I wake up at 7am to say bye to Cesc. He’s getting on an early train to Tangier and making his way back to Madrid before work on Monday. I’ve still got a couple more days but Madré Mia what will I do without him? Will I ever make another friend? If I do, will they also be Spanish? The answer is most likely yes.
I wander around the medina which is absurdly large. Lots of fun things to see though!! Mostly just shops filled with things I can’t buy, but still a fun adventure. I get some quick street food breakfast (Moroccan crepe with fromage is my new go-to) and head back to my hostel. Here, the front desk guys invite me to eat breakfast with them in the kitchen and even though I explain I’ve just eaten, no one cares. So I eat again. So good, but so full. Declining food here isn’t really a thing.
I met a local last night who manages a Riad (hotel) in the medina. He calls to invite me out for a coffee which is great because I have absolutely no plans for the day. After grabbing a drink on a patio in the main square he has to go back to work, but invites me to come check out the Riad. Cools. The place is suuuuuper nice. Very small, clean and calm. This is where real adults stay when they travel, I suppose. No Arabic beats blaring like at my hostel.
His “job” is hilarious because he basically just hangs out in the lobby until a guest checks in, which is gruelling as you can imagine, especially at a Riad with 6 rooms. I also meet the other staff members and we just chill, drinking mint tea in the cool shade. Riads are super interesting. They’re defined by their central courtyard which usually has a little garden or sometimes a swimming pool. It’s all very open air and fresh feeling. Birds singing, still shaded but not enclosed. They’re cool.
I meet the rest of the staff and get to practice some French because not everyone speaks English. More importantly, I learn more fun things about Morocco! These guys are all Berber, which I first learned a little bit about when I visited the desert and the gorge. They were always referred to as the “berber Nomad tribe”, and I assumed that was that. But no! Not really. The Berber people are the indigenous group of Morocco; pre Arabs, pre Europeans. Some of them still live the nomadic lifestyle and move around in small tribes but, what I learned, is that tons of them don’t. I could be way off base on this, but I think the whole Nomad tribe thing is played up specifically for tourists. Obviously the tribes exist but I find it curious that no one else bothered to mention lots of Berber people roll in the mainstream society as well. The tourism industry probably does the same for the indigenous people in Canada…something I’d never considered until today. Anyway, now I’m woke and I know stuff.
My day gets even BETTER, when they invite me to have dinner with them. They’re having a typical Marrakechi dish, which is just meat, garlic, saffron and a few other spices, thrown into a clay pot, topped with some water, and slow roasted over fire embers for 6 hours. Don’t have your own fire pit? No problem. Bring your clay pot to the nearest hammam (traditional public steam bath-more on this to come. I’ll visit one soon) and they’ll toss your dinner on the embers they use to heat the baths. I literally don’t think it could get cooler.
There is a small rush for check-ins, so I end up sitting and chatting with guests in the lobby. I basically work here now. The Riad is called Riad Menzeh, and I genuinely recommend that you stay here. Look at me, putting my marketing education to use.
We have wine with dinner on the upstairs patio, where I learn that not only does Morocco brew it’s on beer, it also has wine regions. I’ve come a long way from when I thought alcohol was entirely outlawed.
After dinner we head over to meet some of their friends at a bar. Again, I get to go to a cool local bar, not a tourist bar. We drive out of the medina and into the new town, where there are lots of neon lights, malls, a Louis Vuitton, a Starbucks, and other things that wouldn’t pop into your head when I say “Morocco”.
We get to the bar and it’s super chic. Everyone is dressed up. Women are in heels and full make up. I’m wearing the same pants I’ve worn for the last 3 days. I’m genuinely surprised that I’m even allowed inside. This spot is way way cooler than where I went last night. More like a cool lounge, much less like a hectic club, though people are still smoking inside which I don’t think I could ever get used to. I enjoy all the people watching and Moroccan rosé.
This included hostel breakfast is just as big and epic as dinner. They keep bringing me more and more mint tea. Big fan. Best 100mdh (9€, $13cad) I ever spent.
We end up being in the town way too early for this bus, and sit in the shade waiting for what feels a little like forever. Sitting and waiting for a bus only to board, then sit and wait for 8 hours. Wonderful.
We’re the only backpackers around and draw a lot of attention. Some people ask for my Facebook name or want to take a picture with me. I am asked many questions about Canada and my marital status. My fake engagement ring has been pretty useless. It’s no longer silver, and has turned my finger green. Not very convincing. Again, no one seems at all bothered by the fact that I’m single and traveling alone with a man.
I manage to get a ticket when the bus arrives and our long boring journey begins. At least the landscapes through the Atlas Mountains are beautiful to look at! I even see some snow capped mountains. Maybe you knew, but I certainly didn’t, that it shows in Morocco! Real snow. Enough snow to go skiing kinda snow. Crazy!
We get a quick rest stop to grab some food and stretch our legs. Cesc orders a sandwich with fries. This is what happens.
After 8 hours of sleeping on and off with my mouth open, we arrive in Marrakesh. Every damn kind of accommodation is a Riad, not a hostel, and significantly more expensive. I mean like 250mdh vs the 90 I’m willing to pay. We walk and walk and walk until we finally find a little hostel called Waka Waka playing cool French rap when we enter. A dorm bed is only 60mdh. Success! They show us a map of the city and we realize we’ve walked from the bus station, through the new town, and then into the old town. So basically across the city. I need a shower and some food asap.
We meet some Spanish girls and an Australian guy in our hostel, who invite us out for dinner and drinks. Cesc and the two Spanish girls can’t understand a word the Aussie guy says and decide not to come out. I joke that I’ve been hanging around Spanish people and not understanding a word over the last whole week, and decide to spend some time with English speakers. He lives and works here with a bunch of his other mates, who we meet on a rooftop patio in the new town. When the restaurant closes we all go next door to a “bar” which is actually 100% a club. Arabic beats are blaring, lights are flashing, and people are smoking inside. Luckily there’s a small patio out front where I spend most of my time to avoid getting second hand lung cancer. Similar to this morning, we draw a lot of attention and I am asked for my Facebook name a lot. I don’t know what it is but I always love that question. Finding weird little spots like this is always a good time! I know it’s not very… culturally immersive or whatever but at least it’s a locals spot!
I sleep pretty well considering the bumpy bus ride and upright position I must keep for 10 hours. The bus only stops once, around 2 in the morning, and I don’t even bother to get off and stretch my legs. Too sleepy. It gets COLD in the middle of the night but at least the driver has stopped opening the back door.
We arrive before sunrise, and as I groggily step off the bus there are a few men waiting for those who’ve booked hotels ahead of time, or are in search of one. The first man we speak to is dressed in a long royal blue top with gold detailing, and a scarf, twisted and wrapped around his head. Very desert chic. He suggests we come to see his “hotel” and the word prompts me to say we need something much cheaper, like a hostel. He says he can offer us a room for 50mdh (5€, $7cad) each, which is the cheapest price I’ve paid so far, so we agree to go. It’s not as hectic or invasive as the fresh-off-the-bus hostel scrambles were in Asia. People yelling, holding signs, waving things in your face, shouting prices. Again, everyone made it sound like this would be a nightmare, but really it’s chill af. So chill that I’m a little concerned, but for 50mdh I will sleep anywhere.
He takes us to this hotel by car. It’s literally right in front of a giant sand dune, with a beautiful backyard seating area where he leads us to discuss camels for hire. I envisioned this differently as well. Kinda pictured myself at the edge of the Sahara, bargaining for camels with individual guides. I don’t want a cheesy tour. I’m still hesitant, but willing to hear prices. We spoke to some people yesterday who said they paid 800mdh (75€, $105cad) per night. I just can’t afford that life.
We drink mint tea and watch the sun rise over the dunes while he explains our excursion options. I’m not even IN the desert yet really, and I’m already blown away by how beautiful it is. The sun looks enormous.
He quotes us 500mdh (46€, $66cad) each per night, but we talk him down to 400 (37€, $53cad) which is what we were originally hoping to pay. Sweet. Now we go to see the room which I’m expecting to be a dorm or another double bed we have to share, but instead he shows us a room with two singles, a double bed, and private bathroom. He says we can share this just the two of us. So basically a room for 4 people that we can just have, for 50mdh. I confirm this price again, because it seems too good to be true. He shakes my hand and looks me in the eye and says 50dhm. Alrighty. Realistically, we won’t even be sleeping here because we’ll be out in the desert camp tonight, but it’s a place for us to rest and shower now, and to leave our things. I’m cool with it. I claim the double bed.
I keep saying To Cesc how lucky we’ve been, and how it seems to good to be true. Usually just showing up somewhere doesn’t work out this well. Always works out, but never this smoothly.
I shower, take a two hour nap, and then we head into the town to find food. They offer to make us lunch but we want to check out Merzouga (and find some wifi because there isn’t any at the hotel). The man we met this morning, Mohammed, drives us separately on a sketchy little motorbike to the town, kicking up a ton of sand and dirt when we do some off-roading as a short cut. He tells says something about a market which sounds to me like the perfect place to find cheap eats, and he leads us from the motorbike to a car driven by his “friend”. Surprise surprise surprise the “market” is in the middle of no where and is actually just a shop to buy rugs, jewelry, scarves and everything else I have no intention of purchasing. I realize what’s happening as soon as we pull up and say look man, I have no money for shopping, I just want some lunch, but we’re ushered inside anyway.
