How Many Camels?

Morocco Part 1

My trip to Morocco started and ended terribly. My actual time spent trekking through Fez, camping in Saharan sand dunes outside of Erfoud, and staying in Meknes were more than magical, but the journey was book-ended by heinous sickness–not the best way to spend over 24 hours of travel each way. A perfect trip in a shitty sandwich. We can’t have our cake and eat it too, though–especially if it’s a Moroccon cake. Bleh.

Day 1: Travel

Bus from Sevilla: 3 hours.

Ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar: 2 hours.

Bus from Ceuta to Fez: 8 hours.

Finally collapsing in a horizontal bed: priceless.

Day 2: The Medina

We started the day early, back in our trusty bus, but this time joined by our tour guide, Mohib, who essentially took our lives into his (over-enthusiastically-gesturing) hands as we later ventured in the Medina of Fez, or the “Old City.”

UCLA does Morocco!

We drove from our hotel in the relatively new area of the city that had been designed by the French during their rule, so that part of Fez seemed unique but still maintained a Western city layout. We drove up a hill to visit a castle and lookout over the city (New Quarter, Jewish Quarter [he told us “there are 54 Jewish families in Fez”], and the Medina), and that was when it became visually apparent we had stayed in the “European-ized” area of the city, laid out in nice spacious city blocks. Looking down at the Medina, we couldn’t make out any space between buildings, much less where one started and the other began. It just looked like a giant clumping of little building blocks. Not so much intimidating, more like, how the heck do we get in there?

“Ok, so now we go into the Medina. If someone says ‘Balack,’ move, or else a Medina taxi will ‘Balack Obama’ you! Ok now we go.” A ‘Medina taxi’ is a donkey, a ‘Balack Obama’ is a nice little euphemism for “move, dummy” that tour guides like to use for stupid Americans. Because of course we won’t forget the name of our own president. Hopefully.

Ok, so, now we go into the Medina. Mind you, I was still getting over a a debilitating sickness so I just happened to be a little woozy with meds. So this whole day was a quite dreamlike, quite magical, in the literal sense. We basically created a human chain and wove through hundreds of the thousands (1600!) of alley ways that comprise the “streets” of the Medina, the largest car-free zone in the world. The alleys are rarely more than a few feet wide, never less than three stories high, and usually filled with rotting animal parts of some sort. At first, the hustle, bustle, and chunks of raw meat reminded me of many of the fresh markets I would frequent in Thailand, but that nostalgia was quickly vanquished by hoards of flies, piles of rotting fish, and mounds of unidentifiable meat-like-things. So, I held my breath, tried not to get ‘Balacked,’ and scurried along until our first stop in a traditional apothecary.

Camel head roast with a side of sauteed snails, anyone?

Lovely apothecary decor. Don’t worry, Mom, I got one for the living room! Kisses!!!

The “medicine man” in the traditional apothecary turned out to be quite the showman and salesman, too. After flowery demonstrations and descriptions of all his “magical” herbs and spices, he enticed us to buy them all. Which I did, if just a few, for cooking. I bypassed the Moroccan oil “Chanel No. 4” and the mystical mushrooms that are supposed to be the Viagra of developing countries, for the “jiggy jiggy” as he so eloquently put it. But honestly, it was amazing to be invited into this puny shop and be shown all the traditional Moroccan medicines as a huge group of American tourists– I can’t imagine being able to do it without our guide, much less find anything inside the Medina without getting lost for the rest of my life. Like my friend said, you might as well forget trying to find directions out of here, just buck up and create a life for yourself. Probably the most viable option.

After the apothecary, we headed to a government funded Fez rug factory where widowed women are able to make and sell their goods. At first, I was impressed my the rugs but not planning on buying one. Fifteen minutes later, a worker was packaging up my new rug for me. Pricey, but it is beautiful and is currently my carpet/bed/desk/sofa for when I return to LA and an empty apartment. And then, the day goes on, and on…We had an amazing lunch in an ornate restaurant off some obscure little alley in the medina, through some obscure little door that gave way to an amazing, palatial interior where, perched upon pillows, we feasted on khobz (traditional flatbread), tons of veggies, and cous cous. I loved the food there, but apparently it didn’t love me back. Anyway, after over-stuffing ourselves as usual, we wound through countless more alley ways and visited a tannery.

