DAY THREE – Conquering Marrakech, and falling in love with the beggar-kids

On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]

The sun came up and shone through that same stained glass window I fell asleep looking at. I felt better after getting some rest.

My first impression of Marrakech the night before could have been better, but it was largely my fault. Perception is reality, right? I perceived a threat. I hadn’t realized how tucked away many of the riads and hostels were in this town, and my failure to make arrangements with the manager shaped the events of that first evening; and the fact that I knew I was being scammed by Marud–and his anxious need to avoid the police–increased my perception that I might be in danger.

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Just outside the front door to Riad al Mamoune.

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The truth is that in the daylight, I realized that I wasn’t as far from the market as I had felt. Just far from home.  

It was actually only a 5-6 minute walk back to the market.  And even if those guys really were considering jumping me if they couldn’t find the place (still a very real possibility), we all know I would have judo-chopped them into the middle of next Ramadan. :)

But that was past, and I would not experience anything of that intensity for the rest of the trip. From here it just got better, and better, and better.

*     *     *

I began to make my way back to the Jemaa el Fna market, where hundreds (thousands?) gather each day.  As I reached the outskirts of the crowded market, I turned the first corner only to bump into Matt and Michaela.

Awesome. What were the chances?  We were glad to see each other, and decided to wander around together before grabbing lunch.

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We followed lunch with some delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is sold on ever corner. It was seriously so good, and the day was a perfect 70 degrees. But I was cautious about crashing Matt and Michaela’s romantic getaway. So I thanked them for letting me tag along and offered to leave them to do their own thing, but they kept inviting me to stick around. We were having enough fun that we ended up spending the entire day together, and sharing some really great moments, including:

  • Snake Charmers
  • A monkey jumping on my head (no photos, sorry)
  • The rose gardens at Les Jardins de la Koutoubia
  • The ruins of Palais Bahia
  • Dinner at Jemaa el Fna square

And one of the highlights of the trip (and probably my life):

  • Playing with the beggar-kids

If you haven’t already checked them out, there are tons of photos posted on Facebook. I’ll post just a few of my favorites below, along with this little video:

 

SNAKE CHARMERS

Let's get this over with.

Let’s get this over with.

Nasty.

Nasty.

Old snake charmer taunting the naughty vipers.

Old snake charmer taunting the naughty snakes.

I’m fairly certain these cobras and vipers were doped up on NyQuil or something, because they were absolutely uninterested in all of us. And don’t worry, the one around my neck was harmless.

 

A MONKEY ON MY HEAD

Just after seeing the snakes and [handsomely] tipping Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, we were assaulted by more tourist traps, including Henna Tattoo artists (who will actually start tattooing you before you’ve agreed, if you’re not careful) and monkey-men. These monkey-men walk up to you with a monkey on a leash and try to “welcome you to Marrakech” . . . but as soon as they get close enough, these trained monkeys will actually jump onto your shoulders and head.

Of course the goal here is to create a great photo-op for you and your friends, then they expect you to pay them for this service. Well maybe I was being cheap, after being worked over by the cobra guys, but I didn’t want a picture with the monkey that had suddenly climbed onto my head and shoulders. Mostly I wanted to not have a bare monkey bum against my neck. Matt, Michaela, and I had a good laugh but kept walking until the poor monkey got yanked off of me by his master.

Now what did I do with that hand sanitizer?

 

LES JARDINS DE LA KOUTOUBIA

We found our way to the gardens just outside the Koutoubia Mosque. Along with roses, they had well groomed orange trees and other lush vegitation.

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PALAIS BAHIA

The ruins of this old palace were kind of enchanting, especially with the waning, late-afternoon sun painting everything with a thin layer of golden light.

 

 

DINNER AT JEMAA EL FNA SQUARE

After exploring the ruins of Palais Bahia, we wandered back to the market.

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Rather than finding another restaurant, we opted to eat at one of the many stalls in the main square at Jemaa el Fna. It was wonderful.

