Ukulele in the classroom

Using Music to teach English

Since day one at the elementary school in Malaga, Spain where I’m currently teaching english, my ukulele has been like my third arm.

If I don’t have it, my students ask me where it is. In the hallways, I’m stopped by kids who ask to play it.

I make them ask me in English. They have to say, “Can I play your ukulele, please?” before I give it to them.

I love watching them try. Most of them strum something for 10 seconds or less and then lose interest. They like to get their friends to watch them playing it goofily. One girl sings a flamenco songs when she strums.

Some of them are learning guitar in extracurricular music classes and are actually pretty good. One boy wanted to play it for an entire 30 minute recess… it was like he was in a trance.

Nancy, my college roommate at UC Santa Cruz, gave me this ukulele 10 years ago. Miraculously, it has traveled with me to several countries (Japan, Spain, and the USA) without a case. On airplanes, I hold it in my lap like a baby or wrap it in a jacket and keep in the overhead compartment.

Since it has survived this long, I imagine it can survive being touched by grubby (hopefully not sticky) child hands.

At my school, I work with 1st through 6th grade, and during my 4th grade classes (with 8 and 9 year olds) I co-teach with a spanish teacher named Raquel. At the beginning of the school year, I showed her a song activity that I recalled from one of my Spanish classes in high school. Since Raquel is a singer herself she loved the idea.

My worksheets have three sets of lyrics on one page and I cut them into smaller sections. Certain words are eliminated which students have to listen for and write in. When I’m choosing words to eliminate, I always try to select words that they know and that are easy to understand. I learned through trial and error that it’s very important which words you remove, otherwise the activity can be demotivating.

After passing out the worksheets, we listen to the song twice on youtube. I walk around the class to make sure they’re following along, sometimes pointing at their papers to make sure they looking at the right section. The third time, I sing and play it with the ukulele, emphasizing the missing words trying to make it easy and obvious for them. Raquel sings along and sometimes we harmonize. A few times she has called in the principal to come and listen to us.

Now we almost always do songs in her classes. We try to choose songs that are catchy, that they’ve heard before, and with easy lyrics. The songs we’ve sung so far are: “Love Me like You Do” by Ellie Golding, “Girls Like You” by Maroon Five, “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey, “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet, “All of Me” by John Legend, “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, “Story of My Life” by One Direction, “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars, and “Diamonds” by Rihanna.

Now that we have done so many songs, we spend parts of classes reviewing songs from previous weeks. Their favorite songs so far are “Love Me Like You Do” and “Girls Like You”. It’s so rewarding to see them singing a song that I taught them!

I like doing this activity on a weekly basis, because students know what to expect and seem to enjoy it more with practice.

Today when only 2 minutes were left in the class, one Ukranian boy approached us and said, “I know all the words to the song. I want to sing by myself!” So he came to the front of the class, and without looking at the lyrics, sang the entire song “Love Me Like You Do” with me accompanying him on the ukulele. Raquel and I were so in awe of his fearlessness and adorable accent. This was one of those unforgettable moments that make teaching worth it.

I remember doing similar activities in Spanish classes when I was in high school. I still remember most of the lyrics to “La Camisa Negra” and “El Fantasma” thanks to a Spanish teacher at Santa Barbara City College. I hope that my students will remember some of the songs I’m teaching them, too!

Next year, I hope to continue this method in English classes, and also write more songs – or have students help me write songs! – for the natural science and social science classes I’ll be teaching. We can sing about Egyptian pyramids, French kings and queens, the water cycle, the anatomy of a fish… anything can be a song!

Traveling alone in Morocco

Last Christmas, I faced my fears and opted to solo-travel in Morocco for 15 days. So many people had advised me that I shouldn’t travel alone in Morocco as a woman. However, I felt I had to prove them wrong.

I flew from Madrid to Marrakesh and took public transportation to Essouaira, Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier, and rode the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to return to my current home in Malaga, Spain where I’m working as an English teacher.

Crossing Casablanca

“The world will take care of me,” I told myself out loud, feeling slightly hysterical but also excited and giddy. I tried to unearth a sense of calm and confidence, but I felt my stomach churning as I set out on my journey: to find my couchsurfing host Moe on the other side of Casablanca.

When I’m in particularly challenging situations, I try to imagine a protective bubble around myself. Nothing can touch me. I can’t be harmed.

Moe had sent me his address which was 8 kilometers away from where I had gotten off the bus. I had to navigate the bustling heart of Casablanca.

