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When I called Amtrak’s customer service to inquire about their Kosher meal options and whether or not I could request for them, the nice lady cheerfully informed me that it was indeed possible and that she’d be glad to assist me. “Just let me know what you would like to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, okay?” she said, patiently reciting every single item available on the menu. “Oh, there’s no need for that,” I interrupted her, “I already know what to order.” There was a three-second pause, after which she promptly resumed reading out the entire menu to me.

I waited for the lady to finish reading the menu, told her what passenger number one (me) and passenger number two (Masood) wanted for each meal, and waited some more as she typed in our selections. Fifteen minutes later, her computer screen apparently froze so she couldn’t proceed with our requests. Thirty minutes later I was finally told, with profuse apologies, that she couldn’t process my request due to an error in their system.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all included in the sleeper tickets, but not for coach.

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Our Superliner Bedroom accommodation is inclusive of meals, juice and coffee. Meals on board are white-tableclothed affairs, a sit down service with a waiter; however, these days food is served on plastic replicas of Amtrak’s former china.

Reservations are always required for dinner, sometimes required for lunch. No reservations are necessary for breakfast, just show up. Someone from the dining car always came to our room several hours before a meal with a pen and paper in hand, taking note of the time of our reservation.

When it’s time for our seating, we would head to the Dining Car and wait at the entrance to the car until one of the dining car staff directed us to a table. As soon as we sat down, one of the servers would hand us an order form and, since we were traveling in a sleeping car, would ask us to write down our car and room number and then sign in the spaces provided at the bottom. There were little boxes on the form for the various menu items, but we did not check those. The servers checked the boxes themselves and made notes on the form.

The downside to the meals aboard Amtrak is the very limited menu that doesn’t change much from route to route.

We eventually had the menu memorized and got bored with it.

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Scrambled Eggs  

Freshly scrambled eggs offered with breakfast potatoes or grits, whole wheat biscuit, croissant or cinnamon raisin bread. Egg substitute available upon request. For coach passengers, this costs $7.50.

The menu listed Omelet Selection—freshly made three-egg omelet served plain, topped with cheese, filled with today’s fresh vegetable filling or with both—however, it wasn’t available on both mornings that we had breakfast on the train.

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Made to Order Buttermilk Pancakes

Trio of buttermilk pancakes, served with syrup and fruit compote. This was surprisingly good. $9.00

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Chipotle Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger 

A spiced, full flavored veggie burger, served with or without cheese on a sesame bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, dill pickle and kettle chips. $9.75

This was the only vegetarian option for lunch, and we got so fed up by it that on our third and final meal aboard the California Zephyr, we remained in our room, refusing to be subjected to another dose of the veggie burger. We ate bananas and made simple peanut butter sandwiches with the bread we brought along with us. The server, who became our friend by then, got worried when we did not show up at lunch time. Such a sweet person!

For dinner, we had tofu Pad Thai one evening and salmon fillet the other. For dessert the options were Tiramisu, vanilla pudding (sugar free), and ice cream.

The staff working in the Dining Car were all so friendly, funny and nice! On our way back to our room after lunch one afternoon, the door that connects the Dining Car to the Sleeper Class Car got stuck.

While waiting for the door to open, we were told that Amtrak is a privately held company, but its single shareholder is the US Government. It was created in the early 1970s as a temporary solution (for a couple of year at best) to save passenger rail in the US. Despite this, Amtrak—with this stuck door that refused to open—hung on by a thread for 40 years and is heavily subsidized.

One of the staff had to call in the conductor. They struggled, pushing and pulling the door, and finally managed to open it.

Meals with a view and a chance to make new friends.  

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After climbing thousands of feet from Reno, Nevada, we saw the ice breaking up on Donner Lake. I took this picture from the window of the Dining Car as we had lunch.

For those unfamiliar with dining aboard Amtrak, each booth holds four and if you have a smaller party, you will most likely be seated with other passengers. Some are uncomfortable with this, like how I initially was, but it turned out kind of fun.

My favorite meal aboard Amtrak would be breakfast; I’m fresh after a night’s sleep on the comfortable bed, the gentle rays of the rising sun pouring into the Dining Car through the huge windows, the aroma of coffee brewing somewhere, and the anticipation of having warm eggs and toast for breakfast.

We met so many wonderful strangers during our two-day trip from San Francisco to Chicago. There was a couple—middle-school teachers in their late fifties—who seemed anxious to know how we, as Muslim tourists, found America and her people. They felt relieved when we told them how much we’d enjoyed our stay.

We had lunch with a nurse and her husband. When they found out that Masood works in the IT industry, the nurse proudly proclaimed, “My son works for Google! He had even showed us where he works. But don’t ask me what he does there because I can’t seem to understand these things!” The husband chimed in, “He works with computers there. He’s very good with them.” They told us how the husband loved to collect computers and that they still have a dot matrix printer at home.

We shared a table with an elderly couple for breakfast one morning. They had traveled to Morocco and Egypt not too long ago, and were deeply fascinated by the Arab history, culture and architecture. They wanted to know what the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were like for tourists.

