The Final Day In Azrou

I can safely say that being a Peace Corps volunteer in Azrou, Morocco has been the hardest thing I have ever done. Until I had to leave. Then that was the hardest. Two years ago I said goodbye to my home, my family, and my friends in America. That was difficult, but it wasn’t the same. Whevever I leave home I always know that I will return. Leaving Morocco is hard because I don’t know when or if I will ever be back.

Friday May 9th, 2014 was my last full day in the Middle Atlas town that I called home for two years. I had already gone through a lot of the necessary goodbyes with other volunteers and community members as well as had my final class at the Dar Chabab. For me, this Friday was all about soaking it all in.

Ron, another volunteer in Azrou (who came in a year after me), met with me for tea at a café close to my house. This is something we would do almost every day during the week to chat about work and other happenings around town. This time there wasn’t much gossip, instead there was more talk about the future. What happens after Peace Corps? Saying goodbye to something is always hard, even if it is something small like drinking tea at a café. Despite our age difference, Ron has been one of my best friends while in living here. That’s one of the beauties of this job; I get to cross paths with people from all over the US, people I would have never met if it wasn’t for Peace Corps.

Like any other Friday I went over to my friend Kawtar’s house for couscous. The moment I walked in the door I was presented with a beautiful light blue takchita (traditional dress) that Kawtar and her sisters, Kenza and Sou3d, handmade for me. Most of the extended family and family friends came over to have a final meal with me, of course right away they wanted to see me in my new dress. Out came two big pots of tea and everyone gathered around as I modelled my gift. About an hour later the couscous was ready and I helped set the table like always. This week extra vegetables were prepared for my farewell meal. The giant bowl in the middle of the table soon became a mountain as it was sacked high with pumpkin, carrots, turnip, cabbage, and chickpeas. As soon as lunch was over Kawtar and I headed to the kitchen. For my last day her family wanted to host a small party for kaskrut (Moroccan afternoon tea) and there was a lot of cooking to be done. While Sou3d made what seemed like hundreds of little cookies Kawtar and I made milawee. Milawee is one of my favorite Moroccan foods. It is a fried bread that is kind of a mix between Indian Naan and a crepe. One creates a basic bread dough and then sections it off into pieces that are then flattened and folded with oil and a little corn flour, forming layers. This layered and flat piece of dough is then placed on a frying pan and lightly browned on both sides. Milawee is generally eaten for breakfast or kaskrut but it is also very popular for fast breaking during Ramadan. On this particular day we made two large stacks to serve, probably the most I have ever seen in one sitting. Once again we all gathered around to eat. Kawtar’s nieces had arrived with her two older bothers and to my surprise the family that adopted my dog Hazel showed up as well. More tea was served to the room and then more gifts began to come out. Hazel’s new family gave me a pair of traditional Moroccan slippers, Kawtar’s sister-in-law gave me a hand embroidered tea cloth, and her mother gave me two candle lanterns. I brought gifts for all of them as well, including markers and stickers for the kids and decorative serving plates for the rest of the family. Saying goodbye to this family was one of the hardest for me. They have all done so much to take care of me while living in Azrou. From the tremendous hospitality that never fails, to teaching me how to cook various Moroccan dishes, to wrapping me in wool blankets in the winter. Since the beginning they have always treated me as an equal and not like the outsider that never knows what is going on. Together there have been many times that we have been able to sit, listen, and discuss topics of religion and politics and fully understand each other. Before I left they all told me that when I get married I have to have one wedding in America and another wedding with them in Morocco. To this, I could only reply with Inchallah (God willing) and that’s really all it comes down to. Inchallah I will come back to Azrou. Inchallah some of my friends from Morocco will get to visit America. Inchallah when (if) I get married I will be rich enough to have two weddings.

After kaskrut I went to Azrou’s ‘center’ building where meetings and other official gatherings take place. There they were having an appreciation ceremony for all of the major associations in town and they wanted to recognize me as well. Of course right away I was served more tea and taken to my seat at the front of the room. I looked around and saw many people that I knew, people that have helped me with projects, people that have hosted various activities at the Dar Chabab, people that I have met at a few community events. I was extremely touched by all of the people that came up to shake my hand and thank me for my service, especially when they already do so much for the community. As the ceremony went along I was called up to say a few final words. Although it was nerve racking to speak in front of a room full of leaders in the community it was important for me to say thank you for everything that they do for Azrou. After the ceremony was over I had to say goodbye to the co-workers/friends that have aided in making the last two years of my life a success.

