El albergue

El albergue

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Marrakech Diaries - Day 4

You can’t stop moving or show any bit of uncertainty here, because once you do, the hustlers pounce! It’s kind of like you’re new born prey and they are your every-ready predators. Or at least, that’s kind of how Kels and I felt this morning when we were looking for the bus stop to get back to the airport and a group of taxi drivers descended on us. After an initial attempt at parley, we broke free though and found the stop. Phew!

Also, I wonder if the idea for the Star Wars Jedi robes came from all the pointy-hooded robes we’ve seen everywhere – so many old men totally look like Jedi masters!

Goodbye, Morocco!

The Marrakech Diaries - Day 3

Snapshot of the day: In the Mellah (Jewish Quarter). Tiny streets a few feet wide, buildings seeming to meet overhead. Kiosks of spices and assorted flotsam and jetsam openly tempting the passerby to stop and smell, sift, or look. Oh! And kosher butcher stall! Live chickens clucking in crates seen through one of the open sides. Around the corner of the stall, what used to be clucking and blinking is now plucked clean and has been chopped up into choice pieces by the heavily falling butcher’s knife. Directly below the array of fresh white meat a white cat is curled up against the wall, blinking in that slow, feline way at everyone passing by. The juxtaposition is perfect: Above the butchers moving about their trade, in the middle the meat waiting temptingly for buyers, and below the little white cat waiting patiently for a morsel to fall. I just have to laugh.

Kels and I were wandering out way to one of the palaces in town, when at one lost moment we pulled out our map to check our location, and a tall young man asked if we needed directions. Sensing out hesitation, he assured us that he needed no money and only wanted to practice his English. He also pointed out to us on the map the location of a once-a-week Berber spice market going on nearby, and we decided to take him up on his offer of guidance. We followed him through part of the touristy spice market and part of the Mellah to a small street lined with spice stalls displaying colorful buckets of natural dyes, mint, sandalwood, deodorizing quartz, rose petals, lemongrass, cinnamon… this list could go on. He started showing us things at one stall, the English-speaking vendor came out and continued showing us more of his wares, and then our young guide took his leave of us to head home, which he said was nearby. (To be honest, I’m half inclined to think his bringing us to that exact stall wasn’t exactly an accident…but ah well.)

So many awesome and exotic spices to delight our senses

The spice vendor was extremely kind and respectful, showing us all kinds of things and explaining all sorts of natural wonders we’d never known about. A neighboring vendor even served us hot mint tea on his way around to all the vendors (a very neighborly thing to do, I’m sure). And we were completely blown away when our new friend dropped a small sliver of menthol crystal in our glasses – it was so powerful! And just like a homemade cough drop. We weren’t going to buy anything, but after walking away we just had to go back and get a little menthol – it was just that cool!

Finally, after leaving the spice stalls and being led a little astray by a smiling older man who wanted to guide us around tiny streets for money, Kels and I at last made it to the Palacio Bahia and took refuge inside from the flustering world outside. We wandered around, taking in the beautifully intricate designs painted on the main ceilings and doors. We even sat for a bit in the sunshine in the central courtyard of the small palace complex, tourist watching and relaxing.

Although not as stunning as La Alhambra in Granada,
the palace really was quite beautiful.

We tried roasted garbanzo beans today. So good. They taste pretty similar to roasted edamame, with a toothier texture definitely requiring younger teeth and jaws to enjoy. They’re also nicely filling and could be a satisfying snack with just a couple small handfuls. It’d actually be really cool to roast them at home and just have them on hand as a snack, but maybe they have to be fresh and not dried first…. intriguing…

Quote of the day:
Me – It sounds like you’re in the same boat as me.
Our host – Hopefully it’s not the Titanic!

Kels and I got to make pancakes for our hosts at tea time. The outcome wasn’t very pretty because they kept falling apart due to our substitution of a soup spoon for a spatula (when one tool isn’t available, you just have to make due), but they were still delicious! We ate them with our hands, tearing off chunks and dipping them in yogurt or adding slices of banana. It was a fun way to share a little bit of our own food culture with them.

