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Archive for December, 2013

Sahara Sunsets

When I look back upon 2013, I cannot imagine a more ideal way to have ended the year, roaming around this beautiful country in a new continent, undergoing experiences that I never thought even existed in reality.

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Atlas Mountains

On Saturday morning, we left Marrakech early in the morning with our driver, Muhammed, and guide, Salim, both of whom would accompany us through Morocco for the next three days.  As we left the city, we began to submerge into the Atlas Mountains, the magnanimous mountain range that crosses through Morocco.  For hours, we drove through the curved roads, stopping here and there to take some breathtaking photos.  At one of the local village cafes, we paused for some Moroccan mint tea, which has become a daily routine for us, and looked out into the range.    The range seemed to extend forever, but because of the clouds above, the photographs came out foggy.  Nonetheless, one of the most fascinating sights we saw was of two nomad women climbing up the trails atop donkeys, indifferent to the tourists.

Throughout Saturday, we drove to two kasbahs, or fortresses.  The first one, located in a quaint Berber village, was the home of a pasha, a noble title, in the mid 1900s, who also housed several wives.  The walls were made of mud, and due to generators, lightbulbs hung from each of the room ceilings.  On the terrace, we could see the flatlands for miles across.  Our kasbah guide, who sported a traditional Moroccan ensemble, showed us his country store and his home after the tour, located at the mouth of the village.  Coming from a family of nomads, he told us about how he had chosen to settle down in one place, although he liked to visit the Sahara once in a while.

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At Ben Haddou

The second kasbah we visited—Ksar Ait Ben Haddou— was the site of several movie shootings, including Prince of Persia, Indiana Jones, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Despite being out in the middle of nowhere, we were still struck with the same Indian comments—”Bollywood!  We love Shahrukh Khan!”—which, after a while, kind of became creepy.  However, the scenery at this kasbah was unbelievable.

That night, we stayed at the gorgeous Xaluca hotel in Dades, which is located in a valley known as Rose Valley, for its plentiful roses during the summertime.  Although it was located in an isolated village, Xaluca was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed, with stunning views—the perfect way to wake up after a nearly 12-hour trip the previous day.  However, this day was just as long, as we made our way to Merzouga through the pre-Sahara.

On the way, we stopped at the Todra Gorge, just outside of Dades, where we encountered one of the most natural and incredible scenes.  As we settled in for tea between the gorges, I caught sight of a large black mass moving towards us from the mountains in the distance.  When they became closer, it became clear that it was actually a herd of black sheep, along with nomads in search for water.  As the sheep found the water, they scrambled into neat lines.  Beside them, a young girl in a pink dress wandered around, asking tourists for money.  Around her were other nomads, ignoring the cameras, focused on getting their share of water.  Eventually, my mom asked one of the women if she could take a picture with her, and only after taking the photo did I realize how gorgeous the women was, with sharp eyes and rosy cheeks.  She smiled afterwards, calling me princess in Arabic (translated by Salim).  And as I look back on the picture, I am reminded of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl—it feels like I’ve finally taken the photograph I’ve been wanting to capture for so long (picture to be posted soon).

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Sunset in the pre-Sahara region

Around five p.m., we reached Merzouga, a Berber village literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded solely by sand dunes, which they call Erg Chebbierg meaning dunes.  As was planned, we decided to take a camel trip into the dunes.  Salim prepared us for the cold (yes, the Sahara was absolutely freezing….ironic, isn’t it?) by tying scarves around our heads as traditional nomads.  While my mom and I waited around, one of the many camels became feisty, screaming and kicking in the air.  And thanks to karma, I ended up with that very camel, who nearly threw me off in the first two minutes of the ride.  As I’ve made clear several times, I’m terrified of heights, so as the camel began screaming and jumping, I did too.  But soon enough, we became comfortable with each other, and the ride became (almost) peaceful.  Eventually, after twenty minutes or so, we found ourselves in the middle of the Sahara with our camel guide, three rowdy camels, and the easing sound of the breeze.

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Picture taken with my phone (actual camera pics to come in future post)

I’ve never seen a more breathtaking sight than the sun setting over the Sahara.  I  wish I could do it justice to in words—I’ll try.  As the sun fell into the horizon, you could see the shadows of the outlines of the dunes as they curved up and down.  In the distance, two people sat atop a hill, but other than that, we were literally the only souls in the Sahara.  The sand extended for miles, as if never to end.  I had seen numerous pictures, stalked National Geographic, watched several desert movies, but I had never imagined the Sahara to be like this.  Even after having visited beautiful places like Aruba or the Sunderbans, I felt an awe that I never knew existed.  And so, in the silence, which became haunting after a while, we watched the sun set over the large sand dunes, trying to capture pictures of our silhouettes and the view.  On the way back to the hotel, I fell silent, which is, as many of you who are reading this know, rare for me.  While part of it was my disgust from having been spit on by a camel just moments before, I was mostly overwhelmed, unable to fathom what I had seen.  I could say it looked like a movie, but it didn’t—it looked better.  It looked unlike anything that could exist in this world.  A part of me wishes I had stayed longer, but unfortunately, I was slightly preoccupied with my dread for the camel ride.  Lucky for me, I took the calmer camel on the way back, who decided to be gentle with me, but honestly, he probably just wanted to avoid my screaming.

