Sunday, June 6, 2010

On the Road Again

Part deux of the transcribed Camino chronology.

I write this entry sitting on my thin rubber mat on the cement floor of a warehouse turned community center in Vedra, Galicia. Snails crawl through the landmines of our discarded tennis shoes while ants venture boldly across our bags and legs until noticed and flicked away. We wear our blisters proudly, bodies prone and foot soles high in the air. Rather than hide our disfigured footsies in shame, we share our Camino injuries like soldiers comparing battle scars. And after three days and 90 km, our humble shelter is an appreciated haven. As long as Armando makes good on his promise of extra blankets, we'll be about as comfortable as the Princess and the pea. OK, so she didn't sleep so great, but neither will we.
Yesterday we woke up shivering in a monastery, her vast corridors and high ceilings doing less to keep in the heat and more to trap in the cold. With a stamp for our "heaven passports", a personally painted pint sized Jesus on cork board and pat on the head from our lilliputian friar in full habit. One of the twelve active monks living a semi twelfth century life in a small village in the northern Spanish countryside, our monk wandered daily through richly decorated altar rooms and numerous stone courtyards adorned with majestic fountains spouting the same water in nearly the same way as they had been for the last 800 years.
We set off into JR Tolkien Shire for the next 22 km until we stopped in front of a church, parked ourselves on benches, and ate our fill of cheese, jamon, chorizo, yogurt (the Americans snuck it into Armando's shopping basket) and red wine. With enough vino in our veins to dull the aches and stings, we walked another 9 km through ghost towns, pastures and wooded slopes. We spent our evening in Laxe (Lajé) in a communal dormitory with some 40 beds each filled with either one of us or a snoring, sleeping Spaniard. Dinner that night was a St. James miracle. When they took the tin foil off the mostaccioli, I think we would have been as impressed in St. Jimmy himself rowed up in his legendary stone boat.
A chilly, achy, oft interrupted night of sleep later, we performed foot surgery on our inflamed appendages. Blisters were popped, toes were bandaged, neosporin was applied, then grudgingly tennies were strapped back on our feet. Today began our creative forms of self-entertainment. To conquer the pre-lunch 7 km, we recounted the plots of our favorite books aloud. We took turns telling the tales in as much vivid detail as we could remember to our genuinely captivated audience. When we ran out of written works that we could retell with enough conviction to make them worth reciting, we switched to films and personal stories. We heard about horror films and childhood injuries, brothers and sister, parents and pets. We chronicled our love lives, first kiss 'til the present to conquer the final three km of uphill trail. At the top we were rewarded with friendly, granola-hungry horses and bouncing village puppies eager for attention. Our furry animal induced happiness was quickly dashed as we set up camp on the cold concrete, cold seeping up through our sleeping pads and the vino seeping into our brains. Buenas noches.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Con Pan y Vino, Se Hace el Camino

The following entries are excerpts from the journal I kept while walking the Camino de Santiago, or, Way of St. James, a religious pilgrimage across northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostela.

It's day 1 of the Camino. Try as I might, I couldn't muster the motivation to do a "pre-camino" entry. I had ample time, but less than ample desire. After a ride on the night train to Ourense, Spain, three out of four of my train compartment roomies had procured a free travel toothbrush, a pair of earplugs, and a nasty crescent shaped burn from the overactive floor heater. We arrived in Ourense in the grey pre-dawn, a foreboding blanket of rain-heavy clouds hanging low in the sky. After a croissant and a coffee on our program director Armando's tab, (thank God because we spent the first portion of our train ride fretting about the ungodly price we were paying for our "godly" pilgrimage, we secured our first Camino stamps from the café and the police station. These splotches of ink bearing the names of the little towns where we would receive them would serve as proof that we had walked the Way to Santiago in return for the pardoning of sins and a free pass into heaven. Yes, our little booklets full of stamps were in essence a passport past the pearly gates. Chalk one up for Medieval Catholicism.

