Saturday, January 31, 2015

Common travel excuses & how you can overcome them

Thinking about the places I have had the privilege of visiting in my life, I couldn't possibly imagine my life without travel. After a few weeks of being back from a trip I start thinking about where and when I can go away next. If I'm not travelling, chances are I am thinking about it. However, so many people I know view travel as a massive deal and throw obstacles in front of themselves by making up excuses of why they can't travel. The truth is though, most of these excuses aren't things that should stop anyone from travelling. Most of them can be overcome by a slight change of thinking, careful planning and most of all, a real desire to travel.

Travel is too expensive

Granted, many people work extremely hard and still struggle to pay the rent and feed their families. I deeply admire those people, and at that time in their lives they are likely not going to have anything spare for optional things such as travel. However I get annoyed when people act like I'm rich and spoilt for travelling, but then go out and spend their monthly pay on expensive clothes and restaurants. Yes, I travel a lot and yes I visit beautiful countries. But this doesn't mean that I have a money tree stashed in the cupboard. I worked for the money I have and I don't spend it on unnecessary things. I go to restaurants and buy clothes still, but only what I need. I'd much rather go to Paris for a a weekend than have a designer dress that I probably won't even wear. I value experiences and memories over things. Things can be quickly be lost, stolen and destroyed. Memories can't. Well, not as easily anyway. If you really want to travel but don't think you have the money, look at what you are spending your money on and work out what you can cut back on.

If you simply can't afford a trip to another country, think about the travel you can do in your own country. In the past two years that I've been in the UK, I've visited far more places within the UK than many of my friends who have lived here their whole lives! Travel doesn't mean months in an exotic country. Tourists come from far and wide to see places within your own country, so why shouldn't you? All you need to do is hop on a train or go for a short drive, and for the price of a sandwich and a cup of tea you can be seeing something new and amazing. 

Take every opportunity to see as much as you can, no matter how close to home it is. 

I have kids. I'll travel once they're older since they won't remember it now anyway

I have my parents to thank for my love (well, I guess you could say obsession) of travel. When I was 7, they saved up and took me and my older brother on a 3 month trip around Europe. I learnt so much on that trip and still have very fond memories of it. When I was 11, my brother 13 years old and my younger brother almost 2, they took us to Vienna, Austria for 3 months and then Dublin, Ireland for a year. We loved every minute of it and even my youngest brother who was just a toddler remembers a lot from our time there. I am so grateful that my parents took me travelling from a young age. It meant that I learnt so much about different cultures, countries and people. Travel pushed me out of my comfort zone and out of my little bubble which I know would not have benefited my personal character at all. I had to learn that the world isn't all a perfect suburban paradise and made me realise how privileged I am to have the life that I do. There are people that work 10 times harder than anyone I know and still have to live in poverty, simply because of where they were born, how they were raised, or any number of other circumstantial reasons. I learnt that just because someone doesn't do things the same way that I grew up doing, doesn't mean that they are worse or lesser than me. I learnt to embrace other cultures and appreciate them for what they were. I have had to learn patience, empathy and humility; qualities I'm sure any parent would want to instill in their children.

If there is one gift you give your children before they grow up, give them the gift of travel.

I don't have the time

Time is precious. And as the years go by it seems that people have less and less spare time. But, you don't have to quit your job to travel. Take advantage of annual leave from your job and maximise it as much as possible. For example, if you go away in the week of a bank holiday, you don't need to use as much holiday time as a normal week. I'm very glad to live in the UK, where I get 5 weeks holiday per year (I know, I was shocked when I moved here too!!). But even if you only get a couple of weeks holiday per year, make sure to take advantage of bank holidays, and even think about where you can go just for the weekend. If you leave Friday night and come back on Sunday night, that's still two full days you get to explore a new place.

Plan ahead and make an effort to use all available time off that you have.

I know that people do have genuine reasons why they can't travel. But if you have a real desire to travel and your circumstances suit, you might be able to just change a few things in your life and learn to schedule, budget and plan carefully to allow you to travel. I can tell you for certain that you will never regret travel, and I can be sure you won't be thinking about a Gucci handbag you could have bought when you are sitting in the Spanish sun sipping a Piña Colada!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Three things I love about London

London is one of those cities that are incredibly easy to fall in love with. After living here for over two years, I can say that despite this dreary January, London is still just as special as it was when I first saw it on holiday a decade ago. There is so much to see in London no matter what your interests are, and there always new things popping up all around the city. There are a multitude of reasons why I love London, but there are a few main ones, which surprisingly are completely different to what they were when I first moved here.

