Europe, Africa, South America

Now that it’s April I’m becoming acutely aware that our extended vacation is quickly coming to a close. I feel like I say this every month, but it’s hard to believe that so much time has already passed since we left last summer.

I was going over old photos from the last 9 months, and realized that there’s SO much I already forgot about. Hiking the Nakasendo trail in Japan. Karaokeing with socialites in Shanghai. Accidentally walking in on the late king’s memorial service in Romania. Crashing a local family’s Yi Peng party in Chiang Mai.

It feels like we’ve experienced a lifetime’s worth of memories in less than a year, and I’m having a difficult time trying to process it all.

(Yeah, I’m getting simpy on ya’ll.)

Anyway. About March.

This was one of my favorite months of the trip.

We started off in Seville, Spain, and spent two weeks working our way up to Madrid. I’m going to be real here—Spain never interested me much. I visited Barcelona for a weekend back when I was studying abroad (it’s now one of my favorite cities in Europe), but I always felt kind of “meh” about the rest of the country.

I think these sentiments are rooted in the fact that Spain was one of the #1 places to study abroad back in college (as was Italy, which is why I probably never felt too warmly towards there, either), which made it feel a little trite, I guess. I always expected it to be sort of basic and touristy and filled with sorority girls trying to “get cultural” during their spring semester of junior year.

I know that’s a terrible way to feel about any country and I shouldn’t be so judgmental, but it was just this feeling that I couldn’t quite shake. If Joel hadn’t insisted that we visit in the first place, I probably would’ve just revisited Barcelona for a few days and headed straight to the next country.

But Spain, you surprised me in the best way. Your Serrano ham on toast is simple but delicious. Your tapas bars are downright delightful. Your architecture is astounding.

Loving Spain actually taught me a lot about how much I’ve grown as a person since my college years. I’m a lot more open-minded, and no longer feel like I need to visit the trendiest places or listen to underground music or wear hip designer clothes to feel validated (okay, maybe I still do a little, but I’ve gotten much better). I’m mature enough to say that Italy and Spain were really, really awesome without caring about how basic I sound when I say it.

Progress!

So Spain was cool.

And after Spain came one of my new favorite countries: Morocco!

In a world where I constantly worry that Instagram is slowly going to ruin everything wonderful about travel, I was a little hesitant about Morocco. It’s been high up on my bucket list for a long time now, and seeing so many girls in maxi skirts standing in front of tiled walls all over social media the last year had me worried that the place would be overrun with tripods and hair extensions and G7 Xs.

(I’m not a bitter person I swear…)

To my pleasant surprise, Morocco was fairly empty of foreigners and obnoxious behavior (except for Chefchaouen, where a group of Spanish tourists thought it would be appropriate to start waving their Barcelona flags around in the middle of the square while chanting collectively for their team), and the locals were incredibly genuine. Highlights include petting stray cats, eating sheep lung with my bare hands, and teaching card games to our Sahara campmates. This place is just the best.

Oh—and after three weeks of lazing around and drinking I finally got productive and finished my travel hacking guide! It’s basically a mini-ebook that teaches you the ins-and-outs of getting started with travel hacking (that thing that people do to get free flights). If you haven’t already grabbed your copy, you can do so here (it’s free!).

Places visited:Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Madrid, Rabat, Marrakech, Merzouga, Fez, Chefchaouen, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro

Highlights

1. Bar crawl in Seville: Because I’m old and lame, I don’t really have any “wild” nights anymore. I still drink occasionally and go out with friends, but I prefer to be in bed before midnight and get buzzed on coffee rather than tequila. Such is the #adulting lifestyle. But on our second night in Seville, our group decided to join our hostel’s bar crawl for the evening, and I ended up having an amazing night out.

This involved one too many free shots at the bar, inhaling Absinthe fumes, sharing hookah at a club with a Jamaican-British dude, losing track of multiple friends, hugging it out with our hostel staff over extra-deep convos, and talking for hours and hours until the sun rose.

Could I function the next day? No. Worth it? Absolutely.

2. Getting hailed on in Granada: A terrible experience turned memorable. A few of us were out exploring the Sacomonte neighborhood in Granada when literally out of nowhere, it started HAILING. Hard. Like, so painful you can’t think or move and are just sort of running around in circles wondering when this hell is going to stop.

