Category Archives: Travel

By Starbucks and Christmas lights

It’s how I finally learned these darn streets (and found my way home last night). I figure it’s finally about time I got a grip on the landscape here.

I’m officially almost 12 hours away from my 36 hour journey home.  It will commence in the morning with a trip to the airport, waiting at the airport, an 8 hour flight to New York, a 22 hour layover in New York (which will include a truly restful night’s sleep on a hard chair somewhere inside JFK airport), a flight to Chicago, another layover, and at last a short flight to Fort Wayne.

I’m ready.

Spain has been uneasily laced with an abundance of challenging frustrations, but at the end of the day, of course it was a great experience.  I think I’m a little too close to the situation to have any kind of an objective perspective though.

Right now, my heart is heavy with home and the ineptitudes of the educational system.  I’m remembering all the lonely nights and times that just weren’t quite everything I had hoped they would be.  But I think I only feel that way because I’m tired and thoroughly burnt out.

But even exhaustion can’t ever take away the magic week where I suddenly understood everything going on around me, what it was like to learn Paris all by myself in the middle of the night, or even what it was like in that taxi ride from the airport in Morocco.

My frame of mind is quickly transitioning to what I’m going to do next summer, where I’m going to live next year, my thesis, how I’m going to pay off school, and who’s going to hire me.  I think there’s something about going forward that will make looking back and recognizing everything I have because of this trip much more obvious.  Actually, I’m sure there is.

And I am truly thankful that I will have this blog as a record to go back and remember exactly what it was like, because, good and bad, it was all a learning experience.

In the coming months, there will be no spontaneous last minute cancelled trips to Ireland or tales of Moroccan orange juice.  So for the time being, the travel commentary has pretty much dried up (along with my bank account), but that doesn’t mean this blog is going anywhere.

I like to think that by writing things down, I’m not merely recanting inane facts from my day, but actually expressing what I’m thinking and learning along the way.  As such, I almost feel that converting the regular everyday to thoughtful text has more value.  A racing mind on a CSS Thursday night is truly magical, and coping with all the crazy stuff that goes down at Wes often takes all the energy I have.  Committing those experiences to text gives a whole new kind of long-term prospective.

All this traveling has convinced me that it in the end, it really is all the same.   As such, living someplace long enough to call it a real home  has got to really mean something.

So stay tuned, because I’m not going anywhere.  I’m just coming home.

ps

wordpress officially stinks because it is not letting me upload the lovely photo I took of my host family last night.

Advertisements

I thought deserts were hot (Morocco: Part III)

Saturday was full of all kinds of adventures, but the morning started early, quite mistakenly.  Turns out Morocco is in a different time zone.  We figured that out at about 5:30am.

The guy from the Sahara Expeditions tour came knocking on the door of our hostel at ten after seven and walked us to the 15 passenger vans we would be going out in.

I was quiet disappointed that we didn’t get to go around with the folks we had met in our hostel that morning, but because our expedition was only one day instead of two or three, we were in a different group.

As far as people that you spend the entire day with in a freezing bus with, we really could have lucked out better.

In our larger group of about a dozen folks, there was a smaller group of about five late-20 to early-30 year old guys that were really obnoxious.  They spoke loudly, and their conversation seemlessly flowed between German, Spanish, and English in a way that you just knew that they were changing languages so certain people wouldn’t be able to understand them.  

The trip started out with the long drive up the Atlas Mountains.  We stopped several times to take photos, but it was so foggy that we couldn’t see much.  That is until we reached the crest of the mountains, where small mounds of snow surrounded us.

I found the situation mildly comical and was convinced that our not knowing French or Arabic had caused a mix up.  Surely this cold trip wasn’t what we signed up for when we said we wanted to go to the Sahara.   Poor Veronica was really, really freezing.

