Reaching Out 2 The World


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A Smooth Return to Kayamandi

After a full day’s worth of traveling we finally arrived back in South Africa. As soon as we touched IMG_6703down I could tell things were going to be great. We made it through customs in a breeze and were some of the firsts to recover our baggage. It was great to finally move through an airport at a less than frustrating pace.

Once we had everything we began heading towards the exit and saw in the distance two familiar faces. Mieke and Hanneke had come to fetch us at the airport and were holding two welcoming signs. Well, actually they were “Wanted” signs that attracted a lot of humorous attention, but we received them as big welcomes in the highest form of flattery! For mine they chose a picture from when I was dressed up in Morocco and set my reward for a whopping 8 Rand. They were pretty spot on with how I could be recognized and really did an outstanding job on the sign making. It was so nice of them to be there for us at our arrival and this was just the start of the day’s surprises!

IMG_6701With our pickup, they had also organized a ride back to Kayamandi, which is an awesome convenience that shouldn’t go unnoted. When we made it back they told us that they wanted to be there as we walked into our room. You can imagine our apprehension and anxiety at this point. We had been gone for nearly 3 weeks and our room had been periodically occupied?!? I had no idea what to expect but when we opened the door we were staring at what seemed like hundreds of sticky notes covering our walls. In the room we noticed that all the sticky notes had writing on them and there were personal messages written to both Dan and I. I think we spent the next half hour unpacking our bags and reading all of our notes. The girls had spent a couple weeks working with the kids from Kayamandi on the notes and the pictures that collaged our walls. Most of the notes weren’t signed by anyone but some were easy to identify. Ski’s drawings were easy to spot, Riri’s sayings and lingo were all pretty clear to me, and I could pick out a few I thought may have been written by Mawande. We found out that many of them had stuck with a consistent color for their notes so that also made it easier to identify. This was a total surprise to us and I absolutely loved it!

Before we could even finish reading all our notes the girls came back in to inform us that lunch was ready. What? They even had prepared a meal for us? We walked over to Mama Zulus and into the dining room and I saw on the table a few of my favorite things; coke, nutella, and crepes. Not only that, but there was an abundance of each and we totally pigged out. I think I ate almost half of the nutella jar that afternoon. When we were stuffed to capacity they went back into the kitchen and brought out the game changer. My absolute favorite desert ever…. chocolate mousse! It’s a game changer because no matter how full I previously was, I can always make room for chocolate mousse.

IMG_6700Not long after our delicious feast of a lunch did the kids start coming over. Our room quickly filled up with most of all the guys making their way over. A nice reunion to see them all again but we had a ton of people in a very small room. The girls and I decided to take all the boys to the park town the street and play some Frisbee and soccer with them. We played for a while, until we figured it would be time to head back for dinner. I love playing sports with these guys and it was the IMG_6699perfect addition to our big return. While we were playing I saw Mawande hanging out on the slide. When I went over he was admiring a small ladybug that had come to join us. Just another sign of how fantastic it was to be back in South Africa.

Another special treat about being back home in South Africa is Mama Zulus cooking. Chicken, french-fries, beans, and a salad were all waiting for us when we got back to her house. The Kayamandi kids waited back in our room while we indulged in our supreme meal. Before I head back home I plan on preparing a large meal that will have enough food to feed everyone that’s over. The kids never ask for food nor expect it, and Mama Zulu is already making enough, but it’ll be a nice treat to enjoy a meal with everyone.

IMG_6705More kids had come over by the time we had finished eating and were all hanging out in our room. They showed us which notes and pictures they had drawn and we told them a bit about our trip. Normally they’d all begin heading home around 8pm but they made it clear that they had no intentions of going home early on our first night back. Even once the other volunteers all got together around 9pm for a few card games the boys stuck around. I think it was closer to 9:30 when they finally had to go. It was nice seeing them after being away for 3 weeks and I’m dreading having to say my final goodbyes. When I came back to my room I saw that Ski had a new pair of shoes on. He was telling me that he wanted to trade with me for the day but I could risk loosing my vibrams haha.

After a few card games, Mieke, Hanneke, and I played a round of Catan. We changed up the rules a little bit to add some fun, and extended the game an extra 3 points. It was probably the perfect end to a perfect day back in Kayamandi and it’s all thanks to our friends from Holland. Mieke, and Hanneke, you guys rock and I hope you understand how much I appreciate all the kind things you do. Letting you beat me in Catan was just my way of saying thank you.

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A Few Days to Relax in Spain

Rather than going to bed, Dan and I had a train to catch at 1am that would take us through the night up to Tanger, the northern port in Morocco where folks cross over to Spain. Again we weren’t too sure what to expect for our ride but wanted to get there ahead of time to make sure we didn’t miss our train.

When our train finally arrived we had a bit of trouble locating our seats but eventually found them near the front of the train. We had the entire compartment to ourselves which was perfect because we were both very tired and could lie down along all the seats. Before drifting off to sleep we made sure to set a few alarms for ourselves to make sure we didn’t sleep through our stop. The next 6 hours was a lot of stop and go traffic along the rails but I didn’t have much trouble sleeping. If I can lay down, and cover my eyes, chances are I’ll be able to sleep.

Things got a little crazy when we got off the train in Tanger, just after 7 in the morning. IMG_6563We were both a bit groggy from the trip and caught a taxi to where the ferries take off from. As soon as our taxi pulled up we were ushered through the gate by a very panicky employee who was imploring us to hurry up. The boat was leaving at 7:30 and he didn’t want us to miss it! We ran through customs, upstairs, and down corridors until we were just about to board the ship. We even already had our tickets when the guy finally asked for payment. We never intended to pay with cash so we were at a bit of a setback when we found out he didn’t accept cards. Thinking quick, Dan left me with the bags and ran back through the port where he located an ATM to get the cash necessary for our trip. You think the guy could have mentioned that before rushing us through everything!

It was just after 8 in the morning by the time our ferry pulled up to Tarifa, Spain (I even slept for our 30 minute voyage across the Strait of Gibraltar). Once in town we caught a taxi to our accommodation and both went down hard for a nap. Traveling is exhausting, even when you are able to get a little sleep along the way!

IMG_6453For the next 5 days we’d be hanging around Spain. With no intentions of exploring this incredible country we set our sights on just plain old relaxing. You may call everything up till this point an extravagant vacation, but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly on the move. Don’t get me wrong, I fully intend to explore Spain one day but now was not going to be that time.

