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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!

Donegal and Glenveagh National Park

We left Connemara on 4/14 and drove to Letterkenny in the North of Ireland in county Donegal.  The drive was beautiful and we tried to follow the Wild Atlantic Way as much as was practical.  It took us about 4 hours to make the drive.  Once we arrived we checked into our hostel and then drove some more up to Ballygorman and Malin Head which was about another 40 minutes.  Malin Head is the most Northerly point in Ireland and it is also the area where my Irish ancestors came from.  It was a gorgeous place with seaside cliffs, mountains, and the picturesque green rolling hills that Ireland is famous for.  The next day we visited Ards Forest Park, and then headed to Glenveagh National Park.  Both were amazing places.  Ards Forest Park is the biggest chunk of unbroken forest that I’ve seen in Ireland. Ireland was once covered mostly in forest just a few hundred years ago, but with the help of humans and climate change they are mostly completely gone replaced by farms and blanket bog.  We’ve seen some tree farms and bits of forest here and there, but in general there aren’t many trees here.  This place is altogether different and it definitely felt good to get into some trees. In Oregon we kind of take them for granted as it’s all trees and forest, but it’s not like that everywhere and it definitely makes me thankful for what we have there.  Next we headed to Glenveagh National Park.  There we did a 22 Kilometer round trip hike that bisected the park and gave us a good feel for most of the major things it has to offer. We saw the Glenveagh Castle and gardens, oak groves, and a huge waterfall.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any Red Deer, which I was hoping for.  It was still a great hike and a great place to see however. This post is a little short as we have now arrived at our WWOOF farm in Ireland and there is no Internet connection there.  We made the two mile walk to town today (a beautiful walk along the ocean) to use the WiFi in the Pub and I’m a little short on time.  The farm has been really great so far.  Our hosts are great people, the food has been amazing, and the work rewarding. I will post more on that later.  Pictures of Malin Head, Ards Forest Park, and Glenveagh below.

Sabbath and “Slow Travel”

From the grounds at the Dublin Modern Art Museum

From the grounds at the Dublin Modern Art Museum

Last summer Tom and I participated in a “sabbath circle” with the Leaven community that we’re part of, which involved reading Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath. It was through that experience, which spoke to my deep longing for rest, renewal and balance that I came to understand this trip we’ve now embarked on as a sabbatical. Previously, I hadn’t really made the connection between the term sabbatical and the concept of sabbath. In reading the book, I realized that reflective time away from the constant rush and pressure of endless impossible to-do lists and expectations was what I was looking forward to the most about extended travel. I’ve been describing it as a sabbatical ever since, which has opened some interesting conversations about what that means.

My first travel book to accompany me on my sabbatical is Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness. He covers various “Slow” movements around the world from Slow Food to Slow Medicine to Slow Schooling where people are seeking to reclaim some balance from the overwhelming speed we find in so much of life. The idea is not actually to be slow all the time, but to find the tempo giustothe right speed for the moment and circumstances – and through this, to live better and more wholesomely. Travel, even supposedly the “leisure” variety, is certainly not exempt from the cult of speed. I’ve been reminded more than once in the first few weeks of our trip how difficult it is suppress the instinct to do more, see more, experience more, even when you know it can be at the expense of fully savoring moments and simply being in the new and different environments that travel presents us with.

As Mr. Honore says, “When we rush, we skim the surface and fail to make real connections with the world or other people…All the things that bind us together and make life worth living – community, family, friendship– thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.” In some of the places and with some of the days where I thought that we had planned in an abundance of time, you won’t be surprised to learn how completely wrong I was. Of course some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments have not been planned activities, but simply having lunch on park bench by a lake, hanging out in a tea shop with a book, or wandering foreign city streets with no particular destination in mind. These are the kinds of things that I pictured myself doing before embarking on this journey, and it’s certainly how some of my time has been spent. So far though, it’s not nearly as much as I had led myself to believe would somehow happen naturally.

As someone with a regular meditation practice at home, I also imagined more meditating would be going on since I’m on vacation after all, or at least the same amount. I forgot how dependent my practice is on the routine and rhythm of my days, and there has been nothing even remotely resembling a routine in our travels yet. I know this is all an opportunity to be more present in the midst of change and uncertainty, and to notice the moments for resting in awareness as they come. I think I’m beginning to see them more often. Lately we’ve gotten in a number of hikes and ambles in lovely wild places that seem somehow both familiar and strange. Being in nature is always a reliable way to step into sabbath time, and foreign nature seems to have an especially awakening effect. Tomorrow we will arrive at the farm where we’ll be exchanging work for room and board, and I expect that the two weeks there will provide a chance to ease into some routine. I have been missing getting my hands in the garden, so we’ll see if the meditative quality of manual labor remains after five hours a day for five days in a row!

Another effect of describing and thinking of this time as a sabbatical has been to focus my attention and gratitude on the very real privilege of having this opportunity to travel and to retreat for such an unusually long time from the daily grind. Although it is an important value of ours that we are prioritizing and have worked to create, I know we’re both very aware that this just isn’t possible for everyone. In order to make the most of this privilege, my hope and goal is to use this time to gain greater clarity in my life direction, including ways to foster ongoing balance, ease and joy in life for myself and others. Wayne Muller, once again, is helping me keep this all in perspective with these lines from his website:

A retreat is no mere selfish indulgence; it is a radical act. By offering a fierce no to the relentless demands of the world, you claim a radical yes to more honorably sustain a potent, essential wholeness, and take hold of a deep, healing stillness, not only for ourselves, but for the frantic, desperate achings of those close to us, those we love.”

