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.

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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.

Sverige, del ett: Stockholm

I’m eating Swedish pancakes and yogurt on a boat in the Stockholm Archipelago, mere steps from the exquisite Riddarholmskyrkan, the Riddarholm Church. Just a bridge and a few more blocks away is the famed Gamla stan and Stockholm’s Old Town, in which I stumbled around during my Day-1-massive-jetlag state yesterday afternoon.

My bags are laden with supplies, for I am to meet my Swedish Interpreter/Adventurer here this evening.

Supplies: enough for the week-long backpacking and kayaking expedition we’ve planned in the Swedish wilderness.

The Swedish wilderness: of this, I am a bit leery, but with the weeks I’ve had back home of late, I’m ready for this or any other adventure the days ahead may bring.

Preparedness: To get myself up to the task, I’ve been walking and hiking and yoga-ing and squatting and planking. And shopping…I’ve got new hiking boots, sleeping bag, pad and other accessories, borrowed a proper backpack. I dehydrated a week’s worth of interesting foodstuffs, made energy bars and snacks. I’ve stuffed it all into my largest rolling duffel, added clothing for being seen in public and touristing around Stockholm for a few days, plus garb for a 3-day stopover in Iceland on my return. I somehow managed to come in under the 23kg weight limit for checked baggage. [Note: it’s an understatement to say that navigating the cobbled streets here is tricky under load.]


Last night I managed to navigate from the airport to Stockholm’s Central Station, then to the Tunnelbana, Stockholm’s Metro, and on to Gamla stan, then a short walk along the water to the boat-hotel, with views of the surrounding islands. Ferries marked “Djurgården” zip back and forth. I’m to discover Djurgården for real later in the week.

Stockholm is a strategically-situated city, the center of which sits amidst 14 islands, an impressive archipelago at the intersection of Lake Mälar and the Baltic. Most of the islands are connected by bridges, making it seem like a nice city to wander around, if (literally) scattered. There are also archipelago cruises you can take, which, I’m noting, would be a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon. Wind is whipping across the way, and it’s September and I’m already layered in an early-winter jacket, so I’m also noting that swimming here might be even colder than a dip back home.

Jetlag avoidance tips: Take an overnight flight. Dricker mycket vatten (employ some of the 11 or 25 Swedish words absorbed for the trip). Remain awake and upright throughout arrival day. Walk off the late afternoon weariness. Take in the tail-end of a half-marathon. Stare in wonder at local landmarks. Eat a proper dinner. Wobble back to boat-hotel, stopping to gawk at the low-hanging crescent moon, shining golden above the twinkling lights of the boats on the water. Collapse into boat-bunk and sleep for a solid 10 hours.


Awake, rested, fed and watered, I’ve embarked on a day of wandering, biding time until I meet up with said Interpreter. It’s bilfria gator dag, car-free day, here in the city center. I have had no time to read up on things to do in Stockholm, so I’ve just wandered down to the waterfront by the Grand Hotel, where I’m currently being berated by a one-legged magpie for not sharing more of my kanelbulle with him.

This city is working its magic on me already. First, it’s spotless. There are trash barrels every 20 metres (where people consciously, if not religiously, recycle). The architecture is a fantastic display of 16th and 17th Century buildings, some even older… In this part of the city, there are churches and palaces and grandly-carved stone arches and gargoyles and rooflines everywhere you turn; the buildings a palette of warm and inviting hues that has me wanting to redecorate when I get home.

I wander into one of the Royal Palace’s exhibition halls to view the decadent royal carriages on display, wherein I learn of a certain young Swedish Count (Hans Axel von Fersen the Younger) and his seemingly torrid affair with Marie Antoinette (in the process noting my ignorance of pan-European historical scandal).

The waterfront: exquisite, as are the elaborately-spired buildings lining the water across the way


Because it’s Sunday and additionally car-free day, it’s quite nice that nobody seems to be in much of a rush to get anywhere. And so, I’m absorbing what I can as a stranger in a (somewhat) strange land.

Observations: Stockholm is a more multicultural city than I expected. Though I of course know different, somehow I still envisioned a city full of leggy blond folk, and I’m curiously surprised to observe legs of all heights and hues, attached to bodies just as varied. This morning I chatted with an Iraninan-born woman, a biomedical engineer living here now. Here, of course, the immigrant debate is alive and well, fueling (or fueled-by) an uptick in the volume of the far-right Swedish Democrats, a party perhaps more frightening than our own right wing extremists back home.

I’ve overheard chatter in a multitude of languages, and my attempts in Swedish (tack, ursäkta, snälla, en kannelbulle tack…) appreciated and replied-to en engelska. I’d been warned that Swedes like to practice their English as much as visitors want to butcher (erm, attempt) their language (Scandinavian efficiency wins). It’s refreshing, the chatter without the in-your-face loudness of a place that Needs To Be Heard (All The Time!). I realise I’m quieter when I travel; not only because I don’t know the language, but also because sometimes it’s nice to not hear even my own American English.

