Belgium Under Bright Lights

Remember when I quit my job and bought a ticket to Spain in 2013? Where’d we leave off on that story of European adventures? Ah, yes. Ibiza & Paris.

It’s been three years since I existed in these photographs. Three years since I traveled to Belgium by myself. Three years since I met some of the closest people to my heart.

One thing I love about solo travel is that not only does it allow for self-exploration, but it also is how I’ve met the most incredible individuals. People always think that traveling alone has to be so lonely. And yes, sometimes, it can be. But it’s all in how you look at it. When you travel with a group of friends, you tend to stick with that group of friends. You talk among yourselves, go everywhere together, etc. However, when you are alone, it’s easier to be approached and more likely that you’ll approach others. Of course, this depends on whether or not you can put your fears (or pride) aside.

I can promise you right now that what stuck with me from this particular part of the trip is not the Renaissance architecture , the taste of chocolate, or the country itself, but the wonderful friends I made while exploring its cities.

Read my journal entries for yourself.

BELGIUM (BRUSSELS)

Tuesday September 10, 2013-  Here I am, about to board my flight to Brussels. I wish I would’ve booked this trip better. I still have to figure out what I will do when I get there, and pick which part of the country I am going to explore. I’m overwhelmed but so excited.

Okay, so I loved flying on Brussels airlines. They served a small roll with cheese and sauce, and orange juice, and a small chocolate. Loved it! Basically I just love food. Brussels airport was confusing. Ugh it was rough, but then even though my taxi ride was 60 euro, it was worth it because I had the sweetest old man as my driver and he showed me a lot of the sights of the city as we drove past. I checked into my hostel, a bunk bed in a private part of housing up the street that is just for females. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I charged my iPad a bit, researched some tours, and finally decided on Ghent and Bruges trip …took off on foot toward the city and of course it poured down rain. The map of Brussels I’d been given was awesome, really helpful. I went to see the Use It center and saw a girl with bright red hair and an infectious smile. It was there I made a friend- Radka.

She’s from Prague. We traveled in the heart of the city together and talked nonstop, she’s just lovely and so much better with direction than I am.

We set our sights on waffles- I mean, you can’t be in Belgium and NOT get them! Mine was tomato and ham and then with Belgian chocolate for dessert. (Yep- definitely got two. Told ya, I LOVE to eat.)

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We saw Manneken Pis ( a famous 1618  bronze statue of a little boy pissing into a fountain) which is pretty small in person. We took several funny pictures, walked on and stood in awe at the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and Royal Palace (official palace of the King and Queen). Stopped at Cafe Bizon, which reminded me of a small Irish pub, and I got Gueze Boon and Kriek Boon (hint of cherry flavor) and the easiest sour one to start with, Radka informed me.

It was so good to finally have some girl talk. We talked about relationships and travel, life and love, things we wanted to do in the future. And we laughed and laughed. It was hard not to be happy around her!

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I thought I was funny.

I was very tired at this point from a long day with little sleep. We decided to call it a night, and got cat called in Chinatown on the way back to our hostel. We laughed it off, but I think secretly pat ourselves on the back. We felt so alive and beautiful.

It was hard to say goodbye. Radka and I made possible plans for me to travel to Prague soon. I don’t know if it will work out, but I sincerely hope it does. She has been a blessing to have.

BELGIUM (BRUGES)

Wednesday September 11, 2013- I woke up early for my trip to Bruges. I  hurried to get ready, and grabbed a piece of bread with jam and called a cab to meet at a hotel for the departing spot. I was so late.  Luckily the receptionist called for me and I’m now on the bus, so stressful. Made a mental note to not let that happen again.

So I just met two people on the bus that became very dear to my heart very fast…Kathy and John from California. I can’t remember what got us talking, but once we did, we didn’t stop! They are incredibly kind people and I’m feeling very lucky that I chose this tour, so that our paths could cross. We started off in Ghent, which was a small and cute town.  We explored St. Bavo’s Cathedral when we got off the bus and then roamed as we pleased. It was pouring out and cold, so I tried to find some warmer clothes but they didn’t have too much, and it was more than I wanted to pay. [I started this trip off in June and in Spain, so I packed almost all summer clothes, with only a couple pairs of leggings and long sleeve shirts. At this point in my trip, I’m trying to be very careful about money, because I don’t know how things will work out or how long I’ll stay overseas.]

We also saw the Castle of the Counts of Flanders/Gravensteen Castle and drove through the countryside.

Upon arriving in Bruges, Kathy, John, and I walked the cobbled streets around one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever stepped foot in. We saw Minnewater (Lake of Love) and paused for some photographs. From there, we explored City Hall, the Market Square, and even more incredible sights.

We stopped to have lunch at a really nice restaurant…which normally I wouldn’t have done and stuck to my bread and Nutella sandwiches or got a cheap sandwich from a street vendor, but I technically did have the money and I really wanted to eat with them. We had cheese croquettes, beef stew in a beer sauce, and then chocolate mousse for dessert. It was the most I’ve treated myself on this trip. John got mussels and let me try some when he found out I’d never had them before. We had delicious white wine and shared fries.

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They reminded me so much of my parents back in the States who I missed so much, and I nearly broke down and cried when they insisted on paying for the bill…It was such an unexpected and kind gesture. They didn’t know how much it helped. They told me all about their children and how they met. Her daughter was getting married in two weeks so she bought a lace handkerchief for her and some chocolates…They took an interest in my life, asking about my travels and experiences, applauded the journey I was on. We devoured orange chocolate sticks and stopped for a beer since the weather was quite awful and we chose not to go on the boat in Bruges. The natural conversation and company more than made up for it! I’ve never felt so connected so instantly. Age didn’t make a difference, we felt like longtime friends. Kathy and I exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch. I miss them and the comfort of their presence already.

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Gloomy day, but still beautiful!

