The Nomadic Life

Goats, Tajine, and Rock Climbing in Toudra, Gorge, Morocco

Old, familiar muscles in my forearms begin to wake from a long hibernation as I wrap my fingers around the porous, red limestone of Morocco’s Todra Gorge. I never realized limestone could feel so rough, but relish the satisfaction of letting it carve calluses in my fingers and the sticky ease with which I move 60 feet above the valley. My body remembers the movements but nothing about the stinging smell of smoke and the day’s first shouted greetings between souvenir shop owners fits my registrar of what-it’s-like-to-rock climb.

I am a dot on the wall of the massive, towering, rock face that all but engulfs the gurgling Dades River that long ago dominated the landscape before cutting the gorge into existance. It feels unconquerable, yet each year hordes of climbers gather to clip in to the ancient stone. Gracefully, they balance, crimp, and grip their way thousands of feet upwards to where the rock meets the sky. I set my goal lower.

My feet find refuge on a wide ledge while I scan for my next move, but call and response bleats among a herd of sheep interrupt my focus. They lethargically envelop my partner Mohammad, like an army of invading clouds, led by an elderly Berber wrapped in the traditional, hooded, djellaba, and an uncanny resemblance to a Jedi master. Before climbers began trekking here for steep ascensions, nomadic pastoralists like the Jedi followed the natural eating patterns of their livestock throughout the High Atlas Mountains. I pause to watch these representatives of modern and tradition collide before yelling, “Take!” and continue along the vertical route millennia of weather has constructed and only recently humans have attempted to conquer.

The bleating fades out, the rush of water becomes a meditative rhythm, and intuitively my body sends me higher and higher until… “Fin!” I shout to Mohammad. Immediately, a burst of claps and shouted applause from a group of urban Moroccan teenagers shatter my peaceful sense of accomplishment and I snap to attention. It isn’t just the rock and me today – it’s me and the rock above a whole microcosm of life; the quiet gurgle of glacier water competing with young children splashing each other and the muffled hum of tourist vans. He slackens the rope while I try to pretend it’s totally normal to repel down from a climb to the congratulatory soundtrack of picnicking youth who gather here each Sunday. My expression, unsurprisingly, gives me away.

My arms, pulsating strained energy, prevent my fists from closing and urge an end to the climb. I coil up the rope and my partner tosses the heavy load of gear on his shoulder to prepare for a slow shuffle down the black tarmac that runs through the gorge; the river demoted to a curbside attraction. Off the wall, we re-immerse into the activity brought on by the mid-afternoon sun; the gorge has awoken.

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Local Lunchtime Discoveries in Ballard, Seattle: End

Monday’s Find

So, you know how sometimes you travel to a new corner and discover something so good you can’t be bothered to explore past that something? That all you want to do is indulge while you have the chance? Well, that’s kind of what happened today — instead of venturing out into Ballard to see what new stuff it had to offer, I ended up at El Camion once again, but this time with some spectacular company and a good dose of sunshine. I won’t bother telling you how delectable their food for the second time, so enjoy a few photos from the morning (bike) commute instead:

Taken near the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union.

Taken in Old Ballard

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Local Lunchtime Discoveries in Ballard, Seattle: 20twenty & Second Ascent

Friday’s Find


Initially, I was determined to track down some of Ballard’s Scandinavian roots for my Friday find, but aside from the Nordic Heritage Museum and a couple of shops/restaurants too far away for me to reasonably visit on a lunch break, none of the neighborhood’s more central Scandinavian staples still stand. Instead, I settled for pursuing affordable vintage clothes at 20twenty and geeking out over discount outdoors gear at Second Ascent.

From past experiences, I’ve found that Ballard is h0me to quite a few unique but pricey (!!) boutiques so stumbling on 20twenty — with $10 t-shirts, shoes under $50, and a whole host of other wallet-friendly vintage goodies — provided a happy contrast to its higher end neighbors. Finally! A Ballard clothing store broke office temps can afford!

