The High Seas

Who would ever imagine that an 11 day cruise with a balcony would be less expensive than a 5 day cruise without one? But it’s true! And so, I flew to Barcelona two weeks ago. Angie met me there and we set sail on the MSC Divina.

I’d never visited Barcelona before and had a great time wandering La Rambla at Christmas:
Christmastime in Barcelona

This marked our third cruise together, and some things never change:
at the safety briefing
Safety first!

Our first full day on board was spent at sea and I did not feel well at all. It was probably for the best since it kept me halfway sober the next night: New Year’s Eve. We sailed into Funchal, Portugal just in time for what the Guinness Book declares the World’s Largest Firework Display:
Funchal, Portugal

New Year's Eve in Funchal, Portugal

We took a self guided tour the next day and enjoyed exploring the island of Madeira, including a visit to the town of Câmara De Lobos where I had limpets for lunch, without knowing exactly what I ordered. Turns out they are sea snails and I loved them.
Câmara De Lobos

my lunch in Câmara De Lobos, Portugal

I spent some quality time on deck while the ship left port:
Funchal, Portugal

The next day we toured the island of Tenerife, Spain:
Tenerife, Spain

Tenerife, Spain
That tiny speck in the water at the lower left is a woman surfing.

La Laguna, Spain

And after another relaxing day at sea, we arrived in Casablanca, Morocco where we hired a taxi cab tour guide. (The process was stressful – there is so much competition the police literally separate the drivers from the tourists at the gate of the port!) Our guide drove us to a few stops including the Grand Mosquée Hassan II. We missed out on touring the interior, but it was impressive enough from outside:
Grand Mosquée Hassan II

me at Grand Mosquée Hassan II

Angie at Grand Mosquée Hassan II

Next, we found our way to Rick’s Cafe (sure, it’s not the actual site where Casablanca was filmed, but lunch was delicious and the whole experience was great!)
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Rick's Cafe

Rick's Cafe

We bought a lot of things from the gift nook, including a book about the development of the building and its furnishings – I’m anxious to read it and learn the whole story.

After lunch we shopped at both the old and new Medinas:
Old Medina of Casablanca

Old Medina of Casablanca

The next afternoon we arrived in Malaga, Spain where we shopped, ate lunch, and sadly – we left just before their Feast of the Kings Festival kicked off.
Malaga, Spain

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ready for the parade
We hated leaving while preparations for what promised to be a great parade were underway!

After another day at sea (or as we dubbed it: “A day off”) we spent a few whirlwind hours in Rome, Italy. We crammed as much as possible into short day!
Saint Peter's Square
Saint Peter’s Square

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo

Fendi
Window shopping near the Spanish Steps

me & Angie at the Trevi Fountain
Quick visit to the Trevi Fountain

Colosseum
A Colosseum drive-by (photo snapped from the backseat of a taxi)

Saint Peter's Square
We returned to Saint Peter’s to meet our ride back to the ship.

The next day we wandered the winding streets of Genoa, Italy:
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Piazza de Ferrari

lunch in Genoa, Italy
Our lack of Italian skills and the quirky menu made ordering lunch difficult, but it was particularly tasty!

San Matteo
Church of Saint Matthew

leaving Genoa
We packed our bags while we left Genoa’s port.

We disembarked, checked into our hotel, napped, and were ready to tour Barcelona the next day.
Parc de la Ciutadella
Parc de la Ciutadella

Chris and Alissa
We ran into some of our table mates from the cruise while we biked through the park.

 Sagrada Família
Circling the exterior of the Sagrada Família was enough to make me plan a return to Barcelona.

Casa Batlló Rooftop
I’m so glad Angie suggested topping off our day with a visit to Gaudi’s Casa Batlló!

Casa Batlló Rooftop
Touring spectacular architecture while listening to Dali’s opinions of the building on the audio guide is something I’ll never forget.

me & Angie on the Casa Batlló Rooftop

Equally as fantastic as touring sights in so many wonderful cities was spending quality time with Angie. It’s impossible to fit all of the wacky things we shared during our trip into this post (After all, thanks to our package, we did our very best to try one of every item offered on the ship’s drink menu…) We each won a trivia contest, danced at Grease night in the ship’s Galaxy Lounge, met fascinating new friends from Argentina, gambled the hours away at electronic roulette (and won!), and so much more…

Here’s a kiss we blew to Big D. I think this photo captures the essence of our time together – Fun!
Smooch for Big D

Tons of other photos from our cruise are posted on Flickr. Ahoy!

