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”) 


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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 √ľber 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! ūüėČ)  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…. ūüėę  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….  ūüôā

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

(not quite) Fearless

After a few days getting my bearings in the city, it’s time for a change.  I booked a day trip to hike Cascade Ouzoud. 

Careening along the Atlas mountain range on our way to the second largest waterfall on the continent. I’m trying to figure out when I became such a scaredy cat. I remember being 21 and backpacking in Bolivia I was on the official “World’s Most Dangerous Road” curving down a mountain. I actually sought that out and thought it was hilarious. Now almost 12 years later I’m envisioning the worst while I watch the wheels of our van send gravel flitting down the cliff side from a road that feels eerily similar. Maybe it’s because the shape of this tourist van strikes a mild resemblance to an overgrown golf cart, all boxy and with a high roof, that’s increasing my heart rate. (As I learned a couple weeks ago, those things tip over when you least expect it!!) 
Still in one piece, my little group of 8 other travellers and I began the hike to the waterfalls. We met a local guide, a leathery man named Rashid that could scamper up and down the mountain in circles around the best of us. Along the way he would stop at a tree here and there to tell us in French what it was and how old. I know it was just to give us a chance to catch up with him, but I did appreciate learning that there are 800 year old olive trees here.
And then the falls came into view. Incredible. Our stunning oasis complete with little swimming hole was even better than promised, and I couldn’t wait to get into the water. 

 Now here’s where the Fear part comes into play again…. Just as I was getting to the water’s edge I saw a commotion. Two local teen guys on a homemade pontoon boat were trying to fish something out with a plank from their boat – a WATER SNAKE. This is seriously my #1 fear and you’ve probably heard me say that before. (Any old snake is bad enough, but a snake in the water is just so much worse for me! They can slither up so fast and your whole body is at risk not just an ankle or something!)

I saw them get it out and flick it to the rocks nearby, so I knew that one was gone, but there could be countless others out there….      Surprise ending, guys: I still jumped in the water!! I almost can’t believe it myself, and am stupidly proud of that little feat. (So I maybe stayed in and swam only 2 minutes, or less, but it still counts!!) 

The rest of the day was pleasantly uneventful, dodging macaque monkeys on the hike out and persistent vendors back in town.

Flights

The guy next to me on the flight right now has been soundly sleeping since we took off about 40 minutes ago, which typically wouldn’t be anything worth mentioning. ¬†But this is stressing me out because every minute or so his head falls and jerks back up, ¬†slow nod down and startled lift up, over and over without waking. ¬† I’m worried he’s going to strain the muscles in his neck – or that maybe his head will tumble right off and go rolling down the aisle. ¬† I tried distracting myself with my book, but that made it worse as the movement would catch out of the corner of my eye and I’d just end up looking over at him so often I couldn’t follow the storyline of the novel. ¬†I’ve been wondering if I could reach over and adjust his seat’s headrest without him waking, but what would I say if I bumped him and his eyes flew open to see my arms near his face?! ¬† ¬† Maybe I’ll ask a flight attendant to try….

I’m on a British Airways flight en route from London to Marrakech at the moment, writing this, and will post it whenever I find WiFi. ¬† ¬†Yesterday my 21 hours in London ended up way better than I had originally expected, thanks to finding out that friends of mine were on layover at the same time. ¬†Day One of my solo journey found me sitting with a few different groups of friends and other crew members I’d just met having a great time. ¬†I got to fully embrace my FA side and live as an “international cabin crew member” for a while, and that felt great! ¬†Over a drink in the hotel lobby pub we swapped work stories and laughs, talked about ironing uniforms (right, Gillian!) and made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning. ¬† Seriously, it was the perfect start for me!

A little more than 2 hours from now I’ll be making my way through Moroccan customs, and tucking away tidbits for my next post I’m sure.

Oh, and the guy next to me woke up when the meal was served. ¬†I showed him how he can adjust the headrest, and now I’m going to pick up my book again. ūüôā
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4.5 hours have passed since I wrote that first part, and I have a quick Good news/Bad news update. ¬† Good news: I arrived safely. Bad news: My luggage did not. ¬† ¬†There were about 30 people from my flight that had the same problem, so it looks like an entire baggage cart got lost at Gatwick. ¬† ¬†Figures. ¬†Steve used to be so adamant that we only travel with carry on bags that any time I travel alone I revel in the freedom to check it… This is the flight I purchased a full confirmed ticket, too, rather than standby so I never worried once about it not arriving.
At least not carrying my bag made it easier to take the bus and walk to my hostel!   I have my fingers crossed it will arrive tomorrow, but in the mean time, I have some shopping to do!