After contemplating a polyester rainbow-striped and sequined skirt reminiscent of a circus tent (among other things), I headed across the street to Second Ascent outdoor retailers. In a city where the uber-outdoorsy has a prominent place in everyday fashion you don’t have to travel far to find stores like Second Ascent. However, their used gear selection is worth sifting through before caving to the incredible convenience of REI’s mega selection. North Face soft shell jacket for $60? Sure, I’ll skip working on my REI dividend for that. And besides, REI doesn’t let lazy dogs nap at their store’s entrance…

Visit Second Ascent @ 5209 Ballard Avenue Northwest and 20twenty @ 5208 Ballard Ave

Previous finds: one. two. three.

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Local Lunchtime Discoveries in Ballard, Seattle: El Camion Taco Truck

Still at large and exploring Ballard; catch up and view Tuesday and Wednesday!

Thursday’s Find

Photo Credit: El Camions website

Just when I was about to make a run back to the office and call this lunchtime tourist attempt a rain-drenching fail, thumping Latino music and a large “Now with tacos!” sign on a billboard lured me in the other direction.

Maybe I didn’t see enough of them growing up, but now the mere sight of a taco truck is enough for me to stop what I’m doing and approach said taco truck. And since the rain was getting heavier and this particular truck had covered tables, I really couldn’t resist. Turns out, I had stumbled on one of El Camión’s Mexican food trucks that dot the parking lots of several Seattle neighborhoods and turn out tacos and comida auténtica mexicana mouthwateringly delicious enough to win them several “Best of” awards with Seattle Met.

They’re well deserved. After spending far too long trying to decide on what to order, I opted for their grilled veggie mulita (something I’d never even heard of before…), which is essentially a cheesy, avocado and veggie-filled, mound of spicy goodness stuck between two fresh, corn tortillas. However, a few peeks at the enticing-looking yellow rice and generously sized burritos on other customers plates makes me think I couldn’t really have gone wrong with whatever I ordered. Disappointingly though, they were out of their  Champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) but since they provided even further reprise from the rain with the heated dining tent next to the truck, I think I can forgive them for this one!

Visit El Camión @ 5314 15th Ave NW or one of their other 2 locations

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Local Lunchtime Discoveries in Ballard, Seattle: Cafe Besalu

In continuation of my lunchtime tourism in Ballard…

Wednesday’s Find

Founded with the hidden, backstreet pastry shops of Europe in mind, family owned Cafe Besalu was the real reason I ended up on the corner of 24th Ave NW and 59th St NW yesterday. Unfortunately it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays so I had to put it off for a day, which ended up being yesterday! I didn’t find anything special about the atmosphere, but that’s not how they earned their 5-star yelp rating and multiple “best of Seattle” awards. Rather, it’s their croissants, pastries, and coffee.

I wanted to order everything. But instead opted for one of their vegetarian quiches, goat cheese and leek, a croissant, and pain au chocolate. Since their website touts that Besalu is “possibly the best croissant bakery on the entire American continent” I felt I couldn’t leave without one (or two). The quiche was rich and flavorful, and while I still prefer the croissants of Bakery Nouveau, Besalu did not leave me disappointed. They were flaky, buttery, soft, and just-out-of-the-oven fresh (Besalu makes their goods in house) — in short, everything a croissant should be. I may have to return to sample their cardamom pretzels, however…

After Besalu, I continued to wander about the historic section of Ballard, which still carries traces of its Scandinavian-influenced past in the architecture and of course, elements of Seattle’s quirky personality. Historically, Ballard has had a large fishing, boat building, and lumber industry, and even today large ship yards still dominate the waterfront. Possibly I’ll post a photo tomorrow… but for now the camera is dead :/

Visit Cafe Besalu @ 5909 24th Avenue Northwest

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Local Lunchtime Discoveries in Ballard, Seattle: Java Bean

I seriously don’t talk about Seattle enough, but since moving here in October I’ve really fallen in love. Problem is, it takes far too much effort for me to leave the hill (Capitol Hill that is) and explore elsewhere. However, this week I’ll be in Ballard on an office temp assignment and have decided to take advantage of my longish lunch breaks and play tourist.

