Copenhagen

We arrived in Copenhagen from Athens on the morning of June 26th.  Our original plan did not include Denmark, but when we were booking our flight tickets to come back to the states the cheapest option we found was from Copenhagen to New York, with anything straight from Athens being significantly more expensive.  Therefore, we decided to fly to New York by way of Copenhagen with a one day layover there so we could see some of the sights.  Consequently, we started our trip in a Scandinavian country (Iceland), and also ended in one (Denmark).  Copenhagen is a beautiful city although it is very expensive even compared to London, New York, and San Francisco.  That probably wiped out some of our savings on the plane tickets, but it was worth the price to be able to see it and I don’t think we could afford more than one night there anyway.

We arrived in the late morning and on our way to our hostel and were greeted with a massive thunderstorm.  We ducked into a coffee shop to ride out the worst of it, where we watched it turn from rain to hail and then back to rain again accompanied by thunder and lightning the whole time.  Once it seemed to let up a little we decided to make a break for the hostel as it wasn’t too far.  As we were crossing the street outside the coffee shop there was a bright flash and loud bang right above our heads.  We must have been right below the thunder as it sounded like a bomb going off right above us.  It was the closest I think I’ve ever been to a lightning strike and the closest I would want to be.  It was like we were being welcomed to Denmark by Thor himself, definitely startling.  Once we got checked in to our hostel, the storm had passed and we headed out to explore the city.

Our first stop was the iconic street of Hyhavn, which has a canal running down the middle with sailboats docked along the sides and is lined with multicolored buildings.  Next we headed to the Amalienborg palace, which is the winter home of the Danish royal family.  Near there is Frederik’s Church, which was started in 1749, but due to various calamaties, it wasn’t actually completed until 1894.  It is a beautiful building and we were lucky enough to get there just in time for one of the two daily times where they open up the dome for visitors to climb up.  It was fun to climb up the various spiral staircases and catwalks to the top of the dome and of course it provided great views of the city.  The church employee who opened it up for us and took us to the top was also very friendly and gave us good information on the history of the church and what to see in Copenhagen while we were there.  Next, we went to the center of the old town which has many nice pedestrianized streets and lots of interesting shops and stores showing off the famous Scandinavian design, think Ikea but more refined and a lot more expensive.  Much like Portland, Copenhagen has a very developed bike culture with nice bike lines and other bike related infrastructure everywhere.  There were a lot of people on bikes from students to men in very stylish suits.  We finished up the day with dinner at a restaurant on Grabrodre square.  Copenhagen is also famous for it’s cuisine, with multiple Michelin starred restaurants and it is also home to what many say is the best restaurant in the world called Noma.  We decided to skip Noma since the prices start at about $200 per person, but the mid-range place we ate at was still very good, a little less expensive (although it was still over $100 for the two of us) and the atmosphere outside on the square was nice with street musicians playing and ample people watching opportunities.

We had most of the next day in Copenhagen as well since our flight didn’t leave for New York until around 7:00 PM.  We ate breakfast and then headed to the neighborhood of Christianshavn and what is known and Freetown Christiana.  Christiana has a long and complicated history, but it is basically an “autonomous neighborhood” created when squatters and artists took over an abandoned military base in the early 1970s and set up what has become the world’s longest lived commune.  The authorities generally leave it alone and the people there operate on their own terms and rules.  Hashish is openly sold and consumed in the “green light zone”, but hard drugs are not allowed and of course there is a lot more to it than just the hashish although that is the main draw for many.  There are interesting murals everywhere, cafes and bars, a concert hall, and a huge building supply store.  In true Danish fashion there are hand made houses, many of them meticulous in design such as the one made of all glass on the side of the lake in the middle of town.  I think the fact that this place has managed to stay alive for so long when it would have squashed long ago in the United States speaks volumes about Danish tolerance and respect for community and individual freedom.

After the visit to Christiana, we had lunch at one of Copenhagen’s famous hot dog stands and then spent a couple of hours in the National Museum.  The national museum was great.  It was free of charge and included a wealth of information and objects about the entire history of Denmark from prehistory to the Vikings to modern times.

I really enjoyed Copenhagen despite the high cost and would reccommend it to anyone.  In our society I think the Scandinavian countries are at least overlooked and at worst disparaged as being too “socialist”.  Seeing it though you can’t help but think that they are doing something right.  It is obviously an affluent country with a high standard of living that has managed to protect it’s most vulnerable while not stifling commerce.  Copenhagen has also managed to take extraordinary steps to protect the environment and be one of the greenest cities in the world as evidenced by the windmills off the coast, the multitudes of bicycles, and the meticulously clean streets.

This was our last overseas stop and we are now back in the U.S. in New York for a few days before heading back to Portland.  See you all soon!

Athens

We arrived in Athens, Greece on June 24th on the overnight ferry from Kos.  We got there about 10:30 am giving us most of the day to explore.  We also had the full next day for sightseeing before moving on to Copenhagen.  Our first adventure upon getting off the ferry was finding the Metro to be able to get to the city center and our hostel.  After wandering around for a while we finally found a bus stop and asked the driver how to get to the Metro.  She was incredibly friendly and helpful and told us to get on the bus even though we didn’t have tickets and she told us when we arrived at the Metro station.  Her helpfulness and kindness were characteristic of almost all of the Greeks we met, just very nice, amicable people, a true pleasure to be around.

Once we got to our hostel and checked in, our first destination was the National Archaeological Museum.  First though, we got some lunch at a Gyro place and needless to say, being the home of the Gyro, it was really good and really cheap.  The museum was filled with all kinds of artifacts and artwork from prehistory through Classical Greece and the Roman period.  It was a good way to start out as it gave us some background and history on the sites we would be visiting the next day.  The highlight for me was seeing the “Antikythera Mechanism“, which is an intricate bronze machine used for astronomical calculations that was retrieved from the wreck of a ship.  It is said by some to be the first computer and I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, so it was really neat to see it up close and in person.  We finished up the day with dinner at a restaurant with a great view of the Parthenon.  It was delicious Greek fare including Souvlaki and when we tried to leave, the gave us a free dessert of chocolate cake and some desert wine spiced with cinnamon and orange.

