#MoroccoIsAmazing: Where getting lost is finding yourself … and what you really want

The Morrocans have a beautiful way of doing and selling things. Every product display is a work of art. It seemed like nothing was spared to make them appealing to the eyes.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” ― Pico Iyer

As I packed a small suitcase for my Morocco trip, I resolved not to shop but to have more time to enjoy without thinking of things to carry. The cabin bag is perfect for moving at airports. Easy. No waiting time at the baggage carousel. Every time I travel, this is my goal – no checked-in bag! How wonderful to get out of the plane, queue at the immigration and out to the waiting car. I wish!

How do you say “no” to all these and just enjoy the feast? I did. What I am impressed of the shopkeepers here is they can urge you to buy but they aren’t offended when you don’t. I love that kind of respect. Not all, but most.

I met the same mom and daughter team from Argentina who were traveling from Buenos Aires to Barcelona to Cairo then Marrakesh for a month. One carry-on bag each, less hassle. “We washed and re-used and made sure we carried the lightest clothes we have”, Adriana said. Imagine if they traveled in 3 countries with a lot of heavy bags? That can be a nightmare!

On my first day getting into the souk in this small alley, I was already giddy with excitement on what will I find out. I was honestly not disappointed.

I learned well that the best way to travel in Europe is light and easy. Just lugging bags in the train’s overhead bin had been tough for me. Never again. If it is winter time, nobody will even appreciate (including yourself) what you are wearing. All you need is a comfortably warm jacket and a nice neck warmer. If you have other ideas to solve this, let me know.

Going through the shops are convenient, all of them competing not just with an array of things to sell but also on how they creatively display them.

Going through the labyrinth of souks (traditional markets) in Marrakesh was both fun and mind-boggling. The way between shops are small and often, you compete with a very languidly moving crowd, a motorbike doing deliveries and even horses in intersections. Watch your back! This did not faze me, however, as I found it so amusing in most times when a tourist shrieks and shouts after a close brush with a cart pushed by a harried worker.

I was brought to a carpet shop by my guide who insisted there is no pressure for me to buy. Of course I know they wanted me to. After a lot of explaining I don’t need one, we parted ways. Handwoven carpets can sell from US$500 and up. They’re the best buys when in Morocco. You can also arrange to have them shipped.

Most shops open between 9:00-10:00 in the morning and closes at around 6:00-7:00pm except on Fridays when most of the shop owners go for worship. There are few money changers in the big souk but one can always go to the Jemaa El-Afna Square where you can find Bureau de Change and even withdraw money from the ATM machine. I found it easier to do this in the morning when people are still few. It becomes busier by mid-day and all the way to sunset.

Too many choices! Traditional herbs, tea leaves and different kinds of oils are aplenty. Check out where to buy authentic ones before you decide. Your hotel staff can always help advise where to go.

Marrakesh is not a place for people in a hurry. It is best enjoyed slowly, taking time to look at every incredible doorway, a line of ceramic pots in a riot of colors, a rhapsody of tea leaves and oils. Morroco, in general, is best planned like you have all the time in the world to soak even in every small detail of life. Its history is rich and reading about it before you arrive adds to the excitement. It is like meeting a friend after a long time.

A friendly grandma showed us how they prepare and extract oils from the nuts. A painstaking process that Moroccans are happy to do making their oils, especially the argan oil, among the most-sought after.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to show.” – Anonymous

Getting around Berlin: Brace yourself for the walking frenzy!

The enchanting garden at Pergamon Museum and National Gallery.

It was autumn cold. The leaves were yellow and falling. How travel giddy can you get, you get that at autumn.

The excitement was on high pitch. Yes, Berlin!

Germany’s capital is home to the Berlin Wall that fell down on 1989, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Dom, Checkpoint Charlie, the Pergamon Museum and well, Homeland’s Season 5. You can think of an emoticon for the last one but I won’t budge as a forever fan.

Taking a train and arriving in a hauptbahnhof (train station) in Germany is an experience in itself. It opened on May 2006 and transports at least 300,000 passengers per day. I have been to the stations (which are conveniently shortened to HBFs) in Cologne, Frankfurt (and the one at the airport), Freiburg, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Mannheim and Munich. The lucky 8th is Berlin.

This city has too much history in just one place. Exploring it for 5 days isn’t enough. Well, holidays aren’t always enough, are they?

The climb at the Reichstag was dizzying but amazing especially at sunset.

Some of these tips you already know but it helps to be reminded one more time before you pack and go:

  • Choose a place close to a train station. All the walking is punishing. By the time I got home at night, even if I did few coffee shop breaks, I can’t hardly lift my legs. The apartment in Charlottenburg was perfect. The place was also teeming with Asian restaurants I felt at home. It was at least 5 stations away by train but all the stations have their own must-visit spots (such as Bellevue that gets my vote for the nicest train station).

 When you leave Berlin in a train for the next city, be early in your designated gleis (railway track). The trains stop quite quickly for few minutes and closes the door on time. You’ll have to wait for the next and if your ticket schedule is non-transferrable to the next train, then you’ll have to get another one.

  • Bring your most comfortable shoes. I wish you luck! I brought two – a pair of street boots and one rubber shoes that I have alternately used. The shoes worked but my legs failed me. By day 5 my knees hurt I can hardly climb stairs, I began to be grateful whoever invented escalators and elevators that are available in most of the train and tram stations. Their escalators go both ways so it can take you down after they have taken people up.

  • Wherever you come from and it’s your first time, go straight to the Information Centre right in front of the station. You cannot miss it. If you cannot speak in German then they’ll orient you properly. There’s also the Tourism Centre where you can get a week’s ticket that already covers train, tram and bus rides inside the city. You can also get your ticket for hop-on hop-off tour buses if you’re interested.

The Berlin Dom is a basilica popularly known as the Protestant St Peter’s dating from 1905.

  • Check for a free walking tour. There’s always one wherever you go. It’s a nice way to start the holiday. Sometimes you also get to help a group of students or volunteers who get by with the tips. I’ve always done this in countless cities I’ve been to from Africa to Europe. In Berlin, I once again found Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour and it was great I signed up for their other paid tours. Check them out as they are in 17 cities in Europe and in New York in the US.
  • Do your homework before the trip. Nowadays it is easier to plan ahead with a lot of travel sites and Google helping you where the famous sites are located. Doing your top 6-10 list will help you shorten your travel time. Getting lost is not an awful thing in Berlin as wherever you end is always something unexpectedly fantastic. But that’s if you have enough time to lose. When I got lost finding a nice restaurant, I ended up finding that incredible Bellevue Train Station. Don’t forget the list plus the addresses. See mine below.
    • Brandenburg Gate
    • The Reichstag
    • The Berlin Wall Memorial
    • The Charlottenburg Palace
    • Berlin Cathedral
    • Holocaust Memorial
    • Museum Island
    • The Sunday Flea Market at the Mauer Park
    • Checkpoint Charlie
    • The Tiergarten

The Berlin Wall was was a sobering experience. It’s a stark reminder that evil exists but will never prevail with humanity’s goodness.

Our trip to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was a sobering experience. Political prisoners were kept as slave labourers from 1936 to 1945. It was there that the first crematory was built in 1940. Our tour guide Rob from Sandeman’s facilitated an interesting discussion of the camp, its history and the turbulence brought by the Nazi empire.

One more thing, if you’re staying at hotels, don’t leave your rooms a mess. I realised many of the rooms are cleaned up by hardworking immigrants and friendly locals. You’ll make their lives easier by keeping your room clean and tidy. Our holidays do not have to be a burden to others.

I’d say, Berlin is a city on history-overload. But I also like the eclectic openness, the warmth of people and its ongoing quest to have its own place among the world’s famous cities, trying to be ahead but not yet there. Not quite but watch out London and New York.

You do not need another word to convince me to go back. I left my heart in Berlin.

If you have enough time, plan for a relaxing tour where you do not hurry and cram the day so you see everything. The truth is, you will never see all of them unless you live there for a year. Enjoy and savor each moment. Don’t get too caught up with photo opportunities that you end up visiting the place but not really enjoying it. I appreciated Berlin because I’ve read it in so many history books. It felt like I was visiting a place I knew for a long time. Read about the place before you go. Every trip is a chance to educate yourself more about our beautiful world.

Inside the Reichstag. Orderly, fascinating and a walk through German Empire’s power hall. It opened in 1894 and got burned down in 1933. Schedule your visit on weekdays at around 5pm to avoid too much crowd. You can get the ticket in a booth near the building across the street and it’s free!

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) is a hub for travelers complete with a wide array of shopping and eating choices.

The entrance and main watchtower of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Thousands of inmates line up for morning and afternoon rolls cals in its wide space below. At the iron gate the infamous slogan “arbeit macht frei (work makes you free)” is embedded in wrought iron.

-o00o-

Next week: Let’s go to Munich’s Oktoberfest!

Traveling solo in Bali: I realized happiness is made, not found

She admits it was daunting. But it also taught her a lesson on reaching out to others. She also proved many would be happy to help.

By Shintya Kurniawan

It was unplanned. It was fun and life changing. These are the four simple lines to sum-up my experience.

It started when a book-review competition rewarded me free plane tickets to Bali on 2013.

I can choose the dates, the sponsor reserved and paid for my tickets. I am grateful and excited. However, I have never bought tickets to travel alone. It was a first time for me.

When I go for trips, at least one friend joins me in the journey. Except having the free tickets, I have no particular reason to be in Bali. I have visited the island of gods multiple times. What would I do there alone?

Then, I remembered there was this annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to tick off from my bucket list. So I requested to fly on the dates to attend the event on October 2013. The event, however, fell on weekdays. Everyone was working and nobody wants to go with me.

I guess not too many people would take a leave from work for a literature event. My excitement turned into a dilemma – should I cancel or reschedule the trip until we have a national holiday? Should I still go?

Thankfully, my traveling buddy, Mardea, decided to join me. But she could only do it on the last three days due to work. That, at least, relieved me. I have three days to enjoy my own company until she arrives. It should not be too hard.

Shintya’s first trip alone changed the way she looked at the world and people. It also opened doors for more adventures.

I decided to test my survival skills, packed my bags and just took on the challenge. I booked a motorbike and a hostel near the airport in Denpasar – Bali’s capital city. When I arrived, it was already dark and my GPS could not locate or direct me to the right hostel.

That night, I ended up sleeping at a different hostel – the nearest one I could find. The next morning, I decided to go to Ubud with the rented motorbike. I never drove a motorbike in Bali before. I vaguely remembered the road to get to Ubud from Denpasar. Normally I go by car with Mardea’s sister.

With the help of GPS, numerous wrong turns, countless stops and directions from friendly Balinese people, I arrived in Ubud in one piece. Finally! I did a daring 24 km drive by motorbike in an unknown route. Bucket list checked! The first day of the festival was a bit intimidating. I did not know anyone. Over time I learned how to start conversations and made new friends with interesting strangers.

My Bali experience opened my eyes to the world. After that, I have had the chance to travel alone to various places. During these times, I am bolder. These experiences shaped me to be more independent, raise self-awareness in many things in the world, as well as restore faith in humanity.

My prejudices on people got dramatically reduced as my sense of awareness towards new environments sharpened. I have met numerous angels (without wings) who helped me find direction, share travel tips (sometimes unsolicited) and clinch memorable experiences.

While in Frankfurt, Germany, a Spanish guy helped me buy the right ticket to Karlsruhe and even walked me to the right seat in the right coach at five in the morning. When I asked why he did it to me, he simply said that I looked confused and that I reminded him of himself when he first tried buying a train ticket in Germany. He got help from a stranger and he was happy to pay it forward. There is too much goodness in many people around us.

She met Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, at Ubud Writers event.

When I was in Probolinggo, East Java, Indonesia, the hostel owner asked me to help her interpret for expat guests who missed their train. She then insisted to drive me to my next destination at a neighboring city called Malang. She even insisted to pay for my lunch. In Nagarkot, Nepal, two tourists from Italy shared laughter and lessons with me about surviving scams while traveling.

These adventures blur all the labels and boxes that divide us. Although I still enjoy traveling with friends and family, I realized that it is healthy to take time embarking on a journey on your own. Traveling solo encouraged me to be comfortable with myself as company – making peace with myself.

I will most likely not bother to talk to other people no matter how interesting they are if I am with friends. Alone in trains taught me how to live without internet connection and try to communicate even in different language. It makes you creative and resourceful! It also trained my senses to be more alert of what is happening around me.

A female solo-traveler still raises eyebrows in Asia. The risks will certainly make our parents worry – but once you go home safe, it also strengthens trust for your next journey. In the end, traveling alone helped me to be brave and to say yes with many adventures ahead. Indeed, happiness is made not found. Most of it along the road.

Solo traveling can make a conservative Indonesian family concerned. But it also builds trust when you go back safe after a trip.

Shintya is a media and communications practitioner from Indonesia. She used to work as journalist and NGO worker. Currently, she is based in Poland to pursue her second Master’s Degree in Humanitarian Action. Photography, folding origami and collecting batik are some of her interests.