« August 2009 | Main | October 2009 »

September 28, 2009

Flying Through Poland

We are deep into our trip through Poland, and our week here is going by incredibly quickly. Before we know it, we will be in Turkey.

We had a great last few days in Spain. Every night that we were in Granada, we spent exploring the city for the best free tapas that you get with a drink. We stayed out far too late each night, with the folks we met in the hostel. Our last day in Granada, we were up at 7:30 to check out from the hostel, because our plan was to take a day trip to the nearby mountain hamlet of Monachile. Our guide came by 9, and we headed to the bus, and then on the town. We are big fans of little villages, there is a much more authentic feeling about them than the very international cities, with travelers from all corners of the world. Our guide actually lived in the little town, so we stopped by her house so she could bring along her very bad little dog, Mojo. We continued into a nearby nature reserve and spent the next several hours hiking along the river. In some places, we'd have to crawl under rocks as they protruded over the trail and towards the river; I imagined mysel (and my camera) taking an unexpected swim. The hike was quite nice, getting some fresh country air felt terrific after being in the city. We stopped by a restaurant for lunch, which was covered by the 15 euros the excursion cost (the meal was quite worth that by itself); funnily, our guide happened to work there, as well as the tea house we stopped at last, as it seems she was plugging the places that employed her. She was an excellent guide, though, and quirky to boot, so we enjoyed the hike thoroughly and it was a great day of exploration in Spain's countryside.

We arrived back in town in time to arrange our bags at the hostel and then hike to the train station. Our bags weigh a combined weight of nearly 40 kg, and the train station was about 2 km from our hostel, but it was all downhill, and we wanted to wear ourselves out for the night train to Barcelona. That didn't work that well; I still didn't sleep until around 2:30 am, even with 50 mg of Benadryl, but when I fell asleep, I didn't wake up until we pulled into Barcelona. There, we quickly found our hostel and set out to get the most out of our day in Barcelona. It was more like our typical European city exploration than we've done for a long time; we headed out from the northwest end of town, all the way the center, around the port and the center, as well as the Barrio Gotic (Gothic Quarter), and then all the way back to the hostel. It was an incredible, five hour hike; according to Google Maps, it was about 12.7 km. We weren't done, though; we showered and cleaned up, then took the metro back to the center, where we met up with friends from Tucson. We walked all over the center with them, had some tapas and beer, and around 1:30, we walked back again to the hostel. We burned off some extra trimmings that day.

The next morning, we were up at 7:30 yet again, this time to check out of the hostel and take the metro to the train station, and then a short train to the airport for our flight to Warsaw, Poland. That trip was remarkably uneventful; once in Warsaw, we figured out which bus to take and rode it into the center. That bus took us directly to our hostel, which turned out to be quite great. The hostel, called Hostel Krokodyl, was super clean and seemed fairly new. It had a very nice kitchen, dining room, and common room. The beds were really comfortable, we even noted that the mattresses were Ikea, and we didn't get eaten alive by bedbugs so that we looked like measles victims in the mornings. The best thing was that there was free laundry service, so we had our clothes machine washed for the first time in just short of five weeks. For those of you who don't understand the beauty of clothes that aren't washed by hand in the sink, consider yourselves underappreciative, as it is a glorious thing, the washing machine.

We had our standard procedure there in Warsaw. We dropped our bags, and headed straight for the center. It was getting on in the evening by this point, the sun was setting as we jumped on a tram that took us into town. We reached the center with one objective: to find the restaurant that is co-owned by the owner of our favorite restaurant in Tucson, AZ. It wasn't as easy to find as I expected, even though we had found it on a map. The streets of Warsaw's Old Town are windy and getting your directional bearings is a real chore. We ended up walking again for several hours, and saw most of the Old Town in the process before we reached the restaurant. There, we had a bit of an awkward moment: it was difficult to explain just why we were there, and by asking for the owner, we overwhelmed the poor waitress. Enter in the imposing cook, who asked in a monotone, somewhat aggressive voice: "What do you want?" We just grinned uncomfortably, showed him the video we'd shot with the co-owner in Tucson, and got the hell out of there, as the owner wasn't coming in until the next day. After that, we basically had a beer in a different cafe, then headed back to the hostel. It was too late for dinner, so we had a meal of pickled herring with cheese and crackers, an essential Baltic meal and quite delicious.

 The next morning, we found that they had a delcious spread of not only the typical hostel-breakfast of bread and jam, but also meat, cheese, and vegetables, a standard for Baltic and Scandinavian breakfasts. We were ready to head back out, but met a couple from New Zealand and ended up talking to them until noon. We hurried back to the center, only to find that we'd covered most of it the previous night, and the only difference was that it was packed with athletes running a marathon and spectators. We walked for awhile, then had lunch in what is known here as a milk bar, a cheap cafeteria that serves cheap Polish standards. We found a small, local outdoor market, and a stall that sold really excellent beer, "without preserves." brewed in a small family brewery. We sat talking to a couple of travelers, until we noticed the sun setting; we needed to find the bus station for the next morning, so we hurried back to the tram. En route, we visited the restaurant again; the owner wasn't to be found, but it wasn't so awkward, they seemed to expect us this time, although one of the waitresses fled again.

We found the bus station without trouble, although we had a little detour on the tram getting back to the hostel; the language barrier can be trouble. We had a great meal of pasta (yet again), and talked to the Kiwi couple until almost 1:30. We took our time getting breakfast and packing before heading to the bus station, and about three hours of bladder-torturing bumpy roads later, we found ourselves in the smaller city of Lublin (population 325,000). Our hostel was right next to the bus station, so we checked in, dropped the bags, and jumped on a bus that took us out to the concentration camp that sits on the outskirts of town, Majdanek. The exhibits buildings and the visitors center were closed as it is Monday, but the camp itself was open, so we walked around. The barracks were sad, but the most dramatic parts of the camp were the gas chambers, the building that housed the crematorium, the huge pile of ash left from victims, and a building lined with piles of shoes from the victims. The emotional impact may not have been as much as we expect to find in Auschwitz, outside of Krakow, but seeing the shoes made us feel as though the presence of ghosts of the 80,000 victims were standing around us; we weren't able to walk down the corridors of shoes until the lights were on.

Back in the Lublin center, we walked to a restaurant that served very traditional foods, recommended by the hostel. There we stuffed ourselves on pierogi, barszcz (borsch soup), and wild boar, and had to walk back to the hostel, just to help digest the meal. The center, or Old Town, in Lublin, is quite nice, if small, and our hostel is nice as well. Even though this is a quite large city, it has a small town feel to it, and that is a nice change, after being in Granada, Barcelona, and then Warsaw. Tomorrow, we are going to the really small village of Kazimierz Dolny, population 400.

Until next time, be safe.


September 23, 2009

Back In Spain...For Now

We are resting our heels in Granada for a few days, having finished the African portion of our trip.

