Once Upon A Dream: Highlights of 2013

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Photo cred Sarah Capdeville

What a crazy year this has been.

From Barcelona to Berlin, Cesky Krumlov to Chester, Lisbon to Ljubljana, Marrakech to Mount Rainier, San Francisco to Sintra, and Venice to Vancouver, I’ve quite literally been all over the place these past twelve months.

My second-to-last semester of my undergraduate has come and gone, and now I find myself precipice of a new year, full with possibilities and uncertainties, and the prospects of many other exciting opportunities on the horizon. But, as it stands, there is nothing decisive yet about my future. And I’m not quite sure if I’m thrilled or scared out of my mind.

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Photo cred Brenda Seymour

But, seeing as it’s New Year’s Eve, the time of year when I tend to get overly intro- and retro-spective, I figured it’d be appropriate to enumerate (in no particular order) some of my favorite experiences of 2013, both abroad and otherwise. Some are singular moments, some are more all-encompassing experiences, but they all are experiences I shall never forget, ones I shall carry with me forever.

1) Sensory overload in Marrakech

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I have never before in my life seen or experienced anything like the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square at night in Marrakech, Morocco.

I couldn’t help raving about this experience in a blog post soon after my trip in late March. The energy of the square is electrifying, once the sun goes down, the food stands open, and street performers begin their various entertainments.

Just recollecting this sole evening we spent in Marrakech’s spectacular square excites me and quickens my heartbeat. I can hardly believe I had the opportunity to have an experience so extraordinary, especially one in the company of family.

2) Frolicking in the Swiss Alps

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The hills were truly alive, and I had the amazing opportunity to frolick and adventure about through them with a dear friend back in June.

Switzerland had been at the top of my list of countries to visit during my trip around Europe, and it still baffles me to say that it exceeded my expectations in every way.

We spent just two days in those “hills,” one on a ridge along a UNESCO-certified glacier, the other, in constant view of one of the world’s most iconic peaks, and it was easily one of the coolest adventures of my life, one I also detailed with great deserved enthusiasm in another blog post.

3) Standing on the Slopes of Teide

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We cable-car’ed up a volcano and stood and walked around at 11,000+ feet for an hour.

It may sound not that impressive, but this short, last-minute venture of ours was perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. It was so surreal to stand on the rocky slopes and see nothing but a vastness of blue skies and dense cloud engulfing the tiny island below.

Even more than that, it was an incredible experience to share with two of my dearest friends from my study abroad experience in Granada. It was an unforgettable weekend, and hanging out at 11,000 feet nearly at the summit of the beloved Teide volcano was simply unreal.

4) Living with a host family

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I did it twice in Ecuador, and I knew from the moment I started contacting my Granada host family that I’d made the right choice to choose living in a homestay again.

I have never met more caring and loving people than my Argentinean host family in Granada. Those three were so good to me during my four and a half month stay, and from the minute I entered their home I felt welcome, loved, and safe.

Without them, my experience studying abroad in Granada would not have been the same. They treated me as their own daughter, as their true family, and I could not be more grateful.

Muchísimas gracias, Vero, Fer, y Alejo; les deseo un buenísimo año nuevo 🙂

5) Falling in love in Venice

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Venice is one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever been to, and I feel like I literally fell in love with that city. There was nothing I didn’t absolutely love about the tight, maze-like cobblestone roads running between crumbling buildings and alongside thin, scenic canals, the bustle of people in the patio restaurants and in flocks scattered about the Piazza San Marco and along the Grand Canal, and the beautiful colors of the fading old houses, especially those on the island of Burano.

And near the end of my very first evening in Venice, as I was trying to capture the picturesque sunset descending over the triumphant Grand Canal, I saw a little Italian girl who was strolling by with her grandparents, and asked her (in a jumble of rudimentary Italian and some English) to take my picture. She nodded, and like a pro, took several shots of me with a childish grin with the sunset behind me, including the one above.

I don’t believe I have ever felt such unbridled joy and infatuation for a city, as I did for Venice in those brief two and a half days. I cannot wait to go back.

6) Blueberry picking in Michelsneukirchen

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Of the three days I spent staying with a German friend of mine I’d met in Granada, perhaps my favorite experience was picking blueberries at sunset near her home in Bavaria.

I’d always enjoyed blackberry picking with my family as a child, so when her kind parents suggested we went blueberry picking my last night there, I jumped at the opportunity. It was such a relaxing evening, and made me realize even more just how lucky I was to have been able to stay and spend time with my friend and her family in their wonderful home.

