Driven Crazy in Romania

Driving in Romania- nope, too simple

Driving Romanians Crazy – nope

Romanians Driving Me Crazy – nope

Driven Crazy in Romania, yeah that’s it

They interviewed Warren Buffet, the sage from Omaha about what it was like to be a billionaire. He replied something like “having money just increases your options.” On a barely tangent note, I’ve found having a car in Romania radically increases your options as well….

I landed in the land of sunflowers and castles after my “semester in sand”, just marveling at the green growing things, and getting caught out in the rain never felt so good. But there is more to Romania than two days in Bucharest, so I heeded the advice of those before me and rented a silver Opel, and headed out into the countryside.

Renting cars is never cheap, or a least not in MY experience, but sometimes you just get on the bus, and in this instance, you get in the car. There are many things to see in Romania, yet only a few were big enough to have a town built around them, so when you added up all the additional side trips, and the scheduling of busses and trains, the car became more realistic.

First Stop – The Painted Monasteries of Bucavina

                OK, I became fascinated (ok, perhaps obsessed) with these churches after seeing a few pictures on the inter-tubes…small ancient churches with fresco’s painted on the exterior walls. There would be seven stops; web advise was “take it slow, take 2 days”. The drive from Bucharest to essentially the northern border with Moldova took me 6hrs; time well spent trying to figure out how to connect my phone’s “tunes” to the cars stereo, how the rear-window-wiper worked and to experience Romanian open-road driving. It was an eventful day behind the wheel.

                Having a car lets you shop in real grocery stores and buy more bulk, since you’re filling the back seat and not a backpack. In Romania there are a few major grocery chains, Kaufmanns, Carrefour and Media Shop. Oh, and in Romania there are pretzels..not great ones, and somehow they’ve figured out a way to have the pretzels repel the “salting” process. There’s salt in the bag, but almost none sticks to the pretzel…but since Scandinavia in ’16 these were the first pretzels I’ve seen. There was joy in the Opel.

So I over spend, but feel “equipped” for the open road ahead. The car could break down at any moment, but I wouldn’t starve for a few days..and north I drove. There are indeed major highways Romania, named, like in England and Europe A1, A2 and A3…sadly the route to the Painted Monasteries was on a lesser road, something called the A237. These three-number wonders link the small towns and hamlets that make up the bulk of Romanian existence. Then there were the roadside Gypsies (or Roma); selling anything they had, apples, apple juice, flowers, melons…you would come over a small rise and the shoulders would be filled with roma holding up fruit. This would become a VERY familiar site. I was using the maps.me app as navigator, so I had to alternate between quick glances at the route, and quick glances at the shoulders to ensure I didn’t clip a wayward roma.

Arriving at my first “away” camp/hostel in Iasi (pronounced “yash”) the room was decent, and the tub quart ice cream for dinner was divine. There was even free beer at the hostel, remnants of some over-eager Swedes who went on a buying run and just couldn’t finish..beer and booze is everywhere in Romania, and perhaps eastern Europe. It is literally everywhere. Gas stations rival liquor stores on both availability and price. Large grocery stores have multiple aisles devoted to advanced fermentation. The “bohemian” in me was shopping at the lower end, and Romania didn’t disappoint. 3-liter bottles of beer were about $2.50. There was an absolute correlation between price and taste, but at that level, quantity is what drives the purchase. There were also these little “hand grenade” bottles that resembled plastic canning jars, for 50-cents….and actually they weren’t half bad. But I digress.

Bright and early on a Saturday I headed off for the first Painted Monastery. Maps.me did a great job bringing me to the church on time and the camera did it’s thing. It was only after leaving the monastery that my day would begin to unravel.

For it’s many benefits, I am loyal to maps.me. In major cities, it can ferret out the most direct route on foot, car or bus between two points. You download the recent maps and head out. Unfortunately in Romania, the definition of “road” got a little fuzzy, and what transpired after the first church reminded me of that insurance commercial in the states where the line was “did they cover you completely for your accident?” “Well no, not exactly”… and it was that “no not exactly” part that would be replayed a few times along my voyage in Romania.

The next church was only about 15 miles away and I was very excited to do less driving and more photography. Take a left and head off…but the pavement soon turned to compacted gravel, which migrated to small-rock-gravel, which deteriorated to large-rock gravel. I passed a few horse-drawn carts full of roma as I dutifully followed maps.me into the hills..within minutes I realized that the rental car was no match for this “road” and doubled back. Returning to the pavement, I pulled over and tried to reroute, and uncovered a flaw in the maps.me universe…you can’t reroute. Apparently the parameters are set to “drive a road, or not” and once the app maps you an efficient route, there’s no debate: you  WILL pass horse-carts full of gypsies, ford streams and chase cows to reach your destination. Here is where a real map, with circles and black and red lines would have come in handy…I had bet on technology and lost.

So I chose another monastery, hoping to come at the missing one from another direction. Thankfully the road remained paved and horse-cart free. And so the day was spent. You pay admission to each, and a hefty $2.50 fee to use your camera (outside only) but the monasteries were great. In the end, I saw five of the seven and called it good. By the end of the day I was over 100 kilometers from that first missed monastery and my “need”  to complete the set, and see them all, had vanished.

I had plans to take it slow, and spend two days out among the monasteries, but I had had my fill. A little more mapping showed that if I drove on, only another three hours, I could gain a day on my itinerary and perhaps find a town more conducive to staying around…So I pushed on, and stayed at “Hotel Opel” once I got close to Cluj-Napoca.

For the voracious readers of my blog, I won’t reiterate the adventure of the “Salty Turd” but it’s the previous post, so get curious.

Cluj-Napoca, or just Cluj, is a big city on the western side of the country. Beside the afore-mentioned salt mine, there is a big university here and a massive soccer stadium that hosts concerts. I stayed a night in a decent hostel, but there was some electronic dance music festival (EDM, apparently) out in the farmland west of town, so all my fellow residents were dancing all night and sleeping all day. I walked around town a bit and then did the only other thing I could come up with; I hit the mall. Time to see how folks in bigger cities spent their free time and money.

The city-center mall was full of American and European brands, and a decent food court. While eating my way thru a plate of goulash at “Gladiator” I saw the movie theater and I was surprised that they didn’t dub the American movies into Romanian, just added subtitles. And with this, a plan was hatched.

Leaving Cluj after only a day, I still had a “free day” card to spend, and more time…so I continued west to a place called “Timisoara” (timi-shawara). This was a great place, and I used my “free day” here. There was a “house zoo” here where they moved ancient houses from all over Romania into an open field close to town. The hostel, “Costal Hostel” was a massive single-family home, once the residence of a famous ballerina during the 1920’s. There was a great outdoor “hang” space with plenty of fruit trees to provide shade. I met some locals who plied me with some local fermentation product that had a little red pepper in it…sure they dared me, but I probably would have eaten the pepper anyway..I would NOT recommend this to my younger or more sensitive readers.

There were plenty of “hand-grenades” and large jugs of beer shared. A local “meat palace” was visited and “Timi” had a glorious main square with ancient, and not so ancient buildings to roam.

From Timisoara, it was on to Colvin Castle, as I moved from the west, into Transylvania, home of all things hilly and castle-like. Colvin was my “first” and now, looking back, my best castle. When you think of castles, you think of moats, drawbridges, sentry posts, and all of this perched on a hilltop…Colvin had all of this…and some pretty cool windows that let in some pretty cool light.

After Colvin, it was on to Sibiu, a short drive away. Here I had a hostel room above a coffee/beer bar right in town, with all the cobblestone paths and crusty old decaying buildings…it was great. I walked around for a few hours, then settled in for a coffee while planning out my next stop. It was probably during my second sip of surprisingly decent coffee that I searched “Sibiu, things to do” that “it” appeared; The Transfargaran. A massively windy road taking you up and over the second highest mountain in Romania.

Insert Trans picture

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but to me, I only heard a few “Dude, you GOTTA do this!” And the next day I did. There was an initial question about which way to drive it, but further searching now brought the cast of the BBC show “Top Gear” into the mix. Seems the cast had designated this road as one of the best, and if you were going to have a “Top Gear” experience, you experienced it from south to north. So, like I had been doing  for days now, I plugged in the little hamlet where it all begins (kilometer post252) and off I went at 6:30am. The plan was to get going before all the others got out of bed, hopefully getting a jump on the crowd. The road down there was amazingly traffic free and when I got to within twenty kilometers, I had to make my first turn…off the pavement, onto small gravel, then onto larger gravel….

I’ve typed it before and unless you just started reading at this point…you’ve read it before..maps.me had taken me into the boonies…more horse-drawn carts, BUT a big advantage was that there were also cars parked along the road, regular cars too, not high-clearance Range Rovers…I had hope. There were three sections of horror-filled gravel, on high peaks and without any signage stating this was the “right” way, just the electronic voice from the phone saying “in 400 meters, take a right”…but in the end, there would be pavement, and I was dumped out of the wilderness, at kilometer 252, and after a sharp left, I was on the Transfagaran.

