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Friends beware. It turns out that Nellu and I are the type of people who, when you casually suggest we visit, will likely take you up on that offer. (Our friends who just moved to South Korea, you’ve been warned.) Over the last month of our trip, we visited more than a dozen friends over Europe. Some were old friends and some were new. But it was the perfect way to end the trip of a lifetime…
Sweet Caroline — Berlin
I remember the first time we met Caroline. Nellu and I had just taken the overnight bus from Cape Town to Johannesburg, enduring hours of entertainment like the best music videos of Brandy and Celine Dion. (There are no earbuds on the planet that could block that out.) We had taken the train “where the robbers get robbed” to the airport, where we got a free pick up from the hotel we’d stay with for a night as a part of our G Adventures overland trek to Nairobi. We were tired and after finally connecting with the hotel manager/driver, we loaded into the back of a minivan. But we’d wait for one more passenger. This turned out to be Caroline.
It’s always a little bit awkward meeting people that you know you will be spending the next month with. Will I like them? Will they like me? Will we be able to tolerate each other’s company for weeks? Caroline didn’t say much on that car ride to the hotel but over our 28-day trip, we got to know her well. She’s one of those people who is generally wonderful to be around. She interested and interesting and laughs a lot with this genuine, contagious laugh that draw you in.
Berlin won me over but I’m sure a large part of that had to do with Caroline. We booked a place in her neighborhood and met up with her often during our brief stay. She took us to Tempelhof airfield, where we got stuck in the rain.
She gave us a driving tour of downtown Berlin, showing us where Angela Merkel lives, and took us to a flea market and brunch.
Nellu helped her carry her new mattress up to her apartment. It was folded into the back of her VW Golf. (I include this detail because 1) they use mattresses that fold up in Germany and 2) I love that as a Berliner, Caroline drives a VW Golf. It fits her.)
Caroline also cooked dinner for us. It was so excitingly normal. We felt like we could have lived there. Maybe someday we will.
Eating Danish Danish with the Queen – Copenhagen
Line (pronounced Leena) was also on our Africa trip. She was on a similar extended adventure, traveling with her friend Kristine over several months and continents.
Line has a worldly sophistication unusual for someone in her early 20s. She lived in South Africa at some point and on the long truckbus rides across southeastern Africa, she attempted to school us in the art of the click constant present in Xhosa language.
She also has easy-going nature that hides any fatigue she may have with English-speakers pronouncing her name as if they were referring to a long, narrow mark.
We had originally hoped all of us—Caroline, Line, Kristine, Nellu and I—would be able to get together in Copenhagen but we just couldn’t get the dates to work out.
We were thankful to be able to connect with Line. “I forgot that you haven’t gone home yet,” she said meeting us. It was true. We were still wearing the same clothes she’d seen us in three months earlier in Africa. Line, of course, rocked that effortless style that Danes seem to acquire as a birthright.
(Seriously, Copenhagen looks like a showroom for Design Within Reach with everyone riding around on bicycles. It’s just so devastatingly chic and civilized.)
One item high up on our list of things to try in Denmark: danish. That’s right, Line took us out for Danish danish. And they were delicious.
We headed over to the Amalienborg Palace to see the changing of the Royal Guard only to have Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II drive right past us.
Line also humored us, accompanying us on a boat tour of the canals.
Our visit coincided with the first truly warm days of spring where everyone makes a point to be outside as much as possible just to soak it all in.
It was really just one of those stretches that makes you feel good to be alive.
Rockabilly – Oslo
After traveling extensively over the last two years via trains, plans, buses, boats, camels, etc., I feel confident in declaring the loveliest way to travel is by ferry. Ferries are comfortable, luxurious even. Many of them have free wifi. Need I say more?
We took the overnight DFDS Seaways ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo (thanks to help from the fantastic seat61.com). We booked one of the smaller, cheaper cabins: a room with two single beds and a bathroom. It was amazing. We had privacy. We could work, explore, sleep and most importantly shut out the rest of the boat for one peaceful evening.
We had gone to Oslo to meet up with our friend Morten, who we had met nine months earlier in Beijing. He and two friends had been preparing to drive back to Norway from China on two motorcycles with sidecars. They made it in about four months just before Christmas.
But over the few days we spent in Oslo, we’d learn that a lot went wrong. Their bikes broke down often. A bag with a passport (and an important visa) fell out. And it got very, very cold. (Read all about it on their blog “From East to West on an Iron Horse” with the help of Google Translate. They’ve also started working on the book about the trip.)
