A Travellerspoint blog

Stupid, but Lucky – Part Two: Romantic Explorations

With no more undiscovered ‘blank spots’ on the map, exploration and discovery is now an individual adventure of experiencing how others live. But that does not prevent me from dreaming myself back to the deck of James Cook’s the Endeavour.

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James Cook's HMS Endeavour

James Cook's HMS Endeavour

I have to admit that I am very much a romantic when it comes to travel. Romanticism is often defined as an emotional glorification of the past. It is thus, by definition, anti-rational and anti-enlightened. If I could, I would have joined the early European explorers, the ones who expanded our conception of the world, our knowledge of it and eradicated blank spots on the map. Given the chance, I would happily have joined James Cook’s expeditions of the Pacific; Magellan, who’s ships first circumnavigated the Earth; or joined Livingstone’s trek across Africa. This despite the dangers that would follow by setting out on such expeditions: Both Livingstone and his wife, along multiple travel companions, died on his expeditions; Cook lost more than a third of his crew, and only 18 of Magellan’s 270 men crew survived that first circumnavigation – Magellan himself died in the Philippines, only halfway through the voyage.

Blank spots in Africa

Blank spots in Africa

That emotional Romanticism tends to be very determining for where I travel. Travelling for me is a matter of exploration and thus also of facing dangers. As Melville wrote towards the end of the first chapter of Moby Dick, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and [to] land on barbarous coasts.”

The fact that everybody is heading for Southeast Asia, Australia and India (and to a lesser degree Central and South America) means that there are plenty of travel stories informing us about those places. So, what is then left to discover and explore? Further, the share amount of travellers and tourists traversing those areas mean that the local communities have adopted.

Modern Exploration: Iraq

Modern Exploration: Iraq

Tourist infrastructure has made everything relatively easy and the adventure of travelling is dimmed as a result. Most visitors are staying in hostels and hotels with other travellers. There are minibus services, catering explicitly to visitors so they do not have to struggle with local transportation. And Western culture, although with a local twist, is made readily available through full moon parties, beach bars and international fast food chains. While there certainly is exploration left to be done in the less touristic areas of these places, it is impossible to avoid the crowds. Honestly, there is not much Dr Livingstone’s Adventures about being run over by a tourist bus in front of Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal.
In short, the popular destinations are very far from the hardship, difficulties and discoveries I want – and think - my travels should be full of.

Terrible crowded bus: Mongolia

Terrible crowded bus: Mongolia

Travelling for months is not a vacation. It should not be treated as an extended weekend of fun, in a place that is a bit sunnier than home. Exploring the unknown. Being far from friends and family. Struggling through terrible bus-rides, food poisoning or corrupt officials. The feeling of being lost, weakened or threatened (the last is rare). These are all valuable parts of a romantic’s adventurous explorations. Part of my travelling. As much as enjoying a beer on the beach at sunset is it. Actually, that beer tastes a lot better after a 36-hour bush-taxi ride, where you had to share your seat with a goat, than after 8 hours in an air-conditioned minibus shared with just four other backpackers. Travel is exploration and exploration is suppose to be tough. The hardship only makes the experiences of discovering new places feel that more real – and as a result that more enjoyable.

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:36 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel adventure romantic discovery exploration romanticism travel_as_exploration Comments (0)

Stupid, but Lucky – Part One: Questioning My Sanity

“Why would I ever go to West Africa?” is a question that will take some length to answer. To spare you that very long blog entry, I have instead written a number of entries that each can be read separately.

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Navigating Iraq

Navigating Iraq

People often react with disbelief when I tell them where I am planning to go or where I have travelled in the past1. Through the years, these comments have questioned my sanity, intelligence or both – and sometimes deservingly so. But most times, it is simply a matter of armchair experts who's advice and opinions rely primarily on whatever they saw on the news three years ago. Often combined with an impressive lack of knowledge about local geography or the current situation on the ground. Throw in a few negative presumptions about the given places and that is usually not a wrong description of what some people think about some of my favourite travel destinations.