Morocco: God Willing

I hate that so much time has passed between taking the trip and finishing these posts – my intent was document everything while it was fresh in my mind. But just because I’ve had other adventures in the meantime doesn’t mean Morocco isn’t at the top of my thoughts every day…

Day three of our trip progressed to our tourguide’s hometown, Rissani. His step-mother and sister served us Couscous they prepared from scratch, which requires five hours!
couscous from scratch

Za explained the process:
Za told us how to make couscous

After lunch, Za gave us beautiful, intricate Henna Tattoos. She is self-taught and is truly a talented artist.
henna tattoo

henna tattoo

Brahim's step mom and sister

Later, we toured Rissani’s market, which is the oldest in North Africa.
Rissani donkey market

Rissani market

Rissani market

I don’t think we would have lingered as long as we did had we known a six hour drive was ahead of us.
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But eventually we arrived in the city of Ouarzazate where we spent the night in a really beautiful hotel. It was dark when we arrived and I gasped when I opened the shutters in the morning to discover our view:
view from our room

Ouarzazate is home to a few movie studios. We decided not to tour, but I was happy to snap this photo while we drove by:
Movie studios

Day four was full of more driving, and stopping to admire the scenery.
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Eventually, we arrived at Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. And when we did? My (brand new) camera broke! UGH. Luckily, I had another along with my iPhone. But my zooming capabilities were nill.
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Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

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A scene from Gladiator was filmed here:
Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Finishing our tour of the Kasabah was bittersweet. We were tired, we knew it was our last stop, I longed to be back in the desert, and it was time to say goodbye to our guide with whom we had become good friends. We were handed over to his cousin and a driver for the final few hours back to Marrakech.
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I particularly like this photo as it shows the switchback roads (look for the zigzag right in the center) that winds through the Atlas Mountains – we drove the entire route twice in four days.
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Back in Marrakech we ventured out to the main square for dinner where I did my best Andrew Zimmern and ate a Mixed Grill plate without knowing exactly which meat was what. Bread was served from laundry baskets hidden under the tables and napkins were nonexistent. I was proud of our bravery, especially in our exhausted state.
And I lived to tell about it

After dinner we strolled through the night market:
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And before we knew it, Saturday morning arrived and we were on our way to the airport.
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It’s an absurd understatement to say that I’m ridiculously lucky. But: last week, I spent a day in Casablanca. It is shockingly modern, Western, and entirely different than the Morocco I experienced with Kirsten. I can’t express how thankful I am for every moment of our trip – even the annoying ones I’ve omitted from these posts (endless hours of bad music in our SUV, motion sickness, scarce toilet paper, you get the idea…) because they were part of our unforgettable journey.

I was terrible at remembering words and phrases in Berber (or any other language.) But I know and love the notion that when bidding farewell their response is, “God willing.”

So: Thank you!
Saha, Morocco. I’ll be back – God willing.

Morocco: We punched a hole right through the night

Alternate title: How Many Times Can I Use the Word “Amazing” ?
(too many!)

I just looked at my previous post and it felt like reading someone else’s words. Its been a week since our night in the desert – I am still in awe of the entire experience and must reiterate once more that I can not do it justice here.

Picking up where I left off…

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Our guide and his friend dropped us off at the edge of the desert where we were met by Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix – our camels. The exhilaration of the drive still had us squealing when suddenly, a sweet man named Hamid was leading us east into the Sahara while warm, amazing colors, quickly cooling temperatures, and long shadows surrounded us.

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Kirsten and I kept track of a few things using the Notes app on our iPhones and one we both added was, “It’s hard to take photos on a wobbly camel.”

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We hopped down for a few moments and I just could not get my brain to register that we were watching the sun set in the Sahara.

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After trekking about 90 minutes, we arrived at our camp where we were greeted with tea while we introduced ourselves to some of the other tourist campers – a couple from Texas and another (British woman and her French boyfriend) who rode there on a motorcycle from Spain. We ate tasty chicken tagine followed by oranges and pomegranate while exchanging travel anecdotes and hotel recommendations.

The sun sank well below the horizon while we ate and when we emerged from the tent, Kirsten and I simultaneously gasped and grabbed each other. In fact, now that I think about it: Kirsten hit me. And I don’t blame her.

I hate that there are no photos to document this part of our night. And, oh, do I love it. Because this part of our adventure was… well, for lack of a better term: sacred. I relish having that night recorded nowhere other than in our mind’s eye.

Our guide and his friend arrived in our SUV (we were the only campers who had locals taking such good care of them, and to say I’m thankful is yet another understatement.) After a rousing hour or so of drums and music, they gathered blankets for us, walked us through total darkness, and got us set up – literally in the middle of nowhere – so we could lay on the desert floor and watch the Geminid Meteor Shower.

The night sky we saw is not something that I can remotely explain. I felt so small, microscopic really, under the visible swirl of the Milky Way. We saw thousands of stars. THOUSANDS. And we gasped at countless shooting stars (50? 100? at least.) We may have even seen a comet – whatever it was had a glowing tail for a very long time, all while huddled under Berber blankets, admiring the sights, repeatedly declaring how lucky we are, and talking about everything from my dad and his love of astronomy to singing Twinkle, Twinkle out loud and giggling.

Back at the camp, the other tourists had gone to bed. But our adrenaline was far too great to climb into our tent, so we sat down with our tour guide, the camel drivers, and the kitchen guys who were gathered around the fire. I wonder what they thought of two outgoing American women having the audacity to just pull up a blanket and join in, but in no time we all knew each others names, tried to solve riddles (not easy with barely a common language), I laughed until I cried, we had tea (twice!) and snacked on their peanuts and Kirsten’s gummy bears before we finally gave in at about 2am.

