Sunday, November 18, 2012

Egypt vs Morocco: the difference is remarkable

More and more I am coming to the conclusion that travelling is worth it either for reasons of a spiritual nature or cultural ones (music, architecture, history). By spiritual, I mean a place where a reconnection with Gaia is at its most potent (Kauai, Mt. Shasta, red sandstone canyons, death valley…) 

I am not so much intrigued by simple beach relaxation anymore, where you lay on the beach most of the day, eat good food and are not even able to be free, to do exactly what your heart desires: run along the beach, wear little clothing, sing in public, or even walk wherever you want to-those are very important to me. A feeling of confinement or having limited options is a bit daunting. I don’t like the idea of being one of the tourists anymore, I would just love to go straight into the desert, camp under the stars, join a real bedoiun tribe and immerse yourself in those experiences. But sometimes, in a closed culture like an Arabic one, it is quite difficult, so I guess if your heart is yearning for it, you have to be quite selective about where you go and whether freedom of expression is welcomed there.

Eve, same day:

I have just had easily the worst tour possible, in the history of all the tours I’ve taken. Once again, I'm afraid I have to say, Morocco was much, much better in general and much better organized. Maybe this is what happens when you get something cheap and on the street, but I had the impression that all these tours were the same, regardless of where you get them from.. well, maybe it makes sense that some places have a website and reviews and may cost a tiny bit more than the others, from some guy off the street. Although I am quite determined to make my way down there and tell him exactly just how much it really sucked, I know that in reality, it will change nothing. He already got his money regardless of my satisfaction. And still, it makes me reminisce about the positive experiences I have had in Morocco. I guess there is something to be said about the difference in tourism and in the general attitude of the people (which was the topic of most of my evening conversation with the friend I am visiting here): Marrakesh used to be very closed to foreigners and never invested any money into tourism until recently, unlike Hurghada, which sees tourists coming in by plane loads, twice an hour. Of course that changes the attitude of the tour providers, while in Marrakesh we were treated with great care and respect, with the guides showing us the real, authentic markets, villages, telling us stories… here, I got more of a: “you signed up for a 5 hr-tour: you saw the village ( few shacks side by side, where we were made to sit and wait for something to happen, yet nothing happened), had a BBQ (small cold plate of rice and potatoes)-now sunset, on our way back-that’s the tour”. 

 There is no effort or sincerity or pride in your own culture or roots anymore, much unlike Morocco. White people are viewed as money-making opportunities only, which brings me to my next topic: I ended up being in a group with mostly Egyptian people, who, by the end of the trip, got pretty friendly and chatty, asking whether I wanted to join them later on for a night out in town, even suggesting they pick me up and drop me off, since I live outside the main street. We exchanged phone numbers and I took it as a sign of a warm welcome and hospitality, as we are all about the same age and were all planning to go out as a group. Although a bit taken aback and suspicious of such friendly behavior, as I relayed this story to my friend, it got more clear: there is really no reason an Egyptian guy would ask you to “go hang out” with them, unless a) they want to pursue marrying you or b) they see you as a money-making opportunity. As much as it pains me to admit that I cannot be fully open and trusting towards everybody, I have to remember one simple truth: practice your discernment. So I did- by refusing the offer and staying in tonight. Morocco, I miss you!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hurghada,Egypt, Day 1: Cultural differences

Sometimes we don't fully understand what it is that brings us to a particular place, or why we seek the experiences we do. Here I am now, in a Muslim country, yet again I am asking myself-what did I come here looking to find?
Yes, the obvious answer is- I came to enjoy the sun and the beach and have a little getaway. After all, Egypt to Europeans is like Mexico to Canadians. But the deeper question is, why am I fascinated yet afraid of the Middle eastern culture at the same time?

Although I am intrigued by this country's long-standing traditions and ancient roots, I do not feel at peace in a man-dominated society, carrying with it so many restricting rules; I especially find it uncomfortable when it concerns showing my body. That is something I've never given much thought to before- I consider myself quite a modest dresser, I'm not a huge fan of short skirts or cleavages, yet here it's a whole other story. I find it amazing that i can literally look like a shapeless bag lady and still manage to get hit on all the time- no, that's not because my beauty radiates into the Cosmos and gets picked up by the satellites- that's simply because I am a female! It induces a feeling of shame and guilt and discomfort about showing any part of my body, which I did not even know I had...Once again I am reminded how grateful I should be to live in a culture where I am allowed to express my open, free and loving nature-I'm talking both Germany and Canada.

