A night under the stars in the Sahara Desert

“You should always smile and be happy because you never know what tomorrow’s going to be like.”

That’s what our camel driver said when someone asked him why he’s so happy. His name was Said (Sigh-eed), a word meaning “happy” in Arabic. Most of us thought he was crazy, even drunk; shrieking, cackling and snorting while he laughed seemed to be his favorite forms of expression. Maybe he was crazy. But for someone to say something so profound as to change the way I reflect on life because it’s so true and so real, then there has to be some grain of sanity in his wild noggin. I’ve been thinking about what he said ever since.

The drive to the desert took nearly 10 hours. We left Fes at 7 a.m. and hit to road, driving south towards the Moroccan-Algerian border. We saw different types of Moroccan terrain as we drove through the various regions; first was the green region, called the Switzerland of Morocco. Palm trees and other green leafy plants stretched for miles in-between big, cascading mountains. The tree population started to fiddle out as we made our way higher up the Atlas Mountains.

We drove on some long, winding roads carved out of the sides of the mountains, and l’ll admit it was a little terrifying. But the views were breathtaking. Looking out of the window of the van, it seemed as though we could see all of Morocco beneath us.

We continued climbing until we reached the peak of the mountain range and then began our descent. Downwards we saw the mountains take on a different form. Our surroundings began to resemble the Grand Canyon, with stretches of roads between the canyons that reminded me of Arizona. We stopped a few times along the way to take pictures, and I’m so happy we did. Looking at views like those make me realize the world to me gets more and more beautiful every day.

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As we approached the edge of the Sahara, the land flattened out and the sun became excruciatingly hot. Thankfully, our van has air conditioning, but there only so much AC can do to compete with 45 degree heat (Celsius) and cool off 17 people. We drove along until we reached a dirt road that seemed to lead to no where but was labeled with an arrow on a sign that said “Kasbah Hotel.”

Our driver pulled on the road and headed into Nowhereland. Flat sand a stretched in front of us as far as our eyes could see. Though packed down, the sand we drove on was bumpy enough for us the be shaking and shifting in our seats for the ride, which seemed like it would take eons.

And then we saw them. Little hills in the distance. As we drove towards them, be they grew into bigger hills until finally we could see the distinct outline and height of the sand dunes. We were in the Sahara Desert.

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We pulled up to the hotel, which was little more than a motel with sand walls and no electricity. We dropped off our big luggage in a storage room and packed small bags to take with us overnight. We had arrived late, so we needed to hurry to see the sunset on camelback. Once ready, our tour guide rushed us to the posterior of the hotel where we saw two lines of camels and a camel driver and his apprentice waiting for us.

From the first moment Said introduced himself and threw his head back to cackle, we knew he was crazy. He had wild eyes and a goofy grin that permanently plastered on his face.

One by one, we mounted the camels’ backs then held on for dear life as the camels lifted their hind legs first, then their front ones, throwing us back and forth on their bodies. My camel’s back was at least eight to 10 feet tall and was the second from the front in the line. When I asked Said what my camel’s name was, he laughed and said, “Just call him, uh, Jimmy Hendrix,” and then he shrieked with laughter some more. Fine, Jimmy it was.

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Jimmy and I became hit it off as we started our trek through the dunes. Leading the rest of the pack save for the one camel in front, we bounced up and down walking up the mounds of sand. Said walked at the very front, leading the camels in the best spots so they wouldn’t have to carry us up any hills that were too steep. We were on our way to the desert camp.

Our caravan stopped at a peak to take pictures of the sunset. The sun was small, poking out just above the hilly outlines. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe how that moment felt. We were watching the sun setting behind the dunes of the Sahara Desert. Meanwhile, my friends were at home trudging through the first week of senior year. Just surreal.