It was a simple evening, but a fun and most memorable one, and I will forever be grateful for the hospitality and warmth of her family. And, of course, how yummy those blueberries tasted warmed over ice cream 🙂

7) High tea with family in London

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I loved everything about London. I would absolutely, 100%, live there one day. But, perhaps surprisingly, my favorite London moment was going for tea and lunch with my adorable British great aunts at the Goring Hotel right near Buckingham Palace.

In the two and a half days I spent exploring London, I felt like I saw everything; I walked by Westminster Abbey and Whitehall, saw Buckingham Palace, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, the Tower and the Tower Bridge, and I spent ample time gawking at artwork and other things at several of London’s prestigious museums. But the memory that I hold most dear to my heart was spending those few hours catching up with relatives I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

There was nothing quite so precious on my entire trip abroad than chatting and dining with those two, and I am beyond grateful and honored that they made the time to see their grand niece.

8) Seeing Firenze the right way

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My friends mean the world to me, and to have one of my dearest show me around her Florence for several days was such an incredible gesture.

I wasn’t even supposed to spend five whole days in Florence, but due to some necessary changes to my itinerary, I found myself on minute one in Florence, completely out of sorts, and in a hostel that ended up being the only poor one I would stay at in the entirety of my trip to Europe. But luckily my friend then got back to me that she would still be in Florence for another week or so at the tail end of her own study abroad venture there, and offered to show me around as much as she could during the time I was there!

I can’t imagine having a better experience in that city. It was the first city on my trip that I had arrived at feeling unmotivated and perhaps a little lonely and homesick for the first time, but thankfully my friend was there for me and we enjoyed an amazing few days together as she showed me around the best sites and the best local food joints, as well as a surprise trip to the beach on the coast at Cecina that I never would have been able to experience had it not been for her.

Grazie mille, bella 🙂

9) Hiking in the Mount Rainier wilderness

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Never forget the beauty and wonder you can find within your own home. Well, Mount Rainier isn’t exactly in Seattle, the place where I was raised, but it is the iconic and beloved peak of Washington state, and I had the opportunity to go on a brief hiking trip there with one of my best friends at the end of August.

The weather conditions weren’t exactly in our favor, and we were both struggling with the impeding stress of transitions from the summer back to real life at our respective universities, but in the end we persevered and were able to explore some of the gorgeous wilderness that the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier has to offer.

It was a wonderful bonding experience for the both of us, and it both challenged and excited us throughout its ups and downs.

10) Running the Color Run in Vancouver

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While my commitment to running has fluctuated between all-out obsessed and barely there at all, partaking in this event with some of my closest friends at the beginning of the school year was a great experience.

It was just one of those innocent, random, but exceedingly fun experiences realized in truly wonderful company that was a great way to kick off my fourth and final year of undergrad. It was simply a real good time (a rollicking good one, if you ask me), during which I had absolutely no inhibition nor qualms about being absolutely ridiculous and getting totally dirty (that is, covered in dyed powder).

In my 2013, there were plenty of ups and downs, unbelievable adventures, and difficult personal and family struggles, but in the end, when it came down to it, there was always somebody I could lean on, always somebody I could count on, always somebody I could share or celebrate my experiences with.

While I very much valued traveling for two months basically on my own, and while I’m very much a fan of alone time, there’s nothing quite like the company and comfort of loved ones, in any capacity. My favorite moments of 2013, many of which are not on this list but I still hold near and dear to my heart, were those which I spent and shared with others. 

So as these fireworks start to die out, as 2013 fades away and 2014 begins with a surge, let me just say: Happy New Year’s to all, and to all a good night.

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It’s Easy to Feel At Ease in Essaouira

After the long, uncomfortable journey that ran two hours longer than expected, there was something so refreshing and invigorating about the gust of warm ocean air that greeted us as we clambered off the bus in Essaouira. The bus station wasn’t in the city centre, where the UNESCO World Heritage site-deemed medina is located, but with the smell of the salty air and the clear petering out of the earth-toned, monochrome rooftops in the distance, it was obvious that the ocean was tantalizingly close.

It was early evening, the blue sky was sparsely painted with greying clouds, and sunset was near. A fifteen minute walk later and we entered the medina for the first time and made our way through the narrow streets, dodging vendors, locals, and the occasional donkey and stray cat. As if the ocean breeze wasn’t inviting enough, the early sunset views from the terrace above our hostel, the Hotel Beaurivage, were idyllic.

