Chefchouen, Morocco: The Blue Pearl

Chefchouen (shef-sh-oww-EN) has recently become THE destination of Morocco. Known as the Blue City or the Blue Pearl, this magical little town is painted entirely in shades of blue. Which means that it is every photographers dream locale for a chance to become #instafamous. Chefchouen sits in the Rif mountains, approximately three hours northwest of Fez. I read about it years ago after seeing dreamy photos of the brightly hued narrow alleys, and decided then that if I ever visited Morocco, I would have to make a stop in Chefchouen. So, even though we only had three days in the country, we decided to use one of them to take a day trip to Chefchouen.

Blue city aside, the drive to visit is stunning on its own. A meandering three hours from Fez, the drive is quiet and comfortable, passing by farms and small villages the whole way. We hired a driver to take us, and we were glad we did ($150 for an entire day; worth it if you're short on time). My favorite surprise was that we happened to be in Morocco when all the wildflowers were in bloom. Meaning that every field we passed was absolutely brimming with yellow and orange poppies. From a distance, it looked like someone had taken a highlighter and scribbled orange and green swaths across the mountains. The yellow flowers mixed in with the green fields made the hills look neon green. So beautiful!

Chefchouen did not disappoint on the color front. In the medina, every wall is painted in various shades of aqua, turquoise, royal blue, and white. Like Fez, Chefchouen is a pedestrian city with no cars or motorcycles. The city center is very quiet, aside from the sounds of tourists chatting and children playing. Because Chefchouen is on the side of a mountain, all of the streets are sloping and hilly. This not only makes it fun to explore, but much easier to find your way around. You can always orient yourself based on the location of the mountain.

We arrived in Chefchouen around noon, which ended up not being ideal. It was very hot (nearly 90 degrees) and the sun was high in the sky, meaning the alleys gave little shade. From a photography standpoint, this also meant that there were harsh shadows and high contrasts in most of my photos. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it harder to see just how blue everything is. Photography tip: visit in the morning or evening for glowing alleys and less sweat. 

Chefchouen sits relatively far north, so the locals actually speak Spanish in addition to Arabic and French. But, since it's also a major tourist destination, most people speak English as well. Since Chefchouen is such a hotspot, the streets are filled with shops selling trinkets and souvenirs. Rugs, dyes, spices, and clothing line the narrow alleys. The center of the medina is filled with restaurants geared towards tourists, with salespeople trying to push you into patronizing their respective cafes. We visited one of the restaurants that seemed more appealing than its neighbors, but the food was lackluster. Similar to Fez, all of the best cooks work for the riads and not the restaurants. If you are able, try to have a meal at a riad rather than being sucked in by the free wifi and proximity of the tourist restaurants.

Ultimately, the draw of Chefchouen is simply the uniqueness of the blue city center. The only activities are wandering the streets and visiting the shops (which isn't a bad thing necessarily). We spent three hours walking around, and by the end had seen most of the main part of the city, eaten lunch, and shopped around. If you're planning a visit, you probably won't need more than one day to see everything. There are some beautiful hikes in the mountains nearby though, so if you do stay longer than a day, use the opportunity to take a hike. With all that in mind, I am very happy we decided to visit. We had the perfect amount of time to get a taste of the city (and A LOT of photos, haha). It was a long day, but I was very happy with our Blue City experience. 

PS - Happy fathers day, Dad! I love you!
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Two Days in Fez, Morocco

If you're dreaming of colorful buildings glittering with hand-painted tiles, a marketplace full of rugs and spices, and desert-scapes dotted with camels, don't come to Fez. You're thinking of Marrakesh (and so was I). What initially started as a bit of shock and disappointment (where are the beautiful buildings? Where can I find the big market?) turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Fez, unlike it's sister city to the south, doesn't orient itself around the needs of its visitors. It nods its head at tourism, without bowing down to it. Ochre buildings arranged in an actual maze of over 10,000 streets spread out in an intricate weaving. It becomes abundantly clear that this is no place for the casual tourist; unless you're willing to get fully lost or else throw yourself upon the mercy of the locals (or a paid guide) you will find yourself anxious and discouraged. If, however, you embrace the labyrinth and lose your colorful expectations, Fez will be a remarkably interesting city to visit. 