For the next 90 minutes I was in heaven, The road was amazing, taking you uphill, past lakes and pastures, and gypsies selling flowers and fruit and it was sunny and lovely. I stopped frequently when the terrain demanded a digital camera treatment, and I was really amazed that while there was traffic, it was light…must have been because I left early…

There is a final tunnel at the top, signifying that the “up” will shortly turn to down. A lake, Balea lake awaited, then I could take pictures like the “spaghetti road” above…but coming out of the tunnel, something went horribly wrong…there was no more blue sky…there was no sky at all…it was cloud. For those of you who were driving on my last great road rally in Iceland (“REI” Jim) it was just like that road on the east coast…all cloud, no vision..there was sadness in the Opel that day.

Yes, Balea lake was a thing, but covered in cloud it was a different thing. I did some hiking, took some pictures, but you could barely see the road ahead and pictures were a waste…and then the cloud around me turned to rain..There is a large tourist presence at the top, many vendors selling food and drink, and on a sunny day there must be a cracking business to be had, but even the vendors new, today was not that day.

So the Opel got pointed towards Sibui and down I went. The “spaghetti pavement” was a challenge in the rain and fog, but within thirty minutes I was among the flatlands again and heading to town. Sibui also has a “house zoo” and I spent a few hours back out in the sun taking pictures of windmills. I had thought to stay in Sibui another night, but again realized that another few hours behind the wheel would give me another day, so I pushed on to SIghisoara (sigi-shwora)..by nightfall, again hotel Opel

“Sigi” is yet another medieval town with cobblestone streats, crumbling old buildings and a present existence related 100% to tour bus traffic. I spent a few hours walking around, but without the need to shop, I was on my way. Today would be “castle time”, with stops at Bran and Rasnov castles before my hostel in Brasov.

When you’re driving around Romania, you hear things. When you stay in hostels, you hear more things. When you’re drinking a lot of Romanian “hand grenades” you hear even more, but it’s a little muffled for some reason..anywho, I had heard that “Bran” castle wasn’t all that great.

Bran, with an indirect link to Dracula, was THE castle all the tourist want to see, and it’s even marketed as Dracula’s Castle, but Dracul was Hungarian, over the mountains to then north….but the Opel went the way of Bran Castle anyway.

There’s only one road in and out, which is so Romanian…but don’t get me started about Romanians and waiting in line…but I digress…  the one road is under construction, so the path to the castle isn’t easy…it never is.

Parking is the first obstacle to overcome. Everyone  drives cars about the same size, like a girls “petite”, and these get placed, by their drivers, at all sorts of funky angles, for miles before you actually get to the site. Why? To avoid parking fees. Romanians will walk a mile (or more) to avoid a $1 parking fee. Luckily I had the $1 so I got to park closer. But then it started raining again, which reminds me, it has rained daily for the two weeks I’ve been here. Thankfully never long, and Romania is nothing if not “quick drying” but still…Paris Accord? What’s that? But I digress further.

You might not know exactly where the castle is, but follow the tour busses and the crush of humanity, up a hill the path lined with folks hawking painted eggs to fruit, gypsies with the flowers and the odd beer hall. This is supposedly the castle of Vlad the Impaler, so there are torture museums here too, but you know the way….the way is up.

For a mere 35 LEI, about $8.50 you can have your moment in the castle and for another $9 you can now visit something called theTime Tunnel, more on that in a bit.

So we’re all a little wet from the rain, but we’re going in…All one-thousand of us..simultaneously. Perhaps those opining that Bran wasn’t all that great were right….and yes, they were.

With a thousand-member chain-gang going thru the castle at a snails pace, you quickly learn who’s having a good day, who’s got marital issues and who’s idea it was to come to Bran pretty quickly. Sure, they’re all speaking Romanian, but some expressions are universal. But the snail pace was killing me.

This castle has a myriad of little rooms and each has to be gone thru, slowly. Some rooms only have a sign that said “Queen Mary” walked here…then there were the rooms with a complete life story of Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula..it is said that Bran castle was the setting for his story…OK, good to know.

So there are a lot of stairs, and not everyone walks up and down stairs well, as you find. Then there are the shutter bugs who realize that they “missed” a shot two rooms ago and are flailing again a rip-tide of humanity to “get back” from whence they came…and then it got hot.

And in the end, you don’t leave Bran Castle, as much as get expelled from the belly of the retail beast. I may have written that before in a previous post, but it sounds like an apt description of the exodus from the castle.

But I’m a curious sort, and upon the exit, I saw another cluster/gaggle of tourists waiting for this “Time Tunnel” that I had somehow missed. So I queue up for about 10 minutes or so until I deduce that I needed to have bought a ticket for another $9, an at present they were taking  five people at a time, for 30 minutes, so your wait point would be estimated at roughly three hours…so I went on.

Further research reveals that the “Time Tunnel” though promoted as some sort of sinister site, was actually a short-cut taken by Queen Mary to get to the Royal Garden faster during her 1930 visit. Good thing I didn’t have a ticket for that. There was no fee to take pictures in the castle, but few were taken. There’s no mystery here, no foreboding presence…just commerce. And once the road to Bran gets repaired, the busses can get here quicker and “mo money, mo money”.

But when in Romania, you do castles…so once I extricated myself from Bran, it was on to Rasnov castle, or what’s left of it. For $6 (including parking) you get to roam among the rubble, grovel in gravel, and yet thoroughly enjoy your time among the ruins of a once greater castle up on the hill. A few nicer shots were taken and by 2pm I found myself in Brasov, capital city of Transylvania.

My two night stay was a hostel called “Evil Clown” which I was hoping was more than a stop for the juggalo’s of the Insane Clown Posse (you’ll have to google that, tough to explain)…it was just a hostel that sold clown shirts, but it was close to the town square and I had enough time/energy for a decent town tour and some nice pics of the Black Church.

Another Saturday and I was lacing up the hiking boots. I found one of those free tourist maps that mentioned something about a hike called “7 ladders”, and a bit of time with my friend Mr. Google and I was off. Again, not exactly close to town, but the car makes everything possible. It was all uphill for the first hour until you arrived at this basecamp of sorts, offering zip-lining and the seven ladders hike. From the basecamp you would enter a small slot canyon with a raging water-flow beneath. For your $2.50 you gained access to 7 ladders that took you up and over the water and onto a higher pass before your eventual descent.

The ladders were cool as the steep uphill hike to get there, but the descent was sketchy. With the daily rains, the terrain was a bit rough. While the 7 ladders helped get over the water, they could have installed 7 ropes to help with the descent over a muddy hill without a path. How I didn’t wipe out on all that mud was a mystery as most around me did.

But returning to the car and it’s air-conditioning was a treat, and allowed me to drive to get a meal. I located the mall, and found that “Antman and Wasp” was playing at the movie theater…in English with Romanian subtitles…my night was set.

Over the next few days I made it out to the Black Sea, to a town called Constanta, where there was a huge abandoned casino to shoot, and miles of coastline to walk. I saw a few more movies as well, and consider myself “caught up” on the American Cinema, thru such classics as Antman and Wasp, Jurassic Park, Deadpool and Mission Impossible.

I am back in Bucharest now, awaiting my flight to Budapest.

Some Observations.

Romanians hitch hike a lot. I saw whole families exit a restaurant and stand on the curb trying to hail a ride for 4..out in the country there are no cabs, but lots of helpful Romanians.

Romanians like popcorn…lots of flavored selections, and they do have pretzels, albeit mediocre at best

It would be hard to envision Romania without the gypsy/Roma population. They are everywhere, much to the consternation of the few locals I got to talk to about it, but they’re here to stay.

There is a large quantity of beer alcohol here. Perhaps it’s just that I came from four countries that had none of this, but every possible venue to sell booze is loaded to the gills with inventory.

Romanian roads are generally good, but they save a lot of money by having few stop signs and stop lights. The Romanian driver is constantly in motion. You have to constantly watch out for hitch-hikers, gypsies, horse-carts and the stray farm animal herd, but that’s all part of the fun here.

Food-wise, Romania is generally on the Neanderthal plan; lots of gristle and fat surrounding pork and beef products…it’s been lovely. But the locals walk it off a lot here, so perhaps it’s not that bad.

I would advice people to come here if they like castles. There are a lot of them. The lore of Vlad the Impaler, and Dracula is ever present, but in a general sense, Dracula was Hungarian; so one floor up, and to the left.

And finally. Romanians hold hands. The streets are filled with young and old couples and everyone holds hands. In this crazy world of eternal turmoil, that’s a nice thing to see.

Semester in the Sands

And tonight my time in the rock and sand comes to an end. I’ve taken the usual planes, trains and the odd louage to cover four countries to a great extent. The eternal blues of Chefchaouen are still seared in my mind; the berber pizza on the Moroccan coast, eating at “Luke Skywalkers table” in Tunisia, touching my first pyramids and hiking thru the land of the eternal oven, Egypt. Petra has definitely been about Petra, and the sands around it. Along the way I’ve eaten a lifetime of schwarma, and not all of it’s been good.

