TRAVEL TIPS

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

Travel Advice: 4 Essential Tips for Planning a Trip

Our vacation planning process involves a lot of research, blog surfing — and negotiation.

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

As Wally and I count down the days to embark on our next adventure, I wanted to share a glimpse of our planning process that occurs during the months prior. The anticipation is part of the fun of travel.

Southeast Asia had me at hello after our first trip abroad eight years ago. I’m super-excited for our trip to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

 

1. Do research. A whole lot of it.

How do we plan our trips? It typically involves reading through numerous travel blogs, an assortment of travel guides, books on traditional architecture, religion and history, and digging into Pinterest and Instagram. This process consumes countless hours, transforming our itinerary as we add and adjust based on our discoveries. Our interests include history, culture, heritage, arts and shopping.

Typically, I create broad brushstrokes first, which we then whittle down together. I use Google docs so we can both share and contribute. It’s important for each of us to express our desires and agree upon what kind of vacation we want to experience.

 

2. Be flexible.

While it's important to have a game plan, be sure you leave yourself free to make unexpected discoveries.

For our recent trip planning, the hotel we originally agreed upon was not available for a few of the days we would be there, so we found another place. We made the reservation about four months ago.

 

3. Make a list. Or two.

When it comes to plotting our itineraries, Wally has a system which he refers to as A-list and B-list. A-list activities are top priority, and B-list less so. For example, on Instagram I saw that someone we follow, @alexblock, visited a restaurant in Chiang Mai called As Café. It has a 3D printer that will make a pancake in the likeness of your face. When I told Wally about it, he said, “Definite B-list,” but I'd argue that it's a strong B+ for sure. Who wouldn't want to exclaim, “I’m gonna eat my face?”

What type of things made it onto our A-list, you ask? Ziplining through the jungle. An elephant sanctuary. And temples. Lots and lots of temples.

There really are a seemingly endless amount of things to see and experience in and around the second largest city in Thailand. Pretty soon we had a short list(s) and were able to come to an agreement on prioritization.

 

4. Don't try to pack too much in.

Originally we debated tacking on a few days in Bagan, Myanmar. I'll admit I'm slightly obsessed since having read that it’s one of interior designer Vicente Wolf's favorite travel destinations. But after some thoughtful consideration and gentle affirmation from Alana Morgan of the indispensable blog Paper Planes, we knew we had made the right decision to stay the entire time in Chiang Mai.

Why rush things? It’ll be fun to really get to know a place, without rushing off to another country. –Duke

Travel Karma

Some trips are blessed, some cursed.

We are all connected, as this detail from a Jain temple in Rajasthan, India shows

My son’s friend went off a cliff on a defective scooter on the Greek island of Poros. He had to be flown to Athens on the orders of the local doctor whose limited English had him explain, “I can see his mind.” In other words, a big gash in the head.

My rented jeep was confiscated when the owner saw a wrecked scooter in the back. My son’s scooter was confiscated when he rode through town during siesta looking for help. Bad travel karma.

We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. They did not speak for the rest of the trip.


My two friends and I met Ahmed on the train in Morocco from Rabat to Fès. Ahmed was middle-aged, skinny, snaggle-toothed — too much sugar in the mint tea — and extremely talkative. He was a nice man and we had three hours to kill. We heard about his nine siblings and his extended family of 45, who prevent him from selling his father’s riad since he can’t get everyone to sign the papers. Ahmed worked for the leather cooperative.

He wasn’t pushy but he gave us his number. When we called, he sent Abdul, who guided us to the tannery and gave us a tour of the medina, two hours, more than five miles, much of it uphill. He led us through the rat’s maze of streets and the crush of people and didn’t seem to mind that, although we bought leather, we didn’t buy anything else. A nice guy showing people his hometown. Good travel karma.


Bad travel karma can haunt you for years.

We were told by the guide in Zimbabwe that if charged by a lion, we must not run and we must not panic. We set off on foot through Matusadona on Lake Kariba. A female lion crossed the dry riverbed we were walking down. We stopped. She disappeared into the bush. We went on. She charged when we came even with her and her two cubs.

