Jul 6, 2015

the scam artists of morocco

first of all, i hate to call this "art", but it's the term most used, so i'll just roll with it.

secondly, i know most people in morocco and in the world are good people, but when traveling to very touristic places, you will most likely have to deal with some level of tourist trap at some point, and it just so happens that in morocco (and some other arabic countries, i assume), this is the most common type you'll see.

with that said, there are thousands of articles and warnings about the scammers in morocco, but most of them are pretty vague, just warning you to beware of them, or saying "don't accept random help, as they might ask for money afterwards", or even suggesting how much to "tip" them when you fall for one, or deliberately decide to use one (i'd say some 10-20 dirham).. so i decided to be more specific, talking about the actual lines they might use, and how to deal with them..

how to spot scam artists
these guys are good. they're experts on what they're doing. they know exactly how to spot their target and how to lure them. trust me, you get distracted for a second and you might find yourself already knee deep in an uncomfortable situation.

the rule of thumb is simple: if someone just spontaneously out of the blue offers you information, most likely, it's one of them.

here are some things you might hear (remember in these situations you did NOT ask for any info):

- "hey, the tanneries? are you looking for the tanneries? they're that way."
they will be probably pointing to a side street where there are no tourists. you might be in one of the main streets, just going with the flow, but it sounds like a good idea to take a little shortcut and get to (fill the blank) before all those tourists, right? WRONG.
as soon as you take that turn, the scammer will be right there with you.. "here, come, i'll show you how to get there, no worries." - get rid of him immediately or he has you.
the idea here is that they will take you through the small streets to make you feel like you would never be able to go to wherever they're taking you without their help. but most likely, if you stayed in the main streets you would've gotten there way before anyway.
you can just follow the signs to most main attractions, or even just really go with the flow.

- "hey, where are you from?"
sounds very simple, but if you answer, they will say something in your native language (they know something in ALL major languages.. and many minor ones!), you'll laugh and be pleasantly surprised, and they won't leave your side until you practically have to physically shake them off. all they need is a hint of communication and this is their most used bait.

you might think, if you make one of those mistakes and end up being "forcefully guided" by them, that you can just tell them right away that you're not interested, or that you're not going to pay them, and then you're free, right? unfortunately, not really. not at all.

once you've responded to their first interaction, their goal is to calm you down and assure you that they're honest people, just helping you out. that's when they'll say "i'm not a guide, i'm an honest worker", "i'm just a student, i live right there", "i don't want your money, you think all moroccans are trying to take your money, but  we're good people too" (wouldn't you feel like an ass now?), and when you talk about how you're not planning to pay them, they might even pretend they're insulted, with "c'mon my friend, don't talk to me like that, i'm here trying to help and you come talking about money?" (yeah, definitely an ass!)... anyway, something along those lines, or a combination of them.

also, they might just walk ahead of you, every now and then pointing to some seemingly unimportant place, and then giving some (unsolicited) vague "not-on-the-guide-books" information. mostly inaccurate. if you've come this far and can't get rid of them, you might try completely ignoring them. but they won't give up easily.

when there's any fork on the road (so to speak), they will insist on pointing you to the "right" direction, which may or may not be correct. but they have nothing to lose. if you go their way, they count it as them guiding you and then you owe them. if you take the other way and that's the right one, they will follow you, get ahead of you again and then repeat the attempt. if you take the other way and it's a dead end, you'll come back a little embarrassed and take the other way, but at least you can say you were not following them.

in this situation, him and/or other fellows (they help each other) might say that "this street is closed, you have to go there", "this is a dead end", or even try to block your way and say "you can't go through here". if this is happening right when they're trying to persuade you to follow them, there's a pretty good chance that's the way you should go. worked with me like 70% of the times! every now and then it will be a dead end, but hey, you tried!


dealing with scammers
so what can you do to avoid this situation? well, it might sound harsh, but my first and most important recommendation is don't interact with them. if they say "good morning" or "good afternoon", say it back, and end it there. because if they are scammers, the next thing they'll ask is "where are you from?", or "are you looking for a restaurant?", or "are you trying to find the mosque?", and now you know what happens from there.

so right out of the gate (no pun intended), the way to avoid them is not to make eye contact, show them the palm of your hand and, if you want to talk to them, you say a firm "NO!", and keep walking. no more exchange of words. they might insist for a little bit, but if you stay your course, you'll be free, at least until the next one comes around.

