Five and a Half Weeks, Carry On Only

This fall, I will be experiencing three different kinds of travel: a sixteen day OAT trip to Ireland, two weeks with friends at two different vacation rentals in England and eight days on my own in London and Paris. After reading about the problems with lost luggage and flight cancellations, it seems prudent to forgo checking luggage.

It can be done. I know, because I’ve done it before, but the aging process has killed a whole lot of memory cells. (Or was it copious amounts of wine? Or both?) Covid has put a damper on the frequency of our travel, and climate change has made it very difficult to predict what weather will be like in September and October. All of the above has made me feel like a travel newbie, so this blog post is primarily for me (as a memory aid) and for my travel buddy, Sally, who asked for packing tips. Okay, so that was fair warning that this will be a stream of consciousness post–but I hope others will find the information helpful.

It all starts with the right luggage. Back in the day when I was traveling regularly, I saw many travelers using a 4 wheeled clamshell carryon, so I ordered a cheap one from Amazon, in a very distinctive color. I’ve used it many times since my 2018 purchase and have been very pleased with the amount of stuff it can hold.

The blue bag was a recent purchase, made after I saw it demonstrated on a very misleading Facebook video. The video showed the bag standing upright, which made it very easy to pack, with double zippers on the bottom, so it could be compressed and used as a shoulder bag. You’ve probably seen it too. Take a look at what it REALLY is like. Although the photo doesn’t show there is no 2nd zipper on the bottom (so no shoulder bag option), trust me. It doesn’t have one. You CAN see that it CLEARLY is incapable of standing upright. Having said that, I’m finding its light weight and many pockets make it an attractive 2nd bag. Plus I discovered a “work around”. If you stick a full packing cube in the bottom compartment, the bag WILL stand upright (sorta), making it much easier to load. That bottom compartment is jammed with clothing that I don’t expect to use during my first 8-10 days traveling.

Okay: Luggage chosen. Everything I take has to fit into those two bags. Next step: what are the airline rules? For the international flight, I decided to cash in my miles and fly business. Ordinarily, I would have saved those miles for a much longer flight, but during covid, I figured the additional space business offers was worth using those miles, plus two carryons will be no problem. My regional flight from Dublin to Newquay, however, is a different story. The best I could do was buy a slightly more expensive ticket that allows one carry on and one checked bag, so I just need to make sure that my carryon is not too heavy. With less than 80 people on the flight, a small destination airport, and a little luck, all should go well, but just in case, I have purchased an Apple Air Tag so, if necessary, I can hunt down my checked luggage.

I always make a packing list, which helps me remember what I need to pack, what I HAVE packed, and serves as an inventory for insurance purposes should my luggage get lost or stolen. I start laying out everything in the guest room a couple weeks before departure. I sort items into two piles: need to have, nice to have. I won’t insert everything into my luggage until the day before departure, but this advanced gathering helps me identify any gaps that a shopping trip needs to rectify.

In addition to packing cubes, I also use jumbo zip lock bags, which allow me to see the contents AND if you sit on them, they compress very nicely. Jumbo zip lock bags also can be used as a washing machine. All you need is a little soap and water, some dirty clothes, then zip and shake, shake shake. My OTHER friend named Sally recommended the various clips and hangers–all available through Amazon. The microfiber towel is a “nice to have” that may or may not make it past the final cut.

I expect that I will only have to hand wash during the 16 day OAT trip, because the following two weeks will be spent in vacation rentals (one with VRBO and one with AirBNB, so I will have access to washers and dryers.)

Dressing in layers is always good advice, especially for longer trips and particularly with the climate changes we have been experiencing. Although I’ll do a last minute weather check before packing, with a trip this length, it makes sense to be prepared for warm, cool and wet weather.

