A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Kamal2008

1: Layover: Dublin

A nice place to stop through....get ready to sing with the locals!

all seasons in one day
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Dublin Day 1-2, Trip Day 1-2

The flight into Dublin was mostly uneventful, as was Dublin itself. What a smooth ride on the Airbus A330 though, a nice and new airplane, which easily settled my general fear of flying.

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Dublin itself is a quaint, old city, teeming with young people day and night, boasting pubs and signs for Guinness and other Irish brews on every block. The buildings are a mix of very old and new, and the city overall is a little bit dirty. People are very friendly when you get their attention, but can be somewhat aloof otherwise. An unplanned layover of a single night, I was only able to take a brief tour of the center of town, and visit the Temple Bar district, which was both the tourist trap and the bustling few blocks where locals and visitors alike come to drink and party. In the middle of the town square, O'Connell Square, sits and amazing and odd needle that is awe-inspiring!

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Notice the nice blue sky? Lucky me! Though it did rain during my 36 hour tenure....

Food, Drink, and Consumables:

I was mostly amazed with the sheer amount of sanctioned drinking in this city, day and night. I managed to drink 7 pints of Guinness throughout a day tour, then a night tour there, and I felt like one of the crowd. Mind you, Guinness is not a very strong beer, so there was no stumbling around for me! Wandering around at noon, I decided to take a few beers to help me get a nap in the middle of the day. The pubs were chock full of Irish, drinking lunchtime beers and socializing. After a nice nap, I went out at 10pm, to the Temple Bar area, and it was a party scene despite being a Tuesday night! I settled into a locals bar, where there was live music and a typical crowd. The musicians consisted of a guitar player and a bodran (drum) player. The crowd was 18-70 years in age, and everybody was drinking, socializing, and singing along to the tunes! There were SO MANY pubs just like this in a 4 block radius, it was obvious that drinking is a distinct cultural phenomenon here. Elderly women were meeting for beers like it was tea time in England.

After asking some locals about a "last chance" Irish meal, I made a plan to eat a traditional Irish dish consisting of cabbage and bacon. I was told that other Irish meals were typical all over the world, such as Irish Stew, Fish and Chips, and Bangers and Mash. Unfortunately, after all the Guiness that evening, which cost a pretty penny at about 5 Euro ($8) per pint, I figured my budget and my full stomach had gotten the best of my plan. But being the glutton I am, on the way home from the pub around midnight, I decided on some budget food. I managed to find a Chicken Escalope pita for 6 Euro at a place called Abrakebabra (think Abracadabra, but for Kebobs) which was tasty. After seeing so many ads for the Meat Beast Whopper at Burger King, I had to go in there and examine that just for shits and giggles (had no plans to eat one...).

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A simple Whopper meal deal was 8 Euro ($12US!), but I managed to find ribs for 2.50 Euro. Expecting something reminiscent of the McDonalds boneless processed McRibs, I was surprised to find that they were REAL ribs with REAL bones, complete with BBQ sauce. WOW! It was the tastiest 2.50 Euro I had ever spent!

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I stumbled upon some interesting bits that I photographed, including a poster found in every men's bathroom I went to, advertising depression as a "Loss of lust for life" and insinuating the cause to be a deficiency in testosterone! I was curious to know what may have been found in the women's bathroom.

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The next day I continued to wander around, and settled on a typical breakfast cafe where I discovered what became a common occurence in Europe...a style of bacon that is better than any we have in the US, and it has now become a new love affair. I purchased some post cards, familiarized myself with the post office, and even visited a music store to peruse the bodrans for sale, and purchased a miniature one for my drum collection. Finally, I settled in for my cabbage and bacon meal at lunchtime while waiting for the bus to get back to the airport. This bacon was different than the lunch version, I think it was more like ham hocks, or a fatty, salty ham. A good meal, but nothing to write home about. Well, at least worth a sentence in a blog.

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People

People were friendly here once you took the time to strike up some conversation. They appeared happy to know an american, and it was obvious that the Irish are very interested in American Politics. So started a series of questions from people about whether I was going to vote Obama or Bush.

The hostel I stayed at, Isaacs Hostel, was a youthful and vibrant one, full of young people. It was in a quiant old brick building, and had many nooks and crannies that were conducive to socializing. The basement was great, complete with a pool and foosball table. It was my first hostel experience...sort of. I had a private room as a gaurd against any needed daytime naps due to jetlag. At the end of my night there, I stumbled upon a few people and had a great conversation ranging from politics to philosophy to culture to women, with fellows from Ireland, the US, and Belgium.

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The bartender at the pub I sat at was also very friendly, and we got to know each other a bit, as were some elderly English people at the breakfast cafe the next morning. I had the opoortunity to sit next to a Polish gal on the way to the airport, who was living and working in Dublin, and we discovered each other's musicianship and enjoyed the short ride to the airport together. Overall, it was a great start to my trip.

Posted by Kamal2008 03:13 Archived in Ireland Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

2: Madrid, Spain: One of my favorite destinations thus far!

How many times will I go back?? ps. You will notice only a few pictures since all that I took in Madrid and Florence got corrupted due to a bad memory card!

sunny
View Around the world in 70 days on Kamal2008's travel map.

Madrid Day 1 (Trip Day 2)

The flight into Madrid was short, smooth, but with a bit of a dicey landing. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a Spanish woman about my age who turned out to be one of the few Spaniards who spoke English. She was living and working in Dublin for the past year, and was flying to Madrid to attend her friend's wedding. She and I had a lively conversation, and she was good about forcing me to practice my own Spanish. She was sweet enough to draw me a little map of Madrid so I could start to get familiar with the city from a local's point of view, and we laughed alot! Departing the plane, I got caught up in customs, and she started to wait for me, but I let her go on to her waiting parents, exchanged emails, and bid her farewell.

So began the toughest part of Madrid, and an experience that was initially daunting, and still conjures up mixed feelings. This was the fact that few people in Madrid speak English, and they are not very friendly to tourists. So, to be travelling alone in such an atmosphere definitely took some of the greatest assets that I have within.

My first night in Madrid made me think that it may have been my last. I had to wander in the dark to find my hostel, which was very poorly marked in a poorly lit area. It was a small hostel that mainly had private rooms, so it was like a small, dingy hotel on the 5th floor on a non-descript building. I finally found it, and was buzzed up by the keeper. He showed me to my room, which was small but nice, and I readied myself to get on the internet and plan what I was going to do in Madrid. At this point, my trusty laptop crapped out on me, and confident that I could fix it, I searched for my precision screwdriver that brought for just this occasion. Well, it was to no avail; I had forgotten it at home. So, it was time to scour the streets of Madrid to find the needed screwdriver. Sure.

I wandered out of the hostel without a map, and made it through what I eventually discovered was the beautiful historic city center. It must have been 10:30pm, and every square foot of every block was packed with people! As I wandered around, I realized this was a town that had no Long's drugs, no Walgreens, nothing but places to eat, drink, and party. Even all the store fronts had steel doors that rolled down, and everything was covered in grafitti. I finally found the one department store, which has a monopoly in Spain, El Corte Ingles, and it had just closed. It had been a bear trying to communicate, and even though the locals understood my Spanish, I couldn't understand theirs. So I decided to give up on fixing the laptop, and continued to wander around. I stopped in at an internet cafe, jumped on IM, and cried to my friend Liz at home about feeling so lonely in this city!

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I decided to roll back home, picked up a rock off the street, went up to my room, and used the rock to filed own the small pocket knife that I had brought with me. It now doubled as a screwdriver, and I was able to fix my laptop! Things were getting better. I had already known that this would be my last night in a private room, and scoured HostelWorld.com for a social, lively hostel that would be more like my Dublin experience. It turned out that the most famous hostel in the world, Cat's Hostel, was one block away, around the corner, and I booked a bed to see me through the rest of my time in Madrid.

Madrid Day 2 (Trip Day 3)

Life in Madrid:

Day two in Madrid was a Friday, and my experience here rapidly improved up until the time I left the following Monday. It started by seeing my "dark, dingy" neighborhood in daylight. Plaza de Tirso de Molina, the plaza of the heart of the city, was beautiful. In fact, my building was the most nicely finished, with fresh paint, nice trim, and embellishments in the old architectural style. I walked 30 seconds around the corner to Cat's hostel, and was immediately greeted with loads of young people waiting to check in and out. I was feeling very excited! The staff were two sweet, beautiful young women (as they all are in Madrid), and the one helping me even noticed my name and began to speak to me in Arabic. Between them, they could get by in at least 10 languages. I heard french, english, spanish, german, and some others I didn't recognize. I was given the intro about living in the hostel, and proceeded to my room to lock up my bag and and make a plan for the day.

My three and a half days in Madrid became a wonderful blur, and a dream and conviction to go back. The first thing I noticed was the food. The typical style of eating is in a Cerveceria or other casual eatery, some of which have tables outside, and some of which have small counters where people stand up and eat. Tapas-style dishes were everywhere, so was a chain called Museo de Jamon (Museum of Ham). This is like a combination of a deli case full of Spanish cold cuts, a tapas bar, and a sit down cafe. What was most prevalent was the Jamon de Serrano, something similar to Prociutto, but slightly more dry. The cheese (mostly Manchego) and cold cuts were served in numerous ways, and a small baguette with some combination of the cheese and jamon was 2-4 Euro, was simple, plain, and oh-so-tasty! I must have had two of these sandwiches each day, along with other culinary delights that came along. People were again drinking beer in the middle of the day, and beers were generally on tap, served in small glasses, and very very cheap. Stand at a cerveceria counter and order a beer, and the guy behind the counter will eventually give you a complimentary Tapa; at the Museo de Jamon, of course, it would be bits of the different hams and cheese, and at more typical places it would be some olives, bits of seafood, or whatever type of dishes that particular place specialized in.