Being here, I love the feeling of the desert all around, I am aching to drive straight towards those dunes, those mountain peaks that beckon me to come closer each time the sun sets behind them,-but I can't. Not without getting a guide and a tour and all that commercialized stuff I am trying to avoid. It is mind boggling for a person like me, who loves to be at one with nature, to not be able to simply walk anywhere you feel like it. The feeling of restriction is overwhelming. It definitely puts simple pleasures of the first world into perspective. That being said, there is something very refreshing about leaving home for a little while, even if the experience is not what you may have expected. Already, I appreciate Germany so much more, I appreciate what I'd left behind-my hobbies, my friends, and all the areas around south Germany still left unexplored.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Split, Croatia-first impressions

After a much-dreaded bus connection into Split town, which turned out to be far easier than the Internet made it out to be, I was in a hot, sunny, very scenic little port town. Immediately I walked inside the walled city, and, used to walking large distances, completely overshot my hotel and ended up in a maze of narrow alleyways until I reached a Dome-like building, whereupon, stupefied by the amazing singing, I found a small group of men singing in a “traditional Dalmatian style”, which was truly breathtaking. Taking that as my warm welcome into the city, I returned to my quest of finding my “hotel” which is really just restyled apartments, noticing all the scrumptious- looking food as I went. Turns out, that wasn’t too difficult to find either There are still quite a few tourists even though it is the off-season already. Overall, the town looks simple but charming, you can feel how ancient everything is, the amazing layers upon layers of history...but most importantly,  I cannot wait to try all the snacks, food and sweets.

The night prior to coming here, unable to sleep with all the excitement of going somewhere new again, I got completely overwhelmed by all the stories out there about how Croatia, even Split in particular, can be a dangerous place to visit and how one should absolutely not even think of going out alone at night, never mind if you're a single white female under 30.

This made me reconsider my trip to the point that I was extremely hesitant to get on my plane, looking for any "signs" telling me it's not a good idea to go. For the first time in my life I was not only hesitant to travel, I was begging to be taken back home to my cold, gray and rainy little town...but, I am thankful for my frugal nature not letting me waste my hard-earned dollars, forcing me to go ahead and face whatever happens next.

So, I am not sure where my fear was coming from. I would be inclined to think it was the fear of the unknown, combined with being tired of planning ahead for everything, having to gather information, etc. However, as soon as I was on a bus arriving into town, the familiar feeling of excitement from exploring a new territory returned to me. It is a bit more subdued this time, maybe because I have had enough for now, maybe because I know Hawaii is coming soon and nothing can top Hawaii. But yes, I am actually happy I wont be doing any airfare trips again before my leave for Canada and then, subsequently, Hawaii. I am much happier with daytrips, weekend stays in hotels nearby-the ones easily reachable by ground transportation, or somewhere I've already been before, to minimize all th planning stress.
 But overall, I am noticing, I like the comforts of home, which is so contradictory to my nature…maybe it’s the season too, now I am already in the winter mode, where I am happy with my routine, which involves working  during most of the day and partial nights and seeing my friends, going out to the caf├ęs in the old city, going for a run/swim, etc- turns out I like all that more than I’d thought. In a way, I am happy this is my last trip of exploring Europe- a nice short 3-day stay in Split, one of the oldest cities with such string ties to the Roman Empire.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rome, Italy

One day, we all decided to go to Rome for a week. Each person had their own reasons. Me? It was incredibly cheap, I don't like to work and am always up for taking a little vacation break, and the best part- I'd get to see Venice for 1 day on my way back!