they might take offense (of pretend to) and start saying you're a bad person, or that you don't like moroccans, etc. ignore it. you didn't do anything wrong. just think like this: if you're in your city, you see a confused tourist, you offer help and they ignore it, would you follow them and insist for 15 minutes until they accept your help, or just shrug your shoulders and let them go?

exactly.

some articles say "don't look lost" and "don't ask for directions". well, the medina in fes has over nine thousand streets. try not to look lost there. yeah, it's pretty impossible... i recommend you stick to the main busy streets, they will take you to most of the places you want to see anyway, and also, as i've mentioned before, there are signs indicating where most of the important sights are.. it might take a while, but you will get there..

i want to clarify that i did not feel threatened at any moment. it's a hassle and it's uncomfortable, but i think in the vast majority of the cases, it ends there. of course, they're super friendly at first, and they might get a bit cranky when you shoo them away, but it's when it's time to close the deal and get your money that they might sound a little more intense. and most tourists in that situation will feel intimidated and drop some coin, but i'm not in any way stating that you're in danger by dealing with them in any other way. i'm also not saying that you're not. i honestly don't have this knowledge.

and this is it, my little (long) guide to scammers in morocco. i'm sure it applies to many other countries, and possibly cultures, so i hope some first time travelers to these places will find this article and make use of it.. and i'd love to get some feedback on it as well..

safe travels!

Jun 27, 2015

morocco

our little three-day trip to fes was full of interesting experiences. it was maja's first time out of europe, and it was kind of eye opening even for me to see the cultural shock she suffered..




right out of the airport, we already saw how many (most?) of the locals - especially the ones working in any commerce or tourist related activity - help each other by lying and manipulating the less informed tourists. we asked for directions to the bus stop that would take us to the city, and we were immediately told that "the only bus to the city leaves from right here". it was a 20 dirham (~2€) bus, but we knew there was another "local" bus for 4 dirham (bus 16). we asked some more people and followed the locals to the outer part of the parking lot and found the stop.

we got off at the central train station, and there we made our first bad decision... without a map or any information, we thought it would be a good idea to walk to the hostel, thinking it wouldn't be so hard or far, and we could get to see something interesting.. well, we were VERY wrong.

we asked for directions about thousand times (mostly with our very poor french, as most locals don't speak english), and nobody was very sure where we wanted to go.. we were lucky to find the place after around one hour, and actually we were never walking in circles or going the wrong direction.. we were only super confused all the time (as were the locals giving us directions).. also, bear in mind that it was around 35 degrees and we had our backpacks!

alright, so far it all seems negative, so i'm going to change the vibe.. the hostel was pretty awesome.. the staff was super friendly and attentive, the main common room was beautifully decorated and a great place to socialize, and the guests were also pretty cool.. not to mention the food, that was delicious and included in the price.. the local bread, the freshly squeezed orange juice.. and everyone's fave: the harira soup. also, it was ramadan, so they offered two breakfasts, one in the morning for the non-muslims, and another one at 7:30pm, when the muslims had their breakfast (which for us was dinner)..


breakfast @ the hostel

there's a lot of different information on ramadan, but the basics are that they can't eat, drink, have sex, wear make up and other things, from 3am (before the first prayer) until around 7:45pm (before the last prayer).. people give various reasons for why they do this, but the one i thought was interesting and made sense is that this way they know how the more unfortunate people in the world feel.. also, during ramadan they are more motivated to help those actual more unfortunate people.. they will give them food, even invite them for breakfast (the one in the evening)..

also, pretty interesting is that after the last prayer and after they eat, drink and do all they can't do during the day, the streets suddenly become alive, with people, live music, everybody walking around, people watching, "partying"... specially in the new city, as the medina (the old city) gets pretty ghostly..

back to maja's cultural shock.. after just a short walk around the medina the day we arrived, she quickly fell for literally the first scam artist that approached us.. from the first minute i had a bad feeling about it, and i warned her many times, but her naiveté and lack of experience took the best of her, and since i didn't feel like we were in danger, i let her learn the lesson... i'll have a post exclusively dedicated to the scam artists, so i'll keep the details for later.. anyway, by the end of the first day, she was pretty overwhelmed with everything, and i thought that if we just went with the plans to go sightseeing around the medina the next day, she wouldn't be able to enjoy it at all, so when she asked if we could go on an organized day trip to the middle atlas mountains with a couple of other hostel guests, i immediately accepted it..