Worse yet, was how many turns you have to make to drive up and down a mountain.  I spent a good portion of the morning with my eyes closed and my head pressed tightly against the seat in front of me, because it alleviated the motion sickness.  Some time later, I sat up and was delighted to discover that we were at last surrounded by earthen, orange dust.

And I must say, it looked nothing like the smooth mounds of sand I had imagined.  It was rocky and bumpy and not nearly as pretty as I’d thought it’d be.  Of course, part of that was just the part of the Sahara we were in.

Some time later, our van stopped in a small village on the side of a small mountain.  Veronica and I both bought the kinds of scarfs you wrap around and over your head to keep the sand from getting in your face.   As a result of that experience, I can now officially say that while I can’t tie a tie, I can indeed tie a turban.

We had a little bit of a nerve-wracking encounter with a merchant who tried to get us to walk into his empty restaurant a little bit away from the rest of the group, but Veronica and I backed out right away and it all worked out well.

The next stop was a rural village that has been the site of many films set in the dessert.  I’d provide you with a complete list, but the guy was speaking French, so all I can tell you is that Lawrence of Arabia was taped there, but so were many other movies.

By this point, some major culture shock was setting in, but after eating (albeit a terrible, terrible meal) with a couple in our group from France, I felt much better.

A few hours later, we finally made it back to Marrakesh, just in time to catch the credits to the film rolling in the market square as a part of the city’s 11th annual film festival.

It is difficult to describe the intensity of the chaos going on around us.  Motorcycles weaved between massive groups of people walking in every direction.  While crossing the street on the way to dinner, I was hit in the leg by a biker who didn’t see me.

We heard probably almost as much Spanish in Morocco as we did English.  In fact, we ordered our food in Spanish, because our waiter had a better grip on the language.

After a final glass of fresh orange juice and a short stroll in front of the shops, we headed back to the hostel to call it a night.  I spent my last hour at Marrakesh the next morning on the roof watching the sunrise over the city.

The trip was short, but it ended perfectly.

PS

I just finalized my plans for my final European trip.  Next week, I’m going to Dublin!


Movie moments (Morocco: Part II)

Lest you get the wrong idea from my last post, Morocco was amazing.

Sometimes you have those moments, the kind that are like snapshots from a movie.  I had a day full of those moments on one magical summer day while I was at LI two summers ago and in Paris last October.   One awful night a year ago, I learned that the knee-shaking, nerves thing is legit too.

Friday night was one of those movie moments too.  It was like the opening sequence with credits.  With an inconspicuously dropped jaw and my head bouncing off the roof of the taxi (it was bumpy ride), my eyes darted back and forth at the sights in front of me.  Motorcycles with what looked like big bicycle tires weaved in and out of traffic on the crowded street.  On those little bikes were entire families, with little babies tucked between mom’s chest and dad’s back.

The cab driver tried to speak English, but it was very garbled and I didn’t actually understand anything he said.  But he was still sweet, because he was trying to point out all the sights to us.  The big mosque, the park (which was funny because I thought he was saying the police needed to check out passports), and a few other places.

It was like seeing Notre Dame for the first time, except every direction was a new sight.   You realize that it actually does look like all the photos you’ve seen, because despite all the logic and facts you know, somewhere deep inside of you, that you didn’t even knew existed, it was like you didn’t ever believe that it was really real.

And it is, oh so real.

The nice Moroccan guy with really good English, picked Veronica and I up on the street and walked us to the hostel, which was amazing.  It was all bright and colorful and full of all kinds of travelers.  Between the hostel, the airport, people in the Sahara, the market, and everyplace else we went, we met folks from Britain, Croatia, Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, Spain, Morocco, and the Czech Republic (I think this list is accurate, can’t recall exactly)

Once in the hostel, we were greeted with fresh Moroccan mint tea.  And I must say, for a girl who’s had tea from seemingly every corner of the planet, I’ve only been able to sallow one type.  That is until I tried Moroccan tea.  It was actually amazing.  Now, I like two teas.