In this time and space away from daily routines, my quest is to listen for how best in the coming years to sustainably contribute my gifts from the heart. I have a feeling that part of this may indeed be sharing the blessings of stillness with others, and just helping us all to slow down a little bit.

 

Getting ready to go

Well, we’re only 3 days away from our departure date!  Friday was our last of day of work, so I guess we’re really going to do this.  These last few days are a bit of a flurry as we get packed, get the house all cleaned and set for our house sitters and tie up all the loose ends.  Today we get to go get immunization shots, yay!

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that we’re actually going to be on the road for close to 4 months, it’ll probably take getting on the plane to make it real.  I have to admit I’m a little nervous, but I think that’s normal going into any kind of unknown situation.  I’m also incredibly excited and extremely thankful that we’re able to make this dream a reality.

Our first stop will be Washington DC and then on to New York City to visit some family and hang out for a couple days.  Then it’s off to Reykjavik!  I’ll be updating this blog much more now, so stay tuned for more.

Here We Go!

Hello, thanks for visiting us!  This blog will chronicle our trip to the UK, Morocco and Turkey beginning in March of 2014.  We’ve been talking about this trip for a long time and it’s great to be finally making it happen.  As many of you may know, we were originally planning an epic 12 month around the world trip.  We’ve scaled that back to three months at this point for a variety of reasons including career, financial, and family considerations.  We are still expecting it to be the experience of a lifetime though and we are excited to share it with you.  You can follow along with the planning and the actual trip here.  To see our itinerary as it stands now, visit the itinerary page.

For this first post, I thought it would be appropriate to share our reasons for taking this trip and to address some concerns that our friends and family have raised.

Our specific reasons for this trip:

  1. We have made a conscious decision in our lives to prioritize experiences over material possessions.  The hyper consumerism of our society is toxic to our culture, the environment, and to our souls.  We believe that by prioritizing experiences over possessions, we ourselves can have a richer life while at the same time helping to heal our planet and our society. Experiences are much like education. Once you have them, they can never be taken away no matter what happens.  Your car or house can be repossessed or the the stock market can crash and your savings can be wiped out, but an experience, once had, is there forever. This trip is an embodiment of that belief.
  2. Seeing how other people live and do things is extremely enlightening and adds a perspective to how we live our lives here that can’t be gained any other way.  This is especially important for us as Americans because we are so privileged and kind of live in our own little bubble of exceptionalism and privilege.  Even though many of us realize this from a intellectual perspective, there is no substitute for seeing how other people live and in a real way seeing how our privilege impacts other people in the world.  Just seeing that there is such a multitude of ways to interact with one another and the world brings a richness to our own day to day lives that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
  3. This is an investment in our long-term relationship.  One of the best ways to build lasting bonds between people is to create shared experiences.  This will be on hell of an experience for us to share! For the rest of our lives we will be able to look back on this trip, hopefully with fondness.  While we are under no illusions that it will be roses all the time, bonds are built on working through adversity and conflict together as well as by sharing the good times.

And now on to addressing some concerns people have approached us with. Some of our family and friends have expressed concerns about the impact this will have on our lives especially from a career and financial standpoint since we will be leaving our current jobs before the trip.  No doubt, this isn’t a cheap proposition and leaving a job is always risky because you don’t know if you’ll be able to find another. Hopefully I can address some of those concerns and give some help to others who may be thinking about a similar trip and share these concerns.

We’ve been saving for this trip for the last couple of years.  We live below our means to be able to save as much as possible.  We drive old cars that are paid for and our only debt is our mortgage on our relatively modest and affordable house.  We ride our bikes most of the time, eat out at most once a week, and pack lunches from home most days.  I have also been extremely lucky to have a profession as a software developer that pays well.  These two factors combined have allowed us to save enough to take this trip and to be financially secure upon our return while we both consider our future career options.

Another concern that some have raised is that the world is a dangerous place and we could be kidnapped, robbed, murdered, etc.  While these are legitimate concerns, we are taking steps to mitigate them.  First, we won’t be going to any super dangerous places.  We originally had Egypt in our plans, but have since decided against that given the turmoil there.  I think we as Americans have a bit of a distorted view about how dangerous the world actually is.  All we hear about in the media is the bad things that happen to people overseas.  Certainly bad things happen, but when taken as a whole considering the total number of people who travel overseas , these bad experiences are so miniscule that the probability of something happening is probably close to 0.  We take risks all the time but it doesn’t stop us from living our lives.  Every time we get in a car we risk death and the probability of that is many times higher than being kidnapped in a foreign country yet we do it every day.  The fact of the matter is that we in the U.S. live in one of the most dangerous countries on earth when looking at total crime statistics, especially murder and especially murder by gun.  It doesn’t stop us from going about our lives.  When looking at it this way, we may actually be safer not being in the U.S.  The point is, while there are risks, we have come to the conclusion that the benefits out weigh them and we believe we have taken steps to mitigate them.

Thanks for reading!