Getting Comfortable in Accra

We’re getting extremely comfortable here.  So comfy that we are threatening to Alex that we might really move in.  We’re pretty good roomies, especially since we don’t fight over whose turn it is to do the dishes.  Cale and I have kept ourselves busy with a volunteer opportunity down the street, and we are able to visit Alex’s school to go lap swimming or go to the weight room.

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Cale and Alex, 32 going on 8.

I’ve been trying to get a handle on how to describe our experience in Ghana. I think the easiest way to break it down might be to point out each individual difference.  It took us a couple weeks just to get a handle on doing anything. Like buying bread, for example.

1) Accra smells like diesel.

What would be considered an ancient and useless car in the U.S. is a middle aged car with a pep in its step in Ghana. We often see cars broken down on the road- not pulled over to the side… just in the middle of the road with the driver underneath fixing whatever has gone wrong.

Also contributing to the smoky smell is the garbage. Garbage gets tossed into the street without a second glance, and if it is handled, it’s indiscriminately swept into a pile and burned. Plastic and all.  Here’s a shot of garbage burning and blowing into the guys playing soccer in the field next door:

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2) It’s entirely acceptable to go to the bathroom on the side of the road.

You don’t get arrested here for indecent exposure!  Men go to the bathroom on the side of the road, or next to the river.  Women too; they just straddle the open gutter on the side of the road to pee.  It’s much more convenient than home if you ask me.

3) We can’t go anywhere without getting honked at.

As white people, taxis honk at us as we walk down the street to try and get our business. And there are a ton of taxis in Accra.  So we can’t walk for more than 20 seconds without getting honked at.  I’ve started not even looking at honking cars, and instead shaking my head ‘no, I don’t need a ride.’

We also seem to be somewhat of a novelty in certain parts of the city.  Kids will point at us and say ‘Obruni!’ which means ‘white person’ or ‘foreigner.’  The other day some little kids came up and pet Cale’s leg, then ran away.

4) Careful where you walk, you might fall into a gutter!

A sidewalk is a sidewalk until there’s a hole in it and the hole leads to the sewer.

5) Our privilege slaps us in the face wherever we go.

This is something we weren’t expecting. As minorities in Accra, we figured we would experience discrimination. But it doesn’t work that way; it’s been the opposite.  We have a heightened awareness of our privilege, both when it comes to race as well as economic class.

Electricity goes out here often and we are lucky enough to stay in an apartment with a generator. I was complaining about not having wi-fi access for 24 hours while waiting for the regular power to come back on, then realized that I sounded like a jackass.

6) The disparity between the rich and the poor is unbelievable.

We’ve been volunteering at a community center down the street; a basketball camp and tutoring center for kids. The kids share basketball shoes because they don’t have their own. Some play without socks because they don’t have any.   People live without indoor plumbing and electricity.  Minimum wage here is $2/ day.  Meanwhile what would be considered middle class back in the U.S. experiences a lifestyle complete with personal housecleaner and cook, because it’s so inexpensive to have these luxuries.

7) You buy everything from the side of the road.

Need a piece of furniture? There’s a guy on the side of the road for that.  Need a tailor? Take a right at the guy selling phone minutes.  Whatever you need: architect, fruit, superglue…. somebody will be on the side of the road to sell it to you. When we first arrived I asked Alex where we buy milk, and he said “on the side of the road, where else would you buy it?” Most people sell stuff out of old shipping containers, others just have a table set up.  And lots of people sell goods at stoplights, carrying it on the top of their heads.

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Shipping container shop

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Working mama selling snacks to the b-ball ladies

8) Accra has amazing street art festivals

We were lucky enough to be here during the Chale Wote festival, a street art festival on the coast.  They close off the main road in Jamestown and the streets are full of kids playing soccer, painters creating murals on every surface imaginable including building walls, makeshift canvases made of wood pallets, the asphalt street surface, etc.  Modern mobile art and fashion shows proceed down the street.  BMX bike and breakdancing contests are held throughout the day.  And there are stages with live music.  It’s an impressive, energetic, colorful festival.

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At first I found it overwhelming to be here- we can’t walk anywhere without getting stared at, and it took a while to figure out how to do the basic things like shop for groceries.  20 Cedi notes come out of the ATMs (equivalent of about $6 American) and it’s often too high of a bill to be able to spend on the street because nobody can make change for it.

I soon realized that everyone in Ghana is extremely friendly- the moment you wave or smile and say hi they will break into a grin and are extremely friendly back. They are willing to help a lost American (compared to Morocco where we had to be cautious of anyone trying to help us with anything).  And it’s also been great to get to know a new lifestyle of teachers who work internationally.  It’s giving me lots of ideas… 🙂

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Think About Yourself

So, they have this thing here. People put decals in their rear windows that say really random things.  It’s pretty entertaining.