Nap time!? Not allowed!
Right after tea time, the two of us had the opportunity to go with one of our hosts to the evening English class that he teaches. There was a wide range of ages between all the students, but most seemed to be in their teens and early 20s. We introduced ourselves, and when they started asking ME all their questions, we realized they hadn’t really understood Kels’ name – rather than try to pronounce a name that was unpronounceable on their tongues, they were staying with the safer sounds of “Laura.” It was pretty funny. They were really sweet though and super excited to get to talk with us and ask us questions about ourselves. One of the younger boys asked Kels if she was married… and then turned bright red when we all laughed.

To end off the day, our host shared the winter delight of cactus fruit with us. As he chatted us the street vendor to get a good deal, we got to explore the new world of textures and flavor in our mouth – once the green and pink skin was cut open, the fruit presented itself as an extremely dark red ball begging to be plucked out with a toothpick. The flesh was lightly sweet in flavor and sort of melted away from all the liberally abundant, hard little seeds, which you just swallowed. Nummy.

The Marrakech Diaries - Day 2

We got invited to a Berber-style breakfast this morning! Our host’s friend had us all come upstairs to his apartment, where he served us more lovely mint tea to go with little anis breads, whole wheat flat bread, and Moroccan crepes that we either spread with Laughing Cow cheese or dipped in juniper honey from the Atlas Mountains and an almond/argon oil blend. It was so good! And even though they were often talking in Arabic between themselves, we didn’t feel out of place because our gracious breakfast host gave us some pictures from the guided tours he takes through the mountains or desert, so we got to look through those and wish we had time and money to experience all those beautiful sights for ourselves. Imagine it – 8 days trekking with a small group of tourists, cooks, camels, and guides, camping out under the stars… how awesome would that be!

Kels and I headed out on our own to the medina, just us and the map. No phone or anything else to help us if we got lost amid the twining streets with no street signs. We felt truly adventurous.

The Jardin Majorelle was like a miniature paradise of perfection.

First stop: Jardin Majorelle.
This garden is a gorgeously manicured collection of plants from all over the world brilliantly accented with bright yellows and blues. We spent a quietly shady hour or two slowly wandering around the paths, staging mini photo shoots, enjoying spots of sunshine, and actually feeling nicely at home among the other tourists.

I only wish we could have gone inside this mosque...
Second stage of the journey:
We meandered through a couple gardens on our way into the city, enjoying the view of he beautiful muezzin, or mosque tower, standing out over the city center. Once we got to the medina, we made our way through the assorted snake charmers, musicians, storytellers (we laughed when we saw one man playing a donkey with shoe soles in a headband for ears), and henna artists, slowly working our way to one of the many orange juice vendors.  And yet again, we got to experience a tasty treat as we sipped our chilled, freshly squeezed juice. I don’t know what made it better than pretty much any other orange juice I’ve ever had, but it was like bathing my taste buds in happiness.

So delicious.

Part three of our solo tour:
After getting suckered into buying a couple things in the souks (oh, how persistently persuasive these people can be!) we ended up getting a little lost. But we managed to get back to the main plaza via a rather giant, wandering circle and buy ourselves some delectable dried dates and figs. Oo boy howdy, were those dates good!!!

 The fourth and final stage of our walk:
We stopped by a local grocery store, partly out of mere curiosity and partly because we needed a few things to make pancakes for our hosts – we wanted to thank them by sharing a little of our own culture with them. We also ended up buying ourselves a couple treats too… How could we resist getting lovely Moroccan cous cous and muesli!

For dinner tonight, our host made chicken tajine. Watching tv as the savory scent wafted around the apartment was a little tortuous, but we finally sat down to eat family style, with bread and hands standing in good stead of silverware. He made us some more avocado “juice,” and for dessert we had perfectly ripe tangerines and bananas. It’s so cool getting to experience a little bit of at home life in a foreign country.

