Archive for August, 2008

August 31st 2008
La Tomatina

Posted under Spain

One hundred fifteen thousand kilos of tomatoes dumped into a small town square full of 40,000 drunk people. One hour of mayhem. If I stopped there, you could probably imagine the rest. The actual experience of La Tomatina – the world’s biggest tomato fight – was beyond the scope of my own imagination. So I’ll start from the beginning…

We learned of La Tomatina from our dear friend, Andrew, as the three of us traveled through Egypt almost one year ago. It sounded so crazy that we decided to tailor our Europe itinerary to fit it in. In the early part of our trip, we tirelessly pursued adventure activities – rafting the mighty Zambezi, cage diving with Great White sharks, ambitious hikes, safaris, swimming with dolphins, sailing, kayaking, and scuba diving around the world, just to name a few – but as we returned to Europe to begin our “home stretch”, our mindset had changed. We looked forward to coasting through the comfortable, easy travel of Europe. As the day loomed near, we began to think about the reality of La Tomatina – 40,000 intoxicated twentysomethings in a confined space – and a wave of dread came over us. We tried to disguise it with forced enthusiasm, which appeared as transparent as it was. We know each other too well. But La Tomatina had been booked months in advance so we were going.

We checked into our three-star hotel in Valencia – the cheapest room we could find during La Tomatina – joking that it was three more stars than we usually get. The tomato fight takes place in Buñol, a town of about 8,000 people, 40 kms away, but Buñol has little in the way of accommodation so everyone stays in Valencia and trains in for the event, with the exception of those who drink all night in Buñol the night before and sleep on the street. That’s not really our style.

We rose early on fight day and took the metro to the train station. The metro was already full of raucous revelers, dressed in their worst for the occasion, and seemingly already three sheets to the wind. We followed this same group from the metro to the train station and, with some crafty maneuvering on Aaron’s part, managed to circumvent the queue and get on the first train.

When the train arrived in Buñol, we were among the first wave of revelers to descend upon the town amid the drunken ovation from the enthusiastic campers. The locals were ready for us with the first of many refreshment tents set up just outside the train station. Within ten minutes of our arrival in Buñol, we each had a monster cup of sangria in our hands. What better way is there to truly enjoy a half day among 40,000 drunken college kids than by channeling your twenty-year-old self and drinking sangria at 8am? We couldn’t think of one.

From the station, we had to walk through the town into the old town square, where the festivities would take place. With sloshing sangria we followed the masses downhill through the streets. Many locals had set up beer tents, snack stands with sausages, sandwiches and paella; secure storage facilities, stands selling t-shirts, disposable waterproof cameras and cheap protective eyewear. We had made up sandwiches that morning and had our scuba masks at the ready. We were fully equipped and wanted a prime spot right in the middle of the action. When we reached the square, it was already crowded but still navigable. We planted ourselves in the center and took in the hysteria in our midst. The surrounding buildings were draped with plastic tarps. Groups of people had coordinated costumes: guys in matching flamenco aprons, girls in swim caps and fluorescent tutus, a lot of white shirts and swimwear. The crowd had a rowdy, good-spirited energy but a lot of people were already wasted with two hours still to go before tomato time.

The ham pole went up around nine. An integral part of the annual tomato fight, a telephone pole with a ham leg tied to the top is fastened into the ground. The pole is slathered from top to bottom with a thick layer of what looked like animal lard but smelled more like soap. Per tradition, the crowd must climb the pole and cut down the ham before the tomato fight can begin. With two hours and a little coordination, that should be no problem, I thought to myself. Wrong!

What ensued over the next two hours was utter chaos, a comedy of blunders, as drunken imbeciles climbed all over each other in pursuit not of the ham but of their own two seconds of glory, of being photographed on the pole before their chauvinistic idiocy brought the pile to the ground. For the first hour, it was hilarious, then gradually digressed to merely funny, then mildly entertaining, then painful to watch. The redeeming quality of the ham pole debacle was a guy in a fuzzy yellow chicken suit who repeatedly took to the pole while the riled crowd chanted, “Chicken! Chicken!” Unfortunately, the chicken was way too drunk to make any real progress. By eleven o’clock, the ham still hung mockingly from atop the pole but the tomatoes came anyway.

