International Volunteer Day: December 5

“There is no better exercise for your heart than reaching down and helping to lift someone up”

– Bernard Meltzer

Today is International Volunteer Day. However, in my book every day should be a day to volunteer. I am a strong advocate for giving back and believe strongly that everyone who is able should help others in need.

Volunteering does not have to be complicated. In fact, there are little things you can do right in your own backyard to help make the world a better place. For instance, every community has a school which needs volunteers to help out. I volunteer often at my children’s school on fun events and also on day to day tasks such as helping kids learn to read, write and do arithmetic. With the graying population, there is also a lot of need assisting seniors either at care centers, hospitals or just in every day life. With the economy in decline, many people need help just trying to survive. There are many places you can volunteer to give back to the poor such as helping at a food shelf, a donation center or a job/skill retraining center. The list of opportunities to give back and volunteer are endless. All you need is a little bit of time.

“If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you’ll end up not doing nothing for nobody.” ~ Malcom Bane

For today’s post, I would like to showcase a few memories of my favorite volunteer experiences over the last few years. With my next volunteer trip approaching in exactly one month (I leave for Honduras on January 5th) I am looking forward to having another opportunity to give back and see the world through new eyes.

SOCIAL GOOD Volunteering Abroad

The Children of La Pedrera

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Guatemala was to volunteer.  For the last two years, I have been passionate about volunteering internationally and giving back to the countries in which I have had the pleasure of visiting.  It has inspired me, motivated me and changed me to become the person I am today.  And I must admit, I am proud of that fact.

Two years ago, I went on my first volunteer trip with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) to Costa Rica where I worked at a nursing home for abandoned grandparents (to read posts, click here).  Then last April, I traveled to Morocco again with CCS to volunteer at a women’s school and help tutor English.  I loved both of these volunteer experiences as they truly changed my life.  However after two years of doing volunteer work as a group I wanted to try venturing out on my own.  I had traveled abroad alone before yet never for an extended period of time.  I felt like there was no time like the present to give it a whirl and truly challenge myself.  I just needed to find the right place.

When my son Max started first grade at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis my opportunity arose.  Max’s first grade teacher, Ms. May, just so happens to be married to a Guatemalan man and together they have run a Spanish School called Casa Xelaju and a nearby community center, La Pedrera, for years.  My opportunity had come!  Guatemala was on my travel list and after falling in love with Costa Rica, I could hardly wait to visit another Central American country, especially one with a vibrant indigenous community, the Mayans.

Photo above of me with my little girls. These three girls are the same age as my daughter Sophia. I adored them and their smiles brightened my soul and warmed my heart.

Guatemala Poverty 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 Day at the Hammam

Whenever I travel, I try very hard to use the “third eye” approach and follow the all important mantra, “When in Rome”. Before going to Morocco, I asked past CCS volunteers about the highlights of their experience and visit in Morocco. I heard over and over again from the women that I must go to the hammam.

Ok, what on earth is a hammam? A hammam is a traditional, communal Moroccan bathhouse. Communal? Indeed! That is a cultural shock in itself going into a bathhouse and disrobing in front of a bunch of Moroccan women strangers. But after hearing about the hammams, I knew that I’d have to suck in my pride and modesty and just go for it. If Moroccan women go on average once a week and it is known as their most beloved beauty secret, then I would have to give it a try.

My day at the hammam was planned for Friday afternoon, which was the end of my volunteer program and my last full day in Morocco. I worked that morning in the dirty, filthy Asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital (and yes I loved it!) and was ready for a little R&R after being around dozen loud and busy children.

Around 3 PM, I gathered my essentials: Shampoo, Conditioner, Hair brush, lotion, towel, and 100 dirhams (equivalent to US$12) and headed to the hammam for the experience of a lifetime.

