Enough with the Plastic

The most disturbing part of our time in Morocco has been seeing the proliferation of trash littered everywhere. In city streets, country roads and even in the remotest parts of the Sahara. I keep wondering whether any groups organize “clean up days” the way we do at local beaches and such. If so, they may get added to my favorite charity list.

As we sat on the train racing from Marrakech to Casablanca, I pulled open my curtain to look out on open fields. As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight, I was saddened as I realize the landscape is dotted with plastic bags.

When we were in the Sahara, we stopped in a small palm grove for a picnic. We were disappointed that within a campfire site people had left their trash. Cans, bottles, etc. Even as we visited Erg Chegga, one of the remotest dunes in Morocco, our guide found (and thankfully picked up) a plastic bag.

In the states, particularly in California, we teach our kids the “leave no trace” ethic when in the wilderness — what we carry in, we carry out. We’re pretty obsessive about recycling (I have not seen a single recycling bin in Morocco). And more and more, we’ve stopped buying water in plastic bottles — drinking from the tap and even making our own sparkling water. That, of course, has not been possible in Morocco, but even in Europe it was hard to get plain old tap water in a restaurant (only one restaurant in France offered it).

Not sure whether it’s a sense of guilt over my own contribution to the problem, or worry about the impact of all plastic that I’m seeing everywhere, but it’s weighing on me. As we were packing up our tent and getting ready to leave the desert, I picked up two empty water bottles. I looked at Jeff and asked what we should do with them. He voiced what I had been feeling: “I’d like to take them all the way back home to make sure their recycled.”

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Sunrise on the Dunes

So, yesterday after arriving at our camp after the sandstorm, we hoped that the wind would die down enough to allow us to take a camel trek out to view the sunset. No such luck. There was enough wind and sand kicking up to obscure any view.

In fact, we learned over dinner that another guide had gotten lost in the sandstorm. Our guide and some others went out to try to locate them. We got a report this morning that they were finally able to locate them at about 3am. I can only imagine how panicked the tourists in the lost car were!

I know I’m grateful that we got safely settled into our camp, even if we didn’t get to see the sunset. fortunately, later in the evening, the sky cleared and we were treated to an amazingly starry sky. There were only six guests total at the camp and after the others (including Jeff) went to bed, I went out and did a little meditation and yoga under the stars. It was so quiet and peaceful — something I’ll always remember.

Then, this morning, to make up for our missing the sunset on the dunes, we were escorted by camel out to the dunes to watch an amazing sunrise. Pictures don’t do it justice, but it will give you a taste of what we saw.

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It’s a Small World (and Getting Smaller)

No, we haven’t added Disneyland to our trip.

Throughout our trip, it’s been hard to miss how much Western culture, particularly American commerce, has infiltrated life at every stop. In some locations, it’s been the prevalence of American brands — from Nike to McDonald’s. But even in this remote part of the world, it seems like no corner of the world is immune from the influences of other cultures.

Today, one moment in particular made me laugh to myself.

As we drove through a small Anti-Atlas village, our Bedouin guide pointed out the local cemetery. As he explained Muslim burial practices and the practice of praying for all buried in the cemetery (not just your loved ones) when you visit, I suddenly became distracted by the fact that he was doing this while driving a Toyota 4×4 and listening to the Gipsy Kings rendition of Hotel California.

It all came together as a strangely appropriate combination.

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Craving a Good Geology Lesson

We’ve been driving for the past three days through Morocco. We’ve seen bits of the Atlas Mountains, Anti-Atlas and Western Sahara. I’ve been struck at every turn by the geological similarities to the American southwest. At times, if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that we were in Southern Utah or even Nevada.

It’s a strange reminder of the fact that the continents were all squished together once. Makes me want to better understand how the plates separated and moved and what used to be joined where.

Then today, as we bumped our way through the Sahara Desert, our guide stopped in a field of black rocks. He pulled out a bottle of water and started pouring it on certain rocks. What appeared was unexpected and one of the highlights of the day: sea fossils. It was so unexpected in the middle of a desert, but again a reminder of the region’s geological past.

It’s beyond cool to be standing in the middle of a desert and be able to see and touch the fossil evidence that this part of the world was once under the ocean.

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Sandstorm in the Sahara

“It looks like we have made it through that sandstorm,” our guide informed us.

The sandstorm itself was like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Having grown up in the Central Valley of California, we often had what were called “foggy day schedules.” A late start to the school day to let the tule fog burn off a bit. If you’ve ever driven in a tule fog, you know it hangs low to the ground and severely limits visibility. Best thing to do is to keep your eyes on the tail lights in front of you and hope that they don’t drive off the road.

I thought of that in the sandstorm. The visibility was near zero, but there were no tail lights to follow and in fact, there wasn’t even a road. We were about 90 minutes into off roading in the Sahara, headed toward our camp. We’d reached the region where Lake Iriki used to exist, before the river that fed it was dammed and diverted.

The wind picked up and started to swirl. It ran like water down our windows. I had no idea how our driver could see a thing, but he clearly knew what he was doing, and being naive about the dessert, I assumed this was a common occurrence, so I let the sound of the wind lull me into a light sleep.

Once the wind died down a bit and he let us know it looked like we’d seen the worst of it. I asked how often storms like that occurred and he shook his head and said that he hadn’t seen one like that since last April.

Now we are settled into our camp. It’s still pretty windy and we’re waiting to see whether the wind will die down enough to allow us to go out on a camel ride without getting completely barraged with sand.

Until then, Jeff’s gone in for a nap and I’m hiding away from the wind in the dining tent drinking tea (officially drinking “tea in the Sahara”) with my new companion, a cute little tabby cat.

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8 Things I Loved in Portugal

It’s been a more than two weeks since we left Lisbon and I’ve been thinking about the things I will remember most:

1. Pastéis
Every time I go for dim sum, I’m most excited by the little custard cups you can get for dessert. I’ve even found great little bakeries in the San Francisco Richmond district where I can buy them. In reading about Portugal before we left for the trip, I was stunned to learn that the Chinese custard evolved from a Portuguese pastry: Pastéis de nata.

These were at the top of my “must try” list and I was not disappointed. I had made a list of a number of cafés that reportedly made good ones. I tried as many as I could and was never disappointed. Then, on our last day, we made it to Pastéis de Belém — supposedly the originator of this lovely little treat.

Now, had I gone there first, every other version of the pastéis would have disappointed me. The crust at Pastéis de Belém was unlike any of the others: light, flakey layers almost like phyllo dough. The custard also was different, richer perhaps. And, since they were made on site, they arrived at our table still warm and fresh. Not sure any other pastéis will do now. I wonder if they ship?

2. Cascais
When we were preparing for the trip, Jeff only had one item on his “must see” list: Estoril and the Cascais region. For those of you who are James Bond/Ian Fleming fans, you may know that the Estoril casino was the original inspiration for Casino Royale. Additionally, in his reading, Jeff learned that this coastal region was a hotbed of spy activity during WWII. Neither of those facts really made me excited to explore the area, but this was my new husband’s one wish for our honeymoon and I was pretty sure I couldn’t refuse.

I’m grateful that I didn’t.

After arriving in Lisbon, we dropped our luggage at Traveller’s House (great hostel, BTW), grabbed our swimsuits and hopped on a train that would take us up the coast. Even once we were there, the spy intrigue didn’t pull me in, but I must say that the beaches were beautiful and inviting. After our very long flight from SFO, it was nice to spend a couple of hours relaxing on the beach and wandering the streets of a very charming town. I could imagine returning there for a beach vacation.

3. Fado
Jeff and I were both interested in hearing Fado when we were in Lisbon. Fortunately, Jeff did his research and found a great spot. We ended up in Atasca do Chico, arriving as an older man was singing. The bar was standing room only and all we could do was hover close to an open window and peer in. Fortunately, once he was done, lights came up and the crowd shuffled. We squeezed our way in and found some open seats.

As the night progressed, different singers performed. I could hear various people talk about one young woman who would slip behind the bar and then walk out into the alley. One man noted that she was an amazing fado singer. Eventually, she was up and the man was right. Her name was Inés Pereira and as soon as we had a wi-fi connection, we downloaded her music from iTunes.

I had been standing at the bar as she began singing and when she was done, I was was touched by the fact that the older man who had been singing when we arrived stood up from where he was sitting and ushered me to take his chair — not realizing that I had a chair on the other side of the room. That sweet gesture is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

4. Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurants
Our first night in Lisbon, we took so long deciding where to go to dinner that by the time we reached the place we were looking for, the kitchen had closed. Without a plan, we started wandering the streets of Bairro Alto at 11pm in search of someone who would feed us. We stumbled upon a bar called Zapata that happened to have a window full of fish. We poked our heads in and asked if they were still serving. The bartender gruffly pointed to the next room and we wandered in and found a table. A waiter (who thankfully spoke English) brought us a menu and a plate full of breads and cheeses. We decided to try Alentejana pork and clams and a shrimp dish — shrimp cooked with olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Both were great.

