Good afternoon friends, family and fellow travel enthusiasts. I would like you all to meet a new character in my travel saga,, my Morocco travel buddy Sam! As many of you knew, I was originally planning on spending a month in Grenada then heading to Israel. However, as I traveled further and further south in Spain, the idea of Morocco became more and more alluring. I had always wanted to go there, and the idea of being in Africa seemed so exotic. There were two things in the way, however. I did not want to travel Morocco alone and if I did visit Morocco, I wanted to do it right and spend a substantial amount of time there. 

I had no idea how to go about finding a travel buddy, so I turned to my default website, CouchSurfing, for advice. In the Morocco group I noticed that an Australian had posted a note looking for a travel partner for two weeks in Morocco. He seemed pretty normal, so I responded on a whim...and the rest is history.

Sam and I emailed back and forth for about a week talking about traveling and creating a tentative Morocco plan. Just like me, Sam is a fellow nomad and has been traveling through China, Mongolia, Russia and Northeastern Europe for the past three months. This is the first time I've had a travel buddy (other than mom) and I was pretty excited to bum around with a fellow nomad for two weeks! 

Some important facts about Sam:

Camels are his favorite animals (he got bit on the head by one in Mongolia)

He likes to eat kangaroos (apparently you can but them at the grocery stores in Australia)

He is excellent in both befriending the local Moroccans and kindly warding off scammers. 

He wears purple leather size nine shoes (just in case anybody wants to send some)

He makes excellent play on word jokes such as, "there are more rocks in Mo-rocco than anywhere else." I'm sure I'll be loving these by the end of week two...

Considering we're both into CouchSurfing, hitchhiking, eating at the sketchiest food joints we can find and getting into completely strange and awkward travel situations, I'm sure we will get along just fine.

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Update: Sam and I have now been traveling together for a week now, and everything has been working out perfectly! We seem to compliment eachother really well. I get worked up and frustrated about certain situations-getting ripped off by cab drivers or too many Moroccans trying to pester us-and he calms me down, and he gets bothered by other things such as being charged too much for bread or leaving our backpacks at the bus station for the day, and I calm him down. We have also worked out a great system for bartering...we'll go on about how we're students and have no money, then I say we need to talk privately so we leave and when we return the price is magically lower! We barter everything from bus tickets to hotel rooms to vegetables at the market, it's becoming a  hobby of ours. 

We also went from complete strangers to a married couple within a few hours of arriving in Morocco. Because were traveling together (and in Morocco), everyone assumes we must be married. Street vendors try to convince Sam to buy nice bracelets or carpets for his wife. We like telling people that we met online and making jokes about our "romantic Moroccan vacation." Needless to say, we have been getting a lot of mileage out of the married couple act. 

I must admit, I never thought I'd meet my husband online, let alone so soon, but Morocco really has a way of bringing people together!
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Sam and me in Marrakech
 
 
_As I write this, I am imagining all of you enjoying your turkey feasts and relaxing to a nice game of American football, a little jealous but I must say this has been a most surprising, unexpected and memorable Thanksgiving.

This morning Sam (my travel buddy) and I decided we would try to hitchhike the six hour journey from the small mountain town we were staying in to Marrakech.

We waited in the pouring rain for about an hour with high thumbs and high spirits. The Moroccans seemed to be getting a kick out of us and our soaking "Marrakech" sigh. Tomorrow is election day and the town was bustling with a parade of cars covered in photos of their favorite candidate driving through town throwing election flyers out the window and  honking in unison.

We had several cars stop, but they all wanted money to give us a ride part of the way to Marrakech. When we were about to put the sign away and grab some lunch and dry off, a 15-passenger tour van pulled over. We initially ignored the van, assuming they were stopping for a photo opp, but when the driver got out and shouted, "Marrakech" we were caught off guard. We asked, "no money?" and he nonchalantly agreed. This was too good to be true...riding in a comfortable tour van with English speaking tourists all the way to Marrakech for free. Wow!

As we continued down the road, the rain began to pick up. Parts of the road were completely flooded or washed out, but the driver persisted passing stopped cars and hydroplaning through river-like troughs in the road. The driver seemed to be having fun with this, and it turned into a sort of game. As we speeded toward each "river crossing" I closed my eyes and shuttered thinking, "that's it, this is the last one. The van is going to roll and we're going for a swim down the river." Somehow, we actually made it through...I guess I underestimated the abilities of a 15-passenger van.

Two hours into the trip, we got word that the highway ahead was closed due to snow. The van pulled over at a restaurant to eat lunch and wait out the road closure.

