Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Just Back from Kerry

...And boy are my legs tired.

After spending most of a week in De Kingdom* I'm back and ready to join the twenty-first century again. We visited some of the most beautiful natural, historical, and cultural scenery we've ever seen.

While planning the trip, I was surprised to hear how few Irish people have been out there. After the trip, I now know why. From Dublin, it would be much faster, much cheaper, and much more comfortable to take a quick RyanAir jump to Spain than to get all the way out to the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula on winding, one-lane, cliffside roads.

But I'm glad we did it. It was an unforgettable experience. Look for more about the trip here and over at Five Suitcases, where I plan to publish a few third-person sellable travel articles.

This week, I found out about a construction project closing one wing of Kilmainham Gaol, and a book update is in order. With all the other writing projects on my plate, I should be busy.

To those in Ireland who have yet to visit the southwest tip of your beautiful island, let me tell you, it's rural, it's out there, it's worth it.

Cory on Valentia Island, Co. Kerry
Lots of Water to Look at in Kerry

*Kerry sports fans regularly chant things like Up de Kingdom to support the Kerry clubs. A quick peek over at a super-reliable Boards.ie thread reveals that Kerry was an ancient kingdom that held strong long after the British occupied the rest of Ireland. If it was as rural and difficult to access then as it is today, I can understand why.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The In-Sight Far-Away Finish Line

Happy Valentine's Day, go see St. Vally's bones, spend time with loved ones platonic, romantic, and familial, all that jazz.

In addition to promoting and updating The Frugal Guide, I've been pouring a lot of time into my next book, Five Suitcases. Ten weeks after really hammering away at writing, I've come to a difficult spot.

The book is about 80% finished by sheer text bulk -- it's actually already longer than The Frugal Guide -- but I still have a few more chapters to write. The difficult part I've reached now is constructing this series of stories and chapters into one cohesive work, and it's a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

When putting the finishing touches on The Frugal Guide, I only had to make sure that my conventions were consistent throughout the book; that a new reader could read the book from e-cover to e-cover and conclude that they were all indeed written by the same person. It was mostly a matter of making sure I always used the same capitalization and naming choices (City Centre, no the), times and prices (24-hour time, 13.00), and abbreviations (Mon, Apr) throughout. The format of my reviews -- name it, review it, make a Bono joke, list the pertinent details -- didn't need much refinement.

Not the case with a creative nonfiction book like this. I've written most of the chapters like long form blog posts, sitting down over a few days, pounding out a few thousand words, and putting it aside to work on the next story. This has worked to get the bulk of my word goal written, to be sure, but now I have to start actually reading the chapters I wrote a month ago to make sure they match in tone with the ones I'm writing now. I'm already starting to notice some things that will need to be adjusted, and I'm sure there will be many more.

I also want references between chapters -- jokes linking situations I've been in and people I've met -- but to do that, I'll have to carefully construct them between chapters to make sure the comedy or tragedy has some punch and doesn't fall flat.

I think the best thing to do now would be to read everything I've written, the whole almost-finished book, taking copious notes as I go. This will help me construct the final few chapters and make the ones I've already written sharper, crisper, and more enjoyable for future readers.

...I hope it ends up being more fun than it sounds.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Media Blitz

Since returning from Morocco, I've made a conscious effort to promote the book and the podcast outside of my normal blog and social media channels. Holiday backups and the general nature of print publishing being what they are, my work is just now starting to pay off.

I did a Skype interview with a reporter for my hometown newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa. I hoped that the cache of a local boy going off and doing good things in a far-off, exotic land like Dublin would be appealing enough for a story. Combine that with the strong Irish connection to Dubuque and you have a really tantalizing scoop.

They printed my interview and a review of the book, but the full text of the article is subscription-only. Non-subscribers can read the snippet in the link below and take my word that it was a good review.

I also made contact with the editors of Dublin People, the free newspaper that had published a few of my own articles last year. Mine is the book of the week in the current edition, so you can check out a free copy of Northside People East, Northside People West, or Southside People at your local supermarket or newsagent OR check out page 21 of the PDF edition.