The next day, we started out in the Ancient Agora.  This is the center of the ancient city located right below the Acropolis.  The number of ruins here, some in very good shape like the Temple of Hephaestus, are really incredible.  Walking around there it doesn’t take much effort to picture it full of ancient Greeks conducting business, philosophy, and democracy.  From there, we went up to the Acropolis and saw the Parthenon, theatre, etc.  After that we split up for a bit and I walked down to the Arch of Hadrien and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is one of the largest of the ancient archaological sites in Athens.  Next, I went to Syntagma Square where the parliament is located and watched the changing of the guards there.  It is quite a sight to see with the guards doing an intricate dance every hour with very distinctive attire including little pom-poms on the ends of their shoes.    Their uniforms apparently take from different areas and eras of Greece and the kilt they wear stretches back perhaps 4,000 years to the time of the Minoans.  We finished the day with a delicious dinner at a place in the Psirri district that had live traditional Greek music and another free dessert at the end of watermelon and cherries.

Athens was a great city and I highly reccomend it to anyone.  Not only is it full of so much history and archaeological sites, but it is full of the friendliest and vibrant people you will meet anywhere.  Pictures below and stay tuned for our final overseas stop of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Kos

We left Antalya on the night of June 20th bound for the Aegean coastal town of Bodrum in Turkey and our ferry to the Greek island of Kos.  We decided to make the 7 hour journey on the night bus to give us one more day in Antalya and to save a hotel room for one night.  In hindsight, we also decided that it would have been better to take one of the day buses to Bodrum and stay the night there.  We got on the bus at midnight on the 20th and neither of us got much sleep.  We arrived in Bodrum about 7:00 AM and found our ferry after wandering around for a while and asking a lot of locals where the ferry port was.  We departed about 9:00 AM.  The trip across the water was only about 45 minutes, but after standing in the customs line on the Turkish side and then passport control on the Greek side, it was about 3 hours in total.

In Kos, we arrived in the port town of Kos City, got some lunch and then got a taxi to our final destination in the town of Kardamaina about half an hour away.  The taxi driver was a very nice local man who gave us a great primer on the island, the people who live there, and what to do while we’re there.  After a long trip, our room with and actual bed was a welcome sight.  After a couple hours of much needed sleep, we took the five minute walk to the beach and spent a couple of hours there before having dinner at an awesome seafood restaurant right on the beach.  June 21st also happened to be our sixth wedding anniversary so it was a nice way to celebrate.

The next day, which was our only full day in Kos, we rented a scooter for about $20 and rode all over the island.  It is very small, only about 10 Km across and 45 Km long, so you can cover a lot of it on a scooter in just a day.  We started out by riding up to the ruins of the fortress overlooking Kardamaina.  The view from there was great, and it was a nice place to find a shady tree and eat our lunch.  From there we rode to the other side of the island to the town of Marmari for some more beach time and swimming in the warm waters of the Aegean.  Next, we rode to the Western most end of the island, and then up to the mountain town of Zia where we had some cold drinks and enjoyed the view.  After returning the scooter at 8:00 PM, we walked into Kardamaina and had dinner of pizza and salad while watching soccer, which is the only thing anyone has on TV in Greece right now.  It was almost like our normal Sunday night ritual at home of pizza and a movie.

The next day we spent by the pool at our hostel and at the beach before going back to Kos City to get our overnight ferry to Athens at 10:00 PM.  The ferry to Athens was a really great way to go.  It was fairly cheap, about the cost of a hotel room and included a cabin with two beds and a full bathroom with shower.  It was really fun to hang out on the deck and the views of all of the Greek islands we passed by were great.  We got much better sleep than we did on the bus.

We are now in Athens, which is our second to final destination before heading back to the U.S. in a few days.

Konya and Antalya

We left Goreme on June 15th and took a bus to the city of Konya about half way between Goreme and the coastal city of Antalya.  We only stayed in Konya one night mostly because we wanted to break up the long bus ride from Goreme to Antalya.  Konya is best known as the home of the Whirling Dervishes and the site of the tomb of the famous Sufi mystic and poet Jallal Ad-din Rumi, also known as Mevlana.  After we arrived and got to our hotel, we walked to the Rumi tomb and museum as it was closed the next day and we wouldn’t have much time before catching our bus to Antalya anyone.  Both of us are fans of Rumi’s poetry, so it was neat to see the tomb.  It was a beautiful building that is also an Islamic holy place so there were people praying inside and once again Jocelyn had to cover her hair and we had to wear little plastic booties inside.

The next day, we got back on the bus and moved on to the city of Antalya on the Mediterrenan coast.  A word about Turkish buses here, they are really nice.  Not only are the tickets cheap, but they run like clockwork, always on time in our experience, and the service is great.  There is a whole crew on the bus kind of like an airplane.  Sometimes there is two drivers on the longer trips so they can switch off and there is also a steward who comes through with a cart and serves free drinks and snacks a couple of times throughout the trip.  There is also an entertainment system in each seat with TV (in Turkish), movies, and music.  Compared to Greyhound, it is the definition of luxury.

We were in Antalya a total of 4 days.  It is a bustling city of 1 million with an interesting old town, decent beaches, and a beautiful setting on a large bay surrounded by mountains that seem to jut straight up out of the sea.  We stayed in the old town that was a bit touristy, but had some interesting historical sites including Hadrian’s Gate, built by the Roman emporer Hadrian, and the ruins of a mosque that started out as a Roman Basilica.  We spent a lot of time on the beach and swimming in the Mediterrenean and we also visited the Antalya Archaelogical Museum, which has a huge collection of Roman artifacts and statues from the surrounding Roman ruins and archaelogical sites.

