31 January 2011

Home Sweet Home (for now)

Home Again
I've been back in Brisbane for a week now, laying low and getting everything organised for my move to Melbourne in a few days. Unlike the last time I returned from an exchange, I haven't been experiencing a post-exchange depression. Not yet anyway. Maybe it's because I've been so preoccupied with organising the next chapter of my life in Melbourne.

On the contrary, I've been extremely happy to be back. Living in Copenhagen has made me appreciate the beautiful warm weather we have here in the land down under. On Australia Day a few days ago, I lazed about with my friends in a backyard, beer in one hand, Uno cards in the other, staring up at the glorious green trees that were protecting us from the harsh rays of the sun. Jess pulled out a hose to cool us off. Everybody complained that it was too hot. I loved it. It's much better than being forced indoors in sub zero temperatures.

Things I Miss
There are so many things I miss about Copenhagen already though. First and foremost: the beautiful friends I made. It saddens me to know that things will never be the same again. We'll never all be living together in the one city again, only a short bike ride away from each other.

Secondly, my dear bike. Well, I hated my bike actually. It was constantly making strange noises and breaking down on me. And I always denied it, but Nicolas was right, it was a girl's bike. OK, so I don't miss my bike, but I miss the ability to get from A to B quickly, easily and safely, usually with friends, without spending money, without a worry about whether you're over the 'alcohol limit', whilst keeping fit at the same time!

This Blog
This was originally going to be a blog solely about my exchange semester in Copenhagen and any travels I did on either side. However, I have to admit, I've come to love this art of blogging, so I hope to continue posting photos and commentaries on interesting places I visit and people I meet.

I've been overwhelmed by the number of visits this blog has received: over 5,000 in a few months. Thank you if you are reading this!

I've had a look into google analytics to work out how people stumble upon my blog. It's amusing for me to see what some people have searched in google to come across my blog. For instance, people have searched:

'how long can a 3 year old child stay out in the snow'
'massage parlours near Stansted Airport'
'how many bikes are stolen daily'
'how to get music loud enough for a flash mob'
'cute kids in the snow'

I note that many people have stumbled upon this through the University of Copenhagen website, so, if you're an incoming exchange student and have any questions about Copenhagen, please don't hesitate to ask me about anything.

I'm still yet to write about my recent visits to Egypt (let's hope that a peaceful resolution is made soon to end the current unrest that is unfolding), Berlin, Rome, Paris and Kuala Lumpur. More to come.

27 January 2011

Bliss n Essaouira

Essaouira. Wow, have you ever seen so many vowels grouped together like that?

Ed and I caught a bus to Essaouira from Marrakech. We spent our first hour there following a local lady who escorted us to a number of riads and hotels. We were quite indecisive about where we wanted to stay; we wanted somewhere cheap, but also something near the beach. In the end, we settled for a lovely riad with a spectacular rooftop terrace overlooking the beach and the medina for 100 Durham ($12) each. One afternoon we lazed about on the rooftop to the sounds of some nearby drummers and a siren signalling the call to prayer. It was dreamy.

Our rooftop terrace
One of the first things I noticed about Essaouira is that it is tourist resort town mainly for French visitors. The lack of rich culture was more than made up for by the plethora of beautiful sea-side landscapes we visited.

The second thing I noticed was that everything was painted with the same distinct shade of royal blue; from doors and window-sills to people-drawn carts, boats and food-stands. This was in stark contrast to the warm tinges of red and orange that were prevalent in Marrakech.

Along the citadel
As large flocks of seagulls hovered above us, we walked along a citadel, occasionally resting on one of the many cannons that line its walls. We also stumbled through some rocks along the water's edge to find ourselves dangerously close to some killer waves crashing against gigantic rocks.

Huge waves crashing against the rocks
The harbour docks were home to a loud and bustling fish market where locals sold the freshest catches of the day, gathered only minutes ago from their blue boats. We decided we had to try some of this seafood at the strip of small outdoor restaurants a short walk away from the fish market. Our seafood platter comprising of grilled prawns, fish and calamari was exquisite, however, I just wish the fish had less bones in it!

