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My Three Week Thoughts

3 weeks out from when I leave for Morocco for 27 months. This, my first installment of Tea Time with Nick is an introduction to my blog and just covers my thoughts and answers some questions that I have been getting a lot i.e. Are you scared? How do you feel? What are you doing? Where are you going?

I want this to feel more like a forum guided by my weekly videos, so please leave comments and thoughts on my page, I would love to hear from everyone!! If you have any suggestions for improving my blog let me know as well and stay tuned for updates!

My Neighbor Had a Baby!

My neighbor had a baby! Or rather his wife did…

The Family that lives below me has definitely been the most open and enthusiastic with me. The Husband, Hamid, has a small restaurant/cafe close to the fresh fish market and his place is pretty packed on Tuesdays and Fridays when you can get fresh fish brought in from the coast. The other day I saw him in passing and he told me his wife Fatimzahra was pregnant!, Which I thought was obvious but it was nice to be told for sure. I, in all my wisdom said what is probably best translated as “Good Job” which elicited a head tilt from him. Laughing I made an excuse to exit the situation to avoid further embarrassment. In retrospect I should have asked more questions to show my enthusiasm, (it was big news after all) but vocabulary such as “due date” and even “birth” are not things I’ve yet gotten around to and so I thought it best to leave it at “Good Job”…

Fast forward a week and I’m on the way to souk, and I get a call from Hamid asking where I am. He invites me over to his house that night after dusk to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy…I guess? I don’t really understand but I’m excited at my first invitation to a Moroccan household for such an event. Not knowing what to bring for such an occasion I asked some fellow PCV’s for advice and someone said to bring milk, which I happened to have an unopened carton of so that was good enough for me. Of course I come to find out that this isn’t the proper gift for such an occasion, and sugar would have been the right answer, but what are you gonna do?

I enter the home showing of the milk to anyone that will take it out of my hand and do with it whatever is it this is done with milk at a time like this. Hamid then asks me if I want to see “her” and I quickly count in my head the number of “hers” that I know of (his wife and his daughter) both of whom I’d already said Hi to. He then leads me into an adjacent room where there is a bundle of blankets on the bed and I realize that a week ago when he told me that his wife was pregnant he was actually telling me that she had had the baby! I then realized how generous he was to invite me to the party when all I had to say about the big news was “Good Job”…. I asked the baby’s name– Safa, which means pure or clear. I then started to profusely congratulate them (properly this time) hoping that It would make up for my blunder a week earlier. And there you have the story of how I navigated my first intimate experience with Moroccans– like an idiot.. HAH

The full story of the rest of the party and the culturally elements of such an occasion is of course in the video. As always if you have any questions please let me know! The Tea for this video was Ginger Lemon “instant tea” also described in the video.

Moroccan Culinary Adventures

Moroccan cuisine is far and away from that of its Arab neighbors drawing influences from Berber and French traditions. There are a few dishes that every Moroccan holds sacred and at the heart of most all of them is Khubz, or a flat loaf of bread coated in semolina grain. Khubz is your fork, knife and spoon at a Moroccan table, used to break off pieces of meat, pick up stray veggies and scoop up the sauce of a tajin.

Tajin is actually the name of the clay crock-pot like dish that is used cook the obligatory lunchtime meal by the same name. Tajin can come in many varieties, but some common tajins include red meat with plums and a yellow turmeric sauce, or chicken with olives, carrots, potatoes and the like, but most things you might expect in stew can be put into a tajin (and then some!) Tajin is always placed in the center of the table and eaten with the right hand only. You are entitled to the triangle of the dish that lies directly in front of you and everything in it, except for the meat which is usually gathered in the middle and distributed to each person about ½ – ¾ of the way through eating the meal. Bones are viewed as a treat and often sucked dry of their juices during the last phases of the meal. Tajin is always followed up with apples, bananas, oranges, or the Moroccan favorite, pomegranates for dessert.

