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Trains, planes and sore feet: Farewell to Morocco and Spain

My adventures in Morocco have come to a close. I took an early afternoon train back to Marrakech from Meknes on Wednesday; I had originally planned on taking a later train back but that changed after failing to find public transportation to Volubilis (ancient Roman ruins outside of Meknes) and exhausting my sight-seeing check-list in the city proper. I was happy to ride the train back during the day, however, because it gave me a chance to see the beautiful Middle Atlas terrain. I was engrossed in the green pastures, groves of olive trees and farmers herding their sheep on the slopes as we descended. Sometimes I think I enjoy the in-between travels more than my destintations, as this was certainly the case for my quick trip up to Meknes.

The ride back to Marrakech went quickly, mostly due to the fact that I was fully immersed in The Help, a novel based on the lives of black women working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Civil Rights era in the United States (and to those who think they don’t need to learn more about it, for that matter). An interesting reaction to this book in an international spotlight: When I was giving a brief synopsis to some fellow travelers at a hostel in Essaouira, a Swiss woman broke in (having missed the beginning of my explanation) and asked if the book took place in South Africa. When I said no, it was based in the United States, she was genuinely surprised. And then I was surprised (and saddened) that my country’s painful history elicited such a reaction.

As I mentioned earlier, I changed my train time to Marrakech. The officials at the Meknes station did not have a problem with this, nor did the first steward on board who checked my ticket. About five hours into the ride, however, a second steward came by to check tickets again. He most definitely had a problem with it. He spoke little English and I spoke no French so we were not exactly meeting in the middle. He sternly told me to either pay for the ticket (again) or pay double in Marrakech. When I refused to pay, he asked for my ID and confiscated both that and my ticket. I was just glad I handed over an old student ID and not my passport. Somehow I still managed to enjoy the ending to my book but I was really stressing about paying double for a ticket I had already purchased. We pulled into the Marrakech station after dark and I couldn’t help but imagine the train steward waiting at my car’s exit with police ready to detain me for being uncooperative or something…I really should avoid thinking about dramatic, Hollywood-esque scenerios in moments like this. Despite my nervousness, I disembarked without so much as a nod from the employees. I cautiously made my way down the platform towards the station and there in the distance I saw the disgruntled steward making his way towards me. I greeted him with a hesitant bonjour. He looked at me suprised and said, “You speak French?” I said no, explaining that I’ve only picked up a few words along the way while in Morocco. He then handed me my ID and ticket, saying that the staff in the station are allowing me to use the invalid ticket “this time only” but next time I will have to pay the fine. I was of course very grateful and relieved to hear this but I couldn’t help but smile to myself at this explanation, as if I had a lot of illegal Moroccan train-hopping plans in the future.

From there, the rest of my night just got better. I met another solo female traveler, Sandy, at the bus stop and we ended up sharing a room at the same place I stayed with Alyssa and Andy a week ago. We had a different room, though, and it was quite an upgrade! We each had a double bed (Alyssa and I shared one last week), there was an attached bathroom with hot water and I even found a space heater tucked away in the corner. It was also decorated with beautiful tapestries and decorative metal lampshades. All of this came with a higher price tag, of course, but I had some extra dirham that I knew would be of little use to me in about 12 hours so I didn’t mind. My new friend and I then headed to the main square for dinner, where we discovered that we were both social workers. The next day we also realized we had checked out the same Lonely Planet guide book (same edition, cover and all) from our respective libraries.

I think many travelers will agree with me that there’s a breaking point during a trip where rules like staying on budget, remaining preoccupied with seeing all the important highlights of a city and eating only local foods just goes out the window. Even though it was only about two weeks of travel, that dinner was it for me. I was tired but happy to be back in familiar Marrakech with a new travel companion. I felt no reservation plopping down on a plastic seat in a touristy restaurant overlooking the square. In addition to ordering the “traditional Moroccan soup” (which, by the way, tasted like SpaghettiO’s), I had a side of fries and Orange Fanta from a can. I was happy to wrap up my time in Morocco. I slept soundly in my spacious bed that night and woke up early to shower, pack and eat one last delicious warm crepe and honey with Sandy before heading to the airport.

I’m now in Madrid, waiting for my flight back to the States tomorrow morning. After a rather sleep-deprived evening due to loud roommates, I have come to the conclusion that anything more than an 4-bed dorm is now off-limits for my future travels. As a 26-year old woman who’s done her fair share of hostelling around the world, I can say that I will not miss the bunk beds and the late night rude awakenings to party-goers. I feel old for saying it but I don’t care: some of these youth do not know the meaning of hostel ettiquete! Note to the greenhorns: slamming your metal locker door into my metal headboard while I am (was) sleeping is not winning you any points.

