Happy 1 year Blogiversary! (the story of how it all began)

Today is the one year anniversary of ExploreLoveTravel.net!

I honestly never thought I’d ever reach this milestone, but here I am. Still telling stories, still sharing photos, still climbing up, falling down and getting back on my feet again. Then falling straight on my big fat butt once again, before getting back up and trying over and over again. Ah, the life of a blogger. Incredible, isn’t it?

I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for my muse and my “motivational coach”, my amazing boyfriend who always believed in me and always told me to follow my passion and never ever give up on my dreams. He told me I can be exactly the person I want to be, if only I believe in myself. Such a cliche, right?

But guess what, since one year ago (and for the first time in my life) that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. The road is as bumpy as they get, and boy have I been facing my fair share of obstacles. Nobody ever said it was gonna be easy, did they?

Well, when life gives you lemons, make the most freakin’ brilliant lemonade anyone have ever tasted. Or spice it up with a little rum, and call it a margarita…Because, after all those bumpy rides and obstacles, mama needs her drink!

Thanks to my male muse, I am currently working on my first novel (written in my native language; Norwegian) and I’ve started treating this blog like a business and not just some random online diary.

Still, my blog and I both have a lot of growing up to do in this crazy world of social media marketing and the endless sea of travel blogs, and I hope I’ll one day get to be where I want to be. Fingers crossed.

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And where exactly is that?

Well. Ever since I was a little girl, my dream has always been to become a writer. A writer of short stories, travel novels, memoirs, fiction, poetry, articles.

Writing has always been my therapeutic outlet for my social anxiety and all the darkest moments I’ve had to go through in my life. When I was bullied as a child and when my parents got divorced, I wrote poetry and short stories to cope with the sadness and loneliness I was going through. Just like I did when my father passed away. And all the times I’ve had my heart broken. And all the times I’ve moved from city to city, country to country, to start a new life – a better one – somewhere else, hoping that the grass would be greener on the other side.

I always dreamed it would be.

I dreamed of big city lights and endless possibilities. Those dreams brought me to the capital city, but that was still not enough. I dreamed bigger, and somehow ended up in England. As I continued searching for my purpose, still not satisfied with the path I had taken, I returned to Norway and took a break from it all. I had given up on the idea of becoming the person I wanted to be. I had given up on me.

That is, until the day I got back on the horse again, ready for battle. This is when I decided to chase the American dream, many years after running back to Norway, defeated and disappointed.

In the land of the brave, I landed a job at the happiest place on earth (Disney World, duh), where I spent most of my free time traveling from state to state – and this is when I started getting closer to realizing what I should have known all along.

I am, and always have been, destined to become a storyteller. Well, at least I feel that way.

Yes, I am aware of the fact that I’m no freaking Hemingway. Nor will I ever be as good as Bill Bryson. Nor will I ever win the Pulitzer Prize. Now that’s certain!

But there is room for everyone, even writers like me. Writers who laugh at their own shortcomings and find inspiration in embarrassing moments and awkward scenarios. Yes, that’s me. The girl who laughs at her own jokes and doesn’t have a lot of friends because most people think she’s just weird.

 

In the world of blogging, I’ve found my audience. People who enjoy my style of writing and my sense of humor. People who search for imperfection in a world full of glitz and glamour and pretentiousness.

My novel, as well as future e-books, are/will be written for these people. For the travelers who can’t navigate without getting lost. And those who can’t eat without spilling sauce all over that new, white tee.  And the ones who can’t hike on a rainy day without tripping and falling into the mud at some point. Those who accidentally fart loudly in front of their crush, thinking it would go unnoticed. Those who realize they just told the most inappropriate joke ever and wasted every opportunity they had to become friends with the cool crowd. Those who can’t even form a sentence without messing it up. Or buy train tickets. Or even hold their liquor.

You are my crowd. I write for you.

Ever since the day I created my WordPress account, while on a trip to Sweden with my mother, I knew I had made a life-changing decision. I hadn’t quite figured out my blog’s identity yet, but I knew I was on the right track. I knew how much I wanted to dedicate all my time to travel blogging. I knew how much I wanted to become a writer. I had no idea how hard it would be, but I wanted it. Now more than ever.

In the world of blogging, one year means your blog is still just a baby. But even as a baby, my blog has blessed me with freebies, a couple of paid articles and some sponsorships and affiliate links. Those are the extra compliments I need, in order to stay focused and motivated.

So guess what, I’ll keep that smile on my face and wish my blog a happy happy birthday. May there be many more!

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Panama Series: Educational Ecotourism in Boquete

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite part of Panama is, I’ll without a doubt say Boquete. Which may seem shocking to some people, as it’s not by the coast, it’s calm and quiet and absolutely not the place to go if you’re planning to party all night and sunbathe all day. In fact, your grandma might have a lot more fun than you will, as a lot of the people who have settled down in this idyllic little town are old, retired North Americans. 

So how can I possibly prefer Boquete over places like Panama City or any of the beach towns with a young cool vibe?

I have plenty of reasons for that.

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First of all, I’m not a party girl (anymore). My days of clubbing until dawn and daytime drunken shenanigans are way behind me. I’m turning thirty in two months. Thirty. That number tastes bitter on my tongue, even more bitter than the lemon or lime or whatever it is they serve with your tequila shot. I’ll rather sit down and enjoy an ice cold draft or bottled beer at Boquete Brewing Company (photo above) over a fun conversation with my travel partners (my boyfriend and his parents in this case) and move on to dinner and cocktails (or wine) at one of the amazing restaurants in town – such as Argentinian restaurant La Posada Boquetena (side note: they have the best coconut lemonade imaginable) and Italian restaurant RetroGusto Restaurant & Bar (excellent place for a romantic date). And the coffee shop in our hotel, Hotel Central Boquete, serve the most amazing coffee ever. You must try their raspberry mocha. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s magical. So is their plain, non-fancy black cup of Joe. Coffee in Boquete – no matter what coffee shop or restaurant you go to – tastes a hundred times better than any coffee I’ve ever had before. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of coffee these past fifteen years.  And no, frappuccino’s are not coffee. It’s liquid candy.

I will talk more about coffee later in this post, but first I’d like to talk a little more about our hotel – which brings us to my second reason for loving Boquete:

Tim, the owner, and his lovely wife.

After a night at the “strangers’ bodily fluids and hairs fest” hotel in Santa Catalina, it felt amazing to be greeted with kindness and professionalism, when arriving at Hotel Central Boquete. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the US, it’s how easy it is to bond with Americans. Tim was no exception. He had a look at my ID and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Norwegian (at least half, anyway). “I am Norwegian too”, he said, and told me about his family in Norway, where they were from and which Norwegian specialties he’s particularly fond of. I love talking about food, and I love talking about my country, so my frown was turned upside down within seconds. Even more so when I got my coffee.

“Our room is so clean I can still smell the cleaning products!”. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. A clean room. What a luxurious feeling!

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After a night in the dirtiest hotel imaginable, I was probably scarred for life.

We returned to the reception and asked Tim to help us book a couple of day-tours for the following days in Boquete. We wanted to go bird watching and were also interested in booking a coffee tour. A lot of the tours scheduled for the following day were already fully booked, but as luck seemed to be on our side, Tim didn’t give up on calling every single tour company he knew – and managed to schedule us in for a bird watching tour the next day, followed by a butterfly, bees and honey tour in the afternoon, and a coffee tour the day after that.

The birdwatching tour (which I would’ve posted a link to, had I known the name of the company) was a 4 km hike up the pipeline trail in Boquete. It’s an easy hike as long as you’re not stuck hiking in the pouring rain….like we were. Whether it was because of the rain or just a matter of bad luck, spotting any birds was not an easy task. We were kind of expecting to see the beautiful quetzales, after reading guidebooks and articles basically guaranteeing that we’d spot these fascinating birds when in Boquete. We didn’t.

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What we did see, were the occasional bright green birds, yellow and some red ones (itsy bitsy teeny tiny birds) – and on our way back we discovered a family of monkeys jumping from one tree to another. My partner managed to capture a few shots from afar, although the quality of the photos are rather questionable and we had to be quick to avoid heavy raindrops from attacking the camera.

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We found a little lizard, as well. The little guy escaped quite rapidly, but we managed to take a photo with him before he took off. The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, and the ground more and more slippery. Dragonflies the size of my index finger, hovered like helicopters before flying away. Thirsty mosquito’s attempted to come close but flew away when sensing the awful scent of the insect repellent.

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Although we hadn’t seen as many birds as we were hoping to see – and even though it was raining during the entire tour – we were still very pleased with what we’d seen. It was an amazing hike and the guide was professional and clearly passionate about bird watching.