Backpacks strapped, laces tied, water bottles full, we set off to the west of a paved road. Armando warned us with his thick Spanish accent and a dubious grin that the path began with a "colonita", or little hill. Panting, we crested the top of the "colonita", only to realize we hadn't actually started her. The little hill was not so little. 2 km of hiking up a 10% grade left us sweating despite the 45 degree chill and on again-off again rain. It wasn't until 20 km later, (12 miles) that we reached the town of Cea. The first few to arrive, myself and three others, shopped with Armando in the local market for lunch for the group. While he browsed the pig brain, cow tongue, and innocuous looking livers, we realized the growing ache in our legs and shoulders. Next we stopped at the bakery for true Galician (the region of Spain) bread, sold throughout the country as the best of the best. Round loafs the size of your head were pulled fresh from the oven and wrapped in paper for us. We chose an albergue, or refuge for Camino pilgrims, to sit and feast on our sausage, bread, cheese and wine.
Bellies full, fourteen girls, one boy, and a guide slipped back on their soggy sneakers and set back out onto the trail. We walked with a steadfast concentration, avoiding the swampy and aiming for rocks to tread instead. There were times when there was only the crinkle of rain ponchos, the light drizzzle of raindrops on the plastic and the squish of tennis shoes in mud to accompany us.
At some point along the way, the group lost Armando. Unbothered by his absence, we continued to follow the spray painted yellow arrows and stone seashells that direct the way. What we didn't know was that a bar owner had re-routed the yellow arrows to pass in front of his establishment, circumventing the monastery that was to serve as our shelter for the night. 15 km out of our way and Armando-less, someone smart enough to bring a cell phone gave him a call. Nightfall just around the corner, Armando sent the Civil Guard to come and fetch us. 8 of us squeezed into two 4x4s. One of the officers turned around and said, "I bet your police aren't this nice, are they?" In a post-Franco PR move, the officers reminded us to tell people how great the Civil Guard is in Spain. Cold, wet, tired and rescued, we intended to do so.

The 12th century, still active monastery was a stone behemoth of imposing grandeur in the small town. Courtyards with fountains gave way to more courtyards and fountains, leading eventually to our quarters for the evening. In a cavernous hall with a vaulted ceiling were bunkbeds laid out in rows. After a dinner of hot soup, we donned warm dry clothes and huddled together, gratefully falling asleep.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Put Some Windex On It

Escapade 4: Santorini
Probably the destination we'd all been salivating the most over, Santorini lived up to every expectation. The rocky outcrop of an island has no port so the cruise ship anchored offshore and we took a ferry in. At the base of the cliffs, you had three options: walk the switchback trail to the top, take a cable car for four euro, or take a donkey for five. We obviously chose donkeys. Somewhere deep inside we were all living out Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fantasies riding up the whitewashed cliffs on the backs of our beats of burden. The stubborn donkey adage is true, by the way. One brute purposefully dragged one of our girls legs against the walls and stopped to eat or take off running at will.
Once we reached the top, we set out to find Tony of Tony's Car and Moto rental. As we filed into his office, his bushy eyebrows drew together in a look of "my God, who am I renting these ATVs to?" After signing the "I promise not to wreck your vehicle, Mr. Tony" paperwork, he strapped Kazoo helmets on our heads and made us each test drive a 4-Wheeler until he was satisfied that we wouldn't kill it or ourselves. With Tony's hesitant approval, we left his shop and merged into traffic on a busy Santorini road. Dressed in any combination of tanks, tees shorts and pants, we soon realized that standing still and taking in the Grecian sun was much warmer than zipping along bare-armed on an ATV. Teeth chattering, we realized all of our bikes were flashing E! E! E! and out of gas. Pulling out the map Tony sent us with, we found two abandoned gas station while the E! screamed at us for mercy. The third station was open, thank gyro. Tanks full, we set off to explore.

