Author

Celia Corbin

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Melaka, a city with a mix of old heritage and modern living combined into one. In 2008 the historical center in Melaka earned its UNESCO World Heritage City title. IT’s since become a popular destination for the day and weekend trips due to its proximity to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. If you are looking to divulge yourself in the ultimate cultural experience and make the most of what Malaysia has to offer, then you’ll defiantly want to visit Melaka.

Transportation
Getting to Melaka is incredibly easy. You can take a 2-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka Sentral, or a 4-hour bus from Singapore.

By far the best way to travel around the city is to walk. Most of the major tourist attractions are within walking distance from each other, and by walking, you will discover less known hidden gems. If you’re looking for something a bit more exciting, why not cycle around the city. Many hotels off rental bikes for their guests and there are even cycling tour groups.

For a different look at the city, take part I the River cruise journey. During your 45-minute sightseeing cruise, you will float past historical buildings, old and ruined warehouses and be able to view the stunning graffiti street art. If you would prefer to keep your feet on dry land but are looking for a unique way of traveling, try a trishaw. A trishaw is a small colorfully decorated vehicle with three wheels and a pedal.

Where to Stay
There are many different types of accommodation available in Melaka depending on your budget, from hostels, guesthouses to fancy hostels, you’ll find the perfect lodging for you. If you have a larger spending budget, then check out the Settlement Hotel.

Located on Jalan Ujong Pasir, The Settlement Hotel is a beautiful refurbished ex-government building. It is a stunning four-star boutique hotel that is incredibly unique; you will remember your stay in this hotel. If you need to make your money stretch, then consider staying in a hostel. There are many different hostels available all over the city with different types of rooms available and are often under $10.

Places for Foodies

If you are looking for a fun and cultural experience, visit Jonker Walk Night Market. While walking the bustling streets, you will be surrounded by mouth-watering street food, fortune tellers, souvenirs, craft, and clothing stalls. Anything you could think of, you’ll no doubtingly find at this market.

13 States of Coffee is the best coffee shop in Melaka with coffee themed after the 13 Melaka states. Trust me, after traveling through Southeast Asia, you’ll quickly realize how hard a good cup of coffee is hard to come by. They also have laid back artsy atmosphere for doing some computer work.

No matter what food you are craving, you’ll find it in Melaka. They offer a vast variety of cuisines such as Chinese, Malay, and Portuguese. If you’re looking to be adventurous and try something new Melaka is the perfect place to expand your taste buds.

Activities to Consider


Be sure to take advantage of Melaka’s most Instragrammable spot by visiting the Kiehl’s Wall Mural. The vibrant colors as your background make this your next perfect profile picture.

During your stay in Melaka, you should make some time to visit Stadthuys and Christ Church. This bright red, giant-sized building was built when the Dutch ruled over Melaka in 1641. This neighborhood is a trendy area for tourists due to the museums and churches in the area. The strictly red building is a sight that shouldn’t go unmissed.

Another site that shouldn’t go unmissed is Malacca Sultanate Palace. Right next to the A’Famosa Fort, the Malacca Sultanate Palace is a replica of how it would have looked during the early years of Malacca Sultanate in 1500. It’s now a museum and displays stories and legends of the Malay Kingdom. This museum is one of a kind and should be on your list of places to consider in Melaka.

Okay, first it was fish spas, and now it’s frog-licking spas! I thought I’ve seen (and felt) it all until I was in a tiny little historic town of Malacca, Malaysia.

My Croatian friend and I decided to get dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It’s alfresco dining and what I found the strangest is they have an aquarium perched on a table for those who felt like eating frogs. I can’t complain too much because I’ve eaten frog legs in France, Utah, and California. But you can’t help but see them hanging out helplessly in an aquarium before it takes you back to your 5th-grade science class where you were forced to dissect them or get a failing grade.

Oops, I’m derailing… the frogs. So we are about to eat before the Chinese lady saw us checking out the frog aquarium and asked if I’d like to visit their frog-licking spa. I’m thinking, “WTF??” But you can’t help but be curious! So I say, okay, sign me up! I pay her 16 ringgit for a 20-minute session of frog licking my feet.

She guides me to the back of her shop away from the kitchen, and there were four chairs with frog aquariums sitting on the ground. WTF?? Am I supposed to drop my feet in that nasty aquarium? My friend is laughing hysterically as I’m cry-laughing again. See my fish post.

So I sit down, and she washes my feet off first and then rubs it down with some sort of honey asks me to set my feet in an aquarium with about four frogs about the size of my two fists put together. This is SO WEIRD. But, wait, she’s not done! She puts the lid on the top leaving so only my legs were covered and then brings out a jar of flies! No fucking way. She can’t be serious. But before I knew it, she opened the jar of flies and let them all fly out into the frog aquarium! The flies started getting stuck on my honey feet, and then the frogs began going crazy and licking the hell out of my feet trying to catch the flies. OMFG!! Their tongues are like cats! Sandpaper and yet slithery like a snake. This is the most disgusting thing I have ever done. I keep trying to get up but my friend holds me down, and surely after 10 minutes I was out! DONE.

Afterward, she took my feet out and rubbed it down in some aromatherapy water. My feet actually felt really soft like the flies removed all the dead skin. AMAZING!

There is no moral to the story, but if you want to see it in action, you are the weirdest person ever. April Fool’s Day!! 

Singapore, one of the most luxurious cities in Asia, bringing together elegance and class with an array of culture, diversity, and history. The city is well known for being incredibly clean, providing plenty of action and not forgetting the exquisite food and drinks on offer.

This guide will provide wine lovers with the best Singapore has to offer whether they’re stopping for a night or for a week.

Praelum Wine Bistro

This wine cellar is the one stop to make for a crash-course in delicious wines. Praelum offers around 350 labels in its modern cellar with options starting from $4/25ml up to more premium wines at $200 a glass. The relaxed, but tasteful wine bar has knowledgeable staff on hand to provide recommendations to suit any pallet from reds, whites, rosés, dessert, and sparkling wines.

The wines are re-stocked and updated regularly bringing in new tastes and selections from all over the world, perfect for anyone traveling to Singapore with a love for wine.

Napoleon Food and Wine Bar

Situated in the heart of Singapore, Napoleon Wine bar is famous for offering the best of European wines, including a Grands Crus selection from Burgundy, France. The owner is very proud to work with a team in France to carefully select and import only the finest wines.

Alongside the wines, this wine bar provides a mouth-watering menu which will leave any food lover in awe. This wine bar describes itself as cozy, warm and inviting offering the best wines in Singapore. However, be quick with booking, this wine bar is very intimate only seating 54 guests for an intimate setting.

Bar Stories

As wine doesn’t suit all palettes, or perhaps you need a night off, Bar Stories is one of the best places in town to get delectable, hand-crafted cocktails. On arrival, if you strike up a conversation with one of the bar staff, they can craft a personalized cocktail to suit any personality, preferences, and taste.

The bar is hidden behind boutique clothing stories along Haji Lane, making it a perfect little escape for some afternoon cocktails. Also, to mention, the detail that goes into creating such cocktails can include petals, dripping chocolate, and even flames.

Verre Modern Bistro and Wine Bar

For serious wine enthusiasts, Verre Modern Bistro and Wine Bar offers over 700 labels of wine with bottles ranging from $75 – $5,350. The very best of French wine is imported to Singapore to provide locals and tourists the refreshing taste France is known worldwide for.

To accompany a plump Vino, Verre offers a vast range of appetizing meals and desserts, both of which have very good reviews from all who visit.

Manhattan

Leaving the best until last, Manhattan was crowned number one bar at Asia’s Best Bars 2018, and third in the world! This elegant and sophisticated bar is located inside Singapore’s Regent hotel, it describes itself as being modern yet with a touch of New York glamour.

Home to an extensive collection of classic cocktails and spirits, wines to suit any taste and some of the world’s rarest whiskeys, including Whiskeys from one of the worlds most prestigious distilleries, Buffalo Trace. When visiting, book in advance and ensure the dress code is being followed.

I’m scared. My face is planted face down into a pool, and I’m supposed to hold my breath to the near point of blacking out. I feel lumps in my throat with the urge to continually swallow, and I’m fighting against every natural instinct to lift my head and gasp for air.

I keep getting these white flashes behind my eyelids because they’re closed; I don’t want to stare at the ground floor of the pool. I’m trying my hardest to meditate and imagine me being in a deep dark blue hole with everything around me silent. I feel my heart rate slow down. The convulsions have slowed. I hear my instructor in the faint distance telling me I still have plenty of air. The convulsions come back. I can’t take it, and I stand on my own two feet gasping for air taking several deep breaths. In and out. In and out. In and out.

It feels good to breathe again. Almost euphoric, and there’s a burning, tingling sensation running through my stomach. My head feels heavy and lightheaded at the same time.

Welcome to the world of freediving. Freediving is THE most mentally and physically challenging sport I have ever tried. I’m disappointed in myself. I thought that if I were to follow all the rules that I could get through my SSI Level 1 Freediving Course in Byron Bay with no problems, but that’s not what happened even with the support of my friends and family.

Let’s back up a second, though and talk about the requirements.

Preliminary work:
I signed up for a three-day SSI Level 1 Freediving course with Dive Byron Bay for A$550. It’s another strong aquatic investment that I thought would compliment the recent Divemaster certification I completed in Indonesia.

