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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Making the Connection

This past week, I have thought a lot about connections. How they’re made and strengthened, or broken in an instant, or missed by a moment…

How strange is it that girls I thought would someday be standing beside me on my wedding day haven’t spoken to me in years?

They had been there through moments nobody else had- my first real break up, holding my hair back after too much vodka, picking up the phone when everything was falling apart. They knew me like no one else had. I get that they’re called memories for a reason, but how one could just forget these huge moments and years of knowing and move on, the Earth still spinning and them not shaken, stunned me.

Perhaps it was entirely my fault. Did I not call enough? Put myself first instead of them? Have some quirky habits that they got sick of? Or did I just try too desperately to tape back  together a friendship that was beyond the point of repair? It was ridiculous how I pounded these thoughts into my skull looking for answers. This was a friend, not a boyfriend. I thought they were supposed to be there forever. I know there is a reason and season to everything. Maybe ours just was over. We were meant to be inseparable in those crucial years, to learn and be there for one another, but beyond that, grow apart into our own separate selves. Our friendships weren’t serving us anymore.

But in some cases, their presence on social media still haunted me. Part of me wonders why I haven’t severed the remaining ties between us. The block/delete button is right there, but so hard to push. What am I holding on to? Or am I worried that will send the wrong message? Better yet, why do I still care, if they don’t?

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I heard somewhere that your high school friends often disappear, because people grow up and change and go away to college, and the bonds that cannot withhold the distance will soon break. Plus, your college friends become more like your family due to the capacity in which you are living near/with them 24/7, and you begin the foreign adventure into adult life together. I thought I believed that until I lived through it.

Three nights ago, I had dinner with a friend I’d maybe spoken to a handful of times during my time as an undergraduate student. He has never seen me projectile vomit at a fraternity house, nor did he ever know what was going through my mind when I broke up with my first boyfriend. In fact, he probably knows very little about my family or my favorite color. But he knows exactly how it felt when I stepped foot off the plane in Barcelona, and how my heart continues to ache for the places I haven’t even been to yet. And he was the first to guide me and help me with traveling, and despite our many differences, is always someone I can rely on when it comes to my journey.

Similarly, two coworkers who have husbands and pets (of which I have neither) and who I met during my 9-5 have become two women that I admire most. I cherish our friendship and the roads that brought us together, though I never expected them to lead us here. We are now training for a full marathon together. Lord knows anyone who sees you sweat is seeing a side of you that others will never understand!

With other friends, it has been more like a cha-cha. We live far away, (Washington, Utah, South Carolina, New York, etc.) yet EVERY single time I meet up with them, I find the conversation barreling past 90 mph and picking up right where we left off. They don’t hear much about my day to day life or even what’s really been going on in my life via frequent messages, but I have full faith that they would be there to see me through it.

I have made so many acquaintances in my small corner of the world, and it has helped me to connect (and in some cases, reconnect) with amazing people. And sometimes, it is shocking who has proved to be there for me.

But that’s how it goes. Several people I thought I would never lose touch with, I have. And those who I was not close with, I now spend time with and talk to regularly. Life keeps you constantly on your toes like that.

Quite similar is the evening I shared with four incredible individuals (The Night Five Strangers Fell In Love). We did not have the same native language, nor did we spend more than only 24 hours together, but they have set my soul on fire in a way no one else has, especially in that short of time.

And what about all the connections that we miss? Before my boyfriend and I started dating, we had several run-ins at college. We had an insane amount of mutual friends. I had been in the building where he lived. It is quite possible that we were in the same room at the same party on more than one occasion, yet maybe we just were not ready for one another. We needed that time to become who we are, and to be ready for one another. Fast forward four years after graduation, and it is still mind boggling to think, “What if?”

One of the main reasons I have such a strong passion for travel is because of the connections I am able to make while doing so. And no, I don’t mean just with other people, although that’s evident. I have felt the presence of God standing on the top of Schilthorn more than I ever have in a church pew. I have felt more loved when I was completely alone on top of the castle of Sant Joan than surrounded by friends and family. I have befriended a couple who was nearly 3-4 times my age and never missed a beat feeling right at home. I found out who I was when I navigated city maps and got lost on street corners, when I was angry or sad or hurt, lonely or confused. I found myself by leaving what I thought I knew behind. There is such a deep connection made through more than the sights. More often than not, travel discovery becomes self discovery.