We also took one day trip to the city of Demre which has the ruins of the ancient Lycian/Roman city of Myra and the church of St. Nicholas (yes, that St. Nicholas, Santa Claus as we know him). Myra was very interesting as it has a Necropolis (tombs) cut right into the side of the mountains, similar to the churches in Cappadocia.  It also has a very much intact Roman era amphitheatre.  It was fun to climb around on it and picture it full of people 2,000 years ago watching the latest Roman theater performances.  The church of St. Nicholas was also very interesting.  St. Nicholas spent most of his life here as the Bishop and his tomb is in the church.  It is a pilgrimage site for Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, so there were people there sticking various objects under the tomb to be blessed and praying.  Much of the church is in ruins, but there are some frescoes that are in good shape and the main basilica is also still standing.  It was actually just a nice place to visit and hang out as it provided a cool and shady refuge from the blazing midday sun that we had just been walking in for the previous couple of hours.

We had a good time in Antalya and it was very nice to take it easy for a few days and just hang out on the beach after the break neck pace we had been doing for the previous few weeks.  Pictures below, and stay tuned for the Greek island of Kos and Athens up next.

Cappadocia

We arrived in the Cappadocia region of Turkey on June 11th and were there for a total of three days and four nights. This is one of the most incredible places I have ever seen and any description I can come up with can’t possible do it justice so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.  We were originally going to take a night bus from Istanbul, but decided to fly instead.  The plane tickets were relatively cheap and spending 12 hours on a bus, trying to sleep, etc. didn’t sound like much fun to us.

Cappadocia is a region that contains four main towns; Nevsehir, Urgup, Goreme, and Uchisar.  We decided to stay in the town of Goreme as it is fairly centrally located and is within walking distance of many of the best hiking areas.  We stayed at a place called Yasin’s Place Cave Hostel. One of the things that makes Cappadocia so incredible is that in these towns, people have actually carved caves out of the rock pinnacles and have used them as houses for centuries.  The hostel was one of these with many of the rooms being carved right out of the rock.  Our room was mostly in a building attached to the rock pinnacle many of the other rooms are carved out of, so the only part that was actually in a cave was the bathroom.  It was a really cool place to stay and if you are going to Cappadocia and Goreme, I highly reccommend staying in one of the many cave hotels.  Goreme is very touristy however and it would be easy to get sucked into all of the tours, ATV rentals, balloon rides, etc.  However, in my opinion, the best thing to do here is to hike around in the valleys surrounding Goreme.  Not only do you escape the crowds (the trails were amazingly empty given the number of tourists in the towns), but it is absolutely free.

Our first full day in Cappadocia, we did a hike where we made a big loop around Goreme exploring three of the main valleys surrounding it.  We started out in Pigeon Valley, so named because it contains many pigeon houses that have been carved out of the rock up on the cliffs above the trail.  These houses were used by local people to keep pigeons for three main purposes including collecting the guano to fertilize their gardens, using the pigeons for communication, and using the eggs to make paint for the frescoes in the hundreds of Byzantine era cave churches scattered throughout the area.  Pigeon valley connects Goreme with the town of Uchisar which contains a castle carved into the rock and many cave houses.  From Uchisar we hiked down into Love Valley, so named because of the phallic shaped rock formations it contains (no, I’m not making this up, that’s what the signs said).  From Love Valley we connected up with Rose Valley to return to Goreme.  Rose Valley contains a higher concentration of the Byzantine cave churches than the others and we came across a couple of these our first day.  The first time was exhilarating.  We climbed up into a little door carved into one of the pinnacles and were greeted with what was obviously a tiny church with an altar at the front, a baptismal, benches along the sides and very faded frescoes and Maltese crosses.  It was definitely an indulgence of all of my boyhood Indiana Jones fantasies.  A little more about these cave churches.  There are hundreds of them scattered around Goreme of all various sizes, some in better shape than others.  They are Greek Orthodox churches and were mostly made in the 8-10 centuries during the heyday of the Byzantine Empire.  Some of them have incredibly beautiful frescoes that are still relatively intact owing to being in a cave and not being subjected to sunlight.  It is a really amazing experience to hike through a beatiful place and come across one of these, step inside, and be greeted by 1,000 year old frescoes, just awesome.  Again, my boyhood Indiana Jones fantasies coming alive.  On our way back to Goreme, we were walking along and were enthusistically greeted by one of the farmers who still live and work in all of these valleys.  He showed us his pigeon house carved into the rock high above his garden and then he shared some bread and onions with us and we shared some cookies.  Although we couldn’t talk about much due to the language barrier, he was very nice and seemed genuinely happy to see us and to show us his place, very cool.  After a full 8 hour day of hiking by the time we got back to Goreme, we were beat.  Showers, food, and bed were definitely in order.

Our second day, we decided to take one of the tours.  There are many tour companies in Goreme and they all offer more or less the same tours color coded as red, green, and yellow.  The green tour was the one we took as it went to the places that were not within walking distance of Goreme.  It was well worth the price of $50 each as it was a full day(9:30-6:00), included all entry fees to the various sites, included lunch, and of course the guide.  The first main stop was the Derinkuyu Underground City.  This is a underground complex carved out of the ground between 2000 BC and 300 AD.  It has 8 levels, goes to a depth of 80 meters, and could house about 20,000 people including food stores and livestock.  The city was started by the Hittite people around 2000 BC and was used for military and food storage purposes.  It was later expanded by early Christians to provide refuge in times of danger.  Next was a short hike through the beautiful Ihlara Valley with a visit to one of the churches there followed by lunch.  The last major stop was the Selime Monastery, an early Christian monastery complex carved into the rock including a cathedral, chapels, and kitchens.

Our third and final full day, we started out at the Goreme Open Air Museum.  This is a must see place if you are in Goreme, although it was pretty crowded with tourists as many places directly accessible by car or bus seemed to be.  This is another monastery complex and it contains some very beautiful and well preserved frescoes as well as kitchens and refectories that give you bit of a feel for what it might have been like to actually live in a place like this.  Definitely pay the extra $5 to go into the Dark Church as it contains the best preserved frescoes we saw anywhere.  After that, Jocelyn and I split up for a while and went to do some more hiking around Goreme.  I started out in the Sword Valley right over the hill from the museum.  This was a very narrow slot canyon where you could touch both sides of it in a lot of places.  From there I connected up with Rose Valley again, but this time explored the other side of it.  Here I found a lot of solitude and also some more really cool churches.