That night, Veronica and I ventured out to the market, which was quite literally almost right outside our door.  I’ve haggled with the best of them down on Canal Street (albeit poorly, but that’s besides the point).  But I’d never been in a market as aggressive as the one in Marrakesh.  Between the vendors, hagglers, merchants, beggars, children, and cat-callers we had to have been harassed by no less than 30 people (though maybe just 15 or so were actually trying to sell us stuff) just that night.

The children and the women would go so far as to come up and physically touch our hands and pull on our shirts.  Men who probably knew no more than 300 English words, certainly had adequate grip on how to insult women.

There’s just something about two tall, pale skinned women walking around the Marrakesh nightlife that just doesn’t blend in.  Can’t beat the couscous or fresh orange juice though.  Our dinner was wonderful.

We had a little scare finding our way back after dinner, but about half a dozen or so 10-year-old little boys helped us find our way.  Thank goodness I had thought to write our address on my hand before I left.

I was a little nervous about the whole hostel experience, just because I’d never been in one before.  But it all worked out wonderfully.  The roof of the building had the most incredible view of the city.  I went up there on the first night and just sat in silence for a few, precious moments.  I gazed at the stars, laid down on the chair, and said a quiet prayer, but the kind without words.


Warning in reverse (Morocco: Part I)

Author’s Note: All proceeding text is based on a 36 trip to Morocco, which though a wonderful experience I do recognize that it was most assuredly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  

(Apologies to Dad, Mom, Oma, Papa, and whoever else who loves and cares about me and will freak out as they read about my African travels.)  

Let me tell you a secret.

Okay, it’s not a secret, but it’s deeply sentimental.  My family went to Disney World several times when I was a little girl, then we moved to Florida and got season passes.  Then we went all the time.

One of our favorite restaurants was the one in at Epcot…in the World Showcase…in the back…on the left, Restaurant Marrakesh.  It was kind of hidden, and as such, it was often relatively empty.  Several times, my family was literally the only people there, which made it like our special place.  It was where I first ate couscous and Mychelle danced with the belly dancer.

Flash forward 10-15 years to last fall.  I was looking at map and studying the relative position of Spain to the rest of the world, and low and behold, it sat directly atop this country I held such amazing, albeit artificial because I was never really there, memories as a child. I never dreamed I’d be able to actually go there, but here I was in Spain, and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity.

Plus, I just wanted to say that I’d been to Africa.

And that was it.  I said I was going and talked Veronica into joining me (not that she needed any convincing).  Morocco was so exotic and foreign and Ryanair flights were about the same as they would be to any Western European country.

Though no one harmed me and I returned to Spain safely with my Moroccan desert scarf in hand, I did put myself in several dangerous situations.  Ones that I would recommend no one else follow my lead on.

Mistake #1 Somewhere along the way (between finals and just generally incoherent schedules), my plan to bring along more people,  failed.    

Mistake #2. The greatest error wasn’t really just in going with one other person, it was in going to an Islamic country…without a male.

The first two mistakes are made doubly important by error number three.

Mistake #3 I did not study the political situation before arriving.  If I had, I would never have gone.  As a result of Moroccan protests connected to the Arab Spring, King Mohammad IV moved up parliamentary elections from 2012 to six days before we arrived.   Additionally, last April, 15 people died in a terrorist attack in Jema El Fna, the busy market square 1 minute away from the hostel I stayed in.

According to the British government, the city of Marrakesh is under a general threat of terrorism and the region I traveled to in the Sahara is under a high threat of terrorism.  A few days before we arrived, two Spaniards and an Italian were kidnapped (although not in the regions I visited).

Thankfully, none of that happened.  Other things did though.  Good things.

lower region of the Atlas Mountains


Food fairs and books

Though we always mean to explore a new part of the city, Veronica and I somehow always end up back at Sol on Saturdays.  But it never really seems to matter, because we still always find something new.

