Mi primera visitante – My First Visitor

With roughly one month left in Madrid, it’s about time I had some visitors! The more I thought about it, the more OK I was about having friends and family come later in the semester. Had they come earlier, I would not have known as much about Madrid and it would have been harder for me once they left since I knew there would  still be so much time before I saw them again.

My calendar was now teeming with the arrivals and departures of friends and family as they passed through Spain’s capital. Even before my parents, Nick and Courtney were to arrive next month, I had the pleasure of showing around Ellie, my lovely aunts Karen and Cathy, and my other friend, Allison. Stay tuned for upcoming posts detailing my highlights with each of them:

ELLIE

Ellie and me - 4/15/16Ellie arrived in Madrid just one day before I left for Morocco. Despite our short amount of time together, we still did a whole heck of a lot. Ellie and I first met for dinner with her friend from home, Cristina, who was studying in Madrid for the year. The three of us met at Mercado de San Ildefonso. We enjoyed yummy burgers and I introduced Ellie to Tinto de Verano. That night it began to pour, so we made our best efforts to stay dry. We took shelter in Chocolatería San Gines. Our bellies full of chocolate and churros, Ellie and I bid farewell to Cristina and met up with some other USC pals. Ellie was such a great host to me in London that I felt obligated to show her the best time possible in Madrid, despite having less than 48 hours together. Moving down the Madrid must-see/must-do list, we swung by the club most popular on miércoles before retiring for the evening.

The next morning, Ellie, our friend Scott from USC/London and I grabbed brunch at Federal, known for its scrumptious brunches. The three of us then walked through Plaza de Espana and made our way to the Palacio Real. I visited the Royal Palace with my parenEllie and me at the Royal Palace - 4/16/15ts in 2012, but it was my first and only time there this semester. The three of us then made the obligatory trip to Retiro where we stumbled upon a new exhibition in the Palacio de Cristal. The inside of the Crystal Palace had been transformed into a Moroccan tent complete with colorful fabric swatches, carpets and cushions. It was the perfect teaser for my upcoming trip to Morocco. (Ellie was headed there the following week.)

Since I was leaving for Morocco that day, I knew I was going to miss dinner, but didn’t want to travel on an empty stomach. I felt my tour guiding skills fell short when it came to restaurant selections. Living in a homestay, I hadn’t needed to go out for meals often and when I did, other friends usually chose the place. Unable to think of an appealing and affordable option in Barrio de Salamanca, we settled for VIPs, but it didn’t Me, Ellie and Scott at Retiro - 4/16/15disappoint.

My bag was already packed for Morocco, but I needed to swing by the apartment to grab it. I texted Gloria to see if it was okay if Ellie and Scott came with me so they could see where I was living and if they could meet her, too. I was so happy that she said yes. Gloria loved meeting my friends. She talked to them in Spanish and they told me they understood about 60% of what she said. Even though they didn’t catch every word, they felt her warmth and bubbly personality 100%.

I gave Gloria the standard double kiss goodbye and walked Ellie and Scott to the metro, telling them how to get home. This was the fourth European city in which Ellie and I were together: Amsterdam, London, Berlin and now Madrid!  It was a short, but sweet time with them in Madrid.

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Marruecos Marravilloso – Marvelous Morocco

Marrakech Airport - 4/16/15I returned from Spring Break to fall back into my comfortable Madrid routine. I visited Retiro, grabbed ice cream with friends and even hit up the discoteca. After enjoying about 10 days in Madrid, it was off to my next and by far most exotic location: Morocco. That’s right. I was leaving the continent and heading to Africa. I made la decision ejecutiva to skip theater and depart for Marruecos on Thursday rather than Friday.

A group of seven friends and I headed to the airport on Thursday where I boarded my first Ryan Air flight. I’d been warned about flying Ryan Air…the uncomfortable seats, the nickel and diming…but this was perhaps my most pleasant flight! Local market by our riat - 4/19/15I was seated next to two Spanish men whose wives were seated just across the aisle. For the entire flight we talked and laughed in Spanish, they bought me a water bottle, and all in all, we had a great time.

After a little more than an hour of friendly conversation, we landed in Marrakesh where a driver from our hostel picked up my group. I would be lying if I said we all weren’t a tad nervous about the trip, but we figured it would be an adventure for all of us to enjoy together. From the moment we left the airport, we immediately noticed differences between anywhere we’d been before and where we presently were. It smelled different, looked different, felt different. No one spoke Spanish and English was rarely used.

