The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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Category: Travel (page 1 of 2)

Lake Atitlan

A bus picked us up in Antigua. A few hours later, we alighted at Panajachel. Now we had to figure out how to get to our AirBnB accommodation. Pana, as it is called, is where the ferries (or “lanchas”) begin their routes, transporting people to various towns situated around the lake. Our home was at a private dock, as our hostess had informed us, and we had to make sure the ferry guy knew the place and made a stop there.

Before any of that, we had to get ourselves (plus luggage) to the ferry. And this is when I truly realized the value of backpacks. When you take a variety of transportation options (bus, ferry, etc.) and end up having to trundle your luggage up and down rough hillside paths and stony slopes… you realize pretty quick that roll-on suitcases aren’t going to fare well. Au contraire, a good backpack functions excellently in such situations. It packs a lot more than your average suitcase (at least, the carry-on types), and it is easier to move and carry around, if you know how to use the various straps and fasteners. And backpacks fare a lot better on ferry decks and inside bus holds.

Finally, our lancha stopped at the private dock. I was exhausted, and not just from the exertion of dragging/lifting my suitcase over the gravel road, as fast as I could, so we wouldn’t miss the ferry. I was tired from my attempts to figure out Spanish. The ferry was mostly filled with locals, and I soon realized that English wasn’t going to get us far at Lake Atitlan.

We finally got off at the private dock, and had to figure out where the house was. There were several paths going up the hill behind the dock, and we assumed they led up to separate homes. Which one was ours? The thought of lifting our bags up those steep steps without even knowing if we were on the right path, literally… Tears lurked beneath the surface, threatening to burst forth any moment.

One failed attempt (struggled up a winding path, reached a narrow metal gate, rang the bell, nothing) left us stumped and tired, wondering what to do next. A young boy walked over, and when we mentioned the name of our hostess, he offered to lead us to the right house. It was the home next to this one, and yes, we had to ascend another flight of steps before we made it to the front door.

I wish I could really describe L’s home to you because it was truly a work of art. It was a gorgeous wood cabin, snugly sitting on the hilly slope, split across three levels. The walk-in level comprised of a little kitchen with a tiled countertop, a dinner/breakfast table and benches, concealed storage cabinets, and a narrow corridor to stow away bags and sundry items. Did I mention that the view from the kitchen window was framed by graceful vines, surrounded by dancing hummingbirds? Lake Atitlan shimmered in the sun outside, warm and blue and inviting.

At first glance, it seemed like the kitchen was woefully inadequate. I couldn’t see any cutlery or cooking vessels, or salt or oil or condiments, or even the water filter mentioned in the house instruction sheet. I was growing angrier by the minute, most definitely aggravated by fatigue. After much grumbling and “I hate this place” exclamations, we stepped out to survey the surroundings. P walked a little ahead of me and ended up running into the homeowner. Phew! She told him where to find everything! The storage cabinets were cleverly hidden under the stairs that ran up to the loft bedroom. We opened them to find everything we needed.

Finally made it up the narrow stairs to our loft bedroom. It was a sweet little space, minimally furnished with a mattress on the floor, soft pillows and blankets. Curtains flanked the four glassed walls, and the ceiling was a pyramid-shaped skylight. Volcano San Pedro rose up in the distance, shrouded by clouds. But you couldn’t miss its bulk, not at all imposing but more like a friendly guardian of Lake Atitlan and its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

Have to share about the eco-friendly composting toilet at this home. It was located at the lowest level, and you had to alight a winding flight of stairs to get there. Inside was a toilet, a spade and and a bucket of sawdust. You can guess the rest! Needless to say, this wasn’t my favorite type of toilet although I appreciated the intelligence of NOT constructing a conventional toilet (meaning, sewage tank) in such proximity to the lake. But it took some (or a lot) getting used to… you are forewarned.

There was something near-magical about the time we spent at Lake Atitlan in L’s lovely home. As I write this post on a rainy, dull afternoon in Atlanta, it almost seems unreal that a place like Atitlan even exists. But it does, and it’s home to many. It is a precious blue gem of a mountainous lake, flanked by Mayan villages and a dormant volcano. We awoke before dawn on many a morning, drawn towards the lake and the fishing boats, lured by the promise of a cool, gorgeous sunrise. And Atitlan delivered, every single time.

Marrakech

Marrakech is a city on steroids. At least, some parts of it are.

We fixed on Morocco as a vacation destination, and it was only because… well, where do you go in the dead of Northern Hemisphere winter? India was too far, and Europe was too cold. North Africa seemed a good option. In fact, we had decided to visit Morocco in 2017 but P’s father had had to undergo surgery, and we ended up canceling all plans.

