Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ramadan: The Fast

Ramadan takes place during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, moving back about 10 days each year. This year, Ramadan began on August 12th...four days after I'd arrived in the country. :) This month marks one of the most significant holidays of the Islamic faith, in which all Muslims abstain from many of life's "pleasures," including ALL forms of food or drink, from sun-up to sun-down. The purpose behind such comprehensive fasting is to foster a prolonged focus on seeking and praying for forgiveness, guidance and purity in all aspects of one's life and relationships.

Once the sun has set, Muslim families gather in their homes for the Iftlar, or the meal in which the fast is broken. This is a celebratory hour, in which many special foods are eaten that appear on the table only at this time of the year! (For more details as to what these traditional Ramadan foods are, see the Flickr pictures posted below :)). Once the Iftlar meals are finished, families continue on in a festive spirit--venturing out to visit friends and relatives, and staying up late to enjoy a final dinner before going to bed...knowing another full day will pass before they eat again.

One of the things that surprised me most about life "during Ramadan" was observing how the holiday affects the scheduling of virtually the entire city (and country!). Not only do families stay up late, and then often sleep in until mid-day, businesses follow suit: shops, banks, restaurants and even the post office open their doors later (usually around 10 am, as opposed to 8). Many then stay open through mid-afternoon (instead of taking the usual late afternoon siesta), but close up shop for good around 4 or 5. Then, once everyone's enjoyed Iftlar and had time to relax, it's back to work--many shops will RE-open around 9 (the time when they usually close, having been open post-siesta 'til then), and stay that way til late in the evening--11, 12, or even after. So essentially...the "out-and-about" hours of the day are flip-flopped. Rather than being active in the morning, when it's cool, people sleep through the morning, get up in late afternoon, and come out in droves at night!

On the other hand...
There are many types of people who's jobs and schedules remain (unfortunately) unaffected by Ramadan...most notably, in my opinion are the poor taxi drivers. These guys are still up early, and driving around ALL day long in the heat (with NO AC), with nothing to eat or drink. Many of them resort to driving around with sopping wet towels on their heads (not joking!), just to get a little relief. You can imagine how tempers may flare just a little in these situations... and somehow, that seems to spill out onto the streets. I'd been forewarned that as Ramadan goes on, I could potentially bear witness to a few fist-fights--we'll just say I've seen that, and then some. :) Thankfully, I've yet to see anyone come out so far with more injured than their pride...
With a little more than a week to go, I'm saying my prayers and keeping my fingers crossed! :)

On a more serious note, this has been a great opportunity to dialogue with my host family and other friends about the significance they find in Ramadan, and their faith system as a whole. I've enjoyed learning and discussing these topics with them, and look forward to continuing the conversations.

CLICK on the link below to see photos of how the Ramadan fast is broken in my home!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Moving In...Settling into my new Home

I arrived "in country" late on Sunday night, and spent the night with my teammates. It was great to get a good night's rest, and sleep in...when we ventured out the next afternoon for lunch with a local friend, I felt bright-eyed and bushy tailed :) and ready to jump in to life in my city!

Lunch in the national home, accompanied by my friends, was an excellent transitional experience back into "the way things are done" here. I was grateful for my original two weeks in country a couple years ago, because that gave me a foundation for culturally appropriate "meal etiquette," etc! This particular national friend also happened to have tutored my teammates in their language learning...and is an excellent English speaker herself. That too, made me feel comfortable. But little did I know when we first arrived, that by the time I left, she'd be MY tutor as well...by the end of the meal, she'd agreed to add me to her "clientele." Exciting!

The rest of the day was spent getting my essentials--opening a bank account, purchasing a cell phone, etc. Walking the streets brought back to life all of the sights and sounds (AND smells) that had been banked away in my memory...and jumping into a "petit taxi" again for the first time made me break out in a smile. (Though I admit I wasn't quite as happy to rediscover just how "warm and cozy" they are inside..!!)

After a quiet night at home and a chance to go to bed at a regular time (I hadn't realized just how much even our few outings of the day had taken out of me!), I woke up on Tuesday morning with nervous anticipation for the reunion with my host family. We checked a final trip to the big French market off the list, to buy a few more last minute items, and then it was time...

I needn't have had any butterflies! After a memorable ride (check out the pictures for the full story), I arrived at our meeting place...and after not too long, I saw one of my host sisters appear around the corner of the building. I had been afraid that perhaps my family wouldn't remember me, or even if so, might be indifferent (or puzzled!) by my return. SO...
I was relieved to see the look on my sister's face change from polite greeting, to surprised recognition, and then genuine excitement--she rushed forward and with a big hug, said, "OH, I've missed you!!!" I was encouraged to find on the walk home that she's picked up quite a bit more English since my first visit - the only other English-speaking sister had gotten married and moved out. I knew this would help in feeling a little less isolated, as I work toward beginning to communicate in the language! While walking, she told me excitedly that today was K's* birthday...the sister with whom I had grown the closest during my initial stay, because she was a Spanish speaker! What great timing...(definitely not a coincidence! Yay God.) :)

When we arrived at our front door, it swung open and I was greeted by yet another sister--who led me into the entry way--where I suddenly ran into K*, sitting on the steps. She looked up, and I again saw the same look of astonishment--before being enveloped in a wonderful bear hug. We both laughed as we stood there in our embrace, and I thought, "I may be far from family and friends, but somehow...this still feels like home sweet home."