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I’ve got this notion that airports are just so freaking romantic. There are hellos and goodbyes in every terminal, and it’s that moment where a loved one steps off a plane, or gives one final goodbye wave before boarding, that I have both felt and witnessed such true and pure emotion. There is nothing like it. I could people watch for hours if security would let me. Everyone is just trying to get somewhere, you know? We all have our stories, our connections, our ties to something and someone. Who knows where they intersect? And though many of these people are rushing, there’s fleeting glimpses between strangers, always flirting with the idea of the unknown, or a smile, like maybe they knew you in another life.

I’m not sure what solidifies these connections, but in 2016 I aim to make many more…and who knows? Maybe I’ll meet you somewhere along the way.

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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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The Night Five Strangers Fell in Love

Picture this- It’s nearly midnight in Sevilla, Spain. I’m just getting to my hostel when I hear a Jack Johnson song being played in the distance. As exhausted from my travels and at the end of my rope as I am (getting lost, train delays, aching feet, empty stomach, etc.) the melody pulls at my heartstrings. Even though I am tired, I don’t want to wonder “What if?” Something tells me I need to find where it’s coming from…so, somewhat reluctantly, I follow the sound to discover Jukebox Munich (pictured below).

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And damn it, they’re good, and funny, and play songs I still love. I’m hooked. I drop my heavy backpack, tell my sleepy conscience to hush, and decide to stay a while. While sitting there on the curb listening to them, I meet Andrea, from Italy. He had a camera and an infectious smile:

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We make small talk until it dives deeper into the darker parts of ourselves, and we tune out the music. After playing hours on end, the band calls it a night. Just as I’m thinking this is where my late night ends, someone makes a suggestion. And just like that, with a crowd of about fifteen, we all decide to get beer and hang out before going our separate ways home. However, it’s too early in the morning, and everything is still closed. We walk to the other side of the river, where a place was closing, but one of the locals convinced the owner to sell us beer for a euro. He poured them out quickly- red solo cups halfway filled- as if he was going to get caught.

So we go and sit next to the river, our half beers in hand, and next thing I know, we were talking about what our dreams were and who our siblings were dating, how we felt about having kids and marriage, language barriers and what we studied in school, all while the band carried on in the background.  Andrea seemed taken aback when I asked him what his dream was.  Moments later he finally brought it back up and said, “I want to do something with politics. I see so much about how old European tradition is fading away, and how the States and Italy and others have these problems, and I want to help fix that. Although I know that’s impossible.” It was such an unexpected answer and I could tell he didn’t share it with a lot of people. He asked me about mine. Why I was traveling. How I’m very different than what he expected from an American, though he knows we’re not all the same.

When the band finally had enough, and the crowd disappeared,  Andrea, three Spanish girls (Júlia, Melanie and Martina) and I stayed behind, still mid-conversation. I discovered the girls were from Costa Brava as well, not far from Blanes! Júlia studied in Rome so she could speak some Italian with Andrea, and and Martina had previously lived in Canada, and all three of them could speak English with me. We ended up sitting on a street corner while they rolled cigarettes and spoke about everything from this side of the sun. I completely bared my soul to them about the fear of losing my parents, about being terrified that I would not find whatever it was I came to Europe to discover, how I felt conflicted with my “almost” relationship, fights with my brother, my thoughts on gun control and gay marriage, etc. You name it, we covered it.

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             Martina                                                       Melanie and I

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           Júlia                                                        Andrea

It made me sad, even ashamed, to hear the stereotypes of Americans- just always thinking their way is right and that they are superior to other countries. I know this is a common stereotype, but I don’t want to be seen this way. While I love my country, I don’t think we are the best. I can’t disagree, however, that America has become wrapped up in fast food and television and so consumed by their own stress. The European lifestyle is about savoring– lunch and the company you are with is ENJOYED, not rushed. I wish we were that way. So many  Americans want to go to Europe, but it is not necessarily the case with all Europeans. I find this interesting.