We were stationed in Tarifa, a small town in the southernmost part of Spain. This is typically a tourist destination but since it was October there weren’t nearly as many people, with the exception of the first day we arrived. Because it was the last day of the weekend and there was an ample amount of wind the oceans were loaded with kite surfers and the beaches were lined with onlookers. It was an incredible sight to see so many kites flying through the sky and I was very interested in joining them. It turned out to cost more than I could budget for and required a series of lessons that I didn’t have the time for, but one day, I’d like to learn to kite surf!

IMG_6460The first place we stayed with was a bit detached from the main city of Tarifa 1378550_10151785447919926_2001282457_nbut offered incredible views, sunsets, and just a short walk to the beach. Even with all the beauty that I was surrounded by the highlight of my days there was video chatting with my sisters. I spent sometime in the early afternoon talking with Anna and Charlie before she had to go into work. They are both doing great and Charlie is the cutest baby around! I’m excited for Charlie to get to experience his very first Halloween this year as both of his parents are major fanatics!

IMG_6501Later on in the day I was able to call up and talk to Rebecca and the rest of her family! It was her birthday and she was joined by her husband, Ed, her two amazing children Sarah, and Evan, and her parents Nancy and Ed! It was so great to catch up with them and hear how everyone was doing. Sarah turned 5 back at the end of September and they were both very excited about a trip they had planned the upcoming weekend to see Cinderella on Broadway in New York!

As much as I love traveling it’s difficult to be away from the ones you love for so long. I’m really looking forward to getting home to see my niece, nephews, and of course the rest of my family and friends as well.

So one thing we learned about Spain, which we had IMG_6513known about but never experienced, was their crazy eating schedules. From what I understand they don’t eat breakfast till early afternoon, skip lunch, and eat dinner sometime between 9 and 10. Walking around looking for a place to eat lunch and dinner was one of the more difficult things we had to do. On one occasion we walked around the city of Algericas for nearly an hour trying to find a place to eat. Everything was either closed or not serving meals. It was maybe 6pm when we got started and closer to 8pm when we were finally eating our hamburgers at what seemed was the only place in the entire city selling food, Monet. I’m sure if we stayed there longer we’d adapt to the eating schedules or find ways around starving for most of the day, but it was a little frustrating when we were hungry and nothing was working out.

IMG_6568Of course when we did find a place to eat the menus were in Spanish. Dan knows a bit of Spanish, and I studied it in high school but I’ve never been immersed in it and it’s been years since I’ve had to speak it. We got by for the most part but ordered a basket of fish by accident at the first place we ate. Neither of us likes fish so the basket went untouched.

On one of the days we toured IMG_6564the Castillo Guzman El Bueno, an old castle by the port of Tarifa. It was nice to check it out and take a few pictures around the place but the doors to go inside weren’t open. Oh well though, we made the most of our castle tour and took some cool pictures with the sun setting in the background!

IMG_6638Our last night in Spain was the best. We had plans to go see flamenco dancing at a small restaurant in the heart of Tarifa. To me, Tarifa reminded me of a much older version of an ocean city along one of our coasts, a similar atmosphere but a much different look. The streets were filled with places to eat, and musicians in the streets, but after grabbing some dinner we made our way to where the flamenco dancing would be held.

I didn’t really know what to expect but we were determined to arrive early so we could have the best seats in the place. It was a good thing we did too because the restaurant filled up to its max capacity. The show began with two gentlemen taking a seat in the front, one with a guitar and one with just a bottle of water. Once the guitarist began playing he was accompanied by some spectacular singing. I couldn’t tell you what he was singing about, but it was mighty impressive. Not long after those two began were they joined by a young lady who was dressed to impress. Once she began dancing the show truly was underway. IMG_6647Three performers, all working at the same time, all doing completely different things, but in perfect harmony. I couldn’t tell you who was the most skilled amongst the three because they impressed me thoroughly from start to finish. If you ever have the opportunity to watch some authentic flamenco dancing, you don’t want to pass it up!

IMG_6645The following day we packed up and began our trip back to Casablanca in Morocco, where we’d be taking a plane back to South Africa. We stayed a night in Tanger, a city in the northern part of Morocco, and bought a few souvenirs for our travels. In the evening we practiced a bit more with the light painting but all in all it was a fairly easy trip back to Casablanca.

I’m also pleased to say that the flight back to South Africa was pretty uneventful and my time was passed watching a couple movies and reading Ender’s Game. I think this book is being made into a movie, if it hasn’t already, and I wanted to read it before seeing it.

Overall, our three week trip was pretty awesome, and I was able to see places I IMG_6557never thought I’d be able to see. From the mega city of Dubai, through Morocco, a trip into the desert, and a few days along the beautiful coast of Spain, this trip covered a lot of ground and will leave me with some incredible memories. Be sure to let me know if you’ll be headed to any of those places and I’ll be sure to tell you what I know. The next few posts will cover my remaining days in South Africa. I have a lot I’m still looking to do but only a minimal time to do it. One thing for sure is though, we are all very excited about our Halloween Celebrations coming up!


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Camel-Backing it Through the Sahara Desert

After a small breakfast our group piled back into the van, everyone squeezing IMG_6388back into their original seats. We had another long day of traveling ahead of us and would be finishing our day with a camel ride into the Sahara Desert!

Like the day before our ride was filled with scenic stops along the road and even a guided tour. Our tour on this day took us through a Berber town where we got the chance to sit down and learn all about the process of rug making. The day was a bit unordinary however because it fell on their holiday. Because of this we received ouIMG_6385r rug lesson from the brother of the women that typically create the rugs. He was incredibly nice and told us that he appreciated the opportunity to practice his English. He also made sure to let us know that it was the women that were able to create all those beautiful rugs and not him. He told me that his skill was jewelry making but that all his supplies were back at his place across town. It’s too he didn’t have any with him because I’m sure he’s great at what he does.

