Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land

“Just go straight for a few hundred meters, then turn right, and your hostel will be there.” This is what the Moroccan taxi driver told us, in French, when could could go no further into the medina. From the moment Patricia and I stepped out of the car, it was all too obvious that we were no longer in Europe: the smells, the streets, the sounds of an unfamiliar foreign language blended with the noise of goats and motorcycles and the stares coming from the faces of locals who could sense our states of confusion quickly overloaded my senses. Moroccan cities are not easy to navigate around, they are centuries and centuries old, with many small, nameless streets leading to nowhere, sketchy neighborhoods, or back to where you started. Think: "Assasin´s Creed" or "Aladin". So after looking helplessly lost for a few minutes, a man walked us to our Riad (Moroccan hostel).

We were only going to be in Morocco for 4 days, and we had planned to spend each day in a different city. The cities we decided upon were Marrakech, Fes, Chefchaouen, and Tetouan.


Hot. Our riad was conveniently situated in the Medina (a medina is the old neighborhood, where the market and shops are), so everything we wanted to do was within walking distance. However, walking around these old neighborhoods is like navigating through huge laberynths and so we spent a lot of time being lost. But once we found our destinations, it was well worth the frustration. Especially when we found food, because Moroccan cuisine is fantastic (we ate a lot of cous cous and tajine) and rediculously cheap. It was all smooth sailing until the sun went down and we found ourselves in unfamiliar settings. After about an hour of walking in circles, we made it to the neighborhood where our riad was located, only to be led astray by a bunch of little Moroccan hoodlems who were around 10 years old and tried to tell us where our hostel was. When we finally found our Riad I took the best shower of my life.


Fes is another big (and thus confusing) city in Morocco, which boasts a massive medina conprised of an even more complex system of streets than Marrakech. However, if I were to return to Morocco, I would definitely plan to stay longer in this city because it is more or less what I had expected when I pictured the country in my mind prior to going. There are markets and people everywhere trying to sell you the same stuff as the guy across the street, and the smell of trash blended with fine, potent spices provides one with an excellent sense of third-worldness. Also, Fes is home to the oldest university in the world (sorry England) and a famous tannery, which we were able to peek inside of for free.

Maybe the biggest surprise about Morocco were the people, while Muslims may get a bad reputation, these people are super friendly, and at times they seem too friendly. In fact, I am tempted to say as a whole, Moroccans are the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Again, the the Riad that we stayed at was like a museum/mosque/palace and we were treated like royalty.


Chefchaouen is a must-stop if you are travelling through Morocco. It's a small town tucked away in the moutains in the north of Morocco and get this: it is painted blue. That's right, the entire center/medina part of the city is painted a royal blue; probably the most photogenic place I have been to in the third world. However, in Chefchaouen we didn't stay in a riad, no no no, we decided to stay at the home of a Scottish expat. His place was called "Ri-For-Anyone" (refer for anyone). If you didn't get the pun automatically don't feel bad, neither did Patria or I. It was not until our host started to roll a hash joint while we were filling out our passport info and we saw everyone else doing the same that it his us. Basically, the local farmers gives this guy free hash and he gives it to people staying at his hostel/home for free. He and his wife are basically baked throughout the day, and everyone we met that was staying there had either been there for weeks or was planning on being there for weeks (could you really blame them?). However, they were super nice people and waking up to the wife blowing down a fatty and cooking you cheese eggs isn't all that bad isn't the worst thing in the world. And even though it was pretty tempting to just chill with them, we spent most of our time within the blue city walls. Hands-down my favorite place in Morocco.


So Patricia has this friend, Omar, whose family is from Morocco and lives in Tetouan. At first, we were going to pass through and just say "hi" because Patricia had never met them, however they decided to display the Moroccan hospitality and they invited us to stay the night with them. The parents cooked us traditional food, Omar's brother showed us around the city and medina-he even bought us moroccan shoes and patricia a dress!-before meeting up with his wife and taking us to Rincon, a nearby beach. This is where we decided to act like models and take a lot of photos before eating freshly grilled sardines. The next morning, another brother of Omar's privately escorted us through the border because the Spanish border-control was on strike (surprise!) and the border was like something from "Children of Men." I might still be in Morocco if it weren't for his help.

