Monday, March 3, 2014

East v. North



Manly.

I'm talking about the town here, not my disposition. It's only a mile from Bondi as the crow flies, but some might say it's a world away. You see, there's a great divide that runs through Sydney. It's called the harbor. And it separates Sydney from North Sydney. That's just geography. More importantly, it separates Bondi Beach in the Eastern Suburbs from Manly Beach in the Northern Beaches. The harbor is full of bull sharks because we're meant to be separated. Because Bondi is better. But the Manly people...they think they're better. And so we're locked in a bitter battle over who's beach is better.

Some might say this is one of those superfluous arguments that can never be resolved. Paris versus London. Melbourne versus Sydney. Coke versus Pepsi. There's no right answer, these people say: just what's better for you. My mom once expressed a similar sentiment when she declared that she liked tie games because it meant nobody lost. She was promptly kicked out of America.

As an unbiased person I thought I'd compare the two combatants across a number of areas. This is a completely impartial comparison even though I lived in Bondi*.

Name: I have to give this one to Manly. After all, the name of the town is Manly. It was actually named for the manly comportment of the aborigines by an officer of the First Fleet. There are only two places that can outdo that name, and they're called Manlier and Manliest. They don't exist yet but I've got my eye on some cheap land in North Dakota and will someday become the Manliest Mayor. Has a ring to it. Bondi, an aborigine word, roughly translates into "the sound the waves make crashing on rocks." Poetic. But not manly. +1 Manly

Beach: Bondi is like the spokesperson for Australian beaches. It's famous and it's got an amazing setting -- curving from the cliffs of North Bondi south to the start of the beautiful Bondi-to-Bronte ocean walk. Whenever an advertiser needs an urban beach scene for a commercial they film it at Bondi. Manly also has a nice beach but it doesn't have quite the iconic setting. It also has a sewage pipe jutting out in the middle. It did have a whale and her calf stop by to play with some swimmers, which is cool, but the calf probably has developmental issues from the sewage now. +1 Bondi
 
Food/Bar Scene: Manly has a few winners. Some friends are constantly at one of three bars by the wharf and it's got a microbrewery that makes some solid beer. Bondi has actually changed a lot just in the years we've been there. Quite a few small, funky bars and new restaurants have opened up shop. We don't have a brewery but it's only a matter of time before some hipsters open one. Plus we've got Icebergs, which might have the best view in Australia for a bar.  +1 Bondi
 
People: The usual lazy dig against Bondi is that it's "full of Poms and backpackers". That's only partially true. It's actually full of hipsters. Think skin-tight jeans, plaid shirts or deep v-cut oversized t-shirts, Ray Ban Wayfarers, and beanies with a 5 day shadow. Manly seems to be full of tourists, though. And Poms and backpackers as well.  Draw
 
Wildlife: Besides an abundance of Staffordshire dogs in Bondi (all the hipsters buy them; there's seriously no originality when it comes to dog purchases in this part of the country) we've got Flying Foxes in the evening and the lovely sounds of the Kookaburra early in the morning. Manly had those whales, which is nice. But no one likes a retarded whale which is exactly what Manly will have once that calf returns next year.  Draw

And that settles it: Bondi wins with 2 points to Manly's 1 point. Sorry Manly, the East is better after all.

*This may be slightly partial after all.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

RTW Trip: London

Arriving in London was a bit surreal for both Adam and I. We had both visited London in the past but this time around it was going to be our first English speaking country in a month and a half. Plus, my sister and her family live there which made this part of the trip extra special.
Adam and I knew we would have plenty of time to explore but for the first time we really had no agenda. Our only plan was to spend quality time with my nieces and help my very pregnant sister.

Getting lots of one on one time with my two nieces was great but a 4 year old and a 2 year old can really wear you out. One afternoon Adam and I played dragon with them for almost 2 hours. Essentially, Adam pretends to be a dragon and the rest of us find ways to kill him. Let me repeat... almost 2 hours!
Adam & Sienna
Throughout the week we had ample of time to play the “tourist” and got to see a number of things such as the Tower of London, Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, and the Science Museum.
Recommended by my brother-in-law, one restaurant stands out! It’s called “Burger & Lobster” and is a must for anyone heading to London. It has only three items on the menu -- a burger, a lobster roll, or a lobster tail -- but all of them are to die to for. We ordered their burger and their lobster roll. (Cue mouth watering)
Burger & Lobster
Burger & Lobster
Adam in heaven
Our time in London went by super fast but now it was time to head to America to the rest of our family and friends. Its been a year and a half since we were last home so this was going to be a non-stop friends and family tour.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Round the world Trip: Marrakesh

We were pretty pumped to be on our way to Marrakesh but once we arrived we'd be without a car the rest of the rip. So in the best interest of getting our deposit back on the rental car we decided to spring for a car wash before returning the car. It ended up costing us all of 40 dirhams which at the time was about $4.50. Amazing! With our baggage in hand we hailed a cab for $8 to take us into the medina to our riad.

