Thursday, May 25, 2017

Morocco!

It's a public holiday here today. Mario is off on a plane to Kiev and I'm here with the second coffee of the day determined to put some life back into this blog.

Late February, my first adventure on the African continent. Travel partner - one of my best girlfriends, the first real girlfriend I made here in Munich.  We haven't been on a big adventure together since our Scandinavia trip at the end of 2014, so I would say a vacation together was long overdue!



A direct flight from Munich to Marrakech was just about four hours. Although there are a plethora of taxis at the airport, we chose to have someone from our Riad pick us up, as we were arriving at night and had absolutely no idea about anything in Marrakech.

Riads, traditional Moroccan houses with a courtyard in the middle, are THE place to stay in Morocco. They come in all varieties of designs, price, and comfort levels. We stayed at places with a price tag around 30 euros per person per night for a double room with breakfast included and were very pleased with the quality of accommodation for that price.

Beautiful view from our room

Rooftop garden
After enjoying our Moroccan breakfast we went to the train station to buy our tickets to make the long journey up to Chefchaouen. Doing that trip all in one day isn't for the faint of heart - it will take at least 10.5 hours. In the north the train lines end and it is necessary to take a bus.  A massive tour bus, that is, with us two being the only passengers to Chefchaouen. It felt rather ridiculous and just a tad creepy, especially when we realized how delayed our arrival in Chefchaouen and that we had no cell phone service out in middle of nowhere Morocco to inform our Riad pick-up.  Then, completely out of the blue, our moroccan bus driver began speaking to us in fluent German! It turns out that he had been living and working in Germany about 20 years ago. ''Don't worry,'' he assured us, ''I got a German driver's liscence while I was living there, so you can be sure that I'm a safe driver.'' This wonderful human being then made it his own personal responsibility to make sure that we made it safe and sound to our Riad in Chefchaouen, making a handful of phone calls and insisting that we wait inside the bus until the taxi arrived. The world is truly full of such wonderful people!

Near the train station, Marrakech



Chefchaouen was hands down the highlight of our trip. The beautiful blue houses and relative calm were much needed before we prepared to take on Fes later in the week. We let ourselves get lost among the colorful houses and enjoyed fresh mint tea on Chefchaouen's small central square.We got our first henna of the trip, which left me feeling like a Moroccan princess.

Main square - Chefchaouen




Views over Chefchaouen

Henna art

Our new matching scarves
Fes' charm lies in its massive, winding medina and traditional handicrafts. Yet after a hectic day within the city walls, a sunset view from the ruins up on the hill as the last prayer calls ring out was exactly what we needed.


Tannery and leather dyeing

Spice shop

Ruins over Fes

Ruins over Fes




The journey back to Marrakech from Fes was an awful lot for one day, but we got on the road early and were rewarded in Marrakech with our nicest riad yet! We went out into the city until sunset and then returned to our riad, where Kayli got a manicure and I had massage, before relaxing by the fire with a pot of mint tea.
More henna in Marrakech
Last morning in Morocco
While in Morocco I never felt anything but safe. It's an extremely tourist-friendly country and there is something there for every type of traveler. We were neither in the desert nor on the seaside, but I suppose that just means that another trip to Morocco will be necessary in the future!


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Beautiful Barcelona

The last week of October into the first days of November my school had off for fall holidays.

I didn't want to be away the entire week, but one spontaneous morning I took a look on my favorite flight booking platform and before I had finished my tea a flight to Barcelona had been booked.

So from Saturday night to early Wednesday morning I found myself strolling through the streets of Barcelona, stocking up on warmth and sunshine before winter sets in, breathing in deep that fresh seaside air, eating good food, and generally just enjoying myself!




Every good trip includes chocolate waffles ;)

Since I was there on the weekend of All Saints Day I was lucky enough to catch a cultural program in the city which included the breathtaking Castell human tower building.




On my first full day there I went out for tapas and ended up meeting a group of Americans - who work in Munich! What are the odds?? We ended up spending the rest of the evening together and have met up once since we've all been back in Munich.

On my last day I had tickets to visit the La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Now this here was the highlight of my entire trip! I could spend hours just surrounded by such beautiful architecture. It was simply stunning! I've never seen anything like it! It's certainly not to be missed on a trip to Barcelona...even if the ticket prices are a little steep. 






My trip to Barcelona was a solo adventure.  I always have mixed feelings about traveling alone.  On the one hand, it is nice to be able to do what I want, when I want and I did meet some other travelers. Alone time wandering through the city or sitting at the seaside can also be very relaxing and peaceful and a good time for self reflection.  But being alone also really stinks sometimes. Like when I would love to go for a nice dinner, but sitting alone in a restaurant just doesn't sound appealing in the least.  Or simply being able to share the experiences with another person and to make memories together.  Of course, I made plenty of my own memories, but at the end of the day I'm still definitely the ''travel with friends or family'' type. But given the choice between traveling alone and staying at home, you better believe I'd still be getting on that plane! 