Couscous, like Tajin is also a specialty dish of Moroccans, placed in the middle of the table and this time usually eaten directly with hands after being crafted into a ball with various vegetables that might include turnips, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, or a pumpkin-like gord. Couscous is almost invariably eaten on Fridays (the Islamic holy day) and is typically an occasion to have over family or other guests. Couscous day has become my favorite day of the week, and I always add the special sauce (or Marqa) in which the vegetables and meat are initially cooked. It’s usually served with Libn, of which buttermilk is the closest equivalent. I’m told it’s an acquired taste…

Most Morccans don’t have regular access to cheese, but the closest equivalent Laughing Cow “cheese” is widely available since it doesn’t need to be refrigerated (which is why I put the quotes around cheese). It’s a breakfast staple food eaten savory with olive oil, and sweet with jam or honey (or often some combination of the 3).

Other commonalities in Morocco include Harrira, a tomato based soup with lots of veggies, legumes and often meat. It’s thicker than a regular veggie soup and viewed with all the same wholesomeness that we view chicken noodle. Lubiya or white beans braised in sauce is another common item at any Moroccan restaurant (probably more accurately characterized as a café in most cases). Other common items you might find are fries (sometimes atop a tajin) often eaten with Mayo (and for good reason if you ask me). Or, of course, Moroccan mint tea. Mint tea is actually not purely an herbal tea and is usually brewed with green tea leaves as well and served with plenty of sugar. Other popular herbs used in tea include Absinthe (Sheba) or Louiza (Verbena) that has a light lemony flavor.

Another interesting note is that Moroccans normally have 4 meals in the day with a meal consisting almost exclusively of baked goods (depending on the region) called Kaskaroot which often includes tea, and then forms of bread of tea cookies with assorted accompaniments such as Amalou which is described in the video.

As always if you have any further question please let me know, and thanks for joining me for my first (self-brewed) real Moroccan Mint tea!

 

Settling In To My New Home

So I’ve been in my final site for about a week now and I feel it’s about time to report back to everyone at home and give my first thoughts. They are, just one really. Cold.  Not the people, the people are great, but the weather is remarkably cold for being in what is officially a desert. A lot of my day is spent trying to defrost my fingers or toes since there isn’t central heating in virtually any building I’ve been in since arriving here. It is however, completely comfortable in the sun which is where I spend a good part of my waking hours, that is, looking for excuses to get myself outside.

Incidentally, cold aside, that’s what I would be doing anyway, finding reasons to be out in the community, getting to know the area, and familiarizing myself with the resources available in my considerably large site. As I mentioned in my former video, Ouarzazate is home to about 71k people, and so integrating into the site isn’t a feasible goal to have for my service. Rather I’ve been focusing on building a support system for myself, of friends, and mentors. I’ve already identified a tutor (a common item of the do-to-list of recently arrived PCVs), have established a line of communication between myself and my assigned place of work (a children’s center right around the corner from my host parents) and have a gym buddy in my host cousin Oussama (who is apparently only 15 and yet twice my size). I also have a build in support system in my 3 site-mates, 2 from the previous cohort and one from my own (I’ll refrain from using their names until I’ve asked their permission). It’s hard to feel like i’m being effective at this point but I think as far as it goes I’m doing a pretty good job!

The biggest project so far has been finding affordable housing in what is a very competitive housing market. There’s a number of administrative hurdles to jump through on top the obvious difficulty of navigating this process in a foreign country with limited language abilities. For example: The first day me and my site mate went looking for a realtor, after finding out several of the places indicated on google maps didn’t exist we finally found one that ended up not being open yet, nor would it open at all even after it’s listed business hours. We then found a place that apparently didn’t deal in rentals, but as a consolation the man gave us a scrap piece of paper with the address of a well known rental broker. Or at least that’s what I understood of the interaction, the script scribbled on the paper was unintelligible to me. Apparently the same went for the taxi driver because when I handed him the paper he told me he couldn’t read but drove around for a minute anyway before I insisted we get out. Once we got the paper translated and took a taxi to the right area it took us another half and hour to actually find the rental place. Upon arrival they told us they don’t have anything in our price range and refer us to a man back near the first place we looked for who ended up showing us an apartment we couldn’t afford that had a dead bird in it… It was an experience.

