Fes Medina, MOROCCO

The Fes Medina is an absolute labyrinth- there’s no other word to describe it. A fantastic and deep maze with no logic or signage that winds and entraps. The smells are overpowering; some are fragrant, made with rose oils or argan oils, others are savoury like the pyramids of cooking spices. Then there’s the butcher’s and the street cats. The whole maze is alive with activity, a hive of movement as donkeys sway through the streets with their wide loads and kids dart between passageways running after a soccer ball.

Fes Medina is an ecosystem. Housing the world’s oldest university, Fes brings history to life. There’s a mosque on every corner, a food stall, and handicrafts. Silversmithing, knife sharpening, tailors, copper pot makers, the tannery.

If you’d like to return back to your accommodation, make sure you get shown around with a tour guide, someone who knows the city like the back of their hand. Otherwise, I guarantee you’ll get lost. It’s hard navigating the medina as a tourist who doesn’t speak or read French, Moroccan or Arabic. It’s also intimidating to wander alone as a young, foreign woman.

Don’t forget to haggle, try to find the hidden restaurants with rooftop views, and catch a glimpse inside the residences if you can. There are private oases hidden behind the tall dark walls and you’re lucky if you get to see into one.

 

 

 

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The Medina in Fes is a labyrinth.

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Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

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Sri Lanka for beginners – 3

Instead of the typical wake up call from the city, the call to prayer, the blare of horns, we were treated to a different kind of cacophony. Up in the mountains, 1300 feet above sea level are all kinds of birds, all screaming at the top of their tiny lungs to herald the dawn. I think I heard each and every one as the sun swept out the carpet of stars.

Breakfast was a fantastic platter of fruits and hot foods and sweet breads and coffee. We amused ourselves until we decided to go for a walk to Melheim View Point. As we trekked through the trees, I kept turning back to see clouds descend over the mountains. The sun was bright and fierce in the sky, and yet we could both feel the light sprinkle of rain from somewhere above us. Mist raced down the mountains swallowing whole trees as it climbed.

They were still a long way from us, though. We had enough time to reach the view point and gasp. A panorama. True beauty. The horizon was just layers of blue, shades of distant blue, causing you to stop and think hard- is that an outline of mist rising from the valley, or is it a a mountain peak?

Around midday, we traveled to Ella. There, we walked through a tea plantation, past the cows that grazed on the weeds there (milk tea perhaps?) and up an almighty set of stairs that reached into the sky. Mini Adam’s Peak is no mean feat. It’s not terribly intimidating, but when you’ve got a staircase that has no end in sight, and your thighs burn, and you weren’t aware that it would be this much effort, you’ve got to dig deep into your soul and push through.

True majesty awaits at the top of Mini Adam’s Peak.

Stray dogs curl up in holes they’ve dug for themselves in the shadow of a serene golden Buddha. Perhaps they’re guardians.

The hills roll through emerald and moss greens. Ochre roads cut into the mountainsides like veins. Ella Gap is deep and lush, dropping away from the cliff and ending somewhere far below. As the sun peaks through thunderclouds, a bruised grey brewing fast, light spills over the mountain range. The colours are vivid. And then they’re gone.

We trekked back down, a journey much easier than the climb up, then made our way to a nursery for some tea. Sri Lankan tea, served with milk, is not bitter. It is light and refreshing and it is best enjoyed slowly, surrounded by succulents while peering our over the valley. That, is the perfect cup of tea.

Before dinner, our driver checked the train timetable and saw that the Blue train, the very same that carried us from Gampola to Haputale, would be passing through the Ella Gap and the famous Nine Arch Bridge in precisely 45 minutes. We had to go. Take that paved road up past the lake to a fork in the road. You must take the left, do not go right. Walk until you see a small shop but do not stop there. You can buy things if you want to, but I suggest you don’t. Keep walking until the tuk tuks. There will be plenty. When you see them, take the stairs straight down and follow, follow until the train tracks. Be very careful. There is a viewing area. Watch the train.

So we did. We followed these instructions carefully and picked up a few other confused tourists along the way. Some Germans, who nearly took the wrong path at the first fork joined us as we made our way to the bridge.

Sri Lanka has been voted number one for Lonely Planet’s Top Travel Destinations in 2019. It feels like it’s on the cusp of a boom, but it’s not there yet. The path we took down to the bridge was a little goat track worn down over time by tourists and locals. The little shops along the way were shacks attached to homes, and they sold bags of chips or bottles of water. Some charged to show directions to lost foreigners. It seems as if tourists have been told to come to Sri Lanka, but noone’s told the local people that we’d be coming. Residents scramble to make the most of the tourist influx. It’s raw and exciting. In fact, I sighed in relief that there was no escalator down the mountain, no Starbucks or McDonalds or wifi. The infrastructure and corporations haven’t come here yet, and nor should they.

Tourists flock to the most instagrammed bridge in South Asia, like seagulls to a bag of chips. They set up Go-Pros between the rails to capture the train passing over. They sit poised, ‘candid’ on the guard rail, swinging their legs over the chasm. They offer a king coconut husk to the bareboned dogs who aren’t the least bit interested.

5:30pm, the train leaves from Ella.

5:40pm, the train crosses the bridge.

Right on time, a brrraapp echoes through the valley and the train is heard before it is seen. Two headlights push through the darkness of the tunnel and out comes the Blue Train, charging through over the bridge, waiting for noone. There’s a clap and a cheer, and then it’s gone from sight, rails thundering through the trees.

We had dinner in Ella. The town is a small strip that carries backpackers and those in the service industry. It feels like Franz Josef Glacier, a town made up of a strip of shops and transience. It feels a little bit grimey, like anything could happen here on the cheap cocktails, in the side alley tattoo parlours.

The food is good, however. “Best in Sri Lanka” said our driver, who wasn’t wrong. We tried lumprais, which is rice and ten types of curry steamed in a banana leaf and served with chutney and sambal. Food heaven.

Sri Lanka for beginners – 2

I woke up to the call to prayer from the local mosque. It was nice to hear something familiar in this city of unknowns. We headed up to have breakfast in the dining area- it’s all lovely and open plan, with panoramic views of a blue-skied Kandy. One thing I’ve noticed about Kandy is the amount of potted plants on each residence here, each windowsill and ledge. The plants spill out of the pot and reach up to the sun; orchids and bougainvillea and crepe myrtle. Such stunning bursts of colour really add a welcoming warmth to the town.

Breakfast was a delicious selection of tropical fruits; rambutan, papaya, pineapple, sugar banana. We also had scrambled eggs, rice (laced with coconut) and chutney. The meal was wholesome and delicious.

The sounds of Kandy wafted up to us as we sat on the balcony. A school marching band was parading through the streets practicing for their next sports meet. A crackly megaphone was blasting  pop songs. An anvil hitting metal, a dog barking. The overwhelming cacophony of horns blaring in the traffic. A military helicopter carrying none other than the President of Sri Lanka. It was nice to sit mountainside away from the noise.

We left Kandy and drove towards a tea factory, but not without stopping at the local supermarket first. I always love going to supermarkets in other countries, there are  minute differences in the way things operate. There was a jewelry section, a pungent fish section, a weighing station for fruit and aisles and aisles of packaged goods. We grabbed some bags of chips and left.

The tea factory smelled of woodfire. We were served a cup of tea each before entering and my goodness, the tea was light, clear, unsweetened amber and I loved it. The tea factory seemed rustic, as if the processing machines had been running since the 1940s. We were shown the difference between two camellia varieties and how they create different teas, and how to categorise the leaves into different grades- Best, Below Best and … something starting with P. I was very impressed. Did you know that there’s a machine invented in Japan that can categorise tea leaves by colour? Remarkable!

We made our way to Gampola, the town were we were to catch the train. Our host at the bed and breakfast was telling us how Gampola was his hometown and he was very proud to have us visit there. It’s small and sits in the shadow of a mountain. I probably would have walked right past the train station had I not been shown it. The station is has all the original train paraphernalia which still in use. The switch room still has a thousand levers for all the different train lines, and there’s a scale of the watermarks left by different floods since the 1930s.