The amount of work and effort that goes into the rugs is incredible and they each tell a story. The meaning behind the rugs is often only known by the creator but if you’re looking to purchase one you can be sure to ask what the symbols mean beforehand. A large rug could take 1-3 weeks to make if they are working at it every day. IMG_6386Seeing the rugs and meeting the locals really makes you think about the whole haggling process. So much time and effort goes into making these custom pieces only to have a complete stranger try to buy it off you for a fraction of the asking price. I understand that they start their prices high in order to still make a profit but I couldn’t help but think that the creators are still getting the short end of the bargain. A few members of our group purchased some small rugs that should make the trips back to their countries fairly easily. I really enjoyed our time in this town and appreciated the hospitality.

IMG_6277When we exited the home we were all shocked to see that the streets were flowing with blood. Today was the day that the animals would be sacrificed in honor of Allah providing Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice rather than his son Ishmael.  When we rounded the next corner to head back to the van we witnessed one of these sacrifices. I apologize if the pictures are too graphic but I felt this was an important part of their culture and not IMG_6275worth leaving out. If it makes you feel any better they use all parts of the sacrificed animal and give 1/3 of the meat to their neighbors and 1/3 of their meat to the needy or less fortunate. It was interesting being able to view the “process” but nice being able to then get in our van and drive away. There are too many parts of a sheep that I’m just not interested in seeing served for dinner.

IMG_6382Our final stop before reaching the Sahara was the mighty Todgha Gorge. Now days there is a small river that runs through this gorge but there must have been a lot more water at one point because these walls tower up to 150 meters on either side of you. It’s a spectacular hike through this canyon and a popular tourist stop on the way to the Sahara. The first thing I noticed upon arriving was the rock climbers midway up this gigantic cliff IMG_6381face. If you squint your eyes you can probably see them in the attached picture. Besides the ridiculous height they were climbing and the sheer drop they faced at any moment, I couldn’t help but think how hot it must be with the desert sun on their backs for the duration of the climb. I suppose they have more urgent concerns at hand though.

IMG_6368Finally, after the longest, most unnecessary stop for lunch (our service was just terrible), we made it to the edge of the Sahara. Our driver told us we were only to bring one bag and that we should be ready to go soon. I guess I wasn’t totally prepared to just bring one bag, as Dan and I had our things sort of mixed together amongst a few bags, but I quickly IMG_6366sorted my things out. Before boarding my camel there was still one last thing I needed to do, I had to get changed into my Sahara Desert garb. When Dan and I met everyone back outside it was easy to see the jealousy on their faces. At least I’d like to think so… because we looked great!

We were each paired up with a camel and each camel was a part of a small caravan of camels. My camel didn’t have a name, and I wasn’t about to walk through the desert on camel with no name… so I named him Wednesday. Wednesday was a great camel and second in line of the first caravan.

IMG_6342The camel directly in front of us looked to be pregnant because of how fat she was. I mentioned this to the man riding her and his response was, “I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing about me!” Gotta love British humor.

Our stroll through the desert was IMG_6348very nice and full of incredible views. The sun was setting and the surrounding dunes looked striking. With the sun at our backs, our shadows lead the way deep into the desert for what was just under a 2 hour ride. For those of you that are wondering, riding a camel is not comfortable. And after the first 30 minutes or so of our ride I could already feel my toes tingling and my groin aching. Despite the discomfort I wouldn’t have changed a thing, besides installing a cup holder on Wednesday. Every minute the sun dropped lower we were presented with different shades of color spreading across the horizon. I hope you enjoy the pictures but I’m sure you’ll believe me when I tell you that they hardly do the trip justice.

IMG_6345The last hour of our walk was lit by moonlight. The moon was almost full and was like a giant light bulb in the sky. Not only did we have no issues of seeing but we could see everything very clearly. Even once the sun was long gone we still casted glorious camel riding shadows on the dunes close by.

I guess there weren’t enough camels for everyone to get a ride so a small group had to drive into the desert on the roof of an overland jeep. By the sounds of their hooting and hollering it sounded like they were having the time of their lives. I did a bit of quad biking through the Namibian Desert back in 2011 and I can vouch for them that it’s an amazing time. It’s best comparable to a rollercoaster ride with no real start or finish. Part of me was concerned for their safety because they were just hanging onto the roof rack of the jeep but I had a feeling they were all sporting the tightest grips they could muster.

When we arrived to the camp we were told that a meal would be prepared for us. DSC_5647We weren’t really told anything else so we all just hung out and waited. As time went by we grew impatient and directed our attention to Light Painting. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, it’s when you decrease the shutter speed on your camera and wave a flashlight in front of the lens. After some practice you can really start to create some neat images. The trick is being able to picture what you’re drawling in your head as you go because you won’t get to see the finished drawling until the very end. Add this to the fact that you onlyDSC_5652 have about 20 seconds and the task at hand is no easy one. For those of you looking to try this, remember that if you’re writing words you’re going to have to write them backwards… and cursive will be your best bet for starting out. Good luck!!

While we were playing with the lights taginedinner was just being served so we joined everyone back at the tables. Our moonlit supper consisted of rice, veggies, and chicken tagine. Chicken tagine is a very traditional meal served in Morocco and this was about the fourth time we ate in two days. That’s not to say it’s not good… I’ve just had more than enough tagine!

To cook this meal you first need your special earthenware pot, aka your tagine. It’s a slow-cook method where you’ll have your meat, and veggies all mixed together. DSC_5654The cone shape helps steam the vegetables and the flavors all come together. This is generally served with rice or couscous and can be for one person or in our case a table of people. The tagine it’s self can just be placed on a bed of coals for cooking and will keep your dish hot for a lengthy amount of time. Cooking with tagines is becoming more and more popular throughout Europe so many people come down to Morocco where it’s considerably cheaper to purchase the ceramic pot.

When we finished eating, Dan and I decided that we wanted to climb to the top of the sand dune behind our tents. I forgot how difficult it was to hike up a sand dune and this one happened to be the largest one around. We took a few breaks along the way but were determined to reach the peak. For those of you that will be receiving the “very special souvenir” you’ll be happy to know we collected sand from the peak of the tallest sand dune in the Sahara Desert! The fact that it’s the tallest isn’t common knowledge but I’m pretty confident in my calculations. From way at the top we could see for miles in every direction. That’s pretty amazing considering the sun had gone down hours ago and everything we could see was thanks to the massive moon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the moon shine so bright. The brightness of the moon did take away from the star gazing that I had hoped for but I don’t think it really bothered anyone too much because of how awesome everything else was.

