Sunday, March 23, 2014

not for the faint of heart

last week was full of firsts for me… both professional and experiential. i’ll leave it for you to decide which one was more challenging!

my weekend was bookended by two stints as a school-trip chaperone. i still haven’t been able to decide on an appropriate word to describe the fact that i’m considered “adult” enough to be responsible for school children – perplexing? horrifying? humbling? flattering? at any rate… on thursday, the 13th, i walked to school at 5:55am, to load up into a van with six students and one other teacher and make the three-hour drive to bordeaux. the kids, all in their final year of high school, were participating in a sort of friendly english-langugae debate tournament with teams from several other high schools in the region. my secondary role at the tournament was to serve as a coach for one of the 8 teams, each made up of kids from different schools. each group debated three times – they were given 25 minutes to prepare and then the actual discussion lasted for about 20 minutes. all in english! overall, i was exceedingly impressed with my team; they had a genuinely impressive level of english, and expressed their ideas and beliefs very articulately. we even won our final debate, in which we had to argue against the necessity of learning a foreign language in today’s world. ironic, considering they were all speaking a foreign language… then, the two teams with the top scores debated in the final round. and one of my kids was on the winning team. :) i had a great time meeting the other students, and also getting to know my students a little better outside of the classroom!

after the tournament was over, i had the driver drop me off at the train station in the city, because (in typical jill fashion) i had planned a little weekend getaway to the south! being just outside of bordeaux made the train journey considerably more convenient, so i couldn’t help but take advantage of the opportunity. unfortunately, thanks to several seemingly-pointless delays and a work truck broken down on the track later on, my 3 hour journey turned into a 7.5 hour journey… oh well. i just hung out on the various trains, reading and chatting with the other passengers. finally, around midnight, i arrived in my destination – the mountain town of pau, where my friend lauren (remember her from my moroccan trip?) is living for the year. it was so lovely to see her again, but it was laaate and we’d both had long days, so my first night in town was a quiet one! we spent the next day exploring pau a little – highlights included touring the impressive castle, shopping in h&m (a luxury for my country bumpkin reality!), having lunch on a café terrace, and wandering through the open-air market. pau actually reminded me a lot of angers, the city where i spent my semester abroad three years ago. naturally, that association made for a good impression of the city! plus, the weather was gorgeous all weekend, with bright sun and comfortable temperatures – a fantastic change from the constant rain of the previous months. the night was topped off with a bacon cheeseburger (!!!) at the pub across the street from lauren’s apartment. it wasn’t like burger up, but it sufficed to tide me over until i’m home in two months!

saturday was my big debut as a future olympian – lauren fulfilled her promise to take me snowboarding in the pyrenees! several of her friends joined us for the hour-long bus ride to gourette, a ski station nestled right into the middle of some seriously snowy peaks. we arrived around 9am, and i headed to the gear rental shop to get outfitted. i chose to snowboard for two main reasons: lauren snowboards and could therefore teach me a little better, and somehow one sliding plank attached to my feet seemed easier to control than two. once i had my board, shoes, and helmet, we headed up to the bunny slopes. now, as someone who is not quite what you would call athletic, i had my doubts about my potential success on the mountain. and, true to expectation, my first “run” was basically what you would call a comical disaster, in my opinion. but lauren was endlessly patient and very encouraging, and i made it down the mountain having only fallen once every 14 seconds. from that point on, i was determined to get the hang of it; in my rare moments of vertical, forward motion, i could sense that it was something i would actually enjoy, if i could just stay upright! my second run was definitely better – i pretty much only fell when i tried to turn on my toes. i took a break after the second run, to rest my aching knees/hands/butt/body in general, and to give lauren a chance to do a run or two on the big girl trails. the rest of the day was spent in similar fashion – two runs, break, repeat. i did a few runs by myself, and by the end of the day, i actually made it down the mountain without falling a few times! granted, i spent a large portion of the descent “braking” and generally avoiding collisions, but still! i was so proud of myself, especially since i don’t particularly care for extreme sports – something about the speed and seeming lack of immediate control doesn’t sit well with me. but, i was happy to have tried it and found moderate (albeit hard-earned and painful) success! the bus ride back revealed several aches i had not yet noted, and by the time we got home, i was miiiiserable. we took baths to try and soothe our protesting muscles and joints, and were passed out by 9pm. not exactly party girls, but there was no rallying after the sheer physical exertion of that day!