If I do have the time, and I am allowed, I can talk at length about how and why countries that frequent the news for all the wrong reasons can be great travel destinations. Then I am happy to correct the armchair experts. This is also why I am writing this particular piece of the blog right now. However, it is not everybody who are willing to listen and when my listeners become too dismissive, I sometimes loose interest in explaining just why “dangerous” place are fantastic to travel in. Then I usually go to my favourite short answer: “I’m somewhat stupid about choosing my destinations and have just been lucky not to get killed or kidnapped on my previous trips.” In other words: I am stupid, but lucky.

Making friends in Afghanistan

Making friends in Afghanistan

Though most of my friends have accepted that I visit weird places with a somewhat head-shaking attitude, this trip to West Africa has not been spared the usual comments. The curious questions about why, of all places, I want to go to a part of the world where extreme poverty and diseases are making life miserable for most people living there, are still frequently asked. If I am in an expressly sarcastic mood, I happily extend the list of ills before answering their questions. I mean, they should not forget that West Africa is also home to Islamists kidnapping Westerners for ransom; civil wars in Mali and Niger; Boku Haram in Nigeria; bombings in Burkina Faso; general instability across Côte d’Ivoire; and an Ebola endemic, which have just reemerged in Guinea.

A map frequently in the news

A map frequently in the news

This is all very terrible for the local populations. It is, however, not something that would ever deter me from travelling here. Since I am still in Morocco, which is more a part of North Africa, rather than the west, I figured that I would spend the next few blog entries explaining exactly why I am going to West Africa, why I travel to all those weird places, why the list above is not what worries me about my travels, and how – in general – I plan to survive all of this.

1) Should anyone be unfamiliar with my earlier trips do they include, amongst others, the Middle East, six months after Danish embassies were burned due to the Mohammad cartoons; Central Asia, including northern Afghanistan; Northern Iraq and all of Iran; Central America’s drug circumnavigationsmuggling trail; and now I am in West Africa – the allegedly the toughest region to travel on this planet.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:24 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel west_africa exploration dangerous_places why_travel Comments (0)

Preparing for a Year of Travelling

How much did I actually have to prepare for leaving my life for a year to go travel?

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You simply need a god hat!

You simply need a god hat!

I like to tell myself that I did not need to prepare anything before heading to West Africa for a year. That is, of course, a lie. However, besides spending two years saving approximately 12,000 Euros while finishing my education, I probably prepared less than many thinks – and less than many others would have done. The truth is that it actually does not require a lot to go travel, not even for extended periods of time. A passport, a sense of adventure and enough money for the duration of you trip… and preferably a good hat!

Everything in a 28L backpack

Everything in a 28L backpack

Specialised gear (including camping gear) can be rented in most capitals, so all you need are some good shoes and a decent backpack. The amount of money clearly depends on your level of comfort and travelling style. The hat is a personal preference, but this is honestly all you need. You have clothes in your closet, and the sense of adventure will take care of everything else – just keep telling yourself that.
This is the bare minimum and for comfortable travel, you need a bit more. I have been blessed by past trips. That is, I already had a good backpack, a travel towel, lightweight and fast-drying clothes and an idea about just how little ‘stuff’ I need in order to travel. Most people bring way, way too much stuff with them. Hence, the cliché travel advises: “Spread everything you want to bring with you out on the floor in front of you. Then leave half of it behind.”. Just to give you an idea of how little I am bringing with me have I added the complete list at the bottom of this post. It might seem like a lot in list-form, but those 12 kgs it combines is not a lot for a whole year.

Other than what I already had, there were a few things I needed to check off before I left. I was running out of blank paged in my passport, so I had to get a new empty and boring one. I had to order another credit card from my bank, so I would have a backup in case I lost my current card. I had to get two expired travel vaccinations refreshed. I also bought a guidebook, stash up on Euros and Dollars and got some new travel shoes. Lastly, I stacked up on medical supplies. I am going to be far from Western hospitals and a basic first-aid kit, and some antibiotics and penicillin are handy to have at hand – though I have never had any use for it myself. Instead, I have been able to help out fellow travellers in need and once acted as a doctor in a Madagascan village I passed through.
Once you got everything and if you are leaving for a long trip, like I am, you probably need to get rid of your apartment, find a place for your stuff, unsubscribe newspapers, newsletters, insurances and other things you do not want to pay for at home, while you are not there. Then again, most of this can be done once you are already on the road. Realising that you are still paying for that expensive data package for the phone you are not using usually helps such things along.

Then there is the mental preparation. Leaving the safety and comfort of your home. Leaving friends and family behind. That is often the hardest part of any trip. I have found from past experiences that the less mental preparation I do, the more enjoyable will my trip begin. You really cannot prepare yourself for the travel experience. It is better just to roll with the punches. If it gets too much, you can always take a break from everything by checking in at a five-star hotel and spend a couple of days in luxury. Spending too much time saying farewell is not advisable either. It will only make me sad that I am leaving. It is far better to treat the farewells like a bandage. Rip if off quickly. Only do the essential farewells in person. Maybe, have one big party where your guests do not realise that this will be the last time they see you for a long, long time. In that way, there will be fewer tears to shed. Sure, people will miss you, but long farewells will only add to that. By not saying goodbye you should buy everybody a month or so before people actually realise that they miss you. Alternatively, if you do not have any friends, consider that as one less thing to worry about.
This is everything - complete list below the picture

This is everything - complete list below the picture

Packing list
Essentials:
Backpack (28 liters)
Travel shoes
Lightweight tent
Light sleeping bag
Hat

Clothes:
Four pairs of socks
Four boxers
Four t-shirts
Two trousers (identical brown one’s – fuck anything stylish)
Two shirts
A hoodie
Surfers/swimming shorts
A tank-top
Long underwear
Fingerless gloves
Warm socks
Scarf
Belt
Glasses
Sunglasses

Toiletries/first aid:
Toilet pack (doubles as day pack)
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Shampoo (better than soap for clothes washing)
Deodorant
Lotion
Shaving machine, plus charger
Nail-cutter
Lipstick
Sunscreen
Insect repellent
Condoms
Water purifier
Metal mirror (does not break)
Small travellers first-aid kit
Bandage
Antibiotics and penicillin
Clothesline

Paperwork:
Passport
Yellow vaccination card
Int. driver’s license
Danish driver’s license
Guidebook
Three maps over different parts of West Africa
Ten passport photos
Notebook
Book: Just and Unjust Wars (pick something you enjoy, but won’t go through too quickly)
Point It booklet
Two credit cards
Student card (good for the rest of 2016)
Diver Maser certification card
Blood Donor card (with my blood type on it)

Electronics:
Camera plus charger and extra battery
Two SD memory cards
Old Nokia plus charger
MP3 player plus USB-cable
Notebook laptop plus charger (for blog-writing and picture editing, otherwise leave the computer at home)

Others:
Bag padlock
Two wallets
Torch
Tent-lighting
Knife
Deck of cards
Lighter and matches
Compass (essential when arriving late at night at dark bus/train stations
Silk liner
Two carbines
Two pens
Some rubber bands
Whistle (for attracting attention in case of emergencies)

And lastly: two toy animals because I have friends, who apparently thing I will forget them while I on the road :)

In addition to that have I bought a washcloth while down here and a fellow traveller left me some clothes soap as she was flying home.

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:42 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel packing hat prepare how_to travel_preperation long_term_travel Comments (0)

Paying for a Trip to the Prison Shower

Violated, but clean... A proper, local hammam experience is not for the fainthearted or for those who insist strongly on their personal space and comfort zone as inviolable.

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Someone more bashful than me would have felt violated. I had apparently walked into a prison shower, not a hammam. Something I will get back to in a moment.

Hammam

Hammam

A hammam – or a Turkish Bath as they are known as in the West - is basically a public bathhouse. They come in all shapes and sizes and are widespread outside the Western world. In the Russian-speaking world, for example, they are known as ‘banya’. They range from what is essentially a locker room shower to luxurious spas. Hammams are also a hugely important part of daily life, as most people in the world do not have access to hot running water. However, it is the Arab world that has made them famous.
Not only a place of relaxation and personal hygiene, hammams are also places of social, religious and spiritual importance. It is a place where both women and men can relax with their peers, outside of public surveillance. In a sexually repressed society, where public affection is taboo, the hammams offer a sort of time-out, where men and women, in their almost nakedness, can relax together. So, it is not uncommon for the men to joke around, throw cold water at each other and, in general, have a good laugh about life. I obviously do not have any experience with the women’s hammams but I am told that they use it to conversate freely, outside listening range of any (abusive) men.

My Malian orderly in the Hammam

My Malian orderly in the Hammam

Religiously, a Muslim must be clenched and purified before attending prayers at a mosque. This is done by washing hands, lower arms, nose, mouth, ears, feet and ankles. Have he or she had sexual intercourse that day, a full body wash is expected. As usually with the three big religions, there have weirdly enough always been a repulsive interest in human reproduction and what goes on in peoples’ bedrooms. Likewise, a preference to somehow dictate what is allowed comes with most organised religions. The hammam is, therefore, an important place to show off one's clenching before going to the mosque.

The hammam experience is not new to me. Siberian banyas where the best places to reheat my frozen body during the Russian winter and to clear off the dirt after climbing central Asia's mountains. In Syria the price of a wash, scrub and quick massage was less than five euros, providing a little luxury to our shoestring budget, and when visiting Turkey, going to a ‘Turkish Bath’ is a must-do. Here in Morocco, the hammam is necessary because my host family does not have hot water. The required installations are simply not installed in their house. Hence, most morning washes are done in the sink. Face, armpits and privates are washed, then it is off to school. So, once a week a proper bath is needed. There are a couple of hammams nearby. The cheapest sets me back about a euro and a half. It resembles a standard locker room, with the addition of a small sauna. There are no showers. Instead, a number of taps are placed along the walls, about 30 cm above the floor. These are for filling the colourful plastic tubs that are available. Once you have filled a tub, you have to use a large plastic bowl to pour water on yourself. Most locals, therefore, bring a little stool to sit on. They also bring a harsh glove/wash clout to scrub themselves. Once you have washed, scrubbed and saunaed, you are done.

The hammam's main room

The hammam's main room

The other hammam is one of the fancier kinds – by local standards - and cost a heavy (again, by local standards) ten euros. Meaning that those fancy hammams in tourist areas tend to resemble luxurious spas that are all about the relaxing experiences of a wash and massage. Contrary to that a fine local hammam is all about getting clean. Real clean. The fancy part is that you do not have to wash yourself. At my local hammam, an athletic and smiling guy from Mali is during the washing for you. Real thoroughly.
Once I had stripped down to my boxers, which you wear throughout the whole experience, I was brought into the standard hammam-room with a row of hot-water sinks along the walls, which were decorated with dark green tiles. I was sat on a stool while my Malian orderly washed me. First, with shampoo, giving me a rough head massage, then with a thick brown lotion/soap. This greasing of me included my face, arms, back, chest, stomach, outer- and inner thighs, legs and feet. Then another wash-down, with the hot water from the sinks, before I was placed in the sauna for a good fifteen minutes. Once cooked, I was splashed with more hot water, this time with a boiling temperature. Only half way through and I had been massaged, marinated, cooked and scalded. To be honest, I did feel a little like a beef brisket.