All those tubs are massive natural-dye vats for the leather. Didn’t smell so fruity, though, so we were given bunches of mint to sniff on.

So, after marching (ok, more like desperately following Mohib) through the Medina, we emerged through another random alleyway to sunlight, fresh air, and children playing soccer. How joyful! Back on the bus. Curses.

We didn’t drive long, though, before stopping at a ceramic/mosaic (a pottery? a mosaic-ery?) factory, where we watched how pots were gracefully spun, mosaics were smashed and then placed into beautiful patterns, and of course visited the gift shop.

So, here we go, out of the Medina. It was an exhausting, but eye-opening (literally and figuratively) first day in Africa. While we didn’t come across any other tourists all day, I could tell that the thousands of people that live in the Medina were no strangers to gringo tourists. We were mostly ignored, often haggled, and sometimes asked for in exchange for “many camels,” but in a joking manner like this is what the Moroccans expected us to want to hear. Definitely a cultural whirlwind, but not even close to as amazing as our next few days camping in the Sahara desert…

Just Kickin’ It

Kicking…it?

Farting around, shooting the shit, just for shits and giggles…these potty-mouthed English idioms are literally idiotic, but practically fantastic. Rarely do I ever consider the image of shooting a piece of poop with a rifle, but since I’ve been learning some Spanish idioms the literal translations have been at the forefront of my mind.

The father in my host family, Eduardo, taught me a few and attempted to explain them, but the literal translations were far more entertaining than his thoughtful explanations. Mira:

Spanish idiom: Sacarse el gordo.
Literal translation: To take the fat one.
Equivalent English idiom: To hit the jackpot.

Spanish idiom: El hijo de la gato, ratones mata.
Literal translation: The son of a cat kills mice.
English Equivalent: Like father like son.

Spanish idiom: Vive en el quinto pino.
Literal translation: He lives in the fifth pine tree.
English Equivalent: He lives way far away.

Spanish idiom: Da un beso a la botella.
Literal Translation: Give the bottle a kiss.
English Equivalent: Take a swig.

Ok so I definitely didn’t hear that last one in real life, I promise. If I did, I probably would have gone ahead and kissed the bottle. But now, thanks to an impromptu idiom class, I’ll know that that guy doesn’t actually live in a tree. Or have a cat as a father.

Fartin’ in Valencia! Fartin’ all over the world!

Here’s a new one: She who wears a fur hat in 85º weather is dumb. No, really.

Switzerland

Despite the many languages present in Switzerland, I don’t speak any of them. And despite my lack of worldly linguistic knowledge, I still freakin’ love Switzerland! If every weekend adventure is getting progressively better and better, how is the next going to top Switzerland? Of course each country, city, and town I’ve visited and have yet to visit has its own remarkable tourist highlights and charmingly subtle secrets, but I was enthralled with nearly every facet of Switzerland. And we weren’t experiencing Swiss culture at its finest, by any means–we were couchsurfing at a virtual stranger’s home in Lausanne, frantically driving a little VW around searching for minuscule street signs, and forgoing delectable restaurants for market baguettes, cheese, and chocolate. Which were equally delectable, in my opinion. Switzerland may be one of the most expensive destinations in the world, but I had one of the best weekends of my life for relatively little money. And the decisions we made weren’t necessarily to save cash, but just to explore–and priceless experiences they were.

The following aspects of our trip were initially a result of the college-kid-budget, but ultimately made the journey the best possible. While I suppose 4-star Switzerland would be fabulous, our spontaneous-thrifty-nomadic take on Switzerland afforded a far superior experience than those bourgeois losers going backwards in their cars. We push…

1. Food

One of my favorite things about Europe is the vast variety of cuisine available across every border. So I make sure to really integrate myself into the culture and eat just about everything a country has to offer. So sophisticated, I know.

