Iceland: Land of fire and ice (And trolls. And probably unicorns)…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]

Iceland is like Sweden’s weird cousin that shows up at all the big holidays. It looks more like the moon or a newly-discovered boiling planet than the other Nordic countries, yet it shares the same ancient gods and speaks some variant of an old mother tongue. It’s intriguing, mysterious, remote, cold and hot (simultaneously)… It’s the one who tells all the cool stories at family gatherings, tales so far-fetched that we’re not sure whether they’re real or not.

It’s roughly the size of Kentucky (or, the size of Ireland and Belgium combined), but with a population smaller than the city of Nice; so once you leave Reykjavik virtually everywhere feels like you’re in the middle of Nowhere. It’s almost like a theme park, divided into regions where the farther from the airport you stray, the more A-tickets you’ll need (Adventure tickets, that is…).

One corner looks like a troll nursery, while another, a boiling cauldron ready to burst its seams and spew scalding water or lava or unicorn entrails… one never knows.

I’ve been curious about this strange place, and I’m known to take a photograph or two (or 642) when I travel, so I made plans for a 3-day stopover here on my way back from Sweden, taking advantage of Icelandair’s #MyStopover promotion, where they don’t charge you extra to add days to your ticket when you fly through Reykjavik. You do, however, get to pay for your hotel, rental car and anything you do or eat while you’re here. One thing to note: Iceland is not cheap. On the plus-side, most of the things to do are outdoors, and for the most part, free (unless you do a tour).

So I land in the land of fire and ice, acquire my rental car (another note: you need 11 different types of insurance to cover the land/air/sea hazards that may or may not occur while driving in this place), and I’m off: first stop the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which I’ve nicknamed Snuffleupagus because it’s only just moderately easier to pronounce, to see mountains and waterfalls and old churches and fantastic coastlines.

My first observation: there are no trees here. But: black mountains and weird green rolling hills pop up from flat expanses, appearing out of the fog like they’ve just sprung from the depths of some grim faery tale. It’s like Kansas meets Mars or the Moon, in black (and green) and gray, but there are still literally no trees, just a smattering of what looks like wheatgrass and moss-covered boulder fields. And rainbows appear on a moment’s notice, since it’s drizzling then sunny…not terribly unlike New England weather. But with ink-black earth. And volcanoes. And maybe trolls.

About an hour outside of Reykjavik, wending my way north and west, I encounter a tunnel*. Only later do I find out that it is called the Hvalfjarðargöng, and only when I’m 1 or 2km in, do I realise it’s the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven (nearly 6km long and 165 metres deep), rock-lined and sloping steeply (8%!) to enable travel beneath the Hvalfjarður fjord. It’s as I resurface here that I behold the first of many Icelandic rainbows I’ll see in the following days.

The hotel is the only thing lit in the little town of Hellnar when I arrive. And by little, I mean there seems only to be the one hotel, a cluster of about 15 clean-cut, brown houses, an old church, a couple of other buildings, maybe another restaurant, and an expanse of coastline. The staff, friendly; the tea, hot; the bed, cosy. I’ve spanned 2500km in a plane and another 230+ kms driving up here in the wild and woolly weather. This flicka is ready for sängen.

I shot on the order of 600 photos in 3 days, beginning that Monday morn. How? When the landscape and the light are otherworldly, and the sky shows a different side every 8 minutes, even a simple snapshot out the window of a hotel room has a mood and a texture like a painting.

So on this new day, when the dreariness looked like it wanted to thwart an entire stopover, I woke up and steeled myself for the worst of elements. At brekkie, though, the clouds broke. For a precious few moments the sun appeared as if it would stay the day… alas, by the time I was ready to embark (a mere 20 minutes later), the skies darkened and Thor reigned (and rained and rained). Undaunted, I set out (rather, there is quite literally NOTHING to do here except look at nature, so I went anyway). First stop: Kirkjufellsfoss.

The road from Hellnar to Kirkjufellsfoss is across the Snæfellsnes peninsula: follow the main road, make a left at the black church “on the corner” and make a right when you see water again. There are few roads here and, it must be stated, they are in very good condition – Iceland even has a website dedicated to road status…the weather here is so changeable that many roads close due to water, mud, snow, ice, etc. at the drop of a hat.

The Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the most-photographed landmarks in Iceland, and my ultimate dream was to capture the Northern Lights here, though I’m doubtful the weather will permit it. I arrive, driving through the small mountains, then along the coast, a drive lined with moss-covered lava fields, dramatic green hills, glacial peaks and an otherwise other-worldly landscape.

