Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Blinded in the shade

I’m in Minneapolis, a day early (and possibly a dollar short). I’m here for a conference that starts on Wednesday, so I don’t really need to be here until tomorrow. However, a couple weeks ago, before being invited to attend the Grace Hopper Conference, I learned that a former coworker and someone I consider a friend and mentor, has stage-IV pancreatic cancer. I used to teach with Melinda at The Yellow Nunnery. Then I moved back to her home state of California, and she and her husband retired to Honduras (I always mistakenly think she is in Nicaragua). Melinda is one of those people that has been on my list to visit along with friends in Morocco, Spain, and Australia. I made it to two of the four places this year. 

So when I learned that Melinda was undergoing treatment in a hospital in Wisconsin, and that I was going to Minnesota, I scheduled my trip a day early so that I could drive the five hours across the state border. But I didn’t make concrete plans of anything because, by then, she was leaving the hospital for the final time and settling in for hospice care. And I know that a lot can change in two weeks, especially since she’d only been eating ice chips for the previous three weeks. Considering the immense pain she was in, I was secretly hoping that her god would be swift and merciful.

Before I got on the plane this morning, I left her a message that I was on my way to the midwest. As I debarked, I read a message from her husband that said she’d slipped into a coma and things were progressing quickly. I left him voicemail. Awkward voicemail. This is one of those times that I never know the right things to say. I told him that I was going to stay put in Minnesota. I didn’t want to intrude on their grieving process. This is time for family. 

Besides, I have my own grieving process for the world losing another intelligent, strong-willed, powerful woman. It includes sitting in a strange place, drinking a beer, and typing on my laptop. Melinda is adventurous and curious. So in her honor, I’m exploring and I’m enjoying life. I’m eating and savoring the flavors of food and drink since she couldn’t consume anything but water for the last few weeks of her life. I may have just squandered calories on a plate of fried, gouda mac & cheese balls with spicy catsup along with a Summit Extra Pale Ale at Brit’s Pub & Eating Establishment in downtown Minnesota while watching people play lawn bowling on the rooftop bar. But the calories were worth sinking my teeth through the hot (Minnesota-hot, not Thai-hot) tomato sauce into a crispy coating around a ball of gooey goodness.

As I type this, the sun is setting behind one building while it reflects off the windows of another. I find myself in the juxtaposition of being blinded in the shade while contemplating life and death and what we all mean.


Day 10: Granada

We rented a room in an adorable little hotel in Granada, up at the top of the hill in an old part of the city. Tiny, one-way streets lined by white-walled homes, with no where to hide, but an inset doorway when the occasional car passed through. The little hotel was beautifully done in thick dark wood, similar to what you would find in a ski lodge, and a little out of place, but a lovely contrast to all the stucco. Like I’d seen in Morocco, it was set up with an open-air atrium in the center.

Andalindsia and I set out to wander the town. It turns out that the weekend we were there happened to be Fiesta de las Cruces or better known as Cuz de Mayo or May Cross. Each of the neighborhoods puts together a display with a large cross covered in red roses as the centerpiece. Each display was tailored or the neighborhood that designed it. During the days, there was live music and dancing. Girls and women everywhere dressed in traditional flamenco dress. It was amazing to witness.

I’m so glad that I visited Morocco and southern Spain in the same trip because I hadn’t realized how much of their history collides. Our Friday afternoon was spent at the Alhambra, which is a fantastic fortress and palace complex that was inhabited by both Christians and Muslims at separate times, each leaving their mark in the historical site. It is definitely a place that needs to be visited, just for the history of it. but I have to say, I was somewhat disappointed, mainly because the only thing left are the structures. The artwork and furnishings were all gone. However, the walls are particularly ornate, even if the architecture is only partially interesting. I was surprised to learn that Washington Irving had spent a lot of time in the Alhambra.

The gardens of the Generalife, part of the grounds of the Alhambra, were particularly stunning, although our walk through them was cut short due to a thunderstorm. Andalindsia explained the difference between Spanish and English style gardens to me. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but English gardens are often wild looking, with plants growing over other plants. Spanish style is very manicured. I finally feel like I understand the difference between gardens and landscaping in New England versus the Spanish-influenced California.

After the Alhambra, we took a nap, just like I used to in college so that we could go out at 10 pm and stay out until 3 am. Andalindsia and I had a double date! I don’t think I’ve actually ever been on an official double date, so it was kind of exciting. I’d definitely never been on a blind date that wasn’t just set up by the internet. Andalindsia had been out before with The Journalist and he was to bring a friend. Turns out, the friend he chose was a pretty good match. The Journalist brought me The Graphic Designer. Great smile, speaks English, and we had lots to talk about. The Journalist got nervous a few times because I was talking very loudly and with my hands, but it was just a heated discussion about some of the companies that I despise.

