Friday, April 23, 2010

Pay It Forward...

My Morocco Adventure:

This past weekend my friend, Sarah, and I headed to Morocco. Africa was a completely different world than the one I have been exposed to for the majority of my life. It was both unlike the US and unlike Europe. I spent the night at the Milano airport in order to catch my early flight the next morning. A warning for anyone ever traveling and planning on sleeping on floors and uncomfortable seats, bring a blanket :) The next morning I flew in to Casablanca and waited for Sarah and catch up with me from Madrid.

Sarah and I had already booked a tour throughout Morocco that left from Marrakesh. We headed towards the main train station in Casablanca and booked our trip to leave around 7 pm. We relaxed in the chairs at the station since we had arrived about a half hour before our train was to depart. Around 7:30 we were a little worried, which only increased when the time reached 8...then 8:30....then 9....apparently our train was not coming, so we, along with 50 or so other people, waited to catch the next train at 10. When Sarah and I boarded our train there was a mad rush to get on. We got into the train and realized why, seats are not guaranteed. Looks as if Sarah and I were going to be standing. People were making their way up and down the crowded corridors of the train that were lined with people. I think that through my limited travel experience on trains and public transportation my disbelief showed through because the man next to me explained that this is quite normal on the weekends, people standing up because there are not enough seats on the train.

I also learned that many, many people in Morocco are kind. It seems like the whole weekend Sarah and I had people helping us out with directions and just kindness. While on the train, a man gave up his seat for me to sit down...the train ride was three hours and we'd only been traveling for about 45 minutes. While I slept (I had gotten quite a nasty cold through my attempt at sleeping at the airport and then waiting for Sarah to arrive after me in Morocco) Sarah made friends with the standing crowd. They were all very surprised that we did not know any French, shocked almost. It seems as if every time Sarah and I turned around and were talking to any locals we were reminded that French, not English, was the main language there.

We arrived in Marrakesh around 1:30 in the morning, more than worn out. A little problem with hostels occurred and we ended up staying in this small local place that scared us half to death because it was off these side streets and down dark alleys. But we did manage to sleep for a few hours and wake up early in the morning to meet up with our tour.

We met up with the tour group and were in the van for the most part of the day. It was great to get to see the land. We passed by mountains, valleys, cities, beautiful green areas and finally onto the Sahara.

There were 15 people total on our tour, mostly students like Sarah and me, but a middle-aged nurse from France (who also lived in the U.S. for 14 years and therefore was our translator and adopted "mom" for the weekend) as well as a family from France. We drove all day, stopping to take pictures and eat lunch. One of our stops was at a Women's Cooperative where they harvest almonds and extract the oils to make cosmetic and cooking oils. The women work for about 5 euros (~$7) a day. And I complain about making $7 an hour. Reality check.

Around dusk we arrived at our last stop where we bought water, used the restroom, and bought scarves which were wrapped around our heads and faces to protect us from the desert sands. And then we met our camels! We rode for about 2 hours, away from the "city," into the Sahara.

We reached our camp and were ushered into the common tent for dinner. It was cooked by members of the Bedouin tribe, and it was delicious. Soup, vegetable stew, mint tea, and oranges for desert. The tent was made of oriental tapestries, in deep turquoise and magenta colors. It was lit by candles and oil lamps, hopefully you can picture the ambiance! After dinner the instruments came out and we were entertained with traditional music. Then they let us try the drums. I was pretty good at the drums and the camp dwellers called me Fattima, a common name in that region. I was even invited to spend the night with the camels with one of them and watch for shooting stars...I declined of course...

After breakfast the next morning, we all headed back to the van on our camels. I'll admit I was slightly sore for the next few days and I think it was a combination of van riding, camel trekking, and sleeping on the ground :)

We finally made it back to casablanca that evening and were able to take showers (our first in several days) and what a relief that was, being clean has so many merits that people overlook.

This is where the fun of my trip really began. While staying at our hotel Sarah and I had the chance to check our email where I discovered that my plane to Milan the next morning had been cancelled...oh no! In the morning, I said to sarah, well let's just go the airport and see what we can find out. Sarah's flight to Madrid was all good to go that afternoon, but there was nothing getting into Europe from Casablanca until Wednesday... I was slightly freaking out. Sarah and I decided to book me a flight to Tangier, a city just across from Spain in Morocco. That way I could take the ferry into Spain and then hopefully make my way up the coast. Yes, I know this sounds like a rather vague plan, but that is the only idea we had going and I was not sure where I would be sleeping that night.

