Saturday, October 19, 2013

Silent Snapshot: Tourists

Fez, Morocco


Friday, October 18, 2013

Budapest…you mean, BudaBEST!

Rewind back to August...After there was Vienna, there was Budapest. (trying to catch up on posts!) 

Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
Budapest has been one of the big surprises on this trip. This was a city on Mike’s list and a city I knew almost nothing about. My love for Budapest was definitely not at first sight. With the remaining hour left on the train from Vienna to Budapest, a young man who appeared to be homeless, sat next to me and nervously wrapped his knuckles on the table in front of both of us. He spoke softly to himself and then would have sudden loud gasps and get up from the seat only to slam his body back down in it, moments later. Being a seasoned subway commuter from Brooklyn to Manhattan twice a day for a few years, I have shared many a seat with men and women just like this, most times worse. Normally I feel empathy rather than fear. But, this one got to me, probably because I felt trapped. If a mentally ill person on the F train is making me nervous, I can remove myself from the situation. But in a train passing between Austria and Hungary with assigned seating and overheated passengers vying for any seat that opens up, I couldn’t just switch cars, but I also couldn’t understand what was making him shake the table in front of us. Despite his appearance, his paranoia seemed legit.  I finally put together that he was anxious about the train conductor. I don't know if the man was homeless, or mentally ill or on drugs, but I do know that he was a train hopper...and he didn't get caught. 

Chillin at the Chain Bridge,
Budapest, Hungary
When we got to Hungary, not the first or last country we would try to navigate via screen shots instead of a SIM card with gps access, we hiked 45 minutes with packs on in the blazing heat to our destination only to find we did not have an actual address. We also didn’t have a phone that worked in Europe and the one payphone we found had the wires cut and I am certain contained the flesh-eating bacteria on its handle. The heat, the hunger, the exhaustion, the intense end to a four hour train ride, all seemed to hit us at once and it happened: Mike and I turned on each other. 

We went into bakeries, restaurants, asked security guards and people who seemed like locals, and no one could tell us anymore about the strange ABSENT address on our itinerary. The zip codes in Budapest our four numbers, while the addresses are two numbers. We had a zip code but no address, a screen shot but no gps, each other but no more fucking patience. I think it was right after we tried to make a collect call on a haphazard payphone that we exploded into the “YOUs” speak. You did this! You didn’t do this! (You know this fight. Every couple does.) An older man with a red bulbous nose and a long white ponytail, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora, passed by and Mike broke away from our argument to ask him for help. His name was Peter, like the Apostle, and at that moment, he was our savior, too. 

View of Pest from Buda
He looked at the phone number we had and whipped out his cell phone. He spoke to our airbnb host in Hungarian and walked us directly across the street. A young kid was waiting for us and had missed us walking up and down the street the last hour. Peter told us he just became a grandfather that day. He asked me if I had any single girlfriends that want to visit Hungary and then he shook our hands and left. We entered our Budapest home and went to our separate corners. We showered in silence, drank water, and finally broke the ice…which led to the giggles…which led to a fresh start. The stay in Budapest could only go up from there, and it did. 
Holocaust Memorial, Budapest

We had seen enough castles and cathedrals by the time we hit Budapest, that we felt no obligation to do anything, which allowed us to slip into the rhythm of the city. We found a great little spot along the river just beneath the Chain Bridge where we took in the view of the Castle. We explored our neighborhood and found the coolest bar I’ve ever been into. We were staying in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest that was abandoned for years after the war until a few years ago, when artists started inhabiting the buildings and turning ruins into bars and a depressed neighborhood into art. The bars in Budapest are not like the bars anywhere else. They aren't so much watering holes as they are a creative and inspired place to meet up with friends and enjoy the artistic space. There is natural sunlight, open roofs, circles of music, funky decorating with old cars for seats and skis as hardwood floors. The neighborhood had wounds but it was full of life and the people were among some of the friendliest in Eastern Europe. We went to the Synagogue and walked outside in the gardens where there is a holocaust memorial. Over 2,000 bodies were buried in a plot of land no bigger than a backyard in an American suburban home. The names, the stones, the roses…there was a profound sadness that radiates when walking through the memorial. Whereas the memorial in Berlin felt fearful, suffocating and imposing, the one in Hungary felt haunting. 