From a roadside B&B’s croissant and espresso to sampling (ok, devouring) Gruyère cheese in Gruyère, our “budget” food was amazing (and still amazingly expensive). I had heard that food was pricey in Switzerland, but when I saw that a Big Mac was $12, I realized even Ronald was robbing us for a meal. No matter, because a.) I hate McDonald’s so I don’t care if it costs 50¢ or $500, b.) we were waking up at 5 am and spending our days hiking many miles away from food, much less restaurants, so those weren’t an option, and c.) cheese and chocolate are two of my favorite things, both of which are plentiful, premium, and relatively low-priced. Score! Throw that in the backpack and done. Happy tummy.

And I may or may not have brought $40 of cheese back to Barcelona…

2. Das VW

After refreshingly good service on Swiss Air, (¡Que raro!), we picked up our sexy little VW Polo. With manual transmission. Thanks to Maddy’s fabulous driving skills, we were able to pull out of the parking garage…after pushing the car out of it’s spot, because she couldn’t quite manage to gear into reverse. Some tricky little nuance of the stick shift required a push down to switch into reverse, but thanks to a user guide in German, we just thought Maddy was a little rusty after a year of not driving and evntually would catch on to that unimportant reverse thing. But then, we thought the car had malfunctioned and couldn’t reverse. Logical solution? Throw it in neutral and push, obviously! After 24 hours of this, as well as driving down pedestrian streets at 2 am to find someone, anyone, to ask for directions, we figured that it would be good to ask someone about our lack of backwards motion. That someone happened to be a parking attendant in Täsch, who literally reached in the window and shifted for Maddy, and just said, “Ahh,” like it was a common problem.

Other than that inconvenient blooper, (which had its entertainment value, no doubt), it was smooth sailing over Swiss Alps from then on. Althought the Swiss Rail system is supposed to be great and scenic, blah blah blah, having a car was an invaluable advantage.  Not only was the rental price equivalent to one Rail Pass and split between 4 people, but we could stop whenever we wanted (more chocolate, please), get lost as much as possible in the unnavigable city of Lausanne, and just look really, really cool while we cruised the Swiss countryside bumping French rap and losing hubcaps. La bella vita!

3. Couchsurfing

Everyone knows what couch-surfing means, but couchsurfing.org is an actual network of millions of people all over the world, generously opening their doors and sharing their couches with fellow travelers. There’s a system of verification, vouching for hosts/guests, and the ability to customize your profile so you seem really awesome to other couch-surfers. Maddy and I stayed with a guy in Lausanne that had moved from the States to Switzerland 2 years ago to practice architecture in Europe. Although we were too busy hiking all day to chat much, we at least learned that he loves the Swiss life. It’s hard not to, especially when your flat is overlooking Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps. Pretty posh for couch-surfing!

4. Hiking

I’m sure our fellow study-abroad friends had an absolutely fantastic time bungee jumping (ok, I’m definitely jealous of the boys’ 722 ft jump off the Verzasca Dam like in GoldenEye), canyoning, skydiving, and whatever, but $$ aside I wouldn’t have traded our three days of hiking for anything. The hiking extravaganza went:

  • Day 1: Zermatt to Höhbalmen (Started at 5250 ft, up to 9462 ft. Bit of a 7 hour workout.)
  • Day 2: Gimmelwald to Mürren to Trummelbach Falls (Started snowing. Premature winter wonderland.)
  • Day 3: Gruyère to summit of Moléson (We didn’t intend to go to the top, but 14 km just flew on by! Time flies when you’re trekking through cow poop.)

The weather in Zermatt couldn’t have been any more perfect. Then we had unexpected, but enjoyable, snow up in Gimmelwald on the still-blooming gardens. And down lower in Gruyère the bright fall colors and morning fog were a beautiful contrast. 3 days of very different, but all incredible, adventures, not just tourist gimmicks. My writing abilities won’t do justice for the spectacular scenery, but my Nikon will:

Then onto Gimmelwald…

In España they run from bulls, and in Switzerland we walked from cows.

The Swiss national symbol is the gnome. Fact.

