Category Archives: Personal
This trip to Lisbon was supposed to be a trip to visit David and eat all the things in DC, but he was hosting other folks. I planned a week off between jobs, but then found myself in need of a new travel plan. In Europe, this is never a problem. You pop your dates into Momondo and see where you can fly for reasonably cheap. Portugal, they said. And so it was. The first thing you do after somewhere from Sweden is breathe a sweet sigh of relief that it is warm here. That's exactly what I did on my first morning. I woke up early and walked down by the ocean, which was not blowing ice air in my face. It was the day after the French elections and the Portuguese people were feeling lucky at least some parts of Europe were not choosing the path of populism, bigotry and fear. It did seem a bit wrong to arrive in Lisbon and immediately jet for Sintra, but that's exactly what I did. The weather people were predicting lots of rain for the rest of the week. Forty minutes later, I was in the tiny resort town famous for its royal palace up on the mountain. The Pena Palace is a pretty crazy place - colorful, remote, and surrounded by the most delightful gardens. View of the Moorish castle from the Pena Palace. I did visit it, but by that point I was so exhausted from walking up and down all these hills I did a bit of an in-and-out situation. It was a cool ruin that the king and such renovated. People of the past liked hanging out in ruins as well. Honestly, I would skip the actual ticket for the palace. You see the inside, and they are some small royal apartments that look like a lot of other royal apartments. With the entrance to the gardens, you get to do all the really great stuff with the castle - walk around the walls, just go around and see the views and stuff. The inside is missable, unless you are into taking pictures of people juxtaposed with butts. These were so baller royal gardens. Normally you have some manicured hedges and things to walk around, or just a big old forest that is also nice. But these had all these lovely little spots to stop and look at things - like this 16th century well built by monks and fed by water from a mine. There were benches where the queen used to sit and little groves and meditation caves. They were the best royal gardens I've seen and I've managed to see a whole bunch of royal gardens. I hit up the aforementioned Moorish Ruins and then bolted back to town to hop on the Chill Out Lisbon tour, which promised to be a tour about non-touristy stuff but was basically just your normal walking tour, but long (four hours!) We saw Barrio Alto, a bit of the Baixa and the Alfama, the oldest district in the city. Lisbon is a bit of a weird place. It seems pretty active and prosperous and vibrant, but there are lots of abandoned buildings and things that are weirdly run-down. There were broken windows on what was essentially a back-side of the national palace. That's... weird. I honestly didn't learn much about modern Lisbon but in 1755, there was a huge earthquake and tsunami and 80% of the city was destroyed. Areas was up on the hills (Lisbon is very hilly) like Barrio Alto and Alfama were spared a lot of the damage of their lower neighbors, but that probably just means the buildings are much harder to maintain now. This was one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. After the Chill Out tour, I was starting to feel pretty crummy. I woke up the next day determined not to be sick and pressed on through some wanderings around town. I did come back to the hostel and take a long nap in the afternoon, before setting off again in the evening. By the time I got back, I realized I was in for some serious down-time. The following day, I barely left the hostel - just to get some lunch and then later for a little stroll. I spent most of the day hauled up in the TV room of the hostel watching movies and feeling miserable. Nothing like being sick on vacation, in a public place, with no kitchen and no private bathroom. I was also supposed to travel to Porto that day for two nights, but I canceled it. What's the point of being sick in a new, more foreign place? So I never made it to Porto. Fortunately, I felt much better the next morning! Lisbon is hilly as fuck. My legs hurt so damn much when I was sick - that achey feeling when you are really ill but exacerbated by serious normal-soreness from walking up and down hills all day. They kept this church as a partial ruin to remind everybody about the earthquake. It was a pretty big deal in Lisbon's history. Lunch in Bélem - grilled sardines. I heard they were not quite in season, but who cares? I'm a tourist. Bélem also is home to the famous Pasteles de Nata, which are amazing little custard tarts. In Bélem, they crank out something like 20k/day, so they are hot out of the oven when you eat them and so, so tasty. Bélem is also home to the Jerónimos Monastery, a pretty seriously awesome-looking courtyard thing. I went home and forced another nap because I was hanging around 75%. And then managed to get it up enough to go on a Fado night with other folks from the hostel. It was nice enough, but, as normally