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.

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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]

Zanzibar Part III: Istanbul (?)

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Two days before I’m scheduled to depart for Africa, Turkish Airlines changes my return ticket so that instead of another couple of days in Zanzibar, I’ve got a 2-day layover in Istanbul. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as I had envisioned… Stone Town is hot and dusty, and our one whirlwind day is plenty.

It also turns out that getting a Turkish e-Visa and finding a lovely little B&B just blocks from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while sitting in my kitchen some 5000 miles away was also a piece of cake. So like that, I had plans to spend a couple of days in a city I thought I’d never get to see during these convoluted political times.

I had left Boston a week earlier, feeling angry, disheartened, rebellious, frustrated, embarrassed and altogether disapproving of the US current administration. Wanderlust raging and fernweh in high gear, I felt like an alien amongst my fellow Americans. I needed to get OUT. The stream of propaganda emanating from my country’s gold house makes me sick to my stomach; the deeper their hole of hate and other-izing is dug, the more my stomach reels as it did in the meat market in Stone Town.

I went to Zanzibar, American passport in hand, for a diving holiday with a dear European friend. We were in the far-flung reaches of a place not many tourists go, let alone even know exists. Aside from a very small handful of other travellers and assorted Peace Corps or aid workers, there were no other white people visiting there; Pemba is roughly 99% Muslim, as is Istanbul in theory. At Ataturk Airport, I’m mulling the fact that it’s almost a relief to have been surrounded by others for whom aggressive white (read: Christian, American, ignorant…) nationalism is just not a Thing at present.

And so I arrive in Istanbul, sad at having just said goodbye to my co-adventurer, slightly anxious about this new stamp in my passport, and more than slightly squeamish about my nationality and what it represents in a country mine has so recently postured to hate. Paradoxically, my complexion belies my country of origin and from the first interactions I’m asked, “Argentina? France? Spain?” I figure that some of my rusty Español and a strategically-asserted “Canada” here and there will be invaluable.


Sultanahmet. 

This mind-chatter is still occupying space in my head as I step out of the taxi and into the adorable Hotel Empress Zoe B&B. The neighbourhood is called Sultanahmet, which contains both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, sights I’ve been told are not-to-be-missed here. It is also the site of 2015 and 2016 suicide bombings. I’ve been warned of this as well. Of the school that lightning doesn’t usually strike in the same place (erm, 3 times), I’m slightly mollified by the presence of police with obvious machine guns and armoured vehicles at nearly every open space here. My room is fantastic. The greeting I receive by Layla is warm and welcoming. She arms me with a map and we orchestrate a sights-to-be-seen plan for my next 48 hours. The greeting I receive from the resident cats is equally as inviting.

Once I’m settled, the intention is to get the lay of the land and find some dinner. The first hot shower in a week is medicine for the chilly, damp gray air to which I’ve travelled; stark contrast to the prior week’s steamy East African days. I rebound and set off to explore.

Istanbul not Constantinople.

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Bosphorous Bridge from the air, connecting Europe and Asia

Called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and then Istanbul, this city is a perfect confluence of east-meeting-west. Quite literally, since Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, and has been a key trade route for millennia, connecting Black and Aegean Seas, commingling humans, spices, slaves and customs from ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine empires before early Christian v. Muslim conflict delivered rule to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.

Tourism is sparse. I’ve arrived to this normally teeming-with-tourists city in both a political maelstrom and the height of the low season. Glad that there are no lines to contend with at the major sights, I’m also a target for the desperate carpet-sellers that pop from nowhere to begin innocent chatter. “Hello, Argentina?” “Parlez-vous Français?” “Hablas español?” “Where are you from?” Learning from my first mistake, where a conversation with a friendly local turned into an introduction to his other “new friends from South America” and an invitation to the nearby rug shoppe. I declined the kind offer and deflect future propositions like these – of which there are many – with a firm “no,” as the promise “I’ll come by later” is clearly too naïve.

My first impression is that Istanbul is clean. People are chattering and smiling. Most, if not all, women are wearing a hijab. Men are dressed smartly, in tapered-leg suits. Even the street dogs are tagged and friendly-seeming. Like in India, some men hold hands in companionship. New York City seems more stressed-out to me than this place of recent turmoil and conflict.

It’s evening and the sun is preparing to set; we are between late-afternoon and evening adhans (calls to prayer), and I’ve set off to explore the plaza that sits between the Sultanahmet Mosque (dubbed ‘Blue Mosque’ for its elaborate inlaid tilework) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), which mesmerises on first sight. Once a Greek Orthodox church and the world’s largest cathedral, Hagia Sophia’s pinkish stucco is transformed to a glowing architectural sculpture in the late-afternoon sun. I did not get a chance to go inside, but the domed structure itself is breathtaking.