The tour bus and teeming tourists turn me off at first (as do the rain and wind). But the clouds momentarily break, the bus leaves, and I am left with a living photograph before me… The shot, worth it. Then the skies then darken and it begins to hail.

Hailstorm, brief, I set off again, towards the seaside town of Stykkishólmur, situated on the northern side of the Snuffleupagus peninsula. It is quaint, and I climb up to the lighthouse during a break in the showers, rewarded with a view of the bay, rainbow touching down on one of the surrounding islands.

My Snæfellsnes loop continued with a stop at the renowned Búðakirkja, a dark-brown church built in the early 1700’s by a Swedish merchant, torn down and rebuilt (twice!) before the mid-1800’s. It is only made more stunning by its site (mountains on one side, the wild North Atlantic on the other) and the magic Icelandic skies. I continue along that coast, stopping multiple times, gape-mouthed, to photograph the landscape. I vow to put that Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens on my wishlist.

By midafternoon on that first day, cold and wet were factors by which I had stopped measuring my well-being. The weather began as gray, moved to alternately downpouring and sunny, shifted to gale-force winds (in which, at one point, I had to hold onto my rental car to avoid getting flung off a cliff), hail, more rain, then brooding fog. More sacrifices to the gods of Gore-Tex. The winds, unrelenting! Njörðr (Njord), Norse god of sea and wind, is ever-present. One wonders why this strange place wasn’t called Norway instead.

On Tuesday, I’m slated to stay in the South Coast town of Vik. My plan is to head that way in the morning, stopping along the way when I see things that pique my interest. From Hellnar to Vik is about 360km, the weather only marginally better than the day before.

I stopped to get gas in a small town called Hveragerði, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hell(a)… Turns out it’s a geothermal hotbed here, the hillsides boiling just below the surface, and the continental plates threatening to move farther apart at any moment.

I took a small hike in the town’s geothermal park, met a lovely local woman named Jenny (pronounced “Yenny”) and her dog, and visited their quirky earthquake museum, where I stood in the void between the Eurasian and North American plates.

The earth here, mineral-rich and vibrant in the pre-downpour sunshine, seemed to speak…creaking and bubbling as it sent up its wafts of steam from underground cauldrons. The air, its texture, like silk: smooth and thin and soft. Jenny told me she moved here because the energy was different; that the place somehow called her to stay.

As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I stopped to explore Seljalandsfoss, tourist magnet that it is – it’s one of the waterfall wonders here, and because of the stone’s configuration, you can walk behind it (if you don’t mind getting a tad wet!).

And again the landscape changes on this part of the island, on one side of the roadway, there’s glacial peaks bounded by dormant volcanoes, on the other there’s flat, black expanses dotted with what looks like meteorites. It’s remnants from the volcano that erupted here in 2010. Nobody can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, so they just call it “the volcano that mucked up all the flights.” All this lava yields to fertile fields and farms promising horse riding on the celebrated Icelandic ponies. It changes again as the road wends back towards the coastline, with its basalt cliffs and black beaches. And I arrive at a little guest house in Vik for my final night.

My last morning, I spend an hour or two wandering the hills above the town, then out the jetty to view the Reynisdrangar rocks from my perch some 300 metres into the sea. Legend states that the rocks are mischievous trolls, caught in the sunlight and frozen as pillars of jagged rock, after a night of dragging ships to shore.**

I drive the way I came, stopping along the route to see what I can in the little time left. As I leave, I reflect that what I’ll remember more than the famous waterfalls, the oft-photographed landmarks, and the tourist-filled hotspots, is the landscape leading to-and-from the wonders.

This is how I spent most of my time outdoors in Iceland…this, and holding onto heavy things to avoid getting flung over cliffs.

NB: I’ve found that the coolest, most amazing experiences I’ve had travelling are the ones not in a guide book, but rather what arises (and surprises) when you least expect it: A trail lined with wild blueberries; cartoon mushrooms popping up from the mossy forest floor; fresh kanelbulle from a local baker; a stranger coming to your aid when you are out of options; a kind local guiding you to the best view in a town you can’t pronounce; deep sleep in an old dirt-floored cabin beside a stream; a paddle down a canal beside an urban island once used as the Royal hunting grounds; a hike through rainbow-coloured steaming earth; a hail storm then a magnificent rainbow on a volcanic coastline in a village with 12 houses…

And so, with a last-minute road closure that diverts traffic over a small mountain on a semi-paved road and gets me to the airport almost an hour later than necessary, I leave these Nordic lands behind, hoping to return again as soon as my interpreter will have me.