The fish market
Of course, my time at Essaouira wouldn't be complete without a visit to one of its famed beaches. Camels and horses rested along the beach. It was warm enough for us to lay there and tan. This was something we'd never envisaged as we were only 3 hours away from the recently snowstorm-ravaged London. It became unpleasantly windy at times, which is why this town is popular for kite and wind surfers, and probably not Mary Poppins and her umbrella.

Walking along the beach

26 January 2011

Ooh La La Sahara

The main highlight of my trip to Morocco was the Moroccan Sahara. We arrived in the desert early one evening, where a caravan of camels awaited us. These majestic animals were much larger than I had imagined; once on its back, it was quite daunting to look down. Our camels stoically trekked in a straight line into the night, finally reaching our campsite after an hour. The ride was surreal; none of us could believe we were camel-riding under a starry sky through the Sahara Desert. Whilst on her camel, Anne lit some cigarettes and leant over to pass them to Hannah (behind her) and Ed (in front of her).  It was hilarious, exhilarating and liberating at the same time!

For dinner that night, our berbers prepared us some delicious chicken tagine and Moroccan whisky to refuel our tired bodies. Soon after dinner, we climbed a large and steep sand dune behind our camp site. It took us over 20 minutes to climb to the top, which was much longer than we had anticipated. The sand was extremely fine with our feet sinking into the sand with each step. In addition to this, copious amounts of sand easily seeped into our shoes; so much so that it felt like it was determined to push our feet out of our shoes. To climb the dune was exhausting, but extremely rewarding. The view from the top of the sand dune is something I will never forget. I desperately tried to capture the moment with my camera, but none of my photos will ever do justice of what I saw and felt (unfortunately, it was far too dark for photos). The millions of stars in the sky were glistening more brightly than I had ever seen.  We lay on our backs and saw a number of shooting stars and constellations. We could see dozens, if not hundreds of neighbouring sand dunes illuminated under the full moon. We yelled absurd things from the top of our lungs, aware that we were completely isolated.

Later that night, we slid down the dune to a campfire that our three berbers warmed themselves to. They started banging their drums and we all sung together in Arabic. We were intoxicated by the energy of their music, eventually dancing along like we had been possessed!

The next morning, we arose from our tents as the sun was rising. We rode on our camels back towards our base, stopping off at some spectacular golden sand dunes. Here, we played like children in a sandpit, running up and down the dunes, writing our names in the sand, and jumping off any steep edges we could find!

23 January 2011

Morock n Roll* Morock the Kasbah*

*Please excuse my bad puns in the title above

After falling in love with Marrakech, we decided to go on the road for a few days. During the road trip on our small bus, I was constantly amazed at the beauty and variety of landscapes that Morocco had to offer.  There was not a moment where I was bored or unimpressed with the landscape.

We weaved our way through the epic Atlas mountain ranges, to end up so high that we were glancing down onto the clouds. Along the sides of the mountains, locals were gathering stones, which, when cracked open, would reveal beautiful, glittering crystals.

View of the Atlas Mountains
As we drove through the former caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara, we stopped by the Ait Benhaddou. It is a majestic, fortified city built of mud. It's a glorious example of a kasbah, where local leaders would live, and be protected during attacks of the city. We faced a challenging obstacle as we climbed up this kasbah: a mighty sandstorm! We were blown in all directions and were forced to completely cover our faces as the sand ripped past us. We eventually made it to the top for a spectacular view of the nearby town and river.

The Ait Benhaddou
A stray dog approaches us at the top of the Ait Benhaddou
Further along, we stopped by the small town of Ourzazate; home to the Kasbah of Taourirt. A short drive away is the Oasis of Fint, where farmers tended to their crops and washed their clothes in a small stream. Here we witnessed how Moroccan carpets are designed and made.  I'd always known that it was a tedious and long task to create a carpet, but it wasn't until I saw the women and their rudimentary equipment that I fully appreciated their skill, ingenuity and patience. 

The Oasis of Fint
Moroccan Carpets
We spent a night in a very, very, very basic (emphasised!) hotel in the middle of nowhere. We met some extremely, but unsurprisingly friendly berbers in the dining room. They offered to share their sheesha with us. As we inhaled its strong blackcurrant taste, we were told to close our eyes and picture our ideal woman! One of the berbers was a local movie extra. He claimed to have worked with the likes of George Clooney in films such as Syriana and Babel. 