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Kebabs. Yum.

Kebabs. Yum.

While eating, the beggar-kids would come to the table and try to get a coin or two from you, some of them selling these little junk toys, or pocket size packages of tissues. Although we had ignored all of the other beggars throughout the day, we were suckers for the kids. But after giving them some money, later we observed them all meeting with a man off to the side, who was clearly their pimp.

Dammit.

That was so frustrating. It’s hard to imagine what kind of life these kids have, and thinking you’ve brightened their day with a few coins only to see them report to their pimp and hand them over . . . ugh.

But something was brewing . . .

 

PLAYING WITH THE BEGGAR-KIDS

[ You will fall in love with the beggar-kids, and they will break your heart. ]

We finished our meal and decided to go get another round of freshly-squeezed orange juice. But this time would be different.

See, as soon as you go up to the orange juice stands, the beggars come up and start pawing at you because you’re sure to have loose change after purchasing some juice. Well this time it was some lady and these two kids (probably a brother and sister).

Well the lady was putting on the same boring beggar routine as most of the adults, and the kids were putting on their sad puppy-dog faces for us and whining for some coins.

Michaela and I had already been handed our glasses of juice before the beggars arrived, so we were already sipping away while Matt waited for his and the beggars showed up and began their song and dance. The juice-man handed Matt his glass of juice. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Matt offered it to the kids.

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They were thrilled! They laughed and sipped and grinned, and you could tell their mom (or handler?) was getting after them for breaking character and smiling, because she’d cluck at them and they’d immediately try to put on the sad faces again.  But we had them. It became a game of getting them to grin and laugh, and we won. :)

We walked away, remarking about those kids and wondered how often they even get a glass of orange juice, because they looked at each other with surprise, like that was the best treat in the world. And it was then that we knew what we were doing the rest of the night.

We went and got small change so we each had a bunch of coins, and we went out trolling for beggar-kids. One or two showed up, and we started playing games with them and doing cheesy magic tricks with the coins. In no time, a half dozen kids surrounded us. We played and teased and made them smile. We made sure that they got a few coins each so hopefully their handlers wouldn’t be upset for their wasting time with us.

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But we wanted them to have something they couldn’t give to their pimps.  So, at the end, we brought them over to get some orange juice. Now, the shop owners are used to shouting at the beggars to leave their customers alone, so with a handful of kids behind us, this guy hollared at them and motioned for them to scram. Confused, these poor kids began to do as they were told and walk away. We quickly motioned for them to stay and told the shop owner the juice was for the kids. He understood.

He tried to be hard and keep serious as he handed us the glasses of juice, but when he looked over the counter and saw the smiles on the kids faces as we handed it to them, a tiny smile crept across his gruff face as well.

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If I ever had a moment where I understood the Angelina Jolies of the world wanting to save every poor kid in Africa, it was then.

Finally, we said goodnight to the kids and made one or two more passes of the market. It had been a wonderful day, which had ended with one of the highlights of the trip, if not my life.  Unforgettable.

The night was coming to a close.  It was cool and dark as we walked past the singing storytellers, past the lady selling lamps on the sidewalk, past the carts full of dates and figs. I even got a chance to jam with a guy on the djembe drums he was selling.

[ THAT would have been good to video. Doh! ]

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The storytellers.

 

 

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The lamp lady.

We found a place to sit and relax–we actually looked all over for a place that actually sold alcohol (it was a mini-quest to find such a place that close to the mosque).  Matt and Michaela each ordered a mysterious brew of Moroccan beer while I sipped on some hot mint tea and we took in the sights and sounds of the day. After a while, we headed back out to the market, where I said goodbye to my new friends.

The shops were all closed up, at this point, and it was quite a different environment on my solitary walk back through the labyrinth to my riad.

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I made it back to my riad without having to stab anybody for the second night in a row. :)  I was invited to join Ali, the manager, and two other guests from the UK in the common area.  More mint tea, and chatting about our adventures.  Before too long, I said goodnight and retired to my room. What an amazing day.

