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camel, desert, Morocco, Sahara

Anyone who has ever ridden a camel will give you the same warning: “Don’t do it,” they tell you. “It’s incredibly uncomfortable.”

And after ignoring the friendly advice of others, I can tell you they are right. It’s similar to the feeling you have after riding a horse…but worse, much worse. (Nellu swears he bruised his tailbone.) Still, given the opportunity to ride a camel, you have to do it.

From Marrakech, Nellu and I took an overnight trip over the Atlas Mountains, through the city of Aït Benhaddou (a town that has been used as a backdrop for several famous films), and to the Sahara Desert.

Aït Benhaddou

Aït Benhaddou. Photo by Nellu

At the edge of the desert, we met our camels for a 45 minute ride out to the Berber camp where we spent the night.

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While the overnight was relatively uneventful, the highlight was definitely the journey, a journey which left a lingering impression on our bodies.

Berber camp, Sahara Desert, camel

The Berbers made a fire for us in the Sahara Desert. Photo by Nellu.

~ Molly

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We assumed when we left London at the beginning of February, we’d left the only cold we’d see all trip behind as well. When we mapped out our flights, we planned to be  in the Middle East in February and early March so we could miss the cold creeping out of the Northern Hemisphere. We assumed it would be warm in February in Dubai, Jordan, and Israel. You know what they say about assumptions and in our case it’s true. This is the story of how misperception can frost bite you in the arse.

We landed in Amman, Jordan on February 17th. We’d booked two night’s at Genny Bed & Breakfast. It was one of those places where we felt the hosts took pity on our ragged selves, tending to our comfort as if we were their kids, but they were probably just good hosts. We ended up staying three nights on the outset and made sure to stop in for one more before heading out. It was 50 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived. The moment we pulled up to Genny’s, rain hit and the mercury sank. It snowed twice while we were there. When we asked people if this was normal, we got a consistent response, “Well not really. But it is February,” whatever that means.

Nellu Mazilu

Amman in February. Photo by Nellu. (See more of Nellu’s pictures from Amman by clicking here.)

Despite being relatively unprepared for the cold, we layered up and headed into town to do some sightseeing.

As a woman entering the King Abdullah I Mosque, I was required to wear a hooded abaya (borrowed from the shop downstairs) and cover my hair. These kind of clothing restrictions for women usually get under my skin, but this time I was grateful for the extra layer.

Nellu Mazilu

Happy in my extra layer. Photo by Nellu

Then we headed over to the Citadel in city center to take in the ancient Roman ruins and the Temple of Hercules.

Nellu Mazilu

Temple of Hercules, Amman. Photo by Nellu

Now, I bet you’re thinking what Nellu was thinking, “Wow! Ruins! Ruins are cool.” Well let me set the scene a little better. The Citadel in Amman, as many citadels are, is on top of a big, open hill. This kind of vantage point may have protected the fort during a siege in ancient times, but it left us exposed to the cold and the wind on this frigid day in February.

Nellu Mazilu

We pose for a parent’s picture on top of the Citadel. I know that smile doesn’t say cold but the eyes do.

We spent some time exploring all that the Citadel had to offer. I can’t remember how much time, but it was long enough for the chill to get so thoroughly in my bones that I begged Nellu to leave and find some place warm.

But that was part of the problem in Jordan. Internal heat doesn’t exist in most of the buildings. We were able to find shelter and yummy food at Hashem’s at the foot of the Citadel but most of the famous eatery was open air. We headed to the back corner but the only heat we found came from our hot mint tea.

Looking like a troll at Hashem’s eatery after my deep freeze. Photo by Nellu.

But this day in the cold wasn’t the straw that broke this camel’s back for one important reason: Genny’s had heat.

I didn’t break until we went to Petra days later.

Now just to make sure I don’t get misread on this one – we loved Petra. It was an amazing anthropological site and the reason that Jordan should be high on the list of countries to visit in your lifetime. We’ll have more on Petra in future posts.

Nellu Mazilu

More on the amazing Petra in future posts. Photo by Nellu.

The issue that I had with Petra – or more specifically with Wadi Musa, the town that serves as an entrance to the site – was the lack of heat. We planned to spend three days exploring the area:  the first two roaming around Petra and staying at a hostel in town, and the third day we’d check out “Little Petra” and sleep at a the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp just a few kilometers away.

The weather when we arrived was warm during the day. We shed layers as we toured Petra, climbing up to lookouts and rambling down hillsides. Before the sun went down, we headed back to our hostel. It was cold in our room so we climbed under the thick stack of blankets on our bed. The hostel did have heat but they only turned it on between 6am and 9am in the morning and 6pm and 9pm at night.

“I’m not getting out of bed until the heat is on,” I declared.

But when 6pm rolled around there was no sign of heat. As the sun set, the room just got colder and colder. At 6:15pm, I convinced Nellu that he should be the one to get out of bed to assess the situation. He walked over and put is hand on the heater. “I’ve got bad news for you,” he said, “The heat is on.”

“What!? That can’t be,” I shouted in exasperation, hopping out of bed to check for myself.

It was true. The heat was on, barely, and it didn’t make much of a difference. I felt my spirit of adventure, the one that kept me going through horrible train rides, camera accidents, and costly mistakes, quietly slip away. You could say it froze to death.

I may have been ready to go home the day we left Africa but this was the first time I wanted to go home. “This isn’t normal!! This isn’t normal!!!!” I whimpered.

We headed out of our hostel in search of food and somewhere warm to eat. Most of the restaurants in town were once again open to the cold air. We found food but little reprieve from the cold.

