Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Traveling

A lot of people I know or meet seem fascinated by my decision to solo backpack for three months, and have a lot of questions about my experience. I decided to write a blog post about what the day-in, day-out life of a solo, female, long-term backpacker (who is also gluten free).

On Backpacking and Long-Term Travel:
Backpacking is a very different experience than vacationing. It’s a lifestyle. In other words, travel is my day-in, day-out existence for this season of life, and like any season of life, that includes benefits but also downsides.

I typically stay in hostels, sharing a room with anywhere from three to fifteen other people. It’s like a college dorm experience, but more crowded and transitory. Unless I’m in a city with cheap food, I try to only eat out once a day, and even then I often have street food or eat at a cafe rather than a nicer sit-down restaurant. That means I have to go grocery shopping in virtually every city I’m in, much as anyone would at home. I assemble the rest of my meals in crowded, sometimes poorly-equipped hostel kitchens, so simple meals are best. A few times on this trip, I’ve splurged on a cheap hotel room or a B&B, usually because I was hiking and there aren’t hostels in smaller towns. Having a room all to myself for the night is an enormous luxury!

As far as clothes go, I started with five shirts, two pairs of jeans, two dresses, two light cardigans for daily wear, and four outfits for working out (two for hot weather, two for cold weather). This means that I wear the exact same clothes in rotation. Since the weather has gotten colder, I got two sweaters and a winter coat at a second-hand store. I usually try to make it about ten days before I do laundry (because I have ten pairs of underwear). I have laundry soap, a sink stopper, and a clothesline with me, and I’ve done my fair share of sink laundry, both to stretch longer between loads of laundry and because I prefer to hand-wash some items. Doing sink laundry is better when you have bottom bunk, because then you can string the line up on the edge of your bed and make a curtain out of your wet clothes. Top bunk is more complicated, because you don’t want your laundry dripping all over your bottom neighbor. Most hostels offer a laundry service where they will wash and dry your clothes for 5 to 8 Euro, so when I commit and wash a full load of laundry, this is typically what I do so that I don’t waste half a day. Regardless of how laundry gets done, I have to strategically plan when to do it, and what to wear while I’m doing laundry so that high-priority items get clean. Afterwards, when I get my clean clothes back, I am always overjoyed at how good they smell!

One of the things people are most curious about is how I approach trip logistics. Before leaving, I had the first month planned (meaning I had hostels and transportation booked). I was hiking the first two weeks of the trip, and it’s takes more foresight to figure out how and where to get on and off the trail. The next two weeks I was traveling with my friend Ciera, so we had a rough sketch of an itinerary before she came so that we could make the most of her time. From there, I went to go visit my good friend Kieryn who lives in Vienna for a week. She helped me create a framework for my remaining two months, creating a tentative itinerary based on the list of cities I still wanted to see. Now, I am mostly sticking to this calendar. I try to reserve hostels or transit anywhere from a few days to a week ahead of time. I rarely know what I want to do once I actually arrive in an area. I ask the hostel staff for suggestions, chat with fellow travelers, and look at top-rated activities on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. Certain activities do have to be pre-booked because they are more popular - for example, entry to the Anne Frank House or Vatican City. For the most part, though, I show up with a flexible mindset and enjoy what each place has to offer!

Another question I get is how I move around. I consider a variety of factors, and usually end up choosing a relatively inexpensive option that isn’t grossly inconvenient. Within a region, this is often a train or a bus. I didn’t buy a Eurail pass, because it’s actually cheaper to buy tickets individually in most cases. Moving between regions, I typically find a cheap flight. I’ve also taken a few night trains, which are great because you still have a bed, you don’t lose a day to travel, and you save accommodation expenses for one night. Transit is surprisingly one of the more expensive elements of traveling, because I am moving so frequently, and lots of little tickets add up over time.

Travel days are great fun for two reasons. The first is getting to schlep around all my stuff! One gets a few stares from strangers when wearing two backpacks at once - a huge one behind, and a smaller day pack in front. My big pack weighs between 15 and 17 kilos (33 to 38 pounds), depending on how many clothes and toiletries I have at that time. I actually have named this pack - he’s called Sebastian, or Bastian for short, thank you very much - because he is my one true companion on this journey!