As per Islamic tradition, the buildings in Fez focus their beauty on the inside, rather than the outside. This has created a rather homogenous city of plaster and sandstone alleys. However, what is missing on the exterior is not lacking on the interior. Elaborate tile and carved wooden arches are abundant inside many of the buildings in Fez. Colorful courtyards with fountains and orange trees, embroidered cushions and sequined pillows, and beautiful mosaics are commonplace. The trick is finding buildings that you can actually enter. In our case, we only saw the interior of our own Riad and a few restaurants, but if you're able to visit other Riads and traditional stores, I recommend it. 

The list of highlights in Fez is centered around visiting famous madrasas (schools) including the oldest university in the world, a few palaces, the medina, and the leather tannery. We took a three hour guided tour of the medina which led us past some of the well-known madrasas and mosques, but we did not enter any of them. We spent much of our time exploring the medina, which prior to our arrival, I had envisioned as an amalgamation of Istanbul and Cairo's famous souks. If you, like me, expected colorful lanterns, loud music, and tourist shops, you will be disappointed. The medina is clearly focused on meeting the needs of the locals. Most of the "shops" are carts in the street, or very small rooms with a counter facing the street. The goods are primarily foods and housewares, most of which aren't gifts you'd send home to mom and dad. In fact, we buy a magnet in every country we visit for Phil's mom (she's collected them for a very long time),  and we didn't see a single shop in the medina with magnets or any items of the like. However, this meant more interesting people-watching (and photos!).

Possibly the most famous (at least on Instagram) destination we visited in Fez was the leather tannery. This is the largest leather tannery in Africa, and produces a good amount of the leather exported worldwide. It is a series of vats of natural chemical compounds and dyes, used to soften and dye the leather. The chemicals used are made from liquified pigeon droppings, which works wonders to create silky-soft leather. However, this results in an incredibly foul stench famous for making visitors gag and even become sick. I myself was anxious prior to entering; would the smell make me sick? Would I faint or vomit or have to leave? With so many horror stories online I could only imagine the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to find the smell quite tolerable, even without the sprig of mint they hand you to hold under your nose. It smelled no worse to me than the piles of garbage that filled the streets outside my home in Cairo (no offense, Cairo). 

Fez was our first stop in Morocco, so we experienced all of our Moroccan "firsts" there. Going in, we knew that they speak Arabic and French, and we assumed Arabic would be the dominant language. Phil speaks French from growing up in Switzerland, and I speak [very rusty] Arabic after living in Egypt. When we got to our hotel, our host took us to the courtyard to fill out paperwork and tell us about the city. I spoke a few niceties in Arabic with him and immediately he said "Ah! That sounds like Egyptian!" to which I blushed and said "yes, it is." He said "You know, the interesting thing is that Moroccan Arabic is so unique, but we can understand all the other forms of Arabic. But none of the other Arabic countries can understand us!" And he was correct. Try as I might, I could hardly understand any of the words spoken by passerby's in the street or at the restaurants or shops we visited. Moroccan Arabic sounds like Arabic spoken in a French accent, but it also seemed to use a lot of unique words (and some that were French just sprinkled in!).  As it turned out, everyone spoke French, and it was pretty standard sounding. Phil did almost all of the communicating on the trip, and I was too embarrassed to try using my Egyptian Arabic again. 

Possibly the most surprising thing about Fez is how peaceful it is. The majority of old Fez is pedestrian only; the streets aren't wide enough for cars and no one seemed to use motorbikes. We didn't notice music playing from houses or stores anywhere in the city, and there wasn't an abundance of people out in the streets either. This resulted in a charming experience in which the dominant sounds are birds chirping and children playing in the streets. The people we encountered were gracious and not pushy; nothing like the experience we've had in all the other North African/Middle Eastern countries we've visited. Nobody followed us or made us feel intimidated. Nobody yelled at us or made inappropriate comments. Every person we met was simply lovely and helpful; even the strangers who walked us to-and-from different places in the city (we used three different forms of maps and still got lost!) asked politely for a tip at the end of our interaction but didn't push us for more money. What Fez lacks in beautiful buildings it certainly makes up for in beautiful people. 