Obviously, the shop people are pushy and get pissed off when we don’t buy anything, which always pisses me off in return. They do it to everyone, it’s the cost of being a tourist, but I’m not stoked when they make us walk back to the town. Dickheads. It’s not that far, but still rude. I didn’t ask to come here.
On the walk back Mohammed continues to explain more about the rugs and how they’re hand made by the desert tribes etc etc. They’re obviously super cool but I’m not buying one. I think that’s clear. How many times do I have to say no?
In town, we go to find a restaurant and are followed by Mohammed, who’s trying to tell us where to eat and what to order. We ask for some space and time to wander around on our own. I’m about to start tossin’ elbows. Even when I speak quietly to Cesc Mohammed butts in and tries to take over the conversation. Once, I ask Cesc how to say a word in Spanish, and Mohammed gives me the answer. How is that a thing? We offer to walk back to the hotel so he doesn’t have to wait or tag along all afternoon.
He agrees and backs off, but not actually, because later we see him lingering outside the cafe we chose for lunch. During our meal he comes inside to ask if we want to join a couple at our hotel who are taking a 4×4 out into the desert to see the nomad tribe, but wants us to pay 250mdh each, and wants us to leave now. Like I literally have food in my hands. Faaaaackin hell, mate. No.
I know this is just part of the deal, part of being a tourist in Morocco, but it’s so frustrating when you just want to chill and enjoy yourself but are being pressured to buy things, pay for extra excursions, stay a few more nights, upgrade to the luxury camp. No. No. No.
He ends up hanging around outside until we finish eating and drives us back, which is actually nice because I’m wearing my new Moroccan slippers and didn’t really want to walk 30 minutes down a dusty road. Now he’s offering to take us to his house tomorrow night etc. etc., and I basically just tune out because, guess what? I’m not going. Please just take me to the desert and back sirrrrrr. Can’t you just let me live my life?
I stand by the fact that we’re paying a good price, but at what cost, ya know?
We meet a group of Spanish people at our hostel who will be coming on the trip with us. I am now convinced there are more Spaniards in Morocco than Moroccans. It’s great practice for me to listen and attempt to take part in the conversations but it’s also exhausting to have to work so hard to understand basic things. I get lost a lot and give up on asking Cesc to fill me in.
Another group of Spaniards, a family traveling by caravan with FIVE children, is also coming on our desert trip. If I’m not fluent in Spanish by tomorrow, I’ll be disappointed.
Super bonus though, we compare what we’ve paid for the excursion to what everyone else has paid. The whole trip including camels, camping, meals, and our room, is 450 each. Everyone else is paying 800. Legendary savings status.
Wowzers. Another group of humans has just arrived. And another. Another couple. Will it ever end? What kind of desert “camp” can accommodate 50 people? We were told no more than 20. I hate being swindled. I can’t think of a way I could have done anything differently to avoid this tourist trap. We took our own bus. We actively refused tours. We chose a cheap hostel, and agreed to a guided tour through the desert, but not this. Yet, here we are; being told we’ll be driving to a God damn parking lot before getting on any camels.
We’re told to be ready by 3pm, we wait wait wait wait, and by 6pm we actually leave. The camel riding is fun, though I question the ethics. I don’t see camels being beaten or anything, but I think I’m done with any kind of animal related tourism. Unless it’s cage shark diving. Or swimming with whale sharks. Or regular diving. Or a safari. Definitely no more animal riding, though.
I skip the tourist head wrap, but the 5 girls in front of me have never been more excited. They spend much of the camel ride taking selfies and discussing how to get the best group jumping photo when we arrive at the dunes. Cesc asks me the English word for “pija” which I’m unfamiliar with. In Spanish it’s what you call girls who are overly concerned with how they look and wear a lot of make up. I love it.
Once in the camp I’m in better spirits. Our crew of Spanish people took a different group of camels are no where to be seen though, which is disappointing. We walk out into the dunes to watch the sun set, and meet new people within the camp. Most are, of course, Spanish, but we also meet a nice Danish couple, some girls from Macau, and an American family. There are about 30 people in the camp total so it’s bigger than expected but I was starting to think there’d be 100 of us here.
Dinner is Moroccan salad and a giant tagine for each table of 10. The topic of trip prices comes up, and Cesc and I are victorious again. People have WAY over paid for this on many occasions, but I totally understand how it happens. Im pretty confident they make a quick assessment of you, and set the price accordingly. No one else we meet is backpacking, they’re here for a comfortable vacation, so while they’re surprised by how little we’ve paid, no one seems bothered.
After dinner a fire is lit, the guides are playing drum music, and a dance circle has formed. The moon is so bright it drowns out the stars; pretty amazing when the only light pollution is the moon itself. I lay in the sand and chat with some others until the fire dies.
Our camp is more comfortable than I expected. Thick Moroccan rugs are laid over the sand to create the illusion of flooring, and heavy blankets are laid on the bed to keep us warm during the cold desert night. No idea what the bed is made of though. Legit might be a mattress filled with sand – I’m not joking. No one warns us of snakes, scorpions, poisonous beetles or anything of the like, so I assume I won’t be bitten to death in my sleep.
Our over-attentive hostel owner knocks on our door at 9am to invite us to breakfast. We had decided to ditch the included breakfast as a way to bargain down the price of our room, which I’m certain he remembers, he just wants us to change our minds and pay for. It saved us 50mdh (5€, $7cad) for the night, and we’re just as happy to grab a street bread with some cream cheese to spend 6dhm (nothing) instead.
He’s been very friendly, but also pushy as hell and trying to make us sign up for a desert tour with his friend. We’ve explained about 10 times that we don’t want an organized tour but the “advantages” of booking with his buddy has been explained to me at least 5 times now. I’ve been trying to sneak in and out of my room in order to avoid him until we leave.
First priority this morning is to get our bus tickets to Merzouga. We plan to take an over night bus tonight, as the ride is a whopping 10 hours and we don’t have tons of time to spare. Merzouga is a town just outside of the Sahara, from which we hope to find a guide who can take us into the desert for a night or two. Finding your own guide is clearly much cheaper than booking a tour where money changes hands multiple times and everyone’s taking their cut. I’m also hoping it’ll be a more authentic feeling experience. We’ll see! At the end of the day, visiting the desert is visiting the desert so I’ll be happy regardless.
We take a petit taxi from the medina to the bus station to book our tickets, which coke to 180mdh (17€, $23cad) each. That’s not so terrible when you factor in the money we’ll save by driving through the night. We now have 9 hours to spend in Fes before we need to be back here at the station.
Priority 2 is something I wasn’t really planning to write about so I could make it a surprise, but it became a larger part of my day than anticipated, and became too funny not to document.
I want to buy a little Moroccan handicraft for both my grandmother and my parents, who helped me out a lot in being able to afford this trip. I’ve loved every tagine dish I’ve tried here so far, and the ceramics made here in Fes are beautiful, so I decide that it seems like a fitting gift to send home. I come across a shop within the medina where you can see the tagines being made and hand painted. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of different tagines, plates, bowls, and other ceramics on display up front, while three men are working away towards the back.
I start picking up tagine after tagine, trying to decide on the best sizes, designs, and colours – an overwhelming task. The shop keeper is on me the moment I set foot inside, and is doing his best to help me. When I finally decide on a couple I like and set them aside on the floor, I start haggling for a price. He starts at 200dhm (19€, $26cad) for the two. I respond with a firm, “ummmm, no”. Even though I don’t really know what these should cost…I can promise you it isn’t 20€.
He immediately drops the price in half, to 100dhm, but I push for 90. He agrees, and begins wrapping them up in newspaper. I start to speak – the words are literally coming out of my mouth – asking him to wrap everything very carefully so I can ship it home…when I step over one of the tagines, clip the top with my stupid pointed toe flats, and smash the lid in two.
I could just die. I am mortified. I am filled with embarrassment and self loathing. What’s more, I’ve just lost all bargaining power. Now he’ll probably make me pay 800,000dhm and there won’t be anything I can do about it. I apologize profusely and just want to run out of the shop so I can crawl under a rock somewhere with my giant feet. He goes to look for another tagine like the one I had chosen (and swiftly destroyed), but can’t find a match. One of his associates comes from the back with a tagine that’s actually more beautiful than the one I just smashed to smithereens, but even if it had been absolute trash and I’d hated it, I would have accepted it like a Nobel prize.
I take out 150mdh and offer it to him, still feeling like a dick and wondering how much he’ll actually ask me for. Instead of taking this opportunity to rip me off, he declines my extra money and only takes the 100dhm note. I insist he take the extra 50, but he won’t accept it. I’m pretty speechless. This would surprise me anywhere in the world, but the middle of a touristy Moroccan medina is the last place I would expect to receive this level of generosity. Just one more piece of evidence towards how wrong I believe everyone is about the terrible dangers of Morocco. They are the. nicest. people.
Alright, so now we’ve gotta head to the post office. Poor Cesc was with me through that whole nightmare and ended up having to carry the bag out of the store while I put my money away. He says he feels like he’s holding a bomb and urges me to take it from him. Fair point.
We arrive at the post office safely where I am helped by another nice man. He even pretends to understand my broken French. He gets out a large box to package up the tagines but honestly it’s just not big enough. He gets a bigger box, which I can say with confidence is still not big enough, but he insists. He’s trying to fit the bases and lids in like puzzle pieces, using nothing but a few pieces of shitty styrofoam as cushioning. Obviously the tagines are still wrapped in newspaper but I don’t know if that’s enough to make it across the Atlantic. He wraps the box tightly in thick packaging tape, and all I can do now is hope for the best. Inshallah it arrives to my parents home in an un-shattered condition.
