not me

not me

Hop in your car. Drive in any direction for about an hour from the city, possibly most US cities, and you may find a subculture you didn’t know about.

Tucked away about an hour east of culturally diverse San Francisco, is a place called the Delta. A huge section of land surrounded by hundreds of narrow waterways both salt and fresh water dumping into the ocean, with tiny islands, both manmade and natural, surrounded by a mix of rusted industrial machinery, bridges, endless desert views, and million dollar mansions.

Having heard it mentioned by boaters of both the sailing and speedboat types, it sounded like a far away place that I never had an official invite to. And then the perfect opportunity to spend America’s birthday with some friends happened.

Before setting out on our first boat adventure, our delta resident friend told us about the types of people in the area – the ones we should watch out for. Most notorious of them, the pirates. Our eyes widened as we leaned forward, “Really? What do they do? How can you spot them?”

Picturing the modern Somali or Captain Hook variety, just like the name applies these ruthless outlaws cruise the delta causing trouble and will steal your sh*t.

Just like anywhere amongst wealth and the privileged, therein lies the underbelly of society. Sprinkled along the water banks are pockets of people living in makeshift Motorhome scenarios plopped on small barges. Actually quite an ingenious set-up for the nomad at heart. Approaching it more as a cultural study and observation, we learned about other characters to look for. And growing up on a lake in the burbs of upstate Illinois, I felt right at home to the small town feel and general population.

Hugely popular among weekend warriors and locals alike, is wake boarding. Tried it for the first time, and after 2 days of failed attempts and extremely sore arms; I was ready to call it quits.

All experienced riders in the group, each gave words of advice and encouragement and seemed more determined than I was. As the third day rolled around, sitting in the water frustrated and exhausted, I wanted to never strap on a board again. Then one of the guys jumped in and after a hefty shove to my backside, I finally stood up! Holding on tight as the boat thrust forward blaring Guns and Roses, I thought ‘what the hell was so hard about this?’

Couldn’t help but feel lucky to have had such an interesting and all American experience so close to home, and make new friends who welcomed us in with all the luxuries of the Delta. Warm weather, fast boats, booze, loud music, hot tubs, floating bars, tubin’, wakeboardin’… am still reminded of the fun as I nurse whiplash from a very ungraceful fall.

Sure the majority of full time residents may not be shacking up in the most posh waterfront homes, be highly educated, well traveled, or drive the shiniest and fastest boat – but they’re living my definition of a damn good life.

Much respect for the staycation, trying something new – and most of all the people around who literally push you to stand up.

Already planning our next trip back. What’s yours? 

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lovely canals in amsterdam

Most of us know the fundamental difference between right and wrong. As someone who definitely prefers, stubbornly, to learn from my own mistakes rather than follow what people say to do (most of the time), I’m simultaneously very influenced by others opinions and actively seek advice. Deep down, there is a sense of knowing it will all work out, and even if the decision is impulsive – at least it’s a decision.

And when it comes time to face the consequences, if any, be grateful for the support system that surrounds me. But what about when things aren’t clear at first and take a painstakingly long time to figure it out if it’s right? I’m also beginning to think right and wrong is subjective, and ultimately, if you can learn from the wrong it can hopefully transform into a right.

 the wrong one

 “Thank God we can’t tell the future, we could never get out of bed.” – August: Osage County

In a rush out the door to the airport for my flight to Rome, I quickly grabbed my passport. I’d be turning the big 35 somewhere in Europe in the coming week and would either be in Prague, Amsterdam, or Berlin – or all of them at some point.

But the first stop was Rome, where I’d scheduled a round trip from last year after coming home from an 8-month stint abroad. Not knowing with whom, where, or what this trip would entail when I purchased it last year was exciting and sitting in the airport enjoying a glass of wine before boarding I was looking forward to an adventure – despite unsettling events leading up to the my departure.

As I handed my passport to the attendant at the counter to get my boarding pass, I realized it was my old one as I’d recently renewed it for this trip. Not yet expired, but it had 2 punch holes in the front cover. But there were no problems getting my boarding pass and onto the plane, so I thought everything was OK.

Ten hours later, exhausted yet excited to be in my favorite country again, I stood in front of the customs guy with a smile as he looked up and down from my holey passport back to me with raised eyebrows.

When another agent came to further inspect my passport, still smiling and nodding, I thought it was going to be an easy explanation. Oops, silly me, grabbed the wrong one!

Not so fast. Second agent man was there to take me back behind the scenes, the back room where you’re greeted with stern faces and glaring eyes. After being asked several times by different officers as they vigorously shook my passport, “what is this?!” I tried to calmly explain the easy mistake, and that I had a valid passport at home.

Therein steps the police chief, a tough woman that would take no pity on me or offer any understanding, her words stung and I could feel all the blood rush out of my face; “You have to go back to the US – this is not a valid passport – you will not get into Italy with this!”

Dizzily I pleaded with her, and took off my jacket as I broke into a sweat. Surely there is something I can do, someone who can help, call the embassy? Going back is not an option (!)