The Marrakech Diaries - Day 1

Marrekech is sometimes called the City of Red... understandably so!

Well, here we are in Marrakech, Morocco! Right now, we’re sitting in a friend of a friend’s living room, listening to birds chirping outside as we wait for him to bring back the fresh mint he went to get for the tea he promised to make us.

Coming through the chaotic streets in the back of the taxi on our way here reminded me of Bangladesh… we are definitely not in Spain anymore.

But it’s exciting to be here. We have no clue what we’re doing… but we’re going to be experiencing a lot of new things these next few days. To be honest, it feels a little surreal, as though we aren’t really in Morocco. Maybe we just need to get out and walk through the city a little…

We had a great plane ride over though. We happened to sit next to an older man from Asturias (in the north of Spain) who was traveling with his family, and he talked to us quite a bit, telling us about his travels and his kiwi farm, and even inviting us to come stay at the family bed and breakfast. At one point, his daughter came over from her seat with some home-roasted hazelnuts that he had grown and the grandma had cracked open with her own hands. They generously shared with us too – those nuts were delicious!

After filling out disembarkation forms and getting past the chatty man at passport control, we managed to exchange some euros into dhurams and find out way to the shuttle to the city center. When we got off in front of the crowded central square, all we could do was wait for our new friend (of a friend) and hope he would find us in the middle of the bustle and noise. What a sense of helplessness! We didn’t have to wait long enough to get anxious though, because we weren’t there for more than a couple minutes before he showed up with his little motorcycle. We introduced ourselves, then Kels and I followed him through meandering mobs of pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles as he tried to find us a taxi. He finally found one, gave the driver directions, and sent us on ahead of him… which might not have been the best option, because the driver apparently charged us more than double what he should have. When our host heard about the extravagant overcharge, he got a little upset. “Ah well,” I said, “c’est la vie.” I guess the fact that I used that phrase really tickled him, because he’s been saying it on and off since then, every time with a big grin.


After hanging out at the apartment and sharing wonderful fresh mint tea with our host and one of his friends, out other host finally got home from work. We hung out for a while, chatting and such, then headed on over to the medina, or city center, to look at the market and get dinner. When we got there, the market was throbbing with life. From food stands with swinging electric lights, to the street vendors’ clusters of exquisite lamps sending forth the quivering light of candles, to the rings of drummers and musicians pounding out their beat, to the inventive fair games attracting throngs of young and old alike, to the queer home remedy vendors selling dried lizards and ostrich heads (among other things), sights and sounds and images washed over us in waves of energy and light.

Oh if only this photograph could capture all the lights, energy, and
movement of the central square!

We wandered around for a while, soaking in the atmosphere, then we turned aside to a restaurant that our hosts like to frequent – one says that the food is both cheap and good, an unbeatable combination. And indeed, a truly unbeatable combination it turned out to be.

We had lamb tajine – a slowly stewed lamb that melts in your mouth with veggies that have roasted with it in a special earthenware dish, everything perfectly flavored with a rich blend of spices, featuring saffron and cumin, among other things. And when we dipped chunks of bread in a chili sauce and then the tajine juices…. it. was. delightful. Oh, but then, there was also the avocado “juice.” Oh man. Was that ever good! It’s an avocado blended with milk and a bit of sugar into a heavenly, creamy drink that invites you to drink more and more and more. It made me want to try making avocado ice cream….

Finally, a leisurely walk home talking about everything from reverse culture shock to Moroccan marriage practices, and here we are back at the apartment. One of our hosts has sweetly given us his big bed and is on a mattress in the living room. Such generosity!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dancing sevillanas

One night during our trip to Sevilla, we were walking through the streets, when in passing a little alley, we were immediately caught in the infectious rhythm and melody of live music. Venturing a little ways into the passageway, we saw the back entrance to a local bar wide open, the energy from inside fairly bursting out the door. Actually, bodies were actually almost on the point of bursting out, it was that packed. Curious, we poked our heads in to check out the scene, and this is what we saw:

Wedged in against a wall in the back of a room that curved around the long bar were about 7 men playing guitars, drums, and random percussion-type instruments, busting out some fast-paced sevillana music, which is similar to flamenco. Right in front of the musicians danced a small group of locals, the number fluctuating between two and four as the onlookers absorbed or discharged new dancers into and from the tiny open space they were all tightly ringed about.

