondness of me and preferred to have me wheel him into the dining hall or entertain him.  He always wore his cap and would fold up his artwork (colored pages from a children’s coloring book) and hide them under his hat.  He also loved to keep a small ball under his cap as well.  He was one of the funniest residents I’d met:

Here is a picture of Javier alone.  His expression truly portrays his sarcastic, full-of-life attitude:


Here is a picture of our only male volunteer, Cassiano with one of the ladies, Carmen. I did a red manicure on her nails and she loved it.  She was very sweet and extremely quiet.   She also enjoyed coloring and doing crafts.

Elena with Lillian, one of the sweetest, cutiest grannies there. She married one of the residents and they always walk hand and hand, and smile. Love can happen anytime!
Me with the “primero el mundo” , the best boxer in his days in costa rica. He always loved to do his punches and he smiled a ton:

Me with Miguel, or Mike, as he liked to be called. He loves to dance thus when we put on the Latin music he would hold our hands and we would rock to the beat. He also spoke a little English.

The birthday celebration began mid-morning and it was quite an effort getting all 32 residents moved into the hall. It was nice that we were there to help the small staff as over half the residents are in wheelchairs while the ones that could walk needed assistance. The cake was cut and served and gobbled up much faster than lunch. Then the music began. Thanks to our earlier Latin Dance classes, we were able to strike up a beat with the residents. Costa Ricans LOVE to dance, regardless of age, ability or disability. We danced with the able-bodied men and women and even danced with people in wheelchairs. If the men were not able to dance, they loved to watch us dance as they still embraced the machismo culture despite their age. Men are men, young or old.
The residents smiles of joy were contagious and we had a ball. Here are some photos:
The residents loved to dance or watch us dance (if they were in a wheelchair). Me dancing with “La Cubana”, the cuban woman who loves to dance and still has her groove.
Here is a picture of some of the residents who sat around in a big circle, listening to the music and watching the dancing.  Note La Princessa, in pink. She is in her 90s and always wears make-up and was once very beautiful in her days.
We also sang La Bamba in Spanish to them and they loved it. Overall, the party was a big success and brought a little bit of sunshine to Hogar Jesus de los Manos.  Leaving was the hardest part.  We had grown attached in such a short time and felt like we truly made a difference.   After we said our goodbyes, I could hear Javier’s voice in the distance calling my name to come back.  Slowly his voice faded away until you could not longer here a sound except the rapid beating of my heart.

Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Hogar Jesus de los Manos

We followed the windy, maze-like streets into Guadalupe Cartago leading up to our final destination, The Hogar Jesus de los Manos. Along the way, we chatted happily and the energy in the van was quite high. Everyone was excited and we all couldn’t wait to arrive. A new member of the Costa Rica CCS team had joined us, Santi, who was just as alive and cheerful as the volunteers. As the Program Assistant, Santi works hand and hand with Jose and typically accompanies the volunteers to the site each day. There are two other CCS volunteer sites in Costa Rica, in different areas of the country, so Jose cannot be with the Cartago group all the time. He frequently travels to the other offices to check up on the volunteers and see how they are doing. Santi was an equally knowledgable and compassionate replacement and we were delighted to have him with us and we especially enjoyed all his laughs.

Santi told us that the nursing home was created in 1992 as an NGO that provides loving care and assistance to abandoned and abused elderly Costa Ricans that have no family or other place to go. Like most Costa Ricans, the residents are highly catholic and their faith plays a large role in their life and viewpoints. We were also prepared with some details on the residents before we arrived. About half of them were disabled and in wheelchairs, a few were mentally incapacitated, and a few were on their “last days” as Santi put it. We had to prepare ourselves to deal with anything but most of all, to give compassion, understanding and companionship to them. They were desperately lonely and isolated despite the excellent care of the staff. They were craving attention, fun, entertainment and simply someone to talk to who would listen to their stories. That was all we had to do.

We pulled up to the big wrought-iron gate and Santi buzzed the security (something we were getting use to in Costa Rica). We waited anxiously for the gates to open and the van to be let in. From a distance, we could see them; all thirty-two residents lined up in chairs or wheelchairs along the outdoor terraces on the L-shaped building. They were there, just as anxious as us, awaiting our arrival. My stomach dropped and anxiety raced through my veins. They are waiting for us! I realized in shock and disbelief. Then fear set in. How would I relate to them? I barely even speak Spanish. I have no experience with the elderly save my 95-year-old Grandfather who was one-of-a-kind. And even more nervously I thought, What if they found me a nuisance. Someone who couldn’t speak a lick of their language, a privileged American who didn’t have a clue? Then what would I do? What would I do if I failed?