I am writing this from Munich. Clay arrived yesterday and tomorrow we are heading to Austria. We are already having way too much fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cod Fish Balls and Green Wine

So to kick off our 1-week trip, Patricia and I decided to head to Portugal for a couple days. I had been to Lisbon a few years ago with my family but nevertheless I was very eager to return to this coastal city which I had instantly fallen in love with.

This experience was quite different, having a basic understanding of the city already allowed me and Patricia-who had been there in the past as well-to move around with relative ease and confidence, only to find ourselves getting turned around a couple times. Also, with a Brazilian family background, Patricia knows Portuguese fairly well which made the experience even better and more authentic. The first day we spent in the Belem neighborhood, situated on the coast. We had 'pasteis de nata'-a popular pastry dish-at a restaurant called Pasteis de Belem; basically the Lisbon version of Cafe du Monde. After that we had a fish and rice soup and a thick, mushy/stu-like shrimp dish, both typical in the region. I washed it down with Super Bock, the pride of Portuguese beer and probably the best unknown secret of European brews (it has several European records-look it up). The second day, we decided to leave the city altogether...

When Patricia was in Lisbon a few months back, she met a Portuguese dude named Thelmo at the hostel she was staying at. Being that he seemed like a cool cat they decided to exchange info in case she were to return to Portugal or he were to make it over to Spain. Luckily for us, he was off work for a couple days and was more than willing to take two Americans to a little town about 30 minutes away which he thought we would like. The town was called Sintra, and I am pretty sure that Alice would liken it to Wonderland.

We started by hiking our way up to an old Moorish Palace (which Thelmo was proud to say that Portugal was able to conquer, despite its excellent strategic location) and then we walked around the 'park' which surrounds it. This beautiful property was literally fit for the king and royalty, and consists of a huge, beautiful and fairytale-like forest, lakes, watchtowers, swans and very confusing paths. We only had time for a few hours here, which unfortunately is not sufficient to see everything, so I look forward to returning in the future to explore that which we were unable to this time.

Returning to Lisbon we had worked up a well-deserved appetite, so we opted to eat in an old neighborhood called Bairro Alto (high neighborhood) which is located on one of Lisbon's hills. It is known for its outdoor dining, Fado clubs, beautiful views of the city, and also its poverty and crime. After weaving our way through the touristy restaurants at the bottom, for those unwilling to climb the hill, and the invitations of owners in the streets to dine at their "very authentic" spots, we found a nice little place that was grilling sardines in the street (they are in season) and couldn't resist. They were hands down the best sardines I have ever had (note: never liked sardines before coming to Europe) and their tastiness was equalled only by Patricia's freshly grilled salmon. We ended the night drinking daqueries at a hoppin Mexican side bar which was surprisingly packed.

Our last day we pretty much spent walking around the main part of town which consists of giant plazas-including the Plaza Comercio, the entrance to the city which boasts one of my favorite European statues-outdoor cafes, bakeries and dozens of people trying to sell you hash and tour bus passes. We ate cod-fish balls, which is a fancy name for fried cod fish, and walked around the old neighborhood where the castle is situated overlooking the city. However, being that we had both visited the castle before, we decided to go to a little wine and cheese cafe that Patricia had visited earlier this year with her friend. Good call, trisha. It was here that we enjoyed a plate of odd cheese assortments, ham, potruguese olives (hands-down the best olives in the world), jam, and Portuguese green wine. That's right, green wine (it's just kinda like a darker white wine, only you feel much cooler when drinking it). Being the generous host that that barman Nuno was, he then offered us a dessert and some 40-year-old Portuguese liquor to wash it down with. It was quite the appropriate end to our 2-day adventure in what is quite possibly my favorite European country. Overlooked by most, Portugal is the only country I have revisited in Europe, and is among the handful of places that I plan to return to throughout my life...everytime I go it just gets better.

Unfortunately, pics will not be able to be posted until I get back to the states. However, I made it back from Morocco alive and well and my Listening Wind entry about that will be coming soon so stay posted.