The atmosphere was carefree. The music was bright. The lighting was dark. The people maybe a not in a state of complete sobriety.  The noise of everyone talking, laughing, singing, and shouting pretty much cut off any chance of normal conversation. But the music kept up its pace even above the hubbub of the crowd.

In short, we simply HAD to join the fun.

We managed to worm our way into the corner near the music and dancing, attracting attention as a big group of pretty obvious foreigners. The attention was friendly though – some of the Sevillanos even started up small side conversations with us during a break in the music, asking where we were from, how we liked Sevilla, and generally just being very open and welcoming. One of the women even pointed at all of us with a slightly unsteady finger and informed us that we were all going to have to dance, whether we knew how to or not.

Kels was the first to work up the nerve. The next time the friendliest of the ladies invited her out into the circle, she stepped out boldly, trying to imitate the steps and movements of her instructress. She even danced more than one song! The rest of us stayed back and cheered her on, shaking our heads in proud wonder at her bravery.

Then it was my turn to get pulled out into the middle. To be honest, I have no clue what in the world it was that I did with my feet or body - I was kind of in this haze as I more or less followed the movements of another dancer. You know that state of otherworldliness you enter into when you get up in front of people in a setting you aren’t completely comfortable with? That OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE feeling? Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt. It’s not a bad feeling though. It’s kind of like adrenaline. It makes you feel alive.

The Sevillanos even managed to get one of our guys onto the dance floor! He had played a little flamenco guitar earlier during a dance break, and now he was showing off a completely different set of skills. …I think the ladies rather liked him.

By the time we decided to leave, allowing ourselves to kind of follow the push of energy and spilling out that back door that first sucked us in, we were thoroughly happy. I mean, how often is it that you get welcomed into a local jam session when you’re traveling? How often do you get to experience something like that?

In short, it was a lovely evening.

Beautiful Sevilla

This past Christmas break, I got the chance to go down to the beautiful Andalusian city of Sevilla with an awesome group of friends. For the first two days, there were six of us altogether, then for the last two it was just me, my roommate Kels, and our good friend Ashleigh. And every day, whether we were 6 or simply 3 strong, was a great experience. Besides just laughing our heads off while walking through streets full of Christmas lights and bustling holiday crowds, we enjoyed some epic moments together.

The Plaza de España in Sevilla is absolutely, positively gorgeous!!!

For example, at the end of our walking tour of the city, which left us in the amazingly beautiful Plaza de España, we took advantage of the wonderful sunshine to lay down on the colorfully tiled benches circling this 1929 expo extravagance and take a nap. Yes, we took naps. And it was epically wonderful. Warm sunshine in the middle of winter? Yes please! Napping outside? Always a yes! It was pretty awesome.

A quiet moment of rest

Another amazing moment was when we stumbled across this little paper shop. Ashleigh and I, proud book nerds, fell in love with the handcrafted sheaths of paper covered in beautiful, abstract designs and formed into gorgeous notebooks, planners, photo albums, sketching pads, and more. One of the employees was extremely accommodating and explained a number of the different designs to us. I think she was maybe just amused at our open-mouthed wonder and constant declarations of delights.

And of course, we had many wonderful meals. One dinner in particular was incredible. The restaurant was quiet, but very nice. The staff was very cordial. The prices were pretty affordable. And the food! Oh wow. The food. SO GOOD. We felt like we were indulging ourselves beyond our means as we savored a nice bottle of wine, fried eggplant with vanilla and honey, bright salad with a heavenly honey mustard dressing, creamy mushroom risotto, and a few other astonishingly tasty things.

