To: People on the old mailing list
Subject: Morocco, Portugal, more on Spain, Vaughan Town, other stuff
That one’s in English, I need the practise. Travelling with ‘anglos’ and then volunteering in an intensive English conversation program has made me realise A: goodness me it’s so nice to just rattle on for hours in your mother tongue, and B: Oh dear, my English has deteriorated so much! The presence of native speakers has made me self conscious of some changes. My vocab choice is weird and formal (I steer towards latin based words that Spaniards are likely to understand), I’m hesitant with conjunctions, I accidentally use Spanish grammar structures, and I’m constantly surprised and impressed when my listener understands phrasal verbs, idioms or slang, even if they’re an Australian who I’ve known half my life.
To make matters worse, my castellano went downhill the moment I left Hinojosa. When a friend picked me up from the Jaén bus station near the end of my journey, she said to me after only minutes of conversation “you haven’t been speaking Spanish recently have you? I noticed as soon as you started talking”. Ouch.
Of all ways, now it touches me to change the chip and burn my eyelashes studying. (Anyway, now it’s time for me to change settings, put my head down and study.)
But moving backwards. I wasn’t sure how to start this email, so I went and read the previous, looking for clues or something. It was no help, being too long, and full of nonsense.
At the time of writing it I was unsure whether or not I’d be coming home to renew my visa. I should probably clear that one up. Fortunately/Unfortunately, I don’t need to. Which means I’ve saved a lot of money. However, I won’t be seeing many of you for a long time. I could put a sad face in there but it wouldn’t fairly convey what I feel, and as I struggle to put words to the subject, it’d probably be better if I hadn’t mentioned it at all, but now I have.
So the facts.
I’ve started the visa extension process (it sure is a process), and have been assured that everything is now under control and can be taken care of from this end. To be doubley sure, and because someone in an office somewhere told me it was necessary, I jumped through burning hoops of fire (almost) to obtain another extra special piece of documentation, entitled ‘permission of return’,so that I wouldn’t come back from Morocco a clandestina. I’ve since flashed the certificate at security personnel in various transit points, but they all waved it away as though it were a dirty tissue, with a look of “why are you showing me that?”. How should I know?
Right now I’m writing from Martos, a town (of 24 whole thousand people!), near Jaén, a city in the north of Andalucia, Spain. So again I’m living in the north bit of the south, just more to the right (east). About two hours inland from the Mediterranean coast. Almost perfect.
Although the traveling part of my holiday is over, I’ve still got what feels like an eternity ahead of me before I move to Segovia and start work in September. It’s amazing how many hours there are in a day when you don’t have to work or be anywhere specific, and the sun sets well after 10pm. Perhaps this is why Spaniards are experts at passing time without-doing-anything-in-particular. Despite being a very Catholic country, ‘the Devil finds work for idle hands’seems to hold little sway here. Perhaps the Devil sympathises with the furnace-like conditions of the Andalusian summer, and not even he could expect anyone to labour in the heat of day. Anyway I’m going to try my best to be good, and productive, for the rest of my time off. I started by writing a big list. Perhaps a little too ambitious a list, but it was very satisfying to write. I have a sneaking suspicion that the commencement of the Olympics will save me from working too far down it, but in the mean time, one of the first items was ‘send travel email’. Which means I have to write it first.
So the TRAVEL part.
Well, my friend Mel (from high school) came over from Australia and we met up in Casablanca, and spent a month on the road together, travelling through Morocco and Portugal and a little bit of Spain.
These are some of the things we did…
… actually, more like ‘places we went to’. We did more or less the same things everywhere. That is, we wandered about looking at shops and people, ate unusual food, looked at unusual buildings, learnt new things about history and culture and religion (I’m beginning to forget what, but definitely remember learning), we did our best to prevent getting sunburnt, did nothing to prevent getting lost (that’s the best part), and frequently commented like a broken record ‘how nice it is to be on holiday!’, because it is!