As the sun was descending in the pink and orange sky, I crossed a busy market, surrounded by thousands of people speaking mostly in Arabic and some in French. Practically every woman apart from myself was wearing a headscarf. I saw a decapitated camel head, spine dangling. People slurped up snails from roadside stands. Vendors sold everything from olives to underwear to cactus fruit to peanuts.

“Bonjour!” vendors would call out to me.

“Are you okay?” someone said in English as I walked by decisively.

Miraculously I made it to the tram stop without checking my phone (tucked safely into an inner pocket). I waited for ten minutes but soon noticed I was alone at the bench. Finally, I realized the tram was out of order.

Following my intuition, I crossed the street and randomly approached a white taxi van. I showed the driver the address where I needed to go, and everyone in the vicinity immediately began chatting in Arabic trying to help me. As the sun sank and darkness engulfed the city, I clambered in the taxi. I was laughing to myself, trusting the world, feeling the bubble. One woman gave me some dates and tried to talk to me in French.

In this potentially dangerous situation, traveling across the busiest city in Morocco alone at night, I found that most people were helpful and friendly. Trusting myself and cultivating a feeling of safety, instead of paranoia and fear, is a skill that I cultivated during this trip. The world is a place that protects and provides for us, and this way of thinking is reflected in my actions and what happens to me, as well. In my past 8 years of traveling – over 15 countries – I have never once been robbed. (Knock on wood!)

Ignoring Advice

Before I left for this trip, my colleagues at the elementary school where I work in Malaga, Spain, were extremely worried. Almost everyone I talked to had a negative reaction when I told them I was going to Morocco alone.

“Vas sóla? Es muy peligroso, cuídate…” was the reaction of my principal.

I couldn’t help but want to prove them wrong.

Feeling a sense of nervous excitement, I left my apartment in Malaga at daybreak to walk to the train station just two days before Christmas. I carried in my 50-liter backpack a sleeping bag and a small bag of clothes (all of which covered my arms and legs, because I heard that in Muslim countries it’s unwise to show a lot of skin). On my front, I had another small backpack with a journal, book, some snacks, and a water bottle. My passport, wallet, and phone were zipped in the inner pockets of my jacket underneath my raincoat.

My one-way ticket from Madrid to Marrakesh had cost less than $100, including the train ride from Malaga to Madrid. My friend Jackie, a fellow American who I had met in Japan, currently lives and teaches in Marrakesh, and she had invited me to visit for the holidays.

She picked me up from the airport and drove on pot-holed dirt roads to her palace, which is half an hour drive from the center of Marrakesh. Jackie rents a small mansion with three other English teachers, and we spent Christmas singing carols, watching movies by her fireplace, and doing yoga on her roof.

After a few days, she took me to the medina. Every city in Morocco has a medina, or old market place, bustling with food stalls, colorful clothes, and strange fruit. I was curious but also sad to see snake charmers and slave monkeys wearing diapers. Finally, Jackie dropped me off at the bus station, and it was time to branch off on my own.

Couchsurfing in Morocco

“Don’t talk to strangers” is another rule I decide to ignore while traveling. Of course, there is common sense involved, and I’m often trusting my intuition when deciding who to trust.

For the past 6 years, I’ve been using a website called Couchsurfing to find free accommodation around the world. I also hosted travelers at my apartment in Japan.

In exchange for providing a free place to stay, hosts receive a spark of excitement in their lives and the chance to connect with travelers from around the world. On the public profiles, you can find pictures and reviews. I only host or stay with people who have multiple positive reviews. In Japan, my most memorable surfers were from Germany, France, and China, and I’ll never forget surfing at an animal refuge in Langkawi and with anarchists in Kuala Lumpur.

I arrived in Essaouira in the evening, and my host was waiting for me at the bus stop. Simo Amri is a friendly 27-year-old government employee with 25 positive reviews on the couchsurfing website. We went to a tiny hole in the wall restaurant and ate Harissa, a traditional vegetarian Morrocan soup with corn flatbread, which cost about 8 dirhams, or 80 cents, each. He gave me a key to his apartment and I had my own room. The next day two other surfers from the Czeck Republic came. We spent an evening playing music and singing.

The 6-hour bus ride from Essaouira to Casablanca with CMT, Central Morocco Travel, was convenient and comfortable. There I had my adventure to find Moe. As soon as we met, he immediately went to the hammam, or traditional baths. I was feeling bold, so I decided to go too, having no idea what I was getting myself into. Apparently, you are supposed to bring your own bucket, which you fill with hot water, and use a water scooper to bathe yourself. I didn’t have a bucket but one of the women loaned me one.

Moe is fascinating to talk to, and we discussed spirituality and politics, and he told me about his experience hosting couchsurfers in Morocco. He has hosted over 30 people over the past few years.