happens when I attempt to experience the "local music", I was pretty bored. Fado is lovely but old-school. My hostel, Travelers' Hostel, had a really interesting mix of folks. A fair amount of party people, as is common with all hostels, but a number of folks my age and even some legit older folks. It's always nice to find a hostel that is catering to all types and not just the free-shots-bar-crawl crowd. The next day, I went to the Oceanarium. I've been on a bit of an octopus kick lately after reading Soul of an Octopus. I like to travel alone expressly for this reason: I can go do something stupid like visit the aquarium. It's what I felt like doing, and so I did it. There were fishes. It was lovely. I had heard all about hipster-haven Lx Factory but it was all sit-down restaurants and I just wasn't feeling it. That evening I had the most amazing dinner. I declare crab to be the perfect solo fancy dinner choice. First, it's super-delicious. Which is great for times when you are dining with others as well. But crab also takes forever to eat. One can enjoy the ambiance, while having something to focus your attention on. I happened to be sitting in front of the crab tank and the little guys watched me eat my meal. I actually saw this bugger get scooped out of the tank, which I admit did give me the teeniest, tiniest pause. But then this meal arrived and I just dived in. Eating this made me deliriously happy (plus two glasses of wine). A little extra strolling the morning before my flight, and that was that! I really enjoyed Portugal and I'm sure I'll be back, hopefully with fewer viruses brewing in me.
We left off in the desert, so that's where we'll have to start the second half of my photos from Morocco. George and I got up before dawn, climbed to the top of the dune and watched the sun rise with a menagerie of folks from all over the world. Then we hopped on our camels and marched back to civilization. We had two more days with Youssef and Omar, who drove us all the way around the dunes (they are only 26km long). We visited a kohl mine, an abandoned mining town, a village populated by "black Africans" and also had tea with a nomad family. Not gonna lie, the tea thing was really weird. We rolled up to this homestead with just a big family tent and a cooking fire. And then we ... went in and the lady made us some tea and we had a little chat. Omar said our host was his cousin and they all chatted in Berber for a while and George and I tried not to act like we were rich white westerners. It was uncomfortable for us but also fascinating to see how a nomad family lives. We were able to ask questions (translated by Youssef). For instance, the family moves every three months or so. It takes several hours by donkey to get to town to buy food and necessities. One of the coolest things we saw was this abandoned mining town. Back in the day, there were around 200 kohl miners at this site, but operations at the mine have slowed way down and now just a handful of workers are needed. These buildings, made from the surrounding materials, are slowly fading back into earth. Youssef's grandfather worked in the mine and his great-grandmother is buried at the small cemetery nearby. One of hundreds of "panoramic views" we saw along the drive. We had an early day and we spent most of it just relaxing. George was in his sick phase during this time, so he enjoyed the ability to sleep and hang out in bed. I spent most of the night attempting to download the Sense8 Christmas special, which never did finish loading. Eventually we gave up. The road to Fes was mostly uneventful, except for a quick stop in the mountains to meet these monkeys! They were incredibly polite for "tourist" monkeys. They would just hang out til you handed them a peanut or an orange. And then we were in Fes! After the relative peace of the countryside and leaving the safety of our guides, we weren't quite sure what to expect in Fes. We steeled ourselves for Marrakech #2 (and we had been told that Fes is even worse than Marrakech) but actually, we loved Fes. That is probably 80% thanks to our amazing Airbnb hosts, Mohammed and Micaela. They own a little shop in the henna souk, which we visited several times. First to say hi and later to pick up provisions for the hammam. Each time Mohammed tried to load us up with soaps and incense and other goodies. They also invited us to have dinner in their home with an Italian couple. He was doing an anthropology research project on the "sounds of Morocco", which is pretty cool. Morocco feels really traditional in many ways. Here's a street vendor. There are street vendors for tons of things: produce, candy, drinks, dairy, snails, everything. Some had carts and others would move things around on donkey. It was orange season, so there were oranges everywhere. High above the rooftops of Fes. The "blue gate", the other side of which is blue. I feel like I've run out of things to say about these beautiful zellij decorations at the old Muslim schools. One of Fes' most famous attractions are the tanneries. We managed not to make it to the most famous (Chouara) but we did go up to one of the leather stores' balconies