Now we’re free to do some touristy stuff. Fes is famous for a ton of different handicrafts, not just fragile tagines. Leather is huge here, as are carpets, and different metal goods. The tannery (where leather becomes leather) is inside the medina and easy to see by hiring a guide from the street. It’s “free”, but a tip is obviously expected at the end. A guide chooses us, we don’t really choose him, and it turns out he doesn’t speak much English (or French or Spanish, for that matter) but it’s a cool tour despite the language barrier. Leather is gross, smelly and all around just terrible in the early stages, so we’re given some mint leaves to carry around with us. My favourite part is watching how the leather is given it’s colour, done with bare hands to rub yellow dye into the hide. We only see two men working, but you can tell which other people around the tannery must also have that responsibility, because their hands are stained yellow. Not permanently stained, just like they worked the morning shift level-stained.
The tour is chill until the end when we go to tip our guide and he’s pissed off that it isn’t enough money. At the beginning, we literally asked him how much he would want and he just kept saying anything is fine, just a donation. Honestly I should have known better. A damn rookie move not to agree on a price in advance. He’s now asking us for 150Mdh (15€, $20cad) which is more than I just paid for destroying a hand made good, so yeah, I don’t think I’ll be paying that for you to walk us through a room of dead goat skin. We end up paying him 50dhm and I’m conflicted because I have no idea what a standard price is for something like this, but more than 5€ seems extreme. Am I cheap?
We have some great street food for lunch, find a cool roof top patio for a drink, and basically just wander around for the rest of the day. We try to visit a very very old library, but it’s closed for restorations so that’s kind of a bummer. There is also a Jewish quarter of Fes which is something I find pretty interesting, but it’s a bit of a hike and I feel content with just the knowledge of its existence. I’m not really sure what there is to SEE or DO there. Maybe I’ll find out later that I’ve made a huge mistake by skipping it, I don’t know.
We have some great street food for lunch, find a cool roof top patio for a drink, and basically just wander around for the rest of the day. We try to visit a very very old library, but it’s closed for restorations so that’s kind of a bummer. There is also a Jewish quarter of Fes which is something I find pretty interesting, but it’s a bit of a hike and I feel content with just the knowledge of its existence. I’m not really sure what there is to SEE or DO there. Maybe I’ll find out later that I’ve made a huge mistake by skipping it, I don’t know.
Finally the time comes to catch the night bus. We have to go back to our pushy hostel owner one more time to collect our bags and I swear if I am offered a tour imma lose it. He doesn’t offer, though. Smart move.
Most of the other bud riders seem like fellow backpackers, which I suppose isn’t shocking, because I doubt too many locals have the need for a bus journey to the Sahara on a Tuesday night.
Before taking our luggage, the man loading the cabin below the bus asks for 5mdh (0.50€, $0.70cad) for “protection” of each bag. We pay this without complaint, and are then rewarded with a little white sticker which I think basically means bags without the sticker are more likely to get “lost”. OR all the bags are 100% safe the entire time and buddy is just making 5mdh x 40something passengers. Who knows.
A bus is a bus, so I can’t claim to be overly comfortable, especially when the driver keeps opening the back door for fresh air. Yes, the door, not the window.
It’s an early morning, as Fes is a 5 hour journey and that’s not including the time we’ll spend on the side of the road trying to catch a ride. I’ve always loved hitch hiking (which I did frequently when I lived in Tasmania), but would never have considered doing this alone in Morocco; having Cesc with me makes it feel much safer. We meet outside Najoua and Amin’s hotel at 8am to say our goodbyes, and we go on our way. I am beyond thankful I met them. They taught me so much about Moroccan culture and we had so much fun together. I encourage them to come to Barcelona for a visit!
Moroccan people have been so welcoming and friendly since the moment my plane landed, so I can’t imagine we’ll have much trouble finding someone who will pick us up. We grab a quick breakfast for 10dhm (free) each, and start down the road.
We have a littttttle trouble getting picked up. People don’t even stop to ask us where we’re going; they just offer a friendly wave and drive straight on. We start to think that maybe we should head back to Chaouen to catch a bus…but just as we decide to go back, a man pulls over and offers to drive us 10km in the right direction. He believes we’ll have more luck finding a ride to Fes from the location where he can drop us. Perfect, let’s do it.
We’ve started greeting people with a wave and then, “English, Francais, Español?” and letting them decide which language they’d prefer to speak. It’s fun, because Cesc takes over when it’s Spanish, I do the talking when it’s French, and if it’s English we can both converse. The men who pick us up only speak a little bit of Spanish, but it hardly matters because they’re blaring Arabic beats for the whole trip. Lovin’ it.
Once in the smaller “town”, which I would argue is actually just a gas station, we get back to thumbing on the side of the road. Here, cars pass more frequently, but our rejection rate is just as high. We see one young western couple with an empty car drive right by us without even making eye contact. Not even acknowledged. At least locals are polite enough to offer an apologetic wave. Whatever. Rude.
This doesn’t seem to be in the cards for us. I apologize because admittedly, hitch hiking was my idea and it’s failing miserably. We start walking back to the gas station in the hopes of finding a taxi driver with whom we can haggle for a good price to Fes or somewhere nearby with a bus station. On a last attempt, I throw up my thumb for a passing car, and it actually pulls over. It’s a young Spanish couple and we ask how far they can take us…turns out they are also headed to Fes. A damn miracle! We hop in the back seat with enthusiasm.
Obviously they’re lovely, and though I’d love to practice my Spanish, the three of them all speak a little too quickly for me to understand and/or be able to contribute much to the conversation. We end up speaking a lot in English. They discover they all have friends in common, which just further confirms for me how small the world is. Or I guess in this case, how small Spain is. New tally of Spanish friends in Morocco: 3, Spain: 0
Halfway to Fes we get pulled over for speeding. Apparently we were going 72 in a 60 zone. In Canada that means nothing, but okay. The ticket is only 150dhm (14€, $20cad) which sucks, but is hilarious compared to the $100+ you’d pay back home.
I can feel the heat creeping up as the day goes on and we move further South. The heat thus far has been nothing like I expected for Morocco. Honestly I’ve even been a little cold the last 3 nights, and only packed one light sweater. I had it in my head that I’d be overheating from start to finish, but the weather has been in the low 20s since I arrived. The North is, as I should have realized, a similar climate to that of southern Spain. Now, however, I’m going to be dealing with 30+ in Fes, Marrakesh, and of course when I visit the desert.
We arrive to Fes safe and sound. The Spanish couple have a hostel booked so we tag along to see if there are any open rooms. All the dorms are taken and they only have one double room left, which is slightly more expensive but we bargain the price down from 300 to 200mdh (18€, $26cad) so about 9€ each. Not ideal, as the dorms were 7€, but not terrible. Sure, it’s a little strange to share a bed with a boy I don’t know that well, but Cesc is chill af and it’s nice to have one room where we can safely leave all our stuff.
We are greeted with mint tea, take a few minutes to relax, and then head out into the medina. I can’t get enough of these medinas! It becomes clear that the shop keepers are a little more pushy here than they have been in Tangier and Chaouen. And by a little I mean a lot. The medina is also significantly larger than the other two I’ve seen, and I laugh when I think about “getting lost” in the media of Tangier. That was small fries compared to this.
After eating so many restaurant meals (when I vowed I’d stick to street food), we make a point of eating snacks along our way as we explore. We try lots of cool new things, and I don’t know the name of any of them, but I’ll say spicy chickpeas, fish samosa-like snacks, something like a chicken croquette, and another snail soup (or snail snoop, as I keep accidentally calling it). There are tons of hand made crafts in Fes, from rugs and leather goods to tagines and ornate metal lamps. Some of the shop displays are just fantastic, like endless hallways of ceramics or walls and ceilings filled with shoes.
I buy a pair of super rad Moroccan leather slippers, and try my hand at bargaining. I get the price down from 100 to 80. Not my best work but it always take me a while to get into the headspace of haggling. 8€ for a pair of leather shoes is nothing to complain about anyway. Just when I thought there couldn’t possible have squeezed any more shoes along the walls, the shop keeper climbs a ladder in the back corner and slips up into the attic at lightening speed. I can’t imagine how many more hundreds, potentially thousands of shoes they have here. Every size, every style, every colour, and then more.
As the sun starts to set and our feet have grown tired, we make our way back to the hostel. We’re “lost”, but manage to sort ourselves out eventually. Mostly because we ask people.
It’s a lazy evening but we go out once more for a mint tea and light dinner. We go to a street food stall which turns out to have some upstairs seating on a rooftop patio over looking the streets. It also turns out they have beer. Bonus.
We share some grilled turkey and beef skewers that come with bread (of course) and lentil dip. Do I really have to tell you that everything is delicious?
We all meet up at 9am to visit a waterfall outside of Chaouen. I hadn’t heard or read anything about a waterfall before coming here, but I was fortunate to meet Najoua and Amin, who told me about its existence. I have to buy some running shoes because I only came with a pair of flats. I find a pair of knock off Nikes for 130mdh (12€, $17cad), sold to me by an old man on the street. We stop for a typical Moroccan breakfast, which is a fried egg doused in oil, with sides of cream cheese, home made fresh cheese, and a ton of bread to use for dipping. I am adjusting to the whole eating with my hands thing, I can’t lie. I’ve gotten better about always using my right, though.
We have no trouble finding a grand taxi, which drives us about an hour or so outside of Chefchaouen for 25dmh (2.50€, $3cad). I have been extremely confused about this whole situation. I thought the waterfall was a one hour walk from the city centre, but it’s actually a one hour drive, then another hour and a half of walking. It’s more of an excursion than I expected! Good thing I got my fancy new shoes.
Somewhere along the winding mountain road we run into a traffic jam. It has literally come to a stop for so long that people are now outside of their vehicles, partyin’. We end up getting out and walking the rest of the way, because it doesn’t look like this taxi is going anywhere any time soon. We meet tons of groups doing the same, but they’ve brought drums and dance moves. So well prepared!!
At the end of the paved road we begin our hike along the trail. We may have picked a bad day to come, as it’s a Sunday and the trail is absolutely flooded with people. It seems like it’s all Moroccan tourists though! Which is awesome. I don’t hear anyone speaking English, French or Spanish.
We walk and walk and walk.
Then walk some more.
It’s definitely been well over an hour. We keep asking people coming the opposite direction how far we are from the falls. They all tell us an hour. It doesn’t matter how close we get, we’ve still got another hour. I don’t see how this is possible! However, the hike is beautiful, and takes us up up up into the Riff Mountains. I can’t imagine how I would have fared in my black flats. Probably would have fallen down a cliff and died, honestly.
So much walking.
We stop for a tea.
Then we keep walking.
When finally, we’ve made it!
This epic waterfall, even more beautiful than I could have expected. Getting up close is a bit of a challenge, as we have to do some low key rock climbing through a muddy pathway, but it’s well worth it. It’s even possible to walk down behind the falls which I’m always a fan of.
I am wearing running shoes, some loose fitting pants, and a standard t-shirt, and I slip a few times along the way. I cannot IMAGINE how hard it must be for the women around me, wearing long dresses and some people in slippers. Literally so impressed. Mind blown.
After spending some time to take in our surroundings and enjoy the incredible falls, we realize we should start to head back if we plan to catch a taxi. By this point in the day, we’re all absolutely starving, so after a bit of walking we sit down by the river and share a tagine. Morocco is amazing. I’ve always said that once you can start to like, take for granted how beautiful everything is, you know you’ve really seen a place. You can allow yourself to stop being so amazed all the time. I’ve been here 3 days, and I am nothing short of amazed 100% of the time, obviously, but somehow enjoying a fire cooked meal down by the shore of a river already feels like a normal thing to do.
The walk back feels much less long, maybe because we know what we can expect this time. The sun has also dropped behind the mountains so I’m not roasting in the sun like before.
Back in Chaouen we take an hour to go home, shower, and relax for a bit, before meeting up again for dinner. Amin has a better idea, and instead of going straight to dinner asks a man on the street where we can find a beer. Of course, in Muslim countries it’s impossible to find beer at regular restaurants because it goes against their religion. It’s not like Canada or Spain where alcohol is basically part of the religion. Honestly, I was under the impression alcohol was illegal here. Wrong. Naive me. I knew you could still get it of course, but I thought it was like underground sketchy clubs. Wrong. So so wrong. The man that Amin approaches leads us to a fancy hotel where we can order either Heineken or Flag Speciale, the beer of Morocco. Of course, I must order the latter! In some ways it’s still a bit of an underground vibe, with men in suits smoking big cigars indoors and drinking whiskey on the rocks. Najoua and I are the only women around so we’re getting a lot of strange looks, but after a long hike like today, a nice cold beer is all I want. The Flag Speciale is light and easy to drink; nicer than a Heineken in my opinion.
We leave the hotel to find a restaurant that offers a “menu” (app, main, and dessert) for 50dhm (5€, $7cad). I try a Moroccan soup as my app, and again have tagine for my main. Though instead of chicken and vegetables like earlier today, I try kefta, which is similar, but better, to meatballs in tomato sauce with an egg.
By this point in the evening we are all exhausted and stuffed to the brim with food, so we go home and crash. Tomorrow, Cesc and I are heading to Fes, and decide to try and hitch hike our way there instead of paying for a bus or taxi.
Najoua and Amin were only going to spend on night in Chaouen, which turned into two, and now they’ve decided to call in sick to work and stay a third. THAT’S how beautiful this city is.
I thought I was alone in my hostel, but I was wrong. I woke up to a cat curled up by my feet, and again, later, to him curled up by my neck. Not a huuuuuge fan of a strange hostel cat being near me and getting its cat hair everywhere…but it doesn’t look diseased or itchy or anything, so that’s a plus. I go online to book a hostel in Chefchaouen to find they’re all full or super expensive. Just grand. After a little panicking (I legit have to go there I can’t just skip it. It looks so beautiful!!) I give in and pay for a hotel. Some go up to 1100Mdh (102€, $145cad), but I find one for 200mdh (19€, $26cad) per night. I get the vibe it’s a little far out from the medina, but that’s okay, because it’s not 1100Mdh.
Now I just have to sort out how to get there. I’ve been told there are just two options, either a bus or a taxi. The taxis are apparently only slightly more expensive and much more comfortable. Of course, I don’t get the whole taxi to myself, I’m going to have to share it with like 7 people, but it still sounds superior to the bus.
Travel before the invention of the internet sounds much more romantic and rewarding, more adventurous, more real…but madre mia I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to get around without Google to answer all my questions.
I go out, further from the centre than I did yesterday, and find a bustling square with taxis, restaurants, shops, ATMs, and of course, street food stalls. Yassssss. I see multiple stalls selling this bread thing so I pick one and have a go at ordering. I am given the choice between cream cheese, Nutella, or peanut butter spreads and I go with cream cheese. I am charged 6mdh (0.60€, $0.80cad) for a huge piece, which is wrapped in brown paper and handed to me for takeaway. It’s kinda like folded naan bread stuffed with cream cheese. I’ve just realized I’m not very good at describing food, so I’ll stop, but trust me when I say it’s good. Next I check out of my quiet little hostel and get on my way.
I take a “petit taxi” (which are just normal sized taxis so I don’t know why they’re called “petit”) to the bus station. I can’t see the taxi stand so for a minute I consider forgetting it and trying to maneuver the madness of shouting bus drivers, vendors, and travellers. It’s hectic as hell, so I just ask someone where I can find a taxi to Chefchaouen, or ‘chaouen as all the cool locals, and now I, call it. He points me over to a slightly less hectic area where I can hear a man shouting “chaouenchaouenchaouenchaouen” very loud and very fast. I ask for the price, am told 80mdh (8€, $10cad), and get in to a 7 seater van. I suppose these are the “grand taxis”.
I meet a super nice couple from Meknes (another Moroccan city) who tell me they paid the same price for the trip which is comforting. 80 doesn’t seem expensive for a 2 hour drive, but I still don’t want to be paying tourist prices if I can help it. We wait, as the taxi won’t leave until every seat is filled; there is no time table, it just depends on demand.
A Spanish guy from Valencia joins our van and I practice a bit of Spanish on him. I can’t do much more than the standard “What is your name? Where are you from?”, and to be honest I don’t even want to be practice Spanish right now because I am mixing it with French when I speak to locals and end up just butchering every language I try to speak in the process. I can only handle one at a time. We all chat the whole ride which makes the time fly by quickly. I now have more Spanish friends in Morocco than I do in Spain. Tally: 1.
When we arrive in Chefchaouen I head up to my hostel. My new pals go in search of accommodation, and I’m feeling great about having booked something in advance. I’m not sure they’ll have any luck. We exchange numbers to meet up later.
The owners of my place made a note on their page about how easy it is to get to from the centre, so I just grab a petit taxi for 15mdh (1.40€, $2cad). The driver is friendly and takes me far up the mountain, which begins to feel way too far out of the city. He drives me to the end of a dirt road and tells me if I just walk up the hill and to the left I’ll find it. Mmmmmk. Not a fan, but sure.
Well, surprise, I don’t find it, and have to ask a group of men for directions. The father speaks a bit of French and sends his son, who is about my age but speaks no French (or English or Spanish) to help me find it. He’s really nice (though we can’t actually communicate) but I’m feeling extremely frustrated by how far away the taxi driver left me. Did he ever know where this hostel was in the first place? I’m in what feels like the middle of God damn no where. No roads, im just walking down a path following some kid I can’t ask any questions. I don’t feel scared per se, but I am aware that this could easily turn into a sketchy situation for me. I don’t have much of an escape route unless I roll down the mountain.
We walk for 10 minutes before we run into another man who speaks French and directs us back the other way. Now the three of us are walking together and they’re asking me lots of questions about my life but all I want to know is where my damn hostel is. We finally arrive and I offer them some dirham for their troubles. They both refuse which is very sweet considering neither of them asked for this little promenade in the first place.
The owner of the hostel comes down, and seems genuinely confused about how I got so lost. Well sir, maybe it’s because there is no road to your building, and only a small painted title on the door. No one knows this exists. He shows me to my room and apologizes because the bathroom light isn’t working. I am more concerned about the fact that I’m a 15 minute walk from the city, uphill all the way home.
I connect to the wifi and get in touch with my friends to see how they’ve fared in their search. Both the couple (Najoua and Amin) and the Spanish guy (Cesc, short for Francesc) have found accommodation for LESS than what I am paying here to live on the top of Mount Everest. Almost half the price I’m paying, actually, and they believe it’ll be easy for me to find a place too. Yeah, I think I’ll go, thanks. I haven’t even paid for this room yet so I’m still a free bird. My friends find a hotel down the street from theirs, send me a photo of a room, and I walk out the door. I have to walk for 5 minutes before I can even find a taxi. I don’t know who would ever choose to open a hostel at this location.
Arriving at my new place brings me peace. It’s in the medina which is literally all that matters to me. Even if the bed wash trash I’d sleep there, but it’s not, it’s a room that could sleep 3 people that I get all to myself, and it’s 120mdh (12€, $16cad) a night. I’m never leaving.
I drop my stuff in the room and we all go for lunch. I am high on the feeling of relief and success, finally at a good location, with great people, in this beautiful city.
We find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we let Najoua and Amin order for us all. A giant plate of assorted fish is placed in the middle of the table with bread, rice, and sauces on the side. In Morocco we eat with our hands, which is always great fun but a small struggle for me because it’s rude to use your left hand, and I am left handed.
We’re not given plates or anything, just paper place mats, and I’m happy I snap both a before and after shot of the mess we make while eating. It’s such good fun! 50mdh (5€, $6.50cad) for each of us to eat this feast.
Next, we wander through the medina. Chaouen is famous for being a blue city. Literally everything is blue. I thought Tangier was blue but this is next level. It’s picture perfect; the kind where no picture can actually explain how beautiful everything is, but you must take 834726 photos to try and capture it anyway. Around every corner there’s a photo op. This also makes Chaouen infinitely more touristy than Tangier, which I never love, but can entirely understand. So. Damn. Pretty!
I see some female tourists running around in tank tops, crop tops, short skirts and shorts, as if they did absolutely 0 research before arriving here. I ask Najoua and Amin about it and they say it’s normal. Some people will be offended but it’s not a big deal. Happens all the time, especially in the bigger cities (though Chaouen is not a big city). I think I am more offended by it than they are. I just feel like it’s so disrespectful to have no regard for the culture and customs, but whatever. Do you.
As it starts to get dark I am ever thankful for moving out of that first hostel. It would definitely not be safe for me to walk up there on my own at night, which would mean I’d have to leave now. At 20:00. No thanks.
We pass a street food stall with a man selling snail soup. Yes. Snails. I find this extra hilarious because I just had a conversation with one of my students, who is 11, about eating foreign food. She was quite reserved in what she was willing to try, and I told her I’ll eat anything. She asked me what I would do if I was offered snails or something weird in Morocco, and I assured her I would happily try them. Well here I am! I order a small bowl for 5mdh (0.50€, $0.66cad). It’s legit delicious, and again, fun to eat. You pick the snails out of their shells with a toothpick, toss the empties into a big collective pile on the stall, and then drink the leftover soup from the small clay bowl. Of course, I send a photo to my student.
We all head back to the couple’s hotel where they have a great little kitchen and terrace. Najoua makes us mint tea, and lays out some Moroccan pastries that she picked up on our way home. We sit outside on their terrace over looking the city, under the stars, listening to people bustling about below us. The call to prayer begins and sounds so beautiful. It echoes throughout the whole city and I’m caught in a moment that couldn’t be more perfect.
I think I just got way too excited to be blogging again, and posted about my day when it was only 30% finished. Here’s what else I did in Tangier:
It’s still too early for check-in but I maneuver my way through the medina to find my hostel. A “medina” is the term for an old Arab or non-European quarter of a North African town, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I took that straight from Google.
The hostel is charming and beautiful but utterly silent, even though it’s now almost noon. A French woman comes to check me in and identifies me as Canadian, despite by British passport, based on my poor French accent. Awesome.
I feel much more at ease now that I can leave my important things in the hostel and explore without all of my cash, passport, and livelihood attached to me.
I bring a small black and white map, but allow myself to get lost in the medina, knowing that this would be hard even for someone with an inner compass.
I take random turns through small winding streets, following white walls and doors painted in bold shades of blue. Shops are beginning to open up and I am encouraged to enter what must be 100 places over the duration of my walk, but never do. As you can imagine, cat calling is also extremely common here, as it is in many other countries where women are not valued as equals. Hell, it still happens in Canada. I keep my bag close and eyes averted, trying my best to avoid any unwanted attention – trying to stay alert while I adjust to this new environment, running the words of warning people shared before my departure, again and again through my head.
Don’t get me wrong though, I still enjoy every moment; every new corner, every blue door, every time I realize I’m back where I started. The bright colours and prints displayed on rugs, scarves, tagines and leather goods, the silver jewelry and deep baskets of spices.
It’s beautiful, and I realize over some time that no one’s objective for the day is to harm me. Once I sit down and relax at another cafe for another mint tea, I feel quite foolish for spending my morning so paranoid. I don’t plan to walk around in a crop top with my purse unzipped in the middle of the night, but I can definitely chill. It’s also no where near as hot as I was expecting. As per usual I did very little research. I’m still in the most Northern part of Northern Africa, (I can literally see Spain across the sea) so it’s only 20 degrees, and I was expecting a hefty 30. That will come later though, as I go further South to Marrakesh.
It’s also windy as hell today, and Tangier doesn’t have the cleanest of streets, so as some men are cat calling me (uncomfortable) a large piece of cardboard comes flying with a gust of wind and smacks the back of my head (now even more uncomfortable). They all laugh. I keep walking like nothing happened. Just terrible.
I find my way back to the hostel and can finally settle into my room. It’s a 7 bed dorm but so far it’s just me. I take a little siesta and when I wake up I’m still alone. This is disappointing, because I was hoping to make some friends. I go out into the common area by reception…still just me. I can’t figure out why it’s such a ghost town!
Dinner time rolls around. I venture back outside, but this time with more of an aim. I google some places to eat in Tangier, realizing I hadn’t seen any street food on my morning and afternoon expeditions. Well, nothing major. One man was selling baguette sandwiches but that doesn’t seem super Moroccan to me…
I decide on a TripAdvisor approved restaurant and head in that direction, keeping my eyes open in case I find something more interesting. It’s entirely possible I’ll get lost, anyway.
Spoiler alert! I don’t get lost. Well, a little, but I sort myself out. No help required. The restaurant is absolutely adorable, moderately expensive for my backpacker budget, but still affordable. I order a vegetable tagine, which comes with bread, a hot blended pea dip (I make it sound awful but I swear it’s good), and some olives to start. It’s ridiculous, guys. Drop what you’re doing and go find some authentic Moroccan food somewhere. This is not a drill.
I get a free mint tea and little pasty dessert after my meal which is a fun bonus for a meal that’s 65 Mdh (conversion). Apparently free mint tea is a thing across the whole country, actually.
I vow to find cooler, cheaper, street food for future meals. It’s meant to be amazing and if it’s anything like this tagine I just devoured, I will be pleased.
Opting for the early flights never seems so bad until you’re boarding an airport bus at 4am. My flight to Tangier, Morocco, doesn’t leave until 6:50, but my greatest fear in life is missing a flight so I try to get to the airport early. This is probably one of the only things in life I am ever early for.
Oh yah. Did I mention I’m going to Morocco?! I’m super super stoked. This trip will mark a couple “firsts” for me; first time in Africa, and my first time in a predominantly Muslim country. It will also be my 5th continent and the 25th country I’ve visited, just in time for my 25th birthday, which I will celebrate while I’m here! It’s all very exciting.
Living in Barcelona is anything but boring, but I’ve been craving a little adventure lately so when I found out the schools in Spain get an entire week off for Easter (or “Semana Santa”), I jumped on the opportunity to get away. I’m not exactly making bank as a teacher in Spain, so I should disclose that this wonderful trip would not have been possible without the wonderful support of my wonderful family. Pro tip: flights make the best birthday gifts.
I’ve read (and then confirmed with the information desk) that the only way to get into the city is by taxi. I agree on a fixed price of 150Mdh (Moroccan Dirham), which is equivalent to about 15€…or $20 Canadian. I’m not sure which exchange to compare on my blog now. I’m thinking in euros, but the only person who reads this is my Mom and she uses Canadian dollars so….
Anyway. Back to the taxi. Actually, before I get to the taxi, I must state that the currency exchange in Barcelona tried to rob me damn near blind. 60 euros was only going to get me about 40 euros worth of dirham. Hell no. The woman assured me I’d never find a better rate, and I rolled my eyes. When I got to the Tanger airport they gave me 60 euros worth of dirham for my 60 euros. Imagine that. A fair exchange.
Okay so my taxi. The driver and I communicate in French which is difficult for me, mostly because I haven’t spoken it properly in years, and also because I’m trying to learn Spanish, so now I just confuse the two. He speaks mostly Arabic and claims his French is horrible but I can assure you it’s better than mine. We have a nice little chat on the way into the city, and he doesn’t try to rip me off when I arrive. He does take me to the wrong address, though, and now I’m pretty lost. I don’t want to look toooooo useless, but I also don’t want to pull out my phone in the street, so I ask someone for directions. Again, we converse in French and he points me in the right direction. Being me and having a poor sense of direction, I screw up somewhere along the line and go the wrong way. He chases me down to set me straight again, which, at first I find a little concerning. He’s just been low key following me down the road? I stay a little on guard but once we get close to my hostel he leaves me on my way and doesn’t even ask for money. I’ve read/heard you can expect to be asked for money for any sort of advice or help, and was preparing for how I’d deal with that in this moment. No need!
I’ve only been here for maybe an hour…but I already think people back home have exaggerated the danger of Morocco. The people here are lovely!