Our first stop was a local winery perched atop a cliff. Frozen from riding inadequately dressed, we hurried inside more for relief from the wind than for wine. Once inside, we were quickly convinced to do a 12 euro wine tasting, though. Palate satisfied, we ventured back into the elements and onto other parts of the island. It didn't take us long to get lost. We found ourselves at the southern tip of the island at the black beach, sand like charcoal meeting water bluer than blue. Our final destination in mind, I stopped to ask a local boy nearly our age for directions. Trying to communicate through our language barrier, I pulled out my map and motioned "where are we?" He took the map, labeled in both English and Greek, and stared. He didn't know how to read it or where his town was upon it in comparison to the rest of the 25 km island. I then realized he'd probably never left it and had never seen such a map. 
We finally found our way to our main destination, Oia, the Greece/Santorini you see in pictures. The city seemed to be carved out of one chunk of marble, as if some master architect or sculptor took a giant chisel and formed the houses and staircases with a touch of Gaudi or Dali inspiration. The city shines brilliantly white in the sun, and I'm sure even more stunningly at sunset. Unfortunately we had to be "home" to the ship in order to make our next port so we missed the dusk in Oia. Tony, though, was visibly relieved when we returned his vehicles to him on time and harmed. The best gyro of my life and a hike down the cliffs later, we were back on board and setting sail for Croatia.

The Rhodes Less Traveled

Escapade 3: The Isle of Rhodes
Our first Greek Isle, Rhodes was a maze of windy cobblestone streets completely surrounded by massive grey walls. Vendors sold Fay Bans sunglasses and Prado bags from stores built into the city walls while the Palace of the Grand Master castle loomed above. Navigating by street map whose "English" translations seemed as foreign as the Greek counterparts, we came upon the fairy-tale fortress from whose towers you expect a long blonde braid to fall.

We took a lilliputian-sized doorway to escape the bustle of other tourists to find ourselves in the castle moat. While improvising new words to the SNL hit "I'm on a boat mother..." into "I'm in a moat mother...", we posed for pictures atop ancient catapult ammunition. Follies at the fortress complete, we headed back into the city to find a site of more cultural relevance.

In 1944, the Nazi Gestappo rounded up the Rhodes' nearly 2,000 Jews and sent them to extermination camps throughout Europe. Only 160 of them survived. Acknowledging the atrocity that befell its citizens, Rhodes erected a monument to its murdered citizens. A somber note in our otherwise whimsical Rhodes experience, the memorial held great cultural significance for the two girls of Jewish descent in our group.

They're Just Rocks!

Escapade 2: Kusadasi, Turkey
I'm not sure how I expected Turkey to be. I do know that it surprised me more than any other destination on our whirlwind vacation. In leu of the Casa Blanca vibe I'd imagined, Kusadasi was a paradise of rolling green hills, valleys of orchards of peaches, apples, and pears, bright blue waves crashing at the foot of stark cliffs, and sandy beaches adorned with five star hotels. We didn't spend much time in the city itself since we decided to forego the cruise sponsored tour of Kusadasi and the neighboring city of Ephesus where the real marvels were located. This was, hands down, the most fortuitous decision we made during the entire trip.

Our taxi driver seemed as elated as our wait staff had been the night before to have seven American girls as his charge. After haggling down to just ten euros a pop, we climbed into Sabas's (pronounced Sabash's) taxi van and set off for the ruins of Ephesus. As we climbed into the hills outlying Kusadasi, we began to prod our driver for information about the city and himself. As he spewed facts about the countryside and the country of which he was so proud, we learned that taxi driving was only a temporary gig for old Sabas. By age 35, he's seen 62 countries working as a journalist for Atlas. He'd trained sled dogs in Alaska, grown bored and become a skydiving instructor. He'd tried his hand as a newspaper man in Seattle. He'd worked at a vineyard in New Zealand. He'd done it all and come back to the family hotel before starting his next adventure. Inspired beyond belief, mouth agape, I decided then and there to try and emulate this man's life.