I was dropped off at the corner and walked hesitantly towards the discrete entrance. There was no awning or writing anywhere on the outside to tell me it was the hammam. Just an ugly, old looking building complete with dirty whitewashed siding. I obviously was out of place and thankfully a delightful Moroccan woman approached shy me and asked me if I’d ever been to a hammam before. I told her in french (thank God I spoke french!) that this was my first time. She gently lead me in and brought me over to the main room where I was to disrobe. Immediately I felt a bit queasy as everyone inside was naked except for their underwear. Even the women working behind the counter at the cashiers were in the nude! I had to continually remind myself that it was only the human body. No big deal. I’ve had babies. This couldn’t be all that bad, right?

The kind Moroccan woman showed me where to put my stuff and then gently asked me, “Vous voulez une dame”? (ie. Do you want a “woman”). Thank goodness I did my homework and read the Lonely Planet explanation of a hammam. For 50 DH, or roughly, US$6, you could hire a tabbeya or bath attendant to scrub you down. Of course I hired one!

Next, we passed through the three rooms starting with the cold room first, followed by the medium temperature room and ending up in the hot room, where I would get my scrub down. The hot room was tiled in white, heated marble and amass in thick, lush steam. There were probably about six other women there in the process of bathing and I of course was the only western woman present. I thought I’d feel awkward but to my surprise I felt fine. It helped having my nice Moroccan friend next to me, who chatted with me the entire time.

Once inside the hot room and situated sitting on the delicious heated floor, the real pleasure and pain began. My entire body was loaded up with savon noir (black palm soap made with resins from olive) and then the attendant began the process of exfoliating my sensitive skin by using a el-kis or a course glove. The first five minutes were absolute hell. She scrubbed me so hard that I thought my skin would fall off and bleed. But to my surprise and shock, once the savon noir was off, my skin was shiny and new, and not even the slightest bit red. Thankfully after five minutes of torture, my skin warmed up and the scrubbing no longer felt like I was being attacked by sandpaper. Instead, it was heaven. I was tossed and turned around like a limp, rag doll, thrown around the heated floors and scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed. Every single inch of my body (except of course for the private area) was scrubbed and it took a good 45 minutes until she was done with me.

I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the fact that my arms would occasionally flop across her enormous, sagging breasts (sorry not trying to gross you out but this is true! She wasn’t wearing a top either!!!!), and I tried to relax. Once I got past this fact I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the hammam and never felt so clean before in my life.

After the scrub down, buckets of hot, medium warm and cool water were dumped over my head and then I got a nice long head massage and shampooing. By the end of it, I was thirsty as hell and was so relaxed I could hardly move. I didn’t spend much time in the medium or the cool room and instead went outside to the lobby area to get dressed, slowly but surely.

I paid my “dame” and gathered my belongings, of course, after meeting another kind Moroccan lady who wanted to know all about my experience and what I thought. We talked for a good fifteen minutes and then I was out the door, hair wet and pulled back into a ponytail and feeling young, fresh and clean!

(Sorry folks…no pictures here of the hammam! ha ha).

The Moroccan hammam has been a tradition for ages. Both men and women go to the hammam but of course there are separate ones for each gender. Moroccan women are known for their beauty treatments and secrets. They prefer to use all natural products for their beauty maintenance such as olive oils, henna, ghassoul (clay), eggs, fruits, vegetables and plant-based products. Perhaps that is how they achieve such beautiful, perfect skin! If only we could have the same kinds of traditions back in the States! We’d all look like queens!

Later that afternoon, as a farewell gift we received henna that was applied artfully by Khadija at the Home Base. Henna is a tradition in many parts of the world such as Africa, India and some Arab nations. Traditionally it is done for weddings as a symbol of beauty but now it can be done for other occasions as well. Henna derives from the henna plant which can be found in the Sahara desert and is mixed together and poured into syringe-like instrument. It is applied wet using traditional designs and art onto the hands, palms, and legs. Then you have to not move and wait at least an hour or so for it to dry until you can gently peel it off, leaving a beautiful reddish (or black depending on the henna you use) design on your skin. I’ve been told that it lasts about two to four weeks. So we will see! Here are some pictures of its application:

The arms:

The legs:

A close-up of the work while it is drying:

Once dried and peeled off, the end result (note the staining is darker on the palms than on the rest of the arm):

I tried to fool the kids when I got home by telling them I got a tattoo. They were quite alarmed so of course I told them I was just kidding. It has been a fun conversational piece yet I’m ready for it to fade away!

