Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Morocco: Day 3 & 4 Sunrise in the Desert and a Cookie Miracle

DAY 3 
The next morning we woke up at dawn to see the sunrise over the desert. It was an incredible sight.

After breakfast, we mounted back up on the camels to ride back to the pickup station. This time, we had a private tour with just the three of us and the guide. We took a different route back out of the desert. It was such a cool experience, one not to be missed if near the Sahara! Our trek through the desert had come to an end. Unfortunately, that meant the forever long return car ride back to Marrakech.

Once we made it back to Marrakech, we had yet another problem finding our new hostel (where we stayed the first night wasn't available). This hostel was again very close to the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, but the address provided on the hostel directions didn't exist (of course not). We had the right street name, but the number didn't match. We walked up and down that street, searching for the number listed on the confirmation email. Unable to find this number anywhere, we wondered if this was one of those situations where the street randomly picks up again somewhere else. This was in the middle of the busy Souk markets. The roads were quite narrow and people were pushing their goods in wheelbarrows. Needless to say, they did not like having us taking up precious road space with our suitcases wandering around. Like the first day of our arrival, plenty of men kept offering to take us where we were going, some even getting really offended when we declined. We had the address and were on the right street, so we didn't think we needed a 'guide'. After asking a police officer for help (he didn't know), we ran into some young boys who said they knew the way. Doubting they actually did, but too frustrated to continue on, we agreed to follow them. At least this seemed safer than following a grown man somewhere unknown. Their English was pretty good- it was obvious they had been rehearsed to say the right lines to lost tourists. They asked us how we liked Morocco and assured us they wouldn't charge, "just for free we take you." We were counting on paying them anyway, we just wanted to arrive at the hostel. They took us down several wrong streets until arriving exactly back on the same street we had walked up and down 50 times. This time, I saw the name of the hostel (not the right number), to which the boys quickly shouted out that they had found the place. Although technically they didn't really give us much help, we each pulled out several euros worth of dirham and thanked the boys. The older boy looked at the money in disgust and semi-yelled that this money was nothing and that we had to pay them some absurd amount, something like 100 euros. We stood shocked, reminded them that they took us for 'free' and that we didn't mind paying a reasonable amount for an 8 year old. As the scene started to escalate, we walked inside, hoping the boys would take what they had and move on to the next unsuspecting lost victim. But no, they followed us inside the whole way yelling and stomping their feet. The big hostel guys, obviously used to this routine, had to kick the guys out. Well, so much for another easy journey to our hostel. Geez, I kind of half way worried they'd come back for us in the night, them and their roving gang of preteen street guiders.

We had another evening out in Jamaa el Fna , eating street food and haggling with vendors over Moroccan lanterns. There were cookie vendors with huge carts of traditional cookies that you bought by the dozen. We picked out our dozen, hoping to eat them on our flight home the next day

Day 4
On our final day in Marrakech, we only had a few hours to explore. We walked to the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city. For anyone who has been to the World Showcase in Disney's Epcot Park, this is the mosque represented for the Morocco exhibition. We also walked across town to another mosque that the guidebooks said you could enter, but this one was closed for reconstruction. On our way walking to the second mosque, the bells began ringing, signaling the hour of prayer for the Muslim people. It was really interesting to watch groups of men put down mats and start praying along the sidewalks. Unfortunately, our day was going fast and we had a flight to catch.

When we returned back to our hostel to pick up our bags that we had left while we were out, we noticed something missing. The cookies! All three boxes! We went back to our room, asked the front desk, who asked the maids.... Nobody had seen the cookies. But how do 3 dozen cookies simply disappear? Yeah, I think someone was snacking on those things all day. Disheartened, we left with only the luggage. We desperately hoped we could find the cookie vendors in the plaza, but it was too early and they weren't out. Then, something magical happened. At the exact moment we were exiting the plaza to catch a cab to the airport, the cookie guy from last night rolled right in front of us. We probably looked like crazy people, but we ran to his cart and physically blocked his way. In a super rush, we begged for a box and filled those suckers up with new selections. Not believing our luck, we happily took those dang cookies back with us to Spain. What a trip!