Mountain passage, small view of the massive Trummelbach Falls, and the real Marcel the Shell

Onward ho through the fog to Gruyère and Moléson…

After gorging on Gruyère in Gruyère, we headed back to Geneva to take a quick peek around this chilly cosmopolitan city before hopping on a plane back to balmy Barcelona…

Au revoir, auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, y ¡hasta luego!

Cava Caves & Mediterranean Waves

It’s sad that I keep equating Spanish things with those back in los Estados Unidos, but…the comparisons are just too good! That said, we went to Spanish Napa last weekend. But instead of being by the chilly Pacific ocean, when we drove out to the coast we were greeted by the now-familiar turquoise of the Mediterranean. An afternoon in Sitges was a pleasantly slow day eating lunch by the waves, continuing our cava (Spanish champagne) samplings, and just taking in the beauty of a sleepy beach town, but with medieval churches instead of surf shops. That part beats California.

The tour was actually pretty impressive, considering the Codorniu winery was founded in the 1500s and is the largest producer of sparkling wine. Not that we paid much attention to the tour guide’s facts while we were distracted by the sheer magnitude of the underground cellars while we wound around thousands of bottles down dank tunnels in little carts on the “Wine Train”…and pretending like we were down in Gringott’s Bank (Harry Potter fans only).

After a “tasting” at Codorniu, we supported the family business in the gift shop then hopped back on the bus to head for the beach. Sitges is stunningly beautiful. We ventured down narrow, shady cobbled streets winding between old buildings, which finally opened up to aqua water and a white sand beach. A leisurely lunch, our souvenir bottles of cava, and a great group of Americans–What could be better? Oh yeah, it was the Sitges film festival and “zombies” were roaming the romantic streets. It added a nice touch of whimsy to an otherwise idyllic day.

This couple was wearing matching bikini bottoms–and nothing else. They were also apparently training for the Topless Paddleball World Championships, because they played for all 4 hours we were on the beach. Impressive, but a bit disturbing, too.

Andorran Adventures

Yes, Andorra is a country. No, I had not heard of it before coming to Spain, but now I’ve been there and you haven’t. HA! I wasn’t exactly planning on visiting this minuscule, seemingly mundane country, but…i wasn’t exactly planning on much to begin with. A last minute invite to backpack and camp in the eastern Pyrenees from “the Stanford crew” turned into a fantastic weekend exploring a bizarre little nation (181 sq mi, to be exact). With no expectations and no plans other than to reach a refugio before nightfall, we set off with backpacks full of baguettes and sour gummies to conquer the Andorran wilderness…although we were in the middle of nowhere and kind of hoping for some danger, the most volatile thing we encountered was the path of a cow beset with diarrhea. A bear might have been better.

The Crew = UCLA + Stanford. Even if we can't follow a map, at least our SAT scores are high.

We started our “urban hike” right out of the bus station in Andorra, which took about 3 hours to reach from Barcelona. Close in distance, but Andorra seemed to be worlds away from the busy streets and discotecas of Barcelona. Steep cliffs and towering mountains encircle the puny capital city of Andorra la Vella, to which we promptly hiked, past all the designer boutiques and liquor stores. Andorra is a tax free zone, equating to lots of booze, cigarettes, and fine leather goods for sale. An interesting scene in which to begin a backpacking trip, but we were soon panting up a steep path that led straight up to a pleasant (man-made) lake, where some of the guys went fishing. And all had a cerveza.

Although the lake was full of trout, they weren’t interested in being caught, so we stuck to cervezas and crackers. ¡Que rica! We (ok, I. And much of the group.) was pretty tired by this point in the hike after minimal physical exercise beyond the dance floor in Barcelona, but we still had about 7 km of climbing to reach our refugio. So, onward ho, and after summiting another ridge we started to descend into a valley, then climb up the lush valley floor alongside a river. It was amazing to finally fill my lungs with fresh air instead of smoke, and hear cow bells instead of honking horns.

After a false hope that someone’s private cabin was our spot for the night, we finally came upon our camp just as the temperature was dropping and the sun was setting behind the Pyrenees. The old stone refugio was like a scene from a movie–but better. Up on a grassy knoll, with mountains behind, river beside, and cow shit all around! Which actually proved to be excellent kindling for our roaring fire. Ok, maybe it was more of a loud whisper, but we got that thing going. And a ladybug decided to play daredevil:

Building the fire turned into a manly photo shoot.