Before I knew it the day was over, all of my bags were packed, and the rooms in my little house were empty. Nikki and I got up early on Saturday morning and headed to Rabat. Here I will spending my last few days in Morocco with the group of volunteers that will be closing their service with me. More goodbyes and a few dinners together before we bounce off to whatever is next for each of us. Trek Salama!

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Packing Up

This is my last week in Azrou. It hasn’t fully hit me yet. But whether I believe it or not, this Saturday my housemate (Nikki) and I will be packing up our pets and belongings and heading to Rabat where we will spend our last few days before COS (Close of Service). There we will do a final interview with the Country Director, have a little chat with a medical officer, and stamp out as Peace Corps Volunteers.

I had to start my goodbyes a few weeks ago. With volunteers spread out all over the country there is no telling when the next time you will see each person again. Today Nikki and I made a day trip to Ifrane to say goodbye to our friends there. We had lunch with the host family that Nikki had when we first got to country, she is their host daughter and I am their adopted host daughter. Zahor, the host mom, has played a very large role in my life these past 2 years. She has fed me even when I’m not hungry, welcomed my parents in during Ramadan, offered me a bed in the middle of the night when I was stranded, and has never lost her patience. During our visit today she began to cry as she stated that ‘this part of our lives is over’. The tears always make goodbyes the hardest.

Wearing a new dar3iya, gifted to me by Zahor
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Another goodbye I had to make this past week was definitely one of the toughest ones. I brought my dog Hazel to her new home in the countryside with a Moroccan family. After asking around, a friend of mine told me that her family could take care of Hazel for me. My friend lives in Azrou with her husband and daughter, but her mother and 2 brothers live outside of Azrou to work in the olive groves. They were happy to take Hazel in and even let her sit at the table for lunch when I brought her over. It was hard to give her up but I know it will be a good place for her. She has a yard to play in, a house to sleep in, and people to feed her. I miss getting her snuggles in the morning but I feel like I did the right thing.

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My cat, Mooch, will be coming back to America with me. He has been with me for the majority of my service and I honestly couldn’t bare to part with him. Yesterday he got all of his vaccinations renewed and now I just need to get a few forms stamped before his ‘kitty passport’ is complete. I have also been fostering a kitten for about 3 weeks. She showed up outside my window one night, cried until the morning, and after breakfast I finally gave in and brought her inside. She will be living with Azrou’s new volunteer as soon as he gets his new house settled.

My furry foster kitty
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The next few days will be full of packing, cleaning, and goodbye visits. I will be going to both of the Dar Chababs to say goodbye to the mudiras and my students, bringing gifts to a few families, and I get one last Friday couscous. After I stamp out in Rabat I will be doing a little bit of travelling, coming back to Morocco to collect my cat, and then returning to America June 7th!

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Fridays

As I sit in a kitchen chatting with my friends (Kawtar, Kenza, and Sou3d) while bits of stomach and liver get wrapped in lines of intestine, I think to myself ‘I’m really going to miss Fridays’. Section by section, I watch as every piece of sheep organ is tied up into a neat little package. This sort of thing doesn’t make me squeamish any more, in fact it has become another weekly ritual. We are preparing couscous which is regarded as a very special meal in Morocco and is traditionally served every Friday. I don’t handle any of the meat, everyone here knows that I am vegetarian. Instead I am busy with chopping and pealing vegetables which will then be pressure cooked and added to the couscous before serving. Like most traditional Moroccan meals, couscous is a long process. During this time we socialize, snack on olives, and share a pot of mint tea. As meal time draws closer more family members begin to arrive; older brothers with their wives and children along with a cousin or two.

When the food is finally ready we gather round a table. It is just one big bowl and a few spoons, most meals in Morocco are eaten from a communal dish. The intestine wrapped meat is divided out evenly and extra vegetables are pushed in front of me. There is more than enough food to go around and most of us eat till the point of needing a nap to sleep off the damage.

It’s like this every Friday. We talk, we prepare and eat food, and then we relax. This plays a key role in my weekly routine, and I look forward to it as each new week begins. I have been welcomed into this family as if I was another daughter. They bring me along to weddings, teach me how to cook, include me in every holiday and birthday, we barrow clothes, I help them with school work, but most of all we enjoy the simple experience of being in each other’s company and sharing a meal together.