to see the smaller set nearer our riad. These pits contain nasty things like pigeon droppings and chemical stuff, and workers stand in them all day, working the leather with their legs. When the leathers are done being treated, they are hung from the rafters you see to the right and lower left where they dry in the sun. The next day, they'll get a new treatment. It takes 2-3 months for a single piece of leather to be ready to be made into something. The fact is if you want to see the tanneries, you have to go into a leather shop and ask to go upstairs. Then when you come back down, you are basically required to buy a piece of leather. We dropped some serious coin in this leather shop, but George is happy with his things, so it's all good. It was really neat to be able to see the production. This is the henna souk where our host had his little shop. One of our most enjoyable days was a cooking class we took at the Clock Cafe. It was a full day of talking about food, eating, shopping and generally making merry. Our instructor was one of the most cheerful people I've ever met. First, we hit up the market to buy some provisions. George volunteered to kill the chicken, but it was all just a trick - in the end, he just handed the thing back over. Most of the time, I was too shy and afraid to bring my big camera out to photograph in the souks (though I saw plenty of people walking around with those things just swinging from their necks, so probably no big deal). But as part of a big group of folks, it felt fine. We cooked and ate and laughed all day, then I met up with a lovely Finnish girl who was willing to go to the hammam with me. It was a very interesting experience. First, we did everything wrong and the ladies had to keep correcting us. The wrong bowls, bringing too many products, then too much product, wearing a top, splashing around. Eventually, we managed to more or less bathe. We were in Fes for five days, which is lots but not long enough to feel like you've seen everything. One day, we headed over to Meknes and Volubilis, which is skippable. I did, however, enjoy this mosaic of a dead bird and another that's about to get it. And that was Fes! We hopped on a four hour bus ride through the mountains and wound up in Chefchaouen, the "blue city." As you can see, it's one of the most atmospheric and beautiful places I've been. For reasons that are under significant dispute, the town has been painting its walls blue for quite a long time. Up until something like 100 years ago, there had never been any Christians in town - they were not allowed to visit. Somewhat recently this law was removed and now there are significant numbers of tourists. Still, it felt much more calm in this town and we could mostly just walk around and not feel harassed. We had a day and a half in Chefchaoen (even though it looks like more because I am posting so many photos). We walked up to the Spanish Mosque in the morning. There were lots of cats everywhere but the ones in this town actually looked pretty healthy. I wanted to see Rabat, but our plans only allowed for a stopover on the way between Chefchaouen and Casablanca. But it really worked out because Rabat gave us a solid six hours of entertainment. First, we saw the ocean. And then the Hassan Mosque, with its lovely, giant ruins and also the crypt of ... some guy who died not that long ago. And when I say crypt, I really mean an explosion of gold and zellij and decoration. Chellah, ruins in the middle of a lush garden. A short train ride later and we were in Casablanca for our last day. Our adorable host was this little old French woman who spoke only a few words of English. I pulled out my years-ago Duolingo French and we managed a complete conversation... sort of. In any case, we ended up having an enormous apartment all to ourselves, which was just great. And we also saw the Hassan II Mosque, which is the main thing to do in Casablanca. It is the largest in Morocco but only the 13th largest in the world. And I can tell you: it is really freakin' big. George attempting to go walk out to the water, but the rocks were too slippery. And that is a wrap on Morocco! I had a bunch of tips in my previous blog post about ways to enjoy yourself in Morocco, so check out the end of that guy if you're looking for some advice. Otherwise, clearly, you should make plans to go. It was challenging, rewarding, reasonably tasty, and an undeniable feast for the eyes.