Before starting our classroom theory training, we were required to complete 4 online modules through the SSI Level 1 Freediving Course. It takes several hours to complete the online course work. Easy enough.

Day 1: Classroom and Pool
Skills to complete: Theory and Confined Water

Objectives: (I’ll highlight only a couple to keep your attention span)

  • Be able to state what triggers the Urge to Breathe
  • Be prepared to explain how O2 enters the body
  • Be prepared to indicate the 4 responses of the Mammalian Dive Reflex
  • Be able to tell how pressure affects Freedivers
  • Be able to describe proper equalization techniques
  • Be able to describe appropriate breathing for Freedivin

It began in a classroom setting at Byron Bay Dive with two other girls about my age and one younger guy who also happened to be interning at the dive shop. Andrew, our Freediving Instructor, begins with brief introductions. I learn we are all scuba divers trying to take our skills to the next level. Two of the girls, who also happen to be friends, grew up spearfishing but wanted to learn the proper way to go about it moving forward. Andrew comments on this and shares his perspective about how he sees a huge opportunity for spearfishers to practice safer techniques than what they’re infamously known for, and that’s going into hyperventilation with rapid breaths before taking one deep breath and then holding your breath for as long as possible. This is not Freediving, as many people misconceive.

Now that we’re all acquainted, Andrew puts on an inspirational Freediving video for us to watch.
(Time: 20-minutes, if you have it!)

We have an idea of what our potential can be now, so Andrew starts us with our first breath hold exercise and asks everyone to hold their breath from our seats for as long as we can. Easy enough. I hold my breath and then let out one large exhale at one minute and eleven seconds (1:11).

“Now I want you to splash some water on your face and do this again.” Andrew continues.

I splash some water on my face, take another giant breath and then again let out one large exhale.

“2:46. More than double your first attempt. Great job!” Andrew encourages me.

I’m pretty stoked at this point. I don’t know if I have ever held my breath this long, and it’s because of something as simple as splashing water on my face?

This is because of something we call “Mammalian Dive Reflex.”

According to SSI, it’s explained like this:
The Mammalian Dive Reflex allows mammals to stay underwater for extended periods. Although manifesting itself strongly in aquatic mammals like seals, otters, dolphins, and whales, the reflex is much weaker in other mammals, including humans. Every animal’s diving reflex is specifically triggered by cold water coming into contact with the face. Submersion of body parts other than the face will not trigger the reflex. It is always exhibited more dramatically in young people and animals, thus granting them longer survival times in cold water.

Pretty cool, right?

The more Freediving we do, the quicker and stronger our reflex gets resulting in longer and deeper dives. It’s like we’re slowing turning ourselves into a real mermaid. I don’t know about you, but I think this is one of the most brilliant discoveries of humanity. Our bodies are so adaptable.

I also learn in our theory lecture that that urge to breathe because you’re out of oxygen is not actually what’s happening at all. I’ll break it down in the simplest terms I can with the basic knowledge I have.

The air that we breathe is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. So when you are holding your breath and feel the urge to breathe, your body still has plenty of oxygen stored in your lungs. It’s the nitrogen that causes that urge. If you pass that desire to breathe, your body goes through all sorts of crazy things, and, in my case, I had a warm tingling sensation, convulsions, and flashes when my eyes were closed. But if you hang on just a little longer, longer than what your body instinctually tells you, you get past the convulsions, and you feel your heart rate slow down, and then everything starts to get calm again (besides your mind that may be freaking the f*ck out).

(By the way, please don’t try this at home on your own. I’m explaining this while I was in under care of a professional with supervision and only encouraged you to do the same.)

We get through the rest of our theory, break for lunch, and are told to meet at the shop’s on-site pool afterward.

The pool water is only about waist high and where we spend the rest of our afternoon. Andrew has us lie floating face down in our wetsuit and mask one at a time. We go into another breath-hold (also called static apnea) and try doing the same thing we did in the classroom only with our face submerged in the water now.

I felt a lot more fear doing it this way. I knew I was safe, but I am afraid of accidentally swallowing water. My time was 1:58. I’m disappointed I didn’t hold it for 2:46 like I did in the classroom. I know I can do better.

Everyone goes for their third round, and this time the young guy is really pushing his limits. I’m watching his body convulse from the surface and him fighting the urge to get up. Andrew is telling him he still has plenty of air and the guy patting his hands on the edge of the pool still holding his breath. The guy can’t take it anymore and stands on his two feet, but I notice his face is pale and looks sunken in. Andrew tells him to breathe and the guy blacks out.

Andrew catches him holding him in his arms, lightly taps his cheeks on both sides and face and keeps calling for his attention, telling him to breathe…then breathe again in a calm voice…while still lightly tapping his face. The guy snaps out of it, color comes back to his face, and he smiles.

“You all right there, buddy?” Andrew asks.

“Yeah. I feel good.” guy responds.

This is that state of euphoria I mentioned earlier. You learn a little about this mental state also in scuba diving with nitrogen narcosis, also explained as feeling drunk.

It’s my turn to go. After that episode, I’m a little relieved to see what a shallow water blackout looks like. The guy was smiling and said that he didn’t feel scared when it was all happening. Instead, he felt a state of euphoria.

In scientific terms, the human body goes through some amazing-ass shit, and I desperately want to be able to fly underwater. I go again feeling motivated by the blackout and how easy it was to bring the guy back that this time I got my time up to 2:34.

Day 2: Confined Water and Ocean Dive
Skills to complete: Dynamic Freediving
Objective: Swim 50 meters in lap pool on a single breath

  • Duck Dive
  • Finning Style
  • The Dolphin Kick
  • Streamlining

Confined Water
We start the morning at Byron Bay Pool, an Olympic sized pool where we spend our morning going over different techniques and skills. Andrew told us not to drink anything caffeinated or eat anything before class so that we could begin our morning with some thoracic exercises.

For those of you new to Freediving or even yoga, thoracic exercises are diaphragmatic breathing and without going into too much detail, will mainly help you gain the most out of a breath-hold. The average human lungs measure 4-6L where some competitive Freedivers have tripled that. I’ll spare you most of the yoga-Sanskrit jargon and try to break it down for you in laymen terms.

I watch Andrew demonstrate his first exercise, teaching us how to take a proper yogic using 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, then exhale slowly for 8 seconds.

We move into another exercise and this time compartmentalizing our breath and learning how to breathe separately from our stomach and then our chest. It usually works like this: inhale from your stomach solely for 4 seconds, and without exhaling, continue inhaling through your chest for another 3 seconds. Hold your breath completely now. Then reverse and slowly breathe out from chest to stomach.

Our third thoracic exercise is short, powerful exhales and passive inhales from a seated position.

The pranayama session goes on for about 30 minutes with a few additional demonstrations helping us stretch the thoracic area that prepares us for the rest of our day.

I didn’t have any yogic breathing practice before this, so if you’re new to yoga, I wouldn’t feel alarmed or nervous about it. But if you are getting into Freediving over the long haul, learning proper breathing techniques (pranayama) is essential.

Great! We are feeling zen and ready to gear up for the pool for some dynamic apnea. Something to note is Freediving wetsuits are different from scuba diving wetsuits. First, they are two pieces. Second, they’re made to be mostly at the surface meaning the neoprene is thinner (low-density neoprene) than a scuba diving wetsuit (high-density neoprene) meant to sustain colder temperatures longer. Wetsuits can be stubborn little fuckers, so if you’re having trouble putting either on, baby soap always helps.

Okay, so we’re zen and all suited up. Let’s get into skills.

One of the sets of skills we had to complete was to swim 50 meters in a lap pool on a single breath. This is harder than it seems because you have your fracked up mind playing games with you the whole time telling you, “Breath. Get up. This is good enough. You’re going to pass out. You’re going to drown. Get the f*ck up and breathe, damn it! ” Nobody in my class got it the first round, and for some, it took several attempts, and that was a real struggle for them.

I played sports growing up, and I remember coaches telling me, “It’s all in your head. This is the most mental sport you’ll ever play.”

Bullshit. Freediving is the most mental sport you’ll ever play. I remember when I was caught 22 meters deep diving in a rapid current change in Indonesia and having to escape into a cave until it settled down a bit. I thought I might die at that moment, and so I’d say this sport mentally compares the same to me feeling like I might almost die but instead of that one-off dive incident, this happened each time my head submerged the water. Fear is a bitch, and I can’t wait to get past this stage.

Andrew went over a few other techniques as listed in my objectives above like finning style, dolphin kick (useful for monofins), and streaming. And, at around noon, we all successfully completed our pool exercise.

[confetti pops]

Ocean Dive
In the afternoon, Andrew arranged a boat for us to start our first oceanic Freedive. A red training buoy/float with a line dropped to about 10 meters is set up at Julian Rocks, a favorite dive spot in Byron Bay. The weather isn’t particularly beautiful, and it’s also a little choppy, but I’m excited to give line diving a first try finally.

We gather circled around training buoy and begin with our head submerged in the water and working on our slowing our heart rate and feeling really relaxed and calm.

It’s my turn to go, and I’m feeling like my breath ups were good and began with a duck dive. As I’m approaching a deeper depth, I keep my eyes only on the line in front of me and resisting the temptation to look at the above and below. At about 10 meters, I’m having trouble equalizing. I stop where I am on the line upside down and try to equalize from there, and it’s still not helping. Ugh, I need to go up. I turn my body around and slowly climb my way back to the surface.

Breathe.

I give the okay sign and verbally confirm, “I’m okay.” and take steady breaths in and out.