It was awful at the time, but once we made it down the hill and were back in the sunshine, it felt like such an absurd moment that we were all laughing and high on adrenaline after. We also got to meet a gypsy family and check out their home because of it! There’s a video of the whole experience here (loud screaming involved, you’ve been warned).

3. Making Paella in Barcelona: There’s this thing in Barcelona called the “Paella Cooking Experience” which is really just a pseudonym for “unlimited sangria, rice throwing, and singing Smash Mouth in the streets on your way to a flaming shots bar right before everyone gets really emotional and goes home crying”. It was awesome and I really have no other words to describe it so I’ll just leave you with this GIF:

4. Visiting the inside of the Sagrada Família: Joel and I have started skipping a lot of paid-for religious sites lately because it seems like every church we step into looks just like the last. And then people go and charge you $20 to see one and you’re just like, hold up what?! But I didn’t get to see the inside of the Sagrada Família the last time I was in Barcelona and had heard so many wonderful things about it, so we shelled out the cash and went in. It. Was. STUNNING. Probably one of my favorite architectural pieces of all time and worth every penny.

5. Ending our time in Barcelona in style: Our group had a Sunday morning flight out to Madrid, and we knew that we’d need to be up by 7am to make it. Things don’t get started in Spain until after midnight, so we had a choice to make: get a solid 8 hours of rest, or stay up all night and head straight to the airport after the club. We made the responsible choice and went with the first option.

(just kidding)

We joined our hostel’s bar crawl, headed to a bar and then a small club, came home and had a balanced breakfast of eggs, chips, vodka, and Monster at 5am, then took the bus to the airport. Prescott, Trevor and I bought six more beers at a nearby café (while everyone was getting their morning coffee), chugged them, and passed TF out on the plane. It was glorious and this day will go down in infamy.

6. Camping out in the Sahara Desert: Joel and I decided to DIY our time in the desert instead of going with a tour like most people, so we had almost zero idea of what to expect when we arrived. We ended up camping out in the desert for two nights under the stars, sand boarding down the hills (I miraculously didn’t injure myself), rode camels to and from camp, experienced a crazy windstorm, and rode ATVs up and down sand dunes. Pure magic.

Lowlights

1. Everything breaking/technology woes: My SD card officially died (goodbye Madrid videos). My external hard drive partition broke (goodbye epic e-book collection). Our external battery pack doesn’t work anymore. My camera lens broke for long enough to miss the final sunset photos on our last day in the Sahara. The wifi didn’t work in more than 50% of the places we stayed at all month. We bought a SIM card in Brazil only to realize that we couldn’t use it. Luckily, I’m always patient and understanding when it comes to technology issues so it was all okay! /s

2. Our sketchy first night in Fez: Pull up a chair guys. It’s story time.

We took an overnight bus from Merzouga to Fez, and the bus arrived THREE HOURS EARLY. How was this possible? Was the driver going 100 mph? Did they lie on the schedule? Is there a teleportation chamber in the middle of Morocco?

I was sleeping the whole time so I guess we’ll never know. Either way, we were stuck in the middle of Fez at 3am, with all of our worldly belongings on us, oh and our DATA SIMS TAPPED OUT DURING THE DRIVE. Both of our cards stopped working despite having at least a full GB of data left on each. And we didn’t have directions to our hostel.

:,)

Joel worked his magic and convinced a Korean couple who was also on our bus to let us use their maps app to track down our hostel location. He took a few photos of the phone screen so we’d have a general idea of the area. We asked a taxi driver to take us to the main landmark near it, and when we got out, we realized that we couldn’t zoom in far enough into Google Maps to see the tiny side streets of the medina without data or wifi. Gr8.

We wandered around in circles around the central square a few times until a very (too) friendly Moroccan man approached us out of nowhere. He asked us where we were going and offered to help. Feeling like we were too savvy to fall for his schemes, we politely declined and headed off in a random direction. He freaking followed us! For like 20 minutes! He kept asking where we needed to go and insisted that he was just out helping foreigners (because most normal people go out for walks in the middle of the night…), but every time we’d tell him we were fine he’d just smile and say “Okay!” but continue to follow us.

Eventually, Joel got fed up and gave him a polite but firm “leave us alone” talk, and the guy backed off, following us from a distance with a friend. Just when I thought we were destined to sleep on the street and/or get mugged, I had a major lightbulb moment and remembered that Hostelworld sends email confirmations when you book with them. I opened up my phone and lo-and-behold, the email had automatically saved offline to my inbox and had written directions at the bottom!

