Chefchaouen, Morocco – June 2019

“…There’s no real guidebook to Morocco, no way of knowing where the long trail of the Rif is going to land one…” – Edith Wharton

During the Spanish Reconquista, thousands of Muslims and Jews fled the mountains of Sierra Nevada by order of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile as they united the kingdoms of Spain into one Catholic Monarchy. While this sequence of events ultimately led to the modern incarnation of the Iberian peninsula, many minorities beneath the crown suffered accusations of heresy against the Church. As a result, large numbers of exiles ended up settling in Northern Morocco and sought refuge deep in the Rif Mountains. They began to establish themselves there. One of their refuges would become Chefchaouen, or Chaouen, as the locals prefer to call it.

Though it has since become a tourist hotspot (myself included, I can’t deny that), the evidence of the city’s establishment as an Inquisition refuge still permeates into this small Moroccan city’s vibrant culture. French is unnecessary here as almost all locals speak fluent Spanish. Street signs and neighborhoods have Castilian names. Amongst the traditional blue houses and markets that cover post-cards in the tourist information centers are various churches and fortifications of Spanish or Portuguese architectural origin. The city is around 600 years old – rather young for Morocco’s standards – yet still feels European in many regards.

My partner and I arrived to Chaouen in the late afternoon. We got off the bus and climbed a steep hill on the outskirts of the Medina to our Airbnb. The sun was brutal at this hour, forcing us to stop for water and tea less than halfway through our uphill route. We finally met our hosts – an extremely gracious, patient Italian and Moroccan couple – who led us to our homestay for the next two nights. After showing us our room and a brief introductory chat about the location of the apartment building in relation to the city center, they sat us down and served us coffee. They gave personal recommendations of their favorite sites and restaurants. We thanked them and headed out to enjoy our last few hours of sunlight. My skin was crawling with the amount of coffee and tea consumed that day; we hadn’t eaten a proper meal since early in the morning and I felt my system begging for more sustenance and less caffeine.

Our Airbnb

To say that Chaouen has an unforgettable medina and Kasbah would be an immense understatement. While it’s undeniable that locals exaggerate their market presentation to reel in the daily throng of tourists, one can’t deny the breathtaking atmosphere it exudes nor resist the giddy, childlike thrill of getting lost deep in the cloudy blue backstreets. It’s charming and picturesque; if you travel for instagram fodder (I hope you do it for more than just that) this is the Moroccan city for you. It’s also an easy medina to navigate. So easy, in fact, that it’s color-coded: if the floor is blue, there’s no exit. If you’re looking for a way out, don’t follow the blue floors. I know they’re mesmerizing like a moth to the flame, but you’ll only wind up on someone’s front stoop and come off as another ignorant, misguided tourist (which you are – always keep that thought prevalent).

We ate dinner in the Kasbah that night. It was Friday, the best day to order cous-cous, according to our Airbnb host Luanne. “The cooks prepare the semolina early Friday mornings, giving you the freshest taste,” she’d told us. “If you were to order it any other day, it wouldn’t taste as good. You have to take advantage tonight!” Naturally, we took her advice. Any insider information helps!

Souks in Chaouen

The next day, we continued exploring the blue souks before wandering along the river outside the old city walls. Locals had been convening there all day it seemed, sitting at low-plastic tables positioned in the center of the shallow river, their pants rolled up and feet splashing in the creek with a carefree gentleness. They smoked hookahs and cigarettes, laughing together as they enjoyed the cool water on their feet. We sat alongside the river and watched them and the families and teenagers all flock by in the midday sun. Our time in Chefchaouen felt too short, though I’ve found myself saying this wherever I go.

We departed for Tetuoan and Tangier the following morning. After saying goodbye to our hosts, we made our way back down that steep hill to catch a grand taxi that would take us back to where we had started a few days earlier. After about an hour we managed to flag one down and hop in the backseat. We waited for the middle row to fill up… A mother, her teenage daughter, and a single man joined us a few moments later. The taxi driver took off as soon they closed the side-door.