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I continued to battle with the very unfriendly people, and the total lack of English, but this turned out good both for my soul and for my ability to speak Spanish, which was was rapidly improving. I perused gift shops, the Corte de Ingles (where I finally found and bought my precision screwdriver, and have yet to use it!) and the magnificence of the archtecture, personality, and layout of the old part of the city which is teeming with people, unlike anywhere I have been. The streets were cobblestone, and ran in everywhich direction, creating intersections and plazas every block or two which had unique shapes and hosted cervecierias, little parks, and newspaper and flower stands.

Nighlife:

Madrid is world famous for the nightlife. This is a place where people can go to clubs or do pub crawls, and its typical for people to come out to party around midnight, and stay out until 4, 5, or 6 in the morning. Since partying is not too much of my thing, I decided that I was going to see some flamenco on friday night. I had met a few people at the hostel, but they were mostly very young, and I figured I'd have a better time painting the town red solo style. I researched the Flamenco, and came to discover that in Madrid, Flamenco was really just a tourist exercise, and very expensive at that. It occured at dedicated restaurants, and although very good, it was generally required that one would pay 35 Euro for the show, along with what is about the most expensive meal in Madrid, entrees costing upwards of 20-30 Euro. Flamenco is an artform from the Andalucia area of Spain, which is in the south, and in this area, Flamenco is plentiful, and either free or cheap depending on the venue. Since it was looking unlikely that I would see cities in this area, such as Seville, Granada, or Cordoba, I decided to try and catch a show and save the eating for afterward. The shows are usually about 45-90 minutes per troupe, with about 2-4 troupes in evening of Flamenco, starting at around 9 and ending at about 1:30 am.

I wandered through town on foot and finally found the restaurant. I was turned away since I was only one person, and did not want to also have a meal, though they offered to let me in at midnight for full price of the show. I did have the chance to peer through the door for a few moments and saw one of the dancers doing her thing; a stoic facial expression, a still body, and feet that were flying, sounding out rhythms to the clapping that her troupe was accompanying her with. Just those few moments lit a new fire in my heart!

Marginally disappointed, I walked toward home and stumbled upon a an area consisting of two streets that were lined with bars and packed with people. It was the non-clubbing nightlife of Madrid, and it looked great! I decided to sit down for a beer and see what I could make of it. I picked a place that was more of an artsy bar, with a silent film being projected on one of the walls, and films for rent throughout. This place specialized in Mojitos, but I chose it since it wasn't packed with people. Just a few minutes after sitting with my first beer, two fellows came and sat next to me to my right at the bar, and they were joined by a gal shortly after. I started to chat with them in my dicey spanish, and discovered that they knew some english! And they were friendly! Well, it turns out that one gu and the gal were brother and sister from the Ukraine, living in Madrid for the last two years, and the other was a Spaniard from Barcelona visiting the gal. We had a great time talking, as they were all well-educated and engaged in great things in their lives. Of course, they were curious to hear my take on American politics, and I happily obliged. They let me in on some locals perspective of the life in Madrid, and assured me that not everyone does the all-night clubbing scene. In fact, the guy had never been to a club in the 2 years he spent in Madrid, and his sister had been only once! They do, however, frequent the bar scene, which is apparently more typical for the socialite crowd.

After some time, they called it a night, and I decided to stick around and continue what was turning out a great night. I turned to my left at the bar, and there was a nice looking Spanish gal sitting alone. I began to chat with her, and she turned out she was from Parma de Mallorca, and was visiting her friend here in Madrid for the weekend. Her English was poor, but she was very sweet and we managed to have a great conversation in Spanish for a couple hours before I decided to call it a night.

Returning to the hostel room, I noticed that Alex, a mexican girl from LA, was still in her bed, crashed out. I had met her earlier in the day and our bunks were next to each other. She was studying in Paris, and decided to come solo to Madrid for the weekend. She wanted to chack out the club scene, and assured me that she was ready to go alone. So I inquired whether she had gone, and she was appaled to discover that she had crashed on her bed, missed the alarm, and never made it to the club! It was about 2:30am. I offered to go to the club with her, and off we went!

The most remarkable thing about the club was that it had a huge dance floor, dance music, but nobody was dancing! People were swaying, talking, drinking, and smoking on the dance floor, but no dancing. It looked like a major meat market. So, she tried to get girls to dance with me, and I tried to get girls to dance with her, and overall we did OK. The club went to close at 6am, and although I had seen her just moments before, she was nowhere to be found. I was a little worried, as I was holding her map for her, and she appeared to be not very good around directions when getting to the club, so I felt the responsibiity to get her back home. Long story short, I searched around for her until about 7:30, to no avail. I finally decided that she had gotten luckier than I, and I left her fate to the wind.

Madrid Day 3: (Trip Day 4)

Saturday was a slow day, I spent most of the day recuperating from a hangover, as the night (and morning) was the heaviest I have drank in quite some time. I was lucky to finally spring back to health only on the way to the bullfight, and was excited for this much anticipated event. I will spare the details except for the VIDEO and PICS I took, and the fact that the stadium was beautiful, and packed with older Spanish people. I was lucky enough to sit next to an older Spanish gentleman who spoke some English and was friendly. He was a commercial pilot with regular routes to the US, and was happy to step me through some of the nuances of the fights we were watching. Bullfighting is a common, cultural sport and artform, though the younger generation appears to have some dissent on this bloody, age-old sport. Long story short, although the fight is bloody and ugly, and ends in 6 dead bulls by the night's end, I was convinced that the treatment of these animals is far better than the way we treat animals in the US in our foodservice industry, and I felt OK about seeing the bulls killed, whose meat would be butchered and eaten throughout Madrid.

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The Saturday night was reasonably uneventful; Alex and I hung out at the hostel, met Guy, a guy from Australia, and we enjoyed a mellow night on the town having a drink and some grub. We stayed up with Alex to see her off on her Shuttle at 4am, as her flight back to Paris was at 5:45am. Guy and I made a plan to see some historical sites the next day, and visit the flea market, which is touted as the largest in Europe.

Madrid Day 4: (Trip Day 5)

The flea market on sunday was a good time. Guy and I met up with two Canadian travellers on the way out of the hostel, Lisa and Cindy, who were also looking to find deals. It was a more of a marketplace/bazaar, than a typical flea market. Mostly new articles of clothing, interspersed with the occasional booth with electronic gadgets. Lisa and I found a nice connection as we discovered each other's educational paths and career pursuits. She had narrowly averted a Psy.D. and chose to obtain her Master's in Occupational Therapy instead, and had just accepted loans to study in Australia. Little did I know, but this was the begining of what became a streak of interacting with Australian and Canadian travellers, mostly a great experience!

As we exited the flea market, and bid farewell to Lisa and Cindy, who were departing to travel to Toledo, and then on to another eurpoean destination, Guy and I found the fringes of the flea market, and I was suddenly greeted with tables of tools and hardware gadgets, more typical of the kind of flea market I am used to perusing. He and I both found a good deal on a small electrical outlet extension, and moved on to see the Palacio de Real.

The palace was pretty, though not my kind of thing. We paid the 8 Euro to get in, and Guy was sneaking pictures along the way, almost getting caught once. I would say that the highlight of this visit was seeing the amazing marble work, both on the floors of the palace, and embedded into tables and models of large structures which were a part of the adornments in this heavily embellished prior home for the kings and queens of Spain. Interestingly, the palace is still used for certain international and political events, such as the signing of Spain into the European Union some 20 years ago.

Finally, we head toward our final historical destination, the Thyssen Museum, which is the largest private collection of Spanish art in the world. I decided not to bother Guy with my lack of cultural refinery, and instead sat in a park across the street waiting for him. In typical style, I happen upon two young Spanish women taking interviews about an art exhibit in the park I am sitting in, which made for a good hour of strained but interesting conversation.

Back at the hostel, Guy and I make a plan to go enjoy a last night of drinks and tapas when Lisa and Condy rolled in, to our our suprise. They had seen Toledo, and returned to get their luggage and go off to the airport to make an overnight wait for their 6AM flight. We also meet and American girl from Indiana in the lobby, and all decide to go out togther. The evening was fun, but uneventful, and later in the eve after the girls had split off, Guy and I stumble upon an Irish bar where we have the worst carpaccio ever. It appears to have been a carpaccio ceviche, browned by lemon juice, and served on toasted bread. Never again! He and wrap up late in the night at the hostel bar where we met and chatted with two female Brazilian travellers, exchanged information, and bid our farewells.

