Posts by Country

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Apple Fest



On Friday, October 7th, I picked up my friend Chu Sum from the airport. He'd never been to America so he and I made plans for him to come visit for a month - a long visit to some but completely reasonable when you consider our history. I met Chu Sum back in 2014 in Hong Kong at a couchsurfing meeting at which time he agreed to put me up at his place for a while until I finally started work... this ended up taking about two months. Nevertheless, accommodation in Hong Kong is prohibitively expensive (everything else is pretty affordable though) so he insisted that I enjoy his family's hospitality until I had a reasonable financial situation.



Chu Sum's introduction to America was basically a crash course. He had only just got off the plane when he learned that our public transportation system was a little less convenient than what he was accustomed to. Upon making contact over the airport wifi he let me know that he was on his way to my house.... of course, I had to explain that this was not really a practical undertaking in this part of the world - in fact, nobody does that. Coming from a city where literally everything is connected by bus, subway and train, Chu Sum hadn't quite figured out that virtually all travel (despite aggressive political efforts in my region) is done by car. After a short drive (a long trip by Hong Kong standards), we arrived in town and I started introducing him to everyone. First he met my mom, Brian and the dogs then we stopped at the college so he could meet my coworkers/friends there. Later that evening, I took him to meet my friends Josh and Jason at a movie night that we just so happened to have planned for that evening.



The next day we went to the Apple Festival at Lattin's Farm where Chu Sum had his first taste of American farm life. After seeing lots of different farm animals, checking out his (first?) pumpkin patch and eating a fresh apple fritter, Chu Sum finished his second day in America - the land of the free and the home of McDonalds.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

'Murika!



On  Monday, June 13th, I arrived back stateside only to start experiencing culture shock... in my own culture. I don't know if recent events are to blame but I was a bit disappointed by the behavior of my fellow Americans. During one of the flights I had a lady in front of me who, during meal time, decided to put her seat back. This, of course, spilled my drink all over my lap. I tapped her on the shoulder and calmly explained my predicament... to which the polite response would be "sorry", right? Nope. She didn't even put her seat back up for me.

On the next flight I had another pleasant experience - this time with the stewardess. I asked for a drink that was free on the previous flight and she insisted that I had somehow paid for it on the last flight (without knowing it?) and that it was the same price this time... apparently the customer is always wrong.

The fun continued with TSA delays... and confiscation of the Swiss bacon I bought in Zofingen. I had made it all the way home and was going through my last level of security when they decided my rather pricey, vacuum sealed chunk of deliciousness was too high a risk to national health and safety to be allowed into the country. I even asked if I could just have a bite but apparently that'd be a threat to national security or something...



Over the following weeks I signed back on as security at Pierce College and spent time with family. We had BBQs, went hiking at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, wake boarding, shot off fireworks for the 4th and enjoyed motorbike rides to local restaurants. My bike (the one that no mechanic will touch) actually needed a little TLC and, fortunately, the neighbor down the street had experience with the unexpectedly challenging job of spoke repair.

During my first trips out on my little enduro I began to discover just how bad road rage has become in my neck of the woods. I had a guy swear at me for lane splitting (which was technically legal here in Washington State at the time and is commonplace/accepted in most of the world) and, at other times, people actually tried to run me over! One guy in a truck sped through a light and increased his speed as he approached my rear tire causing me to skid into an evasive turn almost sliding sideways into the side of the car coming from the other direction! Thankfully, my little bike is highly maneuverable and it wasn't too overly difficult to regain control.



Over the following month I continued pulling scotch broom on my property, working for my neighbors for extra cash and I even got a new job teaching online! I had previously tried to get students through a webpage that I made called Simple English and, of course, through networking in general, but nobody was really willing to commit... turns out you need to build up a bit of a reputation before people really take interest in what you're offering - even if you're the only option they're aware of! Interestingly, a friend of a friend was teaching in Spain and she had found a job with a company in Turkey called English Ninjas. She referred me to them and, as a result, I can now add "Ninja" to my rather long list of work experiences!


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Zofingen



On Thursday, June 9th, I rode over to Zofingen for the street market and found some parking in front of the co-op around the corner - perks of having a scooter in Europe (park anywhere). The street market was pretty busy and had lots of interesting stuff - the best of which had to be the food... the kitschy stuff I could do without. The first place I stopped at was a candy stand where I met a girl from the Dominican Republic who was only too pleased to meet another Spanish speaker. We talked a bit and she gave me a deal on some caramels and even a bag of coated nuts - gratis! Next I stopped over at a bacon stand and got some Swiss Bacon... a bit pricey, but quite nice.


After having my fill of walking around the market, I had a kebab and made some friends at a bratwurst joint. They spoke excellent English so we had a good chat about travel and life living in the Swiss countryside.