Cappadocia is unlike anywhere I have ever seen.  Not only is it full of stunning natural beauty, but the history and artistic beauty of the cave churches is like nothing you’ll see anywhere else.  This was definitely a highlight of this whole trip for me, and I would highly reccomend it to anyone going to Turkey.

Istanbul

We arrived in Istanbul from Casablanca at 12:30 am on June 6th.  We booked a room at the airport hotel since we got in late and the Sabiha Gocken airport that we flew into is quite a ways from the city center.  As luck would have it, they messed up our reservation so we were upgraded for free to a suite.  It was by far the nicest place we’ve ever stayed or probably ever will stay unless something like this happens again.  It was definitely a nice way to start our time in Turkey.  It was just a shame we weren’t there longer to enjoy it more.  After some sleep, we got up and had an awesome breakfast at the hotel and then headed to the shuttle bus to Taksim in the center of Istanbul’s new town.  It was about an hour ride and then another half our or so on public transit to get to our hostel in the Sultanhamet district of the old city.  First impressions of Istanbul were first that it is huge (14 million people), but also very people friendly with great public transportation options (subway, funicular, light rail) and lots of streets that are pedestrian only.  Even though it is so huge it didn’t feel overwhelming upon first arrival.  We had no trouble getting around or finding where we needed to go.  When we got off the light rail we were almost immediately greeted with views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and also by the sounds of some kind of international music festival that was happening in the park adjacent to the Hippodrome.  After getting checked in to our hostel, we decided our first thing to do would be going to the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque was the first and only mosque we’ve actually been inside on our trip.  There are many mosques in Morocco of course, but non-muslims are not allowed to go inside any of them.  Going inside the Blue Mosque was a an interesting experience.  The building is huge both inside and out and beautifully decorated inside with blue tiles and mosaics that give it it’s name.  Jocelyn had to cover her hair and shoulders and we both had to take off our shoes upon entering and carry them around with us while we visited.  The entire floor inside is covered with carpet and there were actually people there praying while we were there, which was interesting.  As compared to the cathedrals we’ve been to, it was on as grand a scale as many of them, but felt a bit more comfortable to me, not as cold.  The wall to wall carpeting helped, but it also seemed to be a place were people could just come and hang out.  There was a library in one of the corners with people reading books as well as people praying in the center.  The people praying in the center were all men, with the women’s area being a more private area on the edges with screens.  One interesting thing that I learned is that men and women aren’t necessarily seperated for mysoginistic reasons.  The reason is that Muslim prayer involves a lot of bending over and having men and women doing this together could be distracting for everyone.  Women can pray in peace without worrying about someone staring at their ass while they bend over and men can pray in peace without being distracted by asses to stare at.

Our second day we started out at the Hagia Sofia.  This is an incredible building that has been both an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and a mosque before being converted into the museum it is today.  It was built in 537 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, making it almost 1,500 years old, which blows my mind.  It was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453.  The sheer size, antiquity, and beauty of the place is staggering.  It was definitely one of the highlights of Istanbul for me.  After the Hagia Sofia, we went to the Basilica Cistern, with is a huge underground water storage facility built around the same time as the Hagia Sofia.  It is a really interesting place as it is underground for one, which is always interesting and it is built with recycled Roman columns from all kinds of different eras.  There are even some fish that live in the two feet or so of water that sits at the bottom still.  Finally, in the evening we took the light rail to the new city and Istiklal Avenue.  This is the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife and it was a lively scene indeed.  The street was filled with people and we even saw a wedding procession winding through the crowd playing drums and flutes. We had some dinner on the street Nevizade Sokak, which is a whole street/alleyway filled with restaurants one block off of Istiklal Avenue.  The food was delicious and well priced and I tried the local libation called Raki that is similar to the Greek Uzo and a little like Jagermeister with a really strong flavor of Anise.  They serve it with a bucket of ice that you drop in that turns it a cloudy color and dilutes the drink as the ice melts making it a little more palatable.  After dinner, we sat down at a bar on the street and watched a couple of excellent guitar players/singers do their thing.

Our third day, the biggest thing we did was go to the Topkapi Palace, which was the palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 until 1856 when a new, European style palace was built on the banks of the Bosphorus.  It was a really interesting place since each Sultan added to it over 400 years making for an interesting hodge podge of different architectural styles.  The most interesting part in my opinion was the area where they keep some of the Sacred Relics of Islam.  Since the Sultan was also the Caliph (spiritual head of Islam), many of these relics were sent to Istanbul.  They include a piece of the prophet Muhammed’s tooth and lots of hair from his beard, Muhammed’s sword and bow, a signed letter from Muhammed, and keys and gutters from the Kabba in Mecca.  They also claim to have Moses’ staff, king David’s sword, Joseph’s turban, and a pot belonging to Abraham, although the authenticity of these seems a little suspect to me.  When you are in there, there is an Imam reciting verses from the Quran which goes on 24 hours a day and has been going non-stop for 400 years.  We also went to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.  The Grand Bazaar is a huge covered market that is a little bit like a shopping mall one would find in the US, although with a lot more character owing to it’s age.  It is very touristy however without too many locals aside from the shop keepers.  Around the edges however you can find more locals and we managed to find an area with silversmith shops where we saw some silversmiths at work making hand-casted silver items.

Our final full day in Istanbul we took a ferry up the Bosphorus strait which runs down the middle of Istanbul seperating Europe from Asia and connecting the Black Sea to the mediterranean.  The cruise went all the way up the strait to the mouth of the Black Sea and to a little town called Anadolu Kava??. We went by the new palace built in 1856, the collosal bridges that span the Bosphorus (each one about a mile long), and Ottoman fortresses.  The ferry stopped in Anadolu Kavagi for about three hours.  We hiked up the hill to a castle overlooking the town that had great views of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus with the skyscrapers of Istanbul in the distance. We also had lunch where we tried the local specialty of fired mussels and Sea Bass.