I would love to report that spending all this time in the desert has been a socially rewarding experience, but it’s been a lot harder than I thought. The camera has hopefully caught what I came after, and I’ve made my peace with the rocks and sand. Not every class you take is a favorite, but you get thru it.

I even tried fasting a few days in Ramadan…that’s tough too, but looking back, I just miss seeing things green and growing. There are definitely plants and animals that have adapted to the deserts of northern Africa, but I don’t think I am one of them. The lack of puddles started to get to me in the end, as did all that shawarma…

The next semester is the “European Swing” where I revisit old friends and a few old stomping grounds among the new and unusual.

 

Petra-fied

I could fill a few screens of text, expounding on the virtues of Jordan, the quality of falafel, the hommus, the mint tea, and even the Roman ruins, but to do so would be avoiding the 2,000 year old elephant in the room. Florida has it’s Disney; as Jordan has Petra.

So these Nabateans were pretty good stone masons and they  carved out a pretty complete version of a “big box city” in the sandstone cliffs here in Petra. Treasury, market facades, Monastery, cemetery and even a “high place of sacrifice” for those inclined to do so…

Things went well. The location was sweet; frankensense and murr flowed thru the valley as it became a major stop on the trade routes, but alas, you can’t fool Mother Nature and by about the year 350 a major earthquake rocked the Nabatean existence here, making little rocks out of big ones…but they sort of rebuilt and carried on, until another series of rumblers, reinforced the point that those living in stone houses, often shampoo with gravel. So they abandoned this place.

The local Bedouins, camel herders and goat jockies knew of the ruins, if only because the remaining caves offered a respite from the unrelenting sun, but it was a place for locals only…until about 1820 when a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt at the ripe age of 27 came around. He was moving from Nazareth to Cairo, dressed as an Arab and renaming himself Sheik Abdallah, he paid for protection from local murderous sheiks while traveling with traders and a few goats. He had heard from locals about a series of ruins in a narrow canyon, near the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses, so he concocts this story about sacrificing a goat to Aaron, and hires a guide to take him there. He was convinced this was the lost city of Petra, but couldn’t hang around long, lest me literally be “unmasked” as an infidel by the locals. So he sacrifices the goat and gets on his way to Cairo.

Later Burckhardt discovered the Temples at Abu Simbel, so I’m doing a sort of “Burckhardt’s Greatest Hits” tour.

In 2018, Petra is a revenue generating machine. Sitting on my porch in Grossdale (original name for Brookfield) I had all these visions for Petra..I even booked five nights in a Bedouin came next to Petra with the promise of hiking into the park everyday…but how reality comes and crashes your dreams.

While I figured that there had been some improvements to the place since my man Burckhardt rediscovered it, I wasn’t really expecting what it is now. The bus  from Amman dumped us off about 200’ from the gate. None of us were going right into the site, but we got a glimpse of what awaits. Just like in Egypt before, you have to walk a long gauntlet of souvenir stands, gawkers, talkers and carnival barkers. Then past the taxi cab touts, there are food stalls, water boys and walking stick merchants to equip the tourist traveler for what awaits. Auto maker Hundai has also graciously provided free wi-fi at kiosks amongst the ruins, so you can stream a movie, should the reality prove too boring to younger or more sensitive viewers.

But this is Jordan in July, so again, it’s hot. I had set aside almost a week for this experience, figuring to take small bites of the place before scurrying back under the shade of my hotel during the hot afternoons. Ah, that planning again…so optimistic…

The “stay” in Petra was done at a place called “Valentine Inn”, an alternative to that “Bedouine Camp” I mentioned a few inches above. This all changed when a curiously gent with a long white beard actually mapped out the daily hike into Petra. Instead of minutes, it was logged as hours, as in almost 3 hours to get into the park. Reservations cancelled. Valentine Inn is declared winner. For 5JD (Jordanian Dinar) a night, ($7) I had a bed and a promise of “close to the park entrance”. There are hills in Jordan, aptly called the “Jordan Hills”, and Valentine is at the top of one of them; below me the gate to Petra. There are shuttles here, but for a never-sleeping go-getter like myself, they start the day too late. So at 5:30am I pull on the backpack and roll down the hill. The ‘getting in’ is a lot nicer than the ‘getting out’; that is downright ugly.. but I digress.

NABATEAN HANDIWORK

I would enter the park on three days, taking “zero” days in between to remain horizontal in hopes of healing the affected joints, with mixed results.

Once thru the gates, there’s about a quarter-mile of crushed sandstone, embedded with odd sized larger rocks which introduces your ankles to the ‘Nabatean highway’. There are a few earlier carvings along the way and within minutes you’re having a conversation with a guy on horseback, who offers you the “Indiana Jones” entrance. You’re ticket notes that you are ‘entitled’ to a free horse-ride but in Jordan, only the hill-climbing is free. Throughout your time at Petra, you will be offered any number of things by “locals” who still live in caves¸ but more on that later.

From the open-air highway, you descend into a winding slot-canyon. In Jordan, the use of “wadi”, as in Wadi Rum, Wadi Mujib, Wadi Musa…is everywhere. A “wadi” is a valley, ravine or channel that is dry until it rains. In the American West, this is called a “slot canyon”. In Petra, this is called “the Siq”. They’ve paved the floor so the pace quickens along with the anticipation of “the view”; the “Indiana Jones” vision of the Treasury building peeking between twisted canyon walls.

I’ve been around;  2.2 times. I’ve seen some stuff….but this view, the first glimpse, just blew me away. It was a little after 6am¸ and I was blissfully alone, so I got to move in and out several times to get a series of images, but it’s amazing.

From an architectural standpoint, the structures in Petra probably aren’t ‘buildings’ as much as ‘carvings’. There are no parts, just skillful sandstone impressions etched into the valley walls. And the Nabateans were excellent carvers.

From the grandeur of the Treasury, the valley floor winds forward with a promenade, tombs, amphitheater, and Roman Temple before you find shade, in the form of a pricey restaurant offering ice cold beer and ice cream (among other things). After six hours of hiking on the first day, this was my end point. Time for that shady afternoon repast. I took an upward hike to see the overlook on the Treasury, but all that effort yielded few images since there was way too much glare.

The second day I got to this restaurant to start the days longer hikes, ‘Place of High Sacrifice’ and ‘Monastery’. Water is expensive in the park, but heavy if you carry it in. Being one of the larger camels in the area, I carried it in, AND refilled once in the park. This is not a place for your personal “check engine light” to start blinking.

The monastery is probably more impressive than the Treasury…but perhaps it’s the effort taken to get there that makes the carvings seem more impressive. They kept saying it was ‘800 Steps’ to the monastery…but in the end, it was only 713, but somehow they were easier than those to the high overlook on the Treasury. There are plenty of places to shop along the climb too, as if it was a vertical shopping mall.

The third day was spent retracing previous steps, around the tombs, around the treasury, and through the roman church. The goal was to catch the monuments in a different light, but in the end, after another long day in the sun, I was ready to see something else.

In fact, it’s really hard to separate the Bedouins from Petra, but I would have enjoyed that experience. Imagine if the character actors at Disneyland hit up the customers to buy trinkets or ride a donkey. There are children offering “air conditioned” taxi rides on camels, and once those children reach their teen years, inexplicably, they put on heavy eye-liner and dress like Johnny Depp’s “Jack Sparrow’ character from Pirates of the Caribbean movies.. at this point I don’t know if he stole that look from them, or the other way round, but they charged 1JD (about $1.50) for a photo, so you’ll have to take my word for it. They even have the eyeliner “endorsement” by the treasury with a display stand selling the bedouin’s “look”.

So to get to the best of Petra, you wade into the sea of tourists, and pirates, camels, horses and donkeys. There is food and drink, but at predictably inflated prices, but this IS a fantastic place.

From my days in Petra, I waded into the nothingness of Wadi Rum for a night. Here the “wadi” dry valleys meet the sand, the infinite sky reaches down to the dunes. This was a lovely diversion from the “pirates” of Petra, but then a day later I was on a local bus heading to Amman and my flight to Europe tonight.

There is a problem with my hosting site so I’m not able to add images right now, but i’ll figure this out and get things updated soon..m

Egyptian Lullabye

The calendar would remind me that I’ve been in Egypt for only two weeks, but walking the sand, around all these ancient sites and objects, time moves much slower.

So my first night in Egypt was spent sprawled across my backpacks at the Cairo airport, by design. I would be in Cairo just long enough to avoid getting a room, but not long enough to go out and see anything. So instead of seeing, I was sitting.

Cairo down to Abu Simbel in the morning and I got back out in the sun. The main event in Abu are the twin monuments of Ramses II and Nephretiti and they were just ten minutes down the road, but it was noon, and only the scarabs are out in the high sun. By 4pm the sun was down and I was out, paying the first of many entrance fees in Egypt, and coming face-to-face with human history. The item of note here is that these huge monuments were moved, stone, by stone, to higher ground in 1968 to let the original area flood when the Aswan Dam was put in…seeing the size of the project and how well it all fits together, is really amazing.

Late June is definitely “off season” here in Egypt. You can tell this easily…first, at a place like Abu Simbel, you’re the only guest…and second, after 20 minutes outside your skin starts looking like Mr. Peanut after the dry-roasting effect. The heat here has a mummifying effect among the living as well. There is dry-mouth, and there is Egyptian dry-mouth; totally different thing. Must wear sunscreen…

The intricacies of Egyptian finance must be commented on here. Small “gratuities/bribes/grifts” are required to get general assistance here. “where can I watch the World Cup” may cost you almost 50 cents to find out…there are rarely street signs or other tourists in low season, so you’re on your own, carry change. The “tip” is referred to as “Backsheesh” and the grifters that clutter the corners and alleyways looking for it could be considered “backsheesh boys”…Everyone is constantly offering assistance, directions, tea, or a taxi, but they’re also leaning into you as well.

So getting from the airport in Abu Simbel, to the hotel cost me 100 Egptian Pounds (EP). A bit over $5. A younger version of myself would have scoffed at this and walked the 4.5 kilometers; but this is 2018 and this version didn’t “scoff” as much as “cough” as in I coughed up the 100EP and climbed into the cab.

Exiting Abu Simbel the next day was supposed to require a ticket for the local bus and a coordinated effort to get me into town and to be one of only six foreigners allowed to travel with the locals. As I was the only guest at the inn, I thought my chances were good. After a 5am return tour of Abu Simbel, where I paid 300EP (about $15) to take pictures (again first of many “camera passes”), I was half-way thru my breakfast when I got a call and an offer. The hotel manager said the cabbie from the previous day was offering to drive me personally up to Aswan, about 3hrs (260km) away. I was feeling the “backsheesh” coming…a private car, that far might be $60…nope…the offer was for 200EP..so to go less than 5k’s was 100, but 260k‘s was 200? I was in…and away I went.

Aswan, the big city up the road, was interesting. The car ride option put me about 5 hours ahead of schedule, and I had notions of trying to find a quick tour to fill my time, but it was hot and the highlight of my afternoon was finding my ancient hotel room at the Yaseen Hotel had not only a fan, but a high-mount air conditioner, which got switched on instantly. A nap, and a foot tour of the local environs, andI was settled into another sheesha and tea house watching more World Cup games..

I spoke with the manager later and arranged for a private driver to take me to Philae island where I would spend the next morning shooting more ruins.

Dinner was the first of many involving chicken shawarma. In Aswan, there were more than a few choices in street food, but those vertical spits of beef and chicken just seem to call my name…and I answered. Here the local favorite was a portable affair set up at the end of a dark and uninviting street. I was sure I had been led astray by the “backsheesh boys” but then I could smell the product, and knew I was home. Set up on the curb, they used the hood of an adjoining car as the assembly area, which added somewhat of an “automotive affect” to the proceedings. But these guys delivered a superior product. I went back the next night, with camera in hand, but they were gone like a desert mirage. I walked thru the market, and found another place, but it was twice the price and of decidedly lesser quality.

Philae ruins are on an island, so my driver dropped me at the pier. In Egypt the art of the negotiation is crucial. Not knowing how much there was to shoot, I was thinking two hours would be enough. I had to grease the driver another 50EP to get that two hours, and just assumed these naval negotiators wouldn’t care how long I was there…no, they cared. There are about fifty identical boats, all in rough shape, to take you out in a short loop to the island. To maximize personal wealth, your pilot stays on the island and waits. My logic had fewer guys going only one direction, but whatever. They all promised to wait 1hr for 200EP (remember, I got a private driver to cover 250kms for this back down the road). Of course I wanted what couldn’t be delivered; a longer tour for the same price. After three unsuccessful attempts, I looked around and noted that there about 48 boats waiting, no takers, so I just opined, loudly that it was odd that everyone would rather sit and make NO MONEY rather then change the pattern. And somehow this worked. I ended up with a 90 minute tour for that same 200EP.

Philae was wonderful. Walls covered in carvings, statutes, pillars…this was Egypt to me.

I went to the train station where a well placed 20EP, put into the palm of the ticket fixer got me a first class seat on the train to Luxor and away I went.

Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor Temple. Staying at the Bob Marley Peace Hostel only seemed right. They offered a tour of the west bank of the Nile, on the cheap and I was all over it. They packedup about a dozen foreign faces into a van the next morning and off we went. Valley of Kings, Valley of Queens and a few other stops that defy my recollection. It was hot, but the next level of hot; out of the frying pan and into the fire hot…but I was not alone, so we all suffered…In the Valley of the Kings, you get to “pick 3” tombs to enter. This I can recall; Ramses III, Ramses VI and Merenptah. I had originally planned on several trips to “collect all the kings” in these groups of three, but it’s surprising how quickly your plans change as you become mummified under the Egyptian sun…three tombs was plenty.

Another night, and more shawarma…but a McDonald’s shake for dessert. It was over dessert that I ran into my first American tourist and somehow we hopped a horse carriage and ended up in a bar at the swankier side of town…this too was a dessert of sorts.

The next day was spent touring Karnak and a lengthy period where head met pillow. I was not adjusting to the heat well and thought I should rest in the AC to slow the “Mr Peanut” effect. I did manage to get to the train station and booked the sleeper car from Luxor to Cairo which I was pretty excited about. My last day in Luxor was spent at Luxor Temple, and hanging out with some Aussies who had just come from Jordan, my next stop…we fell into a  little snack shop next to the McDonalds that had great air conditioning and a shawarma pizza…

I boarded the train for Cairo at 11pm and away I went. The private sleeper car was easy enough to find, but while I had not delusions of grandeur, I expected more. This was NOT the Orient Express. Each car had an attendant, and ours quickly became known as “Backsheesh Bob”… it was amazing to see him do so many things essentially with one hand…because the other one was in your pocket, looking for a little “something” for his every effort. It was a little oppressive.

But all train rides do end, and pulling into Cairo was more than welcome. My hostel was a short cab ride away and my life in Cairo began. There were many things to see, the Egypt Museum, the markets, “music street” and then the Pyramids and points west… Over five days, I saw and shot it all.

I’m glad I started down in Abu Simbel and ended here in Cairo. The big city, with all it’s hustle and bustle, would have been tough to leave, heading south.

The Egyptian “way” seems fueled by caffeine and nicotine. The sheesha pipes are everywhere, as are cigarettes. For a city of 30 million people, Cairo somehow seems to have the space.. I was probably most impressed with the Egyptian Museum here. So many artifacts just plopped down in a massive building, like a mad collector on a shopping spree. Many had ancient paper tags still on them, written 50 years ago or more, ready to fall off…there’s rumor that a new, bigger museum is being built out in Giza, but for now, this is probably the greatest archeological museum in the world..

As I enter my third month of travel, the gear is pretty broken in. I’ve lost a few things along the way, and have yet to find trinkets worthy…though I’m supposed to find a hat (still looking). No pretzels in Egypt, but lots of Pringles.

So as I pack for the airport, I give Egypt two thumbs up…come for the pyramids, eat the shawarma and by all means, come in January, so you don’t get dry-roasted like I did…

 

 

 

 

A Fortnight in Tunisia

My original travel plans had me cutting across the southern tip of Africa, a safari to Zanzibar and then a hop to Tunisia, then a skip to Spain before a jump across the straight of Gibraltar to Morocco for this camel festival back in January. Obviously the much heralded “triple jump” of north Africa didn’t really happen the way I planned, but Tunisia remained on the schedule.

When hearing that I’m a traveler, the locals will ask how many countries I’ve been to, which is a fair enough question, but I’m of the opinion that it’s becoming about collecting “cultures”. I had a class in college called “cultures of the world” where we’d watch these grainy films of native people from all over the globe. It always struck me that these films were so dated, they could have been narrated by Lowell Thomas and shown between “talkies” at the movie theater..but the reality of being out here is obviously something different

The “culture” of Tunisia is similar to Morocco. There are souks, medinas and mosques. Ramadan was still in effect when I landed, so most commerce was kept to a minimum during daylight hours. There are definitely less “westernized” tourists here, with Russians making up the bulk of “others”. Whereas Morocco seemed attuned towards accommodating the fickle needs of European tourists, house them here, get them to buy this; here in Tunisia that’s not so obvious.

I landed in Tunis, the capital, with a sixteen day route covering most major cities, built around what I could find on the internet. That all changed within a few hours of landing.

The plane touches down, you gather your bags and head out into the newness of another country. Sadly one aspect of travel seems to be universal; getting fleeced by the taxi drivers at the airport. In Morocco it was the Dirham, and in Tunisia the Dinar – they sound similar but they are not.