I now know I’m close to my hostel, but still not exactly where it is. I have 5 hours before I can check in, so I stop at a cafe for some wifi and to get my life together. I order a mint tea and croissant. It costs 1.20€. I love it here.
The sun is shining, there is a homeless man singing across the street, and a raggedy little cat stares me in the eyes as it takes a poop in the planter next to my table. Have I mentioned how much I love it here?
If you’re reading this as preliminary research to decide if Vipassana is for you, you’re already steps ahead of where I was when preparing. You go Glen Co Co! You’ve come to the right place. The Vipassana course is hard to put into words, but I will do my very best. These are the tales of my personal visit but of course, everyone is going to have a different experience.
This is what I had heard about Vipassana (all from different sources) before deciding I had to experience it for myself.
“You only get two vegan meals a day”
“You aren’t allowed to speak or look at anyone for 10 days”
“You meditate for like, 11 hours a day”
“You aren’t allowed to have any contact with the outside world”
“They basically let you in with nothing but the clothes on your back”
Only some of this is accurate.
Day 0 – Arrival
I leave at 9am from my home in Toronto to make the 6 hour drive to Montebello, Quebec; a small town situated between Ottawa and Montreal. This is where I will be staying for the next 10 days to attend a Vipassana course. Honestly, I feel like I’m walking into this totally blind. Aside from the bits and pieces of ostentatious statements mentioned above, I don’t know very much about what I’m getting myself into. What I do know is that it’s going to be hard, but I haven’t quite figured out why. But hey, That’s what makes this an adventure!
In the weeks leading up to this, as I told my friends and family about my little excursion, I was met with so many kind words of… straight up discouragement. To be fair, I talk A LOT, so I can’t blame anyone for being a little doubtful of my ability to remain silent for 10 days.
It is daunting, I’ll admit.
A couple hours into the drive I stop for some breakfast and cruise through my phone while I eat. I decide to open up the confirmation e-mail, and because of who I am as a person, I am late to discover the CHECK-LIST. It’s accessible by clicking a link plainly presented to anyone who bothered to open the e-mail and do so much as skim it. What I’m missing in my pack: Bedding, indoor shoes, shower sandals, and an alarm clock (Other things like your own meditation pillows and rain gear are also suggested, but ain’t nobody got time/money/space in their bag for that). Okay, well I guess I have no choice but to hit a Walmart unless I want to sleep on a sheet-less, blanket-less bed.
$87 and 30 minutes later, I am appropriately prepped to arrive.
Immediately as I pull up to the summer camp-like property, I am hit with the inevitable “what have I done” rush of emotion. I say my last goodbyes to my iPhone and shut it down. I’m officially off the grid. Goodbye, sweet social media.
At check-in they ask me if I have anything to leave in the safe and I let them know that I left all my valuables in my car, but offer up my keys. The lady shrugs and says I can keep them with me if I like. These idiots let me keep my car keys?! I can escape whenever I want!Muahaha! So much for “nothing but the clothes on your back”.
I am surprised to see lots of pairs here – couples and friends (there are even two pregnant ladies) all mingling together in the dining hall. This seems like more of a solo experience to me.
I go to set up my dorm room (which I will be sharing with 5 other women) and get to use my fancy new Walmart bedding. I realize that I neglected to purchase a battery along with my alarm clock. Rookie move. I ask management if they have one for me, but the man I speak to suggests I wait 24-48 to decide if I really need it….Ok?
I go back to the dining hall and drink multiple cups of tea while people watching, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m actually doing this. I don’t socialize much because I’ve already mentally prepared myself for silence, which I ignorantly assumed would start the moment I walked through the front door. Clearly not.
There are approximately 150 students attending this session, and together we listen to a tape which lays out all the requirements for attending the course: to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and all intoxicants. Seems manageable. Immediately after, we are separated by gender and then blocked from so much as seeing the men for the rest of the course. The centre uses curtain partitions for the dining hall, separate meditation halls, entirely different buildings for living quarters, and we even have our own separated walking areas with tall wooden fences outside.
We dive in and have our first meditation session on this very night. Our names are called and we are invited to choose a blue floor cushion as our permanent seat in the meditation hall. I sit at the back. Our session starts with an audio recording of a man chanting. No words will EVER do this justice, but it sounds so funny that I can’t help but wonder if it’s some weird joke or test. Rude of me, because no.
It’s not. It’s S.N. Goenka, the world’s late but most recent major Vipassana teacher, initiating the session with some old sanskrit songs. It’s not soothing chanting music, not really melodic in any way, but it’s tradition.
I won’t lie, I’ve joined this program with a little skepticism. They call it science, but is this secretly a cult? I’ve gotta keep my eyes open for signs. I’ve been raised without any religion, and I like it that way. Even the idea of chanting is pretty foreign to me. We don’t have to chant though, just listen.
The session only lasts about an hour, and by 9pm we are told to “take rest” and retire for the night. I fall asleep almost instantly.
Day 1 – Breathe
I wake up late, obviously. I don’t have a damn alarm clock. Technically our day starts at 4am, but I am pleased to discover the meditation hours between 4 and 6:30am are not mandatory. I do however, need to be awake by 6:30 if I plan to eat breakfast, and considering I’ll only have the opportunity to eat twice a day, I better stuff my face while I can.
Still having no concept of the time I wander out of my room into the hallway, and see a line up of women leading into the dining hall. Perfect, there’s still time to eat. Breakfast is set up buffet style, but don’t picture a fancy hotel buffet with tons of options… it’s oatmeal, cereal (with gluten free options of course), fruit, and toast with peanut butter, tahini, butter, and two choices of jam available as spreads. I have some oatmeal and make toast with peanut butter. All meals will in fact be vegan, and only served twice a day, so that was no exaggeration. There is also a snack period at 5pm where we are able to drink tea and eat some fruit.
After breakfast I have some spare time before the 8am meditation session. What does one do with free time when you have nothing? I can’t read, write, creep social media, or start a Netflix series. What else in life is there? I end up taking a nap out of boredom and confusion. I wake up to the gong which is rung three times to call us downstairs to meditate. After sitting with my legs crossed for quite some time, making adjustments and trying different amounts of pillows for cushioning and support to no avail, I conclude that I will never get comfortable, ever. Today we are just focusing on the awareness of our breath. Anapanasati. For an hour I sit, trying to focus my mind on nothing but being conscious of which nostril the air is blowing through, and how shallow or deep my natural breathing may be.
I am easily distracted, though. A girl sitting in front of me has a pretty gnarly rat tail going on, and it’s not the first one I’ve seen here. She’s got a bob hairstyle, with one longggggg dreaded tail hanging down below her left ear. I don’t get it, but to each their own.
After an afternoon of more spare time, naps and intermittent meditating (or for now, just breathing awareness) we sit down to watch the nightly discourse.
This is where we actually see Goenka for the first time, as opposed to just hearing his voice on the recordings. He gives a mini lecture about the importance of Vipassana and uses some anecdotal stories to explain the benefits. He’s an interesting character, because while he has a natural command for respect, I simultaneously want to pinch his cheeks.
He uses a ton of word repetition on both the recordings and videos.
“You must work diligently…diligently”.
“For best results you must work continuously, persistently, ardently, diligently”. The evening discourses start at 7pm after a mandatory meditation session, and end around 8:30. Another half hour of meditation follows, and then we are sent to bed.
Day 2 – Focus
Goenka has said that days 2 and 6 are the hardest. It’s Day 2 and I’m chillin’.
Breakfast is exactly the same as yesterday. I’m not a huge fan of oatmeal but I have accepted that it’s probably going to be the featured menu item every morning for the next 8 days, so I learn to be content with peanut butter toast and a banana.
I’ve found myself thinking in French and I don’t really understand why. Yes, I’m in Quebec, and all instructions are presented in both English and French, but with minimal speech surrounding me in general, I don’t understand why I’m not thinking in my mother tongue. I’ve lost my French skill over the last few years, so the time I spend formulating sentences and trying to remember how to conjugate verbs is probably well spent.
It’s a beautiful day so I go for a walk in the woods after lunch. Neurotically, 6 times around the small trail loop.
It’s only day 2, and people have already begun to show signs of mental instability. There is one woman who’s absolutely insane about the food. As mentioned before, all meals here are vegan. Lunch is a vegetable stew, brown rice, and a little make your own salad bar (which is rad, by the way). I watch her as she approaches the kitchen to knock on the door and make some inquiry…just as she has for the past 3 meals. What questions can you possibly have about chickpeas and lettuce? What is your diet? Why, as a grown woman, have you not learned to manage this on your own?
Even crazier than this lady, is a young woman about my age who I catch crouched down in the forest eating pine needles right off the branch. Two vegan meals sounds scary but I mean…. I’m not resort-to-pine-needles hungry.
During my walk in the forest I start doing some math. Okay, so it’s day 2 which means I’ve been here 2/10 days which is 1/5 of the total days. I just have to do this 4 more times and bang! It’ll be over before I know it. Day 2. It’s lunch time so only 2 more mandatory sessions to go. Plus 3 each day. So that’s 8 days x 3 + 2… which is only 26 more sessions. 26 hours is basically just one day. I can totally do this.
I didn’t realize there was meditation fashion. I’m in yoga pants…yet some of the women here have come all gypsy chic. They look like god damn Mary Kate and Ashley.