Snapped back to reality from envisioning my own fantastical future, Sabas switched topics from himself to the Virgin Mary House that we were about to visit. The people of Ephesus are proud to tell you that tucked away on Mount Koressos sits the last dwelling of the Virgin Mary. It is said that Mary was "assumed into Heaven" by angels from this modest home that Saint John built for her. The house itself is rather unremarkable, a stone edifice surrounded by trees and speckled with sunlight with a simple rope lined queue where patrons wait to see inside. Inside the house is a simple altar with a statue of the Virgin where guests can light a candle and pause to pray. The site glows with a certain power, not because of any religious significance it holds for me, but because of the raw display of emotion it caused in other visitors. A woman in her late 50s, red sweater, dirty blonde unkempt hair, closed her ayes as she turned them heavenward, putting her hands together captivated by prayer. It felt almost voyeuristic watching such an intimate moment between one mother and another. On the way down from the house, patrons pass a wall of prayers- scribbles on napkins and receipts stuck into wire mesh, asking or thanking God or Mary.

Our next stop after the Virgin Mary House were the ruins of Ephesus. For a few euros, we entered the excavation site that held the third oldest library in the world. Tourists are allowed to galavant freely about the fallen pillars and nearly intact amphitheaters. The American in me expected them to be roped off and covered in cellophane for preservation but the Turks take a different approach. We climbed on the ruins til our feet and our camera memory cards were full, taking whimsical pictures on columns and statuary. Finally fed up by our lingering at each site for unnecessary time and photo ops, Emily yelled in annoyance, "they're just rocks. You don't know what they mean and you won't remember them anyway!" Touché Emilia.
Good old Sabas picked us up from the ruins and as a special treat, took us the the "modern" town of Ephesus where he and his family run their hotel. In a very "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" style, he introduced us to all of the extended family. "Nick, Nick, Nicky, Niko, he's single, how handsome no? Nicolai, Nick..." While those may not have been the actual names, it was definitely the vibe. From the roof of the hotel, Sabas pointed out the sites in the surrounding countryside including a castle in the distance. He then called upon one of the relatives to whip us up a sample plate of Turkish food. A variety of yogurt, tomato, and pepper based sauces served on a platter were the cherry on top of our Turkish delight.

It's All Greek To Me

After a week of recovery from my bush with volcanic fate, I've finally mustered the motivation to put my unparalleled Mediterranean wanderings into words. Rather than spout off my ramblings in each city in a single post, they'll be divided up and posted in succession in a "tune in for the next chapter" sort of fashion.
Escapade 1: Athens
Groggy from spending the night sprawled on the floor of the Madrid airport, we deplaned in the first Greek city any of us had ever visited. After dropping our luggage in the two kiddy-corner cabins the seven of us shared, we hopped on a tour bus to see the sights. I'm rather embarrassed to admit that we did a group tour since I usually despise them, but it was the only way to see the sights and not break the bank before the ship set sail. Our first stop was the Olympic Park- a track and field with giant Olympic rings. The main event, however, was the Acropolis.
Contrary to our shirts, shorts, and the sweat running down our backs as we climbed the ancient plateau, the Greeks still considered April the winter season and closed the upper section in the early afternoon. We still had the opportunity to climb the butte and see the ruins of the Parthenon and other temples from a short distance. While it would have been grand to walk among the ruins, taking in all of Athens - the Temple of Zeus and the ancient Olympic Stadium below and the Temple of Athena and other monuments above was breathtaking.
With little else worthy of note in the city, we headed back to the cruise ship to change for our first five star dinner in the restaurant on board. Our waiters were from Peru and Colombia and thrilled to be assigned to the only table of Americans on the entire boat. Dinner was a culinary masterpiece each evening with four courses of delightful cuisine. Some in our group were painfully disinclined to behave like they were in a nice restaurant and made every meal embarrassing for the rest of us. If you choose a Spanish cruise line, you should expect your menu to be in Spanish, the food to be a little adventurous, and the wait staff not to be fluent in English. No, you can't order three entrees instead of the appetizers, no you can't wear holy jeans and wet hair to dinner, no you can't have a rum and coke from the bar across the ship to accompany your meal. And for those who know me, if I could order without issue and clean my plate every night, the food can't have been that outlandish. Aggravation with my fellow American aside, eating on the Gemini ship was a treat. (One that nearly cost me another pants size.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Berber Television

After nearly a month of stalling, I've finally gotten around to writing my Morocco post. The underlying cause of my lingering procrastination is the daunting task of capturing a country and a culture in a single entry. But, fueled by a fresh batch of Mabel's empanadas and a guilty writer's conscience, I've heartened to try.