to be honest, the trip was pretty much nothing like what the brochure photos sold. still, it was a nice day and a much needed break from that chaotic city.. actually, i'd say more of way to dip our toes and ease into the culture than a break, after all, we had only been there half a day..

first stop was the tiny lake aoua... i can barely find it on google.. it was just a body of water on the way to the ain vitel waterfalls, which was the reason we decided to take this tour, and it was exactly the one that was simply a completely different place from the one on the brochure.. oh well, we only realized it when we went back to the hostel..

lake aoua

ain vitel waterfalls. not like the pictures we had seen!

at every stop we took, immediately men and/or kids with horses or donkeys would swarm around us trying to sell a ride, and as it is usual there, no matter how many times we politely said no, they'd insist until we ignored them, then they'd move on to the next person (and then the next guy with a horse would come to us).. kinda distracting from the natural experience, but i guess it's part of the whole package!

donkey and horse rides offered at every stop

then we finally got to the highlight of the tour, the barbary macaques (monkeys) of the cèdre gouraud (or aballou akhatar) forest, a cedar forest.. they were very much used to the tourists feeding them, and while they were not as "aggressive" as the ones in the monkey forest of bali (as in they didn't jump on your head and grabbed your stuff), they were still pretty smart and fast to distract/scare and take whole bags of bread or peanuts from the people.. there was also this gigantic 900 year-old, 42-meter cedar tree.. impressive.




a 900 year old cedar tree
after that, a quick stop in azrou to walk around and have lunch, and then head back to fes, rest, dinner with the hostel people, then hang out at a shisha bar with a couchsurfer and other travelers, have a look at the beautiful activity post-fasting and finally, bed time.

the next day, our last, a little bit more immersed in the culture, we went to check the usual interesting spots around the medina.. there's a ton of material about what to see there, but most of them recommend just getting lost, and though i agree that's best, i'd suggest one to try not to venture too far from the few main streets.. not because it's dangerous, but because you might end up waking in circles for hours without seeing absolutely nothing of interest.

another tip i can give is to start the day going to the tanneries (the leather dyeing pits) early in the morning, before the streets get crowded and the smell is too strong to stand.. then you can work your way back to the bab boujloud (the main entrance gate, on the other side of the medina), stopping for shopping and checking out the other attractions, like the qarawiyyin university (it was closed when we walked by it, and later we couldn't find it again) and the medersas (a type of islamic school).

close up view of the tanneries (the white ones were having their colors changed)
tanneries and the surrounding old town
bab boujloud, susprisingly empty (you can't see the ground when it's crowded)
also, there are red, brown and green signs to indicate where some of the important sights are, but beware, they're not necessarily useful.. we followed the signs to the sbil gardens maybe for an hour all over, up and down the medina, until we were out of it and literally 5 minutes away from where we had started, and after we walked some more 10 minutes, we found it. closed!

one more thing.. like in so many cities before, thousands of stray cats. everywhere!




like i said, it was an interesting trip, with highs and lows.. generally speaking, the people are very friendly (some with bad intentions, but you learn to spot those and deal with them pretty quickly), the culture is interesting, the food is amazing and the history is outstanding. also, the prices are fairly low for pretty much everything (expect to haggle a lot though, it's part of the culture).

past this first shock, i hope to be able to visit more arabic countries with maja, i believe they have a lot to offer, and you just need to manage your expectations, and also maybe get off the beaten path. we, for example, are not big fans of crowded cities, we prefer nature, so maybe next time we'll focus on the natural aspects and then see the city more superficially..

we'll see... now is time to focus on the move to AUSTRALIA!