Despite this final, unfortunate sleeping arrangement, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this trip. I wish I had more days with Alyssa but she will be home before we know it (promise!). It has also been a solid confirmation of how liberating and empowering independent traveling is for women. Not once did I feel unsafe or without control of a situation. Like others have encouraged before me, I cannot stress enough how important it is to experience this at least once. Women, don’t listen to what people say about the dangers out there. You are certainly more than capable of independent travel so shake off those who say otherwise, pack your bags and go!


Midwestern locavore meets reality

As an aspiring foodie, I am satisfying my recent scholarly craving with a few books I received for Christmas from folks who know me well. Last week I devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and have promptly moved on to An Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I was first introduced to these authors in Thailand and since then, these books have been at the top of my must-read list.

Both authors, through very different writing styles, approach similar food themes like eating fresh, local, organic produce while challenging the industrial food system, animal feedlots, and high fructose corn syrup. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is an enchanting account of one family’s attempt to live intentionally as locavores for one year, consuming foods they’ve grown themselves or purchased locally within a 100-mile radius. Why? Because of their desire to reduce the amount of fossil fuels they “use” when purchasing produce out of season, which must be shipped from places like California or beyond. Their approach is extreme: they relocate to a family farm in Virginia, grow their own produce, raise their own poultry, and make their own bread. While I certainly don’t have the time, money, or resources to attempt such a lifestyle, I am inspired to incorporate aspects of their year-long experiment into my own life.

Perhaps beginning a locavore project in Michigan during the month of February isn’t the best idea (in Cherokee, “February” translates to “hungry month”) for obvious reasons. According to a Michigan Farm Fresh Produce Availability Calendar, my local food options are apples, mushrooms, onions, and potatoes. Supplementing this produce with other local foods, my diet could also include cheese, greenhouse-grown plants, herbs, honey, jams, jellies, and maple syrup. Hm. This may prove to be hungry month indeed.

And how far should I take the project? Do I also want to consume not just locally-produced foods, but also organic? What about my oatmeal, flour, butter, eggs, and other staples I readily use? Should I ensure that my spices, coffee, and tea (though not produced locally) are Fair Trade, shade-grown, organic, etc? I say yes…then reality hits. I am definitely not in a financial situation to embark on such a time- and money-consuming endeavor. But maybe I could find ways to begin, and become a more active consumer of local produce by thinking twice before grabbing a bunch of bananas that were shipped up to the frozen North from somewhere in the hot South. I mean, they don’t even taste all that delicious to me anyways, after eating fresh ones by the bunch in Thailand for a year.

I think the key to this locavore project, if I decide to give it a go, is flexibility and a healthy dose of perspective. It may not be realistic to eat only locally-grown foods right now but it is quite feasible to fill my cart with bags of Michigan-grown apples instead of pineapples, buy fresh-baked bread at Avalon, and find a local farmer who sells organic, free-range eggs. The healthy dose of perspective will be useful to make sure I am not isolating myself from family and friends who may not buy into this whole locavore mindset. I think there is a fine line between having principles about personal eating habits and having those principles affect relationships with the loved ones in my life. What I do not want from this project is the risk of seeming judgmental or dogmatic in my approach to eating locally.

So no, I will not be turning down delicious home-cooked meals any time soon, even if they include avocados from Mexico.

Thailand Tribute #8: Night markets

The night market begins to set up in Nakhon Phanom

A week ago I began my series of tributes to life in Thailand and a week from now I will be on my way to Bangkok, leaving Isaan (for the time being) to begin a two week trip to Malaysia before heading home. Today’s tribute is to Thailand’s night markets. It is common for many Thai families to purchase their dinners at the local night market, where foods like curries, stir fried vegetables, grilled meats, and an assortment of fruits and desserts are sold. The markets are set up on a main street every night, and by the time the sun is setting the parked motorcycles begin to line up, as people flock to purchase their meals for the evening. Everything is sold in clear plastic bags, tied with red rubber bands (which are skillfully wound, it’s quite remarkable to watch), or on a stick. There is a cart for everything, too. My favorite carts include the curry cart, the corn on the cob cart, the fresh pineapple dipped in saltwater cart, and the dessert cart that sells one of my favorites, khanom chun. Shopping for dinner like this is so exciting and I am definitely going to miss all this variety found in one, easily accessible location.

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