We deplaned in Marrakech early on a Friday afternoon and immediately set out to find our hotel. From the city bus windows we watched the countryside turn from pasture to city, motorcycles and cars whizzing by bearing loads no manufacturer could have predicted. One bicyclist carried so many plastic bottles of varying shapes and colors that he must have been using a periscope to see the road. The sky was a blanket of grey, too light to mean rain but too thick for sunlight to get through. Even with the melancholy overhead, Marrakesh glowed in orange and green contrast. Buildings, sidewalk, dirt- all the color of rusted tin cans. Palm trees, orange trees and other fauna filled the space between, punctuating the pumpkin with shades of jade.

While I was busy taking note of the local color scheme, my companions began to note the local language barrier. Moroccans generally speak two languages, as did all of us students. Unfortunately, they spoke French and Arabic and we spoke Spanish and English. Many wrong turns and exasperated hand gestures late, the group arrived at Hotel Mont Gueliz. Before being taken to our rooms, the hotel staff served us our first glasses of sweet mint tea. I don't even like tea and I could drink an entire pot. After dropping our bags, we started our 30 minute walk to the Souk.

Open air market by day, open air restaurant by night, the souk is the largest of its kind in Morocco and among the largest in all of Africa. Smells of horse carriages and incense reach you before the crowds do as you come upon the square. A kaleidoscope of people moves in every direction - snake charmers next to women doing henna tattoos, baboons on chains next to musicians - and everybody wants you to take their picture. Men with snakes so near to death that they hang limply in their hands will throw them about your neck and demand payment for the novelty photo. The baboons are worse because those that aren't on your shoulder looking miserable and plotting retribution toward their masters are probably picking your pockets. Once you make it through the menagerie, the real fun begins.

Alleyway after alleyway of merchants selling everything from carpets to tea kettles to souvenirs winds in a maze of color and perfumed air. Pause for a moment to admire the wallets made of camel hide and you are assaulted by vendors in every language they know. Which happens to be a lot. Depending on your appearance, they may rattle off "good price, good quality, how much you pay?" in german, english, spanish, arabic, french, and italian. The kicker is that upon your response, they can actually converse with you in any of the above as well. These men aren't common street merchants. They're brilliant salesmen who enjoy a good haggle but will assuredly get the better of any foreigner who enters their domain.

When the sun sets, the souk is transformed as the street performers give way to tables and tents. Steam rises from all directions and the bustle and clang of plates and people reverberates through the plaza. People sit cafeteria style sharing picnic tables and choosing varying kebab and cous cous dishes. Bread the size of your head and coca colas accompany the meal before you're hurried along to make room for the next round of hungry guests. After partaking in all of the above and each purchasing a pair of skants - a combination skirt pant that is tight at the ankles and waist and a mass of material everywhere else, the group retired to the hotel in preparation for an early morning.

Skants on, cameras charged, bellies full of bread, jam and tea, the group boarded a van with our guide, Mohael, an ex-Berber nomad. We set out from the city and slowly but
deliberately began to ascend the Atlas Mountains. Our destination, the Zagora Dunes of the Sahara Desert lay on the other side. On our way out of the city, we passed a number of shanty towns with huts and houses made of wood and tarps. On top of many of them, visible through the smoke of cooking fires below, were television satellites. The blue glow of a TV peeked through the cracks of some of the huts in the early morning darkness. Eight or so hours later, after stopping in a museum dedicated to the movie Gladiator in the city where most of the scenes were filmed, we made it to the town where we'd leave our van and opt for hairier transportation.