after making my way home on sunday (slowly, but without the delays of thursday’s journey), i had one day to rest before heading out on my second chaperoning stint  - an overnight high school theatre festival! the festival took place in perigueux, so it wasn’t as long of a journey. my kids were performing a play that the freshmen had written, as a part of a workshop led by a local playwright earlier in the year. and, since that was a noteworthy-enough achievement, the freshmen had been invited to present their work to the audience before watching their play for the first time! we arrived around 9:30, and the kids were on stage by 11. having participated in both the school theatre productions and the local theatre company,  i was very, very interested to see the kind of theatre these groups put on. it was all, in typical french fashion, very post-modern and metaphorical, in a “theatre of the absurd” kind of way. a far cry from the musicals of my youth, to be sure. our kids performed splendidly, and i was just as impressed with the writing. we had lunch in the lobby of the theatre before heading down the street to watch what ended up being the weirdest dance performance i have ever witnessed. i couldn’t even begin to describe it adequately; suffice to say, it took “absurd” to a whole new level. there was lots of rolling around on the ground and balancing upside-down, and also a part where the dancer (a solitary woman) was naked from the waist up. talk about an american moment… i couldn’t stop myself from wondering what the reaction to that would be in the states, with a room full of minors. the rest of the day was spent watching the other schools perform their plays. my reactions ranged from pleasantly surprised to completely baffled to moderately offended. but i guess that’s what theatre is all about – creating emotion in the heart of the audience. as different as that theatre experience was from my own high school show tunes, there is one constant in the equation – teenagers. the overnight stay in the hotel was basically exactly what you’d expect from a group of 15-17 year olds left to their own devices… thankfully, everyone survived the night. all i will say is that i genuinely hope i never have to be the figure of actual authority in a situation like that. i much preferred being the cool semi-teacher that could act as a sort of go-between for the kids and the real adults. by the time the next shift of teachers showed up to take over, i was very ready to be home in my own bed!

photos from pau can be found here. this coming weekend, i’m jumping up to paris to hang out with connor (also of moroccan vacation fame!). stay tuned! :)

Monday, March 17, 2014

beir bua agus beannacht

if you take a look around the social media world today, you’ll likely be able to identify several key themes: drinking, green clothing, fake beards and comically-oversized top hats, shamrocks galore. such is the state of one of my favourite holidays – an excessively-commercialized mess of a celebration, when an entire culture gets diminished to a few caricatures and stereotypes. people who couldn’t even locate ireland on a map are suddenly popping out of the woodwork with “kiss me, i’m irish!” t-shirts and a plastic cup of diluted green beer in each hand. 

while partying with friends is all well and good, for me, saint patrick’s day is about history and family. more than any other day, st. paddy’s day always reminds me of my gran, my mom’s mom. as the granddaughter of irish immigrants on both sides of her family, she took her heritage to heart. and even though we lived on the opposite side of the country, she always made sure that my sister and i were stocked up for our celebrations – without fail, we would receive boxes of cookies, buttons that boasted an irish ancestry, some freshly-crocheted or sewn article of green clothing… i can still remember the clear, plastic boxes with the crumpled tissue paper inside, trying so hard to provide safe passage to the already-crumbling baked goods within. only a grandmother would send cookies across a continent. looking back, i can comfortably say that it was gran who instilled my love of ireland in me from an early age. growing up so far away made any contact special, and her passion for her ancestry found a comfortable home in my sensitive little heart. that curiosity has been fed by my saint of a mother, who has dedicated endless hours of research to filling in the straggly branches of the family tree. thanks to her work, i can name most of my ancestors, all the way back to the early 1800’s. with a few blank spaces left to fill, we know the birthdays, the marriage anniversaries, and the death dates of the past four generations! the combination of gran’s cultural passion and my mom’s documented support gave me a strong sense of attachment and pride in my “people” that i hold to this day.

