Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: August 2015

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Last month I popped over to Sharm el-Sheikh, or “Sharm” as it’s referred to by ex-pats and Middle Easterners. I went for 3 nights to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Sharm is a resort town on the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, on the Red Sea. It’s a quick 2hr flight from Riyadh, and makes a nice weekend get-away. The town itself is mostly full of all-inclusive resorts of varying stars, as well as Saudi, Egyptian, British and Russian tourists. It’s known amongst divers as being some of the best waters you can dive in, and there are many dive boats to stay on if that’s your thing.

Sharm is a place of contradictions. You will see Muslim women in swim burkinis or their abayas next to British and Russian tourists in the teeniest swimwear your eyes have ever seen. It’s bizarre and surreal. Safety wise Sharm el-Sheikh is the only safe place on the Sinai peninsula, but as with most security in the Middle East, this is an ever changing thing, so it’s best to follow the situation closely if you’re going and be sure to register with your embassy. The last major terror attack in Sharm was in 2005, although the most recent June tourist attack in Tunisia has shed light on Sharm being a target. Security is reportedly on high alert, but to be quite honest I hardly saw any security at all. Maybe they blended in civilian-style, but I’ve seen more security in Saudi Arabia than we saw here.

I won’t actually name the resort we stayed at because it wasn’t really that great. We spent our time bouncing between the few pools at the resort, going for dips, reading in the shade, having drinks at the swim up bar, or watching the daily belly-dancing and jazzercise classes. They were hugely entertaining. I had wanted to try scuba diving again, but had been fighting a respiratory bug for the last several weeks (thankfully not MERS) so couldn’t do it. The beach area is really rocky so most of the resorts on the bay we stayed on had piers that led out into the ocean to make getting in easier. The water is a beautiful shade of blue with great visibility and tons of fish. The ocean was really rough the time we were there, so while I did go in my fear of water immediately kicked in and I was back out in a matter of minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing we did while there though, was rent a beach cabana and pretend we were high rollers for the day. For $30 we got a private beachfront cabana with a waiter and wifi. It felt like total luxury and I loved every minute of it. Weather wise it’s super humid. Riyadh has a dry heat which I’ve become accustomed to, so Sharm was pretty close to unbearable during the day with temperatures in the mid to upper 40’s and humidity in the 50’s it was sweltering. The other relaxing thing we did was a 2 hour Egyptian hammam which was classier than my Moroccan hammam experience, but still resulted in me being mostly naked whilst getting a scrub down with my travel mate. Since it was my second experience I felt like quite the experienced hammam-goer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you need a weekend away you could do much worse than to fly over to Sharm el-Sheikh. If you love all-inclusives than you will likely love Sharm. If like me, they’re not really your thing it still makes for a nice weekend out of the sandbox. Go exploring people…..

 

 

 

Vancouver Island, Canada

I wanted to share a place with you that is one of my most favourite places in the world. This is a place that holds great memories of my childhood, and one that I know will be in my future. I’ve always had a love of the west coast. Whether it be Vancouver, Victoria or Seattle, I love it all. I love the ragged coastline and the ocean, and I especially love a good winter storm.

Growing up as a child I have many fond travel related memories. We would spent much of the summer camping, and we even owned a pretty rad camper that fit in the back of my Pops 1977 Ford. I lived most of my childhood in Alberta and it has some of the best camping a person can imagine. But, my fondest memories by far were of camping on the west coast of Vancouver Island. A tiny slice of land between the small towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. This area is known as the Pacific Rim National Park, and I can remember roaming the miles long beaches as a child, seeking refuge from the wind in deadwood forts we would build. The 4 of us trailing along- mom and dad in the front with my brother and I pulling up the rear, each in our own little world as we combed the beach for treasures, such as shells or feathers. Our crazy water loving dog Dusty was always somewhere in view, and often we would walk for hours without seeing hardly any other people. I remember a summer afternoon spent watching my brother and cousin body surfing the chilly Pacific Ocean waves. I remember it was a place of peace. A place of quiet. And these memories are what drew me back to it as an adult.

