- Get small change. You'll need it for the bathroom, tipping, giving to people on the street.
Category Archives: Street
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:
My traveling continues on! I've been so lucky this year to be able to go to so many new and exciting places. I'm even planning a trip (finally) to Stockholm at the moment. People can stop looking at me funny when I admit I've never been to the only city they can name in Sweden. Berlin and Dresden were both amazing cities and I'd gladly go back. Berlin in particular has so much going on. I was there for six days and I could have stayed double, triple that and still have been missing out. Berlin is also the only place I've ever stayed where the other people at the hostel seemed to be staying an appropriate amount of time. It might also have been the nature of the hostel I stayed at, a hippie commune of sorts. Typically, I'd see my roommates change every single night in a constant churn of new tourists, hopping into Prague, Budapest, London for two nights, max, and partying deep into the night and sleeping all day. People in Berlin came to party but they also stayed long enough to see some freakin' stuff too. I started the trip in Dresden because that seemed to make the most sense. A flight to Berlin is 50 minutes (you are so jealous!) but the damn train was 4 hours. I messed up - I should have taken the bus. Alas, you live and you learn. The first day it rained and rained. I was supposed to go hiking (spoilers: I made it, see above) but had to flip things around. I read Rick Steves and saw the things. You know Dresden from Slaughterhouse Five (by the outstanding Kurt Vonnegut) and you probably know it was fire-bombed to the ground. But they built it back up like lots of other people have done and now you can wander around lots of reconstructed pretty bits. Interesting note for ceramicists, this super-detailed and beautiful wall is made of tile, so it survived the fire-bombing, while everything else burned up. Yay for ceramics...? I couldn't tell if this was a piece of art or just a regular fire escape. It's important to be able to get your ciggies without delay. (To be fair, this machine was dead, but I saw lots of others around town that weren't attached to abandoned buildings.) In case you need to squint, it says Edward-Snowden-Platz. The next day, I hopped on a train to the Saxon Switzerland National Park to do some "hiking" (read: moderate walking in the woods + views). From the train: This little fucking village on the Elbe was adorable and I had to take a ferry across the river. It was so calm and peaceful and beautiful. And then it was straight uphill for about a half hour to the top of the "mountain" and this baller bridge that was constructed specifically for tourists to hike to. So nice I even asked a German lady to take my photo and she got it in focus! It's a German miracle. So what happened is I was very pleased with the views and the frosty beer I had at the snack bar up top (oh yeah, isn't it great when you get to the top of a "mountain" and realize you could have taken a bus?), but I wanted more walking and couldn't jive taking a train trip and everything just to do an hour of there-and-back sightseeing. So I took a random trail and just kept going when it went downhill. And then it went downhill more and more and more and all the way down the damn mountain. Luckily, I popped out 15 minutes and an extremely pleasant river stroll back to where I started. Thanks, tiny adorable German town! Later that day, I hopped a bus back to Berlin and arrived safe and sound at my hostel, where no one was giving two shits about the Germany game. So I watched it myself and went to bed early, because that's my way. The next day, another walking tour, another rainy day. I put myself on a grueling rainy six-hour walking tour of Berlin, but it was a good introduction to the city. We also went inside this super weird old dance hall with legit behind-the-Wall atmosphere. And this banging ratty old couch. We saw "Museum Island" where all the old museums and the Cathedral are. And there's the famous TV Tower at Alexanderplatz in the background. This was a very impressive statue and that's why I've included this crappy snapshot of it. Checkpoint Charlie, which at this point is 100% tourist bullshit. There used to be a checkpoint here where people could move between East and West Berlin. By the way, I learned all about that and it was mad fascinating and you should learn about it too, if you are in Berlin or have a chance. I've learned so much about the War and the Communist era since coming to Sweden - it's fascinating! The almost unfortunately visually-appealing Monument to the Murdered Jews of the Holocaust. So many idiots were doing disrespectful and just absurd things at this holocaust memorial: taking goofy selfies, posing like fashion models. I stumbled across this really cool little area in Friedrichshain called RAW. It's got mad graffiti everywhere. No idea what these ads are about but they were all over town with different characters. The East Side Gallery (in the rain, again). Creepy but totally banal German word (it means "the") floating over the city (and a big stretch of the Wall near the Topography of Terror). It's so weird to see where the Wall used to be. It just cuts through regular-looking neighborhoods and you can just imagine folks having to look at each other across the "death strip" - one side in capitalism and the other in communism. Now little bits of the wall just hang out in neighborhoods, like this one in front of an apartment building. The flea market on Sundays at Kreuzberg is so damn cool. There were buskers everywhere and people drinking (totally legal in Germany to drink whatever you want wherever you want). I bought a big beer and watched a drum troupe and wandered around looking at all the crap. It was a super-chill vibe. One of the coolest things I did was tour the Reichstag's dome. It is really damn tall and the audio guide points out all kinds of interesting things on the horizon, plus some German history and a little explanation of how their government works. The dome actually gathers sunlight through a complex mirror system and bounces it down into the main chamber so they have to spend less on lighting. Cool, right? The best I can do for you of the Brandenburg Gate, which was beset on all sides by Euro Cup paraphernalia (they broadcast on a huge screen behind the Gate. I tried to go but no backpacks allowed, womp womp.) Even better, though, you could sightsee from this bed. (wtf?) One of the coolest things I did while in Berlin was a Street Art Tour. I did a similarly named thing in Krakow but this was actual graffiti stuff - explanations of what the different marks mean, how respect works between street artists, etc. We got to see some "bombs" from 20 years ago. And then we got to make a little piece to take home, which was fun. Highly recommend! My guide was from Brooklyn, which brought out some crazy California West-side pride from me. Chester, the badass tour guide: "Where are you from, Amber?" Amber: "Cali." Amber: "Oh jeez, I just said Cali to you." This is from the German History Museum. I don't know who this guy is or anything, I just thought he looked awesome. And finally, soccer outside at RAW. I thought I would be watching this game in a quiet courtyard but I discovered the whole area was jam-packed with revelers. Germany crushed Northern Ireland but they weren't even that good at it, so it wasn't a great game to watch. Still, it's always fun to see such things around people who give a damn. And that's it! I thought Berlin was my last trip before the bootcamp but now it looks like I'm headed to Stockholm and - who are we kidding - I'll probably fit in a trip to somewhere closer in the free week I have before the bootcamp starts. That is also my way.
Hej, it's me - your