As all the tourists ate in the dinningroom upstairs, Sam and I hung out in the cafe below drinking mint tea and trying desperately to warm up. The driver and tour guides eventually joined us downstairs and immediately invited us to join them and their feast. Trying to be polite, we denied the invitation but our efforts were futile. We sat down and our van driver gave us all the food he had ordered and shared a meal with one of the guides.

At this point, all of the guides joined in the festivities passing us bread, chicken kebab, salad, tagime, fresh fruit and coke to drink. We were overwhelmed bothe with the amount of food and the kindness of people we had never met who didn't even speak our language. As we continued to feast a clip came on the news about Obama pardoning two turkeys for Thanksgiving and I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be than sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a strangers who probably didn't even know what Thanksgiving is.

Sam and I got back in the van with big smiles, full tummies and grateful hearts for the people who were so kind. The rest of the drive was sheer bliss. We trekked through snow-capped mountain passes and along quaint mud and brick houses nestled within the valleys.

I couldn't stop thinking about the inspiring people I've met during my trip, the compassion I've experienced from strangers and all of my marvelous family and friends at home who have supported me along the way.

Over the past two and a half months the beginnings of a trip to see the world have snowballed into a wonderful wander through three continents filled with gorgeous people and cultures, with each day getting better than the previous. It completely blows me away, I may just be the most thankfully happiest American this holiday.
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My Thanksgiving feast!
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Washed out roads
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Trying to get a picture of the Atlas Mountains through the wet van window
 
 
My journey to Morocco was about as eventful as any first time trip to Africa can get. It started with me running through the streets of Algeciras in the pouring rain to make my 10 A.M. ferry. Once aboard the ship, with soaked clothes and a drenched backpack, I claimed a couch and settled down for the two hour ride. I put my earphones in, spread my soaking clothes out to dry and started a blog post. An hour into the ride I was approached by a frazzled boat attendant yelling in Spanish that I needed to pack up everything and get off the boat immediately! Shocked and confused, I began to gather my belongings, and she asked if I had my passport stamped by the Moroccan police during the boat ride. I replied no, I did not know this was necessary. In a complete tizzy, she snatched my (soaking wet) passport from my hands and ran to the upper level of the ship before I had a chance to protest or ask what was happening. Once again, I had visions of my passport disappearing and me being stranded somewhere between Spain and Morocco until the U.S. government could send me a new one. 

As I nervously waited for some kind of a response, I looked around only to notice I was the last passenger left on the ship. Evidently, I had miscalculated the time difference which lead to our hour early arrival, and I had completely missed the loudspeaker announcements requesting passengers to get their passports stamped. I was batting a thousand.

In my anxious state, I looked out the deck window and saw that the port was nothing but a huge pile of rocks with concrete barracks and a line of semi trucks. Welcome to Africa.

The attendant finally arrived with my passport and I was soon on my adventure. From the pile of rocks port (if you can even call that a port) everyone boarded a single bus waiting past the customs booth. I knew I had to get a taxi  to the train station in Tangier, but had no idea how to go about doing that, or even where Tangier was, as I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I started asking around and the general consensus seemed to be that I needed to deboard the current bus, and get on a new bus headed to the train station that would come in an hour...or maybe two hours, to a bus stop no one could really give me directions to. Not convincing. Alone in Africa, I was not about to wait at the sketchy pile of rocks port for some phantom bus that may or may not come. I stayed on my current bus, and eventually ended up at the official port building where I caught a bus to the Tangier center.  During the bus ride, I stared out the window at the green landscape and painted concrete houses, completly enamored with Morocco. When I was finally dropped off in Tangier, a nice Moroccan/French man accompanied me to the bus station and helped me find the bus to Fes. At that moment, I got a huge whiff of Moroccan culture. The bus station was a complete zoo with street vendors following me, travelers carrying heaping bags of goods, busses pulling in and out, and drivers and pedestrians alike shouting their city of destination to sell tickets. I felt like I was surrounded by the Do-Do Birds in the movie, Ice Age screaming "Fes, Fes, Fes."I had been warned about the Moroccan bus system by both travelers and guide books. Apparently there are direct busses and local busses. Both go to the same place but one stops for every person, donkey, camel, etc. along the road and can take up to three times as long as the direct bus. The advice I received was to avoid the possiblitly of ending up on a local bus, and just take the train. Now I was in a tight spot with my new Moroccan/French friend on one side, and a bus driver shoving a ticket into my hand on the other side. There was no turning back now. I asked how long the bus would take and the driver responded, "seven hours." I must have looked dissatisfied because he instantly correct himself with an optimistic, "uh, I mean five hours!" I accepted the ticket, boarded the bus and hoped for the best. As the bus pulled away I noticed a Moroccan woman in her fourties staring at me. I smiled. She continued to stare, so I waved at her, and she gestured for me to come sit next to her. Considering I was the only white person on the bus and everyone had had their fair share of staring at me by this point, I decided to take her up on the offer. Maybe it would deter attention from me, and it would be a good chance to learn about the culture. I scooted into the vacant seat and she quickly struck up a conversation in Arabic with me. When I proved unrespondant, the man sitting across the isle started a French conversation with me. Feeling like a complete idiot for not understanding either language, I nodded and pretended to somewhat comprehend what he was saying. Probably not a good idea, as this encouraged him to continue talking to me throughout the six hour bus ride. I eventually gave up and made the "I don't know" gesture to everything he said. By the end of the bus ride I had my new Moroccan friends email and phone number, and he insisted that I call him the next day so we could meet up and he could show me around. Considering I don't speak French and he doesn't speak English and we could barely communicate face to face, I decided against the phone call (although I'm sure it would have been really interesting). Disembarking from the bus was my moment of truth. After making several stops and passing some pretty dodgy cities, I was almost positive that my luggage was stolen. I imagined that a bright blue backpack with a United Kingdom flag would be a prime target. Before the trip, I had fully prepared myself for the possibility of getting robbed in Morocco, and was now accepting of the chance, except for the fact that I had left my airline tickets in my backpack. I realized this half way through the journey and replayed scenario after scenario in my mind of what I would do if my backpack was indeed missing. Lucky for me, my bright blue travel buddy was right where I had left him. I was ecstatic, and definitely learned my lesson about what to leave in the backpack. After a full day of traveling, foreign conversations, getting yelled at, stared at and almost robbed, I arrived in Fes exhausted and speechless. I booked it to the hostle, and once inside the doors, a wave of relief came over me. I had no idea what to expect from Morocco or Africa, and so far it had been exhilirating, shocking and tiring. This would later on prove to be a daily cycle. Hello, Africa. 
 
 
The convict skills of wild animals are highly underestimated. Criticize me for my ridiculousness all you want but those furry little faces aren't so innocent. I am convinced that a step by step guide to warding off wild animals is really what every traveler needs. You will thank me for this next time you get mugged by a monkey.   The British flags, English accents and petite phone booths of Gibraltar were a welcomed change from my previous week in Spain. I was anxious to spend a day exploring the place, however, I was most excited about meeting Gibraltar's famous ape population.

I spent the afternoon traversing the roads circling Gibraltar in search of the legendary apes. Just as I abandoned hope and the gates to the roads were closing for the day, I heard a loud "screeech!" Yards away, a dozen monkeys popped out of the bushes to pay me a surprise visit.  

Let me back up for a minute…I am terrified of monkeys. I have seen far too many Fatal Attraction episodes of monkeys turning fierce and ripping limbs off of their human owners. I would say this is a valid reason to steer clear of the creatures. Either way, when I first spotted my new furry friends I was elated and so excited about the prospect of getting an epic monkey Fb profile picture, my fear vanished. I threw my purse and jacket on the ground and ran toward the animals! 

Ely started snapping pictures of me. I approached the first monkey. Initially terrified, I kept my distance. When he didn't immediately maul me I gained courage and crept closer and closer. Suddenly, the creature leapt from the bush, grabbed my purse and began rummaging through it. He threw the water bottle and bag of mixed nuts aside—obviously this ape had a better target in mind…my passport. Panic overcame me. I had two options: (1) rip the purse from the monkey's grasp and run, or (2) follow the ape to his den, make friends with the monkey family and peacefully negotiate my beloved belongings back. Somehow, I didn't imagine the monkey's den to be homosapien accessible and had an inkling that my new furry friend far outmatched my agility. Frightening images of being stranded in Gibraltar for weeks until I could get a new passport filled my mind. None of these sounded like a good option. 

During my bout of terror, I remembered an email I recently received. You know those large-colored-font-forwarded messages with a hodgepodge of email addresses pasted at the top? It was one of those. I normally delete them immediately, but something about the "Tips for Solo Female Travelers" headline captivated me. If I didn't read it, coincidence would find me in the worst case scenario stranded thousands of miles from home. The one interesting thing I learned was if someone asks for your purse, you should throw it as far as you can and run in the opposite direction. 

Reality suddenly became crystal clear. I WAS GETTING MUGGED BY A MONKEY!

Instinctively, I grabbed the nearest rock and tossed it to the side of the ape, hoping to provide an alluring alternative to my goods. Success! The monkey chased the rock allowing me to snatch my bag. Thank God, no prolonged stay in Gibraltar for me.

I did get a few epic Fb pictures, and made it out of Gibraltar rabies-free, but my monkey-phobia won't be going away any time soon.
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The infamous monkeys of Gibraltar
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In this picture you can see England, Spain and Africa...can you tell which is which?
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This is my best monkey imitation! I think he looks a little more focused than me though!
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This picture is senior photo status complete with a monkey!
 
 
My first memory of Ely is the morning I arrived in my new Mexican home. It was a Saturday, I had been flying all night and was still trying to cope with the anxiety of moving to Mexico for five months and the uncertainty of what was in store for me. 

I sat at the kitchen table meagerly eating my breakfast and listening to my host mom ramble on and on, yet not understanding a word of the Spanish she spoke. I was pondering all the events and seemingly regrettable decisions that had led up to my current residence, and suddenly Ely popped into the kitchen with a cheery, "buenos dias!" I was beyond relieved to see another student, let alone an English speaker!

We immediately hit it off and began talking about living in Seattle (that's where she is from) and by the end of the night we were drinking Coronas and meeting the locals at a salsa club.

That whole semester Ely and I got really close. We hand sewed Halloween costumes, went on a few day trips together and commiserated over the occasional Mexican happenstance that would "never happen in the U.S."

I would classify Ely as an all American (or well, Mexican) type of girl. We would discuss Mexican culture and relations between the U.S. and share stories about our lives back home and our families. By the end of my semester, Ely and I had been through so much together and I had heard so many stories about her family, that I felt like I basically knew them.

If anyone was ever meant to be a language and culture teacher, it's Ely-and that's exactly what she's doing in Spain. Learning languages, understanding cultures and telling hilarious stories are her specialties. She has huge goals for her life and is already well on her way to success. 

Even after two years of living in different countries, studying, working and going our own ways, Ely's and my paths keep crossing. A year and a half after Mexico, I happened to be in Seattle. I gave Ely a call, we met up and I actually got to meet her family who I had heard so much about. 

Just a month ago, I discovered via Facebook, that Ely had moved to Spain. I was elated. Visiting Spain was at the top of the list for my trip, and it would be so much more enjoyable to have a familiar face to share it with. I gave her a call and we planned to meet up for a reunion rendezvous!

Ely lives in Algeciras, one of the most important port cities in Spain, as it is only a stones throw from Morocco. Every three months 300,000 Northern Africans pass through the port traveling between Europe and Africa. 

Ely showed me around Algeciras and we had a great night checking out several tapas bars. My favorite was a restaurant where the waiters carried plates of tapas and walked past your table letting you choose whichever tapas looked good off the plate. At the end, they charged you by the number of toothpicks on your plate. It reminded me of the Spanish version of conveyor belt sushi restaurants. 

We had a jam-packed weekend visiting Tariffa-the southernmost continental point of Europe and a famous surfer destination, a castle that had been converted to a small village of 24 people...wow! and the rock ofGibraltar. We visited two countries and saw Africa all in one day!
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Me, Ely and Susana (her roommate) enjoying sweet wine and tapas in a cafe
 
 
As a Spanish student at school there always seemed to be a tension among my classmates between Spain and Mexico and which was better. Most people studied in Spain and would not quit raving about how amazing their life in Europe was. I on the other hand was a die hard Mexico fan and knew there was no way their Spain adventures were anywhere close to the amazingness that my five months in Mexico was.

Americans have a terrible idea of Mexico. While Europe is sophisticated and romantic, Mexico is a dirty slum where you might get caught in the crossfire of a drug cartel shootout. Granted, there are a few nice tourist party beaches where you might come back alive. The thought of actually living in Mexico makes many Americans cringe. 

Now, I was on a mission to discover the truth about "sophisticated romantic" Spain, and put the Spain/Mexico rivalry to rest once and for all. I was excited to see what the country had to offer, but was I also not expecting to be impressed (afterall, I was sure it couldn't compare to Mexico). 

On the bus from Faro to Sevilla I was amazed at how strikingly similar Mexico and Spain were. Spain sported the same deserty and sparsely populated landscape with a random stripmall now and then along the freeway that I had become so acustomed to in Mexico. 

Sevilla had similar architecture to my city of Guanajuato complete with romantic windy streets, alleyways filled with shops, street vendors and a giant center plaza. I must admit I  was a little impressed. Furthermore, the Spanish culture captivated me from day one. They really do have afternoon siestas where the whole city shuts down between two and four. Afterward, everyone goes about their business and many of the shops are open until eight or nine pm, then it's common to hit up a tapas bar with your friends around ten and chat, eat and drink into the wee hours of the morning. 

Tapas to the Spanish are coffee dates to Americans. Pair a 2-3 Euro tapa with a 1.50 Euro glass of wine, and you have the perfect makings for a casual outing, meeting or date. It's informal, noncommital and inexpensive...genious! 

Unfortunately, by the time I reached Sevilla I had a pretty bad cold. I slept on the bus ride and when I got dropped off I just wanted to find the first hotel and go to bed. I arrived in the city with no map, no reservations, and in the middle of siesta hours when everything was closed. I started wandering around and coincidently stumbled upon a hostel I had read about online the night before. I guess that was my lucky day. I checked in and took a five hour siesta. 

Lucky for me, the Spanish culture is so relaxed that I didn't feel guilty about sleeping most of the day, plus I always had the night to look forward to tapas. If I had to pick a place to be sick, Sevilla was perfect. It seemed like everyone just did one or two things each day. You might go to the store and do laundry then spend the rest of the day at a cafe, or go to a museum, take a siesta and go out for tapas. Not an entirely rough lifestyle if you ask me! 

I spent a lot of time reading, writing and jamming out on the guitar with my fellow hostleites. It was a nice break from the usual tourist trek, and I feel like I really got a good grasp of the Spanish culture. 

For those of you who are wondering, Mexico will always be Mexico, but Spain shares a lot of the same characteristics that make Mexico so special-it is easy to tell they are long lost cousins. And, Spain fulfills all of its stereotypes perfectly-relaxed culture, romantic gardens, beautiful cities, delicious food, late nights, sunshine and the European lifestyle. 
 
 
Hello there! Ember seems to have been a bit too lazy to keep her blog up to date so she asked me if I wanted to do a post about Portugal. She seems to have misjudged my laziness though and as such this post is a couple of weeks too late. Better late than never though, right? (Editor's note: That's a lie...you all know I'm not a lazy person :), I just haven't had reliable internet in Africa...go figure!)

So anyway, who am I? I'm Ilmer - don't ask about my name, that's a whole different and painful story! Just a random person living in Lisbon, Portugal. But this blog isn't about me, it's about Ember and her travelling stories so let's quickly get back on topic! I had the pleasure of meeting Ember when she passed through Lisbon and had some great adventures with her. To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant at first when I met Ember. As one of the CouchSurfing Administrators in Lisbon, I have been meeting so many random people lately that they all kind of blur into one big mess. I was looking forward to spending a lot of time with some other friends, relaxing and taking a break from hosing CouchSurfers.

I have no idea why, maybe I had  one beer too many, maybe I just felt sorry for her as it was raining a lot at the time and she threatened to sleep on my doorstep or maybe it was the fact she claimed to be exiled from California, but I soon found myself agreeing to let Ember stay at my place for a couple of days. In retrospect it's painfully obvious that it was all due to her joyous expression and immediate familiarity, but, being a bit slow on occasion, it took me a while to realize that.

Let's fast forward a bit now... I'm supposed to be writing about her last weekend in Portugal. Ember mentioned that she wanted to go to the southernmost part of Portugal (the Algarve) and as my brother lives there along with his wife and their young baby, I figured I might as well visit them and as such we stayed at their place for the weekend. It's right in the middle of the Algarve, in a small village just inland from the coast. The Algarve is a famous tourist region and a large part of the coast is basically one resort after the next. I had already tried to convince Ember to avoid this area in general as there's not much to it that you can't find elsewhere in the world as well but the small villages inland are quite charming and the western and eastern parts of the Algarve are also quite nice.

We had been talking about kayaking a couple of times before, so when I mentioned that my brother had two kayaks Ember seemed pretty excited at the prospect. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very helpful and between the large waves on the sea, menacing rain and cool weather we figured it might be best to put it off for another day and explore the Algarve a bit. Ember kept saying that she was up for anything, so it wasn't really hard to come up with something we could do.

We decided to pick up my car from my parents house. It's a Citroën 2cv that has seen better days and I was a bit nervous about driving Ember around in it. While the prospect of her staying longer in Portugal was certainly pleasing, I didn't think that having her in the hospital for a couple of weeks would be ideal. Considering all that has happened in the past with this car-the hood flying off while driving, brakes not working, spontaneous fire in the engine, holes in the floor and what not-I had been crossing my fingers. By the end of the day, I was pretty glad that the most eventful moment while driving was when the roof almost flew off at some point, but luckily we managed to re-fasten it before it was too late.

Our first stop was Lagos which is a pretty important city in Portuguese history. As you may know the whole Age of Discoveries started with Portugal in the 15th century. Stuck between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese didn't have much of an option other than to try their luck overseas, and many of the ships set sail from Lagos. 

After a short stroll though the center – during which we didn't manage to see much as I'm possibly the worst tour guide ever – we walked along the riverside to the sea and decided to hang out on the beach for a bit. By now the sun was shining,, the beach was deserted and the ocean was gorgeous. Ember was running and dancing around with a huge smile on her face and I don't remember seeing her that happy before. We were having a wonderful time at the beach until...two big waves caught us unaware and completely drenched us. That definitely was the sign that we had been on the beach long enough if we didn't want to end with severe pneumonia. After a stop at the beach bar to dry up a bit, we felt ready to venture out again and decided that we were up for something fun. Since we had some successful hitchhiking adventures by now, we wanted to take that to the next level and catch a ride on a boat! We had seen several boats coming down the river into the ocean so we decided to go back to the river. Unfortunately our hitchhiking luck seemed to have run out by now as only a single boat passed and they just ignored us. Still rather wet and getting cold, we figured it was best to move on, so we grabbed the car again and headed further west....

which brought us to Sagres! Surely you must have heard of Sagres!? Well, probably you actually haven't, but anyway Sagres is the southwesternmost point of continental Europe. Since prehistoric times it has been considered to be the end of the world and has been a sacred place for many cultures since. There's a big fort there where the Portuguese dreamt about far away lands and planned future voyages of discovery. The landscape in the western part of the Algarve consists of rocky cliffs with small sandy beaches between and rolling hills beyond. It's a beautiful area especially with the dramatic coastline. We stopped by the fort, on top of a cliff. The wind blows in straight from the Atlantic and the first obstacles in its path are the cliffs and people standing on them. The waves bash against the coast, some reaching the top of the 30 meter high cliffs, and there's nothing but water as far as you can see. All in all, it gives a tremendous idea of the strength of nature and it's easy to feel somewhat insignificant. Each year many tourists as well as local fishermen who stand on the cliffs miscalculate the danger and fall down the cliffs to certain death. The day we visited, it was so windy that for a moment when Ember wanted to take a picture from the edge I feared she might become part of the statistics, but thankfully that all ended well.

The next day we decided to finally go kayaking. In order to spare us the trouble of mounting two kayaks on the roof of my small car, we went to Faro where you can rent kayaks for free. We arrived while the place was still closed for lunch, so we killed some time with a nice walk and lunch at the beach. By now some laziness was also kicking in but we still had to go kayaking! We gathered all our energy (or at least I did, Ember might have not been that lazy actually) and went to the sportsclub to get the equipment. First thing we had to do there was to fill in a form describing... well basically your whole life story. This is Portugal after all and unnecessary paperwork is still very much a popular thing here. When we were finally ready we got the equipment and the lifeguard on duty started explaining some stuff. Apparently we weren't allowed to take the kayaks more than 50 meters to either side of the club and we had to stick to the lagoon side (the coast here is characterised by a system of barrier islands with a lagoon between the islands and the mainland). We were however allowed to go into a canal between some islands, so that's where we headed. As luck would have it, it had just become low tide and we got stuck in a shallow mud hole! We decided to make the best of it and just sat there for half an hour relaxing, talking and enjoying the sun before making our way back. So much for kayaking! 

To wrap the day up we went for a quick stroll through Faro and had a conversation in Portuguese, which Ember was quickly picking up by now. Unfortunately that also meant the end of Ember's stay in Portugal. I'm really glad to have met Ember and had a great time while she was here. By now I was actually quite reluctant to let her go. To quote Tim Cahill - “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles” - and these days with Ember were certainly one of the best journeys I have had in a long time. Cheesy? Sure, but hey, sometimes you just gotta be cheesy.

My original assignment was actually to limit myself to three words as Ember didn't seem very confident about my writing. I guess I'll leave it up to her to edit it all down to three words but my suggestion would be: Come back soon!
 
 
I've had a very busy week! I've been to the southernmost and westernmost points of continental Europe, three countries and two continents! 

Ilmer and I spent a great weekend staying with his brother and sister-in-law Wiebe and Maddy and exploring the Algarve-the southern state of Portugal. Ilmer grew up in the Algarve, so I had a local as a tour guide.

We bummed around the coast in his 1989 pimped out ride. I don't remember the make of the car, but it was originally designed by the French to transport two farmers and a case of beer...what more could you ask for?

We checked out Lagos and Faro (two of the coastal towns), did a little kayaking, enjoyed some great dinners with Wiebe and Maddy and I even had my first conversation in Portuguese!