A charging lion makes a noise that shakes the earth, a growl that starts in the soles of your feet and travels to the back of your neck like a lightning striking. We all froze. The guide raised his gun but did not cock it. We stared at her. She stared at us. The guide whispered, “Back up.” We all put one foot slowly behind the other, except for a newlywed groom who turned and ran, knocking his bride to the ground without ever breaking stride. The guide scooped her up with one hand while still aiming at the lioness. The bride and groom did not speak for the rest of the trip. Bad travel karma is a bad start to a marriage.



Good travel karma can be accrued.

In Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, taxis are often shared. You give the driver your destination, but if there’s room, he may stop and pick up somebody else. Sometimes even if there’s not room. Cabs never use their meters and never have change. Pay it forward. How much for the lady in the front seat with the two gallons of olive oil?

A little global goodwill goes a long way, and you may earn so much good travel karma that your Airbnb host serves a lunch of tagine with fresh sardines and warm bread.

 

How to Accrue Good Travel Karma

  • Don’t give money to beggar children; give pencils.
  • Always give away leftovers.
  • Pack used clothes to trade at street markets in sub-Saharan Africa. They can be worn or sold. Used jeans, and you’re royalty for a day.
  • Pose for pictures with people. I am in the family albums of more Indian families than I can count, often with their children in my lap.

Karma goes around and it comes around, the original global energy. –Rebecca

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2016

What subjects appealed most to our readers? Qatar, a love den in Delhi, jinns, wellness, tapas, guacamole, a Peruvian vampire, a Fès restaurant and Trump. Lots of Trump.

It must be love.

As we reviewed our best-performing posts of our inaugural year, we noticed that you share our same diverse interests. You appreciate our quirky sensibilities (like our post on a garden filled with amorous couples finding release in a repressed society).

But you’re interested in politics, too — from what it’s like to live in a Middle Eastern country to the global effects of our controversial new president.

You also appreciate good food, whether it’s a recipe you’re looking for or restaurant suggestions on your travels.

Finally, you’re interested in folklore, be it the jinns of Islam or a fat-sucking vampire you sure don’t want to run into along the Inca Trail.

1. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

2. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

4. TOP 6 WELLNESS TOURISM TRIPS

Yoga on the Mexican beach, hikes to Machu Picchu, Pilates in Morocco — the best health tourism adventures.

5. LA TRANCA: KICK OFF A DAY OF MALAGA TAPAS AT THIS LOCAL HANGOUT

Famous for its empanadas and other tapas treats, this neighborhood bar has many a story to tell.

6. WHAT THE WORLD THINKS OF A PRESIDENT TRUMP

Spoiler alert: From Europe to Asia to Latin America, the outlook isn’t very optimistic.

7. BEST GUACAMOLE RECIPE EVER

Es la verdad. Wally’s famous guacamole never fails to please. Just make sure you get a molcajete.

8. MORE TAKES ON WHAT THE WORLD THINKS ABOUT A TRUMP PRESIDENCY

Is there any country that’s pleased with the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? (Besides Russia, that is.)

9. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

10. THE RUINED GARDEN: A FAIRY TALE FEZ RESTAURANT

A magical, secret spot with great Moroccan food, friendly servers, quirky décor and kitty companions.

Getting From Malaga to Morocco Is a Total Pain in the Ass

One of the gates that leads into the medina in Fès, Morocco — not a place you want to be, clueless, in the middle of the night

Should you leave from Algeciras or Tarifa, Spain to catch the ferry to Tangiers? Our hellish day can teach you 24 valuable lessons.

 

Part of me was excited by the romance of taking a ferry from Europe to Africa, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

And part of me knew getting from Málaga to Fès in one day was, perhaps, overly ambitious. I worried that things wouldn’t quite work out for us.

My exhausted brain kept thinking, “Well, this is it. We’re gonna get knifed in some dark alley.”

Well, that’s an understatement.

We can only hope that our extremely hellacious day can provide some valuable advice to those of you undergoing similar jaunts.

And when travel plans get particularly harried, I like to remember that we’ve got it pretty darn good in the modern age. Imagine how long it would have taken Mark Twain to undergo the same journey.

Here’s what we learned (the hard way):

 

1. It’s difficult to find anything online.

In this day and age, you kind of figure that everything’s on the internet, right? But local bus schedules, train timetables — it’s all difficult to find. While surfing around at our friends’ place in Málaga, the only information we could unearth came from other travelers as confused as we were — and even that was hopelessly outdated.

 

2. There isn’t a magical yellow bus.

One of the guys at the hostel across the street told us there was an Amarillo bus. We didn’t know if that was the company’s name or if it was literally a yellow bus. Or both.

He sounded so certain. It was an express bus, or directo, he told us, and it runs from Málaga to Tarifa nonstop. He even knew what time it leaves: 7:30 a.m.

Of course we couldn’t find anything online.

But I wanted to believe him. After all, he must have plenty of travelers who want to go to Morocco.

It almost sounded too good to be true.

Turns out it was.

We caught a crack-of-dawn taxi to the bus station, where we found the window for the Amarillo bus line (not just the color but the company name as well). The sign, though, informed us they wouldn’t have anyone working there till later. And the schedule showed nothing about a directo. Which was OK since we had already bought our tickets at the Portillo window, the only one open that early.

 

3. The buses themselves are quite nice and seemed to run on time.

Note: There aren’t any bathrooms on the buses, and there might be an unforeseen layover. When we got to Algeciras, we were told we had to get off the bus for half an hour and then reboard for the final leg of the trip to Tarifa.

 

4. The ferry from Tarifa is better.

It lets you out in the Tangier city center, whereas the one from Algeciras, an industrial port, drops you off farther away.

 

5. …Unless the entire port is closed for high winds.

It was so windy that it was a bit of a struggle at times even walking the 10 minutes to the port terminal.

The man at the bus station kept saying “cerrada” and mimicking two doors closing. But we decided our best bet was to get to the port and see exactly what the deal was.

 

6. If you get stuck in Tarifa, our friends recommend you stay at Hostal Africa.

I’m hoping hostal in this case doesn’t mean sharing a room and bathroom with 10 or so other people.

Jo and Jose say Tarifa is a cute little surfer town, and the winds mean good kite surfing — you’ll see signs touting this pastime all over.

You enter the old part of town through an arch, and it did seem laid-back, with white buildings and winding streets.

We passed Hostal Africa, and it’s very close to the tourism office, which is at one end of the paseo, where you can find some cafés and old folks chatting on benches.

A nice fellow helped guide us through the twisting lanes to the port.

That’s where a maritime policeman informed us the port was closed for the entire day.

 

7. You might have to backtrack to Algeciras.

That’s what we had to do. It’s frustrating — you wish someone could have told you the port was closed for the day.

At any rate, we hopped into a cab outside the ferry station, and after a 35€ ride, we were back in Algeciras, the previous stop on our bus ride.

 

8. The ferry ticket seller might fib.

There are lines of ticket windows touting ferry service. Look for the next time to Tangier. The man behind the glass at the window we approached said the ferry left at 14:00 (2 p.m.), but the printout he gave us read, 14:30.

 

9. Have a beer while you wait.

I know for me, it helped take the edge off a stressful day. I thought today would be an adventure like on The Amazing Race. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s not really a good thing. You’ve got to be creative and courageous and run around like crazy — only we didn’t have the chance of winning $1 million.

 

10. Don’t get sucked into bad Spanish dating shows.

The TV in the cafeteria was blasting a terrible low-rent Bachelor/Bachelorette-type show called Mujeres y Hombres y Viceversa.

It was like watching a train wreck, as we say in the States (though that’s probably an expression I should avoid while traveling).

Eventually we ripped ourselves away half an hour before we were supposed to board.

 

11. You’ll still need to get a boarding pass.

We tried to board with the paper printout the ticket seller gave us, but no go. We were told we had to go back downstairs (past the door reading, “Point of No Return,” past Customs, past the security X-ray machine).

One of the workers was telling the woman in ticket booth to hurry up, which made me wonder if the gates were closing. Which certainly didn’t help my stress level.

I needn’t have worried.

 

12. The departure time on your ticket might actually be the boarding time.

Not a huge deal, but it would play a factor if there’s a particular train connection in Tangier you’re hoping to make.

 

13. Once aboard the ferry, get right in line to get your passport stamped.

It took us over 20 minutes to get through the line. The boat hadn’t left by then.

 

14. We suspect that the times the ticket sellers tout are really just staggered boarding times for the same ferry.

It was 16:00 and we still hadn’t left. Duke and I had already had a café au lait and briefly had to put up with an annoying couple in obnoxious matching blue jumpsuits that read, “I Feel the Need…the Need for Sleep” on the backs blasting some pop song on their cell phone. 

