Celebrating Christmas and Ringing in the New Year

My last holiday season as a PCV had to be done big. If there is a better way to celebrate almost two years of service, you would have a hard time convincing me. (Actually, is there a better way, other than an amazing trip, to celebrate ANYTHING?!) Which is how Emilie and I settled on a vacation starting in Spain, traveling through Morocco and ending in Portugal. Two continents, three countries and eleven cities, all within two weeks. Excitement didn’t even begin to cover how I felt as I loaded up my backpack for this venture. With too many stories to cover in one blog post, I have rounded up fifteen of the most memorable moments that helped us ring in 2015.

1.When PCV’s travel here, we are required to use public transportation. This will take the form of either a furgon ( think of an old van) or a bus. When you board the vehicle, someone will take your bag and put it in the back of the furgon or under the bus. My bag has ridden next to a frozen goat carcass (on a 90 degree summer day), live animals, bags of produce, vats of wine and anything else you can imagine. On this particular trek, after six hours of traveling, I arrived in Tirana. As I went to retrieve my belongings, I had to move a live turkey out of the way. No sweat. But then as I grabbed my bag, I realized it was soaked. My first instinct was that it was covered with turkey pee. Great, I was going to start my vacation in Spain, smelling like bird urination. But upon closer inspection, I noticed it smelled like beer. How in the world that happened, I had no idea. All I knew was my backpack and most likely clothes, now smelled like a frat house. But hey, that’s better than the alternative.

Nothing a blow dryer can't fix. So ready for vacation!

Nothing a blow dryer can’t fix. So ready for vacation!

2. When I travel, I get lost. A lot. Finding hostels, or anything for that matter, the first time is always a bit challenging when you arrive in a new destination. Add the lack of English speakers to that and you have yourself a challenge. Albania has taught me, when you ask for directions, ask at LEAST two or three people. If that’s not an option, wander until you find what you’re looking for. In my experience, you will eventually get there. And as silly as this sounds, I always feel a tiny sense of accomplishment when I do. Like when I wandered around for over a half hour, asking at least five Spanish-only-speaking people, where an ATM was. Not going to lie, I was a bit frustrated. But on a side-note, I am becoming exceptionally good at charades.

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3.Sitting in the sun and enjoying the leisurely pace of Spain, we had our first taste of Sangria and Seafood Paella. It was delicious and much needed after escaping Albania.

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followed by fancy cakes of course.

followed by fancy cakes of course.

Christmas day! Our hostel had swings.

Christmas day! Our hostel had swings.

We love English

We love English

The palace in Madrid

The palace in Madrid

4. Barcelona and Madrid have these markets that I can only call a “food lover’s paradise.” We made more than one appearance at each and if you look at the pictures, you will see why.

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5. In order to cut down on travel time, we booked a cheap Ryanair flight from Spain to Morocco. Ryanair is not known for their customer service, but it’s cheap for a reason. And we weren’t picky. However, I wasn’t quite prepared to actually walk out to our plane. We should have known this was foreshadowing for our next few days in Morocco!

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6. After we made it to Morocco, we took a taxi to our hostel. Marrakesh is unlike anywhere I have ever visited. It didn’t help that we arrived in the midst of rush hour, it was CRAZY!! You could not pay me enough to try and drive there, and that is coming from a girl living in Albania. There were horses, cars, pick-ups, buses, but the wildest, were the motorcycles. Without a moment’s hesitation, countless bikes would weave through traffic or down little side roads that you were trying to walk down. Pedestrians in that city are brave souls.

henna

henna

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7. Marrakesh, and a large portion of Morocco, depend soley on the tourism industry. Because of this, people can be aggressive when they see you are foreign. We are both blonde haired and blue eyed, making it near impossible to blend in. Resulting in the full tourist treatment from locals. Thanks to living in a PC country, neither of us were newbies to the concept of harassment. I did not feel unsafe as I walked around. However, among shouts and catcalls, a woman grabbed my hand and tried to force me to buy her product. Finally releasing her grip, I walked away, unsure of what I had gotten into traveling here.

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8.Despite stories of harassment (and please keep in mind, that doesn’t mean everyone treated us this way), Morocco was easily the most intriguing country I have visited. With beautiful snow-capped mountains, land bordering the ocean, canyons filled with date trees and the Sahara desert, it literally has a little taste of everything. Not to mention, the amazingly rich culture that could provide countless stories. I hope one day I can return and learn more about it’s people and history. As well as visit more countries in Africa, which are now added to my ever growing destination wishlist.

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9. I love, love, love adventures. I actually have a bucket list soley devoted to the wild and crazy things I would like to accomplish in my life. Whether camel riding can be classified as adrenaline filled or not, it was something I thoroughly enjoyed checking off my list. We quickly found out camels are not the most comfortable animals to ride, nor are they always the nicest.

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Watch out!!

Watch out!!

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10. The more active I can be while I travel, and in general, the happier I am. It was a pleasant surprise when our guide handed me a snowboard to bring with on our journey into the desert. One of my favorite moments of the trip was when I stood atop a giant sand dune, with my feet strapped into the board and glanced at the immensity of the Sahara desert, while the sun was setting in the horizon.

So, I think I need to learn how to snowboard now.

So, I think I need to learn how to snowboard now.

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11. Our trek into the desert involved a night spent in traditional Berber tents. I love camping and was very excited to experience that side of the culture. Our camp was located 50 km from the Algeria border and you could easily see their mountains as you sat at our tent. Before we left, our guide had warned us that the desert can get cold at night. Which it did, but nowhere near the frigidness we experience in our apartments in Albania. So that didn’t phase us as we sat under the stars, parked around a campfire and listened to Moroccan drums.

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12. Looking back at our journey from Fes, Morocco to Seville, Spain, I just have to laugh. It was slightly ridiculous. When we arrived in Fes the evening after our desert trek, we came to an unfortunate conclusion; buses in Spain stop running earlier than normal on New Years Eve. When planning, I hadn’t taken this into consideration, which meant we had to leave Fes earlier than the 8am train. The only other option from Fes to the port city was 2 am. So, I found myself taking my first ever overnight train in an Arabic speaking country. Um… cool I guess? From the train, we took a taxi to the ferry, rode the ferry to Spain and eventually caught a bus to Seville. After sixteen straight hours of overnight traveling, we literally jumped for joy when we checked into our hostel. Sand covered and bone-tired we collapsed into a motionless heap on our beds.

Gratefully welcoming the beautiful lights of Seville

Gratefully welcoming the beautiful lights of Seville

13. In spite of being exhausted to the point of relentless laughter, I drug myself out to experience New Years Eve in Spain. And I am so happy with my decision. For good luck, the tradition at midnight is to eat 12 grapes at each chime of the clock. Which I did, while standing atop a rooftop bar, overlooking the beautiful cathedral and sipping champagne. All while surrounded by new friends I had literally met hours earlier in our hostel. Traveling, with it’s cool opportunities and people you meet along the way, make my heart happy. 🙂

The cathedral

The cathedral

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14. New Years Day was treated as a day of recovery. We needed recuperation from Morocco, the pace of which we covered ground there, the travel day back to Spain and the overall lack of sleep. Emilie taught me how to play rummy and we spent the day sitting outside, drinking tea and laughing.

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15.We ended our trip in Portugal. With a relaxed vibe and beautiful views, it’s a country I need to go back to and explore more of. Sadly, we only had time to stop in it’s capital, Lisbon. For those of you that don’t know, I grew up in Lisbon, North Dakota. I had finally traveled almost 4,300 miles to visit the sister city to my hometown. It was the perfect place to end an amazing vacation. And a great reminder to how far I’ve come since graduating from  that little town, halfway across the world.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

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