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Our ride lasted a little more than an hour. We approached our desert camp and saw a bunch of tattered tents arranged in a circle. In the middle lay several blankets, creating a big mat. On the mat were few small tables wrapped tightly with waterproof table clothes. We rode up to the camp and one-by-one dismounted the camels. Most of us had already decided we’d be sleeping outside that night, so we just threw our bags in random tents but met out in the center of the camp.

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As we sat, talked and gazed at the wondrous view, Said went to work with his apprentice to prepare dinner for us. There was a small tent that served as a kitchen, where he stored and cooked the food. He told us dinner would take about an hour, so we had some time to kill.

Three others and I decided to go for a walk. Our camp was at the bottom of one of the largest dunes in the area and we reckoned we could get an amazing view from the top. We were not disappointed. The sand was very difficult to walk in; each step sank us lower and lower into the light brown terrain. Our guide had instructed us to keep our shoes on as protection against scorpions and other creatures that may be dwelling in the sand, making the hike up even more strenuous.

The others walked far in front of me and I was struggling to keep up. I hadn’t been in the best shape lately, and the lack of fresh veggies and healthy meats on the trip hadn’t helped.

My breaths were getting heavier and faster. I was thinking about just stopping where I was and looking out over a smaller dune. It would be easier and more comfortable.

But I couldn’t. I had to keep going. I had to reach the top.

It was the first and maybe only time I’d be in the Sahara, and I needed to do it the right way. So the others waited as I powered through to catch up to them. Only a few meters separated up from the peak. The thought of the view kept me going. Slowly, we reached the top and finally sat down.

The view was unreal.

Rows of intertwining dunes stretched out as far as we could see. The sky, now a deep blue color, sat like a blanket over the sand, sprinkling the view with stars. If I thought the sunset was unreal, this view was simply transcendent. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually sitting on top of that edge.

I didn’t bring my camera — and I’m glad I didn’t. Otherwise I would have been too busy looking through a lens to drink in the moment.

The four of us sat there for a while an talked about the view. Gradually our conversation evolved into stories about life. Our group was me, a 20-year-old student from Washington, D.C., a 24-year-old Australian doctor, a 30-year-old Filipino Canadian nurse and a 45-year-old midwife from Toronto. We all came from different backgrounds and experiences, but connected in that moment under the stars.

We talked about our broken pasts, shaky lives and uncertain futures. Looking out over the vast Sahara Desert, we felt small, humbled. We were all humans, all doing what we can to get by in life. And that was enough.

It was almost dinner time so we started our decent down the hill. The smell of good food met us when we approached our camp. Said made beef tajine, a dish with meat, potatoes and carrots cooked in a tajine pot. We happily ate at the small tables, filling up on the meal.

After dinner, Said and his apprentice treated us to some Moroccan music. Both men played drums and Said sang in Arabic. Being musical myself and seeing that there was a spare drum set, I asked if I could try playing along. A minute later, I there I was, beating on a drum with two Arab men in a desert camp.

I didn’t know the songs, of course, but I made up my own rhythm to complement theirs. We played for everyone for about 30 minutes and our guide rallied everyone to get up and dance. Soon though, we all felt fatigued from the day’s adventure (clinging to a camel for an hour is hard work!) and decided it was time to settle down for the night.

And then I felt a drop. Then another. I looked around to see in anyone else had felt anything. Sure enough, people were touching their skin and looking up at the sky. It was raining! Even Said showed suprise, informing us that it only rains about five times a year in the desert. How cool is that? It was a light rain, not bothersome, but enough to make us retreat into out tents.

We clambered into our tents, but then we heard a shout. Everyone ran to the tent where noise came from and saw two girls in a tizzy. One had gone to lay down and found a scorpion under her pillow. Said rushed into the tent, laughing, and captured the scorpion in a bottle — but not before he found another scorpion scurrying around his feet. There were two! He trapped both and got rid of them.

The scene caused a fuss among the campers and many felt unsettled after that. The rain had stopped, so we decided to move our bags out of the tents have a slumber party in the middle, thinking we’d be safer from desert creatures that way.

