Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cultural Connections

The lights in my train car don't work, so I sat for a while in near darkness. The train stopped and a few people got on. They filed down the aisle past my window until one man slid my door open and joined me. I couldn't see much beyond an outline.

"Hello," he said in Arabic.

"Hello... do you speak English?" I said in French.

"A little."

We chatted a bit. He sounded about my age, but I wasn't sure. He was on his way to the next town on the line where he would work through the night as the security guard at a gas station. He lamented how little he was paid, saying that wages were a problem throughout Morocco. "But I love my country," he was quick to add. He was extremely friendly; soft spoken, smiling and eager to converse in English - just like every other Moroccan I'd met on the trip.

I had my laptop out and felt a few pangs of white guilt about it once he mentioned how little he was paid (a mid-range laptop is worth around three months' salary to the average Moroccan). I was about to close it and put it away when he asked if I had any music.

"Yeah," I said, pleased that my self-consciousness had been misplaced. "But mostly American music."

"I like American music..." He thought for a moment. "Do you have Kenny Rogers or Justin Timberlake?"

I don't have any Kenny Rogers, but I absolutely have Justin Timberlake (I'm not even going to claim that as a guilty pleasure, by the way. Say what you will about his body of work, but 'Futuresex/Lovesounds' might be the best pop record of the decade).

Language barriers kept us from getting too far in the way of conversation, but we both had our heads bobbing in its absence.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I walked for 8km down streets of dirt and broken cement. When you can find a steep enough hill, you can see the coastline - an ocean cresting into an expanse of whitewashed homes and stone minarets. The original plan was to stay in my hotel room, sleep, read and recuperate from my time in Spain (and a vicious two-day hangover). But lord knows I'm not the type to splurge for air conditioning, and here's a shocker: Africa is really hot. [Note: To be honest, most backpackers are quick to point out that Morocco is not "Real Africa". Probably fair.]

The city is visibly poor, but populated with very happy people. I walked all that way totally unharassed by shills or beggars. Though that may be have been because I was the only foreigner that I saw all afternoon. School had apparently just gotten out (2pm) because children ran, weaving and screaming, kicking soccer balls between taxis and pedi-carts. I gesticulated my way through a €1.20 purchase of olives, cheese and bread. Some kind of mango pulp/yogurt drink set me back another €0.40.

I like it here. Glad I only have a day, but happy to have seen it. I'll be on a train to Casablanca first thing tomorrow. I have no idea how much it will cost or how long it will take. $12 and six hours are my guesses. The route never deviates the coastline though - so I think I'll be happy with half a day in a right-hand window seat.

You'll see this on a quiz someday...

When you cross from Algeciras, Spain to Tangier, Morocco, you can look out over the side of the ferry and see England, Spain and Morocco; Europe and Africa; The Atlantic and the Mediterranean - all at once. The sun was just dimming on a perfectly clear horizon as I was setting sail. The lights from both continents were already visible as we left the docks. Views of Gibraltar (an interesting English-controlled peninsula near Algeciras) broke free of the coastline as we left the harbor. Stars enveloped the ocean.

Fast ships can make the crossing in 35 minutes. My clunker took 2 amazing hours. I'm very happy I didn't fly. I can't image a better way to have been introduced to Africa.

Spain Recap

So it was kind of a break-neck tour, but from what I saw; color me impressed. On my last day in Madrid I bought a bus ticket from a midget. I didn't actually need one, but my brain kept making jokes (Spanish midget = Spidget?) until I sort of found myself putting money into his tiny little hands. For the rest of the afternoon, I hopped from line to line, only exerting myself to make sure I didn't get too lost. It was a good idea. I saw a lot of the city, and fell that much more in love. The streets are lined with shade trees and deck furniture where Spaniards sit throughout the day drinking Sangria and beer. An almost incomparably beautiful city (Florence and Rome come to mind as equals) is the frame for its happy, youthful population. I rode for a good two hours.

And such was the tone for the rest of my trip. As I've said before, my only regret is not having had enough time. Happily, it's starting to register that the country is my new neighbor, and I'll have plenty of time to get back once I've settled in. I've heard Cadiz runs some badass wine tours.

If you're ever lucky enough to get over there, I'd really recommend no fewer than 4 nights in any one place. The speed and aggressiveness with which I usually try to case a region was profoundly inappropriate for Spain. I always got the feeling that the siesta culture that permeates Spanish society is mostly lost on someone passing quickly though. It's a country to be observed from a lawn chair, not glanced at from a run.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Granada Wins

Madrid is a party, Seville is gorgeous, but Granada has swept in for the overall win. As wonderful as Madrid and Seville are, they're a bit sterile. Everything is wheelchair accessible. Tourists snap enough pictures to compile a real time stream of information to rival London's CC camera system. Elderly Americans ride around in horse-drawn carriages like they're taking in the sights at Moorish Disney.

Granada feels like the city on the approach to an ancient fortress. What makes that feeling particularly refreshing is that the city is exactly that. Claustrophobically narrow cobblestone streets, steep ascents, vantage points that make you feel like you're on defensive overwatch. And above it all; Alhambra - The Red Fortress. Granada is a working military outpost, overrun by Bohemia. Dreadlocked Spaniards wander the streets in their cheesecloth European parachute pants. Food and drink are cheap (the free tapas with every beer tradition that I've mentioned before is very much alive here). University students sit and read on every flat surface.

The city feels like more of a home, less like a tourist trap. I could imagine living here.

There's a lot more I could write... People live in caves outside the city limits. Alhambra and the cathedral are amazing. Expat 20-somethings make incredible lives for themselves here. My hostel feels like a North African version of The Beach. I'll catch up on it later when I can upload some photos.

Again, the only negative is knowing that I have to leave soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Accomodation

I've stayed in a lot of hostels. Slept around, as it were. And the two I've stayed in so far in Spain have been the 1st and 2nd best I've ever seen. I don't understand why you would stay in a hotel here. (...Privacy, I guess - but whatever)

<-- This is the view from the terrace at the place I stayed at in Seville. $20/night, free breakfast, free tours, and if I didn't throw like a girl I could hit the Seville Cathedral with a rock.

Contrast that to the places I stayed at in Thailand: Prostitute next door, smelled like dead person, roaches, electrical outlets that looked like they were wired by an arsonist. Or Rome: Actually a tent, ten miles from the city center, scorpions. Or Russia: Hobo knife fights, blood. Not that I didn't love all of those places, but Spain plays in a whole different league.

I love this country.

Writing these things in bus stations is working out pretty well. Hopefully I can knock out another one between here and Granada.

La Noche en Blanco

The whole country of Spain is on the sleep and work schedule you kept during college. The day starts no sooner than ten o'clock. Anyone on the street before then (unless they are still out from the previous night) is pissed off and avoiding direct sunlight. Work for four hours, then go home, drink a couple beers and take a nap (siesta). Go back to work and keep things running until nine or ten, then remember that you're hungry and go get dinner. After dinner, hang out with friends and drink whatever's cheapest until two when you pass out. Same plan on Friday, but your 2:00 siesta segues into a 16 hour bender and you spiral into a nocturnal liver-punishing cycle that takes you through Monday morning.

That's not a joke. I was fortunate enough to have attended a big art festival on the streets of Madrid called La Noche en Blanco (The Night of White... or In White?) the night after I arrived. There were brochures for it on the turnstiles of the subway. Big city fold-out city maps covered in 115 numbered dots. The key on the reverse side covered the various art and music happenings at each dot. I couldn't read the descriptions, but I could read the time. 9 to 6. At night.

People throw around "the whole city" a lot in describing public events - "the whole city came out for the Rose Festival" - and it isn't true. Some statistically negligible fraction of the city came out. But when I say, 'The whole city came out for La Noche en Blanco', I mean it in a mathematically factual way. The streets were packed. The. Whole. Night. Apartment buildings were dark and the din of conversation and music blanketed everything I saw. Sleep anywhere but a soundproof bunker would have been impossible.

Part of my certainty that no soul remained indoors comes from the distance that my group and I walked. Miles. We had no idea what was going on, so we just took to the streets and meandered toward whatever was making noise or shooting lights into the sky. We must have covered five miles between 11pm and 5am (when I finally made my way to a bed and coma'd out). And every last block, bar and plaza was packed.

This was after my first full day in Spain, by the way. I slept for 14 hours the night after.


Let's see if I can hammer this out in the eight minutes before my ride to the hostel gets here. I'm sitting in the Seville bus station after a pleasant 5-hour roll through the Spanish countryside. Most of the landscape was unremarkable, save a crossing between a bunch of interesting granite formations about 100km outside of Cordoba. Also, I was sitting next to the Smelliest Man in Spain, so I spent most of the trip dystrophically gnarled toward the aisle.