But we have come to find two good apartments that are affordable, and we’re both very excited about. We just have to wait for Peace Corps to send someone out for safety checks and hope that we don’t lose those apartments in the wait. In the mean time I’ll continue studying the language (in which I’m actually doing considerably well given that I’ve only been here about 3 months) I scored intermediate middle on my language test which is two levels above what they were expecting of us! When I’m not doing that I’ll be out meeting people and making small purchases as an excuse to talk to shop owners. And when I’m doing neither of those I’ll probably be trying to stay warm.

I hope to get back to actually having tea for my videos once I’m settled into my new place! Till then thanks for checking in 🙂

Where in the World is Nick (going to be living for 2 years)?

This is the post your going to want to see if you care where I’ll be for the next two years 🙂 And it’s bigger news than you might except because (to my surprise) I am actually going to be serving in a very well known (famous even) part of Morocco which is not common of Peace Corps service. The city is called Ouarzazate (or “OZ”) and it’s best known for it’s many beautiful kasbahs (a style of castle) which find themselves in many movies and shows including Game of Thrones in the form of Pentos (Khalessi’s home city? I think?). This is largely the reason that the city has become known as the ‘Moroccan Hollywood’.

For my thoughts on this placement you’ll find it best to consult the attached video, this write up is going to reserved for pictures and information on the city. Here’s some Stats courtesy of wikipedia:

Population: 71,000 but increases in the winters due to Moroccan tourists who wish to escape the cold in the mountain regions of the country.

Nicknamed “The Door of the Desert” this area is a major staging point for tourists who are venturing out to travel to the Sahara, and historically served as a major trading post for traders coming through the desert.

Two renowned valleys converge on Ouarzazate, one to the north-east of the city known for its rose fields (where there as an annual Rose Festival), and one to the south-east known for its palm oases.

Ouarzazate is known for it’s film-making and it, and areas around it have been feature in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) The Mummy (1999) and continues to be featured in Game of Thrones.

It can get as hot as 115 F in the summer months or as cold as 19 F in the winter with icy winds coming of the High Atlas mountains to the north. It receives less than 5 in. of precipitation annually. It’s the sort of hot dry climate that scorpions love (insert eye roll).

The city was originally settled by Berbers who built may of the now famous Kasbahs around the area. The site at Ait Benhaddou is 15 minutes outside the city and is a UNESCO world heritage site.

I’m very excited at the opportunities that lie in front of me in this sizable and beautiful city in the heart of Southern Morocco. The bus to Marrakesh is also only 4 hours over the Atlas mountains and will be a great place to escape to when I need a change of pace. In any case I am very thankful for my site placement and I look forward to serving the people of Ouarzazate in any way I can! Please find attached some pictures of Oz and the surrounding area. (note I don’t take credit for any of the attached photos)

Assimilation 101

I want to start by saying that I am in no position to be explaining to anyone how to assimilate into a new culture. While I’m making progress everyday, as it goes, the more I learn the more I learn I am utterly ignorant — of customs, culture and especially of language.  But this is why I want to address this topic because while I have spent time abroad in France and while I might have considered myself knowledged in French matters I’m just now getting a taste of what it means to truly assimilate into a culture. Let me say it’s both beautiful and terrifying.

I think the beautiful part is easy enough to conceptualize. Assimilation is our first, and most rudimentary goal as Peace Corps volunteers. You cannot be an effective volunteer, and be responsive to the needs of the community if you are viewed as an outsider, and are out of touch with the pulse of the society. Bridging this gap and making real, meaningful connections with people despite considerable differences in language and sensibilities is a testament to human empathy and proof that we’re more similar than we are different. And that’s beautiful. But why terrifying you ask (I’m assuming)? Because assimilation by nature is a change– and not just an change, but a massive shift in all of the things that make you, you.

I didn’t experience this in France because I was surrounded by Americans and the host culture was resemblant enough of that in the US and I qualify that I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg here in Morocco. But I was talking with my host mother the other day, and that in itself was something of a miracle. I was talking, communicating ideas and receiving them, accepting some as truths and disagreeing with others. And when I came to realize the depth with which I was communicating with this women who I’ve lived with for a month or so, and yet was just beginning to understand, I stopped mid sentence. The thought that I could connect with this housewife in rural Morocco as a 20-something white guy from Buffalo, NY was almost euphoric. It felt like I had purpose, like I had achieved my first victory as a PCV. And then almost instantly it felt empty. All of these people around me, all of their stories and their histories are locked to me. Even If I could understand their language, understanding their sensibilities, their collective assumptions, their individual truths, that could take a lifetime.

