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  • Coming Home

    Standing near the door in our Essaouira apartment, visibly ill and exhausted, W asked half-jokingly, “Whose idea was it to spend the last 5 nights of our trip in 4 different cities?”  I smile-winced and sighed.  Truth is I don’t know, and I don’t think either of us realized the plan until it was upon us.

    Our long journey home from Morocco to Hawaii started in Essaouira with a bus ride to and night in Marrakech, followed by a morning train to Casablanca and flight to Istanbul where we arrived at 2am and slept that night and the next, then flew to LA and spent our 16 hour overnight layover with W’s cousin and his family.  We arrived home midday on Monday, December 16th, two months after we departed and just in time for the holiday madness.  

    A few memorable moments on our first day home:

    - First stop: Chubby.  Obviously!  To my dismay he ran right by me.  Probably because he didn’t recognize me in boots and glasses...and my back was facing him.  I'll give him that.  I was heartbroken, but he quickly turned around and mauled me.  And life was good again.

    - I opened my closet and thought, damn, I actually have to choose what to wear.  I’d gotten used to alternating between 3 outfits in my carry-on during the last few weeks of our trip.  My closet now overwhelms me.  (And I swear it’s not very big.)

    - W paused in front of the sink about to brush his teeth and said, “Look!  Look!  Look!”  I looked.  He grinned widely and rinsed his mouth straight from the tap.  

    Oh the little things.

    It was an amazing adventure.  And it feels great to be home.  

  • Goats in a Tree

    Yes, those are goats.  In a tree.  No big deal. 

    I have a habit of taking photos from moving vehicles wherever the landscape is particularly unique, or whenever donkeys are present.  I'll admit I have more photos (and attempted photos) of Moroccan donkeys than I care to share.  This shot was made possible thanks to donkey in the blue.  Yep, I was aiming for him.  (I learned to zone focus and preemptively shoot the donkey whilst traveling 50+ mph or I'd miss him.  This often led to fuzzy shots and interesting composition.)  Immediately after pressing the shutter, I did a double take at the rapidly shrinking tree.  There were white things in it.  I looked at the preview on my camera...they looked like...goats.  Goats! 

    I remembered reading about goats in trees somewhere but I didn't realize they were in Morocco, and more specifically in the Essaouira region where we stayed twice for over two weeks!  If I'd known this, I would have figured out how to find them and STOP - even if it meant renting a car and driving myself.  Unfortunately, I was on a bus and we were embarking on our long journey home.  No bazillion photos of goats in trees for me.  Sadface.

    These are Argan trees, which grow exclusively in the Essaouira/Agadir region of Morocco and nowhere else.  In the world.  Traditionally, Berbers collected the undigested Argan pits from the waste of goats that climbed the trees to eat the fruit.  The pits were ground and pressed to extract Argan oil.  Modern technology and high demand has led to the commercialization of Argan oil production using machines that process the fruit straight off the tree.  I am happy to report that it appears the traditional method lives on!  I hope someone is planning to make delicious amlou from these goats' excrement.  You can read about our experience at an Argan oil cooperative.

    I spent the remaining two hours scanning for more goat-filled trees.  I found one more - the photo is fuzzy because they were further away, and like I said I was zone focusing from the back of a moving bus.  But still.  Pretty freaking cool.

    Essaouira, Morocco

  • Sandboarding the Sahara with Bob Marley and Shakira

    Waking up each morning to a view of the Sahara Desert was incredible.  Riding a board down the desert dunes was even more spectacular - a fun and exhausting ending to our week-long stay in Merzouga.

    I was excited to hang out with Bob Marley again, but Jimi Hendrix was busy so W rode Shakira.  She's a feisty one that loves to dance!  Seriously, W nearly fell off when she started prancing around while he was holding his camera instead of the handle bar.  Our funny guide Hamid (who also took us camping) tied Shakira closer to Bob after her dance routine, but she didn’t appreciate that so she undid the knot with her teeth.  So talented, that Shakira.