A backpacker in her natrual habitat
The other fun thing about travel days is not knowing where I’m going! After getting oriented in a city, it’s much easier to get around, but getting into a city and having no idea where you’re headed can be exasperating, particularly if it’s dark, late, or the weather is bad. Free hostel paper maps help, as do downloaded Google maps which I can use offline with my smart phone’s GPS (I finally figured out how to do this part-way through this trip, and OMG what a lifesaver!).

As you might imagine, the backpacker’s life can feel very unstructured, particularly for a Type A personality like me. I try to add some elements of routine. One is routinely unpacking and repacking my backpack in an effort to keep track of my things. I’ve still lost or accidentally left plenty of things, because I’m me, and I’m not always as careful as I should be. Organizing the pack is also strangely soothing, because my pack is one thing I have control over when everything else feels like chaos. Another important ritual is working out. I run about three times a week, and find it a great and unique way to explore new places. The goal was to do basic strength training once a week, mainly consisting of core work and push-ups, but it’s hard to motivate myself to work out on a cement or tile hostel floor with other people around. Another thing I do to appease my achievement-oriented side is giving myself “tasks,” which usually involve blogging about my experiences and logistical planning. I also still have to take care of certain tasks for the life I’ll return to when I go home.

Now that I have been gone for two months, I usually feel that I have really settled into a rhythm. I have a strategy for structuring my days and getting from Point A to Point B. Although stressful situations can and do come up, I am getting better at handling them because I have been battle tested at this point. And yet, there are moments in which I feel totally unmoored. Homesickness is interesting emotion for me. Some days, I am overwhelmingly excited to be where I am, and I spontaneously break into a grin in public places because I can’t believe that this is my life, that I get to do these things and see these places! Other days, I feel a vague nostalgia for home, but home seems to me an abstract concept. I’ve been doing this for so long that my life before almost feels like the distant past. Sometimes I panic at the thought of going home, back to a country run by Trump and to a job where I’ll jump into busy season working 70 hour weeks. And yes, I have my moments where I am overwhelmed by the longing to see my friends and family, to be in my own bed, to have my own space, and to know where I am and how to communicate for once. I am a person who has an extraordinarily difficult time being present in the moment, particularly when I am uncomfortable or have ample free time (hello, travel days). Therefore, I end up spending way too much time thinking about how my life was, or how it will be. All throughout the trip, I’ve been forcing myself to focus on the present, and to choose gratitude for that which I am experiencing in this very moment. It’s been my spiritual practice of the trip. I fully realize that months and years from now, I will want to give anything to come back to these months, and to this amazing experience.

On Solo Travel:

Solo travel is a blessing and a curse. It’s great in many ways, because I can structure the trip exactly how I want to. I choose where I’d like to go, what I’d like to do, and how long I stay. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s mood affecting mine, or vice versa. I have so much time to think. I also have gained some distance from my life back home, which allows me to reflect on my choices, relationships, past, goals, dreams, and direction with a fresh perspective. This is especially important for me as a person who can be strongly influenced by the thoughts and feelings of people around me, without ever giving myself space to think about how I personally think or feel about an issue.

At the same time, solo travel is difficult and exhausting. I am the only person looking out for myself. I message my parents once every few days to let them know that I’m okay, and to tell them I’ve made it to the next place safely. However, realistically, no one except me knows where I am at any given moment. If something were to happen to me, it could be a really long time before any of my loved ones would find out. One thing my fellow travellers and I talk about is how little we matter outside of context. There is nothing like being in a foreign country, where you don’t know anyone and likely don’t speak the language, to make you realize how insignificant you are. No one is going to worry about what happens to you. That said, I’ve been overwhelmed by (and sometimes dependent on) the kindness of strangers who are willing to help me find my way.

Not having a travel companion can lead to somewhat humorous inconveniences, such as using the bathroom at train or bus stations (which, of course, are never free). It goes something like this: I dig a coin out of my wallet while wearing two backpacks, slide the coin into the slot and awkwardly push through the turnstile, finagle my way into the bathroom stall, and simultaneously slide off the huge pack and turn 180 degrees so I can actually use the toilet. If I had another person with me, they could watch my stuff for me while I used the restroom, and then we could switch.

Mishaps that would be mildly annoying or even humorous when with a companion can become overwhelming when alone. I am such an external processor! It helps so much to problem solve with someone:
“Hey, do you remember how to get back to the hostel?”
“Where do you think we go to catch the bus?”
“Oh crap, this security line is really long. Do you think we should start trying to get around people so we don’t miss our flight?”
But when I’m alone, these thoughts just ping around my brain and cause a frenzy. It’s hard to stay calm sometimes.

