Road Trip to California

After finishing up grad school, I embarked on a road trip from South Bend, Indiana to San Francisco.  I of course didn’t want to take the most direct route, but instead choose a much more circuitous route that led me through North Dakota, Glacier National Park (nearly at the Canadian border), and many other out-of-the-way-but-still-worthwhile spots (at least in my unique travel opinion).

map

Wisconsin

The first stop from South Bend was Milwaukee, but because that happened to land at about 7am, there wasn’t much open.  Though seeing the Pabst Mansion from only the outside (because it was quite early) was interesting and the waterfront area serene there wasn’t a lot to see or do.  So onward to Madison.

Ella's DinerThanks to a great app, Roadside America, that describes itself as “A Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions”; I found a restaurant that definitely fit that bill – Ella’s Deli.  Between the robot that greets you, the animatronic dancing feet, and the flying Dumbo that flaps his ears, it was the most entertaining kosher deli I’ve ever been to.

Having never really been to Wisconsin before, I was of course excited to try the famous cheese curds.  A farmer’s market set up outside of the capital building seemed like a great opportunity to try some that had very good reviews on Yelp.  While this new delicacy (using that term loosely…) was quite tasty, it still just tasted like fried cheese to my unsophisticated palette.

photo 2 (2)Despite these rather odd adventures, the highlight of the day was definitely the National Mustard Museum, yes there’s actually a whole building devoted only to mustard.  The lower level consists of a collection of 5,676 mustards from each state and throughout 70 countries as well as the theater area.  There was a movie titled “A Spice of Nations” which explained the origins of mustard throughout the world and the process of making it.  Apparently there are medicinal advantages to the condiment, who knew?  The second level was the sales floor which sold an extremely extensive variety of mustards and allows you to taste any and/or all of them – not too shabby.

Minnesota

photo 4 (3)Continuing along similar lines of unique experiences the next destination was the SPAM museum located near the Hormel Packing plant in Austin, Minnesota.  For someone who refuses to eat the processed meat product, it may be a surprising stop.  However, in my negotiation class we negotiated a lengthy Harvard Business Review case based on the real-life 1985 union strike after negotiations between Hormel management and the United Food and Commercial Workers union leaders broke down.  So after spending weeks acting as Hormel management, seeing the site was more intriguing.  The museum itself was well-done including the product’s history, WWII Spamville (emphasizing that GI’s ate a lot of SPAM), and my personal favorite – a mock production site where you could assemble plastic containers of bean bag ‘SPAM’.

The half day in Minneapolis didn’t really result in any noteworthy activities.  The bocce ball restaurant had a monstrously long wait to actually play and I couldn’t find the “mysterious small creatures” statues.

North Dakota

In my quest to visit all 50 states (currently I’m only missing Hawaii and New Mexico), North Dakota had yet to be checked off so was next up on the journey.  Bordering Minnesota, Fargo was the first stop.  Best known from the Cohen Brothers’ 1996 movie, the city actually very pleasantly surprised me.  Though to be fair my initial impressions were solely based on the movie which hardly takes place in North Dakota, but instead mostly in Minneapolis and Brainard, Minnesota.

The Woodchipper from the movie 'Fargo'

The Woodchipper from the movie ‘Fargo’

Fargo can be summed up by the word “surprising”.  The visitor’s center seemed like the reasonable place to start, especially because it contains the famous “Woodchipper”.  Not only was the staff extremely helpful, but also provided flannel hats to make the scene with the foot and the woodchipper a more authentic photo opp.  The downtown area actually consisted of more development than I anticipated, but of course with a North Dakota flair, the Smiling Moose Deli is a good example.  For some reason I assumed that Fargo would be a cooler climate in the early summer because it’s legendary frigid winters.  However, that wasn’t at all the case.  Memorial Day had temperatures at about 88 degrees.  Also surprisingly, the visitor’s center claimed that the Dilly Bar was invented in Fargo, which necessitated an adventure to find one of the first Dairy Queen locations because I obviously I couldn’t pass up an excuse for dessert.

Driving the lengtIMG_9038h of the entire state via Interstate 94, was a long and relatively uninteresting journey.  Stopping at random spots along the way broke up the drive a bit.  One such stop was in Jamestown for the “World’s Largest Buffalo”, which is exactly what you would expect.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was the first National Park of many in the coming days.  Though it is nearly on the border with Montana, the landscape closely resembles that of the Badlands of South Dakota with expansive rock formations of various shades of brown, tan, and red.  The prairie dog towns along the 30 mile paved loop were a cute surprise, as the little guys were quite active burrowing and romping around.

 

Montana

photo 3 (9)Glacier National Park is near the border of Canada and is described as one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, and thus was worth going so far out of the way on my road trip.  Despite being early June, a lot of the park was still closed due to snow.  I actually just saw a clip on the news that Glacier just received 16 inches of snow in only 24 hours – in mid-June.  Even though I only got to see a portion of the park it was still worthwhile; snow-capped mountains among a national forest.  A  couple mile hike to see a lake formed by an avalanche was cool, but unfortunately the wildlife consisted only of a few pretty persistent and hungry chipmunks.

IMG_5979After Glacier I ventured to Great Falls, Montana.  After being named #1 bar worth flying to by GQ magazine in 2003, the obvious nightlife choice was the Sip-N-Dip Tiki Lounge inside the O’Haire Motor Inn.  This was no typical bar.  Complete with an octogenarian piano player, Pat, and of course the glass wall between the bar and the swimming pool where a mermaid swims around presumably for tips.

 

Wyoming

Yellowstone is the big draw in Wyoming, and for good reason.   The nearly 3,500 square mile park has everything from mountains, lakes, geysers, thermal pools, and wildlife.  By staying at the Old Faithful Inn, I got to see the sunset over Old Faithful, a geyser that true to its name erupts “faithfully” every 90 minutes or so.  However, a much rarer geyser eruption, Beehive, was a more impressive sight.  At nearly 200’, it’s significantly higher and more powerful.  With the right sunlight, a rainbow even appeared.

IMG_9197Just south of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons are another national park with beautiful sights.  The mountains are great, but the definite highlight was the bear on the side of the road.  Though it was likely only a teenager, it could still destroy a human – though the people getting out of their cars and walking closer to it apparently wouldn’t agree.  Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your views), a great YouTube wasn’t filmed that day.

 

Idaho

IMG_6093Continuing the trend of daily visits to National Parks, Craters of the Moon was up next (though it’s a National Monument, not park).  Though it’s only about 200 miles east of Boise, it more closely resembles the landscape of Hawaii.  Craters was established in 1924 by President Coolidge in order to “preserve the unusual and weird volcanic formations”.  Sounds about right… It consists of hardened lava flows and lava tubes, though unfortunately no live volcanoes.