The Rif mountains

The highway back to Tangier followed the power lines running through the mountains. The roads carved through ravines filled with pink, flowery bushes and endless fields of olive trees. We passed lakes ranging from dark blue to bright turquoise. Even this early in summer, the heat was so strong, it felt palpable; the taxi-driver had a cut-out square from a cardboard box pressed against his window as to block out the unforgiving heat invasion bearing down on him as he weaved through the two-lane traffic, dodging cars coming against him without batting an eyelash.

We passed small vendors on the side of the highway selling ceramic and pottery. Local family-run restaurants sprinkled the highway. Locals sat outside in full Muslim garb, drinking mint tea, playing chess, rinsing their hands in the Sebils, laughing together as they relish the shade they’ve found under the outdoor terraces. We watched all this pass us by from the backseat of a cross-country taxi ride in moments that felt both fleeting and undying until our sudden arrival to Tétouan.

Portugal – January 2019

At the beginning of 2019, my partner and I went to Portugal. It was my first time there. This piece will be about the food, colonialism, monuments, and the strange relationship it has with the country I currently reside in: Andorra.

Normally, I try not to write about food as I consider it to be outside of my territory. Yet I’ll do it for Portugal as it’s a cuisine to die for.

The staple dish is cod, which is surprising, as the Atlantic waters off the coast of Portugal are not nearly cold enough to catch it. They must import it from Norway. Thus, their national dish is an import!

But the cod was hardly my first choice in Portugal. My favorite was the Francesinha, a work of the gods hidden in the mortal form of a sandwich. A modern riff off of the Croque Monsieur in France, it was brought to Porto in the 1960s. The best description for it would be “Porto soul food,” consisting of a heavenly layer of sausage, ham, and stacked slices of steak between two slices of white bread and coated with a divine tomato and alcohol infused sauce. I’m still recovering from the invigorating experience of trying this dish for the first time. It might’ve taken a year off my life but I can say without hesitation that it was worth every single bite.

Francesinha. One of my favorite meals anywhere.

Then there are the pastries. Oh lord, the pastries. The most iconic is the nata, a cupcake-shaped egg tart doused in cinnamon. A creation of the Catholic monasteries in Lisbon, they were an accidental discovery, engendered from the surplus egg whites that were normally preserved to starch the nuns’ clothing. When the monasteries began to close after revolutions in 1820, the nuns and priests who inhabited these monasteries began to sell these little heavenly pastries as a way to bring in some much needed revenue. Little did they know that they would lead a pastry revolution that spread itself around the globe as Portugal colonized different parts of the world, carrying the nata with them.

Taking all of this in consideration, I have one crucial recommendation for anyone traveling to Portugal: eat, with minimal breaks. Don’t be ashamed, there’s a plethora of gorgeous monuments to visit that can help you burn off all those calories you’ll have consumed.

Belem Tower in Lisbon

We visited plenty of those monuments. My personal favorite was the Belem Tower in Lisbon. The picture I will post fails to capture its magnitude. Designed as a gateway to Portugal during the Age of Exploration, it served to simultaneously welcome and intimidate guests upon entry to the Portuguese empire of the 16th century. Close to the Belem tower, there is a large map on the concrete that reveals every discovery the European powers made during this time. A combined sense of awe and apprehension envelops you as you ponder the effects that the early days of colonialism has had on the tides of global affairs, an effect that ripples to the modern day. Yet here on this square, next to a port overlooking the longest Iberian river on a cloudy day, I lacked the words to articulate it.

Besides the Belem Tower, any building in Porto with Azulejo caught my attention. The famous tile work in Spain and Portugal, influenced by Arabic and Persian mosaics that now adorn houses, churches, train stations, and businesses all across Portugal. It’s the reason you buy that postcard in the first place. Yet beyond that, it represents evidence of the Iberian Peninsula’s connection to the Far East even before the Age of Exploration, a symbol of their relationship with the rest of the world. Why wouldn’t you buy that blue postcard or fridge magnet?

Nonetheless, Portugal has its problems. I was unaware how deep they went until I moved to Andorra and realized the full scale of mass unemployment in the northern region of this Iberian nation.

At the dawn of the economic recession in 2009, Portugal awoke with a feeling of nervousness and anxiety. They were Western Europe’s poorest country even before the world economic collapse ten years ago, and during this time, they were hurdling down an even darker, more unsure road.