However, once I do resolve the problem and come out on the other side, it is the most empowering thing to realize that I could do it all along! The more times I successfully navigate difficult situations alone, the more confidence I have in my ability to handle anything that comes my way.  

Another complicated aspect of solo travel is your social life, and the absence of close friends. I am experiencing so many amazing things, and yet I don’t always have someone to tell, or to process with. Everyone back home doesn’t want to hear every detail of my life here, and I don’t blame them. Plus, they can never truly understand what I am seeing and experiencing because they are not here with me. The desire for companionship with people with whom I can share these experiences is a good motivating factor for meeting other travelers! I have met the most amazing people from all over the world, and we have so much in common because we are all travelling. At the same time, each person I meet contributes a unique perspective from their own culture and place, so I get to learn about how others view the world, too. Travel conversations can get mundane because it’s often the same conversation topics - where you’re from, how long you’re traveling, where you’ve been, where you still have to go, etc. I love the novelty of meeting new people, but also crave the presence of people who know me, people who can be comfortable being quiet around me, people who know my story. As a solo traveller, it’s a bizarre experience of constantly being surrounded by strangers, so you’re never truly alone, and never with your loved ones, either. And yet, your fellow travelers are in the same boat, and it’s amazing how deeply you can connect with people whom you just met. Every time I leave a hostel, I leave behind a few new friends. It’s a revolving door of hellos and goodbyes.

One other issue with solo traveling is that in many places, I am breaking cultural norms, particularly because I am a female solo traveler. There’s nothing quite like walking alone into a sit-down restaurant, surrounded by couples and families, and asking for a table for one. I’ve learned to bring a book with me everywhere I go, so that I can pass the awkard moments before my food arrives reading. I also repeat to myself a few times an excellent phrase which I saw somewhere once: Well, at least I enjoy my own exquisite company!

Overall, I am learning so much more about myself and others from traveling alone, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world!

On Traveling as a Woman:
Solo travel in and of itself freaks people out, but the fact that I’m doing so as a woman really is mind-boggling to many people. Yes, being a woman in this world is dangerous, but it’s dangerous no matter where I am. The illusion is that I’m safe at home. Just look at the statistics regarding sexual assault - I received numerous emails when I was a student as DU detailing the attacks that happened to other women at my school, in my neighborhood. However, I can admit that being in an unfamiliar place makes me more vulnerable than I would be in an area I know well. Knowing that I am alone and female makes me more cautious, at least compared to the male solo travelers I meet. I feel less free to do many activities - for example, I try not to be out alone late at night, and I am very careful how much I drink when I am out. I won’t go to clubs or bars unless I’m in a group. I am more likely to pay for a taxi than take public transit late at night.

Travelling as a woman only makes the sexism and misogyny that all women, everywhere, experience on a daily basis more salient. Here are a few stories of things that have happened to me or to friends on the trip so far which show what I mean. I already blogged extensively about Ciera’s and my experience as women in Morocco, so I’ll put the other stories here.

Barcelona, Spain - A large group from our hostel goes out together. A creepy man who is staying in our room starts dancing with Ciera, and then forcefully kissing her, even though she has already told him multiple times that she is not interested. Of course, there is more than a minor language barrier - he speaks very little English, but good Spanish and Portuguese, and Ciera speaks conversational Italian but neither of his other languages. I grab her arm through the crowd and ask her if she is okay. She nods, not wanting to ruin the rest of my night by asking me to leave. After it keeps happening, though, I realize that we all need to get out of there. When we leave with another friend from the hostel, the creeper comes with the three of us! When we get back to the hostel, the creeper actually crawls into Ciera’s top bunk! I motion to him to get down and repeat multiple times, in Spanish, that she isn’t interested, and that if he touches her again, I swear, I will kill him! This doesn’t stop him from trying to climb back up in her bunk a few more times, for good measure.

Lisbon, Portugal - One morning, Ciera goes down to the nearby square to get a cup of coffee while I finish getting ready in the hostel. It is a holiday in Portugal, so the whole city was out partying all night, and people are still drunk on the streets as they scavenge up breakfast. Ciera is at a table sipping her coffee when a beyond-drunk man approaches her and begins talking to her. She clearly isn’t interested in talking to him, and he notices. He asks, “Oh, do I make you uncomfortable? Why are you drinking your coffee so fast?” He keeps re-starting his stories, because he is angry that she isn’t paying enough attention. She chugs her coffee so she can leave.

