Marrakech Fresh: a snapshot of merriment and matrimony

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I am still floating in a sea of euphoria from this most recent trip to Marrakesh. The wedding of a dear friend helped guide me to Morocco, a country long my “to visit” list. The short but amazingly beautiful trip was filled with joy, laughter, colors and great company.

As characterized by many of my previous trips, my planning was last-minute as I set out to book flights, lodging and everything else in between. Equipped with the name of the venue and date/time of ceremony, I managed to pull it together in time. I arrived in Marrakesh late evening after a series of red-eye flights and was thankful to see the sanctuary of a Riad where I stayed after a trek through a maze of convoluted and dubious alleyways and side streets within the old Medina of Marrakesh.

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The wedding was of course the highlight of my trip; set in a beautiful courtyard of a quaint Riad. It was quickly populated by close friends and family, brightly dressed with even brighter smiles that illuminated the ceremony. A testament to the bride and groom whose bond brought together such positive energy and an amazing group of people to share in their union.

The following few days were marked with excursions with friends around Medina and areas surrounding Jma El-Finaa. With friends as expert hagglers we traversed the markets, finding bargains and trying desperately to resist the urge to scoop up all the colorful ware and take it back to our respective homes. Weary and tired of lugging trinkets back to family, I managed to make a few modest purchases.

The  electric energy of the group gathered for this wedding, gave the entire trip the aura of being a lucid, effervescent and somewhat psychedelic dream. The Cafe de France facing the main square of Jma ElFinaa was the de facto meeting point, where friends who were scattered around various riads and hotels, would gather, meet up and make plans for the day. Long days of excursions would be followed by extended lounging sessions at the rooftop of La Salama, which provided great panoramic views of the main square. Where as dusk settled, and the scorching heat began to simmer down, this square was transformed into one of the largest performance stages for a menagerie of acts incorporating monkeys, snakes, musicians, and acrobatic performers. Having entered La Salama during daylight hours, we emerged to find a completely revamped circus of sorts. A sensory overload experience, which was heightened if we had been drained of energy from a day filled with wandering around the markets. This buzz of magnetic energy would be transferred to multiple lounging sessions well into the morning hours in the rooftops of riads of friends. All throughout there was a communal feeling of wanting to soak up this energy and bottle it up to carry us through in our respective homes.

A favorite pit stop was the Jardin Majorelle. I still dream of that vivid “Majorelle Blue” color and how I can surround myself in its captivating and warm embrace. These gardens are a  pleasant and welcome pop of color from the earth-tone, sepia shaded colors of the medina (barring all the goods of in the markets).

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Making plans and mobilizing this large group was no easy feat, but I look back at these events with nostalgia. Even these happenings could do no wrong to put a dent in the beauty of this trip and the gathering of this large family. It was a beautiful reminder that there is the family we are born into and the family we chose, carefully collect and hold on to throughout our lives.

Thank you E&B for allowing me to be part of such a joyous milestone in your lives and giving me the opportunity to meet and connect with so many beautiful spirits.

Ecuador: trekking Paseo del Condor

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fogEcuador is a country that never fails to disappoint in terms of nature. Quito itself is stunning, from which ever way you look you are reminded that of lush greenery and snow-capped mountains. Although my stays were mostly limited to Quito there are plenty of day trip trekking and hiking options. I’m grateful for friends who share this passion and have taken me to on breath-taking hikes and treks within short drives outside of Quito. We took this trek out for a friend’s birthday.

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On this most recent day hike, we set out early morning while a thick layer of fog blanketed the valleys on the trek named Paseo del Condor. Sadly we did not see any Condors on our trek but the scenery of seeing the thick curtain of fog lift and the view of golden valleys can not be put in words.

The afternoon trek was difficult at times as we traversed at altitudes well above 3000 m but became manageable overtime. We took the opportunity to lay on the soft (albeit wet) golden grass for a bit of a rest and to refuel on energy.  It was a great celebration with friends and undisturbed scenery.

A great way to ring in a new year for this friend.