Istanbul is truly an incredible city and definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.  It is so ancient, yet so modern and vibrant at the same time.  It really is an international city with people from all over the world mingling peacefully together. Everyone we met here was incredibly nice and hospitable and most spoke great English which was nice for us and a testament to the excellent education system they have here.  I highly reccomend going to Istanbul to anyone, there is nowhere quite like it I don’t think, you won’t regret it.  Pictures below.

Essaouiera and the Atlantic Coast

We left Merzouga and the Saharra on June 2nd and started our journey to Essaouiera on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco.  We took a little bit different route from Merzouga to Ouarzazate than we took on our way there.  This time we went through the Draa valley, which was really beautiful, but the road was terrible with potholes that threatened to swallow the whole car.  We also had the adventure of getting a flat tire and having to change it in the middle of the desert.  In Merzouga we met a couple on our camel trek who caught a ride with us to Ouarzazate. David from Sweden and Greta from Denmark.  They also continued on with us to Essouiera, and then on to Casablanca as well. It was fun to meet some new friends and to have them along with us for the ride.

Essouiera is a nice beach town and fishing village on the Atlantic Coast.  We stayed there for 3 nights, which was nice since we were pretty exhausted from all of the driving, camel riding, etc from the previous few days.  Our first day in Essouiera, we took it pretty easy, sleeping in and going for a long walk on the beach.  The beach was nice although very very windy.  This is what makes it a destination for kite boarders who were fun to watch while we walked.  Our second day we drove South to the Amal women’s co-operative that makes and sells Argan oil. The Argan tree is native to this part of Morocco and it’s fruit is used to make an oil that is similar to olive oil, but with a more distinctive, nutty flavor. The process of extracting the seeds from the fruit is very labor intensive as it requires removing the outer shell and then cracking the hard nut inside to remove the seeds.  This is all done by hand by the women here and we were able to go inside and see the whole process including the fruit drying in the sun, the women extracting the seeds, and the equipment that they use to produce the oil.  On the way back we saw and Argan tree that was full of goats that had climbed up in the branches to eat the fruits I’m assuming.  It was quite a sight.  Also on our way back we turned off of the main road and followed a sign for a beach.  This brought us to a small fishing village with a really nice beach with interesting rock formations and tide pools that was thankfully not windy and did not have very many people.  We got there about the time the fisherman were returning and got to watch them pull the boats out of the water with a tractor. This tiny village also had a fish processing facility that, according to the sign, was financed by the American People.  It was refreshing to see a sign of our country doing some good in this small corner of the Muslim world.  I can’t help but think that seeing more of this kind of thing would do more to stop terrorism than all of the drone strikes and the “war on terror” ever will.  In the evening we explored the Medina a bit and had dinner at the fish market there.  This was a really interesting experience and the food was great.  we showed up there, picked out some fresh fish from one of the sellers (shrimp, a couple of sardines, and some bigger fish that I’m not sure of the species), and then took it up the grill where they rubbed it with olive oil, added some spices, and then cooked it right there for us.  We also got salad, olives, and fries all for a decent price.  The fish was super fresh having been caught in Essouiera that day, very tasty, and the cooks were really nice and helpful in navigating the whole process.  I definitely recommend this if you’re in Essouiera.

The next day we got up and made the 4 hour drive to Casablanca to get on our plane to Instanbul at 6:00 PM.  We really enjoyed our time in Morocco.  The people and culture are warm, friendly, and kind once you learn to steer clear of the scammers and the landscapes are incredibly beautiful and unique. It was eye-opening to see a Muslim country and culture first-hand since there are so many misconceptions about it in our own country.   I’ve learned to understand and appreciate the differences in Islamic culture from our own, but also that those differences don’t need to stand in the way of people showing kindness, decency, and respect to one another as the people of Morocco have shown to us.  Morocco has certainly left it’s mark on me and I’ll carry the experience with me for the rest of my life.

The Sahara

We left Marrakech on Friday, May 30th and headed South over the Atlas Mountains and towards the Sahara desert.  We decided to rent a car for the rest of our travels in Morocco in order to save some time on bus rides and to allow us to be more flexible and see some more things on the way.  At first I was a bit nervous about driving in Morocco after observing traffic in Tangier and Marrakech, but in reality it hasn’t been bad at all, definitely much easier than Ireland.  For one, they drive on the right side of the road the same as we do in the U.S., and the roads are much wider in general than they are in Ireland.  Once you get outside of the cities there also isn’t much traffic because there just aren’t that many cars.  On first observation, driving looks very chaotic with cars going all over the place, honking, not respecting lanes, etc.  However,  other drivers are really very courteous and since it is a bit chaotic it forces everyone to pay much more attention to what is going on.  I’ve found that people communicate much better on the road than in the U.S., making eye contact, using turn and hand signals, and yes, honking to let you know they are passing or just that they are there.  When on the two lane highways, truck drivers especially will almost always let you know when it is safe to pass either by turning on their right turn signal or by just waving a hand out the window.  There are also a lot of speed traps and people will flash their lights at you coming the other way to let you know one is coming up.  Besides all of the speed traps, there are also what seem to be just random police stops.  The police will set up a road block where everyone stops and if they think you look suspicious or something they will pull you over and if not, they’ll wave you through.  Luckily we’ve escaped both the speed traps and road blocks so far.