ask anyone who has ever spent half an hour with me, and they’ll tell you – i’m a sucker for nostalgia. for better or for worse, i love reliving the past and imagining back even further. it’s why i love europe so much; the history is so alive here, so palpable in each castle wall and stone bridge. who lived in that tower? crossed that little foot bridge? nothing makes me feel so connected to the universe as standing in a place where i can almost see the passage of time whirling around me. for that same reason, i’ve always been interested in my own personal history – how did i come to be the person that i am? i love creating stories to go with the names i see on my family tree, imagining how the circumstances had to be exactly right for my great-great-great-grandparents to meet. in fact, today i learned that two of my great-great-great-grandfathers (one from each side of my mom’s family tree) lived at the same time in the same county in ireland. i cannot describe how tickled i am by the thought that they might have known each other – however unlikely that might be, it’s not that unlikely. mayo is a large county, but it’s not impossible! how i would love to have a time machine, just to go back and find them two of them, sit them down (in my fantasy, they aren’t at all disturbed by a time-traveling descendant appearing in the town), and tell them that one day, a hundred years in the future, william’s great-great-granddaughter would marry michael’s great-great-grandson, somewhere across the ocean in america. i can just see those two men laugh with the same twinkle in their eyes that my papa has now, hear my gran’s tone of amusement and wonder in the “how about that?” they’d utter with delight. few things fascinate me more than imagining the lives and loves and joys and sorrows behind the names in those little boxes..

it came as no surprise when, years after this ancestral soft spot had developed in my spirit, the irish students down the hall became some of my closest friends while studying abroad in france. the first time i went to ireland to see them, it was more than just a visit to see friends. as cliché as it may sound, i had the distinct feeling of homecoming. and as i began to meet more and more people, that sensation only became more concrete. there were moments when i swear i could feel gran smiling down on me from her little cloud in heaven, saying “see? i told you, these are your people.” and it’s true – over the last three years, i’ve been lucky enough to return several times to that magical little island, and each time, it has been harder to leave. i’ve continued to add friend after friend to a wonderful list, to the point where i could hardly count the number of faces i’d love to see during my next visit. and in fact, my next trip to ireland will be even more special, because this time, i will get to have my mom and aunt with me! i can’t wait to show them the country i’ve grown to love so much more over the last three years. they won’t need much convincing – they have the soft spot, too. it will be so lovely to share a week of bonding with them, watching them fall under the same spell that enchanted me so long ago.

while most people i know are out partying to celebrate their irish heritage, my homage came in the form of something a little more subdued. i couldn’t help but write out my feelings today – sometimes, i am overwhelmed by my nostalgia, both for my own experiences and for those of my great-great-great-grandparents. i suppose all i can say is, éirinn go brách, mo chairde. and, as my wise friend donnchadh taught me, beannachtaí na féile pádraig ort agus ar do chuid.  ireland forever, my friends. the blessings of the feast of saint patrick on you and yours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

seeing blue - morocco, part three

after a few days in fez, we moved on to our final moroccan stop – a beautiful town called chefchaouen, tucked into the mountains in the north of the country. it is most known for one unique, unifying trait common among the buildings in the old medina – back in the 30’s, jewish refugees painted most of the medina  crisp, clear powder blue. in addition to creating a calming, cool atmosphere in the heat of summer, the combination of whitewash, blue accents, and orange-tiled roofs makes for some absolutely wonderful photography. our two days in chefchaouen were spent hiking up the surrounding mountains, wandering through the streets, taking photos every six seconds, and generally relaxing. since there isn’t very much to do in the tourism department, we took advantage of the atmosphere and had a wonderfully laid-back few days. we also ate – a lot. food in morocco is really good, and really cheap, so we didn’t skimp! the final tajine we had ended up being my favourite; something about the roasted chicken and veggies, swimming in spiced oils just begging to be mopped up with the bread… and all for less than 4 euro. drool.

chefchaouen also reemphasized another observation i’d made a few times throughout my travels in morocco – as a culture, moroccans are exceptionally kind and hospitable. having remarked upon that to a few different people (our friend zakaria, the bus driver for our excursion, the hostel workers, etc), each person responded with the same explanation: it’s part of the muslim faith to be welcoming to strangers. now, as someone who makes a very conscious effort to be globally minded and accepting, i have to confess that the circumstances of my american upbringing had not instilled that preconceived notion into my mindset. consciously, i had no worries about going to morocco, but i did recognize that it was my first foray outside of the mainly judeo-christian world i’d been immersed in up until then. i could not have been more unfounded in my expectations – no matter where we went, we were immediately offered a place to sit, or at least some tea. locals were friendly and liked to chat when possible, and i never, not even once, felt any kind of hostility towards me – not based on race, religion, or even sex. (note: getting harassed in the medina is a different story – that’s part of the market culture, and not, i believe, indicative of moroccan culture as a whole.) we had conversations about religious differences that i would have paid dearly to record and show to certain people back home – i’ve heard much worse come out of the mouths of self-proclaimed christians. but that’s a whole different issue, and i’ll go ahead and step down off my soap box…