    Sandboarding is a workout.  Not the boarding part, but the ascent with boots and board.  Climbing up steep sand is basically one foot up, half a foot down.  More exercise than I’ve gotten since we left home a month and a half ago.

    I’ve only snowboarded once, nearly a decade ago, and W has never been, so we were a little nervous.  We would have gratefully accepted guidance, but Hamid handed us the snowboard and boots, pointed to the high dune, and walked away to lie in the shade and laugh at us.  W, ever the gentleman, insisted on “ladies first.”  I would have protested but this was my idea so up I climbed.  And climbed.  And climbed.  It felt like the never-ending Bowie stairs scene in The Labyrinth.  I ended up dragging the board behind me.  

    The view from the top was significantly more terrifying.  I tried to remember that one snowboarding lesson from my brother…mostly I just remembered my thighs killing me afterward.  It was something like zigzag on the back rail facing downhill and whatever you do, don’t catch the front rail.  I sat down, emptied sand from the boots, and laughed as I tied the laces because my toes stopped somewhere in the middle of the boot.  At least the board happened to be set up for goofy footers - great for me, not so much for W.  

    It isn’t the easiest to communicate here in Berber/Arabic/French/English, and I had no idea what to expect after I asked our lovely B&B host about a camel trek to sandboard.  The words I pulled from his response were: two camels, board, two-thirty.  There was no “what’s your shoe size” or “which way do you ride?”  As we headed into the dunes Bob and I had the board and I didn’t see any boots.  I envisioned attaching the board to our shoes and it seemed like an excellent way to snap our tibiae.  Fortunately, Shakira was hiding the boots in her saddle bags, and somehow they "fit" both of us.

    I stood up.  Looking down, I had no idea what to do or how to begin.  I thought, man, we should have youtubed sandboarding videos.  Too late.  I tried the zig-zag method but every few feet the sand covered the board and stopped me.  Again and again.  Eventually I tried going straight down - it was scary but far more effective.

    We took turns climbing, flailing, sometimes boarding, mostly laughing.  I could hear Hamid cackling joyfully from the neighboring camp whenever I got a face full of sand, which made falling all the more entertaining.  Finally too exhausted for another climb, we headed over to the camp where Hamid prepared us “whiskey Berber” - delicious mint tea.  Halfway back to the B&B we stopped to play drums and watch the sun fade behind the distant mountains.  Such a great day. 



    Erg Chebbi, Morocco

    For more photos: sandboarding the sahara desert

  • A Moroccan Thanksgiving

    We tried to plan our Sahara Desert/camel trek/camping tour around Thanksgiving.  I thought it would be oh so memorable to spend Thanksgiving riding camels, eating traditional Berber food, stargazing and sleeping in a camel hair nomad tent.  W’s work schedule thought otherwise, so we planned to begin our move east on Thanksgiving morning, spend the night in a small village in southern Morocco, arrive at the edge of the Sahara on Friday evening, and camp in the desert on Saturday night. 

    Our guide (whose name I will not mention because I’m focusing on the positives) picked us up on Thursday morning and we began the drive from Essaouira to Ait Benhaddou through the Middle and High Atlas mountains.  It was a long day of driving for us spoiled island kids used to car rides of 30 minutes or less, but there were a few memorable stops along the way. 

    After inching through the crowded streets of Marrakech, we pulled over on the side of the road overlooking a Berber village in the Middle Atlas.  A group of young Berber boys looked like they were walking home from school.  Children come from different villages to attend school and there are often groups of nomadic families passing through.  The older boys were friendly and curious while the younger ones were shy and hung back.  They watched me take photos of the mountains and were interested in my camera so we motioned for them to come into a shot with us.  They were excited to the see the results and crowded around the back of my camera.  We really like the photo…it’s us with our stand-in family on Thanksgiving.