Morten let Nellu try on the gear he’d bought to stay warm. This included a wolf skin that looked way too close to the husky dog I had growing up.
“I can’t believe you guys are here,” Morten told Nellu when he called to schedule a time to meet up.
How best to describe Morten? Morten is the strong streak of creativity that runs through him. The word jovial (sorry Morten) also comes to mind. He and his friends had everyone in our hostel in Beijing entertained for nights with a song they’d made up at the airport. “Don’t leava your baggage unattendo,” was the bridge, which they sang with faux-Jamaican accents. (There are several verses to this song. It’s really quite impressive.)
Morten is also talented photographer and actually won trip to New York a few months back for one of his pictures.
(When you click on any of the pictures on their Iron Horse blog, it will pull up a slide show of Morten’s work on the road. It’s worth checking out.)
We met Morten in downtown Oslo and he took to a place he referred to as a “rockabilly” bar.
“Rockabilly? What the hell is rockabilly?” we teased.
Apparently rockabilly is huge in Oslo and refers to places styled in that vintage diner look. (Wikipedia says the word is a combo of rock and hillbilly.)
We got beers as Morten pointed out all the Norwegian celebrities.
We spent time in Oslo doing a lot of the touristy stuff without Morten—visiting the boat museums like the Kon-Tiki museum and the Viking Ship museum. (It’s Norway. Boats are big there.)
We also went to the Munch museum.
With Morten, we spent time seeing a more nuanced Oslo. He took us for a walk along the river all the way down to Parliament.
He also explained why so many high-school aged kids were walking around with red or blue overalls. (They’re Russ. It’s a fascinating tradition which I can best describe as a month-long Mardi Gras for high school seniors. But you can read all about it here.)
We were having too much fun chatting over beers at a bar called the “Last Train,” that we missed the last train that night to our apartment. We ended up roaming through Oslo in the middle of the night, fighting as people do when they’re lost and stranded in a foreign city, all the way back to Morten’s. He didn’t look a bit inconvenienced when we knocked on his door.
More to come…
I have to admit. After two weeks in Spain, I was hesitant to go back to Africa to go to Morocco. It was the middle of March and we were well into our 11 month of travel. A road weariness from bad weather and culture shock had set in. The indulgence of Western Europe with its Carrefours full of wine and cheap food that we recognized, wifi on public buses, and a language we had some hope of understanding, was too good to leave. Not to mentioned that in Spain, we blended in.
This last point was a major one in my book. From what I’d heard about Morocco, it was filled with seriously aggressive touts, the kind who see you coming from a mile away, run to meet you, and spend the next 20 minutes trying to get you to buy something with tactics ranging from veiled threats to badgering you into submission. My wherewithal for dealing with these characters was almost gone.
Why go then? Simple, it’s Morocco. It’s exotic. I’ve always wanted to go. We were so close. And besides, it would be warm, like summer warm. The promise of a week of sustained hot sun was very enticing.
In the end, we drove a car for two hours from Granada, Spain, took a taxi to a bus to a ferry to a bus, walked to a train station, and took two trains for four hours to Fes. The riad, a traditional Moroccan style home, we had booked for the next three nights offered a pick up service, which we gratefully took. Our riad, Dar Melody, was nestled into a maze deep in the old city, the medina, of Fes. We would have never found it if we hadn’t been led their by its owner.
As you travel, people give you all kinds of advice. Sometimes we took this advice and sometimes we forgot the advice. (Sometimes it’s really best to forget.)
When we met an American woman from Boston in Amman, Jordan, we chatted casually with her at breakfast about the places we’ve been. (I guess I was only half paying attention. I was too busy suppressing envy over her fresh looking yellow sweater and corresponding cotton chiffon scarf with the subtle matching pattern. Oh to be able to wear fresh looking, well-coordinated outfits again!) In retrospect, I remembered her telling us about visiting Fes. She stayed in the new city. She recommended us visiting the old medina but certainly not without a guide. “You’ll get lost without a guide,” she told us.
This was a piece of advice we conveniently forgot until we were lost in the middle of the Fes medina. (Nellu wants tells me to make sure you know that he did not forget her advice. He purposely chose to ignore it because we don’t do guides.)
I tried to find a good aerial shot of the medina to give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with but I couldn’t find one that does it justice. Do you remember the movie “Labyrinth“? It was like that, crazy characters and all.