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The second tour that day was even better. And it stopped raining. Now, here’s yet another reason why I love Boquete: the educational aspect. I don’t travel to “switch off my brain” and just rest. In fact, I hate resting – sleeping excluded. I love sleeping. And when I’m done sleeping, I just wanna get dressed, eat a nice big meal and get out there and learn some interesting facts that may or may not change the way I see things in life. Our tour with Boquete Bees taught me that there is such a thing as STINGLESS BEES. People who know me, know I’m terrified of wasps and bees – even adorable bumblebees. If they had seen me standing in front of a beehive without any protection, without freaking out and making a scene, they’d probably say the beehive is fake and the insects flying around are probably just flies or something. As soon as the guide informed us that the bees on this farm were all stingless and completely harmless, I managed to let go of my fears. Maybe this will even help me relax a bit more around the bees we have in Europe. I know how important bees are to the ecosystem. Without them, all life on earth will die.

The tour continued to a butterfly conservatory, similar to the one we had visited in El Valle de Anton. We spent a while admiring the beautiful creatures and photographing them as they were resting, eating or fluttering gracefully. I enjoyed every second of it – obsessed with butterflies, as I am.

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The garden of the property had a small coffee plantation, vegetable garden, pineapples and plenty of gorgeous, colorful flowers. Have you ever eaten a flower? We tasted some. Yup, they were good. No, I’m not crazy (not more than the average woman, anyway).

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We finished the tour with a grand finale inside of the main building. It was time for a real honey tasting experience! I don’t even remember how many different kinds of honey we had lined up in front of us, but it was a lot. Maybe thirty different ones?

Fun fact: Did you know that honey is actually bee vomit? 

Our honey tasting didn’t consist of just plain honey. There were blends of honey/cacao, honey/chili, honey/lavender, honey/ginger and a lot more. Even the basic honey didn’t taste “basic” or “plain”. It tasted divine. The guide poured us a glass of some sort of honey wine and some honey liqueur. I wasn’t a fan. We ended up buying some honey to take home, though. We would have been fools not to support these amazing people who work so hard to educate visitors on the importance of the protection of bees, protection of different butterfly species, growing organic coffee and vegetables. It feels good to spend money on good causes!

Our last tour in Boquete was another educational experience – and I can’t decide which tour was my favorite, between the previous one and this one. This was the coffee tour I had been looking forward to ever since we made it to Panama. I love coffee and I was interested in learning more about the farming, production and marketing of Panamanian coffee. Our tour was with a guide named Carlos at Cafe Ruiz. Carlos was the funniest tour guide I’ve ever met and I’m surprised he doesn’t consider becoming a stand-up comedian – because that guy has skills (check out Cafe Ruiz on TripAdvisor and you’ll see I’m not the only fan). Even when talking about serious subjects, such as how the coffee production in Panama is decreasing due to locals who sell their land so that North American migrants can build their gated communities there, he still added a little tongue-in-cheek humor to even the touchiest subjects. I can’t help but feeling sad for the locals, and I admire his ability to speak so lightheartedly about it.

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I didn’t know that little white flowers grow on the coffee trees. Nor did I know that coffee beans are green before they’re roasted. And I definitely didn’t know that light roast coffee is the strongest in caffeine and has no bitter aftertaste, whereas dark roast contains way less caffeine and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. You know, the taste that makes a lot of people put milk and sugar in their coffee.

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The tour finished with a trip to the coffee shop, where we did a coffee tasting. As you may have guessed, the light roast came out as the big winner. As if the coffee tasting and the stand-up comedy wasn’t already 35 dollars well spent, Carlos gave us a goodie bag with our own bags of coffee, some biscuits, a postcard – inside of a really cool Tote bag made from an actual coffee sack. We’ve kept them and use them for our groceries. Strangers have even complimented me on them. Thank you Carlos – for everything!

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Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you have a better understanding for why I love Boquete and why some of my most wonderful memories from my trip to Panama, were made here. I feel educated. I feel like I spent my money on things that matter. People that matter. People that contribute to making this world a better place.

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Next: Hiking and chilling in an ecolodge in Cerro Punta 

 

 

 

 

Panama Series: What’s up in Santa Catalina?

We hadn’t spend much time in Pedasi, yet just enough to give us a sweet taste of the burning sun, the cool, turquoise saltwater, the soft, white sand and the calm atmosphere on the beach. Good thing we were headed to yet another beach location. A surf town, to be more specific. Before you ask, I don’t know how to surf. Nor do I know what to expect  from a surfers hotel or hangout spots. But sometimes, not knowing what to expect turns out to be either a great surprise or… “not so funny when it happens, yet kind of funny in hindsight” – kind of stories. Or just a life lesson.

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Our hotel – or hostel (depending on which staff member you asked) – was located a few kilometers outside of the town center. We didn’t mind, as we had our car and weren’t planning on doing anything besides going to the beach before having dinner and drinks at the hotel. I would have loved to visit Coiba Island and go snorkeling, but we didn’t have time for any full day excursions like that, as we had a tight schedule the following morning. I tried my hardest to hide my disappointment and not come off as a spoiled brat, but everyone could read me like an open book with ‘ungrateful piece of….’ written in bold capital letters on the front page.

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Our hotel/hostel looked absolutely gorgeous from the outside. Surfboards and palm trees decorating the outdoor common area, giving the hotel just the right vibe. The view over the beach was spectacular, and I couldn’t wait to dip my toes into the crystal clear water.

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However, when we checked into our rooms, I wasn’t sure whether I was indeed an ungrateful child or if I was allowed to speak up and express my opinion. What from the outside appeared to be like a tropical paradise, was just a facade. Because the rooms were disgusting. They were worse than a cheap motel I once stayed at in the UK, where I found bloodstains on the wall. At least those stains were identifiable. In our rooms here in the hotel/hostel in Santa Catalina, I had no idea what on earth I was looking at – or where to start looking. The curtains were covered in stains of all colors. Some looked like sperm, others could be vomit, food or – who knows. There were pieces of chewing gum stuck to the curtains, as well.

The bed sheets had hairs of different long haired people in it. Black, brown, blonde. And some stains of what could be tomato sauce (or vomit) on the pillow cases. And then there was the large chunk of black hair found in the shower and all the random stains in the sink. Lovely. The towels had some clean areas, but were stained pretty much all over. I had to go to my boyfriends’ parents room to ask for toilet paper, as we had absolutely nothing in our room. The parents had already decided to sleep with their clothes on and would certainly leave a complaint upon checkout. We all agreed that asking for a new room would change nothing. They were probably all just as bad. And it was just for a night anyway.

We used our own clothes as pillowcases and covered the sheets with our dirty beach towels. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather rub my face against sand and sea salt than a random persons bodily fluids.

After turning the disgusting bed into a camping arrangement, we changed into our swimwear and headed down to the beach. Just like in Pedasi, there were dogs running around freely, and washed up plastic littered the otherwise gorgeous sandy beach. The waves were calm, and I’m sure all the surfers who came to Santa Catalina because of its reputation as a surfers point, were feeling kind of disappointed for not being able to go out there and practice. “I’m thirtsty”, I said to my boyfriend – who forwarded the message to his parents, changing it to we’re thirsty, meaning, we wanted cocktails.

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The hotel restaurant didn’t disappoint us the way the rooms did. Not at all. The cocktails were delicious – and cheap – and the food was good. Although, I think Mexicans would shake their heads in shame if they saw my tacos, I enjoyed the taste of them. But then again, I enjoy Taco Bell too, so I’m probably not your greatest source for high quality Tex-Mex recommendations. But trust me on those Pina Coladas and Margharitas!

Getting drunk seemed like a great idea. It would make it easier for me to fall asleep in that dreadful room, and maybe – if I was lucky – it would even wipe away the memory of what I’d seen. Not trying to be overdramatic at all, but this makes me realize how much I appreciate cleanliness above anything else when traveling.

Adios, Santa Catalina. Next stop; Boquete!

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A day at the market in Essaouira, Morocco

I went to Essaouira for the DIPINTO17 Retreat for Creative Entrepreneurs – but as you all know, a retreat is never “all work, no play”. A retreat is first and foremost a learning experience, motivational, inspirational – and a great way to make new friends and learn about the culture of the host country. While visiting the traditional market (the souk) in Essaouira, I got to experience shopping in a way I hadn’t done since I went to Tunisia with my parents. I got re-introduced to the concept of haggling. Modest as I am, it’s not something I feel comfortable with – but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. Right?

There I was, watching and learning from others before – somewhat – getting the hang of it. After all, back in Tunisia it wasn’t me who took care of the haggling. I was a seven year old kid back then. I remember my parents buying me a lot of souvenirs from the island of Djerba, and little did I know how much effort they had to go through to buy me those souvenirs for a reasonable price.

Reasonable price is never the price written on the price tag. That price is a rip-off, and only naive and modest tourists (like myself) will ever pay that price for something you can get half price if you just grow a pair and speak up. When I first arrived at the souk in Essaouira, I ran around like a headless chicken, not knowing what to do or what to say. My only advantage was that I speak French and could pretend to be a penny-pinching French tourist instead of the vendors thinking I’m some rich American throwing money around and buying everything from everyone. Yes, those are stereotypes, and no, they’re not always true. I know that, you know that, the Moroccans know that.

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The market in Essaouira is a lot more relaxed than the one in Marrakech. Here, there are no snake charmers, no monkeys on a leash, no one trying to nearly force you to get Henna tattoos done, no one getting mad at you for not looking at their merchandise. Although I love certain things about the souk in Marrakech, and although the chaos and energy can sometimes be fun and although it adds to the experience,  I will have to admit that I prefer the traditional market in Essaouira.

The vendors are generally quite relaxed. If you don’t enter their shop, they will not say anything. And once you enter the shop they will ask you if you’re looking for anything special and help you find what you’re looking for. And obviously propose other options.That’s it. And that’s the way I like to go shopping.

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The number one beauty product to invest in when in Morocco – the motherland of Argan oil – is exactly that, argan oil for hair and body. And where better to buy it than in Essaouira, the part of Morocco where the oil is produced. I asked a vendor how much he wanted for a travel size bottle, and he pointed at the price tag. It seemed like a reasonable price to me. My new friends from the retreat – including a local – gave me a surprised look and asked me shockingly if I really did pay the price written on the price tag. I was confused. Of course I did. It seemed cheap. And doesn’t an actual price tag mean that the price is fixed? Apparently not.

“You should have haggled!” they said. I tried again somewhere else. I entered a shop selling beautiful pashmina scarves. I took a deep breath. The vendor offered a price. Was it high? Was it low? I had no idea. We negotiated. I suggested fifteen dirhams less. He suggested five. We met halfway, I paid and we shook hands. I was still confused as to whether or not I should have gone harder or if I was too hard on him. I took another deep breath and moved on.

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Leather wallets. I wanted to get one as a gift for my partner. I found the perfect one and I negotiated harder than I had done in the previous shop. I almost felt sweat dripping from my forehead as I tried to act stubborn and hard to sell, when all I really wanted was to say “I can’t do this” and just pay, shake hands, smile and leave. But I did it. I negotiated!

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I wanted to take a lot of pictures at the market but worried I’d offend the vendors if I photographed their merchandise without buying anything. So I purposely photographed only the places where I bought things from, the places where I’d asked for permission first – and a few sneaky shots taken in a hurry. While photographing my surroundings I noticed an adorable little kitten sitting on a man’s knee while the man was playing guitar. I couldn’t stop looking at the cute little kitten, and felt rather embarrassed when I suddenly made eye contact with the man – who probably thought I was staring at him all this time!

And then there was the strange experience that turned out to be the highlight of the day. One of my friends from the retreat had entered something that looked like Ali Baba’s cave, a tiny room with multiple treasure chests (yes, treasure chests) filled with gorgeous jewelry. The happiest man I’d ever seen, with a bright blue turban, welcomed me and three of my new friends (we had been separated from the rest of the group) to his cave and offered me and another woman a seat while the guys waited in the back. “What do you like? What do you need? You can try anything!” he said joyfully and dug his hands into one of the treasure chests and offered us a handful of random jewelry. “Try whatever you want” he said. One of our friends tried a bracelet that turned out to be a tad bit too tight and the vendor laughed and said “You eat too much couscous, my friend!”. “Here – try this one!” he laughed and suggested some other options. Before she knew it, she had three bracelets on her arm. She also tried on a beautiful necklace. Everything was gorgeous. She liked it too, but put on an act to not seem too easy to sell. “You are a strong Berber woman!” he laughed, referring to the Moroccan Berbers, an unconquered people.

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I tried on a few bracelets. Many of them were way too big for my tiny wrists (the only thing tiny on me). “You don’t eat enough couscous!” he laughed and offered me to try another one. A bracelet I fell completely in love with. I also tried on a lovely necklace but wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy it or not. “It is perfect for you” he said, trying to convince me to buy it. I hesitated and told him “If I buy too much, I’ll have no more money for couscous!”.

In the end we all ended up with jewelry for a ‘family price’ discount, and the funny vendor even handed out some freebies for our two male friends. Now this guy could sell anything to anyone, just by being the funniest and most dynamic vendor I’ve ever met. I didn’t even go there to buy jewelry. I went there for the entertainment. The jewelry was just a pleasant bonus. Someone give this man a one man show!

