Where there is smoke there are bees? Part 1

I wasn’t able to write my mini memoir yesterday, but if you read the next two posts, you’ll understand why:

The weekend started off great. I had invited my writers group to my parent’s house for a mini writers retreat for the long 4th of July weekend. We met early so we could all sit together on the MetroNorth train. About ten minutes into the ride, the train lurched to a halt. This is quite common on the MetroNorth, so I thought nothing of it.

After about five minutes, people started opening the door between the cars and walking from the south end of the train to the north end. Still we thought nothing of this, because there were no announcements. Then we all smelled it. A burning acrid smell. Something was wrong. Just as quickly as we realized this, the crowd of people walking through the aisle doubled in size and urgency. A baby was crying, someone’s dog was barking, and everyone was shouting, ” run.”

We looked out the window and saw that the entire back of the train was covered in a gray haze. People were walking on the tracks, looking disoriented. Someone yelled at me to open the emergency window. Panicking, I fumbled with the emergency lock, but my husband, the ever-lasting boy scout, said that we should keep calm and wait for the announcement. After all, it didn’t make sense to open the window, and jump down ten feet onto the electrified third rail. Christina, who’s a trained yoga instructor, was telling everyone to breath. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget such a simple task when you’re panicking.

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I love that people are still taking pictures when they’re standing on active train tracks. Not a moment shall go untweeted!

After another ten minutes the conductor finally announced that there was a fire underneath the train, and that only one door had reached the platform so everyone had to move to the first door in the train. The fire was under control, so there was no need to panic. He told us not to use the emergency exits. I had had the brilliant idea of bringing our two cats along for the trip so they could have some fresh air for the weekend. Now I was stuck lugging them through the smokey train while they hissed and whined.

We were one of the last to get off the train. I was hoping that some sort of transportation solution would be figured out by the time we exited, but instead, there was just an angry mob of people who did not want to be stuck in the Bronx in 96 degree weather on the 4th of July. Through the grapevine, we found out that the fire was caused by someone throwing a mattress on the train tracks. The super flammable stuffing caught fire, and the coils tore up the machinery under the train. We watched as fire fighters pulled out what was left of a the mattress; a scrambled up piece of charred wire.

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This experience taught me never to bring cats, dogs, or babies on the train…and only pack what you can carry.

One emergency worker told me that the trains would not be running for at least two hours. My cats, nor us, could handle the heat for that long. I flagged down a cab, and since he had no idea where my parents’ town was he offered to do it for $70 (normally it would cost $150). As I was talking to the driver, a man next to me said that his friend was picking him up  and they could drop us off in my parent’s town. Hallelujah!  Four of my friends squeezed into the taxi with my cats and they drove of north. Mike, me and Christina waited for the guy’s friend who was apparently lost.

An older woman asked if she could join us on the ride. It would be cramped, but who were we to turn her down when we were given this unexpected gift? The friend showed up twenty minutes later, and the four of us scrunched into the back seat.

On the ride up north, we talked about our 4th of July plans. It turns out that the woman had been born in France, but lived in the states for the last 20 years. The driver and passenger were both from Pakistan but were now U.S. citizens. I couldn’t help but appreciate  that on this day of celebrating America, we were in a car filled with immigrants that represent one of the things that I love about America: diversity of cultural backgrounds.

My dad met us at the train station and whisked us off to the BBQ. I found out later that our train arrived in the station five minutes after us.

Stay tuned for part 2…it gets worse.

Strangers in the Woods

This past weekend, I met three strangers at a Dunkin’ Donuts, got in the car with them, and drove up to Bear Mountain. When I told people what I was planning to do they thought  I was crazy, and most certainly would end up involuntarily donating some of my vital organs to the black market.

Just when I was starting to get fed up with this asphalt paradise I live in, I found a group on the website Why Leave Astoria that was for people in my neighborhood who want to take day excursions to the many hiking trails outside of Manhattan. Some friends thought it was sketchy, but then I had to remind them that I met my husband on a dating site, so I’m willing to take a chance on strangers from the world wide web.

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The popolopen creek.

We hiked the Popolopen trail on Bear Mountain. It was steep and super muddy from all the rain, but absolutely gorgeous. I can’t believe it’s only an hour drive from the city – it felt like a different world.

A 360 degree view of the Hudson Valley.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well we all got along. Lynne, our fearless leader, researched the trail, and was well prepared. The other two woman had been on hikes with her before, and we met up with her friend when we got to the trail. There was none of the awkward small talk of getting to know strangers because we already had so much in common: a love of nature, living in the same neighborhood, and a willingness to try new things.

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Third time I’ve used the timer on my camera. I’m glad it didn’t fall down the side of the mountain.

