When my study abroad program told me in January that there would be an opportunity for students to go on an excursion to Morocco, I was quick to sign up, and I am glad that I did.
For the past five days, my life has revolved around the sun, rather than a clock or a set schedule.
From the moment my plane touched down in Fez, I knew that this experience would be a bizarre, yet worthwhile one. After clearing customs, I found my name on a sheet of crumpled white paper, and followed a man as he sped through the crowded parking lot and directed me to a dark van. I was relieved to find the rest of the Parisian students hidden behind the tinted windows.
The next morning, we explored the old medina of Fez, or the market, which was founded between 789 and 808 AD and is considered to be the largest car-free pedestrian area in the world.
Inside the medina, we visited carpet and spice stores before heading to a tannery, where we learned about the natural production of leather. We were all a little hesitant to walk through the front door, as we were being handed mint leaves and told to "use them like a gas mask." We quickly learned that the substance used to make white leather was none other than pigeon droppings, which, when baking under the Saharan sun, makes for one of the worst smells you could imagine.
We ended our day with a folklore show, where we were entranced by bellydancers, magicians and musicians, all while sipping more of the delicious Berber tea.
Now for the best part: the Sahara Desert.
We boarded a bus early Saturday morning and headed to Merzouga, a small town just on the edge of the Sahara, where we loaded into jeeps and dashed across the orange sand as the sun set behind the dunes. Unfortunately, recent sandstorms made for a mediocre sunset, but we were all very appreciative of the fact that we were watching the sunset in the desert.
We made it to our camp just before the last of the light disappeared from the sky and were greeted by dinner and live music.
After watching the sun rise, we all rushed across camp to find dozens of camels, ready to make their way into the sand dunes. We rode to the highest peak around and climbed to the top, which was no walk in the park, before rolling back down and taking our camels to an oasis where we all jumped into a freezing pool.
We made it back to the campsite before sunset, where we were greeted by local women who spread henna across our arms in intricate patterns and played the bongos with a few of the men who worked at the camp. After the sun set, they showed us one of the best places to stargaze.
Sitting in the sand, only 30km from Algeria, in the complete dark, the stars were breathtaking, even through the residual haze of the sand storms. At one point, someone actually waved their hand in front of my face because I was so fixated on the sky.
We headed back toward civilisation on Monday morning, stopping in the Atlas mountains to meet some of the monkeys that are notorious for playing with tourists. Not wanting to disturb the natural food chain, I instead offered a piece of yarn to one of the monkeys, which was obviously not okay, because the next thing I knew, he was swinging at me.
My time in Morocco will not soon be forgotten, and I hope to go back one day.
One of the best parts about living in Europe for a semi-extended period of time is the ease in which you can jump on a plane and go nearly anywhere for less than $100.
On the other hand, one of the worst parts about living in Europe for a semi-extended period of time is picking a place to go.
As Paris is a large city and is fairly centrally located, it's almost too easy to find a new adventure, which can be dangerous for someone with a tight budget, no matter how inexpensive the trip might be.
I knew coming into my semester in Paris that I would want to travel, so I saved accordingly, and I am so glad I did, because I have been able to visit so many great places and experience different cultures during my time here.
With Ireland, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands under my belt, I have already done my fair share of travel, and I am looking forward to my future expeditions, even if my bank account isn't.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am out of control, but I did book a flight to Iceland as I stood in line to board a plane to Amsterdam, so I'm walking a pretty thin line at this point. With less than a month left in Europe, I want to make sure I see as much as I can!
As a group of my friends and I sat on the Trocadero, using Oreos as spoons for a giant jar of peanut butter, we looked around and realised that we were members of the small group of individuals who were living in the moment.
As the sun sets, the Eiffel Tower glistens in a spectacle of lights before thousands of onlookers. For five minutes, she glows brilliantly, a true embodiment of the city's glamour.
We had failed to actually take time to visit the Trocadero, a tourist "must," before that moment, and we were disheartened to see an ocean of phones.
There were people who walked up, took a few photos, and left without ever actually letting their eyes settle on the stage before them, past the small screen of their phone.
The last of the daylight slipped from the air and the tower launched into her dazzling display as we watched on, indulging in the moment.
Now having lived in Paris for several weeks, I have started to realise how distracted and vain we are as a population.
Walking through areas that are ladened with tourists is nearly impossible, as everyone is more focused on taking a photo of themselves in front of the area, instead of taking the opportunity to marvel at the story of the place.
It goes to show that we are more obsessed with sharing our experiences than having an authentic experience, and I am trying to step away from living through a screen and live in the moments before me.
When one lives in France, a visit to the Loire Valley is a must-see.
The Loire Valley, settled in central France, stretches for nearly 200 miles along the Loire River. The area is known for its historic towns, wine and more than 300 castles (or "châteaux").
Early Saturday morning, the students in my program loaded into a bus headed for the Loire. The first castle we visited, Château de Chambord, was the inspiration for the castle in Beauty and the Beast.
The château features 365 fireplaces, a double-helix staircase, 426 rooms and a stable built to hold 1500 horses. And I thought my family's five-bedroom Parisian apartment was extravagant...
The second castle we visited was Château de Chenonceau, which is my favorite of all of the castles I have visited in France.
Constructed with smooth white stone and surrounded by a deep moat, Chenonceau looks like the classic Disney castle. The great hall, which extends over the Loire River from the back of the château, is entirely white and black marble, and absolutely stunning.
The last castle that we visited was Ambiose, which is where the tomb of Leonardo DiVinci is located. The château itself sits high above the surrounding town, overlooking the Loire River.
It was fun to be able to wander the giant castles, considering they're hundreds of years older than the United States and all have their own stories of invasion, adultery and luxury.