Sunday, May 8, 2011

Last leg and into the end

We ended the Iberian / European leg with an overnight in Lisbon, Portugal and then flew on for a day in New York city. We all came into the end of the trip despondent and so sad to see this trip coming to an end. Lisbon is a great city that is built on hills above the harbor. It is like a mix between San Francisco (narrow streets and steep slopes) and New Orleans (wrought iron balconies and color-washed buildings).

We walked around Lisbon on our one night there and had dinner at an open air café. A scavenge was to get a restaurant to let you pick up the fish hanging in the front window … and we did … and the fish burped blood all over my shirt (yuck!!! )

Look at this… When you live in a busy city with no parking… the key is to buy a Smart Car. It can allow you to turn the regular space between two parked cars into another whole parking space. So clever!!

In New York, we were up early because of the horrible jet lag. It was a beautiful day so we set out walking and hit the Flat Iron building (a scavenge). Ir is a neat building that starts every narrow and gets wider and wider. I always wonder what it's like to live in one of the skinny apartments that face the corner.

We also saw an artist in the park making large sand art. He was creating a multi-color flower by pouring sand onto the concrete. I wonder how long it lasted. One stiff breeze and his entire day’s work would be blown away.

Last night was the official end of the trip and the awards ceremony. I am proud to announce that Littlepage Booth-ers… took a clean sweep. Rainey and I came in first. This means that we get to go back again next year (FOR FREE). No better reward prize that that. I am already counting down the weeks. Natasha and David took second. Rainey’s daughters, Elizabeth and Emily, came in third. And we were all so sad to be going back to our real lives after this amazing experience. Home tomorrow…. We will be back in 48 weeks... stay tuned.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Walled City of Fez

We were initially sorely disappointed when we arrived in Fez -- as it looked like just one more dirty, North African city. What had everyone been talking about? What was so great about this place? Then we started asking questions and realized that the hotel that we checked into (which was the first one we came to) was in the new city of Fez and what we wanted was the old walled city of Fez or the Medina. The Medina is a labirynth of alleyways and narrow streets filled with thousands of open booth-like stores selling literally everything: from honey-sweetened dates to Calvin Klein underwear to fresh goat cheese wrapped in banana leaves to a vast selection of Caftans (a long, flowing gown that the Muslim women here where over their regular clothes whenever they are in public). We got lost in the Medina for hours... walking and walking and taking in the sites. It actually started to get a little claustrophic as the walls are very high on either side and the streets are very narrow. There are only 4 gates or openings in the walled city and they are HARD to find... so you feel like you are lost in a maze of epic propotions. There are lots of booths selling nothing but candies and sweets - just my kind of country. One of our scavenge challenges was to get a henna tattoo... so all of the girls lined up for their markings (a memory that we will apparently keep in plain sight for the next 4-6 weeks). Emily and Elizabeth got it all over their hands. Natasha and I have a hearing in front of a conservative federal judge the day after we get back from this trip so we had to get hidden tattoos: Natasha chose her leg and I got this intricate pattern on my shoulder. The wizened old woman - who did our henna tattoos - drew from her imagination and did not use any templates or patterns. It was fascinating to watch her.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Magical Morocco