I had been planning to do a hike for a while now, but I wasn’t in the mood to rent a car and balance my friends’ busy schedule to find one weekend four month from now where everyone’s available. This trip was so easy, and had the unexpected benefit of introducing me to awesome people in my neighborhood.

I’m taking away two lessons from this hike:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is a group on the internet that is planning to do whatever you want to do. Don’t wait around trying to plan it yourself, join a group and start doing it!  If you don’t have a neighborhood based website to find other people than I suggest browsing MeetUp for groups, and How About We which is more of a dating site but is based on doing activities together.
  2. In this day in age, we seem to focus on the worst of humanity. We hear one terrible story about a stranger murdering someone and then every stranger seems capable of murder. These sensationalized stories are so rare that they overshadow the best of humanity. You are more likely to be hit by a falling tree branch than be attacked by a serial killer. Don’t let fear control your life.

That said, please also use common sense. I don’t want to be the reason why any of you loose an organ 😛

Fez was my favorite (outside the medina)

The old city of Fez can be very overwhelming and crowded (we were constantly getting touched and grabbed by strangers), so on our third day we left the city center and headed for the Merenid Tombs. This was only a twenty minute walk from our hotel, but it felt like a different world. If you visit Fez, don’t miss the opportunity to pack a picnic and spend a day in the hills. If you’re not physically active, you can also get a taxi to drive you to the top of the hill for about $10.

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Well worth the hike.

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You can’t help but sing “The Sound of Music” when you walk these hills… at least I couldn’t.

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You can see all of Fez from these ruins.

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Every family has a specific plot of land where they can dry their leather hides.

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Can you see the leather on the top of the hill?

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Here’s a family collecting their leather. It’s hard to believe my buttery leather coat was once just a stiff piece of skin drying in the sun.

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Fez isn’t as overwhelming from this perspective.

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Amidst the 14th century ruins, sheep and goats graze.

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One of the goats wanted to join our picnic.

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The happy honeymooners!

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The world’s oldest parking spot.

Fez was my favorite (inside the medina)

If you want to visit a city that has everything, go to Fez. The old city can be pretty overwhelming but it’s a fantastic place to take a seat at an outdoor cafe and people-watch. There are over 10,000 small shops in the medina, and they are all trying to get you inside, so it’s best to tour this city with a guide. The guide will keep store owners from pestering you and keep you from getting lost. After we walked for about two minutes I had no clue how to get back to our hotel. We had professor from the university give us a 6 hour tour for about $50 total.

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We never would have been able to find this stunning 700 year-old Madrasa (religious school) if we didn’t have a guide.

The thing that I found most incredible about this building is that all the decorations are verses from the Koran. Could you imagine studying something for hours each day and then seeing it in the wallpaper of your house, and in the patterns on your carpets? Talk about full-immersion.

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Any building with a green roof is a religious place. Fez is known as the green city because it’s the religious capital of the country.

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Fez is also known for its intricate tile mosaics.

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The Medina is constantly under repair because it’s so old. Half the ally ways look like this.

No trip to Fez is complete without a visit to the leather factory. They are still making leather the way they have for thousands of years. The men cover themselves in oil and jump right into the dyes with the leather. Since they use ingredients like pigeon poo, and donkey piss it smells pretty nasty.

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Full disclosure, this was the reason why I wanted to go to Morocco.

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They give everyone a sprig of mint to mask the order of rotting flesh and feces. It’s surprisingly effective!

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The soggy fur on the ground will be used for mattress filler.

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The hillsides are covered with drying leather skins. That’s what those red and white patches are.

It’s funny how even after you see how gross leather making is you still feel compelled to buy some leather. I ended up getting this pretty green number:

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My new leather coat from Fez!

In the next post I’ll show you some pictures from our visit outside of the medina.


Life’s a Beach!

It’s really hard to remember how to spell and pronounce Essaouira (I settled on saying it like “I swear-a” with a thick Italian accent), but it’s well worth the trip. This old port city on the Atlantic coast was once owned by the Carthaginians, the Portuguese, and the French. The best cities to visit are the ones where different cultures collided. You get to see so much history in one place, and the food is always more interesting.

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Every city in Morocco is know for its signature color. Can you tell what Essaouira’s color is?

I love that people are actually living in the ruins. Their laundry is hanging from fortress walls built in the 16th century.

I love that people are actually living in the ruins. Their laundry is hanging from fortress walls built in the 16th century.

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In the summertime there’s a huge music festival. People sleep on the beach and inside these ruins.

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Half of Essaouira is covered with these bright blue fishing boats…

Hence the delicious seafood. I usually don't eat things with heads still attached, but this was too good to pass up.

Hence the delicious seafood. I usually don’t eat things with heads still attached, but this was too good to pass up. You can’t see the ten cats that were surrounding me, waiting for the bones.

I was torn between wanting to spend time in our gorgeous riad...

I was torn between wanting to spend time in our gorgeous riad…

or on the equally gorgeous beach.

or on the equally gorgeous beach. Just a warning: Don’t expect to go swimming here. It was pretty cold, and very windy.

I would definitely suggest staying at Riad Chbanate. You know I'm a fan of the cooper sinks!

I would definitely suggest staying at Riad Chbanate. You know I’m a fan of the cooper sinks!

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And bath salts. This was a truly elegant hotel, and I can’t recommend it enough. The second you arrive they sit you in front of the fire place and give you a beer. Although I must admit they were obsessed with Nina Simone. I love Ms. Simone, but three days of her on repeat is enough!

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We had an incredible dinner in a secret restaurant. The owners, an Italian and a Moroccan, converted their home into a restaurant. It was one of the best meals of my life. This was a palette cleanser between courses. 

There are also tons of adorable dogs everywhere.

There are also tons of adorable dogs everywhere.


How to visit Morocco, Egypt, Nepal, and Israel in One Day

We rode our trusty camels out of the desert and headed to Zagora, the date capital of Morocco (dates as in the deliciously sweet fruit, not the activity). We didn’t see much of Zagora because our hotel, Riad Lamane, was such an oasis. This was our day to feel like real honeymooners. We lounged by the pool, drinking Casablanca beers, and then moved up to our private terrace to watch the sunset (that’s where my new header picture for this blog was taken).

Our private house in the riad

Our private cottage in the Riad

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Most of our hotel rooms in Morocco were a rich blue color.

Flowers everywhere!

It felt like we were in a jungle in the middle of the desert.

Our private breakfast area/ nap space.

Our private breakfast area/ nap space.

The next day we left for Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco. Before we could tour the studios we had to listen to a mandatory carpet sales pitch. My brother, who lived in Morocco for a summer, warned me not to accept tea from a carpet salesman. That’s advice that sounds ridiculous out of context, but in the moment it’s priceless. You end up feeling so guilty for drinking ten cents worth of tea that you actually consider going into massive debt for a rug you wouldn’t have even considered in the first place. They are master salesmen, making you think that a rug can represent everything you believe in, and if you don’t get it your trip to Morocco will be in vein. I have never said no so many times in my life.

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Mustafa, our rug salesman, was a lot friendlier when he thought he was going to sell us a $10,000 rug.

After two hours of saying no to various rugs we got to tour the film studio. This is where Lawrence of Arabia, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Babel, Inception, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Kundun were filmed (to name a few). Most of the sets are still up so you get to feel like your traveling around the world.

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Fake Egypt!

Fake Greece!

Fake Greece!

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Fake Israel and fake Rome! This set was used for a bunch of movies,.

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This was the other side of the studio. The Atlas mountains were actually used to represent Mt. Everest in one movie.

We ended our day in a stunning, peaceful sanctuary up in the mountains.

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Irocha hotel about an hour outside of Ouarzazate

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The Stunning Sahara Desert

The first desert city we reached was Ait Benhaddou.

2013-03-05 11.01.32The same eight families have been living in these ancient mud walls since the 17th century. If you visit this city, resist all urge to be friendly. Everyone who said hi to us expected us to pay them for a tour.

This city was used for the filming of The Mummy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia (just to name a few). It’s strange to walk through the exotic city and have it still feel familiar because I’ve seen in so much on the big screen.

2013-03-06 04.31.14We stayed at a beautiful hotel that overlooked the ksar.

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The hotel even provided some pretty interesting and unexpected reading material!

The next day we were back on the road for another four hours, heading towards the border of Algeria. The further we drove the more desolate the environment became. I remember seeing some villages with only ten houses and wondering how people survive that way. Then we reached our camel camp!

2013-03-06 12.27.58I didn’t think it was possible to get further from civilization  but it felt like we were the only humans left on the planet. We rode these amazingly uncomfortable animals for two hours straight. It was just us and our Berber tour guide. After you get over the discomfort of the camel hump digging into your crotch, the desert becomes an incredibly meditative place. It’s so quiet you can hear the sand blowing off the dunes. With every gust of wind the entire landscape changed.

2013-03-06 12.16.50We reached our camp just before sunset!

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Our private camp!

Our private camp in the middle of nowhere.

Inside our traditional Berber tent

Inside our traditional Berber tent

It even had a bathroom!

It even had a bathroom!

We spent a lot of time running on the sand dunes before dinner.

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Our bountiful meal

Our bountiful meal

Our tour guide played drums for us after dinner, and described what it was like growing up as a nomad.