Coming next…Finally I will discuss my volunteer experience teaching English and also a day spend at the Children’s Hospital. Stay tuned!

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Three Continents in Two Days

Hello Readers! Bon jour! Salaam!

I’m back and I survived two crazy, insane days traveling from Africa to Europe to the United States, three continents in two days!

Needless to say, I am extremely exhausted and overwhelmed. The last two days have been a whirlwind. I left Morocco on Saturday morning (changing my flight for $250 during the middle of a protest —no worries, a tame one—so I could leave Rabat at 8 am as opposed to 3:30 pm and spend an afternoon and night in Paris). This supposedly “easy” visit to Paris ended up being nuts. I completely forgot about Easter holiday in Europe and Paris was ungodly overwhelmed with hordes and hordes of people and tourists—everywhere. Almost, well not quite, but almost like India (then again nothing can ever be like India).

These stories will come later of course since it was quite an adventure. I just wanted to let you know that I’m back, safe and sound, all in one peace, so far no illnesses, except for being tired.

This week I will be working on my upcoming posts…..
Women in Morocco, Dating 101, My Day at the Hammam, My Volunteer Experience, My Impressions of Morocco.

So please stay posted!

In the meantime, here are some funny pictures from my crossing of three continents:

My Henna in Morocco:

Lunch in Paris (wine withdrawal!!!!!):

Dinner in Paris (wine again….ok I was in a Muslim country for a week):

Almost home:

France Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Islam 101

Photo above of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the third largest mosque in the world.

One of the greatest things about Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) is their three-prong approach to international volunteerism:

Volunteer work (which is generally the morning activity)

Cultural learning and education (which comprises of education on politics and culture, cultural activities (such as cooking class, musical performance, etc), and cultural tours.

Cross-Cultural exchange (meaning sharing your culture with the locals and learning about their culture to educate and change perceptions).

I find this approach to be an excellent way for a volunteer and foreigner to totally immerse with a new and different culture. The learning and the week is extremely intensive yet it is quite amazing. I feel like I’ve just completed an entire class on Moroccan life, traditions and culture all in only a week’s time!

A few days ago, we spent the afternoon talking with Mohammed, our Country Director, about a hot topic: The religion of Islam. It was an extremely fascinating discussion that took us over two and a half hours, and although I learned a lot it still felt like we had just touched the surface of this amazing, complex religion. For an American and for someone who knows very little about Islam (and religion in general, to be quite honest), our discussion with Mohammed was very enlightening and surprising.

Before coming to Morocco, I knew very little about Islam except of course what I had heard about in the media or read in the papers. I believe there is a very bad perception and understanding of Islam in the the Western world. Many believe Islam equates to terrorists and that it not at all the case. It is only a very small percentage of actual Muslims who are terrorists and these are the extreme cases (just like in Christianity we have the far far religious right wackos who go off the deep end). Thus for me to learn more about Islam and to meet and develop friendships with Muslims, was in itself a very “thirdeyemom” (aka eye-opening) experience and it truly changed the way I feel and view Islam.

Ok, so here is a summary of what I learned on Islam (this is Islam 101) as well as my own thoughts, reflections and feelings on this great religion. Of course it is not all inclusive! It is just the information I gathered from our lecture with Mohammed and from asking tons of questions.

Lesson one: What is the meaning of Islam?

Islam can be literally translated to me “submission to God” and represents the peace you obtain when you submit to God.