The best part about climbing up a sand dune is coming down. I remembered this very well from my previous experience and I was excited to make the run. It took over an hour to climb up and probably under a minute to come all the way down. I was running as fast as I could and loving every second of it.

We were told that we’d be waking up to leave around 5:00 in the morning the following day so most of us went off to bed. A few others decided to climb the dune we had just returned from but I was far too exhausted to even consider doing it again.

Thursday

I woke up around 4:58 to the sounds of silence. I generally wake up just beforeDSC_5688 I’m supposed to, and I think it’s my body’s way of preparing me for the wake up call. I’ve always hated being woke up from a nice sleep so I think my way of coping is to just wake myself up before that can happen. This happens all the time when I’m supposed to be awake at a certain time and it’s never with the help of an alarm. My internal clock has a mind of its own sometimes. Anyway, just because I was awake didn’t mean I was ready to get up, and when I heard no one come by I drifted back to sleep. I again woke a half hour later and then an hour after that and still didn’t hear much going on outside our tent. I woke up Dan and asked him what time we were supposed to get moving and he confirmed that they had told us 5. It was now half past 6 though and everyone still seemed sound asleep. Not long after this, people began moving about and slowly be surely everyone was up and ready to go by 7.

DSC_5728It was bright outside but the sun had still not risen. We walked over to the camels and they again paired us up. I rode the same caravan of camels as I did the first trip only this time I was two camels back. It seemed like the obvious decision to name my new camel Thursday. Once on Thursday we began the long trek back to civilization. Not long after starting were we joined by the sun that quickly jumped out from behind the sand dunes.

Riding out of the desert on Thursday was about as equally enjoyable as riding in on Wednesday.

The rest of the day was spent in the van for a very long drive back to Marrakech. In total I think we were in the van for over 12 hours but I made some progress on a book I had started and was even able to get a bit of writing done. My time in the Sahara, although short lived, was truly amazing. The desert has more to offer than you think!

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A Journey Through the Atlas Mountains

We woke up around 6:30am so that we could be ready for our 7am pick up. Today we’d be joining a group of travelers on a 3 day 2 night dessert safari. Even though Marrakech is one of the main destinations to begin a trip like this, it still involves a LOT of driving. I definitely didn’t fully grasped how much driving it would be until our journey began.

About quarter after 7 we got at knock at our riad and were greeted by two IMG_6169gentlemen looking to take us to our transport. We followed them through the alleyways to the market square, which was looking completely different with all the shops closed up and no people around. As we rounded the last corner we saw a few large white vans parked in a semicircle and there were loads of travelers outside of them. I think each van was pretty much on route for the same course only some were taking as many as 4 days and some were just taking 2.

We joined the group that was on the 3 day track and were just about the last ones to board. There were 4 rows of seats in our van and the back row was still available. Once we were in and situated we were joined by one last couple before we started our trip. At this point there were 2 German girls in the front, 3 Brazilians in the first row, 1 Brazilian and a French couple in the secondIMG_6186 row, 3 more Brazilians in the third row, and myself and Dan with the backseat to ourselves. As you can imagine Dan and I took full advantage of our 4 seats and immediately went about falling back asleep.

The roads were windy and the IMG_6187driving in Morocco is a bit crazy but like the rest of our van, I was also able to fall back asleep. Not long after drifting off did I notice our van pull over for an unexpected stop. I wasn’t really aware of what the first day of traveling consisted of but apparently this was just the first of many scenic stops.

IMG_6190The Atlas Mountains run 1,600 miles across the north western part of Africa, from Tunisia through Morocco. These mountains separate the African Coastline from the Sahara Desert, so our first day of traveling was meant to travel through the Tishka Pass.

I’ve never been on a mountain and not loved the view. There’s just something about viewing the world from such heights. In the winter some of these peaks can even have snow on them, but it was still far too hot for that.

Just before lunch time we pulled up IMG_6224to Ait Benhaddou, an old fortified city. The city was built out of mud straw, and rock on a hill. We walked around the city for an hour or so learning about its history and inhabitants. These days only 8 families remain in the city and with each rainstorm the buildings take on more and more damage. An interesting fact about this city was that many popular movies have been filmed here. The Mummy, Gladiator, the Prince of Persia, and even the Game of IMG_6216Thrones were all filmed at this location, to just name a few. I got the sense that our tour guide was very proud of his village’s fame. He even mentioned to us that he’s been in a few of the movies as an extra!

After lunch we all boarded the van and continued our drive east. At one point we stopped for refreshments and to use the bathroom and were joined by 2 additional travelers. A couple from Spain would be joining us for the next part of the trip and we suddenly had a very packed van. The back seat went from being the most spacious to the most cramped which meant there wouldn’t be any more sleeping for the rest of the day’s travels. Luckily we were only a few short stops away from reaching our destination where we’d spend the evening at a hotel.DSC_5465

Before reaching the hotel we made a scenic stop along the road to watch the sunIMG_6391 set off in the distance. The colors reflecting off the wind eroded rocks were painted in magnificent shades of red. Most of our stops were to just stretch our legs, take some photos, and then hop back in the van but I could have easily spent more time admiring the beauty of the Atlas Mountains.

IMG_6273Day 1 got us halfway to the Sahara and shared with us some hidden Moroccan beauty. To top off the evening I utilized the hotels Wi-Fi for a video chat with my dear friend Patrick McMullen. Anyone that gets to end their night video chatting with this legend will undoubtedly consider their day a massive success!IMG_6389


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Living It Up In Marrakech

IMG_6051After a nice night’s sleep we woke up got our belongings together and went down stairs for our included breakfast. The breakfast consisted of a hard-boiled egg, some bread, orange juice, and mint tea. The mint tea in Morocco is very good, and an excellent starter to any day.

Once we were all set we grabbed a cab to the train station so we could ride to Marrakech. Everyone we’ve talked to has told us that Marrakech is the most popular city to visit in Morocco because it has the most to do. We also knew that most Sahara tours left from Marrakech so it was a pretty easy decision to head that way.

The first time you ride a train in a new country you never really know what to expect. You want to arrive early so you don’t miss your departure but as far as choosing seats goes, it’s a hit or miss game. When we got to the station we were told the next train wouldn’t be leaving for another couple hours, and that the train that had just left was overbooked. From what we’ve been told, you are only guaranteed a seat if you buy first class and with a 3 hour ride ahead of us we didn’t want to risk having to stand.