20180918_091703

A view from our misty, mossy camp along the Berslagsleden…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]


*Side note: tired from travel and gobsmacked by the scenery, I accidentally got stuck in the EZPass lane (perhaps ËZPæðþ here?), so time will tell what my penalty is in retrospect.

**According to Norse Mythology, Trolls are said to turn to stone upon contact with sunlight.

Seychelles, Part I: Dinosaurs, Jurassic beaches and going it by bike.

[Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]

After contemplating even farther-flung possibilities (and deciding they’re not possible within our time constraints), somehow we settle on the Seychelles: warm water in which to dive, jungle to explore, the possibility of seeing interesting critters, some fantastically cool topography…flights, booked!

map1

Thank you, Google Maps

20180428_115014-3Year of Africa continues. There’s always an elephant.

I arrive on the main island of Mahe first, whisked away by an uber-efficient taxi driver, and am greeted in my hotel room by a towel creature in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-god and my patron saint of sorts, bestowing well-wishes on a weary traveller. He’s my reminder that obstacles may be removed to charm a journey but may also be placed in the way as tests of mettle, meddle and might…all of which one might encounter on holiday in as far-flung a place as a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian ocean.

“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” – Lewis Carroll

The Seychelles are volcanic islands, and as such, where jungle meets beach is displayed in spectacular form. Look inland, and the lush hills remind you of a scene straight from Jurassic Park – you expect to see T-Rex or one of his contemporaries bounding through the jungle brush at a moment’s notice. The enormous granite rocks that jut out of the sand like monstrous dinosaur teeth invite one into the bathwater-temperature ocean (if you dare…).

DSC_0105-20After a lazy day fending off jetlag, it’s an early airport run to fetch my flight-weary Calvin, travelling companion (and human) extraordinaire, then a dash to the ferry to take us to La Digue, leaving the relative civilisation of Mahe behind: traffic and construction and bustle, the din of a small city bursting at the seams, desiring to be something larger than it ought. Funny that what we call progress ends up shuttering out the natural world in favour of big buildings, motor vehicles and pavement. Regardless, we’ll be back to spend a day here on the other end of our week’s adventurings.

DSC_0108-26.jpg

What we didn’t realise at the time was that this lorry would haul us up the mountain later in the week…

We arrive on La Digue on a Sunday. It’s noticeably quieter than Mahe, the town itself (La Passe) bustling in that charming way you’d expect from an idyllic island where there are few cars and everyone gets around by bicycle. And because we haven’t obtained our bikes yet, we walk the 1.2km to the guest house, up and down the hills that are to become familiar this week, “Left! Left! Left!” on the mind, because even though there are very few cars, there are bikes (and European tourists and Aldabra tortoises) to dodge. English colonisation here has left at least one vestige: left-side driving.

It’s during this walk, about half-way to the guest house, where we encounter our first free-range tortoise.

An aside on the Seychelles and the Aldabra giant tortoise: Seychelles is an archipelago, consisting of 115 islands of all sizes, plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Somalia (yes, there are the occasional pirates) and north of Madagascar (and unfortunately no lemurs or other primates). The farthest-flung outer islands are 1100+km from where we are. One island, Aldabra, is a World Heritage Site and the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos. Its native species include the Aldabra Tortoise, some of which have made their way to La Digue over the centuries. Being easy prey and a good source of food for La Digue’s earliest residents, the La Digue subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise is extinct, so the ones that remain on the island are the original Aldabra variety, many of which are kept, quite loosely, as pets.

Needless to say, encountering a 200-kilo walking dinosaur as you drag your luggage uphill on a 30° C day (with equal humidity) is more than enough reason to stop for a fresh fruit juice by the side of the road and interact with local (semi)wildlife.

☀️☀️☀️☀️☀️

We’re here mostly to dive, but our first full day on the island is spent exploring the world-renowned Anse Source d’Argent. This famous beach (Castaway and Crusoe were filmed here) looks even more unreal in person than it does splattering the pages of every travel mag’s world’s best beaches issue. Je suis d’accord.

20180430_123710To get here, a pleasant bike ride takes us to the southern end of the island, through a vanilla plantation that rends the air a sweet and salty mix. The path to the beach goes by the park’s tortoise pen; a weird sight really, with dozens of the massive reptiles lazing in the sun and engaging with chattering tourists who feed them leaves and grass in a United Nation’s collection of languages.

