Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tales from Spain, Portugal, and Morocco

My dear friend Ciera met up with me in Barcelona, and we set off to explore Spain, Portugal, and Morocco together! We may have gotten quite a few stares when we saw each other across the airport, ran toward each other squealing, and then belly-bumped/hugged (we each had our large packs on our backs and smaller ones in front). There was a drum corps in the airport playing music to celebrate the arrival of someone else, but the chaos of their performance only added to my excitement to not be traveling alone for once!

I started this portion of the journey well by running around the famous Park Guell at sunrise. I didn’t stop to take any pictures or explore the buildings, knowing I will have a chance to do so later.

First disappointment of the trip - the Gaudi cathedral, La Familia Sagrada, required buying tickets a few days in advance, which we neglected to do. His other buildings in the city are quite expensive to enter. We got a few lovely pictures of the outsides.

Our first night there, we decided to go with a group from our hostel to a free music festival. Upon arriving, we found ourselves surrounded by 10,000 teenagers - we were the old people of this crowd, which was a strange feeling. It was chaotic. We left some time after 3 am, right when the party was getting started, and walked for way too long before realizing that our roommate at the hostel who “knew Barcelona like the back of his hand” was too drunk to know where we were. Taxis are a godsend.

We also traveled up into the hills above the city to see Montserrat, a beautiful former monastery built into the rocks.


Ciera was determined to see this place of partying legend, the beautiful island where celebrities can be sighted (in the summer, anyway, not during the season’s closing weekend, when we went). After a relaxing afternoon on the beach, we got ready to go out around 10. We headed downstairs to find other people from the hostel and decide which club to go to. We then spent another few hours sitting around chatting, finally leaving at 1 am. Maybe I’m getting old, because at this point my bed sounded nicer than any club. We came all this way, so there is only to press on. We quickly realized this is not our scene. Rather than pop or house music which is popular in the US, the DJ’s are spinning loud, throbbing, repetitive, somewhat down-tempo music. I think this is called trance music? You can’t dance to it, other than to step back and forth and nod your head a bit. At 4 am we called it quits, although the others from our hostel stayed out until 7 am or later. We’re glad we went, but won’t be back. Oh, and for anyone who knows the Mike Posner song, yes, there were a lot of people taking pills in Ibiza. We refused to even take a sip of anyone’s water, just to be on the safe side.

Sunset over Ibiza

We now made our entrance into Southern Spain! As I was a Spanish major during undergrad, I was beyond excited to see all the places and buildings I learned about in textbooks. A constant theme throughout Southern Spain is the heritage of three cultures living in the same place - the Catholics, the Jews, and the the North African Muslims. Of course, the latter two were expelled from the country or forced to convert around the same time that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, so it hasn’t always been peaceful co-existence. Regardless, all three ethnic groups have noticeably impacted the local culture.

We had the funniest moment of the trip in Toledo. It was mid-afternoon, and as we walked along the hill opposing the city to get a panoramic view, along a popular tourist route, we spotted a parking lot that had a fantastic vantage point. I started to walk into it, before looking over to see a car with windows down, music blaring, and two teenagers… well, doing what teenagers do at look-out points. We made awkward eye contact, and I quickly walked back to the road. I couldn’t resist yelling over my shoulder, “Que se diviertan! (Have fun!).” A few seconds later, they yelled back, in English, a very insulting phrase involving my mother, which I quite resented because she is a lovely lady.

Famous painting by El Greco - textbook come to life!

We found a 19 Euro flight to Marrakech - is this all our lives are worth? - and of course we had to go! It was our first time in Africa, and also our first time in a predominantly Muslim country. We were apprehensive, but also excited! Upon arriving late at night, we waited a bit for the taxi driver our hostel had hired to transport us. He was late, and I immediately started worrying, because I didn’t want to have to find another taxi in a city where there are many counterfeit or illegal drivers. He eventually showed up, thankfully. We were amazed by how many people were out and about so late at night, but it makes sense given that temperatures in the fall are in the 90’s during the day. Summer,of course, is much hotter than this. We approached the Medina, or the walled-in old town, and our taxi driver stopped unexplainedly and told us we had to wait. We both tried to stay calm, even though we had no idea what was going on. Then, a man walked up to the taxi and told us to follow him. We did, skeptical, although he had told us he worked for our hostel. It turned out that he was a lovely person, and he had to come get us because the millenium-old streets are too narrow for taxis to pass through.