Nevada

IMG_9206The Biggest Little City in the World – Reno.  10am on a Sunday isn’t the most lively time to visit a locale best known for its second tier casinos.  Wandering through the Circus Circus casino there wasn’t a lot of activity because apparently everyone was at the National Bowling Stadium just down the street.  The USBC Open Championships (Bowling) was taking place and that place was pretty crazy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of the National Bowling Stadium, but it turns out there are multiple levels of bowling alleys and the Bowling Hall of Fame.

The final stop before San Francisco was Lake Tahoe.  Unfortunately my mighty prius (with all 110 horsepower) had some trouble with the steep mountains to get up to the lake.  Then once my glorified golf cart made it to the 6200 foot elevation, there happened to be a bike race going on with riders that didn’t seem to care about the vehicle traffic.  And although it was too cold to actually go in the Lake, seeing the picturesque waterfront was cool but maybe not worth the hassle.

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Some final thoughts about my trip.

Now that I’m settled into my new home (apartment), these are a few last contemplations about my journey.

A few indispensable items 

1)      Black fleece.  It appears in 99% of my pictures, but I swear I did change the clothes underneath it.

2)      Kindle Fire (a mix between an e-reader and a tablet but at a fraction of the price of an iPad).  This was amazing not only for checking email at wifi spots, but mainly for reading on buses because the font can be made extremely large so that it doesn’t aggravate motion sickness.  I have managed to read over 5000 pages in the past six months and for the most part kept up with the Wall Street Journal digital edition.

3)      Peanut butter because it’s stock full of protein and a cheap easy meal to take along on my 10-15 mile urban hikes I’m so fond of.

I have learned a lot (because I do truly view this as an educational experience – it’s definitely not all fun and games).  At a minimum they have been “character building” exercises, and hopefully these skills will be transferable into my new career.

1)      First and foremost is becoming comfortable while being in uncomfortable situations.  This sounds like an oxymoron, but I assure you I was constantly testing and expanding my comfort zone, so that it’s like my brain has been lifting weights continuously for five months.  My mind has no doubt gotten stronger – though right now it just wants to rebel against me and hibernate.

2)      Problem – solving.  Traveling, especially in developing countries, you learn very quickly that things don’t always go according to plan, and thusly you have to be flexible enough to adapt to the current situation and creative enough to problem-solve your way out of it.

3)      Cultural exposure.  As the cliché goes:  the world is a global place and I’m optimistically a step or two ahead with understanding different cultures and people.

4)      Patience.  Ok, I’m still working on that one because I still get very aggravated at inefficiencies.  In my mind everything should run like a well-oiled, profit-earning company, but obviously that’s not how the real-world actually works.  But at a minimum I am aware of my shortcoming…

Differences from my trip a couple of years ago.

1)      This time I am coming back to something – grad school.  To know what is coming next provides a huge sense of relief and purpose.  Though unfortunately this choice is not a boon to my bank account…

2)      I did much less planning this time around.  Part of this is because I am more comfortable with uncertainty now, and part of this is because of the locations I visited.  Not having something booked in Australia could result in the decision to either sleep in the car or spend a fortune on a fancy hotel room which would blow the budget for the entire next week.  Not having something booked in Egypt allowed me to negotiate a better deal than websites listed…

3)      Traveling by myself.  I met so many more great and interesting people on my trip this time around than I did the first time.  Though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, I feel I learned a lot more going it solo.

Unfortunately my travel habit/addiction will have to be curbed for a couple of years while I am in school and then while I’m paying back my private school tuition…  However, if all goes according to plan, I will get a job with an international portfolio of projects.  Then I will still get to travel, but this time on an expense account and getting paid for it!

My final thought is that I’m more than happy to dole out advice/opinions/etc. about traveling to anyone who is interested in listening to me ramble – so just ask!

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New 7 Wonders

For those that don’t know, my goal of this trip was to visit the New 7 Wonders and the other 14 finalists (which helps explain some of the randomness of my location choices) that were determined by a world-wide vote several years ago.  The premise was that these are the 21 coolest things in the world.  As of right now, I have seen 20 out of 21.

New 7 Wonders

Great Wall of China – July 2007

Christ the Redeemer (Brazil) – February 2008

Petra (Jordan) – August 2008

Chichen Itza (Mexico) – April 2011

Taj Mahal (India) – February 2012

Pyramids of Giza (Egypt) – February 2012

Macchu Picchu (Peru) – June 2012

Finalists

Statue of Liberty (New York City) – June 1996

Eiffel Tower (France) – May 2005

Newshwanstein (Germany) – May 2005

Colesseum (Italy) – June 2005

Kremlin and the Red Square (Russia) – November 2006

Anchor Wat (Cambodia) – February 2007

Sydney Opera House (Australia) – April 2008

Stonehenge (England) – June 2008

Kiyomizera (Japan) – May 2010

Acropolis (Greece) – March 2012

Alhambra (Spain) – April 2012

Easter Island (Chile) – May 2012

Left to See

Timbuktu

My only remaining wonder is Timbuktu.  Unfortunately while Morocco (I was there in March) is geographically close to Mali, it is worlds away in safety.  There were regular reports of kidnappings in broad daylight in and around that area, so that my “last wonder” will have to wait until the political situation changes or I win the lottery so I can hire a private army to protect me.   And apparently rebels are currently destroying parts of the adobe village, so I may not ever have this opportunity.  The lesson I took from this is that I shouldn’t have waited.  The lesson my mom took from this was that I should never go there…

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The Price Is Wrong, Bob!

To make the journey from Lima to Los Angeles, I had four flights (layovers in Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, and Las Vegas).  I can’t complain though because those flights cost less than half the price of the other more-direct options.  So after literally sprinting through the Fort Lauderdale airport immigration and customs (because of a mere 45 minute layover) I was back in the good ole US of A!

I found it necessary to rent a car in Los Angeles, and found that after a couple of months of not driving, it was a shock to suddenly deal with the notoriously horrible traffic in the area.  I also very much missed my car, mostly because it’s a hybrid and that would allow me to drive in the carpool lane by myself.  Every time I see the high-occupancy-vehicle signs I think of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode where Larry David picks up a hooker so he can drive in the carpool lanes…  Just to be clear – I did not use this loophole.