In December, George and I packed our bags and hopped a plane to ... Africa! It was a whole new continent for both of us, the first Muslim country, and the first time George had traveled outside of the U.S. / Europe. More than any other trip we've taken, this one was uncomfortable and challenging. There were large cultural barriers, and we experienced for the first time what it's like to be a minority - incredibly visible, targeted, noticed. It took some getting used to, but Morocco was an amazing country to experience. My overwhelming visual impression of Morocco is one of color. I typically take a lot of "street" style pictures and convert a lot of them into black and white. You'll find little of that in these posts. This is both because the locals are not cool with having their photo taken and because everything is so damn colorful. Each city seemed to have a signature color - red in Marrakech, blue in Chefchaouen, yellow in Fez and burnt clay in the desert. The towns in the countryside rise up from their terrain organically and it's easy to miss them in the landscape. Morocco is a singularly beautiful place. And one more note before I jump in: go to Morocco. I am not trying to gloss over all the problems and awkwardness and hassle, but it's worth it. We came for two weeks and could have spent longer. Our trip took us Marrakech - Merzouga - Fez - Chefchaouen - Rabat - Casablanca. With more time, we could have gone north to Tangier and south to Agadir. That said, we were tired when this trip was over and reluctantly ready to go back home. We've had a mildish winter here in Gothenburg, but it's been wintering since mid-September. That's a whole lot of cold weather to contend with. We left before the winter solstice, so the days were still on their way to shorter. Already, six weeks later, you can feel the change as more sunlight creeps into the early evening. But when we got off that plane to sunny skies and 20*C, it felt pretty damn good. The airport and the airport shuttle were uneventful, but as soon as we stopped off the bus with our bags and headed into the medina (old town), we were assaulted both by sights (donkey carts!) and smells (snails!) but also a half-dozen young men who kept shouting at us about directions. We unfortunately had a bit of a tough time finding our riad, so we did eventually break down and pay someone to lead us there. This walking-around-being-pestered would be a constant during our trip. Once we tucked our bags away and enjoyed a moment in our beautiful riad, we thought things might get better back on the street. We were mostly wrong. One really can't just walk around Marrakech and expect to wander and enjoy. It's loud and there are motorcycles driving past and every five seconds someone will yell "Square!" at you or offer to take you elsewhere. Coming from a place where one can walk about mostly unharrassed, it was a really big shock for us. We ducked into the Badhi Palace to escape the streets, but got kicked out just a few minutes later. Everyone - guidebooks, internet - talks about how great Jemaa El Fna (the main square) is at night. We decided to try it. But just a few minutes after arriving, we (being polite Westerners and all) got suckered into a small chat with a lady who grabbed my hand and started putting henna on it. Then they extorted us out of $40. We went back to the hotel in a bit of a daze (and in considerable social discomfort) and regrouped. We needed to toughen up and not be the wimpy Westerners who are polite at all costs and avoid confrontation. One great thing about Marrakech was our lovely riad, the Riad Le Coq Fou. Don't bother googling - they don't have a website (a pattern I saw all over Morocco). All the hotels and things use booking.com - just go with it. We saw this cat on a later day get into a legit knock-down-drag-out with another feline and got his little face all bloodied. Life is hard for the street cat. The second day we hired a guide to walk us around. It was a more or less enjoyable experience, and the street hustlers definitely gave us more width when we were with a guide. Unfortunately, he did take us "shopping" a bunch and we sat through a number of awkward demonstrations before we said "yeah, we're not going to buy anything." On a related note: what do these people do with the rugs? They don't fit in luggage - do they ship them? Everywhere we went, people were trying to get us to buy carpets. We did, of course, eventually purchase a carpet, but a tiny one that could fit in our luggage. Our guide also happened to be a celebrity guide. Among other names he dropped, he said he gave a tour to Ed Norton. "I don't believe you," I said, at which point he whipped out his cellphone and showed me a picture of him and Edward Norton. So, there you go. We got the celebrity tour guide. But we still had to go through the song-and-dance about buying (and not buying) rugs. One of the highlights of the tour was a trip to the Ben Youssef Medersa - a truly stunning 13th century religious school. We saw a whole bunch of medersas while we were there, but I think the first was the best. Leatherworking is a big deal in Morocco - mostly goat leather. Artisans leave their hides drying all over town, wherever they can get a square of sunlight. These small pieces were lined up next to the big mosque by us (Ben Youssef). The best thing the tour guide showed us were the communal facilities for the neighborhood. Morocco's medinas look about the same as I imagine they did 400 years ago. They are tight, cramped, busy, and everyone knows everyone else. People actually live in these historic cities - unlike parts of Europe where they are "preserved" and a show for tourists. Our guide told us every neighborhood has: a mosque, a hammam (bath house), a food market, and a bakery. Throughout our trip, we would see children walking down the street with either loaves of