The next morning, we needed to pull out the local currency from the ATM before our private tour. The hostel worker told us to take a right and a right, which should lead us to a large square. We think he meant a right and a left, because a right and a right led us into the maze of tight alleys that is the Marrakech market. It was early morning, so no one was shopping yet, and the merchants were setting up their stands for the day. The men all talk to us - “Hello!” “Beautiful.” “Where are you from?” “Buy ___, I give you good price.” “Hello, HELLO!” I instantly applied the skills I learned in Latin America - when harassed on the street, keep eyes down, don’t respond, look busy, look tough, keep walking, at all costs do not make eye contact. We were still very uncomfortable, and desperately trying not to get lost in the maze of market corridors. We couldn’t find an ATM, so we hopped into a bank, exchanged currency, and found our way back to the hostel. At this point, we were late for the private tour, and they were mad at us. It wasn’t really our fault, though, so we put it behind us and moved on.

Our tour is wonderful, and deeply uncomfortable. First, the positives - we got to see beautiful places, many of which we couldn’t have seen without a male guide who knew the city well. After all, as we had already seen that morning, women in public spaces without a male guardian are generally treated very poorly. We are not just women, we are foreign, white, and non-Muslim. However, the aforementioned requisite male guide was beyond creepy. He was a 67 year old man who, I kid you not, had a large patch of nose hair growing on the outside of his nose, and thick glasses which made it appear that he was constantly looking down our shirts. Perhaps he was, because he is lecherous. As soon as we got into the van, he told us how delighted he was to have us on his tour. All throughout, he stood too close, physically corned us up against buildings, and gripped our arms for much longer than comfortable, or necessary. He “accidentally” grazed our breasts. If he felt that we were not paying enough attention to what he was saying, he gripped our arms tighter, or grabbed the strap of our purses. Even the locals stared at him, disturbed by how he was treating us. We were deeply uncomfortable, but unsure what to do as we didn’t want to anger him, as we thought we might be in more danger without him than with him. In hindsight, we should have told him off, but I’ll expand more on this in a separate post about lessons I’ve learned traveling as a woman. 

He explained things relatively well, but managed to interject a few creepy statements. When we heard the muezzin, or Muslim call to prayer, he bragged to us how flexible Islam was because he could finish the tour and then pray later, from where he was, without compulsion to go to the mosque. He added how wonderful it was that Islam permitted him to forbid his wife from going to the mosque at prayer times, because he should be able to keep her at home (implying that’s where she belongs). Later, whilst walking through the harem’s quarters in what was formerly a palace, he distinguished the genius of Muslim architecture from Jewish architecture: you see, the Jewish houses we had passed earlier, where you could see into their patios? The Muslim architecture has the patio on the inside, away from prying eyes. Imagine you girls doing your chores half-dressed, or naked. (Ewww, why are you imagining us naked? Why are you talking about it?) Now imagine someone walking by and seeing you. No good - clearly better that the women are hidden away (implying that women should be only for the consumption of their man. Never mind that he can have as many of them as he like). 

Finally, it was the end of our tour. Our guide walked away quickly and we didn’t have a chance to tip him, and the worst thing is, we felt guilty! Then I told Ciera that he didn’t deserve a tip with how he treated us, and she agreed.

Mr. Creepy left us at a Moroccan restaurant with food he swore was authentic and clean. We ate well - roasted nuts, dates, savory meats, mint tea, and traditional desserts. Everything was delicious! 

Upon leaving, we walked into the market (yes, the one close to our hostel). The variety of wares was truly staggering - everything was so beautiful. Every few steps, there was a different smell and sight - glistening hand-made jewelry, bushels full of spices, raw meat sitting out while flies land on it, piles of fresh herbs and produce, glowing intricately carved lamps, hand-tooled leather shoes and purses, and Argan oil and other botanical products which are indigenous to the region. I wish I could have taken more pictures, but it actually would have been dangerous to do so. Moroccans don’t like having their photo taken unless you pay them, and they can be a bit aggressive about it. I thought I was being discreet when snapping this one, only to see looking back on the photo a few minutes later that someone had noticed. No more market photos for us!

A traffic jam involving a donkey cart, a few trucks, several motorcycles, and pedestrians
Anyway, as we stood in a jewelry shop, I started to get hot and nauseous. Deep down I knew what was happening, but I tried to tell myself that I was just overheated. After all, in an effort to comply with cultural norms, we were wearing long jeans, long sleeve shirts, and scarves even though it’s really hot outside. At some point, I accepted the inevitable- I had gotten food poisoning. I pulled Ciera away from a nice but insistent shopkeeper, who was disappointed at the lost sales, and told her I needed to return to the hostel immediately. Problem was, even though we knew we were close, we didn’t  know how to make it out of the maze. Ciera desperately asked for directions from shop owners, while I leaned against the wall, half-delirious, trying desperately not to get sick all over their goods. Finally, a restaurant owner took mercy on us and walked us to the hostel’s street himself. It was just in the nick of time, because I sprinted for the bathroom and immediately began dry heaving, before my lunch made a sudden and violent reappearance.

After we were sure that I won’t throw up again, we went to catch our night train to Tanger. There was a language barrier buying tickets - we indicated that we wanted second class tickets, not knowing that we had signed ourselves up for a long night in stiff-backed chairs which don’t recline. To top it off, the lights stayed on, and people’s conversations/music video viewing/who knows what else continued almost the entire night long. It was not restful in the least.

Exhausted, we still tried to make a day of it in Tanger, doing a taxi tour. After a tasty lunch at a tea house (which DIDN’T make us sick!) we stocked up on junk food and headed back to the hostel with the intention of not leaving again until morning. Of course, we were harassed the entire walk back, even by boys who may not even be old enough for middle school. At least our hostel has a good rooftop view, and we dined while listening to the minor key strains of the Friday night meeting of worship at local mosques.

Ancient graves
Where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet

Hercules' cave - legend has it he came here

So, when people ask me how I liked Morocco, I say that it’s a lovely place, but that I will never again visit without a man. It’s truly unfortunate that this is the case in the 21st century, but our experience was just degrading, by and large. There was one redeeming experience: the bus ride to catch a ferry back into Spain. Outside the tourist areas, the men on the bus were wonderful. None of them harassed us, and they were very considerate to female passengers, helping them with their groceries or their children. So, it’s unfair to speak poorly of all Moroccans.

I don’t often get “hangry,” but after eating so little in Morocco for fear of getting sick again, and a travel day which took longer than expected, I rapidly devoured the free tapas which we got with our sangria in Granada. We immediately loved it here, and it turned out to be our favorite city in Spain. There is a university in town, meaning that there were lots of young people, and the city just has a good vibe.

The famous Alhambra, a palace

One of the neatest cultural experiences we had was watching a Flamenco show in a small venue recommended to us by our hostel’s owner. It was truly small - there was enough seating for maybe 20 people, and standing room for a few more at the back. The show was mesmerizing, particularly when the female performer danced - she was unabashedly fierce, and her focus, commitment, and skill in her art was intensely alluring (and I say this as a straight woman - I instantly developed a lady crush!).

Boy, bye

Not much to say here, because we were exhausted by this point of the trip. We came mainly to see the Mezquita, a building which has been both a mosque and a cathedral at various points over the centuries, and which is one of the most famous buildings in Spain. It was actually more amazing in person than I had imagined, which is saying a lot!

The Catholic cathedral which was superimposed in the middle of this building which was originally a mosque
Lisbon and Sintra:
We ended the trip on a high note, because Ciera and I both agree that this was our favorite place of all! It’s hard to select any one salient element of the city - it’s more that the city had a combination of wonderful things which contribute to an altogether lovely place. The people were incredibly warm and welcoming. There were far fewer tourists than in the other cities we’d been to. The streets were charming, and the city was full of great look-out points. Portuguese is easy on the ears, and similar enough to Spanish that I could communicate with relative ease. I was already enjoying the city for all these reasons, but when our handsome waiter brought me a free, unsolicited (but very much enjoyed) pint of craft cider as we watched the sun set over the river, I officially fell in love.

It's like I teleported to Rio and San Fran, but really, these are just Lisbon's versions of Cristo Redentor and the Golden Gate Bridge

And then, and then, we explored Sintra, a place which can only be described as magical. We visited Quinta da Regaleira, an estate with a huge garden designed by a quirky wealthy family to be a delightful real-life fairy tale. There were little tunnels which lead to man-made caves. stone towers, cathedrals tucked among the trees, waterfalls, fountains, and all varieties of grasses, shrubs, and trees. It was a great place to get lost for a few hours and appreciate the whimsy and extensive planning and effort which went into making this place.

We also see Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. It strikes me that this is the closest to home I'll be during my whole trip!

#Wifey #WeGoToTheMostRomanticPlaces
Barcelona, again:
Just like that, our two weeks traveling together came to an end, and we flew back to Barcelona so Ciera could catch her flight home. We said goodbye quickly so that we didn’t have time to tear up. Ciera is truly a wonderful person to travel with, and I feel so lucky that she took the time off to come travel with me! Our trip was fantastic, and one neither of us will ever forget.

So, after Ciera left, I circled back to the spend more time at places we had passed by the first time around. I got to go inside Sagrada Familia this time, and all I can say is,  Wow! I also walked around Park Guell for a few hours. 

Barcelona from Park Guell
From here, I took off to Vienna, where I was to be reunited with my dear friend Kieryn! This, of course, will be a separate blog post.

1 comment :

  1. Michaela, I so enjoyed vicariously sharing your experiences in this blog. Love your thoughts as you respond to the people and places you visit. Glad you had a great time with Ciera. Go with God! Love, Mom