Jan 26, 2015

rome

rome - the eternal city, for reasons i'm not motivated enough to find out.. an impromptu trip booked by my gf maja only a couple of weeks in advance, and with very little research done (or needed)..

we arrived on a cold sunday afternoon and took the train to the calm neighborhood of vitinia, were our CS hostess was waiting for us.. we had some tea and cookies, then she drove us to what she thought were good spots that maybe we wouldn't know about if not recommended by a local.. and boy, was she right!

we first went to the basilica di san paolo fueri le mura (basilica of saint paul outside the walls), one of four main papal basilicas in rome. it's a huge 4th century church, with a beautiful garden outside and pretty a impressive interior..

the curious thing for me, in every church there, were the innumerous offering/donation boxes. they're just everywhere - next to anything that might draw your attention, anywhere you must pass by to get to other areas, and of course, even in the bathrooms.. so much ostentation and grandeur contrasted with shameless begging..  i guess even the richest and most powerful institution in history of mankind needs some loose change tossed at them sometimes, right?

then we went to get a glimpse of one of the best panoramic views of the city from gianicolo hills and then parco savello, mostly known as the orange garden, and right next to it, a pretty curious "secret"..  there is a keyhole, and if you look through it, all you can see is saint peter's basilica far in the distance (actually across 3 states: italy, malta and vatican), framed perfectly by the bushes of the gardens of at piazza dei cavallieri di malta..

it was time to get very italian.. so we went to la romana, a gelateria with delicious and fair priced ice cream, and from there, back to vitina to get some suppli (kind of a fried rice croquette with cheese inside), bruschetta and, of course, pizza!

then here's the thing.. people say you can't really explore all of rome by foot, or even most of it.. we proved this wrong.. of course, there are some scattered spots you probably can only get by public transportation or car, but i'd say 95% of what most people see there are relatively easily accessed by foot..

we planned to divide the city in areas and do a bit each day, but we saw pretty much everything except the vatican city and some less known areas on the first day, walking! in a nutshell: basilica di santa maria maggiore, arco di constantino, palatino (palatine hills),  foro romano (the roman forum), piazza campidoglio, colosseo, piazza venezia, campo dei fiori, piazza navona, trinità dei monti/piazza spagna (the spanish steps), piazza del popolo and finally fontana di trevi , dry and closed, mostly covered by scaffolding, but still crowded with people lining up to walk over a bridge to have a quick close-up view. all before it even got dark..

quick tip: when going to the colosseo, you get a ticket that also includes entrance to palatino and foro romano. buy them at palatino, as it's the least known of the three places and there is no line, while specially in the colosseo, you might have to wait for over an hour just to get the ticket.. or buy them online paying a couple of bucks more..

we had already moved to a very centric hostel, and at night there was a free sangria "party" where we hung out with our roommates and met some other travelers (mostly a whole bunch of brazilians.. surprise surprise!)

up at 6:30 and out by 7:30 to beat the long lines in the vatican, we decided instead of walking, to take the bus 64 from termini (the the central station).. this bus is known as pickpocket express, and it's easy to figure out why.. it stops at many of the main touristic attractions, and full of distracted (and slightly stupid, i must say) tourists, it's a banquet of opportunities for well trained thieves to feast on..

another curious thing is that apparently nobody pays for bus rides there.. you can get in through any of the three doors, and you're supposed to validate your ticket once you're in, but we didn't see a single person do so on the few bus rides we took.. and we heard there's very little enforcement.. so.. you know..  just sayin'..

we managed to get into an almost empty saint peter's basilica, which interestingly enough, didn't really impress us as much as we expected.. maybe going to saint paul's before had something to do with it.. there, again, an absurd number of donation boxes.. shame on you, catholic church!

the weather was far from good at this time.. and after checking out the nativity scene in the middle of saint peter's square, the rain got heavier and we decided to get some "holy" coffee and cornetto (croissants) right there at the vatican until it gave us a break..

when it did, we had a look at the castel sant'angelo (castle of the holy angel) and its beautiful bridge decorated with a bunch of angel statues, and next to it, the imponent palazzo di giustizia (palace of justice), both on the margins of fiume tevere (the river tiber)..

the only main spot left to see was the pantheon.. another one that didn't impress us much.. it's interesting to see the gigantic dome with the big hole in the middle (the oculus), but other than that, not much to see, really.. oh yeah, donation boxes!

we passed by the largo di torre argentina and piazza della repubblica before going to the hostel to rest our legs and take a nap.. in the evening, we headed out to the bohemian neighborhood of san lorenzo, a lively and alternative area dotted with bars and restaurants with good food and good prices.. had dinner, then did some night time sightseeing: piazza barberini (really nothing there), piazza spagna, piazza de pietra, and finally the colosseo again..

