Thoughts of a geek

1 January 2014

Seven months

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 10:14 pm

I really have not blogged much in ages! A lot has happened since May. Other than Morocco, let’s see:

A friends (Emily Swan) was in town for a few days in June, I caught up with her all too briefly for lunch. Wow, that seems so long ago. Briefly saw another friend (Jordan) around the end of June or beginning of July too.

European Blues Invasion was at the end of June, and was amazing. Lots of really great dances, learnt some new stuff (hmm, I suspect I have forgotten most of it by now), and got into switch dancing. Not quite the first time I had done any switching, but the first time I really got into it. Made a few new international friends too.

Sarah was in London for a couple of days in the middle of July. Jen got a group together to go along to the first day of the Ealing Blues Festival, which was fun. Lots of great music, and great weather for sitting out in the sun with a picnic. I think we paid £5 for the day, for probably more than 30 different bands. Babajack were particularly good. Our team offsite to Croatia was straight after that, which was also fun. I got sunburnt on one of my legs because I forgot to apply sunscreen before going white-water rafting, and of course spent several hours facing in the same direction with the sun shining on one side of me.

I enjoyed some of the free outdoor dancing over the summer, though did not make it to as much this year as in past years. I mostly just went to a few of the swing dance ‘picnics’ at the Victoria Embankment Gardens, which had a mix of DJed and live music.

I went to Belgium for a long weekend at the beginning of August; 2 days in Brussels with Aga, and 2 in Bruges by myself. Both were interesting to see. Alex was in London the following weekend; it was good to catch up with him briefly.

Daniel came to stay on his (indirect) way back to NZ from Germany. He was going to stay with some other friends, but they ended up being a long way out of London so he stayed at my place for almost a week instead. He came along on a walk from Salisbury to Stonehenge that a friend from church organised, which was fun. The weather was great, and we even ran into a medieval festival at Old Sarum along the way. We arrived at Stonehenge in the end with only a few minutes to spare, just half an hour before it was closing, as they were letting the last visitors in. An excellent day though: good bunch of people, nice walk, good weather, and a decent pub lunch in the middle. Right at the end of August I went on an ‘Alternative London’ walking tour with some friends and workmates, seeing some cool street art in Shoreditch.

In September I went up to Edinburgh for a weekend, stayed with Karoliina and went for some nice walks up North Berwick Law and along the coast from there, and in the Pentland hills. We found a few geocaches along the way, and sung Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Charlotte and Nicolai were in London, so I got to catch up with them which was nice.

Craig was in town at the beginning of October so came for lunch at Google. My cousin Brittany was in London for a full month, and stayed with me for her first few days, in the second week of October. I had not seen her in years so it was good to catch up. She kept herself pretty busy between sightseeing seeing a bunch of her friends. I went to David & Amber’s wedding, which was good fun. Had a few interesting conversations, and there was a ceilidh. (Strictly speaking they got married some time earlier for immigration purposes, but this was the ceremony to celebrate it properly.) My old friend Daniel was also in the UK in October, for military stuff in Wales, but came to London for a few days as well and stayed with me (overlapping with Brittany actually), so I was able to show him around a bit and catch up. And then Emily visited on her holidays, and we went to Cardiff, Bristol, Cheddar Gorge and Bath for a few days. At the end of October was the Morocco trip, which I have already written about.

Shortly after getting back from Morocco there was another blues dance festival, Blues Baby Blues. It was also good, though not quite on the same level as EBI. Unfortunately I caught something partway through so was not feeling great on the second day of workshops, and had to leave early that evening.

The annual London Jazz Festival was on in the middle of November, and I went to a number of the free gigs on both Friday nights and Saturdays. I managed to drag a few friends along to some of them, and others was on my own. There was a mix of excellent music and weird, but all good fun. I heard something like 12 or so bands in total, which was but a small fraction of what was on offer.