On the verge where town ends and desert begins, Mohael brought us to our camels. We each picked a beast and began to mount them. My camel was a cream colored dromedary who I affectionately dubbed Herbert. With only a sweatshirt and a toothbrush in a satchel hung from his "saddle", I climbed onto kneeling Herbert. At the command of one of our two Berber nomad escorts, his back-end lurched upwards and I nearly ate a mouthful of coarse white camel hair. His front followed next and fully righted, we stood nearly ten feet tall. Herbert turned his lanky neck and regarded me dubiously with one big dark eye. I tried to look as un-annoying as possible while recalling stories of camels spitting and biting off the fingers of their caretakers. Herbert, apparently content with his charge, blinked his massive eyelashes and swung his gigantic head back around.

Nine camels strung together in two lines began to traipse across the sand dunes. Intoxicated by our incredible situation, we sang Aladin's "Arabian Nights" from the backs of our camels as we followed our Berber guides into the desert. Soon after we began our trek, the sun began to set. The lights of the village obscured by distance and sand dunes, we had the light of a 3/4 moon to see by. Even with the white glow, it became harder and harder to see more than a camel or two ahead and we wondered how our guides had any idea where they were going. After an hour and a half undulating on Herbert's back, I recalled another tale I'd heard about camels: they're incredibly uncomfortable to ride for long distances. I can now attest to that. In fact, I'm not altogether sure how men ride them at all. After an hour and a half I was more than ready to cry uncle. Lucky for me and due to the uncanny expertise of our Berbers, we finally saw light in the distance.

We left our camels outside a ring of tents and followed our Berbers into the biggest one. As the flap opened to admit us, we were bathed in light and the smell of cooking food. Seated on cushions around a circular table with other tourists, we were served mint tea again. "Berber whiskey", one of our guides called it. Next came a steaming tajin, or bowl of chicken, potatoes and vegetables for the table to share. After we had eaten, a few 20-something Berber men came into the tent with drums and hand cymbals. Eventually, the entire tent was dancing to the thumping and clashing of the instruments.

Once the music had ended and most of the travelers had retired to their tents for the night, only our group and a handful of young Berbers remained. Seated next to our guide on a cushion, I ventured a question. "Where are the women?" I asked. Uneasy with my question, "not here" was my curt reply. Mental note taken: don't talk girls with patriarchal nomads. The mood stayed light, though and soon they asked if we would like to join them to watch shooting stars on the dunes. The men laid carpets out on top of a dune and sat boy-girl with us in a very 15-years-olds at a movie theater sort of way. They asked our boys if they were sure that they weren't tired. "Don't you want to go back to the tent?" they'd joke in an innocent way. Sand whipping about in the night wind, they helped us fashion head scarves and veils from our neck scarves. As we watched stars shoot across a speckled sky, one Berber pointed his finger. "Berber television" he said with a smile.

That night we slept five and four on bedrolls in our tents with only one candle and camera glow to last us until morning. Hearing wild dogs barking in the distance, I woke as the sky was turning a dawn grey. I sought out Herbert and pet his massive head as I watched the hues of orange and pink come and go in the morning sky. The Berbers eventually woke the camp and called us into the big tent for a slice of bread and a cup of tea before sending us back to the village. Soreness compounded from the night before but sad to part ways, saying goodbye to Herbert and our guides was bittersweet. We took the same journey back over the mountain, passing again from desert to foothill to snow covered peaks and back down the other side and into Marrakech. Skants smelling of camel, we were glad to return to our hotel for a shower and a bed, ready to head back to España the next morning.

All in all, I fell in love with Morocco and the Berbers, Marrakech and the people. But, were I a man, I would love it even more. The male dominated society has little effect on women tourists as long as your respectful, but the Berber man's brusque answer in the tent reminded me that women in Morocco don't walk about freely like I do. Even as a tourist, I noticed that although I was the best haggler out of our group of girls, I received only a portion of the recognition and deference that my male companions were shown in the souk. The food, the music, the life in general is beautiful and I can't wait to return someday, but it's unfortunate that I could never live there and feel the same way.