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What a day it had been. What an experience. Oh, how I’d love to go back to Essaouira with an empty suitcase and just stay at the market for one more day – or two. And that’s coming from someone who has a phobia of haggling.

Photos below are from a restaurant I want to visit next time I’m in Essaouira(we didn’t have time while we were there). There’s live music in the evenings, and just look at how amazing and artsy this place is!

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While heading towards the market, we saw a lot of this.

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And this. I love the colors!

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Our villa was a 20-25 minute drive from the city centre. Domaine La Colline des Oliviers .

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22 hours in Marrakech, Morocco

After four amazing days at a retreat for creative entrepreneurs by HDYTI in Essaouira, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, it was almost time to return home. But I didn’t want to go home without having ever visited the city I’d be flying out from, so I booked a night in the gorgeous Sapphire Riad & Spa in the Marrakech medina and had less than 24 hours to explore everything I wanted to see and eat everything I wanted to eat in the dynamic city of Marrakech, a popular destination for solo travelers, couples, families as well as groups of friends. If you were ever in doubt whether 22 to 24 hours is really enough time, doubt no more. Perhaps you’d like to know more about my trip to Essaouira or read a little more about the luxurious Riad I stayed at? Don’t worry, blog posts will be up soon!

But first, here’s how I spent 22 hours in Marrakech

3 pm: Arrived in Marrakech, checked in at the Riad and got a tour around the gorgeous property – and enjoyed some complimentary mint tea and pastries. How divine!

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4 pm: The owner and staff members at the Riad were all lovely. In fact, they were so kind that I didn’t even have to worry about getting lost in the market as I was accompanied by a staff member to all the places I wanted to visit until it was time to return to the Riad for dinner. I guess he worried I’d get lost and never find my way back and end up sleeping on the streets somewhere. Which I am 100% certain would be the case if I had been wandering around completely by myself. I am a woman of few talents, but getting lost is definitely my biggest talent. I am always a damsel in distress whenever I travel solo. Always. Although that’s nothing to brag about, really.

Thanks to a male staff member from the Riad guiding me around the city, I felt safer than ever – except from when I almost got run over by scooters, bicycles and tuktuks going full speed through the small streets of the Medina.

First stop was the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech – a museum of Moroccan photography. I would have never been able to find this museum on my own as it’s quite hidden past the souks of central old town Marrakech, down the narrow alleys of the Medina, somewhere around there, you’ll find this lovely little museum. Most of the photos displayed were in black and white and they all told a story. My favorite photo was one of a woman sitting next to two men, exposing her bare legs and laughing. She looked like a Moroccan Marilyn Monroe. Another photo I liked, was a photo of a group of veiled women. I loved the contrast between them and the leggy vixen.

I wanted to sit down and order a beverage at the roof terrace cafe, but impatience got the best of me as the waiter never came my way to take my order. So I skipped the pause cafe and focused on my photography instead.

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5:30 pm: “Do you want to visit the Ben Youssef Madrasa Koran school?” the lovely man from the Riad asked me. Of course I did. I wanted to see everything. Not trying to be holier than thou or anything but thankfully I was dressed like a conservative gal and not like a careless westerner in short shorts and a tank top like some of the tourists I’d seen in the Medina and even entering the Ben Youssef Madrasa. I love my shorts and tank tops just as much as the next girl, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a time and place for everything.

Founded in the 14th century, this former Islamic college is the most stunning piece of architecture found in the Medina (in my opinion). With a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco, consisting entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns, this historical site is simply too beautiful to miss out on.

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6:00 pm: We spent about one hour visiting the busy market in Djemaa El-Fna. I wasn’t planning on buying anything and I barely even dared to look and no way did I touch anything at all. The vendors at the market seemed to be quite aggravated whenever I said no to whatever they had to offer. One lady tried to push me into getting henna tattoos done – something I should avoid like the plague as I suffer from eczema. I declined politely and she got seriously offended and asked me one more time, purposely ignoring my previous answer. I told her yet again that I wasn’t interested and she rolled her eyes at me and mumbled “oh la la, les touristes”. Lesson one; if you want to sell me stuff, make me laugh. Works like a charm. Just ask the gentleman in Essaouira who almost had me rolling on the floor laughing my butt off – and sold me jewelry when I wasn’t even planning to buy anything.

We finished the tour with a cup of tea at the market square, watching the sunset while acrobats entertained us with their choreographed moves.

