Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Just about this time last year, I was with my sister, scarfing down 12 grapes as the clock struck midnight in a jam-packed Madrid square.

And now, I sit alone at home, in front of the TV, and reflect.

Don't worry. This isn't a complaining post. Due to work and traveling and general Advent business, today I've had only my second get-things-done-at-home day of the entire month and that is cause for celebration.

Besides, there was no possible way I was going to top Nochevieja in the Plaza del Sol, so I didn't make any plans. It's kind of nice to give my introverted self a break from people this New Year's.

I started 2014 off with abounding optimism. I was traveling and hanging out with my family, two of my favorite things. I lived in Spain. I had a beautiful apartment, an easy job, and unlimited sightseeing potential.

My plans started to change pretty quickly, but it really wasn't until October that I lost that optimism. I think that's a new record.

You may know that I don't deal well with change, or with feeling a lack of control. I started working at a day care in August, a place with a fabulous Assistant Director and friendly teachers and a class I adored. And then, seven weeks into my new job, suddenly I was being moved to a different center. I was devastated. It's taken me this long to get over that [and I'm still not 100% there, to be honest].

So looking back, I'm glad for another "fresh" start. I've got some exciting traveling things to look forward to, further in the year. This new class of mine should be staying the same after this month. I have lots of good days and lots of things to be thankful for.

It's not the same as it was 12 months ago, but then again, I don't want the same. I don't want to be in grad school right now, or starting a career at a company I could see myself committing to forever. If I had wanted that, I probably would have had it already. And that, I think, is why I keep beating myself up about being a college graduate still living at home and working an hourly wage job, temporary as that all may be. That "American Dream" is still so prevalent that I have trouble seeing my own dreams underneath it.

[Okay, I'm going to complain a little bit here. Working 40 hours a week, plus 1 hour for lunch and 1 hour of driving each day, does not leave much down time for figuring out what, precisely, my own dreams are. There's not a lot of room for any kind of creative pursuits or higher-order thinking, really. Hence the no blog posts since August. How do people do this their entire adult lives?]

I don't really make New Year's resolutions, because I know myself well enough to know that I won't keep them, but I want to start 2015 off with a promise that I think I've made to myself, consciously or not, for quite some time: I promise to try a little harder to do things that are rewarding. To blog. To meet up with friends. To read. To go on walks. To travel. To create.

It's a New Year, y'all. Anything is possible.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Zagora: Camel Rides and Camping Out

Part 1: Excursion

Part 2: Heading Out

Part 3: Kasbah

[I know I was supposed to get this up before I left on vacation. And it almost was, really. Only the Internet crashed before I could click upload and wouldn't come back the rest of the day.]

Camel rides

It's such a touristy thing to do, but because it was part of the excursion and not something I'm likely to do again, I was excited about the camel ride. It ended up being a fantastic way to see the desert landscape and we rode towards camp just before sunset, so the views were incredible! I was in front, so I had an unimpeded view of the mountains surrounding us.

Plus, whenever I was offered a photo op with camels in Marrakesh, I could happily say no.

In a lot of ways, it was similar to a trail ride with horses. The biggest difference? It hurt. And yes, riding a horse for hours upon end will hurt too. But this ride lasted maybe an hour, and the blankets laid over the camel's backs were not enough to lessen the discomfort. A camel's hump is not soft at all. Luckily the journey to the campsite wasn't nearly the 2 hours the description of the excursion said it would be, or I don't think any of us would have been able to move the next day.

Going through a bit of a village.
Just enough sand to not be annoying.
Selfie while riding a camel.
My first camel.
The sun setting behind us.
Another thing - I think everyone's heard about spitting camels. But some of them like to express their orneriness in different ways. One particular camel, on the trip out and the return, complained like crazy when the guides had him sit. He bucked and made his very strange camel noises and finally they were able to get him calm. I was super glad not to be placed on that camel.

Camping out

We were the first group to arrive at our camp. We settled into our tents [big enough to sleep 4] and had some delicious mint tea while the sun set further beneath the mountains. It was pretty dark when a second group arrived, bringing - you guessed it - the other auxiliares.

The tea-drinking tent.
Inside my tent.
Fancy camping - we had plenty of electricity.
And the bathroom tent.
After they got settled and had their tea, the guides called us to the big tent for dinner. It was delicious. We had the very traditional tangine, which is meat, potatoes and vegetables all cooked in this triangle shaped pot...thing. There was fruit for dessert [none that I like, sadly] and then we headed back outside to sit around the campfire. The guides had some drums [and maybe some other instruments as well, I can't remember] and started singing. It really felt magical to lie back, looking at the stars and hearing this beautiful music.