Morocco.. a land with great and magical sounding cities – Marrakech, Casablanca and Fez. How can you not love a country that gives its town such great names??? I came here expecting to find a dirty, crowded place with limited rights for women…and, while all of my preconceptions were true,.. I also found a magical place. It reminds me a lot of Tunisia (another great North African country that we visited a few years ago). With the recent protests and trouble here, we were a somewhat nervous about visiting. As you may know, there was a terrorist attack in a tourist area of Marrakech in the past week. A terrorist group exploded a bomb at a popular café and killed over a dozens tourists. There is also some civil up-rest here as they are protesting the King of Morocco and rioting for democratic reform. Because of these developments, we saw a LOT of police in the streets – really at every street corner. However, we saw no Anti-American sentiment and, although the street vendors are pushy at trying to get you to buy their stuff, there was nothing threatening or scary. And David, an African American, got his wish to set foot on Africa’s soil.
We arrived by ferry in Tangers, a large seaport town, at about 1 AM this morning and grabbed some taxis to take us from the port to a hotel in the center of town. The taxi drivers took off at a VERY high rate of speed and we were all petrified as they drove dangerously fast on narrow, winding roads, barely missing donkeys and cows that were wandering in the streets. We went to a hotel recommended by the security guard at the port (which could have been a dicey affair) but ended up being very nice and clean. We had been traveling all day so we all fell asleep within minutes of hitting the beds. There are 3 ½ teams traveling together for this leg (me and Rainey, his daughters: Elizabeth and Emily, Natasha and David as well as James – half of the “Faster than Roadkill” team. James’ teammate has family in Spain so he dropped out of the competition for this leg so he could visit with them).
We woke up early this morning to start our trek to Fez, apparently a neat place about 5 hours from Tangers. But first we had some challenges to do in Tangers. We began in the Souk (or market) where we had to buy a traditional Arab hat or “Fez.” We also got suckered into buying some embroidered cotton shirts (mainly because they were clean and all of our clothes are grossly dirty by now). Next up was to have a drink at a specific café that ended up being in a neighborhood, down an winding alleyway. It looked like a shabby dive until we walked inside. What a surprise!! The café – while rustic - is built on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and the view of the sea and the passing boats is breathtaking. We had to drink mint tea (an odd tea concoction with chunks of mint branches and leaves stuffed onto the top of very sweet tea) and the owner insisted that we sit and share his “tobacco pipe,” a thin wooden carved pipe with flavored tobacco. Café El Hafa was an unexpected delight.
Next, the journey to Fez. IT TOOK FOREVER. Along the way we stopped in a small village to eat at what seemed to be the local hang-out restaurant. Hanging from the rafters were skinned cows in various stages of being cut up and cooked. Their entire tails (with fluffy ends) were still attached to the bodies. The menu consists of you going up to the counter and literally pointing to parts of the cow’s body that is hanging (dripping blood on the floor) right in front of you. The man behind the counter then cuts off a hunk of whatever area you select, throws it on an open fire and roast its up for you right there. The flies were buzzing all over the raw carcasses and the workers did not even bother to try and swat them away. At another counter, a different man was taking the cow’s brains, liver and kidneys and putting them into a grinder with hot chili peppers and making meatballs. We carefully avoided the meat balls (as there was no way that was going in my mouth) and ate “shank” (not sure what that actually means except that we pointed to the least fly-infested part of the cow and asked for that to be sliced and cooked). It came served with chopped up tomatoes, olives and bread. No rice, no potatoes, no knives and forks, no napkins. You just pick everything up with your hands and shove it into your mouth and use the bread to wipe your hands and mouth. We were awful at it and our table was covered with dropped food by the time were done. Amazingly, the food tasted great and it was served with very hot, heavily-sugared tea. We had asked for a beer but this is a Muslim country so the restaurants do not serve any alcohol – only tea and Coke.
Another funny story. We were sitting at the café when a shoe shiner came up and wanted to shine our shoes. Unfortunately, we were only wearing flip flops or sandals. Not to be discouraged, the boy whipped off Rainey’s flip flops, placed a decorated ceramic tile on the floor (for Rainey to rest his feet on while his shoes were being polished so his feet did not get dirty) and started polishing and wiping down Rainey’s flip-flops with great dedication to the task. We laughed so hard - and tipped him double - because of his earnestness at shining shoes that did not exist!!!
We just arrived in Fez. Our challenge for tonight was to find a hotel for less than 100Euro and it took some convincing to get the hotel manager to let us get rooms for 99Euro. But we did ... and we are here ... and are about to go out exploring...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Spain to Morocco: Frustrations and Obstacles

After a great day yesterday, we had a surprisingly difficult – and frustrating - day today. It was like the travel gods just grabbed us. We had to visit the Alhambra in Granada so every team set off this morning on the 9 AM train to Granada. The Alhambra is an amazing palace complex in this really neat town called Granada in Southern Spain. We arrived by 1 PM and hauled ourselves and our luggage to the Alhambra – only to find out that they limit the number of visitors to the Alhambra each day… and all of the tickets for today were gone. URRRGGHH!!! Our options were to spend the night in Granada and line up at 7AM tomorrow morning in hope of a ticket (no guarantees) or head to the coast of Spain and cross into Morocco. The only thing that David has wanted out of this trip is the opportunity to set foot in Africa.. and to take some African soil home… so we decided to head out. This is obviously going to cost us a penalty for this leg, but if we stayed we would not be able to get to Africa.
The next train did not leave for a few hours so we then tried to eat at two different restaurants on the scavenge list.. no go. Both restaurants were closed because it was a holiday in Granada. I have no idea of the significance of the holiday but it involves every little girl in town dressing up like a Flamenco and every teenage girl was wearing red flowers in their hair. They were so cute.
We are now on our way to the South of Spain and hoping for a late night ferry to Tangers. We want to end up in Fez tomorrow but we’ve been told that the Moroccan trains are very unreliable.. so who knows. The countryside of southern spain is just beautiful. Reminds me a lot of Tuscany in Italy with hills and cute little towns all along the way.

Monday, May 2, 2011


The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

We arrived in Madrid yesterday afternoon to discover that – starting today – we have to conquer Madrid and then move through Spain to Gibraltar – then cross into Morocco – and get back to Lisbon, Portugal by Thursday night. Talk about overwhelming!!! We started on Madrid early this morning. Just a few highlights:

#1: Find the statue of literary characters in Plaza de Espana: If any of you know Rainey at all, you know that he is crazy about Don Quixote. And when we arrived in Plaza de Espana, what did we find? A statue of Don Quizote and side-kick Sancho Panza. Rainey was happy for the rest of the day.

#2: Playing Dress-Up: OK – goofy as heck – but there you go.. there were points for dressing up as a Matador and a Flamenco dancer so we of course found ourselves posing in front of the Royal Palace. On this trip, there is very little that you would not do for points - including eating eggs with day old chicks inside.
#3: Segway tour: We had to rent Segways and take a tour of Madrid. They were much easier to drive than I thought they would be, but I was still a significant menace to all passerbys. And we unfortunately had major malfunctions. In the course of our tour, our group managed to hit one of the segways into a pole and two stopped working along the way. And it started to rain on us on the way back. But even with the mishaps, it was fun to be out scootering around town.
#4: Tapas: We had to try Tapas at various restaurants in this trendy area. Here we are – finally back in a totally civilized country - and they are carving up an animal’s leg (foot still attached) in a fancy restaurant. Gross, gross, gross. I feel no need to actually watch – on display - the full thigh of any animal that I am eating.

#5: Egyptian Library: And you are wondering why there is a 2000 year old Egyptian library in the middle of Madrid? Apparently it was a gift from Egypt. The structure was dismantled and brought brick by brick to Spain and re-assembled in a park in the middle of Madrid.
#6: Bullfight: And the highlight of today.. the bullfight. Before we went, we talked about the fact that – in America – there are cows slaughtered every day in horrific conditions in slaughterhouses and we happily eat hamburgers, so it is not for us to judge a culture that performs the act of slaying cattle in a ceremonial way. Fully intellectually prepared, we headed off to the bullfighting ring.. and came face to face with abject animal cruelty. The matadors were beautiful and the flapping of the capes was interesting until they started stabbing the bull, and the bull started bleeding, and they kept stabbing him and stabbing him… and the bull bled and bled… and did not die. Natasha had her entire head covered by her jacket. Elizabeth and Emily were crying. We were quite the spectacle of PETA supporters… and yes, we left as soon as the first bull was finally put out of its misery.

We leave tomorrow for the South of Spain and a crossing into Africa.. stay tuned.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Istanbul: Turkish Delight