I went to a couple of thanksgiving dinners. One was hosted by Mark from work on Sunday 24th, which funnily enough was full of Kiwis: apparently one of his flatmates and quite a few of his friends are from NZ. About half the party watched the rugby, which I hear was pretty tense, but we won in the end. The food was good. The other was at Amber & David’s place, as one of the regular Thursday night dinners they had been hosting. There was going to be another Thanksgiving party on the Saturday as well at Gareth’s place, but it ended up being cancelled in favour of a belated housewarming party for Rachel and Dan. I grew a small moustache the last week of November for Joanna’s moustache party the same night, but ended up arriving after midnight so it was the 1st of December already.

Karoliina was in London briefly in December, and came to Google to catch up with people which was nice. I saw the new Hobbit movie with some workmates, and a Robin Hood pantomime with Rachel and some of her Morris dancers. We also had a Google eng-lon pantomime again; this year was Cinderella, and it was again very well done, with lots of funny in-jokes. There were two work Christmas parties as usual; the engineering one at the Millbank Tower, and the one for everyone at the Troxy, with a Christmas fun-fair theme. And Cheryl was back from New York for Christmas, so she also organised to catch up with a bunch of Googlers for brunch.

I took the Monday and Tuesday before Christmas off as I had to use the annual leave or lose it, and there were a couple of swing bands playing at the Royal Festival Hall to dance to. They also had the annual swing dance on Boxing Day, though only with recorded music sadly.

My flatmate Carla had her parents and sister visiting over Christmas, and invited me to join them for dinner on Christmas Eve, which was good, though a little hard to communicate as her parents do not speak much English. Went to a friend’s place for Christmas dinner, though did not stay too long as I caught a cold the weekend before and was not feeling great. Saw the New Year’s Eve fireworks with Carla and her sister, saw some of the New Year’s Day parade today (though it was cold and rainy so not many people came, and those who did did not stay long, so I left halfway through), and then here I am. Hoping the cold goes away soon.

Photos are in the usual place, and have a few more stories.

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15 December 2013

Morocco

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , — qwandor @ 5:32 pm

I planned to write this post straight after I got back, while everything was still fresh in my memory. Obviously that failed: it has now been over a month since I got back on the 4th of November. Anyway, Morocco! It was a great trip. I will see what I can remember. Photos are linked along the way, and tell more of the story…

I went to Morocco for 10 days with 3 workmates: Alberto, Joanna and Monika. We flew into Marrakech on the morning of Saturday 26th October, and spent the afternoon exploring the old town (Médina) and stayed the night in a riad there. Sunday morning until Tuesday we went on a guided trek in the High Atlas mountains (just the 4 of us, our guide Nouredine, a donkey to carry all our bags, and a man named Muhammad to look after the donkey). Our guide was Nour from Berber Travel Adventures, who I would highly recommend — he seemed to know everyone in the area, and was super helpful. The trek was the highlight of the whole trip for me, as we got to see quite a bit off the standard tourist trails. The hiking itself was not especially challenging, but it was really interesting seeing all the little villages. We walked from village to village, stopping to eat at places that I am not entirely whether were guesthouses of some sort or just people’s homes, but either way not anywhere we could have gone without Nour. The first night we stayed in Muhammad’s family home, and the second in a local guesthouse of some sort in a larger town. The accommodations were fairly primitive, but comfortable enough. In the first village we stayed there just so happened to be a wedding happening the night we were there, which we were lucky enough to be able to watch a little of. I think the bit we were able to watch was more of a party after the bride and groom had already left, described somewhat ambiguously by Nour as ‘a folklore’. Whatever it was, we went into the courtyard of a house, packed full of people (with lots up on the roofs around the outside watching as well, mostly women and children). There was a circle of men in white robes singing and dancing, and some watching, while women in colourful clothes and children watched from the other side. Men and women kept fairly separate the whole time.

The second day of the trek we passed by a small primary school in-between two villages, which we were also able to visit. It only had two teachers and two classrooms, so there was quite a range of ages in each class. We had a chat with both teachers, who unlike most of the people we had met up until then spoke fluent English. Unfortunately none of us knew enough French or Arabic to talk to any of the children. One of the teachers described finding it a difficult place to teach compared to the city where he had previously taught.