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I made a quick list of all the decals I saw in one day:

  • The Bible
  • Vision
  • Still Power
  • America Man
  • Do Good
  • Jesus is Coming
  • Think About Yourself
  • God is God
  • It is God
  • God Glory
  • God First
  • Craft Man
  • Redeemer 1
  • Blood of Jesus
  • After Death
  • Holy Ghost Water

I hope you’ve learned something here today.

You Can Call Me Mama Esi GooGoo

Arrival in Ghana was a blur. We took a red eye and got in at 5am so were grateful to see Alex who came to fetch us at the airport.  We spent most of our first day sleeping but not after we got a tour of Alex’s palace of an apartment, complete with 24 hour guard service, an electric fence, a swimming pool, and an employee who cooks and cleans for him five days a week. We’re living large.  Alex is back at work so we kind of felt like his children, waiting patiently for daddy to come home from work and hang out with us.  We call him Papa Papp.

On our second night here, Alex took us to a bar down the street. This bar is extra local. You walk through an apartment building parking lot, and there’s a shipping container behind the building… and inside is a bar! This particular bar had one fridge to store the beer, a nice woman bartending, and a few minors dancing in the corner.  By minors I mean they were 8 years old and younger.  Alex asked them to show us some Azanto dancing which is a form of dance that’s popular here in Ghana. So three kids started dancing and I joined them to try and learn how. At one point I turned around and noticed that Alex and Cale had disappeared. At this point the room was full of more kids and a couple adults, watching the crazy lady try and dance. I got a couple high fives before I went sheepishly to find my buddies.

They were sitting outside with a group of 3 men who work as government employees in Accra.  Alex knew one of them from visiting the bar previously and so struck up a conversation. They soon found out that Cale and I were pretty green to Ghana- it was our second night in town.  Alex knows several phrases in Twi (one of the many local languages) and Cale and I knew… absolutely nothing. So the men taught us a couple quick and useful phrases in Twi, which I promptly forgot.

At one point they asked us our names. But our names weren’t acceptable. They wanted to know our Ghanaian names. Of course, Cale and I had no idea what they were talking about. Alex answered immediately with his, saying “I’m Tobe Kofi.”

Apparently in Ghana, babies are named after the day of the week on which they were born, as well as their order in the family. We had to look up our birthdays to figure it out, but I was born on a Sunday. “Sunday born!” the men exclaimed. That’s very special. “And first born too!” Even more good luck. The female Sunday-born name is Esi, and first born is GooGoo. Then they added Mama to the name. So my name is Mama Esi GooGoo which basically means the best queen boss ever.  Cale is Tobe Kwame (Saturday born).  Our three new friends promised to meet us at the bar again tomorrow (which doesn’t actually mean ‘tomorrow’, it just means ‘sometime in the future,’ which had me thoroughly confused) to teach us more Twi and more about Ghanaian culture. They were so full of warmth and laughter, and the whole evening was a wonderful welcoming experience for our time in Accra.

We are in Ghana for just under a month and it feels good to slow down for a while.  I spent the first week being sick, and Cale took his real estate renewal exam in case he needs a job again :). We found an awesome gig volunteering to fill our time, which I’ll write about soon.

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View from our bedroom window

Casablanca

Everyone advised us not to go to Casablanca. But we decided to spend a day there anyway, and it was well worth it.

Cale was still a bit under the weather on our last day in Morocco. (Oh yeah, I guess I should mention Cale got really sick in Morocco and missed a bunch of Fez sightseeing, as well as Meknes and Volubilis. He’s ok now, thanks to our emergency Cipro and the free medical advice of trusty Aunt Pam!)

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Scenery in Casablanca

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Someone’s super cool house in Casablanca

We took the train to Casablanca to spend the day, as our flight to Ghana was leaving at 1am.  Top on the list was to visit the Hassan II mosque. Finished in the early 90’s, it’s located right on the oceanfront of Casablanca. This mosque is massive.  It can hold 80,000 worshippers inside, and another 25,000 in the courtyard. Its minaret is 60 stories high, and is topped with a laser that points to Mecca at night time. Knowing that Morocco is 98% Muslim, I’m sure they could fill the mosque pretty easily, but I wonder how full it gets on a daily basis during the call to prayer.

I had trouble taking photos because there’s no way to capture the whole thing in one shot that truly shows how spectacular it is. But I’ll post them here anyway.