Or so I thought.

“No. You’re going back now.” (insert Italian animated hand gesture here, once considered charming, now cringe worthy as they all laughed and gestured in unison about the dumb American with her invalid passport).

Luckily I had a phone and could communicate with my friend who was on the other side waiting and wondering what the hell was going on. He connected me with the US embassy and still hopeful I spoke with a nice person there who didn’t have much hope for me. Unless I could physically make it to the embassy.

I was shuttled upstairs and told to stand outside of a room where I could apparently use the internet to connect to the embassy, even though I had the contact info already. After 20 minutes standing there, alone, watching the airport personal and travelers whiz by, I had a momentary breach of movie-inspiration/insanity.

Jason Borne style. I started to walk away from my post, wandered into a store and asked the clerk how do I get out of the airport. How do I escape? I had seen a glimpse of my door to freedom when I was led upstairs, and now was determined to find my way back there. On the phone with my friend I said, I’m walking, I’m walking away, OMG.

Not making it very far I came up against a security checkpoint. Of course they wouldn’t leave me alone with a chance to get away. And what was I thinking?!

Sheepishly walking back to where I had been standing, I was intercepted by a frantic US Airways manager and another police officer. He was pissed. “How did you get through the US customs with this passport?!” US Airways guy yelled, “We now have to pay a very big fine for this, and you’re going back to San Francisco in 20 minutes”

Ouch. Reality was hitting. But I still begged for him to let me go the embassy, to please not put me back on that plane.

Within 3 hours of landing in Rome, I was deported and on a flight home. (free of charge, thank you US Airways)

On my layover in Charlotte, NC a woman was complaining that she couldn’t get on a flight and had to wait a couple hours. I leaned over, interrupting her conversation, and said, “You wanna hear a crazy story? I was just in Rome this morning…” That shut her up.

Clearly, the passport was the ‘wrong one’ and it led to negative consequences (HIDE YOUR OLD PASSPORT FROM YOURSELF!). But in our lives, relationships, and decisions it may be best to avoid judging them as either black or white. Knowing what’s right and wrong for yourself is ultimately your decision – what works and what doesn’t for your life – and sometimes you miss the punched holes the first time around and need to learn to take a closer look.

PS. Determined and taking this as only a small bump in the road, I jumped on a plane the following day and completed my trip to Europe with a damn good story to boot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LeopardpantsPacking light is essential. Either a weekend getaway or year long round the world trip, cutting down on the content in your suitcase will make your life much easier.

I learned this tip somewhat early with a 6-week trip to Thailand, only bringing a small backpack. Two pairs of underwear, shorts, tank tops, and a bathing suit.  This was a huge shift in my usual packing habit where I’d consistently overstuff XL suitcases and end up wearing half of what I brought, and paying the airline for the extra weight.

It allowed for such an effortless trip in regards to schlepping around, and brought envy from fellow travelers lugging massive backpacks.

Two sides to every coin. On the latest trek to nine countries, I packed fairly light with a carry on roller bag. And with the variations in weather and venue in each location, it was a challenge to pack for every occasion. Buying jackets, shoes, and borrowing things were necessary.

I also became slightly self-conscious thinking, “I’ve literally worn these leopard print pants in every photo, what will people think?” They’re most likely NOT thinking about it, so get over it.

But let’s just say by then end of the trip I wanted to set fire to all my clothes, they’d been recycled one too many times.

Flip the coin again. If you want to feel like you have just shopped for an entirely new wardrobe in your size, go away for almost a year and then come back home. Open your closet, and an entire new set of clothes, shoes, and accessories that have taken years to accumulate awaits you. And you had forgotten all about them.

It’s a great feeling and fun to reconnect with those ‘new’ items!

Travel Tip: TRAVEL LIGHT. ALWAYS. YOU WON’T REGRET IT.

 

 

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I think people are generally good.

Unlike some of my [girl]friends, who may be more guardedand even with my obsession with crime TV, I tend not to live in much ‘fear’ of what’s out ‘there.’ And maybe it’s because of this innate feeling that most people are good.

Friends joke about the guardian angel that must be hovering above because honestly, there has been way to many incidences where I shouldn’t have come out unscathed…with plenty of those during the wonderful teenage years.

Traveling can open up the opportunities for bumping into those bad apples along the way, but of course anything can happen anywhere at anytime. Being aware, cautious, and making good decisions are key, but choosing to come from a trusting place feels comfortable to me. And, so far so good.

Over the past seven months out there in the world, out of comfort zones and country living, my overall experience around this belief has been reinforced.

And while we can seem to live in a bubble at times in our busy important lives, I’ve experienced many situations where people stepped out of their way to help – and for no other reason but to do good.

Yes, it is a big world out there with many unknowns, what if’s, and strangers. But if you really look around I think people generally want you to be safe and happy, just like they do.

undergroundpicRainy, dreary, snooty, uptight, expensive – just some of the adjectives I’d think of when considering a visit to London. Always curious, but going on others’ opinions and observations I moved it down the list accordingly. Then I had an opportunity to find out for myself.