I wanted to make the most of my time in LA and do some fun stuff before the “real world” and networking conference began.  My first fun stop was to view a taping of the game show “The Price is Right”.  The whole task of viewing the taping was a cumbersome and inefficient process.  After reserving a voucher a month in advance for the specific show, I was still obligated to show up nearly four hours before the scheduled time in order to actually preserve my slot.   The people with “priority” (given after showing up early) got shuffled to some benches within the CBS lot.  In the next six hours we had to fill out paperwork, have our picture taken, be “interviewed” by the producer (so he could hand-pick the contestants), and then hand over all electronics before being allowed into the studio for the 41 minute show.   After this arduous process, I got seated in the first row!  I was actually hoping to just anonymously sit in the back, and not have to become an unnatural version of my “cheerleader” self; continuously clapping and high-fiving everyone.  By the end of the show my hands were swollen from clapping so much and I lost my voice from hooting and hollering, but I think I successfully fulfilled my role in “winners’ lane” (as the producer called it when he came down and told the group of us to be ‘extra energetic’ because we’re on camera a lot).  I guess I’ll find out how I actually did when the show airs in January…  Unfortunately I didn’t get called to “come on down”, so I didn’t win anything…

My next fun stop was to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.  And to explain, I really do think that this is a fun activity.  It was definitely a fantastic place!  Probably the best library I have been to, and that list is fairly extensive so there is some competition…  The setting overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains was specular and the guts of the museum were very good as well.  Probably my favorite part was reading the script of Knute Rockne opposite Reagan and then viewing the ridiculous playback; it’s a good thing I’m going back to school because it’s pretty obvious I have no future in acting…

My conference involved two and a half days of seminars, lectures, and networking receptions at UCLA (a very pretty campus, fyi).  The conference was for the Forte Foundation – a group that emphasizes giving women opportunities in the business world.

My final stop before heading home was in the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda (south of LA).   So yes, I choose presidential libraries over Disneyland, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, etc.  One of the many ways that my nerdy travel habits sets me apart from the norm…   But bonus, libraries are air-conditioned and have far fewer lines!

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Machu Picchu

To my dismay (and my mom’s delight), my trip got cut a bit short.  An obligatory networking conference in Los Angles for school is taking the place of Ecuador and Colombia.   So anyway, Peru was my last real stop on Around-the-World Part II.  And now Los Angeles is my final stopover before heading to Michigan for two weeks and then moving to my new home in South Bend!

From Cusco I took the train (the lazy persons alternative to the four day sold-out Inka Trail hike) up to Aguas Calientes, the “city” at the base of Machu Picchu.  I spent the first day going to the supposedly informative museum, but unfortunately didn’t find it nearly as stocked with information as what Lonely Planet described it.  Maybe a lot of the explanations were lost in the English translations…

On day two, after waking up at 4:30am, I made it out of Aguas Calientes on the first set of buses up the 12 kilometers of winding road to Machu Picchu.  Inopportunely, it started to rain about the same minute I disembarked from the bus.  Luckily, this weather cleared out after about an hour.  Unluckily, the oftentimes dense fog took much longer to finally dissipate.  But it all worked out ok for my hike up Waynapichu.  This is the mountain behind the civilization in all of the famous pictures.  It is possible to hike it, though an additional ticket at a specified time is required.   I had heard some horror stories about six inch wide wooden bridges without handrails crossing ravines (with the potential for fire-breathing dragons chasing you down…) that you have to traverse in order to complete the climb.  Auspiciously, this wasn’t actually the case.  Parts of the climb involved relatively steep steps but that was about the extent of the scariness factor.  All of the walking I’ve been doing has paid off because somehow my legs weren’t even sore after the two and a half hour journey.

On the train ride back to Cusco, I had to splurge and spend an extra $8 for the “luxury” train because the cheaper train was sold out.  The extra $8 bought an on-board fashion show!  The crew members modeled alpaca clothing they were selling – mildly entertaining for ten minutes of the three and a half hour train ride…

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A few things that I should clear up about my trip

I feel there are a few things that I should clear up about my trip…

An important item to clarify is that despite the general tone of some of my posts, I am not a masochist.  But I do think that it is important to portray the fact that I am neither traveling on an expense account, nor on a trust fund.   My family has provided valuable support in various forms including scanning and emailing my W-2’s so I could do my taxes while in Egypt or mailing dress clothes to my hotel Los Angles so I could still go to Machu Picchu before having to head to my conference.  However, every last cent of my travel money has come from scrimping and saving in my “everyday” life; not from credit card debt or financial support of others.  And while I feel that traveling financially independently is a very important part of the adventure, it does lead to having to “count pennies” where a lot of other vacationers have many more luxuries available.  So that while overnight buses are not necessarily my preferred method of travel, it is compulsory in order to see all of the places and do all of the things that my vast travel checklist contains.  I feel its a very good trade-off!

Secondly, despite an apparent stereotype of long-term travelers, I can absolutely guarantee that I have not turned into a hippie, living the bohemian lifestyle.  I have maintained and probably intensified my strong desire to attend (business) grad school in the fall and my super nerdy reading list over the past several months can definitely attest to that.  Additionally, I have successfully submitted and gotten both site and construction plans approved for my civil engineering job (and ahead of schedule I might add, despite being thousands of miles away…).  So rest assured that my hair is not in dreadlocks and I haven’t traded in my ratty running shoes for a pair of birkenstocks.

And lastly, is the aspect of travelling alone.  When I initially told people about my second trip, they reacted with a mix of surprise and shock, and then when they found out that I was heading out alone I got the distinct impression that most thought I was nuts.  Which, yes I realize that traveling like I do is relatively rare in the US, but for the rest of the world I would not be considered nearly as much of a leper.  In essence, there are lots of people who traverse the world for extended time periods, and consequently meeting people is relatively easy.  Protocol dictates that you hang out with people while your schedules and wish-lists line up, and then move on either on your own or with your new friends.  So that while I may be officially traveling alone, you make friends along the way and I don’t spend all of my time alone – though I make certain that I get enough “Jill” (alone) time to maintain my sanity.  It does take a certain personality type in order to successfully deal with this situation though because there is no one there to take care of you when you get sick (in India…) or to complain to when your feet hurt because your bag is too heavy.  But on the other side, while traveling alone you meet many amazing and interesting people that most likely you wouldn’t have met with the comfort and convenience of a travel companion.

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Peru

First stop in Peru was the city of Puno, also located on Lake Titicaca.  Once again the lake is the main draw here and the city itself didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of entertainment.  But a side excursion to the Uros Islands was mildly entertaining.  These floating islands are often referred to as “reed Disneyland” and I can definitely understand why that connection is drawn.  Several of the islands seem to only exist for tourism purposes.  When our boat docked at one of the islands, the Peruvian women greeted us with a less than enthusiastic rendition of “row row row your boat”.   To be honest, in their brightly colored outfits, singing the song they very much reminded me of the animatronic dolls in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.

The “tour” of the island included the natives showing us their reed houses (which contained a tv and lights powered by solar panels), and the lady showing my group around prodded us to play dress up in her clothes.  I of course choose a blue and yellow ensemble.  Additionally, the guide gave a pretty thorough explanation of how they make the islands.  While I found this interesting, I must say as an engineer, I didn’t have full faith in their engineering standards or construction techniques.

For the bus ride from Puno to Cusco, I choose the more expensive tourist bus option because it stopped at a few places along the way, most of which I assumed would be either informational or entertaining.  Unfortunately the stops were neither.  Because the guide spoke in both Spanish and English, his explanations took twice as long and I found it extremely difficult to listen to the same things twice (I can understand much more Spanish than I can speak).  Overall a thumbs-down experience.