St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
We visited St. Stephen’s Basilica and walked to Buda castle but skipped the tour inside. At night, we stumbled upon a live band performing underneath the Chain Bridge. We took our shoes off and swung our legs over the edge of the wall of the river and enjoyed the view. The next day we spent hours at the thermal baths and took turns shuffling between the pools, the saunas, the outdoor pool, and the thermal pools inside again until we felt relaxed and ready four our 24 hours of travel ahead of us. We picked up our bags and took a subway, a bus, a shuttle, two planes, the craziest bus ride ever, a ferry, and a subway before we landed in Istanbul the next day. But Budapest remains one of the highlights. 
Us, Budapest

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Twenty Travel Observations I Know To Be True...So Far

Me in Erg Chebbi, Morocco

1. Beats By Dre is Everywhere.

(As seen on the streets in the Fez Medina, Istanbul Turkey, and all of Europe)

2. Messi is the most famous athlete in the world.

(As seen by the overwhelming majority of jerseys sporting his name, even in the depths of the Erg Chebbi desert...there is Messi on a ten year old's back.)

3. Pepto Bismol ain't got shit on a Moroccan stomach bug.

(As seen by me and heard by many.)

4. As Americans, we need to stop pointing at people when we talk or to illustrate a point.

(As seen by me watching Mike try to communicate something with a desert nomad by using the Robert DeNiro "I'm watching you, Focker" gesture and judging said nomad's reaction.)

Erin, Jeff & Mike in Kas, Turkey

5. Italian American Jersey hand gestures are not universal.

(See number four.)

6. If you wake up to a sheep bleating outside your hotel window while tied to a short rope on the roof of the riad next door, there's no use in complaining. It will be slaughtered on said roof two days later.

(As seen by Mike and me, today.)

7. Western girls either don't care or don't know about respecting Muslim culture.

(As seen by me, mouth agape, at the number of Western women strolling through the Fez and Marrakech medinas in spaghetti string tank tops and short shorts. I'm just saying, a little more fabric wouldn't hurt.)


8. Outside of America, a handshake is not a pleasantry, but an agreement you are now in business with someone. Dole out with caution.

(As seen by me watching Mike fend off several touts after opening business agreements.)

9. No one will be more interesting dinner companions than two US diplomats who have lived throughout Saudi Arabia, Baghdad, the Ukraine, Southern Sudan, Egypt, Columbia, Russia, Tunisia and Morocco over the past nine years.

(As experienced by Mike and me as we picked up our blown minds from the paper table setting at a street-meat stand in Djeema el-Fna.)

10. The best way to cure a nail biting habit is to go traveling. You will easily suppress the urge to put your fingers anywhere near your mouth.

(As experienced by me leaving tap and bucket squat toilets in Turkey and Morocco.)

11. Meeting up with friends from home while on the road is like ten Christmas mornings wrapped into one.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Germany, Prague, Turkey and Morocco.)

Me, Mike, & Danielle in Berlin

12. Outside of America, everyone speaks at least two languages, sometimes as many as six or eight.

(As experienced by Mike and me in the Erg Chebbi desert when the Berber hotel manager could speak to us in fluent Spanish, but also spoke Berber, Arabic, French, English, a little German, Italian, and Japanese. Did I mention earlier he was a nomad that grew up in the Sahara desert? We have no excuse, Americans.)

13. While posting pictures of European cathedrals, and balloon rides in Turkey, and camel treks in Morocco, a good ol' Instagram pic of a couple friends kicking back in a canoe, your canoe to be exact, soaking in fall colors in Vermont Columbus Day Weekend will still drive you mad with jealousy and make you ache for home, no matter how grateful and cool your experiences of the day are...or are not once you realize that hacking sound outside is an elderly woman cleaving open a sheep's skull.

(As experienced by me in Marrakech.)

14. Going to the post office in a country not your own, can be a totally entertaining and thrilling activity for the day.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Prague, Turkey, Spain, and Morocco.)

15. A smile goes further than a frown and a Maybe Later goes further than a No.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco, but not put completely into action until Marrakech, Morocco.)

16. The further you travel from home, the more you will appreciate it.

(No brainer, here.)

Artist, Seville, Spain

17. The best food in the world is in Italy. Sorry, France.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Italy. I don't need to try any other food, to prove this. It's just the way it is.)

18. Germans really do make the best cars.

(As proven by Mercedes Benz being the official car of grand taxis that take you through the Rif mountains or barren desert in Morocco.)

19. A bag of laundry detergent and a sink plug are no match for a washing machine.

(As proven by Mike and I trying our best not to be disgusting as we rotate the same outfits every three days.)