Bye Bye Marrakech!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Morocco: Day 2 into the desert

Continuation... On our second big day in the African continent, we packed up for a long ride into the desert. Connie had found these overnight desert trips with camel rides and signed us up. The ride to the desert took 8 hours by car. We joined 3 fellow Venezuelan travelers (Connie booked a Spanish speaking camel tour) in our SUV and our local tour guide took off blasting what I can only assume was authentic Moroccan music. We saw some beautiful scenery and towns along the way, but only one story is really worth telling and that is about the car's music selection. After hours of the Moroccan music (which to me sounded very hypnotic and had the affect of putting me right to sleep, luckily not the driver), we took an interesting turn and then the greatest hits of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper came on. While we were dancing in the backseat to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Like a Virgin", I thought, wow these young Moroccans are really interesting. Our guide had mentioned before about his Muslim faith and the traditional lifestyle of the desert peoples, the Beriberi. My American friend Melissa and I couldn't stop laughing about his taste in music as one after another 80s hit came on. It wasn't until our Venezuelan friends took the ipod to pick something else that we realized the music belonged to them and not the driver. Ohhhhh. Ok. Once we got to the desert, we found our raggedy camels waiting to be loaded down. The guys strapped our bags on their back and we climbed on, only to nearly fall off when they stood up. Those camels sure stand up fast! Joining with another tour, we rode the camels some way into the desert. Our campsite was a grouping of tents with small beds inside and a large eating pavilion  Other Spanish-speaking tourists arrived at the campsite. We had another meal of Moroccan food and were entertained by dancing from the guides around a firepit. We snuggled into our iron-stiff beds for a long night of loud desert winds blowing sand across our tent. The winds were so intense, when Connie went to the restroom, I was genuinely scared she would be blown out into the desert somewhere. While howling camels kept Connie and Melissa awake, I slept just fine.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Morocco: Day 1 intense arrival

    This is the story about one of my most interesting trips during my stay in Madrid. The one carrying me outside of Europe for the first time. A few months ago, two friends and I took a trip to Morocco. Even though it can be a little intimidating, being so close to Spain, it did seem crazy not to go. Luckily my other friends were game so we planned the trip together. We picked one of the many Rihad hotels/hostels located (we hoped) close to the center. Unlike most of my other trips, I did not have time to do any previous research about the destination. My friend, Connie, found some companies that take you on camel rides in the desert, so that took up a chunk of our to-do list. Other than that, we planned to hit up the usual tourist sites. We knew that going to Africa would be entering into a whole different cultural and societal environment, but I’m not sure we were prepared for our first moments in the city….

    Our first challenge was the language. As we could only put together a few words in French and no one knew Arabic, we had a difficult time explaining where our hostel was located to the taxi driver. Our hostel was in the city center on a small, winding street that doesn't allow car access. Of course, upon recognizing the street name, the taxi driver tried to explain how to get there on foot. Between his French and the quite awful explanation printed from the hostel website, we had literally no clue how to get there. The taxi driver stopped at a dark street corner, pointed down some sketchy looking alley, and started getting out of the car. As he did, a group of guys noticed the three very obvious female tourists inside the taxi and approached. We were not sure whether to get out or stay in the cab! The group surrounded the car and began aggressively questioning us where we were going. I had actually read about that in the safety section of TripAdvisor; that people want to guide you to your hotel and then demand payment. We were bombarded by their requests and I was quickly starting to rethink this girls-only excursion. (In this moment a male presence would have been greatly appreciated.) Real panic set in when an angry man started screaming at us. He seemed either drunk or crazy. He heard Connie (from Mexico) speaking Spanish and started yelling at her to go back to Spain and get out of Morocco. Apparently tension between these two countries still exists. As we tried to get through the crowd, the man shoved Connie backwards, nearly sending us into a frenzy. It struck me that this was the first time I’d experienced fear for my safety since moving abroad. We quickly ducked inside the restaurant in front of us for refuge. Clearly seeing the panic in our eyes, the proprietor invited us in while the crowd settled down. Obviously used to dealing with tourists, he apologized for the angry man, informing us that people like that are the exception in Morocco, not the norm. Tourism does bring a lot of business to the country. He offered one of his restaurant workers to guide us to our destination. Seeing no other option, we agreed.
We made it....thankfully.