Thursday September 12- I showered this morning, packed up, checked out of the hostel and printed my boarding passes, then scarfed down breakfast. Headed out to find the Nord station and to the vintage shops, hoping to find some warmer clothes. One had everything for four euros and if I didn’t have to carry my luggage on my back and was the old me, I would have bought so many clothes. It’s funny how you realize you don’t need all these excess material things. The other was small but had a jackpot- an outdoor raincoat. The lady said she’d take it for 14 euros but I only had twelve on me and she gave it to me. I FINALLY HAVE A JACKET. This time, I did cry. I had something to wear in this rain and colder temperatures, but the kindness of strangers, and the friends that I have made here, have been the sunshine that’s been missing the past couple days. Somehow, I know I’ll be seeing them again soon.  I grabbed my luggage, feeling completely rejuvenated, and walked to the Nord train station, ready for whatever was next.

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Peru to Bolivia: Part II of II

The second half of my journey to South America. Follow me as I climb Machu Picchu and cross the border to Bolivia!

 

Where I left off: Leaving Ollantaytambo and taking PeruRail to Aguas Calientes.
In case you missed it, read the first half of this journey  here.

 

DAY 6. Tuesday, July 19– After 5 hours of sleep, I woke up to my alarm at 3:30 a.m., checked out of the hostel, grabbing a quick breakfast of bread, jam, and juice and hit the road. Literally. I was half asleep, just following the mass crowds until I realized I’m an idiot and they’re on the road to Machu Picchu to climb it and I am taking the bus.
For a second, I debated whether I should just continue on (since I’d already walked for almost a good 10 minutes) and hike up to the entrance instead, but I had already purchased my bus tickets, and I was unsure of how I’d feel hiking so much (especially ever since I got my pacemaker) so I decided to save my energy and legs for the top.
Therefore, by the time I turned back around, I didn’t get in line for the buses until 4:45 am. At this point, there was already a massive line, of course. Finally, around 6 a.m., we reached the entrance to Machu Picchu.
I took the advice of some friends I had made and went to the left upon entering the site. I wanted to get to Sun Gate and reach the top of the mountain first, then make my way down.  It was tough, as the temperature was slowly climbing. Most all parts didn’t have railing of any sort. The drop off was steep, and it was stones the whole way. Some slabs were made into steps. I reached the top of Machu Picchu and saw the sun start to come over the mountain.
Being able to witness it spread over the ruins like butter on toast was so neat. Got some great pictures and followed a tour for a bit, which was great since we switched on and off taking photos for each other. I went from the top, to Sun Gate, to more of the ruins- Inca bridge, Temple of the Sun, Temple of Condor, Main Square, etc. Although there was plenty to see, I still finished by 9:30 a.m. I had a granola bar, crackers, and some water and rested, soaking up the sun. I couldn’t believe I was here. These 700+ terraces, these mountain views, this peaceful and sacred feeling…
I decided in the end to walk down. I had the time to kill and was interested in seeing the hiking trail. Plus it was much easier going down than it would be coming up. My knees did hurt though because the gaps between the steps were uneven and quite large. It’s a lot of walking. It took me maybe 45 min. Was a nice walk for a change instead of taking the bus, even though I already paid for it. I felt, in some way, this was being respectful of the people. Ideally, I’d have loved to come in on the Inca trail, but seeing as I had only 9 days total in the country, that wasn’t an option as it takes at least four days.
Once I reached the bottom, I decided to walk further through Aguas Calientes. It’s certainly a small tourist town, but I hadn’t seen much of it at all, so decided to walk to the hot springs and into the main plaza. Stopped at one of the restaurants on the same street as my hostel, and had papa rellena. It’s pictured below- basically a baked potato dough with meat and vegetables and the like inside, then deep fried, served with salsa criolla. I splurged and got chocolate cake for dessert. I mean, after all that hiking, you need to treat yourself.
Warning: Walking down the street, you’ll get so many servers that will try to attract you and lure you into going to their restaurant. It’s just how it is, which is fine, but a word of advice- negotiate before taking a seat. Make sure you tell the server, you do not agree to pay the local service tax. This “consumo” tax can appear on your bill (especially in restaurants near/close to Machu Picchu) and it really does not exist. It’s charged to foreigners. Therefore, communicate with the server beforehand that you do not agree to pay the extra tax, which can be 20%!
After my meal, I returned to the hostel, grabbed my pack, charged my phone, and relaxed until my train came. Think I need to take an allergy pill because my nose is runny and I’ve been sneezing. My knees/legs were also shaking earlier from the hike.  On the train, I was seated next to a kind hearted man who lived in Spain. (Hi, Maciek!)  We both enjoyed an Inca Kola- a soda pop that tastes and smells like bubblegum and is bright yellow in color. Throughout the ride back to Cusco, we spoke in depth about our countries, writing, languages and love, traveling, things we knew of the world. It ended up coming up in conversation that I was a bit nervous to arrive in Cusco, since our train was arriving to Poroy Station at almost 9 p.m., when it would be dark, and I’d have to take a taxi to the center of the city. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to take one again, after what happened to me before. I ended up confessing this to Maciek, who was traveling with a group, and he said he’d try to see if I could come on the bus with them.
It worked out! To this day, I am so grateful for his kindness. The drive in the bus was long, through hills, and it was so cold and dark out. I couldn’t imagine going alone…or walking! I seriously could’ve cried I was so thankful. I can’t imagine the alternative. They didn’t even make me pay. Once in the center of town, I walked a short distance to my hostel from their hotel. It was past Plaza de Armas, which was incredible lit up! And I finally saw a better part of Cusco. The walk was all uphill on narrow cobblestone streets. There were stores everywhere! And lots of people still out and about. Once inside the hostel, I fell fast asleep with my jacket and boots on, I was that cold and exhausted.
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Notice anything in this picture? Up on the hill? Remember it- we’ll get to that.

DAY 7. Wednesday, July 20-  That sleep was much needed. I didn’t get out of bed until 8 a.m., had lemon sugar crepe for breakfast, and planned my day. The hostel I stayed at was also a creperia, lucky me 🙂

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One of the three showers had hot water, and I took full advantage. Then I cleaned up, repacked again, braided my hair, and headed out. I walked to Saksaywaman, the ruin above Cusco. It was huge and spread out.