The next day I went to Zofingen again with Stefan to check out a scenic spot which included a view of his town Brittnau (left) down the road. Finally, the following day, I packed my gear and Stefan took me to the airport. I then spent the next two days traveling to Portugal, Boston and, my final destination, Seattle.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Stein am Rhein


On Tuesday, June 7th, I rode over to Stein am Rhine for a visit to the very well-preserved and beautiful medieval town there. It was a real treat walking around the cobbled streets of a town with so much art in its design work - literally like being in a painting.



Next I rode over to Budensee to see the big lakes there before heading back west to the little town of Kobletz.



Koblenz didn't actually have anything much to see so much as it was just a historical point of interest. The remaining late Roman watchtower is listed as a heritage site of national significance but I didn't see it... oh well.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Rhine Falls



On  Monday, June 6th, I went off on a road trip to Schaffhausen to see Rhine Falls. During the ride I experienced what the Swiss refer to as a "Reinfall" or "fail" - my engine overheated. I went to a local mechanic who then dumped loads of oil in it for me (free of charge) and sent me on my way. I talked to other mechanics over the following week but I never did find an explanation for the problem. At one point we thought maybe it was water in the oil but that somehow cleared up... so it's a real mystery!



At Schaffhausen I walked around, got some good shots of the waterfalls, and went in to check out the castle. The walk around was a bit rough with all my camping gear on my back but, fortunately, there was a ferry back across to the castle for a couple francs more. The castle, called Schloss Laufen ("Castle Run" in English), didn't seem to offer much. Though that might be due to the fact that there's no real access to the interior.

Back on the bike I made my way to the camping spot I had scouted out on Google Maps beforehand. It had a few mosquitoes, and the creepy animal growling sounds were a bit much but, otherwise, it turned out to be a totally awesome spot!



Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ticino



On Thursday, June 2nd, I woke up after sleeping for an entire day/night and had some Rösti - a typical Swiss dish that is basically like hash browns. I didn't do much else till the next day when I got on my bike and rode to Rapperswil to visit some friends from the ski resort in New Zealand (we had a lot of Swiss ski instructors there). After chatting a bit we went for dinner at an Italian place where it turned out our waiter was from Malaga in Spain. So, much to his delight, I got to use my Spanish one more time. The funny thing was that he thought I had been there the other day and proceeded to give me a high five before I could say otherwise. I'm guessing he was too excited to care in any case - certainly isn't often that he meets someone there who speaks his language.

After bidding my Swiss amigos farewell, I slowly made my way back to Stefan's place in Brittnau... very slowly. With the heavy rain and dark clouds, I could hardly see at all - this difficulty was compounded by headlights from oncoming traffic refracting in my visor. Naturally, this caused me to miss my exit at one point (didn't help that the construction made it look blocked off) and I experienced a little déjà vu as I found myself trapped in endless tunnels. By the time I found some open highway where I could exit and turn around I was all the way down in Lucerne - my one-hour drive had become a three-hour journey...


The next day we went to the bakery and had some nice bread then spent some time resting. Finally, on Sunday, we decided to go on a trip to Tessin (Ticino) - a town in the Italian part of Switzerland. Fun fact - Switzerland actually has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.

On the way to Ticino, we stopped for some Swiss mountain cheese (very strong stuff!) and had a bratwurst while looking at one of the most epic mountain views I've seen... and I've seen a few. Finally, we arrived in Ticino and started a hike into the hills.



Near the end of the hike we found a manmade stream flowing into a small mill and out the other side. In front of the mill we found a bunch of really nice waterfalls where we stopped to re-hydrate. After that we finished the hike and started the three hour drive back to Brittnau.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Casa Blanca



On Monday, May 30th, we started driving back toward Casa Blanca. Anthony was in a bit of a hurry to catch his flight so he drove... not a good idea. Turns out driving when you're in a hurry results in 300 Dirham fines. Fortunately, we made it there with enough time for Anthony to join us for a relaxing visit to the hammam. There we dumped buckets of hot and cold water over ourselves then went into a steamy room with a hot floor and laid there while smearing solid olive oil cubes all over our skin. Not super exciting but not a bad experience either.



After that we dropped Anthony off at the airport and made our way over to the Medina for a smoothie and some pasties. Then we tried getting to the beach... which turned out to be a bit of a hassle. It would seem that the local Moroccans in Casa Blanca don't believe in beach access. We parked and walked along the boardwalk for a while until we got hungry and stopped for a kebab. After eating we continued walking until we finally found a place where we were allowed access to the beach.



It was a nice beach, but hardly worth the journey to be honest. Finally, we hiked back to the car, which was a lot further than either of us remembered, and began our two day, nonstop journey up to Switzerland!

