Saturday, May 27, 2017

Morocco for Ramadan

Omar and I take a camel ride on the nearly deserted beach at Sidi Kaouiki
It's Ramadan again, and I'm recalling the summer we spent in Morocco last year during the Muslim's holiest month.  We rented a minivan and drove about 1000 miles during the month, starting in Marrakesh and ending in Fez. It was hot. It was also the experience of a lifetime as we saw the diversity of what the country had to offer.  I didn't know at the time that I would write a book about it, but the stories and memories of the people we'd met stayed with me, so I put it on paper.  The book is available now on Amazon and Kindle.

Before we went, people thought we were a bit crazy to drive in an African country. I think being a bit naive on my part, it was a plus.  Between cities, there wasn't much traffic, but we encountered speed traps and check points every day in every city. I saw some crazy things.  I also grew from the experience. That's the best part of getting out of one's comfort zone.  Personal growth happens.  It widens a person's perspective about people and places.  It's such a good thing. I really believe if everyone had to travel to places where they didn't speak the language or follow the same customs, the world would be a much more understanding place.

I tried to capture the places on my camera. It's a photo rich country.  Just look at the blue city alleys of Chefchaouen in the upper left photo, and then the blue boats of El Jadida on the right. There are similar boats all along the coast. Each city has different colors.

Ramadan is a time for Muslims to fast. They eat an early morning breakfast before sunrise.  Then they don't eat or drink until after sunset.  It's a very long day, and Abdul nearly always took a nap to make the time go a bit faster. We ate nearly the same meal every night to break the fast, though Omar and I weren't fasting. My husband Abdul was. We enjoyed eating with Moroccans on several occasions. The highlight was dinner at the top of a mountain near Tetouan where we ate with a Moroccan family who owned an ecolodge.

Most tourists see only the famous tourist spots like the enormous mosque at Casablanca and the ancient tannery of Fez.  We managed to see those places too. But it was the little things we enjoyed along the way I write about in my book.  Omar chased cats.  I drove in the dark with no wiper fluid and nearly hit a cow in a sandstorm in the middle of the city. Omar fed monkeys and gave them water from bottles. I struggled to be understood using really poor French, but we got by. We saw the King praying at the mosque. We watched boys play soccer at a natural spring where they would lay out carpets under their feet to wash them. Lifeguards at the pool read the Koran to pass the day. Meals at McDonalds couldn't be eaten in public. There were hundreds of little differences.  If you're thinking about visiting Morocco, or just want a window into the lives of Moroccans during Ramadan, I hope you'll read my book. 
Fez tannery

We saw the King at the Mosque in Casablanca.
Feral cats were everywhere. They keep the rodent population down.

My son Omar, Me, and husband Abdulhamid in Marrakesh

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

EAA Museum- Great Place for Families

1 of 30 nose art pieces on display currently
We were in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the weekend where we visited the EAA Museum.  Since I spent 21 years in the Air Force, I have an interest in aircraft but had never been to this attraction. It features and supports experimental aircraft, but it also has a great collection of other aircraft and memorabilia.  
replica of the Wright Brothers aircraft

The current exhibit of WWII nose art is rare and unusual. This is the first museum to display these vintage paintings. Though some might find them offensive because of the women depicted, it is a view into the history of warfare. Some pieces are in the main hangar gallery, while the more provocative are in a segregated area with a warning to parents. They are beautifully presented with a history about the artists and where the aircraft flew.

Our 11 year old son was invited to take a plane ride on the opposite side of the grounds with a volunteer pilot as part of the young eagles program. This program promotes aviation among young people ages 8-17. Older teens can fly in a biplane. It was definitely the highlight of his day going up in the air and actually having the opportunity to man the controls as they flew over Oshkosh. The flight was about 10 minutes. Be sure to take the trolley to the flight side of the grounds whether you plan to take a flight because there are several hangars full of aircraft.
Checking out the plane before flight

Strapped in and ready for flight
If you want to make a day of the EAA grounds, bring a fishing pole and a picnic lunch.  It has a beautiful natural area and a fishing pond.

With a new theater showing older flight related movies, you can go to evening events.  There are also special events scheduled throughout the year, which include displays, social gatherings, and aircraft rides like the B-17.

For us it was a memorable day and though we skimmed through the museum in a couple hours, we could easily go back again and learn something new.  The volunteers are what really make this place great.  If you go, let me know what you enjoyed most!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Holland Michigan Tulip Festival

My front yard in bloom
There's something so encouraging about seeing tulips in bloom.  It's why my own yard is planted in hundreds of the pretty flowers. We know that winter is behind us and summer ahead.  The days are getting longer and that means more time outside in the sunshine.  Though I would love to be in the Netherlands right now, the US has some pretty good places to enjoy tulips on a smaller scale.

