Sunday, January 22, 2012

Welcome to Africa

21.01 - Algeciras - Tanger - Casablanca - Marrakech, 584 km by train, 205 MAD.

I already had a preview of Africa in the port of Algeciras, which I reached after six days of more and less fortunate events. Not to say it was a culture shock to me, but indeed, everything looked totally different from the things I've seen in other parts of Europe. Muslims falling on their knees to the prayer, Spanish is replaced by dulcet Arabic, communication in French is much easier, the clothing becomes more conservative, the vendors want to have your money and they want to have a lot of it (why do you only want the ticket from Tanger to Algeciras? Because I might hitchhike a truck to Morocco → disappointed face of the seller. You need to change some money? Sorry, I only have dollars with me → disappointed face of the seller). Soap and toilet paper are missing in the bathrooms.

After a 1,5 h ferry ride we arrived in Tanger Med Port. Your first impression of Morocco is always an amazing one. Halfway between the two continents I went outside to see the sweeping views. The first question that came to my thought was "is this massive bulge and bulk of land the African soil?" Yes, it is. So close yet so different. Densely built-up cities are left behind, now replaced by the mountains stretching on further than the eye can see.

The bus that takes us to the Gare Maritime is very full; it seems nobody else can fit inside. Most of the Moroccans have massive suitcases, as if they were moving all their life from Europe back to their home country. They are yelling, fighting for places; it resembles the market day when everybody wants to get the best products for the best price. They don't give up, everybody wants to be exactly on this bus. Piles of suitcases almost reach the ceiling. People are squished between prams and gigantic packages. They don't doubt it, everybody can fit. And fit they do.

The Arabic charm fascinates me. The Moroccans are so beautiful that I would have loved to have taken photos of them but would never dare do it in a situation like this, considering it too intrusive - so let me snap you a photo in words.

The kids are pretty as a picture. Clad in modest, subdued clothes, with big, brown eyes, they look like dolls. Women have delicate facial features and eyes you could trust with your life. Their clothes are mainly in dark colors, only the hijab is much brighter or has some floral patterns. I can see some of them hide a fancy hairstyle under this piece of clothing. Some of them only expose the part of hair above their forehead. Just a substitute of the pulchritude only few can see in entirety.

Even with my baggy clothes that don't accentuate any femininity and the sleep deprivation so visible in my eyes, I attract attention. Fortunately it's not the kind of attention I wouldn't like to receive. The men I talk to are curious what a single woman does in their country. Where are you going to? I'm going to Marrakech to meet my boyfriend (to "play it safe"). Where do you come from? From Poland. Warsaw? No, a smaller city northwest from Warsaw. Is this your first time in Morocco, Yes, it's the first time. How long are you going to stay here? I don't really know it but something like 2-3 weeks or more.

The ride from Tanger Med Port to the city is a slow one but the views make you wish it lasted for eternity. My surroundings are absolutely beautiful with incredible, often unexpected variety. Colorful houses, fields that begin to shape into rolling hills with sometimes scarce, sometimes very dense vegetation, wide sandy beaches, grazing cows, horses, donkeys and sheep, meadows with multicolored flowers, cacti, palm trees. Optimistic sign - I also see... hitchhikers.

The welcome in Tanger is very warm one, not to say roasting. 30°C at this time of the year is a respectable temperature for a very warm midsummer's day in Poland. Despite the swelter, I don't see many people who undress, and if they do, they're not the locals.

Before coming to Morocco I've heard many warnings from people who've been there before – most of them concerning faux guides, salacious guys and their cat calls addressed to lonely girls, people who want some racket for telling you how to reach your destination. None of those has happened to me in the first African city I'd been to (and the one that was actually described to me as a nightmare for solo female travelers). Only friendly faces, nobody persuading me to take advantage of their services. I'm wondering how different it would be if I didn't speak French. With the knowledge of this language everything is so easy, it takes you seconds to arrive at your destination without meandering through countless streets that go the opposite direction.

Train station, Tanger
As I type it, I'm on my way to Marrakech; scheduled arrival time 22.05. There's a road on my left side, sometimes empty, sometimes a few cars in a row pass. I'm wondering if it's one of the roads we'll hitchhike in next couple of weeks. This first ride certainly kicks off my trip well! I'm in a heightened bug-eyed state and I would have been perfectly happy just walking around all day, looking at the countryside. One thing is certain, for as long as we stay here the routine will be filled with adventure.

Finally in Marrakech - promised problems with soap; here my expectations were exceeded.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Live from Perpignan!

What will undoubtedly be one of the most fulfilling adventures I have ever been on is happening right now.

Disastrous in the beginning, it improved with every single step I took west. The biggest complain I have? Italy is not longer my worst place to hitchhike. Getting stuck in Berlin and at a gas station before Dresden was a misery to behold. Not to mention, never in my life have I waited longer for a ride.






But there were also big moments. I lapped up some long rides after >5 hours of waiting outside in the cold weather; snow falling and wind not only whistling past my ears, but screaming.

Cozy place to sleep in Karlsruhe

The most interesting driver I rode with was a young German musician who used to study in Japan for a year and did a lot of traveling in this country. Listening about his life and concerts in Asia was obviously on the menu but the best thing about this ride was the patchwork language between us. We started with German (I got congratulated on my good German skills - frankly speaking, it was the first time in my life I had spoken this language so fluently), switched to French and eventually when any of the previously used languages failed to describe the biggest emotions that accompany each distant travel, we were happy to continue in English.

I also met a fellow hitchhiker, Lucie, who was on her way back home from Nice to Nantes. She reminded me of my friend from Chamonix not only because of her mane but mainly because of the way she lives - into alternative ways of living and consuming, occupying a squat in the countryside with more people, sometimes living in tree houses surrounding the Nantes airport - and there are around 10 of them! Check this website to find out more.

I crossed Auvergne - the region in central France that contains four separate chains of extinct volcanoes but since it was a night ride, I missed the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of this marvelous natural area. Same about crossing Viaduc de Millau, world's tallest suspension bridge.


I spent the night in Perpignan, which means the second last frontier is only 40 km away. Adventure is screaming my name! Bring it in Spain!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Tak szaleje pół miasta tu co dzień..."

I longed for the last days of the year to be as crazy as two years ago at Budapest Winter Camp. When my plans significantly changed and I knew I would be off for NYE, I didn't wait a while and registered for the next Winter Camp in my CouchSurfing history, this time in Prague.

The city I used to under-appreciate as a kid since it was "too close to Poland," this time showed its totally different side to me.

In Budapest my travelmate Iza and me wanted to take everything we could from the event. That meant dancing the night away for 5 nights in a row, getting 4 hours of sleep a day, waking up at 9 and rushing to the events until the day took full circle. On the top of that, more side effects included: losing our voices, not being able to cooperate with our hosts and hitchhiking drivers on the way back home, hitchhiking with 37-something fever and being carriers of an epidemic for 2 more weeks after making it home. Not surprising after carelessly running outside with just swimming suits on in the Széchenyi thermal bath and long exposure to sub-zero temperatures.

This time I took it easy. I took the time to get to know new friends, spend time with my host, get some sleep as well. During the day different events were organized, like City Race, street art tour, cemetery walk, City Run, free hugs, as well as  a couple of day trips to other places nearby.

Singles are free. The married ones had to get to the next checkpoint tied with scarves (City Race).

How to kiss the horse?

Hugs are for free.

Guido, don't scare the baby!


Staroměstské náměstí

I tried to find graffiti of a hedgehog in a cage. I didn't find the hedgehog but I found some words of wisdom.

City Run was the daytime event I liked the most. More because of the spirit of competition than the final result.

We worked in teams of two and had altogether 12 questions to answer and tasks to complete. What was "African" about this race? When you mark the borders of the historical city center of Prague, the formed shape resembles Africa. And so the questions had hints that were the name of the country where certain place can be located, if you compare both maps. We had 2 hours to complete the race, those who come later would lose points.

Two hours before completing the task
Questions were easy, with the only difficult part being that some places were far apart from each other and we had to speed up. Tasks seemed to be easy but were nothing but. Get at least 200 ml of water from Vltava (my partner Rick and I found an island in the river where it was easy to reach the water without unwanted bath). Take a photo of yourself with a very drunken person (Prague train station is too clean to have any drunken people). Get a stamp from a post office (hard to find any that was open on the New Year's day).

Multivitamin juice straight from Vltava
We finished the run in a way that lived up to its name. After finding out at the main train station when Joseph Fanta was born, we only needed a post stamp. We assumed this one can be ignored and instead we can say that they're not open on that day. Luckily, a woman on the street gave us the most valuable information: "There's one post office 200 meters from here." And then the run started. We ran into the  post office and insisted on having the paper stamped: "We're in a game and that's the last task!" The clock ticked... Now there was no time to take it slow.

"The GPS says it's only 750 meters more! We can make it!", Rick encouraged me while I thought to myself "My poor knees, have mercy on me." I felt blood start to rush to my face.
"500 meters more! 450 meters! It's not that much!"
"I can't make it!"
"Only 250 meters! You can make it, Ewelina!"
"My legs hurt too much!"
"A few meters more.. here's the end!"

I pushed the door open and headed to the area where some couchsurfers already waited for other participants. Sit sit sit. It was one of the moments when you hurt so much you don't feel the pain. My knees felt like squished. I longed for a drink and for fresh air. But the thing that cheered me through to the other side was the organizers announcing we had completed the task in 2 hours, just on time! We walked, ran and only once used a taxi!

While waiting for the verdict, we were amused by a discussion "Whose is Borneo?"

Finally the cherry on the cake arrived: "You are the winners!" The precious moment! Thank you, the woman on the street! If not your information about the post office, we would have blown our chances to succeed!

Celebrating the victory, champagne came at midnight!
One thing is sure: the more the camp advanced, the more it focused entirely on the nights. They started with International Night (durian sweets from Malaysia, my favorite Dutch stroopwafel, sugary cranberry liquor from Finland, Turkish delights, French Bûche de Noël, Polish kutia, getting blatantly drunk with whatever we could get), then followed by dance workshops (still many days to go before I learn to dance tango the, hmm... sensual way), battle of nations (where the winners in every category were Germany, Germany, Germany; the masters of the best gay couple kiss - but the Team Expats was awesome too!) and dancing until the main venue, Meet Factory, closed.

It was my first beer since 3 years -4months! Photo by Elpida
"German gay couple wins!" Photo by Franci
So many fond memories... It was hard to farewell each other and head back to everyday life, definitely far less exciting by comparison. After the party marathon I was so happy to come home to the warm and cozy comfort of my heavenly bed. The exhaustion is still here but a couple of days spent with other couchsurfers, meeting old friends who had all been pulled apart after BPWC and making new ones was worth it. Nobody looks back at their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep, right?