Vienna, Austria - Kieryn and I are riding on the subway one night when two belligerently drunk men get in the car, carrying tall cans of beer. They sit down, stare at us, and immediately try to get our attention. They hoot, they holler, and then (such charmers they are), they start shouting, “COOKIE! COOKIE! Pay attention to us, cookie!” We can’t even focus on our conversation, but we sure as hell can’t look at them, so we try to keep our heads down. Then, they start yelling references to Hitler and saying that they are Neo-Nazis. First of all, one does not make references to Hitler or Nazism in this way in Europe - it’s shockingly offensive. Second, there is a strong right-wing movement in Austria right now, so they likely are Neo-Nazis.The whole thing really shakes us up. I even feel unsafe exiting the subway, because I am worried they will follow us.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - I am walking to put my bag in storage as I arrive at the hostel when I notice a fellow guest staring at me. I think he might be trying to get my attention, but I ignore him. Later, I sit down at the table to take care of a few things, minding my own business. He is sitting further down along the table, and he starts talkin to me. As soon as words leave his mouth, I can tell he is high, drunk, or both. “Hey! You are so beautiful! I love your eyes! I love your earrings! So beautiful!” I roll my eyes, say “Oh gee, thanks,” in a clearly sarcastic tone, and reach for my headphones so I can ignore him. A few minutes later, when everyone else has left the room, he comes up and actually tries to kiss me! I forcefully shove his face away and tell him to leave me alone.

These experiences, combined with my experiences in Morocco, have taught me that I need to have a spine. Our whole lives, we as women are taught to appease, to be likeable, not to offend. I am worse than many women when it comes to wanting to be nice, and not to make others uncomfortable. Being on this trip has taught me that I need to learn how to politely but firmly tell men to leave me alone!

I am learning how to advocate for myself when there isn’t anyone else to stick up for me, and this is a skill I will use the rest of my life in all kinds of situations. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m learning to do it! For example, in Morocco, I got into some heated discussions with taxi drivers over how much we’d pay them to take us somewhere. You see, in Morocco, prices are not established - you have to negotiate them before agreeing to a service. We didn’t necessarily know the going rates, but local Moroccans told us about how much we should expect to pay, and these taxi drivers were charging us multiple times that, just because we were foreign! The difference in nominal terms was small, but it’s the principle of the matter, that we shouldn’t be charged exorbitant prices just because we’re not from the area. In one particularly embarrassing instance, a taxi driver and I shouted and waved at each other, before he slammed his door shut and we walked away. Then, when no other taxis came along, we had to walk back and agree to pay him the higher price he was demanding. So the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, but at least I tried to stand up for myself. Sometimes I am successful, though. In Romania, when my taxi driver kept looking down at his phone map whilst driving over twisting mountain passes, I told him to put his phone down because it made me nervous. When he couldn’t find my hotel, I told him to pull over so I could ask for directions - and he did! This may not seem like a big deal, but for me as a woman who has learned to be agreeable my whole life, it was a big freaking accomplishment! Every single time I stand up for myself, it makes it easier to do it again.

On Traveling Gluten Free:

It’s been two years now since my doctor found after a blood test that there was a high likelihood that I was gluten intolerant, and that I probably have Celiac’s. We never did the confirmatory scope test where they sample your small intestine because it’s invasive, expensive, and leads to the same result: eliminate gluten, and see how you feel. So, I was already a young adult when my diet changed drastically. It was also after I studied abroad, so this is my first time doing a long-term trip whilst gluten free.

You know how Europe used to be called Christendom? I vote that we re-name it Bread-dom, because that is seriously what people live on here.

Before I left, I always said that I was just gluten intolerant. So many people told me that I might be able to eat the bread in Europe, “because it’s processed differently, and most people just have problems with how we cultivate our food in the US!” This may be true for some people, but it is not true for me. I had Swiss fondue, with bread, my first week of the trip, and my stomach bloated almost instantly. I now say that I probably have Celiac, although I am not as sensitive as some people I know. For example, if bread touches my food, or the kitchenware used to prepare it, I don’t immediately become ill. This is a huge blessing. Still, it’s hard to travel while gluten free. Most quick, cheap food options are bread based, as are many of the local culinary specialties of practically any European country. Whenever I walk by a particularly beautiful bakery, I tell myself, “Don’t want things you can’t have,” and then I keep walking.