Unfortunately, due to the very busy, very narrow streets of the medina our cab could only take us so far. We had to walk the rest of the way, which thankfully turned out to be a very short distance. We were in awe upon entering our hotel, the Riad Clementine. Owned and operated by a wonderful French couple, Antoine and Angela, the riad was beautiful and we just knew this was going to be a spectacular stay.



We quickly found out by the loud gossiping that a very large group of British women were also staying at our small and intimate riad. We knew we'd be fighting them for the riad's pool space as since they'd descend on it en masse.

Some of our nights were spent venturing out to the Ville Nouvelle or “new town” of Marrakesh. This area is full of upscale dinning, plenty of mainstream shopping, and was clearly where people with money flocked to be entertained. Since we no longer had a car, all of our explorations from this point on were by foot and our first night, as we head to Villa Nouvelle was no different. With map in hand we thought we could find our way. However, this was not the case so we asked a young guy for directions. In return we got a personal escort to walk us straight there, with no strings attached. It was quite impressive for both us.

We found many great spots for dinner and drinks so if you find yourself in this area definitely check out these couple places.

-       Café De Poste for drinks
-       Kechmara for food and drinks

Marrakesh is a lot easier to maneuver than Fez and so we opted out of a guided tour and opted in for the "Shadam self guided tour." In one day we hit up the Jewish Mellah, Saadian Tombs, El Badi Palace and Koutoubia Garden. Helpful tip from a Jew, don’t go to the Jewish quarters on Saturday, everything will be closed. 
Another day was spent visiting Majorelle Gardens, which was once owned by YSL and currently houses his memorial. Having worked in fashion for the last 10 years I was quite interested in checking it out. Plus, its just beautiful and highly recommended. Just be sure to go before 10am to beat the crowd. The rest of the day hours were spent shopping in the infamous souks (getting best Berber price), visiting a fairly small but well known photography museum and a quick visit to the Medersa.

A must see is the notorious Jema Al Fena Square. There are tons of food stalls, shopping, and even seminars on health and biology (an uneducation). My recommendation: get there around 4pm so that you can explore and enjoy during the day light, grab dinner at one of the many places (we ate at Chez Chegouri but there are much better places), then head back out as this area gets crazy when the sun goes down.
Jema Al Fena
Adam and I have always enjoyed Moroccan food and if you ever find yourself in Randwick, NSW, Australia then do yourself a favor and head to Moroccan Feast .  That being said, I had done some research and found Maison MK, a highly recommended hotel, spa and restaurant on TripAdvisor, where we could get private authentic Moroccan cooking classes. It began early in the morning with Chef Omar and went through the afternoon. It was a great experience that we continue to reap the benefits from.
Maison MK
Our last day in Marrakesh was spent having a relaxing brekkie and chilling by the pool before heading out to catch our bus that would take us to Essouira, the Moroccan beach town.  Turns out there are two types of buses that will get you to the coast one the locals call “the locals bus” and the other is for tourists. Do not take the “the locals bus” be sure to look for the one called Supratours! The ride was a no AC, painful, occasional beggar-filled, 3.5 hour ride.

We arrived at our hotel, Thalassa le’Medina, in time to settle and get dinner. We were located directly across from the beach and walking distance to the medina. This beach town is much smaller than the other cities we had been to. Its airy, manageable and there is plenty to keep you busy for a weekend. Be sure to get some fresh fish and seafood since this is what Essouira is known for.


On our way back to Marrakesh before our next flight, I ponder, "how strange its going to be back in the land of English and how exciting it will be to see my family!" Next stop… London!  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

RTW Trip... After the desert

With the sand dunes in our review mirror we were on the road headed west to The Todra Gorge which plunges 300 meters down to a clear river. In the midst of the dry season we weren't expecting much water but at least a beautiful vista and a beautiful vista is what we got. Low levels of water still brought the locals for afternoons of picnics in the shade completely surrounded by high rising mountains.
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Todra Gorge
After a bit of hiking and explorations we headed to the small (understatement) town of Tinghir for a chill afternoon by the pool and a place to sleep.

Another stop along the way was to a small town call Skoura, an oasis lined by thick palm groves. Immediately upon arrival, Adam and I agreed that this was a cute town full of life. Small towns in Morocco have a very different feel to small towns in America. These small towns are only a few streets in all directions but the center is packed with people. We had an amazing lunch of soup and tagine before heading back to the car. Sight of a beautiful lake along the road called to us so of course... Adam wanted a picture.

Palm Grove
Lunch in Skoura


A short drive, a night in Arocha and we were on our way to Ouarzazate, also known as the door to the desert. Mostly inhabited by Berbers and considered an important destinations due to the construction of many very famous Kasbahs and Ait-Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Old Kasbah
Inside Kasbah


Out front of Kasbah Ouarzazte

Our place in Arocha
Our place in Arocha
Arocha
Cutest couple in Arocha!
Visiting Ait-Benaddou is a bit like visiting Hollywood since it’s the film set for many many famous movies like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and most recently parts of Game of Thrones. Its not hard to understand why so many would choose to film movies out here.

We had heard about a very old, untouched Kasbah in a small off-the-road town, Telouet, from Madame French, the owner of our cute riad in Arocha. Debating whether our posh A4 would be able to handle the windy, rough road, we decided why not? Plus, it’s a rental. Passed by many with 4WD, the journey was long and rough but beautiful nonetheless. Driving along the curving road through mountainous terrain it’s hard to believe just how many people stand on the side of these dangerous roads in an effort to sell geode rocks. 

After an mentally exhausting drive for Adam we arrived to Kasbah Telouet. Quickly crumbling back to the red earth it came from, we were able to see all the beauty this old building has to offer. A photographers dream we tried our best and hope you can appreciate it too. 




Its probably one of the most well-known cities in all of Morocco and feels like that largest but surprisingly it’s fourth after Casablanca, Rabat and Fes. Just the drive alone was worth it. Next up… Marrakesh! 

 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Round the world Trip: Erg Chebbi in Morocco

The drive from Fes to Merzouga was our longest in Morocco. We left the green hills and fields surrounding Fes and began our drive south, armed with a detailed road map. Fortunately, once you get out of the cities your options for which road to take decrease significantly, so it makes navigating much easier.
 
Just an hour south of Fes we drove up into the Middle Atlas mountains. We passed through some charming mountain towns, including one called Ifrane that the French build in the 1930s to look like a Swiss mountain town. And driving through it did feel like we were in the Alps. Giant pine trees lined mountains up to the snow line and the roads were lined with wooden chalet homes. Ifrane seemed like it would be quite the getaway spot for rich Fessis in winter.
 
From there the mountains sloped downwards to a barren landscape of wide, brown black valleys surrounded by plateaus. We occasionally slowed down to pass through small towns but there wasn't much of consequence around. Eventually the road ran along side a valley that was lush with greenery, bordered on each side by the standard brick home.
 After weaving through a large town the buildings and trees dropped away and we sped along a two way road, really truly in the desert. On either side of the road was rough, dark dirt and rocks, known as the black desert. In the distance ahead of us loomed the dunes, glowing orange in the late afternoon sun.
Merzouga wasn't much to look at. It's a small clump of dusty looking, single-story buildings that would blend together if not divided by dusty streets. We pulled up to the dusty building providing us with lodging: the Guest House Merzouga. Despite it's outward appearance it had been one of the most recommended places on TripAdvisor and it didn't disappoint. One of the owners, Hassan, met us outside and invited us up to the roof of the guest house to enjoy some mint tea and snacks. This was, by now, standard (and welcome) practice. But Hassan also sat down with us and we chatted for a good half hour. He talked about how he grew up in a one-room home. His mom slept in the corner with the kids and his father slept by the door so he could protect the family if anyone came in.

Now he had a huge house and was a leader in the community. He talked about how his daughter wanted to become a doctor, which he thought was great -- female doctors weren't accepted when he was younger and all the women would give you contradictory advice until, he said, in the worst case scenario you died. And if you didn't die then all the women argued over who gave the best advice for getting better.He'd also taken a big role in protecting the dunes. Several people -- foreigners from Spain looking to make a quick buck, he said -- had opened up quad bike rentals in town. The quads caused a lot of damage to the dunes. And trying to enjoy watching the setting sun play colors on the sand was made somewhat less inspiring by the wheeze of the quad bikes' engines as their riders zipped around.



We had, literally, the best tagine of the trip at the guest house after starting with a fantastic harissa soup. Hassan and a couple other guys made their way to the corner of the big room and starting playing traditional instruments and singing.
The next day we woke up, had a hearty breakfast, and piled into an SUV with Hassan's cousin Ali, who was going to drive us around the dunes. ...All the way around. The Erg Chebbi dunes are not very extensive -- about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide. We bounced along the desert tracks along the perimeter of the dunes, making stops along the way. The first was for a couple kids with a desert fox who came sprinting towards our truck as soon as they saw us coming, looking for a few dirhams. They had a 3 week old Fennec with them. It was the size of a kitten with large French Bulldog sized ears and clung to the boy's chest. For a few dirham Sharon got to hold it and instantly fell in love. The Fennec's mom was back at the boys' home, Ali translated for us. After that dose of cuteness (and, probably, desert fox germs) we hopped back in the SUV.


Our next stop was near a long-abandoned French military base that was set up to support mining in the middle of the 20th century. There are still active mines in the area and we clambered up some rocks to see one in action. When I say 'mine' I'm not talking about the massive pits seen in the Western world. Imagine a hole the width of a well and going down maybe 20 or 30 feet. A small manually-operated crane perched precariously on the edge of the mine shaft and was used to lower the man (since only one man could fit) and raise out the minerals. The men working were blackened with soot. The whole setup looked extremely rickety and Ali confirmed that mining is very dangerous.

 We drove on to the next stop, a rocky Martian landscape devoid of any signs of life. We got out of the truck again and Ali pointed out how many of the rocks had the imprints of ancient shellfish, a relic of the time when this part of the world was underwater.

We stopped at a nomadic family's mud home for a lunch of freshly baked flat bread with jam and tea. The family's goats and camel huddled around a water trough a short distance a way.

We arrived back at our guesthouse in the late afternoon and had just a couple hours to relax before heading out for our night in the dunes. Hassan dropped us off at the starting point on the edge of the dune and Sharon and I were loaded up on our own camels which were laying on the ground for easier access. Just hanging on the camel as it stands up was a challenge. The extend their back legs first, lurching your forward. Then quickly straighten out their front legs, lurching you back. Camels, it turns out, are not comfortable to sit on. Their humps aren't broad and soft -- it's more like straddling the back of your sofa. As our small party -- me and Sharon, another couple, and two guides -- meandered into and through the dunes I contemplated a mode of transportation that had been the backbone of this part of the world for centuries. I could have walked faster. And my ass was going to hurt.

Our guides were friendly and chatty and were always cracking jokes. Despite never being outside the Merzouga region they both spoke Berber, Arabic, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and "a little bit of Japanese" thanks to all the visitors they hosted. I was extremely impressed.

The journey to our camp took about an hour and a half. As the day grew late the dunes' color change from yellow to orange. We finally made it to a small cluster of sturdy looking tents sitting in the bottom of a natural bowl, protected from the wind. The guides told us we had about half an hour to find a good spot to watch the sunset while they set up camp. I looked around, pointed to the tallest dune peak I saw, and told Sharon we should climb to the top. She wasn't enthused.

I convinced her to climb about halfway up even though she was content to stop anytime and watch the sun dip below the horizon. We sat down. I glanced behind me at the dune peak taunting me. The sun was setting quickly. "I'm just going to go to the top real quick and then I'll come right back to watch the sunset," I said. I started sprinting uphill. As I halved the distance to the top my lungs began screaming. Not only was I not in running shape but there was no moisture in the air at all. My heavy breathing was drying me out. Part of me thought I would collapse and should turn back, but the idiot part of me kept saying how close I was. I plodded ahead, wheezing the whole way. When I came to the dune crest I discovered that it was not the top; it just appeared that way from my point of view looking up. There was actually a lot left to climb, and who knew if the "new" peak was the actual peak. I admitted defeat and stumbled back down the dune to sit with Sharon as the sun disappeared.

With the sun gone the desert got dark -- and cold -- quickly. We walked down to the camp, which had tents arranged in a U shape around an open area with a table. The guides had been preparing dinner in a separate tent and brought out bread, hot mint tea, and tagine.



Once dinner was cleared and we turned out the single light around off, the sky just popped with stars. We climbed into our tent. Despite having no heater the blankets were incredibly warm. In the morning we had some mint tea, back on the camels, and rode back to the guest house. We had a hearty breakfast and a shower, said goodbye to our great hosts, and left Merzouga for our next destination.