Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lastly from Amsterdam

Look closely that's me between the s and t

November 4, 2010  It is day 4 in Amsterdam and we have managed not to be killed by one of the 750,000 Amsterdammers who are either whizzing by on bicycles, speeding by in their cars, or screeching past on motorbikes.  I swear only tourists are on foot and I suspect the secret sport of the locals is to see how close one can get to running down a tourist without actually doing so.

Once off their vehicular murder machines, Amsterdammers are friendly, happy, content, helpful, amazingly tall and striking to look at, and no wonder as there is certainly something magical in the air here.

The buildings, the canals, the museums, the light, the food, the atmosphere of tolerance, the progressiveness of the city in general-- I am overwhelmed by it all and know, once home, will be constantly scanning airfare rates for a return visit.

We travel home this Sunday and I've been reflecting on what I've learned in my travels:

One cannot live by desserts alone.  Eventually you feel ill and gain tons of weight.  Better to invest in a translation gizmo so you don't have to be afraid of eating sheep testicles, goat head stew, raw oxtail sausage, or fish glands ( it could have been gills, hard to be sure due to waiter's accent but would gills be preferable to glands?!)

People are not the same everywhere. We may all be born with the same gear but our environment informs and forms us in unique ways. 

History does not necessarily have much truth in it.  

Canada may be important to me but to Europeans or Moroccans we are barely on the map.  And I really understand why there are not boatloads of Dutch and Germans trying to find safe harbour in BC coastal waters.

Toronto is a great place to live but I think we work too hard or rather we spend too intense a time working. All over Europe and Morocco people take proper lunch breaks as well as long morning and afternoon breaks.  In Germany at lunchtime, we saw office workers wearing ties and button down collared shirts, playing an intense game of soccer.   In Spain and France the shops actually close down for 2 hours for lunch,  and in Morocco everyone takes time to go to a mosque and pray 5 times a day.  And dinners are light and late.  8 to 10 pm is normal. No rushing home to throw dinner together.

I also learned that even though I am travelling with a loved one it is hard to be a stranger everywhere. and being away from friends and family is what makes you homesick - the daily encounters and involvement in your lives are like nutrients not to be found in grand buildings or delicious custard tarts.

We fly on Sunday.  I will miss Amsterdam, but I will be glad to hug my girls with my feet planted firmly in Toronto.

This is the canal where our guest room was located.

Typical Amsterdam street

A few of the gazillions of bikes in Amsterdam

Goodbye Bus

Hello Kitty!

A few years ago I read that Gerber had to remove the picture of the baby from their product because people from certain countries thought it contained actual babies. At the time I thought, how dumb can people be?!

After putting leg invigorating gel in my hair for the past several weeks I have had to re think my original assessment of what "dumb" means and how closely it relates to literacy.

Being illiterate means you rely heavily on pictures and symbols and after a month of travelling in countries where I don't speak the language I really understand how dependent you become on those pictures.

Why the czechs would put a picture of a woman with long flowing hair on leg invigorating gel is a good question but at least the mystery of my bad hair days is solved.

And in Lisbon, a ramshackle of a city, full of hardworking, serious people, no one pays much attention to hair and fashion, so it was a good place to look dishelvelled.

Lisbon has a lot of monuments paying tribute to their glory days which sadly took place about 500 years ago, but still there is some charm to the place, certainly in their amazing custard tarts, the pleasant people, and their Gulkenbian museum, which was quite exceptional.

And as the city where we bid farewell to the BUS,  I think I will always think fondly of Lisbon.

I don't think I'll be taking another Trafalgar bus tour for a long while.  Mainly because the time on the bus was just too much.  And I didn't like the controlled environment.  I know Trafalgar relates controlled to safe, and I appreciate this, I really do, but the side effect of this safety is a homogenized view of everything.   

Tomorrow we leave for Amsterdam for the last week of our trip.  After 5 planes,  3 trains and 15 days on the bus, a week of staying put, on our own,  has great appeal.

In the Praca do Comericio Plaza, Lisbon
Lisbon family out for a Sunday walk

Yes, that's me in the Age of Discovery monument



I am in love with a flamenco dancer!  I´m hoping his severe demeanor has more to do with having to wear those tight pants all the time and not due to his general disposition.  

It is great to be back in Spain,  Seville to be exact.  Another great city, full of life and happy looking people. 

Getting ready to face the last of the long bus rides.  Tomorrow we leave for Lisbon. 

That's me, with the pink purse, trudging along with our tour group.