Our wait wasn’t so bad and before IMG_6078we knew it, it was time to board. With everything in French and Arabic we kept double checking to make sure we were boarding the correct train and headed towards the right compartment. Our seats were pretty nice when we arrived at them and our room was shared with four other riders. Right off the bat I heard one of the girls talking to her friend and targeted her as an American. When traveling in new places it’s sometimes refreshing to hear a familiar accent. Turns out I was only partially right though as she turned out to be from Canada. Her friend she was riding with was her husband and he was born and raised in Morocco. Together they married and lived in Dubai but had traveled back to Morocco for the holiday. With Dan and I just flying in from Dubai we had much to talk about with them and spent the first half of the ride sharing stories and getting tips about how to tour Morocco. During this time we were joined by another couple who quietly took their seats next to me. I think they were exhausted from their travels because it took about an hour before we learned that they were also English speaking and lived in Washington D.C. The two of them were celebrating their one year anniversary and were also planning on venturing off into the Sahara for a couple days. It was a completely coincidence that all the English speakers were placed in the same train car but it worked out very nicely!

One thing I found very interesting was that the Moroccan’s wife (sorry I don’t remember their names, but she’s also the Canadian) was vegetarian and they were in Morocco for the holiday, Eid Al-Adha. This Muslim holiday honors the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael as an act of submission to Allah’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, but before that could happen Allah intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. So once a year friends and families gather together for this religious holiday and sacrifice a sheep, cow, or a goat. As he was telling us this he went on to say that when they arrive in Marrakech he needs to go out and buy two sheep to bring back to his family. I guess being the oldest son requires him to bring home the sheep. Another thing is that the sheep will live for 3 days outside their home before their time is up. The whole time he was explaining this you could tell his wife had some major concerns. From what I understand vegetarians aren’t huge fans of sacrificing animals. We made sure to wish them both the best of luck before we departed!

As soon as we got to Marrakech it was obvious that everyone was right about it IMG_6074being more popular than Casablanca. The streets were much more crowded and the place seemed pretty happening. Dan had booked a couple nights at the Riad Hannah, which was located not far from the market square, so our first task was trying to find our way there. We considered walking but the streets were poorly labeled and we weren’t sure which way to start. Right around this time a truck pulled up to us and offered us a ride. IMG_6072There was only room for one of us to sit in the front with him so I volunteered to sit in the bed. I guess he uses the truck for transporting animals or something because the back end of the truck had a metal gate he enclosed behind me. I gotta say, I felt a bit like a sheep being transported as we drove through the streets of Marrakech, but it was kind of fun as well.

Our driver dropped us off at the start of an alley way and told us that we’d find our riad if we just continued to walk on down. On both sides of this narrow street were small stores and vendors selling everything from meat, to swords. The street went as far as the eye could see and we weren’t finding any signs for our riad. As we walked down every vendor that caught our eye would try to lure us into their shop and try their best to get us to purchase something from them. It’s amazing how persistent these guys can be. Carrying our bags around with us also made us an easy target as vulnerable tourists, so we were anxious to move on. A kid around our age approached us and asked if we needed help finding out accommodation. We told him the name and he said to follow him. He lead us down back alleys and took us right to the front door of the Riad Hannah, I couldn’t imagine we would have found the place without his help. Dan went to tip him for his service and rather than accepting the generous amount the boy asked for a figured 10 times what Dan had offered him! He was asking twice the amount our driver had even asked for! I understand they see tourists as just having an abundance of money, but you have to have some nerve to request a larger tip from someone. After all it’s a tip… not a required payment.

Anyways, our riad was really nice. A riad is the name for a IMG_6070Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard or garden. The word riad actually comes from Arabic and means garden. The walls are often thick stone exterior walls covered in tile or plaster. There are often beautiful designs and patterns found on these walls and our riad was no exception.

Once we were settled in we decided to go back out into the streets and browse through the markets. The closer we got to the market square the more congested the streets became. It was difficult to pass up all the vendors along the walk because they were all offering such interesting items and I knew I could get great prices. I just kept telling myself that I was going to be there for three days and I’d have plenty of time for buying souvenirs later on.

IMG_6093The walk to the square took about 15 minutes but it was an enjoyable walk filled with things I’ve never seen before. When we reached the square the alleyway opened up into massive gathering. I don’t think we walked more than 50 feet before coming across a few Moroccan snake charmers doing their thing. We took pictures but quickly found out that they harass you for money if they see you using your camera. You just have to be stern with them or let them know up front that you have no intention of buying anything or giving them any money.

Just after seeing the snakes we were DSC_5204walking through the square and a man came up to me and placed his monkey on my shoulder. Okay, so maybe I looked interested in holding the monkey but I promise I didn’t ask for it. Their game plan is to first put the monkey in your hands and to then ask for money. You just have to make sure to tell them right away that you either have no money, or that you aren’t interested… even if you kind of are. Because this was our first encounter with the aggressive monkey owner we opted to take a few pictures and afterwards tipped him. Of course the amount we gave him was far less than he wanted, but sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

IMG_6099Our main goal at this point wasIMG_6103 finding a nice place to sit and eat dinner. It was nearing sun down and we hadn’t eaten anything besides a light snack on the train. We set our sights on a restaurant that had a rooftop balcony overlooking the market square and ordered a traditional Moroccan meal of couscous with chicken and vegetables. I liked the dish, but can’t say that I loved it.

When we were finished eating we took a different route to get back to our riad and were beginning to understand the network of alleys that lead in every which way.

We arrived in Marrakech on Saturday and would be departing for our Sahara Desert Tour on Tuesday morning. The following days consisted of wandering throughout Marrakech, learning the proper way to haggle with the vendors, dressing up in traditional Arabic gandooras, charming snakes, hanging with a few locals, and trying a few different Moroccan meals. It was nice being able to stay in the same area for a few days and not have to worry about moving around to much.