Fridays and living in Morocco in general has made me appreciate food in a whole new way. I love traditional Moroccan food. Even as a vegetarian I find that I have endless options. I love the process of slow cooking pretty much everything, giving time for a few cups of tea before eating. I love using pieces of bread in place of forks, allowing every last drop of olive oil to be scooped up from the bottom of a tajine. I never realized how much of a country’s culture could be experienced at meal time. Whether it is the time of day, the spices used, or how long something takes to prepare it all plays into the bigger picture. I now find that when I travel outside of Morocco I am just as interested in the local cuisine as I am in main tourist sites. I look forward to taking part in new flavors and textures that can be found in food from other places. I enjoy watching how things are made or simply sitting at a cafe and spying on what other people order from the kitchen. All habits that I have picked up since living in Morocco, especially from eating couscous on Fridays.

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Melancholy

With only the last weeks of my service in front of me my days have been a bit melancholy. Not melancholy in the sense that I am unhappy, it is more that I have become more pensive. Saying goodbye is never easy. No matter how excited I may feel about moving on to the next chapter (life after Peace Corps) I can’t help but think about all that I will be leaving behind. Recently, a lot of my free time has been devoted to job searching, tailoring my resume, and writing cover letters. I am finding it increasingly harder to stay present in my community while also being involved in what I will be doing in the future. This past weekend the placements of the new group of volunteers was announced. I will be replaced by a male volunteer in his mid twenties at my Dar Chabab. This basically solidified the transition for me; next month I will be leaving Morocco and a new volunteer will stand in my place. It’s amazing how temporary stages of life can be. Now it’s all about wrapping up what I have started, welcoming the new volunteer, and saying goodbye.

But for now I still have a few updates, and since all of my thoughts seem to be in list form these days so will this blog post.

Unfortunately my first update is a sad one. A few weeks ago one of my students was the victim of a fatal hit and run accident. Her name was Farrah and she had only recently started to attend classes and activities at the Dar Chabab. She originally lived in a small village outside of Azrou, but when her father died her mother moved the family to Azrou to try and find work. With no education the only jobs the mother could find were cleaning jobs. The mudira of the Dar Chabab offered her a job in exchange for free room and board for the whole family. Farrah was the oldest of three kids and she helped her mom with a lot of the work. Although she was shy at first she was encouraged to attend the Dar Chabab activities and even participated in camp. Loosing her was a major shock to all of us at the Dar Chabab. We all made it a point to attend her funeral and make donations of different breads, pastries, and cookies to the family.

Farrah and I during Spring Camp
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This past week all of the volunteers that I started with met in Rabat for a final conference. It was great to have a chance to see everyone after being spread out over the country for the past two years. everyone had amazing stories to tell and accomplishments to share. We got to indulge at some of the fancy city restaurants, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company one last time. We also all got some matching t-shirts that I helped design with a few other volunteers, I think everyone was really happy with them.

My Community Based Training Group
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I got a hair cut! 10 inches gone!

A bunch of volunteers and I also attended a wedding. Charley, a fellow volunteer, ended up falling in love while living here and is now married to a beautiful woman named Bouchra. Their wedding was nothing short of extravagant with six dress changed for the bride, a huge banquet, a live band, and plenty of cookies.

In our traditional Moroccan wedding gear
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I also helped host an American games/BBQ day at the Dar Chabab. Everyone was really excited to be able to experience some American culture. We planned out a few basic field day games like tug-of-war and beanbag toss and then cooked lunch together with a few charcoal burners.

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I now run an average of 25ish miles a week alternating between 3 to 6 miles at a time.

Clementines are no longer in season here, which is sad because I wont get to have a Moroccan clementine again before leaving. However, you can now find strawberries here so I supposed it was an okay trade. I’m going to miss eating with the seasons here, I feel that I appreciate my food so much more when I have to wait for it.

That’s all for now, although I am sure I forgot to add a number of things. Hopefully I can get myself to bust out a few more entries before my end of service.

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International Women’s Day Fitness Festival

Back in October I wrote up a list of ideas that I had for possible projects to do before the end of my service. I presented these ideas to Tofola Chaabia (the association I work with) and to the Dar Chabab mudiras (directors). Everyone was excited about what I had to share and eager to add their own thoughts. While one of the mudiras was interested in doing something involving HIV/AIDS education (a project we did for World AIDS Day in December) the other was intrigued by the idea of doing a fitness related event for International Women’s Day.

The original project idea that I presented was to do a 5K women’s race, hopefully inspiring women to incorporate fitness into their schedules. This soon grew into a much bigger plan once my mudira got involved. My mudira had started her own women’s club a few years before and invited me to join, together we would coordinate the project. This was particularly exciting for me because I got to be involved with a group of ambitious and well connected women in the community. In turn, they were interested in my project ideas and my organization and planning abilities. Together it didn’t take us long to have everything figured out.