I hope I never forget that night, or those kids. They break my heart.

DAY TWO – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles . . . and a Berber crook who I did not have to stab in the face.

On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]

The next morning, I woke up first thing, went downstairs to grab a small breakfast, then gathered my things. I was still feeling like the sinus infection might be starting, and silently prayed (again) for the strength to fight it off before it set in. I jumped in a taxi back to the airport there in Madrid. This time I would be heading to Casablanca, Morocco.

Flying across the Straight of Gibraltar and south along the Atlantic Coast of Morocco was an amazing feeling.  It was a short, comfortable flight until we got close to the airport in Casablanca, and the pilot banked and pitched like he was avoiding a surface-to-air missile. But I’m not complaining. Maybe he was? As I waited in line at Passport Control/Customs, I chatted it up a bit longer with my new Moroccan friend that I sat next to on the plane. He was from here, originally, but had been living in Miami for the last 20 years so his English was perfect. He was very excited for me and my adventure in his native land, and gave me lots of advice and encouragement. We parted, I handed my passport under the glass to get it stamped, and suddenly there I was. Morocco. A Mediterranean country in Northern Africa where the primary language is Arabic and the second language is French—neither of which do I speak.  I would deal with the language barrier in a bit. But first things first. Go pee. Next stop, train station. Now among the miracles that occurred throughout the trip, some of the most prominent were that I was never any more alone than I wanted to be, I never got very far off course, and I nearly always managed to bump into SOMEONE who spoke English—at least enough to help. Over the coming week, I would meet a handful of delightful people from the US, UK, and South Africa. One of the American’s I met on the first train took this picture for me:

DSCN0082 He was a cool guy, maybe a few years younger than me. I’ve already forgotten his name, but he was from Connecticut. He, too, was in Morocco for the first time, meeting his girlfriend and her family who were already here on vacation. We waited near the tracks, laughing and telling stories over a couple oranges and some bottled water. His train came first. A hearty handshake was exchanged. “Good luck, man!” I’d need it. :) I picked up my bags and wandered to the other track where my train would show up a bit later. As I got there, I spotted what looked to be another American couple. They were waiting for the same train that I was. Matt and Michaela. They, too, were around my same age and very easy to connect with. Both are from the states, but Michaela works in Madrid and Matt works in Moldova. It turns out that we were on the same flight earlier that morning. The train to Marrakech finally arrived but was jammed full of people. It was standing-room only. This was supposed to be just over 3 hours, so I reset my expectations about a comfortable train ride. I was surprised to see the way women were treated. I mean I already knew something about the culture, but it’s still alarming to watch, first hand, as a guy pushes past an old woman to steal the seat she was about to sit in, forcing her to join me standing at the back of the train car. After a while, another woman noticed and offered the old woman her seat. It’s frustrating to witness that stuff. After a few stops, the train began to thin out a bit and I found a seat next to a window, which is where you get the video from “Part 1” of those videos I shared the other day.

