Sunday, May 22, 2011

Around the world with 40 Lonely Planet bloggers

40 Lonely Planet travel bloggers come together as a group to release their first free photo ebook. "Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers" takes readers on a world tour featuring almost 70 countries, and introduces the world of professional travel blogging. Within it, each blogger, hand picked by Lonely Planet, shares a collection of stunning photos that capture the essence of travel for them. 

The gathering of this eclectic group of travel experts was born out of Lonely Planet’s effort to broaden content for their audience. “The concept was simple – get the best 10% of travel bloggers out there to share their thoughts and ideas…shining a light on the very best travel writing and photography on the planet,” tells Matthew Cashmore, former Innovation Ecosystem Manager at Lonely Planet on the creation of the BlogSherpa Program.
Uniting from across the globe, the BlogSherpas, as they are called, share their adventures and travel lifestyles through the photo ebook. “Managing 40 bloggers perpetually traveling in and out of jungles, cafes, monuments and ruins, and internet free zones (gasp!) was not an easy task” says Todd Wassel, the blogger who headed up the project. 

In addition to an eye-popping collection of photographs, the book is a rich resource for anyone with a passion for travel who wants to learn from the experts. “The 40 BlogSherpas showcased in the ebook specialize in travel modes ranging from solo to couples to family travel, road trips, budget travel, expat living, voluntourism and even perpetually traveling digital nomads,” explains Karen Catchpole, one of the featured bloggers.


The whole thing started more than a year ago. Somebody from Blogsherpa's blogger group suggested an idea of making a paper photography book featuring our collective travel photos. After few months of brainstorming, the group settled on publishing an e-book, sort of as a test run to see how it all comes together.  The road to that "coming together" has been rather long. It's pretty hard to effectively round up people most of whom are at any given moment on the road somewhere or often living in an area not yet blessed by the presence of reliable internet connection. Endless amount of discussions later 40 bloggers (out of hundreds of Blogsherpas) managed to get their act together enough to compile the material for the e-book. That was almost 10 months ago and in May we finally have an e-book to present. 

While a lot of people worked from their own free time to make this happen, i think the illusion of putting out a coffee table photography book in the future has slowly passed. It's much too time consuming and expensive to embark on that path lightly. But in my opinion, publishing an e-book is just the right outlet for a content like this. The photos used are not largely high enough quality to be printed on the paper, but a digital e-book doesn't have those restrictions. You also don't need to be a professional photographer to capture memorable travel shots nor do you have to have an impeccable eye for composition or use the latest camera equipment to produce high quality printable images. Lonely Planet financed the e-book's design and technical compiling, so there were very little expenses we paid from our own pocket. I think that the e-book's design is probably the weakest part of the whole project, considering the price of the designer's work, i think many of us expected more elegant outcome. But somewhat amateur design aside, it's a great way to showcase so many different people and their life on the road, hopefully inspiring many others to follow.

So this e-book we are offering you today, is solely about personal journeys that bloggers want to share with their readers, me included (page 64). It is a really great collective effort by enthusiastic travel addicts, a wonderful insight to how 40 very different bloggers see the world while traveling and/or living abroad. The photos are personal and full of emotions, conveying the excitement and joy of experiencing something new.

Download the e-book from here:
"Around the world with 40 Lonely Planet bloggers"

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Love across the Estonian language divide"

A lovely travel site called Pocket Cultures recently published an interview in their "People of the World" section with yours truly here.

Fancy a read? :)  

* * *

PocketCultures is an interesting project aiming to help you discover the world in another way than one hotel at the time. It's a collection of stories about real people and real places, not dry facts and glossy commercial texts. It's all about encouraging connections between people, even if you are not able to go traveling yourself.

"Love across the Estonian language divide"

Ragne Kabanova is an Estonian who loves to travel. I first ‘met’ Ragne through her blog, Destination Anywhere, and enjoyed her open minded approach to writing about the different countries she encounters. In this interview she tells us about travelling the world, love accross the language divide and what’s so good about life in Estonia.

To start, please tell us a bit about your background

I’m from a pretty typical Estonian family. We had a small apartment in the countryside, in a place which was like a big village, where everybody knows each other and spends their time gossiping all day long. My family consisted of me, my brother and my parents.

I spent my summers in my grandmother’s farm, running around in the nearby forests and taking insanely long walk with the dogs; so much so, that upon returning my grandmother was often in tears because she thought I had gotten lost in the woods. I loved spending time alone and you could say that me, myself & I got along quite well.

When I got older, I can’t say I was dying to break free from my parents. My parents had this unique approach to raising kids – it will take considerably less effort raising them if you don’t get in their way. Which meant that when I started living on my own at the ripe age of 17, it wasn’t because I was feeling suppressed, it was just a very logical step for an independent kid.

Life made its twists and turns and I ended up choosing a university quite far from my parents home (as much as something can be “far” in a country which you can cross from side to side within 5 hours). I met my husband soon after, we were both studying on the same course. And few months ago we just celebrated nine years together.

Today we live in a small student town called Tartu. It’s a lovely place, cozy and compact, but it’s also Estonia’s leading development center for world-scale IT and science inventions. Ever heard of Skype? ☺

What languages do you use to communicate? What languages did you learn in school?

Official language in Estonia is of course Estonian. There is a big Russian community here which every once in a while sparks up a discussion to add Russian language also as an official language, but majority of Estonians are so strongly against it that it would be a political suicide to any public figure to start seriously pushing the matter.

When I was in school the most important foreign language was Russian. That was taught already from 3rd grade followed few years later by English or German. Nowadays it’s all changed. Most important is English, which depending on a school can start even from 1st grade already. Some schools teach French, German, Spanish etc, Russian is pushed quite a lot to the background. Sometimes even totally out of the picture.

My husband is Russian and when we met he didn’t speak any Estonian. I do speak Russian, but on lower intermediate level at best, not really fluent enough to discuss anything with big words in it. So when we met, it took us about three minutes to switch to English and it’s been our home language ever since. Some people might think it’s rather uppity of us to speak in English while living in Estonia, but it’s actually a good balance - if we’d speak Russian or Estonian then one of us would have an unfair advantage when it comes to intricate knowledge of the language, wide vocabulary and cultural background. Considering that in the beginning quite a lot of our disagreements and fights were stemming from us being from different backgrounds, I’m quite glad we were accidentally wise enough to take the language barrier out of the equation.