DSC_5268How to haggle 101: When entering a store it’s important to not let the vendor know which item you are interested in. If you see something you like it’s best to pay no attention to it. You’ll be presented with a number of items that you may or may not want but you always need to act uninterested with whatever it is they are offering. When the item you are actually interested in is finally presented or you’ve given it away that you’d like to hear more about it, you need to stand your ground. At this point it’s okay to ask the vendor what his starting price is (unless you already know what you should be paying or already know how low you can get it). Let’s say they tell you the price is 1,200 Dh… You’re going to then want to counter their offer with a number closer to 100 Dh. At this point, it’s their turn to look at you like you’re crazy but you need to stand your ground! Immediately they’ll drop their price to say, 800 Dh, but that’s still not what you’re looking for. You again tell them 100 Dh and remind them that you don’t even want the item they are offering. Their next offer will be maybe between 500-600 Dh and at that point you tell them no thanks and begin leaving their store. I promise they will stop you and I promise they will drop their price by at least another 100. Even though it appears they have cut their original price in half you still have no interest in paying 450 Dh and tell them that you’re going to try a different store but perhaps you’ll be back later. They’ll ask what your max price is at this point looking for anything they can get and see if they can meet you somewhere in the middle but that’s all unnecessary. In your head you may be willing to pay up to 200 Dh for the item (about 20 USD) but you tell them the most you’re willing to go is 150 Dh. This will go back and forth for a little longer, and you may need to fake an early exit a few times, or tell them you’re no longer interested but eventually you’ll get the price you want. It’s a game with these guys and if you want to get a fair deal you gotta be tough.

The above story is an accurate account of one of the purchases I made and I still left wondering if I could have gotten the item for less haha. Another strong strategy is letting them know that you just purchased the same item at a different store for a small made up amount, and that if they aren’t interested in selling you their item for the same offer that you’ll just head back to that previously stated store. I know I’m not the best or most experienced at haggling, but I sure enjoy it!

On our last night before departing on our Sahara tour we stayed at a different riad.DSC_5323 The location and Wi-Fi were much better than the riad Hannah but there was a strong smell of cat urine in the air. Because of this, we spent a good part of our evening hanging out on our riad’s rooftop. The views from up top were enjoyable and offered a nice angle to the sun setting. While we were sitting up there listening to music and playing cards we were joined by a guy about our age. Jafar lives in Marrakech and works at the riad DSC_5348we were staying at. As it turns out, he had joined us on the rooftop so he could pay his respects to Allah. He told me that five times throughout the day the loud speaker that blasts over all of Marrakech (and every other Muslim city) is a reminder or calling for those that believe to come and pray. I think the most significant times are when the sun rises and when the sun sets. I’m glad I got the opportunity to meet Jafar because I had been wondering what was being said over those loud speakers ever since we arrived in Dubai.

The night was still young at this point, seeing as the sun had just set, and Dan and I DSC_5244wanted to explore the city square one last time. Only this time we wanted to sport our traditional Arabic clothes. After saying farewell to Jafar we went back to our room and dressed to impress. Interestingly enough we got less stairs walking throughout the square while wearing these clothes than we did in the clothes we had brought. Maybe that makes sense or maybe it was just wishful thinking but either way we had a fun time doing our best to fit in.

Before the night was over I was able to do something pretty special! Back in our riad we had Wi-Fi available in our room and I was able to video chat with my best friend Nick Sgrignoli and his beautiful wife Beth! I haven’t seen or talked to them since August so it was a real pleasure catching up. Thanks again for the call friends, can’t wait to see you once I’m home.

DSC_5254The tour would be leaving the following morning at 7:00am so we were sure to have our things packed and ready to go before going to sleep. Marrakech was a lot of fun, and I look forward to a future visit. DSC_5252DSC_5374DSC_5375DSC_5289DSC_5296


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Destination: Casablanca, Morocco

It kind of stinks having to wake yourself up at 4:30 in the morning and get out of bed when you’re staying at a 5 star luxury hotel. It’s even harder when you know that you’ll be headed to the airport to board a cramped plane for the next 5 hours and you won’t be staying anywhere near as nice as the hotel you’re leaving. It’s all part of the adventure though, and after hitting the snooze once, we were up and ready to go.

Because we were leaving so early we didn’t get the chance to enjoy the buffet breakfast44 but rather waited till we got to the airport before grabbing a bite. It’s interesting how lively airports can be at such odd times in the day. It wasn’t even 6am yet and we saw people everywhere. Some friends were even grabbing a beer at an airport bar (probably Australians haha). Whatever floats your boat. Dan and I went with a tropical smoothie and it was a pretty excellent want to start the morning.

As we all began boarding the plane I started wondering who would be sitting next to me. Of course I was hopeful that the seat would stay open the way it had for Dan on the flight to Dubai, but unfortunately luck wasn’t on my side this morning. The plane started filling up and the seat next to me still remained open. It wasn’t until just before departure that a husband and wife walked down the aisle carrying their small baby. Dan and I both looked at each other as the couple took their seats and the husband joined us in our row. I figured the baby would be with his mother for most of the flight but knew that we’d have to expect at least a little disturbance.

Off the bat, Ryan (the baby), was a bit fussy, but after his mother gave him some sort of medicine he seemed to really quiet down. He actually slept for at least the first half of the flight which we were all very happy about. That’s not to say that later in the flight he had a bit more energy and may have been the reason as to why a drink got spilled on my seat. No worries though…

During this time I watched; The Internship, The Way Way Back, and Wall E. I think I liked these three movies better than the last group I watched on the flight to Dubai. I think it’s easier to enjoy a comedy on a flight rather than a drama or action movie… but maybe that’s just me.

I don’t generally sleep well on flights but when you add in the fact that I had the middle seat it basically cancels out any sleep potential. I wasn’t too concerned with sleeping though because I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s just not going to happen when I’m in flight.

By the time we arrived in Morocco neither Dan nor I had really any idea as to what time it was. There was definitely a time difference from Dubai but we weren’t positive what it was. I changed my iphone to the time zone of Morocco but the next morning we found out that it was still an hour off.

Anyway, our plane landed in Casablanca and our first task was to head through customs before making our way to the baggage claim. The lines at the custom desks were all fairly long and we chose the line that had the slowest employee working. This wasn’t really determined until we were already committed to our line but it was pretty clear as every other line seemed to be moving more than twice as fast as us. When I finally reached the desk the man working looked as if he just plain hated his job. Sorry dude… but you don’t need to slow down everyone’s day.

At this point I was feeling a bit ill and was just trying to make it out of there without getting sick. I’m not positive why I wasn’t feeling well but it was probably a combination of the long day of travel, and the food I ate.