On returning to our hostel, I thought I would try a trick I learned working as a TV news producer. The best way I’ve found to get the cold out of your bones after a long day out in the field is to take a hot shower and dry your hair with a hair dryer. Shooting hot air at your head for a prolonged period of time gives you a warm halo effect that can last for almost 30 minutes.

Lucky for me the hostel had a hair dryer (most don’t), but my warm-up plan was flawed. The water coming out of the shower head was indeed hot but the bathroom was like an ice box including the tile under my feet. You had to work hard to stay directly under the sorry little stream of water to prevent frost bite.

Would you rather take a cold shower on a hot day or take a hot shower in a freezing room? After traveling for more than a year, getting exposure to both situations, I can tell you that I’d take the former any day.

As we went to bed that night, I held onto the hope of a warm day in Petra and the promise of returning to Genny’s at the end of the week.

Thankfully it didn’t get as cold in our hostel the next night. We also found a restaurant that had a warm upstairs for dinner. It was filled, of course, with foreigners.

For our final night in southern Jordan, we headed out to the Bedouin camp. My spirits had been propped up by the promise of a camp fire. And while I was comforted by my direct access to an open flame, the realization that every warm piece of clothing I had would smell of smoked meat until I got the chance to wash and air dry them (much of the world does not have clothes dryers) dampened my mood.

Nellu Mazilu

The fire may be warm but it makes you smell like smoked meat. Photo by Nellu

Oh but thank goodness for Genny’s! After a three and a half hour bus ride and short cab ride back to Amman the next day, I washed and dried the smoked-meat smell right out of my hair. It was wonderful moment for me.

That night, I caught myself staring at the hairdryer similarly to the way Tom Hanks stares at the barbecue lighter at the end of “Cast Away.” He seems to contemplate the ease and comfort of modern life. I can relate.

~ Molly

Our Stockton Beach crew tries out dune surfing.

Just over 24 hours after we’d left our friends in Japan, I wake up in a sleeping bag somewhere in Australia in the middle of the night. I remember that we’re sharing a tent with another couple but I can’t for the life of me remember what the woman next to me looks like. If she wakes up she’s really going to be freaked out if she sees me staring at her…

We decided to try couch surfing for the first time in Sydney. We had our doubts about how this would work for us, mostly because there are two of us and we’re old. It’s one thing to be a 24-year old crashing on strangers’ couches. It’s another to be a married couple both in our 30s doing the same. But we lucked out running into Art and the rest of the Sydney crew. Before he had met us in person, Art invited us to come on a two-day camping trip to Stockton Beach.

Stockton Beach is a place you can only get to if you have a 4×4 (or really don’t care about your car), two and a half hours north of Sydney. There are spots you can drive to where you are surrounded by towering sand dunes in every direction.

There were three cars that made it out to Stockton Beach that weekend. Nellu and I traveled up with our host Art and Ryohei, a fellow traveler from the New York City area who had come to Sydney for work and spent a few days getting to know the place. We were the first of three cars but we were still running behind schedule. We got up to Stockton Beach around dusk. We were carting a ton a gear so it was decided that Ryohei would stay behind at the entrance of the beach with the flat bed of wood so we didn’t risk getting stuck in the sand. He would also wait for the other two cars coming out so Art could direct them to our spot. With the sand dunes as high as they are it would be easy for someone to drive around all night looking for their party.

Art, Nellu and I drove into the darkening night looking for a camp spot. When we found a good site sheltered off the main drag of the beach by a towering dune, we unloaded all the gear from the jeep and and the roof. Art then hopped back in the driver’s seat with a few parting words.

“You guys could probably start setting up your tent,” he said, “It’s not brain surgery.” And he drove off into the night leaving Nellu and I with all the gear (and beer!).

Confession time: while Nellu and I have been camping in the last year, we haven’t set up a tent on our own in decades. On the Inca Trail, our porters would faithfully run ahead of us up the mountain side and have not only our tents pitched but a fully cooked meal waiting for us when we finally emerged hours later.

The tent Art let us borrow was a monster. It was made for six people and when we stretched it out, the top layer was roughly the size of our old apartment bedroom. So we stood there in the dark with Nellu’s head lamp and my failing small torch (torch – Australian for flashlight), with the wind whipping around, trying to make sense of the complex geometric shape in front of us.

By no means could we fail. We may be city kids but we couldn’t let our new friends know that we couldn’t even set up a tent.

The base was fairly self-evident or at least it was rectangular. We chose our spot and drove the stakes into the ground. We put it at a slight incline up the sand dune figuring our heads would go at the top and not realizing that even a slight incline will leave you sleeping at the foot of the tent by the end of the night.

But when it came to the top rain layer, we were clueless. We would stare at the diagram directions sewn inside the tent bag and then stare at the rain sheet in front of us. “That’s not helping,” Nellu would say.

We were rescued though. Art came back for Nellu to help with the flat bed of wood that had gotten stuck in the sand. So for about a half and hour it was just me and Art’s German Shepard Rani sitting in the dark with all the beer and Art’s cellphone just in case they had trouble finding me. A few trips back and forth and they recovered all the wood and the two other cars arrived as well.

Can you guess which one is our tent? Photo by Nellu

No one gave us any trouble about not having the tent completely set up. I got help from our new friend Sheridan with the rain layer as Nellu was already busy working to get the fire started. We did get a little flack for setting the tent up on an incline but not from the Heather and Dave who ended up sharing it with us that weekend. But everyone was mostly interested in dinner and digging our heals into the sand with one of those cold beers in hand.

Art, Dave and Heather prepare dinner at sunset. Photo by Nellu

~ Molly

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