next day was also rainy, but we managed to walk to isola tiberina (tiber island), one of the two islands in the tiber river, passing again by the colosseo and circo massimo (an ancient chariot racing stadium), then to trastevere neighborhood and santa maria in  trastevere church..

when the rain started to pour, we decided it was time to go to the hostel, get our stuff and pay an overpriced bus to go to the airport, since the only other option was the far more overpriced train..

in conclusion, rome was much cooler than i expected.. even though it's mostly religious related monuments, the historical relevance of this city is undeniable, the food is just what you'd imagine, and the people we met were the icing on the cake.. a little better weather would've been a bonus, but really, it wasn't too limiting, so i won't even complain..

PIZZA! PASTA! PEPERONCINO! PRINCIPESSA! MARIO! PREGO! TORTELLINI! RAGAZZA! ALLORA! POPOLO! FIUMICINO! MUZZARELLA! BAMBINO! DOMANI! CAPUCCINO! GRAZIE! SIGNORE! BUON GIORNO! CAZZO!

ciao!

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view from the orange garden

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the roman forum, i guess part of palatine hill and a bit of the colosseo far back

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the vittorio emanuele II monument, by piazza venezia

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the palace of justice

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need i say?

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the catholic church, accepting your donations for 2 millenia! bravo!

May 7, 2014

glasgow, scotland

april '14, possibly my last trip (to a new country anyway) before.. oh well, i won't talk about it yet, but soon it will be all over the place! anyway, just in time to reach number 40 country on my list, and the choice was scotland.

"why?", you ask? simple: the awesome band walk of the earth was playing an european tour, and they weren't coming to spain, so i was checking where i could see them.. there were great places like berlin, amsterdam, dublin, etc, but i thought it was a good excuse to visit glasgow and get to know another place instead of visiting my favorites again..

so i flew into prestwick airport and was picked up by a scottish i had met just a week before in barcelona, when he was kind enough to offer me a place to crash (no official couchsurfing needed this time).. it was a friday night and the weather was as expected: cold and rainy.

saturday morning wasn't looking great, but it wasn't terrible either, so i took a bus to town and started exploring merchant city, where the city's original medieval core is. there i started with the beautiful city chambers in saint george square, then took a quick walk to the cathedral of saint mungo (known simply as glasgow cathedral).

the gothic cathedral was beautiful, but then i almost accidentally found the necropolis, easily the place i liked the most. it's a victorian cemetery established in 1832, on top of a hill with good views of the city, with around 3500 monuments and where 50 thousand people are buried, including virtually all the important glaswegian of that wealthy period.

if the morning was gray, by the time i was done with the necropolis, the sun was shining bright, so i went for a little more sightseeing.. checked out the GoMA (gallery of modern art) and then the pedestrianized buchanan and sauchiehall streets, the commercial center crowded with tourists and prestigious stores, but also with many amazing street musicians playing all sorts of music, from rock and folk to alternative and celtic.

after resting a bit, it was time for the concert.. i had very high expectations and i know this can be a bad thing, but they kicked serious ass and really delivered, even though it was a small venue (packed full, sold out in days)!

the venue was in west end, the bohemian district (it's where the glasgow university is), so after the show i went to meet my friend and his girlfriend at the gumbo bar, where they had the best bar live music i've ever seen in my life.. i didn't get the name of the band, but they were some older dudes playing some mean blues and rock & roll like there's no tomorrow.. couples of beers, then home.

i still had some time on sunday, but the weather was kinda back to the normal, gray and cold, so i walked a bit around the center, then saw this that i call an "old-ugly-ladies-parade-thingy", which i have no idea what it was, but it entertained me for some 10 minutes.. then train to the airport and back to my beautiful barcelona..

glasgow was easy.. beautiful, surprisingly good weather, fun people and great music.. i was there for 36 hours and i couldn't have asked for more.. and the next one... well, wait and see!

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 the city chambers

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necropolis

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a 400 year old tomb

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beautiful street art

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walk off the earth doing their famous thingy

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the "old-ugly-ladies-parade thingy"

Jan 3, 2014

summer trip 2013 - the video

it took me a while, but here it is!

Summer Trip 2013 from lutty moreira on Vimeo.