Our hosts asked if we wanted a guide to get around the medina. “Nah,” we said. “We don’t need one,” while thinking, “Guides are for wimps.”
We thought highly of our hosts, a middle-aged French couple with a laissez-faire attitude, because neither blinked at the idea of sending us out into the medina with only a well-worn map and some general directions. (Of course the lavish, included-in-the-price-of-the-room breakfast with two different types of freshly squeezed juice medleys and an ample supply of fresh Moroccan-style breads and spreads also played a role in our growing affection.)
So off we went. Up and down, round and round.
The first time we went out into the mess, we got really lost. We spent much of the day trying to find one of the gates, which we didn’t. We did walk by a very cool mirror shop though…two or three times.
The Fes medina maze is a very complex, collection of chaotic pathways that weave up and down through narrow spaces between buildings. There are a few sign posts hung from these buildings, but not necessarily when you need them. We walked around in many circles trying to follow the signs.
The alleys are too thin and crooked for cars so traffic consists of a heavy mix of people, carts, donkeys, and scooters, sometimes all descending on an intersection at the same time.
The medina is also quite large. Allegedly, it’s only four square kilometers. But even when we knew where we were going, it still took us no less than 35 minutes to walk from our riad to the other side where many of the restaurants were located.
The other issue is that the appearance of the alleys will change throughout the day. A “street” looks a lot different when the shops are open and wares laid out than when everything is closed.
Our huge success the first time we went out into this craziness was getting back to our riad. I know this sets the bar low for what counts as a success but to be completely honest, we’d gotten into the habit of congratulating ourselves everyday for surviving. “Another successful outing,” Nellu would say, and then we’d high-five. Dorky, I know. But this is what happens when you hang out with the same person everyday, almost non-stop for a year. And on our first day in Fes, getting home was worth celebrating.
Now the touts in Morocco weren’t quite as bad as I expected. The real touts that is. They shout at you in French, which doesn’t seem as aggressive as English, mostly because I can only understand half of what they’re saying.
What is a little unsettling, however is the roving teenage boy mobs. Their favorite phrase is “c’est fermé” or “it’s closed.” We found this comical because they obviously assumed they knew where we were going. We didn’t even know where we were going. In most cases, we were just wandering around trying to see what we could find. Yeah, sometimes we were looking for specifics but we certainly weren’t going to trust them.
Telling tourists something is closed is a popular scam all over the world. Most often it’s used to redirect you to shops or attractions where your new, kind, altruistic tour guide is getting a kickback for bringing people in. In Morocco, the kids use this tactic to get you to follow them on a wild goose chase that ultimately ends in tip extortion. The longer they lead you around in circles, the larger the payout they’ll demand for their time.
It was easy to ignore these kids during the day when many shops were open. But on the way home from dinner, their coy practices shift into intimidation tactics. They can smell the fear and will follow you, heckling you.
We got really, really lost again the first night coming home. A pack of five or so boys started taunting us. They said a few insulting things in English—I doubt they even understood what they were saying. These are the moments I am really grateful to have Nellu with me. He makes a good bodyguard and goes from zero to angry man so quickly. His protection instinct is primal…and somewhat belligerent.
Our bullies eventually left us alone, and we found our way back.
The next night, our last night in Fes, we realized where we had gone wrong and why we had gotten lost. Ironically, it was because shop owners had closed the doors to a bazaar hall that had become our leading passageway to the restaurants. I wish the kids had been more specific when they shouted “C’est fermé.” I would have understood them if they said, “La porte (the door). C’est fermé.” But I guess specifics would severely impact their business model.
It took us two and half days to mildly master the Fes medina and even despite the roving teenage mobs, it was the best part of our visit. Another successful outing! High-five?
I’ve finally finished compiling the footage I took on our overland trek from Johannesburg to Nairobi. I struggled with this package more than I do with most. I assume one of the reasons is because I am emotionally attached to most of the video, which makes it very difficult to edit pieces out.
I also found that while I wanted to write a script, I couldn’t find the words. I wanted to give the experience the weight it deserved. I wanted to make it poetic. But I found Florence and the Machine’s “All This Heaven Too,” said exactly what I wanted to say while letting the video speak for itself. I hope you enjoy.
And since I had so many nice moments left over, I put together some of the pieces which ended up on cutting room floor. Thanks to everyone on our trip who put up with me shooting video while you were sleeping, sweaty, and or just generally ruffled from camping for a month.
For more stories from our African Adventure, start here.