We finally found the right street (which was actually an alleyway). I thought we were safe, but we tried knocking on the door and no one was answering. As Joel was calling the staff from the number on the email, the guy popped up from the other end of the alley. We were trapped. The staff answered the phone and let us in right at that same moment and we ran inside and spent the next four hours freezing to death in their living-room-courtyard.

3. Yellow fever outbreaks in Brazil: Some vaccines are easier to get than others. In the case of yellow fever, the shot is absurdly expensive and difficult to find in the U.S. Since we originally planned on sticking to the main cities in places like Brazil, we decided against it. Fast forward six months and there’s now been a yellow fever outbreak in Rio and Sao Paulo since January of this year. Yikes.

Not wanting to 1.) die of a rare disease and 2.) wear leggings and sweaters during our entire trip through tropical South America, we spent our first few days in Rio tracking down the vaccine. Fortunately, it’s free for all citizens and visitors, and very easy to find (we just walked into a clinic without an appointment and walked out five minutes later, vaccinated). The vaccine doesn’t take effect until at least 10 days after, so we had to skip out on some of the cooler destinations between here and Sao Paulo where the mosquitos are more vicious.

4. Getting a pinched nerve in Barcelona: I woke up on our first day in Barcelona with a stiff neck. I didn’t think much of it until three days had passed and the pain was only getting worse and spreading down to my shoulder, upper back, and arm. It was so bad at times that I couldn’t even focus on a conversation if I wasn’t on painkillers. I web-diagnosed my symptoms and it seemed that I had a full-on pinched nerve (which sounds sort of harmless but if you’ve ever experienced this before you know this shit hurts). Luckily, the pain went away after a week and a half.

Best Eats

1. El Tigre tapas: Trevor’s brother fondly describes this place as the “McDonald’s of tapas bars”, referring more to the prices and ubiquity of locations than to the state of the food. El Tigre is a tapas bar chain in Madrid that gives you giant plates of smoked chorizo, Spanish omelet, seafood paella, pork belly, and mini croquettes for free alongside whatever drink you order. It’s heaven. The drinks are really cheap, too, so you can order a bucket (read: you need two hands to pick it up when full) of tinto de verano for only $6. If I ever celebrate my birthday in Madrid we’re going here for dinner and everyone is invited.

2. Churros y chocolate: Because obviously. My friend Anthony recommended a great spot in Granada to try these babies and they were so different from what I expected: long, fried sticks of dough (think youtiao) dipped in a rich, pudding-like hot chocolate. Perfect for a rainy day.

3. Tangia in Marrakech: Most people who go to Morocco have heard of tajine, which is pretty much all they eat there, but tangia is the close cousin that’s exclusive to Marrakech and twice as delicious. You can read more about the dishes we tried at the Jemaa el-Fnaa night market here.

4. Berber eggs in Marrakech: One of the problems with eating out in Morocco is that it’s really difficult to track down good Moroccan food. It’s not common in Moroccan culture to eat out, so most restaurants are catered to the tourist tongue. It wasn’t until the end of our first week in the country that we tried something that truly (excuse my grandma speak) knocked my socks off. The plate of Berber eggs we had at El Bahja was greasy, tomatoey, beefy goodness.

5. Mechoui (roasted lamb): Holy good God, this was hands down my favorite thing we ate in Morocco. Somewhere in the middle of the souks that surround Jemaa el-Fnaa, there’s a tiny alley filled with lamb shops. Each restaurant sets up a split-roasted lamb (known as mechoui) every morning and slowly shaves off chunks of meat to customers throughout the day. Everything is priced by the kilogram and served in a paper wrapper alongside a heaping pile of cumin salt and a basket of bread. It’s so simple but the meat is amazing and fatty and crispy and just everything that makes me so happy to not be vegetarian.

What’s Next

Now that we’re getting closer to our homecoming, Joel and I are going to start job hunting (ugh). Hello, real world.

We have a lot of time in Brazil, split mostly between Rio and Sao Paulo, the latter of which we’ll be spending with his family (who lives there). It’ll be nice to slow down a bit and spend some time really getting to know one or two cities after zipping around Western Europe and Morocco for the last month or two.

Stats:

Cities visited: 11

Distance traveled: 14154 km/8795 miles (!)

Pictures taken: 1659

Before you go…

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