Travel Blogger Relay: Top Three Travel Moments

It seems silly to write this post only a few weeks after writing about my favorite places in the world, but I felt compelled to take the challenge Low Cost Holidays proposed in choosing your three top travel moments in their travel blogger relay (because only three? Impossible!) So when Lauren of Lateral Movements passed me the baton on the Green team, I joined team captains Erica and Shaun from Over Yonderlust, and picked out three travel moments that stand out pretty vividly.

1. Dancing with artisan rug weavers in the mountains of Midelt, Morocco

About ten American women and I came to Morocco with Nest, a non-profit organization that helps women artists in developing countries. After a six hour bus ride through the mountains of Fez, we are greeted at someone’s home by a group of Muslim women with head coverings, long skirts and some with long grey tattoos down the middle of their faces. I’m told this tattoo is an ancient Berber symbol for marriage. They kiss us twice on each cheek and seat us around three large tables where we are served chicken, bread, cous cous, carrots, and fruit. After dinner, we see the women bring out a few brightly colored handheld drums. The music, dancing and singing begins, and this Jewish white girl finds herself in the home of traditional Muslim women, dancing with her friends and family the way she does with her roommates back in New York. At some point in between a woman teaching me how to do their shrieking technique and playing with another’s little girl, I remembered why I came here, and why I need to continue taking trips like this.

2. Listening to Fado music with locals in Portugal

The concierge at our hotel who we had befriended over our week long stay invited us on our last night in Portugal to see him play guitar with his traditional Fado group. We met Ricardo and his wife Elena at the restaurant where this took place, and Elena sat with us as Ricardo went to set up his guitar with the other musicians. It was a small restaurant, with only about 10 tables inside. Everyone in this restaurant clearly knew each other very well and looked at us quizzically, wondering why these foreign strangers had come to join in their weekly Fado tradition. Elena introduced us to our waitress, Matilda, and then suggested we order the cod. I was so sick of cod by this point in the trip, but it seemed rude to decline her suggestion. Before the music started, Elena prepared us for exactly what was about to happen, which we were so grateful for. The tradition of playing Fado music is very different than anything I’ve seen in America. The closest form of music I can compare it to is opera. After our meal was served, the lights in the restaurant were dimmed, everyone went completely quiet and the four men softly began playing their Fado guitars – these beautiful, round bodied string instruments. A man from the audience stood up and began singing a slow, emotional tune, which I was fascinated by, but Elena whispered to us that he was one of the worst Fado singers in their group. Other singers from the audience took their turns, performing about three songs each. Then, to our surprise, our waitress, Matilda, took her turn. Once this petite woman began singing such an emotional, moving piece, I finally understood why Fado was such an incredible art form. She put her entire soul into this performance, conducting the entire thing with her eyes closed, and bringing the entire restaurant to tears. Elena told me that earlier this year, Matilda had lost her husband to cancer, and this was her way of expressing her grief. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could feel how much Matilda ached by listening to her song. We eventually finished our meal and said goodbye to the group, and Ricardo and Elena drove us back to the hotel. We hugged them and thanked them profusely for giving us this amazing, truly unique and authentic Portugese experience on our last night in Lisbon.

3. Enjoying steak, wine, olive oil bread and spectacular scenery at O’Fournier Winery in Argentina’s Uco Valley

I never wanted to leave here. As soon as we arrived at this massive Argentinian winery and sat down to our meal and wine tasting, we looked out at the lake, which reflected the vineyards that had turned a gorgeous vibrant red in the fall just below the monumental Andes mountains. The evening before, I had developed an obsession with the olive oil bread that we were served at what was named the best restaurant in Argentina, Nadia O.F. And Nadia’s husband was the owner of the winery we were currently touring. To my extreme delight, we were once again served the delicious olive oil bread, along with a flight of rich, full bodied wines. To top it off, I was then served what I truly believe was the best steak of my life. I don’t know why two of my top three travel moments took place on the last day of my trip – maybe it’s the necessity to cling to those last remaining moments of vacation before departing for home, or maybe I was just really lucky to have these grand finales at the end of each journey. I do know that thinking back to that last day in Argentina, to be sitting in that experience, eating delicious food and drinking amazing wine, staring out at surreal scenery (oh did I mention the clouds were irradescent?) is a memory I will always cherish.

And now for the last step in the relay, I pass the baton to the one and only Condor Kristen! Go girl go! Make us proud!

Advertisements

How My Friends and Family Inspired Me When I Returned From Morocco

Adjusting back to the U.S. after our amazing journey to Morocco went more smoothly than anticipated. The transition was made easier by the enthusiasm my friends and family showed in listening to me go on and on about my trip, looking through hundreds of photos, and reading the in-depth recaps I posted on this site.