Our first night on the road, we stopped in the town of Ouarzazate on our way to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara.  On our way we picked up a young man who’s car had broken down and gave him a ride the rest of the way to Ouarzazate.  There are a lot of hitchhikers on Morocco and we stayed clear of all of them although we felt bad a lot of the time leaving people in basically the middle of nowhere.  This kid seemed legit though and we felt more comfortable picking up someone who’s car had broken down than we did about just picking up random hitchhikers.  I suppose it’s a Karma thing, we would hope someone would pick us up if we were in the same situation, especially here.  He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we gathered that he was a Berber from another desert town called M’Hamid and was the proud owner of 60 camels there.  He was on his way to Ouarzazate to hook up with his brother before they left on their annual camel caravan across the Saharra to Timbuktu. That’s right, they still walk for two months across the Saharra in camel caravans to trade in Timbuktu just as they have done for centuries. When we arrived in Ouarzazate, we took him to his brother’s house and were invited in for some tea with his brother, Nayrawen.  We stayed for an hour or so talking about M’Hamid and the camel caravans, telling Nayrawen about Portland, and looking at pictures from their treks across the Saharra.  Nayrawen was really nice and genuinely grateful to us for picking up his little brother on the side of the road.  Like the other Berbers that we have met he is warm, open, and just fun to be around.  Once we finished tea and conversation, he offered to take us to an oasis town called Fint a little ways outside of Ouarzazate after we got checked in to our hotel and had  little while to rest after the trip.  We took him up on the offer and agreed to pick him up a couple of hours later.

We picked up Nayrawen a couple of hours later and drove out of town.  We turned off the paved road and onto some pretty rough dirt road across the desert.  The desert here is more rocky than sandy and it seriously looks like pictures that you see of Mars.  Just red mountains and red volcanic rock all around.  There are a few scrubby bushes, but not much in the way of visible life.  It is very desolate, but very beautiful at the same time.  After driving across this barren landscape for a few kilometers, we came over the top of a hill and were suddenly looking down into a lush green oasis filled with palm trees.  It is absolutely beautiful and the juxtaposition of the oasis with the surrounding barren mountains is really something to see.  We drove down into the oasis, parked the car a little ways in and then got out and walked around the small village and agricultural lands inside the oasis.  Nayrawen seemed to know everyone since he trades with the people here and we were really grateful to have him along since I don’t think I would have been comfortable walking around here on our own.  The people who live in this oasis are descended from Sudanese people who settled here in the 15th century.  They have taken on some of the Berber culture, but also retained a lot of their original Sudanese culture making for an interesting mix that you don’t see elsewhere in Morocco.  We saw gardens growing corn, beans, squash, and grain as well as almond, orange, fig, and argan trees.  We also saw a traditional earthen oven used for baking bread that was still warm from the days baking.  It was an incredibly beautiful and interesting place that we never would have gone to had we not picked up Nayrawen’s brother on the side of the road.  As the Berbers say, “one coincidence is worth a thousand appointments”.

After returning from Fint, Nayrawen invited us to have dinner with him and his co-worker.  First, however, he showed is his store room full of Berber carpets that they were preparing to load up on the camels and take across the Sahara.  The carpets were so beautiful and the prices so good that we decided we had to have one, two actually.  After many cups of tea and a couple hours of haggling (the favorite Berber pasttime), we are now the proud owners of two beautiful Berber carpets.  Each one was hand made by a Berber woman over the course of about 6 months from camel wool and silk.  They use natural dyes and each one tells a bit of a story incorporating ancient tribal symbols.  Nayrawen told us he will show pictures of the rugs to each of the women who made them and will tell us the stories behind the rugs and what all of the symbols on them mean, which is pretty cool.  We were very happy with the price we got including shipping as compared to what they were in Marrakech and these will be a reminder of our trip here when we see them every day in our house.  After the rug haggling game, we had dinner of home made Tagine which was delicious and then went for some much needed sleep.  Our first day in the desert was amazing, with good people and beautiful sites, exactly what we had in mind when we left on this trip.

The next day we drove to our final desert destination of Merzouga, which is right on the edge of the Sahara.  After Merzouga there is pretty much nothing but sand dunes for hundreds of miles.  We previously arranged for an overnight camel trek and stayed at the hotel the trek would be leaving from the next day.  On arrival, we were greeted by our guide Moha who got us checked in to our room at a hotel called Le Petit Prince and told us dinner would be around 9 PM.  We were just in time to catch the sunset so we walked out of the hotel, past the camels, and up onto a small sand dune to watch the sun set over the desert and Merzouga.  It was beautiful to say the least.  The next day we got up, had some breakfast, and then I drove to the nearby town of Rissani to check out some of the sights there as well as the souk (market) that was happening that day. I drove around the “Monument Loop” right outside of town, which included a bunch of Ksars, which are basically castles where people still live today as well as the ruins of the ancient city of Sijilmassa.  After exploring the ruins for a while I stopped at one of the more interesting looking Ksars to look around.  I was greeted by three enthusiasitc and sweet little boys who offered to give me a tour of their home.  They guided me through the narrow passages and showed me the well, gardens, and towers of the place.  It was really neat and all four of us had big grins on our faces the whole time.  I think I really made their day when I gave them 10 Dirhams each for their efforts.  I also went to the souk where I bought a kilogram of locally grown dates for five dollars and witnessed a man drawing what appeared to be a mustache on a severed cow head.  I went back to to Le Petit Prince and we prepared to leave for the camel trek at around 5:30.

When 5:30 rolled around, we went out to our waiting camels just outside the hotel.  We were in a group with another couple, him from Sweden and her from Denmark.  Getting on the camels and then getting them up on their feet is a little bit of a process.  They are very tall, so you climb on when they are laying on the ground.  After I got on mine, the guide gave it a little nudge in the front and it let out a gutteral bellow as if getting up was the hardest thing in the world it wanted to do. With a few more nudges it finally pushed up it’s back legs leaving me in a precarious position of leaning forward about 45 degrees trying to keep from sliding off.  After a few long seconds, it finally pushed up it’s front legs and there I was perched on it’s hump about 8 feet up in the air.  After everyone was on, we were off across the dunes to our camp about an hour walk out in the desert.  The scenery of the Sahara is hard to put into words, but once we got out of eyesight of Merzouga, the vastness of it really hit me.  It is just golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see with a very few tough scrubby bushes poking up here and there.  A sea of sand is definitely a fitting description.  There is a real sense of solitude and once I was out there I could understand a little why the Berbers,  who value freedom and liberty highly, choose to live there.  After an hour of riding we arrived at our camp and were shown to our tent.  We rested a bit and then walked to the top of the closest dune to watch the sunset.  Unfortunately it was very windy so we had a lot sand blowing in our faces, but it was still beautiful and we had fun.  We even did a little “sand boarding”, which just involves riding a snowboard down the sand dune.  After the sunset we went back and of course drank some mint tea and then had dinner. Dinner consisted of copious amounts of a delicious rice dish with vegetables, then chicken Tagine with carrots and potatoes, followed by watermelon for desert.  It was a hearty meal and hit the spot after camel riding and dune climbing.  Finally, we had a concert of Berber drum music and singing put on by our guides, which was delight to listen to as always.  After that, we went out to look at the stars which were great being out there with no artificial light to speak of.  We could see the milky way and the sky full of thousands of stars.  Unfortunately it was still too windy to stay out long.  We went to bed around midnight and our guides woke us up about 5:40 so we could watch the sun rise over the desert.  It was worth getting up early as it was just as beautiful as the sunset.  After that we got back on the camels and headed back to the hotel.  After breakfast and a shower, we hit the road back to Ouarzazate and then on to the Atlantic coast.