Marrakech and the Road back to Spain

If I'd known how helpless I would be without any Spanish, Arabic or Berber languages, I would have participated more in charades and taken an acting class or two.

Royal Stables of Meknes and red clay dust

When we were in Meknes, we visited the Royal Stables which housed the sultan's 12,000 horses and all their grain, during the 17th century.  The stables are in beautiful ruined condition, still showing signs of former grandeur and full of crumbling red clay dust.   I inhaled a lot of the red stuff which triggered a serious allergy attack and I sneezed and snifled all the way to Marrakech and felt quite ill upon arrival.  Abdul, our local guide, suggested we visit this Berber pharmacy because he could guarantee they had sanitary conditions.

I had to act out my allergy symptoms to a very large, looming woman who rummaged around in a back room and came back with a bag of what looked like crushed herbs.  She wasn't interested in charades and went for a realistic demonstration by ripping a piece cloth from her apron, (which didn´t look very sanitary), grinding up some of the herbs, putting them into the cloth, and stuffing the wads up my nose.

Within an hour, I had the most serious headache I have ever had and am not sure if it was due to Berber pharmacetical intervention or the impending thunder storm or both, but it was so debilitating I missed the shopping trip to the Marrakech marketplace AND the evening trip to the Berber horseman dinner and show.   I woke up the next morning with even worse allergies and a new cough.   I was not looking forward to the long bus ride back to Spain because I think I'm allergic to the bus.

And it was another 3 days on the bus.  We left Marrakech at dawn and stopped in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier before catching the ferry back to Spain.

When we returned to Spain the first thing I did was try to buy some cough syrup because my cough was getting worse.  I also thought I would try to find something for the serious static all my clothes were suffering from.    Something in my acting wasn´t clear, because I ended up with hand lotion and alka seltzer.   I am hoping and hoping that tomorrow is the day I stop sneezing and coughing, cause everyone on the bus thinks I have some deadly flu and I can tell they all hate me for it.

Other news:

We left Morocco with a stowaway!   A young boy of about 14 hid behind the big bus wheel, standing on the wheel platform and holding onto some pipe underneath the bus.   When we stopped for lunch (2 hours later) he was seen getting out from under the bus.  The tour director had to call the police but she was very kind to the poor kid, and made him call his family back in Morocco and bought him something to eat.  So there we all were, on a small highway, somewhere in Spain, waving goodbye to a thin boy as he was whisked away by the police.  Apparently if the stowaways are under 18, they are returned to their families in Morocco, but if they say they don´t have families the Spanish government takes care of them until they are 18.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what would make a young boy hide under a bus and run away to another country.  

Berber horse show I missed
The business located next to the Berber pharmacy

Rick's Cafe in Casablanca

Marrakech street scene

Mohamed's tomb in Rabat

Fes and Meknes

Heading into the Fes medina

This morning I was crushed by throngs of people carrying bags full of groceries, was assaulted by smells I could never describe,  stepped in several kinds of poo,  almost fell into an open pit, had my foot stepped on by a donkey, cried silent tears when I saw the horrific working conditions of the leather tanners, had one of the most frightening and expensive experiences of my life, and I can say without a doubt that I loved every minute of it.

The medina (old city) in Fes was started in year 808 (making it the oldest medina in the world), and is still today a living, breathing, labyrinth of a city, enclosed by a wall which limits its physical size but not apparently its population because 500,000 people live within this space. 

As well as all those people there are mosques, churches, schools, and 90,000 businesses selling everything imaginable and more.  The aisles or streets range in width from 2 - 6 ft wide and you have to share this space with people, donkeys, mules, wheelbarrows, buggys and anything else that can negotiate the streets.

In the afternoon we visited Meknes, a fortified city surrounded by impressive and formidable walls, which were built by the slaves and labourers of badass Sultan Moulay Ismail, who made the city his headquarters in the 17th century.

But more importantly to us, Meknes is the city where Paco's father was born, so we had some of own history to absorb.   Paco's grandfather was a medical doctor working in a military hospital in Meknes around 1900, which explains why his father was born there in 1903.  The hospital was housed in a former Roman Catholic convent which still stands today.  Not sure what it is used for now,  because we could not read the sign.

Paco said he was surprised by the waves of emotion that hit him when we passed the convent.   His father didn't spend much time in Morocco and was taken back to Spain when he was still a baby.   There's more to this story and I keep asking Paco to write it all down.  Maybe I'll help him start his own blog!

whew!  Tomorrow another long bus ride to Marakkesh, but I'll have my memories of today to keep me occupied.