I didn’t have time to answer that thought because before I knew it the gates opened and in we walked. We were instantly met and greeted by Eduardo, the thirtyish-looking Director of the home. I could tell instantly that I would like him. He was confident, yet extremely humble and caring. He looked everyone in the eye when introduced and you could really tell that he gave a damn.

We didn’t have much if any time to prepare for our introductions to the residents who were all desperately awaiting our arrival. All 32 pairs of eyes were on us as we walked down the long corridor and one by one, were introduced to every single Abuela and Abuelo at Jesus de los Manos. Eduardo made the introductions, lovingly placing his hands on each resident’s back and bending inwards close so that they could hear him speak. It was amazing. The compassion. The warmth. The love. The respect that Eduardo showed these people was unbelievable. I was completely taken aback. This is a good place I realized, in awe.

Insert: Picture of the entrance of Hogar Jesus de los Manos

Picture of the long, L-shaped corridor, lined with outdoor terraces for the residents to enjoy nature.

I was also amazed and relieved to see how the residents reacted to our arrival. They were like little kids in a candy shop. The smiles, the boisterous talk and even the hugs of a few, made us all feel instantly welcomed and at home. I couldn’t believe how quickly they accepted us. They drank us up, every last drop, like an ice-cold drink on a summer hot day. Ok then, no worries about us not making any impact I instantly believed. It was going to be possible to make a difference.

After the introductions of each resident and staff member of the home, we moved on to a brief tour of the grounds and the home itself. The building wasn’t the least bit modern yet it wasn’t as rundown as I had imagined. Of course before you visit a place you, you always conjure up images and perceptions of what it is going to be like. Well, this place was only slightly what I had imagined. The rooms were fine; minimally furnished but clean. Each resident had their own space which was nice. There was a huge room used for entertainment (music, dance, birthdays, etc) and there was also another large room adjacent that was set up with card tables and chairs where the residents could do activities such as color, paint or socialize. In the corner of that room, there was equipment for physical therapy sessions as well. At the end of the L-shaped corridor was a large dining room lined with long tables and chairs. Finally, the upstairs of the building contained more bedrooms and an office space for the staff.

The best part of all about Hogar Jesus de los Manos was the location. The building was inside a walled-in lot set within the perfectly, lush and serene Central Valley. Nature surrounded you once you were outside, which explains why the residents spent much of their day outdoors on the terrace relaxing in the sun and gentle breeze. View of the green-blue mountains could be seen in the distance and the far end of the courtyard contained a large garden where residents could grow and tend plants and flowers. It was lovely and so incredibly peaceful. A perfect place to age (if there can be one).

After our tour, Eduardo spent a short amount of time listing the objectives for the week. The most important thing we could help with was the residents. Since the Jesus de los Manos was a non-profit organization, its funds were very limited meaning they had an extremely small staff for all the residents. Just taking care of the residents required almost all their time so unfortunately the residents often got a bit bored and depressed. That was where the CCS volunteers as well as other volunteer organizations could help. They could entertain the residents. Talk to them. Play ball with them (yes, just like the ball I play with my young children; tossing a ball back and forth). Color pictures with them. Make jewelry or art with them. And for the ladies, give them manicures and pedicures! (Yes beauty is very important in Costa Rica and the women absolutely loved having their nails done!).

Eduardo decided to split up the volunteers into two groups: One group would work with the residents and the other group would work on the grounds. They desperately needed some gardening and planting to be done in order to beautify the landscape. I chose the path of least residence, perhaps, for the first day and opted to do the dirty work: Gardening. We dug out weeds, planting flowers and tried to straighten things out in a garden that probably had not been touched in weeks. Some of the residents adore gardening yet needed help with it. That was where we stepped in to help their aging, arthritic hands to tend to the garden. It was a relaxing way to spend the first morning. Outside, with the gentle breeze coming off the mountains and touching my face. With a few, attentive residents smiling at everything we said (which they probably couldn’t understand). But sometimes smiles and gestures can mean much more than words, I discovered. Another thing I enjoyed that morning was one resident, an elderly man perhaps in his eighties, especially enjoyed to water the garden. He spent hours watering the flowers and tending to the garden, never saying a word but with a smile in his eyes. He wore a white floppy hat, long-gray pants and a red sweater, and every morning when we arrived, he was out tending the garden. It was quite special.

Insert: Photos of the garden and my favorite gardener:

The morning passed quickly and before I knew it, we said our goodbyes to our newly made friends and were loaded up in the vans. We heard the distant protests from some of the residents not wanting us to leave yet but they understood we’d be back tomorrow morning. We heard from Eduardo that day two was going to involve some other activities. Rumor had it that the ladies wanted a special treat. They wanted manicures and pedicures. They wanted to look “pretty” and feel young. The men, meanwhile, were looking forward to playing more ball and perhaps having a dance with the female volunteers. Once a man, always a man.

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad