A Love Letter to Travel

Watching my entire industry be torn to pieces by the COVID-19 outbreak has been absolutely devastating. This pandemic is wreaking havoc throughout the world, of course, but all I can speak to is my own experience. I’ve been trying to figure out how to express all of my emotions, but it’s all tangled up. I work in travel, travel is my greatest passion, all my hobbies revolve around travel. It’s completely wrapped up with my identity, and the grounding of flights, closing of borders, worldwide travel warnings – that identity has been pretty much torn away. I am SO lucky that I still have a job, I still have my income, my health, my family, my friends, my boyfriend. While my heart breaks for the people who aren’t as lucky, I’m still upset about how it has affected my life and I just needed to get my feelings out on ‘paper’ so to speak.

A few times, before I left on a trip, family or friends asked, “What’s the rush? The world will still be there in a few years.”

I never felt like I agreed with that – you never know what is going to happen. If you don’t go to that country you really want to see, who knows what could happen – a war could start, a pandemic could spread, a border could close. And look who was right!!!

In all seriousness, though, I am so lucky to have been able to travel to 57 countries, and see some of the most beautiful places in the world. That makes it a bit easier to put this all on pause, so I know that I made the right choice to follow my dreams right away. Because you really just never know.

My hope for the next few months are that we beat this quickly – that the world gets back to normal, people get well, borders open, industries come back to life. It’s bigger than me, but selfishly I can’t WAIT to get on that next plane. I’ve been thinking a lot about who I would be if I hadn’t found my passion of travelling. Certain countries have taught me specific lessons, certain journeys have shown me different ways to look at the world, and the essence of it all is that travel is one of the best things to ever happen to me.

China taught me that the whole wide world could be mine, if I was brave enough.

I grew up travelling with my family, but at 18 I still hadn’t really connected the dots that if I wanted to keep travelling, I just could. I kind of waited for trips to fall into my lap courtesy of my parents. Then, I spent a summer working at an accounting firm, which I thought was going to be my job for the rest of my life. I was mind-numbingly bored, and had LOTS of time to browse the internet. I discovered a world of girls not too much older than me, travelling the world alone and making it happen for themselves.

With that I booked a ticket to China, and I flew to the other side of the world. It’s so normal to me to get on a plane myself now, but then, it was scary and exhilarating. The whole trip showed me that if I wanted to see somewhere, there may be obstacles and it may be hard (see this article), but I can do it all by myself.

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Little baby Bethany in China

Morocco taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and it was all up to me. 

After China, I didn’t stop. Several short trips later and I was off for 4 months on the road. The first few weeks were pretty comfortable, either with my sister, or a friend. Then, I got on a ferry all by myself to Africa. I had no idea what I was doing, nothing booked, and when I got off the ferry to my first experience of touts hassling me and realized I didn’t have any directions, I almost broke down and left. Then I realized – it was all up to me. Nobody knew me, or anything about me. I could spend this month being exactly who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be scared to be alone, or shy around strangers. I could be the girl who lit up a room, who picked up new languages, who lived spontaneously.

So I was. It wasn’t perfect, and I still cried a lot (wouldn’t be Bethany without some tears), and sometimes I still felt frustrated by my own limitations. But I was only 19, and I realized something that would serve me so well for the rest of my life: you are in charge of your own self. If I want to live my dreams, the only person who is going to make that happen is me. If I want to be kinder, be more fun, be happier, I know exactly what I need to do to get there – it’s just a matter of doing it.

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As I wandered across Morocco with my new friends, I stopped looking at mirrors to pick apart my appearance. I stopped toning myself down to make friends, just being exactly who I was. And I never let that go, even at home.

Zanzibar taught me that I can conquer the things that scare me most, even if I’m alone across the world.

A year later, I took off again for a post-graduation trip. I was thrilled to be getting back on the road but nervous about what awaited me in ‘real life’. I had a lot of fears about the future, so I decided why not get over some of my lifelong fears to prove that I could.

I used to be afraid of everything, and some of those things still terrify me – birds and snakes, mostly. And yes, I sometimes still sprint to my bedroom from the bathroom in the middle of the night because I’m scared of the dark, but I’ve basically gotten past that one.

But even when I was afraid of everything, water was the worst. I never really learned to properly swim because deep water freaked me out so much, and the panic I felt every time I snorkelled was second to none. I still went on snorkelling trips, and swam at the lake in the summer with my friends, but the whole time I had to choke back this all-encompassing fear of the unknown at the bottom of the water.

On Zanzibar, a blissful week of sleeping steps from the Indian Ocean finally taught me how to fall in love with the water. Even swimming alone in the daytime was scary for me at first, because what if something grabbed me and my dad wasn’t there to pull me back?

But I built up my confidence, and one day gave myself the ultimate test by scuba diving. I learned that the only frightening thing about the bottom of the ocean was how beautiful it was, and that freed me from my panic. The rest of the trip, I barely left the water, from pre-breakfast morning swims to sprinting into the ocean with new friends,  This was one of the best weeks of my life, and my memories of it will always be entwined with the feeling of salt on my skin, tangles in my hair, and a smile on my face.

I went home feeling ready to conquer whatever the world threw at me – and this gave me the confidence to quit that shitty corporate job 10 months later, for a life of travel and living my dreams.

Turkey taught me that home is people and attitude, not about where you are.

Many trips and many tumultous life changes later, I headed on another odyssey, this time for a literal round the world trip. I headed back to Turkey for the third time, this time with my best friend Haley. Walking back into Cheers Hostel, somewhere I had visited with my sister at age 19, genuinely felt like coming home. The golden retriever was as cute as ever, the surroundings were familiar down to the intonation of the call to prayer, and the owners recognized me and made me feel so welcome.We headed up to the bar for one drink after an overnight train ride, and ended up meeting a group of friends who we spent the next few days with. We found a local restaurant where we felt like regulars, we basically made the top floor bar our home, and everything just fell into place. I have never wanted to leave a place less – I was heading to some huge bucket list destinations in the Middle East but all I wanted was to stay in this little bubble of home, friendship, and ‘family’.

The way you look at a place really influences how your time there is. I went into Istanbul excited to return somewhere I knew and loved, and this turned the entire experience into pure joy. And of course, we really lucked out with some cool roommates.

It’s fitting that this was the last country I decided to write about, because this lesson was the most important thing I brought home with me. I had several trips coming up that will likely be cancelled, and about 50% of the time I feel absolutely panicked about the fact that I am ‘stuck’ here at home for the foreseeable future. But the other 50% of the time, I remind myself of what I learned in Istanbul. My attitude is what matters, and I am using this time to write blog posts, learn languages, read books, do puzzles, learn to cook, and spend time with my boyfriend. And as for people, I am so grateful that if I’m gonna be inside for weeks on end, I am stuck inside with my amazing boyfriend who is the OTHER greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

Learning to be at home is hard, but being at home with someone I love is making that easier. Watching my industry collapse is hard, but working for a company who values us and is doing everything they can to help us is making that easier. Living with uncertainty is hard, but getting all my feelings out in this mammoth blog post is making that easier.

Highlights of Two Weeks in Tanzania

My trip to Tanzania was possibly the best two weeks of my life, but I have barely written about it. I kept wondering how to even start, so today I just decided I need to dive in and talk about all the incredible things I did and saw.

It was such a raw two weeks of travel. I wandered through an random neighborhood of Dar es Salaam wondering what I had gotten myself into, slept in a tent in the Serengeti, and swam in the Indian Ocean at sunrise with a handsome French architect. I never once thought about what I looked like or got stuck in my own head, I just lived in the moment and appreciated every experience.