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7:15 pm Morocco is amazing in many different ways, one of them being the way disabled people are treated. With respect, dignity and given the opportunity to work a full time job just like everybody else. Just because you depend on your wheelchair to get from A to B doesn’t mean you have to be physically bound to it at all times. Just ask the Moroccan tuktuk-drivers. In Morocco the disabled are given the opportunity to work as tuktuk-chauffeurs – and I think we got the most fast and furious one of them all.  At times I worried we’d run someone over with our full-speed tuktuk. That guy was not stopping for anyone. Buses, cars, women, children, red lights, queues, you name it – ain’t nobody got time for that!

Back at the Riad, I had about thirty minutes to relax in my room before getting ready for my three course meal. I’ll tell you all about my meal in a separate post (on the Riad). I’ll tell you one thing, though. It was delicious. Just like everything else I ate in Morocco.

8:50 am: The Riad had arranged for a guide to come meet me in the morning to take me to the sites I wanted to visit before heading to the airport at 1 pm. A bubbly Moroccan woman with the most beautiful smile and charming accent waited for me by the entrance to the Riad. She introduced herself and promised me we’d have enough time to do both the Jardin Majorelle and the Bahia Palace before returning to the Riad for my manicure appointment at noon. We hailed a cab and left the Medina to visit these spectacular sites.

Luck was on our side as there was absolutely no line to enter the Jardin Majorelle. We took advantage of the situation and the guide had me posing for photos pretty much everywhere in the garden – also for some videos that I’m not even sure I’m gonna share with anyone as I am probably the most awkward person you’d ever see on video. It’s cringe worthy, I tell you. The garden was amazingly beautiful. With the exception of one thing: vandalism done by tourists who think it’s a great idea to carve their initials into the bamboo, cactuses and other plants in the garden. It upset my guide to see it. And me too.

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Jardin Majorelle (or Majorelle Garden) is a botanical garden and the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech. The building was designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s and the garden has been open to the public since 1947. Since 1980 the garden was owned by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Yves Saint-Laurent’s ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden.

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09:30 am Next stop, Bahia Palace. We hailed a cab and went to the opposite part of Marrakech. Ahead of schedule and again no line to buy tickets. Being an earlybird sure pays off!

The palace was built in the late 19th century and the name “Bahia” is actually Arabic for “brilliance” and “beautiful”. The palace was originally built for the Grand Vizier of the Sultan and was later occupied by his son and the four wives and several concubines.

Today, the spectacular Bahia Palace is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Marrakech.

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10:45 “Would you like to visit a Berber pharmacy and learn about the local products?” my guide asked me and explained to me that she loved the makeup from there as well as the spices, oils and scents. Curious as I am, I obviously said yes. I ended up buying a whole lot of products as well. A really good lipstick (finally one that actually hydrates my lips and doesn’t stain), a stinky cream for my eczema, some sort of remedy for when you have a blocked nose – and five or six other products. Saffron included – so I guess I’ll have to start searching for recipes and actually use it!

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11:30 am We still had about thirty minutes before I had to return to the Riad and I wanted to spend those thirty minutes wisely. My guide suggested that we’d walk to the Saadian Tombs and visit them quickly.

The Saadian Tombs date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in the 15th-16th century). They were only first discovered in 1917 and were restored by Beaux-arts service. About sixty members of the Saadi dynasty were buried in the mausoleum. Their servants and soldiers were buried outside, in the garden.

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12:00 am Back in the Riad, just in time for my manicure appointment. My fragile, broken nails looked horrible and needed as much care and attention as possible. The lady who gave me the manicure told me to eat more bananas. In Poland they usually tell me to rub lemon juice on my nails. In Norway they tell me to drink more milk. Guess I should do all of the above to maintain good healthy nails.

1:00 pm The King was in town and traffic was worse than usual as everyone had to take an alternative route since the main one was blocked for security reasons. My taxi driver got me to the airport in time and even gave me a few mandarins to enjoy while waiting for my flight. I ate one and packed two in my handbag. A little souvenir from a country that has the freshest fruit juice I’ve ever had and the juiciest fruit salad I’ve ever tasted.

As I waited for my flight I browsed through the photos I’d taken during my 22 hours in Marrakech and smiled to myself. I might not have seen it all, but I sure am happy with everything I did see!

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My Travel Highlights of 2016

2017 is already here and my New Year’s resolutions have been made – along with an even larger bucket list than ever before. Seems like the more I travel, the hungrier I get for more. And the more I learn, the more I realize how little I once knew about the great world out there and all the people living in it. While 2016 was the year I traveled only within the borders of my continent, Europe, 2017 will take me to at least two others – and who knows where else destiny decides to take me this year?

