Thursday, December 22, 2011

"No Golfing" - A Reverse Viaje

Going back in time six hours is a bitch. I don’t mean like H.G. Wells, “going back in time”, but like changing time zones. Your body doesn’t like it, your head doesn’t like it, and it makes everything seem wavy and strange when you try to focus your eyes.
            Today I woke up at 5:30 AM Eastern Standard Time, which would be 11:30 AM in Valladolid, Spain. To make the best of this unceremonious jolting of the brain-time continuum, I decided to get into my Subaru Forester and head to the gym. Unfortunately, the gym is not all that close to my house, and if you’re familiar with standard, American suburban-wasteland “planning”, you’ll know that when something is three miles from your house, you don’t always have a direct route. You have to make some choices.
I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, we already have traffic at 5:45 AM. And I made some shitty choices. I went to the longest lights; I got stuck behind people driving their $100,000 Lexuses at the speed of low-battery golf carts; and at one point, I was trailing a school bus that seemed to be picking up every wayward child in the vicinity. Leave no room for doubt: this all made me very angry. But it was a warm, terra cotta feeling of soothing anger; a nostalgia for traffic jams past.
Anyways, after about three hours in traffic – give or take two hours and forty five minutes – I got to Spring Hill Rec Center, currently high in the running for the Most Generic Suburban Place Name of All Time award, highlighting an adroit use of the classic combination: Soothing Adjective + Unoffensive Geographic Feature. As the candle would have sung in “Beauty and the Beast”: a tale as old as time.
As I turned my sturdy, liberal bumper sticker-bedecked Forester into Spring Hill’s parking lot, the newly awakening sun’s rays illuminated a wooden sign on the side of the access road. When I read this placard’s warning, I realized that where I had arrived, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was just as strange of a locale – just as much part of my world-hopping adventure – as any cathedral’d villa in Spain or any ancient mosque’d hamlet in Morocco. This sign, perhaps ignored by many of the locals as if it were something as commonplace as a speedbump or as routine as a traffic light, blew my mind. It baffled and astounded me; I couldn’t believe what it said:


            We’re all accustomed to seeing signs telling us not to park somewhere, not to idle for too long in one area, or even demanding that we not give money to pandhandlers.
But telling us not to play golf?
Have legions of flat-capped, caddied renegades straggled so far off the course that they have started impeding traffic? I want you to understand that this sign was nowhere near any type of golf course. There was nary a green nor sand trap for at least five miles in any direction, so what does this mean? Have people starting teeing off wherever the fuck they want? And moreover, has this become a problem warranting an official county sign?
This was not in a field where one might practice his or her drive. This was not near any kind of surface or area conducive to the playing of golf. It was next to a narrow access road leading towards a rec center. Granted, the game of golf is indeed a pastime that can be construed as “recreation”, but would this suggestion be enough to set off an orgy of chipping and wedging so as to require a warning to halt these activities?
The suburbs are a strange place. Despite the often banal and superficial façade, there are things going on behind these manicured lawns and on these power-washed driveways. It is a place of intrigue, wile, and deception. Just as much as Montmarte, Madrid, or Marrakech.
I have thought about this all day and, honestly, the only conclusion I can draw from the “No Golfing” affair is this:
We are all insane.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

París I - Banlieues

            First of all, to call the bucolic Beauvais Airport “Paris – Beauvais” is tantamount to saying “San Francisco - Modesto” or “New York – Trenton”. If you missed those narrowly-scoped geographic references, those are two cool, world-class cities incongruously linked to two much shittier cities because they have cheap airports about an hour and a half away. Of course, I’ve never been to either Modesto or Trenton, but I’ve read their Wikipedia pages. Things aren’t looking good.
            Actually, Beauvais is not a bad looking town. It’s got some pretty verdant green fields and some pretty quaint looking countryside. What’s the word I used before? Bucolic? Yes, that describes it perfectly. Truthfully, I’ve always thought that “bucolic” sounds like a disease pathology and not like something relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life. ORIGIN early 16th cent. (denoting a pastoral poem): via Latin from Greek boukolikos, from boukolos ‘herdsman,’ from bous ‘ox.’, but hey, I don’t get to make the rules. Some old, rich white men do.
            After the initial 45 scenic minutes of the shuttle from the afore-insulted Beauvais airport, things started to get grimy and much more smokestack-y. This outer ring of Parisian suburbs, called banlieues in the barbaric native tongue of the Frenchmen, were not what most would consider feats of aesthetic architectural achievement. Most of the buildings are lifeless-looking high rises that seem to have been mail-ordered by the dozens from some sinister art-deco building warehouse.
From what I have heard, many of these areas are not places you would live if you have the means to go elsewhere. They are the French equivalent of the large-scale government housing projects in major U.S. cities, complete with many of the same features of social depression and malaise.
The Parisian banlieues are not a pretty place from a distance, and I know that things are no better from close up. In fact, that word in and of itself in French, like the word “projects” in English, carries a connotation - deserved or not - of crime, gangs, poverty, and of a large minority population. However, like most European cities, their “projects” are on out the outskirts of the city and not inside it. Interestingly, translations of the word “suburb” or “suburban” in many European languages connote the exact opposite of the American English equivalent.
(If you want to see a damn good film that illustrates this phenomenon, check out the movie “Gomorrah” – a modern-day Italian crime epic set in the suburbs of Naples. Not a pretty looking place to live.)
However, seeing Paris’s less glamorous side first was a good introduction for me, an American that has all the wrong ideas about what “France” means. I was thinking berets and mimes and art museums and dinners by the Seine and fine wines and snobby waiters. And while Paris does have all of these things – though perhaps not in the imagined quantities – at the end of the day, it is a giant, world city. And as one of the most important cities in all the world, of course it has soot covered smokestacks and block housing and people on the streets and miles of graffiti-painted walls, claiming injustice and begging for a peaceful (or other) resolution. Of course the people here struggle, of course they are grimey, of course they are on the grind, and of course they fight for what they have, just like anyone else in the world.
Paris is not at all postcards and paintings, and I was naïve to think so.

