I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city, in early January. My arrival coincided with the Greek Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. This meant that I got to celebrate Christmas yet again on my first day here!

IMG_8314Coffee cup on January 6

By chance, on my first morning, I stumbled upon the Orthodox Christmas tradition of a bunch men in Speedos diving into ice cold water to retrieve a crucifix that has been blessed by a priest. The man who gets the cross is supposed to have good luck for the coming year.

It was quite the event, judging by the number of people who crowded along the waterfront to watch.


The young men boarded a big ship, took lots of selfies of themselves as they prepared to dive, and a fleet of small rescue boats floated nearby, with medics and lifeguards ready to jump in if needed. Some of the elite of Thessaloniki watched from a yacht near the coast.

There was almost an hour of buildup and the action was over in about a minute. One minute they were on the boat, then very suddenly all the men were flailing about in the water. Just as suddenly, someone got the cross and everyone was clambering back on to the boats.

After the swimming event, the priest gave a blessing in the street and then there was a small parade as he made his way to a nearby church, escorted by the Greek military. The giant bells on the church were clanging and Greek women were shoving to get a chance to kiss the cross that the priest had blessed and I let myself get swept along with the crowd and absorb their joy.


It was a wonderful first day and after my Greek Epiphany experience, I wandered around, trying to get a feel for this new place.


Whereas Tirana felt like it was on its way up as a city, Thessaloniki definitely feels like it had its glory days already and is in a decline. It’s a beautiful city, in the way that old things are beautiful, and also in the way that discord and honesty has beauty. The people are very welcoming and friendly, but you can see that Greece’s economic crisis has impacted them greatly.

IMG_8600All over the city, there are high-end shops with prices marked way down

The city is built on a steep hill, with the remnants of an ancient Byzantine wall at the top and layers of houses and apartments cascading downwards. At the bottom of the hill is the Aegean Sea and the city’s most famous monument, the White Tower.


Interestingly, the city is covered in graffiti. And I don’t say “covered” lightly. Truly, most buildings are marked in some way Even in the most upscale part of town, you see this street artwork.


Everywhere in the city, you see ancient ruins and historically significant items. In fact, the government has been trying to build a metro system for more than 10 years (right now the public transit in the city is limited to buses), but each time they try to dig for it, they uncover more ruins. One Greek woman from Athens who stayed in our hostel said that when someone suggests something you never want to do, it has become a running joke to say,

“Oh yes, we’ll do that as soon as Thessaloniki gets its metro.”

IMG_8468One such site below the city, glimpsed through a wire fence

My favorite part of Thessaloniki is the waterfront.

This has been recently upgraded and features broad sidewalks bordering the water with places to sit and some modern sculptures alongside the ancient ones. The local people use this space a lot, and on weekends and evenings the area is full of Greek people out enjoying the water and vendors selling koulouria (a thin, bagel-type item covered in sesame seeds) and other pastries.

It is also a great place for running, and I got back into a solid running routine here. This was good and necessary to offset my other Thessaloniki pastime, which was sampling the baklava from a different bakery every day!


But the most meaningful part of my stay in Thessaloniki was that I had the opportunity to facilitate an English-learning conversation course for a group of men who are political refugees from Turkey. It was an honor to get to work with them.

It hasn’t been in the news as often lately, but Greece is still the landing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees each year.

There are many people living here who are seeking asylum – a legal status that will allow them to resettle in a new country because it is unsafe for them to return to their home country.

The group I worked with already had a pretty high English level, so we mostly practiced conversation – the most difficult part of learning any language. I taught them some idioms in English, like about the silver lining to a cloud and about crossing a bridge when you come to it (which it turns out, there is a similar idiom in Turkish – basically, don’t roll up your pants to cross the river before you get to the water). I also got to help with a women’s group that my friend facilitates and met some lovely women that way, two of whom graciously invited me to dinner at their houses even though they are refugees and new to the country.

IMG_8590I can’t tell you how amazing it was to eat home-cooked food after so many months on the road, eating out or eating cereal all the time!

I think we often want to think of people who are in a position of needing help as somehow fundamentally different from “us.” It’s an unconscious tendency to distance oneself, partly to protect ourselves from the idea of “that could be me.”

The thing that was so humbling working with these folks is that they are exactly like the people I know in the United States.

They are educated, they are informed, they are concerned about the world and their place in it. They are people who had high-level careers in Turkey, as educators and academics and engineers. Then suddenly their government turned against them because of their political beliefs, and their passports and assets were frozen, their jobs dismissed, and some were imprisoned. They had to flee for the safety of their families and now have to start all over again in this new country.

As I got to know them, I kept thinking, “wow, this could be me if I was born in a different country.” It’s just that America, despite its [many] shortcomings, is still based on freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of the press; this all means that we cannot be punished for our political beliefs like these people were. The things we take for granted…

In my last week in Thessaloniki, I also connected with a large refugee assistance agency called Help Refugees. They are a British organization that acts as an umbrella, assisting lots of different agencies who work with refugees with funding and volunteers. It was a very informative experience, and I learned a lot. (Like, for instance, there are about 10,000 refugees currently in northern Greece, about half of whom are still in camps and half of whom have moved into housing.)