I wander the Sultanahmet Square and note its peculiar mix of political metaphor: Greek and Egyptian obelisks and a German fountain dotting the plaza. Recalling the Istanbul scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno (which transpires roughly where I stand), I locate the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is where I’ll go first in the morning. I also find a gorgeous sweet shoppe, displaying the mounds of Turkish Delight that I’ll soon see is ubiquitous in this city. It reminds me of a Charleston Chew-meets-nougat-meets-gummy bear, only with pistachios and coconut. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I vow to find the best one in the city and buy some to take home with me (because clearly the 100g I’ve purchased won’t last the evening). Dinner is exquisite grilled calamari that rivals what I had in Sardinia, fresh bread with muhammara (a fantastic Turkish red pepper and walnut spread) and grilled sea bass, plucked from a pile of just-caught poissons on display in the lobby. My first quarter-day here is pas mal, if I do say so myself.

Monday: in which I do the tourist thing.

Olives and cheese and eggs for brekkie: I could get used to this. Well-sated and map in hand, I head out for a day of touristing. First stop: Basilica Cistern. Descending the 52 steps into this ancient cistern, an underground reservoir that filtered water for the grand Topkapi Palace, the first word in my head is WOW (and it’s the first word of those who enter just after me as well). Turkish music echoes. The ceiling is 9 metres high, its stone arches making it seem more cathedral-like than anything underground. Unfolding around me is a sea of carved marble columns radiating and reflecting the reddish light. The arches look medieval and Greek and Persian all at once. Towards the back of the cistern, a pathway leads to Medusa heads carved into column bases, supporting just two of the 336 columns in this magically eerie place. There are Doric and Ionic and Corinthian columns, and one which is called “Hen’s Eye” and is said to represent the tears shed by slaves who died building this place. I pause for a moment to connect the dots of horror from Zanzibar’s slave market, visited mere days before, to this grandeur. The music is haunting.

My next stop is Topkapi Palace. Almost by accident, I’ve wandered through one of the grand, guarded, fairytale-arched entrances to the palace, following old stone walls as I walked along the tram route towards the Bosphorous. I’ve purchased a scarf at a local shop to ward off the chilly air. From the patient proprietor, while talking tourism (v. slow these days) and sales tactics (low-pressure wins more business), I learn where to find the best Turkish Delight in the city: Koska, a fact subsequently confirmed by more than one local (luckily, it’s mere blocks from stop #3, the Mısır Çarşısı or spice bazaar).

Meandering through the gardens and buildings of Topkapi Palace and taking in the architecture, I reflect on the way of life in a place like this: servants and slaves and someone to wait one’s every whim. Gilded rooms and accoutrements abound, I bristle at the present-day irony of what the commoners’ tax dollars supported in medieval times. I dare not reflect on what today’s aspiring western Sultans would do with the harem or their quarters.

I consider the concept that I’m guided by spices as I continue walking, the narrower streets widening to a bustling downtown that reminds me of a cross between 34th Street in NYC and small villages like Jojawar in Rajasthan, the cobblestone streets and ancient stone mosques yielding only partially to modern commerce and city din, set on the banks of a strait dotted with Ottoman castles and mansions, the European-influenced Galata tower rising from the far European shore of what’s called the Golden Horn. I find the candy shop as well as the spice bazaar, not without getting turned around 6 or 7 times and stumbling upon a demonstration of sorts in the square just outside the market.

I wend my way back to my B&B with time to purchase some souvenir-worthy Turkish baklava, chat with more ever-so-friendly carpet sellers (I am mistaken for a Turkish woman from the back, with my new scarf tied apparently well enough to pass), partake in some local cuisine (for the record, my hummus is better!) and crumple into bed, exhausted, just after the last adhan sounds. Walk-weary legs having surely earned a pile of adventure points for the 17km I marched today.

The next morning, I have time to visit the Blue Mosque (exterior more impressive than interior to this tourist), wander some more around the charming neighbourhood, and I find myself lost amidst narrow cobbled streets and old relics of a time when building was an artform in stone.

At the airport, my travel bubble is burst when I am subjected to a ridiculous succession of security checks and passport controls between the entrance and the gate, an apparent result of the new regulations passed whilst we were in Africa. I fleetingly contemplate ditching the flight to the US altogether and boarding a train to northern Europe. The roaring of distant dragons compels my return to finish projects-in-process back in the real world. Bleh.