Then, it’s down some jungly paths which end at the promised Anse. It looks like a lost paradise; a sort of déjà vu, because the beach looks both familiar and surreal mere steps from the throngs of tourists sunning themselves (they don’t show you that on the InstaWeb). But we’ve come south of the equator largely to escape the world at large, so trekking farther south to flee the selfie sticks and instaglamourous beachgoers seemed the right option. Also, the tide was coming in. So we earned some of our adventure points* this day by coining a new water sport: aqua-hiking. The water, waist-deep (my waist) by the time we returned from our exploration, was a refreshing yet balmy bath verging on hot at water’s edge – in hindsight, more than a foreshadowing to what a warming planet had to reveal under the surface.

We’re rewarded mere metres from the selfie-crazed masses: we manage to find a completely empty beach and encounter only a handful of humans between Anse Source d’Argent and the southernmost tip of La Digue. The location scouts got this right.

After the aqua-hike back to the throngs, lazing a bit, and an attempt at sunning ourselves to dry out, we decide to air-dry instead: more biking, up and across the island, to Grand Anse.

An overall fantastic day awarded us our first set of adventure points for the trip: 5 for the aforementioned aqua hiking and discovering deserted beaches; 1 for bikes as mode of transport, navigating the wrong side of the road, and dodging the errant tourist and meandering tortoise; and 1 more for feeding (albeit captive) living dinosaurs, aka, giant tortoises.

Tomorrow, we dive.

Image result for dive flag

[Read C’s words on the trip here] [Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]


*A couple of years ago, C and I devised a system of adventure points to reward ourselves for tackling and completing myriad explorations and adventures. The silly ranking system takes into consideration physical effort, wildlife encounters, natural wonders, vistas, summits, mishaps, getting lost (we do this sometimes), finding unexpected treasures, being gobsmacked by the natural world, getting dirty, getting wet, and other general adventuring. [“let’s go exploring…”]

Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

2018-01-26 12.32.20-362

Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

DSC_8763-1

In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

2018-01-29 10.46.14-479

In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!

Morocco, Part II: A tour, the Milky Way and a Berber fortress.

[Morocco Part I]  [Morocco Part III]  [Morocco Part IV]

The 6am wake-up came trop tôt, but it was written: quick brekkie then onto the bus and into the desert for a 4-day, 3-night adventure in Berber-land. I navigate the labyrinth with help (compris), then out into the bustling morning to be assigned a spot on my tour.

I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan of tours, so this one, slap-dashedly herding me onto a bus, has me peeved far too early in the morning. It’s loaded with millennials chattering in Spanish, a quiet German woman and two Russian girls. Everyone is friendly-enough, but I find out hours after we’ve left the city walls that this is a 2-day tour and I’ll be switching to another bus tomorrow. Fun times.

Atlas and the pseudo-desert.

Some hours into the ride, we wind our way through the Atlas Mountains, where sparse, snow-capped peaks peek out, piquing my interest in hiking here in warmer months. Lunch is in the Moroccan version of Hollywood, Ouarzazate, about half-way between Marrakech and the Algerian border. The area has a fair share of movie studios; films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ and even some GoT episodes were filmed here. There’s a tour of a small Kasbah, where it seems life goes on as it has for centuries, and I’m as captivated by the architecture as I am the storks nesting atop the minaret. I learn that a Kasbah must have three things: a mosque, a madrassa (Islamic school) and a public fountain. There’s even a character actor here who has built a small museum to himself, containing nothing but framed photos of his walk-on roles in films shot in the area. But there is no time to see more of the town, as we’re half-way to Zagora and need to meet some camels before sunset.

After a couple more hours of driving, and like a well-oiled machine, the driver drops us at a place in the road, barren, flat and seemingly uninhabited but for a pack of camels (of the dromedary, not carcinogen, variety) and our Berber guides. Thus, we trek out into this mini-version of the desert, flat and crunchy underfoot, some small dunes visible in the not-so-distant distance. We ride into the sunset and arrive at our desert camp for a Berber dinner (tagine), campfire songs (Russian folk and Brit pop), and an attempt at shooting stars (cameras).

This is what travel is about, I think: I’m in North Africa, in the Sahara Desert (or the outskirts of it, at least), with a passel of people I didn’t know yesterday, representing 7 different countries on 4 continents, and we’re listening to songs around a campfire, sung by a Russian girl playing ukulele.

DSC_8455-171

The next morn is camel caravan in reverse, then a visit to the exceptionally cool 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage site ksar Aït Ben Haddou, a fortress-like compound where some families still live. I’m something of a castle freak, tho this construction is red stone walls and desert floor, adorned only modestly, but with prominent carved-into-stone Berber symbols of freedom that look something akin to two Greek psis stacked on top of one another, or a man with outstretched arms. It’s the last letter of the Tifinagh alphabet, yaz, or ⵥ and this shape was also used in ancient wars as a weapon. Ironic, that. There’s no electricity or running water here, so most families have moved to other accommodations because it’s a 3km walk just to get water.

