An Outing Outside of Fes: Meknes

An article I read about the vineyards in Muslim populated Morocco got me interested in Meknes. Despite its religious stricture on consumption, thanks to its gentle climate, generous sun, and rich soil, the Meknes region is home to many vineyards and olive groves. I considered a vineyard tour but, to be honest, I completely abandoned the whole wine tasting idea at the last minute in lieu of the very impressive Volubilis. And because walking around the ruins of the Roman settlement took just a little over an hour, we had more time to visit the city of Meknes.

View-of-the-old-city

Much less visited than its neighbor Fes, the most unpretentious of imperial cities—Rabat, Fes, Marrakesh being the other three— as it was developed as a capital late in the history of Morocco and only briefly, by a single sultan, Moulay Ismail. Meknes, despite its humble past, rewards travelers with beautiful gates, ramparts, mosques, and palaces and is often referred to the Versailles of Morocco.  As one of the imperial capital, Sultan Moulay Ismail built the city’s vast imperial palaces and massive walls to rival King Louis XIV’s Versailles hence the reference. Suffice to say, his tomb rests here. The weather turned cold and wet, which prevented us from wandering around much, we nevertheless managed to visit a few sites.  We would have loved to see the inside of Ismail’s granary (Heri es Souani), but it was close on a Sunday.

Place el Hedime

Place-el-Hedim

At the heart of Meknes linking the medina and the Kasbah, the large square is lively in the afternoon,

a-glimpse-of-chaosA glimpse of chaotic Djemaa el Fna

much like but a lot tamer than the Djemaa el Fna of Marrakech (you will know what I mean on my future post).  The outstanding architectural detail of the walls and gates (especially of Bab Mansour) makes for a more compelling square than Place Seffarine and Boujloud.

Moulay Ismail’s Mausoleum

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From the main entrance, an archway leads to a triple-arched entrance.  A small yellow room with a small fountain in the middle greets as you enter the mausoleum.

Moulay-Ismail-Mausoleum

This leads to the first of several open aired courtyard surrounded in all sides by bright yellow walls.  The last courtyard fronts sanctuary where the tomb is.  While non-Muslims are not allowed inside the sanctuary, it was possible to have a glimpse of the tomb from the antechamber.

Sahrij Souani Bassin

Sarij-Swani-lake

It was said that the lake, measuring 319m by 149m, was constructed to ensure the supply of water to the town in case of drought or siege.  The reservoir is connected to the water system of the city, which was considered an ancient engineering wonder.

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This is the exterior of Heri es Souani, the ingeniously designed stables of Moulay Ismail.  To keep the temperature cool and air circulating, the structure was built with tiny windows, massive vaults and an underground water channel system.  The gigantic storerooms provide stabling and grains for 12,000 horses.  Too bad we were there at the wrong time and couldn’t see the inside, they say it is bewildering.

An Outing Outside of Fes: Volubilis

on-fertile-land

It seats on top of some of the most fertile land in the Middle Atlas only 5 kilometers away from Moulay Idriss, situated near Meknes between Fes and Rabat. A site so unexpected, truth to tell.

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This Roman ruins consist of no more than half of the original town, but the well-defined remains of its walls,

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its intact and intricate mosaics, and the foundation of buildings

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destroyed by a massive earthquake sometime in the 18th century has earned recognition by the UNESCO as an ancient Roman site that houses extensive ruins dating back over 2,000 years.

The Mauritanian capital became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was adorned with many fine buildings. Already a thriving town, Volubilis grew rapidly under the Roman rule from the 1st century AD onwards.

olive-treesOlive trees still grace the land.

Grains and olive oils, produced in the fertile lands of this province were exported to Rome as well as wild animals for gladiatorial spectacles, contributing to the town’s wealth and prosperity. The last stop of the Roman Imperial roads that went across France, Spain and down to Morocco’s northern city of Tangiers,

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Volubilis is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a larger Roman colonial town on the fringe of the empire. Its structure comparable to other Roman ruins along the Mediterranean.

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Many, including us, travel to Volubilis to explore the sites’ historical significance. Amongst the ruins, visitors can see a range of public buildings, olive mills, houses, and temples.

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And because Morocco is a country of mosaic, the rather well-preserved mosaics from the ruins are considered among the finest in existence.

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From the entrance, one can appreciate the green plateau that Volubilis seats on,

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and when one reaches the site, fabulous views of the Rif Mountains and its surround greets.

So picturesque, Volubilis is picture perfect at any angle. Here’s more of the ruins:

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How Time Flies…

Has it been a year already?  According to WordPress, I made 23 new posts this year.  Really?  Only 23?  That’s about 2 posts a month, and half of what I posted in 2012.  Not good at all.  I can’t say if I will do better than last year, but I can at least promise to strive for it.

2013 was pretty good to me—in both the travel and work scene.  In the travel category, it has been a cultural feast near and far with Morocco, most definitely, topping the list, followed by Spain and Portugal.  But not to be outdone are some of the places close to me.  Here’s a glimpse of how I spent my 2013, many of which I still owe a post so please stay tune.

2013And with this, I wish you all a year of greater adventures and good health.  Cheers!!

An Outing Outside of Fes: Moulay Idriss

Moulay-IdrissCredits: Digital sketch by Jen Caputo (http://jencaputo.typepad.com); Papers from Scrapmatters’ Life’s Little Surprises kit — Happy Scrappy Girl, Graham like the Cracker, Haynay Designs

Seated comfortably in the van, enjoying the company of family and newfound friends,

Lake-ChahandLake Chahand

we marveled at the beauty along the way,

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even stopping to buy some oranges and dried figs from a roadside vendor.

An hour away from Fes is a picturesque whitewashed town scenically perched in the foothills of the Rif Mountain.

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whitewashed

Moulay Idriss is the first of several destinations planned for the day. Considered the holiest town in Morocco, we paid a visit to the final resting place of the town’s namesake, Morocco’s religious and secular founder and the great-grandson of the prophet Mohamed.

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His shrine is actually off-limits to non-Muslims, but we were able to go as far as the first courtyard.

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Until 2005, non-Muslims were not permitted to spend the night in town and tourists were advised to be out of town by 3pm. Today, I noticed a few lodgings while walking around.

off-limits-beyond-this-pointThis is where we end the visit to the shrine.  Off limits from here.

The town is considered to be the holiest in Morocco.  They say that, for Moroccans who can’t afford the trip to Mecca, five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss is equal to one to Mecca.

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Pretty and peaceful with beautiful views across the foothills,

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the village has a charming little souk with stalls selling everything from fruits to live hens.

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And while we were not allowed inside the mosque and shrine, we had fun walking around the main square. It is a great place to people watch while sipping mint tea

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or enjoy a terrific lunch of grilled meats before or after a visit to Volubilis.

Aside from the fact that our driver barely spoke English, Ibrahim confessed to never having explored the town of Moulay Idriss and the nearby city of Volubilis making it the perfect reason to come along.

the-groupNew-found friends flanked: Israeli couple Ronin and wife and Ibrahim

But I think he just really likes us.

Meandering Through Old Fes

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You hear the bangs of coppersmiths in the labyrinth souks combined with the beat and clangs of Moroccan music and the constant calls to prayers,

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add to that the intoxicating smells of fruits, spices, fresh innards and dung,

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then you see the chaos of men pushing wheelbarrows, children playing and

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donkeys transporting people and things, and not to mention the vibrant colors of rugs, potteries, spices… all happening simultaneously.  The old city of Fes stimulates all the senses.

Rashid, our guide picked us up right after breakfast at Dar Labchara.  To discover the city, an official guide is essential.

crowded-medina

Ours took us around the medina, passing narrow alleys housing hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling an assortment of products from dates to musical instruments.

Fes el Bali (Fes the old) is our baptism of fire into an exotic medieval world.  Not much seemed to have changed within this walled city with over 9,000 alleyways.

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Fes el Bali is the old medina where most cultural sights are located; its labyrinth of narrow winding alleys is almost impossible to negotiate without getting lost.

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It is a car-free urban space and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans 1,300 years of Moroccan heritage.  It is the central business where 150,000 people living inside the wall – a cocktail of Berbers, Arabs, and Africans in hooded djellaba cloaks, red tarboosh hat they call fez and open heel babouche slippers – come and go, much like it was 1,300 years ago.

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Following Rashid, we found ourselves in the market staring at a camel’s head,

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preserved-lemon-and-olives

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drooling over a variety of Moroccan food specialties, admiring vegetables I don’t get to buy in my part of the world, and devouring some beautiful, crunchy strawberries in season.

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Chaotic, overwhelming, stimulating, similar, in a certain way, to our wet market yet distinctly Moroccan in every way.

Morocco is a shopper’s delight and weaving through the maze like narrow lanes led us to various outdoor bazaars called souks.

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They consist of tiny stalls displaying objects ranging from colorful scarves to buckets of olives.  It is an integral part of the medina.  It is where the locals buy their essentials.

making-breadA stand making bread

Each Moroccan town has its unique souk quarter displaying some of the fine Moroccan ornaments and crafts.  In larger cities like Fes or Marrakech, there are “specialty” souks of all kinds –

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the spice souk, the carpenter’s souk, the leather souk, the slipper souk, the dyer’s souk… all within a bigger souk.  At every turn, we found ourselves in a new souk typically named after what they are selling.

seffarine-square

One such souk was at the Seffarine Square.  A delightful square that is the center of Fes’ copperware trade surrounded by artisans hammering sheets of metal into shape:  huge cauldrons, kettles, pots, plates and the likes.

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metalworks

On one side lay the Kairaouine library, on the other, the Seffarine Madrasa.  The open space is a refreshing break from the confining tight corners of the medina.

Built in AD857, the University of al-Karaouine is perhaps the oldest university in the world.

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Not open to non-muslim, we had to content ourselves with viewing its beautiful architecture from the entrance.  Rashid took a shot from my camera for a peek at one of the dozen horseshoe arches in the mihrab (prayer niche).

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A better view of the university can be had at any rooftop balcony nearby.

Rashid then lead us to another lovely square where you will find the Fondouk el Nejjarine.

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The beautifully restored building used to be a fondouk or a caravanserai, a roadside inn built to shelter men, goods and animals along ancient caravan routes.

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It is today a museum of wooden arts and crafts.  It has a nice little rooftop café boasting of outstanding views of the city.

A visit to Fes will not be complete without seeing a tannery.  And at the Chounara Tannery, the smell of lye, acidic pigeon excrements and dyes drifts around the rooftop balcony, we were given sprigs of mint to mask the stench.

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The view from the balcony allows for a site that has not changed since the 11th century –

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workers balancing between stone vessels arranged like honeycombs filled with vibrant dyes.  They soak the hides in the acidic solution and then transfers them to another vat containing dyes such as henna, saffron, or mint.

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It is a rare visual spectacle and experience not to be missed at any cost.

Now purchasing high quality leather products produced from these tanneries is another thing.  In fact, shopping in Morocco is an entertaining experience worthy of a post all its own.

A Dar in Fes

Dar-LabcharaCredits: Papers by Gwenipooh Designs and Graham Like the Cracker from Scrapmatters’ Life Little Surprises Kit; Elements by Designs by Tater from Scrapmatters’ LLS Kit and journaling snippets by Crystal Wilkerson

Founded 1,200 years ago in the northern part of Morocco, Fes has remained to be the country’s cultural and spiritual capital.  It is home to the oldest university in the world and its medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Fes has the best-preserved old city in the Arab World and to spend a few nights inside those walls is to, in some way, experience its unique culture.

“When you reach the train station, please call this number”, Said (Sa-eed) advised on his email. “A handsome young man will meet you at the bank outside Bab Boujeloud.” – the main and most attractive point of entry into the medina, Fes el Bali.

A petit taxi outside the train station, he advised, would cost 10 Dh to get us to the main gate.  And true enough; handsome young man introduced himself as Ibrahim.

