All over the map

Turns out that while aimless travel has a certain appeal, there are also drawbacks in not knowing what to do next.  I can see how sometimes it would be better to have a plan in place.  Or a half plan.   I don’t love having to admit this because I’ve spent a lot of time lately cozy in my mild smugness of being so wildly free, but I promised myself I’d be completely honest in the blog so there it is. 

It seemed so easy while I was in Morocco, but now in hindsight I realize that my options were pretty simply laid out for me with the dimensions of the country.  Tourists generally make their way through the country going South or North with a few side steps thrown in for good measure.  Yes, I created my plan on the fly each day, but I was basically following a variation of the typical tourist trail. 

My travels in Morocco
And then I arrived in Europe and had the whole continent in front of me, full of more incredible places than I could see in several lifetimes…..   Suddenly I had a harder time choosing where to go.   I told a friend I’d met in Tangier that I was going to Portugal, and after one day of travel in that direction I changed my mind and went the opposite direction, retracing some ground, all the way to Barcelona.  Not my brightest move maybe. (Definitely)     
After Barcelona, I found myself buying a train ticket to France.  Some of you might remember having conversations with me before I left where I said I would be avoiding France, absolutely-for-sure not going to set foot in that country, and yet here I am.  Looks like this trip is turning me into a little liar – sorry!   Could have avoided all this falsehood by just having a teensy plan in place… Here’s something else about me: for inconsequential things like this I don’t bother getting too bogged down in regrets.   So here I am in France, and I AM SO GLAD I CAME!!  I love it here! 

Average doorway in Montpellier
This bottle of deliciousness was only 4€!
I have a new love of alleyways
Montpellier, France
In a happy coincidence, it turns out that I know TWO different people within a short distance from me; strangely enough both are aircraft engineers that I met through work.   I was able to spend a day exploring Nimes, an old Roman-style city nearby, with Sam and Sam’s rental car. If you ever find yourself in the area you HAVE to go check it out!   We had such a great day wandering charming French towns, snacking on crepes and Brie cheese, and people watching on a beach (much less creepy than it may sound I promise!)   
A Roman amphitheatre in France
Ancient Roman temple in Nimes, France
We’re both shutterbugs
Aigues-Mortes Castle where Louis IX set off for the crusades
Aigues-Mortes castle and modern life
Wine, because it’s France
Le Grau-du-Roi beach

Seen in Spain

I have a few days I missed posting anything to my blog and my entire time in Spain that I need to catch up on, so I’ll back track a little now.  This is going to be a photo post, as even though I had snippets of stories I wanted to share during my days in Spain, right now isn’t the best time for them. 

Euros tossed in donation to the cathedral
Love the sunshine… and the camera…
Flamenco dancing for tourists
Spanish alleyway cafes and homes
Barcelona from above
La Sagrada Familia
Detailed carving on a door
Packed full of tourists, still worth a visit
A different view of the famous La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf

Not much to show for such a stunning country, but I guess I was too busy enjoying it all during my quick few days to remember to document it with my camera.    And there’s soooo much left I want to see – but I love having a reason to return one day!

Heartbreak and Hope

It’s a somber atmosphere around me today.  

I’m in Southern France, and last night while the country was celebrating a national holiday I was part of the outdoor crowds, revelling in the general joie de vivre in the air.  This morning I woke to the news that in the nearby city of Nice a deliberate attack killed 84 people, families out celebrating Bastille Day.  I cried as I read the news this morning, where I also saw the story of a missing girl in my home city ended in the tragic discovery of her body and murder charges pending. My heart hurts.

Attack in Nice
Calgary murders

A photo I took in Nice, 2007

It’s difficult to know how to transition when so much could be said on these devestating acts of violence.  But today I’ll take my cue from the people I see around me who fill the plaza on this sunny day: continue on, but be aware.  The cafes lining the plaza are crowded with people, white-shirted waiters bustling their trays back and forth and a street musician quietly strumming a guitar from time to time, but I also see soldiers unobtrusively patrolling the streets.  The sense I get isn’t one of head-in-the-sand “I won’t look so the bad can’t bother me” nor is it one of abject devestation but rather a reminder that life is precious and unpredictable, and maybe the best we can do right now is to go on with our days showing a little more love to the people around us.   Just a moment ago right in front of me, a family walked by and for no reason visible to me the father stopped to bend down and kiss the top of his young daughter’s head. It was only a split second and they were moving past again, but it brought tears to my eyes for the second time today.

A plaza in Montpellier

We need to talk…

Morocco, I don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’ll just blurt it out.   We’ve had a lot of fun over the past couple weeks –  I really like you and you’ll always hold a special place in my heart – but I think we need to end our time together.

I’ve been sensing an increasing restlessness in myself again, and I recognize this feeling by now.  Even though I was regularly on the move and in new cities I found I was less enamoured with it all and more quickly worn out by the minor irritations.  (Here’s where I’d say “It’s not you, it’s me” !)    It became more of a challenge to meet the barrage of requests and demands and invitations with a genuine smile; and the fun of dressing differently dissipated.  But really, I need to say again how great this experience overall has been.  Yes, I had someone make a comment to me about every 15 seconds any time I walked down the street, but in general these comments were benign and would end the instant I said “non, merci”.  In that sense the shop keepers and wanna-be guides were more polite than in other countries I’ve been.  (“You’re really great, Morocco, but we’re just too different”) 


———————————-

One thing I will always love about travel is witnessing a bit of local customs. Not only the traditions protected from ages ago and now dressed up for tourism, but also the unique interpretations on global trends. I noticed right away that Moroccan Millenials are very fashion savvy.  An example, Birkenstock sandals are a worldwide trend, even on my feet now. But the interpretation of this trend is so different here, with guys wearing the shiny patent leather sandals in styles that are ONLY sold in women’s sections at home. (If you want an idea of what I mean, look here: Birkenstock Morocco FB page.)

On the traditional side, I spent an afternoon luxuriating in a Hammam, a Moroccan public bathhouse.  These have been around for eons and it’s an incredible way to rejuvenate.  I was going to say ‘relax’ but in my experience that’s not very true.  Here’s why:  It began with an attendant guiding me back to a dressing room and showing me the hook where I could leave my clothes; she gave me two towels and said she’d be back in a moment.  I put on my bikini and then followed her a to a warm steamroom, all eucalyptus and orange blossom and dim light.  Right away she took away the towels and told me to remove my top, and as I stammered and stalled she explained it was normal… So off it went. When in Rome, right??   After a spray of water, she covered me head to toe in black goop that smelled amazing and had me lie down on the marble bench in the steamroom for 10 minutes.  When she returned it was another shower to remove the soap, followed by the removal of all.my.skin. Thankfully after a few minutes I got used to the scrub and stopped imagining I stumbled into a horror movie, and instead imagined the glowing new skin this should reveal.  Seriously.  The goal in Hammam is to scrub until the skin peels off in long strips!  My reward for enduring the filleting was another head to toe coating of scented Argan oil with a mini back massage, and then I was ready to rejoin the world with my new gleaming skin.

I brought my JLo glow to Tangier, my last city in Morocco and only an hour by boat from Spain.  It’s a great city, but I didn’t see most of the highlights as I had already mentally checked out.  Instead I spent a great day chatting over coffee with a fellow traveller, wandered through another Medina for a bit, and I indulged in one last cup of Moroccan mint tea that I will miss dearly.  And with that final smooch my breakup with Morocco is complete.  Au Revoir Morocco, and Hola Spain! 

Breaking all the rules

This anecdote falls squarely under the “Do as I SAY, not as I DO” category.  I can rattle off a litany of Safe Travel tidbits  (and have many times!) and honestly, I mean them all and generally use them.  Like this one, for example, is just common sense:  Don’t walk alone late at night in a quiet part of a strange city.  Clearly a no brainer, and frankly I still stand by that advice.   Except I totally did exactly that tonight…..    

I had the best intentions of arriving in this new city of Chefchaouen in the middle of the afternoon, but I dragged my feet leaving my hostel this morning (more on that later) and missed the first bus I wanted to take.  The bus I was on arrived a couple hours late – of course – meaning that it was after 9pm and very dark when I finally stepped off and collected my bag.  I really don’t know what happened to the other passengers, but they seemed to all vanish away from the bus depot in moments, although I never even saw a single taxi.  I was alone in a deserted lot on a quiet street with small groups of locals clustered on corners a few blocks away.  Great.  I took a second to weigh my options and check in with my “gut feeling” of the place while walking over to a tiny market stall that was still open.  Thankfully I was given a wifi connection long enough to get google map directions to my hotel, thinking that I could have an idea for how much a taxi would cost.  Seeing it was only a 30 minute walk and a seemingly simple route, I took one last look around for a taxi, then said a little prayer and off I marched into the darkness.   I kept my guard up and was über alert the whole way, but I felt safe.  Along the walk I had a few guys ask if I was ok and if I needed a ride, but thankfully I was able to point to my map and politely decline.  I really think they were genuinely trying to help me, though, except maybe for the one that told me to come back and smoke hash with him!   Finally arriving at my hotel was a relief, but a bit embarrassing too: the first time I’m staying in a nice hotel and I show up as a sweaty mess scruffy backpacker…..   All’s well that ends well, right?  But still, don’t do this! 

This photo is NOT my own, but thanks to a Google Images search I can still show you exactly what my walk looked like.

Wow, this is going to be a long post – I still have more stories to tell! 

I mentioned already that I was lingering at my last hostel in the morning so I’ll back track a little now.  I started the day in the city of Fez in a fantastically cozy hostel, and was in a comfortable food coma from my breakfast of bread, cheese, and pastries. As I was starting my second cup of coffee my new little buddy Ethan joined me.   We had spent most of the previous day in a pleasant break from each travelling alone, after meeting earlier at this hostel.    Within moments of introducing himself to me he asked “so, what are you running away from?” (Perceptive little brat! 😉)  I clumsily dodged the question and changed the subject, he graciously allowed me to, and a friendship began right then.    In case you’re wondering about my use of diminutive terms for him, it’s because he’s 8 years younger than my baby brother, but none the less I had fun playing the role of grizzled old sage for a day.       This is what I love about travelling alone – the people I connect with!  I’ve spent time in every place I’ve been so far with some really incredible people and I’m so grateful for these new friendships.

T.I.A. 

T.I.A.  Have you heard that acronym before?  It means “This Is Africa” and is generally said with a small grin and shrug of the shoulders when something goes wrong.  Power cuts out and the tv blanks during the final tie-breaking penalty kicks on a game everyone is watching with baited breath?? TIA.

Most of my journey so far has been remarkably smooth sailing, but I’ve had a couple of my own TIA moments lately.  And really, what can you do but shrug and  smile anyway?  The more I see it, the more I appreciate that attitude, since getting worked up can’t solve anything and would only add to my frustrations in the end. 

For instance.  I’m on a train trying to get to the city of Fez in the Northern interior of the country from Essaouira along the South coast.  I knew it would be a long trip, but I’m always overly optimistic with these logistics, assuming that all I need is a novel or two and some junk food to keep me happy.  Booking the trip proved a bit difficult as the website would never show the train’s schedule.  (That should have been a warning for me – but I missed it).  I finally gave up and walked around the city until I found a station, bought a seat on the next morning’s departure and was pleased with myself for figuring it out.    4 hours into the journey, the train stops in the middle of nowhere.  Recorded announcements played in Arabic and French apologizing for the delay and asking us to stay patient for twenty minutes every half hour or so. If a reason was stated for the stall, I missed it.  So my easy 11 hour trip is already 14 and counting.   Plus, nibbling on my snacks while I read didn’t work either, as it’s Ramadan and I didn’t feel good about crunching away surround by people fasting.  I’m hungry and grouchy, but when I look around everyone else seems perfectly content…..  Maybe I can absorb that attitude….  TIA.

And last night at dinner, as I was sitting on a terrace near the ocean and just finishing my fish I felt / heard a splattering of drops. I looked up surprised that rain started only to realize I had been marked by a seagull…. 😫  They say it’s good luck, right???    It sure felt like there must have been some luck involved as our was the only occupied table. That bird could have had any other target and yet I ended up the ‘lucky’ one.  Gross.  But, TIA! 


A few days in Tamraght 

The past few days have been really great, if I do say so myself.  I’m in a little town called Tamraght right on the coast and have spent my entire Saturday as a beach bum.  Now, just before the sun sets, I’m sitting in the common room of the hostel watching the Germany vs. Italy soccer game with 5 other people while we wait for dinner to be served.   

Here’s what caught my eye in town:


Yesterday was much more action packed than today’s low-key lounging. It started out Thursday, when another couple at this hostel mentioned they were planning on going for a hike and invited me to join them. I would have said yes regardless; as an added bonus Lexi and Cody turned out to be a ton of fun and it’s easy to be friends with them!   So anyway, Friday morning after our second cups of coffee (Lexi and I have that in common) the three of us and another 2 Italians made our way to Paradise Valley.  The name sums it up nicely.  A 45 minute drive from here through arid foothills is the start of an easy hike into a vibrant valley full of banana trees, argan, and lavender.   A few kms later brought us to the most stunning series of natural pools.   We saw a few other people early on, but we kept hiking and ended up at our own secluded oasis. 


 
Sunshine, clear warm water, and daredevil dives from way too high.  Thankfully everyone walked back out again without the need for a neck brace, but I have to admit the safety nerd side of me had a few internal panic attacks.  For the record, though, I need to let you know that even I jumped off the rocks!!!    No big deal….  🙂

Friday evening finished off with us on the rooftop back at the hostel, swapping stories and laughing until long after dark. So good!