It took a while to settle back down with the thoughts of scorpion stings infiltrating our minds. It was nearly midnight then, but a few of us still couldn’t sleep. So instead we laid back and looked up at the stars. It was cloudy, hence the rain, but every once in a while, the clouds would part and we’d see the stars shine down to us. It was like every star in the galaxy wanted to be seen.

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Looking at the stars was like looking out over the dunes. It made me think again about how small I was in the scheme of the world. My problems, my insecurities, are nothing compared to the big picture. All that matters is living the best life I can. I thought again about what Said had said, making the most of the present because you don’t know what could change tomorrow.

That night I fell asleep with a smile on my face, not thinking, not caring, about what the next day would bring.

London, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Zurich: The ultimate itinerary for my trip to Europe

Euro Trip 2014 MapIs this real life? Am I seriously heading to Europe in less than one week? I’m so excited, I can’t even see straight, and I really hope I haven’t scared away any strangers as I randomly gaze off into the distance as I daydream about the trip. I’ve been planning to go back to Europe since the day I stepped foot back in the U.S. last summer after returning from Spain. I just can’t believe it’s now one week away.

I’m finally taking the time to jot down the entire itinerary of my 24-day trip through 11 cities in six countries. Primarily, I’m making the list for personal reference, but I hope my friends and family can use it track where I am along the adventure. And of course, I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to plan a fast-paced Euro trip of their own. I’m sure it will be the experience of a lifetime.

June 10th – Washington, to New York, to London

I live in D.C., but my flight to London leaves from JFK airport in New York City. So I’ll be using Megabus to get to New York (have I written my ode to Megabus yet? I’m practically married to the company at this point), where I’ll then have four hours to make it to the airport and get myself through customs. This will be my first time flying internationally alone and I’m, like, crazy nervous. But I’m so excited for this trip that I know I’ll combat my nerves with thoughts of beautiful England, enchanting Ireland, feisty Spain, alluring Italy, majestic France, intriguing Monaco… wait, what was I talking about again?

June 11th – London Calling

I’ll arrive around 10 a.m. where my lovely, lovely travel pal Sarah will pick me up from Heathrow airport and help me get acquainted to the city. She and I will be staying with her aunt in Wimbledon, and Sarah will have arrived a few days before I do, so she’ll be ready to hit the town as soon as I get there.  Sarah’s been to London more times than I have fingers, so she’ll be my personal tour guide and take me around the London bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye, Abbey road, Platform 9  and 3/4, etc. She and her aunt are being so awesome about letting me stay with them and showing me around, and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it.

June 12th – Explore London

Sarah and I will do more sightseeing and souvenir shopping early in the day. We bought tickets to Once, the musical, and will have to make our way over to the theater midday. Afterward, there will be time do more exploring after the show before we retire early to get a good start the next day for Dublin.

June 13th – Off to Ireland!

For more details, see my post: How we’re seeing Dublin in 38 hours (we might just be crazy)

Rising early, Sarah and I will take a train to the coast of England and then ride a ferry across the water to Dublin Port. The 8-hour journey will take up most of our day, but we’ll arrive with just enough time to hang out in Temple Bar and take a nighttime sigh-seeing tour of Dublin.

14th – Irish Overload

This will be an incredibly fast-paced day, with a morning 3-hour walking tour and then back-to-back visits to the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery. At night, we’ll go out like true Irish lassies and hit up a bar crawl with our fellow hostel visitors.

June 15th – Back to London for a Bit

A ferry and a train will take Sarah and I back to London, and spend the rest of the day relaxing and recovering. Sarah will be preparing to head back to the States, and I’ll get ready to start my Contiki tour the next day. But we must get one last scone together before we part.

June 16th – Head to the hotel in London to start my Contiki tour

I’ll have to check in to the hotel by 2 p.m. and then spend the evening getting ready for the tour. There will be orientation for the trip where I will meet the tour manager, chef and my fellow travelers. The checked-in travelers have a chance to go out to dinner, but we can’t get cray cray since we have to get up early the next day to head to Paris.