It is the second largest religion in the world (after Christianity and followed by Hinduism) and it the fastest growing religion i the world (due to the high birth rates in large Muslim countries and also the high level of conversions to Islam. Last year there were over 20,000 conversions to Islam in only the United States!).

Some facts:

20% of the world’s population are Muslims.

Of the Muslim population, 20% (only) are Arabs (this is a figure that surprised me as I believed there to be more. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population and there are also a small population of Muslims in India – 140 million).

95% of the Arab world are Muslims.

There are two different groups of Muslims in the World:

1. Sunni (75-80%)

2. Shia (minority and mainly found in the Gulf countries).

Lesson two: What are the Five Pillars of Islam?
1. Testimonies (or beliefs) which are called “Shahada” in Arabic.

2. Prayer

3. Charity

4. Fasting

5. Pilgrimage

These are all in order of importance.

Here is a look at what each pillar means:

Testimonies/Shahada: Means that you believe there is only one God and that the Prophet Mohammed is a messenger from God.

The life of Mohammed was fascinating. He was born in 571 AC in Mecca and was an orphan by age 6. He was raised by his uncle who taught him to become an honest and hard-working young man. People gained great trust and respect in him. At the age of 25 he met and fell in love with a wealthy, widow named Khadija who was 40. They then married and lived in Mecca. At the time there was no real organized religion in Mecca. However, Mohammed used to spend his time meditating in a cave called Hirae, where he was met by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel was sent by God to tell Mohammed to believe in only one God. Thus started the religion of Islam! In 622, Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina and this year marks the beginning of Islam and the Muslim calendar.

Mohammed became a prophet and died in 632 (thus he spent about 22 years of his life as a prophet).

He was the last Prophet to come. (For Muslims, there are 125,000 prophets sent by God and mentioned in the Qur’an. The first was Adam and the last one was Mohammed. Almost all the same prophets that are mentioned in the bible are mentioned in the Qur’an. For example, Moses, Abraham, Noah and Jesus). In the Qur’an, all Prophets are respected as they all had the exact same message: To worship One God. Jesus and his stories are also in the Qur’an (something I did not know!) and the Qur’an includes all the same stories as found in the bible EXCEPT one: The crucifixion of Jesus, because Muslims don’t believe it happened. Instead, they believe he was not killed but was risen to heaven. Muslims also believe that Jesus is our savior and will return some day. (Very interesting!)

In Islam: There are two important religious documents:

1. The Qur’an: The Word of God (recited by Gabriel to Mohammed who then wrote it down and recited to the people).

2. The Hadeeth: These are words of the Prophet Mohammed. Like the Bible, they were written down later. The Hadeeth was compiled and written 125 years AFTER the death of Mohammed.

Every Muslim, no matter what country you live in, uses the same Qur’an, written in Arabic. Translations are not considered as “pure”. The Hadeeth has many different versions thus it is not always followed exactly as “the word” since it is not technically as accurate as the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an, “Mariam” (Mary) is also a virgin and the mother of Jesus, however, Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. Also, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died for our sins.

In the Muslim religion, what helps you go to heaven is your good deeds or actions, not just by believing in Jesus Christ. The main sins are: Killing, Dishonoring your parents, Adultery, and Stealing. I asked about the meaning of the word “jihad”. It means “a struggle” to do something good. Thus in Islam, you are only allowed to fight and kill if you are attacked. Obviously this was taken to the extreme with 9/11.

In sum, there are many similarities between the Bible and the Qur’an, which surprised me. I had no idea.

Prayer:

In the Muslim religion, you must pray five times a day. The first prayer is at the Break of Dawn, the second is around noon (when the sun is in the middle), the third prayer is around afternoon, the fourth prayer is around sunset and the fifth prayer is at dusk when there are a few stars in the sky. The prayer times change each day depending on the movement and position of the sun. One knows it is prayer time when one hears the “muadhin” (person who makes the call to prayer) being sent via amplification throughout the city. The Muadhin makes the call to prayer from the minaret (tower of a mosque) and it can be heard anywhere.