    After lunch we stopped at an argan oil cooperative where local women hand-peel and grind argan nuts to produce oil used for cosmetic and culinary purposes.  It was interesting to learn about the process and the women invited me to try their grinder - it takes some muscle!  Although the attached store was touristy and most likely overpriced, we felt good about buying a few products because the cooperatives provide jobs and greater autonomy to women in Morocco’s male-dominated society.

    We arrived in Ait Benhaddou shortly after sunset and took a stroll around the dark village to pass time before dinner.  As we walked into the hotel dining room W looked over at a large group and said, “I think they’re American.”  I asked, “why?” just as I spied the giveaway - a large pop-up paper turkey gracing their table.  I am a fan of the ridiculous and this melted my heart.  I wanted a photo of the group with the turkey but was embarrassed to ask.  W convinced me to go over, and they insisted that I take it to our table for a photo.  It was silly and fun and nice to be around others celebrating, even though they were strangers.  I was surprised because we haven’t encountered many Americans in Morocco, or Turkey, and of the three groups dining that evening, ourselves included, all had American representatives.  There were “Happy Thanksgiving!” cheers from the other mostly Spanish-speaking group as we took our photo, and later a woman from that group walked across the room and asked to borrow the turkey for another photo op.

    We missed our families, the meal was one of the worst we’ve had and the hotel room was by far the scariest of this trip (we opted not to shower that evening), but it was another part of this incredible adventure and definitely a memorable Thanksgiving.  I have so much and so many people to be thankful for.  We were fine with spending Thanksgiving away because we’ll be back home with our families during the upcoming holidays.  Can’t wait to see them.

    Middle Atlas|High Atlas|Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

  • Bonjour, Morocco

    The short version of this long-ish post:

    • Logic does not always win, especially when you are attempting to use it interlingually.
    • Batman is a city in Turkey.  Its name is its sole point of interest.  
    • Residential voltage in Morocco is stronger (read: larger shock value) than in the US.
    • Camels are rad.
    • Even though it may appear to be an ideal receptacle, low to the ground and splash-free, its plumbing is more sink than toilet.  Thus I do not recommend puking in a bidet. 

    It was a bumpy start.

    A friend told us that traveling and living in Morocco is not easy.  We learned this country would be a challenge long before I held my breath as W tried to explain why he had a computer monitor in his suitcase to a non-English speaking customs official.

    A few days before the end of our stay in Istanbul we had ideas but no set plans as to what came next, other than our return flight from Istanbul to Honolulu five weeks later.  The itinerary that we painstakingly detailed - after countless searches on airfare aggregators and every regional airline based in Europe, Asia and Africa - was to fly to Cappadocia for four nights, back to Istanbul, on to Casablanca where we'd arrive at 3:15am, take an hour long train ride to the main station, another 4 hour ride to Marrakech, and a 3 hour bus ride to Essaouira.

    After looking at the arguably ridiculous journey required to get there, we decided it was worth undertaking and pressed the "purchase" button on Air Arabia's website.  In short, the credit card didn't work and we exhausted our options of phone calls for assistance and alternative credit cards.  Our last option was to find the Air Arabia office in Istanbul and pay cash.  We were out of a home in less than two days and had nothing set.  There aren't many flight options to get from Turkey to Morocco, and all of our other flights and accommodations were contingent on that specific midnight flight from Istanbul to Casablanca.

    I vividly remember W saying, "Are you sure you want to go to Morocco?  It's just really hard to get there…"  To which I lightheartedly replied, "Sometimes the best things are!"  A day into our Moroccan adventure I cringed thinking of that moment.  More on that later.  

    We spent the next hour ripping through Wikitravel sites on every place we could easily fly to from Istanbul.  We'd already played this game while searching regional airlines, and this was our final dice roll to find somewhere "better" than Morocco - at least more ideal on a sliding scale of how easy it was to get there versus how amazing it might be.  One of our earlier searches revealed a Turkish city named Batman.  It was clearly worth looking into, and under the "Do" section on Wikitravel it said: "One of the most popular things for tourists to do is taking pictures of things with the word Batman on them, such as the highway sign at the entrance of the city."  Solo bullet point.