In real life, it’s much, much more alive than that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


            Spain is a place of contrasts, for me at least. My life as an American teacher here is a strange concoction of wildly different situations. There are alternating waves of intensity, ranging from the very active and high energy, such as my work at the school, to vapid expanses of bleak llanura – flatness – where I feel understimulated and, frankly, a little bit bored. The periods of high activity are some of the more frenetic I have ever experienced: I have to think on my feet almost all day long, and mainly in another language. Likewise, the flat periods are often devoid of stimulation, with a paucity of motivation to change the current situation at hand. It is certainly a strange life. It’s a good one, even if at times it can be very difficult. Honestly, without the difficult times, there is no why I would know just how sweet the good times really are. That’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
            This kind of oceanic existence – being raised and lowered by a metaphysical tide – is nothing new for me. My life has always been up and down, just like everyone else’s I guess, but maybe a little bit more extreme. We all have light and dark periods, but most of us never reach celestial exuberance nor infernal depths. Truthfully, I would try and avoid describing my own world so melodramatically, but like I mentioned before, I recognize the radiance during the times of contentment because of its stark contrast to those times where everything has a more subdued, matte finish. Either way, I try to keep the sine wave – la onda – from peaking too high in the Himalayas, but at the same time stop it from scraping the bottom of the deep-sea trench, this oceanic life I have somehow found myself circumnavigating.
            I’m going to expand on this more in a second, but I’m going to put this up now as a preliminary to my foray into some more philosophical themes here. And don’t worry – it is all related to this viaje – this journey. Being here, in and of itself, is a foray into the philosophical, so it is only right that I go into it here on this blog. It’s something that directs a lot of my thoughts and thus my worldview.
            Hold on tight.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Le Maroc, Pt. Quatre: Estamos (casi) jodidos.*

             There will not be much room for pretty pictures in this entry because I want to convey the message through words the best I can, and because throughout this whole episode, I didn't feel much like snapping pictures.

             I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with being led down ominous alleys by strange men in North Africa, but let me assure you that there is a reason why you have not heard this listed among many of your friends’ favorite hobbies. It’s shit-your-pants terrifying - that’s why. So as Dave, Michael, Will and I were very hesitant to follow Mustafa off the main strip of shops and down a dimly-lit, person-less alley in Djemma el-Fna, if for no other reason than that we did not much feel like being murdered. Especially not in an alley in Marrakech. Maybe I haven’t been reading enough Beat generation literature, but it doesn’t seem like many good things happen in dark alleys in Marrakech. Plenty of good things happen in well-lit streets and in vivacious, bustling plazas, but foreboding alleys tend to fall short of the Top 10 Great Places for Good Things to Happen list.
            So fuck. We’re being led down this ominous alley by a strange man named Mustafa in Marrakech, and he’s totally beckoning us to come despite our obvious hesitation. Because, y’know, it was, like, horrifying. Of course, being good sheepish Occidentals, we didn’t want to offend our guide by implying that we thought he was going to murder us in a dimly lit alley, so we didn’t want to speak up or say anything that was going to offend him.
            We didn’t want to say anything that was going to offend him.
            Let me say that one more time, just so that its entire conceptual foundation sits clearly with everyone reading this.
            Despite the fact that we were all deeply worried about the whole prospect of being led down a fucking dark, desolate alley in Marrakech by a complete stranger wearing fake RayBans, we were too timid to say anything because we didn’t want to offend him, a man we had never met before in our life, and whom we would most likely never see again.
            Yeah, we’re idiots.
            So as we Pied-Piper’ly follow Mustafa down the alley, we are very apprehensive. We were shooting each other glances, muttering under our breath. We knew this wasn’t a good idea at all, but we seemed trapped in the moment, unable to get out of it. Such is group psychology.
            Suddenly, just in case the austere penumbra of the alley was not scary enough, a child and his burqa’d mother starting following closely behind us, and the child began to sing in Arabic. Actually, “sing” is not the correct word here - “chant forebodingly” is a better phrasal verb to use. So not only are we about to be killed, but our impending doom is being welcomed with terrifying majesty of song. Shit. As we continued to walk down this alley, we agreed in hushed tones that while the alley was already bad enough, there was no way we would go into a building.
            Finally, like ancient Phoenician sailors finally breaking through a blanket of clouds to see the glory of the sun once again, we emerged from our alley-based purgatory into another bustling street market.
            Well, shit. Thank God we didn’t go into a building right?
            We’re still not trusting this Mustafa character. Relieved though we certainly were to not have been stabbed in the kidneys or extorted with any kind of long knife, we did not feel like we were yet out of the woods. Rattled, shaken, we continued on, being led towards a so-called “authentic Berber market” by Mustafa. We follow him around another bend, under a somewhat lower doorjamb, and it just looks like another market, except with a lot of dudes in white coats.
            Mustafa turns to us, looking a lot like Giancarlo Esposito in the movie 1994 movie “Fresh”, and says, “Authentic Berber pharmacy.” He then starts up a set of stairs to our left, beckoning us along with him. Dude did a lot of beckoning. He was huge on beckoning. “Come, come. Let’s go!” he said to us, as if there was an hourglass losing sand somewhere. Well shit, we must have collectively thought, We’re in a building. And we’re about to go up some stairs into an even more recessed part of this building. Well shit.
            Now let me explain something. This might not seem so bad to you guys reading this. You might think that because of my humorous tone that this was somehow not terrifying, that we took all of this lightly. Jovially. Jocularly. No. This was very, very scary. I don’t know exactly how to convey the sense we were all having, but I’ll do my best. Simply put, we felt like were falling farther and farther into a trap that had been laid for us. We all knew the risks of following local guides in Morocco, especially ones that you did not make an attempt to solicit – that is to say, guides that “seduced” you into following them. All of the guidebooks and sources of information with any shred of value will tell you that the number one rule in any country like this is do not follow unsolicited guides into unfamiliar places. Despite all of us being fully aware of this fact, and thinking we had some semblance of being in charge of our respective destinies, we had all gotten sucked in. Due to Mustafa’s smoothness and disarming demeanor, we had all become enganchado – hooked – and we didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. We were all disappointed with ourselves for supposedly knowing better and still going along with him. We felt like we were about to pay for our mistake in doing so, with at least our wallets, and who knows what else. We were truly scared at this point, and we were feeling sorry for ourselves for falling into this obvious trap.
            So we go up the stairs into the “Berber pharmacy”. We file into a fluorescently-lit room that is lined with jars of what appear to be different ointments and powders. There are two men, who don’t look particularly friendly or happy to see us, wearing white lab-style coats. Mustafa talks to them quickly in Arabic. Michael asks Mustafa, pointedly, though not intentionally at the time, “Are these your friends?”
            One of the men with the lab coat quickly says, “No, he’s not my friend.” He ekes out a half-smile.
            Mustafa turns to us and says, “OK guys, I’m going to step outside and have a cigarette real quick and these guys are going to talk to you.” Before we could really assent, Mustafa was gone and the door was shut behind him.
            I don’t know if my words here can really demonstrate how frightened and sad we all were at this point. Scared for our physical and proprietary selves and upset that we had let all of this happen to us, been so enganchados. It’s pretty easy to sit here now, write and/or read this, knowing that everything turned out OK, and to think I’m maybe exaggerating or overreacting a little bit. But the God’s honest truth is that we were right there in that lifeless linoleum room, looking at one another, thinking we might be in some serious trouble. We did not know what to do.
            I have never been so scared in my whole life. Will, Michael, Dave and I all exchanged glances in that room that spoke Encyclopedia-Britannica-volumes of regret, fear, panic. Not to offend anyone with more delicate lexical senses, but there was one sentence stuck on repeat in my mind at the time, and I’m sure my compañeros would second the motion.
            “We’re fucked.”
            This short phrase (Spanish translation: “Estamos jodidos”) sums up exactly how we felt at the time. Well, there’s no getting out of this one. Estamos completamente jodidos. No hay manera.
            And the “Berber pharmacist” went along explaining this powder and that ointment, holding out this jar and that jar for us to smell, but none of us were listening or smelling a goddamn thing that he was proffering to us. We were convinced that something bad was going to happen. Or rather, we were all standing on a precipice of sorts, on the edge of somewhere completely unknown. There was a void in front of us, an uncertain future, and we didn’t know what to do or if there was anything we even could do to change it.
            Finally, after what seemed like much longer than the few minutes it was – because we had all pondered way more than a few minutes worth of thoughts in that period of time – the lab-coated man did that goddamn half-smile and said, “Any questions?”
            And in one of the most genius questions I have ever heard in my life, Will points to a jar of colorful objects and says something to the effect of, “Yeah, I was wondering – I saw a lot of these things downstairs,” putting heavy emphasis on the final word, roughly containing our collective sense of desperation. “Do you think we could go downstairs and look at these again?”
            That’s when, I think, the dude realized we weren’t going to buy anything.
            Mustafa eventually came back, led us around the stupid-ass market for a little bit longer, and I actually ended up buying a silk scarf from one of his Berber “friends”. His “woman” made it. “Made” it. Hmm. Anyways, I’m convinced we’re all still alive because of my scarf purchase. If it hadn’t been for the scarf, we’d all be strung up somewhere in a mountain in Morocco. And it’s good quality silk, too.
            After a little more walking around, Mustafa finally had enough of us, bid us adieu in one of the squares, and walked off into the night. After all that, guy just walks off. Just like that. And we all thought we were going to be killed. Or robbed. Or something.