It’s like a miniature kingdom (they filmed Gladiator here, among others), small castles and dwellings mish-mashed together, steps and pathways leading you through the place, and when you climb to the top of the highest landing, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the sprawling desert below. The night sky from this place must be breathtaking. Small shops dot the base, where locals hawk their wares and artisans paint with saffron and tea.

It’s a pleasant hour and a half, as the uber-chatty millennials have boycotted the tour on principle due to the 25-dirham fee (at the equivalent of 2,5€ it really is their loss). So it’s me, my new German friend (pediatrician and fellow solo female traveller/photography buff), the Argentinian future Médecins Sans Frontières provider, and a couple of other stragglers. We’ve got ample space to wander without the conspiratorial giggling and selfie-mania. Just hours earlier, I was feeling a tad old as I watched in wonder as one of the Russian girls missed the desert sunrise in favour of getting the perfect selfie angle, and then again in astonishment as she did acrobatics on the back of a camel, selfie stick in hand – I’m not sure if I was more appalled or impressed by that stunt.

And then it was a little weird. Just as I’m revelling in the novelty of it all, I’m whisked away on a moment’s notice to find my 2nd bus so I can continue the desert adventure. Hasty goodbyes are said to my bus-mates and to the short-lived new friendships.

Travel is comme ça: fleeting connections made over foreign food and new experiences. If we’re lucky, some of these become people to visit across the globe. If we’re really lucky, some of these become lifelong friends. I’m fortunate to have some in both categories.

Next up: Morocco Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition.

Go back and read [Morocco Part I] if you missed it. And also [Morocco Part III] and [Morocco Part IV]. Cheers!

Paris is always a good idea…

You cannot run away from your own mortality. As such, I did the next best thing. To celebrate this absurd and somewhat surreal 50th birthday, I conjured up the most preposterous answer: a weekend getaway to the birthplace of joie de vivre. Ah, The City of Lights, where Tango is danced (preferably for not the last time); absinthe and champagne flow freely; a moveable feast, where the definition of art and culture and fine food emanates from its every time-worn cobblestone and stone arch, from each outdoor café, fromagerie and brasserie. This magical, medieval maze of rues and avenues where Gargoyles watch from on high like grand bacchanalian overlords, egging on the tiny figurines as they revel in the daily appreciation of small-to-medium-sized indulgences. I had not been to Paris in 25 years.

Laissez les jeux commence… I needed that frame of mind when I realised, standing in the clusterf*ck otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle Airport immigration, it would have been faster to fly direct to Amsterdam and take a train to le Gare du Nord, where I was to meet my birthday weekend playdate. A preposterous 4 hours from the time my plane’s wheels hit French tarmac to those of my valise hitting the pavement on la rue Dunkerque, where an old stone building melts as a parody of itself, and my dear friend with his warmhearted smile waits more patiently than necessary for this sleep-deprived, travel-weary and absolutely famished birthday girl.

C has chosen a fabulous (and equally unexpected) B&B, essentially a guestroom in a lovely couple’s fantastic flat in the 10e arrondissement, a quirky neighbourhood that borders Le Marais, walking distance to everything else we’re to explore in the coming days. I’ll get out of the way that B&B Bouchardon was the most comfortable, charming, understated (whilst being utterly chic and meticulously appointed) bed and breakfast I’ve ever visited. The breakfasts were as delectable to the eyes as they were to the palate. The hosts, Frédéric and Jozsef, made us welcome as if old friends (C had stayed here a couple years earlier, and the mutual warmth clearly has not worn off). And so, almost immediately upon arrival, the champagne toasts commence.

I don’t drink much on the whole, and I’ve not slept or eaten in at least half a day, so we set off for a spot of lunch (Syrian Smörgåsbord, as it happened) and a wander around the neighbourhood to stave off the inevitable end-of-adrenaline, lest I fall over and ruin my own birthday party. We stroll the streets and into Le Marais with all its quirky energy and shops galore. Fresh autumn air does a body good, so we venture to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to look for hunchbacks, find none, and settle for gargoyles. On the way home we pass a patisserie in whose window I see meringues the size of a smallish hedgehog (this alone should have been the giveaway), and I decide to indulge my curiousity. The real hint came when the store clerk asked what colour I wanted: pistache, naturallement, erm, vert. Tant pis, I think, as the non-pastry fails to live up to its potential; another day, another macaron.