We decided on dedicating an entire weekend to women’s fitness. International Women’s Day fell on a Saturday so we spread our event out over both Saturday and Sunday. One of the women in the club happened to be a karate instructor and prided herself on the number of girls she had enrolled. For the first day she brought her students in for a demonstration at the Dar Chabab. This was followed by an all girls soccer game. It was great for the girls to have access to the soccer field, which is generally dominated by boys. This concluded our first day of the festival.

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On the second day we hosted a women’s hike open to all women in the community. This came from my idea of doing a 5K race, however we agreed that a hike would be more interesting for the participants. There are many trails in the hills outside of Azrou and we thought it would be great to utilize these surroundings. One of the club members’ husbands was a trail guide and he offered to plan a route for us. It ended up being 10K but he assured us it would be doable. The morning of the hike we all got together early to set up. Ain Ifrane (a local water company) donated water bottles to all the women for the event. Once all of the women had gathered we marched our way through the streets and into the hills. The goal was to make it to a lookout point over Azrou. This was difficult for many of the women but, with a few water breaks, everyone made it to the top. This was a major accomplishment for a lot of the participants because it was their first time doing anything like this. Some even voiced that they had lived in Azrou their whole lives and never knew what was right outside the town. After getting to the lookout we made our way back down. Once close to the finish line there were many women who were so excited that they began to run. Everyone was extremely proud, congratulating each other on what they had done. I was particularly impressed by all of the participants. Knowing that completing a 10K hike was a struggle and then seeing people running at the end was really touching. The day was completed with a few musical performances at the Dar Chabab and a lot of dancing.

Starting the hike
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Starfish

Get ready for somewhat of a sappy post

Many people know the story of the starfish. A boy walks along a beach as the tide is going out. As the water moves further out to sea it leaves behind starfish that are then stranded in the sand. The boy begins picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. A man walking by asks the boy “what are you doing? There are hundreds of starfish here, you can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy looks up at the man and throws another starfish into the water replying “well, I made a difference for that one.”

Sometimes it can be hard to see the impact I am making in my community. Azrou isn’t a small village and overall it is well developed with a variety of schools, community buildings, and associations. I know that when I return home in a few months everything will continue as if I was never there. Azrou doesn’t ‘need’ me. I have worked within youth centers, educational facilities, and with a handful of associations. When I go home they will all move on. It’s the little things that I have to pay attention too. It’s the relationships I have built. The people I have talked to. The family gatherings I have attended. The traditions that I have been included in. The lessons I have taught and the lessons that I have learned.

Having a tea break after a long work day
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For the last year or so I have worked closely with one association in particular called Tofola Chaabia. They have adopted me as one of their own, treating me as a friend who is both admired and respected. I can honestly say that they have been a large contributor to the success of my service. With them I have hosted youth camps and organized a number of community events and projects. They are a very tight knit group of hard working, intelligent, and talented people. Now, almost daily, they remind me that I am leaving soon and that they will be very sad when I am gone. Although they will miss me and I will miss the bond that we have formed I know that they will continuing doing amazing things in Azrou. Tofola Chaabia doesn’t ‘need’ me. The point is that even with language barriers, varying religious views, and cultural differences we have still been able to create a working partnership and lasting friendships.

Group picture after an HIV/AIDS workshop
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The past week myself, Ron (another PC volunteer), and Tofola Chaabia hosted a camp at the Dar Chabab. The camp featured English classes and American culture lessons, art activities, a leadership workshop, fitness classes, a CPR and First Aid lesson, music, dancing, soccer and basketball, and a final talent show. Together we all worked really hard and although I was exhausted by the end of the week I was proud of what we put together. However, there was one thing that was particularly touching to me. A young man named Saaid had shown up at the Dar Chabab about a week before wanting to work on his English. He was very shy and didn’t seem to know any of the other youth. He was asked to come to the camp as he was eager to get more English practice. Throughout the week it was clear that he wasn’t outgoing and, even though he knew more than everyone else in the English classes, he would sit in the back. During the down times the youth would showcase their talents through singing, dancing, and playing instruments. Saaid always standing to the side. One of the days he shared a poem that he wrote with Ron and I, translating a bit of it in English. We both said that his writing was very good and that he should share it in the final talent show. He said he would think about it. On the day of the talent show he had gotten up the nerve to read his poetry aloud. The show went on as planned but as they were setting up for the final performance I realized that Saaid had not read his poem yet. I turned to him and asked if he still wanted to go on stage. He shyly replied “I think they just forgot, it’s okay, I don’t need to read it.” “But you have to” I said “we have seen dancing and singing all evening, you are the only person with a poem!” I got up and went to the side of the stage where the MC was standing. “You forgot Saaid’s poem” I whispered, “bring him up here! He can go before the final act”. A microphone was set up and Saaid read his poem to the room, full of silent listeners. From there the last group played their songs, pictures were taken, cookies were eaten, and we all began to clean up. Later, Saaid came over to me and said “I want you to know that I am really happy. Thank you so much for your support, it meant a lot to me. Two weeks ago I would have never gone in front of people like what I did today, but you have given me the confidence that I needed. I am really happy that I came to this camp!”