Of course, we couldn't help but take the scenic route again and, by the time we got to the ferry, it was quite dark. In fact, I almost hit a sign! This was no ordinary lapse in judgment though... actually, believe it or not, it was by design - they had no reflective surface on this sign and it was blocking off half of the highway. What's more, they had a large cement blockade behind the sign so that our car would be sure to come to a DEAD stop upon impact. Well, while I'm pretty sure I got onto two wheels during this death defying maneuver, we managed to evade the "tourist trap" without incident.

We caught our boat to Spain shortly after that and then drove to Sevilla. We needed to stop there for some special gas that Stefan's car uses but, alas, no station. Oh well, we continued like zombies back to Belmonte and loaded up my bike on the trailer. Finally, we pressed on for the next day and night of driving so that Stefan could get back in time for his military service - apparently he'd have to face a court marshal or something if he was late. We kept switching drivers every hour or two until, after 41 hours of testing fate, we reached Stefan's home in Switzerland. I then proceeded to sleep for the next 24 hours straight.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Marrakech



On Sunday, May 29th, we woke up and had some traditional Ramadan desserts for breakfast. I think we had Halwa Chebakia (sesame cookie), almond milkshake and dates. The rest was some sort of bread (Batbout?), which we dipped in olive oil, and some yellow stuff. Yummy!


After that we went to the mountains to visit the village that we were supposed to be staying at the previous night. There we met a girl named Loubna; she had really good English and so she became our guide.



She took us on a wee hike and showed us a place for taking mud baths. Following her lead, we took some of that mud and started smearing it all over our faces and arms. Apparently it was something especially healthy - the mud and the soda water we drank at a natural spring before that... which wasn't all that great in my opinion. We then went to her dad's place and had some Moroccan mint tea before heading over to a hut to have lamb Tajin with her family.



Finally, we left the village and headed back to Marrakech to visit the Medina there. We had more tasty sugar cane juice and tried to get to the Hammam for a steam bath... but we were too late.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Rabat



On Friday, May 27th, Anthony woke us up at 5am... but we went back to sleep. Later we went to get a sim for his phone and started venturing out into what Anthony coined as "French-Arab-Africa". According to Anthony's experience as a native of the land (born in Uganda), this was a good description of the local culture - Moroccans speak French, drive like arabs and, of course, live in Africa.



After walking around a bit, we were ready for brunch so we went to a good kebab joint with lots of good hummus and other flavorful dips. Then we went to the King's Palace and wandered around the palace grounds for a while.



They had a lot of military at the actual palace itself and, as we approached, it became clear that we were not welcome... we got that message when they grabbed their guns and started yelling at us.


Around that time we decided to head over to the Medina. It was there that Anthony met a guy who showed us his secret stash then took us up on his terrace to show us the view over Rabat. After that we went to Chellah - an ancient citadel with Roman ruins and landscaped gardens. Unfortunately, we couldn't get in without a special pass so we.made our way over to a cool restaurant for some dinner.



We actually had to find a guy with a lantern whose job it is to lead us the place. Then we went down some stairs into an underground entrance leading into a dining area that was literally quite "cool". After eating some Tajin, and other traditional Moroccan food, we went back to the flat and Anthony went across the street to haggle for some dresses - for his sisters... of course.



Apparently, they locked the doors and tried to rob him. Fortunately, Anthony didn't have $5000 on him so they let him go across to our flat to get it. He locked up the flat and hid in his room while the ladies yelled and hammered on the door all night. Strangely enough, Stefan and I didn't hear any of it but the next morning Anthony assured us that we had indeed been under siege for a good while.



The next day we went to a church where they sang for us and then we went to the Medina again for some delicious sugar cane drink. Later, for lunch, we had some Tajin with chicken and then hit the open road passing through Casa Blanca on our way to Marrakech.



We had a little car trouble on the way, and had to get a pull start from some guys, but eventually we arrived in town. From there we were guided up into the mountains by our host who, after meeting us in a small town, decided to call up his buddy so we could stay at his place which was a lot closer.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Chefchaouen



On Wednesday, May 25th, I went to one of the banks to close my account. As usual, Cajarural wanted to play a game with me. They said I had to pay for the second half of my insurance, which I happily did, but then they wanted me to pay a fee for not paying when the charge initially posted to my account... Now, this was no problem except that this whole year they hadn't gotten around to giving me access to my online banking. And, the only way I could have known that the insurance had posted would have been to go in every day and wait in line to ask the representative at the desk about my account status. Of course, this would be impossible to manage and they knew it... nevertheless, they charged me 25 euros.

Not the best way to start my last day in Spain, but I still managed to have a little fun before leaving. That day I talked to all my students in Spanish for the first time - I hadn't let on for the whole year that I could and suspicions had grown into something of a local conspiracy. Some of the students couldn't believe their ears, others smiled and laughed and, of course, a couple felt betrayed. One of my students said the usual "you speaka Spanish, I know you do." to which I responded, "si, yo hablo Espanol."

His jaw dropped and he stood there gawking as I continued on toward my next class. Jorge certainly had a penchant for the dramatic - though, I suppose most kids do.

That night my friend Stefan arrived really late - he was coming all the way from Switzerland after all. At 1am, after stopping for a minute to appreciate the castle, we began our journey to Morocco.



Seven and a half grueling hours later, we tiredly rolled into Algeciras just in time to catch our ferry to Africa. At both borders we found ourselves being conned into giving "helpers" (beggars) a "coffee" (money) for assistance in determining which way was straight ahead. The truth, of course, is that these "helpers" are just people who get away with taking your money in exchange for directing you to follow the car in front of you. Asking for a coffee is probably just a way of sugarcoating the fact that they're extorting money from unsuspecting tourists.



After a two hour ferry ride we were at the second border control where they decided to search us. This was no big deal until Stefan admitted that he wasn't actually sure his car would be allowed in Morocco. As it turns out, you're supposed to register your car when you take it to another continent. Fortunately, since Stefan's car is Swiss, they let it slide.



Upon entering Africa, we proceeded to break the law by cutting across the first roundabout we came to - Stefan doesn't like to go around the long way. We then went to exchange some money and found that one euro nets you 10 Durham! Of course, a water costs 5-10 Durham so that's not much less than the going rate.



At this point the plan was to get to Rabat by sundown but then Stefan and I both agreed that the scenic route would be more exciting. As we meandered through the countryside we saw random animals on the roadside, picked up a hitchhiker, stopped in Chefchaouen and, while driving through the mountains, hit some of the wildest country “roads” I had ever seen - many were so narrow and full of potholes that it would be fair to say that there was more dirt than bitumen.


Eventually we did arrive at our destination and were able to pick up our rather anxious friend Anthony from the airport. Despite our being surprisingly only a few minutes late, old mate wasn't a real happy chappy.  Still, we reached our spacious, well-equipped AirBnB flat at midnight and, well, not bad for $8 a person! Clearly the dollar goes a long ways in this land.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Despedida



On Sunday, May 22nd, I went to el Buen Parto with Julio and friends for a festival. It would also be my last time with them before leaving a few days later. This was essentially my despedida or "farewell".



We ate lots of paella and watched the different events unfold (marching band, people on horses, lots of vendors, etc.)... but mostly we ate paella :)


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Castilla-La Mancha



On Friday, May 6th, I rode to Ciudad Real for the Conferencia de Jovenes (young people's conference) - a gathering of young people in the church. The last time I was in Spain (back in 2010) I went to one in Cordoba.



As before, we enjoyed a lot of time together eating and enjoying and I got a chance to talk with a friend who, like me, is also planning on moving to Germany in the next year.



About a week later my good friend Steve arrived from the UK and we spent the afternoon at the castle in my pueblo. The next day we went to Restaurante Castilla for a solid Spanish breakfast of Chorizo, pigs ear and other rich, oily meats. We then headed over to las Lagunas de Ruidera (the lagoons of Ruidera) - a group of lakes famously depicted in the story of Don Quixote.



Next we had lunch at a nice roadside restaurant on the way over to the waterfalls of el Nacimiento del Rio Mundo (the birth of the world river) - one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Spain.



Finally, after wandering in the forest for hours trying to find the entrance to the cave at the top of the waterfall, we had a nice lamb dinner in a restaurant near our campsite. We made sure to leave a "propina" (tip) even though the custom is really not that big in Spain as of yet.



The next day we had another fantastic roadside food experience (lots of oily, meaty goodness!) on our way to Cuenca. Upon our arrival we first had a look at the Casas Colgadas (hanging houses) and Casco Antiguo (old quarter) before making our way over to the trail head at the other side of the valley.



It was a reasonably brief hike (about 30-40 minutes) up to a rather large statue at the top then we hurried back to Casco Antiguo to meet up with Laura and Jonathan at a cafe. Finally, we went to Museo Antonio Perez to see some artwork.



We were both particularly fond of the works of Bosco Sodi (above). He glues sawdust to canvases and pours paint down them to get images that often resemble forests or sometimes something more elemental like lava or water.



Back in Belmonte we had another very nice meal, this time at at La Muralla (one of the main restaurants in town), and, the next day, Steve headed off to the airport for his flight home to jolly old England. Overall, the trip was a complete success and, aside from a bit of rainy weather and slightly inadequate sleeping arrangements at the campground, we couldn't have asked for better conditions. Okay, some signs pointing us to the cave might have been nice but, then again, getting lost is part of the fun!