Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spain: The Only Place Where It's Acceptable to Have A Lisp

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I was constantly distracted by the Spanish people's tongue being caught between their lips when they said their "c's"; then again, it could be because I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. The Spanish people are laid-back, helpful, and like to have a good time.


We stayed in a small apartment recommended by our friend Christine (thanks!) Coin, while having nothing in particular to recommend it to the guidebooks, nevertheless had a tourist office. Spain is in the top 3 touristed countries in the world I think, so even small towns have the facilities for visitors. Coin was beautiful. The buildings were white, the streets were narrow, and the view from the top of the hill was unbeatable. Southern Spain is truly a natural wonder.

Cordoba and Granada

We met up with Lauren and Ben, who live in Qatar and edit for the government, including from what I understand terrorist letters they receive before they are released to the public. Who knew a job like that exists? "They're all the same," we were told. "They all say, "We've defended our land from the infidels, we know the one true God, we keep our women veiled..." yadda yadda. Lauren knew Jacob from the FLSR. Jacob, when awake, regaled us on our hours-long drive with fascinating historical facts, for example the fact that coins actually originated in our town where we were staying, and that in fact we had toured the factory where the first coin was ever made. We had a grown up sleepover in a hostel after we missed our bus. It's fun to travel with friends.

Madrid and Segovia

I'm so glad everything came together for our family vacation in Spain. Luke flew out from Macedonia, Al and Laura flew from KC to Texas to Madrid, and Jacob and I caught an overnight bus, all without a hitch. Fortunately, the apartment we stayed in was perfect for us. Right in the center of town, it included wifi internet (always a must) with a cleaning service, welcome goodies, excellent soap, air conditioning, washing machine, kitchen and comforts for 5 people for 91 euros a night. This is saying something for the prices of Spain, which is probably the most expensive European country I've been to (excluding England, which uses the pound). I'd definitely recommend the apartment to anyone who wanted to visit.

Our wallet was stolen here, of course, but really, the pickpocket couldn't have chosen a better time to do it! Al and Laura came to the rescue, we had only 90 euros, not 390, in the wallet, and the most unfortunate thing was that we got sent on a chase to get new temple recommends. Jacob was stunned anyone would try to pickpocket someone of his size, but we had to hand it to him--the guy was a true professional. Took it right when he was giving Jacob directions! You don't meet a guy that good every day.

We got spoiled by Al and Laura. By now Luke, Jacob, and I are used to travelling together. We've been in Radovis, Skopje, Athens, Larisa, and
 now Madrid.

We took a day trip to Segovia. We visited a castle that was supposedly the inspiration for the castle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

On the bus to Segovia

Frisbee in Retiro Park

 El Rastro market. That lady looks like she recognizes Jacob, which wouldn't surprise me. In Madrid, Jacob met two groups of people that he had met elsewhere, including in Morocco.

We happened to arrive in Madrid during the week of "White Night" when people are out all night visiting museums, doing dance moves to large movie projections, and watching marching bands play in the streets.


Because I enjoyed the sunrise flight to Morocco last time, I aimed for the same thing again flying to Barcelona. Unfortunately, I realized too late that there would be no transport to the airport in the middle of the night. We therefore ended up spending the night at the airport. And then the sun didn't even rise on the flight! Oh well... I was instantly struck by the beauty of the buildings in Barcelona.

We arrived during the city's patron saint Merce festival. It meant there was onstage music, parades, and fireworks. A great time to visit.

If I could have picked a street artist to draw my picture, it would have been this guy. His prices were steep though: 50-70 euros. I watched him drawing a bit. He was fantastic with hair. I should have stayed longer to pick up some tips.

I thought this was a church, but it turned out to be a Catalan language school. In the end, this is what I love most about Europe: it's sometimes not practical, efficient, or economical, but it will be beautiful or expressive or artistic.

 We were astonished to see these urinals in broad daylight in a public square....that is until Jacob saw the drunk people, men and women, lining up in the alley outside our hostel peeing directly on the street after a night of partying.

This band playing outside of the Gothic cathedral attracted every person that walked by. They were intense performers. The guy on the left played bells hanging on a walker, bowls, and a huge guitar looking instrument. The one in the middle played the hang and tapped his foot with his ankle bell bracelet. And the third guy that looks like a blind man played a mesmerizing saxophone.

Las Ramblas, coolest street in Europe. It's touristy, sure, but it's a constant stream of performers, from costumed statues dressed like a baby in a crib or a monkey behind bars, to soccer players to magicians to musicians to dancers.