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He’s bigger than she is!

 

Ended up walking down to take a picture with some alpacas and met a guy, Alejandro, from Houston.

We ended up walking to see Cristo Blanco together. (Remember the white spot on the hill in that last picture? That was this statue!) From there, we headed back into town to the Plaza de Armas and the San Pedro market. We also had lunch together- sampling one of Peru’s most famous dishes. Yep, you guessed it- guinea pig! Cuy, as it is called, is served in the most unappetizing way (see below). However, Alejandro ordered only half, and it came out looking like harmless chicken wings. I was glad I tried it, but can probably say that I won’t be rushing back to eat it again anytime soon.  But I tried chicha morada, a drink made from purple corn, and I liked it a lot!

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Alejandro bought chocolates for his family and I got coca candy to help with the altitude. Although I had yet to get sick , the next stop on my trip was to Lake Titicaca, which was at a higher elevation than Cusco. Alejandro and I said our goodbyes and I returned to the hostel to wait for my taxi, which would take me to Peru Hop, so I could begin my journey from Cusco to Copacabana, Bolivia!

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The mural on this wall is an illustration of the city’s history. So amazing!

DAY 8. Thursday, July 21– I safely got on the bus after 10 p.m. and settled into sleep. We would be arriving in Puno at 5 a.m. I met two girls from the States but they’re staying in Puno for a night, where I’m continuing on to Copacabana.  When we got here, we had breakfast at this small place-scrambled eggs, some bread and jam and juice.
Then we went to the boat to do the tour of the floating islands. The sunrise was incredible. We took the boat out, it was SO cold. Stopped at one of the islands, there’s 90 of them and over 2,000 inhabitants. It was weird walking on the reeds, kind of spongy. We saw the inside of a house, which contained only one bed and had enough room for just six of us to pile into. The woman explained that’s where her husband, baby, and her sleep. I couldn’t imagine- it was so tiny! They cook on a concrete slab (otherwise, the island would catch fire). The islands are anchored down. When we first arrived, they demonstrated how the islands were made. Pretty incredible, and I’m still not sure I completely understand. We took a ride in a gondola across the lake for five soles. It was freezing. Very neat to see though.  We are now back on the bus, waiting to leave to cross the border from Peru to Bolivia.
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Walking to the boat.

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A model of the island and everything on it.

6pm update- sitting in a restaurant waiting for food for the first time today since breakfast at 5 am. I had a package of crackers, but that’s it! Finally crossed the border, the guides helped me because I was the only American and the process is much more complicated.

 

If you’re an American citizen, you DO need a visa to get into the country. Also, the cost is $160, since that is what it would cost for a Bolivian to get into America, it’s reciprocated.
Obviously it would have been ideal to get a visa beforehand, but as I booked this trip a week before I left, there was no way I could have sent in my passport and had it back in time. So, I got it at the border.

 

Here’s what was required:
-$160 cash (no ink marks or tears on the bills)
-a valid passport
-two copies of your passport
-signed application form
-hotel reservation
-bank account statement
-full color photo
-itinerary while in Bolivia
-proof of exit out of country (airfare receipt, train ticket, etc.)

 

I had done a lot of research on this, as they’re very strict, and made multiple copies of each item. I had also got my yellow fever vaccine, although it is no longer a requirement, but recommended.
The guide on the bus basically checked all my documents twice and then took me to the front of the long line of people waiting. He said, “This is your window. Sit and wait to be called.”  All in all, it was painless. I was worried about the dollar bills… I rarely carry cash on me, so I didn’t take the $160 out until right when I left Cusco, but almost every single bill had an ink mark on it! Luckily, it turned out okay and the bills were accepted. Then we got back on the bus, it was so hot. Pulled up to Copacabana and I swear I’m the only one that’s staying here, everyone else is moving on to La Paz.  I also asked the guide where Hostel Sonia was and he said it was a 10 min walk uphill. So I got off the bus and started hiking up the hill. I couldn’t find it to save my life and kept backtracking. Even after asking people. I finally took the road behind the church and found it. The sun was scorching, and my back ached from the weight of my pack. I was also starving, but didn’t have time to eat anything because I needed to be at the white anchor meeting point to leave for Isla del Sol at 2:15 pm. Got my room, put my bag down and basically ran back out.  Got on the boat, sat up top and talked to some others. It was freezing. In my haste, plus being hot and sweaty and late, I didn’t bring a jacket. Isla del Sol was pretty. We hiked up past the temple and then to the top, then down the side through the town. Seeing the snow-capped Andes in the distance was unbelievable. After returning to Copacabana, I inhaled a pizza in a nearby restaurant. I came back to the hostel and facetimed with JJ, buried under all the blankets I had.

 

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Made it to Bolivia!

DAY 9. Friday, July 22– Can’t believe it’s Friday! I woke up at 7ish but didn’t have breakfast until about 8:45. I  am back in my room, showering, and repacking my bag. I have started to form a blister on my right foot, the third toe in. It hurts so bad. Today, I plan on just walking around and exploring until I catch my bus at 5 pm. I left the hostel and walked around the church square a bit, then down the road to the sparking blue water, cutting across and walking all along the beach.
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Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana.

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The colorful streets of Copacabana.

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Coca candy is surprisingly good, and also a lifesaver.

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Island of the Sun, Island of the Moon.

There were tents, trampolines, kids playing games and learning to ride bikes, and of course, several dogs. I sat next to a tree and had some coca candy. The candy is really good! I want to take some back to the States but I also don’t want to get arrested or fined or detained at the border. I’m trying to make it back to the States without any issue. Soooo, yeah. After my walk along the gorgeous lake, I stopped at a restaurant to refuel. I got the lunch menu- quinoa soup, they also served bread with a spicy salsa. I ordered a pineapple juice drink. Then the main course was chicken, with rice and some type of carrot and potato casserole. It was all delicious! Dessert was sliced bananas in a cup with chocolate syrup over it. I charged my phone and took off my socks and boots, it felt SO good to get out of them. I could feel my skin getting hot in the bright sun.
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Some much needed R&R.

