Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Our one and only port in Africa; Morocco is an amazing blend of city, slum, culture and religion. It took a grand total of about 27 minutes for me to fall in love with this port. I was so shocked by how different it is from all the other ports and how it was a genuine foreign country to me. The other places had their moments too, especially Istanbul, but Morocco was just so much more different. It wasn’t a place you could feasibly go on a tropical vacation for a week like the other ports.

Anyway, here’s why I fell in love with Casablanca and Marrakesh: On the first day, me and a couple friends just walked around downtown Casablanca. We found a little bazaar area and checked out the awesome drums, outfits, etc. they had first. So, remember the whole “man this place has crazy awesome places to shop and barter” from my Istanbul? Well, the Wal-Mart that is Morocco makes Turkey look like the Container Store. Bad simile aside, the products, prices and ability we had to bargain in Morocco blew every other country out of the water.

So, after the bazaar, we met a couple locals who brought us to their rug shop and did the typical sales pitch where they serve tea and sweet talk us into trying to buy their 1,000 dirham rugs. Not happening. But they were really cool guys and cordially invited us to “get high like bird” with them later that night. Okay then. The rest of the day consisted of visiting the huge mosque in Casablanca that is brand new and absolutely gorgeous, then heading back to the ship for the night to pack for Marrakesh in the morning!

But, before we could do that, my roommate convinced me to go back to the mosque later that night to see the evening prayer for Ramadan. I could not be happier that I went. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. They all lined up facing Mecca and the overflow outside the mosque was enormous. Thousands upon thousands of people crowded around and praying in unison to this booming, beautiful prayer. Also, while we were waiting, a bunch of little local kids came and started messing with us and taking pictures with us. They absolutely love taking pictures and seeing pictures of themselves, which got our group to thinking that a Polaroid camera (if they were still being made) would be a perfect gift for a child in another country.

The next morning I went alone for a bit downtown in Casablanca, to buy train tickets for Marrakesh and just explore on my own for the first time on the trip. It was actually really rewarding having no distractions and doing whatever I wanted in such a foreign place. I had to run across streets, dodge traffic and find my way around unfamiliar streets. I had two locals approach me at one point when I was waiting to cross the street and was a bit nervous until they asked in French if I was American. When I said “oui,” they shook my hand, smiled and said “Welcome!” in a thickly-accented excitement.

Another thing I forgot to mention about Morocco is that it was the first time I got to use a language I learned in school. The primary language there is Arabic, but there is also a huge presence of French because of the former colonizing of the region by France. That was really fun for me trying to converse with the people of Morocco (and I’ll admit, I was shaky at first but got pretty comfortable with it again by the end!). On the train that night, I spoke enough French to accept an invitation to share an authentic Ramadan meal with two gentlemen in our cabin, thank them and find out where they were from.

That night, we got to our ghetto little riad (hostel, basically…) and immediately went to check out the medina/main square of Marrakesh. It was really cool at night – there were monkeys, cobra charmers, tons of drum circles and all sorts of cool street shows going on.

The second day in Marrakesh, we went back to the main square and shopped around a little bit, before grabbing a horse and buggy and taking it out to La Palmerie, (palm groves, basically) and going on a 30-minute camel trek! It was very hot, loud and smelly, but it was so much fun and such a cool experience! My camel’s name was LuLu and our guide was very friendly despite the language barrier. That night, we had drinks on the outdoor terrace of our riad (the place was nice, but the area was scary…unfortunately, we took a better price to sacrifice A/C in our riad. It was about 100 degrees every night in our room! And at least 105 outside!) before going back to the square and meeting some friends to go out to a club. The club we ended up at is closed during Ramadan, but the bar was still open and it was an awesome place! Maybe you’ve heard of Pacha? It’s supposedly the 2nd-largest club in all of Africa!

On our third day in Marrakesh, we signed up for a day trip through the owner of our riad that took us to a Berber village (the indigenous population in Morocco are called Berbers) in the Atlas Mountains. We went on a waterfall hike and spent the day wandering around the village. It was a really incredible experience for our last day in any port on Semester at Sea. We met a couple from Spain and another from England who were all very nice and came on the trip with us. Also, it was our last night – so we tried to do it big, went back to Pacha, drank in the medina, etc.

Overall, Morocco was an absolutely perfect ending (in fact, in my English class the next day when my professor had us go around the room and say two words to describe the port of Casablanca, my choice was “perfect, ending”) to an unforgettable, life-changing trip. It was one of my favorites, if not the favorite port for me on this trip and I really cannot wait to come back and explore it more in depth.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


You know you’re in a cool place, when literally the first thing you hear upon stepping off the ship in port is a call to prayer from the mosque. I knew immediately that Istanbul would be nothing like the other ports. The singing of the prayer was beautiful and strangely mystic. It was cool to think that it was a completely normal occurrence for the Muslim Turks. On the first day, I had an FDP to go to a poetry reading for my English classes. British poet John Ash, American Mel Kenne and Turkish Gonca Ozmen (all living in Istanbul now) read and discussed their poems.

Now, I’ve been to tons of poetry readings at this point in my life, but this one was special because of the place we were in and because Ozmen read hers in Turkish and then had them translated into English. Overall, it was a really cool experience and even inspired my next English assignment. After the FDP, I went back to the ship and met a group of friends to go to a nearby hookah lounge. We found a cool place that had a bunch of beanbags surrounding small tables on a lawn outside a restaurant. We all stayed there and talked and drank for a few hours before calling it a night. But one of the coolest parts of the whole night was when the last call to prayer came on while we were sitting in the middle of this local establishment. Everyone went completely silent and we all listened to the prayer ring out over the sky.

On the second day, I got my first taste of the marvelous monstrosity that is the Grand Bazaar. My mom and sister would go absolutely crazy in this place. It’s almost too difficult to describe…just a gigantic maze of shops selling anything from spices to lamps to jewelry to Nike shoes. We got lost in the Bazaar for hours and came out with a few cool items to bring home. Overall that place has to be experienced more than anything but I can tell you that with the female Dorn negotiating abilities, they might have owned the place by the end of the day.

The third day in Istanbul was especially cool, because I spent the afternoon in ASIA! Because of that little side-trek, I technically hit four different continents on this voyage! I love being able to say that! We took a ferry across the strait to the Asian side of Istanbul, which really wasn’t much different than the European side. Some architecture reflected it a bit, but nothing huge stood out. We walked and checked out some more shops before heading up the hill and more into town once we got there. Once in the main shopping area, we got some lunch and did a little shopping before hitting up a really cool record store on the way back.

Our last day in Istanbul was spent again at the Bazaar for a while (I got a rug!) and then celebrating the first night of Ramadan by servicing the local liquor stores and clubs all night. Overall, Istanbul was an amazing experience and I really cannot wait to come back here and explore it for a longer period of time. Anyone who hasn’t been to Istanbul needs to include that in any European travel plans they may make. It really was an incredible place!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Bulgaria was the forgotten port for most people on our ship. To me, it was always just “the port that replaced Egypt.” We were originally scheduled to go to Alexandria in Egypt before the political unrest there made it impossible. So, it’s safe to say I had low expectations for Varna, Bulgaria. Maybe it’s because I didn’t cram a bunch of plans into the three days we had there, or maybe I’m a patient person, but I actually loved Bulgaria.

On the first day, I went on an FDP to visit a Bulgarian village about a half hour north of the port. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – we were the first people to come visit this village, so they really pulled out all the stops for us. We met what seemed like the entire local population of the place, took a walking tour of the school, church, some homes, the distillery (their brandy is a BIT stronger than ours…) and the barrel-maker’s shop.

We also got a delicious, buffet-style lunch with a Bulgarian song and dance performance. We met a beat boxer who was ridiculously talented and hoped to place third in this year’s annual competition to crown the best beat boxer in the Balkans. The kids in the village were especially memorable; they all loved getting their pictures taken and when one girl in our group busted out the bubbles, they went crazy! It was so fun interacting with the kind people there and really living in their world for a day. If I had the means of getting back there another day, I definitely would have!

On the second day, we met a few Bulgarian girls who kept staring in our cabin window as Tim, Ryan and I were hanging out. Apparently, ours was the biggest ship they had ever seen and that’s why curious Bulgarians would keep wandering past and taking pictures all day. Later that night, we went out to the clubs on the beach (the whole beach walk by our ship was full of bars and nightclubs) and met a local guy who rapped for us, and I ended my night overlooking the beach and the town from the top of a nearby hotel on a failed mission to find a swimming pool.

The last full day was filled with a lot of beach recovery time, a little more clubbing and meeting another cool local. Before we left on debarkation day, I grabbed some cool souvenirs and ate at a pirate-ship themed restaurant near the port called Mr. Baba’s. A word to the wise: if you don’t want to spend the night going in and out of the ship bathroom, then DON’T order the “Cannibal Platter” at that place…

Overall, I was very happy with our trip to Varna. I could definitely go back, especially to the village and to see a few more touristy places that I missed. On to Istanbul next…I can’t wait! It should be the most unique of our ports.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Athens confounded me. We almost switched our itinerary to avoid Greece due to the “riots.” And I heard that the port in itself was nothing special. I imagined a lot of old Greek ruins and hills covered with blue-roofed villas. What I got in Athens instead was a completely normal big city. The first day, a few friends and I took a cab to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon. We got there around sunset and got some awesome views; the place definitely lives up to its reputation as a must-see destination.

After seeing the Acropolis and wandering around downtown Athens for a couple hours, I couldn’t help myself. We found out about a nearby outdoor movie theater playing Harry Potter 7, part 2 in English. The theater was serving beer and wine and was in an outdoor courtyard. I will spare you the movie review, because that’s not why I’m on this trip, but I will just ask where you saw HP7 this summer?

The next morning, I got on an early ferry to the island of Mykonos. Five other guys and I had rented a room in a hotel around May. When we got there, the owner at the reception desk found our reservation and looked up at my friend Will who organized the whole thing and said in broken English “ooh you have the BEST one!” Well…she wasn’t kidding! For 58 euro each, we had two nights and three days in Mykonos in a 2-story room with two separate balconies right next to the hotel pool, overlooking beaches and harbors and more beautiful white Greek buildings in the distance.

Our first day in Mykonos, we walked along the coastline until we got to Paradise Beach. That place is essentially a club 24/7 and was a ton of fun until we went back to the hotel around midnight. The second day, we met up with some friends who had an amazing villa right above Super Paradise Beach (yes, that’s different than plain old Paradise Beach). It also had a really cool club and a nice beach to its name.

On the last day, we had to pack up and go back toward the airport to get back to Athens. But to kill time before the flight, we walked around the little downtown area which was absolutely amazing. Cobblestone streets, tiny alleyways, tons of shops and lots of locals filled our day, as well as a few more delicious gyro meals. Those gyros are definitely the best local food I’ve had on this trip so far!

We got back to the port later that night and tore up a local karaoke bar (and we found a cool hole-in-the-wall place called Bar Kit Kat). That turned out to be our last hurrah in Greece, since everyone used the first half of debarkation day to recover from the previous four. All in all, Greece was really cool. Especially the time spent in Mykonos. I’ll definitely be going back there to hit up Santorini and spend some more time in Athens!