10 meters, I’m told.

My turn comes up again, and I’m finding myself leaning a bit on the conservative side and not pushing my limits. The equalization brought in an entirely different element into the game.

I remember when I first started diving and having equalization be an issue. Then when I tried to take a refresher course in Los Angeles, it was a huge issue. Finally, when I flew into Labuan Bajo, to dive in Komodo National Park for several months and work on my Advanced through Divemaster certification, I got past the equalization issues, and now I seldom have to equalize unless I’m sick.

I think the same is going to happen with Freediving for me. I don’t know if it’s that I grew up with a lot of ear infections as a child that makes this a hurdle for me or if it’s only science. Either way, I’m going to persevere. There’s still a tiny bit of fear of letting go, but I’ll get there. Progress not perfection, right?

DAY 3: Ocean Dive #2
Skills to Complete: Depth to 20 meters

  • Free Immersion
  • Constant Weight

It’s game day. This is where I get to apply my knowledge, and practical skills learned over the last two days.

My morning already started off a bit wonky. We pull up to the same dive site but are delayed because they spotted a shark in the area. Byron Bay is infamous for bull sharks and shark attacks, but after about 20 minutes, they confirm that they think it was a hammerhead and it went away. This makes me nervous. It’s not like diving where I can see anything and everything coming my way. I hate being on the surface and not knowing what’s below me. The weather is similar to yesterday, and the ocean is very choppy. There’s some wind bringing a slight chill to us.

Conditions are meh, and it’s game time. We do our breathe ups and go for my first try and, ugh, even worse than yesterday. I lost my weight belt sometime in the last 15 minutes and have to borrow one from one of the girls inconveniently.

I go in for my duck dive and get to about 10 meters, and I can’t equalize. Annoyed, I turn around for the surface and feel a sudden sting on my hand. Motherfucker. It’s a jellyfish sting. I tried to avoid them, and I’m protected in my wetsuit, but this one somehow found itself on my hand.

Shark. Jellyfish sting. Choppy water. Equalization issues. Lost my weight belt. Ugh. The Universe is not working with me!

It’s my turn again. I duck dive, focused on the line in front of me, equalizing as I go, and then I’m stuck still. I can’t equalize. I push myself a couple more meters, and the pressure is intense. I have to get to 20 meters to pass, and we only have time for best out of three. I’m going through the convulsions, but the pressure in my head is too intense and turn around back to the surface again. I failed.

I come up to the surface, signal OK, and follow up with I’m okay. After several minutes, I started getting a really nasty headache. The worse I’ve ever had and so when my turn came up, I told Andrew to go without me and I’ll go after the rest of the group was done. I’m lying with my hands on the buoy and face submerged in the water, and then I put my head to rest on the float over my crossed arms and start yogic breathing.

My turn comes up again, and my headache is still pounding. I regrettably tell Andrew I’m not going to be able to finish the exercise. The course pass rate ended up being 50% pass. Only 2 out of 4 of us passed the ocean skills but were told we could make it up another time for free.

I feel like such a failure. How could I not do this? I’m beating myself up, and I’m embarrassed to give the update to friends and family that I didn’t complete my ocean course. But this is life, and I’m more motivated than ever to jump back into the sport and succeed.

I feel like there are many misconceptions about what freediving is – including my own. Some consider breath-holding and diving into water (skin-diving) as freediving or spearfishing as freediving – which technically in a way are. But very few understand the underlying theory, physiology, skills, and safety protocols behind it. How does pressure affect your body underwater? Did you know many experiences a state of euphoria right before a shallow water blackout? Why are more and more people becoming intrigued with the sport? Taking my SSI Level 1 helped me become a better scuba diver. I know I have plenty of oxygen stored in my lungs than my body reflexes want me to think. I’m pretty stoked to have all this knowledge at my fingertips. Last I learned, you can’t pee on a jellyfish sting to make it better. 😉

***Sorry I don’t have more photos to share. It’s hard when you’re in a learning environment to take them and the ones offered to us weren’t that great.

Trying the street food is like a rite of passage in Thailand. Have you really visited Thailand if you haven’t tried the street food? Yes, but you should defiantly try the street food while you are in Thailand. Some of the best and most delicious foods available in Thailand are street food. Made in front of your eyes, these fresh and tasty dishes will blow your mind and expand your taste buds.

If you’re looking to try some street food but not sure what food to try and where to find it, then follow the guide below. First, here are the top 6 street foods you need to try:

Khao Soi – This is a creamy, coconut curry dish with spicy yellow egg noodles. It also includes lime, onions, slow-cooked chicken and fried noodles. This is a very popular street food dish.

Som Tam (Bop-bop) – This is a shredded green papaya salad shacked together with tomatoes, chilies, lime and green beans. Sometimes it can be made quite spicy so depending on how you like it you can ask for it to be made not spicy. If you can’t remember the dishes name you can simply say “bop-bop” and they will understand what you are referring too.

Phad Gra Pao Kai Dao – This delicious dish is a mix of basil fried with either chicken or pork topped with fried egg. It can have a bit of a kick to it, but it tastes so good! Try the minced chicken, as well.

SP Chicken – This chicken is delicious, charcoal-cooked rotisserie chicken serves with a verity of tasty sauces. Some spicy and some sweet with a side of sticky rice. This dish is fast, easy to eat and incredibly tasty.

Mango Sticky Rice – One of the most popular dessert dishes in Thailand, made from mangos, condensed milk with sticky rice. It tastes very good and can be eaten for a dessert or for breakfast. If you are going to try any street food in Thailand, make sure this one is on your list.

Roti – A Thai take on a classic Muslim dessert dish. Made with egg, banana, sugar, condensed milk and chocolate it’s the perfect dessert for those with a sweet tooth.

Now you’ve decided what food you would like to try, you need to figure out where to buy it from. There are hundreds of places to buy street food from in Chiang Mai but there is no guarantee that it will be nice. The list below shows the locations of Chiang Mai’s most appetizing street food, so you don’t have to waste any more time looking for food and spend more time eating!

Chang Pheuak Gate (North Gate)

Being one of the most popular markets in Chiang Mai, you’ll find this bustling market also has plenty of tasty dishes ready for you to eat. Hot dish, fresh fruit, ice cold smoothies, you’ll find plenty of tasty dishes to try here.

Wat Sam Phao Sunday Market

Selling authentic Thai dishes, clothes and a variety of unique handmade products, this market gives you the chance to enjoy the best the markets in Chiang Mai has to offer. Admire at the beauty of the temple while enjoying your cheap and scrumptious street food.

Chiang Mai University

If you’re looking for a market with an authentic feel with a variety of food stalls, restaurants, and dessert shop then check out Chiang Mai University. This isn’t a very popular area for foreigners so you’ll definitely get to experience the market as a local would. Once you’ve finished eating your street food here, take a short walk to Nimmanhaemin Road and relax at some of the local cafes and trendy wine bars.

I’m a little nervous about my first winter trek not knowing how technical this hike is going to be, but I feel overwhelmed by the number of guides trying to sell me tours to the Sahara Desert that I need to get away from it all.

(I use ‘all’ in code because I received two pieces of important news less than a week ago and one of those is about to change my life.)

Now I am in Morocco, a place I know nothing about other than mint tea, mosaic tile, and that Penny Lane from the movie, Almost Famous, said she was going to escape there for a year.

Back to the trek, right… my ADD is kicking in again.

DAY ONE: Marrakech to Imlil
13,880 steps, 5.8 miles, 93 floors

I start my morning with an 8:30 am pickup at the Rooftop Hostel. I’ve been staying at this hostel for the last week that I got to know the staff quite well. Rabir, usually dressed in a warm neutral colored djellaba, speaks broken English, but for some reason likes to always say “Marhba!” when he sees me which means, “Welcome!” I always respond just as enthusiastically with, “Choukran!” which means “Thank you!” and that was how we bonded.

My driver picks me up and he helps me carry the sleeping bag that was lent to me by another Moroccan who owns, Atlas Extreme, an outdoor equipment rental shop in Imlil. I’m packed a little light and insist on carrying my own backpack.

It’s a long drive to pick up the other girl who is supposed to join me on this trip. Well, I’m actually joining her. The trekking company, Trek in Morocco, I booked through said the girl signed up for a private tour but didn’t want to trek alone so apparently I got a decent price – until I found the same trek for about $60 cheaper on Tour Radar. Ugh, I hate negotiating tour rates. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.

Back to the girl.

The distance to the girl’s riad felt far outside the medina. We park just outside of an alleyway – very common for Marrakech – the city is built to confuse you and doesn’t allow any parking in many areas of the Jemaa el-Fnaa (marketplace and square). My driver is gone for around 15 minutes, and I sit patiently in the backseat keeping myself busy on social media. He comes back and tells me she is finishing breakfast, but we’ll drive around to a closer pickup point. It’s nearly 9:30 am at this point that I have a feeling this girl is the type to habitually run late.

We drive around, and he leaves again for another 20 minutes until I finally see them. She’s a light brown skinned, petite girl with a dark brown pixie cut and one subtle highlight into her fringe. I hear her from behind asking the driver, “Is anyone else in the car?” and he tells her I’m there. Then she asks about the group of British guys that were also supposed to come until she learns that it’s just the two of us.

Nina (pseudo name) introduces herself. She’s Pakistani living in UAE and working in advertising. I find the advertising business very sexy and started to ask her lots of questions.