Aaaahhhh… the country of Apple Tea and Turkish delight … hard to not love Istanbul. We spent almost two full days here and had a GREAT time. The weather was cool but sunny and – for the first time in two weeks – I did not feel like I was melting at every turn. We came to Istanbul with my mom and Ben on Great Escape 2009 and, everywhere we went, I felt their presence. Homesickness set in. I ended up staying at the hotel - for almost an hour after we got our scavenge book – so I could call the boys and just hear their voices. The time change between the US and Asia makes it virtually impossible to talk to them until we get this far west. It was so nice to just hear them, even though they were heading out to school and could not talk for long.
Some of our Istanbul scavenges:
#1: The Obvious: We had to visit the Haga Sofia and the Blue Dome – of course. I put my finger in The Sweating Wall in the Haga Sofia and made a complete turn of my hand while making a wish (apparently all the steps necessary to guarantee that my wish will come true)… Sure hope that the legend it true as it was a good wish.
#2: The Unexpected: We got stopped in the main square by two ten year old girls who were required to talk to strangers for their English homework assignment. We had to answer a long list of random questions (like: “What season do you like best?” and “What kind of pet do you have?”). Their English was great and they were so serious about getting all of the questions asked and accurately recording the answers. Very cute.
#3: The Grand Bazaar: The grand market was teaming with people so we wandered around for almost a hour, people-watching and getting the answers to various scavenger questions. For example, we had to find this particular carpet shop and get a list of famous people who had bought carpets there (Answer: Harvey Keitel, Elizabeth Hurley). This may not seem like a big deal but there are approximately 892 carpet stores in the Grand Bazaar and finding this exact one is somewhat of a Herculean feat. We also bought a set of Russian stacking dolls and “Evil Eye” blue-stoned key chains.
# 4: Smoking ChiChi: We had to spend an hour visiting with people at a specific Hookah bar in the middle of the trendy area of town (Cemberlitas). We tried apple tobacco upon the recommendation of our waiter but it burned the back of my throat and made me cough. We drank cup after cup of apple tea.
#5: Bonus trip to Ephesus: On the second morning, we took a bonus trip to Ephesus. I was dreading it because it involved a 4 AM wake-up call and I’ve had just about enough of waking up before dawn. But it ended up being a great day. The flight was short (less than an hour) and then an easy car ride to Ephesus. We ended up with lots of time so we wandered slowly through the ruins, took tons of photos and then sat and ate lunch in the market area at the end. The poppies are in bloom and the flowers grow all in-between the rocks and ruins making the whole place seem alive with color. Seems unreal that this statue had survived the elements for all of these years and still looks so great.
#5: Hammam: Traditional Turkish Bath: We had to go to a Turkish bath and take in the experience. So we found ourselves in this large marble-lined room with dozens of other half-nude women sweating out the toxins and getting scrubbed up – with lots of bubbles and soap – by muscled female attendants. A Hammam is like a giant public sauna and bath house where the women sit around on this marble circular stage in the middle of the room and gossip and giggle. The men’s section is separate. We came out feeling clean and exfoliated.
Good-Bye Asia: Hello Europe
Leaving Turkey was the end of the Asia leg. We are heading to Madrid now to start the Europe trek. In this part of the trip, we’ll be dumped in Madrid and have to make our way through several countries over 4 or 5 days doing scavenges along the way. We have to arrange our own transportation and figure out the best route to get the most scavenges done in the various countries. I’ve never been to Spain, so I’m looking forward to this leg. This is also the part of the trip where we have to travel with all of our luggage again – on planes, trains, buses etc. – and by the end I will likely be cursing every extra pair of socks that I have in my suitcase. I even threw away from clothes in Istanbul to try and lighten the load… but I’m still pretty much hauling around a body bag. I am dreading that part.
Observations from Asia:
1) Washing clothes in India: There is an area in Mumbai called the Dhoti Ghats: a large laundry area - or field of concrete squares - that is flooded with clean water once per week. Men work from dawn to dusk - standing thigh high in the water - scrubbing sheets, clothes and linens with blocks of soap and beating them on the concrete sides to get them clean and then hanging it all up to dry in the blistering sun. Apparently more than 50% of the laundry of Mumbai is done here, including laundry for some of the best hotels. It sort of goes without saying that the day that you send things out to wash in Mumbai is important as you clearly want to time your washing for “clean water” day instead of “6 days into dirty water” day.
2) This was my favorite quote from Gandhi’s house – and not just because I am a woman – but because it seems so true: “To call women the weaker sex is a libel, it is man’s injustice to women. If by strength is meant moral power then woman is immeasurably man’s superior…If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.” Just being where he had slept and walked and studied was impactful and has stayed with me.
3) Trying to stay clean in the face of abject poverty: A little boy in the slums of Mumbai bathing in an old paint can half-filled with dirty water. All you can think is: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” How is it that I was luck enough to born into my life and this poor child was born into his?
4) Asian culture is are so vibrant with color – and color is such a part of their lives - that they even decorate their public transport (called Jeepneys). These were originally re-modeled US Jeeps that were left behind after the Korean war. Every Jeepney is a different artistic expression.
5) Dawn: Sunrise: Dawn: We have seen the sun rise almost every day of the trip as Bill usually has some scavenge - with lots of points – that occurs only at dawn. He is either a true sadist or he wants us up and out of bed (doing and seeing things) early every day. I have not yet decided which is true. But what is true is that there is an “out of this world” feeling about being on a Buddhist monument – watching out at the city of Yogykarta – while the sun rises.
6) It took us full effort to climb to the top of Mount Brumo for sunrise – and there were even horses available to carry the elderly or kids to the top – and this girl decided to hike it in heels!!!! Vanity is apparently the same throughout the world: a powerful emotion that overcomes all reason!!!
7) Our hotel in Bali was SOOOOO luxurious that they laid out rose petals each night on our bed and gave us fresh night gowns (of soft cotton) to sleep in. And best of all.. the nightgowns were clean and smelt like sunshine (which is not true of virtually every thing in my suitcase by now). We are hand-washing our clothes each night and, when you soak what you wore that day, the water is BLACK with grime. Even with multiple washing cycles, our clothes are not in great shape. And do not smell particularly good. I can’t wait to get home to machine washed clothes.
8) This was a staple meal for us throughout Asia: Nasi Goreing or fried rice. Except, here, instead of mixing the egg in with the rice, the egg comes on top (like an omellete hat)

9) I am having a serious chat with one of the orphans in Manilla . He is not understanding a word that I am saying… obviously!!!
10) This what many of our meals in Asia looked like: not a single recognizable thing on the table.

11) In the fish market outside of Seoul, there was a woman making fish cakes on an open fire … and pressing them into the shape of fish. Apparently fish tastes best when it looks like fish.

12) Emily and Elizabeth are doing well as team mates, no major fights although there have been a few minor meltdowns. Every team has been tested by the competition as each day is HARD, busy, exhausting and often frustrating. As expected, emotions can run high and there are tears from time to time.

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