Because my iPhone 11 takes photos that suit my purposes (internet posts, memory jogs, and photo book creation), I no longer carry a camera. But my electronic devices keep increasing, along with their various cables and connectors. My Apple Watch and iPad both use the new USB C, while my iPhone uses the Lightening charger, which has a USB A dangling on the end of it. And of course, because I will be in the UK and Northern Europe, I need two different types of plug adapters–a G for the UK (that sucker is HUGE) and an F for France. I have those. But what if I want to charge multiple devices? I don’t want to carry an adapter for each. And what if there aren’t a lot of outlets in the room? Well, take a look at this very cool, very compact “power strip” that accommodates both kinds of USBs. And it only requires ONE G plug. Being obsessive compulsive, I had to try it out at home to make sure I could fit everything in, and that I had the correct combo of electrical “thingies”. It may look like spaghetti to the untrained eye, but to ME it looks like success. (I took the photo with my iPhone, which is why the lightening cable is just dangling there.) Best of all–these plugs and wires take up less room than my camera did.

So now that I have space efficient charging equipment–the next step is finding affordable internet connections. In the past, I have used a variety of plans: for short trips, I used Verizon’s Travel Pass, which charged $10 for every 24 hours you accessed the internet. For our trip to Australia in 2019, I purchased a local plan, which required me to install a different physical SIM card on my phone. That was much less expensive than the $100 Verizon monthly international plan with 5 GB.

Now there is a MUCH better option that Ann Bouey (who I’ve never met) posted about on the Friends of OAT Facebook page. She suggested that I check out Airalo. For $20, I was able to purchase an eSIM with 5 GB of data that would work in 39 European countries (I only need 3!) for 30 days. Best of all, I will be able to “top up” another GB for $5 to have access for 7 more days– all for 1/4 of the cost of a monthly Verizon plan.

Here’s the catch: You have to have an unlocked phone that will accommodate an eSIM. Airalo only provides access to the internet, no phone line. I rarely use voice while traveling anyway, but if the need arises, I can use WhatsApp or some other application–like FaceTime, or Google Duo.

Remember a few sentences ago, I mentioned that I used a physical SIM card in Australia? I knew that the iPhone 11 allows owners to have two different phone numbers via a physical SIM and an eSIM. So, I figured I’d set the phone up so that I could add a physical SIM card when traveling, with my Verizon phone and internet connection utilizing the eSIM slot. (Yeah, I don’t know what it is either–I just know the words and what it does). That caused a bit of a kerfuffle when I downloaded the Airalo eSIM. After consulting with Airalo customer service, then spending time in both the Apple and Verizon stores, the Verizon rep finally figured out that she had to replace my current SIM card and start again. If that all sounds like technical mumbo jumbo, it is. Here’s hoping that it is information you never need! If you don’t, then the Airalo download is very, very easy. The 30 days don’t start until I arrive in one of the European countries, and turn it on.

What else have I learned during my trip preparation? I discovered the Rick Steves app, which allowed me to download talks, including, for example, a guided tour of the Orsay Museum, and a Dublin City Walk, complete with a map–and a whole lot of other stuff.

Well, the consciousness lingers, but the stream has run dry.

Travel in the Time of Covid Part III – Casablanca

Our Overseas Adventure Travel trip (OAT) started and ended in Casablanca. I’ll admit it, that old Humphrey Bogart movie was my introduction to Morocco. Truth be told, though, the city wasn’t quite what I expected. Of all the places we visited, Casablanca was my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong. It is a perfectly fine city. It’s just that, like many large financial centers, it is crowded, and multiple areas have been torn up because of new construction.

Anyone who only visits Casablanca and thinks they have experienced Morocco is oh, so wrong. Morocco offers much, much more. For my other Morocco posts, I had a difficult time deciding which photos to post and which experiences to highlight. Casablanca presented no such challenge.

Casablanca’s main attraction is the very beautiful Hassan II Mosque, located on the edge of the Mediterranean.

It truly is a magnificent structure, displaying the usual attention to detail found in other Muslim/Arab structures, like the Alhambra.

It is easy to forget that a very modern city surrounds the mosque, but all you have to do is turn your back on the Mediterranean to see less inspiring, more utilitarian structures.

As is the case with synagogues, mosques have separate areas for women worshippers. Both Jewish and Moslem women pray from the balconies. I can’t help but wonder if it is because women deserve to be closer to heaven?

I absolutely loved strolling along the beaches of the Mediterranean, and wished we’d had more time to do just that.

I would imagine during normal times, there are many wonderful restaurants in this area, but Covid definitely narrowed our choices. For our last night we were on our own for dinner, so three of us discovered Urbano, a lovely Italian restaurant where we had the entire restaurant to ourselves.