dough or loaves of bread. They were taking them to the communal bakery. You drop off your stuff and come back a few hours later to pick it up. We also saw the furnace operator for the hammam. They might not all be powered this way, but the one we saw was coal powered, just like way on back in the day. The furnace guy also accepted some change to heat up the community's tanjias - big clay pots filled with stews. He's the slow-cooker for the entire neighborhood. I find this community fascinating and it feels like something from the past - something Europe used to do but lost. It didn't feel safe to take pictures inside the souks (market streets), so you'll have to settle for this overview of an open square. It was exhausting walking around the streets (because you were being harassed constantly) so we spent a considerable portion of the afternoon in a cafe after our tour. On our last day in Marrakech (of 3), we walked across town to the Saadian Tombs, incredibly beautiful burial places for important kings of the past. The Koutoubia Mosque is the symbol of Marrakech and visible from most everywhere in the city (once you get up high enough). We were thrilled to be getting out of Marrakech and into the countryside, but also nervous about the next step: a private four-day excursion into the desert. (We used Sahara 4x4 and they were great - happy to give more contact info). You may be thinking that it would be uncomfortable to drive around for four days with two complete strangers in a car. It was! But it was also great and the guys were more or less cool. And so we headed into the Atlas Mountains. The Moroccan countryside is so beautiful - the little towns look like they were meant to be there. There is also an amazing diversity in such a small(ish) geographical area - we saw something like 15 distinct biomes. Animals are much more integrated into Moroccans' day-to-day lives than I'm used to seeing. Many families had sheep or chickens and there are tons of donkeys in the medinas - used the way one would have a truck for deliveries in a place with wider streets. The first day was mostly just driving and stopping at little places - an argan oil collective, mountain views ("Now we stop for a panoramic view," our guide Youssef would say something like 10 times a day) but then we came to the Aït Ben Haddou - a fortress in the the middle of the desert. It's so cool-looking they film a bunch of movies at it (like Gladiator). If the photographers who read my blog notice my inability to keep the white balance consistent, you'll just have to deal. It was way red all over the place and the colors changed so much depending on the sun. I took the opportunity to grab a photo of some souk-like action while there weren't people looking like they'd shout for us to give them money if I brought out my camera. We continued on a bit further into the Dades Gorge... And finally arrived at our beautiful estate-like hotel for the night. This area reminded me a lot of the American southwest - red, red rocks and amazing geological features. In the morning, we got back in the car and hit some more panoramic views. I love that this hotel felt the need to spray-paint "Hotel" on itself. More driving, then we were at yet another gorge: the Todra Gorge, and the oases that spill out of it. It was warmer than Sweden, but it still wasn't that warm. Most days were hanging around 12-15*C. Our guide Youssef. We basically lived in this car for four days. Then we drove and drove and finally arrived in Merzouga, which is pretty damn close to Algeria. We had made it all the way across the country. And the reason? 95% to ride camels and sleep in the desert. It was fucking unbelievable, as you are about to see. Youssef seemed to enjoy stealing my camera for a bit and took a ton of photos of us getting onto the camels. Safely ensconced on these bizarre animals, we took off into the dunes. What follows are a thousand photos of Erg Chebbi, the westernmost part of the Sahara and the only "real" desert I've yet to set eyes on. The landscape was surreal and incredibly beautiful and very hard to white-balance. When I was in Israel (a time before I had a "real" blog or was very much interested in photography so no link), I slept in "tents" in the desert. This was nothing like that. These were luxury tourist pods - complete with electricity and running water and a two-course meal and also a full-size bed on a frame. It was hardly "sleeping in a tent" but we did get to spend the night in the desert and sit around a campfire and look at the stars. We woke up butt-early to scramble up the highest nearby dune and watch the sun rise. There were tourist pods scattered all over the landscape. They all looked about the same, so I don't think we were ever going to get a real "nomad" experience in this ride-camels-sleep-in-the-desert thing. This is George "sandboarding" down the dune. And that is a wrap on the first part of our trip! I'm hoping to bust blog #2 out of the doors in the next couple days before I forget everything we saw and did. In the meantime, on the plane home I made a list of travel tips for Morocco. In case you're pondering a trip, here they are: