The past two weeks have been PACKED full of adventures. I visited Granada, Spain and the Sierra Nevada mountain range during my fifth weekend here in Europe, and just yesterday, I got home from Morocco. I have a permanent cramp in my neck from sleeping on buses, but it’s been all kinds of worth it to see all of the things that I’ve seen!
A little update on daily life before we dive into the ~big stuff~: my routine consists of resting and working on schoolwork Tuesday-Thursday before jet setting somewhere on the weekends. My travel schedule is picking up, and so I use the middle of the week to do my homework, go to class (of course), and run errands to get necessities for my next trip.
Is it exhausting? In some ways, yes. I’m learning a lot about what it means to TRAVEL instead of just VACATION. I live out of one backpack, sleep in dingy hostel beds (one twin shared with a friend) or sitting up in a cramped bus, and take cold showers. But the awe and the adrenaline and the adventure of it all is addictive. I’m leaving comfort behind for the sake of the unknown, and that is the single greatest thing that I have ever done.
So. Here’s to many more restless nights and early mornings, and the exotic sunrises that make it all worth it in the end.
Thursday, February 6: Is This a Bad Idea?
Rachel and I began to recognize the implications of our chaotic tendencies right around 10 pm. We booked a bus to Granada, a city in southern Spain thick with Arabic culture, that departed at 1:30 in the morning. We did this so that we could “sleep” on the 5 hour trip and still have a full day to make the most of in the city. Good plan, in theory. But we had been at school for 9 hours straight and had just gotten back from Paris 3 days earlier, and our beds were calling us BIG TIME.
Regardless, we finished packing and we got on a bus for five hours in the middle of the night. Ah, to be young and dumb 🙂
Friday, February 7: La Alhambra
When you get to the bus station and it’s 6:30 in the morning, and you’re a solid 3 miles from the city center, you take a nice brisk 3 mile walk! Granada is a lot like other Spanish cities that I’ve visited from the surface level, but the deeper I dove, the more enthralled I became.
I first learned about Granada in my AP Art History course in high school. I did a project on La Alhambra, a giant Islamic fortress/palace/garden set up on the hillside (this is the most famous landmark in Granada, and definitely one of the most famous in all of Southern Spain!) When I was memorizing facts about this place at sixteen, I had no clue that I was going to be stepping foot inside. Life really came full circle for that one.
I got us a bit lost because I am the worst at using navigation apps, but we found ourselves at the top of a beautiful staircase with a picturesque view.
Rachel took over (three cheers for Rachel!) and we found the hill leading up to La Alhambra. It was quite the hike, but it was so worth it. No picture I took could do this place justice. It’s by far the most amazing structure I’ve seen in my time abroad.
I’ve seen so many cathedrals. SO. MANY. CATHEDRALS. And all of them are so nice, truly. But when I go inside, they make me feel cold, and like I have to be quiet. La Alhambra was like stepping into the Garden of Eden, amplified. Fountains. Exotic plants. Intricate carvings and genius geometry. I felt warmer and more welcome in the Islamic palaces than I did in any of the churches I have visited! I gained a new respect for Islamic art after seeing it in person and will argue until the day that I DIE that Catholicism isn’t the only religion that knows how to do design.
These pictures were almost all taken by Rachel!
Another fun part of Alhambra was how many cats were in the complex!! We saw 17 stray cats and one even crawled in my lap. For someone who’s very deprived of pets right now, I was in heaven.
We ate at a vegan cafe for lunch, where I found my first Impossible Burger abroad, and sat outside drinking coffee for a while and just soaking everything in. The weather was in the mid 60s, so by this point it was perfect for walking the 3 miles back to the bus station!
We caught our bus to the Sierra Nevada, where we planned to spend the next day skiing. The bus, which I think was wider than the mountain roads at points, somehow did not drive off a cliff! Success!
After checking into our hostel, we ate some fries, drank some tinto de verano, and went to bed. The next morning would be an early one…
Saturday, February 8: I Take on the Bunny Slopes
Let the record state that if anything, I am a surfer, not a skier.
Also let the record state that I never knew running into snowdrifts could be so darn fun!
I have never been on skis before, so I was pretty nervous on our way up the mountain, but luckily I had the best (and most experienced) pal with me to show me the ropes! I ended up paying for a one hour ski lesson with a professional instructor. Carlos, I am sorry I do not know how to stop, but I appreciate your attempts to help me learn!