After what felt like forever we finally made it through customs and moved on to baggage claim. We were both thinking that this should be a fairly quick process as they have had more than enough time to get the bags off the plane, but as it turns out we were wrong. We waited and waited before we finally retrieved our one checked bag. Who knows why it took them so long to get them but at least we had ours and could finally leave the airport. I’m pretty sure we spent over 2 hours between landing in Morocco and leaving the airport.

Everything we’ve heard and read about told us to be careful with the taxi drivers outside the airport. They really will try and rip you off and you should never go with the younger guys directly outside of the arrivals area. You don’t fully understand how much you’ll be bombarded by these guys until you experience it for yourself. Every single one of them tried to stop us and ask us if we needed a ride, and every single one of them had a “great” price just for us. We set our price low and continued walking. We weren’t really sure where we were walking to but we knew it was going to be away from them. The moment you start walking away the prices will begin to drop, but these guys still were asking for too much. Finally after passing up everyone that came up to us we found ourselves alone way out in front of the airport. We hadn’t planned on it being so difficult to get a reasonable priced ride to our accommodation. As we were thinking of what to do next a cab pulled up to us to offer us a ride. Surprisingly he was only asking for a fraction of what everyone else was asking and we were quick to hop in.

IMG_6007Once in the cab and I was confident we were on the right path I closed my eyes and fell asleep. I knew Dan had things under control and I was still not feeling well from the long day of travel. It was probably about a half hour or so later that we were dropped off outside the front of Hotel Central. We were only here for one night before heading to Marrakech and had heard there wasn’t much to do in Casablanca.

Upon arrival we both relaxed and laid down for a bit. A bed is so welcoming after spending the day in taxis and airplanes.

After another quick nap (with the time differenceIMG_6032 it was only about 3:30 local time) we strolled out into town to find a place to eat. McDonalds was an easy choice because they offered free Wi-Fi and familiar food. On the way back to our hotel we stopped at a few shops to check out the local market. That’s where I bought my head wrap for when we venture out into the Sahara and Dan bought a traditional shirt that had been custom made.

IMG_6028Back at our hotel we visited our rooftop, because they often offer the best views, and were greeted with a phenomenal scene. It almost looked as if we were looking into a video game or something. The buildings were so close together that it seemed you could just leap from one to the other. I immediately thought back to my parkour friends in England and how much they would love to run this town. Any free runners reading this really ought to consider a visit to Morocco!

Before I called it a night I went back out to a corner café where a group of locals were gathered watching a soccer game. I ordered a drink looked around for a place to sit. I guess a few of them noticed I was by myself because they gestured for me to come over and join them. Their names were Awtife and Arpi and they spoke French and Arabic. One thing for sure was that a lot less people spoke English in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve ever been. We sat and talked for a while but our conversations were slow due to the language barrier. I told them how I had just arrived and would be headed to Marrakech the following morning. They gave me different tips on where to go and how to do things. When I told them about the Sahara trip I was doing they began telling me of a great place we should go and that when we get there to have them phone them. I guess they were saying they could help us get cheaper prices but to be honest I was having a pretty difficult time following the directions they were supplying. On the back of a piece of paper they actually drew me out a map of where I should go when I get to Marrakech!  I thought these guys were really nice and I appreciated even if I wasn’t positive exactly what they were telling me. After the game ended I went back up to our room and easily fell asleep. IMG_6029IMG_6034IMG_6049


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It’s Going to Be Hard to Top a Vacation in Dubai… Day 3

Our final day in Dubai started with another buffet style breakfast. IMG_5962After learning what everything tasted like we had a good idea of what we liked and what we didn’t like. Needless to say, I think we both ate a bit more of what was on our plates today.

Back up in our room we began tossing around ideas of what we should do for our last day. We had a pretty good plan for the evening but nothing booked yet for the beginning half of the day. I got on Groupon to see if there was anything that caught my eye. After pulling up about 12 tabs full of very awesome looking activities we decided to go with jet skiing. The only problem was that we were having issues purchasing the deal. I called up the ski company and asked if there was anything available for today and if we’d still be able to use the deal even without the Groupon. He didn’t seem to mind in the least bit and told us to head on over. We jotted down the address and the number of the company and went out front to grab a cab.

Cab rides in Dubai are a bit expensive but they get you where you need to go and are always readily available. As it turns out, the place we were driving to was actually located in the city next to Dubai and was about 35 kilometers away. Our driver’s name was Hamza, and he was from Pakistan. Most of our drivers up to this point have been from other countries and it seems like a lot are from Pakistan. Along the way he taught us how to say hello, and thank you in both Arabic and Pakistani. Hello in Arabic is Kif Hallek, and thank you is Shrukran. In Pakistani, hello is Kasa Haa, and thank you is Shukrea. Both languages are relatively similar.

IMG_5935Driving around Dubai is pretty spectacular in itself. Since the city is so new and modern everything has its place and you can tell that everything was well thought out before being constructed. The major highways are as big as 14 lanes going across, 6-7 going each way. Directly next to the major highway is a very modern looking metro system. I guess it helps creating a city on such a flat surface while having little to no budget. Everywhere you look you’ll see buildings constructed in a way you’ve never even imagined.  The only buildings that aren’t fixed to the grid are the mosque and that’s because they all point east. Like the rest of the buildings though, the mosques are also very beautiful.

Not long after entering the 7 lane highway headed towards our destination were we passed by a Lamborghini. By the time I got my camera out to take a picture it was just about out of sight. Hamza tried to catch up to it but it was no use. Lamborghinis are not meant to be caught… at least not by taxis. It’s difficult to find a cheap car driving about the highways in Dubai. It seems as if everyone is driving luxury or sports cars. Throughout this last day I came across three more Lamborghinis.

Finally arriving at our destination it became pretty evident that it really wasn’t IMG_5922going to matter about needing the Groupon. Along the entire coastline were Jet Ski Company’s trying everything they could to get our driver to pull into their lot. Dan and I both figured that if we couldn’t get the deal we wanted we could probably just shop around until we did. Luckily this wasn’t a problem and before you knew it we were both cruising through the water!

