Europe during the holidays

When we began this trip, I told anyone who asked that Daniel and I would probably spend Christmas on a beach in Senegal. It sounded so nice and warm, and I figured that as long as we weren’t going to be at home, we could be somewhere with nice weather.

However, by the time December rolled around, Daniel had convinced me that we should spend Christmas in Budapest.

He has friends there who could provide us with free accommodation, and it would be Christmasy, he said! (Also, it turned out, he had plans to meet up there with an Italian woman he had met in Morocco. Aha!) Our plans were flexible and we hadn’t yet bought tickets anywhere else, so I figured we could do a quick layover in Europe if it was so important to him.

On December 23, I boarded a flight from Agadir, Morocco to Budapest for my first European adventure.

I was dreading the cold.

Since I had packed for an African trip, I feared that I was not equipped for a European winter. But when I landed, Daniel was waiting with a giant coat he had bought me for 1 euro at a thrift store.

IMG_8205Exhibit A: Giant coat. Not at the height of fashion, but quite warm;)

Daniel said he had experienced some culture shock leaving Morocco and ending up in Hungary. In contrast, I could literally feel a positive difference in my body on my first day in Hungary. I was so relieved to be somewhere where my gender was not a strike against me that it felt like a physical weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I was surprised how at home I felt in Europe, considering I had never before been to Europe.

And I was enchanted by all the Christmas decorations, lights, and general holiday spirit in the air — a definite change from Morocco, which as a Muslim country had no Christmas spirit.

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I love Christmastime; I think the magic of the holiday season is real and beautiful. I still have palpable memories of cold Christmas Eves from my childhood, looking up at the sky, past the lights twinkling on our house, with absolute wonder and sheer joy that Santa was flying around with his reindeer up there. I still feel that wonder and joy around Christmas, albeit for different reasons.

The next day, Daniel and I went to an outdoor Christmas market, where we drank mulled wine (kind of like apple cider but with wine instead of apples), listened to Christmas music playing over the speaker system and watched a unique light show on the side of a large church. Christmas markets are apparently tradition in a lot of Europe. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, they will appear in communal areas, groups of tents selling gifts, food, and of course, the mulled wine. Germany is rumored to have the best Christmas markets, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Hungarian ones that we sampled.

IMG_8161Budapest is just a festive-looking city

On Christmas Day, we took the train to a small town in the Hungarian countryside to meet up with Daniel’s friends, Shawn and Dóra. Shawn is American; Daniel knows him from college, and Dóra is Hungarian. Her family graciously invited us to stay with them and to join them for their Christmas meal, an amazing spread of traditional Hungarian food. We spent a couple of nights at her parents’ house and then took the train back through the gorgeous countryside to Budapest.

IMG_8133At the train station

We enjoyed a week in Budapest, kitten-sitting for Shawn and Dóra.

Budapest is a lovely, laid-back city, split down the middle by the Danube River and beautiful bridges that connect the two halves of the city (one side is Buda, the other side is Pest). The architecture is old and calls up images of history, but overall it has the feel of a young person’s city, with abandoned factories being turned into hip bars and cafés and the whole city deserted around the holidays as the city-dwellers return to their family homes in the countryside.

IMG_8189Abandoned building turned hip bar

Just before the end of the year, Daniel and I split ways again.

He wanted to stay in Budapest for New Year’s to celebrate with his friends at a giant party in the city, but I didn’t particularly care where I spent new year’s and was aghast at how expensive accommodations were in Budapest during the holiday. I realized I could literally fly to another city, spend a few nights there, and fly back for less than the price of a hostel during New Years in Budapest. So that’s what I decided to do.

I flew to Podgorica, Montenegro for a ridiculously low price (something like $20) and spent New Years there.

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I knew nothing about Montenegro prior to going, but I discovered that it is a beautiful country. It used to be part of Yugoslavia and a major tourist destination, and then when that country broke into several smaller countries, the war that ensued scared away all the European tourists who used to visit Montenegro, though there was no bloodshed in that area. I only spent a few days in Podgorica, but I enjoyed beautiful nature, great food, cheap beer, and affordable prices overall.

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The New Years celebration was one of the better new year’s that I have had in my life. There was a whole day of festivities in the city square, leading up to a famous Croatian singer – Tony Cetinski – performing as the clock struck midnight. I went to the concert with some people from the hostel and had an amazing time. The music was good, though I couldn’t understand the lyrics, and people were setting off fireworks throughout the crowd, so they were exploding directly above us. It was thrilling and fun, if a tad dangerous.