Tuesday’s Find:

Enticed by a super-friendly Golden Labrador hanging around the rows of old-school metal sun chairs outside Java Bean, I used my first lunch break to sample some of this cozy cafe’s coffee — after getting covered in dog hair from petting the lab, of course. According to the outgoing barista behind the counter, the Cafe Vienna (a cinnamon infused vanilla latte) and Cafe Mole (the chocolate version of a Cafe Vienna) have been in house specialties since opening 21 years ago.  In attempt to satisfy my sweet tooth, I went for the Cafe Vienna which ended up being super creamy, tasty, and of course, chocolaty. It kind of lost the cinnamon flavor after the first few sips, but the chocolate held on strong. Extra props to Java Bean for having (*gasp*) comfortable sofas too!

(Visit Java Bean @ 5819 24th Avenue Northwest)

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Sunset at Gasworks Park

Because when the sun’s out in Seattle, we all spring to life… These are from a recent bike ride to Gasworks Park in Wallingford. As the name suggests, the park’s main lure is an old, unused gasification plant. While a good portion is barred off by fences, some of it is still fair game for monkeying around.


The Nomadic Life

Thumb Journeys: Riding for Free Across Three Continents

A collection of memories traveling across Africa, Central America, and Europe told through the generosity others gave me.

Lugano – Berlin

Biglietto, per favore,” (ticket, please) the ticket collector said.

I took a breath and tried not to look as nervous as I felt. “Um. Er. Do you speak English?” I asked before launching into a pathetic explanation about why I didn’t have a ticket. “I have a flight back to the U.S. in Berlin in 14 hours… I need to be there… my wallet was stolen… I have no money for the train.”

He looked at me sternly for a few seconds and finally replied, “do you have your passport?”

Teaching Abroad

The Guilt Complex of Teaching English Abroad

Imperialism is dead, right?

We certainly aren’t grabbing land in the way our colonialist forefathers were, but I still can’t make this statement with absolute certainty. And it’s just this thought that inspired a discussion with other English language teachers and students about whether our presence in other countries is OK — morally sound and the like. As ESL teachers, we are also passing along our cultures and values, not just our language, and some worry that by doing so we are replacing equally valid cultural practices. That by making English the de facto language of international business, we are likewise creating a sphere where British and American standards of business conduct take precedence over others and become the “norm”. It implies hierarchy and hegemony.

But if we are to assume that, what linguist Phillipson refers to as “linguistic imperialism” — or the concept that a one-way transfer of language demonstrates assertion of power — is taking place, we are also making the assumption that non-Anglophone countries have no part in deciding if they want their populations learning English. We are also ignoring the value the international community has placed on knowing many languages, not just English.

Lesson Planning with Shaina in Costa Rica

Furthermore, this idea that ESL teachers may be doing something wrong and oddly neo-colonialist didn’t occur so much to my students as it did to my colleagues. Instead, the English language learners I’ve worked with and befriended have continually expressed that they view English as a way to interact with an international community and advance within their careers.

“With English, I can travel anywhere, talk to anyone” a student at a Korean test prep center told me last summer. And its (mostly) true. Unlike many other languages we have the option of learning, English gives students access not just to English-speaking cultures, but almost any culture they’re interested in.

So, should we feel guilty about teaching ESL abroad? Probably not — as language teachers we have the creative freedom to touch on a vast array of topics, meaning, if English has become the first step towards entering an international community, why shouldn’t our classrooms be as well?

Globally Focused Lesson Plan Ideas: This is a collection of “talking point” ideas aimed at getting your students to discuss a variety of topics. Not all are globally focused, but it’s worth sifting through. Mostly geared towards adult learners.

ESLflow: Here you can find a good collection of materials and ready-made lesson plans for discussing cultures and customs.

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Why I Want to Visit the Oregon Coast Trail Right Now

With novice-hiker friendly Camino de Santiago financially out of reach, inspiration for my latest travel daydream is a bit closer to home.

1. Potential for Long-Distance Trekking

While most sources seem to point towards day-treks on the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), over the years the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department have developed the OCT as a route for hikers to be able to thru-trek the state’s coast. Most impressively, this project includes a set of comprehensive maps and directions for those attempting it. The remoteness of the trail varies from fairly secluded, to not at all — at times criss-crossing with highway 101 and several coastal towns. In fact, 41% of the trail is on paved roads, and not really much of a trail at all. However, there’s definitely an appeal to this as it makes  it easy to hop on and off the trail to refuel or quell that inevitable sense of loneliness on a long journey alone.

2. Diverse Landscapes

One of the highlights of the OCT is it’s unique geography.