I spent the rest of the day on the bunny slopes, and actually stopped myself at the bottom of the hill a few times! I was really proud of myself for a few reasons. One, this was my first time doing anything like this since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I definitely noticed some stiffness with my movements that I haven’t always had in the past, but I was able to adjust and take breaks when I needed to. I’m not going to let having chronic pain stop me from being the active person that I’ve always been, and it was nice to push just the right amount! Two, I’m usually really hard on myself when I can’t get something right away (hi, perfectionistic tendencies here!) but I laughed off my epic failures and reminded myself that I couldn’t possibly learn to do it all in a day! I had so much fun just hanging up on the mountain and observing a lifestyle that I had never been exposed to before. Plus, our little mountain town was adorable!
Back at the hostel, the floor had flooded (among some other issues that I won’t go into here), so we decided it would be best to find somewhere else to stay for the night. Shoutout to my mama for saving us from afar by helping to pay for a hotel (they aren’t cheap in a fancy pants ski town!)
Our hotel, the cheapest on the entire mountain, was like a chateau to us. Our own bathroom! A bidet! A bathtub! Free breakfast in the morning! It was nice to have some space to ourselves because in an apartment with nine (yes, nine) other girls and our host mom, it’s rarely quiet! We took baths and ate Oreos in bed (a luxury since this is against our host mom’s rules) and had ourselves a relaxing little night!
The view wasn’t half bad either.
Sunday, February 9: Home (For Now)
Free breakfast, a few final ganders at the mountains, and a coffee in the square. Good last few hours in this beautiful place. I’ll be back…with a little more experience, preferably!
TANGER AND CHEFCHAOUEN, MOROCCO
Thursday, February 13: Back to the Buses
11:30 pm, 5 of the gals, a charter bus headed straight to Africa. Packed in the bags were lots of pepto bismol, extra rolls of toilet paper, and a whole lot of hand sanitizer. Spoiler alert: no one got sick, and aside from all of the stray animals we pet (because we are children with no self control!!!) I thought the cities were actually quite clean, especially Chefchouen. The government has work programs for lower income folks, so there were always people manicuring the streets. Africa is not all barren and dirty, so remember that and don’t be a generalizer! This is a reminder to myself and to all of us 🙂
Friday, February 14: Valentine’s Day in Tanger
We took a ferry and landed in a brand new continent!! We were so tired from so much travel, but we didn’t have much time to process our exhaustion before the excitement kicked in!
Walking down the streets as a clearly foreign woman was the only thing about Morocco that I really disliked. We were cat-called a LOT, and it didn’t stop right when we ignored them or kept our heads down. We stayed in our hotel rooms after dark because we just didn’t feel comfortable. I’m including this because I usually only talk about the wonderful, amazing, beautiful parts of the places I visit, but it’s good to remind everyone to be safe and aware! Also, if you think we don’t need “feminism” because “women already have rights”, you clearly have never left the United States!! Thank you, that is all, I am coming off the soapbox for now.
So TANGER. Okay. So different. We pull into the city right as the minarets of the mosques start blaring their horns, calling everyone to pray. Men start pulling out small rugs and kneeling, and traffic is pretty backed up because of this. Seeing such devotion to something was honestly so beautiful. Religion is so deeply engrained in the people of Morocco and it’s such a unifier for them. I felt lucky to get to witness something so different from what I had grown up with.
After checking in at our hotel and freshening up a bit, we went down to the beach and rode camels!! What a dream! I felt like I was on a date on the Bachelor or something.
We took some pictures and messed around while everyone else took their turns, and then we went to Hercules Cave. This is a cave tied to lots of ancient mythology and while we didn’t have a ton of time to explore, it was beautiful to see. Our tour guide splashed water from a well in the cave on our hands for good luck!!
Next stop was the city center, where we got a little taste of the market. A few observations:
- Lots of kids begging for money, which broke my heart in a million pieces. I don’t want to forget that I saw this happening, and when I have the resources someday, I want to do something about it. Writing it down so I never forget.
- The smells! Jasmine to saffron to orange to leather in the span of ten steps. Occasionally we would get a whiff of a fish market or something, but I noticed so many strong and really good smells coming from all of the different booths!
- If these people ever came to the States, every businessman on Wall Street would be out of a job. They can SELL IT TO YOU. And I succumbed. I got plenty of North African goodies from reliable shops (more on that in a second!), but hey, you’re only in Morocco once, right?
- There is such a work ethic in the Moroccan people. I saw an old man, who had to be at least eighty, sitting at a sewing machine making leather shoes when we first walked by. They were beautiful! When we came back, hours later, he was STILL working on making shoes. These craftspeople are so talented and patient!
- Just about everybody speaks English as a second language, and does so significantly better than they do in, say, France. At least, this was the case in the parts of the cities that I visited!