Yesterday I finished a month-long intensive at the London School of Journalism.  Let’s just say all said preconceived assumptions have been squashed (OK most of them), and honestly it’s been an incredible 30 days. Rented a room in a flat close to school, albeit government-housing aka the ghetto, but it’s been nice having a place to call ‘home’ and a routine in such an exciting city.

And did I mention the bloody heat wave?! One rainy day so far!

We worked really hard at LSJ and wrote like crazy, and the course definitely reinforced my strengths and weaknesses. News writing – not so much. TV stuff and features – yes.

First week in I said to my new school pal, ‘think I may be too lazy to be a journalist.’ All jokes aside, part of that is true. And most of us agreed, it’s highly demanding but a potentially rewarding and exciting job. Overall it was good to get the inside scoop and feedback from people in the biz, and I’d like to incorporate elements of journalism in my work.

Another highlight has been reconnecting with old friends, some really old friends. A childhood BF lives here and we hadn’t seen each other since at least 16! Love when it feels like no time has passed, and I can get a glimpse into people’s lives.

Now I have time to take part in being a full on tourist, but it’s been fun feeling like I live here. Commuting on the tube with the masses crammed like sheep heading to slaughter at rush hour – not super fun – but getting to know my ‘hood’ and local pub has been a plus.

Every experience is what you make of it (of course), and it does help to connect in with a community, learn and challenge yourself when trying out a new place.

So London, I adore you. And thanks for a fabulous time thus far to everyone who’s been a part of the journey.

What places or things are you making assumptions about and not getting out there?

willow car picOne month ago it all came to a screeching halt – because of a stamp. I was looking forward to the final leg of my four-month trip, ready for some solace and girl time in the Greek Isles. In the airport boarding the plane, I’m sent back through security because I didn’t read the fine print to get a stupid stamp on my boarding pass. I curse you Ryanair!

Missed my flights and with the not-healing-so-great back injury, made the rash decision to fly to SF.  In a blink I was back home. Definitely classified as a really bad day for obvious reasons, but also had my first panic attack – or something closely resembling one. With some clarity during the fiasco or ‘freak out,’ I thought if I’m reacting like this and feeling like a crazy person, what can I really handle?

But deep down I knew, this too shall pass. A good reminder in moments when it all feels overwhelming.

Major perk of my ticket home, it was actually cheaper to buy a round trip back to Barcelona. Days before, I was researching and found a one-month program at the London School of Journalism in August. Which also fit perfectly into place before the third and final September wedding in Italy. I hastily threw out a date a few days before it started, and felt excited about the idea of returning to Europe.

Now home my objective was (is) to focus on healing, and once better keep it that way. Obviously not easy when traveling, and so I’m thankful to have had a space and the time and it’s summer thank God! Days are filled with icing, baths, stretching, chiropractic, swimming (aqua therapy kicks ass), reading, writing, piano lessons(!) and of course socializing. The alone time, which was an objective of the trip, is now happening at home. Albeit isolating, I feel lucky in so many ways to have this time to literally chill.

Occasional pity parties, yes, but thankfully I have people around who keep reinforcing and support the “SLOW DOWN” mantra. I can be unaware of ways I do things and how I fill my time, how it’s not necessarily moving me forward in the healing process. And honestly, no one else is living in this body so it’s up to me to take care of it. I’m starting to sound kind of mature, wow.

Our brains have us live in accordance to the non-existent dimension of time called the ‘future.’ It’s good to constantly be moving forward towards setting and accomplishing goals, as it can give us a sense of purpose. But if you have the luxury to actually slow down and get in touch with what you really want and enjoy (without the guilt factor), it can be healing overall. Lately it has been the basic things like getting solid sleep that I’m grateful for. Also rediscovering loves from the past, like swimming and piano, which have also made me happy.

With my departure date quickly approaching next week, I’ve been reflecting on my favorite John Lennon lyric, “life happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Just because you may have a plane ticket for the Greek islands, it doesn’t guarantee you a seat.

For me the key is to acknowledge, when this is all a distant memory, that it did get to this point and there are many factors at play. But ultimately to be more conscious about how I move through the world, both physically and figuratively.

How can you slow down in your life and reassess?

IMG_2066 So we made it to the sand dunes, the long awaited part of our journey to the Sahara Desert. Funny because when tour guides try and convince you to shorten your stay, it’s usually a sign they’re onto something and less concerned about making a sale. A three-day trek on camels throughout the desert from one nomad camp to another sounded completely surreal. But when multiple outfits suggested at the most two nights, we gave in and went for the one night desert camp out and two nights elsewhere along the way to various other attractions, to round out a three day tour. We were determined to see it all.