I have always wanted to learn Portuguese, and spent much of my two weeks in Portugal speaking Spanish with a Portuguese accent and guessing or trying to translate words and phrases I saw. A lot of the words are the same or very similar to Spanish and the Portuguese can understand me but I can't understand them. Thanks to Ilmer's conversation lesson, I picked up some words and even now spice up my Spanish with a few Portuguese words on occasion. Of course, that's just my excuse for accidentally mixing the two languages! 

Anyway, more to come on the rest of my adventures from the week. Here are a few pictures from my weekend in the Algarve:
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At the edge of the world, waving to New York. It was so windy!
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Ilmer and I at the beach in Lagos
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Ilmer and his super ghetto/awesome car we bummed around in all weekend!
 
 
After the Luis and Maria saga, Ilmer and I decided we were definitely hooked on hitchhiking. If anything, I was just getting Ilmer prepared for his world hitchhiking adventure! I had been planning to head to Spain for quite awhile now, but Ilmer somehow convinced me to spend another weekend in Portugal with the promise of showing me around the Algarve, the southern-most state of the country. He was headed there to visit his brother and sister-in-law for the weekend, and it didn't take much for me to agree to the detour.  In our adventuresome style, we decided yet again to try our luck with hitchhiking.

It was a three hour trip to the Algarve, so we got into hitchhiking position early Friday evening.  This time we were well prepared with Ilmer's sphisticated hitchhiking kit. Our plan of attack was for Ilmer to hold the "South" sign and I was in charge of the "It's my birthday" sign. We figured the passerbys would enjoy a little hitchhiking humor. 

We shortly got picked up by-believe it or not-Luis and Maria...a mother and son who offered to take us half of the way. They were friendly and we had a nice chat in Portuguese before they
dropped us off on the side of the road just as the sun was setting and it was beginning to rain.

The day had slipped away quickly and Ilmer and I were wary about our chances of hitchhiking at night. We considered taking the train or just staying the night in the small town, but I told Ilmer I was feeling lucky and if we didn't get picked up in ten minutes we would catch a train. Just as we got our "South" sign out, a 1980s model VW stopped 50 meters in front of us and was honking for us to get in.


What perfect timing! We grabbed our bags and ran for the car. This time, our new friend Bruno was headed to a town just 30 miles from our destination. Bruno was very friendly and anxious to learn about our travels, couchsurfing and hitchhiking adventures. He told us how he was planning a road trip from Portugal to Russia on a 60 year-old motorcycle next summer and he was excited to try CouchSurfing. We had great conversation during the ride (well Ilmer and Bruno did, as most of it was in Portuguese). Here is what I gathered about Bruno in a translation from Ilmer:

"Bruno's parents own a bakery and Bruno has a 10% share in the company, which is where he gets his income. He could work harder and own a larger portion of the business, but instead he choses to use the money and take random classes at university, travel and just enjoy his life."

Yay, Bruno! He truly had a care-free attitude and relaxed presence about him. Ilmer and Bruno seemed to hit it off and half way through the ride Bruno insisted on stopping in his hometown so we could have a tour of his favorite places (including his dream home) and meet his best friend. After, we drove a few miles down a windy dirt road through rural fields to the family bread factory. By now it was around nine P.M. and the workers were just finishing up the evening shift.

From the outside, the factory looked like a small warehouse with a muddy parking lot and stray dogs wandering around, but the air smelled of delicious warm baked goods. Bruno showed us around the small factory and gave us two giant loafs of bread hand picked from the oven. He then took us out back to the garage where his antique motorcycle resided. We admired the bike as he proudly told us how he had been working for months to fix it up for the trip.

After the full city tour and show and tell session, Bruno announced that he would drive us all the way to Ilmer's brother's house. When all was said and done, I was amazed at the total kindness of a stranger and how well everything worked out.

When I tell my hitchhiking stories to fellow travelers, they stare in amazement and ask why I'm so crazy to do this, or if I'm scared. I must say, that when you're traveling alone in a foreign country, you can't be too picky about who you trust, otherwise, you would never meet anyone or never get anywhere. You obviously have to be smart about who you get in the car with and expect the best rather pining over everything that could happen.

Thus far, all three of my hitchhiking adventures have been some of the best memories of my trip, given me some great stories and shown me that a little trust can go a long way.
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It's my birthday, PLEASE pick us up!
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Bruno and his moto
 
 
A few weeks ago I began to get bored with my normal travel routine. Bus-plane-hostel-tram-tour-plane was beginning to get tedious and a little too comfortable. I was seeing quite a bit, but felt like an important cultural element of my traveling was lacking. On the first day I met Ilmer, he told me of his plans to hitchhike around the world in a year, and right then I knew we would be great friends.