2018 came around, and this time we made it to Morocco. There were two cities on the itinerary: Marrakech and Essaouira, two places that couldn’t be more different from each other.

Marrakech is colorful, loud and exciting, sometimes dizzying in its intensity. It is a city of winding lanes, old Riads with colorful tile inlays, outdoor cafes and cigarette smoke, Hammams and leather shops and old museums and brass lamps and sticky sweet treats, and everything else you’d ever want to bring home with you. In contrast, Essaouira is like a chilled sorbet, or cool warmth, shining blue skies and seagulls in flight, families admiring the sunset at the promenade, sipping mint tea in the old square.

(I must take a pause here to mention that many travel blogs write endlessly about aggressive vendors in the Old Medina in Marrakech chasing you down, trying to sell you stuff. THAT never happened to this brown couple, meaning P and I. Just saying that it is important to take these travel experiences with a hefty pinch of salt. P nearly decided to start a blog of his own: Brown Vegan Traveler. Because, context matters.)

Back to Marrakech. (I’ll write about Essaouira in a separate post.)

We landed one afternoon at Menara Airport. Our AirBnB hostess had arranged a taxi that brought us home. During the taxi ride, I realized that my knowledge of Arabic had dwindled to basically, nothing. I’d lived a year in Cairo (2002-03) and picked up a smattering of Arabic around that time. But it was so many years ago, and I recollected very little. My knowledge of French was somewhat better, and P has some familiarity with French too. So we figured we should stick to French and give up on speaking/deciphering Arabic, sigh.

Riad Larouss is a small neighborhood, and that’s where Valeria runs her cozy little AirBnB. We had a sweet little room, and there was a common area for breakfast and lounging. Valeria gave us a map with markers showing the locations of the Riad, the bus station, Jemaa Al-Fenaa, Old Medina, museums, etc. She was a wonderful hostess, and we got off to a great start discovering the vibrant city that is Marrakech.

Koutobia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco, Jemaa Al-Fenaa

We went out the same evening and walked to the Medina. It was late evening, and the central square known as Jemaa Al-Fenaa was already filling up with food vendors and street performers. The air was cool, and I felt so comfortable, so happy to be in Marrakech. I felt very much at home… there was an instant connection, a sense of warmth and joy and familiarity that pervaded the entire trip, really. Perhaps it came from the fact that I had been in North Africa before, that I had fallen in love with Arabic language and culture all those years ago?

We had a couple of days in Marrakech before we left for Essaouira. So we did what all tourists do.

Walked through the countless lanes in the Medina, all ending in Jemaa Al-Fenaa; bargained in a very decent and honorable way for a beautiful silver teapot; landed up at a quaint store selling all manner of olives and pickles where the owner, a sweet old man, generously allowed us to taste an assortment of items (we bought so many kinds of olives); gawked at the gorgeous Bahia Palace; walked and ate and walked and ate.

Marrakech Museum
Olives, Jemaa Al-Fenaa, market

The search for vegan food takes us everywhere, and I have learned that it’s mostly good to steer clear of eating joints that have “vegan/vegetarian” in their name or description. You will be better served by finding out what local dishes you can consume safely and happily. And we learned that harira and tajine, two North African preparations, can be made vegetarian.

We chanced upon Dar Mama, a tiny eatery situated close to our Riad, run by a group of young men (Senegalese?) who played the most amazing North African music on their boom box, and kept the space warm with a tall brazier. This was February, cold and rainy sometimes, and we were happy with all the warmth we got.

Harira was delicious, as we realized. Day 1, P and I shared a bowl. Next visit, we ordered a bowl each. Then, we ordered two bowls each! Harira is a chunky soup of chickpeas and tomatoes, and it kept our insides warm and comfortable as we walked miles through cold and wet Marrakech.

We ran into some drama, and yes, it was on my account. Turns out that I had booked our Riad for two nights, and we were in Marrakech for three nights before heading out to Essaouira. It was a mad scramble, as we frantically tried to find a place on AirBnB to spend the night. We were lucky. We found an old Riad, managed by a pair of friends. They ran the place like a hostel for friends. They served us a sumptuous dinner. They had a folk musician visit that evening who played for hours, lulling us into a sweet space that felt raw, special. They served us the best breakfast ever: lacy beghrir, toasted Khobz, delicious Msemen. Every meal included mint tea, freshly squeezed orange juice, butter and jam. We feasted like kings. It was such a precious experience, and it came about because of my AirBnB gaffe!

We headed off to Essaouira the next morning in a state of wonder, and also understanding that THIS is what travel teaches you.

To be spontaneous, to be courageous, to have faith in oneself and one’s partner and in the kindness of strangers, to be aware without being fearful, to be both kind and accepting of kindness.