This wasn't our hotel, but a 'Place of Relaxation' nearby
As Ed, Hannah and I prepared for bed that night, we were scared of the sandstorm brewing outside. It sounded like an army of soldiers constantly clashing against our door, so, like children, we created a trap at the door consisting of a chair, two mandarins, and a tin of vasoline. The unforgiving wind of the sandstorm triggered our trap moments after its completion, causing us to scream and jump under our beds! Not surprisingly, we struggled to get a good night's sleep that night.

The Todra Gorge
Further down the trip, we climbed up some of the canyons of the Todra Gorge, and explored some mountainous landscapes with interesting patterns that resembled Keith Herring's art.

17 January 2011

Marraketchup Sauce

I arrived in Marrakech by myself on a balmy evening, after delays caused by severe snowstorms in London. The taxi drivers at the airport colluded against me, setting the price to my hostel at six times the amount I should have paid. I should have bargained but I was too exhausted.

Despite my protests to the taxi driver, he dropped me off in a seemingly shady car park where people were loitering about. A teenage boy collected me, promising to guide me to my hostel for some money. We weaved through several dark, tiny, deserted alleyways, before three other young men appeared from nowhere to accompany him. It was at this point that I thought I was going to be cornered, beaten up, and robbed. They insisted that the wooden door to my right, with no sign, was my hostel. I was nervous and suspicious. Fortunately, they were correct. Ali, one of the staff at the hostel, welcomed me with a Moroccan whisky. He told me to relax. Moments later, my friend Ed found me in a fragile and shaken state in the lounge area.

As I had learnt from this first night, walking through the unlit alleyways of Marrakech at night can be terrifying. Later that evening, Ed and I walked through some alleyways after dropping our friends off at their hostel. A man, who had been lying on the street, woke up then walked in circles before us. We were convinced he was wielding a knife and going to attack us. We managed to walk past him and sighed in relief. Then, another man followed us closely for a while. Another man awkwardly walked backwards and forwards near us, chanting strange things to himself. This was a rather confronting first night in Morocco, and what a first impression it caused!

Fortunately, our Moroccan adventure unfolded in a way that turned our first impressions completely upside down. One night, Abdou, a shop owner, invited us into his parent’s riad (an old, converted mansion) for dinner. He cooked us a delicious chicken tagine and we effortlessly entertained each other late into the evening. (I know my mum would be reading this now, disappointed in me for walking into a stranger’s house!). Abdou, while strumming some sweet tunes on his guitar, expressed his frustrations to us about the pre-conceived notions that foreigners have about Moroccans. There is no need for fear, like Ed and I experienced on our first night. He also explained to us the effect of Western influence on Moroccan culture. This has led to the division of Marrakech into two parts; Old Marrakech and New Marrakech. It is rare to see a Moroccan woman in Old Marrakech without a headscarf. It is the other way round in New Marrakech. Abdou put the icing on the cake that night by arranging one of his riad’s guests, a magician from Casablanca, to perform a show for us!

Marrakech is an exciting place. In the centre of the medina is the Djemaa El-Fna, a square filled with over a hundred restaurants and stalls. Until the early hours of the morning, the square is also filled with entertainers; from snake charmers and prophets, to musicians and dancers, all surrounded my large swarms of people. The atmosphere in this square is like nothing I have ever seen. There is something for everyone and anyone here. In this square we met some fantastic locals who entertained us all night with their Moroccan hospitality and humour. Ed was fed a lamb’s head, Hannah was a favourite when it came to photos with the chefs, whilst I was convinced that I was the son of Bruce Lee after several kung fu challenges.

Outside the square, it is easy to get lost in Marrakech’s numerous souks, each comprised of a maze of alleyways. These alleyways are lined with shops primarily selling herbs and spices, leather products, metal ornaments, and counterfeit bags and shoes. It is not the most pleasant nor peaceful place to shop as motorbikes and donkeys attempt to squeeze past you in these already narrow lanes.

Other landmarks we visited in Marrakech include the Koutoubia Mosque (the tallest building in the city, although off-limits to non-muslims) and the Dar Si Saïd Museum.