Casablanca (grey): Is a big, big city. Dirty, hot, crowded, and busy in a businessy kind of way. Due to a minor glitch in planning, I’d had to book a last minute hostel the night before, with my fingers crossed in the hope that Mel (in ‘airoplane mode’) would get the message in time, and that she’d be waiting for me there on my arrival. Much to my relief, and kind of like magic, she was. After so much solo travel, it was great to be a team again, especially when landed in the centre of such a vast city, completely foreign, and almost entirely (visibly) male. The first night we went out for dinner was probably the closest I’ve ever felt to culture shock, in that I was really glad I wasn’t there alone.
But by the white light of morning, everything looked easy again, and we went to visit the big famous mosque. So famous, it’s name currently escapes me. But it’s very impressive; it’s built half on the sea, has an opening/closing roof like a sports stadium, holds 25,000 people, has underground fountains, and is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful (which is fortunate, as it cost millions to build). The grandeur is of the architecture is phenomenal, but what makes it truly amazing is the detail of the intricately carved interior, and the sea hued mosaic decorating the cream coloured exterior. So Morocco won me over in less than a day.
Essaouira (white): A small city on the coast, known for its whitewashed medina (ancient arab walled city where cars can’t enter) and long long beach. Also known as ‘the wind capital of europe’ (something the lonely planet didn’t mention, or I failed to read). Swimming was an impossibility, unless you wanted to battle it out with the extreme sports people who harnessed windpower in ways I’ve never imagined. However, we did a bit of our own extreme sport; by going for a walk along the beach, where we were nearly guillotined by a crashing glider thingy. It would have been a very abrupt end to the holiday. Then after about an hour walking in one direction, happily chatting away and unconscious of the distance we’d travelled, we had to spend over twice that time struggling back against ferocious winds and blasting sand. Conversation was impossible, it was the most we could do to breathe properly as we inched our way home. Such an intense and gruelling workout was not quite what I’d planned for ‘three relaxing days by the sea so we can acclimatise and find our feet’. After that we tried not to do anything too strenuous for the rest of Essaouira.
Instead we opted for a hamman (traditional arab bath). But this also turned out to be an act of endurance, albeit passive. We asked the hostel owner for advice on where to go for the baths, and he said ‘do you want the tourist version, or do you want the real thing?’. No points for guessing what we chose. We were led to the hamman by two arab women who worked at the hostel. I assumed they were just guiding us so we didn’t get lost in the medina, or were going to act as translators. Except they didn’t speak English, and came in with us, and promptly stripped off their veils and long dresses, right down to their birthday suits, and motioned for us to do the same, then led us to underground rooms full of steam, water, scores of brightly coloured buckets, and women of very literally all shapes and ages and sizes, and then they sat us on the floor and scrubbed us from head to toe. For three hours. I have never been so clean in my life. ‘Assisting’ them was one of their daughters, a bright and beautiful nine year old who delighted in tipping buckets of water on us, tickling our feet, poking our wobbly bits to watch them wobble, and practising her alphabets by writing in the muddy henna on our legs. (Henna makes bath time fun. It also stains your nails. A month later, I still have half grown out orange-brown crescents on my fingernails, which now kinda looks like a tequila sunrise design). Anyway, the hamman was an incredible experience and a wonderful introduction to Arab culture and, in a way, Moroccan hospitality.
Marrakech (red): In the‘red’ (terracotta) city we met up with Fiona, a mutual friend from our Kooyong waitressing days. We stayed in a fabulous hostel which was a converted riad(large family home), with colourful tiles, cushions and clientele, a decadent home baked breakfast, turtles on the terrace, a beautiful view across the city, and to top it off, limitless coffee, mint tea, and shisha. What more could one want? I was almost content to just stay in the hostel the whole time, and chat to all the friendly and interesting people coming and going through the heavy wooden doors. But Marrakech was buzzing, and we couldn’t wait to get out there and be in it. The souks (covered markets) are endless and the atmosphere is exciting. It’s very accessible to western tourists and comparatively easy to navigate (compared with Fes). My favourite part was the night market; a foodie’s dream come true. Semi temporary outdoor kitchens cook all varieties of food, people squish together at long narrow folding tables, everything was delicious, and a big group of us ate ‘an inelegant sufficiency’ of many many spicey little dishes for about 5 euro a head.
