This is the third part in a five part series of guest posts by my good friend and fellow traveler, Cat Gaa. At the age of 19, Cat set a goal of reaching 25 countries by the time she turned 25. In this series, Cat looks back on her 25 most memorable experiences along the road she took to reach this deeply personal goal. If you’re new to Backpackingmatt, first check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Here is Part 3 in the series, Reaching 25 Countries By the Age of 25: Experiences Along the Way.
15) Haggling in markets from Portugal to Portobello Road
Some of my greatest treasures have come from digging through local markets. El Rastro bustles with a posh crowd and the sheiks in Marrakesh with a delightful charm, while Beijing’s Pearl Market echoes the seven circles of Hell (just with giant calculators). These bazaars really seem to give you an idea of the soul of a place – rubbing elbows with locals, watching artisans at work.
My grandma and I spent a day in Toledo, Spain and wandered by a jeweler’s shop just before siesta time. It was modest, just down the street from the El Greco museum. He unlocked the door and let us inside, not pushing a sale. Instead, he sat down and showed us how he carved birds and fans into coal, then filled them with gold and fired them. We came back later in the afternoon and he had made me a pair of earrings with golden quails, insisting I keep them as a gift.
14) Testing your patience with bureaucracy, students and looooong lines
There aren’t really any constants in my life – my friends come and go, the weather this year has been out of control. But the one thing I can always count on in Europe is the ever-present line. Ten people in front of me at the bank before it opens is normal, as is a three-hour wait at the foreigner’s office, only to be told to come back another day. My friend even smoked half a pack of Marlboro lights before we were able to get through the line at the Anne Frank House.
Traveling will test your patience, as anyone who tried to travel when Eyjafjallajökull erupted can tell you. But these seemingly lost hours often result in new friends, amusing memories or a much-needed rest.
13) Crashing on a local’s couch
Aviva had a bag covered in patches from all the countries she’d visited, many sewn overlapping. We met for beers in Sevilla’s outdoor watering hole, Plaza Salvador, so I could give her a debriefing on our English teaching gig. We ended up talking ceaselessly about travel, and she convinced me that the only way to go was by staying with locals.
I had heard of couchsurfing, but wasn’t keen on having to ask a stranger to stay with them. But it’s been nothing short of eye-opening to wake up to The Duomo just as the sun hits, see your first bullfight or discover the perfect falafel in Gracia with a local host. It reminds me of just how interconnected we all are and that travel is the most common thread we have between one another.
12) Spending an evening with tunos
Spontaneity is not my strong suit. So when our afternoon trip to the Alcázar of Seville was sidetracked by tunic-clad minstrels, I wasn’t too pleased. What followed was an afternoon of beers, an invitation to be serenaded outside my house, a ticket for noise disturbance and a reprimanding from a coworker who told me, “Those tunos are trouble. Just a bunch of drunk skirt-chasers.” I secretly smiled to myself, happy to have let life take it course for once. And I could totally claim clueless foreigner on this one!
11) Riding a donkey up to the Berber mountains
“You come to my shop pretty girls! So beautiful things!” My dear high school friend Becky had warned me that the Moroccans were overly friendly, but to accept any offers that seemed genuine. Nourdeem invited us to mint tea that first night, a tanjine of rabbit meat and olives the second, and finally to visit his cousin in the foothills of the Berber mountains. My Spanish-speaking donkey, Assergut, faithfully trotted up the hill, giving us glimpses of the tiny villages composed of boxy houses straight out of A Wrinkle in Time’s Planet Camazotz. The steep alleyways separating the houses in the village were full of sheep and chickens chased by dirt-covered children with sticks.
After a meal of goat meat omelettes and ensalate marroquí, we took the long way down by foot. Winding through the small clusters of houses, children covered in dirt and asking, “Madmoiselle, il-y-a des bomboms?” reminded me of the vast differences between myself and any other person on this planet. Sometimes you have to get to the nitty-gritty to see things in a new light.
Read about Cat’s travels and her life in Spain on her blog, Sunshine and Siestas – and check back next week for Part 2 in this series.