As soon as the beard hits the open air of Tunis, I’ve got touts, tuk-tuks, and carnival barkers all vying for my attention. The Arabic strain of aggressive taxi driver is formidable, but I’ve been to India, so I’ve seen worse. Since I actually DO need a taxi, I let the most aggressive win. I know it’s about 5kms to my room in the medina, so there’s no haggling about where we’re going…the guy even helps with my bag…along the path to the cab, I ask for the fair. He says, “8”….now in Moroccan Dirham, that would be about $9, not horrible…but this is Tunisia, that would be a bit over $3. I ask again…now it’s “80”…$32…wait. It took a bit of effort to halt the march to the cab, but the cabbie was unrepentant, “we use meter”…but it struck me as odd that he wouldn’t know exactly how much it would be, since he drives the roads every day.

I reclaim my bag from his shoulder and say it’s too much…then the cabbie gives up the game, “OK, how much you wanna pay?” So the game was on. I ended up getting only partially fleeced for 30 ($12) but I considered it a small victory for a guy with heavy bags.

Tunisia had been a European travel destination for several years prior to the terrorist bombing in 2015. Since then tourism is slowly coming back, but the slow-down in the economy is evident.

Your Louage Awaits

All my planning hours spent humped over this small laptop, finding busses, trains and the “perfect” route went right out the window once I got here. I checked into the hostel and asked “Marwel” the counter-man, for directions to the bus…this simple request changed my whole Tunisian Plan. I use this “Rome2Rio” site to plan most connection, as it gives me different travel options and their costs…but for Tunisia, the main mode of transportation is the  “louage” and this is not covered by technical sites.

“Louage” is French for broken-down mini-van with sketchy brakes, iffy transmission and horrendous seats…it’s a national treasure here. Sure there ARE official busses and trains, but what’s the fun in that? Imagine a wooden roller-coaster who’s cars can run on pavement..THAT’s the feeling of a louage…Oh and the car can only leave once it’s completely packed with people…no spare seats allowed…I think it’s because no one wants to rattle around in an empty louage; you use those around you as human padding.

The louage has no schedule. You show, you go, but again, only when the “can” is full. Rates are ridiculously cheap, about $2 an hour, so you put up with a lot. The presence of a louage stop in the greater Saharan region is a badge of honor. Like many places I’ve been, the humans are moving towards the bigger cities, so traveling to remote spots is getting tougher. And if there’s no louage, they could be impossible to reach as very few Tunisians have cars.

So you’re rattling around, from place to place and you need gas. Sure there are those “official” gas stations with names like “Shell” but what’s the fun in that? Nope, when possible, the professional louage driver goes to “gas towns”…here’s where the fun begins. I’m always on the lookout for the odd, and a ‘gas town’ fills that bill. You smell it before you see it. I thought our van had punctured his gas tank, but looking out the window I saw a most curious site. All the store-fronts had 5-gallon “jerrycans” lined up on the curbs, and each shop had these manual contraptions; a bucket elevated about 4-feet off the ground with a cheese-cloth secured over the open end. From the bottom was a glorified garden hose with a cork stuffed in the end.. The smell told you the product, but not the why.

In Cambodia I had seen roadside stops like this, but only a few at a time, not 25 in a row…there, they sold gas in liquor bottles, a fifth at a time…but not jerry-cans…we filled up quickly and were on our way, but my Arabic is admittedly spotty, so it would take a few hours to get an explanation.

There is actually OiLibya gas stations here in Tunisia, but their relationship with the neighbor to the east is not great. But their gas is the best, apparently. So these “black tankers” drive across the border from Tripoli, and park at the end of these “gas towns”. The locals come over with their jerry cans and fill up for resale to guys like my louage driver. Word on the Tunisian street is that the “Libya stuff” gets you about 3kms more per liter than the regular stuff sold at the pump. Again, Tunisians making a market for themselves.

 

Star Wars

If you Google Tunisia, will see beaches, palm trees and Roman ruins…but this is also the place for Star Wars fans…George Lucas liked the desolate vistas found here and did a fair amount of shooting around southern Tunisia. I’m not one to pay this sort of thing much heed, but I did find myself in many of these locations while on tour and the camera did come out.

Hotel Sidi Idriss in Matmata, where the daytime temps can melt glass. The locals for over two centuries have dug homes underground..a main central hole with cave bedrooms dug horizontally from it. This was the setting for Luke Skywalkers home

Slave quarters, near Tatouine. Yes, Tatouine really exists, and there are “ksars” here, grain storage buildings that were used in a few of the movies…they are really cool to see. One set was literally in the middle of a bustling community…no longer used for grain storage, they now actually house equally ancient peoples.

Star Wars Set – Sometimes you just pay for the tour.. I was on the last day of my Tunisian romp and took a tour to see the Sahara, and Star Wars set…make completely of wood and painted canvas, the “town” is now over-run with touts pushing all sorts of tourist chatch….but it was still pretty cool.

 

Food and Other Stuff

The grub is a level better than in Morocco. Here they not only sell spices, but actually use them. There is hot food here; and Shwarma…lots of shwarma… prices here are definitely cheaper than in Morocco, but they are geared more towards the cruise-ship tourist market. Whereas Morocco was sprayed with hostels in every town, Tunisia has relatively few, and even those are probably mislabeled hotels. I never shared a room during my two weeks, and the rooms always had a key. What you save on cheaper food and transportation will be spent on accommodation, but that which was $9 in Morocco is probably $13 here, so we’re not talking about a big difference.

Road-Side Construction

Looking out all the windows of all the louages I took while looping around in the desert, I was struck by how many buildings were still under construction. Back in Morocco the buildings were finished, but abandoned, as the residents moved on. In Tunisia it was as if there was a premium paid on starting a new building, but not in completing it. I had initially thought that this lack of progress was attributed to the terrorist attacks back in 2015, and that’s only a part of it…Seems that getting construction loans here is complicated and time consuming, so just like the louage, the citizens do things for themselves. The reason for all the unfinished buildings is that there are no loans taken on construction, everyone just builds on their own. They are literally building towns one brick at a time; and this method takes time..perhaps generations.

Ancient Rome

There are lots of Roman ruins here, Carthage, El Jem and Dougga. The camera was impressed with Dougga and El Jem, Carthage received only a “meh”.

Carthage has an official “site” for the ruins, but they themselves have been “ruined”… just a collection of rubble to these aging eyes.

El Jem has an amphitheater still standing…and you can go (and I did) underneath to see the pens where the lions and slaves were kept before the big “show”…

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Dougga has it all, a lesser amphitheater, but also a bigger settlement, with mosaic floors walls and aquaducts…but after my visit I found that there was no available return louage, so I got soaked for a private taxi…but it was still awesome.

As the bags need packing, I should sign off for now. Tunisia is a great place to get your tan working. Lots of direct sunlight and plenty of barren rock and sand here, with a side of Star Wars. Take the louage, it’s the only way to travel…literally…

There is lots of pottery here, beautiful but heavy..

Next Up is Egypt

 

Here’s Looking at You….Morocco

Morocco, land of “Morocco Mole” (friend of Secret Squirrel, Google it, kids), Berber living, bouncing off the back of some camel and Casablanca, always Casablanca. Coming to Morocco has been a ‘thing’ with me for a bit; visions of dimly lit alleys, and medinas; catacombs of humanity all trying to sell me something as I take pictures of it all.

So I hopped a slow boat to Tangier and kept the camera at the ready.

While I’m writing this, the canon has sounded, denoting the end of today’s fasting of Ramadan. The streets are clogged with locals, seeking out that first meal of the day and bartering for every dirham. This clatter comes wafting thru my small window on this my last night, like a siren, luring me back into the streets.

In the end, I don’t think I found what I was looking for in Morocco. Over the last month, via trains, buses, shared taxies and the odd camel, I’ve moved thru a good handful of cities and seen some stuff, but in the end, TIA,” This-Is-Africa” and the reality of present day Morocco didn’t exactly match up with my visions of what it would/could be.

Tangier, a rather dirty, musky northern doormat to the country was first up; at 4am. The boat was late getting to port, and the subsequent drive and unwanted “assist” from a local to get me to the hostel was an indication of the realities here. There was a medina there for sure, every town here has one, full of those tight winding streets I had envisioned beforehand, but what it had to offer was offset by the ‘curb appeal’ or lack thereof. This was no carefree stroll thru the market with cheerful vendors engaging in the lively art of conversation. This was carnival barkers chattering like magpies on a phone line, coming towards you at all angles, like a scene from “the birds” . My beard made it easy for barkers, and the recurring chant of “Ali Baba” would begin early and often during my market days. I calculated that if I paused for more than a second during my stroll, this was enough to elicit an offer to tour the shop and a sincere plea of “but why?” when I didn’t. Two days of smelling rotting garbage in the medina here was enough and if you could, and I would advise, you move past Tangier with haste.

About three hours on a local bus brought the traveler to Chefchaouen (shef-sho-wan); the blue city. Here they’d like you to think it’s the only blue city in the world, but the Bon Voyager was quick to whip out a few snapshots of Jodhpur, India to counter that notion…but color aside, what a place. Hostel connections are made step by step here. Tangier Kasbah hostel recommended, Aline Hostel in ‘Chef’ and there I was. Now what they didn’t mention was the one-mile hike from the bus stop…all up hill, sharply. Cardio impact aside, once I got my gear up that hill, that’s where I wanted to stay…the views here were stunning…

The vibe here was good, and the medina is kept clean by a “blue crew” who refresh the paint by day, and sweep by night…the town has character, and characters aplenty. To see the blue wash applied was camera worthy, but the painters were shy, though easily distracted.