after chefchaouen, it was time to head back to europe. during the planning of this trip, the history nerd in me had developed a sort of fixation on crossing the strait of gibraltar in a boat. i just couldn’t get over the amount of history – real, literary, mythological. that 8 mile stretch of water could be argued as the most significant water passage in the world, and i wanted to cross it! so, we took another (very, very uncomfortable and unpleasant 4 hour long) bus ride from chefchaouen to tangier, where we boarded the ferry and bobbed our way between continents. it’s amazing to realize just how close spain and morocco are at that point – you can see one continent from the other, even on a hazy day. the crossing was uneventful (except for my nerding out), and we arrived back in europe without much fanfare… except i could feel my wallet shriveling back up after the wonderful dirham. alas. with great luck, we made it from the port to the bus station exactly one minute before the bus we needed to be on was scheduled to depart, and so there was pretty much no waiting around in between modes of transportation! another 3 hours saw us pulling into sevilla, our “post-africa, reacclimation to europe” spot. 

all in all, we were in sevilla for about 36 hours – not nearly enough to really even count having been there, but a nice treat on the back end of our trip! after the insanely long and complex travel day we had on friday, it was all we could muster to meet a few people on our hostel rooftop, eat some paella, and have a little night cap before crashing into bed.  our full day on saturday was a lovely example of what a “spanish day” should be. first, we appreciated the monuments and visited the cathedral and the alcazar in the morning – i loved seeing the amount of detailing in the stone carving and tile so present throughout the city. after our historical touring, we enjoyed a nice, laid-back lunch of tapas and sangria, followed by some gelato in the early afternoon. then, we followed the spanish example and took our siesta in the mid-afternoon… a much-needed and welcomed pause. our big treat on saturday was a visit to the “world’s only” flamenco museum, located just down the street from our hostel. we got a private tour through the museum, and then had the opportunity to see two professional dancers do an hour performance in the museum. my thighs were burning just watching all the tiny, intricate movements – it’s no wonder those dancers were 100% muscle! such an incredibly passionate and emotive dance; we loved it! we finished the night with some pasta in the hostel and some hang-out-time with some of the other travelers. but it was early to bed again – no rest for the weary!

first thing sunday morning, we made our way to the airport, for an 8am flight to toulouse. originally, we had planned on staying in toulouse with a friend of lauren’s… but the moment i stepped foot back on french soil, i just wanted to be home. so, i did a little impromptu train research and ended up heading home a day early! what’s another 5 hours on the train, really. my guardian angel friend mathilde came to pick me up from the train station in perigueux, and i was home in time for a late dinner and my beeeed! in keeping with my previous travels, i was happy to be home, so i could finally relax after all that vacation! :) aaand that’s the end of my moroccan adventure – in a word, wonderful. pictures from chefchaouen and sevilla are here (starting at 148)!

camel friends and exfoliation - morocco, part two

oookay, let’s get this second installment going!

as a precursor to this next bit, let me just say that, generally, i stay as far away from guided tours as i possibly can. in nearly every circumstance, i prefer to do the planning myself and enjoy every moment of the exploration once i get to a new place… but i had one item on my moroccan must-do list that was basically impossible for me to accomplish without paying some kind of professional, and that was to ride a camel. preferably in the saharan desert. so, early in the morning on our third day in marrakech, lauren and i crept down the dark stairs of our hotel and waited for the quiet knock of our tour company’s representative, who was sent to retrieve us. we followed him down the street to the plaza where all the tour vans were parked, waiting for the droves of tourists who were leaving that day on various excursions. after a slight hiccup with the number of passengers in our first van (no, 16 people is not the same as 15, and no, you cannot just “squeeze” in the back), we joined a different group and started to get acquainted with our new friends. there were three germen men, two chinese guys, an italian couple (shout out to fred and maria vittoria!), an indian girl, a girl from vancouver, and us. we’d chosen the two day / one night excursion, which ended up meaning a whole lot of van time and not much outside time… you live and you learn, i guess. but when you’re driving through the high atlas mountains, a view from the window is still pretty awe-inspiring! 