Once in Cusco, I found out about the chocolate museum and had to get there as quickly as possible.  In this wonderful museum they teach you about how cocoa is grown, and how the beans are transformed into chocolate.  They also do their absolute best to make a case that eating chocolate is a healthy addition to any diet – I really enjoyed that aspect…  I took a “cooking class” where we took cocoa beans from their raw state (in which they are apparently hallucinogenic), toasted them until they began “popping” like popcorn, and then de-shelled them.  An interesting drink involved the cocoa bean shells used to make tea.  Even though I’m not normally a tea drinker, it was pretty good – apparently chocolate makes anything ok with me!   The next step in this process of turning beans into edible deliciousness involved using a mortar and pestle and grinding the beans into a paste.  At this point, the paste needs to be mixed for 24 hours.  Then came the fun part, we were given melted chocolate and about two dozen different toppings and powders to make our own concoctions.  I think my favorite option was putting quinoa into my chocolate trays.  I would compare it to the texture of adding rice krispies, but with the added benefits of anti-oxidants (and now all of my free radicals are gone!).

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I ♥ Bolivia

My next stop in Bolivia was the capital of La Paz.  This city is basically a gigantic market, mostly catering to tourists with llama and alpaca goods along with the standard boot-leg dvds available in most big cities.  Portions of the famous “witch market” are probably geared towards the locals, specifically the llama fetuses used in ceremonial celebrations.  Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of this because my camera and phone spent the day drying after they went swimming when my entire water bottle emptied itself in my purse on a bus ride.   Everything is ok and functioning now though, luckily.

Copacabana on the famed Lake Titicaca was my next destination.  The highest navigable lake in the world is really pretty, but the city itself is nothing to write home about…

Overall, I really loved Bolivia.  Definitely one of the top five places I’ve ever been (if I get ambitious and/or bored, I’ll get a list together of my top 10 favorite places).  The people are so nice and helpful!  The country is still in its infancy of tourism, so for the most part, the people haven’t been spoiled by tourism and consequently don’t have the same “out to get you” mentality as a lot of other developing countries.  A very refreshing change of pace!  And as a huge bonus – they speak more slowly and clearly than in Argentina, so my Spanish skills were much more useful than they had been because I could actually understand when people spoke.

The only real problems I encountered in Bolivia involved the super-high altitudes.  At one point I was up at nearly 15,000 feet (nearly three miles).  When you are this high weird things start happening because of the lack of oxygen.  I’m the first to admit that I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I certainly don’t get winded walking or climbing for short distances.  However, even extremely short distances had me embarrassingly huffing and puffing.  I was even taking altitude sickness medication meant to make your kidneys process the carbon dioxide more quickly.  And it was definitely helpful because I got super sick when I even halved my dosage – a less than ideal night after that decision.  The high altitude also meant the freezing cold temperatures (which normally I would just adapt to, being from Michigan and all), but the entire country doesn’t have the capability for indoor heating.  A lot of places only have electricity for an hour or two per day, depending on how long the gas in the generator lasts…

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Salar de Uyuni – Highlight of Bolivia!

I started my time in Bolivia in the small “city” of Tupiza.  I splurged here and stayed at the nicest hotel in the city (because it had wifi) and still only paid about $8 per night for my own room.  Unfortunately, even the nicest hotel doesn’t include central heating (or any type of heating for matter) even though the temperature drops below freezing at night…   There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Tupiza besides stock up on warm clothes (which for me included a hat and gloves with decorative llamas!) and view the beautiful scenery that looks like it was transplanted right out of the Wild West.

Then my four day- three night trip out into the Bolivian Salt Flats began!   The trip started off with lots of llamas (for some unknown reason I love llamas).  They are domesticated animals (like cows, not like pets) bred for their wool as well as their meat.  I actually tried llama meat, it was surprisingly pretty good.   Owners distinguish their animals from neighboring shepherds’ animals basically by the different “earrings” that the llamas wear.  I must say that they do look pretty…

Day number two consisted of lagoons of all colors!  Greens, blues, and even red!  So amazing!  A quick dip in the hot springs certainly wasn’t bad either, especially considering I hadn’t had a shower in 36 hours…   Definitely my favorite was the red lagoon – also known as Laguna Colorada.   This lagoon was full of flamingos gobbling away on their algae.  Fun fact:  flamingos start off white, and the more they eat the pinker they become.

The third day consisted of a few more lagoons, but the main attraction was the rock formations.  It was a lot scarier to “rock climb” without the soft cushiony floor at Planet Rock and of course a belayer providing an important sense of security.  At one point I channeled my “inner lion king” and did the pride rock pose…   The other highlight of the third day was accommodation that night – a salt hotel.  This is literally what it sounds like, a hotel made of salt.  And I mean everything was made of salt.  Interior and exterior walls were made of bricks of salt, the bed frames, tables, chairs – all salt.  The cool part was the floor was loose rock salt, that luckily had just been replaced before we arrived, so it was nice and white – it looked like a winter wonderland…  Still no heat in the salt hotel though L.

The fourth and final day was the main reason I came to Bolivia (and handed over the outrageous visa fee of $135 (USD) to have the privilege to enter their country) – the salt flats!  They were definitely worth it!  It is basically a vast “desert” of salt that stretches out as far as the eye can see.  For some reason I was picturing loose rock type salt (similar to the stuff used for de-icing pavement), but it wasn’t like that at all.  It was a solid mass of textured white salt, it looked a lot like snow…  And because of the freezing temperature, it felt like it could really be snow.   This is where you take the outrageous pictures using optical illusions because the background salt goes on forever and ever…  The most notorious picture involves a plastic toy dinosaur chasing people.  Unfortunately, without the foresight to bring one from home, toy dinosaurs aren’t available in the salt flats and I had to make do with what I had.  However, me standing “on top of the world” was a pretty good last minute alternative…

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Getting to Bolivia

So in case anyone thinks that in my old age I’m getting soft, let me assure you that my adventure getting to Bolivia will definitely prove otherwise.  After living for about a month in a penthouse apartment complete with doorman and having my laundry sent out for someone else to wash and fold (only because self-service laundry mats weren’t an option, but still…), I was worried that I had become indulgent in my travel habits.  Well after I left Buenos Aires the “old Jill” returned.  I had a 17 hour overnight bus ride to Iguazu Falls, then my hostel there didn’t have heat (when it was 30 degrees outside).  The next day I left to begin my 23 hour bus ride to Salta (yes, I spent nearly an entire day of my life on a bus :/ ) .  Once in Salta, my hostel once again didn’t have heat (and again it was below freezing). Then true to my recent travel pattern, I left on another overnight bus journey to the border with Bolivia, but luckily that one was only seven hours (mere childs play for me now).  For those of you counting, yes, that is three nights out of five I spent sleeping (or closer to reality – not sleeping) on buses…

Overall, Salta was just a stop-over for me.  I had heard great things about the city located in northwest Argentina, but because I was headed to Bolivia where similar landscapes and the same excursions are available for a fraction of the price, I elected to just stay in the city.  Well, the city doesn’t have a lot to offer other than a bunch of old churches.  What was interesting is that at 4pm on Sunday in front of a church that is located at the north end of a huge public square/park they held an outdoor catholic mass.  The police blocked off traffic from several directions to allow for the mass to take place.  Hundreds of people stopped their afternoon picnic to “attend” church – an unusual, but apparently successful outreach program.

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Iguazu Falls

Well, after about a month I finally left what had become the comfy confines of my penthouse (studio) apartment in the ritzy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  I left behind the luxury of not only knowing how to get “home” without consulting a map, but also a space to call my very own.  I know am once again living out of my suitcase and am on the road again.  If you can’t tell, I’m a little hesitant to go back to the vagabond-Jill of last month, though seeing some new and amazing things is certainly in order!

My first stop was Iguazu Falls.  Even though it took a 17 hour overnight bus ride to get there, it was definitely worth it.  They are spectacular!  Pictures can’t even really do them justice.  My only complaint was that it was so freaking cold there.  Yes, I know that I’m in the southern hemisphere and because it is June, it is winter time here.  Places here are not equipped to deal with this cold of weather (below freezing), and thus don’t even have heaters.  I could quite literally see my breath inside my hostel.   I’m really wishing I would have lugged along my Under Armour right about now…

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Why My Pants Don’t Fit Anymore…

I usually don’t write about food because quite honestly, it’s not important to me.  However, there are some foods here that I feel are worth noting.  First and foremost is the carne.  Argentina became a prosperous country (top 10 richest in the world) in the early 20th century because of their extensive cattle ranches.  (Side note, the Argentine version of Monopoly is called “Estancia”, which roughly translates to a ranch for the wealthy.)  So red meat, especially steak is big business.  Argentines eat on average 67 kilograms (just under 150 pounds) of carne a year.  That is pure craziness, but of course being a red-meat lover, I don’t have a problem with this indulgence.  I ordered a 400 gram steak (0.88 pounds!), and that was only a medium sized portion…

The second food worth describing is dulce de leche.  The best comparison I can make is with nutella, the addicting hazelnut spread popular around the world.  You can put it on French bread, other pastries, or another popular option apparently is just eating straight out of the container like ice cream.  Delicious!  Of course the only thing better than plain dulce de leche is stuffing it in churros.  For those unfamiliar, a churro is basically fried yumminess.

And my final “delicacy” (I obviously use that term very loosely in my eating habits) would be the “submarino”.  This drink is steamed milk served with a chocolate bar on the side.  The idea is that you put the chocolate in the milk and when it melts and creates the most delightful hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted.  This is course is made even more enjoyable when accompanied by churros.

(And no, my pants are not fitting very well these days.)

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Touristy BA

I took a short day-trip out of the ritzy confines of Buenos Aires and headed to the barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos.  (This is the area of Buenos Aires that all of the fresh beef comes from, so you can get the picture of the surrounding authentic atmosphere.)  Every Sunday they have a gaucho festival, appropriately named “Feria de Mataderos”.  It consists of a lot of street stalls with people selling silver, leather, or knitted apparel.  However, the real draw is the gaucho dancing.  Some of it is organized on the stage; however the really interesting part was the random people dancing in the street.  It reminds me of line-dancing somewhat in that there are organized dances for each song, and if the couples know the dance they join in and dance, but if it’s a song they don’t know, they step off to the side and resume on the next song.  Some of the old people were quite enthusiastic!
I “got out of the rush of the city” and headed out to Tigre, a small community on the edge of the Parana Delta.  Not much going on there…  The big adventure is a boat ride out into the delta.  For some reason I was picturing the quaint Tahiti-esque stilted houses.  Well, there are houses that are only accessible by boat; rather than having a driveway, you have a small dock outside of your house.  But unfortunately most of the houses are ill-kept and in despite need of at least a paint job.  By far the coolest thing I saw in the town was a boat named “Jack Bauer”, unfortunately I couldn’t get my camera out quickly enough to get a picture of my tv hero’s name plastered on the side of a boat.

The list of the normal touristy things to do in Buenos Aires include the obvious choices of Recoleta Cemetery (where Evita Peron is buried with the elaborate above ground mausoleums), the Evita Museum, a visit inside Casa Rosada (the Argentine version of the White House – and no it’s not pink because the president is a female), the Sunday San Telmo Market (a street market basically selling a bunch of crap with a  few tango dancers performing for good measure), and my personal favorite, El Ateno (a theater converted to a bookstore where you can read in the private boxes!).  Well, I did all of those, but as expected they weren’t all that interesting to me.

Much more interesting to me, and apparently to a lot of Argentines as well are politics and history.  I went on three different organized tours of BA and all had a heavy dose of both subjects.  Additionally, a random employee in the hostel I stayed at for the first few days kept apologizing for talking too much about his country’s history, but to my delight, he continued to discuss it anyway.  But don’t worry, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version of the more interesting tidbits.

In the early 1900’s Argentina was a bustling economy because of the thriving cattle industry.  The beef was being exported to Europe via trans-Atlantic ships.  The ships had to be weighted down on their journey back to Buenos Aires, so they were filled with both immigrants and European building materials being imported to South America.  This resulted in a huge influx of mostly Italians, which explains the delicious pizza, pasta, and of course gelato that can be found all over the city.  This also clarifies why many of the buildings in Buenos Aires are very European looking.

In 1929, Argentina had the world’s fourth highest per capita GDP, but this ended with the onset of the Great Depression.  Well, then came the Peron era, including the famous Evita (the same person represented in the musical of the same name starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas) .  For many reasons the economy began to falter under the increased government spending, resulting in ruinous inflation and the peso losing about 70% of its value during his tenor.  And then the once great city came under power of a military dictatorship in 1976.  During this period known as the “Dirty War”, some 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared” (murdered and never seen again).  Finally, with a failed military attempt to regain control of the Falkland Islands, the military power ended and a semi-democratic government took control in 1983.

Because of this very recent history of dictatorship, voting in Argentine elections is now mandatory.  There is a supposed fine if you don’t.  This results in an astonishingly high rate of 84% participation (for comparison’s sake, a mere 57% of the US voted in the 2008 presidential election).  This helps to explain the huge numbers of protests against nearly all of the government policies (well, that and Kirchner- known as Queen Christina to some – is starting down a very dangerous path with many policies, in my opinion and probably a lot of Argentines as well).  They want their voices or their pots and pans (see other BA post for explanation) to be heard.

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A Taste of Real-life In Argentina

Staying put in one place for a month is a foreign concept to me (no pun intended).   But “living” in a place for a more extended period of time has been an educational experience.  While being here has been a great overall adventure, doing both the touristy things and the everyday work/school things; it definitely hasn’t been all roses.  I also had the pleasure of dealing with subway strikes (the unionized workers wanted a 28% wage increase, which they got most of), getting used to “Latin time” (where NOTHING starts when it is scheduled to), and of course there’s the challenge of not truly speaking the language.  Spanish school is over now, and unfortunately I didn’t end up learning as much as I had expected to (the why is a whole long rant that I don’t need to get into).

A taste of true life in Argentina: one night around 8:30pm, I was dutifully doing my Spanish homework in my apartment when I heard a lot of loud noises.  Gradually the noise got louder, so I went out onto my balcony to see what all the fuss was about.  And sure enough dozens of people on surroundings balconies were banging pots and pans together.  The racket went on for about a half hour.  And this continued on several consecutive nights.

Recently the Argentine government has put heavy restrictions on the sale of US dollars, effectively making it illegal to sell pesos for the more favored dollars.  The reasoning behind this is to attempt control the flight of capital and accumulate international reserves.  Because the peso is a very unstable currency (economists estimate that inflation was over 20% last year alone), most people prefer to keep their savings in US dollars (the physical notes, kept in bank safety deposit boxes).  Recently, an Argentine senator made comments in the heat of the moment that he too kept his savings in US dollars, effectively undermining the legitimacy of the Argentine currency when their own lawmakers have no faith in it.

So the people took to their kitchens, literally, and protested.  There is a famous form of protesting in Latin America known as “cacerolazo”.  When people don’t agree with something the government has done (which happens a lot in Argentina), they bang pots and pans making a lot of noise in order to show their disgust.  I’m still baffled by what they expect to have happen by creating a lot of noise at 8:30pm in residential neighborhoods…  I remember banging pots and pans when I was little to celebrate New Years…

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Quick Update from BA

I decided to try something a little different from the rest of my traveling experiences and stay put in a place for more than a couple of days.  I wanted to try and improve my (mostly forgotten) high school Spanish skills, so I chose to go to “Spanish school” in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks.  A good portion of the past two weeks has been mundane things like finding an apartment, going to class, and then of course there is the whole work thing, and getting prepped for grad school (career checklists, self-assessments, etc.).  Because of this there hasn’t been a lot of interesting things to bother to write about.  I have been doing a few touristy things, and I’ll write my typical post about them soon, so check back for something more interesting.   But in the meantime, a brief update on my whereabouts.

Because I was staying put for about a month, I wanted to get my own apartment, so that I would have a place to actually hang up my clothes (well, my five shirts and two pairs of pants…) and spread out my drawings for work on a table.  I found a studio (on craiglist actually) that has a view of the park across the street!  It’s quite small, and I’ve been sleeping on a pull-out couch, but such is life in the big city.  And well, I’m literally living out of a carry-on sized suitcase, so it’s not like I really need the space anyway.

I’ve started Spanish school, but unfortunately my language skills have not improved as much I was hoping.  I knew that in Buenos Aires, they speak very quickly and with an Italian type flair to their language which makes it much more difficult to both learn and converse with locals.  Nevertheless “living” in the city has been quite cool so far!  And I love taking the subway to school everyday versus driving because I get some reading done on the way!

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Getting to Buenos Aires (with a couple of stopovers…)

After my flight from Easter Island landed in Santiago, Chile I took the first bus out.  I had already been to Santiago on “Around-The-World Part I” and wasn’t so impressed with the capital city, so I decided a quick stopover in the port city of Valparaiso was in order.  I had heard that it was a colorful bohemian type city, so I decided that it would be different enough to warrant a stop.  Yea, not really worth it.  While the ascensores (funicular type apparatuses designed to avoid walking the extremely steep cliffs – which unfortunately I didn’t get a good picture of) were semi-entertaining the first time, after that first joy ride I just felt lazy for not taking the stairs, so I climbed, and of course was sore the next morning.  There wasn’t much else to do in Valpo, as Lonely Planet describes, it is a “working-class” city, which translates to dirty and full of graffiti.  After that it was time for my nine hour bus to Mendoza, Argentina.

Basically I used Mendoza as a transit hub on my way to Buenos Aires to avoid a 23 hour bus ride.  Dividing it out into nine and 14 hours seemed to make more sense.  Though because I don’t like wine (it gives me massive headaches, even in tasting quantities because I’m missing some enzyme to digest it or something), it was kind a waste of time for me because really the only thing to do in Mendoza is wine tours.  And while I’m sure they have some fantastic wines, the last wine tasting I went to in Chile at Concha y Toro I ended up giving away all of my samples, so it seemed like a real waste for me to pay for that experience again.  And yes, I drove through Napa on my west coast road trip and didn’t stop there either…

Then it was time for my 14 hour bus ride, which despite its length wasn’t that bad (even without the luxury of personal tvs attached to the seats in front of you, which I have grown accustomed to on trans-oceanic flights – yes, I’m a snob about that now, but it really helps pass the time watching a half season of Modern Family while crossing an ocean).  The problem came in when the driver pulled into a bus station and said “termina”, which means that is the last stop and everyone has to get off.  Or at least that’s what the only other backpacker and I thought he said.  Turns out, we were a two hour colectivo (small mini-bus thing that makes about a million stops) ride from the bus station we were supposed to get off at.  So yea, that 14 hours turned into about 16… Ahh the joys of South American bus travel.

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The Real-life LOST – Easter Island

After my couple week hiatus from traveling to head to South Bend for a welcome weekend thing, I am back on the road.  I hit the ground running with the most remote place I could fly to (on a commercial flight at least) –  Easter Island!

Easter Island is most known for the gigantic stone heads, more appropriately called Moai.  There are many theories about why these were carved and then transported around the entire island.  However, the most popular is that they represent deified ancestors.  According the archeological museum there are 887 moai on the island, however 397 never got transported out of the volcanic quarry that they were carved from.  These are massive statues (average size is over 12 feet tall and weighing over 27,000 pounds) and were made in the fifteenth century until the ultimate demise of the island.  Many ideas surround the mystery of Easter Island, and the Rapa Nui are considered a fascinating study in human isolation.

The island itself is only about 50 square miles but is absolutely beautiful!  The coastline is mostly rocky, but with the bluest water I have ever seen.  There are two calderas (collapsed volcanoes) and several caves.  One of the caves is basically just an opening that you can climb down in and then walk through for a couple hundred feet to the opening to the ocean.  The scary (or thrilling) aspect is that the opening is several hundred feet above sea level though – the ultimate waterslide if I ever saw one.

Easter Island is considered to be the most isolated inhabited island in the world.  The closest neighbor is Pitcairn Island which is 1400 miles west, while mainland Chile is 2400 miles to the east.  Basically, they are out in the absolute middle of nowhere.  That fact combined with the tropical forests and the enigmatic magnetic rock (which according to rumors makes digital watches reset to 00:00 and makes second hands circle quickly) makes it pretty close to the infamous island from the tv show LOST.  Luckily my plane didn’t crash, I didn’t have to push a button every 108 minutes, or hunt boar for food.  Though hunting for my food would have been considerably cheaper than the alternative of restaurants and supermarkets with their extremely expensive food.  But I guess that is to be expected, since everything has to arrive by either a 5 ½ hour plane ride (as evidenced by my water bottle cargo sticker) or by ship which takes about a week.  They do get regular shipments though (as they would have to in order to support the 2500 residents plus the tourists), but normal things are not actually available every day.  For example, I searched the five supermarkets on the island for bananas and oranges until I finally asked someone and they explained that “fruit day is tomorrow”.

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Europe vs. Developing Countries

I figured I would write an editorial about my overall experiences in various countries…  I leave for Easter Island on May 1, so check back next week for better updates…

First to clarify, the term “third-world” countries is being phased out and replaced with the more politically correct “developing countries”.  My rudimentary criterion is if you can drink the tap water (without getting sick); so basically everywhere outside of Europe I traveled on this trip (with the exception of Singapore) was “developing”.

Ease of Traveling: Advantage Europe

After spending a decent amount of time in developing countries, getting around in Europe was a breeze.  There are road signs identifying streets, and they have visitors centers that give out accurate maps (unlike the unreliable maps found in Lonely Planet guide books that routinely have the wrong scale, which obviously bugs me as a civil engineer and as someone who walks to places a lot…).  On the rare occasion that I did need to ask for directions, I had forgotten how nice it was to have someone tell you the truth without expecting a tip.    And Europe has public transportation!  I dislike taking taxis (not just because of the expense, because anywhere I actually would/did take them they were cheap), but because that means that you are transported around in a little bubble and don’t get to see and experience a lot of what makes traveling worthwhile for me.

One of the biggest hindrances I encountered in developing counties was the aggravation of being constantly harassed.  It’s amazing that people in Europe understand that they can go into stores, look around, and then buy stuff without the touts outside hassling everyone to come into their stores.  And though I love getting good deals on things, which makes negotiation a necessary task, arguing over the price of toilet paper (because that wasn’t included in my $8 a night hotels) got to be an annoyance.

Overcoming a Challenge: Advantage Developing Countries

Going to Europe doesn’t offer the same culture shock as many other places.  Though the languages are varied, the buildings are older, and the politics are different (though becoming more similar), Europe as a continent doesn’t seem very different than the US to me anymore.  Going into countries that have completely different religious affiliations or that don’t use the Latin alphabet offer much more of a challenge and then a sense of accomplishment for making it through.  The things that I learn being in uncomfortable situations are valuable lessons in my opinion.  To quote a friend “these are character building opportunities”.

Cost: Advantage Developing Countries

Huge difference here…  It’s not that my budget is that tight, but my general theory is that the cheaper I can get around/sleep, the more stuff I can see.  My daily spending average in Greece and Spain was twice what I spent in the developing countries I visited.  And France was nearly four times more expensive.  I know this because I keep an extremely detailed spreadsheet tracking my spending in a variety of categories: basically I’m a super nerd (and pre-mba student, so it’s good homework).  What it boils down to is simple: everything in Europe costs more.  A great example is in Paris I paid $37 a night to share a room with 9 other people.  In Morocco I spent about $8 to have my own room.  This trickles down into everything: trains, buses, food, entertainment, etc.   In Spain I paid $6 for a happy meal at McDonalds, in Egypt (with the necessary negotiation) $6 got me a three course meal plus desert.  This is probably why my pants don’t fit anymore…   So while I’m not willing to sleep on crack-house mattresses in roach infested hostels, I do like the idea of living frugally.  And this habit in turn allows me to continue traveling far beyond the standard two weeks of vacation time in faraway, exotic locations.

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Es España

My first stop in Spain was Seville.  I was super excited to go during the week leading up to Easter because Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a very big deal in Spain (a picture of one of the parades actually made the front page of the Wall Street Journal).  The week was a much bigger deal than I was expecting.  Miniature displays of the Nazarenos (members of religious brotherhoods) were all over the windows of clothing stores and bakeries.  What is so intriguing about these displays (and the parades they walk in) is what they are wearing… To a lot of people in the west, it would be compared to the costumes of the Ku Klux Klan.  Racism is obviously not what this religious ceremony is promoting, but rather the conical hats are symbolic of the penitent approach to heaven.  Either way it was very weird at first to see them walking around.  The parades are quite long both in length and duration; it took about an hour and a half for them to pass my stationary location and some have routes that have them walking for 12 hours.  There are generally two very ornate floats that are the most exciting portion to watch.  The first float is Jesus dying and the second is a despondent Mary who is crying over the torture and death of her son.  Some people in the audience get quite emotional over this and start crying.  The true symbolism behind the parades is lost on the children because for them it has become an event of begging for candy from the people walking.

The cold and rainy weather that has been following me for over a month has once again come to Spain with me.   While the south of Spain is supposed to be in the 80s and sunny in April; it was raining and about 55 degrees while I was there.  Because of the rain, the parades were delayed and many were completely canceled.  Of course because “Es España” (this is Spain), there were no announcements or information being provided (even in Spanish) regarding the cancellations to the gigantic crowds gathered outside of the churches for the beginning of the parades, just a herd of people walking away not knowing what was actually happening.   The mass chaos created in the streets all over Seville also provided a glimpse into the real Spain as well.  Instead of having well defined walkways so that people can get to where they need to go (to their hostels because it is 2 am and they are tired, for example), it took over two hours for what should have been a five minute walk…

I went to a Flamenco show and decided that I would probably be pretty good at it for two main reasons.  First, is that despite the constant reminders to always smile that I got in my elementary school dance lessons, in the flamenco you’re allowed to have a pained grimace on your face, which apparently I have naturally even if I’m not in a bad mood…  Also there is no touching even if you dance with a  partner which goes well with my personal bubble space I find to be necessary.

My next stop in Spain was Cordoba.  The only real draw there was the Mezquita.  This is an absolutely beautiful cathedral that used to be a mosque.  It was originally built as a mosque by the Moors.  After the Spanish Reconquista it was converted into a Roman Catholic Church.  Because the building is considered one of the beautiful buildings in Islamic architecture, Muslims are trying to convert it back to Islam.  So far they have been unsuccessful.

Granada is home to Alhambra, one of the finalists of the New 7 Wonders.  Unfortunately my habit of not planning anything in advance that got developed in India, Egypt, and Morocco caught up to me.  Being the week of Semana Santa, I should have known better than to expect to book tickets the day before I wanted to go.   When I finally got around to checking, tickets to Alhambra were booked solid for the next three weeks.  Fortunately with some internet research I figured out that if I bought the “Granada city pass”, it included the coveted ticket.  This of course didn’t come without a cost.  It was double the price, but also included admission to the cathedrals, some monasteries, and the science center.  So basically I ended up being suckered into going to a bunch of stuff I would have ordinarily not paid for. But since I was stuck paying the extra $15, I begrudgingly went to the attractions.  At least it reinforced my stance that I’m tired of paying to go into churches (which all look the same to be now because I have seen so many in my travel life by now).    The science center was sort of interesting, the funniest part was the “workplace safety” exhibit.  It reminded me of the episode of The Office where Michael is trying to make office work seem as dangerous as work in the warehouse.

