Sunday, October 28, 2007

'Round Ireland

I've always wanted to come to Ireland and it's seriously better than I had expected! After being stuck in the desert and roasting in 40C for so long it was breath taking to see green again for a change. We rented a car in Dublin and have been traveling around the whole country taking our time, seeing and doing what we want. We've gone through lots of little towns and villages and there are so many that start with "Kill" meaning Church and "Bally" meaning town in Gaelic. Some examples are "Ballygalley", "Ballyshannon", "Ballykelly" and "Killkirk", "Killarney" and Ammon's favorite "Killinaboy". Our days have been fun filled with crazy driving, endless laughter in the car, great hosts, amazing scenery and weather.
Ever since Nepal when I first experienced a country where they drive on the left side of the road, I've liked it better. Hhaha, I may be a traitor on that but it's a completely different story when you're in the car with a new(as far as driving on the wrong...or right depending on where you're from, side of the road) driver behind the wheel! Every turn mom takes we all say " CLOSE left, FAR right!" and even though she says " I know, I know, I've got the hang of it now." It's kind of hard to relax when she drifts onto the wrong side of the road while a truck is coming around a corner. "MOM!" "Sorry! I was trying to sightsee. Oh well, I would've noticed sooner or later!" Why is it that of all people mom got to be the driver?! She's the most daring and dauntless one of us all! I have to give her credit for doing such a great job. I'll let her go into more detail on the driving in Ireland since she is the driver after all! I did write a sign "STUPID TOURIST DRIVING" (with a retarded looking, cross eyed smiley face) and stuck it on the back window with chewing gum just to warn the locals, haha. We have actually received a few comments on it and people find it pretty funny. On one of the days we passed an English family in a car and when they saw our sign in the back they wrote one for themselves and showed us as we passed them again later. It said, "WE ARE EVEN MORE STUPID TOURISTS!" It was actually pretty funny.
Our squishy 5 man car is always full of laughter and we are constantly talking over each other, gibber jabbering and making jokes.Of course, most of the time mom is just rolling her eyes at us kids (that INCLUDES dad).
As far as scenery goes, it's spectacular! I expected it to be lush and green....but our trip has been more than outstanding!
It's true there are leprechauns and rainbows here....but I have yet to find my four leaf clover!!!