Decorated with blue (color of Fes) zellij tile on the outside and green (color of Islam) on the other side, the gate leads to the Bab Boujeloud Square.

narrow-alleyway

Meandering through the narrow alleys teeming with people, restaurants and lodgings called riads and dars, provided a perfect primer of Fes.  The passages taper as we marched deeper into the medina, the maze of corridors begin to confuse.  We finally reached a wooden arched door in an uncommonly narrow lane.  Ibrahim unlocked the door and welcomed us into a world bursting with exotic eastern charm.  Dars and riads are traditional homes unique to Morocco.

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Entirely closed on the outside, the dar’s foyer serves as gatekeeper that led to an inner courtyard of traditional zellij (small colored tiles) floors, exquisite Moroccan design and furnishings with touches of deep red.

indoor-patio

The courtyard is the center of the house and serves as seating and dining area.  The second floor balcony overlooks it.

A burly man, Ibrahim’s uncle, Said warmly welcomed us to Fes.  He owns Dar Labchara, a lovely house he inherited from his father.  While we sipped tea and recharged from the four-hour journey, he gave us a rundown of what to expect of Fes.

We met a guy on the train also named Said, we told him, exceptionally friendly and extremely eager to help.  “You are the 3rd guests who met him”, he said.  “Does he wear a black leather jacket?” Said asked.  He revealed that one of his guests decided to pay the factory (he said he owned) a visit and found that the Said from the train isn’t quite what he presented himself to be, pretending to own a ceramic factory when he only earns a commission for bringing “tourists” there.  Not exactly harmful, but neither was he truthful.  And with that, he candidly warned of fraudsters roaming the narrow alleyways of the medina.  Warnings of this manner I came across while researching for this trip, I was still shocked, however, to have met one so early in the trip.

dinner

For a traditional Moroccan dinner, Ibrahim pointed us to the nearby Restaurant Palais des Merinides, assigning Mohammed, a staff, to bring and fetch us after.  Beautiful interiors.  As the culinary center of Morocco, my expectations were high.  Maybe too high because the food was actually decent but impressed we were not.  The Pastilla Fassia (chicken pastille) was flavorful and memorable, the play in sweet and savory appealed to me but not to everyone in the group.

Mechoui

The Mechoui (roasted mutton) was not as tender as I wished it to be.  They say that many restaurants like this pay commission for sending guests over, I hope this wasn’t the case with our dar.

Breakfast, however, was a different story. It more than made up for last night’s lackluster effort to wow.

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The variety of breads alone – flatbread (khobz), pan-fried bread (harcha), pan-fried pancakes (msemen), a more traditional looking pancake (meloui)…

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were enough to overlook the lack of any meat in the morning.  To complement the breads were cheese, butter, jams and honey, fried eggs served in a pool of olive oil seasoned with cumin and salt.

bessara

One morning, we were served a traditional soup called bessara.  It is pureed beans served with olive oil and cumin.  Usually eaten at breakfast and a prefered soup during Ramadan. Tastes like pea soup with a strong olive oil taste that leaves a slight bitter aftertaste, which quite frankly, appealed to me.

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From the street, the houses in the medina is hidden by a high wall with a door somewhere, giving no clue as to what lays beneath.  But once inside, one is transported into a remarkable intricately decorated palace.  Fes, in a similar fashion, reveals its charm unexpectedly, its mysteries difficult to comprehend but once revealed, opens up to a brilliant world within.  The key is to run straight in.

Useful Info:

Dar Labchara
8 Derb Lebchara, Souiket
Ben Safi Talaa Sghira
Fes, Morocco
Phone: +212 535 741 306
Mobile: +212 662 347 547
Email: contact@darlabchara.com

Casablanca: Not the Usual Welcome

Welcome-to-exotic-MoroccoCredits:  4EVER Bloghop Quickpage by Kelly Mobley

Mohamed V International Airport – “No more luggage, finish”, said the porter. “What do you mean? We still don’t have our luggage!” I yelled in frustration. “No anglaise”, he looked at me and shrugged.  A lady, also missing her luggage, told me that the guy is only a porter, and he doesn’t understand me.  I should talk to the people at the baggage service counter.  Valid point.   But not exactly the welcome I expected.

Casablanca.  The bustling port city whose name mean “white house” and made famous by the Humphrey Bogart 1942 classic.  It may not echo the same romantic air the 1942 film brings to mind, but a trip through the city’s swanky lounge and bars can still evoke the spirit of the café from the movie.

Colonial-architecture

Casablanca was a jewel of the French Colonial empire, famous for luscious art deco, neo-classic and a blend of Moorish architecture that is unique to the city.  An architectural style known as Maurasque with trademarks such as wrought iron balconies, staircase and windows; carved facades and exterior corners; floral and geometric design on stuccoed walls.  Boulevard Mohammed V and Place Mohammed V still retains a trace of its unique colonial architecture heritage.

With our luggage arriving on Emirate’s next flight the same time tomorrow, we gained half a day, allowing us to explore more of “Casa” as the locals call it.

“Grand taxi?” a guy approached us as we stepped out of the Gare Casablanca Voyager after purchasing train tickets for tomorrow.  We said no, we wanted a metered taxi. “You’ll need 2”, he said. “A petite taxi can only sit 3, at the most”, he added.

garden-and-train-station-view-from-Ibis

In Ibis Casa Voyageurs next door and our home for a night, the guy at the reception confirmed that the taxi driver was correct and gave us an idea on how much it would cost.  And so our negotiations with Aziz began.  We shook hands at 100 Dirham (US $13).  He would take us to Corniche d’Ain Diab,

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where high-end bars and trendy nightclubs line the area.  “ It’s overlooking the water, where the yuppies go”, the guy on the train from the airport told us.

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He suggested that we might want to dine there, but the movie buff in us, out of curiosity, had our eyes set on Rick’s Café,

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so instead, we walked around the boardwalk and took shelter sipping  “Whiskey Morocco” (Moroccan mint tea)  

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in a café when it got too windy.

Dinner, though not our cheapest in Morocco, did not disappoint.

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While we found the goat cheese balls drizzled in honey starter and chicken with lemon and olives tagine quite enjoyable,

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and particularly liked the lamb chops with mint pesto, it is the ambience — down to the piano and the sax player named Issam (close enough to Sam) — that made it one of the best “gin joints” in town.

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Founded by a former US diplomat, Kathy Kriger, Rick’s Café opened in 2004.

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With potted palms, ceiling fans, whitewashed walls, low archways, ornate lamps casting shadows everywhere, traditional Moroccan carved and inlaid woodwork, balconies and balustrades, antique brass… all provided the right atmosphere and feel of the 1942 cult classic.

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The nostalgia alone is reason enough to come for a visit.

Useful Info:

Rick’s Cafe
248 Bd Sour Jdid, Place du Jardin
Acienne Medina
For Reservations:  +212 522 27 42 07 / +212 522 27 42 08
 
Hotel Ibis Casa Voyageur
Boulevard Bahmad
Place de la Gare Casa-Voyageur
+212 0520 48 00 00

Missing In Action

So I’ve been missing in action.  Yes, I’ve been away, to a land overflowing with exoticism, and I’m still struggling to get back to the rhythm of my everyday.  Oh how I wish I could spend more days soaking up the vibe of Morocco while sipping mint tea in some quaint cafe.

Check out an article I wrote for Exquise Magazine on “Five Things You Must Do When in Morocco” here and get a glimpse of what has kept me busy while I was away.

In the meantime, I will struggle to get back to the grind… more of exotic Morocco after I’m done telling you about Japan.

East Africa

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It actually stretches from the northern arid deserts of Ethiopia to the tropical forests of Mozambique and Madagascar, with 19 countries in between.  While my East African adventure in 2006 only spanned 3 countries, the experience it yielded were quite diverse – from the usual Safari adventures to tracking Chimpanzees to the more extreme, whitewater rafting.  Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, territories that were formerly under British control and each hold common thread yet bear its own unique character.

Highlights:

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Catching sight of the Big Five – Lions, African Elephants, Cape Buffalos, Leopards, and Rhinoceroses.

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The Big Five aside, Zebras along with giraffes have become favorites.

Witnessing not quite the migration but the start of it.  From July to October, one could witness the great migration where wildebeest and zebra travel to and from the Serengeti National Park to the greener pastures of the Masai Mara National Reserves.