The Call to Prayer is always the same and includes the following verses (all in Arabic):

1. God is Great – is repeated four times.

2. Bear witness that there is only one God -repeated two times.

3. Mohammed is a messenger of God – repeated two times.

4. Hurry up and pray -repeated two times.

5. Hurry up to salvation -repeated two times.

6. God is Great – repeated two times.

7. There is not God but Allah – said once.

Before doing prayer, Muslims must do the “abulations” where every part of the external body is washed, and clean clothing is put on. Once clean, a Muslim turns “qibla” or the direction of Mecca and recites the first chapter of the Qur’an (7 verses which are memorized), next a recitation of choice, followed by bowing and praising to God, and finally the different poses to show humility towards God (stand up, flex knees and then place forehead on the ground). These prayers are done five times per day. If a prayer session is missed (due to work or travel, etc) then it can be made up during the day.

Charity (“Zakat”): Is the belief that everything belongs to God and involves purification and growth. Muslims are required to pay 2.5% of their yearly income to the poor.

Fasting: During the month of Ramadan (which is the 9th month of the Muslim calendar and fluctuates yearly) means that a Muslim must fast (no drinking any liquids, including water and no eating any food) and abstain from sex, smoking, and chewing gum. It starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every Muslim must follow the fast for the entire month except for sick, pregnant, nursing mothers, travelers, or women during their periods. The fasting must be made up after a person is well enough to do it before the next Ramadan. The object of Ramadan is self control.

Pilgrimage: Every able Muslim must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your lifetime. This happens the 12th month of the Muslim calendar and only three million Muslims around the world are allowed to go (due to capacity constraints). Thus there is a lottery to go.

A final interesting fun fact I learned about Islam is the spiritual belief in the Jinns or spirits. Muslims believe there are three types of beings:

1. Humans who are created from clay.

2. Angels who are created from light.

3. Jinns who are created from fire.

Jinns are unseen creatures that can be either good or bad, and they can be found anywhere: A house, on someone’s shoulder, or even in the water inside the toilet! Jinns have a lot of power in Morocco and almost everyone believes in their existence and power. For more information on Jinns and life in Morocco, there is a great book called “The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca” by Tahir Shah. The book goes into great detail with perfect humor and wit about the complexities of living in the land of the Jinns.

The above commentary is meant to be a brief explanation of the important facets of Islam. It is an extremely complex topic in which I am by no means even close to an expert. In my opinion, it is really a pity that there is not more religious tolerance and understanding in the world. We can learn a great deal from others and their religions. We are all after the same goal in life! Ok, that is my food for thought for the day. (It feels like a great load has been taken off my shoulders to attempt to even discuss Islam!). My upcoming posts will discuss the hot topic of The Role of Women in Morocco (which will include some information on the how to date in Morocco….a rarity, but yes it does happen!).

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Here Comes the (Moroccan) Band

Moroccan music comes in many genres (ranging from Arab, Berber, Classical and Popular) and is surprisingly diverse. Every region in Morocco has its own type of music thus there

A good site reference for the various kinds of Moroccan music can be found at:

http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/cult/music.htm

The music we heard today is called “Chaabi” (also known as “shaabi”) which means “popular” or “of the people” in Arabic. The music is pop music that has Arab, African and Western influences and is generally played at large celebrations and events such as weddings.

Here is a fun YouTube Video I found that demonstrates this energetic, rhythmic music.

http://m.youtube.com/index?desktop_uri=%2F&gl=MA#/watch?v=KR1yLZCqSHE

http://m.youtube.com/index?desktop_uri=%2F&gl=MA#/watch?v=Hia-w5q43tY

(Note: I tried to embed the links so you can easily view them but it does not work well using an iPad. Thus you will have to copy and paste the link above into your browser. I will fix them when I return home. The video is worth seeing!)