Coming back from Chefchaouen couldn´t have been easier. We had been expecting a hectic, difficult day of travel on Monday, since it just so happened to be Eid, the end of Ramadan. We arrived at the bus station anticipating crowds of people as well as a bus trip similar to the one that we had experienced en route to Chefchaouen, where the bus was jammed with people, and sweltered in the hot afternoon with no AC for relief. Instead, the bus was nearly empty. Once we reached the bus station in Tangier, we found that it too was nearly empty of travelers, and we shared a taxi with an Aussie couple we´d met on the bus to the port. There, another astonishment: a ferry was heading across the strait to the city of Algeciras within fifteen minutes; we bought tickets and hustled ourselves aboard. 

All was going swell to reach our desired destination of Granada, except that I had forgotten to take into account the two hour difference between Spain and Morocco; instead of arriving in Algeciras at 3 pm, we arrived at 5 pm, after the last train to Granada had left. Algeciras has what is likely a poor reputation as a seedy port city, so we really wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. We walked the Aussies to the bus station and bid them farewell (we never did make introductions, though) and continued on to the train station, where fortunately a train was leaving in the hour for a little town called Ronda, about halfway between Algeciras and Granada. We jumped at the chance to go there; I called the first hotel in the Lonely Planet guide, which had availabilities, and off we went.

The ride there, which took about two hours, was quite amazing; we saw a part of Spain that we hadn´t expected or known about. The landscape outside changed from the developed areas of Algeciras to a wild and woolly landscape of steep hillsides, plunging gorges, and thick trees and shrubbery. It turns out the route had the train clinging to the side of a gorge in the Sierra de Grazelema Natural Park, a wild area of Spain that looked as wild as parks in the US and Canada.  The sun was setting behind the train, and orange light bathed the hillsides. Eventually, the wildness gave way to little whitewashed villages and long expanses of brushland and farms. We talked about how nice it must be to live in such an area, a place far from the bustling cities, a place of peace and quiet.

As we neared Ronda, the sun finally set over the hills opposite of us. The jagged peaks turned a complete black, while the sky was an astonishing dark orange, almost red, and seemed so vivid that one could imagine that it wasn´t real, a sheet of velvet painted across the horizon. It was a terrific sunset, one of the best I´ve seen in a long time. Once we reached Ronda, Jess and I found our hotel, dropped our bags, and headed out for dinner. We wandered until we found a street with outdoor cafes; there we dined on gazpacho soup, a cold soup of tomatos, onions, and delicious spices, as well as a plate of seafood that was just the right amount of food. Sadly, it was dark, and our train left at nine the next morning, so exploration of the scenic town of Ronda wasn´t possible.

Granada, at first glance, seemed disappointing. We´d heard several other travelers talk about how much they loved Granada, and so we imagined the same for ourselves. Yet, walking in the center, a busy area of traffic, pedestrians, and the kind of grandiose buildings and churches hiding around corners you expect from most European cities, we found that we weren´t all that impressed. Also, Granada is said to be the Moroccan city of Spain; coming directly from Morocco left us a little cynical about what we found, like going to a Chinese restaurant after visiting China itself. We did like our hostel, and opted to stay, but we talked to one of the employees, who told us about a little town about a half hour bus ride away, where we could get a little hiking in; that was our plan for today.

Last night, though, we met an Australian couple, as well as an American fellow. The Aussies are finishing up a 18-month journey; the American is en route to Casablanca to teach English and study Arabic for more than a year in a bid to start a career in the State Department. We went out on the town with them, and found that there is a particularly grand tradition here in Granada: for every drink that you buy, you also receive a free tapa (small portion of food). These tapas are actually quite a good portion, and after several portions of paella and sandwiches, downed with inexpensive beer, we were completely stuffed. That helped improve our attitudes about Granada.

Then, this morning, as we were enjoying our free breakfast here at the hostel, we found that there was a free walking tour around Granada. We decided to go on the day trip tomorrow, and to explore a more interesting part of Granada today. The tour took us up above the city, giving great views for pictures. It also took us through a very interesting section of town--the inhabited caves. There are hills on the north side of town, where for centuries people have been using natural caves or digging their own as homes. Some of these caves are just a hole in the side of the hill, covered with a blanket or tarp; others are as complex as having walls and outer rooms, even solar panels. What these caves have in common is a perplexing contradiction: most of the inhabitants seem to be of the solitary hermit types, looking to escape the crowd, only they form a whole community of solitary types. There are also apparently a lot of Gypsies, Euro-hippies (a particularly grungy brand of hippies, often with hair styles that usually are a wicked combination of mullets, dreads, mohawks, shaved parts, or all of the above, and often in clothes you´d expect on a Gypsy), and even wealthy, eclectic types. For me, I´m glad to not live in a hole in the ground, but different strokes for different folks. It seems like these people are related to another European phenomenon in several European cities, the Squatters, and the subsequent Squatter Rights Laws that are being tossed around these days; that´s a whole different entry.

Speaking of European phenomenons, we noticed a huge number of European girls in Morocco wearing what I´ve seen described as cheese-cloth parachute pants. Essentially, these lower garments are what appears to be a long dress, but halfway down the shins, it becomes a pair of pants. Again, it´s kind of the Gypsy style, and agonizingly ugly. We figured that it was the European effort to fit into a place like Morocco, though quite unsuccessful. Anyhow, we looked for them upon arriving in Granada, and lo and behold, girls wear them here as well; however, this is Spain´s Morocco, so maybe elsewhere...?

Anyhow, we feel much better about Granada. It turns out the city is quite nice after all. We are staying in the section of town considered the old Muslim district, with narrow, windy passageways, loads of restaurants and cafes, and plenty of interesting characters roaming the streets. Perhaps Granada isn´t our favorite European city, but it has a laid back charm that we have really enjoyed today. I´m glad we made it part of our itinerary, on our way to Barcelona and then Poland.

Even if they do wear those ridiculous parachute pants here.

Until next time, be safe.


Pictures From Morocco & Spain

These pictures are from our last destination in Morocco, the moutain town of Chefchaouen, and from our visit to the city of Granada back in Spain.

The Location of Image In Lonely Planet Guide

Spices in Chefchaouen

The Blue Walls Of Chefchaouen

Stairwell in Chefchaouen

Corridor In Chefchaouen

A Blue Doorway In Chefchaouen

The Ruined Mosque On Hill Above Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen At Dusk

After Long Day Of Exploring

Man In Traditional Moroccan Garb

Teas & Spices In Granada

Jess In Granada

Cathedral Of Granada

Granada From Above

Plaza In Granada

Until next time, be safe.


September 20, 2009

Last Day In Morocco

We are spending our last full day in Morocco, and it is making us sad. This has been a great place to spend almost two weeks drifting through.