After a while, people started dispersing. We had a sunrise wake-up call, so I imagine the guides all went to bed before we did. I started talking to a couple of the Danish girls, tried to take some pictures of the stars, and then headed to bed myself.

We did indeed get woken up far too early the next morning. After a very uncomfortable night on a lumpy mattress, combined with the camel ride, I really did not want to move. But thank goodness I got out of the tent in time to see the sunrise which again - stunning. Absolutely stunning.

We were served breakfast - more tea [or coffee], delicious bread, and some interesting spreads. They had a jelly-ish one and a honey-ish one. I'll have to look them up one day to figure out what I was actually eating! Then we packed up our gear and met our moaning camels for the journey back.

[I got super lucky on the return trip as well. Myself and my new Danish friends were moved to a bigger van because a smaller group needed our previous one for their extended excursion. So two new fellows joined our group - both of them staying at the same hostel as I would be. Otherwise I'm not sure I would have been able to find it.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Zagora: Kasbah

At the sights

Part 1: Desert Excursion

Part 2: Heading Out

[Hooray, I'm getting things done today! And I'm determined to get my last Morocco post finished before I leave for a family reunion on Friday. You'll be hearing about camels soon!]

The main reason I picked this excursion was to visit the Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, one of Morocco's many must-sees. [Of course, I would have loved to go on a longer one that stopped more places, but I just didn't have time.]

Like the Chellah in Rabat, this was one of my favorite spots, and again, one that I didn't get enough time to fully enjoy. After dropping off the poor sick Danish kid in our group at the restaurant where we'd be eating lunch, we met our guide and walked over to the river. The "new city" is on one side and the Kasbah is on the other.

First, he pointed out the gates that were made for some movie or other. All of the other artificial movie constructions have been removed, but these are still there. We walked across a makeshift bridge over the river, where kids begging for money tried to help us cross, and then saw the open area where the arena in Gladiator was filmed.

Movie trivia...not the most auspicious start to a visit to an ancient historical fortress-city.

We passed a man making bricks - they're working on moving families back into the city now that the film studios don't have free reign - and entered the city. Finally we got some history. The walled city was built to protect one of the tribes against the others. There were four main tribal groups, often warring over water. Eventually, they started working towards peace.

The word kasbah really refers to the buildings with 4 towers that form the front lines of the city, the area which needed the most defense. [Kind of similar to the alcazars and palaces often found up against the city walls in medieval Spanish cities.] There were 4 towers for 4 wives, each of whom would have come from a different tribe. Marriage, everyone's favorite way of signing treaties.

We passed by the Mosque and some smaller houses, stopping to sit a minute in the shade. [The Danes were shocked to hear that in the summer, temperatures in the desert could reach 50 C - or about 130 farenheit.] The thatched roofs on these houses used to be replaced about every 4-5 years, but now they have a sheet of tin covering them, so they last closer to 12 years.

I was also surprised to learn that there was a Jewish Quarter in the city. Its inhabitants left a long time ago, but according to our guide, they still return maybe once a year for their holy days [I think ones that have to do with the dead, so they visit their old cemetery near the city].

We watched a fascinating demonstration by a man who paints postcards using saffron and a gas tank. The "paint" is made of saffron tea and doesn't appear on the paper until it's been exposed to some heat [hence the gas]. I'm still kicking myself for not buying one.

(Found via Google image search)
At another shop, we saw the most interesting lock and key I have ever seen, made entirely out of wood. The key, which looks more like a comb than anything else, fits sideways inside the door handle to open it.

(Not my picture. Also thanks to a Google image search.)
And of course, there was more movie trivia. They were especially excited about Katie Holmes' most recent movie that wrapped just a little while ago and the parts of Game of Thrones that were filmed there, last year I think. Even though I'm a big movie person, the history nerd in me was disappointed to not hear as many stories about the history of this incredible city.

We then walked back to have a delicious and, by Moroccan standards, expensive lunch. [It cost less than 10 euros. I was a happy camper.] The rest of the afternoon was spent driving, driving, driving through the mountains until we reached the town of Zagora, where we met our camels...

Friday, July 25, 2014

An Apology and An Update

I'm sorry it's been so long since I got a travel post up. I want to be the kind of person who blogs regularly [among a host of other things], but I'm just not. Somehow, the "summer" times of my life, whether they happen during the summer or not, devolve into marathon TV-watching sessions, with a bit of reading and family socializing thrown in on the side.