For the first time when talking to my host mom it dawned on my that understanding a culture is so much more than speaking the language and studying the customs. You have to know it’s people, their mindsets and the range of ways that those things manifest themselves in daily life. And during the process of coming to those understandings, you have to filter out parts of yourself, your very identity, that inhibit those exchanges. The prospect of this is frankly really unsettling. Knowing who you are is no longer a given, in fact being yourself is no longer a concept, your very identity is in flux because it has to be. You have to pick and choose to forfeit parts of your identity and learn to accept foreign things as part of your identity in order to effectively assimilate. This process is long, daunting, uncomfortable, and if you do it right (I assume) really really rewarding.

What’s more you can’t explain to someone how to assimilate into a culture like you can explain to someone how to bake a cake. Except maybe to say that the key is to leave all that your are at the door. Of course this is impossible, but the closer you can get to this, the quicker and the more likely you are assimilate. Which begs the question, why would you want to do that? Especially considering the personal price you have to pay in order to achieve that goal. Why would you want to assimilate into another culture? My Answer: Because understanding one another, especially those of other cultures is the single biggest catalyst for peace that there is. And peace is worth it.

HUB 1 or Mini Meknes Vacation

Apologies, the video can be hard to hear at times. I’ll try to fix this issue for future videos

This week was our first of four ‘hub’ sessions where we travel to Meknes (another large city in Morocco) to get additional training. What’s nice about these sessions apart from the opportunity to see other cities in Morocco is the chance to meet with current PCVs who are brought in to give presentations and spend time with us more generally. The other great joy is the be able to see volunteers from other sites like Rita who graciously agreed to join me in this video when she could have been doing any number of other things in the city, so I big thanks to Rita.

In this video we discuss the differences in my site in Ain Leuh and her comparatively small site in Touffstelt as well as some of the things that were gone over in our hub sessions. Among other things this included English teaching training, classroom management and the revelation that there are in fact camel spiders in Morocco ( I was under the impression there weren’t so you can imagine by disappointment). If you’ve never seen a picture of a camel or ‘sun spider’ do a quick google search, they’re terrifying if not very harmful.

I very much appreciated the English teaching lessons as it helped to elucidate and really make real what I am here to do. Going over how to make a lesson plan and how to appeal to different learning styles very much made me feel more prepared to get to work once I am in my final site. In the same way meeting with current volunteers and hearing their experiences started to get me excited about life beyond community based training or CBT which will come to a conclusion in just over a month.

The other exciting part of hub was getting our forms to indicate out site preferences. They use these forms to identify out needs and preferences and try to place us in sites where they feel we’ll be most effective. For me, I would ideally like to be in a site where I can use my French, be close to other volunteers and maybe most importantly, have some trees! But all of this is still a ways out. For now I’m just riding the high of an awesome hub experience!

There was no tea for this video but I want to thank Rita again for joining me for this installment!

There’s more to Serving your Country than picking up a Gun

 