Growth and Evolution of Thought

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It’s hard to believe that I started this blog more than 6 years ago. It began as a humble project to keep my family and friends informed of my travel rather than repeating the same banter over individual emails about my happenings and reflections. To this day it remains a very loose outlet for me to continue to document my travels and thoughts. In the midst of work and what seems like endless travel, I must admit periodic attention to this blog was pushed to the back burner. That said, words of encouragement from friends and the occasional passerby have, at times, reignited my motivation.

Having fallen into yet another bout of neglect, I was drawn back to this blog by a series of comments left on a post that I had written several years ago. That set me on a trip down memory lane, as I went back and reread many of my old posts, spanning several years. The process was surprisingly entertaining and eye-opening. At times I laughed as I remembered particular situations associated with anecdotes I wrote about, while at times I cringed at my simplistic explanation of a particular event. That got me thinking about how my thought process has changed through the years. It also got me to reflect about the various influences in my life that have helped me to grow and evolve…for the better.

Growth and evolution of thoughts is a beautiful thing. I’m glad that inadvertently this blog has helped me chart these changes. It also helped me reinforce the importance of writing. A dear friend, gifted me a beautiful journal before I embarked on my travels in South America before starting this blog in 2007. Up until this point, I filled that journal with endless stories of travels, notes to help me remember certain events and more importantly my emotions throughout that period. In many ways the process of journaling motivated me to start this blog.

And so it continues….

Aside

Water an afterthought in dash to cash in on Ethiopian markets

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I ran across an article titled “Coming Soon to Ethiopia: Heineken and KFC?” a few days ago through Mashable via Businessweek. The article highlights Heineken’s entry into the Ethiopian market through the purchase of 2 local beer company and development of a large Heineken brewery on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, near Ambo. The article goes on to note that other multinational companies such as Yum Corporation are exploring expansion into Ethiopia.

The story of Heineken, which is not breaking news by any means since has been in development for the last few years, is of concern nonetheless. In the frenzy to attract direct foreign investment, basic questions related to availability of resources- water namely have been absent from national discourse. The location of Heineken’s new brewery is in direct competition for water resources, mostly groundwater, with other industries such as Ambo Sparkling water as well as domestic water supply sources for Addis Ababa and commercial agriculture in the area.

The entry of Heineken into Ethiopia has been received with mixed emotions and has been mostly scrutinized from financial and economic viability angles. Very few have questioned that this brewery that will require large quantities of water, a finite resource in the area. Although Ethiopia has been endowed with plentiful water resources, the Ambo area, which falls in the Awash River Basin, heavily relies on groundwater sources. The city of Addis Ababa also relies on the same groundwater sources for domestic water supply. Both Addis Ababa and Ambo, which are geographically located in the Great Rift Valley, sit on stratified groundwater aquifers. Due to complex geology and expense to carry out technical studies,  limited information is known about the characteristics of these aquifers and available water resources. To meet domestic water supply demands, wells are being dug deeper and deeper, adding to the cost of new water source development and increasing the cost of operation of maintenance due to the use of pumps to retrieve water from deep wells.

As water demanding industries such as breweries expand in the area, Addis Ababa and its surrounding communities face increased risk of land subsidence, as well as complications to already strained domestic water supplies. So with the introduction of Heineken in stores and bars across Addis Ababa, beer maybe plentiful in the coming months, drinking water in the coming years may not.

Businesses such as Heineken, need not take availability of water resources for granted, given that they must share this resource with many other sectors. Also, given the scale of investments going into these breweries, detailed groundwater investigations that can shed light on groundwater sources and better inform water resources planning are a cheap investment for private sector and a public service to Ministry of Water and Energy.

Given that the scale of this problem will be exasperated in coming years, as the population of Addis Ababa mushrooms and industries in the area grow, I hope that much greater consideration for water resources and implications of overdraft are considered more seriously.

Traversing through Kerala: Backwaters and beaches

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A very late post, with uploaded pictures from a trip to Kerala.

The highlight of my brief stay in Trivandrum was repeated trips to the India Coffee House. An institution, which is reminiscent of the tiffin house revolution that swept through the country. Tasty treats and chai spiced to perfection, kept drawing me back to this uniquely-built restaurant.