Our tour guide played drums for us after dinner, and described what it was like growing up as a nomad.

We woke up to watch the sunrise. We were surrounded by pink, glowing sand, but the camera couldn’t capture it’s magnificence 😦2013-03-07 02.05.19

On the Road; Snow before the Sahara

As soon as we told the hotel owner from Riad Ajebel, Corinne, that we were renting a car to drive to the desert she freaked out. At the breakfast before our departure she told us she couldn’t sleep at all because she was so nervous for us. “You have no idea how crazy the road is, and the drivers are terrible.”

But we wanted an adventure so we dismissed her fears and eagerly awaited the rental car representative. Corinne came with us to inspect the car, since the rep only spoke French. Just as I got in the front seat and was about to sign the rental agreement she pointed to the stick shift and said she was surprised I knew how to drive one.

Ahem. I don’t. And neither does Mike!

At that moment the representative called the agency and got us a personal driver for $35 a day! Corinne jumped up and down with excitement, saying, “now I can sleep well knowing you won’t drive off some cliff or end up in Libya.”

Thank god we got a driver because the road was insane. On the first day, we drove a distance of about 60 miles, but since there were so many switchbacks, it took over four hours. Every time we made a sharp turn (which is every minute) it looked like our back wheel was going over the edge and all I could see was a 1000 foot drop below me. Also it’s impossible to know what’s a restaurant along the main stretch, or how far apart the gas stations are, so for this country I would definitely recommend a driver.

Also we had someone to take pictures of us!

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I can’t believe this isn’t a painting.

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One of the many farmer’s villages.

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I didn’t realize we would be driving through that snowy mountain range in the distance.

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Who knew there is much snow in Morocco! We were driving through endless fields of rocks, and suddenly it all turned white.

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Here we’re passing through the highest pass of the Atlas Mountains.

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It starts in Marrakesh

I’m back from my honeymoon in Morocco and tanner than ever! I will post some stories about our wedding as soon as I get the official pictures from our photographer, but in the meantime, I’ll let you in on some of the amazing adventures from our honeymoon.

2013-03-04 10.52.14As custom, they served us with mint tea as soon as we arrived at our hotel. She first poured one glass and put that aside. Then she poured two more glasses and threw those out because supposedly they’re too bitter. Then she poured the original glass back into the pot and added that entire pile of mint. We had A LOT of mint tea in Morocco, but that was definitely the finest.

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I was obsessed with the copper sink in our bathroom and the deep blue walls. Our hotel was a perfect introduction to Moroccan aesthetics.

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We even had our own terrace, complete with matching sombreros.

2013-03-04 10.48.22We could have spent the whole day in our serene suite, but there was an old Medina (an ancient walled in city) to explore.

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In the main square, we were immediately attacked by snake charmers who draped all their nasty snakes all over us.

2013-03-04 11.53.55We had to pay them just to get the snakes off of us. YUCK! I could even see a mouse shaped lump in one of them.

2013-03-04 12.38.10The market place, known as a Souk, was crowded and intense. Don’t be surprised to see half a butchered cow hanging next to necklaces and scarves. You can find anything you need within arm’s reach. Morocco’s really a place to go if you love shopping, but you need to be comfortable bargaining. I never paid more that an eighth of the original price they gave me. Our tour book said they hike the prices up the highest for American and Japanese tourists.

2013-03-09 13.53.37The main square was filled with snail soup kiosks. The smell is intoxicating. We had a small bowl before dinner. I’ve never had snails before, and it was a little hard to get past their little faces, but I got over that pretty quickly because they were so delicious.

2013-03-09 14.46.53Next, we had dinner in the middle of the square. I’ve never had a dining experience quite like this. It’s a maze of little bbq stands and the waiters will actually block you so you can’t go past them when choosing which one to go to. They will put the menus right in front of your face, or grab your arm. Then if you say no, they curse you out. We went through the stands twice before we couldn’t handle the harassment any further and sat down in the closest empty seat. We had tajines (meat and vegetables cooked in a traditional clay pot), coke and olives, for a grand total of $4.

2013-03-09 15.12.39Marrakesh doesn’t really come alive until after sun set. There are tons of street performers, snake charmers, henna artists, and trained monkeys. It can be a little overwhelming to be in the middle of it, but it’s really entertaining to watch it all from a terrace view (while drinking mint tea).

If you visit Marrakesh make sure to stay in the old medina. I loved our hotel, Riad Ajebel, and the owner was incredible (more about her in the next post). The walls of our hotel were built in the 11th century! Marrakesh was like a living museum. We spent three nights here (we traveled during the day), but that was definitely a good taste.