The first of five dump trucks rolled slowly into the tiny square as the crowd, roaring with excitement, diverged toward the outer walls to make way. Rowdy locals in the back of the trucks pelted the crowd with tomatoes before the truck dumped its load of bright red ammunition into the square. Bodies scrambled into the truck’s wake and fired tomatoes in all directions. Five minutes later came truck number two, followed shortly thereafter by a third. There were a lot of tomatoes but also a lot of bodies – you had to scavenge for fallen fruit. After the arrival of the fourth truck, however, it was sheer pandemonium! Aaron and I had lost each other in the madness and I was on my own amid drunken flailing limbs in a sea of marinara. There were no friends, no enemies; it was every man for himself and everyone was drenching everyone else with red slop. At one point, I looked down and realized that I couldn’t see my feet – the sauce was ankle deep! By this time, there was hardly a whole tomato to be found. People were scooping up handfuls of sauce and flinging it in every direction. Some sat down in the red sea of sauce, writhing happily while the crowd collectively showered them. Others engaged in drunken group wrestling matches. Countless t-shirts, soaked in salsa, flew through the air. Sauce rained down.

Thankfully, Aaron and I had established a rendezvous point and found each other again shortly before the bell rang to announce the end of the tomato fight. We were exhilarated, exhausted, and covered in tomato from head to toe. It was caked in my hair, stuck to our clothes, and coming out of our ears. Luckily, our scuba masks had worked perfectly, leaving our eyes the only body part immune from the mess. As the crowd shuffled slowly back uphill toward the train station, the sun which had remained sympathetically hidden behind the clouds all morning, made its glorious entrance and I began to feel the acidity of the tomatoes on my skin. Many good-spirited locals sprayed hoses into the crowd but there were so many people vying for the same sprinkles. We arrived at the train station to find long lines everywhere…long lines for the now disgustingly vile portable toilets, long lines for the makeshift showers, and long lines for the trains. We paid our dues in all three lines over a span of two hours before finally boarding the train back to Valencia.

La Tomatina was an epic adventure. We’d had a ball and were leaving virtually unscathed, which is exactly what I’d prayed for. In an alcohol-fueled melee like that, anything can happen. The mob mentality is always volatile and innocent bystanders can easily become casualties. Our only casualty was the loss of Aaron’s wedding ring, which we realized had slipped off in the showers at the end. A small price to pay for a truly unforgettable experience.


August 28th 2008
The Alhambra

Posted under Spain

Granada is one of Spain’s hippest cities, home to 60,000 college students, countless cervecerias (beer bars) serving free tapas, corner kebab stands and heladerias (ice cream shops). But the reason that millions of tourists flock here every year is to visit the Alhambra, a hilltop fortress-palace overlooking the city. The Alhambra, meaning “red castle”, is another – many would say the finest – example of a structure, marked by the handprints of alternating Muslim and Christian rulers. Stretched atop a hill, it began as a fortress in the 9th century and was converted by Nasrid emirs in the 13th and 14th centuries into a palace complex with an adjacent medina. When the Christians returned to power in the 15th century, the Alhambra’s mosque was replaced with a church and a huge Renaissance palace was subsequently added. The main attraction of the Alhambra is the Palacio Nazaries, built by Mohammed V in the 14th century. Aaron’s meticulous due diligence told us that six thousand visitors a day traipse through the Alhambra but only 2,000 tickets are sold at the door. To ensure admission, you must purchase tickets online for a specific time slot for the Palacio Nazaries and be there on time or be declined entry. After a kilometer walk uphill to the entrance, we arrived sweaty and ready for our 8:30am slot and were among the first to enter.