After, I went to the hostel and grabbed my backpack, then hopped back on the bus. Left Bolivia, then had to cross back into Peru. No issues with either borders.
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Back in Peru!

We stop in Puno for dinner, then get in to Cusco at 6 AM. I can’t believe that I’ll leave for the States in just two days. It’s unreal to me that I’ve been here. That I AM here. I still don’t think it has sunk in yet.

 

DAY 10. Saturday, July 23– Last night was rough. We went to a pizza place for dinner (put in our orders on the bus) and she read mine wrong so ordered me carbonara pasta instead. I ate it because it would take too much time to remake, plus I’m not a picky eater at all and didn’t mind. But for some reason, it didn’t make me feel good. Then,  I wanted to sleep but couldn’t get comfortable, even though this bus was even bigger and had foot rests. Then someone threw up on the back of the bus and we had to stop. It was awful. Got in around 5:30 AM, I was the last to be dropped off in the taxi, and we hit road blocks (police by the plaza and a car down the other way) so I didn’t get in until after 6:30. And they don’t have a room ready for me, so I’m currently sitting out in the main lobby where it’s 33 degrees. Yes, you read that right.  My feet hurt from my boots.
 I finally went to the reception area again around 9:15 am and was told that the room now wouldn’t be available until 11 am. So I put my backpack in storage, and headed up to the ruins again to see if I could find the other two I missed. I did find them….after what seemed like forever! The first one, Qenqo (or Q’inqu) is believed to be where sacrifices and mummification took place. On the other side of the ruin, at the exit, I asked the girl and she said it’s possible to walk to the next. So I headed up, even though another had instructed me to take the bus. But why pay when I can walk, right? Boy was I in for a surprise. The girl had told me it was easy, possible, and about 10 minutes. I don’t know how long it took me, but it was not ten minutes.  All uphill, around curves and bends. It was rough, and I kept thinking that I was getting closer only to look at Google maps and realize how long I still had. I saw a sign that said it was 5 more kilometers. 3 miles more! After already hiking for almost an hour. I had already come that far…I might as well continue. Besides, what else did I have to do today? So I finally made it to the next ruins- Puca Pucara and Tambomachay.  After exploring, I took the city bus down and got off by where Qenqo was and walked back to the hostel from there. I checked in, plugged in my phone, kicked off my boots and drifted in and out of sleep. Anyway, I decided around 2 pm (after an hour here) to head back out. I went to the Peru Hop office and thanked them. The guide from yesterday, Alex, was there, and they gave me a free shirt and we chatted for a while. And then I separated from them and went to the market, got a juice drink (it definitely is worth the hype- so much better in the market than anywhere else!) Then I stumbled upon a restaurant called Norton’s Pub where you could sit outside in the sun and look over the plaza. I made friends from Argentina and they were talking to me for a while about Cusco and travel and etc and I helped them out with what I could. Then, I gave in to the tourist trap of taking a picture with a Quechua woman and baby lamb. Checked in for my flights, and getting as much sleep as I can before my long day of travel tomorrow!
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Cool spot in Qenqo.

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Finally made it to Puca Pucara!

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The one time in my life I felt tall. And how cute are these little guys! 

DAY 11. Sunday, July 24– Another thing about Cusco- they love their fireworks! Managed to get decent sleep, got up this morning, had breakfast, and finalized packing. Starting to not feel good so had some coca tea and coca candy. After a quick taxi ride to the extremely small airport, and an easy flight from Cusco to Lima, I got my pack when I landed about 2:30 pm and went to find the Spirit counter, apparently it doesn’t open until 8 pm. My flight is at 10 pm. And the wonderful thing *sarcasm* about the Lima airport is that it only offers free wifi for ten minutes. Needless to say, I couldn’t be without it for my 8 hour wait.
I was sitting here and a Peruvian woman came over asking for help. At first I thought she was asking for money or something. It turns out it was her English homework and she was trying to translate.  So I agreed and helped her. She was very sweet, had an 11 year old that loved English and was learning, she was a teacher and needed to improve her English to help her students. At the end, she asked how much she owed me. I assured her it was nothing. We talked more of Peru, the English language, and life. She gave me her email and contact info, and a kiss on the cheek and a hug. She was so nice and so sweet! Basically told me if I came back to Peru, to look her up and she’d help me. It really just goes to show how amazing the world can be when you put your phone down and make a real connection.
Got through security, inhaled Chinese food, and charged my phone. Can’t believe I’m headed home.
And 12 hours later, look who I see waiting for me at the airport!

 

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Reunited with my wonderful parents!

It’s surreal to me that this adventure is over, and even more so that it even happened in the first place! I’m grateful for the friends and memories I made along the way, the opportunity to see seven cities and two countries, and for a safe return home. I hope you enjoyed following along with me!
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The Blur That Was Ibiza & Paris

Wednesday, September 4-Tuesday, September 10, 2013

From raving with David Guetta & parasailing into sunsets in Ibiza, to eating dinner atop the Eiffel Tower, it was all unforgettable. Even a little rain couldn’t put a damper on these adventures! I drank pink champagne outside the Louvre, devoured macarons, saw Jim Morrison’s grave, took in Moulin Rouge and the Palace of Versailles, visited the Notre-Dame Cathedral & Arc de Triomphe, went on a breathtaking night cruise on the Seine River, and locked my love in one of the most amazing cities.

 

 

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Discovering Spafrica

August 15, 2013

“Why would you want to go there?”

“You’re going by yourself?!”

“That isn’t safe.”

These were all comments I was immediately hit with when I first informed my friends and family that I was planning a trip to Morocco alone.