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It is perhaps the most breathtaking event in animal kingdom and the whole point of our visit to this continent.  To see them gather together, sometimes in a line is more than thrilling.

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Witnessing a gathering of Flamingos.  Absolutely a sight to behold, this sea of pink covering a large part of Lake Nakuru.  One of the Rift Valley soda lakes that attract vast quantity of flamingos that feed on the lake’s abundant algae.

Being in beautiful Ngorongoro Crater.  It is the world’s largest intact unflooded volcanic caldera and is home to over 300,000 animals including the rare Black Rhinos.

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An absolutely beautiful place to be on a safari, the crater makes for a stunning backdrop to rich grazing grounds.

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Chilling in Zanzibar.  A semi-autonomous island separated from the Tanzanian mainland.

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Although just a short distance from the Tanzanian coast, it is at the crossroad of Africa, the Middle East and Asia resulting in a culture of diverse ethnicities, more Middle Eastern in its feel than African.  Likewise with local dishes, the rich fragrance of cinnamon, ginger, cumin, pepper and cardamom is synonymous with Zanzibar, also known as the Spice Island.  The streets of Stone’s Town – the capital’s old quarter – is full of the bustle of back street markets and local flavor.

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The charm lies in its labyrinth alleyways and faded buildings redolent of the glories of the old Islāmic empire.

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Rafting the White Nile.  Stretching 31km from just below the Bujugali Falls in Jinja, experiencing the Nile at its source is by far the best heart-pounding whitewater ride of my life.

Getting lost in Uganda.  On a wrong bus, we went the other way and ended up not quite where we wanted to be.

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Best known for Idi Amin or Joseph Koney, getting lost could be frightening but this mishap gave us a taste of the local flare and the kindness of its people.  We eventually found our way but not without the help of the people we didn’t know from Adam.  An impression indelibly marked in my heart.

It is by far one of the best trip I’ve had – a wonderful surprise, considering that it was not even on the priority.  I will be back Africa, sooner than you know.

The Way to Initiate the Novice

trekking-to-lighthouse

I’m with some novice trekkers, not that I mind, it is an easy trek after all.  I am thrilled, in fact, to have them experience the joy of summiting after an uphill struggle that seemed never-ending and pointless, and to realize, after all that trouble, that the reward is usually at the peak.

Named the 3rd best beach and island of the Philippines by CNN Go April of last year and just like that, Palaui caught my attention.  I’ve been going back and forth to Sta. Ana for a few years now, but Palaui was never on my radar.

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Maybe because it takes more work to get there and that includes braving the (sometimes) treacherous sea.

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A protected area, the island lies between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  It boasts of a nice long stretch of white pebble beach, abundant marine life, a century old lighthouse, a waterfalls hidden somewhere and a scenic rugged terrain.  It is pretty much uninhabited, with only a small community living in the island.  No electricity and accommodation to speak of.

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So one fine day, along with the same people I spent several Sta. Ana weekends together, we took off from the shores of Sun City in San Vicente and headed to Palaui.  An hour, perhaps more on the boat and we arrived on the island.

Palaui-beach-front

We paid for a guide and started our trek on the beach,

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which lead to a short forest walk before we emerged on the other side to beautiful rolling hills reminiscent of Batanes.

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We then climbed (more than) some steps that would eventually lead to the summit where Cape Engaño stands.

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The view along the way took my breath away.

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It may not be the best beach as it is not fine sand as that of Boracay or even Palawan

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but the island dazzles at every turn,

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from the beach to the top of the lighthouse… all I can say was SPECTACULAR.  And the new recruits were enjoying themselves too.

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Not that difficult to get to, we took the Lugunzad trail, which took all of just 30 minutes from beach to lighthouse.

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There is a waterfall somewhere, said our guide, but all this walking made the others hungry.  And so the initiation is over, we will take baby steps and insist on the waterfalls some other time.

gotan-beach

At a beach named Gotan, lunch was already being prepared.   A private beach, we had to arrange to use a few days earlier.  We had a sumptuous meal of everything grilled.

agoho-in-gotan

There, we lounged around, enjoyed each other’s company amidst beautiful Agoho trees.   That’s how to initiate novice trekkers.  Yes?