Our stay in Essaouira was really great. We arrived there with our nerves frayed, and within a few days, we again felt happy to be in Morocco. We were both feeling a little under the weather after sleeping out in the desert, and a sleepless night in the hostel due to techno beats pounding through our pillows at 3 am made me a grumpy boy. Possibly due to my late-night arrival at the party below ("Do you have a problem, sir?" "YES, I have a problem!"), as well as Jess seeming very tired and ill in their lobby the next morning, the hostel folks felt bad and moved us into a private room, and our stay in Essaouira dramatically improved. It is a very laid back town, probably because it is on the coast. We spent our days there strolling along the beach, drinking orange Fanta at the seaside cafe, and eating the best harira soup in Morocco each evening. The fish market was a marvel; most fish markets we have seen around the world seem to be so tame and clean, the fish laid out on displays of ice. This market was chaos; the fishermen brought their catch out along the street to lay it on sheets of newspaper. Guts and head flew as they cleaned and prepared the fish, and the screaming seagulls above competed with men shouting in Arabic about the price or the species of fish, which among the many species included eel, morays, sharks, and crabs and fishes of all kinds and shapes. Above all, the stench was enough to singe the nose hairs; it was a place that stimulated all senses, a true characteristic of the African experience.

The market street was also great, filled with people at all hours of the day, from the morning until even past 11 at night, when we headed back to the hostel. The only break in the crowds of people was during the Breaking of the Fast, being that it is Ramadan; the people, after fasting from early in the morning, would rush about in a spurt of energy to buy food, then desert the streets entirely as the call to prayer began to sound over the city, leaving the streets empty save the Tokens (tourists). At all other times, the markets were filled with all sorts of wares, from toilet paper to pencils, from vegetables to whole sides of beef hanging on meat hooks (usually beside a pastry shop, disturbingly enough). You had to watch your step, to avoid not only the bags of grain and buckets of eggs but also for the goat heads and the cow feet stacked outside meatshops. The combined scent of fresh meat, pastries, and mint leaves created an aroma unique enough that we will always remember. As bustling as the market and all of the medina were, there was a refreshing lack of touts and beggars that characterize larger cities like Marrakesh. Essaouira was a much needed escape, a breath of (mostly) fresh air. The icing of this cake was the beach, because nothing calms the spirit like the sea.

We had yet another epic travel day waiting for us when we left from Essaouira; I guess we should get used to them. We caught the mid-afternoon bus to Marrakesh, a three hour trip. After waiting in the train station in Marrakesh for a couple of hours, we caught the night-train to Tangier, which took 10.5 hours; fortunately, we managed to sleep a long portion of the trip, thanks to the marvels of Benadryl. Our only distractions on the train ride were the fellows who smooth-talked Jess for a long time, and then the ladies who came in our compartment at 4 am and made themselves at home, essentially taking over the seats that we had been sleeping on; they gladly left after 45 minutes or so. Once in Tangier, we had to wait about four hours for a bus to our current location in Chefchaouen; being Ramadan, the bus station was insanely packed with Moroccan travelers, like any station in the US on Christmas Eve (tomorrow is Eid, the end of Ramadan). We couldn't find any restaurants open, so our only nutrition from 6 pm the night before until 6 that night was a bag of chips, cookies, and a couple of Cokes I found in the only shop open in walking distance. Finally, we arrived in Chefchaouen after another 3.5 hours, only to find our hostel was straight up the hill a couple of kilometers. A hostel bed never looked so comfortable or such a relief, and food hasn't been so good in a long time.

Chefchaouen is yet another very relaxed town, like Essaouira in the mountains. It sits on the slopes of a high peak, which today was shrouded in clouds. It is a very compact city, of about 56,000 inhabitants, and its medina is a tight complex of passages that have mostly been painted an incredible blue-white. It makes for fun exploration, if only because it is small enough that one can't get lost for too long. Today we are relaxing and wandering around, planning for our trip to Granada in Spain tomorrow (another long day for traveling). Tonight we will have our final Moroccan tajine meal, with mint tea, a comfort to our palate, and a memory to add to the many of this trip. Au revoir, Morocco, it has been an adventure.

Until next time, be safe.

September 18, 2009

Picture Crazy In Morocco

I have a ton of pictures from Morocco. Hopefully it won't take too long to load this page now. Pictures of the other young couple are of an Jonathan and Brittany, a pair from Tampa that we enjoyed good conversations with. Cheers guys, we'll send you the full version when we get back to the US.

 The High Atlas Mountains

 A Dashing Young Couple

 Jon and Brittany

 Village In Atlas Mts

 Ait Benhaddou

 Crossing The River

 Valley Of The Kasbahs

 Jon and Brittany Again

 A Crumbling Kasbah

 Drummer On Desert Excursion

 Sunrise In The Sahara

 Camels In The Sunrise

 Riding Them Camels

 Sahara Sand Dunes

 Look For The Pain On My Face

 Essaouira From Fish Market

 Essaouira Fish Market

 Essaouira Sunset

 Fish Market At Sunset

 Feeling Ill But Still Smiling

Until next time, be safe.

September 16, 2009

The Moroccan Desert Excursion

We have gone on an excursion while in Marrakesh, an experience that will probably end up being really a pinnacle of our time in Morocco.

We had wanted to do the excursion, to see the different parts of Morocco that would be difficult to visit otherwise, and Jess really wanted to ride a camel in the desert, for some reason (I've already done that, in Tunisia, and could probably spend the rest of my life without having to do it again). So we booked an excursion through our riad, one that would take three days and cover some impressive parts of Morocco. It was expensive, but this kind of opportunity doesn't always come that often; who knows the next time we will be anywhere near the Sahara Desert? Besides, we have found out that Morocco is really an expensive place, being that it is the playground of Europe, and so our budget here has been shot anyhow.

Anyhow, we headed out early the first morning. We were picked up by a little mini-bus; there was no doubting that it was full of tourists (a label that I really don't like; I consider myself a backpacker, or perhaps a traveler) because the bus was labeled along its side with Tourist Transport in French and Arabic. Somehow in my mind I'd been hoping for a private guide for Jess and I, and so was a little disappointed when it turned out there were ten other people on the tour. They were a good crew, though, all tough travelers, which came in handy later, so I got over it quickly. We headed straight up into the Atlas Mountains. I'd heard of these mountains before, that they were really spectacular, and was not disappointed. I'm quite fond of mountains, especially ones that are massive, jagged, and leave me feeling very small; the Atlas Mountains fit all these definitions. Our little short bus did well going along the curvy roads that would go high up to one pass, drop back down to a river, then head back up for another pass. I loved it, though some of the others in the group, those who weren't used to mountains, weren't so fond of the driving.

We had a couple of main stops that first day, starting with the Ait-Ben-Haddou fortress, an impressive fortified town. We spent some time walking around the small town, up to a peak that had good views of the valley around it. Back in the day, the fortress had been a major stop along the caravan trail, but these days is mostly used as a tourist attraction and the backdrop of quite a few movies like Gladiator and The Mummy. It was pretty touristy, but then again, so were the other destinations along our route. After all, we were in a Touriste Transporte short bus.