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Plaza Catalunya

After Barcelona, we hopped on a flight to NYC. Although we didn't ride first class, the flight attendant brought us goodies because she "knows how stressful it is to fly standby" Sweet! I didn't even feel sad to leave Europe, because I know we'll return, and because we've both been missing America a bit. Barcelona let us go out with a bang. We're excited to spend the next couple weeks with friends and family!

PS Does anyone know why comments would be blocked? It blocked them on the last post, but I don't want that :(

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Seven Cities in 3 Weeks

As I washed off the grime of Morocco in a relatively comfortable hostel in Algeciras, Spain, I had to reflect: Morocco may be the first place that I can't say I regret I'm leaving.

The guidebooks use words like "magical" "exotic" and "varied landscape" to describe the country. I guess I'd describe it differently.

Moroccans are the simplest people I've ever met. I suppose that is a direct result of being poor. The buildings are all built the same, of dirt, pink or white, with square windows.

Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah

Ben was surrounded once by 5 young boys introducing themselves. "What are your names?" "Hamza" "Hamza" "Mohammed" Mohammed" and the last one was I think "Hamza." The girls will likely be named Fatima or Rashida.

All over the country.

I ordered cheese spaghetti thinking it would be spaghetti in tomato sauce with cheese grated on top--not dry noodles with a chunk of cheese in the middle.

Their food is couscous on Fridays, tagine, harira, or pastilla—nothing else. Breakfast is always the same. Bread and jam or butter and juice. Sometimes with thick pea soup and coffee. Their clothes, though the patterns are infinitely varied, colorful, and beautiful, all have the same cut. Little buttons down the front, hooded, wide and shapeless.

All over the country.

Homosexuality is worthy of stoning. Women are openly second class citizens. 99 percent are Muslim. To be a different religion could be condemned by beheading. To proselyte is strictly prohibited. Diversity? Not allowed.

All over the country.

Salesmen are aggressive. They call out what they have in their store despite the fact that the wares are exactly the same everywhere. They stand alerted: cast an interested eye at a dress and they will be immediately next to you, bargaining the price, forcing you to try it on. There are no dressing rooms. No mirrors. And items are crammed within the shops so you can't even see what's available to buy.

The grocery stores are dismally lit. Even with shelves stacked with food it's possible to search the entire store and leave empty-handed. The olives, green especially, are excellent. Drinks are not kept in the fridge. Sometimes you can't walk in and you have to point at what you want while the shopkeeper fetches it for you.

All over the country.

The food stalls swarm with flies. Sweat drips down your back and the sides of your face even when you're inside your hotel or sitting in a bus with the windows down. Air conditioning is rare. There are roaches in every apartment and every hotel. The rooms are rarely cleaned very well. Showers may or may not be heated. Toilets may or may not flush. Toilet paper may or may not be available.

All over the country.

The landscape is varied, yes, but really in only two ways. In the south it is brown, dry, barren. The mountains are immense. In the north there is green. There are a variety of trees besides palm.

Our friends Ben and Sally joined us in Marrakesh after our camel trek. Here are some pictures of said trek. The best part of the trip were the Taiwan people we were with, they were uncontrollably funny. Definitely makes us want to visit Taiwan now.

In Rabat we got to attend Church. It was really nice. It's just a couple of American families, but they arranged to meet us and take us home and there was a meal after church. With westernized food! They were full of stories about living around the world and it was fun to be around cute little kids. They all had shocks of blonde hair.

I had a really lovely birthday. Jacob got up early under the pretense of going to the gym and brought back cake, gifts, cards, and flowers and a sweet letter and set it up very artistically on the table in our room. Ben and Sally gave me a cute card with a travel theme. We went to the beach where there were waves. Jacob loves waves. Ben doesn't. He got carried away at sea and had to be rescued by a Moroccan boy with a surfboard. I like waves, especially when the sand to stand on is smooth and water doesn't get in my ears.

We were fooled into thinking there was a Thai restaurant in Rabat. The taxi driver grandiosely motioned after a long drive to a closed Chinese restaurant. "They're the same, no?" He asked. "Chinese, Thai…" We wandered a while looking for somewhere to eat. Someone gave us lengthy directions to a place. Just before we began walking, Jacob asked, "C'est ouvert, non?" "No, it's not open" the man cheerfully replied. It's as though the people here don't have common sense to know we wouldn't want to go to a closed restaurant.

We found a nice Moroccan one that brought us free food just because we had to wait 30 minutes for our ordered dishes to arrive. But if you've ever lived in a place eating the same thing every day for 45 days…with only pizza for variety…you start dreaming of food. Thai and Indian curry. Coconut soup. Olive Garden breadsticks and salad. Water out of the tap. Chips and salsa. Enchiladas. Cold fresh juice…McDonalds.