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Morocco

I found a really cheap flight from Paris to Fes on Ryanair, a very, very low cost European airline.  Think along the lines of Spirit Air, but on steroids for cost cutting measures (and thus nickel and diming you).  You may have heard the rumors about standing room only seats or having to pay to use the restroom on the flights: yea, its that airline, but no those rumors aren’t true (at least not yet anyway).  They offer super-low base fares and charge for all of the extras.  So if you play by their rules you can get flights for as cheap as $10 (but don’t worry Mom, their safety record is superb).  But because of their very strict restrictions for bag weights (including carry-ons), I spent about 20 minutes in the airport using their scales re-shuffling my bags, and putting on additional sweatshirts in order to make the weights of both my checked and carry-on bags acceptable.  But in the end it saved me 50 euros (~$65) in fees.

Fes

I got to Fes and the dizzying labyrinth that is the medina.  The most interesting part of Fes for me was the tannery.  Though it smelled as absolutely horrible as you would expect; it was fun to see how they prepare leather right in the heart of the medina.  I was thinking about buying a new leather purse, until the guy explained that they use pigeon poop to make it soft…  Not the best sales technique I witnessed.  Nor was the guy who yelled at me “if you don’t want a guide, go back to your own country”, when I refused to pay someone to walk next to me in the medina and steer me towards their cousins shop under the pretense of being a “guide”.

Rabat

The trains in Morocco are surprisingly efficient (and cheap!).  So the next stop for me was Rabat, the capital.  There isn’t a whole lot to do there, but it is on the Atlantic coast, so seeing the same ocean I had seen in France a couple of days ago was cool, and much warmer this time!  Wandering through the winding and narrow streets, I came upon a very pretty area of buildings.  The top half was painted white, while the bottom half was blue.   The best explanation I have heard for the reasoning behind this unique color scheme is that you have white on the top so that it won’t absorb the sunlight (and thus keep the building cooler), but you have blue on the bottom so that the white isn’t blinding you as you walk down the street.  It seems to make sense in a weird kind of way, but I can’t verify that that is really the reasoning.  Nevertheless, it was a very pretty site to stumble upon.

Casablanca

Even though Casablanca, as the financial capital of Morocco, doesn’t offer tourists much more than a modern city; I felt compelled to at least stop by for a day because it’s such a famous city (though I haven’t even seen the movie of the same name).  The port seems to be operational because I got a finger wagged at me when I tried walking in the general vicinity of the shipping containers.  But I’m certainly no expert on port operations, as the only knowledge I have is from the HBO series “The Wire”, season two.  Also along the coast line is the Hassan II Mosque.  It is the world’s third largest mosque and can hold up to 25,000 Muslims inside (as its only open to non-Muslims on an expensive guided tour), and an additional 80,000 in the courtyards surrounding it.  It was built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday.   This is an undeniably beautiful building with more intricate details than the Taj Mahal contains.

Essaouira

Essaouira is another beach-side city.  As a non-“beach person” and a non-seafood eater, it didn’t have much to offer me but more views of the Atlantic, and of course another medina.  Seeing the freshly caught seafood proudly displayed, some of which I would swear was still wiggling around on the tables, combined with the atrocious smell of the boat area made me nearly throw up.  But apparently that looks appetizing to some people…

Marrakesh

The city of Marrakesh has by far the greatest number of tourists in Morocco.  This translates into more hassling for the accompanying tourist dollars (or more commonly, euros).  Djema al-Fna is the epicenter of Marrakesh.   This square has the snake charmers, jugglers, acrobats, and musicians – basically probably what you think of when you think Morocco.  The medina that is located to the north is yet another maze of shops selling everything from leather goods, lamps, pottery, and of course the knock-off imports from China.  Since it is so hard for me to find shoes that fit in the USA because of my extraordinarily narrow feet, which in Morocco are called “Arabic feet”, not the wider “Berber feet”, I finally gave in and bought some leather shoes because they actually stay on my feet!

Desert Safari to the Sahara

I booked (after intense negotiation of course) a three day safari out into the Sahara Desert.  Because you drive basically to the border with Algeria, I got to see a lot of stuff along the (very long) drive.  The Atlas Mountains were very pretty to see, even though driving through them was a little nerve-wracking at times with the crazy Moroccan drivers.  Then was Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood” of Morocco.  Actually some pretty famous movies, including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, and The Mummy were all shot in the area (none of which I have actually seen – apparently I need to stop traveling so much and start watching movies).  I went to the Musee de Cinema which could quite possibly take the title of worst museum I have ever been in.  There were only a couple movie sets, and those were from some movies I had never even heard of.  I think the best part was the posters of the movies I had heard of…

They took us to a Kasbah, which is a traditional Berber (the local, indigenous people) community.   The houses are made of a mud-type stucco material mixed with straw (for tensile strength I’m assuming – engineering nerd alert!).  They showed (well more like attempted to sell) their Berber carpets.  While I’m sure they were good quality and a “good price”, but trying to sell large carpets to a bunch of backpackers headed into the desert on camels isn’t the most logistical idea.

Then finally came the desert!  Sleeping in a Berber tent out in the middle of the desert wasn’t roughing it nearly as much as I had expected.  We actually had mattresses!  Though when I asked where the “bathroom” was (usually when camping you designate a specific area, though there are obviously not actual facilities), and the guy replied “everywhere”.  Consequently, people were peeing outside my tent all night, so the morning became a game of jumping around to avoid the “land mines” people so kindly left so close to the camp.   Riding a camel for an hour and a half from the van to the camp site was a fun novelty at first, but after about a half hour my legs and butt went numb, which was not quite as pleasant.  But still, riding a camel through the Sahara Desert amongst the dunes was a very cool adventure.  Rain has seemed to follow me around pretty much everywhere I go, and the desert was no exception – it actually hailed!

Overall

Overall Morocco was more challenging to travel than most places I have been.  The language barrier was much larger than average for starters.  Because the country was under French control for so long, the main languages people speak are Arabic and French – neither of which are very useful to me.  I actually had to communicate in my broken Spanish (usually more like Spanglish), because on occasion somehow my Spanish was better than their English (which I would have never ever assumed).   And secondly, but a much more annoying feature was the hassling factor.  I had been warned that Morocco touts were as bad as or worse than Egypt and I definitely found that to be true.  It’s one thing if I enter the souqs (markets) and people harass you to buy stuff, but it’s completely another to not be able to sit in the Cyber Park (which true to its name actually has little internet terminals!) and eat an orange without multiple people pestering me for absolutely no reason.

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