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Like Chefchaouen, almost every bit of the Essaouira medina is photogenic. Throughout the next day there, we perused nearly every street and alleyway, from the standard street-food and artisan stands and shops, the jewelry souqs or covered, open-air marketplaces and alleys, the quiet, less crowded residential streets, to the oceanfront kasbah or fortress and its stunning views of the ocean and nearby coastal towns.

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On the water, seagulls crowd the air and flock to the fishing boats, and the smell of fresh fish is pungent amongst the street food stands just outside the oceanside entrance. Men and donkeys hauling carts make for some dense traffic at midday and in the evenings inside the medina walls, and vendors easily scope out the tourists and know just how to charm them when they approach their stands and shops.

As opposed to the eager and somewhat more annoying sales pitches of the Marrakech vendors, Essaouira’s are more cautious and prior to their sales pitch offer a bonjour or a thickly accented “hello, how are you,” or our personal favorite, “you’re welcome,” as their way of expressing their enthusiastic welcome to their city.

They ask you where you’re from, whether this is your first time in Morocco, whether or not you like the city, and where else in Morocco you’ve been. And if you don’t feel like looking further at their products, or inquiring more about prices, they respond with a “no problem, you’re welcome, welcome to Morocco” and you can continue on your way.

However, in the event you do want to look through their products, from the usual scarves, purses, clothing, and jewelry, they eagerly invite you into their shops, emphasizing that “looking is free,”  intending not to pressure tourists into buying until they’re ready. Bartering is somewhat easier as the vendors are more laid-back than the profit- or scam-seeking Marrakech salesmen, and I was even offered to hang out and share a fresh-made tajine in the scarf shop where I successfully and fairly bargained with the young, amicable salesman, who ended our transaction with a friendly hug goodbye.

Whereas on our first Morocco visit in Casablanca we were somewhat hesitant, guarded, and unsure of what to expect from its people, the hospitality and friendliness of the people of Essaouira was obvious, and we were instantly comfortable conversing with, ordering from, and bargaining with the waiters, hotel staff, vendors, and other locals. The quintessential, laid-back and stress-free atmosphere of a typical beach town was complemented perfectly with the approachable and genial populace. We had nothing but positive experiences with every local we encountered.

I loved everything about Essaouira, from the moment I stepped off that bus. Our time there was unfortunately the shortest among our five city visits, but nevertheless it was a fulfilling, gratifying visit, a city I will most definitely return to in the future when finance and circumstance permit it.

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Sensory Overload in Marrakech

Never in my life have I seen or experienced anything quite like Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square at night. 

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The energy of the hustle, bustle, and hubbub is intoxicating: the smell of smoking and sizzling meats and brewing stews from the street-food stands; the upbeat and lively sounds of drums, guitars and sonorous voice accompaniment; the throngs of locals and tourists alike that flock to and crowd the plaza to witness the spectacle, taste the food, and cheer on the various performances; an infectious and overwhelming ambience accentuated by the eerie and almost mystical melodies of the pungi, the unique wind instruments of snake charmers. Where else in the world does a plaza and marketplace come alive like this?

Scattered sporadically throughout the square, there are middle-aged, female henna artists pestering tourists to come have a tattoo done; there are stands of fresh-squeezed fruit juices, candies, chocolates, and snails; there are rows of vendors with their wares, from spices to lanterns and purses, strewn across white blankets; and, of course, the various men walking around with leashed monkeys, trying to scam tourists into paying for a picture with one, and those groups of 2-5 men with their pungi and snakes…some all coiled up and resting, others, like the several cobras I saw, upright, puffed-out, and hypnotized by the pungi strains of their masters.

Succinctly put, an evening in the Jemaa el-Fnaa square of Marrekech, smack-dab in the centre of the city and just outside the walls of its massive medina, is an experience.

After a full day of exploring, buying souvenirs, and occasionally getting lost in the medina, we hit up the street-food stands for dinner once the sun had gone down, and the vibrancy of Jemaa el-Fnaa was heightened. The young men manning the stands, all numbered and organized in ordered rows, greeted us, waved menus in our faces, and utilized their best salesmanship skills to charm us into eating at their joints.

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My mother was told she had a pretty smile, and that she was too skinny and needed to come eat a big meal at such-an-such joint; I was offered a Ferrari if I came and ate at another. Another young bloke took one look at me and said “beautiful. How many chickens you want?” as if beauty warrants a choice pick of any number of chickens, free of charge.

We ate at the stand numbered “1” and signed as recommended by Trip Advisor. The mixed grilled kebabs of lamb, liver, chicken, beef, and sausage were certainly outstanding. Rich, flavorful, and grilled perfectly; and the various waiters, young and old, were efficient, friendly, and attentive.