So do Russian speakers and Estonian speakers form separate communities in Estonia?

Here’s a small glimpse of Russian-Estonian history.

Estonians and Russians do not mingle in Estonia. They keep away from each other and avoid interactions as much as they can. There’s a lot of history between the two nations and strong resentment from both sides. The resentment mostly stems from politics and historical events and from the different interpretation of those events. Even today there is so much unnecessary political haze between the two countries that it doesn’t really benefit anybody.

You’re not likely to find big mixed groups of Estonians and Russians rubbing elbows and being good friends. I don’t think it’s because people are nationalists and avoid each other by principle, they just feel more comfortable within their own ethnic group because that’s what they are used to with. Very often there’s also a language barrier which complicates things even further. The cultural background between the two nations is not that different that it would cause insurmountable problems, but there haven’t been really serious and consistent plans to integrate the two communities. Just a few commercial campaigns here and there, effects of which are soon downsized to zero by yet another politician stirring up national issues for cheap popularity either with Russians or Estonians.

There are still quite a few Russian-language based schools in Estonia which produce high-school graduates who don’t actually speak Estonian and therefore find that most local universities are out of reach for them. And that causes even more resentment and creates sort of closed communities where only Russians live. The eastern part of Estonia is a big region where the population is mostly Russians and Estonian isn’t spoken. This region is also the poorest in Estonia and most criminal, an inevitable side effect of an encapsulated community where education is not very propagated. Dislike for Estonia as a country is rather rampant. On the other hand, Estonians themselves are very closed people and are not likely to reach out and compromise with Russians who are often viewed as “occupants”, especially by the older generation. Some of the bad history is still too fresh. I expect it will get better in time, or I hope.

But regardless of all the nasty history between Russians and Estonians and apart from politics meddling in, we’re not at all that different and we are quite capable of peacefully co-existing. Sometimes I’d like to think that me and my husband are giving a small contribution to Estonian-Russian integration, because not only did our families have to deal with their issues about us two getting married, but we also have now a wide and rich group of friends from both nationalities. Sadly, Estonian-Russian couples are quite rare.

How did your love of travel begin?

My first proper foreign trip was to Saint Petersburg in Russia. But since at that time me and my husband were seriously poor students who actually hitch-hiked half of the way, were accommodated on the place by kind relatives and were bringing contraband cigarettes back with us to make some money off them, I don’t count that as a serious travel yet. But the trip that really made me take a moment and think about what kind of travels I would like for future was our vacation in Santorini island (Greece) in the summer 2006. I decided right there and then that package trips just weren’t for me. I felt such an incredible itch to get around on our own, spend every single second away from the hotel and definitely avoid the hotel pool 100%.

I’m not saying that sun vacations by the pool are any bad, but I do feel the nasty grin coming on my face when people who take those vacations talk about experiencing the local culture afterwards. While I’m not a person who feels the need to hike the jungles, teach something profound in Africa or live for a month with Mongolian yak herders to get to the root of things, I do think you can’t experience much by being satisfied with what you’re being fed by your hotel’s organized tours and pool menu. Throw the guide book out the window and go and wing it. You might just like it! I know I do! ☺

By now I’ve been to more than 20 countries and I strongly prefer the ones without euro or dollar as a currency. I figure I have plenty of time to make culture trips in Europe when I’m older and calmed down, until then I’ll backpack and feed my curiosity with exciting places like Cuba, Syria, China …

Would you like to live abroad, or do you always like to go home at the end of a trip?

I think I would really much like to live abroad, maybe even for a longer period of time, but at the moment I can’t really imagine moving away for good. But then again, I’ve always been very bad at long term planning ☺. I do know that every time I visit a new country, I find something new to appreciate about Estonia and while coming back is sometimes a drag, it’s usually because of the weather not because everywhere else is better. I’ve understood that Estonia has amazing nature and while we do not have mountains or waterfalls, the snowy forest in the winter can take your breath away!

Estonia is also very comfortable to live in. You can do anything over internet – organize your finances in the bank, file tax returns, vote for your favorite politician during elections, study in university, create your own firm within 15 minutes, sign contracts by using digital signature, deal with the bureaucratic machine and so on. And all that while sipping coffee in your favorite café and using the free wireless internet available almost everywhere. Or you can use your mobile phone for various services like paying for taxi or food in the grocery shop, parking, bus tickets etc. You can even order a real Christmas tree via mobile phone! Estonia is pretty high tech and I like it. It’s also very compact which means that changes can be implemented here fairly quickly. For example, for a long time we had an issue of negative population: more people died than were born. Now there’s a “parental salary” which pays you for 18 months your average wage, just so you can have a child and stay home without worrying about finances. And our population is slowly growing, not dying away. So yes, I want to come back home, I just wish there’s be better weather to greet me.

What’s your favourite place in Estonia?

Well, here comes the rather embarrassing part about me – I can’t say I’ve really extensively traveled in Estonia. Yes, I’ve been here and there, camping a bit and various daytrips, but I’ve never taken time off and just gone exploring around. Maybe it’s because traveling in Estonia requires a car. To see the nature and get off the beaten path, you can’t really rely on public transportation. And since I don’t have a car or a driving licence, I’ve had to make do with biking. Actually just a few days ago I thought we should go couchsurfing through Estonia, this could be very much fun.

But to anybody out there reading this article and thinking of visiting Estonia - do not limit yourself with just the capital Tallinn. Every city in Estonia is different and villages can be pretty cool as well!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why travel?


Let’s see, the first answers popping to my head would be something in the lines of „to see the world“, „to experience different cultures“ or „to expand my horizon“. But honestly, all that falls into the category of extra perks, the main reason is still that inexplicable itch and yearning to get away and not to stay put for too long.

It might be due to my heritage, centuries of oppressed Estonians have always been farmers who rarely got out of their own villages, not to mention traveled to other countries. Maybe my genetic memory is having a bit of a social revolution of it’s own and creates this determined wish to be off again to make up for the lost time? Whatever the reason, i love every second of it and hope my enthusiasm will never be crippled with daily problems and family routine.

It does make for a bit of a lonely life though, because big part of my family and friends, though absolutely cool and lovely people themselves, do not really understand why do i put all my free money into yet another trip somewhere (preferably a place without Euro or Dollar as a currency) and i still don’t have children or even a car. So being somewhat alone in that gripping endeavor, i found myself a trusted friend to give me extra motivation and most importantly – the loveliest memories ever that will last until the nuclear blast or ice age, which ever comes first. It’s my sweet sweet Canon 30D that travels with me anytime and anywhere. I can see myself forgetting to pack my passport, but never a camera :).

As they said in some movie voice over once: „Time is priceless, yet it costs us nothing. You can do anything you want with it, but own it. You can spend it, but you can't keep it. And once you've lost it, there's no getting it back. It's just .. gone.“ And how very true it is! So travel and experience, before it’s all gone.

Anybody cares to guess where all those shots are from? :) 

Download this travel wallpaper!

PS! I do this mistake every time i go on a trip somewhere - I forget to write about it to my friends and then later i find out that somebody i know was in the same place exactly the same time i was, except we didn't know about each other's travels. So, now i'm going to keep my travel schedule up in the blog (see left side menu) and hopefully these annoying situations won't happen again!

Until then, if anybody is heading to Middle-East between 20th September to 13th October, let me know, maybe we can meet. I'll probably be covering Turkey, Syria, Jordan, no fixed plans yet.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Journey back

It just so happened that Fes turned out to be my last stop in Morocco. Actually Fes turned out to be my last stop on this trip altogether because i had to return to Estonia quite unexpectedly. But -- it was fun while it lasted and i'm very happy i decided to embark on that trip to begin with.

So, on my last days in Fes i took it very slow. I walked around the city, strolled along the market streets, bought some spices and sweets and so on. After spending so much time in Marrakech, one starts to realize what a peaceful and tranquil place Fes really is. And -- coincidentally not really a best place to buy souvenirs from. No, don't get me wrong, Fes has some nice authentic things to offer, like the famous blue patterned ceramics etc, but for more typical Moroccan souvenirs like babouches (slippers) Marrakech has just bigger choice and is more open to .. let's say flexible bargaining.

 Fes is known for it's superb blue ceramics

 A very typical way to serve tea

A cook in a street restaurant

A lamp shop

Taylor shop

Medina. Walls of the houses are supported to prevent collapsing. 
A pretty surreal place to walk

At the market

Note the writing on the girl's pants :) 
If mom and dad would know what it meant, 
d'think they would still be so open minded?

But, after i was all stocked up and organized, it was time pack my bags and head out. The Fes-Saïss Airport is about 15 km outside the city and you are most welcome to walk there / take a bus OR you can take a taxi and pay supernatural price for a rather short ride. The taxi drivers in Fes know exactly how to keep a monopoly running and charging 120DH for one way is a strict code they all abide by. No exceptions. But i'd heard that there was also supposed to be a local bus to the airport (bus no. 16) that stops at the train station and costs only few dirhams. So i got myself to the train station, found a bus stop, snickered disdainfully at the taxi drivers offering their services and generally felt pretty good about myself. Never again will i pay that over-inflated sum just to drive 15 km, hah! Now this is what separates a tourist from a traveler - sense of adventure and independence! So i waited. And waited. And waited some more. And that went on for over an hour until i couldn't wait any longer. Mysteriously, every person i tried to ask from about the bus didn't speak not even a word of English, so in the end i didn't even know if i was indeed waiting in the right bus stop or if the elusive bus no.16 existed at all :). Damn that bus! i thought while eyeballing my watch to see if i'm late yet. Finally i gave in, counted my remaining money and went to look for a taxi.

The first taxi driver told me the fare is 150 DH without blinking an eye. Moroccan taxi drivers have mean poker faces. Watching me pass him by to get to the next guy he quickly changed his price to the usual 120 DH. I felt annoyed. Like supremely annoyed. Not only had i just gotten bitch-slapped by my own arrogance, but now this guy was trying to skim the little pride i had left. So i made a sad face and told him that i only have 90 DH left. I took the money out of my pocket and showed him as if to prove it beyond any doubt. Of course i had somewhere in my backpack more, but i didn't want to give him any more money than i necessarily had to. He looked at the money, probably sized me up for a second or two, then laughed and said the fare is 120 DH. I figured i have about 5 more minutes before i really had to start going to the airport, so i decided to try my little pathetic cheating game on the next taxi driver. But you know, there are few things in this world that you can always count on - the grass will grow upwards, your mother is always older than you, silver foil isn't edible and that the taxi drivers are greedy. So of course he accepted my 90 DH price and i got to the airport quite in time in the end.

You got to be careful with locals in the airport. There's almost no such thing as "waiting in line" behind the check-in counter. Tourists usually try to keep an order of some sort, but Moroccans themselves - they are just all over the place. They will step over your bags and push you aside if you don't hold your ground. But they will do it very slowly, about 5 cm at the time, so you just feel like you're imagining it and don't want to cause trouble for nothing. And when you do say something, they will look at you with an obvious surprised look in those beautiful brown eyes of theirs and once again, you will feel like a mean old tourist with no kindness to others :). I always think of them as good people, just .. impatient.

Now, a handy tip for all those (single) ladies out there who are flying out of Morocco and fear that their baggage might be over the allowed weight limit. Always pick a check-in counter with a man sitting behind it. They are ALWAYS too busy to flirt with you to keep an eye on the weight of your bags. It saved me this time as well. RyanAir has this greedy little policy that a checked bag can only weight up to 15 kg, for every gram extra you will have to pay. And i mean every gram. Just next to me was a couple with about a kilo over the allowed limit and the check-in lady made them go and pay for it.

My journey back to Estonia was loooong. Since i had to get back quite abruptly, i didn't have much of a choice in terms of reasonably priced convenient flights. I ended up having 2 different flights and a long bus-ride to get back home. I spent a night in Frankfurt Hahn airport (Hertz Car Hire has pretty decent leather armchairs for sleeping) and then a whole day in Riga, the capital of Latvia. On the best of days i find Riga to be very boring city, but if you've been in transit for more than 24 hours, you really don't want to be stuck in some overpriced pretentious little province. I walked around for a whole day until it was time to catch my bus to Estonia. I had bought a ticket online already earlier and i was quite glad for it because i got the last seat in the bus, no. 43. But when i got to the bus, it turned out there only were 42 seats and they had sold me a seat that didn't exist! At first the bus was rather empty, so i could sit anywhere, but as it passed through cities towards Estonia, it got pretty full and i kept being bounced around from one place to another every time a new person got on the bus and claimed my seat. I was quite dreading that last stop on the way, because the bus would get full and i would have to spend the rest of the trip sitting on the floor somewhere. I guess the big guy up there was just having a bit of  fun on my expense and hadn't forgotten me completely, because when we got to the last stop, turned out that one person had missed the bus and i got to sit like a normal person for the rest of the trip after all.

Coming back home is always more trouble than going away. The bags are heavier, the flights seem longer and more boring, lingering in the airport and waiting for connecting flights is more torturous than usually etc. Needless to say i couldn't wait to get home already. I was feeling restless and incredibly anxious, but also very glad. Only Jevgeni knew i was coming home, we didn't tell anyone else. I figured, i might as well get some fun out of it. It was completely satisfying to surprise my family and friends by just showing up, well worth the effort of coming back under the cloak of darkness. In many ways it felt that i've been away for so long and at the same time just for a little while.

Well, that concludes my stories about Mexico, Cuba and Morocco. But since i've been blogging here retroactively and i've traveled since then quite a bit, i hope you will stay tuned for new stories & photos of new places.

Hope to return to Morocco one day soon, 

Monday, May 31, 2010

The old cemetery and a twisted adhan

A little Moroccan story # 3

There is an old cemetery in Fes, right on top of the hillside, keeping watch over the medina down below. It's old, it's actually very old. Most of the tombstones are already gone or least turned into almost indistinguishable pieces of rock due to years of persistent wind and rain.

There are ruins of past buildings and big sandy rocks with cave-like shallow openings. The place is quite remote and not exactly on the trail of tourist traffic. It's a pretty cool place to sit and watch over the city, minus some creepy guys who sometimes gawk around there. But if you pay no attention to them, they eventually fade away. 
You can see far and wide from there. From surrounding nature to the busy city. The view over the city (medina) isn't much to look at actually. For a sensitive eye of a European, trained in modern clean and sterile architecture, it all looks like a big pile of something .. unpleasant. 

The houses are unfinished, extremely dull, gray and undecorated. They all look the same and they cover a lot of ground, like someone just CGI'd the whole medina. But that's the way Moroccans roll. The houses are unfinished because the families are ever-growing and you never know when a new floor needs to be built. The rooftop is an important part of the house - women do a lot of their major household chores up there (like washing etc); rooftop is also place to store things, dry laundry and maybe even keep a small garden patch; it's a playground for kids and if necessary even a farmyard for birds/animals. So nobody really goes out of their way to keep it shiny and trendy. But all that makes the city look like a huge heap of trash piled on top of garbage dumped on top of construction remains. 

This cemetery is a perfect place for listening the sounds of the city, including adhans (prayer calls). An extremely religious city like Fes is filled with bigger and smaller mosques, all of them serving their nearby community and reminding  Muslims to pray when mandated. For a non-Muslims like us adhan basically only marks the passing of time, but Muslims are faith-bound to honor Allah five times a day by praying to the direction of Mecca and reciting their individual prayers. 

So, me and Kaidi were once sitting up there, enjoying the summer breeze and warm sun on our faces.  The prayer time was just being announced and you could hear how muezzins from different mosques were one by one calling Muslims to the prayer. The flow of adhans (prayer calls) started from one side of the city and gradually moved over it to the other side, it's direction tied to the movement of the sun. It seems to me that Fes has either 1) very bad recordings of adhan, or in case it's actually sang live then 2) most mosques must have severely substandard speakers-equipment. Because the quality of the call is often so bad that it's painful to listen. The constant audio noise gets in the way, distorts the speech and provides an opportunity for two tourists with their non-religious pagan ears and filthy minds to hear exactly what we heard. And i swear, we both looked at each other, blinked wildly and confirmed that we did indeed hear how the muezzin was singing and singing and suddenly ended with " ....  kebab!". I know, we're going to hell for that, but an ear hears what an ear hears. Or maybe it was all that old creepy cemetery .. Later when we told our little observation to the riad's manager Nabil, who by the way is the least religious guy around, he actually got annoyed with us and said it's was a horrible thing to hear! I guess we're lucky we didn't recount our little auditory mishap to an actual devout Muslim. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Love & Morocco

A little Moroccan story # 2

Morocco is a country of feisty people and opportunistic minds. A lot of young Moroccan men dream of making it big either in Morocco or elsewhere, but by far the most popular dream is just getting out of Morocco, into the wealth and freedom of Europe/USA/etc. There's even a joke going around that Morocco’s main export is eligible grooms :).

If you’re a woman and you visit Marrakech, Fes or any other bigger place, you’re bound to encounter young men looking for a one night stand, future sponsor or a de jure wife. Any white woman will do, her outlook is not a factor. If you’re not familiar with the tactics and maybe also just a bit naive, it is very easy to be swept off your feet by powerful words and seemingly sincere feelings that those dark eyed passionate men claim to feel already after few mint teas together. How many women hear something like that back at home on a regular basis? Every woman wants to be cared for and cherished and those men play right on those women’s insecurities – who wouldn’t want to be loved just as they are? Not as a bit thinner or prettier, but just as they really are. Realistic view of the situation is of course that those women are just being used for money, visa or marriage and the guy’s love will dry up as quickly as the minutes pass after you've lost your usefulness to him.

Marriage proposal is something that any woman visiting Morocco will experience sooner or later. My funniest proposal was in Fes when a guy suggested i marry him and when i turned to leave, he yelled after me on the street that he will be a good husband, will cook and clean :).

I’ve made some curious acquaintances in Morocco and after you get past the playboy hustler image and they don’t see you as an opportunity for a better life anymore, it is quite interesting to talk to them – to listen to their stories, opinions, thoughts and ambitions. These are the guys you see hanging on the streets or cafeterias, hair carefully oiled, dressed up to their eyeballs in Versace and Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs. They really do aim to get out of Morocco, but if that fails, they would also go for a woman who lives somewhere in Europe, but is rich enough to support him in Morocco. They don’t necessarily want to abandon their family and friends, but easy life and get-rich-quick schemes are definitely in their minds. Next time you go to an internet café, look around before ferociously logging on to your e-mail account – it is not at all uncommon that behind one of those computers you will see guy with a bunch of instant messaging windows open on his screen, chatting with more than one woman in the same time and proclaiming his undying love to each and every one of them. It’s a game and it’s fun, and the grand prize is the easy life!

I read an interesting list once. It gives few handy pointers to women who truly believe that they have found a true love from an Arabic country, but who have still maintained enough presence of mind to think realistically and doubt even a tiny bit in His motivations. The original list is in Estonian (Islam-introducing website in Estonian), but here's the summary:

Depending on what he wants from you, tell him that ..

1. you are not really wealthy at all and you did not pay for this trip yourself, it was a lucky prize of some sort.
2. it's almost impossible to get a visa or a permanent residence permit to your country
3. you don't believe in premarital sex
4. it's customary in your society that men pay for everything
5. you do not agree to take things further with him unless you get to meet his family (not close friends, but exactly his parents)

How big is his love afterwards?



When me and Ylle visited Fes, we actually had an chance to meet and observe one such couple. Let's call them Houssam and Aiko. Houssam was a 26 years old Moroccan man with a strong philandering feel about him. In Estonia a man like that would be described as "bangs everything that moves". The girl he was trying to reel in was this little timid and frail Japanese woman. She was slightly over 30 and clearly very much in love with Houssam. I imagine she wouldn’t be considered a beauty in her own country, but she was definitely a very cute and lovely girl. Houssam and Aiko had met a year or so back on her first trip to Morocco and without really speaking each other’s languages, they somehow started exchanging emails. Soon after Houssam proposed to get married and Aiko happily accepted.

 Houssam and Aiko

We met them in the riad, they had just come from visiting Houssam’s home in the desert. At the first glance they were a cute couple, but the more you looked at their dynamics, the sadder the situation seemed. Houssam was indifferent and sometimes even rude with her, which is actually very uncharacteristic - men like that usually are sweet as honey and make a woman feel like a princess. If you are trying to get a woman to marry you, you really want to keep her happy and illusioned. All that made me and Ylle think that if he is already now so distant and uncaring, what will he be like after they get married and everyday routine kicks in?

Aiko spoke some English and when she found out that I am married, she seemed to decide that I am exactly the right person to talk about her love life with. She was telling me how Houssam wants to move out of Morocco right away, but not to Japan, but to somewhere in Europe. She was an office worker back in Japan, she couldn’t really imagine starting her life all over again on a new continent. I got this very strong vibe from her that she desperately wants to get married and start a family, the pressure she was feeling to accomplish all those goals was quite obvious already after a brief conversation. Maybe back in Japan it was somehow shameful that she was over 30 and still unmarried. She wanted kids but Houssam didn’t want any yet, he was also not interested in meeting her family in Japan. Frankly, the guy seemed like a complete douchebag and I really couldn’t believe she was even considering starting a life with him. But it wasn’t my place to comment on that, so I kept my mouth shut. I just listened to her talking about the man of her dreams and a wish to start a life together.

I made some photos of them and when I got back to Estonia, I sent them copies as well. Houssam answered right away, all flirtatious and eager, which reminded me immediately how he was trying to brush against my hair and kept petting my hand back in the riad’s kitchen when nobody else was around. I’m getting a gag reflex just by thinking about it. I’m telling you, the guy was a dog and he definitely had many irons in the fire at the same time. Aiko e-mailed me back as well, thanking for the photos and going into a monologue about her relationship again. We e-mailed back and forth for a while before she asked right out if I think she should marry Houssam. I guess she still had doubts, good for her. I told her about my little observations, but all in all I don’t even know what she decided in the end. We lost touch at some point, though would be interesting to know what became of them.


My husband is Russian and I am Estonian. A lot of people ask how do we cope with the culture differences. And every time I want to ask back: “What culture differences?”. I mean, yes, Russians and Estonians have some differences when it comes to general background, temperament, language  etc, and at times even interpretation of historic events between those two nations, but come on! these are not exactly cultural differences that cannot be overcome. Me and my husband agree on way more things than we disagree on and we have generally respectfully decided to avoid discussing certain topics that we can't see eye to eye on. Regardless of history between Russians and Estonians and apart from politics meddling in, we’re not at all that different and we are quite capable of peacefully co-existing in Estonia. But every time I read about some girl finding herself a dark eyed handsome Muslim boyfriend during a vacation in a country like Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Morocco, I wonder if she really understands what she is getting herself into. Now there's a cultural clash waiting to happen!

Islam actually has a pretty well defined set of rules and regulations to live by and women, though maybe more homebound with children and with a bigger load of household chores thereof, are actually still quite protected. A man has obligations when it comes to how he treats his wife, how he behaves with his family and how he lives his life altogether. And a proper Muslim man will follow those rules to the best of his abilities. It doesn’t make him a religious nut or a raging extremist, its just a way of life, a code of conduct if you will. And therein lies a catch. The Qu'ran forbids a Muslim man from marrying a non-Muslim woman (except Christian and Jewish women who are true believers). But a man who is shopping for a wife in the beach resort or in the internet is by definition not a devout Muslim and therefore also not following the teachings of Islam *. And a woman marrying a guy like that has absolutely no guarantees that she will not be mistreated or disrespected and a man like that will have no moral compass to set his behavior by, except his own understanding of right and wrong. And that understanding may not be anywhere near to the woman's understanding. CLASH!

* The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saw) said:
Whoever marries a woman for her glory, Allah will not increase his, but will bring him humiliation; whoever marries her for her wealth, Allah will not increase his, but place him in poverty; whoever marries her for ancestral claims, Allah will not increase his, but in meanness; whoever marries a woman for nothing but to cast down his eyes, guard his private parts, and to establish a relationship, Allah will bless him through her and vice versa. 
(Al-Targhib wa al-Tarhib)


Note: This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival #6 "Encounters", hosted by Camden Luxford from The Brink Of Something Else. Follow the link here to see more photos and stories about "Encounters: portraits of the inspiring, unforgettable or downright strange people you've met on your travels" from some of the world’s best travel bloggers.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thirsty tourists on a beer run

A little Moroccan story # 1

Morocco is an Islamic country and since Islam forbids alcohol, it’s available only in some bars , restaurants and supermarkets, aimed mostly at tourists or fallen Muslims with weak character.

It was a particularly hot June back when me and Ylle were visting Fes, so we decided to go to a supermarket to get some cold beers. Fes has only two big supermarkets, everything else are just small vendor booths on the streets. These booths sell only the very essential stuff like basic groceries and other household supplies. Definitely NO alcohol. We thought we would walk a little and we asked Nabil  (the riad's manager) for directions. „Yes, yes, the supermarket is very close“ he said, „Just start walking here, cross the first intersection, few minutes later you cross another and then yet another, turn right after the intersection with a sharp looking statues in the middle, walk a bit more and there you go“. OK, seemed easy enough. In reality it was about an hour of walking in the scorching heat, we geniuses also forgot to take water with us. And those intersections were like kilometers apart, not few minutes! But we were determined to see it to the end and so we toughed it out. Later it turned out that Nabil was giving directions and estimated time as a scooter driver, not as a pedestrian. I can very well believe that it would take him on the scooter only 10 minutes, instead of an hour that we walked. 

Finally we got to the supermarket, went to the special alcohol section and bought our beers. In Morocco they sells those cute little light beers, about 33cl a bottle (a pilsner called "Spéciale Flag"). You can drink a whole bunch of them without noticing that your knees are starting to rock. Me and Ylle called them lady-beers, they were just so „bite-size“ :). I don’t usually even like beer that much, but those lady ones were p-r-e-t-t-y tasty. So, we bought our beers and since there were no taxis around, decided to walk back as well. On the way we got of course hot and thirsty again, so we opened some beers and enjoyed ourselves. Passing people did watch us funny, but we barely even noticed them.

Now, looking back, i swear, we were damn lucky we didn’t get our asses kicked. It was so incredibly rude to consume alcohol on the streets of such a conservative islamic city like Fes, more so because we were women, uncovered and not accompanied by a man. It was only our 2nd or 3rd day in Morocco, we were total ignorant idiots, the thought didn't even enter our empty heads that maybe we are being exactly those tourists that we usually point a condescending finger at. I'd like to think by now i already know better :).

It is actually interesting that though Morocco being an Islamic country morally forbids alcohol, it's actually quite widely used and specially popular among younger generation. In Estonia you have to be at least 18 to be allowed to buy and consume alcohol and drinking on the street in public is not allowed at all. Ironically, in Morocco, you can buy the alcohol from the age of 16 already and as far as i know there isn't a law that would make it punishable offense to drink it on the public street, yet while doing so,  you would break a whole bunch of Islamic community laws stemming from Koran and the teachings of the prophets.

So cheers! Or terviseks (in Estonian)! But while in Morocco, it's safest to stick to a mint tea.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beavis and Butt-head go to hammam

This is a small story about visiting a hammam in Fes. Hammam is a sauna / public bath-house and along with the communal bakery, fountain, madrasa (school) and a mosque, it's one of the five traditional elements found in every Moroccan neighborhood. Traditionally private homes in Morocco didn’t have bathrooms, nowadays it's already changing of course. At the same time, majority of unrenovated houses in medina still have no washing facilities, so visiting hammam is nowadays both a habit and still a necessity. Hammam was also a place for social gatherings, specially for women otherwise burdened at home with household work and children. I imagine that the social function of hammam is still very much alive. The rumor is that hammam is also a prime spot for mothers for shopping future daughter-in-laws. Hammams are strictly gender separate – more fancier establishments specialize on men or women, smaller hammams have divided schedules, usually mornings for women and evenings for men.

This little story happened few years ago when me and Ylle visited Fes the first time. Coming from a country with a strong sauna culture, visiting hammam didn’t seem like anything specially exotic. So we thought we’d push it up a notch and go to a very very local place, somewhere deep in the medina. We didn’t want to have a tourist experience, we wanted to see how it is for the local women. We asked our riad’s guide Muahsin to take us to one of the nearby hammams.

The hammam Muahsin took us to was run by this big and strong Berber lady, she handled the money, people and everything else. First obstacle was of course the language barrier though truth be told, what’s there to discuss? It’s a sauna, we’re dirty and we came to wash. OK, when we got that part settled, it was time to undress. No problem, we’re all women here, just some whiter than others. We didn’t get any special attention until we started undressing. Our lacy colorful strings were very amusing for Moroccan women, some of them looked at us with this face mixed with surprise and pity: white tourists and can’t even afford themselves a proper ass-covering underwear? :). When we were about to drop our panties the Berber lady nearly jumped out of her skin to stop us. Turned out that in hammam you keep your privates very private.

When we had undressed ourselves to the appropriate degree, the Berber lady took us by the hand like children and lead us towards the washing area. I usually wear pretty strong glasses and when she saw that i’m blind as a chicken without them, she handled me very carefully. Our small walk through the dungeon like corridors and rooms to the washing area was actually pretty interesting. Ever heard the Tarzan howl? Well, Berber howling is a bit like that, they sort of ululate with all their might while moving their tongue very quickly from one side of the mouth to the other. The result is very loud and sudden sound and let me tell you, when you’re in your appropriate undies toddling over the wet tiles without knowing or even properly seeing where you’re being taken to, a thought of decapitation or scalping comes to mind while listening to that Berber war cry!

After walking through different rooms we reached to a big low washing room. This hammam was an old and tired building. From the inside it looked like an old Soviet sauna - lot’s of broken tiles, somewhat dirty and dark. The washing room was full of women crouching on the floor, sitting on small benches or on pieces of plastic. There were some children running around and the mood was very social elevated. Even the blind me could see how everybody turned to look when we walked in. Even if you couldn’t make out a lighter skin in the low-lit room, you could definitely see two blond heads.

It seemed that everybody brings their own bench or a plastic bag to sit on, but turned out we didn’t have to worry about that. Two little benches were immediately organized and our washing could begin. Hammam’s ticket is very cheap and that’s why the locals use it so actively, even the poorer people. Ticket is around 5-15DH and for that money you have to do all the work yourself. If you pay extra, you get your water buckets brought to you, you’re helped with washing and you will also get a massage. I guess we had somehow paid for an extra service, because the Berber lady quickly lugged huge buckets of cold and hot water in front of us. We started to wash ourselves and about 10 minutes later we were all done and ready to leave. A quick look around told us that we’re way ahead of the schedule, some women were watching us rather weirdly. OK, no problem, we thought, we can wash ourselves once more, just to fit in. This turned into about 6 cycles of washing and we still finished way before others did. Those women were really scrubbing themselves, i mean hard, my skin started to feel soar after the 3rd cycle already. The Berber lady, at first observing us in silence, decided to put a stop to it, step in and teach us how to wash ourselves properly. First victim – Ylle. They have these special scrubbing brushes for washing hair. First time i saw one, i thought this is something i’d use for washing pots and pans at home. So, the Berber lady grabbed one of those, stuck it into Ylle’s hair and pulled. I think people on the streets could also hear her scream. I watched and felt suddenly very protective about my hair. At first i laughed because regardless of Ylle’s personal injuries it was still very funny, but when the Berber lady turned her attention to me, i could feel how my hair follicles were shrinking deeper into my scalp. Anticipating loads of pain, i covered my head with my hands, while shaking it frantically and backing away against the wall. Luckily the Berber lady understood my subtle body language and let me off the hook. Next step in hammam’s washing process is scrubbing your skin to exfoliate. The Berber lady was rifling through our bags to see where are our special black scratchy gloves that Moroccan women use for exfoliating. Of course we didn’t have any. So she took one of Ylle’s washing gloves instead. This glove, you see, is very nice if you also soap it first, not so much anymore when somebody’s trying to rub your skin off dry.

That Berber lady was a mean strong woman. Just as everybody else she was also naked except underpants. She was wearing one of those tight men’s boxers with Dolce & Gabbana logo in the front and a big whole on the backside. After scrubbing us thoroughly she signaled Ylle to step up for a massage. She directed Ylle to lie face down on some questionable piece of plastic on the floor, got on top of her and started massaging. When it was my turn i understood why Ylle had been occasionally squeaking weirdly, the woman had fingers of steel! No, strike that – fingers of whatever metal is the hardest nowadays! I thought she was going to dislocate most of my joints and i literally pushed my fist into my mouth not to weep. I hate massages, i always have, there’s something really annoying about random people squeezing me. But due to my back problems i’ve had my share of them, so i know what a hard massage means. And she was taking it to a whole new level - like trying to squeeze the living juices out of me right there and then. I remember lying on the floor, trying to focus on anything other than the pain she was inflicting on me. First i tried to concentrate on the sounds, but that generic Arabic chatter didn’t really distract me enough. Then i started busying my pain-stricken mind with observing the surroundings. I remember watching as the soapy water was running on the floor towards the drain, creating small rivers with bubbles, hair and other muck mixed into it. Luckily my weak eyes couldn’t distinguish all the details :).

When the Berber lady was done massaging, she proceeded to stretching. I don’t remember the exact procedure, but it ended up with my face shoved tight against her ample bosom. It might sound nasty, but at that moment i remember getting flashbacks into my childhood when me and my grandmother went to sauna together and she was washing me in her lap. The whole situation was so absurd that it made me giggle violently. I must’ve seemed like a lunatic to the Berber lady.

The Berber lady had a habit of suddenly showing up and pouring a bucket of water over me or Ylle. Usually it was cold water and i’m not sure until now what purpose did it serve. Maybe she just liked the high pitched shrieks we produced when unexpectedly confronted with a 40 liters of cold water. Luckily she favored Ylle much more than me, so i escaped the biggest chunk of her gracious attention.

When we were finally finished with our washing, we headed back to the dressing room. The Berber lady and a handful of other women came with us and sat down right next to us to openly stare at our every move while commenting in Arabic to each other. We started getting our stuff together and  soon discovered, under the watchful eye of our audience, a crucial mistake in our hammam plan. Since we assumed that Moroccan hammam is like Estonian sauna, meaning fully naked, we didn’t really have extra clothes with us. That meant no dry pair of underwear either :). But we couldn't also just dress on top of the wet underwear .. All that was very funny to our audience, they definitely got their money's worth that day.

Finally when we were ready to leave and headed for the door, the Berber lady with all her 160 kg got up and blocked it for us. She was explaining something which we didn't understand at all. We figured that we couldn't be in trouble because her face was kind and friendly. Finally it somehow dawned on us that Muahsin, who brought us to the hammam, must've told her to keep us there until he came and picked us up. I guess he thought we would get lost in medina trying to find our way back to the riad. We of course disagreed and as soon as the Berber lady's attention faded for a second, we quickly slipped passed her and ran up the stairs, giggling like insane school-girls on crack. And of course we found our way back to the riad, it was only 10 minutes away. Ye have a little faith, Muahsin! About 15 minutes after we arrived in the riad, Muahsin also ran in, breathless and afraid. I guess he went to "collect" us and got scared when we weren't there.

All in all it was a pretty surreal experience though we totally had a blast. Most of the time we were joking and laughing, snickering and giggling, the local women must have thought we were somewhat unstable. If you are touchy about hygiene and chickenhearted about strange situations, then maybe visiting a local hammam isn't for you. But you can always opt for an upscale spa house where floors are covered with rose petals and a fragrant scent of jasmine is flowing about. But i think i will speak for both Ylle and me when i say that visiting that particular hammam was definitely a fun experience, a quirky look into a local not-so-very-public culture.

  Me and Ylle

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fatiha and her beautiful family

To start things off, a little overdue announcement:
Very popular travel guide Lonely Planet has selected this blog Destination Anywhere to a special list of featured blogs on their website. It's actually pretty cool, now both my photos and stories of my travels & adventures are on, shown next to related content for other travelers to enjoy and benefit from.


Every time i’ve visited Fes, i’ve stayed in the same riad. You already read about riad's the bellboy Muahsin a few posts back, now i’d like to write about the riad’s cook & cleaning lady Fatiha. She is lovely and prepares a wonderful breakfast, but that’s not what i wanted to share with you. Today i wanted to tell you about her beautiful family.

I first met Fatiha when we visited Fes with my friend Kaidi back in October 2008. She was managing the riad's domestic side, keeping the house spotless and preparing our breakfasts. Fatiha speaks only Arabic, so we couldn’t really converse, but she had her daughters with her at work and i entertained them and myself by snapping photos of both the kids and Fatiha herself. They posed for me sweetly and seemed to take pleasure in being photographed. When i got back home, i made big A4 prints from those photos and bound them in a nice photo album. When visiting Fes this time around, i took the album with me and gave it to Fatiha. At first she looked puzzled, she turned the closed album around in the her hand, obviously a bit confused as why i gave it to her and looked at me with an odd expression. I gestured her to open it and when she did, a big smile came over her face. She was slowly flipping through the pages and watching big glossy photos of her beautiful girls. She said something to Muahsin who was nearby and he translated to me that Fatiha would like to invite me to lunch at her home. Of course i said yes, how very interesting chance to catch a glimpse to a very private life of an average Moroccan family.

Around lunch time she came to riad again to pick me up. We walked quietly, every once in a while exchanging glances and little smiles until we reached her home. Her house was about 10 minutes walk, just a few steps from the noisy market street by Blue Gates. The house itself was a pretty typical quirky house in the Fes's medina, small and dusty, tightly squeezed between the other houses on the street. The family itself lived in a small two room apartment up the very narrow and steep staircase.

Her family was much bigger then i had expected. Turned out she had 4 girls and one son + a husband. They were all waiting at home, the album had obviously become a highlight of their day. Children were all huddled together and carefully turning pages while chattering excitedly and pointing with finger to each other photos. There was a certain gleam of sadness in the eyes of those who's photos were not in the album. 

I was a bit worried about my skills of pantomiming for hours and hours in the row, but it turned out that the son Mohammed spoke pretty decent English and was also very enthusiastic about talking to me, clearly taking great pride in being the only one in the family able to do that. So i was able to talk after all, Mohammed was translating everything to the others and vice versa. Languages are still amazing things, it’s just incredible how they unite and sometimes also divide people, depending on how much you paid attention back in school :). 

The center of the home was definitely the TV, it was beautified with artificial flowers and doilies. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to it the whole time i was there, but it was turned on nonetheless and every once in a while somebody would go and change the channel or make the volume louder. There was very little furniture in the living room, just a big table for eating, couch , few chairs and a cupboard with the TV. The other, bigger room was obviously for sleeping, it was full of carpets on the floor and bedcloths piled up in the corner. They all probably slept on the floor on the carpets and during the day the bedcloth were just folded away. I caught myself thinking about those juicy cockroaches again who no doubt were roaming around the apartment in the night and mostly on the floors. The kitchen was very small and seemed to have only a stove in it, no fridge or other household appliances.You know how they say about photographers - it's not the camera, it's the guy behind it that makes great photos. Well, i guess real cooks can also do miracles without a fridge or a blender.

Mohammed explained that since it was Friday, we were going to be eating cous-cous. Soon enough the older girls started setting the table. First they brought out small bowls with some unknown berries that were absolutely delicious. Reminded me berries that grew around my grandmother's house and which i always feasted on when i was spending my summers there. Next course was cookies. Since i don’t care much for the sweet stuff, specially dry cookies, it took some pretending and self-control to eat a few and make a very good face while doing so. Then the juice and tea was served and small plates with fresh salad. I remember wondering how much of it was their ordinary normal lunch routine and how much was added specially for the guest. Moroccans are famous for being warm and generous with their guests, i wouldn't be surprised if they usually went straight to the main course. When the whole family was seated, the big plate of cous-cous was brought on the table. Everybody got a piece of bread which in Morocco is used instead of a fork or spoon. You take a piece of bread and use it either by scooping up the food with it or sort of smashing the food with the bread and then putting the bread with smashed food stuck on it to your mouth. I was of course supplied a fork, but i must proudly report that after living a month in Morocco i’d become very handy with the bread. My favourite food in Morocco is beef tajine (casserole) and it’s actually much easier to eat with the bread than with a fork. In any case, i think i scored some extra points by not using the fork :). 

While eating from a big communal dish you should only stick to the food that's right in front of you. It’s considered rude to dive after a piece of meat in front of somebody else or grab some food across the plate from the other side. The cous-cous was very tasty, it was fragrant and gentle, mostly with vegetables and just a bit of meat. Fatiha, who was sitting next to me, was continuously ushering  pieces of meat in front of me, so i ended up having to eat most of the meat in the dish, because refusing would’ve been even more rude. Some of the family members ate with bread, others with fingers. I have no moral qualms about eating with bread instead of cutlery, but using one's fingers is definitely not for me. That is something i last did in the kindergarten and therefore it somehow feels .. wrong/weird. It just seems so messy business, maybe even dirty, though the person’s hands could be freshly scrubbed and very clean. Some preconceptions are just rooted so deep that it would feel like few thousand steps back in my personal development if i'd started to eat with hands. Watching people eating with hands in Morocco always makes me think about the toilet hygiene where they use the left hand instead of toilet paper and though they wash the hands after that, it still seems unclean somehow. 

Fatiha’s husband was a quiet and serious man. Not at all the pushy merchant type one is used to seeing on the street. When he had had time to look through the album, he made a point of asking Mohammed to translate and thank me for the gift. He said that i would be this family’s friend forever and always welcome. My skepticism bells went off of course, thinking something in the lines of: „Riiiight. We’ll be bestest of pals, won't we?“ and my somewhat paranoid nature didn’t even entertain the thought that he may not be working an angle here. But i smiled kindly and kept my nasty presumptive thoughts to myself. By the end of my stay it was quite clear that he had actually meant it, from everything he did and said (which was little) was no way to deduct any other conclusion. Maybe his words were a bit overly dramatic, but the idea was the same.

After lunch we were attempting to converse some more with Mohammed translating and me frantically trying to remember to keep my sentences short and concise. I had my camera with me and i ended up taking more photos - both of those who were not featured in the album in the first time around and of the whole family together. Unfortunately it seems i have lost the small slip of paper where Mohammed wrote their home address so i could mail them the new photos as well. But i guess it might’ve been for the better, it’s quite possible a big parcel of photos would not even reach to it’s destination, being that the house locates somewhere in medina with quite possibly no official address. I've also heard that Moroccan postal system, while erratic and slow, is also a bit .. shall we say greedy - they often make you pay to get your packages and those payments can be times and times higher than the packages themselves are worth. And i didn't get that vibe from Fatiha and her family that they have too much cash to spare. So i guess i'’m just going to have to take the photos myself when i return to Fes. Hopefully soon. Maybe in the autumn? Anybody wanna join?

Back in October 2008:

Visiting Fatiha's home and meeting the rest of her family:


Note: This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival #5 "Kids Around the World", hosted by Glennia Campbell of Click on the following link to see more photos and stories about "Kids Around the World" from some of the world’s best travel bloggers. 

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