After unsuccessfully trying to make plans with some friends who were studying abroad in other countries, I knew that if I continued to wait until I found a companion to travel with me, I would be waiting forever. And I knew that, similar to my decision to go to Europe in the first place, missing the opportunity to go because I was waiting until it was “convenient” to go was a risk I could not take. I’d be damned if I let this chance pass me by. So I sucked it up and made the decision to go solo.

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A day in the life.

Now, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t treat this country the same as others…I was apprehensive, and so instead of going off the beaten path alone, I booked the trip with a tour group (I know, I know- something most self-proclaimed travelers are completely against) but maybe the comments eventually got into my head, or I had a fear of the unknown. Either way, because I knew NOTHING about this country or the continent it was on, I wanted to ensure I was safe, and there’s safety in numbers, right? Plus, these people knew where to go and could guide me.

So I booked it. I traveled from Blanes –> Barcelona –> Sevilla, where I would stay for a night, then leave for Morocco the next day.

Thursday, August 15– I got off at Sants station. It was hectic and I peed three times (maybe from nerves) but just stayed in the station and ate the two Nutella sandwiches I brought. I was terrified about getting on the wrong train so I arrived extra early. Typical Kara.

Let me tell you- I have never seen anything quite like southern Spain. Even at 300 km/hr.

The train shook something fierce and I couldn’t help but think just two weeks ago over 80 people lost their lives on a train like this that derailed in the northwestern part of Spain. But I couldn’t think like that. Many people die in car accidents every day, but that can’t hold you back from getting in a car…as long as I can somehow remember NOT to drink the water in Morocco I will be okay, I tell myself.

There was another single woman that signed up for the tour, I was told, so we would be put together. I was excited to meet her, and wondered if she spoke English or was near my age…

I slept in bits and pieces on the train, in series of about 20 minutes that completely shook my sense of time. We arrived in Sevilla and I had the hardest time locating the hostel…nobody knew, or everyone was also tourists, so I got no answer until finally a waiter pointed out that I was “very far, maybe an hour away” which I knew had to be a joke because I was at least SOMEWHERE in the vicinity…I saw a beautiful cathedral and horse drawn carriages and again, more tourist shops. And then, I rounded the corner and stumbled upon the hostel. *Sigh of relief.* That night, the hostel had sangria on the rooftop patio and I was able to meet some people from Germany and Turkey. I climbed into bed exhausted, but so excited to wake up early to explore this adorable city.

Friday August 16– I woke up, rushed to breakfast, skipped showering, Skyped with JJ, ate like four Nutella sandwiches, and then checked out. Left my bag and walked to see Plaza de España***, which brought me to tears. I literally wanted to sit down and kiss the architecture, so beautiful and blessed. Saw Torre del Oro and got lost on the way back. Bought tampons, said bye to my new friend Fabian, and met up with tour, where I was introduced to the single woman that would be paired with me. Wouldn’t you know- she could speak English, and she was close to my age! Her name was Kayla Andrews, from Boston and 17. Thank the Lord for her. We took a bus two hours to meet up to take the ferry. The ferry was huge! I bought a quick sandwich and fries, then fell asleep because I was so beat. We got off the ferry and were so confused because we didn’t have to go through customs… there was no border control. After some discovery, we found out we were still in Spain! The city, Ceuta, is a Spanish city in northern Africa, and shares a border with Morocco. We laughed so hard! We felt like such idiots.

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Kayla & I.

After getting through the border and arriving in Tetuan, we went to our hotels. They didn’t have enough room for us in the one hotel, Dreams Hotel, and ended up having to split the group in half between the two hotels. Kayla and I were put in the other one- Hotel Golden Beach- so upon checking in, we ate dinner after a long wait. Bread and soup (can’t recall if it was harira or lentil soup) and then chicken with lemon rinds and olives, and for dessert, we thought some sort of custard…NOPE. Surprise! I later discovered it’s name: Kalinti, a chickpea flour and egg tart. We drank our own bottled water.

From our hotel window, we could see the ocean and really wanted to go down to the water’s edge. However, it was dark, and upon asking a worker at the hotel where the path was that led down to the shore, we ended up getting a private escort to the ocean just so we could put our feet in.  I couldn’t explain how it felt… we received stares because although we tried to cover up with scarves, our legs still showed. We were dressed properly for the weather, but not for where we were. Puts things into perspective when you have to understand another’s culture, and I am grateful for the experience.

Views from the balcony:

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Funny moments:

Halfrica/Spafrica– Rejoicing too soon when we weren’t even across the border yet. These were the new names we came up with.

Freaking out I would be split from Kayla when were getting room assignments.

M’Diq was the name of the coastal town where we staying. So naturally, with our immature/raunchy sense of humor, we yelled, “There’s not enough room in M’Diq!” when we were told the group had to be split into two hotels.

Guy trying to take my soup at the restaurant when I wasn’t done.

Eating ALL of the bread. Because carbs are delicious in every country.

“You’re from Africa? But you’re white.” (Mean Girls, anyone?)

Kayla trying to unlock the wrong hotel door and getting pissed.

We actually ended up staying up late into the night because we were laughing so hard and talking about everything under the sun.

Saturday, August 17– In the morning, we had yogurt and pastries and coffee and OJ for breakfast.  Then to our horror- looked up to see our tour bus loading without us! Hurried to get on, so didn’t exchange any money at the hotel, we just got on the road. Driving through the countryside on the way there I saw a lot of trash covered fields and women selling fruits by the road, or pottery, and children walking donkeys.

 

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Garbage covering part of the countryside.

But Chefchaouen, ohmygosh, was a gorgeous bright blue and white colored place. Chefchaouen served as a Moorish fortress for Spanish exiles, and later welcomed both Jews and Christians alike. Blue represented sky and heaven, and today and still stands for peace and love of their city now.  It is said that they paint everything the color blue to keep it cooler and ward off mosquitoes, but also as a reminder of God’s power. The color is everywhere, from walls to clothing. Tekhelel (an ancient natural dye) is often used for these.

Beautiful colored dyes on display for sale.