Friday, October 19, 2007


Well, I didn't really expect to be experiencing culture shock but I must honestly admit I am not sure which culture I am supposed to fit into anymore. It's been at least as strange here as it was going everywhere else. Of all the places I've seen this has by far felt the most like home. The climate, vegetation (woah, green overload), smell and look of the coast (just look out to sea and not in toward the homes) and of course the food. Have I mentioned the language yet? English! Wow. But then it's pretty funny for me. Dad can't understand the accents and the girls feel wierd being able to understand others but I guess I am so used to not understanding everyone, and with the accents here, I still haven't figured out how to eavesdrop yet. My brain is just shut off to surrounding conversations. They do write a lot of signs in English and Gaelic so it is not 100% English but at least there are no more charades to buy the simplest things :)
We've been exceptionally lucky so far. Brittany and her boyfriend, Will, have been outstanding hosts. Britt also has a roommate from Sweden whos Italian boyfriend is also up visiting so we are in a very crowded flat but it is working out great. So far we have only been around the Dublin area, and north and south about 1/2 hr to see the little towns and beaches of Bray and Malahide. Very nice.
What to say, the look is very British which is quite different from mainland europe. Brick houses and lots of chimney pots. It's busier than I expected and for some reason doesn't have all the bicycles I was expecting like in so much of the rest of northern Europe. We've only had one day of rain but it is a lot colder than we are used to and we are all borrowing Britt and Will's clothes :)
I suppose the funniest thing so far is that with Britt and Will leading, dad and I got behind after one stop because we were adjusting a backpack. I was watching the group ahead and all of a sudden I blinked and they disappeared. It was so crazy. I don't get left behind, I lead! But then we totally could not find them and had no idea which way they went. Everyone looks the same! I know I am supposed to be saying that about something other than my own race but it is true. Everyone looks the same as much as the Chinese or Egyptians all look the same. We don't really think about it but I guess it's true.
The other thing you don't really notice at home but was painfully obvious to me was the sudden case of a "I need coffee" stupor in the population. Seriously. Walking around Madrid or Dublin and all of a sudden it really does feel like zombie land or something. If the world's coffee supplies ran out it would be a worse catastophe than oil running out. Imagine all the western world's population suddenly falling over dead and unable to produce. You think I'm exaggerating but.....not really. There is definitely a difference between the "I need coffee to function" and the "I am a member of a permanently stoned population" look. Both are scary. It's kind of sad to go back to cloudy skies and dark coloured clothing and nobody talking to each other. There is something happier about people lounging around on the street chatting and drinking tea. It seems so much more formal and regulated in a cafe over here. But then, there is work to be done..... It's just interesting to see. I like the efficiency and order though. It really doesn't seem that hard to organize things like garbage disposal but apparently it is to most of the world. I find myself constantly drifting onto the road to walk, definitely a dangerous habit over here!
We wandered into a cemetary the other day (mom's obsession) and we were reading off the names on the tombstones. It seems that our comments about the Muslims being unoriginal in naming all their kids one of 5 options (with most opting for Mohammed) is not limited to them. Everyone in the cemetary seemed to be named one of 5 options, most of which were John, Joseph, Mary or Margaret and all the rest were also taken out of the Bible. Where is the originality? I vow to name my children something strange (like Tilt)!
We're getting delayed here of course and we've decided that it would only be appropriate to rent a car for a week and drive around the island so on Sunday we will pick up our vehicle and see what we can. I just hope the weather holds.
PS. Phoenix park in Dublin is the largest city park in Europe (I can't see how it could not be the largest in the world) is massive. The fields are the size of small towns, complete with a couple hundred deer just hanging out.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bonus Reading

Just an announcement to say that we have some bonus reading for you guys that might be interested. I know you are all busy but Rhiis has written some blogs for us about the filming of our videos. If you have any interest in the thought process behind them, the bloopers and difficulties as well as a bunch of technical stuff then check it out. They are really good and quite interesting actually. The blogs are on our Myspace page so go to the link on the side and then go to the blog on that. Happy reading.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Another Surprise Detour

We were lucky in Casablanca because we were able to stay for two nights with a host from couchsurfing. Very nice woman with two young daughters in a cool apartment. Casablanca is the commercial heart of Morocco (Fes the religious, Marrakesh the tourist and Rabat the capital) and is by far the largest and most modern of the cities here. There isn't much for tourists to see but there is a fair amount of art deco style built in the 1920's and 30's by the French. It's not much by we walked around a bit anyway. The main attraction though is the Hassan II mosque completed in 1993. It is the 3rd largest mosque in the world, capable of holding 25,000 worshippers inside and 80,000 outside. It's a huge, solid structure with a really tall roof and a massive minaret. All minarets in Morocco are square and much less ornate and interesting compared to those in Cairo. The mosque sits on a piece of reclaimed land right on the shore and has apparently had a few problems settling. It's also brought it's share of controversy with a total cost of $1/2 billion when there are so many shanty towns all around Casablanca. It's actually much more run down and dirty than the rest of Morocco that we've seen. Probably not too surprising when this is the city that the poor are flocking to looking for jobs. It has grown considerably in the last couple decades, from just over 1/2 million after WWII to nearly 4 million now. The city just can't keep up with the influx and the poor often have nowhere to live. Of course it is still nothing compared to the problems of Cairo....
We'd decided about a week before to go on another one of our characteristic detours so we flew to Madrid for a day in transit. We had a 24hr layover and we slept in the airport, since we arrived in the evening and couldn't get a host, (heaven forbid we start paying to sleep in Europe, that's way over budget). I don't think dad was too keen on his first airport floor but the rest of us are old hats at this. The following morning we stashed our bags and head into the centre for a quick look. Wow. Talk about huge ornate buildings. You can definitely tell that Madrid was once a capital of a once rich and powerful European empire. I was surprised to see such wide streets and organized traffic. Brussels is a village compared to Madrid :)
We didn't have time to do any more than just walk around the old centre admiring the buildings, fountains and squares. I think the highlight for dad and I was taking a picture with the Don Quixote statue. Great book, great character. Funny but we all thought that Madrid didn't look "Spanish" enough. Obviously it's not going to have Mexican villas but it's funny the things you expect. That evening we caught our next flight to our surprise destination. Hint: We are looking for Leprechauns! Yep. Dublin, Ireland. The flight up was cheap and Bre's friend Brittany (who joined us in Nepal 2 years ago) offered us a place to stay so here we are trying to stay warm and dry (so far successfully). We're still working on a plan for here though. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