The Sahara Desert (sandy): From Marrakech we made an overnight trip into the Sahara. This entailed about 9 hours in a very small and sweaty bus, through the atlas mountains in the heat of day (occasionally stopping at some ruins and an oasis), and then another couple of hours by camel in order to reach our tents. Which all sounds very romantic, but in practise…well I’ve had more comfortable journeys. It was well worth it though, just to be in the desert, see the sunset and the stars, feel the hot sand under the cool sand when you dig your feet into the dunes at night, learn how to tie a turban, learn snippets of Arabic and Berber (the language of the original Moroccan tribes before the Arabs came) and chat with people who live very different lives to ours.
Fes (cream): Is a labyrinth, that’s the only way to describe it. It’s grittier than Marrakech, and impossible to fully experience without the assistance of a guide. Our half-day tour stretched much longer than that, as we visited artisans workshops, the leather tanneries (you have to smell them to believe them), and wandered through some of the 8,000+ winding streets as our (amazing) guide talked for hours about Moroccan history, Islam, and how and why the medinas were built they way they were. Each neighbourhood has five critical features; a mosque, a school, a hamman, a public fountain, and a bakery. This last one is because each family makes their own dough, but they don’t have their own ovens, and it’s the baker’s job to recognise whose bread is whose when the women come to collect it. Which I thought was Quite Interesting.
Most Moroccan handiworks are made in Fes, and then exported to Marrakech (or further), so it was amazing to get right to the source, see how things were made, and of course, have the opportunity to buy them at a much cheaper price. Our guide would have made an excellent cut for bringing us to certain stalls, but the deals were still amazing and I think we all came out winners. Now I’m just waiting for the weather to cool so that I can finally wear my custom made jacket that I ordered from the leatherworks at the tanneries. (How are yours going Mel and Fi?!)
At the end of Fes, we sadly bid Fi adieu (with plans to meet again in other exotic locations, inshallah). Then Mel and I headed for the hills.
Chefchaouen (blue): is a small town in the Rif Mountains, towards the north of Morocco. The houses are traditionally a pale sky blue, though some foreign owners paint their holiday homes a deeper ‘bluer’ blue. It gives the place a cool, relaxed feel, just what we needed after the sticky city chaos of Fes. The town has always had three main industries; water (fresh and clear from the Rif mountains), wool (weaving and carpets etc), and marijuana (grown for centuries by local families). The fourth and newest industry is tourism, which has recently grown to eclipse the other three as the biggest money bringer. Fortunately, the locals still outnumber the backpackers, and though Chefcahouen is certainly a destination for ‘drugs tourism’, it doesn’t have the feeling of being sold out, dirty or corrupted in any way (perhaps because the ‘kief’ is grown by honest farmers like any other crop, rather than in South America for example, where the industry is run by evil gun wielding drug lords).
Anyway, we spent the time much the same way as in the other cities, but also directly ignoring my mum’s advice by going hiking in the mountains with a local guide (sorry!). But I’m so glad we did, as it was beautiful, we needed the exercise, the guide was great, we met some friendly goats, and we were back at the hostel safe and sound in time for lunch.
From Chefchaouen we caught a shared taxi (rather cosy) up to Tangier, as we were advised it would cost the same as the bus and take less time. So we saved about an hour’s travel, and Mel had the pleasure of sitting half on the gearstick for two hours, with me squishing tighter and tighter into her armpit as I desperately tried to avoid leaning on the door handle every time the car turned. Fun. We took another shared taxi from Tangier to the Tangier port (actually quite far away from each other), and from there, a ferry to Spain, just like that. The port was new and swanky and very ordered, in complete contrast to my expectations (and the cab ranks we’d passed through on the way there).
Hot pink toilet paper: seemed to be the standard fare across Morocco. I have no idea why.
Cats: Lots of them, everywhere. Even though they were stray, they didn’t seem too feral, as the people encourage them. Cats are said to get along well with muslim angels (dogs don’t), and of course, they keep away the rats.
Favourite new foods: Pastilla,a sweet chicken pastry, spiced with sugar and cinnamon, avocado ‘juice’, and ‘cous cous royale’, which we think might have been camel meat. I guess I’ll never know.
A note on safety: Before travelling, many kind and caring people offered me their advice. And it was always along two very different lines. Either “DON’T trust anyone, or do this or that, because (insert stream of negative comments and frightening anecdotes here)”, or the polar opposite “DO say yes to any invitations of hospitality, DO do everything you can to meet the locals, make the most of every opportunity and you’re sure to have a ball!”.