June 17th – Depart London for Paris

Off to Paris! We’ll begin our voyage on a ferry to France, where we’ll pass the White Cliffs of Dover. Then we’ll hop on the Contiki coach bus and travel through World War I battlefields in the Valley of the Somme to Paris.

Once we arrive at our campsite, we get to set up camp – which I’m super excited about because apparently, we’re sleeping in pairs in these cute little blue tents. I’m sure tight quarters will force us to become very close with our fellow travelers – literally. Once we have set up camp, our bus will leave for the Tour of Illuminations, which will take us around the beautiful, lamp-lit streets of Paris, passing the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Champs-Élysées.

June 18th – 19th  Explore Paris

The city of love will bring us plenty of sightseeeing to do over these two days: Left Bank, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre and more. I know the enchanting smell of French baguettes will draw me in and I’m so looking forward to chowing down on some French cuisine. Plus, shopping!! I know everything will be way expensive, but I will do my best to find a few Parisian gems to ring back to the states. Our tour also includes a trip to Versailles, France’s most well-known château, where we will explore the impressive exterior of the extravagant palace. I’ll have to make sure I bring extra memories for my camera!

On the last night in Paris, we get to experience a Parisian night out, starting with an optional dinner in an atmospheric restaurant and authentic cabaret experience, complete with can-can girls and champagne. I’m so ready to live the high life.

June 20th – Depart Paris and drive through Bordeaux

Surely tired from the previous night’s festivities, we’ll pack up our campsites and head through Loire Valley, traveling past rolling vineyards and chateaus. On our way to Spain, we’ll stop in Bordeaux and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed St. Emilion, with its fortified medieval city.

June 21st – Biarritz and Pamplona

Leaving Bordeaux and heading south, the bus will stop at the beach resort of Biarritz, known for some of the best beaches and surf in Europe. Since I’m not a huge sun-bathing person, I’ll probably spend most of my time in Biarritz hitting up the coastal shops and boutiques. Apparently, Biarritz has great beach fashion and locally made linens and regional produce like hams and salamis.

Leaving Biarritz, we cross the border to Spain and spend the evening in Pamplona, the city know for the Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has an awesome Gothic cathedral that I’m sure I’ll obsess over, and amazing Basque restaurants that serve traditional foods like barbecued lamb, fresh trout and red peppers.

June 22nd – Off to Barcelona!!!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Barcelona. Already suffering from an obsession with Spanish language and culture, I can only image how I’ll soak in the incredible, vibrant colors and beachy vibe of one of Spain’s best-known cities.

So on the way to Barcelona from Pamplona, the bus will head through the Baroque city of Zaragoza, set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. We’ll stop for lunch and engorge in Spanish tapas, and get a chance to check out another amazing Spanish cathedral. Once we arrive in Barcelona and set up camp, we depart for the city just in time to hit up Montjuic, a hilltop with full vistas of the city and location of the 1992 Olympic Games complex. Then we will check out the Sagrada Família!!!! I can’t wait!

Later, we get to enjoy a night out in Barcelona, which I’m sure will be one we won’t want to tell the kids.

June 23rd – Explore Barcelona

After a morning walking tour of the city, we’ll have free time to visit shops on Plaça de Catalunya, La Rambla, Parc Güell, or hang out on the beach. That night, there will be a family dinner and optional Flamenco show, then we head out for a night out in Barcelona – part two.

June 24th – Off to the French Riviera

The rugged coast line of the stunning Côte d’Azur will capture our attention as we roll along on the coach bus, stopping for lunch in Arles.  The beautiful city of Cannes will great us as we roll along the Riviera on our way to Antibes.

June 25th – Explore the French Riviera and Monaco 

On this sunny Wednesday, we’ll stop at the Fragonard perfumery, the home of the French perfume industry. We’ll have some free time to explore the area and try some French wine and, at night, get to explore Monaco and maybe even blow some cash at the Monte Carlo casino.