My birthday draws to a close on this continent and with it I reach the end of my candle, so to speak. Luckily, it’s towards the end of an exceptional dinner at the unpretentious yet brilliant Restaurant 52; we’re at an outdoor table on a bustling but not overwhelming rue Parisienne…and there is a split-second realisation that there is nowhere on earth I’d rather be at this exact moment. Merci, C.

The first spark of birthday wisdom arises: one thing Parisiens do much better than the rest of us is savour…moments, fine food, warm smiles, small celebrations.


Vendredi: As if to thumb our noses at age, we set off the next morning to visit The Catacombs (not before indulging in the nothing-less-than-indulgent BBB petit déjeuner, which, on its own, is worth staying here).

If history was taught as a travel adventure story rather than dates and names, I might have become an anthropologist. This day’s lesson is that the stone used to build much of Paris’ lovely architecture like Notre Dame and the Louvre was quarried from the vast limestone deposits beneath the city. A network of pillars and tunnels were created to bolster against collapse, but 500 years of mining began to take its toll. In 1774, Rue d’Enfer lived up to its name, opening a 30+ metre-deep sinkhole that threatened to consume a neighbourhood if something wasn’t done. It was decided to turn a portion of these underground tunnels into an ossuary to alleviate the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries (neighbours were complaining; perfume shoppes couldn’t keep up with the, erm, bouquet). Ultimately, somewhere between 2-6 million corpses were interred unceremoniously in what became The Catacombs. The place is fascinating, actually, these meticulously-laid bones, layered skull upon femur, bottom to top; Jenga-like stacks along the walls of the mine shafts. The sign above the passageway as you enter: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

As you do after seeing piles of centuries-old squelettes, we wend our way to the Quartier Latin and a proper crêperie for lunch, people-watching as we sip cidre (the real kind!) from bowls. This day is like a postcard, vraiment, tho we’ve dubbed it Day of the Dead. We toast to not being quite ready yet. Next up, Le Panthéon. The building is itself a magnificently-carved statue; once a church, it is now a mausoleum, housing not only the likes of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rousseau, but also Foucault’s Pendulum (I simultaneously rue and thank Umberto Eco upon seeing it). The panoramic view of the city from le colonnade is unexpected and spectacular; well worth the climb up the hundreds of steep stone steps. Who says you can’t earn adventure points* in Paris?

Views viewed, we wander across the Seine in search of Shakespeare and Company, a gorgeous, independently-owned bookstore near the banks of the river. It is because of shops like this that Amazon can’t ever fully win. Shakespeare and Company is situated at kilomètre zéro, essentially the centre of Paris. So, we did that too. And, later, wine and charcuterie and an encounter with some drunk Danish guys to round off the evening. Because, you know, Paris.


Samedi: Le Louvre, les escargots, le fromage, le tarte tatin, Les Tuileries, a climb to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe (the view from Le Panthéon was better) and tea on the Champs Elysées, finding the ones to which all other macarons aspire. Adventure points awarded for both the eating of escargot and the extraction of said snails from their shells with the bistro’s creaky snail tongs.

Le Louvre

Boston, where I live, is among the oldest established cities in the US, a mere infant compared with Europe. So being in a bustling Paris, where (centuries-) old meets (relatively) new every day and rides the metro to work, it’s like a history lesson of the evolution of Europe at each corner. In French. C’est chouette.

Perhaps we’ll dedicate this day to the iconic symbols of excess of la Ville-Lumière.

For the final dinner of birthday weekend, our hosts recommend Brasserie Julien, an exquisite classique Art Nouveau brasserie, mere blocks from the B&B. One does not have to do much more than swap out diners’ vêtements to imagine the likes of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel singing as their artiste friends fill the tables here. We indulge in an absinthe aperitif and beaucoup de champagne with our meal, which is as delectable to the palate as the decor is to the eyes.

 


Dimanche: A quick visit to Montmartre suits the final morning, where the smaller Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, seen during Sunday mass, did not fail to impress; diffused morning light streaming through stained glass onto 12e ciècle pierres (lit., stone), choir resonating in the hall’s towering ceilings…

After this, it’s trains, planes, and, unfortunately, delays, as I make it into my own bed by the stroke of 1 am. Visions of a fin de la semaine parfait dancing in my head.

 


Dernières pensées: An understandable amount of time was spent this weekend talking what-ifs and pondering what-nexts; reflecting on this place we find ourselves (metaphorically and literally), mid-way or more through the short time we have here…in Paris, in this lifetime, and is there a difference?