            But that’s why you don’t follow strangers down dark alleys in North Africa. 

 *"casi" means "almost", for those who wanna know.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Le Maroc, Pt. Trois: Para enganchar a un americano / To hook an American

            So by now I’ve had it pointed out to me, by people who’ve read Dave’s blog and by folks whom we’ve told what happened, that the “sinister” goings-on implied by the end of the last blog entry were not, in fact, all that sinister. It was more just highly uncomfortable and frightening to be in the situation at the time. All the same, it sucked for us. We were hundreds, if not thousands, of miles (kilometers) from anything we considered remotely familiar, and so having such a high level of uncertainty in such a remote and strange place was definitely what I would call “sinister”. At least, it had malevolent twinges.
Was that the first time anyone has ever written the phrase “malevolent twinges”? Let’s do a Google search and find out.

Dammit, one other asshole had already said “malevolent twinges”, and it was in a LIVEJOURNAL, for God’s sake. Figures.

Anyways, let me continue the most-interesting narrative here.


Marrakech, Morocco. The Red City. It was more a kind of ochre if you asked me, but then again, I was never big on color swatches back in the day, so what do I really know? 

Marrakech, to say it briefly, is an insane place. At particular times and locations in the city, is a place that stimulates every sense of the human body at once, causing so many neurons to fire and so many distinct neurotransmitters to scoot around your nervous system that you kind of just want to go to sleep. The most famous part of the city is called Djemma el-Fna, which is a huge open square, about the size of six or seven American football fields (have to make that distinction over here). In this square, which is the center of the Moroccan sensory overload, there are vendors selling every type of ware you could imagine, from counterfeit iPods to counterfeit Lionel Messi jerseys to authentic Berber handwashes to real-life Jackson’s chameleons. Interestingly enough, the chameleons are actually sold so that they can be burned alive in a particular local ritual that, if I remember correctly, is supposed to cure impotence. It seems like the coolest animals are always killed for such stupid reasons. (Pangolins, anyone?)