The hostel was situated on a street too narrow for the van to pass so we were passed off from the driver to a hostel escort. We followed him through a windy neighborhood and safely arrived at the hostel, or riat. We did not have even eight hours between our arrival to the hostel and the time our excursion guide was to pick us up. Mustapha, our friendly, English-speaking, Moroccan-born guide collected us from the hostel and led us to our van for the weekend.

First group lunch (Nicolette, me, Alayna, Jenna, Alden, Lucy, Reed, Janice)- 4/17/16

We knew what our itinerary had in store: a drive to the desert, camel rides, camping and some sightseeing along the way. We figured the drive to the desert would be two, three hours, right? WRONG. Mustapha surprised us when he told us that it would be about EIGHT hours from where we were in Marrakesh to where we were going. With that new information, we accepted it and settled in for a long, long drive.

Mustapha was a great chauffeur and guide. He knew a lot about Morocco, Moroccan politics and current events, and had great perspective about other cultures, too. He let us play our own music in the car and took us to delicious restaurants off the beaten (read: only) path. His only requirement, of which he reminded us frequently was, “no naps!” When it looked like someone was about to catch some Z’s, he lightly shouted that phrase. To pass the time he also gave us all Moroccan names and explained to us their meanings. I was the first to receive a name, Fatima. He said I was princess of the desert and was worth more than 1,000 camels! Not bad.

On our drive we watched the landscape change dramatically. Morocco’s landscape was far more varied than I anticipated. We saw lush tree-covered mountains, drier mountains, layered plateaus, places comparable to the Grand Canyon and of course, desert. We made a pit-stop at the highest road pass in the Atlas Mountains. (This is the highest road for cars, though Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain.)

Several hours later, Mustapha told us we were close to our camel pick-up location. He told us to keep an eye out for our group of camels and guides on the side of the road. Nothing. So we looped back. How did we miss eight camels? Well we didn’t miss them, but they hadn’t arrived to our “boarding” area. Everything for miles around us was dry and sandy, but our present location was surprisingly green and lush. We were at a watermelon farm! Who would have thought that in The feeling was mutual - 4/17/15one of the world’s driest climates, we’d be walking among rows and rows of well-irrigated watermelon plants.

Some of us (not me) were beginning to worry that the camels wouldn’t show and we’d be stranded in the Sahara. Bye families! Thankfully that wasn’t the case and seven saddled camels and guides showed up for the eight of us. Did they lose a camel? We think there might have been a miscommunication about the total number in our party so two of my friends carpooled – camel-pooled – to our campsite. The camels were funky looking animals. How could such skinny legs support their round bodies? Were we to sit on their humps or behind them? And how would we get all the way up to their Camel riding in the Sahara  - 4/17/15backs?

Those questions and more were soon answered when Mustapha and the guides directed us to our camels. With some tugs and commands issued in Arabic, the camels awkwardly knelt to the ground and we swung our legs up and over. We braced for impact as the camels abruptly stood up in two swift motions – first the back legs, then the front. Once everyone was saddled and ready to go, we made the thirty-five minute journey to our campsite aboard the semi-smelly creatures.

None of us knew what to expect at the campsite. We low-balled our expectations as to not be disappointed. We expected tents we’d likely pitch ourselves and food prepared over a campfire. Boy, were we wrong! It looked like a mirage…several, large jaimas already pitched for us. The walled tents had mattresses, blankets and sheets and there were different tents for dining and showering. ThereOur campsite in the Sahara  - 4/17/15 were even stand-up, flushing toilets in the bathroom tent! After moving our gear to the tents, we were treated to Moroccan tea inside the dining tent.

The campsite came with a full staff of attendants and cooks. We were incredibly fortunate to be the only ones at the campsite. Mustapha let us know that the following day, the day we were leaving, a group of 35 was arriving! It was just by chance our trips didn’t overlap.

Dinner was a feast. They kept bringing out more and more plates. We were so spoiled! After dinner, the staff lit a campfire for us and entertained us with traditional Moroccan and

Berber songs. After a long day of driving and camel riding, I was ready to hit the hay…I mean, the sand. While the idea of a bathroom with a lightbulb seemed great during the day, that ideal quickly dissipated once the sun set as every single bug in Morocco was drawn to the light. I draped a towel over my face in an effort to shield myself from the creepy crawly guests, but I was still “attacked” by flying and buzzing enemies.

That night’s sleep was rough. A windstorm hit our campsite and I thought our tents might blow away! They didn’t. But when we woke up the next morning, we walked through a cloud of sand. After breakfast, we heaved ourselves Janice and me sharing our camel - 4/18/15back onto the camels and made our way back to the van that was still parked at the watermelon farm. On this leg of the camel-led journey, I shared a camel with Janice. It was a cozy ride.

Mustapha told us that it was unusual for a group to come from Marrakesh and stay at the campsite for only one night. I can see why because of the very long time to get there, but after the sand and bugs, one night was all I needed. That being said, it was an experience I’ll treasure for ever (bugs and sand-burn aside).

We made some stops for food and water on our way back to Marrakesh. We stopped in a city called Ourzazate (whar-za-zet). It’s also known as the Hollywood of Morocco as several movies like “Gladiator” have been filmed there. We went to traditional Moroccan market, where I was off-put by the pushy Ouarzazate - 4/18/15negotiations and bartering. A few miles later we stopped at a women’s co-op where I purchased some authentic Argan oil.

We arrived back in Marrakesh where Mustapha dropped us back at our original hostel. With limited time in the city, we decided to forego much needed showers until after dinner. After walking through the city, we found an outdoor Italian place for dinner. Marrakesh was fairly quiet at night and aside from tourists out on the streets, there were mostly only men. Before going to Morocco I was advised to dress very conservatively as to not attract too much attention and to not disrespect the culture. I don’t believe I did either, but it was different not seeing many women out.

Me, Janice, Jenna, Nicolette, Alden, Lucy, Reed and Alayna - 4/19/15

After dinner we took turns showering before bed. We packed up our luggage and set out to enjoy one last morning in Morocco. The Sunday morning market was not quite awake when we arrived, but after enjoying an incredibly cheap and delicious breakfast in the medina, the shopkeepers and shoppers were out in full force. I bought some traditional pottery to bring home to my family as a souvenir – one of the first I’d bought the whole semester. We took a quick look at the exterior of the city’s mosque or mesquita before heading back to the hostel where they were ready to drive us back to the airport.

Mosque in Marrakech - 4/19/15Between the delicious food, new culture, long van rides, memorable camel rides, ferocious windstorm and everything else along the way, my time in Morocco was one for the books!

Las Vacaciones de Semana Santa Parte 3: Berlín – Spring Break Part 3: Berlin

After a delayed flight out of London lCurrywurst from Curry36 - 4/3/15eading to a missed flight connection in Germany, I made it to Berlin. Despite positive reviews online, our hostel did NOT live up to the expectations. Michael met me at the unwelcoming hostel a few hours later as his train from Prague was also delayed. While I waited, I washed my clothes in the hostel sink using shampoo as I lacked clean clothes, a washing machine and detergent. One can never really prepare for such travel snafus, but we made the most of the situation and chose to explore that evening instead of staying in.
Even though it was April, it was quite chilly, so we bundled up for our evening out. With a list of recommendations in hand, we kicked off the evening with dinner. The only positive feature of our hostel was that it was directly above one of Berlin’s most popular eats: Curry36, where we munched on currywurst, steamed then fried porkBrandenburg Tor - 4/3/15sausage topped with curry ketchup. Our friend from high school, Alexis, spent the fall semester in Berlin so she advised us to check out the Brandenburg Gate at night when it was illuminated and less crowded. From the Gate we walked around the center of the city passing by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which we would visit more in full the next day, and came across pieces of the Berlin Wall.
The next morning we grabbed breakfast on the go at a shop around the corner and headed to meet Michael’s friend, Conner, who was coincidentally in Berlin at the same time. The three of us walked around the Reichstag and planned to enter the observation area, but the crowds of Easter Weekend sold out tickets and made lines much longer than they needed to be.
The Reichstag building was around the corner from the previous night’s explorations so that’s when we spent more time at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial was like nothing I’d ever seen. The memorial honors and remembers the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It consisted of 2,711 concrete slabs on a sloping plane. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - 4/4/15From street level, the slabs look relatively the same height, but as you submerge further into the memorial, you notice the greatly varying heights. The slabs, or “stelae”, ranged from 7.9 in. to 15 ft. tall. Beneath the sterile memorial was a sobering subterranean information center that told the stories of many Jews murdered in WWII. One of the several parts of the exhibit that moved me to tears featured letters from loved ones to their families as they anticipated their deportation to concentration camps. The letters wished their families well, expressed the authors’ fear and made known that these letters were likely to be their final communication.

East Side Gallery - 4/4/15

After leaving such an emotional exhibit, it was a challenge to lift our spirits, but we pressed on. The three of us next headed to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Visitor Center. After learning more about the Wall’s construction and subsequent demolition, we made our way to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery featured several blocks of the Wall that had been colorfully painted and graffitied. The Gallery is situated near the river Spree, where we watched the sunset.
After soaking in the sunset, it was time for dinner. Berlin Burger International was the evening’s decision and it ’twas dee-licious. Not wanting to spend a minute more than necessary at our hostel, we killed some time at a local bar and waOberbaum Bridge - 4/4/15tched a soccer game. Smoking inside is legal in Germany, or at least the Germans made it seem that way. Bars, smoking and soccer are not my three preferred ingredients for a good time, but it was better than the hostel.
I was told Berlin has a good “club scene” so I did as the Berliners do and went out that evening, but it was nothing to rave about. I tucked away in my surprisingly clean and comfortable hostel bed not too late. (Don’t worry Mom and Dad.)
Viktoria Park - 4/5/15The next morning was Easter Sunday. It was the first time I’d been away from home and my family on Easter. Michael and I grabbed another breakfast for the road and enjoyed it at Viktoriapark. Since we couldn’t be with our families on Easter, we were able to spend it with friends. I had a handful of USC friends also in Berlin that weekend, so a group of seven of us, including Michael and me, had brunch together.
After brunch at Eiffel, some of us headed to the noted Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known crossing point between East and West BCheckpoint Charlie - 4/5/15erlin, where I quite literally bumped into Ellie! From there we explored Tiergarten, the city’s largest park. It was no Retiro, but it wasn’t too shabby. We relaxed on some benches by a lake before Michael and I resigned to the fact we were too tired to explore further and thus we had to head back to the hostel.
What made this hostel so weird? Was it the fact that it was in what looked like an abandoned building? Was it the bands of misbehaving German children? Maybe it was their vodka-drinking, karaoke-singing fathers. Or it could have been the miscellaneous men, some of whom looked down right homeless, who sat in the common room all day. Hmm hard to say. Probably a combination of ALL factors.
For dinner that night, we rejoined Conner and met up with Ellie, Stephanie and their friends for dinner at Hans Im Glück.  Who wasn’t in Berlin that weekend? Michael had more Valencia friends in town that Ellie and me at Hans im Glück Burgergrill - 4/5/15weekend, so after a quick bar meet-up with them, we headed back to our oh-so-charming hostel.
Despite the hostel’s crummy wi-fi connection, I managed to FaceTime with my entire family who was enjoying Easter lunch at my grandparents’ house. I was so happy that I got to see my parents, brother, aunts, uncle, grandparents and so many family friends. Thank you to Nick and Courtney for passing me around the room and thank you to everyone who popped into the screen for even the quickest hello. It made me feel a little closer to home.
Michael left for Italy shortly after breakfast the next morning so I had some of the day to myself. I went to the Jewish Museum to learn and pass the time before my flight. Berlin is a city full of recent and tragic history. I think I underestimated the gravity of the sights I’d be seeing. The several hard-hitting exhibits and monuments we visited drained me physically and emotionally. I did not find Berlin itself to be as beautiful as other cities I’d visited, but I’m still glad to have spent time there. I say these things not to sound ungrateful as I am so lucky to travel the world, but rather to speak my truth and my truth is that Berlin is not my favorite place I’ve visited. However, after conversations with others who have gone to Berlin, perhaps I did not do the city right. There is much more to see and do than I did, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from going there.
On my way to Spain, I was jealous of the father-daughter pair seated next to me on the leg to Madrid. The flight was late and I would have liked to be the one sleeping on my daddy’s shoulder. Ten days of incredible traveling tired me out and it was a Spring Break I’ll never forget. I can’t believe all the places I visited and friends I saw, but all I wanted to do after stepping off that plane was head home and tell my parents all about my latest adventures. Perhaps it was the exhaustion hitting me, but somehow I expected to land at LAX and head home to Altadena after the flight. Since that was not the reality, my cozy room at Gloria’s would suffice. Only one more month until my parents, Nick and Courtney will be in Madrid!