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Madrid Day 5 (Trip Day 6)

Waking up on Monday morning, I finally felt frustrated with the ever-present cigarette smoke in every molecule of the air of Madrid. I searched for a cafe where I could take a coffee and write some postcards, and smokers were all around me. I walked outside, and was constantly in a waft of smoke, and my lungs and soul were feeling the stress. After writing and mailing off the postcards, I sorted out my luggage, and headed for the airport. It was a nice flight into Rome, and had some conversation with a Spanish couple who were heading to Italy for a vacation. I decided to steal the in-flight magazine, since it was printed in both English and Spanish, making for good language practice, and listed the set of excelent latin/salsa tunes from the latin music station that I listened to on the way to Rome.

Posted by Kamal2008 09:00 Archived in Spain Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

3: Italy

A nice place to visit....sorry there are only a few pics, but my memory card got corrupted!

sunny
View Around the world in 70 days on Kamal2008's travel map.

Italy Day 1 (Trip Day 6)

Getting into the airport in Rome was uneventful, but I was surprised to see guards with drug sniffing dogs sniffing out everybody leaving the terminal, then walking through customs without having to show my passport or get a visa stamp. Awaiting for the train into Rome, I met a young Spanish couple and chatted with them. The guy was a professional enduro racer, and had great things to say about his Husaberg 500 four-stroke. Somehow, even in Europe, parts for these bikes were hard to find. They also told me some bits about how to see good Flamenco when I return to the south of Spain, and asked me about American politics, which was becoming a familiar exercise. Waiting for the train I overheard an obviously American couple who were versed in traveling Italy, and who were also traveling to Florence the following day. They gave me some tips on finding good meal deals, and had good things to say about discovering Italy.

I found my hostel, met some American girls waiting in line to check in who relayed a horror story traveling in Barcelona a few years back: She was talking on her cell phone, and a guy ran by and grabbed it. Being the gutsy girl she was, she ran after him, and he turned around and socked her in the face! I had a funny feeling that such an experience would be more likely to happen to a female, but heeded the warning and bid them farewell. I made it to my hostel room, where there was a nice Korean gal packing up and ending her vacation. She had just completed a Master's degree in England, and took a month to make her Journey home. It was her last night, and we had a nice time talking about politics, traveling, and her experience in Florence, which would by my next destination.

I decided to wander around the immediate neighborhood and look for something to eat, and settled on a small ristorante that had a steak at a reasonable price. I know that Italy is famous for pizza and pasta, but general preference is to eat low carb, and I was feeling like a hearty meal for the first time in my journey. My steak was thin and cooked through, but the sauce was a wonderful tomato and garlic mixture, with a good dose of chili heat. I also opted for a soup, and chose the Italian egg-drop soup, something I had attempted to make some months ago. The broth was rich and tasty, and the cooked egg made it a hearty and interesting appetizer. Typical in Rome, my eatery had outside seating which took on the form of a small cage set into the street, where a few parking spaces would normally reside. It was just a little daunting to have cars, busses and scooters whizzing by just feet away, and wondered how often an accident ended up involving innocent diners in one of these streetside cafes. As my meal ended, I somehow realized that the restaurateur was an Arab from Egypt, and we had an interesting conversation interspersed with English and Arabic. The man bled his heart out as he told me about his 5 year old daughter who was killed in an accident just a year ago, and I wondered if it had started as an innocent meal on the streets of Rome. He took me into the restaurant and showed me pictures; I wished him God's love and bid him farewell.

It was time to go back to the hostel and get a good night's rest. Sleep had been somewhat evasive during this trip; I was beginning to feel a little run down after having gotten over a cold the day I departed, and after all the second-hand that I was realizing was likely going to be a feature of my entire trip. I was pleased to discover that Italy, too, has a law banning indoor smoking, but my general experience thus far was that there were so many smokers encroaching doorways and windows that the desired effect was not as successful as what I was used to in the US.

Italy Day 2 (Trip Day 7)

Waking up early and refreshed, it was time to run a quick errand in Rome, and get off to Florence to see some more of Italy before returning for Liz's arrival into this historic city. I realized I had overpacked, and my backpack was feeling heavy and looking bloated, so I made the decision to pack up a few things and send them back home through the post. I had the option to send items back with Liz, but this was going to be 12 more days of lugging, and I was feeling the frustration of having to carry just a little too much of my life on my back. So, I wandered around my Roman neighborhood looking for the proper post office to create and send a package, and finally succeeded. I was sending home about 12 pounds of stuff, mainly consisting of my Northface jacket, a pair of jeans, shirt, belt, a drum I purchased in Dublin, and a few books. My bag was suddenly more ambulatory, and I was ready to make the trek to Florence.

On my way to the train station, I stopped in for a pannini, and chose an interesting one that consisted of a breaded veal cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese. I also discovered some of the little known workings of cobblestone streets as I happened upon city workers making repairs: those little square stones are actually deep and shaped like a cone, much like a tooth with a long, conical root. It was a great AH-HA! moment, and I continued to the station.

Tough decisions about the train trek. The cost difference between the 3 different levels of train service was considerable, and I was battling my own frugal tendencies with my folk's conviction that if you are going to do anything, then do it right. The fast train was going to be about $60 US, and the slow train about $22. I decided on the fast train since my time in Florence would be limited, and was delighted to find that the fast train had electrical outlets by my seat, allowing me to finally sit and begin writing about my trip. Thus far, all of the writing you may have read has been done on the trains, a great way to spend the time since the trains have not been crowded, and people tend to spread out and avoid much conversation.

My initial walk out of the Florence train station was greeted with architectural beauty, and was so glad to have decided, on a whim, to come to this famous destination. Unfortunately, all of the pics I took between arriving in Rome, and reaching the Cinque Terre got corrupted, so either you'll have to use your imagination, or I'll spend a little time downloading some pics like they were my own! More cobblestone streets, with patterns that were reminiscent of psychedelia, and bicycles everywhere, which is always a welcome sign. I had arrived into Florence with no prior arrangements, and had to find an internet cafe and begin the process of trying to book a hostel, not knowing what kind of accommodations would be available. I completed my research, wrote down some directions, and decided that I was going to walk to the famous luxury hostel and ask for a bed despite indications from Hostelworld.com that this particular place was booked solid for the night.

Without a map, I managed to get lost, and asking directions from a number of people, which continued to lead me nowhere. I did have another interesting experience after asking a guy on the street for directions. First I tried in Spanish, then discovered that he had a little English, and noted an accent not similar to anything European. He was dark-skinned, and I decided to try Arabic...and was rewarded! He was from Egypt, and although my Arabic is poorer than my Spanish, with bits of three languages, I was able to get some directions that eventually led me to the right place. I happened upon the Florence Hostel Plus, and it looked like a nice hotel! I went inside to ask about a bed, and found myself walking up steps lines with red carpet, and into a lobby lined with marble floors and walls of clocks denoting the time in different international destinations. I hoped and prayed they would make me an accommodation, and was offered two nights in a 9 bed, mixed gender dorm room with a bathroom inside the room. Amenities were unbelievable, including a bar/club, eatery, pool, and sauna all for the typical price of a youth hostel. I made it to my room, and realized this was a vast establishment; with 5 floors, around 10 rooms per floor, with an average of 8 beds per room, I estimated many hundreds of beds!

The day was young, my accommodations were set, and I left on foot to begin to get familiar with Florence. Although the city was a little bit dirty, the architecture was magnificent, the city was interspersed with ancient cathedrals and other formal buildings, and the narrow streets and alleyways lined by tall buildings and balconies of flowers and clothes drying on clotheslines was very romantic. I was mesmerized every corner I turned, as there would be no more than a few blocks of such streets and alleys without an opening to a plaza or beautiful cathedral which would make for sights unseen outside a city that had such a long history.

My foot trek was relaxing and good exercise, and I was amazed by the Florentines' ability to be dressed in such warm but fashionable clothing, including scarves and jackets, when the weather was warm and humid. It gave me hope that I would eventually get used to what would be hot weather throughout my trip, but for the time being, I was happy to look like a tourist in my shorts and t-shirt!

Walking along, I noticed pizzerias, tabaccherias, trattorias, ristorantes, and cafes everywhere. Little boutiques would be hiding in the most non-descript of buildings, and I was delighted to stumble upon a 99 cent store! I had to go in, and was surprised to see something I had been seeing everywhere in Europe, liquor and beer for sale in any and all conceivable places. The metro stations in Madrid had liquor stands, and the hostels had beer vending machines. Here in Florence, I was looking at cans of Moretti beer at the 99 cent store, and had to try one. I asked the clerk if it was OK to drink it on the street, and he assured me that it was, so I went ahead and enjoyed a beer walking down the street.

Wandering on, I found a little Irish pub and decided to enjoy another beer, and was delighted to discover an American "ex-pat" from California as the bartender. I was glad to find an English speaking local, and we enjoyed each other over a couple of strong beers on tap. He gave me his impressions of living in Florence for 3 years, and recommended a restaurant, and a dish particular to Florence, the venerable Bistecca Fiorentina. This is a steak that is generally sold by weight, and often times is in the 2-3 Lb range, good for two people or one Kamal. I promised myself I would have one, bid my new friend farewell, and continued my walk where I planned to get my first meal in Florence, and go back to the hostel for a nap. I settled upon a pizzeria just a couple blocks from my hostel, and decided to order the "meat of the day" which was pork spareribs with white beans on the side. The meat was tender and wonderfully seasoned, and the resulting sauce of rendered fat and caramelization that dripped off the ribs onto the plate made for great bread dipping. The price was a relief at 7 Euro, and I was very satisfied with this first meal. By the time I got back to the hostel, it was later than expected, and my nap was delayed a bit talking to my roommates, and traded in for an early night's sleep. Although I had hoped and planned for Florence to be a relaxing and recuperating getaway, my bunkmate was a constant snorer, and the mean American girl across the wooden divider wall from him was unrelentless with her banging on the wall, and turning the lights on and off throughout the night to try and curb his snoring. It didn't work, and I think we all hated both of them. My strained sleeping experience was continuing, and I slowly watched the minutes go by, waiting for morning to come.