In addition to Djemma el-Fna, the old city of Marrakech (the medina) contains an absolutely mind-boggling labyrinth of streets and alleys that house an even more extensive market. If you are not careful, these markets will disappear at night, and you will be left behind in a maze-like network of nearly-identical streets, and you will need some time and more than a little luck to get out of there. Really, I don’t know how you would get out – there are no street signs, few landmarks, and not a whole lot of well-intentioned locals to be found who would be willing you come to your aid given the situation.
This brings me to our strange and disquieting experience. Now, we all know full well that in Morocco you’re not supposed to follow people who offer you their services as guides. Fine, that’s easy enough to understand. But the problem is, some of them are damn tricky about not offering you anything, but instead just starting to show you around without you even assenting to anything. Such was the case with Mustafa.
One afternoon, we were doing the Frogger-like traversing of the main street – I want to say Rue King Mohammed the V – to get to the Medina. By the way, the crossing of the street in and of itself is always one of the most dangerous things to do in Morocco that I’m aware of, and actually, I’d be willing to bet it’s single activity that kills the most people every year in Morocco. More than any terrorism, opium, crime, or rogue guides. But I digresss
As we intrepidly cross the street, we notice that a man has joined us. He’s well dressed, wearing some pretty new looking Levi’s, sort-of-real-looking RayBans, and a non-threatening blue pullover. He’s sporting a pretty well-trimmed mustache. Other than the fact that people who are not Tom Selleck with staches can be scary at times, he seems pretty harmless.
It was a particularly harrowing crossing-of-the-street, and the man looks back at us, smiling, seeming to say with this gesture, “Wow, that was a particularly harrowing crossing-of-the-street, huh? Even I as a local Moroccan would agree with you Americans on saying this, if you were to say it out loud!” Of course, owing to his gold-rimmed RayBan-accessorized slickness, he did not say this exactly, but rather said something to that effect but with many fewer syllables. To use Spanish grammatical constructions, that thing has caused me to forget it at this point. It’s not my fault. Third-person singular, impersonal se, ya’ll.
However, this guy does say something quite strange to us, and this is precisely where red flags should have gone up in all of our heads.
“Hey, don’t you guys remember me from the hotel this morning?”
No, dude, we do not remember you from the hotel this morning. At least, we are pretty sure we don’t. Although we should be concerned at this point, more than anything, I think we’re just confused.
So we keep walking a little bit, and this RayBanned dude is walking a little bit ahead of us, safely not part of our group. However, after about thirty meters, he stops, waits up for us, and points to a large building across the street.
“That is the nicest hotel in Africa right there.”
Uh, sweet.
“Yeah, Winston Churchill stayed there, and Sarkozy, whenever he’s in Marrakech,” he says as he scans are not-that-impressed-but-just-confused faces, “that’s the only place he stay.”
“You should stay there sometime if you get a chance.”
So at this point, we think this guy must work for the hotel. We think we’re all in tune with the locals now, understanding what they’re thinking, seeing the other sides to their games. We’ve got ‘em figured out, this guy is totally trying to get us –
The guy keeps walking ahead of us, acting like he doesn’t care at all whether we follow him or not. And that right there, my friends, was the kernel of his genius. The nonchalance, the lackadaisical gait, the aura that he gave off, that he had better things to do than to hang out with us. But the thing is, that we should have noticed right away, is that he kept stopping to conveniently point things out to us, give us nice historical tidbits. The problem was, he adroitly skirted the line between “I don’t really care, I’m just a nice guy” and “tour guide”. He had us hook-in-mouth from the beginning I think, and I think he knew it.
            After about seven minutes of off-and-on walking towards the medina with this shadow-character, this short-of-stature but tall-of-poise man, we make the fatal mistake of letting him know we’re hungry, somehow, I forget either directly or indirectly.
            “I will take you to the finest restaurant in Djemma el-Fna. Riad Omar”
            Shit, now we’re stuck with him.
            He continues on, “You see, most tourists go to the stands in the square, they get sick, they don’t like it, they don’t know what they are doing.” (He spoke in these chopped sentence fragments. That was pretty awesome, actually. For a linguistics nerd like me at least.)
            So “Mustafa”, as we soon learn he calls himself, oh-so beneficently guides us through the libertine madness of Djemma el-Fna to a relatively hole-in-the-wall establishment on a smaller side street. The door to “Riad Omar” is non-descript and is a place no tourist would ever select without prior knowledge of its existence. Or, of course, someone leading them towards it specifically. Despite all of these signs being presented to us of what was happening, we continue on, ascending the stairs to the restaurant. Mustafa presents us to the waiter and said, “Here, he will take care of you. And oh, if you want, I’ll come back after you all have finished desert and I can show you around a little bit more.”
            Uhhh. We all look at each other. What do we say here? Do we tell him “Hey, no thanks, we’re good. We don’t need any more help!”
            Nope, we sort-of nod our heads and assent.
            Mustafa smiles and says, “OK, great. I’ll be back in a little bit to get you. Enjoy your meal!”
            Shiiiiit. We are terrible at this! However, the food is really, really good. I would safely say that it is one of the best meals I have ever head. Cous-cous, veggies, and young-n-tender-just-how-I-like-it lamb. Mmmm.

Plus, the restaurant is on the roof of the building and we can see all around Marrakech, all the way to the Atlas mountains standing sentry over the city to the west.

So we eat and enjoy the view and we talk about how maybe, just maybe, Mustafa is in fact legitimate, and just wants to show us around. Interestingly though, like clockwork, as soon as we finish our meal - as if he were called from the heavens - Mustafa shows up on the roof of the restaurant, all smiles. "My friends, did you like the food?"

Almost done. One more part coming up.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Le Maroc, pt. Deux - Encroaching Horses and Prickly Pears

            We walked around Tangiers for a long, long time. With heavy backpacks on. I think I mentioned that already. We had long since exited the tourist-y part of town and the only European/non-Moroccan looking people we had seen in a long time looked more like professional expatriates than wayward Swedish backpackers (of which there had been many only some minutes before). 

Needless to say, we four pasty, ingenuous looking yanquís did not exactly blend in seamlessly with the locals, what with North Face backpacks threatening to break our clavicles and brochure-sized maps dangling constantly in front of our faces.
No, we did not give off the vibe neither of wayward Berbers nor wandering Bedouins, but like a bunch of lost Americans saying “fuck” a lot. There was some mild debate about how to get back to the train station from wherever “here” was, and so naturally there were also a lot of crackpot theories being thrown around about how to tell the cardinal directions by looking at the sky. I was the propagator of several different, at times conflicting, theories, based on things I had “read on the internet”.

            Finally, after many a Moroccan child had yelled “¡Hola!” or “Bonjour!” at us from many a weathered-looking playground – they’re used to seeing a lot more Spanish and French people around than estadounidenses – we again found the Mediterranean Sea. Once seeing the beach and the dying light of the day, there was a resounding collective “Screw it” thought and subsequently exasperated by our traveling party. Then we made the strategic decision to sit on the beach for an indeterminate period of time.
            Once on the beach, a princely looking character riding a horse decided it would be funny to keep circling us, missing us by a few feet every time. He looked more like a young British earl returning from a foxhunt than someone you would see on the beach in Northern Morocco. We then dug a few holes in the sand to leave behind so as to perhaps make him reconsider circling future backpackers on his grand steed.