IMG_5926Anyone that knows me well can tell you how much I love jet skiing. I could spend all day out on one of those things just cruising around. We didn’t have all day though, we had an hour, but I think we made the most of it. The allotted area for cruising was much larger than past companies I’ve rented from and we were virtually the only ones out there. There were a couple other small groups out and about but we never really got in each others way. Dan started out with the Go-pro strapped to his chest and flew up and down the coast. The backdrop of our water ski session was really great with theIMG_5916 city skyline painting the horizon. In the not so far distance you could see the Burj Khalifa sticking up much taller than the rest of the buildings. I brought my ipone out with me sealed tight in one of those waterproof bags. When I felt it was safe I pulled it out to snap a few photos. Perhaps that was a bit risky, but I’m glad I did. Throughout the hour Dan and I took turns with the go-pro following each other around, jumping each others wakes and seeing who could splash the other more with a swift last second turn as we passed by.

Just before our hour was up we decided to try and get an action shot picture with the go-pro. There’s an option on the go-pro that takes 30 pictures in one second. The plan was for me to drive past Dan andIMG_5985 leap off the ski just as he hit the button. I knew that when I left the ski that the key would be coming with me and the ski would shut off, but I didn’t anticipate almost landing back on the ski! Had that been the original plan… I would have almost nailed it! Since it wasn’t in fact the plan I ended up having to dodge the jet ski. The worst part about all this was that when I hit the water the key, that had been attached to my wrist, had flew off and sunk to the bottom. Side note: why don’t they make those keys float? Once Dan saw that I was fine he went back to the company to retrieve a new key to bring back for me. I had to pay for the lost key, which I wasn’t happy about… but it was my fault. Looking back on the pictures though and I think it was pretty worth it. To be fair, the key they provided me with was missing the part that’s supposed to secure it to your wrist. You win some you lose some…

Our driver on the way to the jet skis also told us about this place not so far from IMG_5959where we were staying called the Miracle Gardens. He showed me a video on his phone which looked pretty cool so we decided this would be our next destination. Our original plan was to use a Groupon we had found for a 6D cinema. I can’t even imagine what the additional D’s stood for, but when I called up the place they told me that it was closed for the day. As it turns out, the cinema wasn’t the only thing closed for the day because when we arrived at the gardens the place looked deserted. Granted, it was supposed to be a fabulous garden in the center of the desert… but the gates were locked and there wasn’t a person in sight. I thought this may be due to the season, but I’m not really sure because I think the seasons in Dubai are just hot and hotter.

IMG_5956We opted to just head back to our plaza but first we wanted to stop at the Mall of Emirates for a late lunch. Feeling bold we decided to try the East Food Court rather than the west. This meant venturing over to a brand new side of the mall that we hadn’t been to yet. I think the food court alone could fit most standard shopping centers, and this one offered just about every genre of food imaginable. We were torn with our options, but ended up going with a Mexican restaurant. Dan bought 2 tacos, and I went with a fajita. Not quite as big as the portions you’d find at a Chipotle or a Moes, but still very tasty! I’m pretty sure I could eat Mexican food everyday.

Our final evening was meant to be a relaxing one. We swam in the rooftop pool, lounged in the sauna, and tested our limits on how long we could last in the steam room. All these things lead up very nicely to the massage I received in the hotel spa also located on the top floor. I’m a sucker for massages and know the good from the bad fairly well. IMG_5622This one was different, to say the least. We had a bit of a time restraint due to the fact that we wanted to head out for dinner before it got too late, so the therapist squeezed me in to an available time slot. There was a bit of a language barrier as I tried to tell her no hot stones, just a normal back massage. A few minutes into the massage she again asked me if I’d like the hot stones, telling me that she thinks I’d really like them. I told her that I wasn’t paying for hot stones and would prefer not to have them. I thought we were on the same page until I felt a hot stone in the center of my back, and then another. After my back was loaded up with stones she told me she’d be right back and left the room. I was pinned down with these stones. Not because they were heavy, but because if I moved they’d all go sliding off my back. I think it was only 5 minutes but it felt like an eternity before she returned. The stones had gone cold shortly after she left and I found myself wondering if I was being pranked, or if my wallet was still where I left it. Not the greatest things to think about, but at this point I had no idea what was going on haha. Just as I was about to get up she reentered the room, and returned to my back as if nothing had happened. Now that it’s all over I’m still curious as to what she was doing when she left so abruptly from the room. Maybe she had someone next door that she was also giving a massage to and was trying to kill 2 birds with 1 stone..?

IMG_5992Feeling confused, but mostly relaxed I went back to the room and told Dan about my experience. He was going to originally get a massage but the time restraint was making it too difficult and he opted to just skip it. We still wanted to head back to the mall for a proper dinner so we could finish our final evening the right way.

After getting dressed in the only nice clothes I packed for my entire trip (I had been waiting and waiting for the right opportunity to wear them) it was time for us to head to dinner. With the mall so close and having over 90 restaurants there was hardly a reason to go anywhere else. We even had an idea of where we wanted to go. IMG_5994We weren’t positive on which restaurant but we knew we wanted to try a Lebanese place. Right near the entrance of the mall were two Lebanese restaurants that were both catching our eye so we went with the one that seemed more popular. Neither of us had much of a clue what we were ordering but certain words caught our eye. For our appetizer we went with a hummus spread with freshly baked pita for dipping. I’ve never had such fresh pita and we ended up having to order more because of how good it tasted. For my main course I had thinly cut pan seared steaks. When IMG_5990I ordered them I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting but it they tasted fantastic. The best part was this very spicy green sauce that was meant to go with the steak. I’ve been craving some spice in my food for a while now and this was the perfect sauce. It was tasty but you needed to follow it up with a drink. Dan also had a steak dish that was marinated in some sauce and had roasted pine nuts to go along with it.IMG_5989 Before leaving the restaurant we also ordered a couple desserts. Dan had a banana split and I had a German chocolate cake. Both our meals tasted really great and were the perfect way to finish off our stay in Dubai.

We finished off our evening hanging back at our hotel, relaxing on the rooftop. We’d be catching a cab at 5am the next morning so we kept our evening as relaxed as possible. Before going to bed we packed up our belongings, and made sure we’d be ready for our early morning exit.

Dubai was really incredible and I can’t wait to go back sometime in the future. The only reason this trip was possible was because of Dan. He planned and coordinated just about everything we did and even funded our entire way. It was a trip of a lifetime, and I’m extremely appreciative of his selflessness. Thanks for everything Dan!