We went for a look around Meknes today. It was also a capital of Morocco at one point (late 1600s) though it is often skipped by tourists for the more popular tourist spots of Fes and Marrakesh. It is still nice, though I am beginning to suspect that all Moroccan cities are almost the same. There is the old medina area that is very confusing, crowded and with lots of markets, and then there's the new town just beside it that was established much more recently (often during the colonial occupation by France) and makes more sense to navigate. The difference lies in how many palaces and gates are still left standing in the medinas. Ok, not exactly true but you get the idea. I still like it. The big thing here in Meknes is the mausoleum and tomb of Moulay Ismail (1672-1727). He is considered on of the great rulers of Morocco, set up Meknes as the capital and proceeded to ruthlessly kick out all the foreign powers trying to move in on his country. He was the guy responsible for the 33 year seige of Ceuta and that only ended because he died. Meknes is also considered to have one of the best old gates in Bab el-Mansour. We spent the afternoon wandering around and trying to get lost in the medina yet again only it was really hard to get anywhere because it is so packed with people. Must be a weekend shopping binge or something. It was wall to narrow wall people (all of 4 feet across) with everyone pushing and shoving and trying to move. How anyone is supposed to look or buy anything is anyone's guess. It's not like a shop maybe 15 feet deep can hold all that many people inside. Bre has given up her mango addiction from Cairo and has moved on to bananas and pomegranites now. It is also the first time we've seen avocadoes since leaving home so we've been stocking up on those too. Maybe soon we'll be green and be able to say "Martian" when people ask our nationality :) I can't remember if I've mentioned this before or not but it is really nice to see all the kids on the streets in school uniforms again. We see them in every city here and most countries we travel through. Don't ever remember seeing any in Egypt or even a school for that matter. They must have them but it is not obvious there. Perhaps a scary sign? Today we got a bit of a shock when we were walking past the signal cannon right at sunset. BOOM!!! We were not expecting that. They signal sunset with a shot every night and then people start chowing down. Much better than the 1 hour lecture at sunset that the mosques would put on in Cairo....
Tomorrow we will move on to Casablanca for a couple days.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Theives 1 Watkins 0