I take in the quiet of car-free day. And as if to punctuate the day’s non-din, the drumming from two guys in a cart, being driven around by a bike (a Swedish Tuk-Tuk, perhaps?), is a silly surprise as it clambers by.


I stroll. The day warms. And the lovely afternoon affords nearly 20kms of urban hiking by day’s end. It’s time now for this not-as-weary traveller to meet her co-adventurer and continue the journey into the Swedish wilderness.

Explorers ho! (as they say)

The adventures continue: Sverige, del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Ode to the pre-travel freakout

IMG_20180418_150104_957It’s common, I think, to have a pre-trip freakout or two.

I pass through phases: a week or two out, a couple days out, and then of course the day I land: a jet-lagged, culture-shocked lump, just having been hurled through space and time in a giant flying metal tube, stepping foot on another continent, into a different climate; the concept of away hitting all senses at once.

And so, on a day that finally resembles springtime in New England, in my mind is a scene like this, a pristine beach and a turquoise horizon. The first of the faraway travel freakouts has subsided… the international wire transfer sorted, deposits deposited, visa acquired, travel advisories acknowledged, packing started, work delegated (and colleagues on board), lists checked.

I know I’m not the only one who goes through stages of freak-out before a trip, and it’s National Poetry Month here in the US, so I penned a silly ode to the things that run through my head as I prep for the next adventure.

Ode to the pre-travel freakout…

You’ll make your connection,
Your bags will get through,
The hotel won’t be awful,
The skies will be blue…
.
The orange asshat won’t wage war,
Your visa is fine,
The dog will be in good hands,
And the water heater won’t die…
.
A smiling co-adventurer will meet you,
The diving won’t suck,
Your French is somewhat passable,
So, monkey mind, STFU!

😊🐒🌴

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

[MOROCCO PART I]  [MOROCCO PART II]  [MOROCCO PART IV]

I’ve just parted with Part I of my tour, and the affable tour guy steers me in the direction of my new bus, plunking me in a scene that feels like I’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s family reunion gone wrong, only these are unrelated groups of twos and threes, none of whom seem to be speaking to one another.

It’s a strange and silent ride from Ouarzazate through the Oases of the Draa Valley and into the Dades Gorge, 15 minutes late for sunset proper. The landscape is other-worldly, magnificent rolling hills flanked by kms of lush palms, oases fed by the Draa River. The scenery is quite different than the cartoon oasis image in my head, the tiny lush tropical island in the middle of a sandy sea. Tho, from a birds-eye view it might look just like that. The gorge is still gorge-ous. I redouble my sentiments from earlier: I’d love to go hiking here.

 

 

Lodging: The proudly 2* hotel is freezing – there is no heat here either, but the hot shower feels wonderful, the dinner mediocre and the company, still weirdly silent. So it’s not until late in the evening, when I’ve wandered back to the dining hall and to the only lit fireplace in the building, that I meet some fellow travellers. We’re warming by the fire, and I’ve engaged the Berber kitchen guy, Izil, in a conversation because a colleague is doing some research on the linguistic origin of oranges. And I guess this interests the others, because soon we’re talking about travels and oranges and traditions in broken Spanish, French and English (I’m feeling optimistic as my broken Spanish and French are better than their broken English), all of us trying to learn some Berber words.

izilBerbers account for 40% of Morocco’s population, yet according to a recent census, the nomad population is below 5000 (this number strikes me as ironic, tho, since they by definition move around a lot and the population is predominantly illiterate).

And we also talk about the nature of Berbers (Amazigh, in their tongue) and how different people are as you get farther from the cities (the farther you get, the warmer they are; I concur!). And Izil tells us his family has some relatives still living in the caves.

Removed from the tourist/vendor relationship, the people I’ve met out here have been warm and welcoming. And I detect an unspoken tribal friction when he describes the thing I felt but could not place in Marrakech. It’s something of a transactional game as you get closer to the city; this thing the guide books warn of: people you meet want you to give your money over in a “I know you know I know you know I’m scamming you” sort of charade. Whereas in this part of the country, I feel that you would be invited to one’s home (or cave, as it were) for supper.

As I settle to sleep this night, I’m grateful for my Berber blankets and interesting conversation.

The road to erg Chebbi.