I feel a combined envy of, and something like inspiration from, the laissez-faire nonchalance in which revelling Parisiens congregate. At the same time, there’s a pang of melancholy for those things you can’t get back: youth, missed connections, crossed signals, diverging paths, bad timing, unspoken words. So I focus on the present moment, and a fantastic weekend with a wonderful human…where or whether we tango again is in the hands of a certain elephant-headed god**. 🕉️

 


*C and I devised the system of Adventure Points a year or so ago on a hiking trip in Sardinia.

**Ganesha, Indian god and remover of obstacles, metaphorically weaves his way into our lives, injecting humour and roadblocks; opening doors and shining light on possibilities. In the couloir of the B&B is a stone sculpture of elephants. There are always elephants. Sometimes they sit just outside the room.

 

Countering my own Earth Day rant

It’s Earth Day, 2017. This morning, I felt like writing a rant about the things we’ve done to fuck up this beloved planet of ours, and to complain about the egomaniacal, thing-filled greed that fuels the raping and pillaging of Planet Earth and the butchering of its wild animals, the slow execution of our reef systems, and the rampant willful ignorance that paralyses a government from acting to save ourselves from ourselves.

This will continue for as long as corporations keep the heroin needle of constant consumption in our arms, necessitating individually wrapped everything; ubiquitous use of convenient, single-use plastic bottles and wrappers and bags and cups; easy, convenient, processed consumables, disguised as food, laced with deforesting palm oil; absurdly low gas prices, “disposable” electronics, a government-subsidized diabetes epidemic, funded in part by a corn syrup industry and a PAC-funded government denial of the merits of real food. Corporate pockets will get deeper in direct correlation with the width of our waistlines; they will grow richer in inverse proportion to the level of natural resources remaining; they will get more resolute and change their doublespeak as our majestic wildlife, our tropical fauna, dwindles and fades into mere memory… paradise paved to put up a parking lot (or office park or housing tract), as it were; they will point fingers as coral reefs bleach, then die, and watch as the base of our planet’s ecosystem fails in an ignorant dismissal of science at all costs.

I wanted to rant about all this, but then got sidetracked by a quest for beauty this afternoon. A self-posed question of what I love about Planet Earth. What have I seen that has taken my breath away? If the only will or want I can control is my own: what can I share that might change someone else’s?

So on this Earth Day, I share some photos of the things on Planet Earth I’ve seen in my near half-century, as ocean temperatures rise and carbon levels increase and sugar-induced disease becomes endemic; these are the things that give me pause every day to stop and appreciate the Wonder that is inherent in this magnificent ball of rock that we inhabit, for as long as she will have us.

Happy Earth Day 2017.

Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town. Spices. Ivory. Slaves.

[Part I: Pemba Magic]

flight1Early on this Sunday morning, the small plane carries its payload from Pemba back to the relative civilisation of the island of Ugunja where two of its passengers are to spend their last full day in Zanzibar exploring the streets, sights and sounds of Stone Town.

It is something of a sensory overload, this urban-ish smell of more densely-packed humans, the noise and bustle of cars, the barking of street vendors and flurry of tourists galore, compared with the tranquility we’ve just left on Pemba: the sweet fragrance of flowers in the air, a magical carpet of stars in the sky, African nocturnal critters rustling in the bush, crickets and bushbabies our nighttime soundtrack. And playing over in my mind is the hilarity of the prior night’s bushbaby “hunt” involving a baited stake-out, hoping to lure the small beasts with a mango while we hid, cameras peeled and giggles stifled, behind a wall. Meanwhile the bushbabies laughed at us from the trees above and made off with the mango after we got tired of the game and went to bed. A fruitless fruited effort, as it were.

Stone Town is essentially the crumbly remains of the capital of the old Zanzibar Sultinate (crumbles observed literally, as we walked past the blue cheese-like bits of a building that had recently succumbed to time and gravity). Stone Town was a big deal in its day: the hub of the spice, ivory and slave trades in East Africa in the 19th Century. Today the old city it is a World Heritage Site, though its largest industry these days is in catering to tourists.

We’re staying at the Stone Town Café and B&B in the thick of the Shangani section of town; blocks to the waterfront and not far from the two landmarks we’re keen on seeing here: the slave market site and the Darajani spice bazaar. I’ve chosen this place in part because of their work with the Creative Education Foundation, a schooling project that gives a Waldorf education to disadvantaged kids in Zanzibar. Disadvantaged kids back home look like sultans compared with the level of poverty found here. And because music is integral to their curriculum, I’ve brought with me things that can’t be gotten on the island: a stash of recorders (the musical kind) and some yarn for their arts projects at the suggestion of Judi, Stone Town Café’s owner.