I wandered around across Trivandrum and managed to hop on trains to get up north. In retrospect, I count myself very lucky to have managed this trip with little planning. My philosophy going into that trip, is that plans were most likely going to be foiled with delayed trains, and no prior bookings at bed and breakfasts or reserved train seats. It took me a while to realize that first and second class seats for trains had to be booked weeks in advance. That only left me with the option of taking general class seating cabins, where if you are in luck, you may find a few inches of a bench to sit on. I was lucky my first round, in that I found a group of co-ed students riding the same train. They gave me a lot of helpful tips. They got off a few stops before I did. With their departure, I realized that very few women travel in these compartments on their own. Given the recent headlines of violent crimes and attacks on women across India, I found myself reflecting more and more about this trip and how lucky I was to have traveled in relative peace. It took me 2 train rides to realize that there is a female-only train cabin at the end of each train.

Kerala’s backwater are stunningly serene. Way of life meanders leisurely as do the waters of the intricate matrix of man-made and natural lakes and canals that make up this extensive network of backwaters. Depending on where one goes in these stretches of backwater, scenery evokes memories of the Louisiana Bayou or Venice. In another stroke of luck, I met two other travelers who had booked small boat rides from town to town across the backwaters and I managed to tag along. The ride in the small boat allowed us to go through many of the small canals that can’t be traversed by large, tourist boathouses. It was a tranquil trip with plenty of opportunities for bird watching.

After a few days of moseying along the backwaters, I took a train up to Fort Cochin. The old fort, still retains many of its colonial influence with borrowed flavors from Portuguese, Chinese and a myriad of traders who passed through. Most eye-catching installations were the Chinese fish nets with gigantic tentacles protruding to the sky. The mammoth contraptions, a dying breed, are still used today across the port of old Kochi. Rising early before dawn, I went by down by the docks and witnessed fisherman heaving ropes and maneuvering the gigantic nets.

The rest of Cochin is steeped in British colonial architecture and customs. Thankfully Keralan food did not fall victim to British cuisine influence. Spicy, eye-watering dishes were a welcomed treat. I loved the food so much, I even took a cooking class to learn how to infuse so much flavor into curries and bought a bunch of spies to experiment with when I got home.

Sadly time and complicated travel logistics did not give me an opportunity to visit Munar and the famous tea plantations of Kerala. After a week of what turned to be a great pack backing trip across Kerala, I boarded a flight from Cochin and headed for 4 days of wedding festivities in Bangalore.

Bogotá: The Writings on the Wall

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I had the opportunity to visit some dear friends in Bogotá this past summer. The trip left a lasting impression on me and I could not immediately write about it. As most new visitors to the country, I was thoroughly intimidated by Bogotá’s hostile streets and notoriety for violent attacks. What I encountered was something far more welcoming.

The city’s warmth is buried deep inside beneath layers that shield from the mostly chilly, rainy weather and street crimes. At the core, my time in Bogotá was filled with joyful family gatherings around food and music. What struck me the most was how the city has embraced its art for the masses. Visual art is displayed on every inch of available space. From large murals, to poles, signs, you name it, it’s been tagged, bombed or painted.

The talking walls of Bogota run the gambit from playful banter to militant warnings. In the process telling rich stories of Colombia’s dark side and hopes for the future. World renowned graffiti artists call Bogotá home and have made it clear by displaying their masterpieces on the city’s walls. From Rodez, a 50 year old who creates stunning surreal visuals with his two children to Stinkfish who is known for his incorporation of cartoon fish in his work. Thought-provoking female graffiti artist Bastardilla creates larger than life murals that touch on subjects such as femininity and sexuality. Along with these solo artists, there numerous crews such as the APC (Animal Poder Crew) create prolific stencil work highlighting social injustices.