Exclusive: Real images captured of the women in the course below
I do my best to do less napping and spend more time meditating. We are frequently given the option to meditate in the hall or in our rooms if we prefer. This has been a common nap time for me. Are other people actually meditating? Or are we all just sleeping? If I’m here I’m obviously going to give it my best shot, which will have to mean more focus on the meditation technique. Today, instead of focusing solely on our breathing, we are now focusing all of our attention on one section of our faces – the bridge of the nose down to the top of the upper lip. Everything in that triangular area we are to pay attention to. Again with the breathing and the nostrils, but anything else that we might feel, like hot, cold, itching, etc. I do my best to focus, but often I find my mind wandering away. Or, as the french say, mon esprit s’échappe.
Day 3 – No Stealing
I’m always waking up late, but I don’t care enough to track anyone down for an alarm clock battery. Whatev. 4am is an absurd time to wake up anyway. They do ring the gong at 4am and again at 4:20, but I am too heavy of a sleeper for that to even reach my subconscious.
Another woman has shown signs of crazy: It’s sunny and 20 degrees outside, I’m in a t-shirt, and she has come outside in a damn parka. Fur hood, the whole deal. Maybe she’s trying to emulate some kind of detoxing sweat lodge situation. Who knows.
On my way in from my daily post-lunch walk, one of the assistant teachers pulls me aside to tell me that my shirt is too “skimpy” and might be distracting to others. (You’re not allowed to talk to the other participants, but communication with teachers and assistants is permitted.) Mm mm, you didn’t just do that. I point out the fact that is has sleeves which is within the regulations, but it’s a loose fitting top and one sleeve had slid down off my shoulder, which apparently is a very distracting part of my body. I want to call her on it, but instead I just express my surprise and put my sweater back on. Can I just say, it’s 2016. Not only should my shoulder not be considered distracting to men, it certainly shouldn’t be considered distracting to any of the other 74 women here. Let’s just remember that2,500 years ago when Buddha was teaching Vipassana, he was wearing nothing but a loin cloth. When I visit any sort of temple or religious monument that requires conservative dress I am absolutely on board. Even being agnostic I can certainly respect the religious practices of others (within reason), but when I come to something like this, which makes such a point of stating and restating how secular it is, it’s hard for me to accept a t-shirt being dubbed too “skimpy”. I hate that word at the best of times.
It’s also an inconvenience to me because it means I’m now down to 2 wearable shirts…
I’m starting to question the whole thing a little. Not because of the shirt, and not my decision to come here, but just the validity of the whole practice. So many people love it though, so I will continue to work diligently…diligently.
Whenever Goenka is finished his signature final chant, students are invited to respond with “sadu”. Which is pronounced more like SaaaaahhhhDoooooo. It’s creepy. Imagine a zombie walking around saying “neeeeeed brainnnnns”. It’s the same dark and creepy tone. But what bothers me most about the Sadu Zombies, is that they don’t know what they’re Saduing. (Apparently Sadu means “I agree” or “well said”.) The message board says something along the lines of “the traditional chanting is mostlywell wishes to all beings”. Keyword: mostly. I would like a full translation and dissection of the text please, before I start Saduing to anything.
Even though Vipassana is not a cult, the Sadu Zombies are definitely the people who would drink the punch if prompted. “Here, we will all drink this funky tea to take us down the path to enlightenment”, and next thing you know, BAM. Dead.
I’ll never Sadu.
Knowing that I would try to write a blog post about my experience upon my return, I’ve been trying to keep mental notes of my daily activities. It’s only Day 3 and these have already started to slip away, so Buddha knows what I’ll forget by Day 10. I have to get a pen.
The problem with this is that we’re not allowed to steal, and like I said, if I’m here I might as well be here, and abide by all their stipulations. After snack time at 5pm and our next mandatory meditation session at 6pm, I walk back to my room and voilà, a pen materializes outside the door of my room.
I’m not kidding. A pen is just sitting there, wedged behind the F which identifies my little living cubicle. A gift from Buddha himself. Now I need paper.
Oh right. They provided me with a map of the grounds when I arrived. This goes to show how strict they are about no pens, papers, books, etc. I realize I could have brought like 3 novels and no one would have ever known… but I suppose it would defeat the purpose.
I take my magical pen and start scribbling down jot notes on my map, feeling elated.
We’re now at the point in our meditation sessions where I’m not supposed to be focusing on anything but what I’m feeling on the space above my upper lip, which is mostly just the air from my breath. I haven’t reached enlightenment yet… but maybe tomorrow.
Day 4 – Vipassana Day
At breakfast I watch a woman’s toast catch fire. One of those big toasters with the rotating conveyor belt thing that drop the toast down to the bottom. Don’t know what they’re called. You know what I mean. Anyway, I silently died laughing while she silently panicked and tried to save it with a knife before realizing she needed to unplug the machine to avoid death. These are the pros to the 10 day noble silence.
The hours have started feeling excruciatingly long. However, on the plus side, my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. I’ve adjusted to sitting cross-legged for long periods of time. A new life skill! The stress of the hours is still there.
After lunch I go for a walk outside. I live for my time outside, it’s got animals and moving things for me to look at. So much mental stimulation!! I then head to the meditation hall, even though it’s not mandatory, so that I can force myself to give it another solid go. I realize I’ve made a huge mistake when I sit there for an hour, get a quick break, and then have to go back for the mandatory meditation hour as well. Then, to make matters worse, I have to sit for a full TWO hour session to learn the official Vipassana technique. I’m kinda stoked because it means I’ll be truly meditating and not just aware of breathing out of my nose, but that’s 4 straight hours of sitting and I regret everything.
As mentioned before, Goenka loves to repeat stuff. Well, as we are learning Vipassana he repeats words so many times, which are then repeated in French, that I have a mental. fucking. breakdown. Imagine this though, seriously.
Start by surveying the top of your head. Pay attention to any sensations that you may be feeling. A sensation can be anyyyything; it can be a tingling sensation, a tickling sensation, a prickling sensation, a sensation of numbness, a sensation of itching, anything at all….
For some, it might be a sensation of heat, or of cold, or a sensation of softness, a sensation of moisture, perhaps a sensation of dryness. It can be anything at all.
Repeat in French.
Now begin to survey your face. Start with the forehead and move your way down. Remember, a sensation can be anyyyything ; it can be a tingling sensation, a tickling sensation, a prickling sensation, a sensation of numbness, a sensation of itching, anything at all….
For some, it might be a sensation of heat, or of cold, or a sensation of softness, a sensation of moisture, perhaps a sensation of dryness. It can be anything at all.
Repeat in French. Begin to survey your shoulders. Repeat. Begin to survey your left arm. your right arm. your chest. your upper back. your lower back. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And for the record, he isn’t saying repeat, I am, because the trauma of reliving that situation is too much. At one point I remember him saying “for some, it might feel like ants crawling, and for others, perhaps like insects moving”. It was true pain, my friends. True pain.
I start weeping. Tears literally rolling down my face to a point where the neck of my shirt became wet. I do my best not to open my eyes and just focus on surveying all my damn sensations, but how can anyone focus when he talks so much?! We’re not supposed to, but I open my eyes to see if everyone else around me is dying on the inside as well. Looking for signs of tears, but everyone seems chill af. It’s just me. Crying my life away. I try to pull it together and tell myself I’m being unreasonable… but I swear if you played that tape for me today I’d burst into tears again. I don’t know how my course mates could stay so strong. I need to leave. Not the session, but this whole situation. I start fantasizing about ways to get my bags over to my car without anyone noticing. Escaping in the middle of the night. How the freedom of driving away in my car would feel.
Somehow, I survive the 2 hours.
I calm down by the next meditation session.
I wonder if it’s just my natural fast paced personality and lifestyle I live, or to do with my ADD, but I am honestly surprised that I was the only one whose ears were BLEEDING.
Day 5 – Miso and Mushroom
I sleep like shit. So poorly in fact, that I sleep right through breakfast. FML.
It’s all this napping I’ve been doing. It has to end.
I’m still constantly toying with the idea of leaving, but knowing that I won’t actually do it. I didn’t drive 6 hours and commit to 10 days just to back out like some loser. Nah.
It rains. I have no rain gear. I can’t go outside. All the women, including myself, have this ridiculous habit of staring longingly out the window during meal times… even though the window only leads to a parking lot. When someone drives in everyone watches with genuine interest. We’re all taking advantage of ANY mental stimulation we can.
Yesterday’s miso and mushroom soup with a side of steamed kale, has become today’s miso and mushroom sauce on brown rice noodles mixed in with – whether you like it or not – steamed kale. With the same salad bar as always. I was stoked on the beets in the salad for the first few days but now I can barely look at them. Usually I’m not a picky eater! But all this repetition is driving me nuts (literally).
I don’t want anyone to get me wrong; Vipassana is a non-profit organization which relies solely on donations of their attendees, so obviously meals were not going to be lavish and they can’t afford to waste anything. I get it. I appreciate all of it, but still. I laugh.
Neurotic food lady has still approached the kitchen with an unnecessary question for every meal.
One of the pregnant ladies has gone missing. She quit. I can’t blame her though, I’m uncomfortable sitting for an hour, and I’m not 8 months pregnant.
Day 6 – Waiting Game
My days have been going like this:
Wake Up – look forward to meal time.
Meal Time – during meal time look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 1 – during meditation session look forward to meal time.
Meal Time – enjoy meal and look forward to free time.
Free Time – enjoy the outdoors. Shower. during free time look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 2 – during meditation session plan to meditate in free time
Free Time – sit on my bed and count how much time there is to go. look forward to snack
Snack Time – Enjoy some fruit and look forward to meditation session.