20. There is no "best age" to travel, no golden window in life that closes once you hit another one of life's milestones. As Americans, for the most part, the world is an open door and the invitation is always there. The offer never expires. And any amount of time spent traveling is a good way to experience life - the good, the bad, the strange, the beautiful, the fear, the courage, the growth, the gratitude. It all counts, even listening to your neighbor cleave a sheep's skull or bursting into laughter as you hand off the toilet paper to each other while taking turns running to the bathroom or using charades as a way to purchase pro-biotics and deodorant or figuring out another country's more efficient public transportation system or accepting an offer to join strangers for dinner. Every moment counts and most often times the best ones are not found at the landmarks and sights, but in the coffehouses and souqs, the street stalls and off-road tea stands, the barber shop and bathroom, the alleyway soccer game and desert night sky, a card game with friends on holiday and in asking to take a picture of someone rather than just taking it. The beauty is in the exchange, the experience in the push and pull of trusting instincts and trusting the universe, the excitement in never getting to know the outcome.

(As seen by me.)

Mike, Ali (The Desert Nomad) and Me, Erg Chebbi, Morocco


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

You've Been Moroccoed

Riad Idrissy, Fez, Morocco
The Tanneries, Fez, Morocco
A week ago, we said our farewells to Europe and set out for Africa. After Granada and Cordoba, we headed to Seville which was a perfect balance of culture and chores. We went on an awesome walking tour through the Juderia, saw the Cathedral (the world's largest) and ate tortilla de papas. I also got a haircut (Mike got one in Cordoba) and we stocked up on probiotics and dry shampoo from Lush. We took a bus from Seville (Departing Prado de San Sebastián) to Tarifa. Mike and I have been trying different bus seats after accidentally putting ourselves next to a toilet on the bus trip to Granada. For this one, we chose front row seats which ended up also being front row seats to an intimate concert starring our bus driver singing along to his favorite American pop songs from the summer of 2012. Still, it was better than the poop deck seats, and even bad music from home is still comforting.
Fez, Morocco
We ended up in Tarifa around 1:00 and headed to the port to pick up our tickets for the ferry. With time to kill, we parked ourselves in our last little tapas restaurant and ordered fried fish and papas bravas and dos cervezas, before we headed to a dry country. We read up on Morocco, but also knew there was no real preparing oneself for Morocco.                                                                                                                                    We took the 5:00p.m. ferry from Tarifa to Tangier and got our passports stamped on the boat. When we arrived in Tangier, I covered myself up with a scarf (at least the décolletage) and we set out. To be honest, I expected more touts than there were. I expected a flurry of touts! We still got a few very persistent ones and even well outside the port, on the street walking to our hotel, we got a tout who was not only persistent but angry when we said "No Thank You" in Arabic. Everything you read in the guidebooks is true. They will try to ask where you are staying. They will say your hotel is closed. They will tell you that you don't know what "no thank you" means. But you kind of just have to brush it off and keep moving. No handshakes, just a smile and persistent firm, NO.
Butcher, Fez Medina, Morocco
                                                                  We checked in to our hotel in Tangier and I noticed when I asked a question, the answer was directed at Mike. I remembered my friend V telling me about her experience in Morocco, and so I went with it. It has not been like that everywhere, but in the busy cities, I've tried to be more respectful of the way things are here.
Erg Chebbi, Morocco
Fez Medina, Morocco
It didn't take long before we got slightly ripped off. We tried to get a SIM card for our phone which in the guidebooks says is 20dh. We got that SIM card and through French and English and sign language we upped what we thought to be our data plan. But in the end we paid 50dh for a SIM card that can send texts but doesn't get internet. Since we don't have any Moroccan friends, the text messages have largely gone unused but come in handy when contacting hotels.
Tangier left much to be desired. But our hotel staff was very friendly and clearly used to Western tourists breezing through. I kind of felt bad when we asked when the train to Fez was and the hotel manager suggested we take a later morning train otherwise we wouldn't see much in Tangier. We did not make it to the medina in Tangier or where Paul Bowles used to hang. But we left Tangier on a good note with a fun petite taxi driver who took us to the train station after we realized our clocks had not set to the proper time because the day before Morocco decided they were not going to do daylight savings.
At the train station, we caught a train to Fez and enjoyed a nice cabin and met a young Australian couple and later an older American couple. I have so loved meeting people along the way and swapping experiences and tips. There is no best time in life to travel. Every age is a good age to travel.
A few stops from Fez we were joined by a very friendly Arabic man who was very charming. He got the cabin chatting and before long asked where we were staying. Red flags went up and I said we were meeting friends. Sure enough, he ended up trying to see if we would be interested in an official guide, a cousin of his. He could even meet us at our hotel. The older couple and the two of us said we were not interested and we sat in silence until the next stop. This was a perfect introduction to Fez. We had booked a driver to meet us at the train station to take us to our Riad in the medina which has been the smartest thing we have done all trip. The driver took us to the gates of the medina where another man took our bags in a wheelbarrow and we braved the medina maze. We would have never found our Riad which was a true oasis. (Riad Idrissy) We met up with our friends and the next few days were a blast! Our friends had just come from Chefchaouen where they met a grad student abroad here who introduced them to the phrase "You've been Moroccoed." She learned this phrase when buying alcohol for a party (no easy task here) and putting it in the freezer to chill. But everything froze because they water down the alcohol here. That's when she first heard, "You've been Morrocoed."