Peru: zipping through the Sacred Valley

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For those wanting to experience Incan history and aren’t planning to undertake the traditional 4/5 day trek through the Inca trail, then the other options include hoping through the modern day colonial towns that were integral routes to Manchu Picchu. For most, the journey starts in Cuzco and the final destination is Manchu Picchu. Having made the journey to Manchu Picchu we also wanted get a flavor of the Sacred Valley. Sadly having witnessed the splendor of Manchu Picchu, the awe of the ruins in these town paled in comparison. My goal was to get a sense of the charm of these small colonial towns. We thought the hoards of tourists in Manchu Picchu were annoying, well sadly these bused masses made it somewhat unbearable to traverse around these towns.

Guided tours pass through constantly, providing a very shallow and curated tour of the towns and the surrounding ruins. Thankfully we got to spend a bit more time to roam around and see a little bit beyond the ruins. Otherwise, most tours stop for a few hours and then move on to the next town. In our stop we visited Pisac, Oyantaytambo and Chincero. The perfectly manicured agricultural terraces in Pisac were beautiful. To see the precision and science that went into their creation and how each was specifically utilized to grow different crops. Oyantaytambo was the busiest town. As the starting point of most Inca Trail expeditions, it definitely resembled a packbacker dive spot. In every corner stood pizza restaurants and tourist agencies.

All in all the visit through the sacred valley made for some great people watching activities. With the mix of tourists from all around the world and souvenir markets all over these towns, it was interesting to see the haggling process and the interaction in general. It was also great to get a sense of how large this ancient empire stretched. If one has the time, I would definitely recommend straying away from guided tours and exploring these towns at a more leisurely pace.

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Peru: mad dash to Manchu Picchu

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I realize that the heading on this post does not do these amazing locations justice. With limited time and realizing that I had to tone down my adventures due to knee injury from a few years back, unfortunately I could not handle the intensity of the full Inka Trail trek or it’s more wilder version, the Jungle Trail. Having resigned myself to this decision, I did not want to feel fully defeated and I could not accept seeing Manchu Picchu from the relative comfort of train and bus. This is one place in particular,where I felt that I had to earn my entry.

I for one am a fan of solo travel and in instances like these it was relatively easy to find trek mates who wanted to go at my pace. I met another solo female traveler who stopped by the language school for 2 weeks as she traversed South America. She too having suffered serious injuries in the past that left her hip/knees in bad shape, could not take on intense hikes but did not want a “free ride” to Manchu Picchu. So that settled it, having found a trekking partner, we set  out to find the best means of getting some moderate trekking, while realizing the limitations of our bodies.

With tour agencies and touts aplenty around Cuzco, it was a headache to sift through and find a decent agency that won’t over charge and provide basic services. The takeaway from this research was to find out hidden costs, what packages actually include (transport, lodging, meals, if so, how many meals, and equipment rentals). Thankfully, my trek-mate Alli did most of the legwork and haggled for a great deal.

We headed off on an early morning bus from Cuzco to Hidroelectrica. From there were trekked to the town of Aguas Calliente. This short trek was a breeze and at this point, I was feeling confident that the remainder of the trip will not be as bad. I didn’t realize what was in store. After a few hours of rest we eagerly got up at 4:15 and walked out-of-town to cross the bridge and begin the hike up to Manchu Picchu. Our adrenaline rush was quickly squashed when we realized the gates to cross the bridge and enter the national park do not open until 5. So we moped around, half asleep disappointed that we can’t just get on with our trek.  Finally on the trail, I quickly realized how out of shape I was. Despite being reasonably fit, and using a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation, I was quickly humbled by the steep, uneven steps and high altitude of the trail. I nearly puked, despite having no food in my system.

Despite the arduous climb, after reaching the top, the walk around Manchu Picchu was well worth it. It was well worth it to make it up to Manchu Picchu before sun rise, to witness as the veil of fog lifted to reveal spectacular views of the ancient empire. After a one hour guided tour that gave a bit of insight on the historic site we ventured on our own. I realized that if I were Peruvian, I would be annoyed and disappointed by the portrayal of these historic ruins. Much of the credit is given to Yale Professor for “discovering” the site. Little mention is noted that an 11-year-old boy guided him to this location, so clearly many people in the area knew of its existence.