The result was the desperate emigration of 300,000 young people (Portugal has 10 million citizens, so that’s three percent of the country’s population) from their country to look for employment. A large number of those young people were from the Northern region of the country.

I learned this from my own experience living in Andorra, a tiny principality in the Pyrenees with a lot of Portuguese citizens. The majority of these Portuguese workers have taken blue-collar jobs: mechanics, construction workers, electricians, and so forth. Andorra has developed their infrastructure in the last thirty years and they have done so on the backs of Portuguese men and women. They have suffered for it. A dozen of Portuguese workers – 5 of whom died – constructed a bridge designed to connect two parishes in Andorra. While they were laying cement for the construction of the viaducts, the temperature dropped too low, resulting in the collapse of one of the viaducts. There is a small plaque commemorating the tragedy as you walk the trail that passes under a bridge before the tunnel.

I believe Portugal to be one of the most beautiful, peaceful countries in all of Europe. Tourists tend to opt for other countries in Western Europe such as England, Spain, and France. Don’t get me wrong; I love all of those countries. Yet there’s a calmness in the air I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in Western Europe. People are friendly and proud of their country despite their economic problems. All of the Portuguese in Andorra I’ve met return home for the holidays and speak of their homeland with deep fondness. After a short time there, I can see why.

Himara, Albania – July 2018

            A local described the color of the bus as “sour milk.” What the hell does that even mean? I asked myself.

            I waited with a couple of fellow Americans I’d met earlier that day during breakfast in Durres, Albania, a beautiful city bordering the Adriatic Sea. I’d spent three days there and was now venturing to the south of this mysterious country to a town called Vuno.

Albania is filled with beautiful scenery and kind-hearted people. They are shocked to see people traveling in their country due to its lack of development, yet it does not in any way diminish their pride; the flag waves everywhere you turn. They rejoice in their language, an Indo-European anomaly in the Balkan region, yet they are quick to practice their English on you and help if you are lost or need recommendations.

Sunset in Vuno, Albania

While the friendliness of Albanians is memorable in a positive light, the timetable of the public transport is not; I can’t recall how late the bus ended up arriving, perhaps two hours or so. We watched as a faded white double-decker bus hurled around the corner toward us and stopped suddenly under the leaky bridge where we were waiting. “Well, I guess the color does kind of resemble ‘sour milk,’” one of my friends said.

We climbed into the bus, paid the conductor, said goodbye to the locals that waited with us, and departed for the South. My destination was Vuno and my new friends were heading to Himarë. The two towns are about fifteen kilometers from each other, so we made plans to meet up at some point in the few days we’d be in the same region. After several hours passing through the narrow, cracked mountain roads, as well as a lightning storm that forced us to pull over on the side of a cliff for an hour or so, we arrived in Vuno. The trip had become almost a full-day experience. Again, the bus service was memorable… I bade goodbye to them and climbed off the bus.

I gazed at the small town tucked high up in the cliffs of the Adriatic, a place of unbelievable scenic beauty. The town had one market on the main street consisting of packaged pasta, eggplants, potatoes, fresh tomatoes, cold beverages, Rakia (the local spirit), and beer. Pipes leaked onto the roads. Abandoned churches concealed themselves behind dense walls of overgrown weeds and thickets off of the main street. There were no banks, no restaurants, no post office… I loved it.

Cave swimming in Gjipe

            I followed a dirt path down to the local campsite, pitched my tent, and checked in. At this point the sun had set. I made some pasta I’d bought at the local shop and cooked a red sauce in the small little kitchen with fresh basil and garlic I’d found on the campsite. I fell asleep shortly after eating, exhausted, of course, from a long day of just sitting around waiting for a bus. Oh, the woes of a backpacker!

I woke early the next day and decided to hitchhike to Himarë as to find an ATM. After a short wait, a black BMW with tinted windows approached me from behind. I heard that Damian Marely jam rock bass line thumping along as the ride inched closer to me. I stopped walking and lowered my thumb once it finally reached me. The window rolled down, revealing two men who looked like bodybuilders. Their heads were shaved and they wore aviators. I couldn’t blame them; the late July sun has the capacity to kick your ass around here, even at 9 in the morning.

They beckoned me into the back seat. I got in as they turned up the music without a moment of hesitation. They handed me a joint rolled with perfection; I know a fine work of art when I see one. I took a few hits while they welcomed me to Albania with their limited English, though they were very happy at the opportunity to practice it. The car pulled into the center of Himarë a few minutes later. I thanked them for the lift. They gave me another joint, a bottle of water, and requested a selfie with me. “Enjoy Albania,” one of them said before driving away.

Gorge in Gjipe

I got out of the car and sauntered my way into the local market, my stomach grumbling. I bought some pastries and juice and stepped back outside to the early morning heat. I sat down on a bench and gaped at the bright blue sea, watching locals and tourists pass me by as I scoffed down my breakfast. After a few minutes, or maybe an hour, I remembered I had to go to the cash machine.

            I withdrew a little money and decided to wear off the effects of the weed by walking along the boardwalk. I realized I was a little too stoned for nine in the morning. I sat down in a café and ordered more food, my stomach still grumbling. I texted the friends I had made on the bus the day before. They joined me and we talked for a short time about traveling, sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning summer heat.  

After paying the bill, we set off for a local beach. We arriver after about 30 minutes. I can’t stress with any hyperbole how beautiful the beaches are in southern Albania. The water is azure, crystalline, and clean. Though tourists certainly crowd them, many of them are still relatively unspoiled, although I’m certain that will change within the next couple of years. The country is beginning to open up and become a tourist destination as people have slowly started to discover what Albania has to offer. Not to mention it’s a cheap destination. I’m probably not helping the situation by writing this.

We made an Argentine friend on our trip to the first beach. He had joined us at a bar and told us he was looking for Gjipe beach. I was also curious about Gjipe, so the four of us agreed to hitchhike there.

A pick-up truck stopped for two of us along the highway heading back in the direction of Vuno, the town I was staying for the next two nights. The driver was on his phone, eating, and smoking a cigarette all the while weaving through the winding two-lane traffic road at breakneck speed. I could honestly say this was the one scary moment I had in all of Albania. After a few minutes, he got us back to Vuno. On the way out, he handed us a small wooden box filled with fresh nectarines with a smile. I gave them out at the campsite when we arrived there. What were we going to do with that many nectarines for ourselves?

We hitched one last ride that took us to Gjipe beach. Tucked away between two mountains and at the end of a large, dangerous gorge, it is simply too beautiful to describe. I can only say how happy I am to have seen it. The water is the clearest I’ve ever seen. There are caves off the coast you can explore as well as a gorge between the two cliffs that surround you. It’s ideal for camping; I wish I had brought my tent there instead. I spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, cliff jumping, chatting, and drinking beer. You can hike into the gorge if you want, but there are a lot of snakes. I decided the sand and sun was more to my liking.

Gjipe Beach

As the sun started to set and people began to go back home, I stumbled back up the cliff with my group to the parking lot to hitch one last ride back to camp. A hippy lady picked us up in her large white Volkswagen. She was also staying on the same campground as me and offered to drive my friends back to Himarë after dropping me off on the main street in Vuno. They thanked her profusely for her generosity. “Chill out, dudes,” she said. “I’m always happy to help some people out.”

            She dropped me off and headed towards Himarë. I found myself back on the main street of Vuno again. I stopped into the local market and picked up some drinks before returning to the campsite. Sitting at the table was a group of girls from Switzerland with a couple of guitars. They asked me if I played at all.

For the remaining hours of that humid summer night, we drank Rakia (grape-infused brandy, typical of the Balkans. It tastes different from region to region; in Montenegro it was fruity and smooth. Here it tasted like what I imagine gasoline to taste like) and improvised a jam session. I felt my inner hippy spirit dancing among the music and alcohol. At some point, in my drunken stupor, I asked the local campsite owner what he thought for the future of Albania. “Give it another year or two,” he said. “The roads are coming. People are coming. I’m sad to lose Gjipe beach to tourists, but I’m happy to see more people here.”

Uruguay – August 2015 (ish)

Montevideo street art, a failed attempt at driving manual, biking Punta Del Este, and an unfinished Trump building.

           

Punta del Este, Uruguay

The ferry from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, takes a little over an hour. I was traveling with three girls I’d met through my study abroad program many years ago. They were from very different backgrounds, yet we all convened at the same table in the dining hall one morning by chance and planned a trip. I was a little older than all of them and they seemed nice enough.

The ferry, called Buquebus, is a short ride but a long wait. Immigration requires a two-hour arrival prior to departure as to check fingerprints and acquire visas. I waited with my new friends near the gate. I bought a cup of coffee and the four of us boarded the ship towards Montevideo.

            Americans tend to sleep on South America in general, but Uruguay especially. This southern cone nation is a gem of South America, a calm paradise. The cow population outnumbers the human population by about seven million, so one is not surprised to find out about the importance of the beef and cattle industry here. It is, after all, next door to Argentina, the country with the best beef in the world (I’ll fight anyone who tries to tell me otherwise).

            The ferry docked into Montevideo mid-afternoon. We picked up our car rental, our first mistake. By nature, renting a car in another country is a nightmarish experience. A dark cloud of fear hangs over you as you pull out of the garage, mindful of any thin gap or crevice that could leave a scratch that will siphon a heap of cash from your wallet when you return it. It was fortunate that I wasn’t the one taking the reins; I didn’t know how to drive stick. I sat back as my Moroccan friend drove the car into town. 

            We checked into the hostel, a colorful abode with low lighting. There was a patio and a bar adorned with Christmas lights and plants. Other travelers had already gathered there and started drinking. The next few hours are a little hazy, this was many years ago and I’m not sure what alcohol I had consumed that night. All I remember is joining a Quizombo dance routine at some point.

I woke up early the next day and grabbed breakfast downstairs, my head thundering with that familiar dull hum of a hangover. This was many years ago, when I could handle it better. At this age, a hangover generally takes up my entire day; back then it usually dissolved itself around noon.

Once my friends awoke and joined me downstairs, we decided to venture out into the city a little deeper. I discovered my favorite thing about Montevideo that morning: the street art. Plastered across every corner of the city are murals that pop your eyes even on a dreary winter morning, blessing the city with color. I’m grateful I still have a handful of photos in my phone of some of them.

After walking through the city for a few hours, we got the car from the parking spot a couple hours later and started our venture towards Colonia del Sacramento for the day. The fields surrounding were green and the sky overcast, the typical weather in mid-winter in this part of the world. This was the first moment I regretted traveling with three girls around twenty years old; Barbie Girl blasted from the speakers as they stared back and laughed at me. I couldn’t hide my disgust; I have sisters and I know this game all too well. But as one learns in life, play the hand your dealt with a laugh!

            Colonia Del Sacramento is one of the oldest cities in the Uruguay, brandishing a barrio histórico that delights every tourist who passes through with its antiquated blend of Spanish and Portuguese buildings among the commanding view of Rio de la Plata. Stone archways and misaligned cobble streets snake through this town of 27,000 people. Due to its proximity to Buenos Aires, it’s a very frequent day vacation for Porteños looking for a more relaxed setting to relax in the sun or sit in the café and enjoy a drink.

A stray in Colonia del Sacramento

The next stop was Punta Del Este, the “Miami Beach of South America.” To tell the truth, this was not my favorite place, only because our timing was terrible. It was a rainy weekend in winter. The majority of workers in this town are seasonal, so it felt akin to a ghost town upon our arrival. At the time, I was rather indifferent to the whole experience. In hindsight, there are a few moments that stick in my memory: my first time driving a stick shift, a failed Trump residency, and biking along the coast of the Atlantic.

            The first night of our arrival, Dinah, my Morroccan friend, offered to teach me how to drive automatic. I said sure, how hard could it be? She drove us to an abandoned parking lot close to the beach and gave me a brief overview of instructions. Sounds easy enough, I thought to myself. I got behind the wheel. The engine stalled. Okay, that’s normal, I told myself. I tried again, putting the gear in first and laying off the clutch. The engine shook and twitched before stalling out again. My frustration crept in.

After about ten attempts, I gave up. So much for that experience, I thought to myself. Afterwards, Dinah’s friend, Alexandra tried for her first time as well. She got it the first try. Goddamn, some people are naturals! I resigned to learn another time.

            Alexandra drove us back to our hotel where I fell asleep after a few hours. The next day I convinced them to rent bikes with me. I was tired of walking and I wanted more space to explore the area. We picked up the bikes and followed the coastline, basking in fleeting winter sunlight. I felt the cool breeze against my face and my jeans slightly tearing as they brushed against the chain rings. I continued along the coast (at this point I had separated from the girls), taking in the familiar, comforting smell of salt water as I passed a building that made me grasp the handlebar brakes and pull off for a second.

            It should be worth noting that when I was in Uruguay, Trump had announced his presidential candidacy about a month prior. Everyone was still in “this is a joke” mode, unaware of what would happen over the next few months. It was when Mexicans were rapists but before the announcement of a Muslim ban. I had already disqualified him from my own personal ballot due to his comments on Mexicans. I hadn’t expected him to take the Republican Party at that point.

Anyway, I looked up at an unfinished Trump residence in Uruguay. I stared in astonishment at his incomplete project in this “Miami Beach” South American city. All I could think was how despicable he looks in all of his photos. “The project will be finished in 2020.” It’s clearly aimed at the wealthiest South Americans. I gazed upon it with disgust, festering in his dehumanizing comments towards an entire continent while contracting them to work on a new residence; a project designed solely for the richest Argentineans and Uruguayans. I couldn’t conceive the idea that he was – or is, even today – in any way representative of regular people outside the sphere of billionaires he’s absorbed himself into all of his life. Nevertheless, I’d love to return to Uruguay in 2020 when the project is set to complete (I doubt it somehow) and ask locals how they feel about this new addition to their boardwalk.

Trump residence in Punta del Este

            I mounted my bike and headed back toward the hotel. Punta del Este is a beautiful spot in Uruguay, but I only wish I’d gone during a nicer time of year.

Durres, Albania – July 2018

Albania was the kind of country I visited with zero prior knowledge. I fell in love with it very quickly.

I checked into my hostel, set my bag down next to my bunk bed, plugged my phone into the outlet and stepped out onto the small balcony overlooking the Illyria square in Durres, Albania, the second largest city in this small, unnoticed Balkan nation. In the center of this plaza stood a large fountain that sprouted arcs of water in each cardinal direction. The square’s mosque, Xhamia E Madhe, was adjacent to my balcony. I sat listening to the call to prayer softly echoing throughout the city. The sun was gently setting over the Adriatic.

Albania is perhaps the most forgotten nation in all of Europe. An enigmatic mist blurs its history from anyone outside the Balkans. I didn’t even know the name of their dictator of 40 years before arriving into this underdeveloped, yet stunningly beautiful mountainous country in the Balkans. Enver Hoxha formed the communist party of Albania in a tobacco shop in Tirana, the country’s quirky capital, in the 1930s. When he took power, he began modernizing Albania via collective farming, nationalizing banks and businesses, outlawing religion, and executing dissidents. After Stalin died, he turned to Mao for aide for another two decades. He was also notoriously paranoid; war bunkers scatter throughout Albania (approximately 15 per square mile, according to Wikipedia), constructed by Hoxha as a security measure against the Americans he was very certain would bomb him during the height of the Cold War. They’re now a prime selfie location.

Evacuation bunker!

Hoxha died in 1985, yet Albania is slowly still waking from a deep nightmare under his rule. Since this time, the country has gradually transitioned from being a former ironclad communist nation devoid of free thought and expression to a tourist location for Europeans looking for the next place to vacation.

I learned all of this from a local Albanian girl who gave me a walking tour of the city. She showed me ruins from the Romans, Greek, Byzantine, and Ottomans, all of who passed through Albania at some point in time. Albania is, historically, inseparable in her domestic and foreign affairs, a country where larger empires have always slithered around the corner waiting to strike. From this perspective, perhaps the bunkers spread around the country are not too surprising after all. Despite the constant invaders, Albanians still retain an unwavering pride for their nation, particularly their language that is an Indo-European anomaly. It’s incredibly difficult to grasp, I could barely say, “thank you” clearly.

My guide showed me the ruins of an old market from the Byzantine era discovered only a year before I visited. The mayor had recently given the city permission to excavate the region in order to build new hotels. The idea behind the developments is to transform Albania into the next Miami Beach. They’ve accidentally unearthed markets all over Durres that date back to ancient Greece. The guide voiced her disapproval at the government’s decision to modernize Albania. “That fountain in the main square was a Greek fountain from 4th century BC until they made it into a tourist destination. It now has neon lights and looks very tacky. The fountain before was beautiful. I used to spend my childhood evenings there with my friends eating ice cream and chatting. Now it’s not the same.”