I told her a little about myself. It’s my first time to Morocco, yadda, yadda.

About an hour and a half later, we drive up the mountain to our first checkpoint. There was an “incident” that happened a couple weeks ago involving two Scandinavian girls. I try to ignore it as the guards review our passports and driver’s paperwork.

Not long after we finally reach our destination to a windy hill in a small village. I read on the sign, “Riad Oussagou.” More men help us with our bags, Nina’s being oversized. We are both shown our rooms, and I am surprised to find that I had my own. This is the first bit of privacy I’ll have in a week.

The room is very comfortable and cozy with extra heavy blankets, a hanging djellaba, and *cheering * a bathtub. Woot! I’m luxury living now and can’t wait to use that later.

It’s only around 10:30 am by this point, so we have enough time to take a small break before we go on a short acclimatization hike. The trails are well-defined, and it’s actually quite warm once we hit the sun.

A few hours later, we make it to a viewpoint where our cook, Hamid, prepares a nice lunch for us – pasta salad with sardines and kefta served in a tagine.

We head back down the hill after lunch and before sunset, so I use the free time to take a nap before dinner. It’s actually quite cold once the sun hid behind the mountains. I lost my down jacket in the airport on my way to Morocco, so I layer myself with all that I have to work with, and that’s a long sleeve top, a yoga jacket, and my jean jacket. It’s still not warm enough, so I grab the brown djellaba; albeit I don’t think brown is my color. It was money though. Money in the sense I felt like Riad Oussagou did me a solid by keeping me warm.

It’s very quiet that I wonder if anyone else is staying here besides the two of us. I use silence as an opportunity to explore the riad and discover a heated room where our meals would later be served. Pakistani girl is writing in a small journal. She shared in the car that she likes to write poetry. Then one other guy joins but keeps his distance in the corner of the entrance and doesn’t spark up a conversation. The room is furnished with several heat lamps and a fireplace that’s lit. I like that it’s cozy and acts as a heated lounge.

We’re served tagine for dinner, and I could tell Nina wanted company afterward, but a decent nights rest sounded better to me, and I turned in around 9:00 pm.

DAY 2: Imlil to Base Camp (6 hours turned into 8 hours)
25,880 steps, 11.2 miles, 77 floors

Breakfast is ready around 7:30 am, and I’m the only one there. It’s continental with breads and spreads, pancakes, boiled eggs, instant coffee, and orange juice. I help myself to a couple of boiled eggs and coffee, but I’m wondering if Pakistani girl is running late again and go back to my room to remove my bags into a central area.

After having lunch yesterday and dinner last night, I realize that the Trip Advisor reviews I read weren’t very accurate and that I packed too much food. I pull out a zipped bag of a pesto gouda, cumin gouda, and aged cheddar. I want you all so bad, but pesto and cumin are out. Apples and oranges? You’re out too. I’ll keep the cured meat though. Pretzels, done. Almonds, you get to stay. Energy bars, stay. Okay, now I can fit a hard shell jacket and windbreaker pants my guide brought for me.

I finally see Nina get up and head for breakfast, late. Again. We were scheduled to leave now, but I guess it’s okay. I’m trying not to be so German on this trip, “We must leave at nein!” and check myself. We’ll have plenty of time to sit around at base camp. “Inshallah.” as they say in Morocco, which means “if Allah wills it.” That I interpret as, “No worries.” Or as Moroccans also say, “Relax, Max. No fax.” And “No hurry like Ferrari.”

We leave around 9:00 am, and Nina’s oversized bag and my sleeping bag gets thrown on the mule that our cook, Hamid, will navigate up the mountain. The trail is wide enough trail for cars to pass by until we get to a waterfall.

I’m usually a bit of a power walker uphill, but we had to make continuous stops for my trekking buddy who moved at a different pace. This is her second time attempting to summit, so I’m finding myself being more patient than usual and cheerleading her from the sidelines. The snow melted on the trail making our journey up a lot easier and less technical.

My patient pose.

About halfway up, we stop for lunch at a shackie-looking restaurant called, Café Chamharouch, that rests near a river in a tiny village. It works as an open kitchen for groups and where Hamid would prepare our lunch. Hamid serves a similar plate from yesterday, but I find myself enjoying it just the same. I use the rest of the hour to take pictures and explore the souvenir merch nearby and see a yellow Mount Toubkal shirt I’m going to buy on the way back down.

Selfie with my cook
Soaking up the sun after lunch.

We move at a steady pace up the hill, slower than others, and I’m craving a sugary snack. Yes, I forgot I left these in here! La, la, la, la, la, la…

Or is it…LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA?

SoCal roots representing the West siiiide!!!

Boom. Old snow starts to show on the higher trails but not enough where we had to put our crampons on. I’m mostly fascinated by the windblown packed snow and seeing my first frozen waterfall.

Once we see basecamp, I sort of leave my group behind and trek at a pace I’m comfortable with. It allowed me enough time to selfie-timer these shots. The sun is falling behind the mountains, and I’m eager to get to our refuge before it gets colder than it already is, and head for shelter on my own. My guide, Brahim, and Nina aren’t too far behind, and I wait outside for them to join me at Refuge du Toubkal, Les Mouflons.

Finally! We made it…8 hours later…instead of 6.

Rufuge de Toubkal

We step into the refuge, and it’s dark without power (the lights don’t come on until officially after sunset.) Brahim shows me my room in a deep shared bunker of about 20 people. He grabs me a couple of heavy blankets for the night, but then Nina asks if I wouldn’t mind sharing space in her private room instead. That’s so kind of her. See where my patience gets me? I think she found more comfort (and warmth) in not sleeping alone.

We drop our bags and meet Brahim who saved a couple of chairs for us to warm up next to the fireplace and then pours us tea. Socks are dangling from chairs and on a pole next to the furnace and a bunch of hiking boots on the floor trying to get dry.

We’re guided to a common area like the one at our riad earlier. It’s warm and full of other trekkers, mostly guys but a small handful of women. I think we only saw one or two women hiking down earlier today, so it was nice to see more at the top.

One observation I noticed is a “No alcohol” sign posted on the door entry. What in the eff? Ha. Just kidding. I didn’t bring any wine on this trip.

We have our dinner and then make our way to bed noting the condensation and heavy moisture in the air. We fell asleep with smoky breath and woke up too damp clothes.

Day 3: Summit Day
16,370 steps, 7.2 miles, 77 floors

I wake up to all the shuffling around from trekkers getting up much earlier for the summit. A group of 10 mentioned the night before they were going to peak and then hike back to Imlil in the same day. That will make it a 12-hour trip if you’re going at a steady pace.

Meh. I’m not that ambitious nor am I in a hurry. I’d much rather enjoy a 6-hour day and rest another night at the refuge.

I fall back into a light sleep keeping a squinty eye on my 6:30 am alarm. I’m not much of an early bird, and since I have the sneaky feeling that my trekking buddy won’t be ready to leave on time, I’ll wait for her to get up first.

Her alarm goes off after mine, and she snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Again. Snoozes. Now Brahim is shining a flashlight into our window and knocks lightly on the door. He’s probably thinking, “Get the hell up, ladies! Chop, chop!” Nina finally gets up and starts to get ready. I meet her downstairs with my bags, and she later joins for breakfast when…guess? When we’re supposed to leave. Are you getting the theme here? Inshallah.

Sunrise

We’re almost last to leave the refuge. The sun is rising, and we start the trail with our crampons and an ice ax. There are frequent stops. I finally decide to lead once the snow began to make a bit of a path. Then stopping to wait and use the time as a photo opp.

Brahim sees Nina is struggling and asks me if I wanted to join a faster group that was passing us. I am surprised when I tell him, “No, I’ll wait. We’re a team. We go up together, and we’ll come down together.”

“Who are you?” I’m questioning myself. “That’s very selfless of you.”

So we play this game of I run ahead, then wait, then we walk together, and repeat.

We make it to our first viewpoint at the top of the mountain. Brahim is carrying Nina’s pack over his chest with her elbow interlocked into his arm. Fina-fucking-ly.

Brahim removes our crampons, and I share with them that I’m actually quite content with where we are if we decide not to make it to the top. We’re about 100 meters away, and it is already 2:00 pm and took us 6 hours to get up the hill instead of 3. I don’t want to have to hike in the dark.

Brahim pours me some tea he kept hidden until now. Yum. So soothing. We eat a couple of snacks and take a few photos.

“What do you think?” Brahim asks.

“I’m good if you guys want to turn around. My feet and fingers are frozen.” I answer.

He pauses and looks at Nina. This is her second attempt. Last year there was snow sometimes as high as her waist. Then he looks at me.

“I think we can make it.” He encourages.

Ugh. Not the answer I really want to hear, but exactly the motivation I needed to hear at that moment. Brahim points at the summit, and it looks far. Ugh, again.

Do you see it? Tiny little triangular shape on top?

Let’s go!

It was maybe only another 30-45 minutes before we found ourselves at the top and went by a lot quicker than I imagined it would.

I sigh in relief wiping all the snot running alongside my swollen face. Yaaasssss! We did it! We give hugs, struggle to find a rock that could take a group photo, and then rush back down the hill.

We are back to base camp around 4:30 pm and get a couple of cheers and claps when they see us. I think we’re the last down the hill. Hamid prepares us a late lunch, and we Airdrop exchange photos in the lounge area while observing the several guides who seem to be drawn to the windows where they suspect might be able to get a bar of wifi. We tell Hamid we don’t need dinner since we had such a late lunch, but to instead to bring us some soup, bread, and bite-sized pre-packaged cheese he served to us at breakfast. I stay up a little later and finally get to bed around 9:30 pm.