To say Fez didn't meet my expectations would be an understatement; but that's not to say that it was a negative experience whatsoever! My disappointment quickly metamorphosed into curiosity and landed somewhere in the realm of pleasantly surprised. Phil and I truly enjoyed our time, and would recommend visiting yourself if you're able.  

My recommendations for visiting Fez, Morocco:
  • Hire a tour guide at least your first time exploring the city, and be prepared to get lost on your own.
  • Stay at a locally owned Riad; they are true to the local culture and beautiful to stay in.
  • Practice your French as everyone we encountered spoke it. Modern Arabic is too different from Moroccan Arabic to be of much help. Many people spoke a bit of English but French is the easiest language to use. 
  • Don't bother eating at any restaurants; have your Riad cook all your meals. All of the best cooks work in the Riads, not the restaurants! (we learned this the hard way)
  • Fez has many locally owned co-ops for artisan goods; rather than buy tourist trinkets to take back home, consider investing in the local economy at one of these co-ops (we bought a rug from a women's rug co-op!)
  • Bring your camera and a sense of adventure!

Have you visited Fez before? How did your experience compare?
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A Resurrection

At one point in my life, approximately six years ago, I had the grand idea to start a travel blog. I'll be able to keep everyone updated on Egypt! I thought, as I excitedly designed headers and social icons and background images to beautify my little website. I distinctly remember posting my blog on Facebook after weeks of tedious tweaks and modifications to my site. One of the first comments I got from a holdover acquaintance from high school was "Wow, how original... you leave the country once and decide to write a travel blog." I was so embarrassed. Is that what everyone thinks of this idea? That I'm an uninformed cliche? I briefly considered sidelining the whole idea of a blog (I clearly take others' opinions personally) but after my close friends and family reiterated that they did indeed want to read about my travels while I was away, I decided to stick with it.

Due East was a beautiful project while I lived away. I cherished being able to share my experiences with everyone home. It was simple and pure and I loved not only telling everyone back home of my adventures, but also of the simple act of writing and photographing my experiences. It became a journal for me.

But, as with all things, that changed. To my surprise, I quickly amassed a following of strangers. Fellow travelers, blog-readers, and young women who for some reason or another enjoyed reading of my experiences. By the time I had around 100 followers who regularly read my blog, and whom I had never met other than via the comments they left on my posts, I felt the urge to change. Surely these people don't care about the classes I taught last week or my weekend spent at the market. I decided I needed to grow my content in proportion with my followers.

As with many of these endeavors, it went out of my hands. I tried to become too many things for too many people. I felt obligated to start writing travel how-to's, travel hacks, lifestyle posts, food photography! Those things weren't why I started my blog. More talented writers with larger followings were doing a better job than I writing about those things. I lost my voice and became homogeneous. My posts were boring. I was uninspired. Instead of eagerly sitting down at my laptop to pour out my heart onto the page, I was forcing myself to put something out, to please my followers.

My blog became indistinguishable from the hundreds of other travel blogs written by young, female travelers out to conquer the world. And the reason? Because I wanted so badly to please those bloggers, and their followers, and my followers, and every person with any interest in anything travel-related who stumbled upon my humble abode. I stopped writing about what I liked and started writing about what they liked.

And then I burnt out. Life got busy, and my enthusiasm was gone. I wrote an unintentional final post and disappeared for nearly two years.

But I miss writing. I miss the excitement I got from pouring out my adventures on paper, not as a humble-brag or a travel hack expose, but simply from the sheer joy of reliving the moment and sharing it with those who couldn't be there to experience it with me.

So. Two years later and I'm back. My life has changed drastically in that time; I got married, earned my MSc in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology, moved to Washington DC, started my own photography business, bought a house with my loving husband, got an incredible job, and am back in a place where I'm away from home and want to inform my family and friends about all the things I'm doing and the places I'm going.