Oct 4, 2013

summer trip 2013 - part 5/5

[continued from here]

i thought i was gonna get to helsinki and take at least a nap before doing anything else, but after my friend picked me up, we went straight for a walk, then hung out at kaivopuisto park, with a nice view of the sea, and also the ateljee baari on the 14th floor of hotel torni, with a beautiful panoramic view of downtown..

finally rested, i went to the city and saw the lutheran cathedral (tuomiokirko) – a white church, and not too far from it, the uspenski cathedral (uspenskin katedraali) – a red, russian orthodox church, the market square, the finlandia hall, the olympic stadium and the music hall.. in the evening we went to a couchsurfing meeting with some friends, met some cool people, went to a bar and finally home..

and then i got there, the last day of my summer trip.. i went to the very pleasant seuasaari island (not before getting a little lost in the woods) and spent the early afternoon there hiking, enjoying nature and checking out some authentic old finnish houses, stables, churches, boat houses, storages, etc..

at night i went to my friend's cousin's farewell party, mostly with finnish people, and for the second time in 3 days, i didn't sleep before heading to the airport to fly back home to barcelona (with a 30 minute stop in stockholm first).. there's no better excuse for not sleeping than enjoying your last night somewhere!

first thing i wrote on facebook after getting home was "home again, after 24 days and 8 countries, with an empty wallet, a tired body and most importantly, a renewed soul!", and that's a very short version of this whole story you just read..

this time i took my big camera, but i focused on shooting videos and not so many photos. i'll get to the editing as soon as i get a computer upgrade, because mine can't take the load anymore..

more and more, what i take from the experience of traveling are the awesome stories and the great memories i build with the people i meet and connect to. cities are beautiful, cultures are fascinating, nature is powerful,  but people are the core of it all. and you might've noticed how many times i mentioned couchsurfing.. it's my main tool..

i can't thank enough the old friends i met and the new ones i made, not only on this trip, but on all the others before it.. i won't stop traveling until i absolutely have to (and i don't see why i would), but if/when it happens, i'll be glad to know i have my mark in people's lives all over the world, and most importantly, they all have their marks in my life, and that's invaluable.

Sep 30, 2013

summer trip 2013 - part 4/5

[continued from here]

like all the other cities in this region, riga has a town hall, some important churches and some monuments.. and i get easily tired of these things.. i tried meeting a CSer, but ended up lost and with a dead phone.. so mid afternoon i got my things, found myself a hostel and went for a nap..

at night i met another CSer and checked out the nightlife, like some cool rock bars and a traditional folk bar recommended by a friend from there, called ala pagrabs, which is pretty awesome (we were almost fooled by the humble entrance!).. we also found out that the clubs there are very segmented and strict about their public, mainly in 3 'categories': latvians, russians and tourists..

before taking a bus to estonia the next afternoon, i decided to go visit jūrmala, just 30 minutes by train from riga, where supposedly the longest beach on the northern side of europe is situated. i don't know if it's the longest, but it's dozens of kilometers of fine sand, with a calm sea where you can walk tens of meters into and the water won't even reach your waist..

if on one side there's the beach, on the other there's river lielupe, where you can see people going on ferry tours, fishing, swimming or just hanging out and enjoying the relaxing atmosphere.. the latter being my choice..

i got to tallinn pretty late, almost midnight, and i was welcomed by my CS host and her friend in the new city center, then we went to a park next to vabaduse väljak (freedom square), had some beers and headed home, which was 30 minutes out of the city..

after a lazy morning, we went to the medieval old town, had (again) some beers at snelli park, then climbed toompea hill to see beautiful panoramic views of the old city.. in the evening we were tired, but had some drinks and got on a bus to meet some people in the city, but then…

on our way, we started talking to some guys on the bus, and when they were leaving they said they were going to this university party.. we all spontaneously jumped off the bus "just to check it out".. turns out it was an awesome, huge freshman party, with one of the most famous estonian hip hop groups, a-rühm (not that i care), and we had a freaking blast!

we deserved nothing but doing nothing after the crazy night we pulled off, so we stayed home, watched lion king (yeah, that was the vibe), and at night we had dinner at a friend's place in the city, then went to some more chill bars, and came home around 5 in the morning, where i managed to sleep for 20 minutes before leaving again to take my ferry to my last destination: finland.

[continues here]