So, what exactly do I eat? I joke that the gluten free traveler’s food pyramid includes the following major food groups:
  1. Cheese
  2. Ham and sausage
  3. Potatoes in their many varieties
  4. Grilled meat
  5. Chocolate bars and Haribo gummy bears
  6. Gelato
  7. Coffee with milk
  8. WINE
  9. Occasionally fruit
In all seriousness, this is often all that I can find on travel days. I can’t tell you how many times a meal has consisted of Snickers bars, Haribo gummy bears, and a block of cheese. When I actually stay in a place longer, I try to eat more healthfully. Larger grocery stores often offer at least one or two gluten free products, and of course I can still eat meals like scrambled eggs and salads.

One difficult aspect is trying to understand whether or not a product has gluten in it when you don’t speak the language. I now have a ritual of taking a screenshot of the translations of “wheat,” “flour,” “barley,” “rye,” “gluten,” etc., in every country I go to. Then, when ordering in a restaurant or trying to decipher nutrition labels, I at least have a chance of getting it right. Of course, there are still unexpected issues. For example, I bought some cough drops in Romania and didn’t think to check the label, because in the US all cough drops are gluten free. I felt really sick for days, and it took me so long to figure out why - the cough drops had f-ing barley malt in them!

Some European countries are much more allergen conscious than the US. For example, a few have laws mandating that all restaurants indicate on menus which items contain common allergens. Quite frankly, I’d be happy if we started doing this in the US! Other countries are much worse. In Barcelona, our hostel prepared a communal dinner, where everyone could eat so long as they threw some coins in the jar. Ciera and I prepared our own meal, and let me tell you, I got very sick of everyone asking why I wasn’t eating the pasta like everyone else. One guy even said, “You Americans and your dietary problems - they’re all just imaginary! You made it all up!” Sure, buddy, the gut-wrenching cramps, visible bloating, and less delicate reactions I have are totally made up. I’m just an attention whore. Totally.

Being gluten free does add an element of adventure and elation to travel, because you look so hard to find things you can eat, and then get really excited when you find something spectacular! When I find good gluten free alternatives, I do tend to go a little crazy, as I did here in Budapest when I stumbled across a gluten free bakery! 

I almost wept with happiness when a restaurant in Ibiza served excellent gluten free seafood pasta. And when I found real Italian food.
A dedicated gluten-free pizzeria in Napoli... Oh my heart
Gluten free pizza AND beer!
In the same way that most people seek out great European beers, I seek out great new ciders. I have gotten to try some really interesting ones!

Just today, a fellow gluten free traveler introduced me to an app called Find Me Gluten Free. It looks pretty great - it shows you nearby restaurants with gluten free options, as well as dedicated gluten free facilities. I haven't used it yet, but it looks promising!

At the end of the day, I really wish I could eat gluten because it would make my life so much simpler. However, I’m learning to be more creative and stand up for myself better because I have to work harder to advocate for and take care of my own health while I’m here.

In Conclusion:
Travel, in general, puts you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to adapt. It allows you to see the world from new angles, and exposes you to different people, places, and cultures. The other aspects I’ve discussed here - long term backpacking, solo travel, traveling as a woman, traveling while gluten free - only intensify and enhance many of the challenging and rewarding aspects of travel in general.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tales from Spain, Portugal, and Morocco

My dear friend Ciera met up with me in Barcelona, and we set off to explore Spain, Portugal, and Morocco together! We may have gotten quite a few stares when we saw each other across the airport, ran toward each other squealing, and then belly-bumped/hugged (we each had our large packs on our backs and smaller ones in front). There was a drum corps in the airport playing music to celebrate the arrival of someone else, but the chaos of their performance only added to my excitement to not be traveling alone for once!

I started this portion of the journey well by running around the famous Park Guell at sunrise. I didn’t stop to take any pictures or explore the buildings, knowing I will have a chance to do so later.

First disappointment of the trip - the Gaudi cathedral, La Familia Sagrada, required buying tickets a few days in advance, which we neglected to do. His other buildings in the city are quite expensive to enter. We got a few lovely pictures of the outsides.