The best part of the ride was seeing Arabic starting to make its way onto the road signs as we got further South. I even saw the occasional building with what best translates as 'Reshtaa'rante' written across the top in Arabic script. (A lot of the most famous buildings in Seville and Granada are built in, or modified from, Moorish style.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Prado and Reina Sofia

I know as much about art as I do whiskey. I love some of it, appreciate most of it, and throw up violently if I'm in Thailand drinking it out of a plastic jug. Happily, I have yet to experience any of the latter in Madrid. Today I got a chance to visit two of the best art collections in the world; the Reina Sophia and Prado museums.

I visited the Reina Sophia first, and probably spoiled the Prado for myself in doing so. The Reina Sophia is an overwhelmingly large complex of modern buildings fused to an old limestone foundation of columns and grand hallways. And much of the work it houses, contemporary art from the likes of Picasso, Dali and Gris, are mentally exhausting things to assimilate. Especially if you only have a few hours. Picasso's Guernica (I've mentioned it earlier), for example, is displayed in a large white room, flanked by two rooms of the artist's studies for the painting's many parts. It took me over an hour to get out of that wing of the gallery.

Like any contemporary museum though, there was also a bunch of stuff that I thought was retarded. Some jerkoff mounted a plastic tube to the floor of the lobby that had bubbles running through it. And some other guy framed a leaf. Stupid.

Like I said; the Reina Sofia was exhausting. So the Prado received far less mental energy from me as a result. The two really shouldn't both be squeezed into the same day. Minimally, I should have had a beer and a nap between them. But to be fair, classical and renaissance art doesn't usually resonate with me as much as newer stuff. Also, The Reina Sofia might be the best contemporary museum I've ever seen (next to the NYC MoMA). The Prado doesn't rank as well for Classics.

The only negative for the day was realizing how insufficient the two days I've allotted for Madrid are. Four should really be a minimum for this place.


I once asked my friend when Cinco de Mayo was. My Spanish is that bad. And to make things worse, the Spanish speak their language with such a delicate European flourish, I've started confusing it with Italian. It was with those handicaps that I wandered into the Madrid bus station and bought my ticket to Seville ("Sevilla" if you want people to know what you're talking about).

"Uhhh... uno ticket to Sevilla en mañana. diez... in the morning."

The piece of paper she handed me in exchange for my 20 euros looks like a ticket to Seville, so I assume I did it right. We shall see tomorrow after I get off the bus.

After I got my ticket, I had a late lunch that turned out to be one of the day's highlights. While I was walking to the metro station, I passed a tiny bar that was so packed with people that it was literally impossible to enter. People were jostling toward the door in an eight-deep mob on the sidewalk. That's a better recommendation than any website or guide book could possibly write. I made a mental note of it and returned later -- still packed, but with enough floor space to reach the bar.

I ordered by pointing at the guy who went ahead of me and saying "uno". I got an 8oz glass of light beer, and about 20 seconds later, a plate piled with food - tapas; potatoes with spicy sauce, toast with ham, and some kind of fried pork dumpling. I handed the bartender a 10euro note, and got back eight and change. €1.20 for a beer and a plate of food. And both were delicious. I ordered again - "uno mas" - and got the same beer, but a different, equally delicious, plate of food. I finished it, was stuffed, but realized that I had only spent €2.40. "Uno mas", again. I left without finishing the last plate of food, and half buzzed from the beer.

If any of you are ever in Madrid, I would strongly recommend you check this place out. One of the best, cheapest meals I've ever had. I was talking to the guy who runs the hostel I'm staying in and he said it might be the city's best place for free tapas. Apparently you can get tapas chasers for beer here, just like we get beer chasers for shots in the US. Awesome. It's called El Tigre (The Tiger)... two blocks North of La Gran Via - halfway between the palace and The Prado.

Oh... and apparently this is tonight. Note the time. No sleep for me.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I'll keep this one brief since I haven't really seen anything yet.

I managed to pack pretty much everything I own into the two backpacks I brought, but they are heavy. Like 30 kilos heavy. I'd need to look up how many pounds that is, but I can say authoritatively that it's enough to make for an uncomfortably ponderous hike through needlessly expansive Canadian airports. (Seriously... Toronto; like 5 miles long, no people in it).