 We met our tiny guide, Ahmed Achtot, who proudly told us he was on Lonely Planet and that he was friends with our “American President, Obama.”  We instantly loved him. He was such an excellent guide- a short, old man, with kind light blue eyes and so so sweet. He loved talking with all of us and would take pictures both with us and for us, and pointed out some fascinating parts of the city.  He was also funny. He could speak five languages and said he learned them just by listening.

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Our guide, Ahmed Achtot.

Ahmed taught us to enter a house with the right foot first, as well as exiting, typical manners in some Islamic countries. There were also small kittens and cats everywhere around the city. Literally- a gazillion.

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The tiniest kittens in the universe could be found on every street.

In Chefchaouen, if I recall correctly, the houses were able to fit five to ten families and it’s true- they were cool to the touch! I was awestruck by how beautiful it was.

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We were taken to “the best weaving shop in the city”- no doubt a tourist trap, encouraging you to buy rugs and scarves but I didn’t get anything. Kayla got two for 25 Euro but because I’m going to be overseas for several more months, I have to make my money last. But the weaver made us both bracelets 🙂 I really wanted to find a dress or long shirt like they traditionally wear, but again, had doubts about buying- because did I need it? Would I still wear it months later?

 

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Left: The weaver putting on my bracelet.    Right: Trying on a hijab.

 

In the medina (city section), they had the most interesting shoes and exquisite leather purses. Jewelry, silver plates, and painted pictures- you name it. Yet nobody was overly pushy.

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Traditional shoes in Morocco- “babouche”

We had lunch at la Casa Hassan, and it was AWESOME. Salad to start, with tons of olive oil and vinegar, then tagine for main course. Then for dessert was a cup of cut fresh fruit. All in all, a delicious meal.

 

After we left, I took a nap on the bus.

We went to the  Grottes d’Hercule (Cave of Hercules),  which was filled with entirely too many people, and I just couldn’t handle it. It was dark and I felt claustrophobic. However, it was still a cool attraction. There are two entrances, one facing land (the one we entered) and one facing sea. The incredible part of the cave is what you can see in the picture below:  the part that looks to the ocean is the shape of Africa. There was a lot of history inside the cave as well. We didn’t spend too much time there. The driving and parking was madness, as were the many people trying to sell stuff, which is to be expected.

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Cave of Hercules.

Next, we stopped to ride camels! NUTS. We were supposed to do it on Sunday, but obviously the tour group doesn’t stick to schedule, if you’ve figured that out. So because I was wearing a dress, I had to sidesaddle that thing like it was my job. You know, since I couldn’t straddle it normally. It was so much fun! But really scary. You get on the camel when it is sitting/lying down, and when it got up I swear I almost shit myself. It felt like I was back and forth on a roller coaster- the ride was a little bumpy. Again, tourist trap, but come on. It’s a camel! I’m sold.

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(I’m actually terrified here.)

The bus stopped for a break at the overlook, at Cape Spartel. It was quite the view. I bought my mom a silver spoon for her collection, which I am certain I got ripped off on, and also a small camel, to give to Adrià. My friend, Matt, (see The Day I Quit My Job) had lent me his backpack on the one condition that I get sew-on flags of each country I visit. So I bought some of the patches for him, but still want to pick up souvenirs for the rest of my family.

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Cape Spartel.

Drove to Tangier, which I wasn’t as fond of, it is crowded and touristy, there isn’t much to see. Also, stopped at another rest stop where the bathrooms had squat toilets (just holes that look like sinks in the ground). Kayla thought it was a shower so she came right back out, but I had to explain they were, in fact, toilets. I had used them before in Italy. Don’t care- if you gotta go, you gotta go! I just think it is much easier for a man to use. Speaking of which, an older man came up to us while we were speaking with our guide to ask if he could have a photo with us because of our blue eyes and how “handsome” we were…weird.

I wonder a lot about the culture here and how the women feel and are treated. I feel privileged but also inappropriate, less modest and holy than them, somehow. I know the culture is changing…but I wonder how it is received. The taxis here fit SO many people and pictures of their king- Mohamed VI- are everywhere. We saw the outside of his palace and it is insane. If you go to Morocco, you will see his face plastered nearly every place you go. But in case you don’t, here it is:

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Mohammed VI  

After we checked into our hotel, Hotel Tanjah Flandria, we got dinner which was salad and then fish, rice. And French fries. The dessert was the best part, different types of fancy cake. I think mine was cherry vanilla. I missed the paints and colors of Chefchaouen. Our hotel had a rooftop pool. It looked so inviting, so we dipped our feet in before dinner and then returned to swim after, but it was so cold and I was tired and just felt a little disconnected from the rest of the world somehow. Kayla swam and I sat by the side of the pool and we had a deep conversation about traveling and friendships and relationships, which was great. There were other people up on the roof and guys across the way in another hotel carrying on and looking over, which made us uncomfortable.

That night, the music and voices in the street were very loud, I had trouble sleeping. I showered late and wished JJ good luck on his show. Kayla and I have sort of befriended two Spanish couples that are younger, I think they’re beautiful! They thought Kayla and I were longtime friends, and were surprised to learn that we just met one another! Between the six of us, we usually take pictures for one another and stick together at dinners.

I also think the culture is neat because its like- when do you know where to draw the line at exposing your body and embracing it? Modesty is an interesting concept here…

I was told by our tour guide that the new king says it is okay if the man wants to have more than one wife, but the wife has to come to the court and say it is okay also. And he said for the Islam banks- they don’t let you buy a house. You say, okay I want that house, and they buy it for you all furnished and all, although you spend your life paying it off probably.

He also said women used to get dressed up if they left their house to visit their friends or go shopping, putting makeup on, etc, but now people say that you have to do that only for your husband, when he comes home you have to meet them at the door with something sexy on. It also used to be that women could only meet at each other’s houses, not in a cafe or out and about, but that is also changing. *****

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Royal Palace

Sunday August 18– Today is my mother’s birthday and I miss her a lot.  After little sleep, we woke and had breakfast: coffee, OJ and poor baguettes. Hopping on the bus to head to Tetuan for a panoramic view.  I have a lot of travel time in front of me for today and tomorrow.