Tuesday was a public holiday and Ilmer didn´t have to work, so we decided to check out a natural park nearby and try our hand, or rather thumbs at hitchhiking. We took the train from Lisbon to Setúbal, and steaked out a promising spot along the road leading into the park for our hitchhiking endeavors.

We stood on the corner for 40 minutes with our two fold "Arrábida," sign watching car after car passby, I was beginning to get impatient. Ilmer said that if you juggle flaming batons or you write something like, "I don´t smell" or "it´s my birthday" on the sign, your chances of getting picked up increase. They all sounded great to me, I was willing to do anything at this point, so while we were pondering which of these options would be most suitable, a black Kia mini van pulled over. A woman jumped out of the passenger side and opened the sliding door for us.

Our two hosts, Luis and Maria, turned out to be a Portaguese/Italian couple who frequently moved between the two countries, and had just bought a home in Setúbal. They were headed to the beach for a day of fishing when Luis spotted us and insisted on stopping despite his wife´s protests.

We were expecting a short ride into the park, but Luis insisted on giving us a full tour. We stopped at a beach to take some pictures, and Luis decided that we would all have a nice clam and wine lunch and get to know eachother. We were impressed by such a kind gesture, and decided to go along with it.

The conversation began normally with small talk of where we were from and what we were doing in Portugal.
Ilmer told Luis about his life growing up in the Netherlands and Portugal, and Luis automatically assumed I was German...that is until he tried to speak to me in German and I stared at him dumbfounded and explained that I was from the United States.

At that point, Luis quickly changed the conversation, stating that he would rename Ilmer "Marco" because that was much easier to remember, and I would be called "Hamer" the (according to him) Turkish version of my name. He went on to insist that I must have some Turkish ancestry because my hair color was very Turkish. I decided it was better to let that one slide, he did buy us lunch and give us a tour of the park, so letting him pick our names was the least we could do.

We continued to eat and learned about Luis´ job for Coca Cola working in the bottling plants and traveling all over the world. He told us about living in Venezuela, the beaches in Thailand and his sword collection from Yemen. Finally, he started a side conversation with Maria in Italian and looked at us with an embrassed smile explaining that him and Maria had agreed to invite us to their house for dinner.

The adventure had been pretty interesting so far, and we decided it could only get better, so we agreed. They took us to the grocery store, handed us a basket and said we could pick out anything in the store for dinner. Ilmer and I had no idea what to do. We had never been in such an interesting social situation and weren´t sure how to politely do grocery shopping for someone else. Since Luis was obsessed with fish, we insisted that he pick out his favorite catch.

On our drive back to Luis and Maria´s place, things got a little more interesting. Luis started to explain that fishing was taken very seriously, and how it was common for fishermen to kill other fishermen in order to get the perfect spot. Luis continued on, "I´m not sure if you noticed, but in my right pocket I have my cellphone, and I also have something else...it is very important to protect myeslf."

Ilmer and I glance at eachother, a mixture of concern and fear on our faces as we think, "Oh, shoot he has a gun! What did we just get ourselves into?" We immedietly start regretting our decision to agree to dinner. Our minds are racing, should we think of a good excuse to leave, or we could always just open the van door and jump out. I considered several possible excape scenarios, all preposterous and sure to be awkward, but eventually convinced myself that Luis seemed like a nice enough guy, he would surely mean us no harm, right?

It turned out to be a good decesion, because it wasn´t a gun afterall! At dinner Luis withdrew a pocketknife from his right pocket and began to cut his fish. He was very proud of the tool and explained how he bought it for 1000 Euros in some far off land.

The remainder of the dinner was relatively uneventful compared to the earlier happenings. Luis insisted on watching the one German television channel he had, just so Ilmer and I would feel at home (half way through dinner, he switched it off and put on an Italian movie). Luis also assured us that we were great friends and he would do anything in the world for us. If we were ever in trouble, he would send someone...he knows people from all over the world and has kilos of contacts. He was also kind enough to give us his 24 hour direct phone line. Needless to say, I definitely got my dose of culture that evening.

By the time the food was eaten and the movie was finished, the last train to Lisbon was long gone. Luis offered to drive us back, and totally impressed us with his high-speed-chase-like driving skills and ability to zoom through red lights when no one else was around! We even learned that he once got four speeding tickets in a 26 minute span. Bottomline: If you are ever planning on getting involved in a high speed chase...I know your man, just ask I have his 24 hour hotline!

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Lunch with Luis and Maria, our new hitchhiking friends!
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The beach in Arrabia