But I couldn’t have expected how much the people around me were about to surprise, overwhelm, shock and inspire me two weeks after my return. Remember that fundraiser we talked about doing for Rachida so she could rebuild her house and her loom that were lost in the fire? Well, that fundraiser went live on our website on May 3rd. I sent around an email to my friends and family, telling them about Rachida and what had happened, and asked them to throw in a little money towards rebuilding if they could.

A little more than 24 hours later, I was astounded by the generosity these people showed. By May 4th, we had raised enough money to rebuild Rachida’s home, and more than half of those funds came from my friends and family – my two amazing roommates and some of my favorite brides-to-be, my incredible mother, and even an old friend in St. Louis. Even a dear friend in danger of losing her job contributed. A few ex boyfriends even kicked in some cash – and donated very generous amounts! You never know who will come through and rally together when you believe in a wonderful cause that has genuinely touched all our lives.

Needless to say, I’m incredibly lucky to surround myself with these people every day, and they’ve certainly made the post-Moroccan transition much more bearable.

Morocco, Day 10 – Marrakesh to New York

The last night in Morocco, we sit down to dinner and talk about our trip highlights. Every single person reminisces about a memory they had with a loan recipient, either in Brian’s village of Midelt, Tim’s village of Tigmijou, or meeting Naima from Khenifra at the craft fair. I talked to Brian on the bus earlier that evening, about what he would do when he gets back to the US. He wants to go to business school, or maybe work for US Aid. I can’t imagine what it will be like for him to come back to the US and assimilate after spending so much time in this beautiful place, adapting to Moroccan culture for so many years. I’m worried about how I’m going to adjust after only ten days.

We say our goodbyes after breakfast and leave for the Marrakesh airport. The airport is filled with stranded European travelers. Joya’s boarding pass reads “Joshua,” but she gets through security anyway.

About ten hours later, I’m looking out the window of the plane as we pass over Long Island. I’m not sure I’m ready for this. We’re landing at JFK in ten minutes and I know I won’t be happy to go back to real life, to work, to the materialistic culture of NYC. But even here at home, I still have Nest. And I need to keep this experience close over the next few weeks…and for the rest of my life. Knowing what I do, when I’m running around the city trying to get restaurants to donate food to our event, when I’m stressing out trying to convince venues to host our event at no cost, I have to sit back and remember that every little effort we make helps the women we personally met here, who invited us into their homes and broke bread with us – knowing what we do every day helps them and people like them – that will make the post vacation transition more bearable, and will bring me back to how I felt in Morocco. This is why I do this, why all these amazing people around the world have come together for this cause. This trip made me realize that I’m living my dream, and helping others do the same.

Morocco, Day 9 – Tigmijou

April 19 – It is a rough morning. We’re all feeling the effects of the night before, and Joya almost kills me when I open the window to light the room (to find the advil and antacids). We go upstairs to breakfast on the roof and scarf down croissants, yogurt, crepes and assorted pastries. Joya and Kate want to order five more rounds of coffee, but I need air. I go to stand at the railing where I’m looking out at the ocean. I spend about a half hour out there, enjoying the beauty of the scenery in front of me. I can’t remember when I last felt this peaceful. I try to etch this morning into my memory so I can revisit it for years to come.

I finally pull myself away from this scene to go with Rebecca, Kate, Joya and the boys to the souk to buy olives, fruits and nuts to give the women of TIgmijou – they want to serve us food when we visit, but they don’t have the means to provide enough food to our group of 14. I buy a package of bracelets to give out to the girls and young children of this village. We spend the rest of our morning walking on the beach, looking at the camels and horses around us, taking in a view of the “castle in the sand” Jimi Hendrix supposedly wrote the song after, Joya riding a horse on the beach and some seashell collecting, we sit down to an outdoor lunch of mixed salads and tea.

The road to Tigmijou is incredibly scenic, with rolling hills and wildflowers of red, yellow and purple. The village is small, with four little clusters of houses. Tim lives in a house on a hill, a little removed from the rest of the village. We see three teenage girls giggling at us as we walk up the path to his house. We can’t go inside because it seems as though his roof has fallen over in the week he’s been gone. We walk through a meadow to get to the house of the family we’re going to visit. Along the walk, we pass a stray donkey grazing in the meadow. We enter a hut, built in the same Moroccan style of homes and guest houses we’ve been seeing – a structure with an open courtyard in the middle. Upon peering into the home, we see two young children – a boy and a girl, giggling and laughing and running up to us, then bashfully running away when we wave and smile at them. We enter into the courtyard and introduce ourselves to the women, kissing them twice on each cheek. We peer into one dark room where a woman is sitting at her loom, already strung. She is rapidly weaving the water reeds through the loom. Hicham, Tim’s young artisan who we met at the craft fair, says hello to all of us and Tim explains that all these people are part of Hicham’s family. We peer into their bedroom, with no door and rugs laid out for them to sleep on. The next room is the storage room, filled with these magnificent, completed water reed bags. We sell them back in the U.S. as market bags. My mother will purchase four of these bags from Nest’s website after hearing this story.