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After wandering around outside the mosque for a bit, we decided to visit Rick’s Café. Neither of us have ever seen the movie Casablanca but we wanted to try out the café anyway for dinner.

When we arrived we were slightly concerned we wouldn’t get let in. There was a doorman who was dressed extremely well, while we looked like a couple that only brought three outfits on a year-long trip.  Cale quickly put on a collared shirt and we attempted to get in… successfully (later we saw some women denied entry because their skirts were too short!).

What a beautiful restaurant! And the food was amazing. It was expensive compared to everything else we ate in Morocco, but still cheap compared to a fancy restaurant back home. And it was a dream come true to have a bathroom… with a toilet that flushed… and toilet paper… and a sink with running water… and had soap along with hand-towels.  (It’s the little things.  All these at once was a rarity in Morocco).

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Compare this schmancy restaurant to a ‘nice’ toilet I had used earlier in the day. I apologize in advance for posting this photo.

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That was all the sightseeing we had time for in Casablanca.  We’ve been in Ghana for about 12 days now! I’ll post more soon.

Morocco in Numbers

Thanks to Cousin KT, my guest contributor who came up with this idea and helped to write this blog post!

Number of:

Times bumped into one another whilst running away from a snake or monkey: 2

Unwanted tour guides in Marrakech: 3

Times train door flew open while at full speed: 3

Times almost hit by a motorcycle or horse: 5

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No worries, it’s just a donkey carrying 12 giant cans of GAS.

Times told by a sales guy: ‘very good price!’: 100

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Berber carpets in Fez

Times in a day we heard the call to prayer: 5

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Minaret in Fez

Times stepped in gum: 2 (may I point out, that hasn’t happened since high school)

Times the time has changed randomly, for no apparent reason: 2

Times we were told that Ramadan was ‘kind of’ over, and been thoroughly confused: 2

Times Cale has accidentally asked for weed when he meant hookah: 2

Bars we walked into before we could actually find a beer: 3

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Casablanca Beer

Doors photographed: 25

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We’re so cool! Photo courtesy of Scott Gardener.

Scents on a 10 minute walk through the Souk: 50

Dried fruits in Fez

Dried fruits in Fez

German selfies: 150

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Selfie on Camelback

Tickets oversold on each train ride: 245

Trains that actually arrived on time: 0

Jewish graveyards visited: 2 (kind of a morbid thing to seek out and see, but quite interesting)

Items fallen off of Katie’s camel: 3

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Our guide fetching yet something else fallen off of Katie’s camel

Hours spent worrying about what one should wear on a camel trek: 1

Hours spent worrying about dying by snakebite or scorpion bite or tick bite in the desert: 3

Scorpian bites: 0

Tick bites: 0

Snake bites: 0

Mint sprigs needed to make the smell of the tanneries bearable: 1

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Tannery in Fez

Roman Ruins visited: 1

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Volubilis Ruins outside of Meknes. Photo courtesy of cousin KT.

New friends made: 9

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Katie in Marrakech

Camel Trekking in the Sahara

Who wants to go spend a night in the middle of the Sahara, 15 km from the Algerian border, in the hottest part of Morocco’s summertime? I do I do!

So call us crazy (it’s true, we’re a bit crazy) but Katie, Cale, and I booked a three day tour with cameltrekking.com to guide us out to the desert and back.  They picked us up in Marrakech and we drove to the airport to meet the two other travelers who would be joining us on the trip. I thought: “who else could be stupid enough to book this trip in the summer, and during Ramadan when our guides will be driving us around without consuming any food or water? It must be another American.”  Sure enough, we soon met Libby, from the USA and her boyfriend Rob from Germany.

We had two tour guides- one named Hossein who didn’t speak English but did all the driving (he was an extremely safe driver which made us feel very comfortable considering we were in the car driving for 7 to 11 hours per day), and Ali who did speak English and knows everything about Morocco. They both grew up in the same small town in the desert near where our tour was headed.

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My view for most of the trip

Day 1: we drove out of Marrakech through the high Atlas mountains and stopped for lunch in Ait Benhaddou. This Kasbah is still the home of about 8 families but used to belong all to one guy with a zillion wives (I’m sure that’s historically accurate, you’re welcome). It’s on an old caravan route between the Sahara desert and Marrakech. The town is built on a hill and structured so that all the town’s valuables/produce, etc would be stored in one structure at the very top of the hill, with a 360 degree view of the area.  Ait Benhaddou is still used as the backdrop for various movies (Gladiator is probably the most famous) and is located just outside of Ouarzazate, nicknamed ‘Gateway to the Desert’ and home of a major filming studio- Atlas Studios.

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Cale, Katie and me with Ait Benhaddou in the background

Kasbah structures are made of clay and straw, with bamboo roofing. It works great in the desert where it doesn’t rain and Ali mentioned these structures would last 100 years before needing to get refurbished.

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The Mosque in Ait Benhaddou

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Gatekeepers

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From the highest point at Ait Benhaddou

We continued on through the Valley of Roses- the locals here determined where their farmland ended and the next one began by planting roses as the property line. These roses only bloom for about a month each year, between April and May, and at harvest time there is a big festival and people attend from miles around.

After a long day in and out of the car, we slept the first night in the Dades Gorge, which was a cool 91 degrees.

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In the Dades Gorge

Day 2: We drove to another gorge, Todra Gorge, on through the Sahara, and to Merzouga at the end of the road.

Leaving Dades Gorge

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Libby, Rob and Katie at Todra Gorge

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It’s Really Happening…

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A filled-in well on the way to Merzouga

We arrived in Merzouga and hopped on our camels.  Actually, I made that sound too easy.  When camels stand up they pitch you forward and back again and we were instructed to lean back as they were standing so we didn’t get tossed over the camel’s head. Ali and Hossein said ‘see ya, suckers!’ and left us with our Berber hosts to trek into camp for the night.

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And, we’re off!

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Turns out, riding a camel is extremely uncomfortable. And we were only on the camels for about an hour and a half each way!  It took a while to get used to it- our camels were the most steady going uphill, but I always thought they were going to topple over in the sliding sand on downhills.  When we asked our Berber host whether people fall ever fall off he said “yes.” But then he elaborated, explaining that it was mostly their fault- by letting go of the saddle handle to take photos or something. By the way, it’s nearly impossible to get a good photo on a moving camel.

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Our guide was a really great photographer

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The Crew

We arrived at camp and were shown to our tents. It was hot, as expected.  Almost as unbearable as Houston. But way better than Houston.

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In our tent, after the trek.

Our Berber hosts made us an amazing Tagine meal and we spent time re-hydrating, stargazing, hearing Berber riddles (how do you get a camel into a fridge in three steps? Anyone?) and playing drums.

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Dinner in the Desert

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Katie learning the drums

After a hot night of 1/3 sleep, 1/3 heat stroke, and 1/3 concern about various desert bugs, we awoke to make the trek back to Merzouga.

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Sunrise in the Sahara

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Desert Dog

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Our guide’s footsteps in the sand

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Camel Shadows

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My View

This happened to be the end of Ramadan (Eid Mubarak!) so Hossein and Ali could eat and hydrate again for our long drive back to Marrakech.  All in all, it was a wonderful trip.

Relationship Status with Morocco: It’s Complicated

Morocco is giving me mixed signals.  It’s like a one-sided relationship. I love Morocco. Like LOVE Morocco. But I’m really bad at Morocco.  Morocco doesn’t love me back. In fact, Morocco likes to pick me up, pretend we’re friends, spin me around a few times, throw me into a pile of chewed gum and goat heads, kick me in the gut, and throw a bucket of hot water on my head. And then I just willingly overpay for the service and come back the next day asking for more.

Maybe I should explain.

I arrived in Marrakech having read too many blogs advising to be wary of people who try to give you directions, and then demand money angrily after they lead you to your hotel, or whatever monument you were looking for.  So I was paranoid to begin with. Then, arriving in Marrakech was an experience unlike any other.  I would try to do something normal, like walk down a pedestrian street, and then have to leap out of the way of a motorcycle or horse cart. I would try to go out to a restaurant for dinner… and be faced with no less than 100 restaurant workers shoving a menu into my hands and yelling at me: “you’re so skinny, come to my place, same shit everywhere!” I would try to buy a gift for a friend back home and have to barter rather than paying a posted price (I’m obviously not used to doing this and it doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure that I paid quadruple price for one of the first things I purchased).

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Marrakech at Night

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Katie at Booth #97, one of the night restaurants on the square

But the confusion and the fact that I’m out of my element 24/7 adds to what is so enchanting about Morocco. By day two in Marrakech I was a bit less paranoid but it’s still an assault on the senses to just walk outside. Everything is so different!  The crowds of people, the snake charmers (yes, real snake charmers!). The monkeys on leashes. The maze that is the medina. The dichotomy of smelling horse manure in one breath, and amazing food and spices cooking with the next.  The call to prayer five times a day. The Arabic and Berber languages.  And every shopkeeper you pass yelling “hello hello what are you looking for come into my shop very good price!” One of the great things about Marrakech is that after being completely out of my element in the hustle and bustle, we can always escape back to our Riad, which is a quiet sanctuary — an introvert’s dream, really — in the middle of the madness.

