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Expat Update (AKA My Quarter Life Crisis)

Friday, January 30, 2015
Why hello there! I feel like I've been so busy trying to catch up on travel posts (and you know, trying to get my life in order) that I haven't given a real update in a while. So, hi! Here's what's new:

I'm stressing out tough trying to figure out my plans for next year. My brain is telling me to go back home, go to grad school and start my career as a teacher in the good ol' US of A, but my heart is telling me to stay in Spain. While realistically I know I need to man up and face the real world at some point, I'm the happiest I've ever been here in Madrid.

My inner overachieving American is telling me that I should probably start having adult things like a savings account that isn't always drained, a permanent address that isn't my dad's, and a 401K (I don't even know what that is...?)  Of course grad school would have to come first, which would wipe out my finances for God knows how long. Meaning, when would I be able to travel again?

As much as I'm looking forward to someday becoming an elementary school teacher in America, I just don't feel in a rush to become one right now. Besides, all of the best teachers I had as a kid were actually pretty old. Nothing can make up for life experience, right?

If there's a way to stay in Madrid another year, I'm going to try. Unfortunately, the teaching program I currently work for - Auxilares de Conversación - only allows you to stay in the same province for two years. If you want to continue after that, you either have to switch provinces or hasta luego. I wouldn't want to relocate to the north of Spain, because after 20 years of living in Seattle the mere thought of rain repulses me. And I've already lived in the south of Spain, and Lord knows that was a disaster. If I stay in Spain, I'm staying for Madrid. This city has captured my heart and soul, and I wouldn't settle for anything less.

I'm looking into other teaching programs here to cover my bases, but knowing Spain and its unpredictable bureaucracy, I know there's no guarantees. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, sending good vibes into the universe, and praying that I can find a legal, well-paying job that'll allow me to stay.

Sure, going back home wouldn't be absolutely terrible. I'd be closer to my family and friends, drink green smoothies every day, reunite with my two true loves: chardonnay and truffle fries, cuddle with Kitty Purry and Chairman Meow whenever I want, and be able to go to Whole Foods in my yoga pants. (I know, I know, #basic.) However, I know in my heart that I'm just not ready to leave Spain.

I know this because, like most other OCPD over-planners and over-thinkers, I had to make a pro/con list. I tried to compare the things I love most about both countries, along with some other influential factors. The results were pretty clear...

Kale, quinoa and truffle fries | Tortilla, huevos rotos and patatas bravas
Bacon | Jamón
Happy Hour | Tapas crawling
Better international food | Better quality meat and dairy products
American brunch | Affordable lunch Menús del Día
The divine mecca that is Whole Foods | Groceries so cheap it makes your head spin
Oaky, buttery Chardonnays | Rich and comforting Riberas and Riojas
Wider variety of wines available | High quality bottles for unbelievably low prices
Wine tasting in my hometown of Woodinville, WA | Wine tasting trips to Rioja
 Starbucks | Strong cortados
Cozy coffee shops | Outdoor terraces in sunny plazas
Ordering coffee to-go | Sitting and relaxing in a café because no to-go cups are offered
Shopping at J.Crew, Nordstrom and Madewell | Buying plane tickets instead of clothes
Wide open spaces | Crowded streets and lively plazas
Anthropologie candles and my teal KitchenAid | My balcony that looks out into the plaza
Football | Soccer
Customer service and friendly strangers | Not having to tip in restaurants
24 hour grocery stores | Afternoon siestas
The freedom to drive everywhere | Efficient public transportation systems
Having doctors and hairdressers I can trust | Having every errand become an adventure
Guys who don't live at home until they're 30 | Guys who'll help me improve my Spanish
Guys buying you dinner on the 1st date | Guys saying "So, your drink was 2€" on the 1st date
Trying to decode cryptic texts | Trying to decode and translate  cryptic texts
Being kicked out of the bars at 1:45 am | Being pressured to stay out dancing until 6 am
Dive bars and sports bars with happy hour | The most bars per square meter in Europe
Tailgating at football games | Sundays in La Latina
Hipster bars with craft cocktails | A plethora of rooftop bars open all year round
Living close to my parents | Living 5,000 miles away
Cuddling with Kitty Purry and Chairman Meow | Daily hugs from my cute Spanish students
Diving into my career in education | Training as a teaching assistant for one more year
Spending $$ on grad school loans continuing my education | Spending €€ to travel the world
Learning how to really become a better teacher | Continuing to improve my Spanish
Having a respectable, well-paying job | Pinching pennies and living happily in Europe

Some days I feel so confused about what I want, but when I write it all down, I guess it's pretty clear that I want to stay in Madrid. Now the question is, how do I do that??

What do you think?
 Would you follow your brain, or follow your heart?

Misadventures in Morocco

Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Have I ever told you about the time I got stranded in Africa?

Back when I was studying abroad in Cádiz in 2010, a group of friends and I decided to take a short trip to Morocco. We had heard many mixed reviews about the country, but felt the need to experience it for ourselves. Africa sounded so marvelous and exotic, sure to be filled with adventures and mystique. So we booked our tickets to Marrakech, and didn't think about it much further until we arrived.

Marrakech is not just a lush and exotic oasis, but also a mysterious land of snake charmers, bustling markets, savory tangine chicken and cous cous, pungent spices, ornate mosques, mint tea, cultural complexities, and fascinating traditions. Wandering through the stirring markets and the Souk was nothing like anything I've ever experienced. Colorful shops selling decadent tea pots and oriental rugs blend into the creamy apricot buildings, while the shop owners bombard, hassle, and argue with you. A myriad of precious tea cups and rainbow scarves enveloped me in a sea of wide-eyed mystery.

Lost on our first day in Marrakech, we encountered a boy named Abdul Ali; a tall and skinny schoolboy, no older than 14. He offered to give us directions to the market, but weary of tour guide scams, we initially rejected him. He convinced us that he wasn't a guide, but that he worked in a spice shop across from the market, so he could lead us back to the center free of charge. We were too lost to turn him down. (Needless to say, this was in the days before iPhones and Google maps.)

Apprehensive yet hopeful, we followed Abdul through the narrow, winding streets of the city. When we arrived at his family's spice shop, we thought it would be nice to stop in and maybe buy a little something to show our appreciation. We ended up hanging out at the shop for at least an hour, talking, joking, and taking pictures with Abdul and his family. His cousin showed us authentic Moroccan spices, cures and remedies, and generously gave us free treats and gifts. We sniffed sharp black cumin to relieve headaches, doused our bodies in luscious amber perfume, and whiffed decadent curry, saffron and cinnamon. When we finally had to leave, we were remorseful to say goodbye to our new friends.

Within the first minute of entering the market, we were chased by snake charmers and tackled by monkeys. The street performers usually trick the tourists into taking pictures of these exotic sights and then demand money for the pictures afterwards. After being accosted by one too many snakes and monkeys, we cast away our inhibitions and wandered further into the Souk.

For hours we winded through a labyrinth of shops and aggressive vendors. To avoid being hassled even further, we pretended that we weren't Americans. We only spoke in Spanish to each other, and when the vendors asked us where we were from, we all lied and said we were from Spain. We finally met someone who caught us in our lie - a friendly waiter working in one of the market's restaurants who was wearing an FC Barcelona jersey and claimed to have lived in Spain. After plenty of joking and lively conversation, he convinced us to eat at his stand. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with our new friend and indulging on savory shish kebabs, salads and round loaves of warm bread.

The next day we embarked on an excursion advertised by our hotel, where we were promised a "guided tour in English" to an authentic Moroccan town "two hours away" with the "opportunity to ride camels for only 100 dirham". (Let's be honest: we just wanted to go for the camels.) After a five hour road trip (each way) with absolutely zero camels and a driver who spoke no English, we felt completely scammed. The silver lining: we got to trek through the wondrous Atlas Mountains, see the lush oasis of the Moroccan countryside, and explore the sun-drenched city of Ouarzazate.

Our last day in Morocco was both the best and the worst. We finally prepared to embark on our grandest (and most touristy) adventure of them all: camel riding! We ventured to the Palmerie, mounted our camels, and strolled through the lush gardens of palm trees gleaming against blue skies. The golden sunshine generously poured its rays upon our tan shoulders as we rocked back and forth on our camels, until we reached a quaint cottage concealed by the tall grasses. We relished warm flat bread and sipped sweet mint tea inside the hidden villa, ornately filled with colorful lamps, cozy floor cushions and irresistible Moroccan charm. We were overcome with thankfulness for being able to enjoy one of the few things that went smoothly on our trip.

High off the thrill of riding camels through the secluded Palmerie of Marrakech, we ventured off to the Souk once more for our last supper. Our entrance to the market was not so warmly welcomed, for we were instantly bombarded by restaurant owners pressuring us to give them our business. When we rejected them, turned off by their vulgar invitations, they cursed at us and told us that we'd "regret making that woman the leader of our group".

We finally sat down at the restaurant that hassled us the least and began to stuff our faces with shish kebabs. As we ate our dinner, groups of tattered women and children came up to us begging for money. When we offered our untouched bread, they refused and explicitly asked for money. We then witnessed a young girl get beaten up by another restaurant owner and a young boy thrown across the market. Watching all of this and knowing we couldn't do anything about it was discouraging and incredibly rattling.

After all that we had just seen, we decided to stop for ice cream in a half-hearted attempt to make ourselves feel better. As we sauntered towards our hotel with our sweet treats, a group of children came up to us, begging for money. Tired and frustrated, we tried to ignore them and keep walking. The children then became aggressive and started to hit and kick us. One even tried to grab my clutch and run, but thankfully it was attached to my wrist and I was quick to pull my arm away. I never thought I could get beat up by a kindergartener, but I suppose you can never say never.

We came back to our hotel emotionally exhausted. After all of the trip's mishaps and tribulations, we only had one goal: get the hell out of Morocco. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for us.

We arrived at the Marrakech airport the next day jaded and anxious to get back to Spain. But thanks to the Icelandic volcano that had recently erupted, all flights back to Europe were cancelled. Reality hit us: we were stranded in Africa. Filled with panic, fear and frustration, we gathered a group of other stragglers and coordinated a road trip to Tangier, where we planned to hop a ferry back to Spain.

We began our nine hour road trip across the Moroccan countryside, passing Casablanca and stopping in Rabat for a gourmet lunch at McDonald's (where they enthusiastically advertised the "McArabia". How appetizing.) Thanks to a plethora of Dramamine and a dead iPod, I zoned out as I watched the country pass before me. All I could think about was being back in Seattle, warm and safe in my own bed. However, reality kept reminding me that I was stranded in a developing country.

After endless hours of barren fields and deserted villages, we finally reached Tangier. We bought our boat tickets with ten minutes to spare and started sprinting towards the port. As we were running to catch our ferry, which we had been told was the last one of the night, I started to have an asthma attack... naturally. Needless to say, we missed the boat. (It ain't easy being wheezy, friends.) Thankfully we had been misinformed, and there was still one last ferry that night. Anxiety pulsed through me as we waited for the last boat.

The rocky ferry ride calmed my nerves as we crossed the Moroccan border towards Spain. We arrived in the sketchy port town of Algeciras around 2:00 am. We were overcome with relief, having finally made it back to Spain. The rest of our night was spent sleeping on the pavement outside the Algeciras bus station, braving the cold and desperately trying to catch some z's before the first bus back to Cádiz at sunrise. It was certainly not one of my finer moments in life.

Low and behold, we survived our night on the streets and made it back to Cádiz safely. Okay... so maybe I won't be going back to Marrakech anytime soon. And lesson learned: if a volcano in Iceland decides to erupt, maybe it's best to stay home.

Have you ever gone on a trip where everything went wrong? 

Istanbul's Spice Bazaar: A Feast for the Senses

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Exploring local markets is always one of my favorite things to do when I travel to new cities, so I knew that I simply couldn't miss Istanbul's Spice Bazaar. Built in the 1600s, the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) is also known as the "Egyptian Bazaar" because its construction was funded by the revenues of Egyptian imports. This Ottoman-era marketplace attracts a wide variety of hungry tourists and locals with its abundance of spices and fresh Turkish delicacies such as nuts, dried fruits, herbs, tea and lokum (Turkish Delight).

Upon entering the crowded, bustling market, it was just as exotic and overwhelming as I expected it to be. Wide-eyed and filled with wonder, I began exploring the chaotic bazaar.

I immediately felt a rush of excitement and anxiety, akin to how I felt as a child when I visited Disney Land. There was so much to do, so much to be seen, and a weird sense of pressure to fully experience it all - not missing a single stall, photo opportunity, or exotic Turkish treat. Sometimes traveling can provoke that kind of anxiety within me, as if I'm competing against myself to have the best time possible. As the crowds and stimuli of the bazaar bombarded my senses, I began to feel myself panic.

I rushed to take as many pictures of dates and baklava as possible, when shortly thereafter I realized I had lost my friends. Full on panic arose. In this loud, sprawling marketplace, how would I ever find them? Heart racing and sweating profusely, I darted past the nearby vendors, desperate to try to spot them. I could see people eyeing me, but I couldn't conceal my fear. After what felt like a thousand lightyears (which in reality, was probably only about 3 minutes), I finally spotted my friend's bright red jacket in a stall across the way. Lesson learned: it's probably not a good idea to wander off to take pictures in a crowded Turkish market.

I gave my friend's arm a loving squeeze, took several deep breaths, and sipped on some tea that the shop vendor offered me. Enveloped in the calm that always follows the storm, I no longer concerned myself with having the "the ultimate" experience. Potential photo opportunities and experiences aside, I needed to focus on living in the moment (while also not losing my friends again).

From there on out, I surrendered my senses to the enigmatic Spice Bazaar. I admired the vividly colored spices, tasted a myriad of samples, and made friends with the affable vendors. I stocked up on cumin, cinnamon, apple tea, curry and other spice mixes to take home with me, and picked up some pistachios and rose Turkish Delight to snack on while we browsed through the other stalls. 

I basked in the market's vibrance. Everything we saw, every morsel we tasted, and every friendly merchant we talked to enriched our experience. I was filled with that childlike wonder again, minus the anxiety that I had originally felt upon entering the market. When I freed myself from the pressure of having to experience as much as possible, I managed to do just that.

I left the Spice Bazaar with full shopping bags, a full belly, and a full heart. While this captivating marketplace was one of my favorite places in Istanbul, it also challenged me in an unexpected way. My experience in the Spice Bazaar taught me that instead of actively seeking out experiences, sometimes you just have to let them happen.

Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
Mısır Çarşısı Eminönü - Fatih / Istanbul / Türkiye
 (Next to the New Mosque)
Open daily from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm. Closed on Sundays, October 29th and religious holidays.
Entrance is free.

2015 Destinations On My Radar

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New year, new adventures! While I don't have any trips set in stone yet, I've got quite a few places in mind that I'm dying to get to this year. I spent 2014 getting to know Europe better, so this year I'd like to focus on traveling more throughout Spain. (Though I'll still throw in a couple of international trips, just for good measure!) 

Although I've seen a good portion of the country, I feel like there's still so much more to be discovered and enjoyed. I'm not sure when my days of teaching English in Madrid will be over, but at the end of it all, I want to walk away knowing that I took full advantage of life in Spain. It would be foolish to turn down any opportunity to explore this gorgeous country! So with all that in mind, here's where I have my heart set on going this year:

Cádiz - 2010

It's about time that I make my return to the first Spanish city I fell in love with... which I subsequently ended up hating just a couple of months later. My time studying abroad in Cádiz was less than ideal, but through the trials and tribulations I ended up learning a lot about myself. And while living there wasn't necessarily a good fit for me, it's still a beautiful place that's perfect for visiting. I know returning will bring back a lot of intense emotions, but at this point I feel ready to face those demons and fully embrace everything wonderful about this charming southern town. 

Lisbon - 2010

Portugal is calling my name, and it'd be rude not to answer. After falling for Lisbon four and a half years ago, I'm ready to see what else Portugal has to offer. I've heard Porto is colorful, gritty and decidedly picturesque, so I'm hoping to seriously improve my photography skills before going!

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This has been my top destination in Spain for quite some time now, and there's really no question as to why. Widely regarded as the culinary capital of the world, San Sebastián was also chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2016. Breathtaking scenery, distinct culture, world renowned gastronomy... what more could you ask for?

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One of these days I'd like to travel all throughout Scandinavia, but for now I'm enchanted by the idea of Copenhagen. I'm not sure what about it specifically attracts me, I just know that I've wanted to go for the longest time. I'm enticed by the potential of getting to know a part of Europe that I've never explored before, and from what I've seen on the blogosphere, Copenhagen looks absolutely darling.

 Luanco, Asturias - 2014

I fell in love with the north of Spain last spring when I traveled through Asturias, and I've been yearning for more ever since. My top destinations include Oviedo, Gijón, Santander, Girona, or pretty much anywhere in Galicia. I'll probably wait to go until May or June, in order to avoid as much rain as humanly possible. (After 20 years of living in Seattle, you'd probably feel the same way.)

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I think I've made it pretty clear that my survival depends on a lot of Vitamin D. A sunny weekend in Mallorca sounds like the perfect island getaway with a necessary Spanish twist. Palm trees and beaches by day, tapas and vino by night? Yes please.

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Depending on my summer plans, I hope to make a stop in Iceland on my way back home this July. Not only is there a direct flight from Reykjavík to Seattle, but Iceland Air also offers free stopovers for up to seven nights. Score!