The musicians use a variety of percussion instruments such as the bender which is a goatskin covered wooden drum, the daff which is a wooden-framed drum, covered entirely with stretched goatskin and played on both sides, the garagab which are metal clackers resembling double castanets (one holds two in each hand), the naggarah which are double kettle drums made of pottery, the taarija which is a kind of handheld drum that is either cone or vase shaped and made of pottery or metal. There are also the tan-tan and tbilat, which are kinds of bongo drums.

Our visit with the band was absolutely fabulous and fun! We had just finished our Moroccan cooking class and were hanging out in the large living room when we heard the loud pounding and thumping of the Moroccan band. They had parked their van outside the Home Base and entering playing loud, rhythmic Chaabi music. Instantly we all smiled and the music brought our energy to a new level. The bank comprised of five musicians all playing different kinds of drum, singing and one playing a variety of percussion instruments such as the “moroccan symbol” which was the axel of a car wheel and he played this by wearing it on his head and pounding it with sticks.

Here are some pictures of our day with the band:

Here is the musician playing the car axel on his head! It was very heavy and he joked around a lot by placing it on volunteers heads and playing it.

The volunteers learning how to dance in Morocco:

Me doing Moroccan dance:

Ken, the sole male volunteer, from Canada, dancing Moroccan:


Wearing the traditional hooded jelaba:


Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

A Day at the Souq

Every Moroccan visit requires a visit to the local Medina and Souq. The Souq (market) is not only a shopping expedition but a cultural experience in itself. That is where tourists go to shop and to see the Moroccans shop. It is not for the faint-hearted nor those who do not like crowds. The Souq is extremely overwhelming and non-stop eye candy. The sights, the smells, the people watching are amazingly intense. You can literally find everything including the kitchen sink at the Souq (but apparently it takes Moroccan “know-how” to find good old fashioned body lotion!).

Bargaining is a necessity in the Souq. Generally you take the given price and deduct it by 50 or 60% and start from there. It is extremely helpful to speak French or else bargaining can be quite the challenge. The prices are extremely cheap in western standards and it is hard to get out of there without buying too much.

After three visits to the Souq, however, I’ve reached full capacity and do not plan to go back. I’ve had enough! But I did get several great things to bring back home to share with my family and friends. Here is a photo journey of my buying excursion at the Souq:

Andrea and Khadija (our office manager) entering the souq:

Looking the other direction of the medina towards the Ville Nouvelle (new French part of Rabat city):

The old walls of the Medina:

Entering the Souq:

The couscous:

The jelabas (robes with pointed hoods) and caftans (robes without hoods and usually a v neck adorned and decorated) which are the traditional dress in Morocco. In Rabat, you see about half women wearing these robes and half wearing western attire. About half wear the hijab (head scarf) in city and some don’t. It is a personal choice even though it is stated obligatory in Islam. In rural Morocco, you would see everyone wearing hijab and dressed in traditional clothing:

You can even find outfits for belly dancing:

There are lots of shops that sell “babouches” or Moroccan slippers:

And tons of places to buy scarves and blankets (my favorite addiction!):

Moroccan lamps and lanterns are everywhere as well as cats (not for sale!):

The presence of the mosque is all encompassing, especially when you hear the Call to Prayer:

Yet you still can find lots of shops that sell lingerie (exotic and traditional), counterfeit sunglasses and pursues (Chanel seems to be a favorite), traditional shoe repair shops, skinny jeans and t-shirts. We even saw a small shop with four tvs inside where children and men were gathered round and watching shows. Plus there is always the presence of Moroccan mint tea (a specialty and an event in itself).