After a particularly bad breakup I was seeking solitude and the only place I longed for was this coastal area. I headed here in late November and spent 3 nights reading, journaling, and exploring the empty beaches. I was fortunate to visit the day following a winter storm, so the ocean was still churning and frothing as the huge waves crashed into the shore. It was spectacular. There are numerous hiking paths within the Pacific Rim National Park that I explored and braved the cold of Chesterman Beach to watch the surfers take advantage of the large waves. A couple years later I returned with my dear friend during the spring when the season was still full of rain, and the winds cold. We rented a cabin with a hot tub, and would sit out in the warm water as the rain poured down with the sound of the crashing sea in the distance. If my heart where divided into territories a huge piece of it would belong to this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tofino and Ucluelet couldn’t be more different considering they’re separated by a mere 40km. Tofino is more worldly and trendy. There’s more to do there in terms of art galleries, restaurants, and shopping. I personally prefer the quiet and seclusion of Ucluelet. I’ve walked the 2.6km loop trail to the lighthouse numerous times, and it never gets old. The recent times I’ve stayed in Ucluelet I’ve booked at Reef Point Cottages. They are middle of the road in terms of lodging, but I love that they have a kitchen, and that you can get cottages with hot tubs. Also, they are pet friendly. If luxury is your thing there are tons of beautiful resorts and inns scattered between Ucluelet and Tofino.

 

 

 

 

 

If you find yourself on the west coast of Canada you should make the trek to Vancouver Island, and to the western coast. Go in the winter. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see a winter storm. Bring a good book, warm clothes, and rain gear. It will stay in your heart and memories long after you’ve left. Trust me. I’m living in the Middle East and longing for this place……

Morocco……The Dirty Truth….

Firstly, this blog post contains adult language and is meant for…..you guessed it….adults. I don’t swear on this blog very often, however; swear words are needed to get my point across. Oh, and you’ve been warned. This is a doozy of a post.

I wanted to love Morocco. I really did. But truth be told this was the first vacation ever, that I wasn’t at all disappointed to be flying away. As I’ve already written it wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t. But when it wasn’t good it was really bad, and draining, and frustrating, and I’m surprised I didn’t actually punch someone in the face. Almost all the bad encounters we had took place in the Medina of Marrakech. I imagine if we hadn’t been 2 very western looking girls we might’ve had a different experience. I’m sure if we had’ve had a man with us many of these situation wouldn’t of happened. I should probably preface this post with the fact that the majority of the places I travel to, I’m used to standing out. I have blond hair. This tends to get a lot of stares in the Middle East. Same as when I traveled in India. And Bangladesh. And Southeast Asia. Until Morocco, my western looks usually only drew stares, and occasionally a “Hello“, or “photo photo!!” But generally, nothing more than that.

Morocco was another story. The first night we went out in Marrakech we got a lot of cat calling. Mostly “hey beautiful” and “beautiful asses” was what was yelled after us. Granted I agree that I do have a beautiful ass, but generally strangers don’t make a habit of yelling this. There were a few wedding proposals, but that first night we had no idea what was in store for us. On day 2 we were walking in an alleyway when 3 young boys approached us- they were between the ages of 8-11 by guess. One of them had a water balloon and they surrounded us. The next thing we know they are pointing at our breasts, literally fingers like a centimeter from our chests and then the kid with the water balloon puts part of it in his mouth and starts sucking it like a teet. No joke. My jaw fell open and I was speechless, which for those of you who know me doesn’t happen often. They trailed us for a few minutes all the while pointing at our chests while the one little shit sucked away on the balloon. Afterwards, all we could really do was look at each other and say “well, that just happened.

From here it only got worse. We ventured to the main square called Djemaa El-Fna. As I’ve previously reported this place is a complete cluster, and a people-watchers dream. The food stalls are delicious and super cheap. But that cheapness comes with a steep price that you pay by being publicly shamed and belittled by the men acting as touts for the food stalls. The food is sooooo good. And yet it’s such an off-putting experience to get it. Every time we went- which was a bunch of times, because of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had, we had some sort of shit happen. Let me paint the scene for you. There are aisles of food stalls, and literally as soon as you start walking towards them these food touts are already eyeing you up. And they start yelling at you immediately. And oddly, they’re all talking in uber fake Australian accents, which we never could figure out why this was a plausible tactic. So they see you coming. And they’re yelling at you to get your attention, and several of them start jogging over and they surround you and start shoving menus in your face. And you’re overwhelmed. Mostly because you’re hungry and just want to be left the hell alone. We ate at the same food stalls- the ones frequented by locals and not tourists as it’s a no-brainer that they had the best food. So we would try and ignore the aggressive touts and make our way to where we actually wanted to be going. At first politely trying to say “no thanks” or “we know where we’re going” and then these overly eager food touts would literally tell us to “Fuck off then” or “Go fuck yourself” or my personal favourite was to call us fat and tell us to “Take off.” I’m really curious about how this works to bring in business, or helps Morocco’s poor economy with bringing in tourist money. If you have any insight into this I would very much love to know. Once we overcame the shock of repeatedly being told to “Go fuck ourselves” we would order our food and sit back and watch the mayhem. It should be noted that the actual people who worked in the food stalls were lovely. They remembered us every time we came back, and were never rude to us. The other reason I was so bothered by these encounters is that these touts use intimidation tactics. They will literally swarm a woman on her own, and we even witnessed them going up to young guys and literally putting their hands on their chests to try and get them to eat at whatever stall they worked for.

This same tactic was used by people who worked in shops. Many times while walking thru the Medina our path would be blocked by men trying to get us to go into their store. We would try and step around them and they would side step to block us again. Sometimes they would actually touch us- grabbing our wrists to drag us into the shop, or they would try and push us in. When we weren’t especially receptive to this it wasn’t uncommon for them the tell us to “Fuck off.” Harsh. And when is it ever appropriate to grab a woman’s wrist to physically try and man-handle her into a store? Our second last day in Marrakech a guy grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me into his store and I started screaming at him “Don’t touch me.” I had completely had enough at that point.

The other thing about Morocco is that everyone, and I do mean everyone knows where you are going at all times. They will try and tell you that you are going the wrong way- “I’m sorry sir, do you even know where we’re heading?” And they always know whether that place that you are going, you know the one you haven’t yet told them, whether it is open or closed. Often they will claim it is closed. Don’t listen to them. Walk up the street and find out for yourself. It is so annoying. If by chance they actually ask you where you are headed, just keep walking. Or tell them “your mamma’s house” and keep walking. Cause if you stop I guarantee they will tell you that you are going the wrong way, and ever so kindly try the show you the way. Except that they way they will take you will only end with you being led to the tanneries. We learned this the hard way. Twice. It’s very obvious that if someone shows up with tourists to the tanneries they get a cut of whatever the tourist buys. Luckily, you can smell the tanneries before you actually get there, so you’ll quickly clue in if that isn’t your desired destination.

Obviously it wasn’t all bad, and we did meet some very kind and friendly people. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to Marrakech or Morocco. I’m just saying that if you are a woman and you look at all western you should be aware of the shitstorm that will likely follow you everywhere. I’m also writing this because you never know- someone from Morocco might read this and say “these don’t seem like great tactics, maybe we shouldn’t bully and shame the very people who we are relying on to help our economy.” I’ve been torn about how to describe my time in Morocco because it really pisses me off to think if only we had a man with us many of these things wouldn’t have happened. NEWSFLASH Morocco– woman travel solo, or in pairs and its 2015. We shouldn’t need to have a man with us just so we don’t get harassed. Oh, and also just as a general rule…when you tell someone to “Go fuck themselves” this is not conducive to business. Nor does it make me stop and think “on second thought maybe I do want to look in that store after all.

I’ll end with the fact that Morocco was beautiful, the food was excellent, and as much as I wanted to like it, when people ask me how my trip there was I’m conflicted as to what to say. So I say exactly this: it was a hard country to travel in. The hardest I’ve been to. And yet, I feel like I have unfinished business with it. I’ve traveled to 40 countries now, and this was the first time that I’ve left a country feeling like this. So Morocco, we might just meet again in the future, and if we do could you lay off the “F” word pretty please.

Did you have a similar experience traveling in Morocco? Have you ever traveled somewhere that you thought you would love, but didn’t?

Moroccan Food

A person can’t talk about Morocco without talking about the food. Moroccan food is spectacular. I seriously don’t think we had a bad meal. How often can you say that on a 2 week trip?! Often once you sit down at a restaurant complimentary olives are served, and lucky for me, my Yankee sidekick hates olives. So yay, more olives for me. We would start most meals with Moroccan salads. They consist mostly of cooked vegetables perfectly seasoned. I’m talking pureed eggplant with garlic, paprika, and cumin so it tastes super smoky, or sauteed zucchini with Moroccan seasoning, or a flavourful beet salad, or boiled and marinated carrot salad. Yumm right?! We would then usually share a tajine with couscous. For dessert there were delicious choices of pie, pastries, Moroccan cookies with almonds, or a simple plate of orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. Also before or after meals mint tea was served, which is probably the most popular drink in Morocco. It’s delicious- I always have mine sweet (with sugar) but you have the option of no sugar also.

Tajines are traditionally from North Africa, and there are many different varieties that often resemble a stew. The tajine pot is ceramic with a wide bowl like base, and a funnel type of lid. Historically they were cooked on charcoal, but present day they go on the stove-top. The tajines we tasted typically were lamb, beef, or chicken although there are vegetarian options available. Often they combined both the savoury flavours of the meat and paired it with sweet flavours of either mango, lemons, prunes, or almonds. Tajines are super tender- the meat often pulls away from the bone, and they are meant to be paired with either bread or couscous. The lemon chicken tajine was always good, as were the beef with vegetabes ones- it reminded me of a wintertime stew. Moral of this food story- you can NEVER go wrong with a tajine.

On the off chance that we were tajined-out (is that even a thing?) we would head to the main square in Marrakech (Djemma El-Fna) to eat the street food sold at the stalls there. It was so very good, and so very cheap, but the verbal assaults one had to endure to get this delicious food came at a cost. My next post will be about the negative side of Morocco, but for now we’re talking about delicious food. There is a soup called Harira soup that is super good and seeing as it was Ramada people would break their fast with this soup and a hard boiled egg. It’s similar to what we in the west think of as minestrone soup, and it’s a tasty treat. Also super cheap. The other thing that we tried many, many times, and that I have serious cravings for,  were these petite sandwiches. The one that I fell in love with took half a pita bread and mixed together cooked potato, a boiled egg, soft cheese, oil, salt and pepper and chilli powder. So easy, and literally the best sandwich I’ve ever had. We must’ve eaten at the square at least 5 or 6 evenings, as Harira soup and the petite sandwiches were so good. If you go- get your sandwiches from stall # 66. All the locals eat there, and everyone knows if the locals eat there the food will be dang good.

The soup stall

Aggressive food touts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my second last day in Morocco my Yankee side kick and I took a cooking class in Marrakech. We decided on Souk Cuisine because in addition to the cooking class we actually spent part of the morning buying the ingredients in the Medina and visiting a spice market. The class was taught by Gemma who is an ex-pat from Holland who has lived in Marrakech for the last many years. We met in the main square- there ended up being us and then 2 other couples on the tour. We were given shopping lists and bags, and led into the Medina in hunt of the ingredients. This was a great way to leisurely take in the markets, as well as be able to take some great photographs as we strolled past jars of olives and preserved lemons, past fresh local produce, and butchers selling fresh meat. We even had to arrange for fresh chicken- and I mean pick a chicken for the butcher to kill and pluck. This was hard for me- I’m not proud of this fact, but I like to be completely ignorant of where my food comes from. This was a little too real. From here we got a tour of the local spice market. Moroccan cooking uses a lot of saffron, paprika, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After we picked up all the ingredients needed for the cooking class we headed to a nearby house to start the cooking portion. In addition to Gemma we also had 2 Moroccan ladies assisting with the food prep. The menu changes, but for our class we prepared Moroccan salad with fresh tomatoes, zucchini salad, carrot salad with almonds and raisins, eggplant salad, a sardine appetizer, chicken tajine with carrots and chickpeas, and for dessert Moroccan sugar cookies. Since I have zero domestic skills  I was given the simple tasks- you know the ones you would give to a child. Yep. The real cooking was left to those with more experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part way thru the class my sidekick and I were left with the task of taking the sardine dish to the local communal bakery where it could be baked at high temperatures. There are communal bakeries in every neighbourhood where local women bring their daily  bread as well as other dishes to be baked for a small fee. We dropped off the dish and went back 30 minutes later to collect it. The men working there were naturally quite taken with us, wanting to show us how the oven worked, how deep it was, and the main baker posed for photos. Fun fact: the oven was super deep- he would shove in this long piece of wood and pull out like 20 loafs of bread. It was a really fun experience, and one that we wouldn’t have had were it not for this class. After the cooking was finished it was time to taste our creations, perfectly paired with chilled Moroccan white wine. It was a lovely afternoon. I would highly recommend a cooking class if you’re planning on traveling to Morocco.

Have you taken a cooking class while traveling? Did you recreate the recipes once you got back home?

 

 

Moroccan Hammam

You’ve never truly solidified a friendship until you’ve been scrubbed raw by a Moroccan lady while wearing only your underwear with your best mate. That is the mark of a true friendship. Let me set the scene for you……one of the riads that we were staying at asked us if we wanted to visit a local hammam and since I have never had a true hammam experience I was like sure why not?! So off we go to the Moroccan spa. We walk in and the place is quite nice, and we are given robes to wear, and led up to lounge on the rooftop terrace. Which in theory sounds relaxing, but it’s like 35C and we’re just basically sweating our asses off in one size too small terry-cloth robes. As it turned out the hammam was on the roof, so we’re led into this cement room with benches, and asked to lay down. Next thing you know buckets of hot water are being thrown on us. And when I say thrown I really mean thrown. Now the benches are covered in plastic. And as you can imagine plastic when it gets wet is super slippery. Like slip-n-slide slippery.

So we’re being doused with buckets of water, and I’m not especially a huge fan of getting my face wet. And also for some silly reason I didn’t even think to take off my mascara so now I’m topless with my best friend with 2 Moroccan women and I literally look like a crying Panda bear. It was a real special moment, rest assured. So after we’re adequately soaked we’re covered in argan oil and left to lounge in the humid hammam for a bit. So we’re chatting a little bit and the whole time my brain is thinking “stare into her eyes, DON’T look at her boobs. Oh shit you looked. Eye contact. Maintain eye contact.” Sorry J- I accidentally might have looked. My bad.

So the ladies come back in and tell us to turn over. This in and of itself was a major feat, as you can imagine a plastic bench is slippery when wet, but it’s slippery as heck when you’re covered in oil. I was imagining myself attempting to turn over, but actually propelling myself off the bench and landing on the hammam floor, at the feet of a strange Moroccan lady and then looking up at her like a crying Panda. Thankfully, this did not happen. More buckets of water were thrown at us, and then came the really fun part. The scrubbing. I’m quite certain I’ve never been cleaner once this lady was done. Basically your skin is scrubbed raw and all the old grey dead skin is left. It’s pretty gross. And they scrub everywhere. Including my feet, which trust me really needed it after days spent walking in sandals on the dusty Marrakech streets. But here’s the thing. My feet are super ticklish. As in I might accidentally kick you in the head kinda ticklish. Oh, and I giggle the entire time my feet are being touched. So now I’m resembling a half naked giggling Panda. Oh, the levels of humiliation…..

After the scrubbing, more water is thrown at us, and then they braided our hair. Which was a nice touch. Then we were helped into our robes and escorted to our massages. Correction. Couples massage. Yep, same room as my bestie. At this point I’m expecting the day to wrap up with a group shower. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.