The Saharra was amazing and definitely one of the parts of the trip I was looking forward to most.  Being a Montana boy, I’m a sucker for wide open spaces and the Saharra doesn’t dissappoint in that regard.  We met some great people there and saw some beautiful landscapes.  I couldn’t have asked for more from the experience.

Finding “Enough” in Morocco

Tangier Turtle

Turtle on Tangier Rooftop (With Laundry & Abandoned Sandwich)

In my first post, I talked about how author Wayne Muller helped to inspire my concept of sabbatical, providing permission or even the requirement for me to “retreat” for a time. Six weeks later, I am re-reading his newest book, A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough, where he guides us in reflecting on what it could look and feel like to find ongoing spaciousness, ease and sufficiency. This book has been an important companion for my (far from unique) struggle to make peace with what I can or can’t accomplish in a day or in my life, while trusting that I am loved and worthy regardless. I returned to it for a refresher on tools to help me listen for the “next right thing” when faced with the constant small decisions of what to do or not do, as I move closer to the end of my period of going more or less cold turkey from most of my prior commitments. What has spoken to me most so far though, on the second read, is the chapter that reminds us how there are “literally billions of children, families, and communities all over the world for whom the issue of enough is not a meditation but a daily challenge to their life and death.”

 

Here in Morocco, although the country is well-off compared to many in Africa, the gap between the resources and comfort of tourists like us and locals is still incredibly wide and frequently challenging. Our British host in Chefchaoen described it like this: when he meets and talks to a Moroccan, no matter how much both of them may want to fully see and connect to each other just as human beings, money creates an unavoidable barrier between them. This may become easier to cross after some days, weeks, years of knowing someone and living and working together, but it’s still there. I experienced this feeling to some extent when traveling in Mexico, Honduras and Haiti, but it was mitigated by being part of a group, having local hosts and translators, and participating in service learning. Here, I have less protection from the emotional exposure of having so much more than I need in so many ways while being confronted with others’ lack of enough.

 

I felt quite a bit different reading this sentence here than I did when I was in the comfort of my own home: “Twenty-five thousand children lose their lives every day for lack of clean drinking water, food or inexpensive medicines costing less than a dollar.” Similar was the description of what sufficiency means for those who are never sure when they wake each day whether they will find enough bread for themselves and their children, or “shade from the punishing midday sun…”As we moved farther into the desert, even into the actual dunes of the Sahara, I began to internalize the precious nature of shade as a resource. I’ve had the thought at times in my life that I am just not cut out for hot weather, but now I wonder whether that may be along the same lines as thinking that I am somehow different than “the poor.” Mr. Muller emphasizes that “no one is an especially blessed person for whom poverty isn’t as bone-weary, soul-crushingly hard for them as it would be for us.” When I see people here walking or riding a bike across what appears to be a vast distance in the middle of nowhere with hardly any shade in site, it has been instructive to consider that they might be just as overwhelmingly hot and tired as I would be.

 

This chapter presents us with two questions, hand in hand, of how to know when we personally have enough, and how to know what is enough for us “to do, to give, to contribute” in the face of injustice and suffering. Although some of what has driven my over-committed lifestyle has been an unfortunate tendency to attach my self-worth to my contributions, I know another component is regular wrestling with these twin dilemmas of having enough and doing enough. Finally, there is the truth that, “When people in debilitating, soul-crushing poverty do, at the end of the day, feel and know they have enough…[they] will, more than likely, become instantly generous with whatever small portion of anything they may have left over.” Although I am not here long enough and fully immersed enough to know the reality of people’s situations that I encounter, I have indeed seen and experienced an abundance of generosity, kindness, and joy. Many people ask us if this is our first time in Morocco, and hearing yes, share an enthusiastic “Welcome!” with a big a warm smile and a hand over the heart.

 

Here are some other things I have seen here:

  • Lots and lots of feral cats and kittens, ranging from skinny to emaciated, and some locals petting and feeding them.

  • A large majority of women wearing at least a full head covering, often paired with jeans instead of a robe, and sometimes driving a motorbike.

  • Olive trees, date trees, apricot trees, argan trees, and real oasis palm trees.

  • Road signs with just an exclamation point on them, which I like to think means, “Prepare to get very excited!”

My time here has also been shadowed by the death of my remarkable and inspiring grandmother, and she is much on my mind and heart as I reflect and write. So, this post is dedicated to Eleanor Elizabeth Saunders Furbush, 3/6/1919 – 5/27/2014, who helped to instill my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and who never doubted my own.

