Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Abroad Blog of the Week: كوين ف المغرب (Quinn in Morocco)

I love Peace Corps Volunteer blogs. 1. They are always in interesting locations. 2. They always have great interactions with local people. 3. I can live vicariously through them. I started following كوين ف المغرب (Quinn in Morocco) almost four months ago for all of these reasons. The blogger, Sarah, is an Atlanta native who studied art at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) and now finds herself teaching English to the local children in Tamslouht, Morocco. Having finished her first year as a PCV this coming November 17, Sarah’s blog is full of great insight into the Moroccan way of life. Her blog highlights everything from Ramadan to Moroccan weddings to current political and religious issues in the country. I was excited to “meet up” with Sarah via email to learn all about the PCV experience.

What is a typical day for you as a PCV in Morocco?

 A typical day…oh, what a faraway dream from another land!

I have found that there is absolutely no such thing as a typical day in Morocco. Even my best-laid plans are always disrupted by invitations to tea at a complete stranger’s house, last-minute excursions to the city, meetings that I had no idea were happening, students not showing up to my classes (or showing up at my front door in droves when I had no idea a class would be meeting), donkey traffic jams preventing me from getting anywhere on time…the possibilities are endless. Additionally, life in Morocco is really seasonal. By this, I mean that my “typical” Tuesday during the school year is very different than a Tuesday during the summer. And a Tuesday during Ramadan is a completely different animal entirely!

If I had to draw up a “this is what I spend most of my time doing” schedule, patched together from the most common occurrences of my life during any given time, it would probably go something like this:

In the morning, I wake up around 6am to the alarm that I optimistically set the night before— you know, to go running and do that whole “healthy lifestyle” thing. I rarely make it out of bed. I sleep in until my next alarm around 8 or so and then spend a bit of time checking emails, reassuring people I’m alive, etc. My mornings revolve around last-minute lesson-planning for my English classes at the local youth center, teaching those classes, or spending time at the local café studying Darija with my tutor. Lunch usually occurs in the 12-3pm timeframe, and this can be anything from a depressing concoction from my own fridge (Lentils? Third day in a row? Why not!) to a delicious meal at a friend’s house. I always cross my fingers for an invitation. The afternoon involves more last-minute lesson planning, classes, meetings with associations, and possibly activities at the youth center. In the evening, I go home, to a friend’s house, or to my host family’s house. The latter two options involve sitting around, watching Turkish soap operas dubbed in Darija, and eating more delicious food. Bedtime comes pretty soon thereafter.

You’ve got great packing list! Of all you have, what three things could you absolutely not live without?

 A quick aside about my packing list— that was composed after coming to Morocco and seeing what I actually needed (as opposed to what I brought with me). Let me assure you, those things were completely unrelated.

Nevertheless, the three things that I absolutely can’t live without are:

  • My small book: This was a going-away gift from the museum I used to work for. It’s pocket –sized and perfect for writing down new words that I learn in the various places I end up during any given day.
  • My computer: It’s not particularly fancy, but it has enabled me to communicate with the outside world during the past year. Even without an internet connection, ending the day with an episode of the West Wing in the comfort of my bed (as opposed to the local cyber café) is a wonderful, purely American comfort food.
  • My glasses: Not only are they practical, as I really can’t see anything without them, but they’re always a good conversation starter with little kids (“Can I wear your glasses?” “Wow, look how goofy I am!”). In big cities, they also diffuse a lot of unwanted attention. It’s like I’m a mystical creature with large black glasses instead of a foreign woman to hassle.

 What is your favorite thing to do with visitors when they come to Tamslouht?

I have taken every visitor to the local café that sits right in the heart of Tamslouht. It’s a really cute, very Moroccan establishment that I visit every day, if not multiple times a day. A cup of coffee or a soda is less than a dollar, the owners (Marwan and Mustapha) know and love me very much. From their plastic chairs, I can literally see everyone in the town walk by if I sit there long enough. It has that “rustic charm” that only stray cats napping on the chair beside you and soda delivered in glass bottles can offer. For American visitors, it’s also extremely entertaining for them just sit and observe the rhythm of Moroccan life for a bit. The donkeys pulling carts of vegetables and small children are always a hit.

 How do you use art to work with your students?

I spend the majority of my time teaching English. However, because of my personal background (I studied art and art history in college) and my desire to make learning fun, I really try to implement as many creative activities into my curriculum as possible.

Mostly, I use art as an English-teaching method. For example, if we’re studying adjectives, I’ll make students randomly pick an adjective and a noun and draw a picture combining the two. This ends up being not only fun and an effective way to learn (how can you not remember something like “fat table” or “sad tajine”), but I also end up getting free classroom decorations. The kids really dig it.

 What have your students taught you?

 More than I’ve taught them. I swear.

 For new PCVs, what advice would you give them to have a successful start?

