Saturday, May 28, 2016

Vicarious Tourism: Marrakech

Marrakech was actually a work trip, and it's a pretty amazing destination as work trips go. I was accompanying the Ambassador to the Africa Think Tank Conference to get a sense of how thought leaders across the continent are looking at a variety of economic issues. I learned a lot. And before and after and between conference events I had some time to experience the city, which I had been wanting to visit for ages and ages and ages but had never quite managed to make it happen.

There's a lot to like about Marrakech. History, great food, lots of charming twisty alleyways to wander around in. Gorgeous palaces, vibrant markets, hidden art galleries, beautiful walled gardens. Many many cups of mint tea. And shopping of course. leather, metalwork, wood inlay, clothes, shoes, jewelry, baskets, rugs, whatever your heart desires.

But all in all I can't say I had the greatest time. In fact, the longer I stayed the less I liked it. All the wonderful parts coexist with a million tiny little hassles: getting lost when trying to find someplace specific; constantly being hollered at to visit shops and having restaurant menus shoved in your face when you're walking around minding your own business; bargaining for everything, which takes so much time and always makes me feel like I'm overpaying (I'm a terrible haggler); blatant scamming attempts; and, as a single woman, the endless catcalls and occasional groping. None of this was unexpected and no single incident was a big deal in itself, but the accumulation really wears on you after a while to the point where the fun stuff isn't fun enough to make up for it. A wretched airport security experience on the way out was the last straw; as my flight took off I was hating Morocco and swore I'd never go back.

After a little time and distance I have moderated that opinion somewhat. I am glad I went, on the whole, and there are still a lot of things I want to see and do in other parts of the country. But I definitely won't go alone again, and I will plan more down time to make up for the unusually high annoyance factor. Clearly I needed it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vicarious Tourism: Italy and the Balkans

Last month was the 10-year anniversary of my year in grad school at SAIS Bologna, and the class of 2006 descended en masse to our old stomping grounds in La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa to eat, drink, and hang out together in piazzas indulging in a little dolce far niente. It was amazing - much like being in grad school was, except with fewer books and exams, and this time we have money! But if I'm going to buy a ticket and fly all the way to Italy I'm not going just for a weekend, so I took two weeks off and made a vacation of it.

I have a friend working in Macedonia now, so I dropped in on him in Skopje, and then we took a quick little road trip through the Balkans with stops in Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. We drove through a little corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the way, so I actually managed to set foot in four countries in the space of a single day, which is not something one can really do in Africa. I met up with another friend in Split and we headed to Rome for a few days before the big Bologna reunion. Way too much happened to put it all in one little blog post, but there were castles and walled cities, mountains and beaches. There were ruins and cats, which are especially nice together. The Adriatic was still a bit chilly but after months in oceanless Addis I did not care and revelled in a chance to swim. Much delicious wine was drunk and I ate ALL THE THINGS, including gelato at least once a day in Italy. Sometimes twice, including one time for breakfast (#adulting). It was a wonderful trip.