DSC_2942 (2)Stone Town feels 10 degrees hotter than Pemba, although the thermometer reads virtually the same. So we pack water, have a nice meal of these Tanzanian breakfast chapatis of which we’ve become raving fans (they resemble a delectable cross between crêpe and injera), and take to the streets of Stone Town for our day of sightseeing.

Shops and more shops line the narrow maze of cobblestone streets, and we’re harassed every several metres to buy a souvenir or six. We dodge the crap-sellers (an I ❤ Tanzania mug is not on the liste de courses) by ducking down emptier streets, and wend our way towards Darajani market. Asking directions, we’re led by a guy to the market and find we need to lose him by promising to come to his spice shop later (our mistake: he pops up unexpectedly and repeatedly throughout the day, “you promised to come to my shop but you didn’t…” I would ironically meet his long-lost twin in Istanbul the following evening).

Finally, we reach our destination. Outside, tropical fruits from pineapples to mangoes to rambutan are on display. Inside, my stomach turns as we enter the ‘hall of meat’. The fish section is more interesting (and palatable), as every imaginable fish is on offer. Then we find the spice stands and my inner cardamom goddess dances with joy; I’m on the lookout for the merchant with the freshest-seeming stock. I love perusing the aisles, laden with every variety of local banana, taking in the pungent aromas, the piles of chilies, vegetables, fruits…everything here piques my senses.

I haggle with a merchant for kilos of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, star anise and of course the local cloves. My spice stores now overflowing, we’re off to find a market of a different variety.

Human chattel.

Exotic as Zanzibar sounds, its roots are in Africa’s darkest trades: slaves and ivory. Its spice trade, while sweetening the air, was also mired in shadow. Slaves worked the plantations that grew the spices to serve Omani and European needs. A vicious circle, which only partially ended when the slave market on Zanzibar was closed in 1873. The slave trade continued underground on Zanzibar for decades, and until 1909 in Pemba when those slave markets were closed as well.

Zanzibar was the Arab world’s largest slave market. Slaves were used to transport ivory to the coast, their handlers fetching double remuneration: for both the goods and their haulers. Those not carrying ivory were marched as bound animals, heavy wooden stocks around their necks, hands tied around the beams to thwart escape, from places like the Congo and Zambia. Many perished, some escaped and some were sold or traded along the way. Many others died as they were packed into the hulls of the trading ships bound for Zanzibar’s shores. Bodies of the recently- and not quite-dead were thrown overboard so the slave traders didn’t have to pay duty on their stale cargo. As if this treatment wasn’t inhumane enough, the humans-turned-chattel were then confined to underground holding rooms on the slave market site for days with no food, water or daylight (save a small window carved into a stone wall for ventilation), awaiting auction day. 75 were kept in a single 30 or 40 square metre cell, where many perished in the process. It was said that the strongest (quality merchandise if you will), after surviving the holding room and the requisite lashings while tied to the market’s central tree, fetched the best prices at auction.

An Anglican church now sits on the slave market site. They’ve set up a room inside one of the buildings with a pictorial depiction of Zanzibar’s slave history. Outside, a Swedish artist has carved a sculpture that incorporates some of the market’s original chains and shackles; in seeing these I think that no level of tribute could ever right the wrongs inflicted here. Even the distilled version of the atrocities turn my stomach; I can’t at all fathom what the survivors endured…surely this is the definition of ‘a fate worse than death.’

DSC_2998So with this historical dark stamp on our hearts, we wend back towards the B&B via some quieter roads not taken. We pass the old fort (a plaque is inscribed with ngome kongwe: Oldest Castle), stumble across a wood craftsman’s shop and purchase a couple of miniature Zanzibar chests as mementos, then decide to make a 2nd trip to the spice market (running into and dodging our “you promised” friend again) to haggle anew for a pile of goods to fill C’s spice shelves too. Returning to the same vendor near closing time had its benefits – I think he got the better deal than I.

A monsoon-like thunderstorm heralds our pre-dawn wake-up call, rains so intense that we’re concerned the plane won’t take off. But as we get closer to the airport, the skies clear and we’re shuttled through security for this next leg of the journey that will transport us back to Europe.

As we while away the hours on the flight, my mind replays our adventures in Africa, under and above water. With faraway friends, you must treasure each moment spent with them, as life sometimes gets in the way of life and you don’t know which visit may be your last or when the next will come. 💗

We say our goodbyes at Istanbul airport and my Calvin boards his flight home. And I, with melancholy heart, walk towards passport control to continue my adventures in this old-meets-new city, background music resonating in my head, “Istanbul not Constantinople.”

[Part I: Pemba Magic]