Draa ValleyMorning comes, and we drive from Dades to Todra Gorge via the aptly-named road of 1000 kasbahs. It’s here we visit another one, this kasbah occupied by some nomad families for the winter. It’s a different experience than Ouarzazate, as we are much more remote and the surrounds much more rustic. The landscape is alternately breathtaking and sad, as the living conditions in the kasbahs cannot be much better than the caves in the gorges; a trickle of river in which to bathe, wash clothes and find water to drink. They’re used to some level of tourism, tho, and we are lead through the kasbah and to a room for a demonstration of Berber weaving techniques – I can’t help but compare this experience to some similar in India, where the local way of life is peddled as a tourist attraction and I’m not sure if it’s heart-breaking or -warming to know that our presence contributes to their livelihood.

 

 

Back on the bus, the road runs through a flat expanse of brush- and trash-dotted brick-red plains, scabbed with crumbled rock, and flanked by rolling hills on either side. It’s a barren, in-between land, but the hills are morphing into higher mountains as we travel north. The periodic olive groves remind me that there’s hope for greener things. And, as if the road reads my mind, a semi-modern-looking town emerges, its redbrick buildings and Coca-Cola signs in a mélange of French, Arabic and English. Long Berber robes (djellabas) and burqas prevail. Even in the day’s warmth (striking, really, compared with the frosty nights), all are dressed head-to-toe. Men, old women, children…all visible. Also striking is that you do not see any young women. Anywhere.

Our driver has not said more than a combined paragraph this trip. Luckily, those on the bus are chatting – I think the previous night’s fireside chat broke some of the ice. So, as we roll to a stop at a weird hotel-looking place from which you can see some MASSIVE dunes, his, “descender ici” is the note on which nous descendons du bus. 5 minutes for a potty break, then it’s camel time!

Last night I learnt that “Sahara” means ‘magic’ in the Tamazight language. It also means ‘desert’ and ‘dawn’ and ‘wilderness’ and ‘wild place’ – depending on who you ask. It is all these things, I’m thinking, as we mount camels and in a matter of minutes we’ve crossed a dune and entered a Martian universe. It’s just before sunset, and the camels are moving sure-footedly through the powdery sand. I’m in awe of this landscape unfolding around me, not sure if everyone else behind me (I’m on the lead camel) is thinking the same: I’m riding a camel in the Sahara Desert…it looks just like the movies. The sun sinks lower and the sand begins to glow with its evening touch, a golden-red hue I’ve only seen in pictures, the purity of which is only just now confirmed: no photoshop required.

 

 

It’s after about an hour that we reach the campsite; a few meagre tents surrounded by dunes. We climb the highest (no small feat in itself!) and at the top are rewarded with a real Sahara sunset. Again, I’m in awe and truly speechless. Our group is quiet, but this time I know why…this moment in time makes the entire cheesy tour worth it.

 

Berber dinner. Frosty night. Heavy blankets (and a silk sleeping bag liner that has made this and the past two nights much more bearable!). A bright moon and a sky full of stars. I’ve underestimated the dryness of the desert and my headache sends me to bed a little early, so I’m wide awake well before the sun rises, and surprised to find one of our guides already up and getting ready to do his wake-up rounds.

 

As we depart with the rising sun, I’m on the front camel again. My Berber guide offers me a tasty meal of camel tagine (my camel is on the older side and will be retired soon), and proposes I stay on in the desert with him at camel camp. While the landscape offers amazing photo ops, the air is clear and dry, and a simpler life seems novel, I graciously decline. This day will be spent on the bus back to Marrakech, where I’m to meet my own (not particularly) Arabian Knight, to share the 2nd half of our Moroccan Adventure.

As seen on the road back to Marrakech from Merzouga (550+ km):

 

Marrakech, encore: This chapter winds down with one Travel Girl warming to the idea of Morocco, a bus that is an hour late, a serious need to go to the WC, and an unexpected drop-off at the opposite end of Jemaa el Fna at peak madness. It ends, happily, navigating back to the riad (on my own!) without getting hopelessly lost, then meeting a travel-weary Calvin to continue our adventuring. Next up: L & C do Marrakech.

Want to read the rest of the series? [Morocco, Part I]  [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part IV]. 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!

Morocco, Part I: Marrakech; On being a rat in an ancient maze

3 years ago plus 1 month and 9 days, there was suddenly a new person in my life, one who often makes me feel like a better version of myself. I’m grateful for this kind of human in my world, for we rarely find them. So today I flew to Marrakech, the place from which the initial contact was dispatched, to reconnect with this person whose presence makes my entire being feel at home, wherever in the world we may be. We’ve travelled a lot together, he and I: short trips and long. But this winter has been brutal in New England and I needed an escape. So, to what was intended as a long weekend for C, I’ve added a few days up front to justify the travel time and the airfare (I dream of the luxury of living Europe, where a weekend getaway really gets you away).

ch-exploringThe itinerary: Day 1: arrive in Marrakech; Days 2-5: visit Berber country; Days 5-8: meet my Calvin-like co-adventurer back at the riad for a few days of Medina madness.