2016 was a year filled with great highs as well as some lows. Unstable economy, feeling lonely as an expatriate in a foreign country, death in the family, losing touch with friends, pitching article after article to magazines with little result, getting criticized for putting so much time and effort into my blog when I “should be spending my time doing something more useful” – these events have caused a lot of stress, sadness and feeling of hopelessness for me. Traveling – and the love and support from my partner – gave me the strength I needed to be able to look back on 2016 as a great year instead of feeling like a complete failure.

Because…

I welcomed 2016 by watching the beautiful fireworks display in Warsaw, Poland with my family and my partner. We visited the Christmas market in the Old Town and danced the night away at the New Year’s gala in our hotel.

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I visited London, England for the first time in many years, and had a great time catching up with a friend who moved to London for work. We went salsa dancing, salsa eating (nachos) and visited all the touristic sites together.

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A romantic weekend trip to Copenhagen, Denmark was the Christmas present from me to my significant other. We stuffed our faces with Danish pastries, laughed our asses off while the fish tickled our toes at a duo fish spa, visited the castles and the little mermaid and enjoyed the snow – although I would have been happier if my partner hadn’t kept throwing snowballs at me.

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I visited Belgium for the first time…and second…and third. My partner and I embarked on plenty of amazing road trips this year and visiting certain destinations in Belgium was part of those trips. Romantic Bruges, charming Antwerp and multicultural Brussels. I’ve fallen in love with Belgium – and Belgian beer!

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And then there was the trip to Luxembourg in May. The surprise birthday present from my partner. We visited Luxembourg city, two castles elsewhere in the country and saw Hans Zimmer live in the amazing concert venue Rockhal. Probably the best birthday I’ve ever had.

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Late June and early July was spent traveling by train with my mother. From Oslo, Norway to Karlstad, Sweden – then back to Norway to visit Sandefjord and Kristiansand, before returning to Stavanger to spend a couple of days relaxing at home before returning to France. Photo below was taken while visiting Tungenes Fyr (lighthouse).

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The weekend of Bastille Day (14th of July) was spent visiting Saint Malo, Mont Saint-Michel, Dinan and Rennes in France. My partner and I watched the fireworks in Saint Malo, drank cider and ate delicious crêpes (the local Bretagne/Brittany specialty). Calories and carbs taste better in France than anywhere else.

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One of my biggest highlights of the year was to volunteer in Moldova. I got to know so many lovely people – volunteers and locals – and my host family was the nicest I could  ever have asked for. I also got to taste some amazing wine from the Purcari Winery while I was there. I’ve been spreading the word about how great Moldovan wine is, ever since.

 

Another great highlight was the writing retreat in Barcelona, Spain with Pink Pangea where I got to know like-minded travel writers – all women – explored the city of Barcelona and did a lot of soul searching as well. We laughed, shed some tears, plenty of hugs and shared our most personal stories – travel related and non-travel related. It was therapeutic and inspired me to not just become a better writer but a better person as well.

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In September my partner and I embarked on yet another road trip to a different part of France. This time to the southwest. We explored some spectacular caverns, enjoyed the local wines and visited idyllic and picturesque little towns. I have never taken as beautiful photos as I did in the southwest of France. No wonder so many people dream about this country, and so many writers find inspiration here.

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We didn’t spend longer than twenty-four hours at home before we were back on the road again. Well, towards the airport this time to catch a flight to Athens, Greece. The week in Athens was filled with food, historical ruins, food, more history and even more food. Greek cuisine is simply just too good!

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Winter Beer Day, Christmas markets and celebrating my parents wedding anniversary and my stepfather’s birthday was how we spent our long weekend in Hamburg, Germany…And taking pictures from the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. What a windy affair that was.

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And then there was December and all those Christmas markets. Paris (France), London (England), Reims (Champagne, France), Cologne (Germany) and Oslo (Norway). I didn’t get a white Christmas this year either, but I got so much more. So much more that mattered a lot more to me than snowflakes. Spending time at these markets with the people I care about, laughing, smiling and cheering while tasting local specialties – now that sure got me into the Christmas spirit! Photo below is from Oslo, Norway.

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Now, excuse me while I pack my bags to go to Marrakech, Morocco tomorrow. 2017 started in Trondheim, Norway and after a few days of rest in France I am now ready for new adventures!