Day 4: Basecamp to Imlil
25,447 steps, 9.9 miles, 10 floors

The trek down was a lot easier and faster on the way down. We didn’t make many stops, and the one we did was so that I could buy my yellow Mount Toubkal souvenir shirt. We passed the same villages we saw on the way up and then had a nice lunch at the riad we stayed a couple nights before. I am contemplating staying in Imlil for a few more nights to enjoy the mountain life, but I heard the weather was supposed to drop and get quite cold. Instead, I joined Nina back to Marrakech where we would later have dinner over the next couple of nights.

In total, I took 81,687 steps, walked 55 kilometers, and climbed 279 floors. Not too shabby for a California girl going on her first winter altitude trek on North Africa’s tallest mountains.

‘Eua is nicknamed “The Forgotten Island” and one of the only islands in Tonga that you can find a rainforest climate. There are great hikes, caves to explore, and, my favorite, SWIMMING WITH WHALES! But before you go to ‘Eua, there are a few things you should know.

Transportation
There are two options on getting to Eua from Tongatapu. The quickest way and most expensive way is to take the shortest flight in the world lasting only 7 minutes from the airport.

The more affordable option is to take a 2-3 hour sketchy ferry ride. If you’re coming from Nuku’alofa (Tongatapu Island), all the information you read online is a bit misleading or inaccurate.

It’s difficult to book your ferry in advance as I’ve heard from several travelers I met on the island. Instead, you have to find your way to the Nuku’alofa pier and find a person holding a carbon booklet and selling them to you just before your departure.

The ferry can be unreliable, and you may not leave on time or that day if the weather is unfavorable. I tried getting my ferry ticket one day prior, and she asked me to just come an hour (at 10am) before departure to pick it up. Also, look for a blue and white ferry boat. When I arrived, there is a small outdoor waiting area (search for a large group of locals) and wait until she calls for tickets.

The ride to ‘Eua is a bit choppy. You’re going headwind, and so that makes for a much more bumpy ride. The way back to Nuku’alofa is much smoother and faster.

There is no public transportation on the island, but it is hitch-hiking friendly! Most of the overnight accommodations offer a free shuttle for booked tours.

After Your Arrival
Once you arrive, you’ll come to a dirt-covered parking lot. There’s the Ovava Tree Lodge that’s within walking distance and Deep Blue Diving tour operator. This is considered to be “the main town,” but that’s not saying much. Booking accommodation in this area makes things more accessible to the largest market referred to by locals as “The China Shop.” To get there, you’ll find just over the bridge and take the first right (there are no street names here).

SIM Cards
Digicel: offers more hot spots and places to top up your SIM around the island, including the China Shop and households. If you choose to top up at a house, look for the Digicel sign. The signs are usually displayed on a window of what looks like someone’s home.

TCC (Tonga Communication Center aka U-Call): the less expensive option, but I wish I went with Digicel mostly because of Digicel’s accessibility. There is only one TCC store in ‘Eua, and that’s in the central area of town, covered during unusual business hours. If you rely heavily on the internet, it’s a frustrating process only being allowed to top up a maximum of 1G at a time, or 5G for a computer. Wifi is not necessarily always available in restaurants either.

UCALL 3G Internet Rates
50MB 24hr $2
100MB 5 days $3
500MB 1 Month $13
1GB 3 Months $25

Accommodation
There are very few accommodations on the island, but I hear the tourism board is trying to work on maintaining a standard that caters to travelers being good news for us.

Hideaway:
This is my favorite place to stay on the island and what I hear from locals and other travelers as their favorite too. It’s a little ways from town (about 20-minute walk), but it’s right on the coast with an easily accessible beach and partial ocean view from your room. You can actually see whales breaching from the outdoor dining and hang out area.

Other elements that make this my recommended accommodation are hammocks, sun decks and 50MG of free wifi. They will also offer you free ferry or airport pickup and drop off a complimentary continental breakfast, and free lemon or lemongrass tea and/or free rainwater always out in a bin. Not to mention the super friendly staff! I guess you could say these guys have their “ish” together. The rooms are super clean, hot water, reliable toilet plumbing, and crisp white linens tightly tucked in the beds. It’s an overall great value for what you’re getting at TOP 65 ($30 per night).

Ovava Tree Lodge:
This is the only lodge located “in town.” It’s actually pretty cute and has a nice ambiance, but I heard from another traveler that you have to climb a staircase (ladder) to get to your bed/room. Otherwise, I had lunch there, and it was decent.

Taina:
I don’t know much about this place, but I did meet a couple of travelers who stayed here and didn’t seem to have any complaints.

Highlight Guesthouse:
I had an “interesting” local experience here. The host was nice, but I could not in good faith recommend this place to travelers. I hate talking poorly about local businesses, but it was overvalued. There’s little that can be done to make it feel fairer priced and a more comfortable stay for guests in this two bedroom guest house.

The guesthouse charges TOP 60 ($30) per night, $5 ferry pickup, $5 each way to run errands and an additional $5-10 to use the kitchen where half of the appliances don’t even work. There were no locks on my door. No wifi. The shared bathroom connects to the other guest room, but the bathroom door that attached to the guest room didn’t close all the way always leaving a slight crack where you could see in the bedroom a tiny bit or vice versa.

This is manageable when I had female guests, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable once an older man moved in. The bathroom was also dirty with toothpaste in the shower ledge all 3 nights I stayed there. The toilets weren’t clean either, and I often felt like I had to wipe it down each time I used it. One perk is that there was hot water! No towel provided though.

Everything felt dirty. My room had dead insects on the window ledge, lots of mosquitos buzzing through (less when I kept the windows closed and went crazy with insect repellent), and I felt the need to wear flip flops because the dirt debris on the floor would kick up on the sheets. The dresser also was unusable. There was sticky goo in the drawers and looked like mold or mildew had taken over. Also, my bed was a full-size futon that fell at a slight tilt, and the pillow felt like lumpy socks. The blanket she provided was big and warm though! Perfect for the cold winter Tongan nights.

There is also no food in the neighborhood, and she doesn’t have a menu for guests. When I arrived, it was late afternoon, and I asked if we could stop by somewhere to eat, and she seemed surprised that I didn’t bring my own food. I think she eventually felt sorry for me when I pulled out my only two apples and a small bag of almonds to last me until the next day, so she offered to cook me dinner for TOP 20 and also provided me some of her leftover soup her daughter made for her that morning. I did enjoy the dinner, and the portions were more significant than I could finish on a hungry stomach (white fish cooked in coconut milk with root vegetables) and felt it was a reasonable price to ask.

She was also kind enough to make phone calls when I needed it. So, as I said, I don’t like talking poorly about businesses, but there’s definitely a lot that could be done to make the place more beautiful and for a better value. A couple of recommendations I’d have would be to remove the transport pickup and kitchen fees, and include complimentary tea and/or coffee with some biscuits for guests.

Where to Eat
Dining out in ‘Eua is scarce. Everything closes early, and food seems to be hard to come by so make sure you bring your own snacks. My first two days I pretty much survived on apples and nuts that I brought over in my backpack. Most of the accommodations offer meals but only during a specific time. It’s also recommended you let them know early if you plan to have dinner so they can prep the food. Otherwise, you may not have anything to eat because meals are made to order with advance notice.

There are no restaurants or dining options otherwise, but the meals are pretty good from the accommodations that offer it.

Swimming with Whales (Our Favorite!)
A lot of people choose to go whale swimming here instead of the other islands because it’s known to be cheaper (and better). Tourism hasn’t quite caught up to ‘Eua island yet, so there are only two tour operators who will take you on whale watches and whale swims and only one of those offers scuba diving tours with only two divemasters on the island. Here’s what I think about the two whale operators.

Deep Blue Dive
I first chose Deep Blue Dive because they had a familiar name and had a dive shop on Tongatapu. The booking lady at the Tongatapu location was nice enough to help me book an accommodation (Highlight Guesthouse) when the island was already known to be sold out for weeks, so I felt safe going with them – but then a twist of events happened where I lost my trust in them as a tour operator on ‘Eua.

I stopped by their shop located at Ovava Tree Lodge and spoke to the nice lady who is the wife of the Divemaster / Whale Boat Captain. She initially offered me a discount for bringing my own dive gear, but when I spoke to the captain, he wouldn’t honor it saying that the dive gear was complimentary as part of the package. I didn’t fight it and just accepted it. This is sometimes the norm for dive operators.

Deep Blue Dive said they’d call me later that evening to confirm the pickup time, but they never did, and I had to follow up with them. Also, fine. I didn’t mind that.

But here’s where things began to go wrong.

I asked the guy if he could confirm the maximum number of guests that were allowed on the boat. I heard this company sometimes booked over maximum capacity, and I wanted to have as much time as possible with these whales in smaller groups.

The price was a bit steep at TOP 290 for one half-day of swimming with whales (including lunch) and another TOP 90 for one dive. I talked to another whale operator who offered the whale swim for TOP 200 but decided to go with Deep Blue Dive because I wanted to go diving too and knock out both in one day.