Every corner and cobblestone is bursting with history

London has so much interesting history, and everywhere has a story. That pub you love on the corner? That is probably hundreds of years of old, and if you dig a little deeper you might even discover some intriguing stories. If you look a little harder at that shop you walk past everyday, you might find out it's an old tube station that was used as a bomb shelter in WWII. Even if I had the time to walk around London all day every day, I don't think I could ever get bored. Every step can take you back through hundreds of years of history.

Sense of community

Since when is London a community I hear you ask? I admit, when I first moved to London I couldn't imagine how I could ever feel like I was in a community, especially after realising that Londoners aren't fond of smiling at strangers. However, after I was here for a little longer, I realised that everywhere in London is a little community. If you just open up a bit, you'll get to know people in your area and start to make London feel like home. Despite their stone cold stares, Londoners aren't all rude and most are willing to help, especially if they can use their local knowledge to give you directions!

Despite its flaws, London is a keeper

London isn't all glittery lights and steak & ale pies. It can be dirty, noisy and overwhelming. Some days I wonder why I still live here, but then I think about living anywhere else, and I know that few places will ever come close to London. It has a vibe that I have not found anywhere else, and it has a strong pull that keeps me here. No matter how long someone has lived in London, there is always more to see. More museums, more shows and more restaurants to try. The words of Samuel Jackson are certainly true when he said, "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Another day trip from Fes

After enjoying the first day trip out of Fes so much, it was decided that we should take another day trip to see some more of the surrounding towns. After organising another guide with the staff at our riad, we were all set to see some more of Morocco. What I loved so much about having a guide is that I didn't have to really think about all the places I wanted to go. Our second guide knew where we had gone on the first day trip, so already had a full day of new sights planned for us to see! All we knew at the start of the day was that we were going to visit the city of Meknes, but throughout the day we stopped off at so many interesting places.

Barrage Sidi Chahed

Our first stop was a big dam which I believe is called Barrage Sidi Chahed. Our guide explained to us the history which was very interesting at the time, but I have since forgotten! It was something to do with a king who built it because Morocco didn't have enough water. Aren't I awful, not even knowing the history of a place! Well, it was a very pretty sight anyway, and there were also a few little roadside stalls selling fruit, nuts, and lots of big butternut squashes.


Ah those pesky Romans were everywhere! It was a surprise seeing Volubilis, as I wasn't expecting to see any Roman Ruins on our trip. We only had an hour to see it before we had to move onto the next place. If I went back again, I would definitely want 2 hours, because it took about 10 minutes just to walk to the site from the car park and the entire site is 42 hectares! 

Entry is free to the site, and if you want a "guide" there are loads of them waiting at the entrance. However, I don't know how much they actually would know about the site and how much they would make up for a good story! I said no to a guide, because I just wanted to wander around and see what I saw, not be pulled along by someone else. In a nice turn of events though, the security guard keeping an eye on everyone walking around showed me a few of the key things I would have ended up missing. Volubilis is actually one of the most interesting Roman ruins I have visited, and I have managed to see my fair share when travelling around Europe. Even just the UK has hundreds of Roman sites and ruins. There was so much to see at Volubilis, including many beautiful well preserved mosaics. I will go into more detail about Volubilis in another post because it was so interesting and everything I want to write about won't fit into this post!

Moulay Idriss

Moulay Idriss is one of the holiest towns in Morocco, and until 2005 non-muslims were not allowed to stay overnight in it. As were driving to Moulay Idriss, I saw it slowly emerge and the guide pointed out how because it is set over two hills, it looks very much like a camel. We stopped here for a morning tea break, and sat down to watch the comings and goings of the town. After finishing, we walked around the town for a bit to explore. Along the way I bought a fossil necklace from one of the slightly pushy sellers, but I didn't find I was pestered to buy goods from too many people. Or maybe I had just got used to the busyness of Fes... We walked past the mosque, which of course as non-muslims we weren't allowed in, and continued down one of the streets. We weren't actually trying to find anything in particular, and just wanted to wander down the streets, but there was no shortage of guides latching on to us to try and lead us to some place which was apparently only "10 minutes away". After getting sick of trying to get rid of "guides" and failing to find anything of interest, we headed back to the car. We had to get back anyway to move on to the next place. I feel like maybe I could have completely missed what there is to see in Moulay Idriss, but for me it didn't stand out as one of my favourite places I saw


Before getting to Meknes, we stopped at a viewing point to see Meknes from a distance and then moved on to see the Royal Stables just outside Meknes. The entry fee was fairly cheap and because we didn't know where we were - our guide hadn't really told us, just dropped us off at a door and told us to go in - we said yes to the guy inside who offered to show us around. He took us through and into the stables. He explained that there used to be 16 000 of the kings horses kept here and took us through various dark rooms with high arched ceilings, explaining them briefly. Once he showed us around inside, he took us outside to the partly ruined section of the stables. 

It was pretty amazing. There were rows and rows of perfectly aligned arches which led off in all directions. The guide told me to stand under a specific arch, where I could see through the arches not only backwards and forwards, but also through the arches in four other directions. Once we finished we paid him for being our guide, and I was actually glad to have a guide this time because without him I wouldn't have even known what the place was!

After leaving, we moved onto our last stop of the day which was the center of Meknes. Our guide dropped us at a restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. The restaurant had a high terrace and overlooked the old Meknes prison. There are holes in the top, which were apparently where family members of the prisoners would lower down food for them. Prisons weren't as accommodating in the bad old days! Lunch was good, and afterwards we moved on to look at the rest of Meknes. We had a look at the mosque and the beautiful mosaics which are just near it outside. That's a picture of them at the top of this post. Then we had a quick look at the shops across the road. One of the shops sells iron and silver items such as little animal figures and bowls. The man showed us how he makes it which was interesting, but we felt very obliged to buy something once he had spent time showing and explaining to us. It was a bit annoying because I couldn't just look around freely and even when we left after one of us purchased something, he wanted us to put money into the pocket of a big kangaroo statue out the front!

We moved on to the town square next, called El Hedim Square. There were vendors in the square selling all sorts, from almonds to balloons and pictures of monkeys dressed in football jerseys. Unfortunately, the animals on "show" didn't look very happy. The monkeys were outside a cage, but chained to it so I could only imagine how they are kept at home. The snake the man was "charming" wasn't moving at all, so I don't know if it was actually alive, or he was really smart and bought a very good imitation fake snake! I didn't support any of the people with animals, so hopefully if every other tourist follows suit they will realise that putting animals on show cruelly will not make them money. Aside from the animals though, the square was very interesting. We sat back in one of the cafes on the edge of the square with a mint tea and watched the sun set over the old walls. Meknes was so much better than I expected, and watching the sunset in the town square with live music was a great end to the day, and one which made me really feel like I was in Morocco.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

An easy day trip from Fes

I've always found that one of the best ways to see a country is by road. Getting away from a city and its tourist hub means that you can see the country how the locals do. Finding a town that is not visited by tourists regularly is often the highlight of my trip. If you only have a few days in a city it's unlikely that you will be able to get out and see more of a country. However, if you are staying for a bit longer, it's well worth doing at least one day trip, no matter where you are in the world.

During my week in Fes, I did two day trips. The first one included a visit to a lake, waterfalls, a few towns and also a Cedar forest where I had the opportunity to feed Barbary Macaques. 

It was really easy to get a guide for the day. The staff at our riad organised everything, and our guide Noelle arrived right on time with an eight seater car, enough to fit the five in our group and herself. Before arriving in Fes, I was unsure about whether it was better to hire a car or to get a guide. Most people recommended getting a guide, the main reason being locals know how to negotiate the "crazy" drivers that were apparently everywhere in Morcocco. I found that to be untrue, but I found so many reasons why it is better to have a driver, with the following being just a few.

1. The drivers are also guides, so Noelle took us to places that I had no idea existed in Morocco. If I was driving on my own I wouldn't have even seen half of what I saw.
2. It is incredibly difficult to park in some towns and cities such as Meknes and Moulay Idriss. The driver will drop you off and then go find parking, and they usually know the best spots to park as well. Also, if you don't know the parking rules you could get slapped with a fine. 
3. You don't have to worry about getting lost trying to find some little lookout or town, as the drivers know exactly where they are going.

For the whole day, it cost us 1000 dirham altogether. The whole day of driving was 8-9 hours, so I think it was well worth it to have a guide, a nice big car and the sense of security that comes with being with a local.

The first stop of the day was a lake. I don't actually know what the lake was called, but it was about 40 minutes away from Fes. It was empty of tourists and a nice surprise as I wasn't expecting to see any large lakes in Morocco! There was a young guy who was offering horse rides around the lake, so I got a 10 minute ride for 30 dirham (just over £2). However there was no set price, and he asked me what I wanted to pay. I didn't feel like this was a way to rip me off though, he just seemed like he was happy to do it for any amount. It was so nice riding around the still lake, and it was actually the first time I had ridden a horse without someone pulling it by hand ! I would love to learn how to ride a horse properly now!

I didn't realise it at the time (thank goodness!) but I found out afterwards that there can be some pretty nasty parasites in fresh water in Morocco. Yikes! I'm so glad I didn't touch the water.

Next stop was the waterfalls. Once again, I have no idea what they are called, but they were another half an hour or so from the lake, through windy roads. This was the point that I realised the horse riding thing was not just a one off. Two guys came up to us as soon as we got out of the car, and since we were the only tourists around they were really keen for us to have a ride. Once I told them I had already had a ride, they were fine but still followed us around for the rest of the time we were there. The advantage of that was the picture I got above. I actually think that the owner positioned him there for a reason which was very nice of him! The waterfalls were beautiful and relaxing, and once again I'm so glad I didn't stick my hand in as there could have been parasites in there!