Have you been to a hammam? Ever had a similar experience??

Chefchaouen Morocco

After stopping off at Volubilis we drove another 3 hrs to Chefchaouen a small city in the north of Morocco in the Rif mountains. Chefchaouen is famous for being the “Blue City” of Morocco. If you’ve ever drooled over photos of Morocco many of them were likely taken here. The city originates from the late 1400s. It grew in size as Jewish and Muslim refugees arrived from Granada, and remained relatively isolated until the 1920s when it was occupied by Spanish troops to form part of Spanish Morocco. Chefchaouen was reportedly painted blue back in the 1930’s by Jewish refugees who lived there. The city was then returned to Morocco when Morocco won independence in 1956.

The city is extremely photogenic, which makes it a prime tourist stop. It has a Spanish flare about it paying homage to the early inhabitants of the city, which only adds to its appeal. Our entire trip to Morocco centered around visiting Chefchaouen, and the city did not disappoint. We spent 2 relaxing nights here at Casa Perleta. If you go I think you should stay here. The staff were lovely, and it’s located near one of the main entrances to the Medina which means you won’t have to schlep your luggage very far. The only down side was that there was a megaphone from the mosque next door pointed right at our window- don’t let that deter you from staying here though, because as with most Muslim countries there’s always a mosque with a megaphone near by.

Casa Perleta terrace views

Casa Perleta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two nights was enough time to explore Chefchaouen. Our main goal was to take as many photos of blue houses, doors, door knockers, and blue windows as we could. As I’ve already mentioned ever corner you turn looks like it should be  a postcard. When you get tired of taking photos (is that even possible?) there’s other things to do as well. There are restaurants and cafes to sit at with great views of the main square. The old men of Chefchaouen love to sit around and chit chat around the old square. And they are super cute to watch. Coincidentally people of this village often wear these cloak like garments that are a cross between a housecoat, and a muumuu with a pointed hood. Personally I thought everyone looked a bit like a magician, or like an older Harry Potter character except that most of these outfits were either white, tan, or yellow.

 

 

 

 

 

How cute are these guys??

See- slightly wizzard-ish

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent some time at the Kasbah Museum which is housed in an old walled fortress from the early 18th century. None of the signs in the museum are in English (Spanish and French and likely Arabic if memory serves me)- but it’s still worth going because the gardens are beautiful, and the views from the tower are panoramic. Also if you’re a bit of a paparazzi like me they’re great for getting pictures of unsuspecting locals dressed as wizzards going about their day. I know I should feel a little bad about taking photos without permission but I’ve had my photo taken literally hundreds of times all over India and Bangladesh, and much of the Middle East. So fair’s fair right?!

Spanish Mosque from the Kasbah

Looks like a postcard right?!

After you’ve finished taking panoramic shots and sneaky photos of the elderly villagers you should make the short hike to the Spanish Mosque. Don’t go mid-day as it’s far too hot in the summer months. We went in the early morning, but it would be spectacular at sunset. I also wouldn’t go alone as a woman, as the only other people we saw on the path were men, and one of them I inadvertently made eye contact with while he was peeing. To be fair, I didn’t realize he was peeing until we made eye contact, we shared a really weird moment. So anyways, the mosque overlooks the town on an opposite hill about 2km from the edge of the Medina once you’ve crossed the river. It took us about 30min to get to the top at a moderate pace with a few stop-offs for photos. There were some stray dogs along the way- one of them decided to be our guide and luckily also our guard as he scared off a rather aggressive dog we crossed paths with at the top. The mosque itself was built by the Spanish in the 1920’s when they occupied the city- it reportedly was never used by the local Muslims. The doors were locked when we visited. It’s well worth the walk up because the photos of the city with the different shades of blue against the opposite hill is impressive.

Views from the Spanish Mosque

Our guide and guard dog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Spanish Mosque in the morning light

Colourful blue doors....

Colourful blue doors….

From here we had a driver take us 4hrs to Rabat where we caught the train back to Marrakesh for the better part of a week. Next in the Morocco series- the Moroccan hammam experience.

 

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