- You can get things up to half off of you haggle 😉
We went into a Moroccan herbalist pharmacy, where we sat in a semicircle as the workers dabbled different oils on our hands. Everything smelled so good and made my hands so soft…plus you have to get Moroccan oil in Morocco! So I promised myself I wouldn’t buy any and proceeded to buy four bottles. Nice one, Lexi.
We went to a weaving shop next, which had been around since the 1600s. And I got a blanket (and no one is surprised at this point).
Finally, we had a traditional Moroccan dinner. I wasn’t feeling well after a pretty long day, but I was still able to sample all five courses. My highlights were cous cous and some delicious mint tea! The band played as our waiters rallied us to dance around the restaurant.
(I didn’t take lots of pictures in the market, but there will be some shots of it in our video!)
Saturday, February 15: Chefchaouen BLUE Me Away!
I found a new favorite breakfast food (this pancake/pita situation with honey!) before we took the 2.5 hour bus ride to Chefchouen, a city famous for being painted in vibrant blue colors that is set high in the mountains.
The bus ride was gorgeous. We were so high in elevation (Africa isn’t flat, y’all!) that the clouds were rolling over the hills level with us. I thought it was interesting how many animals I saw that weren’t kept in fenced pastures. There were tons of goats, sheep, cows and horses just roaming through the countryside. None of my pictures are going to do it justice, but here’s one anyway!
Back to Chefchouen: I have never been anywhere like this before, and when I say it is the most INCREDIBLE city I have ever seen, I mean that. Every street was something straight out of a postcard. Here is some proof:
We took a short “hike” up to this beautiful lookout point. It honestly looked how I expect Greece to look (stay tuned for that trip in April!) if it was set in the mountains.
We spent the day wandering, buying too much, petting cats (there are so many and we are so unable to resist them), and soaking in the views. We all were in the same room at night, so we had some deep talks and I tried to make sense of the fact that I had actually come to an entirely new continent.
Sunday, the day I’m writing this (from the bus actually! we’re getting closer to Madrid!) our ferry was delayed, so we are getting home a bit later than expected. But I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!
Instead of doing “things I learned in Morocco”, I want to make a few more thorough points, because I think this is a good teaching/reflecting moment. I won’t apologize for being political or preachy. Just know these are my own thoughts based off of my own recent experiences and interpretations of them!!
We are always worried about how WE are going to feel as tourists in a strange city. We rarely think about how LOCALS are going to feel about having tourists in their home. I saw a lot of people on our tour this weekend disrespecting Moroccan culture by wearing crop tops, etc. when we were told by our guide to cover our knees and shoulders. It is different, and while we may have ethical disagreements about these “rules” as Americans, we do not get to make the choices when we are the foreign ones. It is so important to make sure that the people who call these places home and provide us with food, shelter, and entertainment for the weekend also feel comfortable in our presence.
A little more on that note— I got a Henna tattoo this weekend and I want to talk about that! I honestly am not very educated in these cultures, and I don’t know if this is appropriation or not. A woman at our lunch restaurant was doing them, as were many others that I saw in the street, so I assumed that it was not something I shouldn’t partake in as it was supporting a local businesswoman. However, that was a split second choice that I made and it could have easily been the wrong one! If you have any insight on this, PLEASE let me know. I’m always learning and trying to be better!!
Being female seriously alters the ways in which we travel. We have to keep our heads down and our lips pressed and we have to ignore whatever is said about us. No one made any moves to hurt me or my friends in ANY way, and I want to make that clear! But unwanted attention is just that—unwanted. Cultural differences are to be expected, but I believe that when they include the sexualization of non-consenting women, they do not have to be accepted. I am in no place to speak besides to share my experiences, and I just think this is a good time to re-evaluate how important women’s rights are as a global issue; current politics play a vital role in reframing how we are treated as females.
I made eye contact with a guy about my age as he brushed past me on a crowded sidewalk. I clutched my bag nearer to me, assuming he was going to try to pickpocket me. He went into the street to help an old blind man find his way back to the sidewalk. You don’t have to assume people are all good, and it’s smart to play it safe. But we have got to be careful with our generalizations. I met lots of kind shopkeepers, saw children playing barefoot in the square at sunset, and watched the small communities of Morocco interact in such a familial way. These are also people. They are also good. And they are not all out to get you. Sometimes, it’s your accusations that are out to get them. Recognize that.
It is very problematic to say “Africa” as if it is one country. It is a continent, and a diverse one. People speak many languages, come from big cities with fast food chains and nice stores and actual mansions lining the hills, and come from multiple races. I went to Africa and did not see any of the portrayals of Africa that I have seen in my textbooks, because I saw an INSANELY small part of the continent.
Let’s be kind, let’s be reflective, and let’s be smart. That is all.
Stay tuned for our Morocco travel video, and I’ll see you after Ireland and Scotland!