Now enter our colorful and outspoken driver and guide, Driss. Upon first meeting we of course late in our departure and his irritation (American’s and their lagging), it began with a haggle about pricing, days and itinerary. I was a little turned off, as it felt like we were paying the same for two nights as for three, and we were confused on what exactly we were doing. Silly me, guess I relapsed on the fact that everything in Morocco is negotiable, from spa treatments to a loaf of bread, so it’s merely a formality to bargain and meet around the middle. Needless to say after we relaxed into our comfortable mini-van listening to an Arabic version of “Gangnam Style,” stopping regularly for espresso and bathroom breaks, we all got along famously.

Probably somewhere on most people’s “bucket list” is to ride a camel into the sunset to some vast desert landscape. At least it was lodged somewhere on mine, not really knowing when, where, or how exactly but it was on there. Mounting the camel and slowly meandering into the sweltering heat – at 7pm – was a feeling like nothing else. Almost as if on a movie set for a cheesy Arabian film, an image i’ve only seen onscreen or in other people’s photos from trips to the Pyramids. Couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the classic shots; camel shadows stretched along the dunes, the #selfie (instagram reference) like hey! i’m on a camel! The views were beyond stunning, and with the golden sunset it was dreamlike.

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yes, that’s a camel.

Lucky for us it was a full moon. Never have i seen a moon rise over a sand dune, and it actually looked more like the sun – it was unbelievable! After our typical Moroccan meal (couldn’t even look at another ‘tagine’ after awhile), drum, singing, and shisha session we hoofed it up the ridge to get a closer look. Not until well after midnight did we retire to sleep outside under the *full moon.* Sunrise came early, and again we hiked up the dune to experience yet another unique encounter with the sun. Barely 8:30am, luckily we were almost back to our starting point at the edge of the desert, and it was scorching. How people live in that climate I have no idea, and no wonder one night is recommended. So all of you wanting to check this experience off your list, I urge you to do a single night and it will be more than satisfying.

Unfortunately the rest of the tour wasn’t too memorable, for me anyway. Coupled with mild food poisoning and the back pain, i was horizontal in the van a good portion of the time hoping for a cool breeze and the headache to go away. The saving grace was Driss, who has a keen sense of humor and did everything he could to help ease our woes as we each were struck with the queasy unsettling bouts of an unsettled stomach. Surely par for the course in Morocco, but what a drag. We did have some great times and Driss posted pics on Facebook, but I could sense his relief as he dumped us off in Marrakech after four long days on the road.

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stopped at a movie studio, playing with props from the horrible 90′s film, “The Mummy!”

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one of the many cities we passed

Hustle- bustle, crazy, hectic, chaos – these are just a few ways to describe the city of Marrakech. It’s amazing. Oh, and tourists – so many of them! I kept imagining stepping off the plane and right into this maniac of a city, thinking this is what all of Morocco is like. Luckily for us our jaunt began in the quaint ‘blue city’ far far away from this place and we were thankful to have ended here rather than began. Imagine a giant plaza with snake charmers, guys with diaper wearing monkey’s doing tricks, drum circles, ladies (chasing you) with henna, restaurants with fierce salesmen out front, relentless merchants (yelling at you), orange juice carts everywhere with the same product for the same price, and massive fruit and nut displays. Add thousands of people going in all directions any time of day and oppressive heat, there you have a basic sketch of Marrakech.

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OJ for sale, 50 cents!

Hundreds of venders lined the plaza and went on forever twisting around in narrow corridors, never-ending and selling everything you can imagine. Getting lost is what you do there, for fun. Good luck buying something and finding that shop again for a return or a fix. My most exciting moments were in discovering a new section of the medina, like the dying quarters where all wool, fabric, scarves, etc. are hand dyed with natural pigments. Men with permanently dyed red arms and hands stood above boiling liquid and posed for pictures. And then the leather tannery. You need a “Moroccan” gas mask for your nose (aka mint leaves) just to breathe for the stench of the ingredients used to treat the animal skins is overwhelmingly pungent and burns your eyes. The metal workers section, welders hovered over their works of art in tiny dark spaces were covered in dirt and grease. Scariest and most ‘twilight zone’ of them all, was the section that sold animals. Curious as to what the smell was and why the eery feeling as we stumbled through the ‘gates,’ we saw dead and live animals for sale. Men here were covered in blood from head to toe, shoved and sharing a a small stall with a hundred live chickens, and several rabbits and pigeons in cages. Other men in stalls were de-feathering chickens using a horrible machine, it’s one of those places where you swear off eating meat all together. On an upside, these animals are fairly ‘free range’ and this system seems more farm to table style in comparison to gross scale of factory farming. All how you put it in perspective, i guess.

Lots has transpired in the last weeks in Morocco until now, as I’m sitting in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Barcelona, Spain. (thank you new friends, Shayne and Kristen!) The week here has been a bit relaxing, as I’m still in healing mode but trying to get out and about to take in the sights – most importantly the beach. What a fantastic city! Even if it’s covered with Gaudi architecture :)

Something terrible has also happened recently, my young and vibrant aunt Erin is in the ICU for bleeding in her brain and was in a coma for several days. Yesterday she opened her eyes. Heavily drugged and sedated, doctors still aren’t clear on what’s happening but she is responding and making progress. We’re all in shock, and i feel really far away. On that note it’s approaching the five month marker, and I’ve recently been planning my trip home for the end of June.