So today I told myself I'm not allowed to turn the TV on and am finally getting at least something written, even if it doesn't turn out to be anything.

And luckily for me, my TV-less day has gotten full pretty quickly [because let's face it, otherwise I would be on the Internet all day which is probably definitely even less healthy than TV]. I cooked myself avena [oatmeal] for breakfast this morning, although it turned out disastrously. Clearly that recipe needs to be tweaked now that I'm back in the land of cups and tablespoons. I'm making dinner for my family as well, which could take me a good hour. Even though this is the house I grew up in, I never know where to find anything in this kitchen.

Anyways...there's really no point to this post, I just wanted to say that...I'm working on it. I've promised to finish my posts about Morocco, and now I have dozens of stories to tell about Bulgaria and Romania and Istanbul and London and Edinburgh on top of those. And all the places in Spain that I posted pictures of but never really talked about besides that.


I'm going to try really hard to not be lazy about all those. So I need to ask for a little patience, as I organize my scattered thoughts and finish uploading the thousands [literally thousands] of pictures that are still on my computer. It was a fantastic experience, all this traveling, and I'm really mad at myself for not sharing all of it sooner.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Zagora: Heading Out

Part 1

I sat in the front of the van, in between the driver and the daughter of the Danish mother-daughter duo. [Who, I'd like to add, also happened to have a pen pal from Texas. How does that happen?]

We had some amazing views through the front windshield, but that wasn't my favorite part. Right before we left the city, when driver stopped to get gas, he also bought two bags of freshly baked rolls. I figured they might be a snack for him for later, maybe to share with someone who lived at one of our destinations.

But no.

Instead, there were a few points along the road where he would slow down, honk his horn, and then toss the bread out the window to the waiting groups of stray dogs gathered by the side of the road. I really wish I had gotten a picture of this.

One of the photos I did take.
We had about a 7 hour drive in total, but didn't cover a whole lot of ground for two reasons. 1) Meadering mountain roads and 2) fifty bazillion stops.

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, of course. But oh, how much I hate driving in the mountains. Another reason I was very glad to be sitting in the front.
Green everywhere.
Most of the stops were about 5 minutes to take pictures [although we did have a few unplanned stops after one of the kids got carsick, poor thing]. Surprisingly, considering the number of tourist groups who must pass along this road, there were only 1 or 2 places where people were also selling tourist stuff. The whole mountainous area reminded me a lot of Peru, but there were typically a lot more vendors along the roads there.

Village in the distance.
We also had two cafe stops that were about 20 minutes long. The driver disappeared for some tea or something, and we generally took the time to use the restrooms, buy snacks, and of course, take some more pictures. Unfortunately, the drivers aren't allowed to serve as "tour guides" or narrate the journey, but I was perfectly content to just stare out the window.

Now it looks like we're in the desert.
It was hilarious to me as a Texan that the other passengers were constantly asking how much longer - to lunch, to the next stop, etc. [I understood when they wanted to know for the carsick kid's sake, but they did it again on the way back too.] When I take 7 hour drives at home, we usually stop once to eat and then we're good the rest of the way. Europeans are spoiled that way, I guess.

The Danes asked me how this compared to the Grand Canyon.
We had a two hour long stop for our sightseeing and lunch [the next post]. We were directed to one of the obviously touristy restaurants that offered full meals at the outrageous price of 100 dirhams...or less than 10 euros. I am totally okay with that kind of tourist price hike.

We made it to the city of Zagora at about 6 in the evening. The driver told us this was our last chance to buy water before going into the desert. We had all come well-provisioned, so we drove straight through the city to the meeting point where our camels awaited us.

There will be a post all about the camels [soon, I swear].

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zagora Desert Excursion

I've been going back and forth on whether to include all of this excursion in one post or split it up. But seeing as that indecision has only encouraged further procrastination - and given that's it's already a month after my trip, further procrastination is not really desirable - I've decided that it will be easier for me to get a little bit written at a time. [And probably easier for you to read because as one post, it would be entirely too long.]

So! Here's a little bit about the beginning of the 2 day excursion I took from Marrakesh, Morocco.

Me enjoying the wonderfully warm and sunny weather. April is the perfect time to visit Morocco.
I booked this excursion online before I left through because I am super paranoid about having things planned out. [Well, at least partially. I did wait until the day before leaving Soria to book it, but whatever.] There were some conflicting reviews online about the company, but overall, I'm really happy with how it turned out.

I want to say a little bit about the booking, in case anyone wants to visit Morocco :) I picked this website because it was almost the only one that offered an inexpensive shared group tour. As in, a tour group that accepted people traveling on their own. Lots of companies advertise private tours, which are probably great for families, but way out of my living-on-a-monthly-stipend budget.

My tour cost around 50 euros, which paid for transportation, dinner and breakfast at the camp, and sleeping in the tents. There was a 20% deposit for booking online, after which the booking company directed you to pay when you were picked up the morning of the trip.

But I had to argue with the train station pick up driver, and his boss on the phone, because he expected me to pay then. Luckily, my online research had forewarned me that this could happen, so I was prepared to argue. It may not have been much money, but I was definitely not handing over anything until I was actually leaving on the trip.

A beautiful map of the area. Points of interest on the tour: Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou, Zagora, and Ouarzazate.
As it turns out, it would have been super easy to book the trip from one of the hostels I stayed in, but I ended up spending about the same amount of money AND got a free ride from the train station to my hostel, which after my interesting train trip made it 100% worth it.

Speaking of hostels...that first night I stayed in an interesting little hostel - it was insanely cheap and they served mint tea at check-in and made us a wonderful free dinner. But there were several reasons it was so cheap, namely: I had a top bunk and I felt like I was going to pull the whole bed down on top of me every time I climbed up the ladder. Seriously.

Far too early the next morning, I precariously got out of bed, fought for a free bathroom [again, I'm not even exaggerating that much], stuffed all my things into my backpack, and headed back to the drop off/pick up point.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited. I asked just about every tourist van I saw if they were from the tour company I had booked with, but most of them were doing airport transport. Finally, there was a guy who at least knew of the company. He spoke enough English to indicate that they weren't there yet but he would tell me when they were.

At this point, I was mad that I had skipped the hostel's homemade breakfast and terrified that the van had left without me. It was super reassuring to know that I had only paid 15 euros so far, which wasn't a terrible price for the train station pickup if I ended up having to pay for a different excursion.

The nice, comfy tourist van. They're supposed to be air conditioned, but I couldn't tell if this one was or not.
But then, after 45 agonizing minutes, a caravan of vehicles, as well as a mass of people from the nearby hostels and hotels, appeared at exactly the same time. [Apparently, they had all gotten the memo about the actual time the tour started.]

I was directed to a guy who seemed to be organizing the chaotic groups and paid the rest of my fee, then followed him as he went looking for an open seat.

Two interesting things happened in this chaos. First, I heard someone call out my name, which threw me for a moment because I do not have the most common name in the world AND it was pronounced correctly. Then I saw a fellow auxiliar who happened to have been sitting next to me on the flight over. In what has to be one of the biggest coincidences of all time, he and his group of friends happened to have almost the exact same itinerary as me, excursion and all.

And second, when they finally found a van with open seats, I ended up being the only American with a bunch of people from Denmark. And it wasn't that there was a big group of them traveling together - there was a school group with 12 people, leaving 3 open seats in the van. So I took one of them, and then the other two were taken by a mother and daughter also from Denmark.

Two separate groups of Danish people who had never met before just happened to be on the same excursion and end up in the same car.

From a country with a smaller population than the entire city of Dallas.

The odds must be astronomical.

We settled into our seats, stopped to get some gas, and then the adventure really began.

Monday, May 12, 2014


My whole trip to Morocco could be described as a whirlwind adventure, but the 17 hours I spent in the capital, Rabat, really epitomize the word.

My 7:35 flight out arrived about 8:30 at night, thanks to the time difference between Morocco and Spain. I shared a taxi with a kid from...somewhere in the U.S. who was also staying in the medina, the old part of town. After struggling to communicate our hotels' addresses to the taxi driver, who spoke no English, he rolled down the windows to ask passersby for directions. Very confidence inspiring.

We finally parked and were led through the winding streets [too narrow for cars] until we reached my hotel. I have no idea how people who rent cars or take public transportation manage to find anything in Morocco, because they are worse than Spain about street signs. I said goodbye to the other American - I'm not sure if he ever found the place he was supposed to stay - and walked into my magical [expensive] hotel. There don't seem to be many hostels in Rabat, at least not downtown, so I sadly parted with 45 euros. But, after being on the road 3 days already, it was nice to relax in a fancy, private room.

In the morning, I was treated to my first Moroccan food. And what a treat it was! I knew about the mint tea, of course, but the breakfast we had? AMAZING. You can't go wrong with yummy flatbread and jams. I even more or less liked the orange juice. But the best part was something called m'semmen, basically fried bready deliciousness. I have already looked up recipes because it was some of the best bread I have had in my entire life.

I don't have my own picture of breakfast because I was too busy eating. But it was this, minus the egg.
Then I had 3 hours to see the sights before I was supposed to be out of my hotel room and heading to the train station to buy a ticket to Marrakech.

First up was the Kasbah de Oudanyes, less than 5 minutes away. This was kind of a city within the city located right on the Atlantic coast. It started out as a fortified city, so between all the quaint houses and winding streets, there are also some cannons and really high walls. I first walked into the gardens, ignoring the guy offering a tour and telling me I was going in at the exit. It's apparently pretty common for these "tour guides" to gather at sites and tell people there's a fee or they have to take a tour.

I wandered through the small garden and then tagged along behind an actual tour group until they came to a cafe with a great panoramic view of the Atlantic. I snuck a few pictures in and then left, knowing that I was pressed for time. I ended up back where I'd come in, so I walked up to the other entrance. There's a museum there located in the old palace [or is it a mosque?], but again, I just didn't have time. I'd read on the map that I could see part of the old fortress, so I went looking for that.

I ended up retracing my steps several times, as the streets wound back into each other or simply dead-ended, but never found that darn fortress. So I walked back out of the city and went to look at some ruins just outside the walls. And then I found the fortress, jutting out from the walls - now over the beach, but a long time ago over the water. Satisfied, I took my pictures and said goodbye.

After a short walk along the coast, I made it to the Hassan Tower and Royal Masoleum complex. This tower was designed by the same architect as the Giralta Tower at the Sevilla Cathedral. There are a lot of obvious similarities in the two, except that the Hassan Tower was never finished. [I think this had something to do with the king dying in the middle of construction.]

There is a huge courtyard between the two monuments that's filled with cut-off columns. I'm not sure if this is on purpose or all that's left. There were several royal guards around the masoleum, but tourists are allowed inside. It was an impressive room, the walls decorated with typical geometric designs. The coolest part was a man [maybe a religious leader, I don't know] who was singing inside. He had a microphone so you could hear his wailing voice echoing through the whole courtyard.

I probably should have taken a taxi to the next spot, in the interest of time, but I started walking and just kept going. I passed by some kind of protest happening in the middle of the neighborhood and then headed down Franklin Roosevelt Avenue. Apparently this is close to where the U.S. Embassy is, because there was also an Abraham Lincoln Square.

And then, after passing out of the medina, I saw the walls of the Chellah.

This site has to be my favorite out of all the places I visited on my trip, and sadly it's the one where I spent the least amount of time. It began as a Roman city, complete with the forum and baths. Later it was turned into a necropolis, and now it's a park. [There was a 10 dirham entrance fee, but consdering that that's less than 1 euro, it was well worth it.]

I may have mentioned before: I am a big ruins girl. If you give me ruins [or castles, those are great too], I am a happy camper.

The Chellah has all the ruins.

So I walked in the main gate and was immediately surrounded by lovely plants. Pressing on, I first passed the artisans village [I'm guessing these were Roman artisans because I think the Muslims just used this site as a cemetery].

Then I came to the Mosque. The tower here is the most preserved part of the complex, and like church towers in Spain, is home to a stork's nest.

There's a royal tomb adjacent to the main room of the mosque, then you enter gardens again. All the flowers were in full bloom and it smelled delightful.

In the fields across from the Chellah, there were even more storks.

The next section has the Roman baths, which look remarkably good from the outside. Then there are some less distinct ruins of a temple and the forum.

It was really hard to leave, so much that I delayed and delayed until it was noon. And then I tried to find a taxi. You wouldn't think this would be so hard right next to a touristy site, but it really was. I think I walked for about 10 minutes [passing the Royal Palace, which was nice] before finally I managed to catch a driver's attention. He dropped me off outside the Kasbah and of course I managed to get lost getting back to my hotel, even with the convenient map the owner had given me.

I decided to walk to the train station, using the hotel's wifi to look up directions on my phone because clearly I am an expert at the getting lost thing. It was kind of a pain to weave my way through an open air market [similar to the touristy ones in Mexico] while carrying a stuffed backpack on my shoulders, but it was well worth it.

I bought my train ticket, using the convenient English-language button on the automatic ticket machine, and hurried to the food court for lunch. Using my basically non-existent knowledge of French [speaking Spanish does not help as much as I'd thought], I ordered one of the most delicious chicken sandwiches I have ever eaten, especially for train station fast food, ate it as quickly as possible, and then realized my train had been delayed 30 minutes.

But considering how wonderfully warm it was, I didn't mind sitting under a tree for a while, people watching. The train ride itself is a whole 'nother story, but in the interest of not making this post impossibly long, I'll be telling it later.