Just laugh it off. Peace Corps usually ends up being an amazing, life-changing experience….that is simultaneously a complete emotional rollercoaster. We volunteers joke with each other a lot about the way that the tiniest, slightly-negative experience can send the most even-tempered volunteer to tears. Also, living in another culture, you have a lot of things said to you that are completely normal, if not even complimentary in this culture— while being simultaneously offensive to you as an American.

The best example I give people is the frequency with which people call me fat. It’s a huge (ha ha ha) compliment here, although not so much to an American. Just a week or so ago, I was at my sitemate’s host family’s house for dinner. We had walked over in the pouring rain and they insisted that we change our clothes as not to get sick from the cold. My skinny sitemate had no problem slipping into his host brother’s sweat pants; I, meanwhile, literally could not button the “largest pants they owned.” Direct quote. This is a family of very small-boned, genetically-blessed women, and they were very entertained by the fact that I couldn’t fit into the largest pair of pants that they owned (probably the equivalent of a size 6 in America). They kept telling me that my stomach was huge! I was so fat! Ha ha ha! This is the kind of situation where you have two choices: break down and cry because it’s the 6th time today where someone has called you fat and you’re beginning to believe it, or just laugh and take it in stride. Seriously, if you look at everything the right way, you’ll see that it’s all complete sitcom material— even the stuff that can really hurt and make you want to pack your bags. Taking things lightly will not only make your Peace Corps experience exponentially easier, but it will make all of the potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings null and void.


Abroad Blog of the Week: Taking Nominations

Image credit: birdsandshoes.com

Well, dear readers, I need your help. After more than 20 great Abroad Blogs of the Week, I want your recommendations and nominations. Who should I be reading? Who is doing great stuff abroad? Who have you added to your reader recently? If you write a great abroad blog or know of someone who does, read through the directions below and nominate your favorite abroad blogger via my new form. I can’t wait to get some new reading recommendations!

Criteria to be an Abroad Blog of the Week:

  1. The blogger must either be about to go abroad, currently abroad, or recently returned from abroad
  2. The blog must predominately be about culture/travel
  3. Posts should be fairly regular (at least once or twice a week).

Requirements to be an Abroad Blog of the Week:

  1. Let me ask you 4-6 questions via email
  2. Send back your responses by the following Monday
  3. If you want (i.e. this is not a requirement), welcome any new readers from Global from Home the day I post our interview.

Easy, peasy.

If you would like your blog to be an Abroad Blog of the Week or know of another blog you think I should scope out, let me know! You can anonymously submit your nominations at the Abroad Blog of the Week Nomination Form.


Abroad Blog of the Week Nominations

With moving, Mexico, and a residual stomach bug I am a bit off this week and now I’m running behind. While I’ve been emailing with a few bloggers, I have no abroad blog (yet) for this week. Bummer. But like the greeting card says, “When life gives you lemons, stick them in your bra.”  I figured I could use this opportunity to get some nominations for future Abroad Blogs of the Week. So here is the deal:

Criteria to be an Abroad Blog of the Week:

  1. The blogger must either be about to go abroad, currently abroad, or recently returned from abroad
  2. The blog must predominately be about culture/travel
  3. Posts should be fairly regular (at least once or twice a week).
  4. It has to be interesting

Requirements to be an Abroad Blog of the Week:

  1. Let me ask you 4-6 questions via email
  2. Send back your responses by the following Monday
  3. If you want (i.e. this is not a requirement), welcome any new readers from Global from Home the day I post our interview.

Easy, peasy.

If you would like your blog to be an Abroad Blog of the Week or know of another blog you think I should scope out, let me know! You can comment on this post or email me at elisehblalock@gmail.com.

Want to learn more about the Abroad Blog of the Week? Check out these previous editions:

Abroad Blog of the Week: Partners for Peace

I came upon Partners for Peace about a month ago when I did a tag search for Peace Corps. While I don’t know that the Peace  ever fit into my life, I do love reading about others who have delved into the two-year journey. For Mari and Paul of Partners for Peace, this adventure has taken this married couple from NYC to Palmar, Ecuador. Despite connectivity issues, M&P post regularly and give a ton of detail about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. I first started reading their blog when they were opening a pizza parlor in Palmar (great posts), but since have gone back and read their engagement story and process of applying for and getting placed with the Peace Corps. If you are even contemplating the Peace Corps, Mari and Paul’s blog is definitely one to read.

I caught up with Mari and Paul this week via email to ask them a few questions about their lives in Ecuador with the Peace Corps. See what they had to say!

What are the best/most challenging aspects of your Peace Corps assignments?