Another free community newspaper that has published my work before is the Southside-specific NewsFour. I spoke with one of the team about my book and a review is published in the Feb/Mar edition, also available in (Southside) libraries, cafes, and newsagents. As of this writing, the online edition is not yet available. Look for an update (you can follow me on Twitter and never miss an update, smile and wink!) if and when it is made available.

NewsFour also does an audio podcast to update the community about the contents of the current edition. The book got a mention and a plug from the editors and the host of the show on RICC radio. The podcast -- cued up to the book's plug -- is available on Soundcloud at this link.

Did someone say audio podcasts? Well, it just so happens that I published a new Frugal Guide: Dublin podcast today; this one an interview rather than a guided tour. In it, I visited with the director of the Contemporary Music Centre about the good work they do to support new music in Ireland and to provide free access and entertainment to the lucky citizens. The accompanying article and an embedded podcast player can be found over at Five Suitcases.

In addition to my personal Morocco story, I wrote and sold a more general-audience travel article about visiting Marrakesh specifically. I sold the article without my byline, but you can visit the published article here and decide if it sounds like my voice.

In addition to all this press, I've been keeping busy researching new attractions for the Frugal Guide eBook and working on my weekly writing quota for my next book. Look for more updates whenever I have time to surface for air.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

New Five Suitcases: A Week in Morocco

Cross-post of an article published on Five Suitcases, the new home for my travel-specific writing. Over Christmas, we spent a week in and around Marrakech, Morocco (thanks, Ryanair direct flights from Dublin!) seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, tasting the tastes, and... smelling the smells of North Africa.

It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time. Rather than draw one trip out into seven or eight Travel Monday posts as I would have done before, I made one long(ish) post with a condensed, less-personal, more tip-heavy article that looks more like a traditional travel article on a website or in one of those cheesy in-flight magazines.

Full text of the post is below, but feel free to visit the post over at Five Suitcases to like and share!


From the cold, dark, lonely reality that is expat Christmas in Dublin, we planned an exotic and exciting escape. An escape to a new continent, a warmer climate, and a country in which everything would be open on Christmas Day!

Surprisingly, Irish discount airline Ryanair operates direct to Marrakech Menara Airport twice weekly. This sets up well for the long weekend and the weeklong Moroccan adventure.

Morocco, we learned, is surprisingly large -- approximately the same size and shape as the US state of California -- with most of the population in the northern (non-Sahara) half of the country. A number of famous and mysterious cities will be on the travel planner's list: Hollywood-famous Casablanca, hat-famous Fes (Fez), Spain-in-sight Tangier, well-known express terminus Marrakech, and many others.

We decided to make Marrakech the hub of our week-long holiday, alternating days in the city with side trips to the mountains, the desert, and the coast.

From Marrakech Menara Airport, we took the municipal bus no. 19. The bus runs frequently and quickly directly into the center of the city -- the fortified medina. Aggressive taxi drivers compete for business at the airport exit and can be a sensible (if slightly more expensive) option to get to a specific address.

Marrakech, for tourists, is in two parts: the ancient walled medina and the Ville Nouvelle or New Town. The medina is exactly the picture of an Arabic trading post: tiny streets haphazardly laid out, endless souks -- narrow market streets with merchants and vendors selling all manner of food, household goods, spices, and souvenirs -- and the always-buzzing main plaza, Jemaa el Fna.

The square changes mood throughout the day. In the early morning, before the tourists are awake, locals stop for breakfast in small street cafes. These very French-influenced breakfasts are usually small breads or pastries served with Moroccan green tea with mint and lots of sugar. Merchants drive horse- or donkey-pulled carts into the square loaded with their goods and sometimes a small tent.

Later in the day, fortune-tellers, snakecharmers, and henna artists squeeze into the square with the merchants, orange juice and dried fruit stands, and crowds of tourists. At night, food grills and street musicians continue to happily separate tourists from their money.