A freelance writer was seated in our booth for dinner one evening. He was in his late thirties and was traveling alone. He was a shy gentleman who did not talk much at the start of the meal, but when I asked him questions about his work and what sort of articles he wrote and what he thought about bloggers in general, he began to feel comfortable with us and the conversation flowed. He never traveled outside North America, so we only talked about books and current affairs.

A large, middle-aged man and his extremely quiet male companion joined us for lunch the next day. The man was loud enough for the entire Dining Car to hear, and when he laughed the table shook. The conversation began with him asking us where the UAE is located on the map. He knew where Saudi Arabia and Iran were, but he didn’t know where Dubai is. Then he talked about his great interest in stars and, trying to impress everyone within earshot, named at least 20 stars in the galaxy.

There were certain things common among of our dining companions. They were almost always surprised to learn that I, as a Muslim hijabi woman living in the Middle East, can speak English fluently, have two college degrees, and work full time. They found it surprising that it was our third trip to the US, considering how the news is currently painting most Americans as anti-anything Islam related. And almost everyone we shared the table with hated the yellow-haired presidential candidate with a passion. Masood and I tried to steer clear of any political discussion, but it always came up. It was interesting to note that half of the folks we dined with had zero knowledge about international politics and current affairs but were expecting us, foreigners visiting their country, to be up-to-date with the American presidential race.

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Tips!

  1. It’s expected to tip the servers in the dining car and the attendants $10 to $15 per day.
  2. Bring fruits and snacks with you.
  3. Don’t bring pre-packaged meals that needs reheating because there’s no microwave for you to use aboard the train.
  4. Passengers riding in the coach section do not have their meals included but are free to walk to the dining car to make a reservation.
  5. Don’t dawdle too much. Enjoy your meal and take your time. But do understand that the servers need to prepare the table for the next seating.
  6. Room service, at no extra charge, is also an option. You know, just in case you don’t feel like socializing in the Dining Car.
  7. There is an endless supply of bottled water, coffee and ice outside your room at a central station.
  8. To reserve Kosher meals, I suggest calling Amtrak at least two weeks prior to your departure date, just to be sure. Likewise, you can view the menu ahead of time through the Amtrak website if you have dietary concerns.
  9. After boarding, a member of the dining car’s wait staff comes through each car to offer a choice of reservation times in 15 minute increments. You select a time and receive a confirmation slip for your reservation. You need to bring this slip to the dining car at your selected time. If the car is full and you don’t have a reservation, your name will be added to a wait list.

While the food served aboard Amtrak needs improvement and variety, the changing scenery outside the window, the strangers who share your table, and the conversations that ensue make dining in California Zephyr an interesting and memorable experience.

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Morocco is a magical destination, home to a number of famous and well-known tourist attractions that attract travellers from across the globe. However, the African country is also home to some lesser-known and more underrated tourist attractions that should not be missed out on and are worth taking some time away from your hotel room in Morocco to visit them.

In this article we are going to look at three of Morocco’s lesser known tourist attractions that you can visit while you’re in the country on your yearly vacation:

Atlas Film Studios, Ouarzazate

The Atlas Film Studios is the largest film studio in the world and was named such because it is located close to the Atlas Mountains. The 322 000 square feet of desert – situated five miles from Ouarzazate – houses a number of beautiful old movie sets that have been left to decay and corrode in the country’s hot and harsh environment. The Atlas Film Studios was built in 1983 and has been the set for Alexander the Great, Kingdom of Heaven, The Mummy (1999) and Babel, as well as a number of other great and well-known movies. Among the many sets and props is the jet plane used in Jewel of the Nile, the Colosseum from Gladiator, and even an Egyptian tomb. There are guides available that offer tours around Alas Film Studios that are worth the time and the money if you want to get some background and insight into some of the sets.

Legzira Beach 

One of the country’s unique and breath-taking beaches, Legzira is an 8 kilometre long stretch of beach covered in rocks. Usually windy, it’s worth a visit to see the two gigantic stone arches that call the beach their home. The two arches were formed naturally over a number of years due to erosion and are a natural wonder you should not miss out on witnessing. The arches are accessible during low tide, and the beach is a haven for para-gliders and surfers who take to the wind and waves to get an adrenaline rush, with a sightings of local fisherman who frequent the waters still seen occasionally, too.

Firouato Caves, Province De Taza 

Situated between the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains, the Firouato Caves are a wondrous sight that will have any nature lover buckling at the knees with excitement. Although the journey to the caves is long (and there is a need to take more than one taxi to get there), it is worth every moment spent in the car. Home to a subterranean landscape and breath-taking panoramic views, as well as reaching depths of 270 meters (although the cave systems true depth is still unknown and debated), the Firouato Caves are one of the most extensive cave systems – without a doubt – in North Africa. On the first recorded trip through the caves – done by Norbert Vasteret in 1930 – he went as far as 146 meters and found a glistening river that flows through the caverns. Since then, there have been a number of expeditions through the caves where more and more chambers, boulders, stalactites and stalagmites were discovered.