The palace was exquisite. The rooms were elaborately decorated with mosaic tilework, carved wooden ceilings, molded stucco walls with intricate lace patterns, and traditional Arabic calligraphy. There were picturesque courtyards with manicured gardens, reflecting pools and a labyrinth of covered corridors connecting it all. The design and décor of the Palacio Nazaries was similar to the other medersas and Arab-Islamic palaces that we’ve seen in Morocco and southern Spain but we were awed by it nonetheless. The sheer magnitude of the Alhambra was impressive. The Generalife, or architect’s garden, was a pristinely manicured labyrinth of hedged corridors, arbors, cypress trees, and flowers of every imaginable color. Its magic compelled even the most macho of men to pose giddily for photos among its storybook backdrops.

After the Alhambra, we spent our remaining days in Granada eating gelato, drinking sangria, and fitting in some of the city’s other sights in between. As a side note, Tina got her first-ever stye in her left eye, which did not inhibit our activities but she was nonetheless perturbed about not being able to wear makeup for the next couple of weeks. Thankfully, her husband, a former pusher of eye drops, easily diagnosed the problem and had a bottle of antibiotic drops in the first-aid kit. She is still annoyed about the makeup thing but is on the road to recovery.

The Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter sprawling up a hill facing the Alhambra, afforded the best views of the fortress-palace. The Albayzin was a maze of narrow alleys meandering within the old stone ramparts. The neighborhood, though largely residential, had lovely plazas with outdoor cafes, small shops selling souvenirs and Moroccan imports, and remnants of mosques-turned-churches. The five kilometer walking tour, winding through zigzagging streets, up and down the hillside, was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and work off some of that gelato.

Granada was our last stop in Andalucía, the most quintessentially Spanish region of Spain. We have loved our relaxed travel pace of late. The Alhambra is the city’s star attraction and it was magnificent but, after the exhilarating intensity of that experience, we enjoyed melting into the fold of daily life in laid back Granada for a few relaxing days.


August 25th 2008
Jesus Christ Superstar of the Mezquita

Posted under Spain

We arrived in Cordoba in mid-morning with a single beautiful day to explore. We settled into our hostel and set out at once for the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, which we were delighted to discover was free on Fridays. The artist Torres (1873-1930) was a respected local painter who specialized in the sensual portraits of Cordoban dames. The small museum housed in a former hospital, exhibited two floors of what could have been Torres’ life’s work.

The mostly female subjects of the paintings all seemed to be bathed in a soft ethereal glow, as if to accentuate both their eroticism and innocence. The artist portrayed everything that is passionate, delicate, and demure about women. He painted their souls onto their faces. I was deeply moved by Torres’ work – I have always been a fan of the portrait – and I was almost saddened when we had seen them all. I wanted more but such is the sentiment regarding all of the brilliant artists of our world. A lifetime is never long enough.

After a casual lunch at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafés, we made our way to Cordoba’s most impressive sight – the Mezquita, meaning mosque in Spanish. The Mezquita is also commonly referred to as the Cathedral of Cordoba, which seems contradictory until the story of its current incarnation unfolds.

Following the Islamic invasion of Cordoba, the ruling Muslims began construction of the Mezquita in 785 on the site of a razed 6th century Christian church, which had been the center of the community. Some of the church’s columns and materials were incorporated into the new structure. The mosque was enlarged and handsomely embellished in the ninth and tenth centuries, making it one of the world’s biggest and most architecturally stunning mosques. The prayer hall incorporated 1293 columns supporting the Mezquita’s most esthetically striking feature – seemingly endless rows of two tiered red and white striped arches. The completed mosque was an ostentatious display of power, a work of Islamic architecture to be used as a model of reference.

In 1236, Cordoba fell back into the hands of Christians and the Mezquita’s transformation began. Rather than razing the magnificent architectural treasure or adding on to its exterior, the ruling Christians built a cathedral right in the center of the mosque and incorporated as much Christian iconography and artwork into the existing interior as could ever be thought possible. The result is either a gaudy, incoherent contradiction or a beautiful idea of Muslim and Christian faiths converging into a glorious house of God. I can’t decide.