Martina was tall, with so much spunk in her personality that although it would be easy for people to perhaps not appreciate it or like it, it made me fall in love with her. She had no boundaries on her feelings, no apologies about her thoughts, or words. Her outstretched hands brushed yours when she laughed. I felt instantly comfortable around her, around all of them, actually. She just didn’t give a shit about being anything but herself and it caught me off guard how much I admire that in a person. I wished I could be so secure in my own skin, so unapologetically myself. She was so strong because maybe before she had been forced to be. Melanie was beautiful, with dark hair and light eyes, and quiet, not as fluent in English. She agreed to many things we were saying, and I could tell her spirit was young but on fire. The streetlights shone across Júlia’s tan skin and reflected off her nose ring. She had the warmest brown eyes. She could say anything, and you’d trust her. She confided to us about how her parents separated and she didn’t become close with them until after that. She said she realized as we are getting older that they are not the vision of what we thought they were, they make mistakes and have hard times and need us, too.  We can’t force them to feel something or understand and change. But that when they finally realize it, we will be there with open arms.

Andrea told me he lives more than an hour away from his parents and at 25, this is his first time really traveling alone. He said he initially was nervous but felt he needed to do it. And how without that freedom, we never would have met each other. I realized he was right- if we were with our families or friends, we probably would never have thought to approach or speak to one another. He argued how we should really pursue writing or singing or painting, or whatever the hell it is that we want. Martina said it best- maybe it’s not even fear of failure that we are so scared of…it’s what happens once we actually GET what we want or have been searching for- will we take it? And then what? That is the big question, because we are always looking for and wanting something better.

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We talked about how it shouldn’t be so hard to love one another. I really just wanted to break down…I was falling in love with these strangers, these new friends, and we were feeling something so much bigger than ourselves, talking about the world and although we knew and had only seen so little, we realized so much. Some people, they said to me, would never do what you did, they’re too scared, and you’ve already made the most courageous step you could. I don’t think they could ever understand how much I needed to hear that.

We laughed, too- talking about the “cobra” move in a club when a guy approaches you and you duck away. I learned so many tongue twisters in Catalan and words for things that I didn’t know had their own definition (all of which I have now forgotten). Also, that all Catalans talk about is shit. “My face is shit.” “My life is shit.” I was dying of laughter.

Finally, Andrea looked at his watch and realized it was 7:30 a.m. He suggested breakfast. So we walked around to find a restaurant but none were really open at 7:30 am, and if they were, they didn’t look that appealing. Finally, we stopped at the square, where we joked Andrea was Lord of the Flies since they all kept landing on him. We saw an older man painting the most beautiful picture of the cathedral. Took snapshots of us laughing and looking dead in zoning out from zero sleep. We finally stopped to eat, getting pan con tomate and jamón, and café con leche. Everything was so good and perfect and cheap and we just laughed because Júlia said it was her favorite birthday she’s ever had and that she didn’t even feel tired even though she had been up for almost a full day, and everything was fate that brought us together. And that since I had to leave at 2 p.m., why not spend every second together and make the most of the last time we have together?

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So I checked out of my hostel early and they bought me a Red Bull and we headed toward Júlia’s car, which was near the corner of O’Neill’s restaurant that we had been sitting at and talking all night. She went to park it somewhere else because they were giving out tickets, but we ended up listening to “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (which was so cool that, despite being from three different countries, we all knew) and driving the completely wrong direction to just make a circle and park the car again in the same spot, finally giving in to just paying the meter. It made me laugh because that’s precisely how I drive.

I convinced them to go to Plaza de España and I loved their reactions to its unspeakable beauty, because it was exactly how I felt when I saw it for the first time. We took pictures and sweated under the sun together, then got granizado to quench our thirst, and cool our throats. So refreshing and good! Headed back to the square by the cathedral and sat in the shade next to the building where a man played the guitar (probably annoyed by our incessant talking), and the horse drawn carriages were pulling in. They kept telling me I’d have to write the story of our night but I can’t think of one word to say about it. Even if I could think of a million, it wouldn’t do it justice.

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I swear to you, we just couldn’t stop talking. Our conversation continued into handsome Spanish dads and why they don’t like bullfighting, and how Júlia’s mother makes her gazpacho for when she is hungover and gets home early in the morning and sleeps all day, how European lifestyle is just better and I just need to move here. Our feet were caked with dirt, Júlia’s nice once white shorts stained from sitting on city curbs and street corners and dirty pub chairs. Martina’s thick dark eyebrows danced when she talked, a wide mouth grin and deep voice, that went high when she sang or got excited, always joking. Melanie’s bright blue eyes reflecting with the sun, her dark curly hair bouncing as she laughed and shook her head at Martina. I cherished them…Júlia’s warm embrace and Andrea’s smile that lit up like a sunrise and their nose rings that I thought about getting sophomore year of college and the fact that they rolled their own cigarettes and could speak three languages and still be so incredibly beautiful after all the traveling and nights without sleep. I was soaking in every moment. I learned if you close your eyes and have a spoon in your hand, the moment the spoon drops you’re having the best moment of sleep. What about the best day of your life? I wanted to say.

And I started to cry right then and there, because I had never felt happier, or experienced a connection like this before, but also because I knew this was probably the last time I would ever see them again.

Perhaps we were only meant to have that one night, Júlia said.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was so perfect, it could only last a day. But it was enough- in just those hours, they changed my life and healed my soul.

So this is for you, my dearest friends. Until we see each other again.

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All my love,

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Sala Vega

Sala Vega

We met in the small moment when thick Barcelona air stopped on a dime
I was trying to catch a train, you were asking for the time
Two blonde girls, lost and confused
Same color in our eyes, just different hues.
You’re from Russia, and we spoke Inglés
Talked about men and whiskey, liked the way both taste
I found a friend, God himself must have sent
One of the same, but yet so different.

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Tequila sunrises have always been one of the loves of my life.
It’s what we ordered when my new Russian friend met up with me, my first night to escape from the house, and her to experience the way my native English language sounded, as we threw our blonde heads back and laughed like teenagers again.
What an odd combination, the Dutch workers would say. But it was almost like I had known her for fifteen years, not minutes, when we crossed paths in a Spanish train station.
Slipping inside that discoteca was the best ten euros I don’t remember spending. I was bathed in a dream, because the air was hot and free and the music filled me with what I thought I knew.

I won’t lie to you, I was infatuated with her. Elena, Lena, Helen, whatever. She was tired of the cold winters in her country so here she was, coral dress clinging to her hips like a child being pried from its mother. Her hair whipped the edges of the world around me as she jumped up and down, pumping a fist into the air to the beat. Maybe it was the tequila, or maybe it was because for the first time in two months, I had a friend. But, My God, I just felt invincible. I remember thinking: I need to write about this. I have to write this down so it will never end. And then there was the foam- frothy, translucent spheres bubbling from machines and soaking into our sun-kissed skin, snaking across the floor and billowing out to touch the flushed faces of young girls and men who couldn’t think of wanting anything more. They throw out “¡Qué guapa!” for us to catch at our feet.

I wrung out my hair, the droplets trickling down my breasts as I caught my breath, and tilted my head back. Clear liquor in a red and white bottle. Had to be cheap vodka, but I needed it. To dance with her, to keep up with the crowd of a Monday night, to love like a tourist and live like a local. And there was France by the DJ booth and Germany at the bar and I think Italy on the dance floor, yet we all melted together. A family of worlds from America and Russia and the unknown guy in the corner with a stuffed penguin, and the stuck up girls with now ruined designer handbags, and it didn’t matter because it was like we were born to dance to this song. Helen kept swaying, but I had to get more tequila, this time by myself. I needed it to make it to the morning.

And just like that as I made my way back to her, it was over. And I didn’t know how or when, but there were guys sliding across the floor on their stomachs, making the soapy mess a playground. There was an empty room- when did the crowd seep through the back door? And there was Helen saying goodbye and mumbling something about a taxi, but we were both too tipsy on the moonlight to understand this was the last we’d ever see each other. My hand was taken by the DJ who took me to the beach and told me I was beautiful, and I told him thanks but I had a boyfriend, and I could tell he was leaning in for a kiss but he helped me into a van, and I was driven halfway home, from what I know…

The next morning I wake, my eyes finding the house keys, and a cup of water. I know I couldn’t have done it alone but I pray that I did. Helen, where are you? And I’m so sorry. I’ll come spend winters with you in Russia if you can fly me out tonight. And I’ll make 7 am Tuesday morning up to you.

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