June 26th – Off to Florence

Leaving France, the tour crosses over the border to Italy. First stop: the Leaning Tower of Pizza (hehehe had to do it 🙂 ). We next drive to our campsite, have a family dinner, take a tour along the river and unwind with a glass of Tuscan wine.

June 27th – Explore Florence 

We’ll hit the museum and the city centre, take a guided tour through crowded streets, and watch a demonstration of Florentine leather making. At night, we’ll have an optional group dinner  (an authentic Tuscan feast, which there’s no way I’m missing), and then head out to experience Florentine nightlife.

June 28th – Head to our last stop: Rome!

Traveling through Tuscany, we’ll leave Florence and head to Rome where we’ll set up our last campsite on the tour.  A coach tour if the city will guide us through the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, where we’ll then then step off the bus to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. With our free time later, we get to check out the Trevi Fountain or see the Spanish Steps. And at some point, obvi, we’ll  be stopping for pizza and gelato.

June 29th —  When in Rome…

In the morning, a tour guide will take us through the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Then, of course, the tour leads to the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

Free time later in the day will give us a chance to explore the city, eat more pizza, go shopping, and, knowing me, take lots of pictures. I just really want to know what it means to “do as the Romans do.” Ha.

Then, it’s our last night out! I know that I’ll have made some awesome friends during this crazy Euro adventure, and the group will want to go out with a bang. And if that predication is wrong, I’ll just go out by myself. Whatevs.

June 30th – Ciao for now Rome!

On this day, everyone packs up and rolls out. The tour ends midday Monday and we’re all on our own to transport ourselves back home. But Europe won’t be able to get rid of me that quickly. I’ll have a few more days before I head back to the States.

July 1st – 2nd – ?????

Still not quite sure what I’ll be doing these two days before heading back to London. My friend Rachel, who is studying abroad in France, and I planned to meet up in Switzerland, but that might not be possible anymore. So I will probably just be spontaneous and pick up a one-way ticket to some place I’ll want to explore before heading back to the Heathrow airport the night of the June 2.

July 3rd – GOODBYE EUROPE

Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow. I fly out from London that morning, expecting to be back in Washington, D.C. later that evening. With the next day being July 4th (U.S. Independence Day), I can’t think of any better way to feel welcomed back to my home country than with firework, hot dogs, and everything stars and stripes.

Gracias, Merci, Grazie

Hostelworld: Best site for finding reliable lodging on a budget

Hostelworld.com is the only tool I use to search for and book hostels. It has everything I need wrapped up into one convenient website. And they offer more than just hostel bookings. On the site, you can book campsites, tours, group hotel rooms and more. Plus they show you the reviews and ratings right on the page.

HOW IT WORKS

Similar to other sites, when you first visit the site, you’re prompted to enter the location, dates and type of accommodation you’re looking for:  Hostels  Bed and Breakfasts  Hotels  Apartments  Campsites.
About 4 out of 5 times, I search only for hostels, but sometimes I find that I can get a better deal at a bed and breakfast or budget hotel.

Hostelworld’s directory consists of 35,000 properties in 180 countries. Once you search, you’re presented with a list of hits that you can arrange by price, rating, availability or name. Most of the hostels have hundreds of reviews. Typically, I don’t give too much heed to reviews, since everyone has different standards, but these are pretty useful. In total, there are over 3.5 million guest reviews, according to the site.

WHY IT ROCKS

Along with reviews, Hostelworld provides general information, facility descriptions, rates, and even a map with directions for how to get to the hostel. They give you everything you need to make an informed decision on where you want to stay. Then, they have sample itineraries, local guides, Hostelworld events and a travel blog where Hostel World staffers write about awesome deals, travel tips and adventure spots.

hostelworld

Once you book, Hostelworld does the processing. For most hostels, you only have to pay a booking fee, then pay the rest once you arrive. So, if something comes up, you’re not losing all of your money. Plus, they have occasional deals and sweepstakes for extra savings. They even offer a 100% booking guarantee:

“It’s very unlikely that something will go wrong with your booking. In fact we’re so confident, that if your booking details cannot be found at check-in, we’ll credit your account with your full deposit and an additional $50 towards future bookings” (http://www.hostelworld.com/guarantee).

So basically,

I love Hostelworld.

My Upcoming Contiki Tour: The Mini Rider

I browsed through the Contiki tours and discovered on somewhat within my budget and target duration. It’s the Mini Rider, a 15-day tour through London, France, Spain and Italy. I want to see the major Euro tourist attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, London Eye, etc.– since this will be my first trip through Europe. When I go back after graduation, I’ll explore the off-the beaten path spots.

TOUR TYPE

This is a camping tour, which means I will be sharing a tent with another traveler. It’s not as glamorous as staying in hotels, but camping is more adventurous and fun– and it’s a fraction of the cost. Along that note, I am assuming my tour mates will also be adventurous and open — and hopefully as broke as I am, since they, too, chose the budget tour.

COST

The tour is $1,620 with an additional $250 for food. In total, it will cost $1,870. I didn’t purchase the traveler’s insurance, which was another cost. Luckily, Contiki has a layaway option, so I can pay two to three hundred dollars toward the trip every month, or as often as I would like. Contiki layaway also allows other people to donate money to the fund through a link that users can email to others. On that note — I am writing this post on Dec. 24 and hoping tomorrow may bring some monetary gift from my parents (I’ve been good this year, I promise!)

TRAVEL PATH

Commencing on June 16, 2014 and concluding on June 30, the tour follows a curved path though southern Europe. Travelers are to fly into London on June 16, meet the tour mates and receive a Contiki orientation, then depart for Paris on June 17 (I plan on flying into Europe a day or two early to have more time to explore there). We’ll spend a few nights in Paris, then head to Pamplona, Spain. After leaving Pamplona, we will head to Barcelona for two days before traveling back to France, along the French Riviera. We’ll stop in Monaco along the way, then embark into Italy, where we will spend a few days in Florence and then swoop down to Rome. After two nights, the tour ends, and travelers are responsible for getting ourselves home.

 

the-mini-rider-map-600x600
From contiki.com.

As many of the reviews mentioned, the trip involves a significant amount of time on the bus. As someone who spent her childhood on road trips, though (and who, even at age 20, is rocked to sleep like a baby on any mode of transportation), I am fine with long bus rides. As long as I am sitting where a video is visible, I’m set.

ATTRACTIONS

But along with those long rides, there are also tons of sightseeing and cultural immersion opportunities. These are the major sights and destinations the tours covers:

Paris

Image from wikimedia.org
Image from wikimedia.org

Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower

Louvre

Notre Dame Cathedral

Champs-Élysées

Château Versailles

Loire Valley

Pamplona & Barcelona

Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com
Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com

The Lighthouse & Bay in Biarritz

Sagrada Família

Rio Ebro

Montjuic and the 1992 Olympic Games complex

Zaragoza

Gothic Quarter

Parc Güell

French Riviera 

Image from royalcorrespondent.com
Image from royalcorrespondent.com

Côte d’Azur

Arles

Royal Palace in Monaco

Monte Carlo

Florence

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo Cathedral

Statue of David

Image from thewondersoftheworld.net
Image from thewondersoftheworld.net

Ponte Vecchio

Medici Palace

Duomo

Basilica Santa Croce

Giotto’s Bell Tower

Baptistry

Piazza della Signoria

Rome

Vatican City

Image from destination360.com
Image from destination360.com

Colosseum

Roman Forum

Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Pantheon

Piazza Navona

St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel

This extensive list of sights is, of course, paired with a list of night clubs, restaurants, bars and shops for souvenirs and nightly outings. I am beyond excited. As more plans unfold, I will be adding posts with details regarding the Contiki Mini Rider Tour!