I especially liked the nicer shops found under the covered part of the souq as seen here:

The architecture inside the Medina was gorgeous as well. There were interesting doors, beautifully tiled terra-cotta roofs in greens and reds, and lots of pretty tiled fountains such as here:

Me taking a breather:

After a couple hours at the souq, the third visit, I bought five blankets, six pillow cases, a scarf and a “hand of fatima” amulet. The gorgeous silk blankets (which are enormous—fits a queen size bed) below costed me about 200 dirhams which is about $15! Who will be the lucky recipient?

And the colorful silk pillow cases ran about $5 each:

I could make a steal selling these at the Pottery Barn!

No more visits to the Souq….I’m “souq-ed” out!

Coming next….the role of women in Morocco and Islam followed by “experiences on the road as an ESL teacher in Rabat”

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

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

My First Visit to a Mosque

The highlight of my visit to Casablanca (Casa) was by far my visit to the Hassan II Mosque. I met my guide, Anis (pronounced and named after the spice) who again spoke French and had a fabulous one on one tour of the mosque, which is the third largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina).

The mosque was built from 1986 to 1993, and required over 10,000 artisans and 12,500 workers to complete the work. They worked day and night, non-stop.

The minaret (the tower) is the largest in the world (200 m above sea level) and is quite impressive.

Here are some more shots of the outside of the mosque and the minaret:

The colors of the mosque symbolize the colors of Islam: Green and White. Green symbolized peace and white represents universalism.

I was in awe with the immense beauty of the mosque and it’s exquisite detail:

This is my favorite picture…the sun just happened to capture me and lighten my soul:

The inside of the mosque holds a capacity of 25,000 people and the outside courtyard area holds up to 80,000 people.

This is the ONLY mosque in all of Morocco that allows tourists inside (due to ancient French law, not due to religious reasons).

The official religion of the Moroccan kingdom is Islam (Sunite Malekile) and there are about 70% practicing Muslims. In the Islam religion, there are five official daily prayers at: Dawn, Mid-morning, Mid-Afternoon, Sunset and Night. Each day a minute is added to the prayer time to reflect the change in the rising and setting of the sun. The call of prayer can be heard throughout Morocco and the first time I heard it, I was mesmerized. It is loud and melodic, calling all Muslims to come to prayer. An amazing event to experience!

The inside of the mosque is constructed with all Moroccan materials. The ceiling is made with Moroccan cedar that is sculptured and then painted in beautiful colors and images.

Here is a picture of the elaborately decorated ceiling:

The mosque has three levels. The bottom floor level contains the fountains of water for purification. Men and women each have a separate door to enter and separate rooms that contain 41 marble fountains full of water where Muslims wash every external part of their body before they are allowed to enter the mosque.

Women and men are completely separate in a mosque. Women are allowed only on the second level and there is a capacity of up to 5,000 women. Here is a picture of where the women stay:

Here is a picture of the “jalousie” or “moucharabia”, an intricately carved door made out of cedar where women can “hide” and not be seen:

Other interesting facts about the mosque:

1. The ceiling completely opens up so you can see and have contact with the sky which is extremely important for Muslims.

2. Le Mihrab: Is like the alter in a church where the IMAM (leader of prayer) heads the prayer. It is of course facing Mecca.

3. There are four positions of prayer, called in french, Les genuflections. First, you face Mecca and greet by lowering your head to show humility. Second, you place your hands on your knees. Third, you slightly flex your knees. Fourth, you lay on the ground on your knees with your forehead touching the ground.

4. Muslims only use right hand to greet and eat. Left hand if for doing the “other” dirty stuff involved with being a human (i.e. blowing nose, using bathroom, etc).

5. Muslims are called to prayer five times per day as mentioned above. However, Moroccans are the most modern Muslims in the world thus it is not obligatory that you go to the mosque five times a day to pray.

6. There are varying degrees of how religious a person is. Just like in the States.

7. Not all women where the hijab (veil). Many more women are dressing western nowadays.

What I discovered is that Islam is a very fascinating religion. Obviously it is a religion that is very misunderstood thus I look forward to sharing what I find.

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION