Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Rooftops of Marrakesh

Marrakesh is a treasure trove of sites, smells, sounds, and people. As female travellers, my travel-buddy Maddy and I were nervous-ish about the difficulties posed for women visiting an Islamic country, but we were soon wandering around the souks like old pros with only the calls of "fish and chips" alluding to the locals taking notice of our shockingly pale skin.

One of the most surprising and picturesque aspects of Marrakesh is the rooftops, which form a sort of second city three or four stories above the ground. We spent most mornings up on the rooftop of our riad enjoying a mint tea and honey toast breakfast whilst watching the rooftops come alive with people hanging laundry, watering rooftop terraces, and chatting with neighbours. As the sun climbed higher it burnt all but the bluest blue out of the sky, bringing the encircling Atlas mountains sharply into focus by mid-morning.

When the sun retired back behind the mountains in the afternoon the changing light accented the red earthen brickwork of the rooftops, perfectly clarifying why Marrakesh is also known as Morocco's red city. Here are some of my favourite pics of this secret second city, hopefully they will encourage more people to roof-spot when they visit Marrakesh.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Wise Man Climbs Mount Fuji Once, A Fool Climbs It Twice...

I knew a girl once who had been to Egypt six times but had never seen the pyramids! I spent two years living in Japan and not climbing Fuji would have been a similar faux pas in my books. Its something you have to do once. So as soon as I arrived and with very little Japanese I set out to climb the iconic Fuji-san. 

My trip was scheduled for late August, about a month after I’d arrived in Japan. The extreme temperature difference between my point of departure in Ireland and my arrival in Japan meant that I no longer had any sense of "cold" and couldn’t at all relate to needing to wear a jumper (sweater) or lie under a blanket. So when it was suggested to me that I would need some warm clothes for the climb I decided a crumby pair of gloves, a sweater, and an extra pair of socks would suffice.

Enthusiastic to depart
A bus brought us to stage 5 of the mountain and I tumbled out excited and optimistic. It was 4pm and raining with a mist covering most of Fuji and thus it was still possible to maintain the belief that "it wasn’t that high!" I put on my sweater and attached my dollar-store bicycle light to my head. I bought a walking pole as an indulgence and set off with what was to become one of the many people who has saved my life. The plan was to climb through the night to arrive in time to see the sunrise. This sunrise is meant to provide such clarity and wisdom that some people have climbed mount Fuji a hundred just to witness it.

The climb was something I will never forget. I set off in as an individual amongst friends, confident that I'd switch between friends and climb on my own for a bit. Gradually the singing died out and changed into checking back and forth with my partner to see that they were coping. The going was slow: there were hundreds of old-age pensioners climbing at a very slow pace ahead of us. The cold descended faster than we could climb and we had to take frequent breaks to rub hands run on the spot. Darkness encircled us, and then the rain started.

sweet bean soup is never the answer
By the time my climbing buddy and I reached the top, 9 hours later, all social boundaries had been broken and I huddled close with my partner to steal any warmth I could. After hours of freezing climbing in nothing more than a sweater and a pair of now-soaking gloves, I had concocted a myth that the top would be some kind of oasis with hot spas and all-you-could-eat soup. Unfortunately, all we found at 2 am was an open-sided large hut with rows of wooden benches. But there did seem to be soup and I hobbled forward to claim my bowl - I'd eat anything! Unfortunately luke warm sweet bean paste (adzuki) soup did not even begin to hit the spot.

I was too cold to create a distraction as my climbing buddy changed out of his trousers (in the middle of a crowded room) and into a transparent pair of rain pants he'd purchased out of damp desperation from the lady dolling out soup. It didn‘t matter by then, dignity seemed ridiculous under the circumstances. For me, there was no point in trying to protect myself from the rain on the downward trail, everything I owned was soaking wet. I considered taking it all off and going down naked!

The long and winding road
In the end there wasn't time to follow this thought through, or to experience the transcendental sunrise, as a tropical storm warning was issued about half an hour after we had finished our soup. A little old Japanese man came up to us shouting that we had to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. I'd only been in Japan a month, but I had already wised up to the fact that you do not ignore the elderly in that country. I charged down the gravelly track with my partner, falling every so often on the loose gritty red and black volcanic pumice that constituted our path. To keep each other's spirits up my philosophy-major friend explained the meaning of life to me and by the time we reached the bottom I really did feel enlightened, wiser, and proud to have survived.