What the Doctor Ordered
Two days into Fez, my stomach had been Moroccoed, as well as Mike's and eventually one of our friends, even after we parted ways. We spent one whole day hanging out in the Riad playing cards and laughing. But not to worry, we also got out and saw the tanneries, went through the food souqs and saw a camel's head and testicles, were hassled by many touts, and haggled with the best of them. (Well, I cheered on the haggling!) The tanneries were by far the most mind blowing. Here, men and boys take dried hides of leather and soak and stomp on them in vats of dye. The dye is made from dried flowers, saffron, fruit peels and chemicals and the skins are dried using pigeon poo and cow urine for the ammonia and potassium. But the vats have been used since medieval times. Many of the tanners come from a long line of tanners. And despite the health risks, the process continues to this day, the same as it did centuries ago.
Sahara Sand Dunes
Sunset in the Sahara, Africa
On our fourth day in Fez, my stomach cramps got the best of me and with an overnight bus ride ahead of me, I crashed for a few hours. That night we parted ways and Mike and I caught the CTM bus (had to buy tickets ahead of time and traveller's note there is a CTM office right outside of the medina!) to Rissani. At 6:30 in the morning, we met a driver who took us to a little Berber pension outside of Merzouga right across the street from some of the famous Erg Chebbi dunes. Being in the desert has been one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is nothing to do, which is what we needed. We have spent the time resting up and taking care of our stomachs. We have slept, and planned some of the next legs of the trip. We walked around the dunes barefoot and we took a camel ride at sunset. The dunes change color with the sun as the earth moves across it and the sky is some of the prettiest natural colors I've ever seen. Desert pinks and golds and violets backdrop burnt orange dunes with rose colored sand. The other cool thing that has happened is that slowing down has allowed us to chat with Ali, the owner of the pension. He was born a nomad in the desert and lived in the Sahara in Morocco and Algeria and Mali. But when politics closed the borders, finding water wells got harder, so he settled here - a little hotel where he also runs camel treks and camping treks. He took us into town to get our bus tickets to Marrakech and then drove us around the dunes in his 4x4 and eventually out into the desert to meet some of his Berber people, the "nomad people" he calls them. We had tea in a tent and on the way back, took four of the nomads back into town with us along with a goat riding on the top of the car.

Every time I think I have stepped too far out of my comfort zone and it's okay for me to pull back, I surprise myself and see myself stretch just a little bit more. Before Morocco, I could not tell you the difference between Arabic and Berber or most other Arabic or Middle Eastern cultures. And while I believed myself to be pretty open minded, I could feel my discomfort around Arabic culture. Part of it is the aggressiveness. Part of it is a lack of education on such cultures. And part of it is living in post 9/11 America, where enemy number one has been presented as an assault of images, many without context, of people who look a lot like Moroccans. I have felt my own nasty prejudices come through mainly in the form of fear. I then feel myself get frustrated. I want to be open and the desert has certainly allowed that. But I also know, I have to be a bit of a hard ass so not to be a sucker. And so the push and pull to find balance continues. But the more I trust in the greater good of people, the more that natural balance seems to find itself...even if it costs me an extra 30dh now and again.
Erg Chebbi, Morocco (Sahara Desert)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Where are the Thursdays?