After the trek we spent another night in a different riad in Marrakech, then in the morning picked up a hire car to drive around some more of the country. Unfortunately when we got to the car rental agency (Dollar), they refused to give us the car we had booked and paid a deposit for without a much higher insurance excess than the contract we had agreed to said, which was not possible on the credit card we had booked with. After about 3 hours wasted arguing and waiting, we ended up getting a car from a different company for about the same price, which we were assured was four-wheel-drive, but which turned out (to our peril) not to be. Our late start meant we did not have much time for sightseeing on our way Skoura, where we spent our next night. We did however make sure to make time to see Ksar Aït Benhaddou, and spectacular and fairly well preserved old fortified city which is still inhabited by a few families. We also chanced across a great little juice shop in Ouarzazate called ‘Amsterdam’, where we tried some interesting juices after dinner.

The next day we drove up Dadès Gorge, and decided to try taking a 4WD track across to Todra Gorge as mentioned in a guidebook. We had some difficulty finding the track as it was not signposted at all, so took a guide to show us the way, which turned out to be very much for the best. The track was hard to follow in places, and a large section in the middle was completely washed out so we had to drive along a dry rocky riverbed, which was really not a great idea in our car, and we frequently had to stop to clear rocks or build little ramps. We made it through in the end, but many hours behind our overly ambitious schedule, so had to push the rest of our plans back a day as there was no way we would be able to make it to Merzouga in time for our camel trek originally booked for that evening. Anyway, as we were driving down Todra Gorge looking for somewhere to stay, who should we spot but Nour, our guide from the High Atlas trek! He happened to be sitting outside a hotel by the road taking tea just as we were driving past so we stopped to chat, and decided to stay in the same hotel. It turned out he was guiding another couple, and had taken a similar route to us. He gave us some more advice on routes to take for the rest of our trip, and we chatted over dinner.

The next day we made it to Merzouga in plenty of time, after taking a few hours in the morning to walk around Todra Gorge a bit. We joined a group of about 10 other people and rode our camels out into the desert for about 1.5 hours, stopping along the way to watch the sun set over the dunes, until we made it to the semi-permanent camp where we spent the night. We were happy to see it was fairly small, just 4 or 5 tents, unlike some of the much larger camps we had seen along the way. We had more tagine for dinner, chatted to the other tourists, and listened to (and joined in with) some drumming under the stars. The four of us also went over the nearest dune to watch the stars in the darkness, and they were certainly brilliant, but unfortunately by that point the wind had got up a bit so there was a lot of sand blowing in our faces and we did not stay out long. I was still finding sand all through my clothes and shoes weeks later after I returned to London. When we went to our tent to play cards we were surprised by a small bat in the tent, to which Joanna amusingly reacted by alternately cowering in the corner and trying to get up close to take photos.

We got up early the next morning to watch the sun rise, then rode our camels back to the hotel where we set out to take a (very welcome) shower and breakfast. It took several more showers to get rid of all the sand though. From Merzouga we had a long drive to get to Ouzoud Falls, where we arrived at our hostel around 10 or 11 pm only to find that they had not changed our reservation as we had asked, and so had quite some fuss until they finally found us a room with no working hot water various other problems. The next morning we had a walk around the falls, which were nice, then drove to Bin el-Ouidane reservoir for a quick look before heading back to Marrakech to drop Alberto at the airport.

Our original plan of going out to Essaouira to relax on the beach was not possible due to having pushed everything back a day, so we decided instead to spend our last night in the Ourika Valley, not far from Marrakech. We drove out there and looked for somewhere to stay, and were lucky enough to find the nicest hotel of the trip, a somewhat resort-like place with surprisingly large grounds but only 4 rooms (all fairly large, but still), only one of which was occupied. They gave us the largest and nicest room for a good discount. There was even a fireplace, which they lit for us! Fire is always fun. In the morning we had a guide from the hotel show us around some of the villages in the hills nearby, which was interesting, then drove back to Marrakech to catch our flights back to London.

Rather ironically, Monika’s Ryanair flight was on time, while the EasyJet flight which the remaining two of us caught was delayed by 3 hours, finally arriving in London some time after 2:30 am, well after the Gatwick Express for which we had booked tickets had stopped running. Still fighting EasyJet over that for compensation.

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