Nothing like a sudden and serious health scare to put your own life in perspective. Again a reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is, but also how incredibly powerful we are to create the life we want. Which brings me to the question, how do i incorporate travel (taking pictures, video, writing and telling stories) and get paid?

BTW, my comp is totally dead and for real this time. Not a terrible thing overall (may be last blog entry for awhile), but now having to lug the useless metal corpse around it could affect my luggage weight limit, damn these budget European airlines.

Tomorrow I fly solo to my (possible) final destination – Crete, Greece.

Random Travel Tip: For the first time ever I didn’t have a flight scheduled out of Marrakech until the day before. As freeing and exciting as it can feel, prices and options literally change and go up in a matter of seconds. I recently was introduced to this highly addictive and amazing app, Skyscanner. Late on the game i’m sure, but it gives you cheap flights to “everywhere” instantly. Planning ahead can take up a ridiculous amount of time, but just getting an idea of available flights and prices a little early on, can save you a lot of time and money. I wish it were the opposite and prices went down as you waited, until the very last possible minute. For all us spontaneously bad planning folks out there.

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in the maze

Pulled the trigger and decided to leave the comfort of our nest in Chefchaouen, Morocco after 10 days. It had been rainy and cold for more than half that time, and slowing way down because of the injury I’d barely seen the light of day for a week.

Our last evening and final attempt to ransack the shops we’d been scouting for must-haves, clouds parted and the sun finally peeked out. Feeling a bit better and determined to enjoy the warmth, I managed to collect a decent variety of Moroccan gear. Included and of total surprise (as a usual non-rug lover), was a fairly large 25 yr. old “Berber” rug – made by the indigenous people of Morocco who live in the Rif or Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert. All other Moroccan people are descendants of Arabs coming from Spain or Saudi Arabia. I think this is why Morocco is so unique, among the many things, is the blending of African and Middle Eastern cultures and Islam which connects them all.

Next up, the Imperial city of Fes. Nothing compares to the narrow passageways, which create the labyrinth of Fes’s medina. With walls so high and thick, it almost gives the feeling that nothing exists outside its matrix and in some places the sun can barely creep through. Luckily, our Riad or home was just steps away from one of the liveliest areas of the medina, the “blue gates.” Amongst the many cafés and restaurants, a food market showcasing local fare – camel thighs suspended from large hooks, live chickens and pigeons, live turtles, cubed beef chunks suspended in thick fat (a typical breakfast), goat heads, and every part of an animal neatly displayed. Not for the faint of heart, but an authentic version of local delicacies and cuisine. We haven’t quite ventured into those realms, just yet.

Ready for a girls night out, Jasmine and I headed in anticipation for the hammam we’d heard so much about. After paying around $1 for entry, we curiously poked our heads through the creaky doors and were instantly hit with the heavy smell of a sauna or sweaty locker room in need of sterilization. Woman sat topless scattered about in a tiled room filled with buckets of water, scrubbing themselves and then each other. We smiled, acknowledging that we had entered into the locals’ domain where there would be no thrills or fluff involved in this experience. Dollar or two more for an olive oil paste and hand scrubber, a nod yes for a ‘massage,’ we were directed to the steamy room and greeted with inquiring glances. A woman grabbed me by the arm leading towards yet another room, this one thick with heat intensely radiating from the floor and walls. She motioned for us to scrub ourselves and thinking we were left to our own devices, it made sense why it was so cheap, assuming it was self-service – and what a bonding moment for sure.

Water pooled in two large basins, one practically boiling and the other ice cold. We watched as women continually came in and out grabbing buckets of either variety and we tried to follow suit. Just when we thought it time to rinse off and go on our way – maybe try out a more ‘spa-esque’ hammam – we were greeted again, this time for massage. Seeing your friend getting scrubbed from head to toe with such force it’s hard not to laugh or feel bad for them. Definitely a cross between painful and pleasurable, it was quite an experience and pleased to have happened on the more gritty locals’ version. Mothers delivered the harsh scrubbing while their children squirmed uncomfortably, and babies cried. Feeling for a little girl on the verge of tears, I thought one day she’d deliver the same fierce scrubs to her children.

Slightly elated and a bit refreshed, I joked about wanting a glass of wine. Something we hadn’t had for weeks, and for the first time it sounded appealing. On our way home we were ambushed by a guy in bright orange with a huge turban. “Welcome, welcome, come check out our terrace,” something everyone with a restaurant says, “We have wine…” And so it began, a glass of wine in a Berber tent on the terrace turned into our most eventful night in Morocco. Live music with drums and a snake charmer flute, dancing, singing, shisha, and more wine. We even got to play dress up, each given Berber outfits in neon colors (think mumu) and scarfs to match, we were quite the spectacle.