“It’s incredibly varied. Tidepools, secluded beaches, old-growth forests, shifting sand dunes: All are part of the Oregon coast hiking experience” (from Day Hiking: Oregon Coast by Bonnie Henderson)

Not to mention an array of noteworthy sights and parks along the way, such as Cannon Beach, Rockaway Beach, and Ecola State Park, where the classic 1985 film The Goonies was shot. 1980s-style treasure hunt anyone?

3. Never too Far From Beer

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest have rapidly gained a solid reputation for their microbreweries, some of which are conveniently located alongside the OCT (a list can be found here). Happily, one of my favorite breweries, Rogue Ales (brewers of the oh-so-tasty Dead Guy Ale), is among them. It’s coastal location in Newport boasts 35 taps and a gastropub menu that will surely serve motivational purposes for the first half of the hike.

4. Watching the Whale Migrations

I’m not entirely sure why the possibility of spotting a one of the gray whales that make their Alaska – Mexico migration along the coast is so appealing — but it is. Each year in the winter and spring, whales can be seen making their migration along the coast. However, the parks estimate that about 200-400 whales stay put along the coast in the summer time, meaning that no matter what time of year it is there’s always a chance one will make an appearance.

The Nomadic Life

Sleeping With Strangers: What it Means to do a Home Stay

Reflections on the awkward and awesome of doing a home stay abroad.

The host family's goat.

At the age of 19, and still very much a natural born introvert and novice world trekker, I daringly set out for a month-long home stay with a family in Senegal — a notoriously candid and extroverted country. In all honesty, I wasn’t terribly excited about it, because no matter how much I weighed the glossy study-abroad brochure promises of “cultural insight” and “rapid language immersion,” having my independence compromised and living by someone else’s terms simply seemed awkward. And whether my preconceived notions perpetuated it or not, I never did feel totally comfortable at my host family’s house. And this wasn’t so much because of differences in what is considered obscene/revealing (apparently, being topless ain’t no thing if the men aren’t around…), or my host sister’s persistent attempts at finding me a nice Senegalese boyfriend, but more because of how little independence I had.

To some extent I had been prepared to have no say in when I ate, what I ate, or when I had to be home by but traditional Senegalese hospitality seemed to take things way further than I could have ever imagined — part of the cultural insight, right? As was emphasized in the cross-cultural training I took at ACI Baobab, hospitality, or teranga as it’s known in Wolof, is a strong source of pride and families demonstrate their teranga by treating guests “like kings”. Coming from America, where independence and respect for the individual’s choice reflects strong character, this was by far the most difficult thing to adjust to (even moreso than my host mother walking around topless). As a my family’s guest I never had to do anything for myself. Someone always hopped up to fetch a bucket of water to flush the toilet with when I headed towards the bathroom. They even had a hot towel warmer ready for my every use. I was more or less being barred from helping in any household chores. Even my morning baguette was buttered for me, and my American disposition always had me feeling awkward about not being able to repay my hosts’ by helping around the house. One mistake I made was never letting go of this, and never giving in to my new position. Looking back on it now, I wish I had had this list in front of me every day, reminding me to relax, laugh, and immerse myself in my host family’s life.

However, when I tried it again a few years later in Costa Rica things went far more smoothly. By that time independent travel and accepting hospitality on the road, both through networks like Couchsurfing and random events of serendipity, had taught me to feel comfortable in other peoples’ space — a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to us quieter nomads. Ultimately, they do want you there and at least through my experiences as a (CS) host, I always feel best when my guests treat my home as their own. And oddly enough, it was these briefer stints hosting or staying with couchsurfers that in the end made my home stay in Costa Rica less awkward. When staying with couchsurfers, CS suggests being respectful of space and bringing gifts, but while taking advantage of the fact that having someone open their home to you is a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange, and a unique social interaction. Home stays are similar in a lot of ways, so having the CS philosophy down and well practiced helped immensely.

Even so, home stays are more of a commitment than a few nights on someone’s couch and even with a better idea of what this entails, I would give it a lot of thought before electing to do another home stay elsewhere. Although it can be an incredibly enriching experience, there are the inevitable sacrifices of comfort as well.

Is it worth it? What experiences have you had?