We enter another room off the courtyard, removing our shoes first. We sit around a bench with cushions and the women bring us the olives and fruits we purchased in Essouria. They also bring us bread and olive oil. I’m on the far side of the room – most of the women are sitting at the other end of the room near Tim and Brian, the only Arabic speaking people in the group. One of the family members comes over and sits near me. She starts breaking the bread and motioning for me to eat. I take a bite and say “beneen,” one of the two Arabic words I’ve learned – meaning delicious. The little toddler girl walks into the room and bursts into giggles. Everyone is laughing and smiling at her. The woman next to me is also laughing, and we exchange a glance, which sends us into a whole new fit of laughter. She tells me to eat more and I obey. I point to a water reed bag sitting next to her and ask if she made it (using hand motions). She nods and smiles. A child’s laughter, food, art, these are all universally appreciated. I couldn’t verbally communicate with this woman, but we were able to carry out an entire conversation while eating in her home.

Tim goes around and tells us about each of the women, how they are all related, and explains that they have a wedding to go to that evening because one of the girls from their town is marrying a man from the next village. When we’re done, we all walk out of the room, slip back into our shoes, and the women lead us to another house with a loom in it. I give out bracelets as we pass little girls and teenagers on our walk through another field of wildflowers. We take a quick look at the loom, but our driver is getting angry that we’ve taken too long, and threatens to leave without us if we don’t get on the bus immediately. He actually begins removing our bags from the bus at one point. Moroccans make their own rules. We say goodbye to the women, apologizing for our abrupt departure, and as we pile onto the bus a group of small boys laugh and bully each other as they watch us. Again, behaviors that transcend languages and continents.



Morocco, Day 8 – Essouria

April 18th – Today we leave Marrakesh to visit Essouria in the south, a lovely beach town close to Tim’s remote village of Tigmijou. The three hour ride seems insanely short after the previous seven hour journeys up and down the mountains. We arrive in Essouria and once again are staying in a beautiful Riad. We go up to our room and look out the windows in the hall to see ocean and waves crashing on rocks and jetties stretching out from the coast here on the other side of the Atlantic. We go up to the roof and find an even more amazing view – looking out to the ocean on three sides, with the colorful rooftops of the city behind us.

We go out into the town and sit down at a seafood stand on the water. This stand has a display of raw fish, which I can’t stand the smell of. I’m slightly hesitant to eat here. I sit down with the rest of the group and soon find myself digging meat out of odd looking types of shellfish, some unidentifiable, but all delicious. We eat grilled calamari and sea bass fresh from the ocean next to us. I even muster up the courage to try sea urchin. After lunch, we walk around the town and pop into the small shops we see. Rebecca is having a tough time bargaining over a lantern she really wants. We stop at a rooftop wine bar to enjoy the sunset. We spot Tim and Brian sitting on the sea wall, enjoying the same view. A group of Irish people next to our table ask if we’re also stuck in Essouria because of the airport situation in Europe. We comment that it wouldn’t be tragic to find ourselves stuck here for a few extra days.

After dinner, we go back to the hotel with several bottles of wine and head up to the roof. The stars and the ocean provide an incredible setting for this late night gathering. Kate, Joya, Rebecca and I lay out on lawn chairs. We light candles so there’s a bit more illumination than just the stars. At one point, Rebecca pulls me aside and says how appreciative she is of all the work I do for Nest year round. I get a little teary eyed as she talks. It sounds stupid, but I never truly took the time to think about how what we do affects the people we’ve met here. As we go through the process of planning an event back in the U.S., I’m not thinking as I try to secure food sponsors about the woman who will send her child to school because of that event. I never stop to think about the effect one person can have, and the effect I’ve personally had over the years. I guess I should’ve realized this two years ago, when Rebecca asked me to step up as president of the NYC board, but it’s not until now that I’m really seeing the big picture. I’ve always thought of Nest as my hobby, something I can feel good about doing in my spare time, and truly proud to be part of it, but it’s not often enough that I stop to think about the difference we make across the globe.