            After a few hours of intermittent silence and pseudo-profound philosophical posturing about “the Earth, bro, and like, the sky” (and no we did not buy any hash from the ubiquitous “good deal for you my friends” who proffered it to us everywhere), we decided to try to find a grocery store so we could pack some vittles for the upcoming overnight train ride, which we still had several hours to wait for. We did not find a supermarket but instead a pretty sketchy part of town where a lot of unintelligible homeless folks asked us for money. I think. I think we also walked into a brothel. I don’t know who thought there was the possibility that they would be selling snack foods in there, but I can assure you that it was not me. From the outside, the building looked like a bordello, but I guess they come in all shapes and sizes.
            We ended up finding a strange-smelling market and I bought some insanely addictive pita chips, which we all still have a craving for to this day. They must contain some kind of garlic-based opioid. I wish I had taken a picture of the bag. Maybe they didn’t even really exist…maybe these pita chips were just in our imagination…
            Finally, we again uttered a collective exasperated sigh of “screw this” as we had now been officially killing time for the past seven hours waiting for our goddamn train. We went to the goddamn train station to continue waiting for the goddamn train, but at least a little closer to the goddamn place from whence it was to leave. After being mesmerized by the Arabic-LED “Arrivals / Departures” board for an hour or so, we were granted access to our lovely sleeping quarters on the train. Though by no means the sketchiest place I have ever slept (that story is for another blog!), our train compartment would not have shown up in the Lonely Planet guide as a suggested lodging choice for those who make more than $15,000 a year. It reminded me of Boy Scout camp, complete with vinyl covered “mattresses” and bunkbeds, but it was cozy and awesome in its own kind of way. I actually really liked it a lot and I slept like a log, albeit one cramped into a too-small bed (and I was the shortest person between the four of us) that was about as soft as an exercise mat at a gym.

            The light creeping in past the tattered curtain on the window woke me up at about 6 AM. I pulled the blinds back a tiny bit to take a look out at the Moroccan countryside without waking up my comrades. It was a beautiful sight – the desert sand was an ochre-red, and bathed in the dawn light it looked like Martian landscape; unearthly. Every couple miles or so, there were small towns ringed by what looked like goat and sheep farms whose exterior fencing consisted of purposefully arranged rows of Prickly pear cactus to keep their ruminant subjects confined. 

Also, every little town was clustered around an immaculate central mosque. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the small towns I saw in the countryside in Mexico. There, the church was always the most cared-for and important-looking building. However, here in North Africa, those churches were simply replaced with mosques. I think, though, that these societies have more in common than their far-flung distances would suggest. More than just cacti and the pious faithful.
            At about 7:45 AM we arrived in Marrakech. I could already tell that this was a nicer place than Tangiers, at least in terms of what they wanted outsiders to see. Even the train station, complete with Moroccan KFC, was immaculate and beautiful.    

We took a cab to our hotel, and our cab driver was strangely friendly, as opposed to the ubiquitous grumpiness we encountered in Tangiers. However, this was to be a portent of soon-to-unfold events in Marrakech. 

As an unfortunately general rule, we discovered that, at least in during our stay in Morocco, when someone is overly friendly, they are usually trying to get something from you. That something is usually money, but sometimes it seems to be something more sinister.

To be continued.   


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Le Maroc

            I tried a few times to write something profound about Morocco, but I ended up shelving everything I wrote. It was too complicated, too convoluted; I tried too hard to make a point. There was flowery language describing non-flowery things, there were myriad lamentations of sociological phenomena and philosophical problems that I felt like we were encountering. However, a couple good friends of mine gave me some advice that I can more or less paraphrase in the following words:
            “Dude, I think you’re taking your blog too seriously.”
            Dude, they’re totally right.

           Now, I don’t want to do a disservice to Spain’s nearest African neighbor and say too little about the country, but I’m going to do the best I can to do Morocco justice in fewer words than Absalom, Absalom!


            Morocco is a place of contrasts. First of all, the flight from Madrid to Tangiers (“Tánger” – “tahn-herr”, with a nice, guttual ‘h’ thrown in there for full Spanish effect) takes only one hour, but as far as I know, I’m not aware of another flight that short that will take you somewhere so different.

            One huge difference is that there was Arabic writing everywhere. I know this sounds obvious being that Morocco is an Arabic speaking country, but I have never been to a country that does not use the Latin alphabet before, so to see words that contain characters that looking more like drawings than letters is very shocking at first, and becomes somewhat entrancing later on. I think the Arabic script is one of the most beautiful looking typesets on the planet and to see it everywhere, especially when it’s been written as graffiti on dusty car windows, or scratched into the side of a building with a stick, or carved by mischievous waifs into drying concrete, it adds a level of humanity that’s often missing in Western portrayals of the language.

“Oh yeah, it’s just a bunch of somewhat arbitrary symbols used by other human beings just like me, and it just happens to congeal together and mean stuff like ‘Wash me’ or ‘Real Madrid sucks balls’, just like we write in English!”

Again, obvious as it may sound, it’s something I didn’t really think about much until I was in Tangiers, surrounded by Arabic everywhere. I think it really took the dirty car window to make me fully realize how alike we human beings truly are.
            Now, Morocco is not just a country that uses the Arabic alphabet, but it’s also a Muslim country, and so it was also the first time I had ever been to a country where Jesus-ians did not predominate. Although Morocco is a “liberal” Muslim country in comparison with some of its fanatical neighbors, it is still a much more conservative, pious society than any I have ever experienced in my life. Five times every single day – beginning at 5 AM, to the chagrin of would-be lazyheads everywhere – a member of the clergy called a muezzin chants the Islamic call to prayer from the minarets of every mosque across in the Muslim world.