Former Byzantine market. Hotels coming soon…

She then showed me a statue of Queen Teuta. I know nothing about her, I told her. “She was the Queen of the Illyrians, the original Albanians,” she explained. “The Romans detested her because she used to attack their ports and vessels in order to maintain independence for her people. Rome was always trying to take over the other side of the Adriatic Sea; it was a very strategic place for them militarily. They would later wage war on us, but Queen Teuta refused to be subjected to Roman rule. After the conflict, she threw herself from the Orjen Mountains in the North. She would have rather killed herself than allow herself to be controlled by the Romans. We love her for that. She’s our feminist icon, which is very important to me, as I think sexism here is atrocious. We need more women like her today.”

Afterwards, we went to a beach outside the city that was crowded with tourists. “You see? It’s already happening,” she told me. “It wasn’t like this a year ago. The beach was quiet. You could get a chair without a problem. Now there are all these beach bars. Techno music will be next.” I don’t doubt her. After the beach, we got ice cream, an Albanian tradition, she said. “We all love our afternoon ice cream and to walk through the city as the sun sets. And how could you not? The sea looks so beautiful when the sun touches it.” She was right. There was a glow to Durres during the sunset that showed it in a new light I hadn’t noticed yet, a light fetching a history of empire and rebellion. I drifted off to sleep later that night with this light still sketching patterns behind my eyes.

The contrast between old and new is astounding in Albania. You witness someone stepping out of their front door after a long sleep to discover that their neighborhood has changed without them, so they hasten to copy their neighbors. Albania is working towards becoming a tourist destination. I’m probably participating in the process by writing this piece. Locals have mixed feelings about it; Albania is poor, underdeveloped. A tourist industry could open up job opportunities and pour money in to the country. The result, however, may raise corruption levels and bulldoze more Greek fountains and Byzantine markets so as to raise beachfront hotels from the ground, ushering in a wave of tourism. The historical charm of the city might evaporate into the mist and disappear before our eyes. Before many have a chance to truly see the country for which queen Teuta once threw herself from the mountaintop.

Hamburg, Germany – July 2018

Allgäuer käsespätzle – bliss in a bowl

My attempt to describe Hamburg will surely fall short, a spectacular place I visited for a mere forty-eight hours last summer. The experience was so fleeting that any attempt to sufficiently assess the large, profound German metropolis will undoubtedly misfire. In spite of that, the fleeting experience was a vivid one, a unique, alluring city I’ve been unable to forget since I first visited last July. The misfire will be worth the shot in the end.

I went with a very close friend from the United States during the World Cup. We’d made plans to visit Denmark after our few days in London and we foolishly approached Hamburg as only being a convenient stopover between the two countries, just a city that fits a logical route on the map. I’d barely undertaken any research on traveling to Germany; my knowledge of the country was woefully ignorant, consisting of the Krautrock bands I’d worshipped in college, the world-renowned beer drinking culture, German Expressionism, and the shadowed past.

Hamburg is an easy city to fall in love with, something I realized upon our arrival. After checking into our hostel Backpackers St. Pauli, we sauntered through the neighborhood surrounding it in order to combat our fatigue. Colorful graffiti and band stickers thickly coated the sides of buildings everywhere you turned as locals cycled past us in the meticulously marked bike lanes. To my pleasant surprise, Catalan independence flags hung from some of the buildings.

We spent the day assimilating ourselves into the rhythm of the city before heading back to the hostel. Once night fell, we did what all tourists do in Hamburg: went to Reeperbahn, the famous red light district that served as inspiration for countless artists. Upon turning onto the street, a medley of neon lights, brothels, 99-cent bars, music venues, and sex shops all coalesce into a fanfare of light and color that briefly spellbind you into a condition of sensory bliss. Yet the appeal to tourists remains overt; we stumbled into a bar with a local musician playing American style country. We left after a couple songs. Sorry Reeperbahn, this music and these prostitutes just don’t do it for me.