The day after my spiritual/morally-uplifting adventure, we finally made it to Casablanca, after driving for thirteen hours through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains (you would think that visiting Africa would allow me to escape from the snow).  Today, we spent the day wandering around Casablanca—famous for its eponymous movie, which I still haven’t seen—and Rabat, the nation’s capital only an hour away from Casablanca.  Compared to Marrakech, I found Casablanca tremendously modern and Rabat culturally-refreshing.  As we discovered the famous landmarks of the two cities, including the King’s palace and Hassan II Mosque, I fell in love with the architecture of the buildings, primarily consisting of mosaics and intricate patterns.  Even more, to me, Moroccan history is, in general, fascinating for its recency, as opposed to that of most European countries.  The stories, people, and facts feel more real, more relevant.

We just returned from our New Year’s Eve dinner at a small restaurant, where we ate our last Moroccan meal of the trip—lamb kebabs and chocolate crepes.  Tomorrow, we’re finally heading back to Vermont.  As much as I’m surprised to say this, I cannot wait to go home—no matter where I go, Vermont always draws me back.  Right now, it’s 11:30 pm here in Morocco, and I can hear the clock ticking away to midnight.  It’s wonderful being here for New Year’s, but I still miss being at home for the turn of the year, with my friends, watching Anderson Cooper announce the countdown in Times Square.  For years, this has been my tradition.

Even more, in these last minutes of 2013, I’m realizing the weight that comes with 2014—graduation, college, moving away, a new chapter.  As exciting as it all is, I’m also nervous.  It seems like this is the moment I’ve been counting down to for years.

2013 has been unbelievable—making new friends, pursuing my passions, discovering new places, and undergoing experiences like the one I just described in the Sahara.  As cheesy as it sounds (not surprising, because I AM cheesy), I feel grateful for everything this year has brought, and hopefully, next year at this time, I’ll be saying the same about 2014.

So Happy New Year everyone!  Here’s to hoping that you follow all your resolutions, come out in one piece by tomorrow morning, and have a great, great year.  Amidst all the celebration, I’ve attached one of my favorite videos of my two favorite people down below!

-B

P.S. I’ll post some pictures on TR soon!

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One of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen yet has been the panorama of the stars above the terrace of the Riad hotel.  The night is so crisp, that you can even see the distinct constellations span across the sky.  Down below, two or three (or probably more) cats wander, and by now, I’ve learned not to cringe every time one brushes by my leg or falls asleep in my lap.  On the first floor, there’s a swimming pool beneath a large tarp, which covers the open roof.  Sometimes from up above, you can hear the pitter patter of the cats wandering about the tarp, their shadows gracefully moving across.

“Lights in Morocco don’t work,” says our hotel receptionist, Florence, who, as I mentioned before, has mastered Franglais.  Everywhere we go, the lights are dim, creating an air of eeriness and mystique. Two nights ago, we lost power at least three times, which, to me, seemed rustic and cool, while my parents became absolutely frustrated, albeit having grown up with frequent power outages.  In the morning, however, we woke to a bright African sun, rising over the reddish clay buildings.  Our hotel served us a breakfast of crepe-like pancakes, mint tea, fruits, chocolate bread, and rolls, all of which was fit for a royal.

After breakfast, we headed to Saadian Tombs, the site of several 16th century tombs that were discovered in 1917.  Despite having been to tombs before, I found the architecture at the Saadian Tombs stunning.  According to my parents, it’s comparable to that of Al Hamra in Spain.  The tombs from each class of society in those days are divided into sectors, from women to children to men to servants.  Within these sectors, special areas mark the kings, or relatives of the kings.  But despite the class of society, each tomb is adorned with an intricate design, creating a truly beautiful sight.  The entire site seemed serene to me, a stark contrast with the bustling Marrakech roads.

Outside of Saadian Tombs, we had our first encounter with aggressive street vendors.  As we stepped out, one of the shopkeepers ran towards us screaming, “Britain?  Britain?  Pakistan?  India?  Namaste!”  While we wandered around his store, he pulled out products from every nook and cranny—”My name is Mustapha Couscous!  Yes, you take that product for free, I give you good price for the rest.”  Although I had been warned about not being too scared, I found it amusing, albeit a little overwhelming. “You only child?  Ah, princess!  Marry Indian boy, not English boy, okay?”

I soon discovered that Mustapha Couscous was as good as it got; shopkeepers in Marrakech literally grab ahold of you, saying anything to lure you into their stores.  The most frequent comment was, “India?  India?  Shahrukh Khan!  Preity Zinta!  Zindabaad India!”  Yet, even with my accented English, nobody asked if we were from the U.S.  Once, one of them asked my dad how the weather was in the U.K.  Other times, they tried to speak Hindi.