We walk back to the group and Han gives me and Rebecca a huge hug. Rebecca comments that she loves how most Nest people are huggers. I remark that I’m usually not this touchy feely with people. They laugh and I think about how emotional I’ve gotten during this trip, particularly tonight, and I assume it must be the atmosphere, the vacation, the wine, or the overall sense of connection to the women we’ve spent so much time with on this trip, both Moroccan and American.

Morocco, Day 7 – The Farm

April 17th – We sit by the pool until it’s time to head to Ben’s farm. We take the fifteen minute journey down a winding dirt road and have to get out and walk the last mile because our bus won’t fit on this path anymore. We arrive and are greeted by two black labs. We go inside the magnificent, brightly painted yellow gate, to see olive trees extending as far as we can see, with horses, chickens and black labs milling around the front area. They all seemed to roam freely together, and aside from a few animals, none were really caged in separate areas or locked up in pens or barns.

The first thing we do is make lunch. Ben serves us goat cheese with bread and olive oil, which we eat at an outdoor wooden picnic table. When we’re done, Ben brings us some fresh vegetables from the garden – zucchini, spinach, carrots, squash, red peppers and potatoes. We all pitch in washing and cutting the vegetables. We put the scraps into a bag for the rabbits. Ben shows us the three ceramic stoves on the ground – the highest one is Indian, then the middle level is an Arab style oven and the one on the ground is a Jewish style oven. We place the freshly cut vegetables into a colorful display in the tagine bowl on the table. I do the honors of placing the cone shaped cover over the tagine and after Jenny helps light a fire, we place the tagine onto the Jewish style oven. While lunch is cooking, we go out onto the farm. It is line with olive trees and there are small burrows for the rabbits beneath the trees. We see more and more animals – rabbits, ducks, swans and more chickens as we make our way towards the back of the farm. Ben talks about the mating habits of the rabbits. He shows where they line up at night, and that when it rains, he can expect a lot more baby rabbits. We hold a baby bunny. He shows us the olive buds up close. He uses no pesticides on his farm. Ben explains that if you are good to nature, it is good to you. And we have to stop taking so much and start giving some back. He talked about building a few small huts out in the fields and allowing people to camp in them overnight and just enjoy nature as it is.

We walk back past the horses and over to Ben’s shed and there is a beautiful white stallion. He tells us this stallion makes him a lot of money. Then he takes us to a small shed, where we see twelve adorable baby labs. We step right into the puppy den, and start picking up the little yellow and black labs – their mother is a yellow lab, and father is a black lab. They are the most amazing puppies I’ve ever seen – and so many at once! After taking tons of photos and watching the puppies nurse from their mother, we are able to pull ourselves away from the pups to go eat the lunch we have prepared.

Beautiful Arrangement of Vegetables in the Tagine

We walk up onto a colorfully painted terrace overlooking the entire farm to eat. The completed tagine was absolutely delicious. We learn a bit more about Ben during this meal- he was born in France and grew up in Australia. His brother still lives in Australia, and runs two Earth Café’s there. Erin, a board member from San Francisco, is also a restaurant owner, and she found it fascinating that in Ben’s five years of being in Morocco, he had done so much with the farm and his restaurant. Today happened to be Erin’s birthday and the farmhands came upstairs with pastries and lit a candle for her. Then they presented her with a beautiful bouquet of roses. After the food and the birthday celebration, we took a quick visit to the olive press to see how olive oil is made. After saying goodbye to Ben, we head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. For a minute back in our room, we turn on the BBC since it’s the only English speaking channel, and we see that earlier this morning, a dormant volcano in Iceland has erupted for the first time in 200 years. All of Europe was covered by a cloud of dust, and every airport from Switzerland to Spain, had closed. Half our group was planning to head home through European airports. We weren’t leaving for another three days, but everyone grew concerned. Jenny actually stayed home from dinner that night to work out her travel – as a flight attendant, she always flies standby and all the flights she was hoping to get on were now full.

We go to a Thai place for dinner that night. Like every other restaurant, the décor was grandiose, with intricate mosaics running from floor to ceiling with a huge, ornate lantern hanging in the middle. There is a fire pit in the middle of this restaurant and during the first course, the music gets overwhelmingly loud, and right next to the fire pit we see a Michael Jackson impersonator on stilts, dancing to Billy Jean. Very authentic Moroccan. Later, a fire eater does a performance for us, and then a drummer. Our group goes into the middle of the restaurant and starts dancing during the drummer’s performance, and I take a tambourine from the restaurant owner’s hand and play it alongside the drummer for the remainder of the night.

Our Tagine Cooking

Olive Buds from the Olive Trees

Puppies on the farm