Feeling we had barely scratched the surface of Fes’ labyrinth and leaving the next day, Jasmine and I set out to see some notable attractions, most importantly the largest leather tannery. Not ten minutes into our mission we walked alongside a young man whose father happened to work at the tannery, and was actually on his way there now. Perfect, because there’s no way we could successfully navigate there even with the map. First, he said, we would stop quickly at a Berber house to say hello, that kind of thing. A little confused and not entirely keen on the idea, we stopped in front of what looked like a rug store. Just then a few men ran past holding huge platters of couscous, and it was Friday the day of rest, where traditionally every family eats couscous. Stomachs growling, we both agreed on finding some after our short visit.

Clearly walking into a rug store, we reluctantly entered inside to find several men hovered over a communal platter of couscous surrounded by several other little dishes. Practically forcing us to sit down and eat with them, we awkwardly accepted and picked up a spoon. It’s customary in their culture to always offer something, usually it’s what they call “Moroccan whiskey” or mint tea with a hefty dose of sugar (also contributing to their notoriously bad teeth). After such hospitality and really delicious food, I felt obligated to ask about one of the many rugs on display, even though I had the scoop already from my previous purchase. “We don’t talk about that now, we eat, no discussing business, and we’re not leaving until you both finish this entire thing.” We did our best, and thinking we could graciously ease our way out of there after tea, the official ‘tour’ began.

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Berber rugs

Several hours and cups of tea later, after seeing every old, distressed, and faded rug they had I fell in love with a couple more pieces and my friend shook hands on some too. Even involved a friend back home in the fun, she picked up two antique stunners as well. Obviously they’re professionals and this is what they do but the hard sales process – if you’re open to it and like what they’re offering – can be an enjoyable experience. Bargaining is a key element of Moroccan culture, and actually an insult if you don’t try. Funny because on many occasions I’ve been called “Berber,” and told I have Berber eyes. After asking around what that really meant, the response was they’re strong and hard bargainers. Well, no wonder I love this place.

Until next time, from the Sahara sand dunes…

After thought: Great and unexpected experiences usually come about by saying “yes.” I think this is the best part of traveling, so many things coming your way that you constantly get to choose yes or no. (Wish I had said ‘no’ to that omelet which I think gave me food poisoning :P)

 

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beautiful Chefchaouen

17 May : As I write this from a beautiful Moroccan hotel room set in the storybook village of Chefchaouen or “blue city,” drinking mint tea and running a hot bath, I can’t help but focus on the ‘downs.’ It’s been over a week of nagging and at times unbearable pain in my leg and lower back; pain way too familiar has reared its ugly head again.

Before I left in February signs of sciatica started to manifest, partly due to an intense yoga practice and stubbornness about being diligent with self-help techniques to prevent it. Thinking I was free and clear of any recurrences of the back pain that had me bed ridden and on pain pills years ago, carelessness took over in the health department, and I willed myself to do all the physical things I love, in full capacity. Weird because most people do yoga to rid themselves of ailments, but something I’m doing is helping to create them. Nevertheless it’s an injury that lives on after the initial pain gradually slips away and I’ll have to learn to find balance again.

As they say, timing is everything and right now it’s all-wrong. But maybe, it isn’t? Not that there is an ideal timing for anything unpleasant like a back injury that leaves you crawling on the floor to the bathroom, but in a way there is. Having responsibilities of a family or job, things like that. Right now the focus is on getting better, and am trying to look on the bright side. My already impatient self is growing even more intolerant as my symptoms persist – and I’m completely exhausted. Admittedly this is a dramatic version of my current status, which is heightened by the last couple days of a horizontal existence, missed outdoor activities, and lost sleep.

Poor Rama and my friend Jasmine who we’ve recently met up with, now having a gimp on their hands. I’ve had a hard time not thinking ‘why now … not again,’ and feeling guilty for holding them up in a way – not being my usual active and hike-for-hours self. On top of that we’ve landed in a place with beautiful and endless hiking terrain with countless trails leading to majestic waterfalls and vistas. Thankfully it’s a place neither of them wants to leave too quickly, and seem content on hunkering down for a bit.

18 May : Yesterday, I slipped. Not the kind that sends you to the ground in a half second, but the kind that causes your whole body to cease up from the slightest movement to regain stability. It had been raining all day, and with the entire village lined in tiny cobblestones it was a slicker than ice.  I had been feeling a little better that morning and despite the weather, was eager to get outside to feel like a normal human again. The dramatics mentioned earlier are no longer an overstatement. I feel broken in half.

No stranger to foreign doctors offices and communicating through hand gestures; this fiasco is bringing back memories of my countless trips alone to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya for an MRI four years ago. One good thing about healthcare abroad, is the cost. Today’s excursion and homeopathic massage was a whopping $43.