Whilst I appreciate the former (and took it on board, most of the time), fortunately it was the latter that applied. We never felt threatened, or out of our comfort zones, and the whole trip was remarkably seamless. We received a very mild level of verbal harassment, only in the more touristy areas, and it was more about sales than anything else. Like any third world country, yes it can be dangerous, yes there were pickpockets and beggers and it was dirty, but overall, it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming or as ‘bad’ as we’d expected, or been told to expect. It was no doubt more dangerous in the past but there’s been a concerted effort to make tourism safer and more attractive, and many young Moroccans are particularly eager to dispel the bad rap, and promote it as a modern and progressive country. There’s no reason that any sensible traveller would have a problem there, at least in the places we went to. The people were gentle, kind, funny, and overwhelmingly enthusiastic about everything. If anything, I wish I’d stopped and chatted to more of them.
As for internet access, Morocco is better connected than Spain, and WiFi was easy to come by in most touristy places.
The only real annoyances were things such as having to haggle for every item, which is just a drag.
And knowing some French or Arabic would have made the experience not only smoother, but more enriching.
After a short respite in a setting that was familiar to at least one of us, it was time to get back on the road again. We took the bus to from Sevilla to Faro, a town on the Agave, the south coast of Portugal. We spent about two weeks in this splendid country, divided mainly between Faro, Lisbon, and Porto, and from these bases we made some day trips to beaches, national parks, castles, and heritage listed villages. The highlights being…
A wonderful beach day: near Faro, with some fantastic people we met at the hostel. One of those magic situations where everyone just clicks, and laughs and laughs and laughs (possibly we had sunstroke), then we all went out for an amazing Indian dinner (as you do in Portugal) and to see random free music in the streets. Breakfast the next morning was a little sad because we all had to go separate ways. Thank goodness for the internet.
Lisbon: To me it was a cross between Rio de Janiero and Paris. Someone told me that Rio is like ‘Lisbon 2.0’, which I guess is a fair call, except that I saw them the other way round, so Lisbon will forever remind me of Rio (which is kind of like a prematurely aged younger sibling, who’s spent too much time partying and in the sun). Lisbon has beautifully paved tree lined boulevards, grand plazas and magnificent buildings (like any big European city) and lots of steep winding alleyways. At the time we were there it was hot and sticky, which added to the sense of being back in South America. I loved the old dingy neighbourhoods the best; the dark grey facades went up and up, and were decorated with fading azulejos(coloured tiles) and bright streamers from the recent festival of San Antonio, the city’s patron. The shops were artistic and innovative, and the streets smelt like char grilled sardines.
Fado: The folk music of Portugal. It began in the tiny, dark bars of the Alfama neighbourhood of Lisbon. Which is where we went to hear it. It’s sung by a powerful, dramatic vocalist (male or female, or in duets), and accompanied by the twelve-string Portuguese guitar. The music is characterised by longing and heartache and the lyrics are generally depressing, although can apparently also be funny anecdotes (given by the crowd’s reaction, I understood very little of what was going on).
Whilst we were in Lisbon there also was a Fado festival happening, and I chanced upon a free outdoor concert with a young master guitarist (out of this world), and a much revered older Fado singer. I have a feeling I don’t fully understand how lucky I was to see them play together, live, the first night I ever saw or heard Fado.
Sintra: A big national park, with twocastles (one granite and medieval, the other brightly coloured, like a lego fortress), and a gorgeous little village filled with artsy shops. Well worth the day trip from Lisbon.
Porto: In year 12 I had a magazine cutout of Porto stuck into my art folio. Exactly ten years later (ten years!), it was pretty damn exciting to be there and walk around the beautiful, rambling waterfront. Another dream came true when we visited the famous bookshop Livraria Lello, which has an ornately carved interior, red floors, little tram lines within the store, and a magnificent curving staircase that reminds me of a H.R.Giger (the guy who designed the Alien and Predator costumes) illustration. We also walked by ‘Cafe Majestic’, where J.K.Rowling used to take her coffee, whilst writing Harry Potter. She lived in Porto for four years, and little bits of the culture creep into the books, such as the name ‘Salazar Slytherin’, which was taken from António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator up until 1974.