Towering over the square (and the rest of the city) is the impressive minaret (steeple or tower) of the Koutoubia Mosque. The first mosque on this site was completed around 1157, and it serves as a constant reminder that Morocco is an Islamic country. Five times daily, the Koutoubia (and dozens of other mosques in the city) issues the call to prayer. Loudspeakers project these haunting chants from the tops of mosque minarets throughout the city. One can't help but feel decidedly not-in-Kansas-anymore while listening to these sacred-yet-exotic calls. These would be the soundtrack to most of our Moroccan adventure.

The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque Marrakech, Morocco
The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque

Beyond the media, the New Town looks decidedly European. Wide streets are lined with orange and olive trees and sidewalks. At large intersections, multi-lane roundabouts circle fountains as cars, scooters, and buses fight for positioning. The famous (but sadly not free) Majorelle Gardens offer a quiet rest in a beautiful and clean walled botanic garden. These gardens and the mansion inside were once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, the now-deceased French fashion designer. After his death in 2008, his ashes were scattered here in his favorite garden.

From Marrakech, agents offer many different day and overnight trips leaving conveniently from the city center. The Atlas Mountains just east of the city offer many different kinds of outdoor entertainment from impressive waterfalls to adventure hiking to skiing. Beyond the mountains is the sprawling Sahara Desert. We took a two-day, one-night trip over the mountains to the fringes of the desert for an unforgettable camping trip.

These tours, and there are dozens of them each day, visit a number of scenic and historic sites en route to the desert. The Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah has been used in a number of Hollywood movies, beginning with Lawrence of Arabia and continuing to a recent filming of Game of Thrones. This city of clay was originally built by settled-down nomads to do business with the trading caravans traveling through the river valley. The word Kasbah refers to a clay-walled building with security towers at each corner. This hillside stronghold has several of these buildings, forming a very easily-defensible fort.

Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah Morocco
Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah

Nearby, the ancient-modern city of Ouarzazate boasts more ancient clay-walled forts and buildings, all well-maintained for use in film and television. The city even boasts a functioning studio and a museum of movie memorabilia used for local on-location filming. Interesting that this city in the middle of the desert has carved out such a lucrative market to boost the local economy based on its Western-friendly attitude and Middle-Eastern look.

Most overnight desert trips include a short camel ride from the road to a small campsite. Hosts in traditional nomadic dress lead the camels to the circle of tents, serve a hot meal of tajine (a North African meat or vegetable stew made in a conical dish), and lead songs around around a campfire. The experience is quite touristy -- the tajine is discreetly brought to the campsite on a truck, and other identical campsites are set up not-quite-beyond eyesight or earshot -- but it's a great time nonetheless.

Camels Waking up at Sunrise, Zagora Morocco
Camels Waking up at Sunrise

After returning from the desert, we took a break from the crowds, noise, and smell of Marrakech with an overnight trip to the seaside fishing village of Essaouira. The city is served by Supratours, the coach system operated by Morocco's national railroad to connect cities without rail lines. The bus ride was surprisingly comfortable and hassle-free -- most of the passengers were Western tourists, as I imagine is the case for most Marrakech-Essaouira buses.

The coastal village was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. Fishers unload their catch at the busy port and shipyard, and much of it is sold immediately to local residents and restaurants. A row of fish grills just off the port allows visitors to choose a fresh fish to be filleted, grilled, and served immediately. Unlike Marrakech, motor vehicles are not allowed inside the walled medina of Essaouira, so locals and tourists can wander the (much, much cheaper) markets without fear of scooter and motorbike handlebars knocking unsuspecting elbows. A sunset walk on the well-kept beach made for a perfect end to a day in this relaxed resort town.

Essaouira, Morocco

With this trip, we checked off a number of firsts from our travel list. Despite its proximity to Europe and the recent French influence, this country was unlike anything we'd seen before. We experienced exciting highs in the stunning natural and cultural wonders and sometimes disheartening lows in the unchecked pollution and poverty of the inner cities. It was travel in a much more real sense; we weren't visiting a neutered Western Disneyland. Morocco has real teeth, and at the end of our trip, we felt gloriously bitten, chewed up, and spit out by this beautiful country.