Doctor visit + steroid shot = $15, 4 prescriptions = $18, homeopathy + in room massage = $10.  Majority of the people here speak Spanish on top of French and Arabic, and luckily we had a necessary warm-up in the Dominican Republic and Spain, so carrying on has been fairly effective. Kind of interesting and fun to choose from “hola,” “bonjour,” “salam alaikom, “or a combination of all three in one sentence.

Now, the ‘ups.’ Things that I’m more than thankful for in this not-so-great situation. The moments where you think of nothing else and are grateful for the experience and adventure of it all. Fortunately, there have been many of those in the past 3 ½ months. I acknowledge often how lucky i am for the time and freedom to see the world, something I’ve always wanted to do and am determined to make the best of it. The ways you look back on and remember fondly the people and places, and can laugh at the times that weren’t so enjoyable.  I’m hoping this is a bump in the road, that will soon be a distant memory.

Our incredibly comfortable hotel room complete with a plush Moroccan lounge, has become a healing haven and perfect for hosting “shisha” (hookah) sessions and dinners with our friends we’ve acquired in the week here. A local college student we call “Newman” has been more than helpful, and has taken a liking to our threesome, especially Jasmine. We’ve been welcomed into his home and shared meals, stories, and photo albums with his family. Then there’s Neil, a funny English bloke traveling alone who smokes more hash than I thought humanly possible. Quite a motley crew.

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tea time! Newman, Neil, Jasmine, and I (photo by: Rama)

It’s been an ideal reprieve from our stint in Spain – vibrant nightlife until 3am, bottomless sangria, tapas for every meal, and the consistent moving from city to city. I really love Spain and the warm social nature of the culture, although for many reasons I’m thankful we’ve been sucked into the vortex of bohemian Chefchauen, for rest and recuperation.

Meals now come with a side of anti-inflammatories, a muscle relaxer, and homeopathic remedy. I even dared try the infamous hash this town is known for and constantly trying to sell you. Just small puffs, but enough to bring on contagious laughter and a bit of solace. This is not a regular pastime, as someone who can’t stand (tobacco) smoke or anything related to the feeling of being stoned. But what the hell.

We have found our fun in playing ‘Uno’ on the terrace, enjoying the Muslim prayer call echo throughout the valley, drinking mint tea, and finding street food that we are consistently satisfied with. Not only the taste, variety, and cheap prices – but knowing where to go for the best avocado smoothie, samosa, or a visit to the ‘nut guy’ for the hugest bag of mixed nuts for practically pennies. Going out in seek of all the food assortments is still exciting, but now that I’m succumbed to the hotel room with minimal activity, I get to be on the receiving end of the findings and a play-by-play of the day.

Feels like we’ve been here for longer than a week, people know us on a first name basis and are extremely friendly. I’ll be out hobbling about town, people will stop and say “hammam” and point to their backs. That’s what you need they say – wham bam – wake up tomorrow, you’ll be fixed. A hammam is a Moroccan spa, the likes of a Turkish bath where a very strong man or woman gives a vigorous massage, then tosses hot and cold water on you after scrubbing off couple layers of skin. Think I might skip that for now.

Drinking isn’t technically illegal in Morocco, but being a predominantly Muslim culture it’s frowned upon by locals. As a tourist – or local but discreetly – you can buy beer at bars and some restaurants throughout the country (we’ve heard in the bigger cities it’s much easier to find and accepted), although in Chefchaeun only a a couple establishments hushly sell 8oz. beers and bottles of wine more expensive than a 5-course dinner for two. We’ve taken a liking to the local tea and freshly squeezed orange juice that you can buy on every corner.

Within the “medina” or old city walls, there are no cars so the streets are narrow and wind about lined with shops stuffed in every crevice, miniature doors lead to people’s homes and every bit of the city walls and buildings are painted the most vibrant shades of blue. Reasoning behind the blue came as a surprise, thinking it was more for an aesthetic or higher purpose, but is actually to keep away the mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. It also helps to create a ‘cool’ feeling in the summer heat. Either way it feels like a set for a Disney film, I half expect to see an ice princess emerge behind one of the mystical looking doors.

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one of many blue doors

I think the term ‘hole-in-the-wall’ was invented here. You’ll see a man tucked in a hole carved out of the concrete, diligently perfecting and debuting his craft; leather, jewelry, rugs, clothing, shoes, etc. The urge to shop is overwhelming and coupled with the ridiculous low prices, I can’t wait to get back out there to buy one of everything and send a huge box home.

Woman from the mountains, or “Berber” culture, sit on the streets selling their hand woven rugs and vibrantly colored straw hats, olives, goat cheese, figs, herbs, and dates. It feels like time hasn’t touched this village, and has been proudly preserved for hundreds of years. I’m secretly hoping to bump into a shaman that has just descended from those mountains, and get cured once and for all.

19 May : All around it’s been an ideal venue for this crucial rest time, surrounded by supportive and caring people to laugh with and keep me positive. In some ways I’ve forgotten about the world outside of this charming village set high in the Moroccan mountains, and am focused on emerging stronger and healthier.

Because without your health, what do you have?