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Rooftop sitting area at our first Riad in Marrakech

 

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In the Yves St Laurent Garden

 

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Yves St Laurent Garden

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Spices in the Marrakech Medina

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Rooftop Cafe

 

Thankfully we’re here with cousin Katie who speaks French- so we’re flailing that much less. It still doesn’t mean we ever know what’s going on.  One day Katie and I went to a hammam- or a spa- with one other girlfriend who we met on our camel trek, Libby.  Imagine experiencing this:

We walked into the spa (which looked nothing like a spa- many more exposed wires and cement- and the attendant told us to undress and just keep our underwear on. She then handed us plastic mats and towels and pointed us to a spot inside- to a corner on a tile floor. There we sat and waited. Until, without warning, she threw a bucket of water on each of us. She then gave us some goopy stuff (it was soap, but ‘apricot jam?’ was Katie’s guess) to rub on ourselves. Then we sat there for a while. And then we sat there some more. And then we keep sitting there. And then we started to wonder if we were supposed to be doing something so we tentatively started to wash off the apricot jam. Then the attendant reappeared and dumped more water on us, and motioned for us to get up and follow her and then sit back down. For some reason I went first so poor Katie and Libby got to witness my shock and surprise with each subsequent event! The attendant shampooed my hair and then scrubbed me with what felt like sandpaper. She rubbed about 10 years worth of dead skin off my body (Katie and Libby: “omg is that skin? Gross!” The camino probably didn’t help). Another bucket of water dumped on my head. Then attendant number two picked me up and sat me back down on another plastic mat and gave me a soap massage on the tile floor. It was nice. Actually it was really rough. Maybe it was a little of both. After the soap massage she dumped more water on me and sat me in a different tile corner with a bucket of water and just left me there. Like I was supposed to know what to do. So I sat there for a bit longer. Then Katie and Libby were sent in my direction and we all sat there together. And we waited. And we waited some more. And we splashed more water on ourselves because it seemed like the right thing. And then we got up because we felt like we were maybe supposed to be done. But then the attendant stopped us in order to dump more water on our heads before we were allowed to dry off.

See what I mean? All in all, an amazing experience! We got rough soap massages and exfoliating peels all for about $12 USD!  But at the same time, we were utterly confused and obviously out of our element. We recommended it to the boys afterwards but they wanted nothing to do with it.

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Katie and Libby recapping our spa experience

We’ve been here for about a week now and I’m still waiting for Morocco to love me back. And then out of nowhere I’ll hit my head in a doorway and step in chewed gum. Just another day in the life.

 

 

Cast of Camino Characters

The best part of the Camino was the amazing people we met along the way. Here is a quick snapshot of the friends we walked with the most on our way to Santiago:

Danny and Katus from Hungary:

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Danny and Katus carried the least weight out of all of us…. but still managed to bring along a tent and a hammock. On this particular day I stole their hammock.

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One of the prettiest days of walking. Actually I think we were with Danny and Katus on every ‘ugly’ walking day! We help each other through 🙂

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How cute are they.

Roland and Barbara from Germany:

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My favorite photo of Roland and Babsi

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This is how we rest during breaks on the Camino.

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Of course the Germans were the most prepared. On this particular rainy day they turned into Ninja Turtles.

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Roland and Babsi skipped ahead one day… and left us notes here and there on the path!

Libby and Katie from the USA:

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That one time Libby walked slow enough to let me photograph her!

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On Katie’s birthday, Libby snuck ahead and created a treasure hunt of birthday cards sent to Katie from the states. She had to find clues and enter at least five bars saying “Hola, me llamo Katie. Hoy es mi cumpleanos. Tienes algo para mi?” and then she would be presented with a birthday card. It was my favorite birthday ever, and it wasn’t even my birthday.

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At sunset in Finisterre, after some guy told us to move out of his view

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Katie, Cale and I are contemplating nature… and Libby is leading a parade.

I have so many more photos, and there were so many other inspiring people we met and shared this experience with along the way. Dirg, who found a hat that I dropped 200km away from Santiago and carried it to the end, knowing he would see me again.  The four Irish brothers (out of a family of 9), all bald, who led a yoga session for us in front of the monastery where we stayed. All the non-Americans willing to participate in our 4th of July watermelon eating contest. And so many other friends!

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Just before the watermelon eating contest on July 4th

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Miss these guys

Despite all the griping about blisters, and the fact that I may or may not have done some permanent damage to my feet, it still holds true that this Camino is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

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The clouds rolled in in Finisterre, and we were at the end of the world, and on top of the world, all at the same time.