Deep Blue Dive said they’d call me to let me know the rest of the details. I found it strange they didn’t ask for my dive card or any dive insurance though. When I asked if their tanks were all up to date, he said that nowhere on the island services tanks, so they service their own (a bit convenient). I also confirmed that everyone on the boat planned to do a whale swim and dive combination that day.

My pickup time from my accommodation was for 9:00 am. It seemed a bit late, but I didn’t question it too much. We make it back into town and get started at around 10:00 am on the dock. Deep Blue Dive asked me to leave all my dive gear, and we’d go diving in the afternoon after lunch.

The water vessel is small but seemed fine for Tongan standards. There was a rusty little nail that was sliding around on the boat, but I let that slide. We received a boat safety briefing before we left and went out about 5 minutes before seeing our first whales. It’s that easy on this island!

I’m excited to go swim with some whales, but these guys wanted nothing to do with us. We see lots of whales, and they seem to be all around, but each time we came close on them, they’d go diving deeper and leave us. It was like a whale game of hide and seek. I’m bummed, but you can’t predict nature.

The entire day was a game of chase. We jumped in once, but they swam away before we could get close. It’s cold, and my group and I were making funny jokes about why they didn’t want to swim with us. Due to how slow the activity was, it would have been an opportune time for our guides to share some fun facts about whale behavior. Instead, one of the guides was seasick hurled over the boat or sleeping it off from the little boat roof. The other guide never said a word to us, and the captain kept to himself.

So, we had no luck the entire day and decided to break for a late lunch at around 2ish. The meal was a small bowl of soup and a loaf of sliced bread for the group to share. Despite the small soup portion, it was still delicious. I had to fill up on bread to get full though.

There was a lot of nice little service touches that Deep Blue Dive was missing. Overall I didn’t feel like I was getting a good value. Water, hot tea, and maybe some biscuits would be a nice touch to offer in between. You don’t want people getting dehydrated in the sun all day, offer some water.

Whale season is also in the winter time, and the breeze gets very cold out on the water. Tea would be a nice way to keep guests comfortable. And something cheap like crackers or biscuits for those who missed their breakfast or have low blood sugar. I kept questioning where all our money went $290 x6 = $1740 TOP ($782 USD). The only expenses I saw flowing out were for 1 Captain and 2 other staff, and gas. Maybe some maintenance on gear but they had an odd assortment of gear. Moving along…

After lunch, our guide canceled our afternoon dive to go continue whale swimming. It turns out that not all guests were signed up to go diving like I asked and confirmed the day before.

Instead, he allowed an ADDITIONAL 5 guests at the last minute onto our boat! This really didn’t sit well with me because now the boat felt overloaded, the dynamic changed, and the group who joined were a bit boisterous and inconsiderate. After telling them how we didn’t see any whales all day when we went back out there, they sort of pushed their way into the water first. I thought there were only supposed to be a maximum of 6 guests at a time with the whales because we don’t want to stress the whales out. But then all rules and communication went out the window, and we felt like we were all racing and chasing to get to the whales. We had a beautiful 5 minutes with the whales, but my intuition felt something wasn’t right. They also refilled their outboard with gas while we were out in whale territory, which also didn’t feel right.

After the swim, he dropped us off to a snorkeling area (which he didn’t have to do, so that was nice, but it was 5:30pm by this time and cold with the sun setting!) We all get in and begin snorkeling to the reef for 10-20 minutes, and when I swam back I noticed we were anchored into the reef!!! I’m screaming “ENVIRONMENT CONSERVATION!!!” in my head.

I brought up the canceled dive (my reason for choosing them over the other whale operator) and then asked why he allowed twice as many guests as he said he would. His response was, “Well, I didn’t have to take you out again after lunch.” I paid my $290 + 3% credit card fee TOP and left feeling unsatisfied. I also didn’t feel comfortable rescheduling my dive for the next day. His word could no longer be trusted.

Hideaway: The Whale Whisperers
I was first recommended to go through Hideaway for the whale swimming by two ‘Eua locals, but I decided not to listen and go with Deep Blue Dive instead. Feeling unsatisfied and believing my experience with whale swimming could be improved, I decided to book for a second day with whales. There was a girl who booked her second whale tour with Deep Blue Dive who also stayed at Hideaway. She booked her whale tour through Hideaway a couple of days prior and said most politely that Hideaway was 100 times better. Two others from the whale tour and I booked with these guys, and it already started off way better. Here’s why:

First, my pickup was between 7:30-8:00am for 8:30am start time. I liked that it started much earlier. We get onto a vessel similar looking to the other dive boat only a bit smaller and head on our way. While we were waiting to load onto the vessel, Marta (from Chile) was already a greater host. She filled our time sharing fun facts about whales when we were getting on the boat and then continued to do so throughout the entire day. She was very warm and hospitable anticipating our needs before we even knew they were needed like offering us free bottles of water, cookies/biscuits, and even peanuts. This felt right. AND IT WAS FOR ONLY TOP 200!

The Captain (rumors say they call him the “whale whisperer”) was a humble man named Kiko. He was born in Tongatapu but grew up in ‘Eua and knows these waters (so say the two locals and even he!). After having some conversation with him when he picked me up from my accommodation, he shared with me how he is the only whale operator in ‘Eua who attended a 3-week course on whale swimming. He was quiet but warm and spoke just enough to hear more about his perspective about whale watching on ‘Eua admitting that September is the best month to go because the whales and their calves are likely to be more social around that time.

Within minutes of us first getting out, we swim with 4 humpback whales. Then throughout the entire morning, we jumped in and swam with more of them. The icing on the cake was when we were all sitting on the boat and began hearing loud whale sounds echoing. We were ecstatic! We eventually jump in the water and start listening to them even louder vibrating through our bodies. It was such an incredible experience.

We ended our day at 1:30pm and had enough time to enjoy the rest of our day doing whatever we wanted. We all left feeling so grateful and satisfied that we tried to make sure he was paid well by the gratitude we felt that day. He even offered one of the girls to pay only ½ because she didn’t get to swim with whales the other day (the weather was too rough and choppy). She said, “Nonsense! I’m paying you the full amount anyway.” THAT, my friend, is excellent service!

This is exactly what I expect from a whale tour operator. Excellent service from both Marta and Kiko, anticipating needs and keeping us entertained with fun facts throughout the quiet time between swims.

My only hope is that they expand into diving, but I’m pretty satisfied if they stick to what they do best – and that’s whale swimming!

It starts off by me standing on the outside of a silver Toyota Prado 4×4 holding onto an “oh shit” handle with my left hand and the roof rack handle with my right. My feet are firmly placed on a slim running board while the rest of my body presses against the driver’s side door like a starfish, and I’m asked to hand over my phone.

A stalky man dressed in a blue djellaba and black headscarf puts the car into drive and starts to peel out up and down the orangey-colored dunes shouting, “Ahhfreeeeekaaaah!!” while I’m holding on trying not to fall.

“This would never happen [legally] in the states,” I’m thinking.

Moroccan music plays in a medium volume in the background, the skies are bright blue, the weather is warm, and there isn’t anyone else in sight. This is life. This is living.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee!!” he screams.

My thoughts are interrupted by the fine orangey-colored sand gripping the tires behind me. We drive near someone’s campsite, and a dog about the size of a small poodle begins to chase us. If we don’t go fast enough, the dog might just have enough opportunity to sink its teeth into my ankles. We eventually outrun the dog, and his barking comes to nothing but a faint stop.

We go up and then down again. Up…shit, a second dog. A similar sized dog chases us and this time starts to gain on us. The other dog finds his way back and then buddies up from the opposite end. I’m coming up with alternatives in my head if either dog catches up, but then we roll down another hill and then up another.

“Advaaaaaaaantuuuurrrreee. Ahhfreeeeekaaaahh!” he repeats, keeping watch of the dogs from his rearview mirror.

Sneaking in a quick shot after outrunning the desert dogs.

About a half an hour later, we roll down a hill into a campsite with 16 white tents. This is going to be my home. I learn my driver’s name is Hsain and he shows me my tent, the fourth one on the left side. He quickly inspects the room, peeks behind the partitioned curtain where the bathroom sits, but then tells me the room is not ready and proceeds to cross the camp into another tent.

My replacement tent had a queen sized bed and twin in it. I’m not feeling the vibe as much and hesitantly put my bags down before finally admitting I liked the other room better and wouldn’t mind waiting for it to be cleaned. He calls the housekeeper a few tents away and speaks Berber to her. He tells me it’s okay and then carries a long table near the bonfire circle and places it in a shaded area with a chair for me to wait.

Hsain apologizes and tells me he needs to pick up other guests. I sit in the shaded area swatting the occasional fly and then pull out my laptop from my backpack recalling how many countries and mountains this bag has traveled with me. I then begin to extract my memories from Mount Toubkal less than a week ago and the panoramic mountain views at the summit. My calves are still slightly sore, and I can tell my abs feel stronger.

I’m tired. All I want to do is sleep. One of the male staff calls me and tells me my tent is ready. It’s next to the one I initially wanted, but I think I’ll like it just as much. It’s almost 4:00 pm now and I can’t wait for my nap. I fall flat on top of the bed with my arms extended out, set my alarm on my phone, and close my eyes falling into a deep sleep over the next 40 minutes. Sigh. This is exactly what I needed. It’s so silent here.

I eventually wake to faint voices. Tourists must be coming back from their day trips. I open my eyes and look outside the tented door I never closed and see some Chinese people on the hill above. I get up and look even closer outside and see another Chinese woman to my right swinging on a porch-like bench studying her phone.