 It’s a fascinating and hauntingly beautiful phenomenon, and at risk of causing Edward Saïd to roll over in his grave, I think it’s one of the most “exotic” things I’ve ever experienced. That is to say, it caused me to have another one of those “Toto, I’m not in Valladolid anymore” moments.
I wanted to explore more of the religious buildings and institutions in Morocco, but alas, as a non-Muslim, the buildings I’m allowed access to are few and far between. However, I was able to see through the gates of a few of the Muslim cemeteries, and one of the things I noticed was an abundance of cats sunning themselves within.
            For those who don’t know, in Islam cats are seen in a favorable light due to the Prophet Muhammad’s own affinity for the furry felines, and unfortunately for us dog-folk, he was not down with the canines. Because of this, there are more than a few feral-but-well-fed-looking cats wandering around, and I’m guessing a lot of people give the poor bastards food. Specifically, several times when we were dining in the Moroccan aire libre, there were prowling kitties showing up ASAP after we had begun. 

And, like good tourists in a Muslim country, we paid alimentary alms to our feline hosts. Some of them, I must admit, were pretty goddamn cute, and their wiles were exceedingly difficult to resist and if I’m dropping the “c”-word, you know I’m not joking.
            So it was perhaps due to this VIP treatment in Moroccan society that the cats were so profligate everywhere we went, and it was especially interesting their residence in the aforementioned cemetery. I won’t lie, it was somewhat surreal to see an orange tabby sunning himself on a crumbling, granite tombstone, and one adorned with what looked like several paragraphs of Arabic calligraphy. It was a real contrast for me, a perfect mix of lo rutinario, the routine – the complete banality of a cat stretching out on a rock; and lo extraño, the strange or different – the afterlife of a culture that I don’t understand and probably never fully will.

Here's another example of that phenomenon:

More to come.

For another great interpretation, check out mi compañero Dave Palmer’s blog here.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Even though I have only just recently raised my overall continents-visited total to two, that number is about to increase again, by exactly 50% in fact, to three. After about four minutes of discussion, some of my colleagues and I decided that the air was not hot and dry enough in Spain, so to seek even warmer, more arid climates, we are traveling several hundred miles (or "kilometers", as they ass-backwardsly say here) to the continent of Africa, specifically to the country of Morocco. Many of you may be familiar with Morocco  as the setting of the timeless film "Casablanca", a movie which has absolutely nothing to do with White Houses, despite its misleading title. It also has nothing to do with Humphrey Bogart being a badass and much more to do with him lamenting various lame-ass loves lost, and saying very famous, impetuous lines of dialogue.
Morocco, being an awesome place, has wild monkeys. This makes it rank high on the list of Awesome Countries I Have Visited That Have Wild Monkeys, the only other current entry being Mexico, and I wasn't even in that awesome part of the country. I was in the part with lots of sand and cacti. Not many monkeys. Apparently, based on the fact that Morocco has these wild apes, there hath burgeoned a cottage industry of Chaining Monkeys Up and Making Them Do Funny Things for Tourists. Fortunately, we are visiting Marrakech, Morocco, where this entrepreneurial phenomenon has gained its strongest foothold in the bazaar of Jemaa el-Fnaa, which is one of the busiest and largest public squares in the world, a place I totally, definitely did not just learn everything I know about from Wikipedia. In Jemaa el-Fnaa, which borders on the unpronounceability of the most vowel-lacking Slavic last name, training chained, hungry Barbary apes to do their masters' cruel bidding is one of the area's most lauded past times, and I know that your's truly will soon be checking up on the laws for across-border primate transportation.
To get to our captive-simian destination, we're going to be flying with RyanAir, a blossoming Irish airline with a lower budget than a Canadian MLB team. RyanAir has become famous in recent years for their maddeningly low ticket prices, which they can proffer due in part to severe skimping on every single part of their budgetary expenses, save (hopefully) the wings, fuselage, and other somewhat important, integral parts to a flying machine. I've never flown RyanAir before but apparently the insides of the airplanes are covered in advertisements, as if the passengers have been condemned to fly in the inside of a European soccer jersey or a budget-shortfallen city metro car. Personally, I can't wait for the experience. I don't know about you, proverbial hypothetical ghost-reader, but I have always looked around airplanes and lamented the acres of virgin white space, just ripe and lusting for crass advertisements. It's about goddamn time airlines started making money off stupid bullshit!
Once our Doritos®-sponsored plane out of Madrid lands in Tangiers, in the nothern-most part of the country, we are going to procure the least dangerous taxi we can find and try to get to the train station. Then, we are going to take an overnight train to Marrakech.
And there, my friends, trained monkeys await.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

October 12th - The Rearing Righteous Head of Sloth

I had grand plans of adventures
On Spain’s special day
But alas, instead, both sloth and sorrow
Done wasted my day away.

I schemed to hike a mountain,
I planned to survey the land,
I desired to use my bird’s eye view
To erase my mind’s miles of sand.

But unfortunately, as do the plans
Of mice and men cascade
To the ground, my day’s plans have gone,
And I know they can’t be saved.

So here I am, feeling bad for me'self
My warm computer in my lap,
Writing this quasi-thoughtful poem
As an excuse to take a nap.

So this is for all those wandering, wan souls
Whose days desire to be free,
From wanton plans, demands and schedules
That bind them eternally.

“Oh no, I should be doing such and such,”
Screams the restless mind,
But for fiestas commemorating massacres,
Well, maybe a little rest is fine.
Actually, now I realize
That I can give my excuse more weight
If I add humanistic themes,
Protesting oppressive states.

So my sad-for-yourself and morose masses
Seize upon your sloth
As a symbolic gesture of solidarity
With those whom empires wrote off.

Instead of worrying about achievements,
Engagements, and prior arrangements,
I’ll dedicate my restful nap,
To those who couldn’t take one
Due to imperialism’s trap.