Another memorable meal was breakfast our last day. We went to a little spot next to our hostel with a great deal – fresh orange juice, coffee, and a small toasted baguette with either crushed tomato and olive oil (very typical Spanish breakfast) or jam, all for only 1.60 euros!!! The food was really good too, the quality being much higher than the price. Plus, the lady who ran the place was really nice, and a police officer coming in for a morning coffee stopped to chat with us for a minute. On his way back out past our table, he paused, took a deep breath to concentrate, and wished us a wonderful stay in Sevilla in his best English. It was really sweet.

Such a colorful vista!

By the time we were heading back to Madrid, the three of us who remained (the others had continued on a tour of southern Spain) kept saying to each other how much we had enjoyed this trip to Sevilla. It’s a beautiful city, full of colors, quaint streets, quirky history, friendly and open people, and quiet corners perfect for stopping and simply enjoying life. It is beautiful. Beautiful Sevilla.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Christmas moments

Merry Christmas, everyone! And Happy New Year! And Happy Three Kings Day!

For those of you who don’t know what Three Kings Day is (which I’m assuming will be pretty much everyone who doesn’t have much exposure to Catholic culture), it is a celebration of when the three Wisemen brought the baby Jesus gifts in Bethlehem. Thus, here in Spain it is the big gift giving day as opposed to Christmas morning. It is also celebrated today, on January 6th, and marks the end of the Christmas season.  So for anyone who has a hard time giving up the Christmas cheer, don’t worry, you still have one more day to celebrate!

As the last day of the holiday season here in Spain, today seems like a good time to look back over the past five weeks and think a little bit about all the things that have filled and blessed this time…

Christmas lights make life happy.

This past Christmas season has been a very full one – it seemed like every new day held something exciting and joyful. Even if all that hinted at Christmas was the handmade decorations gradually filling the school halls or the festive lights illuminating the streets of Madrid with their many twinkling colors, that made the day more special. 

And then there were so many “big” things that made this Christmas memorable. There was a picnic in the ancient town of Toledo. 

A lovely picnic on a lovely Toledo afternoon 

There was making gingerbread cookies with my roommates Kelsey and Danielle and our friend Ashleigh and giving them away to teachers and coworkers. There was a little bit of a home Hanukkah celebration with a Jewish friend. There were the festive meals at school with all the teachers. There was reading Christmas stories to the students. There was a big Christmas Eve dinner with international friends that included delicious food, group caroling, and even a friend’s adorable little dog. 

There was a wonderful Christmas morning of presents, cinnamon rolls, and mochas with Kels, Danielle, and Ashleigh. There was a whole day of food, games, and more singing when a couple of friends came over for Christmas brunch/lunch/dinner/wow-it’s-almost-bed-time. 
There was an epic run in Retiro Park the morning after Christmas with all the people from the day before, followed by a group outing to see Les Mis (after some showers, of course!). There was a beautiful trip to Sevilla, a quiet New Year’s in Madrid, and to end it all an adventure in Morocco!

Awesome stuffed bread in the making for Christmas Day -
roasted almonds, blackberries, three kinds of cheese...

Of course, there were so many other little moments that filled these weeks with laughter, like introducing two of my tutoring students to their first taste ever of peanut butter. I don’t think I will ever tire of sharing this amazing bit of American culture/cuisine with foreigners because the reactions are always so different. They either grimace and gingerly place their spoon or bread back on the table, or beg for more. These two loved it so much that they started putting it on everything they could think of – peanut butter and ham anyone? Turns out it’s actually pretty good with the strong cured Iberian ham so common here in Spain. Who’d of known?

It’s the moments like that, the moments of sharing food, laughter, and friendship, that have really made this Christmas season a blessed one. There were times when I missed being with my family back home, but the beauty of Skype and getting special packages in the mail helped fill in any lonely nooks and crannies, and my family of friends here filled me to overflowing with joy and gratefulness. So now, today, on the evening of the last day of Christmas, I look back on all the moments that have filled these weeks, and I just have to say, with arms flung wide and a big smile on my face… Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Now go eat some cinnamon rolls!