Throughout the day, we walked around the markets in the main square of Marrakech, buying items here and there, and bargaining like we’ve never bargained before (perks of visiting Kolkata).  In this region of the world, small street-side shops are called souks, and many of Morocco’s touristy photographs feature spice souks, with cone-shaped piles of multi-colored spices sprawled across a counter.  For me, photographing souks was one of the most fascinating parts of the day, seeing the colors, lights, and people interact.  While I initially feared photographing shopkeepers, most were enthusiastic and urged me to take even more photographs “with or without business!”

Despite what TripAdvisor or Yahoo Answers says, Marrakech doesn’t seem unsafe to me, excluding the petty crimes, which we find even in Vermont.  In fact, what has repeatedly caught my eye about Marrakech has been the manner in which women roam around, and what I’ve noticed is how relatively progressive the city is.  Wherever we go, we see diverse groups of local women with varied clothing, both conservative and liberal. Even at night, pods of women walk by themselves, unharmed and confident.  It makes me question everything I had previously been warned of about a country like Morocco.  What I find even more incredible is the omnipresence of fashion, from Burberry hijabs to bright violet burqas to designer jeans—a phenomenon I, admittedly, had not expected to see in Morocco.

However, my perceptions of Marrakech overall have hardly changed since my first blog post.  There’s still that sense of uncertainty within me.  Little things catch me off guard.  For example, when we were wandering through the morning markets near the Riad yesterday, I suddenly became aware of the lingering smell of meat, only to discover chicken and pig carcasses hanging from stores.  Later in the day, when we stopped to watch a snake charming show, we became quickly disheartened by the scene—Sam and Wookie have instilled a softness for animals within us.  [Side note: one of the cobras came frighteningly close to me, and I’m afraid I’ll eventually have nightmares about it.]  Otherwise, and more generally, whenever someone brushes too close or rowdy guys sketchily and jokingly say, “Hello, how are you?” to me, I put my guard on.  It’s an odd feeling being constantly stressed in a city.

But I suppose deep inside, I like feeling a little discomfort because in the end, I’ll come to value this trip.  The frequent stops for mint tea or shawarma (similar to rotisserie chicken) make everything worthwhile, of course.

The past few days in Marrakech have, in a sense, put traveling into perspective.  It’s so easy to adore Paris and Florence and New York, or aspire to travel for the rest of my life, but real traveling, I’ve discovered, is being placed in an unknown place and working through the difficulties.  Perhaps this is the first time I’ve felt so uneasy in a place.  Nonetheless, it’s an adventure, and, although I don’t know if I’m adventurous yet, I’m excited.

Today, we’re headed in the direction of Merzhouga, with brief stops in the Atlas Mountains and a night rest in a quaint Berber village.  The adventure has just begun, so keep reading TR (which will most likely be updated post-Sahara trip), which will, as of January 1st, be three years old.  Even more, travel blogging has, once again, inspired me to start posting more often.  This calls for celebration.  Happy early New Year, and here’s to hoping that we’ll all actually come through with our resolutions in 2014!

-B

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A Day in Marrakech

The view of Marrakech from the plane reminded me of a movie. The lands were flat, brown, arid. The sun beamed down on the region. In the distance, the Atlas Mountains stood tall, with rigid edges. The buildings melded together, all different variations of red.

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When we stepped out of the airport, the scene was reminiscent of Aruba or perhaps Dubai. But ahead, the mountain ranges jutted out of the sky, the air tinges of orange, and it became a world that I never have really seen. Despite my travels in the past, I’m not sure what to make of Morocco.

Our hotel, the Riad, is located between quaint alleyways that are vaguely familiar to those of Kolkata. If I close my eyes, it feels as if I’m strolling through the streets of one of my family neighborhoods, with the rapid (often too much) scooters, ogling locals, and street shops (known as tabacs en français). Yet, I feel uneasy here at times, while Kolkata provides solace. I suppose with Africa being a new continent, I have no perceptions of what to do or how to behave. I guess that’s all part of the learning process.

The receptionist at the Riad hails from France, and often stumbles over her English in the way I remember the French exchange students doing during TIE. Sometimes she stops, stares at the sky, and mutters, “Bah, mais non”, and I feel as if I should help or say something. But, as always, I’m afraid to speak French, although it is nice to understand the language, unlike my past few days in Holland.

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The one thing I definitely don’t feel uneasy about here so far is the food. We just returned from a gorgeous restaurant, and ate platefuls of kebabs and couscous. Because this is Morocco, lamb is, of course, a specialty, and beyond incredible. I’ve also become a fan of Moroccan mint tea, thanks to trips to Dobra during the summer. As always, food provides a comfort unlike any other.

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Regardless of my initial reactions, I’m both excited and curious to see what Morocco offers, especially between the different cities. After Marrakech, we’re heading to a desolate Berber village to stay for a night, then Merzhouga, where we’ll explore the Sahara. Our final town will be Casablanca, with perhaps a day-trip to Rabat.

With the unpredictable wifi, it’s difficult to blog regularly, but I hope to post about each city as I go along. For now, wishing everyone a late Merry Christmas!

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