The hardest part of the trip came next I had to say goodbye to Sarah and then call my parents. Both things were emotional because I had no idea what I was doing. As Sarah left she quoted an old family friend of hers, "I am blessed, challenged, and overcoming." How perfect for the moment and still the quote is with me. My mom's first words were, "Are you okay?" Of course not! Ha But I will pretend like I am. It was difficult, but I think that was part of my experience. My Morocco adventure, though, is just beginning, and as I write this I find myself still saying, really did this happen to me.

As I sat waiting for my plane to take me to tangier I noticed a woman sitting two seats next to me was reading a British newspaper. After a few hours of sitting I asked if I could read her paper, since by this time she had finished. She answered of course go ahead. With about 45 minutes left until my flight I returned the newspaper and got ready to walk to my gate, she asked where I was headed the conversation went back and forth until we discovered we were both heading into Spain, with the exception that she lived there. When she asked where my final destination was and I replied Milan, Italy her personality took on that of a mother hen, very protective and slightly incredulous that I would attempt to travel up through Spain alone. She immediately got on the phone with her husband, a Spanish police officer, and arranged to have him pick us both up and buy me a ferry ticket. She became my guardian angel on this trip throughout Spain.

My flight was to leave at 19:04...around 19:37 I started to become a little concerned. It turns out our flight was cancelled due to a lack of planes and over abundance of flights. Our flight was bumped probably because of the small amount of people going on the flight and the fact that our destination was within the country. Instead we were bundled up on a small bus and taken to Tangier.

Before boarding the bus, I met an American family who was vacationing in Morocco and Spain...They were from Columbus, IN. I felt close to home just hearing that city. The woman, Betty, adopted me as a second child. (I had many adoptive parents during my stay in Morocco) She was worried that I wouldn't have money for dinner and food along the way up through Spain so she immediately pulled money out and gave it to me, my protests went on death ears and the only reply she would give me is: "Someday Mary, when you're our age, you'll have to pay it forward."

The trip to Tangier ended up taking around 4 hours while if we had been on a plane we would have arrived in 45 minutes, needless to say everyone was ready to be off of the bus... Tina Fateh and her Spanish husband booked me a room in the hotel they were staying out and told me to get a good night of rest, they were taking me to Spain the next morning.

We got to Spain the next morning where they proceeded to take me their Spanish house, which reminded me of a villa that people buy to vacation in. The house overlooked the ocean with a swimming pool in the front, very beautiful. I know what everyone is probably thinking, especially if you are a parent or watch too much of the news...what was I thinking? At least I know thats what my parents were probably thinking...but at the time I was slightly desperate and Tina was one of the kindest people I have met who would have willingly kept me with her as long as it would take to get me to Milan. When I got to her house, her and her husband helped me arrange flights to Barcelona and then onto Milan. Without them I would have never even made it the airport... I was very lucky to find such amazing people on my trek and before I left Tina's I told her that if she would like to adopt and keep me, I would be okay with that... She told me that if I were to ever journey back into Spain and need a place to stay I was always welcome....

I came to the conclusion while sleeping in the Barcelona airport that it is sad that people cannot trust kindness in others. That oftentimes we mistake true kindness in people. I found so many nice people on my trek through Morocco. So was I upset that i spent an extra two days journeying through unknown territory...yes... Would I do it again...heck yes....

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Paris. There is so much to say about this city. Sarah and I arrived and spent the night in a hostel on the outskirts of town... needless to say our Paris trip was spontaneous. We were looking for the cheapest way to get to Paris when we returned to Milan from Rome and discovered buses... Sarah and I hooped on a bus one night and drove to Paris to arrive for the sunrise. Luckily, we had fairly decent weather and the trees were just starting to bloom showing off a hint of spring and beautiful city.

We took a bike tour to help us orientate ourselves with the city a little better. The tour group was great, they're an American based company, so all the tours are in English and they know their way around the city very well. There were so many cites to see: the Tower, the Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, L'Arc de Triomphe, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Napoleon's extravagant tomb, Champs Elysées, Wall of Peace, Ecole much beautiful architecture, and history!