The return trip to our hotel was indeed an adventure. Before departing, I remembered to grab a business card from the front desk. Good thinking, right? Well, the business card had the NAME of the hotel, but NOT the address, and to our dismay, we discovered there are TWO Radisson Blu hotels in Casablanca. Although Joanne was able to converse in French with our taxi driver, that still wasn’t enough. We needed to call our “lifeline”, Mostafa, who we affectionately dubbed “Dad”. With Dad’s guidance, we made it back early enough to finish packing and have a drink at the bar on the hotel’s top floor.

Tip for future OAT travelers: be sure you have your guide’s cell phone number when you venture out on your own.

This is the last of my Moroccan memories. For those of you who would like to learn more about this intriguing country, I invite you to take a look at this YouTube video, which “Dad” played for us during a bus ride.

Happy travels!

Travel In The Time of Covid – Moroccan City of Fes

Because of omicron, our only “traveling” these days is in our minds, with a memory boost from photos of days gone by.

We fully recognized how fortunate we were to be able to have ONE international trip in 2021. Before the borders slammed shut two months later, we spent three glorious October weeks touring Morocco. Sadly, as of late January, 2021, Morocco’s borders remain closed.

During our trip, our focus was on experiencing this fabulous country, so my blogging fell way behind. What better time to write about the three previously neglected cities of Fes, Marrakech and Casablanca than over the next few days, when there is little else to do in New Jersey but cook, eat, read or shivver.

Fes

Although I devoted one blog post to our spectacular Fes riad, we were too busy enjoying the wonder and glory of that city for me to blog about it.

Every souk in Morocco is quite an experience, but I think the one in Fes is the most elaborate and labyrinthine. Even Mostafa, our excellent guide, needed help from a local guide to get us through the marketplace.

You see just about everything in the Fes souk. Take a look: The head mounted outside the stall is thought to be proof that the vendor sells authentic camel meat.

Somehow, we managed to make it through the trip without being offered a sample.

You are probably wondering why I included the next visually unimpressive photo. Don’t worry. I’m going to tell you. That equipment you see on the trucks is for shooting the next Indiana Jones movie. Timing, however, is everything in life. Had we arrived a day later, Harrison Ford might have been on site, and perhaps we would have caught a glimpse of the action. Of course, what is far more likely is that the entire area would have been blocked off–probably with those barriers you see on the left. Anyway, watch for that cafe in the movie, and remember, you saw it here first.

Weddings are a HUGE deal in Morocco. Like Indian weddings, they go on forever…and necessitate multiple clothing changes. The souk has a whole area devoted to shops like this one, selling wedding caftans, which, as you can see, are LOADED with bling.

Weddings are expensive events, and not just for the bride and her family. You see, it is customary for the future groom to present his intended with baubles, including a jewel encrusted gold belt, as part of the marriage proposal. That is her “insurance policy” in case the marriage goes south.

During our time in Fes, we had dinner with a Moroccan family, who graciously showed us the video from their niece’s wedding. The bride changed her caftan SIX times during the many, many hours of the ceremony! Because of the colossal expense, our hosts told us many brides opt to rent their outfits.

Take a look at how narrow some of the passages are in the souk. They veer off into different directions, acting as natural protection from foreign invaders, of which there were many, back in the day.

Hint for future travelers: When I purchased my Sketchers, my purchase was placed in a bag that can also function as a backpack. When I tossed it into my luggage at the last minute, I had no idea how much I would use it! My regular backpack proved to be too heavy and HOT on my back, and this freebie from Sketchers was perfect for the trip.

Here’s another hint for future travelers:
When you visit the tannery, bring along either Vicks or Tiger Balm to dab under your nose, unless, of course, you think the stench is part of the experience that you don’t want to miss. Although the guide will give you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose, I definitely needed something much stronger. I don’t know how the workers can stand the smell of the hides being dyed and softened with materials like pigeon urine!

Like the rest of Morocco, Fes is a city of contrasts. After spending the day in the centuries old souk, we felt like we had time traveled when we arrived in the modern part of the city. Look at this beautiful avenue, complete with motorized vehicles the kiddies can drive. When we visited Ouarzazate a few days later, THEIR avenue included larger play vehicles, for kids of ALL sizes.