The scrubbing/tortue table

The scrubbing/tortue table

Once washed, it was time for my scrubbing. With a rough glove – imagine something between sandpaper and field turf – the outermost layer of dead skin is simply scrubbed off your body. While lying on a stone table, more and more skin was scrubbed off and in the end, I was lying in hundreds of small rolls of my own dead skin. This was the beginning of the violating part. As is was not bad enough to lie around in my own dead skin, the scrubbing goes everywhere. Everywhere. Having my face scrubbed, including my eyelids and throat, is bad enough. But it would be worse. My crutch apparently needed a scrubbing as well, and while lying on my stomach, my Malian friend decided to scrub the inside bits of my butt-cheeks too. Everything except my reproductive organs got a scrub. I am still considering whether the only proper thing to do is to ask him to marry me…

The changing room

The changing room

Thus spotless, I was yet again splashed with something that felt like boiling water, and slightly more embarrassed than when I arrived, I was washed for the third time. This time with a notably nicer smelling soap. Thus cleaned in places I did not know needed cleaning, I was left in the dressing room in a rope by myself. Thus, giving me some time to contemplate what had happened over the past hour. This is apparently the standard way of doing a washing in a fancy hammam outside the tourist areas, and I have to admit that I have never felt that clean. So I probably won’t press charges. Though I might keep to the cheap hammam, where I do the washing and scrubbing myself, for the future.

Posted by askgudmundsen 04:31 Archived in Morocco Tagged spa morocco rabat experience hammam home_stay Comments (0)

Back to School

It is less than two months ago I handed in my master’s thesis. Now I am back in the classroom. This time with something far less complicated, but and I am almost struggling more now than I was two months ago.

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Homework - yay!

Homework - yay!

Having spent ten days enjoying Morocco, I have arrived in the country’s capital, Rabat, for four weeks of French lessons. Since homework (especially grammar) is not the most exciting topic, I will have to dig deep to entertain you until my course finishes on April 15. Luckily, I have never been particular gifted with languishes, so my struggles with French could potentially be very entertaining. So far I am doing fairly well – at least in the classroom. My ability to do anything outside, on the streets of Rabat is quite another story.

My New Room

My New Room

While here, I will be lodging with a local Moroccan family of three; Houcai, Aicha and their three-year-old son, Riad, who has way more energy than should be allowed for any living organism. They speak French and Arabic only, so give me a couple of weeks to learn enough of the languish to actually get to know them. Then I will be happy to introduce them more thoroughly. As for daily life in Rabat, I am mostly spending my time studying and getting to know the city.

Riad stole my phone and hat

Riad stole my phone and hat

‘Studying’ actually means spending time with the relevant books – unlike my university time where most of my days were spent doing everything else than actual studying. Getting to know the city is still mostly a matter of wandering aimlessly between different familiar points. So far the most satisfying finds have been the national library and a bookshop selling English-languish books. I am still looking for a café I can use as my daily hang-out spot. Otherwise, Rabat has a relatively modern feel to it, so I do not think life here will be much different than any expatriate’s life in any southern European city.

The weekends will still be spent exploring Morocco, so the blog’s travel focus will not be abandoned altogether. I especially look forward to visiting Casablanca. Not because of the iconic 1942-film of the same name, but exactly because real world Casablanca is nothing like the film (which was not filmed in Morocco anyway). One of the most famous romantic locations on the screen, the modern city is Morocco’s financial and industrial capital. The largest city in the country, it is a modern and a rather bleak place. Therefore, is it almost always placed near the top of various lists of the world’s ‘most disappointing travel destinations’ (often together with Las Vegas and Hollywood). That is exactly why I am looking forward to it; my expectations are so low that Casablanca can almost only be a positive surprise.

Studying at the National Library

Studying at the National Library

With those words, I will have to get back to my past-tense adjectives and to fail the pronunciations of fairly basic French words.

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:54 Archived in Morocco Tagged french morocco rabat casablanca study_abroad disappointing_destinations Comments (0)

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