It was bound to happen sooner or later and when you look at how long we have been travelling we've actually done amazingly well. Sooner or later it is bound to happen though. You get yourself targeted by the theives. The sad thing is that we were warned and are fully aware of the problems, risks and counter-measures involved. We have just been getting lazy or sloppy or cocky or something lately.
First, I want to say that there are lots of ways that you can be robbed and sure enough it was the one method that I feared the most. The one method I thought would be the only one really to be tried on us with much success and hardest to defend, the grab and run. Yep, simple as that. I suppose I better just tell you what happened though.
We were sitting in the park in Fes on our second day and since there was a lockout from the hostel until 8pm and we were finished our sightseeing, we'd been lying around resting in the park. Sunset came around and as always at 6pm the city was dead. Even the cops go home so it is the perfect time for theives. Not that theives are really that bad and I certainly wouldn't expect someone to try anything violent out here but still, we knew that it was a time of risk. We were actually getting ready to pack up and head over to get some food when a young boy ran up and grabbed a bunch of our stuff from right between dad and me and takes off like a shot. Dad's back was turned and I looked like I was reading. I saw him and took off immediately and actually scared him pretty good I think. He was not expecting such a quick reaction but I am always alert to the people around me, I just wasn't aware of what we had lying around us. He was obviously working in a group and I saw the whole thing playing out but even then they are the pros and I am not. Didn't really matter though because the kid was fast or I am really out of shape because he got away. He dropped most or all of the stuff he grabbed and we retrieved most of it but at the end of it all when we were tallying up the score it turned out that mom's camera was missing. Damn! There go all the pictures that they took since leaving Egypt. I have another camera still but there were a lot of really nice shots on that one. I tend to take the scenery shots while they take most of the people, including ourselves. Sorry, but it looks like the next couple of photo albums will be less than top quality. Needless to say we are all very, very pissed and are in need of another camera :(
We have only ourselves to blame and we intend to make it a strong learning experience as I firmly believe in prevention rather than coming up with elaborate counter strategies after an attempt on us, but we definitely could've used you there Sky.
Blame who you want but blame us too. It's funny because we'd been talking about such thing recently, especially after some of the stories I've heard about this country. I feel like an idiot newbie tourist now :( Testosterone plummets and we all sneak back home with our tails between our legs after getting whupped by a little boy.
We've now moved on to Meknes, an hour down the road from Fes and also once a capital of Morocco. Just got here today so we will go see it tomorrow.


Fes was our next stop after Chefchaouen. We arrived at night and checked right in to the HI hostel as it was the closest and cheapest option. No sooner do we get in and the guy starts warning us about all the touts, scams and theives in the city. After Marrakesh it is the 2nd biggest tourist destination in Morocco and growing daily. There are now really cheap flights on Ryanair direct to Fes so lots of newbie tourists arrive here and immediately get destroyed. We had heard lots of stories and were expecting the worst but figured we could handle it.
Actually, it turned out that we could because the hassle largely ignored us and we are still surprised at how easily would be guides and shopkeeper touts will give up with only a single strong "no". Most unusual for us of late. Fes dates back to the 8th century AD and was an early capital of Morocco. The Medina of Fes is the largest islamic medina in the world. Fes also claims to have the world's oldest university and remains a very important site of Islamic learning and influence, second only to Al Azhar in Cairo. Thus being the religious and historical center of Morocco it claims a lot of important influence. And now the tourists are here too. There is a lot to see though and some of the architectural and design work on some of the medressas is very impressive in it's detail.
Actually, maybe it was once worse or maybe it is Ramadan or just the offseason but things weren't that bad and the local authorities have been cracking down on hassle and trying to make things easier by putting up a few signs in the medina. If you haven't been through one, let me tell you, rats have it easy. These things are crazy mazes or narrow winding streets going in every direction as well as up and down hills with just about everywhere looking the same. You get lost fast. No question about it. There are lots of young guys that take advantage of this by running around rescuing tourists or offering their services as guides to find the more hidden sights and then demanding crazy "tips" for the service. We did pretty well but eventually did pick up one guy that we couldn't get rid of and he tried to cause a scene but for the most part we just laughed at him. He picked the wrong group. Anyway, there are lots of shops and we just wandered around on our own popping our heads into different workshops or just watching the tour groups pass by with disgusted faces through the butchers area. That was quality.
The most famous industry here is leatherworking and there are tons of tanneries around. They are truly the foulest smelling things ever created and I don't know how anyone can work in them. They do goat and sheep hides mostly and after washing the hides in the nearby rivers you can see them being brought into the medina and up the little streets on the back of donkeys. Everything is carried in on donkeys actually, bricks, hides, water, coca-cola, etc. The donkeys wear rubber on their feet to prevent them from slipping on the smooth stones as they are moving through the medina. The problem with that is that they can easily sneak up on you because they are so silent. They bring the hides to workshops where they coat the underside in a chalk solution so that the wool will fall of easily before sending the to be processed and dyed. That's where it gets really bad. It requires a lot of chemicals and often those can be found naturally as the whole process is still done by hand the same way it's been done for hundreds of years. Let's just say they use very large quantities of cow pee and pidgeon crap in the process and when you are standing on a terrace looking down on the giant vats to watch what is going on, you don't want to breathe, much less open your mouth because everyone is gagging. Then they dye the skins in different coloured vats with guys standing in them. Again the process is natural and uses saffron for yellow and indigo for blue and that sort of thing. We didn't stick around too long to be lectured though..... The river running through the middle of the medina comes in second place for worst smelling though it wins for the worst looking. It is easily mistaken for the local dump as everything seems to be thrown in and is piled up to frightening heights. So sad that in a country with water problems the people choose to use the rivers as dumps. It is a sad and very common theme throughout the developing world.
There is also a fair amount of pottery going on with black clouds rising up from the south of the city. They have a royal palace off limits and a jewish quarter which are called Mellahs in Morocco. Actually, most cities have them and the history of the Jewish settlements typically starts with a group fleeing from Spain and the Inquisitors. They were welcomed in Morocco, were set up in their own ghettos where their money and influence quickly helped the towns prosper. They were very influencial in the trade of precious jems, gold, silver and also salt. Mellah means salt in Arabic so there must've been a lot of it for the whole area to be called such. Of course these days most of the Jews have long gone to Israel though the different architecture of wrought-iron balconies remains.
Again, even though this is a city of over 1 million people, at 6pm there is nobody on the street. On our first full day in Fes, there was a thunderstorm coming in the distance right at sunset when everyone was disappearing and it looked like everyone had fled in the face of an oncoming natural disaster. You could've filmed Twister there or something. It was perfect. (Here I am still thinking in terms of movie sets, thanks Rhiis).