we stopped a few times on the way out to the desert, most notably at the fortified city of ait ben haddou – famous for being the city to film any movie with a middle eastern / african / sometimes ancient roman vibe. we’re talking lawrence of arabia, prince of persia, gladiator, even game of thrones… and despite all that, the handful of families that still live in this ancient kasbah do so without running water or electricity. after that afternoon spot, we high-tailed it out to the city of zagora, which was our last stop in “civilization” before the camel portion of our trek. when we pulled up to the dirt lot where our camels were waiting, about five miles outside of zagora, i felt this little twinge of excitement – one of those “i am about to do this, and it is something awesome” feelings. we loaded up the “saddle” bags (woven bags draped on either side of a few camels) and hopped up. and i say “hopped” because i literally had to jump a little bit, even with the camel kneeling down… those things are enormous! when mine finally stood up, my head was about 15 feet off the ground. which was slightly disconcerting at first, but the awesome vantage point it gave me to look out over the expansive landscape quickly outweighed any uneasiness i felt. and to top it off, we set out to our camp just as the sun was setting, which was a miraculously beautiful sight. the camel trek lasted about an hour and a half, which meant that by the end of it, the sky was pitch black in all directions, and filled with more stars that i have ever seen. we saw a few lights off in the distance, but eventually, we were walking towards one tiny glow on the horizon, and i felt like i was almost riding through the sky. the fact that our guide knew exactly where to walk in the dark like that was incredible. 

when we arrived at the camp, we put our bags in the tents and sat for a bit of mint tea. then, the other guides had dinner waiting (harira soup and tajines, what else) so we spent the evening socializing around the tables, first with food and then with hookahs, before eventually moving outside to listen to some berber music around the campfire. in the morning, i woke up eaaaarly to watch the sun rise over the dunes by myself… and it was arguably even more breathtaking than the sunset. the light was so soft and everything had a sort of magical glow about it; the pictures did not do it justice. once everyone else in the camp had woken up, we had a quick breakfast of leftover bread and jam, with the ever-present mint tea, and then loaded up the camels for the return journey. i enjoyed soaking up the sounds and sights of the waking desert as we made our way to the rendez-vous point. from there, it was van time basically all the way back to marrakech! after a little refresh in the hostel room, lauren and i went and got dinner and tea with the italian couple, which was so fun! they are wonderful, and we had a great time talking for several hours – a fabulous way to end our time in marrakech!

after a comical, three-stooges-esque train ride (let’s just say the concept of a train “selling out” doesn’t exist, and neither does personal space, or personal hygiene), the next stop was fez, the cultural and spiritual capital of morocco; it also has one of the oldest and largest medinas in africa, and boasts several universities, one of which is certified by UNESCO as the oldest in the world! we stayed with a friend of connor’s, in a super cool riad tucked into the medina. ethan and his housemates were, like everyone else we encountered in morocco, exceedingly hospitable and generous. we had a blast getting to know them during our short stay – cooking dinner together, trying new restaurants (i highly recommend café clock if you’re ever in fez), and exploring the medina… which is absolutely enormous, and rather confusing until you get the hang of it. while we were only there for two full days, i really got the feeling that fez was the most “authentic” place we went. of course, there are plenty of tourists, but as you walk around the souk in the evening, you can see everyone going about their daily lives – buying food for dinner, greeting their neighbors, coming in and out of the mosques. it seemed less like a tourist trap (like marrakech) and more just like a glimpse into the inner workings of a city that has stood the tests of time. 

i also had the distinct realization in fez that moroccan culture, like so many other cultures in the world, is decidedly not one of waste. especially in the food/animal department… when a sheep is slaughtered, for example, the wool is used to make fabric, the skin is used for the leather goods you see for sale in the medina, the meat is sent a few streets over to the butcher stalls, and even the innards are given to the cats that roam the streets. it seems gruesome at first, when you spot a pile of skins, or a row of whatever body part (heads were particularly disconcerting), or a cat nibbling on some intestines… but then, it becomes almost comforting. i found myself enjoying the peace of mind that comes from watching the butcher grind your meat in front of you – there can be no questions as to what went into that kilo of kefta. and the leather flats that you buy haven’t moved more than 50 meters in their little, inanimate lives, because the tannery is just around the corner and the man you just paid is the man who made those shoes, probably a just few days before. it’s a far cry from the distanced, thoughtless consumerism we have in america, in all the best ways.

the coolest thing we did in fez, though, was going to the hammam. a hammam is a traditional public bathhouse… and talk about a real, moroccan experience. we got up close and personal with a steaming room full of mostly (if not completely) naked women, and had the top layer of skin basically stripped from our bodies in the process. the hammam is an interesting way to see the other side of the relatively conservative culture of the outside world. inside the safety of the hammam doors (there are no men inside during female hours, and vice versa), the women are free to show parts of themselves that never see the light of day. and i noticed that there was basically no evidence of any kind of self-conscious body language; the overall attitude was just, “yep, we’re all ladies here, we have the same parts, it doesn’t matter how they’re shaped.” if only just for that reason, it was something you’d never see in the states, and it was a really nice feeling. the other important service the hammam provides is purely social – for some of the women, it’s their only outing for the week, and they take advantage of the total freedom of expression that the privacy offers to chat freely with their friends and neighbors. plus, on top of all that, you get SO clean. despite the kind of grimy atmosphere (a very, very hot tile room constantly sloshed with water that you draw in buckets from a tub, the soap/skin/whatever else running off bodies onto the floor where you’re sitting), i have never felt so exfoliated and clean. we paid the extra few dirhams to have the resident hammam lady scrub us with the little black mitts we’d bought earlier… and she did not mess around. i was glowing like a lobster by the end of it, but it felt great! she also washed and brushed my hair for me, which is my #1 favourite thing. so, all in all, a fantastically entertaining and eye-opening experience.

i keep writing too much!! this will have to do for now – the final part will follow! pictures from this installment are here, beginning with number 67!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

no hashuma - morocco, part one

hello again, friends!

i know it’s been a while… lots to catch you up on! i didn’t mention it at the end of my last blog, but i had another break for the second half of february (life is tough here) – hence, the radio silence. buckle in for a fun recap of the last three weeks!

but first, a little back story. last november, i did something slightly outside of my normal comfort zone; i bought a ticket to africa, to go visit a friend i’d never met in person, who is living and teaching in morocco as a fulbright fellow. sounds like the perfect setting for one of those internet catfishing horror stories, but we had been chatting on facebook for months, and had even started talking on skype at that point…. plus, i really wanted to go to morocco! besides, this year is all about challenging myself and stepping outside of my little glass box. so, i took that leap of faith while the tickets were still cheap! fast-forward three months, and my friend and i were skyping almost daily, thus alleviating basically all of my albeit-slight discomfort about flying to a different continent to stay with a stranger.  another contributing factor was the fact that another assistant in my region, lauren, saw my post about going to morocco and asked if i wanted to travel together. we skyped a few times and organized ourselves on a googledoc… in fairness, she took an even greater leap of faith, considering the fact that she’d never spoken to connor and we’d only talked a few times! but, it was another situation of starting out as strangers and ending up feeling like life-long friends!

by the time my departure rolled around, i was absolutely beside myself with excitement. i couldn’t wait to add another country (and continent!) to my growing list – especially one with such a vibrant culture as morocco. i also couldn’t wait to get to hang out with my new friends in person, as opposed to seeing them on my computer screen! getting to morocco was no mean feat – i took the train on a thursday afternoon up to paris, slept in the charles de gaulle airport, and then caught a 6am flight to agadir. staying overnight in an airport is a very interesting experience... you definitely get a whole new level of people watching. in retrospect, i should have gone through security when i got there at 10pm, because there were couches at the gates! i spent the night curled awkwardly between two metal arm rests, dozing in between the rounds of floor buffing / waxing that were happening around me. le sigh. but, i fell asleep almost instantly on the plane (even before the takeoff – unheard of, for me!) and slept for nearly the entire flight. so, all in all… a free night in paris! arriving in morocco was magical, because it was SUNNY! i hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, due to the incessant rain in central france. i immediately felt my vitamin d count start to rise, and with it, my spirits. i spent the rest of the trip trying my hardest to soak up as much sun as possible, and i have the freckles to show for it now!