Marrakech

We arrived in Marrakech on May 28th via the night train from Tangier.  We had a whole berth with four beds to ourselves and although it wasn’t very big, it was plenty of room for the night and was comfortable enough to get a good rest.  The train left around 10:00 PM and arrived in Marrakech at about 9:00 AM.  It was a great way to make the trip as it saved us a hotel room for one night and allowed us to sleep through what would have been a very long long trip. After some breakfast and coffee in the nice, new, peaceful train station we headed out into the chaos of Marrakech.  We got a taxi from the train station to the Medina where the taxi driver was kind enough to drive into the Medina as far as possible before the streets got too narrow, which got us pretty close to the hostel.  A word about taxi drivers in Morocco here.  Always, always, always ask how much the ride is before getting in.  We’ve been good about this so far, but if you don’t you could end up at your destination and have the driver tell you the fare is an exhorbitant amount of money.  This actually goes for pretty much anything in Morocco, which I have learned the hard way a couple of times now.  We paid this particular driver 100 Dirhams, which was probably too much but I didn’t feel like haggling and it works out to about $12, which is still a bargain for a taxi rid in the U.S.  When we walked into the Medina, the “guides” descended on us like flies on the proverbial excrement.  This is where I made the first mistake of not asking for the price up front.  Actually, the first mistake was engaging him at all.  He approached and asked which hotel we were staying in and I told him.  At that point, he said follow me, which we did, mistake number two.  As we started walking, there were signs everywhere for our hotel and it was only about a five minute walk, maybe less.  We could have easily found it ourselves but since I had talked to this guy he was now officially our guide.  He was friendly enough on the walk there, asking us where we were from, etc.  However, when we arrived at the hotel, the shakedown started.  He wanted some money, which was fine and I was prepared to give him.  When I offered him 10 Dirhams (about $1 for five minutes of work, which I thought was reasonable), he balked and said it was 200 Dirhams, more than $20.  I told him no way at which point a friend of his showed up and they both started hounding us.  It was actually a bit scary, but luckily we were right outside our hotel so there was an escape hatch if need be.  After trying to scare us some more, I gave him 20 Dirham and they went away, thankfully.  So, the lesson learned here is if you don’t want or need a guide in the Marrakech medina, don’t even engage them, and definitely don’t tell them where you are going and if you do, don’t follow them.  If you do want a guide, make sure you agree on the price up front before going anywhere.

Our hotel was a place called Riad Caleche, which was really great.  When we arrived at the place, I was a little skeptical because it was down a narrow alley, behind a metal door, and then another wooden door that was only about 4 feet high.  When we knocked on the door however, the staff person opened it up and ushered us inside to a beautiful courtyard with a small pool, a tree, and tables surrounding.  It was a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, but a nice surprise.  They gave us tea and we talked for a while and decompressed from the train ride and the experience with the “guide” just a few minutes before.  After settling in to our room, we headed out to the medina to find some lunch.  Marrakech is a much bigger city than Tangier and the medina reflects that.  Not only is it much bigger, but it is more confusing with tiny streets and dead ends all over the place.  To add to the chaos there are motorcycles and donkey carts sharing the narrow streets with throngs of people.  It is really an amazing place with so much energy and life happening all around, but it is very chaotic which takes a little bit to get used to.  We headed to the main square called Jemaa el Fnaa on the edge of the Medina.  The square itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been used for hundreds of years as a market and the center of cultural life in Marrakech.  When we first arrived there in the heat of mid-day it was a little empty, but still very lively with orange juice sellers and snake charmers plying their trades.  We had some lunch at a small cafe near the square that was typical Moroccan fare of olives, bread, and salad made with onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  After lunch, we went to the end of the square and checked out the Koutboubia Mosque, which is the largest one in Morocco with it’s minaret visible from just about anywhere providing a good landmark.  It is a beautiful building from the outside (non-Muslims are not allowed in mosques in Morocco) surrounded by gardens that provide precious shade along with nice benches.  We took a long rest on one of the benches in the shade before going back to the riad for a little siesta before heading back to the square at sunset when things really get lively.  The mosque garden was also where we had our first encounter with an Islamic evangelical.  He was a man walking around selling coffee to people in the park and I bought some from him.  The coffee was really good, sweet with spices kind of like Turkish coffee and we talked for a little bit as best we could.  He came around again after I had finished the coffee and told him how good I thought it was and thanked him for it.  At this point he told me that I really need to read about Islam because he thought I am a good man, but I’m going to go to hell unless I convert.  That was the gist of it anyway.  It’s pretty much the same as I’ve gotten from Christian evangelicals in the U.S. and just goes to show that silly religious beliefs don’t discriminate on the grounds of religion.

At sunset, we went back to Jemaa el Fnaa for some food and to take in the carnival that it turns into every night.  At around sunset, food vendors set up stalls in the square and compete vigorously for business.  As soon as we arrived, we had them coming at us from every direction showing us menus and exptolling the virtues of their food.  We finally chose one that we liked and sat down for dinner where I had some delicious kebabs and Jocelyn had vegetable tagine.  After dinner, we walked around the square and took in the sights.  There were women telling stories under tents by lamplight that had crowds of people enraptured.  Of course, we couldn’t understand anything, but it was really great to see people so enthralled by traditional oral storytelling in the age of TV, movies, and the Internet.  There was also very amateur boxing with fighters working for tips from the crowd, dancing boys (as it would be unacceptable for women to dance in public), and many musicians playing traditional Berber music with drumming, singing, and of all things, banjos. We spent most of our time listening to the music which fills the square and really creates the atmosphere making the place into a huge joyus party.  The people of Marrakech are known as “the joyous ones” in Morroco and it’s easy to see why when you are in the square listening to all the wonderful music.  The music is so fun to listen to with the drums pounding out complex rhythms and the singers executing beautiful harmonies.  Just listening and watching, you can tell it is very spiritual as well as joyous music for all involved.  Every time I hear it, I can’t help but have a giant smile across my face.

The next day, we did a self guided walking tour of the Medina.  Highlights included the Ben Yousef Madrasa, which is an old Islamic college, and the Bahia Palace.  Both were interesting and really great examples of Moorish architecture with the intricate tile work and stone and wood carving.  The Bahia Palace is definitely the best Moorish site we’ve seen in Morocco with architecture that rivals the best Moorrish sites in Spain such as the Alhambra and the Alcazar.

That about does it for our time in Marrakech, and now on to the the Saharra!