Our other main stop of the day was the Dades Gorge, although along the way we passed through the Roses Valley, named for the roses grown there for perfumes and soaps, and along the Road of the Kasbahs, which are big, mud fortress like structures. Our route that day was quite beautiful; the kasbahs we passed were in various stages of repair/disrepair. There were many structures, from these big kasbahs to walled compounds to simple homes, that seemed to be just abandoned. As such, it was obvious that rain and other elements took their toll on these structures, and they seemed to melt back into the landscape, something like the castles of Ireland. They were quite scenic.

We reached Dades Gorge later in the evening, which was fairly unremarkable other than it was a deep gorge with a nice view. We stayed in a hotel there that night, and had quite a nice dinner. The next day we headed off to visit the Todgha Valley and its gorges. Again, the drive was as impressive in its views of the Moroccan landscape as it was long. We poked back into the Atlas Mountains for a few hours, then headed back out into the plains, where the day became very interesting. Although it wasn't the season for rain, we had the luck (if you would call it that) to see the Sahara Desert in the midst of a storm. We missed the initial downpour as we left the mountains towards the Sahara, but it must have been impressive, given the large amount of standing water on the ground as we drove along. The situation became more precarious when we arrived at the first of the many normally dry gullies. Having just come from Tucson, we understand the situation when it rains in the desert; roads often become impassable. The conversation in the short bus ended when everyone looked forward up the road and realized that there was a substantial river running across. We ended up braving that gully, as well as several others, although one in particular looked ferocious; it seemed tenuous, but the short bus didn't let us down. Soon we were hustling along to the dunes of the Sahara. We passed over one especially wide riverbed, dry but ominous nonetheless; our guide confessed that this one he had worried about, because if it had been flowing, we wouldn't have made it to the dunes and the camel ride. Actually, it started to flow not long after we crossed, and several other groups didn't make it to the dunes that night.

Finally we arrived at the Merzouga dunes; we brought the rain with us. From one standpoint, the irony was almost too much to bear that it was raining in the Sahara of all places the one night we were heading out to sleep there; on the other hand, it was remarkable in that most people never see the Sahara being rained on, for I'm sure that it doesn't rain there frequently. So we headed off into the dunes after mounting our camels, which are fun for about four to six minutes and then simply painful. We rode for almost an hour, which was beautiful with the clouds surrounding us, and then a whisper of a sunset below the cloud line. Unfortunately, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we could see a wave of rain heading our direction, and we caught a little bit of it before reaching our camp.

Fortunately, the bulk of the rain had preceded our arrival; of course, that meant our mattresses for the night were soaked, and the tops of our dining tent hung heavily with about a hundred gallons of dirty water waiting for an excuse to crash down on our heads. Our guides, none of whom spoke any English, sort of ditched us for about an hour, leaving us to mill around in the darkness of one of the sleeping tents until we realized a lamp was burning in the dining tent. Even there, we sort of sat around hoping the roof wouldn't spring a leak, looking at each other; we figured that as it was Ramadan, and since we arrived as the end of the day's fast arrived, our guides were breaking the fast and eating; we could even hear them cooking and eating in their tent. Not that we blamed them, though; for Ramadan, they fast from 4:30 am until 6:45 pm, so breaking fast is naturally quite important to them. Eventually they came and served us food; it was actually a very nice meal. There was the issue with communication; at one point they asked for aspirin, for the reason that one of the camels had a fever; we were mystified by this until we realized it was one of the camel guides who had the fever. Later they broke out their drums and played for awhile. Outside, the clouds had broken up, and a brilliant sky full of stars emerged, the Milky Way in full display.

Bedtime wasn't so great; as I mentioned, our mattresses were soaked, which was remedied by placing wool blankets over them. That kept us dry, but the pillows were incredibly musty and damp; from those pillows I'm sure that I developed a postnasal drip that has slowly worsened to include a sore throat, and Jess developed an ear infection that has plagued her even today. Still, no one in our group complained at all, they all made the best of the situation; this was a really good group, I was happy to have gotten the chance to meet them and get to know a couple of them. That night I slept like a log, and woke up a 5:15 to get back up on my camel to head back. En route to the short bus, the sun rose, in an amazingly short time, which was beautiful. That was even worth the sensation of being repeatedly kicked in the gonads that comes with riding a camel.

Speaking of camels, on the trip back to Marrakesh, our guide told us jokes that are popular in Morocco. The vast majority of them involves camels or donkeys, often in situations that are best not blogged about. A clean sample: How do you get a camel in a fridge in three moves? Open the door, put the camel in, shut the door. Not SNL material, maybe; then again...

The ride back to Marrakesh was nine hours long, but it was still nice. It was tempting to fall asleep along the way, but I found myself resisting, wanting to see as much of the Moroccan landscape as possible. My one complaint was that I couldn't have them stop whenever I wanted, to take pictures; next time I might have to rent a car, there is so much scenic landscape in Morocco. It is all very stark and rugged, and endlessly fascinating.

Back in Marrakesh, we arrived in our riad to find that our rooms had been lost to other travelers, but they put us up in a nearby riad. There was only one bed in that riad, so Jess ended up sleeping on a cot in a closet, but like I told her, at least she had a private room (she didn't find that too funny). It is part of the experience, I suppose. We headed out to the square for one last meal from the food stands, one last stroll around the craziness of the square, as we headed for Essaouira the next morning.

Until next time, be safe.

The City Of Marrakesh

We have had quite the experience in Marrakesh, a place to bustling and exhausting that three days is almost too much. In fact, we had to escape to the little seaside village of Essaouira to catch our breath.

Marrakesh is a crazy city, a place that rushes about in pursuit of raw capitalism like an addict chases a hit. Our guide book really touts the place, most of the pictures seem to come from its medina or its main square, the Djemaa Al-Fna. The books describes it as being such a place of exchange, as though it belongs to the world and the world owns it. All very dramatic, but not so accurate. Really, it is a place where you hand over as much dirhams as the sellers can get you to part with, and you might get something out of it. In that sense, it is a very frustrating place. You literally have to haggle for everything, and they start out at prices that make it impossible to have a decent end-price at all. The book suggests starting the bargaining by cutting to a third the original price and starting there. However, when they start with 12 dirhams (nearly $2) for two bananas, you know already you will get screwed, and it's best sometimes just to walk away.

While I seem to be on a tangent, let me get something off my chest. I don't like to complain, nor do I like to subject an entire nation to a subjective observation. However, there seems to be a definite trend that we have experienced in relation to pretty much every monetary exchange that we have had with Moroccans, and it has led me to a simple conclusion. Basically, if you are a foreigner in Morocco, you can expect to get screwed out of a fairly large sum of money, the total depending on how much stuff you buy and how long you are in Morocco. Even when you are aware that most Moroccans who have something to sell to you is looking to take you for as much as they can, you still don't always succeed in avoiding getting jacked. The best you can do is minimize how much they rob from you.