Italy Day 3 (Trip Day 8)

I "slept in" till fairly late trying to at least give my body a break, and was excited for my plan to rent a bicycle and pedal around Florence, sample the culinary delights, and see more of the magnificent old buildings and cathedrals. The internet was a bit spotty in the rooms, so I wandered to the lobby to hop on email and connect to the outside world a bit. There I met Monica, a sweet and pretty gal of Chinese Vietnamese decent, raised in Australia. She enquired about the country code, as her daily plans were to seek out a rock climbing wall outside of Florence, and generally take a day-long break from her childhood friend whom she was traveling with. After hitting it off swimmingly for about a half hour, we decide to spend the day together discovering Florence. The bikes and rocks would have to wait for the next tourist, and I was happy to be making a new friend on the world stage.

Bistecca Fiorentina. Bistecca Fiorentina. Bistecca Fiorentina. I was foolish enough to relay her this story, and at all of noontime, having yet to have a meal, she mentions that she would love to eat some steak, and that she had been craving some red meat for weeks. My new friend was turning out to be a kindred soul, a bird of the same feather who had a similar predilection toward discovery, gluttony, and excess. We wander looking for the restaurant that my "ex-pat" bartender had recommended, to no avail. We found ourselves admiring a particular shirt in a little boutique, and decide to ask the shopkeeper about a good place to get this steak. We follow his advice to a trattoria just around the corner, and sat down for the awaited meal. The Bistecca on the menu was 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, and we reckoned that it would do the trick for lunch, and would satisfy our craving for a good piece of meat. The resulting plate, that was delivered to us was PRECISELY what the "ex-pat" had described: a Ribeye-like steak bone-on, which was seared on both sides, then stood up on the bone and roasted for more time. Slices were made in the steak making for easy serving, and it was "blue" inside (one step less than rare), just as described. The taste was pure heaven, and we figured that it must have been prepped with some vinegar, as it looked blue but somehow had a texture of a more cooked piece of meat. The Florentines had something going with this steak, and I immediately promised myself under my breath to have another before leaving the country. I was highly impressed to see Monica eat every last bit of her portion, gristle and all, and knew that her Chinese roots mustn’t have been too far away. I picked away at the bone, and we decided it was time to continue our day with a search for her daily dose of gelato, and a mutual craving for espresso.

We had a great time wandering around Florence, eating gelato, drinking espresso, admiring and laughing at the statues of men with uncircumcised penises, and somehow happening upon the 99 cent store again. We shopped through the leather marketplace, an outdoor extravaganza of bags and jackets, and found ourselves on the hunt for a particular leather bag she had seen earlier as a gift for her mother. After sometime, she realized that she was late to meet her travelmate, and we headed back to the hostel with the plan to get together for dinner. She was going to make me eat pasta in Italy for the first time, though I continued to have a hankering for another steak.

After cleaning up, and discovering to my delight that the mean American girl in our hostel room had traveled on to another Italian destination, I met with Monica and her friend, and we wandered around looking for a good Italian meal. We found the restaurant that was originally recommended by the Ex-Pat waiter, and we decided to try it out. I ordered the Carpaccio, which was an interesting variation on what we normally eat in the US, it was slightly dried, and loaded with Arugula and parmesiano-reggiano, and was very enjoyable. I went ahead and ordered a Spaghetti Bolognese, despite seeing a Bistecca Fiorentina for one person...which I regretted! The pasta was nice, but it was just like a dish my mother makes, spaghetti with meat sauce, topped with cheese and baked in the oven. Right about this time, I was lucky enough to get a call from Jen, and I ran outside to catch up with her for a bit. Seemed as though all was well at home, so I rejoined my dinner companions, and we made the plan to return to the Hostel lounge and party a bit. Without any undue details, Monica and I made a good time out of the end of the night, and we bid our farewells.

Italy Day 4 (Trip Day 9)

I spent this morning booking details for my short excursion to the Cinque Terre region on the coast of Italy. This is a small area of 5 villages that is absolutely beautiful and secluded.

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The train ride up was another nice cruise, and right before the one train switch, I came to believe that the two young travelers seated near me were going to the same place. I made contact, and it turned out that Tim and Sean were booked at the same hostel as I! Not that there were more than a couple throughout all five villages, but still the coincidence was a bit uncanny. We enjoyed our ride together to the most southerly village called Riomaggiore, and wandered around the "one street" village and found our hostel master. He showed us to our domicile, which was a narrow building with decidedly dangerously narrow and steep stairs to get to a room on the top floor with 5 bunks, a bathroom and mini-kitchen.

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The boys and I decided to wander around, and took an hour walk around town where we snapped some photos.

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We stumbled upon a cliff-top bar, and drank a few pints of beer and had a lot of laughs. The view was magnificent, the air clean, the sun warm, and the people friendly.

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Since they had more time than I, it was time for me to split off, see what I would in the Cinque Terre, and make my way back to Rome to meet up with Liz. I found my way to the train, and went two villages up, Corniglia, about a 5 minute train ride. I got off the train, and took a good walk up a long road into town...this town must have been the smallest of all five; the town center had maybe 5 businesses, and was mostly residential. I stopped for a water and a very nice pannini, made a few phone calls, and went back to the train.

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I managed to take a snapshot of a roadside map which showed the extensive hiking trails that join the 5 villages, certainly an attraction for more rugged types of tourists.

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After all the walking, and having continued to battle my cold, I could feel the 3 large beers working diligently against my immune system...it was time for a nap.

Nap time made a witness of all my different dorm mates coming in and out, all trying to get me to come out and join the nightlife at the one bar in town...I opted to take care of myself, and once my energy returned, I walked across the street to the nicest restaurant in town where I was determined to have a Pesto pasta, since, after all, we were in the region where pesto originated.

As I perused the menu posted outside of the restaurant, a group of 4 similarly-aged Australians waiting for their table noticed me by my lonesome and insisted I join them for dinner, I accepted without hesitation! Thus began what would become a legacy of meeting up with Australian travelers who redefined the term "hospitable". In short, the night was filled with many laughs and stories, more of the same psuedo-dried carpaccio, and unfortunately a pesto that was so salty it was not worth mention. As I felt my cold pulling back on, I excused myself after dinner, and went to sleep in this very sleepy village.

Italy Day 5 (Trip Day 10)

I awoke feeling renewed, and although I had plans to travel to the largest and most northerly village in the Cinque Terre, I decided to instead to say goodbye to this lovely place on earth, promise myself to come back, and headed on my merry way to Rome to have a couple days to myself there before meeting up with Liz and seeing the sites that have made Rome famous.

Along the way I was able to take pictures of an area that was rich in Marble production. Looking out the train window, you could see the marble quarries cut into the mountain sides in the distance, and the marble refining factories just beyond the tracks.

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Liz is a friend from home I invited to join me on my trip for a short bit. The poor girl had just been dumped "at the altar" (actually 3 weeks before her wedding day) after a 5 year relationship with a guy she assumed she would spend the rest of her life with. When she heard my trip would include Morocco, she told me of her long-held dream to visit that country, so I figured it may be nice to have a travel companion for a bit, and to give her a chance to get away from this fresh trauma and miserable circumstance at home. Liz opted to meet me in Rome, where we would see some sites, and then continue on to Madrid, then on to Morocco.

The train ride to Rome to meet her was uneventful. Apparently in Italy, its not often that train tickets get checked, and in the numerous train rides I had taken, mine had never been checked. I guess there is a culture of train riders who simply don't pay for train tickets, and instead opt to pay the 50 Euro fine if and when they get caught. From my experience of the cost of the tickets, and the rarity with which they are checked, it appears that such a system of cheating is more economical. Apparently the same thing happens with taxes in Italy!

Well, on one of the trains getting to Rome, I was checked, and had apparently boarded the wrong train. The destination was correct, but the class of train was nicer then the ticket I had bought. I had wondered why the ticket was only 3 Euro! So, the roving train attendant went ahead and figured the difference in price, and I was out another 12 Euro!

Getting into Rome, I checked into my hostel, and decided to simply wander around and relax before Liz's arrival, instead of try to see any of the sites. I was located in the university neighborhood, the part of any town that I have always liked and felt at home at. I took the time to wander around, and enjoyed the area, ate some food, and appreciated the feel of this student-populated area.

Back at the hostel, it was time to do laundry, and the laundromat was a short bus ride away. I asked around the small hostel if there was anyone who wanted to join me, and two Brazilian gals in my hostel room took me up on the offer. Between the three of us, we had just about no communication skills in common, which made for a great adventure! Brazilian 1 spoke a little Spanish (less than me), and fluent Portuguese. Brazilian 2 was Asian, and spoke fluent Portuguese, Japanese, and just a few words of English. She would at times translate what the other one was trying to say, who was much more talkative despite the language barrier. We used much body language, and overall had a great time! We made our way to the laundromat, which despite claiming to be self-service, did not allow us to do our own laundry. But the upside was that it would only cost the cost of the machines to have our laundry done, and the attendant was a young Brazilian guy who spoke many languages, so we all had an easy time getting by in the laundromat, and he served as a loyal translator for the girls and I.