*     *     *

We arrived in Marrakech about 30 minutes after sunset. It turned out that Matt and Michaela were staying at a hostel quite close to the riad I would be staying at, so we shared a taxi. The taxi dropped us off at the world-famous Jemaa el-Fna market in “old town” Marrakech. It was chaos. DSCN0167 379141_10100288722170423_17210503_44842013_1222703289_n The streets were lined with booths of every kind and salesmen pitching their wares. The streets themselves were packed with cars and scooters weaving in and out, all honking and tweeting their little horns as they worked their way through a sea fearless pedestrians. Sidewalks teamed with locals and foreigners alike. The air smelled of grilled meat mingled with diesel exhaust, and smoke from both filled the sky. There was music here and there. Drums. Singing. Shouting. Chatter. I walked with Matt and Michaela a bit as we were accosted by everyone that had something to sell, be it a taxi ride, junk toys, a meal, a hotel room–even offering to guide you to your hotel once he learned you already had a reservation someplace.  We dismissed them as best we could.  I had about 50 pounds of gear with me, and I needed to find my riad and get settled. I knew my friends felt the same way, so we said goodbye and parted ways. Alone again, I walked hopelessly up and down several crowded streets before I realized just how lost I was. I would need help finding this place–it wasn’t going to have a big bright sign out front, and streets didn’t seem to have any naming or numbering convention that I could easily identify. I would need help. But first, I would need food. All I’d had to eat for lunch was those oranges, and I needed to collect myself over a warm meal. I picked a friendly-looking spot and parked myself at a table inside. My waiter spoke just enough English to welcome me and take my order. Later I would ask for directions, but he didn’t understand. Now I had read about these “guides” that offer to take you to your hotel, only to demand more and more payment even when they originally say they need none. It’s a scam. But I read that there are some legitimate guides, and you just need to agree on a price before you begin walking with them. So I thought I’d try it out. I finished my meal, gathered my things, and headed back out into the crowded market. I hadn’t walked 100 paces before I was met by the man who would be my guide. His name was Marud. A short, dark man with a toothy grin. A Berber, he was native to Morocco. He offered to help me find where I was going. I asked for a price. “No no no, friend to friend. Friend to friend,” he grinned. My ass. “No, I would like to pay you for your time,” I said. “How much?” “As you like, as you like. It’s okay.” Start low. You’re supposed to start at a third of what you’re willing to pay, they say. I made him an offer and he accepted immediately. “Is fine. As you like. Is fine.” He grabbed one of my bags for me, and off we went. We wandered through the tiny walkways of the busy labyrinth. “If we get stopped by police, tell them I am your friend Marud. Not a guide. Just your friend.” “I’m sorry?” “I don’t have the papers, the permissions to be a guide. They know my face. If they think I’m your guide, they take me to jail.” “Ah.” Grand. “So I am your friend only, you tell them.” “No problem.” Screw you, buddy. We get stopped by cops and I’m throwing you under the bus faster than you can say ‘shish kebab.’ One turn after another, and I’m now even more disoriented than I was when we began. And the crowds are getting thinner and thinner. Soon the sights and sounds of the market are growing distant and I’m becoming more and more aware. Of everything.  The way you get when you might be in danger. My guard was up and I was now wondering if I was being taken outside of the market where I could be jacked by Marud and his pals.  Is this why he wanted to avoid the cops? My suspicions got a bit worse as he stopped inside one of the shops on our left to ask his friend about the address on the paper (which I had provided earlier). His friend, a larger, less-friendly-looking guy in a leather jacket, now joined us on our little journey. “How far is it?” “Not far, not far.” Of course not, why did I ask. So here’s the situation: I’m walking behind a guy carrying one of my bags, and the address/contact info for my destination. How did I let that happen? Ugh. He’s accompanied by his big bad buddy. I’m keeping a careful distance to allow a bit more reaction time if need be. The streets are narrow and dimly lit, and the market is well behind us. I’m now beginning to expect these guys to get me far enough from the market to jack me, but–while I don’t trust these guys–they really might be taking me to this riad, and they’re just gonna try to get me to pay them both more than I agreed upon when we get there, like the warnings I had read about. It’s dark. I’m in bulldog mode. I’m cautious but optimistic and giving these guys a little latitude. Hopefully all that’s happening is I’m being scammed a little bit by a couple local crooks. But these narrow walkways are dark and quiet, and I wouldn’t be the first sucker to be led down one-too-many dark alleys to be assaulted. I’m ready to defend myself if it comes to that, and I’m honestly wondering if I’m going to have to hurt these guys. I’m aware of everything now. Noises. The occasional bi-stander. The path behind me back to the crowded market. “Here we are,” he announces proudly. Sure enough, there was the tiny sign hanging on the door: “Riad al Mamoune” This was it. *sigh of relief* We knocked on the door, and the friendly staff answered and welcomed me inside. Now Marud and his friend wanted payment. I handed him the amount I had offered before, but–predictably–they wanted much more. I told him he would get the amount we agreed on, and he refused . . . he wanted more or he’d take nothing. Okee dokey, nothing it is. He and his friend gave me the stink-eye as the riad’s staff closed and locked the front door. I wouldn’t see Marud again. The staff tried to calm my nerves with kind welcomes and pleasant reassurances that I was safe and at home. They sat me down in the common area and brought me some nice mint tea (which I would find is served on a regular basis in Morocco). 378447_10100288699051753_17210503_44841809_127935234_n