IMG_8593Map of all the refugee camps in Northern Greece

The work I did was remarkably similar to what I used to coordinate in my former job at HOPE, and it was fun and different to be on the other side – not coordinating but doing the small tasks that it takes to keep an organization like that running.


I spent a day helping in the giant Help Refugees warehouse, which receives donations from all over and provides supplies to more than 20 refugee camps and refugee centers in the area, and several days helping in the Soul Food kitchen, which is a low-budget operation that prepares lunch and dinner for hundreds of refugees each day. Some of the food is distributed through a community center and some of it is packaged for an outreach service that reminded me so much of HOPE outreach.


These experiences were so fulfilling (even though my hands smelled like onions for days after chopping pounds and pounds of them!).

This also reminded me that I wanted to volunteer on one of the Greek islands during this trip, to help with the new refugees who are just arriving on boats. So I went online and sent in an application to volunteer on Lesvos with an agency called Refugee Rescue, and I was accepted to help on their land crew for a few weeks. So I am starting that work this weekend – will certainly keep you updated on that experience!

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.


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.


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.


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.


The Sahara, my love


We disembarked the night bus in Merzouga around 5:30am, in the total darkness of an unfamiliar town, which was so still that it seemed uninhabited. The bus had emptied out as the 10-hour journey from Fez went on and people got off at small villages along the way, so there were only three of us, all foreign women, left on by the time it reached Merzouga, the final stop. We tumbled out of the bus onto the dusty street, clumsily hoisted our bags, and suddenly the bus was gone. Was there actually a tumbleweed blowing gently towards us or is that my memory playing tricks? “Whoa, where are we?,” I thought groggily.

IMG_7625Camels on the move during a sandstorm

Merzouga is situated just at the edge of the Sahara Desert, on the way to nothing else, other than Algeria, but the land border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There’s no way to convince yourself that you can stop here on the way to somewhere else. If you come to Merzouga, it is on purpose, and it is to experience the desert. The town is a 10-12 hour bus ride away from each of the two nearest major cities, Fez and Marrakesh, though both trips are significantly faster if you have your own car instead of taking a bus. I almost skipped this part of Morocco because of the distance, but wow, I am so glad I decided to make the journey.

Put simply, the Sahara Desert is one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced.

I fell in love with this peaceful, sand-colored town and the desert that blends into and out of it like I have not fallen for a place in a very long time.

IMG_4137(Photo courtesy of Rachel McCoy, my travel partner and amazing photographer)

Merzouga, with its unassuming mud and concrete buildings, is laid back and peaceful. In the mornings, the sun peeks over the dunes and the town wakes up slowly from the cold night. Lone men wearing long djellabas (a Moroccan cloak that looks like a wizard’s, complete with a pointy hood — think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) quietly drift down the middle of the dusty main road. As the sun gains strength, traffic comprised mostly of old bicycles and rickety motorcycles with a few tourism vans thrown in kicks up the dust and sand coating the road. The men trade their djellabas for long tunics and colorful turbans to combat the blowing sand. In the evenings, the dust settles and the air fills with the smell of meat being roasted over charcoal fires on a few grills along the street as people congregate in cafés, drinking tea and exchanging news. After sunset, most people are back in their homes or out in the desert and the town is quiet.

IMG_7799Merzouga main street at sunset

Life in the desert is intense and inextricably tied to the mother nature.

As soon as we arrived in this desert town, I felt the moisture instantly sucked out of my skin, hair and throat by the dry air and wind. Dust coated my entire body and all my clothes the whole time we were there. Though it is winter, the sun is still intense (but the temperature is moderate, even cold at night) and I was perpetually sunburnt and windblown, despite an obsessive use of sunscreen. But maybe the intensity is part of what makes this place so arresting.

Most people who live here depend on the desert in one way or another. Some are nomads who move through the desert with their camels, relying on the desert to provide water and plants while coming to town occasionally to buy or trade goods, and some are permanent town-dwellers who make a living from the tourism provided by the desert. Regardless, no one can forget the desert, and everyone here respects it. There is no other way.

The first day we arrived in Merzouga, we were greeted by a sandstorm.

Rachel and I had walked out to the edge of the dunes when the wind started picking up and we realized we should turn around. It was unpleasant and painful, being whipped by flying grains of sand that got in the eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere. But it was also exquisitely beautiful – the power of the desert was clear and magnificent that day.

img_7626-1Sand blowing in a storm

And after it ended, everything was clean and new. The dunes had shifted shape slightly, all footprints and traces of human activity had been erased, and the desert looked untouched, as if it had just been reborn. There is something mystical about a place that is ever-changing, never the same. To know that what you are witnessing is only there for that moment that you see it, that later it will be different, that it can never be recreated quite in the same way…wow.


What a phenomenal place. What an incredible world we have.




Coming soon: More desert! A post about trekking with camels into the Sahara on its way in the next week.