Our evening ended with a walk through this beautiful gate (one of MANY beautiful gates in the city) into another marketplace near our riad.

Our group can’t resist a photo op!

Volubilis and Meknes

During our three day stay, we had the choice of remaining in Fes, on our own, or taking the optional trip to view the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis, then visit Meknes, the imperial capital of the late, great Mouley Ishmael.

Since Mike has never met a Roman ruin that he didn’t love, it’s not hard to guess which option we chose.

Although it was interesting, I have seen many Roman ruins and mosaics, so I was more fascinated by Meknes.

Sultan Mouley Ishmael started Morocco on the road to greatness, after he ejected the British from Tangier. But that’s not his only claim to fame. He made The Guinness Book of World Records for fathering more children (888) than any other human, at least so far. No doubt it helped that he had about 500 concubines and 4 wives to share that monumental task! But what I want to know is whether he remembered all those names — of the kids AND their mothers. And how did he have the time or the energy to conquer so much territory?

With that huge a family, it is not surprise that the sultan went on a building rampage, utilizing Christian slaves to help construct his enormous structures in Meknes. When the slaves were exhausted, and thoughtlessly died on the job, he simply had their bodies tossed into the walls, to become part of the structure. To me, that’s taking recycling to the extreme.

I can’t remember whether this door was in Moulay’s stables or the granary (that’s what happens when you blog months after the fact–you forget so many details!) Whichever it was, it was massive, as you can see from the photo of one of the doors. It dwarfs my 6’3″ husband.

That’s all for today. Next post will be our memories of Marrakech.

Royal Air Maroc: Better Than a Magic Carpet!

My love affair with Morocco continues, but that will be a post for another day. Being a woman of my word, I will instead use this post to make good on my promise to report back on our experiences with Royal Air Maroc.

Faithful readers will recall that we flew business class TO Morocco, so that we could stretch out in the lay-flat seats and catch a few zzzz’s. We didn’t want to be totally exhausted when we arrived in Casablanca. As reported, business class was a luxurious experience with several unexpected bonuses.

Because our flight from Casablanca was scheduled to depart around 1 PM, we decided coach would be just fine for our return flight. And it was.

It is entirely possible that our experience was impacted by Covid, and when travel returns to normal, flights will once again be full. But not today. Mike and I had the row to ourselves, thoroughly enjoying having an empty seat between us. We didn’t feel cramped, the seats were comfy, but not as plush as business, and there was plenty of room in the overhead bins. The passenger in front of us had the entire row, so he was able to stretch out across all three seats.

Okay, so this was the first time I’d seen this really cool window feature. Instead of having a shade, there is a little button below the window that gradually lightens or darkens the pane, so you can be shielded from the sun’s brightness and heat, and still see outside.

Lunch was rather good. The orzo was sprinkled with cinnamon, the chicken had a delicious sauce and best of all, the wine was free! The second “meal” was not so good. In fact, it is as pretty pathetic and there was no accompanying wine to ease the pain. So, in addition to a guaranteed seat to yourself that has an almost infinite number of adjustments, you get much better food (and drink) in business class.

The seat back entertainment in coach and business is identical. Even if it were different, that would not have been a selling point for me because with my iPhone and iPad, this girl is all set. I keep the flight map on the screen so I can watch our progress, while bopping in my seat to my favorite music or reading a book on one of my I-thingies. Fortunately the seats have outlets, so I can recharge if the need arises. It doesn’t take much to make me very happy, and yes, wine helps.

In business class, we received a little bag with hand and face cream, lip balm, ear plugs, eye mask, a comb and socks. But guess what? People in economy also got a goodie bag. It only contained socks and an eye mask, (neither of which I EVER use) but still, that’s more than other airlines do for us folks in steerage.

Because of my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, we were able to use the Pearl Lounge at the very uncrowded Casablanca Airport, so our airport wait was quite comfortable.