my first stop was agadir, a southern city on the coast. connor is living there for the school year, teaching in the university. it was so fun to finally meet in person – one of those surreal “i don’t know you, but i do” kind of feelings. a few quick games of bananagrams quickly dispelled any potential awkwardness, followed by a warm nap on the rooftop terrace. the first afternoon, two of connor’s friends took us up to a surf town about thirty minutes away called taghazout, where i got to try surfing for the second time in my life. it’s still really hard, but so invigorating! we had a wonderful time exploring the beaches and enjoying my first (but certainly not last) glass of fresh mint tea. we didn’t do much “tourism” in agadir, as there is not too much to do (unless you’re staying at one of the several beach resorts). mainly, i just got to hang out with connor and his housemates and enjoy having new friends.  when lauren arrived two days later, we cooked a big mexican fajita feast for the house and sat up talking late into the night. it was a great way to ease back into social interaction, after the isolation of my normal life!

monday morning, lauren, connor, and i piled onto a big bus and headed up the coast, to a town called essaouira. we only stayed for a few days, but it ended up being one of my favourite places in morocco – a little oceanside town with a fun souk (market) and incredibly nice people. everyone from the hostel workers to the people next to us at our breakfast café seemed eager to welcome us to their country and make us feel at home. i fell in love with the textures and colours on constant display in the souk stalls: rugs, ceramics, leather goods, metal work, fresh food… you name it. even the physical buildings contributed to the aesthetic, with the warm oranges and browns standing in contrast to the brightly coloured doors and the crisp whitewash, all backed by an endless blue sky. while in essaouira, we met a moroccan student from marrakech named zakaria, who ended up being one of the highlights of our trip! we shared a fun afternoon together, jamming on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean, with a few other café friends – it was the first of many opportunities for philosophical discussion of culture and humanity, and i certainly cherish that memory already! in the souk, lauren and i had our first real introduction to bargaining, and got some pretty sweet deals on a few souvenirs and gifts (mainly thanks to connor, let’s be honest). the downside of the souk wandering is definitely all the catcalling – as foreign women, we had quite the array of phrases thrown our way, from “ohh beautiful!” to “hey, harry potter!” (my glasses) and “hannah montana!” (no clue). there were others that were much more unpleasant. honestly, though, with a decent sense of humour and a thick skin, it is not intolerable. you just have to write it off as part of the culture and let it slide off your back… and also, keeping a list of the best lines and laughing over it later doesn’t hurt!

another three hour bus ride brought us inland to what could arguably be morocco’s biggest party city. true to its reputation, marrakech was decidedly more tourist-oriented; certainly a big change from little essaouira. thankfully, we had zakaria as the best tour guide imaginable, so we got to experience the souk and surrounding area in a slightly more authentic way (read: we didn’t get harassed or ripped off, because we were with a moroccan). the enormous main plaza, place jema al fnae, is known as one of the biggest night-time spots in europe, and i can attest to that. it was absolutely teeming with people – eating at the food stalls, watching street performers, selling various trinkets, generally loitering… the introvert in me was definitely overwhelmed with the sheer number of people, but it was fascinating to see. despite the inundation of foreigners and locals alike, i did love walking around the twisty medina streets and simply taking photos; i have never been so visually inspired in my life! the catcalling was much worse in marrakech, and much worse when it was just me and lauren, without the boys. we got a couple marriage proposals (one including camels!), several creepy “oh wow/nice/beautiful/spicy” murmurs, and countless “hello/bonjour/hola” greetings (i suppose i could pass for spanish). thankfully, morocco still uses french as the language of tourism (thanks, french protectorat!), so we got by just fine, but picking up a few words in the local dialect, darija, made our experience much more comfortable! once you learn how to say “no, thank you” in arabic to the men trying to direct you into their stalls to view their purses/lamps/shoes/scarves/etc, it becomes easier to just keep on walking…

i actually think i’ll cut myself off here, because i’m only halfway through and already waaaay over my average word count… so, installment two should be up soon! in the meantime, here are the pictures from my trip, starting at photo 19! :)