I lie back down and continue to peek at the family on the top of the dune from a distance. They have a child about 4 years old who is dragging his butt down the hill making one continuous line. They’re paying no attention to him, and he runs back up to do it again.

I’m still not in the mood to deal with all the beauty and instead am finding the comfort of my own tent to be exactly why I came here. The sun begins to set, and I step out to the restaurant to ask what time dinner is being served. 8 o’clock. There’s another Chinese lady on the carpeted runway to the restaurant having her photo taken by her boyfriend in her Berber garb and running shoes. Her outfit doesn’t really match how natural she is trying to photograph. Imagine a runway model trying to do the catwalk in New Balance walking shoes. But to each’s own. I was at least able to capture this improv photo soon after she left.

My friend, William, video calls me after I briefly comment on his Facebook wishing him a Happy Birthday. He’s my first virtual guest in my tent! We keep losing a signal, and the call keeps getting dropped, but we facetiously blame it on the LA rain and not the fact that I’m in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

8 o’clock quickly rolls around. I’m about half finished with my bottle of wine I bought from a restaurant earlier, so I’m feeling pretty relaxed.

I am the last one to stroll into dinner and am greeted and then seated alone. I am smiling and observing each of the couples and groups. I am the only solo traveler here. Should I feel lonely? Psh. Lonely is for kittens. I am a cheetah. To my left sits a group of Chinese with the child I saw earlier and his back facing me. He is immobile and hasn’t moved, so I’m wondering if he has fallen asleep at the table while his parents pay no attention to him again chatting with the other adults. Then there is a Chinese couple next to them. They sit side by side, and the man has one of those Berber scarfs on his head paired with his prescription lens glasses over his eyes. He’s feeling the Berber part. A Chinese Berber man. It actually suits him well. Then working my way to the right of them sits a black couple. They’re the only black people in here, and I wonder if they might be from London considering our proximity and their fashion sense. The girl actually looks more mixed with very fair skin but with an afro hairdo. Her boyfriend has dreaded-like hair. Then moving again to the right sits a wealthy looking Chinese couple. The man is groomed well and put together nicely in his black knitted shirt and his wife graciously uses her eating utensils on her plate. They are sharing their dishes, and I can silently see them exchanging few words perhaps discussing their thoughts on the meal. “What is this?” I overhear them ask the server. “Couscous,” he responds, and then they nod their heads in approval.

My first course is a bowl of vegetable soup. I’m served the same bread I find all over Morocco, but this time it came with olive oil and white vinegar instead of balsamic vinegar. Interesting. I like it just the same. I get a good whiff of the olive oil and then taste it. It’s clean, aromatic, and a little sweet.

The soup is pureed and green. I’m not sure of the contents, but I’m enjoying it and finish it. It’s now my turn for a 7 vegetable couscous salad. It’s the best I’ve had out here, and I suspect it must have been cooked in a broth or stock of some sort. I am stuffed by this point and regrettably have to tell my server I won’t be eating the main course. My server continues insisting I stay and only have a couple bites, but I can’t. I’m so full! So I tell him I’ll be right back and never return. I felt bad, but I’m here for a few days and will leave more room for tomorrow night.

I later hear “Cee!” then again, “Cee!” I jump out of bed, and it’s Hsain, my driver and who I now learn is the camp owner. He checks in on me asking if I need anything else and offers to bring snacks. I’m so stuffed, but I suggest I might be able to wiggle in a few peanuts into my stomach to go with my wine.

The bonfire goes on outside, and I’m listening to the steady drumming from the privacy of my tent.

It’s between 10-11:00 pm and Hsain returns with a spread of snacks: a bowl of peanuts, a variety of olives, a bag of chips (that his staff wanted but left behind) and dried fruit. This is VIP service all the way that I wonder if anyone else is getting the same treatment.

I invite Hsain to join me for some snacks while I sip on my wine, and I didn’t realize it before, but he is actually quite funny. I was laughing most of the night in his company hysterically. He tells me I am to be treated like family and to make sure I leave a great Airbnb review. That’s always the disclaimer, but he would undoubtedly be getting an excellent review for throwing the good-natured vibes my way.

Tears continued to roll out of my eyes from laughter throughout the evening and while he dresses me up in his black headscarf. Admittedly, I don’t think black is my color!

Having his company wasn’t something I anticipated, but having him around brought a lot of warmth and comfort into my stay. It turned out to be one of those things I didn’t realize I needed, but it was what I needed – especially after a slightly awkward lonesome dinner.

I’m finding myself falling more in love with Morocco as time passes. I’m coming up on my third week, and Moroccans have been so honest with me. A taxi guy drove out of his way to drop off a hat I left in his car, the sunglasses and credit card I lost that were returned, and even the young guy who guided me through a labyrinth of alleys to my hostel and didn’t ask for money. Then there’s the Atlas Extreme guy who kindly lent me a sleeping bag, beanie, and gloves for my winter trekking trip to Mount Toubkal and the two guides from Morocco Daily Tours, who bought my friend and me dinner one night in Gueliz. Moroccans have been very generous and hospitable to me.

It’s getting late, and I finally make it to bed at around 1:00 am. I knew I wouldn’t bother getting up early for the breakfast buffet, but Hsain was kind enough to have his staff keep the buffet out until 10:00 am for me. VIP, I’m telling you! It’s such a wonderful feeling being spoiled and getting the royal treatment, and that is exactly what my first day impression was glamping in the Sahara Desert.

Tagine is one of Morocco’s most notable dishes. It’s aromatic, zesty, and spicy. The cuisine offers a diverse range of ways it can be prepared from more meat-inspired stews to a bountiful display of vegetables. No matter what you order, this national dish is bound to put you in for a delightful surprise. But where can you find the best tagine Morocco has to offer? It goes without saying that you can find the best tagine in homes of Moroccans and not in a restaurant. So when I was invited for a cooking lesson at the home of a Berber family in Merzouga, I was excited to not only learn the ways of making traditional tagine, but also to be able to taste the difference between homemade and restaurant tagine. 

The mid-morning begins in the traditional mudbrick home of Mona and her family. It sits within a compound that her brother and businessman, Hsain, built in addition to the Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. I am welcomed in smiles by Mona and her two shy children who peak their heads around the corner to see if I’ll notice them.

While Mona prepares mint tea and snacks for me, the two girls finally gain enough confidence to shy away from the shadows and sit on the couch next to me. They give me a light hug and then we use our hands and facial expressions to communicate. I point to the older girl and raise my hand counting my fingers suggesting they show me how old they are.

I hold up five and the other girl mimics my hand with two fives and then a three. Then I learn the other one is nine.

I’m sitting in their version of a living room. The walls are furnished with long cushioned benches around the room with pillows. It’s always a little cold in the Moroccan homes I’ve been in, so I came prepared with socks and an extra jacket.

Mona takes a seat next to me with a small dish of almonds and peanuts and then sits down a tray with a tea kettle and Moroccan tea glasses. It’s always a little awkward thinking about what we’re going to talk about when there’s a language barrier, but she breaks the ice and pushes the tray of nuts toward me to eat. I grab a small handful of nuts while she pours the tea.

She gets up to bring out a blue plastic bowl of unpeeled vegetables soaked in water. I intently watch her peel carrots and potatoes in a rhythmic motion with a small peeling knife toward her chest. She then starts slicing the carrot, zucchini, potato, and onion in her hand instead of using a cutting board. I was especially impressed when she minced the onion into small pieces in a chopping motion while cupping the onion in her hand. She didn’t ask for my help and I knew my translation would be lost if I tried to ask, so I continued to study her instead.

We move into the kitchen with her two girls and I take a seat on a short one-foot stool next to a very short table. The clay tagine is placed on the table and she adds a little olive oil to the tagine along with a layer of minced garlic. There’s a clear plastic bag of seasoned chicken sitting off to the side that she pulls out and centers in the middle of the pot. 

Tagine looks pretty simple so far. From what I’ve read it should be as easy as a slow cooker.

Mona smothers the chicken with onions and then begins layering the rest of the vegetables in chronological order: carrots, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and sliced lemon. The children grab some spices from nearby and help sprinkle parsley, paprika, cumin, a green powdered spice, and ground saffron on top.

Mona’s brother, Hsain, returns and helps by pouring a small amount of hot water from the kettle in the clay pot. They cover the tagine, put it on the stove, and let it cook for 45 minutes. 

I thought I’d have some lag time to sit and chat, but instead was asked to follow her outside to a small mudbrick structure. I peak my head in trying not to hit my head and see three other women besides Mona sitting lined up against the wall.

I’m watching from the outside for a couple of minutes until one of the girls moves and points to me and then points next to Mona where she was sitting. I understand the gesture and sit next to Mona, who’s in charge of the fire, getting a pretty good view of the clay oven they use to bake bread.

The three women all had bread pies about the size of a large pizza gathered under the blankets and then handing them to Mona one-by-one.

I meditatively gaze at the bread rising into a big bubble and then watch Mona twirl it in either a clockwise or counterclockwise motion and then pierce it with a stick when the bread expanded too much.

She grabs some flimsy twigs that are used to keep the fire going and then uses her two sticks to pull the bread out. She drops the bread on a nest of twigs that lay next to the oven and repeats.

The bubbly pie flattens on its own after it cools down and the woman to my left picks it up and begins to sweep off both sides removing any dirt or debris before placing the deflated bread in the basket hidden under the blanket in front of her.