IMG_8254This is not a great picture of the concert but you get the idea

After New Years, I took a bus a few hours to Tirana, the capital of Albania.

I couldn’t believe how easy and orderly the border crossing was, as the last time I crossed a border in a bus was the Kenya-Uganda border, which was a free for all where everyone had to get off the bus, make a mad dash for the customs forms, talk to the border agent, get their passport stamped, and then find the bus and get back on. I remember being terrified that the bus was going to leave me behind and I believe it was a valid fear. In contrast, at the Albanian border, a customs agent boarded the bus, collected all the passports one at a time, and then returned them after they had been verified. (To my disappointment, though, they didn’t stamp my passport. Apparently you only get a stamp if you enter Albania by plane.)

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I don’t know what I expected from Albania – I guess somewhere kind of scary and dark and depressing – maybe because, as my friend Joel pointed out, in the Harry Potter books, Voldemort goes into hiding in Albania after failing to kill Harry. The kind of place where a dark lord can hide must surely be a little seedy, right?

IMG_8275What is less seedy than a hipster rabbit on a utility box?

But Tirana is a colorful, vibrant city that feels like it is up and coming. It was not at all what I was expecting, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two days there. I got to experience another Christmas market there, with a giant Christmas tree and a carnival for kids and lots of little tents selling food and drinks.

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Albania is famous for its café culture, where people sit and chat for hours, so of course I had to sample that. I also walked around a huge swath of the city, enjoyed nature in the Albanian Central Park, and tasted some delicious Albanian baked goods. There are a lot of relics from the communist era (a tough 50ish years of “Stalinst-style” governance, as Wikipedia describes it, which ended in 1992) in Tirana, and Albanians seem to value these as reminders of a time that they want to be sure not to repeat. I toured an old bunker, which has been turned into a museum full of cautionary tales of a government that spied on its people and disappeared many, and I climbed this deteriorating pyramid, met some teenage Albanian boys doing an elaborate photo shoot on top, and then slid down like a giant slide.

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By this time, Daniel had told me that he was not going to be able to continue the trip with me. Instead, he was headed to Italy to chase love. I was a bit disappointed, of course, but I also told him that I supported his decision. You only encounter love so many times in this life, and you need to know when to follow it.

So then I was on my own and could decide to do anything I wanted. What freedom.

I decided what I really wanted to do was make my way to Greece and get my bearings before continuing with the trip as planned. My grandfather is Greek and throughout my life, I have heard him talk about our heritage and the amazing country that Greece is, and I have always wanted to visit. So, while sitting in an Albanian café, I hatched a plan to travel to Macedonia and then continue on to Greece.

That trip was a bit of a saga so I will tell you about it in the next post! This one is long enough. Macedonia was gorgeous, though. More about that next time!

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2017 in photos

Wow, 2018…a new year is on its way. Well on its way by now, mid-January, when I am finally getting around to finishing this post.

As I write this, I am in Thessaloniki, Greece, making plans for the coming year. Where will it take me and what will I be doing? (Next post will explain how I ended up in Greece, when you last heard from me in Morocco!)

Something about looking out at the next year and wondering what it will bring makes me think back on the year that just passed, of all the people and places that comprised it, and all the things that were done and left undone. Here is the recap in photos.

JANUARY

IMG_5718 A work-oriented month, with lots of time spent at the shelter and doing street outreach with our clients.

IMG_5586  I attended a women’s march on Denver with my godparents and my roommate, Joel, who took this picture. It was a beautiful convergence of energy and a reminder of my college days, where marches and rallies were commonplace for me.

FEBRUARY

IMG_5645  I got to celebrate great news with one of my best friends. We’ve been friends since 4th grade and now she’s engaged! So happy for her:)

 

MARCH

IMG_5750My 28th birthday came on the heels of me finding out that I had been accepted into graduate school. March was a good month of celebrating both things with the lovely people in my life:)

IMG_5802They surprised me at work during a staff meeting – one candle for birthday and one for getting into Columbia:)

APRIL

IMG_5821IMG_5822IMG_6026IMG_5902     A month of house sitting. I spent various amounts of time with these furry friends:)

MAY

IMG_6078         My stepbrother graduated from Longmont High (somehow didn’t get a picture of him – just my mom and stepdad at the graduation!)

IMG_6100 It was a tough year at work – we lost several clients and I ran my best Bolder Boulder 10K ever in memory of one man in particular who passed away just before the race and all the homeless veterans in our community.

JUNE

IMG_6657We celebrated my dad’s 60th birthday (and did some fun family activities such as building a bird house from a kit we found in my old bedroom).

fullsizeoutput_2411Then the other part of my family flew to Boston to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday and I got to see some family I hadn’t seen in a long time.

JULY

IMG_6224 I left my job at HOPE after more than three amazing years. A hugely bittersweet time. I was so overwhelmed and encouraged by the goodbye wishes I got from my coworkers, our volunteers, and our clients.

img_63131.jpgAfter leaving HOPE, I spent a lot of the summer on Long Island in New York, playing Scrabble with my grandmother and going to the beach while Daniel and I prepared for our trip.

AUGUST

IMG_6460Spent some lovely weekends in Manhattan with my grandfather, attempting to take selfies and prepping for my move to the city in 2018

IMG_6584Visited Niagara Falls for the first time with friends from Peace Corps and took silly poncho pictures!

SEPTEMBER

IMG_6674We celebrated my grandmother’s 100th birthday at her assisted living facility in Pueblo, Colorado. It was a big year for birthdays in my family!

fullsizeoutput_241b.jpeg Enjoyed a weekend with friends from high school in the small mountain town of La Veta, Colorado. We hiked, made s’mores, looked at a a mass expanse of stars at night…it was lovely.

OCTOBER

IMG_6886Daniel and I explored Morocco.

IMG_7567Spent a lot of time with the color blue in Chefchaouen.

IMG_7173Made new friends and cooked a lot of tasty tagines.

NOVEMBER

IMG_7610We made a Thanksgiving feast in a tiny hostel kitchen for an international family!

IMG_4109Discovered the Sahara desert:)

DECEMBER

IMG_7930I spent most of December by the ocean  – in Essaouira and in Dakhla.

IMG_8184Then Daniel and I met back up in Budapest, Hungary, where we spent Christmas with some friends of his who live there.

IMG_8254On December 31, I ended up in Podgorica, the capital of the small, former Yugoslavian country of Montenegro. I had a great New Year’s attending an outdoor concert in the city square. More about that in the next post!

What a year. Thank you to everyone who made it so wonderful… Here’s hoping 2018 is another good one:)

Best belated new year’s wishes to you all!

Exploring Western Sahara

When Daniel and I first started planning this trip, we thought we would spend a while in Morocco and then travel overland south through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal, then continue down the west coast of Africa. Once we researched this more, we found that traveling through Mauritania was not safe enough for us to be comfortable trying it (the State Department website said “the chance of kidnapping is high in Mauritania” — no thank you!). So we lingered in Morocco and our plan started to unravel. Daniel and I split ways and when we talked about our next steps, we never seemed to be able to arrive at a mutual decision.

“I think we’re being called in different directions,” he said over the phone. He was right. He was feeling the pull of Europe, whereas Western Sahara was calling to me.

Western Sahara is the disputed territory that lies south of Morocco (or IS the southern part of Morocco, if you are talking to a Moroccan).

WesternSahara(On Moroccan maps, there is no border at the green area – it is all Morocco)

Western Sahara is a sparsely populated desert territory. About 567,000 people live in the country, whose area is roughly equivalent to the state of Florida (a state which is home to over 20 million people). Western Sahara has excellent fishing waters and an important share of the world’s phosphate, which is a vital ingredient in fertilizer.

To make a very long story extremely short, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Spain ceded control of the territory to Morocco. However, the people who live in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi, didn’t want to be part of Morocco and had founded an independence movement called the Polisario Front a few years earlier. This group rose up to fight for Western Sahara’s independence, an armed struggle that lasted for 15 years. When there was eventually a peace agreement in 1991, part of the agreement was that there would be a referendum where Western Saharans could vote for independence the next year. Now, in 2018, that referendum has still not happened.

So Western Sahara remains a disputed territory, almost completely under Moroccan control, but with the Polisario still active and controlling some territory on the eastern border of the country. A lot of the original population is currently living in refugee camps in Algeria.