Torre de las Damas, Alhambra
Hola! Estamos in Sevilla, España! We have been in Spain almost two weeks and our time here in Europe is coming to an end, which is a little sad, a little scary, and a little welcomed. Spain is not how I remembered it, it is better. When I was 20 I was fortunate enough to tour a little bit of Europe after studying abroad and after college, I did it again at 22. Both times, I started after living in Ireland and then hit the road. When I was 22, I set out to hit the places I missed the first time, so I went to Spain with a friend and met up with two other friends. We really only stayed in Barcelona with a day trip to a beach town, but that time in Barcelona was epic. I felt both inspired (mainly by all of the Gaudi architecture and a male flamenco dancer on the street), independent, young and adventurous, and most of all I felt free. I partied with friends and completely lost myself and at points my right mind in Barcelona, and I always remember it as one of the times where I truly threw caution to the wind and the wind carried me right along. I remember my high school spanish coming back to me and feeling excited and proud when I could get myself around Spain. But my Spanish this time around has made me feel so incredibly pleased with myself, I can't help but give myself a nice pat on the back.
This trip to Spain has been completely different but also, so beautiful. It is still the same laid back place with a very big bohemian vibe and style, delicious food, and all of the passion I love to hear in this language. But we definitely started this trip with high class. Mike and I were given a week stay in a time share in Madrid by two friends (one who is from Spain, hence the sweet hook up!) for our wedding. Of course, this meant we were coming to Madrid come hell or high water. And since we were going to be in Madrid, why not check out Andalucía before heading to Morocco? And even though we felt like it would be too much cramming to get the big hot spots in Andalucía in a week, we did it and it has been more than worth it.
In Granada, we stayed with a married couple about our age that we found through He was Italian and she was Argentinian and we have decided that we really like this mix. (Two very close friends in New York are the same mix!)They rent out two rooms in their enormous four bedroom apartment and it was super laid back and the company was welcomed. Mike and I are doing great for being almost 8 weeks out, but company is definitely rejuvenating. And then a young couple from Australia came who had booked the other room. Both were classical musicians, one playing with an orchestra in Germany. After a day of seeing the Alhambra, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life, and intentionally getting lost in the Albaicín neighborhood, and seeing another amazing Cathedral and hearing the nuns choir practice at a beautiful monastery (another favorite of the trip), we had three delicious tapas (for free in Granada!) and went back to the apartment where all of us sat up drinking tea. We swapped stories about respective countries and our interests or experiences with the "The East" as "Westerners" (which obviously included Ralph Macchio and The Karate Kid.) We talked about economic crises and compared rents (which puts a lot in perspective when we admit New York rents) and talked about Monsanto and which side of the road is the right side of the road?! It was a wonderful night making new friends from all over the world in a place where none of us was really from.
Cathedral at Cordoba
I was sad to leave Granada. I got very quiet and I couldn't explain why. I had just come over a travelers hump in Madrid (which was cured by a night out at an American diner with burgers, Brooklyn beers, and criticizing the photographs of America that hung on the wall), but this was different. I ached for something I couldn't put my finger on. Friends? Family? Home? Maybe just a home? When our bus reached the bus station to take to Cordoba, I felt as if I physically could not pick up my bag. For a second, I felt like I didn't have the strength or even the will to pick it up and move on, again. But we did and we will.
Cathedral at Cordoba
Cordoba was a beautiful little town and the Cathedral there was also unlike anything I had seen before. It was a Basilica turned Mosque turned Cathedral. It was haunting to walk through these two clashes of religions and actually see the physical scar left on the warring of two peoples, two religions. Deep down, don't we all kind of want the same thing? And yet, what is a Cathedral or a Mosque or a Basilica. Sure, it is homage to one's God, it is a place to worship, it is a place to inspire beauty and create a curiosity, possibly a yearning to know "God." But isn't it also the manifestation of man's ego laid out like a set of marble and stone legos for all to castle is greater than yours.
Cathedral at Cordoba
We are now in Sevilla and I love it. We went on a walking tour with an awesome free guide who works for tips and I am now in love with Spanish history. It was also nice to hear English for so long and to engage in our own language with other people, too. (Even people from Queens and Brooklyn!) But I have to say, I love the Spanish language. A couple years ago, I took private Spanish lessons in exchange for free babysitting. 2010 was a rough year, though, and because of a series of events, I unintentionally quit. But I have been amazed out how much vocabulary has come back to me and how well I have gotten around. I even sent an international package home. I picked up a Spanish grammar book and remembered some of the verb tenses and I have been able to understand so much and communicate enough that people assume I speak it fluently! I, of course, do not and the minute they speed up their words, I am lost, but being able to communicate in another language has felt very empowering and freeing. Muchas gracias a mi profesora. However, for the life of me, I cannot stop asking where the Thursdays are. ¿Dónde están los jueves? I hope by the time I leave, I can remember that jueves means Thursdays and huevos means eggs. But today, even in English, I didn't know where the Thursdays were. I spent the entire day operating as if it was Wednesday until Mike finally caught on and checked his calendar to make sure that it was indeed, Thursday. Maybe tomorrow someone can finally tell me where they keep all of the eggs.
Us, Granada