After around five pies, Mona moves away from the fire and the girl to my left takes over. I notice she’s a little slower than Mona. She does look young and I imagine she’s still working on her skill set as Mona has probably done for many years already.

We leave the other women and walk back to her home only a minute away. The tagine is still cooking and the two girls left for school. There’s Mona’s third daughter who returned and she looks like she might be the middle child among the three, which I was told is the lucky child to be in a family. She smiles at me and puts on a kid’s sing-along program on their 13” bulky TV. She’s also a little shy in the beginning but then her mother gets her to warm up to me by showing me one of her art projects. She’s painted decorations and dots onto a piece of white fabric about the size of a book.

The little girl then places a drawing of a blue river with an apple tree on the living room table in front of me but runs across the room still a bit shy and sits in a chair on the opposite corner. I notice the palm of her hands are covered in something orange or red and ask Mona.

“Henna.” Mona explains.

Progress! This is the first word Mona communicated that I understand.

Mona leaves back to the kitchen and the little girl comes with her backpack filled with markers and colored pencils. She pulls out a blank notepad and rips the first two pages off. She didn’t like how her paper was torn so she crumbles it up and tries again. Success. She’s now ready to draw and dumps her markers and pencils onto the table.

I pick up one of the wadded pieces of paper and open it up to draw on, but she pulls a fresh piece of paper for me to draw on instead.

I started drawing a dolphin hopping out of the water then moved onto drawing fish with stripes in a very elementary way. She continues to draw another river and apple tree on her piece of paper but this time with a sun on the upper right-hand corner.

Her dad gets home and sits beside her watching her draw.

I decide to add some land to my drawing and draw a brown line above the water and plant a few palm trees to the right. Then I decide to draw sand dunes in the background merging ocean and desert.

It’s missing something. A camel.

How do I draw a camel? The wifi isn’t working so I pull up a video of a camel I saw earlier in the day and put it on pause trying to replicate it the best way I knew how. The little girl curiously and intently watches me draw as I screw it up. It’s not making out to look like a camel so I adjust until it sort of resembles one. She’s miraculously inspired and asks her dad to draw one on her paper.

Lunch is ready.

We set the table and gather around the table.  A small dish of assorted olives is placed on the table along with hand-pulled pieces of warm bread from earlier, and a small dish about the size of my hand filled with chopped green pepper, tomatoes, and onions.

The tagine is centered between us all and the lid is removed lending a zesty and aromatic fragrance to the table. I wait for them to go first so I can follow their lead. Each tears a piece of bread and dips it in the broth. This goes on for several minutes that I’m wondering at which point we eat the food, but I follow along.

Maybe they’re being polite and waiting for me to go first?

I don’t budge and finally see the dad grab a piece of bread, cupping it into his hand, and then using the bread as a utensil to grab some vegetables.

I follow suit and it’s my tagine epiphany moment.

“Whoa! This is so good. So damn good. This is what it’s about. I get it now.” I’m thinking.

The zest from the lemon added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish. The flavors of the spices, citrus, and vegetables had the perfect amount of time to marry allowing different flavor profiles to stand out on their own.

“This is so damn good.” I repeat in my head.

They see me struggling a little to pick up vegetables and come back with a fork and plate to help me. I’m determined to keep trying though, but I did occasionally resort back to my fork.

I am stuffed beyond oblivion but they keep adding more food to my plate as they share from the tagine. I point to my stomach and rub it in a circular motion moving my head from side to side saying no more.

They finally felt like I had enough to eat and then bring out a large bowl of fresh fruit, very traditional for Moroccan dessert.

The little girl grabs a banana and cuts it in half to eat and then grabs a whole one for me to enjoy. Oy, I don’t think I can handle a whole banana.  The dad offers me a tangerine. I’ve become quite fond of the tangerines in Morocco; they’re always so sweet and juicy. The little girl looks at me disappointed I didn’t eat her banana and points at it, so I agree to appease her by eating half.

After lunch, I help clear the table with the little girl while Mona does the dishes. The little girl then helps me find a broom with my sweeping motions I used to ask her. We finish cleaning in time for my ride back to the camp and part our ways.

Having the opportunity to learn how to cook one of Morocco’s most notable dishes in an intimate family setting is always a special experience. I now understand why having a meal in a Moroccan family home is incomparable to restaurants. When you allow awkward communication barriers marinade with something familiar and relatable like family meals, it becomes one of a kind. Can you think of a time you experienced this was true? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Nomad is a word I used to throw around loosely, but after meeting this nomad family, I finally have a better understanding of what it means to move from place to place as a means of survival and not out of having wanderlust.

It’s been 21 days since I’ve been in the Sahara and I really haven’t seen much. I’ve been avoiding much of the tourist attractions and using my time to instead rest, read, write, and repeat.

I’m collaborating with Hsain, a former nomad and current business owner of Merzouga Dunes Luxury Camps. We’ve finally gotten past the formalities of treating me like a guest, I help myself to the kitchen for snacks whenever I want, and now we can engage in deeper conversations about the behind-the-scenes operations of running a luxury desert camp and, what I’m here to talk about today, nomad life.

I’m introduced to Mohammed, an older man with clearly defined wrinkles on his face that looks plenty hydrated.

“This man has four wives. He eats a lot of couscous at night!” Hsain points teasingly at Mohammed.

Mohammed doesn’t understand English, but I assume Hsain translates because Mohammed quickly smiles and then laughs showing me all of his yellow teeth.

Hsain and I walk around the nomad village and he points out one tent that works as a pantry and another used for cooking. There’s a clay oven much like the one I saw during my bread baking lesson only smaller and with tiny stones added.

“When it’s windy, they use this gas stove. When it’s not windy, they use wood fire to cook.” Hsain explains.

I see a little girl with a faux fur lined hood and bare feet running at us from a distance, but my attention is diverted when I see a couple of baby goats. They’re so cute! I know, I’m being a typical girl.

Hsain picks up the brown one and puts it into my arms and I hug it tight against my chest.  He picks up the white one and then tells me to hold them both. My heart is melting when the white baby goat opens his mouth wide in a bleat sounding almost like a human baby. They are only three days old and you could see the dry umbilical cord still attached.

I goat double the love.

Now that I got over my animal fix, we join the nomad family for tea under an open shelter that’s shaded by tarped blankets made from wool and goat hair. I notice many of the ropes are also made from the same fur.

Mohammed pushes a small tray of nut-sized snacks for me to try and then pours each of us a round of mint tea. The tea is less sugary than I’ve had lately. I’m enjoying this cup more than the others I’ve had recently and make it a point to compliment it.

I’m sitting there and listening to my friend speak in Berber without a clue of what they’re talking about. The little girl finds us and finds a place right next to me.

I’m relishing the moment but at the same time I want to ask a lot of questions to understand more about the culture without being too inquisitive. There’s that fine line of being in the moment but also taking advantage of an opportunity to get to learn something new.

At one point in our conversation, Hsain mentions “We have no pharmacy here. The government won’t provide us with one.”

In a way, I don’t know that they need one. I’m reminded that everything they use to treat their illnesses is natural. I asked what pregnant women do when they’re ready to give birth.

“When they’re ready to give birth, they let their people know, and then we get them comfortable and relaxed enough to have one. No hospital.” explains my friend. ‘It’s not like modern [Moroccan] women in the city who have it this way…” he points to his stomach as if he were making a slit for a C-section.

“How are the roles broken up between the men and women?” I ask.

“It’s traditional. Women take care of the house and men work outside. It’s not like modern people. It’s a lot simpler. They don’t have same problems like modern people. “

We might have a lesson or two to learn about nomad culture. Their presence feels like one of a wise man: few words, an abundance of smiles, simple, honest and happy.

“At what age do they start grooming the children to start playing a more prominent role?” I start digging some more.

“Nomad children don’t have an education, you understand? They sometimes have a mobile school come by and will teach what they can, but they don’t always know when that is. The school comes when they can. “

My question wasn’t really answered but I let it go. He did further explain that sometimes there’s an opportunity for the nomad children to leave their families and get an education like he and all his brothers did.

Mohammed continues to refill my tea glass. I’m drinking it much faster than everyone else. This isn’t the first time I notice how quickly I seem to finish my tea next to Moroccans who seem to take their time and sip a lot slower.

Mohammed’s wife sits in silence off to the side and her swaddled baby is now asleep on her back. The little girl is feeling less shy and pokes me. I’m playful back putting my hand high for her to slap and then pulling the ‘down low, too slow’ move.

The ‘down low, too slow’ has a universal playfulness. I don’t know why but kids always seem to get a kick out of it. She then pulls my hand and observes my half-worn red nail polish and then puts my hand back down.

Hsain gets a call from his dad, who is still living his life as a nomad and hands the phone over to Mohammed. Mohammed puts the phone to his ear and begins talking loudly as if the recipient was a few tents away. The phone is on speaker and I don’t understand what’s being said but it sounded like a lot of teasing and a lot of laughing.

“He knew my dad from 40 years ago in Algeria as nomads.” Hsain explains.

Our pot of tea is finished and our little dish of nut-sized snacks is empty so we felt it would be a good time to leave.

We stand up, say our goodbyes, and then I’m huddled together in a group photo with the entire family. One thing I am reminded at the very end is, “Moroccans do not have poor people. Everyone has food to eat.” and this is true. There’s no reason to feel sorry for a nomad for the way that they live. If anything, I think it should be taken as a lesson conceptually as way to live.

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