We had a lovely evening drinking in a couple different establishments, eating meat substance (I was a bad vegetarian and didn’t feel like trying to explain to them), wearing stranger’s hats and dancing in the basement. Sadly, I don’t remember where exactly that we went, maybe Andalindsia can fill in those blanks. I’m not as familiar with the area. I tried to remember to be a good friend and get water for Andalindsia occasionally. I loved that she is going through all the things I did in college but with the benefit of twenty years of life experience.

It was a fabulous evening. I hadn’t had that much fun on a date in a long time. Hopefully, that will change. That evening made me realize that I really should be trying harder on this dating thing. I’m not going to make it my second job like my sister did, but I can at least make more dates and look nicer when I go on them. It is all about first impressions, right? So far, I’ve been the one turning everyone down, so I haven’t had to try. Maybe it would help if I did. Stay tuned.

Day 9: Seville

My first full day in Spain, we went to Seville. It was quite a drive through the Spanish countryside. It was gorgeous. Rolling green hills with olive trees. That is one thing I love about European countries, as well as Morocoo—people live in cities. The countryside is for farming. People can live without cars. Not that they do, but they can.

We wandered the city. There were long lines, so we looked at the exterior of buildings without going in. We stopped for lunch. Lunch happens at exactly 14:00 for Spaniards. Restaurants have had to start opening earlier to accommodate tourists who expect to eat around noon, but that isn’t when they are most crowded. So we sat at 14:00. That also meant that service was Spanish slow. Luckily, I like long lunches. As a friend pointed out, for an atheist vegetarian, I sure have lots of pictures of cathedrals and meat. It is true.

Back in tourist mode. We stopped in to visit Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede. According to Wikipedia, it is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. I can mark it off my list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. It didn’t seem so big at the time, but now that I think back on it, it was enormous. It was built to show the riches of the city, and that it did. Sadly, that also tends to make me find it less religious. I am excited about the new Pope possibly bringing the church back to its roots.

To bring my trip together, one of the bell towers is a replica of the Koutoubia Mosque I saw in Marrakech. It was a fun little reference.

Inside, besides all the riches, they also house the burial site of Christopher Columbus. They also love their relics and had a ton of them.

We climbed the bell tower. It is unique because it is designed with a ramp wide enough to ride a horse instead of with stairs. The view of Seville was incredible.

After that, we walked over to Plaza de España with its incredible courtyard pond. Each of the provinces are represented in the lower façade. We took photos in front of our favorites.

There is a beautiful park connected, but since the car didn’t have any lights, we had to rush back to get home. We barely made it home that night before dark.

Act 2: Spain. Scene 1: Pray.

Today, I left Morocco.

We started driving to the new port which happens to be about half an hour outside of the city. We forgot to fill up the gas tank before leaving. In the US, this wouldn’t be a problem. We would have run into a strategically placed gas station. In Morocco, this is a severe error. We kept looking for one, hoping for one, like searching for an oasis in the desert. We didn’t find one and the gas tank was getting dangerously low.

Then, to make matters worse, the stupid light that we don’t understand came on. We pulled off to the side of the road hoping to let the engine cool. It didn’t. One of the things I love about Morocco is that three cars stopped to offer help. The last one actually tried to figure out the problem and decided it was fine and we could keep driving. So when we got to the port we were practically out of gas and possibly overheating the car. I felt bad leaving Tour Guide to solve all the problems.

He helped me buy a ticket and we grabbed some food. I had him watch my bag while I went to the bathroom figuring it would be difficult on the ship. I didn’t want to let my bag out of my sight.

Then I tried to get him cash to pay for the extra days of car rental. I tried the ATM that I knew took my debit card. After entering the pin, the screen went black. Black! I freaked because I didn’t know if I could get my card back. Then it asked if I needed more time. I ejected the card. I tried again. Fail. So I tried the other ATM. It rejected my card. I tried my Visa card. Rejected because my sister had put the reception dinner on it and I hadn’t had a chance to call and accept the charges. The only card left was an Amex and neither accepted that.

So Tour Guide left without the money he needed, without gas, and with the stupid warning light still on. I felt so bad about that.

I went through security. On the other side, people were waiting for buses to go to the port. There was no signage to tell me what bus to take. I asked one guy and he told me to wait inside. Wait for what?

So I asked another guy. He also told me to wait inside. No one was there and it was a gorgeous day. I sat on a bench. The first kid told me that was a good idea. Sit there. He would tell me when it was time.

I asked him how he knows. He just laughed. I was at his mercy. He started joking with me about the buses. I wasn’t sure what to think. He told me to get on a bus, them said it wasn’t my bus. Then said it was my bus. I was so confused. I got on.

On the other end, I made it past the passport check and onto the boat. I hoped I was going to the right place. I was never really sure. It looked like I was supposed to store my bags on the car deck, but I dragged it around with me. I didn’t even use the lift. This also kept me from going to the top and taking photos. I kind of regret that.