(note the video and write up are related but the write-up hinges on the theme of what it means to serve our country and our perceptions therein)
I saw a video some days ago that I shared on my Facebook in the wake of the re-inflammation of the whole Colin Kaepernick debacle. The interview was with veteran sportscaster Bob Costas and the thrust of his argument seemed partly summarized in this quote “…What has happened is that [patriotism] has been conflated with kind of a bumper stick sort of flag waving with the military only…” going on to say that Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony were patriots too–even school teachers and social workers are patriots in their own way. His point being that patriotism has become exclusively linked to support of the military leaving out any nuance for other forms of serving our country.
Hearing this brought me back to my very first days in Peace Corps training before we even left for Rabat. In a discussion on how our friends and family reacted upon hearing our decision to join Peace Corps someone shared that they had an individual thank them… and not just thank them, but say the words that are normally reserved for those in the military “Thank you for your service.” Even though I wasn’t the one to receive these validating words, you might be able to imagine the pride I felt in being a part of a group that can be thanked for the good that they are doing for their country. But then that pride quickly faded into irritation. Why isn’t it more common to thank a Peace Corps volunteer for their service, and to Bob Costa’s point, to thank the school teachers and the social workers, to anyone who is dedicating their life to helping to improve the state of the world? Why don’t we see peacemaking and human empowerment as a patriotic thing when this work is the most squarely aligned with improving our quality of life as Americans, and perhaps more importantly as humans.
I want to qualify my next statement in saying that I don’t wish to disparage the military. I have a keen understanding of how vital their jobs are, and I know that anyone deciding to put their lives on the line in that way believes themselves to be serving their country in the highest possible way. But I argue that we the peacemakers and school teachers, we the unthanked servants are doing just as great service to our country and our world by consecrating ourselves to human empowerment rather human eradication. Again, I want to recognize that their service in securing our country against foreign threats is what allows me to pursue a path of peace-making in the first place but– and this is important– We are serving and even protecting our country too.
As I see it, we thank men and women in uniform for their service for 2 reasons: 1- because what they do is extremely important and 2- because they assume a lot of risk in doing so. Perhaps educators and the like don’t fit squarely into this second parameter but Peace Corps volunteers and Peacemakers more generally certainly do both of these. We leave the comfort of our families and amenities of the developed world to come to rural and often dangerous places (due to disease, poverty and the like) to foster cooperation and human capacity building. This is both critical and risky but most importantly, it’s patriotic. One of the core missions of the Peace Corps is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people we serve and to do this we take all that makes us American and we use that as a means of growing the capabilities of citizens in the countries of our allies. This in turn makes us all safer from foreign threats by strengthening our relationships with our allies and making communities stronger and more viable in places where peace and prosperity are fragile or fleeting.
This is how foreign aid also ensures our collective security. What’s more, this form of national defense is far more sustainable than the militaristic variety because destroying your enemy removes their capacity, not only to destroy you but also to provide for themselves which only breeds more violence due to scarcity and lack. Whereas through foreign aid you can disarm potential threats not by removing their capacity but by honing it. By focusing aid efforts on education and economic development you can take populations at risk for becoming destructive and give them the tools and education to instead use their capacities for building better more prosperous communities. Nowhere is this thinking more crucial than in relation to the failed ‘war on terror.’ To put it concisely, books and bandages are a far more effective way of fighting terrorism insurgency than guns and bombs because you cannot destroy a hostile ideology with weapons but rather with education.
I know this has been a dense read so I want to offer you this summary. First, Helping to improve the lives of our fellow man, even and especially outside of the U.S is essential to securing our safety. Second, Peacemaking is patriotic, and so is teaching and healing the sick, and helping your fellow man in general for that matter. Third and finally, serving your country shouldn’t have to involve picking up a gun. Plenty of people who have never been through boot-camp are working for the greater good of our country and our world and their service is every bit as patriotic as the men and women in the military. So next time you see someone serving our country, in whatever capacity, consider thanking them for their service because we are all better off for their efforts.

 

New Eyes

Luckily those moments for me have been few and far between so I’ve been more like a toddler who doesn’t quite understand societal norms which renders their blunders cute and so you forgive them for it. I should say that the only reason I’m not at the newborn stage is more a consequence of my good fortune than of my tenacity. My host family is kind and accommodating. I’ve got regular access to clean, even cold water and my meals are usually delicious and always plenty.

I have known no lack since being here except that of my ability to properly communicate my thoughts and even then I have a wonderful, intelligent host brother who speaks English and is more versed in american literature than I am. My circumstances are far that and away of many of my friends and certainly of most Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) serving around the world and for this I am simultaneously thankful and wary. Wary- because all of the things that are making it easier for me to adjust at the moment will make it that much harder to adapt when I am placed in my site without a host mom to cook my meals or a host brother to translate for me.

The hardest part of adjustment for me has been the community in which I find myself. In the video I briefly discuss the ways that underdeveloped-ness presents itself here in Ain Leuh but I should qualify that the only reason I felt compelled to do that at all is because for all intents and purposes, I’m in a healthy community. Sure, there is a generally unappetizing grey-brown rubble aesthetic to the buildings and the closest equivalent to flowers is the trash that collects in the brush along the main drag, but inside those buildings families gather on beautiful upholstery to discuss what happened at school and the rubbish that’s sprinkled in the bushes is evidence of sufficient access to food and supplies.