A group picture from camp
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I worked with plenty of youth during the camp; teaching English, leading art activities, helping with fitness classes, and organizing with the rest of the association. These youth all had their set interests, friend groups, and talents that they were ready to share. Putting everything together took a lot of time and was a lot of work, however, in the end it would be hard to measure the difference that was made. But then there was Saaid. No matter how small of a difference it may have been, attending the camp was still an impact on his life. Saaid was our starfish.

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2014

I feel like 2013 came and went in a blur. When I arrived to Morocco in early 2012 the year 2014 seemed to (literally) be years a way. Now I am rounding up my last months of Peace Corps service, ending sometime in May. I can’t say that I am all together excited to leave but I am definitely ready for a change. Last month I had the chance to visit home for about two weeks. Being there made me feel like I had been living in a double life. The life that I had created in Azrou and the life that I still had waiting for me in Washington. Upon return to Azrou I found that a little Christmas tree had been decorated for me at the Dar Chabab. Many people told me that when I was gone they realized how sad it will be when I actually leave in May, making the end of service a bit more of a reality for me.

Reuniting with friends back home
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January proved to be busier than expected. The play that I was working on with a group of youth and some community members was completed. It was about the affects drugs and alcoholism can have on family structures. I mostly helped with the stage set and the props. I was also asked to plan a second HIV/AIDS event because the first one was so successful. And I added a few extra art classes for the kids at the Dar Chabab because the school schedules changed, leaving their afternoons empty.

The play
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Art Class
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With only about 4 months left in Morocco I also want to take in as much as I can from the culture and pace of life. There are a great deal of things that I will miss here, beyond what I would have expected even a few months ago.

Food
Mint Tea- and all of its extra sugary goodness!
Tajine- with fresh veggies and spices from the local market. Plus it really is the best way to cook potatoes!
The fresh produce- I will truly miss the ability to go to the market an buy fresh organic produce directly from the farmers.
Olives and olive oil- it’s the best here.
Milawee and harsha- two amazing breakfast breads that you just cant find outside of Morocco.
Couscous- Couscous Fridays are the best especially when you have a family to invite you in every week.
Harira- beautiful and hearty chickpea and lentil soup.
Dates- I had never had one until coming to Morocco and I’m worried that I they wont be the same elsewhere.

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The People
The hospitality in Morocco is wonderful. I always have a place to go if I want a warm meal. I am offered tea where ever I go, even multiple times a day. People just love to share here.

The Country
Morocco is beautiful and has so much to offer. It isn’t just comprised of the sand dunes that are seen in calenders or on TV. There are mountains here, desert, waterfalls, forests, coastal towns, villages made of mud/rock, stretches of countryside and densely populated cities. I am constantly finding something new here, things that I wouldn’t expect.

Roman Ruins in Northern Morocco
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The Colors
I am obsessed with the patterns here. All of the tile work on the fountains, mosques, and archways in the cities captured my attention from the very beginning. The bright tie dye of the giant scarves that the women wear in the Sahara make me wish I lived there too. The colors and patterns of the handwoven Berber textiles make me wish I could buy furnishing for an entire house and bring it back to America with me. The spice stands at the markets make me inspired to cook more and branch out from the basics.

Dressing up in traditional clothing
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The Pace of Life
I have never been a morning person, I hate waking up to an alarm. Here mornings have become my favorite time of day. The youth centers do not open until the afternoons so my mornings are generally free. I wake up and make myself a healthy breakfast with tea or coffee. I am then able to eat it as slow as I want to, enjoying each bite. I never new how much I could love breakfast. I then have the time do do lesson planning or take my dog on a walk/run if the weather is nice. This is something that I would never experience in the States. Mornings have always been rushed for me. I grab something to eat really fast and hardly have time to taste it. The idea of going back to that is more than a bit heartbreaking.

Morocco is full of things both good and ugly. I have definitely had my ups and downs throughout my time here. I get angry and frustrated when men harass me and I get downhearted when I see parents telling their children that it is okay to litter. But, for now it is time too look past some of the ugly and relish in what the country is truly about.

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