Back home, as I succumb to the jet-lag and collapse into my own bed, I feel the irony of re-entry pulse through my every cell…head in East Africa, body in North America, heart in Europe. Demain est un autre jour, I promise myself. My last thoughts before sleep finally takes hold: soothing accents, a swirl of bright colours, azure sea and sky, a personal aquarium, the embrace of a dear heart, mounds of spices in a faraway bazaar, dreamy magic carpet-like music, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean and the germinating seedlings of what I’ve dubbed year of Africa.

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

India, Day 1 (plus 730)

2014-12-21-12-24-41-1Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.

I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.

India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.

As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]

Here is a full list of the India blog posts:

India, Day 1

Street Walking in Delhi

Night Train to Jodhpur

Christmas Eve 7000 Miles from Home

The Hidden Fortress at Kumbhalgarh

Falling in Love…AKA I (heart) Udaipur

Travelling Back in Time: Jojawar

Pushkar: Holy City By The Lake

New Year’s in Jaipur: Now is What Matters

Outskirts of Agra: More Time Travel and Amber That Shines Like Gold

Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Agra, Part II: The Taj, and a Word About Public Toilets in India

Solo in Delhi: Day 1

Solo in Delhi, Day 2: Wherein I Find My Temple and Learn the Gods’ Days

Delhi: Grand Hearts, Shining Brightly

Where do you stay: on Impermanence and making an impact…

 

On Fernweh and Being ‘Fromless’

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Fernweh is a German word that means, among other things, farsickness. Or, much more simply, wanderlust. Where wanderlust assumes just a desire to travel and see new places, farsickness – and I can really relate to this concept – it implies a restless need to be Somewhere Else Soon; a heartfelt ache to be in a place other than the immediate and familiar; a need to see, hear, smell, touch, taste things which are as yet unknown; a feeling that where your stuff is might be just a stopping point in-between adventures, however wide that gap; a feeling that home is more about a connection you feel to a person (or a people), a place or a space, than a physical, tangible abode.

I remarked to a friend recently that I felt ‘fromless’*

What I meant was that where I live now is a place that is not where I’m from. And where I’m from holds not much for me in the way of nostalgia. The home in which I spent most of my childhood has long since been that which other families’ kids called theirs. That neighborhood has sprawled and morphed into something I don’t even recognise (or care to). The girl scout house that sat behind mine when I was of girl scouting ilk has long since become McMansionized. The New York City co-op that was my alternate home after my parents’ split has long since been occupied by nouvelle Lenox Hill up-and-comers.

So northward I came for college and it stuck; or I did, as it were.

Then there were the myriad dorms and sublets and rentals which sufficed for home. And the fabulous flat in the South End with the exposed brick in a bubbling, pulsing, slightly gritty neighborhood and fabulous Sunday scones right down the block. And the house in the suburbs which was, by all accounts, its antithesis. And the also-fabulous flat with its exposed brick and brilliant light, mere blocks to the beach and a painless train ride into Boston; and Saturday egg sandwiches – or scones, which are good but not quite the same as the ones from Claremont Café.

And those were all places to live and play and work and grow and learn. But they’re not where I’m from.

Because where I’m from doesn’t exist anymore. Which is a dismally crushing realisation when you’re feeling drawn to parts unknown. Liberating in its pull, perhaps, in that it’s within a conceivable fantasy to Sell It All (or most; there’s always storage) and heed the call of the far-reaching ends of the world. And devastating as a chaser because when you come back, where do you go? Where is “back?” And why? Why there? Why here?

So the second brick-walled flat with its high ceilings and rustic charm becomes, if not where you’re from, then where you’re at. Where you stay becomes as much like home as any other place that might vie for the designation. And where you feel most at peace maybe, just maybe, becomes where you’re from.

dsc_2302-2Here’s where I think Fernweh makes its mark: It calls you to seek out what’s important. It makes you curious, and perhaps even a little fearless. It draws you to identify that which provides a sense of comfort and ease and well-being and inspiration and fullness. It compels you to distinguish what categorically does not.

While being fromless will never go away, having farsickness is perhaps what the doctor can neither diagnose nor cure. And that, I think, is a good thing.

 


*As far as I can tell, I’ve coined the term fromless. If it becomes a thing, I’d like credit. Merci.

Thailand in hindsight: wrapping up 2 weeks

Having begun the trip with a splash and – quite literally – a bang (as my travelling companion/dive buddy lives in Brussels, and we were conveniently out at sea when the attacks happened), it continues with a whoosh (jet engines whisking me from Phuket to Bangkok), a vroom (taxi to Ayutthaya) and click-clack of train wheels on hot and dusty rail (Ayutthaya to Bangkok proper).

I booked this trip as a 2-part adventure, really. First, the dive holiday, which pretty much just smacks of fantasy. Then the explore and learn bit: how much Thailand can I inhale in just a handful of remaining days…

The “bang” left me feeling a little hollow, freaked out by proxy, and more dismayed with humanity than a privileged western girl maybe has right to be, neatly plunked amongst palms on an idyllic southeast Asian beach.

Determined to not let an unstable, trigger-happy faction that is not targeting me specifically win the war of fear, I send well-wishes (and said travelling companion) Northward and Westward and must continue on, trying to shed the sheer baggage weight of being a lucky one this go-round, stepping through airport security with a bit more trepidation than perhaps usual. That said, I can’t shake the question, “why?” To what end, this madness?

2016-03-28 14.57.53My madness, this travel bug which hit me perhaps later in life than some, leaves me feeling in-between. Too old to be a backpacker, casting off job, flat and responsibility to travel (as so many I’ve spoken with) “until funds run out.” What then, when you arrive back where home was supposed to be, a year, maybe more later, and though you are more world-wise, your world has moved on (as it does) sans toi.

Too young (or at least not nearly liquid enough) to retire and see those things on the world travellers’ bucket list…And a little too comfortable (maybe too tired) in a safe place in life to completely change jobs (again), freelance, live on a shoestring and tick each place off my travel list (which changes as frequently as I learn about less-travelled natural wonders).

Thailand did not have the impact on me that India did. Its plastic, consumable, neon, disposable, synthetic, thing-filled, chaotic-ness (erm, lifestyle?) spoke to me in much the opposite way of Delhi’s musical, synchronised chaos. Spirituality on offer as a tourist show (higher price tag on everything for the foreigner). To be fair, the farthest north I ventured was Ayutthata, clear of the hills and northern jungles that would likely have renewed my faith that there is still a swath of wild Thailand left, home to free elephants and tigers, birds and other fauna. Had I an extra day or two, I would have explored the jungled hills rising from Khao Lak’s beaches.

2016-03-31 13.14.56I gravitated towards the old (Ayutthaya’s crumbling ruins) and felt pangs of familiarity amidst the opulence (case in point, Bangkok’s Grand Palace) in the murals and the depictions of ancient India that called to me quietly from deep within the artwork. Where Buddha’s roots took seed, of course, were the Hindu Brahmins of old, and with that the folklore, gods and goddesses came along for the ride when decorating a palace.

The stone work in Ayutthaya’s old city reminded me of a miniature Angkor Wat (though without being first built as Hindu temples). Where, in its glory, there were hundreds of temples and structures, now only a couple dozen individual sites remain and are being renovated as a World Heritage Site. The city’s temples, its stupas, walls and prangs were decimated in the 17th century when the Burmese flattened Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (as it was then called) in a matter of days; they beheaded most of the Buddha images (as history was told to me, the statue torsos were hollow, and the kings stored their gold and treasures in the Buddhas’ chest cavities) and melted down the gold for their own purposes. Aside: I could not help but wonder whether history curiously repeats itself and our current incarnation of bad guys from the East are plotting their own destruction of our golden idols and symbols of excess. To prove or effect what, exactly, I’m not clear.

When Siam’s capital moved South (briefly to Thonburi, then to Bangkok), palaces and temples were erected but (in this traveller’s opinion) cannot compare to the masterwork of ancient architecture that was Ayutthaya.

I was not prepared at all for Bangkok.

I stayed on the outskirts of town, at a relative’s flat on a lovely soi (side-street) just blocks from the bustle of what my senses perceived as Chinatown on steroids. I wonder if this is what people feel upon meeting New York City for the first time.

I experimented with different forms of Bangkok transport to get around: taxis (So. Much. Traffic.), Metro (clean, quick and efficient) and the motorcycle-taxi (you pay money to put your life in the hands of orange-vested drivers as they zoom you from point A to point B). Zoom: as if for sport, my moto-taxi driver went the wrong-way on a busy street, up sidewalks, and once on the main drag he drove like mad – I do think he was racing the next guy – weaving in and out of traffic to get me from the Metro station to the flat. He was amused. I, not so much.

 

After many melty-hot hours of playing tourist, the things that did not kill me on my first full day in Bangkok were as follows: blazing heat (34C!), street food, dark alleys, negotiating with street vendors, and the moto-taxi.

Overall trip report card:

  • Thailand diving: A-/B+. The reefs are a mess, bleached and trampled; ocean temps are rising, there are too many divers in the water and not enough oversight by the Marine Park Services, though the farther out you get – Richelieu Rock for example – the reefs are in discernibly better shape. There are oodles of fish, though (which you don’t get in the Caribbean), and The Junk liveaboard was a great experience. (A+ for the travelling companion!)
  • Khao Lak: B. It’s a little too touristy for my tastes tho the beach was nice and the hills/surrounding jungle inviting
  • Ayutthaya: B+. Phra Ram Park was lovely, the air smells like jasmine and the ruins are fascinating
  • Bangkok: C+. I’m not so much into shopping, needed an interpreter or guide to do the city justice and prefer a place with more green and open space

And so, with another whoosh (the departing flight) and a grumble (an 8+ hour layover at a Doha airport lounge in the wee morning hours and then a 2+ hour delay to an already 13 hour flight) and a thunk (bags dropped haphazardly in the foyer of my flat, then weary traveller collapsing into bed), the trip ends. A feeling of still being on a boat (or is that the jetlag?) and a post-travel melancholy lingers into a snowy Sunday morning north of Boston.

And the laundry begins…

On finding Nemo…

As the tides turn on my first of two weeks here in Thailand, I reflect on a few days at sea and a few days on a Khao Lak beach, where 12 years ago the Tsunami hit and they still speak as reverently of it as if it were much more recent history, reminding me that however sad and devastating it seemed to me at 9000 miles away, I will never know what the images on the Internet could not convey.

The Andaman Sea in late March is like bath water. The air, like a warming sauna without one iota of that lovely dry heat. The fruit here comes pre-peeled and wrapped in plastic film and styrofoam, which is then wrapped in its own plastic bag(s). There are more nail and massage places, tailors and tourist shops than I’ve ever seen in 4 square blocks. Something like The Beach meets Fort Lauderdale at Spring Break. I’ve also managed to lose my sunglasses.

But we came to dive…

img_20160326_095351Most divers have a critter wish-list. That is, we part mer-humans make a small private wish each time we head into the water, hoping to encounter a whale shark or manta ray or ghost pipefish or seahorse or other such aquiline critter we have not as yet met. To this end, I spent 4 days this week aboard the June Hong Chian Lee, an old Chinese Junk that has been renovated as a liveaboard dive boat. And so, I spent the days in the company of divers from far and wide: from the UK and Sweden and France and Argentina and Finland and the Philippines and Switzerland… Each of us with our own personal quest to find Nemo or other critters on our respective lists.

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My fish checklist was rather easy to tick off this trip, as I’d never dived waters on this side of the planet. Nemo, check. Butterfly fish and triggerfish of all colours, shapes and sizes, check. Honeycomb moray, white-eyed moray, spotted moray, green moray, check, check, and check. Leopard shark, check. But there are some special critters that are simultaneously elusive and for their own reasons special to each diver… My list includes seahorses, ghost pipefish, manta rays, sea dragons, hammerheads and some others. So when Mick, our divemaster, pointed deep into a crevice on the Andaman’s famed Richelieu Rock dive site and I realised what he wanted me to see, the words that formed in my head were, “OMG, are those really….” [whispered in my head: Ghost Pipefish] Yes, indeed they were. It’s hard to convey underwater to your dive buddy that you’ve just seen a critter on your lifetime wish-list; a thing you’ve been diving for nearly 20 years in hopes of glimpsing. Yet, all he can see are your frenetic hand signals (none of which can adequately depict said ghost pipefish) and a very silly grin on your face (which causes perhaps some alarm, because one is not supposed to get narc’ed at 20 metres).

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Maintaining a sense of awe and wonder at the regular everyday marine life and general spectacle of the undersea world while at the same time experiencing a first glimpse of one’s bucket list critter(s) is the practice, really. It’s not hard to take for granted what we know and that with which we are comfortable. What’s hard is to see the precious magic in the everyday schools of yellow snappers or run-of-the-mill parrotfish or blue tangs and trevallis. As if being privileged to observe the underwater aquatic ballet isn’t magic spectacle enough.

20160326_234202And so, ghost pipefish seen but, alas, not photographed, we wade back into the (Andaman) sea to see what other wonders may make themselves known…

And on dry land, the mangoes are sweeter than nectar, the bananas equally so; the massaman curry does not disappoint, the sun sets like a ripe tangerine dunking itself in the Indian Ocean, and this mermaid trades fins for feet and embarks on the second half of her adventure.

Ayutthaya-ho!