    No place tipped the scale against Morocco, so we rushed to find the Air Arabia office before it closed.  I'm surprised my logic-centric boyfriend didn't explode during the hilariously ridiculous conversation that ensued.  The Air Arabia employee repeatedly stated that the company does not take American credit cards.  Only Visa.  W said that his was an American credit card, and the man said they do not take it.  W added that it is a Visa, and the man said, is it Visa, or is it American?  W said it is both, Visa is an American company.  Additional confused conversation followed, and W eventually showed the man his American Visa credit card.  I'm pretty sure the guy's mind was blown.  Alas, joke was on logic, and the card didn't work.  We paid in Turkish lira and crossed our fingers that our bags would pass the strict 20kg limit.

    Flash forward to yesterday, the day we arrived in Morocco.

    All things considered, the many legs of travel went smoothly.  We were en route for 24 hours between leaving our amazing cave house B&B in Cappadocia and arriving at the riad in Essaouira.  The riad was lovely, at first glance.  The colorful tiles and open courtyard between all three floors created an airy, authentically Moroccan feel.  It was located in the medina, but the balcony looked out over the medina's fortress wall to the ocean.  Unfortunately, a few minor issues added up to us leaving.  The wifi (W needs this for work) only worked on the patio, when it worked at all.  All rooms opened to the outside air, which might be nice during warmer months but was very chilly in November.  There was no heat, except for the poorly wired space heater that gave me a scary shock.  To bathe you had to sit in the tub and hold the shower hose because there was no stand and no curtain, just a tub and a hose.  This wouldn't be so bad if the bathroom didn't have a giant open window into the bedroom, which led outside, so you were basically shivering as you crouched holding water above your head.  I feel guilty complaining about such minor annoyances, but I really hate being cold all the time with no way of warming up.  I didn't pack for that.  And W REALLY hates inconsistent internet when he's trying to work.  We had planned to be there for at least eight nights, but decided to move after the second.

    The medina itself was interesting and beautiful, but far more touristy than I expected.  We chose Essaouira because I read that it was a sleepy fishing village with a seaside fortress and a nearly ghost-town vibe.  We were constantly bombarded by vendors on the dirty, narrow, high-walled, maze-like streets of the medina, with people trying to guess what language we spoke.  I got a few "Hello Japans" and "konnichiwas," which made me laugh and was at least more ethnically accurate than the Turkish restauranteur who yelled "Kazakhstan!" at me as I walked by.  Twice.    

    I love taking photos.  Obviously.  The most disheartening part of the first day and a half there was that I didn't feel comfortable shooting.  I read that Moroccans in particular do not like being photographed, so I figured I would focus on landscapes, architecture and scenes, subjects that I love to shoot anyway.  But in the medina everything is in such close quarters and there are people bombarding you from every angle, so it's hard to take a shot of a street or building or store without potentially offending someone.  Being hassled as you walk by restaurants and stores is expected in many areas, but feeling like you can never get away is overwhelming.  It seemed we were usually rushing to avoid being badgered, and either trying to find food or find our way back to the riad.  I rarely pulled out my camera.       

    This morning, our second here, I woke before sunrise and decided to explore on my own, hoping to get a feel for the town while most people were still wiping the sleep from their eyes.  I'm so glad I willed myself out of bed because it completely refreshed my outlook on Essaouira.  The streets were empty, the air was crisp and clean, and the morning light was soft and friendly.  I wandered over to the water and watched fishermen collecting their nets, then down to the pier where men sat exchanging stories.  I couldn't tell if they were preparing to leave on boats or had just returned, or if this was a daily ritual.  It watched men building a large wooden ship.  It was fascinating and I stood there for a while, occasionally taking photos, until one man looked at me and waved.  I was unclear whether he meant "hello" or "leave," so I smiled, waved, and walked away.  I told W about the ship building later and he was amazed that people still build wooden ships.  I didn't realize it was so unique.   

