_What I planned to be a relaxing reintroduction into the travel life bopping around a couple of Australian cities turned into a jam-packed Australian adventure (much to my delight!). Here are a few highlights of my two weeks between Melbourne, Warrnambool and Sydney.
_Long drives through the Australian countryside. Imagine the eastern United States 50 years ago. The ranch style brick houses and crops stretching to the horizon bring me back to a period well before my existence but somehow eternally romanticized in my mind. I feel like I should be wearing overalls or country dresses and running through the eternal rows of corn and grabbing milkshakes at the soda fountain on Friday nights. Towns are simply sparse and people are few and far between.
_The funkily grungy side of Melbourne. It's full of artists, hipsters and culture. One of my favorite places was a gourmet style soup kitchen called Lentils Anything where you take your fill and pay what you feel like at the end. The experience is complete with table latte service, live music and a huge outdoor garden.
_Yoga with Sam and excellent city views. We felt the double downward dog would be an impressive skill to master.
_A trip to the outdoor cinema-one of Australia's favorite summertime activities. Not to mention, movies are always better on a roof.
_Checking out the best Sydney has to offer. A fun and classy city bustling with up-there business people, swanky cafes and a laid-back beach attitude.
After a week and a half of touring almost all of central Morocco, Sam and I were ready for a break. We wanted a calm place where we could spend a few days relaxing and soaking in the culture so we decided on Jimmy Hendrix's favorite African seaside town, Essaouira. From the Cascades d'Ouzoud, we wanted to try hitchhiking part of the way there. Just a few yards after leaving our hotel we got picked up by a van full of Moroccans heading to their work at a construction site. We rode bouncing around in the back of the van for about an hour as the Arabs in the front seat had a lively discussion playfully yelling at and teasing each other.

After parting ways, or roads,  we were left alongside a street lined with a dozen or so Moroccan teenagers anxiously awaiting a ride in the same direction. The competition was fierce, they spoke Arabic and were willing to pay for a ride; two traits we were lacking. I guess somehow we were able to play the "legitimate looking westerner card" because we quickly got picked up by a businessman in a VW Jetta. We got in the car and were amazed at how luxurious and comfortable it was. I guess when traveling in the back of vans and on local buses you lose sight of how nice western cars are!

The man spoke no English and we spoke no French, so for the hour car ride we communicated through hand gestures and charades. We actually learned a lot from him, like the Berber people are the calm nice Moroccans and the Arabs are the ones who always try to rip you off. Also, it is apparently easy to bribe the police if you get pulled over.

Once we arrived back in Marrakech the man asked something about money. As we were trying to piece together what he was saying he reached behind his seat, pulled out a stack of 100 durham bills and offered us some! We politely declined, we were happy enough to just have a ride. We caught the bus from Marrakech and arrived in Essaouira just as the sun was setting. Essaouira sunsets fall into the same category as Key West and Santorini...a red firey ball burning up the horizon, breathtakingly stunning! The setting of the sun also happens to be perfectly timed to when the local fishermen arrive back at the port, so there are thousands of birds flying into the sunset trying to get the fish.

During our three days in Essaouira we enjoyed doing absolutely nothing! Our daily routine consisted of eating delicious pancakes drizzled in honey and banana at the local bakery, walking to the beach or around town and spending the afternoon lounging on a terrace drinking coffee, reading and watching the waves crash against the city walls. Not too bad of a life, if you ask me. A perfect way to end two adventurous weeks in Morocco.
The walls of the Essaouira medina, separating the city from the ocean
Essaouira-view from our favorite terrace to lounge around in the afternoon
Another amazing sunset from Essaouira
City of birds...need I say more?
From 40 cent bowls of lentil soup to fresh bread filled with smoking meat, Morocco had some of the best cusine I have experienced during my travels. Actually, the Moroccan food scene isn't that diverse. I think the main attraction is that everything is cooked fresh and deliciously cheap! Sam and I have invented a daily routine scheduled around meals. Finding the greatest local dive cafe in each city we visit has become our hobby.

I have arrived at the conclusion that there are only six foods in Morocco:

1. Soup-either lentil or pea
2. Omelet
3. Tagine (a mix of vegetables and meat cooked in a cone shaped pot on the stove)
4. Crepes
5. Couscous
6. Mint tea with heaps of sugar

We eat a crepe drenched in honey nearly every morning followed by a mid morning cookie, then find a suitable hole-in-the-wall soup kitchen or tagine shop for lunch and maybe couscous for dinner, while always drinking mint tea throughout the day. Life isn't half bad  considering our daily food budget runs about $4 USD with all this scrumptious food, it's easy to go a little crazy!

One night we set out on a food safari. We decided to walk along the street and sample new foods that we hadn't yet tried, or that seemed really strange! Each sample cost about $1 USD so Sam, Andrew and me took turns buying the food for the three of us to share. We tried everything from cactus fruit to fried anchovies, snail soup and an assortment of Moroccan cookies. Here are some of the food highlights from our trip:

Bread filled with chicken, mystery meat, noodles and tomato sauce!
Experiments in tagine cooking
Yummy yummy snail soup
When planning our Morocco trip, Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy, so we opened a Lonely Planet book, turned to the "top ten natural wonders of Morocco" page and picked out wonders number one and two to visit. We figured that Lonely Planet never disappoints, and getting out of the big cities and traveling through small towns would surely guarantee interesting adventures and good stories. Luckily wonder number two, the Todra Gorge was halfway between Merzouga and Marrakech, allowing us to conveniently break up a twelve hour bus journey.

When the bus pulled into Tingier (the town near the gorge) we new we had made the right decision. The town lay in a palm tree oasis lined valley just below an expanse of red desert with snow capped peaks as a backdrop. I never thought it was possible for one landscape to have all three palm trees, desert and snowy mountains. Incredible!

Upon arrival, we were instantly greeted by Abdul who offered his tour guide services. We chatted for a bit and he eventually led us to a local market where we got a delicious lamb and vegetable lunch for $3 USD total. When we broke the news to him that we weren't in the market for a guide, he suddenly abandoned our friendship. At least we got a delicious local meal out of it.

A few minutes later, Mohammed befriended us. We insisted on "no help" but he persistently followed us meandering through the city streets saying he didn't want money, he just wanted to be our friend.  Finally accepting that we were fighting a losing battle, we gave in and figured we might as well take advantage of the situation. He took us to a vegetable market and a bread shop so we could get groceries, then waited with us for the taxi to the gorge.

Sam and I had not planned ahead for any part of this trip, so when the taxi dropped us off alongside a river at the beginning of the gorge with no hotels in sight, we were a little apprehensive. There was no one insight minus a few people trying to sell teapots and cookies on the side of the road. If we were in any other country, it would be unfortunate, but what is my motto about Morocco? There is always someone to help!

One of the men selling snacks immediately approached us to ask what we were doing. We told him of our dilemma, he said a few words in Arabic to the taxi driver and instructed us to get the in the car and the driver would drop us at his friends hotel. Perfection! And such effortless service right at our fingertips, every time! We ended up at a newly finished riad with quaint rooms and bright Moroccan decorations everywhere! And the rooms were only $12 USD a night...that is with a little bartering!

I think a "westerner alert" must have gone out to all the people in that town because by the end of the night the hotel was full of Moroccans wanting to befriend us. Sam and I were actually interested in this prospect as we had spent many evenings discussing the Moroccan culture and trying to pinpoint exactly what Moroccans do. We knew 90% of the population was a tour guide, but apart from that everything seemed a bit blurry.

I would have normally dismissed this sudden influx of Moroccans as coincidence, but we were the only people staying at the hotel and it was evident there was an underlying motive. The cookie seller was there, the taxi driver, some random guy we met in the oasis drinking beer, the owner of the hotel next door and Mohammed a local who invited us to his carpet shop. He was so insistent and we figured there was nothing to lose so we agreed.

Mohammed made us thyme tea as he displayed his carpets and told us of the local nomads and Berber people. The nomads live in caves in the mountains and make carpets and other goods to trade with the Arabics for food and clothing. When the cold comes they gather their children, animals and possessions and move to Western Sahara until summer returns to the mountains. Even if we weren't in the market for a carpet, we got some nice tea (thyme in tea is surprisingly delicious!) and an education in Berber and nomad lifestyles.

The next day Sam and I took a hike through the gorge. We heard there was a loop that took you through the gorge and to the top then down the backside of the mountain returning into town. Well, that´s what Sam heard...I knew nothing of this supposed loop, I was just counting on a day hiking to the top of the gorge and back down.

The weather that day was overcast and sprinkling on and off, so we threw our raincoats and a few sandwiches in the backpack and were off. By the time we made it to the top of the gorge the wind was blowing cold rain and there was no path to be seen. I asked Sam how sure he was about the loop and he replied with, "one percent."

I´m sure we could have made our own loop back into town, but I was reluctant to risk our chances in the mountains with the weather situation and not enough water or food for a bush waking adventure sure to lead past dusk. Before descending, Sam decided to hike to the highest rim of the gorge to take a look.

Sure enough, there was a small path leading around the mountain and through a valley back into town. It appeared to be shorter than the trek we had taken, so we gave it a try. Half a mile behind the mountain we came upon a small settlement of caves. There were about three caves in all with several stone built corrals and goats and chickens running wild. While quietly sneaking through the village and trying to discreetly take pictures, I noticed a family huddled around a fire in their cave. I pointed this out to Sam just as the family turned to notice us. They waved and motioned for us to come into their cave. I would have normally said no, but I was so curious to see the cave that I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

The cave was about ten feet deep with a seven foot ceiling. The back was piled with blankets and clothes and the entrance contained a small fire where they prepared meals. The walls of the cave were caked in dark soot from the fire inside. The husband spread a blanket at the end of the cave for us to sit on. Through a charades act and the two words we knew in Berber, “saha”-thank you and “besaha”-cheers, we introduced ourselves and thanked the family for inviting us in.

They poured us two glasses of thyme tea and handed us bread heaping with roasted vegetables. We ate our food wide eyed while watching the family chat and the children playing on the dirt floor. We were amazed with our luck and the opportunity to experience life with the nomads. We eventually thanked the family and continued on our way. The wife was even kind enough to walk us to the top of the hill near the caves and point us in the right direction. The rest of the hike was comparatively uneventful. The weather was decent and the scenery stunning.

We returned to the hotel that night amazed at our adventurous day and with Abdul, Mohammed, Rashid and the whole gang ready to greet us. After telling them of our adventures with the nomads we decided to make some coffee to warm up. Mohammed took a sudden interest in Sam's tin of instant coffee. He asked to look at it, and after inspecting the label and contents inside he offered to trade Sam some jewelery in his shop for the can of coffee. He insisted that his wife (me) would appreciate a nice Berber bracelet. Unfortunately, Sam is apparently not very appreciative of his wife and no deal was made.  

Just ten minutes later, Abdul approached me and asked to see my iPod. He asked how much I paid for it and offered to make a deal with me--the iPod for a carpet. In all of my wildest dreams I never expected to be involved in the business of expensive goods trading, let alone exchanging my iPod--the single most important item I currently possessed--for a carpet to put in my nonexistent home. I looked at the iPod and looked at Abdul and responded, "I can't get Wi-Fi on a carpet, so no thank you." That will be my last dabble in any form of goods trading.  

The next morning Sam and I packed up the backpacks and were off on a Thanksgiving Day adventure hitchhiking to Marrakech! I'm sure you know the rest of the story from there. Here are some pictures from the Todra Gorge:

The small town where we stayed and the beginning of the gorge in the background
Me and Sam hiking through the Todra Gorge
View from the top of the Todra Gorge and a small town beyond
I made it!
The entrance to a nomad cave home
Tea and lunch from the inside of a nomad cave
Gorge, town, oasis
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.

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!
Sam and me in Marrakech