Friday, November 4, 2016

Matryoshka Monday

This fall I have been teaching a Russian language and culture course to a mixed group of 1st through 4th graders on Monday afternoons.  Most of them are beginners so we are taking things slow, but one recent Monday we learned the numbers 1-10.  I taught the numbers within the context of the topic ''Matryoshka'' and the lesson culminated in the children having the chance to make their own set of paper matryoshka.  I found a wonderful template online, but also gave the children the option of creating their own unique design.  We had multiple sets of minion matryoshka, various animals, a football theme, and even a very colorful minecraft matryoshka.  While they were working on their dolls I turned on some Russian music and two of the girls couldn't stop dancing in their seats.









Just before the commencement of fall break each of the Monday afternoon courses held an exhibition of what they had learned since the beginning of the year.  I loved watching everyone take on their own role in setting up the classroom.Two boys went and found a step-stool and declared themselves in charge of hanging up the worksheets the class had done on former Soviet countries and the September 1st ''Day of Knowledge'' celebrations. The older girls took over the organization of the posters, delegating the cutting and gluing to the younger ones, while one of my shy girls decorated the board and two others were just happy to color pictures of matryoshka to decorate the room.  We also had Cheburashka cartoons projected and I wrote the names of the kids visiting our display in the Cyrillic alphabet.






Monday afternoons will continue to be one of my favorite times of the week.  When each teacher has the chance to take his or her passion and share it with young, curious minds.  Isn't that what learning should be all about?! 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

On Becoming a Teacher

Today's story isn't about my recent travels to far away lands. This story begins many years ago with a little brown-eyed girl growing up in the American Midwest.  A little girl who spent many of her carefree childhood days teaching her ''classroom'' full of younger siblings and cousins in her grandparents' basement.  A girl who admired her teachers, loved them, and regarded them as real-life super heroes. This is the story of a girl who grew up in a society where teachers are far too often overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid.  Where barely 18 year old kids feel the pressure to already know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

And that girl, well if you didn't guess already, it's me.  And all I knew in those days of important college decisions was that I wanted to learn foreign languages and see the world and felt that politics, international relations, and foreign language studies was the way to that goal.  

So I set off to university, naive and optimistic. I poured myself into my studies and experienced success in my academic endeavors.  From representing Georgia in a Model UN to writing my senior thesis on the politics of a divided Ukraine, I shined bright within the sheltered environment of my university, yet found myself time and time again in a completely different role in the ''real world''.  I became a dedicated volunteer teacher of Russian to children in the community, a peer-instructor of a university course for first year students, and an English conversation partner for ELL students. I started out my year abroad as a nanny and English tutor in Germany and found myself spending more time in local schools, orphanages, and English clubs than at the university during my year abroad in Ukraine.  Sometime during that year it became entirely clear that a career in politics just wouldn't make me happy and didn't fit into the plans and dreams I had for my life.  Upon my return to the US I diligently finished off my bachelor's degree in International Studies and Russian Language and Culture, while all the time looking into what the next step might be.

And as life so beautifully has a way of doing, things fell into place exactly as they were meant to.  It took a few rejections and wrong turns, but I eventually ended up Munich - enrolled in the perfect teacher training program, living with the most wonderful host family, and learning and growing in the classroom of the world's most inspiring mentor teacher.  And 2 years and 4 months after the big move across the Atlantic, I met the 24 first and second graders who would fill my classroom in my first year of teaching at Jules Verne Campus.  Less than a week later I held my first Russian class at school.  Each week I get to teach one of my class's music lessons. I'm learning to let go and let the class become a bit chaotic as they discover the world in our Curiosology lessons.  And as someone who has always considered herself anything but artsy, I've surprised myself with how much fun I'm having teaching arts and crafts for two hours each week. The teachers and students at the school come from every corner of the world and you can hear the schoolyard buzzing with a colorful mix of languages. I have the best colleagues anyone could wish for and am surrounded by so much positive energy each and every day.

Since starting at the new school this fall I feel such a sense of contentment and peace.  And I'm so thankful for the journey that brought me here! 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tales from Tajikistan

Tajikistan - you were a surprise! Although you were trying at times, in the end the beauty of your nature stole our hearts.  I could have stayed weeks taking in those beautiful mountains and crystal clear lakes.  Here is what we discovered in our time there.

Khujand

A relatively uninteresting city, but a nice place to stop if you don't want a whole day of traveling ahead of you when you leave Uzbekistan.  We enjoyed mountain views and walks along to the river and the luxury of the ''Khujand Deluxe Hotel''. In this part of the world the city really comes to life after the sun goes down, so we enjoyed walking in the parks, admiring the lit-up fountains which appeared to be choreographed to the music playing.  Some children who heard us speaking English even came up and talked to me. Well, they tried their best at least.  We only got as far as ''My name is'' and ''I am __ years old'' before the language barrier set in.  They were beaming with pride nonetheless.

