Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Finding reasonably priced accommodations in Paris can always be a challenge. Fortunately, a few months ago I discovered St. Christopher’s Inns in Barcelona, which immediately became one of my favorite hostels around the world. So when it came time to find a place to lay my head in the City of Light I was delighted to accept an invitation to try out St. Christopher’s Inns Canal in Paris.

Exterior of the hostel by night. Photo courtesy of St. Christopher's Inns Canal, Paris

Exterior of the hostel by night. Photo courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns Canal, Paris

When choosing accommodations, the most important issues for me are safety, wifi availability in the room, location, and cleanliness, in that order. I want to be able to walk the neighborhood streets alone after dark without concern, write from the comfort of my bed in the evenings, have access to good local restaurants and public transportation, and not feel like I could pick up a case of diphtheria just by walking into the bathroom. St. Christopher’s Inns Canal in Paris not only passed my litmus test, they passed with flying colors. Just as in their Barcelona and London facilities, I found dorm bunks equipped with privacy curtains, a personal lamp, an electric receptacle, and a big wire cage on wheels that slid out from beneath my bunk bed for locking up my valuables. Access to the elevator and rooms (300 in total!) was by key-card, enduring safety. Read More

The first clue that things might not go smoothly on my tour of Morocco was when no one from Best of Morocco Tours met me at the Casablanca airport. Since I would be a guest of the company during the 17-day tour, I did not even know the name of the hotel I would be staying at, so I wandered around the terminal building, hoping that my guide was on his way. Twenty minutes later, a tall, thin man sauntered up to me, flashed a broad grin, and offered his hand with no hint of apology.

Barbara, I am Jaouad. I was having coffee in the cafe.”

As we climbed into his car he dropped the next bomb. “I forgot to tell you that you will be sharing a room. I hope that is OK?” After a slight hesitation he added, “Of course, if you prefer a private room I can arrange this.” But the message was clear; I was expected to share accommodations.

Prior to performing, Berber Musicians warm up their drums before an open fire in the Ourika Valley

Prior to performing, Berber Musicians warm up their drums before an open fire in the Ourika Valley

I wish I could say things improved from that point but it soon became clear that organization and communication issues would plague this tour. At the Idou Anfa Hotel and Spa, I was not allowed to join the other members of my group at breakfast. Instead, I was shunted off to a separate room where the fare was coffee, bread and butter rather than the lavish Continental buffet being enjoyed by everyone else. Read More

An employee handed us each a sprig of mint as we filed into the door of the Chouara Tannery. “Oh, they’re going to make tea for us, how nice,” I thought. I picked my way up the dark, narrow stairway, emerging three flights later into an open-air leather goods shop, where we were led to a terrace overlooking the tannery pits. The stench of rotting flesh and ammonia hit me full-force. Sheepishly, I held the mint under my nostrils, realizing it was meant to help mask the odor that emanated from the pits below.

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

Chouara Tannery, largest of the three tanneries in Fez, Morocco, was built in the 11th century and leather goods have been produced there using the exact same method for more than a thousand years. Skins are first placed into the white vats, which contain a mixture of water, limestone, and pigeon droppings. The limestone helps to remove hair from the skins while the acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides. Three days later the skins are removed and washed, after which they are placed in the dying pits. Read More

Our 4×4 jeep was trouncing over hardpan sand at the edges of the Sahara Desert when I noticed an ominous black cloud rising behind the low hills over my left shoulder.

I think there’s a sandstorm on the way,” I said to the driver.

Is nothing,” he tossed back casually.

I hesitated. I was certainly no authority on the Saharan Desert or Morocco, so I was inclined to trust him, but having lived in Arizona for 12 years, I’d been through my fair share of sandstorms. “No, I’m fairly sure it’s a sandstorm, and a pretty big one at that,” I reiterated.

As we drove toward our Saharan Desert camp, I looked over my shoulder and saw a sandstorm coming over the distant hills

Sandstorm flows over the distant hills as we drive to our tent camp in the Saharan Desert of Morocco

As we drove the last few kilometers to our tent camp the driver casually suggested to our tour host, Dror Sinai, that we could do a sunrise camel ride the following morning rather the evening sunset ride. Before he could reply we crested a final rise in the dirty washboard sand and descended into a Laurence of Arabia landscape. Wave after wave of caramel-colored dunes stretched to the horizon. Scattered around the sinuous peaks and valleys, a caravan of ratty-looking camels nonchalantly chewed their cud. Read More

At the Bristol, England airport, I handed my boarding pass and passport to the EasyJet ticket agent at the check-in counter. He punched my locator number into his computer, then looked up at me quizzically. “You’re a bit early,” he said.

“Yes, I like to get to the airport with a lot of time to spare,” I replied.

Amused, he shook his head. “No, I mean that your flight is for tomorrow, not today.”

“You’re kidding!” I grabbed the boarding pass back from him and, sure enough, my flight was for the following day. Sadly, it was not the first time this had happened to me. One of the drawbacks of perpetual travel is having to keep track of lots of travel plans and sometimes things just go awry.

Winford Manor Hotel in Bristol, England

Winford Manor Hotel in Bristol, England

“We might be able to get you on the flight today, but you’d have to pay a change fee,” he suggested.

Unfortunately, I was headed for Paris, with a quick connection the following morning. Since my layover was only eight hours, I had planned to sleep in the airport. Going a day earlier meant getting a pricey hotel room at the Paris airport. Instead I asked about accommodations near the Bristol Airport and learned there were two hotels just minutes away, both of which had shuttle services. The first was fully booked but the second, Winford Manor, had a room available for a reasonable price of £78 (about $118) and immediately dispatched their shuttle to pick me up. Read More

Stonehenge. The word conjures up visions of thousands of slaves struggling to set giant stone lintels atop colossal standing stones. Of Druid priests in flowing white robes performing ultra-secret rituals within the sacred circle. Of summer and winter solstices, when sunbeams pierced the precisely spaced stones and fell on the monolithic sandstone altar, alerting priests to the shift of seasons.

I couldn’t leave England without seeing this iconic site and my friend, Heather Cowper, who so graciously let me camp out at her house in Bristol, offered to be my chauffeur for the day. Shortly before the 9 a.m. opening hour we stood at the head of the queue, hoping to get photos before the swarms of tourists descended. English Heritage, the organization charged with managing the site, had agreed to grant us access slightly before the official opening time. We had about a three minute head start on the crowd but by the time we made it around to the far side, where the light was good enough for photos, people were already congregating.

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

I was disappointed. In addition to the crowds, the walking path is so far away from the site that it’s difficult to conceive of the immensity of the stones or the tremendous undertaking it must have been to raise them. Stonehenge seemed less significant, less imposing than I had expected. Hoping that the audio guide would provide inspiration, I put away my camera, donned the headphones, and retraced my steps to the beginning of the self-guiding tour.

I learned immediately that Stonehenge was never a Druid site. This false belief likely stems from the work of William Stukeley, author of the 18th century book, Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids. In it, he correctly deduced that the site had been constructed by residents of ancient Britain, rather than Romans or Danes. Read More