So, even without the sleep that any normal person would have gotten on the plane, and all the gratuitous exercise, I'm really happy to finally be here. It's nice to know I'm actually doing something again. Going somewhere.

Also, Madrid is gorgeous. I dropped my stuff and walked for about as far as my legs would allow and everything, in every direction, is beautiful. I'm right in the middle of the city next to some large buildings that I should know the names of. But I don't yet, so more on that later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


As much as I like to write, I don't think I've ever been a very good travel writer.

I spent six weeks in Italy a few years back. Every night I'd come back to my guesthouse in the suburbs of Rome after a long, hot day of exploring; my brain swollen with ideas... and nothing would make it onto the page. "The Vatican, a sovereign state in the heart of Italy, is the center of Catholocism..." I'd trail off. Will the people who read this not know that already? Wikipedia -> 'Vatican'. I wasn't saying anything new. "Seeing this ancient city gives me new perspective into the grandness and scope of human artistic achievement..." and trail off again. Who cares?

The travel writing that I read always has some form of novelty involved: War/political correspondence, epic road trips, exploring something obscure or inaccessible. Failing that, I want the philosophy of it. I want the ideas and understanding that seem to ferment so naturally during protracted travel to be articulated concisely. Ryan Holiday, one of a few dozen bloggers worth following on the internet, wrote this recently:

Another way to get your narrative fix: Riding in the back of a cab or a towncar on the way into Manhattan. You come over the Williamsburg or the Brooklyn Bridge and you see the whole island laid on your right. If you lay back in the seat just perfect and stare out the window, the city, it seems, awaits your arrival.

A few hours earlier you were somewhere else - in another state, on a plane, over the middle of the ocean - but now you're here and the timing, well, it couldn't have been any better. You could broke or paid on business and the feeling is the same. That the epicenter of the world is open to you, that you matter there.

What's important to remember is this sensation is meaningless. Or rather, it projects no new meaning onto you as a person. You should enjoy it. It is, no doubt, a rare and special feeling. Yet it is one of these agnostic narrative events into which you personally figure at such a minuscule percentage that is essentially exactly the same for everyone else.

So take it for what it is but don't take it to heart.

He's talking about a sensation that people feel all the time, but one that takes a writer of a higher caliber than my own to articulate. That's travel writing worth reading; the sort I aspire to.

Here's something else I stumbled onto today. This is one of the best monologues I've heard all year. Not to mention one of the best explanations for why you should travel that you can fit into 120 seconds.

There are anchors of stasis that people chain to their lives. Accoutrements of the status quo. The point of good travel writing is to show people every other way they could be living. That's what I hope to get better at.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Europe, Tourism and Desensitization

A week and a bit before I get on a plane to Madrid.

I wish I could say I were more excited. To be honest, I totally checked out about six months ago. "You'd be good at this job if you gave a shit," were the exact words from my last boss. My whole life for the last few months has been like the last two weeks of a job after you've given notice. I've been stealing office supplies, drinking at my desk and flirting with the boss' wife every chance I got. Metaphors, I suppose - but I could probably think of a literal instance for each.

So, while I'm not particularly excited about getting to Morocco (My brain has already been living there. It found the IKEA and made a bookshelf.), I am excited about Spain. There's a saying: the more you travel, the more your gaze turns toward self reflection. It's true, I suppose. Too much of anything - even travel - can marginalize the experience and draw your attention inward. But that has never been the case for me in Europe.

If I have a limit for old buildings, cathedrals and monuments, I haven't hit it yet. And Spain is pretty much the last of the Western European countries I've yet to explore. The itinerary has been pared down badly, but I still think it's pretty solid:

4 Days: Madrid
3 Days: Seville
3 Days: Granada
[Ferry from Europe to Africa]
2 Days: Tangier
3 Days: Fez
[Arrive in Casablanca, check into hotel, start work the next day]

The image on the right is of Alhambra, a Moorish fortress in Granada. It has been toward the top of my to-see list for the better part of a decade. Having an afternoon to wander around and drool is going to be awesome.

Also, my favorite painting is in Madrid:

And of course, I'm going to do 10+ months worth of compensatory sangria drinking. Thank you, Islamic Morocco. Bleh. Somebody find me a religion that lets you do more stuff, as opposed to less.