CLICK this link to see PHOTOS from the week:

And coming soon...more about observing Ramadan! Stay tuned...

Monday, August 16, 2010

English Camp in Granada, Spain! (Pictures Below :))

Crisp fresh bread, flowers in full bloom, centuries-old archways, echoes of hymns; bustling streets filled with families out for the evening stroll, inviting ice cream parlors, and the sound of children's laughter: these are the things that captured me during my two weeks in southern Spain.

Our group of volunteers were housed throughout our stay in an old monastery, still inhabited by over twenty nuns. The grounds were beautiful, and they fed us like royalty! I enjoyed getting to know some of the sisters personally, and learned that many of them had immigrated to Spain from India--so Spanish was their second language as well!

Our group arrived on Friday, completed our training sessions over the weekend, and opened the camp Monday morning. It was held on a school campus within the Zaidin neighborhood, a home to many immigrant families from North Africa and Latin America. Altogether 36 children, aged 8-16, came to get experience the "redonkulous" fun of EXTREME English! :)

Each day during the week, after a breakfast of toast with jam or honey and hot coffee (accompanied by steamed milk) at the convent, we would hop on a city bus and head to the school. The camp day was split into several sessions, including an opening hour with music and skits, class time, snacks, crafts, and games, with a wrap-up that featured an entertaining review of the English campers had learned throughout the day...captained by our fearless leaders, the EXTREMEly talented cheerleader team, Jamie and Kelly. :)

After camp, we'd head back to the convent for Spain's biggest meal of the day, a mouth-watering lunch (usually served in at least 3 courses--steaming hot soup, usually with "mariscos" (seafood), then salad + a main dish (sometimes including papas fritas- a winning favorite with Americans :))-- and always topped off with a sweet dessert, often containing fresh, colorful fruit. After lunch, most of us welcomed a "when in Rome" stance and opted to take a siesta...later, once it cooled down outside, we were free to explore city & join up with the Granada team to try out some of the infamous tapa restaurants and schwarma shops.

Friday--the final day of camp--came all too quickly, and it was difficult to say goodbye to our campers. The children's smiles and giant hugs were all we needed to know that our goals had successfully been met--the campers had truly enjoyed themselves, and managed to learn quite a bit as well...and through it all, new relationships had been forged that will continue to grow and strengthen in the future. I look forward to hearing how the Granada team members build upon some of the foundation laid during camp!

Another highlight of the week was our team's visit to the Alhambra, an immense fortress built high up above Granada,that once was the home to the Moorish rulers in the height of their power in Spain. Filled with lush gardens, flowing fountains, and ornate Arab architectural designs, the Alhambra is one of the most beautiful places I've seen.

After our visit to the Alhambra, we (volunteers) gathered for a final lunch at the monastery, before saying our own goodbyes--some of the group was leaving for America, and the others were traveling on to N. Africa. Myself and one other team member had the privilege of spending one last evening in the monastery, and were invited to attend a special celebration mass the next morning in the attached church (in honor of the end of "El Camino de Santiago," a special pilgrimage that traces the journeys of the apostle James throughout ancient Spain, which had just recently ended. Our monastery, named after the apostle James, held a unique "hosting" role in the celebration! What a delight to watch and listen to our nuns, whom we'd come to know and love, lifting their voices to lead us in worship throughout the celebratory service.

After parting ways with the sisters (and promising to return to visit :) ) I made my way across the city to Jamie's house...and dove into a week of rest and refreshment (and gearing up for the days ahead). On her birthday, Jamie and I took a bus to nearby Nerja--and spent the day on a dazzling beach, enjoying the sparkly cool water and a spectacular view. Later on in the week, we returned to the gardens of the Alhambra to soak in an evening performance of flamenco music and dancing, infused with the poetry of the infamous Federico Garcia Lorca. We were swept away by the raw emotion of the music, and I was captivated by the thought that what came to life on stage seemed to speak into the soul of past, present, and even future Spain. It was a gloriously passionate and proud display of culture. I contemplated afterward how even this-- and perhaps better said, especially this--reveals a portion of the Father's heart, and his delight in the beautiful diversity of the children whom he's created. The evening was a perfect way to wrap up a fruitful and memorable stay in Spain...and an excellent transition into the next stage of cross-cultural living elsewhere.

CLICK on this LINK to check out PICTURES from the week!