Now a “riad” is the equivalent of a “bed and breakfast.” This one came highly recommended, in my research, and over the next two days I would learn why. It truly was a comfortable, safe place with at least two of the staff being mostly fluent in English.

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The common area in Riad al Mamoune.

The balcony above the common area, just outside my room. That's the door to my room on the left.

The balcony above the common area, just outside my room. That’s the door to my room on the left.

My bedroom and bathroom were clean and private. The bed was extremely comfortable, and the shower was plenty hot. I needed both.

My princess bed.

My princess bed.

It took me a little while to truly let my guard down and allow myself to feel safe. Before showering, I actually lashed the doorknob to the bedpost with my belt, since the only door with a lock in this place was the front door to the street. I know it was probably a bit extreme, but I needed a little time before I could feel safe. Now that I was feeling more secure, I was able to digest everything else I had been feeling. I was scared out there. Scared and lost. I felt stupid for not contacting the riad’s staff in advance to arrange a pick-up from the train station, and for not finding a store owner to call the phone number I had for the riad. I felt stupid for handing over my destination/contact info and one of my bags to that crook, and for not putting an end to it as soon as he told me he wasn’t legal to be a guide. I had done my best, but I made mistakes that could have put me in real danger. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The long shower did me some good. So did the change of clothes. They had WI-FI downstairs in the common area, so I went down and “phoned home” an email to the family, letting them know I was safe, along with this status update to my friends on Facebook: “Marrakech is a lot like Mos Eisley Space Port.” I went back up to my room, read some scriptures, said some earnest prayers of thanksgiving, and calmed down. My ears stopped ringing as I lied on my bed in the dark, staring at the colorful stained glass window on the wall, which had the tiniest bit of ambient light on the other side to give me a little color in the otherwise pitch-black room. I had a lot to be thankful for. Among so many other things, there was no hint of that sinus infection that had started the night before. A subtle indication that things would be okay. I would sleep for 12 hours.

DAY ONE – GETTING THERE

On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]

Okay, time for stories.  “Day One” technically covers two days, but you get the idea.  Enough prefacing.  Let’s get started.