Okay not McDonalds. We were all 4 of us hit with fantastic food poisoning due to McDonalds. Ben, Sally, and I got ill stomachs from the Marrakesh train station. Jacob, having survived, decided to tempt fate and have a Big Mac at the McDonalds in Fez (which incidentally had live music and dancing). We all ended up swearing not to touch McDonalds for years. I've never gotten so sick from food, even the food that I had to adjust to when first arriving in Morocco.

Marrakesh was unendurably rude. When we were in the souks (the outdoor markets) just walking around, I was told to "Go away," by a salesman in a shop, Sally was half choked with a scarf and threatened with a tight wristhold by a young boy, Ben was cussed out by an orange juice salesman, and I guess nobody messed with Jacob because he's too big. He did have to arm wrestle with someone, though. Sometimes tourism ruins cities, I think.

There were snake charmers, monkeys, storytellers, dancers, and musicians—it all felt just a little contrived to me. The place was nuts. Through the narrow alleyways of the souk motorcycles came constantly roaring by. Even a car tried to get through.

Our riad was an oasis in the desert though. Beautiful, clean, friendly, and interneted.

The most aggressive salespeople by far in Marrakesh are the women who draw henna tattoos. They're scary as well because they'll grab your hand, hiss, "a gift for you," and make to start drawing a tat on your hand despite protests. Jacob started carrying around a pen in his pocket to do the same to them if they started drawing on Sally and I's hands.

Fancy jardin in Marrakesh

I became rather deadened to the sight of beggars in Marrakesh. Foolishly, we decided to buy some ice cream for some of the Moroccan beggar children. We were swarmed then. An old lady stole the one Jacob had bought for a little boy. The little girl I bought one for rudely refused to share with anyone else, shouting "No!" when I suggested to let another girl have a bite and didn't say thank you. They turned down other offers for ice cream, only wanted money. They impudently emptied Ben's offering of his cone on the ground. They were picky, rude beggars, and they were out to take advantage of tourists. I vowed not to donate to their cause again.

In Fez, as soon as we exited the train station, we were accosted by taxi drivers. One man convinced us to follow him to his hotel (we didn't have one reserved). The taxi drivers began shouting him out. And you can watch it because I recorded it!

After we left Ouarzazate, I have seen shouting fights everywhere we've gone in Morocco, every single day. I'm not sure what to attribute it to. I think it's Ramadan. They fast all day, can't drink in the heat, can't smoke to relax, and they get edgy. But Arabic always sounds angry to me anyway.

As we followed the aggressive man through the streets of Fez, we were doubtful as to whether we should follow him. Our doubts were confirmed as a man we passed pointed to our hotel man and said, "He is a false guide and a robber." We decided to ditch him. He'd compared Sally and I to Ethiopian women because we were too cheap to pay for a taxi. He also said that because we were women we would get confused in the heat, whereas the men could handle it. I sassed him a little bit for saying that. I honestly get sick of the openness of men's opinion of women here. "Of course, it's fair for them to be beaten if they don't obey" "Women are like this or like that" blah blah blah. As though women are possessions, objects, or servants. I don't think Moroccan men know anything about women.

A man offered 2000 camels for Sally and I. Jacob said later that we should have told him we had been appraised for much, much higher. 3500 in fact, and it was insulting to be offered so low.

The last night before Ben and Sally left on their way to Taiwan, Sally and I took a taxi to the top of the hill for a view of Fez. It was very pretty. A policeman approached us and said we ought to be leaving. It was almost the start of the evening meal. The one that breaks the day-long fast during Ramadan. He walked us around, looking for a taxi. All of the taxis rejected us. "Don't you know what time it is?" pointing to their watches. "Time for dinner." We waited as the policeman went to eat his dinner. When he was done he would keep helping us look for a taxi. But for now the streets were deserted.

The security guards of the 5 star hotel we were waiting at motioned us over. They offered us their harira, Moroccan style soup, and sweet dessert. It was very yummy. We just sat around at their makeshift table. I found myself speaking French with many of them. What? No, I didn't speak much, but miraculously, I understood a whole lot. I even joked around a little bit with the taxi driver when we finally caught one home. My confidence in my ability to speak French shot up. Jacob's always around and takes over of course, but it wasn't nearly so hard to communicate what I wanted as I might have supposed.

