Since I’ve been traveling over the holidays, I’ve missed the opportunity to discuss some important reflections especially around Christmastime and New Years. I’m going to try and catch everyone up to date though and talk about each of the cities we’ve visited just in case any of you are ever considering such a trip or just want to learn a little bit about different parts of the world. One thing I neglected to discuss is that one my best friends, Jessica Blackwell, has decided to join me for this leg of my journey. I met Jessica in Casablanca a few days before Christmas and she will even stay in Uganda to get involved with ChildVoice for a few months. I feel beyond blessed to have her with me as she brings a piece of home with her and is really like family. I couldn’t think of a better time to be with family than Christmastime. We thank God for our safe travels thus far and pray that God works in and through Jessie during her time in Uganda.

Casablanca: Casablanca has been mostly romanticized because of the movie, but Rick’s Café is about the best thing the city has to offer unfortunately. An American woman renovated an old building in the city and recreated the restaurant that is featured in the movie even down to the piano player who plays “As Time Goes By” each hour. Jessie and I celebrated our reunion there with filet mignon and chocolate raspberry truffles…something we could have never afforded in a fancy restaurant at home but were able to swing in Morocco. It was heavenly! One thing that is a bit funny about the city is that there only men out at night, no women. I gather this is mostly due to the Muslim culture and belief that the women should be in the home with the family and should not leave home without the company of a male. However, Casablanca is a fairly moderate area. You will see many young women during the day wearing modern clothing that you would see on a young American woman. They laugh and some even hold hands or hug in public (something you would never see in most other predominantly Muslim areas). Anyway, it’s a bit of a nervous experience to walk around the area alone especially at nighttime.

Enjoying our meal at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, Morocco

That all being said, Jessie and I were fortunate to meet some wonderful people in Casablanca including our humorous hosts at Hotel Central in the Old Medina. I recommend this hotel to anyone traveling to the area. The men who ran this place served us mint tea for free throughout the day, advised us on activities, negotiated lower taxi prices for us and even walked us to Rick’s Café because they didn’t want us walking alone at night. I don’t know many other places where they would give such personalized attention to their guests. We felt very lucky to have met them, and they showed us our first taste of true Moroccan hospitality, something we could come to experience much more of during our time in the country. Lesson learned: Don’t let first impressions determine everything.

Rainbow near the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca--the first day of mine and Jessie's trip together

Tangier: One of the best thing about Tangier—Bayt Jasmin, the quaint bed and breakfast where we stayed. Now, remember that I am coming from not having a hot shower (or any shower for that matter) or a bed for about 4 months. I’ve been eating a hard starchy substance called posho with beans every single day. So perhaps you can understand why my trip highlights may often include comfy hotels and hot meals. I had one of the best meals of my life at this place. Moroccan cuisine has earned itself a spot on my list of favorite foods. Their flavors are rich and include mostly lamb, roasted vegetables, and lots of fruits and nuts like dates, figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins. They serve an incredible mint tea which is specific to Morocco—very refreshing (and also very sugary as Jes and I later discovered).

Sooo much sugar in Moroccan mint tea. Good thing we didn't discover this until the end of the trip after we'd had about 5 cups every day

Jessie and I celebrated our Christmas in Tangier by hanging stockings by the fireplace, opening a few gifts from each other, and of course going to church. We met several more interesting people on this leg of the trip including two soccer players from the Moroccan national soccer team, an elderly Spanish man named Tony who gave us a tour of the city, and a sweet young girl who gave us her earrings because Jes said she liked them. Lesson learned: McDonald’s has really good coffee but people will look at you funny if you walk and drink/eat at the same time.

Part of our room at the Bayt Jasmin in Tangier

Marrakech: Snake charmers, monkeys, dancing, dramas, music, henna artists, healers, chicken dancing, owl taming…you name it, it’s in the Djemma el Fna (giant plaza) in Marrakech. There is a striking contrast of old and new in the city; fast taxis as well as carts pulled by donkeys and horse carriages. The markets and souks are hectic as ever and require a certain boldness in business transactions. Bargaining can be fun but also tiring. I missed just looking a price tag rather than arguing over each purchase, not knowing whether I’m getting a good deal or being cheated (my guess is as a tourist I was cheated more often than not). Jessie and I put all sweetness aside as we gave a very firm “La shukran” (No, thank you) to hassling vendors. Jessie got called Shakira and we both got asked “how many camels for you?” which gave us a good giggle once we were out of their sight.

Ready to camel trek in our proper Berber headwraps

Mohammed, a young nomadic Berber man in the Sahara Desert

We spent the night in the Sahara Desert for camel trekking and site seeing where we met Mohammed (one of many) and other nomadic Berber men. We sat around a bonfire with them, drank tea and then froze our butts off the rest of the night. I didn’t know the desert could get so cold. For New Years we had a wonderful meal at the Palais Arabe restaurant as we watched traditional Moroccan music and dancing. They even gave us masks, hats, balloons and noisemakers to welcome in the New Year. It was one that we will certainly never forget. Lesson learned: If you call a man in Morocco by the name of Mohammed, Hassan, Abdul or Akhmed, chances are you are right. Oh, and don’t tell people in an Arabic-speaking country that you’re from Lebanon if you can’t speak Arabic.

Selling sheep heads in the chaotic Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech

Cairo: With a population of more than 25 million people, Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Since we had such a short time to see so much, we decided to take a day tour of the most famous sites which of course included the pyramids. It was amazing to be in the presence of so much history. We saw the nine pyramids of Giza as well as the sphinx of Giza and also the sixteen pyramids of Sakara. The most famous and largest pyramid, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is in Giza. We climbed on it and marveled at its size and the work that it must have taken to build it. We also visited the Egyptian Museum and went on a Nile River dinner cruise where we saw whirling dervishes and belly dancing. Despite some frustrations over the lack of direction in most places (one man said Egypt was allergic to signs), we managed to still find our way and make some great memories. Lesson learned: No matter how much you pay, you will never really see the mummies; and don’t wear flip flops in the museum…you will fall.

Woohoo we're at the Egyptian pyramids!

Alexandria: We made the day trip to Alexandria from Cairo despite the recent news reports of a church bombing, and we were glad we did. In the seaside town, we experienced some of the most beautiful sites and tastes of the whole trip. The best part of Alexandria for me was the library which is the second largest in the world (the first is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). Alexandria was a hub of knowledge in ancient times and while the old library was burned in an accident by Julius Caesar, the new one was still inspirational. We spent the afternoon pouring through books on every topic imaginable from religion to philosophy and arts to economics. Artistic and historical pieces were scattered throughout the gigantic library. Being the bookworm that I am, I was totally in heaven. We topped the day off with an amazing meal of fresh fish and then God gave us a little parting blessing—a rainbow above the Mediterranean. When Jessie first arrived in Casablanca there was a rainbow as well, so our travels began and ended with rainbows.Lesson learned: Don’t let fear stop you from exploring new territory. It will mostly likely be worth the risk. (See more thoughts on traveling to “dangerous places.”)

Rainbow over the Mediterranean in Alexandria, Egypt. The last day of our travels.

This is not the first time Jessie and I have traveled together. We first started our adventures about 4 years ago when we studied at Dublin City University in Ireland and explored Western Europe in our free time. During those first travel experiences, my “Europe on a Budget” book was my Bible and I made it my personal goal to visit every single place listed in the book even if I didn’t know what it was. I can’t tell you how many stone monuments and churches we visited that year, but I can tell you that I don’t remember most of them. We were on such a budget that we once shared a can of cold beans in a train station and ate a days old chicken sandwich because if we bought food then we wouldn’t have had enough money for a ride home.

Well I’m happy to say that since then we’ve improved our travel style a bit to include less monuments, more leisure time, more quality food and most importantly, more people. While it is often difficult to meet locals due to language barriers, you can still learn a lot about people from observing the way they live. What’s better is that once you come to know and understand people, it is difficult to discriminate against them. Many Americans have misconceptions about Muslim people and that is very unfortunate because the majority of Muslim people are loving and Godly people. One of the things I liked the most about Morocco and Egypt was witnessing the calls to prayer each day. Most everyone would stop what they were doing, lay down a mat, piece of cardboard, a shirt, whatever they had and kneel on the ground to give thanks to God for being alive. The phrase I heard more than anything from the people we interacted with was “Inshallah” which means “God willing” in Arabic. The Muslim people recognize that each and every breath of life is a blessing from God that is not to be taken for granted because it could be taken at any time. So when the prayer call comes (5 times a day beginning at 5 AM) they stop what they are doing and thank God for life. It is a beautiful religious custom that we could all learn from. Each time the pray call came, it reminded me to also give thanks to God for His many blessings.

When the topic of religion was brought up in conversation, all of the people denounced the actions of the radicals on both sides saying that we are all “brothers and sisters in God” regardless of whether we were Christian or Muslim. It is easy to watch the news and get one side of things, to see only the bad things and then to gain a slanted viewpoint as a result, but I hope that people at home can see beyond that and understand that what we see on TV is not the whole story at all. People are people no matter where you go. Jessie and I know God was watching over us during our travels and we are grateful for the opportunity to explore and experience His beautiful, diverse world and beautiful, diverse people.