The next day Moe took me to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is the tallest mosque in Africa at 210 meters. We enjoyed the sun with a long walk along the waterfront, had lunch, and he accompanied me to the bus station where I headed to Rabat.

My next host Ali is a self-made librarian and has a collection of over 1000 books in five languages. He had two friends from China and a Polish girl at his place, and we ate and talked and laughed together. A few days later, three Spanish friends from Zaragoza came to stay, and I spent an entire day speaking Spanish and exploring the city with them. I found Rabat a lot more accessible than Casablanca, and my favorite places were the Necropolis de Chellah and the Casba de los Udayas. I ended up staying there for 5 days and then traveled with Ali to Tangier where he knew a family we could stay with.

Homestay in Tangier

The new high-speed train got us from Rabat to Tangier in about an hour, a journey that used to take up to 5 hours, and we were picked up from the station by Mohammad, a friend of Ali’s. They also met on the internet because Ali has a project where he lends and sells books on the internet from his own personal library.

Mohammad and his wife Khaoula are both English teachers and immediately made me feel comfortable in their home. They have two young children, 9-year-old Sohaib and his younger sister Nusaiba. Both kids already know Arabic and are learning French and English.

During our two nights with them, Khaoula cooked us amazing meals and even made the effort to have some vegan options for me. For breakfast, we had a wide spread of bread with olive oil, Amlou (almond honey butter with argon oil), dates, and more.

On my last day, Mohammad took us to Park Rmilat and Hercules Caves in the morning, and we came home to an amazing lunch of bread, olives, potatoes, salad, and bissara, which is dried, pureed broad beans with olive oil. Finally, it was finally time to take the ferry from Tangier to Tarifa, which only takes 30 minutes and costs 40 euros. On the other side, I used BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing application similar to Uber but for longer distances, to get back to Malaga.

What I learned

Traveling is challenging, beautiful, scary, and life-changing. If you haven’t traveled alone, I’d highly recommend it, regardless of your gender. Of course, it’s important to research before you go and take necessary precautions, but don’t let other people’s bad associations with a country stop you from going there.

So many people told me not to go to Morocco alone, but I’m really glad I did. I’ll admit that I was afraid before I went, but I truly believe that it’s important to do things that you’re afraid of. When facing scary moments, I can reach within myself and find a sense of calm and self-confidence, level my head and make a decision. I can use these skills on a daily basis in my normal life, too.

Morocco will forever hold a place in my heart as the first Arab country I visited alone, and this won’t be the last time I go there. I still want to go to Chefchauen, a mountain town where all the buildings are painted blue, and the Sahara desert. I’ll be back for sure.

Finding Malaga: Starting a new life in Southern Spain

Yesterday, I stood on my balcony, admiring the pink and yellow light dancing across the mountains.  I felt like an empty cup being filled with gratitude. I try to sink into it, asking myself, “How did I get to be so lucky?” I have to retrace my steps to remind myself how serendipity led me here to Malaga, a beautiful city in southern Spain, framed by the Montes de Malaga and the Alboran Sea.

Last year, I was teaching English in Almendralejo, Extremadura, a dry and flat region of Spain bordered by Portugal. This year, I’m in Malaga for my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversation, a program sponsored by the Spanish Government which employs native English speakers in public schools. I teach English, Social Science, and Natural Science to bright and boisterous kids age 6 to 13.

Instead of returning to California, I decided to enjoy my two-week Christmas last year vacation doing a solo trip around Andalucia. I went to Seville, Granada, Quentar, Nerja, and Malaga. In the back of my mind, I knew I was looking for my next home.

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On Christmas Eve, I found myself at a long table filled with dozens of travelers from all over the world.

I spent Christmas in Granada wandering. I toured the Al Hambra palace alone. I spent  6 hours gazing in awe, trying to capture the intricacies of the mosaics and architecture in my sketchbook.


Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Granada is a magical city with a population of 230,000. It’s big enough to have a bustling nightlife but small enough to walk everywhere, and the ambiance is buzzing with creativity and open-mindedness. There is a myriad of vegan restaurants, salsa dancing clubs, and an ultimate frisbee team. I could easily envision myself living there, except that I knew it would be cold in winter. As a California girl through and through, I wanted to be near the ocean.

This was the third Christmas holiday that I have spent traveling solo. I was volunteering on an oyster farm in Japan two Christmases ago. During these long holiday vacations alone, I’m always struck with intermixed feelings of pure joy – “This is so amazing! I’m so proud of myself for doing this!” and devastating homesickness – “What the heck am I doing here? I should be with my family…”

Nevertheless, I made new friends, including Rodrigo, a talented flamenco guitarist from Mexico. I met him while he was busking (playing music on the street, set up in front of an inviting hat/open guitar case) in the street near my hostel. Since I had plenty of free time I asked him if he would give me guitar lessons. The next day, he borrowed a friend’s guitar and gave me a private flamenco guitar lesson!

After 5 days in Granada, I continued to my next adventure: to volunteer at a youth hostel in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (It’s my 11th time using the website helpx.net  to find places to volunteer, where I work for 4-6 hours a day in exchange for free food and accommodation. Some of my favorites have been the oyster farm in Japan, a dairy farm in New Zealand, an after-school program and cashew farm in Bali, and a peach and plum orchard in Australia.)

Quentar is a tiny mountain village a thirty-minute bus ride outside of Granada with a population of just 950 people. The hostel, called Fundalusia, boasts beautiful mountain views and feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Another volunteer from Scotland was there to keep me company, and we became friends. It was our responsibility to change the bedsheets, hang the laundry, sweep, mop and clean the kitchen. It took about 3 hours. Later, the afternoon task was to walk the two dachshunds in surrounding hills. In exchange, we had a place to sleep in a wooden roundhouse and a hearty vegetarian lunch. I found the work relaxing and easy and the food healthy and filling.

However, after a few days, I felt antsy. I needed to move. I had imagined that I would be meditative and relaxed here, but I began to feel stagnant and bored. Hiking with the dogs in the mountains made me miss my family, who I called almost every day.  While talking to my dad on FaceTime Audio, he told me about a town called Nerja he had seen on a travel show. So when my week was up, I took a bus towards the coast.

Nerja was sunny, so I swam in the freezing ocean (for about 30 seconds). I shared a room in a hostel with 5 travelers, a few of whom snored. Lucky for me I had earplugs. I found one kindred spirit, a 60-something-year-old German lady, and we walked barefoot on the beach and talked about spirituality.

I planned to stop in Malaga for just one day before heading back to Almendralejo by BlaBlaCar (a ride-sharing app that is similar to Uber but for longer distances) to relax in my apartment for a few days before starting school again. My plan was thwarted when I realized how much I loved Malaga. The beach, the mountains, the Cathedral, the nightlife… it reminds me of a bigger and busier version of my hometown, Santa Barbara.

Thanks to a friend I met through the Couchsurfing website, I had been recommended a slightly dirty but very charismatic and well-located youth hostel that was only 10 euros per night, and I decided to extend my stay.  The next few days were like a dream. During the day I hiked up the hill to the fort and was entranced by the view of the city. At night I went salsa dancing at Chiquita Cruz, my new favorite bar (which is now just a 15-minute walk from my apartment.)

I had only intended to stay in Malaga for one night, but 4 days had passed when I finally realized I needed to leave or I would miss my first day of school in Almendralejo. While traveling I always find myself changing my mind and wanting to stay longer in certain places. I’ve learned to leave my itinerary open. The same thing happened to me during my 10-day spring break in Barcelona. I had a flight on a Friday but ended up staying until Sunday and returning to Almendralejo in a 12-hour Blabla Car!

I left Malaga with a feeling that I would soon be back, and here I am. I requested to repeat the Auxiliares de Conversation program here and was luckily granted my request.

After a month in California and two weeks climbing via ferratas with my dad in Northern Italy and two weeks solo in Germany and Portugal (for a future blog post!), I finally arrived in Malaga.

The next five days were extremely stressful. I knew practically no one in this city, and I had to find a place to live. I spent hours using a myriad of apps and websites to set up appointments to visit apartments. I looked at 2 to 5 rooms every day, tramping all around the city in the blazing sun, feeling frustrated and lost. It was fun, in a way, to practice Spanish with locals and ask them about their homes, but it was so hot and I was frustrated with my homelessness. I eagerly anticipated the luxury of unpacking my belongings.

Finally, on the fifth day, I walked into this apartment and immediately felt a sense of home. It’s 15 minutes from the heart of the city. The room is bright and spacious. The price is fair. But most importantly, my roommates are three Spanish women who are friendly and willing to speak Spanish with me.

And here I am now, in that very room, after a month of teaching. It’s been a long, exhausting, exciting and fun-filled journey. I’m so grateful to have this place now to finally settle in.

In addition to my job, which is only 12 hours a week, I’ve already found formal Spanish classes, private students, a gym membership and an ultimate frisbee team. Now it’s just a matter of creating balance in my life with all of my hobbies and passions and also finding time to be silent and appreciate what I have.

Useful Websites for Solo Travel:
www.helpx.net
www.couchsurfing.org
www.blablacar.com