Tangers (pronounced Tan zjey) was supposed to be the most aggressive and nasty experience. But I found the city quite beautiful, especially for Morocco. White buildings up on the hill overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. People for the most part left us alone.

The nasty experience by far was our hostel. "Hotel Holland" called Pension Hollanda in the guidebook. Our first honest taxi driver took us there but we thought it was the wrong place and wouldn't take our money. The second time around we were convinced this was it. It was late and we didn't want to spend too much time looking. It had been a long train ride, involving (big surprise) a shouting match between a couple in our compartment of our train and the people next door, for slamming the seats against the wall. The father, who had so genteelly offered us dates and crackers just moments before, was shaking with rage and left the train, motioning the people next to us to come and fight. Not sure how it got resolved, but the people stopped slamming their seats.

This was the first time we've tried a Lonely Planet recommendation and it rivaled the prize for the worst place we've ever stayed. Hairs in the sheets, musty air that gave Jacob a cough, clammy surroundings, and worst of all, a swarm of mosquitoes. We woke up at around 4 am after the constant buzzing in our ears. Jacob swung the long pillow across the wall, killing a dozen and smearing the blood all over. We changed rooms. The hotel owner pointed at the wall of the new room. "See? Only two mosquitoes."

Customer service is a whole new idea here. I'm not going to say it doesn't exist. I'm just going to say it's a whole new ball game.

I awoke in our new, slightly cleaner, less musty, 2 mosquitoed room to Jacob leaping out of the bed shouting "Hey!" He ran out of the room. I got up and followed. Breathless, Jacob told the hotel owner who appeared around the corner, "A man just entered our room!" The hotel owner told him he had imagined it. "No," Jacob insisted," He was wearing a blue shirt!" The hotel owner went downstairs and returned shortly. "He was looking for the bathroom," he told us.

Yeah, right. There was a room across the way with huge lettered "W.C." on the door. Jacob said he had awoken with the door handle turning verrrry slowly and then the man had come fully into our room. By the time Jacob had chased after him, he had completely disappeared. So: our room was getting broken into.

Lonely Planet described the pension this way: "Tucked away in a quiet street a short walk from Place de Franc, this friendly pension has sparkling clean whitewashed rooms" smeared with the blood of 126 mosquitoes. Okay.

We were told about a Thai restaurant called Kiotori. After a lot of searching, we found it. It was actually Japanese, but heck, it wasn't Moroccan, and sushi and miso soup was like heaven.

We went to the medina in Tangers. I wanted a Moroccan dress which can be quite beautiful. But shopping is sooo frustrating here. It's only slightly alleviated with the presence of Jacob.

One, the storekeeper tries to force you into his shop with an aggressive sales pitch.

Two, once you're in, he follows you around and points out items in the store which you can obviously see yourself. Like, "Look, Moroccan tee shirt." And the following tricks do not work to try to get them to leave you alone (trust me, I tried): "Thanks, but I'm good." "I have eyes to see that. I know what that is." Shushing them. Waving the hand to shoe them away. Ignoring them. Refusing to look after many "Regarde!"' shouts. Telling them "That looks nice on you" when they hold up a dress. Literally running away from them down the aisle. No, nothing can stop them. God forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Three, he doesn't ask you what you're looking for or do anything actually helpful except breathe down your neck when you're just looking, for the love of Pete.

Fourth, there are no prices posted so you have to barter. And the shopkeepers can get angry with you when you're bartering if you undignify them with too low of a price. And as I mentioned before, I try to limit my contact with the storekeepers as much as possible. Having to barter means speaking with them.

Fifth, there are no dressing rooms, no mirrors, and rarely female shopkeepers. Just grubby men who are trying to make recommendations to you of things you don't even want.

And sixth, the final deal breaker for me, it is one size fits all. I don't like loose fitting clothing. And Westerners can't really pull off Moroccan clothing, you'd spot the posers a mile away.

Tangers at sunset on the ferry

Well, to be honest Algeciras, the port city of Spain, is almost exactly like Morocco. There are still men walking around in long dresses speaking Arabic, and we're staying in a riad-looking hostel named Fez with archways, an open ceiling, and plants in the center of the room, with fancy tiling. Very Moroccan. The hostel owner's name is Mohammed.

But by golly, it just feels cleaner, and so I'm breathing a little easier.

We've got an apartment in Coin, Spain. It's a small town of 20,000 people. It sounds relaxing. At the bus station when I saw a bag of Tex Mex Doritos tears almost came to my eyes. It was just so beautiful.

And as I walked a spacious grocery store and caught sight of frozen vegetables, I really did almost shed tears. The stuff you take for granted.

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