The blue train came, picked us up, and jolted onwards.

We were given first class tickets, which Snidely and I were a little bit disappointed by at first. We wanted the authentic, original Sri Lankan train ride through the mountains, and instead we got a sealed capsule of foreigners, all pressing up against the window for the perfect snapshot of the tea country. After a while, however, we were happy to have comfy seats and air conditioning, so we can’t complain.

The train jerked it’s way up the mountains and through little communities on the way. We passed through tunnels and over bridges and gained speed on on the flats. I had to use sports mode on my camera to make sure the photos weren’t just a blur of green. Once you emerge from the congestion, the mountains open up to reveal terraces of tea plantations. The landscape soars and the tips of trees become shrouded in mist.

The wind picks up and clouds race the train.

We pulled into Haputale, then traveled a short distance down the mountain to a little community called Beragala. I watched rains smear from the clouds from the window. All the townsfolk had knitted beanies.

At our accommodation, we settled in, then gorged ourselves on Ceylonese Fried Rice and a hundred types of curry- all so flavoursome, all so delicious.

Sri Lanka for beginners – 1

We were supposed to land in Colombo at 11am, but were delayed for some reason, perhaps crosswinds, or maybe air traffic control coming out of Bangkok. Either way, we were slightly late to meet our driver. I desperately needed to use the bathroom and happily used the squat toilet- the very first I’ve used with a flush!

Immigration was easy enough and we stood patiently in line as a family of Russians barged through, with a small child and a green plastic bag of clothes. We paid for our visa online, so as we waited to be processed we made small talk with the Immigration officer, who had a warm smile and taught us that ‘Ayobowan’ means a lot of things, generally in the ballpark of a greeting. Snidely made nice with a woman in our row on the plane and she came up to him desperately seeking help. She spoke only Thai with not a skerrick of English, and she was trying to call for a taxi through a man who only spoke Sinhalese. I don’t know how he managed to get to the bottom of it, but through some patchy translation app and wild hand gestures, Snidely figured it out and managed to help the lady.

The drive from Colombo to Kandy is long and windy. We passed villages along the way; a strip of storefronts became peppered with derelict building projects which thinned out onto stalls covered in king coconuts and finally the landscape opened up to reveal rice paddies. Sri Lanka is so green. The humidity encourages all the plants to grow and grow and they become overgrown and muddy as the palm fronds along the main road collect dust.

The traffic is ordered chaos. Buses screech to a halt, pick up one or two saronged people  and start with a cough and a splutter of diesel. Cars navigate this at a reasonable speed and always remain in a state of overtaking, so that when they get a clear shot, they speed up and swerve in front. Add tuktuks to the mix, bleeping and coming up on the inside, you get all the threads necessary for a braid, decorating the countryside.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that put on Western pop songs, just for us. Their menu boasted submarines and steak and fries, but we were mostly interested in trying some Sri Lankan cuisine. We had rice and curry, dhal, eggplant, potatoes, an array of delicious sides and fresh rice, and prayed that we would not get sick. Although the saying goes that hunger makes the best sauce, I disagree- Sri Lankan chicken curry is pretty good too.

Our driver recommended a few stops on the way to our hotel in Kandy. Snidely and I were yearning for a unique and authentic experience that shows ‘the real Sri Lanka’, but I guess all tourists are after that as well. We chose not to ride the elephants, or smell the herbs and spices factory, or see the silk factory. We elected to wander Kandy so onward we went.

Kandy is loud. Kandy is a mess of everflowing cars and trucks and tuktuks and this is the single most intimidating thing about Kandy. The street vendors are particularly intimidating too. Like hungry hyenas they encircle and follow you, with a handful of fridge magnets or popcorn.

The streets are a mixture of dusty shopfronts, secret alleyways and colonial architecture. There’s not a lot to lure a tourist, and yet foreigners are called and waved inside (for a toaster or a wedding photography package or something?).

We agreed to a cultural dance in the evening. Only an hour of sitting in a hall that was filled with seats and busloads of us. The performers showcased dances from the local surrounds, some representing demons, others representing peacocks. The program outlined that many of these dances were traditionally performed at festivals or in rural settings. Bright, colourful acrobatics, the tinkle of ankle rings, shells and the twang of drums. We skipped the firedancing, however. We didn’t want to watch a spectacle put on just for us.

Our driver took us to see the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. This Buddhist temple sits beside the lake and is much more peaceful in the cool of the evening without the blare of traffic. We followed pilgrims through decorated tunnels, around pagodas of incense and up the stairs to the relic. There’s a half hour wait on the queue to see the casket that holds the relic (noone can see the relic itself, or as legend goes, the alleged relic). Monks from overseas stood in line, pilgrims sat all in white on the floor and prayed, others brought in jasmine and lotus blossoms as tribute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle to see the casket through three doors, so we chose to pay our respects and move on.

The bed and breakfast we stayed in was lovely. Out of the city, up on a hill, we had a panoramic view of the city lights. After such a long day, we collapsed. A beautiful hot shower and a soft mattress sent me right to sleep.

On first meeting: Marrakech

It’s late at night. Your taxi moves through a sea of people, there’s horses and motorbikes and people clogging the streets. The roads become passageways, it’s too tight for a car but your taxi competes against a mess of people and honks and blares. A handicapped woman hails, “taxi taxi” and you drive past her. Your driver mimics her voice under his breath, cursing that she only needs him when he is occupied, and can’t find a fare when he’s available. You look out the window at the chaos before you. He stops. Leaps out of the car and says: “too narrow”. He cannot drive any further. He has thrown you to the wolves.

Lotte Observation Deck and Top of Hanoi

When in Hanoi, visiting the Lotte Tower is an absolute must. It’s a short drive from the Old Quarter (where most tourists stay) and for someone unaccustomed to Vietnam see public transport, such as myself, get yourself a driver. 

Side note, the taxi fare out of the gridlocked Old Quarter is guaranteed to skyrocket so we picked up an Uber and it cost us next to nothing.

The Lotte Observation Deck sits over sixty floors above Hanoi and boasts breathtaking panoramic views. It’s open day and night. We went at night and thoroughly recommend it. For a modest entrance fee, the observation deck offers interactive experiences for people young and old. The highlight for me was the glass skywalk, where you take your shoes off and walk right out into the night sky- not for anyone with vertigo! 

The Lotte tower also offers a range of eating options, so I recommend making an evening out of the experience. At the skydeck there’s a fast food eatery or two, but if you delve a little deeper, you’ll find award winning restaurants and bars within the Lotte tower. 

Top of Hanoi is literally the top of the city. This open-air restaurant sits you up in the clouds, overlooking all of Hanoi, the twinkling traffic, the city glow. You can secure yourself a table through reservation, but we were able to walk right in. The cocktail bar is exciting and innovative, and their mains are reasonably priced given the location. We were shocked that we were sat on top of Hanoi and didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg! My friends chose pasta dishes and I had a pan-seared salmon dish- the food was to die for. The service personnel here were very attentive, friendly and ready for a chat. This venue is worth it for the food, and the magnificent views.

Afterwards, we weren’t ready to go home. We headed down about thirty floors to the lounge where we were greeted by live piano, sleek aesthetic and deep sofas. The dessert and cocktails there make for the perfect ending to a wonderful night. 

Traveler’s note; I compared this experience to a similar one I had at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. For me, this evening was much more relaxed, affordable and all-inclusive as the stunning view was paired with fine food and great service. It was honestly the perfect way to unwind and celebrate the end of our trip to Vietnam.

Wellington Cable Car, NZ

The Wellington Cable Car is such fun. It’s only a short ride to the top of the hill, but the view is well worth it. The tunnels on the way up has rainbow lights and all the kids go wild. I Loved seeing the houses on the hill, the whole neighbourhood seems so relaxed and calm. 
The view from  the top is sublime. Clear blue harbour, majestic mountain range, perfect little houses in the distance. 

We Took the train up and walked through the botanic gardens back down to the city  which was a really pleasant stroll. A must do in Wellington.

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Disclaimer: This review was also posted on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.