Travel Tips

  1. Almost all prices in Morocco are negotiable and flexible. Savvy hagglers can get great deals in this already low-cost country. Novice negotiators beware: always agree on a price before accepting any kind of good or service, including taxi rides. Making this process even more frustrating is the lack of small coins in circulation. Many businesses are cash-only, so they never go to banks to get rolled coin for change. Almost everyone will try to get exact change from you, and some will simply refuse to make change at all. 
  2. If your itinerary is flexible, you can save money by booking side trips the night before they leave, as agents try desperately to fill empty spaces for next-day tours. Play hard-to-get for the best price. Keep in mind that this carries the risk of finding only sold-out or cancelled tours.
  3. Travel safely. Morocco is a developing country, and poverty and crime are widespread. Follow the same rules you would when traveling anywhere: use a money belt for most of your cash and important documents, don't flash too much money, and be wary of scammers, thieves, and pickpockets. Be even more cautious about asking for (or accepting) directions from locals. Most will be directions to a market or shop with a high-pressure sales pitch, and some will be to dangerous dead-end alleys. Try not to stray too far from well-known and well-lit areas at night.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, Planet Earth!

It should be a US (world?) holiday. The Monday after has long had one of the highest rates of sick days of the year. Productivity dips, churches are empty, stores close (Green Bay only), and every TV station NOT covering the game plans strategic marathons of shows aimed at the non-game crowd.

That's right, once again, the Super Bowl is upon us. And I'm stuck in Europe...

The game won't kick off until almost midnight local time, and will last AT LEAST an hour longer than a normal (already long) NFL game. It's gonna be a late night, but I'm dedicated to enjoying this one little bit of my American heritage to the last.

It really is impossible to compare Super Bowl Sunday to anything here in Ireland. Hurling and Gaelic football finals are great, to be sure. Rugby Six Nations championship? Exciting and thrilling of course, but the preamble and postgame is a bit deflating. World Cup? Yeah, it's big -- especially if your team is hanging in to the late stage of the tourney -- bit it's much less of a spectacle. That's right, I said it.

The Super Bowl is a big piñata-pop of all things American, the culmination of an entire autumn and winter of football fandom. Every high school season is long in the books, the college football bowl season has passed, and all American sporting eyes turn to the all-day coverage of the Greatest Game of the Year.

It falls at the perfect time. After the NFL season, America enters a sporting doldrums. Football is over, the baseball season is still months away, and sports networks struggle to find interesting (non-NASCAR) programming on weekends.

But.. Basketball! And ice hockey!

I know, basketball is still in full swing, and the college hoops season is really amping up as the conference standings fall into place in the buildup to the conference tourneys and the ever-loved March Madness championship tournament. The NBA is... the NBA. Professional basketball, a few nights a week. Those games that are always playing on mute at the local bar, with scores running into the triple digits and celebrities sitting courtside for their obligatory out-and-about shots. Compared to football? Yawn.

Ice hockey, enjoyed by a small but incredibly passionate fanbase, still occupies a second-class spot in the pro sports world. Just like the NBA, it suffers from a too-long season and bad television deals (outside of the home markets) and gets relegated to game-on-mute-at-the-one-bar-owned-by-that-guy-from-North-Dakota.

No friends, the Super Bowl is the LAST big game of 2014 -- even though it takes place a month into 2015. Like the traditional Chinese or the fiscal year, sports function by their own calendar not set down by the Romans (and later refined by monks) all those years ago. And much like the Western New Year celebration, Super Bowl Sunday is a big party held in the middle of winter, and the following day we wake up hungover, jaded, and looking ahead into a void of cold nothingness.

So enjoy, friends! However you celebrate (if you celebrate), do so safely and with as much America in your heart as you can fit. America is pretty big, much bigger than any human heart -- use caution. Even if you don't care one lick about that start-and-stop game where all the fat guys give each other head trauma, get yourself a watery American light lager, plug your nose, and release your inner North Dakotan. Get on YouTube tomorrow and watch as much of the halftime show as you can stomach, especially if there is a wardrobe malfunction -- but not if it happens to Steven Tyler.

And while you're watching the game, know that I will be sitting on an uncomfortable couch in our cold apartment in the middle of the night, full of nachos, quietly celebrating every sports fan's favorite holiday right there with you. God bless you, God bless football, and God bless America!