 

15. Pack snacks.

There are places you can buy sandwiches, potato chips and the like. But, boy, were we glad to have ham and cheese croissants, fresh figs and empanadas with us.

By the time we thought we might want “une sandwish” (that’s not proper French, by the way) on the ferry, they were completely sold out.

 

16. They’ll let you out in the hold with all the big trucks.

No one really directed us, and we thought for sure we had done something wrong. A group of us strangers were walking back and forth, aimlessly, until a crewmember nodded and pointed us in the direction we had come.

We went back to stand between two large idling semis.

 

17. Other cultures think nothing of cutting in line.

That includes a Dutch family and Moroccans alike. People just oozed around us and ended up standing in front of us, acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And maybe it is.

I don’t think of Americans as the masters of politesse — but we do hold waiting in line without cutting to be a sacred duty.

 

18. Then it’s a stampede off the ferry and onto a shuttle bus.

The door-cum-ramp creaked open, accompanied by a horrific high-pitched shrieking noise.

The minute it touched down, it was a mad dash. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just went with the flow.

Eventually we found ourselves packed onto a bus and overheard someone say we were being shuttled to Customs.

We went through metal detectors and I set off the alarm (perhaps it was my metal-studded belt?). But no one was paying attention.

 

19. You’ll have to haggle over a taxi into Tangier Ville, as they call the downtown area.

Our driver was OK with 20€ until another man upped the charge and he suddenly wanted 25€.

He only got 20, as I was counting out centimes to even get that much. He was not amused but decided to let it go.

 

20. Sometimes your train leaves at an ungodly hour.

Yes, I’m glad there was still one running. But I do wish the guy who sold us the ticket had informed us that we’d have to transfer. (We figured that out on our own when we didn’t see Fès on the list of stops).

 

21. Morocco is one hour behind Spain.

We ate dinner at the mall across the street and settled back in at the gare (French for train station).

Then Duke noticed the clock. Instead of having an hour before our train left, we had two.

 

22. Borrow the wifi and get a drink at a nearby hotel.

We spotted the Ibis hotel and headed over there to grab a couple of beers in the dark bar, which reeked of cigarette smoke and had the entire clientele glued to a football (soccer to you Americans) match.

In fact, a waiter taking a break yelled at me as I waited at the bar to order our drinks. Turns out I had the nerve to stand in his line of vision of the big-screen TV.

Leaving Fès was sad — but a heck of a lot easier than getting there

23. Once you get to Fès in the middle of the night, be wary of taxi drivers randomly calling out your riad.

For some reason, our train was an hour early, so we worried if there’d be someone to meet us. Boy, were we relieved when a man called out the name of our riad. Turns out he wasn’t affiliated with Riad Dar Bensouda at all. It seems some of them just call out the more popular riads and lure you in that way.

We didn’t know this, though — we were just relieved to have what we thought was a pre-arranged trip to our riad.

 

24. We can’t recommend just walking away, telling the driver if he wants to get paid he’ll have to do so at the riad.

But of course, tired and grumpy, not wanting to get taken advantage of, that’s what we did. I just started wheeling my suitcase through the gate into the medina, telling Duke to follow me. We didn’t have a single dirham to our names.

The taxi driver threatened to get the police…but eventually ended up trailing after us.

We had no idea where we were going. It was 2:45 a.m. Ahead of us was a dimly lit maze. Turns out our driver didn’t know where he was going, either.

Eventually, he enlisted the help of a boy, who led us through the winding warren. My exhausted brain kept thinking, “Well, this is it. We’re gonna get knifed in some dark alley.”

And then, suddenly, we stopped in front of a rather nondescript door. We had arrived.

 

Final Advice

After our ordeal, we’re thinking it might be worthwhile to hire a tour company to arrange the trip from Spain to Morocco.

There are probably some things they can’t control, but it’d be nice to cede responsibility to more capable hands.

Or, it might be better to fly — even if that means going out of your way.

We found flights that went up to Barcelona and then to Fès. We thought it was silly to fly north to then fly south. But that actually might be less of a hassle.

Anyway you slice it, though, getting from Málaga to Fès is a challenge. Hopefully our experience makes your journey a bit easier — or at least lets you know what to expect (and what not to do).  –Wally

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