   When our ‘guide’ came down, he stuck in his earphones, put up his hood, and voiced the epic phrase that would become the mantra of our trip, “Don’t be scared, follow me.” With that, we were whisked out the door, happy to see the crowd gone. We followed closely behind the guide, afraid we might fall behind his fast pace without notice as he was jamming out to his ipod. We went down rows of curvy, dimly lit streets, and arrived safe and sound outside the hostel. Thankfully we hadn't rushed out on our own to find this place, we’d still be there looking now. We did give him some Dirhams for helping us and he went along his merry way. Emotionally exhausted already, we nodded our heads as the receptionist (and everything-else-guy, as he was the only worker) told us all the marvelous places we could see tonight close to our hotel. As it was already 11 something, I was kind of doubting we would have the guts to wander back out. He assured us that the main plaza, Jemaa el-Fnaa, was just minutes away and we couldn’t miss it. We got a good laugh when he described the meal we could eat in the plaza, saying everything was “so, so tasty”. 
Tasty tasty tangine. Don't worry, I didn't eat all of this myself
I think this always makes me laugh, not only because it just sounds so cute, but because I’ve heard many other non-English speakers say this phrase. And honestly, you hardly ever hear it said in any real English speaking context. So we made it no problem to Jemaa el-Fnaa and tasted the Harira (lentil and tomato soup), tagine (meat, chicken, or vegetables cooked in a clay pot), and the couscous. Indeed, they were "so, so tasty".

    What surprised me about this plaza was that it was bursting with people, even late at night. I think I assumed this more conservative  culture would be in bed early, but the city dwellers of Marrakech were alive and well, pushing babies in strollers and eating late night icecream. There was a sense of glorious chaos to it all. Groups of teenagers performing dances to drums, carts pulled by donkeys passing by, people haggling over sales prices, and kiosks doing a great business selling freshly squeezed orange juice and Moroccan spicy herb tea.
Only took this picture because we did buy tea from this man
Another lesson we quickly learned was not to even so much as point a camera in the direction of anyone
selling anything. They will literally chase you down for payment. Connie took a few pictures of some boys dancing, and one of them followed us around until she gave him some money. They wouldn't take no for an answer. After that, I was careful to not take any direct pictures of anyone and would discreetly hide the camera when walking or looking around so I wouldn’t be charged. Locals would sometimes ask us to take pictures with them (which Spanish boys do all the time - the big flirts), but this was so that we would have to pat them. With our memorable first impressions of Marrakech, we headed back to the hostel to get some sleep for our big day in the desert! (Just to give some balance to our arrival story, besides that one incident, the rest of the trip was amazing!) More to come...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Peanut Butter

  Thanks to American media, everyone recognizes peanut butter as the staple "go-to" lunch for Americans. But the funny thing is that everyone who tries it here hates it. Once I brought peanut butter and jelly for lunch for my coworkers. They were hesitant at first about how exactly to eat the peanut butter so I made a few little sandwiches for them to try. Several tasted it but told me they were too sweet to eat for lunch. (??) One even asked if you could put ham on it (!!!). So not a big hit at the school. We tried to get our German roommate to like it, but in a very typical, direct German way, she politely told us that peanut butter was the 'most disgusting thing ever'. The other day, I was at the apartment of a Venezuelan friend who was cleaning out some of her drawers in preparation to move the next week. She opened a cabinet saying this where she put everything she didn't like. Inside, among a few other things, was a big jar of peanut butter. She told me she bought it because she always saw it in the movies, but couldn't eat more than a bite. So she gave it to me. A nice gift because "Capitan Mani" Spanish Peanut Butter is no cheap buy! You will never seen a Spaniard eating this for lunch because sandwiches don't suffice for a real lunch, or so I've been told.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer in the city

   It has been a while since my last post. These past few weeks I have been busily studying and working on final projects for my grad school degree. I am happy to say that now it is all over, except writing my thesis paper to turn in September. It is now mid-June, meaning I am in my final month in Spain. The best part of this is since I'm done with grad school, I have time to enjoy the lively summer life in Madrid. It's so exciting to see the restaurants putting out their tables for outdoor dining. After an unusually long winter, the city is finally heating up and you can order the season appropriate 'tinto de verano' (means summer wine, a mix of red wine and fanta); although I drink it year round with no shame. Sitting at these terrazas is the social outing of summer. The really cool places are on top of tall buildings with views. Another nice thing to do is spend weekends 'taking the sun' in Retiro Park or Parque Oeste. You can bring out the towel, the bocadillos (sandwiches), and the tinto de verano (again, essential to summer activities) and people-watch all the interesting characters passing by. Cheap entertainment. The city has public pools, but I've yet to test them out. Some apartments have private pools, but they're really not that common in the city center.
   Also, during the summer months, the city puts up triangle shaped awnings across the roofs of the buildings on the streets going from Sol to Callao to provide shade to pedestrians below. This symbolic sign of summer always brings me good memories because it reminds me of my first time in Madrid in summer 2008. I had done a study abroad on the southern coast of Spain in Cadiz, and was traveling up through the country with my mom after it finished. We had several nights in Madrid and we passed under the tarps many times enroute from our hotel to the sights. Although I had no real understanding of the city geography like I do now, the tarp covered streets helped us always get back to Sol or Gran Via. We normally ended our nights sitting outside at little restaurants, sharing a jar of sangria. Plaza Mayor is especially beautiful at night, and in the summers there are bands playing jazz that you can listen to from the tables outside. I have one specific memory of sitting outside in Plaza Mayor with my mom and telling her I thought I could see myself living in Madrid. That experience inspired me to research opportunities to move back to Spain after graduation. And lo and behold, here I am in Madrid about to wrap up my second year living here and receive my Master's diploma in this European capital. Sometimes life surprises you.

Plaza Mayor


Retiro Park.... nice place to take a boat ride or spend a very public romantic afternoon. Why not both I say??

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Easter Cruise: Istanbul and Dubrovnik

  As long as I have been in Spain, I have been wanting to go to Istanbul. Much further east than most of the places I have traveled to, it always held some sort of mysterious feel to it. We went in a tour group from the cruise with a native guide. Thank goodness because I can't imagine if we had just tried to bumble around on our own (although we are quite capable explorers). The city is way larger, way busier than we could have handled. Even though real tourism season hadn't yet begun, the Istanbul was covered with tourists. Standing in mile-long lines, we hit the highlights of the Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sofia. After a required short stop in a rug store (which were actually incredible), we haggled our way through the Grand Bazaar, walking out with way too many ceramic plates. We got a little carried away, but when I'm happily dipping my chips and dip during football season in my colorful ceramic bowls, I will think of this place. 

Inside the Blue Mosque
Outside the Mosque
Blue Mosque

Hagia Sofia

Inside the Hagia Sofia- built in the 500s!!!

Grand Bazaar

View of Istanbul from our (lucked-in) room balcony
   The most surprising stop of all the trip belongs to Dubrovnik. This city was incredibly beautiful. The historic part is small, but you can walk along the city walls and see amazing views of the coast and the red tile roofs of the town. Walking along the walls, I could not stop taking pictures. I would highly recommend this place to someone looking for a European trip a little off the beaten path. It's worth the visit.
Welcome to historic Dubrovnik!

Walking along the walls

Don't you want to be here??

Thursday, April 18, 2013

More from the cruise: Bari and Ephesus

  After checking off the Correr Museum, the San Marcos Basilica, and the Doge's Palace, we made our way to the harbor to board the boat for the week. Sailing on the MSC Divina, we got on early so we could have time to explore all the floors of the boat. (One of my favorite things when cruising!) On another note, whenever my mom and I travel together, usually some really lucky thing happens. This time, we arrived and we informed that the regular room that we had booked was overbooked and they had moved us into a room with a balcony. A balcony!! Nice start to our sailing trip.
  Our first stop was in Bari, a small Italian city. There wasn't too much to see here; the main sight is the Church of Saint Nicholas (Santa!). The following day we were supposed to go to Olympia, Greece, but unfortunately, the water was too rough to tender in. We spent the day rocking and rolling on some pretty big waves, but hey, there is plenty to do to entertain yourself on these boats so we weren't bored. Ephesus, Turkey was the following city and we did get to disembark from the ship! We took a guided tour that included the trip to the ruins of Ancient Ephesus and the House of the Virgin Mary, where, according to the Catholic faith, she ascended into Heaven. (Here is a handy link from wikipedia if you want to read more about it. From there we went to the ruins and impressed by the remains of such a developed ancient city! Check out some pics...
Pool on the ship. Too bad it was too cold to use it.

Hanging with the original Santa Clause in Bari, Italy

Basilica of Saint Nicholas, Bari, Italy

Mary's house in Ephesus, Turkey

Adding a wish to the wall outside Mary's house

These must be really good quality fake watches. Not every place has them, you know.

City ruins of Ephesus

Nike. Can you believe this carving is thousands of years old?!

What once was a library

With all the carvings and details, these place must have been truly incredible.