There are drugs readily available here, from a “farm” for such things, and in short order I became versed in the difference between “pre-press” and “pressed” hash, as it seemed like something to know about. From extensive interviews it all seemed medicinal, though I’m no doctor, it just seemed like everyone was in need of a dose. Whatever your ailment, here in “Chef” you’ll find the cure.

Founded by Portugal in 1471, there’s a bakery here pumping out discus-shaped loaves for almost as long. The buildings appear thrown on the side of a foothill, like a plate of blueberry kefta. There is peace here, but unfortunately I came across this Moroccan “dessert” before I had really taken in much of the rest, so I pushed on.

Fez, a whirling dervish of commotion and commerce, compared to “Chef” is another four hours away. The medina here has almost 5,000 alleys with another 500 dead-ends, and after dropping off my bags at the hostel, I went out to get lost….it didn’t take long. You can really get too reliant on technology, and my mapping app works well when it can “see”  the satellites above; this is NOT the case in a Kasbah…technology goes “dark” quickly here. The “Ali Baba” crews were in fine form, letting me know that they saw me well before I saw them. The chanting of “Baba” rose with all the fervor of the Muslim 5pm call to prayer. Somehow I got spit back out onto the main street intact,after only an hour of wrong turns, and without having to buy a carpet; it was a miracle. Released from the belly of the retail beast of Fez was pretty exhilarating. I took a city tour the next day that added shots of a leather tannery, and a bowl of fava bean soup to my experiences.

I would spend the day touring the ruins of Votubilis, the south-west edge of the Roman Empire; dating to 245. Leaving Fez seemed to be a lot easier than getting in; short red taxi to a modern rail station, ticket purchase and a hop onto a departing train had me heading south to Marrakech.

The eight hours passed slowly, unlike a bus with assigned seats, the Moroccan Rail, in second class, takes on all comers, and might be the longest commuter train around. There was a passenger swap at ever station for the first four hours, but eventually the cast of characters stabilized and we all took a nap.

Marrakech is the ‘big city’, with the largest medina, Kasbah and footprint. I wandered the streets for a few days before touring the countryside and out to the Sahara.

Here too, I had grand notions of how I would “meet” the desert. I had been in many deserts from India to Australia and thought I knew what was involved; but in the end, TIA-This Is Africa, and I took what was on offer.

I had hoped to spend almost 10 days in the journey to the desert. There are tour operators everywhere in Marrakech, and after way too much conversation and route planning, my 10-day “wish” evaporated like the wisps of a mirage. To customize a trip to be something special here, becomes expensive quickly, so in the end, after a reality check lasting two complete ice-cream bars , I got on the normal tour bus. Sometimes you just get on the bus.

The tour to the desert at Marzouga was a genius move, as it turns out. The big piece for me, was to shoot the ‘ighrem’ (fortified village) at Ait Ben Haddou. The pictures looked incredible, and it’s been the setting for several movies… the walls of caked mud, fired by the heat of a thousand summers to a consistency of reinforced concrete. I couldn’t wait….but then….

Sometimes it rains in the desert; not often but it does…and did. Ait Ben Haddou quickly turned into Ait Ben Haddon’t…wet dirt isn’t so photogenic as it turns out. An hour tramping around, then an overpriced lunch and we were on our way.

Ait Ben Haddon’t

There was an hour spent at Dades Canyon, another place filled with promise, but once you’ve spent a summer hiking around the rocks of the American West, nothing else really compares. There were road-side retailers here too, their chants of “Ali Baba” are probably still echoing out there.

By late afternoon on the second day, we were at Marzouga, gateway to the Sahara. I had hoped to somehow avoid the camel ride and opt for more photo opportunities on the back of a dune buggy, but in the end, you get on the camel. The “desert tour to Berber came overnight” felt more like a carnival ride. Yes, it’s a living animal, but they’re roped together, nose to tail, and your seat has a set of hande-bars. ”Please grip the handle bars firmly and completely until the camel comes to a full and complete stop.” The Berber “camp” is more like four low-slung festival tents done in black. Three to sleep in and one to eat in. There was also a “berber toilet” which was a toilet mounted to a wooden platform over a hole. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt Lawrence of Arabia had such luxury. Inside the tents, there were rugs on the floor and foam mattresses covered in Berber rugs, that smelled of wet camel. And then the rains came…again.

But it’s times like this you’re glad for companionship, and my tour-mates came thru. There were cards played, a drum circle and even sledding down the dunes around us. As the “Great Baba” I was called upon for advice and occasional wisdom from those less than half my age…

At the crack of dawn it was back on the camel to our awaiting bus. Nothing more to see in the Sahara or on the tour bus, just 11hrs of driving across the nothingness that ends up being middle Morocco. An entire day driving passed boarded up or abandoned villages. It almost seemed like everyone waited until the freshly paved road had cooled enough to drive on, then they left town for the big city, leaving only an odd smattering of pottery and fossil sellers in their wake.

After a full day on a tour bus built for much smaller people, I took a day off to “uncoil’ before pushing on to the coast.

The predominant tourist in northern and central Morocco is French-Canadien. There is a direct flight from Montreal to Marrakech and they share a common language. But moving to the coast, the tourist becomes German. Perhaps it’s the water, or more likely incredibly cheap airfares from Munich.

I spent two days at a surf hostel just north of Agadir. The hostel was fine, but the scenery was more like a construction site. Tagaught has been discovered. There is presently a three-mile long line of hotels under construction, and once completed, you probably won’t be able to see the sea from the road. The one upside was learning how to make Berber pizza, but in the end, that was about it.

So I pushed on to Essaouira, about two and a half hours north. There was supposed to be a public bus, but being Ramadan, the bus never came.  A friend and I ended up in a shared taxi and though it tripled the price, we changed locations.

Essaouira is the “resort” option from Marrakech. The tours can take you out here for a few hours on a day trip, but staying here is different.  he dorm room at the hostel was crowded but the folks were friendly to an aging traveler which was nice. There is an endless stretch of beach here, but the medina walking and beach combing ruled here. There is a high wall surrounding Essaoira but with the wall comes a “hole” in the wall, actually a bit of crumbled infrastructure, where you can access another stretch of beach. One might describe the scene there as a “garbage dump” but upon closer inspection, it’s mostly Moroccan tiles, washed up on the shore, or deposited there by unknown forces. I spent a few hours on the hunt for surf-worn examples and came back with a small bag of “keepers” but only time and weight will determine if they stay with me longer.

gilded doordetails from Essaouira

After three days in Essaoira it was time to push on.  I was lured to El Jadida, about three hours north, by the on-line photos of a Portuguese water tank (or cistern). As with a lot of things, the road ahead looks a lot simpler on the internet than in reality. It turns out that the major bus lines, CTM or Supratours, don’t make this run, so the bus is a “local”, stopping for every lost soul who makes the “down-wave” along the roadside. And we stopped a lot. The 3hr estimate turned into almost six hours, and then, we were only about 6 miles away, the bus pulls over and I get dumped on the side of the road. There would be a local bus to take me into town as the bus continued on to Casablanca…

Eventually I found my way to El Jadida, but I was frazzled, the train, the delay, the drive into town had all taken a toll. I had hopes of walking into the cheap hotel and finding a room, but that too, was not to be. Thankfully a local woman took pity on my situation and pointed me towards a similarly priced room and I was set.

The cistern took a few hours to shoot, and could have benefitted from more water being down there, but I got my shots and the trip went well.

Pushing on to Casablanca, there was a train, which was both on time and cheap. I located a cheap hotel for two nights and have been relaxing a bit.

Morocco has been a place where modern realities come in conflict with ones perceptions. I had hoped for more of the ancient mystique, but how do you market that. The Berbers who settled this area, have cell phone and cable bills to pay. Tourists arrive by the plane and busload, and how best to capitalize on that market is the reason for all the shops, but for a guy who needs none of what they are selling, it all became repetitive pretty quickly..

So the Tangier Kasbah hostel got me to Align, in “Chef” which recommended Funky Fez in Fez, which brought me to Dream Kasbah in Marrakech, who thought the Surf Hostel would work on the coast, which suggested Chill-Art in Essaouira, and it was hotels after that.

Morocco is fairly cheap in the end, $20 a day for food lodging is enough…

And I move on…

My “Life” PHD Program – Progress Report

In this, my last year of the “Life PHD” Program, there are a lot of things you’re supposed to “know and apply” out here:

How to keep your credit cards and passport in different locations,

How to get the best rates when converting money

How to not over-commit on hostel rooms (or relationships)

When to eat out, when to cook,  when to fast

Where to sit on a bus or train (and when to give up the seat)

But sometimes it’s hard to apply all that when you’re out in “the field”. I guess that’s why it’s a PHD ….