Stepping into the Mezquita for the first time was an eye-popping, jaw-dropping experience. The red and white striped arches were the focal point and seemed oddly festive. The arches continued on further than the eye could see, catching rays of sunlight from the high windows and creating a kaleidoscope effect that was magical to behold. Everyone who walked inside stopped to marvel at them with the same expression of awe.

We walked slowly around the inner perimeter, pausing to admire each of the chapels, with their artifacts and furnishings. The cathedral in the center of the Mezquita, added by the Christian reconquerors, consisted of a main chapel, transept and choir. It was small in comparison to the size of the original mosque. Throughout the Mezquita, Christian embellishments abounded. Biblical-themed sculpture was incorporated into some of the mosque’s beautiful arches. A crucified Christ adorned a wall covered in a masterpiece of Islamic stonework. Saints were sculptured into the molding of the vaulted ceilings and into the tops of the marble columns. Icons graced the walls facing stunning mosaic archways with the traditional Islamic keyhole design. The thought that kept echoing through my mind as we explored the various sections of the Mezquita was that, despite the innumerable Christian “reforms”, it was still a mosque.

Muslims consider iconography to be idolatrous. The symbols used in the decoration of their mosques are lotus flowers (representing purity), stars and Arabic calligraphy, and there is always water within or near a mosque for the ablutions. Christians adore their paintings and sculptures and their treasuries of majestic gold, silver and bejeweled objects. Mosques are generally filled with light from big, arched doorways or open ceilings while any natural light in a Christian church is usually filtered through deep-hued stained glass, accented by dim chandeliers and the flicker of candlelight. The nineteen doors that once filled the Mezquita with light now remain closed. The two styles so defiantly contrasted one another that slapping one style on top of the other created a vulgar and gaudy, though fascinating, effect. Jesus Christ, Superstar of the Mosque. Thankfully, much of the dazzling work of the Mezquita’s original artisans remained untouched by the transformation and the aura of the Mezquita, in its unblemished form, predominates.

Our brief visit to Cordoba was full of interesting contradictions: eroticism and innocence; destruction in the name of God; Muslim and Christian perspectives on the architectural and artistic glorification of God, or Allah as the case may be. We had a lot to contemplate. We left Cordoba with one certainty however: the Mezquita was AMAZING! After a year of traveling the world and visiting many of its most spectacular natural and manmade wonders, we find that it takes a lot to impress us these days. The Mezquita was a simultaneous glimpse into two worlds; an experience that left us in a breathless, awed, controversial state of wonderment.


August 23rd 2008
Show Me Some of that Spanish Dancin’

Posted under Spain

From Tangier, the fast ferry carried us only 35 minutes to Tarifa on the southern coast of Spain but disembarking that ship was like stepping into an old familiar world…and that world was full of boobs! Hooters, knockers, jugs, chi chis…whatever you want to call them, Mediterranean sun-tanned boobs were bulging out of push-up bras, bouncing and jiggling above plunging necklines. After Morocco, it was a bit of a reverse culture shock but we weren’t complaining. Although these were my first steps on Spanish soil, I felt myself thinking, It’s good to be back! Only when you’ve spent time in an ultra-conservative environment, like a Muslim community or perhaps a convent, do you come to truly appreciate the ways that women beautify the earth like bright summer flowers.

From Tarifa, we still had a long day of travel ahead. We had narrowly missed the morning bus to Seville and had to wait hours for the next one…but we were in Spain! We finally arrived in Seville in the early afternoon and humped our packs about a kilometer from the bus station to our hostel in El Centro. The summer sun emitted a heat as intense and oppressive as the Moroccan desert and we found ourselves running for shade at every opportunity.

The first thing we noticed about Spain (after the boobs) was the architecture. Ornate, colorful building facades lined narrow winding alleys, pedestrian walkways and romantic plazas. The unique exteriors were adorned with sculpture in a variety of styles; stark white molding and wrought-iron ornaments leapt off vibrant painted backgrounds. Lush tree-shaded parks and public fountains completed the town’s storybook appeal. By day, the streets were thronged with summer tourists scurrying between Seville’s two main historical sights – the Cathedral and the Alcazar – but, as we would later discover, the city of bullfighting, flamenco and tapas bars comes alive at night.

The Cathedral and the Alcazar are Seville’s fascinating architectural remnants symbolizing the entanglement of Muslims and Christians in southern Spain’s war-torn history. “In the 12th century, a strict Islamic sect from Morocco, the Almohads, took over Muslim Spain and made Seville the capital of their whole realm, building a great mosque where the cathedral now stands. Almohad power eventually crumbled and Seville fell to Fernando III (El Santo, the Saint) of Castilla in 1248” (Lonely Planet Spain, March 2007). For a century and a half, the ruling Christians used the existing mosque as a church before eventually deciding to tear down the mosque and build a church so extravagant as to defy the laws of reason. Interestingly, they decided to preserve the original mosque’s minaret (the Giralda), which now stands at the cathedral’s northeastern corner.

The inside of the five-naved cathedral is extraordinarily ornate; the sacristies and chapels are heavily ornamented with sculpture, deep-hued stained glass, stunning iconography, and other grandiose religious artwork. The cathedral’s main altarpiece, the Capilla Mayor, is reputedly the largest altarpiece in the world. The Gothic vaulted ceilings imbue a sense of reaching into the Heavens. The top of the Giralda – a crowded, claustrophobic climb – offers the best panoramas of the city. The Cathedral’s most interesting feature is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, marked by a grand monument of four sepulcher-bearers representing the four kingdoms of Spain at the time of Columbus’ famous voyage in 1492. (Lonely Planet Spain, March 2007)

The Alcazar, a palace complex expanded and modified over eleven centuries to suit the tastes of the Muslim and Christian rulers, is a polyglot of Arab-Islamic and European architecture. The main building is distinctly Arabic – a grand rectangular structure built around an open garden courtyard. The interior walls are adorned with beautiful tile work, intricate lace patterns and Arabesque inscriptions etched into plaster. Stucco stalactite detail drips from arched entryways. Marble and granite columns abound. Elaborately carved and painted wood ceilings loom overhead. The style is identical to that of the palaces and medersas of Morocco. The tone of the design is cool, quiet, and clean.

Beyond the main building are the additions of the Christian rulers – new wings of residential quarters, entertaining halls, and a chapel – all lavishly decorated with paintings and tapestries. The tone of the Christian additions is contrastingly warm. The most interesting work of art inside the Alcazar is a painting reputed to be the oldest known depiction of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. The contrast of the Islamic and European styles is obvious but one look at the exquisite beauty of the Islamic designs immediately clarifies the Christians’ reluctance to destroy them.

After the Cathedral and the Alcazar, our heads were spinning with intrigue from the sensory overload of religion, art, architecture and history. We were overwhelmed and exhausted. We desperately needed what is commonly referred to in Spain as a “siesta”. Similar to Arab cultures, the Spanish seem to relish the afternoon snooze. Shops and restaurants close down in the afternoon hours and reopen at night. Dinner time is around 9pm and nightlife begins around eleven. The only way to embark on a full day of sightseeing and then sample the nocturnal delights for which Spain is famous is to succumb to your body’s natural desire to melt into dreamland in an air-conditioned room during the hottest hours of the day.

We slept…and when time had turned the day’s hot yellow light to the smoky blue of dusk and when our thirtysomething batteries had been sufficiently recharged, we resurfaced with a zest for the fest! Seville’s quiet streets have pockets of nightlife with a casual, laid back atmosphere – tiny watering holes with ham legs hanging from the ceilings, overflowing tapas bars, incandescent restaurants with sidewalk seating, and inconspicuous live music venues. We chose a flamenco joint in the Barrio de Santa Cruz. There was no sign, just an address. We almost passed by it because of the silence around the entrance, so uncharacteristic of a bar, but we went in anyway to discover a big, empty room with a bar and a small stage. The barman affirmed the night’s flamenco performance and pointed us to a quiet garden courtyard where a dozen or so people sipped cocktails in chatty groups. We ordered a couple of Cruzcampos – the local cerveza – and grabbed a table. After our second round, we walked inside to a packed house with the flamenco performers already commanding the stage.

One guitarist, one singer, and one buxom dancer sat facing the beer-fueled crowd. The guitarist strummed the intro. The singer – a middle-aged man who was also the barkeep – intoned a passionate, soulful declaration while he and the buxom dancer clapped out a flamenco beat. A few more bars and then, suddenly, she was up! Clapping, stomping, and waving her arms, staring seductively through the crowd with her coal-black eyes. She was aged, heavyset, clad in a too-tight ruffled number with bulging cleavage, many would say unattractive, but she was all attitude. Her eyes were bold, her hips confident. She owned her audience who roared with generous applause. We were immediately drawn in by Spain’s spicy flamenco scene; however, despite our siesta, our thirty-year-old bodies were resisting the transition to night mode. We left just as the room was steaming up from the adrenalized performance and hit a tapas bar on the way “home”.

Andalucía is everything that is quintessentially Spanish. From the well-preserved remnants of the region’s riveting war-torn history to the relaxed tapas culture to the dazzling arts of flamenco and bullfighting, we are ready to drink it all in. Spain is vibrant, endearingly gaudy, and wonderfully uninhibited. It’s good to be back!

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August 19th 2008

Posted under Morocco

A modern air-conditioned train delivered us to Fes and back into the madness of the medina. Casablanca’s gentle sea breeze was noticeably absent in the dusty desert air. The taxi dropped us off at the bustling Bab Bou Jeloud gate to the medina (because cars are not allowed inside) and we wandered into the stone labyrinth that is the Arabic old town. Our hotel was spartan but well-located and the hypnotic hum of the medina soon drew us into its chaotic colorful corridors.

We sat for an early dinner at an outdoor café near the Bab Bou Jeloud gate and finally sampled the tajine – a hot pot stew of meat and vegetables, cooked in a cone-shaped terra cotta baking dish. The meat was grisly but the vegetables were delectable and we sopped up every last drop of the rich olive oil broth as we had seen the locals do in Marrakech.

As we watched the crowds of locals and tourists shuffle through the medina, our attention was drawn to the occasional provocatively dressed European tourist – they stick out like a sore thumb among the modest jellaba-clad locals – and I was reminded of a conversation that we had had in Marrakech regarding the differences between Moroccans and Egyptians. I noted the gentle nature, the lighthearted smiles, and the seeming acceptance of Westerners by Moroccans in stark contrast to the Egyptians with their suspicious, judgmental eyes and fierce cunning. Aaron suggested that perhaps we (our perspectives, that is) are different after a year of travel, a notion I dismissed initially but now reflected upon as I studied the uncomfortable looks of the naïve young women with heaving cleavage, only vaguely aware of their effect on the ravenous, sexually repressed pack of wolves lurking in the shadows. I gazed upon the bouncing bosoms, spaghetti straps, and short skirts, asking the flesh-bearers telepathically, Look around you. Why would you wear that?

And then I remembered a walk that I once took in some nameless village along the Nile where the two strong men at my side were powerless to stop the scornful, penetrating stares of the Egyptian villagers or the rocks thrown by a gang of brainwashed young boys. The shock, confusion and intimidation of that experience preceded our understanding of Arab-Islamic culture. At the time, I was adamantly opposed to succumbing to the oppression of women that I so despised, and offended by the notion that I should conform or be treated like a whore on the street, but such is the way of life for women in Arab cultures. The women cover themselves completely, even on the hottest days of the desert summer because the men are like animals, like dogs in heat with uncontrollable animalistic behavior incited by the smallest visible sliver of feminine flesh. In this culture, the abhorrent behavior of men goes socially and legally unchecked – women are hissed at, cat-called, groped in crowds – and there is no recourse. Women are still second class citizens – equal rights are yet a distant dream. The people are raised from childhood to believe that immodest dress makes a woman undeserving of respect. Such is life in Morocco. But understanding this crude, archaic social more makes walking the streets of Morocco a different experience. My spaghetti straps have long since been retired and, in crowds, I attach myself to Aaron’s hip because a woman walking alone in a crowd is a target for anonymous gropers. In the thickest crowds, I walk with my arms crossed over my chest to avoid any “accidental” contact. When we walk through the medina, entranced by the sights, sounds and smells, I can easily tell when Aaron has fallen behind by the hawkish muted advances of the all-male shopowners.