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After strolling around through the scattered crowds of people around musicians, snake charmers, and other street performers, we sought out the same dessert stand we had stumbled upon the evening before. An older, stout and grumpy looking man, and a younger fellow, perhaps his son, manned a hopping food stand with a giant vat of steaming, spicy, delectable ginger beer and plates of this cake- and paste-like concoction of ginger, molasses, and nuts. While I am still unsure of the names and origins of these dishes, all I can say is they are unbelievably delicious.

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The ginger beer burns as you swallow, the spices literally causing your taste buds to tingle, but one scoop of the cake and the spice and burn abates a little. One cup of the stuff and one plate of the cake is more than enough for three people after a filling dinner of street-food, and for the price of 5-6 dirham (or approximately 75 cents USD), it is more than worth it.

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From the dazzling old buildings and palaces, to the rooftop-terraced cafés, to the immense and impressive medina, Marrakech is indubitably a must-see city in Morocco. But the spectacle of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square at night makes it unforgettable, easily one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever been to. A shock to the system, a sensory overload, an extraordinary environment abound with unbridled energy and vivacity so infectious you can’t help but be captivated; however you describe it, Jemaa el-Fnaa must be experienced.

Jemaa_el-Fnaa_at_night_-_Maroco_-_MarrakeshImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

City in the Clouds

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There may have been on and off rain for the whole day and a half we were there, with only slivers of blue sky and the slightest rays of sun able to peek out from behind the thick grey clouds, but the beautiful mountain town of Chefchaouen, Morocco did not fail to disappoint.

The blue- and white-washed city is not unlike those on the island of Santorini, Greece, but as opposed to pristine, porcelain-white buildings with immaculate sapphire-blue domes and doors, the blue- and white-washing of Chefchaouen’s buildings are much more…abstract?

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As if a flood of blue ran through the city and sporadically dyed parts of its walls, or as if the buildings were flipped upside down, dipped into an ocean of blue paint, and set back in their place. The coloring doesn’t seem to follow any given pattern, but the effect is the same. As the cities of Santorini like Oia and Fira dazzle, so does Chefchaouen.

While I loved the energy and vibrancy of Marrakech, and the laid-back atmosphere of the coast-town, Essaouira, Chefchaouen’s appeal was unique. It seems to have its own brand of charm and serenity.

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And it still found its way into my heart despite the rain and the chill. Not once did the rain bother us, as we wandered Chaouen’s cobblestone streets and steps, delighted in warm tajines and pastillas on covered rooftop terraces, sipped mint tea in the central square, and perused jewelry and scarves in the countless stands and shops.

And as if Chefchaouen by day isn’t gorgeous enough:

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Chefchaouen at sunset, albeit one with limited sunlight and rather with abundant cloud coverage, was breathtaking:

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And not only is the city idyllic, but the people we encountered, both Arabic- and Spanish-speaking, were truly lovely. From our hostel owner, to the café waiters, and to the street vendors, we had a most positive experience with the people of Chefchaouen.

The artisans and salesmen from the Ensemble Artisanal, for example, were warm, welcoming, and extremely friendly. Despite their limited Spanish and English vocabulary, and of course our inability to speak French and Arabic (besides the word for thank you, shukran), we all managed to communicate happily and effectively.

This was one of the few places in Morocco where prices of artisan goods were fixed, that is, the prices were final and these particular craftsmen would not lower their prices through the traditional custom of bargaining between vendor and tourist. However, both the hospitality of these craftsmen and the fact that we got to watch them work on their giant looms right there in the workshop, made our purchase of several of their woolen goods a no-brainer.

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The main salesman was a true gem. He was very helpful as we scoured the blankets and coats and other wool items, making sure to show us how one of the pieces is worn by women in Chaouen:

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And believe it or not we did see a woman dressed this way (sans the hat) as we walked up later to one of the viewpoints outside the medina.

Our salesman friend even let me scope out the largest loom, designed for two craftsmen to be weaving at once, and fashioned a purple and white wool bracelet for me on the spot, free of charge.

IMG_4780Our mere thirty minutes or so with these guys was probably one of the highlights of our time in Chefchaouen. While it often errs about its restaurant, hostel, or site recommendations, this time Lonely Planet got it right; the Ensemble Artisanal was well worth the visit.

Our time there was short, just like the rest of our city visits in Morocco, but this cloud-enshrouded city of Chefchaouen just may have been my favorite.

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