Ceuta, Chefchaouen, Ramadan

Ceuta was interesting. One of two spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast and a big duty-free and smuggling type of area from what I gather. Spanish architecture but definitely strongly influenced by the Moroccans. The population is heavily mixed with Berbers and they were definitely respecting Ramadan there as well. We were a little surprised to see almost all of the shops closed and the streets empty. Dad had wanted to go up there to look across the straight and see the rock of Gibralter, only 13km away. No such luck as it was quite cloudy and at times raining. There isn't much to see otherwise, the water is cold at this time of year and the beaches were empty. There is a small fort as well and it is hard to imagine that at the end of the 1600s the town withstood a 33 year seige by the Moroccans.
From there we went to stay a few days in Chefchaouen. It's very popular on the tourist circuit and it is quite strange to say that it feels like there are more tourists in Morocco than in Egypt. It can't possibly be true and yet there are definitely more backpackers over here so we meet a lot more people. Chefchaouen is a small town in the Rif mountains with apparently the least hassle in Morocco. We haven't found it that bad overall and if you don't count the hash dealers it is hassleless. The Rif mountains are a huge hash growing area and it is widely believed to the be inspiration for the term "reefer". There is tons of hiking in the area but we stuck to the surrounding area and enjoyed the quiet and fresh air which are still novelties to us. Chefchaouen also has a great Medina to wander through. Not so big that you will get lost and not overly crowded but very interesting. The whole town is quite clean and most has been repainted white and blue. But not just white and blue, all shades of blue in varying grades and often with very smooth steps and walls such that it looks like the whole thing has been tinted blue for a fake snow and cold effect like Disney would do. From a distance it looks great. The narrow streets and all the hills make it feel like you are going to slip or that it would be best experienced with a toboggan. Of course it was nice and sunny the whole time :) 3 nights there though and it was time to move on....
Finally tried couscous, it's a huge local dish speciality. Ramadan has prevented us from eating much more than bread and the local Moroccan soup Harira. The Moroccans seem to be pretty good about not getting offended or scowling at us when we ask for food from the local shops but the reality is that during the day most of the shops everywhere are closed and then at sunset ~6pm, everyone disappears completely and all the shops close so that people can go home and eat. You could find more people out at 4am than at 6pm. It is crazy. Then at about 8pm eveything opens up again and it is busier on the streets than it has been all day. We've only experience Morocco under Ramadan conditions so I wonder what the country is really like. Maybe it is a lot more intense normally. We really haven't been out at night with the larger crowds....