MARI: One of the best aspects of my Peace Corps assignment is that I am able to combine several of my skills and passions into individual projects. For example, I am working with a women’s artisan cooperative called Mujeres Cambia (http://mujerescambia.com). Members of the group make incredible hand-made jewelry out of recycled paper. You can’t tell by looking at it that it is made from paper. Most people think the beads are made of glass, ceramic, or wood but they really are made of paper! I am able to share my love for making things with my hands (I used to be the executive director of an arts nonprofit in Brooklyn, New York) at the same time I am able to design promotional materials and a marketing strategy for the group. Further, I am constantly motivated as the women learn new business skills like branding, accounting, promotions, and inventory.

One of the more challenging aspects of service is that while we act as catalysts for change we are also forced to change a lot in our current context, too. For instance, I was used to being a very independent woman in New York City – walking around alone, sharing household chores with my husband, traveling wherever and whenever I wanted, working outside of the home – and many of these activities are less common for women in my particular town. I am in the privileged position of being from somewhere else so I am given a pass on most of these things but I am often the exception acting in this way.

PAUL:  The reason I joined the Peace Corps is that I wanted to do something different with my life. Mari and I were happy in NYC but we were restless and looking for adventure. We wanted to live abroad, learn a language and at the same time do some good. We find ourselves 2 years later in paradise. We are on the beach, working with an incredible team and couldn’t be happier. I agree that our most rewarding project is with the women’s group, Mujeres Cambia. Everyone who sees their pieces does a double-take. It is an
incredible gift to be working with such talented women.

Who has helped you adjust to your life in Ecuador?

MARI: One of the reasons I feel so fortunate to be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer at this stage in my life is that I get to do it with my best friend and partner, Paul. Serving as a married couple means that we can collaborate on projects (we help each other on all of our projects even if one of us is the lead), take care of one another when we are sick, share household chores, and serve as each other’s support system.  I thought about applying to the Peace Corps after college but now I can’t imagine this experience without Paul!

PAUL: What Mari says is true. While many of our peers are here alone I am here with my best friend. Together we are learning about the culture of Ecuador as well what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. In reality, it is also challenging because Marisa is a superstar so it’s sometimes hard to keep up. I strive to keep up with this powerhouse motivator, facilitator and designer but enjoy having a role model by my side.

You recently helped open a pizza parlor in Palmar. What are your favorite pizza combinations?

MARI: Pineapple is really popular here so we have that as an optional topping at Palmar Pizza. We also have pepperoni, ham, and vegetables. In my old life in Brooklyn, though, Paul and I were fond of a local pizza place that made a corn, goat cheese, and basil pizza. Often, we would buy pizza dough from our local pizzeria and make our own version of that pizza. I don’t know if the local taste buds would go for this one, but you never know!

PAUL: Helping start a pizza restaurant was a rewarding project where we designed and built out the space and of course perfected a recipe. In Palmar, because most people have never had pizza before we wanted to stick to the basics at least at first. In 2013 look out for shrimp pizza at a Palmar Pizza near you!

If received a care package from home, what would you want in it?

MARI: Wow! This is hard. This mythical perfect package would have to include some comfort food like home-baked cookies with dark chocolate chips, pad thai (not sure how well that would do in the mail) as well as some practical stuff like the new Polaroid digital instant camera and a bunch of Sharpie marker variety packs for the ladies of Mujeres Cambia. It would be nice to have other fun stuff to make me smile like pictures of my two nephews and one niece, recipes from my mom and mother-in-law, and actual written letters from all of my closest friends.

PAUL: My parents have been sending incredible care packages these past couple of months. We usually look forward to simple things like suncreen, cookies, or towels and always look forward to any hand written notes. I am also always excited about things that support our projects. Now I am trying to solicit old smart phones from friends that we could use for our business projects where we do accounting and inventory by hand.

What advice do you have for someone applying for the Peace Corps?

MARI: I would say “Go for it!” It is never too late to apply. We thought that since we hadn’t applied right after college that we had missed the boat but that’s definitely not true. The average age of a Peace Corps Volunteer has increased steadily (I think it’s 28 now) and they are encouraging more married couples as well as retirees to serve.

Also, it’s important to talk to current and returned volunteers. We hosted a potluck at our place for returned volunteers as we were filling out the application. We also spoke with people who had volunteered through other organizations. In the end Peace Corps was the best fit for us and they accepted us so we couldn’t feel luckier.

PAUL: I am on the same page as Marisa, “Go for it!” When we were thinking about Peace Corps we had been out of school for years, had stable jobs and a comfortable life in New York. We were content and happy. Doing something radically different like Peace Corps was risky. It meant not just leaving our jobs but being away from our family and friends. We couldn’t pick where we would live or what we would be doing. There was a chance we may not like our site. There was a feeling that we are giving up a great deal of control over our own lives. But thinking about the past couple of years in New York (which seemed to blur together now) it seemed like having a big change like this would be a way to challenge us. It would be a way to have another type of experience and of course an adventure. Adventure bound, as always.

Thanks so much, Mari and Paul!