As they say: Let’s go exploring!

The trip from the airport is via taxi, to just outside the Medina’s inner web, where cars are not permitted in the afternoon; then via hand cart, dodging donkeys (and scooters and bikes and other handcarts and shopkeepers and hawkers of Every. Possible. Thing. No, really.) To the riad, whisked away in those 8 minutes to a very foreign-seeming place. Marrakech is a whirlwind. The Medina, a labyrinth. I don’t quite know how to describe it without sound or colour. Even so, the riad is a kind of oasis; decked in carpet and copper lamps, wooden furniture, large cushions…warmth oozes from each étage. Within moments of arriving, I’m served traditional mint tea and Moroccan biscuits by a smiling, welcoming Abdul.

For reference, Marrakech’s Medina is the walled-in old city, a maze-within-a-maze that leaves you feeling at times like a baited rat that would do anything to find the cheese; or the riad, in my case. There are a few meandering main streets, barely wide enough for one car to pass: rues lined on either side by cafés, shops, and their wares on offer. The streets bustle with merchants and shoppers (and hagglers) and ogling tourists, one of which I’m about to become. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, walled-in in the 12th century, The Medina’s wall is a 19km stretch of stone, bounding the old from the new. A tangle of alleyways connects the “proper” streets (one must use proper as loosely as possible), and it’s here you find the homes and riads (the mansions of old that have been transformed into lovely guest houses). The 15 metre-high buildings create an inner sanctum of sorts, blotting the din of the Jemaa el Fna, and the market streets that radiate out from its madness.

Thus, my first half-day in Marrakech is a blur of light and sound and smell and primal tendencies. Between hunger, jetlag, curiosity and restlessness, I decide to go see the famed ‘Fna to catch a glimpse of this experience for myself, because it’s so much more than just an historic site. Literal translation is either “large open space” or “death” depending on which definition you choose; history tells of another mosque here originally, but it was erected pointing the wrong way towards Mecca and was replaced by the impressive 77 metre-high Koutubia Mosque in the 12th Century (Oops). Not-so-urban legend tells that Jemaa el Fna was also used for public executions.

Heeding warnings of pickpockets, scammers, gropers, and general miscreants, I set out. And after a couple of wide-eyed hours of wandering the ‘Fna and the streets nearest my riad, I turn back to go home. The late-afternoon frenzy at Jemaa el Fna is only just beginning and I’ve already seen snake charmers, Berber musicians, chained monkeys, tea sellers, fortune tellers, henna hawkers, would-be stalkers… I haggle (poorly, I decide, but it’s a first attempt) for a Taureg amulet, its price includes a story about Berber marriage and the need for keeping one’s many wives in different parts of the country (to ensure they never meet), since Allah suggests up to 4. And while Marrakech is a melting pot of old and new, Berbers and Arabs, Europeans and ex-pats, I feel more of the old culture prevailing in this part of the city. As a solo woman here, I feel a strange impulse to layer on more clothes, even though it’s warmish and dry and the only parts visible are my hands and head.

Google maps is utterly useless, and I find myself near, but not near-enough, to my riad. I’m lost, feeling tired, hungry, shell-shocked, alone amidst a bazillion strangers, and I’m trying to talk myself out of crying (in French, so at least there’s that). I see a clean-cut youngish man up ahead and ask him to point me in the direction of the rue. Note: I’ve momentarily forgotten this item in the list of potential Marrakech scams and don’t ask up front what the directions will cost me. I’m just grateful for a smile and some help getting un-lost. Moments later (we were, literally, one tiny alleyway away), we’re at the riad, where I greet my hosts and thank my guide (really, all I wanted was for him to point, not lead) and he says, gruffly, “you pay me now.” Hm. So I hand him a small coin for his trouble, knowing that all I have in my pocket are larger bills and a few Euro coins. He says, “50 dirhams.” (roughly 5€) To which the riad ladies guffaw and reply, “non… you go away.” And a shouting match ensues, in French-laced Arabic, where the only thing I remotely recognise goes something like, “she has a big fancy camera, she can afford to pay me…” to which we all reply, “a taxi would cost less, get lost!” Finally, some smaller coins are produced to shut the guy up, and he goes away hurling ancient curses at this Western witch, I’m sure.

I’m stressed now, a little freaked-out, hoping the rest of my trip won’t be as terrifying. But a hot shower, tagine dinner with an unforgettable courgette soup, another cup of delightful Moroccan mint tea, and the knowledge that in a few days, my smiling ami who has been here before will meet me and meander the maze of The Medina by my side. Tomorrow, I leave on a short tour to the interior and into the Sahara.

The score for Day 1 in Morocco – Marrakech: 1; Travel Girl: 0.

Read on: [Morocco, Part II]  [Morocco, Part III]  [Morrocco, Part IV]