Allow me to illustrate. For almost everything that I have had to purchase, I have had to haggle for it. In these exchanges, I have experienced blatant highway robbery, in several forms. In one small cafe that we ate lunch in, I watched the waiter add up our bill, and I still didn't notice that he'd added 30 dirhams ($4) to the total; I figured it out later, when it was too late. I have had shopkeepers try to give me the wrong change (the 10 dirham coin looks similar to the 5 dirham coin), and I have gotten different prices from different shopkeepers in the same store, though they were similar in that they were both far too expensive. I have had shopkeepers place weight in the basket with the bananas that he was weighing on a scale instead of against them. We were taken for 150 dirhams ($20) for four lousy, small beers, as well as charged almost $2 for two small bananas (I walked away from that man). My least favorite experience so far was when we were headed to the bus station in Marrakesh, and found a taxi to take us. We haggled for awhile, and settled on 17 dirhams, even though the proper price would have been 10 dirhams. Once we arrived in the bus station, the driver suddenly wanted 70 dirhams, telling me that I was confused. According to Jess, I became quite irate, and had a few choice words, but at least I didn't throttle him, at least not outside of my mind. He walked away with 20 dirhams.

To sum it up, what I have realized is that in any purchase, no matter how safe it seems, you always count your change. You always know how much it will cost before you ask for the bill. You avoid souvenirs, as this is where they really stick it to you. Sadly, what I have come to feel is that I can't trust any Moroccan in any monetary exchange. I hate thinking that, but I've been burned too many times already, and I've talked to plenty of other travelers, all of whom have similar stories. It is exhausting, because you always feel like you're being taken. We've gotten to the point where we don't even want to buy food in stands, such as bananas, because we are tired of getting ripped off. That ends up just hurting the people of Morocco, because for every sucker they take, they lose out on future purchases by that angry sucker.

Obviously, you expect to have some of this in a country that has the kind of poverty that Morocco has; you don't even mind paying more than locals given that poverty, because it is easy to do. Still, they take it to a ridiculous degree here; food is more expensive than in Spain, and we simply won't even waste our time shopping for anything besides food. It also causes us to feel more than a bit hostile and bitter towards Moroccans; it's like having that red-headed stepbrother who blatantly pesters you constantly, and occasionally gets in a good sucker punch to the kidneys. Only, in Morocco, that sucker punch is a monetary loss on the foreigners part. I've never been anywhere like this before; it kind of takes the fun out of it.

Anyhow, that was my rant; like I said, I don't like to be negative, but this is part of our experience, and so I feel like I should write about it. Traveling isn't all fun and games, there are irritations sometimes, and at times you just feel like getting back on the train, heading back up to the ferry, and heading into Spain. But, for the most part, it is easy to let these things go and enjoy the experience.

Of course, the experience if Marrakesh was certainly not limited to these things. We really enjoyed Marrakesh, at least for the first several days. Then you get tired of the rush of the medina, the countless motorcycles whizzing by, the noises and the strong smells. I think that a lot of travelers just have to head to smaller towns, such as Essaouri, to take some time off from Marrakesh, it is just so exhausting. But when you are in the mood for it, the city is quite exciting. The medina, with all of its souks and shops, and the constant adventure of getting lost in the narrow, winding alleys, is really exciting. The main square, Djemma Al-Fna, is a bombardment on the senses with all of its food stands, the orange juice sellers, the snake charmers, the henna artists and the fortunetellers. It is a big part of urban, ancient Moroccan culture all packed into a small space. We ate in the square, in the little food stands, every night in Marrakesh; our meals rarely cost more than $10 for the both of us (they have set-price menus). It really is quite an experience.

We also got a little culture in Marrakesh. We decided to try out the hammams, the traditional baths. I guess most Moroccans don't necessarily have hot running water in their homes, so they get their hot baths by visiting these public ones. We opted for the traditional version, the kind that Moroccans will get. Jess went off with her assistant and a group of girls, and had a nice experience. I went off with a fellow who worked for the riad, and my experience was a little different. He took me to the men's hammam, which started with a dark and grubby room in which I stripped down to the bathing suit I'd worn. We went from there into an adjoining room, which was heated like a sauna. There was a tank of hot water, which the guy took a bucketful from. He splashed it down on the ground and instructed me to lay flat on my back. Now, the floor looked pretty darn dirty, and I had doubts that the bucket of water did much to clean it, but I was there for the traditional experience, so I went ahead and laid down. He used a kind of natural soap to wash my arms, chest, back and legs, strangely avoiding the bottoms of my feet. Then he did a series of what felt like a combination of stretch therapy and mild torture, bending me around like a pretzel and using his weight to press down. It never was as painful as the deep-muscle "massage" I had in China, but I wouldn't have called it painless either. He moved on to splashing buckets of the hot water over me, then finished with a scrubdown with a rough glove that was to scrape off any unnecessary dead skin, as well as some live skin. All in all, it was a good experience, one that many Moroccans get, so I will take it for that. I'm glad for a good, hot shower, though.

A funny story about me and Marrakesh: we were walking around the souks one of the days, and I kept feeling coins hitting my legs. This seemed to always happen around some teenage hooligans, the kind that always seem to be offering a tour of the medina or advice on where you don't want to go, and so I figured it was some trick or another, perhaps to catch my attention, perhaps to figure out which pocket I kept my change in. But I wasn't going to fall for any tricks, I was too smart. One kid, hearing a coin bounce out on the ground, cried, "It's yours, it's yours!" Belligerently, I ignored him as well as the coin, smug in the thought that I wouldn't be lowered to picking up a coin worth a few US cents tossed at me along with the name "Ali Baba" (which I'm not sure the meaning of, only that I've been called it several times). Later that day, sitting in a cafe, I was wondering where all my change went; turns out I had a hole in my pocket and had been losing coins down my pants leg the whole day. I wasn't so smug after that.

Now we are relaxing in Essaouira. This little village is quite nice. It's much smaller, for one thing, and the souks aren't so crazy nor as confusing. It's nice not having to dodge speeding motorcycles in the alleys. The fish market here is something else, possibly the most intense one I've seen before. The beach of course is really great, and has calmed our frayed nerves. We might not even get on the train and head north to Spain, or not yet at least.

Until next time, be safe.

September 11, 2009

Our Videos From YouTube

We have a few videos from Morocco and Spain, as I finally figured out how to upload them to YouTube. We are still learning this vidoegrapher stuff. Sorry.

Video 1 From YouTube - Call Of Worship, Marrakesh, Morocco

Video 2 From YouTube - Hello From Marrakesh, Morocco

Video 3 From YouTube - Eating In Marrakesh Market

Video 4 From YouTube - Hello From Madrid, Spain

Until next time, be safe.


September 10, 2009

Pictures From Marrakesh

I was able to put some pictures up from Morocco. These are all from Marrakesh.

 The Marrakesh Medina Souks

 Olive Shops

 The Meat Man

 Street In Marrakesh Medina

 A Poor Donkey

 Exploring The Medina

 Buying Candy

 Exiting The Covered Souks

 Drinking Mint Tea

 Until next time, be safe.