Bottom line: Air Maroc worked out really well for us. We were able to fly at reasonable times. Those on the Air France return flight had to get up at 3:30 AM, and had a “box” breakfast. We got up at 8 AM, had a delicious buffet breakfast, and because our flight was non-stop, arrived at JFK about 15 minutes after the Air France Flight. Others on our trip had their flights changed multiple times. Ours did not. Best of all for OAT travelers, another member of our group was able to fly Royal Air Maroc and have the arrangements made by OAT, because of their code share with American Airlines. That would definitely been our preference! I must have had a new OAT rep, who was unaware of that option.

Ouarzazate

I know you are probably wondering how in the world to pronounce the name of this Moroccan city. Well, wonder no more. “Ou” sounds like our “W”, so when you come to Morocco and want to stay near the movie set for Game of Thrones, book a riad in “ WAR-za-zat”.

We spent two nights in Ouarzazate, staying at the beautiful Dar Kalifa. During the 1900’s our riad was the court house of Pasha Glaoui. This very powerful Bedouin chieftain was France’s ally against Sultan Mohammed V, and was instrumental in getting the Sultan exiled to Madagascar in 1953.

Unfortunately for France and the Pasha, the Sultan was beloved by many Moroccans. His removal resulted in unrest and uprisings in Morocco. As a result, de Gaulle reinstated Mohammed V (who changed his title from sultan to king) in 1956; simultaneously Morocco gained its independence. Pasha Glaoui had clearly made the wrong choice. So what became of this traitor? He traveled to Paris, knelt at the feet of in submission to Mohammed V, who forgave him. Their actions reunited the warring factions and made it easier for Mohammed V to regain his throne. Glaoui died of cancer in 1956, Mohammed V died in 1961.

I have to admit, it was pretty thrilling to think about all the history that must have taken place within the walls of our riad. It isn’t easy to find—you walk along some narrow passages to get there, but it is worth the walk to discover this spectacular dwelling.

Be forewarned: there are MANY steps in Dar Kalifa, and they all seem to be a different size.

Can you guess why Ouarzazate’s nickname is WallyWood? The dramatic scenery and the perfect lighting from sun filled days have made it a favorite spot for film makers.

Many of the locals work as “extras” in movies like Gladiator. Our local guide, Mohammed has been in several movies. Here’s his picture, so you can look for him in Season 4 of Game of Thrones.

Mohammed with his visual resume

Mohammed never had the opportunity to attend school. He spent his childhood ferrying tourists across the river on his donkey. Although he was never taught to read and write, he became fluent in English, French, Spanish and a few other languages, by listening to tourists he transported. I find that amazing—what an impressive and intelligent man!

Mohammed’s children: 2 girls, aged 13 and 6 and 1 boy aged 10, all attend school, and are teaching their dad to read. Mohammed told us he thought his family was complete, but his “coronavirus baby” arrived 8 months ago!

Most tourists visiting the area want to spend time in Ait Benhaddou, stopping at one of the two studios in town. Before Covid, Mohammed told us during high season Ait Benhaddou received more than 1,000 tourists per day.

Instead, we visited Asfalou Village, for what OAT calls “A Day in the Life”. There, we spent the morning with an extended family, visit their home, learning how the women make bread and the men make bricks.

For the afternoon, we visited the Women’s Association, a beneficiary of the Grand Circle Foundation. The Association’s objectives are to build women’s self confidence and to empower them. The women learn to bake cookies, which are sold to hotels and to tourists. We sampled some during our visit and they were so delicious, we all bought more.

While there, we all decorated our bodies with henna—even the men.

But the highlight, for me at least, was playing dress up. Unfortunately, my first choice for spouse was feeling under the weather that day, so I had to go with a substitute for this Berber wedding.

For you movie buffs, I’ll end with a list of some of the movies and TV shows filmed in this area.

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) The Man Who Wished To Be King (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Bandits, Bandits (1981)
  • The Diamond of the Nile (1985)
  • Killing is not playing (1987) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • Tea in the Sahara (1990) Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Babel (2006)
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
  • Game of Thrones (season 3, 2013)
  • Game of Thrones (season 4)

For the curious—the photo at the top of this post shows the artist doing paintings using a sort of “invisible ink”. He heats the paper over the flame to make the colors appear. This “invisible ink” , used for secret messages sent during French occupation, has been repurposed!