Later

Thursday, 11:42pm. ¬† I’m sitting here surrounded by piles of clothing, toiletries, and other travel gear wishing it would Marry Poppins its way into a neatly organized pack for me. ¬† ¬†I sometimes joke about my level of procrastination – “I’ll do it later when I’m older and therefore wiser and therefore better at everything. ¬†Future me’s got this!” – but I’m starting to recognize this may actually be a problem…. ¬† ¬† I look at other blogs talking about how to pack, and see their cute little photos of their 17 items neatly arranged in perfect geometric gallery style just waiting to be tucked into their bag, and tell myself that I can do that too. ¬†Lie to myself. ¬† I probably will actually end up really happy with what I packed, but I won’t have a single second left to spare in order to take a photo of it. ¬† I guess this won’t be a “10 ways to best prepare for your travels” blog, but that’s ok, right? ¬†There are lots of those already crowding the internet.

The good news is that I have decided where I’m going when I leave tomorrow. ¬†My 75% sure on going to Morocco has been upgraded to 100%, and a couple days from now I’ll be wandering the streets of Marrakech (probably lost and searching for my hostel!) ¬† I¬†can not¬†wait¬†to see those vibrantly coloured buildings and smell the different spices in the air! ¬†North Africa here I come! Thinking about this has me reminiscing on my last time I visited that continent a couple years ago, and how incredible it was to see Tanzania and Zanzibar. ¬†My photo for this post is from there, exploring Stone Town in Zanzibar and just about as happy as a girl can be.

My next post will be much more interesting than this one I’m sure! ¬†I’ll get to that later….

Where to?

Where to next? ¬†What corner of the world is the right place for me to go first, with my 5 months off of work? ¬†And how do I narrow down my options when there are literally hundreds of amazing and exotic locations I want to see?? ¬† ¬†I know, I know… This sounds like the worst version of¬†#FirstWorldProblems¬†and I realize it could be super annoying. ¬†This has actually been looping through my brain for the last few weeks as I weigh my options. ¬†I want to make sure I’m not just completely reckless in my impulsivity because I will be travelling solo most of the time, and I’ll need to have an idea of what I’m getting myself into so I can have the best chance of being safe. ¬† A part of the fun for me is dreaming up what I might get to experience and so with that I like to do a bit of digging into where I might go. ¬†Don’t confuse that with setting an itinerary though! ¬†(Aimless and come what may, remember!)

With about a week before I expect to leave, I still don’t know where I’ll go. ¬†My first plan (and I use that term loosely) was to fly down to French Guiana in South America. ¬†Here’s why it appealed to me:

  1. French language is spoken there. ¬†I’d love to have a chance to learn and expand my knowledge beyond the “cereal box” French I grew up with in Western Canada. ¬† ¬†**
  2. It’s remote and different. ¬†I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been there, or even talked about going there – and I do love being a bit of a trailblazer!
  3. Rugged Amazon jungle. Sloths and leopards and toucans and stuff!

And why I ultimately scrapped that idea:

  1. It’s bizarrely expensive since the currency there is the Euro, and
  2. I might not meet other travellers and I don’t want to be lonely! ¬†Yes, the positive about no one travelling there turned into a negative when I realized there might not be hostels for me to stay in and connect with others.

Plan B was to go to either Martinique or Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, again both are French-speaking locals also boasting tropical beaches.  But they were scratched off the list for the same reasons as above.

And that brings us to Plan C, Morocco. ¬†I’m about 75% sure this is where I want to go. ¬†It has the culture and history that I want to learn about and experience, the food, chaotic open-air markets, French, AND loads of other tourists in cheap hostels. ¬† The flip side has the heat of the Sahara Desert in summer, and a reputation of being a tough place to be a woman. ¬†Do I really want to be an unaccompanied, western and blonde woman there? ¬†I’m not quite sure…

As I’ve been mulling all this over it struck me that I have a pattern of changing my mind about where to go. ¬† Last year in June I spent 3 weeks in China, but I started out planning for that time to be spent in Bulgaria. ¬†I even bought a guidebook and pinned photos of the Eastern Europe highlights I wanted to see there! ¬† ¬†A couple years before that my vacation time was spent in Tanzania and on safari, but I got the vaccinations for Cambodia instead since at the time I was planning on SE Asia instead of SE Africa. ¬†Oops… ¬†One more example is at the beginning of 2012 I planned a trip through Croatia. ¬†I couldn’t wait to see the coastal cities and I bought a phrasebook to start learning some basic words. ¬† And then that trip ended up a Western Europe cruise – which I completely and totally loved! – but in hindsight it would have been nice to go to Croatia back then, before it exploded onto the tourism scene…. ¬†Now I almost feel like the only one who hasn’t been there instead of the ‘trendsetter’ I like to consider myself! ¬†ha

Wherever I end up, I know I’m so stinkin’ lucky to have this kind of opportunity. ¬†This is never something I’ll take for granted and I am genuinely grateful for each little adventure this life brings.

** Cereal box French – the words learned from reading the other side of any product sold in Canada. ¬† Not super helpful in conversation, but I know what¬†saveur de miel et de noix¬†means ¬† ūüôā