And so with that, my excuse is made
My reasoning aspersion-proof
So fuck all the reprimanding, demanding plans,
With my nap, I fight for truth.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A strange phenomenon / Un fenómeno extraño

            In Spanish, there is no word for “procrastination”.
Usually, with the “-tion” words, one can just change the ending to “-ción”, throw a couple of extra letters in here and there, and voilà, you’ve got your Spanish translation. Sure, sometimes the translated word will not echo the original meaning perfectly, but at least you’ve produced a real-life Spanish word. I’ll show you some examples:
“nation” – “nación”
“position” – “posición”
“station” – “estación”
You get the gist.
Sometimes, like I said, the original word will mean something slightly different than the Spanish “equivalent” you end up with. Take every pyromaniac-pseudo-poet’s favorite:
“conflagration” – “conflagración”
While in English, the former is a nearly-unnecessary word that means a large fire (I’m pretty sure you can almost always say “fire” instead and sound like less of a turn-of-the-century British asshole), the latter Spanish version actually means an outbreak of war, an uprising, or a revolt. I actually like “conflagración” a lot more than “conflagration”, and I think from here on out, it should be used in a lot of really epic Spanish-language metal songs.

Inasmuch, no matter what you do to the word “procrastination” (one of my favorites in good ol’ English), nothing can turn it into Spanish. One would think a simple “-tion”/”-ción” switcharoo, giving us “procrastinación”, would do the job, but alas, we are left with an Anglicism - an orphan of a direct transliteration, a non-word that wants so badly to have its linguistic Gepetto turn it into a real boy. I mean word. Turn it into a real word.
So some people have been asking me in recent days, “Alex, why haven’t you updated your blog yet? What are you doing over there in Spain that is so goshdarned important that it precludes you from signing onto the internet and writing a ludicrously self-indulgent synopsis of your Iberian travails? You mean to tell me that dealing with epithet-shouting, paper-avión-throwing, other-person-starting-it-accusing, million-mile-an-hour-Spanish-speaking twelve-year old Castillian hellions is making you too tired to write a blog entry at night? You mean you want to just drink a 1.65€ bottle of wine and chill out instead of trying to think of something to write at night?

Well, I used to know the word for this phenomenon, but it seems to be escaping at the moment.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Buses, Vending Machine Misappropriation, and Inhumane Laws

            I had a series of increasingly unhelpful encounters with “Information” kiosks in the Madrid airport. One particularly surly señorita, complete with über-Spanish, “I-don’t-give-a-shit-but-I-actually-do” coiffure, told me the regional buses left from “over there”, signaling in a cardinal direction that included at least half of the airport.
            Eventually, I found the bus depot. I helped an gracious, old Spanish man use the touchscreen ticket machine, which marked my second positive interaction with a native Spaniard in the two-ish hours I had been in the country. The first was with the customs officer who talked more about the book I had in my hand – Don Miguel Ruiz’s “Los cuatro acuerdos” – than about my reasons for entering the Kingdom of Spain.
            On the bus to Valladolid, I met another one of my fellow future comrades in English-assisstant-teacher-dom, the venerable Don Dave Palmer of Newton, Massachussetts. The two of us were both delirious with sleep-deprivation and new country-ation. Dave had been to Spain before so he told me a lot of what to expect, and he was with me on that hallmark first-time of being fucked over by a broken Spanish vending machine which stole my money. This was only a portent of future pilferings inflicted through the false promises of false-prophet Spanish vending machines. More on this later.
            Alas, Dave and I did not sit next to each other due to our far-flung seat assignments, which they apparently take pretty seriously on the Spanish ALSA bus. My seatmate was a stoic-looking young Spanish woman, who made sure to be looking out the window any time I glanced over at here. However, about halfway through our two-and-a-half hour bus ride, I decided to try and talk to this Spanish lady. This would be my first attempt at a real conversation with a native speaker. I had not slept in many, many hours. My body and my brain were both very confused.
            “I haven’t slept in hours. I’m American,” I blurted out in Spanish. These were my carefully chosen opening lines. “I’m very tired.”
            And again, much like my compañero on the flight over from the U.S., my seatmate on this bus livened up and immediately became very nice and helpful. She felt bad for me, el pobrecito gringo who hadn’t slept in a long time. She said I could sleep when I got to Valladolid, but that unfortunately for my tired-ass self, this happened to be the week of the Festival de la Virgen de San Lorenzo, and that sleep would neither be appropriate, nor possible, upon my arrival. This festival, she said, was the most important one of the year in Valladolid and that I had no choice but to partake once I arrived. There would be food carts aplenty, loosened-to-nonexistent public drinking and drunkenness laws for the few days, and that bars would not close.
As I’ve come to understand since, Spaniards firmly believe that our legally-enforced “closing times” at bars are a relic of antiquated Anglican Puritanism, a sure-sign of incipient fascism and the erosion of civil liberties. How, they ask, can the government mandate that bars stop serving drinks? How is this allowed? They’d imagine that in a country that still executes its citizens by firing squad ( that you could at least get a drink at 4:30 AM if you wanted to. They speak in hushed tones about our enforced stop-drinking time. They can understand the firing squad, they can understand paying thousands of dollars for health care and college, but they can’t understand bars closing at 2 AM.
Isn’t there an international treaty against that?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

La salida de los EE.UU. - The Exit from the U.S.A.