Mountain view in Khujand
City view across the river

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Beautiful sunset
Panjakant

Home to the worst guest house we experienced while on our trip, but also our gateway to the most amazing trip into the mountains.  The 7 lakes region of Tajikistan is one of the most famous places in the country to go hiking, although getting up into and staying in the mountains is quite difficult if you haven't got a tent and your own set of wheels. Local tour providers know this, of course, and charge outrageous prices to arrange a mountain trip. But thanks to the friendly Tajik girl working at the guest house, we managed to get up into the mountains a bit more ''local style''.  She called around to some people she knows who regularly drive up into the mountains. Basically, they operate as a shared taxi, mostly bring people from the various mountain villages into the city to buy supplies.  On the way up the mountain there were 6 of us in the 5-seat car as well as a trunk full of everything from potatoes to panes of glass for windows and tied to the roof was a variety of lumber and door frames.  That was a light load compared to the 12 people who were inside that same car on the way back down the mountain. A little more than halfway to our destination we got a flat, but the driver assured us that this happened quite often (his 5th one in 2 months) and it was replaced in no time.  The driver took us to our home of teh family where we would be staying and we agreed on a time for him to pick us up and bring us back down to the city.  Honestly though, I could have stayed up in those beautiful mountains forever.



The very loaded car

Just a routine flat tire

Breathtaking!! 

Dushanbe and Lake Iskanderkul

We finished up our time in Tajikistan by visiting the capital city Dushanbe. One our way there we again took the shared taxi because again, no mini-buses. They of course wanted to give us the ''foreigners price'', but we sneakily asked the others how much they were paying for the journey and insisted that we pay the same price as everyone else.  It worked! Dushanbe is home to one of the world's tallest flagpoles.  The flag itself is 60 meters long!! Dushanbe was also our starting point for a day trip to the famous Lake Iskanderkul.  To get there we had to once again cross through what I came to call ''the tunnel of death''.  This mountain tunnel is nearly 1 kilometer long and has no lights or ventilation. Because most of the cars do not have filters on their exhaust pipes, it is so foggy from vehicle fumes that you can hardly see where you are going, yet people drive like mad, blindly and recklessly passing one another.  Although Lake Iskanderkul is one of Tajikistan's most famous natural wonders, the roads to get there are atrocious and the only transportation option is shared taxi. There is extremely basic Soviet-era accommodation at the lake, but a giant sign near the main roads proclaims plans to build a luxury hotel and resort.  We'll see if that happens or not.  At first glance there doesn't even seem to be a restaurant or cafe anywhere near the lake, but upon asking around we were directed over to a topchan and a little makeshift kitchen from which plov and tea magically appeared. Our game plan to get back to the main road and thus back to Dushanbe was to just stop a car heading away from the lake and ask to ride along.  It didn't take long before a jolly crew of three Tajik men offered to let us squeeze into the back of their small SUV. We quickly realized that this short journey would turn into one of the highlights of the entire trip.  They immediately popped open a beer and handed it to Mario and told him that he was a ''молодец'' for planning this trip around Central Asia. They also seemed to know/be related to the people in almost every car which we passed along the road, although one car load warranted a special stop.  Everyone got out of the car and meat, bread, and vodka magically appeared. Now, this may seem like your typical former Soviet scene, except that these friends/relatives that we met had long beards and traditional Muslim dress, yet they downed their teacup full of vodka nonetheless.  ''It's different here in Tajikistan,'' our new friends explained.  The men asked Mario if he would ''allow'' me to drink the vodka, but I told them I don't drink hard liqueur and luckily being a woman is a good enough excuse for that in Tajikistan. The bottle was emptied in record time and, a little bit wobbly, we were back on the road, only to be stopped by the police about 5 minutes later.  Being stopped by the police is quite a different ball game in Tajikistan to say the least and in this case the police didn't even talk to the driver, rather to the front passenger who seemed to be friends with the officer and just exchanged a few laughs and handshakes before sending us merrily on our way.  As we bid farewell to our new friends at the main road, I was once again reminded why we travel like we do, without the organized tours and fancy guides.  It's to meet completely average people like these men in the truck and to share, if even just for a short time, in a genuine piece of Tajik life. As we did yet again when our shared taxi back to Dushanbe stopped for a quick car wash from a simple family-run roadside car wash stand where they offered us tea and the littlest daughter just learning to walk entertained us all.

Our last day in Tajikistan we spent hanging out with a French guy from our hostel who was heading back home after a month in Afghanistan.  In fact, we met many travelers on our trip who had been traveling in Afghanistan and they all had amazing stories to tell.  We ended up all sharing a taxi to the airport together at 2 o'clock in the morning.  And of course it wouldn't be a trip in the former Soviet Union without a little bit of bribing, as the security officer wasn't going to let Mario bring our power bank on the flight otherwise.  We also met a very interesting Tajik-Australian at the airport who seemed more than happy to be headed back to Sydney after a few weeks of Tajik craziness.

Lake Iskanderkul


Topchan chillin

Lunch at the lake

The pride of Dushanbe


Kvas - Mario's favorite!

Tajikistan is a place where most people would never dream of going on vacation, but having been there, I would go back in a heartbeat.  Maybe once that Iskanderkul resort is finished, I'll head back ;)