Porto was a bit more ramshackle than Lisbon, with a much more colourful waterfront, but a greyer, grimier interior. I loved them both, and could happily live in either (it’s an idea), and I know it’s not a competition, but, well, actually I still can’t decide which I preferred.
Ribera del Duero: Is one of my favourite wine regions in Spain, and it turns out the name comes from the river coming from Portugal, which passes through the beautiful Duero valley. The two hour train ride from Porto to Régua (a little village with lots of port wineries) is UNESCO listed as one of the most beautiful journeys in the world (or something to that affect).
Portuguese cuisine: Has some similarities with Spanish (such as chorizo and sangria), but overall was very different. There’s less pork and more seafood and vegies. The savoury mainstays are char grilled sardines and salted cod (cooked hundreds of ways). They have more main size dishes, which were excellent value, although I personally prefer tapas so that you can taste a bigger selection. They did have some kind of croquetta-like dumpling thingies, shaped like giant figs and filled with spiced meats inside the potato, which were my absolute favourite. As for the pastries, the Portuguese tarts were the obvious choice (and they were good), but there was so much more to choose from than that. If I only I had more time and a faster metabolism! Oh, and there were also Portuguese chicken shops, like no-frills Nandos, only less healthy, more juicy, and about a quarter of the price.
So, that was the major part of our travels, and this email has got to a ridiculously long length. (When I started writing I didn’t quite feel like it and thought‘this’ll just be a short one’, ha.
After Portugal we took an overnight bus to Madrid, just in time to see Spain play (WIN!) the final of the Eurocup. If Portugal had beaten Spain in the semi final, we would have stayed there a bit longer to cheer them on against Italy, but I’m pretty chuffed about how it all turned out (so is Spain).
We had a couple of days in Madrid, did some wandering, ate some paella, sat in the park, and the just like that, our time was suddenly up… inevitable, but nonetheless unbelievable how these things happen. Mel set off for Australia (a lot of ceramics in tow), and I hopped on a one hour train ride to Segovia. It seemed like days later (after I’d criss-crossed Spain a few more times, relocated all my belongings, renewed my visa, stayed a couple of nights with different families and the trip already felt like ages ago), that I heard she’d finally arrived home! I know the world is supposed to be getting smaller… but Australia is still so bloody far away!
After getting all my ‘stuff’ all sorted, it was back to Madrid and back on the bus for a week of Vaughan Town. This time we went to Valdelavilla, a secluded, rustic hotel in the mountains, four hours north of the capital. I’ve sung the praises of the Vaughan Town English program in a previous email, and this time around it was just as fun, just as exhausting, and I met just as many wonderful people as the first.
Some of us stayed on in Madrid the following weekend, but bit by bit we all went our separate ways, until it was down to me and Chris, a friend I met at Vaughan Town last year. On the Sunday afternoon we very bravely got in a little hire car, and with the help of her iPad, made it all the way south to Martos. Go us! Well, go Chris, she was driving, I just ‘navigated’ and got flustered by the iPad. As a map reader who likes to turn the map according to the direction I’m travelling in, it was very frustrating when the sneaky gadget kept trying to get smart on me and rotate the screen whenever I turned it! this is no help! AND it directed us the wrong way down a one way street. Machines are not to be trusted, I tell you.
Anyway, after a day exploring the rolling hills of Jaén (olive groves as far as the eye can see), Chris took off in her little car, armed with both the iPad anda paper map of Extremadura, just to be sure… and to the best of my knowledge she’s still out there…
I right now, am happy to be staying in the one place for a bit. The owners of the Martos house are a Spanish/Australian couple (friends of mum) who are easy to live with as they enjoy reading and pottering about just like I do, cook me nice food, and speak a very accessible dialect of Spanglish. They’re leaving in a week or so, and then it’s just me for a bit….which is where the Olympics and weekend trips come in, to be sure to be sure to prevent me going stir crazy. And there are plenty of feral dogs and cats and toothless neighbours in the area to keep me company*
Believe it or not, I think that’s all.
Stay well everyone,
*emails from home are nice too.