We had been to Pella for tulip season two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the color and festive atmosphere. This year we wanted to see Holland Michigan,  known for its Tulip Time festival. Unfortunately it was very cold, so we didn't stand outside for too long, but we made our way quickly through some of the parks taking a few photos. First stop was the Windmill Island Gardens, where we paid admission, and there were tulips galore as well as costumed performers and a reenactment with fur traders, which was colorful and fun. People could have a tour of the windmill, or see the enormous organ play. Shops sold traditional cookies and sandwiches.

tulips with the white tents in the rear, used by the reenactors and merchants

Next stop was the downtown park Window on the Waterfront, which had a nice monument and again, thousands of tulips. They even had an explanation about why they didn't have more- hungry deer had eaten about 9000 in winter. This is a free stop with walking paths to a nice wetland/wildlife area at the rear. During the festival, there were trolleys to take people around the city.

Traditional Dutch costumes on these statues at the front of the park
There was an art fair at Centennial Park going on during the festival, with unique handcrafted items.  At the center of the park were performing Dutch dancers, though we didn't stay for it.  I just wanted to get into a warm place and drink some coffee. I know the photos look sunny, but it was about 38 degrees F and quite windy. The tulips were indeed beautiful though.  Well worth a visit if you are there in early May.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Some Oddities in Dubai- Box Park and Miracle Gardens

I think the places that really surprised me in Dubai were the shopping mall made of shipping crates and the enormous A380 airliner completely covered in flowers.  Would you expect that?  Dubai can be full of surprises and I love that about the city. I enjoy knowing that there will always be something new to explore.

The Boxpark might be the best place to watch New Year's Eve fireworks, as it is outside the city center but has a great view. It's marketed as a hip shopping and dining experience, and has most of the shops you'd see in any city, but every one of them has some component that comes from a shipping container.  They are stacked and arranged like a set of building blocks, though unless you really take a closer look, you wouldn't know they weren't average buildings.  It is a place you just have to see to appreciate the engineering, architecture and beauty of the space. They even managed to sneak in patio tables, a chalkboard, and play areas for kids. I thought it was genius. We didn't do much shopping, but stopped to enjoy a gelato.

Dubai's Miracle Garden is an anomaly.  I mean, who would have thought you could grow millions of flowers in the desert? We went early in the day, but it was still incredibly hot.  The displays are a mix of structures with annual flowers planted into pots covering them, as well as normal landscaping scenes.  The A380 was a totally new way to recycle a plane though. It made the Guiness Book of World Records. If you go, bring your camera and plan to spend about an hour. With cafes surrounding the gardens, it's easy to find a place to enjoy a cold drink or snack.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Dubai- A Family Playground

We got in the tank with live sharks
I've been to Dubai several times, and each visit we focus on some new aspect of it.  There are so many choices that you could probably try a new place every day of the year. This time, we went because the Atlantis Hotel was running a special that made the rooms affordable for a long stay, and the cost included 2 meals a day (called half board). I learned once we got there, Virgin Atlantic Airlines has a special agreement with them for an even lower price with inclusive meals if you fly with them from London. If you have that option, check it out.

It was my son's spring break, which meant others were also enjoying their spring breaks, and it was operating at capacity. I normally don't like that kind of environment, but we managed to find ways around the crowds. We ate meals at the smaller restaurants instead of buffets, went to the waterpark near closing time, and got a rental car to do things outside the resort. There was a magazine type guidebook in the room that was a good read for finding the lesser known places in the hotel complex. You can also stumble into good deals, or just ask the concierge for advice.  Everyone was very helpful.

Most people we met were coming to the Atlantis just to enjoy the Atlantis.  It's kind of a long drive from the city center and the airport because you have to go to the far end of the palm island, so that makes sense.  The Aquaventure waterpark (ranked one of the best in the world), 2 swimming pools, and aquarium are included with your stay. We loved the aquarium, but went at the last hour before closing and laid on floor pillows in front of the huge tanks. What a wonderful end to the day. I took the once a week yoga session at the aquarium, which can be booked once you get there. Talk about a wonderful relaxing way to start the day. It was a favorite experience. We also tried the shark experience, ate afternoon tea in the restaurant with a fish tank, and played in the game room.

One evening we walked along the boardwalk that fronts the hotel and watched the sunset. That's a great people watching place.  You can rent a bike and hit up all the food trucks if you're hungry. They really have thought of everything.

Dubai has several new theme parks since we were there last time, so on a rainy day we tried IMG Worlds of Adventure, which is indoors. My son likes Lazytown, so he enjoyed the live show. He also enjoyed seeing his parents absolutely scared out of their minds riding the superfast roller coaster. There are plenty of food stops, live shows, and rides.  It was not busy at all on a weekday. We booked a night time show at Bollywood, and loved it.  They allow you to enter an hour before the show at no additional cost, so we managed a few rides too. With so many theme parks in the area, you could probably spend an entire week just visiting them.  Even in the summer, they are open late and have lots of indoor spaces, so don't let heat keep you away.

If you're a theater person and enjoy live shows, you can book tickets in the heart of the souk at Madinat Jumeirah. They had a kids' play so we spent a couple hours there for a matinee performance and enjoyed both the play and walking through the aisles of beautiful goods. Plenty of food options there too.

We still have quite a few things left to try- ice skating, skiing, more theme parks...looking forward to our next visit! If you want to read about previous visits, here are links to the desert safari and Dubai during Ramadan. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Happens at a Travel Blogger's Conference?

Showing the hashtag to be used for every event on the big screen

I've been blogging for five years, but it was only a few months ago I realized there were conferences for this kind of thing. I had done the Amateur Traveler podcast program about Milwaukee, and as I followed the host, Chris Christensen, he mentioned a conference happening in Jerusalem, that happened to be the week before our family vacation to Dubai was planned. The conference, Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), cost less than $200 and included tours.  It sounded like a real adventure, so I bought a ticket and planned my trip which would also include a few days in neighboring Jordan.

The conference formal session lasted just three days, but was bookended with free tours, evening events, cooking classes, food tours and parties arranged by the hosting city. In this case, it was I Travel Jerusalem. You could also apply for longer tours that extended into the region in small groups. If chosen, the expectation is that a blogger would write about the experience and places seen. It's a fair tradeoff for anyone with passion, energy, and the ability to connect with an audience. We received a free transit pass and a mobile phone sim card so we could truly explore and share what we were seeing.

TBEX hosts conferences every year in different geographic regions, so there is an opportunity to see a variety of places, though many of the speakers and sessions will be the same. With multiple tracks, it's impossible to hear every presentation anyway. The other conference locations were in Europe and the USA. Dressed in typical office wear, I showed up for free breakfast and a group session.  Then the tracks featuring many well known travel professionals were set up throughout the day featuring topics like monetizing your blog, working with other agencies, podcasting. With short breaks and snacks in between, there was time to ask questions of people I had been following as they traveled the world. There were also tables set up for networking with organizations like hotels or TripAdvisor. I expected I'd be among the older participants, but it turned out that I was in good company. Some were younger. Others were older than myself.
 Just a selfie with my new travel blogging friends
Bloggers come with all kinds of interests: food, fashion, UNESCO sites, museums, family, gay travel, disabilities, religious sites, travel with pets, solo adventures...the list goes on. So, the impact for the hosting city can be enormous with hundreds of travel writers using social media to tweet, blog, and instagram their way through the local sights. Each has a different approach and audience. Nearly all walk with cameras or smart phones.  A few even had go-pro video cams attached to their bodies at all times. Some did video blogs or interviews with locals, as well as other bloggers.  There seemed to be something happening at every minute of every day.

Doing tours with other adults was a bit of a novelty for me since I normally travel with my family, and being with other travelers was nothing short of amazing.  It was easy to make friends, share travel stories, and find a way to connect in future.  We exchanged business cards and instagram accounts.  I followed many on twitter and Facebook. Nearly every destination I had on my future travel wish list had an expert in the room who could offer tips. It was like being at adult summer camp. Though I was exhausted at the end of the conference, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On a tour through Jerusalem, we hear about local social problems
Just a few weeks later, I attended another travel blogger event in Milwaukee that I stumbled upon looking through Eventbrite- Women in Travel Summit (WITS). It was too good to be true that something this fantastic was happening in my own home town. This one was only for females, and run similarly to TBEX, it had general sessions for 2 days and tours at either end. Having written the Milwaukee Bucket List, most of the tours were at places I had already seen, so I didn't participate in those, but it was interesting reading the social media posts of bloggers from other places discovering my favorite haunts for the first time. It reinforced my love of Milwaukee.  Visit Milwaukee did a great job of providing materials and arranging interesting things to do for attendees. There was even an evening event at the Harley Davidson Museum featuring live music.
Ladies who attended WITS in Milwaukee
For travel bloggers and others in the travel industry, I'd recommend attending one of these conferences.  I learned a lot, connected with people, and enjoyed exploring a new city. Too often, I feel we're in our own travel bubble, but having fun with people who have similar interests was unforgettable.