So if you're here to read about what website to book your next flight on or the best time of year to visit Peru, you might be disappointed. But if you're here to read the potentially bad writing about the experiences of someone living and traveling away from home, you'll be getting exactly that.

My current goals for Due Course (did you notice the slight name change? That's another blog post altogether) are: writing about my travel experiences, sharing my photography (visit my photography website!) and keeping my friends and family up to date with my ever-changing life. Am I a cliche again? Almost certainly. But this time around I am writing my blog for me, not in an attempt to meet the needs of an evolving blogging market and instagram feed.

I'm excited about this and I hope you are too.

xoxo Taylor

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So, you know how I've been totally MIA from Due East for over a month? Yeah, I apologize for that. But I've had some big changes happening around here.
First up: I moved back to the United States three weeks ago. Yes, a whole three weeks ago and, and somehow failed to mention it.
More importantly though...


Photo courtesy of our incredible photographer, Hannah Fine Photography
Since I'm a sucker for engagement stories (who isn't, secretly?) I thought I'd share ours. Because I think it's pretty fantastic. Though I'm potentially biased.

So after spending one week back home in Seattle, Phil and I flew to Washington DC where he and all his family lives. We had been planning on spending three weeks together in DC before flying to Norway for my good friends' wedding at the end of April. Phil wanted to be back in DC before Easter weekend though, because his mother is a music teacher and was directing an Easter musical at his church, and he wanted us to see it. 
We made it back to DC on April 1, with a few spare days before our only plan for the week: the musical. When the weekend came around, Phil's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew drove up from Richmond to join the musical party. 
We headed to church on Saturday for the musical, where lots of friends and family had come for the show. The performance went without a hitch, and afterwards there was a big lunch for everyone.
Now, what you're about to see is what happened after the musical, before the lunch. Jane (Phil's mom) goes up to thank everyone who performed in the musical, but notes that she wouldn't allow Jeff (a friend of ours) to play the accordion in the musical, even though he really wanted to. So, to make up for that, she would let him play one song for us since the musical was finished. 

When the song started, Phil was standing behind me kind of dancing with me to it. Phil will do anything in front of anyone (lack of shame or total confidence? I'll never know), and I get super embarrassed about doing stuff in front of a crowd. Specifically dancing. So, when you see him lead me to the center of the crowd, I was really annoyed because I thought he was making me slow dance in front of everyone to push me out of my comfort zone. I even turned to him at one point and said "Phil! I don't want to dance in front everyone!" which he didn't hear or ignored, because he continued pushing me into the center.
Of course, we reach the opposite side of the circle where he takes the ring from the singer (who had expertly been holding the box under his sheet music) and JKREWUQIOEUJKDOAIUEIUFIJOAKLDJKSLAJWIQOJDSAKLJDLSAK because I realize what is happening. 
As it turns out, a "musical" is just an inconspicuous way to get friends and family gathered for a surprise proposal. 
Well, a surprise only for me. I think 50% of the people there knew about it, because afterwards everyone came up and kept saying how nervous they were all day! And I had NO clue! 
The last week has been a whirlwind. I'm engaged, and currently planning our wedding for this (!) Summer. Why wait for a good thing, right? 

Current Summer to-do list:
-Write my Mater's dissertation
-Get married
-Move 3,000 miles across the country

Go big or go home, that's my motto. 
So, there are some pretty big changes happening in my life, and I can't wait to take you along for the ride!

PS I have a secret love for the accordion and I have no clue how Phil knew this. So, props to him for keeping it all a total surprise but also making it a really good one. 

PPS we've made the (obviously) most important decision for our wedding: the honeymoon! We'll be heading to Nicaragua for 8-days of wedded bliss in August. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't the most exciting aspect of all of this!

PPPS I realize that I look super short in the video, but it's really just an optical illusion, because Phil is super tall. I'm 5'7 and he's 6'4. And apparently I'm protective of that, hahaha. 

Have any expert wedding-planning tips? Any favorite spots in Nicaragua we shouldn't miss on our honeymoon? Have a super adorable proposal story yourself? Have literally anything nice at all to say because I'm floating on a post-proposal high and love everyone right now? Post it in the comments!

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