 Hoping the healing process will come swiftly, so we can continue writing the next leg of our journey throughout the country. More importantly, I’m determined to hop on a camel and ride into the Sahara desert…

Feeling better already.

After thought: Being here has really inspired travels to other Middle Eastern countries, which until now hadn’t been high on the list. Spending time with locals learning about their culture and hospitality has been a very rich experience, and by far the most rewarding. More reflection on this topic later, as we tackle other cities and destinations. So far we’ve only sampled a small but satisfying dose.

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Jasmine and I with Newman’s Grandma

love the candids!

love the candids!

Been awhile since my last post. You’d think with this adopted ‘holiday’ lifestyle I’d be cranking out more updates, pictures, and detailed stories. Primarily for my mom, who really starts to worry if she doesn’t hear from me after about 4 days. It’s a lot better than her not caring, so I’ll take the urgent “where are you and is everything OK ????” emails, any day.

Funny how time really does fly by. How cliché. Of course there’s those moments when I’d love to fast forward time, 16-hour flights, tedious workday stuff, brutal traffic, the usual. While in Cape Town the second time around, I so badly wished for a freeze frame button. This time around with Rama, we quickly put on the tourista hats and wore them out, taking day tours on double decker buses -I made fun of at first- train trips down the coast, and a mountain bike ride through the renowned wine country. With the days packed full busily checking of our list of ‘things we wanted to do,’ I didn’t feel ready as it crept closer to our departure date.

Motivation was my sister’s wedding in Grenada looming on the horizon as the next leg of this journey. I could hardly imagine it. The idea of seeing my family in a tropical location and celebrating her (long awaited) wedding, was a hard concept to wrap my head around. As a family we had never taken a ‘vacation,’ besides our mini-road trips from Illinois to Wisconsin or camping as kids. When I mentioned this to my mom recently, she made a face that basically said, “let’s not go there.” Sore subject maybe… but between her, my sister and I, we’ve had our share of exotic getaways that just somehow never coincided with each other. Maybe we were more of the norm back then, and living in Marin painted an unrealistic picture of the typical family vacation; African safari’s, Hawaii multiple times a year, or sailing in the Mediterranean.

As the days grew closer to leave for the Caribbean, I felt both the rush of excitement and a little nervous for my responsibilities as the Maid of Honor. What I primarily mean – the speech. As mentioned before I have a fear of public speaking, especially where it involves something emotional. When in my early teens at my mom’s wedding, I read a poem during the ceremony and all I remember is crying uncontrollably. This is what I pictured would happen.

After 37 hours of traveling from the southern most tip of Africa to a tiny Caribbean island called Grenada, adrenaline kept me alert for the welcome party I anticipated at the airport. As we trickled out past customs into the night air, the heat hit us hard in the face. Now entering a climate where bathing suits replace underwear and only beach sarongs are tolerable. Seeing my family, freshly sunburned from their first day there, was such a great moment. The 2 ½ months away somehow felt much longer, and we had so much catching up to do I could barely stop talking. As I apologized for my run on sentences, my mom laughed and said I was now around ‘my people’ again, and not to worry.

In the days that followed we spent time at Brett’s parent’s home, a place that has been in conversation for the 9 years my sister has been part of their family. Set in a remote village miles away from the main city and with a stunning ocean view, I was overwhelmed with it’s beauty and serenity. I kept thinking out loud, why have we not been coming here on vacation?! We would cook meals together, sit outside in the warm night air, trek down to the beach, drink coffee on the terrace after a swim in the pool, chop coconuts, and just relax. The days mostly unfolded in this way, aside from the wedding hustle and prep, which my sister and Brett were busy with in the week leading up to the big day.

I woke up one morning and had this huge wave of almost panic, as if I was going to blink and the entire experience would be over -in a flash – much too soon. I wanted so badly to stop time. And several moments throughout the trip I would get this warm feeling of total contentment.

The wedding itself played out in the most perfect way from beginning to end, which was at 3am after we all jumped in the pool. Even though I give my sister a hard time about dating for almost 10 years, and “what’s the point you’re practically married anyway,” I do see the value in having a celebration to honor the union. I now have even more adoration for destination weddings, bringing family and friends together for a time they will hopefully never forget.

Several months leading up to the wedding I worked on putting together a video to play at the reception. Not just your average slideshow, it was to include videos of family members who couldn’t make it, which was all the aunts, uncles, and cousins on our side. A way to ‘virtually’ incorporate them into the experience, as Brett’s entire side of the family would be attending. Last minute, and to avoid the crying uncontrollably scenario, I filmed my speech on the beach. Now she’ll have it forever. It surely was a labor of love, and my end goal was achieved — have Shannon in tears!

Random travel tip: This may seem obvious, but it’s important to share experiences with family and loved ones outside of daily life, if you are lucky to live close to them. Not that you have to go on an exotic excursion or someone has to have a destination wedding, a road trip to Wisconsin is just fine. Making the effort to create memories in a new place together is muy importante!

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