Go on an adventure and witness some of the spectacular spots off the beaten path in magical Morocco. What are you waiting for?

This is a guest post written by Ibtisaam Ganief.

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When Sophia, my sister, casually suggested taking the train for our San Francisco to New York trip in February, I could not shake the idea out of my mind. I began researching online—blogs, reviews, forums, news—and discovered Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the train which experienced travelers say is the most beautiful train trips in all of North America.

The Route

San Francisco • Salt Lake City • Denver • Chicago

The California Zephyr takes you from the City by the Bay, the High Sierras, the Utah Desert, Glenwood Canyon, through the Continental Divide, over the front range of the Rockies to Denver, and across the American heartland through Midwest’s Windy City.

Scheduling intentionally placed the trains in the grandeur of the Feather River and Rocky mountains during daylight hours, while the Nevada deserts and plains states were crossed at night. This practice allowed passengers the most breath taking views of the route during the daytime.

California Zephyr Route

“Two days in a train!” Most people we know thought it was a crazy idea. Some of my friends wondered how a couple, who has been married since forever, could survive being in tiny space for so long. “Why not just fly?” they’d say.

Taking a flight is definitely much cheaper in comparison to the California Zephyr ticket that we booked. An aircraft will also transport us to our destination in just a few hours. But how much of mainland America will we be able to see from the sky?

The History

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On Saturday, March 19th, 1949 the California Zephyr made it’s only appearance in San Francisco proper (because its station is located in Emeryville, CA). The first eastbound run began at 9:30 am PST the following morning on March 20th, 1949 and was immediately splashed by the railroads as “The most talked about train in America”.

Every female passenger onboard was presented a lavish corsage of  orchids flown in from Hilo, Hawaii for the occasion. To add to the festive atmosphere, the Western Pacific Employee Band was present to supply music for the departure. Thus a legend in passenger train history was born.

One Way Fare: San Francisco to Chicago

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It has taken me several weeks to make up my mind before allowing Masood to finally purchase the ticket. One day I’d tell him to go ahead and book the train tickets, the next day I’d tell him to wait while I think about it some more, and yet the following day I’d give him a list of reasons why splashing on this trip was worth it, trying to convince myself more than I was convincing him. We had to take the Superliner Bedroom, there was simply no other way we were going to do this, and it costs much more than an economy direct flight — $1961 vs $500!

Bedroom Rates

The fare also includes checked baggage service for 2 Bags – 50 lbs each, and meals.

The Superliner Bedroom 

The two main reasons for booking the Superliner Bedroom are privacy and comfort.

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California Zephyr has double-decker cars providing a better view of the passing scenery. All Bedrooms are located on the upper level of the double-decker Superliner train cars, the rooms being 10-plus feet above the platform means no one at the station stops can see into your room so you can keep your curtains drawn.

I wear the hijab so the privacy of the bedroom allowed me to remove my headscarf and travel comfortably. The room has a door with curtains and a lock so those are also plus points. And there’s a private bathroom. You can easily and quite conveniently made wudu and offer salah.

Bedroom Facilities

Unlimited Juice and Coffee – While Supply Lasts

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Dress Rack, electrical outlet and switches:

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A tiny sink with mirror (and lights!) and the door to a bathroom with shower:

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The lower berth:

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The sofa converts to a nice and spacious bed. The upper berth is narrower and climbing the ladder is tricky if you have a large body frame. Masood slept on the upper berth and said it was okay for him. The lower berth, being wider, was very comfortable.

The pillows are flimsy so if you can, bring your own pillow. And the blankets are, well, scratchy. So if you can, bring your own blanket as well. But if you’re an international traveler like us, don’t bother with the additional luggage and make do with what Amtrak provides.

Also, the partitions between the bedrooms are paper-thin, therefore, anything but a very subdued conversation can be overheard by whoever is in the adjacent bedroom.

Fresh towels, toilet paper and soap are provided. The bathroom is the same size as those in the aircrafts, except that Amtrak provides a shower head as well. The width of the bathroom wall is shoulder-to-shoulder, so imagine the talent and skill required to take a shower in a moving train. But I’ll forever be grateful for a private bathroom for such a long trip and will be willing to pay for it.

The bedroom is generally a safe place to leave stuff, but I think it’s still not a good idea to leave valuables lying around. Remember, the door locks from the inside but not outside.

You can find videos on Youtube should you wish to see the room and amenities in more detail.

As a hijabi Muslimah, I would say that the Superliner Bedroom is definitely worth the money, specially if you’re taking the entire west coast to east coast trip. 

Being able to stretch your legs and sleep comfortably during your journey assures that you reach your destination fresh and well-rested.

Also, it’s worth noting that even at premium prices, these bedrooms are still very popular and if you want one, especially on more popular trains such as the California Zephyr, book well in advance!

In the next posts I’ll share my thoughts about the dining car, the inclusive meals, Amtrak’s customer service, pros/cons, tips, etc.

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