  El día miércoles 7 de agosto 2011

La salida

            Though it has improved, as of September 2011, Dulles International Airport remains a hellhole. Though the hole into/near/surrounding hell is not quite as infernal as in the past, hellish it remains. Luckily, while waiting in the several football-field-long line for international check-in, I was fortunate enough to have my distraught and frantic parents by my side to help me maintain my sense of equilibrium. Though the electronic check-in kiosk did not believe I was a real person, nor did it trust that I was not a terrorist trying to blow up La sagrada familia, I still was able to board my flight to Madrid.
            Did I mention my flight was free? Because of flying back and forth from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon for five years straight, I had a shit-ton of SkyMiles to use up. To be sure, it would more suffice to say that my parents had a shit-ton of SkyMiles to use up, but you know how that kind of thing goes. Suburban entitlement and all that. That I’m a spoiled kid, don’t know the value of money, etc.
            Despite the fact that I purchased the tickets with SkyMiles from United Airlines, my actual flight service was provided by AerLingus, an Irish company, and let me tell you, this was the right decision. Those of you out there who have had the pleasure of hearing updates from the cockpit in a soothing, nearly-stereotypical brogue from the Old Green Country will understand just how awesome it was to fly AerLingus. The flight crew was an eclectic mix of genial Spanish folk, surly Americans, and plucky Irish lasses. This made for an interesting array of cultural hodgepodge.
            And good goddamn, our plane was huge. There were three or four different partitioned classes, each with at least a hundred seats arranged in alternating groups. There were sets of two seats on the port side of the plane (that’s left when you’re facing the front of the plane) five (!!) in the middle, and three on the starboard (right) side.
 Yes. I just looked those nautical terms online. They’re useful for aircraft descriptions.
            Upon finding my seat (47A sounds right - let’s say 47A) I was more than relieved to see that it was a window seat in one of the port-side, two-person rows. “Thank God,” I said to myself for dramatic effect.
Before too long, a rather pensive looking man with gray hair came and claimed the seat next to mine: the proverbial 47B. We exchanged half-smiles and nods of courtesy, but we quickly went back to awkwardly feigning attention to our own just-arrived-to-our-airplane-seat affairs. Arranging carry-ons, strategically placing books and crossword puzzles. The standard fare.
            After a few minutes had passed, our Irish-brogued pilot-oracle came over the loudspeaker system and informed us in dulcet, Celtic tones that due to “th’ fahckin’, god-fuhrsayken stahrms in th’area, wi’ th’ fahckin’ lightnin’ an’ whatnot, w’re goin’ ta hahve to l’cate a nyew pahth in which we c’n take off, th’re, ladies and g’ntlemen.” (He did not say the more profane first half of this sentence. You should pretend he did.) Naturally, as any good seatmate would do, I engaged in the archetypical make-friends-on-public-transportation strategy of Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness Technique - one as old and as stoic as time itself.
            “Huh, shocking,” I said, turning towards my seatmate. “At least they have Irish accents!” You can tell that this was a positive point for me.
            The man’s face, which had initially looked quite serious, if not a bit cold, slowly warmed. Slowly, like one of those new-fangled, curly lightbulbs. With a worldly chuckle, he said to me, “Well, you know, I’ve flown this flight a lot, and that’s one thing that always makes it better for me. I also love Irish accents!” At least, this is what I remember him saying. Who doesn’t love a good Irish accent? Nonetheless, with that simple offering of Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness - the oldest trick in the book - I made a new friend.
Goes to show you kids: don’t be an asshole on a plane.
            I found out that my seatmate’s name was John, and that my first impression of him as stoic and cold was so very far off. John was a genial, bright-blue eyed man of about 65 years who maintained a reserved, wry smile the whole time I talked to him. John had seen many places and met all stripes of people: I found that he was not only a doctor of physics (from Penn State, undergrad in English at Virginia Tech) but for many years, he was a colonel in the Air Force.
            So basically, if you’re reading this, you’re currently wasting your life compared to John. John was a rocket scientist and a high-level colonel in the Air Force. He has been to, like, every country on Earth. He can fly planes. He can build goddamn missiles. Shit, he can be build the goddamn plane and the missile. And fly the plane. And shoot the missile.
So throughout our hop across the Great Atlantic Puddle, he regaled me with myriad stories of his trips to and exploits within diffuse parts of the globe.
“I’ve been around a little bit,” John said a couple times, smiling that unassuming smile, relishing in his almost laughable understatement. At one point, he pulled out a book he had in his backpack. In fact, it was not any book, but an aviation industry catalogue that inventoried all the available types of planes on the market. “Every time I’ve ever flown, I found the plane that I flew in this book and made a little note of the year and date.” The book was full of black stamps and Sharpie marks. There was something on practically every page.
“So I’m taking it you’ve flown this kind of plane before, then,” I asked him.
John looked at me like I’d an asked an alcoholic from Kentucky whether he’d ever tried this stuff called bourbon.
“Oh,” he stammered, “well, yeah. This was one of the easier ones. Did this one a lot. AirBus [insert number and letter combination here]. In fact, this one was [insert tons of technical stuff that I pretended to understand].”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” I replied. “Definitely.”

So John was visiting his globe-trotting daughter, who just finished teaching in the Ukraine and recently moved to teach in Madrid. On the benefits of first-world residence, John said that “she’s glad the lights will come on every time you flip the switches. And that you can drink the water.” Apparently, you can’t always drink the water in the Ukraine. Not too big on water-drinkin’ from the tap ‘round there. Anyways, John reassured me that I would absolutely love teaching kids in a Spanish high school, and that his daughter had already told him that she never wants to come back to the United States, but that she would like stores to be open on Sundays occasionally. “They sleep a lot. The Spaniards really know how to kick back and relax.” I would later find out that this was another one of John’s famous understatements. But that’s for a later chapter of this story.
After a little bit longer of the Ol’ Colonel making me feel like I was one of the most uninteresting people on Earth because I had never been caught in a snowstorm in Antarctica, unable to safely return to Christchurch, New Zealand, after checking the parameters and readings of some ultra-super-crazy-ass, scientific data-collection shit at the South Pole, he decided he was going to try and get some sleep. He grabbed his Irish-themed, shamrock-bedecked AerLingus pillow, adjusted his seat back into its most non-upright position, and was out like a light.
I sat there for a little bit and thought about how if I hadn’t done the ol’ Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness Technique, I might never have found out about John’s wild, interesting life, nor would I have considered the shallowness and astoundingly low quantities of awesome, cosmopolitan, secret agent-rocket scientist-colonel-ness that compose my own. Goes to show you kids: don’t be an asshole on planes. Ask your seatmate whether they’ve ever been to the South Pole. Ask them whether they’re a Penn State-trained, James Bond-esque, Air Force Physicist Colonel. Or you may never know.

Me? I’m no near-hyperbole, paramilitary scientist-badass, so I can never sleep on planes. I sat there in my own way-too-tired and banal world for a while, ruminating on the interesting-ness of chance-meetings like mine and John’s, and I noticed how clear I could see all of the stars. The Big Dipper; the Milky Way; some other stars and shit with insanely long Greek names, peppered with a bunch of letters and numbers which make them seem way more epic (like Procyon A/B, 47 Ursae Majoris). I could see it all.
Then, at about 5 AM EST – or Some Other Time, Spain Time (I don’t like math or looking up foreign time zone names) I started to see a otherworldly orange phosphorescence on the horizon. And then I realized: it was a new day on another continent, one I’d never been to before.
And then I thought,
Oh shit, I’m going to be here for a year!