The three of us decided to wait out the 2 hours of laundry by having an economical meal. We settled in at a trattoria run by an Indian fellow, and the food was decent and cheaply priced. The girls had lasagna, I had a piece of veal that was stuffed with cheese and ham, a Rocket salad (the Italians think we call Arugula "rocket" lol!) and we split a platter of cured meats such as salami, etc.

Italy Day 6, 7, 8, 9 (Trip Days 11, 12, 13, 14)

I awoke and trekked to the Hotel Liz had booked, which was clear across town. From here I decided to take the subway into town and wander around. I saw interesting sites and talked with interesting people along the way. A couple girls I met were from Jordan, they were enjoying their last few hours in Rome. Another man I met perusing a shop of cheap chinese imports led to a heated discussion about Obama vs. McCain. He mentioned that he was one of those wealthy Midwestern business owners who would end up seeing more taxes under Obama, I mentioned having just finished a PhD and couldn't find a job. We decided just to leave it there!

As I continued walking, I passed along a public demonstration/parade, and enjoyed the site over a kebab. In many foreign countries, people show there disdain for problematic social issues through peaceful demonstration. It seems that here in the US, we simply become disillusioned and disengaged, leaving the bigwigs to continue doing what they will. I enjoyed seeing people's efforts at getting their message out.

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Finally, I made it to the Termini station where Liz arrived in the late afternoon.

Long story short, our days in Rome were fairly uneventful. Liz was a real pain in the ass; I had known her to be somewhat high maintenance and inclined toward refinery, but I figured given her situation, and the fact we were only friends, that her tendencies wouldn't become an issue. Wrong!

Possibly the most interesting part of Rome was our guided tour through the Coliseum.

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Now there, I am not much for anything guided or touristic, but I figured if we were going to see the Coliseum, that there was going to be very interesting history that we would not otherwise get. This bet paid off better than the last, and I was awe-struck at the gruesomeness and barbaric proportions of some of the activities that occurred at the Coliseum.

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Apparently, we were told that the movie "Gladiator" is a fairly accurate rendition of that time period, but I have yet to see it and compare to the history I learned during that tour. Some interesting tidbits: the Coliseum was lit up at night by burning the bodies of dead Christians (the Romans were Pagan), that the Gladiators and the crowds were warmed up by sending out blindfolded fighters armored in steel, who were of the lowest class of slave. We also learned that slaves and prisoners were allowed to see the shows for free as a way to provide them with some pleasure in their life in order to keep them from uprising against society.

We spent out our time in Rome, awaiting our Madrid layover and the impending trip to Morocco, by eating, enjoying the sites, and just relaxing.

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We went to see a movie, and since the nearest theatre showing American films in English was very far away, we decided to see a dubbed American film. We also though it would be a great way to soak up some Italian culture, since this was how the Italians saw our films (apparently also the reason they hardly speak English). Well, we picked a terrible movie, but the greatest entertainment came from the watching the crowd of young Italians hootin' and hollering to the ridiculous dialogue and scenes in the movie. Although a fairly serious movie, "The Mist" drew lots of laughter from the absolute ridiculousness of the story and monster special effects. Liz and I decided it was better that we couldn't understand the dialogue, and were mostly happy with the experience! I also thoroughly enjoyed trying to buy the tickets; the nice gal at the ticket booth kept on trying to tell us in Italian that the movie was not in English, we understood this, and still wanted to see the movie, but she couldn't believe it! Her and her ticketing comrades laughed and laughed at us!

Tuesday morning came around, we made our way to the airport, and had an uneventful flight into Madrid.

Posted by Kamal2008 11:30 Archived in Italy Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

4: Morocco

Fun in small doses, take care what you do!

all seasons in one day
View Around the world in 70 days on Kamal2008's travel map.

Morocco Day 1 (Trip day 15)

We were lucky enough to have a native Moroccan on the plane next to us. He had been working in Spain for 8 years, and was traveling home to see his family, so between his and Liz's fluent Spanish, and our choppy Arabic and English, we were able to get some good ideas about seeing things in Morocco. Most importantly, he suggested that instead of taking the train from Casablanca (our flight destination) to Marrakech, we should book cheap flights and save 4 hours of trekking, and arrive Marrakech during the daytime. This sounded like a great idea, and although the train was extremely cheap, arriving in a strange city during the dark is not the wisest of practices.

Getting through customs in Casablanca was an interesting. The female control officer hassled me to no end, despite an obvious appreciation for my Arabic roots. I had to provide no less than all of my ticket stubs for travel from San Francisco all the way into Morocco. Now generally, I tend to throw away such things, but was amazed that I was able to find every single stub, and was finally granted entry. Liz had an easier time after saying that she was with me, despite the control officer making some unapproving gesture about the two of us traveling together.

Finally, we were ready to wander around the airport and look for flights to Marrakech. We were told that the only carrier was the national carrier for Morocco, called Royal Air Maroc. Tickets were $50 US each, on promotion, and we would arrive Marrakech around 6 pm, with plenty of light to spare, so we jumped on these fares.

It turned out to be a nightmare flight! I don't really like flying, and again was relieved that the plane we were about to take, along with all the others I had taken on the trip, were nice new machines. We were to fly on a new Boeing 737-800, on an airline that appeared to have many old planes. We sat on the plane waiting for some late passengers, which delayed us about 40 minutes. Apparently, since we were on a connector flight to a city that had very few flights, the airlines will wait for late passengers, otherwise they are required to rebook those passengers at a high cost to the airline. So, we waited and waited, and finally taxied to the runway, which also took a long time, around 15 minutes. Just as it was our turn to take off, and as we were rolling down the runway, the pilot did a U-turn IN THE MIDDLE of the runway. An impressive technique, but a bad omen. Apparently we had to go back to the yard to make an inspection. Great, and brand new plane that was already broken....

Well, my seat neighbor was a nice Frenchman who traveled a lot, and he settled my worries with many of his own similar experiences. He told me of one flight where they sat in the yard while the speed brake was repaired, and went ahead and took off. Well it was looking like we were going to have an identical experience. We too sat in the yard for about an hour, but were then told that we would have to get off the plane. Unfixable, which truly was a relief to me. We learned that our money would not be refunded, but if they could not get us to Marrakech that night, that they would put us up in a hotel until they could. Frenchie mentioned that the bus trip to Marrakech was only about 2 hours, and that he had heard airlines doing that in the past. Well, not long after returning to the gate via bus, we were told that they "found" a plane, and we were ready to take off. Another bus trip to the middle of the airport, and we were boarding a different 737-800, and all went well with that flight despite finally getting into Marrakech after dark after all, at about 8:30.

The experience of riding the bus into town to our hotel was the start of what might have turned out to be a major glitch in my trip: Constant air pollution everywhere we went from trucks, cars, and motorcycles BILLOWING black smoke. Most of my trip is planned around developing countries, as these are the culturally different, and cheap, places to travel for an extended period. But as an American, I have become well used to clean air everywhere we go. Just the first eve getting to our hotel was a frustrating experience. It seemed like I was forced to breathe smoky air of one sort or another throughout my whole trip, and it was about the only thing that made me noticeably frustrated.

We finally made it to our dodgy hotel, right on a polluted strip, and went out to take a first look at the Medina, which is the word for the old part of the city. I noticed that Liz was suddenly in a very amiable mood, and commented on it. She admitted that she had taken a Valium, and I came to realize a lot about her life, and that she likely was nursing a growing addiction that may have been the reason she was just dumped, and had strained contact with her family.

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The Medinas in the cities of Morocco, Casablanca, and Fes are famous for the open air markets called Souks, and the traditional and cheap food that is offered there.

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The center of this area was set up with countless tables and chairs around little cooking carts which all offered the same fare; many varieties of meats and seafood to BBQ, along with traditional appetizers and side dishes. We sat for some meat skewers and bits of olives, bell pepper, bread, and salsa, and I was surprised at the nice flavors and high quality of food in this very dingy and dirty open air market. It was also a nice respite from the air pollution, as it was the smoke from countless BBQ carts that filled the air in this area.

We made it back to our hotel after being surrounded by gypsy kids begging for money or food on numerous occasions, and enjoyed a good night's rest. It was a relief to be settled for a day or two as Liz's tendencies were really getting to be a bother, especially around trying to make this trip on a budget, and I started to have the feeling that our friendship may soon become permanently strained. Only time would be able to tell.

Morocco Day 2 (Trip Day 16)

Today was one of the greatest days in Morocco. We wandered around the Medina and the Souks (Marketplaces), saw nice things to buy, and soaked in the culture. We checked into a beautiful Riad at Liz's expense, which I would recommend to anyone despite budget constraints. These typically run from 50 to 300 Euro per night. A Riad is an old traditional home in the old part of the city, which has been converted into a luxury guesthouse. They are generally owned and renovated by foreigners, and provide an intimate and unique experience in accommodation. It was wonderful, and our French Riad owners were extremely hospitable and knowledgeable about experiencing Morocco.

You would never know that down a dirty alleyway would be a beautiful accomodation:

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Though possibly only the beautiful door would stand out:

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But inside is pure beauty:

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So we spent the afternoon wandering, where I saw and tried to bargain for a leather sack that was very cute. I didn't get the price I wanted, despite the difference being just dollars. A tip for those going to places where the money valued differently, keep in mind that though you may be trying to bargain down 200-300 of the nation's currency, that difference may truly be negligible in our own currency. So, for a few US Dollars, I did not get my bag, but promised myself to make one once at home, and charged myself with finding the leather while in Turkey, another leather capital in this part of the world.

We had a hankering for alcohol, as drinking was not much of a pastime we had been engaging in, and we managed to find about the only establishment serving alcohol in the old part of the city. It was a fine French restaurant that was closed before dinner, but they let us in to have drinks. We took some fine photos from the terrace, and continued on after about 6 beers between us.

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I had decided that my light alcohol buzz needed reinforcement, and again set out to find drinks. We were told vague directions to a lounge, and every corner we turned, we asked directions again until we finally made it. It was a hotel with a lounge downstairs, and it was packed with both Moroccans and tourists drinking what little alcohol could be found in this part of the city. We were especially surprised at the Moroccans drinking, as Islam strictly forbids this, and that we were in a part of the country that wasn't quite "modernized" with respect to tradition. We were sitting in a corner area, with a number of different couches and people sitting quietly on their own despite the noisy atmosphere, so I started talking to people, since there were three other groups within easy earshot. One was an English gentleman who was on a photography trip, one was a "couple" (??) consisting of a middle aged Frenchman with a young Moroccan guy, and the other was two young Moroccan guys swilling beers at a pace almost as fast as us. Conversation became lively, and Liz commented that I had made some precedent in our little corner of the lounge. One of the two young Moroccan guys started speaking with us in English, then Spanish, and I decided it was worth a closer look, so we joined them on their couch.

This young guy turned out to be a typical type in Morocco. He was lower-class and uneducated (meaning NO school) but he had worked all his life in tourism in Morocco, so like many of this constituency, he spoke at least 4 languages and was intimately familiar with tourism options in Morocco. He spoke Arabic, French (as all Moroccans do) English, Spanish (Spain is very close) Italian, and bits of northern European languages. WOW! I was amazed, but quickly became used to this as we spent more time in other parts of Morocco.

He told us about a timeless excursion in Morocco which I had read about online, and was also told about by our Moroccan neighbor on the plane to Casablanca. It consists of getting to the town of Merzouga, where tourists then take a camel ride into the desert sand dunes, enjoying a timeless sunset, one night's camping in a Berber tent, a beautiful sunrise in the morning, and a camel ride back to the town. Liz was absolutely thrilled by the prospect, but I was hesitant. Camping in a Berber tent in the desert didn't sound like a great time, though seeing vast sand dunes did sound good, especially on an overpowered dirt bike! I decided to go along with it since Liz came out after a long time of dreaming of Morocco, and that she had not had a great experience thus far. So, we inquired more about how to make the trek. We were told that we could do it either in a package tour, or simply rent our own car, travel to Merzouga on our own time, and from there the different camel treks would be literally forced upon us as we arrive into the city. Seeing the guided tours would be comparable to a car rental, we opted for the latter, and slowly made our way back to the Riad to get ready for this journey. We ate and strolled back home, enjoying the communal nature of the medina area, and impressed by the sheer numbers of Moroccans who are out and about enjoying the beautiful night, typical everywhere outside Anglo countries.

Morocco Day 3 (Trip Day 17)

Our wonderful French hosts at the Riad were able to get us a killer deal on a rental car, for only $35 per day, inclusive of everything save gas, and we jumped on it. It would even include delivery to the Riad, and we would be driven to the edge of town so we would not have to contend with the crazy and dangerous inner city driving. We made a final wander around the Medina and Souks, and decided that any souvenirs we wanted could be picked up when we arrive in Fez, after our cross country trek and voyage to the Sand Dunes.

So we jumped in the car, were driven to the edge of Marrakech, told which direction to go, and started on what was supposed to be an exciting and truly improvised adventure into an unknown land, complete without a map!

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Well, the adventure started quickly; I was pulled over before we even got out of Marrakech. Somehow I was looking at the wrong stop light, and ran a red light after being stopped at the intersection for a few minutes. The cop flagged me over, and he started in on me in Arabic. I eeked out some choppy Arabic about seeing the light go green, but between my accent, and the fact that Lebanese Arabic is different than Moroccan Arabic, we had a total communication barrier. He squawked on his radio with his comrade, through up his finger, and started walking away. Not sure what was going on, Liz suggested that he was letting me go, and as I watched him continue to walk away and not look back, I got a case of the "fuck-its" and quickly got out of there.

We stopped in to get some road food, and enjoyed an amazing burger. It was touted as 100% beef, but to my delight, I am sure it was mostly lamb meat. Not only that, it came with a fried egg, cheese, and all the fixings! It must have been the culinary highlight of Morocco, sad to say.

We finally got out of town on the highway, and the landscape was beautiful. Every 10 minutes or so, we would wind through a little Moroccan town, complete with beautiful but simple Mosques, and buildings that were mostly made of mud.

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We trekked over the Atlas mountain range, which was a breathtaking, desert-mountain pass, and saw very interesting stands on the side of the road which were unattended, but offering all manner of crystals and other archeological bits.

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We also saw many men standing on the side of the road selling those nifty mineral rocks that look like a rock on the outside, usually round in shape, but open up to a beautiful and colorful array of crystals inside. Finally, near the top of the pass, I had to stop at a stand and purchase some of the goodies. As I was looking through things at this unattended stand, a Moroccan guy comes running down the road out of nowhere to assist me! It was comical. We bargain hard on some marble goodies, including a camel, and egg, and a plate all in the same color of stone. He was determined to sell me more things, and produced some of the beautiful split rocks with the crystals inside. After more hard bargaining, I walked away with about $24 worth of beautiful rocks which would have easily cost upward of $200 in the US, and was a happy camper. As we were driving away, he comes up to the window and offers Liz and souvenir...another very small marble camel. Obviously I didn't get as good of a deal as I could have! But was still excited about my purchase.

We continued to wind through the mountains, and finally crossed them, leaving us in the Valley between these mountains and the sand dunes we were headed for. We drove through a large town that was a sort of landmark, and finally decided to get a map for good measure. We drove until nightfall, and decided we would have to stop since there were no street lights on the highway, and no reflectors denoting the separation of the two lanes of opposing traffic.

We saw signs for what looked like a luxury hotel a few towns up, and finally made it into that town. We reached the city center, which consisted of an intersection of mostly dirt roads, with many poor local Moroccans hanging out and eating food streetside. I parked and left Liz in the car to checkout what looked like a budget hotel. I was shown the room, which did not have a private bathroom, and determined that for the price, $12 US, we could surely afford the luxury hotel. We made our way to the hotel, which was up a hill; the locals quickly disappeared the higher we got, so Liz was feeling safer. She had made the comment that she had not seen any women out in that busy city center, but I dismissed the comment as coincidence.

We finally happened upon the luxury hotel, and went inside to inquire about rooms. It was very reasonable at $36 per night, an they had a bar, live dancing, and a restaurant to boot. So we checked in, and of course, Liz was very unhappy. It was an older room, not the cleanest, but I was quite happy considering the locale. We wandered down to the restaurant, which was closed, but was opened for our arrival. It bordered the bar, where there was a small Moroccan band, and three female dancers, who were the first females we saw outside of Marrakech to not be wearing head dress. We sat and had a terrible dinner, and I mistakenly ate some fruit. I had forgotten my Anti-Biotics in Madrid, and should have been MUCH more careful of what I was eating as a result, but wasn't. We finished dinner and settled into the bar to watch the entertainment. What ensued was a fascinating experience.

The band and dancers were unremarkable, but it appeared that Moroccan men would make the trek up the hill to this public bar in the hotel, would purchase beers and take them away hiding in plastic bags! We were in a much more traditional setting, and it was obvious that this bar made a killing from men sneaking beer down into town. We also noticed that one of the dancers was drinking, smoking, and flirting with the men, we figured that like us, she would be going to hell one day, and appreciated her style! I managed to get into a conversation of rough Arabic with an extremely drunk Moroccan, and ended it abruptly when he got belligerent. We decided to end the night and retire. I again did not get a wink of sleep. The room contained two single beds, and a cot. It appeared that Liz got a decent bed, but mine had the Grand Canyon right in the middle. So, sometime near morning, I got up and switched to the cot, which was a little less used up, and was able to get a few winks of sleep.

Next: Morocco Part 2

Posted by Kamal2008 11:38 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

5: Morocco Part 2

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Morocco Day 4 (Trip Day 18)

We woke up to realize the magnificent view out our balcony. It was a winding river, nearly out of water in this end of the dry season, with a landscape dotted with defunct mud hut as far as the eye could see, ending in the rugged Atlas Mountain range that we had just crossed the day before, and would cross again before our trip was over. Truly spectacular!

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We get back on the road and stop in town long enough to look for a cell phone. Mine had slowly begun to die since some sort of odd power surge in the hotel in Rome, and had finally given up the previous day. A phone was important, especially with the improvised trek we were doing, and we had been impressed that wherever there were roads in Morocco, there was cell phone reception. There were no reasonably priced phones in town, and the guys at the cell phone shops couldn't speak any English, so I was worried that the phones would not be "Unlocked" and therefore not work with my SIM card. So we traveled on.

We reached the large town that we were supposed to spend the night in, and decided to take a look around since we were ahead of schedule. It was amazing to see the butcher shops with bleeding animal heads and hides laying around, and dirt roads everywhere. We were directed to a cell phone shop were I was able to request the cheapest phone available. It would be 200 Dirhams, equivalent to $24 US, new in the box with charger...so I jumped on it. Still wasn't sure if it was unlocked, but the guy let me try it out before purchasing, and it worked like a charm! I was very excited by my new phone, and it must have been the smallest, thinnest phone I have owned to date, made by Alcatel.

We continued to wander around, and found grumpy Liz some espresso that worked like...a Valium, so she was happy again. I realized that I needed to restrain from suggesting her to take one of those every time I found her to be bitchy, and found myself instead feeling a growing distance from her which I hoped would not come to a head.

We drove on, and within a couple hours we were seeing vast amounts of fine sand...we were very excited! We happened upon some very interesting sand breaks on the side of the road which were designed to keep too much sand from moving onto the road, which seemed marginally helpful.

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We also managed to drive through a minor sandstorm, which was very exciting, and something I was able to get on video.

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As we enter the town before Merzouga, we come up against a T in the road in town, and are not sure which way to go. As usual, I quickly roll down my window and ask the first available bystander for help. He gives us a rundown of Merzouga; there are three distinct villages, and they all have resorts that offer camel treks. We thanked him, but he wouldn’t let us go; he needed a ride to Merzouga. He was well dressed and multilingual, and was fairly forward. I didn’t feel comfortable and told him no. He was not happy with this answer, and we exchanged some words before I sped off into safety. It turns out that a quick look at our map would have made the direction obvious, dually noted for the next time.

We finally reached signs indicating that Merzouga was only a few miles away, and managed to get pulled over AGAIN! We (I) had been ripping through the speed limit the entire trip, driving 120-130 KM/H instead of the indicated 80-100 KM/H. As we roll over a bridge, we see some policemen just hanging out in the distance...I start slowing down, and one of them flags me down. I brake as hard as a can, and still can't stop by the time I reach him...uh oh. There are four of them just standing around on the side of the road. There is no building, no stand, booth, or anything. They were obviously put there to make sure that the thriving tourism in this area remains safe for foreigners. He is very cool with me, asks me some questions, and stands back. Another one comes up, asks where I am from, and asks the speed limit in California. I exaggerate a little bit, and we engage in some friendly conversation, and we were on our way. The Frenchie from our broken airplane was right; in Morocco, TOURISTS ARE KING. LOL!

Well, we continued on, feeling pretty important, and finally came upon the sand dunes in the distance…it was beautiful. In one fell swoop, the rocky, almost black desert turns into pure, clean dunes of sand. Quite remarkable!

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We begin to see signs for hotel resorts that offer camel treks, and worrying about the approaching afternoon, and sunset, we turned off toward what looked like the first village in the distance. We wandered around the dirt roads, and pulled into the nicest looking resort. The area was like a ghost town, but it was low-season after all.

The resort hotel was another mud establishment, finely crafted, and we wandered around to find the sleeping groundskeeper. Now, in Morocco, it seems like everything needs to be discussed in time, and over complimentary tea, so we were invited to the roof to discuss what we wanted, to sip tea, and get to know each other. Here is where I felt like a hurried, harried American. All I wanted was the price, and an indication if there was going to be other travelers in our expedition. Well, it took about 20 minutes of tact, tea, and sunlight to finally determine that this was not the place we wanted to be. I did not feel comfortable going on an overnight trek alone with a poor Moroccan, Liz, and myself. I even paid the guy off for the tea, and Liz and I ran!

We decided to go to the last village, which appeared to be the largest and most well stocked with tourists. We were approached by a Moroccan the moment we reached the village, and I was able to ask for just what we wanted: we would agree to an overnight trip only if there were other tourists in the group. He assured us that there were, and we proceeded to the “hotel”. There, we were introduced to a group of Brit tourists who were waiting to go on a camping trek. After much attempt to clear up the situation, it appeared that there were three different trek options. One was a sunset trek that would take only a few hours, one was a short trek to camp in a nearby camp, and the other was the venerable long trek into the dunes, for camping in a real Berber camp. Finally we determined that the Brits would be camping, but only at the nearby camp. So, we informed the “hotel” staff, and they said that they had just received word that two tourists were on their way to make the long trek, and if we waiting just a bit, we would find out if, in fact, there would be other tourists to join us.

Well, two young Italian guys came through, and sure enough, they wanted the real trek out to the dunes, so all four of us were delighted that we would have the opportunity to join each other for this once in a lifetime experience! We paid the money, and our troupe prepared the minimal belongings we needed, and were escorted out to the camel parking lot.

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What would ensue over the next day was certainly to be a “once in a lifetime” experience, one that I would NEVER DO AGAIN. It started out innocently enough, but within 5 minutes of our two hour camel trek to the camp, we were all feeling extremely uncomfortable on the camels. The saddles, despite being covered by blankets, felt like they were made of pure steel, and the way the camel walks causes its rider to buck back and forth EVERY STEP.

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It was a long journey in, and to top it off, the clouds rolled in, and there was no magnificent sunset to enjoy over the dunes. But we did see a few Oases, where Berbers would settle and live until their camels ate up all the vegetation.

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We finally got to our camp around dusk, and prepared our tent. Liz and I shared a large tent, and each of our beds consisted of a thin single-size foam pad, such as on an outdoor chez-lounge, a thin sheet, and an old blanket. Wow, this was going to be one hell of a night.

We sat out under the clouds, waiting for dinner, and decided to climb the dune directly behind our camp. The Italians took advantage of the snowboard that was available, and we all had a good laugh watching these guys try to board down the dune…it didn’t work! Climbing the dune was hard, I managed to reach 2/3 the way to the top, and the view was rewarding! I could see into Algeria, and the point at which the sand dunes stopped, as quickly as they started.

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Dinner was OK, but I had been suffering from grumbling insides since eating the fruit at the hotel the night before, and not having the anti-biotics with me. Conversation with the Italians was great; it was more politics, but also tended toward Italian history, and general social welfare theory and history around the US and Italy. I think for the first time Liz had an appreciation of meeting other travelers and sharing stories. I was determined to make her stay in a youth hostel before she left, just for the experience of meeting and talking with travelers, which is truly an important experience you just can’t get when staying in hotels. We finished our conversation and went to bed. I was unable to get a wink of sleep, tossing and turning and redesigning my bed all night, to no avail. At some point likely very early in the morning, thunder and lightning began, and there were a few sprinkles. I figured the sunrise would also be moot, and I was somewhat relieved since I really don't like getting up early in the morning...for anything.

Morocco Day 5 (Trip Day 19)

We were finally woken up around 9am, long past the sunrise portion of our camel trek. The Italians had set and alarm, which I heard, and did try to enjoy the sunset, but it was hidden by clouds. So we all stumbled around while the Moroccans cleaned up the camp, and were finally loaded onto the camels. I'm not sure if the trek back back was worse or better. On one hand, I was fatigued from a lack of sleep and consistently grumbling insides, and just didn't have the energy to deal, but on the other hand was somewhat numbed out and resigned to having a good experience. Long story (trek) short, 5 minutes before arriving at the "hotel", after 2 hours on the camel, we were caught in a torrential downpour. We arrived at the "hotel" soaked, and bitterly passed on breakfast or showers, though not before getting a nice picture with one of the Italians.

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We rushed to the car, and got ready for a long drive "home", which we didn't quite know what would bring.

The drive provided spectacular views, and was overall easier than the drive out. We had driven in from Marrakech, but were riving out a different direction to Fes. The mountain range was not nearly as sheer and high in this part of the country, and it was much more pretty. We passed a vast reservoir which we stopped and looked at in the rain, and decided to take a short cut which would save almost 100 miles, but the quality of the road was unknown. Although the road was listed similarly on the map, it turned out to be much worse! There were potholes, little signage, and for about 100 miles, was not wide enough for two cars to comfortably pass, so we would need to slow all the way down and straddle the shoulder to get past the few cars we did pass. It was FUN beating our little Kia, and I was thouroughly impressed with how rugged the car was. I'd had A LOT of fun with this little car, from racing it through the mountains (thanks to the stick shift) to beating it over rutted country roads.

We reached a very interesting, ancient "home" built into a rock ledge:

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After more magnificent views over the 600 kilometers of travel that day (not counting the 2 hours of camel riding) we finally reached Fes. We had to wander around town to find the basics. This is where Liz becomes a real pain in the ass. No adventurousness whatsoever. I must admit, this is the part I really like...starting with nothing, no map, no language, no reservations, and building an experience from there. It was so dicey that we had even asked a police officer where to get a map and pretended not to understand our request.

Finally we found an internet cafe, and got the addresses for a couple hotels, but couldn't get them up on the online maps. So we needed a map. Finally found one, but we couldn't figure out where we were on the map! All the road signs were in Arabic in this city, which was a first in all of Morocco that we had seen. I even asked numerous people on the street, and they were unable to point us in the right direction. Finally, we happened upon a military establishment, and the guard gave us some vague hints, and between his direction, and finding the McDonalds both on the map and in real life, we figured out our bearings. So, we went into the Mickey D's for a bite to eat, and a helpful young guy noticed our map and helped us further. He suggested a couple hotels in the immediate area, and after a familiar meal, we were able to examine a couple different hotel rooms and choose one.

By this time, Liz had had it with Morocco, and I had had it with Liz. So I left her in the hotel room and wandered about. I hope she took a Valium or three, because I think my distance was getting to be a bit obvious. I don't want to say that she ruined my trip to Morocco, but I think she ruined my trip to Morocco. I would have been happy to wander about the Medina in Marrakech, make our originally planned trek to the beach, and just have an easy time eating tasty food and shopping for cheap thrills. Great learning experience. I think she noticed what was happening, as she proceeded to pay for most things on our trip, everything except rental car and gas.

So, I wandered out, and quickly found a nice internet cafe to sit at. Within moments, I was engaged in conversation with Arab fellows, and found myself having exactly the kind of experience I had come to Morocco for: chatting with locals, working on my Arabic, and just having a simple good time. Suddenly, I didn't want to leave. In fact, I wanted to escort Liz back to Madrid, get my belongings, and come right back to Morocco. It was a possibility, but for the time being, I had to stick to the committment, and would make the best of our remaining days re-entering Spain and seeking out Flamenco on our way back to Madrid.

Morocco Day 6 (Trip Day 20)

I awoke this morning feeling good, and with a new conviction to make the best of the next few days until leaving to go to Athens. We had arrived one day early, and after driving 1100 kilometers in three days, and riding camels for 4 hours, I was tired of driving. I was going to go out to return the car one day early and try to get a refund on the extra day we didn't use. Well, I left the room early enough to secretly plan an excursion to the Medina in Fes. I was not done with Morocco, and I wasn't going to let Liz stand in the way. So, I drove off with about two hours to kill before I had to return the car, get back to the hotel, and then board a train for Tangier, our port of exit toward Spain.

As I drove through the outskirts of the Medina, an old man on a scooter spotted my tourist stature, and began driving next to me, asking me what I wanted to see. I knew this was going to cost money, so I told him I just wanted to drive around on my own. Well, he wouldn't take no for an answer. He knew I wanted to see the Souks, but I was hesitant to park the rental car and venture off, so I truly was just trying to drive around. He stuck to me like glue. I made u-turns, slowed down, sped up, and did everything to shake him, but to no avail. So, as we drove, I became more friendly, and as we passed by certain things, I asked him to lead me back. We had heard about the leather purchasing and tanning areas in Marrakech, but never had a chance to see them, so I told him to lead me back to that. We parked our respective vehicles, and he walked me around the very bloody and smelly animal hyde marketplace. It was quite a site. My heart went out to any vegetarians who had ever been accidentally led to such a site.

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Then I asked about where the actual tanning areas were. This is where they have the bleach and the dyes, where they take fresh hydes and turn them into the finished leather that we know and love so well. He told me these were in the heart of the souks, and that he could lead me there...so I decided to go along with it.

He led me to a little parking area that was attended. This was a leap of faith, as I wasn't sure if these attendants were the ones to protect or infiltrate my stuff, but I decided to trust. We walked through some very rough souks, nothing like the ones in Marrakech. These were mostly deserted, obviously not the improved touristic sites we were used to. Finally we came through a gate, and I smelled an unfamiliar but obvious smell; it was the smell of the tanning factory. It looked like a rough area, so I told my guide that I was happy to look and take pictures from our birds eye view, which was a safe area, declining his invitation to actually walk through the factory.

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After having my fill, I told him I was ready to get back and return the car, and we stopped in to a artisan shop where two Moroccans were doing a very talented job chipping small square tiles into star shapes, all with a flat hammer. The guy would hold the tile, tap each side a couple times, and what came out was a perfect star. WOW! Very cool. They were putting the star shaped tiles into larger mosaics that would be sold as artisan building materials. I was offered a couple of the star tiles, and gave the artisan a couple bucks for letting me watch and take a picture.

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As we walk back to the car, and I see that it is still in pristine shape, I was ready to bargain with my guide about how much I needed to give him for the unsolicited tour around the city. We had it out as he wanted an exorbitant amount of money for the hour he spent chasing me down. I gave what I felt was appropriate, and he finally conceded to be friendly, and led be back to the main road, and sped off to acost another unsuspecting tourist.

It was a rough morning, as I also had it out with the rental car company. I was informed when I picked up the, though through translation, that any unused days on the car would be refunded. Well, it didn't happen, and I decided to forgoe the $35 so I could get back to the hotel to pick Liz up and get to the train. So I did so, we got onto the train, and had an easy ride into Tangier.

We had to switch trains halfway through, and when we did, we ended up in a car with three other travellers. One was an aloof white guy who didn't speak much English, and two females who looked of Indian decent. Well, it turned out to be a replay of Italy; the train conductor came through the cars, and the aloof white guy had no ticket to provide, so he was given a talking to, fined, and he walked off, likely out of embarrassment. This started a nice conversation with the rest of our cabin mates, who turned out to be Canadian-Indians, on a large family trip through Morocco. We ended up having great conversation about many topics, and other members of their family, all fun loving and outgoing people, were in and out of our cabin. We had many laughs, and again provided Liz with a great experience of meeting travelers through taking "less than luxurious" accomodations.

We arrived to Tangier, andmade our way to the Medina and the Souks, which were also next to the port where we would eventually take the ferry to Spain. I was determined to find that leather bag, and was led around by a number of Moroccans to find it; all they could find were very small versions, and I was back to my plan of making it when I get back home.

After wandering about, we decide there is nothing to see in Tangier, and we were ready to leave Morocco. We peruse the many ferry agencies in order to find an appropriate boat to Spain, and after visitng 3, all of which had different boats with different departure times, and different types and speeds of boats, we settle on a high speed boat that was leaving promptly. We purchase our tickets, and run towards the port. We didn't realize that boarding such a ferry would be alot like going through an international terminal at an airport...long lines, passport control, and x-ray baggage scanning. We were informed that our ferry was running late, but was we waited in line, it looked like it would take at least 30 minutes to get through the line, and our ferry was schedule to leave in about 10 minutes. So we were panicked. At first inquiry of a guy with a badge, he said not to worry, but was vague. 15 minutes later, we were more panicked, and another inquiry ended up being an unintended request to bribe the official into getting us through the line more quickly. Well, it was very interesting to be involved in such a thing, and it cost us each $12 (100 Dirhams) to have the guy take us aside, take the passports directly to the officer, and have him process them between serving the people in line. The control officer turned around, shouted out some happy comment about my being Lebanese, handed us our passports, and we were off. We were even escorted around the X-ray machine, and we were off and running to the boat!

Well, we arrived to the entrance of the boat...and waited. And waited more. The boat ended up leaving an hour late, and we would have easily made it through the line without bribing anyone, but it's nice to know that a little money goes a long way in Morocco in more ways than one!

I would have liked to say the one hour boat ride to Spain was uneventful, but it wasn't. If I were to do the trip again, I would choose a slow boat with a V-Hull, in case thats any kind of subtle suggestion. Our boat was a high speed boat, a catamaran type, and we were in the midst of a storm brewing. Everything started great, and people on the boat were in good cheer, but before long, the boat started a steady rocking back and forth, and people were getting sick left and right. Liz and I moved from one part of the boat to another; first to determine the part of the boat that moved the most, then to escape the foul smell of sea sickness. It was quite a site to see the way the passengers, as a whole, went from good spirited to sick and quiet and unhappy. People were even lying on the dirty floor to help ease their stomachs. We finally did arrive at the port of Algeciras, and it was time again to improvise a plan around where we were going to stay.

We arrived at port around 9pm, and all was dark and sleepy. We were lucky to find a couple of attendants at ticket booths, and solicited their help in determining what to do. The message was clear; we were in the bad part of a town where there was no good part, no commercial or hotel area, and we would best go to the closest hotel, then get the hell out of town ASAP. So, we walked across the port and saw a few hotels, and again started asking questions. The gentleman we asked was a business owner, he suggested we not walk around alone at night in the immediate area, and said that if we took a 5 Euro cab ride 2 minutes down the road, we would find a nice hotel, though expensive. So we checked out the room at the hotel we were at the foot of, and it was clean but somewhat sterile. I think we were both feeling adventurous, since we decided to look on. We began to wander around the immediate neighborhood, against suggestion, and ended up finding a couple of hostels with disgusting, molding rooms. We were passed on the streets by numerous prostitutes; Liz was sure they were all transgender, and I did notice that they were all tall and burly. So we hailed the cab to the famed Hotel Vicky Cristina.

The cab shoots off the main road, up a hill, and through some very nice gates....wow! The hotel was a HUGE refurbished royal palace, and obviously catered to the high class crowd. I had sat in the cab while Liz went and checked out the room. She came back THRILLED and said she would pay for the room. So we checked into this 5 star, beautiful hotel that was formal royalty. There was a bar onsite which we gave plenty of business, a piano in the salon that I enjoyed playing after a few drinks, and a room that was absolutely memorable! And that was it for Morocco and Day 20 of my trip!

Posted by Kamal2008 09:55 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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