We ended up having a 3 hour delay on our trip because one older couple lost/had their cell phone taken…so they insisted on going to the police. The police said they couldn’t help…so they insisted on going to the other inner city police. We got gelato in the meantime because we had to wait for them. It was a bit of a pain in the ass to do because we had to pay in dirhams- which felt like just a million coins, simply because we were still understanding the currency. Then we noticed that same man from earlier taking pictures of us from afar while we were eating…and pretended not to when we caught him! It was sooo creepy and uncomfortable. Then he came up and asked for another photo with us, and said its because he wanted to remember the trip. Um, no. He also showed us a picture that the guides had taken where he is walking behind us. HE BOUGHT IT. Officially freaked out and over this part of the trip.

Back on the bus, we arrived to Tetuan some time later and were shuffled through some of the dirtiest fish markets I have ever seen, they were selling vegetables and fruit and chickens that I will never be able to look at the same. Kayla and I were both in flip flops (a huge mistake) and our feet were so dirty. We were exhausted too, and hungry. We shuffled through and looked at a hotel, and then through a castle in the square, saw how traditional the women dress, and hit the markets. I didn’t buy anything although, again, there was jewelry, leather sandals and purses, and silver tea sets everywhere!

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Markets in Tetuan.

Bargaining is a huge thing here. It’s half the fun- you never buy anything for full price.  We went to a pharmacy/spice shop…it was interesting, but nobody bought anything. A man who had been trying to get me to buy a blue dress kept following me around. We went to lunch next, and it was nice, in this huge old palace, we had soup and bread and salad of course, then tagine. After there was the hospitality mint tea served and a cookie.

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Dinner at the Arabic Palace with new friends.

After lunch,  as we were getting back on the bus, we turned to the window and there that same man was, waving the blue dress at me and running my way. Never have I been more creeped out. Things went from bad to worse fast. We took forever to leave the border and get the ferry.  Got through and once back in Spain, took the bus- which thank goodness wasn’t the shuttle because it was larger- but there were so many loud elderly foreign people…they just were walking about the bus or hollering at one another when they could’ve easily sat next to each other. Next, we dropped some of them off at a different town, which was about an hour and a half away. When we got closer to Sevilla, half the people wanted off at Torre del Oro and the other half wanted their hotel which was far away. The bickering was a nightmare. Kayla was livid and was going to get out and take a taxi because the cab driver didn’t really know his way but luckily one of the Spanish passengers helped. Kayla and I said our goodbyes in a rush, not really processing that it might be the last time we see each other. She  hopped out closer to where her apartment was. I got off at Torre del Oro feeling like the different world I had just come from was still spinning around me, and how it made me feel grateful and sad and curious all at once.

Those feelings were quickly replaced with exhaustion and annoyance, because I knew the checkout for my hostel was going to come so fast. As I was walking near the main street, I heard a fantastic band playing Jack Johnson and fell in love so as much as it killed me to know I was losing precious minutes of sleep by the minute, I followed the sound.***

***See previous posts: The Night Five Strangers Fell In Love and Speechless in Sevilla

***** Because I have not done research on the culture in Morocco, I cannot say much on the subject, nor confirm what the guides have said. I am, however, always interested and open to learn. Feel free to comment below- I would love to hear from you and learn more about your travels or experience!

Shukraan- “Thank you”

For reading, for new friendships, for the gift of adventure.

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God, Good Hair Days & Gravy

All things I am thankful for.

Corny title, I know. Hope it had you rolling. Okay, I butter stop.

That was terrible, I’m sorry. Please (pretty please, with sugar on top) keep reading…

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I read somewhere that a way to turn our attitudes around and find happiness is to focus on having a heart full of gratitude- thinking about all the things that we have, instead of what we don’t.

I know (in light of this holiday) you’ve probably seen enough of this on your social media outlets today, but it’s important for me to write this list, and it serves as a reminder for me to look at when I’m feeling crappy.

So, in no particular order, here are 30 things I am thankful for:

1. To be alive. In light of recent events in the world, I’ve seen how quick life can be taken away, and it is unfortunately what many of us take for granted the most. Remember, life only sucks some of the time.

2. My parents. I was blessed with two hardworking, supporting parents who have always put me first and sacrificed so much just so I could have the things they didn’t. They have always believed in me. I will always be indebted to them, and will always love them more than anything.

3. Friendships, whether past or present. The past couple years I have focused so much on the friendships that have dissolved or people that have shown their true selves, but it caused me to 1. Forget that those people came into my life and left for a reason, and 2. neglect the friends that had been there all along. To have one true friend is better than ten fake ones. Whether they are cities, states, or countries away, they have helped shape me into who I am today. (Thank you all, and I know I need to call more often!)

4. The incredible man that I am lucky to call mine. JJ embodies unconditional love in every sense of the word. He takes care of me, protects me, sees and loves every flaw yet only announces it as perfection. He keeps me sane, and keeps me smiling.

5. My health. This past year I’ve had two surgeries that made me rethink how fortunate I am to have the ability to do simple things like eating or walking without pain or discomfort. Your health is really everything.

6. Running. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are. But it has been the driving force behind becoming the stronger version of myself this past year. I have pushed past the limits I set on myself, and came to understand I have none.

7. This blog. It has forced me to be vulnerable and transparent with my life, my feelings, and my words, and held me accountable for actively writing and relaying experiences of my life. I know it has been a big step in the right direction for me.

8. Discovering a community of writers in the Madwomen in the Attic classes.

9. My niece. Because she is so sweet and chubby and the only baby I’ve ever really liked. Because she is a new family member to love. And of course, my brother and sister-in-law are in this category as well 🙂

10. My job. I work at a  wonderful university where I am surrounded by brilliant individuals, and it also gives me a paycheck and benefits. Really can’t complain.