Heading out here, essentially “one last time”, armed with the knowledge of how to do this all the “right” way, I’m struck by how often the path towards “right” gets murky once it’s your feet walking that path. The phone apps are no help at all, and quite often give you a false sense of security, promoting that others have gone somewhere before you and it’s going to be worth it…Sort of like asking a stranger for a dinner reservation. You’re putting a lot of faith in an unknown opinion….that you then have to eat..

But you get on the bus, you book your hostel and you walk along the paths worn down by those who came before you and try to take it all in. Certain moves get easier with repetition; my packing/unpacking is a lot easier once I’ve “lost” it all and found it again. But there are moves that never seem to get refined, no matter how often you make them.

Heading to airports has always been an issue for me. Perhaps it’s the finality of the move, leaving one locale for another, but for me, it’s the memories of flights missed or diverted, for no better reason than I misread the ticket or timetable…that keeps me on edge…Like a sanity test with all your luggage…did I remember things, what did I forget?

This last voyage, essentially a last year of my “schooling” will be a time of great interest. Saying “hello” to several new countries, while saying, perhaps, a bittersweet “goodbye” to the notion of living my life on the road this way….a traveler running out of road…

or so sayeth “Abu Ben Wazzuuuppp!”

Moroccan Ferry of the Damned

Moroccan Ship of the Damned

May 5, 2018. So sometimes you get this idea in your head about how you want to enter a country. Usually this takes the form of a flight or a train, maybe a bus…but not Morocco.

Did ya ever find yourself standing by a ferry port in the rain, not sure where your ship is, or if this is even a good idea…well I have.

After an admittedly (by my standards) lack-luster few days in Barecelona, I got the idea to push on..but in feeling that push, I became keenly  aware that not all “pushes” cost the same..

Traditional wisdom on this trip was to start in Barcelona, train it to Madrid, then another train to Gibraltar, a few days of site seeing and then a short ferry to Tangier. Easy enough… I think it was Gibraltar that started all this…when in doubt blame Gibraltar.

When you travel a lot, the numbers swirl around you like summer gnats around dusk. You’re doing constant math, with conversion rates, “convenience fees”, per night average costs and arrival departure times set to Greenwich mean-time. So Gibraltar was coming in at around $60 a night. For vacationers getting away, or business guys with expense accounts, this would seem normal…for this traveler, that was a problem.

So the tentacles of doubt started coiling around almost every option I worked thru. I could train it to Madrid, walk around for another few days, then bite the bullet and pay the Gibraltar rate, and all was possible. But I was just curious about what was out there, visible from this side of the pond.

And eventually, thru the haze, came the Grimaldi Ferry, running from Barcelona to Tangier, Morocco. This offered a few benefits that I couldn’t pass up. First of all, it’s a twenty-six hour ferry. I don’t recall many ferries of this length. We’ll go down the Spanish coast and eventually cross at the narrowest point. The bypassing of Madrid and Gibraltar puts me almost a week ahead of schedule and  a few hundred dollars to the good on the overall budget.

All that remained was to book it….which proved no easy task.  My previous travels thru India and South America had me passing at least ten travel agents a day….but in Barcelona, there really wasn’t even one I could recall during my roving. I had tried the “self help”, attempting to book it myself, the transaction would go thru, then be rejected ten minutes later. Joy to agony in so few mouse clicks.

I asked at the hostel whether they were aligned with a travel agent, and was surprised to find they weren’t. So if someone had a travel question, they were really on their own. My phone has all the wonderful apps and eventually my mapping app showed a travel agent a few blocks away. It was almost 8pm when I pushed thru the door. In Barcelona, 8pm can be considered “tea time” as dinner doesn’t get going before 10pm.

The travel agent’s first reaction to my request was to say it was impossible, but then she might have realized it was a slow night and gave it a try. She got to the exact point where I failed on my own…and she was able to get thru…and ten minutes later I owned a ferry ticket for Saturday night for $144.

I would spend the next day making adjustments to my itinerary. I wasn’t having much luck with photographs or the weather in Barcelona, so my hopes were for sunny skies and a better exchange rate heading to Africa.

I had a decent time in Barcelona, but for my tastes it was very cosmopolitan, with a Spanish accent.The paella was good, the ham, thin sliced off the bone, sublime. I think it’s hard to base a country’s review on rice and ham. Lots of American’s and European college students spreading their travel wings at every corner, but for a living fossil like myself, it lacked a certain “photographer’sappeal”…so I packed the bags and moved on to the ferry.

I chose to walk, which became it’s own purgatory for me…roughly fifty pounds spread over two bags provided the workout. I was a dripping mess by the time I covered the 1.5 miles to the water…but alas, Barcelona has more than one boat anchored on it’s shores. Garibaldi ferries was another mile down the road, and thru a decent rainstorm I slogged my way..it might take me twenty-six hours to overcome the hike to the ferry.

Pushing thru the doors at Garibaldi, the counter help quickly issued boarding pass and within a few minutes I was in line for the security check. Ferries are not planes, and it quickly became apparent that this journey was favored by Moroccan’s who are in the business of moving merchandise..huge bags, each weighing probably close to 100lbs were piled up near the x-ray machine. My two bags of fifty pounds seemed insignificant by comparison.

The security check proved that this is the Moroccan express, with me the only white guy for miles. I quickly learned why this route isn’t that popular. But I have a bed, and a restaurant and Italian is the language of thestaff…So Spanish, Moroccan, French, and Italian…

Apparently most do not book rooms. Folks are scattered along the edges, like match-sticks thrown down the hall. Electrical outlets are in rare supply

Some times you choose your adventure, and perhaps, at the start, I’m thinking this adventure chose me.

10pm – Cast Off..

It’s hard to say how many of us there are, but the “Berber to Bohemian” ratio is almost 100%. The room numbering system here is something worthy of investigation;  two aisles of even numbered rooms, and one with odd numbers only…so my #, 627 is not beside 626, but two aisles over…must be that new math, or Italian..

The Berbers are distributed evenly about the “leisure deck”. There’s separate prayer rooms for men and women, a bar, restaurant, bar and even a casino. Everything an Italian cruise line would add to a ship to maximize profits at sea, except their clientele travel with 100lb bags of goods, eat fruit out of their pockets and bring their own water.

But being an Italian ship, there are perks. The Serie “A” football match with Juventus proved quite popular with the viewing public last night, and for a brief moment I was tempted to splurge and hit the restaurant for a meal, but I had an orange in my pocket and a liter of water from the hostel.

Like a ferry, the bottom deck is full of cars and trucks. This must be a true benefit of this line. Driving down the coast to Gibraltar takes time and gas.

Thinking back thru my travels, there was a ferry from Iceland to the Faroe Islands that we could have taken had we not rented another car. The port was a few hundred “clicks” from Reykjavek, and I believe the time was similar..an over-night affair.

 

8am – At Sea..

I have two Berber roommates; names were not exchanged. Lower-bunk was quiet, but the guy in the upper rattled thru snoring fits that sounded like a plastic fork striking fan blades; it was really amazing. But he slept well, the entire night. I know this because I had my usual 90 minute ‘naps’ and in between, the “fan blade” rattled on. He’s still rattling, but it’s 8am and time for me to be vertical.

Out on the “Prominad Deck” (Love Boat reference there), my Moroccan’s smoke and joke. The Spanish coastline passes from left to right as I gaze out at the morning. While getting to the boat was a wet forced march thru Barca, this morning there is an optimism that I made the right call.

Barcelona was a decent launching pad for this, the latest “last” of my voyages. You pack your bag full of gear and experience, hoping you have all the former, and trusting in the latter. Landing in a big city allowed me to stress test my gear and improve my lot before heading into the remote.

There is probably a check list of events that travelers deal with, and I’ve already experienced one of the more stressful; credit card issues. Back in 2016, REI Jim and I were in Tromso, Norway, about 600 kilometers above the arctic circle and Santa. I tried booking a flight from Helsinki, Finland to Mongolia via Moscow.  When I clicked on the “commit to purchase” button, that innocuous click set off a chain of events that took a few weeks to unravel. That flight, Norway to Mongolia via Moscow appeared fraudulent, to the “bots” and bodies in charge of looking for such things. I got an email from my credit card company alerting me to my “fraud” and to please call. Turns out that my attempt killed my card. No problem on their end, since they can expedite a new card…to America. Getting that re-routed to me in Scandinavia would take two weeks, but in the end, I was back “up”.

The 2018 episode went a little differently. There I was, sitting in Barcelona waiting for my ramen to boil, when my phone tingled and I was notified that my purchase of $263 worth of building supplies at Home Depot, ten minutes ago, had gone thru…Staring at my bubbling noodles, I sensed there was a problem.