I sat inside, in a safe corner where I could keep my luggage safe, as if the drug smugglers don’t have high speed boats or jet skis. Ridiculous.

We had sat at the port in Morocco for a long time. I didn’t understand what was going on. At one point, the engineer was requested by the captain. Not a good sign. When we finally docked in Algeciras, I was significantly late.

I looked for Andalindsia in the main lobby but didn’t see her. I was nervous. I didn’t even know if I’d made it to the right place and we were late. So I turned on my phone and called.

She was at the bar drinking a coke. I was in the right place and could stop freaking out. She walked into the room and everything was suddenly okay. It had been ten years, but when you are from Maine, being around others from Maine is an instant comfort. It didn’t take long before it felt like no time had passed at all.

We drove to her house, then went out in Málaga. We walked along the new waterfront, which was gorgeous, then looked at places to eat. We settled on one on the waterfront for tapas. Then we looked for another place for tapas, but strangely enough, everyone was closing up shop early. So we headed home.

Something was wrong with the car. Just my luck, right? Turns out, the headlights weren’t on. We drove with our hazard lights blinking. But that really put a damper on us going out after dark for the rest of the week.

Andalindsia gave me her room and slept in one of the kids rooms. I was grateful and appreciated her Ikea comforter. I did wonder if they had heat. The answer is no. No a/c either. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I had no heat or a/c. I put on my wool socks to go to sleep.

Day 7: Meknès, Volibulous

After another great breakfast in the morning, we took a roundabout way to Tanger. Our first stop was in Meknès. We drove around a little, then I think we went to see the stables of Heri es-Souani. It supposedly held 12,000 horses and had an underfloor, water cooling system.

We went into a place that had an interesting graveyard. I was surprised with the raised graves covered in tile. I was also confused because not all the graves were facing the same way and I thought people were always buried in the direction of Mecca.

Next we went to Volubilis. I had no idea that there is this incredible Roman ruins in the middle of Morocco. Out among the rolling, green hills stands the remains of an entire city. Beautiful floor mosaics unprotected from the elements. Stone walls to climb on. Remnants of olive presses and baths baking in the afternoon sun. Evidence of complex water and sewage systems. Enormous archways and columns standing tall after so many centuries. And we climbed all over it. And stood behind the podiums of the courthouse. It was fantastic. All those things we talked about in four years of Latin classes come to life. It was a great addition to seeing the Colosseum and Pantheon in Rome in October.

I loved the countryside of Morocco. The rolling farmlands, the cows blocking the road. The sheep and goats eating under the watchful eye of their shepherd. I’ve never been much of a city girl and it was obvious from what I liked best.

The too small back roads with all their animal, bicycle and motorcycle traffic were just as stressful to navigate as the city streets. I was actually grateful when we got to the highway again. But soon enough we were back in crazy city traffic and Tour Guide was lighting up a cigarette to calm his nerves. I won’t miss the smoking.

We found Hôtel Rembrandt and ditched the car in a parking garage. Not my favorite hotel of the trip, mainly because I had a hard time getting the Internet to work. I barely got on long enough to confirm with Andalindsia that I would be getting on the ferry tomorrow and when to meet.

We went out in search for dinner. Always late. We wandered around, then decided a view of the ocean would be good. We sat down at a table by the window on the second floor of a restaurant by the beach. But the view of black water wasn’t that great and no waiters had been by, so we left.

I checked The Book. The Lonely Planet Guide had been fairly accurate in their descriptions of places and history and culture. Tour Guide was always amused when I’d read him stories from The Book that were exactly like the story he had just told me. Especially the stories of unsuspecting tourists and the drug trade in Tanger. The Book also told me not to walk down by the beach at night, but I felt fairly safe with Tour Guide.

The Book suggested Number One. It was described as being a pink renovated apartment. They weren’t kidding. And it was right across from the hotel. We’d had a lovely evening stroll for some good exercise before my last dinner in Morocco.

Dinner was home-cooked French/Italian. Not particularly spicy, just comfort food. We had a great bottle of French wine though. I’d asked the owner for a recommendation and he didn’t steer me wrong.

We adjourned to the Blue Room of our hotel, decorated with deep purple, velvet couches. There we had a small bottle of the Saharan wine. Still a decent wine. We talked about how could I possibly be single. This seems to be a common question people have. The basic answer is that my life is awesome. I am strong and independent and don’t need someone to take the garbage out for me. So I’m looking for that person I want to confide my secrets in and bare my soul to. I just haven’t found that person yet. Some day.

Another late night, but that is what vacation is for, right?

Day 6: Travelling

Today was a long drive. We went back though the fields of argan trees. I saw goats near the trees, but I never saw goats in the argan trees. I’m highly disappointed.