Paco's father was born here

Entrance and walls into Meknes

Apartments within the medina

Meat market section of medina - that's a camel head for sale

Entrance to mosque in medina

Leather tannery in medina

End of meat market, beginning of fruit market.  Those black things are bull testicles.

Medina is a no-car zone

My pirate look


Rock of Gilbraltar

October 20, 2010 We crossed the Strait of Gilbraltar today.  Gilbraltar is a huge, quite magnificent rock overlooking the Strait which separates Spain from North Africa with the Mediterranean sea on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other.  The meeting of the two bodies of water cause powerful swirling whirlpools and apparently many people have drowned trying to cross the Strait. 

On the road to Fes
Moroccan landscape

Ferry ride to Morocco

Seven hours on the bus to get to Fes but it wasn't too terrible because Morocco is lush and fertile and seems to grow everything -- bananas, prickly pears, strawberries, corn, melons and lots more -- so it was a relaxing ride just watching the landscape pass by. 

One thing for sure is I never want to be an agricultural worker,  because you have to spend your days wearing unattractive hats either bent over or stretching your arms upwards for hours and hours in a hot sun.  You also have to work well with donkeys (real ones),  because they follow you around so you can fill their baskets with whatever it is you are harvesting,  and then there are the birds, who follow the donkeys but every once in awhile attack the workers hats and cause general all round chaos.   Finally there are the people with sticks who follow behind the donkeys tapping the ground, I think they are dispersing donkey poo, but who knows for sure.  What is certain, is everyone involved is sweating buckets and getting insect bites.

Worse still would be to be a shepard as there are sheep all over the place and they seem to wander everywhere including into fields filled with cows and bulls, so the shepards must walk miles and miles, dodging bulls,  all the while wearing only flimsy flipflops and a sideways handtowel on their heads.

Count me out of sheparding but I may adopt the handtowel head cover cause something has happened to my hair -  it is an awful mess -- and there is also the covering your head thing to respect.

I tried the headwrap techniques Denise taught me but failed miserably and have been going around all day looking like a pirate.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Travelogue 4

Random enjoyment

Random enjoyment

Day 4 of the tour and it will be another long day on the bus as we head to Gilbraltar to cross over into Mococco. 

Today I befriended 80 year old Thomas, a widower from Chicago. He travels as much as he can and was excited to be on our tour.  I was inspired by his stamina and cheerful spirit.  

Also spent some time with a lady of about 70, also a widower.  I think she misses her husband a lot, because she talks about him as if he had not passed away more than 8 years ago.   

Funny how a few people can change an attitude - I don't want to tarnish anyone's experience by finding fault with the tour and have resolved to enjoy everything as much as possible.  The tour director is knowledgeable and competent --- it is nice not to have to think about anything except getting to the bus on time. 

There are 48 people on the tour, I wonder what the next 44 have to say?

Christopher Columbus stopped here

We leave Madrid and stop in Toledo, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance as a former capital of the Spanish empire, and as a place of peaceful coexistence of Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures.   It is also famous for its sword manufacturing -- Toledo sword makers made weaponry for the  Roman army, and today are suppliers to the West Point Military Academy in the United States.

Paco testing a sword in Toledo, Spain

Five hours on the bus from Toledo to Granada, but worth every minute as our destination is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex constructed during the mid 14th century by the Moorish rulers of Granada. Occupying the top of the hill on the southeastern border of the city, it is a beautiful serene place. 

Walking through the Alhambra, you not only see the power and vision of the Moors in the architecture, you can feel the significance of the history seeping from the walls. In the Sal√≥n de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors) a breathe caught in my throat as i looked up at the Islamic tile work, knowing that in this square room, Christopher Columbus received Queen Isabel's support to sail to the New World. And we know the enormous importance  these voyages were to play in Western history.    Wow, be still my beating heart.

Christopher Columbus was in this room

Garden at Alhambra

Exterior of Hall of the Ambassadors

Entrance to harem in Alhambra

Fortress wall at Alhambra

Travelogue 3

October 17, 2010

Best of Europe (so far):   BERLIN!  Deutsche Bahn (Germany´s amazing train system)

Biggest bore:    Lyon, France (and this despite the fabulous clothing, great food and wine)

Best place for a coffee:   Plaza Mayor in Madrid being surrounded by acrobats, artists,  young people, old people, kids, musicians, and street performers of all stripes.

Saddest thing:  the tattered, forlorn, impoverished street people being used as directional and advertising signage on the streets of Prague.