There is little information available about life in Western Sahara, because the Moroccan government does not allow journalists to enter the territory. (Morocco is actually oddly suspicious about journalists in general – when I worked at the hostel in Chefchaouen, we had to send the check-in sheets from every guest that stayed at the hostel to the police, and they would often call to check up on the journalists who stayed with us.)

This all made me curious to see for myself what was going on in Western Sahara. I did a lot of research and talked to other travelers who had been through the territory, and everything I learned said it was quite safe to travel along the coast of Western Sahara as long as one was not a journalist.

Several other travelers were interested in going with me, but they were ultimately dissuaded by the fact that it is an EXTREMELY LONG JOURNEY to get to the major cities in Western Sahara, from even the most southern cities in Morocco. And there is not much in between:

IMG_8140This part of the Sahara looks kind of reminiscent of Star Wars to me

It took me 24 hours on the bus from Essaouira to get to Dahkla, which is a coastal city in the southern part of Western Sahara.

They have a big kite surfing industry there and some very nice beaches, which is why I chose Dahkla instead of another city. Funnily enough, the beaches turned out to be quite far (25 kilometers) from the city itself, where I was staying and there wasn’t public transit there, so I never ended up going! There are a bunch of tourist resorts right in the beach area, but they are extremely expensive and that was simply not in my budget.

I couldn’t find any hostels in the city, so I stayed in a hotel where I got a private room for only $10 a night. It was actually a much-needed break from hostel life and living with 20-30 other people in close quarters. The hotel was clean and quiet and the staff were absolutely lovely. And it was two blocks from the water, though this part of the coast isn’t a sandy beach.

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The  bus journey there was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. I left Essaouira in the mid-afternoon and caught another bus from Agadir that evening, which would take me all the way to Dakhla.

The first twelve hours or so were uneventful, just a bus ride through a dark night. I did see the sun rise over the Sahara, which was pretty incredible.

Then around 7am, we passed a military checkpoint and I woke up to a police officer standing over me, asking for my passport.

It was a startling way to awaken, but I expected passport checks from what I had read online and heard from other travelers so I wasn’t surprised. I gave him my passport and he got off the bus with it. A few minutes later, he came back and asked me to please come with him to answer a few questions. Yikes.

I grabbed my purse and followed him, unsure whether I would be getting back on this bus, and hoping that my bag wouldn’t be going to Dakhla without me. He led me to the side of the road to a tiny concrete shack where another police officer was waiting inside. There was one table in the room, with one chair and no windows. They left the door open, though, and we had a simple conversation.

They asked me where I was going (Dakhla), what my profession was in the US (I’m a student), why I wanted to go to Dakhla (I want to go to the beach), if I knew people in Dakhla (this one, I didn’t know what answer they were looking for, but I think the correct answer was no. It was also the true answer, so that’s what I said). I smiled at them and kept the tone light. They made a phone call and reported my answers, and then they gave me my passport back and said to enjoy Dakhla.

IMG_7905Desert city on the road to Dakhla

We stopped at probably at least 8-10 more checkpoints before we arrived in Dakhla. My passport was checked four more times, and each time the officer asked me what my profession was, but I never had to get off the bus again. Interestingly, I also never had to pay a bribe, though I was not sure if the bus driver gave them a little something as he was handing them his papers.

Along the highway through Western Sahara, I mostly just saw desert on one side and ocean on the other side. There were a few herds of wild camels, which was a pretty exciting sight to see. A lot of the road is under construction, part of the infrastructure development the Moroccan government is funding in Western Sahara. There are also quite a few unexploded land mines visible from the highway – though they have cleared all those that were dangerously close to the road. These land mines are marked by towers of rocks and I spotted a startling amount of these towers from my window as our bus sped by. Remnants of war…very sobering to see.

IMG_8295Daily life in Dahkla

After all this, once I arrived in Dakhla, I was surprised by how normal life in this city was.

In this pastel-colored city rising out of the desert with its square, masculine buildings and wide roads, people went about their daily lives. They were buying things at the market, fishing in the ocean, drinking coffee at cafés, and walking along the coast with their families on the weekends and evenings. I found some excellent street food, a good breakfast place, and lots of friendly people.

There were some indicators of the ongoing conflict, but you might have missed them if you weren’t paying attention. The main thing was that the Moroccan flag was EVERYWHERE. I saw so many more flags in Dakhla than in any other Moroccan city. There was also a very visible police, army, and navy presence in the city. There were several large military bases in visible and strategic places throughout the city, and I saw many uniformed men walking around. I also met a lot of off-duty military folks out and about in the city.