My epic climb over one of Japan's three holy mountains did not yield the memories I was expecting: I thought I'd feel exhilarated by the physicality of the climb, instead I felt exhausted; I thought I'd remember the stunning rising sun, I remember the luke warm soup; I thought I'd climb on my own, I now know I wouldn't have made it without a friend to help me through. I guess there's wisdom in there somewhere. As the Japanese saying goes: a wise man climbs mount Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice. I certainly won't be going up it again.


Last eruption was in 1707. 
The summit is 3,776m (12,340 ft) high.
The Japanese style paintings we often see of Fuji are by Katsushika Hokusai. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Prague Then and Now: Changes to travel over the last 2 decades

Missing Maps
Prague was the first city I visited in Europe back in 1999 when I was 18. The trip began in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1981, passed through back-water suburbs in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1986, and took a connecting flight from Dublin, Ireland, in 1998. So when I finally arrived in Prague I was blown away with the Gothic grandeur and layered history of the city. Despite spending the next two decades travelling across five continents, I still find myself constantly pulled back to Prague, unsure if my love affair is based on how magnificent the city is or just because it was the first place to capture my heart. I recently visited Praha for the fourth time and I couldn't help but notice how much travel to this great city has changed over the last 20 years.

Maps, Apps, and Money

Missing Maps
Czech Phrase Book
During my first trip in 1999 I was a penniless student so "cheap" was the name of the game. Prague was the perfect budget tourist destination. I stayed in a flat (pension) way out in Žižkov. On the first day I carefully packed a day-bag weighed down by maps, a guidebook, about IR£20, and an English-Czech translator dictionary. By the end of the week I had added a 1L bottle of water from the store in Žižkov to save money (prices were about triple in the city centre), a reading book, a bottle of sunscreen, a bottle of aloe-vera (bought the sunscreen too late), and an expensive (tourist-rate) summer scarf I'd had to buy outside one of the churches to cover my shoulders before the church would let me in. Years later I read "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien and identified with the hero's trauma.

Missing Maps
View across Prague from Strahov Monastery
Skipping forward to August 2014. Now I am a moderately successful travel writer in my 30s with enough money to afford my lack of enthusiasm for flats on the edge of the city. Ironically, now that I can afford a better, more comfortable bag to carry around better-quality guidebooks etc. everything I need seems to be free and fits onto my Samsung S5 Phone ...except the sunscreen (but at least this time I anticipate the Central-European sunshine and bring sunscreen with me.) I have numerous free city guide apps, translation apps, GPS maps with directions, and my for-fun novel (Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters - excellent vacation reading) all at the click of a button. Plus, I can now withdraw cash fairly cheaply so that I don't need to squirrel away large sums on money all over my body - or pay with card, a much-appreciated improvement in the system.  

Going Up: Cost of Living vs Taking Advantage of Tourists

Missing Maps
90 min transport ticket in 1999 was 12Kr, in 2014 it is 32Kr
But these savings are balanced out by the rise in the cost of living in Prague, which are to be expected. Beer has gone up from 30c in 1998 to about €1 (30Kr) in 2014. Still about 3x less than a cost of a (small) beer at home. In the most recent trip the price of a dinner came in at about €15 without penny pinching. 

But, the expense I didn't expect was the amount  previously free attractions now requiring an admittance fee and the disproportionate increase in entrance fees to tourist sites. During my first trip I survived on churches, free museums, and street concerts - almost none of my money went on "touristing". Joining the European Union in 2004 greatly opened up the Czech Republic to tourism, and rightly so, but the disadvantage is that it seems to have granted a license to rip off tourists. I tried asking one of the hotel receptionists about music venues in the city, but she explained that most Czechs wouldn't be able to afford city centre venues rates, or even to live in the city.  

Then and Now

Missing Maps
The Alchymist Nosticova Palace in Malastrana
My most recent trip was still an incredible vacation - thanks in part to being able to afford a much better quality of hotel (e.g. The Alchymist Nosticova Palace in Malastrana) and more beer... Charles Bridge was still beautiful as I walked across at midnight under the August Super Moon. Most importantly, in this trip I was familiar enough with the city not to need all the guidebooks/maps/translation dictionaries that I could ironically carry around with ease.

But some of the magic has definitely gone out of this city. Everyone in the tourist industry seems so jaded. I used to get a thrill out of ordering in Czech, but now all the waiters greet me in English and don't even bother saying "Dobrou chut'". Having to pay in to everything made my younger self cringe and I wondered how long it will be until there is a pedestrian toll for crossing Charles Bridge. I take consolation in the fact that city has withstood centuries of tourism and maybe my 40-year old self will return to a more-mellow Prague and by they'll have developed some kind of forcefield app to replace sunscreen.

Prague Cello Quartet playing Nothing Else Matters (Metallica) on Charles Bridge, Prague