Unsure thing:  the wisdom of joining a tour.  We are, for the next 15 days on a Trafalgar tour.  Am trying to stay positive but think we made a major error cause most of the time seems to be spent on the bus and in cafeterias.  The average age of our fellow travellers is much older than expected and the average weight seems to much higher than is healthy.  I only mention the weight thing because I was in an elevator that would not move and instead triggered an alarm.  This brought a harried looking maintenance person who removed 3 people before hitting the up button.

It was scary to think that the capacity posted was twice the number of people in the elevator,  and it would not go up.

And there are so many rules.  We must wear name badges, we must keep our headsets clean, we must not forget them, we must wear seat belts all the time, we can only use the washroom if it is an emergency, we must not be late or the other passengers in the bus will hate us, we should not ask the tour guide to help us with phone cards - better to use phone booths, we cannot stop and linger anywhere, we cannot eat ice cream in the bus, we must not wear shorts,  we must not........

I must not be judgemental. I must hold my tongue. I must not make sarcastic jokes.  I must be a nice person. I will not give anyone a dirty look for sneaking ice cream on to the bus.  I will not compensate by drinking Cava all day.   I will smile at everyone.


There is a lot to like about Madrid, and there is a lot of life here --  it's one great city.  We had two days here on our own before we joined the Trafalgar tour which starts in Madrid and will take us through the south of Spain, into Morocco and end in Portugal.

In Plaza Mayor

Paco in the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens

At Reina Sofia

Tile outside shop in Madrid

With Said, whose painting of a bullfight looks great in our living room

Travelogue 2

October 15, 2010.  Was surprised at how happy I was to get on the plane to Madrid as I had really tired of Lyon.

Although the Lyon contemporary art museum was mostly filled with pretentious, uncreative and uninteresting objects and canvasses, there was a special small exhibit by students from an art school in Shanghai.

The exhibit was refreshing, creative and naive in a sophisticated way, with the overall theme about breaking out from traditional Chinese concepts of art and lifestyle.  I was so impressed by one student's artist statement, I reproduce it here, as it speaks volumes to not just Chinese life, but all modern contemporary life.  I thought I would remember the artist's name, but when I looked at the brochure, all the names were so similar and in my ignorance of discerning the differences, I just don't know which student wrote this.  I remember the artwork (see photo above),  and it was exceptional.

Artist Statement:
"Modern urbanites pretend to enjoy the everyday pace as they put on a smiling face, but in reality they struggle with the rush and pressure of contemporary life. Their work soaks up their life, they play high achievers by day but are sick and needy by night.  Feeling lost within giant crowds, material prosperity cannot fill their spiritual voids.  Anxiety and nervous breakdowns, feelings of loneliness or depression, anxiety caused by the lack of true love, the imbalance between high IQ and low EQ has led to an excessive growth of emotional disorders. They are today's fatal illnesses, spread by tempestuous and dark social undercurrents."

Not very cheerful, but when I read it I envisioned the young artist, living in China and all that that means, and was moved by his [or her] insight and somehow it made me feel very hopeful.

The weather in Lyon was dark and damp.  The sun is shining here in Madrid, it's about 10 degrees C warmer as well.  

We are in Spain.  Earthy, alive, trembling, loud.   yeah

Lyon, France

Honestly i have never been so jaw dropping awestruck from looking at clothes and shoes as i have been since arriving in Lyon.

Believe me you would be hard pressed to find hipper stuff than what was all over Berlin - I wanted everything and had to constantly repeat - "my suitcase is full, my suitcase is full",  but here in Lyon I am just a stunned bunny, literally falling against the shop windows leaving greasy face imprints all over town.

At first I thought it was just cultural shock from bearing witness to the woman of Prague and their really frightening fashion sense (think tutu style mini skirts worn over harem pants, or the equally scary too-many-logos-look) but the truth is Lyon's fashion is just other worldly, and hardly a recognizable designer name in sight. 

In addition there are medieval buildings, charming cobblestoned streets, and fab restaurants but I think it very unlikely I would want to return.  Strange to say and hard to articulate except that despite all the wonderful things in Lyon there is a superficiality to it all -- as in "we're so pretty we don't have to be or do anything else".

Could also have something to do with being so recently in Germany where there is a vibe everywhere.   A feeling of a major culture who has seriously confronted their past history, examined it carefully, and moved forward with a commitment to better not just themselves but everything in their wake.  There is a sense of urgency to be part of it cause you just know it's good and you had better pay attention so as not miss anything.  

In Lyon, there is no need to rush back, as it will always be the same, not so much timeless as locked down. 

In Lyon park

Poor Tintin!

Wish we had garlic like this in Toronto