We literally froze our butts off that night. A few brilliant chaps had sleeping bags, but Julia and I decided to go with the “army blanket + cuddle fest” tactic, just like Oktoberfest. And just like Oktoberfest, we shivered all night, but had smiles plastered to our faces the whole time. Not sure if that was delirium or delight, but that’s unimportant. What’s important is that this is what we woke up to:

After a nice slow morning of exploring the surrounding stream and thawing out our limbs, we headed back towards Andorra la Vella via a loop trail. For our second night in Andorra, we stayed in a relatively luxurious hotel, where I (surprisingly) showered and slept (surprisingly) in a real bed. It may have been a little pricey, but an included buffet breakfast ensured that I eat the price of the room, and then some. So for our last day in Andorra, we explored the charming capital (consisted of beautiful old buildings, then shopping, shopping, and more boring uninspired shopping) and took it easy.

Julia was on the hunt for a watch, and when we were about to give up hope beyond a huge blingy timepiece, we stumbled upon a musty old shop down an alley. We then spent an hour creating our own custom vintage watches with the sweetest little old lady, whose shop probably hadn’t seen much action since the 60s. Well, neither had she, most likely. Anyway! We scored priceless souvenirs, and a place to stop in for dinner should we ever return to Andorra for a longer backpacking excursion, which I certainly hope I do! With more than a blanket, this time.

le poème sophistiqués.

Inspired by Danielle’s exemplary journalistic venture, ohtheplacesivepeed.blogspot.com, I penned this elegantly cultured poem while flying back to land-of-the-siestas from Geneva, also known as land-of-the-$15-gas station-sandwich. While writing this intellectual piece, I was also taking advantage of Swiss Air’s generous baguette, cheese, wine and chocolate freebies. Hey, when in _______!

I had the most epic squat
whilst hiking in Zermatt.

Snowy Swiss Alps were all I could see
as I proceeded with this alpine pee.

But as bad as I had to go,
It came as slow as glacier flow

I suppose fellow admirers of the Matterhorn
Looked at public peeing with scorn

But what else was I to do?
At least I didn’t poo.

Want to know what’s even more sophisticated than this delightful little ditty? I had to look up the title on Google Translate. Because, sadly, me no know no Frenchy. Our lack of knowledge of French beyond oui, merci, croquette, and croissant led to infinite problems asking for directions, or finding out prices before paying $5 for a baguette in a grocery store. Virtually everyone in Switzerland spoke French + three other beautiful languages, but rarely did they speak Spanish or that bloody English. Spanish may be great for California, but learning French would definitely have proved more beneficial in our European travels. At least I should learn how to say, “Where’s the bathroom?”

¿Skool?

And we can just stroll on over to Parc Cuitadella for a photo op between classes. Beats UCLA's Inverted Fountain.

I keep receiving emails from my loving parents with the few words, “How are classes going?” (to which I have yet to respond), and which as of late have devolved into just, “Class?”

Yes, I take them.

I’m actually sitting in class right now! Isn’t that swell. Spain in Cinema isn’t exactly a challenging course relative to UCLA standards. Or preschool standards. Our professor just asked, “You are knowing who Johnny Depp is, right?” Yeah, Americans tend to know him.

Other than this sleep-inducing cinema class, my daily Spanish language class is pretty good, although I wish it were a bit more challenging. We’re currently reviewing tenses and vocabulary that I learned in 7th grade, but at least we’re getting more formal practice than just ordering cervezas and asking to try flavors of gelato. In all actuality, it’s fun to have a laidback language class to just take in the idiomatic nuances of español…

Classes are tragically mandatory, so I’ve been attending far more class hours than I normally do at UCLA, but doing virtually zero homework. Not that there isn’t any work, but the bulk of it consists of class participation and economic case studies and simulations. Which are certainly more practical and fulfilling learning experiences than any economics class at UCLA thus far.

So, yes, Mother and Father, I am learning stuff good. Real good.