11. My apartment. Sure, it blows coughing up that much $$$ every month, but I have a roof over my head (though it sometimes leaks) and a little corner of the universe to decorate and be as pantsless as I like.

12. Traveling. This is no secret. ‘Nuff said.

13. My education. I will admit that 75% of the stuff I studied for I have already forgotten, but at least I had the opportunity to sit in a classroom and learn.

14. My hometown. Everyone has some sort of love/hate relationship with where they grew up, but for me, it gave me the comfort of community and the peace from driving down back roads.

15. Public transportation (weird, I know) for letting me not demonstrate to the world what a terrible driver I am- especially when it is winter, and when it is not. I don’t worry about getting myself to & from work safely, or parking, or, paying for parking, etc.

16. Wearing my heart on my sleeve. Because it means I am like my mother, and she is warm but can rage with fire, and I love that- regardless if I am labeled emotional or too sensitive because of it.

17. Chocolate, because without it I would be a miserable bitch.

18. Technology, so I can Skype or call my friends/relatives whenever I am not near them.

19. JJ’s entire family, for taking me in as their own, and always making sure I am well fed…(as if I’d pass up on any food, ever.)

20. My grandparents, because they’re so cute and have shown me what true love is. (Or just that it is possible to put up with someone 60+ years of your life.)

21. Music, for getting me through my teenage years. Literally.

22. Books, for letting me lose myself in their pages and revealing my love for reading and writing.

23. CHAPSTICK. I own over 300 tubes of lip gloss, probably. No, really, someone should count them all.

24. My teachers, other adults (friends, coaches, employers, coworkers, etc.) in my life who have significantly shaped and guided me through whatever rough waters I was facing. Often, we don’t realize it until we’ve moved on.

25. My setbacks. I’ve felt heartbreak, but it lead me to someone better. I faced rejection letters from literary magazines, but it fueled my desire to try harder. Everything- friendships that fell apart, prayers that weren’t answered, “WHY ME??” moments in my life- were all preparing me for something greater.

26. Carbohydrates. Do I really need to elaborate?

27. Humor, without it life would be so dull.

28. Blankets, fuzzy socks, oversize sweaters- things that are cozy and soft.

29. Warm weather, because then I can be barefoot and sun kissed and in a better mood.

30. Sheetz, because it was love at first bite and it’s always welcoming me no matter what the hour.

 

P.S. I really tried to refrain from listing all foods. It was much harder than I thought.

 

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

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E.T. Phone Home

Tuesday, July 2. 2013

We set off for Marineland early in the morning. It reminded me of Waldameer‘s water park (in Erie, PA). We first went to the dolphin show, and then stayed in the kiddie pool the rest of the afternoon. I went down a couple water slides with Jordi and Mar. For lunch, we had ham sandwiches (“bikinis”) and also got gelato before making the trip home. It was an exhausting day for all. Once back home, Jordi put together a more traditional Mediterranean meal. This was interesting… Sonsa? I believe it was called- very skinny fish that were ingested whole. Except…the eyes were still there. Now, I am not a particularly picky eater, and I will try anything once. And it was good! But I could not get past the fact that I was eating this fish with its eyes still there. I swear it was staring at the back of my throat as I swallowed it.   Next, I talked with JJ for quite a while. (For those of you unfamiliar, he is the man in the picture on my post The Foundation. We were friends from college that kept in touch the entire time during my five months abroad, and are now dating!) It was so good to hear his voice! He always makes me laugh. Here’s our conversation about my dinner:

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Later on, Jordi and I went to the supermarket. He told me I could pick up whatever I needed. Embarrassed, I put tampons, shampoo, and a razor in the cart. I said a silent prayer thanking God that I would finally have a razor- because I needed one more than life! And I’ll shamelessly admit that I couldn’t read the labels on the bottles in the shower, so I am not entirely confident what I have been washing my hair/body with these past couple days…

At the supermarket, it was shocking to see the switch between fresh and processed foods. Jordi took me walking through the weekly food market downtown where you can buy local fruit and vegetables. “This is how you know it’s fresh,” he said, motioning to an insect crawling through a head of lettuce. “It’s straight from the garden because these are still there.” He also showed me what the good price of meat is and some esteemed fish markets in Costa Brava. I felt like…I needed to not eat so much processed crap. And that I really should learn to cook, like him. He also made gazpacho, which looks like a delicious smoothie, but is made with with raw vegetables.

After we returned to the house, the kids and I went to the pool upstairs at their grandparents’ house. I don’t think that Jordi’s dad likes me too much. He seems very uptight and is not warm to me. Perhaps he thinks that having a stranger be an au pair here is a mistake, and that I am just another mouth to feed. Or, that I am just a young American girl that is incapable of being any help as a teacher to the children because of my inability to speak Catalan, and their young age. Whatever the reason, I can’t deny that this stings.

Now it is late, but I just got off Skype with my mom. She is sending me a package with more toiletries, necessities,and iPad accessories (since I fried the other ones). I am so grateful! Who would have thought that I’d ever be so happy to have such simple items? (Now, I was far from destitute, and I had saved up plenty of money from my first job after college to buy whatever I did need, but I just hadn’t had the chance to go to the store to replenish my own items, or didn’t pack them in the first place for other reasons.) Cliche as it sounds, the one thing I have learned quickly is that the things I truly need in this life are few, and plain and simple. I have neglected to remember that, but was reminded when my mom drove to Pittsburgh to help me prepare for this move.

We were finishing packing my backpack and boxing the rest of the stuff into storage when she said, “You have two boobs and there’s seven days in a week. Why do you have so many freaking bras?!” I love that woman.

But in all honesty, she’s right. What is it all for? I don’t need two closets full of clothes. I don’t need the latest technology, designer handbags, or more items that clutter my life. You can’t take these things with you when you go.

Just give me the sound of my mother’s voice (and maybe some clearly labeled shampoo) and I’m golden.

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The strength of this woman is unmatched. She didn’t want to let her baby girl get on a plane to Europe alone, and she certainly didn’t understand it, but she still stood by me. She’s my backbone.

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