Midnight tea
Late night (or was it early morning?) tea

We were awake (Did we sleep much? No.) and back near our stargazing spot for the sunrise. I won’t even try to describe the experience of watching the light peek from the horizon:

Sahara Sunrise

Sahara Sunrise

Sahara Sunrise

Some campers climbed a giant dune for a higher vantage point (you can see them in the photo below – they’re the tiny specks working their way up on the left), but I’m glad we didn’t as it allowed us this view:
Sahara Sunrise

Here’s our camp in the morning light:
Sahara Sunrise

When we were back for breakfast (the final ones to arrive, as usual) we spied the drums from the previous night’s entertainment piled against the tents. How can something so fantastic in one moment seem so innocuous in another?

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I’m guessing the time we took to say farewell to our new friends slowed the departure of the whole camel caravan, but it was worth irritating fellow travelers. I really wanted to express how much we appreciated the hospitality given by these sweet people who laughed and joked with us the night (okay, mere hours) before.

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with Hamid

And then it was time to mount up and ride 90 minutes back to (partial) civilization.

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We showered at a hotel situated at the edge of the desert, surrounded by seating areas like this:
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And when we found WiFi at a gas station (where I accidentally opened the door to a mosque instead of the bathroom!) I posted this on FaceBook: Leaving the desert today felt like leaving summer camp. We made great friends – an indescribable, unforgettable, amazing experience. I already want to go back!!

I downloaded In God’s Country and watched the Sahara shrink in our rearview mirror while we listened.

Desert sky
Dream beneath the desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight…
…Set me alight
We’ll punch a hole right through the night
Everyday the dreamers die
See what’s on the other side…
…Sleep comes like a drug
In God’s Country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses
In God’s Country

I intended to wrap our trip up in this post, but instead, I’ll write the third and final installment tomorrow.

Morocco: 1,000 miles changed my life

I don’t even know how to tackle this post. I’ve been thinking about how to write it since… well, since the trip was still in progress.

I considered breaking it down into sections:

  • Geography / topography
  • Politics / customs
  • Adventure
  • Exact moments I’ll never, ever forget
  • Fate
  • Laughing until I cried
  • Oranges (both the fruit, and the color)
  • Crazy stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else
  • Appreciating it all so much I cried
  • And much, much more

Writing about all of that would make this post too long, and it wouldn’t even cover everything still swirling in my head. So: I’ll save the deep thoughts for myself and give you this travelogue instead.

A few months ago I saw a FaceBook photo of our friend Amy, perched on a camel during a day trip from Spain to Tangier, and I thought “I’ve got to do that!” When it came up in conversation, Kirsten said she was interested too. And in November, without doing much research we decided to go all in – No day trip for us! We bought airline tickets to Morocco and sent an e-mail to a guide who had favorable TripAdvisor reviews…

Last Monday, we spent the night at a hotel near the airport since our flight was very early the next morning and it was snowing. And before we knew it, we were over the Straight of Gibraltar, landing in Marrakech, and at the foot of the Atlas Mountains all before Tuesday’s lunch.

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Some sights from our SUV window that day:
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And from a few stops we made along the way:
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We spent that night at Chez Pierre, an impossible to describe hotel in the Dades Gorge.

Chez Pierre

Just as we finished a tasty French-inspired dinner, our guide and the hotel staff sat down to a delicious looking Tagine. Kirsten asked what was in their dish, they invited us to their table for a sample, and we ate a second dinner.

Tajine
It was so delicious it was confusing! Raisins! Figs! Spices!

And then the drumming started. I was not expecting impromptu music and thrilled to hear it a lot during the next few days:
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Ishmael

True fact: Since I’ve always lived in a (bright) city, and I’m really not one for camping, I had never before seen a shooting star. Though, now that I’ve typed that I wonder if I have just never really slowed down enough to just sit and look? At the end of the night, after the instruments were tucked away, the final glass of wine was consumed and things were quiet, we made our way to the pool deck to admire the night sky. And I probably woke other guests with my gasping. SHOOTING STAR! There’s one! And there is another! And another! And…

We bid our new friends adieu the next morning:
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The sights on Wednesday morning’s drive did not disappoint:
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We saw this man in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

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And I sent this Tweet:

Since it was 12/12/12 we stopped the car at 12:12 and snapped some photos:
self portrait in the desert

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As soon as we arrived to “take lunch” at Maison Boutchrafine, a hotel built by a good friend of our guide, I knew it was special.

Maison Boutchrafine

Maison Boutchrafine

Maison Boutchrafine

fossils in the floor
Fossils line the floors

Maison Boutchrafine
Everything is constructed with items found nearby

Maison Boutchrafine

Maison Boutchrafine

Maison Boutchrafine

In retrospect, it’s not the location or the remarkable place carved from the earth, it’s the people that inhabit the space that make it so lovely and unique.

Hassan

Haddou

Haddou

Hassan

Haddou

And then? The real adventure began.

We took a crazy 4X4 drive while rocking to Desert Rose just before sunset to meet our camels at the edge of the Sahara Desert so we could camp for the night.

That is the most insane sentence I will ever type.

My favorite

And so that’s where I’ll stop for now – I’m hoping I can dream about it tonight.