We left around one in the morning and started to meander our way back in the direction of our hostel when we encountered an unexpected scene. As we turned off the main street, a soccer stadium came into view in the distance, a giant projection screen flickering behind the bleachers.

We changed courses and walked through the parking lot toward the darkened stadium. Guitarists jammed on portable amps and the homeless took shelter under the entrance barriers while we climbed the steps behind the front entrance gate before encountering an impromptu midnight film festival. Joining the attendees, we watched a black-and-white film that morphed into color once the main character reached their presumed arc. I vainly wished the film wasn’t in German so we could’ve understood it a little more coherently. It might’ve been a really terrible film yet we would have never realized!

The rest of the moviegoers applauded once the film ended. We clapped along with them, still unsure if we were supposed to be there or not. Upon exiting with the crowd, a tall blond man with a black band t-shirt and bike helmet presented us a small glass jar, a signal for donations. We threw in a couple of Euros before watching everyone mount their bikes and softly disappear into the cool summer night. I felt sentimental; the whole experience reminded me of touring during what feels like another lifetime ago.

Hamburg is an active, friendly, and open place. It’s ideal for aspiring artists and road biking. The food is phenomenal, not to mention the people running the restaurants. It’s challenging to sum it up in a straightforward fashion, especially after such a momentary experience there, though in that short stretch, I believe I genuinely sensed the distinguishable soul of the city. My love for Germany starts with Hamburg.

Sitges, Spain – February 2018

“Tu Pasas Por Mi Casa Pero Tu Recuerdo Permanece”

A forty- five minute excursion on a bus from the Barcelona airport led a group of friends and myself to Sitges, a town of which I’d never been aware before my arrival to Europe a few months prior. My mind would always immediately drift to Barcelona at the mention of the Catalan region of Spain, a major indiscretion on my part, as I would learn that weekend when I first visited there.

We chose Sitges for its legendary parades for Carnival. “You’ve got to go to Sitges for Carnival,” practically everyone in Andorra told me. “They have the best celebration for Carnival, way better than Barcelona.” I decided to take the local opinion up to task. Sitges is also known for its open attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, adored for its gay bars and cabarets. Indeed, it’s the best location for gay tourism in all of Spain. Prepare to dance.

Though it should be noted that lively nightlife is equilibrated by a relaxed beach culture. Many of the things you associate with Spain are here, from flamenco street performances to men selling mojitos on the beach (don’t buy them, they’re way overpriced). You’ve also great art history, the Museu del Cau Ferrat situated at the helm of the movement. Originally a workshop home for esteemed artists in the late 19th century; it has since become a display of breathtaking sculptures, ceramics, paintings, archaeology, and furniture. If art is not your thing, it’s worth the ticket for the window-view of the sea at the back of the house, a room surrounded by sculptures and bathed in an aqua glow from the ocean.

Do yourself a favor while you’re there: go out at night. Personally, I’m not really a big nightlife person, but there are some places that I simply cannot resist the urge to witness the spirit of repressed self-indulgence that only seems to come from excessive consumption of alcohol and music. Sitges is one of those places for me. Perhaps I’m biased because I chose the most festive weekend to visit this vivacious coastal town.

Carnival parades happen as early as midday there, but they peak in the evening. Countless floats and choreographed dancers flood through the downtown street in a sexual fervor as hordes of drunken people cheer and gaze in stupor at the mesmerizing effect of their glamorous outfits and masks. If you don’t wear a mask on Carnival, you’re a loser; of course you must hide your identity before engaging in inebriated foolishness and confronting your neighbors at church the following day for repentance, why would you even question that? Tractors pull the floats down the street, blasting Cumbia and Reggaeton, spirits are elated everywhere you look. Did I mention all the beer and liquor surrounding you while you’re there?

After the parade, we ended up at a party in the street where the spirit of indulgence was in full-effect. Everywhere you turned, crowds of people flocked to the center square donning hilarious costumes. I swear I met Dave Franco, though for some bizarre reason he was wearing a Disney princess dress and worked as a psychiatrist in Barcelona.

I don’t know when we returned that night, but the next day wielded an extreme hangover. We got coffee from a local café and hit the road, heading back to Andorra. On the whole, my brief visit to Sitges proved to be remarkable, despite the cement brick pounding in my skull on the drive out of town.