And so it began. Quite a weird bunch of us got together, having almost nothing in common, except being under 30 and living the life of a student. I've decided to forgo the hostel lifestyle and for a couple bucks more shared a very decent double- bed room in a 3-star hotel located 15 minutes walking distance from the Colosseum, which was totally worth it. I've outgrown hostels about 8 years ago. My philosophy is that you can always find a hotel deal which will give you more value for your money, rather than staying in a hostel where you literally cannot even leave anything valuable- I watched the other people in our group towing their giant backpacks on their sweaty backs in 30-degree heat, thinking "i bet they wish they would've taken my advice and stayed in a normal hotel room"- and yes, they did. The lesson here is, the cheapest option is not always that cheap-especially if you end up with a stolen cell phone, camera, wallet, etc- it's always better to stay on the "median" side of spendings, especially when it comes to a place to rest, sleep, recuperate- let's be honest, you will not enjoy any of your daily sightseeing if you didn't manage to get a good night's sleep due to 4 other people sharing your room/uncomfortable beds/noisy location. The things I look for when booking a room without splurging is, first of all, location- close to the metro/bus station and most sites; it's a huge bonus if they offer breakfast of some kind, even if it is just a coffee and a croissant, so that you can get up and go on with your day, without having to lose precious time in the morning. 

This is especially important if you're in Rome in August- it got almost unbearably hot during the day, hitting close to 40 centigrade, so we tried to schedule our activities accordingly- that would mean seeking shade in the mid-day, whether at a park or a museum, and covering most of the ground outside only in mornings and evenings-that worked out really well, and by the time the sun started setting down, we were refreshed and ready to go and explore more sights. But I'm not gonna lie, there were a few times I've had to take an extended leisurely lunch or a midday siesta, to be able to cope with going out later on. Just do whatever suits your mood and style, I guess- which brings me to my next point- the idea of travelling with a group.

I knew it would be hard even when I'd signed up for this, but I thought hey, it's worth a try- everyone else is doing it, and if you happen to be in a situation where your partner is unable to travel with you due to prior obligations, it's still better than to go alone. Boy, was i wrong!
I found so many things irritating and often enough, I ended up feeling alone or left out anyways, simply because I have my own way of doing things, in a more rational manner, that would make the best use of limited time in such a huge, culturally rich city with so much to offer.

As a result, while I was grateful to have a group there when I wanted to join them, I found it was best when taken in few-hour intervals. You really have the best chance of making sure you get to see exactly what you want and for as long as you want to when you do it on your own time, especially in a city like Rome. I chose to explore the city completely on foot, due to my central location, never taking a bus or metro once, in a span of 5 days (ok, excluding my trip to the beach, but that was obviously outside of Rome)-but I've never had my feet hurting as much as they did here in Rome- ever!(I did good by selecting to wear my ugly, utilitarian-looking summer hiking shoes with any attire-even then I could not feel my heels every night!)-so I strongly suggest you forgo any fashion trends and instead splurge on some sensible walking shoes :)

That said, each day I planned my daily route in some sort of a loop, so that I could hit as many sights as I could on the way, never going on the same road twice, unless that was the intention. Thus, after 2 days, comparing notes with the other people in my group of what they've managed to see that day, I always ended up having covered more ground, while remaining casual and relaxed, not stressing about the time spent at each place, opening hours...and even having time for leisurely cafe visits and lunch stops!
My advice to anyone wanting to travel as a group in a large city is-don't. Unless you have a strict schedule that everyone agrees upon ahead of time or you just happen to be one of those people who don't care what they get to see, as long as they're "having fun"-clearly, I'm not one of them.

My experience of travelling alone in Rome had showed me that there is nothing to be afraid of, even when I ventured out past midnight on a Friday night, all I got was a few looks/whistles/comments-more of a funny "what was I thinking?" type of thing, rather than anything to be intimidated about.

And after all, in a city full of people where almost everyone out there is also a tourist, just as clueless and disoriented as you are, you never really do feel alone. I found that  as soon as I would break away from the group, little unique things would start to happen: a local would start a conversation with me in the street in Italian, while I would simply smile and nod; I would tune into the sounds out there, get lost in the little curving neighborhood streets and discover something that no guide book will ever tell you about...most of the time, I found myself with a little soft smile gracing my lips...t
here is something to be said about being able to trod this life at  your own pace:)