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As the hoards of buses started to arrive, the site quickly became crowded. From there we decided to hike up to Mount Manchu Picchu towards the Sungate, which is the trail that is used by most trekkers on the traditional Inca Trail to enter the ancient city. It was nice to escape the crowds and the view was spectacular. The views were overwhelmingly beautiful and I was left in awe of the mite needed to erect this ancient city in such an isolated and difficult terrain. The climb back down to Aguas caliente was equally difficult, given the late afternoon heat.

bottom line, despite the express trek… the trip was still simply spectacular.

Cuy, Cobblestones and Cuzco

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I touched down in Cuzco, hoping to take some Spanish classes and take in the history of this city and its surroundings. Having picked up conversational Spanish many years ago in my travels across Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, I was forever marked with the distinct accent, primarily the insertion of “shhhh” for “y” and “ll” sounds. Killing two birds with one stone, I settled on Cuzco to get some formal Spanish classes and some trekking.

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Hoping to get the most of out of my 2 weeks, I opted to stay with a host family. In retrospect that was probably the best decision I made. Despite my reservations, it was also a really great learning experience. My initial interactions included a lot more gesticulation than actual words as I racked my brain for words to express my thoughts. It was frustrating as I pieced together and mentally translated my sentences, words in other half-learned languages would pop up instead, eventually drawing a blank. Thankfully within a few days my vocabulary was quickly coming back.

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Having come from Quito, another city with relatively high altitude, I naively thought I could quickly hit the ground running once in Cuzco (around 3,500 m above sea level). To my surprise, I was rudely welcomed with “Soracha” (altitude sickness). That was my cue to take it easy and sleep for nearly 16 hours to acclimate. Some cocoa tea helped ease the transition as well.

 The city of Cuzco, stands as a stark reminder of Spanish conquest. The ancient Incan city was dismantled to pave way for Spanish colonial town. An ornate church stands atop the ruins of each Incan temple or sacred sight. The narrow cobblestone streets and remnants of impeccably built walls stand as haunting reminders of the capital of the Incan empire. The city radiates from the Plaza de Armas, which was brought to its knees during an earthquake in 1950s, surprisingly Incan structures that could not be destroyed by the Spaniards stood their grounds as the city crumbled from the powerful tremors.

Walking the streets of Cuzco, I was left thoroughly conflicted. It was evident that the vast majority of those living in the city made a living of some sort of tourism related trade. Women, overly-dressed in traditional dresses totting dressed up sheep or llamas posed for a string of visitors in exchange for a few pesos. At every corner, hawkers pushed flyers in your face about tours, restaurants, treks. I was thankful for the tranquility for my host family’s house, where it was a bit comforting to discern from the tourist traps and have genuine discussions about Cusquenan life.

During my stay, I roamed around the city in the few hours of free time beyond my all day intensive Spanish classes. I quickly found my way back to the Cocoa Museum for a lovely cup of hot chocolate or their amazingly decadent brownie. Exploring the neighborhood of San Blas was also a highlight. Having to climb an endless amount of cobblestone stairs, and being thoroughly winded at the top is worthwhile to visit the many art galleries and take in the amazing panoramic view of the city.

Despite the outpouring of tourists around the city, wandering the small alleyways, I got to take in the charm of this city. I was definitely quite the unconventional tourist around these parts. I attracted a lot more attention from Cusquenans. It helped me start many friendly conversations. It seems that hijabi-clad, black-arab women are not their everyday type of tourist.

I did not have a single disappointing meal throughout my stay. Cooking at home with the family was wonderful, and getting to explore so many new ingredients. I was not brave enough to try cuy (guinea pig), although a few friends that I had made during my stay raved about it. As an added bonus throughout my stay, I picked up a new knitting stitch, that the grandmother at my host family taught me.

All in all, despite the two weeks, I felt that it was still too short. I was just beginning to scratch the surface and find out what makes this city truly tick.

Peru: La vida Andina

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Peru: La vida Andina, a set on Flickr.

A glimpse of Cuzco, Manchu Picchu and the sacred Valley (Pisac, Urubamba, Oyantaytambo and Chinchero)