Sarah and I explored the eiffel tower one morning and afterwards the Notre Dame. I'll admit I had to conquer my fear of heights as we climbed the first two legs of the tower. Walking up the steps and saying to myself, millions of people have done this before me seems the only way this is possible. Strangely enough I felt a little foolish when the small child ran up the steps next to me, but oh well... The eiffel tower was a lot of fun and Sarah and I continually took pictures next to the signs that showed where Milan, Italy is pointed to or New York. The top had a great view of the city and the day could not have been more perfect. The Notre Dame was a beautiful Cathedral set in the original area of the city that drew thousands of people the day we were there. Luckily, there is an English tour on certain days of the week that we got to join in on. I learned so much more about the Church's history than I would have, had I just been reading a guide book...

We spent the majority of our days just walking around Paris the city we decided was one giant park with buildings places in the middle of it. There are many trees and grassy areas lining the streets and for me, it was nice to see greenery again... I am way to used to acres at home and not concrete building which are in Milan still.

Paris was perfect and I will admit Sarah and I were both completely spent by the time we finished our holiday, but it was a wonderful break that I would repeat in a minute. Whenever I returned to Milan I felt as if I was returning home, which is a feeling that brings a smile to my face. It is nice to feel a bit of comfort in where you are living. I am glad to be back to the city, to my mind, that never sleeps...


In front of the Trevi Fountain

The Vatican City... There was a nun and priest behind me talking to each other and it just seemed like a classic scene from a movie

Outside the Vatican Museum

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Roma y Firenze

An update: I have been on two week holiday for school. Luckily, I got in much needed traveling, but am now ready to sleep for a week. I think it was the constant hours of walking. :)

My first adventure was to Rome. Rome is absolutely amazing. I think it was the combination of architecture and wonderful weather that made my trip seem so great. Rome is beautiful and there is so much to the city to love. There is history and art around every corner. I got to visit the Vatican City, with the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and the Pantheon.

The fact that the architecture from the Roman time period is still standing is a testament to their greatness. The Colosseum is still standing along with many other ruins scattered across the city. I went on holiday with several friends and discovered many treasures along the trip. Sarah and I walked through a Roman forum, which is a huge area near the Colosseum of Roman ruins. The forum gives a view of what the city may have been like during the Roman rule. The forum and the Colosseum were quite overwhelming. To think of the lives of people from thousands of years ago is a bit daunting and while in Rome you cannot help but imagine what it would be like to live and work during this time period. The Colosseum was great because people were able to walk around inside on the different levels. Every time I visited any ruins I tried to imagine what they were like new and wished I could know more.

It is very hard to explain how awe-inspiring Rome was and really I don't think I can do it justice with a few words here and there. Honestly, Rome is somewhere I could visit multiple times and learn more about each day. It was incredible.

I had a really great opportunity while in Rome. I got to be in the audience for Pope Benedict XVI's public blessing. Every Wednesday, the Pope addresses the square in front of the Vatican and prays with the people and offers a blessing to the people and there loved ones and to any objects. Sarah and I left the hotel early hoping to attend mass but arrived to find a queue and a crowd already jostling for seats. We arrived at 8 am and the pope was arriving at 10:30, obviously a big deal. We managed to grab seats in the 8th row to wait out the Pope's visit. It was a pretty awesome site. The pope arrived with thousands of people surrounding him. He rode up in his Popemobile and circle the crowded a few times waving. (Sarah cried, she was very excited) But really it was a bit breathtaking to see the people there waiting for the Pope.

I went to Florence on Sunday. Florence was gorgeous, it is located in the Tuscany region of Italy. We visited the Basilica there, which is made from beautiful green and white stone. The churches in Italy all have something unique and special. They all intricately designed in detail and the architects have managed to still create a sense of awe. We were lucky enough to see Michelangelo's David... it was great! The detail about the whole statue was critical. The block of marble used in the statue was not a great value at the time it was a whole block. Many sculptors gave up the project because it was too daunting, the stone lay untouched for almost 25 years. Finally Michelangelo was commissioned to take on the project and the statue is majestic.

Florence and Rome were amazing, I know I cannot say it enough, though to anyone reading this they probably are tired of hearing it. I would visit both places again without a second thought. Rome helped me to remember how lucky I am to be traveling across Europe for 4 months and what a great experience this is for me... I am thankful and blessed...

Ireland photos!

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