Random Mumblings

The life of a backpacker really is quite interesting, and it takes a bit of time to get used to such a different lifestyle. With each new country that we visit, we attempt to adapt to their customs and habits. In Portugal and Spain, we were able to cook our own meals and were able to rely on supermarkets for food. Just when we got comfortable eating pasta and marinara sauce every night, it was time to head to Morocco and meet a different way of life. There are some aspects to our current lifestyle that do not change. I have come to the realization that to continue to enjoy this much awaited trip, I have to be flexible and go with the flow.

One aspect that doesn't change is our laundry pattern. We both have only two outfits, so every day we take time to do our laundry in the sink.  We then hang it to try on the bed rails, which I think shocks some of our more modest bunkmates who take their dirty clothes to a be done professionally each week.  Also, this process doesn't really do the job of cleaning our clothing, so at baseline we always smell, even after showering.  This is okay. I am over it.

Another constant adventure is meeting our many bunkmates along the way. Most of them are nice and pleasant to chat with. It is always interesting to share different travel stories. It's been great so far, but you still have to go with the flow. For example, as the famous poem goes, if the couple on the next bunk over is going for a ride, the best thing to do is turn on your other side. Ahh, the joys of thirteen bunkmates.

It's all worth it, though, because of nights like tonight. We went out for dinner in the square and experienced a hectic but unforgettable meal. We sat outside in an open air restaurant and were seated right beside the chef. Throughout our dinner, he shouted and cursed in Arabic and even put out a large fire. Also, the waiter asked Aaron if he was done using his fork; before he could say yes, it was taken and given to a man at the next table. Who knows how many times that fork has been used tonight. It is all part of the experience. Looking forward to another funfilled and interesting day tomorrow.

فاهسخ نسمسم سخسخ خس سممسخسا ساسس

(Arabic parable: let not your nose wander into a tannery.)

Peace, Jess

An Epic Day In Morocco

I am writing from a little cybercafe in Marrakesh, Morocco. Hence, if I make a bunch of errors, it is because of a very screwy keyboard. I can write this from my keyboard: زقغلطئلالاتيهقغسىسظ ز ف (That means "white men can't dance" in Arabic).

Anyhow, it was a pretty epic trip down here. We started from a nice visit to the beautiful city of Sevilla, and headed down by a three hour bus ride to Tarifa, on the coast. That little town is a beach bum town in some respects; it has a perfect beach, and there are surf shops all along the main road. However, the wind blows almost constantly, and hard; we tried walking the beach, to get completely sandblasted.

The next morning (yesterday), we caught the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, and found ourselves standing on the pier in Africa, which turns out to be quite different than Spain, apparently. We caught a taxi (our first haggling experience in Morocco) to the train station, where there was a two hour wait for the train. The train ride itself was quite an experience. It was a nine hour ride from Tangier to Marrakesh, which by itself was significant. That was my fault; I had booked a riad (hostel) in Marrakesh without looking at the train ride time, as the country doesn't look all that big. I was wrong, though. Marrakesh is as far south as you can travel in Morocco on the train.

The length of time mattered little in the face of the whole trip. The train was at times absolutely packed with Moroccans of all types heading to different destinations, as the train stopped in Rabat, Casablanca, and went on to Fez (we had to change trains). There was air conditioning in the compartment cars, which was so inadequate we changed to the open cars, where there was at least a draft running through. During the daytime, the train began to swelter at each stop, when the draft stopped, and sometimes even when the train was moving. We were wearing very light clothing, and we were at times drenched in sweat; some of the Muslim women in their heavy garbs must have just been dying (as a moderate Muslim country, there seem to be few full body garbs, but the women generally dress conservatively, and often have on dresses and head scarves).

In addition, it is Ramadan, and so Muslims are fasting during the day, without food or drink. As non-Muslims, we aren't expected to follow the fast, but it is quite rude to scarf down food in front of them, so we tried quite hard to follow the fast. In the end, we started to get very hungry and dehydrated, so we had to sneak off to grab a bite of Snickers or a swig of water. No one would have said anything, it is simply that we want to be respectful. I ate my Snickers in the bathroom on our train car, which was very smelly, and the toilet was simply a large pipe down to the rail bed flashing by. I thought it was pretty gross; then I saw the bathroom on the next car. Still, nothing yet has ever beat the bathroom in the train station in Guillin, China; that place still haunts us both.

Still, the trip was fantastic. Being that it cut through half of Morocco, we got to see a lot of countryside, and during the day no less. It was quite interesting to see how normal Moroccans travel, to see them in their normal state, their normal activities. Then, as the sun was setting, we were heading up into the hills surrounding Marrakesh, and I pried the doors open on the car and sat watching the countryside flash by. The hills were bathed in red from the setting sun, and were completely void of any humanity except an occasional baked clay compound, with little buildings inside and little figures with herds of goats moving around them. We were approaching an electrical storm, and lightning lit up the skies in the distance. It was a stark, lonely, beautiful landscape; it felt good to be back in Africa.

We arrived in Marrakesh at about 8:30, and caught a taxi to the medina there; we had our second effort at haggling, and got screwed out of 5 dirham (75 cents). At the medina, we were planning on trying to find our riad by ourselves, being the independent folks we are. It became almost immediately clear that this was impossible, and one kid was persistently trying to be our guide, so we heaved a sigh of frustration ("Fine!") and followed him. Good thing, too, because as soon as we walked through the door of our riad, the electrical storm became a thunderstorm, and a pounding rain started. Our reception in the riad was great; they served up mint tea, and after we took showers and washed a load of clothes in the sink, the manager Kameel took us out to the main square, which was packed and crazy. We found some couscous and staggered back to bed.

Today we have been walking through the souks (markets), looking at all the goods for sale; capitalism is alive and well in Morocco. The medina is endlessly interesting; it is easy to imagine this place hasn't changed in centuries. We are taking a break from the heat and activity outside, though we can hear the muezzin calling the adhan, the Muslim call of worship, as well as the flute like sounds of the snake charmers with their cobras in the main square outside. It sounds like we are going to have a good day.

Until next time, be safe.

September 07, 2009

Pictures From Spain

I have used up the first memory card for my camera. That means I have taken 700 photos, using up 4 GB of space. I am thinking that I am going to have to buy a few more cards. Here are some from Spain.

 Segovia, Spain

 Segovia, Spain

 Jess In Toledo

 View Of Toledo From Tower

 An El Greco Painting (Shhh..)

Until next time, be safe.


The Bull Fight


After much debate as to whether to post anything about it, I´ve decided to write about our experiences at a bullfight. I am a little worried about people who might be offended that we even went to a bullfight, much less write about it, but this is part of our experience and so I am going to write about it. If you sense you might be offended, then I have two points: now might be a good time to stop reading, and also, as I don´t support bullfights, I won´t be going on about how fun or great it was.