I find this aspect of Arab-Islamic culture vile and reprehensible. But where once I (clad in spaghetti straps) vowed to take on the beast of oppression singlehandedly by setting an example of an independent woman who is treated as her husband’s equal, I now realize that education and economic prosperity are better swords to wield in that battle than my insolent bare shoulders. While I stand by my original generalization that Moroccans are gentler and more tolerant of Westerners than the Egyptians, I also see that our perspective is different, worldly, more educated. Understanding breeds tolerance.

By the time we arrived in Fes, the atmosphere of the medina, with its mosques and medersas, had lost a bit of its luster. While we engaged in the requisite aimless wandering, we found ourselves seeking quiet refuge from the hustle and intensity of the streets. When you have the sponge-like desire for the sensory overload of Third World culture, the Moroccan medina delivers an explosion of colorful produce stalls, freshly butchered carcasses hanging in shop fronts, enchanting Arabic music, donkey carts, street hustlers, savvy rug dealers, burqa-clad women peering out through their narrow eye-slits, the constant engagement of shopowners beckoning you inside for a look, dark clandestine corners, aromas of fresh mint and cilantro filling the air…all in a buzzing kaleidoscope of stimulation. Even the sidewalk cafés are fair game for amateur tour guides, beggars and street performers. When you are weary of the chaos, you must find oases on elevated terraces, in high-end hotels and quiet internet cafés.

In the medina, daily life is dictated by two things: religion and the sweltering heat. The notion of “nine-to-five” has no place here. The morning begins around 5 am with the muezzin’s resonating call to prayer. Laborious tasks begin early before the oppressive heat makes them unbearable. Shopowners begin the daily ritual of setting out their displays while restaurant owners make the day’s purchases from produce sellers. Men huddle around outdoor tables, drinking green tea with springs of fresh mint. In the sizzling afternoons, they can be found snoozing away in shady places. From dusk until dawn, the streets of the medina are most alive with bright lights, music and non-alcoholic revelry. Small children roam the streets at all hours of night, an initially shocking sight that quickly melts into normalcy. The street noise jolted us from sleep at all hours of the night until the muezzin’s call signaled the break of day and a new cycle of working, socializing, napping. Such is life in the medina. It is a different world, a world from which we are now eagerly anticipating our escape.

Morocco has been a sideshow on our European home stretch. The truth is that we are weary of the Third World, weary of the emotional albatross that is poverty, weary of the discomforts and the hustle. Morocco is interesting because it seems more like the Middle East than Africa. The people have a stunning golden complexion, similar to Iranians, and their language, style of dress, cuisine and mannerisms are characteristic of Arabs. But often enough, a “T.I.A.” moment reminds you of what continent you’re on.

My praise of the Moroccan train system was perhaps a bit premature, as evidenced by our final train ride from Fes to Tangier. Tickets were sold for an air-conditioned ride but the vents inside the cars blew only a whisper of cool air. If you held your arm three or more inches above the vent, you could not feel the air at all. In the blazing mid-afternoon heat, the train filled to capacity at the main junction near Sidi Kacem and sat there delayed for almost two hours while the passengers perspired together in the uncirculated hot boxes. Also at that junction, the train was oversold and many unfortunate passengers, including mothers with small children, were forced to sit on the floor between cars. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll just mention that the restrooms were utterly vile without going into my usual level of grotesque detail. T.I.A. This is Africa.

The locals all seemed to bear the discomfort and inconvenience with grace, as if this level of service was standard or perhaps because they understand an important truth: there are many worse things to bear in life than a little physical discomfort and inconvenience. Sometimes a petty difficulty, when put into perspective, can be a healthy reminder of the many blessings in our lives.

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