Meditation Session 3 – during meditation session look forward to discourse
Discourse – enjoy discourse but count down until day end meditation session
Day End Meditation Session – during meditation session get stoked on the fact that it’s almost bed time.
Bed Time – sleep and enjoy life.
I’m getting weird. My mind wanders and I think of things friends have said in the past that made me laugh, which become infinitely funnier in this context. I have to hold back laughter and sometimes sit there smiling to myself like a weirdo. I’m not the only one. One lady at snack time starts laughing and I sort of acknowledge it with a little smile in her direction without making eye contact. I look back a minute later and oh my god she isn’t laughing she’s fucking crying and having a mental breakdown as she peels her orange. My bad, ladyyyyyy! One thousand sorries. But of course, I can’t verbally apologize. So I just go about my business, drinking my tea and eating my banana, pretending I can’t hear the lady sobbing beside me.
At lunch I watch one girl start a rock family. She picks up stones from the small forest trail as she walks and then turns them into little inookshook guys to put on a big rock in the main yard. Like I said, a few signs of insanity popping up all over the place.
Day 6 is another rough day, just as Goenka predicted. I’ve never wanted to leave more than I do right now. For the first time, I think about it seriously. Though I know I’ll regret it, and I can just SEE my friends and family back home exchanging money; settling bets based on how long I’d last here. I’ve gotta trek on. I’ve also made it more than half way. Quitting now would be absurd. Only 4 days and 13 hours left to go. Feels like nothing more than a challenge right now.
Day 7 – Groundhog
I sleep through breakfast again. I don’t even understand how I don’t hear a 6:30am gong when I’m falling asleep at 9:30. All I do is rest all day anyway. What gives, body?
Not much to report today. All is the same. Sit. Meditate. Eat. Repeat. My teeth have never been so clean. I brush them at least 4 times a day out of boredom. But I really am trying to embrace it as much as possible. I try to focus my attention more in each meditation session. We’re now sweeping our entire bodies for sensations instead of every individual part. Thank Buddha.
On my daily walk i see the girl with the rock family standing still and just staring at a groundhog in the yard from a distance. Relax, you’re not Snow White. I do a few loops of the trail, and upon my return, I see the groundhog chillin’ with the damn rock family. On the same rock and everything. Meanwhile rock family girl has perched herself insanely close and adjacently to her new furry friend and just hangs out.
She has literally bonded with nature. I am dyyyying with laughter. Silently and internally, of course.
The discourses have gotten better. A bit more interesting; today he talks about religion vs. Vipassana and I swear, Goenka has the most eloquent way of tearing into every religion and calling them on their bullshit… without being offensive. It’s a beautiful thing. This confirms my faith that Vipassana is in fact, not a cult.
ALTHOUGH, I do have to call them on a little bit of bullshit too.
A) We have already discussed the issue of my shirt and general dress code
B) Goenka is consistently encouraging us not to blindly follow any rites or rituals… yet is consistently chanting at the beginning and end of every session, and expecting the Sadu Zombies to chant back at him in the end. It’s not mandatory but I mean… it’s a thing.
C) We aren’t allowed to point our feet anywhere in the direction of the teacher, who is almost always wearing white (you’re not Olivia Pope), and sits on an elevated couch/chair thingy.
D) I cannot stress enough the creepiness of the Sadu Zombies.
E) ok…maybe that’s it… but it still seems like a slightly ritualesque practice in spite of their claims.
The time from 5pm onward moves relatively quickly. Snack, meditation session, discourse, half meditation session, sleep. No excessive and unnecessary free time in between. It’s efficient.
Two meals a day sounds scary, but today is the first time I have been hungry so far. I’m not even that hungry, but my tummy rumbles during the silent meditation, and to be fair, I did skip breakfast.
Day 8 – Course Boundary
I have no concept of what an hour feels like. Even after hours and hours of this, I sit meditating and being like, okay, he’s going to start chanting any minute. It must be at least 8:50. Anyyyy minute. And then 30 minutes later he does his closing chant. It hurts, guys.
I take a walk at a slow time when no one else seems to be outside. I do a couple loops on the trail to find out I am alone. HA. I take off my sweater even though all I’m wearing underneath is a tank top. As I’m out here alone, everyone is protected, I can’t “distract” anybody. Because of who I am, I find it necessary to step over the course boundary. There’s a huge forest back there, yet our trail is so short. I don’t go too far because the leaves are crunchy and I don’t want to be kicked out on Day 8. I have no idea how seriously they’d take this.
Lunch is pretty meh today, so I’m happy I made it up in time for breakfast. Lunch is tofu, steamed kale, and roasted sweet potatoes.
No sign of the pine needle eating girl lately.
I go outside again later in the evening, before our last daily session. It’s just me and two other girls outside. I watch one of them climb a tree. She goes pretty high. Respect.
My mind still wanders during meditation but I can now sit without pain which is a huge bonus.
Day 9 – The Light
I can see the light! I’ve basically completed the course. In 48 hours I’ll be cruising down the highway in my car. Homeward bound. Scream-singing along to my music, just because I can. There’s only 4 more mandatory sessions before we’re allowed to speak to each other. Oh yeah, perhaps I didn’t mention, Day 10 isn’t even really like a full day because after the morning session we are free to speak! After this I fully expect time to fly by. No more boredom, I can go talk someone’s ear off to pass the time instead.
The Vipassana has gone to a deeper level where we are now supposed to feel like we’re dissolving….
Yeah. That’s not a thing for me. I really try but just can’t make it happen, so I continue to do the full body sweeps and hope I’ll start dissolving soon.
I can’t eat another salad. I opt for toast instead. When it’s ready it goes flying out of the toaster (because we also have normal non-flame-igniting toasters), just like in the movies! I chuckle to myself. My standards for entertainment are extremely low here.
Okay I think I screwed up. I expected this day to move quickly because of the constant reminder that it was coming to a close soon. I was wrong. Time’s still draggin’.
I feel that the Vipassana technique has gone over my head. I was good for a while, but don’t feel on the ball with it anymore.
The time does eventually pass though, and I sleep well knowing it’s only a few more hours until I can open my big mouth again!
Day 10 – We Made It
I’m running out of room on my note-taking paper/map.
At this point I’ve got notes crammed into the roads and buildings on the map; really any free white space has now been used.
I return my pen to it’s original place of discovery. I stand by my no stealing, just borrowing.
I spend all morning dreaming of my impending freedom. The last session before free speech is EXTRA long, and with extended amounts of chanting. We now learn a final technique called “metta” which is another way to meditate and send your love and compassion out into the world like good vibes. This only takes 10 minutes, and comes after the meditation session.
When I am finally allowed to speak… I feel like I don’t know how. Like I have to convince myself to get out of my own head and join society again. Like I haven’t gathered my thoughts enough to put what I just experienced into words.
I don’t know how to make friends. I realize that I’ve taken a bit of a pessimistic approach to this whole thing, and am not sure how everyone else feels about it. Probably not best to start off a conversation with my best Goenka chanting impression…
Eventually, over lunch, we all start chatting and comparing experiences. Eruptions of laughter are frequent throughout the dining hall. After we’ve eaten we are allowed to mingle with the boys, but only in designated areas. One old man crossed the imaginary border to come chat with his wife, but is quickly ushered back over to the male side by one of the service people. I laugh. Out loud. Because I can.
It’s funny how you can live with and be around people for 24 hours and not actually know them. I chat with lots of girls my age and they’re all pretty cool.
I ask how long they think the trail is – for written record purposes – and one girl can tell me exactly. She measured…with her feet…and did some math. I believe she said it was 57 steps on one side, and 72 on the other. One step is approximately half a meter and blah blah blah I don’t know, but she reckons it’s 0.16km. zero. point. one. six… over and over again.
The fact that she took the time to count says everything about Vipassana. Forget everything you’ve just read, this describes it all.
All in all I can still acknowledge that it was REALLY REALLY REALLY HARD, but was a good experience, in it’s way. I feel really great having completed it, like I’ve really accomplished something. Looking back at 10 days now feels like nothing, but having kept some notes reminds me I won’t need to be returning any time soon.
I’ve already decided on some people I would recommend this to, and would potentially consider returning myself… but not for a few years or so at least.
To summarize, recommend, and debunk some common myths:
1.Read the damn checklist before you’re on the road and half way there. 2. It’s true that you’re only fed twice a day, but I promise you won’t die of starvation. 3.You can people watch (and you’ll see some weird shit), but making eye contact would just be weird anyway. 4.You have the opportunity to meditate for about 9 hours a day at most. Only 3 times daily is it actually required.
5.You get to keep your stuff, no one searches you. If you wanted to be a doofus and bring a phone, you totally could, but in my opinion, why would you?
6.Mental stimulation is key and this generation doesn’t know how to entertain themselves without a smart phone. It was really hard. I wouldn’t know how to prepare you for this. But…
7.It’s a great physical, mental, and addiction detox!!
8. Just dive in and go for it, dude. Who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with it. There are some people I know who’ve gone more than 10 times.
9. If you’re more curious about the technique…google S.N. Goenka on Youtube, where you can find clips of him chanting and some of his discourses as well. Even if you try to teach yourself the technique, it’ll never live up to how you would learn it at the meditation centre itself.
10. …If you’ve ever heard Macklemore’s “Vipassana” song, it will become so much clearer after you do the course. Isn’t that reason enough?
***All photos embedded in this post are all I could find on Google. Obvs. didn’t have my own camera.***