The imperfections in my environment that have made it hard for me to adjust are more a reflection of my lofty standards of living than of some shortcoming on behalf of the Moroccan civil society. In fact as I receive smiles and tea invitations from near strangers I can’t help but think about how my allegedly exemplary home culture in the US is remarkably poor at fostering such interactions of good will and fraternity among members of the same community and even the same family.

When you come into the Peace Corps as an educated, bright-eyed force of benevolence you are under the guise that you are here to come in and give the undeserved people of far flung lands the tools to dig themselves out of poverty. But, when you get here you realize that, while you are all those things, you are also a clueless, wide-eyed little baby who’s just trying to get through the days without pooping your pants (actually though, foreign germs do a number on your digestive tract). And it’s better this way. I’ve had to unlearn so much to even just to begin to see with new eyes that allow me to peek at what is beautiful and remarkable about this country and it’s people.  

The tea for this video is Moroccan mint tea made by my host mom Bdia.

Arrival in Casa… Rabat?

 

There’s so much to say and hardly the time to say it as I try and squeeze this update in before morning sessions. Let me start by apologizing for not having an update for everyone for our staging in Philly, I recorded a video with my then roommate and new friend Sonam, and discovered upon going to post it that my microphone had been muted (bummer). I apologize additionally that this video that I have for you all this week is not as organized as the one I had on deck, Having so much to talk about meant that we jumped around some and it’s at times hard to hear but I’d like to give a shout out to Sonam in any case for guest starring in this installment.

In this video we talk about the staging process and heading out to JFK airport at 11:30 PM to catch our 6:50 AM flight in Casablanca (Casa). I had unwitting lied to everyone at home in saying that I’d be in Casa for training as I found out at the airport we’d be getting bussed to Harhoura (a Rabat suburb) which is where I’ve been for the last few days. We’ll be going into the city tomorrow for a cultural excursion and then finishing up next week at the hotel. After that we’ll be heading into Meknes to begin our community based training (CBT) which involves moving in with a host family with a few other volunteers with supplemental Peace Corps training sessions.

Overall with the exception of heat and unwelcome roommates (see video) my experience has been pretty ideal, almost too ideal in fact. That’s to say we haven’t yet stepped outside the sphere of the hotel in the very nice neighborhood we’re staying in and so it’s been something of a paradise inside the walls (I’ll include some pictures) so I’m really forward to our first excursion out into Rabat Tomorrow!

Lastly I didn’t include the gratitude journal in this episode so I’ll say that some things I’ve written down include : How good the food is, How I didn’t have any jet lag and How nice and helpful the language and culture facilitators (LCFs) are (more info on that in a later video).

The tea in this video was a cough drop dissolved in water because I didn’t have any access to hot water.. or tea (surprisingly delicious).

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Moving out and Moving on

 

My apologies for not having this up earlier, It’s been a busy few days moving out and whatnot. Being that this video was recorded some days earlier and is just now being posted, the timeline as discussed in the video is now advanced some days into the future making it a brief 5 days before me and my parents set out for Philly and just over a week until I’m in Casablanca.

This video is a reflection on my time living with my long time friend Nicole, and some thoughts as I transition out of that living situation back in with my parents my last full week in the country. I also introduce a new segment (which is as much for me as it is for all of you) where I will share a few things that I have to be grateful for that happened during that week. I hope to use this as a tool for mindfulness and perspective when I need a pick me up along the way.

Lastly I propose an idea for a virtual marketplace which I would start up when I am in my assigned community in a few months. The idea is to catalog different goods that people in my, or other peace corps volunteer (PCV) villages, produce so that friends and family back home can purchase authentic Moroccan goods at a cheaper price than it would be via other methods.

I am including a picture of the tent I made in my backyard as mentioned in the video. VDND8866The tea for this video is Tension Tamer by Celestial Seasonings. As always feel free to leave comments and questions! Thanks for joining me for tea.