Anyhow, we felt that going to a bullfight would be an important cultural event, as we are in Spain and this definitely a part of the culture here, like it or not. We purchased the cheapest tickets, and were at the stadium early to find our seats. I knew that the fights were of a lethal nature to the bulls, and possibly the humans as well, but I didn´t know much more about it. To give a quick synapsis of the fights (there were six of them), first there are a group of six or so fellows that wait for the bull to come rushing out. When the bull enters the arena, he is obviously angry and aggressive. So these guys use their capes to have him charge, and they see how close they can get to his horns without injuring themselves. This short segment is followed by guys on horses (all of these have names, I just don´t which ones are which, except for the obvious matadors). The guys have lances, and they provoke the bull to charge the heavily insulated horses, at which point they use the lances to drive off the bull--the first blood. This is followed by the next segment, probably the most distressing, when a couple of the guys on the ground trade their capes for short blades, which they stick into the back of the bull as he charges them. This is both very dangerous for those guys, and injurious to the bulls. Finally, the matador comes out, and after having multiple passes under his cape, in which he tries to elicit a response from the crowd by having the bull pass incredibly close, he uses a long sword that he drives into the bull´s heart, and the fight is over in as short as six seconds.

That is the short version, however, and clearly is a clean version of a dangerous, violent, and disturbing fight to the death. Theoretically the matadors will have a clean kill, but that isn´t always the case, which is a very disturbing event. Then there is the idea that this is a ¨blood sport,¨which is untrue in definition--there is nothing sporting about it. The odds are heavily stacked in favor of the men, which is natural; no one would want to get into an arena where the chances were quite high that they could be gored or killed. Even as it is, the bull weighs well over 1000 pounds and is impressive fast and powerful; one mistake could easily lead to a meeting of flesh against the razor sharp horns, which could be the end of a career or of a life. But it seems very unfair that there are up to eight men on foot or horse against the one bull, injuring and tiring it in a way that by the time the pompous matador walks into the arena, he is facing a very weakened bull. A more equal field might have the bull facing fewer men, and facing the matador when he is fresh and angry and above all, healthy.

At any rate, there are a dramatic range of emotions that occur in the bullfight. I found myself repulsed, especially in the beginning, first by the failure of a ¨clean¨kill and then by the cheers of the crowd around me. I found that I was cheering for the bulls, hoping that they might take down their opponents and perhaps live for another day; indeed, one of the matadors, facing a very weak bull, became so arrogant that he walked right up on the bull, and stood inches from its horns while looking up into the crowd. The bull suddenly came to life and flung him around a good bit, and Jess and I both cheered heartily, at least once it was clear that the matador only suffered a bruised ego. There is sadness at the demise of the bull, a massive, powerful creature that seems too strong to be brought down. There is relief that the meat isn´t wasted, but given to charity. There is anxiety and excitement when a matador or picador comes a little too close to the horns and looks as though a good goring is coming their way. There is certainly a degree of anger that people, of much greater intellect, taunt an animal that flies at them in such furious, instinctual (as well as inefficient) way, that the beast can´t seem to figure out that it would be better to ignore the cape and target the thin, sequined figures of the fighters. Finally, there is relief, after the fight, when the bull has died, and you know that the suffering has ended, especially when the sword meets its mark and the bull dies very quickly.

 The Bullfight

From an American perspective, this sort of event can be seen very much as a savage, barbaric, and inhumane. Yet we have a skewed view on this sort of thing. We watched the fight with a couple of Australians who we met in our hostel, and as the guy said, this is simply a different way of killing the animal, perhaps a longer way but not necessarily a more inhumane way. We buy a juicy steak from the market, and yet we don´t think about where that meat came from, or the methods used to produce it; we couldn´t or we would lose our appetites. I would think that these bulls, given their size and ferocity, lived better and more free lives than most livestock we consume. Besides, there are hundreds if not thousands of years built into this tradition, and Jess and I try very hard not to judge the cultures of other people, even the parts of those cultures that we find distasteful or disturbing. What it is to those people has much more meaning to them than to us, and believe me, there is plenty about American or Western culture that people around the world find very disturbing.

It gave us much to think about after the fight; we were in definite need of a beer. I don´t know if any of the four of us enjoyed watching the fight; you have to wonder about the mental state of a person who enjoys watching the demise of an animal. On the other hand, it was part of the cultural experience. I am betting that we can count on having additional cultural experiences and encounters that will ruffle our feathers. That is part of exploring outside the comfort zone we build around ourselves. That is part of exploring in general.

Until next time, be safe.


An Interesting Night

Hello All!  It´s Jess.  We are still in Seville and will leave for Tarifa in the morning around 9:30.  We are both looking forward to our upcoming journey through Morocco.  Our experiences there will be so different from the ones we have had in Spain and Portugal.  It should be a good time though!

So last evening we went to see a bullfight.  I can´t say that I am proud of the fact that I have now witnessed such an event, but it seemed we should go to experience this part of the Spanish culture.  I will try not write too many gruesome details, but there were several thoughts that I took away from the experience. 

I do not believe that bullfighting is an actual sport.  Prior to the matador making his grand appearance, the bull has been charging for 10-15 minutes towards various colorful capes and has been horrifically stabbed 5 times.  So, when the matador enters the arena, the bull is exhausted and bleeding profusely.  There is virtually no chance of the bull actually winning the match.  The matador then taunts the poor animal until he then decides it is time to stab it.  If it was actually a fair game, the matador would confront a healthy vibrant bull, and the animal would have chance for victory. 

As I sat in the stadium surrounded by cheering fans eagerly awaiting the kill, I wondered what happens to the bull once it has died.  We did learn the answer, and apparently the meat is donated to charity.  I suppose hearing this pleased me somewhat.  So basically this is just a different form of killing an animal to use its resources.  Instead of being sent to the slaughterhouse, he is sent to the ring to be taunted and stabbed by the matador.  It is unfortunate that the latter death is not quick and painless, but drawn out to 20 or so minutes. 

I could write down more opinions on this, but I won´t because I would probably type all day.  So, in my small and humble opinion bullfighting is in no way, shape, or form a sport.  It is just another way to slaughter a cow, which in the end provides nutrition for those in need, thanks to donation.  I would never go back to a bullfight, but Aaron and I try to immerse ourselves into the culture when traveling.  I don´t always agree with what I see, but I try not to judge because each and every place is so different.  I guess that is what makes the journey so interesting.

On a lighter note, tonight we will join the hostel group for dinner of paella and drinks.  I am sure a good time will be had! 

Peace, Jessica

September 05, 2009

The Tiring Life Of Living Out Of A Backpack

We have arrived into Seville, Spain. (In Spain, it is known as Sevilla; Spanish folk won´t understand you if you ask about Seville). It has been a long trip here.

Madrid is a nice city, especially in the evenings when the crowds come out into the plazas and cafe terraces; there is a great energy in the city. Still, it is a really big city, which can be a little overwhelming after awhile. So, we took a day trip our last day in Madrid. We jumped on a bus and headed out to a little town called Segovia. It is a nice town for sure, but it turns out that it is fairly touristy. It doesn´t help that it has a huge and amazingly intact Roman aqueduct just outside its walls, or that it has the castle that supposedly inspired Walt Disney´s Snow White fairytale castle. The streets get pretty choked with the tourists. Still, it was a nice trip to get outside of Madrid. 