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I’m all about road-trips and long drives. As a licensed pilot, I obviously enjoy flying quite a bit, too. So normally I would agree with the sentiment that “getting there is half the fun.” But not this time.  I flew from SLC to Denver, then to Chicago, then all the way to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there to Madrid, Spain. That is FAR too much time in planes and airports. A necessary evil (albeit a miraculous one). The flight from Chicago to Germany was just under 9 hours from take-off to touch-down. It’s not the longest flight ever, but it’s plenty long. One cool thing, though, is that on the way in to Chicago, I was seated so that I could see the sun setting behind us in a red ball on the horizon. Later, as I flew over Ireland, that same sun would begin rising on the horizon in front of us.  At 38,000 feet, that is quite a sight. Airport security in Germany was a stark contrast to our own TSA clown-show. Now I’m sure there are some very good men and women working for TSA that I would hate to include in this blanket statement, but most of the TSA agents we get to see as we pass through airports here in the states are a bunch of poorly groomed, poorly trained, overweight slobs. In contrast, the Germans all seemed quite ready to kill somebody. I don’t mean they were violent or aggressive. I mean they were professionals. Fit. Armed. Multilingual, polite, and very helpful.  Even friendly. But READY. They were ready to kill somebody. When we landed in Frankfurt, I thought the runway seemed quite bumpy. Later, taking off, it was unmistakeably bumpy. The plane bounced along faster and faster until we left the runway. I was surprised, at first, that the runway wasn’t more level.  Then I remembered that we bombed the shit out of it back in the 1940’s. In that case, it was in great shape. On the way to Madrid from Frankfurt, we flew directly over Geneva, Switzerland and I laid eyes on the snow-covered peaks of the Alps for the first time at 30,000 feet, while listening to some Rachmaninoff in my headphones. Breathtaking. I’ll need to see Switzerland someday. Spain teased me from the air. Its colorful rolling hills and windy roads looked like just my thing, and I wished I had enough time to see Spain on the motorcycle, too. But not on this trip. I had limited time, so truly seeing Spain in a way that does it some justice will also have to wait. We touched down in Madrid and I was ready for a hotel at this point. I got in a taxi and tried out my Spanish for the first time in ages. It was a little slow, but it worked. Most importantly, I still understand Spanish better than I speak it. I got to the hotel without any trouble. I got checked in, left my bags, and went exploring. DSCN0034 DSCN0035 First, I went to El Museo Prado. Unfortunately, it closes early to visitors and only stays open late for local citizens. DSCN0046 DSCN0043 No matter. I kept exploring, and found my way to El Museo Reina Sofia. DSCN0048 DSCN0052   This one stays open late. Like the Prado, the Reina Sofia is another famous art museum. I was there for hours, and I only saw maybe half of it. It was huge. And a lot to take in. I got to see some originals of painters that I love, like Franz Klein, Mark Rothko. Very cool.

Outside, the kids were playing soccer in the dark. The city lights were amazing. There was a constant hum of traffic buzzing quickly down long streets and busy roundabouts. And there was a smell. Not necessarily a bad smell, but foreign. The smell of some place you’ve never been.

I got back to my hotel room truly exhausted. In fact, I felt that I might be coming down with a sinus infection (my immuno-arch-nemesis). I took a long, hot shower to relax and scrub off the cooties of five different airports. Once I got situated, I climbed under the covers and flipped on the TV just to see if there was anything I should know about on the news. *point remote at TV* *click* Boobs. Lots of boobs. I remembered that I was in Europe, and they have different feelings about big bare boobs on prime-time television. I clicked through to CNN, where the only boob was Anderson Cooper, patting himself and his fellow journalists on the back for a job well done in 2011, and making every effort to distinguish himself and his colleagues from the general public by referring to us common folk as “the civilians.” I’ve got news for you, Anderson. You’re a civilian. Even if you do have two last names. No one blew anything up today. Time for bed.

Morocco on a Motorbike – Dessert First

Morocco on a Motorbike – Dessert First

On Christmas Day 2011, I went out on a walkabout to Morocco (first spending the night in Madrid, Spain). This post originally appeared on my old blog in January 2012 when I got back. It was only a few months before I met Allison. This was the trip that inspired me to quit my corporate job to go freelance, and ultimately is the reason I met Allison when I did. ]
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Many of you know that I’ve been talking for some time about a trip to Morocco that I’d been planning for most of last year. Well I finally went, and I had some grand adventures. I’ll try to share some of those in the next few posts, along with some photos. But I didn’t want to make you read through all the stories before getting to the videos. Eat dessert first. :) Hopefully these videos will serve as an overview, of sorts, and provide some context for the stories as I go into them in the next few posts.

If I can summarize, the trip was incredibly cathartic and empowering. I had some of the best days ever, while over there wandering and discovering. New friends and laughter, wonderful solitude, and beauty in a thousand forms (with a dash of peril here and there). Some of these moments have surely joined other cherished memories that make up the highlight-reel of my life. I’m excited to share some of them with you in the coming days. For now, enjoy the videos (I hope they don’t make you motion sick). :)

[ P.S.  They’re worth watching in HD if you’ve got the bandwidth. ]

Part 1:

Part 2: