Salam Alekoum from Morocco!

Hi everyone! Sorry for being out of the loop again. It’s surprisingly hard to get online when you are constantly on the go.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a palace-looking sand castle in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Well, almost anyway. I’m actually chilling in a small kasbah (village) in Southern Morocco in a house made of clay.  But it looks exactly like a fancy sand castle, as you can see here:

And the beige-colored dunes that start right from the backyard look almost identical to those you see in the middle of the Sahara, though we are actually just on the edge of the desert here.

But make no mistake, this is definitely the desert.  The houses are all brown and made of clay, there are camels roaming around, and sandstorms are a true occurrence, not just a song by Darude (who is Finnish, btw!). The pet donkey’s hollow yelling has awoken me every morning this week.

Unlike much of Morocco, this area of the country around the town of Tagounite seems very conservative. The call to prayer fills the air five times a day, the women all wear headscarves or full-on burkas, and men don the traditional outfit of the indigenous North African Berber people. That consists of an ankle-length robe called jilaba and a colorful turban, which helps keep the wind and sand at bay. Some of the turbans include up to nine meters of fabric! Here’s my new friend Kamal in his favorite desert man outfit:

So what exactly is this dreamy place and how did I end up here? After all, just a week ago I was skiing in chilly Finland. Suddenly the white snow has been replaced by various shades of brown, and the risk of running into wolves has turned into a chance to spot dromedars.

Well, the reason I’m in Morocco now is that this country is the first stop on my 3-4-month African tour. This means I have now officially set foot on every inhabited continent on earth, which was my goal for the first three decades of my life. Check!

And how I ended up in Ait Isfoul, the glorified sand castle that also doubles as a hotel, is because of Couchsurfing – Kamal and his friend Mohamed, fun and friendly Moroccan guys in their late 20s, are fellow members of the travelers’ network. They happily welcomed me and a Canadian couchsurfer girl, Melody, to spend a week in their desert oasis which Kamal has inherited from his grandfather. The guys do this every now and then when there’s a gap in the hotel bookings.

The difference between hosting paying customers versus couchsurfers, Kamal said, lies in the group dynamics. Hotel guests often prefer to do their own thing during the day, and will get lunch and dinner served for them. Couchsurfers, on the other hand, become a part of the Ait Isfoul family: we have cooked together, visited Kamal’s family in the nearby town of M’Hamid, gone camping in the deep desert and spent many nights around camp fires together with Kamal, Mohamed, Ibrahim, Mustapha, Hassan and whichever friend has happened to stop by. We also celebrated Mohamed’s birthday with a Moroccan barbeque.

It’s hard to say what has been the highlight of this unforgettable week. It has certainly been a busy one: we’ve gone riding with camels, gotten thoroughly scrubbed at a traditional hammam (bath house) by a feisty local lady, sandboarded down the huge Laabidlua dune in the Erg Chigaga part of the Sahara Desert (which I was terrible at), got our 4×4 jeep stuck in the dunes, learned to cook a delicious chicken tajine, met  a family of nomads… and we even had an impromptu dance party with some hilarious French people who stopped by Ait Isfoul for a picnic one day. Needless to stay, these have been some memorable days!

I’m also happy to report that the Sahara Desert is just as breathtaking as I had imagined. The night sky is the brightest I’ve ever seen (you can spot shooting stars every five minutes!), and the huge sand dunes continue as far as the eye can see. We even spotted a mirage – the heated air truly looks like water in the distance.

There were some surprises too, for example that as of last year they now have cell phone service in large parts of the desert. My phone got better reception there than at Times Square in New York! That was a relief, as I’d hate to get stranded in the Sahara, as beautiful as it is. I was also caught off-guard by how alive the desert was. There was hardly a moment when we were truly alone. Every 15 minutes we would encounter a herd of camels, a group of nomads fetching water from a fountain, another 4×4 jeep… so I guess it’s true what they say: if you get lost in the desert, stay where you are. Eventually someone will find you. (Or not, if this car below is anything to  go by…)

So a huge THANK YOU to Kamal and Mohamed and all their nice friends for all their hospitality. Ibrahim’s cooking is the best, and we will certainly miss the never-ending tea sessions. Hope to see you again sometime!

If anyone is looking for a truly authentic desert experience, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kamal and Mohamed! If you are on Couchsurfing, you can find their profiles here:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/manodayak/

http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=DXBMQ5P&from_search

If you are not into Couchsurfing, but are still  interested in staying in the most peaceful hotel in the Sahara, check out Ait Isfoul’s website for bookings: www.aitisfoul.com 

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How many beds have you slept in?

The other day as I was lying awake at night, I decided I should start counting something to fall asleep. As counting sheep seemed a bit too mundane, I decided to try to remember the number of beds I slept in during 2011. As someone who is constantly on the move, I figured it would be quite a few. But I was still pretty surprised when the total came to 73.

(Hotel 25Hours in Hamburg, Germany)

Wow. 73 different beds in 365 days. That’s a new bed every five days. Or a couch, mattress, hammock or whatever it may have been.

Funnily enough, 2011 was actually one of my less mobile years: I spent more than a third of it living in Brooklyn, a bit less than a third visiting family in Finland and a third traveling around the world. That’s nothing compared to years when I’ve been on the move for six to eight months at a time. During those times I probably crashed at a new place every two or three days.

So what’s the big deal about this bed number of mine being so high? Well, for one thing it means I’ve had many changes of contracting bedbugs over the last years. Since I’ve stayed clear of them, I guess it means the world’s bedbug crisis is not quite as bad as we all thought. Phew.

But the real point I wanted to make about my 73 different sleeping arrangements is that it shows that this traveling lifestyle is not as easy as people think. You see, when I tell people what I do with my life (“I travel the world and write about it”), the most common comment I get is, “Oh, I’m jealous! Your life sounds amazing! You’re so lucky!”

Newsflash: More than luck, my lifestyle requires hard work and sacrifices. (I know, not half as appealing anymore.) How many of you could imagine changing beds every five days? And doing it for years on end… probably not too many. Most people like their own comfy pillows and blankets way too much to give them up. And don’t get me wrong – I love a familiar fluffy pillow as much as the next gal. But I also know that if I want to travel, that means giving up some things. One of the first ones is a place to call your own – you don’t want to be paying rent elsewhere while you are out roaming the globe. If you plan on only leading a semi-nomadic life, I suggest subleasing your apartment to someone while you are gone. Either way, you’ll have to get used to laying your head down in a new place every few days.

So where do I get my beauty sleep while on the road? Well, in different places: hotels, guesthouses, hostels, friends’ spare bedrooms or air mattresses, strangers’ couches (who I have befriended on the road, or met through traveler sites like Couchsurfing.com), hammocks, tents and sometimes in planes, buses, trains or even airports as I mentioned in my Quality Hunters blog. Yeah, not quite so glamorous anymore.

My accommodation in 2011 ranged from an outdoor hammock overlooking the mountains in Lanquin, Guatemala for $2 a night to a $350 hotel room in Amsterdam, Holland. So yes, I never know what awaits me! And that’s the beauty of it. Over my traveling years I’ve come to love the unexpected, and I thrive at not knowing where I’ll crash on any given day. I wouldn’t have it any other way right now.

(Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin, Guatemala. At $2 a night, you can’t beat this hammock accommodation for price nor the views!)

(Sakura Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, where the door slams into the bed every time you open it as the room is teeny tiny.)

(Le Méridien Bristol in Warsaw, Poland. Luxury for less: a room in this 5-star hotel costs less than 100 euro for up to two people as I wrote here.)

So next time you meet someone who travels a lot and you are about to exclaim, “I wish I could do that!”, just remember: you can. All you have to do is be willing to give up some of your home comforts and the sense of security that comes from living a stable life. In exchange you’ll get a life full of surprises, exotic foods, colorful cities, tropical beaches, new languages and international friends. Sounds like a fair trade to me!

And if you are ever having trouble falling asleep, I can truly recommend counting beds instead of sheep (as eventually I did fall asleep!). And once you do the math, please let me know what your total is! 🙂 Do you have me beat?