The next morning we were off early to get to Toledo, which is a real magical place. It isn´t nearly as touristy as Segovia, it seems so much more authentic and interesting. To be clear, it is a much larger city than Segovia, and was in fact the capital of Spain for a long time until it became clear that it would not be able to keep up with the growing importance of the capitalhood (it is build on a relatively small hill). It is a fascinating medieval city, winding streets and tall buildings that frequently are older than the US. We only had a day there, but we walked a lot, and ended up seeing the city from end to end (there are 56,000 inhabitants, but it is a compressed city). That was actually fairly impressive, because we managed to visit one of the most interesting museums for a couple of hours in the midst of getting ourselves repeatedly lost in the hilly streets of Toledo. That museum, the Museo Duque de Lerma, was probably the most interesting museum that I have visited for a long time. It is relatively unknown museum, we were the only visitor, and for our entry fee, we got a personalized tour. It was really nice, because sometimes you walk through these big, impersonal museums, and if you aren´t an art or history buff (I am not, for those who might wonder), then it turns out to be about as exciting as a kick in the face. Our guide went through the entire museum with us, telling us history and information about the pieces. The museum was a hospital for the poor at some point, which is interesting especially for those of us who are nurses. There were patient charts from the 1700s that had hand designed covers, and an advanced pharmacy from that period that was really amazing. Not only that, the museum had a number of El Greco paintings, which were displayed much more intimately than, say at the Prado; you could put your nose about an inch from the canvas and really look at them.

Toledo was quite a place. After walking ourselves into a stupor, we found a little restaurant that served the locals; those places are precious in their own respect. This one served paella and tapas, two dishes well known as Spanish specialties. We spent the evening hiking up and down the steep streets of Toledo, the place takes on a special sort of feeling, more quiet and calm and perhaps reminiscent of the days of centuries before, after the crowds retreat. Then we collapsed in our bed, which happily was in a cheap but nice hotel (41 euros for a private room!) and slept like rocks until this morning.

See, we are getting tired. Day after day of walking, miles and miles, begin to take their toll. Yet, when you only have a day in a place like Toledo, there is no way you are going to take a day off and relax. We walked for hours there, and the hills were impressive. That city might be built on the top of a hill, but it runs all the way down as well. So, today, we decided to have a rest day, with our one objective to make the trip back to Madrid by bus and then catch the train to Sevilla. The journey itself was impressively exhausting. We had to carry our bags down to the bus station; we both are imagining that these bags are slowly gaining weight, like a chubby kid at fat camp. Jess is convinced that her bag is holding more stuff now than before, even though if anything more of her stuff has migrated to my bag. Anyhow, we made the bus in the morning, and arrived back in Madrid. Then we had to walk into the metro system and get onto our correct metro line. Turns out that two stops from our connection onto the second line, they had closed our first line for repair, so we had to get off and jump onto a third line for several stops to get further up the second line in order to reach our destination. Besides the progressively heavier bags, the stress of trying to keep up with the changes in the lines, in Spanish no less, was taxing. By the time we reached the train station, we were both grumpy as hell. We made the train with no problem, but couldn´t look at each other for the first half hour on the way to Sevilla.

Then we arrived in Sevilla. Problem was that while I had booked a hostel in Sevilla, I hadn´t written down even the name of it, thinking I would have access to my email before we left Madrid (that was before the day trip to Segovia, and there aren´t internet cafes in Toledo that I am aware of, nor are there hostels). So, I had to go find an internet cafe, before trying to reach our hostel here. The hostel, which I now know is called Triana Backpackers Hostel, is located a distance from the train station, something like 3 km. But we are brave and independent, and too cheap for the bus (it would have cost 1 euro), so we decided to hike it, regardless of the oppressive heat and humidity here in Sevilla. The logic in that decision was called into question about ten minutes in, but by then we had started and couldn´t be turned back, even for the calling of an air conditioned bus that stops outside the hostel. We made it to the hostel, albeit sweaty and worn out.

Not that there is going to be any rest this evening of our self-described day of rest. We cooked food, we are going to do a little laundry, we are going to clean up a little (we smell), and then we are going to go see some free Flamenco dancing tonight. Tomorrow is a bullfight.

You see, we only have three days in Seville, and one is already over. There is not a moment to waste.

Until next time, be safe.

September 02, 2009

Big City Madrid, Spain

We´ve spent the last couple of days in Madrid, Spain. This is a big, bustling city with narrow, winding streets filled with people out dining, wining and socializing. In other words, a pretty exciting place.

We weren´t so happy initially to see the city. Our overnight train ride from Portugal on Monday was pretty exhausting. Besides the rolling motion of the train, people walked up and down the aisles all night long, and being three in the morning didn´t stop everyone from talking in normal conservsational tones. I finally fell asleep around four, but only for a few hours, and neither of us was well rested. We were pretty disoriented coming into the city, it took us awhile to figure out the metro system. After a nap, we were fine, though.

Even better, we were able to wash our dirty clothes, in a machine, no less. We´ve been washing our clothes in the sink for the last week, which isn´t a big deal. Still, they don´t get terribly clean that way, so when we found we could do a load for 3 euros, we jumped at the deal.

Our hostel in Madrid is nice, a beautiful, modern place. The staff there isn´t nearly as nice as they were in Lisbon, where they actually knew us on a first name basis after three or four days. The hostel here in Madrid doesn´t have the homey feeling that we enjoyed in Lisbon either, but I guess we´ll be experiencing all sorts of living conditions.

Speaking of living conditions, we are spending tomorrow night in Madrid before heading to Toledo for a night, and then on to Sevilla. There, it turns out that we can rent a nice apartment for 50 euros a night, which is more expensive than we would like (our hostel here in Madrid costs 30 euros for the both of us; then again, there are 12 bunks in our room). There are hostels for much cheaper in Sevilla; we will have to decide whether we can splurge or not.

Our budget in Spain is 70 euros a day for each of us, which is far too much so far. However, looking at lodging in Morocco, we are realizing that we under-budgeted badly, so it would be better to save money in Spain to use in Morocco; perhaps we will come out even that way. Still, it is tempting to get the really nice deals because of our budget allowances, even when it is unnecessary.

At any rate, Madrid is treating us well. We spent a good part of the day in the Museo de Prado, which is truly a world-class museum. There were some remarkable paintings from masters like Goya and Valenquez, as well as El Greco, that I actually enjoyed, despite my adverse reaction to the general art world. We walked around the place until our feet were sore; it has an immense collection, of which a high number of them are masterpieces. That is just hearsay, though, I wouldn´t know a masterpiece from a paint accident; really, they would have four paintings by the same artist in a row, all looking very similar, such as portraits done in the same fashion, and one would randomly be called a masterpiece. They were all about the same to me.

Tomorrow we are heading out for a day-trip, to a smaller city called Segovia, where there is a Roman aqueduct from the first century. That is a kind of history you don´t get much in the US.

Until next time, be safe.

Hosting by Yahoo!