The Last Hurrah

32 cities, 23 countries, 13 buses, 38 trains, 3 boats, 16 planes and more Christmas markets than most people see in a lifetime. Alas, it all must come to an end. Much like my bank account, I’m completely drained and ready to go home, but it doesn’t mean I’m not sad to leave. It took a while, but I’ve settled into the routine of moving around every few days admiring the cities of Europe and its surroundings. The last few weeks have gone particularly fast but were some of the best.

After leaving Iceland, we flew to Helsinki where after one night in the city we made our way up north to Lapland. Months before, Isabel and I had booked a night at the Arctic Resort in Kakslauttanen where they had glass igloos in the middle of the forest. We took a 12 hour overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi and chose the budget option of having seats. It was awful. I slept for about two hours and woke up with Isabel gone. I looked around and found her lying face down along the couch in the restaurant cart. I knew she had my phone tucked in with all her belongings which she was lying on but I couldn’t get to it without looking like I was stealing from her. I thought if I gave her a kiss on the head it would be clear that I knew her but this may have looked even creepier. After the train we got a 4 hour bus to the middle of nowhere. The long, expensive and uncomfortable trip was beyond worth it. The igloo was incredible and the snow was like nothing I’d ever seen. Although it was only the second or third time I had seen snow so no surprise.

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We made the same trip back to Helsinki where we stayed for three nights. From Helsinki the next stop was Stockholm. And so we boarded the overnight ferry. I don’t have many regrets from this trip but getting on that boat is my biggest. I didn’t think that a boat of that size could make a person sea sick but the fact that Isabel and I spent the next 17 hours with our heads in the toilet determined that was false. At 9pm they made an announcement that the performer Il Quattro would be unable to perform due to sea sickness. The man whose job it is to be on a boat couldn’t even cope. Pick up your game Il Quattro! Those 17 hours were traumatic. Things happened we swore never to speak of. There aren’t many people I would travel with, but when Isabel started singing ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen while I was spewing my guts out, I knew I had chosen well. To the cleaning crew of the Silja Line cruise ship, we are deeply sorry.

After three days in Stockholm the ground had finally stopped swaying and it was time to head to Norway. We got the train to Oslo which was simple and involved no bodily fluids which at this point was a big win. And so in two days it will be time to get on that last flight, destination Melbourne. There are so many things I want to do when I get home, but at the moment I can’t think further than putting a straw in a 2 litre bottle of lactose free milk and having a long undisturbed bath. I have actually been surprised at the selection of intolerance and allergy friendly foods. Most medium to large supermarkets have had a selection of gluten free and sometimes lactose free foods in the health section which I don’t know what I would have done without.

4 months ago I found it difficult to breathe while riding public transport. I told myself travelling wasn’t for me and I had made the mother ship of all mistakes. I don’t even recognise that person any more. I still feel like people are staring at me, but now I figure hey let them look. I’m sure there are worse things to look at.

As much as I truly love sharing a room with 30 people and washing my clothes in a sink, I am so excited to be home in the familiar. For me, travelling is like constantly flexing a muscle. There’s almost no time when you are completely alone to let down your guard and relax. But for anyone living with anxiety, depression or anything else that might be stopping you from travelling, I say go for it. That is my non-professional advice and obviously every case differs. So really I guess that’s for anyone who is letting fear stop them from travelling. Yes it can be daunting, overwhelming and expensive but the memories and experiences are priceless. Things get in the way and there are obstacles to overcome when planning a long trip but if you really want to then the excuses will fade away and you will make it happen. I’m so glad I did.

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Iceland

There are no words to describe how amazing Iceland is. But I’ll give it a red hot go. Travelling with Isabel is like a well-oiled machine compared to the poorly built go kart from Bunnings I’ve been hitching a ride on so far. Her display folder bible of tickets, information and itineraries has meant we’ve had the most productive and tiring two weeks in London, Paris and of course Iceland. She also has a normal sleep schedule which has been really fun to work around my less than normal sleep patterns.

We flew to Keflavik airport from Paris and landed at around 3:30pm into complete darkness. Now we had plenty of people warn us that Iceland at this time would be very dark and very cold. Anyone who knows us knows that we burn faster than a buttered croissant in a sandwich press so we were excited about this. Our hostel was in downtown Reykjavik where we would stay for one night before picking up the rental car the next day.

At least a year ago both Isabel and I saw a picture online of the ice caves in Iceland so on the first day it was available for the year we booked for the Glacier Guides to take us out and explore. This meant having to make our way out to a relatively remote part of Iceland where the buses didn’t go this time of the year. I persuaded Isabel to rent a car as long as I would drive. We had heard the weather could be unpredictable and I was more confident to drive on the other side of the road in the given conditions. It took us 6 hours to get there with no radio. I now know that the world is not ready for my improvised version of the 12 days of Christmas. At least Isabel isn’t.

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The drive was a bit terrifying at times, especially when it was so foggy we could barely see the car in front. When we arrived at our accommodation near the ice cave tour they had a weather warning that a hurricane was expected for the day we were going to drive back. I decided to put this out of my mind until after we had seen the ice caves. I may have anxiety but Isabel is a catastrophic thinker. She had plans A through to Z arranged for how we could get back, but I promised her the chances of a tsunami at the same time were slim so it was cut down to Y.

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We had our own room with a double bed and I don’t even think Isabel took a breath before reminding me she doesn’t like to be cuddled. Didn’t stop me from trying. The ice caves were breathtaking. Our guide pointed out to us the massive extent to which the glacier had receded in the last 5 years, which made us appreciate more than ever where we were and how precious and fragile it is. There was a loud thunderous noise while we were in the caves. I was ready to use Isabel as a human shield but our guide quickly reassured us that it was part of the glacier outside the cave collapsing. He said this a little too nonchalantly for my liking however we proceeded through the cave and saw how close the collapse was.

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I wasn’t that keen on driving back to Reykjavik that night so instead we left the next morning at about 7am. It would be hours before the sun rose and we had to get back before the hurricane hit. The last hour was the worst as the roads were icy and the snow was getting heavier. But the real challenge was walking back to the hostel after dropping the car off. It was hard to keep your eyes open but I put my all in since I didn’t want to miss it if Isabel slipped over. I saw snow for the first time in my life only weeks earlier in Bosnia so it was still a novelty to me.

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We were trying to lower our expectations when it came to the northern lights. It had been cloudy since we arrived and we had to be realistic. But screw being reasonable because we saw them the first night we tried!! A short bus trip out of Reykjavík with about 50 other people took us to a place where the sky was a bit clearer so we could see the green wave like lights in the sky. They were nothing short of spectacular. Luckily I had begged Isabel to bring over my tripod so I was able to get some half decent photos. A few of the people around us asked for me to take photos of them and email them which I was more than happy to do. Unfortunately one of the email addresses didn’t work so if anyone knows two German girls who saw the northern lights on December 1st please tell me!

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The Northern Lights are a pretty darn hard act to follow but if anything had a chance it’s the geothermal pools of Blue Lagoon. Iceland is over a volcano so hot water is crazy cheap and they have loads of geothermal pools, the most popular being Blue Lagoon which has more visitors every year than the population of Iceland. The outside temperature was just below zero while the water is around 37-40°C. It was bizarre having the crippling cold wind on your face while the rest of your body is so warm. For those of you with cash to burn there are options for massages and a bar by the water.

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I had high expectations for Iceland, and it certainly delivered. I’m so glad we got to drive across some of it and see the amazing waterfalls, glaciers, cliffs and miles of black sand. It is an extremely accommodating place for tourists but be prepared to loosen the purse strings. Next stop, Finland.

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The End of Solo Travel

Last week I went to use the bathroom at a café in Vienna and came across two doors with an H and a D on them. For once I wished there were some tacky and humorous gender clear stick figures to enlighten me. Feeling like people are staring at me isn’t new, but this time it really did seem like everyone’s eyes were on me. I knew I was taking way too long to decide which door to go through and it was too late to turn back. Long story short I chose the wrong one.

Sometimes certain things are unavoidable. And at a certain point I’ve stopped being mortally embarrassed by these situations since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to spend time dwelling on them all. I’ve learnt an incredible deal by travelling alone over the last three months and I wouldn’t do it differently if I had the time over.

Travelling alone comes with so much freedom it can be overwhelming. You have only yourself to look after and no one to compromise with at all. This is bitter sweet since I probably would have benefited from hearing some arguments against the idea of eating a whole pizza. I think that people are also more likely to talk to you if you are alone. I’ve been on the receiving end of one or two pity chats when eating by myself which can actually be quite interesting. In hostels it forces you to make more of an effort to socialise with other people and it overall just gives you a greater responsibility.

I have a love hate relationship with the responsibility that comes with solo travel. On the one hand, it is such an awesome feeling navigating your way from one country to the next with only the empowering lyrics of Beyoncé to guide you. On the other hand, when things go wrong it would be great to have a second person to just tell me exactly what to do. And if they wanted to carry me there I probably wouldn’t object.

Despite the personal revelations that come with so much solitude, I can barely contain my excitement that in less than 20 hours my sister Isabel will be meeting me in London! It could not have come at a better time because I’ve just run out of my favourite shampoo. And of course maybe I’ve missed her a bit I guess.

Obviously I can’t say that she’s my favourite sister, but I don’t see the other two jumping on a plane so take from that what you will. There’s no one I would rather spend the last month with, or should I say no one else was crazy enough to agree to travel with me for a month. But either way I’m as excited as a starving person who has just spotted the waiter bringing their food over at the moment. Finally when I get off the bus I don’t have to exert myself rolling my eyes and sighing at the people who are being greeted by loved ones and instead can focus on giving Isabel my bag to carry for me.

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Jordan and Israel

I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve seen Under the Tuscan Sun and that was equally as long and painful. ‘Hitting the wall’ is a concept which is said to happen during marathons when energy levels are low. I think I hit my wall in Zagreb. Every city was looking the same and I’d been to far too many museums for someone that isn’t studying anything. So it was the perfect time to head to Jordan and Israel. I wasn’t up to doing this leg of the trip on my own so booked my first tour. Putting aside for a brief moment the incredible place I was in, I was over the moon just to have 9 days of being told where to go and what to do after nearly 3 months of deciphering maps and timetables. It took three planes over two days to get to Amman in Jordan so when I was asked at passport control where I had come from I could not remember for the life of me what the answer was. I was mainly interested in visiting just Petra in Jordan but ended up discovering an amazing country of friendly people with beautiful sites to see. After Morocco I was a bit apprehensive about visiting the Middle East but found safety and comfort in travelling in a group. In Jordan we had a group of 11 mainly Aussies with a couple from New Zealand, one from France and one from Japan. I was the youngest by about 10 years which suited me well and it was great to get some travel tips from people with far more experience. During our time in Jordan we visited the Citadel and Roman amphitheatre in Amman, the ancient city of Jerash, Madaba, Mount Nebo, the Mujeb Valley, Karak, Petra and Wadi Rum. Petra was so much more than just the Treasury and was in fact a massive site that is still being uncovered. The night we arrived some of us decided to do Petra by night which was a sort of show at the treasury with lights, dramatic story telling in broken English and a surprisingly large amount of animal sound effects.

Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo

Mujeb Valley

Mujeb Valley

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Petra by Night

IMG_321q18 From Petra we drove to Wadi Rum وادي رم , also known as Valley of the Moon. Wadi Rum is home to Bedouin tribes and we were lucky enough to stay at a Bedouin camp where we enjoyed local beer by the fire, dancing with locals and were treated to a traditional Bedouin meal cooked underground. Shoes became optional. Before dinner we had a jeep ride through the desert to watch the sunset. We stopped at a dune that didn’t look that menacing until we started climbing up it. I’m sure the view from the top would have been nice if I wasn’t focusing on not passing out. Apart from the view the point was to run down which would really challenge the capability of my legs to keep up with the rest of my body. Apart from tearing my leather boot open it was uneventful. WP_20141105_007

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum

Run down a sand dune. It'll be fun they said.

Run down a sand dune. It’ll be fun they said.

After a night in the desert we made the trip to the Dead Sea on the Jordan side. Everything I could want from a swim, or float to be more accurate, could be enjoyed here. There was no chance of drowning or being eaten by anything. It was such a unique experience to float in the water. The high salt content was brutal on any cuts and the full body mud cover didn’t really soothe that but it was so worth it. Our next stop was Jerusalem which meant crossing the border from Jordan to Israel. What an ordeal. We left our bus on the Jordan side and had to get a special taxi to take us through the exiting Jordan procedures of passport check and luggage screening. Next was paying an exit tax of 10 dinars and another passport control. To get between the Jordanian and Israeli border you need to take a bus which runs every 45 minutes. At the Israeli border there was some questioning including what I was doing in Israel, how long I was staying, what my Grandfathers name is and all the countries I had been to in the last two months.

Optimistic before the border crossing

Optimistic before the border crossing

I ran into a slight problem when I mentioned I had been to Morocco and my passport was taken behind the scenes for a reason that wasn’t shared with me. After being asked how I was feeling I was told to take a seat to the side and wait although I still wasn’t sure what for. Everyone else in the group had been given the all clear so I was hoping whatever was going on wouldn’t take too long. A man with protective gloves came out and I know now that he was going to take my temperature but at the time it was just a man coming towards me and pointing something at my forehead with no explanation. We gathered it was a screening for Ebola which I’m assuming I don’t have since they let me in although there was a definite lack of communication so who knows. All up the border crossing took two hours. Jerusalem was nothing short of amazing. I was extremely confused by the situation in Israel before visiting and to be honest I’m still pretty confused as for every question that was answered I had five more to ask. Despite what is often portrayed it felt safe although our guide kept saying it was an extremely tense time. We explored the old city of Jerusalem on Friday, admiring the view from the Mount of Olives of the gold Dome of the Rock where Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. We didn’t ever walk far through the old city without stopping at some place of historic or religious importance including the Western Wall and the site of the Last Supper. Following the path that Jesus is believed to have walked as he carried his cross took us not only to the tomb of Jesus, the place where he fell and where he was handed a cloth to wipe his face but to the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. IMG_3528v2 Shabbat meant we were pressed for time and after returning to the hotel we struggled to find anything open let alone a supermarket. The streets were almost deserted by about 4:30pm which was a bizarre feeling. Luckily we eventually came across a bar that was open and the guy that worked there gave us the name of a place to eat. We never made it there and hours later we left the bar and walked back to the hotel. En route back to the border to Jordan we visited Bethlehem, the baptism site and the oldest city in the world- Jericho. Grand Final at the MCG has nothing on the amount of people at the birth place of Jesus. We were rushed through the small cave that had the place of the manger and the rock marking the spot of the birth with much pushing and shoving. Crossing the border back to Jordan went much smoother and before I knew it the tour was over. Jordan and Israel have definitely been my favourite places of the whole trip. I would recommend everyone go at least once. Unfortunately it’s a widely misunderstood place and is suffering a massive hit to tourism as a result. After travelling by myself for so long I really enjoyed getting to travel with such a great group of people. Aside from not having to eat alone or take all my belongings to the bathroom they were always good company and made the whole visit even better.

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The Hostel Experience

I’m a snorer. I’ve been apologising for it all my life after sleepovers, school camps and that one psychology class in high school. I was extremely nervous before coming overseas that my snoring would make it impossible for me to make any friends in hostels. So I was pretty surprised how angry I got at the guy sleeping in the bed across the room in Rome who sounded like a chainsaw being thrown into a wood chipper. I suppressed all urges to throw my 1.5 litre bottle of water at him and buried my head under my pillow.

Yesterday I arrived at my 20th hostel. This hostel is found in Zagreb, Croatia which is lucky because that’s where I was. I booked this hostel largely because of the name, The Swanky Mint. Swanky is a fun word to say and mint is my favourite flavour. It’s clean, modern and secure; so far we were kicking goals. I was told to head to the first room on the right and find bed 3. Every morning at around 4am I get up to use the bathroom. I had to reassess my schedule after finding these stairs.

The Swanky Mints not so swanky stairs

In Barcelona I fell down a normal ladder and ended up with an impressively bruised leg. These stairs are asking for a whole lot of coordination that can’t be found in my genetic makeup. I would also say that the handrail is purely decorative and that putting me on the third bunk is a cruel way to conquer my fear of heights. Bu when you’re paying 12 euros per night your complaints don’t have two legs to stand on.

And that has been my constant reminder. I am paying very little so can’t ask for an awful lot. An American I met in Marseille told me I was like a pessimistic 80 year old trapped in a 19 year olds body. In my defence this was while asking me to give him a boost over the wall of a church car park in the middle of the night because apparently the view was worth it. I told him his beard was stupid and he could give himself a boost. But in an effort to be more optimistic I’ll start with a list of things I do like about hostels.

-dirt cheap
-beyond easy to meet other travellers
-they usually can organise day trips for you or book tickets for tourist attractions
-people there can recommend good places to go in the city and what other cities you should see
-a great way to create worldwide connections and future places to sleep when you visit their country
-there is often a guitar in the common area and you can finally show off that one green day song you know

Some things I’m not so fond of include
-the 6-36 people in the one room are never going to go to bed and wake up at the same time so the door is constantly opening and closing and lights going on and off
-people sometimes not so silently judge you for sleeping until midday
-there is nowhere to escape when the girl with the carpe diem tattoo uses way too much body spray
-it is almost always far too hot in the room

I’ve stayed in an assortment of hostels. Family friendly ones where shoes are not allowed and they give you slippers, party hostels with a high school level of peer pressure to go out drinking, hostels with curfews and now one with a death trap for stairs. I strictly stay away from any hostel that has ‘bed bugs’ in any review or that has ‘we’re a party hostel so if you hate having fun don’t come here’ in the description. I don’t hate having fun, but I hate trying to sleep while other youths are having fun.

The front of the hostel in Estonia

After leaving Morocco I headed to Marseille to sort of regroup. Catch up on some sleep and finally do some washing (once you turn the undies inside out you can’t turn them inside out again). From Marseille the aim was Rome. I got as far as Milan and couldn’t get any further that day so at 10pm I looked around for a place to sleep. I was on the verge of a meltdown and just didn’t want to think anymore. I walked across the street and into the first hotel and asked for a room.

It was probably the nicest room I had been in since visiting Buckingham Palace and cost about as much as a room there. After putting my stuff down I sat on the bed, looked at the receipt and just cried. For the first time this trip I cried for about 15 minutes. After the tears subsided I turned on the TV and the Fresh Prince of Belair was on but dubbed in Italian. This brought on the water works again. I wanted home, I wanted my bed with my pillow and for an English TV channel other than CNN which keeps telling me about how everyone in Europe is going to get Ebola. The upside of handing over the sum of a small mortgage for a room is that I made the most of all the extras the room came with. I even used the shower cap then took it off and washed my hair.

I made it to Rome the next day and because I’m only booking a couple days at a time the only bed I could find was at a bed and breakfast. I use the terms bed and breakfast loosely. The main reason I went to Rome was to see the Pope give his Angelus prayer on Sunday at midday, even though I personally don’t believe in god it was more of a cultural interest. Also like any other person with a shred of decency I love Tom Hanks and thought he might be there deciphering symbols. I got to the Vatican two hours early because I’ve heard he’s a pretty popular guy. After standing in St Peters square for two and a half hours I was staring heat stroke right in the face. For a place that’s meant to be so close to heaven it was hot as hell. All I wanted was to get back to the room and have a cold shower. I still don’t know how she got in, but the woman who ran the place barged in while I was in the shower and started yelling at me in Italian. Turns out she thought I stole a coffee pod which I still proclaim my innocence for but she wouldn’t hear a word of it.

I have learnt to call horrible or difficult experiences character building so I’m expecting to have a pretty solidly built character by the end of this trip. I’m all about honesty, so in complete honesty if I won the lottery tomorrow I probably wouldn’t stay in a hostel again and would enjoy the privacy of a modest to disgustingly extravagant hotel room, but that’s only being said after living in hostels for two months so I feel like that doesn’t make me a completely awful person to say that. Either way I would recommend hostels as the way to go. They can be a crazy ride but they’re temporary elements of a trip and without them I couldn’t afford to do what I’m doing so for that my hat is tipped to them.

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Why I Left Morocco

I had grand plans for my stay in Morocco. Early in high school we did a few classes on the country during French class and I’ve wanted to go ever since. The fact that The Real Housewives of New York City did a girls trip there only fuelled the desire. After getting a bit tired of Eastern Europe, I thought it was the perfect time to go. I flew from Estonia to Barcelona, stayed there 3 nights then got the train to Algeciras, stayed there one night and the next day got the ferry to Tangier.

Tangier was not high on my list of places to visit as it was trumped by Marrakech, Casablanca and possibly Fez. But it was as far as I got. It wasn’t until I was at the port in Algeciras waiting to board the ferry that my anxiety peaked. I had previously scoffed at anyone who told me Morocco wasn’t the place for a solo female traveller let alone being 19 with fair complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes, but even on the ferry over I started to feel like I was out of place. It’s an uneasy feeling.

The ferry arrived at Tangier Med which is a port about 50km from Tangier and I wasn’t entirely sure how to get into the city. I found a Spanish couple who were going the same way and they were unable to shake me off so I followed them onto the correct bus. I had already decided I would walk to the hostel from where the bus dropped me off. This ended up being about 4km which seemed possible. I did not consider the bags I was carrying, the heat and the terrain. After that 4km walk I’m pretty sure I could climb Everest. Don’t hold me to that though.

By the time the little green dot on my phone map had reached the finishing flag I felt and looked like I had run 42km on a treadmill in a bikram yoga studio. I was very pleased I was wearing my conservative shirt that made me look like a travel photographer but was also dark blue so didn’t show how embarrassingly sweaty I was.

There were no signs for the hostel but I rang the bell a couple times anyway. No answer. I decided to check the directions the hostel supplied in the confirmation email. I didn’t initially use these as they didn’t give directions from where I was starting off. I read their description and realised I couldn’t see any of the landmarks they were pointing out. I double checked my phone map and saw there were two streets of the same name. Of course I chose the wrong one putting myself another 4km away from the correct location.

I still felt very unsafe walking around by myself and decided to risk a taxi. I had no idea what to expect to pay but was lucky and had a kind taxi driver who spoke English quite well. Finally I had made it to the hostel. I was staying in the Medina which was a maze of narrow lanes packed with people and market stalls selling fruits, nuts, spices, clothes and an unnerving amount of kitchen knives.

Sunrise over Tangier

When I went on student exchange to France at the age of 16 we had to spend a day learning about culture shock to prepare us. I thought it was ridiculous and begged my Mum not to make me go. The first activity we had to do was pair up and stand toe to toe with someone we didn’t know and maintain eye contact. This was meant to mimic how uncomfortable we would feel. My partner had huge potential as a male model so I was pretty ok with it but the rest of the day has never felt as relevant as it did the last few days. Until I arrived in Morocco I wouldn’t ever say I had really felt the full effects of culture shock.

It was a completely different world. My main issue was the way I was treated as a female. According to the Pew Research Centre in 2010, 98.9% of the population is Muslim. I have a bit of internal conflict about the situation there. I’m visiting a different culture and had every intention of respecting their society and way of life, but aspects of it directly contradict the way I have been raised.

In Australia I would never stand for anyone speaking to me the way the men called out there while I was walking. I had on long pants and a long sleeved shirt with a high neck but I clearly stood out. I kept my head down and tried to ignore the cat calls and grabbing but I felt incredibly uncomfortable. When sharing a taxi with a couple from the hostel, the taxi driver only addressed the man, even though his girlfriend and I both had the language skills to communicate with him.

The 5th of October is the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha which is a day of sacrifice to honour Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael before God provided him with a lamb to sacrifice instead. To mark this day lambs, sheep and goats are sacrificed in the streets. This was happening on the day I left. It was an unforgettable smell walking through the tiny lanes to the taxi, the stones slippery with blood and water. Groups of men surrounded barrels of fire with the heads of sheep speared on sticks to be roasted.

Eid al-Adha

I was really overwhelmed by Morocco and so decided to head back to Europe after a two night stay. I have every intention of going back at a different time most likely with someone else but right now I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t see it as a failure, just as an opportunity to learn my limits. It was an eye opening experience especially into the lifestyle of women in other cultures. I have nowhere near enough knowledge to have a well-rounded opinion on social or religious ways of life there, just enough to share how I felt.

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