Our first night there, we decided to go with a group from our hostel to a free music festival. Upon arriving, we found ourselves surrounded by 10,000 teenagers - we were the old people of this crowd, which was a strange feeling. It was chaotic. We left some time after 3 am, right when the party was getting started, and walked for way too long before realizing that our roommate at the hostel who “knew Barcelona like the back of his hand” was too drunk to know where we were. Taxis are a godsend.

We also traveled up into the hills above the city to see Montserrat, a beautiful former monastery built into the rocks.


Ciera was determined to see this place of partying legend, the beautiful island where celebrities can be sighted (in the summer, anyway, not during the season’s closing weekend, when we went). After a relaxing afternoon on the beach, we got ready to go out around 10. We headed downstairs to find other people from the hostel and decide which club to go to. We then spent another few hours sitting around chatting, finally leaving at 1 am. Maybe I’m getting old, because at this point my bed sounded nicer than any club. We came all this way, so there is only to press on. We quickly realized this is not our scene. Rather than pop or house music which is popular in the US, the DJ’s are spinning loud, throbbing, repetitive, somewhat down-tempo music. I think this is called trance music? You can’t dance to it, other than to step back and forth and nod your head a bit. At 4 am we called it quits, although the others from our hostel stayed out until 7 am or later. We’re glad we went, but won’t be back. Oh, and for anyone who knows the Mike Posner song, yes, there were a lot of people taking pills in Ibiza. We refused to even take a sip of anyone’s water, just to be on the safe side.

Sunset over Ibiza

We now made our entrance into Southern Spain! As I was a Spanish major during undergrad, I was beyond excited to see all the places and buildings I learned about in textbooks. A constant theme throughout Southern Spain is the heritage of three cultures living in the same place - the Catholics, the Jews, and the the North African Muslims. Of course, the latter two were expelled from the country or forced to convert around the same time that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, so it hasn’t always been peaceful co-existence. Regardless, all three ethnic groups have noticeably impacted the local culture.

We had the funniest moment of the trip in Toledo. It was mid-afternoon, and as we walked along the hill opposing the city to get a panoramic view, along a popular tourist route, we spotted a parking lot that had a fantastic vantage point. I started to walk into it, before looking over to see a car with windows down, music blaring, and two teenagers… well, doing what teenagers do at look-out points. We made awkward eye contact, and I quickly walked back to the road. I couldn’t resist yelling over my shoulder, “Que se diviertan! (Have fun!).” A few seconds later, they yelled back, in English, a very insulting phrase involving my mother, which I quite resented because she is a lovely lady.

Famous painting by El Greco - textbook come to life!

We found a 19 Euro flight to Marrakech - is this all our lives are worth? - and of course we had to go! It was our first time in Africa, and also our first time in a predominantly Muslim country. We were apprehensive, but also excited! Upon arriving late at night, we waited a bit for the taxi driver our hostel had hired to transport us. He was late, and I immediately started worrying, because I didn’t want to have to find another taxi in a city where there are many counterfeit or illegal drivers. He eventually showed up, thankfully. We were amazed by how many people were out and about so late at night, but it makes sense given that temperatures in the fall are in the 90’s during the day. Summer,of course, is much hotter than this. We approached the Medina, or the walled-in old town, and our taxi driver stopped unexplainedly and told us we had to wait. We both tried to stay calm, even though we had no idea what was going on. Then, a man walked up to the taxi and told us to follow him. We did, skeptical, although he had told us he worked for our hostel. It turned out that he was a lovely person, and he had to come get us because the millenium-old streets are too narrow for taxis to pass through.

The next morning, we needed to pull out the local currency from the ATM before our private tour. The hostel worker told us to take a right and a right, which should lead us to a large square. We think he meant a right and a left, because a right and a right led us into the maze of tight alleys that is the Marrakech market. It was early morning, so no one was shopping yet, and the merchants were setting up their stands for the day. The men all talk to us - “Hello!” “Beautiful.” “Where are you from?” “Buy ___, I give you good price.” “Hello, HELLO!” I instantly applied the skills I learned in Latin America - when harassed on the street, keep eyes down, don’t respond, look busy, look tough, keep walking, at all costs do not make eye contact. We were still very uncomfortable, and desperately trying not to get lost in the maze of market corridors. We couldn’t find an ATM, so we hopped into a bank, exchanged currency, and found our way back to the hostel. At this point, we were late for the private tour, and they were mad at us. It wasn’t really our fault, though, so we put it behind us and moved on.

Our tour is wonderful, and deeply uncomfortable. First, the positives - we got to see beautiful places, many of which we couldn’t have seen without a male guide who knew the city well. After all, as we had already seen that morning, women in public spaces without a male guardian are generally treated very poorly. We are not just women, we are foreign, white, and non-Muslim. However, the aforementioned requisite male guide was beyond creepy. He was a 67 year old man who, I kid you not, had a large patch of nose hair growing on the outside of his nose, and thick glasses which made it appear that he was constantly looking down our shirts. Perhaps he was, because he is lecherous. As soon as we got into the van, he told us how delighted he was to have us on his tour. All throughout, he stood too close, physically corned us up against buildings, and gripped our arms for much longer than comfortable, or necessary. He “accidentally” grazed our breasts. If he felt that we were not paying enough attention to what he was saying, he gripped our arms tighter, or grabbed the strap of our purses. Even the locals stared at him, disturbed by how he was treating us. We were deeply uncomfortable, but unsure what to do as we didn’t want to anger him, as we thought we might be in more danger without him than with him. In hindsight, we should have told him off, but I’ll expand more on this in a separate post about lessons I’ve learned traveling as a woman. 

He explained things relatively well, but managed to interject a few creepy statements. When we heard the muezzin, or Muslim call to prayer, he bragged to us how flexible Islam was because he could finish the tour and then pray later, from where he was, without compulsion to go to the mosque. He added how wonderful it was that Islam permitted him to forbid his wife from going to the mosque at prayer times, because he should be able to keep her at home (implying that’s where she belongs). Later, whilst walking through the harem’s quarters in what was formerly a palace, he distinguished the genius of Muslim architecture from Jewish architecture: you see, the Jewish houses we had passed earlier, where you could see into their patios? The Muslim architecture has the patio on the inside, away from prying eyes. Imagine you girls doing your chores half-dressed, or naked. (Ewww, why are you imagining us naked? Why are you talking about it?) Now imagine someone walking by and seeing you. No good - clearly better that the women are hidden away (implying that women should be only for the consumption of their man. Never mind that he can have as many of them as he like). 

Finally, it was the end of our tour. Our guide walked away quickly and we didn’t have a chance to tip him, and the worst thing is, we felt guilty! Then I told Ciera that he didn’t deserve a tip with how he treated us, and she agreed.

Mr. Creepy left us at a Moroccan restaurant with food he swore was authentic and clean. We ate well - roasted nuts, dates, savory meats, mint tea, and traditional desserts. Everything was delicious! 

Upon leaving, we walked into the market (yes, the one close to our hostel). The variety of wares was truly staggering - everything was so beautiful. Every few steps, there was a different smell and sight - glistening hand-made jewelry, bushels full of spices, raw meat sitting out while flies land on it, piles of fresh herbs and produce, glowing intricately carved lamps, hand-tooled leather shoes and purses, and Argan oil and other botanical products which are indigenous to the region. I wish I could have taken more pictures, but it actually would have been dangerous to do so. Moroccans don’t like having their photo taken unless you pay them, and they can be a bit aggressive about it. I thought I was being discreet when snapping this one, only to see looking back on the photo a few minutes later that someone had noticed. No more market photos for us!

A traffic jam involving a donkey cart, a few trucks, several motorcycles, and pedestrians
Anyway, as we stood in a jewelry shop, I started to get hot and nauseous. Deep down I knew what was happening, but I tried to tell myself that I was just overheated. After all, in an effort to comply with cultural norms, we were wearing long jeans, long sleeve shirts, and scarves even though it’s really hot outside. At some point, I accepted the inevitable- I had gotten food poisoning. I pulled Ciera away from a nice but insistent shopkeeper, who was disappointed at the lost sales, and told her I needed to return to the hostel immediately. Problem was, even though we knew we were close, we didn’t  know how to make it out of the maze. Ciera desperately asked for directions from shop owners, while I leaned against the wall, half-delirious, trying desperately not to get sick all over their goods. Finally, a restaurant owner took mercy on us and walked us to the hostel’s street himself. It was just in the nick of time, because I sprinted for the bathroom and immediately began dry heaving, before my lunch made a sudden and violent reappearance.