The next stop was for a morning tea break in the town of Ifrane. Driving there I started seeing small patches of white along the road. Wait what? Snow?? I couldn't believe I was seeing real snow in Morocco! Especially since it was around 15 degrees that day. It turns out that Ifrane is a winter snow resort and has the nickname of "Switzerland in Morocco". If you were blindfolded and dumped in Ifrane, you would definitely swear you were in Switzerland or France! 

After having a drink in Azrou, we carried on and had a quick stop at a stunning lookout before driving to the town of Azrou.

What a contrast to Ifrane! Whilst Ifrane was quiet with wide, tidy streets and sparkling restaurants, Azrou was crazy! There were people and cars everywhere, and the much more authentic looking restaurants were packed with locals eating lunch. We sat down at a restaurant chosen by our guide, and waited for a menu. I've discovered that the way of finding a true Moroccan restaurant (besides it being full of locals) is that they won't bring you a menu unless you ask. I guess they assume that you would know what you want and as the menu is pretty much the same in most restaurants, we probably should have anyway. We ordered a variety of food including salads, barbequed meat and a couple of tagines.

As we were waiting for our food, I quickly noticed a strange thing that was happening. The waitress kept moving chairs and tables around. A new batch of customers would come and she would whip away two separate tables from our left, find chairs out of no where and have a perfectly arranged table waiting for them on our right in under a minute. By mid lunch, there were tables and tables of people expanding to the side past the restaurant! I think it's the best idea ever not to be wasting extra seats if people don't need them. The waitresses in this restaurant made sure that everyone had the exact amount of chairs and tables needed for their group. I wish it was done that way in London as it always makes me so annoyed to see one person sitting at a six person table when you really need it!

Lunch was delicious, and although I was slightly worried about the cleanliness standards of the restaurant, I ate almost a full plate of salad and didn't get sick! In fact, I didn't get sick the whole time in Morocco even though I was brushing my teeth with tap water, drinking fresh juice and eating the salads. Woo hoo!

After lunch, we got going on our way to the part of the day that I was most looking forward to. Feeding wild Barbary Macaques! I had never seen monkeys in the wild or fed them for that matter so I was bubbling with excitement when we pulled up at the Cedre Gourmand Forest. 

I had tried to contact a sanctuary for the Macaques that was nearby the day before, as they teach you about conservation and take you on a trail to see the monkeys and tell you about their behaviour etc. However they didn't get back to me, so I took the second option of seeing them in the forest. Here there is also Cedre Gourmand, which is a massive and extremely old Cedar tree. It is pretty much dead now so it's just the trunk and branches spiking off of it, but it is still pretty impressive.

Once we arrived, I was surrounded by four horses and their owners as soon as I got out of the car. I told them (the owners that is, not the horses) I had already been on a ride earlier, and they went away. Although I felt kind of bad as I saw them all walking slowly away side by side!

When we walked to the edge of the forest, we bought a couple of bags of peanuts from one of the people selling them. I stepped into the shady forest and could see loads of monkeys running about, grabbing peanuts off tourists. Our guide, Noelle warned us to hold on tight to our phones and cameras as the Macaques have a habit of grabbing expensive technology from people! A Macaque scampered up to us as Noelle opened a water bottle and it happily started slurping it down. I've realised now that giving them water is much better for them, as being stuffed with peanuts couldn't be good for anybody, let alone little monkeys. If I went back again I would definitely take water and fruit rather than peanuts.

It was really fun feeding them though, and seeing how they all have completely different personalities. I ended up with a ring of monkeys around me at one point. The alpha male was there in control of everybody and when he didn't approve of one coming up to get food he would screech and run after him. The alpha kind of scared me though. You know the evil ape in Planet of the Apes? Yep, that's who he reminded me of. So I ended up getting my brother to carefully distract him whilst I fed the others. After about half an hour and a couple of bags of peanuts later, I found a baby monkey (pictured at the top of this post). He was adorable! He was so tiny and skittish, and every time he reached out to grab a peanut he would look around to see if anyone was going to bully him over it. I sat with him for a bit feeding him peanuts, and I wished I could have taken him home with me!

It was such an amazing experience feeding the Macaques, but I wished that I had taken food that would have been better for them. They are an endangered species now because of illegal poaching and logging, and can only be found in Morocco, Algeria and Libya, along with a small colony in Gibraltar. And although peanuts won't necessarily kill them, it would be much better for them to be eating a wider variety of food.

After tearing myself away from the Macaques, we got in the car and headed back home. We got back at around 6pm and I can definitely say I slept well that night after seeing so much within just a couple of hours of Fes!