The next night we went in search of Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup that Jeff makes at home. We checked out the menus of about a dozen restaurants before finally finding one that had it. I’ll admit, I didn’t take notice of the name of the place, but loved that there were less than 20 seats in the place. We took it as a good sign when a little old woman came out from the kitchen, left the restaurant and came back about five minutes later with a bag full of vegetables.

Now, as for the Caldo Verde, I must say that I like Jeff’s version better, but we also tried Alentejana soup and I may have a new favorite. It was very basic: a very light, garlicky broth with toast and a poached egg. We also had what maybe the best lamb I’ve ever had. Very simply roasted with herbs and some potatoes. I do love simple food.

5. Alfama
The Alfama district is the oldest in Lisbon. Buildings with beautiful tiled facades cover the hills of this district. My one regret from our trip to Lisbon is that we didn’t find an antique tile to bring home with us. We saw some while wandering through the Alfama district, but didn’t have the foresight to get one there. Next time.

Though we were warned it would be very crowded with tourists and pickpockets, we wanted to check out the 28 Tram. Once one finally stopped at our tram stop, we climbed on board. It was packed and not very pleasant. However, we did get the opportunity to watch two trams do battle with one track. As we worked our way up the hill, we came around a corner to find a tram coming our way.

The two drivers stopped (we were never in danger), then gestured at one another a bit (apparently trying to decide who was at fault), and then us tram driver got out and backed us up to the switch. Three trams passed us going down hill, then our tram and one that came into the switch as we arrived, were able to make our way up hill.

Once we’d made it a bit further up hill, I’d decided I’d had enough of being crammed into a box with way too many people and we got off. We spent the next hour or so exploring. Wandering up and down streets, particularly enamored by the tile facades. Eventually, our legs wore out and we needed to find our way back. Jeff spotted a 28 Tram stop and fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the first — I even got a window seat from which I got to snap lots and lots of pictures.

6. Cafe Culture
We like coffee. Before leaving, I’d compiled a list of a number of cafés that I wanted to try. We made it to a couple, but most of all at the ones we went to, we got our first dose of cafe culture. Sitting down to have a coffee at any hour and just relaxing. By the time we’d got to Spain, we’d defined it as getting our cafe lizard on — hanging out in a cafe like a lizard hangs out on a hot rock.

We, of course, went to A Braisliera, which was cited in every guidebook. But we found lots of little ones too. Our favorite was a place called Pois Cafe. It was on my list due to a comment by a WSJ reader an alternative to A Braisliera and, by chance, was a recommendation of the manager at our hostel. I ordered a cappuccino (or two) there and it may be the best I’ve ever had.

7. Stairs at Sao Jorge Castle
Before finding the 28 Tram in the Alfama district, we climbed the hill to Sao Jorge Castle. The ruins of the castles were fascinating to walk through and he views of the city were stunning.

At every turn as we explored the grounds, there was another set of stairs. Some up and some down. I’ve never wanted so much to be wearing a FitBit. What I wouldn’t give to know just how many flights of stairs we climbed that day.

8. Belém
I’ve already written about Pateis de Belém, which is reason enough to go to Belém, but there is more.

In particular, the Jeronimos Monastery was remarkable. It is an amazing example of Manueline design, which apparently is uniquely Portuguese. The intricacy of the carvings and the beatyty of the archways resulted in us taking a lot of pictures. Additionally, both Vasco de Gama (the famous explorer) and Fernando Pessoa (the revered poet) are buried there.

We also walked to Belém Tower. This tower also is an example of Manueline design. Like the monastery, the intricate carvings on the facade were beautiful. Inside, we were able to climb the narrow spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower and get a sense of the defensive value of the tower itself.

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A Rainy Day in the French Alps

Yesterday, we flew into Geneva and were met by my parents to kick off a full week with them in the lovely French town of Chamonix. After a nice lunch overlooking Lac Léman, we started up the mountain. About halfway up, it started raining and it’s been raining ever since.

Truth be told, the rain is just what the doctor ordered. I’ve been struggling with a cold the last couple of days and it was nice to slow down and spend the day resting. We went into town for lunch and got to explore the town a bit. And every once in awhile, we’d be able to see bits of the mountains around us.

I’m told that when it does clear, we’ll have a perfect view of Mont Blanc from the little chalet we’re calling home this week. For now, the most I’ve seen is Glacier des Bossons, which I think is pretty impressive, but my dad tells me is nothing to write about in comparison to what I’ll see when the sun comes out.

Until then, I just plan to enjoy the time with my parents and take advantage of the time to read.

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