We went through the Atlas mountain range and back into a bit of rocky desert. I saw some sand tornados. Just little ones. On to the outskirts of Marrakech and Casablanca and then to Rabat.

When we tried to get from one highway onto another outside of Casablanca, we had to back out of the exit because some big trucks didn’t like the traffic they saw down the highway. We tried another route, but there are really no signs. No street signs or anything. So we went back to the highway.

It was construction. They were building an overpass and merging the lanes into one and making us cross to the other side of the highway. There were no signs about the construction.

I will never drive in Morocco.

We got back in time for snack, tea, and dinner. At H and Tour Guide’s mom’s place, we had fresh squeezed oj that was awesome, cake that I ate some of, but tried to avoid, and I had some surprise meat bread. It happens. Dinner with J’s parent’s place was pasta and meat. I’ve finally learned to eat out of the big plate in the middle of the table like everyone else. I still get told to eat more. It is hard enough to explain that I’m vegetarian and that is why I’m ignoring most of the meat. I did eat a little just to make sure my stomach can continue to digest it. I haven’t tried to explain that I’m on a diet. I’m not logging my calories and my FitBit battery died. But I’m at least trying not to gain weight while I’m here while still trying everything.

Dinner was a bit overwhelming. There was some extended family. With eleven adults and two kids, the conversations were all over the place. It was a good time for me to practice listening to multiple conversations with only one ear since I wasn’t expected to respond to most of it. Hopefully I’ll be ready for meetings and restaurants when I get back home. The first week I’d lost my hearing, I wanted to cry most of the time in those situations because it was so difficult for me to keep up. I’m getting better at it! Good thing I have this long vacation scheduled so I can adapt!

In other news, you are all welcome. As we all know, the stock price is inversely proportional to my productivity level. I’ve been super productive lately. My vacation started last Tuesday as you can tell from the charts. I can’t tell you when my vacation ends because that would be considered insider trading, right? Well, you’ve got a little time, so enjoy. I’ll try to slack off to over $500.

Day 5: Agadir

Another day of mostly travel as we headed to Agadir on the southern Atlantic coast of Morocco. We found our way out of the city, but signage was severely lacking. We ended up going further north than we should have, but eventually found our way back to the right path.

The highway took us through the desert, through the southern mountain range, and into the hillsides of argan trees that litter the landscape like oversized tumbleweed. I was disappointed to not see any goats in trees. Check Wikipedia for argan and you will see what I mean.

The desert wasn’t the sandy kind you see of the Sahara in the movies. I believe that is further south. This part of the desert was littered with small bushes and the occasional oasis of underground water with more greenery.

Agadir is a more modern city built along the ocean in Southern Morocco at the top of the Sahara. By the way, Sahara is the Arabic word for desert, so I’m going to stop calling it the Sahara Desert. It is just the Sahara.

Agadir has a big tourist business with all of its beaches, hotels and resorts. The only reason it is more modern than some of the others is because it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1960. The only thing remaining is some walls of the Kasbah on top of the hill overlooking the new city and a mound where the old city was, covering the 18,000 dead from the earthquake.

We found a hotel and then tried going to the beach. The wind was fierce and blowing sand into everything. We caught a little train, you know the kind you ride in the parking lots at Disney World. It was a 35 minute tour around the city so we could see what there is to see.

We decided it was too windy to walk, so we went for a drive. That was when a light came on in the car and we didn’t know what it was. We drove slowly back to the hotel and popped the hood, checking all the fluids.

After a few minutes, we tried again and the light was off. We have no idea what was wrong with the car. We took it for a drive to make sure that it would be good on the long trip back to Rabat the next day.

We drove up the twisty road to the casbah and ruins just in time for sunset over the city. It was a gorgeous view. It was also ridiculously cold and windy. I’d put on a skirt because it was warm earlier, but I regretted it. Thank goodness I still had a sweater in the car.

Back in the city, we changed for the cool weather and went out in search of dinner. We tried a French place, but it was filled with old men. There was no parking at the marina. We ended up at the English Pub for karaoke night and I had the vegetable pie. I’ve decided that vegetable pie is very similar to Moroccan tajines. Both are cooked in an earthenware dish, but pie cooks the bread on top instead of separate as with the tajine.

I tried two beers, one was Bavaria, the other was Flag 33, local to Marrakech. I tried to get something darker, but it seems they only sell light colored wheat beers. Good enough. Neither are ones I’ll try again, but I appreciate trying them once.

I was chatting with Meine Schwester while out to dinner (thank you iMessage!). Seems we were out to dinner late because she was just going to dinner soon herself. This has not been a trip of my usual going to bed early. Saturday night, we were just about to go to sleep and I looked at the clock—3:08 am! No way!

Turns out it was daylight savings. Thank goodness for automatic updating clocks on phones. We might not have known. :-)