Dar es Salaam

Starting in Dar es Salaam. I laugh at myself when I think back to this arrival because I was SO naive. I had travelled a fair bit before I got here, yes, but not really solo in a developing country. It was the first time I’d had to get a visa on arrival with cash, and I was so nervous about the chaos of the visa line.

I don’t have any photos of Dar es Salaam. So here is me on a boat.

I was worried when my visa was literally a stamp and some hand-written scrawl on my passport, and I was worried when I walked out of the airport that someone was going to kidnap me. As if! I would learn that Tanzanians were among the friendliest people on earth, but only after I got ripped off.

The taxi driver I hailed to take me to my Couchsurfing host’s house took me to a printed board of taxi prices, which I took as gospel. Obviously I should have negotiated. I don’t even remember how much I paid for the taxi, but I know that it was WAY too much.

I didn’t do a lot in Dar because I was so nervous, but I did spend a lot of time cuddling my host’s dog and napping on a sofa after an exhausting journey which included an overnight layover on the floor of the Doha airport.

Safari with Duma Explorer

I was nervous about 6 nights as a solo traveler on a group tour. I thought I’d be with old people, or boring people, or annoying people. I could not have been more wrong. My budget camping safari attracted exactly the right people and we had an absolute blast. Two other Canadians were travelling solo, and a pair of friends from London rounded out the group. We were so awkward for the first day, but by the end we were laughing and hugging and starting a group chat on Facebook. Our guide, Peter, and our cook Godfrey were pretty much a part of the group and I am still in awe of the food that Godfrey whipped up in the middle of the African savannah.

I will never forget listening to the Lion King soundtrack as we drove by prides of lions, herds of elephants, and pretty much any other fantastical scene you could conjure up. Every day was better than the last.

My biggest surprise on safari was that it wasn’t just the animals that were the attraction. The stark beauty of the countryside, especially at one of our campsites and in the Ngorongoro Crater, was almost the best part. Every night we drank wine around our campfire, talked, and then woke up at 6AM to do it all again.

Zanzibar

I bonded so much with the other Canadian girl on my safari that we actually went to Zanzibar together! We were on different flights, because she had actually planned in advance and booked it, whereas I had not. My method of planning in this case was to text my sister from someone else’s phone during a 5 minute period where we had phone service. I literally told her to book me a certain flight on a certain day and then went totally quiet again, and to her everlasting credit she actually did it! Thanks sister.

She had also booked a few days in a spot in Jambiani, so after several days exploring Stone Town we separated for a bit and then met back up in Kendwa, where I stayed for the whole time.

A beach near Stone Town

Beautiful sunset views

I kind of wish I had seen more beaches on Zanzibar, but also I am totally fine with the fact that I stayed on Kendwa for so long because it was incredible. I stayed in a dirt cheap dorm at an otherwise fancy resort, so the facilities and restaurant were incredible.

I went scuba diving for the first time, which blew my mind, and I am still so proud that I overcame my biggest fear all by myself.

I got the worst sunburn of my life, so bad that I wanted to scratch my skin off unless I just stood in the shower constantly. Obviously, I still kept going in the sun.

I drank mojitos on the beach with my safari friend, killing hours talking about absolutely nothing.

So happy about the water spot on my camera. But just look at this sand. It was all that white!

Happy and tan Bethany

I danced all night at the Full Moon Party, the aforementioned French guy catching my eye. He was living on Zanzibar working as an architect, and he spoke fluent Swahili and had tons of local friends – aka he was probably the coolest guy I’ve ever met. He asked me to stay another night and one of my biggest travel regrets is not saying yes. But alas, I had to make my way home via 1 night in Dar es Salaam, 1 night in Doha, 1 night in Berlin, and 3 nights in Reykjavik.

Tanzania: safe, amazing, life-changing. Go!

The Perfect Itinerary for a Month in Morocco (Part Two)

This is a continuation of Part One: head over here first!

Also, an FYI: Most of the photos in this post (aka all the good ones) are from my friend Alex, who I met in Tangier and travelled throughout Morocco with. Check out his Instagram, @amilesphoto – he’s got a talent!


TODRA GORGE (2 nights)

This was a really surprising part of the trip, and holds some of my most wonderful and calm memories of Morocco: dancing and singing late into the night, the only guests in our  hostel (Camping Le Poisson Sacree), and continuing the trend of camping we started in the Sahara desert.

Hiking up the gorge is great, and I’d recommend going either really early or just before sunset: at least when we were there, it was empty of vendors and other tourists. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try some rock climbing.

Read more here. 

OUARZAZATE (1 night)

Ouarzazate, despite the fact that it is practically impossible to pronounce, is the perfect stopover between the desert (or the Todra Gorge) and Marrakech. Its main claim to fame is that a nearby kasbah (basically just a historic town) has been used as a filming location for things like Gladiator and Game of Thrones. I will go anywhere for a Game of Thrones location, plus the fact that movies are shot here means that Ait Benhaddou, as the kasbah is known, is insanely well-preserved.

I have a whole post here about our stay in Ouarzazate and what we saw there; one night is sufficient to enjoy the main square and see the nearby sights. When you’re done, head off to Marrakech – we got our driver to continue on, since it was more affordable for 5 of us to split the grand taxi, but as always the bus is a good option.

MARRAKECH (3 nights)

Marrakech is often the only place travellers will see in Morocco: it’s the most convenient place for a weekend trip from Europe and I agree that it offers a really great first glimpse into Morocco. However, it was by far the most touristy place I saw in Morocco and certainly not my favourite city.

With that said, it’s definitely somewhere you have to see. The main square (D’jemaa el-Fnaa)  is one of the most overwhelming sensory experiences you’ll ever have, and historic buildings here are a dime a dozen.

We meant to take the bus to Essaouira, but ended up bargaining for a cheaper grand taxi. A lot of people do Essaouira as a day trip, but I’d recommend going there for longer:

ESSAOUIRA (5 nights)

This chilled-out little beach town was far and away my favorite place in Morocco. We rolled up to the cheapest hostel in town and I actually ended up staying there for almost a week working. I wrote a little bit about the experience in my Stories from Morocco post. It was not the greatest – I was kind of scared of the hostel owner – but I am glad I stayed in Essaouira for a while.

If you’re travelling Morocco for a month, you’re going to get exhausted. It’s gritty if you’re doing it backpacker-style, and you will be dirty, tired, and probably overwhelmed. Essaouira is the perfect place to chill out, get yourself together, and enjoy the beachy vibes. Lots more to say about this place, but make sure you get it on your itinerary.

From Essaouira, I knew I wanted to see Casablanca and Rabat – annoyingly, you have to go back through Marrakech. I bussed to Marrakech and took the train to Casablanca.

CASABLANCA (3 nights)

In Casablanca, I spent three days being the absolute worst tourist ever. The guys had all left from Essaouira, so I was alone and honestly kind of frightened. I stayed at the Hostelling International place here, and it was fine – easy to get to from the train station and very safe.

Casablanca is the biggest city in Morocco and it’s SO different from anywhere else. There are trams, modern malls filled with luxury stores, Starbucks everywhere, etc…so, I spent a lot of time hanging out in air conditioning.

Definitely make time to see the Hassan II mosque. It’s on the waterfront and absolutely breathtaking. The waves crash almost right on to the mosque, the tilework is indescribably intricate, and nobody would dare hassle you at a mosque. I spent almost three hours sitting in the shade nearby, chatting to women waiting for their husbands and smiling at their children.

Otherwise…I guess just take advantage of the air conditioning?

RABAT (2 nights)

Rabat is the capital of Morocco, and basically on nobody’s itinerary. I had an amazing time here, almost solely because of the Mawazine Festival. This year it’s from May 12-20. I was  there totally by chance, and you should try to do the same.

At the festival, huge international stars perform outdoors, for free. I saw Avicci with some brand new Moroccan friends and it was such a crazy  thing to do – see an EDM concert in Morocco.

Rabat also has some pretty sweet sights. There’s a beautiful kasbah, gorgeous beach views, and a mausoleum complex that is basically awe-inspiring.

Surprise – not Chefchaouen! This is Rabat.

When you’re done in Rabat, hop on the train back to Marrakech – the perfect place to catch your flight out of the country.

MARRAKECH (2 nights)

This is the one part of my trip I would have changed. I wanted to climb Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. It’s easy to do this from Marrakech on a tour, and I 100%, completely forgot. I landed in Milan and thought, “Hm, I feel like I forgot something.” Oh yeah, just a mountain.

So…next time? Anyway, you’ll probably end up in Marrakech at the end of your trip – try to remember the mountain. Otherwise, just soak up the last little bit of Moroccan exoticism and the onslaught of any medina you find yourself in.

The Perfect Itinerary for a Month in Morocco (Part One)

FYI: Most of the photos in this post (aka all the good ones) are from my friend Alex, who I met in Tangier and travelled throughout Morocco with. Check out his Instagram, @amilesphoto – he’s got a talent!

Recently, one of my favourite bloggers went to Morocco. Her site is Heart my Backpack, go check it out – but be warned you may get sucked into a vortex of reading blog posts for the rest of your life. I kid you not, I have read Silvia’s entire archive chronologically at least twice.

Anyway, now I can’t stop thinking about Morocco. I was there for a month two summers ago, and it was one of the most life-changing trips I’ve ever taken. It was my first foray into real backpacking – no plan, nothing booked, and enough time to really dive into the country. I’ve written quite a few posts about it already (here – this one is my favorite) but even though the trip was two years ago, I haven’t covered everywhere we visited.

With that in mind, and considering the fact that I saw practically everything I wanted to see in Morocco, for very cheap, I wanted to share what I consider the perfect itinerary for a month in Morocco.

TANGIER (1 night)

If you can, I would totally recommend getting to Morocco by taking the ferry. It leaves from several different ports in Spain (I went from Tarifa), and is such a cool experience – for the rest of your life, you get to say that you once took the ferry from Europe to Africa.

This man took us around Tangier and told us his stories

It costs around $55, and I just showed up at the terminal and waited for the next departure. In Tangier, stay at the Melting Pot Hostel: there are signs painted on the medina walls to help you find your way, and the owner is very kind. Tangier really only needs one night: it’s an overwhelming introduction to Morocco, but there are so many better cities to come.

CHEFCHAOUEN (2 nights)

Okay so here’s my take on the buses in Morocco. In every other post I read about them, people specify a time and a company. Every time I took a bus anywhere, I showed up at the station, asked someone for the next bus to Chefchaouen (or wherever) and just hopped on something random. Sometimes I got a nice air-conditioned tourist bus, and sometimes I got a bus with chickens running around the aisles and a steady temperature of 45 Celsius.

Either way, I never paid too much – unfortunately I can’t remember prices, but it’s pretty reasonable. You have to pay slightly extra to put your bag under the bus.

Tangier to Chefchaouen is about 5 hours. Read more about Chefchaouen here – I’d recommend two nights to explore the famous blue city.

FES (1 night)

Fes was my least favourite place on this trip because of the hassling, but it deserves at least one night for its gorgeous medina and uniquely chaotic feel. Stay at Funky Fes, which we really liked but had a weird vibe: from the minute we showed up the guy working seemed to take an instant dislike to us. Ah well, the terrace was worth it.

Check out the tanneries (bring a scarf to cover your mouth), the unbelievably historic buildings and like you’ll do everywhere in Morocco, just wander the medina.

MEKNES (1 day)

From Fez, our plan was to make our way to the Sahara Desert for a tour. We had nothing booked, so we booked a night bus from Meknes to Rissani with the goal of finding a guide when we showed up. Then we went off to spend the day in Meknes, which was kind of a strange place. We saw absolutely no other tourists here, and played with a ton of adorable Moroccan children for a little bit, but all of the historic sites we saw were just ever so slightly underwhelming.

These adorable children were a highlight of our visit to Meknes

Since we were catching a night bus, we wandered around the newer part of town for the evening: the guys tried snails from a street vendor and then we hung out in a bar. Bars are few and far between in Morocco, and this one was kind of hilariously sketchy: I was the only girl, of course. We played a rousing game of Never Have I Ever, drank too many gin and tonics, and before we knew it we had to go catch our bus.

Until I took my Colombian bus of horrors this February, I maintained that this bus ride was the worst of all time. it was around 12 hours, I alternated between freezing cold and burning hot, I was probably kind of intoxicated which didn’t make the bumpy roads super fun, AND my stomach was just generally not pleased.

At this point in the trip I had basically no appetite – some places just really throw off my stomach – and therefore ate maybe half a meal every day. Combine that with questionable drinking water, alcohol, and a night bus – what do you get? Hell. So I didn’t sleep.

And then when we arrived, the most irritating man I’ve ever met entered our lives: this post has more detail, but UGH.

SAHARA DESERT (2 nights)

Luckily, it all worked out – it was time to head into the desert. I totally recommend bussing straight to Rissani or Merzouga for a desert tour, rather than going from Marrakech. There’s a higher chance you’ll go to the actual dunes that you’re used to seeing, and there’s basically zero driving time. I guarantee someone will offer you a tour the moment you step off the bus – if not, walk around looking for an agency. Either way, you’ll find someone. Post to come all about my experience in the Sahara – we did a one night tour, but I’d probably do a two night tour if I could choose again.

Read part two of my itinerary here!

My 9 Favourite Hostels Outside Europe

I recently extended another Boston work trip to include a weekend, and this time the Hostelling International Hostel had a bed available! I was excited to try my first real North American hostel, which I assumed would be a totally different breed from the ones I’ve stayed in on almost every other continent.

When I walked in, I was hit with insane deja vu; it looked exactly like the hostel I stayed at in Berlin: One80 Hostel. I knew right away that it was going to be a much more enjoyable stay than I had predicted, and I was right! I fell so in love with this hostel that on a flight, I made a list of the 21 best hostels I’ve ever stayed in: from Hong Kong to Salzburg. The post got so long I split it into two; here’s the list of all the hostels I’ve loved outside Europe.

NORTH AMERICA

HI BOSTON: BOSTON, USA

Duh – I just talked about this one. This hostel had everything I love about international hostels: group activities, amazing location, free breakfast and great hang-out space. Side note, I can’t believe I just used the phrase ‘hang-out space’….

One of my favourite streets in Boston, and so close to the hostel!

Anyway, I had a blast here. I often expect Hostelling International hostels (the international accreditation organization) to be kind of stodgy and institutional, so this one exceeded all expectations. I also got to enjoy my first night as a legal 21 year old in the US with some of my roommates, which was very exciting.

AFRICA

HOSTEL RIAD BIK: MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

I can’t totally explain why I loved this place so much. I read some reviews and they’re all fairly mediocre – the facilities are a bit run down and there’s not a ton of space. But like most of my Morocco trip, the good outweighs the bad. The staff here was SO friendly – I wrote about them here – and the roof terrace holds some of my fondest memories ever. Also, it’s almost appallingly cheap.

What a great quality photo.

So happy that I was on my phone. Anyway, I miss this terrace.

CAMPING POISSON SACREE: TODRA GORGE, MOROCCO

Thinking back on this place, I would NEVER want to stay here alone – it was literally empty until we arrived and the only staff were men. But with the four guys I was travelling with, it was amazing! I wrote a whole post about this place, but suffice it to say the staff, location, and beds were practically life-changing.

My favourite quote from the post: “Cooking in hostels in an art which I have not yet mastered, while lying on a canopied sofa in the Moroccan twilight drinking wine is one of my greatest skills.”

KENDWA ROCKS: ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA

Not technically a hostel – technically a resort. But I still booked a dorm, so I’m saying it counts. Honestly the room was kind of shitty, buuut I got to stay right on the most amazing beach in the world and use all the resort facilities and that 100% made up for it.

SO glad I had water on my camera lens for all of these photos.

This place is where I got over my biggest fear in the world and went scuba diving, where I had the most romantic evening of my life with a French architect, and I will always want to return.

THE GREENHOUSE: ARUSHA, TANZANIA

I should hate this place, because it left me hungover for my first day of driving six million hours in my safari car. However, the people I met here were so lovely that I could never hate it. Also, my dorm bed was a DOUBLE BED – just for me. And all my meals were included. For the price I was paying ($15 USD a night), I couldn’t have asked for more value. The hostel is a haven for volunteers in the local area, and hanging out with people my age with so many stories to share was so much fun.

I apparently didn’t take a single picture in Arusha, so here’s a photo of a lion WITHOUT ZOOM.

ASIA

SHOESTRING CAVE HOUSE: GOREME, TURKEY

Turkey. This country keeps calling me back, and my heart breaks for what is happening there now. Cappadocia was an amazing trip, and one that was very unusual for me – the purpose of going was the hot air balloon ride, and they’re very weather dependent. In an effort to make sure I got that hot air balloon ride I stayed here for five nights, which is a lot longer than I normally stay in one place.

The plethora of cave hotels, built right in the fairy chimneys that Cappadocia is famous for, makes choosing accommodation here pretty overwhelming. I was overjoyed when I found this super affordable dorm in a cave, which seems to be more rare. Nothing like sleeping in an actual cave, and the pool deck has amazing views of Goreme – there’s a picture below.

Also, I just remembered how incredible the breakfast here was. It’s included, and I honestly just teared up a little bit thinking about how good it was.

JAM HOSTEL KYOTO GION: KYOTO, JAPAN

Honestly the actual hostel portion of this place wasn’t anything to write home about (although I also can’t complain). The reason it made this list is the fact that it’s attached to a sake bar!!! I really wanted to try sake in Japan, but was very intimidated by it; I didn’t understand how to order it or what it was.

So this place was perfect – one evening after dinner I plopped myself down at the bar and ordered a sake tasting. The owner of the hostel, who spoke amazing English, brought me a flight of local sakes and explained them. It was surprisingly good, and a few minutes later a British girl showed up to do the exact same thing. We bonded and chatted and ended up spending the rest of our evenings in Kyoto together, exploring and drinking.

URBAN PACK HOSTEL: HONG KONG

My first moments in this hostel, I had just finished about 36 hours of travel across the world. I was exhausted, confused about where I was, and it was also my 21st birthday. I walked out onto the balcony, saw this incredible view of a beautiful mosque and of course the iconic HK skyline, and rejoiced in the fact that I’d finally made it to a city I knew I’d fall in love with. (Spoiler: I was right).

The iconic Hong Kong skyline – just steps away from the hostel.

This hostel just felt so Hong Kong to me, with the cramped yet livable rooms, its location halfway up a skyscraper, its buzzing vibe. I met some awesome people here as well, and spent a good portion of my trip with them. The location, too, is pretty much all you could ask for in Hong Kong – zero complaints.

The Best of 2016

In my mind, 2016 is kind of broken into three completely separate parts. From January to April I was at university for the last semester, working at a cafe and hanging out with friends constantly. In May and June I went on an incredible whirlwind trip to eleven countries. In July I moved to Toronto and now I have a grownup job and sit in an office staring wistfully at my world map all day.

However, a surprising number of these 20 highlights happened in the school or the work part of 2016. Be forewarned that this is a very long post.

Going on a camping safari in Tanzania

I think in 80 years, my safari in Tanzania will still be the number one coolest thing I have ever done in my life. Sure, there were tsetse flies and both extreme cold and extreme heat, and a lot of time in a car, but thinking back on my 6 nights camping in the wilds of Africa none of that matters.

I watched thousands upon thousands of wildebeest make their way across the savannah, sitting on top of the Jeep and marvelling at how far I could see. I darted back into my tent in the middle of the night after seeing glowing eyes staring at me from the grass. I woke up to the most incredible sunset straight from my tent, and felt at peace.

Overcoming my fear of water by scuba diving in Zanzibar

Every time I think about the fact that I went scuba diving, I am in awe of my bravery. That may sound dramatic, but until literally last year I held my dad’s hand the whole time we snorkeled and sometimes cried into my mask because I was so irrationally afraid of the water. In Zanzibar, I saw a dive shop, marched myself over to sign up for a one day discovery course and then sat on the beach contemplating how afraid I was. I got in the boat, thought about all the ways I could die, and then threw myself backwards into the Indian Ocean with my heart in my throat.

And it was pure magic.

Taking the Sound of Music bike tour in Salzburg, Austria

Despite the fact that I only spent four days in Austria, three of the things on this list happened here. I think I need to go back to Austria…

Since the moment this tour began, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it again and take my mom with me. We LOVE the Sound of Music and the only reason that this tour wasn’t perfect is that my mom wasn’t there to experience it with me. My morning of riding out into the Austrian countryside, singing along to Do Re Mi and dancing around filming locations pretending to be Liesl will always be one of my fondest memories.

Hiking Pulpit Rock in Norway

Have I annoyed you all yet by continuing to rave about Pulpit Rock? Yes? Oh well, I’m going to keep doing it. You may notice that five of the items on this list are hikes; 2016 was the year I discovered that I actually do like hiking and now the first thing I do when planning a trip is check whether I can hike there. Anyway, I already wrote a whole post about this hike and I even used the word magical in the title (so dramatic) – here it is.

Hiking Ben Vrackie in Scotland

Another hike you say? Yep…I started my two month trip this summer with this hike, and it couldn’t have been a better kickoff. This random, not very well-known hike in Scotland was absolutely breathtaking and all it made me want to do was hike all over Scotland. My sister did a 10 day Scotland trip in August and did basically all the things I wanted to, and now we are seriously discussing opening a hostel in the Scottish countryside or trekking the West Highland Way together.

Scooting around Cappadocia

Oddly, my hot air balloon ride was not the highlight of my Cappadocia trip. It was incredible, but the day where my American friend Julie and I rented a scooter and drove wherever the wind took us stands out more in my mind. I was lonely in Cappadocia, the sole backpacker in my cave hotel’s dorm and shocked by the sharp downturn in tourism in Turkey.

When Julie arrived in the dorm I literally walked over and said, “Oh my god I’ve been so lonely, will you be my friend?” Somehow that worked, and we spent the rest of our time together. We climbed castles, feasted on Turkish food, got lost, and later went on the weirdest double date of my life with these two creepy Turkish guys. We also spent an amazing night dancing in a local bar, this time with less creepy Turkish guys.

I often say that Turkey is my favourite country, and I am heartbroken for what has been happening  there. It’s a magical place.

Visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

I had a weird obsession with the Holocaust as a child, and I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary a million times and cried every single time. I managed to find a last-minute ticket through sheer luck (if you’re going, try to get one in advance) and on my last rainy day in Amsterdam I went and cried for a few hours. It’s impossible to describe how impactful this place was; they have set up the exhibits and memorials incredibly well and I believe everyone should know the story of this incredibly inspiring girl.

Spending the evening with the orchestra at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna

It’s no coincidence that two of these favourites happened with the same people. I met two girls from Chicago on my Sound of Music Tour (see above) and we traveled to Vienna together. I told them about a free concert by the Vienna Philharmonic happening at the Schonbrunn Palace, we picked up a French boy from their hostel, and off we went for one of the most special nights ever.

After an epic quest to find the only store in Vienna that was open (I think it was a public holiday) we bought a crap-ton of wine, bread, and cheese and made our way to one of the most beautiful palaces in Vienna. Obviously, it was packed, so we made our way to a hill behind the actual orchestra, ignoring signs that said we wouldn’t be able to hear.

The signs were in fact correct, but it didn’t matter. We got tipsy, talked about our favourite international misadventures, chatted to random strangers around us, and I kept having those moments of perfection where I stopped to take it all in.

Near the end of the concert, we decided to leave and avoid the rush. We ended up walking by the orchestra at the perfect time to hear AND see the final flourish – that’s right, there were fireworks.

Amazing.

Hiking Lion Rock in Hong Kong

If you had asked me during this hike if it would ever make it to a highlight list, the answer would be a firm no. This hike was REALLY HARD and I thought I was going to die. I actually hiked to Amah Rock first, which was a waste of time, then up to Lion Rock, and it was so hot. I’m much better at handling cold than heat (thanks Canada) and I have never sweat so much in my entire life. I considered giving up about 7 times but when I made it to the view, it was all worth it.

Hong Kong itself was a highlight, just like I expected it to be – it’s an unbelievably cool city with so much to do and see, and the cute Swedish boy I met certainly didn’t hurt.

Hiking Daimonji Yama in Kyoto

Japanese temples and shrines are gorgeous, but I find when I travel solo, going to these kinds of places means walking through in half an hour and leaving. In Kyoto I felt kind of listless after hitting the major highlights in a day, so I googled ‘hiking in Kyoto’ and found this gem. It was extremely confusing to find because there were no English signs, but if you use these directions you’ll be set.

The hike isn’t too hard, especially compared to some of the others on this list. At the top, there’s a very convenient area to picnic, chat, or read and journal – I did all of the above. I was the only foreigner for most of the time, and tons of Japanese families and groups were there. The atmosphere was great and the view was just incredible.

Hiking Mount Tampa in Brasov, Romania

When I arrived in Brasov, it was raining. When I left three days later, it was still raining. I napped and hung out in the hostel lounge much more than I would care to admit, because I couldn’t motivate myself to get out and do anything.  Luckily, the one time I dragged myself out of bed was great enough to make it to this list.

I booked my hostel (Kismet Dao) solely because a dog lived there, and when I got there I learned that if you walked the dog you got free beer. Um, win-win situation much!? I put on my sneakers and leashed up Zara for what I expected to be a light stroll around town. However, Zara had a mind of her own and since all I knew in Romanian was  thank you and no, controlling her was a challenge. She led me to what appeared to be her favourite path and we ended up climbing a mountain.

Going on a pub crawl in Edinburgh

I loved Edinburgh in general, but one of the highlights was the pub crawl I went on. I may not have thought so the next morning, but the girls I met were so fun and the pub scene so buzzing that the hangover was totally worth it. The hostel employee running the pub crawl was also a riot, with the most Scottish accent ever and the most Scottish beard ever.

Strangely, one of the highlights of the pub crawl did not happen in a pub. I only took one piece of photo ID with me because I didn’t want to lose my passport three days into my trip. At one spot the guy refused to let me in without another piece, which made me sad because the drinking age in Scotland is 18, and I was 20. I look sixteen.

Anyway, I had to run back to the hostel to grab my passport and the walk took me down the most charming little alleyways and streets I’ve ever seen – and the fact that I was already a pint of beer in just made me more pleased with my surroundings. It was strangely lovely and I will never forget how happy I was in that moment!

Visiting Iceland

The only country which is itself a highlight on this list. Iceland was the last destination on my insanely packed 2 month trip so I was worried that I’d be so tired (and maybe even jaded) that it wouldn’t impress me. Not so. Yes, I was exhausted, but Iceland is so COOL. I wrote about the logistics of planning a trip to Iceland already, and still need to sit down and try to remember the details of both tours I took.

But suffice it to say that there is a reason everybody gushes so much about Iceland. The sights are beautiful, the people are beautiful, the prices are horrifying, and you will never forget your time here.

Touring the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg

Totally never thought something in Winnipeg would be on this list. My sister moved to this fairly remote Canadian city for work. I had visited on a layover just to be able to say I’d visited all ten Canadian provinces, but hadn’t explored the city in depth. We found a cheap flight, split the cost and I was off to visit on a packed weekend.

Most of the time was spent snuggling doggies and eating junk food, because dogs and junk food are two of our favourite things, but we also made time for some sightseeing. The only must-see on my list was the Human Rights Museum, which I’ve heard only amazing things about.

It lived up to my expectations: the design, exhibits and educational value of the museum is stunning. I learned a ton. I was very moved to see Malala Yousafzai’s bloody school uniform on display; I have so much admiration for Malala and loved her book.

Wondering at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

I am SO obsessed with libraries. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred in our local library and I read a lot, so anywhere with books is a draw. When a library is historic and stunning, I can’t resist but to stop by. That’s why in Vienna, my very first stop was the Austrian National Library – I saw it on Instagram and immediately knew I had to go.

Did I wander the library pretending to be a Hapsburg princess? Perhaps. I was totally captivated by the amazing room, the exhibits on Hapsburg royalty, and even the smell of old books. I could have spent hours here.

Spending a solo Thanksgiving at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario

I love plays and solo travel. I couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, and it’s never been a huge deal in my family anyway, so I decided to take a weekend trip in my new province. When I realized that I could get youth discounts on tickets to shows at the Stratford Theatre Festival, I was sold!

I stayed in the weirdest hostel ever (it was attached to a hospital and I was the only one staying there) but at least it was cheap. I saw incredible productions of Shakespeare in Love, MacBeth and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

My emotions were all out of whack in October; the three-month mark was one of the toughest adjustments in moving and starting a new job. Solo travel always centres me, and this quick trip was exactly what I needed.

Pretending to be rich in Muskoka – Ontario’s cottage country

One of my best friends, Nicole, was working at a swanky resort (the JW Marriott) in Muskoka, which is the gorgeous lake country 2-3 hours north of Toronto. I headed up to visit her and see if I could take advantage of the resort facilities without staying there. The answer – yes. During Nicole’s shifts I walked in like I owned the place, plopped myself down by the pool and tried to put on my best snooty rich person face.

It was so relaxing to pretend to be rich for a day, and having my every whim catered to was just delightful. Top it off with the chance to see one of my best friends and the gorgeous surroundings of the resort and it was the recipe for a much-needed escape from the blistering heat of Toronto.

Visiting New York for the fourth time

It never gets old. My friend Emma was in Toronto, so of course we decided to travel a 10 hour bus ride south to NYC and spend like 36 hours there. Because we took Greyhound and Greyhound is the worst company in the history of capitalism, our bus was delayed almost five hours and we were stuck in Scranton, Pennslyvania for EVER. We did make it, though, and once we made it we had a blast.

Our hostel had the comfiest beds known to man and we took in two shows: Fiddler on the Roof and An American in Paris. I literally go to New York just to see Broadway shows…no regrets. It was HOT and EXPENSIVE and TIRING but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Graduating university!

Somehow, this milestone pales in comparison to all the other amazing things I did in 2016. While during my third year of university I travelled more than I went to school, in my fourth year I think I only left the province twice, and it was all job interview-related. Despite this, I had the most incredible time during my last semester of school.

I worked at an Italian espresso bar, finally falling in love with the community vibe of my small university town. I finally made the close groups of friends I’d been searching for, spending my free time with so many people I absolutely love. Since I was also finally legal drinking age for the whole school year, I took advantage of that a bit as well..and by a bit I mean all the time.

I also barely had to put any time into school because I had completed most of my courses. I may have skipped classes every now and then (or all the time), but by fourth year I had mastered the art of getting good grades while putting in very little work.

I never understood why people say your university years are the best years of your life, but now I get it. I will remember how happy and free I was during my last semester of university forever.

Extending a work trip to Boston

My second week at my new full time job in Toronto, I flew off to Boston for a work trip. I felt very glamorous and everything about it was very exciting to me. I think it’s funny that my superiors, who travel all the time for work, are so jaded about it while the hotel bed is enough to make me clap with glee. I guess that’s what happens when you have a spouse and children to come home to!

Anyway, I wanted to extend the trip for a weekend and managed to get my way. I stayed in a lovely Cambridge Airbnb and powered through the Boston heat to sightsee. A highlight was ordering a cocktail at the Cheesecake Factory and not getting ID’d (I was 20). After my whirlwind weekend I was off to a paid-for Marriott and a packed week of meetings and orientations, which at the time was fun and exciting!

I completely adored Boston, but the highlight here was the fact that my flights were free 🙂

It has been the most incredible year and it has felt like an entire lifetime of experiences. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings – in the first two months, I already have trips to Boston, London and Colombia booked!

The Ten Places I Most Want to Live

Sometimes I visit a city and absolutely adore it, but would never want to live there. Examples that come to mind are Goreme in Cappadocia (too small and remote), Dar es Salaam (too bustling, although I’d probably give it a shot), and Florence (too touristy for its size). On the other hand, there are the places that I visit, completely fall in love with, and immediately develop a burning desire to settle down and stay a while. There are so many places I haven’t been, and I bet there are hundreds of other cities that would give me this feeling, but so far here are the places topping my list for a sojourn. Realistic or not, these places are constantly in my dreams and wishes! Without further ado, here is an excessively long article detailing the ten places I most want to live.

BUDAPEST

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When I wrote about Budapest previously, I described my total lack of expectations and how quickly me and my sister realized that this was a special place. We still talk about Budapest an annoying amount, sometimes just texting each other ‘ugh I miss Budapest’ and spending a few minutes reminiscing. A girl who went to my high school also interned there for a summer, and I stalked her Instagram excessively to see her incredible photos of Budapest living. The cost of living is unbelievably cheap, the history and sights are amazing, and compared to some other places on this list its hardly touristy at all. If I ever settle in Europe, it just might be here!

VIENNA

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The instant I walked outside in Vienna I decided it was the most livable place I’d ever been. I still don’t really know what made me think this – maybe it’s just the combination of everything that makes Vienna great. It’s a little more modern than places like Budapest or Prague, but almost just as cheap. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, with my favourite architectural cities sprinkled everywhere. There’s also amazing access to the outdoors (by that I mean vineyards) when you’re basically still in the city. There are so many cultural events and a famous orchestra to indulge in, it’s got amazing transport connections, and I speak a little bit of German. It’d be much easier to learn and communicate in German than it would in something like Hungarian or Czech!!

PARIS

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So typical. Every time I think about living in Paris, I imagine myself sipping a cappuccino in a cafe while writing a book, speaking French to handsome waiters and taking evening strolls along  the Seine. I know that Parisian life is less romantic than we all make it out to be, but it’s undeniably more romantic than a lot of places. I wouldn’t want to be in Paris long-term because it has its issues too, but I think for anything under a year I would love pretending to be a Parisian. And maybe I could finally become 100% fluent in French! Honestly I don’t even feel the need to tell you the other reasons I want to live in Paris because who doesn’t have the same dream?

SHANGHAI

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Ah, Shanghai. My solo trip to China was full of firsts so I look back on the whole thing as an amazing memory and experience in my life. Shanghai is my fondest memory, though – despite the rain and my total exhaustion while I was there. Beijing was too smoggy, Datong too….everything, Xian too touristy, but Shanghai was just perfect. I obviously love big cities, and this is one of the biggest, but it’s so easy to get that small town feel in areas like the French Concession. There’s access to every amenity you could want, but you also get the feeling of being somewhere so exotic and cool. It’s VERY high up my list to learn Mandarin, and what better place? The airport can get you anywhere, the public transit system is practically flawless, the food is one of my favorite cuisines, and I really just want to walk along the Bund and see that skyline again.

BRISBANE

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This one is kind of cheating because I have already lived there. To be fair, I was 3. I have always felt a connection to Brisbane despite my foggy memories of the city; my desire to go back and revisit my childhood stomping grounds has only gotten stronger as I’ve understood more about travel. A working holiday visa for Australia is definitely on the cards for me; it’s a place full of places for me to see again and places for me to visit anew: Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, Perth…the list goes on. Now it would be great if flights to Australia would stop costing like $6000. (Just kidding, you can find way better deals than that. Promise!)

BUCHAREST

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I literally stayed in Bucharest for a night solely because I had a flight out of the city the next day. I did absolutely zero research, had seen absolutely no pictures, and basically had no idea what I was getting myself into. I arrived at my randomly chosen hostel, befriended an Australian girl, went up to the rooftop bar and basically had a heart attack because it was so beautiful. On some streets, I could have sworn I was in Paris. Bucharest hosts a very unusual combination of rundown, post-Communism buildings and absolutely architecturally stunning buildings. Walking around was a treat, and the nightlife was some of the best I’ve ever seen. The area I stayed in was buzzing and I could have stayed a week. I also knew absolutely nothing about Romanian history, and my free walking tour (with a very cute guide, which is always nice) was very illuminating and really taught me a lot about the hardships this country has gone through. Our guide was probably in his 20’s, and he still had stories to share about not having electricity and free access to media – absolutely unbelievable. It’s cheap, it’s got a language I could learn (Romanian is very similar to Italian!), it’s historical and it’s beautiful. It’s got it all.

NEW YORK CITY

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And yet another very typical response. I’ve been to New York four times now, and each time I remember why I love it so much. The hustle and bustle of this city makes you feel like anything is possible and it’s got the same reasoning behind it as Paris – it’s just so easy to imagine myself living that stereotypical 20-something life here, albeit with much less money than anyone I’ve wanted to emulate on Gossip Girl or Sex and the City. Even if it’s just for a month, I’d love to see what New York living is really like – I don’t think I could afford any longer than a month!!

TRIESTE

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This is also cheating. However, I only lived in Trieste for about a month and a half, and I’d like to experience actually living in my own apartment rather than feeling constantly uncomfortable in my au pair house and dreading the next day of work. Side note, I can’t believe I still haven’t written about au pairing! I’ve just added it to my to do list. My friend Pam, who blogs in Italian and English, lives in a gorgeous apartment in downtown Trieste and her life is basically what I would want to do next time. But about Trieste itself – what a shock this city was to me. When my au pair family said they were moving there I googled the location, thought, “Oh! Near Slovenia and Croatia! Ok cool!”, said yes, and then proceeded to move there. Trieste deftly combines Italian, Slovenian and Croatian influences into one melting pot of incredible coffee, a gorgeous main square, and the nicest people in Italy. This is where I learned Italian and the base I used to explore Venice, Verona, Ljubljana and more. Best of all – there’s only ever a fraction of the tourists that crowd the rest of Italy!

PRAGUE

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I have just noticed an interesting trend…four of these destinations (Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest are in Eastern Europe, or maybe Central depending on where you draw the line. I’d also consider Trieste pretty Eastern European. I had no idea I had even been to that many places in Central/Eastern Europe, much less that I wanted to live there!! Anyway, so Prague. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may remember the numerous disasters that befell me on my January 2015 trip to Prague. It still shocks me that I’m able to look back on Prague so fondly, considering that I felt like I was going to die, but I guess that really says something about the city. Honestly, my main reason for wanting to live in Prague is pretty stupid. There’s the cheap cost of living, great transit, same good connections as Vienna, beautiful architecture….but what I’m really interested in is the fact that it’s a winter wonderland. I may complain about winter every single day that I’m cold, but as a Canadian I’ll take shivering in my parka over sweating in my shorts any day. It sadly didn’t snow when I was in Prague, but it was still magical, and I’d love to spend the winter revelling in the magical feeling of Prague in winter. (Told you it was dumb).

ZANZIBAR

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Ah, Zanzibar. I spent 2 days in Stone Town and 3 days in Kendwa at the end of my recent trip to Tanzania. When I was little, I thought that Zanzibar was a made-up place because the name was so exotic and it sounded so cool (maybe also because I was stupid). However, Zanzibar is absolutely real and absolutely perfect. Kendwa was legitimately paradise. There are not enough positive words in the English language to describe how perfect the water is. I swam, lay on the beach, went to a full moon party, tried scuba diving, watched sunsets, and basically died over how great life was. I am too high-strung to live on an island paradise for long, but I can’t imagine anything better than settling down on Zanzibar (maybe even in Kendwa?) for a few months. I would get so tan and so happy. To quote my Instagram caption from the following photo, “Messy hair, messy heart, messy life, but it’s okay cause I’m in paradise.” I can’t think of anything that better sums up how I felt on this incredible island with so much culture to offer alongside its beauty.

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Stories from Morocco: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I really don’t know what to say about Morocco. Every negative thing you’ve heard about the country is probably true, but then again…so is every good thing.

Looking back, I remember the amazing nights spent dancing and looking at the stars, or the days wandering architecture and cities unimaginably old and beautiful. With hindsight, I know the hard parts of travelling there were worth it, but at the time….that’s a different story.

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Marrakech’s vibrant main square, the Djemaa El-Fna

When you can’t walk down the street alone, even in a headscarf, maxi dress and sweater without having horrible things yelled at you by local men, and when one of them swerves his motorcycle within an inch of you just to hear you scream, and you’re ignored again and again in favour of negotiating with the guys you’re with, it’s easy to hate Morocco. I did, at times. I even considered buying an absurdly expensive flight out of the country and skipping the rest. I spent some evenings alone in whatever hostel I was in, feeling upset and useless.

I can think back and tell my past self to just ignore it…keep your head held high and walk on. That’s much harder when you’re living it. I’ve experienced harassment in Canada, sure, but there was something much more threatening about it in Morocco. Whether that was Morocco itself or just my feeling of being alone in such a foreign place, it felt worse. If you’re a woman considering traveling to Morocco alone, I don’t want to discourage you – I certainly don’t regret any of it. Just be prepared to be scared sometimes.

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A treasured Polaroid of me and my very tall travelling companions

And I don’t want to make it sound like everybody in Morocco is out to get you.  They’re not. Here are my stories from Morocco…the good , the bad, and the ugly.

The owner of my hostel in Tangier who helped me get a SIM card, took me around the city, and even brought me to a bar where I hung out with his friends while we watched a soccer game. Now that was probably a terrible idea, since I was wandering around Tangier alone with a man in his 30’s and had no idea how to get back to the hostel, but it turned out fine. (Side note: my mother finds out about a lot of my misadventures through my blog, rather than me actually telling her…sorry for this one, mom.) His friends were kind, they made me feel welcome as the only woman in a bar, and the hostel owner was not at all creepy. He was not out to get me.

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The unforgettable Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

The workers at our hostel in the Todra Gorge who took us grocery shopping, gave us a tour of the gorge, spoke a million different languages with us, and played their music with us…laughing late into the night, exhausted and exhilarated, we camped on the terrace and I’ve never felt so free.

The workers at our hostel in Marrakech who welcomed me back when I came back twice, greeting me by name and making sure they had vegetarian food for me because they remembered. Asking me to translate for another guest, and making me feel like I was coming home.

The woman in Chefchaouen who sold me a headscarf and then showed me how to tie it, telling me I looked beautiful and letting me sit for a while and ask about her life in the famous blue town.

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Chefchaouen is really as blue as they say

The Moroccan friends I tagged along with to an Avicci concert in Rabat, making for one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. They made me feel like I had known them forever, kissing my cheeks when we met, holding my arms as we walked to the concert ground, and we danced the night away.

All of these kind Moroccans made me feel welcome and happy and in love with this exotic country. The exceptions, while awful, were not the rule.

We showed up to Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara desert, without a tour guide or a plan. We hopped off our hellish night bus and blearily went with the first guy who approached us…Mohammed. I would happily punch this man in the face. We decided on a tour with him (which was incredible due to the fact that Mohammed himself was actually not present) and then sat around in his house/restaurant all day, waiting to be picked up and driven to our hotel. And waiting, and waiting. And during this weekend, he continually made absurdly creepy comments about me, making jokes about my name in Arabic, forcing me to take a picture with him and then slapping my ass as I turned away, and just making me feel more uncomfortable than I have ever felt. I started out trying to laugh it off, being polite, figuring it didn’t matter…but after several hours of this, my irritation and total exhaustion turned me into the rudest person I’ve ever met (except Mohammed). I eventually stopped responding to anything he said and gave him a death glare every time he so much as looked at me.

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Essaouira from the ramparts

With a headscarf on and a Moroccan-style outfit, I could pass for a local girl until someone tried to speak Arabic to me. One man, in Casablanca, approached me speaking Arabic and I said ‘no Arabic’ with some of the only Arabic words I knew. He didn’t believe me, despite the look of total confusion, and got in my face while screaming in Arabic. I kept saying, “No Arabic, no Arabic!” but it was pointless. Eventually I burst into tears (more out of frustration than fear; I was in a packed local market) and a woman came over to shame him for upsetting me. My favourite thing about Moroccan women was the fact that they would always step in – I don’t know what this woman said, but the man backed off and I tearfully thanked the woman in French, Arabic and English.

And it’s certainly not just Moroccan men who sometimes suck. The British owner of my Essaouira hostel (where I worked for a week) chain smoked hashish all day and all night, while blasting aggressive metal music through the speakers. It wasn’t so bad and I never felt unsafe, and the work wasn’t too much. One day, however, I was wearing more revealing clothes than I would have gone out in (shorts and a backless halter top) and he walked up to me and commented, “Man, I’d hire a lot more cleaning girls if this was the uniform.” His eyes made me feel disgusting and I was happy to leave after a week.

By the end of my month in Morocco, I was very ready to leave. The constant comments and looks weren’t so bad individually, but they really wore down on me. Hearing your friends asked ‘So which one of you is she sleeping with?’ with a creepy leer and being told you’re horrible things in French because they assume you can’t understand them…it sucks.

But not getting to gaze up at the largest mosque in Morocco, or missing the sunset in Essaouira, or choosing not to ride a camel into the Sahara Desert….that would have sucked even more.

Ouarzazate: What Happens When You Wing It

Every time I look at a picture of myself in Morocco, or flip through the pages of the journals I filled up while I was there, I get a kind of out of body experience – it doesn’t seem like it was actually me that was there. I think that’s because it was so different and cool and exotic, but also because I was practically a different person, living spontaneously and doing whatever I wanted. I talked in this post about how cool it was to discover places I never would have gone if I had prebooked my trip, and that was definitely a theme of the trip.

From the gorgeous Todra Gorge (ha) we got a ride to the bus station and bought tickets to Ouarzazate. This city is famous for movie sets and this one absolutely gorgeous kasbah. We showed up with zero plans and zero idea of where to stay, so we walked out of the bus station in what we thought (hoped) was the direction of the town center.

My phone was the only one with data and it was dead, so we walked aimlessly until we found wifi, but still couldn’t figure out where to stay. It was over 40 degrees and I thought I was going to die in my maxi dress and long sleeves….the joys of travelling as a female in Islamic countries. Eventually, we walked into a completely random store and asked someone to take us to a hotel.

He showed us this completely empty hotel with no sign indicating its existence and we asked for the cheapest thing we could get, which turned out to be one triple room and one double room. I still have no idea what the place was called, but we paid 60 dirhams (~5.50 Euros) and it was fine. The owner had no idea what to do with us, whether that was because he wasn’t used to tourists at all or just freaked out by how obnoxious we were.

With accommodation finally sorted, we went out to experience the surprisingly lively main square of Ouarzazate. I had never seen so many women and children out late at night in Morocco, and it was a lovely change to not be one of the few girls around. There was a lively market going on, and little kids were driving around giggling in these mini cars. We people watched over some mediocre food, then headed back to our hotel where we took over the ‘salon’ and laughed late into the night.

The next day, we had to figure out how we were going to see the sights. Our first thought was to rent a car, drive ourselves around, and then drop the car off in Marrakech, our next stop, but they wanted to charge us an exorbitant amount. We couldn’t afford it even split five ways, so we found a grand taxi. The driver only spoke weak French and of course Arabic, so I was the one that had to negotiate with him, but he irritatingly kept refusing to speak to me (I assume because I am female) and would ineffectually try to communicate with the guys.

Eventually, through a confusing combination of him deciding to talk to me and another guy peering in the window and translating, we hired him to take us to Oasis Fint and Ait Benhaddou, before driving us all the way to Marrakech.

Oasis Fint

This wasn’t even in our Lonely Planet book, but the driver wanted to take us and we figured why not. I didn’t really understand what this place was, and I didn’t until just now when I looked at the Tripadvisor listing….it’s basically an oasis area of the desert where people still live traditional lives and they tour you around. Pretty much all I wrote about it in my travel journal was “I didn’t understand the point of coming here. But I guess it was pretty.” I had to translate our tour because it was in French, which was kind of fun. We were also promised swimming, which turned out to be in a tiny little stream filled with algae. Needless to say, we did not swim.

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The rock that looks oddly like a frog

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Ait Benhaddou

In a lot of ways I am like a toddler. During our stop at Ait Benhaddou, I was extremely hungry and tired, so I was extremely cranky and barely enjoyed myself. Looking back, the pictures are stunning and it’s so cool that Game of Thrones was filmed there (and you know, other stuff that I haven’t seen) and I wish I had been able to enjoy myself more, but I still have the memories!! To get to the actual kasbah (aka the stone houses on the hilltop) you have to hop across a river and then hike up the hill through houses and tunnels, which was a fun little adventure. When we entered, we paid the fee and then this guy dressed in traditional clothes started following us around and giving us a crappy little tour, which we wrongly assumed was just free and included somehow. Alas, it was not, and when we exited he tried to charge us 150dirham EACH. That was like my budget for three days. I wanted to straight up refuse to pay him because he was so rude, but the guys convinced me to give him something. Which I guess was probably good – cranky me can’t be trusted to be a nice human. The view over the landscape from the top was breathtaking, and I wish I had taken more pictures, but I just wanted to sit and stew in my hunger.

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If I learned two things from my Morocco trip, they are as follows:
1) I should ALWAYS bring snacks, and
2) Being a girl sucks.

Moroccan Magic in the Todra Gorge

If you know anything about me, you’ll know I’m an obsessive planner. For my upcoming trip I’ve got budget spreadsheets, a notebook full of itineraries, to-do lists, and plans. My month in Morocco was the most free and spontaneous I’ve ever been, and I loved every second. If you have enough time in a country, I think flying by the seat of your pants is the way to go – I experienced places I never would have gone to if I had planned ahead, and it was so much fun waking up in the morning with no idea where we were going to go that day.

Example: the guys I was travelling with wanted to go to the Todra Gorge, which I had never heard of, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing nights ever. We arrived in a grand taxi (look out for a post explaining all the ways to get around Morocco) fresh from our desert trip. On the taxi ride I pored over our shared Lonely Planet guide and picked a hostel – Camping Poisson Sacree. Which means Sacred Fish Camping. What? Still confused.

When we got there, the staff seemed strangely confused by our presence and we weren’t actually sure that they worked there. The hostel has multiple campsites if you have your own tent, but we stayed on the covered rooftop terrace in some tents that are set up permanently. I gotta say, I’d be happy to camp all the time if all tents came with comfy mattresses.

The gorgeous view from our tents

The gorgeous view from our tents

In one of the greatest feats of my travelling life, I managed to bargain down the price from 50 dirhams ($7) each to 30 dirhams ($3). Bargaining often fell to me as the only one who spoke French, and while I started the trip feeling super guilty every time I bargained, I ended it feeling quite competent.

The night we stayed in the gorge was one of the most magical of our trip, and that’s saying something considering we had just come from an incredible experience sleeping under the stars in the Sahara. In the late afternoon, one of the hostel workers guided us to the gorge, leading us along a river and through stone villages and ruins. We never would have found our way on our own, and the walk to get there was almost as beautiful as the gorge itself.

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We arrived in the gorge in the early evening, so it was practically empty – no other tourists, and almost none of the souvenir sellers that probably would have annoyed us during the day. It was cold (relatively), and windy, and dust kept whipping me in the face, but it was so pretty that I didn’t care. The gorge’s walls are astonishingly high and steep, and walking among them feels as though you’re strolling through another world – it’s one of those places that makes you feel very insignificant and awed.

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We paid our ‘guide’ a little bit for his kind ‘tour’, and headed back to the hostel in a taxi. One of the boys hitched a ride into town to pick up supper supplies and wine (which, yes, you can find in most areas of Morocco!), and then they cooked while I sat around being unhelpful. Cooking in hostels in an art which I have not yet mastered, while lying on a canopied sofa in the Moroccan twilight drinking wine is one of my greatest skills.

One of the hardest things about travelling, especially in places like Morocco, is trying to experience local culture while avoiding taking advantage of locals and simultaneously getting a fake experience. In the desert, our Berber guides played traditional music for us, but it felt forced. In the gorge, however, we were treated to one of the most authentic nights in my travels. The staff was hanging out in a living room of sorts and after we finished our supper they invited us in. They were raucously playing drums and singing in Arabic, Darija, and French – I’ve never seen people have more fun. The guys took turns trying out the drums and I just sat there soaking it all in. Talking to our new friends about their lives, traditions and beliefs over the sounds of Moroccan music being played right in front us was one of the coolest things I could have asked for.

For about 10 dollars each, we got an amazing guided hike into a natural wonder, a homecooked meal, and a night of culture, music and laughter. I slept soundly and blissfully in my comfortable tent, breathing in the open air of the Moroccan countryside. Who says budget travel can’t be luxurious?