Like today…

1. An international foods fair in Plaza Mayor.  Nothing like Ecuadorian chicken and rice and a Colombian tamale to warm you up on a chilly day.  (and trust me, it was cold.  probably cold enough that I ought to put away my summer flats)

2. I met an American lawyer, who while somewhat vague as to her specific job description, works for the federal government.  She started talking to us, because she heard English and wanted to know what was in my tamale.

I love all the crazy people you meet when you travel.  It was even crazier that after our brief conversation, she guessed that I wanted to be a lawyer too, even though I hadn’t told her what I study or what I want to do.  I asked her how she knew, and she just said it was in how I presented myself.  She and her husband arrived today and are staying for a month.  We talked outside in the plaza until it started to rain.  If the weather hadn’t cut us off, I would have asked for her business card.

3. I watched some guy attempt to pick Veronica up again.  She gets hit on so much, it’s almost become comical.  Fortunately, our conversation with the lawyer served as a very effective diversion and the guy got lost.

After Sol, we wondered around Nuevos Ministerios, which while I transfer trains there everyday, I’ve only actually left the train station there once.  So we explored.

Pride and Prejudice

After awhile, I wandered back to the bookstore I visited the one other time I was in the area.   I found book I flipped through on that September night, the one that I opened and realized for the first time that I could actually read, understand, and learn in Spanish.

I bought it this time, because I would love to fall asleep contemplating the tactical strategy employed by the British at Waterloo, but mostly because that moment when I was looking at it and realized I could read a book without looking up every other word felt so good.  And I need those little reminders.

And even though I’ve read Hobbes’ Leviathan 3x (in English, I understand it in English), I’m still not sure I can explain it on my upcoming test in intro to law.  And that frustrates me, a lot.  My Las Grandes Batallas de la Historia is just a personal reminder that while I still don’t get everything, I really do get a lot.

I need nights like tonight so bad.  Careless, thoughtless, and fun.  By the end, Veronica and I were just walking down a busy street in the dark and cold, talking about friends and relationships, what it’s really like to study abroad, our professional aspirations, and history.

I realized that it had been so long since I’ve spent a lot of time someone who doesn’t mind geeking out a little bit.  As we were going down the stairs to our respective metros, I was quite passionately discussing Napoleon’s fall to Veronica while she chewed me out for my wholly inadequate knowledge of Alexander the Great.  It was great.


Thoughtless can be good too (Paris, Part II)

Keep running, because the view around the corner would take your last breath away anyways.  Wind isn’t the only thing that ought not be metaphoric; distance is good too.

It clears the mind.

Nothing gets rid of pent up exhaustion like an open invitation to a new city.  The last week has been….not fun.  I just wish I could explore Spain and forget classes.

I’ve tried to look at it from a little outside perspective, but I am really at a loss as to the purpose of the educational system here.  And that eats at me.  It’s not that I’m not learning things, it’s just I don’t know why what I am learning has value.

When I consider all the philosophers I’ve yet to study, the history I can barely explain, the economists whose names I only know, the speeches I’ve never read, the 40 book queue on my Kindle that just starts to touch on these topics, and the knowledge that I can only teach myself the things I know I should know (meaning there is a lot I don’t know enough to know that I should know),  I can’t help but feel a final paper requiring me to contrast one book with Animal Farm, a book I read as a freshman in high school, is an assignment that’s not worth my time.

Combine that frustration with the need to learn things that I know has value, but really stink at memorizing, like nitty-gritty Spanish grammar rules and thousands of new words.

By the end of last week, I had about all I could healthily bare, which made waking up in Paris with no plan for the day and the freedom to do whatever I wanted all the more welcome.

It felt foreign, but not because I was in France.  I’m just not used to having that much freedom and mobility.  I had no responsibilities and the time and resources to do just about anything I wanted to with the day.

And trust me, I made it so worth the while.