    Sure, I got sworn at for shooting a man's silhouette from afar as he walked through the open square, backlit by the low morning sun.  And my hands required a good scrub after I climbed the short fortress wall where seagulls made their home (and bathroom).  But nothing phased me - I was so excited to shoot freely again.

    We moved to a comfortable apartment outside the medina, halfway down the expansive beach.  I forgot to mention the other reason we chose Essaouira - I wanted to surf.  I walked down to scope out the waves and inquire about renting a board.  Essaouira beach is incredible - a fairly consistent mixture of sand, dirt, trash, horse and camel poop, bundled together with an interesting smell.  I'm not being sarcastic - it's beautiful.  I learned long ago not to compare beaches elsewhere in the world to ones back home.  It's silly and dangerous - the unfortunate outcome being that you probably won't travel, at least not to anywhere on a coast.  

    The camels were exquisite and I drank in the sight of an ocean that I could finally jump into.  I planned to surf the next afternoon and was pretty high on life when I returned to our new temporary home.  I lavished in a luxurious hot shower - standing, with a shower head that I didn't have to hold - and basked in glorious steam made possible by an enclosed bathroom.  About 30 minutes later I threw up, perhaps because I ingested shower water even though I spat every 10 seconds.  Still, I'm counting today as an excellent day.

    Essaouira, Morocco

    Photo gallery coming soon.

  • First Surf in Africa

    I went surfing!  In Morocco!  It was every bit as frigid, fun and fantastic as I imagined it would be.

    I woke that morning to disappointingly dreary conditions.  It looked like a repeat of the previous day - rain, wind and no surf.  Sometime around noon, everything changed.  Sunshine, blue skies, no wind, and...I ran to our roof to check...WAVES!  Nothing huge, but I prefer small waves anyway.

    I rented a board from the nice guys at YouSurf Essaouira.  100 Moroccan dirhams (about 12 USD) for 2 hours, wetsuit included - not bad.  The equally nice lads next door at Explora had more expensive half-day prices, which made my decision between companies easy.

    I paddled out to a break no one was surfing, about 100 feet from a group of guys.  I caught a few fun closeouts then walked further down the beach past the last crowded spot and watched the waves for a bit.  Two guys walked past me and paddled out to the empty break that I wanted to check out but was hesitant to try alone.  I think I'm less brave (or less naive) now than I was a decade ago when I traveled solo through New Zealand and didn't think twice about paddling out alone.  I was excited they chose that spot and made my way over.  The guys were friendly French Alps residents on a surf holiday.  They had just come from Taghazout and Imsouane, surf towns south of here where I've looked into staying.  Wifi seems hard to come by, so we shall see.  I keep reminding myself that this is a working vacation, not a surf trip, but it's hard to forget the fantastic spots that people keep talking about!

    I paddled in just before sunset, reasonably numb, rinsed in cold water and changed in the wet, sandy locker room lit only by an east-facing window - as in, basically useless at that time of day.  I walked out still shivering and was met with the most magnificent orange half-fireball hovering above the horizon.  I kicked myself for telling W to take the camera home because I wasn't sure what the locker situation would be like.  Watching the sun fade below the water line, I briefly forgot how cold I was.  Another excellent day. 

    W captured these photos of me heading to the water past my camel pals.

    This was my second surf - it was smaller but just as fun.  W met me at sunset to escort me home for safety reasons.  I like the silhouettes with camel poop glistening in the foreground. 

    My friend Boujemaa (left) and his friend.  Love their retro boards, especially Boujemaa's windsurfing board that he rides as a surfboard.

    Essaouira, Morocco