The other interesting thing was that 9 out of 10 people that I met were not originally from Western Sahara; most were from other places in Morocco. The Moroccan government has been encouraging settlers to move to Western Sahara so they can cement their power in the region, and it seems to have been very effective.

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I did meet a few Sahrawi people. One night, I somehow ended up having coffee with a Libyan business man, a Malian truck driver, and a Moroccan shop keeper. We were sitting outside at a table along the road at a café and the Libyan guy called out to someone walking by that he knew; this guy turned out to be a member of the Polisario. He spoke excellent English and he gave me an thorough education about the conflict.

He told me about the excellent fishing waters and valuable minerals that Western Sahara has, and about how that was one of the reasons that Morocco so desperately wanted to maintain control of the region. Other Sahrawis talked about this frequently.

He told me that they will keep fighting for independence until they get it.

Mr. Polisario welcomed me, the Libyan, and the Malian as guests in his country, but said he did not feel the same about the Moroccan man, because he was an occupier. The two were good natured with each other – they obviously had met before this day – but Mr. Polisario was very clear about the way he felt. He had the fast-talking air of one of those people who is constantly busy, always on his way somewhere, and after he felt he had sufficiently educated me about the conflict (and offered to buy my coffee as a welcome to his country), he ran off to his next commitment.

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Another day, I met an older Sahrawi gentleman at a shop where I was buying water. He was overjoyed when he learned that I was American. He insisted that I join him and his grandson for tea. He said that he remembered a time in the 70s when there was a drought in the region and USAID helped by delivering food aid to the people.

Though more than 40 years has passed, that memory still colored his opinion of the United States and Americans.

We should remember this at a time when our government is considering cutting a lot of foreign aid programs. These things, which cost little in the grand scheme of governmental spending, can make such a difference in the way people view our country.

He also told me about the conflict with Morocco, but he was more resigned to the state of things in his country. Tellingly, he was nervous to talk to me about this in front of other people because he feared police surveillance.

My visit to Western Sahara definitely added a dimension to my Morocco experience and my understanding of the place and global politics in general. After meeting the people who live here, I’ll be following the news about this region and watching to see if they ever get their independence.

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Essaouira

Essaouira (esso-weera) is a lovely city on the southern coast of Morocco. It is a laid-back place, known as the “Windy City of Africa.” It sports white paint on its buildings, the scent of grilled fish blowing on the air, and the calls of seagulls mixing with the call to prayer which sounds from the mosques.

This city fascinated me and pulled me in as I tried to put all its pieces together to see a comprehensive picture of the place.

And the people that I met here – so many vibrant and beautiful souls.

IMG_7855(This is Rachel – we didn’t meet here, but she is a beautiful soul and we shared Essaouira and fresh-squeezed juice together)

It was the first place I visited on this trip where leaving wrenched my heart because of the people I wasn’t ready to part with.

Essaouira has a lot of different facets to it, which is part of what makes it so intriguing. There is a lot of tourist infrastructure because of the good surfing and wind surfing that draws a lot of foreign visitors. But there is also a huge local fishing industry, with a fleet of boats that launch from Essaouira’s port around dawn each morning and come back later in the day with nets full of different sea creatures. It also has an art scene, with musicians playing on the street and local artists selling their pottery, paintings, and other handmade goods. It has a Jewish quarter, where there are a few remaining Jews still living. And it has a seedy local bar, called The Hole, where backpackers and Moroccan men go to drink cheap beer each night.

Like I said, many different facets.

img_8057-1Inside the medina

The medina is the heart of the city and inside its walls, the streets are lined with shops, restaurants and cafés. No vehicles drive in the medina, and during the day, vendors wheel carts out into the middle of the streets and sell bread, fruit, fish, and more.

IMG_8062Early morning in Essaouira – it’s rare to see the streets so empty.

I told Rachel that Essaouira felt European to me, and she said, “you’ve never even been to Europe!” Which is a fair point. But there are a lot of cafés boasting coffee drinks and cocktails that are more European than Arabic, as well as restaurants serving crèpes and gelato, which I never saw in any other Moroccan city. These are certainly remnants of the Europeans who have stayed in Essaouira over the years. It’s nice; it feels familiar, and I dined on the crèpes on several occasions while I was there. I also went to the cafés almost every morning and enjoyed the fact that I was welcome there as a woman, even by myself, in contrast to Moroccan cafés which are typically reserved for men, and where I certainly wouldn’t go by myself.

The local food is better than the crèpes, though. Most days, I ate lunch at a small restaurant in an alley where a lot of locals eat. The restaurant serves an amazing baysara soup (a thick soup made of blended chickpeas and spices) for about $1. There isn’t much seating, and there aren’t many choices on the menu, but the food is amazing and there’s something nice about sitting right in the middle of everything and seeing life go by.

IMG_7843My favorite part of Essaouira is its port.

The port is enthralling, always in motion, and feels like it embodies the real spirit of the city.

One evening, I walked there with some other people from the hostel as the sun was setting. It was quite the scene. There were fish everywhere – on sale by small vendors along the walkway, being unloaded from boats, piled high in carts pushed by old men or pulled by a motorcycle. And because of the fish, hundreds of seagulls circled above, waiting for the opportunity to swoop down and steal one. The sky was a deep red color that contrasted with the blue of the ocean and beautifully silhouetted the seagulls in the air. Everything was wet with saltwater and men were shouting at each other as they brought in the last of the fishing boats and unloaded their catch.

A young Australian man who was with us kept saying, “This is like the apocalypse! This is literally what the apocalypse would be like if it happened.”

I thought it was enchanting, and also a little ominous.

IMG_7834Port in the morning (not ominous like in the evening)

Rachel lifted her camera to take a picture of one of the boats as it came in and a man on the boat stopped what he was doing, squared his shoulders to us, and presented his middle finger. He stood there like that until she lowered her camera and we all looked away nervously. It was unpleasant, but it did make me think about what life might be like for one of these fishermen, waking up before dawn each day and dragging himself down to the port with its overwhelming smell of fish before breakfast. Then the hard work of getting the boat ready for sea and hauling nets in and out all day. On a good day, they catch a lot early in the day and can come back to shore. On a bad day, it might take all day and they still don’t catch enough for everyone to take home enough money that evening. If it were me, I would probably be annoyed with youngsters who were just having a nice time on vacation, too. There is another part of Essaouira.

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I went down to the port almost every morning that I was there, hovering quietly around the edges (not taking any pictures of people, just in case) and watching life go on.

It took me a week (and a lecture from a Moroccan gym teacher) to realize I could go for a run on the beach – I had gotten so out of the habit of exercising since I left Chefchaouen. So I ran 10k at sunrise one morning.

It was absolutely glorious and my legs were so sore afterwards that I couldn’t walk properly for days. Worth it.

A big part of why I enjoyed my time in Essaouira so much was the hostel I stayed at and its amazing Moroccan staff. They were five young men, all about my age, and all very passionate about their Amazigh/Berber ethnicity. We made friends quickly and I wished I had volunteered there instead of in Chefchaouen, where my Moroccan counterpart was a grumpy old man. They were a lot of fun and they taught me so much about Morocco and their culture while I was there.

IMG_8208Ayoub and Rachid serving couscous to the hostel guests on Couscous Friday

A few nights, I went with them and some other folks from the hostel to check out The Hole, the local bar. It is located at the end of an alley near the edge of the medina and isn’t really marked, other than by a bouncer-type man who stands outside and occasionally does bounce someone who is overly drunk. I had heard so much about this bar from other travelers who had visited Essaouira that I couldn’t leave without experiencing it.

img_8060-1The Hole is down this alley and to the left

Honestly, with a name like “The Hole,” I was expecting it to be a lot grungier and more sketchy than it was.

It just looks like a simple pub inside – tile on the floor and the walls, fluorescent lighting, tables scattered throughout a couple rooms, a bar in the middle and a grumpy bartender behind it. The atmosphere is a bit weird – alcohol is forbidden in Islam, which 99% of the Moroccan population practices, so that is a fact that sort of hangs above the scene. One day, I bumped into a man I had met briefly at The Hole the night before, and he said, “hey, do you remember me? We met last night – at the bar.” He whispered the last bit with a sort of apologetic look on his face. But the beer is cheap and it felt safe to be there with the hostel staff and other travelers. We had some fun nights there, and when the last call finished around midnight, we walked back to the hostel together and hung out on the roof watching the stars and talking until we were tired.

cropped-img_7879.jpgSunset from the roof of Atlantic Hostel

I have some really nice memories from the days I spent in Essaouira. It wasn’t only the staff that made my time so great – I also met a lot of awesome travelers at this hostel. I am not sure what it is about Atlantic Hostel that attracts wonderful people, but it does, and I found a lot of people here with similar interests whose company I enjoyed enormously. Most nights, everyone would sit around in the common areas of the hostel and play music. Drums and guitars got passed around and the staff all took a turn playing or singing. Some of the songs they played were traditional songs and others were newer songs by popular Amazigh artists. Musically-inclined travelers would join in with songs they knew and many hours passed this way, with the sharing of music and conversation between friends.

I miss that place. And I miss those guys.

This is the strange thing about travel, I’m finding. You are constantly making these meaningful connections and then almost instantly dissolving them again. There is a part of this process that is extremely painful, and some days I wonder why I am doing this to myself. But there is also beauty and value in it. A connection is a connection, no matter how short-lived it may be.

Even if these experiences are just exquisite moments in time that we share, never to be continued or recreated, isn’t that what life is made of?

Lots of tiny moments in time, all added up, create a life.

The way you spend each hour becomes the way you spend each day which becomes the way that you spend a life. And if I spend my life connecting meaningfully with other people, I will consider it a life well-lived.

A Moroccan journey

I didn’t want to ever leave Merzouga, but I had limited time left in Morocco and I needed to see some other cities. Rachel had to leave earlier, so I paired up with a British guy from our hostel for an overnight journey across the country.

We left Merzouga by taxi and headed to a nearby hub for transportation, where we had a bus connection booked to Marrakesh. When the guy who owned our hostel recommended booking the taxi for 2:30 to catch a 5:30 bus, even though the town was less than an hour away, we didn’t understand. However, when the taxi arrived about an hour late and then the driver had to do a bunch of errands on his way out of town, I understood why we needed those buffer hours.

What we didn’t realize is that we had unknowingly booked a local bus (i.e. not the tourist buses that are more reliable and only slightly more expensive) to Marrakesh. Thus, our bus journey started with an hour of standing in the cold, watching every male person in the vicinity try to fix our bus, which showed no signs of starting.

IMG_7818Men attempting to fix the bus

There were giant jumper cables and there were people climbing inside the bus engine and it seemed that everyone had an opinion. Finally, much to my surprise, the bus started and we got on.

In Morocco, they have a two-tiered system for public transit: one for tourists and one for locals. The tourist buses are well-organized, well-maintained, air-conditioned, sell official tickets with assigned seats, and have a schedule for stops they will make. The local buses are quite the opposite, and the price difference is very small, so I had mostly been taking the tourist buses. I admit I was a bit concerned that this particular local bus was going to break down in the middle of the Atlas Mountains, which we had to cross, but it made the journey without any problems.

It was, however, absolutely freezing and also chaos. Paul and I quietly occupied a pair of seats and tried to sleep. However, each time the bus stopped, people filled the aisles (whether they were getting on or off I couldn’t tell) and shouted at each other in Arabic until eventually the conductor made some decisive gestures and everyone either took a seat or got off the bus.

People were getting on and off the bus all night at various small villages along the route, and each time the doors opened (one was right next to our seats), cold air blew into the non-heated bus. You might think that Morocco is a warm place – and mostly you are right – but winter does exist, it gets cold at night, and high in the mountains there is even snow at this time of year. By the time we disembarked the bus around 6:30am in Marrakesh, my feet were numb from the cold!

What an experience that bus ride was. I used to ride local buses like this all the time in Benin, but it had been a while and I had forgotten what they were like. At least there were no livestock on this bus. In Benin that was not always the case.

Once we arrived, I decided to board another bus, bound for the coastal town of Essaouira, instead of finding accommodation in Marrakesh. After the calm and perfection of Merzouga, I just wasn’t ready to jump into life in a big, overwhelming city, and other travelers had told me that Marrakesh was just that. (I have also heard that it is a rich, vibrant city, and I thought I would be able to visit it on my way back north through Morocco but I ended up missing it.)

What I did see of Marrakesh seemed quite nice – I walked through some of the new part of the city on the way from one bus station to another. Modern, tall buildings and palm trees line the wide streets. I walked past a Burger King and some other restaurants I recognized from the US (I was hoping for a Starbucks but didn’t spot one). There was a lot of traffic on the road in the morning – mostly professional people headed to work in nice cars. But alongside that, there was also the occasional donkey-drawn cart and motorcycles like this pulling loads of stuff. Such an interesting mix.

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The ride to Essaouira on the tourist bus was far shorter and less eventful than the overnight ride, but by the time I arrived, I had been traveling for more than 18 hours and was pretty exhausted.

As I stumbled off the bus in Essaouira, I immediately smelled the fresh air blowing in from the ocean and knew I had made the right choice.

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I ended up spending 10 days in this chilled-out place, which I’ll tell you about in the next post:)

Best books of 2017

One of my new year’s resolutions last year was to read more and watch less TV. I accomplished this one (yes, quitting my job and spending 3 months in Morocco did help) and rediscovered the love of reading I used to have, which university education beat out of me with the sheer volume of reading that was required of us. I discovered some amazing books this year and thought I would share my favorites.

Two thank yous are in order – one to my grandmother, who gave me my first Kindle last year, and one to the Longmont Public Library, which has a great e-book selection that I can access from all over the world. These two things have made it so easy to read and get new books while traveling.

Have you discovered any good books lately? Anything you think I would like? Please share any recommendations in the comments below!

Best overall book:

Homegoing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I cannot stop talking or thinking about this book – it is a masterful work of historical fiction which tells a compelling story and also illustrates the painful history of slavery and its later evolutions. It begins in a small village in Ghana and spans seven generations and two countries (Ghana and the United States) as it follows the stories of two sisters whose paths diverge. The reader gets a snapshot of what life looks like for each generation as the sisters children grow up and have their own children. Absolutely incredible book.

Fiction:

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Full disclosure: This book broke my heart, but it was a beautiful reflection of life and it deserves its spot here. The author weaves a fascinating web of interconnecting stories centered around a cast of characters who are each in their own way trying to improve the world. It is a book about humanity, raw, confusing and heartbreaking, and it resonated with me and my world view.

Americanah Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is a female Nigerian author whose writing I admire greatly. She does a remarkable job of weaving together many different experiences of identity, coming of age, race, love, and the idea of “home” in this compelling novel. The story spans Nigeria, the US, and the UK and sheds light on the experience of immigrants, as well as highlighting issues of race as central to the characters’ experiences in the US and the UK. At a time when there is so much global discussion about immigration and refugees, and when race is still such a massive issue in the US, I found it a timely book to read and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in any of these issues.

Nonfiction:

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

This book is dense and not a quick or an easy read, but it is painstakingly researched and the facts it presented blew my mind. Its premise is that the criminal justice system is simply the most recent in a series of systems to control black people in the United States – first slavery, then Jim Crow, now mass incarceration. The author is a lawyer and it is discusses some fairly complicated legal subjects, but can definitely be understood by the average person. I don’t have a copy with me now to cite some of the facts that I found most compelling, but I do highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in understanding more about how race still plays a huge role in American lives or how the criminal justice system exploits certain groups of people.

Feminist reading:

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

My experience as a woman in Morocco really increased my feminist leanings and made me hungry to read more feminist works. This book is a few years old but I really enjoyed it. Sandberg focuses on American women in this book and presents data about the current limitations for women in the workplace and advice for anyone who wants to make things more equal for women. Excellent read.

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid’s Tale

This is a dystopian novel about a potential future (and of course is now also a popular TV series, which I have yet to watch) where an effort to improve life for women has gone horribly wrong. It’s an interesting premise and a cautionary tale. It has feminist leanings but is not strictly a feminist book – I could have also put it under a fiction or sci-fi category.

 

Honorable mentions – some other good books:

Half of a Yellow Sun Half of a Yellow Sun  A Simple Heart A Simple Heart  A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

The Book Thief The Book Thief  The Alchemist The Alchemist  This Is How You Lose Her This Is How You Lose Her

So Long a Letter So Long a Letter  Still Life with Bread Crumbs Still Life with Bread Crumbs  Rising Strong Rising Strong 

 Behold the Dreamers Behold the Dreamers   Interpreter of Maladies Interpreter of Maladies  Animal's People Animal’s People

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1) Oryx and Crake  Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World 

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

 

So leave your recommendations in the comments below! More chapters from Morocco coming soon:)

Happy New Year everyone!