I folded the free map I picked up at the airport, stuffed it in my coat pocket, and set out for a metro stop that seemed to be near important things.  When I got there, I just picked a direction started walking.

It felt a lot like those first couple days in Santiago, when I would just step outside the dorm, look around, and realize that all the pictures I’ve seen of places like this were real.  When you hear so much and about a place, but never see it, it just doesn’t feel real.  And that’s because it’s not.

No photo, video, or story can ever actually portray reality.  For that, you really have to be there.

So it was a morning of slowing strolling through new streets, admiring architecture and coincidentally finding the Paris Opera, the Tuileries Garden, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and the Arc de Triomphe.

dessert

And that was all before lunch, which was awfully tasty.  I met Coralie, and while I haven’t actually the slightest idea what we ate (other than it was some kind of cheese and marmalade on toast), it was very French and delicious.

That afternoon, I set off to find Notre Dame, which took me awhile.  But it gave me a lot of time to contemplate all the assumptions I had made about France.  I must admit, I was never too fond of it, as a country.  I might not be a real scholar of French history, but I tend to side with Mr. Burke’s arguments when it comes to the French Revolution, I see nothing to admire in their government, I don’t follow the French political mindset, and I’d always heard the people were rude.

The first two are still completely true, the third mostly true, and, in my own experience, the last one’s not true at all.

From the guy who showed me where to run to catch the last train, to the guys who held the door open as I ran down the escalator to catch that train, figured out how to help me at the store despite not knowing a word of what I was saying (a situation made worse/slightly comical when I then immediately/instinctively began speaking to him in Spanish), to my friends’ hospitality, and to the people they introduced me to, people were always very kind.

Whenever people ask me where I come from, I usually just say Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  If they inquire about my family’s pre-American roots, I’ll boast my German and English history, but I don’t often say much about the French part.

I think I might mention that first now.


Love, luck, and a prayer (Paris, Part I)

How I struck old Murphy’s law from the books and got to Paris without ever getting lost.

From the UC3M campus in Getafe (south of Madrid), to getting to and from the airports, to quickly making my own adjustments to the metro directions Coralie gave me, recognizing the apartment I was to stop at from google maps street view, and knowing that when Coralie said 2nd floor, she really meant 3rd (Europeans and their zero floors,) I got to Paris without a single misstep.

This is really quite epic, because I can’t ever recall getting someplace on my own by myself without making a wrong turn…ever.

I was literally the very last person on the last train out of the airport in Paris on Wednesday night.  I only made it because some security officer saw me fumbling at the ticket machine and yelled at me to run (and where to run) and some blessed man held the train door open for me as I ran down the escalator.  The door closed behind me, and the train started moving.

When the train stopped one stopped running one stop short of where I was to transfer, I followed the mass of people until I found an information desk, and spoke with a man there who did not know English very well, but he managed to tell me where to go anyway.

I didn’t understand his directions, but his telling me which way to walk led me to map where I was able to figure out how to get where I needed to go on my own.

Having learned the DC, New York, Boston, and Madrid subway systems by myself, Paris’s wasn’t hard to figure out, but with my whole body nearly throbbing from exhaustion (a very full day of classes then 7 hours of travel), not having the slightest idea where I was at, and the realization that I understood absolutely nothing being said around me, I could have really freaked myself out.  But I didn’t.

I thought clearly, with a peace and calm I’m not used to composing in stressful situations (which are always exacerbated when I have to get through them alone).  This is completely new for me, but it felt so good.

When I finally arrived at my destination and Coralie opened the door (proving my hypothesis that though she was writing me in English, she would not convert European style floor naming 0,1,2 to an American 1,2,3), and I saw that I hadn’t knocked on some random person’s door in the middle of the night, I let out a sigh so deep that I physically leaned forward.

And with that breath, I closed the quiet prayer that started in Madrid and was felt so deep in my chest that there had been almost no words at all.  I was there, and it was awesome, but getting there, that was just the beginning…

at the Louvre