I finished my noodles and got to work. I was able to review my transactions and found, thankfully that there was only one fraudulent charge. But to fix it meant killing my card. And unlike the 2016 “Helsinki Incident” I don’t know where I’ll be in two weeks…so I’ll have the card routed home and then out to me when I “land” somewhere. This is why you travel with two credit cards…and some cash. I’ve already made a crazy charge, Barcelona to Tangier ferry, without incident, but an issue back home leaves me a bit stranded..

As the coast of Spain continues to roll past, I can offer a bit more about Barcelona. When I was giving my “travel shows back in April, my friend Dave-O, asked a great question, “What do I consider to be ‘being’ in a country”. Is it stopping at the airport, is it staying a night? It’s a great question because there’s an urge, when you travel, to count, categorize and then sort your experiences. My stay in Barcelona was six days, but only five days of useful time (arriving somewhere at 11pm doesn’t count)..so I will list Spain in the ‘been there” category..but with this disclaimer.

I didn’t ‘connect’ with Spain like I have with other places. Looking back, as we movers do, I also didn’t ‘connect’ with Oslo, Norway. But I felt connected to Helsinki, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Each visited for about the same time. I don’t think it was the people, and certainly not the language. The main sites in Barca are all located along a central strip that stretches from the Mediterranean up “la Rambla” shopping district to a few noted buildings with “Gaudi” effect. I went to the main edifice of Gaudi, the Segura de Familia church, and was left unaffected. The eternal construction phase of the church had an effect no doubt, but it was as if the images of “la Familia” were artist renderings not drawn to scale.

I visited Park Gruell, for another flight of architectural fantasy, and paid $11 to enter the “monumental zone” only to find an 80lb bag of concrete resting on my seat. That too was under construction. Perhaps these old eyes have seen too much, the “wonders” of each city now pass thru the filters of my own making, and like the last bit of coffee in your cup, sometimes there are more grounds in it than you like.

There were a lot of tourists, as I knew there would be. From a young American tourist perspective,Spain is just exotic enough…you can get into areas where English is not readily offered, but in the end, it’s western Europe; they have HBO. I am, at heart, a Barca fan. The football is first rate, but I experienced a Barcelona that is about stylish clothing,  good  food and living a life with style. Unfortunately that doesn’t translate well to digital photography. I didn’t shoot well and it left me wanting.

The hope is that by taking this “Tangier Pivot” I can jump-start my sputtering start; easing off the clutch and giving it enough gas to not kill my travel engine.

9am..

The Prominad Deck is filling up. I had the taste for a coffee and headed into the bar area. Correctly deducing I was American, the barista offered a large coffee.. I was a bit scared of the cost, seeing all these small cups for the Berbers…but my cup was the same size, about three inches tall. He only served expresso,  so this was right…it’s a sunny day on the Mediterranean, on my make-shift cruise..

 

5pm…

After a “man overboard” drill which is mandated out here we got to see all ship personnel in nice orange life preservers, as we, the cargo barely moved. Lots of Italian soccer to watch and the sea rushing towards us.

By 11am, I had settled in with a book. I can never seem to find time to read in the States, but out here, there’s a lot more down time for such things. Another page-turning thriller and within a few hours I had finished it all…and time for a nap, another thing I never really find the time for back home…

There is no actual “time” out here at sea. We are scheduled to arrive at 11pm tonight, but the ship didn’t leave port until almost 11 last night, so it’s uncertain when I’ll arrive. One of the benefits of this ferry is that it arrives, allegedly, right in Tangier, and not “Tangier Med” about 30 miles away…that too has to be proven.

The seas here are calm, and the voyage has been relatively uneventful. My last extended boat trip was down in Ushuaia and the voyage down to Antarctica. THAT was the kind of trip you won’t soon forget, never have so many been so sick for so long…

9pm…

the ship moves, but you don’t know how fast…supposed to reach Tangiers by 11pm, but who knows. Italian soccer rules the televisions and everyone seems to have the same expression….time for something else.

11pm comes and goes. I retired to my room to finish packing…and took a nap. at 1am, we were still moving, but I had the sense that we were close, so I grabbed my bags and made my way to the car-deck…to join a few hundred people with the same idea.

We finally landed at about 2:30am. The brochure showed the boat moored in Tangiers, proper, but it turned out to be a place called “Tangier Med” about 40km from town. Shared a cab with a Chinese girl and then had about 20 minutes to walk the winding streets of the Tangier Medina to find my hostel by 4:30am..not exactly the way they showed in the brochure…

But I “stuck the landing” in Tangier; and like a lot of things, I’m not sure I’d recommend this route..

 

here are some pictures from Barcelona churches.

WOW! That Was a Flight

So there’s this undeniable “carrot” that is sought by travelers; how to link places on the cheap…the really cheap….

In the past I flew Air Asia which was rough, until I got to VivaColombia…viva Colombia indeed, but those flights..but these were planes taken in remote places, not exactly in my back yard….

But then I tried to go to Barcelona from Chicago and found that the “carrot” of low-cost travel was now local to me…$150 to Barcelona..”WOW” is right.But there were restrictions…the$150 is for human trafficking…anything beyond a wallet,and not too many bills in that wallet…but if you have baggage, then we have a fee for you.

So $150 became $185 with luggage and I clicked on “commit”. From this point we were a couple.  My expansive dupa in their shrinking seats. The Battle was On…

Arriving in Gate “M”, a new one for me…and I guess “M” may mean “meager”…there were surprises…

An attractive hostess in the hot pink colors of “WOW” came by, offering up these little Icelandic pails of what appeared to be lard. I had seen a lot of lard in my youth…mom baked a lot and I would always ask her why her cookies tasted so good and she would reply, “It’s the lard kid, I don’t spare it.”

So for only $8.50 I followed the others and bought my pail. It came with this flat paddle and I just couldn’t make the connection….we we going to make cookies? Ahh….no.

As they called for boarding, I took note that those in rows 37 to 25 had no lard. I was holding a pass for 7D, and lard matron rolled by and commented, “lay it on thick kid”… I was confused…

Right there, O’Hare concourse ‘M’ and folks were applying white lard to their outer edges; shoulders to knees..it was crazy… I followed the suggestions and was soon properly lathered…

I had my backpack slung over one shoulder, thelittle pail in my left hand and passport and boarding pass in my right. Thru the last check and down the ramp…and onto the tarmac. We were instructed to put our carry-ons into carts by row, then divided into two teams. There were a bit over 200 people standing out there, with about 100 under each wing…

Each team took turns winding the propellers one full rotation under the guidance of the crew. Apparently “proper tensioning” is important on the main rubber-bands that will control our flight..then one we had all taken our turns “turning”, and remember those of us with the low row numbers arestill properly “lubed” …this long bar drops below each wing and the teams are told to line up and grab the bar; it was so exciting…

Turns out WOW airlines uses a “manual” transmission we were all going for a “push start” first we had to push the plane away from the gate, and then once the pilot feels a little movement, he’ll ease off the clutch and apply some gas…..the rubber-bands are for take-off, but we’ve got to get to the  runway first…

So after about twenty minutes, the plane is now slowly moving…I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped onto a moving plane, but it adds something beyond the $185 price; it adds adventure…

We all made the “hop” back rows first, and eventually I got my  turn here as well…ascending the ladder, I quickly realized the need for the lard…all the better to squeeze past the seats of travelers..the getting to the seat was a slippery affair, but actually sitting down in it was near impossible. The distance between seat back and the seat in front of me was no more than 10 inches…and I have that big dupa…

The guy behind me saw the shocked look on my face and offered that I had “clearly” missed the “leg-room requirement” box on the booking form….turns out that the assumption is that your femur length NOT exceed 8-inches…Anything beyond that was my responsibility and for a small upcharge I could declare I was “adult size”. Thus knees became integrated with the arm-rest mechanism for the seat in front of me…..well at least on an international flight; there’d be the free beers coming…but no. WOW airlines has this great policy of “what about us?” the crew doesn’t exactly “serve” they are actually served by the customer…so the crew asked us for drinks…some came prepared; I did not.

Over the next six hours I performed all variations of airline “yoga”; from ‘pressed lotus flower in book’ to ‘downward scowling dog’ as I tried to find comfort in a sea of compression.  The standard seating position closely resembled the “emergency – brace for impact” position on other airlines…my knees got a full visual inspection…

But some of this was in gest…I’ll leave you to sort it out…but for $185 I got to Iceland and then Barelona…if you don’t need frills, this is your airlines, but who knew breathable oxygen was a perk? And if you’re blessed with femur’s under 8-inches, this is your plane.

I have gone six hours without eating a few times in my life and I did so again…the coffee cart came down the aisle at the five-hour mark, it’s greased sides made this odd “popping” sound as it passed the aisle seats….I had hope, perhaps just this once, a bit of kindness….I unfolded from my “coiled roll of stamps” pose long enough to gaze over…to see the woman the aisle scrawling her signature on a tablet, agreeing to the $3.80 charge for a flat black….the lid was another 20-cents….napkin was a bargain at 5-cents.

They say life is a journey, not a destination, but WOW airlines really makes you appreciate the luxuries you didn’t know you had… now how do I get the lard out of my hiking shorts?