After we were sure that I won’t throw up again, we went to catch our night train to Tanger. There was a language barrier buying tickets - we indicated that we wanted second class tickets, not knowing that we had signed ourselves up for a long night in stiff-backed chairs which don’t recline. To top it off, the lights stayed on, and people’s conversations/music video viewing/who knows what else continued almost the entire night long. It was not restful in the least.

Exhausted, we still tried to make a day of it in Tanger, doing a taxi tour. After a tasty lunch at a tea house (which DIDN’T make us sick!) we stocked up on junk food and headed back to the hostel with the intention of not leaving again until morning. Of course, we were harassed the entire walk back, even by boys who may not even be old enough for middle school. At least our hostel has a good rooftop view, and we dined while listening to the minor key strains of the Friday night meeting of worship at local mosques.

Ancient graves
Where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet

Hercules' cave - legend has it he came here

So, when people ask me how I liked Morocco, I say that it’s a lovely place, but that I will never again visit without a man. It’s truly unfortunate that this is the case in the 21st century, but our experience was just degrading, by and large. There was one redeeming experience: the bus ride to catch a ferry back into Spain. Outside the tourist areas, the men on the bus were wonderful. None of them harassed us, and they were very considerate to female passengers, helping them with their groceries or their children. So, it’s unfair to speak poorly of all Moroccans.

I don’t often get “hangry,” but after eating so little in Morocco for fear of getting sick again, and a travel day which took longer than expected, I rapidly devoured the free tapas which we got with our sangria in Granada. We immediately loved it here, and it turned out to be our favorite city in Spain. There is a university in town, meaning that there were lots of young people, and the city just has a good vibe.

The famous Alhambra, a palace

One of the neatest cultural experiences we had was watching a Flamenco show in a small venue recommended to us by our hostel’s owner. It was truly small - there was enough seating for maybe 20 people, and standing room for a few more at the back. The show was mesmerizing, particularly when the female performer danced - she was unabashedly fierce, and her focus, commitment, and skill in her art was intensely alluring (and I say this as a straight woman - I instantly developed a lady crush!).

Boy, bye

Not much to say here, because we were exhausted by this point of the trip. We came mainly to see the Mezquita, a building which has been both a mosque and a cathedral at various points over the centuries, and which is one of the most famous buildings in Spain. It was actually more amazing in person than I had imagined, which is saying a lot!

The Catholic cathedral which was superimposed in the middle of this building which was originally a mosque
Lisbon and Sintra:
We ended the trip on a high note, because Ciera and I both agree that this was our favorite place of all! It’s hard to select any one salient element of the city - it’s more that the city had a combination of wonderful things which contribute to an altogether lovely place. The people were incredibly warm and welcoming. There were far fewer tourists than in the other cities we’d been to. The streets were charming, and the city was full of great look-out points. Portuguese is easy on the ears, and similar enough to Spanish that I could communicate with relative ease. I was already enjoying the city for all these reasons, but when our handsome waiter brought me a free, unsolicited (but very much enjoyed) pint of craft cider as we watched the sun set over the river, I officially fell in love.

It's like I teleported to Rio and San Fran, but really, these are just Lisbon's versions of Cristo Redentor and the Golden Gate Bridge

And then, and then, we explored Sintra, a place which can only be described as magical. We visited Quinta da Regaleira, an estate with a huge garden designed by a quirky wealthy family to be a delightful real-life fairy tale. There were little tunnels which lead to man-made caves. stone towers, cathedrals tucked among the trees, waterfalls, fountains, and all varieties of grasses, shrubs, and trees. It was a great place to get lost for a few hours and appreciate the whimsy and extensive planning and effort which went into making this place.

We also see Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. It strikes me that this is the closest to home I'll be during my whole trip!

#Wifey #WeGoToTheMostRomanticPlaces
Barcelona, again:
Just like that, our two weeks traveling together came to an end, and we flew back to Barcelona so Ciera could catch her flight home. We said goodbye quickly so that we didn’t have time to tear up. Ciera is truly a wonderful person to travel with, and I feel so lucky that she took the time off to come travel with me! Our trip was fantastic, and one neither of us will ever forget.

So, after Ciera left, I circled back to the spend more time at places we had passed by the first time around. I got to go inside Sagrada Familia this time, and all I can say is,  Wow! I also walked around Park Guell for a few hours. 

Barcelona from Park Guell
From here, I took off to Vienna, where I was to be reunited with my dear friend Kieryn! This, of course, will be a separate blog post.